Hybrid (kitchen/language/literature) spaces: a conversation with Matthew Baker


(LSU Press, 2018)

We are navigating a tight kitchen. Matthew Baker is peeling sprouts off potatoes that have been aging on the counter. He’s planning to make corn chowder. I’m pouring baking soda into a measuring cup. When he reaches for a knife, I am using it to chop garlic. The pot I’ve put out to boil water for my pretzel rolls, he places a square of butter in for his soup. We move in sync and completely out of tune. We’re wearing pajamas. We’re wearing pajamas because we’re both writers who work from home, and also, we live in that home together. Much before our co-habitation, we interrogated one another at an artist residency in Vermont. Ever since, we’ve bombarded each other with questions, sometimes in a hybrid of languages. We are not strangers to inquisition, and Baker is no stranger to formal experimentation, as his debut novel, If You Find This (Little Brown, 2015), a middle grade mystery about familial love and redemption, infuses mathematics and musical notation in the prose. Three years later, enter: Baker’s debut collection. Hybrid Creatures (LSU Press, 2018) is a four-story collection, each of which is told partially in a hybrid language: HTML, mathematics, musical notation and formal logic. I first read the book in an earlier draft in PDF form. Now there is a box of paperbacks from the publisher in my living room. The conceit of Hybrid Creatures is that there are some human experiences that can only be communicated through hybrid tongues. Here, as the author’s partner, now acting as formal interviewer, while cooking alongside him, I will try to do something similar.

JA: Most evenings, when we sit down to talk, we begin with the directive: Tell me a thing or en français: Dit moi un chose, so this shouldn’t be such a leap. Tonight, tell me a thing about the inception of Hybrid Creatures. From writing the first story, did you know you were going to sculpt a collection of hybrid pieces?

MB: (meticulously chopping potatoes in quarters)

My last semester of college, I did an independent study on comics and graphic novels, which got me thinking a lot about different storytelling mediums, and the types of storytelling maneuvers that you can only do in certain mediums. For instance, a really obvious example in film would be how you can switch back and forth between color and black and white, like in The Wizard of Oz, or even Schindler’s List. Or in comics and graphic novels, the types of maneuvers that Chris Ware does with stories told in diagram form. So, I was thinking a lot about that, and about prose, and trying to think of storytelling maneuvers that only prose writers can do.

JA: (watching pretzel rolls as they rise underneath oiled plastic wrap)

That shift into color in The Wizard of Oz is something so particular to the medium. It creates an emotional experience that works solely because we can experience an altered perception of the world visually. I’m wondering about the forms you chose for the stories in Hybrid Creatures. How did you decide which hybrid language was going to go with which narrative?

MB: (plops quartered potatoes into pot)

Well, I didn’t really. I started with the languages. Before I wrote the stories in the book, I wrote a collection of prototype stories, and in each of those, that was all there was, the artificial language, and then I would design the story around that—but I wasn’t satisfied with the prototypes. I wanted to find some way to write stories that not only would use artificial languages from these other fields, but that would incorporate artificial structures from those fields too. So, when I wrote the final stories—the stories in the book—I started with the language, then I chose a structure, and then I designed the entire story around that.

JA: So then the characters in the book, or at least the protagonists or narrators, became people who had a need for that language, or who had an ability to communicate in that language?

MB: (adding butter to sautéing potatoes)

Yeah, the narrator or the protagonist of each story was determined by whatever the lexicon of that particular story was going to be—someone who would speak that language, and who might interpret their experiences and understand their world through that language, and through the corresponding artificial structure.

I like that we’re doing this while we’re cooking, but I also wish that we could just look at each other while we’re talking.

JA: (walks over to stove, stares at Baker)

In contrast to those complex structures, I was struck by how traditional the stories themselves were. It felt almost like an equation—if you had equally complex narratives, in addition to the experimental forms, maybe the stories wouldn’t work.

MB: (stirring sautéing potatoes)

That wasn’t a realization I made until after I had written the prototypes. One of the prototypes was this story published in Conjunctions called “Proof Of The Monsters.” Not only was that story experimenting with the linguistics of formal logic, but it also was randomly written in diary form, and then it also had these speculative sci-fi elements—it was just too much. There was too much happening. So, that was a lesson I learned from writing that story: I needed to simplify things.

When I first started seriously writing, one of my writing mentors was the poet Jack Ridl. You’ve never met him. He’s this kind, wise old poet. After spending three semesters together, the final thing he said to me about my work, the one lesson he wanted me to take away was: If you are going to do a weird thing, only do one weird thing at a time. He probably phrased it much more articulately than that, but that was the gist of it and that was what I took away.

JA: My mentor, Elissa Schappell said something similar about how to balance language and action—the necessity to lower one when amping up the other.

MB: (adding water to pot)

Only do one weird thing at a time was very important advice for me as a writer—in some ways it was the key to figuring this project out.

JA: I have to ask about the mathematics story, “The Golden Mean.” I find that story to be the strongest in the collection, for several reasons, but one being that there is an emotional honesty and vulnerability that is enormously affecting. As you know, I write from experiences that very much look like life, situationally, although my characters are always fictively constructed. You have a very similar familial makeup to the protagonist in “The Golden Mean” in that you come from divorced parents and move between two families. What happens when we write from life?

MB: (laughs and turns the intensity of the stove burner up)

That’s a brilliant question. Can I respond with a question of my own: Is this all the corn we have?

JA: (grabs stool and heads to cabinet)

I believe so, but let me check—oui, mais we have two cans of black beans.

MB: Merci beaucoup, we don’t need them.

JA: Bien. I didn’t forget my question. And don’t forget to warn me when it’s time to start boiling pretzel rolls.

MB: Parfait, we aren’t quite there yet.

JA: The mathematics story—

MB: (adding corn to pot)

Right. When I wrote my children’s novel, If You Find This, I deliberately wrote a book about a dying grandfather as a way to try to process the experience of losing my grandfather. The process of writing that book was therapeutic for me. But for “The Golden Mean,” it wasn’t about trying to figure out anything for myself—it was about trying to express, the best that I could, what it’s like to be a person caught in the circumstance of existing in two families simultaneously.

JA: And you achieve that with the structural division. We feel the incompleteness. In your first book, even if you wrote it, in part, to process your grief, you were also able to intimately communicate the experience of loss to your readers. But here, I suppose what you’re saying is: the math story is less for you and more for us.

MB: Exactly. For me, this project was about taking these very familiar cliché storylines—having divorced parents, losing your spouse, having dementia—and attempting to find a way to make a reader truly feel those experiences. Trying to develop a storyline to use in conjunction with formal logic, for instance, I realized that writing about a character with dementia could potentially be very powerful, because for a character who thinks about the world in terms of formal logic, there would be nothing more devastating or world-altering than to lose the ability to think logically, in a clear sequential order.

JA: That devastation is palpable. It reminds me about what we were speaking about last night, the book and subsequent film Still Alice, and the play Wit. I think in all three examples, the third being Hybrid Creatures, there is a nuanced dimension of poignancy when the individual experiencing failing mental capacity identifies so deeply with their intellect.

MB: And of course, not everyone has a job that requires working with an artificial language or that necessarily shapes the way that you perceive the world. I think many people do experience this, though, across a wide range of fields. For instance, I have a brother-in-law who’s a chemist—maybe that’s a strange way to phrase it, because you know who my brother-in-law is, but for readers—

JA: He’s also very good at board games, but, yes, your brother-in-law, the chemist—

MB: I asked him recently how much his study of chemistry affects his everyday experience of the world. Like for instance, if he was cooking and he was caramelizing some onions and he had butter and sugar and salt and onions in a pan, was he thinking about the chemical reactions happening in the pan at that moment, as he was cooking, or was he just thinking about how good the caramelizing onions smelled?

JA: (hops onto counter)

I love that question.

MB: He said that the answer was both, that he’d be thinking about how good the caramelizing onions smelled, but that he’d be thinking about the chemical reactions happening in the pan too, and that to some extent he’s always thinking about it—that his knowledge of chemistry affects every experience he has. The first time I ever saw that phenomenon replicated in fiction was in the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin—have you read that?

JA: I have not.

MB: Oh, you need to read it. It’s brilliant—also, time to start boiling the pretzel rolls.

JA: (hops off counter and turns on oven)

On it. Now, I want to talk about the influence of research on your writing. I know you’re insatiably curious and your hunger for knowledge leads you to incorporate so much from the world into your work. The result is that it feels like you have an intimate knowledge of so many diverse fields—which is another way of saying, like I’ve often suspected, maybe you’re a robot—or another alternative: the internet has given you a way to be a specialist in everything.

MB: (stirring soup)

A lot of it is research. For instance, even though I studied music and knew how to read sheet music and music dynamics, I wasn’t intimately acquainted with the structure of a classical symphony and the structure of the different movements within a classical symphony. Nonetheless, it was important to me for “Movements,” the music story in the collection, that each of the four sections have the same narrative development as the corresponding movement would have in a traditional symphony.

JA: You do a lot of that work in everything you create, where you bury or embed things that an average reader may not pick up on. It seems deeply important to you.

MB: I love video games, and a wonderful and maybe unique tradition within that storytelling medium is the tradition of the Easter egg—hidden content, bonus content, that can be unlocked or discovered if you invest enough time in exploring the story. As a writer, I’m interested in trying to hide as many Easter eggs as possible in each of my stories, to make it as rewarding as possible for a story to be read multiple times—so that potentially, every time it’s read, the reader can make another startling and wonderful discovery. They’re usually in-jokes. Does that make any sense?

JA: (turns on burner for saucepan)

It makes complete sense. The veracity of your worlds comes through in all of your work. I keep thinking about the philosophy story and the conversations that take place throughout it in the background. It’s an interesting experience for the reader because we’re following a protagonist who is confused about where he is and who he is, and you’ve added all this external chatter. In a lesser narrative, that chatter might just be funny or mildly interesting, but here, the conversations feel inherently connected to the larger story.

MB: Well, this was a terrible idea, as usual—

JA: Interviewing while cooking?

MB: Well yeah, that, but also, I got this idea into my head that because “Proof Of The Century” was going to try to tell the entire story of a nearly hundred-year-old man’s life, and because it was also going to try to tell the story of an entire country over that same hundred-year period, I might as well, at the same time, try to incorporate every major subfield of philosophy into the story too.

JA: That is a terrible idea.

MB: So yeah, you’re right, those background conversations at the family “symposium” are meant to contribute thematically, in that these different characters—in a very casual, everyday, holiday get-together setting—are debating a wide range of subjects that philosophers have been debating for centuries. Ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, etc. Maybe that wasn’t your question.

JA: (watches over saucepan as water begins boiling)

I’m not sure I asked one.

MB: Something else I can tell you about “Proof Of The Century” is that it was also important to me that the proofs in the story include all the basic maneuvers used in formal logic. In the same way that in skateboarding there’s this basic vocabulary of tricks or moves that you can do, in formal logic there’s this basic vocabulary of moves or tricks that philosophers use. Modus ponens, modus tollens, etc—they’re the ollies and nollies of formal logic. In thinking about the various proofs embedded within that story, I decided it was important to incorporate all of those maneuvers at least once—which, again, was a terrible idea, but I did it.

JA: (dumping baking soda into saucepan)

You’re you. Of course, you did.

MB: (staring into foaming saucepan)

That’s a fun reaction! If only the chemist could be here to see it.

JA: (begins dropping in pretzel rolls)

C’est le meilleur. I think we should talk about loneliness. Since language is the way we communicate, I’m curious how isolation features into the book. For me, the reading experience created a connection and sort of broke the individual isolation of your characters and I’m wondering if that was intentional—if you thought at all about the fact that language is the means through which we communicate and that your characters exist primarily in varying forms of seclusion.

MB: Well, for a character who thinks about the world in a hybrid language, who is fluent both in English and some artificial language like HTML, I think that can be isolating—in the same way that if you grow up speaking English and Mandarin, when you’re around people who only speak English, sometimes there will be things you want to express that are impossible to say.

JA: (places pretzel rolls on baking sheet)

And I felt like the hybrid languages were a way to express that which would previously be inexpressible.

MB: Yeah, I think for some of the things you could paraphrase it in English or try to find a synonym, but it wouldn’t quite be the same. You translate stories from French, and I know you’ve said that there are words and phrases in French that no matter how close you get to translating them into English words, sometimes you can’t quite capture the meaning. And that’s just as true for HTML, or music dynamics, or math notions, or formal logic, as it is for French and any other natural human language.

JA: In a way your hybrid languages feel like a form of abstract translation. Let me put these in the oven—

MB: I wonder if this is the first author interview ever to be conducted while both the author and the interviewer were in a kitchen cooking a meal together.

JA: Both in pajamas, bumping into each other in a tiny kitchen—actually, let’s talk about us. We sometimes communicate in a hybrid tongue.

MB: Yeah, in this apartment we primarily speak English, but we also speak in French and Spanish and Italian and now Japanese. But yeah, what’s your question?

JA: Well, talk to me about that. I know for me, there is an additional meaning in saying I love you in very rudimentary Japanese. The texture and emotional experience is different than expressing it in English.

MB: Tell me about the experience.

JA: (walks over to where Baker is searching the spice rack)

I think there is this idea that when I say I love you in Japanese, you’re the only person I’ve ever said I love you in that language to before, and it’s this created thing, learning Japanese together—there is an added level of intimacy, not just in its singularity, but in that it’s connected to a culture that means so much to you. Maybe it’s the same thing in reverse with French. Does that make sense?

MB: (holding cayenne)

Désolé, I need to get to the pot.

JA: Tu est le plus romantique. I guess what I’m trying to say is, until I thought deeply about your book and even about having this conversation, I always just took us speaking in those different languages as an aspect of our relationship. I didn’t necessarily sit with what it meant—with why we do it. Or with why it’s so meaningful.

MB: Well, when you speak two languages, say English and HTML, it’s limiting in a way, because most people speak only one of those languages, but it’s also liberating in that with certain people it allows you to communicate in a richer way, or to communicate more than you could communicate before. And when you speak multiple languages—if you speak, like we do, in English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese—then it’s even more liberating because it allows us to say things that we weren’t able to say with English alone. Like I love you, or J’adore tu or Aishiteimasu. Even if they don’t come with subtly different meanings, eventually they take on subtly different meanings, in the same way that sometimes you want to say I’m hungry and sometimes you want to say I’m starving and sometimes you want to say I’m ravenous. I think it feels special and meaningful because it allows us to communicate even very basic things in a deeper, more nuanced way.

JA: I think your stories do the same thing. And I think, in many ways, the characters in your stories probably wouldn’t be able to express themselves without the accompanying languages—or their emotional experiences wouldn’t be able to be communicated without them—Let me just quick check on the pretzel rolls. They’re done!

MB: The soup is ready too.

JA: Parfait, let’s eat.

(walking over to table with soup and pretzel rolls in hand respectively)

MB: (reaching for a pretzel roll)

I’m very grateful to the editors, both at the magazines that originally published these stories and at LSU Press, which published the collection. The formal constraints for this project added a layer of difficulty not only for me but for the editors too. Oh, these pretzel rolls are a masterpiece!

JA: Merci beaucoup, I had to work with my own constraints because we ran out of yeast.

MB: Zut alors.

JA: In thinking again about constraints and experimentation, I’m wondering about Hybrid Fictions, the course you’re currently teaching at my alma mater, The Gallatin School at NYU. Aussi, the soup is trés bien.

MB: Merci beaucoup, Parfait. In Hybrid Fictions we exclusively read and write interdisciplinary fiction: fiction that incorporates subject-specific language, forms, and concepts from other fields of study. Biology, physics, etc. We’re writing stories in the form of architectural blueprints. We’re writing stories in the form of chemical compounds. So, it’s a workshop in a hyper specific subgenre of experimental fiction.

My students registered for this course voluntarily, of course, but still, sometimes these writing prompts make them nervous. I think it can be terrifying, as a young writer, to even conceive of, let alone to actually dare, to break from tradition and to try something new. I think another great fear for young writers is that, if they do attempt something new, that their work will be perceived as gimmicky. Which is a legitimate fear, of course. I try to emphasize that it’s not enough simply to tell a story through some new interesting lexicon, or language, or structure, or form—that it’s still crucial for the story to have an effect on the reader, emotionally and intellectually, and that ideally the experiment should be used to tell a story that’s only possible to tell in this new way.

JA: It isn’t enough to be flashy. It has to actually do something. It has to be affecting.

MB: (dips a pretzel roll into the soup)

To me, that’s the difference between a gimmick and a story that’s worth reading. There are people who write experimental fiction in which there’s absolutely no connection between the experiment and the actual story—the plot and the characters. It’s just an experiment attached to some random story. No matter how brilliant and innovative the experiment is, work like that doesn’t interest me. It’s like watching somebody who’s invented a rocket shoot a rocket into the air for no other purpose than just to show everyone that they can build a rocket. Just to make a loud noise. A bright light in the sky. The experimental fiction that I love, the experimental fiction that excites me, are experiments that are done for a purpose: writers who aren’t just shooting a rocket into the air to show off, but because they’re trying to put a satellite into orbit, or because they’re trying to land astronauts on the moon.

JA: It seems fitting for us to end with space. Both you and your stories are not quite of this world.


Jenessa Abrams is a Norman Mailer Fiction Fellow and a Columbia MFA graduate in fiction and literary translation. She has been awarded fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center and Columbia University. Her writing has been published in Tin House Online, TriQuarterlyJoylandWashington SquareBOMB MagazineGuernicaThe Offing, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Recently, she was named a finalist for Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest and both Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award and Fiction Open Award. Her work was nominated for the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She currently holds a research fellowship at the New York Public Library and is pursuing a graduate degree in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University.

Matthew Baker is the author of Hybrid Creatures, a collection of stories written in hybrid languages, and the children’s novel If You Find This, which was named a Booklist Top Ten Debut and nominated for an Edgar Award. His stories have appeared in publications such as American Short Fiction, New England Review, One Story, Electric Literature, and Conjunctions, and have been anthologized in Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions. A recipient of grants and fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, Prairie Center of the Arts, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, he has also taught at Vanderbilt University, where he was the founding editor of Nashville Review.

Salt Houses author Hala Alyan talks Immigration Through Poetry and Her Upcoming Collection of Poems


Hala Alyan is an award-winning Palestinian American poet, novelist, and clinical psychologist and most recently, the author of Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). But after the long-form fiction, Alyan’s already back to working within poetry, a place she knows well–past collections include Atrium (2012), winner of the 2013 Arab American Book Award in Poetry, Four Cities (2015), and Hijra (Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry.

I talked to Hala about the work, its thematic concerns, and her poetic process.

Laura Metter: Why poetry after a novel?

Hala Alyan: These pieces came organically after I was finished with Salt Houses and had sent the novel off to my publishers for editing. I wrote many of them during a trip to Marfa, Texas last year. I don’t usually plan which genre follows the other; actually, most of the time, I’m working on several projects at once. It helps me stay excited about what I’m working on.

LM: Is there a connection between these poems and your novel?

HA: My new collection is a meditation on the transforming landscapes of womanhood, wifedom, loss and exile. To a certain extent, both the collection and the novel use language as a cultural vehicle of sorts, trying to create a dialogue between two worlds: my American existence and my Arab one, exile and the rebuilding of life in its aftermath.

LM: What went into your process of selection or sharing?

HA: They were painful ones to write, but completing them felt particularly cathartic. Given the legacy of immigration and war in my ancestral homelands, I wanted to share poems that examine that migration, both literally and emotionally.

LM: How do these poems connect to yourself?

HA: They were all written during my actual twenty-ninth year, which was a strange and difficult and marvelous one. In many ways, this collection is my most honest, the one in which I am most transparently myself.

LM: Is there a theme?

HA: If I had to pick one, it would be—the creation of home when all one knows is exile and flight.

LM: What were some of your biggest challenges getting this book finished?

HA: In terms of Salt Houses, I would say discipline when it came to editing was particularly overwhelming. I would keep losing interest and want to start writing something new. I have the easiest time with the “freeflow” part of the writing process, and am most stumped by editing, rereading the same passages over and over. I get so bored…

LM: What helped you finish this collection?

HA: I was lucky enough to secure a couple of residencies over the last year that gave me enough time and space—not to mention access to nature and inspiring artists—to put the final touches on the manuscript.

LM: Do you see yourself continuing more with novels or poems?

HA: Hopefully both. The one thing I’m really excited about experimenting more with is non-fiction, especially personal essays.

LM: What do you want your audience to take away from this collection?

HA: Honesty requires a little fear, at least the way I do it. I’m hoping readers can recognize the truth in these pieces, that they felt urgent and necessary to write. Also, I hope I’ve done the narrative of immigration—as I experienced it in my family—justice.


Laura Metter is a young fictionist and poet based in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her poems and essays have appeared in Adanna Literary Journal and The Artifice among other magazines.


Below is an excerpt of Hala Alyan’s forthcoming poetry collection:


Dirty Girl


See, I knew I’d make my mama cry if I stole the earring and so into my pocket it went. I asked America to give


me the barbeque. A slow dance with a cowboy. Pop goes the grenade. Pop goes the Brooklyn jukebox. Give me male hands, oleander white, hard, earnest, your husband in the backseat of his own car, my jeans shoved down, the toxic plant you named your child after, a freeway by the amusement park that jilted girls speed across, windows rolled down, screaming bad songs at the top of their lungs.


After the new world. Before the New one. The Peruvian numerologist told me I’d be trailed by sevens until the day I died.

Everything worth nicking needs an explanation: I slept with one man because the moon, I slept with the other because who cares, we’re expats, the black rhinos are dying, the subway pastors can’t make me tell the truth. Tonight Z isn’t eating and five states away

I’m pouring a whiskey


I won’t drink.


I count the green lights. Those blue-eyed flowers your father brought when I couldn’t leave my bedroom. The rooftop, the weather, the subway empties its fist of me, the red salt of my fear. A chalky seven stamped on the pale face of the sleeping pill.                          What I mean to say is


I’m divisible only by myself.



Gospel: Texas


Poison ivy I

never got. My grandmother


asking the Burger King cashier

for pommes frites.


First shooting

star. First silverfish. First carrot


in snowball. Kansas on the

weekends, the blade


of I-35. Permission slips.

My mother


dressing me as a

pilgrim for a school trip.


Arabic word for girl

longer than


English word for

no. First valentine card.


First grasshopper.

The seventeen windows


of that simulated

colonial town,


peering in every

single one. Pretending


the air we churn

is butter.



The Female of the Species


They leave the country with gasping babies and suitcases

full of spices and cassettes. In airports,


they line themselves up like wine bottles.

The new city twinkles beneath an onion-moon.


Birds mistake the pebbles of glass on the

black asphalt for bread crumbs.




If I drink, I tell stories about the women I know.

They break dinner plates. They marry impulsively.


When I was a child I watched my aunt throw a halo

of spaghetti at my mother. I’m older than they were now.




In an old-new year, my cousin shouts ana bint Beirut

at the sleeping houses. She clatters up the stairs.


I never remember to tell her anything. Not the dream

where I can’t yell loud enough for her to stop running.


And the train comes. And the amar layers the stones

like lichen. How the best night of my life was the one


she danced with me in Paris, sharing a hostel bed,

and how sometimes you need one knife to carve another.




It’s raining in two cities at once. The Vendôme plaza

fills with water and the dream, the fountain, the moon


explodes open, so that Layal, Beirut last daughter,

can walk through the exit wound.

Unraveling Trauma and Title IX: An Interview with Sarah Cheshire


I don’t know what the other entrants’ chapbooks in the 2017 Etchings Press Chapbook Contest were like, but I know Sarah Cheshire’s win for Unravelings was well-deserved.

After becoming romantically involved with a trusted creative writing professor and mentor, “Jane Doe” is forced to recount the details of the relationship––including its varied manipulations and abuses of power––for a Title IX investigation. Unravelings is a fictionalized memoir in the sense that names, locations, and other identifying information has been obscured for privacy reasons, though the Title IX proceedings Unravelings describes mirror what Cheshire herself experienced as an undergraduate.

At only 51 pages, Unravelings is the epitome of “though she be but little, she is fierce.” Through primary source documents like texts, emails, and Title IX reports, as well as lyrical verse and prose poetry, Unravelings guides the reader into the complicated truths between confidant and abuser, victim and survivor.

As a cord of twine unravels, it becomes frayed––so too does this story as it progresses. Paragraphs lead to speculation and ask unanswerable questions that boil down to how did we get here? Each time, the reader is brought back to center through vibrant repetition and verse––almost like a prayer for understanding in the labyrinth of institutional bureaucracy that oversees even the most intimate matters.

In this way, the chapbook is both a literal and metaphorical unraveling––one that resolutely echoes the thought patterns and stages of grief felt when healing from trauma.

I talked to Sarah about the writing and healing process.

Mandy Shunnarah: I appreciate the use of screenshots––like the texts, Facebook messages, and emails––and the official-looking Title IX documents. Tell me about your decision to add in those elements rather than making the chapbook text-only.

Sarah Cheshire: As a part of my writing process, I spent a lot of time re-reading old emails and text exchanges between myself, Professor X, and others implicated in the story, trying to reconstruct what happened and how it felt. I was really just trying to jog my memory, but found that these documents in and of themselves told a story.

Much like the experience itself, the social media exchanges were fragmented and nonlinear; oscillating rapidly between moments of clarity and moments where logic seemed to be suspended. There was a frenetic, yet poetic quality to them that conveyed the state I was in that year almost perfectly. I also think that, as collected “evidence,” these screenshots provide a bridge between Doe’s memories and the story the institution is trying to tell. They were the last thing I included, but ultimately I think they are what ties the piece together.

MS: What challenges did you face in the writing process?

SC: Going into my M.F.A. program, the situation I wrote about in Unravelings was still very fresh in my conscious. Whenever I would sit down to write, I would still feel like I was writing under the critical eye of the man who evaluated my creative work throughout college; whose mentorship both sculpted my creative voice and ultimately undermined the confidence I held in that voice.

This might sound melodramatic, but throughout my process of writing Unravelings I kept thinking of a line in one of Virginia Woolf’s essays: “Killing the Angel in the house [is] part of the occupation of a woman writer.” To Virginia Woolf, the Angel in the House represented the pressure women writers face to write the versions of themselves that men want to read, rather than their true selves. To me, the Angel in the House was the looming feeling that I was still writing to appease my college mentor’s toxic gaze. I knew that I needed to, metaphorically speaking, “kill” this gaze in order to reclaim my own voice.

Unravelings was the first piece I completed as a graduate student. It was a very hard piece to write, partially because the events of that year still felt so convoluted in my mind. Basically, I wrote it because I felt I wouldn’t be able tell other stories until I’d fully unraveled this one.

MS: I found it interesting how, despite Professor X taking advantage of Doe, she protects him in the Title IX proceedings. Statements that might identify him are redacted at her request and she requests an informal investigation, rather than a formal one. Often trauma victims’ actions are misunderstood––can you talk more about that element of the story?

SC: Well, this was a man who dragged me through the mud, but who I was also in love with. He was coming from an incredibly traumatic past, which he shared with me privately (in retrospect this was also a violation of boundaries) and which added an extra layer of nuance to my perceptions of him.

I included redacted moments (which, in the text, mainly consist of striked-out but still legible details about his past) because, rationally, I knew that his past shouldn’t excuse his behavior but, in the moments where I was asked to hold him accountable for this behavior, I still felt an emotive need to contextualize it. I knew that he really fucked up, but we had also seen each other in incredibly vulnerable moments and I still felt a sort of convoluted tenderness towards him.

Essentially, I think I defended him because I was having a hard time reconciling his abuses of power with the tender moments that we shared, both in intimate spaces and in our writing. I am told this is common amongst survivors. Sadly, I think many survivors end up justifying the actions of abusers because they have seen the goodness in these people and want to believe that this goodness still exists, even when it’s being shrouded by anger or violence or manipulative behaviors. I believe that trust and emotional sensitivity—the ability to, as Rihanna would say, “find love in a hopeless place”––are beautiful, radical qualities that a lot of survivors possess.

In the feminist utopia of my dreams, these qualities would be celebrated. It’s only when others exploit them, and we find ourselves searching for ways to love those who continue to hurt us, that they become curses. Ultimately, I think this was my problem; why I ended up protecting him. I truly believed that he was better than his actions and he just needed more time to prove it. I believed this until his actions subsumed me, and my own story got lost inside of his.

MS: As I read Unravelings, I got the impression that formal proceedings like Title IX ask things of abuse survivors that are often difficult or impossible to give––such as linear memories and externally identifiable examples of gaslighting, for example. Based on your own personal experiences and the research you did for Unravelings, do you think Title IX effectively seeks justice for victims?

SC: This is a complicated question; one that I actually find myself grappling with often when thinking about Title IX, as well as the court systems, the police, and other forces survivors are told to appeal to when seeking justice.

Over the course of my four years in college, Title IX saw many positive reformations. I witnessed huge strides in the extent to which survivors have been able to access certain forms of justice through the institutional apparatuses in place, mainly due to the tireless activism of campus survivors and the founding of advocacy organizations such as KnowYourIX. This it is not to say there isn’t a huge amount of work left to be done; I find it nauseating that, in the year 2017, we are still seeing cases of women dropping out of school and even taking their own lives because the system has failed them.

In my case, however, I actually felt like the Title IX system was working to the best of its ability—I was treated with humanity and validation by the officers involved, and for the most part, felt agency over how the process played out. My issue isn’t with Title IX per se, but with the task that it holds people to; the task of creating clarity in narrative, when stories, trauma, and people themselves are innately so very messy.

Something I thought about a lot while writing the book was the notion of grey matter; the spaces between black and white, right and wrong, good and bad. In my opinion, the most genuine stories come out of these grey spaces. These are the spaces of nuance. The whole purpose of a formal Title IX process is to weigh evidence and determine which side of a story is “right” and which side is “wrong.” This need for clear delineations of truth inherently puts survivors of trauma at a disadvantage because in moments of trauma, it is common for linear memory to become disrupted.

I also think that the way that these systems box people up in their individual sides of a story can inhibit perpetrators from engaging in the deep critical self-reflection necessary to truly hold themselves accountable for their actions––and, ultimately, to rectify and change. But I’m less concerned about them.

I think justice means different things for different people. I, personally, don’t feel like justice, on a fundamental level, would have been served simply as the result of him “getting in trouble” for his actions. Maybe this is because of some lingering twisted desire to protect him, or because, if I’m being completely honest, I partially blamed myself for how everything unfolded (and still do, which I’m working on). But I like to think that I feel this way because something in me resents the notion that the messiness of stories and human emotions can be resolved simply by weighing facts and legislating right and wrong.

I think that Title IX is necessary in that it holds institutions accountable to survivors and is effective when implemented correctly and compassionately. But I also think punitive models of justice have their limitations. If we’re ever going to see shifts in sexist paradigms, we need to find additional ways to hold people accountable for their actions, ways that give space for healing, restoration, and consciousness-raising rather than just punishment and deterrent.


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 Citron Review, The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

SOMETIMES I THINK ABOUT IT: ESSAYS (Graywolf, 2017) author Stephen Elliot talks about his web series DRIVEN


“The key to life is figuring out how you’re fucked up, and rolling with it.” And Stephen Elliott should know. Elliott’s gone from The Adderall Diaries to his web series Driven to his latest book of essays, Sometimes I Think About It, which came out in November. The founder of The Rumpus is essentially a prolific artist. He’s taken the sum total of his life experiences and has made a web series that provokes, pokes and jabs us into being woke in a post-election climate that put us in a stupor, until #metoo illustrated how normalized bad behavior had become.

 Driven co-presented by Slamdance is a fresh variation on pithy content in the age of information overload. It’s essentially the basis of self-reckoning as writer turned ex-writer and now a sort-of rival Uber-esque, Panda driver, Paul (Elliott) passively shepherds New York City’s wounded souls.

There’s something deeply profound about Driven, about the elegance of the quotidian and the banal of the interesting. It sort-of flips tropes. In the first episode – as in many debuts – he cleans his closet out and introduces himself: we learn that he is a writer – and relatively accomplished at this – when a fellow author, Michael Cunningham steps in, mentions no less than three times in earnest that he should consider writing for his new TV show his turning down of the offer possibly suggesting that this writer shopped a show in real life. We also learn that his girlfriend (Jennifer Missoni) is also living the life as a professional mistress, and that they haven’t had sex in a while (and although this is problematic for her, neither want to break-up, indicating either co-dependency, hope for the future or both. We also hear jokes about Williamsburg mentioned and Airbnb. Score two for the NYC bubble.

Like fellow gen-X author Bret Easton Ellis’ series, The DeletedDriven also keeps its baroque moments off-camera to create an ominous tension, navigated by individuals reconciling difficult pasts. Our cabbie has his own troubled history, and in avoidance of the cabbie-sum-father confessor trope, his passengers are more mirrors of his mind-state than he is of theirs. Think Less Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and more Willem Dafoe as John LeTour in Light Sleeper. Just go to Elliott’s website and look at a clip of The Adderall Diaries and you’ll see that he has a lifetime of agency to explore any broken aspect of our society.

Visually, Driven has the production values of a high budget, well-funded, scripted series. Elliott’s literary style ranges to a natural economy with pacing, framing and lighting. The first shot in episode three of Driven, comes from the perspective of a cat in a carrier watching the Panda car pulling up. Cut to Jorge (Brian Luna), the cat’s nervous looking owner in a superman hoodie who is not made any calmer by making conversation with his feline-allergic driver, Paul (Stephen Elliott). By the end of the episode, there will be a shared custody arrangement of a female cat named Bruce Wayne, a break-in, a delightful scene in a comic book store, a cat-napping and Elliott’s perfectly dry delivery of the statement, “dogs are loyal, cats don’t know who you are.”

The artistry onscreen of any episode of Driven is economy. Elliott tells a story with an arc in anywhere from eight to twelve minutes with production values that rival a major theatrical release, with each episode coming in for the impossible tight budget of $800.00. Anyone who is familiar with Elliott’s writing knows that he has a way of synthesizing complex information into clear and relatable language. His cross-genre memoir, The Adderall Diaries, has the tidiest explanation of a database kernel. Without a computer science degree, it is almost impossible to wrap your head around what the internal structures of a database engine actually is, which is funny considering data is what rules our lives online.

I had the chance to sit down with Stephen Elliott at Grumpy Café in Chelsea and by phone. We chatted over tea and pastries (I think I’m the only one who ate) to talk about his web series, Driven. It’s a rare interview, when all the interviewer needs to do is ask one question and the subject generously dictates the rest of the piece:

Jennifer Parker: What are you working on now?

Stephen Elliott: That is a good question. I think that the main thing I’m doing really is I’m working on the Driven web series. Making a few more episodes. Teaming up with Al Madrigal’s company, All Things Comedy. They host podcasts but now they’re going to start doing video content. They’re going to start hosting my web series and helping with the production and getting the word out as well. So, I’m pretty hopeful about that.

JP: I was struck by the cinematic quality of the production values. How did you manage to consistently produce what are tantamount to miniature movies?

SI: I don’t know. I mean I’m sure it is something to do with white privilege but. I just think that I was lucky that I worked with a lot of great people on other projects. And they liked working with me and I appreciated all the things they did. And I was able to convince these really amazing people to keep working with me on things that pay way below their rate. Like the guy that shot After Adderall (Adrian Correia) which is a $10,000 movie. He’s the cinematographer now for the second season of Glow, the Netflix’s show. So, this is a big-time guy who gets paid a lot of money, has a really coveted job amongst cinematographers, really well respected. Like most artists if he really likes the project, he’ll work on it.

There’s this thing about movie making that’s actually very Marxist.  When the budgets get higher, everybody gets paid more and when the budget’s lower, everybody gets paid less, which is really beautiful actually. And great people work on really low budget stuff all the time. But you have to be able to convince them. They don’t want to work for really low pay on something that’s not going to be good. If they trust you and particularly if they like the script, then that’s most of it—really.

The other thing I think is it’s a lot easier to make a movie for no money than not enough money. People feel shortchanged when you don’t have enough money and they’re not going to give you their best. Because you’re only paying them not as much. But if there’s no money and everybody working on it is working on it because it’s an art project and they want it to be good and there’s an understanding that nobody’s going to make any money on it. We’re all doing this creative project. Like with Driven or like with after After Adderall, there was no chance of me ever making any real money off those things. I don’t even have contracts with anybody, I can’t sell these things; I can’t sell After Adderall to a distributor. I don’t have contracts for the people who work on it so everybody knows this person has no money, they’re really making an art project, something creative they care about and believe in—they want any part of that.

Whereas if you’re making something that’s a commercial project then and you’re really concerned with doing all the right paperwork and making sure that you can sell it and make money even if you don’t end up making money, but you leave that possibility open and you make people sign their lives away then of course they want to be paid more for that. I think it’s mostly finding good people and working with them over and over again. Also, when I write something that’s low budget. I write toward the budget but I don’t have any money so I try not to have more than two locations. And when I’m writing those locations, I’m writing places that I already know I can get.  With a poem when you start, you have certain rules, like maybe 14 lines, and this many syllables, or whatever the rules are. Similarly, when I’m writing a script. If I know I have $500 to make this so I’m not going to put in something like a location that I don’t know that I can get that I don’t already have access to somehow.

JP: Happy Baby (Graywolf Press) was just reprinted in November. Congratulations. The first time we spoke you mentioned that this was the only book that you gave yourself a set of literary rules to follow when writing the book. How did that work?

SI: Yeah, I was really kind of like a literary fundamentalist. I’d really bought into this idea of show don’t tell. I’d been doing a workshop for the first time really in my life doing the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. And so, I was with all these people that had done a lot of workshops because they all had MFA’s. They already considered themselves writers and they studied creative writing and then they either had an MFA or a Ph.D. in creative writing. I’d never studied creative writing before doing the Stegner Fellowship so with these people. I didn’t study for a long time and I’m learning a lot from them but I’m also realizing that. In workshops when people don’t know what to say they often say “why.” They want to know why this character is doing something. There is a real search for causation, and I realized that I really didn’t like that. I didn’t want to say why character was doing something because I don’t really think things. I don’t think most the things I do or don’t have one cause and effect. I did this because of that. All these different causes add up, we don’t really know why we do. I just blanked out. So, I had this rule that I was never going to tell you why, I was never going to answer the question of why. It only had “to.” The only thing that had it to be is it had to be true or it had to be possible. Is it conceivable that this character would do this? If it was conceivable and not impossible then I would never explain it. It’s enough that it’s possible that they do it.

There’s no backstory in Happy Baby and there’s no narration at all, the whole entire book is unseen. It always moves forward in the present tense even though each chapter is earlier than the one before it. I Had all these rules: No explaining, no narration, everything is seen you know. No adjectives, no adverbs, really lean and really fundamentalist. And the problem with that was it was great for that book. But then after that I got really stuck. You can’t you can’t write every book that way because you’re writing the same book over and over again. I didn’t know what to do after I’d written Happy Baby, I’m kind of written myself into a corner.

JP: In Driven and in Happy Baby and somewhat in The Adderall Diaries you incorporate BDSM so casually, it makes it almost commonplace.

SI: I don’t know if it is or it isn’t. It exists, it’s a thing. I think BDSM plays a role in a lot of people’s sex lives but there are so many different degrees of it. Like my entire sex life is BDSM. I don’t do anything else. I only do one thing and I’m 100 percent hardwired this way. Most people, their kinky stuff is just a plug in. it’s like your Safari browser and your browser is like just basic fucking and then you download the bondage plug in or the leather plug-in or the foot fetish plug-in and then you go from there, but for me, it’s the entire browser. So, I think I think power exchange is a huge part of sex for most people, but it’s just the amount or different degrees. So, in other words, in some ways it’s very niche, in other ways it’s very universal.

JP: Ok, that’s a great answer.

SI: People that are like me who are just really hard wired to only do kink, that’s actually pretty rare I think.

JP: Do you feel like there’s any parallels between Driven and any of your earlier work?

SI: Driven is kind of a way to get back into writing short stories. There’s consistent themes but ultimately, each one is an individual short story.

JP: What would you say are some of the consistent themes?

SI: Connection is a real big theme and. I’ve been writing a lot about love and the impossibility of love. So those are some basic things but also almost every episode is a commentary on the new political landscape. It’s very subtle, but most characters are dealing with something that they weren’t dealing with before Trump was elected if that makes any sense. They’re funny but they’re quite a bit more political than they may seem at first blush.

It’s a lot about connection. I’ve been working on this novel and there’s this character in the novel who realizes he’s incapable of love. And I’m kind of obsessed with that idea. I just want to explore that and write about what that means.

JP: Do you think that people are incapable of love or do you think we fool ourselves into thinking we are capable of it?

SI: I think the main thing is that every single person has a different definition of love. There’s no wrong definition there’s no wrong reason to love somebody. I think people get disappointed a lot because we love someone whose definition of love might be different from ours. Because that’s a very normal thing to have happen, really people radically diverge in what they think love is. The two main characters in a novel, that’s kind of one of the biggest conflicts. Diametrically opposed definitions of love. To one of them you know love comes and goes. It’s not it’s not something safe. If you fall out of love with somebody then it means you never did love them. It’s impossible. Love is a permanent state of flux. And. You can see through accomplishing two characters that marry such radically different ideas of what love is.

JP: Anything else you want to touch on?

SI: I have four episodes of Driven in post. One is based on the Martin Scorsese cameo from Taxi Driver, except played by Madeline Xima as a young lesbian. There’s also the immigration episode, starring Sakina Jaffrey and Al Madrigal. So many car share drivers are immigrants so that episode is particularly relevant.

Catch Driven on the Slamdance website http://slamdance.com/Slamdance-Co-Presents-New-Web-Series-by-Stephen-Elliott-DRIVEN and on Stephen Elliott’s website http://www.stephenelliott.com/. Elliott is generous with his content and makes it available for free.


Jennifer Parker is a Manhattan-based writer and mother. The editor in chief of StatoRec, Jennifer’s film criticism and author profiles have appeared in Fjords Review and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Personal, the Political, and the Musical: An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib on They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us


To say Hanif Abdurraqib writes about the music that’s the soundtrack to our lives is an understatement.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is the first essay collection from Abdurraqib, who is a music columnist at MTV News and a poet whose work includes the collection The Crown Ain’t Worth Much from Button Poetry. Whether it’s Marvin Gaye, My Chemical Romance, Chance the Rapper, Carly Rae Jepsen or Nina Simone, Abdurraqib is writing about the music that makes sense of the world and validates the experiences of those who suffer most when the world is doling out its pain.

The essays in They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us are a forthright look at life at the intersection of music, race, class, and culture. A Springsteen concert opens the door to a meditation on Michael Brown. Putting Nina Simone vinyls on the record player gives way to a discussion on how black people’s stories are taken from them by white hands. Listening to My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade on the tenth anniversary of its release leads to a discussion on death, grief, and hope in the dark. Future’s recent albums ask listeners to consider the kind of breakup-induced heartache from which it feels impossible to fully heal. A look back on years of Fall Out Boy shows stirs a contemplation on friendship, suicide, and living on your own terms. A ScHoolboy Q show explains how a word can be violence on one tongue and deep companionship on another, depending on the color of the mouth that said it. A Cute is What We Aim For show ponders misogyny and the feeling of having grown up when the art you once loved hopelessly stagnated.

These are not essays on background music or classical tunes praised in the ivory tower of academia. Abdurraqib writes on a breadth of musical taste that is wide and varied, yet all of it is accessible and modern––likely artists Millennials grew up listening to or currently have on their iTunes playlist. Abdurraqib is taking the music many already enjoy and asking us to consider its more profound implications. Readers are asked to investigate the ways in which music shapes and informs our lives.

This essay collection is not for white readers in the sense that it doesn’t pander to them. There are essays on experiences that white people will never know firsthand––like the terror of being pulled over by police because you supposedly look like a criminal or the sanctuary of black churches. For white people, the essays are a necessary trojan horse: it sells them what they want––music writing––but it gives them what they need––social justice.

I talked to Hanif about writing, music, and black joy.

Mandy Shunnarah: What I love about your essays is that they live at the intersection of the personal, the political, and the musical. It’s clear the essays span over the course of several years, so I’m curious what the trajectory of your writing was like. Did you start out writing music essays and incorporate your story and issues of social justice over time? Or have you always blended the three?

Hanif Abdurraqib: I think I’ve always been interested in how the personal can work its way into a narrative without (hopefully) overtaking a narrative. I say personal and don’t simply mean the actual body––but also the emotions, interests, feelings that rest in the interior of the personal. I’m not really setting out to get people to believe what I believe. Rather, I’m trying to get them to find something new and unique in music. Perhaps risk seeing it as something greater and seeing where their own personal narratives might align within the songs they love. So I guess I’ve always blended the three, but I’ve never really imagined it as blending as much as I’ve imagined it as a different way of viewing a landscape I love looking out onto.

MS: Your taste in music is eclectic and it’s clear your ear is keener than the casual listener. How did you become interested in a wide range of artists? Are there genres you feel like you’re only just dipping your toes into?

HA: I grew up in a house with a lot of music, and so I kind of developed my ways of hearing and listening at an early age. It’s a bit of a stretch to say that I grew up in a “musical family”––it’s not like my siblings and I were in a band––but my father played instruments around the house. I had a brief and unsuccessful stint as a trumpet player.

But more than that, I listened to music that my parents carried with them into the house. Jazz and soul and salsa and funk and songs from South Africa. I am the youngest of four, so I got to absorb all of the music which trickled down from my older siblings. My older brother and sister would introduce hip hop to our house, sure. But also, since we were children of the 90s, I got exposed to grunge, metal, and classic rock––all of which allowed me a path backwards, so that when I was old enough to start charting my own musical tastes, I was doing it with a working knowledge of the past, and I’m always so eager to dig out the tasty and unique parts of history resting underneath a recording.

I want to know about what happened to Fleetwood Mac in between Rumours and Tusk. I want to know about Nick Drake’s brilliant burst of output and then his mental and emotional decline. I watch The Last Waltz once every single year and mostly just for the way the camera picks up Mavis Staples whispering “beautiful….” after the Staple Singers join The Band for a stirring rendition of “The Weight.” I see a whole story in all of those moments. I’m listening to the actual music, sure. But I’m also interested in filling the spaces that simply listening sometimes doesn’t afford a listener.

When I was a kid, my brother and I used to sit in our room with a tape-recorder boombox, and we’d listen to the radio all day long, back when folks had to listen to the radio all day to maybe catch a song they loved once or so every six hours. And when the song we wanted to hear came on, we’d rush to press record on our tape recorder, and rip it right off of the radio. And there was that burst of excitement––hearing this thing you’d been hoping to hear and rushing to capture it. It felt like the slow opening of a gift that ended up being exactly what you wanted, every single time. I’m trying to capture and maintain that kind of excitement about music. I’m trying to carry that with me, even when I have the weight of so many other things to compete with.

MS: Out of the hundreds (thousands?) of concerts you’ve been to, if you could only pick one to see again, which one would it be and why?

HA: Oh, I think probably one of the early Fall Out Boy shows that I write about in the essay “Fall Out Boy Forever” in the book. Likely the 2003 Halloween show they did in Chicago at some shitty venue where the stage collapsed.

It was such a fascinating moment because I don’t think I’ve ever had a moment like that again, where I’m watching the turning point for a band happen in real time. My pals and I had been going to their shows since about a year earlier, when they started playing to tiny crowds and were getting heckled endlessly. The Chicago emo/pop-punk scene was at an interesting place in 2002-2003, because a lot of these dudes were just coming out of MUCH more hardcore bands, and the transitions for some of them proved to be difficult. Fall Out Boy was kind of a band without a country, largely due to Patrick Stump’s distinct singing. They were too pop for the hardcore scene, but definitely too difficult to access for the pop scene. It took about a year for them to get traction, but when they did, they really took off.

That Halloween show was the one that really turned the corner for them. I remember it well because shit got so crazy that the stage collapsed and they had to stop playing. Pete Wentz was used to wading out into the crowd and getting this mostly lukewarm reception, but that night when he walked out into the crowd, kids were jumping on his back, tearing at his shirt, grabbing his head. It was wild. There were almost 100 kids packed into a room that maybe only should’ve held 70, tops. You could see on the band’s faces that they had no idea what was happening. In a way, Fall Out Boy was born that night. Since I’m pretty disconnected from the band in its current state, I’d love to see that one more time.

MS: Some of the most poignant essays were those talking about the myriad ways joy is ripped from black people by white people and the systems of oppression they created. In addition to celebrating black musicians, which you did beautifully in They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, what are some of your favorite expressions of black joy?

HA: The way my friends sing the words to the songs they know and then make up the rest. The opening moments of a spades game––that first hand, when anything feels possible. The old black woman at the eastside market I go to from time to time who looks me up and down and says it’s good to see you, baby, and I know she means it. The way a joke can echo through a group text and shrink distance. The grease that lingers on the hand and then perhaps upon the fabric of pants after dipping fingers into the Popeyes box. The way the clock pushes past midnight on a Tuesday and I look at my watch in a city that is not my own and insist that I have to go to sleep, and the people I love will give me a hard time until I am leaning over, wrecked by laughter, no longer tired.

I don’t know. I think in order to talk about the lack of joy as a type of violence, you have to know the architecture of joy itself, and realize how precious it is when it is in arm’s reach. I think you have to accept the many forms it takes. These days, I’m interested in the joys that are pre-existing, already waiting for me to slide into. I’m trying to remember those best and not take them for granted.

MS: Since your last book was a collection of poetry, I’m curious about how you balance your poetry and your essay writing.

HA: I imagine everything as a poem, some blooming wider than others.


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 Citron Review, The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, New Southerner Magazine, and Deep South Magazine. You can read more on her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

Appalachia, noir, and fishing: an interview with David Joy



I read a lot of crime, but few novels impress me so much that I find myself still talking about them six months after turning the last page. David Joy’s The Weight of This World belongs to that small group. While the combination of grit, superb storytelling, violence, and beauty make this novel a must-read, Joy is also a pleasure to talk to, so I decided to dig a little deeper into some of his passion, his writing, and books in general. Here’s what he had to say.

GI: The Weight of This World is beautifully written, but it’s also packed with enough brutality to satisfy fans of horror fiction. How do you achieve such a wonderful balance?

DJ: As far as balance, I think that largely comes from the writers who most influenced my work. I remember the first time I read William Gay’s short story, “The Paper-Hanger,” which is one of the most disturbingly violent stories I’ve ever read, but I was blown away by the beauty of his prose. There are lines in that story where he’s describing a murdered child in a freezer, lines like, “Ice crystals snared in the hair like windy snowflakes whirled there, in the lashes,” where Gay is very deliberately creating that play between beauty and horror. I think ultimately he’s doing this in order to make the violence more palatable. If you can achieve the right balance you can coax a reader through all sorts of darkness.

With the comparison to horror, I think that boils down to the realism of the violence. I don’t hold back or shy away from presenting something exactly as it is. There is no grace in dying. I don’t live in some fantasy world where people double over from gunshots and writhe then still like the old cheesy Westerns. At the same time, my work certainly isn’t gratuitous. There is a very real danger in sugarcoating violence, in repeating that John Wayne bullshit that glorifies and dismisses the act of killing as something trivial and easy. This isn’t violence for violence’s sake. I’m making very deliberate choices. In Where All Light Tends To Go, I had an eighteen-year-old narrator who was ill equipped for the violence he found himself surrounded by. I wanted the reader to experience what’s happening with the same sort of shock as the character. With The Weight Of This World, that novel is very much a sort of treatise on violence. I want the reader to walk through the blood. I want to force them to confront it and to ask big questions.

I think Dave Grossman’s On Killing is one of the most important books ever written about violence. Everyone should read that book, but especially anyone who is going to write about violence and the act of killing. Anyways, there’s a passage early on in that book where he writes, “They are things that we would rather turn away from, but Carl von Clausewitz warned that ‘it is to no purpose, it is even against one’s better interest, to turn away from the consideration of the affair because the horror of its elements excites repugnance.’ Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, argues that the root of our failure to deal with violence lies in our refusal to face up to it. We deny our fascination with the ‘dark beauty of violence,’ and we condemn aggression and repress it rather than look at it squarely and try to understand and control it.”

That’s why it’s so important to present violence in all its horrible ugliness, because only through capturing that reality can we start to have real, meaningful conversations about it.

GI: There is enough great literature coming from Appalachia to keep readers away from New York white-rich-straight-male-finds-himself-in-Brooklyn narratives for years to come. What is your role in that movement? Do you even consider it that?

DJ: Michael Farris Smith and I have talked about this a lot, about the void that was left in the South over the last few decades. We lost so many writers in just a few short years—Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, William Gay, Eudora Welty, Harry Crews, Tim McLaurin. I think if there is a movement, that’s what it’s a reaction to; it’s a matter of doing our damnedest to fill that void. When it all boils down to it, those are the writers who influenced me most. I’m rooted in writers like Ron Rash, George Singleton, Lee Smith, Daniel Wallace, Brad Watson, Jill McCorkle, Silas House, Tommy Franklin, and so on. I think for all of the writers who’ve emerged out of the South and out of Appalachia over the past five or ten years, those are the people whose footsteps we’re following. You come out of a place like this and whether you like it or not you stand within a shadow. You stand in a shadow cast by everyone before you and all you can hope is that your work lengthens it, that at the end of the day your work adds to that conversation.

GI: You’re a mountain man and I’m from a barrio near the beach, but it seems like we both grew up surrounded by struggle and a rich storytelling tradition. How does that upbringing shape your prose now?

DJ: I very much ascribe to that Cormac McCarthy belief that, “The core of literature is the idea of tragedy.” I think bearing witness to struggle can, as hard as it is at the time, make for damn rich ground to mine. We’re not talking about not getting the car you wanted for your sixteenth birthday, or having to hold off a few months to get the latest iPhone. We’re talking about missing meals, about deciding whether you keep the lights on or buy a few groceries. We’re talking, as Rick Bragg once put it, “about living and dying and that fragile, shivering place in between.” That’s pay dirt for a writer. And coming out of a storytelling tradition like the South for me, or Puerto Rico for you, I think puts us at a tremendous advantage. I can’t imagine growing up in a place where story didn’t matter. What a horrible, horrible life that would’ve been.

GI: Your career took off pretty quickly. This makes newbie authors look up to you and ask for help, tips, blurbs, and probably a connection. How do you deal with this?

DJ: I’ve been incredibly fortunate both for the success and for the support from fellow writers. The hard truth is that there are plenty of writers a lot more talented than I am who haven’t gotten their shot, and quite possibly never will. I have no idea what makes certain books take off. There’s really no rhyme or reason to what makes a bestseller. Part of it is timing, sure, but then I think about a book like Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me last summer. Flat out that was one of the top two or three novels that came out last year. It was that good. Period. Even more it was about a gymnastics family and it released a week before the Rio 2016 Summer Games Olympics. Talk about timing. By all reason that book should have been in the top five NYT Bestsellers. Who the hell knows why it wasn’t? And that’s not to say that book wasn’t well received, because it definitely was, and rightly so, but I have no idea why some books take off and others don’t.

As far as other writers, I’ll never forget what it was like when that first novel was coming out and I got a blurb from Daniel Woodrell. I mean I idolize him. To think that he read my work still boggles me, and he didn’t have a reason in the world to do it aside from kindness. Another one is Ace Atkins. I think he’s one of the most talented writers I know. I respect the hell out of him on the page, but even more so as a man. He could call me right this second and ask anything of me and I’d be there. I owe him that much. I feel that way about Ron Rash, Tawni O’Dell, Frank Bill, Mark Powell, Michael Farris Smith, Silas House, George Singleton, Megan Abbott, Donald Ray Pollock, Eric Rickstad, Reed Farrell Coleman who are all a hell of a lot more talented than me and were kind enough to read my work and support what I was doing. I know what it’s like to not have an audience, to not have any work out there on the shelf, and I’ll never lose sight of everyone who supported me. I carry that with me and I carry that forward. Bottom line is that if I can help someone I help them because that’s the way this thing works.

At the same time, it’s rare anymore for me to go a day without someone I’ve never met asking me to read something. There are nine books sitting beside me on my desk right now that people sent me to read. So the truth is there comes a time when you have to say no and I think that’s a hard balance to find. I think it’s hard for most writers to say no, because most all the ones I know and love and respect are first and foremost damn good people when you get to the heart of it.

GI: Fishing is at the center of your life now. Every fisherman in the world has a different answer for this, and I’m curious about yours: what is it about fishing that keeps you going back for more?

DJ: Maybe the most beautiful passage I’ve ever read on fishing came from Alex Taylor and I can’t remember if it was in one of his stories or from his novel, The Marble Orchard, but he wrote, “There was now in him the desire to wrangle one thing out of the dark waters and have it leap and fight and finally be subdued by his hand. Because there is a kind of faith with fishing. It is the belief that the brevity of all things is not bitter, but a calm moment beside calm water is enough to still the breaking of all hearts everywhere.”

I think it’s exactly that and it’s always been that even when I was a kid. It’s chasing the same thing that Buddhists are chasing through meditation, it’s that moment of absolute thoughtlessness when everything else disappears and all that is left is the present. For me, I have a hard time reaching that place any other way so I’ve devoted a great deal of my life to being next to water. That’s the only place where I feel at ease. Fishing has always been my center.

GI: There is no fiction like that found in the “true” stories told by fishermen. What’s the most outstanding/memorable/incredible fishing tale you’ve heard?

When I was a little kid I used to always get up early on Saturday mornings and watch all the fishing shows—Roland Martin, Hank Parker, Bill Dance, The Spanish Fly with Jose Wejebe, Walker’s Cay Chronicle with Flip Pallot—but I remember one time when I was really little seeing this documentary on PBS about a noodling tournament in Oklahoma. It was the first time I’d ever seen anyone grappling catfish. People in my family jug fished and ran trotlines, and I’d caught plenty of catfish on rod and reel, but I’d never seen anything like that. I remember this one fellow on there saying you never knew exactly what might be in the back of one of those holes. Might be a catfish. Might be a snapping turtle. Might be a snake. He told how his brother stuck his arm in a hole once and a beaver got ahold of him and gnawed his forearm down to the bone clean up to his elbow.

Anyhow, there was a father and son fishing together and the boy might’ve been seven or eight years old, but they waded up to a hole and the father stuck his arm back in there and felt fish. The problem was that the hole was too deep and he couldn’t get back far enough for the fish to latch on. So this man took his son and shoved him down in that hole feet first and all of a sudden that boy got to screaming and hollering and the man dragged him out and that catfish was latched onto that boy’s legs. I’ve never seen anything like it. Here’s this father shoving his little boy down in a hole for a thirty, forty pound flathead to bite down on his legs. I just laid there in awe watching it, and I’ve never been able to shake that image in all the years since. Long story short, think long and hard before you go getting in a fistfight with an Okie.

GI: Your work is character driven, but there’s also a lot of attention paid to the beauty of each sentence, the cadence of each passage. How much of that comes out naturally and how much is editing/rewriting?

I think the ear for it comes naturally, at least for me. I hear a good sentence in the same way Thelonious Monk heard rhythm, or Dave Brubeck heard scales. Now I’m absolutely tone deaf when it comes to music, but I have a natural ear for language. Ron Rash talked one time about loving the way vowels and consonants rub up against one another. In the same way, I think I’m drawn to sound more than anything else, and that’s probably why I read so much more poetry than fiction. As far as writing it though, I don’t think that comes naturally at all. That’s very much a matter of shifting phrases, changing words, cutting articles, playing with things and tinkering with a sentence until there’s music. It takes a lot more work for me to construct a sentence than it does for me to recognize when one is working.

GI: Appalachian noir. Rural noir. Country noir. You fall into all of them and yet your work is clearly David Joy noir. Do you pay any attention to labels?

There’s a danger to labels that I think has led writers like Daniel Woodrell to distance himself from terms like “noir.” For too long merit has been measured by wine sniffing, elbow patch wearing, shiny shoed academics who turn their noses up to any label other than “literary.” Anyone with half a brain can recognize it’s snobbish bullshit. To dismiss someone like Ursula K. Le Guin under the guise of science fiction, or to dismiss a writer like Stephen King as a genre writer, that’s the danger of labels. Benjamin Percy had that great collection of essays last year titled Thrill Me where he did a wonderful service in addressing a lot of these issues. I think we’re starting to move away from that trend, and that’s a wonderful thing. I was on a panel with Megan Abbott in France last fall and she said she believed crime fiction had become the new social novel and I completely agree with her. So I guess what I’m saying is that as readers we need to be sure that we’re not carrying any sort of bias in regards to those labels. The book must stand alone.

At the same time, I’m not one to shy away from labels. I think my sentences stand for themselves and so if someone wants to talk craft we can talk craft. I like the idea of noir, especially as an emotional description capturing a sort of shadowed mood cast over a story. Benjamin Whitmer had a great essay a while back where he talked about the idea of redeemable characters and happy endings being a fairly new construct in regards to literature. Hollywood endings always hit me as such a cop out. So when a term like noir is used correctly I’m really grateful as a reader because it tends to point me in the direction of something I’ll probably dig. I also recognize that my work isn’t for everyone. I want to go to the darkest places imaginable and search out some small speck of humanity. I think it takes a brave reader to go to the places I want to take them. I hope there’s a payoff for venturing into the dark, and, for me, I believe that there is. Only through heartache and suffering do we arrive at any sort of philosophical awareness, and, in the end, that sort of revelatory moment is what makes it worthwhile.

GI: There’s a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to Appalachia, and part of that can be blamed on books that take place there and don’t understand the place, the people, the culture. Now that everyone writes about everything and everywhere, do you think authenticity still matters?

DJ: When I think of the truly great books, the truly great writers, I can’t think of one who wasn’t deeply rooted to place. James Joyce traveled all over Europe. He wrote Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake while living in Paris. But could you imagine him having not written of Dublin? You know, he said, “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.” Joyce’s idea that, “In the particular is contained the universal,” is exactly what Eudora Welty meant when she said, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” I don’t want to live in a world where Faulkner didn’t stick to Mississippi. I don’t want to live in a world where Ron didn’t write of Appalachia. Those books are sopping wet with place. I think there is an incredible beauty in knowing a setting as deeply as those writers knew theirs. I think you can sense that connection on the page just as I think you can sense when someone’s bullshitting. There’s nothing worse than reading a book and having the language ring untrue. As soon as I hit that place in a book, I’m done. I’m not reading any further. Toss it to the fire. It’s kindling.

If the details aren’t right the reader will never buy the big lie. So whether the writer’s of that place or not, it goddamn better feel authentic.

GI: Your Twitter feed is a great place to find great authors other than yourself. Any names/books you’d care to recommend here?

I think it’s rare for me to find a book that I absolutely love, especially a novel. So I wind up rereading a lot more books than I do finishing something new. I go back and read Jim Harrison and Larry Brown and Cormac McCarthy. Recently I reread Benjamin Whitmer’s Cry Father. I’m obsessed with Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock. As far as novels I’ve read this year that I loved, I really enjoyed stumbling onto your work. Zero Saints is a wonderful read. I think the best novels to come out this year were Michael Farris Smith’s Desperation Road, Steph Post’s Lightwood, and Mark Powell’s Small Treasons. Frank Bill’s got a new one titled The Savage that’s coming out this fall and it’s brilliant. I think the best story collection I’ve read this year was Scott Gould’s Strangers To Temptation. I thought that book was wonderful, kind of like if George Singleton had written a season of the Wonder Years. I think more people need to be reading Robert Gipe, Crystal Wilkinson, Charles Dodd White, and Sheldon Lee Compton.

But I’m going to do this a little differently than most novelists and name five or six books of poetry I’ve fallen in love with this year. One of my favorite poets, Tim Peeler, has a new book out titled L2, which is a sort of linear, novel-esque story told through poetry and I loved that book. Gritty as hell and just damn beautiful. Another one of my favorite poets, Rebecca Gayle Howell, has a new book, American Purgatory, that’s incredible. I think she’s one of the most powerful poets at work. If you haven’t read her already, read her collection Render: An Apocalypse and you’ll fall in love. Recently, I read a beautiful book by a South Carolina poet named Kathleen Nalley. The title is Gutterflower and it comes out some time in September, I think, but her work has really stuck with me. I stumbled onto a poet named Adrian Matejka and read a book of his, The Big Smoke, which was sort of the story of the boxer Jack Johnson. A wonderful press, Hub City, put out a book by Ashley M. Jones’ titled Magic City Gospel, and there’s a poem in there titled “Sammy Davis Jr. Sings To Mike Brown, Jr.” that will wreck your world in fourteen lines. Lastly, I finally got my hands on Ray McManus’ Red Dirt Jesus. I’ve always loved his poetry, especially the poems in his book Punch, but Red Dirt Jesus was one of those books I found at the right time. I was finishing my next novel, a book that’ll come out next year called The Line That Held Us, and I read a poem of his called “Missing Curfew” and as soon as I read it I knew the final image of the novel, I knew how I wanted the last words to sound. I have Ray to thank for that.

The Mystery and Mythology of Found Audio by N.J. Campbell


Two Dollar Radio’s latest publication is hot off the press. Found Audio by N.J. Campbell is a Russian nesting doll of a novel with layers of mystery, mythology, madness, and suspense.

When three stolen audio tapes of questionable origin land on Dr. Amrapali Singh’s desk, along with a large sum of money to analyze them, she has two days to extract any clues as to the origin of the tapes and the identity of the unnamed journalist whose story they hold. Using her keen ear and expertise in antiquated audio formats, she transcribes the tapes, which form the majority of the novel.

From the murkiest bayous of Louisiana to the walled-in city of Kowloon to a chess tournament in Turkey, the unnamed journalist searches for the City of Dreams––a legend akin to El Dorado and the lost city of Atlantis. The clues to where this City of Dreams might be come sporadically, over the course of several decades, and each time he gets close to finding it, something mysteriously happens to affect his perception of reality. Whether under the influence of alcohol, mental illness or the energy-draining humidity of the bayou, our unreliable narrator is thwarted and the City of Dreams remains just that: a dream.

I read Found Audio in one sitting, completely engrossed in the story. Just as Dr. Singh was enraptured by the tapes, I, too, was Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

The novel is a brilliant work of metafiction, and the story within the story is as irresistible as gossip from a friend of a friend. The foreword and afterword are both in the form of letters written by the author, N.J. Campbell, which further add to the mystery by tinkering with the thread-thin line between the extraordinary and the realm of possibility.

There are degrees of truth in the otherworldly tales, which ignite curiosity and propel the reader deeper into the narrative. Found Audio reads like a modern-day version of “Kubla Khan,” where the fantastic is ever-present, just beyond reach.

Being the curious person I am, I Googled many of the myths and legends in the book and was amazed to find that many of them have been documented. The City of Dreams is a renowned myth, the walled city of Kowloon really was torn down in 1993 and The Turk was a chess-playing automaton from the 1770s, later revealed to be a hoax. I even found an obituary for an Otha Johnson in the Times-Picayune from 2003, which fits within the timeline and the location of the story. While his obituary didn’t mention him being a snake hunter, judging by the number of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren he had, it sounds like he lived to be quite old, just like the Otha character in the novel.

While each of these myths may seem disparate on the surface, Campbell weaves them together with a deft hand.

“I remember things that interest me, and they inevitably show up in my work. Stringing them together is partly happenstance and partly planned catastrophe,” Campbell says. “What I mean by the latter is that I’m very critical of my own work. I don’t want to get bored with it, so I’m constantly trying to push myself to see what might come out of further exploration. If I think I can’t do something, I have to do it. And a lot of this stuff all being strung together is me just trying to see in what way something can or might connect to something else.”

As evidenced in Found Audio, Campbell has found that his best writing comes from challenging himself to write his characters out of seemingly impossible problems.

“My friend Joey said it best: ‘If you’re an artist and you can risk it, you have to. You won’t be able to back down.’ That’s really stuck with me. So, in many ways I deliberately try to see how far I can push my narrative––what if that character tells me to get lost? What if I paint myself into a corner I know I can’t get out of? I can always go back and tear up the floorboards, but I want to see what might happen if I build myself into places that look like dead ends.”

Some of Campbell’s best ideas have come to him while at his day job, which is working for a small university press.

“I am 0% involved in anything to do with the publishing process. I literally pack boxes, take orders, and buy shipping supplies. That’s it. But that gives me total freedom to think all day about whatever I want,” Campbell explains. “My body is absorbed in a mostly physical task, and my mind wanders. It’s been majestic. I’ve worked manual labor jobs most of my life to keep my mind rested in order to write.”

The mystery doesn’t end with Found Audio. His next writing project is in the works, though he’s not quite ready to share. “For some people I know, talking about what they’re working on is helpful, but for me it’s not. I get self-conscious and that’s a distraction,” Campbell explains. “I will say that I work very diligently and very deliberately, but I don’t talk about anything until it’s done.”

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, 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.


My Favorite Gershwin Song (in the manner of David Lehman)


poems in the name of cover grab

Poems in the Manner of… David Lehman’s most recent book speaks to the future by speaking to the poets who have come before. Featuring poems inspired by Kafka, Lady Murasaki, Catullus, alongside translations and astrological profiles, it’s a book that opens up with enthusiasm, deep love for poets’ technique and for their individual personalities, and provides possibilities for teaching. When I met David, he placed his hat on his hat stand and sang me the lyrics of my favorite Gershwin song. I talked to him about Poems in the Manner of… (Scribner), collaboration, and the American songbook.

Lauren Hilger: Most of the titles in this book begin “Poem in the manner of” and all start with a preface. I especially admire the poems that twist this constraint, like the twice-baked idea of a poem in the manner of Wallace Stevens as Rewritten by Gertrude Stein. I am curious, though, about how many layers it would take for it to no longer be a poem “in the manner of” and for it to just be your own. If this is a poem in the manner of Stevens rewritten through Stein, for instance, how many other voices would need to appear before it was yours again?

David Lehman: Writing the poems in this book I felt that I was writing my poems, as well as writing poems that were either homages to, or parodies of, appreciations of, translations of other poets.

I thought that was such a good idea: a poem by so-and-so rewritten by someone else. I wish I had done that more. I wish I had taken Wordsworth and rewritten it with the vocabulary and in the style of Wallace Stevens. A friend of mine, Terrence Winch, a very good poet, said after reading the book he wondered if the book had a different title and the poems had different individual titles, and there were no preface or no headnotes, how would people react? Another friend of mine said he came to the reading I gave and he felt the poems all sounded like me–which I was glad to hear. It’s really a device.

I wanted to write a poem one day in April of 2002 and I think it was either a poem of Max Jacob or Baudelaire that I looked at and took some of the words and some of the syntax of and built a poem around that, little knowing that I would enjoy the exercise so much I would repeat it the following day and day after until I had something that could grow.

Books are miscellanies, gatherings of poems, written from different periods. This is a unified project and the short headnotes and those prologues reinforce that. They can orient the reader, introduce them to Crane, for instance, open the door. The preface is a little bit like what you receive at a live reading or an anthology.

Hilger: I like that the prefaces are not “born, died, name of the boat off which he jumped, etc.” but they are your take on the poet, an usher guiding you to your seat.

Were there any poets with whom you struggled?

Lehman: William Carlos Williams. That one looks so easy. Williams’ first draft was easily done, but it was unsatisfying because it was easy. I imposed on it a rule that there be three words per line, and I often find that’s a good technical requirement because it will create a shape and perhaps a music as well, and that was the first thing I did but I rewrote that poem a lot.

Rimbaud also, those two were rewritten so many times. I rewrote both of them without looking at the previous versions. I had a pretty good memory of some of the lines or how it began, but in the abstract. One might think those were two of the less complicated poets.

Hilger: I love that revision strategy–whatever needs to stay will stay. Whatever you remember is what needs to be, and what got in there but is excess is probably not what you’d remember anyway.

Lehman: Do you revise a lot?

Hilger: I value compression and I value how–you said it beautifully–to make it look easy, it’s so hard. To have those poems that seem as if they arrived fully formed, Venus on the halfshell, takes a lot of work.

In a book like this, you’re connecting to someone’s individuality. I’d like to ask you about Emily Dickinson’s poem. In that one, just that one word and year and dash, it’s both you and a heightened version of her style. Was it important to focus on her and not think of yourself? How do you allow for someone to come through you?

Lehman: With Dickinson, I made two dozen attempts to write it. I couldn’t do better than the one word poem, although I did try.

Hilger: Another poem I admire is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s–the brilliance of the beginnings and ends of her lines. It’s amazing to realize how Edna St. Vincent Millay it still is were you to chop her poem in half and see just the words she’s chosen. It’s difficult to isolate what’s great about a writer, it’s sort of amorphous, or takes a lifetime of reading to see.

Lehman: Millay I believe is a very underrated poet, totally underanthologized and underread. The Oxford Book of American Poetry, a previous edition that Richard Ellmann put together, a noted Joyce scholar …

Hilger: and Oscar Wilde!

Lehman: Yes, also an Oscar Wilde biographer, well he didn’t have any of her poems in the 1976 book. She had fallen so completely out of favor. She’s in the 1950 Oxford book that F.O. Matthiessen put together even though Matthiessen didn’t like sonnets. He thought there were too many sonnets in American poetry; there are always interesting biases.

One thing I was really happy to be able to do is choose certain poets–to give them a little boost. She’s such a fine sonneteer, in particular. She knows how to make a sonnet. It’s a little trick if you isolate the last and first words, you really distill it in a way that may not be true if you take Auden’s sonnets. I really enjoyed doing that with her poems.

Hilger: I’ve been thinking about your translation of Apollinaire’s “Zone.” That one took forty years? It’s a revelation of a last line. Maybe it required those years of approaching it and then it came on its own.

Lehman: The Mayakovsky one too, I possessed it in some way, I knew it for so many years.

Hilger: There so many poets behind closed doors. And if we’ve read one bad translation, they’re not going to be real to us.

Lehman: Goethe is another one, he’s less accessible than Dante or Homer, harder to translate.

Hilger: Were there any writers you admire or teach but who were omitted?

Lehman: There’s the problem of finitude, what you’re able to do given the exigencies of time and space. I didn’t invest time in writing something in the manner of Blake or Coleridge, though I love Coleridge. I tried Shelley many times and threw out most. As for the astrological profiles, I did one for Barbara Stanwyck Dostoevsky, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Graham Greene.

Hilger: I love those forms that feel like they’re having fun. If you lower the stakes, there’s something you can achieve that maybe feels too grand to approach in a different style. I love the Freud quiz.

Lehman: I love ad hoc forms, forms that are not literary but are out there. The multiple choice test is one we’re familiar with from school and examinations. They can have jokes, and can also have serious information.

Hilger: My favorite is “Poem in the manner of a jazz standard.” One lyric morphs into another. It’s what jazz musicians do, there’s a fakeout beginning: they’ll start with one song–you think you know you where you are–or maybe they’ll begin with three different songs’ beginnings, or maybe in the middle of one song they’ll play another–then they return.

The subjects of so many of those jazz standards are the most grave and hurtful parts of life. Nothing would connote that we would want to be in their presence, yet we go to those songs and those songwriters for that joy. Can you give some insight?

Lehman: Well, they believed in romantic love as a possibility.

I don’t know that the popular culture today does, really, but at that time in American pop culture the idea of love at first sight, for example, which is kind of preposterous as a proposition, was a wonderful point of departure for a make-believe kind of universe. In fact, there’s a song called “Make Believe” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, “We can make believe I love you.” And that’s a really interesting supposition. And in fact, Hammerstein liked that idea so much, he has “We Can Make Believe” and the bench scene in Carousel, “If I Loved You.”

If! There’s a supposition in those songs of a passionate love, that is really a condition even Freud would say is the most exalted.

Hilger: “It’s only a paper moon […] But it wouldn’t be make-believe / if you believed in me!”

Lehman: It’s only a paper moon. That’s right. But we need those illusions.

Hilger: Is it real if we invent it?

Lehman: I think there’s a reality principle that comes along.

There’s an exuberance when you realize you’re falling in love with someone. And popular music, of the kind that I like and you like, especially that 50-60 year stretch, captures that: “I’ve Got the World on a String.” That’s a very exuberant feeling. “I’m Sitting on Top of the World”

Hilger: “If I seem to scintillate / it’s because I’ve got a date”

Lehman: Yes, now who wrote that…

Hilger: “Stepping out…”

Lehman: “…with my Baby.” Irving Berlin! That’s a whole subjective mood: the conditional if.

That allows for a lot of songs…there’s an equal number in which there’s heartbreak: “Angel Eyes,” “One for my baby / ”

Hilger: “…and one more for the road.” They make you light up, though, even the sad ones. There’s something to it that still makes you relieved to be in the presence of that–I wonder what that is and how we can understand it.

Lehman: I think it’s insane to think that all that matters of a performer is if they wrote the song themselves. If you have a song like Rodgers & Hart “Lady is a Tramp,” you can have Ella Fitzgerald sing that song and she does a magnificent version, and Frank Sinatra does a great version.

Hilger: And Lena Horne! They’re all so different.

Lehman: And the song’s the same! It lends itself to all of these different singers, and there’s a song “Day In, Day Out,” a Johnny Mercer lyric. The Sinatra version most people know is a swing version, a fast tempo, but he did a very slow early 50s version too. It shows you how the same song can be done in a different time signature, a different tempo, can be done in three part harmony, can be done with a chorus, can be done with just strings, no strings. You’d have the best composer and the best lyricist and the best orchestrator–that’s a division of labor that makes perfect sense to me. You can’t expect someone to do all of those things.

Hilger: And you need the alchemist performers. It’s true, it’s sort of like with one artist, their vision stops there, but it expands when you have someone else, it bounces off of them. It’s like reflecting and refracting light–in order to have a rainbow you need all of these angles and ideas bouncing off the back of a raindrop.

In maybe the way it’s hard to write a poem that appears easy, it’s hard to write these lyrics. Still, there’s a guttural difference in the reaction. If you hear one of these songs, there’s a lightness. It’s not not serious, but it’s different from that intellectual sigh at a poetry reading when someone hears something that moves them.

Lehman: The wit is such is that it appeals to the intellect, but the heart is the music; the music is the real genius. I would aspire to write lyrics. I’d have a wonderful time. You just need the composer, you need the band, and you need the people who are going to dance.


Lauren Hilger is the author of Lady Be Good (CCM, 2016.) Awarded the Nadya Aisenberg fellowship from the MacDowell Colony, her work has appeared in Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. She serves as a poetry editor for No Tokens

Haints, Horrors, and Hilarity: JD Wilkes on The Vine That Ate the South



Vine-That-AteIf you grew up in the rural South, you’ve probably heard tales of big cats, vampires, the Bell Witch, flesh-eating kudzu, and other terrors that go bump in the night. You may have even encountered some yourself, though probably not all in a single outing. Unfortunately for the protagonist of The Vine That Ate the South––and fortunately for us––he did.

Author JD Wilkes spared hardly a Southern folk demon in his debut novel, The Vine That Ate the South. It’s a Homeric tale of going into The Deadening, a patch of haunted woods in western Kentucky, in hopes of coming out not only alive, but with an adventure tale so heroic as to woo his One True Love away from his sworn enemy.

The ultimate destination of our unnamed hero is The Kudzu House, where legend has it an elderly couple was eaten alive by carnivorous kudzu and their skeletons can still be seen strung up by the hungry vine, like two burned out bulbs on a strand of morbid Christmas lights.

When the myriad of Southern haints and frightful creatures are encountered alongside the more corporeal menaces, like trigger-happy hunters and murderous Masons, you’re not entirely certain what’s real and what’s not––and that’s where the magic happens. Rather than a moonlight-and-magnolias glorification of the South, Wilkes shows just how fearsome it can be––literally and figuratively.

The Vine That Ate the South is not only suspenseful, but also uproariously funny. Whether he’s recounting a run-in with a lisping, overly eager pastor or remembering the day his girlfriend-stealing nemesis found his family’s “shit knife,” our protagonist is like that hilarious uncle who always tells the best stories, genuinely unaware of his natural talent for comedy.

The style and tone of the novel, as well as its deft storytelling, mirrors the music of the band The Legendary Shack Shakers, of which Wilkes is the frontman. With the band’s punk, blues, and rockabilly tunes, lyrics rife with apocalyptic Biblical references and Wilkes’ onstage persona as a Southern gothic preacher, The Vine That Ate the South is like a Legendary Shack Shakers show contained between two French flaps.

I talked to Wilkes about his writing process, his influences and his varied artistic talents.

Shunnarah: I so enjoyed The Vine That Ate the South. The story kept me turning pages well after I probably should’ve gone to bed. The novel reads like a bard finally wrote down the South’s oral mythic history. Were you conscious of that bard-like quality as you were writing? How do you think the oral tradition plays into Southern culture?

Wilkes: I wanted the book to read in a “high prose,” florid manner that mirrored the lushness of the Kudzu. The words needed to overwhelm you at times. But I also tried to cut it back and clear room––much like the characters do with their machetes––by allowing plain speech in spots. That way you hopefully get a nice balance of old-school verbosity and simple Southern humor and wisdom.

Shunnarah: I know The Vine That Ate the South wouldn’t be considered a humor book, but there were parts where I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. I’m curious to hear more about your thoughts on how humor factors into Southern culture and storytelling.

Wilkes: I think humor is or should be a part of Southern writing. Flannery O’Connor was satirical and humorous, of course. John Faulkner is a bigger influence on me than his brother William.

Irvin S. Cobb, from Paducah, Kentucky, is too. To write about a place with such an intense history, one must occasionally pop air into it. Levity is what keeps novels like mine from descending into depressing historical fiction or even horror.

Shunnarah: It seems like going exploring in the woods and seeing at least one big cat or mythical creature is a Southern rite of passage. I say that having explored some creepy shacks and seen a big cat or two myself. I’m curious to know if your own explorations and otherworldly encounters fueled some of the scenes in The Vine That Ate the South.

Wilkes: Yes, I also enjoy walking around in abandoned places in the woods, ha! Careful we don’t get shot!

One place nearby is an actual ghost town in the woods along Clarks River. It’s called Carter Mill (it’s talked about in the novel) and there’s nothing like letting your imagination run wild through all those old dilapidated timbers and tar paper. You can even make up your own stories about what happened there… mix it in with the truth a little. Let the storytelling take on a life of its own. It’s something I did as a kid and still do.

Shunnarah: I noticed that the unnamed protagonist calls his companion in adventure, Carver, “crazy” on several occasions. Though Carver is his best friend, he’s self-aware enough to know Carver has a few screws loose. As someone who calls the South home––but who has left, traveled the world, and come back––are there times when you feel like an outsider like the protagonist, too?

Wilkes: I think I’m secretly jealous of people like Carver, a simple redneck who can handle himself in any situation. He’s not that nuanced and he’s the absolute opposite of an intellectual. But it’s his ability to blend into the wild that makes the main character wonder if he’s just crazy… Carver even seems to be an extension of the terrible forest itself. But I see the character as less crazy and more visceral, even feral. A man in complete union with nature at its deadliest.

Shunnarah: Your first book, Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky, was a work of nonfiction published by History Press. Did you always know you wanted to write a novel at some point or was there something about writing Barn Dances and Jamborees that inspired you in that direction?

Wilkes: I never dreamed of really writing a novel. It was really all just a lark.

While on tour with my band in Norway, I cracked a laptop open for a light source while riding through a long tunnel in the mountains. I was homesick so I figured, “Hell… Why not start waxing poetic about Kentucky?” Those Arctic Circle surroundings might’ve inspired my slightly-Tolkienesque approach, though. It really looks like Middle Earth up there!

So I reckon I just started thinking about the lore of the South, as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon stuff that Tolkien studied. Thinking about how we have stories, too.

Shunnarah: In addition to writing the novel, you drew all the illustrations. And on top of that you’re an accomplished musician, both as a solo artist and as a member of multiple bands, most famously The Legendary Shack Shakers, and a filmmaker. How does your love of one inspire and influence the others?

Wilkes: All my pursuits are aimed at telling the same kind of story: epic southern mythology. So there’s always this overarching theme despite the varied media I dabble in. Each medium is just a different discipline that I have learned “good enough” to get the stories across to the public. The hope is that each and every creation will combine to form my own little universe, one that people will enjoy visiting from time to time.

Shunnarah: What’s next for you? I’m interested in any creative projects you’re working on, though I’m especially curious to know if there are more books in the works.

Wilkes: There’s a solo record in the works with some of the Squirrel Nut Zippers guesting. There will be another mural project or two––I just did a large painting for the historic Coke Plant in Paducah. And I’m always writing tunes for The Legendary Shack Shakers. New album comes out in April!

Despite the workload, I’m still vaguely entertaining Carver’s next move, way in the back of my brain. Wonder what he’ll do next …


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.



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.