Monday
Apr292019

"Passing the Notebook": An Interview with Paula Mendoza

Paula Mendoza's work has appeared in Parcel, Bat City Review, Washington Square, and elsewhere. She's the essay editor for The Offing, assistant poetry editor for Newfound, and a reviewer for SCOUT. She earned her MFA at the University of Michigan, and is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah. She lives and writes between states.

Her poem "I Am a Beast, I Have All the Markings," appeared in Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Victoria DiMartino about what collaboration can lead to, what white space does to a poem, and giving credit to your ex’s, even if they say the poem is yours to keep.

“I Am a Beast, I Have All the Markings” is a title that really catches the eye. Where did you get your inspiration for the title and how do you come to create the piece?

The poem actually began as a writing game between me and my boyfriend at the time. We were passing my notebook back and forth between us, taking turns putting down lines. The only rule was that we narratively or rhetorically swerved on the eighth line and wrapped up by the fourteenth. So, a (not-quite) sonnet. I remember that my lines kept getting longer and his kept going shorter, and at some I point I was even crossing his out and changing his words. In this way, I ended up with the poem to keep, fix/destroy, and do with as I wished. It’s gone through many, many revisions and edits since then. Pretty sure he introduced the clown and the choirboy, and I ran with that. They set up a nightmare biblical-circus-spectacle in my head. I grew up Catholic and this instilled in me a deep appreciation for the theatre of religion. The costumes, the ceremony, the over-saturated stories. The laying of hands, Daniel and the lion’s den—every one of those damn miracles! It’s all so gorgeous and over the top! The title came after. I think it gets across both a sense of fear and arrogance. Or maybe audacity is the better word? Delusional grandiosity? As a child I was legitimately afraid, anytime I did something “bad” or “wrong”, that I was capital E, evil. It’s so fucked up the different ways guilt and shame are inculcated. There’s also something superemely vain about how I interpreted that sense of guilt. I’m not sure, but maybe poetry helps with that kind of distorted thinking? It gives certain kinds of narcissm a narrative. It’s like—you say I’m bad? Alright, then. I’m bad. I’m so bad, I’m evil. I’m a beast. Look, here’s three sixes marked on my scalp. Here’s this constellation of moles shaped like a pentagram. I have all the markings, see?

The lines “Soft strokes choke / through holes, so / let there be less light, / explosions, applause.” creates a vivid image in terms of imaging colors and light, but a concrete image slips from the readers’ mind. What kind of scene were you trying to create within these lines and what is happening at this point in the piece?

I’ve got to give credit to the ex for that one. My line was the purpling neck and I think he was just playing with the sound of “choke.” The original line was, “Soft strokes choke through the yoke hole and let”—and then it was my turn again. I hated “yoke hole” so I cut that but I loved the idea of asphyxiation being “soft”, or of death coming in “soft strokes.” As if the end could somehow be affectionate. I don’t really care about giving readers a “concrete image.” That’s what paintings are for. Language is for smudging and blurring and making slippery any image attempting to resolve or fix itself in one’s mind. And please no one come at me with Pound’s metro poem or a lesson on imagery in poetry. I can dig petals on a black bough, but how anything like that poem works is because of the idea which engines it. Contrast is a compositional idea, faceless “faces in a crowd” constitute an idea. Anyway, at this point in the piece, the man who isn’t the clown is dead. There’s some Genesis (the story, not the band) and Goethe via Anthony Hecht happening in “let there be less light.” And then, there’s a bit of Auden’s “Funeral Blues” in there, too—which is such a tender and earnest and devastating poem. Auden’s scene estranges the quotidian (aeroplanes, traffic policemen, public doves) to ceremonialize a private grief. This poem fails to be that brave and sincere, but it’s attempting a similar call for solemnity. If anything should shut down the spectacle, it should be the death of this not-clown man. And the only real miracle, ever, is the trust you place, and the rest you find, in an animal that can kill you.

In terms of form you stick to a very strict three-line stanza with very simple language, never taking a line to be more than five words. How do you feel the form plays into the piece as a whole and what do you feel this choice does for the piece?

I find sparser lines and shorter stanzas feel quieter and more reserved. Not across the board, but generally, if I want a poem to convey anything like stillness, I’ll break it into couplets and start pulling more white space between and into the lines. And I mean pulling, here, not putting in, the way people say a shade of blush pulls blue or pulls yellow. White space is something you highlight, conceal, contour… Sorry. I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube make-up tutorials lately. I think I just mean that white space can be tactile. It can be a plane, a literal surface which language carves, shapes, and manipulates. This poem was originally a sonnet with much longer lines. There was a line I wrote, which I cut—it was a question, actually: “Have you forgotten how to pray?”. It took several drafts before I finally murdered that darling. It’s still ghosted through the line, “Did you forget to kneel?”.  I think whatever reads as “simple language” or “strict” in the poem’s structure was the result of my attempt to show that first question an answer.

What are you reading lately? Are you reading anything in a genre you usually don’t read or are you sticking to reading the genre that you write in?

Simone White’s Dear Angel of Death, Marie Buck’s Portrait of Doom, and Elisa Gabbert’s The Word Pretty. I’m also “reading” Classic Tailoring Techniques / A Construction Guide for Women’s Wear by Roberto Cabrera and Patrica Flaherty Meyers. I don’t understand people who stick to the genre that they write in. Does anyone really do that?

What are you writing lately that you are excited to share with the world?

Very little, I’m afraid. I’m excited to be writing, I’m always excited to be immersed in and/or consumed by language and ideas (currently: nostalgia, sentimentality) but I’m not sure I’m ever “excited to share” my obssessions “with the world.” I don’t know. The world’s got a lot on its plate these days. If I ever write a fool-proof, step-by-step plan to solve our current climate crisis and end poverty, I’ll be sure as hell excited to share that.   

 

Monday
Apr152019

“What’s Below the Surface”: An Interview with Matt Sadler

Matt Sadler is the author of The Much Love Sad Dawg Trio (March Street) and Tiny Tsunami (Flying Guillotine). He is a poetry editor at Versal and lives in the suburbs of Detroit with his wife and kids.

His poem, "Jaws," appeared in Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist. 

Here, he speaks with interviewer Angela Redmond-Theodore about movies, philosophy, and his multi-faceted writing life.

The descriptions you present in “Jaws” are so detailed and precise. At the same time, each stanza offers the poem a layer of mystery, similar to the passes made by the great white shark in the movie Jaws. How did this poem come about?

I was writing a series of poems trying to pull themes out of classic and contemporary film and examine the themes in the bare light of day, but explore them using imagery specific to the film. I had a lot of fun watching movies each night for a couple months and writing as I watched.  The resulting manuscript produced quite a few published poems, and I’m glad the Collagist took this one!

I’m intrigued by the widening shifts in perspective between the personal characterizations—you, we, and the living—that lead the reader through the poem. This creative move is as philosophical as it is literary. Would you speak to the place of philosophy in your work and in the work of poets and poetry, generally speaking?

To me, philosophy is central to poetry. I’m always looking for the perspectives and ideals present underneath the poems I’m reading, beyond the initial sonic and emotional experience of reading the poem (perhaps this is a symptom of teaching English and philosophy in a high school?).  When I write, I sometimes start with the philosophical ideal, but just as often I let it develop organically as I write, then hone it in revision

Parables are instructions passed on by means of story, leading the hearer/reader from a starting point to a surprise destination. The structure of “Jaws” is parabolic: we begin in the sun and end up in the dark. What lesson(s) has this poem taught you?

For this poem, I was fascinated by the idea that we literally travel to the places we fear and drop fishing lines into the depths, that we’re dependent on those very depths that haunt us in both imagination and reality, that our “light” exists side by side with our “darkness”.  This happens in the movie on the fishing boats and beaches, and it exists with every institution humans manage to create. And I tried to leave this poem vague as to whether the end is going to be happy, so we just have to accept that we exist in that space. 

What is your guilty pleasure reading? Does it have any influence on how or what you write?

I don’t feel guilty about anything I read!  At least that I’m willing to admit to you!  I guess to answer this question, I’ve recently begun to seek out YA and Middle Grade fiction for its brevity, clarity, and frankness. And it did influence my writing!  I just finished my first Middle Grade novel(la).  I like the general idea to simplify and clarify more and more the older I get. 

Please tell us what you’re working on these days.

As I mentioned, the middle grade novel is in final draft editing stage. The poetry manuscript I mentioned above was scrapped, and some if its pieces were incorporated into a new manuscript that I just finished and started circulating (including Jaws). I’m working on an ongoing collaborative project, writing a whole season of a television show with some friends. And I’m at square one for my next manuscript project, trying to figure out what book to write next.  It’s exciting

Saturday
Apr132019

“Children, It is Always Children”: An Interview with Holly Iglesias

Holly Iglesias’s works include Sleeping Things, Angles of Approach, Souvenirs of a Shrunken World, and Boxing Inside the Box: Women’s Prose Poetry. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Edward Albee Foundation. She teaches at the University of Miami in the Creative Writing MFA Program, focusing on documentary and archival poetry.

Her poem, "Epic of the Material World," appeared in Issue Eighty-One of The Collagist. 

Here, she speaks with interviewer Angela Redmond-Theodore about the faith of children, working with history, and her mother’s friendships.

You use the third person in “Epic of the Material World,” but the poem is strikingly personal in tone. Please tell us what led you to write it?

For me as a child, being in a church was a flood sensual experience. In order to access memories of that time of my life, all I need is the slightest trigger—a flickering flame, whiff of myrrh, rattle of beads. So this poem is looking at myself (the personal) from a distance of many decades and much knowledge of the context of the Cold War (the epic) as it played out in Catholic school in the 50s and 60s. I’m always striving to find the sweeping historical story in the little, intimate story.

While appreciating the stretching of the text across the page in the form of a prose poem, epic is a surprising title choice, given that the poem is only a few lines long. Can you tell us what led you to use this word, and not story, say, or narrative?

 I chose epic because it’s a highfalutin and heavily freighted word that provides a contrast to the condition of children, who are usually considered powerless and less than full citizens of the “real world.” Also, children encounter nearly everything as huge and enthralling and ponderous. Besides, the word narrative evokes literary theory and rhetoric, and I was going for the opposite effect—up close and physical, not distant and abstract. (Just as a side note, all of my poems are prose poems.)

Bracketed by the image of the Infant of Prague at the beginning of the poem and “children…always children” at the end, this poem offers crash course in Catholicism—images, litanies, jargon. Can you talk a little about your choice to place the lens of criticism in the “dark eyes” of children? 

In Catholic school during the Cold War we were told tales of pious children (always peasants, always in Europe, well sometimes in Latin America) to whom the Virgin Mary appeared, offering hope to an embattled world if only we would pray the rosary. But there was also, in the news, a constant stream of stories about imperiled children persecuted for their faith behind the Iron Curtain, children for whom we were to pray without ceasing to help bring about an end to their suffering and torment. I was shaped by Catholicism not through the study of arcane doctrine but through legends of saints and martyrs, exemplars of faith past and present, and through the annual cycle of rites and spiritual practices. All of this formation endowed me with a vision of the world in which heaven and earth were reconciled, not alienated, and where all realms and roles were sacred.

Is there a work of literature that you turn to for inspiration, or out of necessity, from time to time? What are you reading these days?

I read Joan Didion and W.B. Yeats again and again, Didion for her steely eye and clean, razor-edged sentences, Yeats for his thundering lyricism and acute yearning. Right now I’m reading Elisabeth Asbrink’s 1947: Where Now Begins (for research on a collection of letters my mother wrote that year) and (re)reading C.D. Wright’s One Big Self (for her mighty mind and huge heart).

In your approach to writing, do you have a particular project in mind, or do you build up a body of poems before determining what form they will take? What are you currently working on? 

I’m a historian at heart and am always researching, so most of my work is sparked by a project. My first book was about the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, my home place, and the third looks at a childhood in the Midwest and at the Cuban exile community in Miami in the 70s. Right now I’m working with a collection of letters written in 1947 and 1948 by my mother and eight friends who worked with her at a defense plant during World War II. She initiated the correspondence out of a desire to maintain their connection as their post-war lives began to change quite radically—getting married to G.I.’s seeking jobs and education, dealing with the housing shortage, fearful and optimistic about the economy and politics of a post-war world. These women did in fact remain very close for the rest of their lives. Their letters show us young women responding to the challenges of rapidly changing world and determined to maintain their friendship through it all.

Tuesday
Mar262019

The Collagist at AWP Portland

For those of you who are headed to Portland this week and looking for The Collagist, here's a quick rundown of where we'll be:

We're very excited to be co-hosting our first AWP reading Wednesday, March 27 @8PM at Turn! Turn! Turn! with Waxwing and Newfound. Reading for us will be recent contributors Leslie Contreras Schwartz, Maya Sonenberg, and Matthew Vollmer.

 Some (or all) of us will also be at the following:

  • Fiction editor Andrew Farkas will be reading at the Festival of Language on Wednesday at Ford Food and Drink @ 5PM. Later that evening, he'll also be reading for Kernpunkt Press at the Rose City Book Pub @ 9PM. Busy day!
  • Fiction editor Emily Alex will be reading at Sustainable Print: A Celebration of Independent Lit at Cup & Bar on Wednesday @ 7PM.
  • Interviewer Dana Diehl will be presenting on Friday, March 29 @ 10:30AM as part of the panel "Writing Outside the Big 5."
  • Our publisher Dzanc Books will be at the bookfair at Booth 6010. They’re also hosting a reading on Friday at Erickson Gallery @ 7PM, featuring Collagist contributors Emma Smith-Stevens, Lance Olsen, Jarrett Middleton, and Jack Jemc.

 

 

Monday
Feb112019

"By Years and Circumstance": An Interview with Kate Petersen

Kate Petersen lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Zyzzyva, Epoch, Paris Review Daily, LitHub, and elsewhere. A former recipient of a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford and a Pushcart Prize, she currently serves as coordinator for the Center of Ecosystem Science and Society at Northern Arizona University.

Her story, "Homework 3 (Spring 2016)," appeared in Issue Eighty-Four of The Collagist. 

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about finding narrative in surprising places, how our writing changes over time, and landscape.

I love how the form frames the narrative in “Homework 3 (Spring 2016).” How did writing this as a homework assignment change the way you approached the story?

Samuel Beckett said of Joyce, “form is content, content is form.” And Walter Benjamin put it this way: “the veil and what is veiled [the wrap and what is wrapped], are the same.” There are a million great formulations of this argument, and though wary of drumming up undue grandeur or pretense via fancy quotation, perhaps I can lean lightly on the syllogism they propose: this wasn’t even a story until I understood it as a problem set.

I need to give credit to my terrific intro to fiction students at Stanford. The spring that I was writing this, they were doing p-sets every minute they weren’t writing and revising their stories—in electrical engineering, chemical engineering, computer engineering. I realized they were eating, breathing, sleeping this form I had never really lived myself (non-engineer that I was). So I asked them to bring some in, just so I could see what a p-set was. And what I discovered—what we discovered—were these totally rich, torqued narratives made of very specific, poetic lexicons that we could repurpose and bend to our own extracurricular aims.

As I familiarized myself with these strange language systems—in which naïve estimator or coupling parameter doesn’t mean naïve or coupling as I’d ever understood those words, systems in which one must follow a very logical but byzantine path toward a correct answer—I realized I’d found a sound receptacle for this overspill of feeling I wanted to write about. The inherent doubleness and constraints were welcome, and necessary.

The Collagist published “Homework 3 (Spring 2016)” in July 2016. Has your writing changed since then? If so, how?

Oh god. Well, I have a puppy, and I know she’s getting taller, but I can’t really see it because I’m with her every day. I think it might be the same with my writing: I hope it’s changed, by which I mean I hope it bears the mark of more time spent with the world, but I’m too close to know. One’s compulsions change over time and with them, perhaps, goes style. But I’ve also aged and been aged since 2016, by years and circumstance, and so I suspect my writing is a little closer to death. Though, if the poets are any indication, maybe that’s a net gain.

This story has a strong sense of place. Is the desert a familiar setting for you? Why was it important this story take place where it does?

Yes, I grew up in the Sonoran Desert and have deep affection for it. But here I was interested in the way that a stranger or beloved defamiliarizes a landscape. This desert is not a place the narrator knows, with this man beside her. Even so, the mutual recognition comes quick, so that by morning the mountains know her well enough to chide her, and she knows them well enough to reply.

What is something you are loving right now? It could be a book, a game, a TV show, a food, etc.

Loving poetry and journalism: Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem. Joanna Klink’s Circadian. Amy Gerstler’s Crown of Weeds. And High Country News. Please read and subscribe to their great work on climate change and the American West. Important, place-based journalism.

What are three words that describe one of your WIPs?

Twentieth-century science. I’m finishing a project on science during the cold war, though not the science of weaponry that’s been popularized in film and elsewhere. Even quieter science had a real claim to progress then, and though still political and politicized, it tracked with a public hope—hope that was sometimes misguided or mislaid, but was abundant. Founded.

We’re doing science in such a different paradigm now; I think there’s a good chance American science from these years will be marked only by its ability to pull us back from the brink of a warming climate, or not, and the unequal distribution of its benefits through a profit-based health care system.

Saturday
Feb092019

"To Raise Dead Things": An Interview with Jared Daniel Fagen

Jared Daniel Fagen is a writer living in Brooklyn and Arkville, NY. His prose and essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, PLINTH, Numéro Cinq, Entropy, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, 3:AM Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation, Hyperion, and elsewhere. He is the editor of Black Sun Lit and a PhD student in Comparative Literature at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

His story, "Delight/Equal Dread," appeared in Issue Eighty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about winter, giving up, and letting infringements into our writing.

What sparked your story, “Delight/Equal Dread”? Where did this story begin for you?

I suppose D/ED had begun from something dim instead. I actually remember this period of my writing fondly and distinctly. No, not distinctly, I remember it vividly, that is, then was about uncertain images. Perhaps it began from a kind of exhaustion, on a bench, at the burning end of a cigarette. Or rather from rest. I had just been walking or not yet able to set about. In any case I was not any more than a quarter mile away from my home in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn (hi DN-S), knowing I would have to start again somehow. All my favorite writers were walkers. I was bearing new discomforts in my body and in many ways recently done with “stories.” The writing of D/ED came from a freedom or easiness that follows forfeit. It was a December-January. A bench loses its charm in low temperatures. A bench can be strangely comforting in the cold. I walk out of some insensate habit frenzied, methodical, with my eyes pointed downward, nowhere to go and to go next. My prose had been up to that time traffic. Traffic is only bothersome when there is somewhere you’re expected to be or a destination ahead you desire to reach, passing the familiar landmarks. What I wanted was an end, yes, but one which would come at the eradication of mapped routes. Not too long ago I saw a friend post a photo that made me think of Valéry, who said prose was like walking and poetry like dancing. But I was becoming more interested in the meander in winter at weekday noontide when the sky is overcast and everything is hued gray by the residue of salts used to melt snow. You know, when everything looks scorched. So rest in the sense of unencumbered movement, as well as in what remains. They say life flashes before your eyes when you meet the end. I wanted to write the disorientation, the distortion, the memories that would flood and weren’t premeditated, forced, or fixed but isolated until instinctively (or neglectfully)—in their conjuring by means of the narrative performance of the writing—moved on from when I needed them most. Now I’m remembering a line I believe I have written. I’m looking back now. “Endings were satisfied quicker by surrender, by silence.” Oddly enough, this is from a story I had written not long before this one. To end is the possibility to recommence. So I suppose D/ED rose out of me from a wake.

This story has a very distinct voice. Is the voice in this piece similar to or different from the stories you typically write? How so?

D/ED was one (fragmented) text of several that I had composed during this time (c. 2015–16?) of relinquishment, stasis, and debility, in the faint winter of my writing. I don’t recall where it fits amongst the others in the series (I think five in total), but my guess is it was one of those texts written earlier on. There is a kind of exhilaration in D/ED, demonstrated by its paratactic restlessness, which is not as urgent in some of the other fragments. Most of my prose up to this point, in retrospect, had been too conscious of itself, that is, too tied to and labored by arrivals, keeping things, no matter how derelict or desperate I liked them to be, too aggressively intact, in the proper places I had in advance governed for them with agonizing effort. The voice in this work, I think, had been too controlled, commanding, deliberate, maybe more manipulative than suggestive. Yet nothing was really grounded, in the Heideggerian sense. The writing was already of ruinous things. While the nature of my writing as a whole—the impetus, the stirrings, the weariness where it comes from—has always been (and is) the same, D/ED and the aforementioned rest represent a narrative voice more interested in its process, in building and deprivation, in dwelling poetically, rather than combing or dredging an expressive textual site of recovery organized by literary tropes. The voice at the end of “stories” had to be equally as collapsing. It had to make visible not just the wreckage of a memory or image strewn about the page, but also the operation of their atrophy. It had to raise dead things at the meager end of their life. Life at the threshold of annihilation is both trepidatious and tranquil, the event of extreme limits. Things are more precious then, at their detriment. The voice became a thread and threadbare.

The Collagist published “Delight/Equal Dread” in June 2016. How has your writing or the focus of your writing changed since then?

D/ED marked a significant turning point in my writing. There is less interference from passersby, from pomeranians (hi M), from reality. Everything since then is just as feverish, which is to say as natural. The writing grows, it spirals, it sieves, and I’ve become meagerly its vessel, a colander. I am practicing temper turbulently. Many learn to inhabit writing, maybe for healing. But writing still inhabits me, maybe it’s my mania, the obsessions just as intense. I still begin the work when I find myself fraught with words, when a certain phrase pummels me. The unpublished work following D/ED and its counterparts is more tidal, does more violence to language. Perhaps now there is more stuttering, corruption, cosmic sorrow, a harder time letting go. I find myself concentrating more on committing offences, creating disagreements between parts of speech, and letting these infringements propel the narrative motion, rather than plot. The writing’s become mostly about rhythm, departure, spontaneity, association, correspondence, using language to erase myself, to complicate the determination of the voice. I’m writing further inflictions, last sips of air.

What is the latest story you read and loved? 

“Finished Being” by Diane Williams, in New York Tyrant. Read it, it’s short. The story tells of a woman who “looked with respect” at a square of cement and “asked herself why she had to do that.” It’s only a sentence. Fiction can be so small, inconsequential, incipient. “Inconsequential” is an abundant modifier: it can mean unimportant, with little or no consequence (or aftermath), or, my favorite, neither here nor there. But back to the “story,” which, despite being only 30 words, is in all attributes still a story: it is an account of a character (she who looked) and event (the square of cement being looked at), real or imaginary, that is interrelated and sequential (the character looked, her eyes fell on the square of “cement-hued cement,” she noticed “a narrow frame of black tar” surrounding the square of cement, she reflected). It’s in the past. The adjectives “tar” and “cement-hued” are superfluous, almost comical, but they are there, serving no other function than appearance. What is the “story” about? Who is she? What kind of cement? Is it concrete? The kind used to make roads? Or prisons? What is “finished?” The story is simple, maybe: it’s about a way of seeing (hi André) “with respect.” Back again to words. The preposition “with” is used here in relation to something, defined as: “affected by (a particular fact or condition),” “indicating the cause of an action or condition,” and “because of (something) and as it happens.” Now “respect,” as in “a particular aspect, point, or detail,” due regard, or admiration. I think Williams is showing us that the best art, or the most meaningful—in the sense of what is indirectly expressed—is that which is stumbled upon, encountered by accident. Art is an imprint, hardening under the sun. It instills. It colors itself, exists only for itself. Art is an impurity. Art demands to be finished by its witness. But what is Williams actually describing? She isn’t. Words are insufficient instruments for essences, when they are merely glossed over for the benefit of fiction. Art has no reason or utility. Art invites. Like tar and cement, it preserves and perseveres. It is both monumental and elemental, a labor and an impartial luxury, a testament. To what? I don’t know. There’s a strange warmth in not knowing, in unknowing. Is the character who was looking at the block of cement the one who framed it with tar? Was she responsible for her own… remorse? Yes and no, I think. The indefinite article in “a solid square” and “a narrow frame” instead of the determiner certainly complicates things. Art is the experience of to be separated from and to submit to. For me, really, the question is, Can things just be? More importantly, What is being?

What is something you are working on now (writing or otherwise) that you are excited about? 

For a little over a year now I’ve been at work on a novel, for lack of better words, which I endearingly refer to as “the thing” and have tentatively titled Nevertheless. It’s an exercise in hunger, love, and language, about treadmills and grammar and being orphaned. Writing itself. I see no end in sight, that is, it seems to still have a little life left in it. As a rule I write painfully slow. I didn’t know I would be writing a book. Usually I write without knowing I’m writing, and once realized until I become famished. With “the thing” words have a habit of returning out of nothing long since I’ve believed them perished. There is what’s written and yet what to write. I know where I want to go with it—or, there are images and memories still left to forsake, words still left to mutilate—but not where it’ll end up, and that’s all well and good. If anything the longevity’s been a new writing experience, though I think “the thing” is maybe more faithful to the torrent of D/ED than some of the others that have come after. I’ve collected some of the work from around and since the D/ED sequences into a chapbook, which to my mind sounds nice, but at the moment I’m not so concerned with sending work out. What a relief! Demoralizing myself in the writing is more productive. I’d like to get back to capturing the cursory impulses again, though, to hastier suffocations, after the long thing has ceased in me.

Monday
Feb042019

"One of Me Wonders": An Interview with Mike Puican

Mike Puican has had poems in Poetry, Michigan Quarterly Review, Bloomsbury Review, Cortland Review, and New England Review, among others. His poetry reviews have appeared in TriQuarterly, Kenyon Review, Another Chicago Magazine, and MAKE Magazine. He won the 2004 Tia Chucha Press Chapbook Contest for his chapbook, 30 Seconds. Mike was a member of the 1996 Chicago Slam Team and for the past ten years has been president of the board of the Guild Literary Complex in Chicago.

His poem, "The Current," appeared in Issue of Eighty-One of The Collagist. 

Here he speaks with interviewer Victoria DiMartino about the reinvention of oneself, being a disrupter in writing, and looking at oneself from the outside.

Where did you find the inspiration to begin this poem? As a reader, I felt that this poem’s grounding is in reality rather than a poetic fantasy. Did the inspiration for this poem spark out of a memory that you may or may not have included in here?

All the images are from my past. I am someone who has reinvented himself a few times in my life—athlete, anti-establishment radical, capitalist businessman, poet, activist for incarcerated writers, and others. With each reinvention, my inclination has been to pretend that anything that doesn’t fit my current persona didn’t exist. I’m now trying to understand this bundle of disparate directions and how it all originated from the same source.

The poem lists experiences from these different times with no interest in providing a narrative explanation. It’s a collage of disparate scenes joined only by the voice of the poet who is trying to understand how this can be explained. The closest the speaker can come is to attribute it to some unknown fire in his heart.

During the first two stanzas of the poem, the narrator starts all the lines with either “One of me” or just “One.” It seems though that as the narrator progresses through the poem they start to refer to themselves as a singular “He.” Would you like to speak to the reason behind this decision? Is it that the narrator is starting to become a singular form of themselves again, or that they may be starting to take claim for their actions?

I start out repeating “One of me” in each sentence to make sure the reader understands the perspective of the poem—the speaker is observing his life and acknowledges he’s had different identities along the way. Once that is established, I short-hand it by simply using “One.” With the shift to “He,” the speaker distances himself a little more and takes more of the perspective of an outside observer. This is the stance I wanted for the entire poem. I wanted the reader to think that these observations are being reported dispassionately despite the fact that I am clearly talking about myself.

At the end of every stanza, we are left to visualize an image. In the first three stanzas, we are left with images reflective of nature, but in the last stanza we visualize a woman in an unnamed color. In a frame of structure, do you prefer a more rigid format for your poetry, whether it be following a visual structure such as stanzas with the same number of lines, or in a thematic structure where a recurring theme is laced throughout the poem, but in the same place in every stanza?

As a writer (and in some ways as a person) I am a disrupter. I love to interrupt expectations in unexpected ways. For that to work in a poem, you need to create a frame or a pattern that you then disrupt. It works best when the disruption occurs at a turning point of the poem, as I have tried to do here.

The observations in this poem are mostly from an exterior viewpoint, as though someone on the outside could have reported it. Then, in the end, the poem shifts from exterior observation to internal emotions. My intention was to reveal a deeper emotional investment, one that, despite this looking back on my life, is still occurring.  One that I’m still trying to understand.

Have you read anything lately that you think everyone should take the time out to read?

The best book I’ve read in the past two years is Olio by Tyehimba Jess. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. It presents the voices of extraordinary first-generation freed slaves who performed in minstrel shows. The depth of creativity and description of human experience is astonishing. It uncomfortably draws a straight line from those days to now.

I was knocked out by the recent memoir Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot—a Native American’s story of growing up in frightfully dysfunctional situations, some of which continue outside and inside her. It’s a fascinating account of her struggles for sanity and dignity as a woman, a mother, and a writer in a country where indigenous people are perceived of as “other.”

Do you have any upcoming writing projects that you’d like to share?

I’ve been working on a memoir for the past year or so. In the spirit of “The Current,” it tries to come to terms with the many directions my life has taken. It explores this through two opposing lenses: the desire to uncover some unifying guiding force in my life; and the acknowledgment that my goal has never been unity. To impose some idea of unity is likely to diminish the experiences I’m trying to write about. It’s still very much a work in progress.

Saturday
Feb022019

"You Have to Pause": An Interview with Heather Nagami

Heather Nagami is a Kundiman fellow and the author of Hostile (Chax Press). Her poems have recently appeared in Zocalo Magazine and The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide. She was a finalist for the 2015 Rita Dove Poetry Prize.

Her poems, "For What It's Worth" and "Courtesy of Strangers," appeared in Issue Eighty-One of The Collagist. 

In this interview, she speaks with interviewer Victoria DiMartino about the challenge of revision, the importance of wildlife and nature’s current state as inspiration, and stopping to pauce and reflect on the moment.

This poem is centered in a very specific place. From the details we can gather, the narrator is out west in a desert state. How did you write this poem? Did you find inspiration from the setting first or did the poem stem out of an experience similar to the one mentioned in the poem?

I began by writing about a situation I experienced, but as I developed the poem, I came to understand that its greater meaning stemmed from living in the Arizona desert, which offered the privilege of continual interactions with wildlife yet also made me increasingly worried for the situation of the local animals and plants.

The line “You have to pause, lift / your foot off the gas, stare / as she stares back, waiting” really caught my attention. This is one example of how the language is not only crisp and clear, but well thought out. Would you like to speak to the way you created this particular scene in the poem and how you developed the language that went into it?

The words themselves came pretty quickly; however, I went through many revisions of the line breaks and stanza breaks. With that second stanza in particular, I wanted to slow down the pace to mimic the poem’s plot—when the driver’s eyes meet the coyote’s eyes, that moment of negotiation between human and wildlife—and also to create a moment of reflection for the reader. Placing line breaks after each verb seemed most appropriate to reflect this pause, this feeling of holding one’s breath. I’d hoped the slower pace would signify the importance of the next lines, a look into a future that sends the driver on her merry way as the coyote focuses on her family’s survival.

Your poem conveys simplicity; not much occurs except an exchange between strangers. The piece is short and dense even with the crisp language I spoke of before. How did you go about developing a piece that was very centered in the present moment while still be conscious of all the other elements that are surrounding that moment?

Revising this poem was quite a challenge because I didn’t have a clear vision of the big picture at first. With most of my poems, I begin with an idea, and then the writing is all about finding the appropriate framework in which to house it. This poem, however, originated from that present moment you mention, and my initial revisions (e.g. splitting the poem into five stanzas for visual symmetry, adding superfluous details) seem haphazard when I look back on them now because they did not reflect the epicenter of the poem’s tension: my own anxiety about the state of Arizona’s wildlife and my feelings of guilt for living in an area that encroached upon the space of countless creatures who had resided there long before I had ever moved in. Once I understood the impetus for this poem, I was able to cut unnecessary lines and split stanzas in a way that enhanced the underlying meaning.

Is there a book that you’ve read more than once that you read when you need inspiration or comfort?

Yes. I read Li-Young Lee’s Book of My Nights.

Have you written anything lately that you’d like to share?

I recently finished writing a poem whose ideas had plagued my mind for over twenty years. After finally discovering the appropriate framework for them, I spent about five years writing the poem and revising it. It’s a serial poem that employs the language of standardized tests, grammar rules, and literary concepts to analyze the psychological impact of sexual assault and rape culture. It was a healing experience to write it, and I hope fellow survivors will find it healing to read. It’s called “Easy Grammar,” and it was published in Berkeley Poetry Review, Issue 48. It can be found online here: https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~bpr/48th-issue/.

Thursday
Jan312019

"Future Artists of the Fantastic": An Interview with A. Joachim Glage

A. Joachim Glage lives and writes in Colorado, where he enjoys no longer being an attorney. "The Eighteen Possible Plots" is part of a series of fictions Glage is writing about imaginary books. Other pieces from this series have appeared recently, or are soon forthcoming, in such periodicals as The Georgia ReviewLitmag (online), Philosophy and Literature, and others.

His story, "The Eighteen Possible Plots," appeared in Issue 100 of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Andrew Farkas about imaginary and fabulous books, the role of irony in narrative technique, and Borges clones.

Please tell us about the origins of "The Eighteen Possible Plots." What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

My original plan was to write a nonfiction, literary-theoretical essay about my idea of “the dialectic in reverse” and its applicability to certain science-fiction narratives. Somehow I ended up with “The Eighteen Possible Plots” instead. I won’t rehearse the notion of “the dialectic in reverse” here—it’s presented plainly and straightforwardly in the story—but suffice it to say that I do take it somewhat seriously. I am especially fond of the way it seems to describe our relationship with death: that death is but a faraway abstraction when we are young, but then, as we grow older, it begins to inspire religious thoughts (of judgment or souls or the afterlife), and then, as we get very close to it, it begins to seem like a living, breathing thing, like a creature. I think the “dialectic in reverse” could be an effective tool for science-fiction and narrative studies, should someone ever be inclined to use it.

What I am struck by in "The Eighteen Possible Plots" is the obsessive attention to detail in fabricated scholarship (you even created what appears to be a mimeograph of the fictional book this piece focuses on). Certainly, you could have just told us about Dmitry's Shkolnikov's work and the various ideas about it and left it at that. What purpose, then, does all of this "scholarship" (especially the footnotes and the mimeograph) serve in the story?

I am currently at work on a series of fictions about imaginary and fabulous (and sometimes murderous) books, and “The Eighteen Possible Plots” is an installment in that series (other pieces from the series, by the way, can be found in recent or upcoming issues of The Georgia Review, Litmag, Philosophy and Literature, and others). In each of the stories from that collection, I experiment with two distinct but related literary-theoretical topics, which should provide an idea of why I am so interested in phony, made-up scholarship.

The first topic is very simple, and can be encapsulated in the phrase, The Aesthetic of Intellectual Authority. Whenever I take up a book by an especially erudite scholar like Harold Bloom or Fredric Jameson or Borges or Adorno, I am always struck by what I might call the casual genius of the writing, the ease with which it moves from one topic to another, invoking texts both classic and modern, grabbing up whole schools of thought along the way as if they were the wieldiest of objects—and always in a manner that makes it seem like what they’re saying should be plainly obvious to everyone: you believe it, you follow them, eagerly, even when you are painfully out of your own depth. I am interested in seeing if one can successfully deploy that aesthetic, that mode of intellectual authority, even when, as in my case, one has none.

The second topic is more devilish. I have a keen interest in the following question: To what extent is it possible for a work of fiction to lie to the reader? On the one hand, one might opine that it is impossible for a fictional story to lie, since it is, overtly, a work of fiction. On the other hand, one might think that everything in a work of fiction is a lie, and for the very same reason: because the work is, overtly, fictional. I am interested in a third possibility, that in fact there might be a particular sentence or passage in a fictional work that, in some distinct way, succeeds in lying to the reader. In “The Eighteen Possible Plots” there are several places where I attempt just such a deception. Some are very easy to spot. Obviously Darko Suvin, the great science fiction theorist (yes, he is a real person), never wrote anything about a book called The Eighteen Possible Plots (for yes, that is an imaginary book). Do the quotes that I attribute to Suvin about that book amount to lies? If not, why not? If so, why? Other (attempted) lies I tell: the phony scholars alongside the real ones; the non-existent issues of real journals; the imaginary letter sent to Henri Bergson, which is to be found at the (non-existent) “Bergson Center” at the (real) College de France; other made-up quotations attributed to real philosophers. Are any of these lies? Why or why not? There are several other attempted lies in the story that are not so easy to spot; I won’t spoil the fun by listing them all. If you happen to find one of them, do let me know what you think of it.

Although many people say they do not like irony, I continue to love it. And at the beginning of this story, I really felt like I was in for exactly that: irony. After reading "The Eighteen Possible Plots" several times, though, I'm no longer convinced there's any irony whatsoever in this piece. So, what are you doing with the notions of irony and sincerity here?

I am greatly pleased by this question. The role of irony in narrative technique is a private obsession of mine. And I appreciate the idea you’ve expressed here, that at some level there is nothing ironic about this story at all. I concur with that assessment; and yet, there may still be what we might call an ironic “level” at work in the piece, as evidenced by all the deceptions and lies listed in my answer to the previous question.

Let me admit that it is a fantasy of mine to write a story that supports both a “literal” and an “ironic” reading at once, with the two interpretive levels in productive confrontation with one another. I should also admit, of course, that such a feat is likely beyond my abilities. Nevertheless, I might cheekily invoke the four levels of medieval allegory here. Perhaps, in the manner of that old patristic typology, the “literal” level of the story would be that at which the story is read seriously, gravely, and on its own terms—in the present case, this is the level at which “The Eighteen Possible Plots” is just a story about a strange book from 1903 and its predictions about twentieth-century science fiction. The “allegorical” level, then, might refer everything back to the mysterious figure of Dmitry Shkolnikov himself (just as, according to medieval typological interpretive habits, various figures and episodes from the Old Testament could be understood as references to the life of Christ), and to the subtle possibility that he may actually have been an inhuman creature from the sea. Then, somewhere “above” those two levels, there would be the “moral” level (or what I might here call the “ironic” level), which refers the reader back to him- or herself, who, we now come to realize, has been repeatedly lied to, toyed with, by a deceptive narrator. Finally there would be the grander “anagogical” level, according to which everything in the story is really about death, that beast whose gleaming eyes and cold grim claws represent the universal or collective destiny of us all.

Is this too grandiose? Certainly. But then my own lack of irony crystallizes here; I’m in it, in part, for the grandiosity.

The danger in writing a story like this is that people might say, "Oh, but I've already read Jorge Luis Borges, Stanislaw Lem, and Vladimir Nabokov." You, in my opinion, managed quite skillfully to avoid that danger. How, then, did you work with, against, or around those writers when putting "The Eighteen Possible Plots" together?

Permit me to answer this question in a few different ways.

  1. A thousand second-rate Borges clones might be a fine thing today, maybe even a finer thing than the gaggles of writers currently being reviewed in the big papers. I see no danger in it.
  2. How dare you sully the name of the noble Borges by so much as pronouncing it in a question about my own paltry writing! To compare my writing, even unfavorably, to that of the master, Borges, is to commit an unforgivable blasphemy against him, who now resides in the literary pantheon alongside Shakespeare and Milton and Joyce. How dare you, sir or madam, how dare you.
  3. I can only try to write what I myself would want to read. If it reminds the reader of someone else, so be it. I, for one, haven’t read an author published in the last thirty years whose writing didn’t remind me of some previous writer’s work in some way or other. I’m okay with that.
  4. Don’t forget Flann O’Brien: the figure of de Selby from The Third Policeman looms large over my story. Don’t forget Calvino either, or Eco, or Machado de Assis, or even Cervantes (whose conceit that Don Quixote comes to him second-hand, mostly from scrolls written in Arabic, and that he is therefore not the father but only the step-father of the story, is arguably the very first impulse of what we might call modern literature). There are many others we could add to the list.

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

I’ll confine my recommendations to a few living authors who deserve more fame than they currently enjoy (even if some of them are quite well known already). Most of them are writers of what I would loosely call philosophical fiction:

  • Brian Evenson (a master of the short form, a writer of weird and dark tales; Windeye is my favorite of his collections);
  • James Warner (another master of the philosophical story, his recent fictions in Ninth Letter and The Georgia Review are glittering achievements);
  • Amy Sackville (Painter to the King and Orkney are two of my favorite novels of the past ten years; there is a subtlety of thought in her writing that is exceedingly rare today; her sentences are also just so damn good);
  • Lydia Davis (the greatest of all the masters of the abstract and spare short story; there has never been a writer who has built so great an edifice with as few and such sparse raw materials);
  • John Wray (The Lost Time Accidents is one of the best books I’ve read in a long while; it straddles several genres, too: part literary novel, part scifi, part family epic);
  • Eleanor Catton (like many, I was blown away by The Luminaries; she is one of the few authors today whose novels I would buy sight-unseen);
  • Two great poets: Leila Chatti and Kim Addonizio (I read from them almost every day, almost like a habit; perhaps there’s no higher praise for a writer than that).

What are you writing these days?

I was inspired by Colin Winnette’s excellent Haints Stay to try my hand at a western; my story is about a man expecting, waiting, to be murdered by a gang of assassins. I also recently finished another installment in my series of fictions about imaginary books—this one about a six-thousand-page horror novel called The Requirements, which may or may not have been written by an evil spirit.

Sunday
Jan132019

"Circling a Place to Rest": An Interview Joseph Fazio

Joseph Fazio has published stories in The Iowa Review, Post Road Magazine, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. New work appears regularly on his website, josephfazio.com. He was awarded an artist fellowship by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for his fiction and lives in Boston.

His stories, "The New Boy," "The Lid of Hell," appeared in Issue Eighty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about a Kinks song, what kids get up to when grownups aren't around, and the advice we'd give to our characters.

What inspires your writing? How does a story begin for you?

Often, it’s just an image or some small moment that serves as an entryway. A good first line. The usual sort of thing. “The Lid of Hell” started as a cool title inspired by a lyric in the Kinks song “Lincoln County.” Thanks, Dave Davies. “The New Boy” was based on fuzzy memories of an actual crime that made local headlines 30 years ago.

As I write this, I also recall that “The Lid of Hell” is a kind of twisted homage to the Andre Dubus story “The Doctor” (both stories prominently feature a child in mortal danger and a garden hose).

Both “The New Boy” and “The Lid of Hell” are about children who meet tragic ends. Both have characters, also children, who could have prevented the deaths but didn’t. What drew you to these storylines?

I’ve always been drawn to stories about kids in peril, or about what kids get up to when there are no grownups around, which sometimes means emulating the worst in adults. And I certainly remember with guilt cruelties I committed when I was a child. I suppose in some way these stories are about confronting that.

If you could give advice to one of the characters in these stories, what would it be?

Stay inside, take up the guitar, and practice obsessively until it’s time to leave home.

If your writing was an animal, which animal would it be?

A cat circling a place to rest. Or a cat yakking up a hairball in the dark.

What is something you are working on now (writing or otherwise) that you are excited about?

I recently created a very simple website to publish the imaginative “things” that make up the bulk of my writing lately. It seemed like a good idea: publish new works on the website regularly, and maybe at the end of each year compile them into a print edition. Those who want to read more can visit josephfazio.com.