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We are pleased to welcome Lidia Yuknavich to Fictionaut’s Writers on Craft. Lidia Yuknavich is the author of the forthcoming novel The Backs of Small Children, the novel Dora: A Headcase (Hawthorne Books), and the memoir The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books), as well as three books of short fictions-Her Other Mouths, Liberty’s Excess (FC2), and Real to Reel (FC2), and a critical book on war and narrative, Allegories of Violence (Routledge). Her writing has appeared in publications including Ms., The Iowa Review, Zyzzyva, Another Chicago Magazine, The Sun, Exquisite Corpse, TANK, and in the anthologies Life As We Show It (City Lights), Wreckage of Reason (Spuytin Duyvil), Forms at War (FC2), Feminaissance (Les Figues Press), and Representing Bisexualities (SUNY), as well as online at The Rumpus. She writes, teaches and lives in Portland, Oregon with the filmmaker Andy Mingo and their renaissance man son Miles. She is the recipient of the Oregon Book Award – Reader’s Choice, a PNBA award, and was a finalist for the 2012 Pen Center creative nonfiction award. She is a very good swimmer.
What do you read when you despair at the state of either your work or a particularly difficult manuscript in progress—any “go to” texts?
Well here’s a true story—ALL the manuscripts I work on are a wrestling match! Ha…then again, if they weren’t, I’d likely lose interest. But there really are books that I keep near to help me remember three things:
So the writers who help me remember those three things include Marguerite Duras, Carole Maso, Virginia Woolf, Clarice Lispector, Toni Morrison, Joy Harjo, Maxine Hong Kingston, Anne Carson, H.D., Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Beckett, Doris Lessing, Gertrude Stein, and Kathy Acker. All collected they are like a build-it-yourself New Testament devoted to formal play—to making meaning not only through content, but through form.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit this: I’m a slutty reader. I also turn to Sci-Fi A LOT, Thrillers, True Crime, Historical Fiction, all kinds of Fantasy—those books have helped me out of creative jams too. They loosen the limits of my stubborn addiction to language and remind me to play.
Lastly: here’s a secret: when I’m stuck I go to paintings, not books.
If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors about editing that has served you well, what would it be?
Do you mean the process of revision? Editing one’s own work? Revision isn’t a drag for me at all—I love the idea that you can go in and change anything! At any moment! I don’t find much that’s precious in my own writing so I’m fairly willing to shape-shift any line or idea. And for me, deep revision is about reading my own work vertically—like a poem—and identifying patterns, figurative opportunities, hidden pockets where I can dive deeper.
I save line editing for the proofreading round.
My favorite kind of editing or revising happens in collaboration with someone else though. For example, the creative collaboration I had with Rhonda Hughes at Hawthorne Books when I wrote The Chronology of Water, or the one I just experienced with Calvert Morgan at Harper for The Small Backs of Children. Trust me when I say I am a lucky writer—both of these editors are brilliant co-conspirators who love literature as much as I do. So “editing” felt like pushing the creative process as far as it could go.
But again, when it is just you, alone with your writing, I’ve found a process that works for me that I am developing for others…it involves letting go of your critical : logical : grammar drunk mind and instead letting your subconscious drive the car for a bit. It involves hunting for latent or implicit material in your own work, seeing if there are any places where you can dig deeper, open up, seeing what words and images, themes, and metaphors recur and reworking with an eye toward a more authentic gestalt. Sometimes there is a whole book hiding within the one you think you “finished.”
I’m in the process of developing a workshop series and book on this methodology.
Looking forward to the book, for sure. How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?
OH I like this question a good bit because it really does change. Radically.
Technically speaking, trauma brought me to the page…my daughter died the day she was born and I moved toward psychosis from grief. Then writing started to come out of my hands. At first it was gibberish. Then it wasn’t. Likely putting what I was feeling to the page kept me from death or insanity. I’m often surfacing the idea in my novels that the intensity of the imaginative realm is not unconnected to altered states of mind—even psychosis. I’ve been there so I know what I’m talking about.
In my twenties, which is when I started writing in a way toward entering the world, my creative drive was quite a bit about refusing to be quiet anymore, and about claiming a space within language and experience from which to speak. And I truly had an urge to bite and scratch. I suspect I was trying to get my body into representation. I had a rage driving me like you wouldn’t believe—but then, rage is something we don’t afford girls growing up, is it, and so I think now that my rage was a necessary developmental stage. Who among us can push up and through to an authentic life by skipping anger?
In my thirties, I met my own intellect for the first time. It was literally like meeting a second self, one I had no idea existed. At first I wanted to punch her in the face. I was threatened. I thought she wanted to kill my creativity or something. But what I learned in my thirties is that a woman’s intellect and her creativity could, if she let them, love each other. The writing I did in my thirties reflects that process…that struggle toward integrating different parts of a self.
The writing I did in my forties was driven almost entirely by a colossal desire to go back and get the pieces of self that I’d hidden or lost or injured along the way in my life. A sudden flash of realization that I was not whole, and that I could not go on missing an arm and a leg and half of my heart. But too, the decade of my forties is pretty much when my skill as a writer began to kick in. I’m a late bloomer I guess. And so the question became, what to do with a whole self and a bit of skill. And that is a radically different “place” to be as a writer than any of the other places I’ve been. I went straight to the body. This time in my life is where I discovered corporeal writing for myself. And it changed my writing forever.
On this side of fifty? What I am “doing” with my work is leaving the comfort of the personal and venturing into the territory of the world and what we’ve made of it. I’m interested in things like empathy and geopolitics and eco-novels and social justice. When I grow up I’d like to be Doris Lessing. I’m pretty sure I’ve got a leg up on the hair.
What do you feel is the purpose of literature?
To wake people the fuck up.
At least the literature I love the most does that. But we need all kinds of literature, everything there is on a living spectrum, alive, noisy, unflinching. It only takes a sentence to change someone’s life, and that sentence could come from anywhere.
Sometimes in writing classes you teach, you discuss a wonderful idea for writers that involves “writing one’s way in” to difficult topics through objects. Can you speak to this concept of writing one’s way in for a moment, share it here?
This is a poet’s wisdom—I am ever in debt to poets and painters and musicians and filmmakers. Images, objects, metaphors—they can carry part of the story for you if you let them. And they can get more of the story to come out of you as well, because bypassing the critical mind, the mind that overthinks and analyzes things, can sometimes yield what exposition cannot. Look what “water” or “rocks” did for me! Or read any poem by your favorite poet—because a poet can distill experience via language better than anyone else in the world. What I learned when I wrote about water until I could not write about water any longer is that my whole life can be rendered in stories about water. What I learned about rocks from refusing to stop writing about rocks is that I can meet the reader there, in the palm of their own hand, and I can invest that object in their hand with a truth that was mine, but is now ours.
As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?
I’m afraid I’m a failure at offering “human being advice.” Everything I know about becoming a better person has come from my son. The last thing he said that astonished me was yesterday (I often post his witticisms on my Facebook page as “Milesisms”). He busted out with: “We don’t need more fictional heroes. We need regular people to wake the fuck up.”
To me, that’s a profound statement.
He also said love is the fifth element, after we watched The Fifth Element, and that government can never fully contain art, after we watched and read V.
I get my wisdom from popular culture, literature, art, and 14 year olds.
I love the visceral quality of your work. Both Dora and The Chronology of Water are fascinating with how vividly they approach and examine the individuals in their narratives, despite that one book is a novel and the other a memoir. What created your vision or pull toward the newest book, The Backs of Small Children? Can you speak to what compelled you toward writing this book in particular?
There is a quote from a Kathy Acker novel that, for better or worse, lodged itself in my heart forever: “War, if not the begetter of all things, certainly the hope of all begetting and pleasures. For the rich and especially for the poor. War, you mirror of our sexuality.”
When I first read the novel that carries that quote, Empire of the Senseless, I had no idea what it meant, but I was definitely gutted by the language. The book changed me forever. It made me look at psychosexual development and cultural inscription and capitalism in ways that haunted me the rest of my life. It made me look at the relationship between art, war, and sexuality different forever.
The Small Backs of Children is a book I began before I wrote a word of The Chronology of Water. But it was more abstract when it first started coming out of me, so it didn’t have a form yet. For a while there it was what my husband Andy Mingo called an abstract epic poem.
To be honest? I think I had to stop and write The Chronology of Water in order to finish figuring out what was fractured in me before I could return to The Small Backs of Children. I kept running into the same wall: OK, this emerging book is about art, war, sexuality and a girl child…what in the world do art and war have to do with the psychosexual development of children? Am I nuts?
What was fractured in me was something my beloved friend Vanessa Veselka nailed: How is it that I am alive when you are not? The wound I carried in my body—the death of my daughter—there was something inside of that wound besides grief, pain, loss. There was an entire world. A character. A story. About what art means to me. About the agency of girls—ALL of their agency, including their rage and desire and fire—and how we have yet to honor fully honor their bodies and lives and stories.
Ever since then, I’ve been writing books that loose new girl bodies and stories into the world.
Too, The Small Backs of Children is partially informed by events from my Lithuanian family history. This novel is also a kind of answer to the question I’ve been asked two trillion times: “What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction?” To which my answer remains: a slight membrane, thin as infant’s skin.
I love how dense and fine The Small Backs of Children is—and how many forms of writing dominate the pages, the formal play you discuss. It feels like a magical package rather than a book: a poetic narrative, a theatrical narrative, a fictive narrative, a correspondence, a shifting fever dream, and an independent film. All of these things. Sometimes all at once. It’s also intensely erotic and savage, in turns, so your above answer is very satisfying. It does feel epic.
As an aside, I think the formal authorial skills displayed by this text, the high and low topical and tonal variances in the narrative stream, allow for a lot of good liberty to bring complex sexual identities into a wider readership’s consideration. For example, I think readers of literary fiction who would not deliberately read erotic fiction outside of a hetero-normative standard will likely gain exposure to more than they bargained for when they crack this book—and yet there is enough of what the literary reader seeks that will satisfy him/her as well. Do you think this book is an artful embodiment of a sign of the times in terms of societal changes both to come and in progress now regarding how people see sex and love in comparison to what was formerly considered perversion—or instead a gauntlet tossed into the literary hetero-dominated landscape today in terms of encouraging a more open societal embrace of diverse sexualities? The power of the pen is mighty here.
LOVE this question. I have more than one answer (I’m a Gemini. What are you going to do?). My first answer is, it depends on where one locates “perversion.” I locate perversion at the site of war and damage it does to human bodies. And I focused in on the non-soldier body on purpose. It is profoundly perverse to me that we ignore the ways in which torture and mutilation of the bodies of women and children are prominent features of warfare. How many children in the world have survived this brutality? Where are their purple hearts? So that I surfaced explicitly sexual material alongside the story of a child surviving wartime abuse and damage of the most horrible kind, means I was unwilling to avert my eyes to what we mean when we say “perverse.” The private sexual practices of individuals—like fisting between women—that is not perverse to me. The ravaged bodies of women and children as a result of perpetual war. That’s perverse.
My second answer is, yes, I consciously set out to monkey-wrench the literary het dominated landscape in an effort to raise questions and diversify what we mean when we say sex, sexuality, sexual identification, and even love. There is more than one love story in the book. But it’s not the love story we’ve been trained to value and award. There are a variety of sexualities represented in the book. But they do not fit the categories we’ve been trained to accept in our literature. In particular I was interested in restoring both agency and exploration to the sexuality of women and girls. We are not the story our culture has made for us. We never were. I don’t know a single woman or girl (or boy or man or anyone in between) who fits the script culture hands to us with regard to how to live and love and experience desire. So I’m bracing for the “these women are unlikeable” response, or “this sexuality is excessive” response, because I quite consciously wrote those questions alive in the bodies of the women characters. I did it on purpose. I’m not sorry.
It wouldn’t be untrue to say that the women characters in the book are all versions of one woman’s sexual diversity played out across the plane of narrative form.
My third answer (don’t panic I don’t have a hundred answers ha) is, I don’t think there is anything “new” about what I’ve done with the sexualized material in this novel. Certainly my influences were way ahead of me—Anais Nin and Kathy Acker and Marguerite Duras and Clarice Lispector. But I have noticed that sexualized language in literature sort of comes and goes in waves. And sometimes what passes for representations of sexuality in literature makes me laugh. If a woman writer conforms to representing sexuality in prescribed forms and traditions that qualify as entertaining, green light. But if a woman writer, breaks those codes, risks representing sexuality in every part of her life, in its raw and messy and chaotic forms, if a woman writer, for instance, dares to articulate desire as a perpetual force in her life, away from the heterosexual love plot or chase plot or male savior plot, it’s “deviant.” And I think the same thing is true for LGBT writers and writers of color. Which is complete bullshit. I hope in my lifetime we see thousands more representations of sexuality. We don’t need less, we need more. This is my call to arms.
As to the multiplicity of literary forms you mention at the top of your question, I think we have come to a moment in our evolution as people and makers of art in which the traditional notion of mimesis has been flipped over. Whereas it MAY have been true that art mirrored life experiences in the past, you know what? I’m starting to think we have come to a time where we’re starting to live our lives based on the representations around us. I think we are acting our relationships in the terms of drama, film, television, narrative form. In other words, I think we live by the codes of our dominant representations, whether we admit it or not. I think we are often stunned that we can’t work out conflicts like they do on T.V. I think we are devastated when our relationships don’t rise to cinematic proportions and magically resolve like the ends of novels. So the fact that I conjured a variety of representational modes to create the story of a handful of people coming to terms with their own lives by and through art, well, I think in some ways that’s how we get through our lives. We narrativize experiences so we can live with them. We create necessary fictions in order to bear the weight of things.
Do you think that women are truly more violent than they are depicted in most literature? Less passive? In your view does literature’s portrayal of women remain stunted or certainly progressing less rapidly than that presented in most current visual media (TV, motion picture, etc.) in terms of depictions of women’s motivations, needs, psyches, and variable sexualities?
I think women are complex, contradictory, sometimes excessive, absolutely active mammals. I think it’s long past time we open up representation to the fact of us, rather than the fiction of us that has for so long served a certain social order.
The Small Backs of Children does an amazing job with its male characters as well. They are fully integrated into the text. Did their presence in the narrative expand, remain static, or shrink in the final editing process? Any words or thoughts you had about writing men into this narrative—especially since war and the theft of female agency are often tied to heavily gendered realities?
Well I think it is important to admit that the limits we have placed on male subjectivity—on men and on boys–are crappy shackles too. So I specifically set out to present a variety of male subjectivities as complex and contradictory as the female ones in the book. They all have certain “male” traits that we are all familiar with, but I also tried to give them traits that escape those inscriptions, traits that call gender and action and hero and savior and violent impulses into question. There are no perfectly good or perfectly bad men or women characters in the novel. I’ve not met any in life, either. I’m pretty sure we call that human. And anyway I’m tired of the old tropes and character options. I’m hunting for “what else” can happen with characterization in this book and in the ones I’m working on next.
What’s in the pipeline for your readers next? And what are you working on now? Give us a sneak peek.
My second novel with Harper is coming out in about a year. It’s called The Book of Joan, and it’s a revisioning of Joan of Arc, one of my personal totems. I took god out. But I left the voices, and I put something in his place…something brutal but beautiful.
Approached to contribute to the Editor’s Eye, I accepted. But I’m not a professional writer, I don’t have that glib command of critical vocabulary that professional writers have. But I accepted the challenge.
Faithfully reading Fictionaut’s new postings every day, I kept a list of stories and poems that struck a chord with me. Most of my choices won a place on the Recommend Stories list. The purpose of the Editor’s Eye is to find unheralded gems. I changed tactics and decided to select stories that involved lists, litanies and catalogs.
The tradition of lists is as old as Homer. Lists are flexible and have great appeal to writers, compressing quantities of information in a small space. Graphically, lists can be straightforward, take the form of a litany, or be embedded in the text. Lists can also be mnemonics, establishing place, timeline, mood and character. Lists, for example, dominate Georges Perec’s masterpiece La Vie mode d’emploi. They are key to that novel’s structure and narrative.
Most of my choices found their way to the Recommended list, but they serve as examples of different ways authors use and incorporate lists.
According to the author, this poem is an ABC poem, i.e. one where each stanza begins with the next letter of the alphabet. That plan was not strictly followed, but that is not what gives this labyrinth of history, genealogy, factoids, gems and catechisms its punch. Its narrative spans many generations of the author’s extended family.
Nonnie employs straightforward lists in the “S”, “T” & “U” stanzas. Here’s “T”:
“Typesetter, cooper, mill worker, farmer, beggar, sculptor, soldier, abbot, king, at home looking after the children, knight, saint, maid, countess, poet, cook, milliner, opera singer, piano teacher, carpenter, politician, dancer, lumberjack.”
I enjoyed “at home looking after the children” which brings attention to itself and slows the tempo.
Or this Joycean “R” line:
Ragoût, der Eintopf, el estofado, stobhach, stirabout, stew.
Try reading that aloud at a good clip. Tricky.
In many ways this poem reminds me of Evan S. Connell, Jr’s Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel. In addition to lists there are jarring historical facts: to wit: “My Scots switched sides, switched back. Lost their land, kept their heads.” This narrative poem is an entertaining read and a good example of the power of lists.
Klarheit-oder-genug (literally: clarity or enough) is a short prose piece that achieves good effect from the list as litany. The narrative begins as a search for FBI records relative to a fingerprinting episode at the offices of Girls Write Now, and then the story journeys to an aside about data collection and personal brushes with the law. Ann uses commonality as a hinge to change locale or direction. Using a police stop as a hinge, we discover this wonderful litany of a character’s personal facts:
“Davy was nearly blind. He did drive. He collected S.S.I. and perhaps Medicaid that didn’t cover insulin, necessitating that his grandmother’s sister, Esther, pay for it out of her own pocket, among other expenses pledged to be repaid by an elderly hearings court in Houston, who had appointed a guardian ad litem for Esther’s sister, Helen, to care for Helen’s estate.”
One could parse this as:
Davy is blind
Davy collects SSI
Davy maybe collects Medicaid
Davy can’t afford his insulin
Davy’s great-aunt Esther buys his insulin
A Texas elderly hearings court appointed a guardian for Esther’s sister, Helen.
All of the character’s essentials are laid out in two short sentences and one long one. The staccato of the first two sentences followed by the long exhale of the third has an anapestic quality. This last sentence contains a host of interconnected information that is perhaps more genug than Klarheit, but the writing keeps the reader on track.
Ann fluidly moves through time, place and circumstance. Her narrative skillfully guides the reader from non-fiction narrative, speculation and commentary. This piece reminds one of Kerouac, or of Mailer’s power writing. There is a stream of consciousness quality to the writing that makes the piece more powerful than a common list. There’s always a special quality to Ann’s writing. For her less is more. And the spare-and-sparse surface of her work belies the internal complexities.
Roz Warren is a gifted humorist and a professional librarian. This entire story is itself a list. Roz entertains the reader by a litany of the most outlandish questions and requests she and other librarians have received, including the title request:
“A patron once asked me to sit on his lap. (I laughed at him.)”
The requests range from the sexual, the demeaning, and the illegal to the astonishing:
“A divorced dad came to Story Hour, asked me out, then asked me to marry him!! I did!”
Roz’s writing is always a treat and like most humor it has a serious point. The library is an open public space inviting a steady flux of humanity. Its stewards must be prepared for anything.
Here is a distinctive piece, a poem inspired by an ancient Irish castle; and it is contrived and crafted entirely as a list. And what a list of images it is. The poem is short, I’ll post it all:
Rotten floorboards and crumbling battlements.
Lovers fumble in the thick undergrowth.
An Episcopal priest drowned in the moat back in the 1950s.
Long rows of hangdog portraits line the walls.
The local football team plays in burgundy jerseys with a yellow stripe.
A sextant once owned by Magellan is buried in the wine cellar.
Dusty rats travel unmapped tunnels.
A beggar-woman holds a sign at the entrance.
Loons swim in the nearby lake as the dying sun spasms.”
Marvelous images: crumbling battlements, drowning priest, hangdog portraits, Magellan’s sextant, rats in unmapped tunnels, begging woman, and the best of it: dying sun spasms.
This list compresses time from the Norman Conquest to the present day. The poem’s action is hidden really: Claffey quietly gestures to the remains of a forgotten history. The author’s choices delight as they inform.
This melancholy story is on the death of children. I suspect it is an allegory for a children’s orphanage or foster home. The setting is a cemetery, or rather the ground under the cemetery where the children leave their coffins and interact with each other.
Here is a paragraph that lists some of the residents of this gloomy underworld, ironically identified as Meadowlark Children’s Cemetery:
“Another kid, Brian Cleary, was accidentally shot by his step-dad when they were hunting. Margie Forsythe, smoke inhalation when her house burned down. Gregory Mountain, drowned in Forrester Lake trying to save his sister’s inner-tube, while she watched from the shore. And on and on.”
Like any society, Kemmick’s world has its share of squabbles, treacheries and a mob that destroys the coffin of the first child to be taken away by an angel. This event is followed by this paragraph embracing features of the list-catalog and a universal existential sigh:
“The conjecturing went on for some time, back and forth, back and forth, all of us transformed into a philosopher, a theologian, an investigator of impossible truths, but all the while, none of us said what it was we were all really thinking, that we wanted the angel to come back, that we wanted to be next, to hold his hand, or cling to his wings, to be led off, or up, or in whatever direction Heaven might lie.”
Our Graves is a story that stays with you. It is long (4830 words) for Fictionaut, but well worth the read.
Tara Isabel Zambrano (Rachna K)
I include this highly recommended flash fiction because its closing line is stellar:
“And love circulates in my blood slowly creating antibodies of doubt and fear as if they always exist together.
One for the time capsule.
The blues genre is a sack of woes, to paraphrase the great jazz saxophonist, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly. The blues gets down to a recounting of all that is wrong, gone wrong and been wrong. Tim Young’s Blues Repeat is not in the form of traditional blues, but it surely lists many things that can make one blue.
Two verses that stand out:
“Don’t look at me honey
I fell on the table
my hair is on fire
my heart is unstable”
yeah I’m losing it honey
I spit when I cough
a bloody reminder
it’s time to lay off”
At times the rhymes are forced and detract from the startling images. Some judicious editing could make this a commanding blues lyric.
Daniel Harris was born in Chicago in 1943 and educated at the Eastman School of Music and Yale University. He worked for fifty years as a professional classical, jazz and studio musician. He is also a painter (some 3000 works and counting), ceramist, inventor, and author of short stories, non-fiction and opera libretti. He serialized his first novel, Five Million Yen, on Fictionaut. A selection of other stories and flash-fictions are posted on Fictionaut. His previous creative non-fiction works are: The Butterfly Effect, published in Mad Hatter Review #13 (2013 Million Writers’ Award) and The Audition, published in Eclectica. He illustrated Ann Bogle’s Country Without A Name published online by Argotist. As an artist he works in traditional media and also creates works on digital mobile devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod). He is the composer of over fifty musical compositions in a variety of styles and media. He has won numerous awards for music composition, musical engineering and audio engineering. He is a respected authority of underwater musical acoustics. His personal website documents his musical career.
Sharing stories and poems is something I enjoy and something I do almost every day via my Twitter feed and my personal blog. Sharing is the reason I’ve been a fan and a reader of Editors Eye since I joined Fictionaut two years ago so I was pleased to be asked to contribute to the column. The challenge is to find the hidden gems within the Fictionaut writing community and bring them into the light where they will hopefully sparkle in the eyes of readers who missed them the first time.
Susan Sontag said, “A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” The stories I’ve chosen prove Susan’s point. Detail is what pulls a reader into a story, it’s what makes you feel like you are there, what makes you feel. The arrangement of those details is what makes up the writer’s unique voice, as you’ll see in each of these selections. I know you will enjoy them as much as I did.
This piece is so subtly crafted that even while you’re being lulled into the tranquil domestic setting, you feel an undercurrent of foreboding that belies the tranquility. Kelli writes with a poet’s eye for detail: “You like how the sweet, summer smell of drying grass blends with the tang of the lemon dishwashing soap you use.” The reader feels an intimacy in this short piece right up to the heartbreaking end. This is one of the best flash pieces I’ve read anywhere.
Very short poetry is my favorite kind. It takes skill to put a lot into so little and Rene does it well. This little piece is as light as air but it packs a punch with one strategically placed word. It’s just gorgeous.
There’s beautiful imagery in this piece enhanced by a mood of melancholy. You get a hint that love is slipping away but the writer is trying hard to nourish the small flame that’s left.
The next three pieces are all weirdly wonderful – I’m not sure whether to call them SciFI, Magical Realism, or Fairy Tales but they all defy being categorized and I don’t like labels anyway.
This one totally creeped me out. The descriptive narration in this piece is so good I found myself scratching and thinking about Morgellons Disease and wondering how in hell this woman got into this predicament. This is really good story-telling and if it were a book you could get lost in it.
This wildly wonderful piece is an insomniac’s fever dream – you’re never sure exactly where you are or what you are, you only know you’re in what seems to be a mash-up of Alice in Wonderland and an old Vincent Price movie. This is crazy-good and I’m envious my imagination isn’t anywhere near this caliber.
A tale of a man literally becoming his work, this very unique piece fascinates me. I’ve read it several times and I keep thinking about it. This is what obsession is. This is what becoming completely and blindly infatuated is. Another wildly wonderful piece, I am completely smitten.
Charlotte Hamrick reads and writes in New Orleans. Besides her city, she loves her dogs, books, poetry, The Blues, photography and spending way too much time on the internet when she should be doing laundry. She hates laundry. Her work has been published in numerous online and print journals, most recently including Literary Orphans, Camroc Press Review, and Moving Poems. She is a Pushcart nominee and a finalist for the 15th Glass Woman Prize. She blogs at Zouxzoux.wordpress.com.
We are pleased to welcome Michael J. Seidlinger to this month’s installment of Writers on Craft. MICHAEL J SEIDLINGER is the author of a number of novels including The Strangest, The Fun We’ve Had, The Face of Any Other, and The Laughter of Strangers. He serves as Electric Literature‘s Book Reviews Editor as well as Publisher-in-Chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms, an indie press specializing in unclassifiable/innovative fiction and poetry. He says he has been a lot of things but nowhere near as much as what he hasn’t managed to become. He’s been a painter, sculptor, vocalist, bassist, DJ, professional boxer, game designer, car washer/detailer, short-lived drifter, and mover/construction slave. He enjoys good company, good conversation, good food, good drink, good wisdom, good books, good films, good fights, good videogames, and plenty of really bad, bad decisions. Looking for a good time? Contact him at your earliest convenience. Disclaimer: Michael J Seidlinger cannot guarantee that you’ll have a “good time.”
What do you read when you despair at the state of either your work in general or a particularly difficult manuscript in progress—any “go to” texts?
The inevitable despair, be it due to a sudden bout of uncertainty, a particularly bad stretch of time where life derails and that feeling of being in quicksand sets in and I just don’t know if I’ll ever be able to breathe again, I tend to lean towards a few books—The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, Life After God by Douglas Coupland, The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel, and/or a failed novel of mine, doesn’t matter which one as long as it’s one that I fucked up and couldn’t ever finish.
Oddly, I find solace in the grim details of a text, the ones that bare all and show the reader that there are no clean breaks, no certainties without dealing with the issue head-on. It’s when I see that what I am feeling isn’t any different than what so many others have felt that I begin to breathe normally again, perhaps even long enough to step outside and remember what it feels like to take a long walk with no clear destination in mind.
If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors about editing or even hanging in there while you edit that has served you well, what would it be?
Disassociate as much from your work as possible. Once it’s complete, in a form you find fitting, it’s important to step aside, let it settle in; leave it behind for a day, week, month, year. Let it become something you can view objectively. Only then will it reveal its true nature to you, to the point where you can look at it line-by-line and see where its faults are; this is especially important when others read and begin to provide feedback/edits.
Now that’s probably advice that’s less useful if the piece is already in the hands of an editor, or perhaps stuck in the perpetual doom of unsolicited submissions; but I still think that it’s valuable to be able to step away from your work and view it for what it is rather than something that was, at one point in time, the first and foremost item on your mind.
How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?
I’ve become more ruthless over time. I wouldn’t have been able to kill off an entire project without a thought years ago but now… I often wonder if I murder more than I create. There’s a graveyard of horrible writing that I hide from everyone, a graveyard I never want to visit.
What do you feel is the purpose of literature?
It helps to be reminded that we aren’t alone in our thoughts, our work, our obsessions, our pain. Literature is as much an aid as it is a means of reaching out to those that are feeling, and being fueled, by the same.
As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?
Don’t ever give up. Seriously. I wanted to give up at least once during the completion of this interview. But I didn’t. I haven’t yet. I won’t. You shouldn’t either. Don’t give up.
I’ve been reading your book The Face of Any Other lately and I love how it really acts as a psychological novel that explores the idea of significance and insignificance. The sentences accumulate with force.
I think the book is largely about identity perception and particularly the construct that people-pleasing nulls authentic self. How did the writing of this one start? The concept of alternating voices? I like how there are multiple narration styles. I almost get a Kundera vibe. Are you a fan of his work? Were there other obvious influences from either lit or elsewhere?
The Face of Any Other started a bit differently. Usually, when tackling a project, I know exactly what I’m trying to do–a direct premise, general outline, the structure of the novel in malleable enough broadstrokes–to the extent of it being my roadmap. With this one, I had the cover image and no novel. Friend and mastermind Matthew Revert had created it on a whim during one of our chats, the cover having been originally for an entirely different book that I killed off upon going through it after leaving it on its own for a few years. I loathed what the original novel had become so, now, I had this deadline for a book, a cover, and no book. So I looked at the cover image, the cracked face, and took about 48 hours to dig through my notes—various thoughts and half thoughts—seeking some sort of direction for the project. Inevitably it became the lack of a main character, or rather, the facelessness of a main character that rose to the top. I quickly found myself creating rules to keep the main character from having an identity, and in doing so, I had a logical need to accentuate other characters. Their voices soon became far more resonant and by the time I had a dozen pages or so, Patricia Pond, Richard Tell, and others were already taking over valuable narrative real estate. Because there were so many voices to choose from, I knew that I had to approach the material in such a way that all would be included. The best means of doing so is to cast their characteristics onto the blank slate main character. In that way, the narrative became just that: a revelatory one, wherein so many are made visible in the presence of an unknown/impossible entity. It’s what not even you, the one being viewed, sees in yourself, that’s what the unnamed main character of the novel reveals. He reveals the truths we keep hidden from ourselves.
I actually own a few books by Kundera but have yet to read them. This is where I’d say that I really should but I just know that I won’t, at least not anytime soon (just looked at my to-read pile and it’s toppling and I’m kind of afraid).
I love the passage in that book that states, “I’m here because this act gives me purpose. Here for no other reason to deliver subliminal messages to a person in need. It helps me feel real.” Feeling real is at a premium these days for so many. Maybe this is because there are so many “here”s where we must appear. How do you juggle the supreme amounts of service to the literary community you do, your press CCM, and your creative output? You do these things so well–like you are “here” while “here” but also “here” –and I wonder sometimes how you juggle all of those efforts. It’s inspiring.
I usually joke around about never sleeping. It’s only half true. I tend to suffer from insomnia so I really do have all that time at night to work my various duties. However, taking on the duties has involved a conscious choice to spend quite a bit of my free time working/managing these various duties. Depending on the time of year, I might not have any time to do anything else. Hmm… If I didn’t fully enjoy it, I’d be quite the miserable person. Luckily, it seems like I dig it and, yeah, it’s been a constant enthusiastic hustle more so than anything else.
Also – I should probably get more sleep. But yeah, one step at a time.
Do you still carry a “tattered notepad full of various thoughts and ideas” as you mentioned you had in a 2012 interview? What’s your relationship to the old ways—by that I mean communion with an actual pen and paper?
Yeah, I always carry around a notepad and pen for whenever an idea, a line, or whatever comes to mind. Other than that, I almost never write longhand. In fact, the notepads all get cut up, burned, etc. once I’m done transcribing the content that turned out to be something I could use. The notepad is merely a tool, a means of getting something down immediately. They cease to exist for any other purpose than as a temporary log.
What’s in the pipeline for your readers next? And what are you working on now? Give us a sneak peek.
On October 15th 2015, I have a novel, The Strangest, coming out via the NYC based publishing house, OR Books. It is a modern day retelling of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Other than that, I’m currently finishing up a project that may or may not ever see the light of day. Never know which projects will find a home with a publisher and which ones will end up in in the cloud, archived and likely forgotten. I have two other projects that I’m preparing to write, but again, same deal: they could end up stillborn, unpublishable, killed off, etc. For those reasons, I really can’t say anything else about them. Wish I could but doing so would only get my hopes up and sometimes that’s just not realistic. Being a realist must be exhausting.
What a reader views one way, another sees from an entirely different angle. As The Editor’s Eye, I set out to be objective, to make myself available to what is written between the lines, or beneath. There are many well written pieces on Fictionaut that I haven’t mentioned. For the past fortnight though, these are my choices. In no particular order.
I particularly love the way Darryl sets out his verses, how the last line of each pauses with the spacing before merging with the next. It gives a breathy feel, which works so well. It feels like the poet is talking directly to you, holding you with his words. There’s almost a caress to it.
“When I wasn’t aware of your presence in my
Temple of being.
We belong in Paradise, but we are not
In Paradise, instead we’re stuck in the muddle like
Pennies dropped out of spite, we’re spent on someplace
And in this ending, more than sublime, there’s a glimpse of the future:
you are carved on my wall, gathering my road.”
Captivating work, Darryl. And what a wonderful title. Bravo.
I love the warp and weave of this piece. There’s a story to be told and we have a teller up to the task.
The title, Headache Pads, begs the question ‘What the?’ It set the intrigue and I wanted to find out more.
Dialogue is real and suited the MC’s age and gender. Sense of place is simple, uncluttered and I was soon caught up in the ‘What happens next’. The only polish it needs is a little editing of the tenses.
This is the progression of a good story. One thing draws us in, another holds us and then we are in for the duration.
Here dialogue reveals more than it’s saying:
“You have plenty of time to decide. Just get the grades.”
“Mom, I know what I want to be when I grow up.”
“I want to be a shoe salesman.”
Mom didn’t miss a mash but glared at me. “Get serious,” she said.
“Mom, I am serious.”
“Well then, don’t be stupid.”
“Stupid? What do you mean by stupid? What’s stupid about being a shoe salesman?”
And it had one of those satisfying and smile-worthy endings.
A great story, well worth reading. Really enjoyed this one, Paul.
Light is to picture as voice is to story. And the voice paints the picture in this story perfectly. No pun intended (see ending).
I liked the POV, it worked well. And the spaced format made it easy reading.
It’s what I call a quiet story, it draws one in with whispers. All is quiet, all is good, but one knows it won’t stay that way. The tension is revealed with the squirrel’s uneasiness. And this unease ripples through the MC as well.
“For some seconds, my gaze became curiously fixed now on the crabapple tree on my lawn that I forgot to spray since cutting off many of its limbs. I immediately felt anxious guilt, being the one responsible for opening the way for infection.”
The last line ending, bringing us back to the beginning, is more than what it seems:
“The weather in paradise was still perfect.”
Top story, Carl.
Two brilliant, but entirely different poems by Arexa Starling.
I believe Tastes Like Wind works so well because of its two beat, conversational format. Interpret it as you will, it’s definitely a poem to ponder.
Here it is again. I’ve read it at least six times now and love it more with each musing.
It’s raining I say
I grin. Tastes like wind.
I can’t tell that you are crying.”
Good title. And there’s a lot of meaning in these lines.
I particularly love this, where slant rhyme of years and errs works so well:
“Your years, your errs, stretched across his dappled sky, broken and cracked
scorched to its core
Beyond recognition, surely, and unmistakably yours, yes
The spacing gives the poem suspension which, when reading it aloud, which I always do, adds gravity to the words.
There’s retrospection too:
“You have never been so patient as to sit and wait
even for the sun to rise”
“These are all yours to keep, she told you once”
Really enjoyed these, Arexa.
Tara Isabel Zambrano
In this short literary fiction piece the opening line sets the scene, without over description:
“The bazaar in old Delhi is busy and stylish with barbers, psychics, jewelers and cow dung cakes on the tar roads.”
And we are there.
I think the voice of the casual observer suits the storyline. We, the readers, are ‘seeing’ it all through the author’s eyes and expertly so:
“She has honey glazed skin and muscular thighs wrapped in a saree, restless feet and a toddler’s palm joined to hers.” And this: “Her toenails sparkle as her feet match the rhythm of a cotton ginner who is also looking at her with the refrain of a married man with kids. A set of beedis are tucked between her heaving breasts. The sheets of fabric sway picking her scent like indigo infused in the white light of thousand other smells.”
(And yes, one can spell saree like that.)
And then the connection, which is the point of this story, that we too are sharing:
“The woman avoids the ginner and looks at me, flexing her curves. The air turns giddy with playfulness and I want the time to stay dead. I want to lift her as with a pair of tongs hold a gem in light, until she dissolves into dust, swallowing a part of me that is unstoppable like the hands of a clock.” (Italics mine).
The theme of a broken watch cleverly threads reality into metaphor. And it ties the whole story up neatly with this superb ending:
“A faint ticking resumes as the fabric unravels and obscures her in a sweep of colors until I only see her palms facing the sky as if releasing an hourglass – emptying and filling once again.”
An accomplished piece, Tara.
It can be a difficult thing to engage a reader convincingly in a futuristic piece. And doubly so when it’s an excerpt/chapter plucked from somewhere within one’s novel. But I was drawn in by the well written opening of Naked, willing to suspend the questions Who’s who? Where the hell are we? And what the hell is happening?:
“The timer on Tajen’s Vest read 48 seconds. The seizure was less than a minute away. I stuck the Harbnizone syringe into the catheter that dangled off his side like a misplaced tail. The timer clicked up first to 60 seconds, then to 94, then to an hour before returning to the word SAFE.”
The pace is crisp, the simile original, and it has that nice roll off the tongue rhythm of someone who knows her craft.
Intrigued, I soon had the gist. Vests that kept one healthy, but at a cost. And these two wanted out:
“When I got anxious—and despite what he thought, Tajen wasn’t the only one who got scared—I imagined a Naked world, all of us living like they did in Seranon. Our short lives punctuated by heart attacks and strokes and seizures and diabetic comas, but Naked and unseen by CareCorps. Our data returned to facts, our movements swift and easy for being unseen. The future would be a negative, defined only by what we no longer had. Our freedom was a stripping away, an unmooring, beyond which I required no promises.”
But Naked is synonymous with vulnerable:
“If I had arrhythmia it would be a short life, but I would rather be Naked for an hour than Vested for a lifetime, and I had convinced Tajen that he would prefer the same because he was one thing that my empty future had to contain.”
By the time I’d finished this piece I wanted to read the book, or at least a whole lot more.
Sterling work, Lorna. Thoroughly intrigued.
Some pieces are this: Beautiful. But not only this.
So, dreamy eyed with pause and contemplation, I read the first few lines of Wind Spinner:
“She’s elemental; lives for the sun on her neck, earth beneath her feet, and rain in her hair… She craves the freedom of stars, birds, rivers, and fish. Consoles herself with memories of daisy chains and hilltop rainbows… ”
And then these snippets of overheard conversation, which is a little-big story in itself:
— I honestly could not believe my eyes…
— curled up in the corner… taken all of them.
— She should’ve-
The ending amplifies her free spirit:
“She smiles, knows better — pities them, pinned to their constraint. She tilts her chin to the sky, closes her eyes… and spins into the wind.”
Powerfully and deftly written, Tracey.
Myra King lives along the coast of South Australia with her husband, David, and their rescue greyhound, Sparky. Her poems and short stories have been published in print, and online, in many literary magazines and anthologies. She has won the UK Global and been shortlisted for the US Glass Woman Prize and the Scarlett Stiletto – SINC AUS.
Myra has a short story collection, City Paddock, published by Ginninderra Press and an upcoming YA novel, The Journey Of Velvet Brown, to be published in July 2015 also by G.P.
Recent highlights were a commendation in the 2015 Tabor Creative Writing Awards and a Pushcart nomination by Boston Literary Magazine.
A couple weeks of literary beach combing, at the portal called the Fictionaut!
It’s an honor for me to present these slivers of “glittery literary aluminum” — initially overlooked by first light, at low tide on the Web.
But ignored no more!
Thank you Carol Reid, for the opportunity:
Hence, I present:
by Kevin Army
To say I’m intrigued by these Kevin Army lines would be understating things.
There are certainly echoes of Jack Gilbert here, and Corso, and W.C. Williams;
But the voice is absolutely unique.
I love the way Army slips his winning lines between the unassuming syntax like crisp C notes stashed in a bible.
Case in point:
. . . if it mattered then
wouldn’t it be born into us, the
way a ship yields to storm, the
way our bodies fall when
ways we yearn, endlessly.
endless . . .
I love these shapes of things to come, from a very, very cool poet, whose work I will look out for now.
by Gary Moshimer
A taut coming of age fiction set in an expertly-drawn milieu of mist, and mystery.
I love the voice of the narrator here, as exemplified in this line of dialogue:
“. . . What?” I said. “Oh, no. This is for show. Part of the service. Like uh… chimney sweeps . . .”
In this story, you’ll find humor mixed with sorrow, pathos within a Sleepy Hollow style pointillism.
A truly unified effect, achieved in less than 1500 words.
Well done, Mister Moshimer!
by John Olson
In this startlingly original poetic treatise, Olson draws a comparison between words (thought) and insatiable ants, that you simply must read to believe:
Case in point:
” . . . It is this dialectic that we share with the ants. Desire is universal. Hunger is unavoidable. Sooner or later even the most ascetic among us must
emerge from the shadows and find some form of nourishment, reproductive gratification, or redemption from the crazy, distant stars . . . ”
Crazy stars indeed. Read John Olson!
by Jennifer Donnell
I love it when I read a lament that is buoyed first and foremost, and sort of lit, by wit.
In this excellent prose poem, a lover’s sweet revenge is most certainly, artfully wrought.
” . . . I like that you’re smart and kind about the plight of hypothetical people . . .”
“ . . . It didn’t make sense that a forgettable waitress would be important enough to make the scooped neckline of my sailor striped shirt feel like a trash bag. . . ”
Very nicely (and not so nicely) done. ;)
And at last, speaking of waitresses:
by Rene Foran
Possibly the most evocative piece of verse — clocking in at under 10 words– that I have ever read:
I found myself humming the Dionne Warwick tune in the aftermath, which I imagine you will, as well:
And what more can we ask of our poets?
Walk on, babies.
Dennis Mahagin’s writing has appeared in magazines such as Juked, Night Train, Evergreen Review, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Everyday Genius, Smokelong Quarterly, elimae, Thrush Poetry Journal, The Nervous Breakdown, and decomP. His latest book is Longshot & Ghazal, available now from Mojave River Media.
We are pleased to welcome Joani Reese to this month’s installment of Writers on Craft. Joani Reese has poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, book reviews, and writer interviews published or forthcoming in many online and print journals. Reese was a poetry editor for THIS Literary Magazine, www.thiszine.org, and Senior Poetry Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, www.connotationpress.com. Reese’s poetry chapbook, Final Notes was published by Naked Mannekin Press/Fractal Edge Press in February, 2012 and her second chapbook, Dead Letters, was published by Cervena Barva Press in 2013. Reese is the Writing Center Manager at Collin College. Some of her published work can be read at Entropy: A Measure of Uncertainty, jpreesetoo.wordpress.com. Reese is currently Editor-In-Chief of MadHat Lit. Reese’s first full collection, Night Chorus, was published by LitFest Press in 2015.
What do you read when you despair at the state of either your work in general or a particularly difficult manuscript in progress—any “go to” texts?
Ten years ago, I would have said Eliot, but then again, ten years ago I was fresh from grad school, and my head was filled with grad school think. Every year that passes, like a turtle, my brain pulls further into its real-world-all-around-me shell, and I lose a bit more of the woman I was intellectually back then. Grad school was a glass bubble in time for me and then I went back to the true world as it is. I loved grad school. Where else can you bathe and wallow and drink in the history of ideas, stories, and lies, both ancient and new, with other people who have the same love affair with words? That’s a long answer to a short question.
I have never despaired at the state of my work because it’s not important that others affirm my writerly existence by praising me or publishing me. I enjoy when people like my work, especially other writers I admire, but validation isn’t the reason I write. Writing, for me, is like breathing. I do it when it’s necessary, without thinking about it. It’s autonomic for me. I have been holding my breath for almost a year now, though, so it’s time for me to get writing again.
I love Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual. I love Yeats, will always love Yeats; I am in love with loving Yeats. For someone more current, I have recently been reading Pam Uschuk’s Blood Flower. I met Pam at a conference in Virginia last January. The woman’s words sing. To read her poems and recall the cadence of her reading them aloud from that stage is magical. For her, as for me, sound and sense are equally important, and hearing her made me feel a kinship with another poet I had never felt quite that way before. I recognized her. One of the first female poets whose work thrilled me was Joy Harjo, who was once Pam’s teacher. It was kismet that we met.
If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors about editing that has served you well, what would it be?
Proofread! If you send a fabulous piece into the ether and you don’t bother to proof it to death before you kick it out the door, don’t expect many editors to invite you through their doors. Sloppy writing, though it may not be the truth, reflects poorly on the writer who sent it and suggests the writer doesn’t care about her or his work. Someone has to have written something pretty damned stunning to get my attention as an editor if they haven’t bothered to make sure their words are all present and accounted for and that they have placed those commas where they, intended, them, to, be.
Also, I really don’t care where you’ve been published before, so please keep the bio. and cover short, sweet, and to the point. I read the work, and then I read the rest. I don’t accept work based on a writer’s CV, only on her brilliance.
How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?
I don’t send work out much anymore. I used to send it every week, and I was thrilled no matter where my babies found new homes. If I sent a piece out once or twice and it was rejected, I would just tuck it away and begin something else. I have a folder full of work I have sent to maybe one, maybe two, places. My dear friend, writer MaryAnne Kolton, laughed at me when I told her about this dazzling strategy of mine.
Sometimes, real life intrudes as well, and then fortune favors the too busy to care. I was fortunate to have been introduced by the angel of my better nature, Bill Yarrow, to Jane Carman, my publisher at Lit Fest Press, in Seattle at AWP. Jane heard me read my work and something clicked for her. When she set up the press (a spanking new one), Jane asked me to submit a manuscript. The funny thing was that because I am the slow, determined, constantly revising writer that I am, I almost said no. The book reflects twenty years of my writing, and I was afraid it would be my swan song. Ha! If you never publish a book, you always know you’ve one waiting in the wings in case the mood to be famous (infamous?) should strike. Because poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, right? I’m glad, finally, that I sent my poems and stories to Jane. She made me a beautiful book, from Lisa Cardenas’ painting on the cover to the Garamond and Apple Chancery inside. I am a lucky woman.
What do you feel is the purpose of literature?
The purpose of literature is to make us understand how to live and then why we die. Acceptance and understanding. The boredom, and the horror, and the glory. (To steal from both Eliot and Justice).
As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?
Wow, Heather, that’s certainly a question! I’d prefer to answer as a cat, but I’ll give it a shot as a human being. Love yourself in the right way and forgive yourself and others for their failings. Be kind whenever possible, and carry a backpack full of wit and cunning around with you, just in case kindness fails.
As a poet, what is the best advice you have to offer?
Avoid the words ghost, stars, ancient, beautiful, ashes, love, death, spirit, evening, dawn, life, and then read Eliot, Yeats, Plath, Bishop, Lowell, Harjo, Uschuk, McCallum, Lee, Lorca, Clifton, Vuong and know those words for the first time. Slow down and give your work time to breathe. What you just wrote in a fever twenty minutes ago is NOT ready for submission. Trust me on this. Pour it into the oak cask, and then later, bottle it, wait, then open it and let it breathe a bit. Your work will thank you, as will your editors and eventual readers.
Your new book Night Chorus is your first full-length collection of poems—but you’ve been writing beautiful poems for decades. How did you decide which pieces should go into this one, how to break the sections, etcetera? How does it feel to have a life journey kind of book released to the public?
I answered a bit of this above. These were poems and stories (which began as poems before I gave myself permission to write stories) that had all been written in the blood and the sweat of the last twenty years. Some are personal, some a discourse on western culture or the world. Many offer a point of view, and I am unapologetic that it leans toward a liberal kind of mercy and kindness. Few are funny, though some have wit. After I’d decided the book’s title would include the word Chorus, I thought of creating specific delineations, orchestral and musical movements, which gathered a specific sensibility together in each separately titled space. When the poet Shara McCallum took me under her wing when I was in grad school, we decided to separate my thesis, Grafting Wings, into different sections. It was her idea, and it was brilliant. I paid her a compliment by using the same strategy with my first (and most likely last) collection.
When I read your poetry, there’s such a rich and elegant sound to many of the lines and there is often water imagery. The sea. S sounds like knock outs. I almost feel like S moves through the whole collection as via so many memorable lines with the sounds of oceanic murmurs. Can you speak to what water imagery does for you, whether your use of it has been organic or deliberate?
I never noticed the water imagery as particularly intrinsic to my work, Heather. That’s interesting. Maybe because water must flow or it becomes stagnant, putrid. Our lives have to move forward or they, too, become stagnant, putrid. The writing reflects my many different selves and speaks to those I both love and regret having loved, and water seems the most natural vehicle to explain what cannot otherwise be explained about my life. For me, words have to connect and flow in a way that creates a situation where function follows form. The sonics are all-important, and I can’t explain how I know what will sound right, I just do, eventually. I have one poem, “Sand Dollar,” that’s been anthologized almost to death and is in Night Chorus near the conclusion. I wrote that baby for ten years before I thought it was ready to leave me. I think I am really a frustrated musician. I can’t play an instrument to save my life, but I can play words and somehow, I intuitively understand both their ability to create dissonance and assonance and the beauty and power that harmony mixed with disharmony can provide.
What’s in the pipeline for your readers next? And what are you working on now? Give us a sneak peek.
I want to write a detective novel, or maybe a true romance/slasher kind of thing where the first girl to have sex dies shortly thereafter and the virgin gets the football captain and then he dumps her for a younger model, and then the dumped moves to Europe to meditate and becomes the most sought after shaman, Yogi, and philosopher/organic farmer in the world, all as an implied metaphor for the correct way to observe and tolerate the human condition. Just kidding, though it certainly might earn me a bit more money than my poems have done so far. After all, we’re all in this crazy, creative life for the money, aren’t we? I have a friend who has sent me two screenplay bibles. He’s sure I’m the next great Hollywood writer. I adore him and maybe he’s right. Off to track down George R.R. Martin and find out what really happens in the end. Who knows, maybe he’ll make me his ghostwriter since he’s too busy having fun to finish his series? The best thing in the pipeline for me is the companionship and fabulous friendship of the many small press writers, editors, and publishers I have come to know as a result of the advent of social media, and perhaps in the near future, fortune will smile, and I’ll write down a word, or even two. Thank you.
Writers on Craft is hosted by Heather Fowler, who cares about writing. She does a lot of it. Visit her profile on Fictionaut or see here for more: www.heatherfowler.com.
I divided my Editor’s Eye into two sections: stories I consider more or less done and two poems more or less done but edited. Louise Erdrich would probably agree with me. In The Paris Review interview, she claims that she still edits sections of her published books. Things can always be better. In either vein, all the stories/poem had a particular charm and shine.
Bear Costume by Steven Miller concerns not nice people and it’s funny, two of my favorite topics. Life is messy and essentially not nice to begin with and you have to admire writers who dare to tell it like it is, but when they do it with a sleight of hand and wry tone, well, brilliant. The ending is just perfect: unexpected, it stops the reader in our tracks and, at first, we go, “Huh?” Then laugh or, at least, I did. Richard Yates, John Cheever, Janet Malcolm, and Truman Capote, to name a few of my favs, wrote about unpleasant folk and didn’t mince words when writing it. No words minced here or any out of place except one typo. Check it out.
Pot or Marijuana by Ann Bogle reminds me of a diary. It meanders hither and thither and stops short of a neat wrap up, which is how diaries are – a continuous recording of the now even if it’s then. I’m a diarist myself and some of the best – John Cheever’s and Sam Pepys’ – have the same elements here: the little confessions and the self-absorption verging on excess, the wry slights (“Thousands of joints were strewn to the Madisonians,” an oblique poke at Alcoholic Anonymous, and, if I’m not wrong, a sly reference to David Foster Wallace’s hysterical anti-A.A. diatribe in Infinite Jest!), sharp social commentary (“That is $1,200 less than the average black woman earned in the U.S.”), and dead on psychological descriptions of youthful female yearnings. “I was a girl octopus,” Ann writes.
How fabulous! Weren’t we all? And another perfect end, “It was training for living underground. I learned animal medicine.”
Moth Man by Katrina Kepsa. This is an odd but delicious kind of fairy tale that just works its own magic. I appreciate its strangeness and love the fact it’s not another one of those flashes involving death and a parent or a cripple or some sort of recognizable human condition preyed upon by writers to usurp as emotional fodder. Yes, this character is an odd bird and could be a metaphor for an outlier but the reader can decide. The imagery and descriptions like “Somehow, the hat had tucked in all of my limbs, smoothed all of my sharp edges, so that I became an inverted pin, my gaze magnetized towards the moon” and “. . . my shadow dragging behind me like the velvet cloak of an overdressed superhero” are a marvel. The end reminds me of Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber, “He was still staring, waiting for an explanation, so I cupped my right palm over my right eye and handed over a tear, my only possession, as precious to me as a bee’s sting.
“It’s pure enough to drink,” I said, and turned towards the approaching train.”
This is a story my 19-year-old manga and super hero-loving daughter would adore. I can see her illustrating Moth Man and giving him a chance to fly.
Beyond the Sense of Ashes by Samuel Derrick Rosen is a fine example of a strong poem. I took the liberty to peel its excesses away for the poet’s consideration. If you dismantle a weak poem, you’ve got nothing left. The test of whether or not what you’re writing is worthwhile comes with the tearing down. Dismantle a strong poem and you get to its indestructible core. This is one of those pieces that Donald Hall would have said reveals itself with many readings. Hall was Poet Laureate. In his recent book, Essays After Eighty (he’s 80 plus years old), he said that often he didn’t understand certain poems while composing them, and further, that they revealed themselves to him later on. This would be one such fine work.
And the title is simply fabulous.
Beyond the Sense of Ashes
All are words, so quickly they decay,
into silence, spaces that persist,
amnesias singing of day.
A world without death,
Each measure of dissent a measure of applause.
Fury signifies you; nothing is everything.
Your ascendancy of eyes,
In pursuit of beauty, so soon we’re struck down,
No moment of resistance.
In those hours where mystery recoiled,
Among eternity’s dead phrases.
In those hours of the harshest definition.
Still beyond a sense of ashes.
Whispers now a world of language,
neither time nor sand, nor space or glass.
There comes soon another world
Not born yet still must pass.
All that was – your sovereignty of sight,
All that can remain without remaining.
The meaninglessness of names.
Once, we were nameless.
Now, forever aging.
3 Poems and a Seething Pen by Kevin Army contain powerful imagery of pain and loss and yearning. I loved them but felt they had too many words that got in the way. I get too many words as it’s one of my worst habits. Winnowed (my word of the day) down, this trio has haunting majesty and a youthful anger that seers. The poet also has a good sense of how to effectively align words on a page for maximum effect. That alone tells me I’m reading someone with a good command of language. In my editing, I excised as many “I’s” as possible, a trick Donald Hall gives in Essays After Eighty. He eggs writers to get rid of that personal pronoun as much as you can and to begin as few sentences as possible with it, even in memoir. It’s a literary trick, but a good one, which pushes the writer off themselves and towards the universals.
get wasted and write poetry
in twelve tone. i have no key.
admit it: i hardly matter, and
that’s ok because you hardly matter either.
we maintain mountains. we are crushed, but
somewhere, in some ether,
we can jump off of each other, until
none of us are left.
passing out. in silence.
in sound. in
the shape of words, or of the silence. it
doesn’t matter. where stillness is violence, and
where movement is empty.
look, he moves. the breathing, it speaks of the vapor, the inner chill of
is it my fault or yours? or his.
where is the blame. tonight,
let it rest, get wasted,
and write poetry.
still feel it all there.
everything done. and everything
ashamed for me, and something is going to break, something has
got to give, like maybe that floor when he jumps,
standing on that floor and maybe we will both sink,
into a lovely unexpected sinkhole,
where that fucking hardcore song disappears,
where that sound stops threading, where
it is no longer a part of me, where
did something different with my life.
but for now, waiting for him to fall,
so i won’t be alone.
waiting for him to fly so
i can be carried away.
waiting for the walls to disappear, for
the sparks to stop, for him to jump and
for the waking, the waking.
the forgiveness and the
Water, the stabbing, the lost words
he stands there, dried up.
notepad on the floor, wet ink.
wonders, how would it be, to stab myself
with this pen.
and then to go for a swim.
well, over there.
sitting, arms folded.
he writes some more. looks outward,
an ocean of ideas. of life. of
there is nothing left. it’s all there,
blurred now, and lost,
on the paper.
some thought about water
thoughts, turned virulent, turned into
a garden of unwanted weeds.
the fucking paper, there, right. over. there.
the fucking aurora borealis
the flowering trees,
the man yelling outside,
the beautiful seething world, the
the untold words. His words.
they were never lost, it was their
creator who was lost.
all his life. all
he climbs up on the diving board, and
looks down, his soul before him.
Lucinda Kempe lives on Long Island where she exorcises with words. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Summerset Review, Thrice Fiction, decomP, Corium, Matter Press, Metrofiction and more than a dozen other journals. She has completed conferences at the Southampton Writers Conference with Roger Rosenblatt in 2010, Frederic Tuten in 2011, and Kim Barnes in 2012. In 2013, she attended The New York Writer’s Institute, nonfiction with Jim Miller. She has studied with the poet and editor Larry Fagin and has completed a graduate class in humor with Patty Marx. In 2015, her flash “Old Ingénue” won the March Temporal Writing Contest at the Dr. T.J. Eckleberg Review.
Coming back to Fictionaut after being away for a while has been a real joy. I found myself yet again in a familiar pattern: stopping in to read a few poems or stories, then finding myself several hours later in a space all my own, my family around me already gone to bed (somewhere in there we exchanged good-nights and kisses – at least I think we did). Sinking into prose that captures my mind or my heart. Stories that experiment and laugh on the page. Poetry that touches me with a light beauty and deft hand.
My late-night readings proved inspiring as always.
My task, as is the aim of the Editor’s Eye series, was to find hidden gems that may have been overlooked. Along the way, I discovered some writers whose work I did not yet know – so that was also a delight.
Here are the results of one editor’s late-night ramble through the wonderful world of Fictionaut. I hope readers enjoy these as much as I have!
This poem just knocks me out – image upon image upon image. And I love the notion that sticky notes try to order one’s life, that words are perhaps all we have (We arrived by noun, verb, syntax at the heart’s empty page. Not a moment too soon.) – and yet, the writer hits us hard with so much more. I found myself thinking with each stanza “I’m awake!” – like word and image were snapping me to attention. If I tried to quote one or two or twenty of my favorite parts, this paragraph would end up referencing the whole thing. Just go read it yourselves. You’ll see.
Conversations with Death and Medieval German Lit: what’s not to like? What I really admire about Strosche’s approach to this story is how he manages the pacing: the almost academic approach to story-telling – the essayistic prose, the straightforward timeline, the references to dark and difficult themes (you know, the kinds you find in German Lit) – with a great twist at the end. Our hero Ackermann treads just above water in a life that follows a somewhat typical trajectory (grad school, internship, travel through Europe, work at an online journal, girlfriend), while something dark threatens to tug him under: this is careful writing. I also like the shift in the last paragraph, how we finally glimpse the narrator, and are left wondering about a whole new set of questions. There is a lot of mystery here, between Life and Death.
– because they are a mere 13 and 10 words, respectively, and oh so lovely, and full.
I loved this from the opening stanza and image: The wooden man came to her in a cloud in a vision in a dream in a story. When he spoke, his tongue clacked against his teeth. This put me right on edge – got my attention and held it. A remarkable set of reflections: new myth-building and sharp writing. I also really admire the way this story closes. Because you gotta wonder from the title and the opening how on earth the writer will manage to end this piece. And he does, just right – with a closing line that haunts.
This poem opens marvelously and works its way through history and story in a seamless manner. I admire how Ratch weaves together two things as diverse as strings in a bird’s nest and cave paintings of Lascaux, both serving a purpose: sending a message, or teaching an important lesson. The question of intention seems, to me, to be at the heart of this poem. How history may or may not be a set of lessons. There is a precision in this poem, and then there’s the final line, which surprises and delights, as if to say something about the randomness of it all. In the end, I’m not sure that’s what the writer intended or not – but I think there’s a lot to this small poem, and I admire how it moves so lightly from beginning to end, and leaves me with some big questions.
This is a poem that holds in its heart one simple idea. There is something about the mother with her one-way ticket that is so utterly un-sentimental but full – I really like that idea. The contrast between the one-way, single-focus mother and the GPS-obsessed, round-trip engineer works really well. I feel there’s even more to this poem/ story. But I like the hint we have here. It may be too much for cynics, this poem, but the mother in this poem knows what love is, and I admire the writer for bringing us, ever so briefly, into her world.
Michelle Elvy is a writer, editor and manuscript assessor based in New Zealand, currently traveling in SE Asia aboard her sailboat, Momo. She edits at Blue Five Notebook and Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction. She is also an assistant editor of Flash Fiction International (W. W. Norton, 2015) and on the editorial team of Best Small Fictions (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2015). Her poetry, fiction and reviews can be found in numerous journals and anthologies. Her latest story appears in Smokelong Quarterly. More at michelleelvy.com. You can also find her at her blog Glow Worm and sailing on Momo.
“I want to live in Fictionaut,” I exclaimed when I first joined four years ago. I was startled and seduced by the quality of work and the bravery of its producers. The vibrancy and enthusiasm of the community was palpable. The whole thing was like a giant, bewitched slot machine, churning out small prizes and jackpots and lighting up the reward system of my brain with the only risk being the commitment of time required for reading and commenting. Considering the potential detriment to my family and work life, and like a lot of folks writing in this space before me, I participated in only an occasional binge-like fashion. So when I was asked to take a turn at the Editor’s Eye I accepted it as a challenge to develop a habit of daily discovery, something to work in to my busy, modern lifestyle like five servings of fruits and vegetables. And it has been good sustenance, indeed.
Because what I had assumed would be a daunting deluge turned out to be more of a measured trickle, I managed to read everything that came in over two weeks. Here are four of the dozens of writers who made an impression on me as I kept refreshing the “Most Recent” tab.
“Ex-Lover” is only 17 words, so I won’t spoil it by quoting it here. If brevity is the soul of wit, Gary’s piece is the soul of a wistful punch in the gut. It’s real, it’s sad and it does what I wish more poems did: get in, get out and leave it to the reader to imprint his or her own experience on the page (which, unless you’ve been cloistered all your life in some sort of religious devotional arrangement – and then perhaps, even so – you will be able to do).
Something a bit more finely textured is his piece, “Christmas.” Here are details of place, and an emotionally distanced observation of two lives intertwined, their possibilities limited by a gulf of time that Gary only dimly illuminates using a past that’s referred to in a speculative future tense. This fluidity is deft stagecraft set off by a holiday tapestry backdrop festooned with blue Christmas lights, diamonds and gold buttons.
Reading “Strays and Lies” left me with a kind of literary road rash. It’s visceral, hard and important writing in that it articulates in a singular way something many readers will relate to first hand. Felicia repeats a refrain about elemental purification. There is a hamster wheel of sorts for those who have ever suffered “A man-shaped hole in my atmosphere.” How do we reclaim our power when it’s repeatedly appropriated by the language of the oppressor? By relearning her “ABCs,” and in reclaiming that appropriation, things becomes dizzyingly recursive for the narrator. For all the “doing” in reaction to the things that are done, she becomes desperately mired. It’s like struggling in quicksand.
I will keep all my bones and I will dance until
I am clean again,
until I am numb. The wine doesn’t
make me whole but the vodka
purifies me like fire purifies water.
He does not help me with
anything. He is the proof that the devil
can jump from the card and bind, bind with loose
knots and then convince me that they are tight
and I am stuck like I am waist-deep in mud.
How do we measure life? In “Dream(ed) Life,” Foster muses on the conventions surrounding time, and how much numbers of years can’t account for. It’s suggested his protagonist has discovered an alternate to the year as the standard of measure for fulfillment, but convention is sometimes needed to help us navigate in life.
So years were used, and secret numbers were kept secret.
The big measure of his life happens seems to happen nearly at its center staple, were it a book. But on what shelf would we find such a book? There’s a woman who starts it all, there are the many dream vacations, there is the resignation to age and repose and, finally, passing. There’s a life, and there’s the story of the life. There’s the implied question: are we the dreamers, or are we the dream? And the bigger question: does it matter? Trecost approaches this with a gentleness for his main character and a joyful sense of play regarding time, although “this is a sad, sad story. Sorta,” we are told in the Author’s Note.
If, when you die, your life indeed does flash before our eyes, that great existential film strip could resemble Gary Powell’s “When.” Depending on how you’ve lived your life, of course. Regardless of whether you’ve carried on an extramarital affair, you’d presumably have flashes of your highest highs, your lowest lows, and some of the more mundane moments between. And if not an affair, you could probably pinpoint some other choice or pivotal moment that precipitated the cascade of events that has led to the moment you find yourself in. If not, maybe you need to get out more. Or at least vicariously live through Gary’s characters as the moments of their lives are ruthlessly cataloged and placed under gleaming museum glass. Grief, ecstasy, guilt, libidinous urgency, joy…every color of human experience is in splendid representation here, but Gary’s list-making provides these raw experiences without much in the way of editorializing. It’s like a Biblical litany of “begats” that have left me at turns bruised, jubilant, bemused and devastated. And it is all so, so rich.
Sara Fitzpatrick Comito is a poet who lives in Fort Myers, Florida where she and her husband are urban farmers and beekeepers. She does marketing and public relations writing for work, and also gets to do a fair amount of writing about food and restaurants. Sara’s poetry has appeared in places such as Blue Fifth Review, THRUSH Poetry Journal and A-Minor Magazine