Anticipated Books of 2015, Part 2, by Derrick Austin

As part of our countdown to the books of 2015, we invited contributor Derrick Austin to share his list of books to look forward to in the new year. Here’s his line-up!

Richie Hofmann, Second Empire (Alice James Books)

Sometime in 2012, I fortunately stumbled across some of Richie Hofmann’s poems—fortunate because they left me floored. With lush language, formal dexterity, and a clear-eyed vision into the vacillations of the heart, his poems dazzle. His debut collection Second Empire (winner of the 2014 Beatrice Hawley Award) explores love, longing, and loss, but even in their bracing intimacy Hofmann grounds his meditations within the scope of human history, particularly the arts. Mozart, Caravaggio, and Benjamin Britten are some of the varied figures alluded to in his poems. Yet, there is space for calm and quiet amongst the baroque. Hofmann is a poet unafraid of silences, intimating what cannot be said or seen. The stateliness of the past and the wildness of the present commingle in Hofmann’s sensuous work.

Rickey Laurentiis, Boy With Thorn (University of Pittsburgh Press)

A deep sensitivity to the rhythms of words and syntax as well as an unerring gaze on this country’s past and present inability to love those at the margins feature in Boy With Thorn (winner of the 2014 Cave Canem Prize), Rickey Laurentiis’s debut collection. I’m constantly refreshed and invigorated by the intellectual rigor of his poems. The rich, shuttling syntax enacts the mind at work, a mind teasing out the ambiguities and ambivalences of queer desire or violences, historical and contemporary, inflicted upon black bodies. In this particular moment, when it black bodies, queer bodies, and marginalized bodies are daily sites of brutality, when failures of imagination leaves these bodies dead in the street, Boy With Thorn will be a collection to savor and reflect on.

Morgan Parker, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books)

It’s hard to write a fun poem, one that’s not easy or pandering, one that’s frank and weird. There are few poets whose work I would describe as fun and Morgan Parker is one. I eagerly anticipate Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, winner of the 2013 Gatewood Prize. This isn’t to say Parker’s work is smooth sailing. The poems are heartbreaking and real. What’s joyful about them is the abandon Parker displays in her use of image and metaphor, the way she moves from Jay-Z to Amiri Baraka shattering the arbitrary boundary between high and pop culture. Her poems are both surreal and plain, discursive and emotionally vulnerable. Reading a poem by Morgan Parker is like drinking a glass of wine, you can’t just stop at one. Why would you want to?

Martha Serpas, The DienerMartha Serpas, The Diener (LSU Press)

Louisiana’s wetlands are the fastest disappearing landmass on earth. Through two previous collections, Martha Serpas elegizes the landscape which nourished her and the Cajun culture settled there. In The Diener, Serpas once again returns to her native soil and meditates on the paradox of its loss and transformation into something new that we cannot know or stop. What’s new in this collection are poems influenced by her experience as a trauma chaplain, the fraught intersections of the body, grief, and religious belief. The diener, a morgue assistant, acts our guide, a persona hovering in the literal realms between life and death. With vivid, chastened language, Serpas explores the difficulty of healing both landscape and the flesh.

Quan Barry, Loose StrifeQuan Barry, Loose Strife (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Over the summer, a good friend suggested I read Quan Barry’s last book Water Puppets and let me borrow his copy. I’d never encountered Barry’s work until then but as soon as I finished the first poem, I considered not giving my friend his copy back. Her poems were some of the most exciting I’d read in a long time. High lyric intensity joins a palpable political gaze in her work. The urgency of international conflict and human cruelty is set into high relief against Barry’s fresh language and formal fearlessness. Loose Strife, her fourth collection, riffs on Aeschylus’s The Orestia and will no doubt reward readers with meditations on suffering and the human capacity for reflection and empathy in spite of it all.

Headshot Contributor Derrick Austin is a Zell fellow and Cave Canem fellow. His work has appeared in Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, New England Review, Crab Orchard Review, Memorious, Unsplendid, and other journals.

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Anticipated Books of 2015, Part One, by Barrett Bowlin

It’s that time of year again! Starting today, our staff and contributors bring you their lists of the most anticipated books of 2014. First up, former fiction editor, now contributing editor, Barrett Bowlin, shares his 2015 list.

MarkDoten_TheInfernalMark Doten’s The Infernal (Graywolf) While narratives about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been prominent since just a few years after the start of each conflict, it’s taken us awhile to reach the point where the stories themselves are as impacting as the interminable campaigns. Phil Klay’s Redeployment (winner of the 2014 National Book Award) is one good example, and another one that will debut right after the new year is Mark Doten’s The Infernal. In Doten’s novel, we are told some of these dark stories through the badly burned body of a child in the Akkad Valley, in a series of voices that are as distilled and as hyperkinetic as some of Doten’s other media projects.

LauraVanDenBerg_FindMeLaura van den Berg’s Find Me (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Fellow Memorious contributing editor and short-story rockstar, Laura van den Berg is one of those writers whose stories are just disgustingly good. You can read through such works as last year’s “Antarctica” (anthologized in both the Best American Short Stories and the Best American Mystery Stories for a really, really good reason), for example, and then find yourself staring down at the page after the last paragraph and making guttural noises as to just how excellent her writing is. Following up from her first two short story collections, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, van den Berg’s vision of a plague-infested world in Find Me is going to be just as amazing.


Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) Known just as much for his fiction as he is his essays and memoir pieces, Jesse Goolsby is a bit of a literary chimera. He’s an Air Force officer, an editor at journals like The Southeast Review and War, Literature, and the Arts, and the winner of such prizes as the John Gardner Memorial Award for Fiction and the Richard Bausch Fiction Award. (And he’s also a frequent guest in the annals of the Best American anthologies.) In his debut novel, Goolsby depicts the war in Afghanistan from a starkly different vantage point, one that hinges on the decision between self-preservation and atrocity.


*Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands (Grand Central) We here at Memorious have loved Ben Percy’s fiction for a long, long time–see his brutal flash piece, “Revival,” from all the way back in issue #7–and it’s not like the man is ever not on the literary radar, but not putting his post-apocalyptic, nuclear-fallout-staged new novel based on the Lewis & Clark (& Sacagawea) expedition somewhere on our Most Anticipated lists would just feel criminal.


Jennifer Pashley’s The Scamp (Tin House) A writer whose fiction is as sharp and as subtle as a knife, Jen Pashley is going to have a hell of a good year in 2015. Her first novel, The Scamp, tells the dark story of two cousins, killings, and the impact of violence and poverty on the body, as well as the mind. To get a taste of her work, you can read a flash fiction piece she published with Memorious, called “What You Know” (from issue #20) and you can check out our Fiction Spotlight with her from the blog.

Other Anticipated Books: While details are forthcoming with these additional titles, we are also excited about works like Vanessa Blakeslee’s first full novel, Juventud (Curbside Splendor), Uzodinma Okehi’s graphic & post-experimental work, Over for Rockwell (Hobart), Lindsay Drager’s novel-length social experiment in The Sorrow Proper (Dzanc), and Shanna Mahin’s celebrity-infused first novel, Oh! You Pretty Things (Dutton).

g-bowlin1Contributing Editor Barrett Bowlin’s recent and forthcoming prose can be found in places like The Adirondack Review, The Rumpus, Meridian, PANK, Salt Hill, Camera Obscura, and The Minnesota Review, among others. When he’s not busy writing, he likes to teach his children survival skills they’ll need in the radioactive wasteland.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor David Roderick

Roderick1In David Roderick’s The Americans, the suburb is an island of somnolence and amnesia, a space both shielded from harm and offering enclosure with the beloved. However, the outside world—its violence and its effaced histories—continuously perforates that space. We are asked to sieve between these histories: to confront the lure of the apocryphal cherry tree and how it unmakes the granularity and contradictions of lived history; to live that tug between personal history (a shoebox of Polaroids) and our complicity within collective, national history. Regarding Americanness, Roderick comments: “Mostly I got what I wanted/ forgot what I was.” Yet to the contrary, the outside seeps into our sleep, as drone pilots and the Trail of Tears; and haunting even the idioms of the interior: “The dead return/ as lampposts, gas guzzlers.” Yet, meanwhile, amidst the undertow of complicity, we are startled awake with moments of awe and grace.

David Roderick’s first book, Blue Colonial (2006), was chosen by Robert Pinsky as winner of the APR/Honickman Prize, and the Pitt Poetry Series published The Americans this fall. He has published widely (including the very first poems from this collection in issue 13 of Memorious), and is the recipient of a Stegner Fellowship, the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize, and an Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship. He teaches in the MFA Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. David was recently interviewed on NPR’s Here and Now, and he graciously talked in further depth with me this weekend about the themes and nuances of Americanness and his poems.

In the first poem in the book, the suburb is sliced open.  Tell me about opening and closure in the book, and how you enact that in language and form.

The opening poem is a letter to the suburb that rhapsodizes about my childhood within the confines of its beautiful, semi-pastoral atmosphere. There are troubles beneath the surface having to do with the bland (blind?) rituals of suburban life, but generally the poem tries to offer praise. After exploring those troubles in the interim, I hope the last poem, titled “Faithful See Virgin Mary in Office Window,” returns the speaker to some semblance of suburban wonder. The end of that poem is almost rapturous.

Funny you should ask about language and form regarding these two poems. The shorter lines and turns in “Dear Suburb” seem to me rather cautious when I read them now—they’re hesitant meditations until a flourish of insight grows toward the poem’s final sweep. In “Faithful See Virgin Mary…” I built by extending the rhythm and pacing as long as I possibly could. The poem is one long river of a sentence. Possibly it enacts the speaker’s release from the anxieties and trials he experiences throughout much of the book.

Tell me about the conceit of the suburb and what needles in, and how.

I’m privileged more than most. I’d be a fool not to acknowledge that my privilege doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I’m not sure how the world beyond my quiet suburb needles into my life and my poems—mostly through the news, I guess—but it does, and daily. Doesn’t it for everybody? Maybe this kind of stuff haunts writers and artists more than others. In short, I’m down on myself for not being more civically engaged beyond teaching and writing. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to invest more energy into community projects.

I’m interested in the tensions between different kinds of history in this book —personal, collective, nation, human — and where and how the speaker feels complicit. Can you talk about your relationship to American history in this book?

This is a huge, complex topic I can’t possibly cover in a few paragraphs. I’ll say this though. I think it’s common among people of my generation to feel as if we’re collectively adrift since September 11, 2001. As a generation. As a country. In order to feel my way toward that anxiety, I’ve tried to contextualize it historically in a number of ways by exploring concepts of empire here and abroad.

Yes, I noticed that. Can you talk about some of the other empires you chose to examine, and why they in particular seemed like interesting counterpoints for the American suburb?

I hope those meditations help bring our own country’s historical moment into relief. Let’s see. Spanish conquistadors make a few appearances. A poetic sequence addresses the British Empire’s subjugation of the Irish people. Another touches on the Roman Empire and its influence in Morocco, where my wife and I vacationed a few years ago. The book includes a poem about the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who suffered under Stalin’s totalitarian regime. Allow me to reverse course here—I’m not interested in the idea of empire as much as I am in telling stories about people subject to history’s broad sweep.

Can you describe for me the role of awe and grace in the book? How do they offset the complicity and violence of the other aspects of Americanness?

Well, something had to offset the complicity in which I’d been wallowing. Luckily I became a father—my wife gave birth to two daughters while I was writing the book. Prior to their arrival I’d developed an antagonistic stance toward the suburbs and American culture in general—our wars and political gridlock and sagging economy. I grew up among people who really feel the brunt of those problems, so when I opened “Letter to Shara…” with the line “A tree of despair grows inside me,” I meant it.

The poems in The Americans that gravitate toward awe, joy, or grace were all written after my children were born. It would have been a very dark book, and much lesser book, without the counterpoint they provided in my life and in my poems. Their excitements and pleasures helped me rediscover my own.TheAmericansCover

Tell me about the animal in the book. Both the shorn beast, the human animal (“but still the lice bit him”) in the Target parking lot; the burrowing mole; the “dead-mule smell/ of lilac.” These suburbs are not a completely domesticated space.

Wow, what a perceptive question. I haven’t thought about this, frankly. I think I’ve always been curious about and maybe even attuned to animals. A few years ago one of my poetry classes accused me of teaching lots of poems with animals in them. I hadn’t noticed, but they were right! And now you’ve asked this pointed question.

If I had to hazard a guess I’d say that maybe suburban life, because it’s so civilized, has sheltered us from the wilderness outside and carried us too far from the wilderness we hide inside ourselves.

My mother recently gave me a bunch of papers and stories I wrote when I was a kid. This one sticks out, written when I was seven years old. Maybe it’s my first poem:

“Once there was a pumpkin man. He was a hungry and nice pumpkin man. He liked to eat pumpkins. So he went to look for them. He looked and looked for them. He asked a rabbit and a chipmunk. They just said they saw carrots and acorns. He said that was no use. So he went to look again [until] he saw a wolf. He did not know it was a wolf. So he asked the wolf. The wolf said the only thing I found was you.”

So the pumpkin man gets it in the end, I guess. It’s probably foolish to share something I wrote when I was so young, though maybe it suggests my interest in animals was encoded at an early age.

Can you tell me about your influences (literary or otherwise) when you were writing this book? What helped shape your thinking during this time?

The most obvious influence is Robert Frank’s great photography project, The Americans. He took about 30,000 pictures and distilled them to 83, which he then meticulously arranged, exhibited, and published in the late 1950s. Those pictures reveal the underside of the American dream, the gritty reality of our political and social relations—class and race tensions especially. Frank had a knack for capturing the faces of so many extraordinary, nameless, heartbroken people. He was Swiss and an outsider, kind of like a modern-day de Tocqueville. In my book I try as hard as I can to channel Frank’s objective view, to share it—even though I know that, as a card-carrying citizen, such a viewpoint is available to me only in flashes, if at all.

I’ll share a few other important influences because I love making lists. Off the top of my shining bald head: Thoreau’s journals; Akhmatova’s poetry; David Hockney’s paintings and drawings; Orion magazine; J.M. Coetzee’s novels; and Bob Dylan’s early stuff. Eavan Boland’s poetry is very important to me. A few contemporary poetry books reshaped what I thought was possible in terms of operating at the intersection of personal and public concerns: Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Kimiko Hahn’s A Narrow Road to the Interior, Robert Pinsky’s Gulf Music, and Robert Hass’s Time and Materials.


- Nomi Stone’s first collection of poems, Stranger’s Notebook, was published by TriQuarterly in 2008. She is currently completing Kill Class, a collection about war games.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Sarah Rose Nordgren

Nordgren B&WSarah Rose Nordgren’s debut poetry collection inhabits an uncanny space where past and present bleed into one another. Best Bones moves seamlessly between the present, 1917, early nineteenth-century America, and England in 1790. While time shifts, boundaries do as well, and the body can sometimes be an incubator for others’ children, or a fish, or begin to meld with the house in which it lives and works. The domestic takes on an edge of menace, even on the small scale, as a dollhouse family goes about its dysfunctional life. The winner of the 2013 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, Best Bones is a haunting book that draws on a variety of source material to create a parallel world where even science becomes fairy tale. I feel both at home in and unsettled by these poems, and grateful for the chance to move for a while through their world. Sarah Rose Nordgren’s poems have appeared in many journals, including issue 18 of Memorious, and she is the recipient of two fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown as well as residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the 2012 James Wright Poetry Award from Mid-American Review. Sarah Rose graciously took time to answer my questions about drawing from source material, writing about the body, and what it means to be a working poet.

I’m interested in the different ways poets go about putting together a book, particularly a first book. Can you explain a bit about your process in creating Best Bones and finding a home for it?

The poems in Best Bones span about ten years of writing. For most of that time, I wasn’t thinking about writing a book, I was just writing poems. Making a book was something I knew I wanted to do, but it was still mostly the vague, far-off idea I’d had since I was a little girl. It was during my first stint as a Poetry Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in 2008 that I began to see the body of work I was cultivating as a book manuscript. I strung lines of twine across the walls of my studio, and hung the poems up with wooden clothespins. I lived with them like that for months, and would sometimes go over and rearrange them on the wall to see different groupings. This process helped me to discover relationships between the poems that I wasn’t aware of previously – how the poems were talking to each other across years, how I returned to the same obsessions and concerns.

It was very difficult for me to order the poems into a manuscript, since I couldn’t find a “narrative” that made sense for the book. I would have preferred some kind of three-dimensional arrangement where I could hang the poems in space with lines connecting different clusters, like a brainstorming map. When I did finally arrange the poems into a “finished” manuscript, it took three more years before I got the news that it had won the Starrett Prize from Pitt. During that time I was sending it out to contests, showing it to friends, and every few months or so I’d take it out and rearrange some things, take a poem or two out, put a new one in, etc. In retrospect, three years wasn’t a long time, though it felt so. I’m glad the book was published in the form it was rather than earlier – the three years of periodic revision helped it to mature, and I couldn’t be happier with the home it found.Nordgren_FINALcomp (1)

Many of the poems in your book draw from written and historical source material, either by directly pulling language from a text, as with “A Bathing Gown a Girl Can Make,” or by borrowing titles, epigraphs, or ideas from a variety of sources. How do you see the role of this source material in your writing? In what ways does your reading life intersect with your writing life?

I often become fixated on an idea or story that I’ve heard or read about. When I have the time, I’ll dive head first into reading and learning more about that thing, which always ends up informing my poems in some way, though it’s not planned. I also attribute the close connection between my reading and writing processes to my time on fellowships. When I was given that much freedom that first season in Provincetown, I quickly came to understand that I couldn’t write poems all day every day, as much as I wished I could. I learned that I needed a rhythm of in and out breaths in my day – writing, reading, walking, yoga, cooking – in order to pace myself and stay somewhat sane. Since I was reading so intensely as well as writing during that time, the two actions couldn’t help but interact. Now I’m sometimes more conscious about it – reading books that address ideas I want to write poems about – but poetry rarely conforms to my plans.

I often don’t know why I’m drawn into certain reading and research while I’m doing it – why prion diseases? Why the history of marriage? Why house servants’ manuals? However, if I think about it in retrospect I can sometimes see how the research subject is related to some issue or intellectual problem that I’m struggling with internally. Something more personal than I realize. This is also most likely why I write a lot of persona poems.

So much of the book involves uncanny images of domesticity, femininity and the female body; I’m thinking in particular of “Remarks on the Morning’s Work in Winter,” where the woman seems to become part of the house itself, and “Surrogate,” in which the speaker’s body is an incubator for others’ children. Can you speak a bit about the ways femininity/ domesticity and the female body plays out in Best Bones?

The body is definitely one of my central concerns in Best Bones, particularly how the body conforms or doesn’t conform to the cultural roles and identity that we impose upon it. I think there are two primary ways that this problem plays out in the book – as the examples you’ve chosen reveal. One has to do with power – with the body as well as the psyche’s acceptance or rejection of cultural identity (wife, mother, servant, etc.). The other has to do with the ability to successfully create life – to make another working body – through motherhood or parenthood. In part because my mother gave birth to a still-born baby boy when I was a young girl, I think I’ve always felt very close to and fascinated with the mystery of how life happens, and how it can go wrong. In this way, the female body becomes a kind of human-magic-world-machine in Best Bones. It is at the center of so much beauty and creativity and strength, and is also a container of pain, grief, failure.

In a 2011 interview during your second fellowship with the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, you said that you had a hard time balancing work and writing. Have you found that balance yet? What does it mean to you to be a working poet?

I think when I did that interview I was coming off of a year and a half of working a day job at a publishing house which did, indeed, make writing more of a challenge. Being back on the academic schedule is more productive for me and feels more fertile, even during times when I’m slammed with grading and teaching and other responsibilities and can’t find time to write. There’s always room for improvement, but at this point I’m satisfied with the seasonal rhythm that my life allows. I tend to write most intensely in the summer and often spend a few weeks at a residency for that purpose – that’s when I write the bulk of my new material, though I also try to do a little writing marathon over the winter holiday break. During the school year I write some, but mostly take notes and work to revise my material from the summer. I’ve never been an every-single-day writer, and although I admire (and sometimes envy) those who are, I think I know myself well enough at this point to accept that that’s not my process.

I’m not exactly sure what being a “working poet” means other than the phrase communicating a level of dedication and seriousness that’s potentially important for a writer’s identity. When I say it (if and when I do), I think I mean that it’s not a casual pursuit; rather, poetry is a path, a practice, a way of engaging with the world – that I’m active in it.

What poets or poems do you find yourself coming back to again and again? Has your experience of them changed over time?

There are so many – Dickinson, Bishop, Yeats, Niedecker, and Stevens, to name a few. I love the poems of Tomas Tranströmer – how the strangeness and imagination of the poems’ unfolding creates tension with his spare, bleak landscapes. His poems are still as magical to me as when I first read them, years ago, and he’s one of the only poets who’s written prose poems that excite me (“Below Zero” is one of my favorites). About a year ago I also started reading the work of another Swedish-speaking poet, Edith Södergran. She was a modernist, and an extremely interesting artist who died at a young age. Her poems rival Dickinson and Niedecker in their earnestness and delicacy. I can’t get enough of her, and my copy of her selected works is full of little slips of paper I use as bookmarks.

And finally, what are you working on right now? 

I’m now in the editing stages of a book of poems that has arisen from my fascination with scientific concepts as well as the philosophy and history of evolutionary biology. I got a chance to arrange the manuscript this past summer, and am now letting it marinate a little before I look at it again with hopefully fresher eyes. In the meantime, I’m doing some planning for a nonfiction project, and am also developing a performance installation that incorporates digital, “choreographed” poems with choreographer/new media artist Kathleen Kelley. That project is called Digitized Figures, and we just got a chance to premiere a version of it at The Dance Complex in Cambridge, Mass. There’s always plenty to do!

- Christina Rothenbeck is the author of two chapbooks, Girls in Art and the forthcoming Erasing Innocence, both from Dancing Girls Press.


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Big Loves: Trudy Lewis on Allegra Goodman’s Intuition


Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Trudy Lewis. Lewis is the author of the story collection The Bones of Garbo (Ohio State University Press, 2003) and the novel Private Correspondences (Northwestern University Press, 1994). Her latest novel, The Empire Rolls, will be published by Moon City Press on November 1st, 2014.

When Virginia Woolf imagined the future of women’s fiction, she might have been conjuring up the work of Allegra Goodman. Woolf wanted to read about Chloe and Olivia, who were not sisters or sexual rivals, but who enjoyed working together in a lab. This is the subject of Goodman’s Intuition, published in 2006 but set in the 80s. Goodman’s plot concerns a Cambridge lab in the fictional Philpott Institute. The flashy oncologist Sandy Glass and the introverted researcher Marion Mendelssohn rule over the lab like father and mother. The postdocs, their intellectual offspring, compete for attention, funding, and approval.Empire%20Rolls%20Cover

The story moves into high gear when the lab’s favored son Cliff Bannaker produces astounding results with a new cancer drug. Sandy, seizing the opportunity to win his next NIH grant, wants to publicize the results immediately. Marion, more conservative, hesitates, but eventually allows her charismatic partner to assuage her doubts. Meanwhile, the lab’s neglected daughter, Robin Decker, intuits the flaws in Cliff’s research and is drawn, irresistibly, toward the dark side of dissenters, whistle-blowers, and malcontents.

Goodman excels at portraying the passion of scientific research, and Intuition can serve as an illuminating counterpart to Possession, A.S. Byatt’s great novel of literary apprenticeship, in which male and female scholars compete and collaborate to uncover clues about the romance between two enigmatic Victorian poets. Goodman too concocts a heady, sexually charged, multigenerational plot of ambition and discovery. For me, one of the greatest pleasures of the book is Goodman’s nuanced portrayal of the work romance between Marion and Sandy. Although the author reveals no hint of sexual transgression, the powerful generative energy of this work couple drives the story forward and, in its complexity, suggests a necessary relation between devotion and ambition, purity and self-promotion.

Here the consummated romance between Cliff and Robin, already faltering by the novel’s opening scene, provides an instructive counterpoint. Cliff, like Sandy, has arrived at his position through untested privilege while Robin, humbled by her origins and her years in the field, champions the virtues of hesitation and doubt, along with the overlooked scientific value of negative results. In one scene, Robin watches Cliff with envy and awe: “…Robin saw Cliff clearly through the red-tinted window. He was blood red, wine red, maraschino red, the red of cell media, the red of stained slides. He’d found his way into the inner chamber of discovery.”516WM6bFPoL

In a structural sense, this is a break-up novel, dividing the heterosexual couples to leave the two women facing one another at the story’s end. In 1980, 2006, or even 2014, we still haven’t realized the feminist utopia of Woolf’s imagination. But Goodman suggests, through her deft intuitive plotting, that Marion and Robin, like Chloe and Olivia, may one day reach some mutual understanding of their own.

Goodman also charts the evolution of her male characters, who are subtly transformed by their encounters with defeat and negativity. Sandy, glimpsing impermanence through the end of his partnership with Marion, can now sympathize with his patients’ mortality, while Cliff sees his public humiliation as the true beginning of his scientific career. In an era of factionalism and flash, Goodman practices the novelistic virtues of balance and perspective. Far from choosing winners and losers, she writes, “How strange the way success and failure contained each other. How close vindication and humiliation had proved.”

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Fiction Spotlight: Anne Valente

AnneValente_AuthorPhotoIn late September of 2014, Anne Valente released her first full short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books), after winning a host of awards for her fiction, including Copper Nickel’s 2012 Fiction Prize and Dzanc Books’ 2011 Short Story Collection Competition. Prior to the anthology’s release, Valente had already established herself as a rising voice in the genre, known for such works as her story chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics (Origami Zoo Press), and for popular stories like “A Very Compassionate Baby,” which was listed as a ‘Notable Story’ in the 2011 edition of The Best American Non-Required Reading.

By Light We Knew Our Names is built on a series of stealthy and beautifully curated pieces of magical realism, bildungsromans, and research-focused set pieces for Valente’s characters, and Memorious was lucky to feature her story, “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” as part of Issue 18.  Valente was kind enough to talk with us about her stories, her processes, and what comes next.

Reading through the collection, I was taken by how precise and uniquely human the psychology is among your characters. What do you think connects your characters together psychologically?

Thank you! I’m glad they feel true to human experience. Writing a character is for me an act of empathy. I don’t want to write characters in my own image, who make the same choices I might make. In fiction, I strive to put myself in their position to better know how they would or wouldn’t act and react. Empathy sounds like such a clichéd term for this, so what I mean is not only empathy—understanding their emotions, motivations, worldviews—but also quite literally putting myself in the world of the story and its scenes. If I were Sasha at a birthday party with my package unopened while my friends have pocket librarians and fishbowl bellies, how would I react? If an eerie sound pervaded my street and broke through the windows of my house, what would I do? What would all of these characters do, with their specific sets of conditions and personalities and backgrounds? In this sense, character psychology is far more intuitive for me than planned or outlined.

What are the obsessions you work through in your stories? Why is fiction a good spot for these obsessions?

My guess is that most writers have their obsessions; mine seem to appear again and again. I’ve been thinking about repetition a lot lately, both in language and in structure and form, and I think repetition speaks to obsession and urgency, of trying to write the same thing over and over again without really getting at saying it. This so often applies to things that are unsayable or beyond language, which is why I think obsessions lend themselves to fiction and to attempting to write through something over and over. One of those things for me is loss and mortality. It’s unthinkable—and inscrutable—to me that we are here and then we aren’t. I feel like I’m writing the impossibility of this again and again, especially since there are really no words for it; writing is the best attempt at getting at understanding it, even if I never quite get there. Beyond theme, I’m also pretty obsessed with science, nature, and biology. I could spend weeks with an astronomer or park ranger or ornithologist and never get bored. I bet there is never a dull moment in their lives!

Each of your stories has such a strong research component to them. Can you talk about the research you did for one of the stories in By Light We Knew Our Names? How did it lead you toward or inform the story’s overall design?ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_Valente

Research is paramount to my writing process. I research less to stake claim on a particular facet of knowledge and more to discover something new, to imagine possibilities, and to be amazed, always. The research is obvious in some of these stories—octopus biology in “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart,” the life of Amelia Earhart in “Dear Amelia,” the specifics of the 1964 World’s Fair in “Everything That Was Ours”—and less obvious in others, such as in “Until Our Shadows Claim Us.” This story begins with the Challenger explosion and moves through several other major events that a group of children believe they’ve caused: the Chernobyl disaster, a carbon dioxide explosion in Cameroon, the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73. The story never explicitly states the year, but all of these events happened in 1986. Research was required of each of these world events and their timeline in relation to one another, as well as details of setting and environment that would have been true to 1986.

For the story you published with us, “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart,” where did the concept come from? Can you walk us through its development?

Out of every story I’ve ever written, this is the only one that first required a physical drawing on my part in order to visualize the story and how it would end. I usually don’t begin with endings, but I had this image in my mind of this broken man sitting beside a pond of ink-darkened water where dead frogs were floating everywhere. I’m not sure where this image came from, but the story was a process of writing my way toward it after drawing it out. I knew an octopus was the cause of the ink in the water, so I spent a lot of time first researching octopus biology and anatomy. Then I began writing Walter in his laboratory, beneath the stranglehold of Dr. Carver and his ill-fated, illegal experiments. From there the story flowed, as did Roseline and the particulars of her marriage with Walter, but the story began from an image of dead frogs and octopuses in a pond and a man destroyed by the sight of them.

Who are some of your most influential short story authors? What collections have you read recently?

My most influential short story writers of all time are Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, and Raymond Carver. I read their stories closely when I was first beginning to write, and each of them taught me something important about my own craft: language in Moore, magic in Bender, the power of understatement in Carver, among so many other things. I’ve loved many recent collections as well, each of which continues to teach me how to put together a story and a great collection. I adored Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise and Laura Van Den Berg’s Isle of Youth (as well as her first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us). I’m also reading Diane Cook’s Man V. Nature right now, which is phenomenal, and I have Micah Dean Hicks’s Electricity and Other Dreams up next on my nightstand.

We understand you’re working on a collection of stories centered around St. Louis. What are some works of literature that have been influential to you that have focused particularly on setting and place?

Setting and place have grown increasingly important to me as I work on this collection. I’m trying to figure out across each story what it means to write the landscape of St. Louis and the Midwest in general: whether the land is located in the thunderstorms and the tornados and the cicadas and the river bending around the city, or if it’s something less tangible. Much like obsessions, I’m writing my way toward it and around it over and over again. Some recent works that have offered me insight into how writers address a specific landscape are Benjamin Percy’s Refresh, Refresh, which sets itself in the landscape of central Oregon where the terrain becomes intertwined with the character trauma; W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which is a fiction/memoir hybrid that contemplates time and memory as the narrator walks around the East Anglian countryside; and David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, which is non-fiction but takes up the relationship between writing and landscape and how writers can “write themselves back into the land.” These texts have been especially helpful to me in thinking broadly about landscape and fiction, and about what it means to write from a particular place.

–Barrett Bowlin, Contributing Editor

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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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