Wednesday
Jun062012

"Grind Together in Memory": An Interview with Molly Brodak

Molly Brodak is the author of the book A Little Middle of the Night (U of Iowa Press, 2010) and the chapbook The Flood (Coconut Books, 2012). She lives in Atlanta and is the 2011-2013 Poetry Fellow at Emory University.

Her poem "Awoke" appears in Issue Thirty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Molly Brodak talks to interviewer Melissa Goodrich about Moby Dick, comedy, and the attractiveness of short poems.

1. Does “Awoke” begin in waking?  Dreaming?  That liminal space between?

Yes, waking, which can be kind of a disturbing or disappointing experience, although it seems like it should not be. I always feel like I have just materialized, or been gathered together. It feels primitive.

2. When you write “in the Boethius,” what do you mean?  Isn’t Boethius a Catholic martyr?

I woke up and realized I had fallen asleep reading, and found my hand in the book, marking where I had left off but also seemingly estranged from me. I remembered that totally weird small moment in Moby Dick when Ishmael describes waking up as a child and seeing his own hand dangling off the bed and feeling terrified of not being able to recognize it; nor does he want to move it and risk breaking the “spell.”  

Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius has been an important book for me because of how it was written—imprisoned for suspected conspiracy, I think Boethius breaks his mind and writes this imaginary conversation with philosophy—kind of an insane act—to keep sane. The way he switches from verse to prose and back, and the pieces of Greek, Roman, and early medieval writers he adds all feels patchy and jumbled in a way that looks like a lot of contemporary writing. But he was not pasting up half-understandings, this is just all he had access to in prison, his own memory. The pieces grind together in memory. The mind does this anyway while we are asleep, in dreams. To me the funny part of the idea of having or not having ‘control over’ our own minds is not the control bit but the other half of the idea that there is an “I” that is not the mind, some way to function out of another other device that can observe the mind—it seems like a brain wants to turn in on itself so much sometimes.

3. How do you craft such a tiny poem?  Does your work tend to be so contained?

I don’t usually write poems that are quite this short, although I do feel attracted to a short poem. I think you craft it by having the humility to lift your fingers off the keyboard and leave it short. That seems brave. I try to do this but often fail.

4. Whose work do you admire most, where brevity is concerned?

The short poems of Mary Ruefle are some of my favorites, and most of the poems in Laura Jensen’s Bad Boats, which is a book that can be hard to find but is worth looking for, it is so good. I also think Andrew Michael Roberts’ book Something Has to Happen Next is great for short poems. And many of Christine Garren’s poems, specifically, “The Underpass,” one of my favorites, feel like a whole world compressed into a dozen lines or so.

5. What are you writing now?  Is it all so pocket-sized?

I’ve been writing a lot of poems over the past year loosely focused on the place I think you land when you go as far as possible into, and all the way through, pain and despair—which is comedy. I don’t mean the poems are funny; they are not funny at all. I just think it itself is hilarious that the most intense tragedy can considered funny with the right framing, or soundtrack. The poems are of all shapes and sizes.

 

Friday
Jun012012

"Circles, Stars, Squares": An Interview-in-Excerpts with Christopher Narozny

Christopher Narozny earned an M.F.A in fiction from Syracuse University and a PhD in creative writing and literature from the University of Denver. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in American Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, Marginalia, elimae, and Hobart. While at Syracuse, he won the Peter Neagoe Prize for Fiction, and at the University of Denver, he was awarded the Frankel Dissertation Fellowship for an earlier draft of Jonah Man. He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.

An excerpt from Jonah Man appears in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Christopher Narozny answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Jonah Man.  

1. What is writing like?

I take up the pad, flip through the pages.  Each page is drawn over with the outline of a man’s suit.  I’ve filled the torsos with circles, stars, squares—the circles standing in for sapphires, the stars for rhinestones, the squares for rubies.  On one suit I’ve drawn circle-studded stripes down each sleeve, on another I’ve dotted the arms with squares and stars.  I’ve penciled in rhinestone collars, ruby collars, mixed collars.  Some of the torsos I’ve covered with distinct shapes—the bulb and stem of a rose over each breast pocket; stick-figure fish swimming vertically, horizontally; small birds in various stages of flight. Others I’ve filled with patterns—checkered rhinestones, wavy lines of sapphires, ruby pinstripes.

I turn through the pages, pencil in hand, erase a half-circle of squares from one torso, add a line of stars to another.  With each addition or deletion I imagine the changing pattern of light.  I close my eyes, place myself in the audience, squint at the reflection from the front row, the back row.

2. What isn’t writing like?

The trombone would play notes that sounded like falling, but I never fell.

3. When you do it, why?

Anything he managed to do, he managed to do despite something fundamental in himself, something he couldn’t name but had spent his life disguising.  A compulsion to be great.  A conviction that he wasn’t up to the task. 

4. When you don’t, why?

Wherever his mind lands, he discovers a hope and contentment he did not experience at the time.  He sees his life not as he always thought of it—as progression and regression, movement toward and away from a target—but as modulating textures composed of noise, scenery, weather. 

 

Wednesday
May302012

"Man Was a Mistake": An Interview with Genevieve Hudson

Genevieve Hudson is a second year MFA student at Portland State University. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot, Portland Review, NANO Fiction, and Tin House online. She is at work on her first novel.

Her story "Empire" appears in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Genevieve Hudson speaks to interviewer Melissa Goodrich about sonics, "the catching," and the bottom of her reading list. 

1. Does a piece like “Empire” originate in concern (the prospect of water wars) or marveling (we are creatures made almost entirely of bone!) or frailty (“We cannot move from our recliners. We can only love it with our eyes”) or something else entirely?

“Empire” began with a concern, but not in an overtly political way. I wasn’t trying to advocate an environmental cause, but I was—still am—interested in the way humans interact with nature and with the wild. Representations of a world without mankind fascinate me. There’s this D.H. Lawrence quote—“Man was a mistake, he must go.” Images of “humans going” started this story. I had a thought of reclining creatures being tended to in a room, and it went from there. Their whole world is filtered through “mothers,” but their reality is nothing like ours, neither is their concept of family. Nature has adapted to fit us; I’m curious in how we will have to modify to fit it in future societies.

I also allow the sonics and sounds of sentences to guide me toward new images and ideas. I’ve been reading writers recently who have a dedication to the art of a sentence. In my opinion, words, images, and the beat of a sentence are just as important as plot or narrative trajectories.

2. Funny how lines like “no sun time” or “she is the only one among us with eyebrows and we all, in secret spots, envy the soft biomaterial” or “pre-Nuclear food” make your readers aware of their brows and sun and snacks, appreciatively.  If such an empire were to exist, what would you miss most?   

Wow. Great question. Physical touch maybe? The creatures in “Empire” are taken to petting zoos, but it’s a monitored and—I’d imagine—an odd experience. There’s such serious concern in “Empire” about “the catching.” In a society of rampant paranoia, even holding hands gets pathologized. Mobility is another thing I’d miss. I’m such an active person, the idea of lying in a bed all day is horrifying to imagine.

3. What’s the best and worst part of an MFA, for you?

The MFA has been a time of intense reading and writing, and I wouldn’t be the same thinker or the same writer without the experience. I’ve had the pleasure to work with brilliant, imaginative teachers, and the city (Portland) is a resource in itself. The best parts far outweigh the negatives for me. It’s rare today to find spaces where people come together and exchange ideas, where inquiry is valued for its own sake. Being a part of a community of writers who read my work well is a fantastic thing. It’s also great to have been exposed to such diverse styles of writing. Through my MFA, I’ve become not only a more intentional writer, but also a more nuanced reader. The worst part is thinking that my next life step might not be as conducive to the writer’s lifestyle (let’s hope it is!). It’s scary to have that looming over your head.

4. Tell us more about this novel you’re hard at work on.  Or what you do when you’re avoiding it.

My novel, although much different than “Empire,” has a similar futuristic, environmental concern: mass animal deaths, natural disasters, non-drinkable water. Swallow straddles two settings: Portland, OR, and Charleston, SC. Remy and Claire are ex-lovers and dual narrators.  Remy, a printmaker and kleptomaniac, tells her story from present-day Charleston, where she steals panties from her professor’s office (with plans of blackmail) and gets taken in by a radical environmental protest group, HOLD. Claire narrates her portion from the past tense. She chronicles her relationship with Remy in Portland, their entanglement with a gender queer drug dealer, and a haunting she experiences when characters in her paintings come to life.  

When I’m avoiding it I go for a run or do something entirely unrelated to books and words. I find doing physical exercise is a nice balance to the strenuous, interiority of writing. I also have a side project of short stories I’m working on. The stories are contemporary adaptations of fairy tales and folklore. I’m fascinated by magic realism.

5. What’s at the top of your summer reading list?  The bottom?

I’m gearing up for a bike trip from Portland to San Francisco in June, and I’m taking two books with me: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, an anthology of modern fairy tales edited by Kate Bernheimer, and Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link. As I mentioned earlier, I’m drawn to books that blur genres and dabble in magic. I’m also really excited to read Dora: A Headcase, Lidia Yuknavitch’s new novel. It’s out in late summer with Hawthorne Books.

At the bottom is probably The Hunger Games. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great dystopian read, but I know I’ll never get around to this one. I’m sure it’s no loss to Suzanne Collins. She has plenty of readers already.  

 

Tuesday
May292012

"The One on the Left, the One on the Right": An Interview with Addie Tsai

Addie Tsai was born and raised in Houston, Texas. She received her Master of Fine Arts from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. She has been the recipient of scholarships with the Indiana University Writer's Conference and Tin House's Summer Literary Seminars Contest, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her manuscript of poems, and in its place— was finalist in Four Way Books' Larry Levis Prize, and semi-finalist in Tupelo Press’s Dorset Prize. Her writing is forthcoming or has been published in Post Road Magazine, Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion, & Spirituality, BORN Magazine, NOON: A Journal of the Short Poem, Caketrain, Forklift, Ohio, American Letters & Commentary, and Yellow as Turmeric, Fragrant as Cloves: A Contemporary Anthology of Asian-American Women's Poetry, among others. Her photography has been shown at Fotofest, Box 13 (as part of TX BI 2011: A Celebration of Texas-based Bisexual Artists and in collaboration with Traci Matlock, the body as landscape: the body as terror: the body as ecstasy) and Watson Gallery (the second self: a series of self-portraits). She has collaborated twice with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater; first with Victor Frankenstein as co-conceiver and as narrative collaborator on Camille Claudel. She currently teaches Composition and Literature at Houston Community College, where she also is coordinator of a poetry series which highlights nationally-recognized poets of color.

An excerpt from her memoir What Came Between Them appears in Issue Thirty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Addie Tsai talks to interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about the one, the two, and the rifts between poetry and non-fiction.

1. Since this is an excerpt, I’m curious to know both how you went about writing this section and why you chose this section to stand on its own. Could you please talk some about that?

I am, first and foremost, a poet. Aside from a personal essay class I took in college, I’ve had very little experience writing nonfiction. This memoir is a long time in the making, in a sense, because I’ve wanted to write a memoir about the two incidents of my adolescence that are introduced in this excerpt for years. There are a number of reasons that I took my time to start this project. First of all, it took me a number of years to work out emotionally the conflicts and struggles that are connected to these particular childhood experiences. You need a certain distance to address material as a nonfiction writer, and for many years, I simply wasn’t ready, emotionally, to handle the material in a way that would give the kind of honor, truth, and openness that I felt was needed. I had to do a lot of other work psychically to ready myself – so that I was conscious in the literary and emotional choices made in the writing of it.

Most of this excerpt was written at the very beginning of this process, except for the section The Twins Love Each Other Before They Hate Each Other. When I had about seventy pages of the draft written, I sought out the advice and feedback of a friend of mine, fiction and nonfiction writer Mat Johnson, who teaches creative writing in the graduate program at the University of Houston. He gave me some suggestions for how to open out the narrative, how to generate more material for the memoir. One of the suggestions he gave was to show a time in which the narrator felt connected to her sister, so that the power of their rupture would mean more and make more narrative sense to the reader. The Twins Love Each Other Before They Hate Each Other was born from that suggestion.

It was hard to discern what to include in the excerpt. This section establishes the main premise the memoir undertakes, and introduces the memoir’s main narrative frame, including the central conflict and crucial characters. That was ultimately why I chose this piece as a stand-alone excerpt for The Collagist.

Writing this section was difficult, especially as so much of this section was some of the first writing I ever did for the memoir. I had to excavate memories from a particularly difficult time in my life, while also staying focused on the conflict and narrative of the entire book. What helped me through this section was that I had an idea of the kind of formal structure and voice I want as a hinge to keep the book together—a kind of lyric essayistic prose that fused the lyric voice with the reflective narration of memoir.

2. I found it interesting that for most of the selection that you refer to the twins as a set, “the girls,” or “she and I,” without explicitly using your/her names.  Could you please talk about this decision and the challenges and/or successes that you found working with it?

The memoir has not been published yet, but for the moment, my sister is named in the book. I imagine this will change upon publication based on a number of reasons. Because of the sensitivity of material that I’m addressing, and the online availability of the publication, I made a decision to remove my twin’s name. That’s the reason for the “she” you speak of.

Describing the twins as a set, or as the girls is a different matter, however. One of the reasons I wrote this book is because of society’s relationship to twins and twinning. Most of the books that you can find on Amazon, or the pieces written that deal with twins, are written from others (a parent, scientist, etc.) about twins. The twins are often objectified, made into a pair of objects. The relationship a person who is an identical twin has to identity is complex. This is for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons inevitably has to do with the way society views twins, the way that culture connects identity to physicality. We recognize people for having a distinct look—what gets taken away from one’s individuality when their look is replicated in the world? Those books that are written by twins often express, in my mind, a romanticized view of twinning, in which identical twins have a close bond with one another, share each others clothes and inhabit the same social circles. This is not to say that I distrust that experience expressed from a twin—but my experience as a twin was fraught by the fact that in my experience, I (or we, rather) was not allowed a space to form my own sense of individuality within that joint frame. I felt it important to share a story of the reality of twinning, the conflict that arises for identical twins in relationship to identity, two-ness, and a shared sense of self. Part of the excerpt addresses a significant part of my childhood, in which my father dressed us in identical outfits before taking us to his cultural outings, which included plays he performed in with his Mandarin-speaking friends. In those identical outfits we were also asked to sing Chinese karaoke by spelling out the foreign words in English sounds. This happened on and off for ten years of our childhood. In those moments, how could we be seen as anything else but the girls, the twins, a set of two?

My MFA thesis—when I was studying poetry at Warren Wilson College—centered heavily on family, and only in the last year on twinning. I started my semester with my thesis advisor—Matthea Harvey—by giving her a sense of what in my personal narrative the poems were addressing, and about my general aesthetic desires and concerns in my work. I had only written a few poems about twinning then, and Matthea responded to my letter detailing my relationship and experience to being an identical twin (along with my focus on the image) that I think back to often:

“Your impulse to understand things through image as opposed to voice does make sense—if you look the same, the way you look at things may be what differentiates you from your twin.”

*

I have thought a lot about the role of audience in memoir. What do we want from the readers? Do we want them to relate to the experience on some level, or to come to a wholly different experience, to discover something new? Of course I want to express my unique experience, this is part of my motivation in writing the book, but I also hope that others will find something in the book that they can connect to and have an experience of relating to the story, and perhaps distancing themselves from the story, too. Outside of the twinning frame of the book, it’s important to me that the sexual trauma that surrounds the narrative is dealt with as well. Part of what makes twinning such a different experience from the experience of single-hood is the collective: you are born into two. You are seen as two, and you experience the world, at least at the beginning, as a we. In order for the reader to internalize on any level what that experience is like for the narrator, the collective must be included in a memoir about twinning. In the piece that most substantially uses the collective as you describe, The Twins Love Each Other Before They Hate Each Other, the most significant challenge was referring to each one as an individual twin (the one on the leftthe one on the right, etc) and as the set at the same time. This was crucial to me in terms of the building of that piece, because it embodies the double-lives (oneness-twoness) that twins experience in the world. Once written, however, it feels absolutely necessary to establish that paradigm for the reader before moving on to the separate experiences and conflicts that the speaker and her twin face.

3. After reading your piece, I googled you, and found your blog entry that you had written about getting this piece of the memoir published. In it, you spoke about how people have reacted to it in a way that was intense, and that “Poetry just doesn’t affect people this way.”  Could you talk more about this difference that you’ve experienced between poetry and non-fiction?

I’ve written poetry seriously for the past 12 years. I’m certain that most readers could see a thread, structurally and thematically, between the work I’ve done in poetry and the work I’ve done in prose. But, poetry is the work of the interior. I think, because of this, there are many people in my life who read my work with a kind of admiration of its aesthetic, but could never fully grasp what the poem means, what it’s about. Here I’m speaking mainly of people in my life who are not in pursuit of writing, and who do not spend a majority of their time, if any, reading poetry. In addition, however, I feel because the poetry I write is not…traditional in form and voice, it’s possible even readers of my work that are poets themselves might not ever feel they can fully enter a poem I’ve written. There’s a directness in memoir, a literal telling of the story, that brings a reader—any reader—into the space with your work in a wholly different way. The piece on The Collagist went live while I was asleep and away from my computer. When I discovered it the next morning, I hesitated, but ultimately decided to post it on my Facebook wall, to share the link on the listserve with my MFA alumni, and to write an entry on my blog about it. Within three hours I received many comments, emails, and text messages about how moved they were by the piece. Not only were they moved, but one friend in particular sent me many questions the piece brought up for him—about my life, my family, my experience at that time. Friends were instantly interested in the rest of the draft, what came after. This is, of course, what you want as a writer, for your work to be connected with and to be received with such heat and energy. But I’ve never had readers receive my work in poetry in such a visceral, voyeuristic and curious manner. I think it’s because the work in nonfiction joins a number of things that we as humans respond to in a very embodied way. You get access to another’s story, from the interior as well as the exterior. And in my case, I am also excavating a story that is connected to trauma which I think triggers something in us as readers as well. Another difference, in my opinion, between the reading of poetry and nonfiction has to do with accessibility and education. We hear stories from the time we wake up until the time we go to sleep, we receive them electronically and aurally, and we’ve been told stories for most of our lives. We experience poetry, even for those of us that pursue the craft of poetry, far less frequently than that. At just a small fraction in comparison. We respond to stories on a much more intuitive level, especially those delivered to us as true, whereas our reception and interpretation of poems, I think, are far more conscious and learned.

4. What have you been reading recently that felt like (a good!) punch in the face?

For the last year, since I finished the draft of the memoir, I’ve been hard at work on a book about hysteria and twinning. To prepare for the writing of this project, I’ve been reading lots and lots of psychoanalytic theory on the subject. Consequently, I’ve also been reading about melancholia, its possible relationship to hysteria, and their relationship to the work of Marguerite Duras, who was the most considerable influence for me with the memoir. There are three books I’m reading simultaneously that are incredible in their excavating of and around such a complex phenomenon:

Hysteria

  1. Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria (Juliet Mitchell)

Melancholia/Duras

  1. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (Julia Kristeva)

Twinning

  1. To Be Two (Luce Irigaray)

5. What are you plans with the rest of this memoir?  Any other writing projects going on?

Oops, it looks like I started answering this question early! A few weeks ago, I recently revised the memoir and sent it off. I am still looking for a press for the book, but no hard-lined success yet. I feel really confident about the newest draft, however, so I’m hopeful! I am also still sending out my manuscript of poems, and in its place—.

*

In terms of current writing projects, I just finished collaborating on a dance theater project about the French sculptor Camille Claudel. My official title was narrative collaborator, but my role on the project is most commonly known to others as Dramaturg. It’s the second time I’ve worked with this company, the first of which was as co-conceiver with Victor Frankenstein, a dance theater production that focused on the novel, as well as Mary Shelley’s relationship to her mother and her husband, poet Percy Shelley. 

My latest writing project explores my relationship to the intersection between hysteria and twinning (the title currently fluctuates, almost daily, between The Performance of Suffering and The Twin Who Was Not Hysteric. At the moment, it appears the book will be a cross-genre between myth and memoir, and hopefully will include photographic work as well. I’ve been interested in hysteria for about five years, an interest that was born out of my work with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but only in the last year have I focused solely on it as my latest writing enterprise. I hope to spend most of this summer working on it.

 

Monday
May282012

"A New World Rotated Silently Into Place": An Interview-in-Excerpts with Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel was born on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. She studied at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre and lived briefly in Montreal before relocating to New York. Her first novel, Last Night in Montreal, was a finalist for Foreword Magazine's 2009 Book of the Year. Her second novel, The Singer’s Gun, recently released in paperback, won the Indie Bookseller’s Choice Award and was the #1 Indie Next Pick for May 2010. Currently a staff writer for The Millions, she is married and lives in Brooklyn.

An excerpt from her novel, The Lola Quartet, appears in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Emily St. John Mandel answers questions "in the form of excepts"--with further excepts from The Lola Quartet.

1. What is writing like?

Sasha was raised on stories of brave children entering magical countries. Narnia was behind the coats in a wardrobe. Alice fell down the rabbit hole. There was another story whose name she couldn’t remember about a brother and sister picking up a golden pinecone in the woods and in that motion, that lifting of an enchanted object from the forest floor, a new world rotated silently into place around them. 

2. What isn’t writing like?

There was a plastic shopping bag duct-taped to the underside of the stroller. It held a little under one hundred eighteen thousand dollars in cash.

3. When you do it, why? 

He chose a table at the front in the hope that if the music was beautiful it might sweep him up. … He must have smiled, because the woman said, “Well, that seemed to make you happy,” and he said, “Yes, it does.” 

4. When you don’t, why?

It was nice to think of not being alone for another long evening, so when night fell he put on a clean shirt and left the dorm. It was an unusually cold night, the coldest he’d ever seen. There was a light frost and the grass sparkled underfoot. Jack wasn’t sure that he’d encountered frost outside a freezer before. He knew what it was but couldn’t stop staring at it, stooped down once to touch it. The sparkling turned to cold water on his fingertips. Jack stood for a moment in the middle of the Commons, looking up at the stars. He’d meant to practice today but hadn’t. It had been two weeks since he’d played the piano and nothing about the thought of sitting down at a keyboard was appealing to him.

 

Saturday
May262012

"Seeing Who This Person Is": An Interview with Tara Laskowski

Tara Laskowski lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, son, and two cats. She is the senior editor for SmokeLong Quarterly (www.smokelong.com) and has had numerous stories published online and in print. This story is part of a collection of "etiquette" stories that she is currently completing. More information about her work can be found at www.taralaskowski.com.

Her story "The Etiquette of Arson" appears in Issue Thirty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks to interviewer Joseph Scapellato about form, character, and possible revisions to submissions guidelines.  Enjoy!

1. Where did “The Etiquette of Arson” begin for you, and how did it get to here?

I honestly can't remember exactly how it began. I wrote this story somewhere in the middle of my ten etiquette stories, and I was looking for a darker subject. I also thought it would be fun to try to get inside the head of someone who started fires on purpose. And this is where it ended up. 

2. To me, this piece reads like a compelling and mysterious collage—a bundle of assorted chapters, appendixes, and prologues.  Can you tell us a little more about how you approached this form?  (How did you find/follow it?  What were your goals?)

I was driving around one day and thought of this title: "The Etiquette of Adultery." I thought that was a really cool title and wrote it down. I carried around in my wallet for almost a year until I decided to do something with it. I thought about the etiquette books and how formal they are, and the instructional kind of tone, and thought I'd play around with that. From that story, I just started doing more of them in the same format—adding different elements to each one, like glossary of terms, appendix, notes, etc. These stories are really fun to write. But one of my goals, beyond just a weird format, was to make sure that a character emerged from each of these stories. An individual. And that is the most fun about it, seeing who this person is.

3. Almost every section makes use of imperative sentences—“Stop.  Touch the doorknob.  It is hot, so step back.”  You mention in your bio that you’re writing other “etiquette pieces”—to what extent do you use the imperative in those works, and what have you discovered about the imperative while working on this project?  (Its strengths and weaknesses, its surprising qualities?) 

Yes, they are all written in this form. It's challenging after awhile to make them feel different. I started to feel about halfway through that maybe they all sounded the same, or maybe this would get boring. So I tried to make different voices come through in each—still using the imperative, but incorporating different tones and different language to hopefully make them individual enough.

4. Some literary magazine editors say that their position as editor affects their own writing/writing process; others say, “Not really.”  How has being an editor at SmokeLong Quarterly affected (or not affected) your relationship with your writing?

I'm not sure if it has in any dramatic way. Sometimes when I read a really great story sent to us I think, "Shit. Why can't I do this?" But I think it's interesting to read submissions—I learn a lot about pitfalls people fall into, and themes I should avoid. (I joke with our editors that we should change the submissions guidelines to say we don't take stories about women getting their periods, people getting cancer, or anything about or inspired by Charles Bukowski.)

5. What writing projects are you working on right now other than the etiquette pieces?

I have a novel that still mildly interests me. My husband and I just had our first baby five months ago, so I've been struggling to find large chunks of time to write. So I guess now I'm trying to build up some more flash pieces and short stories, and really trying to decide which longer project to focus on.

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

See note above about five month old son--so, I haven't been getting as much reading done as I would like, either. But I am reading Stephen King's The Stand for the first time and it is BLOWING ME AWAY. I just love it. I'm also reading Truck Dance by Jeff Landon, which is a really wonderful collection of flash. I'm pretty excited to read Matt Bell's Cataclysm Baby, too.

 

Wednesday
May232012

"Choose Your Swords Carefully": An Interview with Karrie Waarala

Karrie Waarala holds an MFA from the Stonecoast Program at University of Southern Maine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Iron Horse Literary Review, PANK, Arsenic Lobster, Radius, and The Orange Room Review. Karrie recently debuted her one-woman show, LONG GONE: A Poetry Sideshow, which is based on her poems about the circus, to critical acclaim. She really wishes she could tame tigers and swallow swords.

Her poem, "The Sword Swallower's Mother Speaks," appeared in Issue Thirty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer, Melissa Goodrich, about defeaning silence, sharp things, and her "one-woman" poetry show.

Does a poem like “The Sword Swallower’s Mother Speaks” start in research, in speculation or spectacle, is there any way to write about side-show freaks without spectating? 

The majority of my circus poems begin in speculation, and this one was no exception—though in this case, it was the speculation of Patricia Smith, who was my MFA mentor at the time. I was just beginning my foray into these sideshow persona poems, and she wondered aloud what this sword swallower must have been like as a child. As soon as she put forth the question, I knew his mother needed to be the one to answer, rather than the swallower himself. Generally speaking, after the initial “what if...” or “I wonder...” comes the research, though; I read everything on the subject I can get my hands on, and have been fortunate to have the opportunity to interview a number of wonderful people in the world of circus, including the lead clown on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and the owner of Kelly Miller, which is a fantastic one-ring circus.

As for the question of spectacle and spectator, that is something I both explore and wrestle with in these poems. I know that I’m as much a spectator as any reader, since I don’t have first-hand circus experience. While I write these characters from a place of respect, I constantly worry about appropriating stories and lives that are not mine, and always hope I am doing them justice. I’ve chosen my two main characters for their archetypal resonance, but I also think it’s no accident that they are a “working act” and a “made freak,” since there is an inherent hesitance to be a spectator of “born freaks,” the human oddities that were once so prevalent in sideshows.

Fault and trust are introduced early in the poem, and there are these beautiful repeating images of silence/voicelessness—the son “with butter knife pressed/against his small voice,” “smolder of his father” buried behind the newspaper, not speaking, “My throat never let loose the words/that would teach him how to choke.”  How much does silence operate for you as a poet, in the creation and performance of your poetry?  Is silence loud?

I think silence can be deafening, which is one of the reasons people tend to fear it, especially performers. But silence is so underutilized, even though it’s exhausting as an audience member to be under a constant barrage of sound. So many people get behind a mic and are afraid to give an audience enough space between the words to get their fingers in there and pry them apart for meaning. The silent spaces are essential in the performance of my poetry, and I’m constantly working to get more comfortable with them myself.

That image you end on—of a house with no sharp things—is haunting, like institutions where anything that may be used as a weapon has been removed.  There’s displacement, false safety, sterilization—do you feel this every-sharp-thing-gone turn parallels the sword swallower turning from one kind of life to another, is there a relationship between sword swallowing and word swallowing, are both he and his mother performers?

If this character inherited his knack for swallowing (s)words and his performer’s sensibilities from his mother, the thing that sets him apart from her is the need for an appreciative audience. She is someone for whom life in the wings has been enough in a way it could never be for him. To me that final image is a starker shift in reality for the mother than for the sword swallower himself. For him it’s an escape, and an inevitable one, to finally be able to break away from the silent and stifling life of his youth and embrace all that sharp for which he was born. But for her, it’s so many losses rolled into one: in letting go of this son for whom she feels so responsible, she is losing the one family member who, despite his trying flaws and obsessions, has been the sole glint and shine in her life—and her buffer against all of the sometimes brutal masculinity roiling around in that house.

The relationship between swords and words weaves itself throughout a number of the other poems in the collection as well. The first poem I wrote from his point of view, “From the Sword Swallower’s Notebook,” begins with the line “Choose your swords carefully.” I’ve been attempting to live up to his advice ever since.

Tell us about LONG GONE: A Poetry Sideshow—what was it like adapting your poems for the stage, how different did they become, and what was opening night like?

There are many of the sideshow poems that aren’t in the show, as LONG GONE tells the story of my other main character, the tattooed lady (though my sword swallower does make a guest appearance). However, the poems that made it into the show actually remained almost entirely unchanged from their page counterparts, except for a couple that I braided together to become duets between Tess and important figures in her life. (“One-woman show” is a bit of a misnomer: while I’m the sole live performer, playing Tess, there are a handful of prerecorded segments of other people performing poems told from the point of view of other characters in her life.) The majority of the work that went into adapting the poems for the stage was not tinkering with the poems themselves, but rather building all of the connective structure between them in order to provide a clear narrative arc, writing monologues and creating the audiovisual component of the show. A significant piece of that structure turned out to be building a context for the audience to understand and appreciate some of the rich sideshow language that I have fallen in love with and that informs much of this work. What started as a fun experiment in breaking down the fourth wall to accomplish this—Tess delivers a series of lessons in “carny speak” to the audience—ended up evolving into a narrative framework for the entire show.

Opening night was the most dry-mouthed, terrifying 75 minutes of my life. I honestly thought I was crashing and burning the entire time and was shocked at the standing ovation I received. Thank goodness that halfway through the second night’s performance a little voice in the back of my head whispered, “Hey, Waarala, in case you haven’t noticed, you’re starting to have fun,” or else that premiere weekend would have been the show’s closing, too. Instead I’m starting to take it on the road this year, beginning with the Renegade Theatre Festival in Lansing, MI this August.

What have you been reading that’s excellent?

As it’s been the end of a semester, the majority of my reading lately has been student portfolios. I have been reading quite a bit of persona work, though, as I’ve been preparing to teach an online workshop on persona for The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative. Coming back to Anne Sexton’s Transformations is always a welcome experience, and there’s some delightful work in the new collection A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. I’ve also been enjoying The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall, a novel about a Coney Island tattoo artist. The book gets so much right about the powerful undercurrents of transformative story and intimacy found in tattooing as an art form.

Will your love-of-circus still spill over into new work, or have you a new project?

Now that I’ve completed my full-length manuscript of circus poems and am looking for a home for it, I’ve been turning my attention elsewhere. There are so many other things to write about, and I don’t want to be seen as a one-note writer—but also my circus characters deserve a rest after three years of work on Pierce & Brand’s World of Dangerous Wonders. Lately I’ve found myself writing a number of instructional poems—or more accurately, poems that seem to be masquerading as instructional—so I do appear to have stumbled into a new project, but I think this will be on a smaller scale, perhaps a chapbook. However, my love of circus spills over into just about every aspect of my life, so I won’t be surprised if it sneaks back into my work at some point. I can’t seem to stay away from the sawdust and spangles for very long.

Wednesday
May232012

"I Wanted Her Voice to be Comic, Pathetic, and Scary": An Interview with Rachel Levy

Rachel Levy's piece "The Hat" was published in the March 2012 issue of The Collagist. Her prose can be found in places like Drunken Boat, Everyday Genius, and PANK. Her first chapbook is forthcoming from Ghost Ocean Magazine. She lives in Boulder, CO.

What inspired you to write "The Hat"? What was going through your mind while you were writing it?

I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a solipsistic narrator who can’t deal with the inexplicable appearance of a hat on her partner’s head. Her partner is deliberately silent on the issue of the hat, and I kept thinking about how his silence might give the narrator’s utterance an interesting shape.

I read your piece “Becoming Deer”, published at PANK in July of last year. That narrator is also female, and I noticed an interesting detail that both she and the narrator of “The Hat” have in common: they use some variation of “to be honest” or “I just want to be honest” repeatedly throughout their stories. Could you elaborate on this, on the function of repeated intentions of honesty in a narrative?

It seems to be a tendency of mine to use that phrase when I’m writing in the first-person. Not long ago, I completed another first-person narrative and I noticed afterward that the phrase appears in that story, too (and the narrator of that piece is also female). I find the repetition intriguing because it wasn’t conscious on my part, even though I’ve come to think of myself as very self-aware of my intentions/actions while writing. Apparently I’m not as conscious of certain tendencies as I originally thought. In any case, I do feel drawn to that phrase and the strange energy it brings to a first-person utterance. In “Becoming Deer” I see the narrator’s desire “to be honest” as genuine; it is perhaps her only desire, but it is one that is impossible for her to fulfill, so the repetition becomes desperate. Maybe the only honest sentiment she can communicate is that she honestly desires to be honest. In “The Hat,” the phrase seems to impart a different sort of energy—maybe a comic energy, rather than a desperate one—because the narrator is incredibly unaware of herself, so her claims to honesty are very dishonest. She’s rather tyrannical in the way she demands honesty from her partner, but she cannot hold herself to the same standard. I guess it’s interesting to me that the phrase, “I just want to be honest,” always speaks to dishonesty. When it’s spoken sincerely, it seems to be such a sad and desperate thing to say. When it’s spoken without sincerity it seems to be a very frightening (albeit comic/pathetic) thing to say.

When you were interviewed by Gary Fincke in Smokelong Quarterly, you made an intriguing statement about your writing process:

“I sit and listen for voice. I find it very hard to say anything at all if I don't first establish a range in which to speak.”

Could you tell us about the process of listening for this narrator’s voice, how she came to you? 

I think I tried to listen for a voice that was prone to both curious exclamations and odd, slightly paratactic reasoning. Then I tried to connect the dots between her exclamatory utterances (“I know him, and he is mine!”), her process of reasoning (“Which is the problem: I need to know), and her moments of storytelling (“Once, half in jest, I proposed another color”). Somehow that framework allowed me to discover what this narrator would say and how she would say it. I wanted her voice to be comic, pathetic, and scary, and keeping those goals in mind allowed something like a narrative to emerge.

Your chapbook, Necessary Objects, has gotten quite a few recognitions, and is forthcoming from Ghost Ocean Magazine. How has your work changed or evolved since putting that chapbook together?

The stories in the chapbook are very short and a lot of them are serial in nature. I tend to start each story with an idea, proceeding through composition by working through that idea. I pay close attention to the craft of style, voice, and form, attaching narrative elements when I can. I can’t say that my approach has changed much since putting the chapbook together. I’m still in grad school, so I would never claim that I’ve mastered any approach to story writing, but I do worry that I tend to fall back on what feels comfortable and easy. Well, I don’t think writing is easy, but I do think it’s easier for me to write very short, conceptual pieces. With that in mind, I’ve been trying to write longer pieces to see if I might expand my range. I’ve noticed that when I write longer stories I think a little less conceptually, giving more attention to event and character. I’ve also noticed that when I write longer, I don’t mind spending time describing the visual aspects of a narrative—the details of a particular image, setting, or character—whereas when I write short I tend to forbid all attention to visual detail for fear that such attention might zap the piece of movement and tension. Maybe my work is changing for the better; maybe it’s getting worse. I can’t tell at the moment. “Long” for me is never more than 4,000 words, so maybe I need to force myself to go even longer. I’m trying to loosen up a little bit, allowing myself to try things in a story that I would normally eschew, so that I might afford myself some room for growth.

Do you have any writing projects in the works right now? 

I’m in the beginning stages of figuring out a project, I think. In the meantime, I’m trying to write a good amount of first-person stories, similar to “The Hat” in style and concern, to see what kind of project might emerge from that effort.

Are there any new releases or recent publications that you’re particularly excited about?

I have a couple short pieces in a forthcoming issue of Bateau that I’m pretty excited about. I’m also excited that summer is almost here, so I will have more time to read. A professor of mine recommended that I challenge myself to read only works that were published before the twentieth-century. I’m starting with The Marquis of O- and Other Stories. That should be fun.

 

Saturday
May192012

"Limitlessly Mined for the Strange That Was There All Along": An Interview with Gabe Durham

Gabe Durham is the author of Fun Camp, a novel forthcoming from Mud Luscious Press. He lives in Northampton, MA, where he edits Dark Sky Magazine

His story "The Different Thing" appears in Issue Thirty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Gabe Durham talks to interviewer Joseph Scapellato about asking questions with fiction, a strange church experience, and what happens when you aren't asked to explain why you picked one poster over others.

1. Where did “The Different Thing” begin for you, and how did it get to here?

I was writing another story—what I’m tempted to call a real story with character, event, etc.—that began, “It was that perennial time of year when clouds shifted restlessly and comedians passed out flyer coupons just off Times Square.” I liked the game of that sentence, the way it pointed to the perpetuity of comedians handing out coupons, and imagined writing a short story in which I might gorge myself on sentences like this.

At the same time, I was in a rut. I’d moved to a city I didn’t much like with a degree that didn’t much help me, and my agent was forwarding me these lovely glowing rejections by career-maker editors on a manuscript, and though I’d prided myself on being a persistent and goal-driven guy always in pursuit of the next thing, I was very unsure what the next thing was. I began to fear my own decision-making. This story seems to me now (over a year later) to have been born of that fear: I wrote a story in which I made no decisions about who anyone was or what they were doing.

2. I’m struck by this piece’s compelling narration—right off the bat, the reader encounters unspecific specificity (or specific unspecificity?): “The young couple was informed: Something today would be different. It was a time of day again and the sky was active, casting rays onto things, making the things look different in this light than in other light.”  The characters’ actions are at times interchangeable: “They resisted making contact until one risked it. The other was glad.”  These are only two examples of this voice’s playful energy.  Can you tell us more about this voice—what your goals were with it, how you found or followed it?

As I wrote and revised, I pushed the story as far as I could into what you’re nicely dubbing this specific unspecificity: About the young couple, I asked: Could this be said about any couple? About the different thing, I asked: Could this be said of any event?

What excited me about asking those questions was that it turned out I was asking myself: What do I think couples are like? And many of the answers were so basic, the kinds of things it’s rarely worth mentioning: Well, okay, when they meet, they like to look at each other. And I’d scan it and make sure I agreed with it. It’s nice to get to say something true like that, even if that true thing is obvious.

But then of course in this story, as in all stories, there had to be the turn. The story had to get away from me somehow. And I tried out a number of things, and the one that stuck was the idea of meeting avoidance head-on: “You could paint their shirts red or their trees oak or fashion their coveted different thing into a sexy Panamanian burglar from Amnesty International and spend the rest of your life paying for it.” And of course, near the end, we do all of that stuff and more—but tentatively, hypothetically—and then run away from it.

3. This piece includes many moments of insightful and comic defamiliarization: “The clothes the young couple wore reflected their beliefs on temperature, mobility, modesty, comfort, and style.”  To what extent do you think that all fiction makes (or should make) the familiar strange? 

I’ve heard other writers talk about the mental game that goes, “How would I explain this to a space alien?” Which isn’t so different than asking, “How would I explain this to a very precocious child I’m babysitting?” To me, the object of the game is the attempt to clear away our received ideas and start from somewhere closer to scratch.

Around the time of the writing of this story, also in the new city, my wife and I attended a church service recommended to her by an acquaintance. They met in a very appealing space and catered to twentysomethings, especially musicians, lots of tattoos and artificially darkened hair, and the band there performed loud midtempo praise medleys very proficiently—kind of that “drone of worship” mentality where the words don’t especially matter. And it wasn’t until their minister got up to speak that we realized we were in the most radically conservative church either of us had ever been to. The minister was a large and kinda sloppy man, but he had a real aggression in him. His rambling message was all about prosthelatizing, peppered with bits about Hell and the domination of men over women, and whenever he felt like he’d made a killer point that hadn’t gotten its due from the crowd, he would say, “I think that deserves an amen, don’t you?” And while he was speaking, before he brought up a trembling ex-gay with a testimony about how Abba Father had cured his affliction of homosexuality, the minister said this of his own sermon: “I’m blowing your mind right now. And the reason I’m blowing your mind is because you’re not used to people telling you the truth.”

I don’t think the familiar can be made strange, I think the familiar can be limitlessly mined for the strange that was there all along. It’s the recognition that makes it satisfying. And for that quality, I think “Louie” might just be the best show on TV right now.

4. Some literary magazine editors say that their position as editor affects their own writing/writing process; others say, “Not really.”  How has being the editor of Dark Sky Magazine affected (or not affected) your relationship with your writing?

You can’t edit a magazine without quickly discovering that all editors for any magazine are just people like you. And with that knowledge ever in place, you can never again fault one of them for rejecting your writing. Taste is mysterious.

I am not going to fact-check this—They did a study: They put the subjects in front of a box of posters. To half of the subjects, they said, “Take whatever poster you want.” And the most popular poster was an image, no text, with this cool ineffable quality. And to the other half of the subjects, they said, “Take whatever poster you want, but first tell us why you picked it.” And the most popular poster was some stupid motivational poster with a caption about following your dreams or something. They picked the motivational poster because they could think of something to say about it, an easy justification for their decision.

Because I never have to explain my decisions, I think editing pushes me further toward the “know it when I see it” and away from “here’s why I like it,” and that’s got to help my writing.

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

Before too long, J.A. Tyler and I will embark on the edits for my first book, FUN CAMP, due from Mud Luscious Press about a year from now. And I’ve got a story collection in the drawer.

At the moment, though, I’m working exclusively on a nonfiction account of September 22, 2011, and have slowly been becoming the expert on that date. And there are no other experts on that particular date, so I’m breaking ground on an entirely new field of study. It involves looking up a lot of stuff on the internet.

How I know it’s a good project for me is that before I was writing it, I would try to work on my writing and then accidentally find myself on the internet. Now whenever I try to go for a relaxing stroll on the internet, I accidentally find myself doing research for the book.

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

Okay, ready?

Recently I blew through a number of the short books that had been happily accumulating: Victory by Ben Kopel (wildly openhearted teen punk poems edited with a brain—most ecstatic voice since Bailey’s Drunk Sonnets), For Out the Heart Proceed by Jensen Beach (calm and sly short stories of fathers discovering ugliness and glory inside themselves—even when they’re not fathers, they’re fathers), Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell (my favorite is easily “Justine,” in which three daughters put their philandering father on trial and enact swift justice, taking first a thumb and then more), Baby Leg by Brian Evenson (one of those cool recursive loop books—you can tell early on the end is headed straight for the beginning), Life Is with Other People by Atticus Lish (book of evil sketches in which the artist makes great use of the opportunity for surprise in the distance between drawing and caption, and even greater use of the dramatic effect of the hair on a hairy man), and A Cloth House by Joe Riipi (a short and emotionally raw story of loss).

I just taught my reading class Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a short novel I really admire about a guy using journalistic tricks to try and figure out how it was possible that his friend got murdered when nearly everyone in town knew it was going to happen. The book juggles an enormous cast of characters, dips from past to present whenever it wants, and maintains a complicated register that is both darkly funny and not at all. There’s no fluff—I like it much more than Hundred Years of Solitude.

Also, Mel Bosworth has loaned me the autobiography of Felicia “Snoop” Pearson. She had it tough. Michael K. Williams recruited her for The Wire just by watching her in the club one night, convinced her to go audition. She continued selling all throughout the shooting of Season 3 before giving it up.

On deck: Wise Blood and some Alice Munro stories. And I just found out today that the new Leni Zumas novel is out, which I got to publish a bit of last year when I was editing Keyhole Magazine last year. Her fiction is consistently terrific—I’m eager to read it.

 

Thursday
May172012

"So as Not to Give Away His Predicament": An Interview-in-Excerpts with Robert James Russell

Robert James Russell is author of Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing, 2012). His fiction and poetry has appeared in  Joyland, Thunderclap! Magazine, Red River Review, LITSNACK, Greatest Lakes Review, and The Legendary, among others. He is the co-founding editor of Midwestern Gothic. Find him online at www.robertjamesrussell.com.

An excerpt from Sea of Trees appears in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Robert James Russell answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Sea of Trees.  Enjoy!

1. What is writing like?

Inside Shinji felt different—more powerful. He picked up the nearest racing form and scoured it for information, watching others like him and feeling, for the first time, superior. With the brick of money in his coat pocket he selected what he thought were sure bets. As he approached the teller—an automated machine could not be trusted with this sum—he had planned on making a few small bets, at least today, a few trifectas, perhaps even an exacta, but as he stood there, the young girl on the other side waiting for him to place his bet, the words slipped out on their own: “Pick six. Two-point-five million.” The girl processed the money with little regard for this man, and when she handed over the ticket, Shinji took it and held it like an infant—careful not to crumple or crease it on his trek to the stands.

2. What isn’t writing like?

She hiked another thirty minutes into the woods, assured she was now alone, stopping near a small shrine someone had erected to the memory of a loved one, someone else who had died sometime before, and Kimiho wondered if anyone would erect one in her honor—but figured probably not. She walked away from the path directly into the woods then kneeled and emptied the belongings of her purse onto the ground and sorted through them: make-up she never wore for Dai, a phone she used to use to call Orito with, various trinkets that reminded her of how horrible she had been, then: the gun. She picked it up and felt the weight of it and imagined her grandfather in the cramped cockpit, the great whirring of the jet engines surrounding him as he flew to his death in order to protect his country—his family. Kimiho then placed the pistol in her mouth, the barrel cold on her tongue, and thought only of Dai’s smiling face on their wedding day as she pulled the trigger.

3. When you do it, why?

Every time I find it more beautiful than the last.

4. When you don’t, why?

He vomited at his desk and was told to go home. His mind spun, his body had become numb, floating him everywhere, his feet inches off the ground, in a daze, completely oblivious to everything. Every idea he could think of, every scheme and notion that popped into his head in order to get the money back, was greeted ultimately with failure. He had no extended family he could ask for help—neither he nor his wife came from money—and he had no real friends he could confide in, not for something like this, anyway. So he watched the days tick away, unable to do anything, spending the time with his family while he could, watching them and crying when they were not looking, so as not to give away his predicament.