Duped: Rob Arnold on JT LeRoy

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Memorious reached out to Rob Arnold, one of the magazine’s cofounders who left the magazine in 2008,  to weigh in on the controversy surrounding JT LeRoy, an author who purported to be—among many other things—a queer H.I.V. positive former child sex worker from West Virginia, but was later revealed to be Laura Albert, a 30-something woman from Brooklyn. This story has generated much attention, as LeRoy amassed a great deal of fame and a collection of celebrity admirers in the early 2000’s. The first issue of Memorious contains what we now believe is the last short story Albert published as LeRoy; Albert had also published stories as Leroy in The Oxford American, Zoetrope: All-Story, and McSweeney’s. In the wake of renewed interest following the release of the documentary film Author: The JT LeRoy Story, and the earlier documentary The Cult of JT LeroyRob Arnold shares his experience working with JT LeRoy. (The editors of Memorious would like to note that while the original story remains online, due to our policy of archiving all of our issues as they were published, we would not have published this story had we known of the deception behind it.)

Duped. That was the word on my mind the morning of November 9th, when I and millions of people like me around the world woke up to a new America. Which turned out to be the same, sad, disappointing America it had always been—the same dangerous America, self-destructive America, the same damaged and demonized America—with a horrible twist. The twist is you were living in half a country all along. The twist is you wake in the night convinced it was all a horrible dream. And then the stomach sinks, the realization dawns. Bubbles burst.

I know something about duplicity. Thirteen years ago, I answered a Craigslist ad for a writer who needed help with his website. He sounded young on the phone, frail and effeminate. Was his Appalachian accent real or feigned? I thought feigned, but over time I came not to care, taken in by the cult of celebrity that swirled around him. The feverish, almost maniacal loyalty of his fans. The writer was JT LeRoy, and his devotees included Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Billy Corgan, Gus Van Sant and many others. At a SoHo launch party for LeRoy’s third book, I stood next to David Byrne and Jerry Harrison. I turned around and saw Shirley Manson lost in conversation with Lou Reed.

Eventually, LeRoy himself appeared, a quivering slip of a man, barely five feet tall, it seemed. When he read from his novella, he was either too shy or too wounded to project, his voice barely a whisper. The audience loved him anyway.

LeRoy was a genius at gathering people to his cause, and I was no different. People admired the prose, but they swooned for his back story. At varying points, LeRoy had claimed to be a homeless abuse survivor, a truck stop prostitute, an HIV-infected drug addicted transsexual. The adjectives piled up. He was a teenaged prodigy who escaped life on the streets, who turned to writing as a form of therapy, an unbelievable demonstration of resilience over trauma.

Unbelievable.

I met LeRoy later that night, at an afterparty in a hotel bar. It was the only time we would meet in person. I had been his web master for a year, had redesigned the site from the ground up and registered his domain name, linking the database record to my own name and contact info. As payment for my services, LeRoy told me to take credit for some photographs that COLORS Magazine was planning to use in an issue featuring LeRoy. Whatever COLORS paid for the photos, I could accept as payment. Hesitantly I agreed, worried the real photographer would somehow find me out.

COLORS never called, and I never did get paid for my time. LeRoy and I parted ways shortly after the launch party, and I moved on to other projects. But not before convincing him to contribute a story to the first issue of an online magazine I was starting with my then-girlfriend. Long after the story appeared, we would occasionally still receive unsolicited submissions from LeRoy’s fans. As an ambitious young editor, I brushed off these submissions as the price I had to pay for scoring what would become the last story LeRoy would ever publish.

Unbelievable.

Sometime in the summer of 2006, I got a strange phone call from a man who’d found my number from a WhoIs search on JT LeRoy’s domain name. He asked if I’d met LeRoy, if I knew him in person, if I was in fact JT LeRoy himself. I don’t remember now whether he gave his name or not. I answered as truthfully as I could and hung up, perplexed but convinced it was one of LeRoy’s fans, playing a prank or just trying to get close to LeRoy. Later that year, New York Magazine published an exposé on JT LeRoy, claiming LeRoy was a literary hoax invented by a middle-aged woman in San Francisco named Laura Albert. Was it Stephen Beachy who had contacted me, the reporter who finally broke through JT LeRoy’s deception? It seems likely, though what if anything he might have gleaned from me remains unclear.

The details of LeRoy’s unraveling are well known by now, infamous in literary circles. The story of how Laura Albert duped the entire celebrity establishment into believing in a figment named Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy—how she faked her voice, how she hired her partner’s sister to play the physical manifestation of LeRoy—is now the subject two separate documentaries. It will soon be a major motion picture starring Kristen Stewart, Helena Bonham Carter, and James Franco, based on the memoir of the young woman who played LeRoy in public appearances. The second documentary was released earlier this year, on the tenth anniversary of Albert’s outing. Of the two, it is the more affectionate portrait, simultaneously blaming Albert’s deceit on her own history of abuse yet somehow lauding her brilliant charade. Like clockwork, new editions of LeRoy’s books have been reissued. Laura Albert seems positioned for some kind of unbelievable comeback. Nowhere in the documentary do we hear from the kinds of fans who had looked to JT LeRoy for strength and inspiration, who had written and submitted their own stories of trauma to editors like myself, hoping they too could escape their destinies and rub elbows with rock stars, have flings with movie directors. Like many voices, theirs have been lost to time.

And where does that leave me? Is it strange to wake up in November of 2016 and feel nostalgia for past times marked by Albert’s duplicity? Real harm was done. And under the banner of this new presidency, I fear more harm is yet to come. Tangible harm. Harm that will mark and implicate us all. How do we judge somebody like Laura Albert now, knowing what else is at stake?

Maybe we don’t need to. Many years have passed, and some people loosen over time, becoming different expressions of themselves under different circumstances. In the age of Donald Trump, soon to be known as the Age of Misinformation, who are we to know one truth from another truth? Who is Laura Albert now? Who am I now? Who are we all?

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Rob Arnold cofounded Memorious and was coeditor from 2004-2008. His poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in PloughsharesHyphenNatural Bridge, and elsewhere. He lives in Boston where he works at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency and coedits Grid Books.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Catherine Pierce


In Catherine Pierce’s third collection, The Tornado is the World, fantasies of escape and the inescapability of natural forces, the everyday domestic and the apocalyptic, compete with and complicate one another. Characters fantasize about imaginary vacations or contemplate leaving town forever, and also experience small, daily moments of joy, guilt, and gratitude. But through the entire collection, the tornado looms, either as an impending disaster or one they have (or haven’t) survived.

The tornado is much more than an event in these poems; it exists not only as a force that changes those it encounters, but also as a character in its own right. Pierce humanizes the tornado, but humanizing it makes it that much more frightening, adding intelligence and desire to the tornado’s destruction. In “The Tornado Collects the Animals,” the tornado poems reach perhaps their strongest melding of tenderness and terror in the final stanza: “The tornado will wrap them tight,/ It will make sure the poor things/ know what it is to be held.” The human world is at the heart of these poems—people go about their lives both before and after the tornado cuts its path through them—but the poems remind us that a world in which tornadoes exist is a complicated, fraught place. As Pierce writes in “Holy Shit,” “We mean we know this place/ is profane. We mean/ we know it’s sacred.” The Tornado is the World grapples with the question of how to embrace the beauty of the world in the knowledge of how heartbreakingly fragile that world really is—and how to live our everyday lives without becoming paralyzed by that knowledge.

Catherine Pierce is the author of three books of poems: The Tornado Is the World (forthcoming in December from Saturnalia Books), The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia 2012), winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Prize, and Famous Last Words (Saturnalia 2008), winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Her chapbook, Animals of Habit (Kent State University Press), was published in 2004. Her poems have appeared in a number of magazines, including Issue 22 of Memorious, and have been included in The Best American Poetry in 2015 and 2011. She generously answered questions about getting into the mind of a tornado, working within a series, and changing as a writer over time.

There’s an interesting tension in The Tornado Is the World between daily, domestic life and the destruction of that life by the tornado. The tension seems to come to a head in “An Apologia for Taking Things for Granted” as it confronts the impossibility of constant, ecstatic appreciation of the world. How do you see this collection balancing these ideas of the quotidian and the underlying awareness that the everyday is really finite?

When it comes down to it, there’s nothing at all quotidian about the quotidian, of course, and that’s part of what this collection is trying to get at. In other words—what a total miracle, that these things happen daily. That every day, if we’re lucky, we wake up, get dressed, maybe go to work, maybe wrangle kids into eating breakfast, maybe pet a dog, maybe drive past some skyscrapers or cornfields or vistas, have some conversations, and then go to sleep and do it all again. And it’s always, of course, when that everyday gets interrupted, or is threatened to be interrupted, that we cherish it most and really see it for what it is. That’s the tension at the core of this book, I think—that awareness of how flimsy everything we take for granted really is, but also the awareness that if we don’t take some of it for granted, it’s possible to be paralyzed—by fear, by gratitude, or, most likely, by both.

The book is sectioned, with the bulk of the tornado poems sandwiched in the middle (although they also spill over into the first and echo a bit through the third). What was your guiding principle of organizing this collection? 

I ordered and re-ordered this book so many times. At first I tried spacing the tornado poems throughout the book, but that detracted from the narrative arc I was trying to construct. Then I had the book in nine short sections, alternating between tornado poems and non-tornado poems, and that was just really fussy. Finally, I stepped back and tried to think about the most natural way of structuring things. Once I accepted that the tornado poems—the ones that tell the story of the town—all needed to be together, it was easier to structure the rest of the book. The poems in Section I are the ones that felt somehow “pre-tornado” to me—or maybe “pre-disaster”—and the ones in the third section are the ones that felt like the speaker had come through something and was on the other side of it now. Tornadoes show up a bit in both the first and third sections, but there I hope they function more as foreshadowing or aftershock than as part of the actual story of the middle section.

So much of the collection is also based in the idea of escape: the vacation poems, the checkout clerk thinking of leaving town, another speaker trying to outrun a linear narrative. How does the idea of escape interact with poems rooted in place in a town beset by a tornado? What is it about escape that makes it so attractive?

One of the things that makes a tornado so terrifying is that it’s really hard to escape it. Even if you’re able and willing to get the hell out of Dodge, by the time you get a warning, it’s too late. Once the sirens are going off, it’s on the ground. And even if you’re a weather-watcher and see a full day in advance that things are likely to get hairy, you can’t outrun it—tornadoes are usually spun off by big, wide weather systems, and if you start driving, odds are decent that you’ll get yourself into a worse situation rather than a better one. In a way this echoes other parts of our lives—this idea that escape, however appealing it might be, isn’t always possible. So the book, as you point out, includes poems about vacations, tourism, running away, and in most of those poems, those potential escapes are also, essentially, failures. In the “Imaginary Vacation Scenario” poems, the “you” does get to experience the relief of escape, but that relief is always undermined by the premise of the poems—the “imaginary” that’s right there in the title. The Unabashed Tourist poems are playing on this same idea—here you’ve got this narrator whose quest for change through adventure leaves her wanting again and again, and whose blustery confidence in her guidebook-level understanding of place is at best absurd and at worst potentially tragic, as when she wishes a tornado on herself and her fellow diner patrons. So it made sense to me to have these threads weave together in the book—there’s plenty to want to escape, but actually enacting that escape is never easy.

Some of my favorite poems in the collection are from the point of view of the tornado; these poems combine a kind of terrifying tenderness with unbridled need/desire. Why was it important to make the tornado a character rather just an event for this collection? How does one get into the mind of a tornado?

The tornado-as-character actually came before any of the rest of this book. I’ve long thought of tornadoes as essentially sentient—unlike hurricanes or blizzards, they’re these singular, discreet entities, and to me that’s what’s most frightening, how it always feels like they’re making decisions about where they want to go and what they want to wreck or spare. So I started trying to figure out what might fuel something—or someone—like a tornado, what might motivate it to that kind of destruction.

Many of your poems are part of a series of poems (tornado poems, vacation scenarios, etc.). Do you set out to write in series, or is it more the result of recurring obsessions? What does working in series add to your writing that’s different from writing poems that stand on their own?

I do really love writing in series—for me it’s about the chance to explore multiple dimensions of a larger idea, to really burrow into something deeply but also to stay rooted in the lyric poem. The shorter series in the book—the vacation scenarios, the Unabashed Tourist—were a chance to play with a premise in a sustained way. Because in the tornado poems that comprise the second section I was telling an extended story, working with recurring characters, narrative arc, etc., I think of those poems less as a series than as a small book on their own, albeit one that’s supported and textured by the poems in the first and last sections. I had no idea how long that section was going to be when I first started writing those poems—at first I did conceive of them as a relatively short series, but as I kept being compelled by the tornado and the town, I realized that my exploration of this was going to be bigger than my original conception.

“The Mother Warns the Tornado” was turned into a short film for Motionpoems last year. What is it like to see a poem come to life that way? What surprised you about the experience?

Oh, it was amazing. Isaac Ravishankara, the director, made such a harrowing, beautiful film. I think what surprised me most was how emotionally affected I was by the film—I mean, I’d written the poem, so it wasn’t like I didn’t know what was going to happen. But the film completely caught me up in its tension and urgency, and I felt my own heart beating faster as I waited to see how it was going to end. (He also managed to work in some truly remarkable special effects, which is not something we poets get a lot of…)

The voice of this book is significantly different from your last collection, The Girls of Peculiar—more adult, looking outward or forward instead of backward. It made me think of how Louise Glück has said she “swears off” ways of writing after finishing a collection. Are you consciously changing the way you’re writing, or is it more of an organic change? In what ways have you changed as a writer through the course of three collections of poems?

I’d say the change has been organic, but not unconscious. I wrote the book I wanted to write, and while I wasn’t intentionally setting out to change the way I was writing, I was aware of that difference as I was working, and was glad for it. This book’s subjects are different from my other books, and so the voice is different, too (though I do think there’s some overlap there).

Not surprisingly, the ways I’ve changed as a writer over the course of the books dovetail with the ways I’ve changed as a person. I’ve followed my obsessions and fears and loves and ways of thinking, as I think most writers do, and the poems have followed from that. I’m glad I wrote The Girls of Peculiar when I did, because I’m not convinced I’d be able to write it now. Same with Famous Last Words, and especially with The Tornado Is the World. It’s just coming out now, but I started writing it in 2011, not long after my first son was born, and there’s a rawness in the book that was completely organic and that I couldn’t manufacture if I tried.

And finally, what are you working on now? What is the next project for you?

I’m working on my fourth collection, which is maybe currently called The Bravery Convention, or possibly Here in the Future We Are Always Watching Ourselves. I wrote out a pretty academic description of what the book is doing, but it felt too stilted for this interview, so I’ll say that it’s currently about language and desire and love and greed and how place can function as both escape and excuse, and how words can solidify into power. Also Makeout Point.

In short: I’m still following my obsessions, and trusting they’ll lead to something.

Interviewer Christina Rothenbeck is an English instructor at Louisiana State University. She is the author of the chapbook Girls in Art (Dancing Girl Press 2012). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Sugar House ReviewBone Bouquet, and Reunion: The Dallas Review, among other places. She holds a PhD from The University of Southern Mississippi and an MFA from West Virginia University.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Think Music: Robert Wilder on Foreigner

authorphoto-300x199In twenty years of teaching high school, I have seen more than a few students who were clearly born in the wrong decade. After the movie Swingers came out in 1996, for instance, kids started arriving to school in zoot suits and fedoras, twirling pocket watches on chains. I’ve witnessed boys slick back their hair into DAs and slip on leather jackets, and girls don aprons and bake like 1950s housewives. For me, these anachronistic students are always the most interesting; they don’t fit in with their generation so they claim a new one.

My main characters Coy and Monroe in my new novel NICKEL are outcasts, and I wanted them to connect with each other through a different era’s music and pop culture. These references and cultural touchstones would serve as their own coded language, a way to secretly communicate with each other and to protect themselves from those who insulted or ignored them. Even though theirs is a boy/girl friendship, I was reminded of two girls I taught who were obsessed with eighties music. Since I graduated from high school in 1984, I often made jokes in class about Culture Club, Repo Man, and Tom Cruise. These girls always understood my references and laughed at my meager attempts at humor. Even when I claimed that the eighties wasn’t a terrific time for rock music, they’d fiercely object and play the David Bowie or AC/DC Back in Black card. Like Coy and Monroe, these girls stood on the fringes of our school, but they had their own subculture that supported them when others did not.

As I was writing and revising NICKEL, I considered the bands Coy and Monroe would gravitate toward based on their shared sensibility and individual emotional states. I recalled my own soundtrack as a kid in suburban Connecticut, navigating between my downstairs bedroom at home and the Jem Amusement Center on the Boston Post Road where we would feed quarters into the jukebox while playing foosball and Captain Fantastic pinball. My personal soundtrack consisted of bands like Bad Company, The Police, Prince, and Talking Heads. Foreigner, however, seemed to be the one who fit Coy and Monroe best. Foreigner was the band that connected the ballads of the late seventies with early eighties rock and roll. Head Games was embarrassingly obvious and cloying, something this dirty white boy needed when I was Coy’s age because I didn’t have a legitimate way to express certain types of emotion. Foreigner 4, considered by some to be their best, still had the emo “Waiting for a Girl Like You” but offered the iconic “Juke Box Hero” and head-nodding “Urgent” as counterparts.

nickel-lsp-3dAs I remembered Foreigner I did some research (as Coy and Monroe would) and saw that lead singer Lou Gramm had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The tumor was benign but the surgery and subsequent medication damaged his pituitary gland, forcing Gramm to gain significant weight, hurting his voice and stamina. In NICKEL, Monroe comes down with a mysterious illness that seriously irritates her skin, starting with the area around her mouth. Searching for clues to the source of Monroe’s deteriorating health, Coy sees the parallels between the suffering of both Monroe and Gramm. I’m sure many of us have found some sort of emotional or spiritual connection with the singers and songwriters we love, artists who put our own complex feelings into words and set them to music. Foreigner happened to be the right choice for my two main characters.

Postscript: In 2009, one of my students gave me tickets to see Foreigner at the Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino. I had never been to a casino show before so I was surprised by the rowdy behavior of all of the sweaty middle-aged rockers in black concert shirts who came to relive their checkered pasts. Mick Jones was the only original member on stage. Some members of the band didn’t look as though they were alive when Foreigner released the hits everyone was singing along to. Even though the lead singer was more reminiscent of Steven Tyler than Lou Gramm, people still screamed and reached for him as if he were the real deal. The concert was somewhere in between a reunion show and a surprisingly excellent night of karaoke. I kept wondering, as I flashed back to junior high and high school, whether I was having a real good time.

Robert Wilder is the author of the YA novel, NICKEL, and two critically acclaimed books of essays: Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge and Daddy Needs a Drink, both optioned for television and film. He has published essays in Newsweek, Details, Salon, Parenting, Creative Nonfiction, Working Mother and elsewhere. Wilder’s column, also titled “Daddy Needs A Drink,” is printed monthly in the Santa Fe Reporter. He was awarded the 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize by the National Book Foundation. Wilder has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the past twenty years.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Memorious New Assistant Editors

Memorious searched high and low to find the best people to join our team. Thanks to everyone who applied. Competition was fierce and our decisions were difficult. We lost sleep. Our stomachs had issues. But it was worth the trouble: We are now overjoyed to introduce our new assistant editors…

Fiction

natalie-profile-pictureNatalie Mesnard comes to us from Ninth Letter, where she was the Web Edition editor for the Summer 2015 and Summer 2016 issues of Ninth Letter Online. She earned her MFA from the University of Illinois and is now based in Ossining, New York. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews have appeared online and in print with journals such as Copper Nickel, The Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, The Journal, Kenyon Review Online, and Tampa Review. She can be found online at nataliemesnard.com.

 

wendy-oleson-photoWendy Oleson comes to us from Prairie Schooner, where she was a Senior Fiction Reader. She is also a former Memorious contributor (check out her stunning story “The Glass Girl” in Memorious 24). She is a fiction writer, poet, and essayist whose work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Copper Nickel, Baltimore Review, PANK, The Normal School, and The Journal. Oleson was a Van Sickle Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she earned her PhD. She is a recipient of a Washington Square Review Fiction Award, the Elizabeth Bruss Prize, and the storySouth Million Writers Award.

Poetry

Derricaustink Austin is the author of Trouble the Water (BOA Editions 2016), selected by Mary Szybist for the 2015 A. Poulin Jr Prize. A Cave Canem fellow, Pushcart Prize and four-time Best New Poets nominee, he earned his MFA at the University of Michigan where he also earned Hopwood Awards in poetry. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2015, New England Review, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, Memorious, Callaloo, Nimrod, Crab Orchard Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is the 2016-2017 Ron Wallace Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing.

 

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Fiction Spotlight: Contributor Anne Valente

author-pic_valenteOctober 4, 2016, marked the publication date of Anne Valente’s debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow/HarperCollins), and already the novel has been named among the “Most Necessary Books for the End of 2016” by Ploughshares Magazine and the “Best Reads for October” by Refinery 29. Valente, however, is no newcomer to success. Her recent stories appear in the Kenyon Review, One Story, and Puerto del Sol, and By Light We Knew Our Names, her first full-length collection of stories, won the Dzanc Books short story prize in 2011. Memorious happily included the final story from that collection, “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” in Issue 18, and we’ve been fans of Valente’s ever since. This month, Anne Valente answered our questions about her novel, writing process, and some of the debut novelists she’s excited about.

The novel is historically situated in time and place—St. Louis, MO, 2003—and inflected by everything from public opinion of the war in Iraq to a mention of The Today Show’s “Matt Lauer reporting on a foul ball disruption in the last night’s National League Championship Series game at Wrigley field.” How did you determine the social, cultural, and political touchstones that populate the text? 



cover-image_our-heartsAt first, I mostly wanted to avoid dealing with the clunkiness of including smartphones and texting among this group of teenagers. But in further researching a particular time period that would best suit the narrative, I was drawn to October 2003 for everything that was happening in the world at the time: the search for weapons of mass destruction had reached its peak, and it was becoming clear that there was nothing to be found. This atmosphere of responding to fear and uncertainty with force and brutality felt right for the novel, an echo of the violence of mass shootings, and also of how I feel we sometimes respond as a nation to mass tragedy—we focus on motive and retribution, a media saturation that seeks answers and often ignores the families and communities. I wanted this background to serve as a foil for this pressing need for answers, and how as a culture we’re obsessed with shooter motive and uncomfortable just sitting with grief.

In the past you’ve described your relationship to your characters like this: “In fiction, I strive to put myself in their position—understanding their emotions, motivations, world views—but also quite literally putting myself in the world of the story and its scenes.” How did (and do) you cope when characters’ circumstances are unfathomably tragic? 

For me, writing through tragedy is a practice of empathy, a way of widening my heart when it feels so easy for it to harden and shut down in the face of so much violence in our culture. In so many ways, writing is my form of coping—I feel as though I’m trying to understand a way through violence and brutality and pain and my own grief by transposing these emotions into fiction. It’s usually not an easy process, but writing is a space that I can control when so much of our world feels out of control. Writing sometimes feels like the safest space to explore what’s happening around me, and to not look away from it.

Two of the point-of-view characters, Nick and Zola, have starkly different ways of coping with tragedy. Zola finds comfort holding the pet rabbit her mother gives her, while Nick has a near-obsessive need to research and archive. How did the characters’ varied responses to trauma shape the structure of the novel? 



It was important to me that each character responded to trauma differently, and grieved differently. Point of view was the main prism that opened up the entire structure of the book for me, and in alternating between a first-person plural perspective that explores communal grief and four close-third perspectives that individualize that grief, I wanted to examine what is collective when a tragedy like this happens and what is immutably singular. As much as Nick and Zola are students at the same high school and members of the same yearbook staff, having both grown up in the same community, their responses to trauma are so singular to who they are. I wanted to explore through this book how grief is at once collective and incredibly personal.

The novel’s concept and inspiration came from the short story of the same name (published in the Iron Horse Literary Review in Spring 2014). What unexpected challenges did you encounter during the process of transforming the story idea into something much longer? 



I was never drawn to the idea of expanding a short story into a novel, but something about this particular narrative felt undone to me. I wanted to expand it further, and to explore in greater depth what happens in a community after mass tragedy—and especially once the television cameras pull away. The short story centered on an elementary school, which felt too challenging to explore in a novel. Children certainly have their own lives and perspectives, but I transposed the novel into a high school setting to delve into the lives of four teenagers, which felt more manageable without feeling cloying or manipulative, which I know narratives from child perspectives can sometimes be (though I have read many that have done it well). This was the main challenge. Beyond this, I found that I had a lot more to write in expanding the narrative, and that the transition flowed relatively smoothly.

How did your novel find a home with William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)? And how has working with William Morrow differed from your previous experiences with Dzanc Books (By Light We Knew Our Names) and Origami Zoo Press (An Elegy for Mathematics)? 



I’ve been fortunate to have excellent experiences with each of these books and publishers. I’d published the chapbook and short story collection without an agent, but had completed a novel by the time the collection came out, which attracted the attention of my agent. Things moved relatively quickly from there, and I couldn’t be more grateful for her work as well as her kindness, and for the team at William Morrow/HarperCollins. They are true champions of the book and have understood my vision for it from the beginning, which can’t be understated for how crucial this feels in putting a book out into the world. I feel extremely lucky to be working with them, and I am very grateful to have worked with Dzanc and Origami Zoo as well.

In your 2014 Fiction Spotlight interview with our contributing editor Barrett Bowlin, you mention being “pretty obsessed with science, nature, and biology,” something that shines through the story “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” (Memorious, Issue 18) and spills into the novel with the lines: “How the octopus brain held half a billion neurons, more closely linked to humans than to the cuttlefish and snails that shared its DNA. How under pressure the octopus could transform its short-term memory to long-term recall, a response similar to human fear.” How did your research experience differ between the novel and the short stories?

The process was very similar in terms of the direction the research took me. Science and biology remained front and center in the research of this novel, just as in the past. Short story research has steered me toward octopus biology, echolocation, aurora lights, and so many other natural phenomena. For this novel, in addition to research on how a community responds to mass tragedy, I also researched chemical and biological responses to fear and trauma, as well as the particulars of fire science and crime scene investigation. This research was much more detailed and involved than researching for a single short story, but my brain took me in very similar directions in terms of subject matter.

You’re prolific and efficient, having written a collection of ten stories during the year you drafted Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down—all while teaching. How did you do it? Specifically, what’s it like to connect deeply with so many narratives and characters? 



I’ve always viewed writing fiction as a job, so I’ve worked on it as much as I work on teaching—my full-time profession, but one that is dependent on my creative work. It’s never really worked for me to wait for inspiration. I feel like I become a better writer the more I write, so I made myself write every day while working on Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down to stay within the narrative’s world, but also to keep drafting and revising until the pages were what I wanted them to be. I’m very particular and discrete about my time during the academic year—I compartmentalize everything, focusing only on the classroom when I’m there, and zeroing in on my writing each morning before I go into work. The stories I wrote while working on the novel were all about St. Louis, which helped me take breaks from the weight of the novel’s content while also delving further into the novel’s setting. I don’t know if I’d multitask in that way again, but at the time this helped me deepen my understanding of the place I grew up, from a fictional remove. In terms of connecting with so many narratives and characters, it’s a great question and one I haven’t thought much about before—it seems overwhelming to be delving into that many narratives at once, but I guess I sometimes feel deeply empathetic with people on the street even if we’ve never spoken. Perhaps that is part of my “job” as a writer too—to feel connected to a multiplicity of lives, even if all at once.

What question about your novel do you wish we would ask, and will you answer it for us?

Question: In Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, how did you decide upon the structure of so many fires? Where was the line for you in determining how many to include, and whether any of the families’ homes would be spared?

The house fires begin to affect the families of those who were killed during the shooting, and though this question came up in revision—the possibility of redemption, and the possibility that perhaps some of them survive—sparing anyone didn’t feel right for this novel. This was in part because one of my leading questions in writing this book was whether any of us survives this kind of grief, and I don’t know if we ever do. But I also think fiction can be a space of extremes and of exposure, when so much of the violence in our culture is already extreme but sometimes unexposed. I felt similarly about writing “By Light We Knew Our Names,” the title story of my collection, where every single woman in an Alaskan town is abused by men. Early responses to that story were, Could it ever really be this bad? And I wanted the response to be yes—it can be, and it is. At the time, I felt that misogyny was so invisible in my world, and I wanted to explode it on the page and create this atmosphere that felt claustrophobic to the reader, where no one could escape seeing this kind of brutality. I feel similarly about the number of fires and the unrelenting nature of grief within the novel, which I know isn’t for every reader. But I’m not sure what it will take for us to reckon with the inherent violence in our culture, and if burning everything down is the only way to take notice.

Finally, what’s in your reading queue now? Are there fellow debut novelists our readers should be looking out for?

It’s been a fantastic year for debut novelists, and I absolutely loved Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and am readying to read Sarah Domet’s The Guineveres and Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. In terms of my reading queue, I can’t wait to read Randa Jarrar’s Him, Me, Muhammad Ali—I absolutely adored her novel, A Map of Home—and a few non-fiction books, including Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction and Colin Dickey’s Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.

Wendy Oleson’s chapbook, Our Daughter and Other Stories (winner of the 2016 Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award), is forthcoming in the spring of 2017. Her recent stories appear in Quarterly West, Normal School, New Flash Fiction Review, and Carve Magazine (as the winner of the 2015 storySouth Million Writers Award). She lives in Pullman, WA and Los Angeles, CA and teaches creative writing for the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Dana Levin

Dana Levin’s fourth book, Banana Palace, has recently been released by Copper Canyon Press. The collection rings with immediacy, drawing readers in with poems that float through nearly apocalyptic landscapes, then zoom in to rest on the bodies within, grounding readers in living, breathing imagery. Levin explores a world after “the bees collapsed and the seas rose up” to speak to us. A world full of hunger, consumption, destruction. But also hope. These striking poems call for us to listen, to look, to see again—before it’s too late.

In addition to Banana Palace, contributor Dana Levin is the author of Wedding Day (Copper Canyon), Sky Burial (Copper Canyon), and In the Surgical Theatre, which won the APR/Honickman Award in 1999. Levin’s poetry and essays have appeared in many anthologies and magazines, including The Best American Poetry 2015, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry magazine, Memoriousand The Paris Review. Her fellowships and awards include those from the National Endowment for the Arts, PEN, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and Guggenheim Foundation. A teacher of poetry for over twenty years, Levin splits her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Maryville University in St. Louis, where she serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence.

The poems in this collection are futuristic and yet grounded in the familiarity of contemporary society. They explore a world in which bee colonies have collapsed, ice has melted, oceans have risen, and where lack of food is a big fear—environmental topics that are particularly timely. How does ecology play a role in this collection?

Well, I do think climate change poses the most profound threat to civilization as we know it; we’re already seeing its effects in terms of drought, flood, storm surge, sea rise, animal and plant migration: it’s happening. And I’m a pessimist in this regard: I don’t think humanity has it in it to put aside greed, will to power, love of convenience, and tribalism in order to make a unified and resourced effort against the industrial practices (global and local, from factory to household) that have heated up Earth.

But this is an analytical response. More intrinsic to Banana Palace is that, in the wake of my parents and sister dying between 2002-2006, something in me broke open to feeling this ecological change. I’d find myself standing on my back deck, weeping in grief for my loved ones, and then suddenly I’d be weeping for the trees, feeling the stress of drought and climate change upon them. Perhaps this was just a projected feeling, but I felt it nonetheless; this feeling drove a lot of the poems in the book.

Some of the poems even feel prophetic in a sense. The haunting opening poem of the third section, “Fortune Cookie” reads as a statement of fact, but holds an eerie feeling of being about more than fact, something akin to prophecy. The title poem, too, has moments that read oracular. Is poetry a type of prophecy? And if so, in what ways is poetry similar to prophecy and the poet to a type of prophesier?

I love Ginsberg’s answer to this question, in a 1965 Paris Review interview. He says prophecy is not knowing such and such a thing will happen on such and such a date, but rather feeling into the future. “HOWL” presents us with the damage mid-20th century American norms inflicted on artists, gays, eccentric thinkers, men who didn’t want to put on a suit and tie and go to work for IBM; Ginsberg offers in this poem, published in 1956, a cure that won’t become a cultural movement for another 15 years: love. Love the one you’re with, love your brother (physically, spiritually). This to me is poetry as prophecy. Pound says poets are the antenna of the (human) race: I think if you’re open to the Muse, messages sometimes arrive that are transpersonal, atemporal, and can seem, in hindsight, quite prescient.

There is play between the mind/body connection and the desire for a disconnection between body and mind in poems such as “Dmitry Itskov: A Cento” and “Across the Sea.”  In the latter poem, the speaker wonders, “Was that the soul, wishing // we would invent the body / out of existence.” And then there are poems like “Murray, My” which feels very embodied in its motions and preoccupations. How do you see the role of the body and mind—and the mind versus the body—in your work? Can we have one without the other?

The birth of art and religion begins with the first human confronting the first dead body: where did that person, or animal, go? Something animating used to be inside that sack of flesh; now the flesh is left but the spirit is gone. This is the beginning of knowing that flesh and spirit are separate in some mysterious way, yet irrevocably joined in order to be what we call “alive.”

We can’t have one without the other, as yet, though some try, like the Russian billionaire Itskov. To me, this drive is the very reason why the planet is in such dire trouble: if you can’t stand your own body, if you don’t want to tend it, if you feel outraged by the reality of aging and death, why would you be concerned with tending any bodies? You wouldn’t. You’d want to trash the whole body thing altogether, or let its appetites rampage with impunity.

I’m at peace now with being embodied, in a way I really wasn’t as a younger person. My body was such a source a physical discomfort, shame, and humiliation, a lot of it due to the internalized fat-shame, female-shame, generated by media and cultural norms. I lived from the neck up. It’s taken a concerted effort, and the help of some amazing body workers, and aging, for me to find this peace.

Hunger, consumption, and destruction are irrevocably linked in this collection. The speaker of “At the End of My Hours” is aware of this when she comments on “the wheel of appetite” and the cycle of “eating to live to kill to eat.” In a way, poetry is a hunger which may result in consumption and destruction. Can you discuss the relation of hunger and destruction in poetry? What did you consume while writing this collection? Was anything destroyed in the process?

Wow, what an interesting question! Well, I sure consumed a lot of chocolate and coffee while writing Banana Palace; I’m a slave to the bean.

Space seems to be a major component of this collection, in the sense of time and otherworldliness, but also in the formal aspects of the poems. Many of the poems look as if they could float off the page with the spaces between lines, indentations, and even the spaces between sections within the longer poems. The forms are visually appealing, adding another layer to the complex connections of images, sight, and sound working in individual poems as well as across the collection. How does form play a role in your work?

White space is a pregnant space, a place of drama: emphatic pause, the violence of being silenced by feeling or experience, lives there. It serves as a proxy for water and air. It’s a pool of non-verbal response. It’s the sea out which written expression arises and recedes. It’s as important to me as text. It gets bigger and more prominent in each book I write.

What are you working on now?

A fraught question! I would lament: Nothing! But my sister would say: That’s a lie. Ideas for essays assail me. Let’s see if I write them.

Interviewer Anastasia Stelse is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Fairy Tale Review, (parenthetical), and Meniscus, among others.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Eamon Grennan

In his new book, There Now (Graywolf Press), contributor Eamon Grennan gives us a collection of single sentence poems that examine, in intricate cadence and syntax, landscapes as various as a sea cliff in Connemara, a Manhattan street, post-Katrina New Orleans, a Middle East marketplace, and the poet’s back garden. The eye that observes these scenes finds their common shapes while allowing the reader to discern the emotional tenor that unites or divides them. The result is a poetry that reminds us of both the joys and responsibilities of looking, as in “winter city food market,” where we gorge on the sight of “Croakers snappers silver trout striped bass” while, in the same glance, taking in the “homeless / huddle of rags (astride the steam vent on the corner” outside the shop. In between, a woman checks “her own /thereness in…the market’s window.” The poems in the collection lead us to this interstice between beauty and need with a sureness that is both unerring and kind, as we confront where we are in time, space, and self.

Grennan, a Dubliner, taught for many years at Vassar College. He has also taught in Graduate Writing programs of Columbia and NYU. Recent collections are Out of Sight: New & Selected Poems (Graywolf), and But the Body (Gallery, Ireland). His volume, Still Life with Waterfall (Graywolf) won the Lenore Marshall Prize. He has translated the poems of Leopardi (winner of the PEN award in translation) and co-translated (with his partner, Rachel Kitzinger) Oedipus at Colonus (Oxford). He has also written a book of critical essays: Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the 20th Century.  His latest volume is There Now (published in Ireland in summer 2015, and by Graywolf in Autumn 2016). In the past few years, he has been writing and directing “plays for voices” for a small Irish theatre group—Curlew Theatre Company. He lives in Poughkeepsie and in Connemara.

I’ll start with the obvious by observing that this is a book composed entirely of single-sentence poems. You’ve used this form before for individual poems, of course, and to great effect, but an entire collection of them is a prodigious feat. I found that I needed to read the poems aloud in order to make sure that I caught all of the syntactical twists and turns. For me, the single sentence emphasized temporality—the moment-by-moment-ness of each poem, but also each moment’s place in a much larger and longer chronology, like beads on an invisible string. I’m wondering how the collection came into being, and what you were hoping to evoke with its form.

I can’t really recall the “how” of choosing the single sentence structure, nor “how” the book came into being. I suppose it grew in part out of my interest in speeding up the sense in a reader of so much data in any single observation and/or thought. I have another book in which all the poems are ten-liners, and formally I guess this was in my mind, and I tried or intended to give myself a bit more of a challenge, or a slightly different one this time. As you probably remember, I was always, in teaching, interested in the relationship of sentence to line, and the dance between the two. Cutting out punctuation almost entirely was to increase in a small way the speed, maybe the intensity of presentation. In ways too I guess I was just trying to do something a little differently. Since my range of “subjects” is quite small, I seek variety in shifting a bit the formal energy, the nerve-sense of the poem. And as you note, there’s an interest in the shaping of syntax, which is something I find in so many poets I admire. And I like your image of “beads on an invisible string.” Nice.

Continuing in a similar vein, I noticed very few, if any, commas in the book. (This reminded me of a moment years ago in workshop in which you declared that semicolons really were “disgusting,” weren’t they, and that we should all try to avoid using them. I’ve long treasured this advice!) Beyond affecting the speed at which we read the poems, the lack of pauses distills the action in each, as if everything in the poem is happening at once. Can you talk about your use of tempo within the poems and how it connects to your subjects?

I think your question sort of answers itself, doesn’t it? Fact is, I think (in a certain mood) that punctuation can be a bit artificial at times (though of course it can be a lovely presence too—think Henry James, John Donne). Yeats famously hadn’t a clue about punctuation.  But he knew rhythm absolutely, and so his editors worked it out—or that’s the story. And I always think a semi-colon in a poem is—what?—well not necessarily disgusting (did I say that, lord!), but it suggests too much calculation, or something. And as you justly say, the speed and notion of simultaneity are affected by the absence of those pauses created by punctuation. Back, so, to rhythm. And I used, far as I could without creating blur, only colons (here and there) or dashes—both of which (to me) suggest an on-going, not a halt.

The landscape of Renvyle and elsewhere, and the flora and fauna within each landscape, feel central to the book—the poems often take an image of a bird or plant as a focal point. However, I kept coming across almost antiphonal moments between animals and humans in the poems, suggesting a narrative, or at least connection. For instance, in “sand martins departing,” we see the birds disappearing into the “chambering vacancies in the cliff-face,” and then the poem on the facing page, “gone,” opens with the line “the little house grows quiet now she’s gone from it.” What is the relationship, as you see it, between the natural world and the human in the poems?

Your lovely observations here (“almost antiphonal moments” and others) is likely enough. I can’t add much really. I like such things to be discovered and held up for inspection about what’s going on a poem. You notice what I suppose is there, but maybe as much by happy accident as anything else. Though, yes, at the centre of what I do is something about our ways of relating to the natural world. And I live out here in Renvyle where the natural world of weather, landscape of mountains, rocks, fields, sea is always pressing. I suppose there’s a sort of philosophic tendency, or meditative anyway, in the poems, their habits.  That’s a way to enlarge and deepen the descriptive tendency.  It’s why I love certain painters.

I found myself paying attention to your pronouns as I read. Many of the poems employ a “you” that feels quite intimate—the poet speaking to himself—perhaps more intimate than the “I,” which is more declarative: “I’m thinking of…” or “What I’m hearing is…” (from “flower” and “body,” respectively). There are also many poems in the third person that describe a “he” and “she,” and in places the book shifts from “you” to “he/she” to “I” in the space of as many poems. Why did you employ these differing perspectives?

 It is a funny thing, isn’t it, the way the pronouns adjust somehow the reader’s response to the material, to what’s being said. I find sometimes I use an “I” then change it to a “you” or a “he”—and they’ll all be rooted in the same observing and thing or source. But the use of one or other pronoun shifts our sense of what’s being seen and said. Sometimes things seem too subjective, so then I distance it a bit.  Nothing very profound about that. Again it’s trying to get at a right sense of “how will this work” when received by another. That imagined dialogue between reader and writer.

There are other memorable figures in the book, namely the many artists—Gauguin, Giacometti, Serra, Manet, Bonnard, others—to whom you respond. This creates a mirroring, and perhaps distancing, effect, as you observe another artist observing. What is your sense of how these ekphrastic poems correspond with the rest of the book?

Another good, testing question! Well first the ekphrastic poems are just my little hommages to the artists. Also they are attempts to capture some of their flavour and feel in the way I respond, and to get something of that into the language. Or more simply the painting has triggered something in me, in me as responder, that I want in some way to (sort of) dramatise in the poem. Sometimes it’s just that the emotional content of a painting or piece of art strikes a recognisable chord in me, in my feelings—I feel something for what’s going on in the paintings. As you can see, most of my painters are in one way or another to a greater or lesser degree representational. But I also love paintings where the abstract and the representational hover about each other. But I’m not sure how one would get that into a poem.

The title of the collection, there now, strikes me as particularly apt, both in the sense of pointing to something—a moment, an image—and as an expression of comfort. Are you hoping to comfort us in some way with this book?

No, I don’t think I’m really trying to “comfort.” I think poems are going about some other business—maybe coaxing toward realisation, or something like that. But as for the phrase, yes. I think of it as hovering between an assertion of what’s there (space) now (time).  Suggesting fleetingness, but affirming presence too. And then the comfort thing, yes.  And it’s a common enough phrase in Ireland—meaning, among other things, “well, just look at that will you…”)  It’s also, as Billy Collins reminded me, what a bar-man may say as he plants down your pint on the counter, “There now.” And I like titles, especially book titles, to look in more than one direction.

We have a tradition in this interview series of asking our interviewees for their poetic lineages. In your poem in memoriam to Seamus Heaney, “sudden dark,” you write, of his loss, that you “still have to take the pressing heft and ponder of it to heart.” How did Heaney influence you, and who else is in your poetry family tree?

Of course I admire and have always admired Heaney’s work. Its generosity of spirit, depth of responsiveness, tactility of engagement with the world of nature and things, its responsible and courageous way with vexed political matter. And of course I’d find myself attached to poets like Kavanagh, Mahon, Longley, Montague, Ni Chuilleanáin and lots of others in the Irish context, whom I wouldn’t think I am in any sort of line with, of course. Similarly my admiration for, and feeling of having learnt from poets like Bishop, Kinnell, Plath, Hass, and others in recent American context. But then there’s the mighty ones way back—Yeats, Stevens, Williams, Berryman and so on and so on.  Aside from that there are the forefathers—Herbert, Donne, Hopkins, Whitman, Dickinson, Keats, Wordsworth—the usual nourishers. Lineage is hard to determine, that’s all. One is nourished, and one is grateful.

Interviewer Anna Ross is the author of If a Storm (Anhinga Press) and the chapbooks Figuring (Bull City Press) and Hawk Weather (Finishing Line Press). She teaches in the Writing, Literature & Publishing program at Emerson College.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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