"The Force and Fluctuation of Thought": An Interview with Jennifer Wortman

Jennifer Wortman's work appears in Glimmer Train, Normal School, DIAGRAM, Hobart, Okey-Panky, New World Writing, JMWW, The Collapsar, crag, Confrontation, PANK, North American Review, and elsewhere. She is an associate fiction editor at Colorado Review and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

 Her essay, "The Orphaned Adult," appeared in Issue Ninety-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Jennifer Wortman talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about brevity, teaching writing, and nonfiction with an unreliable narrator.

Your essay, “The Orphaned Adult,” is under 200 words long. Was it a challenge for you to write so concisely? Did it require much revision to reach such brevity? How do you achieve this economy of language?

“The Orphaned Adult” was a gift of insomnia, one of those rare pieces that came to me in a flurry when I picked up my pen at 3 a.m. The size and shape of the essay unfolded naturally, so the concision posed no problem. I did, though, do a fair amount of subsequent tinkering for the sake of precision: determining the right words and the best order of words. In a work so short, language matters all the more, and I felt the pressure of that. Still, “The Orphaned Adult” was way easier to write than much of what I’ve written.

In addition to writing flash prose, I write full-length short fiction, and I generally find length harder to navigate than brevity, in part because I’m a slow writer, but also because longer forms contain more possibilities and, with that, more potential for bad moves, which then have larger ripple effects. I’m not a planner: I generally compose right on the page and find my way through trial and error. With flash, it’s easier for me to see a piece as a whole and understand what it needs.

You are a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. How has writing nonfiction made you a better fiction writer, or vice versa? What lessons learned from one genre have served you best in the other?

I’ve been writing fiction a lot longer than nonfiction, so my nonfiction often has a strong fictional bent, in that I’m hyperaware of the constructed nature of my narrative persona. And while I don’t mess with blatant objective facts in my nonfiction, I find myself exaggerating subjective states for dramatic effect. “The Orphaned Adult” flaunts its narrator’s unreliability; the essay pretty much hinges on it. So the narrator’s insistence that her marriage isn’t over also suggests the possibility that her marriage is, in fact, over. I wrote those final lines to dramatize a grief-crazed inner conflict, while also knowing that my real-world marriage isn’t over. (Or is it? Ha ha.)

My nonfiction writing, in turn, has freed me to explore in my fiction what interests me most: the workings of human consciousness. I’m not great at plot, a deficit that sometimes frustrates me. But through writing nonfiction, I’ve been able to focus on the force and fluctuation of thought, a practice I’ve somewhat been able to transfer to my fiction. My most recent published full-length short story, “Love You. Bye,” which appears in Glimmer Train, is made up of brief, quasi-essay-like sections. While the story follows a loose plot, the narrator’s thinking drives the story in a way I don’t believe I’ve achieved before. “Love You. Bye.” feels truer to my voice and vision than other full-length stories I’ve written, and for that I credit my experience writing nonfiction.

You are also an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a literary arts center. What sorts of students have you worked with? How does teaching enrich, or otherwise affect, your work as a writer?

At Lighthouse, I teach mostly online classes, to students who range from complete beginners to published book authors and may live up the road from me in Colorado or across the country or globe. I love the variety in that. Some of my classes are designed to generate writing; others take a conventional workshop approach. In the generative classes, I focus on inspiration and encouragement. We do a lot of freewriting and try to leave our inner (and outer) critics at the door. In the workshops, we go in-depth with craft. Both kinds of classes benefit my own writing a ton. The generative classes remind me of the value of relaxing into my writing and cultivating a sense of play. The workshops force me to articulate and refine my ideas about technique; I work with some pretty sophisticated writers, which pushes my thinking to new levels. And to critique student writing is also to critique my own: their problems are often my problems, to which I’ve become more attuned. The community and intelligence and talent I see in all my classes endlessly enrich me. I can’t say enough good things about Lighthouse and how it supports me and other writers of all sorts.


What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I have a short story collection making the rounds, and I’m considering giving it a major overhaul to include more of my recent flash prose. If I don’t make the overhaul, then I’ll put together a separate collection of my recent flash prose. I have amorphous plans for a novel-in-flash. I’m also working on individual flash fictions and essays, a little poetry, and some full-length short fiction. At the moment, I’m on the umpteenth draft of a short story I’ve been wrestling with for well over a decade. It’s likely an exercise in futility, but I figure, if nothing else, it primes me for the futilities that come with the writing life. And the other parts of life.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

Transit, Rachel Cusk; We the Animals, Justin Torres; Philadelphia Fire, John Edgar Wideman; Something Bright, Then Holes, Maggie Nelson; The Sarah Book, Scott McClanahan.

This flash essay, “Blue Laws,” by Mike Nagel:

And this flash fiction, “Little Doves,” by Leesa Cross Smith:


"The Thin Scrim Between Dark and Dawn": An Interview with Wendy Chin-Tanner

Wendy Chin-Tanner is the author of the poetry collection Turn (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014) which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards and co-author of the graphic novel American Terrorist (A Wave Blue World). Her poetry has been nominated for the Best of the Net Prize and the Pushcart Prize, and has been featured at a variety of venues including The Rumpus, Vinyl Poetry, Denver Quarterly, The Normal School, The Huffington Post, RHINO Poetry, and The Mays Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge. She is a founding editor at Kin Poetry Journal, poetry editor at The Nervous Breakdown, and staff interviewer at Lantern Review.

Her poem, "This Bed This Room," appeared in Issue Seventy-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Wendy Chin-Tanner speaks with interviewer Jason Gray about childbirth, the universality of pain, and doing things in threes.

How did you come to write this poem?

This poem was written in the first months following the birth of my second daughter during what is commonly referred to as “the fourth trimester.” I often find inspiration in the body, specifically in the juxtaposition between the world of the mind and corporeal reality. What interests me about childbirth as a subject for literary inquiry is the twinning of the creative force with the abjectness of the body. Many of the world’s spiritual traditions, both eastern and western, explore the meaning of the body in pain and the universality of pain, how physical suffering is the common denominator of being alive. Think of the Buddhist principle that life is suffering. Think of Christ on the cross. In exploring the relevance of these venerable spiritual traditions to the suffering of the female body, specifically the maternal body, I find the postpartum space to be a fruitful poetic garden. Childbirth is a liminal space and the confinement of the immediate postpartum period allows for a lingering between one world and another, where the membrane is thin. To write from that space is to enact one of the defining characteristics of poetry: the act of verbalizing the nonverbal. To write from that space also creates a feminist counternarrative to the longstanding mainstream contention that the subject of motherhood is not one of serious literary endeavor. I beg to differ.

Why did you decide on lines of three syllables each? Are syllabics a usual form for your poems to take?

The poems in my forthcoming second collection "Anyone Will Tell You” are preoccupied with an investigation of form and its subversion as an expression of the relationships between gender and identity, parent and child, self and other, the personal and the political, humanity and the environment, and the earthly and the cosmic. Within that investigation, I started out working mostly with blank verse couplets but then, in conjunction with the birth of my second daughter, I began to write primarily on my iPhone's Notes app while pacing the halls with the baby in a sling to keep her asleep. This rhythmic movement coupled with the restriction of that tiny screen led to the development of a new form consisting of three syllables per line and three lines per stanza, which I think of as trisyllabic triplets or 3x3s. Eschewing punctuation and most capitalizations, on a technical level, I discovered that 3x3s are highly fluid with a multitude of  elisions that work with and rely on the rhythm of the English language to expand the possibilities of meaning from line to line.

How does the presence of the many instances of internal rhyme (skin/thin; moon/spoon; night/flight) in concordance with or contrast to the full rhyme that exists between the two last stanzas (rest/breast) affect the poem, in your mind?

I’m interested in general in the way that internal rhyme lends itself to a quieter, less percussive, more subtle, and fluid musicality than end rhyme, which I think works well with the elisions that the 3x3 poetic form employ, and in particular, I find that internal rhyme suits the tone and narrative content of this poem. The masculine rhyme at the end of the poem serves as a kind of sonic punctuation signaling a sense of conclusion to the ear. In thinking about the natural iambic pulse of English and how it informs the comprehension and interpretation of language, I experimented with different compositional strategies for making meaning, notating, and directing the way in which the poem might sound and be read; its beats, its rests, its cadence.

What are you reading?

Meg Wolitzer’s “The Female Persuasion” and Vanessa Angelica Villarreal’s “Beast Meridian.”

What are you writing?

A novel set in 1950s NYC and rural Louisiana.


"My Nonfiction Is Fictional": An Interview with Matthew Vollmer

Matthew Vollmer is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech and is the author of Future Missionaries of America, inscriptions for headstones, and Gateway to Paradise. With David Shields, he is the co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Documents, and other Fraudulent Artifacts. He also edited A Book of Common Prayer, which collects the invocations of over 60 writers. His next book, Permanent Exhibit, is forthcoming.

His essay, "Sinkhole," appeared in Issue Ninety-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Matthew Vollmer talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about juxtaposition, stream-of-consciousness writing, and turning experiences into myth.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay, “Sinkhole.” What sparked the initial idea?

I wrote “Sinkhole” during a time when I had assigned myself to produce work especially of this nature—that being a “day-driven” kind of essay, in which I paid close attention to the particular and idiosyncratic motions of a mind in search of both meaning and senselessness. In other words, I wanted to capture and reproduce, as realistically as possible, the movements of consciousness as they pertained to my present dispositions. I would begin with an idea—in this case, the notion that one should not, at the beginning of the day, turn first to one’s phone—and proceed from there, shifting as instinctually and freely as possible from one association to the next, working up a kind of rhythm that hopefully led “somewhere.”

The essay consists of one paragraph, about 1,500 words long. I think it’s fair to call the work a stream of consciousness, or at least it’s presented as one. How do you revise a piece that is supposed to replicate the natural associations made by your mind? How much did this essay change from the first draft to the final?

Honestly, I can’t remember how much it changed. I feel like this essay and the book of which it’s a part required less revision than previous books I’ve written, but saying that now from a relative distance, I can’t tell how true that is. The trick for me in producing associatively-driven work is knowing when to make explicit connections and when it’s cool to place images or perceptions side-by-side and trust the reader to connect the dots. Also, it’s not fair to say that the brain’s primary mode of motion is one of “connectedness.” A chain of associations can feel “right” in terms of its fidelity to the way one’s brain-tape unfolds, but just as frequent—if not more so—are random intrusions. Therefore, juxtaposition can become a useful tool when attempting to create any kind of analogue for consciousness. That’s part of the joy of working in a collage-like mode: the unexpected image or thought can feel like a necessary subversion.

You are a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. How has writing nonfiction made you a better fiction writer, or vice versa? What lessons learned from one genre have served you best in the other?

The longer I work and the more I write, the so-called line between my fiction and nonfiction becomes less and less distinct. Perhaps that’s because my own experience—which has always informed and guided whatever I write—has become the dominant subject matter of my writing, and because writing about that experience feels both true and false. I am trying to write what I’ve lived, to catalog the significant idiosyncrasies of that life, and I’m using language to do that, and because words are merely representational and fail to capture the radiant fullness of experience, and because I am an unreliable narrator whose memory can’t be trusted, it feels to me as if I’m working in the realm of myth. In other words, my nonfiction is fictional.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I recently finished the final edits on a book of essays—Permanent Exhibit, to be published by BOA Editions, Ltd in September of 2018—that are, like “Sinkhole,” collage-like in nature—each one a single paragraph unspooling. I’ve since returned to the book I was working on when those essays began to arrive: an accounting of having grown up in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina, in a loving family who counted themselves as members of a little-known American denomination whose tenants were central to our lives and gave shape—for better and worse—to my childhood.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

Catherine Lacey’s The Answers. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn and Winter. Otessa Moshfegh’s

Eileen and Homesick for Another World. Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts. Tara Wesotver’s Educated: A Memoir. Denis Johnson’s The Name of the World and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories. Valerie Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd.


"Worms Turning and Obligation Souring": An Interview with Jaclyn Watterson

Jaclyn Watterson's first book, Ventriloquisms, won the 2016 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction and was published by Willow Springs Books in October 2017. She is currently at work on her second book, a collection of nonfiction from which portions have appeared in The Spectacle, New Delta Review, Split Lip, and The Collagist.

Her essay, "Our Deportment," appeared in Issue Ninety-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Jaclyn Watterson talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about etiquette, struggling with plot, and the transformation of memories into narrative.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay, “Our Deportment”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

With this particular essay, the title actually came first. I was reading a nineteenth century book meant to instruct readers on proper etiquette for various tricky situations. There is, for example, a section on how to comport oneself at a funeral, and another on how young ladies should behave if left alone with men whom they don’t wish to marry. The book is called Our Deportment, a title which implies, to me, culpability and reciprocity. I knew I wanted to reappropriate it to explore my fraught relationship with my mother—and the habits of mind and practices I have and have not learned from her.

While I admire the position that if we behave properly and have good manners our experiences will always remain controlled and manageable—that if we just learn the rules everything will be all right—I also know this position is a beautiful, false dream. Good manners cannot, ultimately, save us from pain and disgrace, and what horrors are exposed when our behavior exceeds the confines of mannered relations?

The essay begins with one italicized paragraph, which seems to have a different speaker than what follows, as it lacks both “I” and “you” in its more lyrical language. What purpose is this unique introduction meant to serve? How do you want it to orient (or disorient) the reader?

That introduction is in keeping with the instructions or advice on etiquette, but of course rather than present foolproof advice guaranteed to create a smooth and comfortable experience for the two people in question here (my mother and myself), it acknowledges pain and ugliness, which manners so often are meant to conceal. Here, history and past interactions cannot provide a template for clean future relations, for the history is not one of good manners and social successes, but of worms turning and obligation souring. This, I think, is not so uncommon in families. The introduction orients the reader to a place and a peace beyond the trauma that follows, spelling out the inevitable ending, while suggesting that there might yet be some dignity—and even redemption—in looking squarely at that history.

In this essay, you write: “This is the way, of course, with the true stories of youth, our memories—they bloom and die and smell, and we cannot keep them. Put another way: mildew and various other deaths accumulate.” If this is true for everyone, I’m wondering how you think it may be different for a writer, if at all. If we channel such stories into writing, how might that affect the process you’re describing here? What does writing do to the blooming, dying memories: preserve them? empower them? transform them?

I think it’s right that as writers we transform and empower memories. Of course all people narrativize their experience, but writers obsessively revise and record this narrative. I have attempted, through this essay, to show my readers the bathroom where I showered in my youth. Who are my readers? People who are interested in language and narrative. For the most part, they probably do not share my particular preoccupation with lavatories. But now I have recorded that bathroom in words, which it was never made of before, and begged you all to bear witness. However you do this, the bathroom, and my own positionality and my mother’s, have been transformed and empowered—no longer merely memory, they bloom and die and accumulate with the power of words.

Although we’ve been discussing an example of your nonfiction, you are primarily a writer of fiction, according to your publication history. How has writing fiction made you a better nonfiction writer, or vice versa? What lessons learned from one genre have served you best in the other?

Yes, I trained as a fiction writer and have studied and published much more extensively in that genre. From fiction, I learned a certain openness of possibility, and a careful attention to the way sentences reflect, maintain, or close that possibility. In fiction anything can happen, but I always struggled with plot. I would ask myself, What happened?, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about that more than the sentences or the mood or the structure of a piece, and people would tell me, This isn’t a story because it has no plot. I enjoy writing nonfiction because there are certain events that have happened, certain plots that have inserted themselves into my experience. But those plots are not immediately apparent to me when I begin writing. I think, How was I culpable, what part of that wall of mold was mine?, and in answering these questions, I am able to tell the story.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

This essay is part of a larger memoir in essays, tentatively titled Other Dogs Haunted Other Recesses, which evokes the shame and elation of intimacy with other beings, both human and animal. Each piece begins with a singular image or incident—a blood-soaked sponge in sunlight, or walking through my childhood home alongside bidders on the morning of its foreclosure auction. I am exploring interpolations of the sublime and the abject, and many of the pieces, like “Our Deportment,” explore that most private of spaces in the crowded family home, the bathroom.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I just read an as-yet unpublished manuscript by the Buffalo-based poet Robin Lee Jordan which blew my socks off. I can’t wait for it to come into the world.

And I’m in love with Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life. I’ve also been visiting and revisiting Elizabeth Gaskell and Daphne du Maurier, who both have so much to teach about transformation, empowerment, and looking squarely at history.


"A Riot Nobody Paid Attention To": An Interview Norene Cashen

Norene Cashen was a writer-in-residence with InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit. She's the former coordinator for Citywide Poets, Detroit's award-winning youth slam team. She also served as the contributing editor for the literary journal Dispatch Detroit. Her poetry has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Temenos, The MOCAD Journal,, Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poets (Wayne State University Press), and thedetroiter.comThe Reverse Is Also True, her first collection of poetry, was released by Doorjamb Press in 2007.

Her poem, "Encounter with Justice," appeared in Isseu Seventy-Five of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Sarah Huener about Emily Dickinson, Black Lives Matter, and the need for beauty in a shadowy world.

The opening to this poem is incredible: it’s powerful but understated, and succinctly introduces the reader to the sequence of transformations that creates the poem’s momentum. I’m interested in your process of composition—when you wrote this poem, did you begin with this beginning? Did the gravity of the opening affect your process or your attitude toward the rest of the piece?

Thank you for the kind words. I like that term “sequence of transformations,” because that’s exactly what it is.

I did begin composing this poem with those first lines. I was thinking of Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz - when I died –“ and “Because I could not stop for Death.” I was thinking of those Dickinson poems because of gun violence and recent police shootings of young black men and black youth in the United States. There was nothing but gravity in that.

I think the poem was driven from there by profound sadness. It’s that kind of sadness has to be attached to hope. And Dickinson’s work was still echoing there, because I know ““Hope” is the thing with feathers” was running through my mind as well. People who write poems have obsessions. Flying things (bullets, birds, and flies) were an obsession of mine while writing this poem. Flying things feel out of our control, out of our reach.

I’m especially intrigued by “the night-/ blooming Jasmine…” at the heart of the poem, which brings us to an important narrative turning point of departure and return, then unrecognition, perhaps alienation. The capitalization and hard enjambment emphasize its importance, and you allot more space to this image than others. How did you come to include Jasmine, and what is its importance to the poem as a whole?

This is a real thing in nature, a rare flower that blooms at night. Maybe it’s placed in the poem that way because flowers adorn things. In this poem, it’s a reminder of the beautiful life we are given, and how the darkness hides that from us. I believe we are living in an age of blindness and shadows.

“Encounter with Justice” is made up of two-line stanzas, with relatively few—and relatively soft—enjambments. (When Jasmine appears, it’s particularly dramatic in contrast to the texture of the rest of the sentences and lines.) How did you arrive at this form?

I had to just feel it, see it, and hear it. I needed space between transformations. The Jasmine is an adornment, a sacred symbol. It gets its own space.

Is there anything you’re reading now you’re particularly excited about, or that you think is having a particular impact on your writing and thinking?

Since John Ashbery passed, I’ve been revisiting his poems, particularly the collection called Wakefulness. His work leads me back to Wallace Stevens where I look for connections. I feel a reverence for language in Ashbery’s work.

The poem “Encounter with Justice” was dedicated to Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. His work has had a profound impact on my life.

Do you have any current writing projects you’d like to share with us?

I’m working on a new poetry collection that is heavily influenced by Alan Moore. It explores relationships through the lens of magic and the paranormal.


"A Place Worth Staying": An Interview with Scott Beal

Scott Beal's first book, Wait 'Til You Have Real Problems, was published by Dzanc Books in 2014.  His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Indiana Review, Four Way Review, Midwestern Gothic, Glassworks, and Chattahoochee Review.  His poem "Things to Think About" which originally appeared in the January 2012 Collagist was selected for the 2014 Pushcart Prize anthology.  He lives, teaches, and co-hosts a monthly reading series called Skazat! in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

His poem, "Stegosaurus Moon," and "Birthday Poem with Tentative Divorce Agreement," appeared in Issue Seventy-One of The Collagist.

Here, he talks with Courtney Flerlage about imagery, a poems' turns, and the way the body guides a work.

What sparked “Stegosaurus Moon” into a poem? Where did it start?

The first two thirds of the poem is a rather literal transcription of the afternoon I signed my divorce papers. I had met my friend Gahl Liberzon at a café to write, and the first lines came out tinged with a “not with a bang but a whimper” disappointment at the mundanity of the event. At one point Gahl asked me when was the last time I challenged anyone to a duel. I accepted the question as a gift into the poem. When I was editing other bits out, I kept the duel question without really knowing why. Now it occurs to me that a ceremonial face-off between mutually respecting rivals may have been just what the day was missing. Not that I had wanted anything so adversarial; but I had imagined coming together to acknowledge the gravity of ending a long marriage, and to take a moment to honor its passing. The sadness that no such moment was available led the way into this poem.

I’m interested in the way the fantastic enters “Stegosaurus Moon” as a kind of wild volta. The poem begins with images of the everyday, the speaker ordering a coffee and “deploy[ing] my umbrella in the rain” after “signing the agreement that dissolves my life’s / biggest agreement.” Yet, later in the poem, the imagery turns to the fantastic: “I would like to say a few words about a stegosaurus. / A stegosaurus is pretty big compared to a school bus. / Thick armored plates mean it has its own back.” A surprising intrusion into the poem, the stegosaurus quickly becomes an image of encouragement that feels the right hinge of strange—an animal that could never have anything to do with “a round table with fountain pens, / our two names flourishing across a final page”—while still familiar. The stegosaurus helps us into the speaker’s mind, embodying what the speaker hopes to be while still hinting at doubt—it is, after all, extinct. What brought the stegosaurus into the poem for you?

It feels like being caught cheating to admit this, but the stegosaurus arrived arbitrarily, from a game. I’d taught a poetry workshop for kids that morning channeling André Breton and surrealist experiments with chance; I’d given each writer a set of cards with pictures on them, and told them to turn over a card every time they got stuck, and to put what they saw into their poem. When I wrote the line, “There was no need to occupy the same room,” the draft arrived at a kind of cul-de-sac which, like the afternoon itself, felt unsatisfying but offered little place to go. So I drew a card from my bag and found the stegosaurus, who offered me a ride to another neighborhood.

I appreciate hearing that the arrival of the stegosaurus feels fantastic, because the possibility of transformative magic is what I always want from a poem. And I don’t think this would be much of a poem without the stegosaurus, which provides a jolt to shake the poem into a new energy. At the same time, the image resonates for me because it’s not quite fantastic. As astonishing as it would be to find a stegosaurus downtown squaring off against a school bus, it’s not a dragon. It’s not a myth. We can have faith in a stegosaurus as a demonstrable possibility, however remote or unfamiliar it may seem. Arriving at the last two lines of the poem was my way of discovering that faith, too, in the possibility of a life after divorce. 

You play with a different sort of contrast in “Birthday Poem with Tentative Divorce Agreement.” Toward the end of the poem, after the speaker describes the last meetings with the speaker's spouse before a divorce, the speaker says, “this plume rose within me,” which was the result of realizing “that we were getting along.” Later, the speaker describes, “this plume rose / as if thousands of particles lifted / to catch the late light.”  Before the poem lingers too long in this moment of lightness, the speaker clarifies that these particles are those that would rise when “an anchor had punched a lakebed / to claim in the midst of turbulent currents / a place worth staying.” I love the way you guide us through this image—we see first the plume, then the particles, and then this heavy cause, the anchor. The sequence and turn of the image captures a sense of relief, wonder, and finality in a way that blurs their contradictions—somehow, lightness and heaviness coexist. Could you share a bit about how you crafted the imagery in this poem to achieve this kind of balance—the light and the heavy?  

One piece of craft advice that has always stuck with me is something that Patrick Rosal casually tossed off once in the midst of a Facebook comment thread. Pat wrote: “There will always be a portion of a dream that cannot be written down, cannot be transferred to tape or on an SD card. The dream that guides the conscience of the fact has to be in the body. It has to be in the body.”  Ever since reading that, I have tried to become more consciously aware, while writing, of the way the body transmits experience, and of that transmission being the source of originality.

Accordingly, I don’t remember consciously crafting the ending lines of “Birthday Poem with Tentative Divorce Agreement” with an eye toward balancing forces, but rather trying to capture the physical sensation I felt in that moment at the table, and to decipher what it was telling me. Of course I’m aware, craft-wise, of the energy to be derived from tension, so my intuitions are often tuned to steer from one pole to another. In this case, I appreciate the observation about the coexistence of lightness and heaviness because you’re right, the moment is full of contradictions which the body can hold even as the mind tries to resolve: the sinking into the lake bed, and the ascension from the impact.

What are you reading right now that you’d recommend?

I have most recently been devastated by a poem called “Icarus Does the Dishes” by Tommye Blount in Kenyon Review. I’m taking my time with The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. A lot of my reading during the school year is related to teaching, so along with student papers and poems I’ve been re-reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and running out of time to have all the conversations in class that that book warrants.

What project(s) are you working on at the moment?

I’ve been working on finding a publisher for my second collection, of which “Stegosaurus Moon” is the title poem, and I’m starting to pull together a third. There’s a nonfiction project I’m working up the nerve to embark on, based on my obsession with a defunct Iranian metal band. Wish me luck.


"Delicate Flesh of my Blood and my Bone": An Interview with Lisa Zerkle

Lisa Zerkle’s poems have appeared in the Southern Poetry Anthology, Broad River Review, Tar River Poetry, Nimrod, Sixfold, poemmemoirstory, Crucible, and Main Street Rag, among others.   She is the author of Heart of the LightShe lives in Charlotte, NC where she is an editor of Kakalak.

Her poem, "My Son in the Sea," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Victoria DiMartino about family, understanding unchartered territory, and the foundation fairy tales give to fantasy.

This piece contains such an encapsulating story because of its roots in mythology and fantasy. I found this most in the line “Delicate flesh of my blood and my bone. / How many watery bodies does this world hold?”. Where did this poem come from? Have you been interested in writing poems involving mythology and fantasy since you began writing?

My knowledge of mythology goes back to my 9th grade English teacher (thank you, Mrs. Brooks) who led the class through Edith Hamilton; and from sharing D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths with my kids. I was also brought up on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. So while I didn’t set out to write in relation to myth and fantasy, they’re lodged deep in my psyche.

I wrote this poem soon after my middle son had gone to college. That summer had been a turbulent time for our family as he had come out to us as transgender. Although it was something he knew about himself for a longer time, it was new to his father and me and we had only a few months before he left home to learn about a world we knew little about. That world was one where our son felt very much at home, where he felt accepted, welcome, and valued. Our family also provided that acceptance and love, but there was this notion of his being a citizen of two places simultaneously.  One of those places—our family—I, of course, knew very well.  The other was more of a mystery.

The line you mention (delicate flesh) speaks to my concern for my son. The natural progression of the world is that kids grow up and leave, but this was my baby, grown into a unique and glorious individual. I knew there were people who might reject him outright because his physical form did not meet their criteria for “normal.” But the poem also addresses the vast complexity of the world, all those bodies—billions of people (bodies made largely of water) in the world (covered mostly in water); and many different ways and places to live. Even now, with all our powerful machines, there are unexplored, little understood regions of our planet. One image that came to mind for me was the sea creatures that marked the unknown places on ancient maps.

What exactly is the speaker? By the title and the third stanza, we can assume the speaker is the mother of this half-man-half-fish but we still can’t be completely sure. For you, how do you see the speaker, and through the way you see the speaker, how do you think the speaker sees her son? Is he just a son to her or does he feel like something more special and rare?

Yes, I see the speaker as the mother of a special and rare creature. I think she’s at home with the sirens —who are watchful and dangerous if crossed. In the myths, they use their songs to ensnare men who venture out into unknown seas. The speaker is part of the chorus negating the views of “the men” while also calling upon the most powerful god of another world to provide protection and safe passage for her child.

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, in all its tragic, non-Disneyfied weirdness, was another touchstone. In that story, in order to visit the human world, to have legs rather than her tail, the Little Mermaid must give up her voice. Isn’t that always the way? To live in the world of men, she can be seen, but not heard.

Those who do not conform neatly to rigid gender binaries have been met with a spectrum of reaction from “you are a fantastic creature” to “you are a freak of nature.” We’ve been telling these stories for centuries in myth and fairy tale.  Some will refuse to see beauty if it appears in a form that is unusual to them.

The first stanza in the poem truly demanded and captured my attention. “Somehow he knows he can breathe / in both water and air”, this stanza made me want to go on and find out who exactly “he” is and how he can do what does; I was instantly hooked! Do you find that the first line is what hooks you into writing a poem or does this hook come in later after the idea for a piece has been planned out?

Thank you! This poem was an exception for me in that the first line remained as it was first written. It’s often the case that I have to write my way into a poem and, in revision, cut away lines that were necessary to get to the essence of what I was writing about, but don’t need to be in the final work. The originating image for this poem was the idea of mer-people in relation to the notion of my son moving freely between worlds and being comfortable in each.

What things are you currently reading right now that you think everyone should read?

Oh, dangerous question—how much room do you have? I’m a huge fan of short stories for many of the same reasons I love poetry.  The latest collection to grab my attention was Samantha Hunt’s “The Dark Dark” for its ferocity and magical realism. I’m in awe of playwrights and their ability to move a story forward with little more than dialogue.  Two recent standouts for me were Annie Baker’s “John” and Taylor Mac’s “Hir.” As far as novels go, dystopias compel me, especially in recent days. Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” trilogy is a must read and I loved Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars.” There’s so much inventive poetry happening right now it’s difficult to choose from the feast laid out before us. I’ll say lately I’ve especially enjoyed Nickole Brown’s “Fanny Says” (do yourself the favor of listening to the Audible version—well worth the effort) and Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s “Rocket Fantastic.” Two books that have been lanterns to light my way through my latest project are Mary Karr’s “The Art of Memoir” and “The Invention of Nature” by Andrea Wulf.

Do you have any projects that you are working on right now that you’re feeling really inspired and excited about?

I began writing what I thought was a linked series of prose poems, but they kept growing into what I thought was an essay. Now, it seems this project is leaning towards a memoir that balances observation of the natural world with my own life.  I’m doing my best to keep writing and trust the process while building new prose-writing skills along the way. Other examples of hybrid forms have been instructive, in particular Beth Ann Fennelly’s micro-memoir collection, “Heating and Cooling.”


"We Live Lives Full of Coincidences": An Interview with Brian Oliu

Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, most recently the lyric-memoir i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms), and Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping (Cobalt Press), a collection of essays on NBA Jam. Recent essays on topics ranging from long distance running to professional wrestling appear in Catapult, The Rumpus, Runner's World, and elsewhere.

His essay, "Brock Lesnar and the Woman I Am About to Marry Are Both Billed from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota," appeared in Issue Ninety-Two of The Collagist.

Here, Brian Oliu talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about obsessions, connecting lights, and writing through pop culture.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “Brock Lesnar and the Woman I Am about to Marry Are Both Billed from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.” What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Sure! So, I’m working on this collection of essays about professional wrestling. I outlined all of the wrestlers that I wanted to write about and considering Brock Lesnar is easily one of the largest stars in the world (and current WWE Universal Champion) I knew that I needed to write an essay about him. The collection deals a lot with the concept of reality versus showmanship—something that is obviously inherent in professional wrestling, & I feel as if Lesnar’s matches as well as his career really embody this. Wrestlers often are “billed” from a certain place—more often than not, it isn’t “actually” where they are from. Lesnar is a good example of this: he is billed from Minneapolis when he is in WWE, but when he fights in UFC he is “fighting out of” his actual hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan. My (now!) wife is from St. Paul, but we both live in Tuscaloosa—so I wanted to play with that concept of “being from” and “fighting out of”.

Reading the essay, I had the feeling of being unstuck in time and place, yet never lost. One paragraph observes one city, the next paragraph another. In one paragraph we see you and your wife, in the next Brock Lesnar. Distinctions are made between reality and fiction, yet the two blend together as well. When you write an essay in this non-linear way, how do you put the pieces in order? Do you consider associations as you write, or connect the dots when you revise, or both? How do you try to ensure that the reader will be able to follow?

So typically I think about these ideas as lights—I have a few different “lights” that pop up; essentially some elements that I want to write an essay about. This usually comes about by my own thoughts or things I find curious. Also, this comes from elements of research that I’ve done that have stuck for whatever reason. The goal for me is to connect the lights—or have those moments be bright enough so that the light from one illuminates the light of another (wow I’m sounding really LITERARY MAGIC right now). I feel as if research is one of those things that really allows you to align things—I’m never not blown away when you apply a little bit of research or dive deep into something & something just presents itself. We live lives full of coincidences—I think that writers (especially essayists!) are constantly in tune with what those coincidences are. In terms of the reader following, I try my best to guide them along as best as possible—I remember being a young writer & wanting to “encode” my writing with all sorts of puzzles & mysteries. But then what would happen is I would bring a piece to workshop or I’d have someone else read it & they wouldn’t get what I was trying to say--& OF COURSE they didn’t, because secrets in writing are only big to those who are revealing them. So, as a result, I made sure that if there was something that I wanted a reader to understand or get, I’d bring up those images a bit more, or I’d try to guide them in a certain way. At the end of the day, you have to recognize that not all readers are going to get every single reference—but I hope that a reader with a minimal knowledge of wrestling, or videogames, or whatever it is I’m writing about that day, can still appreciate the piece for its language, or is able to grab onto something else in the piece that speaks to them.

A lot of your writing is inspired by things that you are (apparently) a fan of—NES games, the NBA, professional wrestling, to name a few. These things are traditionally thought of as “low culture,” mere entertainment. Personally I cast no aspersions on them, hence the quotation marks. I myself edit a literary journal entirely focused on video games, so you know I appreciate their value, but I’d like to hear your perspective. Why do you write work inspired by pop culture? (Did you always? If not, how did you start?)

One time during a job interview, I was asked by someone on the hiring committee how I managed to balance academia with writing about things that are “so low brow.” After I tried not to show how offended I was by my face (& after I decided right there that this probably wasn’t the best fit for me), I explained that I don’t necessarily write “about” pop culture, but “through” pop culture. I really like having a “text” to base my work off of—of course texts come in the form of video games, of wrestling matches, of music videos, of large personalities, rather than simply just the traditional written word. I overheard once that “every piece of writing is collaborating with something else” & so I really took that to heart. As to why I write work inspired by pop culture, I think it’s because it’s something I truly enjoy—it’s important to me to write about things that I love. If I don’t love it, I’m not going to put the research in to know more about it, and so the essays will fall flat. I think what’s also great about pop culture is that it constantly replenishes itself—sure, we have new readings of ancient texts (my thesis/lyric memoir I/O is a collaboration with The Odyssey!) but when you deal with things that are popular & constantly in the zeitgeist, it makes your work more alive in ways that you couldn’t have perceived when you first started to dive in.

Another question about your writing obsessions, but this one less about the why and more about the how: You write about these subjects mostly with what I would characterize as an indirect approach, making them into metaphors and using them as lenses, your essays much more lyrical than narrative, ekphrasis rather than reporting. How would you describe the distance between Point A (e.g., the game, the team, the wrestler) and Point B (the essay), as well as the process that bridges that gap?

I think the gap is bridged by the fact that I am overly obsessive about things—I feel as if I put the “fanatic” in “fan”—this isn’t to say that I am stalking NBA players, or have posters of wrestlers all over my room (although I did when I was younger!), but I feel as if I am a part of this universe as more than just a casual observer. I know this makes me sound a bit delusional, but I feel deeply invested in these things on an emotional level, and as a result I feel closer to the stuff I am writing about in an odd way. I think a lot of this has to do with the internet and social media where you are able to see everything behind the scenes in a way that you never have before—say, with professional wrestling, you can see both character and performer. You can watch Karl-Anthony Towns play Fortnite on Snapchat. There are all of these ways “in” that didn’t exist before. Of course, these planes aren’t “real” but they exist on this other level, which I feel like my essays attempt to do—this real vs. hyper-real vs. cloudiness/haze of distance and nostalgia/emotion world is important to me to cultivate. It helps to be a lover of the essay form and how it constantly prods and attempts to make sense of things—I think that’s why I gravitate toward it so much. I know the essay is obsessed with things that are “real,” but I think that the emphasis should be more on things that are “true”—but of course, truth is a constantly evolving definition, and my own truth may not always match up with the truths of the world.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I am in the process of wrapping up the wrestling book—everyone kept asking me if I’ve written an essay about The Rock yet, & I kept saying that the essay hasn’t presented itself to me. Finally Dwayne decided to do me a favor and cover up his iconic Brahma bull tattoo, and so I was like “aha!” which gave me a way in to that essay. I feel like The Rock was blocking this entire book, and so now that his essay has been put to sleep, I can put the finishing touches on the book. I’m also working on a memoir about long distance running—my grandfather founded the Barcelona Marathon and wrote a book in Catalan on marathon running. I’ve been translating his book, as well as started my own running journey. It is a book I’ve been working on for years, and will continue to work on for (many!) years, but it is in the works. And I’m writing a more straight-forward nonfiction book about track jackets, another one of my obsessions—that one is still in the research phase, but I’m hoping to get cracking on it soon.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I read this insane article about online mattress reviews that I’ve been telling everyone to read (

My wife Tasha Coryell’s book is coming out with Split Lip Press in the summer & I am excited for everyone to read it, because she’s a much better writer than me.

I’ve been trying to learn about the Cover 3 defense (and failing)

Leila Chatti’s book is coming out and it’s gonna be amazing (

R.O. Kwon’s essay about not being able to watch the Winter Olympics was a highlight for me as well. (


"Telephones, Kitchens, and Moms": An Interview with Erinrose Mager 


Erinrose Mager’s fiction appears or will appear in The Adroit Journal, DIAGRAM, Hyphen, Passages North, New South, and elsewhere. She is co-editor of The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature (Lit Pub Books) and Creative Writing/Literature PhD candidate at the University of Denver. She received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis.

Her story, "Before Bedtime with Kate," appeared in Issue Seventy-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about what we do while we talk on the phone, cat-inspiration, and corking up our stories.

How did this story, “Before Bedtime with Kate,” begin for you?

I guess the short answer is: I’ve always liked telephones and kitchens and moms. The longer answer is: at the time of this story’s conception my friend and MFA cohort-mate Edward Herring was writing a book called Answering Machine. He calls it a “novel out loud.” He and I talked a lot about phones and recorded voice—about what it’s like to speak with/to/about someone via telephone and what that communication over distance or absence of physical presence might look like in prose—how and to what extent those conversations might speak to longing and/[f]or memory. Also, I enjoy thinking about the simultaneity of domestic activity that takes place while two people are on the phone with each other and likewise puttering around their homes, touching objects or pacing or cleaning or drawing or hanging out with cats. It’s a weird intimacy, the phone call. I recognize that this isn’t a revelation.

You start the story by dropping us into a phone conversation between Kate and her mother. Why did you choose to bottle the story into this moment? Was there ever a draft of this story that stretched beyond the edges of the phone call?

To use your word: I like bottling; cork it up, I say! I began “Before Bedtime with Kate” as it stands now, more or less. I often start a piece knowing more about what I want to elide than what I want to foreground. So “Before Bedtime” was always a little story, even at its onset. I think I wanted it to stay little because the scene is little and the exchange is little and it’s important to honor smallness, especially in prose.

If someone were to overhear a phone call between you and a family member, what would that phone call reveal?

An overheard call might reveal that my mom is wicked funny and wicked worried about me all the time i.e. she’s a great mom. Also, I often clean my toilet when I talk to my mom on weekends, and perhaps she takes offense to this, but it’s actually a high honor—maybe the highest. She says, “You’re cleaning the toilet again,” I say yes, and we both laugh. So I guess the call might also reveal my mild anal retentiveness, though my fiction might reveal that aspect of my personhood anyway.

What is inspiring your work these days?

Recently I read The Week by Joanna Ruocco; her asymmetrical, stilted realities are livening. Steven Dunn’s Potted Meat is brimming and discomfiting and prismatic; I revisited it a few months ago and I’m grateful that I did. I also read, finally, Pamela: A Novel by Pamela Lu as part of a workshop with Selah Saterstrom; Lu takes these wide, sentence-level berths away from a phrase’s subject only to circle back, consecutionally, and lines later. That clausal movement astounds me. I rarely read an entire poetry collection in one sitting, but I read Simone White’s Of Being Dispersed without stopping, struck by its pivots and fractures. As for non-books: I haven’t been that inspired by television lately (and I love television) so any recommendations are appreciated. My cat inspires me all the time because he’s so particular and serious about everything.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m trying to write a novel, but it (the novel, the trying) is going poorly. PhD school has slowed my writing process considerably, and I’m resigned. I’m also trying to make sense of a story collection, which feels unwieldy and uneven right now. To use a former professor’s term: I’m trying to find/mute all the ‘bad echoes' in the collection. With two friends (Hannah Waters and Marta Evans) I am editing a collaborative anthology that melds scientific research and speculative fiction, but we’re still figuring out preliminary logistics, and this work involves much trial and error and email.


"We Drive in Circuitous Routes": An Interview with Eddie Kim

Eddie Kim received his MFA in Poetry from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He is a Kundiman fellow from Seattle who served as the inaugural Pacific Northwest Kundiman Regional Chair. He spent two summers as poetry faculty at UVA's Young Writers Workshop and was invited as a poetry guest speaker for the Robinson School for Young Scholars. He is currently experiencing major life changes.

His poem, "In Search of Aliens," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with inteviewer Courtney Flerlage about balance, brontosaurs, and landscape.

How did “In Search of Aliens” get started for you?

My friend and I were on a road trip from Los Angeles to New York, by way of the South. Some of the images formed from observations as we drove out of California. I often find ideas for poems as a passenger, whether in a car or on a bus. There’s something about the rhythm of the road and the freedom to let your mind wander that I find generative. Sometimes it turns into something, sometimes it doesn’t.

I’m interested in the way imagery generates a conversation between wonder and reality in “In Search of Aliens.” As the speaker describes driving through “The corridor East from Los Angeles,” they see, for example, “golden / brontosaurs, but brontosaurs are not real anymore, / demoted by way of Pluto.” Later, the speaker summarizes the drive as “nothing but curiosity and semis accompanying heat,” a line I read as exemplifying the speaker’s relationship to the landscape—driven by a thirst for the spectacular, met with the daunting reminders of reality.  Yet in the final lines of the poem, it is the speaker’s search, itself, that becomes spectacular; the speaker shares, “I’ve been using sesame oil for sunscreen / and now my arms are the color of Mars.” The speaker finds themselves promoted to a planet-like status as the speaker drives on in “circuitous routes.” This wonder that drives the poem remains urgent and real, even as the images of the poem—dinosaurs, “Mech Warriors,” planets—are fantastic. Could you share a bit about this balance—how do you craft images of wonder in such a measured way?  

My father had also recently passed away, and this was the first time I’d driven cross-country. I wanted to do something that made me feel alive and wild, perhaps even reckless or self-destructive. I was completely out of balance in my life, and I wanted to do something that pushed the thought of loss out of my mind. Which, I imagine, is quite common. But even when we do these things, I think things are always there to remind us of reality. Sometimes it’s a semi passing by; sometimes it’s unbearable heat. At the time, I wanted to get lost in wonder and possibility, but something would always bring me back, be it fear, insecurity, or uncertainty. I don’t think I was conscious of it while writing the poem, but it was an internal struggle that I was dealing with, a conversation I was certainly having within: a need for balance, a desire to be wild/self-destructive, and questioning everything in-between. I couldn’t say I was cognizant of the balance you point out in the poem as I was writing it, but I was certainly craving it on some level. Everything felt out of whack and this poem was perhaps one place I could begin to find that balance. Even a poem can crave some semblance of balance. If the images are only fantastical, it can lose its humanity. If the images are too grounded, it can lose its sense of exploration and wonder.  A poem is a place where reality and wonder can reside together, where they can become interchangeable. We were driving through Roswell as I was working on the poem, which seemed very appropriate. The ostensibly fantastical notion of aliens surrounded by a town seemingly built on the commercialization of that possibility.

In the last line of the second stanza, after mentioning Pluto as having been “demoted,” the speaker concludes, “All facts / from my childhood are suspect.” This declaration resonates against the stanza that follows, in which the speaker remembers a teacher’s trick for spelling the word “deserts” with “one less S” because “It’s not something you want more of.” I find this moment both clarifying and complicating: the same “errors” of the speaker’s landscape—those brontosaurs, for instance—that inspire the speaker to doubt certainty also call into question—by way of juxtaposition—this assumption that the speaker’s landscape is undesirable. The logic feels wonderfully paradoxical, an expression of the complications of caring for—and questioning—a familiar landscape. At what point in your process did this memory enter the poem? Has the poem ever existed without it? 

Thank you so much, that is very kind of you to say. Yes, the initial draft of the poem did not include the memory of the teacher. The memory occurred to me after a sort of amalgamation of thoughts as I was going over the poem. At that point, I’d mostly lived closer to coast or somewhat coastal areas, be it Seattle or Kotzebue. When I lived in Fairbanks, it was the most land-locked I had been, and I regularly craved for ocean smells and seagulls. I was used to being near water, so I’d never thought of a desert as someplace I’d find connection with or even want to visit necessarily. So, in thinking about this, and then going over the poem, the brontosaurs and desert we were driving through brought back that memory. I was questioning all those things we learn and take on as our own knowledge, as simple facts that make up who we are and often neglect to question. Brontosaurs were very real to me as a kid, and if they cease to be, everything is open for questioning, myself included, as well as how I see the world and my place in it.

What are you reading right now that you’d recommend?

Most recently, I’ve been reading poems by Jane Wong, Michelle Peñaloza, and Dan Lau. I am inspired by their work.

What project(s) do you have in the works?

I am currently working on a poetry manuscript that explores the wonders and myths we create for ourselves and miss on a daily basis. They span various experiences from childhood to present, which sounds kind of lame when I word it like that, but I more and more like the notion of time being a figment, of past, present, and future happening simultaneously. In which case, one might argue that the stories that make up our lives and feel the need to share, regardless of when they happened, are always relevant because they’re happening now. At the very least, they’re certainly happening in my head.