Interview with Laurin Macios

Lauren Macios

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?

Growing up, we had a shelf in our den full of beautiful old books that had been in the family for a long time. Like most book nerds, I loved opening them gently, turning their pages, and of course taking in that old book smell. But then I started reading them, and one in particular. It was James Whitcomb Riley’s Afterwhiles. For most of fifth and sixth grade, I returned to it every day for one poem, called “A Scrawl.” I just loved it. In sixth grade I started writing my own poetry. Funnily though, it took me a very long time to encounter contemporary poetry. It wasn’t until I was an undergrad that I knew people still wrote poems. I took a writing class and was assigned Sharon Olds’ The Gold Cell. That was a shock, to say the least. Of course, the best shock ever.

 

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?

Only in the past year or so do I really have a writing routine. I try to get up a couple of hours before I need to work so that I can write in the morning. And “writing” at that time can mean reading poetry, drafting new poems, working on old ones, or reading things I’ll find inspiring, like Astronomy Magazine or flipping through a coffee table book of paintings. If I’m reading, I always try to draft something or other on what it is that day, but it also seeps into my writing later. For a long time I resisted having a set time to write every day, but I realized I just had to suck it up, because it’s too easy to let it fall through the cracks, and too upsetting when it does.

 

Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?

My poems come from a lot of different places. From images, from phrases, yes. I work with a poet (Alice Kociemba) who makes a distinction between “head” and “heart” poems, and my poems are very much heart poems. My poems aren’t always entirely straight forward, but they are never coming from a place with the goal of making someone think. I love poems that evoke a feeling, a sense—to me, the beauty of a poem is making you, in one small page, feel something that you wouldn’t have felt that day, something that someone else has felt.

 

Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?

Poets would be Sharon Olds, Eavan Boland, Natasha Trethewey, Mary Oliver, Rumi, Walt Whitman. But also Louise Erdrich, Geraldine Brooks, Megan Marshall, Louisa May Alcott, Mary Shelley. And the faculty of UNH’s MFA program, Mekeel McBride, David Rivard, and Charles Simic, had a huge impact on my writing and on the way I think about and revise a poem.

Interview with Emily Rich

Emily Rich

(Jerri Bell) Tell me about how you chose to start writing.

(Emily Rich) I went through a really rough period where I had two chronic conditions before I got cancer. And then my mom got cancer, and that just brought up a lot of memories I needed to deal with. I am not somebody who does well in therapy, so I started taking classes at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, just as my own therapy to work through stuff, and I got the bug. I started doing workshops and I loved it. And it helped me deal with what I was going through.

 

(JB) What part has writing played in your own recovery journey? How specifically did getting it out help you?

(ER) Most people will tell you that it’s not healthy to keep things bottled up inside. My mother was the champion of that, and I learned a lot of those behaviors from her. When something’s going wrong, you don’t talk about it. You just keep it hidden. Writing has forced me to confront my own demons. What helped me the most was the process of having to be very careful and think through things as I put it on the page. It clarified the trauma and my response to it. I’m a big blocker-outer, so I had buried a bunch of stuff. Just working it out on my own was very helpful.

 

(JB) How did you choose the specific incidents that you were going to use for “Malignancies?” What about those incidents made you choose to put them together for a piece to submit to r.kv.r.y quarterly?

(ER) Once I started thinking back on it, this incident when I went home for my mother’s first diagnosis captured our family dynamic. I had always set out to write about my mom and my relationship in the last few months of our relationship – dealing with flashbacks and unpleasant memories. And yet…she was dying. I didn’t want to be cruel. I certainly wasn’t going to bring up all my resentment, at least not to her, at that point.

 

(JB) Did writing about the childhood trauma trigger anything? How did you deal with it, when it brought up something that you weren’t quite done processing?

(ER) There’s a Robert Frost quote that I kept in mind when I was writing: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” I cried a lot when I was writing some of those scenes. Sometimes you can work through it, and sometimes you have to step away until you calm down. On the other hand, if you hit a vein and you’re really feeling something, sometimes it’s good just to get that out.

Malignancies

(JB) A while back, we both read Alison K. Williams’s essay “Don’t Be Brave” in Brevity. She talks about approaching “difficult material” in a constructive way, and I think you managed that brilliantly in “Malignancies.”

(ER) She writes about dealing with the drama of the moment, not just the drama of the situation – putting people in a scene, and letting the scene represent the larger situation. As an editor, getting lots of submissions, I wish I could send that quote out to people. They talk about trauma in generalities, and it’s very hard for the audience to relate to that. It helps to slow it down – to put the trauma in a scene, and to focus on the action. It makes a greater connection with the writer when she doesn’t tell you how to feel, or how to react.

 

(JB) And she talks about ending on a moment of empowerment. You start “Malignancies” with a question: will I let my mother visit so soon after my own cancer diagnosis, or not? Then you take readers on the journey of what happened the last time your family was in this kind of stressful situation together, so we understand why, at the end of the essay, you choose a different path for handling your own diagnosis. That decision was your moment of empowerment. As an editor, I see that as the kind of resolution that readers need to feel that they’ve been taken somewhere good.

(ER) I wanted to show myself in what I think is a true light – not just as an innocent victim. Going through traumatic events is confusing. Especially as a child, you just go along with a lot of what happens. That’s why I put in the scene with the dog. I feel guilty that I took my kids to that house, at a stressful time when I knew my dad wouldn’t be able to control himself. Even as a child, I never had the feeling that I deserved my father’s abuse – I never blamed myself in that way. But I did inherit the family response of burying stuff that needed to be dealt with.

 

(JB) Have you shared any of your writing with your family?

(ER) My husband’s family is a big cheering section. But it makes my husband uncomfortable to read my essays – I think that he doesn’t like to think about me in that way. All my kids have read some of the essays, and my daughters have both read my draft memoir. I think it has been great for them to be able to see where their mom is coming from. It was strange for them that we were so close to my husband’s family when they were growing up, but we never saw my family. So this explains a lot. And I’ve shared some essays with my younger sister. We had both buried a lot of stuff, so this has brought it up in the open and brought us closer. Now we can talk about it.

 

(JB) Tell me about some of your favorite memoirs, and why you think they’re good.

(ER) This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff; Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller; and The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. I still have a tendency to look back on myself as a little kid and feel sorry for myself. But I don’t get that feeling when I read those memoirs. When you’re with the protagonists in those books, even with the traumatic things that happen to them and the bad situations they’re in, you’re still with that little kid. Even when you’re experiencing something traumatic, you’re still just a little kid, having your little-kid thoughts, dealing with things in your own little-kid way. Those books capture that well. I’d love to be able to get in touch with that side of my past. Another memoir that I enjoyed is Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. She’s so honest about her own shortcomings, and her struggle to overcome them. I think that’s why so many people have responded to the book.

 

(JB) What advice would you have for other writers who are just starting to explore trauma through writing?

(ER) If you’re going through that trauma in the moment, if you’re dealing with your own illness or that of someone you love, or God forbid, through some sort of domestic violence, do write it all down. But know that you may need to step away from it for a while. When it’s so fresh in your mind, it’s hard to step away and see the bigger picture, or to bring a reader in. You’re so much in your own head dealing with it. When I first wrote about my cancer, I put in every detail of every medical appointment, every test, what it felt like to be on the phone. There’s just so much stuff. And you think you’ll remember everything – but you won’t.

 

(JB) How do you define recovery for yourself – both physical recovery, and psychological or spiritual recovery? Which was harder to write about?

(ER) Physical recovery is so much easier. When you’re recovering from a disease, there are certain milestones that you look for. I recovered from the surgery. I recovered from the chemo treatments. The hair grows back, your energy comes back – it’s easy to quantify that. And you’ve got the doctors, they’re always telling you yes, you’re making progress. So it’s easy to watch your own recovery from something physical that has an end point, though of course it’s different if you’re dealing with something chronic.

 

(JB) And psychological recovery from a childhood trauma is a different process?

(ER) Much different. It’s so nebulous. You don’t know if you’ve reached it, or if you ever really will. My sister, who’s in the story, just emailed me an article from the New York Times – “To Stop Violence, Start at Home” by Pamela Shifman. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/opinion/to-stop-violence-start-at-home.html) Both of us are still dealing with the issues from growing up. She said, “I cried, and then I thought how amazing it is that you and I both managed to break the cycle…not to have our sons and daughters grow up thinking that home violence is normal.” It made my day when she sent me that message. My dad’s mom was an abusive alcoholic – he grew up miserable, and then he made his own family miserable, and I think it’s a measure of my emotional recovery that my dad and I went opposite ways.

 

 

Jerri Bell, a retired naval officer, is the managing editor for O-Dark-Thirty (www.o-dark-thirty.org), the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project. VWP founder Ron Capps realized that writing was key to his recovery from severe post-traumatic stress that nearly cost him his life. He created the Veterans Writing Project to bring no-cost writing seminars to veterans across the country, give them the tools to tell their stories, and publish their work.

Archives – Winter 2015

Malignancies

winter 2015
vol. xii. no. 1

Caregivers

Fiction


“Quesasomethings” by Mary Lewis

“Treatment” by Douglas Shearer


Poetry


“Bathing My 20-Year-Old Son After He Has Broken His Arm” by Cecil Sayre

“At the Piazza, I Remember You” by Laurin Macios

“Rescue Dog” by Roy Bentley

“Sevenling” by Annie Bolger

“Overdue” by Mikayla Davis


Essay


“Your New Face” by Ojas Patel

“The Polarity of Incongruities” by Laurie Easter

“Malignancies” by Emily Rich

“Fifty-four Weeks?” by Annita Sawyer


Shorts on Survival


“A Few Simple Questions” by Danielle Dugan

“The Youngest Boy to Ever Fly to Space” by Jonathan Levy

“Hope” by Matthew S. Rosin

“Born This Way” by Amy Newell


Interview with Cecil Sayre

Cecil Sayre

Keith Leonard: One of the many things I enjoy about “Bathing my 20 Year Old Son After He Has Broken His Arm” is how it moves through both action and meditation, and yet, the poem is never confusing despite a volleying of those two registers. Could you discuss your relationship with clarity in your poems?

Cecil Sayre: The most difficult aspect for me in writing my poems is accurately presenting the emotions of the moment, and I suspect that might be the more meditative parts of the poem. The physical, the action, is much easier to convey; that’s the concrete and almost simply becomes a reporting of the ‘facts’. I struggle with honesty, that is, finding the words that express most truly how the speaker feels. This usually requires the most revision and maybe that constant revision leads to the clarity that you are asking about. I know when it scares me in its truthfulness I have it right.

 

KL: How has parenting influenced your writing?

CS: Parenting forces me to accept my age, while at the same time remember and re-examine my childhood, albeit from a new perspective. I’ve become more aware, each and every day, of being a parent and a child. My work almost always focuses on the relationships we have and form with each other, and the duality of parenting, being both a parent and a child, leads to all sorts of revelations about the self.

 

KL: Speaking of “childhood,” can you talk a bit about how you were first introduced to poetry?

CS: By the age of nine I was writing prose, poetry came later and I kind of fell into it. By my preteens I had discovered the Doors and was captured by Jim Morrison’s lyrics, which are poetry. Reading about Morrison’s life I learned he read Rimbaud and the Beats, they were his inspiration, and so I began reading them too. The fact that poetry could have such a strong impact with so few words just knocked me out, and I began reading whatever I came across, both the good and the bad, trying to figure it out.

Bathing

KL: This poem pays particular attention to the body, describing the son’s age as evidenced by his long hair and broad back. This is a broad question, but could you discuss your understanding of the relationship between the body and poetry?

CS: The body is poetry. It is poetry, it is music, it is art. It is the one thing we can know without doubt. It is the most consistent concreteness we have access to. The death of poetry is abstraction so we must write from the body and of the body. Once we have established the body in poetry, in words, then we can allow in the abstractions, the thoughts about the body.

 

KL: Can you think of any other poets who seem to share your sentiment about the body in poetry? Who do you turn to for inspiration?

CS: The first two poets I read, devoured, were Charles Bukowski and Adrienne Rich. Their work is very physical, especially Bukowski’s, he is all about the experience of the body, but so is Rich, particularly her book Dream of a Common Language. Lately I’m enjoying the work of B. H. Fairchild.

 

KL: What are the particular difficulties with writing about family? And besides family, what are some themes or subjects you find yourself writing poems about?

CS: There is a thin line to tread when writing about others, especially family. As a rule, I try not to write about them, or their experiences, instead focusing on my experiences, even though it may, and often does, concern an event we shared. All I can do is be as honest as possible about what I think/thought and felt and at the same time be respectful of the other person (or persons) involved. A difficulty is the form. Some things must be changed to fit the limits of a poem. Hopefully what does become changed, or omitted, is not that relevant. And ultimately what it is all about is the creating of a poem, a work of art, something made up; it is not a factual report of the event.

Most of my poems are about relationships, and specifically family relationships. Some deal with my immediate family, while others tackle family history, and in those instances the family history may serve as more inspiration than anything.

 

KL: This poem take a wonderful turn at the end when the father’s frustrations are turned back on himself as he realizes his impatience is the failure of the situation, not the broken arm and anger of the son. What is your understanding of failure/mistake in poems?

CS: That’s an interesting interpretation of the poem’s conclusion. I don’t exactly see it as a sense of failure on the father’s part, but maybe more one of resignation, perhaps a failure in general but not one assigned to either party. I feel the poem concludes with more of a feeling of hopelessness. There is some mutual understanding gained by both the father and the son, but not one that seems to solve any issues or even brings them closer. And interestingly it is through the son’s own innocence and naiveté that the reader is offered this insight. So perhaps in that respect there is a failure on the father’s part, an inability to acknowledge the totality of the situation.

 

 

 

Keith Leonard is the author of a forthcoming poetry collection, Ramshackle Ode (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, spring 2016), and a chapbook Still, the Shore (YesYes Books). He has held fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Indiana University, where he received his MFA. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Copper Nickel, and Gulf Coast. Keith is a Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Indiana University.

Featuring Randi Ward

Randi Ward

Our wonderful January illustrator, Randi Ward, is also a talented poet with a forthcoming poetry collection, Whipstitches. Here are some links to more of her fine poetry:

The Cortland Review

Thrush Poetry Journal and also here.

Cleaver Magazine

Across The Margin

Still: The Journal

The Enchanting Verses Literary Review

Randi Ward1

And also links to her fine photography:

The Stockholm Review of Literature

MadHat Lit

Quail Bell Magazine

The Bohemyth

The Island Review

Small Po[r]tions Journal

Whipstitches will be released by The Operating System in Brooklyn later this year.

Interview with Matthew Rosin

Matthew Rosin1

R.G. Chandler interviewed Matthew S. Rosin about his flash fiction story “Hope,” which appears in the Winter 2015 edition of r.kv.r.y. quarterly. Rosin and Chandler met when they worked for the same education non-profit. They eventually got to know each other as creative writers and are now part of the same writing group.

Chandler: “Hope” is a powerful story. After reading it, I had to wonder: where did the story originate? The metaphor of the sand and the bucket is so vivid and so alive that it must have a back story.

Rosin: “Hope” is the story of someone seeking treatment for mental illness: depression, anxiety, what have you. I’ve dealt with these challenges — first depression, and more recently anxiety — for all of my adult life.

The story sparked one morning while I was driving. I had just dropped off my son at daycare and was heading to my favorite coffee shop to write. It had been a rough morning, and my anxiety level was still rising. Fast.

Then, while stopped at a traffic light, I suddenly noticed my body. I was hunched forward at the steering wheel, my neck crooked, as if struggling to hold up a weight.

In that moment, through stepping apart from the sensation and trying to understand it, the energy that had fueled my anxiety made a sort of creative pivot. By the time I got to the coffee shop, the sand and funnel imagery that became “Hope” were calling me to write. Two hours later, I had a relatively tight first draft.

I think that’s why the story packs a punch: it contains the urgency of a man writing his way out of an anxiety attack.

The details in the story are fiction. But the metaphors and the phenomenology all came from my noticing and trying to express in words what anxiety was doing to my body.

 

Chandler: What made you chose to write “Hope” in a second person point of view? Did you start off writing the story in second person, or was that something you shifted to?

Rosin: I did it intuitively from the outset. But the second-person point of view stuck around through all the revisions because, when combined with the imagery, I think it pushes the reader to find solidarity with the protagonist.

For example, my goal with the opening lines was to place the protagonist’s burden — the weight, the need to make sense of what’s happening and find some kind of equilibrium — immediately upon the reader.

 

Chandler: There are lines in “Hope” that I find fascinating because of the word choices you made, such as: “The doctor does not wear a white coat, but all the possible names for your struggle listen on a shelf behind her, inside a book as heavy as the sand in your skull.” What made you choose the word “listen?”

Rosin: The book in question is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, which is the manual that mental health providers use to categorize mental illness. It gets revised periodically, and the boundaries between old and new disorder categories — and between disorder and the ordinary difficulties of everyday life — shift around. Those shifts have consequences for people’s lives.

I described the DSM as “listening” because it’s not an inert tome on the shelf. By entering a psychiatrist’s office and asking for help, the protagonist’s troubles will be absorbed into a set of categories for making sense of mental struggle. Insurance payments and, in the case of the story, medication that might help will follow.

I’m not criticizing this, by the way. My own life is more livable for it. Diagnostic categories, whatever their truth, bring a language for making sense of your struggles. You can move beyond your inchoate fear of going crazy. With help, you can learn to objectify what’s happening to you, recognize its movements and moments within you, and act in the world to counter it.

 

Chandler: Every single word in “Hope” seems to have been specifically and carefully chosen. It doesn’t feel like you dropped any word in by accident. So again, in reference to the previously-quoted line, you write that “the doctor does not wear a white coat.” Then, when you describe the pharmacist a few short lines later, you state: “the man wears a white coat, but he is not a doctor.” What’s the deeper meaning behind this contrast? What’s the significance of the white coat?

Rosin: One thing I wanted to show through the story is how new hope sometimes takes its first breath in response to small things vested with symbolic weight. Like the couch in a doctor’s office. Finding a name for your struggle. A pharmacist’s white coat. Mapping out future events in your cell phone’s calendar. Little capsules and pills.

Only a few days ago, I was picking up a prescription at my pharmacy, and the woman behind the counter wasn’t wearing a white coat. I’d seen her in the store before, so I wasn’t totally put off by it. But still, I felt slightly anxious until she reached for her white coat and slipped it on. I guess she’d just arrived at work or returned from a break. Somehow, that coat transformed my perception. It affirmed my trust in her.

But I don’t think I’d want to walk into a psychiatrist’s office and be welcomed by a white coat, despite the fact that white coats symbolize all the responsibilities and trust we grant doctors in our culture. You’re there to treat your body, sure, but it’s not a room for physical examination in the usual sense. It’s more intimate than that. It’s a place to tell ever-truer stories about your vulnerabilities, wrestle with them, and plan new responses. You’re there to prepare your spirit for the road ahead.

My own feeling is I’d rather the symbols of medical authority — the diplomas, the DSM — hold up the walls and the shelves. Then, in the space they hold open, I can take the risk to spill some of my sand before another person — one who listens and helps interpret the patterns on the floor.

 

Chandler: Your style of writing mimics that of a poet. “Hope” seems more “linear” in nature, compared with the longer paragraphs usually found in prose. Also, it distinctly follows Coleridge’s description of poetry: the right words in the right order, with each line building on the line before. You’re very good at leading up to and then packing a powerful punch into very few words, such as: “Like dad did.” Considering this, I have to wonder: what is your poetry background? What other forms of writing do you engage in?

Rosin: Poetry is important for how I think about writing fiction, especially flash fiction.

My dad, Gary S. Rosin, is a poet. He’s long been active in the Texas poetry community. As a kid, I attended his poetry readings — at least the ones before bedtime — and proudly put a copy of his first chapbook on my bookshelf. Now, my dad and I talk about writing all the time, and he’s been steadfast in supporting my turn to fiction.

One thing I got from my dad and his poetry readings, I think, is a feeling that written language wants to be spoken. That feeling also comes from my being a songwriter and musician. Most of my own poetry is used as lyrics, which means I’m always concerned with the sound, rhythm, flow, and cadence of the words I write.

When I revise a piece of fiction, the process always includes reading aloud. If I trip over a sentence, or if it feels awkward on my tongue, I rewrite. I tweak the placement of paragraph breaks with speech in mind, too. In the case of “Hope,” that meant short, spare paragraphs.

My dealings with poetry and songwriting have also given me a desire to pack the most power into the fewest words, with the right image at the right moment. I aspire to that, anyway. Flash fiction is a great context for that because you’ve only a limited amount of real estate to get your point across. The words need to cut, bloom, explode.

 

Chandler: I know that you were previously an education writer. How does nonfiction writing differ from fiction for you personally? Was this a difficult shift, or do both of these writing personae come naturally to you?

Rosin: The audiences and their goals differ. So do the means by which you interrogate reality: creative use of metaphor only goes so far in an education policy document before data and charts come calling.

But my transition from nonfiction to fiction has gone smoothly, on the whole. Ultimately, the goal in both contexts is to tell a worthwhile story well and invite your readers to wrestle with ideas and themselves — and to become the kind of writer who can pull it off. That’s the common calling.

 

Chandler: I really enjoyed “Hope” and other pieces of yours that I’ve read. If someone wanted to read more of your work, where could she find it? What can we expect from you in the future?

Rosin: “Hope” is my first published piece of short fiction; other stories will hopefully appear in the future. In the meantime, I will publish a novelette — a fable called The Honeydrop Tree — this year. And I publish periodic “Reflections On Fatherhood” podcasts and other writings via my website, www.matthewsrosin.com. I welcome everyone to visit, read, and listen!

* * * * *

R.G. Chandler is a Bay Area, California writer and poet. She has been described as “the voice from the curb” because her words turn the forgotten — the homeless, the alcoholics, the drug addicts, those who suffer mental illness — into real human beings. Chandler has published a novel (Surviving Xcarion) and several poems and short stories, and she has three screenplays out for consideration. You can find her on Facebook.

Photo of Matthew S. Rosin by Todd Rafalovich.

Interview with Annita Sawyer

Annita Sawyer

Randon Noble: I love the immediacy of using the second person.  What made you decide to use “you” instead of “I” for your essay Fifty-four Weeks?

Annita Sawyer: I decided I wanted to experiment with point of view, just to see what I could do. It was my idea of daring. I’ve wrestled with my relationship with my younger self for as long as I can remember; if I were to identify my emotional unfinished business it is allowing myself to risk feeling compassion for the girl I was in the hospital.

The psychological testing experience had always remained vivid in my mind, and I remember my amazement, and relief, when I found a reference to this particular event – his question and my incorrect answer – in the hospital records. I’d described the scene with myself struggling to answer the psychologist’s question in the memoir, but I wanted to expand it. Addressing my younger self from the present proved more intense than I expected. I actually began to care. Once I had those feelings and began to respond in my older, wiser present voice the essay took off.

RN: You have a memoir coming out in June — Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologists Memoir, which was selected by Lee Gutkind for the 2013 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards nonfiction grand prize.  Very exciting!  But it can be difficult for a memoirist to decide what stories to tell and what stories to keep private.  Can you tell us a bit about your process?

AS: The book grew from the experience of reading my hospital records and finding myself thrown back into my past. What I naively thought might take a few months – “I’ll be done by the end of the summer,” I said in April, when I decided to send for the records – dominated my life for a number of years. With significant support from a skilled and experienced therapist I gradually extricated myself from the scariest depths. I emerged with insight about trauma, which was a relatively new area of research and treatment in 2003 compared with what we know today, and I felt an urgent need to pass on what I’d learned.

The process involved two books, in effect. I signed with an agent early, before I knew much about writing or memoirs. She had read only an initial collection of perhaps twenty scenes or stories centered on my hospital experience. She felt changed by what she read, and encouraged me with her enthusiasm and gave me a few ideas about what it needed to be complete. I’d say that in general she was pretty hands-off, but she believed in me, which was huge. Of course, I was delighted to have a respected agent, but I was completely out of my depth, and too inexperienced to really appreciate that. About a year and a half later, I’d completed a simple version, all in the present tense. Present tense made the hospital scenes powerful, but it didn’t include the perspective people wanted from the psychologist side of me. Although my agent received many “rave rejections,” as she called them, after more than a year of sending it out, we both knew the book had to be revised.

Meanwhile I was developing as a writer. I understood that to be viable the memoir required more depth. During the next few years I think it had at least five different titles, illustrating the fact that I hadn’t yet quite found my way.

As a writer, I tried hard to give myself at least an hour every morning to write, but I often failed. I was also working full time in my psychology practice. Most solid work came during residencies, where there was time, inspiring settings, and generous artists and writers (like you, Randon!) who gave me advice and encouragement. Kit, my agent, had often told me not to focus exclusively on the book but to write essays and stories, to try out all sorts of writing. After a zillion tries I finally had my first piece accepted, a narrative essay about getting shock treatment as a nineteen-year-old.

For chapters and essays the process remained consistent: I’d have a picture of an event or an interesting piece of information and I’d write about that. I took early drafts to my writers’ group and their feedback essentially taught me how to write – how to have my stories not sound like a clinical report!  As I expanded the memoir, the middle years especially, my group gave me further ideas about what needed to be included – or discarded. I grew more discerning about what was helpful and what wasn’t. Between the writers’ group, writer friends who read it and commented, and my own literary education it gradually came together.  Occasionally, I’d suddenly recall a scene that might capture an aspect of my experience that was important (for example, my first date with a man I met in the hospital). Several months after my 50th high school reunion I realized that this experience would make a straightforward last chapter. I continued to fiddle with pieces here and there – I could fiddle indefinitely – but eventually it felt complete. I was done.  This doesn’t mean it couldn’t be different or better, but it touches on all of the points I think I’ve wanted to make – necessary and sufficient pieces.  Some readers want more sex or family history, or information about ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), but I can see that this just means that there are more books to write!

 

RN: I remember learning year ago that Amy Bloom, the author of one of my favorite short stories “Love Is Not a Pie,” was also a therapist.  I was both surprised and not surprised.  Later I read a New York Times article, “Therapists Wired to Write,” that made me see how closely the two practices – therapy (on either side of the couch!) and writing – can relate.  (How) do you take inspiration from your clinical work?  And (how) is your clinical work influenced by your writing?

AS: My mentor Daniel Miller was a master clinician. He taught us the importance of being direct. Yet, if the truth you are dealing with is painful, the way you address it is critical in how it is heard. Unless you’re careful, the person you’re speaking to won’t hear it, and you won’t accomplish anything.  I watched Dan use metaphor to communicate these messages. Metaphors speak the truth but leave some room; one can connect them with oneself or not, or hold the image and make sense of it later. I learned to consider the impact of every word I might say. I realize this is what writers do, too. And yes, there are unimaginably complicated stories from real life, which have helped me keep my own stories in perspective. I’m also inspired by how hard my patients work. I say to myself, if they can demand so much from themselves, I need to do the same.  So I take more risks in my office and on the page.

Fifty-Four Weeks

RN: I love that r.kv.r.y pairs a piece of art with each piece of writing.  Sometimes the art is representational, sometimes abstract.  What did you think of the painting paired with your work?

AS: Initially, the piece paired with my work made me think of a frozen waterfall – ice and snow on piles of rock. It felt cold. After I read your question, I looked more closely. I saw faces among the rocks. Above the faces I saw branching lines and lighter patches that changed the snow into wet packs and ECT. It still felt cold, but now more dangerous, more ominous. I felt more isolation and fear than I had wanted to imagine.

 

RN: Is there a question I haven’t asked that you wish I had?  Is there a question I asked that you wish I hadn’t?

AS: I like your questions, Randon.  I love to ponder new things.  I’m especially intrigued by you asking about the artwork and my associations when I looked closely. I’m impressed by its impact. Given my feelings around the essay, I can’t say how much of my reaction comes from my own projection, and how much others would see (or, more likely, feel) the same way.

 

RN: And finally, what does “recovery” mean to you?

AS: If you had asked me a dozen years ago, certainly fifteen years ago, I would have said recovery is when you have put your disruption and pain behind you, and you’re able to “be yourself.”  But I would have meant “return to normal.” I used to believe that good enough therapy would heal anything.

Now I respect that there is no “normal” – we’re all lumpy and imperfect in various ways, which is not necessarily a problem. But with trauma especially, although we can grow and change, we don’t undo what has hurt us. Now I see “recovery” much more often as “gaining useable substances from unusable sources.”

My goal in clinical work and in writing is to enable myself and those I work with to find understanding and compassion for ourselves and one another, to respect what harm has been done, to recognize the ways this might show up in everyday life, yet to come to terms with it and move forward nonetheless. Harm can be mitigated, but it’s never completely undone; we’re never “good as new,” we’re different from what we might have been. However, with increased insight and greater emotional depth, we just might be more interesting this way!

 

RN: Amen!  Thanks, Annita!

Interview with Jonathan Levy

Jonathan Levy

Danielle Dugan: Do you prefer writing in any one particular genre–be it fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or something else?

Jonathan Levy: For now, I write only fiction, though some of my favorite books are narrative nonfictions. I guess for me, narrative is the key.

 

DD: Do you find yourself drawn to particular themes or characters in your reading or writing?

JL: I think it’s really hard to categorize what I like and don’t like. But generally speaking, I’m more drawn to complex, realistic characters–a mix of good and bad. To me, what makes Sherlock Holmes so fun to read, for example, is not his intelligence, but that he’s an arrogant, misogynistic coke addict. And a sense of humor is always a plus.

 

DD: When and why did you begin writing?

JL: I’ve always been envious of novelists and stand-up comedians. I wish I could snap my finger and be great at both. I’m not funny enough to be a comic, or enough of a night owl–but a novelist? Maybe some day with enough hard work and patience. I started writing in late 2013 because I got tired of thinking about doing it, and just started doing it.

 

DD: Do you have a specific writing style?

JL: I’m still discovering it. As a reader, I gravitate more toward straightforward than flowery.

I’m also a lawyer, and that probably informs my writing style. It’s important for me to write clearly and succinctly in my job, and that’s what I tend to shoot for in my stories.

The Youngest Boy

DD: Is there anything you find particularly difficult about writing?

JL: Everything? I suppose if one thing sticks out, it’s the challenge of making writing a habit. It’s so easy to make a habit of not doing something.

 

DD: Do you prefer to outline your stories or just see where an idea takes you?

JL: Still discovering that, too. I’ve always been an outliner when writing for school or work, so I guess that’s probably what I’ll head toward in fiction as well. The challenge then is making sure I don’t become a servant of the outline and manipulate characters or plot in a false way. I should probably write without an outline every now and then as an exercise–maybe I would feel more comfortable doing that than I imagine.

I’m also not sure yet whether, if I outline at all, I will tend to do it on paper or in my head. Everything sounds good in my head. Translating that to the page, well…maybe that’s the one thing I find particularly difficult about writing.

I’m actually using a somewhat different approach for a story I’m working on now. I’m outlining one of my favorite stories–“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”–and planning on using that outline as a model for my own work. I guess there’s a thin line between “was influenced by” and “copied.” I hope the final product falls more in the former category.

 

DD: Was your story “The Youngest Boy to Ever Fly to Spaceinspired by any events or people in your life?

JL: In a word, no. From what I recall, I think I wrote the story based on a submission prompt from another journal, before I even knew about r.kv.r.y. I was fortunate that when I found out about this journal and the Caregivers issue, I already had something that felt like a good fit.

 

DD: Is there a message in your piece you want your readers to grasp?

JL: I didn’t write it with any message in mind, but looking back, I hope readers come away with the feeling that it’s difficult to overestimate the value of supportive friends and family in the recovery process. My wife is a physical therapist who often works with people with brain or spinal injuries, and she tells me this all the time. In her line of work, probably the most important thing is a good attitude, which is much easier to have with support. And even better when others take a real interest in the patient’s recovery and learn about what he or she is going through. Then mix in a little bit of luck.

 

 

Interview with Roy Bentley

Roy Bentley

Jane Ann Devol Fuller: Art rejuvenates, allows us to transcend because it won’t let us turn our eyes away. That paradox. Like the dog in your poem “Rescue Dog.” The speaker is doing what he can to save her or lessen her suffering. Still he admits, “What the fuck, and Duh, we die.” That juxtaposition of sweet love and hard acceptance frees the readers from our own grievings.

Though we know the dog won’t recover, we must. And what happens is we see how everything is connected to everything else. The Jim Jarmusch film gets us through the night, takes our focus off the dying animal and reflects our loss right back at us, so though we can’t look directly into, neither can we look away. We find elevation through references outside ourselves and our situations. Rescue refers then not only to the dog we brought home to save, and couldn’t, but to our own deliverance from self-centered matters.

We know the poem is about not just the dog’s suffering, but the speaker’s. Talk about the “objective correlative” in light of what I can quote you as saying, “show, but don’t show.”

Roy Bentley: I like to think I’m a mechanic when it comes to poems: I can “wrench the vehicle” and make it work. However, why it works—well, I leave that to others. I’d say this: I read poems that are successful and follow their lead. I am so clueless when I begin to talk about why I did what I did. Also, I keep no drafts. Why? I live in the Now of the draft I’m working on. For me, it’s that simple. And I depend on a handful of people to tell me when I am barking up the wrong tree. (Pardon the pun.) I trust hearing what other writers say works and why they think it works. Truthfully, I’m sort of a 12-year-old when it comes to giving answers about my work: I’ll be flippant, if I’m not careful. Or I’ll say something that has the same effect as farting…

 

JADF: In this poem, as in most of your work, you layer experience extremely efficiently. I picture concentric circles or a spiraling of events, each recursive, but expanding outward into meaning. You’ve got the dog by the fire, Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise on the tube, the vet on the phone, the memory of the young boy, etc. The poem’s context is grounded in every day reality. But the reader senses a spiritual event that is wrought with varied emotions: compassion, anger, resentment, perhaps? Do you think the poem reconciles these things? And to what end?

That other good fortune

we have when whoever dispenses miracles is fresh out.

RB: To my way of thinking, what poems make happen is oftentimes a wonderful unintended consequence that we then label as magic in the absence of a better word for that. I believe in a spirit, after years of doubt and wrestling with evidence to the contrary—a process that is ongoing, to be sure. But the Unknowable is where I have to plant my flag when talking about what my poems do. Truthfully, I may be the worst person to ask. That said, it’s important to say what I do know: that spirit is spirit, whether dog or human. At least that’s my stance on that, which I hope rears its head in the poem. Animals are what they are apart from us, but they are also what they are with us. And the reverse is true for humans. That’s at the heart of the miracle.

 

JADF: We’ve all lost a dog. We all know what it’s like. And we are all betting on the dog….to live….to win. Jarmusch’s characters lose, like the speaker of your poem loses: the dog is going to die. But, there’s a rejuvenation in that richness and camaraderie that can’t be lost to death. I imagine this poem is almost completely autobiographical. Am I right? If so, can you talk about that a little?

RB: It is autobiographical. And true, though I’m not sure a poem has to stick to the facts as if the piece is an episode of Dragnet and Sgt. Joe Friday is leaning over our shoulder saying, Just the facts, please.

 

JADF: And at what point in this experience did you start writing this poem? Was it in the middle of grieving?

RB: Jupiter was not yet dead when I started the piece. In fact, the first several drafts were accomplished with him alive but declining. He lay at my feet, even as I wrote, blessing me with his panting gaze. Through that period of him fighting and then not fighting, the poem took a different shape. Then his death prompted going back to Square One. I still miss him. He was a mess—he had skin issues from the moment we got him, didn’t sleep through the night, then developed food sensitivities. He was a job in the beginning. But I did it—or my wife Gloria and I did it together, though his care and keeping fell to me at the end of the time in Florida, which was where we bonded. He got better. Not much, but enough that he could be with us.

Sample

JADF: The poem is all about recovery, and some folks see recovery as an end point, a success. Recovery is also a process that includes hard stages of grief but also epiphany, a final letting go of self. How do you define recovery in general and how do you explore it in this poem?

RB: I felt the Jim Jarmusch portion to be absolutely essential to this poem working. That was using what’s at hand, what fell to me. It’s that simple. Everything fits, if you think about it. Recovery is a fact of life. Death is, as well. But a fact of life isn’t something you can’t “bend” to fit your experience. For instance, caring for Jupiter was a kindness to an animal. Sure. But it was also something that “needed done,” a bit of work to be accomplished each day. Like writing.

 

JADF: Let’s get political. You write:

I hate how he has to carry the rot of 21st Century America,

Explain.

RB: It was flat statement. I risked it because disappointment shadows us all in the same way it shadowed that dog. At its best, politics is the art of setting aside disappointment and getting to work. Writing allows me to do that, even when I’ve lost hope. Caring for Jupiter, witnessing his struggles firsthand, did what nothing else could often: it gave me a path to follow after hope was gone or hadn’t yet returned. So he was a Being that I felt great pity for. And he loved me, which helped me stick with the hard work of caring for an older dog who was not going to recover.

 

JADF: The dog is so much more than dog, but still more than the speaker. The dog becomes all of us. Talk about that. (You can talk politics if you want though this poem transcends the realm of politics).

RB: Writing has been where I discover what to do in the absence of a way forward. The dog—and writing about the dog—is how I generated old-fashioned purpose; and in Iowa where I felt like a stranger. I wanted to let this gutsy Florida dog “live after”—which is pretty much how we do that as humans, I’m guessing: someone remembers us in whatever fashion. Maybe in a poem.

 

 

Jane Ann Devol Fuller is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the co-author of a book of poems and photographs, Revenants: A Story of Many Lives. A teacher at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, she has written work published by Denver Quarterly, Pikeville Review, Aethlon: Journal of Sports Literature, Kaimana, and Riverwind, a literary magazine which she formerly co-edited. A poem will be forthcoming in Shenandoah this March. She is currently helping edit the StockPort Flats’ Confluence Series and completing her first full-length manuscript, tentatively titled The Torturer’s Horse.

Interview with Danielle Dugan

Danielle Dugan1

When and why did you begin writing?

I have been writing ever since I could form words with a pencil. Before that I would lie in bed at night composing stories in my mind. Writing has always come easily for me. I have never been fully capable of expressing my feelings with spoken words. In fact, I am not that good at using words aloud in general. But when I put words to paper, it is a totally different world for me. I can say whatever I want, in whatever way I want. I love that.

 

Is there anything you find particularly difficult about writing?

The hardest obstacle I usually hurdle over is how I want to tell a story. I am always conscious of the reader and how they will perceive my piece. I never want to confuse an audience, and with that said, I don’t want to leave out any of what I have to say. Finding a happy medium can be a nightmare.

 

What are major themes in your writing? 

A theme I have been picking apart lately is my family. I have lived a very peculiar life in my 23 years and I  enjoy being able to open up about it through my writing.

 

Do you have a specific writing style?

I enjoy writing in a conversational style, it helps makes a piece more engaging.

 

As a writer, do you work to an outline or do you prefer to see where an idea takes you?

I love seeing where an idea takes me. Sometimes I can write for hours and then I’ll squeeze out one little sentence and it is as if the rest doesn’t matter. I found my muse.

 

You’re a poet, a fiction writer, and a nonfiction writer. Do you feel like each of those pursuits influences how you approach the others?

Definitely all of them. Writing nonfiction is admittedly my favorite, there is nothing like writing about the raw truth. But poetry changed the life of my writing forever. I use to write pieces sentence by sentence but after studying poetry for a few years I began writing pieces word by word. It is not for everyone, but finding the beauty behind every word has really helped me develop as a writer. With fiction, that’s a whole different world, fiction is everything and nothing, it is anything you can dream. It has taught me–no matter what I’m writing–to never limit myself.

 

What is the origin of your SOS piece “A Few Simple Questions“? How did you come up with the idea for both the story and the Q&A format?

The origin of my piece is a true story. The dad in my essay is my dad–and you guessed it I am the daughter. Writing about the often tragic adventures of my father and me has become a way to express myself. I chose the Q&A format because often in my own life I am unable to answer the simple questions that are asked of me with simple answers.

 

The father in your story is a real tragic figure — someone I genuinely feel for despite his history of violence. Is that something you aim for in your characters? What kind of characters speak to you in both your reading and your writing?  

You wouldn’t know from my writing but I am a pretty upbeat person. I often paint tragic profiles for my characters because in my life I am surrounded by tragic lives. I try to authentically demonstrate these real-life people for my audience.

 

Both the father and the daughter care deeply for each other and feel responsible for the other’s well being. How do you view the role of a support system in a person’s recovery?

The role of being a person’s support system during their recovery is a heavy one. Both of my parents struggle every day with their recovery and I am often the shoulder they lean on. I think it is so important to be strong for a person, no matter what they need. Just being there with kind words or to listen to someone’s situation can mean and do so much. But I think supporters need to know it is okay to not be strong all the time. Sometimes you have to cry, too, and maybe scream and lose your mind for just a little while. But that’s okay: to become the strongest, you can’t suppress your weaknesses.

 

Is there a message in your piece you want your readers to grasp?

Of course and you have all heard it before. Don’t judge a book by its cover. I think of it every day with my Dad. One day, he won’t look at me, the next all he wants is to hear “I love you.” On the days he wants nothing to do with me, those are the days I want him to know I love him the most.