[INTERVIEW] HAUNTINGS, HUMOR, POETRY, AND DOGS – AN INTERVIEW WITH KIMMY WALTERS

INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

killerWhether she’s writing about the endless curiosity of the body, the challenges that accompany being a feminist who isn’t afraid to defend her autonomy, the humor of living in a semi-rural area, or the wisdom of dogs, Kimmy Walters will delight you.

Walters is young—26, to be precise—so Millennials especially will recognize themselves in Killer’s pages. Walters’ debut poetry volume, Uptalk, was published in 2015, also by Bottlecap Press. At this rate, poetry connoisseurs will have much to look forward to.

Walters’ is the kind of poetry you can’t help but want to read, even when you’re falling asleep with the bedside lamp on. It’s the kind of poetry you read aloud to your friends because you just can’t keep it to yourself. The kind of poetry you want to read at stoplights even though it would pain you to be caught in the midst of a poem when the light changes.

While some modern poets default to snark, Walters is confident enough in her poetry to let each piece speak for itself rather than forcing the reader toward a quick, easy, often moralistic conclusion. Killer asks the reader only to observe and acknowledge—what readers glean beyond that is entirely their own.

Though the entire volume is captivating, the standout poems are “Good Morning, I Am Not Going to Commit Suicide Today,” “Does Your Soulmate Speak English,” “Marrying a Husband,” “Poem About How Little Affection I Had for Him,” “Giving Blood,” “The Water Was Filled With Swans,” “People Person” and, of course, the namesake, “Killer.”

I talked to Walters about her writing process and how her life experiences have informed her work.

Shunnarah: One of the things I most enjoyed about Killer is that while your poems are flush with meaning, they’re also extremely enjoyable on the surface level. Was the accessibility of your work always important to you? Did you ever have a memorable moment of throwing your hands in the air in frustration while reading a poem and think, “What does it all mean?” and vow not to make anyone do that?

Walters: Thank you! I’m not sure I ever consciously decided I wanted my writing to be accessible–I just didn’t have any interest in writing anything super opaque. I don’t get frustrated with needlessly complex writing so much as I get disinterested. I start looking around like “What else is going on?” I’m not going to spend a lot of time with a page that’s not really trying to communicate with me, and neither are most people.

Shunnarah: In the poem “Killer,” for which the collection is named, you speculate there may have been a killer who previously lived in your residence. Have you learned more about the house’s history since writing that poem?

Walters: I just looked up the house that poem was based on in Google Street View and there is a single black folding chair on the porch. Seems ominous…

It’s possible a killer lived there. That whole town was haunted as hell. One time my roommate and I slept downstairs in sleeping bags so we could try to get an overnight audio recording of the upstairs ghost. It was inconclusive.

Shunnarah: A number of the poems in Killer have a dark, subtle humor that is rendered sublimely in the text. I also noticed the recurring theme of dogs, creatures who manage to be simultaneously sage and goofy. Tell me more about your sense of humor and how it has developed in your poetry.

Walters: I’ve been depressed for a large portion of my life, and I dealt with it by constantly telling myself jokes. For a long time I thought that’s what everyone’s interior monologue was like. My sense of humor comes from years and years of trying to distract myself from being sad.

Shunnarah: You studied linguistics in college—deviating from the more common path of studying English literature or creative writing. Tell me more about how the study of linguistics gave you insight into language and influenced your poetry.

Walters: I didn’t have a lot of direction when I entered college, but the adults around me warned me against pursuing an English degree because they thought I wouldn’t be able to get a job. (I later found that it’s not easier to get a job with a linguistics degree, and a lot of people don’t know what linguistics is.)

It’s kind of an accident that I ended up with this degree, but it was a good course of study for me. I’ve always been interested in what language is capable of, its history, and how it changes. Studying linguistics definitely encouraged me to be more playful with language. The first thing you get taught in an introductory linguistics class is that you need to stop being such an asshole about language, which was true for me and probably all of my classmates.

Shunnarah: You’ve talked extensively about your use of social media as a poetic medium—namely making poetry out of the tweets from the now defunct horse enthusiast bot account, @horse_ebooks—so here’s the obligatory social media question. Many fans of your poetry found you via Twitter and Tumblr. Do you think blogging and social media, particularly Twitter because it requires brevity, have helped guide people to modern poetry?

Walters: When I was a tween, the thing to do at my school was to keep a blog, so I’ve been writing online for about 13 years. Connecting with people online is easier and makes me less anxious than trying to meet people other ways, and the way I’ve connected with people is by sharing writing or art.

Over the years I’ve had a lot of practice creating things that I want people to see. I took to Twitter quickly because I’m usually brief anyway. Twitter’s character limit is a constraint on writing the same way that the rules of haiku are. I mean, like anyone, I’ve tweeted “who up?” but hella old poems essentially boil down to “who up?” too. It’s one of the Big Questions.

The internet is a buffet and I am going hog wild on it. It’s so easy to sample things—I read articles online about subjects I’d never think to actually buy a book about. That may be where some of the interest in poetry is coming from. Someone who’d never browse the poetry section of a bookstore might have a poem come across their feed on Twitter or Facebook and find that they like it. Then they’ll come across a tidbit about food science or body language and like that too. We take in so much information; some of it’s gonna be poetry.

Shunnarah: Killer is your second collection of poetry, the first being Uptalk, which was also published by Bottlecap Press. In what ways have you evolved as a poet from Uptalk to Killer?

Walters: I think I was more focused while writing Killer, and generally had a better idea of what I was doing. I felt more confident writing, because I knew that people had responded positively to my work, and made quicker, less self-conscious decisions. The style is similar, but tighter, I feel.

Shunnarah: What are you working on now?

Walters: I’m figuring that out! I’ve just been writing poems and waiting for some theme to hijack my life so I can write another book.

Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, Deep South Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

[INTERVIEW] ON MOTHERS, DAUGHTERS, AND THE CORPOREALITY OF MUSIC – WITH MARCIA BUTLER

INTERVIEW BY ILEANA FLORIAN

 

MARCIA BUTLER 1

Marcia Butler’s memoir The Skin Above My Knee begins with a domestic, Sunday morning scene. The author, four years old, is listening to the soprano Kirsten Flagstad singing the aria Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, while her mother is vacuuming the house with a thunderous Hoover. The writer’s two loves, music and her mother, thus make their entrance into the book.

Butler’s memoir blends together stories about girlhood, sexual abuse, and an overwhelming passion for music. Against the gritty backdrop of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, the author struggles with abusive relationships, drug addiction, and unsuccessful attempts to reach out to her family. Butler’s account of her life as a musician is no less realistic, ranging from nearly starving as a student to maintaining a grueling performing schedule. These experiences, however, are redeemed by galvanizing moments when performing in orchestras felt like being a part of a larger, living and thinking, organism.

I spoke with Marcia Butler about creativity, competition between mothers and daughters, and the corporeality of music, in December 2016.

Florian: How did you start thinking about writing a memoir? MARCIA BUTLER 2

Butler: Well, that’s an interesting question because I didn’t set out to write a memoir at all. I was writing about creativity, actually. I’d been a musician for about 25 years, and then was an interior designer for 15 years. As a designer, I began blogging and quickly realized that the more fertile subjects for me were the overarching principles of the universality of design, aesthetics and creative thrust. How all this binds us together as a society and how we live and enjoy life. What are we drawn to, and why?
For example, I became fascinated with the power of three. It’s never two, it’s always three. This is born out in everything. In religion with the holy trinity, in myth with the third or evil eye. In the nursery rhyme – Three Blind Mice, in comedy and film – The Three Stooges. Through the masters in artwork, subjects are framed within a triangle formation to set up ideal proportions. Within physics, threes appear in sound waves and I’m sure on deeper levels as well, which I certainly don’t have the expertise to speak about. I could go on and on – there are so many examples in all cultures. But this always brought me back to music and a strange phenomenon in the fact that when two violins play together, they don’t sound very nice. But when you add a third violin, the beauty doesn’t increase by just one third; rather the resonance improves on an exponential level and with exceptional beauty.
This reminded me of my performing days and thinking about peak moments on stage with specific, memorable concerts. I wondered what made them so wonderful. So, I began writing about my own performance experiences. This naturally led me to write essays about my life. For instance, my very first essay which begins the narrative section of my memoir, is about being four years old and hearing the music of Richard Wagner – his Liebestod from the opera Tristan and Isolde – for the first time. This is my very first memory of hearing music. Kirsten Flagstad was the singer and it was a startling moment for me and actually began one trajectory of my life. Even at four years old!

 

Now to return to your question of how I came to write my memoir. I had amassed these pieces, woke up early one morning at about 5:00 a.m. and realized I was, in fact, writing a memoir. It wasn’t necessarily a happy sensation at all, but the epiphany kind of galvanized me and I managed to write it in about three years. I suppose, in retrospect, this moment was another one of those peak moments or a creative impulse that prompted me to continue and I’d eventually understand why.

Kirsten Flagstad – Wagner Liebestod

Florian: This early moment of understanding music is extremely powerful, both because of this passion for music that you’re discovering at an early age, but also because, in the book, your mother is present in the background at the moment you have this revelation. Your relationship with her, and with your family in general, forms a counterpoint to the story of your artistic career.
Butler: My mother was an exceptionally talented person. She could draw figuratively very well. And she was just super intelligent. I mean, there were so many things about her that I found intriguing. I think that’s why I put her on a pedestal for so long. At work, she was a beloved schoolteacher and taught French, Latin and Spanish. She read voraciously; always had a book in her hand. She was a lively person on the outside but did not display that persona to us at home. I remember feeling baffled when I was young, and later on angry, because she’d present herself so differently when we were in public. She had so much interest and energy for others, but not for me. And it wounded me terribly.
Part of the problem with my mother was that she was competitive with me. I see this only in retrospect many, many years later, of course. I believe that she felt, to a large degree, marginalized in her marriage and in her family life. Quite frankly, I don’t think she really wanted kids and could not reconcile where her life ended up. And she would not allow a closeness between herself and her daughter because I represented a barrier to her dreams. This competition was subtle and certainly not understood back then. At the end of the day the young girl, the young woman, the middle-aged woman wanted her mother, and I kept trying for years. I tried to be the best daughter I could be. And it was never the right way. Never. I was unimaginably sad.
Florian: Did your parents ever divorce?
Butler: They’re dead now, but they stayed married until the end. I believe that she was going to leave my father a couple of times through the years, but never did. I’m sure she felt she couldn’t make it on her own first emotionally, because underneath, of course, she felt incredibly deficient. That had to be the case. But financially too. She earned a schoolteacher’s salary, but you know how it was. Women of that generation didn’t feel empowered to take those steps. “He might be a creep, but he’s my creep.” That kind of thing.
Florian: Your expectations were very different from the very beginning. You were trying to follow something for which you had passion and that was real and affirming for you, and you just allowed yourself to grow, in spite of lack of encouragement. I’m thinking of the years you spent at Mannes College of Music, and how you were trying to survive without much help from your family.
Butler: One of the best days of my life was getting that call from the Mannes College of Music telling me I’d received a full scholarship, because otherwise I would have ended up at Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School. My internal trope was: “Just get to New York City. Just get into conservatory. I’ll make it work.” When times were tough and I had no money, I made it work in any way that I could. That meant I became a sneaky girl. For a period of time I ate only one head of lettuce a day. Gradually I lost my period because I wasn’t getting any protein at all; I was going into that state where young girls lose their estrogen. I felt a lot of shame as well, because I didn’t have the wherewithal that other students did; family support. As a result, I kept everything secret: eating only lettuce and all the rest of my considerable shenanigans. At the same time, I was around my fellow students who understood me on a musical level, and that was thrilling. When you’re 18 years old, that’s everything.
Florian: This brings me to my question about your experiences as a woman and a musician. It’s not difficult to notice that there are, and traditionally have been, fewer women musicians in classical orchestras than men. What are your thoughts about that?
Butler: In the first half of the 20th century, women had not been encouraged to seek careers in general, let alone one in the arts. That has changed a lot over the years. During 50s, to 60s, to 70s, and even into the 80’s, there were still very few women in orchestras. In any case, in the US it started to really change during the 1980’s with the advent of blind auditions, which are held behind screens. Vienna Philharmonic was the last holdout and accepted their first woman in 2003!
Florian: Unbelievable.
Butler: So true! But I’ve always been curious as to how the actual sound of an orchestra might be influenced by gender. I listen to a lot of really old recordings on YouTube of various orchestras from the 1940’s, 1950’s – and even older. These orchestras were made up entirely of men. There is no way to codify this notion, but I wonder how the sound of an orchestra has changed through the years with the inclusion of women. That’s not to say that women play in a ‘feminine’ way at all. In fact, if you close your eyes, it’s impossible to glean gender from someone’s playing. I just think there may be a subtle quality brought to play by a re-balance of testosterone and estrogen. Impossible to determine, I’m sure. But it’s along the lines of, what if women ruled the world. How would that change our planet.
Fast forward: I just recently heard Berliner Philharmoniker and Royal Concertgebouw from Amsterdam, both at Carnegie Hall. The string section in the Concertgebouw is at least half women. Berlin has a large percentage of women now, as well.

Berlin Philharmonic – 1950 – Richard Strauss, Don Quixote

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra – 2010 – Gustav Mahler, 6th Symphony

Florian: Your book talks a lot about music as an embodied, physical act. You mention a conductor who can communicate in a nonverbal way with the orchestra and a conductor who had to tell the orchestra what to do. I also remember reading about you standing up, taking the correct breath, and then playing the oboe… Tell us a little bit more about that.
Butler: Playing any instrument, whether it’s an oboe, or a flute, or a tuba, is tremendously physical. It may look like we’re just sitting there blowing, but there’s a great deal of focused physical energy that goes into playing an instrument. It’s hard to imagine: you must blow to produce the sound, but also create an extraordinarily beautiful sound, and further, interpret highly complex music. Then you must sustain it over a long period of time – usually more than an hour. Imagine being an Olympic hurdler who must jump for an hour non-stop. The stamina is colossal, exactly like an Olympic athlete, and that’s not an exaggeration. It’s such a rarefied channeling of human energy.
But that’s just the physical part. When you put a group of people together there is a synergy that needs to happen which occurs on the intuitive level. You’re listening and looking and getting cues from those obvious senses. But there’s also the attuned knowing amongst the group. Another way of putting it is this: the top mental process is when you’re fully aware of what’s going on, but then there’s the underbelly, where you unconsciously understand what the unspoken impulses are; the things outside of and below those obvious senses. When you make music, you fuse the combined energies of the group: physical, mental, emotional and intuitive – all creating something artistic, simultaneously.
This is something that musicians learn to do, but it’s also a gift. If you are talented and have the right training and the right ears, and if your intuition is exceptional then all these extraordinary abilities will float to the top. But music must be at the helm. The question is rhetorical but always present: Why are we sitting here playing? It’s because there’s an opportunity at every moment to communicate something to the listener and for that person to be moved. That’s the raw experience. It’s an act of love actually.
I’ve attempted to explain this complex phenomenon in my book through describing my performances. Music is truly a miracle. And it is why, in my opinion, music is an art form that all people relate to and want to be close to. You want to be on stage with the Grateful Dead; you want to be in the front row at a Billy Joel concert; you want to be enveloped by the sound of an orchestra. In all cases, the universal desire is to be in touch with that exact moment when the good stuff is happening on stage. That’s what musicians do. And the listener can experience it too. So, there are always two points in music: the person making the music and the person hearing it. Then the connection is fully embodied.

Florian: Speaking of sound, and person, and embodiment. There is another theme that reappears through your book… making reeds for your oboe, a practice that you engaged in every day. It made me wonder, because you talked about having your own sound. How was your sound related to the reeds? And what are those mysterious reeds, really?
Butler: Right, those evil, evil little devils (laughs). First, for oboe players or for any instrumentalists, sound is like DNA. It’s a thumbprint. Now, for me it began with Kirsten Flagstad’s voice when I was four years old. That was a template of sorts for how I heard an artistic utterance.
Florian: Were you hoping your oboe would sound like Flagstad’s voice?
Butler: Well, it wasn’t even that specified. I was a young oboist who, at four years old, heard her first music produced in a certain way.
Florian: Maybe in terms of emotion?
Butler: Yes, but I wasn’t conscious of it when I first heard her voice, or even when I started playing the oboe, but her sound was my tattoo. So, when you’re making the reed, you’re fashioning it in a way that will give you your sound.

Marcia Butler – oboist – Keith Jarrett, Adagio for oboe and orchestra


But reed making remains yeoman’s work for the oboist. Basically, you’re making reeds every day. Constantly. They wear out because you’re playing them all the time. I would have 20 reeds in a box at any time and I understood which ones I would play for which music. The acoustic of the hall made a difference too. Alice Tully Hall vs Carnegie Hall. So, it’s all about the reed. If you don’t have a good reed you’re up the creek. It’s a high wire act and very annoying! Occasionally I’d have a bad reed for a concert. Perhaps it wasn’t speaking in a certain way, or wasn’t producing my sound. It felt just awful. But you must be a good enough player and artist to actually manage that bad reed and play beautifully in spite of it.
Florian: Against the reed, basically.
Butler: Yes, exactly. I sometimes hear people playing at places like the MET Opera Orchestra and they say, “Oh my reed was terrible,” and they sounded great to me. So that’s the testament, they played beautifully in spite of a bad reed. It’s always this balance of trying to make a reed that’s going to do everything for you. Yet, at the end of the day, you have to do it for the reed. It’s weird, you just can’t imagine it.
Florian: I want a picture of the ideal reed.
Butler: The picture means nothing (laughs). But are you feeling my pain?
Florian: Yes, I am.
Butler: Imagine it this way: if a violinist had to make a bow every day in order to play, and the bow hair was crappy, and the wood is awful… that’s what we oboists are dealing with. Plus, as soon as you make the reed, it begins to die. The reed is made of bamboo, which was a living organic thing. Because you are blowing into it, your saliva, which has enzymes that helps destroy the food you eat, is also destroying the reed too! Eventually the reed will just die – the vibrancy is gone because your saliva has killed it. You can’t resurrect something that enzymes have literally eaten away. The little soldier is gone.
Florian: And, as you said earlier, you’re only as good as your last performance. I’m curious about your experience as a freelancer. How did it feel to be a freelance classical musician in New York City in the 1980s?
Butler: I came into freelancing after college, in the 80s, 90s and the 2000s. I retired in 2008. Back then, there were many orchestras in New York City and the surrounding areas that had concert series of four to eight performances a year. I held positions in many of these orchestras. We had a robust performing community. One of the unique things about freelancing is that I played with a wide variety of fantastic players. The personnel of these orchestras were always changing. Say you’d have three concerts in one week – four rehearsals for each concert. One job is a certain group of musicians, the other job is another group of musicians, and you know them and their playing very well. This requires flexibility and is extremely interesting on a musical level. And I did make a good living – always paid my bills.
Florian: How about your current projects? You mentioned that you’re writing a novel. What is it about?
Butler: Yes, this is a work in progress. It is set in New York City about a man named Pickle, and features the George Washington Bridge.
Florian: It seems that you’re fascinated with New York City.
Butler: This city has a heart and soul like no other. I’ve lived here since 1973 and I adore every nook and cranny of New York City. The culture is so diverse and somehow every single last person makes an impact. Goethe said music is liquid architecture and architecture is frozen music. All I need to do is look up and there’s the skyline – the buildings – making their own music. I turn the corner, and there’s another symphony for my eyes. It’s a great place to live.

 

 

 

 

 

Marcia Butler was a professional oboist in New York City for over 25 years. In 2002 she formed her interior design firm, Marcia Butler Interior Design. Now as a writer, her memoir, The Skin Above My Knee (Little, Brown) will be published February 21, 2017. She is currently at work on a novel.
Ileana Florian is a Romanian American author. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Mulberry Fork Review, and edited collections. She is the essays editor of ducts.org and is currently at work on a nonfiction book about growing up in socialist Romania.

 

 

[INTERVIEW] Chloe Caldwell on I’ll Tell You In Person

Publisher: Coffee House Press in collaboration with Emily Books
Publication date: October 4, 2016
Number of pages: 184
Price: $16.95

 

REVIEW AND INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

With stories about growing up and fearing growing old, friendships and friend foibles, the intimacies of obsession and the intricacies of depression, I’ll Tell You In Person is an essay collection as vulnerable as it is blunt. Chloe Caldwell’s sharp wit and keen powers of observation are in full force in her newest book.

Caldwell takes readers on an odyssey through turbulent formative years of heroin, binge eating, Craigslist dating, the loss of a close friend, coming out, living in Europe, best friends, ex-friends, relationship blunders, encounters with celebrities, and all the experiences of youth that make us who we are. I inhaled Caldwell’s essays with unusual quickness—losing track of time, forgetting the presence of people around me, being fully present and absorbed in a way that only the words of a gifted essayist can produce.

I’ll Tell You In Person chronicles young adulthood with aplomb. Though it can feel as if the reader is meant to recall her own adolescent calamities and stack them up for comparison, this collection isn’t some righteous manifesto. There is no moral to the story because, as seasoned writers know, stories don’t need morals.

***

I talked to Chloe about her book and the challenges of writing personal essays. (This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Mandy Shunnarah: I have to start off by congratulating you because I read I’ll Tell You In Person faster than any book in recent memory. One of the elements I most adored about the book is that you’re deeply self-deprecating without being overly critical or judgmental of yourself, and without apologizing. I got the sense that writing about your past heroin addiction, binge eating, masturbation, job woes, and nearly over-drafting your bank account to impress a millionaire celebrity was cathartic. Tell me more about your writing process and the emotional pilgrimage of writing this book.

Chloe Caldwell: Thank you! I’m touched you felt that way. The essays all came to be in different ways and times. “Yodels” I wrote back in 2013 for The Rumpus. “Soul Killer” I sent to Salon that same year because I had no money and $150 was a lot for me. Same with “The Laziest Coming Out Story.” So half of the book was already written without being considered a book. I began putting the essays together and then added five new ones over the course of 2014-2016.

I don’t know if it gives me any sort of relief or catharsis at all. The tough thing about this book was I was super broke during the process of putting it together, and submitting it to publishers. It’s stressful to work on a book without money, because to have time, you need money. It was difficult for me to sit and work on essays when I knew I should be working at my dad’s music store for money or catering or finding more teaching jobs.

MS: With I’ll Tell You In Person being your second collection of essays, how did you find yourself evolving as you explored more facets of what it means to grow up?

CC: It’s hard to talk about this stuff, it’s so ephemeral. I’ve always been smart in spite of my stupid choices and have been hyper-aware enough to know I could only make ridiculous decisions before I got older. And now I am older. It’s a creepily acute feeling I have at thirty, both like a child and a grown woman. My life is unconventional in the sense that I documented my wilder years. It’s not that I did anything more interesting than anyone else, it’s just that I have it out there in the form of a book. I feel myself evolving in many ways—I’ve always been into growth and therapy, etc., but I like to keep some of my evolving private.

MS: You share very openly in your work, though it sounds like people are always wanting more. What’s that like? How do you separate yourself from your work and maintain a personal life as a personal essay writer?

CC: I share openly in my work and in my life as well, mostly. But my essays are by no means my life story. There’s a ton I haven’t written about. The essays are just what I thought would be entertaining or enjoyable for a reader, what I had ideas for. People are definitely always wanting more and it’s a slippery slope. Luckily, I have an awesome therapist who used to work in publishing in NYC and knows a lot about the writer lifestyle, reads my books, and is familiar with the “scene” and the authors and books I mention. She’s helped me create clear boundaries around a lot of this stuff.

As Maggie Nelson says, “I don’t worry about people who ‘think they know me’ because, not to sound flip, they just literally don’t.” I’m paraphrasing, but I feel the same way. I have a private life just like everyone. I just write about certain “slices of life” if you will excuse that horrendous expression. “Prime Meats,” for example, is about something I did ten years ago. So I don’t feel super close to a lot of the essays in the collection.

MS: You seem at peace with your younger self, and I get the feeling that’s something a lot of people wish they could do. How did you get to that point? Was it a difficult place to reach when, as a writer of personal essays, you’re inevitably reaching into the past?

CC: Well, I don’t think I thought of it as a point to get to or a place to reach, which helps. I guess it’s just part of my make up, and comes naturally to me, which is why I ended up being a personal nonfiction writer—a lifestyle most certainly not for everyone. I did some weird shit in my youth, but who doesn’t? Plus, it got me to where I am: healthy, with books published, a job I love. My life is filled with the classes I teach, so I’m constantly reading personal essays of other people’s mistakes, so to me, it’s the new normal.

MS: The title harkens an intimacy that’s present on every page. Considering how I inhaled the book it almost feels strange that you’re not actually my real life best friend telling me these stories in person. Are these essays stories you did tell people in person before writing them down?

CC: No, they weren’t. I was just texting that phrase to my friends/family all the time about small things, like what I felt about a movie I’d just seen or whatever. I felt limited on text message and email and many of my close girl friends live in cities across the country from me, so I liked saving up anecdotes until I saw them in person and we could chat over glasses of wine. I liked the conversational tone of it for a book title, so it stuck. None of the essays aside from “Hungry Ghost” are exactly riveting stories or anecdotes. That’s why I say in the opener that I don’t necessarily have “good stories.” I’m more the kind of writer who tries to make narrative out of nothing.

 

 

Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though she calls Birmingham, Alabama, home. She writes personal essays, book news, and historical fiction. Her writing has been published in The Missing Slate and Deep South Magazine. You can find more of her work at her website, offthebeatenshelf.com.

[INTERVIEW]: Yaa Gyasi on HOMEGOING

BY ASHLEY M. JONES

Yaa Gyasi’s explosive debut novel, Homegoing, has earned national acclaim, and for good reason–this book is masterful in its craft, powerful in its message, and maybe greater than all of that, it explores mostly every side of the African Diaspora from the slave trade (including African involvement in the acquisition and movement of slaves, which is something I don’t see often in literature on the subject, and Gyasi manages to do this without feeding into the warped narrative that because some Africans were involved in slavery, it is somehow made “okay” or above critique by modern Black thinkers), to wrongful imprisonment to funnel black workers into coal mines and other industries, to modern descendants of this family who finally return home, even if they don’t exactly know what that “home” really means.

I devoured this book greedily, and although this book has garnered comparison to Roots, it is a fresh story, a new voice, and another necessary genealogical journey that is taking its place in literary history.

I was lucky enough to talk to Yaa (YG) recently about her new book, the writing process, and the place of politics in literature. See the interview below:

 

AMJ: I’d like to start off by congratulating you on your success with HOMEGOING—a debut is a tricky thing, I know. Can you talk about the process of writing this book? Did you know it was a hit?

YG: I got a grant in 2009 from Stanford to travel to Ghana to conduct research for a novel, and I had kind of a different idea in mind. I wanted to write something about mothers and daughters, and I wanted to visit the area that my mother is from—the central region. But as soon as I got there, I kind of knew it wasn’t going to pan out. A friend and I decided to visit the Cape Coast Castle, and so I visited the castle, I took the tour, and the tour guide started to mention how there were soldiers who lived and worked in the castle who sometimes married the local women, which was something I had never heard before. And then they took us down into the dungeons. And that was really kind of the genesis of this project for me.

I kind of immediately felt haunted by the material, and I knew that I wanted to write about it. And I kind of took a circuitous route—in the beginning I’d wanted to write something that was set in the present, in present-day America, and then just flash back to Ghana in the 18th century, so you could kind of see what slavery had left us now, but then I realized that over time I was actually more interested in being able to watch things move as they changed kind of subtly over this long period of time. Once I realized that, I changed the structure to the one that you see now, one that would allow me to stop in as many decades along the way as possible. And so I wrote the first two chapters when I got to Iowa in 2012, and they’re pretty similar to the way they appear in the book now, so those felt like really urgent and different than anything I’d ever done before in a really good way. And from there, I made a family tree that I put up on my wall that looks a lot like the one at the beginning of the book, but mine also included the dates during which the bulk of the chapter would take place, and also one thing was going on in the background, politically or historically during the time period, so the Yaa Asantewaa War, the beginning of cocoa farming in Ghana, something like that. And then, I wrote chronologically, and I stopped at the beginning of each chapter to do a little research on whatever it was that I had written. So I would grab a book like Black Prisoners and Their World, before starting a chapter, and I read as much as I could, enough to make me feel like I was in the world. And after that, I closed the research book and let my imagination take over, because I didn’t want it to be all stifled by research.

And that’s kind of how I worked. And I wasn’t sure—I said before that I felt like it was different than anything I’d ever written, and it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to be objective about your work in that way. But I have a great reader, she’s been reading my work since my freshman year of college, and I remember sending her the first two chapters, like right after I had written them, and she emailed me back, “this is the best thing you’ve ever written, keep going.” So that was kind of my clue that I had landed on something that I wanted to explore further.

AMJ: You sort of answered this in the first response, but I’ll ask again: as far as your research, how many books did you have to read?  What was that process like?

YG: I read quite a few books—I listed a few of them in the back, and those are just the ones that I feel like I used pretty heavily. I was worried about—sometimes I read a historical novel and I feel like it was just an opportunity for the writer to tell you everything that they learned about the history in that time period, and you kind of lose the character and the story and those kinds of things that make me want to read fiction in the first place rather than reading a historical text. And so I didn’t want this book to feel that way, I felt like if I ever came to this crossroads where I have to decide between the plot and historical fact that I was going to choose plot—that was kind of how I approached this.

And so, again, my process was just that I would research at the very beginning of each chapter and then I would close the book and just write. If there were things that I came upon that I needed to do more research on then I would make a note of it, so that after I finished the first draft I could go back and look through my notes and try to research things a little more clearly than I had before to get simple answers. Like, what kind of mallet would he have been holding? Those are things that are less fun to research but still kind of necessary.

AMJ: Some people are calling Homegoing this generation’s Roots. Does that seem accurate to you? Do you welcome the comparison?

YG: I never read Roots and I never saw the miniseries. And I haven’t watched the re-make, either, though I’ve been meaning to. I kind of knew that was a comparison that was going to be made just because of the nature of this book kind of being a genealogical look at a black family. [Roots is] pretty much the original book that deals with that. I totally understand the comparison in that way, but I did want to be careful to not feel as though I was having to answer to Roots as I was writing, and so I kind of made the choice to not read it. So now I would love to—to sort of get in on that conversation because I haven’t had the best answer to that question after the book came out. But it is interesting to hear other people talk about it. And Roots came out in the 70s and there’s been a lot of changes since then. So it’s nice to have this book come out and see the ways in which the conversation has changed since Roots came out.

AMJ: I definitely see the reason for the comparison, too—although I didn’t think about Roots while I read Homegoing, I definitely think they’re doing something similar for the world. Roots was important to past generations (and present, as most Black kids I know were forced to watch with their parents), and Homegoing, I think, can do something similar for this generation.

The form of the book is particularly striking to me—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book (and this could be because I’m just not reading enough novels) whose story is told entirely through different characters the whole way through without compromising a single plot point. How did you decide to use this form, and was it hard to keep it all so chronological and tight?

YG: I was thinking about ways to do it. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude and I adore that book, I think [Marquez] is a genius and I also kind of quickly knew that I wasn’t going to be able to write a book like that. It just seems too hard. And I thought that the structure would allow me to keep things as simple as possible while letting everything else be big and messy.

I think I’d read other books that kind of have this multiple points of view or long period of time and a lot of those books cover far fewer years than this book does. Or, if it’s about family, there are fewer members of the family, just ways to allow you to come back to a central character. And so I was nervous about trying this, because I knew that it was going to cover too many years to allow me to do that in a realism way. I don’t know, it’s just one of those things—I wouldn’t’ know if it was going to work until I finished the first draft. Not the best position to be in as a writer—working on something that might not gel, but I felt like, in terms of things I didn’t want to compromise on, I thought, the length of time that this book covers was one of them. I really wanted to go from 18th century Ghana to present-day America and how I was going to get there—I wasn’t quite sure, but I was going to try this structure, finish the first draft, read it over, and see if it made any sense.

AMJ: I think Homegoing has some political aspects, even if it might not be immediately apparent, that work is at play in the novel. Some have said that literature and politics don’t mix, others say that artists are the true “reporters” of the times in which they live.  Maybe this is mostly said about poetry, but I’m wondering, even as a fiction writer, do you think the writer/artist has a political responsibility? Can/should politics and art coexist?

YG: So many of the writers that I admire are writers who very overtly talk about politics or history. Writers like Toni Morrison or James Baldwin. It’s a part of who they are and it’s a part of their literature and I couldn’t ever have imagined being the kind of writer who didn’t write about anything. And I also don’t believe that that kind of writer exists.

I think a lot of white male writers get to believe that they are writing these neutral stories, but when I read them I feel the politics in them. The politics of exclusion, or the politics of white supremacy or whatever it is. So I just don’t believe that we’re capable of writing something that is divorced from history or divorced from politics.

The fact that this book feels overtly political, I think that’s something about the place that we are in. But, I think that it is something that I knew that I had to do and wanted to do and I didn’t want to shy away from including that. And, a lot of the books that I love don’t shy away from including that.

AMJ: We’re both raised in Alabama—I’m born and raised in Birmingham, and you grew up in Huntsville (by way of Ghana). Did your experience as a southerner impact your decision to write this book? Do you feel like you’re putting Alabama on the literary map in a new way?

YG: I don’t know if I identify as a southerner. I was born in Ghana, then I lived in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, and then Alabama. I kind of moved around a lot, and in a lot of ways, I think that this book reflects that kind of restlessness of place that I tend to have.

But, at the same time, Alabama was the most formative place in my life. It’s still the place that I think of as home, it’s where my family is, it’s where my little brother spent all of his life, and so my relationship to Alabama is really important to me, and I don’t think that I could have written a book like this if I hadn’t grown up in Alabama.

I came from a country that had involvement in the slave trade, then I end up in a place where the effects of slavery are still so strongly felt, and it’s something that wasn’t lost on me, and it’s something that I was sort of unconsciously navigating my entire childhood, going home to Ghanaian parents and being told all the ways that I wasn’t African American, then leaving my house and being African American to the rest of the world, and trying to figure out what that meant for me ,and what that meant for my brothers. And all of that is in this book—questions of identity, questions of identity as it pertains to ethnicity and race and country and all of those things are in here. I think if I hadn’t grown up in Alabama, I don’t know that I would have had the same kinds of questions.

AMJ: What new projects are you working on?

YG: I started another novel. I like to have something that I’m working on when another thing that I’m working on frustrates me, so I started it kind of a long time ago. But it’s still in the very early stages. It’s set in the present, it feels pretty different than this one. But, I think I’m starting to realize that with every project it’s going to be really different and I’m going to have to relearn how to do this work every time, and that’s where I am with it.

 

 

 

Yaa Gyasi is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, AL. Homegoing (Knopf) is available for purchase now.

Ashley M. Jones received an MFA from Florida International University. She was a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award Recipient. Her debut collection, Magic City Gospel, is forthcoming from Hub City Press.

WHITE SHOES

From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth Faustine

From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth

Nona Faustine is a Brooklyn native and graduate of The School of Visual Arts and the ICP-Bard MFA program. Her work explores womanhood, the Black American experience, history and folklore, gender, and identity politics. Her current work, the White Shoes series, are self-portraits taken in and around New York City at locations with ties to slavery. The photos feature Faustine, nude save a pair of white pumps, sometimes on what looks like an auction block, in various slave auction or burial sites in NYC. [PANK]’s Ashley M. Jones (AMJ) chatted with Faustine (NF) about her White Shoes series, art’s responsibility, and what’s on the horizon for Faustine’s art.

AMJ: I’d love to know more about your creative process. Do the images appear to you, do you happen upon them? How does it all work?

NF: The work is about being in places of slavery or where history is very strongly linked to these places. Then, there’s the self-portrait. So it’s really me finding these places and putting myself in those places. Most of them are forgotten, not known—except for the African burial ground—so it’s just a matter of me finding these places and then deciding what I want to say in them, and calling attention to them. It’s sort of an instinctual process. Once I find these sites and find out about the history of them, it’s sort of instinctual as to what I do. The nudity part is the easy part…well, not so easy. It’s still very hard for me at times.

AMJ: I know that the White Shoes series aims to illuminate the black body, power and powerlessness, and history’s imprint on the present. Can you talk a little bit about reactions you’ve received from this project?

NF: I think that people really do understand it. Particularly people of color. I mean, they see what is happening to black bodies now and [what] has been [happening]. They see themselves put in the images, and we as people of color, we have this long history and relationship with oppression. History is written across our bodies—we see it when we see a black face. It’s sort of instinctual. That kind of oppression and brutality goes hand in hand with the black body but there’s also a beauty there. There’s so much more than sadness in the black body. There’s so much grace, there’s so much strength, there’s so much beauty, there’s so much knowledge. When you look at a black body, to me—and perhaps to other people, too—when you look at a black person, you read so much depth and complexity.

People have embraced the work tremendously. I am looking at social media because that’s how the public was introduced to my work. I read the comments and things like that—people tell me I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. And they also contact me. I’ve been contacted by many people who have come across the work and their response is so heartfelt. It comes from the heart and is so sincere. They just say things and they encourage—they love the series but they also encourage me, they also say how they’ve connected with the work, how they’ve been moved by it. It’s not only from people of color, but white people, too. One guy told me about his family history, and how he has slave owners in his family’s history and how it really made him think of his own personal history. And then Black women who are just dying to see a real, full representation of who they are, you know. An ordinary woman, not a celebrity. And a lot of people are also in pain; they just want something that connects and expresses their pain. But also people are very appreciative of the work as a piece of art, and that’s always the first thing that I want people to connect with as well, to look at it as a piece of art, worthy of doing what art does—moving us, making us ask questions about who we are and how we got here. And [I’m] looking at the canon of photography and what I’m saying and contributing to that historically, and they’re getting it.

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Of My Body I Will Make Monuments In Your Honor

AMJ: What this project has done to or for you, personally/spiritually?

NF: Well, you know you make the art for yourself because that’s number one. You make it because you have to. I had to. There was something deep down in my soul that was very pressing and that I had to do. It became like a therapy for me, speaking about all the things that I felt about society and history and myself as a new mother, as a woman, as a black woman, [and] as an artist starting the series in grad school, and so personally, it has liberated me. It has given me courage and strength and it has boosted my self-esteem—not that I lacked self-esteem—but it has empowered me.

AMJ: Although I’ve never stood, naked in a crowded city, and I’m sure everyone is asking this, but I have to ask, too. How did you prepare yourself for this project? Did the need to make the art overpower our human urge to hide?

NF: For me, after I had had my baby my whole life and perspective changed about who I was as a woman and my body and my connection to that. And, of course, growing up, as a teenager and as a young woman, you develop these complex issues around the body, and particularly if you’re a plus sized woman—and I’ve always been a big girl—so you are constantly dealing with the messages that society’s sending you, that your family’s sending you, and there’s you and how you feel about it. And then at a certain point, like when I had my baby, it was like I just wanted to celebrate the body, but I also wanted to talk about that thing that has held many of us down and many of us back as women. To hide, to be shamed and be ashamed of your big breasts, your big behind, your big thighs, whatever, and it was like, you know, I just wanted to clapback society, and also talk about how the body has been used. The black female body has been used as a breeder as a work horse, all these things, but we’re triumphant, and the body is triumphant, and my body is that. Somehow I connected that and also the beauty.

I spent that summer when I first started the project—the summer before—spending it at the beach for the first time, and seeing all these bodies that were all different sizes and saying yes. And I think what happened was that through all of that, the project became so passionate, the ideas—I became so passionate about it, I just had to do this. Once I decided to do the nudity, I knew that that was it for me. That was a personal choice that I choose to make, not speaking for anybody else, speaking for me, and I had to do it that way. And I felt that for one, you weren’t seeing, in art, my type of body. That was one thing I was not seeing, and if you saw it, it was as Sarah Baartman, the Venus Hottentot, you know, who was depicted as a freak, and I’m coming at it from that historical point of view, but from the present and it’s a celebration. And a declaration, so it’s the total opposite in that respect. So once I decided to go forward with the nudity, like, I had to and it was important.

AMJ: To me, there’s no shame in the images. When I look at it, I don’t read shame at all.

NF: But you know, some people, they are ashamed. I have seen comments from people saying, oh, you need to lose weight, you looked ridiculous. But those are problems they have with themselves. You hear white men, and some black men who talk in a bad way about it. But of course those issues are their own and they really don’t have anything to do with me. They have something to do with how they have been conditioned by their society, not only to hate people who are different but also [hate] themselves.

AMJ: You said in an interview that “artists serve as the world’s conscience.” I believe that, too, and I wonder if you’d talk more about what you wanted to tell the world as its conscience with this series, and with your art as a whole. What was missing from the world’s thought stream that you sought to add?

LIke A Pregnant Corpse The Ship Expelled Her Into the Patriarchy Faustin...

Like A Pregnant Corpse The Ship Expelled Her Into The Patriarch

NF: I sought to make the world in remembrance. And [I sought to make] a memorial to African slaves who were brought here. At the heart of the work, those sites are all we have left of a history and a people who contributed to building a country, a nation. And a city, the city of New York. That’s at the heart of what I’m talking about. And there’s hardly any places to go to mourn, to reflect about these people. They’ve been buried. In New York, they’re buried under twenty-five feet of landfill. Literally, they’ve put twenty-five feet of landfill over those graves. So we’re in the foundation, so to speak, of our city and of our country. The United States’ economy was built on slavery. You cannot deny that. They’re writing books, they’re analyzing, scholars are breaking it down to the decimal point. For us not to have a museum or a place—the United States government pretty much doesn’t even recognize it, and I felt like that was a big thing I wanted to do, and I’m not saying that I fully did it—I’m just saying that I needed to make that contribution, and I wasn’t seeing that. And that that was something that was deep inside me that I wanted to talk about, you know? I just needed to talk about it. I felt like it was an invisibility/visibility kind of thing. Truly, in this case, it is a visibility invisibility thing. You see the descendants of the African slaves every day in us, but they’re not recognized as the contributors of this nation that they were. To me, they made the ultimate sacrifice. They survived that long journey across the transatlantic, sometimes they died, oftentimes they were murdered, they were thrown overboard, but the ones that made it here and that were able to have children who had children—we’re the ultimate survivors.

AMJ: Your work, to me, shows that you feel responsible to deliver thought-provoking art. What would you say is the artist’s responsibility?

NF: You know, it’s very personal for each artist. I think all of art in some way does that. I think art and artists are not only responsible for filling the world with beautiful objects and things, but I think they’re also doing something to move us—move us to action, move us to remember, move us to think about complex issues, and I think much of the best artwork does that, at least for me. When I see work by Barbara Kruger, she’s one of them, one of what I would call like the activist type of artist. But also work by Andy Warhol, who talks about commercialism and consumption, who talks about who is seen and who is considered beautiful and what is beauty. He talks about our society—there’s a series he does about the protests—the civil rights protests in Alabama and Mississippi. He does a series of images of the protesters being bitten by dogs and the police beating on them and then he colors them, and he’s zeroed in on that moment of brutality in such a way, and it grabs you. And that’s what art does. That’s the power in it.

AMJ: What’s next for you? Are you working on any special projects?

NF: I have a solo show January 9th at Smack Mellon. I’m still continuing the White Shoes—there’s so many [to do]. The thing about why I’m continuing it: one, it’s a very big topic, a lot of places still to go. But there’s still this overwhelming denial and [there are] revisionists at work, trying to cover up, deny, play down not only slavery and what happened in slavery but the places [which] are being erased. Literally being erased and covered up. For instance, there’s a place in Virginia, and it was a port where slaves were brought and sold, and they’re trying to build a stadium there. There’s still a lot of places I need to go—I don’t care what anybody says. I need to go, I need to document it because I believe it’s important [for] the future—our children, our children’s children. [It’s important] that there’s some kind of record.

I saw, at the Met, a beautiful show of African photographers documenting their time, portraits of people, beautiful women, Black women with these elaborate hairdos, these women would go to Malick Sidibé’s studio, and they’d be dressed to the nines, and it took place in the 1960s and 70s, and some of them even further back, but it is an example of the beauty and the work of Africa. We were told that there was nothing there—that there’s no civilization, there’s nothing worthy of celebrating and holding on to. I was like, in 100 years, 200 years, [it is important] for these images, for people to see how we reacted to our environment and what was going on. I would like for there to be a documented testimony to our time. I think about that because a lot of time you wonder, where’s the record for back then? What was it like? What did people feel, what did they think? And I just felt like that was going to be my piece to the puzzle, this series.

I’m also always working on other things like for instance, every summer I go to Coney Island and I take pictures of people on the beach—they don’t know it—but I’m taking pictures of them. It’s called From My Beach Chair, because that’s where I’m sitting. And then I’m also taking pictures of my family—I love portraiture, and I’ve been documenting my family. We’re a multi-generational household—four women in my house—my mother, my sister, my daughter and I, and I’m taking portraits of them as well. So I have my hands in a lot of different things.

For more info about Faustine, White Shoes, and other work, visit her website.

White Shoes opens at Smack Mellon on Jan. 9th at 5pm. It runs until February 21st. Faustine’s work was selected as an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Camera Club of New York Competition, and it has received coverage at The Huffington Post, Hyperallergic, Greybook Magazine, Dodge and Burn Blog, and other publications. Faustine’s work has been exhibited in “For Colored Girls” at the Shomburg Center for Black Research in Harlem, “Respond” at Smack Mellon, and in “Take 10 at the International Center of Photography.” Faustine will open her solo show, White Shoes, on Saturday, January 9th from 5-8pm at Smack Mellon. The show will run until February 21, 2016.

AMJ

Over My Dead Body Faustine

Over My Dead Body

“I had to write about what I was seeing”: a Conversation with Jeff Condran

–Interview by Jason R. Poole

 

Jeff Condran and I first met in his Intro to Fiction course at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. We’ve kept in touch over the years, during which Jeff has co-founded Braddock Avenue Books, published a story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated, and also his debut novel, Prague Summer. Jeff now teaches Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

 
Jason R. Poole: Both your short story collection and your novel share focal points in the post-9/11 intersection of Arab and American cultures. What drew you to this subject matter?

Jeff Condran: In the fall of 2001, I was teaching at La Roche College in suburban Pittsburgh. The college offered a scholarship program called Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) by which students were brought from “conflict and post-conflict nations” to study in the United States. And so my classes were filled with 18-25 year old Arabs from all over the Middle East—Palestine, Jordan, Saudia Arabia, Yemen.

It was a life-changing experience to walk into class on that Tuesday in September and discover a group of what had been generally untroubled expatriate college students who were excited about being in America and see them utterly transformed. Now people saw them as the enemy or, if not, at least the sudden spokespeople for all of Arab and Islamic culture. It was a horrible position for them to find themselves in. The FBI came on to campus and interviewed many of my students, asking them questions like, “Is Osama bin Laden your uncle?” and, later, arresting and detaining those they perceived as having violated various aspects of the Patriot Act.

I felt I had to write about what I was seeing.

 

JRP: Prague Summer has its origin in one of the stories from your collection. What made you decide to explore the story at greater length? What was that process like? Continue reading

The Lightning Room with Tyrese Coleman

Tyrese Coleman’s compact, powerful story “How to Sit,” from the March/April issue, contains three generations of women, explosive in their anger and love. Below, Tyrese talks pride, beauty, and the stories we carry in our bodies, our bodies carry into the world.

 

–interview by Diana Clarke

 

1. The narrative voice in “How to Sit” is so raw, furious and vulnerable, in particular where you describe how the grandmother’s “toenails are close to my leg. They are daggers. And if they were attached to her fingers, and if she were forty-seven and not sixty-seven, she would use them to scratch my face for pitying her.” How did you write into that place of anger and imminent violence?

I was mad, spitting mad, about a situation that I could not control when I wrote this. And in trying to understand who and what I was mad about, I considered the idea of being so frustrated that physical violence, down right fighting, is the only possible release in some cases.

But, what brings a person to that level? I personally feel it’s the failure to meet your own expectations. A woman like the grandmother in “How to Sit” is not a person used to being suffered. She was a star! And the worst thing that could happen to a woman so fiercely independent, to the extent of debilitating selfishness, is to be caged or told there is anything at all she cannot do. Pride causes that. Pride and having certain expectations out of life. And when the realization happens that, despite the visceral desire to change the situation, you are trapped and now, indeed, you are someone to be pitied, well, there is nothing left to do with your arms and legs and nails, but to scratch and fight, to show whoever it is that thinks they know you better than you know yourself, enough so that they have the audacity to pity you, that you are still someone to be reckoned with. Continue reading

The Lightning Room with Jenny Xie

 

–interview by Diana Clarke

 

Is it too much to say that Jenny Xie’s story “Wendy Beside Herself,” Wendy finds herself even as she loses her own arm? Of course it is. Wendy doesn’t find herself—none of us ever do. But, in Jenny’s words, “our remembrance of loss is an acceptance of that fissure; it becomes a part of our architecture.” The search, the gaps, is all there is.

Arm_cut

1. The opening line of “Wendy Beside Herself” does such interesting things with time. By writing “Three years after Wendy Tsai loses her right arm…” you situate the reader in a present informed by loss. Before we know anything about Wendy, we know what she is missing—and even though the loss happened three years ago, the news of it is delivered in the present tense. How do losses shift and change with age? How do we integrate them into our sense of self?

There’s an element of traumatic loss that always remains incomprehensible. I think it’s our tendency to return to a moment of loss in an attempt to understand it, but it’s an intellectual and emotional orbiting that never really brings us closure. As we change and age, our remembrance of loss is an acceptance of that fissure; it becomes a part of our architecture.

2. Just looking at your story, I was struck by the form, the em-dashed dialogue tags rather than more standard quotation marks. That formatting made each piece of speech visually startling, an upset to the urgent, visual descriptions in the rest of the piece. What inspired you to shape dialogue in that way? Continue reading

The Lightning Room: Blog People

When Temim Fruchter began writing her monthly column Between the Bones for the [PANK] blog, she described “[m]y blunt grown-up pancake feet, with their no arches, my feet with their chipped red polish, my feet like a golem’s – ungraceful stones, impostors in shoes.” This former drummer for the Jewish feminist punk band The Shondes maintains historical immediacy and bodily consciousness in this edition of our series of interviews with the blog people, who keep the [PANK] internet chugging and full of poetry.

 
Interview by Diana Clarke
 

1. Many of us are scattered across the country and only know one another, and our writers, from the internet. Where do you blog from? 
 
I blog from a house on the edge of a forest in Washington, DC.

2. In what ways is a blog person like a bog person?  Continue reading

The Lightning Room with Amy Blakemore

 

–Interview by Diana Clarke

 

In Amy Blakemore’s story “Exit Strategies,” a woman whose body is a paper bag begs outside a diner. Below, Blakemore names and claims desire, hunger, and the way trauma seeps past the edges of its occurrence and into our bodies, our lives.

 

1. You make such interesting use of juxtaposition: “Crispy bacon. She’s been on a diet since she was fourteen. It took me years to pop the question.” What do hunger, forbidden food, marriage, and fear have to do with one another?

This is a story, among others things, about suppressed appetites. I think it takes bravery to accept and fulfill our hungers. It requires us to accept that we are not always in control: that we are not always rational creatures. I wanted to write about two characters who, like most of us, had not accepted this—a girl who thought she could undo years of deprivation, a boy who thought he could help her without allowing his own desires to influence the texture of that “help.” Writing this story, at points, felt like a game of Whac-a-Mole: when a character pushed something down, a new and unexpected face appeared. Food became love, love became fear. When our desires are held down, for long enough, they start to shift and change—think of bones under pressure, and how they splinter. Continue reading