"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.


"The 'D' is Silent": An Interview with Maureen Seaton

Maureen Seaton’s new and selected, Fibonacci Batman, is out from Carnegie Mellon University Press. She is the author of fifteen poetry collections, both solo and collaborative, and a memoir, Sex Talks to Girls (University of Wisconsin Press). Her awards include the Iowa Prize, Lambda Literary Award, NEA fellowship, and the Pushcart. Capricea book of collected, uncollected, and new collaborations with Denise Duhamel, is due out in 2015 from Sibling Rivalry Press. Seaton teaches poetry at the University of Miami, Florida.

Her poems, "13 Auras for a Migraine" and "When I Was an Unfinished Novel," apppeared in Issue Sixty-One of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer T.m. Lawson about stylizations of her poetry, whether or not visual aesthetics of both pieces went into consideration for submission, and inadvertent sexual innuendo in enjambment.

How did the structure for “13 Auras for a Migraine” come about? It is very unusual, but not so unfamiliar that it is jarring. Were there any particular influences for the styling?

This poem was a troublemaker. It took me years and the poem a couple dozen costume changes before it found its shape. Finally, the Talking Heads reminded me of migraines one day when I was rewatching Stop Making Sense, and David Byrne entered the piece, accidentally supplying an extra line. Then I read someplace that if you’re standing on the equator at noon your shadow falls in opposite directions, supplying the penultimate. The poem gave up and was done. Oh, and since I’ve often experienced the jigjaggy aura of a migraine, it seemed appropriate to jigjag the lines.

Your term “styling” interests me. I wonder if you thought of it because migraines remind you of hair. Basically, this poem did style itself. Unlike the other poem, “When I Was an Unfinished Novel,” which had to do what I told it to do because it’s a terza rima with a rhyme scheme and a syllabic structure (all loose, of course, but prescribed just the same).

Many poets and writers will submit their cache of work as cohesive, whether in theme or styling, to better package or market themselves to a journal/press/agent. The structural/visual difference between “13 Auras for a Migraine” and “When I Was an Unfinished Novel” is striking. The former is experimental, absolutely postmodern, while the other is a more traditional tercet. I find myself going back and forth between these two styles, and wondering, what prompted you to pair them together for The Collagist?

For better or worse, I don’t think there’s much about my work that is cohesive, as you say, except that I write mostly about myself and the world in some way or other. As far as style is concerned, I’m all over the place. Prose poems, terza rima, sonnets, both rhymed and unrhymed, scanned and unscanned, collages, lyric essays, collaborations, Fibonacci sequences. Serious, funny. When I sent these two poems to The Collagist, I simply chose what I considered my strongest available pieces.

The beauty of poetry is that it is at once subjective and objective; there is so much that anyone could argue over what means what. Your choice of isolating “the D” in particular is almost a wink at the slang term for male genitalia, as if the reader was also a friend of yours. Is this your aim for your poetry—not just building the layers of meaning, but infusing your own personality and humor with your art?

I hope the reader is a friend more times than not, but I think it’s hysterical that you think I used “the D” as a slang term for penis (I just looked it up). I’m actually much too literal to wink at my reader most of the time. In this case, “the D” simply made a nice iamb. So I guess the poem did the winking.

And I actually don’t consciously build layers of meaning in my poems. But I do love humor and/or surprise in just about everything.

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

Justin Chin’s Selected Works (a posthumous collection) came out this year from Manic D Press (Uh oh! Another D!). Anyway, it’s a beautiful tribute to one of my favorite poets by his publisher and friend, Jennifer Joseph. Plus, it’s got short essays by some of Chin’s other friends too. I highly recommend.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m currently editing an anthology with poet and arts activist Neil de la Flor called Reading Queer: Poetry in a Time of Chaos. It was commissioned in 2015 by Anhinga Press of Tallahassee in conjunction with the award-winning Miami grassroots organization, Reading Queer, and we had no idea, really, how necessary a volume it would be. We’re almost finished collecting really crucial work by queer-identified writers. The anthology is due to be published in early 2018. Thanks for asking!


"As If Children Are Little Machines": An Interview with Alba Machado

Alba Machado just submitted her thesis project to Columbia College Chicago. It's a satirical novel inspired by her experiences as a Chicago Public School teacher, and her last step towards earning her MFA in creative writing. So. Any day now. There's forms and fees. It's very exciting. While she waits, she's Trumpifying her writing and engaging in Facebook activism—no, really! It's more than just rant posts, you guys! Her work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Curbside Splendor, Knee-Jerk Magazine, Gapers Block, and others.

Her story, "A Limited Time," appeared in Issue Eighty-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, Alba Machado talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about teaching inner-city youths, unicycles, and satire in a 'post-truth' society.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “A Limited Time”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

It’s an idea that came up four years ago, back when I was teaching. One of my kids—my “not-son,” Joey—he started teaching himself to ride the unicycle, which is unusual for an inner-city, working class, Latinx boy. I was supportive but also kind of worried about his skull, especially since I couldn’t convince him to wear protective gear. At the same time, there were other kids facing other dangers, as well as traumatic, soul-crushing situations, and most of them, unlike Joey, were not in the gifted program and not in a position to join the academic clubs and connect with their teachers the way he could. And we did nothing for them. Nothing. Or, rather, we waited until their situations became dire enough that social workers and DCFS needed to be called in, because we were too busy jumping through ridiculous, mandated hoops designed to raise test scores. As if physical and emotional health doesn’t impact learning. As if children are little machines being calibrated for optimal performance. These are the thoughts I was grappling with when “A Limited Time” started to emerge.

This story contains only about a hundred words. Is it a challenge for you to write with such brevity, or is it natural for you to write concise pieces? How much revision and/or restraint did it require to achieve this economy of language?

Before it was a 101-word story, it was an 8,000-word story arc in my novel. So I’d been sitting with and toying with the material for quite some time. But I didn’t hack away at the longer piece. Instead, I broke it up into parts, summarized each part into just a phrase, and then—after time away—I came back to this list of summaries and used it as a prompt for something entirely new. That meant switching point of view. And emphasizing tone and style in a way that’s very much inspired by Donald Barthelme. His short story, “The School,” is one of my all-time favorites.

What makes a unicycle irresistible to one young boy after another? What would you do if you came across the unicycle lying in the grass (sans nearby dead bodies)?

Well, it's so shiny. One of my friends told me that the contrast between the unicycle and the bogo donut is what stood out to him; that the unicycle is a solitary thing and the donuts, at least “for a limited time,” are bought in pairs, and so, to him, this piece is about the tragedy of dying alone. And I’ve heard other takes that are very different: it’s about growing up and being independent; it’s about staying young and preserving a childhood sense of wonder and whimsy; it’s about making a spectacle of yourself to get much needed attention; it’s about being individual and different when, really, there’s so much sameness. And so on. As archetypes and symbols, there are a number of ways the boys and the unicycle could be read—and a number of reasons these boys might find a unicycle irresistible. I’d rather not lend any one interpretation more validity than another by divulging my authorial intent. And by that I mean I don’t want any one of my friends or family to be able to say to the others, “Aha! I got it right! Neener-neener-neener!” That said, if I personally came across a unicycle lying in the grass, I’d first try to find the owner, and, failing that, I’d sell it on eBay for $39.99.

Your bio says that you are finishing up a satirical novel. How does satire remain relevant in a so-called “post-truth” world where false, easily debunked news stories attract as much attention as (or more attention than) credible, accurate ones?

The day that Trump was elected president, I was on the brink of submitting a satirical novel on American education as my MFA thesis project—and it was set in a world where a man like Trump could never be president. I assumed Clinton would win. I assumed Clinton would mostly continue Obama’s education policies. So now, suddenly, my criticism of those policies seemed quaint. Aw, you thought that was bad? How cute. I joked that I should have written a Wild West zombie romance instead. But, really, the reality of Trump and our “post-truth” world is something that all writers and artists are dealing with now to varying degrees; we all have to consider the context in which our work will be received and how that will affect our meaning. Because it’s all political. Whether you mean it to be or not. Every story from the most personal to the most fantastic and otherworldly has its political implications. The Wild West zombie romance would have had them, too. In the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes the book’s origin, saying, “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” She had her chaos, and we have ours. In her chaos, the medical community believed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria—and treatment included doctors masturbating female patients to orgasm. In our chaos, the president-elect Tweets that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese—and he’ll very likely have the power to shape policy which ignores this very real threat to our survival as a planet. Oh, plus he asks, How come no nuking? And he’s getting the nuclear codes. So. Yeah. Maybe the stakes are higher now. But there’s always been chaos and there’s always been artists responding to it. Satire will still have to find a way to make its targets laughable without diminishing our concerns or downplaying the very real threats they pose. It will still have to shame the shameless. That’s nothing new. What is new is that satire now has to distinguish itself from those false, easily debunked news stories, so that readers can actually tell them apart. And maybe in some cases it won’t be able to pursue a problematic thought or policy to its logical but absurd conclusion, as it has in the past; it will now have to accept the absurd as its starting point—and where do you go from there? We’ll see.

Are you working on any other writing projects that you can tell us about (or, any that you would like to embark upon after you complete your MFA)?

Yes! It feels a bit silly to count a Facebook group as a “writing project,” but it is. Not long after the election, my friend, Jess Millman, and I started a Facebook group specifically for writers interested in activist literature, which, of course, can exist in any form, style, or genre. The group is called “CAW: Chicago Activist Writers,” although, as Jess put it, “it may be our perch, but a Chicago address is not required—just a Chicago heart.” I love working with her. Ultimately, we're hoping to publish an activist journal. And, of course, we're not the only ones. On Inauguration Day, Anna March and friends will be launching ROAR, a “magazine of intersectional feminist resistance”—which sounds amazing. And there are others. So we'll see how the dust settles after this election, what emerges, and where we'll fit in with our work and our new publication. Aside from that, I'm also in the early stages of creating a collection of short stories.

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

Christine Rice’s novel-in-stories, Swarm Theory. It was recommended to me by my thesis advisor, since it’s doing a lot of what I am trying to do in my own novel—juggle a big cast of characters, switch points of view, tell a larger story through a series of smaller ones—and Rice does all this in a way that’s both inspiring and intimidating. It’s one of those books I’ll definitely come back to again and again.


"Their Fundamental Indecision": An Interview with Ravi Mangla

Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies (Outpost19). His writing has appeared most recently in The Kenyon Review, The Nation, Cincinnati Review, The Baffler, and Puerto del Sol. He lives in Rochester, NY.

His story, "Lever," appeared in Issue Seventy-Five of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about the tactile qualities of language, dimmer switches, and the unfolding of details.

How did this story begin for you?

I’ll credit the story to a fascination with dimmers, which are curious in their fundamental indecision. I grew up in a house full of dimmers. (We were a dimmer family.) I have memories of rooms cast in the subterraneous glow of an opium den. At the time I was writing stories about neuroses and obsession, and the dimmer seemed a fitting vehicle. (“Face,” an older fiction in The Collagist, is a kind of companion piece.)

When we learn that the speaker and his wife are separated, the story takes on a new life. We begin to see the speaker’s aggravation with the dimmer switch as a projection of a larger problem. I’m interested in this choice to concentrate on the dimmer switch rather than on the relationship. How can examining a problem from a “slant” actually bring a story into sharper focus?

Certain authorities on writing might be critical of holding back key information in a story. (After all, it goes against Vonnegut’s rules.) I think of it less as a “slant” than an unfolding—or an efflorescence. Details budding further details and, finally, a flower.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story? How did you overcome this challenge?

Calibrating the fade so it didn’t look tacky or cheap. (It’s possible I came up short in this respect.) There was quite a bit of tinkering with the effect, figuring out where to start it and where to end it. Gabe Blackwell was cool with fine-tuning until we got it just right. Or thereabouts.

Is there a writer or artist who you would say influenced this piece?

Many. Text-based artists like Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer, and John Baldessari, folks who taught me to appreciate the physical, tactile qualities of language. Also, I should acknowledge the wonderfully unconventional essays of John Cage.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel (sort of Graham Greene-ish), though the writing keeps getting derailed by other commitments, so give it a good five to ten years.


"Those Mere Mentions of Memory": An Interview with Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Paris Review Daily, Passages North, The Normal School, Slice Magazine and has been listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2014, 2015, and 2016. She teaches in the creative writing program at University of North Texas.

Her essay, "Lonely Things—A Series," appeared in Issue Eighty-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, Jill Talbot talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about lyric essays, organizing lists, and thrumming chords.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay “Lonely Things—A Series”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Okay, so I’m going to embarrass myself and show you the original list I jotted down while sitting in that Chicago café in 2013.

Lonely things:   suitcases, postcards, the ghost-like outline of paintings that have been removed from walls, shadows in photographs, fill-in-the-blank lines, the last page, the sound of coins dropping into a newspaper stand, empty chairs on front porches, folded maps, words scribbled on napkins, a piece of paper from last season in a coat pocket, the ignored ring of a payphone, a lamp on a nightstand, a closed store, shirts hanging in a closet, a sign so distant you can’t make it out, a kitchen at night, train tracks. My brother’s baseball cap. 

I saved the document as Lonely Things, but I didn’t do anything with it. I’d open it now and again, thinking how the things might be a segment in a larger conversation about loneliness. Three years later, I decided that those lonely things didn’t have to do anything but just be a list, a catalog. Here’s an excerpt from the next phase:

Water towers, the hazy outline of paintings that have been removed from walls, shadows in photographs, the clinks of coins in a soda machine, creases in maps, added numbers on a napkin with a carried one, a movie stub from last winter in a coat pocket, shirts hanging in a closet, a row of newspaper stands, the final paragraph, empty downtown buildings, train tracks, Highway 84 to Lubbock, a kitchen in the middle of the night, the snap of a stop button on a mix tape, shoes in thrift stores, an Out of Service bus, a curtainless shower on moving day, school buses lined up before the bell rings, scotch tape on the edge of an envelope’s seal, a symphony conductor’s extended bow, a stranger’s arm out a car window giving the go around signal.

I submitted this version (288 words) to a journal, but the editors wanted “a specificity of an ‘I,’ even if ‘I’ is never used.” In other words, they wanted a voice connected to the things. So the next version employed 2nd person here and there, as in “the blue sweatshirt in your closet, the one you can’t bring yourself to wear.” Yet something felt uninteresting about the block paragraph, so one day I started stretching lines and phrases this way and that like Silly Putty, sifting and sorting until I had what I considered a hybrid flash, something between an essay and a poem. Another rejection from another journal mentioned the essay’s power came from the “(apparent) autobiography,” so in the next draft I added parentheticals “(flannel-sleeved shoulder)” to push that autobiographical impulse more. 

This essay is divided into six sections, the first of which is written in verse, while the rest take the form of prose. How did you decide that the piece should make this switch from a lyrical mode to a more narrative one?

I wish I could take credit for this, but a writer I’ve been exchanging drafts with for years suggested I create a collage, pairing the verse-version “with several other short lyric flash nonfictions to create a suite of impressions.” And that’s when I added the subsequent five sections of prose to create a lyric suite. I like to think of those five sections as a legend, the keys to some of the locations on the map of the first section.

There is a character in this essay, a “him,” who is mentioned a few times without ever being named, and the reader is left to make assumptions about the nature of his role in your life, having very few specific details to go on. How do you know how much information is too much or too little when you’re keeping a pivotal part of the essay like this person mostly out of view?

I like the idea of the “mere mention” of the lyric essay, how Deborah Tall and John D’Agata describe it: 

“Given its genre mingling, the lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically - its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. The stories it tells may be no more than metaphors. Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme. The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving.”

I’ve written two memoirs about “him,” and lately I’m more interested how the chords of his presence thrum in my work without being the melody. As years (fourteen) have passed since the morning I saw him getting on that elevator, my memories fragment, moments flash, so this form allows me to explore those mere mentions of memory.

Your essay’s first section contains so many images that resonated with me, one after another, many of them familiar and yet cast in a new light. I’m curious about how you compile a list of things on a theme. Do you seek them out, or do they come to you, or both? And once you have collected them, how do you arrange them? Do you have escalation in mind, or perhaps a more associative logic?

I remember writing the initial draft as a list, simply things or images that came to me, but as I continued and expanded the list and the form, I wanted associations or extensions, bridges between one and the other, and of course the sound of the thing was most important. And once I added those prose sections, I had to go in and add a couple of things to the first section, such as “the stillness of an empty swimming lane” and “a library elevator” for cohesion.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just finished a flash hybrid, a blend of nonfiction and fiction, and I’m intrigued by that tension, how I’m engaging with memory while embedding fiction (it’s another essay with “him,” as chord rather than melody), and I’d like to do more of those, because how can I say moments from all those years ago are now anything but a mélange of story and essay?

I’m finishing up a hybrid collaborative manuscript with Justin Lawrence Daugherty that we’ve been working on for four years.

And I’m also working on a memoir that weaves my daily morning visits to the 7-11 for a Diet Dr. Pepper with the eight years I (ab)used anti-depressants, something I’ve never written about before.  It’s a very unsettling project (because of the stories and people I encounter at 7-11 and my past), but I need that to write, I need to be unsettled.

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

I’m incredibly fascinated by the meta-memoir, and I recently read and admired Mark Slouka’s Nobody’s Son: A Memoir, published in October, and Joshua Mohr’s Sirens, which will be published by Two Dollar Radio in January.