"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.


"We Shouldn't Criminalize the Victim": An Interview with Susan Neville

Susan Neville won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Richard Sullivan Prize for her collections of short fiction. She is the author of four books of creative nonfiction, including Fabrication and Sailing the Inland Sea,​ and she teaches at Butler University in Indianapolis and the Warren Wilson MFA for Writers.

Her story, "Game Night," appeared in Issue of The Collagist.

Here, Susan Neville talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about parenting, switching between genres, and needle exchange programs.

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

Several years ago I was reading the Indianapolis Star and came across an article about the HIV epidemic in Scotts County, Indiana, an epidemic triggered by the problem of opioids and cheap heroin. At the time the story seemed so impossible, almost uncanny. Meth? Oxycontin? Sure. You’ve watched Justified, right? There are similarities. But heroin in the rural Midwest was a new story, and the sheer number of addictions and the sudden rapid spread of the virus seemed from another time. It defamiliarized this place for me, a place I’ve lived in all my life. It felt like the first time I read Angels in America, like the 80s felt somehow. Anyway, while the CDC was tracking the epidemic and sounding an alarm and in most of the world alarms have been sounding for decades, Indiana’s conservative legislature and governor were opposed to needle exchange programs. That was the initial spark.

The article also quoted a long-time resident of Scottsburg who was astounded by the sight of women prostituting themselves for drugs, walking up and down the streets of a town where it’s unusual to see very many people at all. I immediately pictured the women as dolls and started writing a series of stories about the place and the epidemic through that initial uncanny vision. “Game Night” is one of the stories.

Your story’s form has a few unusual qualities that stand out right away: a title for each section, use of the second person, and the conceit that the whole text is a set of instructions for playing a game. What made you decide that this story had to be presented in this unconventional way?

Probably the story that influenced my writing more than any other is William Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” so a pastiche with titles seems more like a story to me than a straight narrative. I go back to that story over and over.

I began thinking about images of needles and the game metaphor came later in the process. I think it grew out of a sentence in fact, though I’m not sure which one. I pictured the town and a mother terrified for her child, wanting the child to simply stay alive. Perhaps, she thinks, if she approaches it ironically and makes it like a normal family thing, a game night, she won’t push the child away. I remember when my kids were young joking with other mothers about teaching  kids to drive while drunk. If you imagine the worst thing that can happen maybe you can helicopter your way in as a parent and teach them how to safely do the thing you’re terrified they’re going to do no matter what you say. Please don’t do it! you’re saying to them, but if you do do it, don’t share needles and please use this condom, and do it so it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, etc. etc. It’s perhaps not the best parenting method in the world, but this mother has seen her friend’s children die and feels out of options and angry and a bit sarcastic.

I found the section “How to Play” particularly difficult to read, as it seems like you did not pull any punches in your descriptions of needles, veins, blood, etc. Was it difficult for you to write about the gruesome details, and did you consider holding anything back? Were you ever afraid that the subject matter and your treatment of it might turn away some readers (or, conversely, that your story might give readers some pointers that they could actually put to use)? For that matter, who is your intended audience for this story?

Hmm, good question. Weirdly enough, it wasn’t hard to write this. I did some research, but in that section I was just trying really hard to imagine what it would feel like to inject heroin and all I could think of was getting blood drawn and how some phlebotomists are so much better at it than others.

The only intended audience I thought of consciously was the daughter this mother is speaking to. I was trying to channel her. I don’t know if my recipe for injecting could be followed, though. I’ve never baked that particular cake. I assume that anyone who has the drugs wouldn’t need the directions and that directions wouldn’t make you look for the drugs. I don’t know. It’s what the mother thinks, anyway, and she just wants her daughter to know where she can find needles, for instance, instead of sharing them. She wants to teach her to make the stick correctly so she won’t try doing it a second time and overdose.

If I think about it, though, the audience is people who are against needle exchanges or vote for politicians who are. I wanted to make the argument that we shouldn’t criminalize the victim. So maybe Mike Pence is my intended audience?

You are an author of both fiction and nonfiction. What lessons have you learned from one genre that you’ve been able to apply to the other?

I write a lot of short stories that work like essays written by a fictional character and a lot of essays that read like short stories. I’ve learned that the form and techniques are almost interchangeable. It’s the intent that’s usually different. The biggest thing I’ve learned from doing both, though, is that when you get stuck in one genre you can move to the other and get unstuck. I think you surprise your controlling inner editor when you do that.  The nonfiction that interests me are pieces by Susan Orlean and Tom Wolfe and David Foster Wallace and John McPhee and Indiana writers like Michael Martone and Scott Sanders, writers who combine journalism and poetry into a nonfiction stew. Nonfiction has been the thing that gets me out of my office and classroom and house, out into places I wouldn’t normally go. It lets me try out ideas. It’s a press pass to interesting things. Fiction lets me try out being other people. One feeds the other.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m still working on the collection of stories that “Game Night” is part of. I’ve never written a collection this intentionally. I like thinking "oh I need more dolls" so I’ve got to shift the lens in the next story or in the case of this story, "I need the actual experience of the needles." It’s like knowing a painting needs a little more red or that you’ve not paid enough attention to one angle of a sculpture.

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

So much. I read Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account a year ago and am still thinking about it. The same with Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. As is true of so many, I was obsessed with Elena Ferrante’s books last spring and Hanya Nagitahara’s People in the Trees. And I’m always re-reading Willa Cather and Iris Murdoch, endless sources of wisdom and joy.


"The Detective and All These Ghosts": An Interview with Maryse Meijer

Maryse Meijer is the author of Heartbreaker. She lives in Chicago.

Her story, "Evidence," appeared in Issue Eighty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Maryse Meijer talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about violence, death, and detective stories.

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

I think I just sat down and typed “the head, where’s the head?” and went from there. When I found out I was writing about a detective I started thinking about what that might mean, but in the beginning there was just this idea of a really messed up dead body on a kitchen floor.

This story’s protagonist is a homicide detective, seemingly detached from other people, obsessed with his murder investigations. To anyone who’s seen cop stories in movies, television, and/or other media, this feels like a familiar characterization. What do you want this story to add to the conversation created by all those hard-nosed, unstable detectives of popular fiction? What was your approach to the tropes of the genre when crafting this story?

If your job is a constant encounter with death and violence—which are not really rational things—then you’re going to go crazy. I think the detective genre understands this, and it gives us all these guys (and, increasingly, women) who are disintegrating in various ways because the real disintegration—death—is so elusive, so hard to really look at. Even as the body of a murder victim is paraded before us, it disappears. So I think we try to talk about violence and death by talking about detectives. As I was writing I was trying to focus on this dead guy, but everything kept slipping back to the detective, who also couldn’t quite focus on the dead guy. Instead he’s obsessed with this woman he’s imagined is the killer, a fantasy he ends up projecting onto a stranger, and we end up in this space where it’s just the detective and all these ghosts who become more real than everything else. How can a person metabolize the endless violence of a job solving murders without losing their mind?

What frustrates me about detectives in popular narratives is how they are glamorized or fetishized, even when they’re falling apart—they always seem to come off as badasses, like Woody Harrelson in Rampart or the guys in True Detective. They’re jerks and they’re a mess but they’re played so cool. My detective is plain sad and losing it. If I couldn’t really say anything meaningful about violence, I could at least try and get at its possible effects on this one guy’s mind.

Your story ends with the protagonist on his knees, clutching a woman’s skirt and begging her to murder him (and he seems sincere, at least in my reading). What are you experiencing when you take a story to such a bleak, morbid conclusion? Do you feel such intense emotions along with your characters, or is it more of an intellectual exercise for you as the author?

If I get emotional about something that happens on the page—and I do, often—it’s not because I feel any of it is happening to me. It’s more like I’m watching something not so great happen to a friend, someone I love but can’t help. It’s never an intellectual exercise, but it’s also not strictly personal—which, if it was, I guess I’d be on my knees freaking out every other day.

Please tell us about your revision process, using this story as an example. How much did “Evidence” change from the first draft to the final? Did you have to make any difficult decisions along the way?

I edit like crazy. I edit for years. But the general shapes of my stories don’t usually go through radical alterations—it’s mostly line editing, and a lot of cutting. Then there’s usually a period where I bloat a story back up, explaining the story to myself by adding a bunch of unnecessary stuff, and then I cut some more. The painful part is leaving stuff out that I worked hard on, that got to something I felt was true but maybe too true to keep…you have to leave room for the reader to enter into the story, and that means cutting out the bits that say too much, go too far. But those bits are often the ones that you like the most!

The trouble with this story was getting the language right—trying to reflect the detective’s distorted state of mind while still making some kind of sense.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m finishing up a second story collection and a book of poems, and revising a first novel.

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

Fox, Tooth, Heart is a story collection by John McManus that I think is brilliant. Vertigo by Joanna Walsh is making me very jealous, and I just finished Joyce Carol Oates’ first novel, With Shuddering Fall, which is completely crazy, in the best way.


"A Little Unmoored": An Interview with Jai Chakrabarti

Jai Chakrabarti is a 2015 A Public Space Emerging Writer’s Fellow. A graduate of the Brooklyn College MFA program, his work has appeared in Barrow Street, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Coffin Factory, Union Station, and A Public Space. He lives in Brooklyn with his family.

His story, "Lost Things," appeared in Issue Seventy-Four of The Collagist. 

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about the structure of time in fiction, details that slant, and revision.

Where did this story begin for you? What first inspired you to write “Lost Things”?

“Lost Things” began after an episode in a long struggle my partner and I undertook to conceive a child. While many of the elements of the piece are fictionalized, the emotional pull of it likely stemmed from the feelings I wrestled with after a failed treatment at a fertility clinic. We’ve since become parents to an exuberantly happy boy, but those years of trying shaped images in my work that were borne of loss and yearning.

The sentences in this story meander. They double-back on themselves and move non-chronologically. For me, one of the lovely results of this style is the sense that I’m in two or three places at once. Is the voice in this story characteristic of your writing? How did this sentence style come about?

I think I’m obsessed about the structure of time in fiction. Aren’t our memories always overlapping with our present complications, leaving even the most grounded of us, at least a little, unmoored? I would love to say that the form finds its partner in content and that the meandering sentences, the run-arounds with time, are the beck and call that drives the piece forward, but in my experience, this is harder to do in fiction than it is in poetry. So I felt this piece borrowed more from poetry in terms of its permission to move out of linear time, and in the slipperiness of the narrative voice.

The world of this story feels vivid and bright. It crackles with details such as “the girl with a tongue so long she could curl it around a glass of beet juice” and “the terrible pitch and thunder of the aging mango tree, as it leaned in the monsoon.” How do you choose your moments of detail?

Thank you. As a reader, the images that often startle me are the ones which slant our everyday, but remain honest. Even with stories which hang on the ropes of surrealism I want to feel embodied. An overly familiar image isn’t inviting, but neither is one that doesn’t connect to our corporeal (and yet, mysterious) world.

What was your revision process for this story? What happened between the first draft and the story we see today?

For a story with a traditional linear narrative with premise, conflict, climax, etcetera, the revision process is more well-defined for me. For this type of story, I give a lot of attention to the sound of the piece, to its rhythm. I read it out loud, and where the rhythm doesn't fit the feeling I am going for, I revise it multiple times. To get to know the feelings I was going for in this piece, I wrote out a map, tracing between sentences and the piece’s recurring motifs.

Are you reading any books you’d like to recommend?

“The Beautiful Possible” by Amy Gottlieb - a novel of mystical Judaism and love and loss.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’ve just finished revisions on a novel, A Play for the End of the World, which follows the relationship of a Holocaust survivor and a woman from the American South. Set in Poland, India, and New York, it’s a love story, or, at least, a story of longing (or belonging).  


"Time Tends to Bend": An Interview with Sara Greenslit

Sara Greenslit's novel, As If a Bird Flew By Me, was published by FC2 for winning the Sukenick/ABR Innovative Fiction Award. Her first novel, The Blue of Her Body, won the Starcherone Innovative Fiction Award. She is a small animal veterinarian, from Madison, WI.

Her essay, "Vertigo Suite No. 1," appeared in Issue Eighty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, Sara Greenslit talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about illness narratives, brevity, and dizziness.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay “Vertigo Suite No. 1”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

I had come down with sudden vertigo in ‘05 that appeared it wasn’t going anywhere; it got better over time, but it never vanished. I wanted to try to understand it by trying to explain it. The suite is part of a longer piece, all in short sections, about my definitions of vertigo, with snippets of how dizziness changed my veterinary career, with asides into neuroanatomy.

This suite consists of three very brief pieces, the longest of which is still under 300 words. Is it a challenge for you to write with such concision? Does it require a lot of revision and/or restraint to achieve this economy of language?

I have such a hard time writing longer pieces! I find myself getting giddy when I reach a couple thousand words. My MFA was in poetry, and I’m an introvert so maybe one is related to the other?

I do tend to trim and trim back to the bones the best I can. I write in bursts, collect them, then sort and edit. I love a good thesaurus, I love intermittent internal rhyme.

I noticed that much of your essay is in the present tense, even when it breeds odd phrases such as “When it begins eleven years ago,” and I was also aware of some vacillations between first and second person, a switch from “When I’m tired” to “as you succumb to gravity.” Can you speak about how you make artful decisions about matters of time, tense, point of view, etc. when writing quite lyrically about your own experience?

Because the dizziness is long-term, and when I have a more severe relapse, time tends to bend—present tense makes sense: am I always going to be dizzy? am I in the hole again, until I am not?

I have some trepidation of writing first person illness narratives; I get worried it becomes all too narrow. Second person gives me some space.

The decisions now seems made instinctually. I can’t say I made concrete decisions until closer to final edits.

Your novels blend fiction and nonfiction, and you also write poetry. Do you generally know the genre of a piece before you start writing it? How does your work in one genre inform the others?

That’s a tough question. Most of the time, things evolve as the writing goes on. I’ll come to a Q like: I can’t really seem to pull off writing 1st POV in a historical novel sense, so why don’t I jut over here and use the original historical documents transcribed online?, and then while filtering through these, a present day character arises and seems to have a connection to this older time period. A tendril from one, out of the other. That’s why I love research: it sparks things you didn’t know yet that will absorb you.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a collection of essays about illness and art and ecology. I wanted to push myself into longer form and into a newer genre for me. It’s hard work and a little scary.

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

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Conscious by Sy Montgomery.


"Wish for Brilliance / Blindness": An Interview with Landon Godfrey

Landon Godfrey is the author of Second-Skin Rhinestone-Spangled Nude Soufflé Chiffon Gown (Cider Press Review, 2011), selected by David St. John for the Cider Press Review Book Award. She co-edits, -designs, and -prints the letterpress postcard broadside journal Croquet. Born and raised in Washington, DC, she now lives in Black Mountain, NC.

Her poems, "Brief Report" and "Mooon," appeared in Issute Sixty of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer T.m. Lawson about poetic stylings, how to apply structure to the form, and how much unconscious (and conscious) effort goes into process.

I noticed that “Brief Report” has four line stanzas with a couplet as the last stanza, but the stanzas feel inequal, almost like they’re finding their “footing” in the beginning and becoming more solid in the foundation in how dense they became compared to the initial start. I’m interested in how this decision came about when the poem was formed: could you talk about that?

When the stanzas shift from closed/stopped to open/enjambed with the colon at the end of the sixth stanza, I think the poem does indeed start to get more solid, because it’s right there that the poem shifts from the theoretical into a more concrete scene with the word “now.” So the poem seems to have needed heftier stanzas, or a gesture towards heft anyway, to accommodate a more present moment. And the complication of narrative. As to how much of a decision this was, I can’t say—only through your reading do I see that now—and that “now.”

I laughed out loud when I read the title “Mooon” - it isn’t often that a title will take liberties with misspelling, or in this case, acoustically extending a word. But it did capture that innocent childhood feeling and I could hear it perfectly in my head: “Mooon.” Was that your intention? Or was it to set the poem apart from the thousand other poems called “moon” and divorce the precious sentimental feeling from the word/object?

How fabulous that you laughed out loud! I get that totally. It’s a title I like to say out loud. All that sound! It’s playful and plaintive at the same time to my ear. And the childhood feeling: yes, absolutely. I think, too, that the extension of that sound enacts the nostalgia of Calvino’s story about the moon; the ooo ladders us right up onto the mooon’s surface. That’s funny, too, about the thousand other moon poems—I hadn’t really thought about that consciously, but it’s true that I’m anxious about sentimentalizing. How to get to tenderness without slopping over into the precious sentimental keeps me up at night.

I felt that “Mooon” had a special sadness in it. The stanzas, “... all the stars / sing camp fires // right into your eyes. / Sometimes I do wish // for brilliance / blindness, that I wouldn’t see // whiteness in bathroom door silhouettes / anymore, so I’d exist perfect” have the adult shadow of tragedy behind them. The “whiteness in the bathroom door” especially was provoking for some reason, perhaps when combined with these other lines seems to suggest that this adulthood looming ahead is threatening the childhood innocence locked at the campfire under the moon. Did you mean to diffuse this heaviness with the later stanzas of “cheer up!”?

“Cheer up!” strikes that kind of gallows humor of Beckett—I hope. Like laughing because things are at their absolute worst. It’s a sort of wry spirituality that actually contains some of the ooomph (mooon!) of the Buddhist idea of smiling at one’s suffering and so is therefore genuine, without, again the anxiety, of sentimentality. I want to have my moon cake and eat it too.

The whiteness of the bathroom door silhouettes does indeed contain tragedy. The pernicious trap of white supremacy makes me see, even against my will, a form of whiteness in any color of those silhouettes. I’m seeing myself, but I wish I were seeing everyone, unfettered by my complicity in a system of domination. But the tragedy is the systematized and targeted violence perpetrated against Black people, specifically in the United States, where my eyes live most of the time, but also around the world. I will add that until the hateful “bathroom bills” have been defeated everywhere, some of those normative bathroom silhouettes need to change their clothes into gender-neutral garments.

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

Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’ve recently finished a manuscript of prose poems called “Inventory of Doubts.” So I’m reading/thinking/casting about/worrying/making mistakes/wondering towards something new. I’m also practicing calligraphy.


"To Make Sense of an Epidemic": An Interview with Anne Sanow

Anne Sanow is the author of the story collection Triple Time, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the PEN/New England Award for Fiction. Her work has been published in Dossier, the Kenyon Review, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere, and her awards include fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the MacDowell Colony, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She currently teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Writers.

Her story, The House in the Woods, appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about a smallpox cemetery, the Salem witch trials, and nonconventional narratives.

This piece feels very image driven. It’s full of lovely language such as this, “Leaves spiral down gently, quilting each mound in gold and green and bronze and crimson. The house breathes, the bower pulses.” Is there a particular image or phrase that this story was born from?

There is an image—a particular place—that inspired this story: the smallpox cemetery in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which is difficult to find and where I really did experience that sensation of stillness in the moment with leaves falling like that. Yet I never wanted what I put on the page to serve as any kind of literal reminder, and in fictionalizing something actual I wanted to imbue the piece with something mysterious. Images were a way for me to imagine a link to the past from the present and to slow down, to listen, and see how that listening would drive the story forward. As this developed, I also began to see that there was a link between place and the characters (individually and collectively), and that specific images might take on a life of their own and become a kind of refrain.

There are religious references throughout this piece. Characters seek salvation, are abandoned by God. How does religion color your characters’ views of the world? Do their views bring more comfort or distress to their lives?

To my mind, colonial New England is one of the freakiest places or periods you can imagine.  Perhaps this has something to do with my upbringing in suburban California; even prep school in A Separate Peace (which we all had to read in high school) seemed exotic, let alone the full-on amplified crazy of the Salem witch trials. So it’s safe to say that I’m a little obsessed, historically speaking. I’m interested in that transmutation from collective religious hysteria to the formation of community; turning points and differences, and how they work to fray, expand, and contract the social fiber; order and disorder; how we grapple with change. The characters here are grasping at—or flaunting—ideas of salvation to make sense of an epidemic, and some of them find a reconnection to the land or themselves or others, but it doesn’t always work.

What thinking went into the organization of this story?

So here’s the thing: I’ve always considered myself more or less a straightforward realist writer, but I have my forays into nonconventional narrative too. I’m just less sure of them, so I need to find an organizing principle somehow. Here that was easy; the grave marker numbers correspond to victims of the epidemic, so I used these as anchors, though they aren’t necessarily sequential.  And this also allowed me to use bits of real fact (e.g., a known identity of a smallpox victim) without overworrying it—this is distinctly a fiction and not a creative nonfiction, in other words, and I want that license to imagine. I also love an opportunity to shift around in time if I can get away with it. Some kind of narrative arc had to build, however, so I used the markers not linked to specific characters grow the larger world of the story beyond the pest house itself. When that extension began to happen I started to realize that the images + marker orientation + community became its own kind of song, so to speak.

Who is inspiring you right now? Are there any authors you can recommend to us?

In terms of inspiration for the novel I’m working on, Michael Ondaatje’s work has been revelatory for me over the past year: his movement and associations in the language, the way time and history slip around, structurally, which for me makes the telling all the more felt. Patrick Modiano is a more recent discovery for me, I’m almost embarrassed to admit; as a long-time fan of W. G. Sebald, how could I have not read him before? Then there are the re-reads, some of which I’m teaching this fall to graduate fiction students: Sherwood Anderson’s fabulously weird Winesburg, Ohio (seriously, it gets weirder and better every time I read it) and John Edgar Wideman’s collection Fever (the title story being hands-down one of my favorite things ever written, for me a model of what so-called historical fiction might achieve if it dares and how language from the past and present can intertwine to symphonic effect). I’ve been pretty obsessed with Hassan Blasim’s collection The Corpse Exhibition, which I taught in a course about contemporary Middle Eastern fiction this past year and have returned to again for stories that are so daring in voice and perspective that they makes me re-think just what “daring” actually is.  And for a completely tonal change of pace—and also because I’ve just moved to the Deep South—I’ve been rediscovering Ellen Gilchrist’s stories; that acerbic wit and utter immersion combined with an almost devil-may-care approach to story structure is marvelous.

I’ve also been reading a fair amount of poetry, and can heartily recommend Todd Hearon’s No Other Gods (check out the “memorandum” poems) and Maggie Dietz’s second collection, That Kind of Happy (her title poem is deceptively straightforward but will ring in your ears for a good long while). I’m also loving Jamaal May’s Hum: talk about a way to investigate place, in this case often the urban landscape of Detroit, and Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno by Ed Pavlić: you can’t easily label this poetry or prose or criticism or autobiography, and it’s wonderful.

What are you working on currently?

My large project is a novel called The Dailies, which is set partly in Berlin’s WWII film industry and follows two German half-sisters and other characters during the war and after. This has been ongoing for several years now, evolving in terms of just about every angle of craft and plot you could imagine, and I’m aiming to nail down the final version this year. There’s a new novel idea I’ve started tinkering with too—this one will return to the Middle East, where the stories in my first collection were set, and focusing on characters whose lives are affected by the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policies during the Gulf Wars. I have various story drafts in the works as well. Most of these are longer short stories, which is the form I tend to gravitate toward, but I’m becoming keen on seeing how I might work with shorter short forms as well; revisiting this particular piece here has been inspiring in this way! I have loads of fragments in my notebooks that don’t connect to my longer pieces, but rarely am I able to bring them to fruition the way I did with “House in the Woods.” I’d like to see what I can do.


“Miracles Contained Within Glass”: An Interview with Christopher Parks

Christopher Parks is a psychologist and occasional poet who works with people experiencing addiction, mental illness, and homelessness in Detroit, MI. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rattle, Touchstone, Collagist, Red Cedar Review, Fanzine, and others. His writing often catalogues the trail from fundamental Christian to faithful heretic. Occasionally he backslides.

His poem, "I Picture Him In a Petri Dish," appeared in Issue Fifty-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Darby K. Price about spirituality, dogma, and the need for infection.

Can you tell me a little bit about the origins of your poem, “I Picture Him in a Petri Dish”?

The poem started in a gathering of writers, musicians, and visual artists who get together and do stream of conscience work. The group is called the Synesthetic Muse. Someone wrote a piece about germs and being infected by something. I played with the idea of how we are infected by ideas. The Petri dish image came from the idea of a culture of bacteria.

The petri dish is a fascinating image for this poem, especially because we have the “he” who behaves like bacteria within the dish. In the final stanza, however, the speaker’s body takes on the role of container: “I know him moving beneath/me, inside me.” Can you talk about this shift from the outer object to the inner, visceral self?

My life has been dominated by religious and spiritual ideas. I was raised in a strict fundamentalist household where we went to church at least 3 days a week. My mother read Pilgrim’s Progress to me when I was 7 and acted out the parts. The concept of Christ infects me. Though I have moved far away from the religiosity of my younger life those ideas of spirituality being both inside and out, both personal and universal permeate my work.

I am struck by both the poem’s compactness and its carefully wrought surprises: the word “crucified,” for instance, at the end of the second stanza. All poems use language purposefully, of course, but when you work in a small space, how do you balance the pleasures of language against any of the poem’s needs for clarity and communication? Or are the two things ultimately the same?

A need for clarity is the myth of dogma. Language is a means to transmit ideas. In the transmission we shouldn’t concern ourselves with controlling the concept on the other end. When we try to compact such concepts within a small boundary (the Petri dish) we are in essence killing the idea. The true idea of Christ or Buddha or any other figure invades us, multiplies, and grows in ways we can never understand. The mystic movements in any religion refuse any demands of clarity. They understand the need for infection.

What are you reading right now—and/or what have you just finished reading?

I just finished reading Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions by Priscilla Hayner. It is odd that you decided to approach me for an interview at this time. Her work shows the unsatisfying attempts made by Truth and Reconciliation Committees in the aftermath of brutality.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a play. It starts with an accidental shooting in a deer blind and progresses from there. Essentially it is about the ways in which men fail women.

The transition from poetry to drama is difficult. I have attempted it before. This idea seems to be carrying me along to some destination.


"I Used to Smoke to See My Breath": An Interview with Ruth Gila Berger

Ruth Gila Berger is a Minneapolis writer who works very far backstage within the publishing industry. She has most recently been published by The Collagist, Slice, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. Looking forward, she has a new piece to be published by Fourth Genre. There is a memoir in progress in her computer. And some other new essays.

Her essay, "Freeze Frame," appeared in Issue Eighty-One of The Collagist.

Here, Ruth Gila Berger talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about time, writing about her wife, and the publishing industry.

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

That’s really hard to trace. The content of “Freeze Frame” is part of a memoir I was writing about the first two years of my relationship with my (now) wife, Christi. What started me on that project was the fact I was in a relationship with someone I had questions about the viability of. Was our relationship even possible? I couldn’t find anything out there in existing nonfiction where the romantic lead had the diagnosis of schizophrenia Christi has. All I found were stories told by familial bystanders dealing with the wreckage. In the world of self help there was no one saying this relationship was a good idea or pointing towards a means of navigating what aspects of brain chemistry interference were improvable and which were simply all we could expect with our current medical knowledge and technology. Quite the opposite. Christi and I were talking about the lack of lineage in our situation (for example the list of successful geniuses, artistic and otherwise, with bi-polar disorder is long, not so with schizophrenia, Van Gogh’s issues guessed at and possibly due to lead); she told me it was my story to tell. Get to work. That was the impetus and direction I took. The events of “Freeze Frame” had not yet happened. For two years I was essentially drafting our story in real time. There were probably twenty pages of melodramatic screaming I cut from the documentation of the “Freeze Frame” time period, twenty pages cut from a six hour period more likely. I wasn’t ever sure Christi and I would survive either each other or even as ourselves, alone. By writing, I was tagging a train off-course, like a graffiti artist, I wanted to leave evidence that there was an amazing love there. Something beautiful. I suppose a fancy word would be witness. But in terms of “Freeze Frame” as an essay, that was much later. I had to break the larger memoir manuscript apart into pieces—it read like an unsustainable level of crisis. And I had that stupid J Giles Band song in my head. You know how sometimes understanding the necessary structure for your work can be so random. What pushed this piece of writing into the territory of an essay was the idea that the past is always changing. I don’t mean that the history is revised, like in first draft I had a red sweater but a photograph revealed it to be blue. Or even that our understanding of who we are now, as a result of who we were then, changes, although that is conceptually closer to it. More like we get attached to our stories of ourselves, our personal mythology, our origin stories. But when you look back (again) and realize that you’ve made yourself into a hero and that’s itchy at best. Because you are not a hero. You can’t be. There had to be something of the ugly things you find you are able to face now, back then. Hence “It is hard to look back into the hurricane in which we spun.” That was the start of the “essay”.

This essay has an unusual relationship with time. At several points, you convey the passage of time to the reader with a line like, “Hours and days and weeks,” or, “Time hiccupped, again I was arguing.” Why did you choose this unconventional approach to temporal transitions? Is this how you actually experienced the events, time skipping and blending? Or how you remember them? Or is it more of a narrative device? (All, some, or none of the above?)

Time fucks me up, that’s for sure. So probably all of the above is true in a fashion. There are things, “memories” that I always, or at least consistently, experience in present tense. Some of these have to do with trauma and how early childhood trauma, especially pre-lingual experience is neurologically processed, coded, rewired. Sometimes conversations that just took place at a louder volume remain present tense, are therefore relived more than remembered sequentially. Maybe the moments that aren’t resolved into a neat understanding or interpretation or integration with your regular sense of yourself that lend themselves to this always present tense experience. But that’s me the person—as I walk around, not me narrator created in a careful arrangement of letters. My thinking interrupts itself and so my writing mirrors that thought process where tenses change within a single sentence. I understand what I mean but the story I’m trying to tell is too deeply encoded. Call it a song-to-myself shorthand that shared makes no fucking sense to even my closest reader. I don’t get it. Where am I temporally? Common enough response. So the next draft is untangled as I read aloud and try to correct tenses to agree. Basic grammar. Often the result is I’ll get a draft written entirely in present tense. Which adds an immediacy that exists like a low level hum—you can’t sustain it, at least—I can’t. I find it rings a little hysterical. So I revise towards placing all action in past tense. Except that always feels like I’ve crossed a line in to fiction—it doesn’t match my memory/experience. So again I read to myself, this is also a point where any kind of alliterative thing I have going starts to sound precious—sound can be a self-soothing mechanism with difficult content but it can’t exist just for that sort of prettiness (something I fear I never catch all of, that self-conscious artifice) but the moments that still buzz through me stand out and they get returned to present tense—and truth, that is what is left is not fiction. I hope that makes sense. To explain a phrase like “time hiccupped” I’m not sure. Perhaps it falls into the category of narrative device. For me its translation is the conversation I’m having at the table with Christi starts one night; I close my eyes and open them and it could be ten minutes later, two hours later or a week later, where we are having exactly the same conversation where no emotional or intellectual changes have been made—nothing in the interim has gotten us beyond that impasse so we pick up where we left off. That’s the experience I mean to convey.

Your essay is an almost 10,000-word recounting of a dramatic, difficult time in a contentious relationship. What do you go through when you write about experiences so fraught with intense emotions? Is the writing painful, or therapeutic, or both (or neither, something else entirely)? Do you consider this writing to be helpful and/or necessary for you?

This question has me chasing my tail. The relationship depicted in “Freeze Frame” still exists within the relationship I have with Christi, although its resemblance to us now is very vague. So the question is why put this painful reminder out there? Because “Freeze Frame” is part of a larger project, and because to keep it within the bounds of nonfiction means my story has to be corroborated, Christi has been part of my process, generously rereading multiple drafts. Except this one piece. She jokes that if she knew I was writing everything down, a public record, she wouldn’t have done so much stupid shit. (Of course that cuts both ways, me too, stupid shit.) Suffice to say this piece will not ever get read in public. It hurts too much. So why put it out there. I really don’t have a good answer. All of the standard writer answers sound way too fucking noble, smug, pat. Maybe it has to do with knowing there’s a reason for what still in me aches when even the scars are no longer visible. Maybe the infantile impulse to strike out is present in me way more than it should be. If I am honest I have to admit writing is a scream for attention, it is that bratty and that full of egotistical bullshit. Maybe paradoxically I want to comfort Christi and myself both, and anyone else who is looking for a story that has a lot of gray, because so much of the gray area of emotional terrain is denied. Gray standing in for the ambivalence I see as DNA for love—I’m not about purity. Necessary is a good word. So is selfish. I don’t have this one tied up in a bow-like answer yet. Maybe I thought I’d have a really good justification by the time it came out. The bratty cynic in me questions how many people will actually read it, and then of those how many will remember or be affected by it. But that’s a cop out. I know that. I used to smoke to see my breath—if that makes any kind of sense as an answer to this question. The thing is, there are moments of joy in that time period, alongside the pain of it. That the two conflicting emotions coexist was my point. I’m not sure if I succeeded at conveying that.

In addition to being a writer, you have had a long career in the publishing industry. What lessons have you learned from working in that field that have made you a better writer?

Become an electrician while you write. I’m really not kidding. Ignore the industry. There are wonderful, generous, brilliant, passionate people out there at every level doing great work. Walk into to your local bookstore, or the bookstore where you are visiting and buy new books. And by new I mean books that are coming out now, or recently. Get your classics at the library or buy them used if need be. Same with the “canon” whatever that is. You want to support as many writers coming up around you as you can. Talk to booksellers and buy from them. The industry’s salespeople are its heroes, marketing people too, reviewers. But seriously and assiduously, ignore the industry, it’s fucking devastating. And never be an asshole to anyone, ever. Be the best most generous reader and editor and proofreader for your writer friends you can be and treasure those relationships. Nurture your ability to answer yes, open doors, pull anyone in your reach up. Just keep writing and writing. That is what makes you a better writer.

What writing projects are you working on now?

My obsession for the past twelve years is a memoir or a collection of essays, whichever form it turns out to better be, (working title) We Are a Famous Love Story, that concentrates on the first two years of my relationship with Christi. “Freeze Frame” is the third to last piece in it. Sex and drugs and knives and art (Christi is an artist) oh my. I wrote (am writing) WAAFLS to answer the question of whether or not damage can heal damage—that is, if you follow me—we’ve found how we’ve been healing under the exit light, one foot out the door, towards the grave, still doing harm as we go. There is no particular marker that once you’ve passed you suddenly amass wisdom. You gain it in a helix as you continue to shoot yourself in the foot. Also, I want Christi and myself in the cultural conversation about sanity. Every time I hear the words “the mentally ill” in the news I catch my breath. The two of us laugh about a DSM smackdown, depression and ptsd vs. schizophrenia (or schizo-affective disorder) but the whole thing makes me want to scream. Not that there aren’t positive depictions (of people with the diagnosis of schizophrenia) and strong voices out there but I want evidence of ourselves in relation, not by definition. Twenty-five years ago coming out LGBT was a scary thing. Probably for fifteen years now I’ve been saying that the fact of my being queer is the least interesting aspect of me. Or if it is the most interesting then I’m fucked. So I’d like to get to that point with the DSM labels. To have our story about love and sex and recreating family and our cats. That we are possible and perhaps funny and cute too. That we got from crash and burn to providing a refuge, a model of adult within a program for the throwaway youth of our LGBT community. And we are still messed up as all get out and that’s okay in that we continue.

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

The Bestiary by Lily Hoang from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. It was a book that landed via a contest submission and it sat on my stack for a bit. Completely amazing. Ms. Hoang’s ability to write about all the deep gray levels in the heart, to lay bare the illusion of insight and self-understanding as a possibility and yet show the contradiction that it is there at the same time, has me tied in knots. How she keeps words to a minimum, artistically lays them on a page and lets the presentation add its own layer to the story, to the thoughts she puts down, without losing me to my own distracting mishegas. She uses fairy tales in a way that recalls the theory I remember from Uses of Enchantment but I want to say my mention of that book feels a bit like me striving to say something more intelligent and worthy. But then the fairy tales are just there because they are. Even as she tells stories of the soul deadening words an abusive ex spews she confronts her own survival instinct, the instinct that cuts off the addicted and desperately loved relative. Wow. The ambivalence of continuing damage within a sexual relationship because who knows why. I think her writing is so true it hurts. And to write about sex without writing about sex—if that is even how best to describe it—she does that. Get a bookstore to order it for you.

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