CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Sarah Aswell

A Conversation with Sarah Aswell 

by Miranda Morgan

Sarah Aswell writes for  The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Scary Mommy, MAD Magazine , and  Reductress .

Sarah Aswell writes for The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Scary Mommy, MAD Magazine, and Reductress.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of sharing a cup of tea and conversation with local writer, comedian, and University of Montana MFA graduate, Sarah Aswell. After seeing Sarah perform stand-up as Mother Theresa and fangirling over her impeccable timing and deadpan delivery, I knew I had to meet her. We talked about life after an MFA program, fostering fake confidence, fire trucks, the relationship between stand-up and writing, and what the stand-up comedy scene needs now. 


Miranda Morgan: Did you write humorous pieces when you were at the University of Montana’s MFA program? From my experience, humor writing seems to be punished in MFA programs—what are your thoughts? 

Sarah Aswell: It does! Since I was a kid, I’ve liked writing funny stuff. When I was 10, I would write these fake newspapers, like the Onion, except for 10-year-olds. In college, I had a humor column. It was kind of inspired by Dave Barry who was a humor writer in the 80s and 90s. When I went to graduate school though, I felt like I had to be serious. Not only was this a serious commitment I was making to my writing career (it was really expensive because I didn’t have a teaching assistantship) but the atmosphere was much more serious as well. So, I tried to be a serious fiction writer, and it didn’t go well. Have you ever done something you thought you wanted to do, but as soon as you started doing it, you realized it wasn’t for you? It’s like your whole spirit rebels against it. You don’t try as hard, you kind of hurt yourself. Some of my stories were funny, but they weren’t very good. 

I kind of discovered I wasn’t a great fiction writer in the MFA program which was a tough lesson to learn. I’d get feedback on my stories that would say, “This story would be stronger if you eliminated the talking parrot,” and I’d be like, “No! The talking parrot was the only part I liked about it!” I took an experimental writing class with Kevin Canty where we could have a lot more fun and be surreal—that’s when I really enjoyed writing. I think all of the pieces I’ve done for the New Yorker have directly been inspired by that class. These flights of fancy, just thinking about things in the abstract—like, “Oh, I’m going to write from the point of view of a knife.” And it’s okay! Because in humor it’s okay to be silly or weird. It’s not judged that way. 

 

MM: I wrote a piece about a really bad Tinder date I went on in LA, and it was totally destroyed in workshop because everyone was like, “Well, what’s the larger commentary? This should say something about dating culture, what’s the significance here?” I just wanted it to be a funny thing. 

SA: I want to say two things about that. I feel like women are often told two separate things that are contradictions. First, women are told to just lighten up. “Why don’t you smile more? Why are you so serious?” We’re punished for being serious, and at the same time, if we’re goofy or silly, we’re told, “Well, that’s meaningless, that doesn’t have value.” We’re told we don’t have value whether or not we’re trying to be funny. It sucks. I also want to argue that humor writing can be super serious and super important. There are a couple of women doing that right now. Alexandria Petri has a humor column in the Washington Post and she’s extremely funny, but since the current administration came in in 2016, she’s written some really funny political commentary that also makes you cry. She had a piece two days ago about Brett Kavanaugh, “Some Interpersonal Verbs, Conjugated by Gender”. It shows that humor can do heavy lifting. A lot of my stuff is just silly, and that’s okay. We should have an escape. I give you permission to write that piece. 

“Women are told to just lighten up. ‘Why don’t you smile more? Why are you so serious?’ We’re punished for being serious, and at the same time, if we’re goofy or silly, we’re told, ‘Well, that’s meaningless, that doesn’t have value.’ We’re told we don’t have value whether or not we’re trying to be funny.”

 

MM: Thank you. Do you think humor writing has limitations? Or perhaps it’s able to access subject matter in a more direct and unflinching way because of the guise of humor? 

SA: I think humor helps us. Going back to politics, if you look at social media or just the Thanksgiving day table, it seems so impossible to change people’s minds today. People get really upset really quickly; they get really tense, and you can see their minds closing. I’m talking about both conservative and liberal people. I think humor, especially stand-up comedy, can pry some of those doors open in a way that other forms of expression can’t. I don’t know if you saw Nanette, the Netflix special, but one of the things that Hannah Gadsby talks about is how half of the function of humor is making people uncomfortable, then releasing that tension and making them comfortable again. That release produces laughter. I think stand-ups have the tools and the abilities to do it right—to create that tension, and sometimes it can be a political tension, or just an uncomfortableness, and then release that. And through that release, if you’re doing the best stand-up that you can, comes a moment where we see everybody as human and everything is okay. It can also just make you think. 

I’m probably seen as someone in the community who gets offended at a lot of things. They’re like, “Oh, Sarah didn’t like that stand-up,” and I think that’s because they’re doing it wrong. They’re not creating tension in the right way and then releasing it in the right way. Lots of comics, especially non-funny ones, just rely on shock—shock laughter or uncomfortable laughter. You don’t want uncomfortable laughter. You want the laughter that comes from the release of discomfort. If you don’t have a lot of jokes, the laughter might be coming from a place of “Get me out of here.” A kind of laughter many women are familiar with—on a Tinder date perhaps. 

 

MM: Oh yeah, so much uncomfortable giggling happened. 

SA: Nobody said, “I went to a comedy show last night and had a great time laughing uncomfortably.” It’s not good comedy, and I’m going to continue to be critical about that. 

 

MM: What was it like getting into the comedy community in Missoula? 

SA: It was awesome. Missoula is a special place. When I’ve traveled for comedy, it’s been really different. Missoula has a really welcoming community and a ton of writers in the community as well. Two of the other women I do comedy with, Becky Margolis and Keema Waterfield, are both MFA graduates. I think there’s a strong connection between writing and stand-up. It’s ever-changing. Right now, my big push it to get more women in the community—and it’s been working! I just celebrated the first anniversary of my comedy writer’s workshop (6 PM, the last Wednesday of every month at the Badlander.) We did a birthday bash and had 14 female comedians get on stage, some of them for the first time, others who’d been doing it for five or six years. It’s just getting better and better. 

 

MM: Have you done comedy outside of Montana? 

SA: Yeah, I’ve done a little teeny tiny bit. It’s very different, less intimate. I did the Big Sky Comedy Festival last year—national comedians come together for a week to do comedy in Billings. It was really hard to be small fish in a big pond and see some of the issues that affect comedy on the national scene as far as sexism, racism, amd homophobia. 

 

MM: I want to circle back to the relationship between writing and stand-up. Do you think they feed each other? 

SA: Yes! It’s so great. A lot of comedians have techniques for creating that I can use for writing and vice versa. Writers use prompts and ways of creating that comedians don’t necessarily know about, so I love mixing and matching those sorts of activities. For example, comedians will often record into their phones and talk or rant their ideas. I think that’s something writers basically never do. Different things come out of your mouth when you’re talking than out of your pen or your typing fingers. Bouncing back and forth between writing and talking is good. It’s also a really different process writing for the stage versus writing a humor piece for a publication. The same jokes don’t work both places. They have to be pretty precise. For a long time in stand-up, I told jokes like I would write and it didn’t go as well. 

 

MM: The jokes have to be more precise in stand-up or in writing? 

SA: Precise in different ways. Like in stand-up, you want people to laugh every 15-20 seconds. To do that, you have to boil down your joke into as few words as possible so you can get to the punch line quickly. You have to assume the audience knows a lot of stuff, and then just leave all of those things out of your joke. With writing, you have more time. You also don’t have your body or voice when you’re writing so you have to explain a lot more. 

 

MM: Was it like actually using your physicality in your art?

SA: One of the big differences between comedy writing and stand-up is that the only reason you get better at stand-up is by doing it. It’s an art that you practice in the moment that it’s being created. You don’t go to a theater and watch a painter create a painting. That would be super weird (actually, that sounds cool). With stand-up though, you’re making it in front of an audience every time. That’s where all of your lessons are learned. It’s really about getting on stage and bombing over and over again. Painful, painful lessons. Whereas with writing, I’m going to show a piece to my partner and see what he thinks. I’m going to show it to my writing group next, and then I’ll give it to an editor who will fix it, and then it will be published. There’s much more of a tiptoe process happening that you don’t get with stand up. 

 

MM: After you graduated from the MFA program—what did you do? What does it look like? 

SA: That’s a great question. So, after [graduation], I thought, “I’m not great at fiction writing, there’s a lot of people better than me at it, I’m going to go to NYC to be an editor in a high rise and edit novels.” It was just the worst idea. The way I tell people about it now, I say that I liked driving firetrucks so I thought I wanted to work in a firetruck factory. Not the same thing. Me and my partner moved to New York City right after graduation, and I got a job as an assistant editor at a [Penguin-owned] textbook publishing company. It was probably the most depressing two years of my life. It was really bad. Looking back, I’m like “Oh my god, I could have been going to open mics, I could have been writing packets for late night shows.” I just didn’t know I liked doing that stuff at that point. Instead, I was really miserable. I also don’t like living in the city. I need to be able to get out and away from people, noise, and lights on a regular basis. During that time, in my cubicle, while doing busy work, I started freelancing. As I got more and more freelance clients, I got worse at my job. Finally, I just said, “I have to go for this,” and I launched my freelance company in 2008. I started that February and by the summertime, Ben and I had enough work to live anywhere. We drove back to Missoula and we’ve been freelancing ever since. 

 

MM: How did you start getting freelance clients? 

SA: I read a book called, “The Well-Fed Writer” [by Peter Bowerman]. It’s probably pretty out-of-date now. I think it was published in the late nineties probably, but it was about how to start a freelance business basically and I just did every single thing that he said to do. A lot of it was cold calling, which was calling up companies and just being like, “Hi, do you need a writer?” 95% of the time they’re like, “Fuck off.” And then 5% of the time, they’re like, “We totally need a writer.” That’s how I did it. I fell into writing for personal injury attorneys which is funny. I still write for a couple—“If you or a loved one have been in a roller coaster accident, you need to talk to me today!” I paid off all my student loans that way, had time to write my own stuff and slowly transitioned into writing more of my own stuff.  

 

MM: I worked in the film industry in LA and I did sort of the same thing where I was like, “Oh well, I want to write, so I’m going to get a job in a creative industry.” I was so miserable because I was just reading shitty scripts all day and writing coverage of them. 

SA: What did that do to your creative process? 

 

MM: I didn’t want to write anything.

SA: Me neither. I didn’t write for almost two years. 

 

MM: It was so draining. Plus the culture is so toxic. 

SA: Yes. I found the same thing in NYC. You know, a lot of people are like, “How are you a writer or comedian if you don’t live in LA or NYC?” I think it’s a nice little secret that you can do new and fresh stuff away from those cultures. I interviewed Jane Smiley for the Montana Book Festival last year, and she said the same thing. She lived in Iowa City for many years and had a little group of writer friends there. It was like an island away from all the swirl of cutthroat, bad people. And even the good people! It’s just stressful. People are all doing the same thing or trying to copy the one hot writer. We have none of that. We can develop freely which is what I like about the comedy scene, too. I think the writing scene is the same here, too. 

 

MM: I realized that just being in a creative industry isn’t going to fulfill the fact that I want to write. 

SA: You were in a firetruck factory. But you’re a firetruck driver. It’s a hard lesson to learn. 

“The political act isn’t within the art, but in the creation and distribution of the art and in the encouragement of others.”

 

MM: What kind of material in either stand up or writing feels really urgent for you right now?

SA: That’s a really good and tough question. I don’t talk about politics or issues in my writing very much, and I think about that a lot. I even took a class online through Second City recently where I tried to learn how to do it because I think it’s important. And through the class, I was like, “Oh my god, I’m not a satire writer.” That’s not the type of humor that I write. I don’t write very good commentary on hot topics. But then I was talking to my friend Becky Margolis [UM MFA alumnus and comedian] and we were actually getting interviewed by the Missoulian about a show we were doing. The interviewer was asking us if our material was feminist. Becky said, “I consider anytime I step on stage an act of feminism,” and I was like, that’s right! That’s what I’m trying to say. I think by speaking, by creating, is how I’m responding to a lot of the issues I find important outside of my art. Just being visible and helping productions happen around town, helping writers get heard around town, doing things on a local level—running my women’s comedy workshop which is totally free, is a way for me to speak out. And not only speak out, but I want to change the culture. I do have these important issues but when I write, I’m writing about silly surreal things that don’t make sense, like mean ducks. I’m doing stand-up jokes about bagels and mimes—it's not like I’m making super important points. It’s like your Tinder story—it’s just funny. I hope it connects us with one another, though. I hope I point out human truths. I hope I’m saying true things, things that make people say, “Oh, that’s me. I get that.” And make people laugh! Oh my god, I just want to make people laugh. So for me, the political act isn’t within the art, but in the creation and distribution of the art and in the encouragement of others. Stepping on stage is an act of feminism. It’s the stepping on stage that can be metaphorical. 

 

MM: I know that you’ve been vocal about the allegations against Louis C.K. and the treatment of his case. What do we now [in light of the #metoo movement]? Where do we go from here? 

SA: I think it really is about changing the culture. The point about Louis C.K. has continued to be about how he’s not the problem—he’s a symptom. The way we’ve responded to Louis C.K. shows the problem in the stand-up community but also in the arts community. He got a standing ovation when he returned [to the Comedy Cellar in New York City]—why did that happen? We know the answer. It was mostly men in the audience. The women who were in the audience didn’t feel comfortable standing up for themselves in that environment. The owner of the club is a man. The promoter is a woman but was listening to her boss. She could have stood up and done something too, but it’s also a power thing. He went in there with no notice and said, “I want to go on [stage] tonight.” Are you going to say no to that powerful man? I really think the answer is getting more women, people of color, and queer people on stage. Stand-up is about telling your story. Right now, so many of the stories we hear are the straight white male story. We’ve only scratched the surface of what stand-up could be if more women, people of color, and queer people were up there. I think Nanette is a great example of what it could be. And a lot of men said that’s not stand-up comedy. Why did they say that? They said it because they don’t identify with it. Stand-up comedy is a lot about identity. A lot of women watched that and were like, “This is stand-up comedy that I like for the first time.” It’s just a different type of stand-up comedy. 

 

MM: Maybe we don’t know what female stand-up comedy even looks like! 

SA: We don’t! We’ve scratched the surface. There have been tons of great female stand-up comedians. But, you know, I went to a stand-up show in Missoula last weekend, a tour from out of town, three straight white males were the whole line-up, telling the same stories about their dicks. They were funny but my story wasn’t told that night. Literature has suffered from the same problems forever. They’re just kind of in a different place—slightly different. What’s that project? They evaluate all the different literary journals to see how many women are in each issue. (The 2017 Vida Count) It’s a really cool project. It’s shedding light on how off-balance things can be and what voices are actually heard. 

 

MM: For us MFA students who are graduating this year, what words of wisdom or advice do you have? 

SA: This is the biggest cliché of them all, but I would say to know what you’re passionate about and what you’re good at—that’s the thing you’re going to succeed in. I tried to do things I thought might help me pay off my student loans or help me have status or have a career. My career came out of doing the thing that I actually liked. I started having success when I decided to just screw it and started writing silly things. 

“I’m going to submit to editors and act like they’re my friends— ‘Hey Bob! Got a piece for you.’ Again, it doesn’t work all the time, but it works sometimes. That’s all you need. You just need sometimes.”

 

MM: That’s great. I love that advice! 

SA: My other advice is to—and this is specifically towards women—have confidence. I so wish I had the confidence ten years ago when I graduated that I have now. A lot of it is made-up confidence, but made-up confidence is just as good as real confidence. It works the same way. It’s like a synthetic version that’s 100% exactly the same. I read this article in The Atlantic about confidence and women and it was so eye-opening (A Lack of Confidence Isn't What's Holding Back Working Women). One of the statistics was about how men will apply for jobs even if they don’t have 70% of the qualifications, whereas women won’t apply for jobs if they’re lacking one single qualification. We just won’t do it. That really helped me when I was submitting my writing. I just thought, “I’m going to start submitting wherever I want.” I’m going to submit to editors and act like they’re my friends—“Hey Bob! Got a piece for you.” Again, it doesn’t work all the time, but it works sometimes. That’s all you need. You just need sometimes. Just take risks like that. Now, I look up editors all the time. I stalk them on Twitter. I guess their email addresses. Just throw yourself out there. 

I didn’t start stand-up until a friend dared me to. I had to be dared. I didn’t do it myself, and it can be a point of shame for me, but it also taught me to dare myself to do things more. This is a piece of advice from my dad: he always told me growing up, “Make them say no.” What “make them say no” means is that there’s no harm in asking for things if the worst thing you’re going to get is a “no.” Go ahead, ask and see. You’re going to get “no” a lot. Maybe that’s something I learned from cold-calling, too. You hear “no” over and over again until it doesn’t even feel like anything anymore. 

 

MM: Exposure therapy! 

SA: I’m in a Facebook group where we share with each other whenever we get rejected from something and we treat it like an accomplishment. We say, “I got rejected from The New York Times today and everyone is like, ‘Great job!’” Just be confident, get out there. Men don’t need that lesson. 

 

MM: No, they really don’t. 

SA: They need the opposite of that lesson. 

 

MM: Right. Come down a little bit. 

SA: Email your favorite writer! Tell them they’re your favorite writer. You’d be so surprised at what you get back. Reach out to people. You might get rejected. It’s okay. Hooray! 

 

MM: Do you think you have to leave Missoula to have a writing life here?

SA: No, I don’t. I do think you have to leave your house. You have to have experiences. One of the writers I had at Montana, Brady Udall, said if you write at your kitchen table all day, all you can do is write stories about your kitchen table. I think writers have a tendency to stay at their kitchen table so maybe resist that. I don’t think you can just be a writer. You have to be a writer and a something else. If you look at all of the best writers in history, they usually did something else, too. Have hobbies, have jobs, go do things. Have other passions. You can do that from Missoula, totally easily. Look at Walden—he sat next to a pond. That’s it. Literally it. Whatever you do, make sure you have the energy to create. Don’t lose that. 


Sarah Aswell is a graduate of the University of Montana’s MFA program and writes for places like The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Scary Mommy, MAD Magazine, and Reductress. She lives in Missoula, Montana with her family. 

Miranda Morgan is an MFA candidate in nonfiction, a writing instructor at the University of Montana, and current nonfiction editor at CutBank. She was born in Santa Fe, NM, and completed her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She’s worked in film development in LA and Austin.  

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: David James Duncan

Lessons in Craft with David James Duncan

by Amelia Morand

Photo credit: Chris La Tray

Photo credit: Chris La Tray

Amelia Morand: After you agreed to do this interview, I bought a copy of your first novel, The River Why, and read it over the holidays. This was my first encounter with your work, and I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner. Not only is it a beautiful novel, but the longer I live in Montana, the closer I feel to its literary canon, which your books are very much a part of. What do you think sets Montana writing apart? What does it mean to be a Montana writer?

David James Duncan: I’m a fourth generation Montanan. But I was raised in Oregon and when The River Why was written, I had spent no time here.  When I conceived the book, there was no such thing as “a fly-fishing novel.” There was one such novella: Norman Maclean’s 1976 masterpiece, A River Runs Through It. I hope it’s encouraging to you to know that A River Runs Through It andThe River Why were both rejected by every major publisher in the country. Twenty-five of them in my case. Maclean was finally published by his own university, and I was finally published when Sierra Club chose to make TRW their first work of fiction. Maclean and I both then had the delightful experience of having New York editors who’d rejected us with remarks that felt like slaps in the face come groveling after our second books. Norman wrote a letter to one of those publishers that reads like a Pete Townshend guitar solo at the Concert for New York. It ends like this:

 

If the situation ever arose when Alfred A. Knopf was the only publishing house remaining in the world and I was the sole remaining author, that would mark the end of the world of books.

                                                                                 Very sincerely,

                                                                                 Norman Maclean

 

I like to think that kind of eloquent orneriness sets a lot of Montana writing apart. I also think it’s fair to say that Norman and I penned a “canon” that for quite a few years consisted of two books total. I never met Maclean, but I feel close to him in that we were both inspired by a huge love for the river upon which we came of age (the Big Blackfoot for him, the Deschutes in Oregon for me) and by a lasting grief for a tragically lost brother. I didn’t get to my “tragic brother material” until I was 34 and wrote a memoir for Harper’s called “The Mickey Mantle Koan,” but the writing of that attempt to restore literary life to my flown brother opened floodgates, and a 650-page “Russian baseball novel” on family, religion, war, baseball, radical politics, and grief-shot love came pouring out. The Brothers K is my favorite of my books so far. Like The River Why, it’s also been a gift that has kept on giving. It’s strange to have done work in my twenties and thirties that continues to do things like send my wife and me to France twice for the French publications of both novels, and paid a lot of our bills, and inspired thousands of fan letters, lots of this more than thirty years later. Actually, it all feels a little backasswards. It’s the man my age who should be supporting the young fella who wrote those books. I still want to send the destitute me who wrote TRW and drove to his beloved rivers on bald retreads with no insurance some dough!

AM: The 20th anniversary edition of The River Why contains some great reflection by you in the afterword. I loved that you started it by recounting your first time falling in love with a novel, understanding the power and potential fiction has to convey “difficult truths.” This line particularly resonated with me: “This light made grief bearable.” 

DJD: My brother John died at 17, when I was 13. My desire to try to become a novelist was born the day that, at age 16, I read scenes in a Thomas Mann novel that infused my grief with that “light that makes grief bearable.” The novel climaxed with the death scene of a frail boy that was so powerful and so healing that I thought: Even if it took me the rest of my life to learn this magic, if I could someday perform such a story for even one person, it would be worth it. My apprenticeship to the light that makes grief beautiful was long. But by damn, I did eventually write some work that inspired readers to write and tell me I’d done something for them akin to what Mann once did for me. 

AM: In that River Why afterward, you went on to talk about your first novel attempt, poking a lot of fun at yourself over how overly serious it was. But despite the initial misfire of “Old Dead Xmas Half-Novel,” you went on to complete The River Why. Like you, I recently had a moment of realizing the novel I’ve spent several months on is not the novel I want to be writing. As someone who had 200 pages “usurped,” do you have any thoughts or advice on how to deal? 

DJD: Let me put this in boldface: You deal by being true to your own nature. “Old Dead Xmas” novel was an attempt to wake America up to the fact that, to quote William Stafford, “the darkness around us is deep.” But so many writers handle that kind of material better than I do. And there was another problem: writing the Great Suburban American Heart of Darkness was a betrayal of the deep “light that makes grief bearable” experience that called me to fiction writing in the first place.

So it’s a very sweet irony that, midway through my wallowing in darkness, “Old Dead Xmas Novel” flew off the rails and I began to write with an entirely new kind of energy about fly fishing and rivers and the spiritual search and romance and the glorious high desert and temperate forest regions I’d known and loved from the day I was born. My initial thought was: “Well, I’ll just spew this fishing crap till it’s out of my system.” But a year later, I had three-hundred pages of comedy that served as the crude first draft of Gus’s life, plus fifty pages of metaphysicated sermons that caused me to birth a scholar/nerd character, Titus Gerard, who helped me discover the usefulness of what Milan Kundera calls “novelistic essays,” where you stop just telling the story for a while and attack the themes of a novel directly, so when you return to the story-telling the reader has a fresh feeling for what is at stake. With that character in the mix, voila! I had a rough draft worth the hard effort of rewriting and condensing and cleaning up and submitting to twenty-five publishers and being rejected twenty-five times!

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Seriously, The River Why material, unlike the “Dead Xmas” material, enabled me to articulate and grow more sensitive to things that had shown me glimmerings of “the light that makes grief bearable” all along: the company of rivers and wilderness; the wisdom of small children; our preposterous attempts to obey Jesus and love the impossible weirdos he so over-optimistically calls simply “thy neighbor.” The same material taught me to make comedy out of things I’d initially experienced as painful, but, after the passage of time and some spiritual effort provided a sense of detachment, I was able to find humorous—and isn’t levity a form of light? Take, for example, how badly politics and religion fuck up the mood at a family supper table. By making the schism between a redneck ranch brat’s murderous bait fishing and her effete British poobah husband’s catch and release fly fishing stand in for politics and religion, readers could laugh at a family’s total dysfunction instead of feeling miserable about their own. Another discovery: I gave Gus the ability to spoof his mother, who speaks what one critic called “a hick patois that makes the Beverly Hillbillies sound like Oxford dons,” and I also gave him the ability to lampoon his snobby British father. But I didn’t give him a strong voice of his own. Only by moving to the Tamanawis River and pursuing his passion did he begin to find his true voice. To show his voice grow authentic at the same time he’s discovering his true vocation and home gave the novel a subliminal music that created strong narrative pull. Another happy discovery: it’s possible to be as funny as you can, with serious intent. Although I was portraying the schismatic personalities that were tearing apart the Orviston home, I still laugh when Bill Bob loses his pet scorpion inside the family house, and Ma shrugs it off, surmising that the little guy “prob’ly found an’ fell in love with one of your old man’s mayfly imitations and died of lover’s nuts trying to figure out how to screw the thing.”

 

AM: Ever since I started writing my first novel, I’ve had a lot of questions for every writer that’s done it before floating around in my head. Namely, How? Like, how the hell did you do it? Why does my novel want me to hate myself? When did you realize this was a terrible decision you’d made? Does anyone actually have an order or method? Is it okay that so much of the “work” I’m doing seems to be just getting to know my characters and world and often takes place in my head while I’m walking my dogs?  

DJD: Of these questions, Amelia, my favorite by far is: “Is it okay that so much of the “work” I’m doing seems to be just getting to know my characters and world and often takes place in my head while I’m walking my dogs?” This is your fiction-making compass pointing to true north. This is the most responsible work a young writer can be doing. Be proud of this good struggle. But you might also want to take a little notebook on your dog walks so that, when the world or your characters try to reveal themselves, you can write it down. Writing is not fly fishing! Catch and release writing leads to zero publications!

As to your question about how novels make us hate ourselves, no shit. Writing shoves our ignorance, failures with language, and artistic limitations in our face every damn day! It’s like the sports aphorism: “Tennis makes you want to kill your opponent. Golf makes you want to kill yourself.” Starting a novel is definitely a form of golf! But some people actually master that preposterous game, and ours, too. And it’s a noble struggle whether we master it or not. I long ago began to see my own writing struggles as a spiritual practice. And a daily dose of self-abnegation, though not self-hatred, is a famously valuable spiritual tool. Like meditation, literary concentration requires an intensely focused imagination, and focused imagination is central to all good work, so what a good thing to be struggling to master through our dreadful practice! 

Here are two depictions of focused imagination that remind me very much of our practice. The first is by Peter Anderson in his book First Church of the Higher Elevations:

 

A wild gait and shortness of breath revealed my lack of mountain experience. Eyes riveted to the pass, I was more interested in the destination than I was in the process of getting there. An older mountaineer took notice and offered some simple yet sage advice. “As the slope gets steeper,” he said, “shorten your steps. When you take a step, take a breath. When you take the next step, let it go.” When I practiced this properly, climbing became a kind of moving stasis and the oxygen coming in fueled a slow steady burn instead of an energy inferno. If I could stay focused I was rewarded with the energy to get to the top of the pass and beyond. It would be a few more years before I would learn to appreciate the stillness in the midst of that motion.

 

Beautiful, huh? And a good writing day can actually feel like that, including the stillness in the midst of the motion. On my best work days, nine hours of effort feel like an hour or two spent playing music with friends.

In the same vein, here’s Per Pettersen describing how to log a big stand of tree-farm timber in his novel Out Stealing Horses:

 

We started in the morning just after seven and kept on till evening when we fell into bed and slept like the dead until we woke with the light and went at it again. For a time it looked as if we’d never get to the end of the trees because when each spruce has to be felled with a crosscut and you begin to count, you can lose heart and feel you’ll never finish. When you’re in the swing, though, and have fallen into a good rhythm, the beginning and end have no meaning at all, not there, not then, and the only vital thing is that you keep going until everything merges into a single pulse that beats and works under its own steam, and you take a break at the right time and you work again, and you eat enough but not too much, and you drink enough but not too much, and sleep well when the time comes; eight hours a night, and at least one hour during the day.

 

AM: Another thing I’ve been struggling with lately is the difference between building characters in short stories versus a novel. Specifically, I’m finding it difficult to manage more than two or three, which is generally all you need in a shorter story. A novel necessitates a long-term, polyamorous relationship! So I’ve become very focused on how novelists handle their characters, especially as the cast grows. How do you navigate this?

DJD: Might your question on how to handle numerous characters boil down to this?: What kind of dreams or urges or obsession or knowledge or unforgettably haunting experiences or, hell yeah, random idiocy, cause a person to give birth to a full-fledged CHARACTER in a novel? And what a great question! And the hard-won, hopefully wonderful answer, of course, is the full-fledged character herself.

Let me also say: your use of the word “polyamorous” is consoling to me. A polyamorous writer, by definition, loves her characters. And so many writers don’t! I struggle with authors who condescend to all their characters in order to be able control them. I like a good foil or pluperfect asshole thickening the plot as much as anybody, but I love writers brave enough to love their characters, defend their idiosyncrasies and blunders, portray people better or smarter than themselves, and paint the amazing dance we’re all in with our own character. Here’s the late great James Hillman: “Some of what I mean by ‘force of character’ is the persistence of the incorrigible anomalies, those traits you can’t fix, can’t hide, and can’t accept. Resolutions, therapy, conversion, the heart’s contrition in old age—nothing prevails against them, not even prayer.” Give a fictitious character some of that incorrigibility and you will mine literary gold. I love authors willing to marvel at people more conscious than themselves, not less, in defiance of the vast confederacy of dunces and haters who get 90% of the news headlines as if the goal of life is to aspire downward. The best humans on our planet remain incredible creatures worthy of our keenest interest and extreme admiration. Why not portray them?

You mention short stories versus novels. I can’t say much about short stories. By force of character, I aspire to write books that feel like long pilgrimages on foot or long walks through amazing cities like Paris or Portland or hundred-mile canoe voyages or long hikes along high mountain ridge lines. By force of character, I’ve walked well over a thousand miles in rivers and streams. Not just alongside them: in them. By force of character, I love the spirit of complexity that fuels novels, love the novel’s defiance of the anti-thought that inspires tweets and sound-bytes. And by force of character or something even deeper, sense of soul, maybe, life itself strikes me as polyamorous, so I feel best when my story gets complex and many-peopled and runs long.

And finally, I feel that life is polyphonous. Multiple-voiced. That’s a big change since TRW. I use several narrators in The Brothers K and even more in my current effort, Sun House. How better to speak the polyamorous truth of being human than via polyphony?

AM: In TRW you spend the first several chapters fleshing out the narrator, Gus, and his crazy, complex parents and their hilarious, contentious history. Then you, via Gus, introduce his brother, and there’s this great line following a very loaded paragraph of Gus listing his brother’s habits and traits: “There. Now everyone knows Bill Bob as well as I do.” I found myself thinking about this line for days. It’s such a great writer’s trick. I’m having a hard time figuring out what my question is here or how I can expect you to offer specifics on a line in 25-year old novel, so I’ll shoot you a few options, including just responding to my thoughts on the line. How did you do so much with so little? How do you balance your unapologetically full, lyrical language (I love when you say you were born without a minimalist bone in your body) with this sort of simplicity? Can you teach me?

DJD: I have two responses to these questions.

First response: I’ve always loved holy fools, in mythology, in folk tales, in literature from King Lear’s fool and Huck Finn to Mockingbird’s Boo Radley. Bill Bob was my first attempt at a holy fool. He’s immune to the family obsession with fish, so their strife doesn’t touch him. He is so simple, yet he loves to do six or seven things at once. He has an amazing bedtime spiritual practice of speaking in language similar to myth, or the best speeches of Socrates, as he falls to sleep. Bill Bob, to me, really is a fool and really is holy. I have a 13-years-younger brother and took care of him and lots of other kids when I was young, and sometimes they said and did the most incredible things. If you’re ever in such a situation, Amelia, remember: pull out a little notebook and capture some of that stuff!

My second response is to your question about getting power into short sentences, though you prefer lyrical language most of the time: there comes a point in most any long narrative where things start happening fast and dramatically. I find that the greater the drama and faster the action, the greater the need for terse and very precise language. Lyricism kills a description of a tragic event unless you’re spoofing the whole affair. But the tension between the two kinds of prose—lyrical and terse—can be a very powerful tool if you become aware of, and judiciously vary, your prose rhythms.

Norman Maclean had four axioms for prose writers: 

1. All prose should be rhythmical. 

2. The rhythms should be barely perceptible. 

3. The rhythms should become noticeable at times, however, as when the author is “fooling around and showing off.” 

4. “If an author writes out of a full heart and rhythms don’t come with it then something is missing inside the author. Perhaps a full heart.”

Notice how Axiom #4 illustrates the very topic Norman is addressing? Listen again: If an author writes out of a full heart and rhythms don’t come with it then something is missing inside the author. Perhaps a full heart. Almost anybody but Maclean would place a breathing point in the first sentence by sticking a comma after the word “it.” But Norman doesn’t want that! By leaving the sentence commaless, he gives it the odd, floaty flight of a butterfly. At its worst, oddity distracts. But at its best it can mesmerize and disarm us. For me, this is “Muhammad Ali prose.” Ali said, “I float like a butterfly but sting like a bee.” Norman’s commaless advice flitters and floats the same way, then his five-syllable fragment stings us—especially if we realize we lack “a full heart.”

Here’s a full-hearted passage where Norman does his rhythm thing: 

 

In the middle of the river was a rock iceberg, just its tip exposed above water and underneath it a rock house. It met all the residential requirements for big fish—powerful water carrying food to the front and back doors, and rest and shade behind them. My father said, “There has to be a big one out there.”

I said, “A little one couldn’t live out there.”

My father said, “The big one wouldn’t let it.”

 

Two long floaty sentences, then Maclean confines his speakers to three short ones beginning, “My father said...”  “I said...”  “My father said...” 

What he is creating, knowingly as a lifelong student of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, The Book of Common Prayer, is litany. Why? To let you know you’re entering the realm of the incantatory; realm of the Inexpressible; realm of what Norman regards as holy. The brother about to embody this holiness, brother about to be resurrected, brother who, among his admirable qualities, was also an alcoholic gambling addict who was found beaten to death in a back alley almost half a century before Norman was able to write of that loss at all. But skilled rhythmic prose doesn’t care how long Paul Maclean had been gone. It resurrects when and whom it pleases. Listen: 

 

My father could tell by the width of Paul’s chest that he was going to let the next loop sail. It couldn’t get any wider. “I wanted to fish out there,” he said, “but I couldn’t cast that far.”

Paul’s body pivoted as if he were going to drive a golf ball three hundred yards, and his arm went high into the great arc and the tip of his wand bent like a spring, and then everything sprang and sang. 

 

Read that sentence six times and you’ll learn something great about the difficult conjunction, “and.” Read it six more times, messing with the placement of its commas, and you’ll feel how breathing enhances meaning. Inhalations and exhalations are, along with our pulse, rhythms injected in us by the powers of creation from our birth till our death, and the comma—our punctuation mark asking for a beat of silence between sounds, shows us when and how to breathe, and almost how to eat what we read. Read it again to yourself, exaggerating your inbreaths as you reach the commas:

 

Paul’s body pivoted as if he were going to drive a golf ball three hundred yards [inbreath], and his arm went high into the great arc and the tip of his wand bent like a spring [inbreath], and then everything sprang and sang. 

Suddenly, there was an end of action. The man was immobile. There was no bend, no power in the wand. It pointed at ten o’clock and ten o’clock pointed at the rock. For a moment the man looked like a teacher with a pointer illustrating something about a rock to a rock. Only water moved... 

 

Deliberate incantation, invoking the Invisible in the form of a merely imagined teacher pointing; invoking the Unseen again in just three spirit-of-God-moving-over the face-of the water words: Only. Water. Moved. Now Norman is as ready as Muhammad Ali ever was to clock us, especially those of us who’ve lost close loved ones, and love the beauty of rivers, and the beauty of great departed fishermen merged with them:

 

For a moment the man looked like a teacher with a pointer illustrating something about a rock to a rock. Only water moved... 

Somewhere above the top of the rock house a fly was swept in water so powerful only a big fish could be there to see it. Then the universe stepped on its third rail. The wand jumped convulsively as it made contact with the magic current of the world. The wand tried to jump out of the man’s right hand. His left hand seemed to be frantically waving goodbye to a fish, but actually was trying to throw enough line into the rod to reduce the voltage and ease the shock of what had struck. . . 

Everything seemed electrically charged but electrically unconnected. Electrical sparks appeared here and there on the river. A fish jumped so far downstream that it seemed outside the man’s electrical field, but, when the fish had jumped, the man had leaned back on the wand and the fish reentered the water not altogether under its own power, the wand recharged with convulsions, the man’s hand waving frantically at another departure, and much farther below a fish jumped again. Because of the connections, it became the same fish. . . 

 

“Waving frantically at another departure.” I feel these words saying: Goodbye Norman’s brother, Paul. Goodbye my brother, John. Yet my body recharges with convulsions as, much farther below, an enormous trout and two long gone brothers somehow reappear, and “because of the connections,” all three live in the spirit of God that moves over the face of Norman’s beloved waters. Rhythm-aware writing like this offers constant counterpoint to every word, giving us a second melody (that’s what counterpoint means), telling two stories at once, one entering our imagination via imagery, the other entering our bodies, hearts, lungs, via rhythm. 

Zounds! Talk about a power tool! Eat your hearts out, Black and Decker and Milwaukie Electric.

AM: Can you talk about your new novel? You told me you were in the “final throes.” What would that be in fly fishing terms?

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DJD: The only way I can speak of my new novel, Sun House, at this late stage in its progress through the birth canal is “in fly fishing terms”: beaching a big wild salmon or steelhead is the most dangerous moment of the entire struggle. When we coax them close to shore and their bellies first feel that stone cobble, they get a last burst of energy, inspiring a last run for deeper water and, if that fails, the wildest of thrashing. With Sun House I’ve been enduring that thrashing for months. It was wearing me out. But I have a famous and skilled editor, Michael by name, who has edited Donna Tart, David Foster Wallace, and other writers who are marathoners by nature. You could say that Michael is the fishing equivalent of a legendary Scottish ghillie or Montana fly fishing guide. Battling my novel’s late thrashing, I wrote to Michael three weeks ago, begging him to enter 100% into my polyamorous, polyphonous, thirteen-year thousand-page effort with me and stand ready with his net so that, if my line breaks, he can sweep the net in under the novel before it can escape. I’m happy to say he is now doing that. Being able to discuss the late details freely with a brilliant literary and editorial mind and heart is giving me an enormous lift.

AM: This might be a bit too heavy, but sometimes the speed and degree of chaos in the world makes me question the notion that art can save or redeem us. Do you still believe in the power of fiction? 

DJD: In times like ours, heavy is true and necessary.

I believe a great story told with power and love, a great poem or novel, a great wisdom text, a beautifully told and timely myth, a spontaneous cry from the heart, is not only the greatest force for change in humans, it is the only way the ancient devas, genius loci, secret agents of the Unseen, unknown heroes and heroines, can penetrate the stupendous noise of the trillionfold Tower of Babel so innocently called “the internet” and speak to us. 

The Holy Fool in Sun House says this late in the story: “Mother Earth is dying, and she is giving birth, both at once. Both at once, even as so many work to kill her. So even though I’m almost helpless against her killers, I’m trying nonstop, with more attention than I’ve ever given to anything, to tend our dying Mother’s failing body, and listen to her labor moans and last whispered wisdom words, in the hope that I can help find, and catch, and love, and help raise the infant world she is delivering into our care as if not only the infant’s life, but all life, depends on it. Because it does.”

If I had more time I’d demonstrate how, despite the profound gravity of this view, a true Holy Fool does not surrender his sense of humor. I’d love to die while cracking a good joke at the same time I was planting a tree. In times like these, we’ve got to be prepared to show the powers that be that we refuse to kiss the rancid ass of despair. How better than by serving the forces of humor, forests, and hope?

 

AM: You were teasing me a bit the other day about your top-secret workshop in which participants produce novels while sleeping, but I think this was the advice you really wanted me to hear (and not just because you bolded it): write an awake novel

I love that. Can you tell me what it means?

DJD: I can if you’ll let me steal from the sage and great myth-teller of Devonshire, England, Martin Shaw. (And you can find some of his best work in Emergencethe excellent new online magazine, for free! Emergence. Check it out.)

How can we write an awake novel, or any other story form: Martin Shaw: 

“If you trap a story, you’ve put it in a little allegorical cage where you pretend you know what it means. The moment you think you know what the story means from beginning to end, it’s lost its nutrition, it’s lost its protein, it’s lost its danger...

“Because I’m a storyteller and a writer, people are always saying to me, Can you find us a story so we can make this point? We wanna make a point about climate change. We wanna make a point about gender. Will you send us something over that supports it? Now that’s backwards to me. Story is first. You have to be in the presence of the story, which I regard as a living being: it’s a wild animal; it’s got tusks, udders; it’s got a tail; it doesn’t behave; half the time you want it to be there it’s disappeared, it’s shuffled off somewhere else. Stories should be filled with so much consequence and danger, they won’t behave for your polemic... Old myths are not necessarily always coming from a human point of view at all. They are a multiplicity. “

Which returns us, Amelia, to your excellent word: polyamorous.

AM: Last question: How do you know when you’ve redeemed the life of the tree?

DJD: For me, it happens when a wonderfully sincere stranger, or a dear and trusted friend like my recently flown Irish brother, Brian Doyle, reads what you’ve done and sends you a comment like this:

Dear Scottish,

I been saving your scoops of novel for an hour when I could be alone, serene, alert, and ready—out of respect for the author and the work. Found that hour yesterday in Bellingham on a sunny deck and read through the chapters twice. Wow. Whew. Top of your game. I am instantly drawn into the life of the characters, instantly cared about them, instantly sensed their good and bad and honest and greedy and cool and troubled—was also delighted at the craft with which you infused spiritual pursuit and learning into the very being of the people, so that the former was not speech lecture homily but part and parcel of who they are and their roads and paths and struggle toward cracks of light. Most of all I think I was so slurped into the people and their lives that I finished with a little startle—o, right, Bellingham!—which seems like an enormous kudo to the mind that made those sentences. Very impressed with the depth and passion and genuine of the story, with the peopleness of the people. Thanks, man.

Amelia. Thanks man. Wonderful questions. And best of luck, MFA crew and aspiring fictioneers everywhere, with your own pages and their trees’ redemptions.


David James Duncan is the author of the novels The River Why and The Brothers K, and several collections of stories and essays. His work has won the Western States Book Award, three Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Awards, a Lannan fellowship, and other honors, and has appeared in fifty plus anthologies including Best American Sports Writing, Best American Essays (twice), and Best American Spiritual Writing (six times). David is wrapping up a novel called Sun House, to be published by Little, Brown, which fuses his loves for acoustic folk and blues, world wisdom traditions, and the mountains, river valleys, critters and free-range humans of the American West. 

Amelia Morand grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Before coming to Montana, she completed her BS in Economics at Portland State University where she was awarded the Tom and Phyllis Burnham Scholarship for fiction. She recently received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's 2018 Short Story Award for New Writers, and her work is forthcoming on apt.


CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Callan Wink

Talking shop with Callan Wink

by Nicole Rose Gomez

Callan Wink  is the author of  Dog Run Moon: Stories  and the novel,  August  (Dial Press/Random House, Spring '20)

Callan Wink is the author of Dog Run Moon: Stories and the novel, August (Dial Press/Random House, Spring '20)

I first came across Callan Wink’s work in the fall semester of my MFA at the University of Montana, in a class on character development in which we analyzed his short story, “A Refugee Crisis” (The New Yorker, 2018). Now on campus as the William Kittredge Visiting Writer and my instructor for a Special Topics Creative Writing class that explores the world of work for inspiration, Callan Wink sat down with me in his office last Wednesday to discuss stripping away the artifice from fiction, the daily grind of writing and the struggle to keep the spark alive, the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and his new novel, August, due out in spring 2020. 


Nicole Gomez: You’re from Michigan originally right? How did you end up in Montana?

Callan Wink: The first time I came to Montana I got a job on a dude ranch when I was 19 years old, working as a fishing guide. I was there for the summer and I kind of never left. I ended up coming to school in Bozeman at Montana State for undergrad. I took time off and fishing guided, worked a bunch of weird jobs, construction mostly. But that’s how I ended up in Montana, for fishing. 

NG: Did you grow up fishing?

CW: Yeah. I grew up in northern Michigan in a tiny town out in the woods, nothing there. I spent a lot of time outdoors. No TV in my house as a kid. 

 

NG: I want to get back to that, but first, fishing is a big part of your life—you’re a fly-fishing guide for part of the year. Who was it that taught you how to fish?
CW: My mom took me fishing a lot when I was a kid, before I learned how to drive. My dad was never that much into fishing. I learned a lot from books, believe it or not. Fly-fishing is what I do, and I didn’t know anyone that did that. It’s interactive– you’re always doing something, even if you’re not catching anything. Where I’m at with it now is that it’s a good excuse for me to go outside and mess around and be in a river. The fishing side of it is fun, but it’s more about the broader experience for me. 

 

NG: Tell me more about this childhood without television. 

CW: My mother was a school teacher and when I was young, and she thought that TVs were rotting the brains of her students. 

 

NG: Sounds like my mom.

CW: I think it was one of the best things my parents ever did for me, actually, because I read a ton. I would go to the local library, especially in the summer when we were out of school, and get a stack of these really horrible western novels. I wasn’t reading the classics or anything, but I was consuming a lot of narratives, and I guess if I have any writerly skill it’s because of how much narrative I’ve ingested, of all kinds. When I started writing it’s like I had that foundation without even having to think about it. 

 

NG: Was it also your mom that got you reading?

CW: Actually my dad probably reads more than anyone I know, but they’re both big readers. My whole family is, even my extended family. For Christmas, we always gave books, things like that. 

“Where I was raised, it’s very working class and people are practical that way. Trying to make money in a creative way is not something that there was a model for.” 

 

NG: Do you remember a formative book from your childhood?

CW: I was a big re-reader of books. I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was ten or so, maybe a little younger, probably about ten times. Roald Dahl is a hell of a writer. As I got a little older, I did the Hemingway Nick Adams Stories, which are set in Michigan, and that was cool to read a Michigan writer because I could understand the places he was writing about. Jim Harrison for the same reason. He was another Michigan guy.

 

NG: Is it strange for you now to have your family read your work?

CW: They’re really supportive, but sometimes if I veer into a more biographical stuff, it’s a little uncomfortable. But for the most part it’s good. I think it’s important when you’re first getting going to hide it away, though. I didn’t tell people I was writing much until I got into grad school—then people wanted to know what I was doing there. But it wasn’t something I was readily sharing at first.

 

NG: Did you know you always wanted to be a writer? 

CW: Not really. My dad worked construction, my mom was a teacher. I was writing from a very young age, but I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know that was something you could do. And if you’re a young person and you tell someone you want to be a writer, you’re immediately confronted with the question of what you’re going to do for money. Where I was raised, it’s very working class and people are practical that way. Trying to make money in a creative way is not something that there was a model for. 

 

NG: What did you start out writing about? What interested you at first?

CW: I wrote poetry until I was twenty-four or twenty-five. It wasn’t very good. Most of my poems were stories I was too lazy to write. I wrote a lot about work, especially construction, which is what I did for most of my early twenties aside from fishing guiding. I wrote poems about working with my dad on these construction sites, and then at a certain point I turned a couple of those into stories.


NG: Was there ever a sort of watershed moment for you when your work took a big leap forward?

CW: That’s one thing in the Saunders’ essay [“Process and Spirit”, The Writer’s Chronicle, 2018] that we read in class that really resonated with me, because we like to think there’s a slow progression, that you just gradually get better at writing, and that’s true to an extent. But I feel like there are points where you take this great leap ahead, and for me that happened when I was in grad school. I was writing a certain type of story before I got to the MFA, and I got some of these early stories out of my head in my first year. Then I wrote the title story of Dog Run Moon that was in The New Yorker, and at that point I had this baseline of what I wanted my stories to be like. I still write a lot of bad stories, but at least I can recognize them as the bad ones and then either try to fix them or abandon them. So maybe it was more like how Saunders could recognize his own particular area of ability and then dwell in that zone instead of trying to write like other people. 

 

NG: So did you have your version of Saunders’ “Hemingway boner”?

CW: I was probably more of a Cormac McCarthy impersonator as a young writer. I went through a big period of Cormac McCarthy that lasted through grad school. That was probably my version of the Hemingway boner—the Cormac McCarthy boner, which I’ve just gotten over in the past four or five years. 

 

NG: You had your first publication in CutBank right? [For “Wolf Goes Down for a Cup”]

CW: My first fiction publication.

 

NG: Where were you at when you wrote that one?

CW: I wrote it right before I went to grad school and then it got published during my first year.

 

NG: How would you say your writing and interests have evolved since?

CW: I’m less interested in really nice descriptions. That is what I was interested in at that time, in lyricism and novel metaphors, in the way things sounded. Now I’m more interested in what the story is about, in meaning. I read a couple of the Rachel Cusk books and I couldn’t get them out of my head—I was like, you can do that as a writer? I wrote “A Refugee Crisis” after reading that novel [Outline] and I think that’s the way my writing is going right now, that’s what interests me a lot: unabashedly having more of myself in the story as some way to approach honesty in writing, as opposed to just pretending that everything is fiction. I love fiction and I used to love purely entertaining stories, which I think Dog Run Moon mostly is, but now I’m increasingly interested in the creation of a more personal narrative, one that draws heavily on my own understanding of the world and doesn’t try to hide that fact by calling a character “Dale” if he is mostly me. I’m interested in stripping away that artifice that’s there for no other reason than to distance the writer from the story. I think that raises the stakes for the writer. Personal stakes are almost zero for me in stories like the ones in Dog Run Moon, and I’m interested in ones where the stakes are higher. That’s what’s exciting me about writing right now. That’s one of the beautiful things about what we’re doing. If you put the label fiction on it, it can contain all sorts of truths and mistruths, untruths—it’s a freeing mode to write in because when it comes down to it, most of us are writing as a way to figure out our own stuff. It’s cool if someone else reads it, but ultimately writing is a process of self-examination, making sense of your own experience. 

 

NG: In “A Refugee Crisis”, which is a meditation on honesty and truth, I was wondering if you were suggesting something about the invented nature of borders, how as arbitrary lines drawn in the sand they create refugees and immigrants, and I wonder how you apply that to current events, the fight over a border wall and a migrant caravan, etcetera. 

CW: It does seem to be so arbitrary, the concept of borders. Just the fact of entitlement, that certain people have the ability to move around. How simple movement around the world in this global society is a right that some people seem to have more of than others.  But it’s not something I was specifically getting after in the story, although the upwelling of culture and current issues is going to appear in your writing whether you mean for it to or not. 

Another thing that story is concerned with is that there are so many injustices in the world and there have been since time began, and how much do you concern your writing with that? To what extent does your writing need to be about current injustices or is there some way you can reach some greater, more universal discussion of injustice? These aren’t things I have answers for. Or if we’re actually concerned with these issues, is writing some little short story about it the way to create any change?

NG: And is that your responsibility as a writer, or is that the purview of journalism?

CW: Exactly. And I go back and forth on all of these things. 

“When it comes down to it, most of us are writing as a way to figure out our own stuff. It’s cool if someone else reads it, but ultimately writing is a process of self-examination, making sense of your own experience.”  

 

NG: The west and rural areas feature strongly in your writing. Do you feel that there’s an added value to writing about a particular place? 

CW: I’m not super imaginative in that I can’t write convincingly about places I haven’t spent a lot of time. I’m kind of bound to set my stories in places I have a good working knowledge of. Maybe that will change at some point, but I can write about Michigan well, Montana because I have been here for a long time. I’ve been trying to write some stories about California because I’ve been spending more and more time there over the past five years, but I haven’t done that successfully yet, although I think I’m close. I’m interested in it, because I’m getting sick of describing the mountains. In my book [Dog Run Moon] I did it a lot and now I’m kind of bored with it. Having a new environment to talk about is interesting to me. 

 

NG: The last story in Dog Run Moon, “Hindsight”, was written from the female perspective, but that collection came out in 2016. A lot has happened in the past few years. Given the current cultural climate and as a male writer in 2019, do you feel an uptick in pressure to represent additional perspectives in your writing, particularly with regards to gender, and how do you negotiate that?

CW: There’s no way to keep what’s going on in society out of your writing. “A Refugee Crisis” is me grappling with this very issue. It’s me responding in my own way to my previous stuff and thinking about how to go ahead with new things. But I’m probably going to continue to write fiction that is concerned with the male experience in the world because I feel like that’s a valid perspective.

 

NG: Can you talk a little about your new novel, August?

CW: It follows the characters of one of my stories from Dog Run Moon, which was part of a broader narrative. It’s a coming-of-age story that follows the boy August from young age to early twenties. It follows the timeline of my own growing up, the era it’s set it, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in certain parts of rural Michigan.

 

NG: What was it like in parts of rural Michigan after 9/11?

CW: Right after the attacks there were friends of mine joining the military, some of them dying. That sort of thing is part of the book. It’s also a book concerned with how to become a man and doing it badly. The term “toxic masculinity” will no doubt be thrown around in discussion of this book. But for me it’s a pretty real representation of a certain time and place that happens to be one that I grew up in, and a character who is trying to find his way out of that. 

 

NG: I look forward to reading it. I started college in September 2001, just weeks after 9/11, and it colored absolutely everything around me. I got my first cell phone because I was leaving to college and war was starting. That’s part of why I studied political science, because when I got to college the whole world was in an uproar about counterterrorism and the rise of non-state actors. It was a fascinating and frightening time, especially for a young person. 

CW: I remember the day it happened. I played football in high school and we were supposed to have football practice that day, and our coach called us in after school. We’d found out about it in the morning and had spent the whole day in class watching the news, and our coach called us in, cancelled practice, and was like, “This is gonna be your guys’ Vietnam. They’re probably gonna bring back the draft, some of you guys are gonna go,” and we were all like seventeen, eighteen year-old kids, like oh fuck, what’s gonna happen? I remember that feeling pretty vividly, and it’s a scene in the novel.

 

NG: What was the jump like from writing short stories to novels?

CW: For me it was hard. Part of it is my personality. I get bored with long projects, I like seeing an end in sight and having it be achievable. I like beginnings and endings. With a novel you feel like you’re shackled to it for so long and then you have these periods where you think, this isn’t any good. If it were a short story you could just start something new, but with a novel you have to stick it out. It gets a little dismal. That being said, there are some nice things about it. Something I did enjoy was having this on-going project; normally when I’m in short-story mode I’m always thinking of short-story ideas and how I can form stories around things I read or see or hear, but when you’re at work on a novel, you already have the story you’re working on and you can just pull things you come across and plug them into to what you’re working on, even if they wouldn’t have been enough to hold up a whole story. I have noticed that once I go into novel mode, short stories I try to write just keep turning into novels too. Once you get used to it, it’s hard to stop. 

 

NG: How long did it take you to complete the novel?

CW: It’s kind of hard to say. I started writing a long time ago when I wrote that story, and I wrote three or four other stories that had the same character and then I realized, “this is probably a novel.” But from when I first considered it to be a novel to where I am now, which is sending it to the copy editor, two and a half years, I guess. Some people take a lot longer than that, but I figured this out pretty early: I would rather have a greater body of work and have some of them be not very good than have just three really good stories. I like output, I like producing. 

 

NG: You said you’re at work on a new novel.

CW: I always have a number of different things going on. This one I’m very early on in. I’ll show up in this one a lot more directly. I’m in the one I’ve finished as well, but in the traditional fiction model where we write about a character that’s our proxy, and in the one I’m working on now that’s done away with. 

 

NG: How does it feel to have achieved success relatively young? Do you feel any kind of pressure on what you do next and how do you manage that? Where would you like to see your career go?

CW: The good thing about writing literary fiction is that very few people really care about it, which is a good thing to keep in mind. It occupies such a small niche of an already shrinking sector of human consciousness. I mean, the number of people reading the sorts of things that you and I are writing is small and shrinking, which you can get depressed about or you can view as kind of liberating—like, I don’t have to worry that much about making a career as a writer, because what does that even mean these days? I don’t know. Most of the time I still tell people I’m a fishing guide. 

I had this conversation with Tom McGuane, who’s a really great short story writer. I interviewed him, took him fishing, and he said he loves short stories. And I said you can’t make any money writing short stories, and he said you can’t make any money at all writing the stuff we write. He loves short stories because he feels they are this true distillation of the heart of fiction writing, because they are almost divorced from any ability to generate income. You don’t have to tailor your short story to some sort of perceived audience because there is none. They’re like a purer form of the art. And it is kind of true—they’re more like poetry in that way. And I would say you could expand that to include all literary fiction. If you’re writing your novel and career is something you’re thinking about, then yikes. There’s a lot of other ways you can make money that require less effort. 

 

NG: It’s got to be for the love of it, right?

CW: It really does. 

 

NG: So what keeps you sitting down at the computer?

CW: I definitely have periods of time where I’m less interested than others. Occasionally I still get excited about what I’m writing. I remember when I was in grad school, I got that feeling way more often, and I think that’s because it was new, I was spending so much time on it for the first time in my life. I remember being really excited about the stuff I was writing—some of the stories in Dog Run Moon I wrote in grad school. Now I think much of my writing is an attempt to recapture some of that initial excitement that I don’t often feel anymore. Sometimes that bums me out, that writing isn’t as exciting as it once was. You could compare it to a relationship: that initial burst of feeling you have for this other person when you first meet and it’s very exciting and fresh, and then that’s done and you’re in this other place where it’s maybe deeper—

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NG: But there’s the daily slog. The daily, unglamorous housekeeping of sitting down at the desk.

CW: Exactly. And you miss that excitement, but you still get glimpses of it occasionally. 

 

NG: When it’s flowing. 

CW: Yeah.

 

NG: So what is your process? Are you a morning writer, a night writer?

CW: I used to always write from the middle of the afternoon until it got dark. I can’t write when it’s dark out, I just can’t. That’s always been my best period, when I’m the smartest, when I’m the most athletic, able to go running or surfing, from 2:00-4:00. When I was in grad school, I would write later on because I was really enflamed by it and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Now at about five I want a cocktail or I want to go to yoga or do something different. 

 

NG: I want to ask you about being at Stanford University for the Wallace Stegner Fellowship. 

CW: It was a great experience. The other writers there were extremely impressive. The level of dialogue about stories in our workshop was phenomenal, and reading their work—some of them are going to be household names. It was amazing, and humbling, to see what they were coming in with. And the faculty, too. Adam Johnson was maybe the best workshop leader I’ve ever worked with. He’s won every writing prize you can win and yet he’s still really generous with his time, his teaching. He’s one of those people who loves narrative and literature and talking about stories, it’s a true passion of his, what he does. It was really inspiring to be around people like that. 

 

NG: How was the move from Montana out to Silicon Valley?

CW: I’d never been there before. I thought I was going to live on this houseboat out in Redwood City. It seemed like a cool thing when I found it on Craigslist. It turned out to be not so cool. Then I just started driving south, and I had a friend from Livingston who grew up in Santa Cruz and he told me to check it out. And I was like, yeah, this is a real place I could live. It’s really cool, it’s kind of weird. Like a lot of places, it’s going through an identity shift—it’s about to be something different than it is now because there’s so much wealth encroaching, but for now it’s still got its grittiness. There’s this surfing culture there I really liked. It reminded me of the fishing culture out in Livingston. There’s a similar vibe, where people’s main concern is not just employment, getting ahead financially and monetarily, like it is in a lot of places. In Santa Cruz it’s about surfing, and where I live in Montana it’s about outdoor recreation. I understood that and I liked it. 

 

NG: Are there any writing lessons that you absorbed from either your MFA or your time at Stanford that you want to pass on to your students or other writers? 

CW: The one bit of writing advice that I always liked and I always give out—I think I put it on the syllabus for my undergraduates—Isak Dinesen said you should write a little bit each day without hope and without despair. That made sense to me: not getting too excited about it, not getting too down about it when it’s not going well. Just trying to do a little bit every day.  

 

NG: One final question. In this program there’s a decent amount of human drama, and the idea was floated that it’s because everyone is approaching things with a narrative mindset, constantly writing stories in their heads about what is happening on a daily basis. Do you feel like you look at the world around you through a narrative lens?

CW: Yeah, absolutely. That’s how you make sense of what happens to you right? After the fact, you make the story out of it. If you’re at an MFA for writing, you’re a sensitive person, open to human possibility, and your mind is working at a certain level. I don’t see how it could be any other way.


Callan Wink is the author of Dog Run Moon: Stories and the novel, August (Dial Press/Random House, Spring '20).  He has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow. His stories and essays appear widely, including in The New YorkerGrantaPlayboyMen’s Journal and The Best American Short Stories Anthology. In the warm months he lives in Livingston, Montana where he is a fly fishing guide on the Yellowstone River. In the winter he surfs in Santa Cruz, California.

Nicole Gomez is a writer from El Paso, Texas and Granada, Spain. She received her B.A. in International Relations from Stanford University, worked as a reporter and columnist at The El Paso Times and is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana. She is a teacher with Free Verse and is Managing Editor of CutBank Online

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Danniel Schoonebeek

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Up Against a Wall: A Conversation with Danniel Schoonebeek

by Joseph Thompson

 

Think of animals. Everyone knows not to approach a wounded one. Better yet, think of yourself. How good is it to take your hurt out on someone else? Anne Carson sums it up neatly, “Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief”(Grief Lessons) While Carson is prefacing ancient Greek tragedy, the poems that make up Danniel Schoonebeek’s 2014 debut, full-length collection, American Barricade, spring from the same seed, full of rage and grief. While there is a fundamental simplicity to his book, Schoonebeek has managed to notice more and carve out more on well-worn trails. His poems reach deep into the wound created by the failures of persistent myths of American values, especially those that protect its financial systems, to find that what we mean when we say economics is heard in the taproot of the word: oikos. Family. Home.

Keep in mind that nostalgia is a wound. Looking back injures us. And the eternal return is always to family. But this is right where Schoonebeek wants to be. (You get the sense while reading that he does his best fighting when he’s backed into a corner.) The thoroughfare of American Barricade is a series of under-exposed poems called “Family Album.” Each poem addresses or is an emotional response, simple reflection, memory itself, or just imagery triggered by what one can only assume are photos that exist in the literal attics of Schoonebeek’s past. Several images of disappointment emerging from the broken promises felt in financial crisis, joblessness, sex and sexlessness, have their antecedents in father, mother, sister, brother. As he traces his family tree in the poem, “Lullaby (Coup),” his ancestors make one statement over several generations: “One word is all you’re allowed to take with you when you come to rule the state the first fool through the gate he took king the fool after him he took you.” Here is a poignant indictment of the failed relationship between home and country. To ask the question seems pedantic, but the wordplay is poignant and anticipated: what would be different in a different order?

There is something unfair about American Barricade. Everyone knows not to approach a wounded animal, but how would you ever know what you’d be getting into when you picked up the book? Yet, Schoonebeek is not fighting with you as much as he has invited you to watch. While the voice is vicious and threatening, seething through its teeth, there’s something of a trick: its first word is silence. “Men loyal first off to silence run in my family.” is the first line of the collection, establishing that, despite public-ation, the pain and outrage that stretch into new shapes through the diction of the poet live most of their lives in the private deafening rests between major movements.

More importantly, Schoonebeek points to a trailhead into stability within the contradictory paradigm of life these days. The majority of the book places great distance between himself/the poet, his family, and his country. Yet, he claims refuge in the family-negative template of friendship and art. He closes the book with gentle, polite, pleading. “My friends will you hound me like a hook in my mouth stay with me.” In the same poem, he evokes Brueghel instead of the 3”x5”s or the polaroids of the family album. Instead of the candid, the deliberate. And although it is not a new suggestion, Schoonebeek renews the categorical imperative of reviving a natural conscience. [He is fascinated with the admixture of the world we occupy, natural and unadorned (“a bee/stumbles out of a bluebell”) and the occupation itself (“I remember black bags were caught/in the honeylocust branches”).]

These suggestions shy away from any universal application. Rather, they are personal, as are all of these poems. Which is why there is little reason to maintain an academic distance and refer to “the poet” in discussion of this book. Schoonebeek is fighting to stay on the page. As a result, American Barricade becomes a touchstone for what could become a new generation of style and theme in American poetics.

Danniel and I exchanged emails for nearly a year.

Joseph Thompson: My first encounter with your poetry was “A Woman in the Sun,” which is a beautifully quiet and slow (but impatient) poem—kind of like a punk eclogue with a little bit of David Lynch. I was pretty surprised, and a little put off at first, by the different pace and volume of the rest of American Barricade, which amps up that impatience and kind of seethes through its teeth for most of the book. These elements provided a different context for “A Woman in the Sun.” I thought that might be a good place to start: to see if you could help readers by providing a little more of that context to help situate this collection?

Danniel Schoonebeek: Barricade was written under various states of duress. I wrote one poem while my roommate was trashing our apartment, occasionally beating on my door with a wrench. A handful of poems were written during work hours on Madison Avenue. The book started to cement into place during the protests in New York and California. The fact of a barricade never really left me for a few years. Maybe that's why the poems seethe through their teeth. I do think they're poems up against a wall, fighting their way through the teeth. And they're protesting the duress inside of which they were written. That's why some of the poems are convulsive, unwieldy, raw, kind of writhing. And others are gagged by their grammar. Some poems are behind a barricade, some are pushing through one. "A Woman in the Sun" was whittled away from about five pages over a number of years. Part of the duress of that poem is formal, I think, same with a lot of poems in the book. Each line of the poem is pushed apart, kept away from its other half, the white space is a barricade.

JT: More than the tang of poems up against a wall, as you described, there's a flavor of suffering injustice throughout the book. It's nice that the poems fight back, but it's unclear, at least on the surface, what they're fighting against. It seems that that duress is more skeletal, part of the hidden structures of the poem. Like the grammar and the punctuation. You mentioned in other interviews that you loved when punctuation was absent. But in the opening poem, "Genealogy," and in others (“Telegram,” “Horoscope,” “Thimblerigger”), you're entertaining the opposite effect, overworking punctuation, particularly the period. I thought this had a delightfully playful effect, kind of like being in a house, turning a corner and finding a door instead of a hallway. Over and over and over. Again, this idea of barricades that requires the reader (not the poem) to break through. Was this meant to be an exercise in frustration rather than play? And how does this barricading really find itself first (both in place and in importance) with family, ancestry, and the false full-stops found therein?

DS: I have below zero interest in play. But one of the obsessions of these poems is the eternal return of American narrative, which is playful. These obsessions happen in different ways: repeating the same words, the same phrases, meeting the same adversities, the same obstacles. Probably the smartest commentary anyone's ever made about me as a poet is that I'm a forager. Meaning my poems gather their materials, establish their laws, and then go about the work of distorting those laws, breaking them down and changing them by way of returning to them over and over. Which is what the end-stops are doing in poems like "Genealogy." I'd use the word agitation instead of frustration, they return to the same shut door over and over again. The full stops are meant to be false starts. In Melville, Bartelby is a great moment in the literature of protest because he's not a hellraiser. He meets a fundamental misalignment with his being when he's told to work for money, and in protest he essentially shrugs his shoulders and says meh. It's a privileged response really, and one of the reasons I think that character endures is because he's problematic. And Camus's Meursault endures for the same reason. They're troubling figures because we recognize that their essential characters are also walls that they have to kick over. And both of them do. It ends up killing Bartelby, it ends up saving Meursault in his own way, though he's executed about ten minutes later. And I think the voice of these poems has to protest against itself, die in its own way, in order to arrive at liberty.

JT: I like that you bring up that idea of self-confrontation that a poem has to go through and that suggests that there's some element that the poet is not in control of as the poem turns around to meet itself in the hands of the reader.

This seems particularly true in the poems that make up the series, "Family Album," which make up the skeleton of American Barricade. The images that project behind these poems are pretty easy to conjure up since they are part of a common narrative: the clothing (“suede/dumpster shoes”), siblings being born (“can we/keep him/can son/name him”), at the fair (“son won/a slow/county/sow not”), etc. Yet, the reality is in the differences that hang on that skeleton. That is, the truth about every family lives outside of the family album or in the differences between the moments captured on film and the context that they live in. I'm wondering if it's in that tension, that difference, that the poem (like the subjects of the portraits) is posed with kicking down its own wall? Is every portrait a false start, a way to stop time in order to start it over from that point on? Is that why we keep family photos in albums and return to look at them again?

DS: A book has a fourth wall, doesn't it, in the same way that a stage has a fourth wall. You've got your spine, your two covers, and the fourth wall of the book, like the stage, is the final one, the one between you and the person. But I've never felt like reading a poem is like watching a person talk into a camera. To me poetry always feels like watching a person articulate a stance, some position they've struck, part of a soliloquy maybe. When it comes to those poems, I wanted it to feel like you were eavesdropping on someone else's life, like you were staring at a photograph you didn't take. The reader is the surveillance, like that.

JT: Talk to me a little about collaboration. In your notes, you mention that some of these poems are results of collaborations with Mandelstam and Lorca. But you also mention that other poems have simply lifted lines from various sources. What makes one effort a collaboration and the other effort simple allusion? And what justifies calling the work of the former collaboration? The skeptic would say that, at best, you're working at the same goal(s) as the dead predecessors who you call colleagues and it is merely presumption to say you're working with them. Yet, I think there's plenty of the poet present in any poem, so that allusiveness can realistically turn into partnership. Taking a cue from your idea of a book having a fourth wall, I suppose it would be like if you, the reader (and eventual poet), climbed on Mandelstam's or Lorca's stage to join in their efforts. Thoughts?

DS: Collaboration makes a person so terrifyingly aware of the infinite number of ways the art that he makes isn’t his own. I write a series of collaborative poems, called Torch Songs, with poet Allyson Paty, and every time she passes me a draft there's this moment of shock. Being that close to the way another writer works, seeing their leaps and language shake out, it’s a terrible feeling for me. A good terror.

Sometime about two years ago maybe I had a lapse. If people ask me if I believe in ghosts I get a little riled. Do you believe in not-ghosts? I was reading Lorca and Mandelstam heavily at the time, and the way I felt reading them fucked me up. The poems are beautiful, but I had this physical feeling that both poets are still alive, living in my city, up and about and eking out a living. I told myself I was losing my mind and then I told myself I wasn't. A vision is a vision, why try to put it in a stranglehold?

With people like Mayakovsky, or Berrigan, or Emma Lazarus, or Charlie Feathers, I have a crater in me when I interact with the work, but I don't feel them living. I’m not sick from them. This makes them notes as they appear in the work, not collaborators.

With Lorca, to this day I feel like he's wearing a crappy suit and walking around Bushwick. It's hot, he's trying to kill time, he's anxious. He gets a haircut, he has very dark hair. That's what I see and that's the voice of the poems. It was a small crisis, because the poems are translations in some parlance, but I feel like a toilet person using that word, I don't speak Spanish or Russian. I think a lot about Imitations, a book of Lowell's that I don't ever hear anyone talk about. Everyone hates that guy, it’s hard not to. But the book infuriated people when it came out. And I think somewhere inside of that fury I've also started calling these poems abstract collaborations. I won't stop calling them collaborations, ways of returning to the same pump over and over again. Only sometimes the pump changes.

With Mandelstam, he's always sitting on a bench somewhere that looks like the East River. He's aging, very cold. He's muttering to himself. He doesn't move, he's never moved. Really I've stopped telling myself that either man is not undead.

JT: Faulkner's "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

But it makes me wonder about the precedent that now exists—who isn't not undead? Komunyakaa? Olds? Schoonebeek? Do I get to collaborate, work with, these at will? Sure, of course. No one can stop me. Until I publish? Or can I put it this way: there are two things: 1.) walking into the garden that someone else planted in order to weed, to replant, to change the color palette or rotate the crops; 2.) seeing someone gardening and kneeling next to them, uninvited, and telling them what they really want is Peonies, not Posies. What's the difference?

You mentioned regime and I think this has a lot to do with this question of collaboration, and this line of inquiry stabs at this collaborative spirit and finds the open wound of American Barricade: how is it possible to be a people with a negative ethos, collaborating because of a common negation, i.e., the protest community? Furthermore, and more pointedly, when you measure the appropriateness of poetry, of poems, as a lingua franca of this population, how does it stand up?

DS: For me it's always important to bury or blur the false thread that you tell yourself exists between you and the other person—living writer, dead writer, gardener, grandmother, collaborator—to cover it with leaves, in a way. When I write some of the Mandelstam collaborations, I record myself reading his poems and then pile distortion, pitch shifts, a little static onto the recordings until they're no longer decipherable. They start to sound like black box recordings. You'd never in a million years know that Mandelstam had anything to do with these poems. And that's what I mean about covering the thread with leaves. Mandelstam's life, and his poems, have nothing to do with me. But when I read the work he feels like he's breathing somewhere, and I don't want to deny or sleep on the energy and terror in that feeling. So I built a form where that energy and terror are present when I work on the poem.

Some of the greatest protest art I can think of isn't even necessarily political to me. Again, Bartelby lying down on the floor because capitalism is so uneventful. Or that scene in Network where everyone throws open their windows and yells I'm mad as hell. Or The Clash covering "Brand New Cadillac" by Vince Taylor & The Playboys and turning a surf standard into a death romp. In poetry there's "Howl," of course, and so many of the people-watching poems of William Carlos Williams. And so often to me the best Dickinson poems feel like protest poetry. But we have to also talk about Tsvetaeva and Mayakovsky, and the last couple of Paul Thomas Anderson films, and Kirill Medvedev, and Ted Leo, and Claudia Rankine, Dorothea Lasky, Ana Bozicevic, Sarah Kane, Tilda Swinton, Commune Editions, Brigit Peegen Kelly. All of these artists incite something in the public that hears and sees and reads them. And each of them whittles negative energy into another kind of energy. I don't know that I'd call it positive energy. I'd maybe call it the energy of grief and occupying a body that's forced to work. So appropriateness isn't part of the question for me. Because the protests against grief and occupying a body and work that these artists have created is itself the bridge language for me, English be damned.

JT: Can you evaluate the way in which your poems in American Barricade speak (or fail to speak) to what's outside, to whatever is not-America? Your poems are bodyslamming against borders and rigid artificial boundaries, but I'd like your reflection on how you included images of what's beyond borders in this.

A little context: I've been thinking about how we, America, seem to be involved everywhere and I don’t know what’s local anymore. But that’s not even it. It’s more like everywhere keeps creeping into my knowledge and subsequently I have a kind of responsibility. The cultural exchange rate is highly inflated and I feel like I'm on the losing side of that exchange, unable to pay up.

DS: It's important to me, especially in interviews, to state that I think America is a misnomer. Putting aside that we shouldn't even be named after Vespucci (or anyone for that matter) the United States aren't all of the Americas, but it's like we hardly believe that in this States. I wanted to work from inside that failure, where calling anything American is both necessary and ridiculous.

I landed on this title, American Barricade, because it touched upon that weird dynamic: how good it feels to say "American" like it's yours, and then you immediately clash with yourself after saying it. It’s like dry tongue, the word itself is a kind of barricade. It marks an entryway, a path through the trees, but it also bars you from that entry.

Poetry written outside of America is so important to me that I do hope the poems in this book push outside their borders. There's poems like "Ulitskaya" that are specifically about the dangers Russian journalists face simply by being journalists, but I can also look at these poems and see so much international dialogue in them. Specifically with Vasko Popa, ancient Japanese poetry, Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva and Akhmathova and Mayakovsky, with Paris's literary history, call and response songs that belong to African traditions and African American traditions.

I want the book to depict, and sometimes even satirize, American self-obsession and the ways in which we indulge ourselves in our misnomer. But I do hope the poems, the way they're built at least, make themselves part of the world conversation. One gets so bored with the U.S.A.

JT: I'm suspicious of your critique of self-obsession, not because I think you're inaccurate, but because I have often had to kick myself out of the solipsism of boredom with the USA. Isn't boredom self-absorbed? If so, then what's the solution? Is dissatisfaction a catch-22? I don't think so. I think that you're right to not only peek over the barricade, but to cross it regularly to visit the literature of other lands. But isn't there a double standard there when what is so enticing about these visits is in virtue of the national context in which they developed their imagination and craft? I don't want to dismiss your boredom, but wouldn't it be more accurate to say that American Barricade is kind of alarmingly indicative of the sentiments and undercurrents of distress, of alienation, of shame, and yes, boredom with the national context in which it was developed and crafted?

DS: I was riffing on a Clash lyric, which is a habit of mine, the full couplet of which is: “I'm so bored with the U.S.A. / but what can I do?” A lot hinges on that question, and I think the poems in American Barricade ask that question over and over again or venture an answer to it. And they get the answer wrong and try again. Or buckle under the question or try to topple it over. The question itself becomes this burial ground.

It's a kind of conscious attitude. Because the U.S.A. is one of the least boring ideas in the world, at least on paper, and that's exactly what we seem to want from nationalism. To be the center of the boring universe. To have all the soldiers and pop music and sporting events and blockbuster movies and our poetry scene. So it's fun, kind of pissy and campy at the same time, to adopt the attitude of one who's bored with the U.S.A. It's like how dare you, you can't tire of paradise. And it's even more interesting when you start outright calling Americans losers.

I wish I could say I don't get bored. Boredom was this kind of anathema when I was a tween listening to new-era punk. "Boredom won't get me tonight," it was this kind of chant. And like it or not, that's been a huge part of my poetics, that protest. I think of that scene in The Shining where Jack Nicholson is throwing the ball against the wall of the Overlook. It's not a bored, incantatory bouncing like we see in a lot of art. He's really throwing it and it's getting knocked back at him. Sometimes I think of each poem in Barricade as one of those tosses. Which makes the wall America as we know it. But Jack isn't me, Jack is the barricade too, and also me, and we’re both statues that demand to be knocked over.

 

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About the author:

Danniel Schoonebeek’s first book of poems, American Barricade, was published by YesYes Books in 2014. It was named one of the year’s ten standout debuts by Poets & Writers and called “a groundbreaking first book that stands to influence the aesthetic disposition of its author’s generation” by Boston Review. His work has appeared in Poetry, Tin House, Iowa Review, Fence, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, jubilat, and elsewhere. The recipient of awards and honors from Millay Colony, Poets House, Oregon State University, and the Juniper Institute, he hosts the Hatchet Job reading series and edits the PEN Poetry Series. In 2015, Poor Claudia will release his second book, a travelogue called C’est la guerre.

About the interviewer:

Joseph Thompson is a school administrator in Los Angeles, CA. He occasionally writes.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Ramona Ausubel

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An interview with Ramona Ausubel, author of No One is Here Except All of Us and A Guide to Being Born.

Interview by Alex McElroy

 

Q: First off, what is a normal day of writing like for you? Do you have certain habits? Superstitions? Are you able to write every day?

A: I usually write four days a week when my son is in school. Depending on what stage of writing I’m in (new material or revision, novel or stories) I try to write for most of the day, leaving a little time for whatever else needs to be completed. Otherwise I try not to have too many special needs so that the little things don’t trip me up.

Q: Has the recent success of your first two books affected how you write? Do you feel you must hold yourself to a higher standard? And, on the most basic level, has your success affected your working habits?

A: I worried about having to go back to the blank page after having books published because I thought that the big Audience would follow me and make it harder to write. It turned out to be a lot less different than it had been before the books—I was just me in my own head with my own expectations and hopes. Books take such a long time to write that any concept I might have had of an audience quickly, happily, dissipated.

Q: Reading No One is Here Except All of Us and A Guide to Being Born, I was struck by your depictions of sex in its various forms, ranging from the heinous and disappointing (No One is Here … and “Atria”) to the absurd, in “Snow Remote,” and even the grotesquely comic—love causing physical deformities in “Tributaries.” Sex in your work is refreshingly unsentimental. And compared to other forms of human connection—storytelling or friendship—sex feels unlikely to bring people together emotionally. Could you say a little about this topic? Are you conscious of how you’re writing these scenes (avoiding sentimentalism, including the strangeness of sex) as you’re writing them, or is it something that emerges naturally as you create your worlds and characters?

A: Maybe it’s that I think we use sex as shorthand for love or connection, which of course it very often is. But it also expresses a lot of other ways of relating (the awkward, the violent, the dishonest, the ridiculous, the hopeful) and I wanted to get at some of those. I’m always thinking about how emotional lives can be represented in the body so this makes sex an obvious arena. I also just think that we’re physically a lot more absurd than we’d like to believe! Characters on my pages are often stuck between the idea they’ve been sold about sex—the two beautiful, perfect bodies convening in a love that will never die, the pillow grabbing climax, etc.—and the reality.

Q: You’ve drawn favorable comparisons to writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Aimee Bender, Miranda July, and others known for magical elements. The Boston Globe aligned with the “writers who show us the world as it is not, [writers who drop] surreal events and inflections into otherwise believable settings.” How do you feel about these comparisons? Do you ever feel limited by this particular aesthetic? Embrace it?

A: When thinking of things as they are not feels like it creates energy in my work, I embrace it. When thinking of the world as it is does the same electric thing, then that’s where I go. I try to allow myself as much territory as I need or want—hyper-real, fabulist, etc. Then a lot of my work takes place in the very muddy land of the human brain where what is true and what is perceived can be almost impossible to separate. I never get tired of exploring that and it affords me lots of fun and interesting matter to play with. We’re all at least a little bit crazy, right? And then you combine two or more people’s craziness together and things become exponentially more bizarre, and then you add the world/society/a particular city and a situation. That’ll keep me busy writing for many years!

Q: Somewhat of a follow up question. That style of writing—magical, fabulist, fantastical—seems to have grown in popularity over the last few decades, especially in American Literature, favored not only by major American writers, Karen Russell for instance, but many younger writers as well. What do you think contributes to the popularity of this style of writing? Both for writers, and for readers?

A: It does seem to be a zeitgeist. Maybe it has to do with the times in which we live, as our selves are refracted into digital versions that sometimes begin to feel more powerful than the “real” versions. Maybe this causes a need to think about deformation and perversion. I also think there’s an instinct to take literature back from something that’s “important” or somehow “good for you” and reclaiming the pleasure. The existence of Dave Eggers’ Best American Non-Required Reading series speaks to that. Most of the writers I love are not trying to best each other with literary impressiveness, but sloshing around in language and ideas because it truly matters to them to find ways of expressing these things. The borders come down pretty quickly and new terrain is explored. I love that.

Q: In its review of A Guide to Being Born, The Daily Beast wrote that “clearly [Ausubel] understands that in order to make this kind of story work, the oddness must serve a metaphorical purpose beyond merely standing out, and the familiar elements must be convincingly rendered.” Do you agree with that statement? Must the oddness serve a metaphorical purpose? And what is gained through the use of metaphorical—or oddness as it speaks to real-life—rather than literal or realist storytelling techniques?

A: I definitely agree with that. It doesn’t matter what kind of story we’re looking at: every aspect must be playing as part of the larger orchestra.       It has to move toward something.       Mean something. Readers sniff out falseness really fast. A writer may start with a conceit but it certainly needs to grow out beyond just a clever set-up if it’s going to be a real story.

Q: Your work also seems very interested in death, both in how the dead spend their days, and in the ways in which the living interact with the dead or attempt to grieve. Yet your fiction hardly feels heavy or morbid, as one might expect. How are you able to avoid the stifling weight of your subject matter?

A: I’m glad it doesn’t feel morbid! That might be part of my interest in the subject—death is part of every single person’s life. A) we’re all going to die and B) each of us has alive people and dead people that continue to matter. It’s often tragic or sad and probably the biggest mystery that no one will ever solve (what does happen??) but it’s also utterly normal and regular. Somewhere in that unknownness we’re all cooking up stories to make it OK or survivable or even sometimes beautiful. We tell the story a certain way, we light the candles to the particular saint, we send prayers up, we try to forget, we try to remember. It’s so human, all of it, and tender and unique and fumbling.

Q: More generally, what draws you to writing about death? Is it a personal compulsion, or might death—forgive the leading question—be an obsession shared by a broad range of writers?

A: I guess it’s the unanswerableness that keeps me coming back. Because each character in each situation invents an entirely new version of what death is and what it means and because the version cannot be proven or disproven, that invention becomes true. Grief and loss takes on a presence in people’s lives that no one else can dismantle or deny. The ghosts are truly everywhere.

Q: Finally, you stated that you liked “the tension between the unique experience of an individual and the pull of group-think. These won’t be the last stories about groups that you’ll see from me.” Have you lived up to that promise? Are you working on anything now that focuses on the tension between the individual and the group?

A: On a smaller scale, yes. My new novel includes a group of children whose parents have disappeared. The kids take up residence in the backyard in a tipi and attempt to live like their misguided idea of Indians. No individual could child could have mustered the belief in their situation were it not for the others. I’ve also been working on a story about a young couple in which the woman, believing she is going to die, cooks up a truly terrible plan to stay with her beloved forever by transplanting their hands, and in the isolation chamber of their relationship, her boyfriend gets swept up in the idea.

And who knows what’s next—certainly not me!

 

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About the author:

Ramona Ausubel grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of the novel No One is Here Except All of Us, published byRiverhead Books in 2012, and a collection of short stories A Guide to Being Born (2013).  Winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, she has also been a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and long-listed for theFrank O’Connor International Story Award and the International Impac Dublin Literary Award.  She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine where she won the Glenn Schaeffer Award in Fiction and served as editor of Faultline Journal of Art & Literature.

Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, One Story, Electric Literature, FiveChapters, the Green Mountains Review, Slice and elsewhere and collected in The Best American Fantasy and online in The Paris Review.  Her work was included in a list of “100 Other Distinguished Stories of 2008″ in the Best American Short Stories and thrice as a “Notable” story in the Best American Non-Required Reading.  She has been a finalist for the Puschart Prize and a Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

Ramona has taught and lectured at the University of California, Irvine, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Pitzer College and the University of California, Santa Barbara and served as a mentor for the PEN Center USA Emerging Voices program. She is a faculty member of the Low-Residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

She is at work on a new novel and a new collection of stories.

About the interviewer: 

Alex McElroy lives in Arizona. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Music & Literature, The Millions, Passages North, The Chattahoochee Review, Tin House, The Offing, and more work can be found at alexmcelroy.org.  

 

 

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Okla Elliott

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Interview with Okla Elliott, author of From the Crooked Timber

by David Bowen

 

David Bowen: I know you’re often asked about working in multiple genres when you interview, but I’ll open by asking again. How do you manage writing fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, while also conducting scholarly research? To what degree do these disparate projects help or hinder one another?

Okla Elliott: I’ll answer your last question first. They definitely all help each other. My scholarly work in trauma and Holocaust studies deeply informs much of my forthcoming novel, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, as well as several other pieces of fiction and nonfiction I have published or am currently working on. For example, a creative nonfiction piece of mine that recently appeared in The Chattahoochee Review, “Cinnamon or Crocodiles, Romanticized Suffering, and the Productivity of Error: a Polymorphous essay in Fragments,” draws heavily on my time studying in Germany and Poland, as well as my experience teaching Holocaust literature.

I would also add that writing narrative prose can expand the possibilities of your poetry, and writing condensed lyric verse can teach you how to put more verve into your longer narrative prose. The genres are all considerably more porous than many people seem to imagine. I would say that after the modernist movement, the old distinctions between poetry and prose probably no longer make much sense—or, minimally, I think most of us can agree that the categories have been substantially blurred over the last century or so.

DB: Your translation work involves another distinct approach to writing projects. How does translation inform your other projects and vice versa?

OE: They are definitely mutually informative. My years of writing poems and my education in German language and literature have allowed me, I hope, to be an effective translator of German poetry—since in order to render the German poetry into English, it is helpful to have written a fair amount of English-language poetry, and of course it is necessary to know German and the cultural context for the German-language poetry I am translating. But there is also a reverberation from these translations back into my own work, whereby I learn new tricks and tactics by playing the poetic ventriloquist for a bit. Doing translations and thinking about the theoretical aspects of translation have also informed the way I understand and teach literature from different cultures and languages. In some ways, even though I do much less translation than my other endeavors, translation sits at the center of everything I do.

DB: I read the novel that you wrote with Raul Clement, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, while it was still in manuscript, and I was particularly drawn to the conceit of the book, which held that you and Raul had translated another writer’s history of Joshua City, a fictional post-apocalyptic city-state set in southern Siberia. In what ways did this translation-frame create story possibilities as you were writing and developing the novel? How did you come up with the idea?

OE: Well, it’s actually a fictionalized form of me and Raul who did the translation. The fictional Okla and Raul are two scholars at the recently rebuilt University of Illinois in the Federated States of America, which has emerged after The Great Calamity. As for the idea of a faux translation, I thought it would allow for a lot of fun po-mo moves, like translators’ notes that explain the culture of Joshua City and the other parts of the world, and when I presented the idea to Raul, he immediately agreed. It also allows for making comments on the language we invented for Joshua City, Slovnik. The fictional Okla Elliott and Raul Clement translate from the Slovnik into New High American with some vernacular Middle High American thrown in for readability. Those are the languages of the Federated States of America in our alternate reality. In effect, the faux translation helps us create our particular brand of slipstream fiction, where we blend literary tropes and tactics with sci-fi tropes and tactics, hopefully creating interest for both types of audiences.

DB: Describe an average workday.

OE: I don’t do fixed schedules, though part of me wishes I could. I end up writing and editing pretty much every day. I always have the vague goal of writing three manuscript pages (double-spaced) and editing nine manuscript pages each day. Of course this changes based on deadlines. For example, before turning in the final draft of The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, I was editing more like twenty pages a day and writing zero. And then there are days when I simply fail to meet my goals because of all the usual reasons—other obligations or just outright laziness. The important thing is to keep at it even if you have a bad day or fail to meet your goals one week, or whatever. Just like professional athletes, writers have to practice constantly to maintain and improve their skills. There are certainly differences between physical and literary endeavors, but probably not as many as some would like to think.

DB: What about reading? Where does that fit in?

OE: I read several hours a day and try to make that reading as diverse as possible—recent and classical literature from the United States and around the world, scholarly studies, popular news media, philosophy, and of course I am always reading as an editor for New American Press and MAYDAY Magazine. I suppose the kind of writer one wants to be guides the kind of reading one does, and a current project will shape my reading list in a major way. For example, while working on The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, I read several sci-fi novels so that I could better understand one of the traditions the book would be engaging. Interestingly perhaps is the fact that I never read in order to write poems. Whatever I’ve been reading or watching on Netflix will simply find its way into my poems willy-nilly, almost as though poetry is a place where I process all the excess data rattling around in my mind, whereas I do specific research for novels and essays. I don’t think that’s any kind of universal rule, and I never noticed that pattern until just now as I was typing out this answer.

DB: Since you mentioned your poetry, let’s talk about The Cartographer’s Ink. The book travels the world, both geographically and conceptually. What were your influences and inspirations while writing these poems?

OE: My poetic influences are probably too numerous to list, but I have to acknowledge a debt to Margaret Atwood, Marvin Bell, Bertolt Brecht, Albert Goldbarth, Andrew Hudgins, Thomas Lux, Joyce Carol Oates, David R. Slavitt, and Wisława Szymborska. There are, of course, dozens more who have influenced me over the years, but the poets I just named loom large over me and my work. I should also add certain songwriters like John Darnielle (of the Mountain Goats) and Leonard Cohen to my poetic influences. As for inspiration, my various travels and my scholarly pursuits in comparative and world literature are all over the book, as the title suggests.

DB: One of my favorite poems from The Cartographer’s Ink is “That the Soul Discharges Her Passions on False Objects.” I like the way it roams through pop culture and high philosophy and personal narrative, weaving Montaigne and Slavoj Žižek with an evening spent surfing Netflix. What are the origins of such a poem?

OE: That is a poem that uses what I jokingly call “stream-of-blather.” Without having done any official count, I’d say about one in ten poems I write is in that vein. In such poems, I allow myself to freely associate as wildly as my mind desires—so if, as happens in that poem, I start with Montaigne and move to Netflix, which gets to an adult cartoon I watched as a boy, which gets me onto the ideas of pop-cultural dealings with racism, but then I am reminded of another adult cartoon I also watched around that same age, which then gets me on an embarrassing memory of masturbation, and so forth, then so be it.

DB: But it’s not simply free association.

OE: Right. It’s a kind of controlled chaos. The difficulty with such poems is to create the illusion of total free-form thinking while actually controlling the language and flow of ideas with aesthetic stricture, though never allowing that stricture to show—which I guess is just a way of rephrasing Wordsworth’s dictum that a poet must spend hours making it seem like it only took a few minutes to write the poem. What I most like about writing such poems is how everything becomes fair game, the full range of my experience, be it reading Sartre or eating tacos or falling in love or being annoyed at the options on Netflix. I think too often we limit what we write about in really unnecessary ways, either lopping off our lofty ideas to seem more down-to-earth, or ignoring the fact that a huge part of our daily experience is not comprised of lofty stuff at all (using the bathroom, eating food we know isn’t good for us, feeling emotions we have been taught we should rise above, etc.). In these poems I give myself permission to write any- and everything, no matter how philosophically dense or vulgarly quotidian, as well as a dozen stations in between.

DB: Since Netflix already popped up, let’s talk about television and film in the twenty-first century. Television in particular has become a far more literary medium since The Sopranos reinvented the dramatic series, spawning The Wire, Rome, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and the rest, and ultimately attracting literary writers to work on them: Chris Offutt supervised True Blood; HBO just finished airing the first season of The Leftovers, which Tom Perrotta adapted from his novel; Ben Percy’s currently at work adapting his novel Red Moon for Showtime. Have you ever written a screenplay or considered writing one? How conscious were you of film and television narrative structures when you and Raul were writing The Doors You Mark Are Your Own?

OE: I have written various dramatic forms—short plays, full-length plays, and screenplays, though no teleplays yet. Jason Bruce Williamson and I are currently planning a film or mini-series adaptation of The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, as a matter of fact. When I was applying to writing programs, I was admitted to USC’s screenwriting program, but I decided my preferred genres were prose and poetry, though I have taken a year-long screenwriting course and enjoy writing in the form. I do think that television is the dramatic form of our current era. My hope for the adaptation of the novel is that it will be a six-episode mini-series at least, since a single film adaptation would require such massive cuts to the novel it would no longer be the same beast at all. We’ll see what comes of it…

DB: The Notes on Craft for Young Writers Question: What advice do you give your creative writing students?

OE: My primary advice to young writers is that they explore subjects that interest them widely, so while they might major or minor in creative writing, I suggest picking a second major or a couple minors in things like history, a foreign language, philosophy, or a scientific field. I also often suggest that they do a study abroad, since that can give their writing invaluable material as well as maturing them as thinkers and human beings in more ways than can be counted. Also, it’s rare to find another opportunity to spend a summer or semester or year abroad later in life. And then I advise that they push themselves beyond their writerly comfort zones—that is, if they usually write free verse poetry, I will often assign a metered or form poem for them to write; if they do prose, I suggest writing some poems; and so forth. Finally and perhaps most importantly, I incorporate reading into every workshop I teach and do my best to impress upon my students that writers are readers first, that we enter into a long discourse with centuries of literary pursuit when we write.

And on a more practical note, I suggest that they get an internship at a journal or literary press if at all possible—sometimes offering them one at New American Press or MAYDAY Magazine—so that they can see behind the curtain, as it were, and better know the contemporary literary landscape. There is very little more educational than seeing literally thousands of submissions from contemporary writers at various stages of their development to give young writers a snapshot of the field they are entering. I also feel these sorts of internships help the students develop a more committed attitude toward writing and publishing.

DB: What are you working on these days?

OE: Following Robert Penn Warren’s advice to his students, I tend to have a few different projects in the works. That way, if on any given day I hit a wall on one, I can get good work done on another. Currently, I am finalizing a book of translation, Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker, out from Black Lawrence Press in late 2015. I am also finalizing my dissertation, which I am scheduled to defend in February. And finally, I am about 100 pages into a projected 350 on Salt of the Earth, a novel that blends the literary and crime genres in a similar way that The Doors You Mark Are Your Own blends the literary and sci-fi genres.

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About the author:

Okla Elliott is an Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois where he works in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies. He also holds an MFA from Ohio State University. His nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, among others. He is the author of a story collection, From the Crooked Timber, as well as a collection of poems, The Cartographer’s Ink. His novel, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-authored with Raul Clement), is forthcoming in early 2015 from Dark House Press, and his book of translation, Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in late 2015.

About the interviewer:

David Bowen is a senior editor at New American Press and MAYDAY Magazine, and a contributing editor at Great Lakes Review. His work has appeared in The Literary Review, Colorado Review, Flyway, Serving House Journal, Printer's Devil Review, and elsewhere. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he’s at work on a novel.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Jon Sealy, Author of "The Whiskey Baron"

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Interview with Jon Sealy, author of The Whiskey Baron 

by Denton Loving

 

DL: Congratulations on your first novel, The Whiskey Baron. It’s been well-received by readers and critics. How does it feel to have the book out in the hands of readers?

JS: At first it was a bit strange. You never know how readers will react to something you’ve written, and I was unnerved to have something that had been so private now out for public consumption. But I’m glad it’s out there so I can really say it’s done and focus on the next thing.

DL: The Whiskey Baron is set in a South Carolina mill town during prohibition. I know you did a lot of research for this book so that you’d get the time period right, as well as geographic setting and the culture of the mill town. Do you remember how the idea for the story started? And how much did it change as it progressed?

JS: Two ideas converged. First, I had this image of a man standing over a grave with a shovel in his hands, in a landscape that was more or less my grandparents’ old farm. He took off for the bottomlands, washed himself in a creek, and headed out into the countryside. A second idea was that I wanted to write this family novel about life in a cotton mill village back when my grandparents’ generation was young. I thought I was writing a labor novel about life in the mill, but there was no real story in following characters as they got up, ate breakfast, and then went to work. To get some story going, I threw in a dead body on page 2, which let me incorporate the man-on-the-run image.

DL: I love that The Whiskey Baron opens with a double murder but that it isn’t a mystery novel centered on knowing who committed the crime. Even though the details are revealed slowly, the big questions surrounding the murder and the culture of this town are far more important than “who dunnit.” How conscious were you on that line as your wrote, and was it difficult to maintain?

JS: I never really thought I was writing a classic who-dunnit. I was more interested in the why-dunnit, or the dunnit’s fallout. I think I’ve written a novel that fits in the groove between what commentators call “literary” and “genre.” There’s a story here, and plot, but ultimately I was as interested in the language and the characters as I was in spinning a yarn. I didn’t feel like I was trying to maintain a careful balance. Rather, I was just writing the kind of book I wanted to write, which was the kind of book I wanted to read.

DL: I’ve seen that you said some of the novel’s central concerns are “the nature of American enterprise” and “the limitations of the law.” In reading the book, I see your exploration of those themes. But on a simpler level, the book is basically and pleasantly a real page turner. Was it difficult to balance those layers of the writing?

JS: I suppose I did have to work at keeping the tension alive and not stray too far into the poetic mode. The real difficulty was in tightening the focus, because the temptation was to meander all over town. There’s a relatively wide cast here, but originally I had about twice as many central characters, which diluted the story too much.

DL: I also see the ideas of “free will” and “predetermination” as being integral to the novel. How important do you see that debate within the narrative?

JS: There’s a branch of literature called “Naturalism,” which is primarily American (writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Jack London), and this group of writers were interested in the materialist view of the world. In this view, humans are determined beings, products of our biology, the natural and economic environment, and the role of chance. I do think I was wrestling with this worldview in the novel. Many of the characters in The Whiskey Baron are running up against the limits of their own agency, yet I would argue they are nonetheless free, even if biology, the environment, and chance all impose some limits. Of course, this whole debate might just be a geeky English major thing. I don’t think you need to worry about any of this to enjoy the story.

DL: Both lines of thought are supported by incidents of tremendous violence. I saw Susan Tekluve wrote a great review of the book where she wrote, “Jon Sealy loves writing about people who behave badly.” Is that true, or do all characters in fiction behave badly by necessity?

JS: I think all fiction relies on characters making choices, and it creates tension when you see characters making bad choices, because as the reader you want to argue with them, or you want to warn them, or you despise them for their folly. If I remember correctly, Susan and I were discussing villains, so maybe a more nuanced way to say it is: I love to write about characters who behave in such a way that, were most of us to behave in a similar way, we would be behaving badly.

DL: Castle County, South Carolina, where The Whiskey Baron is set, is a place you created. But how much of it is based on real places you were familiar with from growing up and living in South Carolina?

JS: Castle is a fictionalized version of Chester, which is in a rural area off I-77 between Columbia and Charlotte, where much of my family is from. I drew heavily from the landscape and what I know of the place, the people, and its history, but I fictionalized it because I wanted to play fast and loose with the geography and the history. As far as I know, there is no historical correlative to anything that happens in the book, and I didn’t want readers coming up to me and saying, “That’s not how it was in Chester.” I’m sure I missed some details, but I wanted to focus less on history and more on the story.

DL: You’ve been living for the past few years in Richmond, Virginia. Was it beneficial in any ways to be away from the place you were writing about? Did it allow you any freedoms?

JS: Maybe leaving South Carolina has given me some perspective, and depending on what day it is, I might tell you I was writing my way back to rural South Carolina in my mind from my home in suburban Virginia. But I’m not sure I left because of any notion of artistic freedom, so I wouldn’t mythologize myself as an exiled Carolinian the way we mythologize, say, James Joyce for leaving Ireland.

DL: I know that you’re a voracious reader. Who are some of your favorite writers, and how do you think they’ve influenced your own work?

JS: Oh, everything I’ve read or done has influenced my work in some way. I will say I love the writers generally classified in the Southern or Appalachian tradition, though I’m hesitant to make a list because I’m sure I’d leave somebody out. I tend to favor writers who write about place, southern or not, so I feel some kinship with what Alice Munro does with Canada, or Philip Roth does with Newark, or Annie Proulx does with Wyoming, the same way I feel a kinship with what Ron Rash and George Singleton do with the Carolinas.

DL: Do you see yourself as part of any particular writing tradition?

JS: Yes and no. I feel a kinship with a number of other writers, such as regionalists and crime writers, and I do look at writing a book in terms of T.S. Eliot’s “tradition and the individual talent”—that when you publish a book, you’re adding the next link in the line of literature. At the same time, we’re experiencing an unprecedented deluge of “content”—books, traditional media, social media, blogs, GIFs, quizzes, podcasts, and the like—and I feel this deluge poses an existential threat to history and tradition. If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said we seem to live in the perennial present, and that nothing written today will last in any meaningful sense. But this week, I’m reading Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, a 1971 novel in which the narrator makes similar commentary about how kids today (or the kids in 1971) don’t appreciate history and nothing lasts and yadda yadda yadda. So on the one hand, my feeling is nothing new. On the other hand, how many people are reading Stegner anymore outside academia? Maybe he was onto something.

DL: Now that the book is finished and out in the world, do you ever find things about it that you wish you could go back and change?

JS: Here and there, when I read out loud, I mentally fiddle with the punctuation. Overall, I’m happy with it, though I haven’t reread it start to finish since it came out.

DL: You’ve been doing a lot of traveling to promote the book. A lot of people forget or don’t know that writing is both an art and a business. How do you enjoy the promotional aspects?

JS: It can be unnatural. As a writer, I believe I’m supposed to practice what Keats called “negative capability”—that is, getting rid of my ego in service of the characters and the story. Book promotion, on the other hand, is all about saying, “Hey there, this is my book.” Swapping back and forth between those two hats will make you schizophrenic (or drive you to drink). All that said, I do like getting out and meeting people. It’s humbling when a stranger comes up to tell you they liked your book.

DL: You’ve been writing and publishing for a long time before the release of The Whiskey Baron. I know you’ve published a number of short stories. Do you have a preference between the short form and the long form?

JS: I much prefer the long form. I wrote short stories in graduate school to learn some technique, but that’s not my form. Some writers can move around from one genre to the next, but I feel like the novel presents such a challenge, and the form has so many secrets, that I don’t have enough time to master anything else.

DL: What are you writing now, and what will we see from you next?

JS: I have another novel currently with my agent. Where The Whiskey Baron is about a bootlegger’s crumbling whiskey empire in the thirties, the new one is about a financial officer’s crumbling business empire in the eighties. He gets overleveraged while involved in an ill-advised money-laundering scheme.

 

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About the author:

Jon Sealy’s stories have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines, including The South Carolina ReviewThe Normal SchoolPANK, and The Sun. His story “Issaqueena” won the 2012 fiction contest at Still. A native of upstate South Carolina, he has a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of Charleston and an MFA in fiction writing from Purdue University. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia. The Whiskey Baron is his first novel.

 

About the interviewer:

Denton Loving is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection, Crimes Against Birds.  He is also the editor of Seeking Its Own Level: an anthology of writings about water.  His fiction, poetry, essays and reviews are forthcoming in River Styx[PANK], The MacGuffin and Fiction Southeast. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: C.E. (Buzz) Poverman

C.E.-Poverman-color-head-shot C.E. (Buzz) Poverman: I’m an eclectic reader. What have I been reading?  Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn.  Huge book.  Great.  And Cheryl Strayed.  Wild.  I read memoirs: Andre Dubus’ Townie. Somebody handed me a novel and said, “This is the most depressing book I’ve ever read.” It was by Jose Saramago.  Blindness.  So you see I go from novels to memoirs to a fable. And then I’ll read funky crime novels.

LL: You’re naming all these titles I love. Who do you think is reading you?

CEP: The publicist for [Love by Drowning] said that she wanted to put my book out on Goodreads.  Five hundred and thirty people responded.  I scrolled through the list and thought, who are these people? And what I saw was that 80% percent of them were women from the ages of 25 – 50. And I’m saying to myself, well, this is the classic quote unquote readership of books in our country.

LL: Love by Drowning. The book has a dramatic opening scene and then leaps years forward in time.  After I heard you read that scene, I asked how you knew to make that jump. Your response, I think, was that you couldn’t say. You believe the pressure that deflates dramatic tension comes from within characters, rather than from authorial instinct about where the story needs to go. I’m wondering if you could expand a little bit on that idea.

CEP: I don’t know that you can generalize it. You write whatever’s going on inside you. I don’t know what creates those tensions, and stories are very changeable. I can tell you something about the circumstances of how I came to write this novel and maybe that will help. I had been reading a boating magazine; there was an article about a guy who was suddenly pulled overboard by a small marlin.  It started as a routine thing. He was the wireman, the guy who handles the wire leader to bring the marlin up to the boat. Much like what would become the first scene in the novel.  And somehow he was snagged and pulled overboard.  Within seconds he was pulled down and disappeared.  Never seen again.   I was beyond horrified.  I’d spent the first half of my life on boats.  I grew up on boats, and while you don’t think about it that much, implicit on being on a boat is the possibility that you can get pulled over.

LL: There’s danger.

CEP:  So my first response was horror, but I didn’t have a story. I clipped the article and put it in a drawer.  As part of your writer’s work, you’re always noticing things and what you respond to.  Still, I had no idea what to do with it.

LL: But you knew your response.

CEP: I knew that much: horror. I believe Herman Melville must have experienced a moment like this when he heard about a whale attacking a whaler, The Essex, ramming her so hard that she sank.  Out of this comes Moby Dick. For me, the ground that this thing landed on was that for years I’ve had dreams about boats, many of them anxiety dreams. You know, the boat is filling up with water; or, you’re headed into a huge storm under a black sky.  Maybe a year later, my father died.  I came east where I would often go summers. I had my family with me, my wife and children. We were at a house on the shore.  My mother was there.  My sister’s children were there.  My father was not.  Now, my sister had been in an accident when her boys were young and my parents had raised them. Two of the three brothers were there, and they were in their early twenties. The male rivalry thing was going on.  Banter.  Competition.   And I’m in this house with my own kids, right near the ocean, and there’s a sense of grief, of my father’s absence, and the water’s right there; the water and my life on boats were very connected to my father.   I had a hyper-sensitivity to something going on in me, as if I were recalling a dream. I wrote obsessively, not knowing exactly what I was writing.

At the end of five or six weeks I ran off the file and had maybe fifty pages. When I reread them, the scenes were too fixed on the page for me to imagine farther, so I just got a pair of scissors and cut the scenes and images up to free them literally from the pages.  I made three piles, because that was as much as I knew; this scene or image goes in the beginning; this one, the middle; and this one, the end. And even as I did that, little pieces started filling in, bridges started building themselves, the world started taking on a kind of cause and effect, and I made more notes. At the end of that summer I began writing, and I wrote maybe 80 or 100 pages in just a few weeks; the writing drew in that incident with the marlin. But I didn’t know that it was coming when I started.  What I knew was that water—the ocean—was a character, boats were a character, and I knew something catastrophic had happened between two brothers and the surviving older one, Val, was carrying that with him, and inclusive in that was their sometime antagonistic relationship and a fight he’d had with his brother, Davis, over Davis’ girl, which had happened the night before Davis drowns, and that there was something troubled and troubling about the girl: Lee Anne.

I didn’t know everything when I began, but I can start writing and trust the gaps will fill in if I have two things. The first: I have to know why the story is happening now, what sets things in motion.  The other: I have to know what the central action is, the one main thing, no matter what all the dozens of small things are, the one main thing that the protagonist is after, or at least have some intuition about it. And so to go back to your question:  it wasn’t the pitch of excitement, of what can rise or fall off after a scene, and where it can or should happen.  No.  I knew why the story was happening now; I more or less knew what the character, Val, wanted, and I could then feel whatever was necessary for the story to go forward. Lisa, I think originally that first scene that you talked about with the marlin pulling the brother, Davis overboard;  my first intuition had been—I’m reconstructing now—to start the novel with Val, the surviving brother, seventeen years later;  he’s 43, which is when –

LL: The next scene, with the son, was taking place.

CEP: Yeah, and I think it may have been that he’s remembering Davis being pulled overboard by the marlin.  I might have written it that way the first time.  But then I realized I could just show the scene as it happened when Val and Davis were in their twenties.  And then I could move forward in time and start the next section with Val at 43, which is the scene with him fighting off his 14 year old son in the bottom of a backyard swimming pool.  And so to answer your question directly: I didn’t know I would make a leap in time like that when I started.  Writing and rewriting created and showed me the possibilities.  That’s maybe a classic answer on how I would come to make a seventeen year leap in time: the writing, itself, generates both the material and its possibilities and solutions.   I just started from an overwhelming mood of grief and something unfinished, and all the related stuff that goes with grief and regret and missed opportunities, and also that my family had had an earlier catastrophe—my sister’s accident—and I was highly aware of the way the life of people, or a family, or a group, can be changed in one second.  So, you asked me the question from a kind of literary point of view, and I answered you by going back to a place that had an emotional starting point.  That being said, you have to be able to execute things.  Each person has his or her own sense of how story works and if a jump of seventeen years in time is acceptable, both to that writer and to the world of the story that the writer is telling.

LL: Emotion’s a powerful force. Do you ever find that subjects feel off-limits because of the people involved? Like it’s not your story to tell?

CEP: Writers are constantly finding themselves in this conundrum.  Recently I was reading a Wikipedia entry on Ann Patchett, and there was a picture on her page of a woman named Lucy Greely. She was a very close friend of Patchett’s, and so I went to the link to see who she was. Lucy Greely had died, at 39, from a heroin overdose. She was a writer, and she’d written a memoir, and she had a cancerous growth in her face that she’d battled for a long time, making her somewhat deformed.  And Patchett had written a book about Lucy Greeley.  In turn, Greeley’s sister had written an article about Patchett’s memoir; it was an increasingly scathing, scalding, taking to task of Ann Patchett for writing about her sister, and their family, and their grief. And the last phrase of that article, referring to Patchett, was: “Grief thief.” So that represents a problem that writers, I think, have to deal with all the time.

I had not modeled any of my characters after anybody specific.

LL: I ask because I am working on a novel about caving, grappling with unearthing characters whose emotional core comes from a very specific moment in the lives of actual people.

CEP:  The first thing you have to do, no matter what your doubts or your fears, is put them aside as much as you can—Is it okay, or is it not okay to write this—and just go ahead and do it.

LL: What do you do with the material that comes out? What if it’s wrong?

CEP: People may come at you afterwards.  That possibility is always there.  You just have to figure that you’ll find a way to deal with them and what you have written when the time comes.

LL: Do you think that when a story really takes solid form, and it’s done for you, that anything remains of the original source? Like that you wrote in part about a man who was pulled overboard by a marlin. Do you think that anything remains of that story in what you’ve created?

CEP: Neither anecdotes nor information create stories. It was only that the article struck something inside me which then got drawn up into the force field of a much bigger dynamic going on inside me. Once you put a book out, and you start giving readings and signings, things take on a life of their own; people tell you stories. Some of them are astonishing. A woman came up to me after a reading and said she’d heard of somebody who’d gotten pulled out of a boat by a marlin. I don’t know if he drowned.  She said she was an avid fisherman herself and that because of her reading that article—the line had snagged his watch—she now never wore a watch when she fished.

LL: Are there things that you think would have made a great story that you passed by? Sounds like no. If the story’s there, you’ll follow it.

CEP: Anything of interest to me, if it feels like it has enough draw, or juice, or energy, I’ll follow.  A woman who was interviewing me asked me something nobody else had, and it was perceptive. She said, “The marlin is like the story, the way it’s pulling the writer.” I agreed, and she asked “Were you aware of that?” I told her that I had only become aware of it maybe halfway through the book, which was that the thing that was pulling me was overwhelming and relentless. I rarely will write something which interests me right away. I’ll take notes on it; I’ll think about it before I start because I want to make sure it has enough force to pull me. The circuits of our heads are so full of noise, superficial stuff, I want to find out if this thing is deep enough in my marrow before I’ll commit to writing, and I’ll write for two or three years beforehand to see if something’s actually there.

LL: What do you think about a deliberate, an extended metaphor, like the marlin? You’ve mentioned Saramago’s Blindness, but he also wrote The Cave. So writing about a cave, or the tug of a caught fish, it automatically has this allegorical value.

CEP: I trust it in this case.  I think imposed metaphors, or allegories, or conceits, or whatever you want to call them, rarely work; I trusted this because it had developed in such a kind of unconscious way. And it took somebody else to figure that out.

LL: So it wasn’t self-conscious.

CEP:  No, but I slowly was becoming aware of it as I was writing.

LL: Let’s shift: You mentioned Steve Orlen when we sat down, and I’m lately noticing that writing used to be rooted in the mentor relationship, but that I’ve become more trusting of friends – somebody that I just exchange work with, and it could be a very well-educated writer or just somebody that likes to read. Did you have transitions between who your literary friendships or relationships were, and did they have an impact on the work? Do you do your own thing?

CEP: I’ve just never been a writer who fell in love with a school of writing. I always reacted to my own internal pressures. There were things I needed to realize, and I would do them in different ways. My first book of stories, The Black Velvet Girl, had some funny, playful stories, and then it had some somber stories. At the time The Black Velvet Girl was published, this was in 1976, and everybody was supposed to be writing what was called the new fiction: Donald Barthelme, a kind of ironic fabulism.  Donald Barthelme had chosen my book for the Iowa Prize, so maybe I was supposed to be the proponent.  I don’t know what they thought at the time. Wow, this guy must be far out, because Donald Barthelme had chosen the book.   But I was just a writer, a young writer who’d spent ten years alone in his room writing stories.  I was certainly in no school of writing, and in fact, I was not a great sympathizer to the school of Donald Barthelme, although I liked him personally. Is that an answer for you?

LL: I get where you’re coming from, I think. Do you remember your first publication?

CEP: I had published stories in our undergraduate literary magazine.  But my first publication beyond that:  I had been in India, and I was twenty-one.  I’d been there on a Fulbright for a year and—this was during Vietnam, so we were getting student deferments.  You would get a year at a time, or you’d get drafted and get a rifle. It depended on your draft board.   Anyway, I was warned that if I didn’t get back in school – I’d already been accepted at Iowa – I was going to be drafted.  My point is when I got to Iowa, I was twenty-two; I’d been back in the country maybe ten days and I had a story in me, and there was so much pressure in me to write it that I didn’t know what I was doing at Iowa yet and didn’t really care.  I had barely found a place to live. I didn’t know the courses. I didn’t know anything about the program.  I’m in shock after a year and a half in Asia, and I clear off this dining room table and I wrote a story, and it was called The Gift.  Maybe two years later when I was getting my MFA, a guy who was the first editor of the Iowa Review came up to me and said “I always remember that story you did in workshop. May I see it?” I gave it to him and that story was published in the first issue of The Iowa Review.

LL: You must be some kind of luck. A month after I asked you that question, my first story got accepted for publication. Last question, you’ve talked about mood a couple of times. You write from a mood. Define that for me. For you, what is a mood that’s worth capturing in writing? Is it a state of being that lasts for a long amount of time and has those depths you talked about to make sure that it’s not surface clutter?

CEP: It’s a combination. Maybe the closest analogy, but it’s not a great one, would be a place in yourself, and there’s everything going on out in the world but you can go to a place in yourself. Some place that you’ve arrived. You come on a place or a mood or an atmosphere and you feel it; it’s there. And every time you look, it’s still there, and it’s got something in it that’s drawing you in to it.

LL: Sounds like love.

CEP: Oh, well, maybe it is exactly like love, has that same quality, although the difference, it isn’t the felicitous high of love, it can be something else, it can be dark.

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Lisa Levine's fiction has been published with Bird's Thumb and Edge 49. Her interviews and reviews have appeared in Edible Baja ArizonaCutBank, Kore Press, and Sonora Review. Lisa lives in Tucson, where she reads fiction submissions for Kore Press and teaches writing at Pima Community College. Her nature blog, Alluvial Dispositions, features scenes from her work-in-progress, a caving novel.

C. E. Poverman’s first book of stories, The Black Velvet Girl, won the Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction. His second, Skin, was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His stories have appeared in the O’Henry, Pushcart, and other anthologies. His previous novels are Susan, Solomon’s Daughter, My Father in Dreams, and On the Edge.  He has been a Fulbright Scholar to India and the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He was also awarded a Chesterfield Screenwriting Fellowship at Universal Studios.  His stories have been anthologized in the O’Henry Awards and Pushcart.  He’s a former director of creative writing at the University of Arizona. With his wife, Linda, he divides his time between Tucson and San Diego.  Poverman’s most recent book is a novel of suspense and obsession, Love by Drowning (August 2013). Visit his website for more information.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Prageeta Sharma

The inaugural Thinking its Presence: Race and Creative Writing Conference brought writers and scholars from around the country to the University of Montana April 10-12, 2014. A week before the conference, CutBank Special Projects Editor Sarah Kahn sat down with Prageeta Sharma at The Break Cafe to chat about the upcoming conference, which pushed literary institutions to engage in conversations about race in writing.  PrageetaSharmaphoto2webCutBank: This is going to be the first Race and Creative Writing Conference. What inspired you to create a forum for this conversation?

Prageeta Sharma: Joanna Klink introduced me to the work of Dorothy Wang on race in creative writing. I was intrigued by Wang’s readings on Asian American poetry and her close readings of a lot of contemporary American experimental and traditional poetry. Her work insists that we reexamine how minorities are getting read and how so often in those readings, content is getting priority over form and innovation. I was inspired by that work and by my students and my community to raise the question of when and how minorities get taught. I hope this conference will encourage this kind of engagement with exciting work.

CB: In terms of the question of when minorities get taught—what role do MFA programs play in teaching and re-imagining the literary canon?

PS: Chris Stroffolino—he's going to attend the conference next year—has asked, in MFAs, how do we accommodate diversity in relation to pedagogy and cultural experience? What is made central? He asks, what are people bringing in to the room that doesn’t get discussed?

My own MFA experience was wonderful, but I was always trying to translate my identity into one that could work with others' expectations. I like complicated spaces. Rather than deciding whether something is good or bad, I prefer looking at intersections and see what is written out of that.

Wang’s book Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry discusses that, often, minorities get read as “minorities with grievances.” With this conference, we want to play with that idea—we even have bags that claim that statement ironically—”minorities with grievances” bags. It gets back to Wang's argument about what Asian poets get rewarded for—the ways in which we read the work of minorities only through the a racialized lens, instead of looking at the many exciting things the work is achieving.

CB: In terms of developing emerging writers, how can MFAs foster divergent voices? 

PS: Different programs have different goals. I think programs foster what they want to foster.

At the &Now conference in Boulder, Colorado last year, I was struck by a panel on M NourbeSe Philip's book of poetry Zong! Philip is a Canadian writer who got her degree in law, gave up law for writing, and wrote this book of poetry based on legal decisions related to the murder of Africans on board a slave ship. This whole panel of Cal Arts professors were talking about teaching that same book. It didn't matter what genre they taught, they were all teaching this book, they were all excited about this book. That kind of energy is so important for a group. That's what is so exciting about MFA programs--what can happen in cross disciplinary teaching. At the conference, Brett Defries will be giving a talk on Zong!

Departments can be so insular and independent. I wanted to ask, how can we invite that interest and collaboration? Programs can define themselves however they like.

CB: What are your hopes and goals for the conference?

PS: I want to establish a community base for writers of color and allies. I want people to think about reading and writing practices and how we naturally connect them. With the TIP conference, we have people coming from all over, scholars from everywhere, to collaborate on these questions. I want the conference to celebrate work that's currently less visible; I want it to hold it all. And radical readings of texts. A space for that, and a supportive community that engages with work without labeling it good or bad.

CB: What are you especially excited about in the conference?

PS: Dorothy's keynote, which may not be about Asian American poetry as specifically as her book is, but will apply those ideas to promote a sense of how we are thinking about creative writing as it relates to race. Where it's not being talked about and the ways in which race is still not discussed.

Kate Shanley and Andrew Smith are going to be doing a talk on Jim Welch's work. Lois Welch will also be reading from her memoir on Jim. Locally, we have extraordinary panels representing Montana. The conference will be foregrounding our literary community outside of the dominant, white literary one.

CB: What about the future of the conference—it's going to become an annual event, held at Universities around the country?

PS: Yes, the conference will hopefully travel. At least five universities want to take it on already. It will be at University of Montana again next year, but then, yes, we want it to continue as a national conference with a board.

We plan to publish a book every two years of the collected essays and to put out a CD. Peter Gizzi told me to make sure to create a publication from this. He created Writing From the New Coast from his conference. A lot of those authors were just starting out. I loved that –it was a two volume publication-- the work and the poetics. Those authors are famous now, but at the time, he just trusted himself to do what he was interested in and that taught me a lot. He was my teacher at Brown and it came out when I was a grad student. Now I look at that and that was twenty years ago and I am so grateful for its existence.

CB: What or how might this conference have changed in twenty years?

PS: When Brown University implemented an activist in residence, it inspired me to think about the intersection of activism with the literary world. Maybe this conference will open up to more art forms eventually. We are just starting with creative writing.

There is a personal element to content and craft. People are ready to speak about what it signifies—students are eager to make connections. With media culture today, writers are trying to reckon with theory and reality. We have so much that we have access to, artistically and otherwise. A lot of the talks will negotiate theory and creative writing, some will be non traditional and experimental and some more academic. It's going to be a space that allows for lots of ways of living and learning. I was inspired by the &Now conference and how it was exploring new writing, new forms of creativity. The ways it turned classrooms into innovative, inviting, imaginative spaces. It was not hierarchical, the same way that media and culture today makes art and access democratic. I want this conference to provide a creative space—to be a non-traditional counterpart to AWP.

CB: Is the conversation about race in writing differently relevant at the undergrad level?

PS: I think undergraduate education is centrally important to creative writing. For young students, writing classes are a way to engage more with words; it can be a transformative moment. The conference is open to undergrads and many are registered. I found poetry as an undergrad and it changed my life. It wasn't a certain kind, I don't know that it needed to be a particular kind of poetry. My mentor introduced us to modern and contemporary poetry and the first poets I met were Jay Wright, John Edgar Wideman, Lucy Brock-Broido, as a junior and senior. If I hadn't met them, heard them, I wouldn't have become a poet. Undergraduate curriculum is vital to creating creative writers. If they can have meaningful experiences and get a sense of tradition. Traditions, if we can participate in them, are transformative, so it isn't that there's something wrong with the canon, with what's being taught. If a student feels excluded from a tradition, though, that's unfortunate. That cuts them off from meaningful connection.

Last night I was at a dinner party and I met a woman, a stranger, who was telling me she once met a poet she really liked, but whose name she couldn't remember. She said she'd seen his face on a stamp and that his work was dark—I guessed that it was Theodore Roethke. We read “Elegy for Jane” off the screen of my iPhone—that was one of the first poems I ever read—and we had this moment of connection. So tradition is important. It's important that I could connect with a stranger because we both knew the same poet. Your education should give you a foundation for participating in tradition. The canon is important. That being said, it shouldn't just be Langston Hughes. We need to expand the canon. It is expanding.

CB: I tutor high school kids, and all of them read the same three books: The Scarlett Letter, Huck Finn, and the Great Gatsby. It just seems like these books—the classes in which these books are taught—aren't raising very interesting questions for a 16-year-old. But it's an unwritten prerequisite for college. 

PS:16-year-olds are able to handle more theory now than before because they are getting theory through music videos and these powerful forms of art that everyone has access to now. They are being exposed to queer theory and inclusion. We need to make the novel or story resonate at those levels.

I teach a week long high school creative writing class. A lot of them ask me, wow there's a lot of writers of color. Is it a multicultural section? I just present it as works for reading, I don't give them a theme. I think that's what they're usually given. Black history month, then we'll return to what's good on it's own merit. It creates these tokenized spaces.

CB: Sometimes this happens in MFA programs, too. It seems like minorities are lumped together and taught under Critical Race Theory, which is important, but then they are ignored in craft and lit classes.

PS: Historically in creative writing programs it has been white men. MFA programs now are and should be trying to correct that. Students don't leave a program that's only teaching white male writers equipped to go to New York or anywhere else. And students are all coming from different spaces. They're hungry to figure out what their culture is and what it looks like. You're in charge. Publishing is always changing. We can no longer trust that the way we are mentoring you in relation to publishing will be the way that publishing works in twenty years. We have to keep trying to reevaluate what values around creative writing can be meaningful, applicable tools, that what we are teaching is relevant. Theory is really important to this generation in a way that it was optional in the past. It's not an option now. If a book is irresponsible about its politics it won't get published. Even what has changed between decades shows that we must be mindful of, we have to expect change and progress.

There are two groups of writers: people afraid of the future of creative writing and whether they can survive it and those who are excited about it.

I think of MFA programs as places where we are creating, witnessing the future. It's the most stunning thing about them to me. Each has its own world. And however many years later, 70% of the students leaving that world are contributing to the larger literary landscape.

CB: How might the conference open that question of how creative writing is changing as it relates to MFA programs?

PS: I remember going to an art performance in 96, a non-traditional performance and no one thought it was going to be important, and that artist in 2006 won a MacArthur. I want people to ask, do I have to wait for it to be acclaimed or can I identify what's exciting and what I like before that? Isn't that what an MFA does? You have to take risks to believe in your work before it gets recognized. We are supposed to teach you how to recognize things that are new.

There are two modes of pedagogy—one teaches the canon, and one teaches that it wasn't always canonical. People hated so much of what we accept as part of the canon now. 'Hate' might mean 'like' later. Hate and like rhetorics are more understood now than ever before. There's such an inner connectedness of what we're exposed to. Media culture exposes us to so much and it's not moderated or dictated in the same ways as it once was.

CB: That makes this an interesting moment for this conference to be inaugurated. How did the mission of the conference evolve?

PS: We had really limited funding—people are coming on their own dime, they're proposing their own panels. People have reached out to me to say, I wasn't invited, and I say, yes you were. Everyone who wants to talk about these things, who feels they are a racialized body or who are writing about that are invited. It isn't exclusive.

There were a few moments with potential contributors when I tried to engage them in a deeper question. I don't want to talk about universalizing or transcending race. I think we are ready to have a conversation about that idea, but not claim that it's happening. When we think we are transcending race and universalizing, we are claiming color-blindness, which is uninteresting. We are not a post-racial culture. It doesn't work, essentializing the desire for post-racial culture, which we aren't in. It is not a post-racial reading to talk about form in relation to race. I feel like I am opening a can of worms—but this it is the idea of valuing more than race-theory reading, of valuing the work’s craft and innovation.

CB: It's surprising in some ways that the first conference on this topic will be held in Montana—what is interesting about Missoula as its first location?

PS: When people come to visit they think Missoula is so great. We have this opportunity to be hosts. If Missoula can do this, it can do whatever it wants. If people are entrepreneurial they can do a lot here. There is a lot of possibility in Missoula.

People are coming from all over the country. A scholar from Portugal, a writer from the Middle East, so many universities and programs coming together, creating a place for students to connect with important writers and be exposed to people representing all these different places.

Harvard University's African diaspora journal, Transition, will be in the tote bag and we are excited to have CutBank in there too! There is a limited amount. So register!

________________

Prageeta Sharma is the author of four poetry collections, Bliss to Fill, The Opening Question, Infamous Landscapes, and Undergloom. Her writing has appeared in journals and anthologies such as Boston Review, Agni, Fence, The Women's Review of Books and (among others) The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry and (BloodAxe/Penguin’s) 60 Indian Poets. Her recent awards are a Howard Foundation Grant and writing residencies at the Millay Colony, Headlands Center for the Arts, and Hotel Pupik (Austria). She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at The University of Montana.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Rosemary Madero

Rosemary-Head-Shot-300x225As part of a series of interviews with students participating in the recent conference, Thinking its Presence: Race and Creative Writing, CutBank asked some questions of Rosemary about her experience with race in academia, creative writing programs, her own writing, and what she reads. The conference brought writers and scholars together to engage in conversation about race in writing. CutBank: Why are you participating in this conference? Why do you think it is important?

RM: I was intrigued by the fact that we are having the race conference in Montana.  I’m Mexican-American.  I hate that label since I consider myself Mexican. Both my parents were Mexican.  I’m 2nd generation American on my mother’s side.

CB: You were surprised by the location because Montana is homogenous?

RM: I’ve lived in Helena and Glendive, which is near North Dakota.Want to talk about homogenized?  Considering that I grew up in Los Angeles and later San Diego, when I moved to Montana in 1981 I noticed the lack of minorities in the state.  I moved to Bozeman in 1987 and lived there until I moved to Missoula for grad school.

Growing up in L.A. during the 60s, I felt the distinct discrimination of having brown skin.  2nd class citizen.

When I moved to Montana,I didn't feel discriminated against. The only time I’ve experienced a form of discrimination was when I moved to Missoula and it wasn't because I was Mexican, it was because people assumed I was Native American and they viewed me differently.

CB: As a student, and as a teacher, what do you hope this conference can spark in creative writing programs?

RM: I feel I can identify with its purpose of removing barriers. I have thoughts on how my ethnicity impacts my own writing, on how they coalesce.

That's also the dual purpose of the conference itself; I think it's important for people here to look at questions of race.

I'm teaching a creative writing nonfiction class this semester and one of the first assignments was for my class to write a personal essay. One student, who is biracial, Japanese-American, wrote about how he had been bullied because of his identity on both sides—in Japan and then in America. I talked to him about this conference and he was very interested in seeing what people had to say about it, in exploring their identity and expression through writing.  For students like him it's a wonderful thing to participate in.

CB:What will your reading be about?

RM: The piece I'm reading was originally a prose poem, but it's now a longer narrative about my mother’s childhood and musicianship, her meeting my father, the dysfunction, her coming out on the other side as an independent strong woman.

CB: What made you decide to participate in this conference?

RM: I was worried, at first, that what I read wouldn't be making enough of a statement in regards to the program, that it wouldn't be enough about race. But it doesn't have to be about race and ethnicity—we write just like anyone else.

CB: What are you excited about?

RM: The convergence of different ethnic groups coming together in Montana.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Alicia Mountain

This is one of a series of interviews with students participating in the upcoming conference, Thinking its Presence: Race and Creative WritingCutBank asked some questions of Alicia Mountain about her experience with race in academia, creative writing programs, her own writing, and what she reads. The conference will push literary institutions—from MFAs to journals, we hope—to engage in conversation about race in writing. Alicia will be on the panel “Pedagogy, Innovation, and Solidarity” at 3:40 on Saturday, April 12.

CUTBANK: What are you doing for the conference?

Alicia Mountain: I am speaking on a panel, “Pedagogy, Innovation, and Solidarity”.

Is the panel about teaching? How are those topics related?

Good question-- I think this should be an interesting discussion because the speakers seem to be approaching the topics through a number of different avenues. I think that pedagogy and solidarity are closely linked in terms of actually enacting justice through writing. Innovation is involved in terms of HOW some of this teaching and justice work is done.

How are you approaching the topic? Since you teach undergrads, what do you think are relevant questions to be asking about race in regards to an undergaduate writing class?

I am approaching the topic by looking at my own experience as a new teacher within the context of how we read each other's identities through language. I approach my work as an undergrad educator with the same philosophical ideas that exist beneath all (or most) of my political/creative/social/personal thinking: that binary power structures perpetuate oppression. Of course that means that I try to create lesson plans and syllabi that deconstruct some of those power structures. And then somedays I totally fail, and don't get those underlying points across. But what I'm curious about (and haven't at all figured out) is how the dynamics shift in a mostly white-presenting classroom. How should I best educate folks about racialized experiences when most of us are coming from similar racial backgrounds.

What are some ways that you can create (have created) a syllabus that diverges from the traditional or dominant narrative?

I've tried to incorporate readings speak to non-dominant experiences of identity. So I'm including bell hooks, Staceyann Chin, Marcus Samuelsson, Amy Poehler. Where I'm struggling is to apply this diversity of voices to the non-narrative, less touchy feely units. That just requires some more effort on my part to find strong radical research essays and op-eds that are level-appropriate for my students.

What's challenging about trying to create a syllabus that goes outside of the stock writing 101?

The tough part for me has been finding texts that help me accomplish all of the day-to-day goals I need to meet so that my students are learning necessary rhetorical skills, while also working to educate my students about privilege and oppression (or even alternative perspectives). This means that I'm looking for texts that are rhetorically digestible enough for first-year undergrads. Often the conflict is that the texts that make easy teaching examples in terms of integrating research or using academic tone or proper MLA citations are also speaking to or working within the patriarchal canon. And I know the exceptions to that generalization are out there! I just need to track them down.

It's awesome that you're paying so much attention to this in your teaching. As a student, how do you experience this problem? Why do you think the question of race in cw is an important conversation for MFA programs to be having?

Such an important conversation! I mean, as creative writers we are trying to build the new canon, perhaps we are hoping to be in it, so I think it's hugely important that we are aware of how our creative work functions in the larger literary context. That isn't to say that we should change our voices because people with similar identities to our own have already written things that we might identify with (i.e. I'm not going to quit writing poetry because we already have other white queer women poets out there). But I think I have an obligation to know that there ARE white queer women poets out there and to consider whose other voices I want and need to have included in the canon that I want to be a part of.

I think that's a really important point--MFA students are some of the emerging writers who will make up the future literary canon, so even though they feel constricted or inspired by it, it's also their job to create it. It's really exciting that we are holding the first conference on this topic a UM--what's something you'd hope for in terms of how the conference can open conversations in that context?

Hmmm. In the most economic and bureaucratic (therefore perhaps capitalist) sense, we have to look at what faculty are being hired, what students are being funded, and what sorts of work is being put forward -- and I'm actually less interested in what demographic boxes are being checked and more interested in whether or not those positions of power are being used in radical ways. I remember taking a pedagogy class as an undergrad at Barnard and we discussed how there is this very particular ivory-tower rhetoric that is powerful, divisive, oppressive, useful, and hugely performative. So I'm still interested in that. I'm also hoping that the conference can address some sentence-level ideas on language.

There are a lot of interesting panels that don't explicitly deal with race. That's one of the things that I'm excited about in the conference. In her book, Dorothy Wang, the keynote speaker, talks about the ways that writing by minorities—she's talking about Asian poets—get categorized by their ethnicity and read for content, and what they're doing that's innovative, their craft gets overlooked sometimes.

I think your summary of Wang makes so much sense, and that's kind of what I was getting at with the personal narrative unit that I teach-- I don't want to be relegating non-white writing to storytelling exclusively. Radical (or just non-normative) experience is often reflective in innovative forms that aren't as embraced by the institution. But that's something to push for. Or at least pay attention to.

 

REVIEW & INTERVIEW: "Note Left Like Silver On The Eyes Of The Dead" by Jeff Whitney

Note Left Like Silver On The Eyes Of The Dead reviewed by Phillip Schaefer

“If the body is an argument / it is ours / to lose” Jeff Whitney states in his new chapbook Note Left Like Silver On The Eyes Of The Dead (Slash Pine Press, 2013). And the poems within — from the quiet, opening letter to Charles Wright to the man behind the glass at the Greyhound Station — provide such an argument with each other.

As readers we are impossible voyeurs peering into his bathroom mirror, sampling his reflection with him. Whitney never lets you slip out of your body, his body, those ethereal bodies of “the three women you’ve loved float[ing] in the sky on separate chariots.” These thirteen poems range from four lines to four pages to fortnights “waiting for a foal to die.” And after those six words you are the foal.

Jeff Whitney’s relationship to love is almost interchangeable with his fascination toward death. They’re each a silver coin left on those closed eyelids. Yet his movement is never trite or hyperbolic. His approach toward human empathy rests always like “a child winding the corridors of a museum where the vastness of history is made clear.” It is curious in its crystalline ability to navigate the moments between the moments of clarity.

And this is what makes Whitney a master of the unexpected image, and ultimate emotional payoff. He isn’t afraid to lie down in one dark corner, for as long as it takes, in order to feel the weight of ants walking across his face. His body is a playground for the dead, even if the dead hang around on church days.

Jeff’s poems in this chapbook present a “quiet, terrible language for screaming” = calm and electric, grounded and polemic. In less than an hour you’ll be able to re-imagine your body’s body by reading these poems. But be warned, they will build slowly like “lightning in our throats and we must be careful.”

 

Jeff Whitney Interview with CutBank Editor Rachel Mindell

RM: How did this project emerge, as in these thirteen poems together via Slash Pine Press?

JW: These poems were all written over a period of a year or so—most in Montana, some in Korea.  The piecing together happened in Korea, and I suppose being culturally and linguistically isolated had me wrestling with ideas of home and language and my own little nook in history’s pantry.  The poems are presented as an apostrophe to the dead—something to take into the afterlife based on the ancient Greek tradition of placing coins over the eyes of the deceased.  The result, like most of what I tend to write, is a dialogue between what is written and people who are separated—through time, geography, language, or otherwise.

What do you see as the major themes in your work, and this book in particular? What are your poetic obsessions?

I think a quick skim with a highlighter will expose all those little obsessions: home, culture, history, mortality, love, estrangement, and so on.

What do you make of Phil's observation about Jeff Whitney: "He isn’t afraid to lay down in one dark corner, for as long as it takes, in order to feel the weight of ants walking across his face."

I think it’s mighty flattering, and Phil’s a wonderful image maker.  I would counter, though, by saying that the real me may possibly be afraid of laying down in that dark corner—that I have a tendency when I write to romanticize the difficult, and that the real me is not so brave.

One things readers should know about your book? 

It would make me happy if you bought and read it and send me an email about it.

Who are you reading? Who will you always read?

I’m working my way through the newest issue of december, a magazine with a long history that just came back from hiatus.

Some collections that I’m reading or rereading: Christian Hawkey’s The Book of Funnels, Ruth Stone’s In the Dark, Lisa Robertson’sThe Weather, Heather Christle’s What is Amazing, Sabrina Orah Mark’s Tsim Tsum, Donald Revell’s Thief of Strings, Nikky Finney’sThe World is Round, and Kevin Young’s Most Way Home.  I also went on a Zachary Schomburg kick a few months back and walked around with a different set of feelers.

I will always read: Charles Wright, Larry Levis, Linda Gregg, Jim Harrison, Lucille Clifton, Hikmet, Sexton, Hugo, Antonio Machado, Dickinson, Calvino, Rilke, Ahkmatova, Li Po, Tu Fu, Vallejo, Neruda, Whitman, Blanca Varela—all these great folks and more.

Can you discuss the post-Montana-MFA experience? Who is your community and how is your discipline?

From a writing perspective, life after the MFA has been wonderful: I have written prolifically, kept in touch with several friends from the program, and I have published this book along with a handful of other poems.  One thing I was worried about was lacking motivation, and it has been difficult at times to get out of a rut or try something new.  And while it’s true that when you are in an MFA you are hazarding a new way of writing damn near every single day (or, at least, you should be), I have found different approaches to the page while out here on my own along with different approaches as to where a poem might be taken.  The result is thrilling, and rewarding.  Motivation, I’m happy to say, is not an issue.  The desire to write and read poems is as strong as ever.  I’m a dumb kid in love and probably always will be.

Purchase a copy of Note Like Silver from Slash Pine Press.

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Jeff Whitney is a co-founding editor of Peel Press and the author of one other chapbook, De Rerum Natura (Gendun Editions, 2011).  A graduate of the University of Montana's MFA program, his poems have appeared in such places asburntdistrict, Devil's Lake, Salt Hill, Sugar House Review, and Verse Daily.  He lives in Portland.

Philip Schafer's writing has swelled in Nashville rain, Chicago dumpsters, and Missoula rock gardens. It’s out or forthcoming in Fourteen Hills, RHINO, Toad,The Chariton Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Litconic, and elsewhere. His favorite place to drink coffee is on the thinking rock in his backyard, barefoot.

Rachel Mindell is an MFA candidate in poetry and an MA candidate in English Literature at the University of Montana. She grew up in Tucson and has also lived in Mayaguez, Boston, and Durango. Her writing has appeared in Horse Less Review, Delirious Hem, interrupture, Caliban, Barn Owl Review, and Pity Milk. Her dog and cat run the household.

CUTBANK INTERVIEWS: Anne Barngrover & Avni Vyas

IMG_3507CutBank was so excited to publish a poetry chapbook featuring collaboration between two female authors (Candy in Our Brains by Anne Barngrover & Avni Vyas). Can you give me the background? How did you come to know each other and write together? A group of us took a trip to a place called Sister Sinks on the edge of town. Technically, we were trespassing. Because we were trekking through North Florida brush on social trails, there were no restrooms, so Anne and I snuck off into the bushes to pee and keep lookout. From that moment forward, Anne and I shared an implicit bond of protecting each other from the elements, which I think translates into our writing.

I also knew Avni was going to be my friend when our first conversation involved her describing how a worm fell off her cat as it walked across her keyboard and she yelled “NOOOOOO” in a deep man voice.

Also, just this moment I just asked Avni if she had a hair tie on her. She undid her ponytail and literally gave me the hair tie off her back. This is why we work.

We trust each other with every thought that would appear in our brains.

What was the literal process for creating the poems featured in Candy in Our Brains?

Initially, we toyed around with sonnets-- their space and necessity for lyrical density appealed to us, but the form itself seemed cumbersome. We decided on a fourteen line limit and decided to interlace our writing. That means if Anne started with the first line of a poem, the second line was mine, and we'd alternate throughout. Whoever wrote the first line also wrote the title. This is how our entire collection was written--alternating lines. In the best way, each of us is equally invested in each poem and relies on the other for support, momentum, and talking shit about what ails us.  

What were the greatest pleasures in collaborating? Any obstacles?

2012 was a real shit-show of a year. We were talking just about every day, and between kvetching, laughing, and talking about our writing, it became evident that this ongoing friendship was crucial to our well-being and our individual creative process.

Anne and I realized also that we had strong protective streaks for one another. I feel so honored that Anne would leap over a table and rip out an enemy's jugular if need be.

Avni is basically this.

Part of the surprise in writing together was seeing where she would take the next line and giving up expectations for the poem at its onset. We wrote to make poems, but we wrote also to make each other laugh, or remember. It was imperative, before we envisioned readers, to write for each other.   

Can you discuss the persona of the “Heroine”? What does she represent for you?

As people who freak out at the thought of crossing the street if the crosswalk doesn't approve, Heroine serves as a fearless part of our writing personae--she gets away with things we couldn't in our daily lives, and she serves as a reminder that we are artistically and instinctually ruthless creatures.

Heroine makes fart jokes, dresses scarecrows, offends roommates and ex-lovers, trims rat-tails, ShamWows, hems and haws, doesn’t say I love you, and aches with unrequited love.  She is a livewire; her spit is made of gasoline. She is vulnerable yet resilient; she writes this book with soot.

IMG_3499How did you decide upon the title?

Avni wrote it, and Anne called it. As soon as we wrote that line in “Fossils”: “Sometimes we decide what is wrong with each other/ and sometimes we let the candy in our brains get eaten, eaten into holes/ big enough for fists,” I just felt like that was it--that’s what we were really trying to say. That poem is emotionally hefty for both of us, and it’s one of the final ones that we wrote. I just felt the full weight of our project and our voices crashing down on me with that line, and the title couldn’t be anything else.

What do you see as the role of pop culture and slang in contemporary poetry?

I was teaching Junot Diaz's "The Sun, The Moon, The Stars" in my literature class and we began discussing the narrator's use of slang and vernacular. In the same breath, though, when you examine the story syntactically, there is such keen awareness and sophistication of language as well as movement. When it comes to slang and pop culture, these are integral elements which help us connect and transcend. Heroine, while basking in the glow of thrift store lamps, is reaching for something bigger than herself, and she, like MacGyver, is dauntless and resourceful in roping herself to the universal. She (and, and I guess, we) is (are) smart about her funny.

How do you view collaboration functioning in a literary culture accustomed to works by a single author? Why is collaboration important?

I first thought that working on a collaborative project would make me view the act of poem-making in a completely different way. I mean, if you think about it, it’s two heads, four eyes, four ears, two hearts, and two rogue spaghetti piles of emotions colliding together instead of the typical lonesome endeavour. But then, once I’ve had time to really think about it, the voices of people who inspire and challenge me are always in my brain, populating the imaginative space and helping me write my poems.

I realized, too, that since our minds are peopled with our friends, loved ones, enemies, and mentors, vocalizing the process makes this ether of negative capability tangible.

Any tips you might offer to authors working together?

Talk to each other in the process. Work with someone you trust. Believe in your poems.

 

Click on the cover to order your copy today!

Candy_Brains_cover

INTERVIEWS: Chapbook Prize winner Dennis James Sweeney

We caught up with Dennis James Sweeney, winner of CutBank’s 2013 Chapbook Contest, to get some insight into the poetics and process of his poetry collection, What They Took Away. Lily Hoang calls it “an epic apocalypse of life stripped of tedium, of obtrusiveness” and a “magical miniature world showcas[ing] the terror of erasure and the wreckage of return.”

Sweeney will read from What They Took Away at our CutBank 80 launch in Seattle this week.

 

CutBank: Obviously, we love your book. I’m curious how this project came about and under what sort of timeline. You’ve mentioned that you were cashiering in Boulder? 

DJS: Thank you! Yeah. I had just come back from this two-year sojourn—after graduating from college I taught in Taiwan for a year and traveled in southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent for ten months after that. So moving to Colorado was my way of “trying the United States out again” for myself. I was coping with a pretty major disaffection for the American standard of living at that point, which writing What They Took Away helped me to purge a little bit.

I was working as a cashier at a natural foods store in Boulder, so over the course of a couple weeks I would either wake up and write a few entries before working the late shift or come home after the early shift and scribble down what I’d thought of that day. The first few entries came about through a kind of magic, as really good ideas sometimes seem to. Once I had those, it was a tense few weeks of trying to hold the inspiration inside me and let it out through these little spigots, the specific items I picked to be taken away.

How did you select the items that would be taken away? What about their order?

That’s funny. I could probably tell you how each one came about. “Pet healings and readings,” the first one, was from some terrible ad I saw that just seemed so trivial and opulent that it fit right into the idea for the series. The one about stereo systems came from Jonathan Richman, this musician who made one punk record with the Modern Lovers and then turned into this bizarre, proto-new-sincerity sort of dude. I was listening to his song “Parties in the U.S.A.” a lot at the time. The “bags” section, of course, comes from all the customers who were annoying the hell out of me with their oversized regret about forgetting their reusable shopping bags in their cars. 

Is there a "stance" to this book?

You know, the feelings that made me pursue the idea were very specific: as I saw the fake eco-conscious consumption of (for example) your high-end Whole Foods type grocery stores, especially after being in much poorer countries than ours for a while, I had a really violent impulse to hate all the stupid accoutrements of life in the United States, many of which are “taken away” in the chapbook.

The work itself is more ambivalent about this idea of having more than we actually need. Writing it was a way of moderating my own radical tendencies, I think; when a well-intentioned authoritarian regime starts taking things away in order to “simplify,” it stops seeming like such a good idea. So in a way, I was teaching myself to be less of an asshole, and to appreciate the free market. As terrible as that sounds.

Who are “they” and who are “we”?

That’s something I figured out as I went along. “They” are supposed to be this sort of fascist government that has the ability to take away all these things we depend upon for our daily lives—possibly the embodiment of my own wish that people would back off the consumption a little bit, as I just mentioned. “We” is us. You and me. The people that are subjected to these changes and have to cope with them, however well-intentioned “they” are. “We” are doing the best we can with what remains to us. 

Can you discuss the role of humor in the book? There are moments I laugh aloud while reading it…

No way! I’ve always wanted to find a way to be funny. I think one role of the humor, where it did sneak in, was to contrast with the sometimes sober/poetic tone of the chapbook. It’s good to laugh at yourself and let the reader do that with you. Especially when you’re spending the rest of the time riffing on the irremediable nature of loss. 

How would you classify the genre of What They Took Away? How relevant is this question to the writing you do? Writing in general?

A couple of other people who have read the book have asked me that too. The approach here was influenced partially by the short-form narrative poetic prose I’ve seen in amazing books like Sarah Goldstein’s Fables and Jessica Bozek’s The Tales, though I read that after I wrote What They Took Away. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot in the last couple years, and a form that seems to be making inroads with a lot of indie presses. Some people call it “hybrid.” I’m less interested in what the form is called than the ability of linked short-shorts to do the work of poetry and fiction at once: both to affect the reader through the way something is said, and to pull him or her forward with the power of narrative. That’s why this sort of writing is coming out more and more, I think. It gets at two of our best impulses. It’s a wonderful thing that there’s people out there who appreciate this kind of stuff.

Anything else you’d like readers to know?

Just to check out Clint Garner’s rad reconstitution of Odilon Redon’s sketch for the cover: color on the front, black and white on the back. The image is almost like a 20th “thing taken away.” Kind of rounds out the book, in a way.

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Dennis James Sweeney has also co-won the Unstuck Flash Fiction Open, judged by Amelia Gray; been nominated for a Pushcart Prize; and been longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 Short Fictions. He was born in Cincinnati and has lived in St. Louis, Taipei, Boulder, and Corvallis, Oregon, where he is now. Visit his very own website to read more of his work.

 

INTERVIEWS: Alice Notley on Ghouls

Alice Notley - Version 2 Interview by Karin Schalm

"I allude to Jews, Native Americans, African-American slaves, the hundreds of Algerians shot on the streets of Paris in 1961. The badly treated dead should be loved NOW, and I think a book can love."

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INTERVIEWS: Aryn Kyle

This is an interview of Aryn Kyle by Candie Sanderson. Sanderson is a nonfiction writer in the MFA at the University of Montana, and a fiction editor for CutBank. She met Aryn Kyle on a New York balcony while trying to break into another writer's house. Aryn Kyle completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Montana, and is the author of the novel The God of Animals (Scribner, 2007), the short story collection Boys and Girls Like You and Me (Scribner, 2010), and Hinterland, her forthcoming novel from Riverhead. Kyle is the one who put the mad idea of pursuing an MFA into Sanderson's head. Since then, her work has appeared in ToadTwo Serious Ladies, and BlazeVOX. Candie Sanderson: You got published in The Atlantic Monthly and received a National Magazine Award only one year after graduating with your MFA. You then went on to write and publish a widely successful novel, The God of Animals, which became a national bestseller and got translated into many languages. You are the dream MFA success story. How did you make it happen?

Aryn Kyle: I feel like I need to start off by telling you that as I am writing the answers for this interview, I currently have $9.62 in my bank account (to be clear: the decimal point is not misplaced—nine dollars, sixty-two cents).  I’m not offering this as evidence against my being “the dream MFA success story,” but as an attempt to give you a more holistic view of the reality.  

The truth is that, in our field, “success” is a pretty nebulous thing.  There’s no finish line.  When I started the MFA program, there was a girl in the year ahead of mine who already had an agent.  I was absolutely in awe of that:  She had an agent!  In New York! She had totally made it!  (To be fair, she kind of had—she was a total badass.)  But now I look back and roll my eyes at myself, at all those little markers that I thought were Major Signifiers:  If I could just get a story published; If I could just get an agent; If I could just finish a novel, sell a novel, sell another one… It doesn’t end.  You cross one finish line only to realize there’s another one just up ahead.  Not that those little markers aren’t important—they are, and they’re worth celebrating when they happen.  But they’re not nearly as important as your relationship with your own work.

The most valuable lesson I learned during the course of my MFA had nothing to do with the workshop or the classroom.  I don’t know if this is still the way it works, but when I was in the program, there were five fiction students in my class who had TAs.  The first year, we all taught Comp.  But the second year, the top four writers in our class would get to teach Creative Writing.  At the time, this felt like a Very Big Deal, like, being one of the Top Four Writers in the Class of 2003 would in some way determine if I was good enough to be a Real Writer.

You can probably guess where I’m going with this.

So, yeah, I was Number Five.  And I was devastated.  Truly.  Heartbroken.  I had wanted that validation so much.  I had worked so hard.  But here’s the thing:  Those four people who got it instead of me?  They’d wanted it too.  They’d worked hard too.  And after a few days wallowing in my apartment, I realized that sitting around begrudging the Top Four Writers in the Class of 2003—who, by the by, also happened to be my friends—was just making me feel shittier.  The other thing I realized was that even though I hadn’t gotten this thing I’d so much wanted to get, my desire to write wasn’t any weaker than it had been before.  In a way, it was stronger.  I’d spent so much of that first year preoccupied with proving I was Good Enough, trying to guess what kinds of stories I ought to be writing to suitably impress the people in charge so that they would choose me, choose me, choose me!  And once that was all off the table, I felt like I’d been set free. I didn’t have to try to impress anyone anymore.  Now I could just write.  The week that I found out I was not, in fact, one of the Top Four Writers was the week I wrote the first draft of the short story that would eventually become the first chapter of my first novel.  I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but when I look back, I really believe that week was the point when I became a writer.

I wish that I could offer you some kind of map, one with a nice, clear grid system that you could follow from Point A to Point B.  Alas, no such map exists.  In this field, everyone’s path is different, as is everyone’s timeline.  No matter where you are in the journey, you can look one direction and see people who are well beyond you, and you can look the other direction and see people who are still trying to make it as far as you have.  But I’ve found that looking around too much is a pretty good way to trip and fall on your face: it’s best to keep your eyes on your own footing.  I’ve been really lucky to have the success that I’ve had.  But I’ve also had my share of disappointments.  I hate to break it to you, but if you commit to a life in the arts, you better gird your loins for disappointment; there’s a lot of it.  You’ll apply for grants or fellowships or residencies, and most of the time, you won’t get them.  You’ll submit your work to journals that by in large won’t accept it.  You’ll publish a book and get emails from strangers telling you you’re a Talentless Piece of Shit (but they’ll be written by people who are mostly illiterate, which, let’s be honest, helps).  The good news is that the work is its own reward, and if you take care of it, it will, in its own way, in its own time, take care of you.  It will, most definitely, kick your ass and break you down, but it will also open you up.  It will teach you to be curious and compassionate, and it will fill your life with surprise.  And it’s been my experience that, so long as I keep my attention on the process rather than the product, everything else has a way of falling into place.

 

Boys and Girls Like You and Me was largely based on your MFA thesis. What did it take to turn that thesis into a publishable short story collection?

It took a giant mortgage on a house I’d bought but couldn’t afford (646 Longstaff—go by and take a look at it sometime; it’s lovely).

Seriously, I hadn’t really thought about selling a story collection.  After my first novel came out, I went through a pretty long period of time when I didn’t write much.  My attention was pulled in a lot of different directions, and I just didn’t have the emotional space or the mental discipline to create for myself the boundaries that I require to get my work done.  But I had a heap of ever-mounting expenses, and at some point it became clear to me that it didn’t matter what I did or didn’t need to work; if I wanted to keep a roof over my head, I was going to have to sell another book.  And since I already had two-thirds of a story collection, a story collection is what I sold.

I can’t quite remember what all was in my thesis, but I think that most of the stories found their way into the collection in one form or another.  By the time I finished the new stories, the collection represented nearly a decade of writing—the oldest story I wrote when I was twenty-two, the newest when I was thirty-one.  I remember thinking how odd it was to send that book out into the world as “new work,” when so much of it was anything but.  I was actually a little self-conscious about it.  Not that I thought the older stories were “bad”—they just didn’t exactly represent the writer I felt I currently was.  It was sort of like posting your senior picture on a dating website: it might be a perfectly fine picture, but it’s not what you’d want strangers to base their opinion on when deciding whether or not they would sleep with you.

 Now that the collection is out in the world, though, I’m actually quite glad to have all those stories from all those different times living together inside one book.  It almost feels like a scrapbook.  When I look back through the stories, I see the influence of the books I was reading and the music I was listening to (That’s the story I wrote when I was reading a ton of Lorrie Moore; that’s when I was obsessed with Rufus Wainwright; that’s when I was trying to get over my fear of writing about sex).  More interestingly, though, I see how I continued to work through similar themes from different levels of experience (both personal and professional), and how certain characters evolved from other characters.  It wasn’t until the book had been out awhile that I realized the oldest story and the newest story are, in many ways, the same story.  I’m not sure anyone else would read the collection and pick up on it, but I can see it so clearly.  And it comforts me to know that, as writers, we’re allowed to keep working through the material that’s important to us, that we don’t have to retire an idea or a question or an image just because we took one whack at it way back when.  It makes me think of a documentary I saw a few years ago about Russian ballerinas:  in the film, someone asks a famous ballerina if she doesn’t get bored with dancing the same few roles in the same few ballets season after season, and she says something along the lines of, “Every time I return to a role, I return as a different dancer, and so the ballet is never the same.”

 

Your novel takes place in the West. You grew up in Colorado. You did your MFA in Montana. Now you live in New York. How do you relate to the West? How does it influence your work? Do you miss it?

My feeling about the West is this:  It will always be my home, but I doubt that I will ever live there again.

My work is hugely influenced by the West—my first novel was set there, as is the novel I’m writing now.  And I love returning to the landscape by way of my fiction.  It’s a part of who I am, and that won’t ever change.

I’ve never been a person who put down deep roots as far as geography goes.  That experience people describe of coming to a place and knowing that it’s Home?  I’ve never had that.  Of the places I’ve lived, New York is by far the one that suits me best.  Even so, I can’t be sure I’ll stay here forever.  And I’m quite grateful that I wasn’t in New York when I was starting off as a writer.  It’s very easy in New York to start buying into the illusion that personal connections are the key to professional success, that you have to be at all the right parties so that you can fling yourself in the path of all the right people.  And, for young writers especially, I think that has the potential to be really dangerous—ten years ago, it would have been disastrous for me.

Before I moved to New York, I’d lived exclusively in small towns, and I always felt out of place in them, though I wouldn’t have been able to explain exactly why.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that in order to do my work, I need a great deal of privacy, and that was something I never felt like I had until I came to New York.  In a small town, you can’t walk out your front door without seeing people you know.  I’m an observer by nature—it’s how I process the world and what I draw upon most consistently in my work.  But it’s very hard to be an observer when you constantly feel that you’re being observed.

I’m perfectly willing to admit that what I want and need from my environment might change as time goes on, but for now, New York offers me the best of both worlds:  I have a wonderful community of friends and colleagues who are doing interesting things and making interesting art; but I also have the psychological space to really immerse myself in my work when my work so requires it.  Which I think is why I’m able to keep writing about the West; I can see it so much more clearly from here. 

 

Femme is one of my favorite pieces in the collection. You write:

"You have known us since childhood. We are Simone or Car, Rhonda or Nicole. We have cool voices and long eyelashes. We wear too much makeup or not enough. We are your classmate, your coworker, you next-door neighbor. We can tell that you are not like us and we find this attractive. We want to spend time with you. We want to be your friend.

… You don't have to feel guarded around us. You can tell us your secrets. Of course we will keep them. You can trust us. You want to trust us."

How chilling! Could you tell us more about how this piece came about? How did you work with the second person, this sense of intimacy with the reader?

“Femme” is one of those stories that came about kind of by accident.  I wrote it as an assignment for a techniques class, though I cannot for the life of me remember what the assignment actually was—I think it might have had something to do with irony, in which case, the story was probably not terribly well received, considering that it’s not at all ironic.  I do remember that, at the time I was writing it, I was super-annoyed with a girl in my class who I felt had been snuggling up to me and stroking me with false flattery in order to seduce me into telling her all my secrets, and I was super-annoyed with myself for so willingly handing them over.  I also remember being disappointed that the girl who inspired the story didn’t come to class on the day it was discussed.

As far as second person goes, “Femme” is the only story I’ve ever written entirely in that point of view, though I’ve dipped in and out of it in other stories.  I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about point of view before I sit down to write—stories seem to come however they’re going to come.  I’ve been in workshops where I’ve been told that No One Should Ever Write in First Person and I’ve heard authors say that writing in third person indicates an inability to fully access character.  And I think it’s all a bunch of bunk.  People who tell you that you can’t fully access characters through third person are basically telling you that they can’t, and people who tell you to avoid first person are high.  The only warning regarding point of view that I think deserves any attention whatsoever is the one against second person, and that’s only because most workshop stories I’ve seen that are told in second person really would be more effective in first or third.  Second person is fun—it’s quick and sharp and often pretty snarky—but it can make a story seem cleverer than it really is.  And it’s the only point of view that I really interrogate myself about on the rare occasions that I find myself using it.  In the case of “Femme”, I tried writing drafts in both first and third person and they just didn’t work.  I’ve always thought of the story as something like a seduction, and for it to be successful, there really had to be someone on the other end of it—you.  Or, more accurately, me.

 

 What about the blog? Does that medium help to keep you writing, find a new voice?

I started the blog a few years ago at my publisher’s request.  I was getting ready to head off on a joint book tour with my friend, David Goodwillie, and they wanted us to keep a travelogue.  At first, I was a little hesitant about it.  One of the things I envy about your generation of MFA-ers is that you’re coming of age as writers in the thick of the social media craze (to be clear, I also pity you for it).  I’m not saying that I think social media is an essential tool for success or that it even matters all that much—in some ways, I actually think it can be a hindrance; at best, it’s distracting, and at worse it can be rather destructive.  But it’s here, and you know it’s here, and you can start making choices right now about how you’re going to engage with it or when you’re going to engage with it or if you’re going to engage with it at all.  When I first started publishing, there was no Facebook or Twitter; there were a handful of online journals, but they weren’t terribly well respected; I don’t think I’d even heard the word “blog.”

Overnight, it seemed, every writer was expected to have an Online Presence.  For me, it was not a terribly natural medium.  I’ve had a fairly big learning curve when it comes to social media.  Recently, I looked through my entire Facebook history and I was mortified by some of the things I’d posted.  Publishers put a lot of pressure on writers to tweet and post and pontificate online, and I get why. But the truth is that just because a person can write a novel or a poem or a play does not necessarily mean that she can be charming and likable (let alone interesting) on Twitter.  And while I do my best to participate and play along, I can’t help worrying  that while we think we’re Building the Brand, a lot of us are kind of making jackasses of ourselves.

That said, I started the blog, and I kept the travelogue, and it was fun.  Since then, I’ve let the blog lapse for long periods of times.  I toss something up there once in awhile, but in general, there’s not much going on.  This is partly because I’m working on a novel right now, and when I’m working, I need a lot more privacy than I do when I’m not.  In order for me to access that dark, weedy place the fiction comes from, I have to feel really safe and really protected—even in Real Life, my social circle shrinks down to a small handful of people.  I feel very raw and very vulnerable, and I don’t like the idea that people are looking in the window, so to speak.  And so, as far as social media goes, I pretty much drop out.

But starting the blog was good for me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.  For one thing, it was my first-ever venture into non-fiction.  I’d had some offers to write for magazines, and though I’d wanted to try essay writing for a long time, I was squeamish about the idea of my first attempt at the form appearing in print.  I needed some time to play around with it, to see what felt right, to find my voice, so to speak.  And the blog gave me a low-risk place to do that.

 

I heard you have a new novel in the making. Could you tell us a couple of words about it?

 Well, it’s set in an MFA program.  In a small western town.  With a river running through it.  And a stuffed grizzly bear in the airport.

Right now you’re probably asking yourself, ‘How does she come up with this stuff?’

I just have a really vivid imagination is all.

 

Fondest memory of your MFA in Missoula?

During my second year, George Saunders came for one of those week-long gigs—he led a workshop, gave a craft lecture, a reading, etc.  Before he came, I didn’t know much about him.  I think I’d maybe read one of his stories.  But I feel like the week he was in Missoula was kind of transformative for me, though I don’t know that I realized it until years later.  He is such a gentle and generous person.  And so much of what he shared with us was focused on how to deal with fear, on giving yourself permission to tell the kind of stories you need to tell and be the kind of writer you really are—not the writer you think will make the most money or win the most awards or have the biggest fan club.  Basically, he talked about authenticity and self-acceptance.  And I was at a point in my life when everything he said was something that I desperately needed to hear.

There’s so much of what he said during that week that I still think about when I’m writing. Once in awhile I see him around, and I always want to run up to him and throw my arms around him and thank him for that week eleven years ago.  But that would likely terrify him, so instead I just smile at him from a respectful distance.

 

I heard you once fell asleep on the old car seats at the Union. True story? Tell us more!

Oh, dear.  There are a fair number of things that happened during my MFA experience which now cause me varying degrees of physical discomfort to think back upon.  In my defense, I went through with kind of a wild class—most of our parties ended with someone puking on someone else’s heirloom quilt or someone passing out in a locked bathroom so that everyone else had to urinate in the yard or firemen evacuating half the neighborhood after someone broke a gas line by climbing up the side of the house to look in the bathroom window at the person passed out inside.  Before I moved to Missoula, I’d lived a fairly repressed existence.  I’d grown up a straight-A student in a small, conservative town, and the wackiest thing I’d ever done was join show choir.  There was something about breaking through all those layers of fear and conformity to tap into the darker, more complicated part of myself where the writing came from that seemed to simultaneously unleash an insatiable desire for excess.  In short, my Inner Writer was, for awhile, inextricable from my Inner Sloppy Drunk.  Fortunately, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve better learned how to access my hedonistic impulses without necessarily indulging them, and I’m proud to say that I now make a regular practice of switching from wine to water before I fall down or throw up.

Which is all a long way of saying, I totally fell asleep on the old car seats at the Union.

 

A classic: Any advice to aspiring writers?

Advice always strikes me as sort of dangerous; I work very hard to refrain from giving it unless specifically asked, and I am extremely skeptical of those who go around freely offering it—no matter how well intended, there’s almost always agenda.  But a few months ago, I went to this oracle in the middle of the New Hampshire woods (long story), and I asked the oracle my question—which had something to do with fear of rejection and fear of failure—and the oracle’s response was, “The answer is in the advice you have been giving.”  And the oracle—which, to the naked eye looks a lot like a birdhouse hanging in an old outhouse—gave me a new take on both the giving and receiving of advice.  With that in mind, I will offer you the advice I would give myself if I could get into a time machine and travel back ten years to the point when I was leaving Missoula with one piece of paper declaring that I was now a Master in the Fine Art of Fiction and another declaring that, upon the completion of my higher education, I was now obligated to pay back the Shit-Ton of Money I owed in student loans, and you may take or discard this advice as it pleases you:

  1. That mean little voice inside your head that sometimes whispers and sometimes screams that you are not smart enough or talented enough or innovative enough or lucky enough?  It won’t ever go away.  If you’re going to let it stop you, then save yourself some time and stop now.  Otherwise, learn to recognize it for what it is—a mean little voice—and Write Anyway.
  2. There will be people in the Real World who are more than happy to embody that mean little voice in your head—you might even, for a time, seek them out.  There will also be people who legitimately mean it when they say that they love you and respect your work, but will even so throw massive, embarrassing hissy fits when you want to write through the night rather than spoon in bed with them or be their plus-one to a gala at the Museum of Natural History.  Repeat after me:  Buh-bye. 
  3.  There will be events in the Real World that are more important than the ones you’re trying to transpose from your imagination onto your computer screen (note: these do not include spooning in bed or galas at the Museum of Natural History).  Give yourself permission to walk away from the keyboard when they arise.  Your work will wait for you; your life will not.
  4.  If you can’t be happy for the success of others, you better learn how to fake it.  And if you find that you sometimes get a little thrill from the failure of others, it’s worth every bit of energy you can possibly commit to fighting that feeling.  That (understandably human) impulse to snicker at someone’s bad review or talk trash about someone who just got a Great Big Book Advance is akin to that mean little voice that tells you you’re not good enough.  If you allow it to sharpen its teeth on other people, it will be all the more effective when it’s ripping into your jugular vein.
  5. Fear of failure and rejection is a Giant Waste of Time; failure and rejection are inevitable.
  6. The worry that you are maybe not a Real Writer is as much a Giant Waste of Time as the fear of failure and rejection.  There are plenty of people—most people, actually—who do not go through life with the compulsion to make things up and write them down.  The fact that you write, that you do so even when you don’t have an agent or a book deal or a due date, is all the validation you need.  And it’s enough.  It’s everything.  The payoff is in the process.  The work is the reward.  Everything else is just frosting.

 

INTERVIEWS: Victoria Chang

Victoria Chang is a poet and business consultant. She is the author of Circle (Southern Illinois University,2005), Silvania Molesta (University of Georgia Press, 2008), and, recently, The Boss (McSweeney’s, 2013).

Victoria Chang was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1970 and raised in the suburb of West Bloomfield. Her parents were immigrants from Taiwan. She graduated from the University of Michigan, Harvard University, and Stanford Business School. She also has an MFA in poetry from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers where she held a Holden Scholarship.

She worked for Morgan Stanley in investment banking, Booz Allen & Hamilton in management consulting, and Guidant. She lives in Southern California and works in marketing and communications. Her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines including The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, Ploughshares, and The Nation.

 

Q: For anyone who hasn’t read your most recent book, The Boss, how would you describe the collection?

A: I would describe it as an investigation of hierarchy, power, and loss of power/control. I would describe it as an experiment with sound and an exercise in word play to propel the poems forward. I would describe it as an experiment in losing control while writing the poems.

Q: The Boss has been called “obsessive, brilliant, linguistically playful” — if you had to pick three buzz words to sum it up, what would they be?

A: Obsessive, urgent, obsessively urgent.

Q: Have you had any reviews that you felt were particularly rewarding? Or come across any reviewers or readers you felt read your work in ways you did not intend?

A: Truly, beggars can’t be choosers. I will take any review by anyone and find something redeeming about the review. I think all the reviews that I have read so far have been very intelligent and that’s something I’m consistently surprised about. As a writer with a new book out, waiting for people to pay attention to your work, any attention in the form of reviews is agonizing—akin to standing naked on the side of the road with a cardboard sign that says, “review me” and a small bowl for spare change. It’s a pathetic feeling and state of being and one that I despise about post-publication. I sound ungrateful, but it’s hard to wait for something around the corner and even harder to read what people have to say about your work. I’ve been lucky this round with really smart readers like Seth Abramson at the Huffington Post, in particular. McSweeney’s has brought attention to my work in ways that other publishers could not.

Q: The Boss has an extremely distinctive voice that takes on a breathless urgency, often verging on obsessive, that really drives the book. Did you seek out this voice once you had begun the book or did it begin with the voice? What influenced or inspired your poetic voice?

A: So much of this book was about letting go of the process of writing, the process of picking up a pencil, thinking about something, and putting it onto paper. So much of this process was about the pencil moving by itself and pulling my hand and the brain along with it. The urgency inspired the poems and the voice reflects that urgency. I am naturally a very organic person but grew up and work in a more controlled environment. This book was about letting my natural organic self re-emerge and find itself again.

Q: It’s really interesting how the structure you set up for your poems allow you to surprise the reader in interesting ways when you deviate, satisfying and struggling against the rigid rules that mirror the stifling power structures your poems depict. What appealed to you about the uniformity of the shapes and stanza lengths of your poems? What was fun or frustrating about working with this structure?

A: What’s interesting about the structure of the poems is that they began with no structure. They were written in an environment of extreme heat while I was sitting in a car waiting for my oldest daughter to finish a Chinese language class in sweltering Irvine in the summertime. I sat in a parking lot in front of this same tree every Saturday for months and wrote these long-lined things that weren’t poems. The composition notebook formed the poems in that I just wrote until I reached the end of the page and they were in couplets for easier reading for me. McSweeney’s editors suggested the structural change and the quatrains that are staggered to help the reader since I didn’t use any punctuation. I really wanted the poems to mirror the loss of control I was feeling in my life at the time—I had a terrible boss, my father had just suffered a stroke and lost his language, and I had young children under the age of 5. I wanted the lines to spiral out of control in the way I felt my life was spiraling out of control. Add to that all the natural and man-made disasters, I just felt the world was ending.

Q: One of my favorite lines in the book comes at the end of “The Boss is a No Fly Zone:” “the boss’s boss’s boss just wants a fine/ job closes his outer lobe unless his son coughs/ like a sea at night,” because of the tender sadness of it against the more detached current of accusatory statements in the stanzas before. Was exercising restraint in deviating from (or adhering to) the form of the poems difficult during the process of writing this book? Are you someone who writes a poem and cuts half of it or more often revises by adding?

A: This book was written in 2 months and that’s it. I revisited some of the poems later and edited them and also perhaps wrote 2-3 more poems after that, but for the most part, this manuscript didn’t take long to write or revise. The poems in my composition notebook pretty much mirror mostly the poems that are in the book. My McSweeney’s editors made the poems crisper and cleaner and were so great to work with. Prior to this book, I was a heavy editor of my work and in my last book, Salvinia Molesta, took a lot of parts of poems and spliced them altogether. I enjoyed writing The Boss because it felt so much easier than my earlier writing process. I don’t want to write another way again—this could explain why I haven’t written a word since writing these poems 2 years ago. My other books weren’t finished until someone took them—that’s excruciating. I also have other manuscripts I abandoned along the way before The Boss.

Q: What inspired you to take on Edward Hopper as a subject?

A: I’ve always been obsessed with those paintings and look at them once in a while and I had written ekphrasis poems in my first book, Circle, off of some of those paintings. I looked at them again and noticed there were a lot more Hopper paintings that took place in office settings than I had originally thought and so decided to use the paintings to riff off of things and to use the paintings as a new entry point to these poems.

Q: How would you say the experience of being first generation has inspired your work? What ideas and reactions drove you to write this book?

A: I think being Asian American probably inspires and influences everything about me in my life. Not to whine, but it’s so hard being first generation. My sister and I recently had a discussion about how we felt like we weren’t taught anything by my parents—how to manage stress, how to communicate, how to deal with difficult situations, etc. I think my parents taught us what they knew but what they knew didn’t fit into this culture. We learned a ton from them, but some of the things, many of the things we learned were for a different culture. It’s hard to admit that I’ve spent my whole life re-learning how to exist in this culture. It’s been a rough road but an interesting one!

Q: You call into your poems power in many forms--from natural (earthquake), to divine, to human (the boss). Why did the idea of a boss speak to you?

A: Working in business for so long and having gotten an MBA from Stanford has allowed me to see into the world many poets might not see. I have also had my fair share of bad bosses. The good ones were so good, but the bad ones were really damaging. It also goes back to perhaps not having the tools or skills to manage tough situations, to know when to push back, to know when not to push back, to know when to move on. This boss that inspired this book was so passive aggressive and I spent years feeling like I was treated like a child and I could never figure out why this person wanted to control me so badly or disliked me so much. It took me a while to realize it wasn’t about me, it was about her hate of losing control over people and situations and the fact that all bosses probably have similar issues. And then I began to realize in many ways, we are all lost and have no power in some aspects of our lives. It’s just a state of human existence. This was all happening when so many other things were happening in the external world and everything collided.

Q: How much did your personal experience influence your poems? Have you ever been The Boss?

A: I spend my entire day working in business, with business people, thinking about business. It’s very interesting to me but I recognize the crassness of it all sometimes. I have been The Boss and I’d like to hope I’ve been a good one. You’ll have to ask others to verify! I’m also a leader in a lot of other aspects of my life in terms of volunteer work I do and I really enjoy leadership positions. I think working in a professional environment is difficult. All the politics, communications, problem-solving. Business is essentially constant problem-solving so there’s conflict all the time. And sometimes the people aren’t that great, but that’s probably true in the poetry world and academia too.

Q: If you could collaborate with any writer on a book of poems, who would it be?

A: Shane McCrae. He would drive me batty, but I would love every minute of it. Louise Gluck too, I think we’d make an interesting pair of somberness.

Q: If you could choose your perfect reader--the person you’d most want to find your book on a shelf or get it as a gift--who would it be? Do you have a particular audience in mind when you’re writing?

A: I have two ideal readers—one is the practicing poet, that person who reads poetry to learn about writing poetry. The other is someone who never reads poetry—that’s what McSweeney’s is great for—they have so many readers of literature that haven’t read poetry that are reading my book—I love that. Being on NPR Marketplace was great in that way too—all these listeners who don’t read poetry were engaged about poetry, even for a little while—I love that.

Q: How do you balance writing and working?

A: I don’t. I don’t write anymore. I just read books and try to stay on top of what’s happening in the poetry world. I heard Louise Gluck writes like that. I think for better or worse, that’s the way I will write going forward if I ever write poems again. Not caring if I ever write a poem again is liberating, absolutely freeing. I love that feeling. For the first time in my life, I feel untortured.

Q: What were the most fun and most frustrating moments of writing The Boss?

A: It was all fun writing it because it came quickly. The frustrating part was the 6 months after it was “done” and when I started doing the editing. It was light editing, as I mentioned, but I still tortured myself again and again reading that manuscript and beating it to death. The most fun was knowing that I was doing something different (from my old self) and being unsure what it would be, but enjoying that process. The other fun part was finally giving it up to McSweeney’s and saying, “You go at it” and knowing they would.