Sunday
Oct092016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What thinking went into the organization of this story?

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

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

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

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

What are you working on currently?

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

Monday
Sep192016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What writing projects are you currently working on?

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

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

Sunday
Sep182016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What writing projects are you working on now?

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

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

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

Wednesday
Sep072016

"We Are the Privileged Ones Who Can": An Interview with Thirii Myint

Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint was born in Yangon, Burma and grew up in Bangkok, Thailand and San Jose, California. She is a PhD candidate in English-Creative Writing at the University of Denver and the Assistant Editor of the Denver Quarterly. She received an MFA in Prose from the University of Notre Dame and has been awarded residences and scholarships from Hedgebrook, Tin House, and Summer Literary Seminars. Her short stories have appeared in Caketrain, The Kenyon Review Online, The Literarian, Sleepingfish, Quarterly West, and elsewhere, and has been translated into and published in Burmese and Lithuanian. Her first book, The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, A Haven will be published by Noemi Press in early 2018.

Her three stories, “Le Domaine,” “Staré Město,” and “El desaparecido," appeared in Issue Eight-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Thirii Myint talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about triptychs, travel abroad, and winter.

Did you write these three stories intending for them to be read together? Are they parts of a set or a larger project that you can describe? (If not, what can you tell us about their separate origins?)

I wrote the three stories in the order that they appear, but I didn’t know that they would go together until I had completed a draft of the last one. The first two stories started out as writing exercises: I gave myself the constraint of adopting the voice and structure of a famous male writer who was very different from me. “Le Domaine” was my attempt at a Patrick Modiano story and “Staré Město” was my attempt at a Roberto Bolaño story. When I finished the first two stories, I realized they had escaped their constraints and I didn’t feel the need to model “el desaparecido” after another writer. I don’t know why I stopped at three stories, instead of six or ten, but the number three has always been important for me, and ever since I read Marie Redonnet’s triptych, I’ve been obsessed with writing triptychs of my own.

Your stories’ titles—“Le Domaine,” “Staré Město,” and “El desaparecido”—are written in three languages: French, Czech, and Spanish, respectively. What is your connection to or interest in these three languages and/or the places that serve as these stories’ settings?

I lived in Madrid for a year soon after college, and while I was in Europe I traveled to wherever I had a couch to sleep on. Growing up, my family never went on vacation, so traveling for me became a marker of my independence and adulthood, but also a marker of my privilege and isolation. I don’t speak French or Czech at all, but I have been to the south of France and to Prague, and the landscapes of both places deeply impressed me. They were so beautiful, but I was alone, and I remember feeling very nostalgic.

All three stories have a first-person narrator and an absent character to whom they have some connection (the dead brother, Alice, and Manuel). The effect, for me, was the feeling that all three narrators are telling someone else’s story as much as their own, and perhaps they do so out of some sense of obligation. What do you consider to be these narrators’ motives for telling their stories? Why do you think this pattern emerged among these three stories?

It’s hard for me to write a piece where the narrator sets out to tell her own story. How does anyone go about telling his or her own story? When a narrator is trying to tell someone else’s story, however, it gives me an opening. I can write about the narrator while she is looking the other way. I also like being in the same boat with my narrator, both of us trying and failing to tell other people’s stories. Maybe the narrators feel obliged to narrate for the same reason I do, because we are the privileged ones who can, but maybe another way to look at it is that they are the ones who haven’t been able to let go of the past yet.

How would you describe your revision process, using any or all of these stories as an example? How much did it/they change from the first draft to the final? Did you have to make any tough decisions along the way?

I’m an incredibly slow writer because I revise as I go. Sometimes it takes me an hour just to write a sentence. I’m totally unproductive and obsessive. This means that by the time I’ve completed a draft, I’m exhausted and never want to look at what I’ve written again. When I completed my first draft of “Staré Město,” for example, it took months—and a deadline from a workshop—for me to build up the courage and energy to go back to it. “Le Domaine” and “el desaparecido” did not change very much from their first drafts to their finals, but “Staré Město” came into being through revisions. The first draft of that story was just a melancholy person getting lost in the snow; it wasn’t really a story. It was only after I finished “el desaparecido” and I could look at the three stories as a whole, that Alice and her relationship to the narrator emerged as something of substance, something that had a story inside of it.

What writing projects are you working on now?

For the past six months now, I’ve been very slowly working toward a new piece about a city in which the dead are naturally embalmed by the city’s water, and become glittering tourist attractions. I don’t yet how long the piece will be or what it’ll ultimately be about, but so far I have two women walking around bike paths and riding buses and obviously one is in unrequited love with the other.

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

I’ve been re-reading some of my old favorites in preparation for a creative writing class I’m teaching this winter on writing about winter, and I love The Ice Palace by the Norwegian writer Tarjei Vessas, and Ice by Anna Kavan.

Monday
Sep052016

"Flying Blind": An Interview with Garrett Saleen

Garrett Saleen is a writer and visual artist from Southern California. He studied playwriting at New York University. He lives in Seattle. His fiction has been published in The Collagist. He is working on his first collection of short stories about real people lost on the outer fringes of cinema. His art can be found on instagram, @jan_homm and garrettsaleen.com.

His story, "Falconetti Drinks the Water of Anguish," appeared in Issue of Seventy-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about living too close to your art, first drafts, and pulling creativity out of its routine.

Please tell us what first inspired this story.

Two stories in particular: Robert Walser’s Kleist in Thun, and Büchner’s Lenz. I think Lenz must have inspired Kleist because they are very similar. In both stories, there’s a sense that madness is brought on by living one’s art, that these titular writers became deranged personifications of the German Romanticism they practiced, and could no longer function in the real world. Walser’s Kleist is a lot closer to the earth, he feels more anchored to the subtleties of human inner contradiction, and the anguish and self-loathing that results from that. But Büchner wrote Lenz when he was like 20, and it is some of the most beautiful stuff ever written. Every page has poetry that other writers find only once in a lifetime.

Other than that it was a question of timing. I watched Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and was, I don’t know, hypnotized, enraptured, spellbound, whatever superlative you want to use, by it, and especially Falconetti’s performance, which of course is the movie. Ninety years on, plenty of film people who have seen a lot more movies than I have, still consider it the best performance ever. She performed without sound, and Dreyer mostly shoots her from the neck up, so it’s primarily just a face giving this performance. There’s a lot of trivia surrounding the movie that probably informs how people frame discussions of it: that Falconetti never did another film, that Falconetti was said to suffer some kind of madness so that she believed she was Joan of Arc, that Dreyer’s cut of movie disappeared for decades until it was found in a mental asylum. Around when I watched the film, I was reading Chris Kraus’s Aliens and Anorexia and things started to tie together. Kraus writes of Simone Weil, and anorexia in relation to hagiography. She also writes about Lenz. So I started thinking about how Falconetti starved herself to death in South America, suffering from the kind of madness that comes from living too close to your art, the art, in this case, of portraying a Saint. But I also wanted to write a story about a woman who was not motivated by family, or by marriage, or love, or being a mother. Literature is already full of those. We need to move beyond these modes. I wanted to write about a woman who was first and foremost an artist.

I love these lines: “Clutching a cup of tea. A bowl of vegetable soup in white china. She darkens the tea with a spoonful of broth. Sips the tea and looks out the window at the mud-colored water snaking alongside, and then off again toward a copse, or a copse come apart into a flock of long-necked birds.” The voice here is very patient, very calm and acutely aware of its surroundings. How close are you to this voice? Do you have any methods for inhabiting a voice that is unlike your own?

I’m not an eloquent speaker. I come from Southern California and we aren’t, generally, a very eloquent people. All our words run together, I call everyone “man.” So the calm and patience you refer to might be a reaction against my own ineloquence, a symptom of my self-consciousness. I think my goal is a voice of precise prose. The voice is a product of multiple drafts. Writing is pretty unsexy. I think young writers, myself included, often try to make it more so by really trying to nail something in one or two drafts. Writing on a laptop makes this a lot worse. You labor over a paragraph, keep deleting and rewriting, and then suddenly the afternoon is gone and you have to go make dinner. My approach now is to just get something down on the page for a first draft. A first draft is like going out and finding the hunk of marble for a sculpture. It is basically unshaped ether, which might be a fancy way of saying total shit. When I come back to the beginning some weeks later, I find my brain has been working behind the scenes, subconsciously, and suddenly I will know how to shape the story, and if I do this four or five times, adding layers and trimming fat, suddenly I’m reading sentences I don’t hate. It’s difficult, I think young writers know intellectually that they should be writing several drafts of something, but in practice it’s a much tougher discipline, because it takes a lot of time and frustration and effort, and at least for me, it doesn’t really gel with the romantic image of the artist at work. The reality is a lot uglier, a lot messier. As it always is.

What do you think a writer can learn about their craft from watching an actor?

If you think of the really talented actors, most have wide-ranging interests outside of their craft that they bring to their performances. I think it’s the same for writing. One of the many negative side effects of rampant MFA programs is that it teaches young writers about writing, literature, and very little else, and often even if another subject is taught, it is taught through a literary lens. So you have all these books about, surprise, young writers or young people in media, or twentysomethings drifting from walk-up to walk-up in the big city. Who cares? A good artist diversifies their interests. Getting back to actors, imagine if Daniel Day Lewis prepared for There Will Be Blood by only watching Flowing Gold. You’d get a performance, but it wouldn’t be very convincing. I don’t mean to be too reductive, but it seems to me that The Method teaches you that as an actor you are only as deep as your experiences, because that’s all you can draw from, otherwise you’re just getting away with it. This applies to writing to a large degree. Of course, reading is critical if you want to be a writer, but it has to be cut with outside influence, one must have other interests and experiences to pull from. If a writer learns about the world only by reading literature, you suddenly get a closed loop, a very insular art form that soon seems outdated, out of touch, and does nothing to stretch people’s empathy. Technology is the obvious example. American Literature is especially terrified of the internet and technology. Why? Well, part of the reason is that the writers coming out of MFAs are reading the last generation of American writers who were and are terrified of these things or simply choose to ignore them. These are learned opinions, I think, and they are passed down, so the problem of insularity just perpetuates. It’s more important for a writer to be an interested person rather than interesting one—Werner Herzog says, “The poet must not avert his eyes.”

You are also a talented visual artist. Do you find that your writing and your visual art come from similar places of inspiration?

My problem with writing in the past stemmed from thinking the thing to death before I got to the desk. David Byrne wrote this great book called How Music Works. I’m paraphrasing, but one point he makes is that an artist can find a way to express themselves in any creative medium, and that by doing this they demystify their own creative process to a degree. Collage was that for me, a way to find out how my creativity functioned by pulling it out of its routine. From it, I learned that I’m at my best when I go to the desk with very little idea where I’m going. I probably have done a lot of research, but narratively I’m flying pretty blind. I have a very vague direction, usually, I need some kind of distant lighthouse guiding me, for the collection of short stories I’m working on, that guiding principle is writing about people who have actually existed, who worked in or around the film industry, for collage it’s a little looser, often a single image or scrap of paper or it might be a title stolen from a classical painting. But I’ve learned to be more confident that I will somehow get to where I’m going, and it usually works out. Again, art is largely a subconscious thing.

Have you experienced any art recently that you would like to recommend?

There’s a Japanese painter named Kei Imazu. Her work is like walking through a glitch art museum in a fever dream. It’s wonderful, strange, fresh work in a medium that is very difficult to innovate. If there’s a better painter working today, I’d love to see their pieces.

I tell everyone I talk to about art to look up Kay Sage, and most of them have never heard of her. She’s America’s greatest surrealist painter, but her contemporaries buried her because of her gender. In the founders’ minds, women were supposed to be the exquisite corpses of Dada and Surrealism, not the practitioners.

I’ve also been looking at a lot of Alexander Gardner photographs from the 1860s, for some research. It’s unbelievable to me that he had such a developed aesthetic eye that early in the medium. In terms of photography as an art, Gardner seems about a hundred years ahead of his time, especially compared to Brady or O’Sullivan. And if it’s true that he staged many of his photographs, then all the better. Even his portraits. Lewis Powell was dangerously insane, and Gardner’s photographs of him look like they were shot yesterday afternoon for Vogue

What projects are you currently working on?

It’s been a crazy year. I moved from Brooklyn to Colorado, and from Colorado to Seattle. I have three stories in various stages. Primarily, I spent about four months doing research for one story, and about five months writing it. It’s about Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. It’s a long story about her life up until she disappeared in LA in early 1947. Most of the research was trying to nail down what was truth and what wasn’t. Most of what we think we know about her life comes from legend, rather than fact, but the facts are pretty tragic. She bounced around the country, her fiancé was killed in the war, she knew hundreds of people but had no real friends, and then she was tortured to death at 22. I wrote like 30,000 words and cut it down to 10,000, so I’m just starting to send it out. It was a tough nut to crack, but I’m very happy with it. Elizabeth was a complicated person, and what happened to her haunts the people who study it. It’s very much a spiritual successor to Falconetti, told mostly in short paragraphs, almost like fragments. Early Ondaatje and early Didion were big inspirations. It’s called Ghost Dance. It’s available to be published, if you know anybody.

Friday
Sep022016

"Each Hand Became a Designated Vehicle": An Interview with Tanya Holtland

 

Tanya Holtland is the author of Inner River, a chapbook from Drop Leaf Press. Her poetry and nonfiction appear in The Collagist, Statement Magazine, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Oxalis, and elsewhere. She has read poetry in Cambodia and at the Yale Writers' Conference, and holds English and Creative Writing degrees from San Francisco State University. A poet with roots in California and many other places, she currently makes a home in Seattle, where there is so much water.

Her essay, "What Things We Bring," appeared In Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, Tanya Holtland talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about ambidexterity, prose vs. poetry, and writing at work.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay, “What Things We Bring”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to starting writing the first draft?

Where things come from has always been a difficult question for me to answer. I think points of origin for many of the things we are able to write or create come from the blending and unblending of ourselves with another, and time and circumstance elicit things from our rooms, the houses of us. A couple years ago I got unexplainably ill for about three months. In that strange and difficult season of fevers and intense bouts of sleep I was on my way to work, in the final days I was still able to make it in, and by the time I got to my office this essay flew out. Like much of my poetry it was not an intentional piece but more an imperative married to maintenance of well-being. Sometimes initial arrangements seem to have very little to do with me.

This essay contains references to Tom Robbins and The Year of Magical Thinking. What is the relationship between what you’re reading and what you’re writing? How often do you overtly pull other works of literature into your work, and how does what you’ve read make its way into your writing in less obvious ways?

Both of those books were in the water when I wrote this piece. Some books lily pad, become the bridge. I was thinking a lot about survival at that time, of the body and of will. I love both those authors and I tend to read pretty slowly and so for that I think certain books have more of a chance to get steeped into the landscape. If my memory were better I think I would overtly reference more often. Instead, sometimes the color of a line I love will throw shadows at feeling and my lines come out under that influence. I think of all the things that can be said some authors say perfectly, building castles to a certain feeling. We look upon in awe, rumbling with our own burgeoning generatives.

How would you describe your revision process for this essay? How much did it change from the first draft to the final? Was this piece’s revision typical for you, or different from how you normally revise?

Surprisingly, this piece incurred very little editing. It came rather quickly and largely intact. There was some shaping but it is somewhat of an anomaly in that it felt rather complete early on. Both the creating and editing of it took place at work when I’m sure I should have been doing something administrative. I owe my old boss several hours of work for this.

You are a poet as well as a prose writer, which is clear from the lyrical voice and associational logic of this essay. How do you decide whether a set of ideas is best presented in the form of a poem or a prose piece? What can lineated verse accomplish that the paragraphs of prose cannot, or vice versa?

Often it is dependent on mood. Many years ago I taught myself to write with my left hand and during that time a strange thing occurred. Based on whatever mood/phase/state I was in, when something needed to come out, depending on what it was, I would pick up the pen with either the right or left and each hand became a designated vehicle for specific content. I think of poetry vs. prose in this way. There can be a natural inclination or intuitiveness to a channel, a path towards form. It’s difficult to tell and there are times when I change from one to the other and something is lost, or conversely, something is revealed.

I began writing in my mid-twenties. In these early attempts at writing prose came out first but poetry flew me open faster and I think brought me to appreciating the dimensional aspects of the page and all that space. Prose writers do stunning things I am still learning. There is something irrevocably powerful in a beautiful line that relies on nothing but itself.

What writing projects are you working on now?

Presently I have a few chapbooks that receive rounds of attention and equal time away. I’m learning that I work cyclically and usually over long periods of time. Although, in recent years this appears to be speeding up. Each of these works has been spurred by a lot of changes happening in and out, and played marcato.

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

I will leave you with a few different things. If you have need for it, reading and re-reading Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, The National’s Trouble Will Find Me, essays by Audre Lorde, and all the poetry you can find by Catherine Wagner. Each of these has held the year together.

Tuesday
Aug302016

"An Infant Bit of Light": An interview with C. L. O'Dell

C. L. O'Dell's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, New England Review, and Best New Poets, among others. He lives in the Hudson Valley and is founder and editor of The Paris-American.

His poems, "While Lying on the Back of a Blue Whale" and "Dot in the Sky," appeared in Issue Fifty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interview T.m. Lawson about themes involving violence, childhood, and the natural world, the relationship between form and imagery, and the shaping of poems.

“Dot in the Sky” has a simple, elegant quality with a skeletal strength to the lines and diction, while “While Lying on the Back of a Blue Whale” is a meatier couplet; both are rife with imagery in each line. How did you come to write these pieces?

These poems both evolved from a single image or experience that was, at the time, taking up a lot of room in me. This is how most of my poems are made. I love poetry because of how a poem takes on a life of its own, eventually feeding on me when I don’t even know it. “While Lying on the Back of a Blue Whale” started out with the memory of discovering a childhood dog paralyzed on the side of the road after a hit-and-run. This memory somehow transformed into a listing of all very beautiful, wondrous and also haunting and painful moments that could all be potentially happening at the same time. The title and ending of the poem came last, as I became more comfortable inside the poem and where it decided to go. “Dot in the Sky” seems more layered, starting with my daughter playing in the yard. From there I pulled in my father, carpentry, “wings,” etc., and then silence. I love silence, absence, because of the endless possibilities they possess. There’s so much magic in nothing.

I noticed that both poems, while very different, shared similar qualities: themes of childhood and infancy that are eventually corrupted by violence and adult intervention, tragedy in the form of wounded animals, human against the backdrop of natural elements like lightning, water, and grass. Are these essential themes for your regular work or interest?

Yes. My father is a hunter, and a carpenter, and I followed in his footsteps for a long time, and still do in many ways. Everyone’s childhood is eventually corrupted by reality and truth. We are curious because as children we replace what we don’t know with imaginary ideas, and if we’re lucky, some of that curiosity subsists into adulthood even after we find answers to things we love. These are themes that enter my poems naturally, most times uncontrollably, so I consider them essential to my writing.

The serenity within the violence of some of these images is captivating. The form restricts the language in the right way in both poems. Was this intentional or happenstance as the poems developed?

I am usually never thinking about what shape a poem will take until the end. The subject matter doesn’t affect what form the poem will have, but what the words look like next to each other determines spacing and structure. There’s a certain level of “colorfulness” to letters, words, even more so to sentences, and a fine balance of splattered color is achieved in good poetry. The visual representation of my poems follows no strict formula, but more of a gut feeling. I like that part of writing, feeling like a painter feels making final touches.

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

LOOK by Solmaz Sharif, Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine, Flies by Michael Dickman (again, anticipating Green Migraine), and various non-fiction by Shane Cashman.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just finished my first collection of poems, still making minor edits here and there (and still writing poems that belong in that book), but I think I also just drafted the first poem of my second collection, so I’m excited about that.

Thursday
Aug252016

"The Many Holes in the Borders": An Interview with Lee Conell

Lee Conell's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Chicago Tribune's literary supplement Printers Row, Kenyon Review online, Indiana Review, Guernica, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She recently won the Nelson Algren Short Story Award from the Chicago Tribune, and was a fiction fellow at Vanderbilt University where she won the Guy Goffe Means Prize for Fiction. Currently she lives in Nashville, leading writing workshops in hospitals, libraries, and high schools.

Her story, "Guardian," appeared in Issue Eight-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Lee Conell talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about imaginary friends, television shows, and revision.

 

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

My best friend in elementary school and I used to make up stories together all the time, acting the stories out as we went. We called them the Infinite Stories: worlds we would enter again and again, using recess to pick up wherever the story had left off. One story we co-told took place in a jungle and kind of ripped-off Fern Gully. In another we were witches/warlocks trying to collection a certain number of crystals to save the world. In another we were orphans adopted by a phoenix(?). From about age five to age eight, we returned to these worlds again and again, and then we stopped. As I began to work on my own fiction, I started wondering: What if characters from those worlds began to reappear in my stories, began to barge into my fiction without my realizing it? From there came the concept of imaginary creatures from childhood popping up again, sort of flinging themselves onto an adult life.

The character of Cind comes out of the protagonist’s childhood fixation with The Brady Bunch. Can you speak about the relationship between your writing and television or other forms of popular culture? What do you see as the potential uses or roles in literary fiction for references to TV, movies, etc.?

Days of Our Lives was probably my first childhood experience with seriously long-form storytelling. And today I consume my share of not-great reality television. I’m interested in the way those stories I watch—even if I’m rarely watching them with my full attention—affect the stories I’m trying to tell with as much of my full attention as possible. If part of my experience of the world occurs through pop culture, it would seem disingenuous to erase that stuff, rather than to critically engage with, to question, and to reconsider the ways pop culture’s myths and symbols shape my daily life and narratives—in the same way I’d critically engage with ideas of family, gender, education, class, etc.

I’m also interested in characters with an obsession, which lends itself to pop culture and fan culture, which are fueled by obsession. I wanted to use “Guardian” in part to explore what happens when a childhood fandom that is used as an escape follows an adult into a potential tragic loss from which there is no escaping.

Your story ends in such a small, quiet moment with a relatively plain (though lasting) image, especially for a fabulist story where an imaginary friend appears to cross into reality. How did you decide that the ending should be so subdued and grounded? What goal(s) do you have for the ending of a story such as this?

That’s a really good question. In a story like this, my main interest was in exploring the many holes in the borders we put up between memory and imagination, reality and fantasy, the grounded and the fantastic. I needed an image that didn’t emphasize the strangeness of Cind’s appearance, but that hinted instead at its inevitability. I don’t think I ever consciously decided that the ending should be subdued and grounded—I wanted to show, rather, that things we dismiss as mundane (Cindy Brady, a passing headlight) have huge potential to suddenly shift into something that seems wilder, stranger, less obedient. I believe those subdued and grounded images in our lives are generally made of the same mind-stuff as the weirder and flightier fantasies.

Please tell us about your revision process, with this story as an example. How many drafts do you typically take a story of this length through? How do you decide when it’s time to start submitting a story?

I wrote a draft of this story maybe three years ago, but I wasn’t sure what the story really wanted to be about, besides imaginary children coming back without asking permission of their original imaginer. It took me a few drafts to realize I didn’t know what I was doing. I put the story aside for a little while and when I stumbled across it again a couple months ago, I knew what it wanted to be. This version went through only one or two drafts (although maybe that’s because I was subconsciously revising it for three years). In terms of how many drafts a story of this length takes, for me, it varies widely from story to story. Which is too bad. I wish I had a set number so I’d know when to stop.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel about a lot of things, including ghosts, self-published romance novels, birds, and building superintendents. I’m also finishing my story collection, which deals with some (but not all) of those subjects too.

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

Silvina Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces: Selected Short Stories, which contains one of my new favorite lines: “Surviving childhood is a severe test on the faculty of reasoning.” Also, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Hisaye Yamamoto’s story collection, Seventeen Syllables.

Tuesday
Aug232016

"What Haunts Us": An Interview with Margo Berdeshevsky

Margo Berdeshevsky, born in New York City, often writes in Paris. Her recent poetry manuscript was finalist for the National Poetry Series, 2015. Her published poetry collections are Between Soul & Stone and But a Passage in Wilderness (both from Sheep Meadow Press). Her book of illustrated stories, Beautiful Soon Enough, received Fiction Collective Two’s Innovative Fiction Award (University of Alabama Press). Other honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, a portfolio of poems in the Aeolian Harp Anthology #1 (Glass Lyre Press), the & Now Anthology of the Best of Innovative Writing, and numerous Pushcart prize nominations. Her works appear in Poetry International, New Letters, Kenyon Review, Plume, The Collagist, Tupelo Quarterly, Gulf CoastPleiades, Prairie Schooner, and Cutthroat, among others. In Europe her work has been seen in The Poetry Review (UK), The Wolf, EuropeSiècle 21, & Confluences Poétiques. A multi-genre novel, Vagrant, and new poetry collections are at the gate.  She may be found reading from her books in London, Paris, New York City, or somewhere new—in the world. Her “Letters from Paris” may be seen at Poetry International. For more information, kindly see: http://margoberdeshevsky.blogspot.com/.

Her story, "A Winter's Story," appeared in Issue Seventy-Two of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about photography, love (or lack of), and cross-genre art.

Where did this story begin for you?

I’ll answer this “slant,” so to speak, in the way Emily Dickinson suggested that a poet, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.

I once had a lover who complimented my best friend because she had seven children. You see, he said, she is a real woman. To her credit, my dear friend stood up and slapped him. (And the relationship with him did not endure.) 

I could start by saying that I’m a woman who decided very young to not be a mama. Why? A choice. A road, taken. So in one sense I’ve been interested in mothering and/or  not . . . for a long while. The tribal imperative that humans are meant to perpetuate the tribe. And, I’ve been interested in the expectation that all women are meant to be mothers, and good mothers, of course. Compassionate mothers. Protective mothers. And that all children are expected to be loved, of course. They must be. That is a human imperative. A human right. But they are also expected to be loveable.

That said, as one way to enter this conversation: I also once had a terrible cat. I love cats. I love what lives. I love living.  I did not want to do harm. But I had to wonder if he was not some demonic force sent into my life to challenge my kindness or torment me.

From such soil, stories are seeded.

In addition to being a writer, you are a gifted photographer. You often include your photographs with your writing. What draws you to photography? What inspired you to merge your two artistic interests into single projects?

As a creative person, I like thinking outside the box. There is a wonderful line in the Tom Stoppard play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” as the characters are contemplating death, and being left in a coffin, and one says, (to paraphrase), but you'd be in a box. Think about it, living your life in a box, I mean you'd never get out, would you?

I often feel that way about writing or offering work in a single genre. To be stuck in a box. More and more, I come to like functioning in the multi-genre or cross genre. Being a “collagist,” I might say. And so, yes, I have liked to merge  photographs or montages with some of my written works. Embedded, or surrounding them. For me it is one way to invite left brain-right brain receiving. Not as show and tell, but as a way to expand the metaphoric, inherent, or implied.

I’m not speaking here of imagism as construed by Pound, seeking only “hard light and clear images.” But I’m interested in metaphor. Linguistically and imagistically. Photography, while it can certainly be documentary and uber realistic, and illustrative, and haunting as such . . . can also be impressionistic, or expressionistic, can also be part of the poetic lexicon. Can also be another way of telling it slant. And that draws me often, these days. The world I wake in is so often painfully realistic. Filled with what haunts me. What haunts us. I want to address what haunts, but also I’m searching for ways to look with another eye or lens, so for me, photographing is one way to force my vision further.

Sometimes, one image is sufficient. Sometimes, words do the heavy lifting, and anything more would be superfluous. But sometimes, I want to stretch the edge, even erase the edges, open the box and let forms overlap, or whisper to one another, to me, to the one who receives the works I can offer.

Your story ends with a black and white photograph of two baby dolls. Please explain your choice to pair the story with this particular image.

No. To explain would defeat the choice. I believe it is a good choice. The rest should belong to the reader.

The mothers and children in this story do not have happy relationships. There is an uneasiness, a loathing between them. We are used to seeing depictions of parent-child relationships that are perhaps fraught, but grounded in fierce love. “A Winter’s Story” doesn’t follow this common storyline. What interests you about the relationship between the woman and her “devil child”?

Allow me to ask you to return to your first question and my response above. That was a beginning. To say more . . . no, it’s not a common storyline, I admit. But it both frightened me as a subject and seduced me to write it. What happens to the lone and lonely in a world when they are not healed by love? What happens when/if they are unable to love the very one, or the very element that might heal them? What happens if the object that should inspire love is inherently not to be loved. If it is experienced as evil. What is a “devil child?” Is it merely, or definitely  the “shadow?” How has civilization, have we, will we. . . deal with what is detestable in our world, or in ourselves, or in the very thing we give birth to, or adopt, presumably to love?

What are three books you could recommend today?

There is a novel that the wonderful science fiction author, Theodore Sturgeon, gifted me with many years ago. It is called The Book of The Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin Jr. It speaks of a rooster, Chaunteclear, confronting a monster of evil long imprisoned beneath the earth. I’d find it a powerful book, today. Parable, or fantasy, a worthy read.

As a poet, and I am that, as story teller, photographer, woman, wanderer . . . I'd reread “King Lear.” Because we are each so lost on the heath, and terrified of being unloved. And “Macbeth,” because the greed and demand for political dominion and power is so much, too much with us. Everywhere. Now, And now. And now.

And a wonderful new book has just been published by Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. Because that bookshop has been a home to me and a place where the ladders start, for many years. This brand new book tells its story—as it was and is, and “slant.”

What is next for you? Are you currently working on any projects?

Yes. Always yes. I have been photographing stones. Giant, protective, dangerous, beautiful stones. I have a new collection of poetry which keeps adding and eliminating new fingers and toes. It was a finalist for the National Poetry Series, last year. But as Collagist editor, Gabriel Blackwell, says so well, Life is cruel just where art is at its kindest. And so the book is homeless, waiting for cover. And, there is a new collection of works, prose poems or stories (crossing genres..., ) Dark Muse / Can Dance. Some have been first published here in The Collagist. They are morphed with my photographs. Yes. “A Winter’s Story,” published here, is one of them. This new book is now standing at the gate, hand on the latch. Along with a multi-genre novel called Vagrant. Because I am. It is. Vagrant. A bit of an alien in a world I sometimes know, and sometimes am lost in. And I have just written a new poem that I rather like: “Whose Sky, Between (...for Hiroshima day, and more...)”

~

“The artist, and particularly the poet, is always an anarchist in the best sense of the word. He must heed only the call that arises within him from three strong voices: the voice of death, with all its foreboding, the voice of love and the voice of art.” —Federico Garcia Lorca

Thursday
Aug112016

"A Necessity of Artfulness": An Interview with Corwin Ericson

Corwin Ericson is the author of the novel Swell (Dark Coast, 2011) and Checked Out OK (Factory Hollow, 2013), a book-length found poem in the form of police reports. His work has been published in Harper's Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, Conduit, Hobart, and elsewhere. He lives in western Massachusetts and teaches at UMass Amherst.

His story, "I Cried So Much that Night, as I Sometimes Did," appeared in Issue Seventy-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about not reading Little House on the Prairie, young narrators, and the power of description.

How did your story, “I Cried So Much That Night, as I Sometimes Did,” come to be?

A couple of years ago, my young niece mentioned “Pa” in a conversation. Who? She’s a hip city girl; she wouldn’t say Pa. Her Ma explained to me that she was referring to Pa from Little House on the Prairie—a teacher was reading one of the books to her class. Those books were important to me as a young reader; they were my first taste of forbidden literature. I remember sneaking them off my sister’s shelf to read them. Not that anyone other than my sister would have cared, but they seemed taboo because I thought of them of them as for girls only. That made them much more interesting.

What were those books about? It turns out, I don’t remember. There was the narrator—Laura, maybe? Her blind sister. Her Pa, you know, Michael Landon. I have no memory of Ma. They lived in a sod house, probably little and on a prairie. There was bad weather and some kind of dangerous animal. Maybe some locust swarms. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not part of this series.

So, when my niece said “Pa” and invested it with such knowingness, as if we’d all had a shared sense of Pa-ness and have all rolled our eyes at his foibles and admired him for his achievements, I got enthused and wanted to talk about him too, only I didn’t know him. I went to the library and pulled one of the LHOTP books off the shelf and had myself a moment: I realized I didn’t want to know anything more about the plots or characters.

I put the book right back and went home with a sense of purpose—to not read Little House on the Prairie. This was liberating and pleasant. So that’s the sort-of ‘pataphysical way I got to that voice, that character—by hearing a girl say “Pa” and then not reading Little House on the Prairie. I went on to write several stories with those characters and that setting.

We experience the story through the eyes of the youngest sister. What are some of the challenges you faced writing from the perspective of a young narrator, and how did you overcome them?

I wanted to write in a voice that was new and foreign to me, one that allowed for fun and invention and discovery and that I wouldn’t silt up with too much autobiography. That was the challenge. Her limited perspective of the world is exacerbated by her family’s monadic isolation, which was another challenge for me as the writer. I mean a challenge in the sense of an impediment that replaces the journey—we get to the obstacle and explore it instead of finding a way to overcome it. Like doing something instead of getting something done.

I spent a few years messing with the text of a Victorian-era children’s novel, The Wide Wide World, which is written in a girl’s voice. I made cross-outs, erasures, collages on the pages. In doing that, I made a deep study of a fairly stupid book, and one of the things I discovered about it was that there was a regular tide of crying in the book. Every tenth page or so, Sophie would choke up, try to squeeze her tears back, and then bawl. Her tearfulness and her diction, which seems stilted and turgid to me, but which was probably considered a necessity of artfulness when it was composed, were appropriated for the voice of the narrator in my story.

The fathers longing to describe and his struggle to do so seems to parallel the experience of the artist. The speaker also feels this frustration. When she first experiences the roof, she relates, I wanted, suddenly, to tell my sister all about what I could see, every inch of it so new to me, yet so old to her. As a writer, can you relate to this sentiment?

Like an author among readers, Pa needs to get out of the way. He’s intrusive and ineffectual. He’s self-deluded, full of rules and inhibitions. Convinced of his own mastery. In those ways, he seems very much like an artist: he must do as he does for reasons he alone knows, and he feels insufficiently appreciated and barely tolerated. In this story, Pa has a fantasy about his daughter going blind. He feels that if she went blind, it would be up to him to describe things to her, as if he were Anne Sullivan. He wants to hone his powers of description so that he’ll be better at it, for her sake. His daughter is actually in no danger of losing her sight, so she resents his meddling and descriptions of the obvious. This is a real peril for many fictional children—someone is always trying to teach them something.

I can certainly relate to this as a writer. It’s both irritating and inspiring to have things described to you. Description can be a real infliction and writers do it all the time.

Please tell us the last book you read that you really loved.

This is a tough question. I’m not sure where I stand on loving books. Just last night, I finished Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, and I was impressed and enjoyed it. Not long ago I read Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and was delighted to find parts of it set in a fictitious, sinister version of a town within bike-riding distance of my house.

I can remember years ago loaning a copy of Ballard’s High Rise to a friend, who then loaned it to a friend of his who was very sick in the hospital. I asked my friend for it back, and he said he wouldn’t ask his very sick friend for it back. I then had the entirely unloving, selfish thought, “But I love that book.”

I love the constant flow of books I get from my little rural town’s library—I’m a heavy user of the interlibrary loan program. I do actually love Moby-Dick, though we haven’t seen each other in a while. I’ve given Magnus Mills’ first book, The Restraint of Beasts, to a few people and told them they were wrong when they said they didn’t love it.

What projects are you working on now?

I’ve spent a lot of time the past few months working on a big woven wicker mask, which was just shipped to its new owner in Texas this weekend. A few weeks ago I returned to making “hikaru dorodangos”—that’s Japanese for shiny mudballs. I write poems. I think and make notes about the Arctic and the hollow earth and Vikings and inuksuit, ostensibly in service of writing a novel.