Interview with Danielle Collins

Danielle Collins

Valerie Fioravanti: In your Shorts On Survival piece “Spelunking,” you deliberately shut off your lamp in the black of a lava tube. This feels like the makings of a writing metaphor. Is it?

Danielle Collins: In real life, I did shut off my headlamp to conserve batteries, and I felt the heebie-jeebies of being alone in a dark cave. This unsettling memory became a great building block as I wrote the piece. As an English major, I definitely see the symbolism of extinguishing my own light, and wow, wouldn’t that be an awesome metaphor to play with. . . but in actuality, it was a happy coincidence in my writing.

 

VF: I thought of it, at least in terms of writing metaphor, as courage to face the darkness. That’s present in the best of writing, no?

DC: Yes, I see what you’re saying. I think it definitely takes courage to face our individual fears lurking in the metaphorical darkness. It’s really challenging to take a step back from these fears and observe ourselves, to talk to ourselves and understand why we feel scared. I also think it takes courage for writers to put ourselves on the page, and then share that with the public. Readers are eager to identify with the piece and see themselves reflected back, and the best way this happens is when the writer is able to authentically share.

Spelunking (lava park)

VF: The setting, especially the line, “I could meld with these curtains of basalt right now,” suggests a connection with the natural world. Is that a theme in your work?

DC: You’re right, I do incorporate a lot of the natural world into my work. I write mostly creative nonfiction, and focus on my relationships, and the memories I bring to the page are often set against a backdrop of striking natural beauty.   I’ve written about beekeeping in Paraguay, about my grandparents in Appalachia, and about the natural wonders of the Southwest. I love traveling, especially to places off the beaten path, and this comes through in my writing. I also love photographing rural landscapes and forgotten spaces.

 

VF: Another line that struck me was, “I realize that a part of me wants to be free and alone, to disappear into this darkness — to retract like the lava in these tubes, leaving only a memory.” That desire for freedom speaks to me as a reader. Is this a thread you come back to in your writing?

DC: The desire for freedom is a common thread in my writings about certain romantic relationships. Looking back, I realize that in each of those relationships, we did the best we could – but I am left with this sense of frustration that I was unseen, when really want I want, and what most people probably want, is to feel cherished.

 

VF: Congratulations on publishing “Spelunking.” What’s next?

DC: My number one project is the writing of Surfacing, my in-progress memoir. Surfacing covers the eight-year period when I shifted from dating artists to becoming an artist myself. I am also finishing a braided essay about the relationship of my grandparents. This piece has evolved through many drafts and is almost fit for public consumption.

Another creative outlet for me is my website, JammieWalker.com. This site gives me space to blog, and to feature my writing and photography.

 

VF: What other piece in this issue of r.kv.r.y. would you recommend to readers?

DC: I enjoyed so many pieces, it was a rich issue. There is one piece that had such a strong voice, it still resonates with me, and that’s “Just Enough Hope” by Toby Van Bryce. He captures the confusion and longing that someone attending their first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting would likely feel. I appreciated that the narrator felt gratitude, rather than judgment, when he listens to people share at the meeting. Instead of telling himself he has nothing in common with the people in the room, he embraces their stories and finds comfort in their recovery. I was left feeling hopeful the narrator would find his way as well.

 

 

Valerie Fioravanti writes fiction, essays, and prose poems. Her linked story collection, Garbage Night at the Opera, won the 2011 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction and is forthcoming from BkMk Press in 2012. Her nonfiction has appeared in Eclectica, Silk Road, and Jelly Bucket, and she is working on an episodic memoir of sorts.

Interview with Jessica Handler

Jessica_Handler

Mary Akers: Hi, Jessica. Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today. In your introduction to Braving the Fire: Writing About Grief and Loss, you write: “After you’ve survived the death of a loved one, an illness, a broken romance, the loss of a home,  country, or even a social structure, the story of who you are changes.” Wow. I really like that. It’s one of those truths that seems simultaneously deep and yet also obvious. I read your first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (and loved it), so I suspect you’ve long had a sense of wanting to explore and write about loss. But I’m curious: When did you realize that you wanted to help others learn to write about their losses? The two seem like very different animals.

Jessica Handler: When I was doing author events with Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, time after time members of the audience approached me privately to tell me that they, like me, were “an only one left,” and to ask not only about my process in writing the book, but what it was really like, emotionally and intellectually. I teach writing workshops, and I know that people struggle with the particular responsibility of telling their own stories of loss or trauma. I’ve been there, and I love to teach, so the two ideas came together naturally.

 

MA: Ah, of course. That makes perfect sense.

You talk about Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief in your book, and then you go on to add “renewal” as a sixth stage. Renewal seems like an important step in the process of healing. As you aptly put it, it’s a process of “building a bridge between who you were and who you have become.” Can you talk a little bit about what that bridge looks like for you? And, a related question, do you have multiple bridges?

JH: My bridge is paved with artifacts and actions that keep my sisters, my mother, and my father in my life. A bad day and I hear my mother encouraging me to enjoy life, to work in the garden, to pet the cat. I hear a song on the radio that reminds me of my sister Sarah and I sing along. A child’s picture book and I think of Susie. Social justice, and I act on my father’s behalf. All these people and interactions made me who I am now, and I try to keep that in perspective. And then there’s my husband, who loves me and keeps me grounded in the present and the future and our own past. He’s a bridge.

 

MA: I really like that you include analysis of and insights from the work of other authors in your book. How instructive/enlightening was it for you to contact these authors whose work you’ve admired and pick their brains?

JH: Wonderfully so! Some of the authors are writers who have been mentors to me and I know personally, and others I took a deep breath and reached out to, and every single person was generous and kind and insightful. Their insights helped verify my own thoughts and approaches. Despite our different personal experiences, writing styles, and levels of recognition, we had similar instincts and concepts about writing about grief and loss. And I learned a great deal from each of them. Those interviews were kind of a personalized master class, and I’m so grateful.

MA: Another thing I liked was the extended metaphor about the flame. The flame of grief and loss that burns through us, the way we have to be brave enough to put the hand back over the fire that has already burned us if we want to write about grief, but also the idea of afterward being “the keeper of the flame.” You are the keeper of the flame as the last surviving sister, and most of us who write are also keeping the flame in some form, or will be soon enough. No question, I guess, but would you care to comment?

JH: We’re the keepers of the flames of whatever’s gone behind us but has made us who we are, whether it’s the death of loved ones, the loss of a way of life, a home, a romance, or a way of being. That flame doesn’t always have to rage, but it’s like a spark, or a pilot light.

MA: In the first chapter, you discuss The Right to Write, which is an excellent guide to starting the process. As you know, I helped an older gentleman write about the time when he was five years old and watched his grandfather starve to death on purpose (in Siberia) so the children (my co-author and his younger brother) could have enough food. That was a very moving project for me, but I worried a lot about “getting it right,” especially since I wasn’t writing about my own experience. But I expect it’s just as easy to worry about “getting it right” when it is your own experience. Perhaps even more so. How do you satisfy your inner critic that you’ve gotten it right (or right enough)?

JH: I loved Radical Gratitude! My maternal grandfather was born in Siberia, so the book gave me some insight into his internal landscape. In a memoir, you’re getting your own story right, so some of what you have to honor – or learn to honor – is your recollection of an event, or your emotions or reactions to an event. These might not be another person’s feelings, but they’re your emotional or subjective truth. That’s the hardest to ‘get right’ because we naturally question ourselves as time passes, and that passage of time is part of memoir, too. That “right to write” means accepting that you want to write what you know to be true. This doesn’t mean that a memoir is entirely subjective. Our lives take place in the larger world, which means that facts are necessary. Those are objective truths, which are much easier to pin down; dates, weather, news events, and so forth, which can be corroborated with research. I love research, and devote a part of “Braving the Fire” to innovative ways to conduct research. That can also mean accepting that there will be things a writer will never know. How do you write about those things?

 

MA: Exactly! After we published Radical Gratitude, my co-author (a psychotherapist by trade) came up with this maxim: “What you choose to remember…and how you choose to interpret it…determines who you are.” I would say that also applies to the writing of memoir. Since we can’t write about everything, the selectivity serves to shape the book. Would you agree?

JH: I agree. I’m not a psychologist at all, but I know from personal experience that people remember things differently, or not at all. A memoir isn’t a tell-all that covers every moment of the author’s life, it’s merely a lyrical examination of an event that changed the author. Merely. :)

 

MA: And finally, if it isn’t too bold of me to ask a question that you have spent a whole book answering, what does “recovery” mean to you?

JH: Moving ahead, changed and aware and happy.

Interview with David Jauss

David_Jauss

Mary Akers: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me today, David. I loved your story The Stars at Noon in this issue. It’s such an interesting point-of-view to write from–that of a dying nun. What was the inspiration behind this story?

David Jauss: I grew up surrounded by nuns. From first through eighth grade, I went to a Catholic school where all the classes were taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. My mother was good friends with several of the nuns, so I saw them frequently outside of school too. I always found them mysterious; I wondered what made them decide to become nuns and wear their black habits and white wimples. I tried to imagine what they were like when they were young girls, and I remember looking around the room at my female classmates and wondering if any of them would grow up to become a nun and, if so, why. For some reason, I didn’t find priests mysterious, and I didn’t wonder if any of my classmates would become one. Priests seemed pretty much like other men, but the nuns didn’t seem like any women I knew. So I was curious, and of course curiosity is what precedes every act of the imagination. I should also point out that two of the nuns who were my teachers died, so I was curious not only about what they thought and felt as young girls but what they thought and felt when they died.

 

MA: Fascinating. I find nuns mysterious, too. They’re generally more progressive than priests and more hands-on within the community of needy people, aren’t they? The front lines of the Catholic Church, so to speak.

Your collection Glossolalia blew me away. I read an ARC (advance reader copy) and loved it so much I had to buy my own copy. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever done that. The stories are New and Selected. I know you had many stories to choose from. Can you talk a little bit about what the selection process was like?

DJ: First things first: thank you to the nth power for your very kind words. They mean a lot coming from the author of Women Up on Blocks and Bones of an Inland Sea, two books I love and regularly recommend to my friends and students.

Selecting the stories for Glossolalia was both easy and impossible. The easy part was eliminating the dozen or so stories I’d published that just plain weren’t up to snuff. The impossible part was trying to choose which of the remaining thirty stories to include. I felt a bit like Styron’s Sophie, having to choose which of my children would die. Eventually I took the coward’s way out and sent all thirty stories—nearly 500 pages’ worth—to Press 53. Ultimately, I have to give credit to Christine Norris, my editor, for the selections. She sent me a list of seventeen stories—250 pages’ worth—that she thought would work well together, and if I remember right, I made only one substitution. But she and Kevin Morgan Watson, the publisher, said they wanted to publish the rest of the stories too. So there’ll be a second New & Selected Stories coming out, probably sometime next year, and it’ll contain a few things there wasn’t room for in Glossolalia, including a novella, plus several new stories.

MA: Ooh, I can’t wait! I hope you do another advance book tour. That was a lot of fun.

I’m always interested in who other writers read, but I know it puts them in an awkward spot to name names since many of their friends are also writers. So instead, I’ll ask (and find your answer equally as interesting) who did you read when you were 11 or 12?

DJ: I read virtually every novel Jules Verne wrote; dozens of books from the Landmark series about American history; Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island; Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters; numerous Hardy Boys mysteries; Clair Bee’s Chip Hilton series of sports novels, especially those, like Fence Busters, that were about baseball; a slew of biographies of famous baseball players; and a Catholic propaganda novel called Knockout, in which a group of humble Catholic boys take on a group of over-confident Protestants and whoop them one by one in every major team sport and then, in the final chapter, the captain of the Catholic team takes on the captain of the Protestant team in a boxing match and—well, I think you can guess how that turns out.

 

MA: How fun! And that’s a great list. One of the reasons I ask the question is because Ray Bradbury has said that he believes those preteen years are the ones during which writers form their lasting obsessions, either in terms of pivotal events in their lives or books they read at that age. Would you agree? And if so, do you see influences from those years emerging in your own work?

DJ: He may be right about pivotal life events but I think he’s wrong about the influence of books read at that age. I would hate to think that our literary interests and aspirations are determined when we’re preteens. Mine definitely weren’t. I see little to no connection between what I read then and what I read and write now. I still love baseball and I’ve written one story about a baseball player, though it’s far from being anything like a Chip Hilton story. I have no interest in writing or reading science fiction or mysteries or sports novels and only minimal interest in historical fiction. And if I read Knockout today, I’d be pulling for those poor doomed Protestants who not only have inferior athletic abilities but are headed to hell for eating hot dogs on Friday.

Although I read a lot as a kid, it wasn’t until I was sixteen that I read any author who influenced me in any crucial way. I had a Current Events teacher then (this was 1967) who was rabidly anti-Communist and who argued that the only way to avoid WWIII was to rain atomic bombs on Russia immediately. I couldn’t stand the guy, so I went to the school library, asked the librarian if they had any books by Russians, and she led me to The Brothers Karamazov. I had no intention of reading it—I merely wanted to prop it up on my desk to irritate my teacher—but one day in study hall I started reading it and before I knew it I was living in a whole new world, one full of very different dangers than the kind I’d encountered in the Hardy Boys or Chip Hilton stories or Treasure Island. I finished that novel with my brain on fire and my DNA changed, and I began seeking out other writers of by-god Literature. Of them, two that I read incessantly in high school—Hemingway and Salinger—have been among my most enduring influences.

The Stars at Noon (Frozen Feathers)

MA: You know, now that you say that, I think you’re right. Bradbury said it about events, not books read. I must have made that up to validate my early reading choices. :)

By the way, I really love that your introduction to by-god Literature came about as a way to spite a professor you despised. That’s brilliant.

You write and publish across all genres. I’m so impressed and awed by your list of publications. What haven’t you done? Or maybe I should ask: Is there something you’ve always wanted to do that you haven’t done YET?

DJ: Oh, there’s a lot I haven’t done—I’ve never written a novel or a memoir or a play—but there’s not really anything I wanted to do that I haven’t done. All I really want to do is write better stories, poems, and essays. I’ve never felt any desire to write a novel and, to be honest, I don’t even enjoy reading novels all that much. Even the novels I most love strike me as full of inessential details, characters, and events, not to mention long dreary bouts of exposition. I like the idea of trying to convey the world in a grain of sand, not an entire beach. And I think it’s much more possible to achieve something akin to perfection in a poem or story than it is in a novel. Novels seemed doomed by their very length to fail. As Randall Jarrell said, “A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” And I couldn’t possibly write a memoir—I have a very poor memory, and nothing too exciting or interesting has happened to me. And although I tried my hand at playwriting once when I was an undergrad, I’m too much of a control freak to want to write a play or screenplay and turn it over to a director and actors who’d bring it to a very different life than the one I imagined. So, for better or worse, I’ve found the genres that fit my temperament and aesthetic goals.

 

MA: A control freak, eh? I wonder if all short story writers have a bit of the control freak in them. It is such a deliciously containable form. I liken a novel to a great sprawling mural and a short story to a closely observed, meticulous sketch.

Margaret Atwood has said that a book is a form of brain transfer, that art takes two brains to be fully realized–the creator’s brain and the experiencer’s brain. Do you agree?

DJ: I do believe that art takes two brains to be fully realized, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the experiencer’s brain often prevents the work of art from being fully realized—and, alas, the creator’s brain often does too. But let’s assume a writer creates a successful story, one that supplies all the essential information a reader would need to understand it and feel the emotions the author wants him to feel. If the reader fails to notice key facts of a story, invents her own details, imposes his own experience and opinions on it, or extrapolates wildly from some detail to a conclusion that’s not supported by the text, I think the brain transfer is partial at best. An example: I once had a student complain that a character named Brian in a classmate’s story couldn’t possibly lift an oak table by himself because he was “scrawny and weak.” In fact, the character was described as a longtime weightlifter; the reader had failed to notice that fact and imagined the character to be like a particular Brian he knew, someone who was scrawny and weak. He was reading a story, yes, but not the one the author wrote.

One more example: after reading a poem about a woman walking down a hallway of closed doors in search of a quiet, peaceful room where she can be alone, one student said he thought the poem was about driving through Texas and trying to get a good station on the radio. The poet’s reference to turning a doorknob had led him to think of turning radio knobs. And, not surprisingly, he had not too recently driven through Texas and had trouble finding a good station to listen to. So yes, art needs two brains to be fully realized, but it needs two well-trained and attentive brains. The reader has to be as well trained in the discipline of reading as the writer is in the discipline of writing. And he has to resist the temptation to treat the work as a Rorschach blot about which any opinion or response is as legitimate as any other.

 

MA: This is so fascinating! (And a little discouraging, I must admit.) So…we bring our own experiences to the table when reading–or experiencing any art form–but apparently sometimes we bring TOO MUCH of our own experience and it leads to a gross misinterpretation of the work. How very interesting. (Why had this angle never occurred to me?) I feel like this concept also begs a couple of (rhetorical?) questions. How much of that misinterpretation is okay? Is valid, even? Where is the line? As artists, we have to accept that no one is ever going to get all of our references, but how much can we expect them to get without feeling cranky that they didn’t get it? Your answer makes a good case for the argument that we should write the books we want to read.

And finally, because we are a themed journal and I never get tired of hearing people answer this question, “What does ‘recovery’ mean to you?”

DJ: I think “recovery” is just a synonym for “life.” Some people may be recovering alcoholics, but all of us are recovering human beings. I think life is largely a matter of recovering from what we’ve witnessed or experienced, of finding a way to go on after life gives us a kick in the teeth. And for writers, “recovery” could just as well be a synonym for “writing” too. Writing is a way to recover (or at least try to recover) from the wounds life has given us. And, I’d argue, recovery from the past is possible only through recovery of the past: we have to go back and relive in a way the traumas we’ve endured, finding this time a way to reimagine and revise the past in such a way that we can deal with it. Whether we write in an overtly autobiographical way or not (and I don’t), we’re dealing with our personal wounds and trying to put them into a context that heals them. To return to “The Stars at Noon” for a moment: when I was in first grade, my teacher, Sister Aloysius, got sick and had to go to the hospital. The other nuns told us all to pray that she get well, and we did so, daily and fervently, because we all loved her. But she died. It was the first time in my life that someone I knew died, and just as important, it was also the first time I realized that praying didn’t necessarily get you what you want. I didn’t understand why I wrote “The Stars at Noon” until well after I’d finished it, but now it’s clear to me that I wrote it to do two things at once: grant my childhood prayer that Sister Aloysius live and make the fact that she died more tolerable by imagining that she wanted to die.

 

MA: Oh, my. Beautiful Thank you, David. It’s been a real pleasure.

Interview with Mark McKain

Mark McKain

Mary Akers: I loved your poem To His Wife in our July “Endangered” issue. I had the pleasure of hearing you read it–and a few other poems–then I also found Chameleon online. These are really fascinating subjects for poems. Are they part of a series? Or are you simply drawn to writing about animals?

Mark McKain: I am drawn to writing about animals, plants, rocks and places. This has led to writing a series on endangered species: endangered humans (friends, relatives, indigenous groups) as well as nonhumans whose existence is in question. My rule is that I have to have encountered these endangered species by being in their physical presence, usually in places I have lived. For example, I went to high school in West Texas and the horned lizard (horny toad) was very common in our backyard. One day my youngest sister borrowed a white sweater from my older sister then went outside and picked up one of those lizards. Little did she know that they can actually squirt toxic blood out of ducts beneath their eyes. She got blood all over the white sweater. I was very surprised to learn those lizards are now threatened, and I wanted to write about that. I wanted to write about it so that it included my own teenage experience of this animal and of my family situated in the semi-desert of West Texas. And I then wanted to write about endangered animals in Kentucky, Puerto Rico, Louisiana, Texas, California and Florida—all places where I have lived.

 

MA: Do you consider yourself an environmental writer? I’m asking because I think of myself as one, but I’m not sure there’s a clear definition of what an ”environmental writer” is. Do you have a definition you’d care to share?

MM: I do consider myself an environmental writer, but I try to resist definitions. I have been reading a lot about this very question: what does and does not make good environmental writing. One author that has really nailed some the problems of environmental writing for me is Lawrence Buell. In Writing for an Endangered World, he makes the point that environmental writing becomes distorted when animals are Disneyfied or portrayed in anthropomorphic terms. This is a type of Romantic personification. Animals and plants have worth in themselves and are not just foils or reflections of our own emotions and values. So good environmental writing keeps other species strange and other, different than humans, valuable as a living being. I do want to show animals as valuable in and of themselves, but I also want to show humans (usually my family) as part of the environment, and that the environment has an impact on us, especially, for me in the places where I have lived. Sandhill cranes flying over the busy I-4 corridor remind me of a close friend who as died and who I want to say something to as the sun comes up. A lizard flashing it red throat scared me when I was kid and now seeing this reminds me of the strange tropical world I entered upon moving to Puerto Rico when I was seven. I think about the near extinct Puerto Rican parrot which I never saw, the (near) extinct Carib peoples—did I actually see a few survivors with my father on weekend trips into the rain-forested mountains? My father, who just recently died, was so important to introducing me to these experiences, so I can’t and don’t want to separate my experiences from animals and the environment.

 

MA: Who do you read for inspiration?

MM: I am drawn to poetry in translation as well as science and natural history: Karen Solie’s Pigeon, Raul Zurita’s Song for His Disappeared Love, Alfonso D’Aquino’s fungus skull eye wing, Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage of the World Unite, Lorine Niedecker’s Lake Superior, Ida Stewart’s Gloss, Alfred Russel Wallace’s Footsteps in the Forest, Forest Gander and John Kinsella’s Redstart, Matthew Calarco’s Zoographies.

 

MA: You traveled to Antarctica and that trip inspired “To His Wife” among other poems. Do you often travel for inspiration? What is it about travel that makes you want to write?

MM: I try to travel at least once a year. Last year to England as I followed up on my Antarctica/South American expedition, visiting the Polar Museum in Cambridge, which has great exhibits on the English Antarctic explorers Scott and Shackleton, and also to the Sedgwick Museum, where Darwin got interested in geology and fossils. London is so rich culturally and there something about being in a strange and wonderful place that opens my eyes, slows me down and lets me see things in a fresh manner. I scribble while eating lunch in the crypt beneath St. Martins. More sentences waiting for the waterbus to take me to the Tate. The notebook comes out at the café at Foyles bookshop, thinking about my visit to the Physic Garden. My rule is to just take notes of my observations and see what comes of them later.

 

MA: Where would you like to visit that you haven’t yet? Do you have a bucket list for poetry inspiration?

MM: Since I’ve been to Tierra del Fuego and through the Beagle Channel, I’m thinking of continuing to follow Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos. But this may be vanity. I would like to go to Alaska and to see a volcano in Iceland. I need to go back to Puerto Rico, but may go birding in Cuba instead. I’m going to the Grand Canyon after Christmas. My father died in June and now I am going to West Virginia where his ashes will be interred. I want to celebrate him and remember all that he gave me, including the desire to travel and learn about the environment and cultural history.

 

MA: And finally, because we are a themed journal, what does “recovery” mean to you?

MM: I do believe in healing and the power of writing to help us heal. Life, the earth, the body renews itself continually. The environment will not be what it once was—but it will heal. Nothing will be what it once was. I do think we can come to terms with our own powers, and we must treat animals, plants, things, and each other with dignity, respect and equality. The earth isn’t ours to exploit. It is a place for all living things to flourish. If we can recover the rights of all living things to exist, all peoples to exist, then we may be on the path to healing.

Announcing Our Fall Illustrator Mike Quesinberry

I’m really excited to showcase the work of Mike Quesinberry, a photographer who was born and raised in my home town of Floyd, Virginia. He produces stunning images within and of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia, a part of this great country that always makes my eyes fill when I return and see those beautiful ridges in the distance.

Rising Above

Mike graduated from Floyd County High School (my alma mater, too!) in 1984 and Radford University in 1988. He is currently a manager at Slaughters’ Garden Center in Floyd and avidly pursues his passion of creating meaningful and beautiful photo-art.

Fire Weeds

I offer a few images here in order to whet your appetite for our Fall “APPALACHIA” issue. Stay tuned!

Having a Seat, Chicken Style

Interview with Karen Bell

Karen Bell

Mary Akers: I first saw your beautiful photographic artwork when you opened your studio at VCCA and I was blown away by the subject matter, quality, and the innovation, too. How did you get into photography?

Karen Bell: It’s been a long time. I always had some type of camera – I still own my very first Kodak Hawkeye Brownie. In college, a boy friend – 2 words – was a photo major.  He  taught me how to process film in a closet in the dorm. My folks were going on a business trip to China – I asked for a camera. That was 1971. And that was the real beginning. I was a Government major back then, with thoughts of going into politics. The 1972 presidential campaign did me in. I was floundering. Tried being an English major for one semester, then took Photo 101. Really liked it. To go further I had to submit a portfolio of images. I did, went home for the summer, came back to visit friends, saw that my name was on the top of the list. Bingo. I’d found a direction.

The Stars at Noon (Frozen Feathers)

MA: I’ll say! And a great direction, if your art is any indication.

All art forms evolve, but it strikes me that photography–with the advent of digital images and the ease of their manipulation–may have undergone the most radical changes of any traditional art form in the past fifteen years. Would you care to talk about that?

KB: The more things change… Digital has upended more than the way photographers photograph. It has changed the way many people see the world. Polaroid offered some instant gratification. Digital has made that possible for all. Big exception – Polaroid was always expensive, so some thought went into what you were shooting. Shooting digitally, you can shoot endlessly – and share endlessly. The word “edit” has gone out the window for a lot of people. Sure – if you shoot 100 versions of the same subject you’re bound to get a “good” one. Personally, I miss the lag time: the time when you shot the image to the time when you got to see what you shot. I try never to edit while I’m shooting. I continue to like the pleasure, or dread, when I review my images at the end of a day.

I have too much to say on this, so I”ll stop here.

I am Always (Flower Petals and bugs)

MA: Your stunning photo-collages from the natural world really inspire me. I adore them. Could you talk a little bit about those pieces? And a related question: How has your art challenged and sustained you over the years?

KB: For years I traveled to photograph. I’m a big city kid, but I love being in environments completely other than what I knew. Then my hip/back started to hurt. It put the kibosh on traveling with my equipment, driving endless miles, hiking, etc. I had to rethink how I worked. I can’t say exactly when I started looking down – but that’s sort of what happened.  I”ve always been fascinated with insects, birds, flowers, etc., and back in the old black and white days, I would do an occasional still life, but mostly I was out THERE. With my changed physical abilities, I started to bring THERE home. VCCA has  been an enormous part of my creative life for more than 20 years. The surroundings are so stimulating. The concentration of a group of people working tirelessly on their own creative endeavors has always made me reach down deep and find a way – whatever it was. It was at VCCA where I found my first bird. There is so much to see/observe without too much physical ability at Mt. St. Angelo – so I started to walk, wander, collect. I would bring my findings back to my studio and see what happened. Now that i’m feeling healthy again – I am back out THERE  - but still collecting, wandering, bringing stuff home to see what happens. I liken myself to a nerdy kid picking things up, turning them over in my hand, just because.

Recovery ( At Rest)

MA: Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite writers, has said that in the discussion of whether or not to fund The Arts in public schools, we only need to consider the things that children explore and do naturally, on their own, as they grow. What do they do? They sing, draw pictures, make up stories, dance. Creativity is at the core of what makes us human. What are some of your earliest memories of being creative as a child? Have they stayed with you in later life?

KB: Ah, Margaret Atwood. The 100 year writer. I went to sleep away camp for more years than I can remember. The usual stuff- lanyards, ashtrays – shows my age…I loved shop in high school. My memory is I had to “beg” to take it instead of another round of Home EC.  where we never got to finish whatever it was that we cooked, and Mr. Berman, my Earth Science teacher would come in and eat it regardless. My school art experience was nothing memorable. I went to public school in Brooklyn. Class sizes were enormous. Carving with ivory soap stands out.  And, I played piano. My parents weren’t artistic, though if life had been different for my father, I think he would have enjoyed being creative. I was a shy kid. A very shy kid. My mother tried to encourage (push) me to take art classes at the Brooklyn Museum, but I would never go. In hindsight, I wish she had pushed harder.

I loved art, but didn’t understand why. I loved music – all kinds. It was embarrassing to love classical music in the 60′s. It wasn’t cool. I still love music – all kinds. I have a much better understanding of art now that it has become my life, but I still don’t understand a lot of what I see. The difference is now I enjoy the challenge instead of being afraid of making a fool of myself.

And – I always had a camera.

Cover Image (Recent death)

MA: And finally, because we are a themed journal, what does “recovery” mean to you?

KB: Recovery. Healing. Getting on with it. Picking up the pieces when you don’t know what to do with the pieces and figuring out pieces are good, too.

Recovery – not letting the bad, the sad, the miserable get you down so low you can’t find a way up and out again. My art is my constant recovery. It’s not always easy to remember that, but when I do, all is well in my world.

 

Interview with Vyshali Manivannan

Vy Manivannan

Mary Krienke: In your essay “I Am Always in Transition When Disaster Strikes,” you write about the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed over 230,000 people in fourteen countries, with Indonesia being the hardest-hit country, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. You also write about 9/11. I don’t need to give the stats on that one, which, of course, reveals so much. What I think you are writing about here, as you have touched on in some of your other writing, is that it can seem difficult for some to experience other people’s pain if that person does not look like them, does not have the same background, a similar-looking life. Do you think it is a conscious decision for people not to look or do you think it is a self-protective mechanism to create distance between them and those that are suffering? While it is a writer’s job to look at those difficult aspects of humanity and to bridge that distance, how does a writer successfully confront this resistance?

Vyshali Manivannan: It should go without saying that looking is hard. It leaves us vulnerable, speechless, guiltily ashamed of our comfortable lives, our failures to donate; it renders visible what we never want to see, the intimacy of a body destroyed mid-motion, ended without even a whimper. If we confront these images of death, we have to recognize that all bodies, laid open, are the same. We have to empathize or be labeled sociopath. We have to open ourselves to all the feelings described above. We can’t deny our culpability because when our troops kill, the corpses look like this too.

I’ve always, possibly to my detriment, chosen to look, because I felt guilty over my survivor’s guilt, feeling like I’d survived nothing; I wanted to simulate survival in the act of looking, and so I avidly consumed tragedy online. I can’t fault anyone for self-protection, whatever my own decisions are. But I think it’s crucial to be aware of why you’re choosing not to look. Two very opposed events come to mind: one, an article in The Onion about an everyman whose goal was to get through the Syrian conflict without reading so much as a single headline about it; and two, recent exhortations to refuse to view the beheading of journalist James Foley by ISIS. There’s an interesting contrast here, between the idea that not-looking equals willful ignorance, and the idea that we look to develop a tolerance for the grotesque. I think there’s room on this spectrum for a kind of looking that doesn’t glorify violence, doesn’t dwell on horror, but refigures the meaning of the image to an outcry against the ideologies that make such violence possible.

With regards to confronting the resistance to look, I think the first step is recognizing—before I even begin writing—that it’s not solely about the economy of taste and decency. There’s a whole network of practices that promote this resistance to looking: for instance, images of bodies are almost always bodies of foreigners in international situations presented as intractable or unsolvable, like the perpetual crisis in the Middle East, facilitating cultural indifference via cost-benefit analysis, practically telling us, “You can look, but looking won’t change anything, so why damage your psyche by looking?” So my first task is to change that evaluation and say, “Your looking at this will change something.” That something may be as invisible as ideology, but ideological change is paramount. It’s the first step in several regards: conflict resolution, post-conflict reconciliation, transitional justice measures, erasing the binary of Us and Them.

What’s left after that is to forge an emotional bond between readers and the narrator. Representing violence-in-process is, I think, an implosion of the moment itself, the individual experience of sense-making, and the tools used to do so, be they the Indian Ocean tsunami, HBO’s Tsunami, or the experience of watching both unfold.

 

MK: You are Sri Lankan American and you have family still living in Sri Lanka. You write about feeling both connected to and disconnected from a country you have visited twice in your life. You were born in New York and grew up in Louisiana and Missouri. You have written about feeling always outside of your own experience, that it is difficult to make something “your own.” In my experience of your writing, you respond to this sense of being an outsider by creating an identity that is always shifting, always evolving. How does this constant positioning and repositioning affect your writing?

VM: It’s my hope that this continual shifting of identity enables me to more accurately articulate, in writing, experiences that are mine, that are part of a larger collective experience marked by ethical and political variance, that I can’t claim as mine because I find it impossible to reconcile what I’ve survived with what victims of war have survived. Constantly repositioning myself mandates an acceptance of my struggles with hybridity and its associated grievances, and more importantly invites empathy with all parties involved. This repositioning ultimately strives to recognize Otherness and erase it in its tracks, to create humans where an “us” or “them” once stood, to deconstruct the binary and replace it with empathy and the possibility of reconciliation.

It’s strange to contrast it with my fiction process, because I think the goal is similar but the process itself is exacerbated, as it can only be achieved through inhabiting multiple characters and voices and playing out their interactions, whereas my nonfiction—with all its evolutions— ultimately feels more like the body I occupy in real life.

 

MK: You write a lot about the Sri Lankan Civil War, a conflict that was rarely covered in the U.S. media, until the endgame (and still then there was a media blackout and it was, as I recall, very rarely front-page news). Other international conflicts get consistent front-page coverage in the U.S., presumably because they are of “greater interest” or “relevance” to Americans. There always seems to be a privileging of one suffering over the other, a willingness to engage in one multi-faceted situation and not another. To me, it seems as though entire peoples, entire conflicts are invisible and that there is an effort to keep them that way. How do you address this in your work?

VM: Because the Sri Lankan conflict hits so close to home, I privately resent its invisibility in mainstream news. I’m sure I’m in the company of individuals who survived or grew up in the shadow of this or other conflicts. It was striking to me that Sri Lanka appeared in the news again at the precise moment its invisibility peaked, during the media blackout toward the war’s end, as though to suggest that absence is necessary to restore presence in the public eye. Like when it’s inaccessible, we want it.

I feel like in my work I’m constantly negotiating a balance between making conflict visible and asserting that it is worthy of visibility, that war doesn’t begin and end when the news media say so but simmers to a boiling point long before it explodes into Black July, or continues with refugees in camps, sexual abuses, privation, arbitrary detainment. We—be it countries or individuals—invest in conflicts that are the most worthwhile to us in terms of emotional costs, economic resources, cultural or political or physical similarity. There’s a concept known as “compassion fatigue,” where being inundated with stories and images of war in Gaza, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Ukraine, etc., etc., anesthetizes us to atrocity. But I think there’s more to it. While there’s some truth to inuring oneself through repeated viewing, as I’m prone to doing, it’s sort of a generalization that removes agency from the public, positioning the government and media as the purveyors of compassion. I want my writing to ask: Can we displace the register of compassion from governmental policy to public empathy, catalyzed not by war photographs (which never exist in isolation) but by intertextual narratives within a social, economic, political context at home and abroad.

And maybe that’s the best description of BLACK TIGER, WHITE VAN, which seeks to refigure the terms of looking—not at consequences but at violence in process, when intervention still seems possible, when we are more willing to engage.

I am Always (Flower Petals and bugs)

MK: You’ve had quite a few pieces from your larger work BLACK TIGER, WHITE VAN published in various journals. When I met you, I knew you only as a fiction writer. BLACK TIGER, WHITE VAN, much like this piece, touches on the unreliability of memory and how memory is as much fiction as nonfiction. It is clearly a painstaking process, trying to sort out conflicting reports, memories, feelings. In your fiction, do you feel an opportunity to step outside of this constant dissection? How do the process and its effects differ for you?

VM: To run with your surgical analogy, writing nonfiction like BLACK TIGER, WHITE VAN feels like an unrelenting debridement at my own hands, a crude attempt to scrape off the dead tissue of the past to preserve what’s left, to encourage the healing of wounds I’m still unwilling to fully own. It’s a process of recovery in and of itself. Not only does it insist that I confront past experiences that are emotionally difficult or potentially re-traumatizing—and I’m thinking specifically of a recent publication, “ThisIsMyManifesto.htm,” where the narrator simultaneously confesses to self-injury, attempted suicide, disability, queerness, and vicarious trauma—but it also demands that I make this experience accessible to strangers. So I’d say half of my nonfiction process is bracing myself for reopening old wounds, while the other half is craft: putting enough objective distance between myself and, say, the hallucinations I used to have, to find a way to make them as terrifyingly present to others as they were to me.

Fiction, on the other hand, feels like human vivisection with a defter touch, maybe because the lives I’m crafting ultimately aren’t mine even if they reflect aspects of my reality. It’s less a question of “How do I articulate this?” than “What makes this person tick?”In some ways there’s more research involved to create people who come to life for me, who move naturally through their environments. Problematic as it may be, I try to occupy their minds and spaces as much as possible, and I let them inhabit me. If I had to give you a breakdown, I’d say 80% of my fiction process is understanding these people in their ordinary circumstances; 10% is sadistic mental experimentation to gauge their behavioral changes and see what makes them move their worlds; and the rest is the writing itself. Once I’ve sorted out the characters and their motivations, the writing unfolds naturally, like a Borgesian map, mile-for-mile matched to my imagining.

So, to address your first question, neither process is outside dissection. Where my nonfiction process is an inward-looking deconstruction, my fiction is eternally stargazing, world-building, but keen to possibilities to take apart and exploit. I actually think both processes boil down to the same thing: the need to figure out why we do what we do in the face of adversity, when pushed to extremes. It’s still a contradiction. It’s like reaching with one hand for an Answer, capital-A, while with the other rejecting the notion of absolute Truth.

 

MK: I know from your mention of Harvey Dent in this piece and various Batman references in other pieces (and from our mutual obsession with all things Batman), that the Dark Knight holds a special place in your heart. For me, my fascination with Batman cannot be summed up in words. It’s a feeling of being drawn to something self-destructive yet noble. There is something to be said about the self-destructive and constructive process of writing. We pick ourselves (and oftentimes our loved ones) apart, put ourselves (and them) on the line, and hope it is a noble effort, one that outweighs the damage we do to ourselves and those we love. When I read your writing, I am stunned at how brave and singular your voice is. For you, whether in process or after the work is already finished, published, out of your hands, is there a moment of separation, when you can look at what you’ve done and see you have given up a part of yourself to save yourself, to maybe save someone else? Do you feel the sacrifice is worth it?

VM: I couldn’t describe it better than “self-destructive yet noble.” Maybe because of that awareness that I’m breaking the code of silence, exposing myself, my family, my friends to an unfamiliar readership, I have difficulty revisiting my work after publication. I’m forever asking my agent or a close friend to read it and remind me that it’s emotionally compelling; or I hesitate until people, without asking, tell me they were moved, or that reading the piece in question was like hearing their lives told back to them. I like to cite an experience in high school in the Bible belt, where a short story I wrote—interrogating sexuality and religion, mind you—made the rounds in the band room, and at least one person was so changed by it she has the hard copy to this day. More recently, a reader told me, “I love you for having survivor’s guilt. I love that it is an homage to those who didn’t get out.” Moments like those, I can close my critical eye and feel fulfilled.

So the short answer is yes, the sacrifice is worth it.
MK: I have known you for I think nine years at this point, and what strikes me about you, as well as your writing, is how you are always trying to find meaning in every detail, which is, I think, the mark of a great writer. The details are not superfluous, they are not accidents, they are not artistic flourishes. They are at the heart of it all. At what point did you realize that you were a bit obsessed with the details, and what do you think pushed you and continues to push you to obsessively turn these details over and try to fit them into a larger narrative?

VM: Given my background in science, role-playing games, and having to piece together an early understanding of the Sri Lankan war from details lifted out of context, I think I was always aware of the primacy of details. I understood scientific inquiry as revealing and explaining details; RPGs demonstrated that a single choice could permanently alter the narrative; and the Sri Lankan conflict was nothing but details because there was no larger narrative to guide me, I had to fashion my own. So I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with details. When I’m writing, I begin with a detail and extrapolate a reality: BLACK TIGER, WHITE VAN coalesced as a project when I caught myself repeatedly looking at the face of a Tiger cadre corpse, one of many in an unfilled trench; the novel I’m currently working on started with the shape of an astrocytoma and the proceedings from the First International Conference on psychotronics in Prague in 1974. Existence is an experience of contingency and intuition, I think, and I think this is emulated in my writing process, like making decisions of plot or symbolism on the fly only to discover, twenty pages later, that that tiny choice dictated something much larger. I have great faith that, by writing the details, I’ll intuit the larger narrative. It’s resulted in rewrites in the past, but it hasn’t really failed me yet.

 

MK: You write a lot about creating order amidst the disorder. Does the process of writing help create order or are there moments when it feels like the opposite, that the process of writing is just a reflection of the disorder of your own mind, the world around you? Or is it a constant fluctuation between the two?

VM: I never personally escape chaos. I experience moments, while writing, when the stars align and the disorder unfolds exactly as it should on the page, and all the seemingly arbitrary choices I’ve made so far—a character’s birth year, a physical attribute, a name—make sudden, blinding sense. But between sessions, or when I’m interrupted, I think my process of mental (re)composition does reflect a chaotic landscape. In that sense, it fluctuates. Additionally, when I write, I bounce all over the page, leaving unfinished lines or words as signposts to be revisited, knowing they won’t make the same kind of sense in a future writing session, but trusting that they will make a kind of sense, a semblance of order.

It’s almost as though the work and my mind can only operate in inverse: while I prefer to write in marathon sessions to retain the feeling that I am sense-making and creating order, approaching a work-in-progress after I’ve lost the thread forces me to be more mentally organized, if messier on the page; but taken all together I think it culminates in the expression of an order that is fractured, and does not eschew disorder, which I think is an essential part of being in the world.

 

 

Mary Krienke is an agent at Sterling Lord Literistic. She received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University and represents literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and realistic YA that pays close attention to craft and voice. She is especially drawn to new and emerging writers who seek to push boundaries of form and content, and she responds most strongly to writing that reaches great emotional and psychological depths. She is equally interested in work that illuminates through humor or by playing with genre. Her other interests include psychology, art, and design.

Interview with Lauren Jo Sypniewski

Lauren Sypniewski.jpeg

Susannah Clark: Lauren, your essay “Minnows” appeared in r.kv.r.y.’s July ENDANGERED issue. What is the advantage of publishing in a journal with a specific theme or focus?

Lauren Jo Sypniewski: I think that it has the potential to affect the writing process in really positive ways by forcing the writer to hone in on a specific theme. I know for me personally, I sometimes struggle with “what is this essay truly about” when I’m trying to force it to accomplish too much. Here, the theme of recovery opened me up to guiding the essay along the appropriate path.

 

SC: Elaborate on the “recovery” aspect of this piece. Is there more than one kind of recovering occurring within this text?

LJS: In some ways, yes. In my definition, recovery is a personal process unique to every individual, and something that doesn’t have to be restricted to mental or physical recovery from a negative source. This essay does speak to those forms of recovery, but it also speaks to a recovery from past perceptions: learning to deal with situations that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable, almost as though recovery and acceptance walk hand-in-hand through the pages of the essay.

 

SC: The first few lines of the essay are written in the imperative, as if addressing someone specific. Are you giving instructions to a specific person or group? Did you have a particular audience in mind while writing this?

LJS: While I’d like to say I know what is going on one hundred percent of the time in my writing and that I am the master of the process, there are times where the writing does its own thing. And I feel somewhere in the “unknown” within me that it fits and its right, even if I can’t quite explain it. Looking back, though, I can see those first few lines functioning as a past or future Lauren speaking to the “present” Lauren who is a character within the piece.

 

SC: Your writing consistently indicates a strong sense of place–be it urban or rural or completely foreign. Is there a certain setting in which you find writing easier? Do you prefer to write in a landscape similar to the one you’re painting in your prose, or is it easier to conjure said place from a completely different atmosphere?

LJS: Thank you! In the end, I prefer to physically write from a different atmosphere than the one I am writing about. Though it may seem illogical, I almost find it easier to work from memory than from what’s in front of me, particularly because memory is filled with perspective and emotion and nostalgia. The mood of a landscape, for me, is just as important as the physical characteristics of the scene. So working from memory, based in emotion, helps me conjure the mood alongside just the descriptors.

 

SC: I was struck by the line:  “I don’t want to be the one to talk, because I can never make words sound better than silence.”  How is your relationship with writing distinct from your relationship with speech?

LJS: That’s a really insightful question I’ve never considered much before. My initial reaction is the fact that writing is still silent. And so I have the ability to add to that silence without taking away from it, without just filling it with noise. It reminds me of my favorite quote by Gretel Ehrlich: “We fill space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.” The world is already such a chaotic, noisy, frustrating place, and silence gives us a brief moment to actually think and absorb and process. And writing within that silence gives me the ability to drop tiny words into the well of thought, and watch the ripples.

 

SC: The ending of this piece is anticlimactic in a most wonderful way. Obviously, your grandmother’s outcome is implied, but did you consider writing about what happened next more explicitly? Why did you end where you did?

LJS: This was one of the very, very few times I knew where I had to end the piece. I usually struggle with endings. I’m told often that I write four endings on top of each other, just because I need to get that last word or dramatic line in there. It was almost as though I couldn’t physically continue, as though that one line I said to my grandmother was a kind of punishment: “you couldn’t say more to her then, so you don’t have the right to say anything more now.” It was overwhelming to end the essay that way, and I wanted the reader to feel that as well, the duality of my emotions as a writer choosing to end the piece that way as well as a “character” who–though so desperate–could only say those few words.

 

 

Susannah Clark is an American essayist and journalist currently living in Northern India. Her work has appeared inPopmatters, Extract(s), BDCWire, andInside Higher Ed.

Lauren Jo Sypniewski grew up in woodsy and earthy Northern Michigan before moving to Boston to obtain her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. Since then, she’s wound around the world searching Australia for new words, new moments, and new concepts of place and space: ideas often grappled with throughout her writing. She now lives in Southern Utah, where she teaches writing. Her essays and poetry have appeared in The American Council for Polish Cultural HeritageDiscovering Arguments, and the Pine River Anthology.

Interview with Jillian Ross

Jillian Ross

Barbara Wanamaker: What drew you to Van Gogh and what inspired you to write a poem about his painting Starry Night?

Jillian Ross: I was fascinated with the concept of “nightscape” and captivated by his bold use of color to convey emotion.

 

BW: Your poem seems to emerge as more of an inspirational response than an ekphrastic response. Rather than reacting to the work solely, you delve beneath the canvas to address the artist’s demons. Was this intentional or did the poem take this turn as it came forth?

JR: The painting seems alive. The sky moves, there’s an element of turbulence—a chaos—that pulls me in. Simultaneously, there’s the undercurrent of deliberate design in the rhythms, and a pure sense of hope in the exaggerated brightness of the stars and moon.

If I didn’t know the backstory of his struggle, I’d have interpreted the painting differently—as an expression of fantasy, maybe the visual equivalent of the genre we call “magical realism.” There’s a child-like exuberance to the night sky, as if it’s a playground that comes alive for him while the rest of the world sleeps. In this night sky, Van Gogh created an entirely new world, and perhaps the stars in that world were actually portals to the afterlife.

Knowing Van Gogh’s history—and the fact that Starry Night was painted during his stay in an asylum—drew me toward interpretation in terms of that reality. The urgency seems to depict the beauty of a manic episode—soaring bold, bright, confident, larger-than-life. Unfortunately, the corresponding depression that follows mania can plunge one lower than is even humanly imaginable. I marveled at the brilliance of a mind that could capture, combine and portray these elements so exuberantly, and then I mourned the tragedy of his suicide. So yes, the poem’s journey was deliberate.

 

BW: Do you believe it is possible to write about a Van Gogh painting without addressing the artist’s troubled life?

JR:   Art is self-expression, so the artist’s life is embedded in his work. If genius borders on insanity, then that borderline is a trembling high-wire without a net. If Van Gogh’s genius was in his sense of sight—in his perception of light and his ability to convey the images he saw—then try to imagine how the darkness of depressive episodes affected him. How must he have felt when the light disappeared?

 

BW: You refer to Van Gogh as “the pastor’s son” in the second line of your poem. Was this fact important to you in revealing the man who lived behind the guise of an artist?

JR:   As a writer, I reacted to the painting in terms of “story.” Knowing the backstory of his childhood in the Netherlands as the son of a minister, the church steeple and the cypress seem to represent things he might trust and hold onto as “terra firma” in his swirling world of mental anguish. So the solid, structural elements of the work seem to be taken from his life experience.

I believe that the faith we are raised in has an everlasting influence on our lives—it’s impossible to “unlearn” these truths, although it is possible to ignore or abandon them. I chose to believe that Van Gogh’s early religious training permeated his being with an enduring sense of faith and hope, despite the torment of his illness.

 

BE: “Elixir—a green glide through/aqua sky to amber field./Stained hands clench/the revolver aimed inward.” In these four lines, you describe beautifully Van Gogh’s addiction and subsequent suicide. Can you share with us any allusions of addiction and suicide apparent to you within Starry Night?

JR: His medical diagnosis is unclear—psychosis, epilepsy, alcoholism are all mentioned—but Van Gogh was hospitalized more than once, and episodes of “maniacal” behavior (including cutting off his ear) were well documented. Today, he might be categorized with co-occurring disorders. He painted Starry Night while voluntarily institutionalized—he had both a room and a studio in the asylum. But the “view” from his window as depicted in Starry Night did not exist. Unlike his other work, Starry Night was apparently created from “memory” and “imagination” rather than from on-site observation. Three months after his release from the asylum, at age 37, he apparently shot himself in a wheat field. His death was not instantaneous—the bullet didn’t kill him, death resulted from infection because the bullet could not be removed. That’s the storyline, and I couldn’t tell the story without including the agonizing reality. I chose to relay the events in terms of color as homage to the artist. Absinthe (known as “The Green Fairy”) derives its glorious color from chlorophyll, wheat fields glow amber, aqua is blue tinged with chartreuse-green.

 

BE: Do you feel Starry Night is the one work Van Gogh created that best illustrates his personal struggles?

JR: I do. I appreciate the sunflowers, the black crows in the wheat field. I love the cypress series. But as a writer, I’m drawn to story. In Starry Night, I found the story. My response included extending the story as we know it with his soul’s final journey through that Starry Night with his eyes wide open, letting him see the glory of light and color as he moved toward his final destination.

 

 

Barbara Wanamaker holds a B.A. in English and Art History from Fairfield University. She subsequently earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield in 2013. She has worked as assistant editor for Dogwood, poetry co-editor for Mason’s Road and as a reader for Spry. Her work appears in Mason’s Road, Spry, Ebullience, What Next? A Guide to Life After the MFA, Time for Singing and is upcoming in Penwood Review. She is the author of ekphrasis iii – a poetry response in Haibun form to selected cast pieces in Fairfield University’s collection displayed in the Bellarmine Museum.

“Crowdsource” Interview with Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

*Interview curated by Joshua Wann

Jeanetta C Mish.jpeg

Lee Taylor: Which is more essential to your muse – place or work and working-class issues?

I’ll begin my answer with a quote from an excellent article “Making Sense of Sense of Place” written by Cynthia Neely and published in the March/April 2014 issue of The Writers’ Chronicle : “‘Place’ is difficult to fence into just one definition. It could be defined as a landscape that is historically, culturally, or personally important—and, to a writer, it could be literal, imaginary, or metaphorical. [ . . . ] But it seems ‘place’ can be any space a poet calls on, or to which he returns, in his writing.”

So, because “work” is a place—both in the sense of the embodied workplace and the idea of work as topic (topos), I’d say sense of place is most important to my work, whether that place is psychological (the topography of the human innerscape as in the poem published in the Summer 2014 issue of r.k.v.r.y.) or environmental (topography in its usual sense, landscape combined with the psychological and emotional components of physical places).

 

Sandi Soli: Dr. Mish, the importance of place is clearly evident in your writing. How did you come to recognize it as the vital core component of your work?

Thanks for a follow-up question to Lee’s opening one, Sandi. My first book, Tongue Tied Woman is primarily about psychological place and spaces, where my my second book, Work Is Love Made Visible, operates within what I believe to be the richest vein of “sense of place,” one that combines an environmental sense of place with a historical, familial, cultural, and psychological resonances. A few years after I published my first book, I felt that the poems in it kept emotion “at arms length” away, so I returned to iconic collections by poets whose work moves me: Joy Harjo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Muriel Rukeyser, James Wright, William Stafford, Richard Hugo. And the poems I loved best in their collections were the ones in which sense of place was inextricable from the poem’s emotional, intellectual, and political arcs. So, when I noticed that the poems I was writing (the ones that became Work Is Love Made Visible) kept circling around family and our family place, Oklahoma, I decided to give free rein to the impulse to compose narrative forms with a strong sense of place. Although most of my new poems still have an identifiable narrative, at least half of the new work is closer to lyric, but even in the more lyrical poems, I find myself “calling on” (as Neely puts it) a series of spaces, some I’m returning to, some that are new territory.

 

Norbert Krapf: How is your writing “mongrel” and how does your work as editor of Mongrel Empire Press affect your own writing?

I think the foremost way my writing is “mongrel” is that I just can’t seem to stick to one style. I have at least three clearly identifiable styles: the storytelling, often vernacular poem; the long-lined poems (sometimes prose poems) that hover somewhere between prose and poetry, and what I call the “Latinate”poems, poems in which the multi-syllabic words we’ve inherited from the Latin language serve as structural underpinning, as sound-play instruments, and as thought-device with which to explore my scholarly, critical-theory-reading self. Of course, if you take all these styles together, you get a map to my ethnic, artistic, intellectual, and cultural hybridity, which is something I celebrate. My editorial work influences my writing by making me want to work harder at it, to push it to new places, because I see so much great work coming in “over the transom” to the press. It also makes me ask my poems more than once if they’re truly ready to be submitted—sometimes, poems just aren’t ready, and it’s more obvious to an editor—and to readers—than most of us think it is!

 

Miranda Bradley:What are some obsessions, compulsions, or distractions you deal with during the writing process, and how do you move past them?

Compulsion: I have to clean and organize my desk first! I used to think the compulsion to clean and organize my writing space was an avoidance behavior, but I decided to honor it as mental preparation, as creating a meditative state or a liminal space, a ritual which marks the time in which I am consciously moving into active writing. It works for me, to think of organizing my writing area as ritual. Sometimes, now, I can even jump-start my writing by initiating the cleaning ritual. Obsession? I have a hard time deciding when to put down the pre-writing reading I’ve been doing and get on with the writing. There’s always one more book! How do I move past it? Sheer determination. Distractions? Life in general; specifically, the tasks that come with all the different hats I wear, as MFA director, as small press editor and publisher, as teacher, as poet and essayist. I wish I could tell you that I’ve found a successful way to move past those, but I haven’t, not entirely. I do use a free app called “Self-Control” that lets me block Facebook, mail servers, all or part of the internet—I set what I want blocked and the amount of time I want it blocked for, and the only way I can override it is to restart the computer. It works for me—for instance, if I can’t see that email come in, I don’t feel like I have to answer it right away.

 

Chelle Gluch: All authors have a favorite writing space. Tell me about your favorite place to write and how that space inspires or affects you.

It’s only been in the last four years that I’ve had a favorite writing space, my beautiful office on the arroyo—the windows look out on Sandia Mountain (Albuquerque). The best thing about my space, in addition to the natural beauty of the area, is that all my poetry books are within easy reach (alphabetized by author’s last name, or, if anthology, by title). For most of my life, because I was a single mother and, until 2001, worked jobs that didn’t allow for intellectual or creative space (working in copy shops, waitressing, bartending, working as a nurse’s aid in nursing homes, etc), most of the writing went on in my head. Then, when I had time and space (which might be when I was waiting to pick my son up from school or after I got off work at 2 am and went to an all-night diner to wind down), I’d write, usually several poems at a time.

 

Alice M. Azure: I always like to know how a poet/writer works at her craft—the discipline of writing. For example, do you write every day? How do you hang on to words and phrases that get into your head? How much and how deeply do you edit your work? Do you work with a poetry circle?

Because of the habit of writing in my head that I cultivated for years, I am still primarily a “binger” rather than a “plodder” (thanks to my friend and colleague Allison Amend for these two useful terms). What I mean is, as a binger, I may not write a poem for 6 months, but then I’ll write 6 or 8 or 10 in the space of a week or two. Many of those poems have already been revised in my head when they hit the page, and sometimes they need only one more revision before they’re ready. I very rarely sit down and say to myself, “I’m going to write a poem.”I’m not a “plodder,”so I don’t make a time to sit down and write every day. I used to feel guilty about that, since almost all the writers’ advice I’ve read insists you must sit down every day at a regular time and write, but now, I roll with what I have, and I hope other bingers will be easier on themselves because I’ve confessed my irregular writing process.

When I’m writing essays, especially when I’m writing commissioned essays, I do sit down and say to myself, “it’s time to write that essay.” But even with essays, I’ve done a lot of pre-writing in my head and have a pretty good idea of the “shape” (literally, both prose and poetry feels like a shape of some kind, a shape I could gesture with my hands) of the essay before I hit the first letter on the keyboard. How much do I edit? I edit as much as the poem or essay needs—as well as I can judge it. One of my essay editors has a question in this interview—I wonder if I judge the amount of editing needed as well as I think I do! Fortunately, she did not ask about my editing process.

No, I don’t write with a poetry circle. I’ve always been a stereotypically lone writer. However, over the years I’ve been lucky to cultivate a trusted and beloved group of writers, friends, who are my second readers, my manuscript-sequencing experts, my advocates, and my critics. I rarely ever send them anything in progress; when I think the writing is close to final form, I send it and ask for feedback. I’m lousy at sequencing manuscripts so I always ask for help on that. Norbert Krapf, who has asked a question in this interview, sequenced Work Is Love Made Visible for me—I was stuck and couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Another friend recently sequenced one of the two chapbooks I have out as submissions, and Sandi Soli, who also has a question in this interview, is waiting on what might be my next full-length book, to sequence for me.

 

Kim Shuck: Some poetry is in dialogue with objects, some with the author, to what do you attribute the dialogue your work seems to have with other people not now present? 

What a fascinating, thought-provoking, unusual question! I think there are two primary cultural reasons why my work is in dialogue with “other people not now present. ”One is that I was raised in a Southern family—not a “Deep South” family (as a Mississippi-born-and-raised friend recently reminded me), at least not a true Deep South family whose roots and branches are still in the Deep South. A third-generation, working-class (previously sharecropping), Deep South, post-reconstruction, gone to the Territories family (both Native and nonnative family members). My families found their way from the South to Oklahoma by two different routes, one through Missouri and Texas, the other through Arkansas and Texas. Southern literature, as we all know, has long and complex conversations with ghosts, haints, shades, and others not now present. I’m sure that I don’t need to go into the reasons why Southern literature is haunted, since most people who will read this interview will already know. The other cultural reason is that I am, like most people descended from early-settlement Oklahomans, mixed-blood Native American (I also have some African-American ancestry); Native people, too, acknowledge the presence of those not now physically present.

It doesn’t seem odd to me to think of “my family” as including, for instance, women who died in the late 1800s—passed/past family members were repeatedly storied into our lives. The primary aesthetic reason I try to communicate with those not now present is that I have a lot of questions to ask them, questions that revolve around a central theme: How did my family become who they are? How did I become who I am? To me, these are questions that engender empathy for others and form a foundation for a nuanced view of humankind. The conceptual title (which may not be the final title) of the collection I’m working on now is “How We Became White.” For example, I want to comprehend why, despite their non-whiteness / marginal whiteness, members of my families became casual racists (and some active racists) and why I resisted that acculturation. I hope that, through these questions, I can confront that particular human proclivity, hatred, and its obverse, love. And in doing so, more accurately estimate how to put my humanist values to work in the world in both my writing and publishing and through the kinds of activism I am able to participate in at this time.

 

Steffie Corcoran: I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on inspiration. What inspires you? How do you put yourself in a position to be inspired? What do you do when inspiration feels out of reach? How would you turn inspiration into a metaphor? 

I like how you said “how do you put yourself in a position to be inspired?” I think that’s absolutely necessary, in part because my first two scholarly degrees are in 18th century British literature, and those women and men, while they believed in inspiration, also believed in cultivating it—by reading, by great conversation, by travel, by studying their artistic craft (poetry or drama or architecture or painting). One of the most fruitful arenas for inspiration for me, lately, is to try to write in form. Although I have studied and critiqued poetic form, both as a poet and as a scholar, I have always been terrified of writing in form. However, I have discovered that it leads me to think about poems in an entirely new way and it has led to some brand new poems that I might not have found if I hadn’t been thinking about and practicing with form.

Another way I’m inspired is by teaching—one of the first prose pieces I ever published was an assignment I wrote along with my freshman composition class. Today, teaching poetry and literary journal editing, I often find myself suggesting a reading to a student that opens up new avenues for my own work. If I’m stuck for inspiration, I take a hike or I read a book of poetry (or I take the book along on my hike!); I also find inspiration in current events and in certain critical theory and philosophy texts. However, I’m having a hard time turning “inspiration” into a metaphor right now, because my obsession with etymology reminds me that the word “inspiration” is already a metaphor meaning “to breathe in.” I don’t think I can do much better than that!

 

Joshua Wann: I heard you read your poetry out loud before I had read any of your work. How important is it for your work to be read/performed by you versus read by a reader? Do you think there are poems that are better spoken out loud or performed as opposed to read on the page?

I think there are poems that work on the stage and not on the page, and vice versa; poems that work when set to music as lyrics but don’t work so well without the music, and poems that work no matter what. I want my poems to work both on the page and on the stage. That said, poems are meant to be heard because poetry began as an oral form and because many craft elements of contemporary “page” poems—the “sonic level” of poetry—are still deeply engaged with sound. The sound of a poem is not just icing on the cake, it is the essence of cake-ness, inextricably intertwined with meaning. There are so many things going on in poems that we miss when we muzzle them.

I am also very conscious of my reading style—I hope you liked my reading style!—because I have an undergraduate double-major in English and Theater Studies and because, as a young writer, I heard so many people read in a style that bored me to death and came close to ruining my love for their poems as I encountered them on the page. Reading after reading sounded like this: “da DA/ da daa/ da daa/ da duh // da Da da daa/ da daa/ da duh” (with some occasional variations), regardless of the poem’s internal rhythm. I am not a performance poet/slam poet, but I try to read my poems in a way that keeps the audience engaged and that adds to the meaning, not detracts from it.