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Interview with MR Sheffield, Author of Marvels

Marvels by MR Sheffield

Sundress Publications editorial intern Jenna Geisinger sat down to talk with Sundress author MR Sheffield, author of the new release, Marvels, about the ways the book practically wrote itself.

Jenna Geisinger: In your collection, Marvels,  you frame each section with a found poem from H.D. Northrop’s copy of Marvels of Natural History. How did you come across this copy?

MR Sheffield: We have several bookcases full of books A lot of them I purchased, but many were given to us. Marvels of Natural History is one such book. I actually just noticed it on my bookshelf one evening and was immediately enthralled.

JG: What inspired you to incorporate his poems into your collection?

MR: His descriptions aren’t really poetry. It’s a book of illustrations and information on animals. The kind you give to kids. You know, before the internet. Anyway, some of his descriptions are so strange and out of date. Like the double-fish entry—it’s just bizarre. And, I don’t know, it seemed like this stuff wanted to be poetry.

JG: The found poems are descriptions of different animals, which you repurpose in the rest of the poems of the section to apply to a mother/daughter relationship, creating really lovely extended metaphors. How did you make the connection between these “marvels of natural history” and Gladys and her mother? What struck you about animal characteristics applied to humans?

MR: Thank you. The extended metaphors grew out of the book itself—I can’t take credit for that. But, we tend to draw such a thick, black line between ourselves and animals, when really (and as everyone suspects, but perhaps denies) we’re all just animals. “Just.” It seemed to me that HD got to kind of go on this wonderful adventure describing these animals. I imagined the mother doing that—being this grand, world explorer who loves her daughter but will not sacrifice for her.

JG: Gladys and her mother communicate through various forms: telephone/voicemail, letter, and fax. Why did you choose to defy the time period?

MR: I thought it would be funny. It also seems to me that, although we have these new forms of communication (social media being a primary form more and more), we’re still saying the same awkward things. That is whether, through a conversation, a fax, a text message, or a comment on Instagram, we are preoccupied with the same old thing—the human condition.

JG: Your collection explores the themes of grief and abandonment within a family. Why did you choose to show both Gladys and her mother’s perspective, as opposed to just one?

MR: I don’t like the idea of one person dominating the conversation. It’s important to consider other perspectives. I thought bringing in Gladys would do this.

JG: What inspired you to make Northrop a love interest of Gladys? How do you think it adds to the larger arc?

MR: I’m not sure—that just kind of happened. I was so focused on him, and I wanted a reason for his presence.

JG: In your bio, it is noted that this is your first collection. What was your approach to tackling a work of this magnitude?

MR: I just wrote it, haha. At the time I was taking a writing workshop with Nick Flynn. He had us do freewriting exercises every evening. Those exercises became this book. This might sound stupid, but it kind of wrote itself.

JG: If you were to write another collection, would you change your approach?

MR: For sure, I want to try many different types of writing. I have a few other manuscripts of prose poetry and fiction. Right now, I’m working on a novel. It is definitely not writing itself, haha.

JG: What are you reading currently?

MR: Honestly? I’m reading a self-help book called Stop Obsessing. I’m not sure whether or not it’s helping.

MR Sheffield’s book, Marvels, is available for sale here.


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MR Sheffield’s work has been published in Black Warrior ReviewHayden’s Ferry ReviewThe Florida Review, and other publications. This is her first book.

 

 

 

More of Sheffield’s work can be found here:

2017 Black Warrior Review Spring/Summer Edition 

2016 Hayden’s Ferry Review Spring/Summer Edition

37.1 2012 The Florida Review

Marvels at Sundress (pre-order)

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Jenna Geisinger is a fiction and creative non-fiction writer from New Jersey. She attends the MFA Professional and Creative Writing Program at William Paterson University, while working as an associate managing editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal and a reader for Philadelphia Stories, where she has been previously published.

 

 

 

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Cait Weiss Orcutt Reads Natalie Shapero

 

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Cait and I met a few years ago. I was a prospective MFA candidate at the Ohio State University, and she was a current graduate student. While I didn’t end up attending OSU, I stayed in touch with Cait. In this interview, we talk about how the playfulness in Natalie Shapero’s poems is at once particular to the poet’s sense of humor and inviting to her readers. We talk also about lists in poems, and about life in universities. I was really happy to have this opportunity to reconnect with Cait, and to read a poem of hers I didn’t know, which is printed at the end of this interview. Thanks for joining us!

 

 

Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Hard Child” by Natalie Shapero

Jessica Hudgins: OK so to start I’ve got to say that I was nervous when I saw you’d chosen to read Natalie Shapero, and then relieved and surprised when I heard your recordings. I think I thought that, because her sense of humor is such an important part of her poems, she would have to be the person reading them. Did you think about this while you were recording these? I haven’t been nervous with poems by May Swenson, even though her poems are interested in sound, or with an elegy by Philip Levine. Why would I think that poems with jokes seem more private, or more limited to the person who “told” them, than other poems?

Cait Weiss Orcutt: I am in awe of Natalie Shapero’s aura—and when I say “aura,” I mean “aura” as Walter Benjamin envisions it: an essence, a near-otherworldly power rooted in sharing space with something sublime. Natalie’s readings live in the sweet spot between stand-up comedy and performance poetry, and hardly anyone in the audience wants to breathe lest they break the magic. What Natalie as a living force brings to the page and stage is impossible to recreate. So, yes, now that you mention it, choosing to read her poems was a bold move. But life is for living and so here we are.

            As I see it, when you ask about joking in poetry, you’re at least in part asking, “What makes a poem private?” That’s a fascinating question to me. I love that you’re connecting that sense of privacy with a sense of humor, since our senses of humor are so finely calibrated, so minutely shaped and sharpened by the way we grew up, whom we listen to now, how we choose (or don’t choose) to understand the world. I love poems with a sense of humor—not only for the chance to laugh but also because, to me, the best poems are the ones in which I get to see a mind at work. Someone can have a feeling, write it down and then, years later, a whole other human can pick up those words, read them, and have a similar feeling. I was raised atheist and maintain a crystal-embracing agnosticism, but even as a semi-skeptic, I see poetry’s ability to replicate feelings across bodies over time and space as god-like. What is divine if not unfettered connection?

            So again, what poems are private? What feelings are? The right words in the right order will out anything you have tucked away inside. Poetry allows one’s isolated privacies to become a shared public on the page—what is more magical than that?

Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Not Horses” by Natalie Shapero

JH: I really appreciate the, like, negative/positive attitude in these poems. The line in “Not Horses” that goes, “Everybody’s/busy, so distraught they forget to kill me,/and even that won’t keep me alive,” is the best example, but also how, in “What Will She Go As,” the past in which an infant may have died turns into a present where the same child is okay. What drew you to these poems? Why did you choose to read this group in particular?

CWO:  As much as I am a reader and a writer, I am also a teacher, working with students at the University of Houston, at HISD high schools, charter middle schools, art museums, the Jewish Community Center and the Salvation Army (for senior citizens and homeless young adults, respectively), local arts non profits and, every now again, community board meetings looking to try something new. Having taught every age from six years old to ninety, I need lessons that will open any reader up to the possibilities and play poetry offers.

            “Not Horses” is one of my favorite poems to bring into a workshop. The speaker aligns themselves with “a bug that lives only one day” and the “little dog / who sees poorly at night and menaces stumps.” Who cannot relate to these creatures, lost but lovable, broken but brave all the same? I believe poetry exists to make living easier, or at least to make living a lot more interesting. I want my students to see how poems offer a framework for survival, like the speaker’s voice coming out of the poem to our ears, small bumbling pets that we are, saying “don’t be afraid— / our whole world is dead and so can do you no harm.” Only perhaps not quite as morbid. A poem, just in existing, in telling its story or conjuring its associations, says: “You will survive this like I did. You are not alone.”

            As for “What Will She Go As,” ambivalence around childbirth will always catch my attention. This specific poem does so much: 1. anticipates a baby’s arrival; 2. mocks society’s consumerist, gendered obsessions; 3. references the most famous baby kidnaping crime with tinges of pro-Fascism around its edges; 4. hints at the future absence of the baby in a defiantly daring way that surprises anyone familiar with miscarriages, stillbirths and infant mortality. This poem takes the topic of Halloween Costumes and launches off into a multitude of conflicting feelings, connections, threats, promises and resentments. What better way to welcome a baby into a world than with a poem that rockets around the human experience with such wit and vinegar?

JH: In these poems there are lists of traditions, of costumes, and of terrible things that might happen on any given day. These lists are really entertaining moments in the poems, because each item in the list surprises us with how obviously it belongs, even while it’s unlikely for the poet to have chosen that exact thing. Do you use lists in your poems? How do you see Natalie Shapero’s work influencing your own?

CWO: I have always enjoyed a good list, how the tension mounts in a poem as items are added, how one can sense a specificity beginning to show itself out of the block of marble that is Language with each new addition to the chain.

            Right now I’m working on a series of poems that, in short, bring women back from the dead. When I started writing these poems, I didn’t set out to make them especially baroque, but as I put them together, I realized that, in each one, I’d layered detail upon detail to build environments both shimmeringly beyond the veil and earthy enough for someone who’s seen it all—these survivors step out of lush green glades, move through in-patient rehabs painted infinite shades of pink, skate on Roller Derby teams populated with defiant femme-punned names. List after list appeared in these new poems, always shadowed by the lists of those murdered through partner violence, gender violence, transphobia, homophobia, patriarchal white supremacy. Lists are powerful incantations. Sometimes I wonder if all poems (or at least all lineated poems) aren’t in some way lists—every line giving new solutions to the same overarching problem, different routes to a single destination.

            In terms of Natalie’s work’s influence on me, I have been trying to crawl inside Hard Child ever since I finished my book VALLEYSPEAK, a first-person collection of poems built around a coming-of-age storyline. After VALEYSPEAK, I was searching for ways to write beyond my own family mythos. I admire how Natalie is able to create tension, stakes, personality and (inside, outside, borderline) jokes without actually giving us all that much about her personal life, past issues, or childhood history. Her poems create warmth and inclusion beyond or at least beside the autobiographical narrative mode. Natalie’s work, to me, achieves that perfect balance between the poet casually saying “This wild thing happened, let me tell you about it” and the reader noticing, “Damn, that’s a masterly poem.”

Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “What Will She Go As” by Natalie Shapero

JH: You both attended Ohio State University’s MFA program — did your time there overlap? And you’re in a PHD program now. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences in universities?

CWO:  Even though we’re about the same age, I wasn’t at OSU until a few years after Natalie graduated. She was still living in Columbus, though, and taught an afternoon intensive poetry workshop one day my first year there. I think the world of her as a human, a writer and a reader.

            Not to be too infomercial about it, but The Ohio State University’s MFA changed my life. I learned to think of myself as poet, a teacher and a member of the literary community. I met mentors that changed my understanding of poems and peers whose books I will be buying and reading for the rest of my life. I also wrote a thesis that eventually became my first book and met my husband, so I really have few complaints.

            Right now, I’m in the middle of my third year at University of Houston, and again, I’m amazed by the compassion and intelligence of my cohort.

            Still, I would be amiss to omit a few caveats. Universities are deeply flawed in how they allocate funds, how they alter (or don’t alter) curriculum requirements, how they treat adjuncts and Graduate Teaching Assistants, how they devalue, minimalize or wholly deny the experiences of BIPOC and non-male students, faculty and employees. The school I am currently at is forced to allow (hidden) guns in the classroom under Texas’s “Concealed Carry” state law. OSU had its problems too.  All universities do.

            Ultimately I am grateful to be given the opportunity to study, write and teach with a university’s backing and a brilliant, engaging set of colleagues. I value my students and deeply respect how hard they work to balance their family responsibilities, their jobs, their health, and their studies all in fairly uncertain times. I love and admire my professors for the time and care they pour into us. And, as a member of the university myself, I hope to help instigate change where we’re not quite living up to our potential yet.

JH: I feel like we can’t ignore the moment in “Not Horses” where a pet dog appears. Have you ever included a pet in a poem? If so, can we please end with an excerpt?

CWO:  In fact, I have! I just finished a draft of a poem about my cats and poor love choices, and a few years ago I wrote an ode to the two black pugs I grew up with back in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley in the 1990s. The cat poem is still stretching its limbs, but the pug poem, “Ode to the Small Black” was published by The Chattahoochee Review, Volume 36.I. Here is a reprint:

ODE TO THE SMALL BLACK

                                                                        pugs huddled by heating vents. California cold, no one believes it who hasn’t lived here. Temperature is relative, so the family forages scarves & sweaters, mittens, earmuffs. The daughters unbury beanies, but the mother craves the cool wind, lets it caresses her ears, scalp, neck. The family’s pugs cuddle each other, wait for the youngest daughter to slip & spill her sausage on floorboards. She does. She always does. Little creatures, they can’t translate the tantrum that comes after the fall, just the sausage sliding between 4 or 5 snaggled pug teeth. A pet’s joy is a pure joy, a joy more autonomous animals cannot reach. A grandmother visits, calls them bloated ticks. O, everyone has a trash & a treasure. When summer comes, the 2 will gorge themselves on loquat fruit, sweet tumbled meat, but now, they sleep. Dark dog orbs lodged near air ducts. A paradise of squat life: heat, meat & curling up beside another’s feet.


Cait Weiss Orcutt’s work has appeared in Boston ReviewChautauquaFIELD, and more. Her poems have been nominated for Best of the Net, a Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets. Her manuscript VALLEYSPEAK (Zone 3, 2017) won Zone 3 Press’ First Book Award, judged by Douglas Kearney. Cait has an MFA from The Ohio State and is currently getting her Ph.D. in Poetry from the University of Houston. She teaches creative writing at University of Houston, Grackle and Grackle, Inprint, WITS, the Salvation Army, the Menil Collection, and the Jewish Community Center. She is the graduate advisor for Glass Mountain literary magazine and the recipient of an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor/MD Anderson Foundation Fellowship.

Further Reading: 

Read Cait Weiss Orcutt’s poem “Frontier” at the Boston Review
Read Cait Weiss Orcutt’s poem “To the Loch Ness” at Hobart
Megan J. Artlett reviews Valleyspeak at the American Literary Review
Purchase Valleyspeak at Small Press Distribution

Natalie Shapero is the author of two poetry collections. The first, No Object (Saturnalia 2013), received the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and the second, Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press 2017), was shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize. Shapero has earned degrees from Johns Hopkins University, Ohio State University, and the University of Chicago. She is the Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University, and an editor at large of the Kenyon Review. Her awards include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Kenyon Review Fellowship.

Further Reading:

Natalie Shapero at Poetry Society of America’s “In Their Own Words” series
Natalie Shapero reading “Stars” at Dollhouse #23
Three poems in Pinwheel 
Purchase Hard Child at Copper Canyon Press


Jessica Hudgins is a writer and teacher currently living in Georgia.

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Interview with Charlie Bondhus, Author of Divining Bones (Sundress Publications 2018)

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Valerie Lick: Divining Bones looks at Baba Yaga in an entirely new way — she’s magical yet earthy, ancient yet modern, invisible yet doing porn. There’s also the narrator’s connection with her, which threads through the book. What does Baba Yaga mean for the narrator and for the book as a whole? And how did you come to the idea of using her as a character?

Charlie Bondhus: I prefer not to specify what Baba Yaga means in this book because I think that’s something the reader should come to on their own. I can say that in folklore she’s either a helper or an antagonist. Depending on who you are and what story you’re in, she may give you the tools you need to succeed in your quest—generally after you’ve completed some impossible task for her—or she may eat you. The narrator of Divining Bones is on a personal quest. Does she help him, consume him, or both?

I discuss what Baba Yaga means to me and how I came to use her as a character in a short article that was published recently on Patheos. Quick version–I was inspired by beer, Alanis Morissette, and a desperate need for emotional healing.

VL: Children run, skip, and curse their way through Divining Bones. The speaker first experiments with the occult as a child, Baba Yaga longs for the taste of children, and the speaker wonders about having children. How did you choose to focus on children and aging?

CB: I didn’t go in thinking I’d write so much about children, but I found that if you write about Baba Yaga, you have to write about children. She is, after all, a bogeywoman, the wicked witch in the fairy tale. And children are always closely linked to fairy tales, both as characters and audience members.

As for aging, we tend to only think of children and the elderly as opposites. Yet as a Pagan I’ve come to believe that the soul continually cycles through birth, life, death, and rebirth. For me then, children and the elderly stand at a similar distance from the Underworld. Age is commonly associated with wisdom (fairly or not) and children are often characterized as being more open to the supernatural. I think it’s interesting to explore these seldom looked at similarities.

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VL: While writing Divining Bones, you clearly took inspiration from fairy tales, the occult, and classic concepts like the Panopticon. Why do you feel drawn to these sources? Are there any other works you were inspired by?

CB: Like a lot of queer kids, I loved fairy tales and mythology. I was also very curious about magick and witchcraft from a young age. Growing up in a Catholic home both stymied and exacerbated that interest. There’s lot of wizardry in Catholic ritual and lots of magick in the Catholic mindset, yet you’re also taught that anything which doesn’t come from the Christian God necessarily comes from the devil. I “dabbled,” as they say, when I was in high school, but I never got seriously invested in witchcraft or Paganism because I was too worried about eternal damnation.

And yet, I always kept a Pagan altar in my home through college and my 20s. I didn’t use it, but I always felt compelled to keep it. It wasn’t until my mid-30s, when I went through an emotional crisis, that I fully embraced Paganism. Writing this book was, of course, part of that process.

As for the Panopticon, you can thank grad school! Everybody in a humanities Ph.D. reads Foucault it seems.

VL: In this book, you confront identity at many different corners — queerness, gender, age, family — especially through the theme of transformation. How did you tackle identity as you wrote?

CB: Right now, people are asking a lot of questions about the nature of identity. Gender is particularly contested. Around the time I started Divining Bones, I was questioning my own gender identity. I understood myself as male, yet not. Genderqueer sort of fit. I liked to say “I occupy the Male metropolitan area.” I was witnessing my concept of my own gender transform and enjoying it immensely.

At the same time, I was experiencing other, less thrilling transformations. I was coming to terms with memories of abuse that I’d minimized for years and how they were affecting my health in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I was watching Donald Trump win the GOP nomination and claim power.

I dealt with all this by writing a book that’s about transformation. And queerness. And creating yourself. Right now it’s common to say we exist at the intersection of multiple identities—our age, our race, our gender, etc. To think about all the different ways we inhabit that intersection takes work. That’s where art can come in.

VL: This being your third published book, have you noticed any changes to your writing style or your writing process?

CB: I’m more okay with letting the poem take over when it needs to. I’ve also learned that my impulse is almost always to tell stories. Divining Bones, my last book All the Heat We Could Carry, and the two projects I’m working on now all have narrative arcs, some more implicit, some more explicit. Yet at the same time they’re very different projects.

When I’m feeling self-indulgent I compare myself to David Bowie, writing a bunch of concept albums that are radically different yet still recognizable as my work. It’s totally self-indulgent…but who doesn’t want to be David Bowie?

VL: What are you reading right now?

CB: There are a lot of great new poetry books recently out. Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s Strut—which is from Agape!—for one. Robert Siek’s We Go Seasonal and Stephen Mills’s Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution, both from Sibling Rivalry Press. I’m also reading When the Clock Struck in 1916 by Darren Kelly and Derek Molyneux, which is a dramatized retelling of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. I identify very strongly with the Irish part of my heritage and want to connect more with it. And I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. She talks about Frankenstein—one of my favorite novels—and the Antarctic—a place I’d love to visit—so it’s a great read.

You can pre-order your copy of Charlie Bondhus’s Divining Bones today at the Sundress store!

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Charlie Bondhus’s second poetry book All the Heat We Could Carry won the 2014 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. His work has appeared in Poetry, The Missouri Review, Columbia Journal, Hayden’s Ferry, The Bellevue Literary Review, and Copper Nickel. He has received fellowships from the Sundress Academy for the Arts, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Hawthornden International Writers’ Retreat in Scotland . He’s Assistant Professor of English at Raritan Valley Community College and poetry editor at the Good Men Project. He lives in Asbury Park, NJ.

Valerie Lick, the artist currently known as Val, loves those tall, weedy plants that are kind of like daisies except the blooms are really small. She can be found looking mean and studying literature at the University of Tennessee, where she is a rising junior. She thinks that there should be more intersections between science fiction, Appalachian folklore, and fashion journalism.

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Interview with Danielle Sellers, Author of The Minor Territories (Sundress Publications 2018)

Jessica Hudgins, an editorial intern for Sundress Publications, asked writer Danielle Sellers about her 2018 poetry collection The Minor Territories. It is available for sale here.

Jessica Hudgins: In the first half of this book especially, we get the sense of something happening that can’t be stopped, even though we wish it could be. Later on, that’s not so much of an issue; it’s done. When, if it’s not too much of ask, were you writing these poems? Did they guide you out of a bad situation as it was happening, or did they help you understand what had happened, afterwards?

Danielle Sellers: I began some of the poems in the first section of the book while still a graduate student at the University of Mississippi over a decade ago. They’ve gone through many revisions over the course of the years. Many are rather new, like “The Germany Poems,” looking back, and trying to make sense of who I was then and why I stayed. That’s the central question women who are abused are asked: Why did you stay so long? The answer is never simple, and I’m not sure it can ever really be answered to anyone’s satisfaction.

JH: “Memorial Day” is an interesting poem because it uses the context of a patriotic holiday to remember the awful things that this veteran has done to the speaker. Then, your next poem, “Civil,” remembers the same person as capable of tenderness. This is done for “our daughter’s sake.” Yet, the poem still ends on the line, “While I was pregnant, he sometimes rubbed my feet,” which of course is ironic, but still, to my ear, has some regret in it. We hear that regret later in the collection, too. As a poet who is not a parent, but who might want to be, I’m curious about the relationship that parenting has to the truth, or at least to honesty, as compared to the relationship that poetry has to it. I think this might be related to my first question.

DS: I’ve heard many people say it’s important to never badmouth a parent. This is very good advice, but is it still advisable when that parent has done unspeakable things? At what point do we stop protecting monsters and call them out? Monsters don’t deserve our protection. They should be rooted out; their crimes should be announced. That being said, people have many different sides to them. They aren’t just one way all the time. This is what women who are abused struggle with. If their partners were always monsters, it would be easy to leave. Monsters can be angels, too. Perhaps it isn’t the monsters of which we should be afraid, it’s the angels.

JH: We both studied at the Writing Seminars. “Late Inventory” reminds me of a prompt that Greg Williamson would assign, to write a portrait using only metaphor. Is this where the poem originated? What was your experience at the Writing Seminars like, and in an MFA program in general? You teach now – can you tell us a prompt you’re especially proud of, and assign as often as you can?

DS: I loved my time at Johns Hopkins, and several of the poems in the second section were inspired by my time there, but none of them were written while I was a graduate student there. “Late Inventory” is inspired by Dorianne Laux’s “Face Poem” which appears in her collection, Facts About the Moon.

Imitation is a tool I sometimes use when I’m stuck, and is an assignment I give to my creative writing students faithfully. I love to see how a form can be changed with new words. It is often one of the most successful poems my students write because they give themselves permission to use syntax and punctuation they might not ordinarily use.

 


JH: This book has incredible scope. Between poems we might jump decades. How long were you working on The Minor Territories? It comes eight years after your first collection. How did these books take form during the writing of individual poems?

DS: Well, my first collection was largely written pre-baby, as it was my graduate MFA thesis for the University of Mississippi. Being a working single parent takes a toll on your writing life. I worked on the poems in The Minor Territories for about ten years, often submitting it as a collection to contests before it was ready. I really credit the poet Carrie Fountain, with whom I worked as a mentee from a generous scholarship from Gemini Ink, for helping to shape the collection in its current form. Carrie told me to drop twenty poems and write twenty new ones, which I did over the course of about 6 months. It was a tall order, but the collection was much better for it. Sundress accepted it not long after that.

JH: You shift, in the last third of the book, from thinking about your relationship with your ex-husband, to your relationship with your daughter, your daughter’s relationship with her father, and, briefly, your relationship with your mother. What are you interested in writing about now?

DS: For the last few years, I’ve been working on a series of historical poems born out of ancestry research. There are pirates and Cherokee Indians, Bahamian spongers and shell-mongers, West Tennessee farmers, unnamed women who know only hard work and childbirth. It is endlessly fascinating to me. I’m having fun with it.

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Danielle Sellers is the author of two poetry collections: Bone Key Elegies (Main Street Rag, 2009) and The Minor Territories (Sundress Publications, 2018). Her work also appears in many journals and anthologies. When not teaching at Trinity Valley School in Texas, she can often be found writing or cooking.

Jessica Hudgins is a writer currently living in Mansfield, Georgia.

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Interview with Rodney Gomez, Author of Citizens of the Mausoleum

 

Sundress Publications: The first poem in this collection begins with a quote from the Los Angeles Times, and several later poems also draw from newspaper articles. How did you make this decision? How do you see your work as a poet connected to, and interacting with, the work of a journalist?

Rodney Gomez: Well I think that poetry can and should serve as witness, especially for marginalized communities. I believe it’s a powerful way to document narratives that might otherwise go untold. So some of what you see in the book with reference to news articles is an attempt at preservation of some narratives that might not otherwise survive, or even be told at all. I don’t see this work as similar to journalism, however, because I am creating the story. I am not really telling the story. On the contrary, I am telling a story—the one that the poet hears and is then inscribing on the page. I can’t replicate, but only propagate, the narrative. Therefore, I felt that with these poems there was a need to point the reader to the actual news. In another sense, by drawing from news stories I am doing a very basic job—giving the reader some context that might be helpful to understand what is going on in the poem. In some cases, understanding might be necessary (“Checkpoint Aubade”). In others (“Zuihitsu of the Mesquite Virgin”) it’s helpful but not essential. I am indebted to other writers who uncover new realities. These shape my consciousness, and the poems themselves are also forms of gratitude. I see this relationship as parallel to an ekphrastic one, where another work of art serves as the impetus for my own poem-making.

SP: Your poem “Love” is so funny because it has this perfect twist at the end. It’s also notable because it’s a one-sentence, two-page monologue. Can you say a little about your process writing it?

RG: So “Love” actually arrived in the world pretty full-formed. There are autobiographical elements in it and the part about my friend and his girlfriend stem from an actual conversation, and so the style of the poem mimics that. It started off with a lot of conceptual leap-frogging and refusals to stop the freewheeling of imagination. I tried to focus the theme in subsequent drafts but I wanted to let the speaker’s point of view roam freely. It’s a bit neurotic, too, and I wanted to give the sense that you are hearing a monologue spoken on a therapist’s couch, but there’s a lot of room for empathy there.

 

SP: I feel like, in my own writing, I tend to do the same thing over and over again: the speaker’s voice is always my own voice, and I am usually writing about relationships. I can’t tell if this is just who I am, and that I should accept it, or if I need to push myself to experiment more. Reading through this collection, I’m so struck by the variety in form and tone. Is this something that comes naturally to you? My question is mostly one of admiration: how do you do it??

RG: Well I don’t like to be bored. I like surprises. I like to be delighted. I read so many collections that seem to operate exactly how you describe your own writing—the same voice, the same concerns, and the same way of telling the same stories or discovering the same concepts. So part of the reason for the variety in the book is a willingness to have fun. I have no allegiance to a particular conceptual framework or theoretical approach, so each poem starts anew.

On the other hand, I think development of a singular voice is not easy, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing that your writing has a unity of voice. The voice you hear may be your own, or it may not. I would only consider the situation problematic if there were some lack of authenticity there. Is there something missing? Some people never find their voice, and this may be what you see going on in the collection. Maybe there are many voices because I haven’t found a voice. I might want to say that. Or I might want to say, instead, that I’ve developed a better ear for how a poem wants to develop than I had when I first seriously started writing poetry. So variety may be a consequence of developing the ear, or empathy. And the empathy is directed toward the poem—its concerns, its speakers, and its language.

SP: You have another book, Baedeker from the Persistent Refuge, coming out next year. Congratulations! Are you working on a new project now?

RG: Thank you. So yes, Baedeker will be out in February, I think, from YesYes. That’s the plan. That collection is about identity and the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It’s a much more place-based book, a book about subverting conventions when it comes to Chicanxdad. I am working seriously on a third book right now, too, which is roughly based on the way we react to and make sense of acts of violence. It’s a horrible book in that it is depressing to write and really drains me, but I think it’s a book it is necessary for me to write. At this moment I am working on the one of centers of the book, a series of poems based on the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which is a series of dollhouse dioramas created by Frances Glessner Lee to assist criminal investigators in their training. The scenes are ghastly — for example, one of them shows a bloody crib with a trail of blood leading out to the hallway from a child’s room. That book is a sister collection to Citizens and you can see some of the same concerns already in the first book. I’m not sure, ultimately, what kind of conceptual orientation the new collection will have. I only know that I have a rough operating theme and have certain contours of it in mind.

Citizens of the Mausoleum is available for sale at the Sundress store.

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Rodney Gomez is the author of Citizens of the Mausoleum (Sundress Publications, 2018), Baedeker from the Persistent Refuge (YesYes Books, 2019), and several chapbooks. He is the recipient of the Drinking Gourd Prize from Northwestern University and the Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize. His work appears in Poetry, Poetry Northwest, North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, Blackbird, Pleiades, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Verse Daily, and other journals and anthologies. A proud member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop and the Chocholichex writing collective, he is also an editor at Latino Book Review and works at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

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Laura Villareal Interviews With Steven Sanchez About Debut Full-Length Collection

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Laura Villareal: I love the way Phantom Tongue weaves together religion, family, queerness, memory, and a complicated relationship with Mexican culture. With so many thematic strands, what was your approach to putting this manuscript together?

Steven Sanchez: In the beginning, I focused on writing into my obsessions rather than on creating a book—each poem was more important to me than figuring out how any particular poem might fit in with what I already wrote. My poems kept returning to the same themes and images, and my mentor Corrinne (Connie) Clegg Hales said that I should trust my subconscious, that there’s probably a reason why I kept obsessing over these particular topics. When it was time to put my thesis together, I printed all my poems out and started tracking what the main threads seemed to be and had a hard time separating them from each other.

My very first draft of Phantom Tongue had three sections. Connie asked me why I decided to use sections, and I didn’t really have a reason, other than it felt like a book should have sections. She said she didn’t really see a need for sections in this collection and I agreed with her. Then a couple of years later, I wrote more poems, replaced older poems, and tried out sections again—it was actually accepted by Sundress as a sectioned book. Sara Henning, my editor, actually brought up similar concerns about my sectioning and I re-read through Phantom Tongue and decided that the sections needed to go.

At first, I organized my poems based on their topics, but that felt too neat and sterile—I didn’t want a book that had a section of Queer poems, a section of family poems, a section of love poems, and a section of poems about language and internalized racism because those categories aren’t exclusive to each other—these categories, I realized, actually inform each other.

“On the Seventh Day” seemed like the best choice to open Phantom Tongue because a lot of the themes in the book appear in it. Next, I read that poem followed by several potential second poems in the collection until one seemed to fit, then I read that second poem followed by several third poem options, then the third followed by several fourth poem options, and repeated this process until I had a tentative order for the whole collection. (I ended up with dozens of different organizational possibilities to choose from.) The whole process reminded me of when I used to play Guitar Hero—you see the rows and rows of buttons coming towards you on the screen, but you just have to focus on playing the row of buttons closest to you. Eventually, the closest row disappears, then you can focus on the next row, then the next row, until you end up playing an entire song.

 

Laura Villareal: You have two chapbooks, To My Body (Glass Poetry Press, 2016) & Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions, 2017), was the process of putting together those manuscripts different from organizing your full-length?

Steven Sanchez: I feel like I totally approached each chapbook with the Guitar Hero strategy. I definitely couldn’t focus on as many threads in each chapbook, though. For To My Body, I ended up finding all of my poems that relied on body-related imagery. For Photographs, I focused more on poems revolving around memory. Even with those two different organizational focuses, each chapbook still tried to address internalized racism and internalized homophobia, which ended up becoming the backbone of Phantom Tongue.

 

Laura Villareal: While writing Phantom Tongue were there any books that you drew inspiration from? What are some books that you love and recommend?

Steven Sanchez: Two of the books that had a huge influence on me, especially when working on Phantom Tongue, were Rafael Campo’s What the Body Told and Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language.

Campo handles bodies, particularly Queer and brown bodies, with such tenderness and compassion. His book was the first book I’d ever read by a QPOC and it blew me away by showing me the different ways a body is labeled, identified, and understood. It also encouraged me to figure out the stories my own body has told and continues to tell—it empowered me interrogate who shape(d)/(s) my body’s narratives.

Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language lead me to question not just the narratives assigned to bodies, but how language is a dangerous (yet necessary) tool. What’s named can be weaponized. But, what’s named can also give somebody control over their own identity. Dream of a Common Language begins with one of my favorite poems, “Power.” In this poem, the speaker observes that Marie Curie gained her agency through her research on radioactivity. The speaker also observes that her hands-on approach with radioactive materials ultimately killed her. In this poem, power comes from our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable to the subjects that are most difficult to handle. While writing Phantom Tongue, I kept returning to “Power,” and as a result, I still find myself returning to it in newer poems I’ve been working on—I’ve adopted it as my own personal ars poetica.

In addition to these two books, a few more books I absolutely love and continue to learn from are Coal by Audre Lorde, Slow Lightning by Eduardo C.Corral, A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying by Laurie Ann Guerrero, Butterfly Boy by Rigoberto González, Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey, For Want of Water by Sasha Pimentel, My Alexandria by Mark Doty, Goodbye, Flicker by Carmen Giménez Smith, and The Taxidermist’s Cut by Rajiv Mohabir.

Laura Villareal: Something I admire about your writing is how you confront your relationship to Mexican culture. As a Latinx who can’t speak Spanish, I sometimes feel fraudulent or conflicted about my identity. I love the lines “small pigeons flying from her tongue, / carrying rolled R’s like small parcels / I’ve never been able to unwrap” in your poem “Past Tense”. I’m grateful for moments like those in your book. I guess I’m wondering, do you have any advice for confronting identity in poems when the relationship you have to it is complicated?

Steven Sanchez: That makes me really happy that you connected with “Past Tense,” I was really nervous writing that poem, especially because I felt like I was “outing” myself as a Pocho. I’ve been thinking a lot about my Pocho-ness, what it means for me to identify as a Pocho, and how this particular identity fits into larger systems of power. I don’t know if I have any advice, exactly, but I can totally share how I approached writing about my relationship to being Mexican and some of the things I got from that experience.

When I first started writing about my relationship to Mexican culture, one particular mentor was very encouraging. He pushed me to start including more Spanish in my poems, pushed me to start incorporating foods like nopales, tamales, and chorizo in my poems. He would say things like “This is so specific to your particular experiences and it’s great. You’ve really found your stride, keep it up.” And I did for a while, until I found myself writing poems to satisfy his expectations rather than writing poems that I felt genuinely connected to—I realized I was exoticizing myself and my poems to fit in with what he expected Latinx writers to write about.

Ironically, when I started writing about my queerness, he told me to stop letting my sexuality define my work and me.

I started understanding that when I was writing, I was writing with a straight, white audience in mind. I was making a Latino caricature of myself in my poems and downplaying queerness in order to reaffirm what some people think is an “authentic” representation of Latinidad. I think I fell into that trap because in workshop, we often discussed the “accessibility” of a poem, but whenever that word was thrown around, I didn’t comprehend that “accessible” has political implications—accessible for whom? People of color? Queer people? White people? Straight people?

When I started questioning who I wanted to access my poems, I realized I didn’t want to write for an audience who had a litmus test for the “authenticity” of my identities. I felt relieved, in a way, because it opened up a space for me to begin interrogating my own concerns about internalized racism, internalized homophobia, my inability to speak Spanish, and how those all affected me.
If I could give my younger-self advice, I would tell him that nobody has a monopoly over any identity. Not speaking Spanish doesn’t make you any less Latino. Write poems that matter to you. No matter what you write, people will label you whatever they’re going to label you, and that’s no longer your concern.

 

Laura Villareal: You reference religion quite a bit in your book. I feel like often religion and queerness can be at odds. I love where you say “Never forget what the Bible says: / when two people worship together, / they create a church / no matter where they are— ” in “What I Didn’t Tell You.” What’s your connection to religion and how do you feel it’s shaped your writing, if at all?

Steven Sanchez: I grew up as a nondenominational Christian, went to church every Sunday, was a member of a bunch of different Christian youth groups, and made sure to memorize the bible verse we were assigned each week in Sunday school—at one point I had memorized close to 300 verses. The interesting thing about the church I went to is that it was bilingual. The children’s Sunday school was exclusively in English, but the sermon afterwards for the whole church was entirely in Spanish, although the pastor occasionally translated some of his sermon into English. Prayers were almost exclusively in Spanish. That church also explicitly condemned homosexuality and banned open homosexuals from serving the church in any sort of capacity. In high school, I was the president of the Hanford High Christian Club and regularly attended services and youth events.

Needless to say, religion had a monumental impact on me growing up. You mention that Queerness and religion are often at odds, and that was definitely the case in my experience. When I started writing about homophobia, I noticed that religious imagery started creeping in without me even really intending for that to happen. When I started writing about internalized racism, religion also started creeping in. Religious imagery helped me interrogate the aspects of myself I was afraid to look at—as I was writing, it felt like internalized racism, internalized homophobia, and Christianity were inseparable. But, at the same time, I think my way of understanding the sacred is very much informed by Christianity even if I’m no longer Christian. I think, at least in some moments, using religious imagery in the context of Queerness was my way to reclaim and define for myself what is actually sacred.

 

Laura Villareal: The image system of your book is so tight. The visceral language makes it feel intensely intimate and resonate. All poets have linguistic obsessions, what are some of yours?

Steven Sanchez: Wow, thank you! I think one of my biggest linguistic obsessions, both now and when I was writing Phantom Tongue, is using “you.” I love the authority and force that comes from a direct address, especially in rough drafts. When I was writing about things that were particularly difficult, the second person address created a helpful distance between the subject and me. The second person made me feel inclined to write declarative sentences, and those declarative sentences built up my confidence as the draft progressed until, at some point in the poem, I gained enough confidence to trust my language, trust my images, and trust that what I had to say was important. Sometimes, the second person stays even after the initial drafts.

I think another reason I love the second person is because it fits with how I usually (attempt to) enter a poem—instead of thinking of a general audience for the poem, I find it more helpful to imagine that I’m writing the poem to a specific person—the images and language I use become my way of understanding my relationship to that person (and whatever topic that poem is trying to address). That being said, I think I’m particularly obsessed with fire, water, trees, and birds—those images made it easier to interrogate my relationships to some of the “you’s” I was writing to.

Another linguistic obsession I’ve noticed is that I love to list things in groups of three; I think it might be because of the way I was taught to end each prayer—“in the name of the son, father, and holy spirit.” It feels familiar and I get a sense of closure.

 

Laura Villareal: In June you’ll be teaching a month long workshop with Lemon Star Magazine focused on persona and social justice poetry, what made you choose those topics?

Steven Sanchez: I’m super stoked for that workshop! A few years back, Gary Jackson visited my school to read from his awesome book, Missing You, Metropolis—it’s a collection of super villain and super hero persona poems. One of my favorite poems in there is “Magneto Eyes Strange Fruit.” In that poem, the speaker is Magneto (of the X-Men) and he comes across two children who have been lynched on swing set for being mutants. The poem is a powerful response to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and it ends with Magneto imagining how he will destroy the world.

Somebody asked him why he wanted to inhabit the voices of so many villains in his book. He responded by saying that poems, ultimately, are a tool of empathy. When we read poems, we are forced to see ourselves in the speaker. But, nobody wants to see themselves in the face of villains, nobody wants to know the horrible things we are all capable of, nobody wants to see themselves complicit in violence and oppression. I think about that all the time, which is actually what pushed me write “The Gunman” in Phantom Tongue—placing myself in the mindset of Omar Mateen in the moments leading to the Pulse shooting scared me, but by the end of it, I knew I couldn’t have written that poem any other way.

Another poet, Maggie Smith, said something else about persona poems that I’ve been thinking about a lot. She was on an AWP panel in Florida and an audience member asked the question (and I’m roughly paraphrasing), “How do I, as a person with relative privilege, write about racism and the experiences of people who are subject to systemic oppression?” Smith responded by saying that if we’re entering a conversation from a relative place of privilege, why don’t we place ourselves in the poem as the oppressor rather than the oppressed? We have more to gain (and risk) by inhabiting the persona of the oppressor—systemic oppression and violence isn’t just magically inflicted upon marginalized groups, it’s perpetrated by specific individuals and when we refuse to name and identify their role in oppression, we are missing our opportunity to actually learn from and understand systemic oppression in a more nuanced way. (Of course, Maggie Smith conveyed these ideas much more eloquently.)

I wanted to lead a Persona Poetry and Social Justice Workshop because I think Jackson and Smith are both absolutely right: we need to be willing to see ourselves in the villains of the world, because then it will help us understand how each of us, regardless of who we are, are complicit in systemic oppression.

 

Laura Villareal: I know Phantom Tongue is just coming out this month, but are you working on anything new?

Steven Sanchez: I am! It’s actually related to the workshop I’m leading. I’m trying to interrogate my own privilege and the ways I contribute to systemic oppression, even as a QPOC. I’ve attempted some persona poems, I’ve leaned into the “you” a lot, and I’ve been journaling a lot about it. Nothing’s even close to ready, but I feel like these drafts—my new obsessions—are leading me to my next collection.

 

You can order your copy of Phantom Tongue today at the Sundress store!

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Steven Sanchez is the author of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications, 2018), selected by Mark Doty as the winner of Marsh Hawk Press’ Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. A recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo and the Lambda Literary Foundation, his poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Nimrod, Muzzle, Tahoma Literary Review, Crab Creek Review, Glass: a Journal of Poetry, and other publications.

Laura Villareal earned an MFA from Rutgers University-Newark. Her writing has appeared most recently in: The Acentos Review, Freezeray, Reservoir, The Boiler, and elsewhere. She has received scholarships from The Highlights Foundation and Key West Literary Seminar. 

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Interview with Bernard Grant, Author of Fly Back at Me (Sundress 2017)

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Author of two prose chapbooks, Bernard Grant is a doctoral student. In this interview, Bernard talks about the beginnings of Fly Back at Me, good books to read, and his favorite part in the process of writing. You can read Bernard Grant’s e-chapbook, Fly Back at Me, with Sundress here!


Tierney Bailey: The opening words of Fly Back at Me are “A storm is coming.” Bubbling barely under the surface in the collection of stories is a connection between actual, literal storms and the terrible things people perpetually do to hurt each other—beginning with a lie told at a lake and ending with the cycle of sexual abuse in this particular family. Can you tell me just a little bit about how this connection was formed in the process of writing the chapbook?

Bernard Grant: I’d like to, but I can’t. Writing can be such an intuitive process it’s hard to describe how connections are formed. Most I can say is that things happened in revision, after I noticed patterns in earlier drafts, and then followed them.

TB: I know you’ve written about very similar stories to those in Fly Back at Me in your published nonfiction essays, but there’s a certain staccato rhythm in reading the stories of Fly Back at Me and an obvious, deliberate use of wording which would seem to very nearly poetic in nature—what drives you to write these narratives in connected vignettes rather than out-and-out poetry or even a longer, single story?

BG: Thank you for reading my essays. The biggest challenge of writing these stories was the voice. I had never written extensively in a child’s voice, and since all but one of the stories are in first person, I spent a lot of time listening to children speak. I also read some stories from child protagonists, but mostly I read narrative poems while I worked on this manuscript.

I think the short-short form lends itself to poetic language. I’m not a poet, so it never occurred to me to write these as poems. I had intended to write this as a longer story. After about nine pages, the story fell apart. I took a look at my own essays and realized how fragmented they are, how poor my memory is, and realized I couldn’t write a linear story from life. So instead of playing with a different form—like switchback style—I decided to try out flash, and the decision worked in my favor.

TB: Your previous chapbook, Puzzle Pieces, is very similar to Fly Back at Me in that it is composed of stories meant to be sparse of words for the reader to actual consume and strung together to create a whole story. How did the simple act of creating that chapbook influence the writing for Fly Back at Me?

BG: I actually wrote Fly Back at Me before Puzzle Pieces, which was composed of previously published micro essays that I assembled into a manuscript. Fly Back at Me was more difficult as I wasn’t just assembling a manuscript from completed material.

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TB: In “Big,” a moment that filled me with so much dread while I read the chapbook on the train occurs—“[Uncle Walter] pats my butt, squeezes it, keeps his hand there. His callouses are warm and rough.”—but doesn’t come to a “pay off” until the last short story reveals the abuse hiding there in plain sight. Did the chapbook always piece together like this in your head to culminate in the reveal of the abuse or did that happen as you pulled the stories together?

BG: No. Not at all. That came through revision. I see a pattern and I complete it. I think the manuscript was supposed to originally show a year in a child’s life, revolving around the death of his grandmother, his mother’s overprotection, and the anger that fuels his behavior, as seen in the opening story, which is meant to serve as a prelude. A reader commented on the pattern of dangerous men that surround the boy, and it was clear that I needed to follow that. Almost inevitably, I’ll draft a lot of material, and the piece or pieces take their own direction. Revision is my favorite part of the writing process, in part for this reason.

TB: The age old question of process must always come up. Writing every morning, night, or using music or not using music. While writing, what rituals do you perform?

BG: Before I started PhD school, I wrote everyday, usually in the morning, and a little at night if I had the energy. I’m a morning person for the most part. Now I write when I can find the time and energy to do so. A few days a week, I have intense short sessions anywhere from half an hour to an hour. Two hours if I’m lucky.

TB: What was the last really good book you read?

BG: Howard’s End by E.M. Forster.

TB: What would you recommend as a must-read for other writers?

BG: James Baldwin’s Another Country and Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Oh, and Notes from No Man’s land by Eula Biss. Also, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.

TB: Many writers I know always have a huge list of projects they want to eventually produce. What project are you working on next?

BG: I just finished a manuscript of novel-in-stories. I’m currently working on a semi-autobiographical novel (my dissertation) as well as a collection of essays. Over the summer I started playing around with the idea of ghost stories. So far I’ve only drafted two stories. It’s not going well but it’s fun.



Bernard Grant is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is a Yates Fellow. He has received fellowship and residency support from The Anderson Center, the Jack Straw Cultural Center, Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Mineral School.He’s the author of two prose chapbooks, Puzzle Pieces (Paper Nautilus Press) and Fly Back at Me (Sundress Publications), and his stories and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, New Delta Review, The South Carolina Review, The Chicago Tribune Printers Row, Day One, and many other venues. He received his MFA from Pacific Lutheran University and currently serves as Associate Essays Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

Tierney Bailey is a Libra, a lover of science fiction and poetry, and studies Korean in her spare time. Amongst her pursuits, Tierney is currently the production editor at Redivider Magazine and a copyeditor at Strange Horizons. As a graduate student at Emerson College, Tierney is studying publishing in the Writing and Publishing program. True to her Midwesterner roots, Tierney still smiles upon the slightest bit of eye contact, makes small talk in lines and elevators, and exclaims “ope!” with barely any provocation at all. If you can’t find her on a train somewhere between Providence and Boston, she can easily be found screaming into the void on Twitter as @ergotierney.

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An Interview with Ruth Awad

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The Sundress Academy for the Arts‘ 2018 Summer Poetry Writing Retreat will run from Friday, May 25th to Sunday, May 27th. The three-day, two-night camping retreat will be held at SAFTA’s own Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee. All SAFTA retreats focus on generative poetry writing, and this year’s poetry retreat will also include break-out sessions on writing political poetry, writing confession, kicking writer’s block, publishing, and more.

We’re getting excited about our Poetry Retreat this May! Editorial Intern, Anna Moseley, asked Ruth Awad, retreat leader a few questions about creative outlets, confessionalism, and more!

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It seems that between writing, cooking, jewelry, and tattooing, you have a lot of very creative outlets. What about writing has appealed to you more than other creative pursuits?

The satisfaction I derive from writing is different than my other outlets. When I write, I feel for a fleeting second that I’ve glimpsed some tiny, elusive truth. Pinned it down or held it up to the light. That’s not something I get from tattooing or jewelry making, where my aim is namely aesthetic.

In your new book, Set to Music a Wildfire, issues such as war, immigration, and belonging are prominent figures. Did you draw inspiration wholly from your father’s experiences, or have current social issues played a role in the poems? How much of your own experiences have blended with others’ in the retelling of your father’s story?

Ongoing social issues – the Iraq War (and its aftermath), the Syrian Civil War, rampant xenophobia/Islamophobia in the U.S. – definitely informed how I thought about and wrote about my father’s experiences during the Lebanese Civil War. One of my goals for this collection was to examine the civilian cost of war, from trauma and survival to displacement and the work of making a home in another country. I am privileged enough to not have these experiences firsthand, but I have witnessed throughout my life the toll they took on my father ­– the guilt he felt over leaving his family and country, the hostility he faced (especially after 9/11 – I remember the classmates who said my father was a terrorist). Later in the collection, the poems follow my mother and father’s relationship. Those are mostly my experiences and memories at work.

Between your book and your essay, “In the Skin,” you speak a lot about your relationships with your parents and how those have affected you. Would you consider yourself a confessionalist, and if not, how would you describe your approach to writing about personal matters?

It seems most contemporary poetry has some confessionalist impulse, so while I see that at work in my own poems, it feels a little imprecise as a label. My hope for my work is to observe the grief and truth and cruelty and joy in this stupid world, to create something that makes these things more bearable for others. Sometimes examining the self and the personal are a means to that end. Sometimes it is necessary to turn the lens outward.

Sign-ups are happening now for this year’s retreat!

 


Ruth Awad is the author of Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press, 2017), which won the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of a 2016 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and she won the 2012 and 2013 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and the 2011 Copper Nickel Poetry contest. Her work has appeared in New Republic, The Missouri Review, CALYX, Diode, The Adroit Journal, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. Learn more at www.ruthawadpoetry.com.

Anna Moseley is currently a senior at the University of Tennessee majoring in English Literature. She has a glorious waitressing job downtown and writes as a contributor for the Arts and Culture section of the Daily Beacon. When she bothers to extract her nose from a book, Anna’s hobbies include engaging in wine-fueled political debates and looking at pictures of dogs she can’t afford.

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An interview with 2017 Chapbook Contest Winner Laura Page

 

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I recently interviewed Laura Page, whose collection of poetry epithalamium won Sundress Publications‘ sixth chapbook competition. Page is a graduate of Southern Oregon University and editor of the poetry journal, Virga. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Rust + MothCrab Creek ReviewThe RumpusTinderbox Poetry JournalTINGE, and elsewhere. She is the author of two previous chapbooks, Children, Apostates (dancing girl press, 2016) and Sylvia Plath in the Major Arcana (Anchor & Plume, forthcoming). Visit her website at www.laurapage.net.

Danielle Hayden: Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed! I’d like to dive right in and talk about epithalamium. What was the inspiration behind this work? 

Laura Page: My pleasure. Thank you! I came across the word ‘epithalamium’ in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics while participating in a project spearheaded by my friend Joshua Medsker, who is also a poet. The term is Latin, and denotes texts celebrating or expounding on marriage, though, as the editors note, epithalamia can be quite varied, both in structure and tonality. Adrienne Rich said something that has always stuck with me: “The moment of change is the poem.” I suppose I wanted to document and compile what is mutable between two committed individuals.

DH: What challenges, if any, did you encounter while putting this collection together?

LP: It’s interesting—compiling this collection was almost no challenge; the poems coalesced, however, out of a difficulty I had been having while trying to order another manuscript. I kept feeling that many poems contained in that collection didn’t seem to ‘fit’ or seemed to belong to another speaker. A large percentage of the poems in epithalamium were those that I eventually realized could become a separate body of work.

DH: If I may, I’d like to ask a bit about your background and your journey to becoming a poet. How and when did you decide that you wanted to be a poet? Who or what were your biggest influences/from whom did you draw inspiration?

LP: I’m not sure there was one pivotal moment. I have always loved literature. As a very young person, I read pretty voraciously. I wish I could devour books now like I did then. I think I wrote my first poem when I was twelve and shortly after that, I decided that I wanted to write fiction. Though I do write the occasional story, poetry is my love. I have to return to Adrienne Rich, here, because I started writing again as an adult after I picked up a book of critical essays on her work. I was maybe 19, and was blown away. After that, it was Theodore Roethke. There were a few gateways. Then I started writing truly awful poetry in earnest.

DH: What/who inspires you today? 

LP: There are many, but recently I’m enamored with Rainer Maria Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Robert Hass, and Ada Limon.

DH: What is your creative process like? I know it’s different for every poet and sometimes for every work or phase of life. Feel free to describe your process more generally or how it was during the writing of epithalamium, if those differed at all.

LP: A poem almost always begins with an image or a turn of phrase that strikes me and then sticks for whatever reason. For some time now, I’ve been keeping one or more Word files open or readily accessible and writing in odd moments, very fast, without letting myself think too much about what’s going down. Everything in a particular file is loosely connected, so I have several little micro-collections going. I rework the poems, occasionally, but I’m less compulsive about doing so than I ever used to be. This is a fairly new thing. It feels more focused compared to past phases, certainly compared to the rather drawn out process of writing epithalamium.

DH: I know that you are the founding editor of the poetry magazine Virga. Congratulations on the launch! What has that been like so far (rewards, challenges, etc.)?

LP: I started Virga because I wanted to be a more involved literary citizen, as cliché as that term might sound these days, and I feel like I’m accomplishing that goal. It’s been very rewarding to read new and emerging poets and showcase their work. We’ve received some great feedback and I’m feeling confident in the future of the magazine, as tiny as we are. I think the challenge, for us, is a challenge any very new publication experiences unless it is very well connected, which is just bringing the magazine to the attention of more readers and prospective contributors. So, a shameless plug: if you’re reading this, we’d love for you to take a look and consider submitting poems!

DH: Why do you write? Why does poetry matter? We here at Sundress don’t need to be convinced of poetry’s importance, but for those naysayers, what do you say?

LP: Poetry is a means of access; what is being accessed is different for every poet. For me, it’s a way of getting at complex emotions, desires, and a way to interrogate my own assumptions. Sometimes it’s a liminal way to converse with elements outside of myself.

 DH: What are you reading now/what have you read recently?

 LP: I recently read Jorge Luis Borges’ This Craft of Verse, which is an incredible collection of essays on the reading and writing of poetry, and am currently reading a strange mix of things: some religious texts—gospels from the Nag Hammadi—some Anaïs Nin, some Gertrude Stein.

DH: And, finally, what are you currently working on? Any forthcoming projects that we can look forward to?

LP: I’m working slowly and quietly on a few things, including the full-length manuscript I mentioned. Virga is also gearing up for issue three coming this spring, so we’re very excited about that.

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Laura Page is a graduate of Southern Oregon University and editor of the poetry journal, Virga. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Rust + Moth, Crab Creek Review, The Rumpus, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, TINGE, and elsewhere. She is the author of two previous chapbooks, Children, Apostates (dancing girl press, 2016) and Sylvia Plath in the Major Arcana (Anchor & Plume, forthcoming).

Danielle Hayden is a freelance writer and editor who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Seattle. Included among all the things she loves are: learning, books, watching films, making lists, and collecting great quotes—sometimes as tattoos. She reads about everything, and writes about almost as much. Danielle is an enthusiastic supporter of the arts and of the Oxford comma.

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AWP Roundtable: Journalism Skills for Fiction Writers

Joan Didion, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, Stieg Larsson, Charles Dickens, Edna Buchanan, and Mark Twain (among many others) created memorable fiction largely as a result of the skills they honed as reporters. Journalists churn out hundreds of words every day (without the luxury of waiting for inspiration), write to a word count, write to deadline, learn to work with editors, and develop an eye for extraneous words, authentic dialogue, and telling details. They also tend to have pretty solid grammatical skills and a keen sense of story. Is it any wonder they often make brilliant novelists?

A reporter’s toolkit can help novelists and storytellers of all kinds write gripping first lines, create memorable characters, and imagine authentic worlds in their fiction. There are stories in the world far more important—and far more interesting—than those drawn merely from our own experience. With global tensions intensifying, it feels urgent to tell stories that reach beyond our own borders and engage us with both the broader world and other humans.

 

Jennifer Steil (Moderator): Why don’t we each start off by talking about how the skills we acquired as a journalist are reflected in our own fiction writing?

Jo Piazza: Speed is the first thing that comes to mind. I started out as a newspaper reporter for the New York Daily News right before the Internet completely changed newspapers forever. But even when I was on a daily deadline instead of an hourly deadline I was still crunched to churn out clean, well-crafted copy on tight deadlines.

The Internet has only made those deadlines faster. What that means is that I have never had the luxury of fretting over my words. I just had to write. I do the same thing with my fiction writing. I can get a first draft on paper fast as hell. Then, once the whole thing is written, I take the time to go back and massage it and make it beautiful. I credit my work as a reporter for never getting writer’s block. I laugh when people talk about writer’s block. Who has the time for it?

My work as a journalist has also taught me to take meticulous notes. I used to carry three or four reporters’ notebooks with me all the time to write down my interviews. Now I carry much smaller notebooks that can slip into my back pocket. I am constantly writing down descriptions of things or bits of dialogue and then stashing them away as inspiration for my fiction.

Tom Zoellner: I believe the top trait demanded of a reporter is the ability to listen. You must ask probing questions and not accept superficial explanations. You must develop the ability to understand inference – to understand what is left unsaid. The art of writing fiction is about “listening” to your characters as though they were interview subjects.

Michael Downs: What Tom said is really important – for journalists, novelists, everyone. There’s a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez – another journalist/novelist – that I often mention to students in which Marquez chides interviewers for relying too much on technology and recording devices and paying attention only to a person’s words. But those things, he says, don’t “hear the beating of the heart, which is the most important part of the interview.” He’s talking about empathy, and I think journalism teaches that. Journalism helped me become a person who knows how to pay attention to another person. It’s empathy, it’s listening, it’s openness to the world and experience. That was a great gift.

But as for skills, I’d say the ability to research and report have primarily helped my fiction writing. I’ve set a lot of my work in other decades – my forthcoming novel is set in the 1840s, and it’s about the early days of anesthesia. It took a lot more than Google to understand the world and the science and my characters’ lives. I had to know where to search, how to search, and why to search. Journalism taught me a lot of that.

Sophfronia Scott: At both Time and People magazines I frequently had to write short articles, like 500 words and less. Those short articles still had to be packed with information and the prose had to pop. Writing like that taught me to respect words. Every word has to pull its weight when you write short, every verb has to be on target. I’ve carried that respect into my fiction writing. My novel may be over 100,000 words but none of those words are throwaway words.

Jennifer Steil: You’ve all made really important points. Like Jo, I don’t have time to sit around waiting for inspiration. I’m very good at writing to deadline. I also carry a notebook everywhere because if I don’t write down a thought the minute I have it, it floats up into the ether. My experience scribbling interviews in my reporters’ notebooks, making sure to record the exact words, was terrific preparation for writing convincing dialogue. Reporting also brought me in contact with people I would never otherwise encounter or get to know. They made me aware of very different lives, different stories. Perhaps among the most important things I learned as a reporter was how to ask questions of the world and how to listen closely to the answers.

My journalism background is also entirely responsible for my career as a novelist. Before 2006, I had written many stories and one entire novel, but none of them felt urgent. When I moved to Yemen in the summer of 2006, I finally found a story worth telling. I became the editor-in-chief of a Yemeni newspaper, which was the hardest and most fascinating thing I had ever done. It felt urgent to tell the world the stories of my reporters, to tell the world that Yemenis are nothing like their portrayal in the media. Thus my first book ended up, to my surprise, being a memoir. After publishing a work of nonfiction, it was much easier to sell a novel. I already had an agent, an editor, and a publishing track record.

 

Jennifer Steil (Moderator): If you were teaching a masterclass in using journalism tools for fiction writing, what one journalism tool would you teach, and how would you do it? What have students or colleagues really responded to?

Michael Downs: I’ll return to what Tom and I alluded to above: the interview. Becoming a good interviewer requires that you as a writer learn how to move from an answer to a question, to discover in an answer a new question –and isn’t that the direction literature takes? Also, interviewing skills help at parties and receptions and the like. Strangers, it turns out, are more interesting when you ask them interesting questions.

Sophfronia Scott: I would teach the power of detail. We tend to think of description as telling what something or someone looks like—his hair was gray, the sky was blue. But I would teach to choose detail that does more, detail that tells you someone’s situation or state of mind or provides a stunning contrast. I once reported a story about a middle school age student who took a knife to school in her backpack with the intention of harming her teacher. My editor wanted me to try to find out what else was in her backpack: pink lip gloss? Math homework that had been left undone? A crumpled bus pass? She wanted to play off that contrast of a violent instrument placed among a pre-teen’s school things. Detail is so important. I would want students to open their eyes to see more than what they may be taking in now.

Jennifer Steil: Absolutely. That’s a terrific example of evocative detail, Sophfronia.

One exercise my students consistently find useful is a lede-writing exercise. While there is a lot more to writing a good book than crafting a riveting first sentence, a riveting first sentence never hurts. I talk about 13 different types of journalistic ledes, giving several examples of each type. (Many of my favorites come from Pulitzer Prize-winning Edna Buchanan, who wrote memorable ledes such as, “Bad things happen to the husbands of Widow Elkin” and, “His last meal was worth $30,000 and it killed him,” but I also include examples from novels, such as, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” from Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.) After we read dozens of brilliant first sentences and learn something about what makes them work, I ask my students to interview each other and write a profile of their partner, starting with one of the lede types we discussed. They do not need to stick to the facts (fiction writing!) but can freely spin off from the material. The interview is just a starting point. Students always come up with some great stuff. Even seasoned authors have let me know they went home and rewrote the first sentence of their book after this particular lecture.

Jo Piazza: Writing on deadline. I guess it’s something I can’t emphasize enough because I keep mentioning it. Right now I’m working on a very quickie project for my publisher. It’s a 75k word novel, and I need to bang it out in about three weeks. Yeah, an entire novel in three weeks. The exercise is daunting every day. I go through the complex emotions one usually experiences writing a novel over the course of a year or two in a single 24-hour span. While you’d think this would dull my writing skills, it has actually done the opposite. It’s forcing my brain to work in different ways. I’m doing a constant sprint now instead of a marathon, and I think the exercise will serve me well on my next big book project. I think reminding people that time is a luxury is really important.

Tom Zoellner: This one is hard to pull off in the classroom except by exhortation, but what helps journalism immeasurably is the simple act of “showing up” – traveling out to see the coal mine, the hospital, the city council chamber, the family home. You are exposed to ten thousand sensory elements and organic connections – the grist of life – that you would never get from reading about it or a phone conversation. Establishing a physical presence first in the places where we seek to create literature is a journalistic habit that fiction writers would do well to imitate.

 

Jennifer Steil (Moderator): How do you encourage other writers to think beyond their own lives and experiences?

Jo Piazza: I tell everyone who wants to be a writer to set a writing goal every day and make sure to meet it every day for the next month. Mine is between 1,000 and 3,000 words depending on what I am working on. You’d be amazed at how many people come back to me and say they didn’t make it even three days. That’s when I remind them that writing is hard. It’s a craft. It’s a habit. It takes real work. I think from the outside writing looks really easy. Everyone thinks they can be a writer. But when it comes to putting pen to paper on a regular basis (I still say that because I write almost everything long-hand before I type it out) the reality is very different.

I tell people to talk to as many people as possible in a day, but to make sure they’re really listening. Writers are essentially thieves, stealing bits and pieces of other people’s stories and dialogue. I’ve gotten some of my best dialogue from Uber drivers around the world. It’s the listening that is key…and the writing things down. You will tell yourself you will remember something and 99 percent of the time you won’t.

Tom Zoellner: I have never bought into the idea that writers of an assigned gender, race, religion, geography, class, etc. should be confined to only writing about their “identity” (however and by whomever that is defined). Journalism is an excellent way to break those boundaries and establish some empathetic projection – paradoxically enough, through dispassionate observation – with people who live in far different circumstances. And another paradox: getting out of your neighborhood is at once an act of hubris and an act of humility.

Jennifer Steil: I’ve always told young writers that the best thing they could do for their writing is to move somewhere that makes them profoundly uncomfortable and that challenges all of their assumptions. Such a situation is bound to force people to think outside of their own small worlds, from a less nationalistic and more global point of view. It also leads to interesting adventures and relationships, all splendidly rich writing material. One exercise I like to do with students is to have them write a travel story about their home town. Where’s the best pizza place? Where is the best place to throw a birthday party? Which bars would you recommend? What is the town known for? It gives them new perspective to have to describe it to a stranger.

Sophfronia Scott: I tell my students that creativity playdates are just as important as the time they schedule for writing. In fact, their writing time could be difficult and fruitless without them. If they find they are spending much of their writing time staring wordless at the screen or blank page, they’re in need of a creativity playdate. I say if you’re looking for a story idea, ride the subway a few stops or go sit in a park and pay attention. Your next character might step on at West 66th Street, or stroll past you wearing a top hat and walking a fluffy Scottish terrier sporting blue booties on its paws. I know my writing eye is awakened every time I travel the 65 miles south to New York City and take in the energy and movement of a different environment. Suddenly my senses have new sights, sounds, and smells to process. Really the best way to get outside of yourself is to open your eyes and start looking around.

Michael Downs: Creative playdates. I love that. I hope you don’t mind, Sophfronia, if I borrow that one.

This question of moving beyond personal experience is so important, especially for younger writers. Too often they don’t have enough narrative distance from the particulars of their own experiences to be cold about them. A newspaper columnist from California once wrote in Best American Newspaper Writing how he always wrote hot and edited cold. I tell that to my students, but they still often can’t find their way to that cold phase regarding their own experiences.

So I encourage several strategies: change the setting or change the genders of the characters. Change their ages. One thing that often works is to get them to see their particular experience in terms of its abstractions (their experience involved betrayal, or failed hope, or the strange comedy of grief). Then, they imagine a situation different from their own particular experience, but one that allows them to write about those same abstractions. So rather than the profound betrayal they felt in a love affair, they write instead about a betrayal in a workplace having nothing to do with love. That way they still write about their life experience, but the particulars belong to someone else’s life.

 

Jennifer Steil (Moderator): Do you still work as a journalist? How does that affect and fit in with your fiction writing on a day-to-day basis?

Sophfronia Scott: I write essays and opinion pieces for publication, but I don’t work as a reporter-type journalist anymore. I focus on my own writing now but the lessons I learned from journalism are still within me and at use every day. How could they not be? I wrote many stories, under deadline, for years and years. It’s imprinted in me at this point.

Jennifer Steil: Sometimes. I like to do freelance work when I can, it brightens up my brain. Working to a tight deadline and word count focuses me. I no longer work full-time as a journalist, largely because I find that if I am writing all day long for a paper or magazine, I don’t have the energy for my own fiction work at the end of the day. I’m better off bartending.

Michael Downs: Like you, Jennifer, I find it difficult to balance the two. It’s an analogy that dates me, but I find it’s like Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders trying to toggle between baseball and football. They’re both sports, but they require such different skills and world views. In my case, journalism is about the rush, the deadline, the ability to learn enough that I can simplify what’s complicated. Fiction, though, is more like method acting. It demands that I be quiet and go deep and concentrate, to take what might seem simple and complicate it. But I love and honor both disciplines and their crafts.

Jo Piazza: I do. Up until I had my baby six months ago I was still working full-time as a journalist and writing books on the side. Now I am focusing mainly on books and baby with some freelance assignments. I typically reserve a couple of hours every day to do the fiction writing regardless of what my full-time job looks like, be it editor of a website or a magazine or being a mom like it is right now. But I follow the quota more than I follow the time limit unless I am editing, then I can edit for about eight hours straight. But when I am in creation mode once I am done with that word count I let myself be done for the day. Sometimes I am finished in a half hour and sometimes it takes five hours. My husband is very used to me saying “I have one hundred more words…I can’t do anything until I get one hundred more words.”

Tom Zoellner: I am far more a journalist – by habit, training, and a liking for paychecks – than I am a fiction writer. But I find I am drawn to write fictional characters that embody a certain reserve and clinical distance resembling that of the journalist’s prose. A refusal to participate in the depths of life in favor of observation, much like the existential ambivalence of the protagonist of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. This is a dilemma that we don’t much like to talk about, and one whose best expression is through fiction.

____

 

Michael Downs’s debut novel, The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, SurgeonVersion 2 Dentist, is forthcoming in May 2018 from Acre Books. His other books include The Greatest Show (Louisiana State University Press, 2012), a collection of linked stories, and House of Good Hope (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), which won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. His recent nonfiction has appeared in AARP: The MagazineBaltimore Style, and River Teeth. A former newspaper reporter, he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland State Arts Council, and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. He lives in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood and teaches at Towson University.

JoPiazzaJo Piazza is an award-winning journalist and best selling author of both fiction and non-fiction. Her novel, The Knockoff, with Lucy Sykes became an instant international bestseller and has been translated into more than seven languages. Jo received a Masters in Journalism from Columbia and has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Marie Claire, Elle and Salon. Her latest novel, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, will be published by Simon & Shuster in July 2018. She currently lives in San Francisco with her husband, son and their giant dog.


Sophfronia Scott is author of the essay collectionLove’s Long Line, from Ohio State SophfroniaScottUniversity Press’s Mad Creek Books and a memoirThis Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, from Paraclete Press. She was a writer and editor at Time and People before publishing her first novelAll I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press). Her latest novel is Unforgivable Love (William Morrow). Sophfronia teaches at Regis University’s Mile High MFA and Bay Path University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Visit her website, www.Sophfronia.com.


Jennifer Steil
is an award-winning author and journalist. Her novel, The Ambassador’s JenniferSteilWife, published by Doubleday in 2015, won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award and the 2016 Phillip McMath Post Publication book award. It was shortlisted for both the Bisexual Book Award and the Lascaux Novel Award. Jennifer’s first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Broadway Books, 2010), a memoir about her tenure as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a, was praised by The New York TimesNewsweek, and the Sydney Morning Herald. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune chose it as one of their best travel books of the year in 2010, and Elle magazine awarded it their Readers’ Prize. National Geographic Traveler included the book in their 2014 recommended reading list. It has been published in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, and Poland.

Her freelance work has appeared in the Saranac ReviewWorld Policy Journal, The WeekThe Washington Times, Vogue UK, Die WeltNew York Post, The Rumpus, TimeReaders’ Digest Version, Irish National Radio, France 24 (English), CBS radioand GRN Global Reporter Network Service.TomZoellner


Tom Zoellner
is an Associate Professor of English at Chapman University and the author of four nonfiction books, including the recently published Train as well as A Safeway in Arizona, Uranium, and The Heartless Stone. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Time, Harper’s, Men’s Health, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and many other places.

 

 

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