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

Interview by Alex McElroy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



About the author:

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

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

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

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

About the interviewer: 

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














Interview with Okla Elliott, author of From the Crooked Timber

by David Bowen


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB: Describe an average workday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB: But it’s not simply free association.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB: What are you working on these days?

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


About the author:

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

About the interviewer:

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














Interview by Carol Smallwood


Smallwood: Please describe your website and your duties as editor/writer.

Goodwin: Writer Advice has grown from an e-mailed research newsletter for writers into an e-zine that invites reader participation. We'll celebrate our seventeenth year in October 2014. Our quality interviews, reviews, articles as well as our contest winner's pieces reach readers around the globe.

The primary focus has always been author interviews, and I have had the privilege of corresponding with over 100 well known and debut authors who have shared their experiences, insights, and inspiration with readers. Recent interviews are archived.

Today WriterAdvice,, not only promotes authors through its interviews but also publishes the reviews of both experienced and emerging writers, and the winners of our Flash Fiction and Scintillating Starts Contests. My duties are to solicit articles, write articles, gather illustrations, prep the content for the webmaster, make sure that new issues come out quarterly, and let the world know when they do.

Check us out at Consider sharing your work in one of our contests.

Smallwood: Tell us about your career.

Goodwin: I started my career as a high school drama teacher. I learned about action, reaction, and especially motivation while helping my actors develop three-dimensional characters. I also learned to ask questions and let the characters (not the actors) answer. I reviewed plot, structure, theme, character arcs, and grammar teaching 9th and 10th grade English. I also learned how to complete projects rather than throwing up my hands in despair.

In English teacher workshops, we tried new techniques, and I loved the positive feedback that my fellow teachers gave me on my writing. During a leave, I wrote a series of 10 articles that were accepted at the only place I submitted them,Dramatics Magazine.

In 1997 I co-edited a research newsletter called Haven's List, run by a website called Blue Shingles. The website did not survive, but I was allowed to keep the 35-person mailing list. The mailing list grew and so did the e-zine, which now includes an author interview, book reviews, a website review, a markets and contests page, the results of our own contests on the flash page, announcements of reader achievements, a Journaling for Caregivers page and a Manuscript Consultation service.

During the nineties, I also wrote articles for EWGPresents and did weekly author interviews, arranged by the site's founder, on The Other Side of Creativity. I also published two small books with them, From an Author's POV: Tips on Writing, andFrom an Author's POV: Tips on Editing. Those books came out shortly before my mother died in 2001.

After my mother passed away, I found time to take some writing classes, joined an exceptional free writing group, and wrote a book called You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers. I wrote a column about journaling for Caregiver Village, was a Luminary and blogger for InspireMeToday and am both a reviewer and teacher at Story Circle Network. I also do manuscript consultations through Writer Advice,

I recently signed a contract for my YA, Talent, in which 15_-year-old Sandee Mason wants to find her talent, get her driver's license, and stop living in the shadow of her big brother, Bri, who disappeared in Afghanistan. It will be out sometime in 2015. I'm currently working on a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62.

Smallwood: Which recognitions/achievements have encouraged you the most?

Goodwin: I love the responses I get from the writers I work with, whether I'm teaching a journaling workshop or doing a manuscript evaluation. Their discoveries and appreciation validate me as both a writer and a teacher. Several reviews forYou Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers showed me that people understood. Read them on Amazon, if you want to. I've received some honorable mentions, which are nice, and of course my latest contract was a huge validation, but so is the praise of those I work directly with. We become partners in the process of telling their story.

Smallwood: What writers have influenced you the most?

Goodwin: I love Jodi Picoult's subject matter and the depth with which she explores the tangles of human life. I love others writers who follow her probing look at multiple motivations. But I like so many authors that it's hard to single them out. I often fall in love with the ideas or pacing or language or plot twists or some other part of each author's work. When I listen to books while driving I get a good feel for building suspense and keeping the writing tight.

Smallwood: How has the Internet benefited you?

Goodwin: It gave me a chance to create a website that would benefit authors, to share my work much more expansively than I could have otherwise, to connect with people through contests and other means, and to be a viable presence in the writing world.

Writer Advice serves authors and gives me a chance to hone my non-fiction writing and my evaluation of other writers. Other sites give me a place to get published. The Internet has allowed me to carve my own, unique path.

Smallwood: What classes have helped you the most?

Goodwin: Any class where I can expand my skills and gain new insights helps me. I particularly recommend the online classes offered through Stanford's Continuing Studies Online Courses and Media Bistro as well as those offered through Story Circle Network. I also recommend any class offered by someone experienced in the Amherst Writers methods.

Smallwood: What advice would you give others?

Goodwin: No one can tell your story as well as you, so keep writing. Ask yourself, "What do I really mean to say?" Ask yourself how each scene contributes to the outcome of the story. Ask yourself what can be tightened. Ask yourself what makes this story unique and what makes it universal. Trust the process. Writing is a gift we give ourselves and share with others.

Smallwood: What is your favorite quotation?

Goodwin: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans," is tied for a favorite quotation with "You don't lose until you quit trying." The first is attributed to John Lennon, and the second is attributed to many veterans according to the Internet. I heard it from my husband, Richard T. Brown, Jr.


B. Lynn Goodwin is the author of You Want Me To Do What? - Journaling for Caregivers (Tate Publishing). Her stories and articles have been published many places including Voices of Caregivers; Hip Mama; the Oakland Tribune; the Contra Costa Times; the Danville Weekly; Staying Sane When You’re Dieting; Small Press Review; Dramatics Magazine; Career; We Care; and The Sun and numerous blogs and e-zines. She’s taught workshops and written reviews for Story Circle Network, She currently writes for StudySync, and Caregiver Village, She facilitates writing workshops and publishes Writer Advice, Reach her at

Carol Smallwood's over four dozen books include Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, on Poets & Writers Magazine list of Best Books for Writers. Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences is a 2014 collection from Lamar University Press. Carol has founded, supports humane societies.

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














Interview with Jon Sealy, author of The Whiskey Baron 

by Denton Loving


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




About the author:

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


About the interviewer:

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


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

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

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

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

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

LL: There’s danger.

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

LL: But you knew your response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LL: So it wasn’t self-conscious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LL: Sounds like love.

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


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

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


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.

* * *

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.