Interview with Amy Bernhard

Amy Bernhard is a student in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her essays appear or are forthcoming in The Colorado Review and Waccamaw. Her essay “Discovery” appears in this issue of The Journal. Nonfiction editor Silas Hansen talks with Amy about nonfiction, fonts, and guilty-pleasure reads.

Amy Bernhard Author Photo

Silas Hansen: If you could have brunch with any three writers, living or dead, who would it be? And what would you serve?

Amy Bernhard: Oh man . . . such a hard question! I’ll go with Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, and David Sedaris. And I’m a horrible cook, so I’d have to take everybody out to eat!

SH: What book on your bookshelf are you a little ashamed to admit is there?

AB: I’m not necessarily ashamed of this book, but Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland because when I turned eighteen I got an emo line from that book tatted on my ankle, and now whenever people ask me about it I feel the shame all over again.

SH: I hear you’re teaching creative writing this semester—with that in mind, what three quirky topics would you like to see your students write essays about?

AB: Students, extra credit if you see this! Buffy The Vampire Slayer, school cafeterias, and the Iowa State Fair.

SH: I know most writers have strong feelings about the fonts they use—what’s your choice, and what do you think that says about you?

AB: I always use Times New Roman. Nearly all my past teachers required us to write our papers in Times New, and being a creature of habit it’s a pattern I haven’t been able to break. I like it because it’s loyal and unassuming.

SH: Best book of creative nonfiction you’ve read this year?

AB: Over winter break I read Firebird by Mark Doty and loved it loved it loved it. Other highlights include Plaintext by Nancy Mairs and Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help (it’s marketed as fiction, but to me reads more like memoir).


Interview with G.C. Waldrep

G.C. Waldrep will serve as final judge for The Journal’s inaugural poetry contest. His most recent collections are Archicembalo (Tupelo, 2009), winner of the Dorset Prize, and Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (BOA Editions, 2011), a collaboration with John Gallaher, as well as a chapbook, St. Laszlo Hotel, from Projective Industries. Other recent work appears in recent or forthcoming issues of Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, Threepenny Review, Boulevard, The Nation, Harper’s, New American Writing, and Best American Poetry 2010. A past National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Literature, Waldrep lives in Lewisburg, PA, where he teaches at Bucknell University, edits the journal West Branch, and serves as Editor-at-Large for The Kenyon Review.

NM: You’ve recently become the editor of West Branch. Congratulations! Let’s say, as many physicists have proposed, that time is simultaneous. You have three submissions left in your submission manager inbox: Elizabeth Bishop has sent you “In the Waiting Room,” Langston Hughes has sent you “Let America Be America Again,” and Walt Whitman has sent you “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” You have room for only one in the issue. Which do you publish, and why?

GCW: “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Because we will have already waited long enough, and this is one of those poems that actually lets America be America again, for a little while.

NM: William Carlos Williams said (to paraphrase) that a poem is a machine made of words. If the perfect poem were a Rube Goldberg device, what would it look like?

GCW: It would be invisible, and we would want to sleep with it, only we wouldn’t know how.

NM: Your own word-machines (of the non-Goldberg variety) come in all sorts of shapes and sizes—from small sonnet-like blocks to prose forms to large and sweeping type-scapes that utilize white space in interesting ways. At what point in the process of writing a poem do you typically decide on the shape it will take (or at what point does the shape present itself), and how do you know when you’ve found the proper shape for a given poem?

GCW: Almost immediately, i.e. within the first 2-3 lines (if lines they be). Form is never more than an extension of content, to quote the famous Creeley-Levertov exchange. It is intuitive, for me. On the rare occasion that there seems to be a jarring, that is unworkable, match of form and impulse, I either switch gears mid-composition, or else I abandon the poem. Major formal shifts in revision are not my forte! (Although I much admire poets for whom this is the case.) It’s easier for me to start a new poem.

NM: Last year, BOA Editions published Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, a collection of poems you wrote collaboratively with John Gallaher. It’s a fascinating book; I personally would like to see more poets taking on collaborative projects. If you had the opportunity to read a book written collaboratively by any two poets, living or deceased, who would you like to see team up, and why?

GCW: Oooh, that’s a good question—if also, of course, an unanswerable one. Let’s say Darwish & Hopkins, only this time, they get to write in French. William Logan will critique the results. From Magadan.

NM: These days, with the Supreme Court deliberating the Affordable Care Act, constitutionality is something on many Americans’ minds. If you had to rewrite the U.S. Constitution in the form of a single haiku, how would it read?

GCW: You can’t force me to commit prescriptive form in public, Nick. You know that.

NM: Speaking of form, you stated in a recent interview in Hayden’s Ferry Review that you see spirituality manifesting itself in your work through the form of the hymn as well as through allusions to Christian scriptures. I’m quite interested in the different ways contemporary poets address questions of faith and religious tradition—certainly through form and allusion, but also by way of directly addressing the experience of living within the context of a religious community or heritage. One of my favorite poems in your collection Disclamor is “Feeding the Pear,” in which the speaker, while attending a musical performance at a church, is handed in a pear and, in a wonderfully strange moment, asked to feed it. The speaker finds himself at a loss. The uncertainty in the poem brings to mind some other contemporary poetry that investigates faith and doubt—Mark Jarman’s Unholy Sonnets and Questions for Ecclesiastes or Andrew Hudgins’ The Never-Ending, for example. Do you, as a devout person of faith, see your work as a part of the contemporary conversation about faith and doubt, and if so, how do you understand your work in that context?

GCW: That’s a good question. One aspect of my own personal faith journey is that I have never been afflicted with doubt as to the principles of my faith and calling. Self-doubt, yes: and doubt of others, and of the church: to varying degrees at all times. But of the central tenets of my faith, no. This has been a gift, one I am unworthy of and that surprises me every time I’m led to consider it.

That said, I think one could make the argument that my poems take part in that conversation. They experiment with doubt in ways that I do not, on occasion. (I watch from a distance and cheer them on.) Many of the poems in Disclamor, for instance, keep picking away at the scab that is the Cain & Abel narrative (although I wasn’t aware of how strong a thread that was in the collection until I was revising the manuscript for publication).

“Feeding the Pear” is a dream-poem, one of those rare (for me) poems that arrived fully-fledged as a dream transcription. (“What Lived in Our Mouths” is another one, from Disclamor.) Most of these, when they do come, I discard, as psychological flotsam. “Feeding the Pear” hit a sweet spot.

NM: Every so often, someone publicly declares poetry to be dead. If you had to point to one recently-published poetry collection as definitive proof that poetry is still very much alive, which would it be, and why?

GCW: All of them? Because it’s the sum total of poetic production at any given moment that proves the art’s vitality, in any sociological sense. (And it wouldn’t matter that you were recommending all recent poetry titles to “someone,” because “someone” clearly isn’t reading contemporary poetry anyway…or s/he would not make such a ridiculous comment.)

The poetry-is-dead argument is interesting in that it locates the vitality of poetry in a historical experience to which the speaker has access via pedagogy, in and through the past. In other words, it’s as much or more about nostalgia (specifically, one’s lost youth) as it is about poems.

NM: I, too, sense an exciting electricity in the air. I encounter new, vital poems on a near-daily basis. All good poems are different, of course, and good in different ways, but I’d be interested to know what it is that you hope to see or experience, generally speaking, when you encounter a new poem. In other words, what excites you most about the poems you love? In poetry workshops and writing groups, poets often discuss innovations in form, freshness of language, unexpectedness in narrative and lyricism, emotional impact, and on and on. Would you point to any particular aspect of the poems you love that seems, for you, to be the locus of what is compelling or exciting in a really good poem?

GCW: First and foremost I want fresh language, deployed in surprising ways. Without that, it’s hard even to get my attention. (I blame teaching, editing, and the general noise of American culture.) Without freshness of language, how can “emotional impact” even register?

The problem with narrative/confessional poetry is that it loads all its eggs in a single basket, that is, the intrinsic interest of the event being narrated. If it’s not that interesting, the poem fails. Actual artistry and vision can make even the most pedestrian narrative interesting (one hopes).

One area of contemporary poetics that surprises me—in a bad way—is what I’ve heard called Eighth-Wave UMass Neo-Surrealism: the plasticized raft of poems that body forth by way of surprising/absurd flat statement followed by surprising/absurd flat statement, until they exhaust themselves. In part this stems from the cultural and pedagogical impact of poets like James Tate, Dean Young, and Tomasz Salamun. In part it stems from any praxis that makes something difficult look not only easy, but fun. The younger poets who do this in the most interesting ways, to me—Christopher DeWeese in his first collection, Heather Christle in the first half of her new Wesleyan book—have deeper architectures and aspirations in view, around which the seemingly arbitrary flat statements that comprise the poems constellate. There is a meta-cohesion to the voice, to the array of underlying concerns.

But I still think everybody needs to grapple more with Geoffrey Hill, and read more Notley and Darwish. These are textures and poetics that demand more of us: as poets, as readers, as humans.

NM: Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: Sappho, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Emily Dickinson walk into a bar. What happens next?

GCW: I wouldn’t know, because I don’t walk into bars, so I’d have no way of verifying the results. As a thought experiment, though, it might be more interesting to have Sappho, Goethe, and Dickinson walk into Wallace Stevens. (You can figure him as a bar-shaped Stevens, if you like.) What color will the dog be?

Interview with Rebecca Hazelton

Rebecca Hazelton attended The University of Notre Dame for her MFA in poetry, and completed her PhD at Florida State University. She completed a fellowship year as the Jay C. and Ruth Hall Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Creative Writing Institute, and also received a fellowship from Vermont Studio Center.  She teaches creative writing at Beloit College. She won The Discovery/Boston Review Prize in 2012.Her book, Fair Copy, The Ohio State University Press/The Journal Book Award and is forthcoming in the fall. Recently our poetry editor, Tory Adkisson, talked to Rebecca about Fair Copy, getting a first book of poetry published, and what poets need to know about the process.

Tory Adkisson: Your book is titled Fair Copy. Where does the title come from?

Rebecca Hazelton: The title comes from a number of places. The most straightforward understanding of a “fair copy” is a neat version of a corrected draft. But there’s also the idea of a “fair” copy as an approximate copy, which seemed an attractive title for a work that uses Dickinson as a jumping off point. When you’re working off lines from your poetic great-great-grandmother, it doesn’t hurt to give yourself a little leeway. Thematically, the book itself questions whether or not we can tell if a love is genuine, if happiness is authentic, and whether that difference matters if the “fake” is indistinguishable from the real. Our notion of “true” love is an idealized one, and our actual relationships are approximations of that ideal. At the same time, those ideal relationships, because they are abstractions, are really only approximations of the possible.

There is also the sense of fair as in justice, fairness. I’m using lines by Dickinson to spin out entirely new poems, some of which are in direct opposition to the argument of hers, and others which are completely independent in terms of content—is that a fair thing to do, to borrow from and then abandon, to pick a fight with one’s literary forbearers? To the extent that my personal life influences and informs my work, is my writing fair to those people in my past and present? My writing may stem from my experiences, but in my portrayal of those moments of time I reinvent the past, just as we reinvent our experiences in our memory, which is by design inaccurate, elided, and often self-serving. It’s hardly a true copy, and so the question is, can it be a just one? Are we being just to ourselves, to the past, and those in our past when we tell the story of our lives?

TA: Can you tell us a little bit about how the manuscript came together, and how you selected the poems for it?

RH: I was working on my prelims for my PhD and I kept avoiding reading Dickinson. Instead, I read authors like Lucy Brock Broido and Alice Fulton, who are very much influenced by her poetics. I knew I liked Dickinson, but I also found her impenetrable and vexing. I had been fooling around with abecedarians some, inspired by Karl Elder’s, and I liked the way the form acted as an engine for my words, my lines propelled by the foreknowledge of the letter I’d work with next. Acrostics, cousins to the abecedarian, always held a little of the schoolroom air to me, or of childhood Valentines in 2nd grade. I was curious to see if I could use the form to express more serious themes. On a lark, I decided to acrostic one of Dickinson’s first lines, just to see what would happen. I wrote a substantially longer poem than I was used to writing. I decided to see how many I could do, and as I had recently turned 29, a cusp year, I thought I’d divide the total number of Dickinson’s collected poems with my age. It came to just over sixty, I think, and I thought that would be a good size for a book. I thought this laughingly, really, I didn’t think I’d do it. And I did stall out after fifty-four, along with a couple of misfires that didn’t make the cut. In that sense, there was no selection, aside for a few that didn’t seem to work with the manuscript as a whole.

TA: How would you describe the character of the book? What unites it or binds it together?

RH: I think it’s a very deceptive book. It has a Victorian quality to it, and I mean Victorian in the popular sense, all covered up, afraid to show an ankle. But under that prim façade, many of the poems are quite sensual or sexual, and very much ill at ease with that carnality. The poems, especially when they are investigating our relationship to the past, to our past selves, grapple with regret and with nostalgia. I want to articulate those feelings of nostalgia, of homesickness, when the past self is irretrievable, or unrecognizable, or even unlikeable.

TA: Are there any poetry collections you used as a model or as inspiration when you put together your manuscript?

RH: I’m reading this question as asking me about ordering or structure, and my answer is perhaps an unhelpful one. I find the structure of poetry books to be mysterious, and even when I can identify structure in other texts, doing so for my own work is very challenging. There were several different iterations of order, suggesting gently different narratives. In its final ordering, the first section is about a lost love, the second about the self in relation to the past and to the future, and the last about a new love and the fear that love engenders, the finality of marriage, and the beauty in that too. At least, that’s how I see the book’s arc, but that may be a singular interpretation. As for models, no, not really specific ones, no doubt to my detriment.

TA: What are five recent books of poetry you would recommend to our readers?

RH: I’m going to interpret “recent” with some latitude here, because I think everyone should read Inger Christen’s alphabet. It’s amazing, political and ecologically minded without being didactic, structurally mind-bending, sincere and touching. I’m currently reading One Sleeps the Other Doesn’t by Jacqueline Waters, which I think is so great. I am continuing my fictional love affair with Jenny Boully by reading not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, which is just a wild book, one of those genre benders, dream benders, valentine-to-the-subconscious sorts of books that is hard to describe. I’ve seen the manuscript for Sandra Simond’s Mother was a Tragic Girl and I can tell you it’s a knockout. I am still in love with D.A. Powell’s Chronic so much that I don’t know if I have room left in my heart for his new book, because my heart is so very, very small.

TA: What advice do you have for poets putting together their first book manuscript?

RH: Just the usual, I suppose. Cultivate friends with good eyes, who will tell you when you are being full of yourself and in love with your own cleverness. That’s probably good advice for life in general, too. People who praise you unconditionally want something. That’s terrible, isn’t it? But really, what good comes from a voice telling you what you want to hear? That’s how you end up buying ill-fitting clothes and makeup that makes you look orange.

Having screened for contests, I do think it’s true, unfortunately, that presentation matters. I don’t mean expensive paper, and I never even bothered with a cover letter (though perhaps that was bad?). But make your book look like a book, your formatting easy on the eyes, your table of contents in reasonable shape. It is easy for someone to form an opinion about your work before they even read it, especially when screeners are going through so many manuscripts. When I was screening, I had such a hard time saying no. I’d just agonize, because I knew my book was also out there, going through the same thing, and I wanted everyone to get their chance. I don’t think that’s the norm, though – I wasn’t very efficient.

And it’s said by everyone, but don’t give up. The day before I got the news I told my husband that I was going to shelve the book. I’d threatened to do so before, but this time I was serious. I felt like it was just going to be a finalist forever, and I was starting to feel sick about it. Like it was hurting me mentally and it might be healthier to move on.