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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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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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.


Translating James Welch

"Making this film—adapting Jim’s novel—has really helped to teach me how to not only cope with losses—including the recent, stupid, loss of Jim—but, more significantly, how to ‘be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang”—how to embrace the power of those we’ve lost, and use their positive impact on our lives to guide our choices—how honoring, indeed, celebrating—the dead keeps us alive."

~ Alex Smith

This is an interview between Peter Orner and the people (Andrew Smith, Alex Smith and Ken White) who took on the challenge of adapting James Welch's outstanding first novel, Winter in the Blood, into a feature-length film. It took place by email in April 2001, and was originally published in CutBank 75.

Winter in the Blood, published in 1974, is the first novel by acclaimed author James Welch (1940-2003). A Montana native, Welch attended the University of Montana and studied under Richard Hugo. His work has been awarded an American Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, among other honors. He is widely acknowledged as a major voice in the Native American Renaissance.

Winter in the Blood will play on the evening of Friday, October 11 at the Roxy Theater in Missoula, as part of the 2013 Montana Festival of the Book.


PETER ORNER: It must be a daunting challenge to make a film out of book that means so much to so many people. If there are books out there that have achieved a kind of sacred status, this is one. Can you talk about these challenges? How did you decide to go forward with the project?

ANDREW SMITH: It was an incredible challenge at first, until we realized that the novel was also a map—a map that only charts maybe a hundred square miles of prairie, but extends, straight up into the cosmos, straight down into the omphalos, and backwards over 100 years of story and several thousand years of story-telling. I mean, this novel just has so, so much depth—you can lean on it, you know? I think of it as a stanchion—out in central and eastern Montana, ranchers, when they clear rocks off their meadows, pile them in columns, wrapped in chicken wire, to serve as corner-posts to hundreds of miles of barbed wire. I feel like this novel, which Jim said he began as a “travelogue,” has the strength and shadow, of one of those stanchions. Every word a stone cleared from that prairie, each one freighted with history and rebellion. So, yeah, it’s a challenge, and it’s a legend; but it’s also a great honor—like we’re entrusted with carrying something important forward—and every time we get lost, we realize the directions are right there, pointing us home.

ALEX SMITH: Yes. Each new read of Jim’s book reveals more bounty. After a while I stopped highlighting key lines because I found that my entire dog-eared copy of the book was glowing neon orange. Also, one of the hardest things to replicate was how seamlessly the book dances between the present and the past. Wee sentences are tucked into nooks and crannies throughout the book that do epic work.

ANDREW SMITH: Another thing to keep in mind is, no matter what kind of film we make, the book will always be standing there, casting that long, lean shadow. The hardest part was giving ourselves the liberty to make significant changes to the story. The Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsey has said that in order to adapt something to the

screen, one must first replicate the source, and then destroy it, and then rebuild it. Destroying is the hard part, because it’s kind of sacrilegious, and you just have to trust that you’re keeping to the authentic spirit of the original work, or what you’re doing will end up profane. But you also don’t want to defile it by being less than courageous. And we can never destroy it, of course, because the novel is totally alive.

KEN WHITE: Well said, Andrew. You have to have the courage to hold your heart open and let the novel pour into it, but first you have to give yourself permission to change and to be changed. Beyond getting our minds around what initially felt like an act of transgression, many of the destructions and rebirths that happen during the adaptation process are largely a concern of form—there’s simply not enough ink-space in a script to hold that whole world in language—so you have to get Brancusi on it and rely on the integrity of the characters’ shapes within the story.

When we're creating elements of the script which were not in the novel, the test was to hold them up against a ‘Welch-world’ template. Among the three of us we basically developed a sense of how far and deep the parameters of poetry and absurdity extended in the novel and whether our inventions were working in concert with that universe or against it.

ALEX SMITH: Our biggest goal was to be true to the emotional heart of the story—we knew we could play fast and loose with plotting and dialogue as long as there was a veracity of feeling. As far as ‘sacred’ goes, we fortunately had the great luck to know Jim Welch, and to know him well—well enough to know that he was always a bit skeptical about ‘the sacred’, that he always leavened any loftiness with a profane counterpunch, whether it be the horse named Bird farting or Lame Bull’s jumping on Grandmother’s coffin to make it fit too short a hole in the ground. That knowledge allowed us to move beyond reverence.

ORNER: I think of those haunting opening lines of the poem that begins the book. “Bones should never tell a story / to a bad beginner.” I’ve always wondered about those lines. Seems to me we’re all, one way or another, bad beginner—and that we’re not always worthy of the stories that are bestowed upon us by our grandparents, by luck, etc. And yet the book seems to say, do the best you can. You may not be worthy but who else do the bones have to talk to? Any thoughts on this? How will the film capture this spirit?

ALEX SMITH: Indeed, that line,“Bones should never tell a story,” was so intriguing, so right to us that we put it in the script—spoken by the Grandmother to our hero when he was a kid. I remember, years ago, Jim telling us that he believed that most writers were, basically, the children who listened to the stories told by their grandparents. Beginners are, by definition, bad, and it’s very hard for them to read the stories imprinted on the bones. But that’s okay—it’s supposed to take time to understand. The stories have been talking to our main character for a long time, but it is only now—during the four-day journey of the story—that he is trul

y beginning to listen—and beginning to be, as you say, worthy.

ANDREW SMITH: Right. You know, Jim doesn’t name the narrator/hero in the novel, because he says he hadn’t earned a name until the last pages of the story. We’ve called our hero “Virgil,” but you’ll never hear another character in the film call him by his name: he hasn’t earned it yet.

ORNER: A related thought: Louise Erdrich says emphatically that Winter in the Blood is not a bleak book, that it is above all about the stories we tell and the memories we remember and misremember. Do you agree?

ANDREW SMITH: I agree emphatically. The novel is made up of inscribed, hidden, forgotten, and if-only-they-could-be-forgotten memories and stories. Our hero travels as much in his mind as he does on his feet or with his thumb, probably more. And I think at the heart of it is Pound’s poetic edict, “What thou lovest well, remains…”—for though most of the inscribed stories are stories of loss, their telling creates a continuance of life. And, of course, the narrator’s discovery of his own bloodline is also a discovery of a secret, silent, enduring love. And to make a story your own is necessarily to misremember it—the narrator, for instance, in recounting the death of Mose, says, “it was dusk, when the light plays tricks on you…” and he blames himself all these years, even though he was a 12-year-old boy trying to do a man’s job when the accident happened. His ability to forgive himself is part of his maturation process. He’s looked despair in the eye, and stared it down.

I’ve read in interviews with Jim that he was surprised that people found the novel bleak because he thought it was just as funny as it was hard. I find it funnier every time I read it, and I’m excited to try to capture that humor on the screen. I think maybe Jim wrote his second novel, The Death of Jim Loney, to show people what a bleak novel could feel like. But you know, that’s funny, too.

ORNER: The book is as much about memory as it is about the present action of the story. It’s a complicated narrative structure. How does your screenplay address these complications concerning the nature of memory and time?

WHITE: One of the things that helped inform our approach to the fluidity of the experience of time and reality in the script was The Death of Jim Loney. Loney often experiences time as a sort of elision. Sometimes Loney-time is even stacked like playing cards translucent except for the ink of their suits—just hearts and spades from many times suspended in a single space. I remember we had a real breakthrough in terms of transitional elements to let time shift, stretch, and elide in the script for Winter in the Blood when we learned from Loney (from Jim Welch, really) how to relax and let time be its simultaneous and Silly-Putty self.

ALEX SMITH: The best way we could figure out how to cinematically capture the novel’s seamless ‘drift’ between the now and the then, was to come up with a visual device that, during many of our flashbacks, actually places the grown-up Virgil in his past—i.e., he will often, literally, share the same frame with his younger self. As Faulkner put it, “memory believes before knowing remembers”, or as Jim puts it, “the memory was more real than the event itself, you know?” Every memory we have, we have in the present tense—it’s not happening then, it’s re-happening now. So the trick is to make then now—and the best way to do that on film is to make the past visible, both in Virgil and around him, and, conversely, to make the adult Virgil a visual presence in his own past. Yeah?


WHITE: Isn’t that what I said?

ORNER: You all have an intense personal relationship to James Welch and this story. Would you mind speaking a bit about what this project means to you all on a personal level?

WHITE: Alright. Straight skinny. For me, and I don’t think that I’m flying solo on this, the entire project, starting from a middle-of-the-night January dream at the Smith ranch to becoming what is now a front-and-center-all-demanding reality in pre-production has been a profound sort of personal evolution in terms of my relationship to art, collaboration, and as it turns out, community—which I’m coming to understand might be the whole point of art. Or even existence—hell if I know, but it seems likely.

I do know that my former Dickenson-kept-her-work-in-a-trunk kind of relationship to art as private artifact written with a quill dipped in berry juice on magician’s parchment and foxed inside some elm-cranny had its elm pulled out by the roots. As it turns out, in order to really, really bloom in terms of relationship to the novel, the script, the project, Andrew & Alex at each new step of collaboration, each new partner in the production process—all that Winter in the Blood required was total surrender, that’s all. No biggie, right? All I had to do was give over to it entirely, and it opened a door in every wall. In the film’s blog I tried to approach the experience as being part of an ever-growing braid but feeling the strands of the past and the future just as presently as those of the present. This isn’t quite right, of course, these descriptions. I suppose that most directly, the more I gave over to the project, the more connected—the more fused I felt to everything. The art worked on my life—that was the spell. The novel is a 176-page spell you sing aloud to change the weather.

ALEX SMITH: At the end of Winter in the Blood, the nameless narrator talks about how his dead older brother was “good to be with” even on a rainy day. That’s how I think of Jim. From the age of six on, I always looked forward to seeing Jim, no matter what. He was such a great storyteller because he was so interested in hearing everyone’s stories. Because Andrew and I grew up surrounded by scads of hard-drinking writers, there were always a lot of huge personalities around, and it was hard to get a word in edgewise, but Jim would often find a way to involve us in the conversation—and that meant a lot to me. He gave voice to the voiceless.

ANDREW SMITH: That comes up again and again—Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, our young actress, Lily Gladstone, even the African-American poet C.S. Giscome, and many others—they all talk about how they were given “certain permissions” to speak via reading Jim’s novels.

ALEX SMITH: Jim was always genuinely curious about everyone’s life—which was why he was able to soak up so much, and put so much behavior in his stories. He was a great model. Also, because Andrew and I lost our father so early, I always had a bit of a ‘paternal’ sonar going—I was always looking for male ‘blips’ that signaled ‘kind’, ‘open’, ‘sincere’, ‘genuine’—and Jim was goliath on that screen.

So, to me, there is a very personal component to this film. Not only does making it keep me in touch with him—it’s really allowed me to understand him—to know him—in an entirely new way. Making this film—adapting Jim’s novel—has really helped to teach me how to not only cope with losses—including the recent, stupid, loss of Jim—but, more significantly, how to ‘be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang”—how to embrace the power of those we’ve lost, and use their positive impact on our lives to guide our choices—how honoring, indeed, celebrating—the dead keeps us alive.

ANDREW SMITH: Well put. And honoring the dead is what the film/novel is about—about making peace with their loss, or as Virgil discovers—no longer being “a servant to the memory of death.” Freeing oneself from that obligation; a much more kinetic place in which to exist. It’s not such a burden to carry once you realize you’ll never really lose it. “Possessions can be sorrowful,” as Yellow Calf says.

WHITE: Yup. A good ending for a bunch of bad beginners.

ORNER: So many vivid characters in this novel, from the narrator to Lame Bull, First Raise, Yellow Knife, Airplane Man. I’ve saved my favorite character for last: Teresa. I find her remarkable in many many ways. I particularly love the scene where she and the narrator remember what happened to the duck Amos. Can you discuss the challenges to bringing these incredibly unique people to life on the screen?

WHITE: Each character is incredibly unique—but that’s Welch, so the challenge was in being true to what was already there and learning from it. Even very minor characters—like shorthand—are essential. The greater challenges were in deciding what/whom to leave out and what to invent. Teresa is remarkable—she’s one of my favorites too. She needs her own movie. And she’s complicated; she’s both consistent and mysterious. She is the linchpin holding together the ranch and what elements of family remain, but has many inner rooms reserved only for herself. Because she chooses to actively engage the responsibilities of just being, so much of every burden is mostly on straight-backed unsung Teresa. She’s the one who makes difficult decisions and stands by them.

Teresa is also the most reliable conduit of memory and seems to resist the impulse to mythologize the past better than other characters. In the scene you reference—the one that begins with Teresa and the narrator talking about Amos the lone surviving duck and moves to the memories they each have about the death of First Raise—the narrator admits this. For him, “Memory fails.”

Teresa seems to have a pretty clear grip on memory and it’s not nearly as neatly packaged as it is for some of the other characters. Maybe she wishes it would fail. In the same scene, Teresa’s pragmatism is summed beautifully by one delicate, deliberate action—Jim seems to do this effortlessly—in the same scene. This is one of those epics contained in a gem tucked in the nooks and crannies that Alex references. As one of the few people who questions Virgil directly, Teresa asks him some difficult questions. Mid-conversation, Teresa notices a dandelion parachute clinging to the rim of her salad bowl. She asks another no-bullshit question, then blows the parachute away. The scene ends with her recommendation that the narrator look around for other work—there’s no longer enough for him at home. Teresa’s always doing that—blowing the narrator’s parachutes away.

ALEX SMITH: Alas, we don’t have the Amos the Duck scene in our film. We love it, but actually filming drowned ducklings ultimately felt too—easy/maudlin. The scene does do a lot of heavy lifting in the book—beautifully illustrating the ‘neglect’ and ‘rural tragedy’’ Virgil constantly had to face—but we couldn’t find a home for it on screen.

ANDREW SMITH: Maybe in The Production revision. Maybe some ducks will just show up that day and insurrect their way into the film.

ALEX SMITH: Stranger things have happened. But we did know we needed a scene, somewhere, where Virgil and Teresa actually confront the elephant on the ranch—the death of Mose, and who was to blame, and how raw the wound still is 20 years later. And it was, wonderfully, the giant wheel of this project that lead us to a solution—real life informing Jim’s novel; Jim’s novel influencing, of course, our script; our script leading us to scout the Hi-Line and the Fort Belknap Reservation; the Reservation leading us to an actual family gravesite; the gravesite leading us to a weathered saddle hanging on a lodge pole rail; the saddle giving us the perfect visual metaphor for the ghost of Mose, our dead “Indian cowboy." In other words, it took us inhabiting the novel’s ‘truest’ character—the actual landscape— for us to really understand, write, and cast, (and soon direct) the characters inhabiting it.

ANDREW SMITH: Yep. As Jim put it—“Dirt is where the dreams must end.”


Peter Orner is the author of the novel The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, the short story collection Esther Stories and the forthcoming novel Love and Shame and Love. He co-edited Hope: Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives and edited Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, both collections of oral histories published by McSweeney’s Voice of Witness Series.

Andrew Smith is a filmmaker, poet, screenwriter and associate professor in the School of Media Arts at the University of Montana. He and his twin brother, Alex Smith, a prize-winning filmmaker, screenwriter, educator and author, wrote and directed the critically acclaimed feature film The Slaughter Rule. Andrew and Alex, together with poet, actor and screenwriter Ken White, adapted James Welch’s beloved novel, Winter in the Blood, to film, which was shot in July/August 2011 on location at the Fort Belknap Reservation and surrounding Hi-Line towns.

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.

INTERVIEWS: The Next Big Thing with Kristin Hatch

hatch cover

The Next Big Thing Interview

Kristin Hatch’s chapbook, Through the Hour Glass is currently available from CutBank Books. She was tagged in the “The Next Big Thing” self-interview series. Her responses are below.

Q. What is your working title of your book?

A. Through the Hour Glass

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The title takes its name from, “Like sands through the hour glass, so are the Days of Our Lives,” the opening of the daytime soap opera and Lewis Carroll. The poems in the chapbook are all titled for characters and plotlines that happened on the show while I was growing up in the 90s. The project tries to link the rabbit hole of being a kid with being brainwashed to believe you are a princess. Or special date nights with candlelit musical montages. And maybe something about lowbrow art (“lowbrow art” all proper or not) and poems and maybe wanting stuff a little more goofball, a little more joyful.

What genre does your book fall under?


Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

The shock of the new actor seems particularly prevalent in soaps. Suddenly it’s a Tuesday and there’s a new Lorenzo and you have to get used to new-Lorenzo’s new face, but you feel really betrayed until you’re like, “what am I doing holding this pig-baby, I have to go play croquet with the queen!” For some reason I found that scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to be extremely terrifying as a child. Looking back, I guess it’s kind of Mulholland Drive-y. Which I also found extremely terrifying. Point: give me Deidre Hall or give me death.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

It’s a chapbook kind of about the soap opera, Days of Our Lives.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

CutBank Books published this chapbook. It turned out very beautiful and they are very nice. They should make everybody’s chapbooks.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The first poems happened in grad school some years ago. I forgot about them. Then I found them again and binged on You Tube videos and Wikipedia entries. My stories! Soap opera Wikipedia pages are a labyrinthine and impressive, a marvel. Maybe six months-ish? It seemed real fast versus the full-length book. I guess because it was: months versus years. But it was nice to work on something small and focused while the rejection letters poured in for the full-length manuscript. But rejection letters no longer! My the meatgirl whatever won the National Poetry Series and will be coming out on Fence in the winter. Thank you, Universe (and K. Silem Mohammad)!

What other books would you compare this collection to within your genre?

All the great ones and none of the bad ones.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Backlighting, the devil, feminism, my friend Doug.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There is a guillotine scene. And the cover drawing by Amy Sollins (and laid out by Clint Garner) is really, really pretty. So even if you hate (or “eh”) the poems, you get to experience this extraordinary drawing.

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Kristin was tagged by Kiki Petrosino ( author of the forthcoming Hymn for the Black Terrific. As per the rules, Kristin is tagging:

Mary Margaret Alvarado:

Greg Lawless:

Poets on Hugo Interview Series, part 4

Welcome to the fourth and final installment of our series of interviews with contemporary poets regarding Richard Hugo. If you missed our last installment, check it out here. These interviews come to us care of Kent MacCarter. Kent MacCarter, expatriate of Minnesota, Montana and New Mexico, former resident of Florence and Sienna, Italy, is now a permanent resident in Melbourne, Australia with his wife, son and two cats. MacCarter came to Australia in 2004 to study poetry and writing. In the Hungry Middle of Here, his first collection of poetry, is published by Transit Lounge Press. In 2012, another poetry collection, Ribosome Spreadsheet, will be released as well as a non-fiction anthology he is currently co-editing on expatriate writers now living and writing from Australia. His career in Australia has chiefly been in educational and academic publishing as a developmental editor for multimedia, online resources, and ebooks. He currently sits on the executive board of The Small Press Network, an advocate association for small presses as they meet challenges of the digital revolution in publishing. MacCarter is Managing Editor for Cordite Poetry Journal and an active member in Melbourne PEN.

Today's interview is with Paul Levine. Philip Levine received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his collection The Simple Truth. He has authored fifteen other collections of poetry as well as translations, essays, and criticism. He has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize from Poetry, the Frank O'Hara Prize, and two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships. For two years he served as chair of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, and he was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets in 2000.

Interview with Philip Levine, 21 November 2005, revised 29 April 2011

KM: As precursor to this interview, you mentioned how Hugo, “once said to me (Levine) that the two of us and Jim Wright were aiming at the same poem or were driven by the same concerns” and that you “felt a kinship with him (Hugo) since we shared a common goal.” Can you explain a bit more how that kinship formed and what it developed into regarding yours and his work in contemporary American poetry?

PL: The kinship is obvious. It seems to me the three of us went about our work with encouragement from the other two but with that alone. (Dick wrote a glowing review of my work for APR, I believe. A letter Jim wrote me praising one of my poems is in the new collection of his letters. Alas, I never praised either in print though I must have in letters.) I can find no Hugo or Wright in my work and none of my work in theirs. Nor did either ever help me with a poem nor did they ask for my help. Our meetings were not frequent enough to suit me, but they were invariably warm and rewarding. I did work hard to get Dick an NBA nomination with the knowledge he wouldn’t win. The prize was split that year between Rich and Ginsberg (Allen got half only because of my stubbornness).

KM: What do you remember Hugo embracing as the same concerns fueling the drive to a similar goal as yours?

PL: You must have read our work.

KM: The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir was reprinted in 1999. Aside from this, it’s been a mostly quiet twenty years regarding interest in Hugo’s contribution to poetry. Do you feel that Hugo’s poetic project is strong enough (or resonates enough, now, thirty years past what he considered to be his prime) to instigate a renaissance in interest in his poems?

PL: Of course it’s strong enough. The job will either be completed by his former students and his surviving friends or it won’t happen. He NEVER got his due, but I know first-hand that there were many who loved his work. Loved and used by younger poets of the Northwest.

KM: Can you recall of any town or particular place, recently, where something in the manner of ‘This would have triggered Richard’ occurred to you? If so, what? Where?

PL: Oddly enough, the outskirts of Como, Italy is the first place that comes to mind: an abandoned industrial area and slum half a mile from one of the most gorgeous places in the world. Right behind that comes the small farms of the Hudson Valley which are no longer farmed & where the city folks have yet to arrive. Whenever I go to Seattle, I think of Dick; about 18 months ago I witnessed a man of 40 picking on a small kid of 16 or so, and I wondered what Dick would have done had he been there—this was in a seedy area near the Pike Street Market. Fortunately, the kid was too quick for this jerk & escaped unharmed. That simple case of injustice, bullying, would have roiled Dick’s heart.

KM: I’m not sure if you’re familiar with his work, but David Plowden’s photographs move me in directions that many poems do. When I see Plowden’s prints of cantilever bridges over the Ohio River, my knee-jerk sensation is that I have been transported to James Wright Country; Plowden’s photographs of an empty, straight-as-an-arrow by-way in Montana teleport me into Richard Hugo Country; countries that exist at the intersection of word and image. What do you think the dangers and rewards are for a poem being a written photograph of place?

PL: The risks are the same as a poem not written to be “a photograph of place”.

KM: Hugo labeled himself a regionalist poet (going so far as to attest he didn’t much care for those who weren’t). Do you agree? Or did he manage to transcend many of the shackles that label feeds upon with his successful Italy and Scotland books?

PL: I always though he meant he didn’t care for abstract work, or work that took place largely in the mind. He was—as am I—for “a local habitation.” I know he said regional, but he was writing for anyone who could read.

KM: Autobiographical or not, your poem “At Bessemer”, in A Walk with Tom Jefferson, very much affords me the opportunity, and rather believably at that, to place Hugo as the narrator even though the region and its specifics are quite different to his early environs. Can you think of any Hugo poems that would fit your experience in the same manner without too much tailoring?

PL: “White Center” comes immediately to mind, though I don’t have it here. My sense is my version would have been much shorter. I don’t honestly think I have that many details stored in my memory of those years; this may be due to the fact I’m now 77 & Dick was probably in his fifties when he wrote the poem. Even if I had that many details, my poem would be shorter. Mine would probably be constructed around a narrative of some sort. Different, but very similar in aim and in feeling. Maybe one day I’ll write it.

KM: Your poem “Soul” from A Simple Truth utilises the social and economic environment of your youth in the greater Detroit area. Hugo’s poem, “Duwamish Head”, does the same for him. Do you think that being enveloped in working-middle-class environs at such a young age provides a poet with any truer (or heightened might be more apt) sense of being and writing about being part of the human condition?

PL: No.

KM: It can be argued that Philip Levine was to Larry Levis as Richard Hugo was to James Welch: established poets unearthing unlikely writers haling from unlikely locales writing extraordinary poetry; Fresno and Missoula vs. Princeton and New Haven, say. Can you proffer a guess as to what Hugo might think of the current state of creative writing, where the gems lay hidden, and how to mine (then nurture) them in the ever growing list of available university programs today?

PL: Dick was on one level a practical man, and he would have understood that the spread of MFA programs throughout the country had given his former students jobs. What comes from those programs can be amazing & can be hopeless, but it was always that way. Also, he might have been thrilled by the success of someone like Levis, a major talent from Sanger, CA, “The Raisin Capital of the World.” Are all the people teaching poetry writing in MFA programs as good at it & as dedicated as Dick was? No, but they weren’t when there were only ten or fewer programs. I team taught for a week at Emory with Dick, and later I inherited a few of his students; I know how good he was. He wanted very badly to teach well, he truly cared about that. I think our backgrounds had taught us that if you took a job, you gave it your all and that way kept your self-respect.

Poets on Hugo Interview Series, part 3

Welcome back for the third part of our Poets on Huge Interview Series, where we’ll be featuring interviews of four poets reflecting on their relationships to Montana great Richard Hugo. If you missed the last installment, check it out here. These interviews come to us via Kent McCarter. Kent MacCarter, expatriate of Minnesota, Montana and New Mexico, former resident of Florence and Sienna, Italy, is now a permanent resident in Melbourne, Australia with his wife, son and two cats. MacCarter came to Australia in 2004 to study poetry and writing. In the Hungry Middle of Here, his first collection of poetry, is published by Transit Lounge Press. In 2012, another poetry collection, Ribosome Spreadsheet, will be released as well as a non-fiction anthology he is currently co-editing on expatriate writers now living and writing from Australia. His career in Australia has chiefly been in educational and academic publishing as a developmental editor for multimedia, online resources, and ebooks. He currently sits on the executive board of The Small Press Network, an advocate association for small presses as they meet challenges of the digital revolution in publishing. MacCarter is Managing Editor for Cordite Poetry Journal and an active member in Melbourne PEN.

Today's interview is with Paul Mariani, one of the preeminent academic scholars of working class literature in the United States. His honours include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is the author of six poetry collections as well as five biographies and several volumes of literary criticism publications. He currently holds a Chair in Poetry at Boston College.

Interview with Paul Mariani, 18 January 2006, revised 8 May 2011

KM: In a recent correspondence I had with Philip Levine, he remarked that Richard Hugo once said to him that he “felt a kinship with him (Levine) since we shared a common goal” and that, “he (Hugo) once said to me that the two of us & Jim Wright were aiming at the same poem or were driven by the same concerns.” What do think that common goal was?

PM: James Wright of Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, Philip Levine from Detroit, Richard Hugo from Seattle and the West Coast: all with many of the same preoccupations, and haunted by working-class backgrounds. Levine I know the best of the three, though I’ve followed the career of the other two and am reading Wright’s letters at the moment. Franz Wright, I had dinner with last May, and you can see the man has been through a lot, and that he’s somehow squeezed it on to the page. I am going to send you by attachment an essay on class I wrote back in mid-1992. It may tell you where I am coming from. Also, in the last issue but one of Image, an interview I did with another working-class poet, B.H. Fairchild. Let me tell you a story. Years ago—when I was just starting out as a poet—around 1975—I sent a manuscript to UMass Press, because they’d published some of my stuff. They sent it to an academic who not only misunderstood the poems, but wrote back anonymously, of course, asking why anyone would even be interested in such a working-class family. That person, I assume, is now roasting nicely in the 9th circle of hell or thereabouts.

KM: What might have been the concerns driving these poets in whatever commonality they had?

PM: The desire to be given a chance to be heard, to lift from anonymity so many of the dead who would otherwise go under earth’s lid without so much as a nod. The desire too to raise to the level of the imagination (thank you, Dr. Williams) the language as it is spoken about us every day. To sing the inherent dignity of such people, while keeping an eye on the weasels and the foxes and the others. To carry on the work of Wordsworth and Whitman and Frost and Larkin and Langston Hughes—yes—Dylan Thomas—and others. To employ the language of Polish mothers, to hear those internal speech rhythms, and lift them to the level of music, where they belong.

KM: Do you think Hugo has been overlooked in the study of working-class poetics? Or perhaps given more credence than he deserves?

PM: What is immortality these days? Twenty years of posthumous fame? Dick Hugo, Charles Olsen, even Jim Wright—all seem to have suffered the loss of stalwart audiences in the years since their death. I have spent my life devoted to poetry and poets and the lives of poets. But even my best friends aren’t interested in poetry or poems, except when deep seriousness somehow strikes them. A few students and readers here and there, and that’s it. Or at least that seems to be the case. Thank God for seminars and classes in poetry where this all-important manner of speech still has breathing room.

Poets on Hugo Interview Series, part 2

Welcome back for the second part of our Poets on Huge Interview Series, where we'll be featuring interviews of four poets reflecting on their relationships to Montana great Richard Hugo. If you missed our first part, find it here. These interviews come to us care of Kent McCarter. Kent MacCarter, expatriate of Minnesota, Montana and New Mexico, former resident of Florence and Sienna, Italy, is now a permanent resident in Melbourne, Australia with his wife, son and two cats. MacCarter came to Australia in 2004 to study poetry and writing. In the Hungry Middle of Here, his first collection of poetry, is published by Transit Lounge Press. In 2012, another poetry collection, Ribosome Spreadsheet, will be released as well as a non-fiction anthology he is currently co-editing on expatriate writers now living and writing from Australia. His career in Australia has chiefly been in educational and academic publishing as a developmental editor for multimedia, online resources, and ebooks. He currently sits on the executive board of The Small Press Network, an advocate association for small presses as they meet challenges of the digital revolution in publishing. MacCarter is Managing Editor for Cordite Poetry Journal and an active member in Melbourne PEN.

The interview for this second part of the series is with Jonathan Holden. Jonathan Holden has published 17 books, a mixture of poetry and literary criticism. In 1986, he received the Kansas State University Distinguished Faculty Award. In 2000, he was a member of the committee that selects the Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry. He has twice received a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. In 1995, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa chose Holden's poetry collection, The Sublime, for the Vassar Miller Prize. He was anointed Kansas’ first poet laureate in 2005. He is a former Hugo student and has written widely on Hugo.

Interview with Jonathan Holden, 12 January 2006, revised 12 May 2011

KM: What was your relationship to Hugo when researching for Landscapes of the Self: The Development of Richard Hugo’s Poetry? Were you a student of his? What drew you to Hugo and his poems?

JH: I think that I was always temperamentally inclined towards Dick's poetry, toward "confessional" poetry, though "personal" poetry might be closer to le mot juste. After The New Criticism of the Fifties, fashioned in the impersonal will of T.S. Eliot, who was so dogged in keeping his own and the poet's personal life out of poetry, personal poetry, begun in 1956 with Ginsberg's "HOWL", was a breath of fresh air. Dick Hugo was one of the first American poets to write confessional poems. But fashions change: now they look old hat and somewhat self-indulgent. Back in the late sixties and early seventies, a male poet could be mobbed by female fans. But the decorum of the business – po-biz as Louis Simpson termed it – has changed.

KM: Hugo repeatedly visited and revisited Pacific Northwest moods, socialisation, and landscapes throughout his writing career, albeit from fresh angles as he grew both as a writer and a human. Do you think this is indicative of a poet with limited ability (no matter how exemplary that poet’s niche is) or is this support for an unarguably gifted poetic voice, one able to mine similar themes and locations over a lifetime with largely successful results?

JH: Hugo's ‘stock’ has, since the seventies, lost considerable value, though some of his poems like "Degrees of Gray …" are eternal.

KM: You have been bestowed the honour of Poet Laureate of Kansas. In what manner have you felt at all encouraged or hindered from exploring landscapes foreign to that region from this label? Early on in your research, did you find Hugo (and his oft bandied tag as Pacific Northwest poet) drawing similar or perpendicular conclusions to those you’ve developed?

JH: I was always attracted to the Pacific Northwest and its writers and always will be. For whatever reason, probably because I'm from New Jersey, I have always looked west for "the real world".

KM: Can you recall of any town or particular place, recently, where something in the manner of, "This would have triggered Richard," occurred to you? If so, what? Where?

JH:Probably the most aesthetically attractive place I know of is Santa Fe, New Mexico, but I have always ruled out "place" as factor in creativity, believing, as Stevens did, in the Imagination.

KM: I am particularly interested in Hugo’s varied uses of landscapism. To what extent do you feel that Hugo’s "triggering towns", (most importantly his general necessity of their anonymity) and the resulting poems those towns catalysed, mirror reflections of Hugo’s visceral id, let alone his psyche as a whole? Hugo, Stafford, and Wagoner all wrote with the "commoner" persona aesthetic in mind for much of their work. Is there anything, now, that you might expound upon regarding this that you did not include in your book on him?

JH: Hugo was a formula poet, always looking a formula. This is what "The Triggering Town" is about. It's a decided weakness in Dick. And he knew it. Folks like Bill Stafford knew it; and one of the things about Stafford which I keep rediscovering is the power and range of his mind. It was encyclopedic.

KM: You have authored numerous volumes on rhetoric, style, character, etc., on contemporary American poetry. In what manner do you consider Richard Hugo’s poems relevant and timely within the sphere of contemporary American poetry? Hugo has been more overlooked than embraced by writers today – why do you think that is?

JH: Hugo's poetry has fallen out of fashion, except for a couple of poems like "Degrees of Gray". This is probably inevitable. But to have even one poem last like "Degrees …" is no mean feat. But today poetry itself is an increasingly marginal art.

KM: Hugo labeled himself a regionalist poet (going so far as to attest he didn’t much care for those who weren’t). Do you agree? Or did he manage to transcend many of the shackles that label feeds upon with his successful Italy and Scotland books?

JH: Hugo is a regionalist poet.

KM: Via poetry, Hugo was a superlative delivery man for the very grounded, very "real" aspects of the human condition and messages therein. What is something unique only to Hugo (versus, say, Stafford or Levine who also did this well) that made his poems so effective?

JH: Of the three folks you mention, Hugo, Stafford and Levine, Levine continues to have the highest market-value; and he has won the highest awards. He was always the most ambitious and hence has stayed au courant.

KM: Hugo is an author with mesmerising control of both lineation and word choice, pillars of a poem’s overall sound. Beginning with his early poems and their imperfections through to his peak career poems (such as the macho tirade of "Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir") and on to the more emotionally content and staid later poems, Hugo’s collected works reads much like a symphony with three discernible movements. Excluding all else, can you comment specifically on Hugo’s progression and changes in poetic sound over the course of his career? Or, do you find the sound of his poems relatively static over that duration?

JH: I think that Hugo’s iambic music has been one of the constants of his life. The positive? A "style" that is inimitable. The negative? A style grown complacent.

KM: In a recent interview, you mention how, “The ability to be totally original in poetry is limited, the students and grown-up poets I know, 98% of their poems are stolen in the sense they rehash older music … just think of the line of descent from Guthrie to Dylan to Springsteen. There’s a very solid line of descent there”. We can add Jimmie Rogers and Jeff Tweedy before and after this list too. Endless. However, I feel that every artist, writer, etc., leaves distinct marks that are forever and only theirs. What would you say was Hugo’s unique mark?

JH: What will Dick be remembered for? The Last Good Kiss You Had Was Years Ago, the novel by Jim Crumley by the title "The Last Good Kiss" and "The Triggering Town". If, as seems unlikely at this historical moment, the art of poetry acquires significant cachet again, Hugo could come into fashion again. We’ll see.

Poets on Hugo Interview Series, part 1

Welcome to the first of four great interviews regarding one of Montana's most enduring poets, Richard Hugo. All of these interviews come to us care of Kent MacCarter, who interviewed each of these four poets familiar with Hugo and his work. Kent MacCarter, expatriate of Minnesota, Montana and New Mexico, former resident of Florence and Sienna, Italy, is now a permanent resident in Melbourne, Australia with his wife, son and two cats. MacCarter came to Australia in 2004 to study poetry and writing. In the Hungry Middle of Here, his first collection of poetry, is published by Transit Lounge Press. In 2012, another poetry collection, Ribosome Spreadsheet, will be released as well as a non-fiction anthology he is currently co-editing on expatriate writers now living and writing from Australia. His career in Australia has chiefly been in educational and academic publishing as a developmental editor for multimedia, online resources, and ebooks. He currently sits on the executive board of The Small Press Network, an advocate association for small presses as they meet challenges of the digital revolution in publishing. MacCarter is Managing Editor for Cordite Poetry Journal and an active member in Melbourne PEN.

The first interview is with David Wagoner. David Wagoner has published 18 books of poems, most recently A Map of the Night (U. of Illinois Press, 2008), and Copper Canyon Press will publish his 19th, After the Point of No Return, in 2012. He has also published ten novels, one of which, The Escape Artist, was made into a movie by Francis Ford Coppola. He won the Lilly Prize in 1991, six yearly prizes from Poetry, and the Arthur Rense Prize for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2011. He was a chancellor the Academy of American Poets for 23 years. He edited Poetry Northwest from 1966 to 2002, and he is professor emeritus of English at the U. of Washington. He teaches at the low‐residency MFA program of the Whidbey Island Writers Workshop.

Interview with David Wagoner on 2 April 2006, revised 5 May 2011

KM: Beneficial or not, yourself, Richard Hugo, and William Stafford have been typecast as the poetic progeny of Roethke – at least large portions of your and their work has. I feel that statutes of limitations on that possible fact have run out. Can you tell me about an early interaction you had with Hugo, his work and what of him/it made his a voice to be independently reckoned with?

DW: Hugo and I were both students of Roethke, both grateful to him and admiring of him, but Stafford was a product of the U. of Iowa writing program and never had much good to say about Ted's work. I don't believe any of the three of us show even slight traces of direct influence from him. Dick and I lived and worked in the University District and saw each other fairly often, sometimes with Jim Wright, and exchanged critiques of our poems over beer. At the time he was a technical writer for Boeing, a long‐time Seattleite, and I was a newcomer from the Midwest who'd never encountered such a bewildering primitive world as the Cascade and Olympic Mountains, Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Pacific shore. Dick helped me begin penetrating those places by taking me fishing.

KM: Your poem “A Valedictory to Standard Oil of Indiana” utilizes the social and economic environment of your youth in the greater Gary, IN area. Hugo’s poem, “Duwamish Head”, does the same for him. Philip Levine has poems of similar ilk. Do you think that being enveloped in working‐ middle‐class environs at such a young age provides a poet with any truer (or heightened might be more apt) sense of being and writing about being part of the human condition?

DW: My "working class background" was a complicated mixture. My father had a degree magna cum laude in classical languages and worked all his life in a steel mill, winding up as melter foreman in the open hearth. He was too shy to teach, he said. We lived in one of the most intensely polluted areas in the country, where everything natural had to struggle to keep existing. The change to the Pacific Northwest was a major shock to my feelings about nature. Earlier, I'd had the shock of leaving small‐town Ohio farmland at age 7 and trying to cope with a polluted swamp across the street with Standard Oil of Indiana (then the world's largest single refinery). My psychotopes have been struggling with each other ever since.

KM: Hugo consistently visited and revisited Pacific Northwest moods, socialization, and landscapes throughout his writing career, albeit from fresh angles as he grew both as a writer and a human. Do you think this is indicative of a poet with limited ability (no matter exemplary that poet’s niche is) or is this support for an unarguably gifted poetic voice, one able to mine similar themes and locations over a lifetime with largely successful results?

DW: Dick was never much interested in the natural world except for fish. He didn't know the names of birds and plants and never looked at any of them closely. He didn't like to walk, let alone hike, and to my knowledge never went anywhere he couldn't reach by car. He wrote about his relationships with people, his disappointments with them and himself and the towns and districts they all tried to get along with. He had almost no interest in mythology, Indian lore, history, politics, or environmental issues. In a review of one of my books in a local weekly, Dick called me "the most Elizabethan of our poets" and went on to praise my versatility, the wide range of my subject matter, forms, voices, etc. He himself almost never lightened his tone. He was very funny in conversation, but wrote very few funny poems. He never, as far as I can remember, speeded up the tempo of a poem for more than a moment and almost never tried for a voice other than his own. As far as I know, he never tried to write a play or a song lyric or dramatized somebody else's problems in a poem.

KM: You were editor of Poetry Northwest from 1966‐2002. To what degree did you glean Hugo mimicry from the submissions you received? Is there any one attribute that stands out?

DW: I received many poems from Dick's students at the U. of Montana, and they were almost always recognizable without my having to check the return addresses. They were all caught up by his dogged, downright, blunt iambics and had a hard time branching out. Some were very good at it, but few had any idea how to be lyrical. Hugo was very briefly one of the early sub‐editors of Poetry Northwest. I remember he told me he had told them he wanted sometimes to use what he called a Permanent Rejection Slip. The other editors didn't allow it.

KM: Can you recall of any town or particular place, recently, where something in the manner of ‘This place would have triggered Richard’ occurred to you? If so, what or where?

DW: I haven't seen any places that Dick missed.

KM: As Thom Gunn and those in The Movement did for English poetry, do you (or did you) feel at all brethren with Hugo in bestowing similar affects and themes on American poetry? Not solely writing in a confessional sense, but writing about the more visceral and honest tendencies of humans ‐ boozing, working, fucking, hurting, insecurities of the everyman, etc.

DW: I can't answer this one coherently. I write what's possible for me to write and often try what's impossible. I've never taken drugs or had a drinking problem, but I've been a newspaper reporter, part of whose beat in the Chicago suburbs included two of the most corrupt towns in the country: East Chicago, Indiana, and Calumet City, Illinois, and I've used them in fiction and poetry ever since, not just the natural world.

KM: I’m not sure if you’re familiar with his work, but David Plowden’s photographs move me in directions that many poems do. When I see Plowden’s prints of cantilever bridges over the Ohio River, my knee‐jerk sensation is that I have been transported to James Wright Country; Plowden’s photographs of an empty, straight‐as‐an‐arrow by‐way in Montana teleport me into Richard Hugo Country; countries that exist at the intersection of word and image. What do you think the dangers and rewards are for a poem being, ostensibly, a written photograph of place?

DW: I can't recall ever having written a poem based on a photo except one taken of a family reunion. The danger of the practice is probably the most obvious: if you don't have the photo beside the poem, the reader may have a poor idea of what you're talking about. You can be tempted to rely too heavily on somebody else's vision.