A Conversation With Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is an Oregon-based freelance journalist and host of the National Magazine Award-nominated podcast, Bundyville. She has work featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Outside, Vice, The Atlantic, Playboy, California Sunday Magazine, and elsewhere. 

 

After a two-day masterclass with the Idyllwild Arts Creative Writing Department, packed with mystery postcards and research rabbit-holes, Bella Koschalk and Ryan French sat down to ask questions regarding journalism, politics, and investigative reporting. 

 

Q: You touch on a wide range of topics in your journalism. What draws you to the stories that you investigate and write? 

 

I think over time it has kind of changed. Where once I used to only write about music and counterculture things, now I think I look for stories that have compelling characters. It’s always weird to refer to real people as characters, but I think it’s someone who is interesting to interview or has something interesting to say. Or stories that have good scenes in them where I can do some kind of writing or reconstructing of an event that happened. But I think at the heart all the stories I write there is some kind of tension. So, like, someone struggling with something or a conflict and that maybe by understanding that person’s conflict or story, people can read it and come away with some clarity in their own lives. So I’ve started to look for things that could have a greater meaning for people. 

 

Q: Is it possible to remain completely unbiased in journalism, and should you?

 

I think that it is impossible to be unbiased. Journalists are real humans too and I think a lot of people in the industry talk about the rectification of the journalist. People talk about how maybe journalists shouldn’t even vote, or journalists shouldn’t participate in civic activities or that they should remove themselves in some way from society. I came up in alternative journalism and alt weeklies, and those platforms were taking a stand on something. So as far as my work is concerned, I approach subjects that I disagree with personally, but still try to understand their point of view. I think that you can hold an opinion but still fully investigate what someone else thinks. I think journalism has gotten into a lot of its problems now where people are trying to say that they aren’t biased. Journalism is undergoing a big change right now on how we cover things. At the end of the day, I think as unbiased as people can be, we do need that kind of journalism to just get to the facts. If the president holds a press conference, and it’s not televised and there are only print reporters there, they need to just get the facts and that’s it. And I think the industry ripples out from there and there are people like me who take a position on a certain thing. 

 

Q: How do you feel the platforms of journalism and podcasting interact and converse? How are they different? Do you prefer one over the other? 

 

The Bundyville project started as a print series. So there are nine written long-form print stories. At a certain point, my editor asked if I wanted to make a podcast and I was like, “Sure, I don’t know how to do that but I like podcasts so I’ll figure it out.” Now that I’m on the other side of that, it’s interesting to see that people who read the stories didn’t listen to the podcast and people who listened to the podcast didn’t read the stories. It’s a really effective way of getting the same information to two completely different audiences. It’s like meeting people where they’re at. Not everyone wants to read a long piece of journalism; that shouldn’t exclude them from the information. That kind of caters to my personality. I was never a traditional student. I’m not the kind of person that got amazing grades and could sit and listen to a lecture and absorb the information. I needed to digest information. I needed to hear it and touch it and see it. I think this is serving journalism to people who might feel excluded from it normally. 

 

Q: From the reporting side, do you have a preference for which medium you use? 

 

I do love writing, and I’m very familiar with the process of what it means to gather information for a print story. But podcasts are really evocative. I can interview someone who has experienced profound loss and write that they started crying. And it’s on my writing skills to really bring a reader into that moment. But hearing someone actually cry in your headphones is a totally different experience. Audio journalism is really exciting to me. It could be because it’s new. They are different in the way they’re reported. I can’t say I prefer one over the other. 

 

Q: Have you ever gone into a piece thinking you knew what the story/angle would be, only to uncover something during your research and refocus the piece?

 

Almost every story I started thinking I knew what the story was and then the more interviews I did, and the more reporting I did, it changed. Sometimes it drastically changed. Just recently, I wrote a story about a shipwreck that happened and a woman who discovered all this information about it. The story that I pitched ended up being completely different than the story that I ended up writing. It had similar threads, but because the reporting was so exciting and the things I was uncovering were so interesting and different, I had to follow that. I think also that I may come in with a subject that I think, “Oh, this person is going to be awful, and then I’ll meet them, and I’ll think okay, I definitely don’t agree with their view of the world, but people are not always as bad as we want to think.” After you meet them, and sit down and have a cup of coffee and shake their hand, sometimes I’ll really have a shift on how I feel about things. 

 

Q: Have there been any stand-out stories for you that completely flipped? 

 

Yeah. Last year I wrote a story about a man named David Matheson, who was a conversion therapist. He was someone who made his career by trying to convert someone away from their same-sex orientation. Which we know is impossible; it’s not scientifically proven, it’s pseudoscience. And all of a sudden, he stopped doing that therapy and he came out as gay. I went to meet him and was like this guy has damaged so many people’s lives. He was super remorseful of what he had done and he explained to me how he justified it in his mind. And by the end, I felt he was a friend, in a way. I really understood him and I felt a certain amount of empathy for him. That was really interesting. I didn’t think I could level with someone that I thought to be such a terrible person. So that was one example where I was really surprised. 

 

When I interviewed Cliven Bundy, I was really scared. I talked about it in the first season of Bundyville. I was like “I’m so afraid to meet this person.” And then he was like, “Come on in my ranch, sit down on the couch.” It smelled like barbecue and he was very kind. We sat down and talked for three hours. This man is supposedly one of the biggest domestic terrorists in America. I don’t think I changed my opinion at all about what he did. He represents a super dangerous arm of extremism. But, he was very easy to talk to, and that kind of surprised me. 

 

Q: How has being a journalist changed your lifestyle and your day-to-day life in general? 

 

I work from home. Sometimes I don’t take a shower until four or not at all. I wear pajamas a lot and I talk to people on the phone and I’m like, “Good thing they can’t see what I’m wearing.” I tend to take on stories and projects where I often say it’s feast or famine. I won’t have anything going on and then all of a sudden I’ve got a ton of work. When the time is right, I have to put the rest of my life on hold. I have to go on the road and interview people. It’s very long days and I have to hit deadlines. And then it’ll stop. I get published and then I’m done. Definitely, my career has been at the center of my life and I’ve set it up that way purposefully. I could work a nine-to-five reporting job or something like that, but to me journalism is a lot more of an art. I treat it like art. Nonfiction is a form of expression. It’s very important to me, so I set up a lot around my writing. If I’m not writing, then I’m reporting. If I’m not reporting, then I’m reading. If I’m not reading, then I’m making art. So I have this cycle that I’m living in. 

 

Q: You started out working for a newspaper. What made you decide to become a freelance journalist? 

 

I think it was that I didn’t want to write on just one beat. I had been writing about music for a really long time and it was ruining music for me. I like music a lot. I would be like, “Oh, I love this band,” and then I would interview them and they’d be lame and then I wouldn’t like their music anymore. I realized that eventually, I wanted to write for magazines and more national publications and the only way I could do that was to move to New York, which I was not interested in doing, or freelance. I was 32 probably and I realized I wasn’t getting any younger and this decision was going to seem like a really dumb thing to do once I got to a certain age. So I was like “I guess I’m going to try freelancing now.” And I did and I haven’t starved to death yet. I’ve come close. That’s not true, I have not come close to starving, but I’ve definitely come close to thinking this is a terrible idea and maybe I should do something else. 

 

Q: Have there been any situations where you feel really uncomfortable or unsafe when you’re reporting? How have you dealt with that? 

 

I feel uncomfortable a lot. I’m kind of an anxious person, and interviewing people can be kind of hard. But you have to just do it. Your job is gathering facts, so at the end of the day, you have to make someone feel comfortable and interview them. I have had several moments where I have felt really uncomfortable, mostly when I’m writing about extremism. I was at a gun rally in eastern Washington. There were a lot of people involved in anti-government militia groups there. It’s the era of Trump and him calling people fake news and I’m there as a reporter. The person I was trying to interview was a state representative, an elected official, and he got people to film me while I was interviewing him. It really put me off. I didn’t feel like I was doing my job very well because I was so uncomfortable. I was alone and surrounded by men with guns. That was a moment where I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. 

 

There’s some stuff in the second season of Bundyville—which is way better than the first season, FYI—where I go to this secretive religious community. Kind of a cult. That was a little scary. I always work myself to be a lot more scared and then it turns out to be fine. The gun rally was the most uncomfortable that I’ve been. I ask myself: what is my job here? I’m here to gather facts and not here to issue my opinions. There are times where I leave before other journalists would. I’ve also covered a lot of street protests that have turned into riots or just completely out-of-control chaos. There have been a few times where I’ve gotten tear gassed or things like that. As a reporter, I’m trying to gather facts and figure out how to stay safe while doing that. I don’t enjoy that. It’s funny, though, the most uncomfortable moments I’ve had have been in the last four years. The tenor of how people think of journalism and what’s going on in America has sort of created those situations. 

 

Q: Had you expected to have to deal with situations like that going into freelance journalism? 

 

No. Initially I wasn’t writing about politics. I was writing about culture and the funny little corner of the West. I was finding groups of people to write about. I never could have imagined I’d be writing about politics. I’m not explicitly writing about elections or things like that. I’m writing about the residuals of the political climate. It’s weird to be a freelance journalist. For example, when I’ve covered street protests, there are all these paid journalists like the Oregonian, the paper there, and the radio station. They all kind of clump together. You’ll see them in their Oregonian jackets. And the TV reporters in their clumps. And then there’s me. I don’t have a team jacket to wear. No one knows I’m actually a journalist. So that can be kind of weird. I hadn’t thought about that as a freelancer. Who am I going to call if I get arrested with a bunch of people? There’s no editor to call. Yeah, it’s weird. 

 

Q: Was there something significant that inspired you to start writing about politics? 

 

My major in college was journalism, but I minored in political science. I’ve just always been interested in politics, just as a person. But, I think it really was falling into this world of writing about extremism and anti-government groups in 2016 that really made me fall into a deep hole that I was not expecting. But who can expect that a group of armed men will take over a building in their state? It was just a very interesting story. Had that not happened, I don’t know if I would be writing about that stuff. Maybe I would have found my way to it eventually. 

 

Q: Bundyville is on NPR. What is that like? 

 

It’s really cool. It’s been much more successful than I could have ever imagined. We made the Apple top ten. This is the second year in a row that the podcast has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. That’s never happened before. I’ve never made radio before, except I used to host a show on the community radio station at midnight where I just played [heavy] metal. But that was just my thing. It’s been really cool. I feel very much like an underdog, as a freelancer. So, to see the work that I’ve done have a big platform is really pretty cool. 

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A Conversation With Peter Twal

Peter Twal is a Jordanian-American electrical engineer, and the author of Our Earliest Tattoos. His poetry collection won the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize (University of Arkansas Press). His poems have appeared in The Believer, Poem-A-Day, Best New Poets, Kenyon Review Online, West Branch, Ninth Letter, Gulf Coast, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. Peter lives in Phoenix, AZ with his wife and newborn son.  

 

Rome Smaoui and Claire Kim sat down to interview Peter about his recent poetry collection Our Earliest Tattoos. After Peter’s poetry masterclass at Idyllwild Arts Academy, the Parallax team had a variety of questions about his work and his sources of inspiration. 

 

Q: When did you get into writing?

 

When did I get into writing? It sounds silly but the first instances of writing for me, I was probably four or five. I used to write little prayers. I grew up in a Catholic home, so that was something that I thought a lot about. And so I wrote little prayers. Probably around when I was in middle school, I got into writing poems for the first time. They were terrible, they were trash poems. I think in a way that we all probably kind of struggle in the beginning when we’re just reaching for things that we’re not sure are even there. It was probably around middle school, but I didn’t really get serious about writing until I was in high school, and then later in college where I kind of had to make a decision about whether I wanted to study engineering or creative writing. Ultimately, I chose engineering, simply because I knew I wanted to do both, and I knew I wouldn’t get an engineering job without an engineering degree–that’s the way that companies work, unfortunately–but I always wanted to go to grad school for writing, and I’m really glad that I did. 

 

Q: Why did you choose science and engineering as a career path instead of writing? Does this ever inspire your writing?

 

So like I was saying, it was part practical. Where I just felt like I wouldn’t be given a shot as an engineer without a degree. And it meant a lot to me to pursue that, because it was a passion to me, as a kid. Just tinkering with things and interacting with the world in that way. So even though I was going for an engineering degree, I was doubting it the whole time. I think it was my sophomore year, and I was getting into courses that were intentionally designed to make you fail—they were really hard classes—but more importantly, I remember my sophomore year, I got a 33 on a circuits exam and I went home distraught because I had never done that poorly on a test, and I told my parents “I’m done, I’m not doing engineering, it’s not for me. I’m going to study writing,” and my parents, in their infinite wisdom said, “Okay… but why don’t you just keep going and see where it takes you. And you can still do poetry in grad school, but just stick with the engineering for a little bit longer.” I think that was a real gift. I ended up learning a lot from engineering and that segues into the writing portion. I don’t think my writing would be what it is without my engineering degree, and my appreciation for math and science, and how things interconnect. I think of circuits, specifically. I try to apply that to my poems, because in circuits you can constantly point to power sources. You can point to moments of resistance. Other elements that hold energy and voltage. That’s how I write; that’s how I try to write, at least. I try to map everything out on the page in the way a circuit looks, maybe. Where I understand what it’s trying to accomplish to the best of my abilities, and then build a plan from there. 

 

Q: Each title in this collection is a lyric from “All my friend s” by LCD Soundsystem, what inspired you to use those lyrics? Other than the titles, where do you see the song appear in the collection? 

It’s a really tough one. In 2012, a couple friends came over, and we spent some time together. We had a really nice evening. My friend, Drew, played that song for me and I loved it; it really struck a chord in me. I thought it was a beautiful song, I thought it encapsulated a moment that I was in really well because the song was all about growing apart from people, and I think I was realizing at that time, a year out of college, that I was growing apart from a lot of my friends. Friends that I cared about. And I took friends for granted. I took for granted how good of friends we were and how it wasn’t necessary to communicate all the time, because I knew they were there, I knew they were my friends. So the further I moved away from home, the more I started to write these poems. I felt like it was something that pulled me back home. It reminded me about a lot of people that I loved, and at the same time it reminded me about the distance between them and I. Last September, my friend Drew died. The person who introduced me to the song. And it was a shock to the system, different from anything I had ever felt. It reminded me of what I loved so much about that song, and what I loved about Drew, and how important it was to me that he was one of the people who introduced me to it. Aside from the lyrics, the way that I see that song appear [in the book] is: I think the book deals with grief; to me it’s a series of elegies to a band that had broken up before I had ever gotten to see them live—but then they got back together and I did see them— It was a series of elegies in the way that I think that song was an elegy to a past life, as well. I was writing elegies for the band, I was writing elegies for the people I love, I was writing elegies for friends that I simply thought were separated from me by distance, and I didn’t realise that it was more than that, that it was only a matter of time before they were gone. I didn’t take full advantage of the time I had with them, maybe in the way that the speaker in the song didn’t take advantage of the time he had with the people in his life. 

 

Q: Why did you choose to write sonnets? What was the process of writing/deconstructing these sonnets? 

 

I think sonnets are one of the earliest forms of poetry that I dabbled in. I started writing them when I was in college, and I just thought that they were so compact and neat. There are obviously the really popular Shakespearean and Petrarchan forms, but there is a long history of people who have tried to take the sonnet form and adapt it to their own style. I felt a calling to do that. So, I wrote all of these poems, and they were all fourteen lines to begin with. I knew that they weren’t sonnets by definition for many other reasons. Sonnets have different formal elements like an “if/then” structure to them, that I liked and enjoyed working with in my poems. So like I was saying, at the core of it, they were all fourteen line poems. When I began the editing process, a lot of those poems got a little longer, and most of them got a little shorter, and probably about half of them ended up being fourteen lines. I wondered if that still meant they were sonnets? I think that kind of got me thinking about form in a new way, because what is it about a form in poetry that says “Yes, you are a sonnet” or “You are a ghazal (غزل)” or any other form? I think there are elements that are maybe more important than others, but I think my poems are now haunted by the sonnet form. To me, that doesn’t make them any less sonnet-like, and even if these poems remember being sonnets at any certain time, I think to a certain extent that still kind of makes them sonnets. As tough as it was to cut away some of the more formal elements that I thought proved that they were sonnets, it kind of opened up a new realm where I felt free to put the form of the sonnet in service of my poems, as opposed to putting my poems in service of the form. 

 

Q: How did you decide on incorporating such unusual characters such as death, God, and the Mars rover? 

 

Going back to growing up in a religious family where—I mean as an Arab— religion is almost part of your identity. It’s something that I still think about, it’s something that I still struggle with, and I am constantly negotiating what I believe with myself. I’m still trying to figure out what my fate is in my life, and what its role is at that given time. So in this book, it was kind of an opportunity for me to work some of that out. It’s easiest for me to understand God and death as concepts when they are brought to my level, which is being that of a human. A human in this current age and being kind of shallow—or mischievious, or needy—the not great things about being a person, that we all kind of do. It was also a chance to poke fun at myself, because in making God or death say something in the book, I was thinking back on things that I had said or done in some fashion. There are only a few instances of that because I think I tried to make God and death way more…bratty. So that was the idea behind that, it was about how I can take these grand concepts and bring them down to my level so that I can understand them a little bit better. As for the Mars rover— aside from my obsession with it at a scientific level— I think I had a few poems in the book where I had essentially tried to make the Mars rover out to be a God figure, where they’re far away and in communication with humanity in some way, but never present. Always watching, always in echo. To me it just seemed like a connection I felt like I had to make between those two characters. 

 

Q: How do you think your poems address modern technology and ideas in relation to timeless poetic themes like love and death? 

 

I guess, thinking about technology, characters are constantly texting in the book. I came into the texting game very late, and I text like a ninety-four year old man because it’s heavily punctuated, so I would text how I would read off from a page and would be like, “Yeah, that sounds like a sentence.” When I tried to put that into the book, it forced me to relax some of those tendencies, those twitches, and how they I guess are related to concepts like love and death. It goes back into bringing it down to a new level that I don’t typically interact with. I think these are very lofty concepts that we think of as hard to understand, but the technology is so embedded in our lives and we don’t find that hard to understand at all. However, when we talk about love or death, it seems like this far-off thing that we can’t really grasp as a larger presence in our lives. 

 

Q: How do you think your poems deal with the idea of permanence vs. impermanence? What made you feel drawn to this concept? 

 

Wow…these are all stunning questions. The poems deal a lot with grief and I think grief is a permanent thing in my life. Whether it would be people in the past and mourning them or people that are soon to pass, like in this book, there are a couple of folks who were really important to me as I was writing these poems. Maybe as I was writing this poem, I was working through this idea of impermanence and letting it go. Memory is something that is permanent, but also impermanent, and it’s constructed by both us and our surroundings. So we have this idea that memory is pure, imperfect, and untouchable, and it’s always not, it’s always tainted. When we make the connection in our minds, we begin to appreciate the parts that are permanent, which are emotions that are attached to the memory. Maybe going back to my point on grief, it’s a different way to understand what we’re taking with us and how we shape ourselves with those things that we take with us. 

 

Q: What is your favorite period of literature, or genre, and why? Are there any other genres you feel particularly drawn to?

 

Favorite genres of literature—definitely poetry! But if we’re talking about periods, when I was in high school, I read a lot of romantics, romantic poems, and I was so struck by them. How vivid the imagery was and how much they felt. I think sentimentality gets that grab in writing or art because it’s perceived as being like weakness, or it’s also an engendered thing, but I love sentimental writings, and I think the romantics were seen as the sentimental group. So back then, I was really struck by that. I haven’t really read much about it since, but that’s probably the group that I still appreciate. 

 

Q: Are you working on any new projects? 

 

So, I read four poems last night at my reading, that were new, and that were not in the book. If I’m being honest, I haven’t written much new stuff for a long time. I don’t know why it has been difficult. I think now within the past years, I moved, started a new job, my partner and I had this new baby, and I think a lot has changed, so a lot of how I moved through my life has changed as well. I typically used to go to one spot at a coffee shop and write. That was how I did it, and I can’t do that anymore, so I’m having a hard time getting back into any form of consistent writing. So, long answer, I don’t think I have any projects right now. I have a lot of poems that are cooking and a few that are finished, but I don’t know at this time if there’s anything more than a stack of poems, pages, and I’m okay with that. I’m okay with letting them sit, spend some time together, and work themselves out to a certain extent. I think every time I come back to them, I start to make new connections, and I think a new project will come out of it eventually, but I can’t say that I have anything other than a few poems at the moment. 

 

Q: When you were writing this collection, did you have a particular target audience in mind? Who do you hope will read this collection? 

 

I think I talked a little bit about this yesterday, about the way I had to relearn what it is to be an Arab body at this current time. As a kid, I let a lot of things go that I took for granted and didn’t think enough about my role in society, the responsibility I had, and what it was to be an Arab. So, when I began to edit this collection, that changed, and I hope now that other folks in my community who maybe grew up in a similar way that I did without realizing how Arabs are being portrayed in popular culture and how they are depicted in the news. I hope other folks, who don’t realize how harmful some of those things are— as I didn’t when I was younger— would encounter this and maybe gain something from it. 

 

Q: What advice would you give to the growing writers and poets?

 

I think two things. One, reading is writing. Even if you’re not putting something on the page, but you’re still taking in the work of others, you’re participating in writing in some way and you’re learning. I didn’t think that enough when I was first starting out. I thought writing was me sitting there, putting words down and I didn’t read enough other poets until a poet that was very kind and helped me a lot at LSU (Louisiana State University)—where I was for my undergraduate— shared a quote with me. She said, “The relationship between reading and writing is like eating and shitting.” The other thing is that, even if you’re not reading, writing is always happening. Writing does not necessarily have to be an active thing at all times. If you’re walking around and absorbing the things around you, and taking notes on them, you’re still eventually contributing towards writing. For weeks, I would jot things down that happen around me, whether it would be things that I would see, things that I hear, and I would eventually sit down and think how these pieces fit together, if they do at all. So, there are a lot of different ways to write, and I think in this society that we live in, there is an emphasis on production and producing work no matter what you do, even if it’s not about writing. “You’re only worth on your current output” is a thing that we’re taught, and it’s really terrible. I think writing could push back against that, where you don’t have to be constantly producing poems or stories to be a writer or to be at any given time.

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Alicia Mountain Interview

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

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

 

Q: What is your opinion on postmodern poetry?

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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


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

 


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q:Why love poems, of all things?


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

 

 

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

 

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

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A Conversation With Alice Bolin

Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. It is a New York Times Notable Book of 2018 and a New York Times Editor’s Choice book, is on the list of Kirkus’ Best Nonfiction Books of 2018, and is an Edgar Award nominee.  Alice has published poems, stories, and essays in numerous publications, and is the former Poet-in-Residence at Idyllwild Arts Academy. She is currently a Creative Nonfiction professor at the University of Memphis.

 

Delany Burk and Kalista Puhnaty sat down to interview Alice about her recently published essay collection, Dead Girls, a large portion of which was written during her two years as the Poet-In-Residence here at Idyllwild Arts Academy.

 

Q: You write in many of your essays about the sexism that is present in the media. Do you think it is improving with the “Me Too” movement and the issues that are being brought up surrounding that?

 

A: I do think that it is improving, and that there have been a lot of changes when it comes to representation, and more diverse stories, but we have a really long way to go. I also still think stories that are supposedly combating sexism often play into it in certain ways. Even with the Sharp Objects thing, where a lot of it is just an excuse to just watch violence against women, and also watch women be ravaged by their past trauma. I don’t necessarily know if staying in that mode is doing us any favors, and I would like to see just more diversity in stories, not only in terms of representation but in terms of the kinds of stories we tell, and more experimentation with plot and structure. It is happening in some ways, like–I don’t even want to use this example–with anthology series like Black Mirror, changing the ways that people consume TV, which is really cool, and we aren’t as stuck in this season arc thing. But I think that we still have a long way to go, that’s my basic answer.

 

Q: Do you think that the fascination with dead girl shows, and stories like that, have anything to do with the “damsel in distress” theme from many older stories?

 

A: Yeah! It has everything to do with that. That sort of overlap between fairy tales and dead girl stories, and the ways that they always feel fairy tale-esque, harkening back to those attitudes about women, about women needing to be saved or helped by men. We still feel really comfortable with that narrative, of “Oh, let’s get a dad to come help,” but that’s what’s interesting about dead girl shows. The dads are the heroes and the villains, and that tells us something about our culture that we didn’t know before, which is ultimately sort of the good thing about them. But yes, it definitely harkens back to that damsel in distress image for sure.

 

Q: Why do you think that serialized crime shows are so popular, when a majority of people don’t know about real cases of women disappearing and dying, especially with the killings of women of color and trans women often going unspoken about?

 

A: I think our conception of what a mystery is has everything to do with the identity of the victim, and probably the perpetrator. When I lived in Los Angeles, two guys were shot right near my house and their killers were never caught. What they said in the newspaper was, “Oh, it was probably gang related,” and that they were two Latino guys, and that’s all we ever heard about it. That’s a mystery, we don’t know who did it, but it wasn’t treated like a mystery. Gang violence answers the question. “Okay, mystery solved!” When a white girl gets killed you feel like, “Oh! Who could have possibly done it?” because we don’t think that white women deserve violence in the way that we think that other kinds of people deserve violence. Or maybe because that’s just not our image of a victim of a violent crime. So that’s part of it, the allure of “the perfect victim.” Also, I have read literary theory stuff about serialized fiction even in the Victorian era, you know, Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but also journalism. Once the daily newspaper would come, people would follow these cases that were salacious, and serialization is kind of this method of getting people addicted to narratives, where once you have that cliffhanger, people start to fill in their own ideas of who did it, and what the answer is. It is perfect for these kinds of stories. I think that it has to do with structure too, there’s something about it that has been around for 200 years.

 

Q: Is there ever a time where having a dead girl in a story can be justified? And If so, how do we write stories about dead girls in a way that doesn’t fall in the same pitfalls that other dead girl stories do?

 

A: I don’t really feel like I’m the arbiter of what kind of stories people get to write. I even met the writer Megan Abbott who has written a bunch of literary… you might say literary thrillers, and they all center around female characters, and female rage you might say, and she explicitly said about my book, even though she liked the book, and she gave me a blurb, she said about my book that she doesn’t necessarily agree, and she thinks that we need to keep telling dead girls’ stories, and keep exploring that idea, because that’s where we’re going to find some answers about why this violence is so prevalent. Which I think is valid. I respect that opinion. So basically my answer is I don’t know… but I think there are ways that dead girls shows, and dead girls stories can kind of reveal our feelings towards women, and our feelings about crime and about who is the perpetrator and who is the victim, in ways that other stories can’t because they’re so outlandish and over the top and even fairy tale-esque, and magical. They kind of illustrate our really messed up interest in these stories by being so over the top. I think Twin Peaks is the perfect example of that.

 

Q: What other criticisms have you received for Dead Girls, and how would you address them?

 

A: I think that the biggest criticism that people have of it is that it is not all about dead girls. There need to be more dead girls in it, that it’s too personal, and there’s not enough analysis of that phenomenon in it, and it’s a little bit of a bait and switch. Which… whatever. But I think for me that was not the book that I was interested in writing, was a critical analysis purely of this dead girl phenomenon, not that it would be difficult to write. But I also felt like, “Well there are endless dead girls, I could write about that forever. Where do I find an end to that story? How do I find my way out of it instead of just staying in it? That book could be 1000 pages long. How do I find a resolution?”  And the only way that I could do that was sort of veering off course, and examining other stories, maybe examining alternatives to that story and thinking about my own stories and the ways that I have sort of been complicit in the kind of oppression I was critiquing. That was how I found my way out of it. I’ve talked to women who are really cool who are like “Oh I’m so excited for your book, I’m a PhD student and I’m writing about violence against women in literature for my dissertation” or something and I’m like, “That’s great…” and you know I think that can exist alongside my book, and be kind of an alternative. I’m not the only person who is writing about this stuff but that’s kind of my take about it.

 

Q: You seem to have a fascination with mystery; have you considered writing a mystery novel or story? If so, how would you approach it?

 

A: Yeah! I want to write one about Idyllwild. But the thing is, I do like mystery and mysteries, but what I like more is that kind of mood, a really noir-ish or thriller-ey tone. And I love that in books that really have no mystery or the mystery is kind of missing, like books by Shirley Jackson, or Patricia Highsmith. I think those books, or even books like Toni Morrison, or “Ghost Story” books where you feel like there’s a mystery and you are reading it like there is one but ultimately the mystery is never going to be solved. That’s the kind of book I’d like to write. And maybe about Idyllwild. I think it would be the perfect setting. It’s so creepy.

 

I moved to Idyllwild from Koreatown in LA, which is the most densely populated part of LA, and I never felt worried about walking around at night because there were always people everywhere… but here? No. I’ve written about it a little bit, I think it’s so perfect for that creepy mood. That’s what I’m more interested in, because I do want to question our addiction to mysteries.

 

Q: Has teaching influenced your opinion on women in media?

 

A: I mean, teaching has influenced sort of everything that I think, but… Basically I think one thing that teaching helps me do is be more open-minded towards kind of practical ways that representation is important or sticking by what I believe in in certain ways, where maybe even if I like a book, or an essay, I’m maybe not going to assign it if I think that it could be offensive or marginalizing towards my students. And it is more important for me to represent more diverse and interesting voices because that is what my students need, and also what they would appreciate. So I feel like in some ways it has put me more in a mind of how I can be more responsible for my own choices, and the media that I’m personally consuming and recommending or assigning. Because I have this weird kind of power where I can make a group of people read books that I tell them to, and so I want them to read books that do have good representation of women, that don’t have damaging ideas about women, unless that’s something that we want to talk about.

 

Q: You’ve dug quite deep into many aspects of the media that are considered shallow. Are there any rabbit holes you’ve gone down that didn’t make the cut?

 

A: Lots of them. Yes, tons. Especially stuff about music and country music. There’s none of that in the book but I have written lots about country music, because I think that country radio is really fascinating and especially actually how it relates to women and female artists and the kind of values that it perpetuates to its audience. Also stuff about reality TV, there’s a little bit in there but I have, much more to say about MTV. I think I am probably going to be writing about stuff about media in my next collection, especially women and social media influencers, stuff like that is something I am really really interested in and love to write about.

 

Q: What is your opinion on the media’s obsession with bad mothers?

 

A: Hmmm. I feel like the media probably has pretty equal obsessions with bad mothers and bad dads, but they’re portrayed in different ways. I think we villainize women more for being bad mothers, like it’s almost perverse to be a bad mother. But to be a bad dad is sort of expected. It’s like, “Oh, sure.” It’s sort of a cliche, where a bad mom is like gasp, “So shocking!” and that’s something that in fairy tales, usually the mother is dead. But there might be an evil stepmother, or there’s this witch figure off in the wings and there clearly is literally or figuratively a stand in for a bad mother or an absent mother. I think it has a lot to do with our anger towards women, and towards our own parents. That’s something I talk about I think in the dead girl show essay, that the Philosopher Julia Kristeva, her theory of the abject had to do with this anger, maternal anger, anger towards our moms, she was a psychoanalytic theorist, so its like this Freud thing, but I think that it’s kind of gross, right? That’s really my only take on it, I really like stories about moms, and about moms who are in the picture, and who are good moms. I think that’s actually much more interesting than bad moms… Bad moms can be interesting too. That’s what my student at Idyllwild said to the class once: “To get writing ideas, I google ‘I hate my kids.’” I was like, “How many stories can you write about people who hate their kids?” but still, that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.

 

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Natashia Deón Interview

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?

A: Live.

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Allison Benis White Interview

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.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Kalista Puhnaty and Campbell Dixon 

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Listen to the Book

Eliot Treichel is the author of the YA novel A Series of Small Maneuvers and the story collection Close Is Fine, which received the Wisconsin Library Association Literary Award. His writing and photography have appeared in a variety of publications, including Canoe & Kayak, BULL, Narrative, Beloit Fiction Journal, CutBank, and Passages North. He’s been awarded a Fishtrap Writing Fellowship, as well as two residency fellowships at PLAYA. He thinks riding bikes uphill is fun, sandwiches are better with potato chips, and that no one should go to bed without a cookie. His only dance move is the moonwalk. He cannot parallel park. Originally from Northern Wisconsin, he now lives in Oregon.

 

Q: You’ve lived in Oregon for the past several years. Was there anything that initially drew you there?

A: From Wisconsin, I ended up in Oregon after going to college in Arizona and living there for a while. Whitewater kayaking has been a pretty big part of my life since about the age of eighteen, I was working as a whitewater kayaker when I was nineteen. The reason I sort of ended up in Oregon is because there are a lot of really great rivers there for kayaking and you can paddle year round. I was also considering going to graduate school at the University of Oregon to get my MFA in fiction, moved to Eugene, applied to the program there but didn’t get in.

 

Q: Why did you start writing YA literature?

A: So I was bringing home all of these young adult novels for my daughter and most of them had this recurring narrative where it was boy saves girl and I just got really sick of that so I wanted to write a story where a girl saves herself, but that probably came second. I was leading a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon on this four day trip; we hiked four miles to get into camp and another couple miles to get our water. It was physically demanding for our whole group of college students and even me as the leader. I have a little bit of a fear of heights and on this trail there are some spots where you look off the edge and I would get vertigo. On the third day, we were hiking down to refill our water and ran into this family: mom, dad, and two little girls, six and ten. The youngest one was crying and had this little dirty stuffed animal, and something about that image got stuck in my craw. I started thinking a lot about, you know, what if these kids were on their own—how would they get out of it? One part of me thought these parents were amazing and cool for taking these kids out on this wilderness experience, and the other part thought oh my god, these parents are cruel. I was conflicted. That’s when I first started writing the book. I knew I wanted to have a girl in the forest and I wanted to kill the father off immediately and then make the girl get out of the situation right away. A trope of YA is dead parents. One of the other things was that there was a news story where the senator of Oregon’s kid was on a field trip for school or the Boy Scouts and he was climbing up on a log, and fell and died. I was really sort of intrigued by this idea of how quickly your life can change, so maybe that’s why I killed off the dad so quickly.

 

Q: What was your writing process like?

A: For this particular book (A Series of Small Maneuvers), it started off as a book for National Novel Writing Month. I had just done the backpacking trip. It was the beginning of November. I had been working on my short story collection for a while—ten years or something like that, so it totally made sense to try and write a novel in a month. I got like 10,000 words, put it aside, and finished my short story collection. I needed to keep working on something so I brought the novel back, wrote about a draft, and I was lucky enough to get a residency in Kalama which is, like, remote, eastern Oregon. So I had a cabin for a month, no cell phone reception really, no Internet connection—it’s out in the Oregon desert. That’s where I wrote the first real draft of the book, and partly that was to mirror Emma’s experience of being out there and away from home. And I brought drafts home, just kept revising and revising, a couple times I would rent a house on the Oregon coast and write from day to night. It was pretty cool—it can make you a little bit nutty, but my process usually is just moving through a series of drafts and trying to make them better and better. Both books deal with rivers in certain ways. In A Series of Small Maneuvers it’s pretty obvious. In the short story collection it’s set in northern Wisconsin and it’s not really a story cycle because there are different characters in each story, though there are some things that connect them all. There’s a river that’s in every story and there’s a tavern that’s sort of in every story. Rivers and place are always big themes.  My first book is about Wisconsin, where I lived. The second book is about the desert Southwest where I lived. The next book is going to be about Oregon, where I’m living now. So I need to move soon.

 

Q: Did you grow up around a lot of rivers?

A: Yeah, there was a river right at the end of my street.  I would go there and tromp through the woods or go fishing.

 

Q: Is the relationship that Emma, the main character of A Series of Small Maneuvers, has with her father based off any of your relationships, or any relationships that you observed?

A: It’s partly based on the relationship my daughter and I share, and off my dad’s and my relationship, or off my friend’s and their parents, and part of it is made up. There’s this idea of loops that complicate and I think it is a much more interesting story if we see this dad who is on the one hand really wonderful, and on the other hand not that great. That feels authentic to me. I love my own dad and he is wonderful in many ways, but then in other ways he is a total asshole. I didn’t realize this until I became a parent, but parenting is really hard.

 

Q: What made you want to stagger the chronology in A Series of Small Maneuvers?

A: There are two ways to start a story. One is that we start at the beginning of the story and work towards the dead body. The other is start with the dead body and work towards figuring out what happened. It’s not really a mystery if the dead body comes up at the end, but every mystery starts out with the dead body. I wanted to play around with that structure so I put the dead body up front. Part of young adult fiction is that you have to keep the reader turning the pages. I also wanted to play with narrative structure in some ways. I think you have more leadway in a novel to play around with time and switching points of view. It’s good to have a concept but it’s really important to be willing to let that concept go at some point and realize that the book wants to be its own thing. Make sure you listen to the book.

 

Q: Did you have any hesitation about writing the book from the point of view of a teenage girl?

A: Part of my decision was that my short story collection is full of guy stories.” Every story is about a dude who has made terrible decisions and is trying to make up for them in some way. I wanted to move away from that for my next book. There were concerns about not coming off as some guy writing a story about who a girl should be. I wanted to make sure it was authentic, and I struggled with that at times, but it didn’t feel weird. The very first story I ever wrote was from the point of view of a girl. I think the teenage aspect was more challenging than boy versus girl.

 

Q: Were you ever considering that more teenage girls read YA novels than boys as a factor in the narrator you chose?

A: Some studies have said that girls will read stories about girls or boys, and boys will usually only read stories about boys. That’s part of the reason I wanted to play with the adventure trope. Gary Paulsen’s books got me into reading so I wanted to write a book that would reach who I was as a young reader, but was a girl story.

 

Q: What advice would you give to young writers?

A: No one is born a writer, or born not a writer.  Anyone can do it—it’s just a matter of practicing. For whatever reason you want to write, whether it’s personal or you want it to be published, it doesn’t matter because being a writer is a wonderful thing. Keep writing and ignore your critics. A lot of people will tell you, “You can’t do this,” but if it’s what you want to do, keep fighting and keep writing. Something that was really helpful to me was being a reader on a literary journal, reading the slush pile submissions. You end up reading people who are at your level. Published books have no mistakes; they’ve been edited out, but when you read manuscripts for a literary journal, you will learn to see the mistakes in their work as an editor and then you can see the same mistakes in your own writing.

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Rewriting History With Jane Wong

Jane Wong holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a former U.S. Fulbright Fellow and Kundiman Fellow. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Squaw Valley, and the Fine Arts Work Center. The recipient of The American Poetry Review’s 2016 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize, Wong’s poems have appeared in journals such as Pleiades, The Volta, Third Coast, and the anthologies Best American Poetry 2015 (Scribner), Best New Poets 2012 (The University of Virginia Press) and The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press). Her chapbooks include: Dendrochronology (dancing girl press), Kudzu Does Not Stop (Organic Weapon Arts), and Impossible Map (Fact-Simile). She is the author of OVERPOUR (Action Books). Currently, she is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pacific Lutheran University.

Parallax Editors Emily Clarke and Kalista Puhnaty sat down with Jane Wong to discuss her upcoming projects and her writerly insight.

Q: How would you describe the impact your life has on your poetry and vice versa?

A: That’s a really good question. I think that you can’t really separate them— well, for me, I can’t separate my life and my poetry, I suppose. My own experiences definitely impact what I write about, but I also feel like writing poetry impacts my life, too. I think it’s easier to think one affects the other. I grew up in a restaurant in Jersey with immigrant parents and I tend to reference that a lot. So that’s impacted my poetry, but poetry also impacts my own well-being in a certain way. It’s not necessarily therapy but it calms me down to where I can actually write about the world around me. It helps me answer some big questions in the world, too. But mostly, poetry impacts my life in very surprising ways, sometimes when I least expect it.

Q: Your book, Overpour,  just came out, can you tell us a little about that and if you have any other upcoming projects?

A: Yeah, so, my book did just come out and it took about four years to write (and a couple years for it to be in the process of submission and printing) so to me it feels like a very old project, even though it just came out. I feel weirdly distanced from it. So I have been writing a lot, and I’m headed back to prose in a way. I just wrote this essay that is coming out in an anthology soon. It’s about growing up in a restaurant because that was a huge part of my life and I’ve never written any poems about it. There’s something about writing in prose that’s allowing me to have a more concrete description, so right now, the essay is written as a cheat sheet for other restaurant babies.

Q: In your TED Talk, “Going Toward the Ghost,” you mentioned the phrase, “rewriting history.” Can you tell us more about that and what it means for your writing?

A: Rewriting history is really important to me. There’s that desire to push back, to say, “you’re giving me this kind of version of the story and my responsibility as a poet is to raise up or reimagine the stories of my family that have never been told.” That has to do with major historical events that are totally glossed over in America in particular. I’m writing about the Great Leap Forward, which is this huge famine that happened in China and affected my family, but I didn’t learn about it until I was in college. I wouldn’t have ever known, so I guess that’s how I feel. There is a responsibility in terms of being a poet. I think a poet basically brings forth the stories that are often overlooked, and raises those big questions about who we are and how we’re related to each other in very blunt ways. I think that helps more than just scrolling through the news.

Q: Speaking of the Great Leap Forward, in which tens of millions of people died due to famine,  were you pressured to write about China’s history before you learned about that event?

A: I wasn’t, and it’s funny–those histories are forgotten, and I was looking for them. I was looking for something to tether myself to, because I felt so American; I felt so, in many ways, Chinese-American. Our families are such huge parts of our lives and I didn’t know a large part of their history, so I went looking for it in many ways. That said, I think that since I am an Asian-American writer, there was a pressure placed on me as a younger writer to write about themes that maybe were “expected.” Things like assimilation or mother-daughter relationships. At first I was just really annoyed by it, like, why do people want me to write about this one thing, and now I think of it as something that you have a choice in. And if you choose to do it, then you actually are rewriting history and building a community of people who are maybe addressing the same topic in different ways. I think my worry is that people don’t think it’s being addressed in different ways, but it is.

Q: As an accomplished poet, what advice would you give to young writers?

A: I think for young writers, the biggest thing that I would say is don’t underestimate yourself. You are on par with the writers you read and who are published. I think when you analyze a book in class, your work is at that level, too, and you should read and analyze it with the same exact intensity. Writing is not an easy career choice. You are going to get rejected a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I think for young writers, again, the most important thing is to never underestimate yourself. If someone says no to your work, it doesn’t mean anything. If you’re confident in your work, that’s all that can take you forward. I’m filled sometimes with indignance when someone thinks that I can’t do it or can’t make it happen— it even pushes me further. Even the phrasing of, “I’m an accomplished writer,” is silly to me, because of course I’m confident in my work, but I’m constantly emerging: you should always be a new writer every single day. You haven’t quite gotten to where you want to go. Enjoy the process of always trying to rethink yourself as a writer. I write a lot. I’ll just say that writer’s block doesn’t exist. To me, it doesn’t exist. It’s a myth.

Q: What do you want people to take away from your poetry?

A: What I want them to take away is that we should pay closer attention to the world around us. From the bee that’s dying in the grass, to your grandpa’s history that you never knew about, to Black Lives Matter. Just pay attention to everything; think about how it’s all interconnected. Somebody wrote about my book, it’s the quote on the back of the book, that the poems or the images or the narratives are seemingly disparate, but yet they are somehow interwoven together. I think that’s a takeaway. Nothing exists in a vacuum in this world. We’re all interconnected, and that’s the biggest takeaway. The title of my book is Overpour. It really means that you’re overwhelmed by a lot of things, and it’s okay to be overwhelmed by the fact that everything is interconnected, because it is, but it shouldn’t exist in a cave of sorts. Take a look at the world around us: see how we’re all connected in both beautiful and troubling ways.

Q: What is your writing process like?

A: I think all writers have a different process. For me it’s having a notebook full of images that I just run across during the day. I am not a writer who begins with a blank page because it gives me anxiety, I don’t like having a theme I want to write about. I don’t like having ideas of, “So, I’m going to write this poem about x, y, z.” I have a notebook full of lines I’ve collected across my week, my day, and I’ll grab ten at random. Then I’ll type them up on the page and I’ll play Bridge Builder or Jenga or something like that. I’ll move lines around, and I’ll add lines around them, and guess what? Whatever I was thinking about, my big life question, the theme, gets infused in those lines. It seems like poetry is exactly what I just mentioned; connecting pieces together. So, that’s my process. It sounds kind of silly, but, it’s very tangible. That’s why I don’t have writer’s block. I don’t want to just sit and watch that cursor blink at me on the word doc, I just want to have stuff that I can use. Revision is a big part of my life too, I write ten images down, and a majority of those lines are gonna be cut. I just recycle them into a word doc I call my “compost doc,” so if I’m not using them, they don’t disappear into the world, I recycle them back into the compost and I’ll use them for something else. I believe in the quality of all of my lines, but not in certain poems.

Q: Where do you draw the most inspiration from?

A: Definitely my mom and my family. Mostly because my mom is kind of wacky–she grew up very differently than I did, and she’s just a very strong, powerful woman. I draw a lot of inspiration from power; what happens when you’re powerless or when you have power.  I feel like that would define my mother because she was in an arranged marriage when she was nineteen, and came here, and had to figure out what to do next. I think a lot about her, and I sometimes write in her voice. Sometimes I’m not myself in my poems, and that to me is inspiration; stepping outside of yourself. You are no longer the speaker and that inspires me: risk, trying something new. The natural world inspires me, but I like to redefine it. We’re sitting in such a beautiful space, with the sun filtering through the trees, and I can draw so much inspiration from that. But, that raccoon eating my bag of Doritos in Seattle is also nature, and I want to draw inspiration from that, too. All of the nature in the world is inspirational, not just the kind we immediately think is beautiful.

Watch Jane’s TED Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjTjhU0gHZA

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A Conversation with David Wright

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.

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