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.

Natashia Deón Interview

Alex Clendenning and Bailey Bujnosek interview Natashia Deón, author of the critically acclaimed Grace.

Natashia Deón is an attorney and law professor based in Los Angeles. She runs the quarterly reading series, Dirty Laundry Lit, a non-profit that focuses on introducing people to literature. Her first novel, Grace (2016), has received awards from the American Library Association’s Black Caucus and the Kirkus Review, and was part of The New York Times’ Top Books of 2016.

 

Q: Your quarterly reading series, Dirty Laundry Lit, promotes readings for authors and has become well known among the Los Angeles literary world. What was your inspiration to create it? What pushes you to continue doing it, and what do you hope the audience gets from it when they leave?

A: I want them to see that we all have these different experiences, but there are things we all have in common. I have people of different political opinions get on my stage. I try to create as much diversity on stage as possible. The readings I’d gone to before were all the same, all white guys of a certain age group, all buddies, but there was never anybody who looked like me. So every time, I have eight readers who come from different backgrounds. Diversity is not prescribed, but it’s something else. I think it’s also a diversity of experience. We’re so limited in what diversity is, so I started Dirty Laundry because I wanted people to tell their stories, so we could connect in real ways.

 

Q: What was your thought process when writing Grace and how did you approach this topic? What kind of research did you do while working on it?

A: I did a lot of research just on the time period and what people were like. I wanted to know what people were thinking at that time. I thought once the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, all slaves were free.

The novel was rejected by a lot of places. The answers to my book were we already have that book, we already have two slave books coming out, so it kept getting passed. Then I talked to an editor who wanted a whole book to revolve around the Emancipation Proclamation, I said no, I don’t think [the slaves] were happy that day. It wasn’t until after the book was being shopped when I looked into the history, I found out slaves were free two years into the war, but they wouldn’t have walked across battlefields. I went to traditional public school and we weren’t taught that. I rewrote some sections because of it.

History informed a lot of what I wrote, and diary entries, too. I read a lot of diary entries at the time to know what the slaves were thinking about.

 

Q: Grace follows two characters—Naomi, a runaway slave, and Naomi’s daughter, Josie, who grows up during the American Civil War. When writing Grace, was it hard to separate your thought process when writing Naomi’s flashbacks of her past versus her view of Josey’s future?

A: Yeah, it was. Some days I would only write one storyline, I wouldn’t go back and forth. I would only focus on one story, because mother love is different from sexual love. I wanted to understand how she was seeing her daughter.

You don’t have to stay on one story all the time, you can move. When I feel like I use up all the creative energy in one place, I’ll move somewhere else. I wrote most of the novel on the notes in my phone, waiting for things.

 

Q: In class, you mentioned the beginning of Grace coming from a vision you had. How long after you had the vision did you finish the book?

A: Seven years. I wrote screenplays for MTV at the time on the side; I was still a lawyer.

It was daytime, around twelve. I was walking down the hallway, holding my son, and suddenly it was night. I was in the woods; I remember the moon was super bright. I heard a voice in my head and saw a girl running in a yellow dress covered with blood, and she’s pregnant. What happened in the book is what I saw. I thought I was still dreaming. The daytime bright was over, and I told my husband you have to hold him I need to write down what I just saw.

[After I had the vision] I put the novel in a drawer for six months. Driving down the five freeway, I knew what it was about. Okay, step one, take a writing class. As I was writing I was at UCLA extension, the teacher recommended PEN Writing Center. I got my MFA [from UC Riverside-Palm Desert]. I could be crazy or I could be right.

 

Q: Is there a particular reason why you made Naomi a ghost?

A: When I wrote Grace, I didn’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but I knew how to articulate experiences. I had no language for what happened, I just knew that this ghost would see, would behave like this.

 

Q: How was the writing process (in terms of the chapter structure)?

A: It was originally linear and then I just wasn’t interested in it. I wanted it to go faster. I thought wouldn’t it [the novel] be more interesting, because I knew I had a beginning. I wanted to find myself as a writer how she [Naomi] got to this moment, being chased in the woods. It was really me trying to figure, to unwind, how she got to this moment. It would be a better way, as a craft issue, to show the story.

 

Q: When writing Grace, how did you manage to write a book and hold a day job at the same time?

A: You think I’m sane, I’m faking it all so good! I don’t think about it. I just plan the next task and try to be present in everything. You have to be able to leave everything behind to be able to exist

I plan my breaks like holidays. I don’t say that I have to be at work from 9 to 5, I say that I have a break from 6 to 7. That way, you can keep moving knowing you have this break coming up. On break your mind can rest, you can listen to your music. I believe I have to refuel, physically and spiritually.

Writers’ brains are different than everyone else’s. They’re like video cameras in quiet moments, recording. We hold onto things that haunt us, that want to be told again.

 

Q: Were there any particular challenges in writing a book in dialect?

A: Not really, because the dialect that I chose was from my grandmother. It was largely from her; she lived in Tallassee, Alabama. I also combined it with ways we speak now, so it wouldn’t be super heavy and difficult to understand. For me, I made a conscious choice of do I want to help readers or do I want to keep it like how grandma talked? I softened the dialogue to help readers, because I wanted to tell a story with a lot going on and knew I wanted to keep readers. It was a choice to make it simple, but still be strong.

 

Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?

A: Live.

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.

 

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. 

A Conversation with Kelly Luce

Parallax editors sit down with Kelly Luce to discuss writing, publishing, and her latest book: “Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail”

What themes did you plan to explore before you started writing, and which ones cropped up naturally?

The themes in the collection curate themselves. A story collection is difficult to put together in the same way as a you would novel, because you want everything to feel connected while still being distinctive stories. When I started the collection, I didn’t know it was a collection, so I wasn’t purposefully trying to explore any specific themes, as you would with a book. I was just writing a ton of stories at the time, trying to see if I could succeed at it. I noticed that a lot of the stories took place in Japan, so I started putting my writing energy into that setting, where I lived and worked for three years. Something about my distance from Japan, for about four years at that point, allowed me see my experience there as an expat, or a foreigner living in a new place. Culturally, it was super interesting to learn about the food and mythology, but it was overwhelming to process while I was there, so the distance helped me refine it. 

A few people I knew died during the period while I worked, so themes of loss and grief naturally appeared in the collection. I also wrote stories during the period that had nothing to do with Japan, that the editors found not to fit. Curation is more of an editorial process. Publishers will take your pile of stories and order them, or take pieces out that don’t seem to flow with the others.

What do you think are the most important aspects of Japan in your writing?

The experience of being an outsider is very interesting to me. I grew up in a very homogeneous place. Everyone in my high school was white like me, and I never had too much experience with diversity. My years living in Japan really allowed me to experience the opposite of that.

But Japan itself is still a very homogeneous place. They have a saying: the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. In America, we really pride ourselves for standing, but in Japan, it’s the opposite. There, you just fit in, otherwise, you’re out. A lot of Japanese friends I met talked about the pressure of fitting in, and I thought that was a really interesting aspect of character. It was a fertile place for me to imagine the different battles a character would come up against in Japan.

How has your degree in cognitive science influenced your writing?

There are topics in the field that led to major topics in my writing, because I learned a lot about how memory functions. It’s not that different from writing fiction because both fields ask questions about humanity. Fiction is about creating, while cognitive science is an experiment in creation, which is a part of how emotion functions in the brain. They both come at human truth from opposite ways, but it’s the stuff in the middle draws me to both. The things like the amorameter, that measures love, are super fun to write about. That device seems crazy but people are researching it for real.

I’m actually crappy at science. I ran this experiment about music emotions and memory, and I fudged my data and changed it to tell a better story. Maybe that’s a better way of approaching fiction.

When did you start writing?  What was your first professional opportunity as a writer?

Since I was a kid, I wrote stories. I loved reading, so I wanted to create something just as powerful. For my 11th birthday I wanted a typewriter, and since then, I’ve written a number of books.

I had written for fun in my twenties and decided to send some stories to magazines for publication. I thought I would get rejected, but 5 months later, one got published in the Gettysburg Review, a story called “Ash,” which is in the new collection.

 

What advice would you give to young writers?

Read a shit ton! Read widely, and read stuff that you might not like: non fiction, or about cognitive science, or music, or history. The wider your net, the more material you have to draw from when you go to write your own.

Always carry a notebook and train yourself to write every day, even if it’s just a few lines.

Practice noticing what people say and the sounds you hear: usually great lines can relate to some great story. Become a trained observer of life.

Don’t worry about publishing yet. It shouldn’t be your only goal, because it takes so long.

Now that we have so many websites for publishing young writers, there are a lot more opportunities, but don’t get suckered into paying contest fees!

If you send it anywhere, revise it 10 more times than you think you need to. It always feels great to be done, but what seems done to you, an editor will think is not quite there yet.

That’s the hardest lesson I had to learn; don’t send work out too early. An editor won’t read it ever again.

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

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.

Time for the Grind: Parallax Interviews Poet Katherine Factor

It’s National Poetry Month! Parallax editor Jordan Sternberg interviewed IAA’s Poet-in-Residence, Katherine Factor, on writing and editing.

Here Parallax editor Jordan Sternberg interviews IAA’s Poet-in-Residence, Katherine Factor, on writing and editing.

Was there a defining moment in your life when you knew that you wanted to be a poet? If so, what was it?

No, there was no moment because the desire is steadfast, it is an endeavor one is always alive in — just that and what happens when you relentlessly press upon surface. So, the moment didn’t end, you know? But the mentors came in. I had this eccentric, polyester turtleneck wearing, abrasive as if-she-smoked-cigars sixth grade teacher, Jo Ann O’Hern. She not only turned me on to poetry, she demonstrated what championing work at a young age meant! Jo is forever lodged in my memory as she-who-showed-me language is moldable; My later retinue of mentors proved one could turn language into matter, and by proper craft we could churn it into something that truly matters.

Other early influences involve my hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, a town of yesteryear whose trains taught me that thought phrases could be dominated by sound; The poetic line is loud, is rollicking, is breaking landscapes. By grinding friction did those trochaic spondees chug, instilling rhythm in me. Also, being the birthplace of the Carl Sandburg — I inherited the sense that poetry could voice a people.

Early on I was also exposed to a lot of jazz and classical music, pinning in my ear a penchant for compositions that simultaneously sweep and experiment. However, whatever imprints abounded only make it more frustrating that “poet” comes from constant application of that noisy and annoying grindstone.

As a poet, what made you want to start working on the editing side of writing?

A poet is always editing, for poetry happens in a compression chamber. Consistently we edit as we run crazy errands for the economy of language. But the trick is, to turn the self-editor off while turning the composer on — making every note count! To grind is to bear down on letters until they become defined, bringing a lens into focus. The gears must be constantly churning, for the muse flashes so infrequently — better hope she’s greased and that you are poised with precision.

When I founded Wild Idylls Press in 2010, it was clear that student work at Idyllwild Arts was stupendous and deserved to be collected and published, which is an act of dispersal and an act of preservation. With the generous help of Arts Enterprise Laboratory (AEL) grants, we’ve paired with professional poets for mentoring. Students receive feedback on drafts, polishing and doing pre-production with me. Our first project was quite an event! Austin “Boston” (’11) kept crafting his tutorial novella with me — a surreal hero’s journey called The Breakfast. We put it into print and Austin’s reading paired with paintings by visual arts major Delaney Clark. Scenes from the stories formed a backdrop, breakfast was served, balloons were blown up, and Austin brought us on a journey indeed!

Our other chapbooks show the great diversity of style and experiment that poetry offers a young writer, as evident even by the book titles: Taylor Johnson’s (’11) breaking sunsets and Whitney Aviles-Low The Child’s Shadow were mentored long distance with poet Cathy Wagner. Jazz major Kat Dieter, (’12) took photographs to pair with her poems to produce Tidal Acceleration mentored by guest Kazim Ali, hand-binding her books with the help of faculty Erin Latimer (’02). 2012 saw incredible diversity with the publications of Kalinah White’s Guarded Memories about Africa and Peruvian Maria Alvarado’s book WRECKED. And I’m excited to have just published Erin Breen’s chapbook, Misconceptions! Erin collaborated with senior visual arts majors Kendall Ozmun and Delaney Clark, who took turns illustrating the fantastic, fun, and formally risky poems in the collection.

interr|upture,  the online journal I edit with Curtis Perdue, I wanted to be involved with because I believe in what we are publishing — poets like Emily Kendal Frey, Wendy Xu, and Justin Marks, with artists like Dana Olfdeather and Fernando Chamarelli. And I edit because I so enjoy what our peers are doing – journals like diode, jellyfish, sixth finch, H_NGM_N, iO, the Volta, and Drunken Boat — those making best use of the internet canvas. Editing is a prime way of contributing to the vibrant and viral  community that poetry fosters.

Tell us more about inter|rupture.

I met inter|rupture editor Curtis Perdue at Squaw Valley Poetry the summer before the magazine launched. He published two poems of mine in the first issue, poems I thought obstinate to most, but in publishing them, Curtis bestowed permission. Permission through publication is a type of mentoring. That is a hope and motion I desire to give other writers.

Turns out, Curtis could brave a gem of of journal, and we are different readers reaching for the same swell. Also, Anna Pollack is an incredible designer. She even found us this issue’s artist, Denton Crawford. So ill! His work is exactly what I’d expect a poem of mine to look like, gateway reflexing and all.

Additionally, I love the name inter|rupture! It feels like a place I inhabit, with the liminal easily seen and demarcated.

What kind of things do you publish?

Things? What is that? Do you mean, What do you look for in submissions? Well, I decidedly want the poem to pulverize me, grind on my notions with surprise! So please pop off immediately so I can furrow in and hence follow an image that drools and spools. One way to do this? Watch what articles are compression points, joints, hinges, what ones are unnecessary…what verbs are stagnant. Don’t try but taunt syntactical manipulation…sense why are you saying this…know how to fencepost…and so on.

Has your writing evolved over time or do you think you’ve always been consistent?

Yes, consistent in practice and purpose, following a Romantic urge, which is being in the mystery, the uncertainty. But the writing and collecting of language has evolved immensely. Idyllwild has given me the time to exist in a continuous grind, always tempting the augur and wishing an augury. For that I am grateful!

Outside of inter|rupture and Idyllwild Arts, how do you spend your free time?

I spend in practice, deeply immersed in process, the joys of which are heavily influenced by audio. 6,792 days might go by but I am just grinding away: typing keys and chafing the pulleys of my imagination. Currently, I am keeping  calendars, which is a regulatory act, and culling content that deserves to be freed. This can entail any variety of activities: delicately cutting & scanning images; compiling notebooks out of articles that provide a backside for printing fragments; researching, ripping pages & dogearing books t0 better translate their data into a new text; but often I am just absorbing.

On your twitter page, you post a lot about music. Is there any reason or are you just fascinated with music industry facts?

Oh, you want to know? Well, follow me @katfactor to find out!

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.