Tessa Meyer Santiago Interview

INSCAPE: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

 

TESSA MEYER SANTIAGO: I don’t know that I was interested in writing until I got to Brigham Young University and took Bruce Jorgenson’s 312 class as a freshman. He gave us a personal essay and told us to copy its style. That essay is the first thing I remember writing. So my first publication was in Insight back in 1986, inspired by Jorgenson’s class.

 

I: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

 

S: I read weekly and recently read a piece by Kate Gibbons. I can’t remember the exact names of the other books I’m reading. There is one by Doyle, he writes Irish comedies and he is brilliant. I am reading a novel about a chef in an English kitchen. The best book that I’ve read in a long time is a mythic about a Wyoming cowboy.

 

I: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

 

S: The challenging thing is to not get carried away by emotion. You can start with something, an image for example, and explore around it, embroider it, make it bigger, larger and fancier, and think, “Oh, this is the most wonderful thing.” When you really look at it, though, it’s not authentic anymore. It’s got frosting and sprinkles, and, because I write personal essays, it’s not what it needs to be. That’s my challenge: to not go where the emotion is.

Phillip Lopate Interview

Phillip Lopate was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1943, and received a BA from Columbia in 1964, and a doctorate from the Union Graduate School in 1979. Some of his most recent publications are Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell: the Craft of Literary Nonfiction. After working with children for twelve years as a writer in the schools, he taught creative writing at multiple schools and now the director of the nonfiction graduate program at Columbia University, where he also teaches writing.

 

INSCAPE: In your chapter “To Show and To Tell” in The Art of the Personal Essay, you talk about making yourself into a character. You also suggest having distance from yourself and to be both self-amused and self-curious. How can a learning writer come to achieve those things?

 

PHILLIP LOPATE: Well, you can keep a diary for one thing. And every time you get into a situation where you’re making the same mistake over and over again, you can take a step back and ask, “What’s going on here?” You could listen very carefully to people who criticize your character. But I think that the main way you can do it is by reading a lot and seeing how other writers do it and how they achieve some sense of irony and perspective toward themselves. I mean, you can go into psychotherapy. There are lots of ways to do it, but it is a lifelong discipline, how to see yourself somewhat dispassionately and not too defensively.

 

I: The other notion that I’ve picked up from reading some of the interviews you’ve done, as well as some of the introductions to your collections, is the idea of being friends with yourself in your writing. Is that similar to the process of being able to make yourself into a character?

 

L: Well, they’re all related. I do think that sometimes people get caught in a spiral of self-disgust or self-dislike, and perhaps their standards of perfection are too high; they just don’t understand that we’re all flawed or broken creatures. Initially, it’s important not to be too boastful or too cocky, but you do want to be able to not be too hard on yourself. That is so important. For me, I try to write well, and then I reach a point where I say, “Well this is good enough.” I’m not going to lie on the couch and beat my head against it because I’ve used the same word twice in two pages. I think it’s important to accept a certain amount of imperfection, and that’s one way of being friends with yourself.

 

I: Yes. That sounds like being a good writer, in some ways, is kind of like being sane, or mentally healthy.

 

L: Yes, very much so. Before you can be a good writer, you have to be a bad writer. You have to be willing to fall on you face, and you have to be willing to try things that don’t work out, and eventually you discover that you have certain ways of expressing yourself that seem to be working out. Sometimes writers, especially learning writers, get impatient with the things they do well, and they want to just try something different, and that’s understandable, but I do think that it’s important to pay very close attention to when you actually are writing well and try to bring that forward into your new innovations.

 

I: How can you tell when things are going well in your writing?

 

L: Usually other people respond well to your writing, but you yourself know. For instance, if you’re rewriting a piece over and over again, and there’s a certain passage that makes you chuckle, or that amuses you, or that moves you, or that you simply feel good about, you can build on that.

 

I: And that kind of becomes part of your relationship with yourself.

 

L: Exactly. In writing workshops, sometimes people get into the, “Give it to me, sock it to me, I can take criticism,” but they also have to be willing to listen to praise, what they’re good at, because that’s very important to build on.

 

I: You mentioned that you can tell when things are going well by how other people are responding to your writing. In the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, you talk about the relationship between the writer, or the self that’s in the piece of writing, and the reader. At one point, you describe it as a contract, so what is that relationship like when things are going well?

 

L: There’s a real give and take—there’s dynamism. It’s not just a question of getting the reader to like you. Sometimes you can get the reader to question you or dislike you, and the writing is just as good. What you really want to do is to keep the reader stimulated. And one of the ways you do that is by internalizing the reader, so that you’re not just writing, but there’s a reader inside of you who’s saying, “Yes, okay, get on with it,” or, “You made that point already.” So when you begin to internalize the reader, then you can tweak the reader sometimes, or show that you’re aware that the reader is out there, and that becomes another kind of friendship. I do think that the personal essay is a very conversational form, so there’s more explicit contact between the writer and reader.

 

I: Shifting gears a little bit, I wanted to talk about some of the things that you wrote about being with students. There are these moments of closeness that you describe with certain students, like with the photograph poem. What do these moments and relationships do for the student?

 

L: Well, these moments and relationships, as with any instance of love or caring, are enriching. I do think that a lot of teaching occurs between the lines, or as an undercurrent, and it’s a feeling undercurrent, and it’s a sense of protectiveness and being understood. The student feels understood. I know for me, when I was growing up, there would occasionally be encounters with strangers who didn’t talk down to me as a child, but seemed to take me seriously as an individual, and they contributed to a sense of wholeness. Whenever you encounter somebody who pays you that respect, who takes you seriously, it really helps to crystalize your own sense of self. To put it simply, love, concern, engagement, or interest are some of the ways that you teach. And that can happen in the classroom, or it can happen one-on-one, and it’s as important for the teacher as it is for the student to get that kind of emotional current going.

 

I: What does that relationship or those moments do for the teacher?

 

L: There’s a sweetness to those relationships. I think because there has been such an emphasis recently on child abuse and sexual abuse, there’s a reluctance to acknowledge that there is a kind of erotic current that occurs between teacher and student, and the important thing is that it shouldn’t be acted upon literally, but it’s still there. It’s a current of feeling, and it keeps the teacher alive. The teacher’s not just communicating subject matter. And this was sort of recognized by the ancient Greeks. The connection between pedagogy and love was a strong one.

 

I: I’ve been reading a little bit about what you write about teaching, and your love for it, and I wondered if that was part of it.

 

L: Yes, I do really love to teach, and it has to do with the relationship with the students. As I get older, it’s important to stay in touch with the young minds too.

 

I: I have one last question that will tie back into what we were talking about at the beginning. It seems like there might be some connection between the relationship between teacher and student and learning writers’ relationships with their selves. What do you think that connection might be?

 

L: I think that when you’re learning to write, you split yourself off into several different selves or identities, and I think one of the first pieces of consciousness that you get as a writer is realizing that you have a divided self, that there may be a sense of wholeness in terms of your core, but that you know the closer you get to it, you realize that you are divided, and you start to get those different parts of yourself to talk to each other. One of the ways to overcome rigidity or self-righteousness is to recognize that you yourself are split, and whenever you advocate a position, you must listen to the other side of you that’s saying, “Yes, but . . . ” or, “There’s another way of looking at this.”   Part of it has to do with thinking against yourself. If you can think against yourself, you can not only overcome your own rigidity, but you can empathize more with other people.

 

I: So maybe the teacher’s relationship with the student might aid in increasing that awareness.

 

L: Yes. The teachers may say that they like all the students equally, but that’s not true at all. There are the students who immediately click with them, and then there are these students who exhibit all kind of resistances, and that becomes an interesting challenge, how to get past some of these resistances. The resistances that exist in the teaching experience, in the pedagogy experience, are not that dissimilar from the resistances that the writer encounters on the page. As soon as I am assigned to write something, I am sometimes aware of resistances: “I don’t want to write this. Is this something that’s coming from me, or is it coming from the outside? Do I really have a connection to this?” In order for me to get on with the job, I have to start to analyze these resistances.

 

I: Excellent. Your insights are enlightening, and I appreciate the interview.

Ron Carlson Interview

INSCAPE: Not every great writer is a great teacher, but you have a reputation for being one of the best teachers of writing craft. In the introduction to A Kind of Flying you wrote that “the university is where writers disappear,” but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for you. How have you managed to balance being a serious writer and a serious teacher?

RON CARLSON: Well, I said that and meant it as a warning to myself and to my friends because you start to get comfortable in a community and then pretty soon you lose your grip. It’s really about paying attention, and as a teacher I began to see that certain things that I was doing made a difference. I was trying to figure out what kinds of things would have helped me when I was cutting my teeth. I began to focus on those and that’s when I began a sort-of diagnostic approach to fiction, fiction exercises, scene, and elements of craft; it all got my attention. It continued and even now as I’m sure that I’ll retire in the next year or two or three, I’m still kind-of captivated. It still has my attention.

There’s another feature, and that is I’m really proud to be a teacher. It’s not what I do second. It’s as real as anything I do. It’s certainly as real as my writing. I think that notion has been really instrumental in keeping me well in both worlds. Of course I love to write, of course I love to have this body of work behind me, but I feel the same way about my teaching.

I: What of writing can be taught?

C: Well, craft and the elements of craft can be taught by model and by explanation. The idea of how sentences might build a scene, point of view, and the elements of character that might be effective. And there’s never a single answer. There are always lots of things going on. But the things that can’t be taught are attention that a writer would bring, all of her spirit and attention to the moment of writing so that sentences are fresh and real. You can’t teach empathy, which is not talked about very much in writing classes, the idea of really understanding and occupying your characters. You can’t teach a vision, the world view that comes with the writer. It’s just part of the fabric that comes with her or his persona or character. And you can’t teach what a writer chooses to write about. It’s terribly important that a writer choose something that matters to her or him. The old story was, “Money can’t buy you happiness, but you can buy the big boat and go right up next to where the people are happy.” That’s the same with writing. I can’t teach you how to write, but I can take you right up next to where it’s done. Then, with your efforts, with empathy, attention, vision, and what you choose to write about, you can make the leap.

There’s a spirit in the best writing that’s inimitable. You can’t fake it and you can’t borrow it. Everybody knows that, and that isn’t what we’re trying to do with writing programs. We’re trying to make better readers and better citizens and a lot of times writing helps us to discover and clarify what we’re thinking.

I: What does this “inimitable” writing look like?

C: That’s a huge question. It’s a little bit like, “What is art?” Well, there’s a certain density, there’s a certain number of threads per inch. It’s not dilute and it’s not overwrought. Solid work that has a kind of reach that understands. The characters are knowing without being elliptical and there’s an understanding between the manuscript and the reader about the condition of the character. That’s created by what’s included and what’s left out and it’s that ineffable balance of good fiction that I call “reach.” But it’s not the best, simple, confident manuscript because there’s a lot of really impeccable and well-made prose. But this is a prose that has a deeper look, a perspicacity and insight into the condition of the character. That’s the best I can say it. I read hundreds of stories looking for these things and they emerge.

I:  After your reading today you mentioned that writing students tend to be “language rich but story poor.” What did you mean?

C: Well, they’re afraid of their stories, their confidence, and their ability to handle material, and also they won’t give people occupations. The thing I say most to undergraduates is, “Into what life has this moment come?” Their stories are very much like a character who was born in the minutes before the event, and that’s not as valuable or as resonate as knowing how this moment might matter to this person because of where she’s been for two weeks or for ten years. That little bit of exposition on page two or three can really determine the value of the current moment. When we have these zero lives, these generic boys and girls, you know the story is in high trouble.

I: What other struggles do think beginning writers have?

C: They start writing about mediated experience, about things they’ve seen in movies. It would be so much better for them to write about going into the cafeteria with a Band-Aid on their nose than to write about a car chase. A person writing about the Band-Aid will have to invent it, I mean there aren’t that many scenes where we see what it’s like to be a girl with a Band-Aid on her nose. I try to get them closer, to choose venues for their fiction closer to home. Then there’s those age old questions of language, of hearing language that’s not been really thought about, a phrase like, “They made their way to the cabin,” or, “He exchanged glances with Doreen.” It’s a mild peccadillo, but we want to start sharpening that, get a little bit more muscle in.

I: What kind of a reader do you teach your writing students to be?

C: Steady. A writer needs to be steadily reading and in a range of work. It’s fun to find a writer you’ve admired, read all of her, read all of her friends, read all the other related work, and then see what else you can find out. I did that when I first encountered Scott Fitzgerald as an undergraduate, and I just went left and right through all his people. Then I eventually ended up with Cheever and Updike, and these are all American men, but they led me back to the women, through Grace Paley and Flannery O’Conner, young Ann Beattie. But there’s another feature of reading that is overlooked. We think as a writer you’re just reading to read because this is the world, you’re not really reading for instrumentation. You don’t read a story to find out how to make things left-handed or make the wind cold, but you end up finding those things out. They’re inadvertent, they gather, there’s a compendium of information that comes from reading steadily. You can’t really reduce it. It becomes part of a writer’s character and a writer’s toolbox, and all that information will be brought to the next story.

I: In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, you mention your teacher Edward Abbey and his credo: “If you want to read a good story, you’re going to have to write it yourself.” Does this “I-can’t-wait-to-finish-this-so-I can-read-it” mentality still sustain you as a writer?

C: Yeah. There’s a curiosity about what we’re making. I think, “Oh my god I thought this was going to be oblong, it’s actually square and inverted.” It’s just a curiosity, it’s not really pride. I’ve had people mistake it saying, “Well you’re proud of this or that,” and the truth is that eventually you can be, but there’s a distance. That’s not the initial thing as you’re going through. Usually you read it and think, “I’m not even sure if this will sit straight. I’m not even sure if the tires have got air in them.” It’s ineffable how you have more in your head than you know and it’s one of the great joys of writing, being able to look around in that closet, in your cranium, and find that thing that you didn’t know you had or that thing you thought you had lost. In the second thirty minutes of writing you should always look to have something creep up that you didn’t know, that you could not have told anybody on a bet that morning that you’d be writing.

I: Was there a story that surprised you the most?

C: The story that was shocking, that actually gave me chills when I wrote the last sentence, was the baseball story, “Zanduce at Second.” From the beginning I followed that story wherever it went, and when I finished that last sentence I sat there sort of sizzling. There are some places in that story that are as good as anything I’ll write. “Zanduce at Second.” Bang.

I: Do you ever write with your readers in mind?

C: Well, you don’t know your readers. I think that I work alone and that I’m my own reader. If I want to read the story then I think my readers will too. While I’m writing I also never think about who I’m going to send the work to, and it seems like when I finish a story and it’s ready for my writers’ group, or an editor, or an agent, I’m constantly apologizing for my work. I’ll say, “Dear John, here’s another story I wrote. I don’t know what you’re going to do with it because it has a this in it and a that in it.” So, I don’t know what to say about that question of the reader. I really caution my writing students to write as well as they can for themselves, but certainly there are times when you’re getting ready to take a story out of your room and you change the language in it, change some references, sometimes you change some names. But that’s simply for public consumption, safety reasons. I changed some of the language in my first book because my mother was going to read it and I’m glad I did. You can’t have your mother in the room while you’re writing, but in the end, there goes the book and you wrote it at full speed, grab it and change it! That’s just the way it is.

I: How have your concerns as a writer changed over the years?

C: We evolve as writers. I think we come out of the chutes looking to writer flavorful rites of passage stories. Without even knowing it, you’re writing what you know. You never have to look far. I began to write stories using what I knew and moving toward what I didn’t. In this way a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard evolved and an incident with my brother evolved. Those were the first two or three stories I wrote in college. After I left college to teach prep school, I began writing a novel about my college days. It was a love letter from a graduate’s world, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Then I wrote a plot novel called Truants—I’m giving it a B+ (I was a young guy). Then I was going to write a novel called A Thousand People Later, just a great title, and I wrote seven or eight chapters of that novel before my children arrived. When my children arrived, I didn’t care if the two people in that novel got together or not, I had kids! And I couldn’t not write about those kids. All of a sudden, I went into the house of my heart, and there were other rooms in there that I didn’t even know about. So I started writing about that. My ability didn’t change as a writer, but suddenly my concerns got real and very close at hand. My prose improved just because my subject dragged me deeper. These rooms are my concerns. Then I wrote about relationships, marriage, then other people’s situations, contemporary American life. I’ve written a lot of stories lately about what it’s like to be a man living alone, what’s rueful about that and what’s glorious, the light and shadow of such a world. This last year, I got out from under a book I really didn’t want to be writing and I wrote a western, and now I’m writing a detective novel, which really has my attention. It’s fun to bring some of the understanding and skills I’ve developed to this conventional plot novel. I’m also playing with notes on a play; I would like to write a play. I have friends who are involved with the theater so there’s a way to have the thing read, which would be delightful. I’ve not started it yet, but I’ve got the world of the story. In the meantime what I’m going to do is finish this detective novel—hopefully this year—and then write a story or two. The idea of not having any obligations is really delightful for me.

I: You mentioned publishing Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald right out of graduate school. What was it like getting so much attention so young?

C: You know, I never thought of it. When I think of it now, I think, “Holy hell! I was twenty-nine when I published that!” But I didn’t think of it then, and I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve had this and that successes, and none of it has turned my head. I still love what I do. I wouldn’t have traded it. It makes me smile, it makes me happy, and it makes a few other people I know happy. It’s odd because I know some important writers who act important and I don’t want any of that. I’ve had some fancy stuff happen in some fancy places, but I would just like to get another dog and make a road trip. That’s where I am.

I: You mentioned in an interview that Five Skies and The Signal were written as straight narratives partially as a reaction to what you called “the great thickets of irony in which so much of American discourse is now struggling.” Are there other tics or trends in contemporary fiction that worry you? Any you’re optimistic about?

C: Well, I think the story that stands up, where something happens, something that we can read, a story that is written in strong and intelligent prose, that is something that will never go away. There it is. I’m optimistic about the story. There’s a lot of irony today as I’ve said. There’s a certain kind of fanciful, speculative edge. It seems like every story you read is about some guy that can’t afford a swing set, but his neighbor bought a really nice swing set, and the story has to have some kind of terror, fantasy, or subsurface, postmodern glint at the “other”. I’m not sure of that. That’s really fun and anything goes, but it can be oddly mute. That’s what I’m seeing. It’s hard.

I: Some critics have called you “the master of the rare happy ending,” but you seem wary of the idea of a “happy ending.” I think Michael Cunningham was perhaps more to the point when he said that you have an uncanny ability to chronicle human kind’s “quirky, unreliable potential for grace.” What kind of role does grace play in your stories?

C: In a way, I think you’re asking me if I’m optimist. Well, I like to improve the quantity of kindness is the world without being caught at it. That’s my goal. I think that even in the stories in which my characters get a little drubbed, get a little defeated, there’s a sense that they’re okay, that they’ll be redeemed. I don’t think that’s coming from any particular dogmatic view on my part; it’s the way I live in the world. It’s a little bit like what I was talking about before, about visions not being teachable. I don’t know if I got it from my folks, which I expect. I don’t know if I got it from my experiences, which I also expect. But I believe in the best.  I think all of us, even those of us who end up short of what we were going for, are still better for our struggles. That’s the way I feel. That’s as close as I can say it.

C. Dylan Bassett Interview

C. Dylan Bassett is a teaching fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of two collections of poems, The Unpainted Shore (Spark Wheel, 2015) and The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theater (Plays Inverse, 2015), and six additional chapbooks. His recent poems are published or forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Columbia Poetry Review, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, H_NGM_N, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Salt Hill, West Branch, and elsewhere.

INSCAPE: You seem to have a Wallace Stevens renaissance going on. What is it about him? And what is it about him recently?

C. DYLAN BASSETT: Wallace Stevens and I agree with each other. So for Wallace Stevens, God is dead, right? For a lot of people at this time, God is dead. So then, Wallace Stevens is now interested in this question: if God is dead, then what replaces him? In other words, if religion is outdated in the contemporary world, how do we replace it? And his answer, in part, is poetry. Another part of the answer is the imagination. The imagination is a dialectical genesis. So what is real is what we imagine to be real. In that way, he is breaking down the distinctions between the world and the consciousness which perceives it. You might call it poetic epistemology, which is to say his poems are concerned with the relationship between the mind and the world, or thoughts and things, and how much of our perception is based on anticipation. Do we see things a certain way because we expect to see them that way, and what if we tried to imagine them another way? Then would we see them another way? He and I agree with each other in that what is real is what is imagined to be real, and also that poetry becomes a kind of surrogate religion. But poetry functions as a devotional practice, which in turn creates community and allows us to see each other as human beings and not abstract entities. I think that’s enough to say.

I: So if, like Wallace Stevens, we believe what is real is what we imagine to be real, is poetry the highest order or function of imagining real things?

B: For Wallace Stevens, yes. Poetry is a way of meshing the exterior and the interior worlds—breaking down the cultural binaries between real/imaginary, object/subject, self/other, one/many, body/mind, emotion/thought, etc. So then, the epigraph, “the unpainted shore accepts the world as anything but sculpture,” is to say that the world is not permanent, and is therefore in need of constant reimagining—that’s what I mean by dialectical genesis.

I: Right. Where sculpture in that line is a sense of finality or structure that we reject. So did your collection come into being as a result of this new idea or this new order, this new way of looking at things, or is it more a culmination of your work and representative of it that way?

B: It’s more of the latter of those two things, I think. I wasn’t thinking of poetic epistemology when I was writing that book. Not overtly, anyway. I had it in the back of my mind. But I was mostly trying to enact the way in which spaces—mental, literal, physical, bodily, emotional, psychological, metaphorical—change in the aftermath of loss. So I was thinking of the relationship between the body or the mind and the exterior world, yes. That’s the primary concern of the book, I think. Maybe I’m wrong about that. As an elegy, it is concerned with the departed, but even before that it’s concerned with the relationship between the body and the space that the body occupies. The body-slash-mind.

I: One of the things we talked about was body as enclosure, and this idea of both captive but a whole space at the same time. So how does this idea relate to the collection at large?

B: I think the book oscillates between being an enclosure and a grandiose fission of the stars or something. The self is rooted in the world because of other selves and then when those other selves are gone, the self must reimagine its ontological position. The oscillation between enclosed, small, particular domestic spaces and broader landscapes or the cosmos, is  the motion of a mind doing the work of finding its place, in an external reality independent of self. Does that answer your question?

I: Definitely. My follow-up to that would be this: what’s the prevailing effect of these poems, and what is it examining? To use Poe, what’s the unifying effect here? He’d say everything has one unifying effect. What we just talked about with Wallace Stevens and loss and grief and where people go and where we go when people leave feels like a huge part of what this collection’s exploring. What’s your take on that? Specifically in terms of grief and losing people in these permanent ways, like death, or semi-permanent ways, like a dissolved relationship?

B: Oh! So you’re asking whether it’s different to lose someone to death, as opposed to a failed relationship. On one hand the book is undoubtedly about the death of a father, no way around it. On the other hand the book—like I mentioned before—is about loss generally. When I first started writing poems I was thinking of the father as not just a literal father but also as a God figure. The book happens to take as its subject matter the death of a father. But it’s also about the loss of religion in one’s own life, or the absence of God. I hope that is applicable to all forms of loss or abandonment.

I: So let’s talk about the prose form for a minute. First talk about why you used it, and its place in your works, its place in the collection.

B: I have a simple answer: when I was writing those poems I was afraid of line breaks. It still surprises me that poets have the audacity to break lines. I think it’s rarely done well. When I tried to lineate my prose poems in the book they just didn’t work as well. Also, the prose form has a more clinical, formal, reserved quality, wouldn’t you say? The verse, by contrast, is more conventionally lyrical. It takes an almost journalistic form. Also, in the final elegy when the text vacillates between prose and verse, I wanted to enact the movement of the mind between introspection and attempted objectivity. The prose is a little more introspective, a little more subjective.

I: So if I were to map it, the lyric sections are more like the interior mind at work, like trying to name things or rename things or situations. And then as we move to the prose portions, it’s about this place and the body being outside itself, sometimes at many levels outside itself, and trying to move through space that way. I wonder, though—if there is no tension because of enjambment, where does the tension come from? The image? The strength of the image?

B: The tension comes from the brevity, the parataxis, the associative leaps, the irregularities in grammar and syntax, the disruptions to the protocols of semantic coherence, the unsettling of readerly expectations in prose…I could go on, but you get the idea.

I: So what do you say to detractors of prose poetry if they find those conventions inaccessible, like the lack of semantic cohesion or loose narrative? Because this is a major complaint of anyone who’s reading prose poems now. I really would love to hear you speak to that, because there’s folks who say that’s all surrealism is—just something to hide behind. so how would you respond to the detractors of prose poetry who attack it as “word salad,” random images, and hiding behind surrealism as a shield for the craft?

B: Wow, I have so much to say about this I don’t even know where to start. First of all, “word salad” is ridiculous. There is no such thing. The term is lazy. It’s a word people use when they’re confused and frustrated with a text, because they believe the text should have some kind of consumability—that they text should have an exchange value, that it should give them something tangible, in a capitalistic sense.

Also, you’re really asking me two questions here: 1) What do I say to the detractors of prose poetry? and 2) How would I defend surrealism?—because, of course, the prose poem isn’t inherently surreal, and surreal poetry isn’t necessarily prose. So, okay, here goes. The prose poem—and any hybrid text for that matter—is necessarily engaged with identity crisis. The mode is such that the speaker inhabits an in-between space. The prose poem therefore resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; it resists reduction and commodification. It disrupts readerly demands and expectations and form, as it advocates for an essence over identity, becoming over being, fluidity over fixity. In other words, what do we expect from prose? What do we expect from poetry? In rejecting easy genre classification it subsumes genre—it is everything and yet nothing. Poem and prose, narrative and anti-narrative, organic and artificial, approachable and wholly unrecognizable all at the same time. Reliant upon literary tradition even as it rejects traditionalism. We find it in the middle of evolution and therefore unevolved.

Regarding surrealism, I’ll say this: it’s not random. Even “automatic writing,” which was a popular practice of early surrealist writers, is not really automatic. In fact, it’s painstakingly calculated. Surrealism is not representative. In other words, it’s not trying to depict or represent a physical location or tangible reality, the way realism does. Instead, it enacts and emotional state of being, so that the reader experiences that state—both mentally and physiologically.

There are two kinds of surrealism: capital S surrealism and lower-case s surrealism. Surrealism with a capital S is of course for Breton and Dali. Let me give you an example. I could say to you, “I pulled a chicken’s foot from behind the moon,” and that’s surreal, and that lacks an emotional quality. It’s just very surreal, and you don’t totally know what to do with it. It has a nice texture about it, but it doesn’t convey an emotion to you, whereas there’s a really great James Tate poem where he opens the poem by saying, “Dear Reader / I’m trying to pry open your coffin with a snowflake.” And you get that line. Emotionally, you understand what he’s saying. It’s surreal, it’s kind of cartoonish, but it’s also a little devastating. Or there’s this great line from Neruda where he says, “I cast my sad nets over your oceanic eyes,” It’s incredible and it’s surreal but it’s also emotionally accessible to you. So you understand what he’s saying even if it’s an image that you can’t actually imagine in your head. I tend to employ the lowercase surrealism. Do I think of myself as a surrealist? No, not at all. Am I upset if someone calls me one? No, I don’t care.

Finally, I would tell these “detractors” that poetry is not meant to be gotten, and it is not something to be possessed—it is a being possessed! It seizes us and immerses us in the present moment. A poem is to be understood intuitively. You don’t understand a poem in the same way that you understand a mathematical equation or an empirically derived, scientific hypothesis or theory.

I: Or even the way you’d understand a straightforward plot in a fiction piece.

B: Right. I’ll use the analogy I use with my students: you don’t “get” the Sistine Chapel. When you walk in and you look up at the ceiling, you don’t think, “What does it mean?” You don’t question its semantics. You just experience it, and it’s purely emotional. The same could be said about the statue of David. You turn the corner—and you see the statue! And you think, WOW! It seizes you! you don’t analyze its curves. you don’t ask why he’s standing in the position he is. You just feel it, and then, maybe, later on you’ll ask question of form, history, and medium. You could say similar things about music. I think poetry should be experienced in the same way. I mean, it’s not prose and it’s not philosophy in a can. It’s art. It’s not artifact. It’s not documentation. It’s not craft. It’s art. So if you don’t get it, that’s because you’re trying to understand it with the wrong brain.

I: I also feel that these poems are among the most accessible poems you’ve ever written. So let me ask you this: how do you workshop your kinds of poems? Because it’s also harder for folks to find endpoints in a prose poem like they can do in a lineated poem.

B: Closure is an illusion. The demand for a tidy, well-packaged, or memorable ending is archaic—and it disagrees with lived experience. Inevitably you’d have to talk about the prose form because no one should write prose poetry without good reason—although the same could be said of any form. I wrote in prose because I wanted both to perform an identity crisis and to create an in-between space—something neither this nor that. The consciousness of the book is neither wholly before nor totally after tragedy. It’s au milieu—right in the middle of loss, which is an in-between space. I couldn’t write an essay, which seems very much after the fact. I couldn’t write straight poetry either because I wanted something never fully grounded in a single vantage point. I tried to resist the urge to monumentalize experience. So, what would I say to people who want to find an end point? I don’t know. I’d probably ignore them.

I: Okay. So, we’ll wrap up here. Talk to me for just a minute about your success, about coming from BYU as an undergrad writing poems to publishing a book and being at Iowa. What was that like? What’s changed, in your poetry and in your mind?

B: I’ll tell you: poetry has become a way of life for me. Poetry has to be a way of life, if you want to be a poet, I mean. It can’t be a hobby. It can’t be something you do when you feel like it. It has to be something that you’re constantly doing. You have to cultivate a mind on which no detail is lost, so in that sense you’re always writing. Even right now I’m noticing that door slightly ajar and I’m thinking of Emily Dickinson. And these objects over here on the shelf, all very sad and very upright. So what I’m saying is, you have to train your mind so that it’s always paying attention to details, objects, people. In that regard, everything you read, everything you hear and overhear is material for writing. And then you just have to force yourself to write. If you’re not putting yourself in front of the computer every day then you’re losing time. You’re not gonna write something good everyday but you at least have to give yourself the chance to write something good. Even my last year at BYU I was very much aware of this: I woke up at five a.m. every morning to write. Because I knew I just wasn’t going to have time in the day with classes and soccer and everything else. So I wrote in the mornings.

I hate to think of poetry as a purely intellectual endeavor. Instead it’s an invitation to be more attentive in the world and to be more present and to be kinder and more compassionate. It’s really who you are, I think. you have to eat it for breakfast, and breathe it, and dream about it. And when you have five minutes of nothing to do, then you should be reading or writing down a line or something. That’s really how I live, which is kind of exhausting. In addition, I read eclectically, and a lot. I read philosophy, theory, religious texts, even science books.

I: Last thing. The flies in your book. Fly here, fly there. “A fly loosely banging into a—”

B: Yeah, I remember that one. Are there other flies? Oh, the fly in the sugar. So what do you wanna know about that? Was I thinking of Emily Dickinson? I was. I am always thinking about Dickinson. She might be the smartest poet of all time. I was also thinking of Michael Dickman who has a book called Flies. Flies are scary, and they’re also kind of grotesque. And there’s something about a consciousness that is willing to observe a fly and not attend to it. Not try to shoo it away or clean it up in the case of a dead fly. Someone who’s willing to note the fly but not do anything about it.

I: And what’s interesting about that is it’s like a parenthesis and there’s a lot of parenthetical moments in this collection.

B: There are. The whole book works as a giant parenthetical statement. That’s how I thought of it, honestly. I wanted to put the title in parentheses, actually, but they wouldn’t let me do it. I wanted to put it in parentheses because I was trying to make an enclosure. I actually wanted to call the book Enclosures but a book came out from Ahsahta Press this last year called Enclosures. So I decided against it.

I: I love The Unpainted Shore.

B: Yeah, The Unpainted Shore works nice. Thank you, Wallace Stevens.

Seed

Ashley mae Christensen

The days and nights were so hot and so humid our second summer together. I loved you, even then. There was a big town thermometer in the front lawn of a cinderblock home, ten blocks from our rented house. It spindled like a skinny soldier, just taller than the tin roof of the humble house. The thermometer preceded what little technology the country enjoyed; it stuck there, its metal stand pushed into the hard, black soil, the weeds growing up around it. Rambunctious boys vandalized sides of buildings, abandoned cars, and park benches, but they never touched the thermometer. They must have recognized that the crudely painted, tin device was a sacred reminder to us all that what we were living was difficult, and therefore significant.

The red line of the thermometer rose and fell each day. The older, knobby gentleman who lived in the home moved the metal strip up and down through the afternoon as he took note of the temperature. He was the most important man in the city between the months of November and April. The higher the temperature, the more the neighborhood reveled. “Worst summer in twenty years, do you know that this part of the country gets hottest of all?” “I once was hospitalized in heat like this—stayed three hours on an I.V. I’m likely to end up back there if this keeps up, you know?”

No matter that the man in charge of keeping the thermometer had no accurate way of anything exact; Uruguayans lean toward the dramatic. So you and I wrote letters home telling of record temperatures.

Our misery grew simultaneously with our joy. Or perhaps they both simply made us feel alive, and thus have always been the same thing. It took me a while to catch on, but I learned it was easy to engage conversation about the crippling heat and humidity, the best way to make life-long friends in a new place. So I did talk. I spoke fluent Spanish with an American accent, but was always well received when I exclaimed, “¡Qué horrible! ¡Qué calor más brave!” Everywhere I went I made a sport of lively complaining.

You and I even began to complain to one another in our kitchen, not because we needed to say it, but because even married people will do anything to feel a little closer, to share one more experience. We walked each morning before school to the fruit stand and each day I noticed that my stomach touched the inside of my dress less and less. I wasn’t wasting away, but I was losing weight. Maybe it was adjusting to a foreign country, maybe it was standing day after day at the front of a classroom full of illiterate adults who were not convinced that this would get them a job, maybe it was learning to be in love that made me skinnier. One year later, my stomach would grow the other direction.

Salto, our town, was known for its variety of oranges: navel oranges, red oranges, oval oranges, ruby oranges. They were all I wanted to eat. Oranges and the popsicles frozen in little baggies, homemade and sold from the front door of every other house for a peso.

We ate oranges for breakfast while sitting on our beds, the sun low, just above the line of the tall grass in the backyard. There was one spindly lemon tree standing in the corner near the dilapidated fence. The tree was shorter than it should have been, more brittle, too few leaves, perhaps a symbol of the country in which it was born.

Near the top, in a place where one could reach up above one’s head and stand on tiptoes, a small lemon was slowly ballooning outward into the world, taking up a little more space every day, aware of its taking and needing a place in a world where not everyone had even a plate of rice to eat for dinner.

We were also aware of the lemon, though we didn’t begrudge it for its selfish need for material, air, and space for growing. Rather, we pointed to it, from its very conception bud, to its flowering childhood, and now, into the thick-skinned green oval hanging shyly from a firm stem from the top branches of a small brown tree. In the coming month, in spite of, or perhaps thanks to the heat, the skin would yellow, pull tighter, thinner and more porous.

One evening, before dusk, we walked to the edge of the yard and because you were just a bit taller than me, you reached up and plucked the lemon down, turning it in your hands, letting the roundness fill in the deep C of your palm. We looked close and rubbed the smooth skin against our cheeks; you rubbed it against mine and said, “the only lemon of the year, la primera limón del ano, quizás la única.” We could look deep into the shadow moons of the lemon’s skin and perhaps it would speak to us of its history.

We might see a scene two hundred years ago: ships full of sailors and explorers and men longing for faraway wives, ships rolling across the sea from the eastern shores of this country. Did the men on those ships ache for home? The lemon—not this lemon, but its ancestors—were on that ship then. The fruit, a rich source of vitamin C, was known to ward off the dreaded paleness, open sores, and depression that came with scurvy, and from being thousands of miles from home. Perhaps their wives sent them with lemons, in hopes that they might return to them, safe and in love.

Later that week, you made me tea from the lemon when I was sick and throwing up. Looking at the lemon, we pondered what it means to be home, what it means to be so close to one another and still ever treading into the unfamiliar.

One round window on the lemon’s yellowed skin might show us its particular origin, might tell the two of us how a scraggly, dying lemon tree came to live in the backyard corner of our house in this poor neighborhood. It might show us the stray cats fighting and forcing love all night under its branches, the noises so awful. I woke up and threw a cup of water through the metal bars and out the open window once, in hopes of ending any injustice. Then I lay back down and turned over to you, your skin rounded like baked clay in the white moonlight. Were you thinking of names for our children then?

A Swimmer

Zac Cianflone

He knew that the guys on TV were hacks, amateurs.  Sure they were fast, but they practiced a mongrel method. They treated the water like a mere medium between two walls, a barrier between a goal and a stopwatch.  He swam at the local Y, but there too the hacks congregated, forever fighting against the water and babbling like idiots in the cramped sauna. He avoided the sauna. He showed up to the pool in the early morning, around 5:30 when the place opened. The air was murky with chlorine and sometimes the surface of the water was smooth—the hacks still tucked away in bed, he chuckled to himself.  Usually though, he wasn’t alone, an ambitious kid here or there getting in extra pool time, etc, and they were even talking about starting up some kind of early morning water aerobics class. One day he would retire and dig out a single lane in his backyard, he thought as he lowered himself down. He swam now.

At times the tiny bubbles delighted him, cascading off his thumbs like an endless stream of carbonation from the bottom of a glass.  But they alternately dismayed him to no end:  to cut the water was an art, a bubble an imperfection.

In the end, two ambitions tormented him.

 

One: to disappear into the water, to cut the liquid clean with the plane of his outstretched fingers—to be swallowed into the wakeless mass.

Two: to totally give into the imperfection of bubbles, to be dissolved whole and destroyed by the mad water like a tablet of Alka-Seltzer.

Rocks

Dallin Law

Rocks rest black, volcanic, and half buried in reddish-brown sand. Heavy to lift and yet out of place, strangers just passing through. If I wanted, I could root them up, carry them away, moveable and mortal. I could roll them to the striated cliffs filling the horizon and introduce them. Ponderous witnesses to volcanic rubble once heaved out of magma, hurled out into this older, foreign, sandy place to cool.

Frail clusters of hermit grasses, miniature shrubs, tiny flowers, and stumpy trees huddle close to creeping rocks. The wind deflected by the cold, frozen mineral, the plants couched between gaps of stone. They shiver and cower with only rocky comfort. I am like these.

A cold convulsion. My hands are white and red with cold—scaly, alien. A warm creature growing cold, sitting on a frozen stone. Body’s heat leaching from my shrunken buttocks, my presence is at best temporary, more likely meaningless.

There have been times when I felt old like the cliffs—perspective found standing still for a long time. I became aware of transient things. Bacteria in a petri dish—multiplying, dividing, reproducing, growing at a rate difficult to conceptualize. Compared to the cliffs, I am small, but compared to the single-celled, I am a cliff. I’ll eat yogurt like a cliff eats humans, crushing.

These are terms much too small, too embarrassingly short-sighted. I detach the cliffs from their place and time, bring them back to thoughtless origin. In silence they orbit a slowly gathering, heating pre-sun—dully throbbing red. I trace invisible filaments of gravity that connect all matter everywhere, loosely gathering dust clouds slowly swirling inward. A coming together. I watch as one cliff, after millions of years of circling, finally finds the other half of the canyon. Their matters mated, their energies expelled on one another, heating through a loving, violent attraction.

I lay my body down on the rock and place our two matters together. Carbon meets silicate. Re-creation of the sole creative movement, how life was born. We two floated together once as siblings, everything in common. The sun floats above me as it did then—ultimate, generous in emanations of heat born in entropic orgies of fire.

One day the sun’s hydrogen core will all be burned into helium. Ravenous, the sun will metamorphosize into a larger, redder, angrier star relearning to consume itself from the inside out, an insatiable hunger ending with explosion. Explanation and origins for what I see. Suns, long since exploded, are what this rock is made of. I’m a star corpse walking, thinking thoughts my creators never did.

How long can I sit still—distancing, broadening—until I am subsumed in massive cycles and processes too big to see the smallest fraction of their revolution? Purposefully, I fill my lungs, pushing my ribs out and stretching my stomach, straining my navel until I exhale. I make a fist, feeling the skin stretch over my knuckles cracking, drying, becoming ugly. I feel where my clothes drape over and cling to me as if I had shingles, acutely surprised. I shift my lower body by pushing against the rock with my hands, a shift to the right buttock; it’s warmer.

I’m taking up the Zen Buddhist’s project of awareness of things, the origin, connection and relation. I take up the secular geologists and astronomers’ vision of the past in the transient surface of present. Cutting away superfluous, crowding, competing voices, I rediscover not myself, but instead, for a moment, the cyclic past and find myself temporary and blissfully empty. Realization comes suddenly, violently, and forcefully—an anticlimax.

The past has become hypnotic to me; I see it everywhere, in everything a bulky, turning wheel without holds. Like musty boxes of silken fabrics from my great grandmother’s attic unearthed by curious nostalgia, the substructure of each folded bolt formed of thoughts, emotions, memories—each sensation woven on top of uncertain stories, hinted origins. The past has become both a source of quixotic enlightenment and an eternally reinterpretable symbol. It affirms my existence, showing I’ve lived, but proves too deep to safely plumb.

Out of habit, I reach for my knife and it feels familiar. A year ago I looked for a pocket knife. I started noticing more knives protruding out of pockets. Surgical, tactical, sterile and menacing knives. Precisely harmful for the pseudo-military paranoid. Other men wore woody knives with OLD TIMER etched on plastic woody cases, housing wide blades. I saw in them my dad as he carefully opened his knife to teach me how to clean a fish, where to cut.  Each knife was pregnant with past, with latent association. I needed something blank or at least uninterpretable, a tabula rasa.

Plain, my knife is constructed of three pieces. A round wooden cylinder for a handle. It feels oily smooth though it’s dry. On one end a metal ring turns with pressure from my thumb. I turn it until the small slit in the metal aligns with the blade tucked inside the handle. The knife unfolds and I turn the locking ring again to keep the blade from folding in. The blade is thin, strong, and sharp. The mechanisms, the materials, the ideas of the knife are plain—understood and unadorned.

But I especially study the blade. High carbon steel, able to be honed to a razor sharpness, but a finicky metal prone to rust, staining, and quick dulling. Even after cutting an apple, the perfect shiny gray color had tarnished spotted black. The humid summer showed its effects in a proto-rust. At first I scrubbed it away, kept it clean, the tabula rasa, but then I stopped. Each time I thumb open the lock ring and pull on the blade I read its signs—blackened past etched in rust and preserved in tarnish.

I don’t cut things everyday, but I have the knife with me among the uncuttable rocks. A tangible meditation, a reminder to myself that things have pasts, arcane names—the stellar dust, the rock-visitor, the human. The knife becomes a steel diary affirming past existence, distancing present from identities held in origins. I hold the stained blade up, playing the glint against my eye. Up to my face, I look from the knife to the cliff face and back again. Matching patterns.

The Secret of My Parent’s Marriage

by Yvonne Higgins Leach

I learned late in life that my parents
stopped mapping each other’s bodies,
gave up on the luxury of making heat,
forgot how to anoint the other in breath.

I learned that after careers,
mortgages, six children and worry
they prayed to save their marriage
from collapse. And they did somehow.

Call it a replanting. A resurrection.
Call it putting the past
on the other side of a dim-lit tunnel.
Call it a secret only they knew.

They carried water together
to the end and when the music
of their hourglass lives stopped
the heavens opened and reset for them.

 

 

 

Yvonne Higgins Leach is the author of Another Autumn (WordTech Editions, 2014). Her poems have appeared in South Dakota Review, South Carolina Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, and Wisconsin Review, among others. She earned a Master of Fine Arts from Eastern Washington University in 1986. She has spent decades balancing a career in communications and public relations, raising a family, and pursuing her love of writing poetry. She splits her time living in Snohomish and Spokane, Washington. For more information, visit www.yvonnehigginsleach.com

Dew Claws for Everybody

by Carol Hamilton

The Fremont tribe differed
in footwear from the nearby,
more successful Anazasi.
This short-span people
formed moccasins
with the hides of larger game,
kept the dew claw
from the animal’s foot,
fitted it into the sole
to gain better purchase
for climbing the canyons
of their abrupt landscape.
In one petroglyph,
a man-like creature
holds a staff,
and the space-defying
bighorn sheep cartwheel
in a circle around him.
I used a walking stick
all over those paths
and cliffs, and even here,
on flatland, my home,
I could use a dew claw
to keep me steady.
There may be treacherous edges
to any spot on this earth.

 

 

 

Carol Hamilton has recent and upcoming publications in Paper Street Jourrnal, Cold Mountain Review, Common Ground, Gingerbread House, Main Street Rag. Sacred Cow. U.S.1 Worksheet, Pontiac Review, Louisiana Literature, Abbey, 805, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Poem, Third Wednesday, One Trick Pony, Plainsongs, and others. She has published 17 books, most recently, SUCH DEATHS from the Visual Arts Cooperative Press in Chicago. She is a former Poet Laureate of Oklahoma and has been nominated seven times for a Pushcart Prize.

Corbin’s Birthday

by Carol Hamilton

It is a few days yet,
and he still says he’s three.
But he holds himself taller,
and his blue eyes show
the serious importance
of being the center of attention
without crying. His older brother
is the unnoticed one this day.
Corbin shared his cake
with his great-uncle, 46 to his 4
but without that many candles.
Together they extinguished fire
and forgot to make wishes.
Corbin left here a more serious person.
He got to eat only the strawberries
off the cake, to drink Dr. Pepper
from a can, caffeine forgiven
for once. Each year I forgive
myself more and more,
and by now I am practically pure.
I pass the baton of guilt gladly,
celebrate by baking his cake.

 

 

 

Carol Hamilton has recent and upcoming publications in Paper Street Jourrnal, Cold Mountain Review, Common Ground, Gingerbread House, Main Street Rag. Sacred Cow. U.S.1 Worksheet, Pontiac Review, Louisiana Literature, Abbey, 805, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Poem, Third Wednesday, One Trick Pony, Plainsongs, and others. She has published 17 books, most recently, SUCH DEATHS from the Visual Arts Cooperative Press in Chicago. She is a former Poet Laureate of Oklahoma and has been nominated seven times for a Pushcart Prize.