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Elisa Guidotti

Elisa Guidotti

Interviewed by Sarina Redzinski

So first I wanted to start with a little bit about your background. Youre from Italy, but you live in Germany and The Drama Clubis written in English. How did you come to decide to write in English, and would you say your Italian upbringing still influences your writing (outside of the setting, of course)?

 I’ve been writing stories in English for quite some time, since I was fifteen years old. Back then, my reason for switching from Italian to English was mostly pragmatic: I’d been writing fanfictions in Italian and posting them online, but I understood quite soon that only if I wrote in English would my stories actually be read by someone. However, I was still writing my own original stories in Italian. Then, after moving to Germany, I started to speak English daily and to read almost exclusively in English, and I joined a local Creative Writing group of (mostly) non-native speakers who write in English. Eventually, I decided to stop writing in Italian altogether: I’ve come to realize that English is the language that best suits my voice as a writer, and I now embrace the challenges of writing in a non-native language as part of what makes the process of writing so exciting.

To answer your second question: growing up in Italy, I think I’ve developed a fascination for ruins, emptying towns, abandoned buildings, collapsing infrastructures, etc. which shows through much of my writing. It emerges quite clearly in “The Drama Club,” but I find myself returning to similar images even when I’m writing stories that aren’t necessarily set in Italy.

The setting of Italy is obviously very important to this story, and you spend a lot of time describing both the physical surroundings of the characters and the culture in which they are living. Would you say you drew more from your own childhood surroundings, or were you more focused on the current Italy in which young people live?

 I definitely drew a lot from the physical surroundings of my own teenage years, which I entered right as the economic crisis struck, so I grew up surrounded by images of factories, offices and shops shutting down. Besides, in my hometown there are plenty of unfinished or unutilized buildings and not many places where young people can hang out, just like in the town where the kids of my story live. A few years have passed, but the empty and unfinished buildings are still there, and not enough new businesses have opened to replace the failed ones; besides, many people in their late twenties still live at home with their parents because they can’t find a well-paid job, and if you enter any tobacco shop in Italy, you’ll find someone obsessively playing the lottery or using a slot machine. So, yes, I’d say that the town I describe is a town that could exist in current Italy.

 

Even though Italian culture is at the heart of this story, theres also a lot of conversation around American culture as well as that of other countries, like environmental careers in Australia and British artistic figures like Shakespeare and Banksy. There almost seems to be an unmoored nature to the world the teens inhabit. What would you say is the ultimate purpose of this melding of cultures, and do you think it speaks to the current cultural state Italy finds itself in now?

I didn’t think of it as a “melding of cultures” as I was writing this story, actually, because to me American popular culture is just popular culture: in Italy—but I guess the same could be said about many countries outside the US—we are constantly exposed to American movies, music etc. so American culture shapes our own tastes and interests to the point that it is experienced as our own popular culture. The same could be said about Shakespeare or Banksy: they’re artists about whom most people know just as much (and perhaps more) as about Italian artistic figures. At the same time, we’re sometimes keenly aware of the foreign origin of American culture, especially when we compare contemporary American and Italian cultures: in these cases, I see lots of people (especially young people) lamenting, for instance, that Italian music or movies are not as good as American ones, so there is a widespread sense of inadequacy, I’d say, when such comparisons are drawn. But there are also many young people who prefer Italian popular culture, so it’s not easy to make broad generalizations. I can only say that, as a person who’s always been much more up to date on (and enamored of) American contemporary culture than on Italian contemporary culture, it came naturally to me to represent young Italians who are fascinated with cultures coming from outside the country and who make these cultures their own.

Within the context of the story, American culture is perceived by the kids mostly as familiar, though it also introduces them to realities that they won’t get to experience directly (like drama clubs), thus leading their expectations about growing up to be disappointed. There is a discrepancy between the stories they grew up with and the reality of their own lives, yet they keep wanting more than what is available to them in the “here and now.” In this sense, their fascination for cultures coming from other places can be seen as stemming from the desire to live different lives from the ones they’re “stuck in.” Similarly, Australia sounds to the freckled girl like a country that would give her the opportunities she lacks in her town (and in Italy at large). In Italy we grow up being told that we must move abroad because our country has nothing to offer to us, and some of us are quite young when we decide we’ll leave sometime in the future, often without even trying to look for a job in our own country. I know something about that myself, since I moved to Germany before even getting my Master’s degree.

Similarly, the story seems to exist in a kind of in-between space. The characters explore an unfinished theater that theyre not convinced wont be completed one day, they live in a town hovering in the despairing space between economic collapse and reconstruction, and even the ending leaves the audience unsure of the fate of the freckled girl. What made you decide to locate your story in so precarious a place, and how did you approach helping your characters navigate through it?

As I mentioned before, I’m drawn to precarious places, perhaps because I grew up and still live in an era defined by precariousness: it’s hard to find or keep a well-paid job; there is a widespread feeling that the younger generations will be worse off than the previous ones; moreover, climatologists predict a much more dreary future, a prediction that goes against all narratives of progress that have dominated Western culture for quite some time and that represent, I would say, an “unkept promise,” much like the theater in my story. In this regard, I guess I tend toward writing uncertain endings because they reflect the uncertain, hazardous nature of this era. On the other hand, though, my characters are teenagers who cultivate their own ambitions and dreams, which implies that, at least when it comes to their personal lives, they believe in the possibility of a future that will be better than the present. This is what helps them navigate the gloomy reality they inhabit. Their attachment to the theater is rooted, partly, in a delusion, though it also constitutes an act of resilience, if not of rebellion against those prophecies of doom, which is why I had them break the rules and trespass the construction site, so that they could make use of the theater and try to realize their aspirations in some way and keep dreaming against all odds. However, I also wanted to show their failure at seizing the opportunities that lie in front of their eyes, and for this reason I wrote about a love story that ends miserably before being given a chance to begin.

Growing up is a lot about carving out your own space in the world, and your story explores this quite a bit. Do you think teens nowadays tackle this problem in different ways from when you were a teen, or do you think there is a kind of universal route that we all take?

I think finding or creating your own space in the world involves a lot of exploring and experimenting and going against what you think is expected of you. This might be a more or less universal route most young people take, though of course in practice different kids from different times and places find their own specific ways of carving out their own space. What was already true when I was a teenager, and is even more true now, I suppose, is that the Internet offers alternative spaces for kids to experiment with their identities and be themselves when they lack such spaces in the physical world; besides, on the Internet, kids are exposed to plenty of diverse subcultures and ways of living, and this influences how young people come to define themselves and what they desire also outside of the Internet.

I particularly loved the way you touched on the theatricality of being a teenager. Oftentimes your characters seem to be performing for each other, or even themselves. Was this influenced by the setting of the theater, or did you choose the setting of the theater in order to showcase this teenage behavior?

I decided upon the setting early on in the outlining process, whereas it was only when I was actually writing the story that I found myself adding details pointing to the theatricality of being a teenager. Beside being a common teenage behavior, I also see it as a specific response to the characters’ peculiar condition: in a context in which young people’s desires and frustrations are invisible or neglected, it is somewhat empowering for the kids to give vent to the full intensity of their emotions or even to simply feel seen.

Theres a bit of a shocking turn that comes at the end of the story, which is colored by violence that disrupts the safe haven of the theater and ushers in a new reality for the teens. Do you think this is indicative of the way that their childhood ends (i.e. bluntly and without warning) or do you think the characters in your story still have a ways to go before they give up their youthful outlook?

A bit of both. I see the freckled girl as the most disillusioned kid, so at the end, when she falls and thinks that it’s a good thing, after all, that the theater will be demolished, to me this is indicative of how she’s now seeing the theater the way adults see it, that is, as something that has no future. Similarly, the American boy is confronted with a tragedy that definitely marks the end of a phase in his life. At the same time, however, I see the indigo girl as someone who wouldn’t give up her hopeful outlook entirely, despite being faced with the harsh reality. I like to think that after the story ends, she’ll become even more resolved on imagining and building toward a better world for herself and other young people like her.

Lastly, I have to ask—were you a theater kid growing up?

I took part in many school plays as a child, but then there was no drama club in my middle school and high school, so I stopped acting, unfortunately, and lost interest quite soon. Now that I’ve rediscovered my love for the theater and that I’ve been reading a lot about the experiences of American kids in drama clubs, I wish I’d had the chance to become a theater kid myself. I guess the kids in my story and I have that much in common!

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Daisy Fried

Daisy Fried

Interviewed by Kayla Beth Moore

You’ve got two very different laundry poems in this issue. How would you describe the role of domestic labor in each of these pieces? Is it background music, the thing that’s happening while the speaker explores another domain in her mind, or is it more intrinsic to the poem or consciousness of the speaker than that?

Ha, I didn’t even notice that connection when I sent the poems off! They were just the most recent poems I’d finished. Mostly I think just enjoyed how different they are, format-wise, paired together. In fact they came from very different places. “A Monkey Thing” wasn’t called “A Monkey Thing” until quite recently, and had a lot of different formats and settings and intersections of material over several years during which I returned to my high-school-band-at-the-laundry material. “Chorus Line” happened rather quickly; I’d been looking through an art book called Madam and Eve: Women Portraying Women and, as an exercise, writing a single quick sentence about 50 paintings each in turn. There was a painting of somebody’s tights on a rooftop clothesline. I took the sentence I wrote about that one, and started messing around with it.

But here’s the thing: Laundry has been a big deal in my life for the last half-decade or so, because first my dryer broke (so I was hanging wet clothes—including tights!—on the line in my tiny back courtyard, as well as in the shower, over the railings, on the radiators, etc.) and then my washer broke a couple years ago, and I couldn’t afford to buy new ones, so I was going to the laundromat around the corner all the time. And while I don’t think of my poems as autobiographical in the sense that I am trying to tell people literally what-happened-to-me-plus-metaphors (after all, I think of “I” as a performance and a strategy, not as myself), certainly whatever I am spending a lot of time on, in my life, is likely to get into my poems. I don’t mind domestic labor, and sometimes enjoy it, although like most women (people?) who also work a more or less full time load, plus act as the frontal lobe for their household, I feel a bit peeved about it at times. I should add that I did finally buy new appliances recently, and in fact, in retrospect I’m pretty sure that coincided with my finishing both of those poems. Hmm. Direct relationship between convenience and productivity? I may be finished with laundry for thematic content for awhile, anyway.

What does prose poetry afford you that other forms don’t? Do you even care for the distinction of “prose poetry” as a form, opposed to more traditional, enjambed things?

I’ve written only four prose poems in my life that I’ve published, so it is hard for me to speak with any expertise about the format (none of the four started out as prose, although occasionally a poem of mine which is lineated in its final form started out as prose). Naturally, my inexperience with purposefully making prose poems hasn’t stopped me from developing a craft class I’ll teach this July at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers (where I’m faculty) about prose poems. I want to figure out more about it: what makes a prose poem work? But I’m not particularly interested in genre distinctions. I mean, shrug. I do love this little thing by Harold Nemerov:

BECAUSE YOU ASKED ABOUT THE LINE BETWEEN PROSE AND POETRY

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

Then came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.

And I like Gertrude Stein’s “What is poetry and if you know what poetry is what is prose…” (Quoted from memory but that’s the gist.)

But ultimately what interests me with any piece of writing is what makes it tick, what’s its logic, from the inside out. Why does the format the writer has selected for it, or arrived at, become necessary to the thematic content? So my two questions for myself and for my class (and I try to teach classes mainly where I don’t have the answers) for any poems we will be looking at will be: 1) What makes it good? and 2) Why does it need to be in prose? That is, why does this piece of writing need to give up the power of the line?

“A Monkey Thing” took many forms over several years, most of them lineated. (One of the things I do quite often when I’m looking for the poem in the material is to change lineation: short to long, even to jaggedy, lines to prose to lines, etc.) At one point, under a different name, it was trying to be a sonnet sequence! When I switched into prose, I loosened up some of the language, which in turn suggested other rhythms and syntaxes available to me, when also seemed to dose the poem with badly-needed oxygen, and allow me to meander in ways that felt natural rather than excessively mannered—which is how my digressions in the lineated format(s) were feeling to me. The baboons only arrived in the poem once I started in with the prose. I don’t really know why. They seem to me (at least the ones at the Paris Zoo) chaotic animals that don’t do well in the cage of my line breaks…

So maybe my aesthetic metaphor here, with this particular poem anyway, is Free the Baboons!

Your poem “A Monkey Thing” begins in a laundromat and ends with the speaker’s memory of a Paris zoo. It’s lovely and it called to mind for me Baudelaire’s introduction to Le Spleen de Paris where he says that poetic prose is something of a miracle, that it’s “musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough and jarring enough to be adapted to the soul’s lyrical movements […] to the twists and turns that consciousness takes.” Do you agree with this idea, would you amend it?

I’m so in love with that Baudelaire passage. Thank you for reminding me of it! “Supple and jarring enough.” You can substitute that for my explanation of why I turned “A Monkey Thing” into prose: because prose was supple and jarring enough to get from the laundromat at 9th and Christian Streets in Philadelphia to the Paris zoo, not to mention back into the speaker’s teenage past when she awkwardly propositioned a grownup volleyball player! (What was she thinking!?)

You’re a great poet of people-watching. Has this always been an inspiration or interest of yours?

I live in Philadelphia where the people-watching is good: lots of people out and about, lots of character and variety here. My husband and I have always people-watched together. We love sitting in cafes wherever we are, and drinking coffee or beer and scribbling or reading and looking at people and talking. So much evidence passing by. I’m just remembering we used to have this thing where we’d take the bus to NYC for the day (Philly is 90 miles south of NY), and before doing whatever else we had planned, we’d go to the first Starbucks we found near the bus station and sit in the window and drink coffee and count how many passersby actually looked happy, and it was like 1 in 10 in midtown Manhattan. But I mean, yeah, doesn’t everyone write novels in their heads about people they see? Doesn’t everyone look for evidence that other people are doing it right or wrong or differently? I also learn a lot about language from eavesdropping—what’s really idiomatic as opposed to what do authors like to pretend is idiomatic? How do people reveal or evade or withhold themselves by what they say and how they say it? The thing about putting other people in your poems: they kind of disrupt the fixed authority of your “I,” right? They reflect something about the speaker (what I say about somebody else is not only about that person but also about me), but also they don’t let the speaker get away with as much lyric supremacy. They allow the speaker to be embarrassed or hesitant or even shitty in ways that are hard for a lonely “I” to reveal convincingly about herself.

You have a book called Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice. You spend the whole of the book playing with the idea of a “women’s poetry” and teasing strands away from the concept. I’m curious whether you think there is such a thing, or rather, if there is a specifically female consciousness that exists in the poetry women are writing these days.

Re: the title of that book: I mean it with complete sincerity and with perfect irony. The book’s title poem starts by ventriloquizing Marianne Moore’s famous poem “Poetry”: “I too dislike it.” The great thing about that line is that it makes liking or not liking poetry a non-issue while also telling us what’s important about poetry. We don’t say “I like” or “I dislike” about breathing, or love. So why say it about poetry either? The statement is also literally true: I don’t like women’s poetry or men’s poetry or anyone in particular’s poetry. I only like individual poems. I need poetry. Women’s poetry, of course, does and doesn’t exist. It’s like a car (the title poem is about a pimped-out car). It might have purple lights underneath, or outrageous hubcaps, or an enormous spoiler jutting off the back, but underneath it’s still a car.

It does occur to me to ask, at this moment when the visibility of trans and gender-fluid poets and poems and politics is high, whether the question about “specific female consciousness” is the same as it was when I wrote that poem and that book. I mean, it is for me—I only can write out of my own experience. One of my students, whose pronoun is “they,” was writing about femininity, and I realized that I think I have much less of a sense of what that might mean than they did, maybe because I’ve never particularly had to ask myself what my gender was. I’m like, I’m a female, so if I do it, it’s feminine. Is my female experience (cisgendered het married middle-aged mom) different from the student poet’s? But isn’t it also different from all the other cisgendered het married middle-aged moms of my acquaintance? Really, as with the question of genre and prose poems, the question of gender and poems is less interesting than the specifics of each poem. But that—as my undergrads say—is just me.

What are you reading this summer? Any current writing projects you’d like to share with us?

I’ve been reading around for my prose poem class—I’ve been particularly interested recently in Bhanu Kapil’s Ban in Banlieu, Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women, Donna Stonecipher’s book about the prose poem, Prose Poetry and the City, and Kate Colby’s Dream of the Trenches (which is billed as “Essays” but I dunno.) These aren’t really discrete narrative or lyric or dream sequence prose performances, but rather fragments of things rubbing up against and building on each other—and I think that’s one of the things that’s interesting me about them. How do you get incompleteness to perform? I thought Jeffrey Yang’s Hey Marfa was fascinating, one of last year’s best books, written in all kinds of formats collaged together—plus paintings and drawings by Rackstraw Downes—as a way of thinking about place and colonization and history and art and violence.

I’m also very much liking Connie Voisine’s The Bower, not prose poetry, but a book-length personal/political travelogue in couplets, divided into shorter sections, having to do with the city of Belfast and its conflicts and music and stories, with growing up American and working class, with mothering, with reading. Connie is compassionate and steely, lyric and thinky, and I love those combinations. And I’m reading Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady again, third time through, I think. A book I love.

I’m working on my fourth book of poetry, poem by poem. (I don’t write project books; I just write poems that start to link up when there’s a whole bunch of them that are good enough.) I’ve got about three-quarters of a manuscript, I think. An ongoing project, meanwhile, is that of selecting the poems for Scoundrel Time, the online literary resistance journal, where we’re building an archive of responses to the current political climate. One feels so helpless just now, but this feels like creating space for humanity and attention in the midst of everything working against those things.

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Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson

Interviewed by John Bolen

How did you come to name the antagonist of the story John F. Kennedy in the first place?

It was mostly an accident. A boy who antagonized me in high school was named after a different US president, and I used that name in the first draft and then I thought, “Oh, shit, what if he read it?” So I just picked another president.

Music appears often in your stories. In “Kennedy,” Jamie tells us that he likes Tevin Campbell and Britpop, Kennedy is into Death Metal, and the art teacher plays John Tesh: Live at Red Rocks in class. In the title story of your latest collection, Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine, the main character, Adam, has just been forced to leave his indie-rock band. He moves back in with his mother, and, in perhaps my favorite scene of the book, plays Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” as a dirge, while his mother listens.

 What kind of music do you listen to? Do you ever listen to music while you write, or do you need complete silence? Music is such a major component in our lives, and yet I rarely see it incorporated into fiction as seamlessly as I see it incorporated into your stories. How do you do it so well?

This is all stuff from my own life. In junior high, I was deeply obsessed with Tevin Campbell. In high school, while everyone else was listening to grunge, I was into Britpop, buying import CDs and magazines at Tower Records and staring at pictures of, like, the lead singer of Suede for hours. My art teacher played nothing but Yanni and John Tesh CDs while we worked. A friend of mine does a version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as a really, really slow song, and it’s so wonderful.

I pretty much just listen to rap music, and then I listen to whatever my two boys (Griff, eleven; Patch, six) like, which right now is BTS and Froggy Fresh and the Bob’s Burgers Soundtrack.

It’s very kind of you to say that about my stories and how music works within those stories. Ever since I was a kid, music has been really important to me, as I imagine it is to most people, but I have obsessive tendencies, so I sometimes get way too invested in music (see: Campbell, Tevin). I’ve always loved the way Jennifer Egan used music in A Visit from the Goon Squad, especially the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” and “Ask Me if I Care” chapters, the way the music serves as this point of connection, to pull two people together for a brief moment, to share the sound. And for someone like me, who struggles with anxiety and being around people, music is a kind of common language that lets me connect with other people. So I try to bring that into my fiction.

I do listen to music while I write sometimes. For my last novel, I listened to Phoebe Bridgers on a loop, one album, over and over and over. For The Family Fang, when I did the revisions, I listened to Sam Amidon’s “Relief,” a single song, over and over and over for hours and hours while I revised. I wish I could remember what I was listening to when I wrote this story. Oh, actually, it might have been the Silver Surfer NES soundtrack. Or the Robocop Gameboy soundtrack, since I was writing about videogames. Videogame music from the 90s is about as perfect as it gets.

Did you play video games growing up? Do you play them now?

A majority of my childhood was spent playing video games. Going to the arcade with five dollars and just playing Mortal Kombat and Cyberball and NBA Jams for a few hours, I was as happy as I could be. It was a way for my brain to kind of calm itself, let the colors and sounds do their work. And videogames were a great way to figure out narrative, to break down a larger story into smaller chapters, to see the progression.

I haven’t owned a system since my SNES in high school. I kind of lost the desire and then games passed me by, and I wasn’t good at them anymore. But now that I have kids, they love to play, so we have an Xbox and it’s made me really happy to play with them, though I am very bad at it. I also still have my original Sega Master System, so the kids love playing those games with me, like Shinobi or Pro Wrestling, and I can really wow them with how goddamned good I am at them.

About halfway through the story, we, as readers, realize that there is at least some narrative distance between the events that transpire in the story and Jamie’s retelling of it. (“Looking back on it, I want to take myself and just shake and shake, like, what the fuck is wrong with you? Why did you let that happen? But I can still remember those moments, when it felt like I was paralyzed inside my own body, like I had to pull myself deeper and deeper inside myself, away from the surface, in order to stay alive.”) It’s clear to the readers that, years later, Kennedy still has an impact on Jamie’s life. When you write a story like this, do you have a mental image of Jamie as both a teenager and as an adult? If so, what is his life like now? Does he have children of his own?

One year in high school, there was this boy. And he wore Cannibal Corpse T-shirts. And one of my friends and I were in an art class with him. And he poked us with X-ACTO knives and burned us with glue guns while we made a Parthenon out of cardboard. He’d hit me. And he said pretty bad things to us. I never once tried to protect myself or tell anyone or ask for help or stand up to him. It didn’t even really occur to me, even though I was fifteen years old. I think that my complete passivity was repulsive to him, to the point that I angered him, my existence. Now, I don’t even think that boy would remember me. And I don’t think he’d consider anything he did to even be bad.

But the ending of the fictional story is not my story, thank god, so there’s this point where Jamie, who is me, becomes not me. He becomes what I guess he always was, just a character. And I have a family and my life is good. But I don’t think Jamie’s life is good. I don’t think he has children of his own. And I feel those echoes, where our stories separate, and who he is. It’s a strange sensation.

At another point in the story, Jamie speaks directly to the reader, saying, “In such a short amount of time, my life, which was boring but tender, a thing that mattered to me even as I understood that it would eventually change, had become a kind of dream. I keep trying to explain to you why I didn’t try harder, but maybe you understand. Maybe you don’t think this is as strange as it feels to me.” Those lines split the story wide open for me. In the most beautiful way, they add another dimension. What is the reader’s relationship to Jamie?

I’m not sure. It kind of works like this for me. At first, it’s just me talking to myself. And then it’s me talking to the reader. And then it’s Jamie talking to the reader. And then it’s Jamie talking to Ben.

I like those moments in fiction when you’ve been with the story for a while and then the narrator suddenly talks to you, pulls you into the narrative, and you have to give yourself over to that intimacy. It’s startling, but I love that moment, when I feel like the narrator can see me, knows me in some important way.

At the end of the story, after Kennedy has committed his final—as far as we know—atrocity, I immediately thought of the poem, “The Second Coming,” by Yeats, particularly the line, “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” I’ve always understood that line to imply chaos, and the fact that Kennedy repeatedly destroys the miniature Parthenon—a monument of exactness—seems to play into that same idea. Does Jamie’s inability to understand or comprehend the events that occur in the story suggest an attempt to apply order to a world where order is seemingly absent? Should the writer concern himself with questions like that, or is that the literary critic’s job? (Or is it no one’s job, because it’s a stupid question?)

No, I think a writer needs to think about that stuff, but I think it happens after the fact, when you realize what you’ve done and you’re trying to make sense of it. 

At the heart of the story, it’s a boy trying to understand why someone did a bad thing to him. And there’s no good answer. It’s just random cruelty. But it’s your life and you can’t really just shrug your shoulders and go about your business. Or at least I can’t. So you try again and again to look at the moment and figure out what it meant, how you could have changed it.

So I wasn’t thinking about chaos and order. I was thinking about JFK, the force of his anger and agitation. And I was thinking about Jamie, completely unable to protect himself. And the story just happens. Afterwards, I can see those things, but not in the moment.

You’ve now published two story collections (Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and Baby You’re Gonna Be Mine) and two novels (The Family Fang and Perfect Little World). At what stage do you determine the form an idea takes? Have you ever condensed a novel into a story, or expanded a story into a novel?

In most cases, I know pretty quickly if it’s going to be a short story or a novel. I spend so much time just worrying narratives in my head, spending a long, long time visualizing them, so once it comes time to actually start writing, I have a sense of how long it will be.

I turned a failed novel about a half-human/half-bear baby into a short story. And I turned a short story about a brother and sister who play Romeo & Juliet in a high school production into a chapter in my novel The Family Fang. I think this is mostly because I never want to throw out anything that I write. I’m always trying to figure out some way to reshape it into something halfway decent. So sometimes figuring out the form can do that. Sometimes it doesn’t, sadly.

You also have a novel coming out in November called Nothing to See Here. Could we hear what it’s about?

It’s a weird little thing about friendship and children and spontaneous human combustion, which is a neverending obsession with me. It all takes place over a single summer and it’s this really compressed narrative with weird elements, so it was fun to write. I wrote it so fast, in about ten days.

How do you manage to get all that writing done?

Honestly, I don’t really write for much of the year. I think it probably averages out to about two or three months out of the year when I’m actually on my computer writing. When I’m teaching and grading and reading, I don’t have much time for writing. And my kids need my attention and I like hanging out with them, and they don’t really want me to go sit in bed and write all day, so I don’t even try. I used to feel like a failure, and I’m always telling my students to write as much as they can, but I don’t do it. I have friends who write every morning for two hours and I admire that, but it’s not something that I’m capable of doing.

So I kind of save it all in my head. All the time, I’m trying to figure it all out in my head, and I just go over it again and again and again. To me, that’s my real writing process, just holding it in my head, cycling through it, building it up. So when the summer comes, or I go do a week-long residency, and I can sit down and actually write, I tend to be a frantic writer, going really fast.

Subtropics is incredibly lucky to have the pleasure of publishing both you and your wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, in the current issue. Is Leigh Anne your first reader? Are you hers?

Leigh Anne is one of my favorite writers so I’m honored to share space with her in this issue. Leigh Anne is my first reader. I actually don’t show my work as a draft to anyone except Leigh Anne and then my agent. That’s it. Those are the two voices I trust. And Leigh Anne has known me for so long that she knows what I’m trying to do, so it’s helpful for me to hear from her because she can help me figure out how to make it exactly how I envision it.

Leigh Anne goes to residencies a few times a year to write and I love that moment, after the kids fall asleep and it’s just me awake in the house, when she calls me from some cabin, and she reads me what she’s written that day. I love hearing it for the first time, in her voice. It’s probably as happy as I get.

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Cameron Thomas Snyder

Cameron Thomas Snyder

Interviewed by Angela Bell

 

You’re so successful at making “Houses of the Holy” feel rooted in place and time. What’s your real-life relationship to the setting? Did you grow up in Kansas? 

I sort of grew up all over the place. I was born in San Antonio, moved around Texas, and then moved to Loveland, CO, where my father and mother eventually divorced when I was seven or eight. My mother then married our neighbor who drove a big rig for Walmart, and the job took him, took us, to a little town in Kansas called Eudora. From there, we moved two more times—first to the house along the highway, then off to Ottawa, KS, where I lived for six years. No matter where we lived, my older brother and I invariably visited our grandparents in Corpus Christi, TX, during the summer months. We never really fit the mold of “country kids,” and so Corpus was our refuge, a city where we felt comfortable in our own skin, where our grandparents would hand us thick wads of cash and drop us off at the mall. I think this is the life we thought we deserved. Therefore whenever I was back in Kansas I had this standoffish, almost pretentious air about me. Most of the kids I went to school with were into ranching and hunting and stock shows, none of which interested me in even the remotest of ways, and so I wrote them off as hicks or hillbillies or whatever and I became an outsider dressed in FUBU pants. 

By the time high school rolled around, I’d maintained the outsider status and picked up Christianity somewhere along the way, meaning I didn’t drink or go to parties. For fun, I’d go out with my few devout skateboarder friends and we’d break into abandoned quarries and old ice cream factories, essentially making a lifestyle out of trespassing. I explored that town inside and out, always searching for new activities to distract myself from the very fact that I hated where I lived and that I’d become poor. In this way I got to know the setting very intimately. 

“Prefabricated housing” carries such a weight of stigma, and it’s so easy to just let the reader bring their own associations to the page when you set a story in a trailer park. Early on, you devote a lot of time to the semantic particularities that distinguish different kinds of prefabricated housing, and you treat the details with such attention and care. Why was it important to you to get these subtleties right?

I think part of the problem was that we didn’t live in a trailer park. Had we ended up living in a community like that, I might have had an easier time accepting my living conditions since everyone around would have had a similar house. Maybe I would have even felt some solidarity. But we took our modular home to a residential street and attempted to integrate with those who lived in more or less traditional housing. This made me terribly self-conscious, like we’d only punctuated the fact that we lived in a modular home. From the street, everyone could plainly see that we were different, and I wanted nothing more than to melt away into anonymity as just another new kid on the block. Probably it’s from all the time I spent in Corpus that I developed the self-image issue, unwilling to admit that my now-single mother could no longer afford the bare necessities without governmental aid. I was a real prick about the whole thing, and that’s when I decided to deny my living situation via semantics. I knew that our house was not technically a “trailer,” it was a “modular home,” so, technically, I could not be “trailer trash.” When it came to writing the essay, it was important for me to tap into that semantic, analytical mindset in hopes of conveying the measures to which a kid will go as a means of convincing himself of his own superficial self-importance. 

It seems like you (as the narrator) begin the essay with an initial belief in the power of these semantic distinctions to sway perception, particularly by reinforcing or disengaging stereotypes. They really occupy the story, not just in terms of his house, but in other ways too—news reports about Kyle Flack, job assignments at Dairy Queen. As the essay moves, this power becomes less and less certain. Can you talk a little bit about how you view these kind of semantic choices as working in your world today? When do you think they’re worthwhile?

When I first lived in the modular home, I wanted others to know that I didn’t live in a trailer and that I wasn’t poor, despite the obvious. But later, when I discovered that this air of poverty could be used as a tool to wrench out sympathy from others, from girls, the stereotypes seemed to work more in my favor than semantics. Terms like “modular home” and “lower class” are almost too specific to elicit any sort of pity, whereas “trailer” and “dirt fucking poor” are likely to trigger more of an emotional response. Sometimes it’s just more convenient to settle down in the nice, warm bed of a stereotype.

I think people cling to semantics when they feel desperate or fearful, like I did back in Ottawa. “We’re not divorced, we’re separated.” “My story didn’t get rejected, it got turned down.” “I didn’t get fired, I got laid off.” Like with anything else, we bend and skew words to better form to the contours of our own ideals and delusions. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. A psychiatrist may think differently. 

One of the things I most admire about “Houses of the Holy” is its success in conveying my favorite emotional genre, which is funny-sad. How do you find the right balance of humor and weight in conveying painful material? What advice do you have for those of us who know how to be funny or sad in our writing but not both?

That is an incredibly difficult question to answer because I’m still learning how to find the balance between funny and sad myself. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out the formula, and I’m certainly no authority on the matter, but I can tell you about my approach. 

Humor has always been my way of coping with pain, pretty much to a fault. Funny is easier for me to digest. I have a bad habit of laughing off the serious stuff. But it’s not so easy to get away with that in writing. People will call you out for being too self-flagellating, too bitter, too flippant. So for me, the key to funny-sad is the versatility of tone. By that I mean how important it is to locate a tone of voice that can navigate the rockiest, gloomiest back roads as well as the happy, hilarious valleys, something like all-terrain tone, as it were. If I’m too jocular about something serious, I sound like a sadist. If I’m too serious about something funny, I sound like a vapid cyborg devoid of self-awareness. For instance, the section about Kyle Flack—who murdered four people, including a baby he stuffed into a suitcase and then tossed into a creek—was extremely difficult to fit into a funny-sad essay. It’s kind of like the fragile knickknack of the essay, demanding to be held and treated with the utmost care. That story has haunted me for years and I wanted to write about it without seeming exploitative or heartless. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I finally realized that it’s okay to be serious about the delicate topics, which I’d always struggled with, scared to death of sentimentality. I’m learning that when the serious stuff is surrounded by funnier, more light-hearted sections, a unique juxtaposition is created, something like dark humor, maybe, which doesn’t make fun of the pain, but puts it in a different context, and suddenly we don’t feel sociopathic for laughing at someone else’s trauma. We’re laughing at what it is to be human ourselves. 

My advice is to read, study, and even type out stories by the modern masters of the form—George Saunders, Miranda July, Sam Lipsyte. They have the formula for the funny-sad. Steal it from them.   

What made you want to tell this story? What draws you to tell a particular narrative?  

My girlfriend and I recently moved to rural New Mexico, about twenty-five miles north of Las Vegas, NM, where a solid seventy-five percent of the residential housing is prefabricated. When her family flew out for Christmas last year I drove them around Vegas in a big passenger van, giving them the grand tour. There’s a lot to see in that town, it has some serious grit. Her aunt, from Sacramento, kept pointing and saying, Wow, look at all those trailers. She was just being observant, but I felt the dormant, defensive juvenile beast stir inside of me. I wanted to say, Look, not all of those homes are trailers; some are modular, some are mobile. There’s a difference, okay? That’s when I realized I didn’t even really know the difference, not anymore. When they left, I did some research and got to writing. I wanted to explore the stigma from an insider’s perspective.  

I’m more so drawn to particular ideas than I am to particular narratives. I never know where the narrative is going until I start writing. I think it was Scott Russell Sanders who said, and I’m paraphrasing here, an essay is like a river—the surface glimmers and reflects and dazzles, but beneath that, there is always a current, a direction. More often than not, my first few drafts are like sewage ponds under a night sky filled with Fourth of July fireworks—showy and stagnant. As I trudge through the muck of revision, I can typically find a direction, which leads to a particular narrative, but I never know what that will be when I start.       

And, most importantly: tell me more about the pugs in your life. 

Pugs were a problem. My first one, Pugsly, had some serious issues. I had a stupidly jealous golden retriever who bit him on the head when he was still a pup, and this enormous tumor-looking mass grew out the side of his head. I thought the bite to the head might have played a part in what seemed to be a learning disability, one that led him to run under my ex-stepfather’s moving truck for no apparent reason, a suicide mission. But when I received a second pug, Midget, who, having suffered no apparent head trauma, ended up performing a similar stunt on a passing Jeep, I realized it probably wasn’t only my two pugs who had issues, but pugs as a breed. I won’t get into my current stance on the continuous reproduction of dogs who clearly suffer from mental/physical defects, but let’s just say I will not be buying another pug, despite how badly I want to nuzzle one right now. 

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Jana Prikryl

Jana Prikryl

Interviewed by Stephen de Búrca

Something that stands out in your five “Anonymous” pieces is how careful and precise the speaker is in establishing the scene for the reader, as if to avoid affecting the scenes. Had you a particular series of photographs in mind while writing the five poems? What was the motive for this precision? And could you speak a little to how the speaker asserts her voice in the final section?

Yeah, that sounds right—“as if to avoid affecting the scenes,” though I didn’t aim for that deliberately. These poems are rooted in an anonymous photo album I bought years ago, in a junk shop in Brooklyn, and much later they grew out of a slightly inexplicable but strict procedure I came up with. The album contains 98 small snapshots of a group of girlfriends, in maybe their late teens, probably around 1910, and there’s no identifying text or captions. I’d spent a lot of time, over the years, staring at these photos and feeling this hopeless, trite, hopeless longing to know more about the people in them. So the procedure I devised—which I think drives the precision you mention—was an attempt to articulate that longing, which is so resistant to articulation, precisely because it is so universal or generic. The procedure involved rephotographing each snapshot, enlarging it on my computer, cropping it (in various ways, depending on the image), describing the section I’d cut in very clear, neutral prose, and then (months later, once all this was done) relying on only the prose (no peeking, etc.) to write a poem about what was no longer in each picture. I think the idea behind all this compulsive activity was: When so much of an artifact’s meaning is gone, why not remove more? Is it possible, in this way, to give the severed object some sense of a backstory, some connection to a past? I found myself using the series to generate a voice that stuck to the page while avoiding “style,” the devices I usually manipulate to make a poem sticky. So when the first person crept in near the end of the series it felt intrepid—it’s my first-person, my own thought unspooling, but as I wrote those lines I felt myself watching it happen in a very third-person way, my voice stripped of “poetry” yet generating a poem.

You said in a previous interview that English was the third language you learned, after Czech and German. (As someone who was raised speaking English and Irish, I feel it gives me a detachment from language that allows one to poke around at a language’s nooks and crannies.) What has your experience, as a poet, with this been? Do you feel this gives you a more objective relationship to a language as a mode of expression, rather than expression itself?

I don’t think I’m more objective regarding language (probably the opposite?), but yes, I feel that having this visceral bond with a very different language like Czech gives me a friendly skepticism about what English, or any language, can do. It sharpens my appetite for playing with language. And then I tend to be easily bored by “expression itself.” I care much less what a poem is saying than how it goes about saying it—or it’s more like I think how a poem says something is what it is saying. But this conviction seems to arise not so much from my detachment from English (which you mention, and I also feel!) as from my totally immersed love of it.

Your second collection, No Matter, is set to be published in July by Tim Duggan Books. Congratulations! I’ve heard many poets speak of feeling a sort of freedom (whether it’s in terms of voice or style, or even subject, that is more in line with how they might view themselves as poets) once their first collection is published. Was this your experience? Was your approach to No Matter different from your first collection, The After Party? And can you give us a sneak peak of what to expect from No Matter?

Thank you! I don’t know about feeling free (I wish I had!)… I think because experimentation and instability of voice/self are some of the things nearest to me as a poet, when I finished The After Party I just felt crazily eager to embark on the next thing, with a new set of parameters and problems. And I was lucky to have gotten a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which gave me nine months to focus on the next book just when I needed it. (I’d had a baby three weeks after The After Party came out…) The result is that No Matter feels like a more focused, compacted object than my first book—it contains as much formal variety, I think, but its themes are more relentlessly interconnected. Actually the first things I started working on, after The After Party was finished in 2015, were these “Anonymous” poems. And then once I got to Radcliffe they became the kernel of the new manuscript. The impulse to “cut back” in a situation that’s already hopelessly austere—which I think is a very human, all too human impulse—ended up being a central theme in No Matter, a cognate of the temptation to be stoic, to retreat into oneself, in difficult times. A lot of the poems in this new book orbit around questions of how we deal with suffering and how a society is different from just a group of individuals, and what an individual can expect from her fellow individuals, and how damaging it might be if everybody truly believed in the virtue of self-reliance—if nobody asked anything of anyone.

And finally, when writing poetry, what are your reading habits like? Do you read poetry or do you read other genres? Who/what do you read? Any guilty pleasures?

While I was writing No Matter last year I assigned myself a pretty specific reading list, which isn’t how I usually proceed but it seemed right for this book—Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy, and truly weird medieval travelogues, and Spenser’s translations of Joachim du Bellay’s sonnets on the ruins of Rome, and pastoral poetry and scholarly texts on pastoral poetry. Basically stuff to get me in the mood to ponder the end times. Lately on the subway I’ve read novels by Margaret Drabble, Danielle Dutton, Natalia Ginzburg, and Yuko Tsushima, and various poets and biographies in between. I feel sort of embarrassed to say I don’t have guilty pleasures as a reader, because I instantly get bored if the stuff is not firing on all cylinders. But I have a weakness for British TV. I watched all of Gavin & Stacey a few weeks ago, and almost felt compelled to write an essay about its bizarre homophobic subplot (involving the Rob Brydon character) and about the conservative streak in a certain kind of comedy. Instead I found another British show to watch.

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Tom Whalen

Tom Whalen

Interviewed by Mitchell Galloway


Walser’s short fictions are often difficult to classify. You submitted “Rain” as a poetry translation, but we decided to accept it as fiction. What about this piece lends itself to be more a piece of poetry than prose?

“Rain” is prose, yes, but perhaps it’s more poem than story, more essay than fiction? I like how Walser’s work often makes classification irrelevant. I submitted it to Ange Mlinko, Subtropics’ poetry editor, because I know she’s not averse to the short prose piece or prose poem. I was very pleased that she and David Leavitt and the staff appreciated it.

Many of the short pieces you have translated originally appeared in the feuilleton section of newspapers. How did Walser’s work compare to other feuilleton pieces of the time (circa 1918)? What was the typical reader expecting? In these pieces did Walser parody the conventions of the feuilleton in any way?

Walser’s short prose pieces published in newspapers were different enough for Kafka to flip to the feuilleton section in search of them and for Eduard Korrodi, the feuilleton editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, to write that when he published a Walser piece (specifically those in the 1920s when parody would play a larger role in Walser’s prose), he “would receive letters from disgruntled readers threatening to cancel their subscriptions if the nonsense didn’t stop.” But for the most part, I’d say it’s not so much parody as it is his turning the conventional subject matter of the feuilleton to his own idiosyncratic ends, as can be seen in “Rain.”

Michael Hofmann writes in his introduction to Metamorphosis and Other Stories that Kafka “offers very little to the translator; there is no ‘voice’, no diction, no ‘style’.” Perhaps in contrast, what does Walser offer to the translator?

The “glacial purity” of Kafka’s prose, Christopher Middleton noted in “The Picture of Nobody: Some Remarks on Robert Walser” (1958), isn’t found in Walser, who was “anything but glacial.” Tracking and “miming” the shifting registers of Walser’s voice is one of the many difficulties and delights, if captured, in translating him.

In “Eine Art Erzählung” Walser writes, “If I am well disposed, that’s to say, feeling good, I tailor, cobble, weld, plane, knock, hammer, or nail together lines.” Besides writing in microscript later in life, do you know anything about his composition or revision process?

Caught in the swirl of Walser’s prose, it’s easy to think of him only as a free-wheeling master of improvisation. “I sit down somewhat reluctantly at my desk to play my piano, that is to say, to begin to discourse on the potato famine which long ago …” (“A Village Tale,” tr. Christopher Middleton, Selected Stories). But I think the narrator of “The Walk” offers us a more accurate take on his writing process: “Although I may cut a most carefree figure, I am highly serious and conscientious, and though I seem to be no more than delicate and dreamy, I am a solid technician!” (tr. CM, SS). My assumption, as well as that of Bernhard Echte and Werner Morlang, the transcribers of the microscripts, is that he composed slowly. I credit his productivity and the rapid flight of his thought in prose to his steadfastness.

Can you talk about the forthcoming collection in which this piece will appear? Are there other pieces translated for the first time?

Little Snow Landscape and Other Stories contains seventy stories. That’s eighteen fewer texts than in Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, but the new collection is twenty percent longer. As far as I know, all but three of these short pieces are previously untranslated. It opens in 1905 with an encomium by the twenty-six-year-old Walser to his homeland and concludes in 1933 with a meditation on his childhood in Biel, the town of his birth, published in the last of his four years in the cantonal mental hospital in Waldau outside Bern. Between these two poles, the book maps Walser’s outer and inner wanderings in various narrative modes, including essaylets, fables, idylls, tales of comedy and horror, monologues, travelogues, and prose pieces with “the stamp of calculated naïveté and artificial inartificiality” (“The Pipsqueak,” Girlfriends, Ghosts …). Besides presenting a representative sample of his short prose arranged chronologically by date of publication or composition, my selection process involved keeping in mind certain novelistic elements to bring the reader closer to this “most camouflaged of writers” (Elias Canetti).

I’m grateful that Walser’s work, for the English reader, continues to be a slow excavation. I would hate for every short piece to be translated and crammed into an exhaustive “collected works.” Do you think all of Walser at once would be, as “Rain” says, “too grand and difficult”? Can we agree a volume of Walser should always fit in the side pocket of a rucksack?

That seems the perfect place to me. “Beiseit”—apart, aside—is where Walser and his work thrive.

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