Interview with K.A. Hays

by Ariel Hochstrasser

K.A. Hays’ most recent book is Anthropocene Lullaby (February 2022, Carnegie Mellon). She is the author of three prior books of poetry:  Windthrow (2017), Early Creatures, Native Gods (2012) and Dear Apocalypse (2009). Her poems appear widely in journals and have been selected for two editions of Best American Poetry. Born in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, she earned an MFA from Brown University. She teaches Creative Writing at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, and directs the Bucknell Seminar for Undergraduate Poets, a 3-week all-expenses paid summer writing retreat and conference for undergraduate poets from any university or college in the United States.

Inscape: What inspired you to start writing poetry after receiving your MFA in fiction?

K.A. Hays: I’ve been writing poetry on my own since I was a child—but I’ve always wanted to write stories, too. In college, I became obsessed with Virginia Woolf and with fiction that shows the interiority of a character. I applied to graduate schools where I could emphasize in fiction, with the knowledge that I was a very lyrical fiction writer. When I went to Brown, I was happy that they embraced hybrid-genre work and experimentation. I kept writing poems throughout graduate school while also experimenting in my fiction, and then after graduate school I began to only write poetry. I just knew myself better then, and knew that—while I absolutely loved fiction—poetry was what I needed to be writing. I’m still open to returning to fiction, though it has been a number of years since I last worked on a piece. 

Inscape: What elements of fiction do you find yourself borrowing in your poetry?

H: In Anthropocene Lullaby, the book that just came out, I’m thinking more and more about scene. I’m choosing very carefully which details to reveal, using all five senses. I have a couple of prose poems in this book, and they all attempt to create a scene in prose just the way a fiction writer would. Each of the prose poems in this book forms mini-narratives, which show certain scenes I’ve experienced personally. So, it’s a kind of fiction-nonfiction-poetry hybrid thing happening. 

Inscape: How do you get inspiration for your poems? What’s your process between getting inspiration—being in a scene—and producing an actual written poem? 

H: I carry a notebook with me, and the things I jot down in that notebook are seeds for poems. So, I’m collecting seeds when I’m living my life. Any random image, set of words, or quotation from something I read, can be a seed. Then I need to see which seeds grow. When I’m writing poems, I like to play and sort of witness what the poem seems to want to be, rather than feeling I am personally controlling the poem. I’m making a poem, but I’m also collaborating with the language. When things are going well, it feels like there’s something outside of me that’s helping the poem along, and that excites me, and keeps me engaged.

Inscape: What do you think makes a good poem?

H: I don’t think there’s any one right answer to that question—there’re so many ways that a poem can be good. Sometimes when I read poems, I feel a chill go down my arm, or a sense of being in wonder, or being startled, or as if some aspect of an emotion I have dealt with is being expressed in a new way that I can connect with. Maybe what makes a poem good is its unique way of being in the world. It’s liberating to be a poet because you know that there’s no one way to write good poetry—you have to discover what it is for you that’ll make you satisfied or help you feel that your poem is good. As readers we personally discover what each of us thinks is good, and that discovery can be different on different days. 

Inscape: What was your hardest poem to write in Anthropocene Lullaby?

H: Oh, that’s interesting. I think that the hardest poem was the long poem, “On April 22nd, 2020, I remembered the bodies in which I lived.” I didn’t know what form that poem would take for a very long time—years. The title of that poem refers to a specific date, as if I was just writing the poem on that day, but I was actually finishing the poem on that day—revising, adding, and putting it into a new form. I’d been trying to work on that poem—coming back to it, leaving, rearranging, cutting, and adding—for probably two-and-a-half years at that point. It was difficult to know what it needed for a long time. 

Inscape: What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing the poems in this collection?

H: I noticed that I became comfortable with more of a sense of messiness in my poetry, being more personal and vulnerable than I typically used to in the other three books that I published. That’s a bit of a surprise. I notice in this book a stronger sense of rawness, and more of the human-built world—technology and the way much of life is lived on-screens now. I used to want to scrape that away, and have more of a human-encountering-the-nonhuman-world focus in my poems. That still appeals to me—looking beyond what’s human-built to insect-built life, plant-built life, all of that. But in this book, it’s more human-encountering-human world and how that human-world is imposing itself onto the nonhuman-world. So, I guess I’m surprised by how much I didn’t edit out of this book, and the fact that I allowed myself to be a bit more vulnerable and open about my immediate experience. 

Inscape: When you’re creating a book of poetry, do you start out intending to write poems that work well together?

H: It’s a long process. While writing, I’m not thinking about writing a book. I’m just writing poem by poem, day by day. Over time, maybe after a year of writing some poems, I might start to see that certain themes keep coming up for me and allow myself to keep doing work with those themes, knowing they could lead me towards a book manuscript. That’s the way this book ended up coming together. After my third book, I felt that I would not write any more poetry for a very long time. When I did need to write a poem, I just let myself write it, but I was like, “I’m not working on anything—I’m just letting myself write poems that I need to write.” Only after a couple of years did I start to notice that it seemed like maybe I was working on a manuscript that would become a book, one that reflected on what it means to be conscious as an affluent, Northeastern American person living in the Anthropocene age. 

Inscape: Is there one poem in your collection that holds a special place in your heart? If so, why?

H: “Lines written in the Walmart Supercenter parking lot, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania” holds a special place in my heart, in part because both of my children like this poem and delight in the fact that Pokémon entered my poetry and got published. 

Inscape: My favorite poem from this collection is “As after a hatch tadpoles heat the bank.” How did that poem come to be?

H: This poem was written while I was in Johnson, Vermont for the Vermont Studio Center’s two-week fellowship as a writing resident. I was noticing how tadpoles are starting to hatch earlier than they used to hatch, closer to what’s traditionally called winter, because it’s not winter anymore—climate change is changing our seasons. I was also reading The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. Those ideas were bouncing around in my head: that sense of impending climate catastrophe, how climate catastrophe is already underway, and how governments are delaying meaningful action in so many respects. The U.S. government is a major one, because it’s politically unpopular to make certain decisions if they would negatively affect the economy, even though they would really help with this devastating situation—which will affect the economy in an awful way if they don’t act now. Those ideas were bouncing around in me, but I didn’t want to write nonfiction, because that’s not the kind of writer I am. Instead, I allowed for what I was reading in the book by David Wallace-Wells, and what I was observing with the tadpoles, to interact in a pared-back, lyric poem. I wanted it to be an obsessive, songlike poem that allows for a sense of concern about the environment to interact with the immediacy of observing tadpoles that have hatched and recently come into the world. 

Inscape: Your book deals with many important topics—the Anthropocene Era, climate change, and social awareness. What message do you hope your readers take away from this book overall? 

H: I hope readers take away an understanding of some of my personal concerns and curiosities that the book brings up, especially as they interact with their own concerns and curiosities. I want the book to be a meeting place between what I’ve been thinking about and whatever the reader brings to the page in terms of their own emotions and thoughts about climate change or what it means to live in this digital age. I’m hopeful that maybe a certain poem will speak to a person reading in a way that a good poem by someone else speaks to me, where I think, “Oh, yes, this. I wouldn’t have put it that way, in language that way, and now I’m obsessed and changed by this thing that I just read that articulates something that feels new to me.” That’s my hope. 

Inscape: Are you currently working on any projects?

H: I’m writing poems, but I’m in the stage of total mess and telling myself, “this is not anything that I will publish,” because that’s the most liberating thing. That sense of not-knowing, and of not-trying-to-get-somewhere but just being-in-the-mess is such an important part of my writing process. So, I’m just leaning into that and letting it be what it is. 

Inscape: What advice would you give to someone wanting to write and publish poetry? What do you wish you knew when you first started writing poetry? 

H: I wish I knew that sending out work and the public part of being a poet is completely different from writing poems and sharing them with friends. If a writer can build a circle of friends and fellow writers who are willing to read and appreciate their work, that’s everything. The responses a writer receives when submitting work to be published are not reflective of the importance of what the writer is doing. The importance of what you’re doing comes from within, and always needs to come from within so you can validate yourself. External validation isn’t the driving force. It doesn’t need to change how you feel about yourself and the work you’re doing.

Interview with Amy Leach

by Fleur Van Woerkom

Amy Leach grew up in Texas and earned her MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in The Best American Essays, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and numerous other publications, including Granta, A Public Space, Orion, Tin House, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, and a Pushcart Prize. Her books are Things That Are and The Everybody Ensemble. Leach lives in Bozeman and teaches creative writing at MSU.

Inscape: How much research did you specifically do for your most recent book, The Everybody Ensemble?

Amy Leach: For three of the essays (the moose, the goose, and the mesquite tree) I did a lot of deep and specific research, inspired initially by the extreme lives of all of those subjects. I pursued those topics particularly through reading library books, textbooks, and abstracts. For other essays, I used research that had accumulated over the years, which had lodged in my imagination. For the essay “The Land of Importunity,” I was interested in the bird called the solitaire. I was interested in its name, the solitariness of this bird, and I started researching the now-extinct bird (kind of like the dodo that lived on Mauritius island). However, so much of the research came from journals of this Huguenot who had been exiled from France to an island. He kept a journal of all the animals he saw on the island, and the more I read his accounts of the solitaire, the more I was interested in him. It turned into an essay about this man who was subject to historical forces and fell in love with these animals that are now mostly extinct. 

Inscape: What were your favorite topics to research for the book?

AL: I think, again, I was inspired by animals and plants living extreme lives. The mesquite tree sends its roots 160 feet down into the desert to look for water, and the moose has these 70-pound antlers it carries around on its head that are so heavy it mustn’t lower its head down to the ground for fear it will never raise its head up again! These little goslings, who three days after they’re born, have to jump off a 400-foot cliff in Greenland before they can fly. I don’t know if I was consciously pursuing extreme lives, or if it was something I was subconsciously attracted to—it was interesting to me in my life at the time, which felt kind of extreme. I read about blueberries, and how they nourish everybody. One of the themes that guided my sensibility throughout the writing of this book was the idea of something that supports everybody and makes no distinctions between person or animal. I’m trying to celebrate everybody, if that’s possible!

Inscape: You mentioned this book was a response to the extreme things in your own life. What were those extreme things in your life?

AL: Well, we moved to Montana, and Montana is such an extreme place. It’s so extremely beautiful, so extremely cold! Because of the high altitude, the sunshine feels very extreme. Also, I had my little babies influencing me, and babies are very extreme!

Inscape: How does your environment affect your writing? Are there any environments that inspire you more than others?

AL: One interesting thing that happened when we moved to Montana from Chicago was that I felt like I wasn’t able to write for a while. As beautiful and inspiring as Montana was, I felt like I couldn’t write because I didn’t need to! Chicago is beautiful in its own way, but I felt like when I wrote my first book I was largely living in my imagination. When I moved to Montana I felt like I didn’t have to live in my imagination anymore. I could just go out the back door and revel in the mountains, the stars, the creeks, and the wildflowers. That was one surprising way in which my environment did not inspire me to write. But after a while I got over it. Towards the end of writing this book, I was kind of running out of time. I had to produce two essays in two months, which is like warp speed for me, so I tried something that I hadn’t tried so much in the past: writing about what I actually knew. We’ve gone to Yellowstone park so many times since we’ve moved here, and while I usually write about things that I don’t know (so I can learn about the panda bears or the jellyfish), those weren’t things I was encountering in my personal life. But because I didn’t have as much time to research these last two essays (I had a deadline coming up), I thought, well, I know a lot about Yellowstone! It was a new experience, to write about something that I did have a relationship with, and it came quite quickly. This experience also kind of inspired my next book, which is much more writing from experience than writing from research.

Inscape: What’s your next book about?

AL: It’s more about babies, and music, and religion. The things that I constantly think about all day long. I thought, Hey, I’ll try writing about the things I actually think about all the time!

Inscape: What was the timeline like for writing and revising The Everybody Ensemble?

AL: It really sped up. For a while I wasn’t writing at all. “Green Man,” the first essay I wrote for this book, took me about two years, due to many factors. “Pedestrians” took about five months and “The Benevolence of Blueberries” took three months. They sped up as I gained my momentum back. The whole thing took five or six years, including editing.

Inscape: What helped your momentum pick back up?

AL: I think . . . my children started going to daycare. That’s probably the main thing. And, because I was paying for daycare, that really put the pressure on; I wasn’t just going to come home and twiddle my thumbs. That pressure really made me sit down and write every morning, and then writing every morning turned into a habit. Nowadays, I have a little bit more time, and I could sit around and twiddle my thumbs. But I don’t, because I have that habit built up, so what else do I do? I sit down to write, and inspiration may or may not arrive.

Inscape: Your essays in The Everybody Ensemble feel very cohesive. Were all the essays written with the intention of being published together, or did any of them start off as solitary essays?

AL: Because I had published a previous book, I think I was hoping that they would coalesce into a collection. However, I didn’t have any conscious themes or orders in mind when I was writing them. That they were cohesive—and thank you for saying that—was kind of accidental, or not accidental, but you access these sensibilities when you write that might not be conscious otherwise. That’s a fun thing about writing: accessing things you wouldn’t otherwise access. So, while I didn’t set out with a plan, a design, or a formula, I did find my mind going back to the same place. It’s really exciting to write like that, where you’re discovering your obsessions as you go, rather than starting out with a blueprint and trying to adhere to it.

Inscape: How has your writing style changed over the years?

AL: When I started writing in Iowa, I used a lot of levity. Over time, I’ve learned to combine levity and gravity. It’s a good combination for me. If I write just with levity, I’m spinning out into space; if I write just with gravity, it’s just heavy. Over the years, I have tried to combine those two. Also, there’s probably more me in this book. In my first book, I was trying an experiment where I kept myself out of it, at least overtly. I was behind the curtains, and I was just pointing at the panda bears and the jellyfish and the porcupines—pay no attention to me! It was a good experiment, because it was a way to keep my own conventions out of the work. But with this book, I learned to trust my own thoughts a little more, and it was just easier to include my own thoughts and experiences in it. It’s quite an exercise to keep yourself out of something, and I think I just got a little older and a little tired of that exercise. It was a good exercise at the time, but if you persist in any exercise longer than you need to, it can just turn into artifice or a gimmick. 

Inscape: Are there any habits you try to avoid in your writing?

AL: I think you have to just write it all down, and then look at it, and say, “Whoops!” I feel like writing crystallizes all of somebody’s strengths and faults. You get to know yourself. The strengths are what you keep, and, hopefully, the faults are what you delete. It’s a fascinating process. I was mostly trying to write this as a book of praise, but I also found that criticism comes very naturally to me. Criticism was something that I tried to retain as long as it wasn’t facile criticism—if I felt that it was criticizing things that I do feel are small minded, literal minded, and lopsided. But I tried to take out the facile criticism that’s easy and automatic. I also try to erase all conventional thoughts. Writing allows me to see those thoughts. There those thoughts are on the page, and I can take them out. What I love about writing is that I can think the way I want to think because I can see all my thoughts there on the page. I can see my thinking; I can see where I’ve gotten into easy thinking, and I can take it out. It’s a very long and arduous process (to think hard thoughts and new thoughts) and it does take a lot of writing, erasing, and rewriting.

Inscape: Who are some of your favorite authors or books?

AL: One writer who influenced this book quite a lot was Walt Whitman. I think I contracted the impulse to celebrate everybody from reading Leaves of Grass—where Whitman has long lists of different people, angels, animals, moss, worms, ants, and the spirit. Whitman puts them all in the same list, where there’s no hierarchy. He celebrates them all equally.

Inscape: Is there any specific message that you hope readers take away from the book?

AL: I think . . . the message of appreciation, and celebration. I don’t really write for a message, I write for myself. If someone else finds a message in it, then hooray! One thread I tried to follow was confusing certainties. A lot of the things that I’m celebrating, like babies, music, and donkeys, are really beautiful confusers of certainty. Thinking about a message is kind of like thinking about God’s “message” in the book of Job. Job and his friend were engaged in a long academic conversation, and they wanted answers. Then, when God suddenly entered their conversation, God didn’t deliver a message. All He talked about was donkeys, baby goats, and baby ravens. So, maybe my message is that I’m trying to emulate God, in His non-message, in celebrating plants and animals, creation, clouds, storms, and rain.

Interview With Derek Otsuji

by Ellie Smith

Born on Oahu, Derek N. Otsuji is the author of The Kitchen of Small Hours (SIU Press, 2021), which won the Crab Orchard Poetry Series Open Competition. He is a 2019 Tennessee Williams Scholar (Sewanee Writers’ Conference) and has received awards from Bread Loaf and the Kenyon Review. His poems are widely published in local and national journals, including Bamboo Ridge, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Bennington Review, Pleiades, Rattle, The Southern Review, and The Threepenny Review. A 2000 graduate of BYU’s Masters Program in English, he has studied with poets Leslie Norris, Susan Elizabeth Howe, and Lance Larsen.

Inscape: I was thinking we could start by talking about some of your biggest literary inspirations, maybe favorite pieces of literature or authors that have inspired you?

Derek Otsuji: When I was an undergraduate, one of the writers who inspired me was a fellow student who was at BYU. She had won a poetry competition run by BYU and she did a reading. Her name was Gina Clark, and I was just completely blown away by her poems. I thought, Wow, here I am an undergraduate, and she was just a freshman at the time, and she was just writing these wonderful poems. I was so moved by her work that I went up to talk to her afterward and asked her who she went to for inspiration because I loved her poetry so much, I wanted to read whoever she was reading.

She mentioned Elizabeth Bishop, so that day I went to the BYU bookstore. They happened to have the collected works of Bishop and I bought it. I’ve been reading her ever since. I think in terms of craft and tone she is probably one of my most important influences. What I really admire about Bishop (I believe she got some of this from Marianne Moore, who was a mentor to Bishop) is her precision of language, particularly in her ability to describe things accurately. Bishop has these three watchwords that she used to guide her poetic practice: “Accuracy,” “spontaneity,” and “mystery.” You want to be accurate in the words that you choose, but it cannot feel like it is labor. It has to feel like it just came to you as a flash of inspiration. That’s the spontaneous part. It has to feel natural. How does accuracy and mystery reconcile? Because it seems like one is rather analytic and scientific. You are trying to get things exactly right. I came across this book that really helped me understand this. It goes something like this: “Absolute clarity is mystery.” That’s worth thinking about. “Absolute clarity is mystery.” There is a poem by Emily Dickinson where she talks about poets who really know nature. They are not just taking a casual walk through the woods, but they actually can intuit things about nature that might escape even the most careful observer. She has this moment in the poem where she says, “The closer you get to trying to understand and describe the thing that you are looking at, the farther away it moves from you.” Even with someone like Dickinson, who is just incredibly precise in her descriptions, there is a sense that the closer you get to the actual, it flees from you. That to me is what I admire in the work of writers like Bishop and Dickinson is that sense of those three watchwords. Accuracy, spontaneity, and mystery. It’s an impossible standard, but I think you have to set high standards. That’s what you need to reach for whenever you write.

Inscape: So, to achieve that do you focus more on the form of the poem then? Or more on the subject you are writing about?

DO: I’m going to be a bit reductive in my approach. There’s your subject, what you write about. And then there’s technique, how you write about it. In some sense, your subject comes from just living life and being open to experience, so I really think the most important thing for a poet is to be radically open to experience. To be attentive to the things that arrest you, just stop you in your tracks and say, “What is that?” You know? Or just captivates you in some way. Even if it seems trivial and you think, “How could I ever write about that?” The fact that it captivates you, arrests you, moves you in some way always tells you that that is the subject for poetry, for you. It’s different for every writer. This comes from the novelist, Niapal. He has this analogy of writing as transcription. What you do is you hear the music of experience. Like all experience has a kind of music to it. As a poet, you try to listen and transcribe what you hear as accurately as possible. Of course, it involves all of the senses, what you see, hear, taste, touch, smell. But also, the emotions that well up in you as you live your life. You are trying to transcribe that music of experience as accurately as possible. So, the Irish poet who was also a Nobelist, Seamus Heaney, has this wonderful phrase in a poem: “The music of what happens.” I just love that phrase: “The music of what happens.” I think that what I understand of writing is you are transcribing the music of what happens as accurately and as completely as you can.

The problem is that words are flawed and imperfect, so you can never really capture in words the music of experience. There’s always a gap between what you are able to produce on the page and the music of experience. But that’s where technique comes in. I’m a strong believer in form, but I believe in organic form. Not form as a premade receptacle. You say, “I think I’m going to write a sonnet. What’s the rhyme scheme here? I’m gonna have three quatrains and I’m gonna turn the narrative here.” No. That’s not really how it works. It’s more like the poem finds a form. And sometimes the form does have rhyme in it, and sometimes it does have meter and sometimes it doesn’t. Again, it has to do with the music of the experience. What I look for is to invent a form that gives the fullest expression to the music of the experience that you’ve heard. You are trying to transcribe as accurately as you can. The more that I write the more I appreciate form. Not as a premade vessel or receptacle that you stuff your poem into that never really works. A poem invents its own form, even if it’s a received form. The rhymes that you choose and how you go about it are invented. I think the form is created as you go. Having said that, I do write a lot of sonnets. I know, this sounds strange right? It sounds a little bit old fashioned, but you know there are a lot of things you can learn by writing in a form that you can’t learn anyway else.

One of the most valuable things you can learn is compression. Poetry, if it’s real poetry and not just prose that’s chopped up, has an element of compression. It’s saying much with little. That is the power in a poem—for it to capture, maybe in fourteen lines, what it would take a social scientist a whole volume to describe. That element of compression. The sonnet also has the ability to project in ways that free verse can’t. There is a reason why Shakespeare went about writing about the vicissitudes of love and romance with it. He uses the sonnet form partly because of the drama that you can present in fourteen lines because of the turn (volta), and also that summarizing you get with the couplet at the end that encapsulates the whole experience. It’s like a very well-made violin, in the sense that the subject is the score of your music and form is like a well-made instrument. It helps to project the sound out there. It is my experience that if I am writing a poem in free verse, for example, and it’s just not working, it seems slack, it’s just blah. It’s not projecting any kind of feeling or emotion. Then I find that when I start to shape it a little bit, put some pressure on the line, all of a sudden the emotion starts to project in ways that I can’t achieve in free verse.

I don’t actually study poems. What happens is you read a poem and you think, That is gorgeous. It just knocks you out. You think, How did he do this? When something just knocks you out this way you have this desire to emulate it. You learn the technique, not by counting syllables, but by trying to imitate what it is that you admire, drawing upon your own experience.

I will just say one more thing about this because Bishop also says something about this, and I think it’s really valuable for young poets to learn. Don’t just study the new stuff. Don’t just read the new stuff. There are a lot of great writers writing right now, it’s exciting, it’s contemporary, and a lot of times you can connect with it more readily because it’s spoken in your idiom. Bishop says something that I think is really interesting. When you study the old poets, like Shakespeare, or my favorite, Marvell, even when you imitate them you won’t sound like them. Because they are using a completely different idiom. So you benefit from learning the technique but you update it because you are speaking in a contemporary idiom, whereas if you only read the new stuff you end up sounding like everybody else. That’s your idiom that you speak.

Studying language that’s slightly removed from your everyday language helps you to see the strategies and techniques a little more clearly. When you adopt those for yourself you won’t sound like anybody else, older or contemporary. I think that’s a very useful thing that comes from studying old poets.

Inscape: With form there are all these wonderful tools. Are there any specific techniques that you like to use in your poems, for example alliteration, consonance, assonance, or other different tools of that style?

DO: Sound is very important to me and my work. Not so much end rhyme, although I do use end rhyme sometimes, but internal rhyme, like you mentioned, and other sonic devices, like assonance, consonance, alliteration. It can, however, be overdone to the point of being distracting so I will explain to you my aesthetic when I write. A lot of my poems start rather prose-y and what I’m trying to do is to mimic the quality of ordinary speech. I think that’s a way of inviting a person into a poem, if it sounds conversational. I think sound effects work like this: sitting beside a lake when it’s very still. The surface is just completely still. It’s so still the sky is reflected in it and the trees around the edges. You can see them and the clouds reflected in the lake. Then without warning a fish jumps up. Splash! It is just a fish but because the lake was so calm and placid, that single leap into the air becomes dramatic and catches your attention. That splash ripples through the whole surface of the lake till it reaches the edges. That’s what I try to do in my poetry with effects, so to speak.

If you pour out the lyricism from the very start, it gets a little bit cloying and then nothing really stands out as arresting. My way of using those devices is to use them sparingly so that when they are used the effect is a lot more dramatic. As a counter example, I love Hopkins but sometimes the excess of alliteration and sounds is just a little bit cloying. I like to have a poetry of contrasts where you have the rhythms of ordinary speech and then just this outpouring of lyricism for a tiny bit and then you go back again. That image of the fish jumping out of the lake is what I have in my mind when I am writing using those devices.

Inscape: I love that. I know how you use form, so how do you pick the topics? You’ve got all of these amazing nature poems, and a lot about where you are from. How do you decide what you are going to write about?

DO: I think for a long time I struggled with that. I’m going to go back to something that I said earlier—cultivate a radical openness to experience. Meaning that anything could be a subject for a poem. If I have even the slightest sense of interest I will pursue it because you never know where it will go. Looking back, one of the things that I think caused me more frustration than was necessary was rejecting ideas before I even made an attempt to write about them. I would say, “Oh well, no one would be interested in that. I’ve never read anybody who wrote about that. It just seems so trivial.” But what I would say is don’t dismiss those things that you find yourself thinking about. The fact that it arrested your attention is an indication that that is material for poetry. I sincerely believe that’s true and as you explore that, you will feel a connection to the subject. You will realize it’s calling out to you and asking you to give it expression. I can’t tell you how valuable that has been because the poems I am happiest with are the ones that initially I had the impulse to reject. I said, “Who would be interested in that?” But it is precisely because people aren’t talking about it or aren’t thinking about it that makes it interesting to write about. It’s a novel subject matter. A quote from Emerson says, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Have you ever had that experience where you are reading and you think, Wow, I felt that, I have thought that, I have experienced that. The writer has just found the right words for it. You have had that experience but somebody else put it down for you because you rejected that thought. You didn’t recognize it as something worthy of being put on paper and so by rejecting it the revenge that is visited on you is that you see it written down by somebody else. That’s what Emerson is telling us, to be open to those experiences so that you find your words for it instead of having to encounter it in somebody else. That is the reward that you get for paying attention to those things that you might otherwise reject.

You might feel resistance to writing about something. That’s also a good indication that that’s something you have to face as a writer. I am very conflict-averse. I don’t like things that are unpleasant. I hate rude behavior. I don’t really like to think about those things. Being human we have to recognize those things are part of experience and we have to work through those things if our writing is to be true and alive. Some of the things that I initially resisted writing about actually turned out to be the most important to my growth as a writer. You have to be able to face those things and the value in that is other people have to face those things too. If you have the courage to write through those difficult things then your work might have value for somebody else.

Inscape: I know you have a book coming out, The Kitchen of Small Hours. How was the experience of writing a full-length novel of poems and having to stay on that one topic?

DO: I actually didn’t think about creating a book. If you are a poet that might be overwhelming; by nature what you are interested in is writing poems. Because of who you are and what your experience is—and you may have certain obsessions or concerns—if you are attentive to those things that speak to you, the thematic coherence of your poems will naturally emerge. This particular book was almost all family stories. I would go to these family parties and in Hawaii we have these gatherings called ‘talk story.’ The uncles get together and the aunties get together and they just talk. You hear the same stories over and over again. There is something to these stories which is why they are repeated. They came from my cultural DNA. I would hear my uncle or auntie or grandparents tell these stories so my mind and heart was just full of these things. I realized the impulse behind the book is, “How do you hold on to what you have to let go?” A lot of the people that I wrote about in my book are no longer here. My grandparents have all passed on, my great grandmother (who was the subject of the first poem in the book) passed on many years ago, and a lot of my aunties and uncles are getting really up there in age. The deepest impulse that drives me to write is again, how do I hold on to the things I have to let go?

I think poetry is a great gift because we have tried to do this in different ways; for example, taking pictures is one of the things I would do. You can look at a picture, you see people smiling, but you don’t know what they were thinking or what they were feeling. It is posed and artificial. We have this intense desire to hold on to these moments where we feel so connected and so alive but we know at the same time that it is not going to last. There is sadness even as we are experiencing life’s most joyful moments. I’ve always felt that very keenly even from when I was a child. I think, How do I hold on to these things and how do I hold on to the memory of people I love who are gone? For me just trying to capture the essence of who they were as a person is expressed in the stories that they told. That tells me a lot about who they were and that is what I’m trying to do in my work. I think because that impulse is the same, the poems naturally acquire a kind of thematic coherence. The rest of it is just arranging it. Then the question becomes, well, how do I order it? How do I arrange it? There I might be able to say something useful. I sent out this manuscript in a very different form and it wasn’t successful; it was rejected numerous times. Of course, rejection is just part of the game. I had this revelation when I was at a writers conference. I was sitting there and I realized that the book needed to have a different order and that I needed to put the stories of the women first. That wasn’t the original order. I put my childhood poems first. But I realized it was the stories of women that needed to come first and even the title poem, The Kitchen of Small Hours, came from the stories the women in my family told. Once the voice of my great-grandmother opens the poem, it is all the women who get a chance to speak. In some ways, their narratives were unspoken or suppressed. I realized that there was a lot of material that was unspoken. Even when they tell you a story, there is a story behind that story and I realized that that was the sort of thematic thread that needed to come to the front. It was interesting because I had submitted the manuscript to a contest one year, and it was a finalist but didn’t make the final round. When I rearranged the poems so that the voices of the women were in the foreground and I changed the title, that’s when the manuscript won. I knew that I hit on the right sequence.

Inscape: I never would have thought of the order as being so changeable but so important. I assumed it was like a normal novel— you begin at the beginning and you end at the end. But you are right: poetry is this whole collection and it’s a very different process.

DO: Yes it’s very very different; in fact, I will share this quote that I just came across: “The arrangement of your poems is the final poem in the book.” When you arrange the poems, it creates a kind of intuitive narrative arc. Not explicit because the links between the poems are unstated. That’s that unheard music of one poem speaking to another that becomes the last poem that completes the collection and so getting that right is very important. I spent a lot of time thinking about this sequence of the poems, and then when I hit on it, I said, “Oh, okay, I got it.” It just felt right. I think that was the reason why the manuscript, which had been rejected the first couple times, finally found a home. That was an indication that “Yeah, I got it right.” It’s always reassuring.

Inscape: You have this deep love of poetry and you have written so many amazing poems. Do you think you would ever branch out into more prose, like novels, or do you think that poetry is pretty much where you are going to stay?

DO: The title poem for this collection, The Kitchen of Small Hours, I initially conceived of as a novel. The story that is told in that particular poem is a story about a family being torn apart and then reconciled through illness as very often happens. I saw a lot of novelistic possibilities in that because it’s a story that literally covers decades of time. It begins in the life of a mother and daughter, and they have a falling out, they are estranged, then decades later when the mom develops Alzheimer’s, the daughter comes back. She is able to come back partly because the mom doesn’t remember anything. Forgetfulness becomes a kind of mercy that allows reconciliation to happen, and I just thought that would make such a beautiful novel. I had these grand ideas of writing it. I wrote out the first line and I would sit and try writing it out. I must have tried to write that novel for ten years. I never got past page one because I realized at some point, I am not a novelist. The poet in me can tell the story in a page. Once I realized that I said, “You tell the story as a poet would and you tell that decades-long story of estrangement and reconciliation in a page.” Then it just came. I realized at that moment I will never be a novelist. There is something deep in me that needs to compress things both spatially and temporally. To have the whole experience fully articulated and expressed in a form. I like that poems have a shape you can hold in your heart. That’s why I love learning poems by heart, because it gives experience a kind of shape you can hold with you. I love the idea of a pocket poem that you hold next to your heart. I realized as much as I loved the idea of being able to elaborate on something in a novelistic way, that temperamentally is not for me. I can deal with novelistic stories in poetic form if I just give myself the permission to do that. That’s actually how I think the book happened; because, again, the title poem comes from a failed novel.

Inscape: Do you have any ideas for another book that you might be working on?

DO: My next project is nature poems. I live in Hawaii. Are you familiar with the poet W.S. Merwin? I would encourage you to look at his poetry. He was probably the most important eco poet of his generation. Even though he is not native to the islands, he made Maui his home for many years. I mention him because he once referred to Hawaii as “the extinction capital of the world.” Hawaii is the world’s remotest archipelago; it’s in the middle of the Pacific, thousands of miles from any major landmass, so the life forms that evolved here are unique. They did not evolve anywhere else. When you introduce an invasive species, it just devastates the delicate ecosystem and so a lot of the indigenous species that are unique to the islands are gone. They are vanishing. I read a story about this tree snail—he was actually given a name, Lonely George. This is one of the saddest things you will ever read. On January 1 of 2019, Lonely George was the last surviving member of his species. He passed away in a lab. They had tried to breed his kind in captivity but one by one all of his kinsfolk died out until he was left alone. He lived alone for fourteen years.

I was just heartbroken by that story. The thing is, it’s happening right in my backyard. These mountains that I look out over were once home to these snails. They once were so abundant that you could shake the trees and they would rain down. Now you can’t find them anymore. You have to go to the very highest, most isolated parts of the mountain range. Even then the army has actually fenced off these areas so that predators can’t get in. When they breed these snails in captivity, they release them in these small sanctuaries with protected walls around them in an attempt to restore the native population.

The thing is when you remove a key species it has a cascading effect. We’re just beginning to understand what the consequences are. Because the snail is dying off, so is the tree that it lives on. The snail is amazing, it doesn’t even eat the leaves of the tree. It is like a vacuum cleaner, and it cleans off the fungus that grows on these trees. It keeps them clean, and it doesn’t hurt the tree at all. Think about how exquisitely fine-tuned the evolutionary link is between the tree and the snail. The snail is no longer there to clean the fungus off, the fungus develops into a disease, and then the tree starts to die. The native birds that feed on the flowers of the tree, they don’t have a food source and so the whole thing starts to collapse. We’re at the beginning of what could be the collapse of an entire ecosystem unless we can figure out a way to reverse it.

This has completely captivated my fascination. I started reading about Lonely George and researching all the other types of species that are in danger on the island. There are some very heroic people who are working valiantly to save some of these species, and I think some of them can be saved but some of them are probably past the point of no return. I’m talking about holding on to what we have to let go. In ancient Hawaiian legend the tree snail sang. They had a song. What could be more poetic? Scientists have tried to figure out what they meant by that because nobody has actually been able to record these songs. But I heard stories from people who still have memories of these snails. They say, “Yeah they do sing, they make noises.” It is all interconnected—the tree snail, the related flora and fauna, the song that the tree snail sang which is no longer here. It’s a poetic trope. I am very invested in that right now and I feel a sense of urgency because even as we talk some of these species are vanishing.

Inscape: Do you have any advice for an aspiring poet who is trying to add something to the world?

DO: Write the poem that only you can write. The only way that you can do that is by being radically open to your own experience and not rejecting those thoughts that come to you. Don’t reject those thoughts just because you think they’re not fashionable, they’re not trendy, that’s not what this editor at this magazine is interested in publishing, that’s not something that just won the National Book Award or something like that. Those things are a distraction, not that you shouldn’t keep your finger on the pulse of poetry because you always should be reading what is happening. As far as what you can add, it comes down to your unique life. You are the only one that has your set of experiences, that has your unique genetic makeup, that experiences the world in your particular way. You really have to be true to that. The way to be true to that is to cultivate patience with your writing. I learned this from a wonderful poet and teacher, Dan Beachy-Quick. I attended a writer’s workshop and Dan is one of the greatest teachers I have ever encountered. He read the poems of everybody who was in that workshop. He read with such attention and care that when he would talk about it you felt like a genius. He picked up on every nuance. Even things that you didn’t know were there he would pick up on. When I was talking to him, he would point out to me places in my poems where they would take a wrong turn. I realized, “Yeah, he is right.” And I recognized I was trying to second guess myself. I was thinking what would this editor be interested in, what is cool now, how can I make this sound edgy, that kind of stuff. Inevitably the poem takes a wrong turn. He taught me when you are writing, and it is an authentic poem, the poem starts to generate its own music. If you listen to the music that the poem is generating it comes from an actual experience. You will begin to feel your way forward until you arrive at a complete expression of what it is you are trying to say. You really have to listen to the music of your own experience and get that down as accurately as possible. When you do that, a lot of times it means writing against the grain. When you do that, don’t worry about publication, worry about writing the poem that only you can write. If it’s a real poem, somebody will publish it.

Interview with Hasanthika Sirisena

by Fleur Van Woerkom

Hasanthika Sirisena’s work has been anthologized in This is the Place (Seal Press, 2017), in Every Day People: The Color of Life (Atria Books, 2018), and twice named a notable story by Best American Short Stories. She is currently faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and Susquehanna University. Her books include the short story collection The Other One (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016) and the forthcoming essay collection Dark Tourist (Mad Creek Books/Ohio State University, 2021).

Inscape: What was your first genre, fiction or nonfiction? Is there one genre that you prefer now?

Hasanthika Sirisena: It was fiction actually. I started out writing short stories, and I think for a long time that’s all I imagined myself doing. I think it isn’t a matter of what I prefer, but what are the subjects I want to write about, and what genre seems the most appropriate for the subject. I think my work uses fictional techniques, so I don’t really feel as if I’ve ever really left fiction, even though what I’m working on is true.

Inscape: You have two pieces, “Unicorn” and “Confessions of a Dark Tourist,” that overlap. Which one did you write first, and how did you decide to incorporate parts of it in the other piece?

HS: I wrote “Unicorn” first, and I think that’s when I really started to wonder about writing something so serious as a work of fiction. I think one of the things that I couldn’t get across in the fiction so well, but that I felt nonfiction allowed me to do a much better job of, was to really address my own responsibility. I mean, you could read “Unicorn” and you don’t need to know that the writer took part in a war tour; you could think I just made that up completely, right? And so, you would be absolutely forgiven to think none of it was real, and it was all a figment of my imagination. But, when I wrote “Confessions of a Dark Tourist,” I had to own that I did this thing, that I had participated in something, and I thought that was very important. I wanted people to know this really happened, and I probably shouldn’t have been there. I would do it again, but I also think it capitalizes off a lot of people’s extraordinary pain, something that I had never experienced. I think contending with that is actually part of art so for me that’s a really great example. I like the short story “Unicorn” just fine, and people tell me all the time that it’s one of their favorite stories in the collection, but I really felt that I couldn’t let that be the only version of that particular encounter.

Inscape: How have your experiences with visual art changed your creative processes?

HS: I actually started off as a visual artist, and visual art trained me to see. I don’t want to claim that I’m a particularly observant person, because I’ve been shocked by what I haven’t observed, but I do think that it trains you to go beyond what you think you’re seeing and to really see something. One of the first things you learn in a life drawing class is that we have an idea of what a hand is: it has five fingers, it has a palm. However, that’s not what a hand looks like in space. And sometimes with a hand in space, you can only see two fingers, or it looks more like a fist, and so you really have to rethink what your brain tells you, as opposed to what you are actually perceiving. I think visual art has really trained me to override the language that my brain wants to impose on something, and instead try to really see it. And it really trains you how to live and work as an artist, and how to deal with failure, because drawing is just constant failure. Someone like David Hockney, who has been doing this for decades now, if you watched him drawing now, you’d see him trying to feel it out, you’d see him make mistakes and then correct them, right? And so, it really teaches you that failing and then correcting is part of the perceptional process.

Inscape: What is your daily writing process like?

HS: I read a lot, and I spend a lot of time taking care of various kinds of jobs that I have, so I’ll sometimes just spend the day grading and not writing. I am an editor for a magazine, West Branch, and I’ll spend the day working on the magazine. I’m always reading though, and usually I get projects in my head and then I’ll think through the project, and I’ll plan the project, and then I’ll focus on the project. So my writing tends to be really project-based. If I’m not working on a project, and I’m usually almost always working on a project, but if I’m not, then I’m reading and trying to take care of other things. I know that I’m supposed to tell people that I write every day and all that, but I don’t, and I feel terrible telling people that, but sometimes you have to do those things, and so you don’t write. I write when I feel inspired, and sometimes maybe a few weeks will go by and I haven’t written anything because I haven’t yet been inspired.

Inscape: What have you learned through teaching others how to write?

HS: I think teaching writing has been the best way to learn writing. I went through an MFA program and I was workshopped a lot, and that helped, but I think when you have to articulate a concept in order to teach somebody else, that is when you really learn. That is even true for writing essays. I was given the opportunity to teach a class, Introduction to Creative Nonfiction, and at the time I had only written a few essays. In order to teach essays, I had to really think, how do I discuss this? And then I really began to want to write them more and more. So often with teaching, I’m also simultaneously teaching myself.

Inscape: When you begin writing an essay, do you know what you want to include from the start? What is that process like?

HS: I really think and think and think through something, and I really sit and deliberate and imagine it and turn it around in my mind and then almost always by the time I sit down to write, I know what it is going to look like. I do draft and redraft, but I think it’s really unusual at this point for my work to take on a completely different form than the original. Usually, the revision has to do with moving parts around. I spend a good portion of any project thinking about writing a project. Maybe I’m just a ruminator or something.

I think one of the hardest things about writing is to keep yourself motivated when things aren’t successful. So maybe this is a way for me to make sure that I’m using my time wisely. I don’t have hours and hours just to write sort of randomly. I’m usually working on something for somebody.

Inscape: Do you intentionally write about Sri Lanka to give a voice to your family and others? Do you find yourself writing more about things you know, or things you don’t know?

HS: In the collection, there are only two essays that directly have anything to do with Sri Lanka. And of course, that said, you know my family appears in the essays quite a bit. There’s another essay called “Lady” that does deal with Sri Lankan culture, though it’s not central to the essay. Some people argue it is, but the essay actually has to do with the name of the syndrome that my mother died of. I usually write an essay to learn. I usually have a question when I start off working on an essay. For example, for this essay that is about the syndrome that my mother died of, it’s actually named after an Oscar Wilde play, and I remember being in the hospital and the doctor was telling us about it, and I thought, That seems random, like why is it named after an Oscar Wilde play? And I had luckily studied Oscar Wilde in graduate school, and I thought, That’s so strange, because there didn’t seem to be any connection between what my mother was suffering and the play, which is Lady Windermere’s Fan, and I was like, I don’t know what the connection is. When I looked into the history, it was actually a very sad history; there was a real misunderstanding on the part of the people who named the disease. I was able to make an essay that was even deeper than the history of the naming of the disease. It became an essay about how we don’t understand other people’s suffering, that we can’t fully place ourselves in comprehending the pain other people are feeling. I’m usually working from a place of mystery. I’m certainly pulling on a lot of knowledge that I have, but often I’m using the essay to describe the process of trying to figure something out. The root word for essay is the French essayer, to try. I always like to think that I am trying to answer a question, I’m trying to acquire knowledge. I think if I knew it, it probably wouldn’t interest me.

Inscape: What kind of audience do you find yourself writing for? People with similar experiences to your own, or people with really different experiences?

HS: I would hope the last one. I mean, it’s not that I wouldn’t be interested in someone with similar experiences. I have an essay that I published when I found out that my father had married someone secretly after my mother passed away, and I had really thought that could have only happened to me, only to find out, it happens to more people than you would think! For sad reasons. Sometimes people can’t make their marriages known for various reasons; because of class, or maybe because their sexual identity might have been illegal or might have caused them to be prosecuted. That’s been the great fun of writing essays, as opposed to fiction, because no one ever writes you for a fiction story and says, that happened to me! I mean, no one reads my cricket story and goes, Oh, I used to play cricket. That’s not how you relate to a piece of fiction. There’s a limited audience for the short story, and that audience shrinks for the essay, especially the type of essay that I write. So, I think most of the people that I write for are very curious about the essay, and I think those are going to be people who are really interested in the world, in ways that are probably unique to that reader.

Inscape: Have you ever struggled with the ethical question of how to share your experiences even if others have very different interpretations of the same experiences?

HS: I think you can certainly give your version of something, but you have to be really clear on a few things. First of all, that it’s your version of the event. I also think you really have to go out and ask your family, or ask your friends, or get verification that what you’re seeing is what other people see. Then you need to allow the chance for those other people to come in and say, that wasn’t how I saw it. In my essay “Lady,” I gave my impression of my mother, and then I realized that might not be my sister’s impression. So I asked her, and she said that she didn’t see her the same way that I did, and I put that into the essay. It deepened the essay because it made me understand that I was operating from my own emotions and fears, and my impression of my mother. My sister didn’t share those emotions or fears, and we were in the same family, and she just didn’t see it that way. I think that’s part of being honest, which really enriches your work.

And the final thing is, I think that you always need to be willing to make yourself look bad if you’re going to make other people look bad. Ultimately, I think you have to make yourself look the worst, or if not the worst, look just as bad. Invariably, you are just as bad as the people you’re criticizing. I haven’t ever found that I really occupy a true high ground. Most of the time I have done something equally as dubious, if not more so because I probably should have known better. I think if someone clearly did something egregious but there was no room for me to write about my own complicity, I’m not sure I would write that story. I think ultimately for me, I’d rather admit that I’m as flawed as any of these people that I write about.


Advice to Writers


What advice would you give to a poet just starting out?


1 think first of all, if you are a young poet, you should read a lot—see how masters did it and learn. Writing goes together with reading. Don’t hurry to workshops, but find a poetry friend whom you trust, someone who sees what you can become, not just what you are now Remember that it is a long way with lots of tests, but I believe that if you are a real poet your destiny will lead you.


Do you have any advice for aspiring writers on ways to get started?


Everybody’s curious about something. I think that curiosity is the number one necessary characteristic—to walk around looking for interesting things. Writing is a way of sustaining curiosity and thought and pulling it out. Often we’re satisfied with “hmm” and we go along with our lives. And we probably have to do that most of the time because we’re busy with important things, but in the essay you take those “hmm”s and you convert them into something big. You start to investigate experiences and how they connect to that idea, look for quotes and for what others have said in the past, and find those connections. I’d say that half my time writing is spent reading.


Could you impart any words of wisdom to aspiring writers?


If you want to be a writer, then write. If you have no confidence, take writing classes and see where you come out. Are you as good or better than others in the class? Most writers have to spend time learning their craft. Don’t get so caught up with writers’ conferences and networking that you end up knowing everything there is to know about writing, but you still don’t write. You have to sit on your behind and write. There is no magic. There is no other way. Then you have to find someone who will publish what you write, but there’s no point thinking about it if you haven’t written anything to sell.

Poets on Poetry


What do you think is wrong with contemporary poetry?


Well, most of it is bad just because 1 think very few good poems get written in any period of time. That is to say, what’s wrong with contemporary poetry is probably not specific to this period. It may be that we have the illusion that other periods are better precisely because the winnowing process isn’t complete and so what’s presented to us in the pages of books and anthologies is often the best of what was written in a particular time, and what besets us on bookshelves now is simply an unedited flood. I’m skeptical about the emergence of really good poems. 1 think they’re rare for any individual person or for any period in history.

I do get the sense that with contemporary poetry a couple of things have gone wrong. One of those things is that technical accomplishment has gone out the window, and as a result a great deal of musicality has gone out of verse. I think one of the pleasures of poetry is that it moves you into the realm of sort of musicality, but a lot of verse that 1 read just strikes me as very prosey and doesn’t have strong rhythmic basis. The lines seem arbitrary to me. Whereas someone who couldn’t play a chord would not deign to go out and presume to entertain us, people who can’t do the poetic equivalent of those things do presume to write books.

If I were to say what else strikes me as wrong about poetry these days, it’s that there’s a sense that absolutely anything goes—absolute complete diversity.

The third thing is a collective amnesia that everybody seems to be undergoing where we forget about the past. Literature, perhaps poetry in particular, ministers to our need for continuity and continuance of long memories. Much of the poetry written today doesn’t seem to go back much farther than 1974. It doesn’t seem to be connected to or participating in a tradition. Or it seems to have the notion that to be participating in tradition is to be dogmatic and limited, whereas it is just the opposite.


You’re a person who’s devoted a good deal to the writing, studying, and teaching of poetry. What value does poetry have for you? What is the value of poetry?


Poetry for me is intricately tied to religion. So for me, writing is a type of prayer. It’s a big part of my life, as far as that goes, a huge spiritual part.

The value of poetry in general? I think that it puts us in touch with our humanity and provides a means by which we can confirm our humanity in a time period that is marked by chaos and uncertainty and a real dehumanization.


The Creative Process


Could you walk us through your writing process and tell us what it’s like when you’re sitting down to write a poem?


When poems come to me, usually a line will just happen to come into my head. Then I probably have no idea what it means. And so I’ll write that down, and then—it varies. I try to work every day, but that often isn’t productive. A poem will take me anywhere from an hour to twelve years to do. For example, there’s a poem in my book six lines long that took twelve years to write, while the long poem in my book took only 45 minutes, which is amazing.

1 used to write for six hours a day, every day. I’d get up at about five in the morning and 1 would go from six until noon. Then I would read poetry from noon until six at night, and 1 would read it all out loud so that I could feel the rhythms. I wanted to be able to feel [Wallace] Stevens—which is probably why there’s so much of Stevens in my work, because 1 read so much of him in grad school. Then once a poem begins to take shape, 1 send it to Kim Johnson. She can be really harsh, which is cool, that’s good because 1 wouldn’t want to publish a bad poem. I’ve published bad poems; they don’t go away.


I’m really curious about your creative process from the inception of the poem to the end.


It used to be that I’d have a special time early in the morning, like six to seven-thirty or eight, but I got tired of that routine. About six or seven years ago, 1 shifted it so that now 1 set off chunks of time: I’m a teacher, so 1 get summer vacation and winter vacation.

1 go to cafés and write. And that’s so much more interesting than you sitting in your living room all by yourself. 1 will sit down in the morning with a cup of tea and 1 look out the window and 1 think, What did I see in the last few days that sort of provoked my cynics, my interest, that kind of stuck in my mind? Oh yeah, yesterday, when I bought a newspaper at the drug store, I stepped out onto the sidewalk and there was a dead bird. What do I make of that? What’s a dead bird doing there? And what a poignant sight—this fragile little thing with all these people rushing back and .forth parking and baying stuff, there’s the little dead bird.

And so, I just start playing around with these ideas. I have an artist’s sketch pad. lt’s this big thing, unlined, and it’s the perfect thing to work on because you’ll think, this is the line 1 think 1 want, but this alternative occurs to me and I can put it over there—maybe I’ll go back and use that. Then you go through the whole thing and sketch it out, and you’ve got the main poem there on the right and some ideas that you didn’t want to throw out here on the left. it might have taken an hour to do it and then I’m through with it. 1 will not go back to it until the weekend when l’ll type it up on the computer and start fooling around with revision and so forth.


When you sit down to write, how do you tap into your personal voice each time?


I think that an individual voice or style takes a long time to achieve and is not totally a matter of will. 1 think it takes years of experience as well as talent. An awful lot of poetry doesn’t have very much of an individual voice. But when I’m sitting down to write, 1 don’t let myself be bothered by, “Does this sound like me? Is it my voice?” 1 just try to get something down on paper. And often it looks like a total mess; it’s illegible. Flannery O’Conner, the wonderful novelist, said, “My first drafts look like a chicken wrote them.” Well, so do mine.

So where does my voice come in? Part of the answer is in the process of revision. I’ve gotten much better at revising as I’ve gotten older. And the other thing is, maybe my voice was there all along in those illegible linessomething in my own vocabulary or syntax—and 1 just didn’t worry about it at the time. 1 think poetry is often a process of revising, but when we are talking to each other, we don’t worry about the words, they just come out—it would take too long if we shaped every sentence to be perfect. 


What are your inspirations? is there a particular time and place that you write?


I’ll start backwards. I get inspiration everywhere, I guess. Or I look for it everywhere. A lot of times I go to readings by other writers and catch inspiration there. Last Friday I went to a reading by Katie Coles. She talked about astronomers in all their hurry to get information and detail everything. She said something like, “I hope they remember just to gaze,” and I’ve been dealing with some astronomers lately and so I thought that was a good idea. “The everdivisible photon” works into an essay I’m already writing, which is about divisibility and approximation. But basically when 1 want to write an essay it’s something that I’m interested in learning more about. Perhaps a bit confused by, and hopefully something I want to connect to other things. All the essays I’ve written lately are about connections through ideas or words.


When do you know a poem is a poem? Or, when do you know a poem is going to be a good poem?


Generally, you just have to work on them. Sometimes you can get a poem right in the first sequence of writing; sometimes you have to come back to it after several months or even a year. You might think it’s done, then look at it after a long time and realize the ending is wrong or something.

l’ve found that an event or experience that seizes my imagination and that I think about over and over and over has the best chance of becoming a poem—if the idea’s in my head and 1 think about it for a week, two weeks, a month, before 1 start writing.

Before an actual writing session I like to read because it moves me over into the creative realm, especially if 1 read good poems because they challenge me to write up to their level. To start a new poem 1 take scratch paper and I just write down language—all the language that suggests itself to me as necessary to discuss the subject, to embody the subject in a poem. Not even sentences, just phrases or single words that evoke various concerns the issue raises. I don’t write the words in a linear fashion but all over the page. Then I spread all that language out in front of me and try to construct the poem.

After I get that first draft, I put it away and come back to it at a later session, look at it, and see what needs to be different. Once I’ve taken the poem as far as I can, I give it to my writing group for their critique. They make suggestions, and I continue to revise from there. Sometimes after the writing group I think ouch!—this poem is too broken to fix, but about half the time can keep working and know what to do.


In your stories you incorporate humor, and incorporate it well. How do you write “funny”? is it an innate sense, or is it something that can be learned, or both?


I’ve often found that the harder I try to make something funny, the greater chance I run of failing in my goal—that is, my goal of creating a sophisticated work of fiction.

See, many people can write a story that is laugh-out-loud, ha-ha, knee-slapping funny. Think of a silly character, think of a contrived plot, think of a zany host of supporting characters, and voila! You’ve got a story that can get some chuckles—but not much else. Stephen Tuttle, a friend of mine, often uses 

Interview with Elena Passarello

Elena Passarello is a writer and actor, and the author of Let Me Clear My Throat, a collection of essays on the human voice in popular culture. She is originally from Charleston, South Carolina. She studied nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Iowa. Her essays have been published in Oxford American, Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, Gulf Coast, Slate, Iowa Review, and are forthcoming in the anthologies After Montaigne and Cat is Art Spelled Wrong. She has acted in various regional theaters in the East and Midwest. She originated the roles in the premieres of Christo pher Durang’s Mrs. Bob Cratchits Wild Christmas Binge and David  Turkels Wild Signs and Holler. In 2011, she was named the winner of the annual Stella Screaming Contest in New Orleans. She was  the first woman to win this competition. Passarello teaches nonfiction at Oregon State University.  

INSCAPE: Your book, Let Me Clear My Throat, is obviously focused on the human voice, I am curious, what was the genesis for this idea? What made you think, I want to write a series of essays focusing on the voice, shouts, and screams.”  

ELENA PASSARELLO: I knew that the voice would be a good topic for a whole book for two reasons. One, I think it was a topic I knew a lot about, or that I knew enough that I could get started in a broad way. I knew I could because of my work as an actor and for personal  reasons, too I am from the South and used to have a southern accent; I don’t  anymore. I have a particularly low-pitched voice for a woman, so I have always been conscious of my voice. And as an actor, I had to  be professionally conscious about my voice. By the time I came to  the place where I wanted to write a book, I knew that the voice was a baseline that I could keep accessing.  

The other thing that I knew was how much mystery surrounds the human voice. We dont less about it than we think we do. Even peo ple that are heavily trained vocally have moments of crisis where  their voice seizes up on them. Compared to other physical systems, we don’t have effective maps, training, or surgery for the voice. And there are new things that we are learning every year about the voiceTherefore, I was really excited to unpack some of the mysteries.  

INSCAPE: Where do you draw inspiration for your writing?  

ELENA PASSARELLO: I am inspired by ekphrasis. And I am really  inspired by other people making things that the world pays attention to. Although some people do not believe that pop culture is art, I absolutely do. Sometimes they make something beautiful, like a concert at Carnegie Hall, and sometimes they make something that you could only call art in quotation marks, like the “Wilhelm Scream.” When that making of art causes any sort of larger public reaction, I’m very inspired by figuring out how to explain the reaction. For example, my new project is all about animals that we as a  culture have paid attention to, and the essays in the project unpack  what that attention means.   

I am also very inspired by mysteries, like the essay in Let Me Clear My Throat about the “Rebel Yell”-no one really knows what it sounded like. Or the “Wilhelm Scream”-no one really knows who made that recorded movie scream. No one living knows what the “Castrati” sound like. Things like this that cannot be explained are really exciting to me.  

INSCAPE: The book features various phonetically spelledout screams, yells, and hollers. While reading the book, I could not help but sound many of these out. What was the process of sounding these out and writing them out?  

ELENA PASSARELLO: Rendering something on the page presents a lot of obstacles, since the senses or the passage of time cannot be immediately evoked; they must be evoked through language. Some of those obstacles we hate and we avoid. We try not to engage them and push them off to the side. But I think every writer has one obstacle that they really love to engage with. For me, it’s sound. I love  trying to evoke sound on the page.  

Sound is so hard to write about that there’s a famous a saying: “Writing about jazz is like dancing about architecture.” But, despite the obstacle, I think trying to bridge that gap between the still  page with just typeface on it and actual sound, and trying to get the  sound to perform in front of the reader, is one of my favorite things to try. But in order to do that, I had to do a lot of silly sniff. When I was writing, I had a mirror close by so if I needed to watch my body making the sound, I could. I also had a pitch pipe read the right pitches were. Sometimes I even had a keyboard. I did a lot of recording, capturing, and performing trying to find different ways to bridge that obstacle of sound making. Spelling was just one way I tried to face the obstacle.  

I dont think that I was one hundred percent successful. I think that is a part of the major writerly obstacles; you can’t ever over come them to one hundred percent success.  

INSCAPE: Have you always wanted to publish a book? For example, when you were a little girl, did you always think one day you  were going to publish a book. Or during your years of acting, did you think that one day you would contribute to the world of essays?  

ELENA PASSARELLO: I think so. When I was a kid, I was totally excited to write a book. But, you know, when you’re a kid, you’re also excited to go the moon. No task seems impossible. But writing a book was one of the things that I pretended. Like I pretended I  won an Oscar, I pretended I had a whole bunch of babies, and I  pretended that I worked at Burger King! I was really into working at Burger King, actually.  

Then when I got older, it seemed kind of impossible when I realized how hard writing was. So I got into performance. But even  when I was acting, I thought it would be really cool to make some thing that lasted. I think theater is really rewarding, but one of the things that is so beautiful about theater is that it evaporates. You can go see the Mona Lisa tomorrow, and I saw the Mona Lisa in 2000. It’s still there. A book published 500 years ago can still exist today, as well. But if you performed in Phantom of the Opera when you were 21, I’m never going to get to see that. Therefore, when I was acting, I felt this need to make something tangible. But it took a long time to be able to actually pretend that I could to it. I had to re-convince myself that I could.  

INS CAPE: Why did you choose essays as a medium to express your self?  

ELENA PASSARELLO: I was never really drawn to any other form. I don’t make things up very well in the sense of the free form, fictive. I’ve never been interested in creating other universes or people to  move throughout those universes. When I think of that, I don’t  think of making things. I think of getting lost! It’s a very unmooring concept for me. Also, I think I am too wordy for poetry, even prose poetry.  

I like how in essays you can define the parameters of what you’re working on through your relationship to certain facts in the world. I like the rigidity and scaffolding that essays allow me. I like facts; they keep me company. I like researching things and living in that  research. I was raised an only child, and I’ve always found history, culture, and facts as companions.  

INSCAPE: Do you write every day?  

ELENA PASSARELLO: No. Well, I’m on a book deadline now, so right now I do. But I typically don’t write eve1y day. I do see the benefit of writing every day, in that a writing practice is important. This is something that I think is non-fiction specific, though. I think there’s a lot of time spent with nonfiction practice that isn’t literal writing. Many nonfiction writers say that they consider researching as writing. Or going out into the field, or interview. I find that I have these long incubation periods inbetween ideas or essays in which I am just reading, taking notes, researching, or sometimes just watching a bunch of movies to try to figure out what I think about a certain thing. I’m thinking like a writer while I work, but I am not sitting down at the computer and thinking about sentences.  

INSCAPE: Why do you write?  

ELENA PASSARELLO: I write because I value the self that I am on the page. It doesn’t always happen, but when I’ve got a finished piece of writing that exists in the world and that I am confident it is doing what it needs to do, the self that I created it is more rigorous, more cogent, more attuned, and more presentable than what my everyday self is. I am proud of that.  

I write because I like to talk to people about the things that fascinate me. I write because it keeps me company. You can grow old with writing. You can change with writing. It is something that you can visit every day. You can use it to deal with the small problems of  the day. That seems so sobering. I should say, “I write because itfun!” But it’s not! Editing can be fun, but writing is not fun for me a lot of the time. But it is always there.  

It’s funny, because the other constant in my life, performing, is so different from writing. Why I pe1form has nothing to do with any  of the things I just listed. When I perform, it’s because I appreciate the spontaneity. I love the idea of never having to overthink anything. It follows a wonderful series of impulses. It‘s instant gratification! There is a beautiful feeling of being alive in your body when  you perform. Athletes feel this way too, I’ve heard. You become a super-charged physical-version of yourself. None of that is present  in writing, where you’re calculating an intellectual version of your self with which people engage in a notvery-spontaneous way.  

Interview with Patrick Madden

by Thomas Jenson

Patrick Madden is the author of three essay collections, Disparates (2020), Sublime Physick (2016), and Quotidiana (2010), and co-editor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (2015). He curates, co-edits the journal Fourth Genre with Joey Franklin, and, with David Lazar, co-edits the 21st Century Essays series at the Ohio State University Press. He has taught English at BYU since 2004.

Inscape: In your essay “Happiness,” your collaborator, Amy Leach, writes, “to have lived in such proximity to nothing, yet to have written a something, even a mini-something…maybe that is what it means, other disappointments notwithstanding, to enter into joy.” What are the disappointments of writing, and how have you personally overcome them to enter into joy?

Patrick Madden: Disappointment in writing can come if one is aspirational (and probably everyone is to some degree). Most people do not achieve the type of success they hope for. I’m lucky to live in a time and place where universities support artists—not just linguistic artists but visual and musical artists. Not too many of them though. There’s a lot more supply of willing and capable professors than there is demand for them. So ultimately I’ve been very lucky. And my books find a good but not a very large audience. It might be nice if more people knew about the books.

It’s beneficial for writers to be somewhat melancholic, empathetic. When you’re attuned to the way the world works or fails to work, then even if everything in your personal life is smooth sailing, you’ll still feel something–not to the same acute extent as a person suffering–when you witness suffering from others. That is also a kind of disappointment, the large-scale disappointments that everybody experiences. It doesn’t have to be unique to writers—I don’t think any of those things really are. But they do come up as part of the writer’s life.

I find that writing itself is a joy. This is not just me. I think most writers feel this. It often feels like an essay exists outside of me and I’m discovering it. I know this isn’t quite true, but it can just feel that way sometimes. The art of creation, plus the sense of discovery, is exhilarating. I tend to write outside myself, so I don’t just transfer what I already know or what has happened to me. I do a lot of research, and I love that kind of learning, too. And there’s some joy in sharing writing. One benefit of not having a broad audience in my writing is that people who read it tend to like it or at least be courteous enough to say they like it. So I don’t get any real negative feedback. It’s all good reviews.

Inscape: Do you feel like there’s less pressure because you have a smaller readership? 

PM: Probably. I have published my books with the University of Nebraska Press. They’re academic and nonprofit. As long as they don’t lose money, they are happy to publish the next book. So it’s fairly low stakes for me. They have published three books of mine now, and I love working with them. I have friends who have published with big New York houses. They don’t quite own their work the way I do. The publisher owns it and needs to make money from it, so there’s a lot more interference. And if the book didn’t sell, the publisher cut their losses and took the book out of print. I never felt that kind of pressure. There’s a tiny bit of pressure because I want the book to sell well enough so they’ll let me do the next book. But it’s worked out so far. It’s more of a carrot than a stick.

Inscape: In the preface of Disparates you write, “what follows herein is unavoidably disparate, whether by design or failure or authorial inability to meet the market’s demands.” How does the commercial success of your work influence it?

PM: Almost not at all. I get paid to teach, not to write. Any money I make from writing is used to take the family out to dinner. It’s so pitifully small that it cannot be a goal. But that’s freeing too. It means I can write about anything I want, not necessarily something timely or topical or newsworthy. I don’t think I find readers on the level of my topics. I find readers because of the writing itself. And most readers I suspect know me personally or know somebody who knows me. There’s a little bit of word-of-mouth. My graduate-school mentor, David Lazar, has written a number of esoteric essay collections. His latest book is about supporting actors in Hollywood’s Golden Age. So it’s a topical book. I mean it may not have a huge audience, but at least there is a subject audience for the book: people who are interested in that time and in that place. So he can find an audience that doesn’t know David Lazar, that doesn’t know literary nonfiction, that just knows that they’re interested in the Golden Age of Hollywood. My books so far have had no subject audience available to them. Even the title of this latest book suggests that it’s about a whole lot of stuff. There’s nobody out there looking for a book about a whole lot of stuff.

Inscape: I thought it was cool how you had a lot of different subjects. I noticed that there was a scientific lens sometimes. Is that something you intend with your writing?

PM: Yes. Over almost half a century I’ve developed my interests, and science has been a longtime pursuit of mine. I think my writing style comes from an alchemy of something inherent in me and the intersection of the right thing at the right time or influences from peers, parents, and teachers. All these things have added up to me. I think the book is a pretty organic emanation from the person I have become over several decades of life. I will say, though, that I began graduate school with a more narrative-driven style. Through training with this professor I mentioned, David Lazar, I was convinced to love the more researched and idea-driven essay. Which I really took to, but I wasn’t aware of that interest before I confronted it in graduate school.

Inscape: The book almost reads like raw thinking, as if I were sitting next to you while you are discovering these essays. If that was the process, what did editing look like later? Does editing your work go against the philosophy of it?

PM: Not really. On the one hand, I’m a slow, methodical writer. I really try to work the sentences and get them into an artful shape as I go. I know writers who are very quick and who have to revise more heavily later on.

But the result wants to appear effortless. I don’t know any writer who can really put the recorder to their mind and let it run. An essay is an artful representation of the mind thinking, but it’s not a transcript of the mind thinking. I don’t know about your thoughts, but mine are far too scattered. Montaigne, who invented the essay, basically says that he was so easily distracted that he began writing to tame his mind. He was naturally curious and divagating, and maybe had a bit of attention deficit. But when he wrote, he focused his attention. Not in a systemic way, but in a way that still allowed for the play of the mind but kept it on some train. Not a linear argument type of train—never that—but a kind of meandering argument in a rhetorical sense. Revision is always a kind of tightening and threading. The essay wants to get to something interesting, resonant, emotionally charged. But usually I’ll write toward that and then realize, “OK, I got here to a good place. Now I need to make the ending inevitable.” Long ago I thought of this, but I later discovered that Aristotle had thought of it, too. The idea is that endings should be both surprising and inevitable. Maybe the first response is, “Wow, that’s new and interesting. I hadn’t considered that.” The second is a recognition that, “I see how we’ve been getting here all along.” But the composition of the prose typically, in my case at least, isn’t enough to generate that feeling of inevitability. So I’ll run back and use metaphorical language that relates to the final image or something, so that when you get there, you say, “Oh, penguins! I remember he was talking about the Arctic before.” That’s not a real example, but it could be.

Inscape: You talked a little earlier about the melancholic attitude that writers should have. I feel like that tone came through with your essay “Repast” because the form is creative and playful even though it’s dealing with a heavy subject. How do you see those two things working together, the form and the content?

PM: Sometimes we categorize emotions in too opposed or simplistic ways. We think happy or sad, good or bad. We think of them as opposites. If you were to think of play or humor, you’d associate that with some kind of positive emotion or experience. That’s fine. I think it does often work that way. But I don’t think that’s a requirement. I’m interested in the ways form and content fit together in an inherent way. And maybe inherent just means in a way that we’re used to. But I’m also interested in creating new connections. As if that’s the whole game of the essay: to create new connections that have never been made before and will be interesting to readers. In this case, with that particular essay, the process is a little bit backwards. I had read an essay in the form of a crossword puzzle. It was a piece called “Solving My Way to Grandma” by Laurie Easter (she’s a friend of mine). I decided I wanted to write a crossword puzzle essay, so I found an online tool to make crossword puzzles. I didn’t really have a subject to write about. I started plugging things in. But I didn’t succeed. I couldn’t come up with anything that I thought worked well. But the same website could create a word search puzzle, too. That seemed easier because it’s filling in the gaps with garbled, nonsensical letters. And it hit me that I do have a subject for this in my mother’s funeral. So it was the failure of the crossword puzzle and the serendipity that the same programmers put together the crossword puzzle and the word search functions that got me to remember that my mom used to do these word search puzzles. In the master bedroom there were some of these leftover books that she had been doing, one of them a word search puzzle book. I started thinking about the metaphor of finding words and that scene at the repast where I had not prepared any sort of speech. The opportunity arose, it was kind of unexpected, and I just stumbled through it inadequately.

And then the connections started flowing quite easily. But easily because I steep myself in a lot of literature. One early association was the Borges story, “The Library of Babel,” and the situation he posits of an infinite library that contains every possible book, how in that library you would find the story of your whole life, even what you haven’t lived yet. There’s a lot of afterlife imagery in the story, and in other places Borges has compared the afterlife to library, so that seemed to work really well. I did not revise that essay much once I hit on the idea. It would’ve been tricky to revise anyway because these paragraphs had to be roughly the same length and I felt like the five paragraphs balanced nicely. They arched pretty well.

I also had fun hiding other words in the puzzles that don’t appear in the text. For example, one Easter egg is one of the phrases the librarian mentions that they found in a book: “oh time, thy pyramids.” That was a great discovery for them because most of the books were gibberish. And at the very end, my essay’s last sentence is also from Borges. It is the very last line of “The Library of Babel”: “My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.” 

Inscape: I think it’s a beautiful essay. And in my mind, it exemplifies the purpose of making unexpected connections. The book as a whole treats the essay—how to write it, what it can do, its historical champions. What is your philosophy of the essay? How is that understanding different from how you have seen it in the past, and what influences brought you to where you are now?

PM: It’s hard to be terse about it, but I’ll try: When you are younger, essays are punishments your teacher gives you that force you to prove that you did the homework. Your own perspective is not valued. All that’s valued is argument and proof. You are expected to have concluded before you begin and to use the writing as ballast to support an argument. You might involve expert opinion. This is antithetical in spirit to what essays are or have been or should be. What Montaigne intended is an attempt without reaching after conclusions. When I first started studying creative writing, I thought an essay was a short story that was true. I didn’t perceive the need for any kind of generic distinctions between short story and essay, other than this extratextual bit that in the essay the author certifies that this really happened whereas in the short story the author holds open space to invent some things. That’s also a pretty unsophisticated view. We’ve already talked about some of my basic hopes for the essay, which is that it’s an artistic record of a mind thinking about a subject of general interest, often intersecting with the writer’s personal life, but not always. Samuel Johnson defined the essay as “a loose sally of the mind.” I think that’s an appropriate definition. I don’t think it limits things, at least. The essay generally balks at limits or pushes against them or subverts them.

Inscape: You write, “All essays…should be gnomic…without persnickety certainties.” But don’t some of your essays conclude on some certainties? Not that they are didactic, but parts don’t feel gnomic, per se. Was your goal with Disparates to leave the reader to deal with ambiguity, but did you also want to clarify certain things, like what makes a good essay?

PM: Scott Russell Sanders, an essayist I admire, effectively said that while the essay might reach some clear understanding about its particular subject, it always recognizes the vast uncertainty that remains. I think that’s a pretty good way to think about what essays do. I’m fond of setting the reader up by saying, “This is what I’m trying to say here”–that type of direct engagement. I’ll use the phrase “which is to say” pretty frequently. It’s a tick of mine. Because I want the essay to represent what it’s like in another mind – I want the reader to understand what’s happening in my mind – I want to both show and tell. But the telling can’t be banal, directly correspondent, saying this equals that. That’s unsatisfying for me. Instead, I want it to hold up a subject and point out our default response and offer a varied perspective, see the thing’s contextuality. Our understanding is a negotiation between the thing, the mind perceiving the thing, and the myriad influences that have shaped the mind perceiving the thing. Generally that’s a bit uncomfortable. It’s much easier to fall in line with the cultural defaults and interpret from within that space without questioning. If you perpetuate the system you will probably succeed in the system. I say this not as some grand rebel. My life has largely been fitting myself into systems comfortably, so that the system will benefit me. Here and now it’s possible for a person like me with this kind of creative interest to be sheltered by academia, to earn a paycheck sufficient to pay the mortgage on a home, to feed some children, and so forth. That’s nice. But ultimately the dominant value systems don’t really value the type of work I do as much as other types of entertainment. They more tolerate it.

Inscape: Is that frustrating to you?

PM: Sometimes. But I don’t really need more than I have. I have more than most people in the world. Maybe the mind is naturally inclined to see the things one lacks more prevalently than the things one has. You can always find people with nicer cars, nicer homes, living more ostentatiously. It is somewhat frustrating that teachers are undervalued, but less personally frustrating than culturally frustrating. I wish our culture valued these things more, the things that don’t translate so directly into economic value.

Inscape: What influence do you feel like Spanish culture and language had on your writing?

PM: I’ve been to some literary events in Uruguay that were just packed. The crowds were not as big as a soccer game, but they acted like they were at a soccer game. Once I went to see Mario Benedetti, one of Uruguay’s greatest poets, in a concert with a folklorist named Danielle Viglietti. The line to get into the theater went around the whole block. They would play and recite poems to music. It was just wonderful. After every single poem or song the crowd erupted into exuberant cheers. When you go to a poetry reading here in the US, everybody remains politely silent between poems. Another time I went to see José Saramago, the Nobel Prize winner from Portugal, when he visited Montevideo. When I got there an hour early, again the line wrapped around the block. When I finally made it inside, the whole auditorium was jam packed. I had to stand in a crowd outside the doorway just trying to hear what was going on. Obviously they could have held the event in a place with bigger seating capacity, but the way people respected literature was inspiring to me. There are people in the US who feel that way about literature, but maybe we’re too dispersed. We have different cultural habits here. And we only elect lawyers to public positions, whereas in Latin America sometimes they’ll elect the poet. They’ll send poets as ambassadors.

As for language, even though Spanish and English are both Romance languages – at least later English is heavily influenced by the French – they are different enough. I have a good friend in Uruguay who says that if you have only one watch you’ll always know exactly what time it is, but if you have two watches you’ll never be quite sure. I think that’s great. Knowing a second language has had a tremendous effect on breaking my correspondent/convergent understanding of language (and things beyond language). You can get by in life with a pretty simplistic relationship where language is just a vehicle for information. Language can work that way; it certainly does. But it’s not just that. The fact that Spanish sees things differently, even slightly, is a tremendous benefit. As in the phrase “se me cayó”: it fell from me or on me. There’s a distancing, a lack of blame. Or “to be born”: in English we use this clunky phrase. In Spanish it’s “nacer.” It applies in an active way to that thing whereas our phrase is passive and convoluted. Or the phrase “dar a luz,” which is a widely accepted metaphorical verb that is applied for the complementary action, which we don’t have a good name for: “give birth to” is such a clunky phrase. If it weren’t so well-established I’d have to strike it out anytime I found it in a student draft because it’s just a backwards way of approaching things. So knowing Spanish—and I’ve kept it up, my wife is from Uruguay, we speak it in the home, we have lived in Uruguay a bunch—has really infiltrated my mind and allowed me to think in new ways. And it’s not just that I can think in the English way or the Spanish way. I don’t feel like I’m tied to language as an information container anymore.

Inscape: I feel like this fits how earlier you were talking about emotional dichotomies such as happy/sad, comedy/tragedy. It seems like you really understand how the two things in the dichotomy converge in your work.

PM: We often think that in a dichotomy you have to choose one or the other, one thing’s right one and the other is wrong. But I don’t feel that way at all. I mean unless the kids are misbehaving and you have to straighten them out. At least where I’m allowed the space to live and think and write freely, it’s quite invigorating not to have to resolve. It feels like John Keats’s “negative capability,” holding contradictory thoughts without irritated reaching after conclusions. I’d much rather exist in that place

Inscape: Something you said earlier about fitting yourself comfortably into established systems so that they benefit you struck me. Do you feel like your teaching or writing is a way to break out of those systems?

PM: I hope so. It has been for me and I hope to model and perpetuate that for students as well. Unconsciously I’ve certainly worked within the system of white privilege for instance, or the “American dream,” the immigrant who works hard to give his children a better life. That’s my family story. My ancestors are fairly recent arrivals to North America, within two or three generations, and they certainly bought into that model. Back to systems, one main system I’ve consciously worked in is academia. When I was younger I quite enjoyed school. I figured out the rules, the reward structure. And I worked to get good grades and learn a good bit. The system was so influential that here I am, still in school. I didn’t want to become a specialist who has to spend an entire career focused on some very narrow area of knowledge. I wanted, and want, to have the freedom to learn anything, drop it when I am no longer interested, and move onto the next thing. That’s what an essayist does. I’ve been lucky that this thing called “creative nonfiction” is burgeoning. At the turn of the last century, not too many programs offered an emphasis in creative nonfiction, but now many do. The timing was quite good for me.

That’s the primary system that I’ve consciously worked within. But just yesterday I was talking to students about their final paper and telling them not to subsume their personality to the thing they believe to be “proper academic style,” which is third-person, passive voice, attempting pseudoscientific distance, objectivity instead of subjectivity. I am trying to work within academia to subvert academia little bit.

Inscape: You probably have to conform to the system to some extent in order to change it. Right?

PM: Somewhat. But I’ll tell you even in my department most people are specialists in literary critics. If I go to a faculty presentation on an academic subject, I have no idea what they’re talking about. They speak a language I don’t speak. And not only do I not speak it, but I don’t want to speak it. I feel like speaking that language would be a kind of selling out. Have you been to some of these presentations? Some of them are just so jargon-y. They’re not speaking to anybody who hasn’t had their exact training.

Inscape: Some final questions. What advice do you have for students who want to become writers?

PM: All the writers I know have one thing in common: perseverance. I know writers who are very different stylistically, and some can publish in these venues here and some can publish only in those other venues over here. There’s a lot of room for stylistic variance. But most failed writers ultimately make that judgment (of failure) on themselves. They make it based upon feedback—they get a lot of rejections and they start to think “maybe I’m not cut out for this.” But the ultimate judgment is always your own. Here’s a fun example. The book How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker just came out. I know Jerald. He’s a super good guy. It’s his third book, so he’s not a first-time author. But Jerald tells me that this book was rejected by something like twenty publishers, who all thought it wasn’t marketable. They wanted him to write a memoir. Even though essays are experiencing a surge in popularity now, the publishers he went to, at least, didn’t want essays. Meanwhile, I am one of the coeditors for the the 21st Century Essays series from Ohio State University Press. Jerald sent us the book, and we said “this is exactly what we like.” The book is now a finalist for the National Book Award, one of five books published in 2020 selected by the National Book Award committee. I can guarantee that there are publishers right now who are shaking their heads wondering how they missed it. So it’s not a case of becoming a writer and or not; it’s a case of believing in what you’ve written enough to keep shopping it around, keep sharing it, until you find a publisher that recognizes the value in it. And then a lot of luck, too. Because there are a lot of great books, and the National Book Award finalists are not the actual five best books published that year. They’re the five books published that the committee happened to discover that year and agreed upon. “Perseverance”: that would be my advice.

Inscape: How did things work out for you?

PM: Yeah, I was pretty lucky. My first book is effectively what I was working on for my dissertation before I got a Fulbright fellowship and wrote a different dissertation. So it’s made of essays I wrote during graduate school. I had published half of them or so in literary journals, bit by bit, small journals here and there. I sent the manuscript into a national book contest from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). That year the judge was Michael Martone, whose water bottle I sold in the first essay in my new book. And the screener was a guy named Ander Monson. He wrote one of the blurbs for my new book. So Ander Monson gets a hundred manuscripts and from them he has to select a small number, let’s say 10. Among them is mine, I assume because we share some esthetic affinities. I’m writing in a style that, basically, he recognizes as valuable. So he sends off his 10 selections to the final judge, Martone, who was Monson’s teacher. They share some affinities, too. And finally Martone selects my manuscript as runner-up. I didn’t win the contest but the book was runner-up. That meant I got a paragraph of praise from Michael Martone. With that in hand and having met a lot of other writers and editors, including Dinty Moore, who edits Brevity Magazine and has written a lot of books himself. He says, “Pat, you should send in your book to Nebraska. Tell them I sent you.” I send a proposal to Nebraska (who’d been publishing lots of great literary nonfiction for years, a lot of writers I admired and aspired to be like, not the big moneymaking writers but the serious literary writers who supplement their writing habit with teaching jobs) with the Michael Martone quote and that Dinty Moore recommendation. And it all worked out. It took some time, but they decided to publish the book. And the book did well enough that they were willing to take a chance on the next one. And that went well enough that they did the third book, Disparates. So it has been a gradual process of building momentum. And the timeline when I look back is not too bad. But it didn’t happen right away either. Quotidiana came out in 2010 and I graduated with my PhD in 2004. So that’s a few years.

Inscape: Did you actually sell Michael Martone’s water bottle on eBay?

PM: Oh yeah. For $20.50. I let people know that I was doing the auction so that they could submit questions and bid. And the winning bidder was a former BYU student. She thought it would be quirky to own that water. There are some exaggerations within that essay, but I think you can tell what kind of stuff I was making up.

Inscape: Well, of course, because you say in the essay that you bathed in the water, then you gargled it.

PM: Yeah, that didn’t really happen. But I don’t think that destroys the credibility, because any critical reader is going to understand that that didn’t really happen. I hope.