The Light Changes in Every Moment: A Conversation with Carl Phillips

Poetry Editors Jacob Bauer and Daniel T. O’Brien discuss poetic pauses, “musculature,” risk-taking, and restlessness with Carl Phillips. 

JB: I was hoping we might talk about the different kinds of pauses you employ in your poetry—obviously the comma, the em-dash, the ellipses—but also the line break, and how you see those functioning differently. In particular, I’m thinking about the line break—sometimes your punctuation aligns with the line breaks, and sometimes your line breaks bisect the sentence. What do you see the role of those different pauses being?

CP: I guess it’s not something I’ve consciously thought a lot about. Earlier, I spoke about muscularity, and I think of poems as being very physical experiences as opposed to objects. It’s almost like the difference between photography and videography—one seems a more static image, but you get three-dimensionality. In videography everything is moving. I feel as if these pauses—different kinds of pauses and line breaks—start to flesh out a more honest body of the poem. You get to see it almost in motion. It’s why a lot of poems sort of disappoint me. I feel as though they’re just standing there, and they look kind of beautiful, but I want to see the light changing as the body turns and catches different elements of it. I want to see the parts that are embarrassing or surprising that we don’t expect beyond the initial surface beauty. If you can think of a poem that way, maybe the different kinds of pauses and lineation create that experience.

DTO: I think that’s so interesting, particularly because it reminds me of a line of yours that I love, and it almost sounds like what you’re saying: “It’s as if/a side of me that he’d forgotten had forced into the light,/briefly, a side of him that I’d never seen before/and now I’ve seen it.” I guess if reading the poem is like watching the light changing—and you want to see it, and you can’t forget it—that’s how a poem really sticks with you. It’s the muscles and the body, the poem, and the person.

CP: Yeah, I think there is a real similarity to it. Often when I think of it that way, or I feel as if when I tell people that, they think of it as something sexual. But I think it’s more physical, or bodily.

DTO: Speaking to that, I’d like to talk about how you kind of build your poems. I’m thinking about the poem “Black Swan on Water, in a Little Rain,” specifically the way it builds momentum, which to my mind, happens in the manner we’re discussing. This poem is a single sentence, and last night you read a poem of Brigit Kelly’s, before which you said you think it is admirable to write a poem that is a single sentence. I’m curious if you’ll expand on that.

Interview with Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek’s writing life spans decades and genres, from his debut poetry collection Brass Knuckles, to his most recent collections of short fiction, Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories and Paper Lantern: Love Stories. Dybek is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards for writing, including a PEN/Malamud Award, an O. Henry Award, and Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. A Chicago native, Dybek received his MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and an MA in literature from Loyola University Chicago. He currently teaches fiction at Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies.

Prior to visiting The Ohio State University for a weekend workshop and reading, Dybek spoke with associate fiction editor David E. Yee about approaches to craft, voice, and literary inspiration.

David E. Yee: I read in a previous interview that your focus has been more on craft than process. How have your opinions on craft changed over the years? Or to be less broad—what is something that has surprised you in terms of craft, something you wish you could tell yourself when you were still coming up in writing?

Stuart Dybek: I’d like to think that a writer’s relationship with craft is at once established on a foundation of basic “moves”—scenic construction, dialogue, etc.—that can, depending on the subject, be combined and recombined (the way that, say, dance operates) and that allow for an agility that accommodates change and an ongoing evolution of a personal style. At this point in a writing life, I am more consciously attracted to and fascinated by compression. Compression rather than minimalism—they are not the same. Verse offers forms that seem by nature compressive—the sonnet, for instance, and many of the poems I’ve published over the last five years have been sonnets. There’s no equivalent of the sonnet in prose, and yet I think that flash fiction can offer pieces that feel sonnet-like, that emulate, for instance, the feature in a sonnet called the turn. My old friend, the recently deceased essayist and editor, Judith Kitchen, and I used to bat that idea around.

Interview with Talvikki Ansel

Talvikki Ansel is the author of the poetry collections My Shining Archipelago (1997) and Jetty and Other Poems (2003). She is the recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize and is the 2014 winner of The OSU Press/The Journal Wheeler Prize in Poetry for her collection Somewhere in Space. Two poems from this collection are included at the conclusion of this interview.

Recently, she spoke with poetry editor Mikko Harvey about the natural world, Finnish culture, and her process for putting together a full-length collection.

Mikko Harvey: Reading your poems, it becomes clear that nature—landscape, birds, trees, weather—is a key influence. I wonder if you could share any thoughts about how nature plays into your writing, and perhaps into your life. You have a poem in My Shining Archipelago titled “John Clare,” after the English poet known for his engagement with the natural world. How would you characterize your own engagement with nature? What are the pleasures, and challenges, of channeling it into poetry?

Talvikki Ansel: Yes, the natural world does work its way into my poems, and into my life, too. I’m pretty happy when I have a chance to muck around outside; that world is a source of surprise and depth and revelation. Growing up I have fond memories of freezing my butt off before school and on weekends, looking for winter ducks and shrikes. And in the past I was lucky enough to have a chance to volunteer on projects for scientists studying birds in a variety of landscapes. I think that the kind of attention required in doing fieldwork can train one to pay attention, particularly to the natural world. Of course, there is a sense of the elegiac too, and that can be disheartening: John Clare mourning the enclosure of land, and today’s development and the disappearance of habitat. But yes, I like the unfetteredness of being outside, and that world does come into the poems.

Writing and the natural world: it’s hard to say. The pleasures are multiple, but the challenges are there, too. It’s not always an easy transfer: I could fondly and happily note down observations till the cows come home (“sun on the woodpile,” “semipalmated plovers on the beach, in the dried weed wrack, one calling,” etc.), and I like noting that those things are there in that rich world, but the observations need to be right for a certain poem. They have to work, have to fit the shape and overall expression of that particular poem. There’s always the element of crafting a poem that needs to be in balance with the material.

MH: I won’t ask you to name influences, as I know that can be a fraught task, but who are some of your favorite artists, poets or otherwise?

TA: Oh dear, okay, I’m just going to glance over at my messy bookshelf for this one: Marianne Moore, Henry Beston, Emily Dickinson, Eugenio Montale, two copies of Hamlet, Henry Moore’s sheep sketchbook (I am, of course, selectively glancing, choosing books that can stay the course, and there are other shelves I will regret not looking at later). And my music stand: Bach’s concerto in D minor for two violins. I’ve been trying to learn this piece all fall (yes, 5 year old children play it competently on YouTube, as do adult violinists, I might add). I don’t know how his intertwining, rising and falling passages will influence my writing, if at all, but to echo Tranströmer: “ after a black day… I shove my hands into my haydnpockets.”

MH: Your poem “Origin Charm Against Uncertain Injuries,” from Jetty & Other Poems, engages with The Kalevala, which is regarded as Finland’s national epic poem. Elsewhere you mention “pülla,” a type of Finnish pastry. Your name includes the Finnish word for winter, “talvi.” What is your relationship, personally and creatively, with Finnish culture?

TA: You are quite an astute reader, Mikko Harvey! What is my relationship? Tenuous, but in the blood, perhaps? My mom is from Finland, and though I was raised in this country and don’t speak Finnish, it does seep into the blood a bit: domestic details & objects, stories, the sound of the language—its rhythms familiar like a song sparrow’s call when I hear someone pick up the phone.

MH: Related to that, are there any Finnish or Scandinavian artists you admire?

TA: A few writers from that part of the world that I read and admire all capture that landscape, though not the language—they all happen to be writing in Swedish, and I’ve only read them in translation, anyway: Tove Jansson, Tomas Tranströmer, Edith Södergran. In Somewhere in Space I have a poem partly inspired by Edith Södergran, a Swedish-speaking Finnish poet who was born in St. Petersburg, before WWI.

MH: You’ve now published three books, and won both the Wheeler Prize and the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. What is the process of assembling a collection of poems like for you? Do you have advice for poets who are putting manuscripts together?

TA: It can take some time before a collection of poems feels like it is of a piece, that the poems belong together in a manuscript, so, I’d say, don’t rush it; do the work, keep going back to it, but allow the time to let the book happen, to grow and metamorphose into a collection where the progression feels natural, or the combination feels interesting, a collection where you don’t find yourself averting your glance from some of the poems (those probably need to go bye-bye). Have patience.

I tend to write just poems for years, and then think of assembling after I have a good number of poems, which is obviously different from some writers who begin with a vision for an entire book. (And really, these notes just apply to me; some people write much more quickly, all in a rush.) Assembling a collection can be that dance between what one thinks the manuscript should do, and gut instinct, hoping for some unexpected coincidences—I try not to feel like I can always see the wheels turning, or the chicken going for the worm.

In practical terms, when I’m thinking “book-length,” I spread the poems (printed out) over all the flat surfaces of the house, then I can see them, move from last line to title, etc., see the poems as made things on the page, and experience the white space of section breaks; and the process feels like shaping something. That stage is so much fun. This is what has worked for me so far, but I’m also a person who still uses a manual typewriter for poems—that sense of each line as a line, followed by a carriage return; the speed of typing suits my need in making and revising the poem.

MH: What can readers look forward to—in terms of content, theme, form—in Somewhere in Space? Do any differences between this book and your previous ones jump out at you?

TA: A little hard for me to say—this is the most difficult question for me. Well, easy response: no section breaks in this book vs. the others; it just moves from poem to poem. History, half-told histories, feral cats, beached boats, sails in trees, fragments of phrases from old torn trading cards with paintings of birds, memory, and botanical forays—all these make an appearance.

Excerpts from Somewhere in Space

!50!!50!!10!Quail

!50!Quail’s instinctual dash
!50!through wet grass, rain puddles
!50!bobcat, fowling piece.

!50!Limp bird
!50!pillowed on scalloped feathers, puff
!50!cream to chestnut to horse-flank

!50!brown, helmeted

!50!on a bed of leeks, browning.

!50!I, deadly element

!50!sack’s leather straps
!50!criss-cross the chest,
!50!three dropped onto the plain table

!50!handsmell of plucked bird
!50!reached to face,

!50!wishbone too fine to want to try.

Ansel, Talvikki. “Quail.” Somewhere in Space. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2015. Copyright © 2015 by The Ohio State University Press.

!50!!25!History of Private Life
!100!!100!!50!(Pagan Rome to Byzantium)

!50!From November to May
!50!they didn’t travel, it took a half year
!50!to get notice of an event. A baby
!50!was born, damn the inheritance
!50!diluted again, your earthenware ewer
!50!and city plan on a marble slab. Wait
!50!the letter boat, fresh berries and milk.
!50!Extra babies put out, exposed, for recycling
!50!or not, those no nonsense days. The Roman frieze
!50!of a couple making love, and here’s the servant
!50!bringing a pitcher of water
!100!!100!!50!& where does that take us
!50!in this robust field: buttercups,
!50!egg-yolk-yellow nape of the bobolink.
!50!Wind unceasing from the river, the aspen
!50!saplings lean, leaves blown to small buttons
!50!all withstanding the force, shirts blown
!50!up bared backs and columbine heads
!50!tormented. I miss you though they doubted it
!50!it took so long from writing to the unfolding.

Ansel, Talvikki. “History of Private Life.” Somewhere in Space. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2015. Copyright © 2015 by The Ohio State University Press.

A Conversation with Michelle Herman
Michelle Herman is the author of the novels Missing and Dog, the collection of novellas A New and Glorious Life, the essay collections The Middle of Everything, Stories We Tell Ourselves, and Like A Song, and a book for children, A Girl's Guide to Life.

Michelle Herman is the author of the novels Missing, Dog, and the forthcoming Devotion (2016); the collection of novellas A New and Glorious Life; and three essay collections—The Middle of Everything, Stories We Tell Ourselves, and Like A Song. She is a Professor of English at The Ohio State University, where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Recently, Herman spoke with The Journal about the Non/Fiction Collection Prize, the hybrid nature of fiction and creative nonfiction, and the importance of the prose collection.

The Journal: The Non/Fiction Collection Prize is awarded to a collection of short stories, essays, or a combination of the two. Why is it particularly important to The Ohio State University Press and The Journal to seek out collections of short prose?

Michelle Herman: Because collections of short stories and essays are the hardest things to publish in the current market. Essay collections are virtually impossible to publish—the “big five” New York publishers won’t touch them—unless the writer is already a (very) known quantity. Short story collections don’t fare much better in the marketplace these days—and even when they are published, they are rarely published well: books are simply printed and shipped (and often enough they’re not even shipped).

There are the surprise success stories, of course—the exceptions that I suppose “prove the rule.” I’m thinking about Leslie Jamison’s smart, interesting first collection of essays, which Graywolf, one of the best independent presses we’ve got, published—and did right by—and that was a book that reached its intended audience.

There are our own MFA alumni Claire Vaye Watkins and Don Pollock—just to name two of the stars in our firmament—whose first collections of stories were published beautifully by New York houses and went on to do very well indeed.

But these truly are exceptions. I think that university presses are, more and more, trying to fill that gap that’s been left behind by the failure of the New York presses to bring interesting new writing to readers. I wanted us to do our part to bring a wonderful collection of either—stories or essays—or both—into the world each year.

Interview with Marcus Jackson
Marcus Jackson's poetry has appeared in The Journal, The New Yorker, and Hayden's Ferry Review, among others.

Marcus Jackson was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. After earning his BA at the University of Toledo, he continued his poetry studies at NYU’s graduate creative writing program and as a Cave Canem fellow. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Harvard Review, and The Cincinnati Review, among many other publications.

Marcus Jackson’s chapbook, Rundown, was published by Aureole Press in 2009. His debut full-length collection of poems,  Neighborhood Register, was released by CavanKerry Press in 2011. His next collection is forthcoming in 2016. Marcus lives with his wife and son in Columbus, Ohio. He will serve as the guest editor for the 2015 The Journal/OSU Press Wheeler Poetry Prize.

Recently, Jackson spoke with poetry editor Willie VerSteeg about his influences and writing process.

Willie VerSteeg: What recent books of poetry have been holding your attention?

Marcus Jackson: I’ll be loose with the word “recent,” since I’m always going back to things I’ve already read and loved, in addition to latching onto great, brand new books the first time around. Staring with the quite new collections, I love Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, Malachi Black’s Storm Toward Morning, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. In these books live abundances of emotional flux, lyric force, and intellectual precision.

As for a few books I’ve read the bindings off of and that have been calling me back lately, Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, Ted Kooser’s Delights and Shadows, and Philip Levine’s One for the Rose. Life on Mars is a masterful collection in many ways, especially in how it incorporates such a variance of scale among its subjects and tones. Kooser is a sorcerer when it comes to making everyday objects and scenarios radiant and/or suddenly dark.

Interview with Kyle McCord

Mikko Harvey: The poems in You Are Indeed an Elk, But This is Not The Forest You Were Born to Graze harness the energy of narrative but are not, it seems to me, stories in any traditional sense of the word. They frequently digress and redefine themselves. I think this combination—a sense of moving toward a narrative ending, but exploding outward in the process—is what makes the book, strangely (strangely because the term is rarely attached to poetry), a page-turner. The humor helps too. Did you plan to write such a fun book, or did it just come out this way?

Kyle McCord: I’m glad you brought up fun because fun sometimes feels like the unacknowledged middle child of poetry. It has to ride in the backseat of the van behind Truth and Beauty who spilled milk in one of the cup holders. It has to hang out in the basement because Beauty is always hogging the bathroom, and Truth locked herself in the study.

The subject rarely commands page space in major lit mags either; I checked (just to avoid libelous claims), but there is no “The Art of Fun” coming out from Graywolf. But because I studied in an MFA program that emphasized irony, satire, mimesis, the reuniting of seemingly estranged dialects (commercial, romantic—big or little “r”—philosophical), all of which I think are fun, I treasure poems that are willing to risk irrelevance for the sake of play. I love Carroll, Dickinson, Tate because they aren’t afraid to be silly, to screw around on the page and see what you as the reader do.

Interview with Michael Mlekoday

Michael Mlekoday’s first book, The Dead Eat Everything (Kent State University Press, 2014), was chosen by Dorianne Laux as winner of the 2012 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. Mlekoday serves as editor and publisher of Button Poetry / Exploding Pinecone Press, is a National Poetry Slam Champion, and has work published or forthcoming in The Greensboro Review, Salt Hill, Banango Street, The Pinch, and other venues. His poem “Flood” appeared in The Journal issue 36.3. He recently spoke with poetry editor David Winter about his writing process, rap, race, and what it’s like to write a book-length poem.

David Winter: The Dead Eat Everything includes thirteen “Self-Portrait” poems, each written in a different mode. Your ability to examine the self from so many different angles, to continually mine it for imagery and music, is one of the driving forces of the book. What did the process of writing those poems look like for you?

Michael Mlekoday: At first, I didn’t really know I was writing a series. They were just individual poems, to me, and not all of them were initially called self-portraits. But I had been living in the world of some of these poems for a while, and I started to see that they were all interested in the way the self is constructed—by culture or society or whatever. I liked the idea of self-portraits that begin with the external, the outside world, and work their way back.

Interview with Karin Gottshall, Winner of The Wheeler Prize

Karin Gottshall lives in Vermont and teaches at Middlebury College. Her first book, Crocus, won the Poets Out Loud prize and was published by Fordham University Press in 2007. She is also the author of three chapbooks—Flood Letters (Argos Books), Almanac for the Sleepless (Dancing Girl Press), and Swans (Argos Books). Her poems have appeared in Blackbird, Crazyhorse, FIELD, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere.

Shelley Wong: Congratulations on winning! We are thrilled and very excited to bring this book into the world. What was the writing process like for this book and how did it compare with writing your first book, Crocus? How did the three-part structure come together?

Karin Gottshall: Thank you! I am so grateful for and humbled by this prize. The Wheeler Prize book is one I’m interested in every year, and I’m so proud that The River Won’t Hold You will be in this series. Kathy Fagan is a poet whose work and contributions I love and admire so much, so to have my manuscript selected by her means the world to me.

I hadn’t actually thought much about the way the experience of writing this book compared with that of Crocus. This may be a dull answer, but actually I think it was much the same. I work slowly, very slowly, and both books took many years to put together and both went through many drafts and many poems were overhauled and cut and replaced before I felt like the books had arrived at something like their final forms.

The three-part structure, which I used in Crocus too, came about without my having planned it. When I looked at the poems all together, and saw the ways different pieces seemed to talk to each other and build from each other, they just seemed to keep falling into three constellations. I tried working against that, since I didn’t want to feel like I was just arranging them that way out of habit, but no other formal solution I came up with seemed satisfying. I like the number three, or at least it seems to be a number that I often find my life organizing itself around in different ways. In terms of poetry I tend to use tercets quite frequently, and a reviewer noticed that a lot of poems in Crocus (unconsciously) favor the anapest. So there must be something about the formal qualities of three that feels natural to me in the way I create rhythm and structure.

SW:I admire these poems for their evocative images of a woman’s life from youth to maturity. How did you enter into this speaker’s (or speakers?) consciousness over a lifespan? What were your concerns?

KG: Honestly I don’t think I had any sense of entering another consciousness. Not that these speakers are all “me,” exactly, or that all of the experiences in the book are mine, but I guess, as I wrote these poems, I was more aware of going deeper into myself and my own questions than of trying to inhabit the consciousness of a persona.

I’ve had the experience of doing that, too—my chapbook, Flood Letters (Argos Books, 2011), is a narrative sequence spoken in the voice of a character who is definitely not me, though we certainly share a lot of the same preoccupations. In writing that way, one of my main concerns was making her world coherent to the reader without gunking it up with too much explanation. Conversely, a big concern for me in writing the kind of poems in The River Won’t Hold You is allowing enough of the solid world in to give the reader something for their brain to do as well as some sensual pleasure or frisson in the imagery—not relying too much on the too-easy shorthand of emotional language alone.

SW: The shifting spaces and landscapes are vividly rendered with precision and emotional color. How did the world (or worlds) come into being for this collection?

They came into being through the process of rendering down the raw material of decades of daydreams. I don’t mean to sound glib, by that—I really think my poems and their worlds emerge out of my fundamental affinity toward that pursuit and ineptitude for pretty much any other. I hope that doesn’t sound frivolous—I think reverie is necessary to human happiness, and certainly, in my experience, to art. And yet for some reason it feels like we’re supposed to be apologetic about it.

Jenna Kilic: I’m interested in how you arrived at the book title.  Often times, a book will have an eponymous poem.  Your book nearly has that in the poem with the running title, “After all, the river.”  When I read “The River Child,” I feel like it could nearly be titled “The River Won’t Hold You” or come before a poem with that title.  Can you explain how you arrived at the book’s title and how it works with and/or against the poems in the book?

KG: The manuscript went through several titles in different versions, and I liked all of them in different ways, but none of them felt exactly right. I think the title fell into place for me at just about the same moment that the manuscript as a whole did. I hope the feels concrete but also appropriately ambiguous—there are multiple possible meanings, and I think all of them are present in some way in the book.

JK: I’m interested in the rhyme schemes you use, particularly the internal and slant rhymes, and how, because they’re so well-managed and well-placed, they sneak up on you.  It seems that poets either love rhyme or hate it.  I love good rhymes and yours are certainly that.  Can you tell us what draws you to rhyme and how you see it working in your poems?

KG: Thank you! I don’t usually consider my poems as having rhyme schemes unless I’m working with a received form, but perhaps they kind of do, in that I think I use patterns of sound in a similar way. I think of rhyme and sound effects like that as a kind of spelunking rope that I use to find my way through the poem. In striking a strong sound I think I often imagine that I’m also casting that sound out ahead of myself into the poem, and part of the poem’s work is then finding its way back—or catching up—to that repeated sound. So I guess that creates a kind of constraint, even in free verse poems, that works a little like the constraint of end-rhymes in verse, and I find that useful. Those schemes may not always stay intact in later versions of the poem, but they sometimes help me find my way through initial drafts, and often they become important structurally.

JK: I have a sense of other poets who might have influenced your poems, but would you mind explaining whose work you feel most influenced or inspired by or if you had a particular mentor who was a great influence on these poems?

KG: This is so hard to answer, because so many poets come immediately to mind but it always feels somehow presumptuous to me to claim them as influences. And influence always seems so wide-ranging to me—including novels and music and paintings and accidents of fate as well as poetry—so that just talking about poets seems to give a distorted picture. I can say that there are some poets that for a long time I have returned to over and over again for solace and pleasure, and they include Emily Dickinson, Lorine Niedecker, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Ruefle, Robert Hass, Larry Levis, and Jack Gilbert. I know I am leaving out important names I will regret.

All of my wonderful mentors at Sarah Lawrence and Vermont College have been huge influences on my writing, and my own brilliant students at Interlochen and Middlebury have inspired me daily with their wild imaginations, their courage, and the urgency and importance of what they have to say through their writing.

SW & JK: Is there anything else you would like to add? Thanks so much for your time!

KG: No, nothing to add! Thank you for the lovely, thoughtful questions—it has been a pleasure.

 

 

Interview with Poetry Editors Shelley Wong and Jenna Kilic

In preparation for the staff’s imminent departure to Seattle for AWP, Associate Poetry Editor David Winter sat down with Poetry Editors Shelley Wong and Jenna Kilic. Shelley and Jenna are both third-year students in The Ohio State University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and they have both published widely in literary journals. They discuss their editorial philosophies, their own writing, and Mariah Carey below.

David Winter: Thank you both so much for doing this interview. Where do you see The Journal heading in the next year? What do you hope to accomplish as Poetry Editors?

Jenna Kilic: I think we’re going to continue with something that [former Poetry Editor] Michael Marberry emphasized with us last year and that’s publishing established poets who we love alongside new, young poets whose work thrills us.

I want every issue of The Journal to strive toward publishing the most eclectic work possible and not just in terms of form. I’m talking about different voices; different cultural ideas and concepts; poems that risk being fierce, emotional, disturbing, etc. Unsafe poems. I want to publish poems that trouble me throughout the day and when I go to sleep, poems that make me want to write. On the whole, I want the poems in any particular issue to be in some sort of conversation and/or argument with one another and to establish that through eclecticism.

Shelley Wong: It’s a ridiculous honor to be a poetry editor for The Journal and have the opportunity to read the work of so many fine poets. I’m excited to work with Jenna and the entire Journal staff in the upcoming year.

Now, onto the questions! I concur with Jenna that diversity is important. I’m interested in the different ways a poem can create and craft meaning and I too am looking for poems that surprise me, that talk about unexpected subjects or talk about familiar subjects unexpectedly. Poetry is an auditory form as well as a visual one and how a poem uses music or white space in relation to its content fascinates me.

In addition to aesthetic diversity, I also champion gender equality and diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and education. Poetry is about many voices, histories, interpretations, and representations.

The Journal has a wonderful tradition of publishing established and emerging writers, and we look forward to continuing that legacy and spotlighting some terrific poets through our print and web issues and online presence. During Michael’s tenure, he included several translations in each issue, and that is something Jenna and I are happy to continue. It’s a great honor to receive so many terrific submissions from poets around the world and expand our knowledge of poets who may be little known in the United States.

DW: I am so excited to be on staff here, too, and especially to work with the two of you. You make editing sound like a pretty great gig, but it’s also a rather eclectic pursuit, to borrow Jenna’s terminology. Is editing a lit mag something you’ve wanted to do for years? How did you get interested in this work?

JK: I became interested in the possibility of editing a literary magazine while applying to MFA programs. I wasn’t even aware that was a possibility for me until I was applying, and I wasn’t even sending my work out then. OSU having a well-established literary magazine was one of the reasons I decided to come here. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the publishing world, and working on a literary magazine seemed like a great way to do that.

SW: Being an editor is such fun! It’s much easier than writing. I was a poetry editor for my undergraduate literary journal Ibid at UC Berkeley and was very keen on getting involved with the graduate literary journal while pursuing my MFA. Writing can be a lonely art and literary journals are a terrific way to build community. As an editor, it’s such a thrill to find good work and support emerging writers. It’s also a surreally awesome experience to correspond with poets who you’ve admired for many years. As a student, I’ve come across so many new favorite poets through The Journal (a handful of names: Traci Brimhall, Marcus Wicker, Sally Wen Mao, Christina Veladota). Former poetry editors and poets extraordinaire Tory Adkisson and Michael Marberry both did an exceptional job of bringing in established writers alongside newer writers and I want to continue their legacy of helping great poets find their readers. Editing is really about building a home for poems and making love matches between readers and poets and poets with other poets. I hope we can make that happen.

DW: What are a few of your favorite literary magazines, and why? Where are you sending your own poems?

JK: Whenever I read Birmingham Poetry Review or 32 Poems, I feel the urge to write. When I get that feeling, then I know a magazine is one of my favorites. I also like the Boston Review, which recently published our own reviews editor, Raena Shirali, in the “Discovery” poetry contest. Those editors are interested in publishing serious poems and serious articles. I find their magazine incredibly engaging. Ninth Letter is like a shiny new toy I can’t wait to rip open. Other journals: Arcadia, Salamander, Kenyon ReviewKartika ReviewDamazine, The Portland ReviewPleiadesPoetry, The Dark HorseMeasure, The Sewanee Review, and Subtropics, among several others. I’ve sent my poems to all of these places. You win some; you lose some.

SW: As to journal favorites and my own poetry submissions, I’m a fan of Indiana ReviewColorado ReviewHayden’s Ferry Review, ShampooSycamore Review, and jubilat. These journals publish great work that often lingers in my mind. I love finding poems that cause me to rethink what I know about poetry or teach me how to see beauty or an image differently. The Internet is providing a platform for so many new poetic voices that it’s hard to keep up! It’s a great time for poetry.

An Interview with Daniel Hornsby

Daniel Hornsby is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Michigan. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana ReviewHayden’s Ferry Review, and Unstuck. He is working on a novel. His story “The Gargantuans” appeared in the Fall issue (37.4) of The Journal. He spoke to Fiction Editor Brett Beach about giants, myths, and how he used metaphor to talk about the unintentional pain parents inflict on their children.

Brett Beach: Why giants? (Or, to put it another way, what was the original seed of this story?)

Daniel Hornsby: I was at a party with a friend. It was one of those boring parties where the host tries to get everyone to dress up, and so the guests are kind of stuck there in their fancy clothes. Anyway, my friend and I got to talking about her mother, who, like many mothers (not including mine!), had left her scarred and resentful. At one point, I began thinking about how our parents hurt us without even trying, mostly as a result of their size—both physically and metaphorically. I thought it was funny how, when you’re a child, your parents are gigantic compared to you. They’re giants; they hurt you without even trying. And so a few days later I started working on the story.

BB: Where did you struggle in writing the story? How did you get around those issues?

DH: There’s no short supply of stories with couples struggling to have a baby. And there’s probably an equal number of stories in which children adopt some orphaned animal (baby bird, kitten, etc.), which, despite their best efforts at parenting, inevitably dies. On some level, these are two new sorts of myth types. Part of me wanted to combine these two stories, using the giants’ scale as a way to make these old, tragic archetypes fresh and funny. I don’t know if I was able to do this, but that was what I was going for.

BB: What made you go back to the story again and again?

DH: I keep coming back to pieces that set their own rules and vocabularies for themselves. Here, a giant narrator let me play with scale and make funny (at least to me), contradictory statements about size: little houses, small moons, etc. Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel sets a comic tradition for play with giants, and I took some comfort in that.

BB: How does “The Gargantuans” hold up against your other work? Is it similar in theme, setting, view of the world?

DH: Just before I wrote “The Gargantuans,” I’d just finished a story about some children who ride around in a giant, mechanical unicorn, kind of like the Trojan horse. Gigantism and childhood seem to go together—I think there’s a reason fairytales are full of enormous monsters, because childhood is, too. And for much of childhood, there’s really no distinction between reality and fantasy: the fantastic is real, and the real is fantastic.

BB: What is the most important piece of fiction you’ve ever read? (Or: who should our readers go seek out right this second, without even closing the internet down or turning off the stove?)

DH: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a book that continues to haunt me years after reading it. There’s a kind of subterranean realm that Bolaño’s work operates exclusively within—a brutal twilight zone or dark maze that covers the whole shrinking world. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis and Steven Millhauser’s We Others are also both pretty infectious. Davis’ style—her precise sentences and range—and Millhauser’s whimsical ideas and premises have been enough to keep me inspired for a long time.

An Interview with Larissa Szporluk

Larissa Szporluk is the author of five books of poetry—most recently Traffic with Macbeth (2011). An associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Bowling Green State University, Szporluk has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her poem “Startle Pattern” appeared in the Spring issue (37.2) of The Journal. Recently, Szporluk spoke with Associate Art Editor Janelle DolRayne regarding the origins of “Startle Pattern,” the roles that narrative and image play within her poetry, and both the unique challenges and opportunities that depression can provide in the landscape of an author’s work.

Janelle DolRayne: I’m glad we get to talk about “Startle Pattern” since it encompasses so much of what I admire about your work. The poem starts at a place of renewal/birth and conceptualizes and mythologizes from that place. Where did this poem begin for you?

Larissa Szporluk: “Startle Pattern” was inspired by a fascinating criminal studies book called Eraser Killers that covers some of the most famous cases of homicides committed by, well, mostly husbands who wanted to “start over” and, being demented and cruel, preferred murder to divorce. Eraser-killing involves making the person disappear completely, which I suppose is part of the “fun.” The Peterson case was so haunting that I still can’t shake it. “Startle Pattern” is just a poetic retelling of the pivotal moment—the case began to unfold once Laci’s fetus washed up on shore. She was nine months pregnant when killed and the fetus did, in fact, emerge from the uterus posthumously. It’s an image beyond myth, beyond all that we’ve read and been told.

JDR: It is an extremely unsettling image. In your eyes, how does the image surpass myth?

LS: I suppose the image surpasses myth by the fact of being real. And, being real, the image has no agenda other than to have happened. There is no comfort, no message, no “purpose” to a dead fetus rising out of an isolated uterus at the bottom of the sea, and yet, because we are instructed by tales of resurrection—the phoenix, Christ, etc.—we want so badly for reality to be positive. We want the miracle of the little boy surfacing alive. We want him to stand trial against his father. We want the triumph, and we’re never going to get it. Perhaps that unrequited yearning for the impossible contributes to the image’s power as well. It’s a distorted renewal/birth but ultimately sad and empty. The distortion isn’t thrilling or instructive. It just is.

JDR: Your poems are extremely intimate. As a reader, I always feel positioned within the mind and body of the poem, never on the periphery. They have an extremely strong internal motion, even when you are writing about and/or through a character. How do you see the relationship and positioning between speaker and reader in your poems?

LS: Once upon a time, I would have said that there is no relationship, that speaker and reader are more or less merged in my mind when I’m writing. I used to write for a reader who was essentially an aspect of the speaker. Now it’s more complicated. After finishing a very difficult prose project, one that involved a total separation of reader and speaker, I doubt I’ll be able to get that unification back. My sense of the reader now is as a cold, faraway planet that I must somehow try to entice. The strong internal motion that you mention depends on the reader being in the know, being attached, even being dragged in some cases. It’s an aggressive stance, I would say, and, yes, intimate too but not always consensual.

JDR: Do you mind talking a little about the prose poem project and your plans for it? Specifically, why did it call for a total separation of reader and speaker?

LS: It’s funny that you say “prose poem project” because that’s what I’m on the verge of writing now. The project I referred to earlier was a prose fiction project (I hesitate to say “novel”) that has been a disaster, of which I’ll spare you the details and head straight to the question.

Trying to write popular fiction (attending to plot, character, pacing, etc.) is such an intricate, mechanical process that there is no room for indulgence. I found myself basking in narrative details that were of no importance whatsoever—in retrospect, they were grotesque in their gratuitousness. Upon learning that all my efforts had no value, well, you can imagine. Ouch. It was a slap to the soul. Poetry, mine anyway, has always lived in that indulgence; my prose dies in it.

I signed up for the Tupelo 30/30 that begins June 1st and involves writing a new poem every day for that month. I plan to apply this separation strategy to short prose poems. My imagined reader, as separate as they come, is a cold-blooded, poetry-hating grouch.

JDR: In your work, you recreate myth by responding to mythology such as The Adventures of Pinocchio, the biblical Fall, and Macbeth. How responsible do you feel to the original myth when recreating it? How do you see the relationship between old and new mythology in your work?

LS: The Pinocchio poems tried to stay true to the original story and aimed merely to accentuate the images that I found to be most poignant. I would never try that again. It was discouraging because only too late in the project did I realize that I was being a pest and, by then, I had already spent a couple years on the poems and was under pressure to publish a book to get tenure, etc., so there really was no turning back.

I’m not ashamed of the poems but of the impulse. There was no need for that story to be picked at; the poignancy is blatant. But I did come away with a lesson: image is empty without narrative. It’s the difference in power between a blue goat and the blue goat. Which is more interesting?

JDR: At first, I had my mind made up about my answer: the blue goat. But then I thought that a blue goat indicates that the speaker is creating a world in which blue goats are common, which excites me. But I suppose that is an argument for creating narratives within images as well, so I’m going to stick with my first answer: the blue goat.

But thanks for sharing that lesson with us. I’m curious: how has your relationship with image-driven poetry changed since learning this lesson? Both the reading and writing of poetry? Does it still have a place for you?

LS: I’m a lot less patient now. I’m more frightened. I wish it were the opposite, that aging had made me more patient and secure. Unfortunately, it didn’t go that way. I’m paranoid about superficiality, and if an image doesn’t grind or pierce immediately, I dismiss it. As mentioned above, I understand the role of narrative more, so I work to inject the weight of story into nearly every image—key word: “work.” Writing imagistic poetry has become more difficult, more laborious, because “story” has to be created before the language work can begin.

Also, because of the fear. It’s like I know there’s a deeper poem in any given gathering of words, and I’m afraid of not getting there because the only access to it is through abuse—beating and squeezing those words until they actually mean something. Now, of course, that’s perverse, but that’s how it’s been.

Even “Startle Pattern,” which was working from a true story and therefore required little imagination on my part, had to be reconfigured a thousand times, and I’m still not pleased. The ending is a little too gentle. I didn’t get “under” the comber. He’s just a prop.

JDR: From what I understand, you split your time between northern Ohio and northern Italy. There are traces of Italy in The Wind, Master Cherry, The Wind and of Ohio in Traffic with Macbeth. How do these two places enter into your work and process?

LS: I haven’t really begun to explore the impact of northern Italy yet. The Italian influence in Master Cherry was connected to Lombardy, where my husband’s family is from and which is uncannily like northwest Ohio. When they moved to Domodossola in 2006 (a small city in the Lepontine alps), my first thought was: I want to die here. Maybe that’s just middle-age sentiment, but it’s also a beautiful feeling to go running around feeling so happy that you want to die.

I don’t feel that way in Ohio. They’re geographic opposites. Here (I’m in Domodossola right now), there is no horizon. Everything is vertical. The only way out is up. Whereas in northwest Ohio, you’re hard-pressed to find a bump. Everywhere you go, it all comes with you, and it never ends. I like the two extremes. They’re emotional platforms.

I tell students who are depressed or having the “block” that depression has its own music. They should write no matter what and not think they have to be “high” to write good poems. Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” comes from a deep, flat place. He’s brooding and the brooding gives way to a kind of mental chutes-and-ladders. Depressed, he has to create all those altitudes in order to move the poem along. When the poet is already “up,” the poem can be restricted by a reluctance to descend. There is something courageous about flatness, strange as it sounds.

JDR: Not strange at all! I moved to Ohio after growing up in the Rockies and spending time in California, so this really resonates. I think the difficult part is to find a way to begin out of flatness. You can’t rely on gravity to take you somewhere. How do you manage to ignore the difficulties of flatness and to build altitudes in your poems out of flatness?

LS: But you can rely on gravity—you can keep going down. That’s the only benefit of depression—you’re closer to the depths. I’m not talking about mystical meditation-induced depths. I’m talking about mentally disturbed ones. That’s where the energy is to build the altitudes you’re talking about; put simply, you scare yourself out of the flatness!

OK, now it’s getting convoluted. I’ll start over: You’re in the flatness. Your mind is flat. You’re precisely numb with your own ennui. It’s only in that state that you feel the pull from below, a kind of Swedenborgian lower spirit telling you that you’re nothing, you’re a loser, you’re hopeless. So you agree. And when you agree, you’re pulled even further into a whirlpool of suicidal whisperings and bad feelings. And then—there it is—you either do yourself in or you become a hero.

Of course, we’re talking about writing a poem, right? So what is your “weapon?” Words, of course, and suddenly the words come to your rescue, and they’re loaded with God or whatever feels almighty to you, and they’re strong because, no, you’re not going to surrender to the lower spirits. It’s too easy to just crumble and self-annihilate, too easy and stupid, so the energy starts building, the will to live returns, and the rhythms start climbing and pulling you up and up. Pretty soon, you’re not only out of hell but beyond the flatness and getting so high now that not even the words can keep up and, as in the Larkin poem, the image steps in, the deep image that represents the narrative you’ve just been through—high windows—salvation of the highest kind, relief in endlessness, the summit.

Unfortunately, this psychodrama is both necessary for the poem and exhausting for the poet. I no longer believe that the altitudes live in the words alone. The psychotic spirit (or the lucky, healthy one) has to tryst first with itself and then with the language in order to make everything rise.

An Interview with Steven D. Schroeder

Steven D. Schroeder is the author of two poetry collections: Torched Verse Ends (2009) and  The Royal Nonesuch (forthcoming 2013). His poetry is available from New England Review, Pleiades, Verse, and Indiana Review. He edits the online poetry journal  Anti- and works as a certified professional resume writer. Recently, Associate Poetry Editor Matt Sumpter spoke with Schroeder about his pop culture influences, his use of poetic line and line breaks, and his editorial preferences.

Matt Sumpter: One of the most memorable things about your poem  “X” (featured in The Journal issue 37.2) is how it navigates its subject matter at different depths. The poem wryly acknowledges that, yes, it is a poem about comic book/television/movie characters but refuses to settle for that. The tension between superficiality and poetic insight seems like an important one to navigate when writing about pop culture. Is that what drew you to this topic, or was it something else? Do you often find yourself drawn to pop culture?

An Interview with Sabrina Orah Mark

Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections Tsim Tsum (2009) and The Babies (2004), which was the premier winner of the Saturnalia Book Prize. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Glenn Schaeffer Foundation. Widely anthologized, her poems, stories, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Believer, American Short Fiction, The Harvard Review, Lana Turner, and elsewhere. She currently teaches writing workshops in the Athens, Georgia community. In a recent interview with Associate Poetry Editor Shelley Wong, Mark spoke about her love of fairy tales, form versus content, and whether the characters from Tsim Tsum will reappear in upcoming projects.

Shelley Wong: Thank you for being a part of The Journal. Is “The Seventh Wife” part of a new project centered on Osbert? Or is this piece part of a series with separate characters?

Sabrina Orah Mark: “The Seventh Wife” is part of a new collection of short fictions (in progress), tentatively called “Everything Was Beautiful & Nothing Hurt.” Osbert only appears once. In this way, he is a man in a jar. Other characters who appear throughout the collection (so far): Beadlebaum (a bully), a husband named Poems, a sister called Mumford, a good stepmother, Zawacki (a taxman who is part man part stick-figure), and a very nervous family (The Horowitzs). There are others, but they are shy about appearing in interviews.

An Interview with Natalie Shapero

Natalie Shapero received her MFA in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University and afterwards attended law school at The University of Chicago.  She is currently a Kenyon Review Fellow. Her work has been published in Poetry, The New Republic, Poetry Northwest, 32 Poems, The Progressive, Redivider, and elsewhere.  Shapero’s first book, No Object, was published by Saturnalia Books earlier this year. She recently spoke with Associate Poetry Editor Jenna Kilic about her new book, writing poetry while in law school, the themes and concerns of her writing, and advice for current MFA students.

Jenna Kilic: In your new book, No Object, your long poem “Hot (Normal)” takes its title from a washing machine cycle. In what other ways do you discover poetry in quotidian things?

Natalie Shapero: Any object emblazoned with text has to be, in some way, talking. With that washing machine, the HOT (NORMAL) washing machine, I had a sense, whenever I trucked to the basement to do my laundry, that it was screwing with me. You know, telling me to my face I was hot and then, as soon as I turned my back, dismissively turning to the dryer to register how actually nonplussed it was: “eh, normal.” I imagined it as a dude going through a kind of slick routine, trotting out some effusive rhetoric to get his date undressed. Can I really blame it, though? It is a washing machine, after all—its purpose in life is to get the clothes.

Interview with Ira Sukrungruang

Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoir Talk Thai: Adventures of Buddhist Boy and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is also the co-editor of What Are You Looking At: The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. His essays, stories, and poems have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Bellingham Review, North American Review, Isotope, Crab Orchard Review, Post Road, and many other journals and anthologies. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Florida and is editor of Sweet: A Literary Confection. Sukrungruang recently spoke with Nonfiction Editor Silas Hansen about his writing practices, writing in more than one genre, and what he looks for as an editor.

Silas Hansen: I was first introduced to your work when you read from Talk Thai: Adventures of Buddhist Boy at Ohio State, not long after it was published. Since then, I’ve read several of your essays, which sometimes—but not always—deal with similar subject matter about your family, your Thai heritage, and growing up in the Midwest. I even recently re-read a flash essay of yours, “Chop Suey,” from Brevity 19, and was—as I always am while reading flash nonfiction, and yours in particular—awed by your ability to write something so short that carries that much weight. Could you tell me a little bit about how you approach writing in these different forms and lengths? How does your writing process differ for a flash piece vs. a longer essay vs. a book-length memoir?

Ira Sukrungruang: First, thanks, Silas for your kind words. I’m always intrigued by a writer’s process. There are writers who guard their process like locked gems, writers like James Tate, for example, whom I had the pleasure to listen to a few years ago. When asked about his process, he couldn’t/didn’t answer the question in a coherent manner, as if giving word to his process would be like giving a thief the keys to a convertible. I respect that, though. It furthers that mythos that writing just happens, that it suddenly appears. It’s how we like to think Chopin composed his music. There are also writers like Ron Carlson or Robert Olen Butler who take us through every decision they make as writers. We get a glimpse into the writer’s mind as he writes a story, essay, poem. We get to see the product take shape step-by-step.

Interview with Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is a professor of English at SUNY Fredonia, where she teaches creative writing and environmental literature, and is the author of three poetry collections: Lucky Fish (2011), At the Drive-In Volcano (2007), and Miracle Fruit (2003). For her work, she has received several honors and awards, including the Tupelo Press Prize, the Balcones Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The editors of The Journal are pleased to announce that Nezhukumatathil is serving as this year’s poetry judge for our second-annual genre contest, which will be open for submissions on April 1, 2013. Recently, she spoke with The Ohio State University MFA student David Winter about her own poetic origins, her interest in science and fable, and her balancing act between writing and motherhood.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil Author Photo

David Winter: I’m struck by the playfulness and accessibility of your poems. As a reader, I often feel that you invite me to experience amazement and bewilderment in ways I don’t expect. What do you do to keep the experience of poetry—for yourself and your readers—new?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Thanks so much. I guess the easy (but true!) answer is that I myself have a short attention span and even though I think the cardinal sin of the poet is to bore the reader, the truth is I don’t want to bore myself. Even if I’m writing about a town or, say, a reptile I adore—I very much am always looking for ways to surprise myself and try to “make it new.” And to do that, I read and read and turn ideas over in my head or in a notebook for weeks or months at a time before I ever begin the “making” or drafting of a poem.

I’ve had to work like this since I became a mother. Gone was the real strict writing schedule like I had pre-toddlers, and usually I don’t know from day to day when exactly I’ll be able to wade my way through Legos and little cars over to my writing desk. But what helps tremendously is having a journal with scraps and starts of dozens of ideas or lines or metaphors, so I never have to start from “scratch.”

DW: I am sincerely impressed by anyone who manages to parent and write at all. There are several poems in Lucky Fish that deal with pregnancy and motherhood, and I read in another interview that you’re working on a book of poems for young people. Could you talk a little bit about how motherhood may have influenced or informed your work?

AN: I love that you asked this very good question, but it’s hard for me to come up with a solid answer because my oldest son is five and my youngest is two-and-a-half. For me, motherhood has been a joyfully slippery whirl—I feel like each day has its own specific answer, so I’ll leave it to others down the road if they want to draw comparisons to my earlier poems. But I can say that when I sit at my desk to write, there is a sense of urgency and a deeper sense of gratitude and celebration for this planet and its inhabitants. I know that my heartbeat is closer to the surface of my skin, so news about hate and violence affects me more than ever before, and I can’t help but feel sometimes that the only way I can push back against all this darkness in the world is to find ways to record instances of delight and beauty on this planet for my sons.

DW: You are a tenured professor, but I understand that you have also worked extensively with younger writers outside of academia. My own writing students have often shown me new ways of reading familiar texts and new ways of understanding my own poems. Has teaching influenced your approach to writing?

AN: Oh, most definitely! For me they are one in the same in that when I first came to poetry in college, I was also reading extensively outside of class, trying to play catch-up with my very well-read peers. In effect, I was teaching myself first, for example, how to write a sestina or villanelle, so that I could come back to workshop the next week and feel confident enough to contribute to class discussion about a classmate’s sestina when, at the time, I had only just recently taught myself how to write one.

And I always remind my students that “poems are not frogs.” That is, we’re not going to dissect them until all that is left are some unappetizing bits of skin and bone, and yet we need to at the very least check the poem’s heartbeat, see if it is as healthy as it can be, and, of course, along the way, recognize that there are several versions of what it even means to be “healthy,” to extend that froggy metaphor.

DW: I love this metaphor of the poem as a living thing that should be kept healthy rather than violently dissected. I think that many of us have trouble treating our own poems that way, even when we are able to be humane or holistic in our criticism of others’ work. Do you have any advice about revision?

AN: Ah, revision—that’s the fun part of writing for me actually. Now the drafting process is very unglamorous for me—lots of self-doubt, stops and starts, fussing over lines, stress-eating gummy bears (I’m only half-kidding)—but I think you have to push through distraction and just get it on the page, even if it means wading through the mucky swamp of doubt.

I never know when I’m going to be able to return to the desk again. At the risk of being a tad melodramatic, I confess that at the end of every draft, I’m actually physically tired, spent. But I love and live for revision! Love it. That’s where the making and shaping joy and play and music-popping-crackle metaphor-magic and the snapping off line breaks happens for me. I think that helps keep my students in check when at first they may resist looking over their poems again. I ask/tease/shame them: How can you NOT love revising poems? That’s where the magic happens!

As for specific advice—I usually start with examining the openings and closings of the poem: the first line of the poem should hook just under your skin to keep you wanting, really wanting, to read on. The last line should feel as if the hook were either yanked out or gently removed. Either way, it should smart.

DW: Both folklore and science permeate your writing, not only as content but also as formal influences. In Lucky Fish, for instance, you structure one poem as a set of magical amulets and another as a natural history, while a third seems to combine the language of an exhibition with a fable. How do science and superstition feed into your creativity, and how do they help you to make sense of the world or move through it?

AN: Great question. Myth, folklore, science, natural history—these are the subjects of books that I was drawn to for as long as I can remember. Sure, as a little girl, I devoured the usual Amelia Bedelia and Beverly Cleary books, but it was actually books on minerals and birds or shell guides that most often filled my library book bag. I also teach environmental literature, and these days I read as many science and natural history books as I possibly can, so my vocabulary and the structure of how I organize my writing has long been in place before I ever knew what it was to write a poem or essay.

I learned how to make sense of the world and my little heartbreaks and desires through a language of science and fable. It was the only way that I could find to marry all the wonder and beauty and danger that I witness in this world—though I will happily say that, when I use the diction and structure of myth and fable, I try to make it very obvious. And when I reference something from the natural world, the reader can be assured that much care has gone into researching that little factoid (like interviewing a marine biologist in person at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to learn about the exact pulse of a moon jelly, for example)—that all scientific details in my poems and essays are true and not me just waving my poetic license around.

DW: I loved what you said about “a language of science and fable” being the only way that you could marry your different experiences of the world. But a lot of people think of science and fable as being opposed to each other. For instance, part of the disagreement in our current debate over global warming is between those who base their views on scientific evidence and people whose views are shaped by very literal interpretations of scriptural stories. While I think the marriage of these two elements in your work is extremely attractive, I also wonder if you have any thoughts on this perceived conflict between science and fable?

AN: It’s such a personal thing for everyone, so I can only speak to where I’m coming from on this, but the language of science and fable in my poems is basically how I truly perceive the world. Everything from my faith and my deepest reservoirs, where love and fear and desire and spirituality reside, are all located in the tough fibers of my heart. I can’t explain any of those “big subjects” in my poems (or even in life!) by way of science or fable, but I know and believe them to be True with a capital T. How does all this fit then into my writing? I love how poet Galway Kinnell describes how Walt Whitman himself had “negative capability”:

“…a certain shapelessness of personality, a peculiar power to obliterate himself and flow into some other being and speak it from within… A transaction seems to occur: Whitman gives whatever he flows into a presence in human consciousness, and in return, this other thing or creature gives Whitman a situation and vocabulary which enables him to see and articulate his own being in a new way.”

Isn’t that so beautiful? I think the ability to have a situation and a specific vocabulary to create a new world on the page is true to some extent for most writers, isn’t it?

DW: What is a recent book that excited you? What books have you returned to again and again?

AN: What’s recently floored me was Sharon Olds’s newest collection, Stag’s Leap, and Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, a first book that just won the Crab Orchard Prize. I return to any of Lucille Clifton’s poems again and again. Her Collected Poems from BOA sits on my writing desk right now. I always return to D’Aulaires’s Book of Greek Myths—I’ve been in love with the delicate colored pencil illustrations since I was seven or eight, and I’m not embarrassed to say that volume still brings me great joy.

DW: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions. It’s been a real pleasure to learn a little more about the roots of your poetics and the person behind the poems. In closing, I wonder if you would leave us with a few words about what first drew you to poetry? Do you remember writing your first poem or a particular moment when you first knew you were a poet?

AN: Growing up as one of the only Asian-Americans in most of my school always set me apart, always observing. But my parents fostered a sense of being grateful and amazed and wanting to always be curious about the world and its inhabitants, so I never truly felt alone. I can remember my father taking me and my younger sister on a hike in the mountains that form one edge of a ring around the Phoenix suburbs, pointing out the names of each of the various cacti and desert flowers that we encountered. We’d stop and find quartz crystals or geodes hidden on the trails: such treasures! Saguaro, ocotillo, yellowbell, shrubby bulbines, chuparosa—just try to say those names out loud without smiling. So there was never a light bulb moment for me in terms of figuring out who I was. Rather, it was in college, right inside Ohio State’s Denney Hall, where I learned there was a whole craft and study of how to clearly and musically communicate and record the world around me.

In many ways, even though I’ve just recently been promoted to full professor here at SUNY-Fredonia, I hope that I never ever stop being curious and feeling like a student on this planet. There are always insect wings and jellyfish bells to marvel over. I still need to learn the color names of glaciers—so much bounty and life that I want to record on the page.

Interview with Corey Van Landingham

Corey Van Landingham completed her MFA at Purdue University, where she was a poetry editor at Sycamore Review. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2012, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Indiana Review, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Van Landingham’s book Antidote won the 2012 OSU Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. Recently, she spoke with poetry editor Michael Marberry about her prize-winning manuscript and the challenge and excitement surrounding the construction of a first book.

Corey Van Landingham

Michael Marberry: First things first: Congratulations on winning this year’s Wheeler Prize for Poetry, awarded by The Ohio State University Press and The Journal! This is your first poetry collection, correct? Having spoken with the judge (Kathy Fagan), I know that this year’s decision was a very difficult one, as we received well over 500 manuscript submissions. What was it like to receive the good news from Kathy that you’d won the Wheeler Prize?

Corey Van Landingham: Thank you so much, Michael! This is indeed my first collection and, hopefully, not my last. As for the phone call with Kathy, it was, of course, the best phone call of my life. As soon as she said who she was, I started sweating profusely. She said her name might not mean anything to me, and I wanted to say, “Your name means everything to me!” I have no idea what I actually said to her, only that she was so kind that I was in tears and, honest to goodness, had my hand over my heart the whole conversation. After we hung up, I made the requisite phone calls, continued sweating, brushed my hair and my teeth, and blasted “A Milli” by Lil Wayne because, apparently, that seemed appropriate at the time.

What I’m trying to say is that I was so incredibly happy and honored that I had no idea what to do with myself. I am in love with Rebecca Hazelton’s gorgeous book Fair Copy, last year’s Wheeler Prize winner, and I couldn’t be happier and more humbled to be in her company at OSU Press.

MM: I’m sure that I’m not just speaking for myself when I say that titling a book seems impossibly difficult. (I have trouble giving titles to individual poems, let alone to an entire collection!) Your book is entitled Antidote, which is also the title of one of the poems therein. How did you decide on this particular manuscript title? What does the title mean to you? How do you see the title working in unison with or in tension against the poems in the collection?

CVL: Yes, this whole business is impossibly difficult. I have always struggled with titles. I think maybe one of my titles received the go-ahead during my MFA workshops, and titling my manuscript was grueling. Long titles have always captivated me—I love their inherent poetry, their rhythm, their complication—and I tried to emulate these titles that I so admired. It wasn’t until The Great Title Breakdown of 2012, as I now call it, that I realized perhaps a long, abstract title wasn’t quite right for my book. All this happened while I was in Vermont at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and I must have bugged the hell out of my dear friend Brittany Cavallaro, as I rattled off title after title to her for days.

As soon as I wrote down the word “Antidote,” however, something felt right. The strange thing is that it comes from a phrase that didn’t feel particularly representative of the book: “The antidote to all those pills she was taking.” But the more I thought about the idea of an antidote, how it conjures up danger and the sinister in its unmentioned nod to poison, the interesting wording of an antidote being given against something, the more I liked it.

I actually wrote the poem “Antidote” after I found the title, and it helped solidify the various tensions the title holds for me: poetry as a possible antidote to mourning; poetry as an impossible antidote to mourning; the fact that nothing can be given against lost love or guilt or death or the myriad other incurable afflictions that we face. For a book that has so many various tones and speakers trying to approach valediction through different forms, Antidote felt like it encompassed all of them, as if each “I,” “you,” “she,” “he,” and “we” was an attempted antidote against the feeling of futility.

MM: Tell me a bit about how the manuscript came together—i.e. how you selected which poems to include, how you decided on the overall organization, etc. What sort of guidance did you receive during the process of putting together the manuscript? In retrospect, was there a specific piece of advice that you received that stands out as particularly instructive, helpful, or formative for creating your book? Were there other poetry collections that influenced the construction of your own collection?

CVL: My incredible mentor at Purdue University, Donald Platt, was invaluable in the process of putting together this manuscript. One evening, we met on campus with all the poems that I wanted to include and, one by one, spread them out on a long conference table. At the time, the manuscript had three sections, and my homework was to have picked the poems that I wanted to begin and end each section. From there, we built each section from each end, moving slowly toward the middle. The physical process of standing up and seeing each poem together, of reading aloud last lines and seeing the different formal patterns of each poem next to each other helped immensely.

After I removed the sections, though, I still saw the manuscripts as being in parts—mainly because of having three poems titled “To Have & To Hold,” three poems titled “Valediction Lessons,” and three elegies. The entire time that I was working on putting together the manuscript, I wanted to avoid its becoming a project book. Don’t get me wrong: I think those can be beautiful and luminous and quite valuable. But I didn’t want it to be a dead father book or a breakup book or a surrealist self-meditation book; I wanted it to be all those things. The simultaneity and multiplicity of themes kept me interested, kept me motivated, and prevented me (I hope!) from writing the same poem again and again. But, in a way, this made the entire process of choosing poems more difficult. In the end, it came down to pairing and contrasting tonal registers and, I’ll admit, trying not to have too many couplets together. Poems that could not go into the book: anything too hopeful, anything without a fairly strong speaker or lyric voice, and anything that strayed too far from landscape or place.

I gave myself the task of reading a lot of first books by women poets, and I know that many of them have been quite influential—especially Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, Nicky Beer’s The Diminishing House, Traci Brimhall’s Rookery, Arda Collins’s It Is Daylight, and Mary Szybist’s Granted. Though it’s not a first book, the most important book for me while writing and organizing my own book has been Joanna Klink’s Raptus, though I’m sad now that I can’t have a Kiki Smith drawing as cover-art. Have you read Raptus? Go buy it. Klink is a genius when it comes to creating a collection of poetry. (You’re welcome!)

MM: Last question: What advice would you give to other poets putting together that first book manuscript?

CVL: When approaching the manuscript, allow yourself the same strangeness, intuition, danger, magic, and otherness that goes into writing a poem. Remember that you are a poet, not an architect. It should be fun. You should stand up while organizing it. You should drink wine. And you shouldn’t just do what anyone else tells you to do.

Interview with Lia Purpura

Because the Essay Can Do So Much

Recognized for her richly poetic digressions yet startling precision, Lia Purpura doesn’t disappoint in her most recent collection of essays, A Rough Likeness. It’s an exciting excursion from one essay to the next as Purpura’s meditations move from the quest for meaning to the very act of meaning-making. I raced to get a copy of A Rough Likeness and slowed down while reading it only to savor the strange and inevitable beauty of the language. Marked with images both sparkling and haunting, these essays dwell in the mystery of nearly forgotten histories, shards of stories, beach glass, memories. Purpura writes “Without a story, the fragments won’t settle,” and while her essays demonstrate the veracity of this statement, outside of them some things are settled: Lia Purpura’s essays are fiercely elegant yet filled to the brim with guilty pleasures.

As satisfying as the book is, I was also interested in getting a few other things settled, particularly regarding her writing process and the creative choices that she made while putting this collection together.

Kathleen Blackburn: In your essay, “The Lustres,” you write “One summer night, when I was six and put to bed while the sun still shone and the game in the street went on without me, I thought to myself, framing it up, ‘the world is going on without me.’” You go on to describe the playful way you re-imagined the world, and the words that make it up, as a child. How early did your work as a writer begin?

Lia Purpura: I suppose it’s exactly impulses like this one you mention that started me offthe intensity of that dreamy space-before-sleep, those moments that feel real enough to hold, meeting up with language . . . at some point, the impulse becomes one of preserving moments and not just experiencing them . . . if inclined to words, one discovers that words help, the matching of words to moments becomes a habit, then a habit became a practice.

KB: What are some of your regular writing practices?

LP: Pretty simple: I sit down to it daily. Read. Write. Look out the window. Collect things during the day. Within that frame of commitment, anything can happen. The particular bends and folds and moves and breath marks are probably too idiosyncratic to go into. “I sit down to it daily” means unless life blows things up. Which happens.

KB: Do you typically begin a piece with a word, an image, or a feeling?

LP: I’d have to smack down the notion of “typical”all of these options you offer are possibilities, though the moment of launch is shimmeringly mysterious at heart. Knowing what starts you up shouldn’t in any way suggest that you then go about tracking that thing/moment/word/procedure, hoping for it to replicate itself. You can set up conditions (quiet, or music, no answering the phone, not checking your email . . .) but being open to a range of entry-points is probably most freeing. I guess “beginning” is a cross between intense discipline and wild acceptance.

KB: Since that evening described in “The Lustres,” you’ve done a lot to shape the world of literary nonfiction, particularly regarding the personal essay. What first prompted you to write essays?

LP: For a short while, when I was first pregnant with our son, it became difficult to write poems, and just to keeping moving, I wrote brief prose sketches. Really, it was a very primitive endeavorI just looked out the window and wrote what I saw, which often matched up with back-of-the-head thoughtsthose roving, hovering notions that are ripe for the picking but need some kind of occasion, something as small as a blowing leaf, to help anchor or snag them. Soon, the state I was in, “with child” as they say, became a natural part of some of these meditations, and I once again felt whole as a writer, able to work from a core that poetry, at that time, wasn’t touching. As soon as the sentence and prose rhythms reconstituted me, the feel for poems came back, and I’ve been writing both simultaneously, ever since.

KB: What feels different or similar to you about writing poems vs. essays?

LP: It’s a kind of sprint-vs.-long-distance thing. Some bodies need both. Others prefer to specialize.

KB: A Rough Likeness opens playfully with “On Coming Back as a Buzzard” in which you take on the persona of, as the title suggests, a buzzard, though you admit that “coming back as a buzzard, has not much to do with buzzards at all.” The essays that follow investigate the “leftovers,” the “something” that lies outside of story. Thus, the essays feel connected; yet, many of them appeared as stand-alone pieces. When did you begin to envision the collection that became A Rough Likeness?

LP: I don’t envision a collection; it’s more that I track certain impulses, pig-after-a-truffle style, find a scent and dig there. Usually one essay seeds the next, or suggests a kindred impulse. So to me, the essays in a collection are intent on ways of seeing and I kind of go on faith that the cohering eye, the central mind of the writer is what holds them together, allows them to function as a coral reef almosta collection of individual beings also dependent on each other and their collectivity for overall sustenance and health.

KB: Do you complete a singular piece before moving to the next?

LP: I usually have a few pieces going at once, so I can incline toward one or the other, depending how I feel when I wake up in the morning.

KB: Several of the pieces appeared in journals long before they were published this year. Did you revise them in the meantime?

LP: Some were minimally fussed with for publication in Rough Likeness, but by the time I send out a piece, it’s pretty much finished. Sometimes I find an imprecision or a tense that’s flabby or more likely, that I’ve overwritten a thought, and repeated myself and am able to cut back on an effusion.

KB: Do your feelings toward a piece of writing change over time?

LP: As with friends, one can feel inexplicably close to some essays right from the startwho knows why. It’s an immediate draw to their energy, pace, an inquisitiveness of the particularly warm or relentless or deft variety. Usually, for me, the mysterious attachment is a lasting thing, and essays that gave and fed at one time continue to do so.

KB: Your work has been praised for its lyric movement and moments of surprise. Philip Lopate stated that you are “at the forefront of the New Essay.” Where do you see yourself in the larger framework of literary essays?

LP: There has been, recently, a lot of talk about the “renaissance of the essay.” I haven’t really made a practice of tracking the rise and fall of genres, nor do I believe that one genre is ever really in ascendancy or despairing decline. Talk about any kind of surge in vital artistic forms is excitingit means people are reading with an eye to what a form can do, how it can be expanded and shaped and made to reflect reality, how it can imagine into new ways of being. Rediscovering the essayconsidering it anew, hearing beyond anxious childhood associations with the formall these responses on the part of readers are incredibly healthy. Perhaps the interest in the essay reflects readers’ desire to engage with an intimate form of idea-making that isn’t necessarily memoir-bound. The essay, after all, can do so much . . .

KB: And you find memoir more restrictive?

LP: No, it’s not that. It certainly doesn’t have to be. I just tend to angle away from trends and general proceduresI was rarely able to enjoy or be freed by classroom exercises, for example. I marvel at the utterly fresh work students produce in response to impromptu suggestions and exercises . . . but I couldn’t rally to the occasion; everything I did under such circumstances felt contrived.

KB: Have you ever considered writing a full-length memoir?

LP: Nope. I’m pretty convinced that writers deal with “telling their story” in ways that suit them temperamentally. I’m not really given to the memoir as practiced by the telling of life events, thus the essay, for me, allows for “spots of time” (Wordsworth’s phrase)those deeply fertile moments that impress on the imagination seem to illustrate my sensibility best.

KB: What do you think is the distinction between memoir and a collection of personal essays?

LP: Well, some collections of autobiographical essays present stand-alone pieces that when read together offer a full view of a life or a life’s issue. A full-length memoir often moves along like a novel, providing all the resting points and chronologies/arcs found in a work of fiction. Essays, as I practice them, are way more about ideas and language, regaining moments that are really hard to pin, the shape and music of a sentenceI’m after a feel for the life in and behind the words, just not in a narrative way. More in the way a poem means and communicates.

KB: What do you consider a lyric essay?

LP: Okay, let me start big here. Both the poetic line and the prose sentence are musical units. Musical units of thought. The writing I’m most drawn to has lyrical qualities, but I’d define that quality broadly. I guess, to me, “lyrical” writing lifts off the page in some playful, curiously angled way . . . some way that’s defined by a writer’s sensibility itself, and thus takes on a living, aural quality. Here’s the thing: I don’t really use the term “lyrical essay.” I really prefer just “essay” to describe what it is I’m up to. The tradition is long and honorable and I don’t feel the need to nichify. To call something a “lyric” essay, from the perspective of a writer, feels . . . presumptuous somehow.

KB: Often, your writing brings to mind notions of risk, of testing what the essay can do: the essays leap from one form to another, from the advice column, to the meditative. They include full-length quotes from Shakespeare and Whitman. They somersault between the meaning and connotations of words like Vienna and shit. The pieces feel playful, mischievous even. Will you talk a little bit about the idea of risk and how it applies to your writing process?

LP: It’s way less a matter of testing what the essay can do, from a kind of externalized perspective (i.e. being aware of being risky), and much more about trying to find what each piece wants to do, and having to make the form to both hold and express that new thing I’m clueless about at the outset. Inevitably, the stuff readers often cite as “risky” doesn’t strike me that way at all. What’s really risky, I think, for all writers, is staying with a sensation or image or idea that you have no words for at all and are certain is way bigger than you are. Being up against a thinga sensation, an idea, a whole project unfoldingthat you just aren’t at all sure you can make, a thought you aren’t at all sure you can realize (or one that you won’t realize as vital when it’s there in front of you!) is the big, long-term, committed risk of writing.

KB: Several of the essays are openly aware of the thinking process. For example, in “Against ‘Gunmetal’” you illustrate your search for the right term for the sky’s darkening: “The sky turns, toward or into. The sky now. The sky iswhat is the shade, gradient, hue, tint I’m seeing?” This awareness seems inherent to the essay’s quest for meaning, or quest to make meaning. Do you feel that this kind of awareness is essential to the personal essay?

LP: For me, the essay is a place where one can maintain a sense of presence. I want the thought itself there, which of course is an element that one has to balance by acts of conscious shaping, or all would be a blathering early draft. I like most the look of things that maintain some of the marks of their makerpots, clothing, foodthings that hold within themselves the trail back to the creator. Smudges of a certain sort. Fingerprints, breath. Precision, machine-tooled writing, writing that gets the job done, doesn’t allow for a little dirt under its nails . . . that’s not what I’m after and that’s not what feels most achingly human.

KB: Have you felt this way from the beginning or has it taken time to trust the marks of your own making?

LP: The most powerful thing one can teach is that art takes time. It takes a long time to develop a relationship with the practice and the work and to come to understand the language that exists between you and your work, to clarify why something feels new or doesn’t, what it actually feels like to work your way into a language for something that previously didn’t offer itself in language. It’s so much less about “revising” than it is about “learning how to work.” You have to love this kind of work to write. That sounds obvious, but I’ve often wanted to ask people, students, other writers “do you love (i.e. want to wrangle with) what you do? Do you want to be doing this?”

KB: You mentioned earlier that when you revisit a piece you sometimes find that you have “overwritten” a thought. How do you distinguish between clutter and allowing for some dirt under the nails?

LP: Again, this is a matter of sitting-with, day after day, figuring out what kind of balances you want, in terms of lengths of sentences, depth and intensity of descriptions, all other gestures . . . all of which requires a lot of “what if” questioning and curiosity and reading to identify in your own words.

KB: “There Are Things Awry Here” opens with “I found a perimeter, thank God, and I’m walking . . . I am here (quick check: yes, panting and sweaty) but it feels like nowhere, is so without character that the character I am hardly registers at all. So I’ll get to work, in the way I know how.” The essay springs to life in the moment of this walk the way a conversation during a walk might; yetI assumeyou didn’t write it while walking. At least, you didn’t necessarily revise it then. What is your revision process? Do your pieces change much from the initial draft to the final? In other words, how do you refine your pieces while still protecting the integrity of that spur-of-the-moment quality?

LP: I’m usually aware of trying to clarify and deepen, not so much “refine” or even “revise”each version feels very much like “writing” to me, and not much like “revising.” Of course, radical things can happen, whole chunks, limbs, archipelagoes can fall off or drift away in later versions. I do a lot of work while walking. I bring a pad and pen . . . our dog is so accustomed to my stopping in mid-stride to jot stuff that she now just sits down as soon as she sees the pad come out of my pocket.

KB: Instead of revising something old/already written, you consider each draft fresh writing?

LP: More or less. I have a lousy memory in general, so pieces I sit down to each morning, though I may have worked them over the previous day, tend to feel always-new. Similarly, I’m terrible with jokes, but can hear the same one told ten times because I never remember the punch line. Weaknesses are blessings.

KB: Do you think there is a danger in distinguishing between “writing” and “revising”?

LP: It might be helpful to think of “revising” as a more mechanical set of acts: have I repeated myself in this paragraph, or on pages three and five? Have I used this word fifteen times? Those are important questions and allow for a different part of the brain to make its important contributions.

KB: You teach in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program. What advice do you give your students regarding revision?

LP: To train for patience and to listen for opportunities that they haven’t taken yet (which is different than thinking you “need more description in spot x or y”), to listen for openings and for rich and shimmering lines that might have gotten truncated or written over. I think it’s critically important to ask a lot of “what if” questions of yourself as you’re writing. Too often a younger writer (or one who may not be young but is fairly new to writing) wants to fix or add to, and isn’t behaving curiously, isn’t approaching the page with a sense of adventure, with the spirit of and desire for experimentation. With that rare combo of patience and urgency. Asking “what if” as in “what if I did x” keeps open that sense of surprise, as well as the possibility that the foray may need to be scrapped altogether. Wanting to writeto actively be in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reading after fact and reason, to use Keats’s definition of Negative Capabilityis different than “wanting to get the piece written” or, god help us, published.

KB: Where do you think the temptation to just get a piece written comes from?

LP: Perhaps when one has a sense of the kind of work it takes to write and is daunted by the time and open-endedness of the endeavor and chooses a route that’s smoother, quicker, and offers more of a guarantee for shared understanding with a reader (and this applies to highly abstract language as well, not just “easy” prose). Clichés are a comfort. Abstraction’s another comfort.

KB: How do you respond to student anxiety about getting published?

LP: I think anxious people deserve honest confirmation: the issue of wondering whether or not you’ll be able to share your work with readers, wanting to be read and thus deeply seen, wanting to make something of worthall of this is fraught with anxiety and desire and hope. I commiserate. Commiseration helps, I think.

KB: Are there specific familiar anxieties that visit during your creative process?

LP: Mostly the issue of time. Having enough open, extended time, not devaluing (accepting) smaller and imperfect increments of time.

KB: In “Jump” you describe yourself as a “passerby, secret entertainer of edges and precipices.” The pieces in this collection are preoccupied with the spaces of time between event, fragments, partialities, what lies between the “folds.” The “something, but not the story.” What questions do you ask yourself that lead to this kind of exploration?

LP: You know, one’s own sensibility is a mystery. I think I’ve left the questions in, so in a very practical way, the best response to your inquiry here could likely be found in the essays themselves. If you mean something more like “what is the impulse behind those questions?” I’d be in wobbly territory if I chanced a responseI’d be, in other words, making stuff up to secure a proper-seeming, well-considered and controlled set of reasons. One that would lead readers to think I understand certain attractions. And I don’t. So I don’t want to suggest that anyone else should understand their core impulses, or assume another’s procedure (mine included!) is authoritative . . .

KB: Do you seek feedback on your work from other writers?

LP: I have a few true-north types to whom I send work when I need some clear-eyed commentary or when I feel I can’t go any further without having some basic responses to basic questions. It’s important to know your own methods and be responsive to those. Some people send stuff off to readers the minute they complete a first draft; others wait a long while, to establish a sense of closeness to the piece before entertaining too many voices and opinions. I keep my advice-seeking pretty local and spare.

KB: Are there particular landscapes or settings that you find especially conducive to your creative process?

LP: Here, too, I’m pretty simple. I write best in a quiet room. My quiet room, and by quiet I mean with ambient neighborhood and house sounds all around. No music, just regular life. Hotel rooms are okay sometimes, but any productivity there is usually born of attempts to fight the ugliness of those chain hotel landscapes and my own sense of displacement, and make some kind of livable space for eye and heart.

KB: You just won a Guggenheimcongratulations! What’s next for you?

LP: I’m drawn to ruined things, compromised land, to the stories buried or hidden within those places, to trying to make some kind of sense of how we move through environments that are devastatingly ugly and overbuilt and not spiritually sustaining. I’m interested in finding language for sensations and states of being that I, as of now, have no language for. The drive I feel most urgently: to look hard at that which has been ruined, to look at the systems I/we all participate in, light these realities up, and speak to what might be done, to what remystifying, resacrilizing (to borrow the excellent terms of friends) might look like.

A Rough Likeness is available in paperback from Sarabande Books for $15.95.

 

 

Interview with Antonio Elefano

Antonio Elefano is a fiction writer/playwright/attorney living in Houston, TX. He received his JD from Yale Law School in 2005 and his MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2011. He has been published in 236 and is currently a Writing Fellow/Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Houston. His story “Italy” appears in this issue of The Journal. Recently associate fiction editor J. Preston Witt talked to Antonio about “Italy,” writing, and Lorrie Moore-induced shame.

Antonio Elefano Author Photo
Photo credit: www.mg-photography.com

J. Preston Witt: Why do you write? In other words, why not spend your time running marathons, drinking beer, and watching HBO?

Antonio Elefano: I do it for the money and the acclaim.

Actually, I write because I can’t not write. Even when I was in law school, I spent a lot of time convincing professors to accept novellas and plays instead of research papers because I needed to justify all the time away from casebooks. In the freshman writing class I teach, I begin with this David Hare quote: “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” I can’t say it better than that.

JPW: What is the most important piece of fiction you’ve ever read?

AE: I’m going to cheat and give you two answers. The summer before my sophomore year of high school I read A Tale of Two Cities. I hated it until about two thirds of the way in, when all the plots started tying together. I couldn’t put it down. I remember finishing around four in the morning and feeling devastated but at the same time thrilled to discover that a book could do that.

My current favorite book is Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. She’s the author I want to be when I grow up. I taught one of her stories at the end of my Advanced Fiction course just in case anyone was getting too big of an ego. “You think you’re good? Read this.” This is what I pull off the shelf whenever I want to feel like a piece of garbage.

JPW: How do you approach the stories you write?

a. Like little life rafts.
b. Like working out the abdominals.
c. Like helping sick children and recycling.
d. Like making a nice dinner for a friend.
e. Like telling a good friend that you slept with his wife.

AE: Definitely (e). When I read the scenario, I smiled and thought: I’d write that as a comedy for sure. For me, all truly funny stories come from a place of extreme discomfort. I remember sitting in a mall in Boston a few months ago, and this man approached and asked if I’d like to hear his theories on God. I know what you’re thinking: who says yes to this guy?

I do. I’m such a lazy researcher I just sit on benches and wait for stories to come to me. “Yes, please show me what’s in that little pamphlet you’ve got . . . What was that? . . . God has a wife? Good for him! Now, he can stop picking on virgins . . . You want to show me a video on your portable DVD player? Sure, fire it up! . . . What’s that now? You’d like me to go where? . . . Yeah, I think my wife is getting out of the shoe store, so—”

JPW: To some, the art of fiction is professional lying. Yet for centuries people have looked to authors as guides toward elucidating and complicating truths about human existence. Thoughts?

AE: Someone once asked me at a picnic why I bother with this fiction nonsense when there are so many “real” stories worth telling. And my answer to that is: The Sun Also Rises is real. And “Bullet in the Brain” and “The Bear Came over the Mountain” are real. It doesn’t matter that the characters don’t exist in actual life; they exist for me. I know them. I connect to them. And, most importantly, these are the stories that never fail to stir something in my heart and mind. There’s nothing more real, more substantial and lasting, than that.

JPW: Where did your story “Italy” come from?

AE: I was on a trip with my family. I don’t write traditional journals because they’re never very interesting (“Dear Diary, what a day!”), but I want to preserve the experience. So I make up a character and write my accounts through his or her eyes. At the time, I was still working as a corporate attorney, so that’s probably why the narrator’s voice is so persnickety. To answer your question then: “Italy” started in Italy. And it actually became the centerpiece of my MFA application.

JPW: Instead of a record in a diary, you made the memory into something that feels truer.

AE: I think so. I could go home every day and write an account of what happened here and there, but an accumulation of facts doesn’t really do justice to the experience. For me, that trip will always be remembered through the prism of this story. Because of that, those places and the feelings they conjured stay vivid and alive.

JPW: It seems that you recognize a relationship between memory and creativity. How long after an experience do you find yourself writing about it?

AE: It normally takes some time before a given memory becomes a story. I can tell it’s “ready” when it’s persisted long enough and I can’t get it out of my head. It normally starts with something very small—an image or a sound. And then I’ll build a character and an entire plot just to make sense of that image or sound. It’s very circuitous, I suppose.

JPW: How would you prefer to die?

a. Parachute malfunction.
b. Drowning in a rogue wave of hot caramel.
c. Black hole spaghettification.
d. Like Mel Gibson in Braveheart.
e. Peacefully in your sleep.

AE: I’m tempted to choose (b) because it reminds me of the dessert menu at Applebee’s: Death by Chocolate, Strawberry Sin, Statutory Rape Crisp. But I’m going to be boring and say (e). My day-to-day life is pretty dull. A happy Friday night is dinner out, followed by an hour of grocery shopping. Even my dreams are banal. I wake up in the morning, turn to my wife, and say, “I had the worst dream. I was going to the hardware store to get a hammer.”

“And?”

“And I got a hammer.”

“Then what?”

“I came home. That’s it.”

Blinking eyes. Mild concern that I’ve chosen storytelling for a living. “Go back to sleep, dear.”

My theory is that I get all the outrageous stuff out in my writing, so there’s nothing left for either my conscious or unconscious mind. (Either that, or I’m dead inside.)

JPW: Death, shame, and stories have a fascinating relationship, especially in your work. Is shame an interesting concept for you?

AE: I’m Filipino and was raised Catholic, so shame and I are old friends. I also write comedy from time to time, and shame is almost always at the center of that, too. There was a time when I did feel ashamed to call myself a writer. At my old law firm, when someone would hear about my little hobby, I’d always act very casual. “It’s just something fun I do on the side.” It’s taken some time, but that part of who I am is no longer something I distance myself from. It’s brought me too much happiness and too much perspective. To answer your question more directly, I’m no longer ashamed to say I’m a writer but will probably be writing about shame in some capacity for the rest of my life.

JPW: Shame is that all-encompassing feeling we get when we have no way to properly atone for some fault. Shame seems to be of particular importance to your story “Italy.”

AE: You’re right that shame is very much at the center of “Italy.” The narrator, like any author, is telling a story but the story is telling him something, too, and it’s not very nice. The entire account represents a lot of things for him, but I think most of all—it’s an apology.

JPW: There are a number of similarities between how you tackle shame, and the strategies Lorrie Moore uses to address shame in her stories. There’s a dance between regret, fear, and humor that happens in both of your prose. Just yesterday I re-read Moore’s short story from Birds of America, “People Like That are the Only People Here.” Normally, great writing inspires me to write. Moore’s writing leaves me delighted, but sedated, like a fudge cake. Frequently I return to my own work after Moore feeling ashamed: ashamed about the stories I can’t tell, ashamed at own ignorance, ashamed at the people I won’t become. I’m not sure there is a question here.

AE: First of all, thank you for putting Lorrie Moore and me in the same sentence. Second, “People Like That are the Only People Here” is the story I was referring to earlier, the one that just fills me with awe and self-loathing. One of my best students was having the same feelings of crippling inadequacy after reading a Tobias Wolff novel (Wolff is one of my favorites as well). And this is what I told him: “We’ll never out-Moore Moore or out-Wolff Wolff.  We can merely bask in their brilliance and try to be the best version of whatever it is we are.”

 

Interview with Zach Falcon

Zach Falcon’s stories have appeared in the Sycamore Review, the Bear Deluxe Magazine, and the Bridport Prize Anthology. Born and raised in Alaska, he now lives in Maine. Associate fiction editor Brett Beach talked to Zach recently about Alaska, wild salmon, and his story “The Times of Danil Garland,” which appears in this issue of The Journal.

Zach Falcon Author Photo

Brett Beach: You currently live in Maine, but your fiction takes place in Alaska. How do these two settings affect your work?

Zach Falcon: I was born and raised in Alaska, and spent most of my life there. Where I live now reminds me a great deal of my hometown. Maine and Alaska share many similarities of landscape and life. At the same time, Maine is removed enough from my experience to allow me space to remain intent on the unique aspects of Alaska that fascinate me. Maine largely dulls my homesickness, while still leaving me a small sharp edge to work with.

BB: Is Alaska ever more than just the setting for a story?

ZF: I would be hesitant to deploy Alaska as a mere backdrop for a story that could just as easily occur elsewhere. Instead, I am interested in stories where the characters and setting are inextricably linked and necessary to each other. One of the challenges I find in writing about Alaska is making the setting quieter, turning down its usual volume, and recording it as a place where people shop for groceries, have mortgages, and work in office jobs. Being Alaskan is significant and meaningful for people living such seemingly unheroic indoor lives, too.

BB: What was the initial spark for “The Times of Danil Garland”?

ZF: The scent of a fillet of king salmon. It is always best to buy wild-caught fish.

BB: In writing the story, where did you find yourself caught up?

ZF: The greatest challenge was releasing my stranglehold on narrative. I have generally felt more comfortable writing when cause and effect are explicit and logical. When everything necessarily clicks into the proper place. Of course, the danger of such over-resolved writing is that it can become all gears and no clock face. After drafting a series of increasingly dreadful clockwork stories, I set myself the challenge of writing without bossing the narrative. This story emerged.

BB: How long did you work on the story, and what were the challenges or pleasures in revision and editing?

ZF: The story came very quickly, which rarely happens for me. The main project of revision was reading it aloud over and over and attempting to reign in sentences that favored the ear over the eye.

BB: What is some writing advice that’s always stuck with you?

ZF: “If what you are writing doesn’t make you nervous, it’s probably not worth doing.” —Francine Prose

BB: What are you at work on now?

ZF: I’m thigh-deep in the cold stream of a novel, eyeing the far bank with the usual mix of hope and despair.