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We are pleased to welcome Denise Patrick to this month’s installment of Writers on Craft.  Denise Lewis Patrick was born in Natchitoches, Louisiana. She attended local schools and earned a degree in Journalism from Northwestern State University of Louisiana in 1977. That same year, she moved to New York City. She has been both a writer and editor in various areas of the publishing industry, particularly for children.

In addition to being a published author, Denise is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of New Orleans. She’s an adjunct professor of writing at Nyack College. She’s also worked with budding writers in an afterschool program, and has managed middle and high school writing programs.

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?

I have a great book of essays culled from a NYT series by various writers. It’s simply titled Writers on Writing. There are two volumes and they include craft advice or observations by Elmore Leonard, Walter Moseley and others. Then sometimes I fall back on Dickens, Austen, or Agatha Christie to remind myself what a master really is.

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?

I’d invoke that awful/wonderful adage to “kill your darlings.”

How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?

I think more about an intended audience, in a way—not driven by whatever the trendy literature of the moment is. But I used to just write to write, to express whatever the ideas were. Now I think about the audience for something as I’m doing it. And that’s a big difference for me. Some things I still write to write, but less so. For Finding Someplace my audience was really people who were not directly impacted by Katrina.

I’m gratified that there are a lot of people who were impacted who are positively responding to the story.

What do you feel is the purpose of literature?

Wow. The purpose of literature is to entertain and to teach, at the same time, I think.

As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?

Try to be kind. Try to listen. Be observant of people and nature. Know that you’ll make mistakes, and that you can learn something about yourself from just about every one of them. Make, share, and keep close friends—and not through social media.

As a writer/creative artist, what is the best advice you have to offer?

Advice that I don’t really take as much as I should—is read. Spend as much time doing that as you can when you’re not writing, and read all kinds of things. I feel right now that I’m not reading enough contemporary artists’ work. I do probably pay more attention to contemporary visual artists work, and I’m reading a lot of non-fiction these days so I feel like I’m not keeping up with contemporary fiction. I’m also reading a lot of contemporary poetry, and all of those are things I enjoy, and they express my creative side. I’d say also to immerse yourself in creative endeavors, too. I think my writing is influenced a great deal by the visual arts. 

I’m delighted by the work you’ve done with writing for the middle grade and YA levels, while I’m aware you also write many other things.  Something striking about your work, for me, is how it feels inspiring to read books with realistic yet spunky narrators, those with real world problems who struggle to encounter them with grace.   As a parent, I love when I pre-read a book these days that I’m excited to pass on to my children.  Do you get a lot of lovely messages from parents about how your books have reached their kids? 

I do, sometimes. As a parent, that’s special.

What would be the best piece of advice you could give someone just starting out who would like to specifically get into either middle-grade or YA fiction publishing?

Know or learn about the not just the market, but the people in it. I have four kids and worked for a time in a middle school, so I was submerged in that experience for quite a few years. However old you are, it’s different now.

Your newest work Finding Someplace is a story about a girl named Reesie Boone who struggles to accept Hurricane Katrina’s impact on her life and family.  Having spent a lot of time talking to those from New Orleans in the last couple years, I felt the palpable pain and loss in this book really rang true for  me in terms of what I’d heard from multiple people.  Does this book have a special mission to highlight the reality of a national emergency for its young readers?  The author’s note at the end does feel like a compelling reality check for what happens after a disaster—continuous recovery.

I think it might have a special mission to highlight the difficulty of young people being able to cope with any kind of major disaster or family issue in their lives, because Reesie has to deal with all of that. I guess I would want it to be broader than Katrina per se, and show a kid who has resilience in dealing with big[ger] things.

Finding Someplace is a book so intelligently rendered.  I love how it combines elements of literature and music, as well as modern aspects of everyday life for people Reesie’s age.  Is it important to you to put culture into texts to stir the curiosity of young readers?  Reesie’s aspirations, as example, are to become a famous clothing designer.  In the book, she designs her own garments. This requires innovation, hard work, desire, and engagement.  Can I tell you how relieved I was to see a profession promoted that’s believable in this media driven culture as a targeted profession for a young girl—yet isn’t simply “pop star”?

It’s totally important to include culture. What makes something real, other than experiencing the day–to-day culture of whoever the characters are? I really try to make things come to life in that way. Yes.

How do issue of race and race representation play into your work?  Is there a conscious filter?

Conscious filter?  Not sure what that means, but…I am controlled about how I include issues of race in as much as I think about the ages or possible ages of readers. For instance, if I’m writing something for middle graders, as opposed to adults as opposed to perhaps young adults, I am conscious of how I represent race. (What kinds of interactions would this character have? Where does this character live, and how would/does that affect social relationships?) But I live race, therefore any characters I create are going to live race in certain kinds of ways, too—no matter what their race is. This does mean, despite belief to the contrary, that each day there is some aspect of my experience that is influenced by race in a minute or large or subtle way. There could actually be a conscious filter in me that processes these things differently during any given occurrence. I think kids don’t have the same (if any) filters.

How does writing for younger generations differ from the work you are doing or planning for adult markets?

In addition to the above, I guess it’s in topics that I pick to discuss. When I’m writing for younger people I try to think about what’s on their radar. Certain kinds of relationships are on kids’ radar: friends, parents, siblings, “frenemies.” With adults there are other relationships on their everyday radar. That’s how I differentiate those things.

What’s in the pipeline for your readers next? And what are you working on now? Give us a sneak peek.

Short stories for adults, and some things for young readers that I can’t really talk about yet. I am actively working on a couple of other projects—three other middle grade projects in the pipeline, probably for 2016, 2017. I would like to work on a screenplay of one of my short stories…maybe not Finding Someplace right now. I’d like to put together a collection of poetry, and maybe finish a YA fantasy that I’ve been kicking around for a few years.

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.

 

We are pleased to welcome Barry Graham to this month’s installment of Writers on Craft. Barry Graham is a writer, healer, foodie, Tic-Tac-Toe champion, horror enthusiast, and founder of DOGZPLOT. His latest book, American Guerrillas: Manifesto is out now from Underground Books. He is a regular contributor for Revolution John Magazine and a perpetuator of all things conspiratorial.

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?

I wish I had a better answer, but books don’t really help me out when I’m in that type of jam. When I write, I draw from observations and sensory details, things I’ve tasted and touched. I admire writers like Dr. Seuss or Matt Bell, writers who are capable of inventing entire universes. I’m just not that clever. I’m a house of mirrors. If you took any random group of strangers and put them in the same neighborhood, the same social setting, for a year or so, then asked them to write down everything they observed and experienced, you would have very different tales. Because we are all unique. What is unique to me isn’t my language, isn’t my sentence structure, isn’t my vocabulary or the books I’ve read, there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s the way I interpret my observations, the way I experience sensory details, that’s what’s unique to me, and to each of us individually in the exact same way. Then I just arrange my observations and perceptions in a way that forces readers to experience what I’ve experienced. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I succeed, but that’s always my attempt. I wish more writers understood and utilized that weapon.

If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors about editing that has served you well, what would it be?

“Put every word on trial for its life.” – Francine Prose. There isn’t even a close second.

Your work has moved in a more overtly philosophical and political direction of late.  What do you think has caused this?

The way I experience and understand the world.

How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?

I wrote for so long before I even thought about publishing my writing. It was never a priority. I had a bunch of bullshit inside that I wanted to let go of. It was a way to remove negative energy from inside and replace it with the positive things in my life, the beautiful energy of my family and friends and my spirituality, so in a way it makes sense that so much of the early fiction I published was thought to be grimy and unpleasant. That’s the energy I had stored up, that’s what needed to be replaced. Writing is very therapeutic in that way. But I guess, over time, like a lot of other folks, I sought validation, I was concerned with getting into this journal or that journal or getting a book deal with this press or that press, and I became unhappy very very quickly with using publication as a motivation or a factor in determining my own failure or success. A jury of your peers will never be a very realistic or healthy thermometer. I had a pretty honest conversation with myself concerning my own motivations and intentions and I came out of it very unconcerned with publication. Sheldon over at Revolution John Magazine was gracious enough to give me an outlet for anything I do feel like sharing via magazine publication, and what I don’t I either throw away or put in a Dropbox file and put it online for anyone to access. That’s the only way I care to publish a book at this point. Call me pretentious or whatever, but I’m an artist. What I attempt through words is to create something that forces people to react physically, whatever that means to anyone individually. That is my only personal standard of judgment. If I fail or succeed it will be on those terms.

What do you feel is the purpose of literature?

The same as bass fishing or eating a really good ham and cheese sandwich.

As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?

Nothing you know is real and there’s no remedy.

Embrace the interdependence of all humanity in order to survive as a whole.

Be kind. Always. Even when it hurts.

Your new book American Guerrillas: Manifesto radicalizes the concept of what conformity means in America today—while highlighting some larger issues about how the rich stay rich and how American greed has gutted the future of the American middle class and the poor.  Do you imagine anyone could actually follow the manifesto? 

All things are possible. We’ll see how it goes.

In one excerpt of the text, American Guerrillas reads, “A true guerrilla remains strong and spreads his prosperity by overcoming ego and pride through constant internal struggle and self-improvement; once he has ensured his own survival, safety, and security, he immediately strives to make the world a better place by stabilizing and uplifting those around him and securing freedom, equality, and justice whenever they see it threatened or repressed.” This kind of idealism/ethics connected to your concept of guerrilla seems often to me to be on parallel with my idea of any individual who embraces activism and good ethics—but stands in contrast with the way this book sets up the powerless American average citizen paradigm regarding any non-1% citizen’s actual ability to stand against corruption, class ownerships by big business, integration of government war efforts with profit sector activities, and the use of penal institutions as additional cheap labor sources for the wealthy. But your book also stresses stealth and anonymity as a good costume to embrace for covert change.  Do you believe that activism via regular channels fails to make change?

One premise that has to be understood about American Guerrillaism is, it’s very Whitmanesque, riddled with daily contradiction, on every practical, ideological, and spiritual level possible. So, really, it depends how you define change. There are certain social issues, that yes, absolutely, working the system will bear fruit. We see this every day. Marriage equality, recreational marijuana, etc, but as far as our place in the corporate oligarchy, the reduction of our civil rights and liberties, the slow and steady decline until we collapse, no, absolutely not. We are along for the ride. With that said, it doesn’t mean we should ever stop trying. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a way just because I don’t know it. It doesn’t mean I’m not wrong. There are forces in this world that have decided, collectively, that they’ve agreed with my observations concerning America’s strength, so they have set in motion very complex plans, involving very complex people, places, and things, that transcend the boundaries of time and place. It’s been happening for centuries. Very very covert. Those people get it.

 What is the real purpose of a manifesto? Any manifesto?  I enjoyed reading this one since it touched on so many topics I care about, such as the dwindling power of the poor and middle class to impact their own lives or create paths to power in a world where such people are actually used and thrown away by the rich, increasingly more so as consumables are created as disposable and capitalism causes a buy and toss mentality that both creates pollution and waste, i.e. cheap crap that must be bought and bought again as replacement to keep the capitalistic cycle turning. 

I can’t speak for anyone else who has ever written a manifesto, but the purpose of American Guerrillas Manifesto is to get people inspired to take immediate and necessary action to ensure the safety and survival of their loved ones, and to start by redefining their own personal moral compass, to evaluate their priorities, their allegiances, their role in society, and stop serving a master that doesn’t care whether or not you exist.

Is it possible that this book attempts to tie together the many causes of such disempowerment for anyone not pulling the strings—is meant as a wakeup call to the reader as to the complexity of the reasons why “the American Dream” as it once was imagined has lost so much of the good empowerment once thought to be attached?

In a sense. What I’d like for people to understand is that the American Dream doesn’t exist and never has. Even if you think you’re living it, you’re not. It’s a conformity package so everyone plays nice and feeds the machine. You have power. We all do. Lots of it. But the American Dream isn’t it. Find it for yourself.

Your work is philosophical as well as political.  Do you imagine your readers will see more of this type of work in your future publishing timeline?

I have no idea what I’m gonna write minute to minute. Right now I’m working on a series of poem collaborations with Peter Schwartz. I also wanna write a version of Pinocchio.

As an editor, a fiction writer, a father, an activist (clearly! Manifesto!), what are your most important goals in the next five years?

My most important goal is the same it has been since May 23, 1997, to raise my children to be quality human beings. That will never change. I would also like to be ready to go totally off the grid by the time my youngest daughter graduates. Travel, write, take some photos, do some great drugs, have some great sex, eat some great food, fall in love with as many things as possible. The world is gonna do what it does.

What’s in the pipeline for your readers next? And what are you working on now? Give us a sneak peek.

Working on a poetry collab with Peter Schwartz, Here’s a raw taste, sans edits…

When the square root of a moonbeam directly correlates to the size and shape of a universe you can’t control.  Mama don’t tell tales.  The armor which least protects my vital parts.  Once a flood, twice a reservoir.  Regulated clusters of bad intentions, transparency as a radar, as a symptom of miscommunication.  Footprints serve two purposes.  The collection and transformation of unwanted molecules.  Mass converted to disaster, to the only part of ourselves we understand.  Not philosophers.

A puddle of mush where his face should be.   Ascension takes a lot of collapses. 

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.

What an honor it is, to be asked for my selections for the Editor’s Eye. As instructed, I looked for pieces that received only a couple of likes or comments. Although the following selections were viewed by many, they received little critical attention or feedback.

When making my choices, I looked for writing that struck an emotional chord in me or created a visceral response. I found in each of these some moments of illumination and grace, something more deeply resonant than clever wordplay or technical proficiency.

I hope you will take another look at these gems that went largely unrecognized the first time around. I applaud each of the writers I’ve chosen for their beautiful work.

He Brings Things Closer by Steven John Horay

I like the way this piece jumps almost immediately into a difficult situation and then slowly unfolds, building tension all along the way. The narrator doles out information gradually, allowing us to form a clear picture of what is happening in layers of understanding. Perhaps most gratifying was the way I, as a reader, learned something about how to manage a particularly challenging encounter right alongside our protagonist, who is surely being forced to think on her feet. I found myself reflecting on how delicate a thing it is to communicate effectively – at any given moment, a wrong perception or an inaccurate conclusion can plunge one into even worse circumstances. And yet, somehow, we humans blunder on, figuring out how to help each other get what we need, against all odds.  I really enjoyed this tightly written, delicate tale of discovery.

This is a Tender Ache by Han Kondabalu

I will admit. I have a soft spot for the intersection of the sacred and the profane as well as that crazy place where science flips over into spirit. This short blast of writing vibrates intensely between opposites. I see someone who is at once utterly lost, yet somehow tapped into some universal truths. How can that be?? I feel the narrator’s pain – of elusive satisfaction, of truth slipping beyond grasp, of a numbed slide towards destruction. And yet, even though there are signs of depravity, I am rooting for the narrator, who seems to be, underneath all the rock-n-roll, yippee ay yay, muthafucka affect, a real human being. I was compelled to read this one again and again…

Sunday in Dogpatch, circa 1990 by Angela Kubinec

This short, stream-of-consciousness piece in the voice of a young girl establishes an entire world in the space of one paragraph. Living within the swirl of a chaotic, most likely abusive, at the very least neglectful environment, she somehow manages to maintain a sense of childlike curiosity and appreciation for small pleasures like Fruit Loops without milk. One has to wonder how long this child will maintain her innocence in this toxic environment. In the meantime, it’s a thorough portrait, one that could go off in any number of directions for a more developed narrative.

The Ego Rises by Samuel Derrick Rosen

Again I found myself captivated by a piece of prose that explores a paradox of opposites. In this piece, the narrator inhabits the smallness, the solitude in the face of a mountain’s grandiosity, even as he tracks a path to something greater. He paints a vivid portrait of the landscape, the air, the psychic space of the climb, a portrait of “a passionate descent to something high above them, a rapturous lament…”

I found this piece evocative for its suggestion of a rising consciousness, a rising sense of self in the face of the almost unimaginable scope of nature. Perhaps it is the poetic homage to nature that softens what would otherwise be, to my sensibilities, a self-absorbed, narcissistic need to conquer it. In this rendition of the climb, there was more than a little grace and reverence, rightfully expressed. I particularly enjoyed the framing of the entire piece in opposites – starting with “I submit to you,” ending with the plea, “… accede, to me.”

unsettling by Helen Yung

This poem, inspired by a dream, evokes a lush world of desire and loss. I was carried through the landscape of random elements by the evocation of familiar ties and missed connections. This dream journey, at once sensual and heady, managed to leave me with a sense of longing and regret. I love how I felt transported through an entire world, pulled into something intimate and vital, only to be left at the end, unsettled indeed…

I was impressed by how well this piece evokes the way a dream can create an all-encompassing fictional world. It really conjures that sense of something deep and ancient that I’ve experienced in dreams, the kind of connection that leaves me feeling rather desolate upon waking. In this piece, there are so many levels – the family background to the romantic relationship, the natural world in all its danger and fury, and the heady drama of a loss at sea. A couple of reads left me awash in feeling.

 

The Life, Death and Art of Rachel Wetzsteon by Con Chapman

This essay caught my attention, as I had never before heard of Rachel Wetzsteon – surprising, considering her stature in the literary world, but then my knowledge of writers and their work is idiosyncratic and arbitrary. Reading about her life and her death by suicide made me want to know more of her work. I felt immediately compelled to get beyond the notion that she was “not pretty” (do I agree? I think not…) in comparison to Sylvia Plath, the more iconic suicidal poet, and learn more about her as a woman and a writer.

This essay raises questions of perception and appearance and how they intersect with the quality of a female writer’s work. I’m also led to wonder at the way she, a single woman in New York City, may be perceived, with pity, or even disregarded in death, and how this may contrast with male writers whose suicides might be seen as more robust statements of suffering. There is a significant group of poets who have committed suicide. It would be impossible to read their work now without seeing it through the lens of this knowledge. But somehow, learning about Rachel Wetzsteon, I feel compelled to try.

Deborah Oster Pannell is a freelance writer and editor. With roots in music, theater, filmmaking and holistic health, she engages in a variety of collaborative projects, ranging from publishing and online content development to event production and promotion. An experienced blogger, interviewer and essayist, she writes about the arts, audience development and entrepreneurship. Her online portfolio can be found here. She is currently working on a collection of short stories about grief, parenting and sexuality, which, she is happy to report, are not mutually exclusive. She has had work published in The Miscreant, Her Kind at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and Negative Suck.

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:

  • o   There is more than one way to render a story and there always has been
  • o   Women writers have a right to their own bodies, forms, and storytelling
  • o   Language carries its own physics.  Particles and waves.  Energy never dying, just changing forms.

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?   

Yes.

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.

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.heatherfowlerwrites.com.

 

Daniel Harris, portrait by Susan Murtaugh

Daniel Harris, portrait by Susan Murtaugh

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.

To See Who’s There

Nonnie Augustine

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

Ann Bogle

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 drives

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.

Would You Ask A Librarian For A Lap Dance?

Roz Warren

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.

Connaught: down at the heels castle

James Claffey

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:

“Norman Conquest.

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.

Our Graves

JP Kemmick

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.

Antibodies

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.

Blues Repeat

Tim Young

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.

“What You Choose to Take” by Kelli Trapnell

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.

“Air” by Rene Foran

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.

“X” by A. Starling

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.

“Bargaining” by Tonya R. Moore

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.

“Insomnia in Excelsis” by Peter Cherches

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.

“The Heart” by Gary Moshimer

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 HadThe 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.

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.

 

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.

 

Two Pennies Towards the Proper Procedure of the Pudding

Darryl Price

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

Else. ”

And in this ending, more than sublime, there’s a glimpse of the future:

“Until then

you are carved on my wall, gathering my road.”

Captivating work, Darryl. And what a wonderful title. Bravo.

Headache Pads

Paul Beckman

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.”

“What’s that?”

“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.

The Weather in Paradise

 Carl Santoro

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.

 

Tastes like Wind

A. Starling

 

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.

 

“Sand underfoot.

It’s raining        I say

I know

I grin. Tastes like wind.

I can’t tell                that          you are crying.”

 

The Meaning of Lines

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

yours ”

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”

And this:

“These are all yours to keep, she told you once”

Really enjoyed these, Arexa.

 

the woman in a busy bazaar

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.

Naked

Lorna Garano

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.

 

Wind Spinner

T. Upchurch

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.

http://myrakingprofile.webs.com/  @MyraGKing

What an invitation:

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:

5 Poems in the Shape of Other Poems

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

tackled, the

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.

The Gravediggers

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!

Saga of the Sugar Ants

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!

Waitress Hopping

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.

Donnell writes:

” . . . I like that you’re smart and kind about the plight of hypothetical people . . .”

and:

“ . . . 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:

The Waitress

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.

BIO

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.