Mary Akers: Hi, K.A.. Thanks again for letting us have your wonderful SOS piece “A Taste of Peppermint” for our Caregivers issue. There’s something so poignant about this piece, really a vignette, but a vignette that “spins out” into something larger. I had a writing professor (Fred Leebron) who talked about the importance of “Chekhovian Spinout” in the endings of short work. I believe it was a term he coined, but it has stayed with me. I guess it’s similar to “resonance” in which a final tone keeps reverberating into the silence, but bigger somehow. An ending that stops but also opens out. Have you ever heard of this phrase before? Do you agree with it and/or strive for Chekhovian Spinout in your writing?
K.A. Wisniewski: Thank you for the kind words. It’s funny because this vignette is actually pulled from a larger essay or story about thirty-pages in length. So, at one time, it did spin out into something larger.
About ten years ago, I visited Austin, TX, and heard this song called “Penthouse in the Ghetto” playing on a jukebox. I became a bit obsessed with this song and researched the blues artist Peppermint Harris who wrote and recorded it. For several months, I thought of this as a fun research project that might spin into a journalistic essay, but ultimately I stepped away from it. Several years later, I was listening to some of Harris’ songs from the 1940s and 50s while walking around the streets of Philadelphia. There was this interesting contrast between what I was seeing and what I was hearing, and the result was this invented story of this aged bluesman recalling moments from forty years earlier.
When I returned to the story again this past year, I ultimately decided to chop it down to what is now “A Taste of Peppermint” to give this sense of resonance. It’s just a vignette, a moment following this musician across the street to a local bar. Nothing happens. The idea was have the readers fill in the gaps themselves and ask the same questions I did while listening to his songs for the first time. Who is this guy? What’s the backstory? How did he or we get there?
I appreciate you bringing in Chekhov here. I had a professor who referred to these endings as “anti-epilogues,” but I really like this idea of the spin-off. I think Chekhov’s the master at this sort of ending. Instead of this happily-ever-after, neatly tied-up ending, he often leaves his readers what will happen next, of stopping short. I’m interested in this idea of stopping short, not fulfilling readers’ expectations but instead giving them a more active role in the story-making process.
MA: And, related, do you read Chekhov? Do like his work? If so, what’s one of your favorites?
KAW: I haven’t read Chekhov in a little while now, but I think I should return to him. My favorite story might be “A Joke.” It’s ends in a classic Chekhovian fashion when in one-line the narrator reflects on a joke he once played a girl while sledding. He would whisper, “I love you” in her ear and later deny it. Years later, he realizes that this was this missed opportunity for love. Chekov has a way of framing these little moments where nothing and everything happens for a character or characters and then just cuts away. In an instant, the moment is over and the world carries on as it did before. Only later does the character imagine that moment as a moment of possibility.
I guess this is similar to my image of Peppermint Harris. There was a moment when he was somewhat famous and had a number 1 song on the Billboard Charts. Then the moment was over. Life continued on, and next month’s rent was due.
MA: I know from your bio that you wear many literary hats, working as an author but also an editor and a managing editor. In my book that makes you a good literary citizen, giving back to the community that sustains you. Do you find that doing such work informs and enhances your writing? Or is it a tricky balance you are striking between the personal creative pursuits and the “giving back?”
KAW: I love my work as an editor. I love being on the frontline, reading new work. Sometimes being among the first to read them, and sometimes seeing them still in-progress and imagining what they will become. The making-process is the greatest part of the experience. I love talking to artists and authors about their work and troubleshooting. People often look at this process as cold and bureaucratic. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the poetics in these exchanges. So I see publishing and editing itself as a creative pursuit.
And I’ve made great friends in this process. This is one of the reasons I’m attracted to small presses and literary magazines. You see and feel the collaborative spirit and energy of writing (and publishing). You see your work as a part of an ongoing conversation. These experiences definitely shape my own writing. I’m always learning from these authors, editors, and texts. They motivate me to keep writing and re-writing.
MA: Are you primarily a flash writer? I find that form so deliciously varied and inclusive–flash, micro, short-short, prose poem, etc. Could you say a few words about your attraction to the form?
KAW: I’m actually arriving a little late to the flash scene and am just beginning to experiment here. But I’m attracted to it because of this lack of definition and because of the way it makes me rethink or re-envision my own work. I’m now asking new questions and trying to get to the heart of whatever I’m writing. It’s an interesting shift for me to stop asking, “What happening here? What’s the story about?” It’s shifting from narrative to the emotional, the affective.
I’ve recently read a few collections or serials on what’s called twitterature, and I’m especially interested in seeing how this genre will evolve as we move further into the digital age. Reading or surfing on the Internet has taught us that there is no longer a linear narrative or specific route. Here, I think the figure (and the feeling that follows) might replace the narrative.
MA: I like the theme of this piece. For me, it’s something akin to “Dignity of the Downtrodden.” And also highlights the fact that we often have no inkling of the mysterious lives that our elders have lived–frequently recognizing only the shell of the body and moving on, dismissively. Would you like to say anything about that?
KAW: We live in a society that often dismisses or undervalues the needs, talents, and awesome experiences of the aged community and what they bring to the conversation. My partner Molly is an advocate for the rights and well being of the elderly, so I’m especially conscious of this. While both their rights and ongoing contributions to the arts and culture need to be addressed and reconsidered in general, I think there’s a real gap that exists in creative writing communities. A good example is public readings and community groups. I’ve been to readings where participants and audiences are either filled with young adults or students or with retired persons. Rarely do I see a diverse representation, and I’d really like to see local creative writings groups find a way to bridge the gap here.
MA: Granted, this may be a question more for future scholars of your work, but what do you think are some of your most common themes? What do you find yourself revisiting over and over?
KAW: Memory is certainly a reoccurring motif in my work, how memories change or are distorted over time and sometimes how we’re haunted by what we’ve once said or didn’t say or how one obsesses or reflects on what was or could have been. I guess for that reason a lot of my poetry and creative work focuses on specific moments of embarrassment or awkwardness. A lot of these feelings play up our own anxieties, those anxieties that break with the logical or rational but still deeply affect us. In reflection. some of this is absurd or humorous. I look to moments that will connect the readers to a specific feeling or moment in their own lives.
MA: And finally, because I always love the answers I get when I ask this question, What does ‘recovery’ mean to you?
KAW: In terms of my writing, recovery might refer to amplifying those small moments or those scraps of writing that would ultimately get cut from a work. Those notes or ideas that were jotted down “in the moment” that inspired you to start a project in the beginning. Recovery is to return to that instance of excitement. In the case of Peppermint, it’s returning to the image I first imagined. Not clouded by research or over-thinking narrative structure or dialogue. Returning to the bliss of writing and imagining.