Impressions of Time: An Interview with Christine Lai

Christine Lai grew up in Canada and lived in England for six years during graduate studies. She holds a PhD in English Literature from University College London. Landscapes was shortlisted for the inaugural Novel Prize. Christine currently lives in Vancouver.

In Lai’s interview with Nikki Barnhart of The Journal, they discuss art and memory in the age of environmental collapse.

The novel’s unique structure comprises Penelope’s diary entries, interspersed with periodic catalog notes; essays on art history; and occasional chapters told from the third-person perspective of Julian, the man who committed a violent act against Penelope years before. How did you decide on this particular structure to tell this story? Did you always envision the story to be told in such a multifaceted way?

Thanks for the great questions!

I’ve always wanted a hybrid text, but I didn’t decide on this current structure until later in the writing process. So originally the book was divided into half—the first half was Penelope’s perspective, and the second half was Julian’s. But I ended up cutting everything into fragments, and interspersing them. The diary form came first. I did try a very early draft where it was a third-person narrative for Penelope’s section, but I felt like something was missing—it didn’t feel quite right, so I switched to the diary and the first-person voice, and that was the right fit. I decided to keep Julian’s section in the third person in order to juxtapose the two voices, and the sections are written in slightly different styles to highlight the differences between these two characters. The art essays were written separately—I wanted to add texture to the text, and also to give Penelope a different voice, because the style she uses in the diary entries is very different from the style she uses for the art essays, which readers later find out, are also written by her. I kind of envisioned a triptych, divided into three parts, and all the different parts would speak to one another, with motifs that repeat across the different sections. I wanted a text that was layered, as opposed to linear and straightforward.

So Julian’s perspective was always a part of the plan? I find it so interesting that we get his point-of-view as well.

Yeah, definitely. But the nature of their relationship was not something that was there at the beginning—the violent aspect. That came later. I came across this painting by Turner—which kind of leads into your next question!—The Rape of Proserpine, inspired by the Greek myths. In the middle of the painting, you see this ruinous structure in the background, and there is a barren tree in the foreground, and in one corner, you see Proserpine being dragged into the underworld. But her figure is very tiny, it’s barely visible, and what you see is mostly just the landscape with the ruins and the tree. That image led me to think about the relationships between different kinds of ruination, and that gave me Penelope’s backstory, as it were. Initially, it was just her in this house, archiving items, and her relationship with Julian did not have that violent element.

Penelope adores the art of English Romantic painter J.M.W Turner, and his works figure prominently in the novel. I’m wondering if Turner also holds particular significance to you as well—was his work an inspiration for the novel, or did his art figure in while it was already in progress?

I guess both! His work is definitely an inspiration for parts of the novel, but I referred to his works throughout. The central painting, “A View on the Seine” is actually fictional—it doesn’t really exist but it’s based on a couple of real paintings that he did. My Canadian editor told me she kept Googling it, and said, “This painting doesn’t exist!” And I replied, “Yeah, I’m sorry, I should have mentioned that!” She went on this wild goose chase trying to find this image, but I used a fictional painting because I was worried about potential legal issues, as I was playing with the provenance of the painting. The fictional painting is based on a couple of paintings and sketches Turner did do of the Seine—but I was interested in that particular spot, where the two rivers are coming together to create this confluence, because I think the confluence as a metaphor is very interesting, and says a lot about forces clashing and things being irreconcilable. That’s why I wanted to use that particular geographic location. Turner was a part of my PhD so I’ve been thinking about his works for a long time, and I’ve always been drawn to his paintings when I saw them at the Tate. I just thought they were really mesmerizing, and I love the fact that he almost presaged Impressionism even though he is not as widely known as someone like Monet, but he was painting atmosphere in a particular way years before Monet was doing something very similar.

This novel is truly an art lover’s paradise: a bevy of references to art throughout history are intricately woven throughout the story. I wonder if you could speak a bit about the research process for writing the book. Were there artworks you knew you wanted to feature into it from the beginning, or was it a more organic process of discovering connections as you went along?

I think a bit of both! It was definitely research-intensive, if you look at the notes in the back of the book. I’m so glad they allowed me to print the notes, since they do take up a lot of space. Aside from the Turner, I wanted to look at other works that represent women and the Turner kind of led me to a lot of these works. I read books by feminist art historians—I’m incredibly indebted to them, I think they’ve done such a tremendous job doing this research and starting this conversation about the representation of women, a subject which is still not frequently talked about. I think I mentioned in a few places that museums and galleries do not openly acknowledge the violent subject of a lot of these paintings. One exception is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—they have the Titian [his painting, The Rape of Europa, featured in the novel], and two years ago they held an exhibition on Titian, and power and women in art, where they talked openly about the subject of this series of paintings. I think if more museums and galleries were to educate the public, it would enrich our experience of the artworks. I don’t think that it diminishes the beauty of the works, it just adds this extra layer, and makes these works more relevant to our age. But maybe that’s controversial, because I’ve spoken to friends who love art and people who are like, “you shouldn’t look at art through this lens, you shouldn’t ruin our experience of artworks.” I’m not sure I agree with that viewpoint. As I was doing the research I came across more paintings [dealing with a similar subject matter], and once I began looking at art through that lens it became impossible to see them any other way. Nowadays if I’m at a gallery or museum, I do still find myself seeing that aspect of paintings. Some of the artworks included in the novel I’ve actually seen in person, before I started thinking about these ideas—I’ve been to Florence, I’ve seen the Giambologna [The Rape of the Sabine Women, referenced in the novel] and the Cellini sculptures [Perseus With the Head of Medusa, referenced in the novel], and I don’t remember being struck by them in that way. I remember being in awe of their beauty and the artists’ mastery of the materials. Now that I see them in this light, it just completely changed how I relate to these artworks. So it was kind of organic from that point on, and there were artworks that I had cut from the manuscript just because it was getting a bit long!

Penelope states that she has “felt possessive of art,” in particular of Turner’s works: “I felt I possessed him in a way no one else could.” In the eyes of her partner Aidan, her attachment to Turner is “unjustified” because she does not have a personal relationship with him—because he is a “stranger.” However, to me, Penelope’s deep affinity and even possessiveness to art and a particular artist was incredibly relatable, as I’m sure it is to most others who have ever loved any type of art. Is there an artist you feel this attachment towards? Why do you think we respond with feelings of possessiveness to the art that moves us most deeply?

That’s such an interesting question. For one, because art is always entangled with ideas about property and possession, because it is a visible form of capital. I read a lot of John Berger’s writings in which he talks about art and property—there’s this drive to possess and stake a claim on something that is beautiful, and I think we see that in our relations to other things, to nature, for example. In terms of artists I felt attached to—I did feel that attachment when I was young. I loved van Gogh as a teenager; I was obsessed with van Gogh. Not just because of his paintings but also because of his letters—he was a phenomenal writer. I loved reading his letters and looking at the paintings and his use of colors, but because van Gogh is possibly the most popular artist in history, I wanted to know him in a way that others didn’t, which is perhaps a really silly teenage thing to think—

But I totally get it!

Yeah! I feel like by reading these letters, by studying his words, I understood his work on a deeper level, and Penelope shares a bit of that with regards to Turner’s work— through this daily interaction with a work, you develop a kind of intimacy with it that you otherwise wouldn’t. And I definitely felt this attachment to writers. I studied the Romantics, so Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were my literary heroes and I was very obsessed with their work—I read everything and felt like, again, that sense of possession through knowledge, through understanding.

That is all definitely expressed so powerfully in the book, as well as that idea of possessing beauty, even if it’s a futile pursuit—I felt like that came through so strongly. Similarly, I’m interested in the particular process of creating such an ekphrastic work. It is a challenge to convey images and visuals through words—it’s almost like an act of translation—but you render all of the references to art featured in Landscapes so vividly and clearly. Can you talk a bit about that process? Did you have any models in helping you craft these sections?

Definitely Sebald, and John Berger is another one I read really early on—I think I read his Ways of Seeing when I was undergrad, and that really revolutionized the way I saw art. Writers like Kate Zambreno who write a lot about art, and Teju Cole…I always refer to their works. Also art historians and art critics—I read a lot of art criticism, and they have this amazing way of capturing something that seems to really challenge language. There’s this great quote from Orhan Pamuk, in The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist—he writes about how novelists are secretly envious of visual artists.

I totally think so—I mean, I feel that.

Exactly, me too! You know, I think if I got to start all over again, maybe I’d become a painter. [laughs]. So yeah, [Pamuk] said that the process of writing always begins with visualization, visualizing the space in which the character lives, and writing is translating that into text. But because of that process of translation, we’re removed from the visual image, whereas the visual artist is able to capture that directly. There is this kind of directness that writing does not allow. So I think that’s very true—I feel very envious!

One of the things I found most striking in this novel is its particular treatment of memory, and how archives and the act of conservation are perhaps the closest we can get to making it tangible. I’m wondering what archives mean to you—in the broadest sense, how might you archive your own life? Do you think of writing as a type of archive?

I definitely think writing is a type of archive, and the archive that Penelope keeps in the book is somehow parallel to the diary. There’s this great essay by Italo Calvino called “Collection of Sand”where he writes about the correspondence between diary-keeping and keeping a collection—both are ways of imposing order on the chaos of life, putting everything into a kind of neat series. That’s definitely part of Penelope’s engagement with the archive items, and like you said, archives are about preservation, but at the same time, archives are almost never complete. There’s also something almost illogical about the way certain archives are formed—you often find random items in archives. I’ve done some archival research when I was in graduate school, and there’s an element of accident or chance—you come across something that you did not expect to see, and the archive just seems like a collection of very eclectic items. And that’s very fascinating. There’s this great book by the British artist, Tacita Dean, called Monet Hates Me. It’s based on her research at the Getty Research Institute—she went into the archives and found these random items, then she photographed them and wrote text that went with each photograph. I thought it was really fascinating; she had this concept of objective chance as a research tool, this idea of just letting yourself encounter certain images or objects in a very serendipitous way and letting those encounters influence you and the projects you’re working on. So that was something that I used, both as a composition method for the book, but also as part of Penelope as character—all the items she encounters are linked to her memories, to particular moments in her past.

Lastly, I’d love to wrap up by asking about what art you’re loving right now: visual art, books, music, movies? I want to hear about all of it!

I actually wrote down a list; there are so many things! Visual art: so I love Tacita Dean. I’m working on a new project that’s more to do with photography, and I’m looking at a lot of photographers, including Dean and the Italian photographer, Luigi Ghirri—absolutely sublime photographs. There’s this amazing Substrack called “Tender Photo,” by the writer Emmanuel Iduma. It’s just fantastic—it pairs text with photographs by Nigerian photographers and Iduma invites photographers to submit their work to the Substack. He also invites other writers to respond to photographs in his collection. I love the sculptor Ruth Asawa, and I’m going to the exhibition at the Whitney next week. I think it’s just opening this week, and I’m really excited—I’ve always loved her sculptures, so I’m really looking forward to that! In terms of books—um, a lot of books! It’s really hard to choose, you know, top books of the year or favorite books. I read Rombo by Esther Kinsky—an NYRB publication from earlier in the year, and that was incredible. It addresses memory and catastrophe, and is written in this kind of fragmentary form which I love. There’s a new short story collection coming out from Two Dollar Radio, by Bennett Sims, called Other Minds and Other Stories. I don’t read a lot of short story collections, but this was just mind-blowing, I thought it was really, really amazing. Music…I’ve been obsessed with Max Richter’s rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I listen to a lot of classical music when I write, because I don’t like anything with lyrics—the lyrics are a bit distracting, I start to listen to the words and the meaning…so I just prefer instrumental. And I’m trying to think of movies…there are so many movies! I’ve been watching a lot of Taiwanese New Cinema from the 1980s, because I’m working on an essay about Taipei, which is where I was born, so I’ve been just watching cinema from that era, looking at the way the cityscape is represented.

Thank you so much Christine!

Thank you so much for the questions! It was really lovely chatting with you.

Walking Through The Gossamer Sensation of What Is Past: An Interview with Jamel Brinkley

Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man: Stories, a finalist for the National Book Award, the John Leonard Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; and winner of a PEN Oakland Award and the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. His newest collection, Witness, is forthcoming in August 2023. His writing has appeared in A Public Space, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Zoetrope: All-Story, Gulf Coast, The Threepenny Review, Glimmer TrainAmerican Short Fiction, The Believer, and Tin House, and has been anthologized twice in The Best American Short Stories. Raised in Brooklyn and the Bronx, he teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. 

During his visit to OSU as the Spring 2023 Visiting Writer, The Journal spoke to him about the freedom to wander in short fiction, getting the rain into your story, and the constant present of the past in writing and in life. 

The Journal: I’m taking a visual arts class this semester, and in it, we had a discussion about our “first works”—not necessarily the first work we ever made, but the first one that felt true to who they are as an artist—based on the book, No. 1: First Works of 362 Artists. I’d be curious to hear about what you might consider your “first work,” and what about it felt different than work you had created previously, or how it may have influenced the work that came after.

JB: I feel like there’s a few ways I could answer that question, but the response that’s coming to me now is there’s a story called “Infinite Happiness” in the first collection, which I believe is the first story I wrote from that collection, and which kind of feels like a first work in a way. Because it felt like a first person voice I was comfortable with—it felt like it was doing a lot of the things I wanted that kind of story to do, which was to have a first person narrator who was opinionated and had an attitude and was kind of casting aspersions outward, but in fact was revealing himself to be not very much better than the people he was criticizing. And that’s one of the things I think about a lot in first person stories, because when you write in first person, that character, who is also the narrator, has so much power in a story—you’re giving that character these god-like powers of narration. So for me it’s important to find ways to cut against that power, and to allow that character to reveal themselves without violating their point-of-view. That was a story where I felt like I was able to do that and also capture a certain era of Brooklyn that I knew. So a lot of things that were in that story were important to me, so it feels like a first work to me. 

The Journal: As someone who came to an MFA with full intent to write a novel but has fallen in love with the short form, I’d love to know what attracts you to short stories—especially for a short form writer whose work has often been described as “novelistic.” What do you think it means for a fiction to “feel” like a novel versus a short story? 

JB: There are a few questions embedded in there, good questions, and I’ll try to touch on all of them. What attracts me to the short story? I think I like the constraint. Other writers have said that short stories are the form, the written form, that are closest to poetry, and that feels kind of true to me, because they are these intricate little machines when you come down to it, and they kind of have to work if not perfectly, pretty close to perfectly. So I like that constraint, because I think it provides a useful sort of pressure on your creativity. It makes you be creative. It’s more impressive if you do a back-flip off a tightrope than if you do a back-flip on solid ground, you know? So it’s that kind of thing. 

The other thing is that I feel like short stories are close to the way I would narrate my life, like a collection of short stories, or a number of collections of short stories—I don’t know if my life has anything resembling the seamless unity of a novel. It sort of feels like these little pieces that I could narrate in terms of their small arcs, and sometimes they cross over each other and sometimes they’re distant from each other, but when you put them together, you can get a sense of a life. They feel close to memory to me, I guess I would say. 

Technically, you can have a slack part of a novel and the novel can still be wonderful. Some of my favorite novels have sections that I don’t love, necessarily. But this doesn’t mean that novels aren’t highly formal, and if the form isn’t right, the novel’s not going to be right. I guess I would say I do like that in a novel it feels like you have more room, even within that formalness, you have more room to digress. And that’s the thing that I try to cart in from a novel to a short story—the freedom to sort of wander a little bit, to go off-track, to stare at a minor character. They might not be very important but there’s something compelling or beautiful about that character that you want to keep in the story. Then you can kind of release them—they can go off and you can imagine them having their own story somewhere. I do like that quality. That’s why I love a writer like Edward P. Jones. Think about his second collection, which was published after The Known World, his novel. Those stories are big. And it feels like they just digress and move and the shapes are odd, but they still hold together in these wonderful ways. They still feel like stories. So it’s a little bit of trying to have it both ways—but why not try to have it both ways?

The Journal: The Chicago Review of Books said about A Lucky Man: “A lot of short stories exist in a snow globe, but the nine stories presented here are each a big bang.” Speaking of that novelistic scope, how do you know what to add in a story to make the world of your characters feel as vivid and alive as it does, and what to subtract, to ensure the narrative remains refined? Can you talk a bit about that balancing act?

It is a balancing act! Well, the first thing I would say is that I think it helps to have models that give you permission to do those things. That’s why Jones is important to me; writers like Alice Munro, or Deborah Eisbenberg are important because it feels like they have this sensibility that can’t be contained in the boniest form of a short story. Once you have these models, of people not only doing it, but doing it brilliantly, it feels like you can do this kind of thing too. I had a teacher once who said of Edward P. Jones’ work that it feels like as the story moves, he’s going from the soul of the story, to the soul of the story, to the soul of the story . . . That’s the form. If you think of a story as having a soul—it’s probably not very helpful, but I think it’s inspiring, and it feels like you can kind of shake off some of the rigid movements of a more tightly constructed short story. Just sort of follow where a story wants to go, because a character wants to go there, because you respect your characters. Oftentimes that’s enough. If it feels like you’re following or honoring your characters just enough to sit with them for a while, even if their thoughts, their actions, don’t necessarily go along with your plan for the story, just honoring that character feels like something that’s important. This kind of goes back to Chekhov, honestly, you know the way his characters just sort of do what they want. The critic James Wood has this phrase about Chekhov’s characters. He says that they “mislay their scripts” for a moment. He feels that they stop being characters per se, they just become people. I guess those moments are worth it; I guess that’s what I’m saying. Those moments when a character has a surprising or random thought or action, even if it doesn’t drive the story forward, that feels worth it to me because it adds to the texture that you need. And I think the balancing act that you’re asking about is all about revision and instinct. There’s only so much wandering you can do before you just wander completely away from the story. You have to remember what the spine of the story is, and constantly remind yourself of that. But I think once you have a firm sense of what the story is, it permits you to wander. When you digress, you have to digress from something, right? And when you know what that something is, you can come back to it. So there’s no surefire craft trick that tells you how to do it, but I think that if you respect your characters you can get those magical moments. And if you really know through revision what the story is, you know where you have to return. So it’s that sense of digression and return that you have to cultivate draft by draft. 

The Journal: I’d love to hear about how your collections have come together. At what point do you start seeing connections between multiple works? How conscious might those links be? How do you know when a work belongs in a collection and when it just doesn’t?

JB: I should try to talk about this as specifically as possible, so I’ll talk about it with A Lucky Man and then with Witness, because I think they’re a little different. 

So I wrote most of the stories that are in A Lucky Man during my MFA program—or I should say that I drafted them at that point, and then took a couple of years to revise them all. I sort of relentlessly wrote stories in those two years, and I wrote more stories than the number of stories that ended up in A Lucky Man. There are nine stories in that collection, and I think I wrote twelve or thirteen stories, somehow. And there are two things—at least two things—I should mention: one, when I was writing those stories, for a long time, I had no sense or aspiration that I was writing a collection. I vividly remember other folks in the program talking to each other like, “Oh, how’s your novel?” And they’d ask me, “How’s your collection?” and I’d be like, “What are you talking about? I don’t have a collection.” And they’d be like, “Okay…seems like you do!” So it took me a long time to see it. And the second thing I should say is that once I did see it, the connections were surprisingly apparent to me, but only among those nine stories. So the other three or four just didn’t belong, whereas these stories spoke to each other. I felt there were these subliminal connections that made them bind. I think when you sequence a collection, it helps to bring those connections out: figuring out what goes first, how the stories fall from each other in sequence, and what story closes. And I think what that showed me is that there’s a way with a collection that you can kind of trust parts of your mind that you don’t always have conscious access to. Of course, certain things were on my mind, explicitly, when I was writing those stories. But I think a lot of the things that bound them together were things that I wasn’t necessarily explicitly thinking of, but of course my mind was. And it took standing back from those stories to figure out, oh, these are a collectionthose others are just some stories. So that was really useful. 

With Witness, it was maybe a little different. I think I realized sooner in the process what the collection seemed to be, what was binding the stories. And so, I think with the last story or two that ended up in the collection, I knew I was writing something for a collection, whereas that was not the case with A Lucky Man. I wrote all those stories thinking of them as just individual stories. So with this book, there’s a story I added really late in the game, but I knew where I wanted that story to sit. I knew the company I wanted that story to keep, which was different for me, because I typically don’t write with that much foreknowledge. I’m very much a “mystery writer,” trying to figure things out as I go. And with this one, the process of writing the story was still figuring a lot of stuff out, but I kind of knew more things about the main character and what he was wrestling with when I wrote this story, because I knew what the collection was. The last thing I’ll say about Witness that became a sort of guiding idea for me . . . a quote from James Baldwin became really important to me, and in this line, he basically says that there’s a very thin line between a witness and an actor, but the line is absolutely real. And that quote to me was powerful enough but also suggestive enough that it could guide me without making me feel too restricted. This idea of witnessing what you see out in the world, how you act in response to what you see: those are loose enough but also compelling enough that I felt I could write to that. And I felt like I needed both, that guidance and that freedom.

The Journal: Earlier this year, I read Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode, and ever since, I’ve been fascinated with thinking about the different shapes and structures narratives follow other than the traditional “arc.” In consideration to those ideas, are there any shapes you feel compelled by? How do you set out structuring your stories—and does that ever change in revision? 

That’s a good question. I like how that book is scrutinizing the idea of the story arc as the necessary story shape. That feels useful to me because I think every story has its own shape. One thing I’m compelled by is Alice Munro’s idea of experiencing a story like experiencing a house—that is super fascinating to me. I’m not sure I entirely understand it but she talks about when she reads stories, she can start reading the story anywhere, and just kind of move around in it. And it is like a house, right? You don’t necessarily follow a certain path through someone’s house or your own house, so that seems really compelling to me. I’ve been really interested in stories where the shape comes in the form of fragments. A lot of my students have been writing or wrestling with the idea of narrating trauma, for instance, and how do you do that? And the fragment or fragmentation seems to be one story shape that a lot of them are considering or thinking about. It’s interesting because you have a narrative form of fragmentation that actually is, at the same time, resisting narration. So all these things are on the page, but the typical way we would move through a story, with natural connections of a linear sequence—all that stuff is taken out if you have a bunch of fragments. And it calls on the reader to do a lot of work, and it honors the trauma, in a way. It sort of honors the presence of the trauma, and the challenge that trauma exerts on the ability to narrate anything. You can’t assimilate the traumatic experience so how can you narrate it? So I think fragmentation is one thing I’m thinking about, and this house metaphor is another thing I’m thinking about. I’m not sure in my own stories if I actively think about shapes beyond the arc—maybe they play with the arc shape in some way, but you can probably put a narrative arc on most of my stories. But in my reading life and in my teaching life, I’m certainly compelled by other shapes.

The Journal: In reading A Lucky Man, I’m struck by the particular way each story traverses time—it feels like every narrator is on a precipice between past and present, and similarly haunted by both, visions of who they were and who they should be. Like how in “J’ouvert 1996”, the father tells the narrator to stop sending pictures of himself, because he can only see him as the boy he used to be, or in “A Lucky Man,” Lincoln remarks about the divide between him and his wife in thinking that “time had not treated them equally.” In Joan Silber’s The Art of Fiction, she writes that “Time is always in some way the subject of fiction . . . Storytelling is always the contemplation of time.” How much might you agree with this idea? What does time mean to you when writing? What does it mean to your characters?

JB: I totally agree. I think the subject is always time, in a way, you know? It kind of goes back to your last question—maybe the arc isn’t the best way to represent the way a character is experiencing time. Maybe it is fragmentation, maybe it is a kind of wandering progression through a structure, like a house. I think in my stories, I’m always trying to erode or make porous the boundary between what we sort of clumsily call “frontstory” and “backstory.” Because I think that that division isn’t always so neat—it’s probably rarely that neat, or maybe never that neat. There’s that famous Faulkner quote about the past not being past—I actually prefer what he goes on to say in that quote, because he talks about the experience of living in the present is like laboring through webs of the past. And I love that idea, that you’re just constantly walking through this gossamer sensation of what is past. And that’s the way I aim to write in most of my stories—it’s not like here’s what happening now, here’s what happened twenty years ago, and now let’s go back to—you know, like the past neatly explains why the character is doing something in the present. I don’t think that’s what’s happening; I think that the past is always mysterious, constructed—it’s always kind of a question. You’re always kind of reliving it. And so as you move through life, as you move through your present story, you’re always moving through your past story as well. And I kind of want to capture that feeling of a character laboring through these webs, and that nothing you do is discretely set off from what we call “backstory.” The backstory is always there, it’s in the air, even when you’re not aware of it, you’re walking right through it all the time. 

The Journal: “Everything the Mouth Eats” begins with the line, “I’ve started this story many times and deleted the page many times.” I was wondering how do stories begin for you? What does it take for a story to feel true, and start a life of its own?

JB: I think they begin in different ways—for instance, that story began as an attempt on my part to talk back to another story that I love. One of my favorite writers does this: Yiyun Li does it a lot. A lot of her stories are talking back to William Trevor stories, or Elizabeth Bowen, or other writers that she loves. And so with that story, I was trying to talk back to “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin. Although that beginning, that first line that you quoted is actually an allusion to The Fire Next Time, I believe, when he’s writing to his nephew [“My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”]. So that’s one way that stories begin for me, I’m just caught up with something in a story that I love and I want to try to write back to it. Having that story there as a starting point is really useful, but inevitably your story is just going to go in a different direction and become its own thing, and I love when that happens. It’s like, oh yeah, I’m not talking only to you anymore, I have something to say now. 

Otherwise, it’s often something you were just talking about, not letting things go. Stories will begin because something won’t let go of me, or will just stay with me. Often it’s a place, or a voice, that just stays in my head, and I feel like I have to write about it. For instance, there’s a story in my new collection that’s set in Brooklyn—it’s set at a location that’s essentially the Brooklyn Museum. I was thinking about the Brooklyn Museum because when I lived in New York, I would go to this monthly event called First Saturdays, and it was always a fascinating event because this huge cross-section of people from Brooklyn and other boroughs would come, a huge diversity of people. It was a mix of music, visual art, and sometimes film, so various arts were represented. And people of all ages. And what I remember about going was that you never knew who you were going to encounter. It just felt like it was inevitable that you were going to see someone that you didn’t expect to see. And that stayed with me, that sense of completely unpredictable encounters. The story I ended up writing was this completely unpredictable encounter that becomes very troublesome for the main character. But I love that feeling, so I wanted to capture that feeling of being in that place, because it just stayed with me, it felt like this doesn’t happen everywhere. Of course it happens, especially in a place like New York, but there it felt really intense and more likely to happen. So either I’m talking back to other stories, or a place or a voice just has this grip on me. What was the last part of your question?

The Journal: What does it take for a story to feel true, and take form—you know, when you start something and it’s not quite the way you have it in your head and you have to kind of recombobulate a few times?

JB: My sense of it is similar to what a lot of writers have talked about—I feel a story starts to feel true when it starts pushing you around a little bit. One of my old teachers would talk about the feeling of when you’ve put down a couple of good sentences, or a couple of good details, or a couple of good scenes in a story, then you have the sensation of losing options, and that sensation of losing options should actually be a good one. It can be scary, but it should be a good sensation, because it means the story is exerting a discipline on you, and exerting its own rules on you. So you know these beautiful details that you’ve set down on a page are actually making certain bad decisions not possible anymore, or they’re sort of suggesting to you, no, don’t do that, follow this path. So for me, when I get that feeling of this is becoming difficult, like this story is kind of fighting me—it’s awful, of course, but it also makes me feel like this story is true, this story is becoming its own thing, it’s not necessarily bound to what my conscious mind wants it to be. I have to respect a lot of what it wants to be. The other thing I would say is that I think a story feels true when any change you try to make to it makes it worse. It’s like, no, no, no, this is it, this is its form, this is its essential form, so I have to respect that, I have to stop messing around with it.

The Journal: What most commonly stumps you in writing? What have been some challenges you’ve faced in bringing your beginnings to their rightful resting place?

JB: That’s a good question . . . I feel like every story has its own seemingly impossible challenges, but I’m trying to think of what recurs. . . I think one of the hardest things to do in stories is to—I see this in my own work, I see this in my students’ work—one of the hardest things to do is to honor all of the characters in a given story. And it’s hard because one of the things you want to do, if you’re writing character-based fiction, one of the things you often want to do is to be true to a certain point-of-view, to a certain perspective on the world. So you’re kind of pledging allegiance to one character in a way, but the difficult task is to do that, but at the same time, not allow that allegiance to one character to diminish the autonomy and the complexity of other characters. So the thing that I always end up wrestling with is how do I write a story that’s deeply embedded in a character’s point-of-view, that feels true to the character’s point-of-view, while also looking at the other players, and making sure they’re not just becoming functions of the plot, sort of adjuncts of the main character, and getting pushed around by the sensibility and the desires of the main character. So how do you render a world in which the subjectivity of your main character is really richly rendered, but you’re also true to what’s external to that subjectivity—which to be honest doesn’t really care about that subjectivity. As we know from our lives. Neither of us wanted it to rain today, right, but it’s raining! If we had our choice, it wouldn’t be raining. But how do you get the rain, metaphorically speaking, into your story? Even if your character doesn’t want it to be there. So for me, a thing that recurs is that how do I make sure that the things that external to my privileged character, the things and people external to my privileged character, how do I make sure those things are autonomous and true and complex, at the same time that this character is rich and true and complex. It’s very difficult!

A Lucky Man is available for purchase through Graywolf Press

Writing Towards Circumstances: An Interview With David Yee

David E. Yee is an Asian American writer whose work has appeared in American Short Fiction, AGNI Online, Seneca Review, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. In 2017, he won the New Ohio Review Fiction Contest, judged by Colm Tóibín, as well as the Press 53 Flash Contest judged by Jeffrey Condran. He is based in Columbus, OH, where he works as a bartender, and is a graduate of OSU’s MFA program. He spoke with our Associate Reviews & Interviews Editor, Nikki Barnhart, about his first collection of stories, Mongolian Horse, published this summer with Black Lawrence Press. 

There’s so much musicality in this collection—references from the Beach Boys, to the Smashing Pumpkins, to the McDonald’s jingle are tangled into the stories, but there’s also music in the sheer language itself, the rhythmic prose throughout. I’m curious about your personal relationship to music—are you yourself a musician, past or present? How much does listening to music play a part in your inspiration or process?

Music was my introduction to art. I grew up in orchestra, transitioned into bands as a teen, played in jazz bands in college. I associate a lot of wonder and pain with music. Also, I try to focus on all five senses when writing, and noise is so commonly overlooked. Songs carry intrinsic weight when coupled with a moment in your life. I like recreating that in a narrative. I am also someone that doesn’t write in a vacuum. I prefer a busy room which I’m blotting out with music. Certain albums or artists help recreate a mood for me, and when I’m working on a particular piece, I’ll only listen to those works to stay locked in that mode. 

Besides music, what would you say are some of your other influences? Did any specific writers or works help you form your own voice, or are there any that you feel in conversation with? 

Stylistically, my biggest influences are Stuart Dybek, Toni Morrison, and ZZ Packer. There is a beautiful rhythm to their prose. Dybek and Packer—this collection is definitely informed by their style of short story. I could list a hundred short story writers I admire, but these two are the voices in literature who I feel I strive to be nearer to. I don’t know if there is a writer I worship on a line-by-line level as much as Toni Morrison. I can attribute learning how to tame the more unwieldy parts of working in first-person to reading Kazuo Ishiguro. 

Most of the stories in Mongolian Horse take place in Maryland, where you’re from—a Maryland that feels at once sharp and visceral, but also hazy and distant. They feel almost nostalgic, but I hesitate to call them that because they seem to occupy that narrow space of wistful recollection without necessarily a desire for return. How did writing these stories affect your relationship with Maryland as a place both in the world, and in your mind and memory?

Maryland is a large part of who I am, even though I didn’t realize that until I moved to Columbus. I didn’t find value in knowing how to navigate a place without a map until that ability was no longer viable because of my relocation. Every part of Maryland has a memory attached to it. It’s such a compact place, and I could drive around and be reminded of my entire adult life constantly. Leaving felt like closing a chapter, and having a bit of finality made it easier to write toward those memories.

When you’re writing a story, what usually comes first—the imagery, the voice, or the language? Each of these elements are equally prominent in every one of these stories.

To be honest, it’s a bit of a dubious process. Typically there’s an overarching idea that brings me to the page, but I’m always hesitant to write an “idea story” so I try and smash it into a character/circumstance that is also somewhere else in my mind. Sometimes I’ll write from an individual line until it fails or finds ground. Or I’ll have a circumstance and I’ll write toward it. Sometimes the whole thing is amorphous and I have to hack away at it to make it work. Sometimes the only changes I make are on a line level. I try not to overanalyze myself. I want the work to be fun. 

In your acknowledgements you say, “I was never a person who was in love with writing. I wrote because I felt trapped, wanting to create but having no outlet.” Can you speak a bit more about that and your journey to becoming a writer?

I’ve always loved stories. I grew up with books. It was one of my favorite ways to pass time in a part of my life when I had very little. But I didn’t start writing with any volume until my band broke up. I sacrificed a lot of relationships for music. I worked in an office and four days a week after work, I’d go straight to band practice, play shows on the weekend, then eat/sleep/repeat. When my band ended, I was just working in an office 45 hours a week with a bunch of very fragile friendships. I didn’t have a creative outlet, and writing felt like a safe way to be imaginative without having to rely on others. And I needed something else to pour myself into. I was already getting ready to go back to college and decided to go for English because of that. But I’m not someone who wanted to be a writer in that modern sense of devoting every minute to the craft. Writing has been a way for me to translate and understand my life. Those years of grad school when it was all-consuming really changed my relationship with it, but the education I received was worth it. I think I was also feeling some kind of woe and longing when I wrote those acknowledgements. Who knows. 

Food is another common link in this collection, from fast-food joints, to bakery jobs. Was this a conscious motif?

I focus a lot on sensory details and mundanities in my work. I find a lot of very plain aspects of living to be quite meaningful. Because of that, my stories very rarely have too much wonder or strangeness forced into the world of the character. Especially in this collection with the motifs being small moments in a character’s life that had more meaning than they realized—many of the plot aspects of the story are centered in what would otherwise be very average parts of a routine. We eat a lot.  

Can you talk about the process of this particular group of stories coming together as a collection? When did you start to see a connection? Did you write any stories in response to the patterns you noticed yourself working in? What do you see as the ligaments of this collection? 

These stories are the bulk of my work from 2012-2017. I found a voice that I set as a boundary and tried to explore different avenues of it. I wasn’t really working on them to be a collection, but was enjoying exploring this particular style. Hung Do’s Kung Fu was the first piece. It was the first time I allowed myself to write an Asian American character which later became another repeated theme. That story feels very close and raw in a way that rereading makes me squirm a little. Donut Man was the last piece I wrote here, and there is a lot more armor being built around the perspective. There are definitely similar shapes to many of these stories with varied breadth being used to accomplish the narrative. My focus became how the shape of these stories can inform the truth of the character.  

Can you tell us how “Mongolian Horse,” the last story in the collection, ended up being its title? How do you feel it encapsulates the rest of the works within?

Because I write primarily in first person, many of these stories are in the format of a narrator worrying a memory. The work of the story is the digestion of this memory by the character and how it helps them arrive at a moment of change and truth. This is typically a bit underplayed in some of these narratives, but in Mongolian Horse it is the exact purpose of the character. It’s the story in the collection where the theme and the voice really are the most paralleled. The image of the Mongolian horse—a near-forgotten animal that has great importance—lines up thematically with the rest of the stories. I was very inspired by ZZ Packer on this. The line that her collection is named after (Drinking Coffee Elsewhere) reads so nonchalant but has an immense amount of gravity for the entire book.  

Mongolian Horse is available for purchase through Black Lawrence Press.

Interview with Sebastian Castillo

Sebastian Castillo, a Philadelphia-based fiction writer, teaches creative writing at Temple University and at the University of Pennsylvania. His short story “The Cigarette Painter,” was the runner-up of BOMB’s 2021 Fiction Contest and appeared in that magazine’s winter 2022 issue. His second book, Not I, was published by Word West in 2020. Castillo spoke with me over the phone about his recent publications as well as his work in progress. The following interview has been edited for clarity and concision. 

Grace Tessier Culhane: One thing I’m noticing about Not I is how much is happening off the page. You’re trusting the reader with a lot of negative space. What led you to make that decision? What’s changed about your expectations for the reader [since publishing 49 Venezuelan Novels in 2017]? Or has anything changed?

Sebastian Castillo: I’m not so sure, because a part of me in the moment of composition only thinks of myself as the reader. I don’t ever conceptualize a phantom future reader, so a lot of those questions fall away or seem less pertinent. I’m just trying to make a compelling experience for myself, both as a writer and a reader.

With that project, and that book in particular, I was thinking about the limitations of what the speaker could say. I was thinking about what they weren’t going to say about themself, or the supposed self, which was suggested with all these first-person declarations. But sometimes I make what the speaker says contradictory. I sometimes suggest a narrative attitude that is then interrupted by non sequitur. So there’s a kind of “there and not there” quality.

GTC: I was struck by its algorithmic quality, the way the statements lull you into a false sense of randomness only to mess with that. I was wondering if you could talk about the work’s relationship to technology, if there is a relationship.

SC: I don’t think there is. But I would say that in terms of questions regarding the algorithm and thinking about procedure and the work, I had the structure first. Before I even wrote a word, I already knew what the book was going to be like. When I was doing research, I looked up, “What does somebody study when they’re trying to learn English grammar, whether it’s for a high school class or a second language?”

I kept seeing this list of tenses in the order that it’s presented in the book. I wrote the book linearly from the simple present to future perfect continuous.

Then as I was editing it, I kept thinking, “What’s the actual experience of going through all these tenses?” A lot of the time in the early part of the book, I wanted to have a quotidian, almost universal quality to all these statements. And then as the book proceeded, I wanted to push against what someone would naturally say in the English language. In terms of writing it, the first draft came out quickly, and then it was really the editing that took most of the time.

GTC: I experienced it as a story. Were readers meant to take that away from it?

SC: Yeah, I wanted it to have a kind of momentum in that sense. I remember when I first talked about it with a friend, he called it a novel, which I thought was hilarious because I didn’t think of it as a novel at all—it’s so short. But I was pleased by that characterization because, especially in the last section of the book, I wanted to gesture at and at the same time push away closure. But that gesture is there. I didn’t want it to be totally anti-climax. I did want to feel like there was a rhythm or a pressure that was building.

GTC: I’m looking at the end now. [You write], “I have been saying pithy aphorisms for the sake of genius.” Is that the climax?

SC: Yeah, I wanted this narrator to be both pitiable, someone you can have sympathy for, but also kind of ridiculous and bathetic. I’m looking at the last page: “I will have been feeling like it didn’t come out right / I will have been trying despite this / I will have been leaving the book on your desk.” This feeling that as much as all of these systems of language allow one to communicate a self, there’s still this kind of lack, or this incompleteness, of not getting it quite right. Which is one of the reasons each tense is repeated twice. I wanted there to be the suggestion of, “I’m gonna say it once and get it right, but no I didn’t, so now I have to say it again.”

In the book there’s an epigraph by Ron Padgett quoting Gertrude Stein. Someone asked her, “Why do you always repeat words?” And she said, “Well, you say something you like, so you say it again.” What I found extremely funny was that despite my best efforts—I even had a friend help me—I couldn’t find the Gertrude Stein quote. Either he made it up or misremembered. I found that really satisfying.

GTC: Can we talk about “The Cigarette Painter”? I was thinking about all the artists that come up throughout the story, and this idea of the randomness of violence and the randomness of despair. I have a broad question, which is, what do you think art’s role is in creating or imposing a kind of meaning on that randomness?

SC: There’s an ability in narrative — and maybe this is one of its false comforts — to create an arc that to some degree systematizes or explains those modes of violence so that they can be given a category and therefore understood. I think at the same time, there’s the ability to demonstrate how unsatisfying that is. Things that are violent in that nature do just happen without a reason, without an explanation, without even really any consequences whatsoever.

[“The Cigarette Painter”] culminates in this stranger entering the house, which coincides with the intervention that’s happening for the father character. [The intervention] is supposed to be this revelatory thing that’s happening. Then it’s punctuated by a random act of violence, and it’s over with. Nothing comes of it. Nothing is satisfied. And all you really have is the memory of it happening. 

GTC: Do you want to talk about your process a little bit? Where do you start with a piece?

SC: The thing I’m doing now, a novella—I did a lot of outlining in terms of the story itself. There’s a bit of an Oulipo-style constraint. I’ve done constraints before, but in terms of story planning, I’ve never done anything like what I’ve done with it. I usually just go from a rhythm, with a feel for where the story might end up. I wanted to do something a little more schematic or planned.

I’m on the third draft now. My hope is to finish it soon. But that’s something I like about writing. I can create these conditions for every new thing. Especially with longer, book-length projects, I like to create a different way of tackling it that makes it interesting.

GTC: It feels like a lot of your previous work is defined by a kind of restriction or a constraint, and it sounds like you’re moving away from that with your novella. Is that a permanent shift? Or just the mood you’re in?

SC: Well actually there is a constraint in this book! It’s written in small chapters, and with every chapter there’s a system in how many characters the narrator can talk to per chapter.

I’ve always been drawn to the Oulipo writers. Everything they did, even when they wrote about very serious things, feels animated by a sense of mischief. There’s this real spirit of fun and mischief in their books. It’s a way of getting at a project, rather than just sitting down and saying, “I want to write about loneliness.” I don’t have much to say about loneliness, but I could probably make some weird game out of a book.

GTC: Are you reading anything good right now?

SC: I’ve been reading more plays in the last few months than I ever usually do. I’ve been reading everything from classical dramas like [Heinrich von] Kleist and [Georg] Büchner to more contemporary things, Caryl Churchill and some of Thomas Bernhard’s plays, and — I’m not sure this even counts — the scripts from Seinfeld. The second half of the novella I’m writing is written like a play, and I wanted to immerse myself in some of that writing. I was interested in how you get things moving beyond expository writing, where it’s really relying on simple movement and dialogue. I just really wanted to get into that energy.

GTC: I’m excited to read it. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk.

SC: Thank you! Thanks so much for reading my work. It was a pleasure.

Not I by Sebastian Castillo is available for purchase through Word West. His first book, 49 Venezuelan Novels, is available here

Interview with Dan Kois

Dan Kois is an editor and writer at Slate, contributing writer at The New York Times, and co-host of the podcast, Mom and Dad are Fighting. His recently published memoir, How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Family Around the World to Find a Different Way to Be Together, is about the year him, his wife, and their pre-teen daughters left their busy lives in the D.C. suburbs to live in four very different places—New Zealand, The Netherlands, Costa Rica, and small-town Kansas—to learn how families live in other parts of the world. Kois recently visited The Ohio State University to teach a visiting writer workshop and spoke with our Associate Reviews and Interviews Editor, Lizzie Lawson, about the experience, writing, and researching of How to Be a Family. 

Lizzie Lawson: Your memoir, How to Be a Family, incorporates research about overarching systems in each of the different places you traveled, including healthcare systems, work-life balance, parenting styles, and schooling methods. Can you talk about how you approached this research? 

Dan Kois: It seemed like a more interesting experience for me and for readers if I wasn’t viewing each of these places as a kind of magical flower that had sprung up and could never be understood. Obviously, I was not going to come out of the Netherlands or Costa Rica in three months and know everything about those places, but I had the tools as a reporter to start to dig into why those places were the way they were and what that means for those of us in situations like mine who are interested in changing things. Sometimes it was talking to a researcher in the Netherlands about his research on family happiness and satisfaction. Sometimes it meant talking to the parents we made friends with in a real formal interview setting with me recording and a set of prepared questions. And sometimes it meant reading, and reading deeply, into the literature, laws and media to get a sense of the stories affecting parents and their lives. What are the fears about parenting and family reflected in those stories, whether fictional or news? What can we see in each of these places that is or isn’t reflected in the place we come from and are planning to return to?

LL: In How to Be a Family, you talk about different parenting styles, especially in the section about the Netherlands, with the polder model, which you seem to actively dislike despite the Netherlands claiming to have the “happiest kids in the world.” Now that you are back in the States, is there anything you find yourself particularly grateful to have learned about parenting on this trip? 

DK: I hate the polder model, which in the book I describe as this notion in the Netherlands that all decisions, not just family decisions, are subject to consensus by everyone who will be affected by the decision. In the Dutch company, that means that any change in strategy is decided not just by the CEO, but by the CEO, all the Vice Presidents, and all other rank and file down to the janitors in the office building. Everyone needs to come to the table and agree before that change is to be made. In families, everything a family does and every rule a family follows is subject to negotiation between the parents and the children.

As you note, I hated that. I wanted to tell my children what to do and have them do it, which of course is not what happens usually. But I felt much better being enraged that my children didn’t do what I told them than subverting what I viewed as my own authority to let them make suggestions that I knew were obviously wrong and crazy. Yet, after coming home, I found that in our family decision making we are dramatically more likely to talk to our children, to take their opinions into account, to compromise somewhere in between what we want and what they want. In part, because I saw it work for Dutch families and also in part because the experience of the trip was one big experience of learning what happens when you make an enormous family decision without consulting your children at all, which is that you end up going on a year-long trip that they are angry and resentful about because they weren’t consulted and didn’t buy into this crazy idea that me and my wife had. 

LL: You write very honestly about the challenges that came along with this year-long family trip. One of the goals of the trip was to spend more time together, but that was also ended up being of the biggest challenges. Can you talk about the difficulty of spending excessive time together as a family? 

DK: In the winter of 2016, there was this enormous snowstorm that snowed us together in our house for ten days. We were all driven insane like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and my “solution” to that problem was to spend a year together in places where we would be stuck together in houses and wouldn’t know many people. It isn’t logically sensical when you think about it that way, but that snowstorm taught me how frustrating it was for the four of us to coexist in one space for long periods of time without retreating to our separate corners. On the trip, I was striving to find the balance between the time we were together and engaged with each other and the times we gave each other space.

Different people in my family have different senses of that instinct. My youngest daughter she wants people to be doing things with her all the time, and for her the challenge of the trip was finding ways to be alone productively when we couldn’t be with her. I prize solitary time, and when that is interrupted by a kid or spouse who needs or wants something from me, I get frustrated. To me, the trip was about finding ways to be together, sitting at a table or in a room, and not feel like productivity was escaping me but instead engaging and focusing on that moment and what we could be doing together. And it was hard. I was often not good at it. I think the book is a testament to not only the times it worked but the times I wasn’t good at it. 

After we got back from the trip, we have seen real tangible changes for us as a family operating in the same place. We are all a lot more conscious of each other and each other’s needs in a way that does not come naturally to children and often doesn’t come naturally to adults either. 

LL: Looking back, are you glad you chose the places you chose? 

DK: I am. The struggle always was we wanted there to be more places. The original goal was to go to six places in a year and a half, but we didn’t have enough money. 

I don’t think I would change the places. The place everyone always asked about when I would tell them about the trip was Kansas. We would talk about the exotic places we were going—the Netherlands, Costa Rica, New Zealand—and then everyone would say, Kansas? Eventually our kids would start saying it too, Kansas? That was the place I was most worried about, having this trip of a lifetime and spending three months of it in Kansas. But I wouldn’t change that, because those last three months helped us gain perspective on the goals of the entire trip and what we were looking for. Kansas was a place like home, but not. Even the kids could see the very subtle differences between those two worlds, which became very clarifying from a writing perspective. I also think for the project of the book it was necessary to go to another place in the United States. But also, we just loved it. We loved being in Kansas and everyone was so nice in ways that I’m sure if you lived there your entire life could be stultifying and annoying. But for three months it was great. 

LL: What was it like to write about your family while living with your family? 

DK: It was great. If I had any questions, I could be like, “Lyra, what do you think about this?” and I’d write it down. I write about my family a lot, and I talk about my family a lot on a parenting podcast that I host. They are very used to the idea that things that happen in our life may end up being in print or on a podcast. As they get older, they get less and less comfortable with that. The trip was taken at an age in which they still thought it was neat that they might appear in a book. I think for Lyra, in particular, my older daughter, the experience of being one of the subjects of the book has made her a lot more skeptical about that now. One of the battles of the book was over what I should and shouldn’t say about her and how I portray her. That was a learning process for her and for me. 

Another difficulty when writing about my children, is being faced everyday with the way they are while writing about the way they were. There’s a little disjunction there, especially a year after the trip when I was at the last stages of writing and editing the book. Kids change so fast. It was like trying to remember creatures from a different eon, like the dinosaurs or something, trying to remember Harper at nine while sitting in my house and she’s eleven and bouncing around being a completely different kid. That was really challenging, and I think in a lot of ways I didn’t do a great job. I had notes to deal with, but I also think the kids morphed over the course of the book, into some kind of hybrid version of the kids they were and the kids they had become. 

LL: I found the inclusion of passages written by your wife, Alia, and daughters, Harper and Lyra, to be particularly rich and delightful to read. Was it always part of the plan to include these passages? 

DK: It was. It was part of the book proposal, in fact. I would have been happy to have even more passages from them if they’d had the willingness or energy to write, but they also have lives and things to do. As Alia memorably told me, “This book is not my problem. This book is your problem.”

It was always the plan for a couple of reasons. One, I thought it would make it a better book to have their voices here and there to give people a break from my voice. I think that my voice can be a lot on the page, and you’re really getting it like full-bore over the course of this book. I was also thinking about the ways someone might view the book as exploitative, annoying, an object of privilege, and so on. Certainly it is all of those things, but I did want the rest of my family to have a chance to give their sides of different stories and things we were struggling with and the stories that I told, to help people who might otherwise mistrust the book trust it a little bit more. 

In the end, those sections, and particularly Lyra’s section at the end, very aggressively did that because I ended up asking her essentially to respond to the book. I knew the book’s portrayal of our relationship and the ways we clashed over the course of that year was obviously slanted in my favor. There’s no way I could write it any other way. As kind as I tried to be to her and as much as I tried to follow my rule of always portraying myself as the worst guy in any scenario with those kids, there was going to be things about it that bothered her, and it seemed like it would be absolutely unfair to not give her that chance.

Sonnet as Ghost: An Interview with Chanda Feldman

Chanda Feldman’s first collection of poems, Approaching the Fields, is exacting. Every image, every word is as precisely placed, creating poems that impress with each line but build into a complex, vivid portrait of a place and its history. Moving through time and through the stories of her own family, Feldman evokes the life along the Mississippi River—from the lush beauty of the natural world to the persistent racism that’s inextricably tied up with that landscape.

Feldman is an assistant professor of creative writing at Oberlin College. I spoke with her via email about the challenges of writing a first book of poems; the relationship between place, landscape, race, and agency; and the generative capacity of poetic form, among other topics.


Ryan Teitman: “Forget the difference / between foreign and native. Anything / can take hold here and spread,” you write in the collection’s opening poem, “Native.” Can you talk about how the poems in this book engage with place?


Chanda Feldman: First of all, most of the places in this book are geographically specific to West and Middle Tennessee, so the imagery focuses on the landscape of those areas—flora and fauna, waterways, crops, and the arrangement of neighborhoods and communities. I’m concerned with Black lives and experiences in these landscapes, which include issues of segregation, racial division, othering, and erasure. In many poems, place is dramatized through imagery, and the land itself serves as a trigger and receptacle for personal and historical memory. Land ownership and working the land is important in the poems and is also a source of tension. A lot of the time I was thinking about place as a space of threat or protection and how the boundary between those two can be shifting and porous.


RT: Can you unpack the shifting role of place as either a space of threat or one of protection? That shift is how “Native” ends: while anything can take hold, ultimately “the ground takes us in / and decay makes us kin.”


CF: I’ll try. The shifting role of place revolves around agency. Who or what has the ability to influence or maintain space in the ways that serve their needs. I can point to a poem in Section III of the book, “13. On the Porch,” in the poem sequence “But We Lived,” where a white girl comes to the home of a Black family in the middle of the night over some trouble with her boyfriend, and she’s looking for help. Yet her presence becomes a danger for this family due to the issue of race. The security of their home and lives are suddenly acutely precarious due to the girl’s appearance in their space.


It’s a similar relationship in “Native” that I’m interested in. I was thinking at the level of the physical land and also at the level of language and American history. A lot of energy goes into upholding narratives and legacies of white supremacy, and how the rationales, narratives, and outright and veiled institutionalism of it is a kind of rot. In that pushing away from something, it actually entwines you very closely, very intimately in a struggle with what is considered the other. In the poem, death seals the deal in terms of that violent closeness. And, lastly, it’s the forced adaptability of place—it’s continuously shaped, used, and remade by power.


RT: You mentioned agency and the ability to influence and maintain space. What does the idea of owning the land mean in these poems? In the pantoum “Election Day,” the idyllic holiday atmosphere of the first five stanzas—“We filled our plates from the barbecue drum. / Balloons bobbed in the air around us”—shifts abruptly at the lines “Who knows where the votes went. / The men, one by one, signed their ballots. / The man you sharecropped for chose your say.”


CF: In the context of the book, land ownership conveys some security and autonomy when compared with a sharecropping system. The sharecroppers in “Election Day” are subjugated by the employer, who is the landowner. This boss manipulates the sharecroppers’ ability to work on election day, and thus their earnings; he manipulates leisure time and the sharecroppers’ voices and individual rights through disenfranchisement. The sharecroppers are beholden to the landowner for land to farm, which they rent, and for farming supplies, housing, clothes, groceries, which they buy on credit; their livelihood is under the power of the landowner.


After stanza five in “Election Day,” the abrupt shift you mention is also a manipulation of the form, making the sharecroppers’ subjugation formally embodied. The continuity of the pantoum is ruptured when the line “who knows where the votes went” disappears from the poem because it doesn’t repeat in pattern.


RT: You mention how the pantoum is ruptured in “Election Day;” you also have a crown of sonnets in “But We Lived.” How were you thinking about using received forms and changing them when you were writing this book?


CF: Sometimes I was relying on form and structure as a generative tactic—as a way to get the next poem written—and sometimes the form seemed to announce itself during the drafting process—a pattern of repetition or a rhetorical unfolding.


In writing “But We Lived,” the drafting of those fourteen poems happened very quickly in a couple of days. They were, at first, scraps of stories and memories, and I thought, what can I do with all of these? It occurred to me that a crown of sonnets would provide enough of a relationship between each story/memory and still let them stand apart. The poems also have a stripped-down quality in terms of the language; they’re direct, casual, quick, yet biting. I thought their tone suited a sonnet sequence. At first, in revision, I assumed I’d adhere to a traditional sonnet structure, but it became clear to me that in trying to do that the tone changed. I made an agreement with myself that the sonnet would be the reference point but not the measure, and this was useful for me in revising, so I used what I needed from the form and departed when I wanted. Perhaps I gave myself an easier free-verse out in this manner, but I ended up liking the tension this created in the sequence. The sonnet is a kind of ghost there, but it is not the master of the poems.


RT: Eavan Boland, who you studied with when you were a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, has made the argument that poets don’t get to have first books anymore. Because of the contest and submission process, poetry manuscripts get their rough edges sanded off, weird or unusual poems get excised, and first books end up looking more like second books. As someone who’s just published her first book, do you feel like it’s your “first book”?


CF: There were many iterations of the manuscript, and many poems traveled in and out over the years. For sure, eight years ago, the manuscript was less thematically focused than the final book. I was satisfied with the final version of the book that I submitted to LSU Press, and still in the review stage, they suggested removing some poems, and ultimately I agreed with them—the book was stronger without a clutch of poems that were thematic outliers. The wonderful impact of the tighter focus is that the book speaks its subjects and concerns more clearly and resoundingly, but there is a loss of some of the experimentation with aesthetics and topics that was part of the process of writing a first book.


RT: What are you working on now?


CF: I’m working on some ekphrastic poems that reflect on visual art, mostly contemporary art and mostly art by African Americans. I’m also continuing to think about place in my work and my experiences traveling and living abroad.


On Mercy and Justice: An Interview with Lacy M. Johnson

Lacy M. Johnson is a writer, professor, curator, activist, and the author of three books. Her essay collection, The Reckonings (Scribner, 2018), was recently named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. She lives in Houston, Texas, where she teaches creative nonfiction at Rice University and is the Founding Director of the Houston Flood Museum. At Rice, Johnson advised Associate Review and Interview Editor Sophie Newman’s thesis in creative nonfiction. The two spoke recently over email about the creation of Johnson’s latest book, art and activism, intimacy with strangers, and joy as a form of justice.

Sophie Newman: Your memoir The Other Side tells the story of your kidnap and rape by a man you loved. In your title essay of The Reckonings, you explain how at readings of this memoir, audience members would often ask some form of the question, “What do you want to have happen to him, the man who did this to you?” We can frame this essay collection as a meditation on that answer, but it extends far beyond to encompass environmental and criminal justice, art, and politics. What was your process of putting all these ideas in conversation with one another?

Lacy M. Johnson: You’re right: I got that question a lot, but the thing that most surprised me wasn’t the question. It was how that question was always followed by a statement about the answer people assumed I would give: “You probably want him dead, right?” I was shocked that so many people thought I could want that, because it isn’t what I want at all. I don’t want him dead. I don’t even want him to suffer. What I want is for him to admit what he did, to my face, in public, and then to spend the rest of his life in service to other people’s joy. When I said that, people were so shocked, like it was a statement from another dimension or something, and I was shocked that they were shocked, and that feeling stuck with me. I mulled it over and over in my head: What’s with that question? What’s with the bloodlust? Then, I realized that of course people would want him dead because this is the only way we understand justice in this country: someone does something bad, something bad happens to them in return. Voila: justice! That definition of justice is a very old one, and not a particularly good one, since there are so many situations where retribution isn’t even possible, and even if it were, making someone suffer in exchange for having caused another to suffer seems like it amplifies injustice rather than cancels it out. So, the ideas and situations that I’m bringing together in this collection challenge me to think through that problem: if retribution isn’t justice—what is? What can be?

SN: A lot of the essays in The Reckonings required extensive research, which you’ve made accessible and transparent through indexed notes. Can you talk a little about how you approach research as an essayist?

LMJ: Research is part of my process as a writer and also just a tool I use to understand the world. Usually the writerly process goes like this: something bothers me enough that I start worrying about it, and the worrying about it leads me to do research in order to try to assuage the worry—as if by learning about what’s bothering me, I won’t be worried about it anymore. Sometimes I find the answer right away and the thing stops bothering me and I go on with my life. That worry does not become an essay. An essay begins when the research only partially assuages the worry, and in the gap left between the worry and the research, a question forms. Once I’ve arrived at a question, I know I’m on my way. Each of my three books has an extensive notes section because it’s not as if I just sat down and typed the book out. Each of the essays in The Reckonings, for instance, is the product of months of research, and each leans heavily on the ideas and writing of those who have come before me. My notes section is intended to honor that, and also to elaborate on secondary or tertiary narratives that were too much of a digression to appear in the primary text, but which I think provide an important and complicating layer of consideration.

SN: In addition to your writing, you’re also involved in community activism in Houston and beyond. Most recently, you were the Founding Director of the Houston Flood Museum. Does writing do the work of activism on its own, or is community involvement also essential to the process of effecting change?

LMJ: Writing is one tool for activism, but it isn’t the only one, and on its own isn’t as effective a tool for lasting, structural change as, say, organizing a community. In truth, we need both, because writing helps us to imagine ourselves as part of the same community as people we’ve never met but can imagine, and that collective imagination lends power and efficacy to the work of organizing toward our common health, freedom, and liberation.

SN: In “Art in the Age of Apocalypses,” you describe how your students struggled to find the energy to make art in what felt like end times. Could you share some of your strategies for creating when it seems at best overwhelming and at worst impossible?

LMJ: That feeling about the despair and futility of art-making is not unlike the feeling of writer’s block—and writer’s block is almost never an issue of not having anything to say but rather about the belief that what we have to say isn’t any good, that it has no value, or power, or potential. When I get that feeling, I have to remind myself of all the power and possibility art has unfolded for me. It helps to return to some of my favorite writers—those books or poems or essays that fundamentally changed the way I see the world—or to re-watch some of my favorite films, or revisit some of my favorite paintings. I am more likely to believe in the power of my own art when I experience that power in the art others have made: how art can unfold something in me I didn’t know existed, and how that brilliant unfolding thing can become a new source of power and strength.

SN: I was especially touched by your writing in “The Flood,” as I think it beautifully captures how we experience collective crises: how they can be isolating and terrifying and, at the same time, opportunities to celebrate humanity. In this essay, you touch on the idea of “the Stranger,” who, in everyday circumstances, consolidates fear, but in crisis, offers salvation. I’m curious as to whether we can re-think the presence of the Stranger in our everyday lives, and how this might relate to larger concepts of justice and mercy.

LMJ: I hope this essay does challenge all of us to rethink that idea of the Stranger, which comes to us from Georg Simmel, who writes that the stranger is not only a person who arrives in a group and does not leave, but who also represents liberation by “wandering” out of a previous context. The wanderer becomes the stranger by joining a social group that claims its boundaries are fixed, and the idea of that stranger’s presence challenges these boundaries in ways the group tends to resist. I think we see evidence of the dangers of that kind of social boundary-making in contemporary discourse about migration and immigration—“the wall” being the primary example of a fool’s attempt to fix our geographic and social boundaries in a specific space and time, as if such a thing were even possible; as if these boundaries were not shifting and changing and becoming penetrable all the time. What Simmel’s idea of the Stranger can teach us, in my reading, is how intimacy (many kinds of intimacy) challenges those boundaries, transforming the stranger from an idea—a threat, an intruder—into an actual human person, who resists the kinds of ignorant generalizations that those boundaries permit.

SN: This book covers a lot of dark and painful territory: the kidnapping of girls by Boko Haram, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the legacy of racism in America. Throughout these explorations, you maintain that justice is not only about hearing these stories but also about experiencing joy. Could you share some of the ways that you cultivate joy, or how we can create more space for joy in our own lives, and why that’s important?

LMJ: In the last essay in this collection, I come to the conclusion that if an injustice is anything that gets between a person and their joy, perhaps justice is anything that makes the condition of joy a possibility again. I’m not necessarily talking about happiness per se, but about experiencing one’s own power and possibility. In my own life, running has become a vehicle for joy, since running reminds me of the ways I am capable of doing and becoming more than I ever imagined, and certainly a lot more than seemed possible in the worst moment of my life, when a man I had once loved forced me to surrender my bodily autonomy to him. He was planning to kill me, but I lived. Running doesn’t simply restore that once-lost power to me but unlocks a potential I never knew I had; it teaches me to be more present in my body, and being more present in my body teaches me to be more present with my children, to laugh when they laugh, and to experience all the happiness that my life offers me. It is hard to explain what a revolution this has been for me. There is pain and sorrow and grief for the past all mixed in with joy, but also hope and momentum toward the future. When I consider the various injustices I write about in this book—racial violence, sexual violence, violence against the planet, violence that calls itself patriotism—no other model for justice seems to address all the harm that has been done. But if we believe that justice means finding a way to make the condition of joy a possibility again, then justice means we not only address the harm but also the structural inequities that made that harm possible in the first place. Working toward one another’s mutual joy would not only be a powerful act of resistance against ongoing injustices, but would also be profoundly healing for us all.

The Heart of The Drama: An Interview with Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott is a National Book Award winner and the author of eight novels. In 2013, she was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, and she is currently the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. In September, McDermott visited The Ohio State University campus to give a reading and teach a weekend writing workshop. During her visit, McDermott spoke with PhD student Christofer Johnson about her most recent novel, The Ninth Hour, which was a National Book Critic’s Circle Finalist for Fiction and a New York Times Book Review Notable Book.

Christofer Johnson: So I’ve had a chance to read through The Ninth Hour, and I really enjoyed it. It felt like an optimistic—I read it as optimistic at least—portrayal of Women’s Religious Communities, especially. Where did that interest come into the process? The interest into women’s vocations?

Alice McDermott: Oddly enough, it came in the process of composing the novel, almost as a second or third thought. I was interested in the whole idea of self-sacrifice, of substitutes in the Civil War, when people could pay someone to go and serve in the Union Army in place of a favorite son or husband or father. Sort of metaphorically, I was interested in that whole notion of giving up of life so that others might live, and what we think about that in the 21st century. Do we really trust that anymore? Do we see it as a good, or as a mitigated good? “What’s in it for me” is really still the presiding question.

Thinking about those things thematically brought me to something I only knew vaguely from my own experience with the Nursing Sisters in the New York area, where I grew up and where my mother grew up. Sort of being there when there was no social safety net, especially to take care of women and children. And the idea that those women did indeed give up their lives for others with no “What’s in it for me?” except in the afterlife.

So as I said, I just had sort of vague recollections that those women were there. And then I started reading. As the story was developing, I realized that I had to make up my own order—there was no historical order that would fit the things I needed for the story. And then I started reading about religious women all over the world, but especially in the United States. The amazing things they have done and continue to do. And how they’ve been marginalized in the culture. You know, the culture’s portrayal of religious women is really flat. They’re either witches, or comics, or guitar strumming virgins. All of them are alike in some way. And the more I read about the orders, the founding of the orders, the way these women went into battlefields, they went into the inner cities, into tenements, into the homes of the sick and the dying, into epidemics, the more I realized it’s ridiculous to ever imagine that any one of these women is the same as another. And that’s rich material for a novelist. They are misunderstood, and yet they have to be so unique. So the novel, much to my surprise, started being about nuns.

CJ: That’s interesting that you say it just sort of developed that direction later, because some of the nuns you introduced very early on develop into larger-than-life characters in just a few pages. How did you go about making that transformation for the characters in such a short space?

AM: In some ways, it’s sort of basic as to what I think of as the duty of the novelist or fiction writer. That is, no stereotypical characters. You need to understand and then attempt to take the measure of every human character who appears on the page, with that notion of this one is not like any other. None of us is. It wasn’t so much that I thought I needed to enlarge these women and make them seem larger than life. It’s just all you have to do is pause and say, who would they be? What would have brought them to this? To this life? I mean, no power. No credit. And really the worst situations, the poorest of the poor, to go to places nobody wants to go. To leave your family, to leave your life before that, to know your future is only going to be this. You’re not going to become a cardinal, you’re not going to live in a gold-plated apartment, this is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. And it’s all about caring for others. It doesn’t take, I think, a lot of introspection or even research to say, “Wow, every single one of these people must come to this place from a different route.” And if you look at them carefully enough, they become larger than life. I think that’s probably true for everyone. We all think we’re larger than life in our own little dramas.

CJ: When you approach a character who’s in that kind of situation, who’s made that kind of lifetime commitment, are there any specific personality types that you think of as being attracted to vocations? How do you think about the process of moving into that particular kind of religious arena?

AM: I think the more that I read about the women who founded these orders, especially since the time that most of these women were active was the early part of the 20th century, it doesn’t take a great imaginative leap to think these are women who have some ambition. The route that was open to women when they were coming of age was pretty limited: marriage or spinsterhood. If you got married, you were just going to have a pack of kids and hope you survived every childbirth. And you were going to care for your husband. If you didn’t marry, you could be a school teacher. You could be a nurse, but even in those days there was some kind of suspicion about what kind of woman you were if you wanted to be a nurse and you were a single woman. And with those kinds of limitations, when you think about a woman who’s drawn to this kind of life, not only is there some kind of worldly ambition—you know, “I want to go out, I want to take care of the poor, I want to alleviate suffering”—there’s a tremendous amount of personal ambition in even positing the possibility that you might be a person who could alleviate suffering.

But also, it seems to me, these women must have really rich and complex inner lives because there is the huge spiritual aspect of it. And they must have great imaginations because really, they believe there will be a reward for them personally, after this life of hard labor. And they must believe in that very vividly. So, it just seemed to me it’s not a great surprise, if you just pause and think about it, that these would be very complex women, and each would be an individual. And some would be easy to get along with, and some would be difficult, just like all of us, and for some the ambition would be more apparent, and for some the humility would be more apparent—you know, that self-effacing feeling of “This isn’t about me, this is about you and what I can do for you.” Going back to that idea of selflessness.

CJ: That leads into my next question, which is about the spiritual nature of all this. The spiritual component features very prominently in the novel. Was that your initial drive to capture this spirituality, or is that something that came out through the process?

AM: Well, I think that being a born-and-bred Roman Catholic myself, I don’t think you can be a Christian, certainly not someone educated in a Christian church, without thinking about someone who sacrifices himself so that someone else can live. You’ve got to be like, “You know, I know a guy. I’ve heard that story before.” It was almost inevitable talking about self-sacrifice. Here’s a religion that is all about self-sacrifice. Its reason for being is self-sacrifice. So, it seems inevitable, again, to have this group of women, who did exist in a real time in the real world, who took that notion so seriously and modeled their lives on it. There was a point when I was like, “Oh god, I’m going to write about nuns. I’m going to write a Catholic novel. Uggghhh.”

CJ: It was honestly really refreshing to read because I was talking to my wife as I was reading through it; her mother is a youth minister at their local parish. She has a number of qualities about her and a kind of drive that I saw echoed in some of the nuns’ perspectives. But it was interesting to see how much her role in that community, and the way she lives her life and looks at her vocation, matches the way the nuns in the novel serve their communities. In different ways, because she’s not a member of an order.

AM: Right, but it’s that notion of service to others, without looking for what they would call earthly rewards. And that became really interesting to me, that notion of “Oh, well, what kind of reward are you looking for?” And is there such a thing as being so selfless that you say, “I don’t want any reward at all.” Then we’re out of Christianity, because Christianity is all about the next world. So, that became really sort of fascinating. Is there such a thing? Are we capable as human beings to make a sacrifice for someone else that we aren’t able to see any benefit to ourselves in?

CJ: So, when you were writing this novel, how much of our tumultuous times entered into the writing process and influenced the way you were thinking about the trajectory of the novel, but also character development?

AM: Very much so. I knew from the very beginning that this was not a historical novel about these women, or this time and place. I knew certainly that was a setting for things to happen, but I’m not a historical novelist, and I didn’t really have any interest in just trying to recapture. Which is a fine thing for a novelist to do, but it’s just not enough to keep me interested. I really wanted it filtered through a 21st-century voice, three generations down from the stories that are told. And I always had the sense that this is a voice both astonished and skeptical. Astonished that there was this kind of belief, that there could be this kind of faith, that people could be that selfless. And yet skeptical. Were they deluding themselves? I mean, again, do we really trust, in the 21st century, people who are selfless? We kind of say, you know, get a life. Or, what are you really doing? What’s in it for you? And we respect what’s in it for you. So, I had a real sense not that I wanted to come to any conclusions, but just to look at the notion with a 21st-century eye. Not with nostalgia, not like the historical novelist would do, you know—“That was another time and we don’t have to make sense of it”—but with a subtle and underlying voice that’s saying, “I don’t know if I get this.”

CJ: You know, as a folklorist I hear family stories all the time. Whenever I sit down with someone, I hear family stories. And all too often, there is that tendency to look back on things either with a sense of nostalgia, or a sense of not understanding, or not really wanting to try to understand. And in that way, I really appreciated the multi-generational approach you used. What led you to that initially? I know you mentioned that you wanted to have this 21st-century view looking back. With skepticism, not with cynicism, though it never quite reaches that level. How did the idea initially come? Or did you take inspiration from somewhere?

AM: I think for me, it was almost something—not to make this sound, you know, intercession of the Holy Spirit or anything, I’m not claiming that—but I do think, and I think this is something that separates fiction from nonfiction and memoir and creative nonfiction: there was a voice. The telling, it seemed to me, belonged to a voice. Not to a distant narrator. Not even to the people whose points of view were being looked at. I sort of heard a voice that said, “Okay, we’re going to imagine what happened. We’re going to re-tell what we know.” And sometimes that can be very vivid, when you apply imagination to stories and open them out. It kind of gave me the freedom to be free-ranging through generations. And I think as a novelist—and I’m sure you’re interested in this too, as a folklorist—not only what gets passed on, but what gets left out.

CJ: Absolutely.

AM: Yeah! What never gets told. What never is fully understood. The stuff that’s lost, it’s fascinating to me. So, it was just the sound of the prose, and the technical opportunity that voice gave to me. And again, one generation, even if they’re observing the generation before them, they are clueless about a lot of things. I think that’s exactly like what you say. Maybe one of the reasons that I sort of shy away from historical fiction is that there is a great risk of presentism. That we take our experience and think, well, a hundred years ago is pretty much the same. And you leave out the context; you leave out the sense that here are women who did not have opportunities. Some of them didn’t have an education. There were a lot of these women who were barely literate, and then they’re thrown in to teach. It’s that sense that you have to take in the whole context to begin to get a sense of what these lives might have been like.

CJ: But you still get to see these moments of pushback. Sister St. Savior, I get the sense reading her character that she bristled a little bit under the patriarchal rule of the Church.

AM: Yes, yes! Which, historically, I mean, you don’t have to go very deep into the research. A lot of the nursing orders for instance were founded by women, and they stayed independent. They were not associated with a parish, as the teaching orders were, so they did not have priests telling them what to do on a daily basis. They had to get approval from the bishop, and for a lot of them, they had to have a priest to help them rent a convent, and all the things that men could do that women simply couldn’t do. But the day-to-day living belonged to them.

You still see that kind of “leave us alone.” And I’ve heard from a lot of religious women; it’s been so much fun. One Sister of Mercy in DC, she said, “We get away with so much because the priests know we deal with women and children. And there’s a power there, so they’re not jealous.” And this is in the 21st century. They’re not envious, they’re like, “Go ahead. Women’s things… oh, go ahead. You take care of it.” It’s kind of what the Republicans did, having a woman ask [questions at the Kavanaugh hearing], you know, “We don’t want to mess with that. You go do it.”

CJ: Taking things back, your faith really comes through in this novel especially. How much of your Catholic upbringing has influenced your growth and development as a writer?

AM: You know, I think it’s inevitable. I’ve said it many times, and I’ve heard many other Catholics especially, but other Christians say it: when you’re raised in a faith tradition, prayer is your first poetry, you know? Hymns are your first songs. So, it shapes the way you use language. I mean, it comes down to your basic DNA as a writer. Pattern and repetition and chant. I think it’s all influenced by the Church. And then it does come down to the questions that a religious faith asks us to entertain. Whether we’re on our way in or on our way out of any institution. It seems to me that those are the kinds of questions great literature asks as well. It’s meaning-of-life stuff. I think in many ways, up until this novel—which I admit is a Catholic novel—just because I’ve had characters who are Catholic doesn’t mean they were Catholic novels. But I think I found an affinity with characters who had the Catholic faith because that’s material-at-hand for me. I understand the rituals. I understand the prayer-in-the-language and all of that. For me, any faith gives characters a vocabulary to ask the questions they might not have the vocabulary for without it.

A bunch of second-generation Irishmen sitting in a bar in Queens aren’t going to say, “Huh, you know, what’s the meaning of life?” But they might say, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, wasn’t that a terrible thing?” And, “Well, God is good.” “God will provide.” “God works in mysterious ways.” It’s just a vocabulary, not that it gives answers. That, I would not be interested in. I’m not interested in trying to convince anybody that here is the place for all the answers. But as a way to think about, why are we here? What’s a good life? Do we believe? Does anybody think we’ve got anything more than the time we have? Are we more than just biological entities moving around a piece of rock? Any kind of faith, I think, gives you access to those themes, and those are the ones that are interesting to me.

CJ: Those are the fundamental questions. The big questions.

AM: Exactly. Fiction and poetry is the place where you can say not only, “Look, that happened, isn’t that interesting?” but, “What does it mean? Why did it happen?” Why spend time making things up when we’ve got this crazy world full of things? Things that nobody would believe if you made them up.

CJ: That kind of leads into my next question. What is your perspective on the role and the power of stories in a 21st century? Because we do have everything all the time now—at least it feels that way.

AM: Yes, yes we do. I think in some ways we can overdose on stories, but not on that “Yes, but why?” question. And I think not only are our attention spans shrinking, our sense of things being meaningful is shrinking. I’m always hitting my writing students over the head with Frank O’Connor’s definition of a short story. He says, “It’s the moment after which nothing else is ever the same.” More and more because we are so bombarded, and because our attention span is shrinking, I’m not sure we believe there are such moments. It’s all, “You’ll get over it. That was last week.” The Supreme Court, you know, in two weeks we’re not going to be obsessed with it.

That’s the heart of drama, that there can be moments in our lives that change everything. That change the way we see things, and cannot be undone. And I think we’re losing faith in that. I mean secular faith, that there can be those kind of moments. Everything tells us, “Closure. Healing.” But I think in our human experience, we understand, “No. It’s not. I will not get over it. Everything is utterly changed.” That’s Yeats.

CJ: Do you have any advice for MFA students, or anybody really, who’s looking at writing as a vocation?

AM: You know, I’ve been teaching at Hopkins for 20-plus years, and every year my faith in art and our need for story is renewed when I look at graduate applications and I see brilliant young people who could pretty much do anything they choose to do, and they want to write poetry. They want to write fiction. And they know the odds, they know it’s a tough row to hoe. But there’s that perpetual belief in it. I think keeping your eye on that as a young writer, reading everything, always keeping that fire of, “I love this stuff, I love this novel, I love this poem, I love this story. I love it!” It’s very easy to forget that when you enter the profession, and you’re thinking about who’s getting published and who’s not getting published, and about editors, and what’s popular, and “should I write something about that because everybody’s talking about it?” Just to constantly go back and see that nobody enters this profession because somebody asked them to. No one ever went up to someone and said, “I know you’ve never written a short story, but would you please write a short story for us?” It’s that fire to create, no matter what art you’re in—and I think it’s true of the sciences as well—that feeling of “Despite everything else, this is what I must do.”

CJ: It sounds almost like a faith experience itself.

AM: I think it has to be. A little bit delusional, there’s always that. A sense of inevitability, but joy, too. I don’t know anyone who becomes a writer who didn’t first fall in love with something somebody else wrote. And, you know, that’s a great gift. No matter how it all works out professionally or in other people’s eyes. I think the people who have that fire to do something in that way, no matter what it is, are very fortunate.

Interview with Danez Smith
Danez Smith

It’s impossible to speak of contemporary poetry without speaking of Danez Smith. The Black, queer, poz writer and performer from St. Paul, Minnesota, is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), a National Book Award Finalist and winner of the Forward Poetry Prize. Their first book, [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lamba Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Beyond the accolades, Smith is known to use their platform to invite outside voices—and outside readers—into the poetry world. In September, Smith visited Ohio State University to teach a weekend workshop, and spoke with Reviews & Interviews Editor Eliza Smith about balancing sorrow and light, their collection-in-progress, and the current state of poetry.

Eliza Smith: I was at one of your AWP panels last year, and during the Q&A you said something like, “I don’t think a book full of wounds makes a good book.” I’ve seen you tweet about this, too: “Your trauma is not what makes you a poet.” I was hoping to hear more about your thoughts on that, and how you navigate that in your own work.

Danez Smith: I see this a lot, especially with spoken word communities and how people teach young people, or when I visit some undergrad programs, and students feel like if they’re not exploring their deepest trauma, they’re not being what they consider to be a real poet. I think what writers are actually able to do is explore the wound but also find something different in there besides more trauma—to find light, to find levity. And also, to not explore the wound as well. We’re writers; we’re about craft. Sure, a wound is maybe one of the ways we first recognize ourselves as artists because it helps us dig ourselves out of that hole, but I don’t believe in the ethos that we must hurt ourselves in public in order to be legitimate. So, I just want to move away, and encourage folks to move away, from that.

I also think about readerly care from a writer, and not just wanting to offer up gore, even emotional gore, to our readers. Making sure that they’re okay. It’s important for us to balance all the emotions. And I think what actually makes sorrow or grief poignant is also the presence of joy. It’s that mix of emotions that actually creates good art, not just trauma porn.

ES: I teach an undergrad course, and we just read the recent Atlantic article you appeared in [“How Poetry Came to Matter Again”]. A big piece of that was the resurgence of the first-person lyric. Some of my students, especially people of color, spoke about the pressure to write from that “I.” Particularly in the spoken word scene—the pressure to blend the personal and political. The writer mentions an Aziza Barnes poem whose title is, “My dad asks, ‘how come black folk can’t just write about flowers?’”

DS: I think we all have to keep agency in our art and not feel any type of pressure to belong to any type of moment or school—unless we want to align ourselves to that, right? It happens in poetry so much. The language poets show up and say, “the I is dead,” and some people listen and some people don’t. The whole thing with “the I is dead,” “the I is alive”—just write what the fuck you want to write. I personally believe the political is better when the personal is present—when the writer allows themself to show up in their arguments and allows their real body to show up in these poems. I think the personal is stronger when we recognize that to be a living, breathing human is a political act.

But on the other side of that, yeah—if you want to write about flowers, write about flowers. I think there is a pressure, but nothing else is going to get rid of that pressure except for yourself. So, take up the agency to write about what you want to write about. I write about flowers, too. When you want to write about flowers, write about flowers. When you want to write about squirrels, write about squirrels. If you want to write about the crumbling, capitalist society, write about the crumbling, capitalist society. If you want to write your coming-of-age narrative, write your goddamn coming-of-age narrative. The call is just to stand firmly in want you do want to write about. If you want to write about the I, lean strongly into that I. If you want to lean away from that I, then go ahead and lean away. Just do everything with confidence, and with the knowledge that no one of us are doing anything new. I think maybe that can relieve some pressure, is that you’re never gonna be the first person to write about a thing. The only thing you’ll be the first person to write about is yourself. Once you realize that I’m not doin’ shit new, you can just revel in the old ways.

ES: I saw on Twitter that you turned in two books recently, and your editor [Jeff Shotts] said it was actually one book. Do you have two projects going? What are you working on?

DS: What I always do—and this has been for my last two books—is I think I have two projects, and Jeff tells me I have one. That’s what happened with Don’t Call Us Dead. I was working on one collection, and that was very much about black life in America, with a large focus on police brutality, and black death, and the ways in which America terrorizes black folks; and then another collection that was focused on my own sexual history and my diagnosis with HIV, and just thinking about when it means to be black, queer, and positive in America. Jeff helped me see there was a single conversation going on about mortality that was interesting and more complicated and grand when it was had together.

We’re often taught to think narrowly when we’re thinking about a collection we’re working on—you mine the narrow. But sometimes two narrow paths meet and become a river, and that’s what happened. So with this new book I’m working on, which is called—well, it’s two titles: it’s Homie on the outside and My Nig on the inside, for political reasons—I was working on this book, and then at some point in the process, I pulled out some of the poems that were speaking to living with HIV or suicide or gender that I was like, “Oh, maybe these are for another collection because the collection is really about kinship.” This time, it was Jeff telling me to put them back together and helping me to see maybe there was a richer conversation, not only about friendship but about what friendship does, and how friendship saves, and also adding some texture. I’m having a conversation about suicide—both a friend’s suicide takes center in the book, and also dealing with my own battles with suicidal thoughts—and now there are poems that I think help add that texture.

ES: Marcus Jackson visited our class yesterday. He’s an Ohio-based poet; he has a new collection called Pardon My Heart. He brought up how there might be a pressure for younger poets to turn out books quicker—because of the heat of this moment in poetry, and maybe it’s the current political environment, and maybe social media. Do you feel that?

DS: I’ve felt that, yeah. By the time my first book came out, I was 24. That pressure was a little weirder. I was coming from a very spoken word-heavy field, and in spoken word, I think the first book has a lot less weight than it does in the literary world because you’re kinda just looking to have merch. If you’re already touring, it’s like, I need a book so I can sell it. Everybody’s first book is indeed a grand event, but in the literary world, it has a different weight when you’re thinking about the market of post-publication prizes, a first book being your first entrée in this larger world, your announcement of yourself. My first book did well, but in some ways, I still wish I would’ve held on a little more. I know I felt a lot of pressure to have a certain book that did a certain thing, and it’s complete bullshit because truly it’s a long game. It’s better to let your first book live and breathe and be thrown away and completely rebuilt and changed, if you want to, to really have something you’re proud of instead of having the pressure to have a book that’s out when you’re young just for the sake of having a book.

But I think what’s also changed is there’s a lot of attention on young poets right now; maybe it is because of social media and just the way in which young poets are able to market themselves, or young people are looking for other young people to read. We need to relieve ourselves of a little bit of that pressure because it’s detrimental to us. It’s also just because people didn’t pay attention to first books. It’s not like people having books young is a new thing, it’s just that a couple decades ago, no one paid attention to you until your third book. And I think it’s actually a beautiful thing: when you look at many of the awards lists for post-publication awards, you see first books being a part of the conversation now in a way they weren’t before. It’s a great new day, but I also hope the people who are outside, who don’t have collections and are feeling bad on themselves, that they don’t. Airea D. Matthews is one of the best poets in America, and she was in her forties when her first book came out. She’s gonna have an excellent career from there. Toni Morrison didn’t have her first book until 39, and she’s fuckin’ Toni Morrison. So, everybody will be fine. And if you feel like you’re ready, then you’re ready. But I think folks can relieve themselves of that pressure to get out the gate before they have to.

ES: You read for the National Book Award Longlist recently. Can you talk about what you took away from that, and what it told you about the future of poetry?

DS: We read a shit-ton of books—hundreds. It really just taught me how great of a state poetry is in. It felt good to be able to steward that. I learned about so many poets I never would’ve known about, and I’m so excited to be lifelong fans of them and follow their collections. And now that the longlist is out, I can start talking about poetry again; I can say which other things I enjoyed from that process. But poetry is really in a good state. It’s such a diverse and wonderful field, not just in terms of the bodies and histories of the writers but in the work they’re creating. There is some wild shit out there. It’s really fantastic to see. I don’t see poetry going anywhere—I just see it getting grander. It’s good to see people who are able to tell their stories, and it’s good to see people who are not interested in telling their story, but they’re interested in doing really freaky shit. It is a large, wide, and amazing field. If anything, it taught me that now more than ever—I hate that phrase—but personally, now more than ever, I don’t know what poetry is. Because there is such a diverse amount of styles out there. It was a good reminder that we are a genre that defies category.

Interview with Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas
Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas

Before joining the Department of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas was a visiting professor at The Ohio State University, where she advised Cade Leebron’s MFA thesis. Now, Lina lives in Richmond and Cade is still in Columbus, and sometimes they text. In February, Lina—author of the essay collection Don’t Come Back and 2016 recipient of the Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award—returned to Ohio State as a visiting writer. Lina and Cade spoke in-depth about writing and translation, carnivorous household plants, and much more.

Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas: I interviewed Ian Frazier once, did I tell you this?

Cade Leebron: No. Did you? Maybe.

LF: I was just this little nothing kid and I had a list of serious questions, like what’s it like being a New Yorker writer, and what’s the environment? The best question I asked him was, what’s your favorite color? Because he knew immediately. I don’t remember any other answers, but that he knew the answer to immediately. And I said, why do you know? He said because when you have kids, the things that become important are constantly asked to shift a little bit.

People talk about having kids and how your world changes. This moment makes me understand that better. You need to know your favorite color. I remember as a child asking people, what’s your favorite number? Now I have no concept of what that was about.

CL: I had that question, too. And “what’s your favorite color.” Favorites are important.

LF: I like red and I like black; I like high contrast and I like clean lines and I don’t like rounded edges and things that I can’t very easily clean.

CL: What’s your favorite animal?

LF: I could not pick. I actually fall in love with animals very frequently because I’m writing this novel about the devil, which means that I have two shelves worth of maps of the Amazon jungle. My devil lives in the jungle. There was a lot of me considering where Eden might have actually been, like the concept of biodiversity—like where is the beginning of life, the highest intensity of life. I thought I might know about the jungle and then realized I don’t, I’m from the Andes. I know what it’s like to get altitude sickness. That’s the thing that I know best and nothing else. So, I had to go to the jungle recently and spend a week there. It was fascinating.

CL: Is that when you were interviewing witches, and you emailed me from an airport?

LF: I spend a lot of time in airports.

CL: We were emailing about guinea pigs.

LF: I recently nearly purchased a guinea pig because they were essential in exorcisms.

CL: So, a guinea pig to kill?

LF: Well, if you are with bad air, or heavy air as one would say, then the guinea pig will die. If you are without, then the guinea pig will be fine. I called PetSmart and was like, can I get an all-black guinea pig? I was writing this essay about this exorcism—well, it’s not quite an exorcism. It’s the reverse of an exorcism. So this kid lost his soul. He just misplaced it for a while, and it made him very sick because bodies are not meant to live without spirits, is what I’ve been told.

I started writing this, I was in Richmond, and then I realized I don’t remember ever holding a guinea pig. If I did, it was as a child. I think I ate one as a child as well. So, I went to PetSmart to hold one. They’re adorable. They’ve been domesticated for 7,000 years—I saw their wild cousins, they’re far more rodent-like—and there has been a natural selection for the most rotund version of this animal. So, they’re basically spherical. And they’re delicious, I’m told.

So, I like the guinea pig. There are some snakes that are just phenomenal. And the black caiman is an amazing creature, it pre-dates us. I have a carnivorous plant that is the loveliest thing in the world. It’s a pitcher plant.

CL: What do you feed it?

LF: Here’s the thing—your house is full of insects regardless of what you do. So, you just let them eat that. Venus flytraps are a little bit more finicky and require live things, or you just don’t feed them, and they grow a little bit slower. That’s fine, too.

My favorite animal? No idea. I really like the condor. When I talk to people, I start complaining about how hideous it is, but it’s a farce. I’m from a place, Bogota, that is in Cundinamarca, the land of condors. And I have a fondness for this hideous being that can fly so high. I feel pretty confident about the condor. I have a lot of animals I really like. Oh, the potoo is fantastic. I will show you. You will enjoy this potoo. Everyone should have a picture of the potoo. It has the most hideous call.

In Colombian Spanish, in the slang, they call it a bird in good standing. El bienparado. And they sleep all day, and there’s so many pictures of it where you see the slit of the eye going like, are you still taking my picture? And it just closes and goes like, fuck that, I’m just staying here because I don’t care. In Colombia we call them pajara estaco or bienparado, so a bird in good standing, or a stake bird. Took like an hour to find one; I was dead set on finding one. It’s so much of the eye of the beholder on it. I like any culture that can appreciate a bird like that.

CL: Wait, I need to ask you real questions. I was reading your essays and thinking about something you said to me last year, that people who appropriate other people’s stories in nonfiction do so because their own lives aren’t interesting.

LF: Oh, did I say that?

CL: Yes. It was my favorite thing! But I was thinking about that while reading your essays, because a lot of your essays are telling stories of other people, but they don’t feel appropriative. How do you navigate that?

LF: I think that probably goes back to the definition of what appropriation is. And I write nonfiction. Nonfiction is a little bit harder to appropriate, if you’re transparent. If I told you about the time I lost my soul and a witch got it back via guinea pig, like that would be straight up appropriation. But that’s not my intention. I think my life is probably pretty uninteresting, but the people I talk to are really interesting.

A thing that I do remember saying is the worst lies come from vanity. I think that’s probably where appropriation comes from as well. Shallow people tell bad stories because they walk into a room and they can tell you things about themselves in the room. I was interviewing someone recently, and she could tell me what she was wearing and what she was thinking and how she felt. And then I said, so how big is the room? Because these are the details you absolutely need when you start writing. Where are the exits? How many people were there? Is there a carpet? When you speak, would there be an echo? I want to be able to write, “When she speaks, it echoes across a hallway.”

She couldn’t tell me a single thing about anyone else but her in the room, and I was so frustrated. Everyone’s an unreliable narrator, but most people try not to be. And this person was just like, I am the center of all things, why do you need to know anything else? I’m like, okay, if I keep following the story, the best thing I can do is write about your organs. That’s as much interiority as I’m going to get.

I tell other people’s stories because I love these people, and they’re so frequently overlooked, and I hate that. A lot of my projects come out of sheer rage. I dislike the notion that we don’t have good stories, we don’t have literature, we don’t have art. We are, you know, either rapists or starving children, nothing in between. I think that’s where we exist for so many people. And just because the story of this boy misplacing his soul doesn’t fit your idea of literature, it doesn’t sound like a sonnet, doesn’t mean it isn’t absolutely beautiful. I’m hoping that by bringing the stories of these people I love and culture I love, the beauty of it, I’ll be able to at least put a dent in the dehumanizing forces of the world. How much has been done to take that away from us? We don’t need permission to be human. We are, and we don’t need permission to make art. We have, and we have been, and we will, and it’s going to outlive any notion that we can’t.

CL: Do you feel like your poetry translation project, 100 Refutations, was also inspired by rage?

LF: Oh god, yeah. But it’s not just rage, it’s grief. I was talking to a former classmate of yours yesterday about struggling to write more of the joy. How do you write more essays with joy, especially when you deal with subjects like this, loss and war and devastation.

I keep going back to Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m going to botch the quote—get the quote right. [“This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it.”] It’s from The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. I don’t want to join those ranks, obviously, but I do write sad, angry books. But I don’t think that’s all of it. And I don’t think that’s the intention. The joy is present. It has to be. It’s the loss of joy that hurts. That’s the emptiness of certain literature, where you don’t understand the stakes because everything is terrible. Everyone is terrible. No one is worth saving. The recognition that there is something worth saving is what deepens the grief, but it’s also a celebration.

I understand that with 100 Refutations, at least the essays are going to feel pretty angry. But I love the poetry. And I write a lot about women because they’re very frequently the ones who are overlooked; especially in a country that has been at war for so many years, they’re the ones who have stayed at home. They’re the ones who are sending their children off to war and surviving them. There’s a poem that I recently translated from Almafuerte, an Argentine poet, and he said it’s the weight of a hundred cities for a hundred years. That’s what it felt like when people talked to me about certain losses. I want people to see these poems and read these poems and see they’re not full of rage. Most of them are this constant celebration of beauty. I think that’s the counterpoint. I do think that’s the delight: the recognition that we still have something to lose is hopeful and depressing.

CL: And you do a lot of finding beauty in visceral and violent things.

LF: You don’t seem to like that, though.

CL: No, I do! Your placenta essay is beautiful. It’s only made me almost pass out twice. But I was also thinking about that essay, specifically when you choose a piece to read. I’ve read your essays, and I feel like a lot of them don’t have as much viscera and violence, but I’ve heard you read the placenta essay twice.

LF: There are some things that read better than others. I tend to read things that have a quickened pace because it’s easier to follow. And I do adaptation. So even though you’ve heard me read the placenta essay twice, I read two versions of it. For yesterday’s reading, the essay that I read, “A Man Walks In and Takes Off His Hat,” was an adaptation of a much longer essay, and the meditations—which are a little bit harder to follow—are intimated in scene. I prefer intimating something, alluding to something, rather than being blunt about it, because the bluntness is earned through the pace of the essay. And I need you to stay with me so that on page 23 I can say, here’s my heart, here’s the thing. There are certain things that can’t be said in certain places in certain times in certain moments. When somebody tells you “I love you,” for example, if it is empty or completely meaningful, it depends on the relationship you had before that moment, and the essay reflects that. I need you to know how difficult it is for me to say this thing before I say it. If I just blurt it out, it’s going to be taken away.

The reading can’t quite replicate that. And for this one, I felt that I needed something that moves quickly and has a little bit of strange humor because I open with such a heartfelt rant [about 100 Refutations] that if I followed with, “and now we’re going to talk about the death of Laika and how I idolized her as a child,” that’s too much. This is the third time I did this reading with a poem at the beginning and then switched off into something a little bit lighter, and I think this one went the best because I timed things correctly. You have to flip the switch and be able to read the room. But that’s a lot of wiring in the back. No one cares about that, nor do they want to hear about it. Just dance for us, puppet, and then go away.

CL: We’ve talked before about nonfiction as a transaction of vulnerability, and it sounds like what you’re saying is it works differently on the page than when you’re in front of an audience.

LF: [When writing] I spend a lot of time alone with people without them. And alone with me. So, it’s just me in a room alone with the most painful parts of myself. And then people spend time with me alone [when reading my work], away from me, with the most painful parts of me. That loneliness of experience is very different from, “We’re all in a room together, now let’s be vulnerable!” That’s rough. And I’m not an actor. I’m going to feel things publicly, and it’s going to be horrifying and honest. It’s easier when the reading is the last thing I do for the day, but when I do a reading and then I have to talk to other people afterwards, it’s challenging. I have to meet enthusiasm with enthusiasm that I no longer have the ability to muster.

I’ll tell you the weirdest thing that’s happened after reading was recently: a man approached me and started speaking to me in Spanish right away. We had a conversation for a little bit, and then he looked at me and said, “I wanted to make sure you were actually fluent.” I’m like, oh, I don’t know how to respond to that.

CL: Oh my god. It’s like a test.

LF: It was a test, and it was a weird test because English is my second language. The other weird thing that happened during that reading is that somebody approached me on an essay I have in This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. I’m so happy and proud and honored to have been asked to be in there, and I was asked because I read the placenta essay at AWP, and then Kelly McMasters asked me at the end, do you ever write about home? And I’m like, almost exclusively, that’s the only thing I write about! She gave me this flyer, and then I spent four hours finding out if she was a real person because I’m like, that’s a scam, right? Like no one hears me read about my desire to cannibalize someone’s placenta and then goes, you! I want you for my gentle anthology about women and home. And it’s not a gentle anthology. It’s brutal and it’s devastating and it’s lovely.

[In the anthology], I talk about meeting a man at a shelter. I was volunteering. I believe in the social contract and volunteering and doing the right thing and expecting nothing. I didn’t have a home at the time; I was living with my friends, and I don’t know if I had a job. Maybe I was going to Ohio? I didn’t have a visa, and I didn’t quite have a country. But you should volunteer if you can and you have the time, and I had the time. So, I was there, and I met this man who was very excited that I was Colombian in a way that people don’t get excited. He was there with his girlfriend and his daughter and he was clearly in distress; I was there helping him find a job. That was my job, to make sure the listings were clear and help people write resumes. And he was excited in this way that seemed unusual, and I said, “I’m from Bogota.” He’s like, “I was just there.” And I’m like, “Oh, were you on your way somewhere else?” Mainly you go to Bogota and then you go somewhere else because there’s little oxygen and it’s cold. People don’t go there for a holiday. And he’s like, “No, I stayed in Bogota.” And I’m like, “That’s unusual, did you do research or whatever?” And he said, “No, I was just there for three days. I didn’t really leave the hotel room that much.”

As he gave more details, I realized what he had done, why he had been in Bogota. He’s a U.S. citizen, and he can go in and out easily, and he was carrying. I know this because he asked me if I knew anybody in the cartels that I could hook him up with. Which was happening in public, in this room full of people on computers looking for jobs. It’s hard because he’s in distress, and I’m in distress. I’m in a very different type of distress because I still have more possibilities. I don’t know what his prospects are, and I understand the race divisions in the United States as well. I’m very conscious of that. He sees me as pale, and there is a class element to that, but it’s also different where I’m from, and here’s his child, and he needs to provide. And I’m sort of stuck in this really complicated scenario, where I’ve spent so much of my life hating how a first world country, quote unquote, funds the war of a third world country, quote unquote. And I see this is where it’s coming from, and it’s not what I want it to be.

What I want it to be is Elton John, whose music I appreciate. I quite like “Rocket Man,” but I have mostly hated him for one comment he made. He was flying over the Alps, and he looked down and said, “Oh, that’s like all the cocaine I’ve snorted,” and it’s just, it’s that same grief. Like, do you know how many people died? How much of a war you personally funded? And then there’s the flip of that. There’s so many artists who get to drive Priuses and still be part of something that brings so much grief and death, but he’s not that. This man in the shelter is not that. And yet I know if he gets another chance, because of the way he’s speaking to me, he’s going to do it again. And is it better that it’s him and not us? It’s not. And is it worse that it’s him, and that he might get caught, and he might become part of another statistic of black men in prisons? Does it make it any less or more acceptable? It’s just terrible. Every part of it is terrible.

The question that I was asked [after reading an essay about this] was, “Why didn’t you punch him?” I did not quite know how to react. After I do the readings, it’s kind of hard to be quick on my feet about the whole thing. All I could say was because he wasn’t the problem, and I wasn’t the solution. I just feel grief for him and for me and for us, and how we’re stuck here, and the people who are actually profiting from our grief are the ones who will never suffer in this life.

But I have looked at other Latinos, Chicanos, people who are first generation in the U.S., and they might not speak Spanish, and I have turned my nose. Then I go back home, and I’m no longer Colombian enough. There are all these divisions, and even if you stay in Colombia, you might be too pale to be whatever it is. And it just makes me so sad that my cousins, my Latinos, my hermanos, that we’re so quick to jump to that. To make even greater divisions when we have a common enemy. So, I’m trying to figure out better ways to respond to people that will make us aware of it. And I’m not qualified. I’m just from one Latin American country. But I want people to know more about our humanity and the art we’re capable of making. That our human value is not equivalent to the GDP of our country.

CL: There was a reading, where a white man during the Q&A asked you, “Why are you here?” in an aggressive way. And I remember you answered in this elegant way, explaining how you got the job you had at the time. That was a situation where I might have felt like, “Why didn’t you punch that dude?”

LF: Well, there is an element of I’m very aware of my status in this country. I am a little bit worried when I do some of these readings that someone is going to come up to me. I think you might have read a poem that I translated by Demetrio Korsi that is about the Statue of Liberty, it’s called “New York.” That is a poem I was a little bit hesitant about, even though I think it’s brilliant and fantastic and it was written in the 1940s, so it predates all of this, and it just goes to show, there’s this notion that things for immigrants are only hard now. They’re only becoming visible now. I hope awareness doesn’t die down, and I hope we can compete at least a little bit with Stormy Daniels.

And I am a firm believer that you’re only bored if you’re boring, and you’re only gonna be boring if you’re bored. There’s no question that you can’t answer with lunacy. That’s the essayistic thing, being alone in a room and still finding something to say and some connection. But the best way to answer [a question like that], like in “sor Filotea,” is by playing the game and playing it better. I don’t think punching Nazis is as useful as it might be cathartic. It’s not doing a service to what we’re trying to do. Which is not to say that [punching Nazis] is not helpful and cathartic, or that art isn’t supposed to be those things. I think there’s a place for blasphemers, and there should be. That’s part of the whole thing. My hard lines are cocaine, consent, and censorship, as you probably know.

CL: The three C’s?

LF: The three C’s! I think the problem is that I do have opinions that sound very serious. Because I’m very loud, people think I’m very passionate about everything I say, but I’m not really; I’m just loud. I feel very passionate about very specific things, and they tend to involve exploitation of humans. That tends to be the one thing that I mostly care about. I don’t really care that much about Captain America. I watch terrible movies too. I’m a big fan of the Resident Evil franchise. It’s very objectionable in many, many ways. I watched all of Pretty Little Liars and felt deeply betrayed by the last episode.

CL: I finished it after we last spoke about it. God, I can’t believe we both spent time this way.

LF: I’m not a believer in high art and low art. And the turning up our noses at romance novels, for example—which I know nothing about, and it’s not my thing. It’s not my cup of tea. And I don’t say that in a dismissive way. I just hate happy endings. Why doesn’t everyone die?

CL: Any last words?

LF: I’ve had a good life. That’s the last thing that [William] Hazlitt is known to have said before he died. Like, well, I had a good life. Which, according to all evidence and his own writing, is not true. It’s fantastic that all that time everybody thought he was utterly miserable, he was kind of enjoying his misery. I feel a kinship with Hazlitt, even though I know that’s not allowed. It’s not kosher for me to have a kinship.

CL: Well, there’s that whole magazine named for him. It’s Canadian.

LF: The next thing that I’m obsessed about is the facts about alternative facts. Because the way we’re approaching it is wrong—telling people the thing you’re feeling is not real. People felt disenfranchised. The Normal School essay [“Whistling,” published in their Fall 2017 issue], which I really love, was me and my friend Amanda Dambrink talking about the grabbing back pussy part, but also what was happening with DACA at the time. [Amanda] wrote this beautiful essay about whistling that I kept pushing her to finish. I feel like that’s my job for most people: if you write something beautiful, I’m just going to nag you until it happens. She finally wrote me and said, “I can’t feel so petty. All of this is happening, and the grief is so big. I can’t concentrate on anything like this Montaignean meditation on whistling.” So, I told her, let’s have this conversation in essay form.

James Baldwin made an appearance [in that essay]. He said, you think you are alone with the grief in the world, with all the sadness you feel, and then you read a book and you realize your pain is the thing that connects you to everyone else. I can’t tell you, well, let’s talk about girls that were kidnapped by Boko Haram. This is how much pain they felt. How much pain have you felt? This much? You don’t get to talk about pain. You don’t get to feel pain; you don’t get to acknowledge it. That’s ridiculous, right?

I think that’s the line we’re constantly walking. And we’ve not done a great job of it. You can’t say to somebody who has lost their job, “Actually, the U.S. has added 400 jobs just this month.” That has beaten people down and told them, well, if I’m not part of your statistics, then I reject your statistics and I reject your facts, and facts became the sort of toxic thing.

I think the only way we can approach it is to listen more and reject less. And do less of the self-righteous confrontation because that has gotten nowhere. Instead of talking so much about the bubbles in a bubble to each other, as we sit comfortably in said bubbles, we need to actually go and talk to somebody else. I wish that I had spoken more to that man in the shelter, but I was so taken aback by it, and I was just so desperate to try to help him because if he did get that job, he wouldn’t have felt like he was being compelled so much to it. That was maybe the hardest part. He said, “We think we’re poor, but then the things I saw in Bogota, you guys are poor.” And I’m thinking, I’m trying to help you because you don’t have a home and I have more prospects, but you feel sorry for me and my people. I wish that I had said more to him.

I don’t know when it’s time to start giving up on each other, but I’m pretty sure that 99 percent of people who may not think how you think or vote how you vote are not the enemy, and even if they were, I don’t know how much we stand to gain by just telling them, “You’re the enemy! You’re the reason for my pain, and your pain isn’t real.” I don’t know. I have no idea what you asked me. I’m very tired. It’s been weeks since I’ve been home, essentially.

CL: Dude, you need to sleep.

LF: People tell me that. A doctor told me once, “You’re just gonna die young.” I’m like, “How young? Put a number on that. I’ll address it after this semester. Let me finish 100 Refutations, then I’ll sleep.” Do you know why it’s called 100 Refutations? It’s 100 arguments essentially against the idea that there are some countries that are shit and some countries that aren’t. I had 100 Reasons [as a title], and then somebody said “113 Reasons Why Not,” and it was too much.

CL: It was a terrible show.

LF: Was it? I think it’s worth a conversation about how they tried to represent suicide. I think they wanted to make it horrifying. I struggle with this all the time. You know the work of Michael Haneke? He did Funny Games, Benny’s Video, and Caché. Funny Games is specifically the one I keep going back to because he does such a good job at punishing his audience. I write so much about war, and so many people die. If I leave the climax as the most explosive, horrifying image, that’s exploitation. That’s the type of thing I’m really worried about. So, I’ve been working a lot toward punishing the reader and punishing myself for having the expectation that the most violent moment is the thing. With specifically nonfiction, that the worst thing that ever happened to you is not the most important thing that ever happened to you. I write about people I love and people I admire, and I don’t want you to remember them solely because of the worst thing that ever happened to them. So that’s the difficulty—how do we remember people and forget what happened to them, because it deserves to be forgotten.

Interview with Christine Kitano

Joy Grace Chen: Most of the poems in Sky Country have a clearly identified narrator, and I think it is only in section II that the speakers remain relatively nameless and faceless. Who did you imagine to be the narrator(s) in this section? I was also wondering if you could talk more about the process of writing about the concentration camp in Utah. Did it require any research?

Christine Kitano: The speaker in the second section is an imagined character, loosely based on my grandmother. I imagine her as a young, first-generation Japanese American immigrant, who leaves her home country in search of a better life, only to have that life upended by the WWII incarceration. My family was incarcerated at Topaz Concentration Camp in Utah, so I set these poems there. Initially, I did a lot of research (including reading personal remembrances by my father) to find out details about camp life. But when I started writing the poems, I had to let go of the research and trust the voice of the speaker.

JGC: Something that I personally am very interested in, as a second-generation Chinese American who has lost most of her Chinese language skills, is the role that language and bilingualism play in cultural assimilation or, conversely, in cultural displacement. I love your poem “Persimmons,” which ends with the lines “Persimmons / the word in the only language I own.” Were you ever bilingual? How has your relationship to language informed your sense of identity? And how has it informed your writing?

CK: I wish I were bilingual. My mother is a first-generation immigrant from Korea, so she spoke to me in Korean when I was growing up. My father, however, as a second-generation Japanese American, only spoke English. So it was difficult for me to maintain a grasp on Korean, since the primary language in our household was English. And after moving away from California, I began to lose my ear for Korean. But growing up in this way helped me understand how language works from an early age. I knew that language shaped the way a person thought, and that there are words in one language that will not translate to another. My mother would often complain that English was inadequate. From there, I deduced that language itself is always inadequate, but the poet’s job is to manipulate it to communicate that which cannot otherwise be communicated.

JGC: In a Poets & Writers feature, you described how you use translated poems to inspire your own work. Could you talk a little more about this process and, if this applies, how it shaped some of the poems in Sky Country?

CK: I find there’s a different texture in poems translated into English. I always begin a writing session by reading other poems, and there’s something about the slight strangeness of a translated poem that I feel opens my brain in a different way, that allows me to approach language from a different perspective. Many of the poems in the second section of Sky Country came from reading translations of Eastern European poets (Wislawa Szymborska, Anna Swir, Paul Celan), poets who suffered through the worst of history. Though my subject matter was different, I still learned a lot about how to describe suffering from these masters.

JGC: I read in a recent interview that you are working toward a collection of short essays. What drew you to begin writing creative nonfiction? How do you think your poetry informs your nonfiction, and vice versa?

CK: I had started writing creative nonfiction when writing Sky Country. The longer prose poem sequences (“Sky Country” and “A Story With No Moral”) began as creative nonfiction essays. But I still felt more comfortable working in a poetic mode, relying more on imagery and paratactic association rather than narrative to tell the stories, so they ended up as prose poem sequences instead. But I want to learn how to craft an essay. Writing is writing, and there are definitely similarities between a poem and an essay, but ultimately I see essay writing as a challenge to myself to learn something new.

JGC: What is one valuable piece of advice that you think more emerging poets and writers need to hear?

CK: The work itself is the reward. Especially with social media, it’s too easy to feel like you’re falling behind or not measuring up with someone else who got that great publication, fellowship, residency, etc. The cure for this, at least as far as I can tell, is a steady writing practice. When I’m working (and through this work learning more about my craft), the external validations hold much less power.

Interview with Garth Greenwell

Garth Greenwell’s first novel, What Belongs to You (FSG, 2016), received the British Book Award for Debut of the Year and was longlisted for the National Book Award. He is currently working on a short story collection that follows the unnamed narrator of What Belongs to You beyond the events of the novel. Greenwell recently visited Ohio State University to teach a weekend workshop on voice in fiction; there, he met with MFA student Scott Broker for the following interview, which focused on place, transgression, and the “real life of literature,” among other topics.

Greenwell began with a consideration of MFA programs themselves: their advantages, limitations, and potential spaces of improvement.

Garth Greenwell: The single reform I would make of MFA programs would be a serious and rigorous language requirement. Every major advance in English literature has happened because of a collision or a creative encounter with another language [and] it does worry me a little bit that when I talk to American writers, I don’t feel that there’s the same kind of openness to the kind of breadth of reading and linguistic competence that allows you to see that the game being played in mainstream American fiction is one game among many.

Scott Broker: This idea of collision ties in well with your own creative practice, as What Belongs to You and the new story collection both emerged from your time living in Bulgaria. I’m curious about this relationship and how much of the import, for you, is in Bulgaria being Bulgaria, and how much of it is in Bulgaria simply being somewhere other than the United States.

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!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.