To Zelda Fitzgerald from Jody Kennedy: loving in France, the androgynous spirit, and ruminations on being untamed in LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE.

Paper Dolls: A Love Letter for Zelda 

by Jody Kennedy

 Zelda Fitzgerald, “Self-Portrait,” watercolor, probably early 1940s. Image from  Wikipedia

Zelda Fitzgerald, “Self-Portrait,” watercolor, probably early 1940s. Image from Wikipedia

“I'm so full of confetti I could give birth to paper dolls.”

—Zelda Fitzgerald

Dearest Zelda,

So how does one address the Original Flapper, “It Girl” (second to the actress, Clara Bow), and baby vamp? Maybe just start by saying that I was enamored with you once? Remembered you when I lived in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Paris, and Juan-les-Pins, and on visits to Lake Geneva, Cap d'Antibes, and Saint Raphael? Considered you part of the Good Girl Bad Girl's Club (along with Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and my maternal and paternal grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, among others)? Always wanted to be the happy-go-lucky version of you: the almost perfect WASP, well-heeled extrovert, the life of the party, flirting with waiters, dancing on tables, organizer of fabulous soirées, ballerina, goddess, inhaling Marlboro Reds and gin and tonics until in the end crashing and burning with you like Draper's beautiful boy, Icarus.


We were just kids when we met. I must have been around sixteen and you seemed forever immortalized at twenty-one. Like in that photograph of you and Scott posing in a car, your short hair hidden under a cloche hat and Scott's smile, contagious. It's strange to look back now and realize that you weren't much older than me though you seemed so grown-up, but doesn't everyone over nineteen seem ancient when you're still sixteen? I deliberately skipped over later photos of you looking puffy at Lake Annecy with Scott and then ten-year-old, Scottie, or you, a couple of years later, gaunt in a floral print apron standing with some paintings you'd entered in an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art or that other image of you wearing a long dress and white ermine coat next to a tuxedoed Scott, both of your faces strained and your hands, especially, noticeably clenched. You seemed to be apparitions of your former selves, like wax figures found at Madame Tussaud's in London or the Musée Grevin in Paris.


“I ride boys’ motorcycles, chew gum, smoke in public, dance cheek to cheek, drink corn liquor and gin. I was the first to bob my hair and I sneak out at midnight to swim in the moonlight with boys at Catoma Creek and then show up at breakfast as though nothing had happened,” you wrote in your high school journal. Ditto to most of it (said my maternal grandmother and me).


My attraction to you bordered on obsessive, the same way my attraction to the 1920s, Saint Paul, Paris, and Gertrude Stein's Lost Generation did. And there's still sometimes a feeling of being like Rip Van Winkle playing catch up after waking from a long slumber along with a sometimes still intense longing to travel back to those early days meeting you and Scott and some of the gang in Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. Maybe another part of my attraction to you was because of a certain air de famille. My maternal grandmother, ten years your junior, came of age not far from Saint Paul's Summit Hill neighborhood where you and Scott and Scottie, then a newborn, had been living at the time. My grandmother was the furthest thing from a WASP, grew up poor but, like you, bobbed her hair, wore pants, loved to drink and dance, and at fifteen fell in love with and quickly married her Scott, a local gangster who kept her supplied in stolen diamonds, furs, and bootleg liquor.


Scott was lucky to have seen you dance. My maternal grandmother, who died the year I was born and who I only knew through stories, talked about coming back in her next life as a professional dancer. As a young girl I dreamt of being a ballerina but was rarely comfortable in my body or while dancing. I imagined you dancing though, your petite and feline body the opposite of my Irish-German peasant build, the same build that effectively killed my ambitions of becoming a world-famous model at fourteen, which would have been my ticket out of high school and out of the small Midwestern suburb where I grew up.


Scott turned out to be your ticket out of Montgomery and out of Dixie. I can understand how you fell for him: his Yankee otherness, his sense of humor, and his poetic streak. I searched my small Midwestern suburb for a jewel like that but always ended up with a mouthful of heavy metal, generic greeting cards, and lukewarm Budweiser. A Scott came much later for me and, despite doubts about getting married, I said yes because I'd planned to make a respectable man out of him. He was going to be Peter Maurin to my Dorothy Day, Charles VII (the Victorious) to my Joan of Arc. Did you feel like you were acting a part when you married Scott in the vestry at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on April 2, 1920? A wedding in the vestry wasn't your dream. You wanted the whole Cathedral (and isn't a woman worthy of that?). “David,” the legend read, “David, David, Knight, Knight, Knight, and Miss Alabama Nobody.”

 Zelda and F. Scott, 1920: Photograph courtesy of Princeton University Library

Zelda and F. Scott, 1920: Photograph courtesy of Princeton University Library


EASTER, 1920 

for you, Zelda

Someone sent a lily and it made / the room smell so sweet / that first day of our honeymoon. / Lying in / bed the night before / watching you undress, / I noticed how flat and curvy / your stomach was, / just like a girl, I thought. / You disappeared under the covers / like the landscape in winter, / buried your face / between my legs and asked, / am I doing this right? / When you finished you rolled away / (pale from champagne) / and fell asleep / while I lay awake half the night, / my stomach tied up in knots / and certain that God had forsaken me.


We set up well-stocked bars: absinthe, brandy, bourbon, cognac, and seltzer delivered from Chez Jacques. On anniversaries we expected fresh cut flowers, boxes of chocolates, diamond pendant earrings, and other sweet nothings. We pulled on the skins of Rosalind (
This Side of Paradise), Sally Carrol (The Ice Palace), Gloria (The Beautiful and the Damned), Daisy (The Great Gatsby), and Nicole (Tender Is the Night). We broke expensive dishes and threw around curses. Prisoner and jailer (one and the same), we refused to give up East and West Egg. Where would we have gone anyway? Back to Montgomery and back to our mothers? (Our mothers, our mothers: sweet, controlling thrift sale lovers.)

*

This letter is also for all of those women whose love lives don't fit neatly into a New York Times Modern Love column. Confession: it was easier to love you, Zelda, from afar, one dimensional (sometimes two, like in that footage of you and Scott at Sara and Gerald Murphy's villa in Antibes). I hate to admit it but I don't think we would have gotten along. There'd been a breach of confidence in 8th grade when my girlfriends accused me of flirting with boys at the roller rink, which completely floored me since my own perceptions were otherwise. Though it may not seem like much to you, that wound lingered for many years and laid the groundwork for a lifelong distrust, fair or not, of women. Maybe I was flirting and my girlfriends had seen past my blind spot. Maybe my deeper fear was this: that we women can't fool other women as easily as we can fool men. Or maybe the conflict lessened my guilt as I soon began to choose boys over those friends.

*

We moved to Saint Paul and searched for your ghost, gave birth to girls named Scottie, Savanah Rose, and Scout. We cooked under the influence of Pinot Noir, burned the Easter ham, threw in the towel. We used words like intrigued, ghastly, cat's pajamas and bee's knees, and it was such a smashing party last night, don't you think so, darling? We built altars to Marilyn and Madonna, Clara Bow and Rihanna, stuffed our faces with macaroons, cashews, and coconut donuts. We were called jazz babies and the first American flappers. We never learned to drive or play the markets.

*

 Jody Kennedy’s maternal grandmother.

Jody Kennedy’s maternal grandmother.

Most of the girls in the Good Girl Bad Girl's Club were afraid to be mothers. We: 1) avoided pregnancy at all costs. 2) had abortions. 3) left our children to be brought up by English nannies or left them temporarily or permanently like my paternal grandmother left my infant father at the Holy Innocents Home in Portland, Maine, or we left them during our stays at psychiatric hospitals or by our suicides. Most of the girls in the Good Girl Bad Girl's Club were generally more masculine than other women. We were called lesbians, bitches, sluts, tarts, troublemakers, and witches. What we lacked in maternal warmth we made up for in hyper-sexuality and goldmine diaries. (Scott didn't like your aggressive side and you called him a fairy on Rue Palatine.)


If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I'm convinced my last life was one of a man since much of this current one has been spent identifying as a man living in a woman's body. What does it actually feel like to be a woman or a man anyway? Is it really just the difference between skirts and pants, lipstick and combat boots and/or sexual preference? (The spirit is androgynous and all the rest is show business.) Or maybe it's simply a case of what Carl Jung called animus possession? Many of the girls in the Good Girls Bad Girl's Club seemed at times overly identified with our animus i.e. our masculine shadow. And when and if we became aware of the pattern, it was on us to begin the process of integrating the feminine and masculine sides of our psyche or risk being destroyed (jails, institutions, death) by said animus.

*

We left the East Coast and sailed to Le Havre, took trains to Paris and taxis to the French Riviera. We adopted words and expressions like: chez [insert favorite restaurant here], je ne sais quoi and apéritif. We lunched at the Murphy's Villa America, got tipsy and dove from cliffs on Cap d'Antibes during evening parties at Eden Roc. On beaches in Saint-Raphaël, we swam in the sea and in between reading Wharton and James, fell in love with dashing French military pilots. 

*


My French husband and I, married then six years, left the Midwest for France again and settled into a tiny apartment on Boulevard Raymond Poincaré in Juan-les-Pins. Our building was a couple of blocks from the sea, fifteen minutes walk past Le Hemingway Bar and another five to the Villa St. Louis, now the Hôtel Belles Rives, where you and Scott spent the summer of 1926. Still a relatively new mom (our kids, two and four years old), I struggled with feelings of profound isolation and restlessness. Though deeply grateful to be able to stay home, if it hadn't been for my sobriety, English-speaking recovery meetings in Antibes and Valbonne, and nearby parks: the Jardin Pauline (across the street) and the Jardin de la Pinède, as well as the beach, I'm not so sure I would have made it. Maybe that sounds like a luxury problem when some mothers don't even have access to clean drinking water, let alone parks or the sea but none of that should discount another person's experience. We have our karma to work out and can't completely understand what it's like to be a full-time mom trying to raise two young kids in a tiny apartment on Boulevard Raymond Poincaré in Juan-les-Pins, France until we live it.


There were many things to love about the Côte d'Azur—the sea, as you remember, Zelda, the wildness of Cap d'Antibes, Pablo Picasso in the museums in Antibes and Vallauris, Matisse's Rosary Chapel, Marc Chagall's grave, and James Baldwin's presence in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Éze and old Nice, the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, the breathtaking Massif de l'Estérel, the rocky beaches in Agay, Cocteau's Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Jérusalem in Fréjus—but the traffic jams, the excess retirees, and not enough open roads and nature began to push us out.

 Cap d’Antibes, photo credit: Jody Kennedy

Cap d’Antibes, photo credit: Jody Kennedy

It's not clear how far you took the affair with that French aviator you met in Saint-Raphaël (where you were bored and lonely waiting for Scott to finish writing The Great Gatsby) though it did go far enough for you to ask for a divorce, which Scott refused and you didn't push. Why didn't you insist? Maybe part of you knew that the French aviator couldn't save you like Scott couldn't have saved you but still, you weren't quite ready to consider the possibility that in the end there is nowhere to go but within. The grass is never greener, wherever you go there you are, relationships built on mutual or exclusive drunkenness are generally doomed from the start.


(One of you needs to be courageous and leave.)

 
My husband's job at the shipyard where he'd been working on the Île Sainte-Marguerite ended and I was more than happy to leave Juan-les-Pins. From there, we moved to small hameau near Saint-Tropez where my husband had a new contract installing cabinetry in villas owned by wealthy Russians. I wasn't sure which was worse, a tiny apartment on Boulevard Raymond Poincaré in Juan-les-Pins or the upper apartment of a tiny house in the middle of vineyards and olive trees near the foothills of the Massif des Maures, a small mountain range that runs from Hyères to Fréjus.


“I hate a room without an open suitcase in it—it seems so permanent,” you said. After you and Scott married you roughly lived in: Westport, Connecticut; New York City; Paris; Saint Paul, Minnesota; Great Neck, Long Island; Paris again; Saint-Raphaël; Rome; painting classes on the island of Capri; Paris again; Juan-les-Pins; Paris; Wilmington, Delaware; Montgomery, Alabama; Baltimore, Maryland; Paris; the Clinic Malmaison (near Paris) after your first mental breakdown; Valmont Clinic in Glion, Switzerland; Les Rives de Prangins Clinic in the district of Nyon, Switzerland; Montgomery (again); Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore; Sheppard-Pratt Hospital in Towson, Maryland; Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina; and after Scott's death in 1940, you went between Montgomery and Highland Hospital where you ended up dying in that fire on March 10, 1948. You were buried next to Scott in Rockville Union Cemetery, Rockville, Maryland before both of you were moved across the street to St. Mary's Catholic Church Cemetery. (Did you ever miss not having a more traditional lifestyle? A white picket fence and a garden? A place for Scottie to call home?)


Though there were no serious conflicts in my marriage, I still struggled with a long-standing modus operandi of being attracted to and wanting to sleep with certain men who were either good-looking and/or made me laugh. My French aviator du jour turned out to be a dreadlocked French-Algerian boy who was working on a property down the road. In my imperfect French, I spoke with him about Bob Marley, Haile Selassie, and the Rastafarian community in Shashemene, the Ethiopian town where my son was born. I took extra strolls with the kids during the day and when my husband got home from work, I made excuses to leave early on my walks just to get a glimpse of him.The only thing that ever came of the affair though was me feeling incredibly desperate and foolish for having had such a serious crush on someone who was not only married (with kids, too), but almost half my age. It reminded me of those men who prefer young girls to women of their own generation and how I'd always resented that, especially being on the receiving end when I was younger unless the attention was from a man I admired. But now, since about post-thirty-five, I've clearly noticed (with mixed feelings) being passed over by that objectified gaze. Didn't you, Zelda, as Nicole Diver, in Tender Is the Night, fight with Scott i.e. Dick Diver about the same thing? Are we loved for our fresh bodies or for our beautiful minds? Can we be equals with men or will that always and forever threaten the status quo? And conversely, are we loving men for their bodies or are we loving them for their minds?Thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art,” (alas) said King Lear. 

 Zelda in Ballet Outfit: Photograph by CSU Archives / Everett

Zelda in Ballet Outfit: Photograph by CSU Archives / Everett


Saint-Tropez wasn't our style, though there was enough to like about the region—less traffic and more nature and easier for the kids and me (i.e. more space to play outside), the silence, especially at night and the stars and the mimosa trees blooming in spring, the long walks alone in the foothills of the Massif des Maures with a neighborhood dog, a lonely Jack Russell terrier I named Oscar who had taken a liking to me (the feeling was mutual), the castle ruins in the village of Grimaud, the Musée de l'Annonciade and an English-speaking recovery meeting in Saint-Tropez—it became clear though when we visited the local crèche to sign our daughter up for preschool that “St-Trop” and environs wasn't going to be our destiny. I dreamed of living in a walkable city and, like my husband, for more varied artistic and cultural offerings.


“Goofo, I'm drunk,” you said to Scott when Scottie was born. “Isn't she smart—she has the hiccups. I hope it's beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.”


Most of the girls in the Good Girls Bad Girl's Club ended up having mental breakdowns (is that the price some of us pay for trying to stay fools?). Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath died by their own hands, my maternal grandmother lived to an unhappy fifty-six, and my paternal grandmother, said to be a handful, who I never knew and whose story I'll never fully know, disappeared completely from my father's life when he was thirteen. Though I never received an official mental illness diagnosis, my moods swung from out of control to severely depressed. A culmination of small and not so small breakdowns ended with me quitting drinking at twenty-three and then another breakdown with me suicidal at eight years sober which resulted in the going off of all medication and being baptized in the Catholic Church.


“…If the person doesn't listen to the demands of his own spiritual and heart life and insists on a certain program, you're going to have a schizophrenic crack-up. The person has put himself off-center. He has aligned himself with a programmatic life and it's not the one the body's interested in at all. And the world's full of people who have stopped listening to themselves.”


On a recent vacation to Aix-les-Bains, and thinking of you, I'd planned to visit Annecy where you and Scott and Scottie spent two weeks in July 1931. Scott picked you up from Les Rives de Prangins Clinic in Switzerland and the trip would turn out to be one of happiest for both of you—so much so that you never wanted to go back Annecy and risk ruining those memories. I'd never officially been to Annecy except passing through some years back after visiting friends in Thonon-les-Bains. We ended up not going to Annecy this time either because I was afraid that in the crush of tourists and the oppressive August heat, I wouldn't be able to find you. 


There are eleven online reviews for Les Rives de Prangins Clinic, now Prangins Hospital in Switzerland. With an overall rating of 2.5 stars, half the stars are just stars and the others, with commentary, mention that some of the nurses are impatient and rude unless nothing is expected or demanded of them, the doctors are often late, and it can be difficult to get a good cup of tea. Nevertheless, the grounds are spacious and lovely with ping-pong tables, checkerboards, and beautiful views of Lake Geneva.

 Les Rives de Prangins Clinic, Switzerland:  Photograph courtesy of delcampe.net

Les Rives de Prangins Clinic, Switzerland: Photograph courtesy of delcampe.net

You had already written and published dozens of short stories and articles when you gave birth to your first novel Save Me the Waltz while a patient at Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore. Scott was furious and accused you of stealing material he'd planned for Tender Is the Night. For whatever reason, you turned the manuscript over to him to be reworked and it was published in 1932 to lukewarm reviews. The book was written well enough but I came away wanting more, some truth, something deeper or more revolutionary. Why do we write? To exorcize demons? To win a knife fight? To be seen? To prove a point? You left an unfinished manuscript titled Caesar's Things. Does it hold the key to your life, I wonder? Does it unmask what was masked? Does it render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's[1]?

*

We kissed indiscriminately, collected ostrich feather pompoms, and wore retro dresses. Our beds were our kingdoms, our insomnia, and migraines, our asylums. We hid from school, from social engagements, from proper employment, from our children, our husbands, ourselves. We clung to memories of being mothered by our mothers’ (our mothers, our mothers: sweet, controlling thrift sale lovers) chicken noodle soup and cool thermometers. We pulled the starched Martha Stewarts, the pressed vintage percales up around our ears. We offered our eyes to the ferryman who ferried us slowly back through muted childhood, watery fetalhood, pre-Eden, pre-Big Bang before we tried to manipulate and stretch and breathe life into our stuffed animals and our dolls.

*


What do you do with a girl who drinks too much? Who gets furious and calls you a spoilsport and a killjoy when you don't want to go out to the bar or have sex half the night? What do you do with a girl who's jealous of other women (even your mother), of your friends, and of your artistic creations? Who slaps and taunts you, throws knives, pots and pans, and remote controls? 


(You can take the girl out of the alcohol but you can't take the alcoholic out of the girl.) 


You had a religious conversion at the end of your life, wore black and preached Bible verses on the streets of Montgomery. I had my own Joan of Arc period some years after being baptized at the Cathedral of Saint Paul and though I wasn't aware of it at the time, it was the same church Scott had been baptized in as a baby.[2] And my apartment (#8) at 1439 Grand Avenue was just a mile or so due west from Scott's third-floor room at his parents’ house on Summit Avenue where he furiously rewrote This Side of Paradise with you in mind. And when the story was accepted for publication, you said yes to marriage and the rest is history.

 Save Me the Waltz Original Book Cover:  Photograph courtesy of Raptis Rare Books.

Save Me the Waltz Original Book Cover: Photograph courtesy of Raptis Rare Books.

“Self-portrait” (painted in watercolor during one of your hospital stays, probably in the early 1940s) was an image I just couldn't get out of my mind. There, I imagined a sublimation of self, of you and of all of us, a twisting of something beautiful into something ugly, something warm into something cold, something innocent into something evil. You had a dream of being free once, of breathing underwater, of taking the wheel, of dancing in the Russian ballet, of mothering and loving and gentleness. Is this really how the Jazz Age ends? With us trying to recapture an illusory golden epoch? When girls were girls and boys were boys, and black was black and white was white? And all of the rest of us, witches, mystics, androgynous and ambiguous stayed hidden in the shadows? Tell me, how does your brave new world look now, Mister Death?


“Down here,” you wrote a friend after Scott died, “the little garden blows remotely poetic under the voluptes of late spring skies. I have a cage of doves who sing and woo the elements and die.[3]” You were living with your mother in Montgomery then and had been given the green light to leave Highland Hospital but you chose to return, you hadn't been feeling well, you—

*

There was a great fire come down from East Egg, come down on the backs of Hestia and Chantico and lo also the lady in Ibsen's and Munch's The Lady from the Sea. We cried as we watched East Egg burn, watched Montgomery burn, watched the smoke rise up in the West as from a campfire in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains and lo from the ash we saw a dove rise and beheld in amazement Scott coming down on a cloud. Scott, Scott, Scott, Darling, Goofo, beautiful golden-haired boy and you, Miss Zelda (Everybody) falling over yourself to meet him.

*

I started this letter angry at Scott and wondering how you could have given so much and given up so much. You and Scott were so young when you met (twenty and twenty-four) and as I went back through your lives, so knotted and fused, I slowly began to understand that you and Scott were two sides of the same coin, the animus and the anima playing out its old, ancient game. So was it destiny or just common, garden-variety codependency? (Probably a little bit of both.)


Amazon created a series a few years back called Z: The Beginning of Everything based on Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. The final episode ends at you newly pregnant with Scottie and though I don't believe the series did you justice, it is a testament of just how deeply the story of you and Scott continues to resonate with us. In America, we still like to glorify flappers, but it seems to be less about writers and artists now and more about reality TV stars. I'm guessing we'll probably always be more enamored with the glamour but maybe not so much the happily ever after. Thinking of you, Zelda, and hope you are well wherever you are.

 

Love always,

Jody

 Edvard Munch, “Lady from the Sea,” 1896: Image from  Wikimedia

Edvard Munch, “Lady from the Sea,” 1896: Image from Wikimedia

[1]    Reference to Romans 13:1

[2]    The Cathedral of Saint Paul was inaugurated at its present location in 1915. Scott was baptized at the previous location on Saint Peter and Sixth Streets in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota.

[3]    Andrew Turnbull. Scott Fitzgerald, le magnifique (Robert LaFont Paris, 1964). 330.


Jody Kennedy's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, DIAGRAMTin House OnlineCutBank's Long Way From, Long Time Since and The WoodshopElectric Literatureand elsewhere. She lives in Provence, France. More at her website: jodyskennedy.wordpress.com.


Visit Jody Kennedy’s previous work at CutBank:

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Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email cutbankonline@gmail.com for more information.


Referenced in the text:

Zelda Fitzgerald. Save Me the Waltz. (Scribner, 1932). <http://fitzgerald.narod.ru/zelda/waltz1.html>

Footage File, “F. Scott Fitzgerald,” YouTube Video, 0:23, January 17, 2011: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy9vXKKPeBk?rel=0&w=560&h=315

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (Episode 1, Chapter 12). <https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Joseph_Campbell> [14 September 2018]

E.E. Cummings. “[Buffalo Bill 's]” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47244/buffalo-bill-s

Andrew Turnbull. Scott Fitzgerald, le magnifique (Robert LaFont Paris,1964). 330.



CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Sarah Aronson

Profiling Sarah Aronson 

By Emma Neslund

The first time I saw Sarah Aronson, she was holding a 12-gauge shotgun.

This was, actually, in-line with the image I already had of her. We had never met, but we were connected the moment I landed in Missoula. My first human contact, my Uber driver, raved about her. And then my first Missoulan phlebotomist, needle in hand, “You gotta meet her!”

Everyone I met was telling me about this Sarah Aronson. Also from Alaska, also a poet, also a baker. It was like entering high school in the shadow of an older sibling who had conquered the halls and graduated, a real stud with— to raise the bar even higher— her own radio talk show! High-shooting competition. I already looked up to her, and, though I knew her blood type, I didn’t even know what color hair she had. 

But, seeing her there, pumping shells out of that gun and reloading the thing, I just wanted her to be my friend. I had only ever shot nerf guns and was wide-eyed and open-armed. “Hey! Sis! How do you hold that thing? Hey, do you fly fish too? (Of course she does.) Will you take me?

Sarah— intense, playful, compassionate and badass— reminds me of home. Her favorite piece of clothing is this fake black leather jacket she got ten years ago. She actually bought two of them and hasn’t even broken into the second yet. I understand the instinct— you never know when resources will dwindle, when a storm will delay all transit and there will be a run on milk at the only Safeway in town.

If Sarah only had one last swim, it would be in a tarn, one of those freezing mountain lakes with a view of the ocean in Southeast Alaska. If she had to commit a felony, she’d chain herself to a glacier. Her go-to gas station snack is one of those cold, hard, red-delicious apples (we Alaskans aren’t snobby when it comes to produce) paired with string cheese. Sarah is the kind of person who doesn’t like it when people forget to push their chairs in. That’s rude. She doesn’t like that entitled sh*t. 

And, like I said, Sarah bakes. She is most proud of having crafted a croque-en-bouche French pastry cream-puff tower. But her favorite, go-to baked good is caramel apple pie. At the first MFA barbeque I went to, the crowd formed around this delightful green, Matcha Tea Cake. Yep. Sarah.

Sarah describes poetry as her first language, a bizarre medium that allows intimacy as well as distance. No one can pin her down. She was inspired to begin writing by an engaged elementary school teacher. Fluency came afterwards, nourished by life’s bumps. Though most at ease in poetry, nonfiction is Sarah’s more satisfying medium. Hence, her MFA a year ago in Poetry and Nonfiction.

Sarah took a trip to Juneau, Alaska last summer to research her current project, a nonfiction book about a glacier around which her childhood orbited. She compared it to Missoula’s mountainside M. Friends, family, church, education: her whole life grew around this glacier, which has now receded over a mile and a half. In the rain (because it rained the whole time she was home), Sarah touched the glacier for the first time in her life. You’ll have to read the book to find out why.

Contrasting her trip home, Sarah recently traveled into the Craters of the Moon desert. She saw my face contort when she said the word, ‘desert’—you see, desert is death for Alaskans. “I know, I know,” she said, “I had to train for it.” But she had to do it. “The desert landscape allows the eyes and heart a rest,” she quoted. Sarah Aronson bleeds back to her roots while punching forward, shooting on.


Sarah Aronson writes poetry and nonfiction from Missoula, MT. Her work can be found in the High Desert Journal, Yemassee, and the Big Sky Journal among others. She is also the host and producer of the Montana Public Radio literary program, The Write Question. Sarah Aronson is the recipient of the 2018 New American Poetry Prize for her collection, And Other Bodiless Powers

Emma Neslund is a second-year in the Poetry MFA at the University of Montana.


CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Stephanie Land

A Conversation with Stephanie Land

by Amanda Wilgus

Stephanie Land, the first local author to read for the 2nd Wind Reading Series back in September, is a powerhouse graduate of the University of Montana. I was fortunate to become familiar with Stephanie’s work in 2014, shortly after I’d moved to Los Angeles, when Stephanie’s article, “I spent 2 years cleaning houses. What I saw makes me never want to be rich,” went viral on Vox. I recognized Stephanie’s observations from domestic work, and her articles about economic justice helped me feel seen from across the country. I believe she will bring innumerable people out from invisibility by being their beacon through her forthcoming memoir, MAID.

Stephanie’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington PostThe GuardianThe Huffington Post, SalonCosmopolitan and other publications.  Her essays include “Classism in ‘Clean’ Eating,” “Minimalism, a Movement for the Elite,” “The Class Politics of Decluttering,” “Free Range Parenting is a Privilege for the Rich and White,” “A Portrait of the Artist as a Single Mom,” “It’s Easier to Have a ‘Spirited’ Child if You’re White” and “Cultural Appropriation in Kid Costumes,” as well as articles about chronic fatigue syndrome.

Stephanie was gracious enough to agree to an interview with me, conducted over email. We in the Missoula community are eagerly anticipating MAID’s arrival from Hachette Books in January 2019. 


Amanda Wilgus: I’ve read you’ve wanted to be a writer since you were 10. What inspired you then? What inspires you now?

Stephanie Land: I had a teacher that year named Mr. Birdsall who had a constant focus on getting us to write. We wrote in journals, wrote short stories, and wrote stories for classmates' birthdays. I asked for a diary for Christmas that year, and wrote almost daily into my late 20s, then the nerve damage in my arm became so bad from scoliosis I started an online journal that I published and eventually it became more of a blog. I started it because I had so much in me to write about creatively and felt I needed to share it. I discovered this online community of people who also wrote in their darkest hours, sharing their days to feel less alone. Besides it being my nature, that's why I still write. I write to share my story so someone else out there won't feel so alone. As Hannah Gadsby brilliantly said it recently, "Because what I would have done to have heard a story like mine." 


AW: How has Missoula shaped you as a person and writer? 

SL: Coming to Missoula was a bit of a returning home to how living in Alaska felt to me—a bunch of friendly folks appreciating and loving the place they live in. It's so darn friendly and huggy here! I forget that sometimes when I find myself too caught up in work or life and don't get out as much as I should. Living in a place with such a strong writing community made me unafraid to call myself a writer. I wanted to be a writer more than anything after seeing so many on stage. 


AW: Could you tell us about your experience after your Vox article about cleaning houses went viral? 

SL: I remember walking around feeling like the sky was going to fall on me. It was my first paid article, and the first time anyone had paid any real attention to something I wrote. I received so many hateful comments and emails through my website I thought for sure the whole world hated me. My skin felt raw. I thought for sure someone was going to jump out of the bushes and call me a cockroach or a vermin or spit on me. The Internet can become a scary place very quickly. Sometimes I'm thankful I went through that at the very beginning, because I'd encounter even worse comment sections over the years. But it's never fun, or good, or something I would wish on anyone. I think in some ways it still affects me heavily.


AW: What has been the most surprising aspect of acquiring a book deal?

SL: Everything about it has been surprising. I didn't think my publisher — the folks who have edited, ushered, and supported this book — would feel like family. They all line up in the front row of any event I speak at in New York with these huge smiles on their faces, just like I'd imagine a family would, and it's the greatest feeling. 

 

AW: Could you see yourself writing investigative journalism outside of your personal experience or transplanting to another location? And/or do you have anything planned after the publication of MAID?

SL: I'm a freelance writer and a teacher, and I'm still doing those things. I'll always keep writing in some way or another. This is not only my dream job, it's the only one I have ever really seen myself doing. 


AW: What advice would you give aspiring writers?

SL: Write! And read. Preferably at the same time. I have an entire shelf full of journals — there must be 30 or so — and I think that daily practice of sort of puking onto the page helped me turn writing into a natural reflex and helped me find my voice. Voice is so important and is what makes us unique. I don't think you find it unless you force yourself to talk a lot.  


“I write to share my story so someone else out there won't feel so alone.”


AW: What’s a piece of advice that’s kept you going?

SL: Well, it's a quote by Ernest Hemingway that I was never able to find proof of him actually saying. Natalie Goldberg said he did, so I went as far to get it tattooed on my arm years ago after writing it on the front page of all of my journals: "Write hard and clear about what hurts." 

 

AW: Best writing playlist? 

SL: Hm. I had a pretty specific playlist for working on the book. It had a lot of This Will Destroy You, AltJ, and Death Cab for Cutie. It changed, depending on what songs I found myself skipping over. But most of the time I write in total silence. My kids are so loud. I relish the time I get when they're both somewhere else and I have a quiet house to think in.


AW: What public assistance initiatives should we be on the lookout for in the state of Montana and federally?

SL: The Farm Bill is incredibly important to people on SNAP (food stamps). It's also important to resist any legislation that requires people receiving assistance to work. Most people in safety net programs work if they're able-bodied, but these rhetorics only further stigmas that make people perceive them as lazy. Currently they're trying to pass work requirements for Medicaid in several states, which could be deadly for some folks. If the House's Farm Bill passes, something like 1.4 million people would be immediately cut from the SNAP program, and millions of others would fail to meet the paperwork requirements. It would mean a lot of families — and something like 1 in 4 children — going hungry.

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AW: How do we talk about poverty? How do we help when we’re not in need?

SL: I think it's important to notice how people talk about the homeless or people who use food stamps. It's important to check your own judgments and look at them, because that carries over to what you say, or how you react to what other people are saying. Systemic poverty is regulated by the stigmas that surround them, and that comes from how people think and talk about those who are struggling to get by. The more universal we make their situations, and the less we separate ourselves from it ever happening to us, the more human those in need become, and hopefully the more our humanity reaches out to help.


Stephanie Land’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Vox, Salon, and many other outlets. She focuses on social and economic justice as a writing fellow through both the Center for Community Change and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her memoir, MAID, is forthcoming January 2019 through editor Krishan Trotman from Hachette Books. She lives in Missoula, Montana.

Amanda Wilgus is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana, where she serves as a fiction editor for CutBank and works as a copy editor for the University Relations department.


CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Chris La Tray

A Conversation with Chris La Tray

by Jenny Montgomery

Chris La Tray and I met a few years ago when I visited the downtown studio he was sharing with his wife, designer Julia La Tray, for a fitting prior to her epic motorcycle-themed fashion show. He sat writing and editing photos on one side of the room while she shoehorned me into a pair of French blue leather pants behind a curtain on the other side. A creative conversation began that Chris and I have continued in many coffee shops in the years since, as our lives and writing have evolved. We have kvetched and kvelled about books, art, writing, publishing, Montana history, the soul-sucking evils of capitalism, and the possibility that we might be related (by marriage) through the Lewistown La Trays. Chris is the funniest, kindest misanthrope I know and an all-around quality dude. His long-awaited book One Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays From the World at Large was released this August from Riverfeet Press. The following distills a wide-ranging chat we enjoyed recently at the Buttercup Cafe.


Jenny Montgomery: What are your earliest memories of writing?

 Chris La Tray: I started reading voraciously as a youngster, but I don't know that the notion of writing as something one did really arrived until I was in junior high. I was a Dungeons and Dragons kid, and I would prepare a lot of the adventures my friends and I put our characters through, which involved a significant amount of writing. That effort and style of storytelling overflowed into my school work. When I graduated 8th grade, I received the award for being my class's "best" reader, the physical manifestation of which was a hardback notebook of blank pages with an inscription from my teacher saying it was to help me start writing my first fantasy novel. That—writing a fantasy novel—is a dream I still entertain on occasion, especially if I read one I really like. But I don't have time to read fantasy these days, let alone write it. 

JM: What writing communities in Missoula have most encouraged you and how are local writing ecosystems important for you?

CLT: I used to write a fair amount of crime and noir fiction. My first public readings of my work were part of that community, but never in Missoula. I read at a Noir at the Bar event in St. Louis, and another one in Portland. None of that work has any connection to Missoula, and I certainly wasn't considered for the Montana Noir book that came out a year or so ago. That work feels like a different life, frankly, though I still have many friends I admire in that community all over the country whose work I enjoy and who remain supportive of the work I do today.

Thinking about the second part of your question, I think relationships are critical, and I have some good ones. I've been very moved by the support I've gotten in the wake of my book's publication from the younger crowd who are the current crop of MFA students. That was unexpected. I've gotten very involved with the Beargrass [Writing Retreat and Workshop] writers crowd and have made great friends through that organization and what they do. I've become good friends with a number of mentor figures who have already blazed the trail I'm traversing. I've also become friends with local people who are beloved internationally, and I love that. Being around people who are on fire with creativity is invigorating.

It can never be stated enough how important being a good literacy citizen is. It boils down to being supportive of other people's work and celebrating their good fortune. And, most importantly, don't be a jackass. 

“I love silence, but the relentless hum in my ears regardless of the quiet around me is a constant reminder of how much I have been affected by my love for volume as a physical sensation too.”

JM: The world of literary publishing is small, so ideas of "success" are relative. What has constituted the most important success for you with the recent publication of your book One-Sentence Journal? How have ideas of "success" and "failure" been present for you in the past as opposed to now?

CLT: The biggest success with One-Sentence Journal was just seeing it through to completion and having it out in the world. That is a huge deal to me, and the response I've gotten has filled me with gratitude. I feel like the Grinch whose heart overflows with love and explodes out of his chest, despite a personal history of cynicism and surliness. I think working at a bookstore has tempered my expectations, because it's clear to me that no matter what anyone says about marketing, about what you should or shouldn't do as a writer, most of it is bullshit and nobody knows what it takes to be "successful" when it comes to the economics of writing. How many great books go unnoticed? How many shitty books win glory? I do my best not to get caught up in that and just do the work. Finishing something is all the reward I hope for in anything. At least that's the perspective I'm aiming for. I'd love to put a book out with any number of publishers I admire, sure, but I'm not measuring my worth against it. Or even the quality of my efforts. Some days are better than others, though.

JM: Your work strikes me as zen-like in its ability to observe the mind. Your book is arranged by season and in it we get to observe transient states of rancor and delight, desire and aversion—humor plays a part in that. In what sense has writing shaped your consciousness, mental health and/or daily experience? 

CLT: As my daily practices of observation and introspection—this whole pursuit of a slower, more spiritual, contemplative life—have evolved, my writing has evolved in its wake. But there are contradictions too. More and more I seek solitude and silence whenever I possibly can, yet one of my favorite, most cathartic practices remains plugging into a wall of amplifiers with my two band mates and just blowing the roof off places. I love silence, but the relentless hum in my ears regardless of the quiet around me is a constant reminder of how much I have been affected by my love for volume as a physical sensation too. Tinnitus sucks, but I've sure had a great time earning it.

I'm never going to be the guy shy around a microphone. I try and keep my mouth shut, but when it comes time to talk, I'm never going to be the guy who has to be urged to speak up. That's the sole mission of my writing. I want to be quiet, and then BOOM. I want to knock people on their asses with the force of my love for them and for the world. 

 

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Chris La Tray is a writer, a walker, and a photographer. His freelance writing and/or photography has appeared in various regional and national publications. His first book, One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays From the World at Large was published in August by Riverfeet Press (Livingston, MT). Chris is Chippewa-Cree Métis, and is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. He lives in Missoula, MT.

Jenny Montgomery has published poetry and essays in publications such as Barrow Street, Tar River, CALYX, Unsplendid, the New York Times, and the Cairo Times. Her poetry installations have been shown at galleries in Montana and Washington. She is at work on a graphic novel about a Robin Hood-themed cerebral palsy summer camp. She is a disability advocate with ADAPT and runs Montgomery Distillery with her husband Ryan.


CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Andrew Martin

A Conversation with Andrew Martin

By Jason Bacaj

Andrew Martin visited Missoula this fall and was gracious enough to let me pull him aside for a short Q&A despite the fact that I hadn’t read his book [author’s note: now I have]. Andrew earned an MFA from the University of Montana and made the pilgrimage back to town to read from his debut novel, Early Work, at the Montana Book Festival. To help quell my anxiety over conducting an interview for which I felt wildly unprepared, Andrew and I conducted the interview over Bloody Marys at the Tamarack Brewing Company.


  Andrew Martin’s  novel   Early Work   was published in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on July 10, 2018.

Andrew Martin’s novel Early Work was published in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on July 10, 2018.

Jason Bacaj: Let’s start with your professional bio. I saw that you were an editorial assistant at the outset?

Andrew Martin: I went to Columbia in New York as an undergrad and got a job as an intern at the New York Review of Books in my last semester. An assistant there had to leave the country very abruptly, and they desperately needed someone to fill her place. So very suddenly I was spending all my time in the New York Review office as an editorial assistant to Bob Silvers, the legendary, extremely old editor of the New York Review. He’s famous, and accurately so, for being a difficult man.

 

JB: Sounds like a good place to start. What all does being an editorial assistant entail?

AM: The office was tiny. There’s basically Silvers running it as a sort of dictatorship, and a couple senior editors who do more fact checking and copy editing and broad, bigger picture stuff. Then there are four editorial assistants who do a lot of the grunt work of the magazine. He would dictate emails, so you’d have to type up his emails

 

JB: Would you sign off ‘Dictated but not read by, Bob Silvers’?

AM: (laughs) He would read them and then line edit the emails by hand. Sometimes there’d be these long editorial memos that he’d go into every detail and you’d rewrite it like ten times over the course of the day.

The really great educational part of it was that if he thought a piece wasn’t working, he’d be like, ‘This piece doesn’t make any sense, it needs more background,’ or whatever. He’d throw the manuscript at you and you’d be charged with trying to ventriloquize what his editorial acumen would be on the piece. You’d do your edit of the piece, your marginal notes, and write a memo about it for him. Then he would heavily edit your edit and completely re-write the memo. But you’d start to see the process of putting a piece together.

 

JB: It sounds like a graduate degree in itself.

AM: It really was. You just learned about so many writers. The history of the Review is so caught up in mid-century American literary history, so you’re learning about Elizabeth Hardwick and James Baldwin and Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Some of them called the office. I talked to John Updike. I did edits over the phone on the last poem he ever published; it was crazy. It was very romantic and very old fashioned. And also really hard and stressful when you’re 23 and don’t know who most of these people are.

 

JB: And you’re having to figure it out on the fly while you have some guy yelling and dictating things.

AM: Right, exactly. Do this, do this—also did you make plans for me to go to the opera tonight?—also edit this piece, also how do you not know who Gore Vidal is, you idiot?

I was there for three years, which was about all I could do. Three and a half years. It was exhausting. Silvers also famously worked seven days a week. You’d work a lot of weekends. People would come in in shifts. There was a night shift.

 

JB: Damn. How’d he have so much energy?

AM: He was amazing. I mean, Silvers really was amazing. He was in his 80s. I worked there when he was 79 to 82 and he’d work like twelve-hour days. He’d go to the theatre and come back at 10 o’clock at night and work until 3 in the morning. He had a bed in the office.

 

JB: You went from there to the University of Montana MFA program?

AM: Yeah. It was a fairly abrupt transition.

 

JB: I bet grad school unfolded at a leisurely pace after that.

AM: It was like I had all the time in the world. Time just slowed to a crawl. But I had applied to programs the year before I got into any. I applied to about ten programs, didn’t get in anywhere. And then the next year, in a weird mood, I looked up some seemingly random places. Montana’s program had an interesting reputation and history and I figured why not.

“We’re all sinners before God; I hope I’m no worse than anyone else.”

JB: Yeah, I didn’t know much about it either when I applied. Funding was the main decider for me.

AM: I determined I wasn’t going to do it if I couldn’t get funding. But I’ve had friends who’ve done it who’ve paid for it. I imagine that’s still the case here at UM—some people are funded, some aren’t. And like a bunch of my friends who were really good writers didn’t get funded and, you know, a few jackasses who weren’t very diligent did get funded. 

 

JB: Ah, yes. The start to learning how arbitrary it all is.

AM: Right? Welcome to the literary community… I’d never really been to the Mountain West before. I’d been to California like twice and I’d been to New Mexico, but I’d never been out here at all. It was something of a culture shock for me. I’d been living in New York for almost a decade, and I grew up in Jersey, so I wasn’t exactly hugely acquainted with the byways of Montana life.

I think, maybe because it was such an extreme contrast, I found it so liberating for my work and thinking about what I wanted to write about and what was interesting to me. It was instant subject matter because it was stuff I had never encountered before.

 

JB: What’d you do right after the program?

AM: I got really lucky and published my first story right out of the program in the Paris Review.

 

SERVER CHECKS IN

AM: Could I get a side of bacon? It looks too good to not get.

SERVER: YES

 

JB: That’s hitting the ground running.

AM: It was extremely lucky and great. I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia because my girlfriend was in medical school there. We had done some long distance and it was, you know, hard to do. It was just time to go there. I taught community college there in Charlottesville and at a nonprofit writing workshop. I freelanced a lot and wrote a lot of fiction. Charlottesville’s pretty cheap.

 

JB: I had my first newspaper internship over at the Charlottesville Daily Progress, actually. Interesting city.

AM: Charlottesville has its unpleasant things, and there’s a moneyed Southern attitude there. But we lived in a tiny little house for a thousand bucks a month with a tiny little yard. I didn’t have to work full time, though. I was teaching off and on, freelancing. I basically wrote most of a story collection and most of the novel there in Charlottesville. The book is very much about Charlottesville and that whole world.

 

JB: I was glad for that first question at the Q&A after the reading yesterday, about how much of Early Work reflects on familiar life experiences rather than whether the main character was actually you, thinly disguised.

AM: I think it’s an interesting way to think about things because that question assumes that your character is not you, which people often do assume. Turns out not everybody has gone to an MFA program or gotten an English degree. Which, honestly, in my world I can forget sometimes. I surround myself with academics and writers and people in PhD programs and shit. And then you’re out at a bookstore and someone’s just like ‘This seems like you did all these bad things,’ like, ‘Did you do the things? Are you bad?’

And you say, ‘No? We’re all sinners before God; I hope I’m no worse than anyone else.’ The risk of the book [Early Work] is it very much has the appearance of being autobiographical and very deliberately courts that because it’s about…

 

SERVER BRINGS SIDE OF BACON

AM: She just pulled this off the Bloody Mary stand didn’t she? ... No, it’s a little warmer.

JB: Maybe she pulled it off the bottom of the stack.

AM: My bio is similar to the guy in the book, and the guy in the book’s a total asshole. He treats his partner really badly and he treats his friends really badly. It’s sort of a self indictment, but also not an accurate portrayal, I hope, of my life. 

JB: One of the things I’m curious about with the nuts and bolts of fiction, because I’m still wrapping my mind around that… 

AM: Did you work with David Gates at all?

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JB: Yeah, he helped a lot with crystallizing in my mind what my thesis was about. Mostly I was trying to be super journalistic and then turned in the first couple pieces and he was like, ‘You know, this is a coming-of-age story’ … one of those cutting and incisive comments where it’s like, ‘Ah, dammit. You’re right.’

AM: The very first story I turned in at Montana was in Gates’ workshop. The story was called “the Dream Room.” The first thing he said was *breaks into a surprisingly good Gates impression* ‘Who here thinks “the Dream Room” has to go?’

Something like that. I was like, ‘What do you mean?’

He said, ‘Well, it’s a shitty title and the scene where it takes place doesn’t really make sense.’

‘Oh. Alright David, tell me what you really think.’

 

JB: I read a couple old interviews where you talked about how some characters in the novel flow between that and the short stories you’ve written. I was curious about how you imagine the world in which all this takes place, where characters are almost, I don’t know, for lack of a better word, interchangeable?

AM: I think because for me fiction is so much about creating a consciousness—creating particular voices or ways of thinking—that it feels natural to me to continue to use those consciousnesses that I’ve created. Because at least so far in my work I’ve explored a pretty narrow range of people and feelings, which is people in their 20s, for the most part, who are writers or artists of some kind who are like overeducated and struggling to figure out what their life is supposed to mean.

And interchangeable feels like a dirty word or a pejorative word, but, honestly, I do feel like some of my characters are almost interchangeable. They’re from the same milieu. They’re not interchangeable because they’re all individuals. But I like the idea of following a particular consciousness across different experiences of their life and different periods of their life and seeing the way different experiences affect this particular kind of consciousness.

I realize that’s kind of an autobiographical impulse on some level because I’m an overeducated neurotic writer who’s like ended up in all kinds of interesting corners of the country, and I’ve been interested to see the way this particular way of seeing the world has filtered these places. So, I think on some level I’m always kind of writing about myself but putting different names on.

 

JB: My mind immediately jumps to Kilgore Trout, the sort of constant presence and all that.

AM: I love writers who do that. I know I’ve said it before, but Bolano I know was a big influence for a lot of people. Seeing the way he reuses characters and ideas across stories and novels was really exciting to me. The feeling that there’s this interconnected web of people. 

 

JB: And it gives characters a whole life arc, which is super interesting to get into. Seeing them change and then when they’re their own beings and you put them into a situation and they react differently. That’s the whole magic bit of fiction that I don’t understand.

I’ve gotten into arguments—just fun teasing arguments, for the most part as long as we’re not too drunk—

AM: Yeah, you think it’s fun

JB: —just about writing characters and letting them guide the story versus outlining. Coming from a journalist background I tend to fall on the more structured side. Seems like most of the fiction people kind of chuckle knowingly when I make my case.

AM: It’s funny, it swings back and forth. I’m teaching these classes at a place called Grubstreet in Boston. The students are a lot of people who aren’t looking at it from an MFA point of view, but from where they want to write a novel, some want to write more commercial kinds of novels—

JB: Oh nice, I respect that.

AM: —I respect it too, but I feel like they get frustrated because I’m of the MFA school and say ‘Follow your instincts’ and ‘Create organic character out of voice,’ and they’re like ‘Tell us how to outline a plot.’ So I go through a spiel where if you were to outline a plot it would look like this or that. But really I’m winging it because I’ve never outlined a plot in my life. I make notes and go back and look at them, but it’s not really a true conflict chart or anything.

Not to say that outlining isn’t legitimate if you’ve got a piece that relies on intricate narrative. I hope to get better at story, at driving with plot, because I think at the moment it hasn’t been a priority for me as a writer. I don’t think I’m ever going to be someone who writes purely plot-based pieces, but it’d be good to harness some of those energies.

 

JB: So, to be fully honest, I haven’t read your book.

AM: That occurred to me. You don’t have to read it.

JB: No, I will. I read The Marriage Plot over the summer and it reminded me in the very broad sense of yours in that it’s a love triangle… drank too much of my Bloody Mary too fast.

AM: My book is way better than that. *laughs*

JB: *laughs* Oh, I remember. Rather than having a plot forced upon the characters where they have to navigate like a rat in a maze, their reactions guide the twists.

 AM: That’s true. I don’t know. Even though I like it as a romantic idea, I’m skeptical of the ‘Oh, the characters tell me what to do’ school. At the end of the day you’re making the decision. You’re creating a range of options and the character does what seems the most natural based on what you’ve done. But I can’t help but feel the instrumentality of writer-ness where, ‘Ah, I had the option not to kill that character.’ Let’s not pretend that there’s a force beyond us guiding this process.

“My writing is really serious. The stories and the book, I mean it all with deathly seriousness. This is my life, this is everything I’ve got.”

 

JB: I have some process questions: Where do you work and when? Is it in the morning at a coffee shop or afternoons at home at a desk or something else entirely?

AM: I’ve tried to become someone who can be adaptive and I think part of that is like having been a professional writer for my entire adult life, like you have.

Gosh, when I lived here [in Missoula] - I’ve kind of gone off the NFL - but when I lived here the 11 am start times were dangerous. Be in Red’s at 11 pounding beers. For some reason I wanted to be with the real grubby old timers, the real morning alcoholics.

JB: The career ones.

AM: I wrote a short story about it, but I couldn’t quite make it go. It was gonna be in my collection.

 

JB: Those types of bars in Montana, probably just for any rural place in general, are fun because people don’t necessarily choose to be there, to live there. They just get stuck there in their own lives be it professional or personal, and they just do weird shit all the time. It’s so interesting.

AM: I certainly did weird shit all the time. Even as part of an MFA program I felt very isolated in some ways here. My routine was to get drunk Sunday mornings at this dive bar.

JB: It feels very natural to slip into. But you were saying you were trying to be adaptive?

AM: Yes, when I’m actually in the middle of a project like a novel or deep into a short story I try to write as much as possible. I try to write every day and write for a few hours a day. I’ve had this desk that’s traveled between numerous houses where it’s like, ‘If I keep this nice desk I’m going to be someone who sits at a desk all the time.’ But instead I end up at the kitchen table or on the couch or in a cafe or something and my partner Laura works at the desk. I don’t know why, I can’t be a stare-at-the-wall, sit-in-a-chair kind of person. I’m restless and move around. 

JB: Yeah, I tend to do the same when working at home. Move around to get the blood flowing, maybe play with the dog.

AM: I feel like I paradoxically have gotten a lot more work done since I got a dog, who you have to take for a walk numerous times per day.

JB: It imposes structure on your life.

AM: It really does. It forces you to be home more. I do like working in coffee shops and bars and stuff. But if I’m being honest it’s often a procrastinating technique. It’s like you can be working but also drinking coffee or beer and listening in on conversations and checking the internet. I love Bernice’s [Bakery, in Missoula] because they don’t have WiFi, that’s where I’d go a lot.

 

JB: I’m intrigued by this desk now. Did you haul it all the way here to Montana for the program, or acquire it down in Charlottesville?

AM: We got it down in Charlottesville and now we’ve trucked it up to Boston. I think it’ll probably come wherever we go next. It’s a nice desk. It’s got really big drawers, deep drawers. I’ve got a year’s worth of papers stashed in there. I don’t have to deal with it because there’s so much room.

 

JB: How do you like to conduct research? Is there much research in your rhythm of writing?

AM: I guess not that much for fiction. I’m trying to figure out how to do it better though because the story collection that’s coming out next year or early 2020 and the novel are very much like everything I already knew, stuff about places I’ve lived, people I’ve known.

Though there’s this point in the novel where they get very stoned and watch a Michael Jackson movie, so I got stoned and watched a Michael Jackson movie. A little bit of method writing, some pharmacological research.

I want my next book to be about, at least in part about, family history. A novelistic fictional accounting of it. My mother’s side of the family is Armenian. So, I know stories my grandmother told me and I know about Armenian history a little bit, but if I was to write about that I would need to do some serious research.

 

JB: Just from listening to the excerpt you read and in reading a few reviews and whatnot, it’s abundantly clear that you use humor really well. How much of the comedy in your writing is deliberate and how much tends to be incidental?

AM: It’s intentional. I really love stand-up and people who are really funny. A hard thing about fiction is you don’t get to test your material in the same way a stand-up does. So it’s fun to read it and see which lines actually kill and which lines don’t, and it’s sometimes really surprising. Yesterday there was a line that I thought was really funny that didn’t get a peep. Then another one I didn’t think was all that funny, maybe the way I delivered it, got a big reaction.

When we talk about writing first person or incorporating your voice into a piece, for me, the way in was humor. I seem to sort of freeze up as a first-person narrator. For me, the humor is somehow a way to cut the self-seriousness that seems inherent in first person writing. I tend to descend into melodrama if I write in first person sometimes. I think self-deprecation is necessary for me in both fiction and nonfiction, so it’s kind of a deliberate attempt to create a voice I could live with on the page.

 

JB: Now I’m citing an interview I read rather than reading your book… you were asked about how the characters qualify what they’re saying before going ahead and saying it regardless. Your answer was just that that was the way your friends talk. It sounds like you use humor to similar ends, offering a bit of levity to strike the right tone.

AM: Yeah, my writing is really serious. The stories and the book, I mean it all with deathly seriousness. This is my life, this is everything I’ve got. Somehow it seems important to me to ironize it, to distance it, to feel true to my sensibility, the way I think about the world. Which is serious but also inherently skeptical and satirical because it feels like it’s not serious.

I remember I interviewed George Saunders when I was in college, when he published his first couple collections. He said to me, ‘I’d like to figure out how to unlock the sincerity cheat code’—I don’t think he used that metaphor—but he said he’d really love to develop that part of his repertoire, and he was like, ‘I really feel myself, as I get older, more in touch with that sincerity.’ Lo and behold, he writes Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo, which are the most achingly sincere books of the decade.

I like the idea of developing one’s emotional palette, but I’m definitely still early George Saunders mode, where everything needs to be cut with three degrees of irony in order for it to feel not embarrassing to me.

 

JB: It seems like one of those things that only makes sense with time. I’m so intrigued by how much time and living in a thing -- it’s not quite one of those hockey stick graphs, exponential sort of things. But the way once a lesson sinks in over the course of so many years, so many other moving parts lock into place that it almost feels like an exponential leap in your understanding.

AM: I met with some of the MFA kids yesterday morning and talked to a few of them at the readings and stuff, and had these great conversations. Still everyone looks really unhappy when I say, ‘You know, it’s going to take a while. It sucks, but it is.’ A couple people are able to break through early and publish groundbreaking novels in their 20s, and I feel very jealous of them. But like five years passed between leaving the MFA and publishing my first novel. I don’t think I could’ve done it any faster. It just took that long.

 

JB: Is the sincerity thing something you’re focusing on with future work? Aside from the short story project you already have in the hopper, of course.

AM: I’m trying to explore that in a couple of the newer stories in the collection. Stuff that’s a little bit less reflexively, I wouldn’t say cynical, but reflexively harsh or something. I really think it’d be cool as a writer to have a wider range of emotions and experience that could be covered.

I’m trying to start thinking about a new novel and trying to figure out how to do it. I think part of it for me is going to be opening it up to take on a longer time period. Most of the main action of this novel takes place over the course of a couple months with sections of flashback, but it’s a tight window of time. It’s informed by short story writing in a number of ways. I think having a wider canvas of characters and emotion and maybe just time would be a really interesting thing to do. So that’s my very vague goal.

 

JB: An appropriately vague answer for a vague question. Have you dived down any bizarre rabbit holes lately?

AM: I’ve been into Proust lately. I’ve been both listening to an audiobook of Proust and reading it.

 

JB: How’s the audiobook? I feel like it’d be really hard to follow.

AM: It is really hard to follow but also delightful. At a certain point, I realized I’m not going to get through this thing unless I also listen to it. I walk the dog, walk into town, drive, what better way to pass the time.

 

JB: Picking up the spare minutes where they come.

AM: But what’s weird is I’m listening to the original English translation, then there’s this revised translation in book form, and there’s further revised translations. I’m going down a rabbit hole of reading about all the different translations and what’s different about them. And then I’ll notice weird differences between when I’m listening and reading and try to figure out why it changed. It’s a pretty silly thing to be intrigued by.


ANDREW MARTIN's stories have appeared in The Paris ReviewZyzzyva, and Tin House's Flash Fridays series, and his non-fiction has been published by The New YorkerThe New York Review of BooksThe Washington Post, and others. Early Work is his first novel.

Jason Bacaj is a writer from West Virginia and was the Truman Capote Fellow at the University of Montana, where he is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction. He worked as a reporter for The Seattle TimesAnniston Star, and Bozeman Daily Chronicle and is a nonfiction editor of CutBank. His writing has appeared in publications such as Outside and Powder.


CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Emily H. Freeman

A Conversation with Emily H. Freeman

By Nicole Gomez

While Air Force One descended into Missoula and locals climbed hillsides to assemble signs of dissent, I sat down for a phone conversation with nonfiction writer Emily H. Freeman about life as a transplant to Montana, getting to know your neighbors, the trope of the drunk writer and the concept of radical downtime. Emily has a degree in history, earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota, and has recently moved with her family from Missoula to Dillon, Montana.

 
 Emily H. Freeman will read at 2nd Wind Reading Series on Sunday Oct. 27.  Click here for details.

Emily H. Freeman will read at 2nd Wind Reading Series on Sunday Oct. 27. Click here for details.


Nicole Gomez: Do you find having a background in history informs your writing?

Emily H. Freeman: I think it does. I started out in fiction at the MFA, but we had to take an out-of-genre class and it was then that I realized what my nonfiction peers were reading and this whole world of creative nonfiction that I hadn’t been exposed to. They had all these authors and titles that were so familiar and important to them that I’d never heard of, and I got really excited by it. I think it did connect to my historian brain, in both the searching for truth and the awareness that there is no such thing as truth. That the truth is very much dependent on who’s telling the story.


NG: Perhaps it’s the desire to follow the chain of events in history, and an awareness of cause and effect in how everything unfolded, that makes for such a connection between history and writing.

EHF: With scene as the through-line. It what makes history interesting, when a major world event is tied to a scene, so rather than a gigantic, encyclopedic take on World War II, it’s World War II told through the perspective of this particular group or this particular event. I think that’s what makes memoir today so interesting, in that we zoom into the smaller bits of life, versus the way it used to be done, which was with this overarching approach, like ‘this is the story of my whole life’ with all the important dates.

“You could spend your whole life reading and writing and learning about the culture and the history and the geography of Montana and it would be totally thrilling.”

NG: So, you’re from the suburbs of New York. How did you end up here in Montana?

EHF: We were living in Minneapolis, which is where I did my MFA, and then I had a baby and then I got pregnant again and we decided we wanted to be nearer to family. My husband’s family is in Missoula. We moved to Dillon this summer, but we were in Missoula for maybe six years. He did his undergrad there and so we had some roots in Missoula.

NG: After moving around a bit, how has coming to Montana affected your writing?

EHF: I think it’s affected me in that, when I moved here and I saw how obsessed everyone was with writing by Montanans and about Montana, and I remember thinking, what’s the big deal, it isn’t that interesting. And then there was a turning point after a few years when I was like, “This is the most interesting place in the whole country and you could spend your whole life reading and writing and learning about the culture and the history and the geography of Montana and it would be totally thrilling.”

NG: What makes it the most interesting place?

EHF: I taught a lot of adult education classes in Missoula, through the MOLLI Program and through the Lifelong Learning [Institute], and private workshops with largely older women who wanted to write memoir and write about their lives. And some of these stories that would come out were so fascinating to me. Maybe again it’s just that idea of pinning down history to a really small, specific story. You know, a woman in her 80s talking about being a little girl and having her mom teach her how to preserve eggs to be sent off to the war effort and watching the trains come through and waving at the soldiers. These little things that were like huge novels to me. These quiet, hidden stories that for some reason were just so evocative and interesting that stuck with me. Understated lives. Maybe it comes from being from a showier part of the country where everything is loud and big and competitive and show-offy. Sort of the amazing understated stories here.

NG: And from your perspective as a historian, how would you say that Montanans interpret their history. If there was a narrative that they tell about themselves, what is it?

EHF: I think that they imagine themselves to be tougher and more resilient and more resourceful than a lot of people, but I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I think some of it is epigenetic. Whatever pioneer ancestors were tough and resilient and resourceful enough to leave their home country or leave the east coast to come out here and homestead, I think there’s some of their genetic material that’s continuing to present in contemporary Montanans. And in a lot of parts of the state you need to grapple with the elements a lot. But even in Missoula there are a lot of retirees that would take my class and then go hiking and then go to a yoga class. I’m really impressed by how much life and energy they still have.

NG: Being new to Missoula, one of the things that really jumped out at me was how friendly the people are.

EHF: I think they really are. Especially in Dillon – if you’ve never been here, it’s this weird, wonderful little town, like a magical 1950’s time warp where my children can wander around by themselves and there’s no crime and everyone’s super friendly. It’s probably super politically mixed - I think we are in the minority with our politics down here - but people are so friendly, and I think it’s because it’s a pretty geographically isolated town. I am formulating this theory that maybe people are friendly out here because they have to be, because they have to depend on each other. You can’t really afford to dismiss people based on surface things like politics or religion because you might need them to dig your car out of the road in a snowstorm. It’s a friendliness born of geographic isolation that blurs the lines of politics and culture.

NG: It seems like something that’s lacking in our current discourse, with everyone self-segregating to their own bubble. The echo-chamber, right?

EHF: And I think in a lot of places you can afford to only hang out with people who share your views and not challenge yourself. So there’s something really lovely about out here. In another city you can afford to be friends with your left-leaning neighbor and ignore your conservative neighbor, but here you’re just going to have one neighbor, so you’ve got to get along. There’s something growth-inducing to have to make that work. To look for what you have in common, versus looking for what differentiates you from one another.

“You can’t really afford to dismiss people based on surface things like politics or religion because you might need them to dig your car out of the road in a snowstorm.”

NG: You seem to write about nature, like in your recent post in Brevity Blog, and about your family. What other themes interest you?

EHF: When I started writing nonfiction, I wrote about my childhood, which is what most people writing memoir in grad school usually go to, but I’ve noticed that as the years have gone by, the time period I write about becomes more and more recent. Instead of writing about things from twenty or thirty years ago, I’m writing about things from three days ago. I seem to write a lot about addiction, because that’s like a thematic through-line in my family stuff but also in my work. I work for the Missoula Writing Collaborative and teach as a writer in the schools. I was teaching up on the Flathead reservation, and in Missoula, but particularly the reservation schools were the ones that had the biggest impact on me. Dixon is a tiny town that is ravaged by opioids and drugs, and so working with these kids and watching how their lives were just wrecked by this thing, and then connecting it to my own family background and realizing the pervasiveness of this thing has become a major theme in my work. There’s lots of addiction in my family. The details differ, but the effect is the same on families and on kids. The piece that I’m going to read [at 2nd Wind Reading Series] is about an aunt of mine who overdosed last summer from opioids. There’s a weird thematic connection. I was doing all this writing about teaching these kids on the reservation and learning all these hard things about their lives, and meanwhile there’s a parallel story in my own world, which was a totally different demographic but prey to the same beast.

NG: Have you been at work for a while on the piece about your aunt, or is it a newer piece?

EHF: It’s newer. I have more finished pieces but this one feels like the most urgent thing, like something I need to be sharing and reading and working on. I want people to know about this stuff. It’s really easy if you’re removed from it to think that opioids happen to people with tough, working class lives in small, miserable towns, so to be up there and present this as someone who perhaps doesn’t look like the face of the opioid epidemic and say, “here’s something that impacted my entire family” feels urgent.

NG: Did you find that teaching helped your writing?

EHF: I think being a teacher in the classroom with students and getting to know them makes me that much more aware of and sensitive to humanity. Especially with kids, and with kids who are struggling, you take more time to see the goodness in them. Because you have to. Otherwise you’re just writing them off. And so taking the time to force yourself to find a connection with a challenging student, there’s some magic there when you do connect with them, when you get the scowling kid to finally smile. When you’re writing characters, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you want them to be nuanced and not stock characters and teaching shows you that humans really are nuanced. These kids aren’t just good kids or bad kids, they’re infinitely complex, and then you bring that same eye to any character that you’re trying to draw on the paper.

NG: Do you exclusively do nonfiction then, or do you dabble?

EHF: I exclusively do nonfiction…. I think there’s some things you can get away with in nonfiction. I often think about how when there is an unexpected thing, a coincidental moment, that in an essay is gold, but if you read the equivalent in a short story you would think, ‘oh, that couldn’t have happened.’ But life is full of little coincidences. And I find as a reader of nonfiction, I really love nonfiction written by poets because I think there’s this real attention on a word level. I’m not a big fan of memoir that just tells a story and the sentences exist only in service to the larger story. I like writing where the sentences are carefully put-together and intentional.

NG: What advice do you have for other writers? What do you draw on for inspiration?

EHF: It’s hard. When I was in grad school, I was writing, getting things published, agents were getting in touch with me. Things were really getting going and I was really feeling like I could do this. And then I got pregnant, and then we moved, and then suddenly I was a mom of two kids who rarely slept through the night. And I got really bummed out for a while and thought I’d missed my shot. And what’s been really wonderful to realize is that there’s no one moment when you have a shot at this. This is a lifelong thing. You’re never going to stop existing as a creative person. It isn’t age-specific. So I let go of feeling that urgency, like “I have to publish a book before I’m thirty, I have to publish a book before I’m forty.” And now I’m like, fuck it, if I publish a book before I’m seventy that would be awesome. Just feeling less panic about it and getting more in touch with the idea that I am a limitless creative vessel and as long as I continue to pay attention in the world, I am gathering material, and as long as I am paying attention in my relationships, I’m learning how to craft better characters. The idea that life is research, even if you’re not really hunkering down and doing it really intentionally.

NG: You’re sort of always gathering.

EHF: Yeah. And there’s other ways you can be “writing,” in quotes. This is something I’ve often said to adult students who say, “oh, I just couldn’t write,” or “I didn’t have time to write.” To expand your scope of what you consider to be writing and to include writing-related activities. That could be going to a movie and paying close attention to how a narrative arc is presented, or it could be taking a walk and thinking about how you would describe the way the rocks on the path look. Anytime you’re engaged with an attention to detail or an attention to how something creative or literary has been assembled. There’s a lot of ways we can be in touch with our creative practice each day, even if it’s not resulting in a typed page.

“I have an utter need for authenticity in my relationships.”

NG: I’ve heard advice that says a lot of writing is done away from the computer, that a lot of the story process and thinking of what you want to say and how you want to say it, can occur while you’re out for a walk or cooking.

EHF: We had this book that had to do with parenting and brain-science around kids, and there was this chapter that was called “Radical Downtime.” It was with respect to kids, making the case that kids today are too overscheduled, that we have to let our kids learn to do nothing. But I took the advice for myself, this idea that if your brain is constantly engaged in the pursuit of a specific task or goal, something will shift in your brainwaves if you let yourself have what this author calls radical downtime. It’s the place where the ideas crystallize. It’s the same idea as why you shouldn’t work out every single day without giving your muscles time to recover. That this highly engaged thinking and doing that we as Americans do twenty-four-seven is detrimental to our creative abilities.

NG: I know for myself that if I make writing a chore on a to-do list, the feeling of pressure when I sit down at the computer gets in the way of any actual good writing. I need my walks to let ideas percolate, to let my mind quiet so I can hear them.

EHF: And our brains are different on different days. Especially as women, there are just times of the month when my cycle makes me spacier. I’m not the same creative brain every morning when I wake up. So if you are someone who does well waking up every morning at six and writing for an hour, that’s great. But if you’re someone who is writing or doing creative work in the context of a messy life for whatever reason – you’re caretaking children or a sick relative or a parent or partner - you can still get work done. Don’t be hard on yourself because you can’t get up at six in the morning every morning and write for whatever reason. Find another time. Keep a notebook in your car. I have so many folded pieces of paper in pockets of jeans because at some random moment a phrase popped into my head and I grabbed a receipt and scribbled something on it. We’re such an advice-giving society right now and we’re constantly in this pursuit of perfecting every endeavor, finding the exact way to do anything. This is how Internet America is right now. And it’s important to find the shape that your writing takes for your life and what fits for you, and to be leery of books that are like, here’s how to write.

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NG: On the subject of Internet America, how do you feel about the expectation that writers have an online presence and be constantly available on social media? So many writers tend to be introspective, introverted, and I wonder about the conundrum that poses, the difficulty of trying to maintain real presence, where creative work is done, and an online presence at the same time.

EHF: It’s hard. I have an utter need for authenticity in my relationships. I have such difficulty navigating inauthentic relationships. I just don’t have those skills. I desire authenticity. It’s more than that, I need it to function. So with all of that stuff, there’s so much potential for inauthenticity and I’m not good at it. I don’t have the filters necessary to present to the world this cheery, sunshiny face if I’m not feeling it. On a personal level I sometimes wish I did, but on a societal level I think it’s very damaging this widespread, “everything’s okay” kind of thing.

NG: As a teacher, I worry about the generation that’s grown up with this expectation that everything be shared, everything be curated for presentation to the world. I find myself increasingly wanting to protect my private space and not share everything. Also, as a writer you already put so much work into sharing the words that you do choose to share, I want the rest for myself. Or I want to be quiet.

EHF: I like what you said that you choose these little moments of your life to present in your writing. I got this image in my head of one of those Easter eggs that you peer into and there’s this little world inside. An essay or a poem is like the egg, offering a little glimpse into your life presented in this small form. But if you’re offered the whole room full of decorations, like, “here’s everything!”, then why would you be interested in this little chapter I’m trying to show you? Just the way that white space on a page is so powerful. I sometimes feel like a lack of social media presence is like white space around a life, so that the interactions that do happen matter more. But I’m also really private, and maybe that comes from being a nonfiction writer. It already feels like such an exposure when I do open myself up on the page that I then need to be able to close back up very quickly. I can go be “on” when I have to and be great, but then I need to recover, then I need to come home and be quiet, and writing is a little like that. I can share my story with the world and then I need to have the world completely shut out in order to restore myself.

NG: I think that most writers and artists need that.

EHF: And that’s what I like about this town (Dillon). When we moved here, I thought, “I’m going to have more bandwidth for my creative stuff.” There’s just less to do and fewer people to talk to and there aren’t exciting things flashing in your face every moment. Obviously, cities are hubs of creative activity, so it must work for some people to be constantly surrounded by it, but I do think there’s another version of creative people who recognize that they need the down time and the quiet time. And often it’s substances that have wound up facilitating the down time, to circle back to the original conversation about addiction. Sensitive creative people have to shut things out sometimes, whether it’s by saying no to social events and having quiet time at home or through drugs. I like that we’re finally in a time when we don’t romanticize the idea of the drunk writer. I feel like we’re finally getting past that. Of course, there are still a lot of writers in MFA programs who are like, “Of course we drink while we’re workshopping!” but there are a lot of younger people who realize that’s not necessarily a part of the creative process. There’s a whole new generation of women and writers of color and generally aware people who are like, “eh, it’s not that interesting.” There are more interesting ways to disconnect.

NG: So what are you reading now?

EF: I found this tiny section at the local library of poets and essayists, so that’s where I’ve been getting books. I have a book that I’ve been reading and I’ve actually re-read it over the years, and it’s an example of a book of nonfiction written by a poet called The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere by Debra Marquart. They are essays about growing up in North Dakota, beautifully, carefully constructed essays in that way that poets write where every word is very satisfying. Now that I’m in this more rural area of Montana, I read books differently that are set against a rural backdrop because the landscape is more similar to what I’m seeing. And then I’m reading a book of Ted Kooser poems. I love them because they’re very prosy, like tiny essays, and I tend to like poems that are tiny essays. So pretty much nonfiction and poetry.


Emily H. Freeman earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota, and has taught writing at various schools, universities and nonprofits in NY, MN and MT. Emily's work has appeared in the Best New American Voices anthology, The Morning News, Lake Effect, The Spectacle, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, Brevity, and elsewhere. She lives in Dillon, MT, with her husband and two sons. 

Nicole Gomez is a writer from Texas. She worked as a reporter and columnist at the El Paso Times and is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Montana. She is a teacher with Free Verse and is co-editor of CutBank Online.


CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Stacy Szymaszek

A Q&A with Visiting Hugo Writer Stacy Szymaszek

By Tommy D’Addario

Stacy Szymaszek’s most recent book, A Year from Today, exemplifies a verse record, or a poetic diary, which documents one year of the writer’s life in stunning verse. She does not shy away from imparting details in it, chronicling everything from her passing thoughts to the day-to-day activity of a life in New York City. Stacy and I met frequently in person to discuss the book and conducted the interview via email.  


Tommy D’Addario: The more I read, the deeper I become absorbed in the details of a year in your life. How does it feel knowing that readers have access to your diary of sorts? Is there a reticence, a holding back of certain details, that comes with writing journal poetry? 

Stacy Szymaszek: I haven’t kept a proper diary since I was in high school. Writing in a book with “a lock” isn’t compelling to me - in fact I think it reminds me of profoundly desperate times when I had no one to talk to or listen to me. This book was conceived of as a book, a book I knew would be published. I naturally developed an idiom to write these journal books, a sense of what types of information I share and don’t share, so the editing could happen in the brain more than on the page. But one of the risks I wanted to take in this book, and Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals, is to include as much of myself as I could tolerate – and have it work formally and melodically.

TD: The presence of religion is threaded throughout the book, sometimes as imagery, other times appearing as an influence on worldview. The speaker repeatedly seeks her “Mystical Experience,” finds herself at bookstores to “haunt the religion section,” and states, “I’ll always go mystical / St. Francis over Hitchcock.” At one point, the speaker says, “I could read martyr stories all night / what a charge // “women who gave their lives for the church” // in an everyday theology.” In what ways do you find religion influencing your poetry, and how does one find this Mystical Experience? 

SS: I think modes of self-discovery have influenced me even before I knew what poetry was. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic grade school. I hated its authoritarianism, and by no means did I escape the notion that I might go to hell. The pressure to conform was so extreme. And I couldn’t really pass, though I tried at times, in order to give myself a break. Very draining. I didn’t have the language to talk about my difference. It was just in the air like an open secret everyone wanted to go away. I started reading self-help books when I was a young teen - I think psychology and the experience of years of therapy are a mode, an influence too. To answer your question, poetry is religious and devotional for me. And mystical. I’m defining a mystical experience as an altered state of consciousness where you come out of it knowing something new. Often for me it is actually seeing something new. So writing poems can sometimes alter me. I’ve had some sexual experiences that have. Now, as I’m spending time in the mountains of Missoula, I can feel the potential for reaching an altered state up there. I think an abundance of time alone is beneficial, where time starts to break down. Writing poems breaks down time.  I’m inspired by Christian writers like Thomas Merton and the mystics who embody and value dignity, grace, passion, and unconditional love. As you can tell from the reading we do in class, I’m also influenced by Zen Buddhism and how it has manifested in the US in the work of poets like Kyger, Whalen, Ginsberg and Waldman. I need various paths to follow simultaneously. I’m not the convert type.

“Poetry is religious and devotional for me. And mystical. I’m defining a mystical experience as an altered state of consciousness where you come out of it knowing something new.”

TD: This project covers the span of an entire year. Why did you decide to omit dates from the journal? 

SS: That’s such a good question!  Honestly, it never occurred to me to use dates, so it wasn’t a decision to omit. I must have wanted to think of it simply in terms of 365 days. That was the only marker of time that felt relevant. 

TD: Though there aren’t exactly 365 “sections” in the book (I know, I counted). Surely some of the content of multiple days elided into a single section here and there? If that’s the case, did content from all 365 days eventually find its way into the book in one form or another? Or, were some of the days of your life left unmentioned? 

SS: Ha! How many are there? 

TD: I counted 133 sections, but I’d leave a small margin (plus or minus a few) for error. 

SS: Let me clarify that A Year From Today meant literally that. I would write for a year from the day I started. I didn’t write every day. Many days elide into one section, and many days are left unmentioned. It wasn’t that exacting. I did employ dates in Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals, but this book wanted to be a rolling cloud of time. I guess it could be any year, any day - the particulars change but I am still me, navigating the cards I was dealt.

TD: Often the speaker approaches the text as an opportunity to defend poetry’s function in our world, despite the fact that “there is nothing harder to raise money for than poetry,” and “there are always plenty who will say it’s dead.” How do you maintain hope for poetry’s continued relevance in spite of these views? 

SS: Hope can feel so passive, but I have it because I keep doing it, writing against the odds (exhaustion, lack of time, anxiety…)  and there are so many poets I admire who keep writing interesting and exciting work that challenges the status quo. I surround myself with those people. And my sense of lineage, which includes an understanding of history as well as the importance and particularity of the present, helps me feel like I have a place within it. What do you think as a young person pursuing the study of poetry?

TD: I know there are plenty who say poetry is dead, but I just don’t believe it. The fact that you and I are discussing poetry now says something. I also believe the poem propagates itself. I read your book and it inspires me to create my own poems. This poetic spirit multiplies exponentially through the world: there are always people who will connect with a poem they read and want to turn that feeling into creation; there are always people who will want to study poetry, despite the awareness that they won’t be able to financially support themselves on writing poetry alone. I also think it’s crucial to poetry’s survival that it adapts through evolution, much like a biological species. A Year from Today is a perfect example of this. Your book is unlike other books of poetry I know, as it formally challenges the conventions of the genre through its journal-in-verse approach. As long as poets continue to innovate and explore the possibilities of verse, and as long as readers find these books in their hands, the art of poetry cannot be dead. 

SS: I want to add that people also continue to read poetry.  The NEA figure on adult readers of poetry in this country is 12%, which is up from 7% in 2012.  I’ll also add that I’ve been running really successful reading series (dynamic audiences and poets) for most of the past 20 years, so I’ve had no cause to ever question the life of poetry or its relevance. I agree with what you’re saying about connection leading to creation. I’m so happy that you’re spending time with my book. I believe that my own work must evolve and adapt. Similar to running The Poetry Project - I had to make sure the organization stayed nimble enough to respond to the times, feel relevant to young people who were discovering it, as well as the elders who founded it and have supported it for decades. I abide by the idea that you have to let the language lead you, and if you do that, you end up in surprising and very lively places. 

“I feel like I am part of a lineage. To me, this means that I’m an active poet among others I feel connected to aesthetically and/or emotionally, and I am interested in the history of poetry, and what needs to be passed on through me.”

TD: You mentioned your poetic lineage, which I find fascinating. Here’s a big question: What is a poetic lineage, why might this be important, and how do you describe your own? 

SS: The way I think about poetic lineage as a concept has been greatly influenced by the poet and also former director of The Poetry Project, Anne Waldman.  And through her informal mentorship it has been more than a concept for me - I feel like I am part of a lineage. To me, this means that I’m an active poet among others I feel connected to aesthetically and/or emotionally, and I am interested in the history of poetry, and what needs to be passed on through me.It’s a mode of awareness. I think modes of awareness are important and knowing one’s history is crucial. Some really evil-headed shit capitalizes on people’s collective amnesia. Anne says in one of her essays - imagine you are not alone. It’s only this vocation that has ever provided that sense of company for me and I think many others feel this way. I don’t really describe my own lineage in a particular way, though I will say I worship at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church.  

TD: You’ve just touched on so many interesting points! I’d like to dig deeper into these modes of awareness. What, in the history of poetry, do you need to pass on? It sounds like we’re talking about a sense of responsibility that comes with writing poetry. 

SS: I carry the responsibility of poetry in a very specific way. It’s the responsibility to maintain the ability to respond, to create work and form relationships from that place. It’s a determination toward care. It doesn’t carry the pressure of being responsible for the fiscal health of an organization, but that said, I always think of something Robert Creeley wrote in “Philip Guston: A Note.” “Care, it seems, comes from several words, among them the Anglo-Saxon caru, cearu(anxiety) and the Old Saxon kara(sorrow).” I’ve been chewing on this one for many years!  In my role as cultural worker, I make space for poetry. Being an educator is part of that, and as you know from our seminar, I have a strong interest in the long poem, time-constrained writing, form/ lineation… but my interests don’t matter as much as the fact that I’m creating a supportive space for you to figure out what you think through discussing and responding to work that is new to you and is hopefully opening up new pathways in your brain for your own writing! 

TD: One of my favorite moments in the text: “my grandma says I got my talent from her [...] she just started writing poems / and says they are better than mine / because people can understand them.” What’s the story behind this one?  

SS: Ha! Well, that’s the scoop. My mother gave her one of my books to read and of course she had no way in. Like many people, she wants poems to be accessible. I adore my grandmother and I was moved that she said this. It touches the sense of lineage as ancestry. She’s mine. And I’m hers. She thinks her poems are better than mine. She’s a diva!In fact, she had a beautiful voice and wanted to study opera when she was young but was forbidden. She was also forbidden to marry the man she loved because he was Irish, and she Sicilian. She always told me to free myself. We have a very interesting relationship. She’s very Catholic and I’m very gay but she makes her peace with it because, I suspect, she sees herself in me. One of my favorite things about her is that, for the past 25 years, when I say goodbye to her, she says “this is the last time we’ll see each other.” She’s 98 and has just been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, so when she said it in August, I thought, oh she might be right this time.

TD: I’m sorry to hear about her health. She sounds like a beautiful person! It’s great that she can reconcile her faith with your sexuality since so many people find tension in that. That tension runs throughout your book, too, and it seems to conflict with others and yourself. You write, “I live a circumspect life in some ways [...] direct / effect of homophobes obscured” and “maybe it’s longevity that gives me / anxiety [...] what if I live 50 more years [...] no country / for old dykes.” Such poignant lines. And again, while getting a haircut: “I told the stylist / make it more gay / more important to distinguish / these things because let’s face / it we fall in and out / of favor [...] hatred repeats itself / a pleasure system as Sarah says / of homophobia”. What does this “pleasure system” mean? 

SS: The Sarah in the poem is Sarah Schulman and she talks about homophobia as a pleasure system in her book Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences. She says “...homophobes enjoy feeling superior, rely on the pleasure of enacting their superiority, and go out of their way to resist change that would deflate their sense of supremacy.” So she proposes that it’s actually a source of enjoyment for them, not a phobia. Sick pleasure, I’d say. That moment in the poem where I want to look more gay is a refusal to assimilate and a refusal of the notion that just because gay marriage is legal, equal human rights have been achieved. That right, like any, can be taken away depending on the political reality of the time. Like many LGBTQ people, I went to NYC to experience meaningful difference between myself and other people, to find others like me, and to feel safe. The poetry world provided that for me to such an extent that when I am confronted with homophobia now I am taken aback. When I wrote “effect of homophobes obscured” I’m saying it’s not such a great thing to have obscured because we live in a homophobic society and its trash heap is always stirring the psyche. It’s a note to myself to not lose that awareness.  

“I let most of the discomfort in.”

TD: Which brings us full circle to our modes of awareness, only this is a different mode of awareness: of one’s body, of one’s safety, of our psychological, political, cultural situation. How does poetry help you explore these modes? 

SS: It was evident to me shortly after I started writing books that included documents of walking in New York City that one of the implicit challenges to me was to change my mode of awareness. My baseline awareness is like a radar monitoring how close people get to me or if anyone is moving erratically. Very lizard brain, a little dissociated, lost in my thoughts - ironically. I essentially was raised to believe that I was in danger because of my gender and sexuality. Not untrue, but it wasn’t balanced with anything positive. It was very “no future” and I really did spend my 20s living like I didn’t have a future. When I turned twenty-nine, I was like oh, this could go on longer than I thought. Then, I got my first literary nonprofit job. Genet said something about writing being what made him a person in the world. Writing gave me a positive relationship to the public, made me less internal. So when I was walking in New York - this would be ten plus years later - I had to recognize my default mode and discipline myself to notice the flowers. I also just started including whenever I felt like I was experiencing a micro-aggression or whenever I felt like I was becoming self-conscious, or whenever a memory came in - I let most of the discomfort in. I learned to make work that was emotional and outward in gesture, which felt and continues to feel important to me. 

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Stacy Szymaszek is a poet and an arts administrator/organizer. She is the author of the books Emptied of All ShipsHyperglossiahart island, and Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals (2016), which won the Ottoline Prize from Fence Books. She is a regular teacher for Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program and mentor for Queer Art Mentorship. She was, until very recently, the Executive Director of The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. She is currently the University of Montana Creative Writing Program’s Visiting Hugo Writer. 

Tommy D'Addario was born in Detroit, Michigan, and has lived on both of the Mitten's coasts. He has worked as a barista, a university writing instructor, and a chef on a ranch in Wyoming. He's a second-year poet in the MFA program at the University of Montana. His work has appeared in Columbia Journal, Southern Indiana Review, and RHINO Poetry.