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Never Too Late

An interview with Sharon Harrigan, author of Playing with Dynamite

By Miriam Young

 

The title of your book refers literally to the story you tell about how your father lost his hand, but I get the sense that there is more to the title than that. What significance does it have to you in a more figurative sense?

When I started writing this book, I thought the title was about my father. About his two mysterious accidents—losing his hand at nineteen and losing his life at thirty-two. When I asked what “playing with dynamite” meant, my mother said she didn’t know. For many years, I was afraid to find out, so I made up my own theories, my own stories. I could imagine whatever I wanted.

I was known as cautious and self-effacing to a fault, so I thought the title had nothing to do with me. And yet, as I started asking questions and investigating my family’s past, I realized I was taking enormous risks. Bigger than I’d ever taken in my life. I was the one playing with dynamite, by asking questions and digging up secret

As any memoirist knows, we can’t tell our own story without including the stories of others. They don’t ask to be put on the page. We can try to be ethical and truthful and compassionate, but in the end, all writing is a kind of betrayal. That’s why on the cover of my book the letters in the title turn into a fuse. It’s the writing itself that blows everything up.

Oftentimes our relationship to certain memories colors our perception of people and events. How did you balance conflicting memories as you reimagined emotionally charged events?

I joke with people that I always make things harder for myself than I need to, so I wrote a memoir about not, being able to remember. I was only seven when my father died, so I knew I would have to rely on other people’s memories, too. And I realized right away that we would all remember things differently. Those differences became part of the story. Why did one person remember my father as a bully, another as a saint, for instance? Why do some of us block out traumatic events, while others hold onto them stubbornly?

I also wanted to document how my understanding of my family story evolved, in real time. I take the reader with me on my fact-finding journey. I start out with the stories I think I know. And, as I find out more, the reader watches these stories change.

You approach this book as an exploration of the past, a way to fill in gaps in your identity. What sense of wholeness have you gained from writing this memoir (if any)?

There’s a scene in the book where my boss at the publisher where I used to work, tells me to get assertiveness training if I want to get ahead. I never took his advice. But at the end of my book, I felt as if I had. Mustering the chutzpah to ask the questions I was so sure were dangerous—that’s what finally burned the insecurity right out of me.

I think we often get stuck in our childhood roles, even as adults. I was the “nice” one. I thought of myself as a “good” daughter, meaning self-sufficient and no trouble. My brother was the “smart one,” my sister the “strong one.” At the end, I realized I could be “smart” and “strong” too. And that maybe I wasn’t as “nice” as I thought. Which turns out to be a good thing. In an era of “nasty women,” I may have finally caught up.

You talk about your father being a larger-than-life sort of character in your memories of him. In what ways has this affected your perception of your family legacy?

My over-the-top memories of my father made my family and, by extension, me, feel special. It was thrilling to remember him driving only with his knees, flooring the gas at 100 mph. He could build an airplane from scratch in the garage—all with one hand. To a child, a man like that could do anything. I never really saw him from anything but a child’s point of view, one filtered through awe.

At the end, he became human, which meant I could finally grieve for him. You can’t grieve for someone who doesn’t seem real.

When your first essay (that turned into this book) was published, you wrote about being reluctant to share it with family members. In what ways did that hesitancy influence your book?

I was too chicken. That’s the short answer.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think part of the reason I didn’t want to show my family that essay (and the one that followed) was because I wasn’t ready to allow my memories to be changed by other people’s. I wanted to keep my stories intact. They had kept me company for so long, helping me cope with my father’s loss.

But privacy has side effects. If certain topics seem off limits, people might start to avoid each other, to keep from bringing things up that might be painful. Or talk might skim the surface. It’s hard to be intimate if you’re always afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Once my mother did read my essay, she started sharing more stories with me. About my father, my childhood, and herself. Telling me things it seemed she’d been waiting so many years for me to be ready to hear.

So the benefits of sharing can be more sharing. Open up to someone and that person will more likely open up to you, too.

The other thing I want to say, though, is that my initial fears were founded. Talking about how my father died WAS dangerous. Just not in the way I had thought.

Traumatic incidents within families often leave scars beyond what we can comprehend or imagine, and there are always some people who are more reluctant to share their memories. What questions would you ask if you felt like they would be answered?

Of course, I’ve always wished I could talk to my father. I’d ask his opinion about books and politics and religion and philosophy and science. I just want to go on a walk in the woods with him and talk and talk and talk.

But you mean people who are still alive. I’d like to ask my sister what she remembers. I’d like to hear her side of the story, though I understand that revisiting the past can be painful for some people, and I respect her decision to remain silent, to live in the present.

We all have different timelines, and I think my brother and sister are way ahead of me. My mother told me recently that she’s not surprised that I’m the one still puzzling out the past. Unlike my siblings, I didn’t act out at the time, when my father died. My mother didn’t get calls home from my teachers. I pretended everything was fine. Well, obviously, everything wasn’t fine. How could it be? And grief doesn’t go away just because you hold it in. It just settles in deeper, making less room for other things.

I don’t think I’m the only person to have such a delayed reaction. Lots of us have experiences in our childhoods that we can’t process until we’re older. I hope readers take away from my story that it’s never too late.

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A Conversation with Lori Horvitz, author of The Girls of Usually

The Open Canon Book Club’s December selection

An interview by Aderinsola Adesida and Jenna Faulkner

We were excited to learn that Lori’s book The Girls of Usually was the December selection for The Open Canon Book Club. Published in 2015, The Girls of Usually was the Gold Medal Winner for the 2016 IPPY Book Award in Autobiography/Memoir II and the 2015 USA Best Book Award winner in Gay & Lesbian Nonfiction. It was also the Bronze winner for Foreword Reviews’ 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award in Autobiography & Memoir (Adult Nonfiction) and a finalist for the Saints & Sinners Emerging Writer Award; as well as an honorable mention in the 2015 Rainbow Awards.

In a recent interview, Lori discusses writing an honest memoir, the lawlessness of memory, and the magic of everyday life

What made you decide to write The Girls of Usually? How did you begin to work on it?

I didn’t set out to write a book—I started writing essays, and one led to the next. The first essay I wrote was “The Last Days of Disco Donut.” Before that time I wrote short fiction and poetry. I started to feel more at home with the personal essay but used the narrative techniques of fiction. I continued to write essays about family, love, travels, and by default, similar themes emerged. Eventually, I looked at the collection as parts of a greater whole.

Was it difficult to write and publish such an honest memoir? What was the hardest part of writing The Girls of Usually?

One of the toughest parts was writing about my mother, killed in a car accident when I was twenty-five. I had been backpacking in Europe (before cell phones and email) and my family couldn’t find me. I didn’t learn of her death until the day of the funeral. A number of my essays lead back to my mother, whom I never really knew. She worked full-time, took care of four kids, and was emotionally distant. Through my writing, I started to make sense of her, and work through my grief. Another challenging aspect of writing these essays—my decision-making process when it came to romantic relationships. I entered into prickly situations full of hope and blind faith more often than I’d like to admit. In the process of writing about these romances, I began to understand my choices and find compassion for myself. In regards to publishing such an honest memoir—once it came out, I was able to distance myself from the book; it’s a piece of me, part of my history. For all the information in the book, there’s plenty that’s not there.

Your travels around the world are a particularly fascinating part of the memoir. Why did you start traveling and how would you say that has changed your perspective in life?

While growing up in suburbia, I was the shy girl who sat in back of the class and never said a word. I felt stuck. Yet I always sensed a fire inside of me, a fire to explore, not only on a physical level but also to break out of my identity as shy loner girl. By hitting the road, I could recontextualize myself, challenge myself in ways I never thought possible. I could take risks, hop on and off trains, discover new countries and cultures. Forced to start up conversations with strangers—it could get lonely on the road—I became more confident, more curious, more open. Through my travels, I discovered fascinating parts of the world, and in the process, discovered and fanned the flames of that fire within myself. Before traveling, I considered myself a visual artist—that’s what I studied in college—but without access to a darkroom and photo equipment, I started to journal and write poetry. I could honestly say that my travels helped me transform from the shy girl in back of the classroom to the college professor in front.

How has your mother impacted your writing, especially with The Girls of Usually?

Often memories of my mother come back to haunt me, and she occasionally visits in my dreams. I’m now the age of my mother when she was killed. I don’t think I was ready to write about her, in any deep way, until fifteen or twenty years after her passing. In my first draft of the essay, “The Weight of Stuff,” my writing was full of anger. Why couldn’t she be nurturing and take an interest in me or my art? I focused on how she showed more interest in the family poodle than in her four children. But through many drafts of the essay, my anger transformed into compassion. I started to understand she did the best she could, given her circumstances. She had gone to art school but gave up art when she got married, had four kids in five years, and worked full time as a elementary school teacher. She probably suffered from depression; she hoarded junk, spent a lot of time in front of the television and at the shopping mall. Still, she loved traveling and exploring new places, just as I do. And despite her emotional distance in the house, she had a lot of friends and loved organizing parties, as I do too. It’s also fair to say that I’m constantly coming to terms, over and over, with the relationship I had with my mother, which feeds, most likely on an unconscious level, into some of the choices I’ve made when it comes to my own romantic relationships.

How did you navigate the “lawlessness to memory,” as you called it in your acknowledgments for The Girls of Usually, while writing this memoir?

As we move through our lives, we constantly recreate and recontextualize ourselves; thus, it’s impossible not to reshape and revise what and how we remember. Certain memories might rise to the top while others disappear. For example, a painful moment that took place yesterday might be seen as a hilarious moment five years from now. We don’t have an external hard drive to contain memory—it shifts and revises itself moment to moment. When writing a personal essay, we have to reconstruct scenes from memory, recreate dialogue as best as we remember. Before sitting down to write, I’ll look at old photos, speak with friends or family connected to the story, and freewrite to see if I could crack open the memory. By the time I figure out what I want to say and why I felt the need to say it, my hope is that the essence of the story, the heart of the truth, is conveyed in the most honest way possible. And in that truth, in that deeper meaning, my goal is to connect with the reader, to present a universal truth, whether it be, for example, about looking at the world in a new way through loss, or finding compassion for a friend or family member. I tell students in my creative nonfiction workshop to wait at least a year before writing about a dramatic event; otherwise they won’t get the clarity they need to make sense of it. Too many raw emotions will muddle their perspective. The longest story in The Girls of Usually is about my connection with a woman I met on the Trans-Siberian Railway when I was 23. Not until twenty years later could I see the story from a clearer perspective, after we both met and talked about what had happened between us. Time and time again I had attempted to write the story, but it never felt right—my memory got stuck in a place of resentment and shame, of playing the victim, when all the while, I realized, I was complicit.

Magic is a fairly important theme in The Girls of Usually. After reading your book, how do you want readers to think about magic in their day to day lives?

If we look at magic as experiencing a sense of awe and delight deriving from an unexplained source, it occurs around us, all the time. But we have to be open to it—when we connect to natural beauty, or music, or an animal, or when falling in love. There is magic in connection, even in a friendly conversation with a stranger on the elevator, when we experience a mysterious flash of giddiness. At sixteen, I zipped down California’s Highway One on my bicycle. Awed and mesmerized by the the Pacific Coast’s natural beauty, I cried, laughed, and shouted with joy; at times, this is how children react to seeing a magic trick. When you’re open to magic, you’re open to possibility, you have hope.

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Physical and Immaterial Boundaries

An interview with Carol V. Davis, author of Because I Cannot Leave This Body

by Kristen Womble

Why did you choose the title for Because I Cannot Leave This Body?

Titles for poetry are challenging because you want to entice a potential reader to be curious about the book but you don’t want to risk a reader thinking the title is literal. My first book with TSUP had the title Into the Arms of Pushkin: Poems of St. Petersburg. Some readers in Russia thought it was a book about Pushkin. It was not. Pushkin lived in St. Petersburg and so this was a metaphor for my time living there but it was confusing for Russian readers. After that I was more aware of pitfalls for titles. I wanted to be careful about the title of this book. Since there are a number of poems that relate to the body, both in terms of response poems to paintings by Lucian Freud and other poems about the body, this title seems to work. I think it’s also an intriguing title.

How does the image you chose for the cover represent the poetry in this collection?

because-i-cannot-leave-cvrIt’s so unusual and wonderful that TSUP allows and encourages its writers to choose the cover art. I’m not sure any cover actually represents the work in a book, but I do hope this painting works with the poems. I became acquainted with the paintings of this artist, Yvette M. Brown, about a decade ago and I love her work for its sense of movement of the people she paints and in the fabric of their clothing. Many of her paintings use bodies in motion and fabric/clothing in interesting ways. I like so much that this body (in the cover painting) is somewhat abstract, though it is partially representational in that you recognize the body but also cannot see the face. The figure is clearly leaning backwards but it’s not clear what’s behind it. There were so many things about this painting that worked beautifully, and especially with this title. I sent Yvette some of the poems from the book and we both looked at various paintings of hers before I chose this one. As you can see, there are some lines in the painting. This comes from different canvases she used. I like also this as demarcations of the body in the painting and think it works well with the poems too.

Russia plays a huge role in your book Into the Arms of Pushkin, and this collection includes various settings, from Russia to California. What role do settings play in your poetry?

I always respond to my environment and find being in new places inspiring. Like most poets, I pay attention to my surroundings in a more sharpened way when I’m in a new place than when I am at home, so this collection represents that as well. In 2010 I had a National Park Service artist residency at Homestead National Monument of America in Nebraska and that was a completely new environmenthttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0a/St_Petersburg%2C_Mariinskiy_Palace_2.jpg for me. I had never been in Nebraska, never been on the prairie (except driving cross country as a child) and I found that environment very interesting. There are a number of poems from that experience and a second NPS residency in 2015 at Hubbell Trading Post on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. In January 2015 I went to Germany for the first time, and then back to St. Petersburg and on to Siberia, also for the first time. All of these experiences are reflected in some of the poems in the book as well.

Part IV of this collection contains poems about paintings by Lucian Freud. What do you find interesting about his paintings, and what about Freud’s work inspires you in your work?

I first saw the paintings by Lucian Freud many years ago. For over a decade he had a woman modeling for him who was given the nickname Big Sue. I knew for many years that I wanted to write about one of the Big Sue paintings, but it took (for some reason) many years to finally do it (this happens sometimes, when a subject just has to stew around until it is ready). Like many women, if I gain even a few pounds, I am self-conscious about my looks. (I used to be a dancer and danced in a company many years ago, an experience that probably makes a woman even more self-conscious.) I both admired Big Sue and was amazed that a woman of her size and girth would feel so comfortable in her body as to pose naked for many paintings. So I knew I wanted to write about at least one of these paintings. Once I started, I kept going and wrote about other Freud paintings as well. I find his work sometimes disquieting but it always grabs me as a viewer. There is, for me, something so strange and compelling about his paintings.

Judaism and Jewish myth appear throughout this collection. How does your heritage influence your work?

I can’t completely answer the questions about how exactly Jewish heritage influences my work but I do notice that this book has more references to Judaism and Jewish myths and texts than in previous work. It’s always been somewhat in my work but it’s more pointed in this collection. I grew up in a very Jewish household but there were a lot of unanswered questions. For my parents’ generation, I think they thought by not talking about difficult subjects, they were somehow protecting t1024px-magdeburg_synagogueheir children. So though I knew my maternal grandparents had left Germany, I also knew not everyone in the extended family had. But my parents never talked about it in front of us. That has haunted me and my work. When I was a toddler we moved to Europe so my father could work for the Marshall Plan. Even though I was so young, I remember living in many countries. When I went to preschool in Europe and then in America and later again when we lived in England, I was often the only Jew (not to mention American) in a class and that somehow reinforced feelings of “otherness.” Some poems reflect that. Questions of faith and doubt have interested me for a long time and came to the forefront in this collection.

 

Because I Cannot Leave This Body will be available in January 2017.

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Memoir and Identity

An Interview with Loren Schmidtberger, author of The Beginner’s Cow: Memories of a Volga German from Kansas

by Hayden Wilsey

Writing a title for a text that looks at the intimate moments of your life is hard to do. Why did you name your memoir “The Beginner’s Cow”? https://tsup.truman.edu/files/2016/03/BeginnersCowCVR.jpg

“The Learners’ Cow” is what I called the first memoir-type essay that I ever wrote. The circumstance under which I came to write it when I was nearly eighty years old will help explain why, later on, I chose “The Beginner’s Cow” for my book’s title.

Mary, my wife of forty-seven years, had just died and I took it hard. I hadn’t cried very often in my life before this, I told a grief counselor, who then asked if I wanted to talk about one of those earlier times. I declined, but later found myself thinking about the time in my childhood when I had cried very hard.

It was when our family finally sold Old White Face, one of our milk cows, the one my older siblings and I learned to milk on—our “learners’ cow,” as it were. She was an easy milker, a gentle cow, which is why she was assigned, in succession, to the youhttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fb/New_born_Frisian_red_white_calf.jpgngest, most recent child in our family to join the milking rotation. I bawled my heart out when I saw her hauled away.

I wrote up the sad experience in an essay and showed it to the grief counselor, who encouraged me to continue writing. I heeded her advice and began to write the collection of autobiographical essays that would eventually become my book. “The Learners’ Cow” was then replaced with “The Beginner’s Cow,” a title that casts a broader perspective and connects the many beginnings throughout my life—from learning how to milk a cow to beginning the process of writing these memoirs.

Incidentally, that very first essay (in slightly revised form) appears in the book as the chapter entitled “Old White Face.”

Your stories provide a lot of insights into your cultural roots as a Volga German growing up in Kansas. What did your Volga German heritage give you to think about as you wrote your memoir?

My Volga German heritage was not something I specifically set out to mine while writing the essays that became this book. I did not try to illustrate the traditions, Roman Catholicism, for example, and practices that were especially dear to us Volga Germans. I just tried to create an accurate representation of events in my life that I can still recall and that might be of interest to a reader.

In my earliest memories of ethnic identification, I first thought of myself as German, that being the language I heard and spoke more often than English. Then I thought of myself as German-Russian, or just Russian. I heard people from outside our community mispronounce it derisively as “Rooshun.” So at the time that I was first experiencing my Volga German heritage, I felt embarrassed and apologetic about it. Then in college I became defensive about it. Then, probably during my three years in the military, I lost all sense of ethnic heritage in defining myself. Through much of my life I simply defined myself as husband, father, professor, and in that order.

In the course of writing my essays, I discovered that, for all the years I have lived in New Jersey and New York, I am still, at heart, a Volga German from Kansas.

You taught for fifty-one years at Saint Peter’s University in New Jersey, where you are professor emeritus. What was the biggest lesson you learned as an educator?

I can’t decide between two lessons, each of which is really big:

  1. Listening is an undervalued form of communication. You are not listening if you are talking.
  2. Don’t take yourself too seriously. No child ever dreams of becoming president of the faculty senate.

Now that you’ve written your memoir, what is one piece of advice you would give someone who is interested in writing their own memoir?

Don’t start tomorrow. Start today. And be sure to back-up your document, indicating the date and a few-word-description of its contents, into a folder.

You let your readers in really close to some important moments in your family’s life, memorializing your siblings and parents by writing about them. Did any of them get to read parts of The Beginner’s Cow as you worked on it? What do you think they would say about The Beginner’s Cow if they read it today?

Glad you asked. My parents would be proud, I am sure. Only Jean, the oldest sibling, died without being able to see any of the essays. She would have loved them. From the beginning, I sent many of them to my siblings. My sister Alvina, who died in 2009, saw only the first few, but that included the one in which I quoted extensively from her own memories about our dad. I recorded “Penance on the Prairie” on a cassette for her, along with a harmonica solo by me—she was herself a good player—and her children played it for her at the hospital in Oregon. My sister Armie lived to read a few dozen. She too got treated to a CD and a song we used to sing in German. The staff in her hospital in Seattle enjoyed it too. Armie herself had sung a beautiful soprano. Virgil and Alvin read all the ones set in Kansas. They relished them. Alvin was mostly blind at this point, so his granddaughter Amy read them to him. She really liked them too, as did Virgil’s son, Gary, who still urges me, from time to time, to “Keep writing!” My sole surviving sibling, Janice, read and made some very astute suggestions about the manuscript, which I adopted.

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The War In Words: An Interview with Michael Miller, author of The Different War

by Alex Reiser and Abbey Northcutt

Michael Miller, author of  The Different War, a finalist in the 2014 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, compares the lives of soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq with soldiers in the Vietnam conflict. An award-winning poet and a veteran himself, Miller viscerally writes about the experiences of soldiers both in combat and returning home. Miller was gracious enough to share his insights and thoughts with us and describe his experiences in his own words.

What first drew you to poetry? What was your inspiration?MillerMichael

Words drew me to poetry, the words I read in Treasure Island, Alice In Wonderland, The Call Of The Wild, and other books of childhood. The words led me to write descriptions, dialogues, and my first poem when I was eighteen. For me, it all goes back to the words, the flow and rhythms of language, the inspiration it provided. When I read Dylan Thomas I was swept up by poems such as “Fern Hill,” “Poem on his Birthday;” then Hart Crane’s “Voyages” and “My Grandmother’s Love Letters,” and Richard Wilbur’s “The Beautiful Changes” and “For C.” Those poets were my strongest inspiration. Language was the first part of my inspiration, the second was a passionate feeling about a subject, an event, a person, a place.

How did your time in the military affect you as a poet? What about your interaction with other soldiers?

My time in the peacetime Marine Corps from 1958 to 1962 did not affect me as a poet, but like any institution it affected me as a young man—I enlisted at eighteen. What it did do was allow me to read whatever I was drawn to when I made time for it; there was often a base chapel that was open through the night and I found the silence and privacy I needed there. Wherever I was stationed—South Carolina, North Carolina, Okinawa, the Mojave Desert—there was always a library on base. The library at Camp Butler on Okinawa was in a Quonset hut. There I chanced upon Sartre who led to Camus and DeBeauvoir. I was in the perfect place to read Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific and Sayonara when I was on leave in Hawaii, Japan, and Hong Kong. Once again it was all sorts of books that kept me close to writing. There was also the discipline of military life, the organizing of free time when I had some.

My relationships with fellow Marines were, for the most part, good. Although there was a military draft at that time, no one was drafted into the Marine Corps, you had to enlist, which meant everyone wanted to be there. I knew men who had never worn shoes, others who went to Yale. There was always someone who had an interest in reading and talking about what we read. I had a friend who was reading Plato’s dialogues so I read them and we discussed them in the chapel. One night the priest came in and found us there and suggested we find another place because someone might get the wrong idea. Living in close quarters made everyone respectful of each other’s space. Men chose their close comrades—it was a special kinship in a special time of young manhood without women. Socrates advocated this stage in a man’s life. And then there were the books and books! I learned how to write by reading.

What was it about the war in Vietnam and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that made you want to compare them?

The sacrifices of young men who were led to believe they were fighting for a just cause has tremendous resonance. Those men who went to Vietnam, and those who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, if they survived, suffered from similar effects of war. The technology of those wars was different but they might have been the same war. With few exceptions, war is one form of insanity, not to mention the costly mistakes made by generals in the rear. One thing leads to another and it’s not always for the best. Would the Middle East be in its present stateDifferentWarCVR if we had not invaded Iraq? Would there be ISIS if some American troops had remained in Iraq?

Are the people in your poems based on people you’ve met?

No, the people in the poems are not based on people I’ve met. I’ve been around military people since l945 when my uncles came back from World War Two, and then from my own service and veterans I became friendly with. All of this was assimilated, quite unconsciously, and became a part of the well I draw from to write. I’ve always found it limiting to write from my own experience and found that the truth of imagination had a greater reach for creating a poem. There’s a mystery about writing poetry and I’ve always trusted it and let it lead me. It’s not always about what I’m trying to say but about what the poem wants to say.

In your poem “Missing,” you write powerfully from the perspective of a woman who has lost her arm. What kind of mindset did you have to focus on to write from a woman’s viewpoint?

I wasn’t thinking of a woman’s viewpoint in “Missing.” I had an idea for a poem, an opening sentence, and then I followed the language. Words lead to words, images to images, rhythms to rhythms. Once a subject appears in my thoughts, and it can be at any time, in any place, it’s a matter of—in this case a woman losing her arm—of developing it. I always ask as many questions as I can—how did she lose it, what will be the effects? The subject is the skeleton which has to be given flesh, blood, clothes, a sense of place, and by doing this with specifics you can evoke feelings. You may not feel them but because of what you’re writing about the reader might. I try to find subject matter that matters and then fulfill it, honor it, be true to it. These short poems about the effects of war were all long poems—by condensing you create depth, intensity. Language is the key, its the clay you mold through craft. Everyone who writes has to find the way that works best for them. My drafts, usually ten or more, evolve from the previous ones. I know poets who will think about a poem for three months, then write it in one draft, others develop their poems in workshops. Accurate editorial advice can be the final word on a poem. I was fortunate to have Jim Barnes read an earlier version of The Different War. He cut poems, deleted lines, changed others, and I listened because he’s a fine poet and editor. I really don’t know of any poets who can do it themselves unless they’re Shakespeare.

 How do you think veterans would respond to these poems? What about a civilian?

I would hope that veterans and civilians will be moved by the poems. My main concern is trying to write good poems that I feel a necessity to write. It’s always a pleasure when someone responds positively to my work and I learn about it. It makes me smile the way a warm piece of apple pie does when it’s placed before me.

What did you most want readers to take away from your book?

Reading poetry, like anything else, is a very subjective matter, so I have to respect the readers and not have any preconceived ideas of what I want them to take away from my poems. I hope my thoughts about war are in the poems, as are other things that I may not have intended. Poems have a life of their own, as does the process of making them. I’m just grateful for the readers that may find my book in their hands.

And I want to thank you both for asking important questions that I have never asked myself. Your questions and my answers made me aware of what was beneath the surface in my efforts to write. Now that knowledge will slip back into my unconscious and will serve me as I begin new poems. One of the things I’ve learned is that writing is a continual process and we never stop learning and growing if we keep on writing. The key is to be open to everything—ideas, feelings, advice. Young dogs and old dogs can learn new tricks.

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The Force of Words: An Interview with Laura Bylenok, Winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize

By Allison Bearly and Hannah Brockhaus

Warp by Laura Bylenok is the winner of the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, awarded annually by the Trhttp://quarterlywest.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Bylenok-Photo.jpguman State University Press to the best unpublished book-length collection of poetry. This year’s judge, Arthur Sze—most recently author of Compass Rose—called Warp “a distinguished book of poems that combines imaginative verve with longing to create a rich tapestry across space and time.” See the rest of Dr. Sze’s comments on Warp.

Bylenok talked with us about Warp, providing insight into her creative process and award-winning collection.

What first drew you to the word warp? All poets have an attention to word choice, but yours is particularly evident, and shows a poignant consciousness of the etymology and different definitions of the word. Do you have a background in linguistics or the sciences that may have prompted this approach?

I came across warp by happy accident. I recall I was sifting through the Oxford English Dictionary one afternoon—something I love to do, to start with a word and trace out a net of etymologies—to see how I might flex the meaning in an image of the near-incandescent effect of glacial silt discoloring a lake in the poem “Vessel.” But there, in the entry for the verb warp, I found 54 definitions, a few familiar and many more absolutely startling: ones such as “To lay eggs” or “To trample underfoot” or “Of wind: to rise up.” I found them irresistible because of their strangeness and because of how many of them already contained and suggested scene, tension, and movement. I couldn’t have invented a more compelling interplay of themes: trajectory, impact, distortion, slow accumulation, loss and transformation, reproduction.

The last one—reproduction—is perhaps the most unexpected and the most consequential for my work. In particular, the definition “Of bees: to swarm,” allowed me to visualize reproduction as an act of simultaneous self-splitting and self-preservation, of creation and destruction. This is quite literal: when a hive swarms, which is its method of reproduction, one part splits off, leaving behind the old queen and establishing a new colony with a newly fertilized queen. This splitting happens in our human bodies, as well, with our DNA during meiosis to create the sperm or egg. The gift of warp was that it allowed me to imagine DNA as only one kind of strand on a much larger loom—of identity, of history, of time, of language.

And of course, this brings me to the second part of your question. My first dream was not poetry but genetics. These two are not, I believe, incompatible. I can’t claim a true background in the sciences, but I did study molecular biology as an undergraduate, and for several years I did research in a medical genetics lab. That experience imprinted in me the spirit of scientific inquiry, which is not so different from poetic inquiry. Both share a necessity for imaginative leaps and for searching beneath the visible surface of experience to access a deeper, more hidden reality.

Did you find the quote for your epigraph (“what is a word but wind? … a puff of wind, a word, may warp her”) in the OED as well, or somewhere else? How do you see it resonate with the collection as a whole?

The quote itself was not in the OED, though the entry for warp does reference several other passages from the Ancrene Wisse, the text from which the epigraph is taken. So in a way, the OED did lead me to the epigraph, because I started reading the Ancrene Wisse with an eye to how warp was used in Middle English.

The passage resonates in two ways. First, it unites breath and language with wind, so the natural world becomes a vehicle for the force of poetry. Second, it bestows power on language: language has the power to shape a person and the power to break her. I take seriously Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” and here not only are we cast by language, with this passage we are warped—distorted, thrown down, even put to death—by it.

I should mention I have taken a small liberty with the translation in the second part of the passage: “a puff of wind, a word, may warp her.” The original Middle English “warpen” has been translated into modern English variously as “fell,” “throw,” and “cast down”—which makes sense because those meanings of warp are now obsolete. However, I wanted to restore the plurality of meanings that warp contained.

You play with form quite a bit in this collection, not sticking to any one in particular throughout the work. When you set out to write a poem, do you do so with a particular form in mind or does the form come out naturally as you’re writing?

I almost never have a specific form in mind before I begin a poem. Form often comes, for me, from the first line, or from a muscular phrase that from its inception suggests or demands an echo in rhythm or in rhyme. That said, I try to resist the deterministic impulse of inherited form, to break away from the expectation and closure that may seem to be predetermined by a given rhythm or structure. I’m deeply interested, too, in idiosyncratic rhythms and shapes, and much—most—of the book depends on these.

I love that you say “play,” because there is delight in the word and in the act. I delight in the sheer variety of rhythms available in the English language: hypnotic, insistent, incantatory, fragmented, syncopated. Some of the most delightful iambic lines are not iambic at all, and it is their breaking away from the lull of a regular rhythm that thrills me. Whether within (or against) inherited form or not, sonic play becomes a kind of self-perpetuating engine on the tongue and in the mind.

How do you approach revision? How do you decide when a poem is finished?

That’s a difficult question, I believe, for many poets. In revision I allow full range and departure from any formal or other constraints I might have imposed on a poem. I read a poem many times out loud. I’m an incurable tinkerer, and I will return to poems, sometimes years later. I may keep only a phrase and rewrite the rest, or I may fiddle over a single line break. Calling a poem finished is perhaps as simple as letting go of the impulse to control if or how it will live on in the world. But in practice, when I read a poem out loud and feel satisfied in my blood with the music of the piece—when I no longer feel the desire to tinker—that’s when I know it’s done.

What poets or writers do you read? Are there any you have found particularly influential on your own poetry or on Warp in particular?

For poetry, Gerard Manley Hopkins holds the place of first love—for his wild music, his sprung rhythm, his consonants, but also for his metaphysics, and for his anxiety about utterance and inscription. There are many poets I return to continually. To Elizabeth Bishop, for her calm. To Marianne Moore, for her meticulous eye. To Federico García Lorca, for duende. More recently, I’ve been startled awake by Marina Tsvetaeva, especially Jean Valentine’s and Ilya Kaminsky’s translations of her poems in Dark Elderberry Branch. Her work is elusive, irresistible, radically lyrical in her conception of the poem as “a created and instantly destroyed world.”

For prose, I can’t and don’t want to escape the gravity well of Jorge Luis Borges’s fiction, and I share his preoccupations with infinities, labyrinths, and paradox. During the period I was writing many of the poems for Warp, I became interested in quantum physics and began reading essays by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, J. Robert Oppenheimer. At the same time, I was reading a cross section of theoretical and historical texts concerned with the perception of time, including Henri Bergson, Bertrand Russell, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, alongside mystical texts by Simone Weil, Teresa de Ávila, and Julian of Norwich. Each of these inflected the poems and will continue to inflect my investigations (through reading, through writing) into both the failures and the pleasures and possibilities of language.

 

About the author:  Laura Bylenok is currently pursuing her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah, where she is also a new media editor for Quarterly West. Her poems have appeared in North American Review and Guernica, among other journals, and her chapbook, a/0, was published by DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press in 2014.

Warp will be released from the Truman State University Press in September 2015.

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Show Yourself Missouri

By Jason Offutt, author of Haunted Missouri & What Lurks Beyond

A few years ago, I got in my car and drove to Canada simply because I’d never been there. It was an amazing experience, and I discovered something on my trip: the inch and a quarter that my wall map said separated me from our friendly neighbors was 700 miles in real life. On that trip I also learned Midwest history, tried new food (if you go to Canada, eat the Poutine once. I think once is all a body can take), and got my feet wet in places like the source of the Mississippi River. Literally. The water there’s cold.

The next summer I tried England.

Yes, travel can get expensive, the vernacular can be a problem (Travel Tip 271: a draw of beer in Wisconsin is called a “tapper”), and there’s that inevitable house in the road. Seriously. On my way through Iowa, I got stuck behind a tractor-trailer pulling a house on a rural highway. You think getting behind a guy driving the speed limit in the passing lane is bad, try a house.

But travel, especially local travel, is also worth it. There are places right here in Missouri you can’t see anywhere else. If you’re thinking about taking a little drive, try these Ten Places to See in Missouri (in no particular order). You’ll notice I’ve left off sites like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, but those are no-brainers. Some of my ten spots you may have never heard of.

Ten Places to See in Missouri
1. City Museum, St. Louis. If you have children, go here. Go here now. The City Museum is located inside, outside, and atop a 600,000-square-foot building that once housed the International Shoe Company. The tubes, slides, mazes, and toys (two built out of actual airplanes, and one out of a school bus) give this place a Willy Wonka feel. The Ferris wheel on the roof gives riders a terrific view of the city, but not if you’re afraid of heights.

2. Battle of Lexington State Historic Site, Lexington. Trenches, and the scars of war can still be seen over these 100-acres where a three-day Civil War battle raged in 1861. The Anderson House, fought over by Union and Confederate forces between Sept. 18 and 20, retains bullet marks and a hole where a cannon ball ripped through the attic. This is one of Missouri’s most well preserved Civil War battle sites.

3. Mizzou Botanical Gardens, Columbia. The campus of the University of Missouri contains an arboretum, butterfly garden, Asiatic and Oriental lily garden, a statue of Beetle Bailey (the cartoon’s creator Mort Walker went to Mizzou), Thomas Jefferson’s original tombstone, and a native Missouri tree collection. While you’re in Columbia, go downtown and enjoy Shakespeare’s Pizza. I said, “enjoy” because you don’t have any other choice. The pizza is that good.

4. Arrow Rock, Highways 87 and 187 in Saline County. This well-kept village is a National Historic Landmark because of its role in Westward Expansion. It was also the home of artist George Caleb Bingham and of Dr. John Sappington, who discovered quinine was effective in treating malaria. While there dine at a local restaurant, stay at one of the town’s many bed and breakfasts, visit the Arrow Rock State Historic Site Museum, and take in a show at the Lyceum Theatre.

5. Big Cedar Lodge, Ridgedale. Nestled in the heavily wooded hills of Southern Missouri, and overlooking the 43,000 acre Table Rock Lake, this 246-room lodge is not only beautiful, it owns a haunted history. The wife of one of the founders, Harry Worman, supposedly haunts the grounds. Guests have reported seeing a spectral woman in white walking though the grass at night, gazing out at the lake.

6. Rockcliffe Mansion, Hannibal. This beautiful, immaculately preserved 13,500-square-foot structure, built in 1898, was at the time regarded as one of the biggest private homes in Missouri. Now a bed and breakfast, its more than thirty rooms are also open for tours. In 1902, Mark Twain, a friend of owner and builder John Cruikshank, gave his good-bye speech to Hannibal inside the mansion to more than 300 people.

7. Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque, Kansas City. Arthur Bryant’s is what people mean when they talk about Kansas City-style barbecue. Don’t visit KC without trying the original restaurant at 1727 Brooklyn Avenue. You’re welcome.

8. Weston Brewing Company and O’Malley’s Pub, Weston. Reopened in 2005 after a bit of problem with Prohibition (yes, the brewery had been closed since 1919), the Weston Brewing Company produces 20,000 kegs of beer each year. The brewer is open for tours (the free sampling at the end was my favorite part). The brewery (part) and pub (all of it) are in the original limestone tunnels carved in 1842 to store beer.

9. The Hornet Spook Light, south of Joplin. Not so much of a specific place as it is any number of spots on a gravel road overlooking Oklahoma, Spook Light Road is said to be home to a ball of light that mysteriously travels up from the Sooner State, through your car, and disappears. Said to be the ghost of a local American Indian who died looking for his love, this light has been seen by the curious since the late 1800s. It’s creepy.

10. The James Brothers tour, lots of places. This is cheating, because it’s more than one location, but let’s just go with the theme here:
Jesse James Home, Kearney, the boyhood home of Frank and Jesse James.
Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Kearney, the final resting place of Jesse and his wife Zerelda.
Hill Park Cemetery, Independence, Frank James’ grave.
Jesse James Bank Museum, Liberty, the site of the first daylight bank robbery in the United States.
• The 1859 Old Jail and Marshal’s Home, Independence, Frank James’ home for six months. His cell was kept unlocked, and he often dined with the Marshal’s family.
Jesse James Home Museum, St. Joseph, where Jesse was assassinated by Bob Ford, a member of his gang.
Richmond Cemetery, Richmond, where Bob Ford is buried.
Mark Twain Cave, Hannibal, Jesse once used this cave as a hideout, and scrawled his name in the rocks to prove it.
Meramec Caverns, Sullivan, Jesse and Frank also once sought refuge in this cave system, escaping the law by squirming through an underground river.

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The Dibbuk Box: Jason Haxton on Writing His Story

by Jeff Denight

Jason Haxton writes in his journal daily, and has for the last twenty-two years, yet he has never considered himself a writer. Even now, after the publication of his book, The Dibbuk Box, a wild and fantastic telling of his real-life experiences with a haunted Jewish wine cabinet, Haxton doesn’t regularly think of himself as an author. This may seem strange that someone who is a member of the Author’s Guild and has a major motion picture based on his book wouldn’t consider himself an author. Yet, Haxton’s experiences with writing are collaborative, and he attributes his success to not only himself, but to everyone who helped him along the way.

When Haxton first had the idea for his book, he had no intention of writing it himself. He felt that if he provided the story and the material, then someone else might do a better job. After contracting with Truman State University Press to publish his story, Haxton originally took his idea to a writer recommended by the Press. But when this author began experiencing the strange effects of the box, he backed out.

Next, Haxton took his idea to Giles Fowler, author of Deaths on Pleasant Street, published by TSUP. Though Fowler was excited about the new project, he was unwilling to write it for Haxton.

“Giles agreed to edit my book,” Haxton said. “I wouldn’t have considered myself a writer then—I just have these journals—so when I sent in my first fifteen pages, I got three of them back. They were just bleeding with red ink.”

It was clear to both Fowler and Haxton that their system could be a bit more efficient. Haxton began sending a few pages at a time to Fowler, and this began a constant flow of new pages to Fowler, edits back to Haxton, revisions back to Fowler; each writer working in collaboration to craft a better book. Fowler was so dedicated to the book that he continued to edit it until they finished, which ended up being a few months later than he agreed to.

“The writing process took about nine months,” Haxton said. “Though Giles originally agreed to help for seven, he stayed on the project until we were finished.”

Haxton said he’s glad that he decided to work with Fowler in the way he did, instead of continuing his search for an author for his book. For the book, Haxton kept it true to life, and he said if someone else were to have written it, “It would have still been my story, but it wouldn’t have been my story. It would have become their interpretation of the story.”

With Fowler’s help, Haxton was able to keep a personal connection attached to the book, the reason he believes the book has been such a success. “They’re all true events. I can go back to any one of those days and look up what happened, because they’re all in my journal. I guess the pure honesty of my thoughts, what I experienced and what I was feeling came from my nightly journal entries—never knowing what the next day would bring with this item—truly comes through in the story. I guess that is why people like it—it is honest and occurring as you read it. Writing the book from my journals allowed me to keep from spoiling the mystery.”

The Dibbuk Box doesn’t rely solely on his own journals or experiences; it is riddled with stories and testimonies from previous owners, various folk who encountered the box, and a few anonymous persons whose only contact with the box was through a photo of it. Furthermore, people who play a role in Haxton’s Dibbuk Box story seemed naturally drawn to help Haxton in his efforts to understand and cleanse the box of its demonic evil. Even before the book was written, the story of the Dibbuk Box had a way of bringing people to work together, and that didn’t stop with just helpful strangers on the Internet.

In October 2004, a lawyer representing Sam Raimi, director and producer of such films as the Spiderman trilogy, approached Haxton. Raimi heard about Haxton and the Dibbuk Box through a Los Angeles Times article, as well as through Haxton’s own website. Raimi wanted rights to make a filmed version.

Though Haxton didn’t mind the idea of the story being retold, he said, “I originally told them ‘No.’ It didn’t matter to me who he was. I didn’t care. I was just starting my book, my kids were still young, and, most importantly, I was happy. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of that.”

But eventually a contract was drawn up that allowed Haxton to keep rights to a book, documentaries, replica boxes and a few other elements. A movie based on the box, The Possession, will be released August 31.

Just like with Haxton’s book, there was no shortage of people working on the film’s script. Haxton said there have been three scripts drafted for the film. Stephen Susco (The Grudge, The Grudge 2) penned the first of the scripts; his was loosely based on Haxton’s personal experiences, with the protagonist being a museum director who has recently taken possession of a haunted Jewish box.

Susco’s script was polished and finished, but then bad news came. While at a party, Susco ran into his friend and fellow screenwriter, E. L. Katz (Autopsy), who was elated about a new job that he had just received. The job? Katz signed on to write the script for a dibbuk box movie; the very movie that Susco had just finished writing. Katz’s script told the story of a college student who bought the box from an auction on the Internet; a close similarity to the owner previous to Haxton.

Once Katz’s script was completed, he received bad news as well; his script had been passed over, and this time Juliet Snowden (Knowing, Boogeyman) was to write the coveted screenplay. This version of the script is the final version, with the story vaguely following Kevin Mannis’ story, the original owner of the box.

Haxton hypothesizes that these first two drafts of the script aren’t just going to be thrown away. “It’s not like they were bad scripts. They were good. They just weren’t where the story begins.”

Haxton’s guess is that Raimi had the full story written in a backwards order, starting with Haxton’s experiences and leading all the way back to Mannis’. This way, Raimi could produce sequels to The Possession quickly, without sacrificing story quality.

“Raimi is a master of horror. He took control of the American horror genre with The Evil Dead trilogy; Japanese horror with The Grudge,” Haxton said, “and there’s no way he’s going to give up on Jewish horror.”

Many of those who worked on the film wanted to keep close to Haxton’s story, often asking him for advice or to draw inspiration from his stories. Though Haxton has written to all of the screenwriters, he still has regular contact with Susco. “Susco has kept up a friendship,” he said. “Mostly by his contacting me about the movie, my book, articles in magazines. And he has expressed a desire to do more work, if possible.”

Haxton’s contribution to the films didn’t stop there. In order to draw inspiration for the box, Raimi’s assistant asked Haxton to acquire an exact replica of the box.

“They were too afraid of having the actual box,” Haxton said. “Nobody wanted to house it.”

The box in the film, while not the exact replica, does draw upon the wine cabinet’s unique hinges, its odd appliques and Jewish inscriptions. When I asked why they decided to go with a chest instead of the replica, Haxton responded, “It was for practical purposes. [Natasha Calis, who plays the box’s first buyer in the film] needed to be able to carry it, but the replica was too large.”

Because the filmmakers worked so closely with Haxton throughout the process, taking his experience for inspiration, Haxton thinks the film complements his book, rather than detracting from it.

“I believe from what I have seen so far,” Haxton said. “That the movie truly complements the suspense I tried to keep in the book of not being too sure what might come next, and also that element of help coming when it is unexpected from unexpected sources.”

It seems that in the past few years, everyone wants to have a hand in telling the tale of the Dibbuk Box. Beside the book and the movie, there are several other groups telling the tale of this demonic box. One of which is SyFy Channel’s popular docudrama series, Paranormal Witness, which will air an episode on August 29 titled “Dybbuk Box” about Haxton’s story. Haxton said they were very excited to work on that episode, and that it could be one of the most-watched episodes of the season.

“SyFy really wanted this story because it was already vetted. With most ghost stories, you get people who have no real proof other than their statement. ‘Oh! I saw a ghost!’” (At which point in the interview, I admit, I thought Haxton had actually seen a ghost in our meeting room. But then he continued.) “They have to do research into these stories to make sure it’s true. Mine was already vetted. I have eight years of journals, a published book, and lots of contactable references. Their work is already done for them.”

Besides The Possession and the SyFy program, the story of the Dibbuk Box continues to be told again and again. Haxton spoke about the box and his book on multiple podcasts, an episode of The History Channel’s Fear Files based on his story, and in a six-page spread in Entertainment Weekly on August 3. It seems that this story has a natural draw to people that sparks their imagination, and they want to be a part of it. Haxton think this is because “People have always loved stories like this. We have Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster… what else? Chupacabra, that’s the newest one. But it’s really been a while since we’ve had a true story create a legend like this.”

In order to tell this intriguing story completely, Haxton understood the need to include as many voices as possible. Haxton said that he couldn’t have told his story without the participation and help from all who have been involved; that it’s great when “everybody comes together, when you help each other. Collaboration is the only way to get a great finished product. If you’re nice to people, and give what you can (especially if it doesn’t cost you anything), then you’ll only foster good relationships.”

With all the excitement stirring around the story of the wine cabinet, could there be repercussions with tempting the haunted box? The film crew has already felt the effects of the Dibbuk Box. Haxton said that a few days after The Possession finished filming, their entire props warehouse spontaneously burned to the ground. If the dibbuk did actually cause this incident, what will happen when this film is released to the wider audience? In The Dibbuk Box, the box affected people after they saw only a picture of it. This is a major motion picture telling the story for entertainment; could the malicious effects be intensified?

I asked Haxton what he thought about this possibility. He said, “I believe people will feel a connection and have issues—they always do—but so far nobody has died, just felt horrible bad luck. So, I am not too worried.”

Then he joked, “Then again, there is that Mayan ‘December 2012: End of the World’ scenario—maybe it can give that ball a kick start.”

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Mona Lisa Saloy discusses poetry as a journey

Three T. S. Eliot Prize poets will visit Truman March 29 to promote poetry and highlight their prize-winning books published by Truman State University Press, now celebrating 25 years of publishing.

Rhina Espaillat, Mona Lisa Saloy and Dean Rader will be on the Truman campus as guest lecturers in several creative writing classes. They will all take part in a discussion panel at 1:30 p.m. in the Student Union Building Alumni Room to talk about the craft of poetry and getting started in publishing. The poets will read from their prize-winning books at 7 p.m. in the Student Union Building Down Under where books will be available to purchase. The public is welcome at these events.

The T. S. Eliot Prize, sponsored by the University Press, was first established in 1997 and receives national recognition for the quality of work published. Each year the Press receives about 500 manuscripts for the competition and a well-known poet selects a final winning manuscript. The author wins $2,000 and publication.

In preparation for the event, we invited each author to tell us about their interest and career in poetry.

Saloy, author of the 2005 prize for “Red Beans & Ricely Yours,” has had her prose and poetry published in many anthologies and magazines. Her folklore research and writing focuses on the culture of New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. She teaches at Dillard University.

For more information, visit Saloy’s website: http://www.monalisasaloy.com/

How did you decide to become a poet?

Actually, I didn’t, poetry picked me. Initially, I wanted to be the first black girl to win Gold swimming at the Olympics; but it was the end of Jim Crow. Rather than integrate the local pools, city pools were closed. Then, I wanted to be a designer of clothes, but I really did not draw very well, but I could sew; I sewed my way through my first two degrees for sure, sewed for some in the NBA, some on the Globe Trotters, mostly men’s custom casual clothes, and men tipped well. It was a way to continue my studies on my own schedule, hiring myself out to shops. I took a class here and there between work, really directionless and still swimming, where I met my husband and married too young.

Six months into the marriage, we had a car accident that left me with a broken pelvis (so no kids), a hole in my lung, a concussion, and no memory. I wrote to remember, was flat on my back for a year, then attended poetry readings at the little café next door to student housing (when we married, my husband was a full-time student, and I worked full-time). It was there I heard Black literature, the works of Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, Don L. Lee, Amiri Baraka from the student poets; and since I was there often just listening, but friendly, they inquired about me.  I told them the stories I remembered about New Orleans, and they told me I “sounded like a writer.” At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. They urged me to meet their teacher, a professor at the University of Washington, Colleen McElroy.

I made the appointment, went to her office still on a cane with my little notebook of scribbled memories, no clue what I was doing. She listened, looked at me, and said “You might have something here; let me show you what you might do.” That began a life-long mentorship. It was Colleen, emeritus from the UW to opened me to the life of literature and writing, who gave me my writing life. Then I studied poetry with Nelson Bently there, and fiction with Charles Johnson (Faith & the Good Thing—still a favorite of mine, & Middle Passage); composition with William Irmsher & others who helped shape me. Under the guidance of Colleen McElroy, I participated in the United Black Artists Guild, the Northwest equivalent of the Umbra workshops of New York, or Congo Square Writers Workshops in New Orleans.

How did you first get published?

Working intensely with Colleen, college coursework, and the workshops of the United Black Artists Guild, the UBAG published a journal called Dark Waters, edited by Charles Johnson; my first writing appeared there. Then, I placed in a Northwest writing contest, second or third; I don’t remember now. Later, I was selected for the poets-in-the-schools pilot program in the Northwest, and interned at the University of Washington Press, where I learned everything from editing to indexing and layout.  I was hooked by the writing life.

What has it meant for you and your career to win the T. S. Eliot Prize?

The T. S. Eliot Prize was such an honor and a game changer. Its prestige is well-known, so my first book rose from the pile of annual first publications. Then my book appeared in October, a few months after post-Katrina flooding closed New Orleans down and forever changed half a million lives forever; no one was home, so it was some time before returning to “market” my work there.  The T. S. Eliot Prize moniker allows me a continual one-up in marketing still, so I’m extremely thankful to have been selected.

Which poets or authors do you often read? Why do you enjoy reading them?

In poetry: Niyi Osundare, his metaphors are extraordinary; Muriel Rukeyser’s craft always teaches me something; Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, & Carolyn M. Rodgers marry craft to my culture and are daring!  In non-fiction: W.E.B. DuBois, before whose mind I bow; Manning Marrable, the true BuBois of my time.  In Folklore, I’m all over the place but always Hurston. In Fiction, I’m reading Alice Dunbar Nelson and rereading Chesnutt.

What advice would you have for students wishing to pursue writing as a career?

As Ernest Gaines preaches:  read read read, write write write, and always study craft while doing those.

In Red Beans and Ricely Yours, the themes of life and death seem not to be written as opposites, but as somehow co-dependent of each other. Can you talk a little about the relationship between the living and the dead in your poems and how this reflects New Orleans culture?

Being born and raised in New Orleans, I remember early criticisms of the city: “the people are too parochial; they never leave their neighborhoods.”  How right they were because it is that consistency in families who produce the culture. As a result, we live multi-generationally, old and young with all in-between together.  We see the best and worst, how to celebrate life and mourn those passing who are forever with us in memory.  Yes, life and death, living well and sending our loved ones home to heaven in death are integral to our lives here.

The southern women depicted in Red Beans and Ricely Yours are strong, full of life, and support each other like family, sisters. Growing up, were there specific female role models who inspired the women in your poetry?  

Of course my mother, who sewed tropical seersucker suits and costumes for Mardi Gras, my aunts who did the same; my dear sister and elder female cousins who possess so much heart and style; then my dear neighbors who are extended family, who set the bar of living, being, and becoming so high. They are all a constant inspiration; they are all a blessing in my life.

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Dean Rader provides humorous insight to his work

Three T. S. Eliot Prize poets will visit Truman March 29 to promote poetry and highlight their prize-winning books published by Truman State University Press, now celebrating 25 years of publishing.

Rhina Espaillat, Mona Lisa Saloy and Dean Rader will be on the Truman campus as guest lecturers in several creative writing classes. They will all take part in a discussion panel at 1:30 p.m. in the Student Union Building Alumni Room to talk about the craft of poetry and getting started in publishing. The poets will read from their prize-winning books at 7 p.m. in the Student Union Building Down Under where books will be available to purchase. The public is welcome at these events.

The T. S. Eliot Prize, sponsored by the University Press, was first established in 1997 and receives national recognition for the quality of work published. Each year the Press receives about 500 manuscripts for the competition and a well-known poet selects a final winning manuscript. The author wins $2,000 and publication.

In preparation for the event, we invited each author to tell us about their interest and career in poetry.

Dean Rader, author of the 2010 prize for “Works & Days,” has published widely in poetry, American Indian studies and popular culture. He teaches at the University of San Francisco.

For more information, check out Rader’s website at:http://deanrader.com/

How did you decide to become a poet? 

Well, I think most poets would say that they never actually choose poetry—poetry chose them. At least that was the case for me. I mean, almost no one would make a conscious decision to be a poet: you have a tiny audience and even tinier royalties. No one makes films of books of poems. You don’t get invited to be on Oprah. Perez Hilton won’t blog about you. You’ll never see a poet on Dancing with the Stars.

But . . . but . . . there is no better feeling than crafting newness out of the words we use every day for the most mundane things. I started writing poetry because I wanted to see if I could make something funny or provocative or holy from the raw materials of language.

Nothing had made me feel more excited about being alive, nothing had made me feel the divine more than poetry. I wanted to see if I could do as a writer what I had felt as a reader.

How did you first get published?

That sort of depends on what you mean by “published.” I wrote for my high school newspaper and even did the occasional column in college. Some of my poems and stories were published in standard undergraduate literary magazines. Also as a college student, I had a short story, I think, appear in The Rectangle, the magazine of Sigma Tau Delta (the national English honor society).

Later, once I had my Ph.D. I started writing poems more seriously and sending them out to journals and literary magazines. I’m pretty sure the first national magazine to take one of my poems was Veer: New Verse, but it wasn’t until a few years ago when one of my Frog & Toad poems won a national contest and another Frog and Toad poem got accepted at The Colorado Review that I really started feeling like I had moved from merely writing poems to being a poet.

What has it meant for you and your career to win the T. S. Eliot Prize?

It is not overstating things to say that winning the Eliot prize has changed my life. Though I had this other career as a scholar and a columnist, Works & Days was my first book of poems. The prestige of the prize probably helped get the book reviewed, and the positive reviews got the book noticed and subsequently got me noticed as a poet. Now the book has gone into a second printing and has sold more copies than either of my scholarly books.

In addition to being a writer, I’m also a professor at the University of San Francisco. I was up for Full Professor when it was announced I won the Eliot prize, so the prize certainly helped get me promoted. Also in 2011, I won the university’s distinguished research award—which takes into account artistic and creative work.  I’m absolutely certain that the Eliot prize was instrumental for that award.

But, on a more personal level, this particular award has meant a great deal. My area of expertise in graduate school was modern poetry, and I focused on writers like Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and of course, T. S. Eliot. Having my name linked to Eliot’s is pretty cool.  Additionally, I really like and believe in university presses, so the fact that Truman State University Press publishes the book makes me happy. Most significantly, though, I have a real affinity for this part of the country. I grew up in Oklahoma. My great great grandfather moved to Oklahoma from Missouri. I feel very connected to this part of the world and the cultural values that shape it.

Many of your poems incorporate experimental poetic techniques (words that are stricken through with black lines, blanks, and poems that appear to be lists and, in one case, a PowerPoint presentation). What appeals to you about writing this way? Were you hoping for poems like these to have a particular effect when read in the same book as poems that are more traditional in structure and appearance?

I believe that pretty much anyone can like poetry. I also believe that most people have a kind of poetry anxiety. When they see a text that looks like “a poem,” the immediately go into a defensive mode, like they’ve seen a grizzly. So, in these poems, I wanted to communicate to readers that poetry and poetic language—poetic creation—can take many forms (even un-poetic forms). Almost nothing is less poetic than a PowerPoint presentation or a talking point memo, but writing poems that take on those forms, changes both the poem and the form. I hope it makes both more accessible.

I’m also very interested in readers. Readers are more interesting than writers. I wanted to write a book that would, obviously, appeal to writers (all those references to other poets, for example) but that would also reach out to readers. My hope is that the pop culture references, the poems about Frog and Toad, the use of recognizable forms (like PowerPoint), and the humor will draw people into the book, rather than push them away.

I’ve always loved the elasticity of poetry. As a poet, I wanted to stretch what a poem could look like and sound like. I wanted to write a book of poems that really felt like it participated as much in the world as in the world of poetry.

Many poems in Works & Days, especially in the final “Days” section of your book, offer a personal, biographical look at the author. Is it ever uncomfortable to expose personal moments or reflections on your experiences, or does relying on these experiences make your task as a writer easier?

Ha! It is always uncomfortable for me to expose personal moments. I still worry that the poem for my sister, “Self Portrait as Antinomy: 32” is too intimate, too confessional, though it is one of the poems that many interviewers and reviewers seem to respond to.

I also worried (and still worry) that making me the subject of so much of the book is too self-indulgent. I mean, most people don’t know me. Why would they want to read poems about mile markers in the life of some random dude? I realized, though, after putting the book together and doing some readings that folks are interested in the project of mapping the terrain of a life, of charting what kinds of things give direction to our common journey.

I also think one of the things that saves Works & Days from being too internal or self-obsessed is that so much of the content is universal. We all know pop songs. We know who Michael Jackson is. We have ideas about Albert Einstein. Many of us have been moved by the story of Dido and Aeneas or the photographs of Dorothea Lange or the poems of Wallace Stevens or the exploits of Frog and Toad. So, while a lot of the poems are about the self, they are about the self as mediated and experienced through a larger database that everyone has access to.

Which poets or authors do you often read? Why do you enjoy reading them?

First and foremost, I’m always drawn to Wallace Stevens. His is the voice I hear in my head at some point every day. I really mean that. Every day. I don’t think I write Stevensian poems, but his voice certainly narrates the poetic soundtrack of my life.

More obviously, I like Charles Wright. I worry at times that too many of my lines sound too much like him, but I don’t even know I’m doing it. I think his book Negative Blue is the best book of contemporary American poetry of the last 20 years.

I’m also currently obsessed with Emily Dickinson. I keep rereading her with awe. I loved Terrence Hayes’ Lighthead. It excited me like nothing I’d read in a while. I am also drawn to W. S. Merwin, Jorie Graham, H. D., Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pablo Neruda, Rainer Maria Rilke—the list extends forever it seems. No writers have shaped my teaching and critical work more than recent American Indian writers like Heid Erdrich, LeAnne Howe, Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Orlando White, Linda Hogan, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, Kimberly Blaeser, and Esther Belin.

I enjoy all of these writers for different reasons. In Rilke I feel the divine; in Neruda energy and politics; in Hayes anger, energy, politics, and poetic experimentation; in Wright the unexplainable beauty of a perfectly articulated image; in Hopkins, glory; in Alexie and Howe artistically hilarious insights into Native American issues; in l Stevens the struggle to make sense of the ongoing tensions between one’s overpowering imagination and the realities of the real world.

What advice would you have for students wishing to pursue writing as a career?

Since I teach in the writing program at the University of San Francisco, I get this question a lot. My advice is pretty practical. Do everything. Do writing and publishing internships. Study with as many different people as you can. Be prepared to work very hard for a long time and very little money. Be prepared for rejection after rejection after rejection (Reginald Shepherd told me one time to expect 200 rejections for every acceptance). Go to graduate school—not necessarily in creative writing but in something you truly care about. Stay engaged with the world. Keep an open mind about the subject of your writing. Consider writing about anything and at any time. Do not worry about selling out. If such a thing even exists, it’s a long way away. Above all, read. Read, read, read. In her great handbook on poetry, Mary Oliver says that if you want to be a writer, and you have a choice between reading and taking a workshop, you should read. That is excellent advice.

I find—especially in San Francisco—that some students are more interested in being a writer than they are in writing. Writing is very hard work. Writing does not come easy for anyone. You know that Malcolm Gladwell claim that a person needs to do 10,000 hours of something to become a pro at it? It’s certainly true with writing.

But, at the same time, writers have altered the course of history. They change the way we see everything. They give us back ourselves and the world as well. There are few more noble ways to spend your days.

What are you working on right now?

Right now, I’m working on getting our newborn son to sleep.  But, I’m having no luck. All the dude wants to do is eat and nap, eat and nap. He rarely sleeps longer than an hour or two at a time (even at night).

But, in all of my free time (that’s a joke), I’m immersed in several things all at the same time. I’m working on a book on poetic craft. I’m continuing to review books of poetry. I’m writing an essay for a new Oxford University press book on American Indian art and literature. I’m trying to keep up my columns for The San Francisco Chronicle and The Huffington Post, and I’m working on new poems. I’m really pleased with the direction of my recent work, like this one in Zyzzyva.