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.
It’ll bubble up,
And smashed against the cafe floor,
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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
Q: What was the process of writing a novel in flash fiction like? How does it compare to writing a traditionally styled novel?
A: I was writing the book, a flash fiction book, as a kind of side project next to writing The Hundred Year Flood. I had been working on The Hundred Year Flood for seven years at that point, and it just seemed interminable–I had to do something that was going to end soon. I had been asked to contribute one flash story to a series of flash fiction posts on a website called jmww, so I sent a first chapter as a stand alone. When I was getting tired of the The Hundred Year Flood, and had to write something else, I had to think about what I had to work on, and remembered that first chapter was unfinished. I started writing more one page stories with the same character. When I had about twenty, I started sending them out in chunks. One magazine asked for twenty of them. The original twenty had already been accepted so I just wrote twenty more and sent them those. Then I had forty. Then my publisher asked for a novel. So I had 40 of those chapters and they asked me to write 120 of those chapters for them to look at. I wrote another 100 for them.
Q: Did that affect your sense of narrative?
A: Yes. Because each one of them was a standalone, you could take any one of them out, and hopefully they could stand as a small story. I had enough movement in each of them. And when I was going back and trying to figure out how they’d fit into a larger narrative, I started looking at how those movements added up to a greater movement. I spread them out on the floor. My daughter was a baby at the time and would want to walk all over them, so my wife had her go up into a separate room. I was moving around the stories by hand.
Q: Was the revision process more difficult because each piece is a stand alone, but still only one part of an entire story line?
A: I would write one every morning when I got to work, and was doing so by looking at my surroundings. I’d find a single object, write it into the stories (so that I had something to kind of anchor the piece), and then I would spend the night revising it. The thing about them being so short, is that you can do them quickly. I was basically doing one a day, everyday. And when I sold the book, I had to look at them as a whole so I could find a bigger arc to the story. I just repeated too much. I was explaining things multiple times for the sake of the story’s arc. I didn’t need all those. I cleaned language for just the book itself.
Q: Do you usually use objects or metaphors as the basis for your characters?
A: No, not usually. I like to set myself little challenges. When I was doing a flash story, I was thinking, can I do this all in one paragraph stories based off of everyday objects? I don’t usually do that.
Q: Do you find that challenges make for a better story?
A: I don’t know what is better, but I think taking a challenge is more interesting. I think if you think of writers who write basically the same thing over and over again, it doesn’t seem that fun.
Q: Did you use aspects of your own life to help the storyline of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just saying develop? Is any of it nonfiction?
A: Almost none of it is nonfiction. What I did use was the fact that my daughter was so young and I had a fear of how she would grow up, but I think pretty much everything else was all made up. I was using my fears in a kind of ‘what if’ situation. Like what if your kid shows up one day, and they’ve been formed by your absence. For me, parenting is a lot about how your child comes out perfect, and then you try very hard not to screw her up. There is this sense that there’s a point where she will get screwed up and how do you help that?
Q: Many of your flash fiction pieces are very poetic. What determined which pieces leaned more towards prose poetry than flash fiction? Did it depend on what part of the storyline the piece was focused on?
A: I think of them all as mostly fiction. They could all be prose poetry I suppose. I wasn’t trying to make some more poetic than others, although there was the list that might be more prosaic. What probably makes them seem more poetic is that they’re operating on the same level of sentence, and that’s what I was trying to do with all of them, to have the plot happening in each sentence, one that starts in place and goes until the end of it.
Q: Why did you call it I’m Not Saying, I’m Just saying?
A: I thought it was funny. I had that title as one of pieces. It makes me think of this story “Dogs I Have Known,” which is all centered around dogs. Each section is about a different dog that the narrator has known in his life, and one section that anchors the piece and is about dogs in general. Dogs don’t have anything to say except “I have things I need to say!” Maybe that’s what I was thinking about. That the narrator didn’t have anything to say except to say something. There’s a lot stuff built in around that.
Q: Why did you choose to only use nicknames like, “the wifely woman” instead of real names?
A: I wanted to be really close to the narrator’s head, but also I think that the length or the brevity really means that you have to characterize people more quickly, and names don’t do that much characterization work. They do a little, but I feel like the name of the relation does a lot more. Like “mother” does a lot more for the relationship than “Joan.” Mother plays on archetypes. So the ‘wifely woman” is kind of playing on what a wife is and cultural conceptions. The narrator is trying to think of the boy as a son; it didn’t seem right to call him the son.
Q: Do you find that your voice resembles the style used in I’m Not Saying I’m Just Saying, as well as other pieces? Or did you particularly develop the voice for the narrator in I’m Not Saying I’m Just Saying? (Do you vary your style?)
A: Yeah I do, I think it’s very good for me to change it up. I also think it’s harder, like right now I’m working on a novel with a very different voice. A very disaffected narrator. The novel itself is a lot about voice, so I feel like I need a lot of time developing it before I can work on the book. It requires a lot headspace, which I don’t really have right now. Which is why I keep throwing pages out.
Q: Would you classify yourself based off of your voice or based off of your content?
A: I don’t know. I think the content is more consistent. There’s a lot about parenting, adoption, race, masculinity. I think that’s usually how I’m characterized.
Q: When and why did you start writing?
A: I wrote a book about the sting ray who wanted to find the shine of his teeth in elementary school. My teacher, who was a great teacher, said that I didn’t write description well. I still don’t write description well. But it was always something that stuck with me, something for me to be like “I’ll show you.” I think she knew what to say to me. Why did I become a writer? In part I think it’s kind of the same as what I often write about. What is one way of learning to be who you are in a world that doesn’t value that? Writing has been a large part of that for me.
Q: How does your culture affect your writing?
A: I’m often writing characters who are very far from accepting who they are, whether or not they even know who they are. And that’s an experience that seems very close to mine. I get this feeling that the great American arc is denial. It’s this person who refuses to accept whatever is the truth and that’s an experience that resonates very strongly with me and my history.
What themes did you plan to explore before you started writing, and which ones cropped up naturally?
The themes in the collection curate themselves. A story collection is difficult to put together in the same way as a you would novel, because you want everything to feel connected while still being distinctive stories. When I started the collection, I didn’t know it was a collection, so I wasn’t purposefully trying to explore any specific themes, as you would with a book. I was just writing a ton of stories at the time, trying to see if I could succeed at it. I noticed that a lot of the stories took place in Japan, so I started putting my writing energy into that setting, where I lived and worked for three years. Something about my distance from Japan, for about four years at that point, allowed me see my experience there as an expat, or a foreigner living in a new place. Culturally, it was super interesting to learn about the food and mythology, but it was overwhelming to process while I was there, so the distance helped me refine it.
A few people I knew died during the period while I worked, so themes of loss and grief naturally appeared in the collection. I also wrote stories during the period that had nothing to do with Japan, that the editors found not to fit. Curation is more of an editorial process. Publishers will take your pile of stories and order them, or take pieces out that don’t seem to flow with the others.
What do you think are the most important aspects of Japan in your writing?
The experience of being an outsider is very interesting to me. I grew up in a very homogeneous place. Everyone in my high school was white like me, and I never had too much experience with diversity. My years living in Japan really allowed me to experience the opposite of that.
But Japan itself is still a very homogeneous place. They have a saying: the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. In America, we really pride ourselves for standing, but in Japan, it’s the opposite. There, you just fit in, otherwise, you’re out. A lot of Japanese friends I met talked about the pressure of fitting in, and I thought that was a really interesting aspect of character. It was a fertile place for me to imagine the different battles a character would come up against in Japan.
How has your degree in cognitive science influenced your writing?
There are topics in the field that led to major topics in my writing, because I learned a lot about how memory functions. It’s not that different from writing fiction because both fields ask questions about humanity. Fiction is about creating, while cognitive science is an experiment in creation, which is a part of how emotion functions in the brain. They both come at human truth from opposite ways, but it’s the stuff in the middle draws me to both. The things like the amorameter, that measures love, are super fun to write about. That device seems crazy but people are researching it for real.
I’m actually crappy at science. I ran this experiment about music emotions and memory, and I fudged my data and changed it to tell a better story. Maybe that’s a better way of approaching fiction.
When did you start writing? What was your first professional opportunity as a writer?
Since I was a kid, I wrote stories. I loved reading, so I wanted to create something just as powerful. For my 11th birthday I wanted a typewriter, and since then, I’ve written a number of books.
I had written for fun in my twenties and decided to send some stories to magazines for publication. I thought I would get rejected, but 5 months later, one got published in the Gettysburg Review, a story called “Ash,” which is in the new collection.
What advice would you give to young writers?
Read a shit ton! Read widely, and read stuff that you might not like: non fiction, or about cognitive science, or music, or history. The wider your net, the more material you have to draw from when you go to write your own.
Always carry a notebook and train yourself to write every day, even if it’s just a few lines.
Practice noticing what people say and the sounds you hear: usually great lines can relate to some great story. Become a trained observer of life.
Don’t worry about publishing yet. It shouldn’t be your only goal, because it takes so long.
Now that we have so many websites for publishing young writers, there are a lot more opportunities, but don’t get suckered into paying contest fees!
If you send it anywhere, revise it 10 more times than you think you need to. It always feels great to be done, but what seems done to you, an editor will think is not quite there yet.
That’s the hardest lesson I had to learn; don’t send work out too early. An editor won’t read it ever again.
It happens in screenshots
Next is the reaching
Stretch until you can’t reach anymore
Awaiting the sound you have always listened for
Then you hear it
And you jump
As far as you possibly can
And straighten out-
You are in the air for seconds
But you have enough time to think,
What happens when I hit the water?
Then it happens before you decide on an answer
Then it’s silent-
The only thing you have
Is the air in your lungs,
Your arms stretched above you,
And the bubbles of course.
And you know that when you break the surface
The air is your only ally.
Calli Hilvitz is a senior at Peak to Peak Charter School where she is currently working on poetry in her Literature and Composition Class.
Art by Audrey Carver.
J. Robert Lennon is the author of Pieces for the Left Hand. He lives in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches at Cornell university.
Although his book Pieces for the Left Hand is fiction, the journalistic tone makes it read as nonfiction. In one hundred anecdotes, the narrator walks us through life in a small town in upstate New York, revealing the unsettling and strange in everyday life: questioning memory through a boy’s false recollection of his father’s chopped-off fingers, measuring loneliness by a deceased mother’s collection of teabags, exploring the bizarre tragedy of students trapped in a water pipe. Through these anecdotes inspired by the fictional narrator’s daily walks through town, Lennon adds an eerie yet philosophical layer to the flatness of everyday life. Parallax staff members Linnea Zagaeski and Evan Lytle discussed the writing life over email with Lennon.
Why did you choose the story “Lefties” to base your title off of? Are you yourself left handed?
Why did you write the introduction in third person? What effect did you want it to have?
Are some of these entries directly from a personal journal or diary, or based on true stories encountered personally or through friends? If so, what was the process of developing them into fictional anecdotes like? Are any of the anecdotes nonfiction?
Walking is introduced as part of the narrator’s writing process in the introduction to Pieces for the Left Hand. There is a long history of writers who found walking integral to their creative process (Thoreau, Wordsworth, Joyce, Woolf, Stein, etc.), and recent studies reveal the benefits of walking for one’s creativity. What kind of role did walking play in your creative process as you worked on Pieces for the Left Hand? Did you always see walking as integral to this narrator’s storytelling, or did you develop that idea after you had already started writing the anecdotes?
What kind of relationship do you want your reader to have with the narrator?
Did you want to raise certain questions with this work? If so, what kind of questions? What questions were raised for you either while writing or when you went back through the collection?
How many drafts did you go through on average for each anecdote?
Did you have any more anecdotes that you cut out during the editing process? Why did you decide to organize them into the seven sections that appear in the book?
He, a practiced piper
Poked holes in my windpipe
Teased notes of seduction
From this homemade flute
Caught you with a butterfly net
Weaved from my hair
And locked you in my ribcage
The bone splinters keep you
Check the back alley dumpster
His drivethrough graveyard
Take his leftovers
Am his leftovers
Give him my skull
So he’ll stop asking for head
He never looks down anyways
Wrap yourself in my hide
To mask your scent
Between subway rides
And under park benches
When he asks for your tongue
And he will ask for your tongue
Cut out mine
Keep yours locked behind
Teeth stained yellow and red
Empty my stomach of the acid
Forced down my throat
Swallowed by bruised lips
Fashion a drawstring pouch
Tie it shut with braided ligaments
In case he catches up
Pull the pins out of my ovaries
Don’t forget to throw
Before they explode
Into ovum shrapnel
That scared him more than me
Bind his wrists with my small intestine
After the explosion
Set fire to the kindling that was my hair
Carve the fat from my chest
Marinate it in the remnants
Of my menstrual blood
And make him swallow
By Emily Boyle
Emily Boyle lives in Beaver Island, Michigan, and attends Interlochen Arts Academy as a senior.
Art by Jules Ventre