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.

 

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.