Monday
Feb052018

"Aroused then Ashamed": An Interview with Patrick Dundon

Patrick Dundon is a graduate of the MFA program at Syracuse University where he served as Editor-in-Chief for Salt Hill Journal. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in BOAAT, Sixth Finch, The Adroit Journal, Birdfeast, DIAGRAM, Word Riot, and elsewhere. He currently lives, writes, and teaches preschool in Portland, OR.

His poems, "Dream with a Piece of Cake," "Dream with Explanations" and "Dream with a Potted Plant," appeared in Issue Ninety-Two of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about broken relationships, allegorical violence, and writing & repeating.

What really caught me about this work was the contrasting images, presented line-by-line. The first line, “[w]e are in your garden,” creates illusion of a peaceful continuation to follow. Yet the second line, “slaughtering rabbits,” immediately disturbs this. And so the work goes. What kind of advice can you give to new or aspiring writers who are looking to create stark images like this?

When I wrote this poem, I was in the midst of a sexually ambiguous relationship that was driving me crazy. It was a mixture of tenderness, alienation, fantasy, spastic sexual energy, confusion, hope, and lots of miscommunication. I’d tried writing about it, but everything I wrote felt too forced or cliché, filled with contrived anger or longing. Then one morning I gave up whatever emotional agenda I thought I had, closed my eyes, and imagined us together. Where were we? What were we doing? And there we were, in that garden, killing little bunnies. At first I was alarmed—Why so violent? What did it mean? I had no idea, but it felt like the beginning of a movie I definitely wanted to watch. The rest of the writing process felt less like writing and more like watching that movie play out to its natural conclusion. I hate it when writers say “the poem wrote itself” because it’s the kind of advice that is 100% unhelpful, but some poems really feel that way, and this was one of them. I wrote it quickly, in one sitting. But I’d already spent weeks obsessing about this relationship: writing bad poems, texting friends, crying while listening to the Cranberries, having strange dreams, screaming in my car, soothing myself with frosties at Wendy’s. That was all an essential part of the writing process—the path that led to this particular garden.

I know I’ve hit a good image when I can’t quite parse it, when it’s emotionally impactful but there’s no way to summarize that impact except with the image itself. Before I ever started writing poetry, I obsessively recorded my dreams. I like how the right dream image can be emotionally rich, psychologically ambiguous, and gesture toward many meanings without landing on one. It’s so difficult to offer advice about image-making, because the best images, for me, arise suddenly like waking dreams but feel as real and familiar as my own hands. They are a relief to unearth, not a thrill to invent.

There is also a disconnect between the human-touch and violence. “[S]laughtering,” “knife,” and “blood,” conflict with “lean in” and “kiss.” And then in the second-to-last line, the “fuck you” disrupts anything pleasant already presented, much like “slaughtering rabbits” in the second line. What does this disconnect mean to you, and what were you hoping to convey to readers?

Right after I wrote this poem, I texted it to a friend, expecting her response to be something like, “are you okay?” I set out to write a love poem, and ended up with a pile of carcasses. I was aware of the disconnect you mentioned, between human touch and violence but wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I’m still not. What interests me most about love isn’t its achievement, but instead the gulf that exists between our fantasies and the messiness of reality. It’s in that gap where the imagination can go wild. It’s the moment in the poem when the speaker sees a piece of cake in a bloodstain. This is a reason I like to write about dreams: they are a space where we reconcile our fantasies, where those fantasies cross-pollinate with our subconscious baggage.

I think it’s important that this poem is, in fact, a dream. There are no real rabbits, no actual fucking. That casts the violence in a different light, one that’s consciously more allegorical. My friend just broke up with her boyfriend and told me she has recurrent dreams that she’s strangling him. The dreams are less about killing him and more about silencing him. My favorite dreams are the ones that resist a single interpretation, that gesture toward a complicated psychological state. Here it’s a mixture of desire, daydream, violence, shame, lust, and working toward a common goal. I don’t like having too tight an analysis on what my poems mean. If I knew exactly what I were trying to say, I’d write an essay. Which isn’t to say that the poem lacks intent. I wanted to show what it felt like to cry to that Cranberries song.

What are you working on currently?

I wake up, drink coffee, stare, write, repeat. Some days, there’s a good line or image. Most days, there isn’t. I can’t seem to get away from writing about love, desire, heartbreak, and alienation. I used to feel a certain pressure to write about other things, but when I forced myself into different subject matters, it never seemed to work. Desire and heartbreak is my particular burrow, my tunnel into the self.

I tend to write the most when I’m emotionally jostled, when I have excess energy I need to transmute with language. My most creative state is probably that moment when I’m waiting for a text from someone I have a crush on. It’s awful. It always yields a poem.

I’ve been writing more prose recently. There’s something about alleviating the pressure to create “a poem” that can free me up to say what I really mean. What results is often a poem without lines. I’ll take it.

What have you read recently?

I recently read “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman and really loved it. I pretty much always have a copy of “The Incognito Lounge” by Denis Johnson with me. My friend Abbey Numedahl just sent me a story she wrote that was stunningly beautiful and made me cry. Oh, and sometimes I re-read texts and emails from former lovers.  Which I don’t recommend, but I just can’t help myself.

Wednesday
Jan312018

"The Man Remains in His Dark": An Interview with Jessica Newman

Jessica Newman currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where she is a doctoral candidate in rhetoric and composition. Along with other degrees from other places, she received her MFA from the University of Notre Dame. Recent work has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, Redivider, PANK, Caketrain and elsewhere.

Her story, "The Doctors and the Very Tender Man," appeared in Issue Seventy-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about beginning the writing process with a title, fairy tales, and perspective shifts.

How did “The Doctors and the Very Tender Man” begin for you?

The putting of pen to paper of this story began with a title—“The _______ and the Very Tender Man” —and I wrote the first paragraphs in an empty train on the long ride from Harlem into Brooklyn. These paragraphs expanded on what was already present in the title—the man’s tenderness—but it was not long before doctors and medication emerged, and I began to purposefully incorporate them into the plot and then into the title.

The content, or maybe the atmosphere, of the story began much earlier, with my own experience with medication, my own “strangest of weather.” Because the pieces that I write tend to unfold from a sentence or from scraps of phrases, the fact that “The Doctors and the Very Tender Man” developed from a title—an encapsulation of the piece—suggests to me that in this case my experience was particularly fundamental.

This story reads like a fairy tale. How do you think the conventions or restraints of fairy tales can shape the way we tell modern stories?

One of my favorite things about building off of fairy tales (whether retelling a particular tale or drawing on general fairy tale traditions) is that their conventions are ingrained in many readers. This allows the writer freedom to subvert those conventions and/or to use them to keep readers anchored as the writer experiments with other aspects of the text (such as using language in unexpected ways).

Halfway through the story, the focus shifts from the tender man to the woman who brings him groceries. Why was this shift important to the telling of the story?

The man is shaped by his physical relation with the world, particularly with people, with women. In my understanding of the man’s story, the most important development is not in his illness but in how he knows others. The story could only end, then, with a woman. The shift to the woman’s perspective was not a conscious choice, but rather one that made sense once it happened, and I see it having three major effects.

First, at the point of the perspective shift, the man is sunk in the time stretching out inside of him. He is background only and must remain that way for us as readers as the woman emerges. A shift to the woman’s perspective allows us to get to know her character while the man remains in his dark.

Also, the perspective shift allows us to better understand the man. We have so far been entrenched in him, inside hearing about his outside. The perspective shift allows us to see his surface, which has defined him, and to see things happening around him, to him.

Finally, the shift in perspective lets us experience how the woman feels about the man. The ending would fall differently if we did not see the tenderness that she feels toward him, the intimacy that comes from her seeing him bared.

If the first section of this story is the man’s, the second section is perhaps the woman’s, and the final section is them interlaced.

What are you reading these days that you’d like to recommend?

Right now, the majority of my reading revolves around my dissertation (which looks at the intersection of writing center studies, community engaged scholarship and listening studies) and teaching. This semester, I’m teaching a course on how women are represented in literature, and I’m excited to discuss Doug Rice’s Dream Memoirs of a Fabulist and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, among other great texts.

I’m also looking forward to reading Calling a Wolf a Wolf, by Kaveh Akbar, after coming across his work in a recent Denver Quarterly. And I just ordered Laura Ellen Joyce’s The Luminol Reels. The excerpt I read in Sleepingfish promises a beautiful and violent morbidness.

Do you have any reading or writing related goals for 2018?

My overall reading and writing goal for the new year is to do a better job of carving out a mental space where I’m allowed to read and write something (anything) not primarily related to my dissertation. I’d also like to work toward having my doctoral work drive rather than drain my literary work, and vice versa. Specifically, I plan to return to and complete the book-length project that I’ve been working on for some time.

Monday
Jan222018

"We Pointed to the Sky at Dusk": An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib 

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, writer, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, was released by Button Poetry in 2016. His first essay collection, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in November.

His poem, "A Poem in Which I Name the Bird," appeared in Issue Ninety-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about about the writing process as a sonic process, specificity, and the struggle between comfort and loneliness.

The language flows smoothly throughout this piece, and I think one of the main reasons for this is the breath that you allow in between the two-line stanzas. What prompted you to format this poem in that way?

I think that I’m often trying to figure out a way to find my own breath in poems, and a way to let the poem do that is to write it and then let it tell me how it wants to be heard out loud. I think the writing process is also a sonic process – one of sound. I commit myself to writing in blocks, and then reading the work out loud to see how it might best fill a room. I chose to format the poem in the way the breaths in it were asking to live in a world where I (one day!) will read it out loud.

What role does the image of the bird play for you in this piece?

Promise and protection, surely. The image also began as somewhat of a soft directive to some brilliant young writers at the Kenyon Young Writers summer program. So many of them had birds in their poems, and I’d ask “ok, what kind of bird?” and they’d all be stuck. And so I demanded that they name the birds in their poems, and they asked the same of me. I was interested in how much more endearing language can become if we lean into specificity.

The seventh and last stanzas are in conflict. The seventh stanza illuminates the presence of human touch, while the last stanza sort of breaks that previous peacefulness. In another way, those two stanzas mirror one another—human touch is never really accessed in the seventh stanza, there are only images of the yearning for permanent warmth. What were you trying to reveal through this language?

Ultimately, the poem is about the tension between comfort and loneliness, and I tried to make that come to life by being as explicit as possible in the short distance of the images of touch and not. How comfort and loneliness can be kind of siblings, in a way.

 What projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on a biography of A Tribe Called Quest due out late this year or early next, which means I’m having a great time digging in old hip hop archives and pulling out stunning gems I hadn’t accessed before. Even as someone who loves the music, there’s always another hidden something or other around a corner to dig up. I’m also working on my second full-length collection of poems—which this poem is from. It is a project unlike my first collection of poems, focused on the interior of isolation and what it is to look for joy there.

What have you recently read that you would recommend to poetry lovers, young or old?

I really loved Beast Meridian by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal. Eve Ewing’s Electric Arches works in every possible way, in every possible room. Angela Veronica Wong is one of my favorite contemporary poets, and last year she released a book called Elsa: An Unauthorized Biography, and I truly loved it. Changed me.

Saturday
Jan202018

"Somewhere, Maybe Here": An Interview with Julia Shipley

Julia Shipley is the author of a debut collection, The Academy of Hay, which was a finalist for the 2016 Vermont Book Award. Her work has also appeared in Green Mountains Review, Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review online, Orion, Poetry, and Verse Daily.

Her poem, "Porcupine," appeared in Issue Ninety-Three of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about ragmented speech, the challenge of revealing something appealing, and secrets of a porcupine.

The format, of course, caught my eye immediately, even before I began reading. What prompted this decision?

I wanted the poem to reenact the tree’s crevice graphically (along the lines of “form is an extension of content”).  Also, in heightened situations, (of extreme cold or intense emotion) speech tends to issue in fragments, in bursts, in quills-- if you will--of expression, and so I hoped to recreate that staggered phrasing.

I think a lot of young or new poets and writers struggle with finding the perfect symbol, metaphor or image for a piece—something that can drive the work, the anticipated themes and the beautiful language. What advice can you give to us in this regard?

Um, I think a lot of middle-aged and quasi-experienced writers also struggle? Or at least this poet does. I think the objective (at any age remains) to begin and investigate and obey something that seizes you—a scene, a phrase, and an object. And then the challenge remains: to find out what else this scene /phrase/ object is about and reveal that in a way that’s appealing, intriguing and relevant.

Also, (I am now going to try to say what I said above in a different way) when I arrive at the page with an agenda, with something “I want to say”—I am infinitely less successful than when I try and slow dance with the information on hand, taking my cues from it. I can’t force poems. Maybe others can, but I can’t.

How were you able to pinpoint the porcupine as the source of what makes this poem so great?

I love your question with its embedded pun, right?—pinpoint the porcupine?

First of all, it’s a pretty crazy animal—its very body is a weapon. Also, like many things in my life—I  never actually saw this porcupine because the animal had merged with the tree (in more than one way), but I sensed its presence.  I can think of so many other instances where I can’t point (pun) to a truth, but I can feel it, the clues are everywhere. Much like the existence of a secret: this animal was both hidden and evident.

What experience, if any, led you to find this image—the porcupine—as suitable to expose your current and deepest sentiments?

I think I work opposite or reverse to the way this question is phrased. I start with a memory, a scene, an idea and tunnel into it (like the porcupine) to find out why it interests me; I get a draft down and work with what’s interesting.

I think it might enrich this interview to mention this poem took about 10 years to write. At first it was a pretty unremarkable prose paragraph, which included a line about how the porcupine was stuffed up in the tree the way a woman wears a tampon. (I know: Lovely!)

I found the structure late in the game (trying to recreate a tree’s cavity with the form of the poem, as well simulating the way intense expression is exhaled in bits (or at least that's the way I stutter towards my point). I shared later versions of the poem with an online poetry class and got feed back about what wasn't clear and clarified based on that input.

What are you working on?

My first collection The Academy of Hay crashed the idea of  “female” into the idea “farmer.” My current/subsequent obsession is a deliberate confusion/misunderstanding/mash-up of “ingestion” and “pregnancy.” So I am getting ready to give four of my non poetry reading friends a draft of the manuscript with the working title: An Animal Inside an Animal to get their input. I was really inspired by Ada Limon who said her poems in Bright Dead Things were written to engage the most immediate people in her life, and not just her literary cohort/poetic contemporaries.

What have you read recently?

I’ve been engrossed with Anne Carson’s Float, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, and Elizabeth Scanlon’s Lonesome Gnosis. A consequence of (sometimes) reviewing books, I no longer simply read a book, as much as I interrogate it. Structure? Sequence? Themes?…and all these aforementioned books keep yielding to second and third reads, keep teaching me things about poems and collections of poems. Meanwhile I’m eagerly awaiting Jenny George’s debut collection The Dream of Reason. Also, I’m a huge fan/cyber-stalker of Jill Osier’s poems.

Tuesday
Jan162018

"How Soon the Stable World Vanishes": An Interview with Patricia Clark

Patricia Clark is Poet-in-Residence and Professor in the Department of Writing at Grand Valley State University. Author of four volumes of poetry, Patricia’s latest book is Sunday Rising. She has also published a chapbook titled Given the Trees. Her work has been featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, also appearing in The Atlantic, Gettysburg Review, Poetry, Slate, and Stand. Recent work appears (or is forthcoming) in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, Plume, and elsewhere.

Her poem, "Vertigo," appeared in Issue of Sixty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Courtney Flerlage about instability in form, shifts, and a poem's strangeness. 

Where did your poem “Vertigo” start for you?

It started in a couple of ways. Years ago, I had a couple incidents with vertigo. If you’ve never had it, count yourself lucky! What I had is called BPV: “benign positional vertigo.” The doctor showed me some techniques to help alleviate it, and (knock wood) it hasn’t returned. A few years after that, though, my sister Kathy got very sick and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I wrote about her illness a lot, my reaction and feelings about it. Somehow I hit on writing about the sensation of having vertigo as a metaphor for knowing she was very ill and likely going to die. It threw me; it unhinged me.

The poem really takes off for me in the fourth stanza. After describing the physical sensation of vertigo as “the world unhinged, aswirl, a tent uprooted,” the metaphor of the speaker’s stomach as an “uneasy sea” kicks the poem into an imaginative address: “oh ocean-sick sailor, how will you board / the tanker for the next port.” I love how the poem turns stranger here, emphasizing the speaker’s distress by switching briefly to the second person and then returning to the first.  In this way, the poem itself experiences a shift in grounding as it wavers between point of view and context. Could you discuss this shift? How did you decide it was right for the poem?

I’m glad that the shift in the poem works. I realized it was quite strange and I decided, instinctively, to just go with it. So it wasn’t so much as a decision as feeling sure, in the revision process, that this strangeness was part of what I was trying to have a reader experience.

Syntax and organization work so well in the poem to make the sensation of “Vertigo” feel real and urgent for the reader. The first sentence, a question, lasts for almost four stanzas, and it’s continually driven forward by commas and dashes; meanwhile, the line breaks within prevent any kind of rhythmic balance, each triplet clipped short at the third line so that the reader trips from one stanza to the next. It seems to me that conveying this sense of imbalance through line length is difficult to pull off—it's easy for that kind of move to turn gimmicky, though of course yours doesn't.  Can you talk a bit about the structure of the poem—how the content informed it, how the poem found its way into this shape?

I was simply writing, trying to stay in the zone of my remembered experience of having vertigo—and I just about got nauseous trying to recall it! Horrible. And it is hard to explain when you don’t have it. The images just came rather quickly to me. I have no idea about the leap to the “ocean-sick sailor,” though I suspect I had been reading something, a novel, I think by Brian Doyle called The Plover. I want to be influenced by everything I read or see, and I’d like my work to include more of the world, as much of the world as I can get into poems, so there you have it. The structure of triplets seemed a natural choice since quatrains would be absolutely too stable for vertigo, right?

What are you reading now that you can’t stop talking about?

It’s just after Christmas and I’ve been reading some of my presents. A novel called Autumn by Ali Smith, and another one by Joan Silber called Improvement. Then there’s nonfiction: Leonardo da Vince by Walter Isaacson. And a book of poems called Earthling by James Longenbach. I’m not thinking about poetry as I read but I am gathering information that could later be useful or helpful in a poem.

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

I’m working on poems for a new book. How many poems I’ve written so far, whether enough of them are “keepers” to really be part of my sixth book of poems, I can’t say. It’s also too early to give even a working title. I’ll know in a few months more of where this work stands.

Monday
Jan152018

"Looking for Rats": An Interview with JoAnna Novak

JoAnna Novak is the author of the novel, I Must Have You, and the book-length poem, Noirmania. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The New York TimesThe Paris Review, The Washington Post, and Salon. She is a co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy.

Her short story, "Mouse," appeared in Issue Seventy-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about New York subways, writing in multiple genres, and dichotomies.

Where did this story begin for you?

At night, in a big old loft in Massachusetts, where my husband and I had our first mouse.

The speaker in “Mouse” carries both fear and love for the mouse that haunts her house. I think mice have an interesting place in literature. They’re either portrayed as cute and loveable or as scary pests that invade our homes and carry diseases and trespass on our “human” space. Did (or how did) this complex mythology of mice inform your story?

I remember the first time I rode a subway in New York City—all I did was look for rats. I wanted to see one, I was terrified to see one, and, ultimately, for many subway rides, I couldn't tell what I'd seen ... if anything. Those dichotomies—anticipation and disgust, attraction and repulsion--interest me, especially in a domestic setting.

You are prolific in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. When you’re starting a new project, do you start with a form in mind, or does the story/concept come first and does the form arise from that?

Well, I always know what genre I'm writing in (i.e., fiction, nonfiction, or poetry), but the shape can change quite a bit in drafting and revision. "Mouse," for instance, began as only three or four sentences. It grew—in size and emotional complexity—after months of setting it aside.

Do you have any recent publications you’d like to give a shout-out for?

My first book of poetry is out in February. It's called Noirmania: it's a book-length poem about fashion and death. In March, I'll have a story in The Paris Review.

What are your writing or reading related goals for 2018?

Finish revising my second novel, write more short stories, remember to apply for grants and residencies. Read lots more.

Monday
Jan082018

"Dogs, Redheads, and Concoctions": An Interview with Helen Betya Rubinstein

Helen Betya Rubinstein's writing has appeared in Okey-Panky, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She was the RP Dana Writing Fellow at Cornell College and the Provost's Postgraduate Visiting Writer at the University of Iowa.

Her essay, "Recurring Dog & Rare Thing (9 Years, 13 Dreams)," appeared in Issue Ninety of The Collagist. 

Here, Helen Betya Rubinstein talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about keeping a dream record, creating a found essay, and a year without teaching.

In your essay, “Recurring Dog & Rare Thing (9 Years, 13 Dreams),” each dream is dated. What can you tell us about the process of recalling these dreams? Do you keep a regular record of your dreams, or are the dates only approximations?

I’ve been keeping a record of my dreams since 2005, and the dates in the essay are exact. The record began as a writing exercise: I found that, in recording the dreams, I’d reliably discover details I wasn’t conscious of until I was already writing them down, and it seemed worth cultivating a practice in which writing causes me to remember (or invent) more—something related to what John Gardner calls the “fictive dream,” or what now gets called “flow.”

But the truth is that after so many years of recording my dreams, I often dream of writing down dreams, and almost always spend my first few wakeful moments composing a dream-record in mind while gathering the energy to open my eyes and reach toward my notebook. So it’s possible that the exercise has finally backfired, leading me to strengthen the composing-before-writing muscle instead of the one that composes through writing.

Still, I can’t quite bring myself to quit the surprises of the dream-record—the way that, ten or twenty minutes after recording a dream, I’ve already lost the memory of writing it. It’s as though the act of recording the dream is part of the dream, and comes from the dreaming self. Even the handwriting is different. This is why I think of “Recurring Dog & Rare Thing” as a found essay: I don’t know the writer of these texts, even if all the details she uses are mine.

Given that dreams are themselves (bodily, reflexive) fictions, it felt especially interesting to collect them as an essay. The dates ground them in a world outside the imagination.

Clearly these dreams contain some common elements: dogs, babies, pregnancy, marriage, family. Why these thirteen dreams? Are dreams of these themes rare for you but show a pattern when strung together? Or have you had many more dreams of this kind, and these thirteen comprise just a handful of examples? And if so, how did you select them out of all the others?

This project began when, out of curiosity (and as research for a larger project), I decided to review all the dreams I’d ever had in which I was pregnant. There were fewer than I thought there would be, but the inquiry led me toward other dreams, and by the time I’d reviewed nine years of dreaming, I’d flagged about 150. I hadn’t planned to make an essay of what I found, but I felt tickled by the collection as I’ve been tickled by other collections of material that have led to found-text projects: I just wanted to edit and rearrange the material until whatever was ticklish about it came into focus. So I cut and carved away until I was left with these bits. Pregnancy, babies, and marriage are what I started with; dogs, redheads, and concoctions were the surprises.

Usually I’m averse to hearing about other people’s dreams, but reading this essay was a delight thanks especially to the playful quality of the language. Right out of the gate: “My family with Ben Jacob’s family, which had lots of girls, happy, dating girls. We all looked at a wife’s jewelry, and then Ben came in with a baby on his back—happy. The wife was his.” (I confess my eyes initially skipped over “The wife was his” and I’m so glad I discovered it on rereading.) The sentence fragment to start, the repetition of words, adjectives qualifying the nouns they come after—all creating an air of strangeness befitting the logic of dreams. Can you describe the process of achieving this effect? Do these formal choices occur naturally when dealing with this subject matter (or perhaps throughout your writing more generally), or did you have to consciously work at this playfulness in revising the piece?

The language and syntax are faithful to the original record of the dreams—my only edits were for clarity, efficiency, or privacy (I changed names). In one sense, this is just note-taking language: the language I use to talk to myself, since I recorded these dreams with zero intention of ever sharing them. In another sense, the language is evidence of the whims of the dreaming self, the writer who is and is not me. It’s just as much fun to discover writing choices “I” made but have no memory of making as it is to discover scenes I have no memory of imagining or recording. The style of the dream-records seemed to shift over the years, becoming less overtly playful, though they still surprise me with syntactic twists that are probably reflections of whatever writing problems I’m trying to solve in waking life.

I resist the notion that other people’s dreams are uninteresting. Dreams are a parallel language for narrating one’s life. Even if a dream-story is dull on its surface, a dream recounted always reveals a bit about who the speaker is—their character is expressed in the dream’s details and structure, the same way a fiction writer’s character is reflected in her fiction. Dreams—which aren’t controlled in the way fiction is controlled—are an indirect but intimate way of knowing someone, like eating the food they cook, seeing their handwriting, watching them dance, or smelling their clothes.

According to your web site, you are currently “spending the 2017-18 academic year on the road (aka the Nothing Nowhere year, the Rambling Woman year, my year at large…).” Besides writing (which I’ll ask you about next), what have you been doing in this special year, and what kind of impact has it had on you? Would you care to mention any favorite place(s) where your travels have taken you?

I spent five weeks working at Carter Notch Hut in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, cooking, cleaning, and serving as human pack mule. I also spent a night on the beach at Prince Edward County Island in Canada, which I learned is not the same as Prince Edward Island (but is lovely anyway). But I’ve mostly been reading, writing, and sitting still, thanks to the support of several artist residencies, where I’ve met other artists whose work expands my sense of the possible: at the I-Park Foundation, for instance, I witnessed the construction of a gigantic floating baby carriage and, for a fellow resident’s film, took on the persona of a bigheaded monkey.

As for impact—this year is the first since 2008 that I haven’t been teaching at a college, and as much as I truly miss students and syllabi, the lack of semesterly schedule has uncorked something. Maybe it’s slowed my experience of time.

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

I’m reluctant to say. But if anyone happens to read this who…

-       wants to translate 250 pages of handwritten court transcripts from the Soviet Union in the 1940s;
-       has polycystic ovary syndrome and wants to talk to me about their womanhood;
-       teaches writing and wants to be in conversation about subverting workshop conventions;
-       has ever talked about New Orleans, and wants to tell me what they said; or
-       is interested in publishing or contributing to an anthology of fiction flirting with fact

… I’d love to hear from you.

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

I loved Anna Prushinskaya’s A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother. Masha Gessen’s Ester and Ruzya astonished me with its depth. Renee Gladman’s Calamities delighted me, Inara Verzemnieks’s Among the Living and the Dead made me cry, I spent last month ravenously listening to Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace podcast (if that counts), and I can’t stop rereading Eve Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading.” And I have to recommend my sometime-collaborator Nicholas Muellner’s slippery and delicious In Most Tides an Island.

Wednesday
Jan032018

"A Form of Survival": An Interview with Dennis James Sweeney

Dennis James Sweeney's hybrid fictions have appeared in The Collagist, Crazyhorse, Five Points, Indiana Review, and Passages North, among others. He is the Small Press Editor of Entropy, an Assistant Editor of Denver Quarterly, the recipient of an MFA from Oregon State University, and a recent Fulbright fellow in Malta. Originally from Cincinnati, he lives in Colorado, where he is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Denver.

His three pieces, "The Plan," "Empire," "Out Hunting," appeared in Issue Seventy-Eight of The Collagist. 

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about writing as improvisation, Clarice Lispector, and goals for 2018. 

What inspired you to write “The Plan”?

I was working on a series of pieces that began “I went out in the woods,” and ideas were coming to me very quickly for a very short period of time. Sometimes this happens; when I have a basic form within which to write a story, and am writing several stories in that form, content arrives that I didn’t know I had in me. In the case of “The Plan,” and in the case of a number of the stories in that series, I think the unforeseen theme was the selfishness of men like myself in their attempted epiphanies.

The original line that began the stories was “I went out in the woods to find myself.” I have long had an impulse to leave my everyday life for nature, or travel, or some other relief from my commitment to the things and people I love. And while following that impulse does yield epiphanies, the epiphany is often that I want to return to the life I fled.

So much of this story is in what we don’t see: the men’s relationships with their families, what triggered them to follow through with the plan, etc. The beauty of the story comes, in part, from what you chose to leave out. When you write a short story, do you feel like you know the details surrounding the story, or are they a mystery to you, as well?

I’m afraid to say I do think of writing as a mystical process. Or at least an improvisational one—while I used to believe I was seeking out a story that already existed in the ether, I now feel as if I’m manifesting unmanifested possibilities by writing, so that the finished product is the trace of my mind’s momentary path instead of a representation of some ideal form.

A mystical interpretation I hear more often is that a voice speaks through the writer, and the writer is just a conduit. But to me thinking of writing improvisationally leaves more room for mystery: suddenly what you create is the product of an impossible-to-reproduce collision of time and space and circumstances. My best writing moments are animated not by determinism but by accident—when on my way to find what I was looking for I find something entirely else.

In the time between the present and publishing “The Plan” in December 2015, you have lived as a Fulbright fellow in Malta. Did writing about your experience in Malta as you were there shape your experience of the place in any way? If so, how?

Immensely, and writing continues to shape that experience even now—or misshape it. Since leaving Malta I’ve started about a million projects that fail over and over to describe what it was like to be there. Being in Malta was an incredibly rich and trying experience, but I still haven’t discovered how to convey that.

A lot of the time, writing in Malta felt like a form of survival; when I was struggling to get through an experience it helped me to tell myself I could write about it. Since I’m an every day writer, the real-time processing of these experiences anchored me in a way I rarely felt anchored otherwise. In the case of the series on Entropy, it particularly helped that I could immediately share these experiences with people. It made the experiences feel more meaningful, and contextualized them in a world I already knew.

What are you reading (or watching or listening to!) right now that you love?

Clarice Lispector’s short stories. It’s a constant epiphany with her, and though that is exhausting it’s also exhilarating in a way that reading has never been for me before. Sometimes it feels irresponsible to read her work, because it fuels the part of me that goes for runs in the cold, and eat too much chili, and forgets itself, and has no idea how to write. But it would be worse not to read it; to know that these paths are carved and I haven’t followed them would be a shame. I also love discovering a writer while so many other people are reading her, and while New Directions is still in the process of publishing translations of her work.

Do you have any writing or reading related goals for 2018?

After my failed NaNoWriMo commitment to producing a blockbuster sci-fi novel, I decided to be more modest in 2018. I’ll only work on projects I’m really committed to, only revise projects I think are worth revising, and treat the unknown not as an end in itself but as a means that allows me to invest stories with meaning. And trust the process: keep writing every day and trust that doing so will take me where I need to go, wherever that is.

Tuesday
Jan022018

"The Absolute and Unavoidable Lens": An Interview with Jennifer Militello

Jennifer Militello is the author of A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments (Tupelo Press, 2016), Body Thesaurus (Tupelo Press, 2013), and Flinch of Song (Tupelo Press, 2009). Her poems and nonfiction have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Mid-American Review, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, and anthologized in Best New Poets, Poem-a-Day: 365 Poems for Every Occasion, and The Manifesto Project. She teaches in the MFA program at New England College and can be found online at www.jennifermilitello.com.

Her essay, "The Repairs," appeared in Issue Ninety of The Collagist.

Here, Jennifer Militello talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about associate leaps, houses as sponges, and creating edges.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “The Repairs”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Within the space of a week, the house where I currently live suddenly required several major repairs. It seemed like everything was falling apart at once. The septic system backed up. Ice dammed up on the roof and got under the shingles, causing the ceiling to leak. I then started to notice the smaller damages, the scrapes and paint chips that had happened over time. I began to realize that in some ways a home is made up of the very dilemmas that come with needing shelter. The damage as much as the structure.

Life is the same. Emotionally. Spiritually. A series of major damages punctuated by more minor damages, all forming who we become. The build of all this damage stitches tiny threads, until we wear it like a dress, or like a scar.

The essay then grew out of a juxtaposition between physical failures of the house I now live in and memories of the psychological failures of the home where I grew up. I have been obsessed with my childhood home since my mother sold it, after my parents’ divorce left me struggling to recreate that former comfort and stability for myself. This often means trying to remember how the light fell in the kitchen in the morning, or how my parents’ voices sounded in the halls as I read in my bedroom. What happened in that house became equated with what happened inside me, and I cannot return to it. It’s become a labyrinth, so much so that I often dream of the house while asleep, and every time I drive by it in the present, the past house in my mind slips further away.

This essay contains many memories and images that you must associate with one another, but the connective tissue is sometimes subtle or invisible to the reader. For example, just after a brief explanation of a faulty septic system, you write: “I remember one friend I had. I remember standing with her in a playground in the rain, on the lifted end of a seesaw, eating cake mix by the spoonful from an open plastic bag. I remember the echoing of thunder. When I gave birth, I remember screaming and wondering what I heard, whose untethered voice.” When you take such leaps (in time, place, etc.) from one sentence to the next, you must trust, or at least hope, that the audience will also take them without losing all orientation in the work. How do you calculate the distances and choose the jumps you make? How do these associations come to you, and how do you determine the order in which to present them?

When I write, I work to recreate experience, the way the visual of the moment mixes with memory in the brain. This is association in the truest sense of the word. Everything we see in the moment is filtered through a reservoir of all the other moments we have collected. Memory is the context for everything. Memory and those other moments are the absolute and unavoidable lens.

Writing often relies on a voice to trace us through the experience and make connections, to tell a story that moves from point A to point B. But this is not the way we think. We do not naturally narrate our landscapes; we move through them and things flow and stir and meld into one another and this is how impressions and connections are made. We see things and they cause us to remember. We hear things and they remind us of our other lives.

I seek to recreate this landscape of moments and impressions, like lifting animals out of their museum dioramas and setting them in a more natural habitat. They aren’t dead anymore or held together by the artificial wire of the narrative voice. Their muscles work the way they were meant to. They are brought back to life.

Asking the mind to leap means trusting the brain of the reader. Connections happen in ways that are subtle. I believe in metaphor as perhaps the most essential literary device because it works the way the brain works, in shifts and images and tactics we don’t fully understand. It relies on our network of memories and impressions and teaches us more mysteriously and deeply until we learn in our nerve endings and our hippocampus and in our blood.

There’s a line that my mind has stuck on as I read and reread this piece: “Still, the history of an old house comes back.” How does the history of an old house come back? To whom, or to what, does it return? And why, do you think?

Old houses hold the hallways of smells and recollections and feelings that we constantly walk down. They are the ghosts that live inside us and puppet what we are.

We can leave these houses, but they never leave us. And they surface into the present at unexpected and often inconvenient times. Trauma echoes trauma. Pain raises pain. So that you are sitting in the wake of a death or divorce and the old rooms materialize and you are again sitting alone against the closed door of your childhood bedroom after being told you have misbehaved.

In my experience, a house is a sponge and not a sounding board. Incidents and encounters become part of its landscape, and can continue to be felt by others who move through it later and have no knowledge of past events. In addition, a house one has lived in becomes part of one’s emotional landscape, and the layout of that house becomes a map for parts of the brain and the blueprint for memories related to that period of time.

I see from your website that you primarily write and publish poems, but we have been discussing an example of your prose. What lessons have you learned from one genre that you have applied to how you write in the other?

The lyric essay is similar to poetry in many ways, so I have carried over my sense of the resonant image, metaphor and surprise, movement and suggestion, and, as you’ve pointed out, my love of the associative leap.

I’ve had to school myself all over again in how to cut, what to cut, when to cut, to hone an expectation, a narrative edge. I think prose often creates different edges than poetry, and edges are writing’s propulsion systems, so I had to relearn the creation of the edge.

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

I’ve recently completed Knock Wood, the nonfiction book from which this essay comes, as well as a manuscript of poems titled The Pact, so I’m working on some new poems about the dangers of technology and the world of the machine.

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

So much! Fen by Daisy Johnson, Personal Science by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, The True Book of Animal Homes by Allison Titus, Fairyland by Alysia Abbott, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the stories chosen as finalists for the Indiana Review fiction prize, in the winter issue: “House of Locks and Doors” by Micah Dean Hicks and “Liam and the Head” by Courtney Bird.

Monday
Jan012018

"I Will Carry You to Heaven": An Interview with Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, Brevity, The Offing, and elsewhere. She earned a B.A. in film studies & philosophy from Mount Holyoke College and an M.A. in creative writing from California State University, Northridge. She has read many, many books. Born in the American South to a professor of poetry and translation and a U.S. Navy captain, and raised along the East Coast, she now lives where she belongs, in Los Angeles. She blogs at the Fictator.

Her essay, "Carry Me to Heaven," appeared in Issue Ninety-One of The Collagist.

Here, Katharine Coldiron talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about creating collages, female power, and books she hates.

I’d like to break down your process of creating this literary collage into a few questions. First of all, how did you choose the three texts that you pulled language from? What connected these works to one another in your mind?

The simplest answer is that all three of these texts are about female power.

“Ride of the Valkyries” was co-opted definitively by Francis Ford Coppola to depict masculine warmongering in Apocalypse Now. While I can’t really argue with the effectiveness of that combination, it didn’t strike me until well into adulthood, after I’d heard that song dozens of times and seen the entire Ring cycle, that the song is really about the Valkyries, their strength, their joy. A translation into English, and particularly seeing the lines out of context of the famous melody, makes the truth a bit clearer.

Other Powers links multiple kinds of female power and shows how they manifested in a giddy, unstable era of American history. That’s not so different from where we are now. As I listened to the audiobook, I kept being struck by the parallels to our time: the argument over birth control, the female presidential candidate all but dragged behind the back of a truck by her hair, the subversive ways that repressed women seized power.

And Mega-City Redux gathers together powerful women from several eras, across history and fiction, and tumbles them across the country with extraordinary compression and poetic power. I’m so obsessed with that book. In the fall of 2016 I bought ten copies and sent them out to friends. So at the time the book was walking all over my brain, to such an extent that it bled into my own creative work.

The more complicated, and possibly more true, answer is that the process of writing, for me, has evolved into a process of crashing one thing into another thing and seeing if they make sparks. Because my brain connects things weirdly, these three texts made sense together in my head before I realized more consciously what they had in common.

Now, once you had chosen the texts, how did you go about selecting lines from them? Was this exercise a new kind of experiment for you, or did you have an established process for creating such a piece? As the work developed, did you discover anything new about the texts by engaging with them in this way?

Oh, man, this is hard to answer. There’s one easy part: this was a totally new experiment. I make visual collages when I’m creatively stuck or overstimulated, but I’d never made a sentence collage, neither of my own nor of other people’s work. The reasons why I never did before and the reasons why I decided to this time would take too many words to explain.

I skimmed the paper version of Other Powers after I audiobooked it and marked the lines that particularly hit me, either for their power, their relationship to the present moment, or their strange poetry. Like Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s letter requesting suffrage songs, listing those four spirits’ names. Something about it was funny and desperate and heartfelt and maybe a little greedy. Lines that could do all that, I wanted to point out and recontextualize.

The libretto from that section of Die Walküre I’d printed out weeks earlier for reasons I no longer remember and it was kicking around my desk. The writing, on that song at least, was not amazing. I mean, it’s meant to be amazingly sung, not written. But I liked that the Valkyries’ conversation, especially before Brünnhilde arrives, is sort of mundane. Look, those two warriors’ horses are mad at each other, LOL. It’s no match for the music. Except for the invented words, “Hojotoho!” and “Heiaha!”, which are so expressive of the Valkyries and their mission. They give me little shivers just to think them.

I wanted to quote pretty much all of Mega-City Redux, but I typed what I loved most (half the book, probably) and then, when I was collaging, removed what didn’t fit. It was an intuitive process rather than a scientific one. I wish I could be more specific, because I don’t want to sound like a flake, but I really was in sort of a trance as I moved the sentences around.

The only thing I really learned about any of the texts was a new appreciation for the economy of Alyse Knorr’s language from typing it word for word. Otherwise, I apologize—this seems like an arrogant answer—but I think the texts laced with each other so beautifully that there was very little for me to see that was new. Or that was different from how I perceived them when I came up with the idea of collaging them in the first place.

According to a note at the end of your piece, “Only one sentence was written by the author.” Can it be told now which sentence is your invention? If so, please tell us why you felt it was a necessary addition to the text. If not, why do you prefer to preserve the mystery?

I’d like to be David Lynch and shrug mysteriously, but that’s not really me. It’s “I will carry you to heaven.” It was important to me to include that line, which had been beating inside me like a second heart for months.

I wanted the reader (assuming she gave a damn, and didn’t just want to enjoy the piece) simultaneously to play Where’s Waldo, and, more seriously, to probe into the nature of collage. Does it matter which line I wrote, which lines Knorr wrote, which lines Wagner wrote? Is the point the source texts, or the aesthetic result of crashing them together? Is my style going to show through in how I put the texts together, or in how I put the words of my own sentence together? One more than the other? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m interested in prodding readers to ask them.

You run an interview series called “Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like),” published by Entropy. If I may turn the tables, what inspires you to hate a book? Would you care to share any of your own most hated books?

Oooooh, thanks for this opportunity. A number of the books I hate don’t bear any fault for my hatred because they’re just not right for me. I strongly disliked How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and gave up in exasperation halfway through, but I have objective proof that book is good. It reacts badly with my brain, is all.

I deeply, deeply hated The Golden Notebook. I know that I am 100% wrong about this. To me, the characterization was wooden, the scenes fell not just flat but dead, and the language grated like nails on a chalkboard. But it’s the most famous book of a Nobel Prize-winning writer, so clearly it’s my problem, not the book’s.

Books that do bear fault for me hating them are usually lazy in some way, or sexist, or racist. Updike at his worst, for example, has all these qualities. The exceptionally lazy E.L. James, who hasn’t learned her craft whatsoever, and who as a bonus has caused real harm in the world. A Booker Prize winner from some years ago, Vernon God Little, which was so obscene, unfunny, and obsessed with incorrect American stereotypes that I couldn’t get through 50 pages.

A book I hated very reluctantly was The Sellout. I’m pretty sure I’m wrong about this one, too, and it bothers me so much to be a privileged white woman hating on the well-researched, prize-winning satire of an African American author. But the character development was so poor, the women were shallow, inconsistent tropes, and at bottom it felt like a gimmick stretched into a novel. Such a profound racial critique, particularly when it gets as much attention as The Sellout did, is extremely important to the progress of our culture, but I found the book badly executed at the ground level and I couldn’t get over it.

And for some reason I hate character studies. I love movie-based character studies, but book-based ones are absolute death. Waiting, by Ha Jin, made me moan aloud while I was reading it.

 

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

How much time do you have?

I just finished a conceptual novel for which I’m trying to find a press.

I’m shopping a book proposal for a writing reference book for newbies.

I’m building a collection of hybrid essays which each involve fiction, nonfiction, and film criticism. I’ve written four of these essays and published two (“The Girl on the Bike” and “Underside”), and I have sketches or partial drafts for four more. I don’t know when that’ll be done, because I’m stuck on an emotionally difficult one.

My friend Neil, who runs Electric Dreamhouse Press in the UK, has solicited work from me for an anthology about “films that never were.” That one’s in the idea stage, but it’s developing well. He’s asked me if I’m interested in writing something else, too, an essay about the film Five Million Years to Earth. I’m enthusiastic about that, but it’s tentative, and the deadline is really far away.

I’m two chapters into a novel about the character of Ilsa from Casablanca.

What I’m actually putting on paper right now is something about abandoned or ruined places. I visited the Salton Sea in October, and in November I saw the St. Andrews Cathedral in St. Andrews, Scotland, which is little but a ruin filled with gravestones. These places were very different, but both impacted me significantly, and I’m trying to work out what the writing about this will look like in its final form. At the moment it’s just paragraphs.

And in between all these are book reviews and short takes and just-regular-essays and blog posts and pitches by the dozen. Hustle, hustle, hustle.

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

Lately I can’t shut up about Rosalie Morales Kearns’s novel Kingdom of Women. It’s another one I want to buy up and send out to my friends. It’s not just wonderful, it’s necessary. In poetry I really liked Ana Božičević’s Joy of Missing Out, which is both po-mo and meaningful. In December I finally read The Rings of Saturn, my mentor’s favorite book. I see why she loves it, but I prefer David Markson.

I’ve been reading mostly books for review in the last couple of months, so recommending them here might be repetitive. I’ve also been reading some books for research that have been useful but not extraordinary. Louise Brooks’s essays were not the best thing I’ve ever read about Hollywood (that would be West of Eden or Gods Like Us), but they revealed a fascinating woman about whom I can’t wait to write. And Dworkin and Goldsmith’s conceptual writing anthology Against Expression made me feel like my ideas weren’t so crazy after all.