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 David Wright

Winding through the music Bach and Ekphrasis writing, Parallax editors sit down with published writer David Wright and converse about what defines a poem, the responsibility of poetry, and how it interacts with the world of art.

David Wright is a writer and a musician. His work mostly falls under the category of Ekphrasis writing, a type of writing that is in conversation with another piece of art, anything from a painting to a piano performance. David Wright, having studied music with a focus on piano, wrote a book titled The Small Books of Bach that is filled with rich poetry that focuses mainly on the music and culture of Bach, along with commentary on the musical fanatics who have continued to play his music to this day.  Two of our Parallax Editors, Parsa Sheikholeslami and Segolene Pihut, had a chance to sit down one-on-one with David and talk to him about his background in music, his beginnings as a writer and poet, and how the two art forms can be masterfully intertwined.

 

You initially studied music in college. Do you still play or perform music?

I do. When I switched from being a music major to a music minor, what I discovered is that music became much more about collaboration with other people and less about competition. It’s less about trying to be the best singer and more about the community of singers. And that was a wonderful shift. Ever since I graduated, I’ve become involved in choirs, as well as church music. For about six or seven years, I worked with a friend who was a composer, and he did a lot of choral works. We collaborated together on those. I did mostly the text, he would do mostly the music. But sometimes, just because I had enough of a musical background to be dangerous, I would make suggestions. And then he would explain to me why that wasn’t going to work. So yes, music has stayed as a part of my life. I love it.

 

Do you consider yourself a musician or a writer?

I’m a writer. I’m a writer, and a teacher. Those two things are pretty inexplicably bound together for me.

 

What do you think ekphrastic writing enables the writer to do that he wouldn’t be able to do with another type of writing?

All writing is responding to something else. There’s always an allusion to something in the world or to something that we invented. What’s interesting about ekphrasis is that if the work of art is vast and substantial, you’re entering a rich conversation that’s already been going on before you got there. It’s not like I look at a tree and I say “Oh! That’s a pretty tree,” but some person painted that tree and manipulated it on the canvas and did interesting things and had stuff to say about it. I get to enter into that and ask “Why did you say this? Why do you think that’s a tree? Look how you’ve reduced it to its shapes and its forms and its colors.” It’s the richness of the conversation you get to enter with another artist. I used to take students to the art institute every semester, when I taught in the Chicago area, and one of the things ekphrasis allowed them to do was to spin out of themselves into a larger world. Because we all write about ourselves too much, “I feel sad/love/angst about this,” right? Which is fine, you can write about that. But we sometimes neglect the larger, more textured, complicated world. When you spend 45 minutes looking at a painting, or listening to a piece of music, it’s going to spin you out of yourself in a way that might be good for us. And particularly for young writers. They get to enter that conversation. Ekphrasis offers that to them. Of course, they spin back in, what you think about that song, what you feel about that painting, is it going to be a part of what you write? But it’s changed,  if you spun out into that object that’s on the wall, that was made with lots of layers of possibility. That’s why I like ekphrasis for myself, but also for teaching. It’s a useful thing to do. It can become too easy, or it can become a kind of a trick. And that’s when it becomes dangerous. I have a really good friend, a poet, Keith Ratzlaff, who wrote a whole book of poems called Dubious Angels, based on the engravings that Paul Klee did. Towards the end of his life Klee became obsessed with angels, and these bizarre engravings. Keith became obsessed with these prints, and wrote a whole book based on these. And he finished the book and he said “I wasn’t sure if I could write anymore without Paul Klee. Paul Klee was my drug.” He became worried he became too dependent on the art, and I was the same way about Bach. So it’s nice to have written some poems recently in the last year or two that don’t talk about Bach. It’s a relief.

 

Do you feel like writers have a responsibility to refer to the outside world in their works, rather than just their own inner workings?

Sure, absolutely. I think that all poems are full of conversations, and I wouldn’t want to limit those conversations to ones that feel intimate or that feel political. I wouldn’t want either one of those to be the extreme. One of the poets I love who writes about social and political matters is Carolyn Forché. Years ago she edited an anthology called Poetry of Witness. And what she tries to do in that anthology is collect poems by folks who’ve lived through situations of political extremity. And it goes all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century with the Armenian genocide and it comes up all the way to the first Gulf War, as the book was published in the mid-90s. And the topics refer to the movements of Women’s Rights and Civil rights, and it’s these poets really writing in response to situations of extremity. But what’s interesting is that the most interesting poems in that anthology don’t only respond in a kind of argumentative or political way, although they do do that, but they also talk about what’s it like to peel an orange in the midst of gunfire. What it’s like to try to nurse a child to sleep when you’re not sure that your home will even be there next Thursday. What it’s like to fall in love, and then think, I have to leave the country in exile. So the most interesting poets for me are the ones who keep both those realities meshed. They’re not just narcissistic or worried about their private life, but they’re also not so overwhelmed by the politics that they forget to be human. And at a time of political extremity, which it feels like during this election year, with Trump and what not, you feel like you want to fix the damn world. Frankly, poems probably aren’t the place to fix the damn world for the short term, though they might be for the long term. Shelly called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of humankind,” meaning they were actually dealing with the mechanisms that make people do and feel things. But they’re not acknowledged, and people don’t notice it.

 

Ekphrasis is a conversation between two different types of art. Do you think that, say if you write a poem about a painting, if the reader already knows the painting, is that going to be more limiting? Or leave more room for interpretation?

Ideally, I would want any poem I write to be musical and linguistically interesting enough that nobody would need to see anything else to enjoy it. Ideally. Except that’s not how language works. Language lives in the world and carries with it all the places that it’s been. And all the ways that it’s been used. So, even as the poet, I’m not in charge of the language completely. It’s going to go in ways that are not in my control. So ideally I would want my poem to be musically and linguistically interesting enough that you wouldn’t need to understand anything that it refers to. But, how much richer is it if someone brings a knowledge of something that poem is doing? And I would hope that I wouldn’t just transcribe the piece of music or describe the painting. I think the worst ekphrastic poems are those that simply describe the work. How many people think of poetry as a static description of something? I want poems that can do all the things poem can do. Or at least most of them. At once. Simply transcribing an event or an experience, that’s maybe journalism? Not even very good journalism? Maybe it’s a diary entry? But it’s not a poem, right? Because all that other textured stuff we value isn’t there. In the poem I read last night [at a reading at Idyllwild Arts Academy] about a Chagall painting, it wasn’t in the room. I didn’t try to describe it to you. I think the poem was enough about the artistic process, about temptation, about despair, about what art can do, and you don’t have to see that painting. Of course, if you’ve seen that painting it’s about, or other paintings by Chagall, you might be able to interpret more. But I don’t think you have to. How do you feel about it, Parsa? Do you think ekphrastic poetry is limited by its connection to this other work of art in the world?

 

My personal opinion is that, if the poem is a good poem, maybe knowing the piece that’s in it is going to make it limiting. If the definition of a poem is about making connections, and there is some established piece it’s referring to, if you don’t know the painting specifically, you can have any type of interpretation from the poem.

 

But I don’t want anybody to have any type of interpretation of the poem,  because then they don’t need my poem. Do I want you to have deep feelings? Go have them, you don’t need my poem. I want you to take me seriously enough to be moved or shaped or pissed or some other way you’re affected by the language on the page.

 

Well yeah, for sure, but I feel like, there’s a general mood of the poem and sometimes there are going to be some descriptions of the work of art that you’re writing about, but I’m just talking about say “there’s a yellow bride,” there’s an actual yellow bride in the painting, but if I don’t know the painting, I’m going to have a certain type of limitation.

 

But isn’t “yellow bride” a weird and interesting thing? All on its own? When are you going to write the yellow bride poem? Why is she wearing yellow? Don’t brides usually wear white? So why is she yellow? What’s that about? Has she had that dress for so long that it’s been yellowed from the sun? Was it a heirloom, her grandmother’s dress? But you don’t know, right? I get what you’re saying, fidelity to the painting can be trouble, both for the reader and the writer. Trying to be too faithful to it. At the same time, if the writer is doing her work, she’s going to have something interesting to say. And she’s going to describe the yellow bride as “a yellow bride floating upside down under the green moon” which could happen, in a Chagall painting, which is why Chagall is interesting. Which is why I want to write poems about it.

 

One of my friends who is into making movies told me that he is jealous of musicians, because of the immediate relationship they make with the audience. So, as a person who has experienced both being a musician and a writer, can you describe a little bit of what type of relationship you make with your audience?

It’s hard, because you can’t be in charge of your audience, no matter who you are. You think you can. You think you can write this book, or sing this song, or you’ll make this film, and somehow be in control of how people receive it. And you can’t. The interesting part about live performance is that you can experience and feed off of or respond to the way your audience responds to you. The piece of music isn’t complete until it is received by someone. Now, that’s not always true. How do we receive most music? Up here in Idyllwild it’s unique because there’s a concert every other night. You can walk by the practice rooms, all day, every day, and hear someone playing. But most of the music we receive is, where? Recorded. So it’s left very little space for us to enter into the dialogue of the piece. With a poem, you absolutely don’t get to see how someone experiences your poem 95% of the time. With poetry, you make the book, put the book in the world, someone reads it and that’s that. And their reading experience is not something you have any control over. You’re not in charge of that exchange with the reader once you let the poem go into the world. What’s fun about doing something like my poetry reading last night, is that you are in charge again for a second. And you can say, oh, I think these folks are a little sleepy. I’m going to read a funny poem now. Oh, these folks liked the last poem, I’m going to read another poem like that. That’s a really rewarding experience. And that’s why I love to go out and actually interact with people. It’s like taking comedy on the road, you get to see which pieces affect people in a certain way. And there’s some poems I don’t read aloud, because they’re really dense, they’re really elusive and full of language play, that doesn’t really translate as well to the ear as it does to the eye. And you can’t expect someone to grab all of that at a poetry reading, there’s this flood of words coming at you, very hard. Some readings you can really hear what’s going on, and with other times there’s–have you experienced “poet voice”? You know poet voice? [Speaking in a slow, monotone voice.]  I’m going to read… my poem right now…it’s going to be…..just like this….. It lulls you completely to sleep. You look at the page and you’re like “This is really gorgeous and full of energy! What happened? When she read this, she fell into poet voice, and I’ve lost my mind.”

 

You said some poetry is better suited to the page. Do you think it’s a missed opportunity when poets choose not to do readings?
I think two things about that. First, that the mechanics of selling poetry in America right now, is that you sell poetry hand-to-hand. Most people don’t buy poems. They don’t buy books of poems. So what you have to do, is go to schools and bookshops and libraries and give readings. And when you do that, people go, “This is kind of cool! I’d like to buy a book.”  So that’s how most books of poems are sold. There’s just that pragmatic piece about it. But yeah, I feel like a lot of poets miss an opportunity of what poems will do when they’re in someone else’s body. Robert Hass says that “writing a poem is putting your breath into the body of another person” and he says that it’s a very intimate thing. And I think he’s right about that. So reading a poem out loud is one way of experiencing that. I’ll tell you something else that’s cool is if you have someone else read one of your poems aloud. There are choices you made, and resonances that happen that you wouldn’t know about. Which is why I had folks jump up and do the four-part poem I read last night with me [at the Idyllwild Arts reading]. Because, I don’t know what that poem sounds like unless I get three people to help me out. And even then, it’d have been more fun if I wasn’t the one doing my part, but got to hear four other people do it. So in that way it’s a little like my experience of writing music. The song isn’t complete until someone else sings it.

An Interview With Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses is an editor, teacher, and writer of nonfiction and fiction. During Matthew’s Idyllwild Arts visit, Parallax editors spoke with him about his writing style and the process of writing I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying.

Q: What was the process of writing a novel in flash fiction like? How does it compare to writing a traditionally styled novel?

 

A: I was writing the book, a flash fiction book, as a kind of side project next to writing The Hundred Year Flood. I had been working on The Hundred Year Flood for seven years at that point, and it just seemed interminable–I had to do something that was going to end soon. I had been asked to contribute one flash story to a series of flash fiction posts on a website called jmww, so I sent a first chapter as a stand alone. When I was getting tired of the The Hundred Year Flood, and had to write something else, I had to think about what I had to work on, and remembered that first chapter was unfinished. I started writing more one page stories with the same character. When I had about twenty, I started sending them out in chunks. One magazine asked for twenty of them. The original twenty had already been accepted so I just wrote twenty more and sent them those. Then I had forty. Then my publisher asked for a novel. So I had 40 of those chapters and they asked me to write 120 of those chapters for them to look at. I wrote another 100 for them.

 

Q: Did that affect your sense of narrative?

 

A: Yes. Because each one of them was a standalone, you could take any one of them out, and hopefully they could stand as a small story. I had enough movement in each of them. And when I was going back and trying to figure out how they’d fit into a larger narrative, I started looking at how those movements added up to a greater movement. I spread them out on the floor. My daughter was a baby at the time and would want to walk all over them, so my wife had her go up into a separate room. I was moving around the stories by hand.

 

Q: Was the revision process more difficult because each piece is a stand alone, but still only one part of an entire story line?

 

A: I would write one every morning when I got to work, and was doing so by looking at my surroundings. I’d find a single object, write it into the stories (so that I had something to kind of anchor the piece), and then I would spend the night revising it. The thing about them being so short, is that you can do them quickly. I was basically doing one a day, everyday. And when I sold the book, I had to look at them as a whole so I could find a bigger arc to the story. I just repeated too much. I was explaining things multiple times for the sake of the story’s arc. I didn’t need all those. I cleaned language for just the book itself.

 

Q: Do you usually use objects or metaphors as the basis for your characters?

 

A: No, not usually. I like to set myself little challenges. When I was doing a flash story, I was thinking, can I do this all in one paragraph stories based off of everyday objects? I don’t usually do that.

 

Q: Do you find that challenges make for a better story?

 

A: I don’t know what is better, but I think taking a challenge is more interesting. I think if you think of writers who write basically the same thing over and over again, it doesn’t seem that fun.

 

Q: Did you use aspects of your own life to help the storyline of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just saying develop? Is any of it nonfiction?

 

A: Almost none of it is nonfiction. What I did use was the fact that my daughter was so young and I had a fear of how she would grow up, but I think pretty much everything else was all made up. I was using my fears in a kind of ‘what if’ situation. Like what if your kid shows up one day, and they’ve been formed by your absence. For me, parenting is a lot about how your child comes out perfect, and then you try very hard not to screw her up. There is this sense that there’s a point where she will get screwed up and how do you help that?

 

Q: Many of your flash fiction pieces are very poetic. What determined which pieces leaned more towards prose poetry than flash fiction? Did it depend on what part of the storyline the piece was focused on?

 

A: I think of them all as mostly fiction. They could all be prose poetry I suppose. I wasn’t trying to make some more poetic than others, although there was the list that might be more prosaic. What probably makes them seem more poetic is that they’re operating on the same level of sentence, and that’s what I was trying to do with all of them, to have the plot happening in each sentence, one that starts in place and goes until the end of it.

 

Q: Why did you call it I’m Not Saying, I’m Just saying?

 

A: I thought it was funny. I had that title as one of pieces. It makes me think of this story “Dogs I Have Known,” which is all centered around dogs. Each section is about a different dog that the narrator has known in his life, and one section that anchors the piece and is about dogs in general. Dogs don’t have anything to say except “I have things I need to say!” Maybe that’s what I was thinking about. That the narrator didn’t have anything to say except to say something. There’s a lot stuff built in around that.

 

Q: Why did you choose to only use nicknames like, “the wifely woman” instead of real names?

 

A: I wanted to be really close to the narrator’s head, but also I think that the length or the brevity really means that you have to characterize people more quickly, and names don’t do that much characterization work. They do a little, but I feel like the name of the relation does a lot more. Like “mother” does a lot more for the relationship than “Joan.” Mother plays on archetypes. So the ‘wifely woman” is kind of playing on what a wife is and cultural conceptions. The narrator is trying to think of the boy as a son; it didn’t seem right to call him the son.

 

Q: Do you find that your voice resembles the style used in I’m Not Saying I’m Just Saying, as well as other pieces? Or did you particularly develop the voice for the narrator in I’m Not Saying I’m Just Saying? (Do you vary your style?)

 

A: Yeah I do, I think it’s very good for me to change it up. I also think it’s harder, like right now I’m working on a novel with a very different voice. A very disaffected narrator. The novel itself is a lot about voice, so I feel like I need a lot of time developing it before I can work on the book. It requires a lot headspace, which I don’t really have right now. Which is why I keep throwing pages out.

 

Q: Would you classify yourself based off of your voice or based off of your content?

 

A: I don’t know. I think the content is more consistent. There’s a lot about parenting, adoption, race, masculinity. I think that’s usually how I’m characterized.

 

Q: When and why did you start writing?

 

A: I wrote a book about the sting ray who wanted to find the shine of his teeth in elementary school. My teacher, who was a great teacher, said that I didn’t write description well. I still don’t write description well. But it was always something that stuck with me, something for me to be like “I’ll show you.” I think she knew what to say to me. Why did I become a writer? In part I think it’s kind of the same as what I often write about. What is one way of learning to be who you are in a world that doesn’t value that? Writing has been a large part of that for me.

 

Q: How does your culture affect your writing?

 

A: I’m often writing characters who are very far from accepting who they are, whether or not they even know who they are. And that’s an experience that seems very close to mine. I get this feeling that the great American arc is denial. It’s this person who refuses to accept whatever is the truth and that’s an experience that resonates very strongly with me and my history.

An Interview With Carrie Murphy

Two Idyllwild Arts creative writers were given the opportunity to sit down with poet and freelance writer, Carrie Murphy, to talk about her education, life, and upbringing as a writer.

Carrie Murphy is from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is the author of Fat Daisies and Pretty Tilt.  Her work often discusses subjects like sex and feminism along with capturing the mindset and delirium of a teenage girl through pop culture references and real life experiences. In this interview, Evan Lytle and Danae Devine got to dig deeper into Carrie’s life as a part time doula and writer.

 

Carrie Murphy Q&A

 

Q: Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?

 

A: Actually no, in high school I wanted to be an actress and was involved in theater and did a lot of plays. I studied drama in college but I realized it wasn’t my deal–too many big personalities and egos, so I decided to get my major in English. I had always liked writing as a kid and had entered in a lot of contests but didn’t see it as a career for myself until later in college. It always seemed like this cultural thing that writing has to be the only thing you’ve ever wanted, and I don’t discount people for always wanting to be a writer, and I’m still young, but writing isn’t the only thing I want and I don’t want to restrict myself to it.

 

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your occupation as a doula and how that contributes to your writing, if it does at all? But first, what is a Doula?

 

A: Ok, a doula is somebody who is there for pregnant women to give emotional support and physical training and assistance.

 

Q: Did you need to get some kind of certificate to be a certified legal doula?

 

A: Yes, it’s called a DONA, which means Doula Organization of North America, and so far I haven’t used any of my work as a doula for material because it’s such a personal occupation that I would need special permission from my patients to even base a story off an experience we had together. I don’t see myself wanting to use any of the experiences I’ve had as a doula in my poetry now but possibly down the line I’ll have a good handful of characters and situations I can apply from my doula work.

 

Q: Your poetry seems to have a youthful, coming of age sort of vibe.  Can you say what inspired that or where that came from?

A: Well about 5-6 years ago, I had started to notice that there wasn’t a lot of writing about being a girl teenager grappling with the world. I hadn’t seen a lot of poetry about girlhood–besides the gurlesque movement that combines cute and grotesque qualities like tropes about menstrual blood and ripping penises off–so I started to write about being a teen. Things were vibrant and colorful and little things meant so much more, like even if a guy’s leg touched mine. There is a big misconception that “teenagers are dumb,” which isn’t true for all of them. By my twenties I started to mourn the loss of a teenager’s sense of intensity and being overwhelmed.

Q: Do you find living in New Mexico to be beneficial to your writing career? What made you decide you wanted to go to school there? How was the transition from Baltimore to Albuquerque?

 

A: Well, I actually did my first year of college in New York, then a year in Massachusetts, then I finished up for two years at the University of Maryland where I got my BA. My parents were sick of this constant moving, so wherever I was going I had to stay there, and so I went to New Mexico State University where I got my MFA. I fell in love with the desert, the pace of life. It has its own culture. I graduated from there and decided I wanted to live in New Mexico after college. I don’t really write about it that much, maybe later, but New Mexico is my soul’s home. That is my place.

 

Q: What is “Dirt City Collective?”

 

A: Oh, that’s my writing group in Albuquerque, you know, my “crew.” I say writing group because we’re not just a poetry group. We’re full of all different types of writers that are in the group to support each other’s creative ideas and goals. We host readings all over Albuquerque and book releases and other literary events. Just a cool little group, my homies.

 

Q: So why do you like writing?

 

A: It’s just something I do–I would feel weird if i didn’t do it. It’s something that I’m good at and comes easily to me. If you don’t write everyday, then you’re not a writer. I don’t think that we have to live in a box, I think now we have more freedom to create. I think we’re more concerned about liking our job than just having a job to survive.

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.

When The Wise Man Speaks

Grace Vedock explores the conflicting drive of creative passion and its often exhausting nature in this piece.

I don’t mind sleepless nights
utterly unmanageable
afraid of drowning in
piping hot cups of coffee

So wind me up, watch me go
seventy-five down the metro
and moving from predator to prey
has not been easy, but natural

Rather mindful indeed, and not
an ounce of shame to show
proud and pearly whites
or matte black silhouettes

I’d play for you if I could
the melody of a thousand notes
the key change of a single song
if I mustn’t choke back
the fear (a dangerous
concoction when mixed
with passion)

To this day, I am
convinced that
He sang it better.

Executive entanglement, I’d like
to say, yet words fail me;
you belong on the couch
feet on top of mine;
tucked, frightened, and ready to run

The yellow pencil trembles
while I grasp it
I beg to communicate
a foreign and mental narrative
Pen for me not ten verses, but one.
The scraps of memories that live
in the darkest corners
and compartmentalized
into the ephemeral seasons

When pure bliss was mine,
I didn’t know.
Brilliant ideas rarely appear
in the “comfort zone”

But who you are is not
who I want you to be-
you belong to the people
who love you
hopelessly lost
in the labyrinth
of life

When you took a shot
at change, it worked.
You transform the intolerable
into the sentimental,
much like everything else:
Ideas that didn’t die.

 

By Grace Vedock

Grace Vedock is an aspiring poet. When she isn’t finishing her schoolwork, Grace enjoys looking to outside sources of inspiration for writing. Throughout her high school career, poetry and literature have been of great interest to Grace. On her own time, she decided to study and begin to write poetry. A handful of her poems have been published, most notably by Crashtest Magazine and The Noisy Island. She has an acute desire to share her poetry with the young readers and writers of the world.

Artwork by Sumin Seo.

An Interview with Samantha Dunn

During her visit, the Parallax editors got to sit down and interview Samantha Dunn, fiction and nonfiction writer, about female representation in writing, the writing process, and how to deal with criticism.

Question: What is your main goal or intention you hope to achieve through your writing?

Samantha Dunn: One, to make a living. I’ve survived by the pen. There’s a certain amount of professionalism I have to maintain to keep a roof over my head. But really, that’s a complicated answer for me. I think it can be broken down to wanting to connect with someone other than myself, to break the illusion that I exist solely on my own. There’s an intense loneliness everyone walks around with, but for writers it’s exacerbated. Truly, there’s a sense of putting that voice out into the universe and seeing if it hits anyone, to see if there’s something there. And also to witness others. We are unique entities and we exist in a certain place in time. How many worlds exist in a person? One type of mixture might have happened in 1972 and then again today, but they do not have the same experiences. Our lives are these incredible spinning orbits. What is real, for me, is to witness experience.

Q: How do you feel you have been successful in achieving this goal in your writing?

S: Most days, I do not feel that successful. Like every writer I battle the Who cares? Oh my God what am I doing with my life reaction. I know that, having done this for a while, people have read my works. I have been the recipient of many letters and communications that say to me, very directly, “I’ve read this, and it mattered to me. Thank you for writing this.” Or sometimes they will say, “You suck. You are so stupid. I can’t believe you still breathe air. Who publishes you?” Even that is engagement. If I can piss you off that much,  it means I’ve provoked something. Yay. We’re alive, we’re in discussion. We’re in communication. My big claim to fame, kind of jokingly, is there’s a store called “Title 9,” (which is all women’s sports and fitness wear up in Seattle), and at one point,  they had one of my quotes from my book on their bag. And I thought “Wow! Somebody’s reading.” It is funny. As writers, we are not glamorous. The paparazzi is not stalking us. I was at a faculty dinner one time for the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, and we, the entire faculty, were walking down the street. In this group was Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Russell Banks, William Kennedy. Basically, what I am telling is that I was the slacker in this group; I was the one who had not won the Pulitzer Prize. We were walking down the street and no one was even looking sideways at us. And I thought, “Wow, in Hollywood, if the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were walking down the street everyone would be like ‘Woah!’” But, some of the most exalted writers in American literature were walking down the street unperturbed. That’s it. That’s the life of a writer. We are alone a lot. Yet, somehow, the message in the bottle does reach another shore. I don’t know how, but it does.

Q: How did it affect you (or your writing) when people would respond to your work, positively or negatively?

S: Great question. Luckily, a great many of my friends are truly famous. For good or bad, that has not occurred to me yet, even with the amount of attention I have received. I was in People Magazine once. The book was panned. It had my picture and then a lot of bad stuff was said about me and it really froze me for a while because I thought, “Wow, I’m stupid. People are just gonna make fun of this.” But, then, on the opposite end, I did get those letters that said, “This meant so much to me,” and I thought, “You know what. You just have to talk to your people.” Screw all the others. Fuck all of y’all. Just talk to the people for whom it matters. When I start to get into that mindset of “My writing is about me talking to you,” then I am able to maintain that intimacy with that reader. The more I am able to maintain that intimacy, the more relaxed and productive I am.

Q: Were there any events which prompted you to become a writer?

S: Yes, I can give you a little anecdote. When I was in elementary school I won a Campfire Girls’ National competition. I wrote a poem on what freedom is and I was the 2nd prize winner. I was like “Oh! Writer, this is what it is.” But it’s also a much bigger story than that. My mother was a single mom and always very busy and she loved to read. Culturally, her family was working class Irish. They were all storytellers. If I have to psychoanalyze myself, it was me thinking, ‘How can I get her attention?’ I wanted that validation. Her reading something was profound for me. That had a deep impression. It was the thing we did. We told jokes and stories. It was always very lively in my house.

Q: What inspired you to start teaching?

S: There was no reason for me except to seek human contact. I was living the dream. I didn’t have to get out of my pajamas for shit. Yet, there was no way for me to connect on a regular daily basis. My friend, Les Plesko, a very dear friend and a brilliant novelist, taught at the UCLA Writers’ program. He said “Sam, you should just teach a class. It’ll get you out on Tuesdays.” That was why I did it initially. I had no other reason to be around people. But, I loved it. It is like my religion, my church, giving my life resonance and meaning. God, what privilege is that? To be a part in other writers’ journeys to discover their own voice; that’s an incredible privilege. I love it–I don’t teach for the money, honey [laughs].

Q: What inspires you to write fiction? And what inspires you to write nonfiction?

S: I really do believe they’re different, fiction and nonfiction. The muscles we put in are different. I think for fiction, the stories arrive. Nonfiction, for me, has to be circumscribed by fact. It’s what happened. It’s me making meaning about what happened; insight done beautifully. It is the thing that kind of holds the world together. With fiction, the stories arrive on currents. Out of scenes, physical experience, taken off on their own. I wrote a short story called “The Tortilla Construction Handbook” that ran in a journal called Black Clock. That story arrived with a voice in my head, a young guy kind of talking. He was talking about tortillas. It was like a rant on tortillas! I sat around and waited for more of that to reveal itself. It’s like dreaming. You just wait for it to reveal itself to you. It arrives in a different way. I don’t have much time for fiction, because fiction comes out of silence, which is not the case for me right now.  Memoirs are the most powerful thing we can do for ourselves and others. No safety net. It’s you trying to make meaning out of what’s going on.

Q: Was there an event that prompted you to write your novel, Failing Paris?

S: The anger at a girl in my workshop class who wrote a story romanticizing Paris. It’s not all puppies and Luxembourg! It’s sexism and racism! The most beautiful and yet the most debase. It’s all of these things at once. It exploded from me, This is how it is.

Q: Do you think your writing is empowering for young women, especially your nonfiction article “My Not-So-Bikini-Body”?

S: I hope it is, but you can’t write hoping to inspire. You can just witness your own experience. David Walcott says, “A writer’s job is to state the condition.” Hopefully, you as the reader will find meaning in it for yourself. I can’t hope for a message. I’m just telling you what it is to be like in this body.

Q: Have you ever felt that there is a lack of female representation in famous, frequented literature?

S: Fuck yeah! If you look at most of the award winners, they are guys! Dudes! Hello! Even this year, Kirkus did a list of “The Most Important Books of 2014.” One of them was written by a woman. If I throw a rock, I hit 15 incredible female writers. There’s still a long conversation to be had about where the female writers are. That’s why people like Cheryl Strayed, whose success has been phenomenal with the book Wild, are really important. That’s a book about a woman going into the woods, not because she had a bad romance—I mean, sure, she went through a divorce. But, it was really about the death of her mother and about the incredible grief she suffered. It was her on a journey of transformation, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It doesn’t terminate with her being swept off her feet by some handsome stranger.  It terminates with her on her own two feet. And the success of that book has been astronomical. I cannot underestimate the importance of that. It is huge. Cheryl’s story hit the vein, but there are amazing stories like this written by women all the time. That’s not to take away stories written by our brothers. It’s not. But, for so many centuries we were not even allowed to write and that still hangs over our heads, culturally and personally.

Q: Who are some female writers that have left their mark upon your work?

S: For better or for worse, Kate Braverman, because she was my first “bad mother.” But, also, when I read Virginia Woolf in college, she kind of blew the top of my head off. I did not know anyone could create a sentence like that. I did not know you could be so intensely personal. Same with Anaïs Nin. I read her, and her sexuality and writing so honestly about what was happening to her, my God! It was an access of freedom that I never knew. Also, Judith Krantz, who was a crass commercial best seller. I read her books when I was fifteen and it was the book, Scruples, a supermarket paperback. But, the heroine was defining her own life and doing her own thing and becoming a millionaire on her own! She was leaving men broken-hearted, she was not being left broken hearted, and I found real power in that. And also, I must say, from college on, Joan Didion has been my Alpha and Omega. I met her once at a reading and I was that geeky girl with fifteen of her books. I had nothing to say when I got up there, and she very politely signed my books while I stood there like a dummy. It was a huge moment for me. She really is the one writer I think I would most like to emulate.

Q: Could you describe your writing process? How do you pace yourself when writing longer pieces and how do you plan them out?

S: Before becoming a mother, I would write everyday.  The morning is the most fruitful for me. I would usually write from about seven o’clock in the morning to around nine o’clock, then throw myself back onto my bed to go to sleep. Then I would get up, write for a couple more hours, and be done for the day. I couldn’t do anything else. So, about four hours of solid writing was the most I could ever get. But then as the projects really start to take shape, really form where you’re almost at the end, it really becomes this all encompassing thing. I would sleep with my laptop, I kid you not. But now, I have a son and a husband. It’s hard. I cannot be precious about my writing at all anymore. I have to write whenever I get the time. Now, if I don’t write between 8:30 and 1:00, it’s just not gonna get done. Because then my son will get home and chaos ensues. There is no space in my brain. There is no space in my life. There is no physical way for me to get to the space I need to. I mean, I have an office that is in a separate building from my house, but it’s still on the property, so they know where to find me, and they do. When I really need to write, I will write in my car.

Q: You discuss intense personal stories in your memoirs and essays. A lot of writers find it difficult to write non-fiction because it is hard to open up about your experiences. Do you have any advice for that dilemma?

S: That’s huge. Because there is this thing of, “Don’t tell.” The rule breaking in the family: you cannot tell. It’s sometimes not explicitly said but you know it. So, I would say don’t force yourself into anything. Just keep writing. Just know, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s stemming from someplace important. If you are crying when you’re writing, it’s important. You have to say to yourself, What the fuck. I don’t care. That’s the space you need to be in, that emotional space.

Q: Did you ever feel a sense of uncomfortability as you were writing?

S: Yeah. A lot. Really uncomfortable. Like, Wow. I’m afraid. I don’t know what people are gonna think about this. When my novel went into Kindle, it went into a whole other audience—before it was just in this literary community with people who had read Sylvia Plath. Then it went into this world where people are like, “I’m vegan and I’m anti-abortion. I can’t read this.” Like, what? Or people would say, “Wow. This is really depressing.” Yes, it is depressing. The hateful reactions were kind of my nightmare when I was writing that book, but now it doesn’t matter to me. People who don’t get it are not my people. Because I know the work matters. I have heard from the people for whom it matters. Not all the people but, I know that it matters to some. More importantly, I know that it mattered to me to express it. It’s not autobiography, but it does describe my experience, my emotional experience, and, more than that, it describes what I know is the emotional experience of other women. And that’s important to have out there. Good, bad, or indifferent. Happy, sad, or whatever you want to call it. I believe it is important.

Q: How do you balance talking about the subject and inputting your own opinions on the subject? Do you ever add in other people’s emotions or opinions?

S: Yes. You have to. A writer’s job is to have empathy. I have to, as much as I find it difficult, find empathy for those people in front of Planned Parenthood protesting. That’s our job as artists. For Failing Paris, I really wanted to get into that complexity of choice. Why couldn’t that woman be a mother? Why couldn’t she be there? I wanted to explore all of that in all the ways I could. That deep sense of mourning. The idea for me is how can I create empathy, no matter where it is in the story.

 

Pink Weddings with Kristina Darling & Carol Guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.