"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.


"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.


"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.



“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!


"Aiming for What's Unknown": An Interview with Jenny Sadre-Orafai

Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of Malak (forthcoming from Platypus Press) and Paper, Cotton, Leather. Her poetry has appeared in Cream City Review, Ninth Letter, The Cortland Review, Hotel Amerika, The Pinch, and other journals. Her prose has appeared in Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, South Loop Review, Fourteen Hills, and other journals. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an Associate Professor of English at Kennesaw State University.

Her essay, "Misophonia Primer or How You Hear Sound," appeared in Issue Eighty-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, Jenny Sadre-Orafai talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about sound, discovery, and writing in a trance.

What can you tell us about the origins of “Misophonia Primer or How You Hear Sound”? What sparked the initial idea?

I found myself explaining misophonia to more and more people recently and rather selfishly because I wanted them to be more mindful about their noise levels around me. So, I thought maybe I would just write an essay about what it’s like to really live with it. I’ve come across some people who think I’m just being picky or sensitive, but it’s a real reaction to sound that I cannot control.

This piece is divided into twenty-six short paragraphs, each with its own title (most of them sounds), one for each letter and arranged in alphabetical order. Why organize your essay in this form? Did you write the sections in the same order in which they’re presented, or did you skip around?

I knew I didn’t want to write a conventional essay. I wanted the essay to be snippets of sound—sound coming in and out instead of a constant hum. I also think this format may be more inviting and not as overwhelming. So, I probably wrote it in this way for a reader like me, who can get overwhelmed easily. I actually came up with the section titles first and then skipped around writing each entry.

In the section “Televisions,” you write, “You work in the quiet. Your fiancé works in chaos. You make words and he makes images, So it’s different, you tell him.” I wonder if you could elaborate on this, and I admit my curiosity partially comes from the fact that I am a writer, too, and I find that I cannot tune out many sounds, which is why I keep earplugs at work and use them daily. Reading your essay, I felt I could relate to the speaker’s struggles, although I acknowledge that actual misophonia is rare, so I’m not sure if my “this seems familiar” response to the essay speaks more to my own experiences or to your keen abilities to convey yours in a sympathetic way. What I want to know is: Do you think there is a correlation being a writer and having auditory triggers? How would you describe the relationship between the writer’s life and the world of sounds?

Thank you for this question, William. It’s such an important one. I have always written in some sort of strange trance, so I find anything auditory breaks that trance or spell for me. It almost muffles out what I’m hearing and transcribing. I know this all sounds like a very romantic way of writing, but it’s how I’ve always worked. I do think, however, that sound can be a catalyst for writing sometimes. The sound of two people whispering on a plane, someone clapping too early on a recording of a live symphony performance, a horse clopping on a street during vacation. These can all be seeds for poems, essays, or stories that I stow away for later.

You are the author of both prose and poetry. What lessons have you learned from one genre that you have applied to how you write in the other?

I’ve learned how to really be lyrical in prose ironically and I’ve learned how to walk into a poem without a trail or a map. The lesson of being lyrical helps when writing prose because for me sound is even more important in prose sometimes. And, coming to the page without a plan and aiming for what’s unknown is something that is really felt for readers I think. I feel like the reader wants to discover with you and they’ll know if you already have it all figured out. Where’s the discovery in that?

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

I’m putting finishing touches on my second poetry collection Malak, forthcoming this fall from Platypus Press.

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

I really, really loved Wendy Ortiz’s Bruja, Airea D. Matthews’ simulacra, Brit Bennet’s The Mothers, and Annie Hartnett’s Rabbit Cake.


"To Reclaim Her from the Murderer": An Interview with Corrina Carter

Corrina Carter is a graduate of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. Her work has appeared or will appear in such journals as About Place, Alligator Juniper, The Fourth River, The Kenyon Review Online, and Redivider. In her free time, she runs, hikes, birds, and researches true crime.

Her essay, "From the Trolley Car to the Field," appeared in Issue Eighty-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, Corrina Carter talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about "pet" murders, hypotheses, and writing from a nonhuman perspective.

I tried Googling the details in your essay (names, setting, etc.) and found only your essay and other unrelated listings, rather than the news reports I was seeking. So am I right to assume that this piece is based on a true story with the names changed? If so, how did you learn of the story? What are this essay’s real origins?

You’re correct. Bernadette, my father’s cousin, and her parents were very private, so I didn’t use their real names. I also didn’t identify or even directly reference the murderer, a serial killer who has inspired several books, because people tend to remember victimizers and forget victims. I want to change this, to prevent the slain from becoming footnotes to their own deaths. All their fears, needs, and aspirations vanished in a bloody instant. We should at least keep them at the forefront of our thoughts.

Your bio says that you enjoy researching true crime. How much time would you say you devote to this type of research? How often do you use this research in your own writing? How and when did this interest in true crime start for you?

I spend three to four hours a week gathering information on my “pet” murders. The information colors my worldview—and therefore my writing—but doesn’t always lead to an essay. Though I’m not sure exactly when my interest in true crime began, I attribute it to a lifelong compassion for the marginalized people most likely to fall victim to violence: women, children, minorities, runaways, sex workers, and substance abusers, to name a few.

How much of your own invention went into telling this story? How much invention do you think should be permitted while still labeling a piece “nonfiction”?

“Trolley Car” sticks to the facts yet leaves room for speculation. Like Lawrence and Evelyn, I can only guess Bernadette’s final thoughts. But if I had simply written, “Mr. and Mrs. Williams wondered what their daughter experienced before the end,” I wouldn’t have captured the intensity of their desire to get inside her head. (A subconscious attempt to reclaim her from the murderer, I suspect. They, not he, knew her well enough to deduce her state of mind at the instant of death.) I apply the same logic to nonfiction in general. When the truth is elusive, catch it with hypothesis.

You’re a recent graduate of Iowa State University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment. What drew you to this unconventional program? What can you tell us about the relationship between your writing life and your passion for wildlife?

I attended Iowa State because most of my work relates to the natural world, especially to animals as emotional, expressive beings. As Marc Bekoff says, “When animals express their feelings, they pour out like water from a spout, raw, unfiltered, and uncontrolled.” I envy this immediacy and strive to experience it by writing from a nonhuman point of view.

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

I’m revising my first novel, a critique of land management in the American West told from a mustang’s perspective. The project will require all my creative energy for the time being; it’s over 500 pages and a challenge to edit. I can’t seem to reconcile my formal prose style with the “horseness” of my protagonist.

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

I just read The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy Tyson. This book made headlines upon its release because it contains an interview in which Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who testified that Till molested her, admits to perjury. However, Tyson is more interested in contextualizing the murder than uncovering new evidence. He discusses Southern outrage at the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the political shrewdness of Mamie Till’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral for her son, and the continued relevance of 20th century lynchings in the Black Lives Matter era.


"The Trouble of Taxonomizing Dogs": An Interview with Robert Glick

Robert Glick is Coeditor of Versal and Assistant Professor of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he teaches creative writing and digital literature. His work has appeared in The Normal School, Denver Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, and The Gettysburg Review.

His story, "Instar," appeared in Issue Sixty-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about kindness, rabid dogs, and fiction writers who think like poets.

Where did “Instar” begin for you?

There’s a beginning that we can call an inception point, an image perhaps, and there’s another moment, later, when vectors form a multi-dimensional intersection, and there, you can almost see the crackling overload of language and idea and stress and emotion.

Early on, I knew a great deal about the front story (Jess and Lix finding Ajla, who has just been assaulted in the bathroom of the corn maze mini-mart); I also knew that I didn’t want to tell that story directly, not yet, though Ajla would eventually have her own narration. But really, the story germ didn’t manifest until I had read Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Rabies, with its discursive ties to gender, to zombies, and of course to dogs, allowed me passage to talk about the ambivalent, sometimes catastrophic ways our innocent caretaking goes horribly wrong.

The “beginning” for me is almost always a question of style, structure, or language rather than a question of image or event. Yes, the image of Jess sleeping under the piano for protection solidified my desire to tell this story, but really, I owe everything here—both through her sentence syntax and her recursive mode of storytelling—to Susan Steinberg. The narrators in her great collection of stories, Spectacle, gave me a space for Jess to speak in lyric and often impossible ways.

I’m in love with the language surrounding the dog. To name just two of my favorite lines: “The slow cracking of each kibble between Chunk’s teeth made me happy, like a bright flower you luck onto growing out of a tree trunk.” and “My room was full of angry dog hairs.” The narrator has a complicated relationship with the dog. She is afraid of it, but also protective of it. What about dogs interested you when writing this story?

Certainly, as you suggested, dogs, especially for young kids, engender both deep love and, at times, intense (and justified) fear. It struck me that the same dog (even when not rabid) can evoke both emotions, which saved me the trouble of taxonomizing dogs into the tiny soft cuddlies and the big scary steel-jawed. Confronted with such a dog, the brain addles, can’t figure out what kinds of investments one can safely make.

In the framework of the story, the dog could be allowed into interior spaces as bats or squirrels (other carriers of rabies) couldn’t, and so could explore the limits of allowing children to self-actualize, of asking parents to impose themselves. Furthermore, the rabid dog gives us a more complex model for identity and personality; who’s to say that we don’t learn identity formation from animals? And lastly, because Jess knew this particular dog, she could struggle with forms of betrayal that ultimately accelerate her political awakenings.

This piece oscillates between writing that is strictly narrative and writing that is enigmatic and lyrical. When do you think a story benefits from entering a more lyrical space?

I’d apply a bit of pressure to the binary. For me, everything begins with language; the idea of language as transparent, as simply a vehicle for plot, as neutral or objective or unideological, is absurd. Language defaces, deforms, reveals, conceals. So I want even the more direct passages to be lyric, not necessarily in terms of lyrical language or an ambiguity of meaning but in terms of an attention to sound, rhythm, construction, linguistic or neural association. I would be flattering myself to say I think like a poet, but I regret deeply that all fiction writers don’t think more like poets.

You’re of course correct, though, in suggesting that there’s a kairos to moving into a more lyrical space. For me, I like it to be established early, not only as an emotionally shattering end-game. I like it when people toggle the tension between using the lyric in apostrophes and digressions and when they use it for more direct event-moments. And I like it when people express the lyric in addressing the banal and sometimes abject rather than coupling it strictly to the sublime (which of course can also be abject).

I’m not convinced the lyric is a separate mode, something we trot out on special occasions. It doesn’t have to slow the story down; it doesn’t have to map onto a narrator who has a special reason to imagine the world in lyrical terms. I’d argue instead that it’s fundamental to how many of us think; that the lyric is a norm rather than an exception.

Your story is pretty dark throughout, but it ends in a moment of kindness. Why did you choose to end in this moment? Did you always plan on ending it here, or did you stumble upon it?

It’s a moment of kindness, when Jess takes home her friend’s dog, that causes all the trouble in the first place. So while I wouldn’t fully place the rabid dog in parallel with Ajla, there’s a kind of echo here, a suggestion that Jess (otherwise nicknamed the Little Scorpion, which accounts for the title of the story) is still capable of and willing to pursue these acts of empathy and compassion, despite the possibility that the outcome might devastate her. Once I figured out that I wanted the front and back stories in conversation, Jess’s moment of kindness (which, to be frank, might be also seen as an ethical duty) felt like the only place the story could end.

Now for a strange question. If this story was a breed of dog, what would it be?

That’s difficult. It’s probably a big, sometimes mean dog, a dog equally capable of violence and devotion. A dog like a pit bull or a German Shepherd. No, it’s undoubtedly a Rottweiler. I once lived above two Rotties I loved; yet a few years prior, two other Rotties had killed my cat, so perhaps it was that deep ambivalence that best represents “Instar”.

What projects are you working on now?

The story “Instar” is a version of a chapter in my current novel project, The Paradox of Wonderwoman’s Airplane, which I’m in the process of revising. As a result, I knew a lot of about what happened before and after the time period of “Instar”, and I already had an extensive network of ideas to toy with.  

In addition to the not-insignificant challenge of writing a novel, the project is composed of both print and digital components—so I’m also building digital works that come from within the novel itself, like bits of programming that Jess codes in high school, or bits of radical cartography designed by another character, or even performance pieces written by Ajla. I hope that more writers think about print as something that leaps, like a flea, onto other mediums, then leaps back, traversing in and off and back to print, bringing the material of print into conversations about writing.


"Syphilitic with Vision": An Interview with Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, and crossed the border through Tijuana at the age of five with his family. He is a Canto Mundo fellow and the first undocumented student to graduate from the University of Michigan’s MFA program. He teaches summers as the resident artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida and at Sacramento State University. He was a finalist for the New England Review Emerging Writer Award, and his manuscript was a finalist for the Alice James Book Prize and the National Poetry Series. His work has been adapted into opera through collaboration with the composer Reinaldo Moya.  His poems and essays can be found in Indiana Review, New England Review, The Paris American, Gulf Coast and Southern Humanities Review, among others. He helped initiate the Undocupoets campaign which successfully eliminated citizenship requirements from all major first poetry book prizes in the country.

His poems, "La Virgin" and "Orgin of Prayer," appeared in Issue Sixty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with Interview T.m. Lawson about the poetical influence of Larry Levis, styling decisions within verse, and the path to creation.

You once said in an interview (with PBS) that you pursued writing as a way to offset suspicions on your background as an immigrant and, [b]y way of fear, along came poetry.” I thought this was insightful; powerful poetry comes from powerful emotions that spark it. You start your poem, Origin of Prayer”, starts off with this emotion: In all its simplicity to pray / is to stare at something other than yourself for once.” It is dedicated to/styled after Larry Levis (who is a personal influence of mine as well!) Which work of his inspired this poem? What is your process when ‘transmigrating’ the soul of another poet’s poetry into your own writing?

First of all, thank you for these questions and thank you for your time. I absolutely love The Collagist. It was one of the first journals that I published me in which I thought “I can actually do this.”  I feel like it’s been such a long time since I wrote these poems that it’s a joy to revisit them. I’ve changed them so much that I can hardly tell where one ends and another begins.

I guess I couldn’t pinpoint exactly one poem of Levis that this was after but rather it was in the spirit of Levis’ work at large. He has these amazing and grandiose openings that assume complete authority, complete freedom to begin with something large and work its way into something small. He often opened his poems with these huge announcements that I was told needed to be earned—broad statements that couldn’t just be given away like candy, you had to work for them. From his early work, one of his poems opened with “The men who killed poetry / Hated silence…Now they have plenty.” Or, “The last thing my father did for me / Was map a way: he died, & so / Made death possible.” Like, how does he do that? And from one of my favorite poems of his, “The brow of a horse in that moment when / the horse is drinking water so deeply from a trough / it seems to inhale the water, is holy.” I think I am less of a poet every time I read Levis. I have family who’ve lived in Selma CA, his hometown, since the early 70’s. I visit Selma about once a year and every time I’m there I try to look for what he saw in those endless rows of grape vines. And then, I remember probably one of his best openings, “I’m going to put Johnny Dominguez right here / In front of you on this page so that / You won’t mistake him for something else, / An idea, for example, of how oppressed / He was rising with is pan of Thompson Seedless / Grapes from a row of vines…” I’m dumbstruck. If there was something to bow to I would bow in the middle of the hot Selma Sun.

La Virgen” is captivating, claustrophobic, and creepy. One thing I admired in the poem was the image of the Virgin Mary as a horrific figure straight out of The Ring, but the pious intensity remains true at the end despite some disturbing vibes. It is a delicate balancing act that you do, and do very well. This is a very specific question, but something that stuck with me; why capitalize the word ‘but’ in second to last stanza in La Virgen”? Every other word, save for the pronoun I”, is lowercased; is this a way of separating a major shift? I’m always interested in authorial intent for these little mysteries that present themselves in poems.

I wish I had something interesting to say to this and I really appreciate the careful reading you’ve taken to it. I like that actually—a shift. There was a time when I was confused by punctuation or rather than confused, I was obstructed by it. I had a few unpunctuated poems and part of that process also meant leaving everything lowercase. I should have left even the “I” lowercase but I felt that was almost irreverence to Lucille Clifton’s use of the lowercase “i.” If I did it, I felt like it would come off as a cheap cop out. I liked how everything just stood there on the page, independent of itself. I guess it gave each line a greater autonomy than I could manage at the time. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so good at it as I first thought. I just couldn’t maintain it. There were places I absolutely needed punctuation. So, that strategy fell flat. I mean, it’s trial and error right?

So, I guess to answer your question, that capital “B” was a typo. Like I said, I wish I had something better to say but sometimes it’s less glamorous than that. I love that you allude to The Ring. La Virgen de Guadalupe has always been an idea that evaded me. I didn’t grow up catholic but I always felt like she transcended religion and embodied more of a culture iconography. I left the protestant church because I was disillusioned by conservative ideologies that were narrow minded and even at times hateful. I spent a lot of time thinking about the allure that La Virgen had on me. A few years ago I went to Mexico City to see the original painting and climb the hill of Tepeyac where she first appeared to Juan Diego. Do you know what they do with all of the flowers that are brought to La Virgen at her altar? A convent crushes them and infuses their perfumes into special rosaries. Isn’t that beautiful?

Religion seems to be a running theme in both these poems, yet it does not always have a positive spin. For instance, Origin of Prayer” features a line that starts with a saint syphilitic with vision”, which immediately brings to mind the various infamous Catholic church scandals and it is followed up by a later more reflective line: Perhaps God too had to look away from Himself”. This brings to mind the current state of participation in religion and its decline of prestige. It strikes me as at once critical but also as a loving homage to the history of the church and what it (can) inspires. Does this theme and perspective repeat for you?

It’s funny that you point to that line because now that I’m on the the theme of Levis, I actually think that line came from Levis. Something about “syphilitic with vision.” I think it comes from his poem “Linnets,” which is one of my favorites. I might have jumped the gun with my last response but I really did become disillusioned with religion. I couldn’t get over the hypocrisy. And yet, I still pray, if ever briefly. I still write about God because it’s such a great invention, or idea, isn’t it? Not to say that God doesn’t exist, but that our image of him/her/them continually changes.

What are you currently reading?

Right now I’m reading a lot of prose. I’m reading Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, and I’m trying to get through Cynthia Ozick’s Quarrel and Quandary, though I find it highly problematic. I just finished The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison and, coincidentally, I’m reading a theological text titled Defense of the Faith and the Saints, by some guy named B.H. Roberts. I’ve never read Virginia Woolf so I’m getting through To the Lighthouse. There isn’t much in terms of poetry but I did just start reading Jennifer S. Cheng’s book House A out from Omnidawn. I promised myself that I would read more. Last year was probably the single most difficult year of my life for reasons I won’t go into here but I finally feel like I’m getting back into a rhythm.

What are you writing or working on?

Right now I’m working on a book of hybrid essays / memoir (thus all the prose I’ve been reading). I want to  investigate the mechanisms behind the immigration apparatus and the effects that the immigration system has on families. Both of my parents have been held in immigration detention centers and I want to elucidate the impact of incarceration.

I want to investigate the ideas of separation, Latino Masculinity, exile, deportation, immigrant experience, death, and sexuality. I envision this as a collection of interconnected essays, perhaps even lyrical in some aspects. It’s still in the early stages but I hope to get some momentum going this semester with a light teaching load.

I haven’t been writing much, or actually any, poetry lately. I feel like I can’t move on until my book of poems is out in the world. I feel like the more I tamper with it, the more manipulative the meanings become. I don’t want to write toward something but rather, I want to be lead by something.

I want to stretch these poems to their breaking point. Sometimes I think I do more harm than good by continually revising. Sometimes I think that previous versions were far better off without my tampering. I’m at the point where I’ll either work on these poems further for a few more years or throw them away and start over again.

I’m also going to begin a translation collaboration with another poet. We’re translating a 600 page book of poems written by a young experimental Latin American poet named Yaxkin Melchy. I’ve published a few of his translations on my own but it’s going to be great to see what we can translate together.

After a completely hellish year, I just want to create something again. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.


"Shades of My Own Experience': An Interview with Dylan Brown

Dylan Brown is a graduate of the MFA program at Oregon State. His work has appeared in Brevity, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and Barrelhouse. He currently works as a bookseller on the Oregon Coast.

His essay, "Here in the Mariana Trench," appeared in Issue Eighty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Dylan Brown talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about research, scaffolding, and Nick Flynn.

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

This piece in its current form started as a response to a prompt from one of my instructors at Oregon State, Jennifer Richter, in a hybrid forms class. It was strange for me because I typically don’t enjoy prompts but Jennifer pointed out a type of scaffolding I thought I could work with. She’s a great poet who I think understands structure really well. The material itself came from things I’d been tinkering with before in a more linear way but weren’t working in that form.

This essay contains some factual information about a shipwreck, Werner Herzog, and, of course, the Mariana Trench. How does research fit into your writing process? Are you learning about these things before or during your work on the essay? How much do you depend on research for your nonfiction writing, and do you enjoy doing research?

Research cracks open the world a little bit for me, and maybe more importantly, it expands my vocabulary, helps me find the right word. It’s a process I enjoy immensely, which seems natural to me because my love of writing is rooted in my love of reading. At times, usually when I’m writing, I feel like I don’t know anything about anything, which can be kind of debilitating. Research can help alleviate that. I usually try to write as much as I can without doing any research, but in this case parts of the piece really came about from connections I was making as I was reading: the ships and the narcosis, for instance.

You write about your mother and father in this essay, at times revealing some personal information and making some vulnerable statements, such as, “Does he know that I miss him? He might suspect as much. I can’t say if he’ll ever read this. I just don’t know how to call, or what I’d say if I did.” Do you ever have any reservations about not only writing about these relationships but also publishing the work? Can you speak about the risks and rewards of writing and publishing creative nonfiction about your loved ones?

I had some reservations at first, particularly with regards to my father. This isn’t the most flattering portrait of him, but it is an honest one. He’s always been honest with me, many times to a fault, so it might run in the family. In terms of the risks and rewards, I’m reminded of Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. When I read it I kept saying to myself, “He’s describing my dad! That’s him!” Of course, it wasn’t him, but it meant so much to me to see shades of my own experience in someone else’s story. Now, I think we owe it to one another to share these things. It kills me to think of all the important stories people have taken with them to the grave. I don’t know if that’s coming from a place of selfishness or generosity.

There are a few moments in this essay when the focus turns to writing itself (e.g., “I’ll admit it: I chafe at the thought of poetry, when it becomes a show or veneer, a cloak the writer hides behind,” or, “I don’t tell the truth anymore.”). How did these “meta” moments make their way into this essay? What’s the intended effect on the reader of calling attention to the artifice of the work you’re doing?

The meta moments are apologia, in a sense. I’m a sucker for narrative and linear structure but with this material I felt those devices were letting me down. The intended effect has something to do with reminding the reader that making sense of our lives often means making sense of the linguistic tools we are using. Here I may have felt as though I was doing some hiding myself by structuring the material this way.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’ve been working on a longer piece of fiction. I don’t really know enough about it yet to say more than that. I’m also working on a book review and some translation work. It helps me to have several things going at once, in case I stall out somewhere.

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

A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker is a quiet novel that blew me away. Baker’s writing belies an intense curiosity about the world that I envy and I tend to enjoy novels where not much happens. For example, there’s a whole bit about the proper way to wash a dirty plate. Each section starts with what time it is in the early morning as the narrator drinks coffee by a fire he’s just built. Then it follows his thoughts and worries about the coming day, sometimes a memory, and moves out from there. It’s a great study in how relatively uneventful scenes can add up to an affecting novel.


"An Infectious Rhythm": An Interview with Mary South

Mary South is a graduate of the MFA program in fiction at Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, The New Yorker’s Book Bench, NOON, VICE, and Words Without Borders.

Her story, "Vogue la Galère," appeared in Issue Seventy-Five of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about department stores, beautifully crafted sentences, and gathering language from the world around us.

What first inspired you to write this story?

Sometimes, as I’m going about my day—getting coffee, riding the subway, buying groceries, etc.—I’ll get snippets of language that will pop up in my head. If I like those bits and pieces enough, I’ll take a moment to write them down in my phone or a notebook so that I won’t forget them. In this case, the story started with me buying a birthday gift in a department store. I tend to feel strange in department stores. There are so many people and so much stuff, I might even wonder if I’m actually really present there at all. It’s similar to the experience of Kate Zambreno’s narrator from Green Girl, except with a lot less existential angst. The story started from that experience and grew with more written-down remembered language fragments over a period of a few months.

“Vogue la Galere” doesn’t follow a chronological movement, but instead is propelled by memory and association. What are the challenges of writing in this mode? What was your driving force while drafting this story?

A few years ago, I studied with Gordon Lish. He teaches a writing style called consecution. Gary Lutz best described it in a talk entitled “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” which he gave to Columbia University and that was later reprinted in The Believer. At the time of writing this story, I was also working with Diane Williams quite closely on her journal NOON and reading/editing a lot of wonderful shorter fiction. Writing shorter short stories isn’t my typical mode; I tend to veer long, on the side of 18 – 20 pages. I really love fiction in that mode, though, and sometimes try it myself, too. When I go short, the driving impulse is mostly sound: starting a sentence with a certain set of sounds and then both carrying it forward as well as subtly altering those initial sounds. There’s nothing quite like an extraordinary sentence. I think of sentences by Lutz himself, such as this one: “There is no use in hearing the term ‘apartment complex’ unless it is taken immediately to mean a syndrome, a fiesta of symptoms.” I’ll sometimes be going about my day and then, for no apparent reason, I’ll think of that sentence. It doesn’t display any obvious pyrotechnics, but it is one of the most beautifully crafted sentences I’ve ever read. If you examine how Lutz carries the “m” and “t” sounds forward through that sentence, it accumulates a kind of infectious rhythm. The m sounds are particularly effective, as they’re nasal consonants and he even manages to end the sentence on a nasal consonant with the m in the word “symptoms.”

The speaker in this story learns something about a person based on what article of clothing they’re shopping for. If this story were represented by something you could buy in the menswear, what would it be?

I’m going to go with a men’s wallet. It’s something you buy for someone because you can’t really think of what else to get him as a present. It’s also an item that a man handles with great frequency and something that rests very close to a man’s body—in his back pants pocket or in the breast pocket of a jacket. But wallets are also pretty impersonal—because of their function, it’s hard to make them distinctive the way you can make other men’s accessories distinctive, such as ties or cufflinks. When you buy them, they also come empty, of course, which I think is a good visual for how the narrator of this story feels about her grief and her day-to-day life working in the store.

What is a book you love right now?

At the end of last year, I read Affinity Konar’s Mischling and was extremely impressed by both its harrowing story (it follows two twins, Stasha and Pearl, who are among the subjects of human experimentation by Mengele in Auschwitz) as well as Konar’s language that is gorgeous and manages both to not flinch at the horrors it is describing or overly lyricize suffering.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

I’m finishing a collection of short stories. The stories share a theme in that they explore how technology affects our relationships. For example, one story is about a mother who loses a daughter tragically, then clones that daughter and tries to restage the memories they experienced together so that she can have back the same daughter she lost. Obviously, things don’t go quite according to her plan. Another story is about a woman obsessed with online stalking her rapist—so much so that she starts stalking him in real life. Another is about a summer rehabilitation camp on Martha’s Vineyard for kids who have been discovered to be particularly toxic Internet trolls. I’ve been working on the collection for at least a good five years, and I think—I hope—it’s close to being done.

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