Interview: Grace Talusan Interviews Contributor Joanne Diaz

JoanneDiaz_colorJoanne Diaz is the author of the poetry collections, My Favorite Tyrants (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), winner of the 2013 Brittingham Prize in Poetry, and The Lessons (Silverfish Review Press, 2011), winner of the 2009 Gerald Cable Book Award. She is the recipient of grants from the NEA and Illinois Arts Council. She is an Associate Professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University where she teaches courses in early modern literature and creative writing. She grew up north of Boston in Billerica, Massachusetts and has degrees from Tufts University, New York University, and Northwestern University. With Ian Morris, she has co-edited The Little Magazine in Contemporary America forthcoming from University of Chicago Press in 2015.  Her poem “Little Terror”  appeared in Issue 19 of Memorious.

Talusan: In My Favorite Tyrants, poems about Stalin, Lenin, and Castro stand alongside poems about your friends, neighbors, family, and even me. Did the theme of tyranny emerge over time, or did you one day wake up and find yourself surrounded by tyrants? Is tyranny inextricable from love? What else do you want to say about tyrants that are not in the collection?MFT Front Cover

Diaz: Years ago, I was part of a book group in which we discussed Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, which examines the cultural history of pain, terror, torture, and illness in all of its complexity. One of the readers in the group was horrified by one chapter that focuses on state-sanctioned methods of torture that are used in many countries, including the United States. The reader said, “I just can’t believe how much evil there is in the world!” For me, I’m surprised that there isn’t more, considering how willing many of us are to be bystanders to—and participants in—atrocities of all kinds. In fact, my reaction to that reader’s comment back in 2006 was the starting point for my second book of poems. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.

Ann Hudson, a terrific poet and friend, was the one who suggested My Favorite Tyrants as a title for my book. As soon as she uttered the phrase—a phrase which appears in my poem “a la Turka”—I knew that it was the right organizing principle. The book doesn’t try to suggest that tyranny is a black-and-white category; in fact, it does the opposite. In “Little Terror,” I try to capture a young Josef Stalin as he meditates beneath the stars in his native Georgia, years before he would become a horrific butcher of men. In the more personal poems, I try to offer some complexity to difficult characters; for example, in “Two Emergencies,” I consider my mother’s response to 9/11, which originally made me bristle. In the poem, I am able to see that her response wasn’t meant to ignore the horrors of that day; in fact, her response revealed an awareness of atrocity that I found compelling after the fact. Above all, I want the reader to understand that the speaker of the poems, like most people, often behaves badly, and is complicit in the world’s tyranny. There’s lot of gray in this book, and very little black and white.

Talusan: You quote the poet and critic Stephen Burt in your poem, “Pyrrhic,” with the line, “Art can make war look wrong.” Speaking of Burt, recently, I watched a TED Talk that Burt gave and he says, “We’re all going to die — and poems can help us live with that.” What do you think of that?

Diaz: Oh yes, I completely agree! In fact, I’m convinced that that’s all that poetry can do—either resurrect the dead or forestall the inevitability of death. I’m not the first to suggest this, but it’s absolutely true: most poems are about remembering an irretrievable past or preserving someone or something that is about to die. Perhaps some might think that sounds grim, but I disagree. It’s exciting to think that words—just black etchings on a blank page—can have that rhetorical power, and can actually do something.

Talusan: You lost your mother suddenly several years ago. Your grief comes through every one of these poems. You inhabit perspectives that must have been incredibly painful to imagine.

In “Purgatory Blues,” the mother sings the blues about her funeral arrangements: “You ignored all of my wishes/though I’d rehearsed them one by one.” In “Adamantine,” the mother says, “have me cremated/so that I don’t have to lie there like a goddamned fool.” In “The Nurse,” the speaker wonders about the nurse who assesses her mother’s corpse for possible organ donation. The nurse studies the mother and thinks, “skin, so easily flayed/from the body, a drape that, once released, could hang/on anyone.” Your mother gets the last word in the collection (Surely there’s something beyond this.)

How did you think about the poetic structures that can manage grief?

Diaz: My mother’s death gave me a great deal of insight into the rituals surrounding death, especially in the United States. You referred to “Adamantine,” in which the speaker listens to the funeral director talk about burial options. Anyone who has gone through that experience must have some of the responses that I had, which were ones of disbelief. It costs how much to do what? And you’re going to do what to the body? And where? And when? It’s that disbelief that I wanted to capture, as well as my mother’s voice. For weeks after her death, I was convinced that she was still alive. For a few months, it was actually quite easy to channel her strong voice in the poems.

In “Purgatory Blues,” I use the traditional blues form to manage the difficulty of what I imagined to be my mother’s anger after her sudden death. The blues has a rawness and authenticity that is very compelling to me, and I knew that it was the right vehicle for the tenor of my mother’s anger as soon as I worked with the form for a little while. In many ways, that poem was remarkably easy to write, even if the material was difficult to explore.

Talusan: In “Erasure,” you used text from Michel de Montaigne’s essay, “Of Sadness,” erasing words until this poem emerged.  This poem communicates the acute pain of your mother’s death, but I am also intrigued by your process of making it. All of us eventually are erased. Can you tell us about your process of writing “Erasure?” What did making the poem teach you about poetry, about reading, about text, about life?

Diaz: In “writing” this erasure, I was inspired by a number of contemporary poets who use this procedural constraint in fascinating ways. Jen Bervin’s Nets featured erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets that, with their combination of gray scale and black ink, take on a palimpsest-like quality; Mary Ruefle uses good old-fashioned Wite-Out to erase her poems in A Little White Shadow; and for decades, Tom Phillips has been erasing and altering a Victorian book called A Humument. Erasure provides poets with a constraint that is playfully attentive to the material properties of text and the voices of other writers. Strangely, though, the poet’s voice rises to the surface, even if he/she is using the words of another writer. It’s a remarkable thing.

Michel de Montaigne was a great innovator of the essay form. His essay collection includes musings on a wide variety of subjects, including friendship, political theory, military strategy, cannibalism, and, as you note, sadness. He was a brilliant Stoic who held a skeptical view on most worldly matters, especially when France was being torn apart by the horrors of religious wars. For Montaigne, these essays functioned as thesauri, or store-houses, for his memory, or lack of it. Throughout his essays, he reiterates how important it is for him to write his thoughts down alongside the thoughts of others, so that he can remember all of his attitudes and experiences and have evidence that other great thinkers had experienced them, too. I have a similar fear of forgetting important thoughts and feelings, so Montaigne’s anxiety resonated with me, especially as I erased “Of Sadness.”

For me, erasure was part of my process of closely reading Montaigne; it was also a way for me to remember what I had read. I would rip the pages from his book of essays (sounds violent, I know, but I’m rather irreverent in my treatment of books), tape them into my notebook, and then, with a black pen, scratch words out until the most compelling words rose to the surface. I then transcribed the results into a Word document and tried to maintain the integrity of the words as they had originally appeared on the page (though I modified it a bit so that it would be aesthetically pleasing, too).

Talusan: We’ve known each other since we were fourteen years old. As editor of Queens Head & Artichoke, the college literary magazine, you published my first short stories. For those two years that we lived together after college, we hosted literary salons. Although we haven’t lived in the same city since then, we’ve continued to share our writing. When I write, I often think of you as my reader.

After we had moved away from each other, you told me a story about poets and friends, Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. Before a writing session, one would telephone the other. They would rest the receivers on their desks and keep the line open, hearing each other scribble and occasionally shout out to each other while they wrote at their respective desks. I like to imagine that we are connected to each other this way online.

While we have a friendship that goes well beyond writing, I am curious about that aspect here. How important do you think literary friendships are? What about literary friendships between women? Do you think online social networks have changed the nature of literary friendships?

Diaz: Grace, you have many qualities, but above all, I love your fantastic memory! You’ve recalled some very happy stories from our past.

I think literary friendships are essential, especially among women writers. Women’s authorship is a very different enterprise from men’s, in large part because historically, women’s writing has, at various points in history, been deemed inferior or unworthy of serious consideration. Really, for much of literary history, a women writers were often a “problem,” unless they were writing in appropriate genres about appropriate subject matter. To this day, women’s writing either bears tremendous amounts of scrutiny or is ignored altogether. This is true even for contemporary poets of distinction. For example, when I studied with Sharon Olds at NYU, I remember her saying that when she published her early work, there were some critics who didn’t even think it counted as poetry. It seems impossible that critics could miss what she was up to (especially if one has ever read Tony Hoagland’s essay “The Unarrestable Development of Sharon Olds” in from the January 2009 issue of The American Poetry Review), but they did. Critics also have a tendency to ignore women writers altogether. According to statistics compiled by VIDA, women writers do not have their work reviewed with the same frequency as male writers. Though this situation has improved enormously in recent years, it’s still a serious problem for women writers in all genres.

If you look at the acknowledgments in the front matter of My Favorite Tyrants, it’s no coincidence that all of the thank-yous go to my fellow women writers who have helped me so much over the years. You’re there, as is Katy Didden, Jane Lin, Laura Van Prooyen, and several others. Every writer needs good readers, and I’m no exception. If it weren’t for your honest, consistent feedback and support, especially in those early years after college, I probably would have stopped writing altogether.

Talusan: Given your forthcoming book, edited with Ian Morris, on the history of literary magazines, The Little Magazine in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press forthcoming April 2015), what roles have editors, readers, and the larger literary community played in writers’ lives and how do you think the nature of these relationships has changed over time? For example, I heard that in the past editors were much more influential in writers’ lives, but now their role is more to acquire and market books. I may be really wrong here though. Perhaps you can talk about publishing your collections and the role of editors there.

I think it depends on which kind of publishing you’re talking about. So, for example: I think that little magazine editors are doing much of the same work that Harriet Monroe was doing for Poetry magazine one hundred years ago. She was an editor who privileged an avant-garde Modernist aesthetic, to be sure, but when I read her early commentary on the process of editing a little magazine, her observations feel very current and relevant. She wanted to create something new; she was working on a shoestring budget; she wanted to have the very highest standards and publish only the best work in a beautiful periodical. If you read some of the statements that Rebecca Morgan Frank makes in her essay in our forthcoming book, you’ll see that she articulates that same sort of mandate for Memorious. You also see it in Jonathan Farmer’s essay on At Length magazine and Charles Henry Rowell’s essay on Callaloo. These editors see an urgent need to champion good work, and their passion for their work is absolutely astonishing.

In small book press publishing, too, there seems to be an impulse to champion good work, regardless of the financial bottom line. Rodger Moody at Silverfish Review Press published my first book, and was in charge of every detail from beginning to end. He has an almost impressionistic style. I remember him saying that when he chose my manuscript as the winner of the Gerald Cable First Book Award, he read the whole manuscript aloud, from beginning to end, to ensure that it had the energy he was looking for. I thought that was remarkable! Ron Wallace, the series editor for the Brittingham and Pollak Prizes, is also very personally invested in his work. The University of Wisconsin Press is a larger enterprise, and copyeditors and proofreaders were more involved with the book’s minutiae, but I admire Ron’s passion for what he does.

Talusan: I was so moved by your poem, “77 Porter Street,” the address of our first apartment after college. The speaker of the poem addresses me directly and asks, “When, as bodies do, ours break down to mere traces/of life; when our experience includes no more than a circle two feet/from ourselves; when our struggle to wake each day is the perimeter/of our pleasure, will you remember those days of fire,/ when we burned to touch and be touched by all things?”

Now, I feel like Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live.

“Remember when you wrote a poem about when we lived together after college? That was awesome. And, do you remember when you wrote a book of poems called, My Favorite Tyrants? That book is awesome.”

I have no real question here. Thank you for your poems. I hope to always remember our days of fire.

Joanne Diaz and Grace Talusan 1994

Grace Talusan’s work has appeared in such places as Creative Nonfiction, Colorlines, and Boston Magazine. She is a lecturer at Tufts University, teaches at Grub Street, and she will be a Fulbright Scholar in the Philippines in 2015.


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Big Loves: Lee Klein on Thomas Mann


Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Lee Klein. Lee has two books out this year, The Shimmering Go-Between: A Novel (Atticus Books, 2014) and Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejections Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox (Barrelhouse Books, 2014).


Asked to contribute something about an under-read novel or writer I love, I thought about Ken Dahl’s Monsters, or Charles Wright’s The Messenger, or Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist, or Torsten Krol’s The Dolphin People, or Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, but when I sat down to write this I realized I preferred to write about how Thomas Mann loves to endanger his young male protagonists. Mann is among the better known dead white male German writers, of course. He has a reputation for novels stuffed with heady logorrhea, for a novella about an older man who dyes his hair and lusts after a young boy, for entries in a journal I’ve never read charting the consistency and quality of his bowel movements. New translations by John E. Woods have appeared that, compared to the apparently oft-archaic original translations, have been deemed masterpieces in terms of faithfully, smoothly, and accessibly conveying the geist of Mann’s German language masterpieces to readers of English. In the past three years, I’ve read three of these newly translated Mann novels: The Magic Mountain, Joseph and His Brothers, and Doctor Faustus. Next year, I’ll read Buddenbrooks, his first major novel, but for now, the approximate three-thousand pages of dense, insightful, descriptive, and often gently ironic prose in these three novels will suffice for a short post.

It’s not so much that Mann seems to get off on endangering his young male protagonists; more so, his writing takes off, unmistakably, when young Hans is lost in the snow while skiing in The Magic Mountain or when young Joseph is trapped in the bottom of a well in Joseph and His Brothers. For the entirety of Doctor Faustus but especially when young Adrian is trapped inside his obsession and ambition, just as the narrator declares that Germany—the land, its people, its culture, and its language—will forever be trapped inside the atrocities of the Second World War. But for Adrian, there’s beauty to it, expressed for example in descriptions relayed to the narrator about an experience in a diving bell. Adrian has only read about such submergence but pretends he’s lived it when he tells it. He describes the gorgeous monstrosities of the depths and then extrapolates to the infinite complexities of the cosmos. Quotations are called for but no sentence offers itself as an adequate representative of a sense while reading that Mann flicked a switch and his prose turned Technicolor. Out of context (in this case 284 pages into a 534-page novel with very small print, centimeter margins at most, and not much dialogue), a single sentence pulled from the four-page diving bell section excerpted for analysis won’t mean much. In general, as in so many classic foreign films, a certain amount of slogging is required to achieve sublimity. Lush descriptions of “ogres of the deep” with their phosphorescent snouts, emitting light as warning and lure, the luminosity and liquidy warmth of the prose Mann deploys for these pages, and the silent solitude of the experience in the diving bell corresponds to the reader’s immersion in the depths of a novel densely packed with squirming ideas and images, some monstrous, some not.

The same is true in the scenes of solitary endangerment in The Magic Mountain and Joseph and His Brothers. Both novels, weighing in at 706 and 1492 pages, respectively, have their share of slog. The first 330 pages of The Magic Mountain weren’t so magical for me, but now I most remember the chapter beginning on page 460 (“Snow”) in which Hans encounters a blizzard while skiing—a physical, literal dramatization of his confusion as a constant blizzard of intellectualizing storms around him thanks to the proto-fascist Naphta and the liberal humanist Settembrini.

Joseph and His Brothers may be my all-time favorite mega-novel. I can’t think of another indisputably major 20th century masterpiece so obscenely and yet understandably under-read. Published in German in five volumes between 1933 and 1943, it’s ambitious on every level, humanizing a few lines of Genesis, filling them out, describing the complexities of the lives of founding Jews long ago at a time when Mann’s countrymen were eradicating the most recent manifestation of the lineage. I can’t think of another novel that suggests such a monumental middle finger raised in the direction of an author’s homeland. But even if the historical, political, and cultural criticism failed to register with readers, as well as the audacity and heft of Mann’s aesthetic resistance, the story and its execution retain more than enough artistry and oomph to propel a reader through 1492 pages—a coincidentally significant number of pages since at its end many readers may feel, like Columbus, that they’ve discovered a new continent.

Early on in the mega-novel (essentially five novels published now in one “Everyman’s Library” hardcover, with bible-like rice-paper pages and one of those snazzy built-in cloth bookmarks) his brothers throw Joseph into a well. Again, what’s most remarkable about this section is how the prose takes off in a sprint of insightful, descriptive exposition. Maybe Mann realizes that when one’s main character is alone in the snow or in a hole there won’t be much dialogue or drama or conflict (other than between life and death) and so he must ramp the language all the way up. The same applies in Proust: stupefying scenes in salons involving Dreyfus Affair discussions give way to ecstatic moments when Marcel finds himself alone and the author pulls out the proverbial stops.

It’s possible that I’m associating and celebrating these solitary ecstatic moments because I’m so rarely alone these days, ecstatic or otherwise. At most on a run through the city in the morning before it wakes there’s some solitude. Or when writing in pre-dawn bursts. Or when reading while walking down empty streets during my commute. There’s therefore maybe something alluring about my memory of these scenes, the lure and the warning of the deep when experienced solo, without spouse, offspring, pets, family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, neighbors, “followers,” “friends,” even one’s plants that require intermittent attention, the vital presences surrounding you synonymous with life. But these scenes wouldn’t jump off their pages if not for more populous ones that preceded and followed. As Mann teaches throughout Joseph and His Brothers, things are spherical, not oppositional. Solitude and society are one.

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Big Loves: Nomi Stone on C.D. Wright

nomistoneToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Nomi Stone, author of Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly, 2008) and a PhD Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Columbia University. Nomi earned a Masters in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford and was a Creative Writing Fulbright scholar in Tunisia. She is currently researching and writing a book of poetry as well as a book of non-fiction about combat simulations in mock Middle Eastern villages erected by the US military across America.

For two years, I drove through the forests and deserts of America and into mock Middle Eastern villages constructed by the US military for their pre-deployment trainings. My anthropological fieldwork — something like a long roadtrip, in which I constantly ask everyone en route questions — has always been an engine for my poems. The last time I drove through those haunted green roads towards the war simulations, I brought Deepstep, Come Shining, my new Big Love. I parked my car by a meadow at the lip of the woods, and there, CD Wright recomposed my sensorium.   Out of the sonorous dark, “great goblets of magnolialight,” “cornlight” and “alligatorlight.” The poems were shocks of vision out of the darkness, like Wittgenstein’s “aspect-dawning,” that cry of almost-pain as world-aspects become apparent: “a saucer of light,” a “white piano shiver[ing] in the corner like a boy with an orchid” and the “smell of a rooster cooking, Mmmhmm.” Deepstep called me to shimmy out of my carapace, to “see feelingly,” through a remaking of my senses and through ethnographic strangeness and wonder.

Conjuring the dreams of the blind, Wright led me through a blazing accrual of forms: “Peaches and fireworks and red ants. Now do you know where you are?” In this “iridescent dreaming,” voices emanate from “memory jars” within an antique store; a cane “slash[es] through the grass”; and out of the haze, the contours of a person become singular: “Looking at a face. She will know it belongs to Pattycake if Pattycake laughs.” Images yawn open alongside rising and dissolving voices, road signs, and local lore. Towards the end of the book, our seeing sharpens: Wright describes the moment after an iridectomy operation, as the bandages are removed: “the slow recognition of forms// a shirt on the floor looked like/ a mouth of a well// Spots on a horse/ horrible holes in its side// The sun in the tree/ green hill of crystals”. This radiance contorts us awake: that little cry of body in world: “Loveitleaveitloveitleaveit,” she insists, as the earthly phenomena make their impress.

So, too, in my new manuscript, Kill Class, I try to summon a tiny cosmos into our seeing—in this case, a space of war, and how it unmakes bodies and lives. Follow me into the woods, as each form emerges: the tiny lit mosque with the candied blue dome; the knife prepared with fake blood; the bodiless cemetery; the chickens and goats; the braiding of voices, scripted and not. (“Now, do you know where you are?”). Here are the soldiers preparing to go to war, habituating their bodies and senses to the sounds of gunfire and explosions. Here are the military architects, dreaming up the wartime scenarios the soldiers might face. Here are the Iraqi role-players, enacting war: mourning and bargaining and protesting and dying, on repeat, in tiny theaters. Many of these Iraqi role-players have come directly from the (actual) 2003 Iraq War, where they worked as interpreters and contractors for the US military. After their countrymen accused them of collaboration, they were rendered strangers in Iraq and targeted by militias. Now in the America to which they at such great cost aligned, they enact the Iraq from which they are estranged.

Gathered within an uneasy “undifferentiated dark,” the possibility of affective sight—of contact—awakens: “See this hand. See this. Come shining.”

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Karen Skolfield

Skolfield_2012_lo-rezKaren Skolfield writes funny, joyful, incredibly poignant (yet far from melodramatic) poems; each softness is tempered by starkness, every sweetness balanced by the bitter. I am ashamed to admit that the first of Karen’s poems I read were from her debut collection Frost in the Low Areas, an admittance that is shameful only because I should have been reading her work far before it was collected. The winner of the 2014 PEN New England Award in Poetry, a finalist for the 2014 Massachusetts Book Award, and the winner of the 2012 Zone 3 First Book Award for Poetry, Frost in the Low Areas is a product not just of Karen’s life as a poet, but as a mother, a soldier, a peeler-of-bananas, a chauffeur, a photographer, a thousand different people and embodiments of herself. What unites this collection, though, is Karen’s voice—while she is all these things, she is above all else a keen observer. Her poems have been featured in numerous magazines and journals including the eighteenth issue of Memorious; this summer Karen was kind enough to talk with me about first books, “sticky lines,” and making people squirm.


This is your first book and I think first books are fascinating. Can you speak about your process writing Frost in the Low Areas and how you found its home at Zone 3?

My writing process will sound very familiar to parents. Sometime after my second child was born, I desperately needed to do something for myself, for my brain, and so I took on one of those 30 poems in 30 days challenges with four of my writing gal pals. It was exhilarating. I wrote whenever my kids had the grace to nap, and I wrote at night when I was too tired to think, and I wrote. I just did it. I did not miss a day, and when the month ended, my friend Robyn said “Let’s go to 100.”

We were a little gentler with that timeline, so those 100 poems took me just over a year. Several of us assembled manuscripts and started sending them out.

I wish I could tell you that I was awesome and researched all the presses and judges and contests I sent things to. If I were doing it all over again, I would be more diligent in this regard. Instead, I narrowed submissions mostly to university presses with first book contests, with only a few exceptions for presses I knew well. Then I wrote checks, affixed stamps, sealed envelopes (or the electronic version of these things), and waited.

It took six months of submitting for judge Nancy Eimers to choose my manuscript for the Zone 3 Press contest. I know the field well enough to know that I was incredibly lucky, getting the right sequence of readers at Zone 3 in my very first year of submitting. There’s so much good writing out there. I’ve read for contests before – I know what’s out there. Great stuff, manuscripts that go years and years without finding a home. Six months – I should’ve been buying lottery tickets with that kind of luck.

I should mention, too, why I primarily submitted to universities. A lot of my journal publications are online, and though the reputation of online journals continues to improve, I know that there are die-hards who see online journals as weaker cousins to print. I wanted the rigor of a first book contest at a university press to help balance that perception.

I love that you say that first books are fascinating. At the awards ceremony for the PEN New England awards, poetry judge Richard Blanco told me that he’d been nervous about choosing my book – I have no track record in publishing books, nothing to prove myself by slower degrees over multiple titles – but then he said, well, who cares, a first book is often the writer’s best work but more often it goes unrecognized. I immediately panicked and thought “Oh great, that means it’s all downhill from here.”

Note that it took me all of one question to work in both Richard Blanco and the PEN award. *pats self on back*

You’re a funny writer and your book finds a very nice balance between the humorous and the serious—there are moments where I’m laughing and feeling like I shouldn’t. When you speak about dinosaurs, for example, in “Lazarus Species,” you balance language like “this thing is gigantic” with the larger idea of “missing” what has never been personally experienced (the Pleistocene era, in this case). There’s a level of delightful absurdity happening here. How do achieve this balance between heaviness and light?

I think this is my nature – laughter is my way of coping, of covering sometimes, of diversion, of giving myself permission and a way to approach difficult topics. Parenting, for instance – I found that having an infant was one of the loneliest things I’ve ever done, even though I have a fabulous husband who did everything but nurse the babies (he volunteered, but I won that arm-wrestling match). But that’s a big, messy topic, the mixed blessings of having very small children, and the poems that worked best tended to be the ones that are at least briefly funny.

I know this can make people squirm– it’s not often that writers expect the audience to laugh in a poem that, say, deals with thoughts about a spouse’s demise. When I give readings, I’ve learned I have to tell people it’s okay to laugh. Sometimes people think they can’t, and there I am, reading a funny poem about a dead mother.

Your writing leaps from botox, to war, to the quotidian peeling of a banana—in explaining death to your children you manage to include claymore mines, the weather, and the very red stoplight. What inspires your writing and where do you begin a poem?

Weird headlines. Funny things my kids say. Goofy little events, like trying to peel a banana and accidentally tossing the stem across a crowded café. Big, serious events, like a 17-year-old girl learning to be a soldier. Something unexpected, like a café sign advertising $99 walk-in Botox treatments. Your list is all over the place, which means my brain is, too.

Poems begin for me either as concepts – “write about Civil War, 250K soldiers KIA never identified” – or with a sticky line I manage to get on paper.

Can you speak about landscape in this book? Even the cover—a microscopic blade of grass—and the title invokes the natural. How do you see these elements in your poems?

I love learning things and knowing things, and I’ll often follow some weird little science or nature fact down the rabbit hole and find, at the bottom, a line for a poem. “Lazarus Species,” the poem that you mentioned earlier, is one of those. The title is a phrase used for species once thought extinct but then re-discovered. I still get excited by that idea, and then all the human things related to something lost and then recovered follows that initial idea, and isn’t the meeting of science and language fantastic?

I’m also a gardener, which puts me in tune and in touch with the seasons and the outdoors in a very meaningful way. I can tell you which plants withstand light frosts, which have to be planted when the soil warms to 60 degrees. When there are bare branches on a tomato plant, I can find the hornworm in 15 seconds. I know what healthy soil smells like. Every spring, when my raspberries send out runners, I email my friends and offer up the offspring. In this way, my garden lives all over town.

I backpack, too, a completely different way to satisfy my outdoorsy.

Thanks to these things, the natural runs through my writing. Though I worship Mary Oliver, we are tonally very different – my landscapes are either darker or less reverent – but I love interacting with the outdoors through writing.

Looking through my writing notebook, here are some recent “nature” ideas that I haven’t yet fleshed out:

gypsy moth caterpillars: when there’s enough of them, their frass sounds like hail (disgusting and true)


glyptodon, my forever love

the rooster across the street hates me

Headline: “Old London Air Raid Shelter Becomes Vegetable Farm”

…and two potential titles:

In Which I Promise Never, Ever to Say a Murder of Crows


Because Peaches Look Like Breasts and Cantaloupe Looks Like Breasts and Apples Look Like Breasts and Here I Am Holding a Cucumber

I think that last one’s meant to be my only attempt ever at erotic poetry, so it’s no surprise that it’s sitting all forlorn in my notebook.

Which poets make you pause and which make you hurry?

I’ve realized I tend to read narrative-based poems faster, or at least digest them faster. For instance, Cornelius Eady’s book Brutal Imagination: when I read the book I was so invested in the story line and invention of the narrator in the first half of the book that I remember reading it almost without breathing, quicker, quickly. Then I went back and read it more slowly just for the pleasure of watching him develop these linked poems, open up new avenues of thought and sadness and despair.

Language poets such as Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, I tend to read more slowly. When there’s no obvious narrative, it’s easier for my brain to go fizzy and lose some of the glorious language threads that are being woven for me. I still can’t read Gertrude Stein quickly, even her poems that are really familiar to me.

My last question, because I really want to know, what are you working on right now?

Locally: one of the last poems I wrote is a funny military one called “Saltpeter,” and I immediately sent it to a friend and told him he had to read it. How arrogant is that, that I sometimes love my work so much that I throw it at friends and give myself incurable giggles?

I’m also organizing two readings for the Amherst Poetry Festival (one is erotica – I’m definitely not one of the readers!), reading for Stirring, reading for the Amherst Live poetry prize… the usual poetry service work.

The bigger picture: I’m working toward two manuscripts. One is a collection of poems in response to the culture of the military – I’m an Army veteran, and I feel like this collection has been brewing for my entire adult life. The second manuscript is all those other poems that I write when I don’t feel like writing about the military or when some wild newspaper headline or odd conversation comes up, or when I accidentally throw a piece of a banana across the room. If that ever happens again, I wonder if I could get another poem out of it? Does anyone have two banana peel poems in them?


-Andrea Spofford is the author of two chapbooks, Everything Combustible (Dancing Girl Press) and Kikiktagruk: Almost an Island (Red Bird Chapbooks).

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Think Music: Alden Jones on PJ Harvey

Alden_Jones_APAlden Jones is the author of the memoir The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, and the story collection Unaccompanied Minors.


I went to the Vermont Studio Center to work on my novel. There, I fell in love with a painter named Jomar and the musician PJ Harvey in quick succession. It would seem that falling in love would be a great distraction during one’s concentrated work time. But there was something about breaking out of my small, quiet writer’s room and entering painters’ studios filled with their chemical smells and the racket of tools and music blaring from pigment-speckled CD players that motivated me with the force of a great, chaotic wind. When I think of that time, the soundtrack is always PJ Harvey.

I was late to PJ Harvey. That September, her 4th album, Is This Desire? was released, and the single “A Perfect Day Elise” cycled through the playlist of the local Vermont station. I had taken to sitting in Jomar’s studio for my reading time, inhaling aphrodisiac paint fumes.

“I like this song that keeps coming on the radio,” I told Jomar.

“The PJ Harvey song?” he asked. “Of course you do.” I told him I didn’t really know PJ Harvey. He led me out of the studio to his dented silver hatchback and drove me to the nearest CD shop, where he bought me a used copy of To Bring You My Love and I bought a new copy of Is This Desire? Later, when I got my hands on the four-track demos, I was a goner.

I arrived at the Vermont Studio Center to work on the aimless, meandering novel I’d started in graduate school. Part of me had convinced myself that hard work would yield success. Another part of me knew the novel was doomed to be aimless and meandering. I didn’t know what I was trying to say, or where my plot was headed. I wasn’t having any fun writing it anymore.

While I worried that the novel project was petering out, my desire to create something real and impactful blasted between my ribs. My attention was on this new person, his creations were visible, you could touch them, they left sticky color on your fingers, and we worked together spurred on by the witchy, shrieking, crooning voice of Polly Jean Harvey. Sometimes I had no idea what she was singing about. But I couldn’t help but shriek back “Lick my legs, I’m on fire,” or “I wish I was Yuri G! I’d let her walk all over me.” I was late to PJ Harvey for a reason; back when her first albums were released, I wasn’t into the raw noise of real instruments or a voice that lacked restraint. I liked synth-pop and singers who carried perfect tunes. Imperfection was an idea I had to grow into. Something similar was happening to my own work—the abandonment of the quest for perfect polish—and I couldn’t tell if it was a step forward or backward, but it was clear how PJ Harvey would have voted.

Halfway through my time at the colony I put the novel aside and started a new story. This new story came out in a flood, with almost no punctuation, save commas. I wanted to return to writing mysterious, passionate, vocal female characters; I wanted to know them in the raw. I wanted their rawest selves expressed at the core. I had always wanted that, my characters were already like that, but I had this new brand of permission. I enjoyed writing this new thing so much that I worried it couldn’t possibly be good. But I also knew that it was good.

I already had a few stories like this one, with female characters like this one, a girl who ruffled feathers by refusing to stifle who she was for the sake of others. In the years after I left the Vermont Studio Center, I took the raw words and the raw emotion of this initial impulse and buffed it all to a nice shine. I wrote new stories with other young, impulsive characters. These stories became my first collection, Unaccompanied Minors.

The novel didn’t last, the romance didn’t last (though a pleasant friendship came of it), and PJ Harvey’s albums became increasingly produced, the edges softening. But these stories with their loud-mouthed and open-hearted characters proceeded out into the world. My stories were different in 2014 than they were during their first years of life, but if the characters from Unaccompanied Minors were to get up and sing their lungs out to something, it would be to Polly Jean.

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Big Loves: Tyler McMahon Discusses Russell Banks

other_headshotToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Tyler McMahon. Tyler has published two novels—How The K99_coverMistakes Were Made (St. Martin’s, 2011) and Kilometer 99, which releases today, June 17, 2014. Tyler is the editor of Hawaii Pacific Review and teaches in the English Department at Hawaii Pacific University.

I saw Russell Banks speak at a theater in Boise, Idaho. It must have been 2004. I seem to remember him talking mostly of Hemingway; he showed a certain giddiness at the fact that Papa had shot himself not so many miles up the road from where we sat. “Hemingway Country,” he called it.

I’d always liked Banks’ work, and had read several of his earlier novels. I thought I had him pegged as an author who wrote about working-class New Englanders, often with father and brother issues, sometimes caught up in misadventures that drew them towards the Caribbean. Hemingway’s influence seemed about right.

But that impression was cracked open once he read a passage from his new novel, The Darling. The story was narrated by a female protagonist—a decidedly un-Hemingway approach. And while it took place in Africa, it was not the Africa of wealthy mountain climbers or half-drunk safaris.

Indeed, Hannah Musgrave is an American expat narrator unlike the midcentury tropes. A sixties radical and member of the Weather Underground, she’s wanted by the FBI and hiding out in New Bedford, making small explosives and forging documents for other fugitives. On the run, she winds up in Liberia, marries a bureaucrat, and witnesses the country’s descent into civil war.

As the trophy wife of a low-level government minister, Hannah becomes the opposite of the independent woman she’d always aspired to be: “I was a different woman. You probably think of me as strong and independent, and I believe that I am—now. I was strong and independent when I was young, too, back before I came to Africa. But in the years between? No. Emphatically no. I was different then.”

In the novel’s most superb turn of plot, Hannah’s three young sons become boy-soldiers aligned with Prince Johnson’s guerilla force. Renamed Fly, Demonology, and Worse-Than-Death, they commit grotesque acts of torture. Even this move is treated sympathetically. The leap from privileged youngsters to violent killers is bridged by Banks’ careful detailing of tribal values regarding family a512JMEG3WVLnd the sons’ reaction to their father’s murder. In this novel, it is violence that begets more violence, and at the end of the chain is a colonial political structure, brutally and stupidly imposed in the first place.

Though it’s set not so many years ago, The Darling is first and foremost an historical novel. It is a long and unflinching immersion in a dark and nearly ignored chapter of the twentieth century. In that sense, the book demonstrates the enduring need for fiction in our time.

Toward the end of the novel, Hannah says: “Mine was merely the story of an American darling, and had been from the beginning.” This may be the fundamental epiphany available to Americans abroad, fictional or not: that their stories are small and occur among bigger, more terrible sweeps of history. Through Hannah, Banks allows us to imagine an America to whom the rest of the world is equally darling.

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Fiction Spotlight: Ellen Litman

photo-35Ellen Litman’s debut novel Mannequin Girl (Norton 2014) follows her memorable story collection The Last Chicken in America, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award and for the Young Lions Fiction Award. Her turn to the novel brings us the protagonist Kat, a young Jewish girl growing up in the Soviet Union whose life changes course after a diagnosis of scoliosis sends her to a new school/sanitarium. This is a coming age story that unravels layer after layer, from the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, to the discovery of a creative self, to the bonds and battles built between young girls removed from their families, all while bringing to life the 1980s in  Soviet Russia. While the character of Kat and the world she lives in are compelling, it is Litman’s wit and fine-tuned language, all as sharp as that found in her story collection, that makes this a top read for 2014. You can read an excerpt from the novel in Issue 21 of Memorious.

Litman’s stories have appeared in Best New American Voices 2007, Best of Tin House, American Odysseys: Writing by New Americans, Dossier, Triquarterly, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her awards include first prize in the Atlantic Monthly 2003 Fiction Contest, the 2006 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, fiction fellowships at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Connecticut. She generously answered a few questions about Mannequin Girl for us.

 Q: Kirkus Review referred to Kat, the protagonist of Mannequin Girl, as “a vulnerable and crankily appealing heroine.” How did the character of Kat emerge for you? Where did her story begin?9780393069280_198-1

A: When I started working on Mannequin Girl, it was very autobiographical. Like Kat, I was diagnosed with scoliosis as a child (though I was even younger at the time); like her I spent my childhood and early adolescence at a “special” school for children with scoliosis (though the real school was much nicer than the fictional one); and like her I was a teacher’s daughter (my mother taught Math). In fifth grade I became enthralled with our local drama club and with the two wonderful literature teachers who ran it. This was my starting point, and at first, I was cleaving pretty close to the actual facts of my childhood. But pretty quickly I grew bored with this fictional version of myself. And then I thought: What would happen if Kat grew up in a different sort of family? Once the bohemian Anechka and Misha became Kat’s parents, she began to come into her own and develop her own interesting traits, like, for example, her crankiness and her desperate need to be exceptional.

Q: How much of Mannequin Girl draws on your own experience growing up in the Soviet Union? What was it like to revisit your childhood home on the page?

A: I wanted to write about growing up (and coming of age) in the Soviet Union. It was such a different world from the one I inhabit now, and the longer I live in the United States the more strange and far-away it seems. I didn’t want my vision of it to become a collection of anecdotes. I wanted it to feel real and vivid and complex, even to a reader who’d never been to Russia. So it’s inevitable that much of what went into Mannequin Girl came from my own experiences: places, events, poems, music, jokes. I also did some “research” for this novel, and that was possibly the most fun part of the process. I would re-watch movies I saw when I was Kat’s age; go through old magazines we used to have in our apartment; listen to the music from the seventies and eighties; re-read articles, stories, and books.

Q: You write in English, which is your second language, and you didn’t move to the United States until you were college age.  What does your movement between two languages bring to your writing?

A: Although I write in English, I still read a lot of Russian literature (both classic and contemporary), and I dabble in translations. I think — though I can’t be sure — that reading in Russian makes my writing richer, or at the very least it makes the process of writing more exciting. It’s as if the two languages bumping against each other in my head create a spark, and suddenly the possibilities of language seem endless.

Q: What were some of the first novels you first fell in love with?

A: I read War and Peace for the first time when I was twelve. I was at home with chicken pox, heartbroken because I was supposed to be in a play and now the play would have to go on without me, and the great novel managed to sooth me. At the time I mostly skipped “war” and read the parts about “peace” (i.e., love). Of course, I read it again at the later age, probably 4 or 5 times in total, and I’ve come to appreciate the “war” bits, or rather the way this novel is as much about history and time as it is about people and human nature.

Another beloved childhood favorite was The Road Disappears Into the Distance by Alexandra Brushtein, a coming of age novel about a young girl growing up in pre-Revolutionary Russia. (I wrote about it here. )

Q: What’s in your reading queue now? Are there fellow debut novelists you think our readers should be looking out for?

A: There’s always so much that I barely know where to begin. All the big novels and collections that I’ve been hearing so much about but not getting around to. All the Russian classics I need to re-read for the Russian Short Story class I’ll be teaching in the fall. My plan is to start the summer with some contemporary Russian authors. There’s a collection of short stories by Anna Matveeva that I am reading now, a couple of new books by Anna Starobinetz, a novel by Vladimir Sorokin.

This year continues to be particularly good for my fellow Russian-American authors. I am looking forward to reading Lara Vapnyar’s most recent novel, The Scent of Pine, and I can’t wait for Lena Finkel’s Magic Barrel, a new graphic novel by Anya Ulinich that will be out at the end of July.

Q: Can you tell us about what you plan on working on next?

A: I’ve missed writing short stories, so that’s one of the things I’ll be doing this summer. I have two projects in mind, both of them story-based. And I am hoping to translate a couple of short stories by contemporary Russian writers.

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