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.

 

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.