Alicia Mountain Interview

Alicia Mountain is a lesbian poet, PhD candidate, and assistant editor of the Denver Quarterly. Mountain earned her MFA at the University of Montana in Missoula. Her debut collection, High Ground Coward (Iowa, 2018), was selected by Brenda Shaughnessy to win the Iowa Poetry Prize. She is also the author of  Thin Fire, selected by Natalie Diaz and published by BOAAT Press.

Alice taught a two day masterclass to the Creative Writing department at Idyllwild Arts Academy, during which some of our students held incredibly pressing questions; one was adamant that the Parallax team begin this interview with an incredibly nuanced and specific inquiry.

 

Q: What is your opinion on postmodern poetry?

 

A: Well, I guess when I think of postmodern, some of it has to do with form, and so I think of fracture or some rupture in traditional form. I think postmodern poetry definitely influenced a lot of poetry that’s followed the postmodern period, and some of my poems are pretty scattershot and definitely have some fracture, and some of them are tighter, so the influence is present.

 

 

Q: Some modern poets have chosen to group and categorize their poetry books based on certain themes or images using chapters or sections. With High Ground Coward not partaking in this practice, I was wondering if that was an intentional decision, if the knowledge of the practice being popular affected said decision.

 

A: I think that while sections work for a lot of books, I wanted [the book] to feel like a unified world or a unified space rather than creating little modules in the collection. I tried to let one piece flow to the next, and let them all talk to each other rather than putting them in separate rooms. Honestly, anything that brought us to where we are in poetry is favorable in my book, even if I personally don’t like it. I’m interested in how poetry evolves and what modern poetry movements will be called. I think that within every movement there are pieces that are more and less successful for different readers.

 

 

Q: In doing that, did you also have a sense of “connective tissue” even though it was one consolidated work? Was there a common thread throughout piece that you can identify?


A: Yeah, I think that there a bunch of little threads, and some of them are repeated images that come up or repeated actions such as driving, trains, dental health, funny weird things that I didn’t really expect to be threads kind of emerge, and then overarching emotional themes around identity and also around becoming an adult. So I think that within this unified world there’s still a bunch of different things happening and moving around that interact with each other.

 


Q:Speaking of the creation of the book, you mentioned that it took four years to create it. What did that four year process look like?

 

A: So, the oldest poems in the book were written right before I went to grad school for an MFA program, and the newest ones were written right after I finished that program, so kind of the year before, then the two years at Montana at grad school, and the year after that. I kept writing after the first three years I had to do an MFA thesis, so that was kind of a first draft, and a lot of the bulk of that books was part of the thesis (50 pages) and then  afterward I added another 30 after the fact as I was trying to develop the text and make it feel like it was both tight and also fully fleshed out. When I had 80 pages or so I printed it all out and tired to figure out an order that made sense and seemed right, and then I spent about a year sending it out to contests and things like that in different rounds before being published.

 

Q:Has your fiction writing changed at all during the process of creating a book of poetry, considering the two are different but can sometimes interfere when you’re focusing on one?

 

A: So, I wrote fiction in college, and I really haven’t looked back. After I started writing poetry, I’m definitely interested in writing nonfiction right now, and I want to say that my poetry has more in common with my nonfiction essay writing than with my fictional story writing, which I think has to do with the little shifts in logic and shifts in ideas. And even though poetry is written from a speaker’s perspective, and it’s not like nonfiction, it still feels to me as if so much of it is coming out of experience, and so, for nonfiction, it kind of maps onto my poetry. I’m sure fiction would be coming out of my experience, but for some reason right now, I’m creating fewer characters.

 

Q:I’m interested in that nonfiction you were talking about. Could you elaborate on what your nonfiction looks like?  

 

A: Nonfiction is still really narrative for me; it’s still involving telling a story, but I’m not concerned with hustling through beginning, middle, and end. In the same way that my poetry will linger on description, I think my nonfiction also lingers on those quiet moments. I have a piece about traveling through Wyoming to see the eclipse, and stuff about growing up, and figuring out who we are, so mostly personal narrative stuff. I’d be interested to write profiles of people, I’d be interested to do more nonfiction writing, I just haven’t quite had the occasion yet.

 

Q: Some say poetry is dwindling, that it’s not as popularized as it used to be and others say that poetry is more essential than it ever has been. What is your take on this? What role do you see poetry fitting into our modern society?

 

A: I think that poetry is actually very popular right now. There was a study recently by the NEH where they conducted a survey of readers, and readership of poetry is up. So, that’s exciting; that more people are reading poetry now than they were ten years ago, or at least the last time they did they survey. And poetry is actually being published more. When I speak to elder poets, they say there are more journals that are small presses publishing poetry than in decades past, so I’m excited about that, and I think some of that is about more openness to breaking the rules of expected language or prose or that sort of thing, or even how we just look at it on the page. I’m sure there’s something to be said about our time. 

But I think that there have always been people who have been having hard times, and I think there’s a temptation to say that “poetry is the balm that we need for this moment,” but I think poetry is for every day.

One of my younger sisters just got married and asked me to write a poem for her wedding, and I did and I was so happy to have that as a prompt, but poetry doesn’t have to be ceremonial for sentimental moments where people are like, “and now we read a poem.” I feel like it’s for before to fall asleep, it’s for when you’re sitting on the subway trying to get to the next place, it’s for when you’re waiting for the doctors office, all those little in between moments, all throughout our day.

 

Q:Are there any projects that you’re currently working on?

 

A: Yeah, definitely going to keep on writing. Right now, I need to start working on a dissertation for my PhD, so that’ll be a new poetry collection, and thinking it’ll be sonnets, 14 line love poems. They won’t be too much more formal, like I don’t think they’ll be Italian sonnets or Petrarchan sonnets or Shakespearean sonnets but more contemporary sonnets, unrhymed and unmetered, but 14 line pseudo-love poems.

 

Q:Why love poems, of all things?


A: Well, the sonnet is inherently a love poem, and so, anything that’s called a sonnet, I kind of read with that historical lens, even if it’s an anti-love poem. I think the sonnet puts itself as a form in conversation about love in some way, whether its questioning or undermining that, but I think that’s part of the conversation.

 

 

Q:Here’s a curveball for you: do you have pets?

 

A: I don’t have any pets, but I have plants that I really love, and I think of them as my friends. For a long time, they were all named The Saturdays because my mom was once moving me out of college and they gave all the parents stickers for the day they were allowed to be there, and as she was leaving, she left her Saturday sticker on one of the pots. That’s why they were The Saturdays.

Allison Benis White Interview

The Parallax staff interviews Allison Benis White, an author and professor of poetry.

Allison Benis-White is a renowned poet from Southern California. She has published three books: Self-Portrait with Crayon (2009), Small Porcelain Head (2013), and Please Bury Me in This (2017). She is currently a poetry professor at the University of California, Riverside.  

 

Q: Have you always written poetry and if so, when did you start writing it?

 

A: I first started writing when I was sixteen, and it was traditional high school poetry: angst, and, you know, a lot of violence. Then, I had a boyfriend who had an ex-girlfriend who was a writer, and he introduced me to her, and she took me to my first poetry reading in Venice, California, in a place called Beyond Baroque. It was this huge reading for a literary journal, maybe thirty people read, and my life was transformed by hearing that reading. I mean, before that, I had written in some casual way an adolescent writes, but after that reading I was bewitched. I was enamored with poetry, and not so much with the vision of, “I’m going to devote my life to this genre,” but there were much sharper desires to make something on the page that lasted. So, when I started going to college, I began taking literature classes and studying poetry. Poetry’s always been my genre. I wrote one short story in a creative writing class, and it was okay. The experience of writing in fiction—in prose, really, was tedious for me. There wasn’t a lot of pleasure in it. Whereas writing poetry there always was and still is this great energy and excitement and urgency, and a sense of invention. Somehow, for me, writing in prose— traditional prose, because I do write prose poetry— always felt constricting. I don’t know why, exactly, and I don’t know if that will last, but so far I’m a single genre person.

 

Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?

 

A: The only advice that I think is useful is to read widely, to be patient, and to try and find your own conviction. Those are the three things that kept me in a space where the work feels alive. Advice is a tricky thing, because everybody’s particular. I guess it’s less advice and more of the things that I hold dear and that have kept me in motion.

 

Q: What’s your process when writing ekphrastic poems? Have you written other ekphrastic poems [ekphrastic poetry is poetry written in response to other works of art (i.e., paintings, films, other poems, etc.)] inspired by other art?

 

A: I got this opportunity to go to London by myself, and I was visiting all of the museums I wanted to visit and in one of the gift shops I found this postcard of Degas’ painting, “Combing the Hair.” It’s a young girl, maybe thirteen years old. She has long, red hair, and an au pair is combing her hair. She appears to be in pain–she has curled fists. The whole painting is in reds and oranges, and I was completely enamoured with it. So I bought it, and I brought it home and I set it on my desk a few weeks later. Then, just as a writing exercise I decided to respond to it. I was familiar with ekphrastic poetry, I certainly didn’t know that word, but I knew people wrote in response to paintings. It was a really sort of spontaneous writing exercise, and I found that when I wrote about that painting, I was able to write about my mom leaving when I was very young in a way that I had never been able to do before. I had tried to write about that experience before, but the poems would always end up feeling repetitive, hysterical, and unsatisfying, so I just shoved that topic aside. Somehow, writing in response to that painting facilitated this kind of speech for me. So I tried it again with another Degas painting, and it worked again; I was able to articulate in this really surprising way. I didn’t think this was going to be a book. I was just really happy to be making something that was surprising to me and where I could discover things, so I just kept writing in response to his paintings and it kept working. I was able to go deeper and deeper into stranger spaces and that continued on until I had a manuscript length amount of these poems.

 

Q: Why Degas for this collection specifically?

 

A: Why Degas? I didn’t really understand it, I just capitalized on it, and I didn’t study Degas while I was writing these poems. I was just viewing the painting as a common viewer of art. I didn’t want to be an academic that studied the nature of Degas. However, towards the end of this process I did do some research on him, casually, and I found that his mother had passed when he was very young. There were also rumors that he was impotent. Both of those things are interesting to me because he paints so many dancers, that’s his main gig. So, I thought maybe the loss of his mother and the desire and the inner way to talk about stillness… it’s something I’ve relied upon and it continues to be fruitful.

 

Q: Throughout Self-Portrait with Crayon, you make use of large motifs like abandonment, as well as many smaller motifs. Did these small motifs show up on their own or did you weave them into the pieces purposefully?

 

A: There was no conscious weaving of themes. The way I wrote the poems was sentence by sentence in this state of meditating on each painting. I tried to allow the language to direct the poem. I was conscious of the themes that were emerging, but I never said, for example, “Oh, I need to braid in this theme.” The themes were so prevalent that, regardless of intention, they were going to reveal themselves. But I tried to be led by the painting and the language versus by the theme or a biographical incident.

 

Q: When you were writing this collection, were you focused more on the music or the narrative?

 

A: The music. Almost 100%. I mean I also think the music, the language, was inspired by the meditation on the paintings. And I wrote them sentence by sentence, via the ear. The first line or sentence would dictate, sonically, ultimately, the second line. And when I say sonically, I don’t think that it’s entirely accurate to say that was the driving force, because of course there’s image, and of course there’s pattern, and the narrative, etc. But I think the thing is, especially with prose poetry, is that the ear has to be at work, because you don’t have the luxury of breaking the line, so to keep it buoyant, the ear really has to be awake. As for the narrative, there are very few truly narrative moments in the book, maybe five or six. The narrative and the music and the imagery and the connection between the speaker’s mind and Degas’ mind, that is what I think is driving the book.

 

Q: How did you know you were done with the collection, and what was it like going through the contest system?

 

A: I knew it was finished because I continued writing these pieces and I started feeling like I was repeating myself, that I wasn’t discovering anything new, or whatever I had discovered I had said better somewhere else. That happened three or four times in a row, and I started to think, “Hmm, I think this is winding down, I think I have expressed myself as completely as I possibly can using this tactic.” And another practical signifier was that once I hit about 48 pages, which is usually the minimum page requirement for the contest system, I was like, well, if I start repeating myself or losing steam at this point, it’s okay to stop, because I have an entire manuscript. In other words, I would’ve been very sad if at the twenty-fifth poem, it had stopped working— which I would’ve accepted, but I was fortunate to have written enough to be manuscript length.  

And the contest system, it’s huge now. There are many reputable presses that have blind submissions, so one would submit their manuscript via Submittable, usually with a fee of $15-25, so it’s a little expensive, and the idea is that there’s a group of screeners who whittle the manuscripts down to 20-25 manuscripts which get sent to a final judge, usually somebody of note, and if your manuscript is selected you usually get a small monetary prize– something like $1000, and a publication contract. This is a really common way that poets get published nowadays, because poetry’s not a commodity, you don’t have an agent, no publisher is going to make a bunch of money off of your poetry collection. It’s a way for unknown writers to get published, to provide some income for the press, and to create a space for newer writers. Very rarely are poets discovered, or have the luxury of having an agent going around trying to get editors to notice your work. I published through the contest system for my first book, and for my second book, and now the press that published my second book has agreed to publish my third book. So, ostensibly, I have a press now, which is the dream of any writer, to have a press that supports you and wants to publish you. I think my beginning is a very common beginning for modern poets.

 

Q: Do you find yourself editing as you go or writing and then revising?

 

A: I’ve done both. With Self Portrait, I actually edited as I went along; I wanted each line to have a sense of completion before the next line, and so on. It was a tedious process. I remember on a good writing day, I would write three good sentences in a row. And that was very taxing. And then the next day, I would go back to the same piece and write three or four more sentences. Very rarely would it tumble down the page, would I complete a poem in one sitting. It was usually many, many sittings, one sentence at a time. But then, more recently, I’ve periodically written more quickly, understood that all of the raw material was there, and then went back and edited acutely. So I’ve done both, but with Self Portrait with Crayon, it was very tedious sentence by sentence, word by word process, and I just couldn’t write them any other way. But with more recent work, I could sort of streamline.

 

Q: Have other poets inspired your writing, and do they differ from the poets that you read?

 

A: I think the poets I read are the poets that inspire me. The initial poets that inspired me were Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I found them when I was very young, as many young people do, and they still continue to inspire me, specifically Plath; her work continues to burn through me. Later, when I was in college, I found Louise Glück, specifically the book The Wild Iris, and that book also is the gold standard for me, still. And then there’s another book that is less well known, by this woman named Killarney Clary, called Who Whispered Near Me. It’s a book of prose poems; I think I discovered it in graduate school. That book changed me and gave me a vision for something I wanted to do. I think Plath, Glück, and Clary are the three writers that continue to inspire me and give me the ambition to write something with that kind of heartbeat.

 

Q: Can you tell us about your mother and how she inspired this book?

 

A: Sure. So, my mom left me and my father sometime between when I was a year/year and a half old. Of course, I was very young, so I don’t remember any of this. As I was growing up, we never talked about her. I didn’t know where she was. There was no reason given, I just knew that she was gone. I knew she wasn’t dead, I knew she was alive, although nobody talked about it. I just grew up with my father. Then, just before I turned eight, she called, and a few weeks later, she showed up, and I met her. That’s the language I use, because I didn’t remember her. After that, my dad ended up having a nervous breakdown and going to a mental hospital so I ended up living with my mother for a few years. So I did get to know her in that way, but after that I ended up moving back in with my father, and she’s always lived up north, in Northern California, so… We’re not close. We have a relationship. We talk on the phone periodically. I think the question is always why? Why did she leave, why did she come back, what’s going on? I still don’t have answers to those questions. I still don’t fully understand.

 

Q: Has [your mother] read Self Portrait with Crayon?

 

A: She has! She wrote me a letter and said something to the effect of: Her approach to reading the book and her experience of reading the book allowed her to be proud (of me) rather than be ashamed (of herself). So, that was interesting, and I appreciated that. I did call her, when I found out the book was going to be published, and told her, “FYI, this is the anchoring subject matter of this book,” and that it wasn’t disparaging her. I didn’t write the book to disparage her, but rather I was writing from this enormous silence and mystery that has characterized my life. But, I did want to give her the dignity to know. And, I mean, it’s poetry, it’s not like we’re going on Oprah discussing this. So yeah, there is that connection. She has read what I have made. But there’s an endless mystery to my mother, and me writing that collection didn’t resolve it.

 

Q: When you finished  Self Portrait With Crayon, what was it like to start a new collection?

 

A: I don’t remember exactly. I remember being relieved when it was done. And I remember organizing it, which was an extraordinary task for me because I didn’t write them in a sort of sequence, so I had to truly think about how the poems were going to unfold, which was very challenging, so I remember a feeling of relief. My friend had committed suicide about six months before I finished Self Portrait with Crayon, so I already had this other terrible grief in my life, and I knew, because that’s how I process being alive, I knew I wanted to put pen to page in some way, responding to my friend’s death. So I didn’t really grieve Self Portrait, because I had this other grief. I think it took about a year to really find a way to write about my friend’s death, and that’s what became my second book. So that’s my memory of letting go of Self Portrait: I felt a sense of relief, and then tried to find a way back in.

 

Christopher DeWan: The American Dream and the Future of Television.

Fellow student Kalista Puhnaty and I sat down with Christopher DeWan to talk life, writing, his career, and his new book of short stories, Hoopty Time Machines.

Christopher DeWan is author of HOOPTY TIME MACHINES: fairy tales for grown ups, a collection of domestic fabulism from Atticus Books. He has published more than fifty stories in journals including Bodega, Gravel, Hobart, Passages North, and wigleaf, and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. In 2017, he was named as one of the ISA’s “Top 25” screenwriters and recipient of a fellowship from the Middlebury Script Lab. 

 

Chris started with the history of his relationship to literature, and how it grew into his life as a writer.

 

My mom was an English teacher and when she wanted to celebrate something, she would take us to a bookstore as a special treat. At the end of the school year, we would celebrate by binge-buying a bunch of books.

In terms of a “writing career” I think of that term as an oxymoron. Leaving school environments and going into adult environments and figuring out what role I wanted writing to play in my life changed a lot. I worked for ad agencies for a while, then I was a blogger. I had a decently well known blog. Writing came up in a lot of different ways so that even when I wasn’t writing, I thought of myself as a writer. I worked in theater for a long time, partly as a playwright but I ran a couple theaters for a couple of years. It wasn’t always writing, but it was always stories.

 

His debut collection of these stories, Hoopty Time Machines, opens with an epigraph: “In olden times, when wishing still helped…” It’s a pregnant introduction; the ellipses are ominous, suggesting that what’s to come is a world where the hopefulness of the old world still holds some magical play. But these tales aren’t sweetly magical or thinly veiled moral lessons. Goldilocks navigates the modern dating world while juggling jobs, a husband watches his wife have an affair with Poseidon after they meet on a kayaking trip, the last man on Earth blogs about solitude. What follows the epigraph is over forty stories, or “fairy tales for grown ups,” as the subtitle calls them.

 

The stories that repeat in our daily lives become personal mythologies. DeWan identifies these myths and presents them to us, sometimes as revitalized classics; those legends and fairy tales we’ve heard since children.

 

The stories in [Hoopty Time Machines], I wrote over the span of four or five years, and I wrote other stories that weren’t a part of that book. But for the book I wanted stories that were already familiar to us, whether it was a myth or a fairy tale, but something we all knew so we could look for other ways to see it, hold it up, and show something a little different.

In that book, a lot of stories go back to Greek mythology. The label “fairy tale” came later when I was talking to the editor of the book. I was like, Oh yea haha these are like fairy tales for grown ups, and he was like, I can market that! We’ll make millions!

A lot of what glued those stories together was that it had a lot to do with the hopes and aspirations we have. It was a lot of American dreamy fairy tales, the fact that we all buy into the idea that our futures will be a certain way, and then we go down certain paths looking for those things, and that might or might not come true, but it’s never what we expected it would be. And ultimately that was the fairy tale that was at the heart of a lot of those stories that glued them all together.

The reason the book starts with a story that explicitly calls out the American dream, and the last story does the same thing, is because I wanted to make sure people felt that vibe even after we talked about Greek mythology and Rapunzel and Goldilocks, that it was still couched in the aspirations we all have to live happily ever after, and how hard that is in real life, how irreconcilable that is with real life.

 

The first story in the book captures this irreconcilable disjunction between the fairy tale world we pursue and its evil twin, reality. The piece is titled “Conestoga Wagon,” and it goes like this: “When he lost his job at Best Buy, Dad packed all of our things into a Conestoga wagon and we crossed the border into Canada, in search of the American Dream.”

 

“Conestoga Wagon,” like its counterparts in the collection, sits at the junction between our modern reality (the loss of a retail job), and the fairytale world where our hopes and dreams originate (traveling by mystical Conestoga wagon). It ends critical of the American dream, our great, looming fairytale, and the fact that it can’t be found here, but in another country altogether.

 

DeWan presents a series of easily digestible ideas, but they left me satisfied as I turned the page. A previous story would often hit me while I was in the middle of reading the next. And this is no mistake or distraction. The stories build on each other, expanding on a world where “wishing still helped,” even when it seems to be no help at all. There are many hapless people struggling to deal with a world where logic and reason is replaced by wonder.

 

There was a point two thirds through writing the story that I became aware of what kept coming up. And then I realized, oh that’s what I’m writing about, and I could do it more consciously instead of accidentally. With the stories in the book in particular, some of them are so short. They were just accidents. I’m always writing and there would just be some weird idea that got stuck in my head and I decided to write about that for twenty minutes. So they didn’t start with a lot of intention, they just bubbled up out of an image that I couldn’t quite puzzle out. Later I figured out, oh, this image added up to this story, and this added up to this story, and this added up to this and so on. Once I realized that, I decided that’s what the book will be.

I think naturally, there’s the stuff you’re interested in and you can’t get away from, so if you put enough words on paper, those will be the words that keep repeating, the stuff you’re already obsessed with.

And it doesn’t mean we can’t write other things too, and it doesn’t mean we can’t do it with more intention. Like some of those stories came up by accident, but some of them I steered. But I do think that the more layers we peel off, and the more honest we can be with ourselves, the more we keep going back to those same themes, those things we really, really, really care about, whether we know it or not.

 

Hoopty Time Machines offers up stories with various depths. Many stories are perfectly short to meet the required idea within. “Sacramento,” for example:

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into some other one.”

Even though it’s a one liner, “Sacramento,” feels like a complete story. Others are one paragraph, or just a page.

 

In the stories in this book, sometimes I wanted it to just be enough to evoke a question. In some cases the question was more interesting than the answers to the question. With “Sacramento,” I wanted to think about all the other possible alternatives to this one story that we all know somewhat well, this cultural troupe. All of a sudden I wanted to imagine all of the things that didn’t happen.

The first story in the book, [“Conestoga Wagon”] the one I mentioned earlier, is just a sentence about this family who goes to Canada looking for the American dream. I could’ve written, and then they settle in Canada and become micro brewers and learn hockey, or whatever. But for me it was about invoking the possibility and putting a little crack in the myth of the American dream. That was all I wanted and then it was time to get out.

The longer stories were more character based. A character intrigued me more and had more going on so I couldn’t really dismiss them with a couple funny lines, I had to live with them a little longer and try to recon with their complexities a little more.

 

DeWan does well to trust the power in the economy of his words. The length of these stories perfectly match their reach. But even the shortest stories tell us as much about their close little worlds as ten pagers, like “Rapunzel’s Tangles.”  I was hard pressed to find a superfluous word or detail that detracted from the punch of a story.

 

Some of the stories in the book are so short, shorter than people are used to or might expect, and easy for people to dismiss. Like, how much substance can there be?

There’s this Argentine writer named Augusto Monterroso, and he wrote this story I read many years ago. I think the whole story went like this: “When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” And that’s the whole story.

Again, all the questions of that are so much more interesting. Why was the dinosaur there? How did the dinosaur get there? What happened the night before? Right? It’s just this weird thing that cracks my brain for a second.

Ever since I read that story I wanted to write those little zen koan of stories that make people see things a little differently, at least for a minute.

There’s a story in this book where the first draft was like a thousand words long, and I started cutting some things that were getting in the way of the real essence of it. And I was cutting and cutting and cutting and I got it down to eighty three words. At a thousand words it can go either direction, it can either be a clever thing that can help you see things in a new way and then it’s done, or it can be about real people, and reveal things about people that are complex, that could never be done in just a thousand words.

It feels like you’re trying to crack a gemstone. You have this raw thing and you’re trying to chisel away the parts to make it perfect as much as you can. And that’s different than a bigger story. A bigger story has to be messier. The rewards in that story come from some of the mess. I think in an eighty three word story, if there’s mess in there then there’s an impurity in the gemstone.

 

Chris is well versed in these “bigger stories.” His website boasts a series of screenplays. He also teaches a weekly TV writing course at Idyllwild Arts Academy.

 

I moved back to LA in 2010. I’d been in New York for a bunch of years doing this blog and writing fiction, but by then all of my playwriting friends from when I was in theatre had moved back to LA and were doing TV. So I got back and they were like, Why aren’t you doing TV? And they were getting nicer and nicer houses so I was like, Why aren’t I doing TV?

I’ve been working in and around Hollywood since then. I didn’t really start on TV writing until 2012. I do think because of that whole prior decade where I was working in theater, TV feels more continuous to me.

The there was this giant migration of theatre people to TV. There are so many TV writers now who are just TV writers that if you just walk in the door and you’re like Hi, I write fiction, they’re like Have a seat, have a drink, make yourself comfortable. They’re fascinated just by the fact that you’re a little different. That absolutely happened to playwrights, they got taken way more seriously for having studied craft instead of just going to film school.

What was shiny and new and refreshing to all the bored Hollywood executives were these new writers who were suddenly new to television and trying to bring new things. Particularly at this time where TV itself is getting weird and breaking all its rules. The whole medium has turned itself out in the past decade, and in the past five years, and in the past two years, and in the past six months, with not even the stuff we think of as TV but with web series and shorter form things, there are so many different ways people are trying to tell stories right now.

I’m working on a virtual reality project, and no one knows how this works, no one has had one that actually works yet. There are a couple experiments that are kind of interesting but kinda don’t work. But no one knows the story that you can tell in virtual reality that doesn’t work as a gimmick but works as a story.

As the executives realized the medium was changing, they got really curious to get people who were interested in a variety of storytelling platforms.

TV stories are at the other polar extreme of those really short short stories that I was talking about. Those really short short stories can get by on being clever because once you have the idea it’s over. A TV story is never over, so clever isn’t enough. Clever is enough to get people laughing. The only thing that makes a TV story work is that I have to care about the people, and they have to be going on this journey that I can invest in. It doesn’t mean I have to like them, it doesn’t mean they have to be doing things I want to do, but if I can’t find a reason to care about them and all of their ongoing heartbreaks, disappointments and struggles.

Striving is a key ingredient in a TV show, the characters don’t have what they want, so they’re striving to get something, and by the end of the episode they won’t get it, or they’ll get it and it won’t satisfy the thing they wanted. And then they keep striving. If they were ever to quit striving, the show would be over. Whatever human engine drives them is really compelling, to look at people that deeply, and have this longform opportunity to understand how people work when they’re colliding with other people. Particularly when they’re colliding with the same people every week, and their relationships get deeper and stranger and more like our relationships.

The first show that made me realize this was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the twentieth anniversary of Buffy today, but I still love it because it does all those things. It dressed itself up as this light, silly, clever show. This light gemstone of a show — this girl’s going to go kill vampires, how cute and clever — and then it totally tricked me into loving those characters, and crying over them, and wanting what they wanted. When I watched the ad, I thought that show was going to be fun. Instead, I wound up weeping week after week after week, and having fun. But if I hadn’t cared about them, I wouldn’t have watched it for seven consecutive years.

 

Chris just touched on this word “tricked.” I was wondering how that played a role in his story telling. How does this affect a screenwriter’s relationship with the audience?

 

You have a relationship with the audience where you’re promising certain things, and if you ever don’t deliver on that promise, they’ll stop watching. So you can’t trick them at that level. You can’t promise them a show about a cute cheerleader who will kill vampires and it will be fun and funny all the time, and then give them something different and expect them to keep watching. So you trick them at that level. I think you trick them at the level of a constant sleight of hand where the character is almost going to get what they want, or they do get that thing, and the trick is that only once they arrive did they learn that the thing they needed to learn wouldn’t help them. That the thing they thought they wanted wasn’t what was missing. And it keeps the story going.

The trick is all the tricks that keep a story going. How can you be more clever, or more interesting, or more revealing, or more honest?

Another show I really admire is Six Feet Under. It’s not really plot driven at all, it’s just this family and they’re stuck together, but the way that story keeps going is they just keep peeling off more and more layers of their relationship. Or we see more and more layers of those relationships. The only trick there is that they’re going to keep surprising us just when we think we know them. They’re going to do something that’s not what I expected and yet more right for them than anything I ever would’ve expected. When a show works, I feel it doing that to me: I never saw that coming, but that’s the only thing that could have happened.

Shameless does that a lot. It just goes deeper and deeper and deeper into those people, and we know all the ways they’re going to disappoint us, and yet they manage to disappoint us in ways that are even more disappointing than I ever expected. And then I get my hopes up for them all over again the next time.

 

The differences between prose and TV writing feel obvious to the audience, but as a writer of both, Chris spoke on these differences between the final products and the writing processes themselves.

 

There are a lot of ways where the differences are obvious, but there are other ways where they’re not as different as we think. Either way we’re telling a story. A lot of times I’ll start something, and at the beginning I won’t know if I want to write it as prose, or if I want to write it as a script. It will take a while to feel out the story to know what kind of story it is. The more internal the story is, the more likely it is to be prose. If what I care about is about what’s going on inside your head, then that’s hard to put into a script, but not impossible. But if it’s more about what happens between us, that might work better as a script.

We’re all so saturated in video stories, that we all think pretty cinematically anyway. A lot of fiction that you read might be easy to shoot. Not all fiction, there’s fiction that people create that can only be fiction. You can’t shoot the inside of that person’s head.

TV has forced fiction to get weirder too, more innovative. But there are plenty of people who are not writing fiction like that. Plenty of people are writing fiction that’s more like a movie. There’s obviously a ton of space for them in the marketplace.

For me, if it starts with an image I’ll often scratch at the image in prose until I understand what the image is. Sometimes the image grows into something that will cross paths with the character, and maybe the character then takes the baton and runs with the story from there. At that point, maybe it becomes a script instead. But if it stays with the image, and it doesn’t get the baton passed to the character, it stays in prose. If the thing starts with the character from the outset, if the image that I’m intrigued with is the character, I’ll almost always start that as a script.

There are certain people who only think of themselves as screenwriters so they don’t have to even decide, like people who only think of themselves as prose writers. But for people who do both, every one probably has a different process. I don’t know how other people decide to open up Final Draft, or keep it in Word, at what point they’re like, this isn’t gonna work as a story.

All this writing that we do is trial and error experiments. We try it and see if it works, and if it doesn’t work but we still like the story, we try it in another way. Prose vs. script is another set of choices we can make to decide if the story lives better like this or like that.

 

Chris went on to share the methods he uses to push his writing process forward.

 

I wish I had easy, efficient tricks. A lot of my teaching, I do through writing prompts. I’ll set someone up with a prompt and tell them to write for fifteen minutes. The trick in that case is then the writer doesn’t have to worry about deciding anything. The pressure of deciding what to write gets taken away from you, so you don’t have to do both jobs. You don’t have to be the writer and the teacher if someone else is saying do this. That’s a harder process to do for ourselves. If I give myself a writing prompt, if I get bored, then thirty seconds in I call bullshit on it. I’m like, I gave myself that prompt, I don’t have to do it, there’s no teacher here, so I won’t do it. That means the tricks I use when I’m trying to help other people write aren’t the tricks I use when I’m trying to write.

The tricks I use for myself are grossly inefficient. I just write everyday. I write lots and lots and lots of words. But the words will ramble uselessly if I don’t frame it as trying to solve problems. That helps. The theater background helped me figure that out. Improv games in theater are usually setting a couple actors on stage and asking them to solve this problem. And all of a sudden you have a scene because two people are working on something. If I’m not trying to solve a problem, then I’m usually just journaling and that’s not gonna help me find my story. If I actually flip the switch and say, What problem am I trying to solve, then all of a sudden the work gets a lot more focused.

But it doesn’t keep me from rambling in my journal too, because sometimes I need to filter out the noise. When I’m not trying to solve a problem and I’m just throwing words at the page, that’s just like taking my pulse. I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on in the back of my head.

I vacillate between those. Sometimes I just want to know what’s going on in the back of my head because that’s where I might find the next story. Sometimes I want to take that thing I found and try to hammer it into a story, and that’s when it gets into problem solving.

 

Kalista Puhnaty and Campbell Dixon 

Two Poems by Amelia Van Donsel

Van Donsel’s pieces explores grand American imagery and poetry itself.

Eyes Adjusting to Dark
 
I suppose any work that is done is yet to resurface.
It’ll bubble up,
I think,
As though it is made of
Cloudy little spaces.
Rise
A little sloppy, even.
The busking bodies’d stretch, next
Tucking into the cots of sidewalk,
Hunkering down for that wind that could ruffle ships.
But brave swallows, swallows
Tell all with such a temper!
Don a pace
Of sky and skin and hungry mouth.
The light crescents which dote on this day
Are bilious, all things considered.
To keep the man who grew me
Is to be told that heaven really is just bathtubs of fog.
Clawfoot or drop-in?
Yet the crested firmament has begun
Greasing under my fingertips 
Please don’t touch 
Touch
Don’t 
Don’t touch please
Please.
An ignorant abstention.
 
Calliope
I.
Calliope tells me
That light holds
Too much mercy.
She has not seen the
Barefoot and blessed.
It’s a miracle minus the blood.
I implore her to watch
The silk gowns fill new torsos with light
Pressed all the way through.
The balding monks murmur
Of the interstitial planes of consciousness
Between the hairs of spider legs.
The young are blue-lipped in the luminous waters
That lift skirts of pallid light.
Their skin must smell like petrichor, I think,
O, Christ that cinnamon perfection.
In the basement I am told
I must read them stories
That have teeth big enough to gnaw on God,
About how scenery will be seen,
How fish will be fished,
How gardens will be gardened.
All will be satisfied.
I dropped a seed into pot a week ago.
It didn’t spring yesterday.
Instead I’ll probably find a baby
Growing in between the sidewalk cracks 
The place where bodies crush bone to skin.
Blueberries molding
Under my mother’s refrigerator.
The fields the farmers used to walk
Their market horses through
Weren’t mowed yesterday.
For a moment the sun would blind them
As they crossed that distant yellow haze,
That dust suspended in gas.
They could watch the grass crystalize as
The sun tried to kill the moon.
I long to see that ratty hair thick with sun,
Clouds on backs,
Boots sloshing with gold.
Now their unfinished chapels
Entomb the wants of things
That were once alive.
I can’t tell the difference
Between cold tiles and cold foreheads.
Amidst crooked night voices,
Junk food television,
And picture tube slumbers
I dreamt of us cooking shrimp tempura
As we argued over something I couldn’t see.
You swelled and reddened,
Tongs raking apart the hot pink commas
Until you hauled the wok over your head
Like Goliath and threatened
To pour it down your body.
My knees, my face melted into the floor.
Steaming oil cascaded down my neck,
Bubbling summer exploring my back,
Crawling in a searing, gelatinous wake.
I feel no pain.
Your kitchen body waits there
Until the wallpaper turns to sun,
Then I wake.
The feeling of the empty house
When you return to retrieve something.
Was it waiting for you with bated breath?
Did it miss you?
Calliope, I have met the American people They’re pretty standoffish.
I’ve learned that my handshake
Will never be strong enough
And that there is too much sky 
The world must end somewhere.
The GPS god on my dashboard
Tells me to run with highway packs of beasts
That roam and scavenge as one great machine,
Raking their claws through the earth.
Moon hammers off the hood,
Shoots diamonds into my eyes,
Traps me in a lightbulb of rumpled red leather.
Yellow foam froths at the mouth
Of the upholstery’s wound.
From behind, a thousand bloodshot eyes blink open,
And red spider legs ascend
The cobwebs of forest,
Scissoring them into diamonds.
From ahead, gold lanterns
Sway with gob-eyed goldfish.
They kiss at plastic rest-stops.
Wild men with their thick beards swarming with sun
Stop at gas stations and squeeze out
The dark spit-up beside me, and
A moment suspended between us is forgotten.
Soon it will be blown apart by bildungsromans
Swept off the butt of a flatbed truck
And all that’s blazing and embedded with teeth marks.
I do not care that you are someone who believes
The sun is a golden carriage
And that the moon is an extinct tusk
Dangling over a pounding fire
Or a spotlight loud
Upon millions of pale, upturned faces.
You show me the wet piles of clouds where
Ribboned veins palpitate in bodies in planes
Beating over our heads like red hooves.
You want your heart to be warmed sometimes,
Don’t you? you remind me.
How these little words ring.
You show me how terraces
And sun-butchered landscapes bleed white
From the wide pores of the earth.
Its sweaty legs spreadIn all its ravenous impulses.
No secrets yielded.
You leave a yellowed trench of a bed in the mothy dark
Where just yesterday the topmost layer of the sheets
Had grown with the unnaturalness of pointillism blood.
Maggots have been feasting their way
Like sunken teeth through the molding mound,
Cloaked in a gangrenous white,
The last of which I killed breaking glass bottles.
You had to call the poison-skinned exterminators
In vans who promised you your home would become a tomb.
Since then these breaths of mine endanger the ability to kiss,
To feign slumber while your shirt exposes
The outline of your ribcage when you lean over,
To grasp with filthy fingers and dusty hands around my throat.
This must be what life is.
A sun drying out like an apricot.
Between the crumbling hours
White dinner plates are now clean shaven.
Dusty fan blades remind me of the planet’s panicked whirr,
Remind me of buoyancy
And abyssopelagic breathlessness,
Of bodies circulating a great wrist.
I’ve never caught my childhood friend’s father naked.
I’ve never had seafood finer than hair.
I’ve never argued with those skittish horsegirls on the street
Whose skin is made of trash and spoiled milk
Which I guess you could call trash.
When I walk past tired homes
People hide in dark windows.
In always-yellow cafes I expect people to comment
On the uncomfortablenesss
That all whicker chairs possess.
Instead they comment
That their creamer looks “bombly.”
Above I wonder why one light bulb is lit differently.
One must have droppedFrom the ceiling one night
The released fist of God
And smashed against the cafe floor,
Just glassy cocaine to be snorted,
Whether anyone was there or not.
Maybe: when a light falls
And no one’s there to hear it,
Does it make a sound?
They drag their knuckles
Through pools of milk
As they try to counteract
The fade of their enamel,
Their nostrils to hot steam,
Shoulder blades to cool metal jaws.
Somewhere
A man in front of a fire chuckles,
His front to heat, his back to cold.
If the fire could cavort
And in a breath take the field,
The shrieking trees,
Sending the wildlife out,
Would I remember in the morning?
Caffeine, sweat, and corrosion
Weaken me. 
II.
We are in the same sleep, you and I.
When I ask you, Please,
Would you hold my soul, gaunt and wrinkled,
As you might your purse
While my blood goes curiously about my body?
You oblige.
When Calliope tells me the moon is not in tonight
 Would you like to schedule an appointment?
Would you like an Email alert when it returns? 
You point to the circle of jeweled orphans
It has left behind.
O, give me Atlas’ swarthy–armed constellations,
His sweltering vaults of peppermint comets
That are hurtling towards me crowned!
With malfunctioning fingers I wrap
Round your hair those burning burls of curlicues,
Those messy neurons and droplets of chains,
That polyphonic network
Made of tinseled buds
Made of reverberating rungs
Made of unbreakable knots of fingers,
Skin as hungry as mouths,
Tireless clenching,
Busy work, busy-work, busywork.
People garden signs that tell me
No homes for the homeless
No roads for the roadless
No gods for the godless
While my unemployed wheelbarrow
Slumps in the corner
Growing a stubble of rust.
I pour out its dirtwater, a mosquito brothel,
That swirls tightly, suctioned into a thin black hole,
Reduced to strands of liquid.
I think the scientists call it spaghettification.
All things considered,
They are just massive graves.
The scientists have not found
Which god is us.
They have not seen
The swaddled moon-faces that suckle
From little fat drops of milky sky,
That are caught in the bleach-white snow
Like mammoths awaiting ablation.
It is so bright!
So bright.
Too bright.
They have not seen the hermits,
Refugees from the engine,
With granular spectacles and nebulous bodies of hair
Who watch the world as though they are lighthouses in the desert.
The tarlike oceans too still to be alive,
And docks humming, floating in bluelanternfloodlight,
Suspending wind-up kayakers,
And fishermen who dangle their treats
And await in gossamer beds
Like dark spiders of the water,
And birds white as candles
Who buckle themselves up and dive in streaks,
Who are small enough to nest in eyes.
The dead Nevada sky where
Cartwheeling sparrows spit out dust,
And every man with his dog, gun, and truck
May be scraping plump bodies off of highway strips,
And deadbeat beatniks and tan vigilantes,
And tongues slick with fire fuel
That makes an escape down chins,
And the sun an asterisk teething
On chipped mountains,
And the stupid calm of earthsky folded in half,
And the rictus of yellow skulls burning into the body
Which our automobiles gore and slash,
And sunflowers loud and rupturing,
Palms yanking wide apart
To grasp at the fleeting light,
Already stiffening with night dew,
And sunburned freshslapped faces
That shrivel and crumple
Into a pinpoint
Like a television screen.
The thick people draped
Over fire escapes like rags,
Hot bellies skyward,
Eyes dripping like oiled vegetables,
And dirty artists’ tormented in nirvana,
And snakeskin plastic bags uprooting trees
Into hot air balloons,
And the overbite of the forsaken sun smudge
That lifts grimy and untouchable,
And high offices bare and bright beside
Wooden libraries suspended in dust,
And smoking manholes on the vomiting Vegas sidewalks
Swinging with the incarnation of the soup of jazz,
And jaws that crank open with bleak bonegrindings,
Catching coindrops on their cigarette ash tongues,
Bits of sun crawling from their lips
In cities of asphalt and glass and what have you.
All the little golden teeth
Fall the same. 
O, how I’d like to sleep now!
 To lie with you in early Denverdesert mornings
Where the vitreous world clears like a Polaroid picture.
Only sleep has crusted together my eyelashes
So they are the tiny twisted wings of sparrows.
Beneath them my eyes are turning to salt.
Sun cracked and is spilling all over the place.
My arms drip with yolk that is
Gurgling up from a ground made of crackers.
That may I rest in the dark rhombi of train windows soon
Where grainy films jitter past each other 
Two heads nodding on the street.
The world pulls itself forwards
To each steamy purgatory
On its knees, tender flesh aching.
The receding howls and wails of whistles 
The way things ring when you strike them,
Notes that surely will never fade.
It is not so in the pain of life,
Rather in the pain of our routine days.
How many kneecaps will bruise  
Until my body loves me?
But how joyous, you say to me.
What else should it be but illustrious?
Perhaps mornings made of crows
That lift together the same way heads turn together
To meet an open door,
And leaves hugging themselves to death and
Curling up like cinnamon cigarettes,
And swampy ghost forests by New England highways,
And fraying ghost faces behind counters,
Heads condemned to eternal dragging,
And neighbors just for show
With bones of yarn and
Photos of warm houses to share
Between fingernails of sleepy pretty pink,
And all those dozing buggy roses,
And places where rain comes like a dial tone
Spangle in your eye.
Such things,
Such hard cries of the sheltered.
When will you call for me?
Callouses are entombing my feet now
Under which the enigmatic engine gallops
In obedient pulses.
This white paint of bird shit
Plays connectthedots on my windshield.
Wipers fall like axes.
Somewhere those last gobs
Must have been so holy.
I pass children’s rainshine rubber boots,
Stroller families strung together
Swaying through parks like plush caravans,
And babies strapped into those strange cloth lungs.
How it might be to be unfurled into a cottony mist,
To be hushed and folded into a void.
Love is a language to which I am growing deaf.
Now I hear with my fingers,
Guiding the horns of the knobbed,
Thin-skinned steering wheel
As light deflates with a hiss.
Now I see with the brightness of street steel
And the weak strands of headlights,
Like a miner’s helmet through the tunnels of night.
Machines glide head-to-tail
As though they are floating fish masses
Fanged with light and
Sliding from or
Propelled by
Something I cannot see.
O, tell Calliope I wish not to awaken
In those long gray aisles
As if we migrate on a death march
Just to fill the time,
Golden beams of our slithering automobiles
Touching at one of those ruddy specks
Of ticking tollbooths,
At some gilded destination.
 
Amelia Van Donsel is a seventeen-year-old Waltham High School senior of Waltham, Massachusetts whose work has been displayed at the U.S. Department of Education, published in American High School Poets Just Poetry National Poetry Quarterly as a national winning entry, The Best Teen Writing of 2015 and 2016, as well in an anthology and numerous magazines. As an English tutor and the editor-in-chief of her school’s literary magazine, she has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards with multiple national gold medals and regional awards. 

By The Sea

In By The Sea, Francesca Ciampa illustrates the beauty of the seashore during the evening. She uses vivid imagery to broaden the reader’s senses.

Above, dark wood planks;

Slats, sticky with resin, below;

Sky and sea beyond;

The sun moving away, around;

Shadows playing behind its back,

Dancing in the gray half-light of dusk.

 

Dark fuzzy shadows growing above;

Below, a creaky chair rocking lightly

On two curved feet;

Two luminous green eyes,

Wicker groaning under four paws;

Darkness dancing on a porch

Half-hidden in the gray-black cloak of dusk.

Gray light rippling on the bay;

Glimmering on its silky surface,

Soft and cool as smooth satin.

A boat’s rhythmic light throbbing:

White, and lonely as an owl’s hoot, and

Night looming behind gray fur,

Growing to consume the pale dusk.

 

Francesca Ciampa is a junior who is a fan of all music styles, and is continuously writing snippets of poems late at night. Her poetry and art have been published in the Glass Kite Anthology and the Cicada Magazine. 

Art by Yixuan Luo

Oracle Thinking

Joseph Felker blurs the line between mystery and memory.

A xenon taste left on my tongue,

An electric scent, a terrifying sound.

The veneers on my smile smell like my cheerios

That I pretend to eat every morning.

 

Oracle oriented thinking laid out on the table,

piě *left*, nà *right*, piě *left*, nà *right*,

I think to myself, an ancient tradition:

I could only hope to understand the mysteries of.

 

I wish my grandmother (man vecsmāta) would sing again

Aijā žūžū floods my auditory memories.

The blue light she’d shine,

just for the safety of our Troopers.

By Joseph Felker

Art by Diana Ryu

Road Trip

Stella Pfahler’s poem paints the view of traffic, dust, and country landscapes outside a car window.

Orchards, syncopated

Flash by in rows, repeatedly.

Coalinga:

Stifling, the scent of false industry

Sweats along the country roads.

A mirage of a farmhand straightens up.

Sprawling road kill. Shreds of tires, unassuming.

First shards of LA, and anticlimactic.

 

Cars congregate-stop and go-

Shadows lengthen, the highway’s hum turns to an unforgiving lull.

You are forced to imagine the fragile ecosystems

Within car-worlds.

A state line is crossed. Street signs change,

And people with them.

Denny’s drive-thru

Because everyone has forgotten napkins.

In the morning: Rolling hills turn to mesas.

Heat rises in waves of invisible striving toward the sky.

Faceless horizons turn to dust.

By Stella Pfahler

Stella Pfahler is a Bay Area native who attends RASOTA for Creative Writing. She is a circus freak, enjoys surfing, and she plays the saxophone. 

Art by Fiona McDonald