Two Poems by Mollie Schofer

2wice

So I’m looking at you and you seem like the kind of person that likes to do things twice. Your eyelashes furl like a shivering sundew–no, Sundew. Your Sundews furl then unfurl and catch only the flies low on serendipity, serendipitous–serendipitously they fly higher and higher, out of the reach of the sSundews feeding on the serendipidless.

 

There is a third kind of heartbeat, you know. It sounds like a terciopelo’s warning: do not sink your calves into my teeth. Unfortunately, people neither listen to terciopelos nor heartbeats. Only the hollow inhales of veins and fingers, and the subsequent feelings of vivacity.

 

So you turn to look at me, with those sunSundews. You turn to look at me and I see, through the curtainous coverings of your corneas (those capitalizing congregates of copious concealment), your reciprocals of light and not darkness. Your reciprocals of light and not darkness ask me: how do you feel about velvet. And I reply: it’s soft. And they say: thread some through your ears and let the rasps of rasping scales hide your heartbeat. So I threaded some velvet through my ears and let the rasps of rasping scales hide my heartbeat. But to my astonishment, the scales didn’t rasp one bit. They sounded like cotton, and I knew they were imposters. I must get them out, I must! So I ran to the water and dunked my head in. It soothed the rancid itches in my ears. It soothed the rancid itches in my head and throat and pupils.

 

My eyes filled with water and it backwashed through my tear ducts, and I was clean. Resurfacing, the velvet in my ears turned to seeds and I shook them out and I was free. Running, the water left my body and sweated down my cheeks and thighs and I was

empty.

Breathing, the beats in my heart rattled around my diaphragm and tendons and I was

full.

Stretching, the teeth in my calves fell into the mud and the core of the earth and I was

alone.

 

Honestly, it was energizing.

 

So you’re looking at me and I seem like the kind of person that comes out on top: clean, free, empty, full, alone, energized. But empty and full cancel each other out, and so do free and alone, and energy is null unless you have strength, so I’m just clean.

So you’re looking at me and I’m looking at you and we really don’t see each other at all,

do we?

No, I think we’re both wrong, in the end.

 

2 Much Toad

 

When I die, my body will be warm for just a few seconds

In that time, an old toad will lay her eggs in my mouth

And they will hatch into tadpoles

                and tadpoles

Which will swim in my saliva

And live off of the bacteria on my teeth

 

And reproduce, as toads do.

Generations will never know of a world without teeth, or esophaguses.

They will pass down the stories: first there was tongue, then there was wet

              Always tongue first, then wet.

After religion, they will create art

And paint the insides of my cheeks with the juice of the spinach stuck in my teeth

Soon, everything will be green.

 

Everything will be green, everything will be soft and salivating

They will write on my cheeks with spinach script:

               Don’t be such a stickinthemud

They are of course referring to me, their god

However it is inevitable that one young tadpole will get bored and curious

And stare into the depths of that cavern that always stares back

And dive in, down down down

 

It will boil in my stomach acid, but that is what martyrdom entails.

Others will follow, and they will succeed where the first did not

They will colonize my throat, my stomach, my intestines.

 

I will be thoroughly toaded.

And they will smile, and write on the lining of my gut:

               Tomorrow will be even better

And they will forget

That everything must end eventually

And they will be warm for just a few short seconds.

 

 

 

Mollie Schofer is a young writer from Southern California. Their poetry was most recently published in Inkblot Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, and Orange Cat Review. They are currently a student of creative writing at Orange County School of the Arts.

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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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Adultolescence: A Money Grab for a Social Media-Crazed Generation

Gabbie Hanna, Adultolescence, $16.99, ISBN 978-5011-7832-0

Adultolescence by Gabbie Hanna is a playful and childish book of poetry, paired with Hanna’s own simple and beautiful artwork. It explores the mentality and struggles of the new adult generation, as well as the influence of social media on mental health and real life relationships.

The book depicts grueling subjects such as breakups, the struggle to find oneself, and even depression and suicide. However, despite the subjects, Adultolescence remains sarcastic and immature. The childishness of Hanna’s poetry has its charm, and follows the newly developed “Twitter-speak” form of poetry which derives its language and audience from the short, cynical style of the new social-media-crazed population. However, this style does not serve the subject matter in an effective way.

Some of the poems follow a rhyme scheme, yet are too short to fully carry it out. The poem HIDE (15) for example, follows an AA rhyme scheme, and explores the effects of hiding depression and other mental health issues. But this poem is too short to have an important or influential message of any kind. It seems that these subjects, which are common topics among teens and young adults today, are only there for the reader to relate to. In addition to falling short in the linguistic department, the shorter poems deal with heavier topics like mental health issues, even addressing death and the desire to die, or wanting someone else to die; yet the poems seem to trivialize these issues. For example, POUT examines these issues in an immature way, saying, “life sucks. be grateful, you woke up this morning. that’s the worst part.” (8-9) This type of language is often used by teenagers today; they joke about these feelings in conversation in order to mask them, using humor as a coping mechanism, which is not often a positive message for someone to be promoting. These short anecdotes are paralleled by longer poems and anecdotes which seem repetitive and dry, devoid of the sarcasm and wit that is present, albeit misused, in the shorter poems.

The art is interactive, often incorporating the poem into the drawing in one way or another. At times the art pairs well with the pieces, but ultimately does not help readers obtain a meaningful takeaway. Hanna is clearly artistically inclined, as her drawings are impressively detailed, while still sticking to a line art style. The realism of the drawings may take readers by surprise, as the people in them are easily recognisable, and often appear with Gabbie in her YouTube videos. All of these positive traits, however, do not make up for the writing, some of which is worked into the drawings in rather disappointing ways. One example of this is a poem titled “K,” which is an blank page, except for a text bubble with the letter “K” inside and a read receipt underneath.

Adultolescence follows a common thread, which seems to have stemmed from the Milk and Honey phenomenon, and follows the same pattern of good artwork paired with–at best–mediocre writing. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur was one of the highest grossing poetry books of 2017, and was Number Two on Amazon’s Best Seller list. It is widely loved and cited as an aesthetically pleasing and relatable work by many teen readers. That being said, Milk and Honey shows a pop-culture side of poetry, rather than the traditional style which uses beautiful language, and images found in the work of poets like Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. This new and vulgar style is now simply being accepted by readers without much thought, due to its easily interpreted, relatable content.

Adultolescence–along with Milk and Honey–represents a new idea of “money grab” poetry, which stems from social media influencers, and the new Internet-focused generation. These influencers write books in the anecdotal style of Twitter and other word-space-limited social media platforms, and then claim them to be artistic and poetic, when really it is a way for an already well known celebrity to make even more money. People like Gabbie Hanna, who could be considered second tier influencers, and have a smaller audience than other big-name YouTubers, often share their financial situation with their fans and may have a lower income than larger influencers. This somewhat justifies the “easy money” of writing and selling books, as it pulls in readers from a smaller fan base, and expands the writer’s brand.

However, this does not justify the claim of “art.” Adultolescence does not represent what poetry really is to most published poets. The claim of poetry and art should be reserved for beautiful, intelligent, and playful works, and should not be applied to collections of on-trend, relatable, and sarcastic content, which sells more copies than authentic art, due to the popularity of the writer rather than the quality of the work.

By Delany Burk

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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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Sisyphus and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Play opens on Sisyphus standing at the bottom of a hill under azure sky, preparing to roll the stone up to the top of a rather large hill.

Stone (indignantly): Not this again.
Sisyphus: What?
Stone: You rolling me up to the top of this hill. I’m getting rather tired of it. Day in day out it’s all we do,you just roll me up to the top of this hill and I roll back down to the bottom again. And then we do that again. It’s a totally boring story.
Sisyphus: They enjoy it.
Stone: Who enjoys it?
Sisyphus: Them, the reader. The people who are reading this story right now.
Stone: How could they possibly enjoy it? It ends the same way every time. You roll me up to the top of this hill and then I fall down.
Sisyphus (thoughtfully): I think they see it as a sort of triumph of the human spirit sort of thing. I keep rolling you up the hill even though I know you’ll fall down when I get to the top.
Stone: Don’t they know you were forced to do this? You’re doing this as punishment. It’s not like you have another choice.
Sisyphus: Yeah, but despite being punished I still find happiness.
Stone: Who’s making you do this anyway?
Sisyphus: It’s the gods.
Stone: Who are the gods?
Sisyphus: They’re people who live up in the sky except they live forever and have control over humans and the earth.
Stone: I think I understand, but why do they make you roll me up this hill?
Sisyphus: I’m not exactly sure.
Stone (at this point generally confused): I don’t know who these gods are but they
have some explaining to do.

 

Silence echoes up the mountain, it is broken. Here it is, a giant bolt of lightning striking from the sky and appearing out of the darkness the Greek god Zeus. Enter Zeus.

 

Zeus (dressed in armor, bearded, and with a genuinely ironic smile on his face): Good morning Sisyphus. How are you doing today?
Sisyphus (the mere sight of Zeus serving as catalyst for all his fiery blood): Horrible, I’m feeling horrible.
Zeus: And why is that?
Sisyphus: Isn’t it obvious? I have to roll this rock– this large, heavy, fairly unsymmetric rock –up a hill, and I have to do this for eternity. And you’re the one that made me do this. You’re the reason I’m feeling horrible and you’re the reason I’ll be feeling horrible for the rest of time.
Zeus: Well how do you think I feel? I have to watch you.
Sisyphus: What?
Zeus: Yes, that’s my punishment. I am destined to sit at the bottom of this mountain and watch you roll this stone to the top of this hill and then have it roll back down. And isn’t that not much worse?Sisyphus: But you never do anything you just sit there and watch me. Why don’t you just let me free?Zeus: You think I’m pulling the strings up here? You think I get to make all the important decisions, snap my fingers and solve all your problems? I’ve got people I have to answer to.
Sisyphus: But you’re god.
Zeus: You have your gods and I have mine.
Sisyphus: So what you’re saying is there are other gods who control you and who mankind has no idea about.

Zeus: That’s right. I could pray to them if you’d like.

Silence.

Zeus: You know, if you’re really interested in complaining I’d talk to the author.
Sisyphus: What author?
Zeus: The author of the play we’re in right now. He’s the one who really has it out for you.


Enter the author, a telegenic young man with the look of brilliance about him. It should become clear 
to the reader right now that this author guy is an absolute genius worthy of the highest honor and praise.

 

Author: Oh, goodness. I’ve never been in one of my own stories before, what an absolute delight. Tell me did that description make me sound fat? It made me sound fat, didn’t it? I’ve ruined it. Let me try again, it’s alright. I’ll just jump out and jump right back in, it’ll only take a second.

 

The author disappears. Suddenly the author, a man extraordinary in both intellect and physique,reappears on the scene hoping that this time his entrance will better convey his general appearance.

 

Author: Hmmmm. Seems a little bit dull, doesn’t it? It lacks a theatrical touch, yes it does…this will not do as my introduction. Let me try, just one more time, I’m sure this one will be fantastic.

 

The author disappears to try his introduction yet again, a gag which must be appearing increasingly cliche to the reader, the author apologizes. He means well. With no further ado, the author appears once again, ready to finish this brilliant little play.

 

Author: That was the worst one yet. I simply must give it — interrupted.
Sisyphus (frustrated and in a loud voice): Stop it.Author: I’m terribly sorry, it’s just you only get one chance at a first impression.

Sisyphus: Exactly.

 

The characters feeling slightly awkward about the presence of the author are all silent.

 

Author: So why am I here again?
Sisyphus: I have it on good authority that you’re the one who’s making me roll this stone up the hill for eternity.
Author: Well, yes. I suppose.
Sisyphus (furious): What is the matter with you? Eternity? Are you mad?
Author: I thought the reader would be inspired by you, a sort of triumph of the human spirit sort of thing.
Stone: I told you.
Sisyphus: But eternity? Can’t I just die, can’t you just kill me? Why must I live for eternity?
Author: Live for eternity or die for eternity. There’s no way around it.
Sisyphus: Let me die for eternity.
Author (slowly working up a frustration himself): You know if you don’t stop complaining I’ll make you roll that stone up the hill for two eternities.
Sisyphus: That doesn’t even make sense.
Author: Doesn’t make what?
Sisyphus: That doesn’t make-
Author: Oh, sense. That makes sense.
Sisyphus: That makes what?
Author: Sense.
Sisyphus: Sense?

Author: It’s a common word. You should get out more.

 

Silence. Again.

 

Sisyphus: I still don’t understand why you need to make me continue rolling a stone up a hill. Are you a sadist or something?
Author: I’m not a sadist, I’m just an author. Answer not satisfying Sisyphus, the author restarts.You think it’s up to me? Why, I’ve got people I need to impress, people I need to please with this story.I need to impress committees, I need to get into a college with this for god’s sake. If I let you off, with say, 100 years of rolling a stone up a hill, then people are going to be absolutely furious. They’re going to whine about how it’s unrealistic, about how they feel cheated and then all that hate is going to comedown on me. There are going to be organized protesters and nasty letters and it’s just not something I’m prepared to deal with. It’s much better for you to suffer your entirely fictional life for me so that I can happily live mine.
Sisyphus: So, in other words, you have your gods too?

Author: Hundreds.

 

The characters at this point all stop and share a very brief moment. Notice how I said that the characters all stop and not the people all stop. That’s because, as the reader has undoubtedly forgotten by this point, the characters are not real people and are merely a projection of the author’s imagination. These characters, like you and me and all real people, could be at any moment pummeled, hanged, squashed, shot, crucified, buried, or otherwise knocked out of life.

 

Sisyphus: You and I, we are not so different.
Author: No, in fact we are exactly the same.
Sisyphus: Indeed, could you not, for my (or rather your) sake create another Sisyphus to roll the stone up the hill in my place.
Author: Sorry, but no. There would be little to no precedent for that. It would shock people.
Sisyphus: Bah. Aren’t you good for anything?
Author: Am I?
Sisyphus: Are you?
Author: Who, me?
Sisyphus: I don’t know I asked you.
Author: Asked me what?
Sisyphus: I asked, are you?
Author: Am I what?
Sisyphus: I don’t know.
Zeus: Who?
Author: You know Sisyphus, sometimes I feel we struggle to communicate.

Sisyphus: What?

 

At this point a silence descends over our mighty cast of characters and they reach what seems to be a profound and lasting understanding.

Sisyphus (breaking the quite lengthy silence)So now what?

 

Author: Back to you rolling that stone up the hill for the rest of time, that’s what this is all about after all.
Stone: I thought it was more about you writing a play so that you could gain all this respect and admiration. You probably think you’re pretty clever referencing yourself all the time, you probably think this is how you’re going to get your respect and admiration. You probably think that if you keep doing this the audience is going to view the author as an actual character and forget who you are. You’re not fooling me author, you’re in control of everything here. Everybody listen the author is a fake character who should not be trusted.
Author: No, I’m not. I’m a real character. Look at me I’m in the play.Stone: Only because you wrote yourself into the play.
Author: I’ll write you out of the play if you keep mouthing off to me, I am your author for Zeus’ sake. I control you at this very moment.
Stone: Screw you. I’ll talk about whatever I want.

Author: That’s it, you’re out.

 

With a snap of his fingers and the explosion of some yellow and decidedly metaphysical smoke, the stone ceases to exist.

 

Sisyphus (alarmed)What was that all about?
Author: What?
Sisyphus: You just made him disappear.
Author: I could make all of you disappear, I’m the author.
Zeus (a cool annoyance playing upon his face): This play makes no sense at all, you should stick to whatever else you’re good at and leave us alone.
Author: I’m not good at anything else.
Stone: You’re not particularly good at this either.

Author: How’d you get back in here?

 

With another finger snap the stone is once again gone.

Author (
frustrated at the defiance of his characters, viewing this incident as a rebellion against a
Zeus: I agree with Sisyphus, by making your work more plot based you could appeal to a much larger, much less Existentialist population.
Sisyphus (after a short pause, now scratching his chin): Also it seems you have a habit repeating the same things over and over again. For example, you have already used the word ‘clever’ six times, in this short play. Also you’re often quite redundant.
Zeus: A pattern of tautology as well if I’m not mistaken.
Sisyphus: Indeed.
Author: Stop saying that. Stop criticizing me.
Sisyphus: But you’re the author, you’re making us say these things.
Author: That is true, my self-deprecating sense of humor has always been a large flaw of mine. I’d say my self-deprecation is the main reason why I have not and never will amount to anything and the reason why I feel I need to assert absolute and total control over fictional characters.
Sisyphus: Wait, so let me get this straight, you have complete control over us?
Author: That’s right.
Sisyphus: You can make us do whatever you want?
Author: Bingo.
Sisyphus: So I don’t really have any free will?
Author: I made you say that. I’m picking whatever you say, next you’ll complain about how this is all horribly unfair.
Sisyphus: This is all horribly unfair.
Author: God, Sisyphus you complain a lot. I should have chosen a more likable main character, this little story would sell a lot better.
Sisyphus: You would complain too if you had to roll a stone up a hill for eternity and then to add insult to injury a dumb little author appeared every once in awhile to make things awful for you. Can you imagine how hard it is for me?
Author: Nobody cares about your little sob story.
Sisyphus: Are you kidding me? I have to roll this stone up for a hill for eternity.
Author: Yeah, we get it. You’ve already complained about this stone thing.
Sisyphus: For eternity, do you have any idea how long that is going to take? By the time I’m finished I’m gonna be all old and gray and decrepit. Pauses. How long is eternity anyway?
Author: Well, let me think…….(mumbles under his breath, does the math in his head) divide by three, carry the one…..
Zeus: It is quite simple to prove that not all infinities are of equal size. Cantorian diagonalization can be used to prove that since infinities lack bijection-
Author (still mumbling, doing math in his enormous head): Multiply by the square root of 2 …..add two pi over five….
Zeus (continuing on): — and some sets can naturally be mapped onto larger sets (ie the set of square numbers onto the set of positive integers). Therefore it is impossible to say how large your infinity is.
Author: 127 years. Infinity is equal to 127 years. I have proved it.
Sisyphus: Well that’s not so bad. I feel I have an infinity or two yet in these limbs.
Author: Good thing, you never can know how many infinities I’ll make you work through.
Sisyphus: I’d rather live through an infinity of infinities than spend another second with you.
Author: You know you’re really starting to piss me off.
Sisyphus: What are you going to do write me out of the story? The story doesn’t make any sense without me.

Author: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

 

The author, a man of infinite wit and perfect judgement, writes out Sisyphus. Sisyphus has ceased to exist.

 

Author: Jesus Christ, I work every goddamn day writing these tiny little characters. I give them their own little minds and their own little thoughts and what do they do? They turn on me. The little bastards. Why did I choose to write when I could have gone and become a policeman or a soldier or some other easy job?
Zeus: So I guess it’s just you and me.

Author: Screw you.

 

The author begins to write out the character Zeus when he is interrupted-

 

Author’s conscience: Are you sure this is wise? If you write out Zeus it will just be you alone in this story and that’s not particularly interesting, is it?

Author: Screw you too.

 

Author proceeds to write out both Zeus and his own conscience. There is a profound emptiness, a silence, as the author realizes that he is all alone in this universe and that without the illusions created by his own mind that he is truly a pirate in a sea of cosmic emptiness.

 

Author (lonely, smiling): So much for pathos.

 

So much for pathos.

 

Ted Baas is a student at Holland Christian High School. His interests include reading and writing.
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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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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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An Interview With Matthew Salesses

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.

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An Interview With Carrie Murphy

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

 

Carrie Murphy Q&A

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Q: What is “Dirt City Collective?”

 

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

 

Q: So why do you like writing?

 

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

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A Conversation with Kelly Luce

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.

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