Saturday
Apr212012

"Wisdom While You Wait": An Interview-in-Excerpts with William Walsh

William Walsh is the author of Unknown Arts, Ampersand, Mass., Pathologies, Questionstruck (all from Keyhole Press), and Without Wax: A Documentary Novel (Casperian Books). He edited an anthology of fictional appropriations called RE:Tellng (Ampersand Books). His work has appeared in Annalemma, Artifice, Juked, New York Tyrant, Lit, No Colony, Caketrain, Quarterly West, Rosebud, and other journals. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and their four children.

An excerpt from Unknown Arts appears in Issue Thirty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Walsh answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Unknown Arts.

All responses are derived from Ulysses by James Joyce, 1922.

He reflected on the pleasures derived from the literature of instruction rather than of amusement as applied to the works of William Shakespeare for the solution of difficult problems in imaginary or real life.

1. What is writing like?

Two apples a penny! Two for a penny! That is how poets write, the similar sounds. But then Shakespeare has no rhymes: blank verse. The flow of the language it is. The thoughts. Solemn. Like Shakespeare's face. Shakespeare's reverence.

I may as well warn you that if you want to shake my belief that Shakespeare is Hamlet you have a stern task before you. After God Shakespeare has created most. Shakespeare is the happy huntingground of all minds that have lost their balance.

Too poetical that. Music did that. Music hath charms, Shakespeare said. Quotations every day in the year. To be or not to be. Wisdom while you wait.

2. What isn’t writing like?

Shakespeare's ghost. I mean, whether Hamlet is Shakespeare. It is the ghost, the king, a king and no king, and the player is Shakespeare who has studied HAMLET all the years of his life which were not vanity in order to play the part of the spectre. Shakespeare, a ghost by absence. The world believes that Shakespeare made a mistake.

Trenchant exponent of Shakespeare. praises of Shakespeare's songs ineluctably preconditioned to become. What went forth to the ends of the world to traverse not itself, God, the sun, Shakespeare?

3. When you do it, why?

To create a figure which the world will set beside Saxon Shakespeare's Hamlet.

(And) payment at the rate of one guinea a column to the writer. With the help of God and His blessed mother, I'll make it my business to write.

4. When you don’t, why?

The birth of William Shakespeare over delta in the recumbent neversetting constellation of Cassiopeia.

(And) the plays of Shakespeare's later years. Shakespeare himself forgot. Good Bacon: gone musty. Rutlandbaconsouthamptonshakespeare. Shakespeare. Shrewridden Shakespeare…

THE FACE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, BEARDLESS, APPEARS. IN THE MIRROR.

What does Shakespeare say?

—GOODBYE, NOW, GOODBYE! WRITE DOWN ALL I SAID AND TELL TOM, DIEK AND HARRY I ROSE FROM THE DEAD. WHAT'S BRED IN THE BONE CANNOT FAIL ME TO FLY... GOODBYE, NOW, GOODBYE!

 

Thursday
Apr192012

"We Have to Pull Ourselves Up With Words": An Interview with Luke B. Goebel

Luke B. Goebel is a writer of fictions, living in Texas. He teaches at a Texas university and his work has appeared in journals including: the New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Pank, Elimae, Wigleaf, Gigantic, Everyday Genius and one soon to print with Kitty Snacks. He works as a Co-Editor with The New York Tyrant and Tyrant Books. 

Luke's story "Chula Chula, My Heart My Heart, Chula Chula" appears in Issue Thirty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Joseph Scapellato about speaking, singing, and flying.

1. Where did “Chula Chula, My Heart My Heart, Chula Chula” begin for you, and how did it get to here? 

It started as one clean mental picture—the whole story—in one quanta shot. The beginning middle and end peeled right off from out—and into word. It was a straight shot to paper. I think I recorded it, actually, into a microphone. Then it was a story on paper. On screen, next. Dictaphone to typewriter to computer to space. I sent it to S. Garson at Wigleaf. He took it. I almost let it go up. Then I pulled it. I hated the story, suddenly. I didn’t want it out anymore. It reminded me of someone’s work I don’t adore—a guy in specific. Then it sat around in nowhere. It aged. It got irritable. It hated being nowhere. It wanted a new life. The story wanted to be told a story and/or to conduct a motorcycle, carry a pistol, contain a new line about a cucumber out at the edge of the trees. Stories also want to get some action—some touching.. It wanted a girl. It slept too long and had a headache. It got constipated. Dreamed of a life that was made up from its former life, but that life didn’t need it to be part of that life anymore.

A guy named Johnny came over for two weeks and drank wine and we fiddled with it a bit. Then I started cranking. It changed and lengthened and grew out of its shape into a less clear shape. From there, I sent it over to you. Matt Bell took it—I hear big things about Cataclysm Baby—YUKNAVITCH loves it. I love YUKNAVITCH. She’s terrific in her memoir at talking, structuring, carving up the steaks. I mean that’s it! Stakes. It wanted to interact a bit. It needed to see there were people—women in the place, again, even if it didn’t have what it took. Like that old dancehall from In A Shallow Grave by the great Jimmy Purdy. It needed some of that. It had some of the same desires, to mate with anything, even male to male, anything at all, just to be in the dancehall with people. So, Matt said yes.

Then I started scalpel work and pencil work. I still had misgivings. It wasn’t honest enough. It was about something ugly and I felt ugly. I tried to make the story tolerable, but only got it more ugly. There are a few lines now that have succeeded. Maybe I should have let it die out there in nowhere time. Still, there was a truth to the feeling of it. But, I got a few lines in there that are pretty wild, such as ending that one line with marijuana that ends with marijuana.  Marijuana is a tough sell these days. Real hard to place that word on the board. And I think it stands strong where it is now, at the end of that line with the cucumber and the girls, at the edge of the unencumbered rough. So I’m happy with that.I can’t tell you how many guys I know who can’t get rid of all the marijuana they got. Hundreds of pounds of the stuff, and the prices all cut to hell. The gold rush is over.  Makes me glad I’m in a different game. All that dope and nowhere to go with it. They put it in storage facilities. What a nightmare.

2. I find the narrator in this piece compelling—his sentences, taken on their own, are quite a read, and they also provide the reader with the pleasure of keeping up with his train of thought.  It seems to me that he describes himself well when he says, “I had certain affects mastered. Not so much charm, but a wild determinacy and animatedness. A madness that would serve me from time to time.”  As a writer, do you try to evoke these qualities in your narrators?  To what extent do you think that all fictional narrators must be charming, determined, animated, or serviceably mad?

I only write like that to get your attention. The low brow and high brow. That’s the gimmick—the try for humor. And I’m not funny. I don’t think I am that.

The train of thought, it’s something I can’t extricate myself from. If there’s anything that stays consistent, all the way back to my first awareness moments, it’s that trainwreck mind of mine I got. It’s the buzz of the engine, like those twin prop old planes with the thrusters overhead, buzzing away like the engine is coming from the luggage and the seats and the whole plane trembling and droning forever.

As for narrators. I’m in… in for narrators who aren’t narrators. I am mostly interested in how speech and writing work together. The speaker, the one talking, that’s what you’re calling the narrator, right? Well, he’s got to speak, but it’s the writer who’s got to give testament. Still, somebody has to speak. As Beckett wrote, “What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking?” Maybe this all seems too obvious or too unclear. Let me bring things down to daily life. I live down here in East Texas … You should hear these people talk. These—whatever they are that are abounding here. The other day a man said, “I never went for Mom and Pop, but Federal Money was all I was after.” This guy robbed banks. He ran whores. He cut people. Our man is so many years old, his white hair still gelled like a greaser with stiff comb lines in the white swept back glory of hair, his lips clean shaved, a little half turned grin comes over up one side, and the place lights on fire when he tells his life. I wish I could have lived as he has, and speak as he speaks. But my life has been half way toward this old friend of mine’s life, and half way in the door of respectability. Like a naked professor being chased by police and Indians on television news, disappointing the hell out of everyone, and then getting off with a good lawyer. Actually nothing like that. Pretty lonely. But I have the writing game—trying to warrant my existence by writing. Trying to steal it back, what’s been taken away or will disappear—and through these things get to what is all of ours—anyhow, the other day at lunch, this news-reporter woman says to me, at the bar, with me in it, in person, me talking to her to see where we can get to, referring to her grandmother, a Choctaw Indian, them both: “Her name was Tennessee and she was meaner than hell and she still had her brain,” I mean that’s an opening! That woman was a narrator. Right there at the lunch bar, and me squinting, trying to look like something up against this reporter, who goes on television, her effervescent hair and black little Choctaw eyes. A looker, for a late lunch, just she and I in the bar, besides the bartender, “She punched my grandfather in the face six hours before she died because he called hospice,” she delivered her second line of narration. “She was just pissed off to be dying. And she was Christian!”

Those are the types I am competing against down and out here. There’s so much more where that came from. They can talk down here in the South. We are less than 80 miles from the Louisiana border, in the pines, so I can call it the South:Even though it’s Texas. We have Confederate Street here. We have Robert E. Lee High. But of course she wasn’t a narrator, except she was performing as we all do. She was the speaker. That newscaster started to get invested in speech. More than just the usual crap. She suddenly wanted to tell me about her grandmother. In that moment, she wanted me to know and to see her. She told me stories about both her grandmothers, one a white, one the Choctaw named Tennessee, and them fighting over who had the best rack at 92 and/or 93, 94 years old. The kind one likening Tennessee’s particular rack to a pair of socks with sand in the bottoms hanging off her old chest. When it gets right down to it, it’s about speech. Or it’s about writing. But I think you have to pick or it has to pick you. I tend more toward speech, though I beat the hell out of myself trying to not rest on that. There are speakers on paper and there are writers. Noy Holland is a writer. Pamela Ryder is a writer. Rick Bass is a writer, though he does it by pretend-speaking—at least his early stuff, but his moves and word selection is that of writer. Nabokov is a writer, but does it with narrators. Those narrators aren’t who we are listening to, but who we are listening through. We are listening to the writer speak, or write, or both. But it all still depends on being able to speak; some can take it further than speech and get the narrator going and then get them out of the way, so as to let the writer have their discursive creation. What a joke, discursive creation. Their heart, their vigor, their ability to see the world and seduce us with their love. The “narrator” is speaker, first and foregrounding. But then that narrator has to get out of the way. I don’t want to hear someone out talk me. Sure, to listen in the South makes you proud of people. Of their ability to tell all. But in real life, I say all kinds of solid things, all sorts of doddling shit, too, or I say the right stuff but it’s all overly acted and feels false.  In real life, if I’m not with tears in my eyes when I’m talking, then I’m not getting after it. On the page, it’s not just a voice of a narrator. It’s the ride of the sentence. It’s not speech, alone, but someone singing—the writer. It gets you someplace you didn’t know you’re going, and no one needs a narrator anyhow, not for long. Was Humbert Humbert the narrator in Lolita, or was it Nabokov singing in character? That’s something you got to wonder. That wasn’t H.H. talking to us, was it? That was opera. What about Rick Bass? What about Hannah? What about Faulkner. I’m not comparing myself to these boys, No, or Noy Holland, or Grace, Virginia, or whoever whatever sex gender race politic body, etc, you want to dig up or pull over, living or dead meat, so long as they sing. The point being, here, “general reader” as Hannah wrote in a blurb for Ricky Bass, the point I am hoping to make here is it’s the writer talking through a guise or singing—which is obvious—but it’s got to be more than that. You have to throw the narrator off of you. It has to be singing, and singing has to have feeling. It has to be the feeling in the syntax, the words, the sounds, and the gunning it, or caressing it, or touching. I hope to keep charging at it all my life.

Growing up in Ohio, it was all about talking, out there in the hickory. And it still is. It’s all talk. Then there’s singers. I sometimes just want to shut up, and that’s death, or maybe it’s something better. But of course, I don’t want either: I want my brother back who left us this year. I want our shared secret of being boys in bodies back, of being only brothers. Everyone is going to die before you do, or you aren’t reading this. It’s a tough hook to handle. But you have to handle it, while it’s there in your throat, and you have to find some manner to love, to sing, and to care more than just that anchorwoman cared, but to make something that sings forever. Speaking is not enough. It has to be ready to lift off into the sky anytime someone gets to that page you fashioned. Like a ribbon on your chest that means more than participation. Or second place. That page has to offer a flight out of town at any moment, and to the best place anyone’s offering, and it has to sing. That’s why the birds get to us so immediately. They can do both: Sing and Fly.

3. The “narrator” zips from “high brow” to “low brow,” mixing registers, and the effect is as profound as it is comedic: “It was all what I deserved for trying, I suppose, as life is meant to be suffered, constantly, insubstantial as it is, and alone, with great flashes of brilliance coming less and less likely—meaning you look at the walls more and think of what you've done, so why not grab ass?” Can you talk a little about this effect—its role in your work and in the work you admire?

I was just trying to be honest in that line up there. I think to transgress you must employ both the traditional/accepted registers, as well as the “low brow” or “gut” or “groin” or “devil’s hammer” or whatever else you might call it. One guy called it the devil’s heel. You’ve also got to reach for the holy ride of something better than what is available or felt prior to taking that ride. It’s just the honest to God truth. Like Noy Holland said, somewhere, in “Absolution” I think, something such as: “God didn’t give me two mouths. One for the clean and one for the rest.”*  That isn’t what she wrote at all. I don’t have the book in front of me. It’s at the office. I’m just saying, we are stuck in the mud down here, and we have to pull ourselves up with words. If you don’t mention the mud, you’re just lying to everyone. If you only mention the mud, then you’re cheating the reader.

4. How has being an editor at The New York Tyrant and Tyrant Books affected your approach to your own writing?

I get to walk around and tell myself my farts stink less appreciably than the farts of others who are not editors for the THE NEW YORK TYRANT and TYRANT BOOKS. I’ve seen some great writing come through my hands, and have put the edits on some people to see what they’d let me make better. Being an editor has probably done things to me that I don’t recognize.

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

I have a collection a story away from being finished, and the response has been positive, among the few readers I’ve had take the whole thing on. I don’t shop things, hardly. I hardly ever send to anyone to see if they want to put out my book, or stories. Usually, if I send something to two or three parties and it doesn’t get taken, I put it into nowhere land. Come back to it later. It feels good to be finishing this first collection. And I’ve learned from doing it such. I don’t know if I’ll put it out. It’s been worked. It’s got a good span of my life in it. I am starting to think it’s all about getting as close to flight, or really flying it, as you are able at the time, and then saying, look at that! Look at her go! She’s flying, or she’s getting so close. This little machine of mine. And all this self puncturing and nailing ego to the beam, it’s counterproductive to the ride. I don’t think the geniuses do much of it. I’m a fighter. I have to work like hell just to not drool in public or have my fly down.

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

Padgett Powell’s Aliens of Affection  (“Scarliotti and the Sinkhole”).

Rick Bass’s The Watch.

Atticus Lish’s Life is With People.

Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.

Brian Kubarycz had a story about a grown female cousin peeing in the yard, and all the other cousins peeing on the pee later that night, everyone digging chuffs to bury their underpants in together with hers, and that was really great to hear in NYC at UNSAID’S reading in Brooklyn, where I read as well, but did not a guy read who failed to show who’s named after a houseplant, and in his place, Robert Lopez read.

I am excited to see Sam Michel’s, my old teacher, first novel he ever wrote,  Lincoln Dahl Turns Five or Strange Cowboy, appear in print with Tyrant Books. Also, Noy Holland, married to Sam Michel, another teacher of mine, has a HELL of a story coming out in the next issue of Tyrant—Tyrant 10. I’m curious to see GL is publishing new stories. Looking forward to seeing where that takes us.

Honestly, I read terribly slowly. I read terrifically slow. I am sometimes, I feel, a much better reader than a writer, so long as I am reading one who has beaten me thus far, and it’s out loud I am reading, etc. I’m a really solid reader. I can read and read. But I’m slow. I like to take it all apart in my head. I want to see how the bird works. But you can’t take it apart. Not with the really great ones. Not with Holland. Not with Purdy, no, or Hannah. You can only sit, transfixed, while it sings and lifts from its guts off the patch. 

*I went back to find the quote, and could not locate it—I now believe the sentiment is from her unparalleled story, “Orbit”.

 

Wednesday
Apr182012

"Expectation of Pain Is Reasonable": An Interview with Victor D. Infante

Victor D. Infante is a poet, editor and journalist living in Worcester, Mass. His piece "Boys' Own Stories" appeared in the January 2012 issue of The Collagist. He is the editor of the online literary journal, Radius: Poetry From the Center to the Edge, and the author of City of Insomnia, a poetry collection from Write Bloody Publishing. His poems and stories have been published in numerous periodicals, including Pearl, Chiron Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Spillway, Word Riot,and Dark Horizons. 

Here, Marie Schutt talks with him about swords, stones, and making fiction from poetry.

1. What inspired you to write “Boys’ Own Stories”? What was on your mind while you were writing this piece?

It’s funny, but it started as a 30/30 — 30 poems in 30 days — exercise for National Poetry Month. I had a rattlebag of themes I wanted to explore — the Arthurian mythos, the entwined concept of the hero as a symbol for a culture when war’s in the wind, issues of masculinity in the modern age and my own struggles with depression. It didn’t take me terribly long to realize that what I was writing was actually one piece, although it took me a while to figure out that it was stronger presented as prose than as poetry. That line gets terribly muddy sometimes, despite what any of us would like to think. (I’m actually of the opinion still that this is more poem than story, but others disagree with me, and I’m not terribly inclined to argue the point.)

Anyway, large swaths of it are autobiographical, and I wanted to take the time to look back at my being “downsized” from the job I had been working at in California and being forced to relocate to Massachusetts, and the emotional toll that took, that overwhelming sense of defeat. It was almost a decade until I was in a comfortable enough space to put myself back in that place, artistically speaking, and this was the result. 

2. I’m very interested in your use of the sword in the stone to carry so many different meanings in such varied contexts throughout the piece. Could you tell us a little about what this image, this story of the sword in the stone, originally meant to you, and how that changed or grew as you were writing?

First off, I’ve always been fascinated by the King Arthur legends, and indeed, had written a series of poem based on them back in the early ‘90s, and revisiting those themes greatly appealed to me. I asked myself the question: “What makes the sword in the stone different than a rock with a piece of metal in it?” The answer being, of course, because it is, and suddenly, that lead me to the writing process, about what that sharp instrument of poetry has been in the hands of writers throughout time, how the poem can cut you and, yet, make you feel indelibly alive at the same time. That thought was very much on my mind when I began.

It wasn’t actually until I turned my attention to the stone that it all began to click in my head and I found direction. The thing that, for the most part, gets overlooked in the legend. “It’s just a stone” sounds a lot, to my ears anyway, like “it’s just a story.” It’s not important. But it’s the thing that cradles the symbol and, consequently, the emotional truth. Which means it matters, even if it’s easily taken for granted.

From there, I began laying out the other ways in which blades and stones could be used as symbols in writing, and began looking for connections, and ultimately that trail kept leading me back to the martial and masculine themes that I was interested in exploring. To be fair, they probably led me there because I was interested in them, but the point being, those two basic metaphors — which are something else entirely when combined — opened up the door for the narratives to emerge.

3. There is a clear narrative with a developed voice running through this piece, interwoven with a couple of sections addressing a second party, most directly at the end. How did these two voices develop as you were writing?

That was a bit of luck, really. I had two main narratives I wanted to play out: the first, somewhat autobiographical one, and then the less dominant (in terms of the piece) story of one of the 20th century’s most important writers, Jerry Siegel, who created Superman. Siegel’s a bit of a touchstone for me. We’re both from the Midwest (him from Cleveland, me from Pittsburgh, which is the Midwest no matter what geographers say), we both had family that were 20th-century immigrants, and we both lost our fathers to random violence at a young age (a theme I explore more extensively in my first poetry collection, City of Insomnia.) And he created the single most memorable fictional character of the 20th century, our most modern incarnation of King Arthur, which is a thought that hasn’t been lost on me, especially not since reading Brad Meltzer’s wonderful thriller, The Book of Lies.

But there was also a point where I wanted the voices in the poem (it was a poem then, remember, and maybe it still is) to intersect and blend, to re-enforce the idea that this was a story being told and retold down the line of history.

In his recent novel, The Magicians, Lev Grossman has a character observe that “the hero is the one that pays the price,” which is an idea I think I was dimly aware of when I was writing this, even if I couldn’t have articulated as succinctly as Grossman did. But it occurs to me that you also pay a price to be a writer, too. Or, really, probably to do anything, but writing’s what I’m most familiar with. I can only speculate the tithe to become, say, a plumber or an architect. In any case, somewhere along the line in writing Boys’ Own Stories, it became clear to me that I was very interested in the idea of the price of a life in writing, and to me, that seemed clearly to be the fact that to do it correctly, you have to willingly grasp the sword by the blade. It would cut, and it would hurt like hell, and there’s no real way around it. To write is to transform pain into something beautiful, but the only way to accomplish that is to go back through the pain itself. That was the point, to my mind, that tied the disparate threads together, and which linked the voices of writers struggling to find something beautiful and human across what’s been an agonizingly violent history. 

4. Do you have any other writing projects in the works? Are there any recent publications or upcoming releases that you’re looking forward to?

I’m at something of an in-between right now. I’ve recently had poems published in Pearl, The Mas Tequila Review and the zombie poetry anthology Aim For the Head, among other places, but my work as an editor has been commanding my attention, lately. I’ve been a bit preoccupied with my ongoing work as editor for the online literary journal Radius: Poetry From the Center to the Edge; helping edit the forthcoming collection News Clips & Ego Trips: The Best of Next… Magazine, which comes out any day now and collects articles and interviews from the Southern California based poetry news magazine which I wrote for in the ‘90s; and serving on the editorial board for The BILiNE Project: The Best Indie Lit New England, all of which has kept me terribly busy. I’m also revising a handful of short stories and poems right now before seeking homes for them, and beginning to think about diving into my second poetry collection. You know. When I have a moment.

 

Thursday
Apr122012

"Breech, Butt-first and Suffocating": An Interview with Stephanie Lenox

Stephanie Lenox lives in Salem, Oregon, with her husband and two daughters. She teaches poetry at Willamette University and edits the literary journal Blood Orange Review. She is the author of The Heart That Lies Outside the Body, an award-winning poetry chapbook published by Slapering Hol Press in 2007. Her first full-length poetry collection Congress of Strange People is forthcoming from Airlie Press in fall 2012. Her work has appeared widely in literary journals and has been honored with fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Oregon Arts Commission. Her website is www.stephanielenox.com.

Her poem "The Question" appears in Issue Thirty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, Stephanie Lenox talks to interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about questions that grow, falter, and live on. 

1. How did you find yourself writing “The Question”? Was it by, indeed, asking a question?

Oh, I think most of my poems start with a question of some kind. Someone recently pointed out how many of my poems include a negation, such as no or not, in the first line which gives the subject or speaker a shadow-like quality. So whether or not the first line of a poem is actually punctuated with a question mark, the opening tends to initiate a search, an attempt to slip out from under the shadow created by doubt.

2. For as many times as I had read this poem, in re-reading it once more in preparation for this interview, I still found myself completely caught off guard by the first line, “I say it wrong again.”  If we’re looking at this question as something that grows, like a child, it seems like a terrifying idea that there are many of these that have been born to grow and fester.  Why is it this occurrence, then, that causes the poem?  By that I mean, what about this time in asking lends itself to being THE question, the one written about and left for us to examine?

I suffer from the illusion that if I can just ask the right question in the right way I will get the answer that I want. Just ask my husband. It’s annoying. With this first line, I place the speaker in medias res, smack dab in a world populated with nagging questions. The truly big and serious questions, for which “The Question” is a metonymic personification, don’t get answered. The questions have a life outside our own, and our relationship to them is tangential and complicated at best. The key to that first line for me is “again” which hints at the speaker’s awareness that there is no right way to ask the question. This is the sliver of light through the cracked door that the speaker sees and walks toward.

3. While I don’t want to know explicitly what The Question is, it seems as if it is a question that creates the crack that leads to a breaking point.  And yet, the speaker hopes that this question, this fussy, troublesome question, will “with luck, outlast us.”  Why does this speaker hope that this question will live on?

In writing “The Question,” I discovered affection for that “fussy, troublesome question.” Our questions—ugly, naive, even impossible—make us who we are. In the creative writing class I teach at Willamette University, I ask students to craft a self-portrait in questions. The prompt is modeled on a poem composed of 755 questions called “A Jar of Balloons, or the Uncooked Rice” by Matthew Yeager. I enjoy how both the big and the apparently insignificant questions can tell a story about the asker. Regardless of the answer, the act of asking is ultimately hopeful. It’s this hope that I aim to communicate with that final line.

4. What have you read recently that’s grabbed you by the shoulders and shook you?

I’m reading Fall Higher by Dean Young. It’s the first book in a while that I’ve wanted to re-read even before I’ve finished it. Here is a poet who knows how to ask questions:

Do you think the dictionary ever says to itself

I’ve got these words that mean completely

different things inside myself

and it’s tearing me apart?

From “Selected Recent and New Errors”


Beyond that, my daily reading habits are managed by my two-year-old who brings me things—the sports page, a cookbook, an empty cookie box—and says, “Mama, read it.” She once had me read Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” seven times in a row. She has a lame book about a lost tiger that I’ve altered with stanzas from William Blake’s The Tiger all in an attempt to keep me engaged. (Great questions in that one, too.) Mostly, we read books about mischievous pigs and pigeons and bunnies, so when I came across David Sedaris’ grownup bedtime stories Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, what he subtitles a “Modest Bestiary,” I devoured it. He’s nailed it—chickens really are “raging assholes.” The book contains gory illustrations by Ian Falconer, the author/illustrator of the Olivia children’s series. It’s the perfect antidote for parents who have been forced to read Elmo’s World over and over again.

5. What other writing endeavors have you been working on as of late? 

I’m putting the finishing touches on my poetry collection Congress of Strange People which will be published by Airlie Press this fall. In fact, answering your questions was yet another one of my elaborate schemes to avoid saying “All done” and sending the manuscript into the designer. I’m also working on new poems that are inspired by other poets. These are less imitations and more what I call “offsprings.” For example, my most recent offspring was inspired by the Richard Jones’ poem “White Towels.” Mine is titled “White Towels, Red Sock.” It’s my attempt to trace my poetic lineage and pay respect to writers who have really shaped the way I think about poetry.

 

Tuesday
Apr102012

"What Is Simultaneously There and Not-there": An Interview with James Tadd Adcox

James Tadd Adcox's work has appeared in TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, PANK, and Another Chicago Magazine, among other places. He lives in Chicago, where he edits Artifice Magazine / Artifice Books. His first book of fiction, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, is now available for preorder from Tiny Hardcore Press.

Here, James Tadd Adcox talks to interviewer Melissa Goodrich about God, dead babies, and the encyclopedia of everything.

1. In our first paragraph (‘our,’ like just by reading your story it has become part mine) we sail with Viola from the doctor’s examination table clear through the stratosphere towards so far out “she’s not picturing the details too clearly now, past the moon and the earth-like planets, past the un-earth-like planets, out of the solar system.”  This is the farthest Viola travels, and she’s not actually traveling, but sitting still, anchored in place by Robert, by the narrative, by the baby about to die in her.  Why this choice as an opening moment? It’s so opposite of the ending, where she’s takes her strange blue child back to kiss and hold him again.  Are you intending to stretch Viola out, like her head wants to float but her feet feel glued?

I tend to feel very cold and separate from things at moments of violence or tragedy, and I suppose I lent that trait to Viola, here. I don’t write anything autobiographical, but I’m willing to take material from wherever. I also like that it immediately presents a distance between the two of them, between Robert and Viola: they’re holding hands but hugely far away. Or: Robert thinks he’s there for Viola, but Viola’s not there for him to be there for her.

I feel like the primary reason to put a relationship in a story is to exploit this, the tension between what is simultaneously there and not-there.

2. Viola feels cursed, invokes God in a joking non-joking way, has dreams/premonitions, senses she and her husband and her doctor are like ghosts rehearsing their untimely deaths – why does so much superstition, intuition, and/or God’s mysteriousness come to play in this piece?  How do you gauge how much God to put into a story?

Whew. Not going for the easy questions here, are you? How do you gauge how much God to put into a story? I like a lot of God in stories, I suppose. Though when God appears in a lot of stories, it seems to be a comforting thing, an “everything will be okay” moment, and that doesn’t quite seem right to me. I’m fascinated by God, and religion more generally. But the idea of God doesn’t work if God makes sense, if God is rational. Then God just becomes like a big daddy figure, or a super-advanced alien being, or whatever. All of which is ultimately boring. The alternative, that God is irrational, or rather arational, is terrifying. It’s the sort of idea that you can get lost in, that can swallow you whole.

3. How do you feel about the ‘dead baby’ rule in fiction?  How would you define the ‘dead baby’ rule?  And are rules like that asked to be broken, and by whom, under what circumstances?

I wasn’t actually aware of the dead baby rule before this interview. I’ve talked before about my own “cancer and dogs” rule as an editor (that is, if either cancer or a dog appears on the first page, the story gets automatically rejected). It’s a rule that dates from when I was the fiction editor at Sycamore Review, and it was mainly a way of weeding out a certain type of realist story that assumed that CANCER = HIGH STAKES, and DOGS = REGIONALISM + SYMPATHETIC CHARACTERS. Cancer plus dogs, obviously, equaled the BEST POSSIBLE REALIST STORY.

When I told my buddy Jon Sealy (a damn fine realist writer himself) about this rule, he went and wrote a story with a dog on the first page. The dog got shot dead on the second page. It was a pretty great story. Don’t remember if it had cancer in it or not.

But yes, the dead baby rule. I guess I agree that you probably shouldn’t put dead babies in fiction, and I did that.

4. Tell us the strangest sweetest story you’ve read as of late.

I’m not sure how sweet Meghan Lamb’s story “GIRL” in >kill author is, but it’s pretty strange and overwhelming, and her reading of it (there’s an audio version you can listen to) is spot-on.

I’m currently reading Brandi Wells’ Please Don’t Be Upset, and her story “Some Love Stories” is lovely. There is a dog in it, but not on the first page.

5. Tell us what we can hold our hearts out hoping to read, of your work, soon.

I have a book coming out, very soon, from Tiny Hardcore Press, called The Map of the System of Human Knowledge. It’s a very tiny, and hopefully hardcore, fictional encyclopedia of everything. It takes its form (and its name) from a taxonomy of all knowledge developed by Diderot and d’Alembert for the Encyclopédie. Maybe for some of the same reasons that I’m fascinated by religion, I really like these weird and amazing Enlightenment attempts to create universal systems of—for?—everything.

I’ve got a couple more Viola and Robert stories around—one coming out in Redivider soonand I’m working on a short novel based on the characters and general tone of the stories. Is it weird to say that I’m working on something based on tone as much as characters? Anyhow, I think of these stories as about a certain tone or voice as much as about certain characters. It’s a tone that can be difficult to make work as a novel, and so it presents kind of an interesting aesthetic challenge. The novel involves FBI agents, volunteer human test subjects, infidelity with and without sadomasochism, and the occasional frankly low-rent superhero.

 

Saturday
Apr072012

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

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

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

Enjoy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Friday
Mar302012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Monday
Mar262012

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

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

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

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

What is writing like?

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

What isn’t writing like?

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

When you do it, why?

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

When you don’t, why?

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

Monday
Mar262012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What other writing projects are you working on right now?

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

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

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

 

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