Tuesday
Jan022018

"The Absolute and Unavoidable Lens": An Interview with Jennifer Militello

Jennifer Militello is the author of A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments (Tupelo Press, 2016), Body Thesaurus (Tupelo Press, 2013), and Flinch of Song (Tupelo Press, 2009). Her poems and nonfiction have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Mid-American Review, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, and anthologized in Best New Poets, Poem-a-Day: 365 Poems for Every Occasion, and The Manifesto Project. She teaches in the MFA program at New England College and can be found online at www.jennifermilitello.com.

Her essay, "The Repairs," appeared in Issue Ninety of The Collagist.

Here, Jennifer Militello talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about associate leaps, houses as sponges, and creating edges.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “The Repairs”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Within the space of a week, the house where I currently live suddenly required several major repairs. It seemed like everything was falling apart at once. The septic system backed up. Ice dammed up on the roof and got under the shingles, causing the ceiling to leak. I then started to notice the smaller damages, the scrapes and paint chips that had happened over time. I began to realize that in some ways a home is made up of the very dilemmas that come with needing shelter. The damage as much as the structure.

Life is the same. Emotionally. Spiritually. A series of major damages punctuated by more minor damages, all forming who we become. The build of all this damage stitches tiny threads, until we wear it like a dress, or like a scar.

The essay then grew out of a juxtaposition between physical failures of the house I now live in and memories of the psychological failures of the home where I grew up. I have been obsessed with my childhood home since my mother sold it, after my parents’ divorce left me struggling to recreate that former comfort and stability for myself. This often means trying to remember how the light fell in the kitchen in the morning, or how my parents’ voices sounded in the halls as I read in my bedroom. What happened in that house became equated with what happened inside me, and I cannot return to it. It’s become a labyrinth, so much so that I often dream of the house while asleep, and every time I drive by it in the present, the past house in my mind slips further away.

This essay contains many memories and images that you must associate with one another, but the connective tissue is sometimes subtle or invisible to the reader. For example, just after a brief explanation of a faulty septic system, you write: “I remember one friend I had. I remember standing with her in a playground in the rain, on the lifted end of a seesaw, eating cake mix by the spoonful from an open plastic bag. I remember the echoing of thunder. When I gave birth, I remember screaming and wondering what I heard, whose untethered voice.” When you take such leaps (in time, place, etc.) from one sentence to the next, you must trust, or at least hope, that the audience will also take them without losing all orientation in the work. How do you calculate the distances and choose the jumps you make? How do these associations come to you, and how do you determine the order in which to present them?

When I write, I work to recreate experience, the way the visual of the moment mixes with memory in the brain. This is association in the truest sense of the word. Everything we see in the moment is filtered through a reservoir of all the other moments we have collected. Memory is the context for everything. Memory and those other moments are the absolute and unavoidable lens.

Writing often relies on a voice to trace us through the experience and make connections, to tell a story that moves from point A to point B. But this is not the way we think. We do not naturally narrate our landscapes; we move through them and things flow and stir and meld into one another and this is how impressions and connections are made. We see things and they cause us to remember. We hear things and they remind us of our other lives.

I seek to recreate this landscape of moments and impressions, like lifting animals out of their museum dioramas and setting them in a more natural habitat. They aren’t dead anymore or held together by the artificial wire of the narrative voice. Their muscles work the way they were meant to. They are brought back to life.

Asking the mind to leap means trusting the brain of the reader. Connections happen in ways that are subtle. I believe in metaphor as perhaps the most essential literary device because it works the way the brain works, in shifts and images and tactics we don’t fully understand. It relies on our network of memories and impressions and teaches us more mysteriously and deeply until we learn in our nerve endings and our hippocampus and in our blood.

There’s a line that my mind has stuck on as I read and reread this piece: “Still, the history of an old house comes back.” How does the history of an old house come back? To whom, or to what, does it return? And why, do you think?

Old houses hold the hallways of smells and recollections and feelings that we constantly walk down. They are the ghosts that live inside us and puppet what we are.

We can leave these houses, but they never leave us. And they surface into the present at unexpected and often inconvenient times. Trauma echoes trauma. Pain raises pain. So that you are sitting in the wake of a death or divorce and the old rooms materialize and you are again sitting alone against the closed door of your childhood bedroom after being told you have misbehaved.

In my experience, a house is a sponge and not a sounding board. Incidents and encounters become part of its landscape, and can continue to be felt by others who move through it later and have no knowledge of past events. In addition, a house one has lived in becomes part of one’s emotional landscape, and the layout of that house becomes a map for parts of the brain and the blueprint for memories related to that period of time.

I see from your website that you primarily write and publish poems, but we have been discussing an example of your prose. What lessons have you learned from one genre that you have applied to how you write in the other?

The lyric essay is similar to poetry in many ways, so I have carried over my sense of the resonant image, metaphor and surprise, movement and suggestion, and, as you’ve pointed out, my love of the associative leap.

I’ve had to school myself all over again in how to cut, what to cut, when to cut, to hone an expectation, a narrative edge. I think prose often creates different edges than poetry, and edges are writing’s propulsion systems, so I had to relearn the creation of the edge.

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

I’ve recently completed Knock Wood, the nonfiction book from which this essay comes, as well as a manuscript of poems titled The Pact, so I’m working on some new poems about the dangers of technology and the world of the machine.

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

So much! Fen by Daisy Johnson, Personal Science by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, The True Book of Animal Homes by Allison Titus, Fairyland by Alysia Abbott, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the stories chosen as finalists for the Indiana Review fiction prize, in the winter issue: “House of Locks and Doors” by Micah Dean Hicks and “Liam and the Head” by Courtney Bird.

Monday
Jan012018

"I Will Carry You to Heaven": An Interview with Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, Brevity, The Offing, and elsewhere. She earned a B.A. in film studies & philosophy from Mount Holyoke College and an M.A. in creative writing from California State University, Northridge. She has read many, many books. Born in the American South to a professor of poetry and translation and a U.S. Navy captain, and raised along the East Coast, she now lives where she belongs, in Los Angeles. She blogs at the Fictator.

Her essay, "Carry Me to Heaven," appeared in Issue Ninety-One of The Collagist.

Here, Katharine Coldiron talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about creating collages, female power, and books she hates.

I’d like to break down your process of creating this literary collage into a few questions. First of all, how did you choose the three texts that you pulled language from? What connected these works to one another in your mind?

The simplest answer is that all three of these texts are about female power.

“Ride of the Valkyries” was co-opted definitively by Francis Ford Coppola to depict masculine warmongering in Apocalypse Now. While I can’t really argue with the effectiveness of that combination, it didn’t strike me until well into adulthood, after I’d heard that song dozens of times and seen the entire Ring cycle, that the song is really about the Valkyries, their strength, their joy. A translation into English, and particularly seeing the lines out of context of the famous melody, makes the truth a bit clearer.

Other Powers links multiple kinds of female power and shows how they manifested in a giddy, unstable era of American history. That’s not so different from where we are now. As I listened to the audiobook, I kept being struck by the parallels to our time: the argument over birth control, the female presidential candidate all but dragged behind the back of a truck by her hair, the subversive ways that repressed women seized power.

And Mega-City Redux gathers together powerful women from several eras, across history and fiction, and tumbles them across the country with extraordinary compression and poetic power. I’m so obsessed with that book. In the fall of 2016 I bought ten copies and sent them out to friends. So at the time the book was walking all over my brain, to such an extent that it bled into my own creative work.

The more complicated, and possibly more true, answer is that the process of writing, for me, has evolved into a process of crashing one thing into another thing and seeing if they make sparks. Because my brain connects things weirdly, these three texts made sense together in my head before I realized more consciously what they had in common.

Now, once you had chosen the texts, how did you go about selecting lines from them? Was this exercise a new kind of experiment for you, or did you have an established process for creating such a piece? As the work developed, did you discover anything new about the texts by engaging with them in this way?

Oh, man, this is hard to answer. There’s one easy part: this was a totally new experiment. I make visual collages when I’m creatively stuck or overstimulated, but I’d never made a sentence collage, neither of my own nor of other people’s work. The reasons why I never did before and the reasons why I decided to this time would take too many words to explain.

I skimmed the paper version of Other Powers after I audiobooked it and marked the lines that particularly hit me, either for their power, their relationship to the present moment, or their strange poetry. Like Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s letter requesting suffrage songs, listing those four spirits’ names. Something about it was funny and desperate and heartfelt and maybe a little greedy. Lines that could do all that, I wanted to point out and recontextualize.

The libretto from that section of Die Walküre I’d printed out weeks earlier for reasons I no longer remember and it was kicking around my desk. The writing, on that song at least, was not amazing. I mean, it’s meant to be amazingly sung, not written. But I liked that the Valkyries’ conversation, especially before Brünnhilde arrives, is sort of mundane. Look, those two warriors’ horses are mad at each other, LOL. It’s no match for the music. Except for the invented words, “Hojotoho!” and “Heiaha!”, which are so expressive of the Valkyries and their mission. They give me little shivers just to think them.

I wanted to quote pretty much all of Mega-City Redux, but I typed what I loved most (half the book, probably) and then, when I was collaging, removed what didn’t fit. It was an intuitive process rather than a scientific one. I wish I could be more specific, because I don’t want to sound like a flake, but I really was in sort of a trance as I moved the sentences around.

The only thing I really learned about any of the texts was a new appreciation for the economy of Alyse Knorr’s language from typing it word for word. Otherwise, I apologize—this seems like an arrogant answer—but I think the texts laced with each other so beautifully that there was very little for me to see that was new. Or that was different from how I perceived them when I came up with the idea of collaging them in the first place.

According to a note at the end of your piece, “Only one sentence was written by the author.” Can it be told now which sentence is your invention? If so, please tell us why you felt it was a necessary addition to the text. If not, why do you prefer to preserve the mystery?

I’d like to be David Lynch and shrug mysteriously, but that’s not really me. It’s “I will carry you to heaven.” It was important to me to include that line, which had been beating inside me like a second heart for months.

I wanted the reader (assuming she gave a damn, and didn’t just want to enjoy the piece) simultaneously to play Where’s Waldo, and, more seriously, to probe into the nature of collage. Does it matter which line I wrote, which lines Knorr wrote, which lines Wagner wrote? Is the point the source texts, or the aesthetic result of crashing them together? Is my style going to show through in how I put the texts together, or in how I put the words of my own sentence together? One more than the other? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m interested in prodding readers to ask them.

You run an interview series called “Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like),” published by Entropy. If I may turn the tables, what inspires you to hate a book? Would you care to share any of your own most hated books?

Oooooh, thanks for this opportunity. A number of the books I hate don’t bear any fault for my hatred because they’re just not right for me. I strongly disliked How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and gave up in exasperation halfway through, but I have objective proof that book is good. It reacts badly with my brain, is all.

I deeply, deeply hated The Golden Notebook. I know that I am 100% wrong about this. To me, the characterization was wooden, the scenes fell not just flat but dead, and the language grated like nails on a chalkboard. But it’s the most famous book of a Nobel Prize-winning writer, so clearly it’s my problem, not the book’s.

Books that do bear fault for me hating them are usually lazy in some way, or sexist, or racist. Updike at his worst, for example, has all these qualities. The exceptionally lazy E.L. James, who hasn’t learned her craft whatsoever, and who as a bonus has caused real harm in the world. A Booker Prize winner from some years ago, Vernon God Little, which was so obscene, unfunny, and obsessed with incorrect American stereotypes that I couldn’t get through 50 pages.

A book I hated very reluctantly was The Sellout. I’m pretty sure I’m wrong about this one, too, and it bothers me so much to be a privileged white woman hating on the well-researched, prize-winning satire of an African American author. But the character development was so poor, the women were shallow, inconsistent tropes, and at bottom it felt like a gimmick stretched into a novel. Such a profound racial critique, particularly when it gets as much attention as The Sellout did, is extremely important to the progress of our culture, but I found the book badly executed at the ground level and I couldn’t get over it.

And for some reason I hate character studies. I love movie-based character studies, but book-based ones are absolute death. Waiting, by Ha Jin, made me moan aloud while I was reading it.

 

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

How much time do you have?

I just finished a conceptual novel for which I’m trying to find a press.

I’m shopping a book proposal for a writing reference book for newbies.

I’m building a collection of hybrid essays which each involve fiction, nonfiction, and film criticism. I’ve written four of these essays and published two (“The Girl on the Bike” and “Underside”), and I have sketches or partial drafts for four more. I don’t know when that’ll be done, because I’m stuck on an emotionally difficult one.

My friend Neil, who runs Electric Dreamhouse Press in the UK, has solicited work from me for an anthology about “films that never were.” That one’s in the idea stage, but it’s developing well. He’s asked me if I’m interested in writing something else, too, an essay about the film Five Million Years to Earth. I’m enthusiastic about that, but it’s tentative, and the deadline is really far away.

I’m two chapters into a novel about the character of Ilsa from Casablanca.

What I’m actually putting on paper right now is something about abandoned or ruined places. I visited the Salton Sea in October, and in November I saw the St. Andrews Cathedral in St. Andrews, Scotland, which is little but a ruin filled with gravestones. These places were very different, but both impacted me significantly, and I’m trying to work out what the writing about this will look like in its final form. At the moment it’s just paragraphs.

And in between all these are book reviews and short takes and just-regular-essays and blog posts and pitches by the dozen. Hustle, hustle, hustle.

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

Lately I can’t shut up about Rosalie Morales Kearns’s novel Kingdom of Women. It’s another one I want to buy up and send out to my friends. It’s not just wonderful, it’s necessary. In poetry I really liked Ana Božičević’s Joy of Missing Out, which is both po-mo and meaningful. In December I finally read The Rings of Saturn, my mentor’s favorite book. I see why she loves it, but I prefer David Markson.

I’ve been reading mostly books for review in the last couple of months, so recommending them here might be repetitive. I’ve also been reading some books for research that have been useful but not extraordinary. Louise Brooks’s essays were not the best thing I’ve ever read about Hollywood (that would be West of Eden or Gods Like Us), but they revealed a fascinating woman about whom I can’t wait to write. And Dworkin and Goldsmith’s conceptual writing anthology Against Expression made me feel like my ideas weren’t so crazy after all.

Wednesday
Dec272017

"Among the Soot-strewn, Some Pink Amulet": An Interview with Elisa Karbin

Elisa Karbin’s poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Journal, West Branch and Blackbird, among others. She earned her MA in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she is now a PhD candidate in poetry. She currently serves as a contributing poetry editor for The Great Lakes Review.

Her poem, "Self As Cenotaph," appeared in Issue Sixty-Nine of The Collagist. 

Here, she speaks with interviewe Courtney Flerlage about titles, the mystical, and managing a poem's time. 

Which came first for “Self as Cenotaph”: the poem, or the poem’s title? Where did the poem start?

That’s a really good question—the poem came first but I knew going into writing it that the title would be “Self as” something because it’s actually part of a series of “self as object” poems from my manuscript. The title of the poem owes a lot to the poem’s mood and form, echoing a kind of self-elegizing solemnity inside a chunky block of text.

For a poem of only ten lines, it’s so generous—the speaker searches for “some small creak of bone” or “some pink amulet,” once contained “moonstone and onyx,” finds, at the end, the “full belly of the moon.” There’s so much to see and sense. “Self as Cenotaph” also feels so textural—the speaker’s own cold sharpness (“a skin / husk flaunting its weightless white”) contrasts with the moon’s “full belly.” Even the image of the moon itself suggests both completeness and—like the speaker—absence, depending on its phase. I’m curious: what drew these different elements of the poem to you? How did you determine what you kept and what didn’t make it in?

It probably won’t come as a shock to learn that I’m very image-driven when it comes to crafting and revising. More often than not the poem sort of happens on the page in one go and then I undertake the process of wrangling and refining, using the images as guideposts for the sense and logic of the poem. This poem, specifically, was written with an eye toward the mystical, metaphysical realm of the tarot, parapsychology, Jungian alchemy— all these related fields that seem to converge around arcane rituals and elemental materials, hence the notion of gemstones as talisman, for example.

You manage pacing so deftly here—we move from a present “each night” to a memory of the past (“Moonstone and onyx / cracked under my skin for so long”). The speaker then describes the “now” and imagines the future: “A fair shake / and I’ll be winded again.” You lead us through so many units of time, and yet as a reader I never feel jarred or deprived. Could you share a bit about how you worked this movement into the poem? How did you contain it?

I think that with a poem as small and compact as this one, it’s super important to attend to structure and pacing—there’s less bulk to hide the seams behind, more opportunities for readers to spot lazy craft. I think having an understanding of how a poem’s tone and conceit—in this case, a kind of self-memorialization over time— informs its pacing, and vice versa, really helped me establish a fluid series of movements from each moment to the next.

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

Oh boy! I’m currently working though Roxane Gay’s Hunger and it’s giving me so many feelings, most of which are a confusing mix of that gut-clenching, brace-for-impact anxiety, deep and stinging sadness, and awe at Gay’s superb talent. And I just revisited the heartbreakingly gorgeous sad boy/detective by sam sax. It isn’t a lie to say I’ve been harassing (their words) my friends to read these too.

What projects do you have in the works?

Right now, I’m working on a new manuscript of poems about family, femininity, and… murder. And I just sent back edits for my first chapbook, Snare, which is coming out in mid-2018. Exciting things are afoot around here!

Tuesday
Nov072017

"In that Glittery Dirt": An Interview with Elijah Matthew Tubbs

Elijah Matthew Tubbs lives and writes in Arizona. Recent work is featured in Passages North, Sonora Review, Connotations Press, and elsewhere. He is co-founder of ELKE "a little journal."

His essay, "By Way of Salt," appeared in Issue Ninety-One of The Collagist.

Here, Elijah Matthew Tubbs talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about salt in myths, learning from research, and writing in a desert.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “By Way of Salt.” What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

I was sitting at my desk at work and I realized it was time to write a new essay. I had read an essay by Daisy Hernandez on Brevity during my lunch break and that kicked me into gear. It is such a great piece of nonfiction titled “Wings”.

I am slow writer, especially when it comes to prose, so when I have that urge to write prose (I generally write poetry) I must run with it, quick and hard.

I had been thinking about Sodom and Gomorrah as a topic for a while and after a little research I found I was more interested in the salt pillar that Lot’s wife turned into. After that I just kept finding more and more information about salt and its many implications in other religions and cultures.

From Buddhist tradition to Norse mythology, writing this piece seems like it must have required a wide breadth of research. Is research a regular part of your writing process? How do you do your research? Is it something you enjoy?

Yes, research is key to my writing process. Normally my in-depth research comes during revision, where the first draft is more so smearing the page with ideas.

My research generally comes from searching the internet as it is the most accessible for me.

Research is very enjoyable in my opinion. Many times, I am learning about the topic as I write about it and that makes the writing process very exciting for me. I really hate when people say, “Write what you know.” If I did that, I’d be writing the same thing over and over.

There seems to be some specific intention between the amount of white space that appears between some paragraphs in this piece. Why is this level of separation significant to you? What purpose do you have in mind, if any, for these absences?

Mainly the white space is just barriers between the vastly different myths and traditions I talk about. It looks a little more dramatic now that it’s up and online than it did on my computer screen, but for me it is simple as separation of ideas on the page, for clarity’s sake.

Your bio says that you live and write in Arizona. Are you a transplant or a local? Because I have lived in Arizona for a few years, I am curious how writing from Arizona might differ from other work. How do you think life in a desert climate has influenced your writing?

I was born in southern California but grew up in Cave Creek and attended Arizona State University. I am local.

I think, in my poetry more so, Arizona is extremely influential. Even if I am not writing specifically about the desert, the desert landscape is there somewhere in there. In the form, the tone, or mood. My heart will always lie here in that glittery dirt, wherever else I may be. 

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

Right now, I am finishing up a chapbook of poems, titled “Stomping Ground and Other Poems.” I am hoping to send it out this winter. Stomping Ground is a twenty-part serial poem, and then there’s the others too.

Along with the chapbook, I am looking to apply to an MFA program this admission cycle. I am writing all the statements and essays that come with that long process.

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

Eliot Weinberger. Particularly the book of essays, “Karmic Traces” from New Directions. That book, along with his others, have forever changed me as a writer and directly influenced the essay “By Way of Salt”.

I have also been reading a lot of Larry Levis again since watching the documentary, “A Late Style of Fire,” which I also highly recommend.

Lorine Niedecker and Louise Mathias are others I have been reading lately as well. They are both fantastic poets. I recommend getting Niedecker’s collected poems from University California Press and Louise Mathias’ “The Traps” from Four Way Books if interested.

Thursday
Sep282017

"Irony or Pathos or Downright Absurdity": An Interview with Marcia Aldrich

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton.  She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women published by The University of Georgia Press. 

Her essay, "Deviated Reports from the Bainbridge Island Police Blotter," appeared in Issue Eighty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer William Hoffacker about police reports, the "hermit crab" essay form, and yellow cargo pants.

Can you describe the process of writing this piece? Since it is classified as nonfiction, am I correct in assuming that these reports are real? How did you obtain and select them? Are any of the details invented or embellished?

My husband and I moved from Michigan to Bainbridge Island in June 2016. We began to receive a community publication called The Bainbridge Island Review which included a section at the end called “The Police Blotter.” As a newcomer to the island I found these entries fascinating. First an odd portrait emerges of a place through the crimes reported, something other than the Chamber of Commerce’s sanitized version. A version that the island doesn’t quite own, I’d say. Second the level of detail included was astounding. And third, the stories themselves surprised me. I’m not sure at what point it occurred to me that I might do something with them, but I began cutting out the pages and putting them in a folder. The earliest entries date from July 2016 to the last entries in November.

At some point, I had amassed quite a lot and began transcribing them into a file including the dates and times. In the process of transcription, I edited the entries because they were too long for my purposes. I was aiming to create a literary essay based on real documents. I also began to hear the literary potential in the entries—by that I mean, I began to hear the irony or pathos or downright absurdity inherent in the accounts.

Selection became crucial. I didn’t want three entries about an older woman driver who ran into a storefront. I discovered that on the island there are many incidents involving older drivers, who mistake the gas pedal for the brakes. And so, it was with all the entries—there were patterns of incidents and it was my job as a writer to find those patterns and pick the best one to represent the pattern, not to fill the essay with repetition. I was looking for what was representative, to give a portrait of the island through the incidents the police handled during this time period.

I did not make up any of the incidents—they all happened and were reported. In this sense, the material is nonfiction. However, I thought of what I was doing as composing a hermit crab essay, a literary form, using nonfiction and recognizable material. I used the police blotter entries to construct through selection and arrangement a literary portrait of a place. Something like a found poem but with liberties taken.

The hermit crab form appeals to me because it’s sneaky. Most of us recognize police reports and find them familiar but we don’t think about what they reveal about a community. As someone who had recently relocated to Bainbridge Island, I felt a bit of an outsider, able to see patterns that perhaps had become normalized or invisible to those who had lived on the island for a long time. We often expect the dominance of the I in personal essays and again the hermit crab form shifts that I more to an EYE. I am not a direct player in the narratives. My activity as a writer is more to see the potential in the material, to select, arrange and witness.

Many of the reports are somewhat humorous, mostly because the incidents described seem frivolous or downright strange. Some lines are quite funny, e.g., “He acknowledged that the need for a haircut may have clouded his judgment.” Then, among these amusing slices of life, a dead body. How did you choose the placement of this morbid tale, juxtaposed with much lighter fare? (You could have titled this section “Body,” or “Drowned,” or “Unidentified,” but I suspect you had a reason for naming it “Nothing” so that it appears smack dab in the middle of the alphabetically arranged vignettes.)

The answer to this question follows upon the heels of my answers to your first question. There’s a lot a writer can do using the tools of selection and arrangement. What I chose might not be what someone else would choose. I’m drawn to the alphabet and other organizing structures because again the structure allows me to frame the material in ways that shape the reading experience. Juxtaposition, for example as you mention, is incredibly powerful in this piece—the mixture of tones and material, seeing the humor in darkness and the darkness in humor. Juxtaposition allows the writer to create a relationship between the parts of a work that complicate the material. Mixing things up, breaking up expectation, creating a different rhythm of reading. This form requires that the reader be quite active in putting the pieces together and cover a spectrum of feeling in doing so. It doesn’t allow the reader to settle.

I did work hard on deciding what to include, where to include it, and what to title the section even though I imagine if the essay is successful, it looks effortless, even natural. But it is instructive to read the raw material I began with, in chronological order with the dates and times, and then read the order I ended up with and the titles. The changes make a world of difference. I’m not sure I could say that all my choices were calculated so much as intuitive and creative. I wanted to be as free as possible. By that I mean, I didn’t want to worry about what the portrait was that was emerging and what islanders would think about it. I sensed an effect was possible. The titles were fun but hard to come up with—sometimes they popped from the material and other times they did not. In all cases, the titles frame what comes after as titles do.

As for embellishment and invention—there is some. I did not change what happened. For example, in Yellow, one of my favorite entries, the cargo pants really were yellow and the guy really found them in his house and had no explanation of how they got there. This entry is close to a found poem. In Buttocks, the book really was a Kurt Vonnegut novel. I didn’t make up these details and part of the pleasure of the essay is in the freshness of the details, a sense that facts can be more interesting than fiction. But I did add bits. For example, in Appointment, I added the ending. The police did suggest that the woman block her phone, stay inside, and lock the door. I added her response—“Forever, she asked.” There are touches and turns, little additions that color the entry, perhaps adding a bit of commentary, a bit of humor over the obvious absurdity. But mostly I think I found the pathos in the scene and brought it out a bit more effectively or dramatically than the straight report.

Why did you choose Bainbridge Island as the location from which you would draw stories?

I’ve probably covered this. I lived in East Lansing, Michigan for a long time and it never occurred to me to make anything out of the crime reports. Why? I think because I was an insider, familiar with the place, part of it, and therefore not spurred to create a portrait of it. But when I relocated to a new, unfamiliar place I found myself trying to understand it, to make sense of it and the police blotter gave me a more intimate portrait than other forms.

What obsessions (or passions, or interests, if you prefer) appear in your writing most often? (Despite the fact that many of these reports end without criminal charges, was this piece at all inspired by an interest in true crime stories?)

You know, I’m not drawn to crime. This was a onetime thing, as far as I know. Although I like to watch TV shows like The Wire and True Detective, I don’t see myself in that genre.

As a writer of creative nonfiction, I have an abiding interest in form—from all manner of the essay to memoir, with a special interest in experimentation. I’ve written a book on a friend’s suicide, Companion to an Untold Story (AWP award winner in creative nonfiction, UGA), an experimental memoir on growing up female Girl Rearing (Norton). Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women came out at the end of 2016, which I edited and marks my deep interest in women’s writing.

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

Too many and none of them are finished. I can barely make it to my desk for all the piles of unfinished work. An essay of mine, “Float,” was just selected as a Notable essay in the Best American Essay series. This piece is part of a large memoir project called Haze that is incomplete. I’ve written about 200 pages but I am not done, it frustrates me to say. Meanwhile I’m deep into an array of essays drafted over the last year about Bainbridge Island—almost none of those are finished either. And I’ve put together a collection of essays called Grub using a numbered outline system that builds them into one complete system of essay.

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

Of late I’ve been drawn to books composed of short forms. Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness and 300 Arguments. In the category of memoir, H is for Hawk is the best I’ve read in some time. I’ve been reading Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey with great pleasure, dipping in and out.

Wednesday
Aug302017

"Shimmering Like a Living Thing": An Interview with Ösel Jessica Plante

Ösel Jessica Plante's poetry, and flash fiction, has appeared or is forthcoming in the Best Small Fictions 2016 anthology, The Adroit Journal, Puerto del Sol, South Dakota Review, Mid-American Review, Mississippi Review, New Ohio Review, Rattle, Zone 3, and others. She was runner-up in Meridian's 2017 Poetry Contest, a finalist for the Passages North 2017 Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, and finalist for the 2016 Mississippi Review Prize. She earned an MFA from UNC-Greensboro and is pursuing a PhD in Poetry at Florida State University. She is associate Poetry Editor of Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. More of her work can be found at oseljessicaplante.com.

Her story, "The Lick," appeared in Issue Seventy-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about office jobs, single-minded characters, and tongues.

What inspired this story?              

I can’t remember what inspired the story. I know I had been reading a lot of Gary Lutz at the time. I was also working a full-time office job. My boss was a big reader. He would sometimes give me books to take home as though grooming me to his taste. In fact, the day he’d interviewed me for the job he’d walked with me out of the conference room and into the parking lot to my car as we discussed the latest George Saunders novel, Tenth of December, which had come out the previous month. I think I got the job partly because we talked about books. The job, however, turned out to not be a great fit. I was bored within a matter of weeks and would fill empty hours by writing or with long walks through nearby neighborhoods at lunchtime. I was not a terrible employee, but I was not great either. Something about the sensory deprivation that comes from staring at pale green walls and dropped ceilings, I’m sure, led me to fantasize about what my senses were missing. That and Lutz’s keen and odd styling loosened something in me. I wrote this pretty much all at once, which is how I write most of my flash fiction. I generally write a lot of crap, and then, finally, something comes out shimmering like a living thing.

You present us with a strange character, one who licks fruit in the grocery store and tastes snakes. Yet, the beauty and joy in her observations helped me to relate to her: “Each divot in its rippling leather tasted of a chemical anger, a disappearing act, the reflection of our own fear. I could almost calculate with my taste buds how soon its next molting would occur.” How do, as a writer, engage with a character who on the outside seems difficult to relate to?

Hmm, this is a tricky question for me because I don’t often think about a characters’ relatability when I’m writing. I think I’m more tuned to whether they feel honest. Frankly, I’m not sure I would want to be this person’s friend, or even acquaintance. She seems more than slightly off balance and like social situations wouldn’t be her forte. But, what I do like about her is that she is single-minded; she is on a mission. I wanted to see how far I could push my descriptions, to see how absurd I could get but still have it seem grounded in the context of her obsessive compulsion to lick. I did waiver about whether to make the character a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ or a ‘they’. But then decided her behavior was contrary to what we expect of women, so I made her female to push against the idea that women should be living pretty, manicured existences.

I also think the tongue is a really strange part of the body, highly sensual, not inner or outer but both. The tongue doesn’t just taste other things, it’s also constantly tasting itself and the body where it lives. Perhaps the ability to have a heightened sense of taste could be related to a heightened sense of self-awareness, but I doubt that’s true. I should have had her sample other creatures’ tongues. You can buy cow tongues in grocery stores, you know. 

The speaker in this story understands her world by tasting it. What’s your preferred way of exploring and understanding your world?

Definitely staring into space while alone, or lying next to someone I may or may not be in the habit of licking.

What is the last book you read and loved?

The first book that pops to mind is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m also reading book one of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard right now, which is fabulous.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m finishing my first manuscript of poems. It’s called Waveland. I’m also beginning to work on a novella in verse called Radio Brother, about a mother who tunes her son like a radio because she believes she is receiving messages from god. I have future plans to write a book of non-fiction, a memoir, about the time I died.

Tuesday
Aug222017

"A Place of Embarrassment": An Interview with Kaj Tanaka

Kaj Tanaka's stories have been featured in Longform, selected for Wigleaf’s Best (Very) Short Fictions and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is the nonfiction editor for BULL Magazine. He lives in Houston. Read more of his work at kajtanaka.com.

His story, "Understand," appeared in Issue Seventy-Six of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about MS Word, Borges, and how we relate to our readers.

Where did this story begin for you?

I read things and don’t understand them all the time, which is embarrassing to admit. I’m a very forgetful and lazy reader. I wanted to write a story about that. I think a lot of my best stories come from a place of embarrassment.

How do you compose your stories? Do you compose them in your head, like Borges and the dream man, or do you compose on a computer or paper? How do you think the medium we use to write our stories affects the form our stories take?

I do all of my writing on MS Word. My hand isn’t accustomed to writing with a pen, and my handwriting is almost completely illegible unless I concentrate. The nice thing about writing on a computer is that my stories are very malleable. I can cut, copy, splice, and delete very easily, and I use those tools all the time. It adds another dimension to the composition process. Maybe because of that I don’t plan my stories out in advance. This story, for example, was quite a bit longer at one point, and the paragraphs were in a different order.

I love that the first line, “A person can read something and not understand it at all, even something simple,” sets me up to question my reading of your story. As a writer, is it important to you that readers understand your intent, or are you open to the multiple interpretations they might bring to your work?  

I don’t usually worry about making sure readers understand what I’m trying to accomplish. I know, as a reader, I read things into stories all the time that the writers probably didn’t intend. It doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story, and sometimes when I find out what the author was actually trying to accomplish, I’m slightly disillusioned. I think when you publish a story you give it away, in a certain sense. People take what they want from fiction, based on who they are and what kind of day they‘ve had. No writer can control for those things. The best a writer can hope to do is write interesting and robust sentences that have the power to appeal to a diversity of people.

Who are some authors that inspire or inform your writing?

I think this story was a riff on a Lydia Davis story. I’m not sure which one, but I was reading a lot her at the time, and I was really taking her into heart. I also look at Richard Brautigan, and Isaac Babel when I’m stuck. They’ve been a big influence on me. Also Borges.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m writing a novel about taekwondo kids in rural North Dakota.

Tuesday
Aug082017

"With Chest Pain but Living": An Interview with Jennifer Givhan

Jennifer Givhan is a National Endowment for the Arts & PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellow, and the author of Landscape with Headless Mama (2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize), Protection Spell (2016 Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series), & Girl with Death Mask (2017 Blue Light Books Prize). Her honors include the Frost Place Latin@ Scholarship, the Lascaux Review Poetry Prize, Phoebe Journal’s Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, and the Pinch Journal Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Ploughshares, POETRY, TriQuarterly, Boston Review, AGNI, Crazyhorse, Witness, and The Kenyon Review. She can be found at jennifergivhan.com as well as Facebook & Twitter (@JennGivhan).

Her poem, "Madhouse of Spirits," appeared in Issue Sixty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer T.m. Lawson about Allende, Auden, and borrowing.

What is your usual method for writing poems and how did you come by the inspiration for “Madhouse of Spirits”? The title is interesting and to me evoked the title of Isabel Allende’s novel, The House of Spirits, which contained themes of maternity, madness, and generational conflict within families and communities. I can’t unsee the connection!

My poem absolutely borrows from Allende’s work, which I adore. Women in Allende’s novel work from within the power structures, asserting the importance of motherwork during times of upheaval. Taking care of children—mothering—is a definite political and social act. Alba describes how the other imprisoned women care for the children of a mother with PTSD: “the fate of the children, growing up in that place with a mother who had gone mad, cared for by other, unfamiliar mothers who had not lost their voices for lullabies … would be able to return the songs and the gestures to the children and grandchildren of the women who were rocking them to sleep.” Violence begets violence, true. But love, motherlove, begets hope—the chance to rise up out of dark situations and sing. The house of spirits is literally the house of women—of mothers and mother figures who record their stories and alter history by reclaiming it for their children, and by ending the violent cycle through motherlove. My poem takes these ideas and transforms the domestic space, often seen as a peaceful realm of “womanly” import—but so often the home is a place of violence and fear for children, swept under the rug. This poem doesn’t turn away from the destruction and mental illness within, how motherlove can both hurt and heal, is a powerful force.   

I noticed that you open the poem with an epigraph of an excerpt from W.H. Auden’s poem “The Question”, which itself has been seen by critics as ‘riddle-like’, where childhood and adulthood intersect in the mode of madness. The quote “[a]nd ghosts must do again / what gives them pain” has shades of obsessive compulsion in the remembrance of trauma, which carries over directly to the first two lines depicting child abuse. You have woven throughout the poem these interesting themes of childhood fear, pain, parental madness, and the adult perception; we as adults dread and preoccupy ourselves with the past (our childhood, our parents, an echo of what is to come for us). Your term “motherloving fear” brilliantly encapsulates this; of all possible sources for an epigraph to set the tone, why this particular lesser-known piece by W.H. Auden?

Auden’s quote spoke most clearly to me of Jung’s shadow and the dark night of the soul. Through it is the healing. Through it one must go.

Another piece of syntax I loved in your poem was the line “[t]he mother eye isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”. There is definitely a preoccupation with the archetype of the Mother, specifically the more abusive type. A few lines in the poem allude to the novel Flowers for Algernon, in which the speaker relates their own experience with their parent to the protagonist Charlie Gordon, whose childlike mind could not comprehend why he was punished and abandoned until after he acquired higher intelligence and consciousness. The cycle echoes with the later comparison the speaker encounters: “How does one extract the violent bone / without mining that poor child’s spine?” To heal, one must effectively relive trauma; the ‘ghost’ “must do again / what gives [...] pain”. The speaker’s pain is very much intertwined with intelligence, the understanding of the pain, and the neurotic compulsion to dwell upon it. Does the speaker dissociate, separate, and distance themself from this memory? There is very real sense of dread in the language when the speaker meditates on the parenthood, and it seems as if the speaker is in the midst of arrested development when the next stage (the stage the initial trauma’s initiator was at) is considered on the horizon: “I’m trying not to become the kind of parent I feel bound / to”.

The speaker must relive (her) childhood through her children’s eyes. Trauma has ghosted her, but if there is to be healing, she must enter that dark night. She was the Charlie Gordon character before the experiment, and now as a parent has become Charlie at the height of his ability to comprehend—but she fears she is also now his mother. The speaker’s neurosis in the poem comes perhaps from dwelling within so many perspectives at once. Dwelling in another’s consciousness leads to empathy, yes, but so many voices at once is a heavy burden to bear. Epigeneticists now say that our DNA is wired with our ancestors’ trauma. The speaker fears this means she is also bound to the ancestors’ propensity to inflict trauma. She is a house of familial ghosts, has played the roles of both abuser and abused, has come to a crossroads and must choose. Which voice speaks loudest and longest? Love or pain?

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

I’m reading and loving Roxane Gay’s Hunger and Christa Parravani’s Her, both creative nonfiction memoirs, as I’m working on my own, currently titled Quinceañera with Baby Fever.

Tuesday
Jul182017

"The Specter of Disaster": An Interview with Anne-Marie Kinney

 

Anne-Marie Kinney is the author of the novel Radio Iris. Her short fiction has appeared in Black Clock, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Rattling Wall, Fanzine, and other places. She co-curates L.A.'s Griffith Park Storytelling Series.

Her story, "Isn't It a Beautiful Night," appeared in Issue Eighty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Anne-Marie Kinney talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about earthquakes, setting, and characters' inner lives.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “Isn’t It a Beautiful Night”? What sparked the initial idea that caused you to start writing it?

The idea for the story came from a real-life news item that was making the rounds, the one mentioned in the story, about the fact that we’re overdue for a “big one” on the San Andreas Fault (I live in L.A.). At the time, there was reportedly an increased likelihood of a big quake over a span of a few days. It was the kind of thing everyone says “oh shit” about but then pretty much continues with their day, half terrified, half laughing about it, because what else are you going to do? It got me thinking about the ways we live under the specter of disaster, and especially how it’s becoming a way of life for everyone as the realities of climate change come into focus. And, yeah, people get cancer and get hit by cars every day too, but you still need to go to work and take care of your family, because what else are you going to do?

The line that really opened this story up for me was this: “These are the quiet times I fill in one of two ways: Deep Satisfaction or Nameless Dread.” Mostly the conflict in this story is internal, the narrator’s anxiety. The only external sources of conflict are potential, the threat of earthquakes and the effects of climate change. Is it typical for characters in your fiction to experience conflict from within rather than from without? Do you tend to write stories about people navigating their ordinary lives or extraordinary circumstances, or is it a balance?

I tend to write about internal struggle a lot because that’s what’s interesting to me as a reader. I like to ride around in somebody’s brain, and I often don’t care that much what they do or what happens. Every life is fascinating if you can really get down into it. My aim is to pull something transcendent out of day-to-day life, to find it under rocks if I have to.

Can you describe the importance of setting in your fiction? Of course, with all its talk of earthquakes and temperature, it’s necessary that this story take place in Southern California. How significant of a role does the local environment of the setting usually play in your stories?

Most (all?) of my stories, including my novel Radio Iris, are really built around a place. In the case of Radio Iris, it was an office building, with its frigid air conditioning and white walls. With my next novel it was a run-down San Fernando Valley strip mall. With “Isn’t It a Beautiful Night,” it was a hot car in traffic. Place is mood and mood is life. Most of us spend our lives going to a handful of places over and over again, and those places become our lives. I write about Southern California a lot because it’s the place I know best, but there are infinite places within it. I’m more interested in rooms and streets than in geography.

Please tell us about your revision process. How much did this story change from the first draft to the final? What are your priorities when you’re refining a piece of writing?

My process is very slow, because I don’t like moving on from a paragraph until I feel like it’s right and doing what I want it to do. I like to say I can’t cross a bridge I haven’t built yet. I can’t work on a later section if the section that leads into it is a mess, because everything builds on what came before. So, like most of my writing, the first draft of this story came line by line, paragraph by paragraph. Then subsequent drafts are about pulling back on moments that I’ve pushed too hard and nurturing the parts that feel undercooked. I always knew this story was going to be very short, and it’s more autobiographical than most of the things I write. I sort of had the whole thing in my head before I started, so it didn’t change all that much from start to finish other than trimming fat.

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

I’m currently looking for a home for my second novel, a bit of San Fernando Valley melancholia called Coldwater Canyon, about an increasingly ill Desert Storm veteran stalking a young actress. In the meantime, I’m working on a new novel about a mother and adult daughter facing their demons through a series of extreme weather events.

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

I recently really enjoyed Margaret Wappler’s novel Neon Green. And I’m always reading short stories, currently Helen Oyeyemi’s collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, which is so strange and lovely and expansive.

 

Thursday
Jul062017

“The New Rule”: An Interview with Leah Horlick

Photo credit: Maki FotosLeah Horlick is a writer and poet from Saskatoon. A 2012 Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Her first collection of poetry, Riot Lung (Thistledown Press, 2012) was shortlisted for a 2013 ReLit Award and a Saskatchewan Book Award. She lives on Unceded Coast Salish Territories in Vancouver, where she co-curates REVERB, a queer and anti-oppressive reading series. Her second book, For Your Own Good, was published by Caitlin Press in spring 2015.

Her poem, "Bruises," appeared in Issue Sixty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Sarah Huener about influences, editing, and agency.

“Bruises” opens with an epigraph that’s referenced—and illustrated—later in the poem. Did this poem begin when you read the Sara Peters poem? If not, how did you start writing, and when did you decide to include the epigraph?

Sara Peters’ book 1994 is a favourite of mine, and I’ve returned to it ever since this poem first bowled me over. “The Last Time I Slept In This Bed” is really only one of a host of luminous poems, but because it’s the very last, and because of the way it deals with the topic of (what I read as) self-harm, it always has given me extra shivers. “Bruises” definitely began as I sifted through my feelings about the poem and reflected on some of my own experiences about my body and pain and choice.

This poem is linguistically taut and avoids being cluttered with unnecessary words. Did you use this style and form from the start, or arrive at them through revision?

I’m so glad that style is coming through for you here! I was definitely aiming for tightness and clarity all throughout the piece, as well as throughout the manuscript which eventually became  For Your Own Good. I find I often have to pare my poems way, way down from the first draft, though—it’s a bit like taking a vegetable peeler and shaving off some of the unnecessary bits.

“This was not an original practice” strikes me as something true of writing in general—that it can be a way to feel “able to choose” and exercise agency of a sort. What are your thoughts on balancing agency with rule-following in writing?

Great question. What works for me is to notice what I respond to in other writers’ work—what exciting shifts are really working, what technical strengths make a good foundation, what experiments really challenge me as a reader—and try to balance that with my own sense of my strengths as a poet. I also read out loud a lot—I find if something looks like a major rule-breaker on the page, it can still really work when performed on stage or read aloud.

What have you read recently that you’ve connected with?

Some of my favourite recent reads include The Devourers by Indra Das and Passage by Gwen Benaway. I’ve been returning again and again to even this page is white, Vivek Shraya’s debut book of poetry. I have also been obsessively reading anything I can find by Melissa Broder ever since I read So Sad Today (during the course of which I missed my stop on the train three times).

What are you working on right now?

I am very fortunate right now to be working on a long-form poem about my family’s Jewish roots in Eastern Europe - thanks to some very generous grant funding I’ll be in Romania & Moldova for two weeks at the end of July 2017 to do some research!

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