Monday
Jun042018

"An Attempt to Connect": An Interview with Teresa Carmody

Teresa Carmody is the author of Maison Femme: a fiction and Requiem. Recently published projects include the chapbook Hide and See (No Press) and DeLand (Container), a view-master book made in collaboration with fiber artist Madison Creech. Carmody is the Editor Emeritus of Les Figues Press and director of Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas.

Her story, "A New Writing Friend," appeared in Issue Eighty-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about writing with constraints, friendships in a patriarchal society, and sentence muscles.

Where did this story begin for you?

It really began with the first sentence, which is how my stories often begin: a sentence comes to me that I want to continue exploring in fiction. In this case it was a sentence about William, who is afraid. Well, what is he afraid of? Oh, words. And that got me thinking about how some people (my younger self included) so want to be loved that they’ll say what they believe others want to hear, or even unconsciously mirror or reflect their friends’ affectations or subtle energies, in an attempt to connect. It’s sad because such behavior actually gets in the way of more genuine intimacy; it’s hard to be real with someone who’s performing the person they think you want them to be.

Why do you think it’s important to this story that all of William’s friends are women? How would it change the story if it was instead a story about William and his male friends?

Well, it would be a different story, wouldn’t it? Because in a patriarchal society, the power dynamics of mirroring another’s desire (or presenting for another) is really different for men and women. Not to grossly overgeneralize, but women are regularly expected to conform to and fulfill male desire, while female desire goes unseen, unrecognized, unbelieved. Which isn’t to say that both men and women can’t fall into the trap of saying/being for another, in an attempt to gain love or affection. But it’s another story if a male is performing for men, or a female is performing for women. And this plays out differently, too, in straight or queer communities and friendships.

William is convinced he needs to caretake these strong-willed, creative, and charismatic women in order for them to truly love him. He absents himself by literally not speaking—so to better reflect their desires! Yet at the end of the day, the story still revolves around William. He’s the main character, true, and he’s a male; in a patriarchy, the social narrative always centers (and re-centers) around men.

Does your work as an editor influence your work as a writer? If so, how?

Editing/publishing has filled and broken my heart over 5,000 times, and that’s how I feel about writing. In fact, I wrote a whole book (Maison Femme: a fiction) to explore this and the relationship between editing, publishing, and writing. Maison Femme is a roman à clef; it uses my house in Los Angeles (where we ran Les Figues for 10+ years) as its structure, so each area in the house has a section in the book. There are more constraints, too, such as bibliomancy and a sentence/body constraint. I’ve been writing using constraints for several years now, which is something I first explored through publishing/editing books like The nOulipian Analects (Viegener and Wertheim, eds.) and Cunt Norton (Dodie Bellamy). And of course, Dies: A Sentence (Vanessa Place), which was Les Figues’ first single-author title. And while we’re on the subject of sentences, I do see editing as another way to tone your sentence muscles, and I’m all about the sentence. To me, writing is a practice: a daily habit, a mode of being, and a cognitive and muscular process—which is why if you haven’t done it in a while, it can feel awkward to pick up the pen. The same is true for different modes of writing: critical writing works a different set of muscles/processes than poetry or fiction. Lynda Barry (another big influence) recommends giving yourself three days to get into a project, three days to come out, and I’ve found this to be a good guideline. It’s also the crucifixion/resurrection timeline, that creative process of transmutation by which materiality moves from one form into another into a third. How can we get to—and make space for—the third thing, whatever that is?

What is the last book you read that you absolutely loved?

Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis. It’s so sly and humorous and charming, with ample amounts of stickiness and a narrative construction that’s as pleasurable as it is rhetorically fascinating.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a few different things, but this week specifically, I’ve been writing a piece that I privately call the animal story (actual title tbd). It draws on language I collected from an audience many months ago (well, in late 2016), during a panel on interspecies communication. As part of my talk, I passed out 3x5 notecards and, after giving several instructions about receiving credit or a copy of the eventual story, I told short animal stories (from life and literature) and asked the audience a question about the animals’ message. After, I had this amazing collection of 3x5 notecards with all kinds of responses, some silly, some scolding, which I brought with me as I moved across the country to Florida, where I live now. The pile of notecards has been sitting on my desk all this time because it’s taken this long to find the story’s opening. I’m pretty sure this will be final story in a larger collection about friendship, gossip, community and writing. Coincidently, “William and His Woman Friends” was one of the first stories I wrote for this same collection. And yes, the collection has a title: A Healthy Interest in the Lives of Others

Friday
Jun012018

“Helium Rebels”: An Interview with Karen An-hwei Lee

Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award.  Lee also wrote two chapbooks, God’s One Hundred Promises (Swan Scythe 2002) and What the Sea Earns for a Living (Quaci Press 2014). Her book of literary criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations (Cambria 2013), was selected for the Cambria Sinophone World Series. She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she serves as Full Professor of English and Chair at a liberal arts college in greater Los Angeles, where she is also a novice harpist. Lee is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Her poems, "A Resistance Song of Zeppelins for Julio" and "Youngest Filament in the Universe," appeared in Issue Seventy-Three of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Victoria DiMartino about how something as a small as a poem can fill something as large as the earth, the way everything and everyone is connected through poetry, and balloons.

Throughout the poem, “A Resistance Song of Zeppelins for Julio,” we follow the path of these balloons that are released into the sky. The poem seems to focus on smaller balloons, but the title hints at something much larger—Zeppelins. Was the piece inspired by the Zeppelin races, or did the creation of this poem develop out of something else?

A small thingsuch as a poemcan float over the world into people’s hearts, while such a light thing such as a scentlike the odor of duriancan seem thick and heavy as it occupies a room. By exploring zeppelins, weather balloons, and diving bells, the poem explores questions about scale and lightness.  It also indirectly asks, how much space can a poem occupy in the world?

This piece starts out focusing on a group of men and women in exile releasing what we can imagine as hundreds of balloons, all filled or connected with poetry. As the poem continues we see the way in which one by one balloons fall behind and are separated from the group, “As the balloons pop, syllables in nebulae of gas / drift over onlookers who read aloud the words / until they sail out of sight, puffing smoke-rings,” and “The balloons take poems wherever they go, / dropping at the mercy of hail or lightening.” We finally reach the end and the narrator claims their presence in the piece stating, “My name / in the light is / Soledad”. Why this sudden shift to this perspective of the narrator? Are they supposed to be understood as a balloon, or a poem released from one of the balloons?

Yes, the narrator and the balloon merge in the same way collective awareness in grassroots movements (“occupy”) may consist of aggregated individual experiences, similar to the phenomenon of recognizing a face among faces. In doing so, we join a circle of readers who experience the same poem, each in a unique waythis is a form of communion wherein we exchange intimacies, collectively or in solitude, by participating symbolically and semantically in an imagined community.

The diction in this piece twisted the way readers of the poem saw things. You described the balloons and the world in such new and exciting ways. I saw this most in these lines, “syllables in nebulae of gas / drift over onlookers,” “Some balloons even scan dactylic hexameter,” and “When we open our windows, air molecules / wander from a malodorous, fleshy durian.” This diction added such potency to the voice of the narrator, it feels as though we can hear the narrator telling us the story of these balloons as they travel the world. Do you find that diction can add a powerful spin to the strength of the voice of the narrator?

Absolutely.  Poetry, by nature, is recognized partly through its economy of language. Our word choices can powerfully influence a poem’s valences and vehicles, including the voice of a narrator.

Have you read anything recently that you think has influenced your writing? If not what have you read recently that you think was really amazing?

I’m reading the Old and New Testaments in parallel translations, plus a range of poetry and prose:  Khairani Barokka’s Rope, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge, Ching-In Chen’s Recombinant, Linda Dove’s This Too, Camille T. Dungy’s Trophic Cascade, Luisa A. Igloria’s Haori, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, Adrian Matejka’s Map to the Stars, Paisley Rekdal’s Imaginary Vessels, Natasha Sajé’s Vivarium, Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor, Cole Swensen’s On Walking On, and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s Water and Salt.  I’m also reading Francine du Plessix Gray’s biography of the French philosopher, Simone Weil, whose writings on gravity, grace, and the mysticism of labor continue to fascinate me.

Do you have any new writing projects that you are dying to tell the world about?

I’d love share my collected translations of the Song Dynasty woman poet, Li Qingzhao, Doubled Radiance: Poetry & Prose of Li Qingzhao, now available from Singing Bone Press.  This is the first English-language translation of Li’s collected poems (ci, set to tune of popular songs in her day) and prose.  It includes her essay on war, exile, and the transitory nature of material things.  Li’s voice is unique in that she sets aside imperial formalitiesin style and contentin a lyrical, passionate voice whose immediacy appeals to contemporary readers.  

Monday
May212018

"The Omega": An Interview with Joseph Cardinale

Joseph Cardinale is the author of The Size of the Universe (FC2). His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in jubilat, Denver Quarterly, New York Tyrant, and Web Conjunctions. He lives on eastern Long Island.

His story, "The Omega," appeared in Issue Ninety-Six of The Collagist.

Here, he talks with interviewer Andrew Farkas about his use of mono-mythical stories, about a common misinterpretation of spiritual and mythological texts, and about Nothingness.

Please tell us about the origins of “The Omega” (which feels like I’m saying, “Please tell us about the beginning of the end”). What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

The story is mostly excerpted from the beginning and ending sections of an unpublished novella. Initially, the goal was to write a dreamlike narrative that explicitly drew on archetypal imagery and ideas. A related goal was to use the simplest possible language. I started out with a readymade mono-mythical setup: the distant Father on the Mountaintop inviting the narrator to see him, tempting him with an inexplicable mystery. And from the beginning I conceived of the Father more as a symbol than as a singular character. I wanted to unapologetically invite and interrogate the inevitable mythic and biblical associations: the Father as God, the mountain as a site of mystical revelation. Even as I was writing the novel, though, I didn't know what exactly was going to be revealed to the narrator at the end of his journey. The idea of the Omega comes directly from a Borges story called "The Aleph." In Borges, a character claims to have discovered, in his basement, an Aleph, which he defines as a spatial point "that contains all the other points." In my story, the Father claims to have an “Omega” in his brain, and he defines the Omega in similar terms. And the mystical vision at the end of my story explicitly and syntactically echoes the vision of the Aleph in Borges. I like to think of my story as a sort of response to Borges, but maybe that's just a fancy way of saying I stole his idea.  

As I was reading the story, I was first struck by the influence of mythological and religious texts (the title seemingly connecting to the “I am the Alpha and the Omega” line from Revelations, the Father being capitalized and living on a mountain, the harrowing journey for what might be a boon), and yet your purposeful use of ambiguous words and phrases throughout undermines the certainty such texts are supposed to instill in us. So, what would you say you are doing with mythology and religion here? How have mythological and religious stories influenced you? Do you seek to undermine mythological and religious stories, or to help them evolve, or to get them to help explain the universe we live in now?

I don't know. I definitely am trying to write in a way that highlights and frames spiritual questions. And I love religious and mythological stories. So I'm not trying to undermine them, at least not insofar as undermining implies critique. I don't think that spiritual and mythological texts are designed to instill certainty, though. I think that's often how they're interpreted, and maybe, by playing up the ambiguity, I'm trying to undermine or challenge what I perceive as a misinterpretation. I think the point of mythic-religious art is to refresh our awareness of the mystery of existence. To remind us of the foundational existential questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Where did the universe come from? What are we doing here? What is the self? Where is the boundary between the inner world and the outer world? Etcetera. When I read genuinely religious and mythological stories, I never find definitive answers to these kinds of questions. I find myself, instead, cast into something like the Cloud of Unknowing that the mystics talk about. And that’s, I guess, where I’m trying to guide my readers—to a sort of surrendering awareness of what we already know we don’t know. If that makes sense.  

Continuing on with the story, however, it felt less and less mythological and more like Samuel Beckett (the obsession with nothingness, the setting as a kind of null space, the word play). Now, whereas Beckett uses Biblical references (the crucified thieves in Waiting for Godot, Job in The Unnameable), his are specific and often aid in grounding the reader. You, on the other hand, seem to be pointing more toward, say, Joseph Campbell’s ubiquitous monomyth than any particular mythological text, meaning there’s no grounding force except for a vast generality. How do you see yourself dealing with the concept of uncertainty, then? Do you feel that since Beckett, at times, uses grounding forces that he flinches in the face of nothingness? How have you advanced the idea of nothingness beyond Beckett?

The novella from which “The Omega” is adapted is actually loaded with direct references to movies, songs, and biblical stories. So the original draft was much more realistically grounded, in that sense. And my original vision was to write a narrative that starts in the recognizably "real" world—or uses a vaguely realist aesthetic—and then gradually arcs toward something more like the Null Space in which Beckett's stories are set. More specifically, I wanted the ultimate revelation of Nothingness—the conclusion of the story—to come at the endpoint of a more conventionally grounded heroic journey, as in the Borges story, where the climactic mystical vision of the Aleph concludes a seemingly low-stakes comedy about a rivalry between two poets. And I think the occasional grounding forces in Beckett’s fiction work in an essentially similar way; they never resolve the mystery of existence, but underscore the inadequacy of language and point toward the Nothingness that words veil. In adapting “The Omega" from the novella, I was, yes, making a deliberate effort to emphasize the mono-mythic aspects of the narrative. And that meant removing any details and references that might ground the story a specific time and place. I wanted to pare down the prose to the point where all nouns in the story seem as though they are implicitly capitalized. Like: when I use the words "mountain" or "house” or “wall,” I don't want to the reader to see a specific mountain or house or wall, but to see something more like the Platonic idea of a Mountain or House or Wall, which seems more urgently real to me, really, than the tangible world.

I have to ask this question. Supposedly Donald Barthelme’s favorite writing assignment was “describe nothing.” Do you feel that your own project here is to describe nothing? Are we all always describing nothing?   

Yes! I love that prompt. I wouldn’t exactly say my project is to describe nothing, because of course I can’t, but I wanted the story to clear a space for the reader to meditate on the primordial question of why there’s something rather than nothing. And that’s also what the prompt does. It’s essentially a Zen koan. It pushes the intellect to the point where rational and linear thought is disabled and, as the narrator says in my story, “words stop working.” I think the primary imperative of all mythic-religious writing is to guide the reader, gently, to this point—and to invite us to see Nothingness, or whatever, as a sort of spiritual home, connecting everything.     

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

Most of my literary inspiration, lately, has come from non-fiction books like Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and Tolstoy’s Confession. And I really love Stephen Mitchell’s translations of The Book of Job and the Tao Te Ching. As for contemporary fiction, my favorite book of recent years is a short novel called First, The Raven: A Preface, by Seth Rogoff (Sagging Meniscus Press 2017). That’s the kind of novel I wish I could write, starting in the recognizably “real” world and moving gradually and gracefully toward greater uncertainty and deeper un-knowing. By the end of the novel, every word starts to seem absolutely clear and absolutely confusing; it leaves the reader suspended, almost mystically, between understanding everything and understanding nothing. And it’s just a really fun read.  

What are you writing these days?

I’m revising and re-envisioning the failed mess-of-a-novella from which “The Omega” is drawn; it’s titled Out of Nothing. More generally, I’m working on cultivating a more intrinsically motivated approach to the writing process. Trying to approach writing less as a solitary professional pursuit, less as a laboriously exacting exercise of craft, pressure, and patience reluctantly undertaken with some vaguely imagined workshop-style audience of perpetually unimpressed strangers in mind, and more as a natural in-the-moment response to specific encounters and experiences. Writing only out of love and only when I feel compelled to capture the overflowing truth of a moment or insight I might otherwise forget. In this spirit, I’m working, sporadically, on a series of autobiographical sketches centered on dialogues with my five-year-old son (one of these sketches is forthcoming in jubilat). I’m working, too, on recording and transcribing stories my son tells me (or I tell him) through a question-and-answer process—and I’m finding inspiration and renewal in the unselfconscious strangeness and mythic energy that animates some of these stories. Yesterday, as I was anxiously pondering the fourth question in this interview, he suddenly announced, apropos of (apparently) nothing, “I’m going to make a story where me and you build a spaceship. And we’re going to go to space. But when we get to space, space has vanished.”   

Tuesday
May152018

"Birds on Tote Bags": An Interview with Catherine Carberry

Catherine Carberry is a writer and editor living in New York. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Guernica, Harvard Review, North American Review, Tin House online, and Indiana Review, and has been broadcast on National Public Radio.

Her story, "Birdkillers," appeared in Issue Eighty of The Collagist.

Here, she talks with interviewer Dana Diehl about birds as a metaphor, the spooky violence of children, and finding patterns as a way of building narrative.

What inspired this piece, “Birdkillers”?

It began as an antidote to what I saw as precious depictions of birds in literature and design. So many poems about starlings, so many silhouettes of birds on tote bags. I think of that Portlandia sketch (Put a bird on it!) and how the same people who find this appeal in birds as metaphors or decorative images are disgusted when confronted with the real thing. I was relieved of any sense of birds as cute when, as a teenager, I visited a friend who kept birds that were allowed to fly around in the house. My friend’s father came home from a shift in the ER, wearing these blood-speckled scrubs, and the birds landed on his shoulder as he ate the dinner we’d made for him (which, of course, was poultry—a horrible purple experiment involving chicken soaked in red wine). That image stayed with me—the tired doctor, the blood, the birds. I wanted to write about the sort of people who would kill a bird, and explore who they were and why they would do it. In the end, it turned out that they were all women.

The last story in this piece begins, “Insane people see patterns everywhere.” What patterns do you hope readers see in these stories, other than the obvious of the birds? Why do these stories belong together instead of apart? What thought went into the order? (Sorry, sneaking three questions into one!)

The narrator who speaks that line is more averse to pattern-building than I am! Sure, conspiracy theorists and the paranoid see connections and patterns everywhere, but finding patterns is also a way of building a narrative, ascribing meaning to chaotic events. In these stories, I wanted to get the question of a bird’s fate out of the way, to clear more space for the context and emotional trajectory of each character. The first story begins with the question of trust between a man and a woman, and the final story ends with these two versions of a song, by Robert Johnson and Joni Mitchell. In between this question of trust and what we choose to honor are these vignettes of birdkillers—cruel children, witchy daughters, women with a streak of malice—which I hope illuminate that question.

I’ve taught at a K–4 grade school for the past three years, and this story made me recall two bird and kid-related experiences I’ve had in the past few months. The first: a pigeon got trapped in the lunch room, and as I and another teacher struggled to shoo it toward the door, a group of students started chanting: “Kill it! Kill it!” The second: a child strangely and spontaneously announced to me, “Next Valentine’s Day, I’m giving everyone a bird skeleton. I have a lot of birds to kill.” Why do you think children and adults alike are drawn to bird deaths? Why were you drawn to bird deaths?

Those stories are incredible! I’m fascinated by the spooky violence of children. And I find validation in your students’ instinct to kill birds, because these stories reveal what I think is a certain truth—birds are a beautiful menace. We see them pecking dead things on the side of the road, we know they carry disease, but we’re also drawn to watching them, finding meaning in their flight, using them as metaphor for freedom or confinement.  I’ve sought to learn how to externalize conflict in my stories—too often, there’s the impulse for something to happen to the character, but then the story is consumed by reaction. I like reactive stories, but in structuring each story around the act of killing an animal so loaded with metaphor, I was trying to force myself to build characters who act.

If you were a bird, what kind of bird do you think you would you be?

That is a very different question than what bird I want to be! I’d want to be a stubborn male peacock who chases tourists when they try to take photos, but I think I’d be a small and plain-looking beach bird, swooping over the cliffs or pecking at the rocks jutting out from the sea.

What is inspiring you these days? It could be a book, a movie, an album, or even a food.

I just finished Mavis Gallant’s novel, “A Fairly Good Time” and underlined almost every sentence. It was inspiring in that the writing is wry, funny, and full of these uncanny cognitive leaps, with such a distinct observational eye.

What projects are you working on currently?

 I’ve been drafting a novel based on a women-led independence movement in Puerto Rico in 1950, and the subsequent assassination attempt of President Truman by two Puerto Ricans. It began as a short story several years ago, loosely based on a family member who was a closeted gay artist in 1950s Puerto Rico. As I began to research the independence movements and political climate of the time, I became preoccupied with the notion of failed revolutions, and what independence means both politically and personally. The aftermath of Hurricane Maria only solidified what I see as an imperative to write about Puerto Rico and to reckon with the damaging consequences of the United States’ political and economic interference over the past century.

Monday
May072018

"The Force and Fluctuation of Thought": An Interview with Jennifer Wortman

Jennifer Wortman's work appears in Glimmer Train, Normal School, DIAGRAM, Hobart, Okey-Panky, New World Writing, JMWW, The Collapsar, crag, Confrontation, PANK, North American Review, and elsewhere. She is an associate fiction editor at Colorado Review and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

 Her essay, "The Orphaned Adult," appeared in Issue Ninety-Four of The Collagist.
 

Here, Jennifer Wortman talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about brevity, teaching writing, and nonfiction with an unreliable narrator.

Your essay, “The Orphaned Adult,” is under 200 words long. Was it a challenge for you to write so concisely? Did it require much revision to reach such brevity? How do you achieve this economy of language?

“The Orphaned Adult” was a gift of insomnia, one of those rare pieces that came to me in a flurry when I picked up my pen at 3 a.m. The size and shape of the essay unfolded naturally, so the concision posed no problem. I did, though, do a fair amount of subsequent tinkering for the sake of precision: determining the right words and the best order of words. In a work so short, language matters all the more, and I felt the pressure of that. Still, “The Orphaned Adult” was way easier to write than much of what I’ve written.

In addition to writing flash prose, I write full-length short fiction, and I generally find length harder to navigate than brevity, in part because I’m a slow writer, but also because longer forms contain more possibilities and, with that, more potential for bad moves, which then have larger ripple effects. I’m not a planner: I generally compose right on the page and find my way through trial and error. With flash, it’s easier for me to see a piece as a whole and understand what it needs.

You are a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. How has writing nonfiction made you a better fiction writer, or vice versa? What lessons learned from one genre have served you best in the other?

I’ve been writing fiction a lot longer than nonfiction, so my nonfiction often has a strong fictional bent, in that I’m hyperaware of the constructed nature of my narrative persona. And while I don’t mess with blatant objective facts in my nonfiction, I find myself exaggerating subjective states for dramatic effect. “The Orphaned Adult” flaunts its narrator’s unreliability; the essay pretty much hinges on it. So the narrator’s insistence that her marriage isn’t over also suggests the possibility that her marriage is, in fact, over. I wrote those final lines to dramatize a grief-crazed inner conflict, while also knowing that my real-world marriage isn’t over. (Or is it? Ha ha.)

My nonfiction writing, in turn, has freed me to explore in my fiction what interests me most: the workings of human consciousness. I’m not great at plot, a deficit that sometimes frustrates me. But through writing nonfiction, I’ve been able to focus on the force and fluctuation of thought, a practice I’ve somewhat been able to transfer to my fiction. My most recent published full-length short story, “Love You. Bye,” which appears in Glimmer Train, is made up of brief, quasi-essay-like sections. While the story follows a loose plot, the narrator’s thinking drives the story in a way I don’t believe I’ve achieved before. “Love You. Bye.” feels truer to my voice and vision than other full-length stories I’ve written, and for that I credit my experience writing nonfiction.

You are also an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a literary arts center. What sorts of students have you worked with? How does teaching enrich, or otherwise affect, your work as a writer?

At Lighthouse, I teach mostly online classes, to students who range from complete beginners to published book authors and may live up the road from me in Colorado or across the country or globe. I love the variety in that. Some of my classes are designed to generate writing; others take a conventional workshop approach. In the generative classes, I focus on inspiration and encouragement. We do a lot of freewriting and try to leave our inner (and outer) critics at the door. In the workshops, we go in-depth with craft. Both kinds of classes benefit my own writing a ton. The generative classes remind me of the value of relaxing into my writing and cultivating a sense of play. The workshops force me to articulate and refine my ideas about technique; I work with some pretty sophisticated writers, which pushes my thinking to new levels. And to critique student writing is also to critique my own: their problems are often my problems, to which I’ve become more attuned. The community and intelligence and talent I see in all my classes endlessly enrich me. I can’t say enough good things about Lighthouse and how it supports me and other writers of all sorts.

 

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

I have a short story collection making the rounds, and I’m considering giving it a major overhaul to include more of my recent flash prose. If I don’t make the overhaul, then I’ll put together a separate collection of my recent flash prose. I have amorphous plans for a novel-in-flash. I’m also working on individual flash fictions and essays, a little poetry, and some full-length short fiction. At the moment, I’m on the umpteenth draft of a short story I’ve been wrestling with for well over a decade. It’s likely an exercise in futility, but I figure, if nothing else, it primes me for the futilities that come with the writing life. And the other parts of life.

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

Transit, Rachel Cusk; We the Animals, Justin Torres; Philadelphia Fire, John Edgar Wideman; Something Bright, Then Holes, Maggie Nelson; The Sarah Book, Scott McClanahan.

This flash essay, “Blue Laws,” by Mike Nagel:

https://jellyfishreview.wordpress.com/2018/04/21/blue-laws-by-mike-nagel/

And this flash fiction, “Little Doves,” by Leesa Cross Smith:

https://theoffingmag.com/fiction/little-doves/

Tuesday
Apr242018

"The Thin Scrim Between Dark and Dawn": An Interview with Wendy Chin-Tanner

Wendy Chin-Tanner is the author of the poetry collection Turn (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014) which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards and co-author of the graphic novel American Terrorist (A Wave Blue World). Her poetry has been nominated for the Best of the Net Prize and the Pushcart Prize, and has been featured at a variety of venues including The Rumpus, Vinyl Poetry, Denver Quarterly, The Normal School, The Huffington Post, RHINO Poetry, and The Mays Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge. She is a founding editor at Kin Poetry Journal, poetry editor at The Nervous Breakdown, and staff interviewer at Lantern Review.

Her poem, "This Bed This Room," appeared in Issue Seventy-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Wendy Chin-Tanner speaks with interviewer Jason Gray about childbirth, the universality of pain, and doing things in threes.

How did you come to write this poem?

This poem was written in the first months following the birth of my second daughter during what is commonly referred to as “the fourth trimester.” I often find inspiration in the body, specifically in the juxtaposition between the world of the mind and corporeal reality. What interests me about childbirth as a subject for literary inquiry is the twinning of the creative force with the abjectness of the body. Many of the world’s spiritual traditions, both eastern and western, explore the meaning of the body in pain and the universality of pain, how physical suffering is the common denominator of being alive. Think of the Buddhist principle that life is suffering. Think of Christ on the cross. In exploring the relevance of these venerable spiritual traditions to the suffering of the female body, specifically the maternal body, I find the postpartum space to be a fruitful poetic garden. Childbirth is a liminal space and the confinement of the immediate postpartum period allows for a lingering between one world and another, where the membrane is thin. To write from that space is to enact one of the defining characteristics of poetry: the act of verbalizing the nonverbal. To write from that space also creates a feminist counternarrative to the longstanding mainstream contention that the subject of motherhood is not one of serious literary endeavor. I beg to differ.

Why did you decide on lines of three syllables each? Are syllabics a usual form for your poems to take?

The poems in my forthcoming second collection "Anyone Will Tell You” are preoccupied with an investigation of form and its subversion as an expression of the relationships between gender and identity, parent and child, self and other, the personal and the political, humanity and the environment, and the earthly and the cosmic. Within that investigation, I started out working mostly with blank verse couplets but then, in conjunction with the birth of my second daughter, I began to write primarily on my iPhone's Notes app while pacing the halls with the baby in a sling to keep her asleep. This rhythmic movement coupled with the restriction of that tiny screen led to the development of a new form consisting of three syllables per line and three lines per stanza, which I think of as trisyllabic triplets or 3x3s. Eschewing punctuation and most capitalizations, on a technical level, I discovered that 3x3s are highly fluid with a multitude of  elisions that work with and rely on the rhythm of the English language to expand the possibilities of meaning from line to line.

How does the presence of the many instances of internal rhyme (skin/thin; moon/spoon; night/flight) in concordance with or contrast to the full rhyme that exists between the two last stanzas (rest/breast) affect the poem, in your mind?

I’m interested in general in the way that internal rhyme lends itself to a quieter, less percussive, more subtle, and fluid musicality than end rhyme, which I think works well with the elisions that the 3x3 poetic form employ, and in particular, I find that internal rhyme suits the tone and narrative content of this poem. The masculine rhyme at the end of the poem serves as a kind of sonic punctuation signaling a sense of conclusion to the ear. In thinking about the natural iambic pulse of English and how it informs the comprehension and interpretation of language, I experimented with different compositional strategies for making meaning, notating, and directing the way in which the poem might sound and be read; its beats, its rests, its cadence.

What are you reading?

Meg Wolitzer’s “The Female Persuasion” and Vanessa Angelica Villarreal’s “Beast Meridian.”

What are you writing?

A novel set in 1950s NYC and rural Louisiana.

Monday
Apr232018

"My Nonfiction Is Fictional": An Interview with Matthew Vollmer

Matthew Vollmer is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech and is the author of Future Missionaries of America, inscriptions for headstones, and Gateway to Paradise. With David Shields, he is the co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Documents, and other Fraudulent Artifacts. He also edited A Book of Common Prayer, which collects the invocations of over 60 writers. His next book, Permanent Exhibit, is forthcoming.

His essay, "Sinkhole," appeared in Issue Ninety-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Matthew Vollmer talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about juxtaposition, stream-of-consciousness writing, and turning experiences into myth.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay, “Sinkhole.” What sparked the initial idea?

I wrote “Sinkhole” during a time when I had assigned myself to produce work especially of this nature—that being a “day-driven” kind of essay, in which I paid close attention to the particular and idiosyncratic motions of a mind in search of both meaning and senselessness. In other words, I wanted to capture and reproduce, as realistically as possible, the movements of consciousness as they pertained to my present dispositions. I would begin with an idea—in this case, the notion that one should not, at the beginning of the day, turn first to one’s phone—and proceed from there, shifting as instinctually and freely as possible from one association to the next, working up a kind of rhythm that hopefully led “somewhere.”

The essay consists of one paragraph, about 1,500 words long. I think it’s fair to call the work a stream of consciousness, or at least it’s presented as one. How do you revise a piece that is supposed to replicate the natural associations made by your mind? How much did this essay change from the first draft to the final?

Honestly, I can’t remember how much it changed. I feel like this essay and the book of which it’s a part required less revision than previous books I’ve written, but saying that now from a relative distance, I can’t tell how true that is. The trick for me in producing associatively-driven work is knowing when to make explicit connections and when it’s cool to place images or perceptions side-by-side and trust the reader to connect the dots. Also, it’s not fair to say that the brain’s primary mode of motion is one of “connectedness.” A chain of associations can feel “right” in terms of its fidelity to the way one’s brain-tape unfolds, but just as frequent—if not more so—are random intrusions. Therefore, juxtaposition can become a useful tool when attempting to create any kind of analogue for consciousness. That’s part of the joy of working in a collage-like mode: the unexpected image or thought can feel like a necessary subversion.

You are a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. How has writing nonfiction made you a better fiction writer, or vice versa? What lessons learned from one genre have served you best in the other?

The longer I work and the more I write, the so-called line between my fiction and nonfiction becomes less and less distinct. Perhaps that’s because my own experience—which has always informed and guided whatever I write—has become the dominant subject matter of my writing, and because writing about that experience feels both true and false. I am trying to write what I’ve lived, to catalog the significant idiosyncrasies of that life, and I’m using language to do that, and because words are merely representational and fail to capture the radiant fullness of experience, and because I am an unreliable narrator whose memory can’t be trusted, it feels to me as if I’m working in the realm of myth. In other words, my nonfiction is fictional.

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

I recently finished the final edits on a book of essays—Permanent Exhibit, to be published by BOA Editions, Ltd in September of 2018—that are, like “Sinkhole,” collage-like in nature—each one a single paragraph unspooling. I’ve since returned to the book I was working on when those essays began to arrive: an accounting of having grown up in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina, in a loving family who counted themselves as members of a little-known American denomination whose tenants were central to our lives and gave shape—for better and worse—to my childhood.

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

Catherine Lacey’s The Answers. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn and Winter. Otessa Moshfegh’s

Eileen and Homesick for Another World. Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts. Tara Wesotver’s Educated: A Memoir. Denis Johnson’s The Name of the World and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories. Valerie Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd.

Wednesday
Apr112018

"Worms Turning and Obligation Souring": An Interview with Jaclyn Watterson

Jaclyn Watterson's first book, Ventriloquisms, won the 2016 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction and was published by Willow Springs Books in October 2017. She is currently at work on her second book, a collection of nonfiction from which portions have appeared in The Spectacle, New Delta Review, Split Lip, and The Collagist.

Her essay, "Our Deportment," appeared in Issue Ninety-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Jaclyn Watterson talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about etiquette, struggling with plot, and the transformation of memories into narrative.

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

With this particular essay, the title actually came first. I was reading a nineteenth century book meant to instruct readers on proper etiquette for various tricky situations. There is, for example, a section on how to comport oneself at a funeral, and another on how young ladies should behave if left alone with men whom they don’t wish to marry. The book is called Our Deportment, a title which implies, to me, culpability and reciprocity. I knew I wanted to reappropriate it to explore my fraught relationship with my mother—and the habits of mind and practices I have and have not learned from her.

While I admire the position that if we behave properly and have good manners our experiences will always remain controlled and manageable—that if we just learn the rules everything will be all right—I also know this position is a beautiful, false dream. Good manners cannot, ultimately, save us from pain and disgrace, and what horrors are exposed when our behavior exceeds the confines of mannered relations?

The essay begins with one italicized paragraph, which seems to have a different speaker than what follows, as it lacks both “I” and “you” in its more lyrical language. What purpose is this unique introduction meant to serve? How do you want it to orient (or disorient) the reader?

That introduction is in keeping with the instructions or advice on etiquette, but of course rather than present foolproof advice guaranteed to create a smooth and comfortable experience for the two people in question here (my mother and myself), it acknowledges pain and ugliness, which manners so often are meant to conceal. Here, history and past interactions cannot provide a template for clean future relations, for the history is not one of good manners and social successes, but of worms turning and obligation souring. This, I think, is not so uncommon in families. The introduction orients the reader to a place and a peace beyond the trauma that follows, spelling out the inevitable ending, while suggesting that there might yet be some dignity—and even redemption—in looking squarely at that history.

In this essay, you write: “This is the way, of course, with the true stories of youth, our memories—they bloom and die and smell, and we cannot keep them. Put another way: mildew and various other deaths accumulate.” If this is true for everyone, I’m wondering how you think it may be different for a writer, if at all. If we channel such stories into writing, how might that affect the process you’re describing here? What does writing do to the blooming, dying memories: preserve them? empower them? transform them?

I think it’s right that as writers we transform and empower memories. Of course all people narrativize their experience, but writers obsessively revise and record this narrative. I have attempted, through this essay, to show my readers the bathroom where I showered in my youth. Who are my readers? People who are interested in language and narrative. For the most part, they probably do not share my particular preoccupation with lavatories. But now I have recorded that bathroom in words, which it was never made of before, and begged you all to bear witness. However you do this, the bathroom, and my own positionality and my mother’s, have been transformed and empowered—no longer merely memory, they bloom and die and accumulate with the power of words.

Although we’ve been discussing an example of your nonfiction, you are primarily a writer of fiction, according to your publication history. How has writing fiction made you a better nonfiction writer, or vice versa? What lessons learned from one genre have served you best in the other?

Yes, I trained as a fiction writer and have studied and published much more extensively in that genre. From fiction, I learned a certain openness of possibility, and a careful attention to the way sentences reflect, maintain, or close that possibility. In fiction anything can happen, but I always struggled with plot. I would ask myself, What happened?, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about that more than the sentences or the mood or the structure of a piece, and people would tell me, This isn’t a story because it has no plot. I enjoy writing nonfiction because there are certain events that have happened, certain plots that have inserted themselves into my experience. But those plots are not immediately apparent to me when I begin writing. I think, How was I culpable, what part of that wall of mold was mine?, and in answering these questions, I am able to tell the story.

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

This essay is part of a larger memoir in essays, tentatively titled Other Dogs Haunted Other Recesses, which evokes the shame and elation of intimacy with other beings, both human and animal. Each piece begins with a singular image or incident—a blood-soaked sponge in sunlight, or walking through my childhood home alongside bidders on the morning of its foreclosure auction. I am exploring interpolations of the sublime and the abject, and many of the pieces, like “Our Deportment,” explore that most private of spaces in the crowded family home, the bathroom.

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

I just read an as-yet unpublished manuscript by the Buffalo-based poet Robin Lee Jordan which blew my socks off. I can’t wait for it to come into the world.

And I’m in love with Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life. I’ve also been visiting and revisiting Elizabeth Gaskell and Daphne du Maurier, who both have so much to teach about transformation, empowerment, and looking squarely at history.

Monday
Apr092018

"A Riot Nobody Paid Attention To": An Interview Norene Cashen

Norene Cashen was a writer-in-residence with InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit. She's the former coordinator for Citywide Poets, Detroit's award-winning youth slam team. She also served as the contributing editor for the literary journal Dispatch Detroit. Her poetry has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Temenos, The MOCAD Journal, markszine.com, Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poets (Wayne State University Press), and thedetroiter.comThe Reverse Is Also True, her first collection of poetry, was released by Doorjamb Press in 2007.

Her poem, "Encounter with Justice," appeared in Isseu Seventy-Five of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Sarah Huener about Emily Dickinson, Black Lives Matter, and the need for beauty in a shadowy world.

The opening to this poem is incredible: it’s powerful but understated, and succinctly introduces the reader to the sequence of transformations that creates the poem’s momentum. I’m interested in your process of composition—when you wrote this poem, did you begin with this beginning? Did the gravity of the opening affect your process or your attitude toward the rest of the piece?

Thank you for the kind words. I like that term “sequence of transformations,” because that’s exactly what it is.

I did begin composing this poem with those first lines. I was thinking of Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz - when I died –“ and “Because I could not stop for Death.” I was thinking of those Dickinson poems because of gun violence and recent police shootings of young black men and black youth in the United States. There was nothing but gravity in that.

I think the poem was driven from there by profound sadness. It’s that kind of sadness has to be attached to hope. And Dickinson’s work was still echoing there, because I know ““Hope” is the thing with feathers” was running through my mind as well. People who write poems have obsessions. Flying things (bullets, birds, and flies) were an obsession of mine while writing this poem. Flying things feel out of our control, out of our reach.

I’m especially intrigued by “the night-/ blooming Jasmine…” at the heart of the poem, which brings us to an important narrative turning point of departure and return, then unrecognition, perhaps alienation. The capitalization and hard enjambment emphasize its importance, and you allot more space to this image than others. How did you come to include Jasmine, and what is its importance to the poem as a whole?

This is a real thing in nature, a rare flower that blooms at night. Maybe it’s placed in the poem that way because flowers adorn things. In this poem, it’s a reminder of the beautiful life we are given, and how the darkness hides that from us. I believe we are living in an age of blindness and shadows.

“Encounter with Justice” is made up of two-line stanzas, with relatively few—and relatively soft—enjambments. (When Jasmine appears, it’s particularly dramatic in contrast to the texture of the rest of the sentences and lines.) How did you arrive at this form?

I had to just feel it, see it, and hear it. I needed space between transformations. The Jasmine is an adornment, a sacred symbol. It gets its own space.

Is there anything you’re reading now you’re particularly excited about, or that you think is having a particular impact on your writing and thinking?

Since John Ashbery passed, I’ve been revisiting his poems, particularly the collection called Wakefulness. His work leads me back to Wallace Stevens where I look for connections. I feel a reverence for language in Ashbery’s work.

The poem “Encounter with Justice” was dedicated to Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. His work has had a profound impact on my life.

Do you have any current writing projects you’d like to share with us?

I’m working on a new poetry collection that is heavily influenced by Alan Moore. It explores relationships through the lens of magic and the paranormal.

Monday
Apr022018

"A Place Worth Staying": An Interview with Scott Beal

Scott Beal's first book, Wait 'Til You Have Real Problems, was published by Dzanc Books in 2014.  His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Indiana Review, Four Way Review, Midwestern Gothic, Glassworks, and Chattahoochee Review.  His poem "Things to Think About" which originally appeared in the January 2012 Collagist was selected for the 2014 Pushcart Prize anthology.  He lives, teaches, and co-hosts a monthly reading series called Skazat! in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

His poem, "Stegosaurus Moon," and "Birthday Poem with Tentative Divorce Agreement," appeared in Issue Seventy-One of The Collagist.

Here, he talks with Courtney Flerlage about imagery, a poems' turns, and the way the body guides a work.

What sparked “Stegosaurus Moon” into a poem? Where did it start?

The first two thirds of the poem is a rather literal transcription of the afternoon I signed my divorce papers. I had met my friend Gahl Liberzon at a café to write, and the first lines came out tinged with a “not with a bang but a whimper” disappointment at the mundanity of the event. At one point Gahl asked me when was the last time I challenged anyone to a duel. I accepted the question as a gift into the poem. When I was editing other bits out, I kept the duel question without really knowing why. Now it occurs to me that a ceremonial face-off between mutually respecting rivals may have been just what the day was missing. Not that I had wanted anything so adversarial; but I had imagined coming together to acknowledge the gravity of ending a long marriage, and to take a moment to honor its passing. The sadness that no such moment was available led the way into this poem.

I’m interested in the way the fantastic enters “Stegosaurus Moon” as a kind of wild volta. The poem begins with images of the everyday, the speaker ordering a coffee and “deploy[ing] my umbrella in the rain” after “signing the agreement that dissolves my life’s / biggest agreement.” Yet, later in the poem, the imagery turns to the fantastic: “I would like to say a few words about a stegosaurus. / A stegosaurus is pretty big compared to a school bus. / Thick armored plates mean it has its own back.” A surprising intrusion into the poem, the stegosaurus quickly becomes an image of encouragement that feels the right hinge of strange—an animal that could never have anything to do with “a round table with fountain pens, / our two names flourishing across a final page”—while still familiar. The stegosaurus helps us into the speaker’s mind, embodying what the speaker hopes to be while still hinting at doubt—it is, after all, extinct. What brought the stegosaurus into the poem for you?

It feels like being caught cheating to admit this, but the stegosaurus arrived arbitrarily, from a game. I’d taught a poetry workshop for kids that morning channeling André Breton and surrealist experiments with chance; I’d given each writer a set of cards with pictures on them, and told them to turn over a card every time they got stuck, and to put what they saw into their poem. When I wrote the line, “There was no need to occupy the same room,” the draft arrived at a kind of cul-de-sac which, like the afternoon itself, felt unsatisfying but offered little place to go. So I drew a card from my bag and found the stegosaurus, who offered me a ride to another neighborhood.

I appreciate hearing that the arrival of the stegosaurus feels fantastic, because the possibility of transformative magic is what I always want from a poem. And I don’t think this would be much of a poem without the stegosaurus, which provides a jolt to shake the poem into a new energy. At the same time, the image resonates for me because it’s not quite fantastic. As astonishing as it would be to find a stegosaurus downtown squaring off against a school bus, it’s not a dragon. It’s not a myth. We can have faith in a stegosaurus as a demonstrable possibility, however remote or unfamiliar it may seem. Arriving at the last two lines of the poem was my way of discovering that faith, too, in the possibility of a life after divorce. 

You play with a different sort of contrast in “Birthday Poem with Tentative Divorce Agreement.” Toward the end of the poem, after the speaker describes the last meetings with the speaker's spouse before a divorce, the speaker says, “this plume rose within me,” which was the result of realizing “that we were getting along.” Later, the speaker describes, “this plume rose / as if thousands of particles lifted / to catch the late light.”  Before the poem lingers too long in this moment of lightness, the speaker clarifies that these particles are those that would rise when “an anchor had punched a lakebed / to claim in the midst of turbulent currents / a place worth staying.” I love the way you guide us through this image—we see first the plume, then the particles, and then this heavy cause, the anchor. The sequence and turn of the image captures a sense of relief, wonder, and finality in a way that blurs their contradictions—somehow, lightness and heaviness coexist. Could you share a bit about how you crafted the imagery in this poem to achieve this kind of balance—the light and the heavy?  

One piece of craft advice that has always stuck with me is something that Patrick Rosal casually tossed off once in the midst of a Facebook comment thread. Pat wrote: “There will always be a portion of a dream that cannot be written down, cannot be transferred to tape or on an SD card. The dream that guides the conscience of the fact has to be in the body. It has to be in the body.”  Ever since reading that, I have tried to become more consciously aware, while writing, of the way the body transmits experience, and of that transmission being the source of originality.

Accordingly, I don’t remember consciously crafting the ending lines of “Birthday Poem with Tentative Divorce Agreement” with an eye toward balancing forces, but rather trying to capture the physical sensation I felt in that moment at the table, and to decipher what it was telling me. Of course I’m aware, craft-wise, of the energy to be derived from tension, so my intuitions are often tuned to steer from one pole to another. In this case, I appreciate the observation about the coexistence of lightness and heaviness because you’re right, the moment is full of contradictions which the body can hold even as the mind tries to resolve: the sinking into the lake bed, and the ascension from the impact.

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

I have most recently been devastated by a poem called “Icarus Does the Dishes” by Tommye Blount in Kenyon Review. I’m taking my time with The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. A lot of my reading during the school year is related to teaching, so along with student papers and poems I’ve been re-reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and running out of time to have all the conversations in class that that book warrants.

What project(s) are you working on at the moment?

I’ve been working on finding a publisher for my second collection, of which “Stegosaurus Moon” is the title poem, and I’m starting to pull together a third. There’s a nonfiction project I’m working up the nerve to embark on, based on my obsession with a defunct Iranian metal band. Wish me luck.