Pink Weddings with Kristina Darling & Carol Guess.

Ana Garcia experiences grown-up fairy tales in “X Marks the Dress: A Registry,” a new poetry book by Kristina Marie Darling & Carol Guess.

Kristina Marie Darling & Carol Guess. X Marks the Dress: A Registry. 2013.  100 pages. $15.15. ISBN: 0985919159.

Kristina Marie Darling & Carol Guess bring a wonderful collection of poems in their book X Marks the Dress: A Registry. These poems explore various themes, such as relationships, identity, and love, but the authors manage to write them in such a way that the collection reads like a short story. Darling is a recognized author of seven other books and is the winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award; Guess has published another twelve books, some of which were nominated for the Lambda Literary Award. This collaboration resulted in one of the most interesting and catching poetry books I’ve come across this year.

From the very first poem, we are transported into a vintage, pink world that gives the sense of being part of a fairy tale. However, as one moves on, we realize that this is more of a bittersweet story, like what happened before the characters could live happily ever after. We get to witness scenes previous to the wedding and how they affect the vision we have of ourselves, the experience of becoming parents, the fights the couple has, the struggles we go through trying to regain our sense of identity. The authors do a perfect job keeping the readers interested, drawing them into a knot of experiences and emotions that get more and more complicated. While reading this, I found myself feeling nostalgic, as if I was looking at the wedding album of someone I knew very well, knowing that their lives weren’t exactly a perfect fairytale, but that there is still a bittersweet love between them. This is a book that can be enjoyed by anyone, because even if the reader is more into fiction stories than poetry, X Marks the Dress: A Registry, can be read as a plain, sweet short story.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book was the experimentation with various formats to take us on this journey. Filled with prose poetry, appendixes, footnotes and line breaks, it creates a very unique and creative reading experience. For example, the poem “A History of Wedding Invitations: Glossary of Terms,” just consist of various definitions of many concepts that surround the idea of weddings; however, they are not “formal” definitions that we would find on a dictionary: the writers here played with the concepts they have been working on the book so far, adding their own original ideas to these concepts, making it fun to read. Or in their poem, “Appendixes,” where it just consists of footnotes, but there’s not text at all. Yet, as we read the footnotes, we can have an idea of what the “invisible poem” would be about.

Even when the formatting is so varied, it does not make the poems hard to follow, which comes back to my earlier point that this book can be also read as a short story. This is the perfect book to have a date with on a weekend. This book must definitely be part of your bookshelf!

Oh Writers, Writers

Ana Garcia explores the desperation of writer’s block in her beautiful and comical Non-fiction piece, “Oh Writers, Writers.”

Ana Garcia explores the desperation of writer’s block in her beautiful and comical Non-fiction piece, “Oh Writers, Writers.”

My words are gone. Sitting among crumpled papers, suffocating characters’ voices, vanishing landscapes and tangled stories with every sheet of paper torn off the notebook spiral. The lights are dim, stains of bergamot tea and coffee decorate the tables and the cups are dropped around the room, some of them broken and the porcelain pieces are scattered on the floor, making company to the cigarette butts. Really fancy. I stare at the computer screen with red eyes, big bags growing under my eyelids, evidence of the days gone by. Yeah, it’s both depressing and amusing.

The characters, their eyes, dilemmas and tragedies are still spinning in my mind. It’s not a joking matter when I say the thoughts weigh on my head, the fingertips going numb of hitting the keyboard so many times. Gathering courage, I re-read the last few paragraphs I’ve written so far and I hate all of it. There’s not a single line worthy of rescue. The rage takes over me, reverberating from within my ribcage, later cursing my limbs, which leads me to flip my desk, and sincerely surprised, because as I said, I’m a writer, and I am not strong enough as to do such a thing. The laptop bounces on the floor but doesn’t break, thank god because my novel process is in there. The feeling of regret immediately takes place and I attempt to clean up the mess. Yeah, picking up the cigarette butts will do for now. I open the window to let the sunlight in, but you know what? Let’s not, the sun reflects on the computer screen and it’s painful for the tired eyes.

I sit back on my armchair. Yes, now I’m prepared. I can do this. I’ve suffered enough, so now the words should start slowly flowing, true writers create their masterpieces like that, right? The blinding white from the Word page attracts my sight and the hypnotizing process starts again. Yeah, I see it. The setting is perfect, the characters come well together: the hero with a despairing story, the villain’s just fascinating, and the tone I’ve planned for this is the cherry on top of my cake. Feel jealousy, my readers and fellow writers, because this is the story that will change generations. Now, just how to word it? I am a fucking writer and my biggest obstacle is writing.

Truth is I cannot write just like that. Look at me, I’m using the word “like” way too many times, ugh? I cannot even speak properly. I am supposed to have an extensive vocabulary and have a gift for storytelling. I can’t even, like, explain myself. For all I know, I might not even be a writer. Great stories don’t make great books if they’re not successfully portrayed in the readers’ uncreative minds. Workshops and master classes have denominated it as “writer’s block” but after years of experiencing it, leaves you thinking it’s lack of talent. Still, I lead a writer’s life: drink, smoke, read, write, erase what you just wrote, drink when you realize it was not so bad, read some more, and on Fridays I’d attend slam poetry readings. That’s when I learned part of my problem: the lack of confidence I had in myself. Because if I was that girl with curly hair that used to go on stage every week, my words would be poetry. And if I was that guy with the planked hats my work would sound original and sophisticated. The problem is my words and my hands, they just do not… work their magic. It was like being ready and eager to fly, but still needing to find pixie dust or your feet will just stay frozen to the ground.

So the antidote was to write fearlessly, according to my genuine self then. It did not work, my dear readers, because it was just part of the problem. I wrote a lot more than I used to, but I wrote really crappy stuff in a failed attempt to be sophisticated. I’d unfold crumpled papers that I had written before and they were so much better than they used to be. My work used to be honest, and it transformed into a pretentious vomit of long words.

And now this is me. Sitting across the table, trying to figure out how on earth to get back my words. Writers go through this all the time right? Despair enforces their art… although, if being like this is the only way I’ll become a good writer, maybe I do not want to be an artist anymore, not if it brings all this exasperation and pain.

My head hit the keyboard as a groan escaped from my throat, of pure redemption. My words are gone… oh wait, that’s actually a good line for a story, or even a poem. I am a writer, and it’s almost required for me to hate my work, but maybe it’s not so bad once my fingers tremble and hit words on the keyboard.  My words are gone…

By ~ Ana Garcia

Experiments with Caryl Pagel

Ana and Emily discuss the editing process at Rescue Press and the inspiration behind the book Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, with the author and editoress herself, Caryl Pagel

Emily Cameron: In your book, Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, there’s a lot of discussion about spirits and connecting to the spirit/spiritual world. A lot of people consider this a pseudoscience; do you believe it is science or pseudoscience?

Caryl Pagel: I’ll separate my answer into two different things that I think: One is that I don’t believe in cliché ideas of ghosts or apparitions. I don’t not believe in them either, it’s just that I would not testify to any of that. But, I do believe that anything can be approached using scientific method. People still call things like psychology pseudoscience. A lot of these ideas and the people I talk about and researched in the book, like William James, were kind of on the forefront of psychological practice. So, yes, I do believe that it’s science, and I believe you can use science to approach things that aren’t measurable or possible to even know about. In the same way that scientists can study dream activity, and we might not ever have any solutions, we can study the idea of what happens to the soul after death. Those might be impossible things to ever figure out, but I think that they can still be approached using the same techniques of questioning and measuring and gathering evidence. It’s proof one way, proof the other way.

EC:  How did you become interested in the subjects of clairvoyance and clairaudience, like the ones in your book?

CP: I was always interested in that kind of thing, but I became obsessed with it when I encountered a group of texts which were these scientific journals from the late 1800s. They were the proceedings for the Society for Psychical Research, which was this group of scientists who gathered all of these stories about clairvoyance and telepathic activity and apparitions, and all this sort of unknown phenomena. Their goal was not to say, “This exists” or “This doesn’t exist,” but to just gather all the stories from the people that they could and try to figure out if there were patterns, and which testimonies seemed to be familiar to other testimonies. They were trying to collect evidence. And so I read these journals, these scientific texts, and I became really interested in these ideas. I became interested in them as this subject matter that is unknown, and the stories and people’s accounts are what were interesting to me. It’s a great party trick to ask people if they’ve ever seen a ghost, or even asking people about things like coincidence, or if they’ve ever had a near death experience. People have great stories about that. It was the content that drew me in, but it was the form, the act of storytelling around it, that kept me there.

EC: In your book, you have the “Botched Bestiary” poems, which are similar to accrual poems; do you think this form of hybrid literature disrespects or defaces the original work(s) like some people do? Do you think it adds more to the original(s)?

CP: I don’t know if I have a general opinion on that. I know for me, with those particular pieces, they came from a place where I was doing a lot of research on writing about animals and animal artwork. There are a lot of artists who are interested in the animal body and the human body, and the human as a machine or hybrid bodies with medical technology, and people living longer. There’s so much nowadays, that our bodies are changing in response to our environment, and a lot of that comes across in the visual art that I was looking at, at the time. I was thinking of some of these ideas that the artists were using, like collage, and a goat’s head stuck on a collage like Rauschenberg does, or different shapes on imagined animal bodies. Even things such as taxidermy where it’s half one creature, half another creature. This has always been in our imaginations. That’s where I started to write like that. I started thinking of the text as a body, and something that could be manipulated and rearranged and sort of refocused. So I think that there is a certain manipulation, or botching, or re-stitching something together. I also think of it things like heart transplants; these things in which we are taking pieces, not just in the art world, but also in the physical world. There’s hybridity to our contemporary lives in some way. These are the ideas that were swirling in my mind when I started to take parts of texts. That’s why the quotes are still in there, because I wanted it to be obvious. I thought of those quotes as a surgeon leaving a scar of where the surgery was done. In terms of general erasure projects and collage projects, sometimes you can abuse the original text by doing projects like that. Just like you can originally write a really bad poem on your own, you can also ruin other people’s things. There’s a million ways for it to go wrong, but there’s also a million ways for it to go right. A lot of my book was thinking of writing as an experiment.

EC:  Could you break down what the editing process at Rescue Press is like, and describe how it might be different from other presses?

CP:  I don’t know exactly how other presses work, but for us we basically collaborate with each author on the terms of their own piece. So, with the novella, Penny, n., we got the manuscript, and I read through it and made notes, I would call the author and we would have these long conversations about certain scenes or certain sentences, which was fun. We’d talk about these characters as if they were really alive, and we’d wonder, “What would Penny really do in this scene?” or we would ask, “Is that the right word?” It was a lot of conversations and dialogues, and some of the suggestions I made ended up in the final piece and some of them didn’t, depending on what the author felt like was right for the work. To contrast that with our newer novella, which is called Last Word, this piece came to us very polished and the author had spent a long time with it over the course of time. So, I didn’t have as many edits on that and he didn’t have as many edits on his own work either because he had already done all of that work and had a lot of other readers. It just depends on the project and what the author is up for, which means for some of them we go back and forth on all these different drafts and some of them we don’t do that much with. We think of editing as a service we can offer to people, which a lot of middle level presses or even other small presses don’t do anymore. They just publish your book. They don’t read it a bunch of times or help you edit it at all. And a lot of the bigger publishing houses will edit it without consulting the author, and they’ll just say, “You have to make these changes.” We try to offer ourselves to the authors and say, “What can we help you with?” or “What do you want to do with this?” It is very much a collaboration.

Ana Garcia: You must receive many manuscripts from authors who want to be published. What is the voice you want to give to them? What are you particularly looking for when you consider work for publication?

CP: It depends on a bunch of different things. It depends on what genre I’m reading, so in poetry sometimes I –at least, lately- am prone to writings that are more adventurous, wild or strange. In fiction, lately I am in a mood for traditional things. What I’m looking for on a manuscript changes depending on what I am interested in at the time, but also really strong writing, regardless of genre or style, can tell me the intention behind it and keeps me interested while reading it. When Rescue Press started, I was interested in hybrid genres, which I still am, but that was one of the reasons why we started, like one of our books To Be Human Is to Be a Conversation, is a piece that is part memoir and part poetry, there are photographs and questions, so it is a documentary text that is very interesting. I’m interested when people are mixing mediums and playing around.

AG:  What is the most challenging part of editing an author’s piece? Are there any aspects in particular that you get tired of?

CP: That is one of the qualities I look for before I accept something. We publish about 5 books every year, which is kind of a lot for a small press, but also it’s not that many books. When I decide we are going to publish something, one of the things I think about is “Is this a book that I want to read one hundred times?” Because that is the editing process: you read it over and over again, and you collaborate with the author. In the process, sometimes your life changes or sometimes you’re reordering everything, or cutting huge parts or encouraging people to write more into it, so there are many things that can happen. Some manuscripts don’t need much work at all, but I pick things I know I won’t get tired of, which is hard because there’s a lot of good work out there and it’s quality writing, but I know I can’t read it a hundred times. However, this helps me to read out what I want to publish, too.

AG: Does the writing change a lot when it falls into the editors hands?

CP: It depends a lot on the book project, so some of them we’ve done massive amounts of work in collaboration with the author, and some of them we’ve changed one word. A lot of it depends on how much the author is willing to work with us and hear our opinion. So I would say that it is very different for different books.

AG: Rescue Press varies a lot on the aesthetics they choose for their books. What do you take into account in a book to choose how it should look like?

CP: One of the things that we do, but not all small presses do, is that we really try to make a physical object that fits the content, the style of the work and the author’s vision of it. That’s why all of our books look really different, a lot of small presses will use the same size, the same type of pattern for their covers, but we work very closely in collaboration with the author. Sometimes they’ll say: “I just envisioned sort of a big book for mine,” so we’ll try to make them interesting, trying to use the content to suggest other artistic representations for it, while keeping the author’s vision of it at all times.

AG:  After reading so many manuscripts, do you think they have influenced/inspired your own writing?

CP: Definitely yes! I don’t know if I could say how, though. I think just the more you read, the more influence you get. The work that I publish, that I read, influences me a lot. I just read Frankenstein for the first time, and I thought: “Wow, this book is awesome!” So all you read starts layering in your head, and there’s more like available sort of models that you can do.

AG: Now that you went to the publishing companies as a writer and not as an editor, how did this experience make you feel? Do you think that your experience as an editor prepared you for the editing process?

CP: It did. I knew what to expect and the editors for my book were great. Factory Hollow Press is the press that put out my book, and they are the amazing in every single aspect. It was such a gift to work with them, and I felt so honored that they wanted to publish my book. My editor, Emily Petit, spent so much time with my work, and gave me a million bizarre ideas for the cover. She was very patient for editing, and gave me great advice in reordering the poems. So yes, being an editor prepared me, but I was still very lucky with the people I worked with.

AG: What made you decide you wanted to become an editor? What do you enjoy the most about your work?

CP: I enjoy reading all of that work. Basically I just have been a huge reader since I was a little kid and I’ve always been a writer, too. I could not get enough reading while I was growing up. I read every single book in my house, and visited the library very often. That’s still what I do, I mean, part of my job is to read which is what I love to do. Even more than writing.

“Hi. It’s Me, Death” with Dana Levin

Tibetan Buddhism, hawks, death, dreams and Wikipedia Inspire Dana Levin to write Sky Burial.

Ana Garcia: What is your usual process for getting an idea for a poem, and then how is it for you to write it down?

Dana Levin: Ideas come primarily in two ways. One is from outside my head, like reading an article or seeing something in life, the news, or visual images. The first poem in Sky Burial describes something that happened to me: I came home and there was this hawk on the hedge, right there, and I was really surprised. Then I thought “Oh, this means something. It’s an omen!” I went up and I took a look at the symbol book, so that actually happened. With that experience and looking up what “hawk” meant, and how it started merging my internal experience with my parents and my sister being dead, it’s an example of the poem being externally inspired but ultimately coming back to what is internally on my mind. Another way that poems come to me is through the unconscious, like dream images.

The poem “Mentor” comes from a dream I had: ghosts that need reminding. Those three prose poems in the middle of Sky Burial come from dreams which seem very lofty… and I just felt like they had to stay in prose. When you read prose, there’s an expectation of reading for information of some kind, which doesn’t exactly happen when you see a poem format, it’s a different experience. It felt like I had to keep those in a prose format to be intentional with the fact that they came from just the weirdness of dreams. It was one of the things that helped me to write those.


Hannah Malik: What other religions and cultures did you research in your process of writing?

DL: The two main cultures I focused on were the Aztec and Tibetan Buddhism- and it’s a weird combo, because the Buddhism is very detached; everything is from the mind, nothing is completely real. They’re death-focused, but in such a way to teach us about impermanence. Nothing lasts. They do a lot of shamanic work, such as meditation to the point of imagining you cutting off your head, scooping out your brains to study the poison inside, then turning it into a golden elixir. Another imagines you chopping up your body and feeding it to your demons, it’s totally violent, but it’s all at the level of your mind… the Aztecs are completely different. They’re like a complete blood-cult and seem to me the most literal people I’ve encountered. For instance, they take captives from war, kill them, skin them and dye the skin golden. The chieftains would wear them for several days- while they’re rotting- and afterwards take off the skins and be new people; spring has arrived. To me, that’s a really literal interpretation. Blood sacrifice was practiced every twenty days to bring in the new months. I also studied things that didn’t necessarily make it into the book, for instance I studied the weird kinds of bugs found in Egyptian tombs for a while, but that didn’t end up in a poem. I read about really weird burial practices, but the only one that really came forward was the “sky burial”.


AG: You continuously mention websites and popular culture icons, along with more spiritual ideas such as the “sky burial”. What was your purpose in combining these two kinds of elements?

DL: I wanted to mix those details for a lot of reasons. One: that was my experience. On one hand I’m doing all of this meditation on Tibetan Buddhism and reading all of this very philosophical writing about Tibetan Buddhism approaches to death, and all of a sudden I’m on Wikipedia looking for what happens when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. I was trying to show the fact that I was having a transcendental experience but I was also having a very ordinary experience. I used to be the kind of poet who would get angry if people mentioned things in their poems such as Dr. Pepper or chips, it broke the spell for me. Now I’m more aware of how huge our digital world is, how it is part of what we are now experiencing, and how I would like to document my engagement with it. Somebody was writing about my work, saying, “I love how she talks about Tibetan Buddhism but then mentions junk food” and I liked that. But when I was younger, it would have driven me insane, because I would have wanted to break the spell of the poem. I wanted to stay true to my experience, to witness my journey on this grief. What I found very interesting about investigating for example about body’s decay, what happens to the body after it dies, forensic anthropology, is how found it very calming.


HM: On top of being a recalibration for yourself, is there a message you would like to convey to your readers?

DL: Yes, it isn’t really in the book, but in a nutshell what the Tibetan Buddhism says is ‘we’re all going to die, so why not be nice to each other?’ and that really resonated with me. We’re always being mean to one another in bigger or smaller ways. I don’t think that comes through the book, but I feel they should make the confrontation with death. Don’t shy away from it- it’s profound! It’s hugely transformative, and we’re a total death-denying country. We’re constantly trying to keep it at bay, from plastic surgery to freaking-out about the food we put in our bodies. We put all our death on TV, too, and I think that’s to help us pretend it’s not happening in the world.

AG: You have mentioned that you are not a fiction writer. Apart from the format, for you what’s the essential difference between poetry and fiction?

Dana: I guess that most fiction writers think in terms of character and plot, that’s how they get inspired. For me, poets are often inspired by not situations but are interested in emotional perception: the way the light might look on the wall, seeing a hawk and wondering about it. So I think the way they want to engage the reader is very different in terms of what might inspire them. I also think that you could think of poets as people who want to drop down deep, and prose writers wanting sort of fill up and expand. It’s not exactly vertical versus horizontal, but in a way it kind of is. It’s just a different way of holding inspiration and figuring out how you want to work it out.


HM: Is there a specific way in which you sequence your poems?

DL: Yes, I pay very very very close attention to the way I sequenced the book. Originally, I had wanted it to be circular, but I don’t know how to do that effectively. My mentor originally sequenced the book very strangely: we had agreed from the start the book would start with Auger and end with Spring, but she had sequenced very dark poems with short, unrelated ones. Her reasoning for this was to keep waking the reader up and keep them interested, and that was truly innovative for me. I didn’t quite like how the second half of the book was put together, so I sequenced that part myself, but the book as a whole is still cyclical in nature.


AG: You mentioned during another interview that writing this book was not part of a mourning process, it was a “recalibration.” How do you interpret that?

DL: When that many people who are close to you die in such a short period of time, I thought I was really supposed to get death. This isn’t about my personal loss and feelings, this is about “Hi, it’s me, Death. Again. Taking someone you love from you right now,” and I just thought I had to make the confrontation with death, to really see into our nature. And also just grief was an amazing experience, because I became convinced that we are born with a set of emotions: I think we are born with the grief as an emotion but it doesn’t get activated until someone close to you dies. Once of the reasons grief can be so disorienting is because most of us don’t experience the dead of a close loved one until we are older, and at that point we know what it is to be sad, and we know how it is to be happy, and the physiological experiences that go with those feelings. However grief comes with its own set of physiological experiences like exhaustion, insomnia, it’s a whole other thing, a physical feeling. Especially if you are an adult because you felt like you understood the emotional palette, and then this one gets activated and you just can’t believe it, it’s very overwhelming. I was interested in trying to look at those experiences with a more analytical eye and I think that is what I did not drown in the feelings that I was also having. Recalibration means that I have to integrate death into my life, and it has actually made me a person I like, I like what death has done to me. I’m more tempered in the ways I deal with the world, I’m a little more fatalistic, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I’m less anxious about living. I feel like before these experiences I was a hot sword that you’re making and you put it into cold water to temper it, and now I feel like I was a very hot sword and then death came and it was very shocking but now I’m stronger, sharper.


The Not So Wild Girls

Ana Garcia expresses disappointment about “not so wild girls” in Mary Stewart Atwell’s recent novel, Wild Girls.

Mary Stewart Atwell. Wild Girls.  2012. 273 pages. $17.84. ISBN: 978145168327.

Mary Stewart Atwell has left behind her usual short stories to write her first novel, Wild Girls. In this novel, Swan River County has nothing to offer for Kate Riordan to stay after graduation: all she wants is to flee from her dysfunctional family, her good-for-nothing friends, broken relationships with a couple of boys, and what she’s most afraid of—the wild girls.

Some people consider them a legend, characters from superstitious stories, but Kate knows better: teenage girls suddenly go mad, as if possessed, and destroy everything in their path, from buildings to lives, committing the most atrocious murders. Kate refuses to become one of them, doing everything in her power to avoid getting stuck in Swan River for the rest of her life as all the surviving wild girls do when they return to their normal selves. Even when Kate tries to avoid becoming a wild girl, one frustrating thing about these mysterious beings is that nobody knows the reason why they turn into serial killers or how to avoid it. At the beginning of the story, Kate witnesses the transformation of a wild girl, and, from that moment, the reader’s perspective changes.

“He prowled among them, and Rosa reached out to caress his shoulder. As if on cue, they circled him, their black robes hiding him from sight. I hears one scream, guttural and rattling, as if he were choking. The wild girls were screaming too, and streams of blood blackened by moonlight ran from under their robes spilling over the edge of the stage.” (Wild Girls, pg. 242)

Atwell does a great job of show-don’t-tell, making the reading flow easily for us and drawing us in to continue the reading. The flaws, wants, needs, and characters’ personalities are very unique, making the story unpredictable and therefore making it even more interesting to read. Even though it’s a story about a teenager with all her friend/boyfriend/family problems, Atwell doesn’t make her problems fall into clichés but transforms them into bigger problems that put Kate in danger.

As gripping as it sounds, as one goes through the pages, the idea and concern about the wild girls gets lost because we don’t hear from them as often as we would expect. Well, nicely played Mary Atwell, because she let our guard down and then we have this spectacularly macabre twist of events that make your hands shake while reading. As I read, I found that the perspective I had of this story before I started reading it changed. It sounded like an exciting thriller about girls going wild and the role of a teenager trying to avoid joining them. It turned out to be a powerful story, but maybe one missing the nail-biting suspense of the best thrillers. Wild Girls is indeed a unique story, with original characters and a very good plot, undoubtedly making it a worthy read.


What Did One Beating Heart Say to the Other Beating Heart? Questions & Answers with Nate Pritts.

Nate Pritts sits down with Ana Garcia and Becky Hirsch to discuss H_NGM_N, his literary journal created to give the beating heart of poems a place to speak.

Ana Garcia: What inspired you to make your own journal?

Nate Pritts: Part of why I started my own journal was that I was submitting my own poetry to lots of other journals and getting rejected a lot when I was younger. And it started to bother me – not so much that I was getting rejected but that a lot of my friends were getting rejected from some of the same journals, and I knew my friends were writing really good poems. I would read the journals we were getting rejected from, and I didn’t always particularly like the poems that were in there. So, it occurred to me that, if these journals aren’t letting us in, I should just start my own and publish my friends in my journal to provide a location for our type of writing. It helped to get the word out and helped to create a community, but it also helped us to feel better about ourselves. I’ve never published my own writing in my journal, but, through publishing other people whose writing I knew or who were actually friends of mine, I was able to learn about other journals like mine and find a better place to fit in with my own writing. I started my own journal mostly because I was dissatisfied with the other options.

Becky Hirsch: When you were a teenager, you created your own magazines as a personal project. Did that directly develop into H_NGM_N?

NP: It directly developed into H_NGM_N only because it always made sense to me to do things myself. If I wanted to read a magazine that was all about the different street signs in my neighborhood, I’d just make it. It always made sense to create these things for myself, and I guess I learned a lot along the way. I learned things like how to staple properly, things that seem really easy when you look at them, but, then, when it’s actually time to do them there are so many different ways you can mess up. I had been thinking about and learning about those practical things from a very young age, and eventually it came time to do one that was a little bit more serious – I mean, H_NGM_N to me seems like my very first actual attempt to create something that lasted. Most of the time when I would do these things as a teenager it was meant to be just a one shot thing. I would make fifty copies and I would give it to my friends and that was it. I never expected to do a second issue, but H_NGM_N was more serious from the beginning. All of that experience with less serious magazines played into the development of H_NGM_N and made it what it is.

AG: What’s the most challenging part of creating your journal?

NP: There really aren’t any challenging parts. It’s so much fun. I love everything I do, and it’s such a gift to be able to do it. So the typical answers to this question have to do with “I don’t have enough time” or “I can’t find all the work I want to publish” or “I don’t have enough money,” but those are just fun hurdles to me. I don’t think of them as challenges. That sounds almost negative. To me, the whole thing is super fun. It’s exciting to spend an afternoon searching online for poems I’d like to publish or, on a Sunday afternoon, to work out the budget for our next book and realize that we don’t have enough money. I guess technically they’re challenges, but they don’t slow me down. They don’t bother me. I’m happy for them because if things were too easy maybe I wouldn’t enjoy it as much.

BH: It seems like you have a very natural entrepreneurial, but have you ever had to have one of those nine-to-five jobs and work for someone else?

NP: I worked in advertising for a while. I was a copywriter and an interactive developer for an ad agency, which meant mostly that I was in charge of writing and overseeing the design and implementation of websites. I also did video work shooting commercials and audio work doing radio spots for people. I think working in advertising gave me a different perspective on some of these issues. Part of it is also that I’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time. I was young when I started thinking about how to make magazines. I printed a magazine when I was fifteen, brought it to school and gave it all my friends. When I first published H_NGM_N it was the same way. I printed it, I went to a major conference where a lot of writers were, and I handed them out for free. I created a website and tried to find ways to draw people to it. Part of it maybe comes from having worked in more business-like fields but part of it might just come from the fact that I don’t approach this side of writing as a challenge: trying to figure out how to find more people who will read it, want it, get excited about it. That entrepreneurial spirit I guess is a natural part of who I am. I think it’s the same thing that any writer needs to do. You can’t just sit back and think that someone else is going to publish your poems. Maybe they will but what if they don’t? Do you just sit around and wait until somebody tells you that they’re good enough and publishes them or do you start a journal, start a press, meet people, go out there, and, in essence, sell yourself? You need to find a way to make it sustainable for your art. I don’t mean that you sacrifice your art in favor of selling yourself, but you do need to find a way to make those things balance.

BH: A positive aspect of the spread of online journals is that it has made it easier for people to do just that: start up their own literary journals.

NP: For sure. When I started H_NGM_N, it was done on a ditto machine. It wasn’t even black and white. It was purple and white because ditto ink is purple. The first few issues were short, maybe twenty or thirty pages, which I could totally hand-crank myself at night, but then I wanted to publish longer works of fiction; I wanted to publish more poems, and I wanted to publish visual art. The move online came about because I needed a cheap way to still be able to show full color paintings and sixteen page stories. One pro of online journals for me and one of the reasons I moved H_NGM_N, which was initially a print journal, online was not only because of ease of access but because of the prohibitive costs of print journals.

BH: In your own work, what is the meaning behind the parenthetical titles of some of your poems?

NP: The poems with parenthetical titles that appear in Sweet Nothing, my new book, are taken from a series of letters. Part of the reason why those titles are parenthetical is because those pieces aren’t poems; those are actually letters. In the actual story of my life, those are letters that I wrote to a very particular person. And so, when I decided that I wanted to take those experiences and try to write poems with them, I struggled with what to leave in, what to take out, how much to shape my actual experience and how much to leave raw and real, like with a capital R. I won’t go into that process because it was mind-numbing and heart-wrenching at the same time, but I eventually got to the point where I had created these poems but they still didn’t seem like poems to me in a way that I could put an unadorned title on. So the reason they’re parenthetical is because I’m more giving you a stage direction or a sense of what it is you’re about to read or a summary maybe. They’re not really titles because I feel like you can’t really put a title on an actual authentic experience because it’s life. Part of why I did it and what I hope someone gets out of it is that questions sense: is this really a letter or is this a poem? If you’re asking a question then I’ve done my job already. It doesn’t matter what questions you’re asking, just the fact that you look at it and say, “Oh, this isn’t just a normal poem. What’s going on here? Why did he do this?” That’s enough.

BH: So they’re excerpts from your original letters that have been edited?

NP: They’ve been edited only slightly to remove the names of the guilty parties. It’s just part of the process of taking something real and turning it into poetry. You write letters all the time or an email or whatever and I guarantee you’ve written an email or a text message at some point and thought to yourself, “Hey, that’s pretty good.” But you don’t always use it exactly the way it was or maybe sometimes you paste it into something else. That’s kind of what I did with these. The letters that I initially wrote were longer in most cases than what gets published in the book, so they’re edited partly for length, but they’re edited also where I realized I was repeating myself or that there wasn’t enough arc and growth and change and in the letters as poems, I think there is an arc which is the reason they’re spaced throughout the book. There’s definitely a beginning to them and there’s definitely an ending, which wasn’t there in real life because most of the time in real life things don’t have that kind of satisfying arc.

AG: With H_NGM_N you’ve said that you’ve been successful in providing a home for a particular style of poetry. How would you define that style?

NP: I feel like we’re a home for lost and wayward poets. People who can’t or would prefer not to find their way in the world anywhere else. The poems that we publish in H_NGM_N tend to embrace a sense of process, that the poem itself is a field for working out problems and issues. It’s not a place for presenting something nice and neat that’s already been captured. I’ve said before as a kind of mission statement that the poems in H_NGM_N are indicative of what one beating heart would say to another beating heart. I feel like that sums up pretty well what I try to accomplish in my own writing and what I respond to most in other people’s writing: stuff that is live and real and emotional and visceral and that talks about things in a way that is human and realistic as opposed to things that are exaggerated and things that are vague. I want it to be like an actual conversation.

AG: Sometimes I feel like a poet should try to write a poem with less of a purpose and more of a motivation.

NP: Yeah, sometimes you sit down with the paper or the screen in front of you with a bunch of stuff in your head that you want to work out. You have a reason why you’re doing it, like something happened or you had a thought that caused you to sit down and write. But you shouldn’t say, “Oh, I know exactly what the last line is going to be.” You just start writing, because the poem itself is the process of figuring that kind of thing out. It’s literally thinking on the page. And I think when you come to the page, the more you have with you the more trouble you’ll have. It’s like the scene in Empire Strikes Back when Luke goes into the cave and Yoda says essentially, “Don’t take your blaster in there. You don’t need it.” Luke brings it and it screws everything up. It causes problems. But if he went in there pure and simple and authentic he would have had a much different experience.

BH: What inspired the series of poems that start with the first line, “All my poems…”?

NP: Those poems are from my collection Big Bright Sun and those poems came to me partly because I had recognized certain strategies and techniques that I relied on over and over again. At a certain point, I would start to build up lots of emotional happenings and thoughts and then I would deflect, and suddenly I’d start talking about birds and trees. I wanted these poems to be this experience, this real process, and I was relying on things too much. So I started writing this poems kind of to make fun of myself, because all my poems do this, and all my poems talk about this.  It was a way to exercise some of the stuff I was dealing with in. There are always things we like in our writing and we go back to those things over and over again, so it was reacting against that.

AG: In your opinion, what makes H_NGM_N different from other journals?

NP: I think part of what makes us different is me. No other online journal has me as an editor. Probably many editors are always trying to make sure that people read the content on the website and I’m the same way. I work hard as a writer to get my name on the journal, and as a writer it’s the same thing. I don’t know if that makes me different from other editors and other journals, but it’s the way I’ve always worked with H_NGM_N.

H_NGM_N has been around for more than ten years and I feel very confident that will be around for another ten years, which is I think one thing that a lot of journal’s editors can’t say because either their life will change and they’ll have to cancel the journal, or they’ll get sick of it and maybe they just don’t want to go on that long. We don’t give up.


BH: How did you start to select the authors you were going to publish when H_NGM_N first came out? How has that changed over time to keep it open for people you don’t know?

NP: We always have and always will take submissions from anybody. In the beginning nobody did submit though, because nobody knew about it, so I’d solicit friends or other writers’ whose work I admired to see if they wanted to send me stuff.

After a while, I started to get more submissions in and I never gave a lot of thought to balance it: I would just get some poems from this person, and then we got some poems over the submission line that I accepted. I never thought about making sure it was equal, but it did become apparent to me that the journal was too closely mirroring my own personal tastes and it wasn’t challenging me, it wasn’t giving me stuff outside of my own normal purview.

I worked with a few other people; I brought in some assistant editors whose main goal really was to help me solicit more widely. So the assistant editors on H_NGM_N, people who help me read the submissions are people whose aesthetics, in terms of writing, mostly don’t match up with mine.  I like what they do, but they are very different from me. And I’ve done that on purpose because I want to make sure that the submissions we draw in, and the way we respond to submissions is admitting a broader aesthetic field.

We get thousands of submissions every year and I feel like it is important to read all of those submissions. All the assistant editors read them, and I read them myself too, and I make decisions based on that.  I still don’t have a ratio in mind, of how many online submissions versus how many solicited things, but I do know that I would probably rather take blind submissions than solicited material. There are poets whose work I love, I’ll always write them and say ‘Hey, I’d love to see new stuff for the new issue,’ but in general I like to fill it out with stuff I’ve never seen before, because that’s kind of exciting. 

BH: And you’ve never published your own work in your journal?

NP: No, not my own poetry. I’ve written reviews about books of poetry, and I’ve published those. I thought the books were good and I’d just write a review and put it in the journal, but I wouldn’t publish my own poems in the journal. I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem like a thing that I ever really wanted to do. I’ve read a lot of poems, and I guess that in part what I want for a poem when I write is for it to find an editor that cares about it, who then presents it to an audience that’s their own.  It’d almost be as if double-dipping, if I was like: ‘I’m an editor who cares about that guy’s poems,’ but that guy is also me. So I wouldn’t do it in my journal, I would however publish a book of my own. And I would do that only because that would give me a control over the entire process.

For the book, “Sweet Nothing”, the publishing company let me work with an artist to develop the cover; they even let me choose the size of the cover of the book. I wanted it to be a certain size.  Not every press would let you do that–I was really lucky. In fact every press I have worked with has been very open.


AG: In the editing part, is there anything in particular that you get tired of?


NP: That’s a good question. It used to be that we got a lot of poems that were very experimental.  I think initially H_NGM_N got tabbed by some people as a journal for experimental poems and that meant we would get a lot of poems that didn’t have that sort of emblematic quality that I was talking about, of being one beating heart talking to another beating heart. They were poems that were more interested in sound than in meaning, more interested in space rather than shape, and I feel that they were misunderstanding what my aesthetic was for the journal. That doesn’t happen lately– we’ve been around long enough, and we’ve established our presence deeply enough that most of the thousands submissions I get are good poems. I feel like people are doing a good job of understanding what kinds of poems I publish and submitting to me if they think they fit in.


BH: How much interplay and influence is there between H_NGM_N and other journals, like Inter|rupture?


NP: There is quite a bit of interplay between other journals that I could name. Inter|rupture is one of them, Curtis –the editor- and I have been friends for a while and he’s a sweet guy who runs a great journal.  We talk a lot about issues that we’re facing. Another journal, called Forklift Ohio, is run by two really good friends of mine: a guy named Matt Hart who is my favorite poet and my best friend for a long time, and then Eric Appleby who puts the journal together physically, and he is a great guy. We are all sort of a missing page creatively in terms of the project that we are doing.

Forklift, similar to H_NGM_N and probably similar to Inter|rupture, are not necessarily just publishing concerns, they are also trying to front more of an idea about how poetry can, or should or could work. We do not have secret meetings, but there definitely are journals that have similar aesthetics and the editors mostly know each other, and definitely hang out and talk. There are other journals that I feel very close to in lots of ways, but I think that’s important because otherwise I can feel really lonely. Even if I can look at H_NGM_N, I can tell like: “Oh, we got two-thousand hits this weekend, that’s awesome,” it is still me sitting in my office by myself, clicking on my MacBook. So there are a lot of editors out there that I can relate to and connect with.

On the H_NGM_N website, we uesd to have a links page with links to different journals that we liked, but then it got to be weird. So suddenly if I put a link up there to someone’s journal, it was as if I was implicitly saying that I agree with them, or that I side with them, or I’d put everybody up, but you are always going to forget somebody. So I got rid of the links page. We do have now a partner’s page, and if you click on that there are logos and links to presses that yes, we share aesthetic considerations with, but they’ve also done something for us or we’ve done something for them. So, it’s more than saying that these are journals I like, but also journals that I have actually done things with, so the partner’s page gives a good sense of how the word spreads out.



AG: So you do consider other journals as part of a community rather than competitors?


NP: I never think about it as competitors, I think we are all kind of doing the same thing. It’s true that there are times when I feel competitive, like I’ll see something that Curtis does in Inter|rupture and I’d wish I had published that person first. I can get really excited about those kinds of things, but I never wish that a certain journal would fold and go away and never publish again, because it’s great to have all these journals out there, doing good things and helping to spread the good word of creative writing in general, and poetry in particular, but there’s definitely a sense of trying to top yourself.

The new issue that Curtis just put up has great design and they occasionally publish art and it looks awesome–it’s great stuff in addition to poetry.  It pushes me to want to do better, to make H_NGM_N more, just more.  It’s a good thing, because it helps us to move forward instead of stagnating.


BH: Do you have a scariest moment in writing?


NP: Scariest moment in writing? No, actually having Sweet Nothing come out was a scary moment for me because, if you read parts of Big Bright Sun it is a little bit more performative. I was trying on purpose to be funny in some poems, I was trying to be more energetic than in other poems, but mostly I was acting, I was making stuff up. Some of the things in Big Bright Sun are real, but for the most part they were literary unaesthetic challenges I was setting myself and trying to beat. However, Sweet Nothing is mostly autobiography, it’s my life. These are failings and problems and difficulties that I experienced, so I wouldn’t say it was my scariest moment but that it was the moment when I felt vulnerable.



BH: Do you have any favorite books?


NP: Yes, I do, but there’s too many to name, I read so much. There are probably fifty to a hundred books of poetry that I return to over and over again that I really love. There are writers who I love a lot too, but I hate listing things because I’ll always forget somebody that I should have remembered. One thing I must mention, is that you have to read.  As a writer you should be reading all the time because it’s like research. Even though I have favorite books, I don’t always read those favorite books; I read everything I can get my hands on and that helps me to grow and learn as a writer, as a thinker and as a reader.

So rather than listing favorite books, I’ll just say to read every book.



AG: When you read other people’s work, do you feel inspired by them for your own writing?


NP: Sometimes I do. It is part of the difficulty of being an editor: sometimes I read poems and I can see some things that are wrong, or the things that I would have done differently and I’m not really able to throw myself into the world of that poem because I’m too busy being critical. However there are poems that when I read them I get so excited and so fired up that I have to write something too. Maybe it is because of what they wrote about, or it is because of the way they’ve written. Something will click though, and there’s just some quality to that work that I love the most where I get so inspired and excited that I have to run off and write something of my own.