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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Poetry Spotlight: Chloe Honum


I first met Chloe Honum in a summer workshop, after which the teacher asked me who I thought the most talented poet in the room was. I immediately named Chloe, whose poems haunted me long after we left the workshop room, and whose poems I hoped to publish in Memorious.  Since then, she has been awarded a Ruth Lilly Fellowship and her poems have appeared in such places as Poetry Magazine and The Paris Review. She has been awarded fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, the Kerouac House, and Djerassi. Three of her poems appeared in Memorious in 2011, and now, three years later, those poems have a home in her beautiful debut collection The Tulip Flame, which Tracy K. Smith wisely chose as the winner of the  2013 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize.

This is not an erratic collection of a new poet cutting her teeth: this is a book to be read in one sitting, so that you can be held in Honum’s delicate and gripping spell of language.The collection is a highly lyrical reach back into personal history, circling around her mother’s suicide, and Honum draws on the natural world and the world of ballet for her sparse and memorable imagery.  The Tulip Flame is one of the must-read collections of 2014.

Chloe generously answered a few questions for us.

Can you tell us about the process of writing The Tulip Flame and finding a home for it?

The submission process can be daunting, and I think it’s important to trust that the work will find its way. I began sending the manuscript out in 2012, and I tried to greet the process with a lot of patience and trust. I’m honored to have landed at Cleveland State University Poetry Center. My editor there, Frank Giampietro, let me into all sides of the process; he was amazingly attentive and giving with his time.

You repeatedly return to the world of ballet in this collection. What was it like to bring this art into language? Has your study of ballet influenced your approach to writing?

I hope I carry into my writing some of the discipline I learned from studying ballet, especially in regard to pushing through the discomfort of facing my inadequacies. Practice could be draining, but I’ll never forget the first time I mastered a triple pirouette. It gave me a sensation of transcendence, and I’ve been so thankful to continue to find that sensation—however fleeting and rare—in writing poetry.

You were raised in New Zealand. Did the literature and landscape of New Zealand shape your writing at all?

I was raised on the North Shore of Auckland, where both my parents were born. The beauty of that landscape is staggering, and it was deeply intertwined with our lives, with all our joys and sorrows. In The Tulip-Flame, I’m interested in the relationship between beauty and pain, in the spark that happens when the two cohere.

This is a book that holds grief at its core. Are there poets you have turned to for their handling of grief, of loss?

 Over the years, I returned often to certain poems about loss. Here are a few of them.

 “The Voice,” by Thomas Hardy

“The Dream,” by Marie Howe

“Separation,” by W.S. Merwin

“Requiescat,” by Oscar Wilde

“To the Young Who Want to Die,” by Gwendolyn Brooks

What question would you want someone to ask about your book? And would you answer that for us?

How about: What do you keep near your writing desk?

This photograph of my mother and me, taken in 1985.


What are you are working on now?

It’s a bit early to say. I’m drafting a lot these days, seeing what comes.

-Rebecca Morgan Frank, Editor


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Fiction Spotlight: Contributing Editor Laura van den Berg’s Isle of Youth

Memorious’s contributing editor Laura van den Berg has had an exciting few months. Her story collection The Isle of Youth, published in November by FSG, has been celebrated by The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The New Republic, O. Magazine, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines. Just last week, Laura was named the winner of the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. And in other fantastic news, her story “Antarctica” from Isle of Youth has been included in both Best American Short Stories 2014 and Best American Mystery Stories 2014.

Laura C2

The Isle of Youth is a mesmerizing collection of stories that are wrapped in small and large mysteries. Van den Berg’s protagonists are often young women attempting to navigate the unknown in their everyday lives – from disappearing fathers and brothers to the disorientation of failing relationships. The stories take on the styles of noir, mystery, and detective fiction, but van den Berg always brings her own, unique and sympathetic lens to her characters’ lives. Laura was generous enough to answer some of our questions about her latest story collection.

Your stories travel to so many different settings—Patagonia, Paris, Missouri, Antarctica, and Florida. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between place and plot. Or, in other words, does place become a jumping off point for you as you start constructing your narratives?

I’m interested in the way landscapes can apply pressure to characters—and how, in turn, that pressure can crack open something inside and compel a character to action. All the narrators are outsiders in the landscapes you mention, and I think the pressure of that outsider-ness, the unfamiliarity, allows them to see their own inner faultlines with a sharper clarity, to feel their loneliness more acutely.

Since we’re talking about place, I know you have lived in many different places—Florida, Baltimore, Boston to name a few—but I imagine that you’ve never been to Antarctica. Can you tell us a bit about the role of research in your fiction?

My favorite way to research is to pick up a travel guide, like Lonely Planet, and read it cover-to-cover. I pretend like I am going away on a very long trip and trying to prepare. What will I need to know? What will I want to see? What is the weather like? The landscape? This is how I researched for “Antarctica.”

That said, I had been trying to write a story set in Antarctica for years—years!—and kept failing at it. And then, in 2012, I saw a news segment on the Comandante Ferraz research base in Admiralty Bay. There was an explosion; two men were killed. The story stayed with me, and as soon as I began work on this new version, the story felt different, for two reasons:

First, I had originally tried to write from the perspective of a research scientist, but now my narrator was an outsider in Antarctica. I no longer felt limited by all that I didn’t know—outsider, I understood. Second, part of the story is set in Cambridge, place I know intimately, and that familiarity became a counterpoint to the radical foreignness of Antarctica. So I learned that the choices I made in approach and technique are just as important, if not more important, than the research when it comes to crafting a convincing world and voice.

Many of your stories focus on passive characters who are thrust into adventure, chaos, conflict, etc. via outside forces. Can you talk about how passive characters make good protagonists?

I think the passive protagonist has the potential to be particularly observant about the world around her, a kind of seer if you will. But I also think the force of inaction is often undersold. Of course, the inaction has to be rooted in something truthful about that character’s inner life, but in the right context inaction—a character’s refusal to change course, speak up, run away—can in fact be as powerful and ruinous and brutal as action in the conventional sense; I would argue that, in the fact, inaction has the potential to be quite a radical form of action.


Your characters seem haunted in your stories — by absent parents or missing siblings or lost love. I know you’ve talked about the influence of noir and detective stories on your work, but is there a way we might see your narratives as ghost stories?

Interesting question! Yes, I think so—as you say all the characters are haunted by the missing, in one way or another, and the shadows of ghosts are hanging over them.

I know you’ve spent a bunch of time at residencies and conferences and that you keep in good touch with your friends and fellow writers from grad school. You’ve also been a contributing editor at Memorious. Can you talk a bit about the importance of community to you?

Writing can be a lonely job—you spend a lot of time working in solitude, in your own head—and so community is such an important reprieve from that isolation and I like the energy of being around people who are all engaged in their own art projects—the solidarity, the common pursuit of art, can be hopeful and motivating.

Are there some books you’ve read recently that you’ve found exciting, inspiring, challenging, and/or impressive that you’d like to share with other readers?

Yes! So many, but right now I’m reading J. M. Ledgard’s Submergence and it is insanely good—truly one of the best novels I have read in a very long time.

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