Editor’s Note

On Nighttime

“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”
—John 1:5

“Thou also makest the night, Maker Omnipotent.”
—Milton, Paradise Lost

In the following pages, you will read about a couple that saves for the trip of a lifetime, a world where things have stopped decomposing, a woman prepared for the end of the world on a bright, sunny day. You’ll read a letter to Ginsberg’s ghost, find love in wontons, discover what Hamlet does when he isn’t on stage. And you’ll read the true stories of a brain on a highway, a woman borne by a man, of dressing meticulously for Mass.

This book, with the notable exception of Brian Doyle, was entirely written, edited, designed, photographed, and painted by BYU students. Some worried this might date the book, or localize it, or make it forgettable. But here we have something that captures the way art blooms like a rose in the desert, the way it stays up howling in the dark. I never worried.

This book was made in the nighttime, in the basement of the humanities building, by a large and talented staff. We read hundreds of submissions and picked the ones that made us worry, dream, wonder. We stayed late eating pizza, discussing line breaks, and removing commas. We stayed late making something you could put on your bookshelf and admire. This should be read at night, when the sun is knocked out and even the moon is off hiding. When you can’t sleep. When you don’t want to sleep. Read it cover to cover, or start with the author you know. Start with the poetry, the art, the back of the book. Read it and put it on your bookshelf, some rich darkness amidst the light.

When I was a freshman writer, I wanted only to be published in Inscape. I believed it was the best creative writing at BYU. And these many years later, I still believe. Shoot out the lights, find a dark corner, and off you go.

—AT, January 25, 2016

 

Editor’s Note

 

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way . . . To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, —all in one.”

John Ruskin

Here we have the taste of the moon; a chickadee with a bullet in its wing lain to rest on flowers, flowers that will try to breathe the wild world into your lungs; here we have thirst like a freshly burnt home; corn dogs warm from the deep fat fryer; an image of your father that you’ve never seen before; here we have Jesus and leopards lying in parks; a dead woman’s braid before her burial, her bobby pins that you will weave onto your daughter’s glowing head; here we have a garnished zither; a knife that you’ll grip tight, tighter; here is a canyon, your lover is on the other side, look down, look up, look down again; here is a cave’s mouth; here is a brown hand that you slip dollars into; a bandaid to patch up the world.

Here are pearls from the bottom, to make the world a little more bearable, a little more delicious, a little more aurora borealis.

January 2018

-Meg McManama

Acknowledgments

Thank you Adrian Thayn, my BFF/AT always, for the bounty of Communal dinners, vaulted conversations, and for being genuinely dope. Thank you (Dr. K)ylan Rice, for looking like a model but still being smarter than the rest of us. Thank you John Bennion for your sassy (saucy?) remarks, for being in the inner circle, & for your gentle guidance as I navigated the Inscape waters. Thank you Megan McManama, my InDesign guardian angel, for your gentle, reassuring, beautiful presence. Thank you Sophie Lefens, for charming every room you float through with your pretty laugh and stained lips. Thank you Kanye West, for Kim 2.0 & for being the most important artist of our generation. Thank you Adam Edwards, for your patience and diligence. Thank you Kalie Garrett, for your elegant examples of limitless talent and impeccable taste. Thank you Logan Havens, for being a soulful and benevolent human being. Thank you B3njamin Combs, for being a star. Thank you Rebecca Lindenberg, for so gracefully allowing me to publish my personal hero. Thank you Hadley Griggs, for understanding Yeezy, and for heroically saving this issue from certain catastrophe. Ditto Zach Power, for being an arbiter of taste and utterly, utterly useful. Thank you Luke Bushman, for supporting my reign. Thank you Mark Strand, for your cheeky comments and your generous words of encouragement. You will be deeply missed by many. Thank you Craig Arnold, for being the very kind of poet we all aspire to be. & thank you Matt Olson, for being the very kind of human we all aspire to be.

Staff

Editors:
Chief ………………………………………. Lauren Bledsoe
1st Assistant ……………………………
Adrian Thayn
2nd Assistant ………………………….
Adam Edwards
Fiction ……………………………………
Sophie Lefens
Poetry …………………………………….
Zach Power
Nonfiction ………………………………
Megan McManama
Print ………………………………………
Hadley Griggs
Faculty Advisor……………………….
John Bennion

Staff:
Luke Bushman
Camilla Dudley
Chelsea Holdaway
Collett Loosle
Heather Moon
Brittany Rebarchik
Justin Shaw

Editor’s Note

If you become the aliment and the wet, they will / become flowers, fruits, tall branches and trees.

Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone
Walt Whitman

… do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? / … Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. / Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

Matthew 7:16–20
King James Bible

You’ve no doubt come for something. Why else would you be reading this now. I’m certain you’ve picked up this book looking for something. Maybe a small meal, or a slight repreive, a poem, a large cat for the lap, widgets, wonder, an orphan to minister to. Isn’t the mind always reaching, at the very least for breath. Haven’t you felt alone at least once in your life.

Weeks ago, I placed each pear on the page, one by one, like any writer or artist would do, each young, each shriveled, each melting, each crooked, each green, each cute, each brown, each irregular, each typical pear. I looked at each of them, and all these pears from one tree spoke to me in the kind of way that only several hundred pears can speak to you, with their faces, with their bodies, with what they are. Doesn’t language always come from the inside out. Does that make it the closest thing to our hearts, issued from the lungs.

The other day, I was in the back room of a barbershop making language portraits of visitors. I had an easel and a stack of printmaker’s paper. I invited each person into the room and they sat down. He looked at me. I looked at her. Each shared something, and I tried to capture that, tried to tack it down on paper and then hand it to each entirely present person. Sometimes I felt I had done a service, other times I felt that I needed more time, a whole day, five more minutes, wait come back, I only just began to understand you. No doubt we were both looking for something.

I realized, afterward, as I was packing up my easel and papers and stools, notebook, pen, and such, that I had been working with these people, and elsewhere with these pears, and even a few weeks prior on a self-portrait, and it all came to me at once: how was it that all this portraiture had happened so close together, how was it that it had not occurred to me until it had accumulated, here in the dead hours of the night as I drive home through the canyon, how is it that we had been given a whole collection of pears, of poems, of fictions, essays, interviews, and what was yet to come of it, what discoveries were to be made, what could be found in this issue, what would we miss until it grew a little more, until we looked a little closer, until we lived a little longer.

At times, I lay in bed and hope I’ve no doubt been alive for something. I’ve looked thoroughly in the face of each day that has come into my room, and, on rare occassions, the day is in the room just long enough for me to capture it.

December 2016
Zach T Power

That They Would Pray to Google

by Isaac Robertson

I am a passenger
I am a child of God and friend of God and a cider drinker.
I am a woman in love.

I live my life in the city
i                      the way I want.
I live in Spanish and I love in Japanese.
Sometimes I don’t want to live, but tell me:
why can’t I cry?

Please help me Google.
I can’t decide if I want to be with him
i                  or if I want an abortion.
I’m scared of myself, that I have breast cancer, that I am gay.
i     I am so influenced by disulfide linkages and personal feelings.

Am I ugly? Or autistic?
Why do I never want sex? The last thing I want to do is
to see meaning—
then why do I sweat so much larger than life?

Please help me God.
i           Why are you running?
i           What is it that disturbs you?
Please
i           help me to stop coughing and
i           biting my nails and drinking.

How is it that
i             the mother of my Lord should come, come dine with me?
How is it that ye sought me?

Answer to life, the universe, and everything:
I should live in salt.
I should live
i            and not die.

Leaving Alabama in 1987

by Alexandra Palmer

I am driving Northeast, old jazz wafting
from my car radio—humid, and leather-toned.
Duke Ellington’s tune drizzles
She’s a different lady with a different style,
and I glance down at my green skirt on
gray thighs. My dimpled confidence collides
with sax and piano riffs, and I feel self-conscious
of the bleach in my skin. My cheeks flush
darker. I feel self-conscious for gray bark
wearing green leaves and blush blossoms.

I cannot help but wonder if New York
will swallow the non-standard on my tongue.
To Alabama, it still tastes unsavory,
like roquefort—tang potent and grassy,
pocketed with mold. I am cream, flecked
with dark veins.

 

Editor’s Note

Dear Reader,

This issue is dedicated to two poets: Mark Strand and Craig Arnold. As a first-time editor of a literary journal, I could not be more thrilled to bring you two previously unpublished poems by these tremendously talented and respected artists. However, as simply a person who has been trying to write poems for many years, I would like to briefly address the impact these poets have had on my own life.

I first encountered Craig Arnold’s work through a podcast from the Poetry Foundation. It was 2009. Craig had recently disappeared in Japan while hiking a volcano, and the podcast episode was a tribute to his life and work. As the poem “Asunder” was read aloud, I distinctly remember the impact that poem had. I was entirely taken over by language in a way I had no idea was possible. It was in that moment that I realized the powerful vehicle for empathy poetry can be. It was as if my own experience was being uttered back to me in a visceral, palpable, utterly real way. The idea that someone else had felt something similar to what I had felt, and could render it so precisely and distinctly, was a moment of revelation.

I ordered Craig’s collection, Made Flesh, immediately and connected as powerfully with each poem in that slim volume as I had with “Asunder.” I read this collection obsessively, and within a month or two I had memorized most of it. The poems in this collection contain the kind of sophisticated sounds, vivid images, and explosive lyrical moments that accomplish that impossible act of rendering human experience on the page. Reading Made Flesh was my first experience with contemporary poetry, and it is because of that collection that I decided to try to write poems of my own. I knew that if poetry could have the power to make someone feel less alone in the world, it was an enterprise and endeavor I needed to be a part of. I never met Craig Arnold, yet his poetry had a tremendous impact on my life, and I am very honored to be able to publish one of his poems in this issue.

Unlike Craig Arnold, I did meet Mark Strand. Three years after discovering Make Flesh, I had transferred to BYU and was devoting myself to becoming a poet. At the time, however, I was particularly pessimistic about my writing. I had come to the conclusion that the immense amount of effort I was investing in writing poetry had amounted to nothing, and that my poems were not very good at all. When I flew to Tennessee to attend Sewanee Writer’s Conference, I bleakly imagined it would be my last hurrah in the literary world, and that afterward I’d probably give up altogether. Cue Mark Strand.

Mark was the faculty member at Sewanee who was assigned to give me feedback on my work. It is an understatement to say that Mark was a rock star at the conference. Mark Strand was a rock star in the poetry world. And there I was, meant to get feedback on my “poetry” from this icon. In spite of his status, Mark was one of the most disarmingly warm and charming people I have ever met. When we met to discuss my poems, I was taken aback by his support of my work. He took me seriously as a poet, and urged me to continue writing.

In one of our conversations, he told me, “Lauren, your poems are sexy.” I knew this was supposed to be a compliment, but I struggled to see it that way. I admitted it was something I was worried about. He seemed baffled by this, and asked why.

I answered honestly. “Isn’t it kind of a taboo thing? To write sexy poems?”

He lit up with his trademark wry grin. “Only in Provo.”

Throughout the ten-day conference, Mark approached me multiple times to urge me to keep writing what he called my “wild poems.” On the last day of the conference, he gave me his email address and said to keep in touch, and to keep writing. We kept an intermittent correspondence after the conference, sending poems back and forth, and he never failed to keep encouraging me. When I began working on this journal, I asked him if I could publish one of the poems he sent me. He graciously agreed. About a month later, I received news that he had passed away.

Mark Strand was a brilliant man and a gifted artist. Among numerous equally impressive achievements, he won a Pulitzer, taught at Columbia, and was regarded as one of the best poets of his generation. And yet, he took the time to be a friend and mentor to me, a person who could do very little in return and to whom he owed nothing at all. All this to say: Mark was not only an accomplished artist, he was a deeply generous and kind human being, and it is a personal joy to include him in Inscape.

This issue is a very personal one to me. It includes work that I feel is important, meaningful, and most of all, deserves a place in the world. So please, read & enjoy.

Interview with Robert Pinsky

October 3, 2014, BYU English Reading Series Q&A

Robert Pinksy was born and raised in Long Branch, New Jersey. He graduated from Long Branch High School, as had his parents, and went on to college at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and then to graduate work at Stanford, where he held a Stegner Fellowship. His Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus,& Giroux) was published in 2011. His previous books of poetry include Gulf Music (2008). Jersey Rain (2000), The Want Bone (1990) and The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996. His best-selling translation The Inferno of Dante (1994) was a Book-of-the-Month-Club Editor’s Choice, and received both the Los Angeles Times Book Prise and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. His prose books include The Life of David (2005), The Situation fo Poetry (1976) and The Sounds of Poetry (1998).

AUDIENCE: How would you say somebody could best develop their talent as a writer and poet?

ROBERT PINSKY: The answer is to read the way an ambitious athlete watches excellent athletes, to read the way a cook eats, to read the way, if you’re ambitious to be a filmmaker, you would watch Kurosawa and Keaton and Scorsese, whomever you admired.

My recent book Singing School–I call it an anthology/manifesto hybrid– has a subtitle: “Learning to write poetry by studying with the masters.” Here is the most specific, practical thing I can suggest (besides buying my book!): create your own anthology. I mean actually. Type up or write out with your own hand the poems you love by, it might be, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Shakespeare, Constantine Cavafy. Whatever it is you love, style it up, and save it in a computer file called “anthology.”  You might cut and paste, rather than typing you more distinctly notice the lines of verse and their relation to the sentences.

In other words, if you’re serious young poet or writer, keep what people used to call a daybook. I’m making that daybook or anthology exercise the central requirement of “The Art of Poetry,” the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that I am teaching right now. If you go to favoritepoem.org–which I recommend for the videos– a little red stripe or banner at the top of the home page sends you to the “Art of Poetry” MOOC. I’m asking all of the tens of thousands of people registered for the MOOC to do this anthology exercise. People have used the assignment with eighth graders; I used to require it of PhD students of Berkeley. The exercise combines autonomy–your taste and your choice, nursery rhymes, song lyrics, whatever you want, it’s your anthology–with the physical experience of typing the poem. Autonomy and corporeality. That’s my practical answer to your question about developing one’s talent.

AUDIENCE: When you translate, do you translate into modern language?

ROBERT PINSKY: In the passage you heard me read from the Inferno, I hope you heard an idiom that sounded plausible and clear: a kind of language that sounded like someone would say it: an idiom not quite your American English and mine, but not old fashioned or archaic, either. I hope the idiom of my Inferno of Dante conveys some idea that this was not written last month or last year, in the USA. I try to create a language that is familiar enough. A created but attractive language: It’s like painting a stage set, an attractive, serviceable language: It’s like painting a stage set, an attractive, serviceable illusion. To me it wouldn’t be interesting to create a slangy American version. That would be too easily ironic, and Dante is not ironic in that distancing or smirking way. The goal was to create an idiom that the reader won’t much otic, something relatively transparent: not especially of your same time and place, and not sounding antique. Something with the fluent, varying immediacy of Dante’s Italian.

AUDIENCE: When you write your own poems what is your workflow?

ROBERT PINKY: It’s important to answer all questions about process with a very important sentence: Everyone is different!

Whatever you personality or your way of working– whether to get up early and work all morning or to sleep all day and work late at night; to write spontaneously and never revise, or to revise carefully and extensively; to make an outline, or to hate outlines– someone has done great work with that procedure. That is no one recipe, so each of us must think about our own habits, proclivities, strengths and weaknesses and try to make them effective. I guess the goal is to understand your way of working and being, while being open to buy them.

I speak to your as someone who in the eighth grade was placed in the Dumb Class. I got very bad grades. I can’t make an outline. I can’t proceed methodically. I don’t do well with routines. I’d much rather improvise than be prepared. All that is neither good nor bad, I think– it is me, or a version of me on which I must try to play the best variations.

Everyone learns differently, everyone writes differently, everyone speaks differently, everyone creates differently, and in my case I love to make it up as I go along. I hate plans. If I’m interviewed, I need to tell the interviewer, “Please don’t tell me what you’re going to ask me.”

Everybody is different. And those of you who go on to be teachers, I hope you will understand that principle and try to use it in a generous, though stringent, way. It’s not a way to excuse people from working hard, from doing their job. But the job should be defined and presented in ways that encourage people to use their strengths, which vary amongst humanity. So with that said, here’s how I, personally, tend to work. I write–a better word might be “compose”– with my voice. I can “write,” in that sense of “compose,”” with my hands on the wheel while driving or while I’m taking a shower. Some of the composing is the way I’ll play with the consonants and the vowels, like somebody smooshing paint on a surface or manipulating clay or noodling on the piano. I’m not recommending that to anyone–just trying to answer the question!

AUDIENCE: Given modern technology, what direction do you see poetry going?

ROBERT PINSKY: I sometimes think that the interest in art, including poetry, has been enhanced by improved technology, partly because the availability of great performances on a mass scale. If I decide to watch a great movie like Kurosawa’s High and Low, or if I want to watch Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Junior tonight, I can. If I want to see Sandy Koufax’s pitching, I can–whatever I want–and it’s on a mass scale. It’s very available and it’s due to performance.

A poem is on a individual scale. It’s one voice; it’s very intimate. And technology makes the voice available in an intimate, immediate way. Not as a performance art, but as a vocal art. That’s why I love the videos at favoritepoem.org.

To illustrate what I mean, here’s a two line poem written in the nineteenth century: “On love, on grief, on every human thing, /Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.” Hearing that as I say it gives me an experience of the poem that is quite different from looking at a screen, or hearing audio of an actor or poet read the poem. My mouth, my breath, my ears, become the medium for the art of someone who lived two hundred years ago. “On love, on grief, on ever. . .” those six words were composed long ago by Walter Savage Landor, an upper class Englishman and Latinist; I am not an upper class English Latinist; I’m a lower middle-class Jew from New Jersey–but my upper teeth went over my lower lip three times at the beginning. “On love, on grief, on every human thing.” And three times at the end of the poem I pursed my lips: “. . . Lethe’s water with his wing.” That is an ancient technology at the center of the evolution of human intelligence. Singing, dancing, poetry, are not at the fringe; they are at the core of who we are. We use them to survive, to pass knowledge through the generations, It’s an ancient technology. Oddly enough, now technology makes that more available.

I urge you all–I beg you–to go to favoritepoem.org. At that Favorite Poem Project web site you will see the FPP videos. You will see a construction worker reading aloud, and discussing, lines by Walt Whitman. You will see a young woman in California, whose parents were immigrants from Cambodia, read a Langston Hughes poem and relate a Langston Hughes poem to her family’s horrible experience during the Pol Pot regime.

Thanks to technology, those videos make available to you examples of this experience I am trying to describe: having a poem in one’s voice, on a very individual level. I believe that experience involves the dignity of the individual. It is widely available on the web.

AUDIENCE: Do you prefer to have your poems read silently or aloud?

ROBERT PINSKY: In the literal or imagined voice of each reader. I’m not interested in making a hit as a reader or poetry. I write with my voice, as I–and for your voice. I want you to imagine saying my words. Ideally you say them aloud, but the moment of poetry for me is the moment when you see the printed words “On love, on grief, on every human thing,/Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.” Instead of using your silent reading habits, mutter it to yourself. That somatic moment, that moment at the border of your mind and your body, when you imagine saying those words: that’s what interests me. The medium for a poem is each reader’s body. It’s your breath, not me giving a poetry reading. It’s you, on your scale, saying the words.

AUDIENCE: What theory of criticism do you prescribe to, and how has theory impacted you?

ROBERT PINSKY: The word theory is based on the Greek word theoria, which is to behold, to see something. So a theory is a system for seeing and understanding. And the most influential theory on me is the theory of action in Francis Ferguson’s book The Idea of a Theatre: a quite practical book, as well as profound theoretically. Based on Aristotle, the theory has to do with the idea of imitation: that a work of imitates an action. Action in the sense of a movement of the soul.

The literary theory currently of the academic world, in my own life? At about the same point in my life that I stopped eating McDonald’s and Burger King I decided I was going to read only things I really enjoyed. Things that felt urgent, or beautifully composed, preferably both. As a result, I haven’t read much literary theory; because often, when trying to read it, I’m not having a good time. This is a self-indulgence I have allowed myself. I don’t mean to be superior to a body of writing, but I only like to read things that give my pleasure. At the age I am now, it to force myself would feel wasteful. I am aware of how very finite is the time I have left. I’m much nearer to the end than the beginning, and I am no longer in junior high school I’m just going to read things that make me feel good. Recently, with a grandchild, I went back and experimented in having some Kentucky Fried Chicken. I didn’t like it. I thought “this may be good,” and I knew I didn’t think so. The grandchild didn’t seem impressed, either.

Interview with Carlo Rotella

Professor Rotella is Director of the American Studies program and Director of the Lowell Humanities Series. He has held Guggenheim, Howard, and Du Bois fellowships and received the Whiting Writers Award, the L.L. Winship/Pen New England Award, and The American Scholar’s prizes for Best Essay and Best Work by a Younger Writer, and Cut Time was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. he is an editor of the “Chicago Visions and Revisions” series at the University of Chicago Press. He writes for the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post Magazine he is a regular columnist for the Boston Globe, he has been a commentator for WGBH FM, and his work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Critical Inquiry, American Quarterly, The American Scholar, Raritan, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, Transition, Harper’s, DoubleTake, Boston, Slate, The Believer, TriQuarterly, and The Best American Essays. 

INSCAPE: Your writing recognizes people, individually and in small groups, as primary enactors of cultural change and representation. You mentioned the concept of writing yourself into the place where these subjects find themselves. What has been your experience with these immersions, and how has your behavior changed as you continue to immerse yourself in new scenes?

CARLO ROTELLA: It is true that I think one of the best ways to tell the story of a big transformation, a big change, is to tell the stories of individuals or small groups living the consequences of those changes. A lot of what I do is finding characters to put in the foreground, to show what these big and often very abstract changes, things like globalization or deindustrialization–anything I think that ends with a -zaztion–to show how those huge transformations are lived on the ground by people. Over time, I think it’s become more true that I’ve become a character in these stories; that some of the time that person in the foreground–well, if not me–is a least my sensibility, so I’ve become much more willing to be a character inhabiting the world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m more intrusive or more present when I’m interviewing people. I’m pretty unobtrusive. In fact, that’s pretty much my only marketable skill–that I can disappear in plain sight. But when it comes time to write it, I’ve become more and more comfortable with saying “well, some of the ways in which these big changes show up are in the ways that I think, react, and use myself as a filter more than i did in the past.” I was much more of a fly on the wall when I started, less willing to be present.

INSCAPE: For undergraduate writers who are trying to do the same, what would be the best way to transition into a less presumptuous and more research-motivated manner of writing?

CARLO ROTELLA: There is no substitute for legwork. Journalists have a kind of contemptuous term for not doing any legwork, which is “think piece.” What they mean by that is you don’t have time to do any reporting, you just write your own thoughts and feelings. I have limited sympathy for that idea, but I do have som. When I teach writing, I encourage my students to gout and get someone else’s story, even if their objective is to write their own. The training that you get in getting someone else’s story is very valuable. There’s set questions that you start to ask when getting someone else’s story: Am I satisfied with this version of the story? Am I getting the whole truth? Can I corroborate what’s being said? All those questions can travel into your examination of your own work, even if what you’re doing is writing about yourself.

So, I am a big believer in legwork. I don’t actually believe writer’s block is possible for a non-fiction writer if all you need to do is go out and get someone else’s story. People are crazy, they’re always up to something interesting. You just have to go find them and find out what that is. I do think it’s entirely possible to get writer’s block if your subject is yourself.

INSCAPE: Your other work, including articles and personal, even family-oriented, essays always seem to come back around industrial urbanism, specifically through individuals. What has made you stick so firmly to that material?

CARLO ROTELLA: Part of that is just my upbringing and where I’m from. I grew up on the south side of Chicago in the middle of this particular transformation from a city organized around its factories and train lines. It was in the last throes of shedding that identity and becoming a city organized around its high rise office buildings, universities, airport, and highways. That transformation has really colored the way I see city life. It also happens to be the big transformation that’s happened in my lifetime. I now live in Boston, and before 1980, Boston was really a kind of provincial, backwater dump, but around 1980, it started to become this high tech, happening research hub, and now Hollywood is in love with Boston, or at least it’s in love with the film tax credit in Massachusetts, and Boston is gone from being a real backwater, which had peaked more than a century before to being a really happening urban center again. And so I think it’s inevitable that that big story about that old Boston being replaced by new Boston, that old Chicago being replaced by newer Chicago, is often the big picture against which my characters move, against which my character go about their business, and often their business is creativity: making music, or writing, or–I often write about people who are good at something, and I’m interested in how they got to be good at something, and how that something they do expresses the conditions in which its made, and those conditions are often a city that’s being transformed in some way. Not always, but often, that’s the story.

INSCAPE: You stressed that your focus has shifted more to neighborhoods, I’m guessing as opposed to the city as a whole, but given that your writing is focused so  much on these types of neighborhoods that you’ve always been familiar with, what are the parallels and differences that you’ve recognized in the other communities that you’ve experienced, both American and foreign?

CARLO ROTELLA: The very fact of neighborhood itself is a continuity, a human universal, that all cities have neighborhoods. I’m still trying to figure out what it is about this that I find so compelling. The neighborhood is a really strong way in which I organize my experience in the world, so I’m interested how neighborhoods affect other people. For instance, I did a piece on a country musician, Kacey Musgraves. It was really a piece about the music industry, the changing nature of the country audience, and how this woman was trying to thread this needle, introducing change into country music but also being this really big star. Not a marginal or alternative star, but a really big star. But really what that meant was that I had to go to Nashville and take a look at and move in the incredibly developed world of music in Nashville. It’s very different from, say, the world of blues in Chicago, but the landmarks are kind of similar. There’s a kind of continuity. It wasn’t a Nashville story, but moving around Nashville gave me a sense of how the industry worked. Nashville is one of those places that’s both a place and an industry worked. Nashville is one of those places that’s both a place and an industry, much like Hollywood, and the Nashville that refers to the place was very useful for getting into the music-industry side of Nashville. That was a magazine story that was not primarily interested in cities at all, and yet in my experience of cities, starting with Chicago and the blues business, was my template for navigating How do clubs work? How do the record labels work?  How do people flow in from the hinterlands and plug themselves into the system  and move up? The way she plugged herself into the system was very 21st century. She was on a reality show, Nashville Star, in which she finished 7th. It felt a lot like the way blues men talked about plugging themselves into the Chicago scene in the 1950s. In that sense, I’m finding a lot of continuity.

INSCAPE: Congruence and not so much difference?

CARLO ROTELLA: There’s a larger model operating here. I think of creative people as having an inchoate impulse in them, to make noise or to use language, that has to find shape. The way it often finds shape is by pouring that impulse into the containers that are available to them in the culture. Certain genres, certain styles, but also certain institutions like a university’s creative writing program, or a particular magazine, or a music club, or a record label. That model really travels. There are lots of people with all kinds of inchoate urges, lots of institutions that they can get connected to, and lots of genre and style choices that they can make. But the fact of a creative person’s situation doesn’t change that much in the different examples that you might encounter. It’s just a question of “what was her inchoate impulse, and what were the vessels available in which to pour that impulse?” That Nashville industry gives you these very clear containers. The three minute single has to contain a pick-up truck in it, etc. That’s another thing that I find really common. I write a lot just about creative people and how their impulse finds form.

INSCAPE: It seems like your writing could be assigned to a sociology class.

CARLO ROTELLA: I end up reading a lot of social science. I think that they are so good about legwork, about getting out there and finding out what people are up to, hanging around. They do a lot of hanging around, which I think is irreplaceable. They tend not to do much explanation of change over time, which is what historians do. Social scientists fill up my tool kit with the ways to figure out the structure of a scene, figure out who’s doing what, figuring out how it connects to the economy, but you need historical training to then put that in motion, and see how change over time is affecting it. You need the skills that get taught in English and Art History departments to closely interpret the work they do, to say “I see the flow of money, and I see the flow of people, but what about the flow of meaning in the texts that they create?” The thing with American Studies is you need all these different kinds of training to do it right, and you constantly need new training for each project, and I like that.

INSCAPE: I’m intrigued by your writing and explanations of the layering of human interaction, for example the article about the scene around a women’s boxing match, what is happening in the scene with all the spectators. I think that’s beautiful and one of the most amazing things you can capture in writing, the layered human interaction.

CARLO ROTELLA: That’s totally true.

INSCAPE: And how do you feel that analysis of community fits into your more personal essays?

CARLO ROTELLA: Yeah, well I’m still working on that!

INSCAPE: Yeah I think you definitely do it, I just want to know how.

CARLO ROTELLA: I’m still working out the form to connect the personal experience of neighborhood to these larger theories of neighborhood So far, my presence in my writing tends to be that I’m just a sensibility moving through the world trying to put things together, but if I’m writing about my old neighborhood, growing up, I am, on some level, writing about myself. Not in a memoir, but kind of a first person essay. I’m still fumbling my way towards that form. I don’t know what that is, exactly, But to go back to the first part of what you said, the layering is very important. I’m much more comfortable talking about the layering of society and experience that I am about my role in it, and also the layering me’s, layering of selves inside of me that are produced by this historical change over time. But one thing that is pretty clear to me is that people are remarkably adaptable, even wonderfully adaptable, but they’re not as flexible as money. So in a place like Chicago, the economy change faster than the lifeways of the people in that city. Or, in the case of this boxing match, which was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the economy of Bethlehem changed faster than people’s conception of what a man is what a woman is and what work is and what leisure is. When people go to the fights, those old layers of what it means to play and to work and to be good with your hands and to be masculine or feminine are still in the air, and the newer ones are also in the air. That’s very exciting and compelling. I know how to write about that, I think, but I’m not sure I know how to write about when all those layers are happening inside my sensibility. There’s the 1970s me responding to the neighborhood, and there’s the me who hasn’t lived in that neighborhood for more than 30 years, responding to the neighborhood as I see it.

INSCAPE: I’ve enjoyed reading the essays that are more about your personal, family life, such as “Ghosts.” You wrote about things that were telling about you, but they left so much mystery still. Mystery in a good way. I feel like self, especially in undergraduate work, is such a delicate thing, because people either write too much about themselves, or people avoid it like the plague because they don’t want to be too much. I’m wondering–and like you said, it’s still something that you’re working on–but what do you think for yourself and for your students is the best way, a good way to approach self?

CARLO ROTELLA: When I’m writing and myself or my sensibility is close to the center of what’s going on, I’m usually describing things that are happening, so that if you’re learning about me, you’re learning about the way my eyes work, the way my ear work, and what I’m filtering out of it, as opposed to lots of paragraphs that begin with “I thought this, I felt that.” I think that one of the things that you’re responding to very astutely is that when I write more personal, more first person, I do more showing and less obvious analyzing. There are fewer topic sentences that advance and interpretation of what happened, and there’s more “There was this dog, it lived on the corner. This is what it was like to walk past that dog,” instead of me saying “Here’s a topic sentence that analyzes that dog and here’s a last sentence of the paragraph that delivers the kicker.” I tend to show more. That showing is not about me. If you’re learning about me, and I think you’re always learning about the writer, it’s just “This is how I looked, this is how I saw, and this is what I made of it,” as opposed to “Then I went down the street and did this, and then I had this feeling when I went down the street and did this.”

I also just think that there are writers who live really interesting lives and can write about their lives in interesting ways, but I don’t think I’m one of those writers. I don’t feel like I’ve had the kind of experiences that need to be recorded. Whereas, I do think that I see things that other people do or have done, or bits of landscape or juxtapositions in city life that I think are worth recording. And so that’s the trick: write a first person essay that is not a memoir. I know I don’t want it to be a memoir, but knowing what  you don’t want it to be isn’t the same as being able to write.

INSCAPE: What do you teach at Boston College, generally American Studies or English classes?

CARLO ROTELLA: I teach classes on the critical side, that are more like English classes. I teach this class on the City of Literature and Film, and then i also teach straight writing workshops. I teach a course every year called Writing for Magazines, and part of the point of that course is that you don’t get to write about yourself. We remove that first person prompt. YOu have to find out what other people are up to and write about that, unless you’re already famous, which none of us in that room is. nobody wants to hear about your life, so we set aside that first person question, or that personal essay question, and we’re thinking about the profile and other features, reviews. That doesn’t mean we don’t use the first person, but we’re not writing memoirs, because magazines don’t run memoirs unless you’ve already won the Pulitzer Prize. They don’t really care about your individual experience.

INSCAPE: First off, in light of what you’re saying, I love the line “dogs and people wanting what they want.”

CARLO ROTELLA: That is a nugget!

INSCAPE: It recognizes it in a way that people can understand, but doesn’t oblige them to indulge in themselves.

CARLO ROTELLA: That’s very well put, that’s the ambition. Essay writing is a lot like short story writing. The great short story writer Stuart Dybek just gave a talk at BC this week, and he was talking about the different kinds of endings short stories can have, saying, “Well, they can have a punch line, you can have a realization, and epiphany,” and essays are like that, too. That one’s kind of realization essay, but I didn’t want to lean too hard on the realization. I did want a slow building awareness in the reader to finally find expression somewhere of dogs and people wanting what they want. Those who have less want more and those who have more want to keep it. That’s the end of the short story realization. That’s the climax of what is actually an analytical point. If you look at these episodes that I’ve just described, this is the main idea that comes out of them, but it’s not “Thus we see, here’s the main idea.” I feel like you do owe it to the reader to give them a least a scaffolding on which to build that realization, and not leave it totally up to the reader, not to just say, “Hey. Decide what you want to discuss.”

INSCAPE: That’s excellent advice. What is some writing advice that you have received that has shaped you?

CARLO ROTELLA: That’s a good question. It comes in the weirdest forms and from the strangest directions, and I didn’t often recognize it at the time. I got my Ph.D. in American Studies, and writing was not really the focus. It was much more the content of the work, and at one point, I was talking to my dissertation adviser, a guy with no ambitions to do any kind of nonfiction writing other than scholarly work, but I was saying, “Well, how am I going to do what I want to do?” and he just said “You can tell a story!” And that turned out to be the thing I needed to hear, it didn’t have to be just an analysis. So sometimes it’s just like that. Sometimes it’s something you read. I love reading writers on writing, so Raymond Chandler is one I think about, his advice: “Just write scenes that work.” Even when I’m writing scholarly work, a piece of criticism, I think of the analytical equivalent of just write scenes that work. Write the bits and chunks of it that you can write, and then later, worry about how they fit together. Write some piece of it you can write. So there’s practical advice like that. But I think the main thing, and it’s come from a lot of different people, is to not think of the writing and the legwork as separate. The writing generates the research agenda, and the research agenda generates your ability to know what to cut and what to keep. Instead of thinking, “I’m going to do all my research, all my reporting, and then I’m going to write it up,” I think “I am now embarking on an intertwined process o writing and gathering more evidence, and it’s going to go back and forth, and I’m going to write and fail, and wherever I fail, that will tell me what evidence I need to gather, and I’m going to gather evidence, and the more I gather, the more sure I’m going to be about what the point is, and the surer I am about the point, the more I can cut and revise and make my writing lean,” and I’ve banished the idea that there’s a research phase and a writing and moved to a “there’s a dialectical relationship between them.” You need to keep that in play all the way though.

INSCAPE: What is something that you see in undergraduate writing that generally impedes them from fulfilling a purpose in a productive manner in their writing?

CARLO ROTELLA: Well, I read a lot of undergraduate writing that I really like, that I’m impressed by. Students are very professional these days, the ones that want to be writers say, “I’ve got my blog going, and I’m already engaged in the world of writing, which I think is great. I guess if I were to say “what do I frequently see that’s holding people back,” I’d say there’s a couple things. One is an unwillingness to do legwork. Sometimes I feel like “If you would leave the house, this would be better. This feels like you wrote down everything you could gather by googling, or you’re still focusing on yourself in a way that it might be better to go find out what other people were ip to in the world.” So that’s one, it’s just an unwillingness to leave the house and do the work. And it’s not just students. People in general these days, especially for technological reasons, are just less and less willing to get out there and use up shoe leather. Another thing holding them back is a dutiful voice that–this is more true the academic–that students think I want to hear, this elevated diction of “Throughout all time, man has struggled to…” I’m not telling them to write like that, but I do think you need to invent the voice and the style of the work to match what you’re trying to talk about. You should try out different stylistic approaches and voices and don’t be afraid to imitate. If it’s for school, as opposed to writing for a magazine, and you say “Well you know what, I”m going to go check out this band that’s playing downtown, and I’m going to cover it the way Tom Wolfe would cover it, and then when I’ve done that, I”m going to write it up the way Joan Didion would write it up, and let’s see what the relationship is between the two.” That’s a perfectly legitimate exercise to do, just to fool around with voice and be aware of it, as opposed to a general, “this is how smart people talk” voice. So there’s the legwork question, and the question of voice, or the two.

Look, I sat down to write a hundred times in my early twenties and didn’t write one word, so I’m the worst kind of zealot. I’m a convert. I had to go to graduate school in order to have something to write. Let’s start with the fact that I’m impressed that they’re writing anything at all, because I didn’t until much further along.

INSCAPE: In your writing, you show how different generations add a layer to the community. What distinguishes this generation?

CARLO ROTELLA: There’s a couple things about it. One is that this is obviously a club that the 18-year-old me would not have been invited to join. I would not have gotten into BC. These are people who aced adolescence. I’m sure it’s true here, and its true lots of places, that these are people who nailed adolescence in a way that is now necessary, and which I did not do. They are professional students in a way that I wasn’t. The other thing that I think is true of these layer is that they’re coming of age in a time when the middle class is hollowing out, and it’s much more of a country of haves and havenots, and there’s a general feeling that the aperture that lets you into the haves is narrowing. They are under a lot more felt pressure to do something great and get up over the top into the category of the haves. When I went to college, everyone expected us to be better than our parents.The students I teach would like it if they could get back to where their parents are. That is a really big change in outlook, in expression, in what’s possible. I think that they’re under a lot more self-imposed pressure to make it. And they have also done a much better job of making it, just to get into college, than I ever had to do. It was fairly easy to get into college when I went, I went to Wesleyan, and it was pretty much understood that when I left there, I could just go get a job making money. The really question was, are you going to accept that job making money, or are you going to do something bohemian phase that everyone has to go through, like you’re going to be an unpaid intern until you’re 30. We don’t have a job for you, there’s no job security, no benefits, and I think that the knowledge that that’s coming trickles down into the classroom. It makes my students professionally much more hungry, but also much more aware that they can mess this up.

INSCAPE: So last question, Inscape is our literary journal, and we talk about what the purpose of a literary journal is. What would you say is something that is essential for both selecting submissions for a journal and helping in the revision of such pieces?

CARLO ROTELLA: That’s a hard question to answer. The doing it well is really the point of it. It think the most important way that you learn is by making other people’s work better, which also the premise of a writing workshop. You become a better editor and that makes you a better writer. The whole idea that it’s an enterprise, that it’s an undertaking, that there are issues that must be put out, there are people that submit the work, and you see the work, and you have to decide “does it fit with our mission, does it fit what we want to do? How could this work be better?” that whole process of applying your analytical powers to another’s work is how you hone the ability to do this with your own work. I think it’s nearly impossible to do that with your own work just out of the gate, from scratch. It’s very hard to ask someone who’s just getting started as a writer to say, “Okay, here’s your work, this is a good as you can make it, now make it better.” But you can do that with other people’s work. What is the intention of this work? How can I help it meet its intention? And the more you do that, the more that becomes a part of trying to put out the best issue you can of a literary journal is essential cross-training for your sitting there with your own work and thinking, “Is this good, how can it be better?”