Nonfiction

“A Highly Subjective and Sometimes Contradictory Alphabet for the Young and Aspiring Professional Writer” by Marc Spitz

A IS FOR:
Agents:
Your agent will sell your book to an editor at a publishing house and take a percentage of the advance. He or she is not your friend. Do not drink with your agent unless it’s a toast at your release party. Do not get to know their kids, their wives, and their ex-wives. In other words, do not mix your business and personal relationship and do not forget they are not doing you a favor by working with you (a state of mutual respect and trust is ideal and almost never happens, but often you can find a working imbalance). Make sure that your agent is well read and truly enjoys and respects your work and will fight for you and not gossip about you or trade his or her loyalty to you for a newer, hotter, younger writer or to get in better with an editor (probably a new, younger, hotter editor). Don’t borrow money from your agent. Don’t loan your agent money. Make sure he or she is well dressed. Morrissey (I will drop some names here,) once told me, in a very expensive hotel suite in Rome, that appearance is everything and while cynical, he is mostly right. Make sure your agent knows who Morrissey is. Make sure your agent knows who Morrissey is especially if you happen to be writing a book on Morrissey. If you happen to be writing a book on the Jack White, make sure your agent does not refer to him as Jack Black. It’s incumbent on your agent to be informed about your subject and not just the points of the deal. It’s not your job to teach them. The contents of a book proposal should be all they need and they should be familiar with the proposal. At heart, they are salespeople. Collaborate with your agent on a book proposal at your own risk. Remember your book should be your own and you will not have them around when you write it. Your agent should always pick up the bar tab or the lunch tab on the rare occasions when you do share a drink or a meal (again keep these rare). They can write that off more easily than you can and have been doing so longer. You do not owe your agent for every stamp he or she licks on your behalf. Stamps should be, like drinks, on them.

B IS FOR
Book smarts:
People will tell you have to constantly read and they may be right, but it’s not been my experience that you always have to have another writer’s book on your brain or your coffee table or your desk. They are often just fine on the shelf, impressing guests. Read for edification, read for inspiration, read for research but don’t read just to be a better writer (this is an unpopular opinion by the way). I believe you write to be a better writer and it’s more important to write a lot than to read a lot. Anything else is just peer pressure at the hands of people who enjoy reading more than they enjoy or are able to write. Some people are better at reading than they are at writing and so they will skew you their way. I happen to be better at writing so I am skewing you my way. I am a slow reader. I am now in my 40s and need glasses to read. Why not find again, a working balance, and sneak a pleasure read or a status read (a book everyone is talking about this season) in the middle of a your writing, not because you think that you must. You should not do this because of the risk of someone’s style bleeding into yours while you write but if you need an excuse, you can tell people you are afraid of someone else’s style bleeding into yours while you write. I like to read biographies if I’m working on fiction and fiction if working on a biography.

C IS FOR:
Confession
The late Jim Carroll who I never met but once saw read at NYU’s Skirball Center and at the St. Marks Poetry Project and pretty much idolized all through college thanks to the Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries, and his album Catholic Boy, once wrote, ”All writers of confessions, from Augustine on down, have always remained a little in love with their sins.” – He was actually quoting the French poet Anatole France. I have never read any Anatole France. Confessional writing is more interesting to me than writing that shrouds dirty deeds but there are rules of thumb for and against it. If you ask yourself, “Should I really say this?” Say it. It’s probably strong if it haunts you. It’s probably brave and being brave has rewards. It’s probably the truth if it gives you pause. There are statutes of limitations for various sins that you can easily look them up on the web. Now when I say confessional writing, I don’t mean sharing your diary contents with the reader and I don’t mean kvetching. The reader is not your shrink or your priest and not responsible to heal you. Your narrator must sell these confessions; they must be entertaining and have purpose or keep them to yourself.

D IS FOR:
Drinking and drugs
We cannot pretend there’s not a long history of writers who don’t turn to alcohol and pills or powder or psychedelics. Artists feel too much. It’s just fact. And they think more than it’s healthy. I had a doctor who told me that I self medicated because I was a raw nerve with no armor who could not see a man with a scar on a subway and not wonder, “How did he get this scar? Did he injure himself in an accident, a fall off a bike, or was it part of a fight?” Drugs and alcohol can shut off that part of your brain temporarily but if you are a writer, you can never shut it off permanently, and know that this is also a gift. Get comfortable with the voice and don’t drown your brain salad in dressing. Alcohol is a depressant. Drugs make you boring. People who do a lot of heroin end up writing a lot about… finding heroin, being high on heroin, finding more heroin, going through heroin withdrawal, a friend dying from heroin, getting off heroin. When I mentioned it in my books, as I have in one novel and one memoir, I tried to get through that bit as quickly as possible because it’s well trod ground. As you get older you will find that drinking can sometimes mean a lost day of writing; a day long hangover the next day and an interruption of the process. If you are on a streak, remember that speech from Bull Durham do not mess with your streak by going to the bar. Stay in and work until you feel the power even out or dwindle. Then have a drink (but not a bag of drugs) and pat yourself on the back. Make these things markers, rewards, and part of the process and try to get back into the rhythm of daily writing within 24 hours of your well-earned break. One day off is fine. Two, you will find it harder to get back into a groove. Personally, I never related to the writers like Gay Talese who woke at dawn, put on a full suit and went to an office in their hope to write until five p.m. as if it was an office job. I wanted to be a writer so I wouldn’t have to get an office job. The only job is finishing your piece, whatever it is. Finishing is the goal, and by that I mean getting to a place where you can begin revision. Revision is the fun part, where the details get more vivid, the jokes get better, you think of a set piece that didn’t occur to you before or a good song to add to a scene. Revision is more fun than drugs are.

E IS FOR
Editors:
A bad or absentee editor can ruin a good book and a really skilled editor can save a bad book. If your heart isn’t in a book an editor can put your heart back in it but it’s not their job to do that so don’t count on it. It’s your job to keep your heart in the project. An editor, not an agent, is the most important person in a writer’s life, more so than a girlfriend or a boyfriend or even a husband or a wife. I don’t have kids but I have had editors who have had kids and I know that their kids are more important to them than I am, but if I had kids, my editor would still be more important to me. If he or she was a good editor, that is. Get a good editor and you have it made. There is no good writing without one. Your editor, unlike your agent, is also the boss. They essentially create the finished product; the thing that is on the shelf and in the hands of the reader. Read the books they’ve worked on. See if they’ve made the Bestseller list. Ask them what their favorite Elvis Costello song is. Get drunk with them at least once. Check them out but once you are committed, do not battle with what they do to your writing unless you are absolutely possessed to. Then pick your battles because most of the time you won’t win, and if it’s a good editor, most of the time you are wrong and they are right. Treat them with respect because they are working hard for you, and often after office hours when they’d rather be watching television or having dinner or sex, and they are instead, making you look better than you actually are. If you happen to suspect that you are stuck with a bad or dysfunctional or drunken or lazy editor at an otherwise good house, with your good book, you probably won’t be able to save it but if you know that you are on your own, sometimes that knowledge is helpful. You will know to go the extra mile and check your own work twice as much and then immediately begin your search for a truly good editor. Foremost, make sure your editor believes in you and enjoys their job as much as you do. Make your deadlines and don’t give them grief.

F IS FOR
Food:
Food is key too, always eat something before writing. That’s pretty self-explanatory. Even if it’s a Clif Bar. Sometimes you will wake up with an idea. It’s fine to get that idea down and even write a page or two before morning coffee or tea but don’t attempt anything too long without food. And if you are writing something long, like a book, you ultimately hate life and will eat crap or whatever’s around. You will order in Chinese food every night and you will have to lose all that weight or try to once the book is done and will look like shit in your author photos. Eat some steamed spinach with little pieces of garlic in it. That’s good stuff and more and more groceries sell it in neat microwaveable containers than when Dorothy Parker was in her prime.

G IS FOR
Graduate School Etc. Etc.:
I didn’t go. I sometimes wish I had. There are mornings when I wake up and see the Yale School of Drama application open on my laptop. Or an application to Julliard. I worry I might be a better playwright if I’d studied more, but you can also study too much, especially if you are pursuing the creative and not the academic disciplines (not that creative writing can’t be academic and vice versa but when I was in college, these disciplines as far as your thesis went anyway, were more divided). All I am saying is don’t feel like you have to continue and continue and continue your education in a formal way to get good. Move to New York City and get good instead. There’s your continued education and it’s probably a lot cheaper…or at least it used to be. Write and produce a play. There’s your postgraduate work in drama, and you might even make money and get press. Pitch something to a magazine and execute a well reported piece, then another. That’s journalism school. New York City will continue your writer-ly education. LA will not. Seattle will not. Portland will not. Chicago will not. Great cities all but… I’m sorry. It’s New York. Spend some time in London and in Paris but always end up in New York City when you are done. And remember if you learn too much, you’re only gonna have to unlearn it one day. I once had a serious girlfriend and aspiring professional writer who went to an Ivy League school and I had to help her methodically strip all the bad learning from her like the pigment from an impulsive dye job because she could not understand why she could write on campus but was unable to write here. “Because you learned too much,” I told her. “In a classroom.”
Learn just enough, but don’t rely on everything you’ve picked up here.

H IF FOR
Humility:
Be humble. Do not be a dick. Do this for the sake of your soul but also for the sake of your career. Once, during a reading in Philadelphia, I was surly to a Fresh Air booker while drunk and wearing sunglasses indoors. I’ve published five books since then and a few would have been perfect for Fresh Air, the very popular and influential NPR show on WHYY in that city, but I never got invited to do Fresh Air, I probably never will, and I don’t even remember what I said to this woman. I only know she did nothing to provoke it. I used to think in order to be “real” you had to have a bad attitude, and be an enfant terrible. I also used to make a point of telling people, especially my parents and blonde women, that I was a “genius.” Never declare yourself a genius. Even Oscar Wilde looked like an asshole declaring his genius. As far as critics and press and people who may become interested in you (and they will if you are good and work hard) keep your head. And if they snipe, or reject you, never ever keep a shit list. Waste of time. Do not plot revenge. Do not corner a foe and unload. My very first book was rejected by the guy who a decade later, bought my memoir when nobody else would. If you have a stroke of bad luck (this year after what I thought was a good interview that would spark sales of my book Twee, I got bumped from Weekend Edition) take it in stride. I wanted to give the booker a piece of my mind but I remained humble when my publicist said “this happens,” and soon, I got a half dozen different NPR spots. In the immortal words of Chrissie Hynde, “bad boys get spanked.” But I realize you cannot explain this to angry young men. I know doors must be kicked and hair must be pulled out sometimes, just remember, you are only hurting yourself as good as it might feel in the moment and as cool as you might think you look.

I IS FOR
The IRS:
Book publishers do not deduct your taxes from your advances and neither do agents, they just hand you big ass checks. The advance, ideally is there for the expense of producing a book. It’s not for you to spend, or even save but you will spend it. At least try to save some of it. You do not want to work for years on something and pour your soul into it to find out at the end of the day that your money is gone and you owe the city, the state where you live, and the US Treasury many thousands of dollars to which they will gleefully begin tacking on absurd interest and penalty rates. A lot of writers die in tax debt. Pay your estimates. Fortunately, advances are a little saner than they used to be but still remember not all that money is yours. Buy some shoes, have a nice dinner, then give Uncle Sam his due and get to work.

J IS FOR:
Jealousy:
Be happy for any good review a peer gets and make a point to congratulate them even if you want to strangle them and stare at their blue body while smoking a cigarette. If they tell you they just bought an apartment with their advance money and you are still renting, tell them you can’t wait for the housewarming. Jealousy will only make you miserable and spiteful and who knows? A trolley might hit them before they can even enjoy their good fortune and then won’t you feel bad.

K IS FOR –
Kafka:
Try not to romanticize writers who died miserable deaths at young ages after years of suffering. Franz Kafka, for example, was only 40 when he died of laryngeal tuberculosis in a sanitarium outside of Vienna, which essentially meant that he wasted away from starving because his condition made it too painful for him to eat and they had yet to invent intravenous nutrition. I used to think this was cool, party because it was in keeping with the kind of bleakness that many of his characters underwent, in other words, his death fit his words and his myth and then there’s the scene in Annie Hall where Shelley Duvall tells Woody Allen, “Sex with you is a Kafkaesque experience.” I no longer romanticize Kafkaesque experiences, medical, sexual or stylistically. Talented as he was, he most likely an undiagnosed schizophrenic who wanted most if not all of his work burned by his trusted friend Max Brod (who totally ignored his wishes, which Kafka probably suspected this anyway). Pain was not the source of his talent, it was a condition that he had in spite of his talent and it kept him from writing more or at least having a healthy relationship with his work. Simply, you do not have to suffer to be a real writer. Happily this myth has not been embraced by subsequent generations as much as it was by mine, Generation X but we really took it and ran with the idea.

L IS FOR:
Likeability:
Don’t worry about whether or not your reader likes your narrator. Have the courage to make him or her do despicable things if it is true to the story you want to tell. Not every hero needs to be a virtuous, feisty, sympathetic or even clean. And if your narrator is a version of yourself (and all narrators, all characters are in at least small ways versions of the author) remember it’s only a version, remind your mother and father it’s only a version and if you play this correctly, you can both experience things that you might never in real life, and create an interesting voice. Just for God’s sake, don’t’ waste a minute on worrying about “likeability” or even “anti-heroism.” Imagine a reader putting down a book and saying, “I don’t think I like this person,” then imagine them picking the book up again because they like not liking that person. That’s not the same as hate-reading. Today, it’s very fashionable to have what they call an “unreliable narrator,” but I’ve always been a fan of the opposite. I like a narrator who sees and shares things the way they are; usually my narrator believes he is the only sane person in a room, or a city or a planet full of mutants, in other words, huge assholes, but not without redemptive qualities. If you are worried about sales, remember, Holden Caulfield genuinely didn’t care if you liked him and Salinger sold a lot of copies of that one.

M IS FOR:
Menial tasks:
Stop and do a menial task after a point in the writing day. Some call it the shower principle, and it works. Do your recycling. Shave. Prep something to cook, chop vegetables for a stir-fry. Don’t watch TV, especially not 24-hour news channels or sports, and do not listen to music. Go to the snail mailbox. Checking your email is okay too, but just check it and delete the crap. Do not correspond. If you have a dog or a cat, spend some time with the dog or a cat. It’s good for a writer to have a dog or a cat, but nothing too exotic because then it becomes all about the dog or the cat.

N IS FOR:
Note Taking:
It’s anti-social, and literally dangerous if you do it with your iPod while crossing the street, and the auto-correct can be maddening and probably has software built into it to just fuck with you the more it senses you need it (mine once inexplicably changed horseman to Galliano). But always be making lists, and writing notes to you. I write more notes to myself than I speak words to other people, and I write more notes to myself than I think unwritten thoughts to myself. It means things are humming and you are engaged and the piece is coming to life. Form shorthand that works for you, instead of Ralph, just write R. Ask yourself questions about your characters if you are writing fiction, especially if you take handwritten notes, on napkins etc. but don’t feel pressured to answer them immediately. Just a question on a note taking device, a phone or a pad will be valuable. “Why does so and so want this?” “What is the process of cooking this dish?” “What does this neighborhood really look like?” Then fill in the blanks.
I keep a running separate word file, a sort of pool to deposit and later organize these notes. I keep the pool open alongside the main file. Sometimes I wake up in the night to write notes, which is better than waking in the night to smoke a cigarette. Don’t panic this too is a good sign. Your brain is popping. You are engaged. Get it all down, somewhere, and worry about sorting the major revelations from the minor fine tuning, the films you feel like you should see for inspiration or the sections that require full revisions at a later date. Forming a compulsive note taking habit will serve you well later in when your memory goes to hell around 40. Books, large pieces, play, they are really often the sum of two hundred ideas strung together and sometimes thousands of little digital or actual Post Its or cocktail napkins or weird sculptures or art installations. I’ve seen some writers’ walls that look very Silence of the Lambs basement-y. Usually a corkboard works fine, but if you need to build shrines do that it. Do anything that jogs the memory and keeps you from losing the good stuff.

O IS FOR
Overhearing:
Eavesdrop. Keep your ears open and do not be afraid to violate someone’s privacy by getting out a pen and writing something down immediately if you hear a perfect utterance on the street or in a bar or while on line at the post office. You will find something to do with it eventually and it will be special to you forever because it’s like finding a seashell on the beach or a ten-dollar bill on the street when you’re hungry for a sandwich. The people around you, the strangers, are there for you, and they speak to you whether they know it or not, they help you authenticate your environment. But don’t feel the need to use every quote. Hold onto a great quote you’ve overheard until that perfect moment when you can use it right. You can’t built a piece around a single quote no matter how precious or hilarious. It will cave in. Quotes are delicate. Preserve them like butterflies and handle them carefully.

P IS FOR:
Perhaps:
Never use the word “perhaps.” I mean use it if you want to but I hate that word. Make statements and observations and own them, don’t hedge, unless “perhaps” is part of a bit of dialogue from the mouth of a character that hedges. Know the story, know your characters at least by draft two, and there will be no need to guess. Tell the reader the way it really is, you’re not a fortuneteller searching the air. You’re the boss.

Q IS FOR:
Quiet.
Write quiet. At first. By this I only mean, don’t put on loud music until you feel you’ve worked your way into your piece. I know we all have a ten thousand song in the same place where we write but write something substantial first then reward yourself with some music. And keep writing with the music at about half volume. When not writing, use music to psych yourself up. In this case, I recommend maximum volume. “Jumping Jack Flash,” usually works, or “99 Problems.” Zeppelin. Really loud Be Bop. Maria Callas. I’ve also taken to making playlists for the old and new books I’ve worked on. One is over 11 hours long and the book is not even published. I might start making playlists for individual characters in my fiction and I usually give the actors in my plays mix tapes that means CDRs I made on my laptop. Not a real, hand decorated cassette, unfortunately.

R IS FOR
Reviews:
I’m name-dropping again but my friend and old Spin colleague Chuck Klosterman said if you believe the good ones have to believe the bad ones too. I don’t read them. It’s a choice. I realized years ago, when my plays would get reviewed that I would really learn nothing about myself or the way I write from them, all they did was give me a big head or an inferiority complex. If you reach the level where someone is writing a feature about you and your work as a whole, read it to learn about your work, but a review is too limited. The writer usually has a week and 300 words. That’s not to say I don’t read the Book Review Section of the Times where there’s a bit more value and sprawl. And I like to learn as much as possible from reviews of the new books and old books of other writers, just not my own. You have to figure about a way to know yourself and to keep going without them. And if it gets back to you that you’ve received a bad review, do not Google it, in fact, start something new immediately. And never, ever, ever respond to the critic directly, or Twee them. And remember, if you STILL feel shitty, you got a lot more money than they did.

S IS FOR
Spellcheck:
Someone invented it in your lifetime. Also editors hate it when you don’t use it. So do editorial assistants. If you write on a manual or electric typewriter, I don’t even know what to say. Keep a dictionary close at hand. And White Out, which I think gets you high if you sniff enough of it. See D for Drinking and Drugs.

T IS FOR
Trust:
When you finish a piece, it’s good to have at least one person you trust read it next and give you honest notes. This should be a person who you are not professionally or academically affiliated with, in other words, not your professor or your editor, yet. More than one person is fine but not too many. If you have at least one reader who you utterly trust you are ahead of the game. Don’t kill the messenger if they have issues. They are your trust-reader for a reason. Have a conversation; explain yourself if you disagree and seriously consider listening to them because they may know your work better than you are and are certainly closer in make up to the people who will be reading you in the future. This process should be quick so don’t give it to a surgeon or someone you met in a bar or someone about to go on a long trip or someone with seven children; but rather a pal who has already proven themselves to you; ideally a person who is also a writer. But he or she could also simply be a well read friend, an ex girlfriend or boyfriend, your mom so long as she’s not the kind of mom who likes everything you do unconditionally.

U IS FOR
Ulysses:
As I admitted in B for Book Learning I’m not exactly well read, but I own a copy of Ulysses and I am going to read it one day. I sometimes carry it with me. It reminds me to be ambitious; Joyce was ambitious when he wrote it and my ambition is to some day get through it. Ambition is key to this thing of ours. There’s a lot that will kill your ambition; the loneliness of writing, the repetition of having to do one book after the other because you are used to a lifestyle or the attention, or are in debt (see I for IRS). Ambition is there to remind you that you are not great yet. You are only, at best, very good, most likely pretty good, but you should always strive to be great (and never, ever, ever, tell anyone you’re a genius – even if you believe it). Even Oscar Wilde sounded like an asshole declaring him a genius, clever as the line was.

V IS FOR
Being a Vessel:
I don’t know if there is such a thing as muse. I have no imagination as a person and not much of interest to say in a salon or a gathering unless I’m drunk, so I like to think that since my characters often talk and talk and talk, something, a spirit perhaps, is putting the words there through me. When I write, with an eye towards finishing a large piece, I go into a trance and sometimes many hours will pass and it’s almost as if my eyes were closed the whole time then suddenly shoot wide open. This sounds a lot more cosmic and Jim Morrison-ish than it actually is. I know I’m typing. I just don’t know where the dialogue is coming from, or why I am deviating from an outline, even just a mental one (I’m not big on flowchart outlines, like I said, I have my process with notes… and the occasional shrine). When I come to, I realize that I have pages and pages and thousands of words, many of them not bad. See, musicians don’t own this. Neither do actors who play around with methods or techniques and make their discoveries. Or painters who throw paint at a canvas and suddenly it’s a thing like Jackson Pollock or Nick Nolte in that Martin Scorsese short. Writers can “jam” too and lose themselves for hours. So I like to think I am indeed, a vessel because writing is lonely and the idea makes me feel somehow less alone. But I often forsaken. The muse is fickle and just cause it lulled you into a lucky and hyper-creative state one day, it doesn’t mean that another day it won’t leave you with nothing but your fingers.

W IS FOR:
Wit:
Don’t put something in your piece just because it’s clever. Have the courage to not use the joke. I believe the best writing, fiction or non-fiction, is funny. Period. You can write about war and have elements of humor in it. You can write about sickness and death and have elements of humor in it. Do not be cheeky if you can’t be genuinely funny. Cheeky people are horrible. Just revisit O for Overhearing and hope you are sitting next to someone genuinely funny.

X
Is for X factor:
Most people don’t know why a book works or doesn’t work and nobody sets out to write a bad book. Don’t believe people who claim to have the answers. What’s hot is not. There is always an X factor that eludes agents, editors, publicists, marketers and most especially, writers. Fashion chasing will kill your soul. If books about Jane Austen characters fighting zombies or Presidents slaying vampires are selling, do not write one too. Don’t even blurb one if you are asked. Find your own thing and remember the William Goldman quote about Hollywood because it applies to publishing too, “Nobody knows anything.” Just be true to your characters, your sources, your voice and your vision and you will do fine.

Y is for
Years:
This shit takes years.

Z is for:
Zooey and Zoe
I was going to make z for Zeitgeist but I’m still not 100 percent confident whenever I use the word. It’s like I’m never fully comfortable calling Lil Wayne “Weezy.” I wanted to use Zooey Glass and the Zoe Kazan’s character in the film Ruby Sparks where an author invents then has an affair with his heroine, as examples to let you know that it’s okay to fall in love with your characters, to write a character that you want a reader to fall in love with. There is no shame in this. You should be in love with your characters, even when you do horrible things to them. If you are writing a non-fiction book, you will probably fall in love with your subject and if it’s good so will your reader. This is a process of seduction and don’t’ think for a minute Salinger didn’t want you to fall in love with Zooey, as batshit as she is. Be a matchmaker between your reader and your characters, be a friend, write for them, not to them, and know that one of the main reasons people read is because it’s a lonely place, here in the world.

 

Marc Spitz (1969-2017) was the author of the novels How Soon Is Never, and Too Much, Too Late and the biographies We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk (with Brendan Mullen), Nobody Likes You: Inside the Turbulent Life, Times and Music of Green DayBowie: A Biography and Jagger: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue. He appeared in the anthologies: The Encyclopedia of Ex-esHowl: A Collection of the Best Contemporary Dog Wit and Rock N’ Roll Cage Match: Music’s Greatest Rivalries Decided.

Spitz presented this piece in 2014 as a talk at The College of Saint Rose as part of the Frequency North reading series., after which he granted permission to publish this piece. Photo: Marc Spitz, Los Angeles, circa 1992-93, from personal collection of Rone Shavers.

 


Photo: “Oh Hushed October Morning” by Courtney Bernardo

Fiction

“Neighborhood Watch, circa 2009” by Susan Rukeyser

“Oh, you have an answering machine? I thought all you Millennials used voicemail. Look, I know you’re home. I watched you pull into the garage. I see you’ve added another bumper sticker to your Prius: hope not hate. You girls have some nerve.

“So you’re screening my call? Suit yourself. This is Mrs. Darcy Wallace, from across the street, and, yes, it’s about the lamb. Here it is, a beautiful spring day, and the Colemans’ lawn ornament is still under a tarp. Like it has been since you bought the house. I imagine Betsy Coleman would’ve taken her lamb with her, if she’d known you were just going to hide it. I mean, if she hadn’t died. We had all that rain yesterday, but you didn’t see me covering up our Easter cross. We have an HOA in this subdivision. Restrictive covenants. You girls are from somewhere up north, right? Some city?

“You’re in Georgia now. This is a nice neighborhood. Our home values have taken enough of a hit, thanks to your Obama. I saw that bumper sticker, too. I know some of you homosexuals are drawn to Atlanta for the permissive culture. But this is not Atlanta. We have traditional values here.

“Cindi, at the corner, says there are churches that allow homosexuals, now, but you don’t go because you’re Jewish. Not the one of you who’s Black, obviously. You, with the nose.

“I’m not homophobic, don’t go calling the ACLU. (The mailman misdelivered your membership renewal. You should know—we’re patriots, here.) Gays love to play the victim card. Like the Blacks, for that matter. Or you Jews. Never let anything go.

“My husband and I are descended from Confederate heroes. We raised six children in this neighborhood. Suddenly we’re expected to let anyone in, even if they don’t respect our traditions? And hide the lamb of God at Eastertime? My family is saved, do you understand?

“You’ve been home a few minutes now, maybe you’ve started to look for your cat? While you were out, I saw her at the window. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be just like liberals to leave their windows unlocked, as if trust makes you a better person?’ She didn’t fight much. She’s okay, she’s in a cage. Don’t think of coming over here. I have a gun, and I think it’s a fair bet that you do not.

“Just uncover the lamb. People are talking; I’m doing you a favor, honestly. Do it and your cat comes home safe. Oh look, your garage door’s opening. What’s the Black one of you got in her hand? A baseball bat? Am I supposed to be scared? I already told you: I have a gun. Call her off! She comes onto my property and I’ll shoot. I do have some rights left in Obama’s America. Do you see what she’s doing to my Easter cross? Make her stop! I’d say you’re going to Hell, but you were already. You think you’re getting your cat back now? I’ll drown her in my tub! I gave you a chance. How many notes did I leave, before you pushed me to this?

“She’s at my door! Still with the bat! And you, running down your front walk with a kitchen knife? You don’t scare me, you lunatics! You lesbians! I have a gun, didn’t you hear me?

“Fine, take her! I didn’t hurt her, obviously. I’m not violent like you people. I don’t shove my politics down everyone’s throats. Just like a couple of Yankees, not closing the door behind you when you leave. Southerners have manners, haven’t you heard? Since when is there no freedom of speech, anyway? Since when do we bully real Americans? You should know that I’ll be reporting you to the—”

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep….click.

Rukeyser Susan 20182Susan Rukeyser is a white lady but she’s trying to do better. She’s half-Jewish, queer, and in recovery from 12 years in the suburban South. She wrote the novel Not On Fire, Only Dying (Twisted Road Publications) and a chapbook of tiny stories, Swap / Meet (Space Cowboy Books). She edited and published Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology. Susan’s short work appears in numerous places, including River Teeth, Mojave He[art] Review, Luna Luna, and Monkeybicycle. In 2017, Susan moved home to the Mojave, although she grew up in Connecticut.


Photo: Answering Machine by Susan Sermoneta via Flickr

Poetry

“Enlightenment”by Virginia Konchan

There is nothing eternal about us.
Therefore, I embrace my dogness.
Therefore, I recover my dignity,
lost in Acapulco centuries before.
Welcome to the pecking order.
Welcome to the wet dream
of interminable rank and file.
Joy is on hiatus, and at parties,
all that’s spoken of is Netflix
and the catafalque of female desire.
My lips get in the way of speaking.
My hands flap, like fat pigeons
unable to take flight.
Parenthetical Lord,
there is an expiration date
on cold cuts, on nature’s
syphilitic blooms.
All I care about is everything.
All I want is an endless supply
of something.
I have a blind date with destiny:
no doubt I won’t be recognized.
I am done erecting boundaries,
done with adjectival phrases
and post-confessional lore.
I am an animal very rarely.
I will not entreat you anymore.

 

VK author photo 1

Author of two poetry collections, Any God Will Do (Carnegie Mellon, 2020) and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2018), a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017), and three chapbooks, including Empire of Dirt (above/ground press, 2019), Virginia Konchan‘s poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Boston Review, and elsewhere.

 

 


Photo by Matthew Klein

Poetry

“What Are the Prospects?” by Amy Lemmon

UnionSquareMartinakaMaha

Union Square Park swarms with students
and tourists, languages I can’t identify,
families, mothers with toddlers
trailing sippy cups, men just off shift
lighting and then stomping cigarettes
before they descend to the train.
What are the prospects? The question I asked
every time I tried the online Tarot reading site,
hoping again and again for some ancient truth
to blow up like a billboard in living color,
explaining everything from the guy I wasn’t hearing
from, to the poems I wasn’t writing, to my kid
not getting out of bed for school. What are
the prospects? The blunt dull-dog persistence,
refusing to quit until I got an answer I could live with.
At the moment, the answer is curly kale
and whole wheat pita. I’m a pushover for fiber,
health kicks and promises, rooting
for moisture in a dressingless salad, settling
for the odd clump of feta, a lone pitted kalamata.
What are the prospects? Kaput, goosey gander
full-on shutdown, which we are not at liberty
to discuss at this time. They say spring
is coming, as it does, pushover that I am,
anticipating change, anticipating green pea shoots
and white asparagus, new lambs and all that bleating,
bleeding out and about in the world that remains
mostly fine, mostly inhabitable, mostly turning still.

 

Amy Lemmon photo finalAmy Lemmon is the author of five poetry collections, most recently The Miracles (C&R Press, 2019). Her poems and essays have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Rolling Stone, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Verse, Court Green, The Journal, Marginalia, and many other magazines and anthologies. Amy is Professor and Chairperson of English and Communication Studies at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technologywhere she teaches poetry writing, creative writing, and creativity studies classes, and co-editor (with Sarah Freligh) of The CDC Poetry Project.

 

 


Photo: Union Square by Martin aka Maha via Flickr

Nonfiction

“‘Don’t Let Me Down’:  Eleven Facts About the Beatles” by Joanna Penn Cooper

1.
It’s a warm day at some point in the mid-1970s, and I’m at the record store about to pick out the first album I’ll buy with my own money. I am five or six, and my grandmother has taken me “uptown” in Salisbury, North Carolina, to the record store on Innes Street. One of the family legends—a legend in my mind, at least—is about my mother being a child and going uptown with her own grandmother. Mamaw would dress them both up, and they’d wear white gloves, 2as you did. Here I am a little over twenty years later, probably not dressed up at all.  I’m wearing shorts or jeans, most likely. Possibly a sundress my mom made me on the sewing machine.  (Those mother-daughter sundresses are the only thing I remember her ever sewing.) Anyway, the fifties are over, and even the sixties, and here I am gloveless about to buy a Beatles record.  Before I go in, I ask Joe—my mother’s baby brother—which one is best, and he says, “All of them.” I feel momentarily at sea, as part of the fun was going to be impressing Joe with my purchase. But Joe walks away from us on the sidewalk to go look at bikes, and I must make the decision on my own, armed with the knowledge that there’s no wrong choice.  (Or is there?)  Finally, after some consternation, I buy Let It Be. The Beatles all look friendly on the cover.  Except John. Well, Ringo looks a bit fed up, as well, now that I look at it. Or maybe just tired.

2.
In an earlier, scene I’m even younger, maybe four. If I am four, Joe is nine. We’re on Gates Street in front of my grandmother’s house, standing by the curb. (Is this when I still call her Mama sometimes because Joe does?) He is having me say the names of the Beatles. I don’t remember if this is for his own amusement, or if he is having me do it for someone else, as a sort of party trick. “Paul, George, John, and Ringo,” I say, my preferred order. “No,” he says. “You’re supposed to say John, Paul, George, and Ringo.” I refuse. Paul is first in my heart and on my list.

3.
I am seven and Joe is twelve. We are sitting in the spare room watching a TV broadcast of Yellow Submarine. My grandfather is downstairs in what is normally the den, but he is on a bed in the middle of the room, dying. My mother and I are visiting from Knoxville, where she is a graduate student in psychology. She works in the animal behavior lab, feeding newborn mice to the two-headed snake. She won’t let me watch them eat, but I’ve looked at the mice, naked as thumbs, wriggling in their box. I don’t know how the occasion of the trip has been presented to me. Often when my mother had to give me bad news, she presented it as something that “could” happen, and I would be shocked when it did.  Before we went to the airport—which in itself was unusual, as it’s only a four-hour drive between the two towns—she had picked up some medicine at the pharmacy in Knoxville to bring with us to Salisbury. Now I wonder what it was.  Morphine? But why wouldn’t they have had that in Salisbury? The pharmacist was very nice to me and gave me a coloring book and some crayons for the trip, free of charge. I knew then that something strange was happening. I didn’t know the word for it, but I recognized what it was: pity.  Joe and I sit and watch, immersed in the world of the Blue Meanies and the acid-mild cartoon Beatles. And then my mom and grandmother are walking into the room, both crying a little. Before they can say anything, Joe is yelling, “Noooo!” and either rushing out of the room or toward my grandmother. I have to wait to be told before I get it. My grandfather is dead.

4.
My mom’s second husband plays the Rolling Stones loud.  Really loud.  I am in second grade, third grade. The sound is an assault, both for the sound itself and the self-centeredness of the act. This is not all that he was—he also brought me stacks of 45s from the record store where he worked. I had most of the hits of 1979-1981 in a box in my room. Steve Martin singing his novelty hit “King Tut”; Pat Benatar; “Cruel to Be Kind” by Nick Lowe. My tastes in pop music at this age were broad and ecumenical. But the Rolling Stones it takes me much longer to like. For years it was Beatles over Stones.

5.
When I am nine, I live with my grandmother for half a year. My mom is on the verge of divorcing her second husband, but I don’t know this, either. My grandmother is still in a state of stunned depression that I now realize was probably grief and tiredness. Joe has started high school and has grown to over six feet tall, seemingly overnight. Occasionally he will deign to speak to me.  He does let me scratch his feet with the letter opener, but I must stay on my end of the couch. One night after we are all asleep, someone bangs on the door loudly until we’re all awake. It is Mike, Joe’s friend from down the street. A guy with what I would now describe as an odd energy, Mike is a little older, but hangs around with all the kids. Now he is at the door late at night, weeping, hysterical, and demanding to speak to Joe. John Lennon has been shot.

The next day, Granny is peering out the front window at dusk to see if anyone has a candle out for John, muttering, “I lit one for Kennedy, but I’m not lighting one for him.”

6.
I guess it’s that same year that John starts to talk to me from the White Album poster? My mom and I are living alone in grad student housing, and I have the poster from her original pressing of the album in my room, next to my bunk beds. I’ve developed a number of strange compulsions. I count my syllables when I speak, tapping a finger surreptitiously against my leg as I do. There’s some equation about how many steps I have to do in each sidewalk square that I don’t even remember now. And not only can I not step on cracks for fear of breaking my mother’s back, but I can’t step on the dividing lines between sidewalk squares, either. John Lennon tells me these things, and it’s possible that John is the devil. I can tell by the way he stares out so intently from the poster. Also, I think I saw a hysterical teenaged boy say something to that effect in a Beatles documentary. When I finally admit some version of these thoughts to my mother, posing it as a question—“So, do you think it’s possible that John Lennon is the devil?  Can he see me from the poster?”—my mom brings a child psychologist to our apartment. He has me calm my mind and imagine that I am in a meadow of flowers. I find it embarrassing. Later my mom asks if I could see myself meeting with the psychologist every week. I’m alarmed, as I didn’t see that coming. I tell her I don’t feel that it’s necessary and I don’t want to. Nope. I won’t go. At some point, John stops talking to me.

7.
Years later, I will teach an essay to teenagers about the subversive power of Beatlemania[1].  The authors argue that for young Beatlemaniacs, the band offered a vision of sexuality that was “guileless, ebullient, and fun.” They suggest that part of the fun lay in the Beatles’ androgyny.  While commentators like Dr. Joyce Brothers saw the Beatles’ “girlishness” as providing a safe outlet for young women’s burgeoning sexuality, Ehrenreich, et al. argue that “the Beatles construed sex more generously and playfully, lifting it out of the rigid scenario of mid-century American gender roles, and it was this that made them wildly sexy.” Some girls, in fact, likely identified with the Beatles, not just wanting to be with them, but in part wanting to be them. Reading about these theories of Beatlemania, I think back to playing the make out game with Lisa, whose parents also lived in the graduate student family apartments. We listened to Sgt. Pepper, our favorite, and I would pretend to be Paul to her adoring fan.

8.
I find myself extremely frustrated with some boy at my dorm freshman year who acts like he can in any way school me on the Beatles. No. Another boy stands in front of my Beatles poster—the poster made up of four psychedelic portraits in a grid, which they may still sell at college bookstores—and tells me I really must try shrooms at some point. They take away your inhibitions and they’re just totally natural. My core of Beatle fandom is part of what gives me power over these boys and makes me feel not at all bad about showing them to the door when they became tedious. A core of knowledge, of desire all my own.

9.
Before I even reach high school, my Beatles albums are stolen by my mom’s third husband, upon the occasion of their break up.  When I receive my crates of records, along with my other possessions delivered from his house—no Beatles.

10.
I’m in my early thirties, and in a quasi-dating situation with a fairly odd guy in the Twin Cities. He’s at my apartment in late winter, and we’re watching a documentary about the early days of the Beatles. We learn that we both have a deep and abiding affection for the Beatles. Even so, our connection feels somehow removed. That is, we have one, but it is polite and never quite lands. Still, there’s something deeply enjoyable about a chill afternoon of remote, companionable shared Beatles fandom. Later, he will drive me to a used bookstore and run in to buy me a gift. He wants me to have the AA handbook in order to understand him better. I refuse to take it. At home in a drawer somewhere, I already have the one my biological father sent me.

11.
I’m between boyfriends in graduate school, driving around listening to Let It Be all these years later. I’ve bought it on CD, and I zip around whatever state I’m in re-encountering a deeply familiar album I haven’t listened to from start to finish in years. I’m making circles back and forth between the eastern states and those of the Midwest, looking for something (education, companionship, a connection to landscape). At one point, I listen to “Two of Us” and feel momentarily lost—there is no longer a “Two of Us”—before settling on a different feeling, the “two of us” as me and the Beatles, or maybe as me and some other, inviolable version of myself.

[1] “Beatlemania: A sexually defiant subculture?” by Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs.

 

Lis Romine Tyroler
Lis Romine Tyroler

Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis (Brooklyn Arts Press) and What Is a Domicile (Noctuary Press). Her work has appeared in South Dakota ReviewZocálo Public SquareOpen Letters MonthlyPositPoetry International, and other journals. Her digital chapbook of collaborative poems with Todd Colby, I’m Glad I Know You, was published by Poetry Crush. She is an editor at Trio House Press and lives in Durham, NC.

Poetry

“A Room with a Prayer” by Karen Schoemer

She wears green eye shadow. Sea-green eye shadow from her lashes to her brows. A crocheted sweater that exactly matches the eye shadow. A patterned skirt that exactly matches the sweater and the eye shadow.

She’s super-coordinated. The coordination strikes me as intentional. She’s chosen her outfit for its effect, although her idea of its effect and mine are probably different. It’s a trap, an assertion of control.

She reminds me of my Italian cousins. Square brick houses on tight suburban streets with Madonnas-in-bathtubs on front lawns. She has a mouth like Cher, glossy and pink. I can’t stop staring at her. I’m fascinated.

I despise her. I wish I was in Newark. I can see the entrance to the train station, the dirty tan stone steps. Hunched men in shadows and the late night underground glare. I can walk right past them or stop. I know I’m going to stop.

 

Schoemer_KarenKaren Schoemer is a poet, author and performer living in Columbia County, New York. She was the inaugural Virginia Scholar at Instarlodge in Germantown in the fall of 2016, and her poem “November Sun” won first prize in the 2015 Hudson Valley Writers Guild poetry contest. She is vocalist for the bands Sky Furrows, Jaded Azurites and the Schoemer Formation.

Poetry

“For Coloreds Only” by Daniel Summerhill

As a black boy, I flew
Back when most colored folk
could only afford the Greyhound bus.

During those hour-long flights
between LA and Oakland,
I couldn’t tell if I was somehow Rosa

or if my grandfather was unsuccessful
indoctrinating me into the 60’s
or if I was just a black boy

or if getting selected for additional screening
every flight was still prefaced by the term “random”
or if they had rather used hoses instead of wands

Still, somehow, each time I boarded,
the jetway seemed a partition in which
I could change in and out of my skin at will

or I was just a black boy
or I was just black
or I was just a boy

 

Summerhill_DanielDaniel B. Summerhill is an internationally recognized poet and performance artist from Oakland, CA. Currently an M.F.A. candidate at Boston’s Pine Manor College, Daniel has performed in over 15 states as well as abroad in Europe. He has shared stages with poets Jasmine Mans, Abiodun Oyewole and others. He has published two collections of poems and has been asked to perform at Ted Talk, Def Jam Poetry with Danny Simmons as well as Afropunk London.

Interviews

‘It was by living out the theory that we enraged so many others’: An Interview with Michael Gottlieb

Gottlieb_Michael_Photo1In What We Do: Essays for Poets (Chax Press 2016) Michael Gottlieb addresses poetry, poetry-making, and what it means to live among a community of poets. It’s a sequel of sorts to Memoir and Essay, Gottlieb’s 2011 account of his early days as a member of the Language poets, which remains a must-read for those considering a life of poetry. His affecting 9/11 poem, “The Dust,” hailed by Ron Silliman as one of the “Five greatest Language poems,” was staged by Fiona Templeton and company at the Poetry Project at St. Marks on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. We sent questions about What We Do: Essays for Poets, and Gottlieb was generous with his responses.

First off, what got you thinking about writing the material for this book?

Well, this is the kind of thing I sit around talking about with friends: how are we supposed to live our lives?  As poets? Or, maybe just …as people? How do I deal with this, or this, or this? How do I deal with having to make money? How do I deal with being responsible to myself, as a writer, and what do I do when my other responsibilities—like to my family—seem to conflict? What do I do as I get older?

In What We Do, you talk a lot about the poet in comparison to the artist. Why do you make this distinction?

There’s one section in particular when I compare poets and artists. In that section, I tried to compare poets, poets who are my age specifically, my generation, to our age peers among the painters and artists. What I was interested in discussing was how similar these two groups are. What we have always been interested in, the features and elements in our work, where we lived and went to school—all of those things are so similar. So many of us knew each other, know each other now.  And yet: the painters we’re talking about are spotted sporting the Légion d’Honneur to openings of their touring retrospectives, while the poets are enjoying solitary ramen specials at… well, I describe them dining at what is now a closed lunch mill called Dojo, near NYU. I used to go there a lot. There were two of them, in fact. I never liked them. Very depressing joints.

And the reason why comparing these two groups is so interesting to me is that, I guess it’s obvious what differentiates us, what sets us apart from each other is the economic value that the world attaches to, and applies to our respective work. Otherwise, we are essentially identical: background, interest, what we think about, what we focus on. All of that, all the same.

A lot of your commentary centers on New York City, particularly the growth and transformation of it. It seems you correlate New York City to the life of the poet?

I have been writing about New York City forever. My first book, published in the ’70s, was made from lists of words that I found walking around in New York, and illustrated with photos of New York and collages made up of stuff found on the street in New York. I mean, New York has been so central to me as a writer that back in the ’90s, I published a book that was simply titled New York. And it consists of two long poems: “The Great Pavement” and “The Ulterior Parkways.” They are about, and from, built up out of the language of that city. What else could they be about, with titles like that?  I guess it’s hard for me to get away from thinking about the city. And then there’s “The Dust,” a poem I wrote about 9/11. That’s a long list poem, and an elegy and I guess it’s also a New York poem too—it’s a list of what was in the dust that day, everything in the towers that was turned into dust, from the building to the people to their files and furniture to the fire trucks, too, in New York City.

I guess it’s been a focus in every thing I’ve written, all my poetry, my memoir work and these essays too, as Rae Armantrout commented. Why? Why has New York been the focus, the subject, the ground that my writing lives in, or sits on or stands upon?

Gottlieb_Michael book cover WWDFirst, because it’s New York. This is where I spent my youth. This is where I became a poet. While these essays try and surface issues, topics, questions, like I sketched out above, that I’ve been talking about with friends, with other poets, been trying to answer myself, since then, New York is where I started thinking about this stuff. And, I guess as I wrote those essays, and felt compelled to turn some of those questions into dramatic presentations—here is a person trying to figure this or that out, in a bar, at a reading, on the street, it’s natural that that street should be in New York—the New York of today or maybe the New York in the day when I for one started thinking about those things.

And because of where we lived then, when we were young, and the kind of place New York was then, thirty, forty years ago, it’s easy to describe it now as a kind of fabulously dangerous place. Not that it wasn’t. But just walking down the streets in the empty quarters where we lived, there was so much—from the street names, to the fading signs half-hanging off the buildings, to the history of the building itself—this was the first location of that brand, that chain, that now girdles the globe. How could you not write about this place?

But you asked specifically about the growth and transformation of New York. I’ve always been interested in how New York changes, how one of its defining characteristics, what it is famous for, is its unrelenting embrace of transformation. For so long that was what New York was famous for: tearing itself down and building something bigger, taller, fancier. While when we first came to New York, there seemed to be an eerie pause in that—which many took to be a sign that the city was over, done with, one of many signs. Of course, that was only a pause. Not an end point. And that constant tearing-down and rebuilding has again become a constant.

The fact is: every New York that we ‘know,’ or think we know, is itself a product of one or another wave of ‘transformation,’ of tearing down and rebuilding, of one wave another of new people, new money, coming in and pushing out the old. Since the Dutch, we’ve been doing that. The Native Americans were the first victims of gentrification in New York. We’ve been throwing people out of their houses ever since.  Watching the city get changed, watching who does it, what happens to the people who get tossed, that’s important to do, someone has to. And it’s instructive, too.

Then there’s the possibility that one might have had a role, however insignificant, in all this. When we walk those same streets these days, me with friends of mine from those older days, and we remember running in these streets in our youth, when the streets were empty, and dirty and dangerous, but mostly empty, we do ask ourselves if perhaps we had some role, however tiny, in turning these neighborhoods into what they are now. After all, it was people like us, and us among them, who first ‘found’ these neighborhoods—as if they had been lost. As if, in many cases, there weren’t people already living there. People who had to leave, had to move their homes or their businesses, when enough of us showed up, in the same way that we in turn have been moved out of the neighborhood because we in turn cannot afford to live here. All we can do is visit now, though there’s less and less reason to. God, just look what they’ve turned this place into…that’s what we say to each other now. Look, there’s a CVS where that bar used to be. There’s an Apple Store where the post office used to be… And so it goes, on and on…

You also address poetic life across the generations and over a span of many decades, the generational aspect of poetic life.

I think the generational aspect of poetic “life” is central. Don’t all poets identify themselves as belonging to one generation or another? How much of how we define ourselves is based on what generation we are part of? How much is based on what generation we are decidedly not part of? That generational “for and against” thing is so very important, isn’t it? As poets, to what degree to we define ourselves by who we are against? And how often is that a generation? I think this is entirely common, and not particularly troubling. This is just the way it is. Perhaps I feel this way because I am a boomer, and generation-related issues, challenges, boasts and curses have been associated with my generation all its life. And, concomitantly, I am part of a poetry generation that decidedly defined itself in opposition to a whole roster of generations.

But, on the other hand, it also seems to me—and I think this is even more to the point, when it comes to answering your question—that poetry communities are often much more multi-generational in their demographic make-up than, say, other kinds of communities of writers or artists. I think so, but I’m not sure. When I go to a poetry reading I’m used to seeing several generations of poets, friends and friends of friends, in one room. At a opening in a gallery I don’t often see that.

And, when it comes to the issues these essays try to deal with…how those issues are variously, differently, or similarly faced by different generations of poets—that is a fascinating subject for me. Are things different for you? Better? Worse? Are these issues, challenges, dilemmas, cul de sacs, dead ends, the ones I came across when I was your age…are they the same for you? Is the world a worse place for the poets? Better? The same?

Have things gotten better since it became possible to poet and an academic? I guess, that’s one of the questions this book tries to address. Have things gotten better even if you, you poet you, did get to be an academic, but you’re still working as a waitress to make ends meet? That’s another question this book tries to address.

There’s that area of the life of the poet that you talk about a lot regarding disappointment. At one point, you ask whether the things that are going wrong in the poet’s life are “something we’ve been ‘asking for.’” Do you think this is always part of the poet’s struggle?

Do I really talk about disappointment that much? Yikes. I don’t—or, I hope I don’t—spend more time on the topic of disappointment than one should. Disappointment, or accepting it, from time to time, or all the time, or sometime…is something that seems worthy of attention. No?  I think that’s worth writing about. But is it the poet’s lot to experience more disappointment than others? I don’t want to suggest that.

I think there certainly are a range of factors that could tend a poet, could bend her or him, towards behaviors that will, yes, result, perhaps quickly, perhaps only eventually, in all manner of disappointment. Those behavioral factors are to be found in all kinds of folks though, not just poets. Having said that, I have an opinion as to whether poets sometimes brandish their vocation like a badge—justifying certain behaviors. But that’s another topic.

So, no. I don’t think poets are fated to meet disappointment more than others.

You evoke a lot of self-questioning and self-evaluation in this book, which is amazing. Did you intend for the book to be an interactive piece in this sense?

You are right! This book is all about self-questioning and self-evaluation. It is made up of questions. There are three long essays. Each essay has about thirty sections. Each section starts with a question, a question about what it means to be a poet, how to live one’s life as a poet, questions about all that. What then follows are possible answers to that question, or more questions, based on that question. And these are questions, like we’ve been saying, that I think all poets ask themselves, or will, sooner or later. These are questions I ask myself and I know others do too, because some of them come from them, from other poets. As I say, these essays are built out of those conversations. I list their names, there’s several dozen, at the back of the book. They were all so generous with their thoughts and their time.

My hope, my fondest hope, is that someone will come across this book, and see all of these questions, and find them, find them, somehow, helpful. I would not presume that the text which comes after those initial questions—the ones that start each section of each essay—are answers. They are not meant to be answers. I wouldn’t venture to claim that this book has answers.

I notice you call a lot of emotions into question, particularly those of the poet. Is that the part of the life of the poet that most engages you?

No, no, no. Of course not. It is the life of the mind that calls out to me. Am I not just like you, or you, or you? It is the theory, and then the praxis, and the iterations and the adumbrations which occupy my waking thoughts. It is how we, as Language poets, construed a complex, compound systematic complex of theory, that is what engages me, night and day. And how that theory has been instantiated in this writer and this writer, this writer, and from this group of writers and this type of writer to that and that and that.

Actually, no. All that was a lie. I don’t think about theory that much any more at all. When I was young, yes. It was by living out the theory that we claimed to uphold that we enraged so many others, those who were older than us and those who we saw as beholden to those older ones. Nowadays, I do pay attention to the theory and the theorizing of those who’ve come after me, but I don’t need to spend all day on topics like that.

Do I spend more of my day on things like emotions? Yes. And if, as you put it, I ‘call a lot of emotions into question,’ it is because I look back at my life and see how much of it, in particular my life as a poet, was in fact driven by emotions—like, ambition, envy, anger, jealousy, and yes, occasionally, joy. That’s an emotion too, isn’t it? And in that way, to that extent, I don’t think that I was, or am, any more ambitious, envious, angry, jealous or, all in all, venal than any of my friends. Or, maybe, not too much more.

You do bring up academia, specifically the creative writing aspect of academia. Do you think there is a schism between the classic academic, the literary scholars that generally comes to mind, and the creative writing academic?

What a great question! This is a topic that I get close to discussing in the book. But there my full focus, every time the subject of the academic life came up, was all about the academic life for poets—compared to other poets, poets who weren’t, aren’t, can’t be poets…Specifically, what does it mean to make the choices we are obliged to make? Choices which lead us to that kind of life, this academic one or that “non-academic” one?

But that’s not the comparison you’re interested in…and is it indeed a “schism?” I’m not sure. While I know lots of academics who are poets and lots who aren’t I’m not sure I see them as oppositional in any particular way, at least not constitutionally as it were. I don’t see them as particularly at each other’s throats. But then, I don’t see them together, in the sense that I don’t sit in their offices or in their meetings—maybe just that interaction model, those sets of relationships, that’s enough to prompt a question like this.

Was it your goal to address everything regarding the poet you could think of, or did you not have any particular plan for writing the book?

It’s funny. I was just finishing my response to the last question and I found myself asking myself a question just like this one. I was asking myself if I find the poets I know as the as more apt to toss off aperçu any more frequently than any other group of people I know, or, for example, than a hypothetical control group of New York cabbies. And, further to that general question, I found myself asking myself if I am more or less likely to have a conversation with my poet friends that is more focused on those big question matters, about the world, discussed above, or whether any of them, any one of us, is more or less likely to toss off one of those aforementioned aperçu. And the answer is, I’m not sure.

And when I tell you the reason why, you’ll see that that’s also my answer to this last question. I can’t say that when I hang out with my poet friends, we talk any more about these big question topics than I do with other people, because I have to say that a great deal of the time when I do get together with other poets we end up talking about the topics that this book attempts to address: how do we live our lives as poets, what happens to us, what’s to become of us. Those are very different topics. At their most abstract, they don’t rise above the level of ethics. There is so much else that we could talk about, that art—for example—can be, or indeed should be.

But this book doesn’t address any of that. This book does not ask questions like: What is a poem about? Nor does it focus at all on topics like: How do I write a poem? This book doesn’t care about any of that. This book only focuses on: how do I live my life as a poet?

When it came to writing this book, I wrote it essay by essay. There are three principal essays in the book. Each one focuses on one of these how-do-I-live-my-life topics. Each one arose out of conversations with poets. Those conversations I mention above. We sit around, and this is what we talk about, at least a lot of the time, at least these are the conversations that I’m particularly interested in. I’m interested in having them with my oldest friends and all my other friends, the ones who are ten, twenty, more years younger. How do we live our lives?  And those people are listed in the book. There are a couple dozen folks. And, after writing three of these essays, which came out originally in different magazines, or appeared in books, I came to believe that maybe they could go together.

I don’t think I think about these kind of questions more than anyone else. I’m interested in talking about them, which is why I’m so appreciative of all those people who talked about them with me. I have also been writing about them in one way or another for a long time. I can remember the poem where these topics, these questions, first appeared. It was also about taxi cabs, taxi cabs in New York City. This was still in the 1970s. The poem was made up of quotes overheard in taxi cabs, and lists of the names of taxi cab companies, which used to be painted on the back door of every New York City cab. Also included were other kinds of language and dialogue, including overheard questions about career and an individual’s choices and personal integrity.

So this is not everything I can think to talk “regarding the poet,” as you put it. There are a lot of other  things to talk and think about, a whole lot of other things going on. At least I hope so. And now that I’ve written this, I’m wondering if I have to write about any of these topics anymore. Maybe I’m done. Although I have to admit that I have found myself asking theses kind of leading questions about a new topic, asking them to myself …questions of the sort I end up asking friends. A new set of questions. They are about “late.” What is “late?” Is there a “late style”? What does it mean to be in a “late stage”? What comes towards the end? Are there artists or writers who, when they were late, when they were in their late-styles, had special going that something we can learn from? So, maybe there is yet another essay coming. We’ll see.

—Interview by Mackenzie Johnson

 

Interviews

‘The first aeronauts were women shamelessly fornicating their way through the clouds’: An Interview with Kathryn Nuernberger

Nuernberger Kathryn Photo2

Poet and lyric essayist Kathryn Nuernberger won the 2015 James Laughlin award, joining the company of poets like fellow BOA Editions pressmates, Li-Young Lee, Jillian Weise, and the late Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Having been familiar with her 2010 Antivenom Poetry Award–winning Rag & Bone, The End of Pink fascinated me with its deftness of language and unique influences. Nuernberger is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri, where is also serves as the director of Pleiades Press. We recently discussed over email about the role of research in her poetry, and how her directorship plays a role in her reading and writing.

You and I share a bond in that we both live in the state of Missouri these days. Considering you now teach and live in Missouri after doing your doctoral studies in Ohio, did you make a conscious choice to return to your home state? What do you appreciate about the Show-Me State?

I never really expected I’d wind up back in Missouri—like a lot of nerdy art types in the Midwest, I think I had my eye on the coasts as final destination point. But after living in Louisiana, Montana, Washington, and Ohio, I was fortunate to find a great job at University of Central Missouri. I know MO isn’t as sexy as a lot of other places in our union, but I’ve found that are an awful lot of brilliant, creative, wonderfully eccentric people here. And my goodness we do have some weird, wild geological formations and excellent spelunking made possible by our spectacularly karst topography. I’ve got some relations in the Ozarks who have also helped me appreciate the terroir of fried morrel mushrooms with squirrel meat and blackberry wine. And, bless their hearts, they didn’t even throw me out of the house when I started going like the most insufferable elitist you’ve ever met about how all this good food gathered locally in season reminds me of the French notion of terroir. They just said, “Well, ain’t that something.”

Current Missouri Poet Laureate Aliki Barnstone states that “Writing is not just about your individual selfhood but also being empathic with other people.” What’s your opinion regarding empathy, writing, and artistic expression?

I think Aliki said it beautifully. I also like what Frank O’Hara said, very cheekily, in his “Personism Manifesto” about this subject. He wrote, “I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified.” I like the idea of the poem providing a space where there can be a profound sort-of psychic intimacy between the author and the reader that isn’t possible in the real world because basic manners and eye contact and itchy noses and stuff like that make it so tricky and weird to really talk to each other. And I also like the idea of that space being a little casual, a little crass, and maybe with a little room for us to fall in love with each other across time and space.

A mentor of mine once told me that it’s not enough to write about what you know, you have to write about what you want to know. I am thinking of one of my favorite poems of yours is “Translations” from your first collection, Rag & Bone, in which the speaker states:

Color is an illusion, a response to the vibrating universe
of electrons. Light strikes a leaf and there’s an explosion
where it lands. When colors change, electromagnetic fields
are colliding. The wind is not the only thing moving the trees
.

Nuernberger Kathryn Book CoverCan you explain how research plays a role in your writing?

Research is often how my poems begin. I start my writing time every day reading poems by other people. By which I mean I start my writing time every day wallowing in profound feelings of self-doubt and inferiority. This may or may not be the best way to do things, but it’s how I do it. And then I try to get my head back on straight so I start reading in other rhetorical modes that don’t make me so keenly aware of my limitations as a poet. I love Public Domain Review and Cabinet a lot, but also art criticism, Wikipedia stubs, and super-dense literary theory.

Sometimes I’ll get on a jag with a particular subject—I went through a women-in-hot-air-balloons phase a couple years back. Spoiler alert: women in hot air balloons for the first hundred years of ballooning were pretty much all prostitutes or opera singers, because everyone thought it was such a scandal to experiment with the effects of the stratosphere on your lady parts. Second spoiler alert: it was very popular to experiment in all sorts of ways with the rocking baskets and also very popular to just chuck your wine bottles out the side into whatever field you were passing. Which was not super-appreciated by the peasants below.

But to get back to your question—once you know the first aeronauts were women shamelessly fornicating their way through the clouds, how can you not write a poem?

Can you explain how The End of Pink came to be a full-length collection? Did you reach out to BOA Editions or did they reach out to you?

I submitted The End of Pink to BOA during their annual open reading period. And then Peter Connors, the director at BOA, called me up and said he wanted it. I like Peter very much, in part because he calls me up very rarely and every time it’s just to say the thing I most want to hear.

As director of Pleiades Press, I’m curious as to how your experience as an editor informs your poetry and vice versa.

I really love how my work as an editor requires/allows me to read hundreds of poetry manuscripts every year. It’s such a great way to encounter a huge range of new poetry—I don’t think I’d read that many books of poetry if “the job” wasn’t breathing down my neck, but I think I’m a better and happier writer for all that reading. Reading influences our work in ways that are so hard to pin down—mostly I’m inspired by what I read, but sometimes I do encounter the cautionary tale. I find it beneficial to be so constantly steeped in this grand ongoing conversation about poetry and through poetry.

Your poetry involves some interesting characters (Benjamin Franklin, Derrida, Bat Boy), how does their presence influence your poetic psyche? Is there a particular historical or cultural individual that you’d like to write about that you haven’t?

I’ve been writing a series of poems about plants historically used for birth control and my research led me to Maria Sibylla Merian, who was the first woman ecologist who traveled to South America in the 1700s to research the plants there. She wrote about the Bird of Paradise, which was a plant that could be used to induce a miscarriage, and while I am fascinated by her, I’m also troubled and disappointed in her, because she did her research in a slave colony and used slave labor to gather her specimens. And though she expressed ambivalence about slavery in her journals, it would be a pathetic stretch to suggest she was any sort of ally. But I keep reading about her because I want to try to find a way to see through the unwritten parts of her story and history more generally to the lives of the women who told her about the uses of this plant.

Those women said that they used the plant for birth control in part to prevent their children from being born into the horrors of slavery and in part to resist their own bodies being used as a commodity by the masters. I’d really like to be able to hear the story of their lives, their struggle, and their resistance in their words. But one of the cruel things about history is the way the voices we most need to hear are the ones that so often are the most aggressively erased.

Can you talk about the role of the Saint Girl persona?

I was raised in a Catholic community that placed a lot of emphasis on morality and social justice. This is a training I appreciated, but there was also a celebration of self-abnegation and insistence on nurturing feelings of guilt and shame that made me feel really messed up.

The Saint Girl persona was born of that tension between feeling a strong desire to do and be good and the contrary notion that happiness might be a necessary part of goodness. Or, to put it more bluntly, I wrote these poems during the years when I was turning away from my work as an activist (among other things, I taught high school in under-resourced schools for a while, and then had a job in the foster care system) and turning towards poetry.

Poetry made me really happy, but I also felt a lot of guilt and uncertainty about the ethics of that choice. So I guess the Saint Girl recipe is something like: (Guilt+Shame) × (Conscience) ÷ Happiness to the power of Poetry = Saint Girl.

One thing I noticed is that you received research grants at the American Antiquarian Society and the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life.

These two awesome libraries are kind enough to open their collections to creative writers and artists as well as to historians and other more conventional researchers. I love libraries and I also love auctions and abandoned cabins and oddball museums. These sorts of research libraries are the perfect combination of such wonderful places. The collections at these libraries include rare books, but they can also bring you collections of stereo cards from the 1904 World’s Fair, so you can see the Pike in 3-D by using this rickety old mahogany contraption. Or broadsides used to advertise P. T. Barnum’s huckster operations. Or pamphlets advertising Dr. Kilger’s quack elixirs and tonics.

At the Bakken you can actually crank a felt wheel until static makes your hair stand on end as Benjamin Franklin used to do as a party trick. (Although he’d have ladies of ill repute there so you could kiss them and get a little blue spark between your lips amongst all that frizziness.) These research libraries are wonderful because you get to interact with physical objects and have physical experiences, which all have the potential to become settings and images in poems about historical material.

You also have a collection of lyric essays coming out (Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, Ohio State University Press 2017), how does the fluidity of genres (poetry/lyric essay) play a role in your writing? What draws you to the lyric essay?

I love the way genre-blur writing breaks the rules or just forges ahead, as if there are no rules to even contend with. Sometimes, when I’m rambling about history or science or other experiences, I feel the need to provide a fair amount of context so readers can appreciate the landscape where the facts are unfolding. In these cases an essay is born. Other times when I’m rambling I realize that what readers need are moments of silence so they can really process the images or the factoids as they spring forth. In those cases, line breaks prove very useful. I always think some silence is necessary to create the sense of a phone call across the void, so that’s why I haven’t written prose that doesn’t have the adjective “lyric” attached to it.

Stephen King often states that a writer who writes more than he or she reads is not a writer. So, who and what are you currently reading?  

Right now I’m reading (copy editing and laying out, to be precise) EJ Koh’s forthcoming book of poems, A Lesser Love, for Pleiades Press. It’s going to blow all your minds when it comes out next fall. And I keep rereading Nance Van Winckel’s Book of No Ledge, which contains collage and erasure poems made out of an old Book of Knowledge encyclopedia set. Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude has been keeping me feeling sane and hopeful about human goodness and the beauty of supportive communities in these grim times; while Adrian C. Louis’s poems have been keeping me as pissed off and riled up as I think we also all need to be.

Last question: What is the greatest piece of advice you received from an instructor or mentor?

Maya Jewell Zeller always tells me to try writing it backwards and with more plants in it. Ellen Welcker tells me to quit giving those dead white guys the benefit of the doubt. Laura Read says to start with a song and a great longing. And Jaswinder Bolina once told me to quit whining, in a less blunt and more gentle way. That might be the best advice I ever got.

 

Furlong Stephen Author PhotoStephen Furlong is a graduate student at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, MO. His poetry, reviews, and/or interviews have previously appeared in or are forthcoming from Chariton Review, Big Muddy, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Additionally, he has a poem in the forthcoming anthology A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault, edited by Joanna C. Valente.

Poetry

“Become so fluid” by E. Kristin Anderson

Wanderlust knit a modern beat,
often synchronous, the way we dress.

Eight years would know:
there are always women a long way

from the world, smaller, interpreting
the lens of American skinny jeans.

The feminine, breezing around, messy—
we may be our edge, closer to home,

full with style.

 

This is an erasure poem. Source material: “Global Style Now” by Christine Whitney. Harper’s Bazaar, September 2014, page 94.

AndersonEKristin photoBased in Austin, Texas, E. Kristin Anderson has been published widely in magazines. She’s also the author of eight chapbooks, including A Guide for the Practical Abductee, Fire in the Sky and Pray, Pray, Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night. Kristin is Special Projects Manager for ELJ and a poetry editor at Found Poetry Review. Once upon a time she worked at The New Yorker.