Interview: Sari Wilson

August 25th, 2016

Sari WilsonMidwestern Gothic staffer Rachel Hurwitz talked with author Sari Wilson about her novel Girl Through Glass, intertwining stories, delivery and destruction in the ballet world, and more.
(Photo credit: Elena Seibert)

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Rachel Hurwitz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Sari Wilson: I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s, which was a pretty frayed and urban landscape, alternately dense and abandoned. Then I went to college in Ohio, at Oberlin, and it was the first time I had seen such a big sky. I remember just walking around marveling at the sky. I also lived in Chicago in the 1990s and loved it. It felt like a respite, a place where I could explore. Flash forward: my family moved to Ann Arbor for my husband’s Knight Wallace journalism fellowship. At this point, I was revising Girl Through Glass and I would go write at this great coffee shop, up near north campus, where we lived. I think that I fell in love with the spaces of the Midwest—they feel more open and generous. Ironically, perhaps, I now live in Brooklyn again, a few miles from where I grew up, but living in the Midwest at these key times was really key to my writing life. I think I developed a broader perspective on the world and myself.

RH: Girl Through Glass, your debut novel, is somewhat personal, as it reflects on your own time as a ballerina. Was it difficult to base a story on some of your own experiences? Or is the novel more loosely based on your life – making your experiences a better form of inspiration?

SW: Initially, I tried to write a memoir about my time as a ballet dancer—from about 8 to 14, but it never went very far. I realized at some point that my experience wasn’t very usual or dramatically compelling, so I began interviewing girls I danced with who went on to dance professionally. I incorporated all these experiences into the characters of Mira and Maurice. Combining the autobiographical elements—the ones from my memory—with the fictional elements, was challenging but really freeing at the same time. It let me go places I had never gone.

RH: Similarly, Girl Through Glass, intertwines two stories: that of Mira, an up and coming ballerina and her relationship with her balletomane, Maurice, with that of Kate, a dance professor and her relationship with one of her students. Was it difficult to keep the two stories and tones separate? Or was it a natural transition between the two?

SW: Well, actually I wrote the storylines at different times. First Mira, and then Kate. I wrote the whole Mira storyline and it took me a bunch of years and then this other voice started coming to me. It was Kate’s voice. It wasn’t until I had Kate’s voice that I knew that I had a book on my hands. After I wrote Kate’s story, I threaded the narratives together. This part was difficult and I kept a lot of charts to remind myself where I was in the narrative and in Mira and Kate’s lives while at the same time continuing to develop the themes of the novel as a whole.

Girl Through Glass

RH: Why did you choose for Kate to be a professor at a college in the Midwest? How do you think the juxtaposition of Mira’s life in the city to Kate’s in the Midwest affected the novel?

SW: Such a great and interesting question! So even though the college in Girl Through Glass is not really Oberlin, I used my college experience to evoke a sort of similar space—a small college town with a big sky, powerful winters. And a great dance program. For me personally, and I think for the character of Kate too, the intensity and competitiveness of her childhood New York City in dance is alive in her memory—and kind of frozen in time. Going back to New York City, the scene of her childhood, and of so much that is unresolved for her, is a very high-stakes moment that has, I hope, dramatic tension which is only increased through the contrast in settings.

RH: Girl Through Glass has been called “a chilling, evocative portrait of the 1970s New York dance world and the young lives it consumed,” by Kate Walbert, author of Our Kind. Do you agree with her proposition that ballet consumes lives and do you think that this is portrayed in your novel?

SW: The ballet world I knew both delivered and destroyed. It gave us so much—power, when we, as children, had so little—and an experience of beauty. At the same time, the pressures, especially on the body and body image, could be destructive. These two truths exists side by side because, I think, we live in a world full of paradoxical truths. Writing Girl Through Glass revealed this to me.

RH: After so many years as a dancer, what influenced you to become an author in the first place? Additionally, why did you choose for this topic specifically to be the crux for your debut?

SW: When I was 18, in college (I had already left the ballet world), I had a really difficult injury and it made a professional dance career impossible for me. I started traveling—and keeping a journal and writing in my free time and became really devoted to writing. As for why I chose this topic, I think it more chose me! I happened on the opening scenes during a free writing session years ago, I just kept working with it and it grew and grew over the years and kept expanding until I realized it was a novel. I wanted to explore that early passion I felt and see if I could bring it into language, my new love.

RH: What is the most difficult facet of writing for you? Is it the initial idea, or the final editing? Maybe the depth of characterizations or choice of location?

SW: The sheer stamina it takes to “lay down track,” to just get the words on the pages. I enjoy the editing process, it’s challenges are those of working with a material, like clay or something. Writing the pages and pages for a first draft feels like running blind into a fierce wind; it just is a real marathon that takes a lot of energy.

RH: What’s next for you?

SW: There seems to be a lot of interest in the issues in Girl Through Glass—from ballet, to the 1970s, to the lives of girls (and boys) in high performance, competitive fields. One amazing thing about the publishing process is listening to readers and exploring the issues that are interesting to them. So I’m enjoying writing essays related to dance and writing. I also have, in secret moments, another novel brewing, and am hoping to start it in earnest this summer.

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Sari Wilson is author of the acclaimed novel Girl Through Glass. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Agni, Slice, and Third Coast. She is the recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship, and a residency from Yaddo. Sari trained as a dancer with the Harkness Ballet in New York and was on scholarship at Eliot Feld’s New Ballet School.

A Note from the Editors: Voices of the Middle West

Hello!

If you’re reading this, we hope you’re enjoying what’s left of summer. It’s a point of ours to address our contributors and readers and writers and fans this way a bit more often—when we have something to say. And today, we do.

It is with heavy hearts that we’re announcing that we will no longer be putting on the Voices of the Middle West Literary festival.

We started the festival with a very simple goal in mind: to bring together the diverse voices and minds of the Midwest, to showcase the immense wealth of talent we have in the storytellers and publishers and editors that live here. In addition, and perhaps selfishly, we wanted to create an event where we could hang out with people we love, hobnob with presses and journals and scholars and students and everyone in-between. For three solid years, we feel we’ve been able to do that: to create an alternative literary festival for the region that was free to the public. One that had important panels and panelists and kick-started relevant and topical and essential conversations. And, most importantly, a festival that was fun for everyone to take part in.

None of this would have been possible, we might add, without the immense efforts of Voices Co-Organizer Laura Thomas. Laura, a Lecturer and the Program Head for the Creative Writing area of the University of Michigan’s Residential College, has shaped this with us—this is her event as much as it is ours. She helped us navigate the university channels, found us champions to our cause, and put in so much work it’s nearly unfathomable. Truly, we would not have created Voices of the Middle West or made it what it was without her. We also recognize the Residential College itself for their contributions, for allowing us to house the festival in their wonderful halls and for supporting us.

We are saddened about discontinuing Voices, but we’re grateful. We’ve shared three wonderful years with Ann Arbor and greater Midwest community. We hope that, someday, we may be able to revisit the festival and bring it back. Until then, thank you all for your continued support, for driving and flying in to attend Voices these past years, for your kind words about it and what it has meant to you. None of this is easy, and knowing how important Voices has been, it’s made it even more difficult. However, we’re glad we were able to be there for you all in some way. We did this—truly—for all of you, and seeing the outpouring of support we’ve continued to get…well, it means the world. Thank you all.

—Jeff Pfaller and Robert James Russell, August 2016

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Contributor Spotlight: Jimmie Cumbie

Jimmie CumbieJimmie Cumbie’s piece “Anglers” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 22, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?

I grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, and currently live in Chicago. My youthful (and not so youthful), knee-jerk opposition to my hometown definitely served as creative fuel. We’ve since observed a general, if uneasy, cessation of hostilities – almost something akin to what an adult might do.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?

The Great Lakes are our collective, glorious treasure. I’m quite partial to Lake Michigan, Chicago’s mood ring and occasional ice mirror.

How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?

I was a child of the 1970’s and ‘80’s, a time of upheaval and contraction in the once thriving, heavily industrialized corridor that ran from Gary, Indiana, northward to Milwaukee. In my family, among my friends and in Racine itself, there was a real struggle to find a footing in the broken economic promises of those years. Not to get TOO Springsteen about it, but I’d point to those formative experiences of layoffs and closures and boarded downtowns as a pretty solid reason for the sense of dislocation and alienation running through many of my poems.

Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.

Much of my immediate inspiration comes from reading other poets. For example, “Hey, how can I steal this great stuff from Brigit Pegeen Kelly (my current obsession) while somehow making it my own poem, my own experience?” As for an ideal writing environment, I love writing outside, on the “back porch” of my apartment, or in a park, or on a slab of limestone facing Lake Michigan. It has practically become a necessity, which can be a challenge, considering that for six months out of the year it’s rather inhospitable out of doors.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?

I love to shape and revise, and rarely think of any of my poems as done, forever done. I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a good thing.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?

This is an ever changeable thing for me, but if someone had a gun to my head and told me I’d have to pick ONE favorite or else! I would probably say… James Wright. A true brother in Midwestern struggle!

What’s next for you?

I have poems forthcoming in Meridian and Spillway later this year.

Where can we find more information about you?

You could probably talk to my mom if you needed an honest and accurate appraisal, or, failing that, I currently have poems & info about me online at northamericanreview.org, swink.com, boxcarpoetry.com, ciderpressreview.com & structomagazine.co.uk.

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Contributor Spotlight: Jon Steinhagen

Jon SteinhagenJon Steinhagen’s story “First Bed” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 22, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?

I’ve been a lifelong Chicagoan – the city and its immediate suburbs. The voices of this area – flat, blunt, unsentimental – and its mercurial urban/suburban growth are endlessly fascinating to me, but most of all its maddening contradictions (crime, segregation, beautification, etc.).

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?

The cities don’t define the Midwest, in my eyes. It’s the predominance of smaller communities couched in agriculture, the tiny towns that have been run down; the instant orientation of places, things, people.

How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?

I’ve always been attracted to the idea of outreach – the city person who feels a need to connect to an out-of-the-way village with a population under 1000, say, or vice versa…how the pace of life and the scenery can change into an entirely different world in the space of a 60-minute drive.

Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.

I’m inspired by titles cribbed from posts on social media and place names – my imagination fills in the rest. I don’t have an ideal writing environment, but it does help to have music going while I work (I tend to favor pop music from the 1970s, chamber music by forgotten 19th Century composers, or dance band music from the 1930s). I have yet to experience writer’s block (he said, knocking on wood); listening and reading have always inspired me to come up with things to write.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?

When I’ve forgotten it (i.e. when the story/situation/characters stop clanging on the insides of my skull).

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?

I’ve always cherished invention and humor; of the writers no longer with us, my favorite is Donald Barthelme – of my contemporaries, Amber Sparks knocks me out.

What’s next for you?

A collection of my stories, The Big Book of Sounds, will be published in July by Black Lawrence Press; I’m currently working on two new play commissions, and am working on three short novels inspired by botched crimes (fictional) in the Midwest.

Where can we find more information about you?

Dramatists Guild of America has my bio page; likewise Black Lawrence Press has an author page, but I can always be reached at troubleclefmusic@gmail.com

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Midwest in Photos: Spirit Tree from Joplin

“The branches are hand models displaying wares, showing off glass trinkets.” -Henry Heidger, “Paper Comes From Birch Trees,” Midwestern Gothic Issue 17

Spirit Tree from Joplin

Photo by:  Samatha Navarro

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Interview: Chris McCormick

Chris McCormickMidwestern Gothic staffer Sydney Cohen talked with author Chris McCormick about his collection Desert Boys, juxtapositions of home and identity, autobiographical elements in a bildungsroman, and more.

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Sydney Cohen: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Chris McCormick: I moved to Ann Arbor in the fall of 2012 for graduate school at the University of Michigan. I’ve been free to leave for a couple of years now, but I love this place. A great book town, a great beer town — I get to expand my mind and my gut at the same time. I don’t have a car, so I don’t need to shovel snow in the winter. I’m lucky to be here.

SC: Your novel, Desert Boys, deals in transformations – the transformations of deserts to cities, from boys to men. These transformations inescapably involve time as an active agent in the development of one thing into another. What interests you about the dynamic of transformations and the passage of time?

CM: Boys 2 Men was an alternate title for the book, but we couldn’t clear legal. As for time — yeah, transformations are about the before and after and the space between, and that means time. Unless we’re talking about Beckett or that camp, time is the oxygen of narrative — it’s easy to forget it’s there, working, always. For my book, I fragmented the narrative so that I could — like a cubist painter, who can show both sides of the face in profile — show multiple aspects of the story at the same time. I think that strategy works well with first-person narrators, who don’t look back on their lives in perfect chronological order. They remember moments. But the moments have to add up to something, a larger story, which is another way of saying transformation.

desert boys

SC: Your novel also addresses the juxtaposition centered around home and identity – a yearning to belong to one’s root community contrasted by a longing to escape and forge a new path. How do your characters navigate between these two contrasting motivations?

CM: Ah, that’s the heart of the book — you’ll have to read to find out. But I will say that the main character, Daley “Kush” Kushner, is absolutely convinced as a young person that he’ll belong in a major city, and then, after he moves to San Francisco, after he travels to New York and Paris, he’s proven wrong. It’s not so much an inability to find a “home” so much as it’s a misunderstanding of what “home” means. He’s looking for a place that doesn’t exist. Which is why, at the end of the book, he’s forced to find a new strategy.

SC: Although set in both San Francisco and the Mojave Desert, Desert Boys shares many themes in common with Midwest prose, including the conflicting desires wrapped up in one’s sense of home. How did your time at the University of Michigan and your connection to the Midwest influence your writing in Desert Boys?

CM: Other than the people and books I’ve encountered here, and the luxury of time and funding from the MFA program, I’m not sure. I grew up in a family with no money in the California high desert, but my dad is originally from Detroit. I thought maybe I’d feel something stir in me by doing the opposite of what he’d done, by coming to Michigan decades after he left it. But other than admiring that poetic circularity, I can’t say I felt any stir. Of course I continued paying attention to the details — noticing how different the weather is here, the flora, the way people talk, etc. The specifics of this place are in obvious ways in contrast to the specifics of the Mojave Desert, and it’s vital to start with the specifics before leaping to the big questions. But those big questions – Why is my home not a home? Why do I love the person I love? What am I willing to do to belong? — those questions are the same anywhere you go. Or at least, anywhere I’ve been.

SC: Desert Boys has been described as a bildungsroman, a novel highlighting one’s coming of age. How has your own personal history influenced or inspired the character of Daley Kushner and his development into adulthood, if at all?

CM: Like Kush, I’m the son of an Armenian immigrant. Like Kush, I grew up on the California side of the Mojave Desert and went to Berkeley for college. Unlike Kush, who is better off financially and a better student than I was, I went to a community college first. More than Kush, I felt like a fraud at Berkeley. Unlike Kush, I am straight and did not fall in love with my best friend. Unlike Kush, my mother is not sick, and my friends who went to war did not get killed in action. The list goes on, but of course all of it is me, my fears and anxieties, my doubts, my curiosities, my obsessions. It’s all me.

SC: What is your ideal writing environment – the sights, scents, and sounds?

CM: Ideally, I’d have a quiet cabin in a place where the weather was always 68 degrees and overcast, where there was no rain or bugs, and where the wind was quiet. But I like my current situation too: a nice apartment I share with my girlfriend, a much more widely-read and talented writer than I am. And I like writing at coffee shops — sometimes a couple people talking in the background helps to remind me that writing shouldn’t only be self-expression, but conversation, too.

SC: Do you have a favorite genre to read? And how does that influence what you write?

CM: Character-driven fiction is my home base. But I dig witty, skeptical, and close-reading historians like Susan Jacoby. I think great poetry moves me more than almost any other art. A recent collection I can’t stop re-reading is Derrick Austin’s Trouble the Water. As for influence — there are people who think avoiding other writers’ work is the way to maintain an “authentic” or “pure” voice. Those people are idiots. Every voice is a canon, and the more books you’ve read, the more options you have to enrich and complicate and specialize your you-ness.

SC: What’s next for you?

CM: I’m writing a funny novel about the Armenian Genocide. Wish me luck.

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Chris McCormick is the author of Desert Boys, a collection of linked stories out from Picador. He was raised on the California side of the Mojave Desert in a place called the Antelope Valley. He has degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan, and recent work appears in Tin House and The Atlantic. He lives in Ann Arbor.

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Contributor Spotlight: Caitlin Pryor

Caitlin PryorCaitlin Pryor’s pieces “What’s Left of Michigan” and “Cold Comfort” appear in Midwestern Gothic Issue 21, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?

I was born in Detroit and lived in Michigan until I graduated from the University of Michigan in 2008. The Midwest has influenced my writing in that I have historically struggled to define my own identity and the identity of the place I come from. My family has lived in this country for hundreds of years, and being an only child born to nonreligious parents with small families has only exacerbated my sense of being born sui generis in some way. And yet, as someone recently pointed out to me, I do have certain tendencies toward Midwestern pride: my ferocious love of domestic cars, for example, or my disdain for folks who can’t handle the cold. The region has perhaps meant most to me because it seems in some ways largely faceless: this, in turn, has forced me to wrestle with who I am in important ways.

In a poem called “Vanishing Act,” which was published in Poet Lore a few years back, I discuss my (somewhat successful?) project of losing my Midwestern accent. This happened largely without overt effort—though I did try to stop using a lateral vowel whenever I could (Michiganders pronounce “salmon” as “SAM-in,” wherein the speaker’s mouth opens to form what is almost a horizontal line)—I began to ask myself why I wanted to sound like I wasn’t from anywhere at all. I think I craved this kind of being-from-anywhereness because I already felt like I had no home, like the Midwest had prepared me to live and be from almost anywhere, and I wanted a broad, unidentifiable accent to match. Much to my chagrin, many people tell me that I have a shade of a Texan accent on some words now. This is a long way of saying that writing about the Midwest and physically leaving it behind has taught me the most about geography, family, and ancestry. We can’t escape where we’re from; we have to confront it in one way or another. And that confrontation, for me, happens most often through writing poems.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?

I’ll confine my comments to what I know about Michigan folks specifically. And in that case, I would say that it comes down to a few things: our attachment to our major industries, the relationship we have to the state’s often volatile weather, and our resoluteness. Being from a GM family, I still bristle when people expound upon the glories of their Fords. I also relish living in Texas now, where the weather remains warm, hot, or pleasant for most of the year; my friends and family back in Michigan often find themselves baffled by the Midwest’s changeable weather or stultified by its long, grey winters. And above all, I see more every year I spend away how tough Midwesterners, and perhaps especially Michiganders, are. Major industry collapses? We’ll make it somehow. Largest cities suffer from racial inequality and brain drain and corruption? We’ll try to fix them. It’s ten below outside? Put on your god damn fleece-lined jeans and shovel the driveway.

How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?

As a narrative lyric poet who sometimes embraces and sometimes shuns the label “confessional,” those kinds of experiences and memories are hugely important for me. Poetry is the way I make sense of the world and of my own life, but this isn’t mere solipsism: I can’t expect everyone to care about the time my Uncle Tim took me out on the back deck to lob slingshot pellets at the herd of guinea hens in the neighbors’ backyard. The poems have to matter to someone else, and not just the imaginary, elusive “reader.” They have to have the power to touch real people who know nothing about the Midwest, who don’t understand what it’s like to be sexually aroused by a Chevy. And that’s sort of all I’ve ever wanted to do as an artist: to make people see and feel. I had been writing poems since I was old enough to hold a pencil, but I remember the exact moment I decided that I wanted to be a poet (whatever that is). I was 12, standing in a bookstore on Main Street in the quiet resort town of Charlevoix, Michigan, where my grandparents lived for about four years. I was perusing the poetry shelf, devouring poem after poem by authors living and dead, local and far flung. And I was able to recognize the depth of the feelings their work was evoking in me as something that was not magic, but synthetic—created. In other words, more magical than magic. And in turn, Charlevoix remains a mythical and yet very real place in my mind and in my writing.

Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.

Having written poems since I was a child, inspiration, for me, is easy to recognize and comes at me from all angles. That sense of Ooo, that’s a poem, hits me like a little shock, but it’s difficult for me to describe the qualities that go into a moment like that (which infuriates both me and my students when they ask me the same question). Here are some examples, however: I have a bookmarks folder on my computer where I keep internet “clippings” that have given me that flash of inspiration. Headlines are often great for this. I have some saved in my folder that read, “Woman Plunges 60 Feet from Store Balcony, Lands on Mattress,” or “Taxi Drivers Say They’ve Picked Up Ghosts of 2011 Tsunami Victims in Japan.” The frisson of inexplicability and beauty and pain that I feel when reading these headlines moves me to write.

My ideal writing environment is one where I can feel the pulse of other people: coffee shops, bars, airports, and recently (and bizarrely) a nail salon. Though these labels might not ultimately be worth much, I’m what you might call a textbook extrovert: I derive my energy from being around others. When I’m grading or doing freelance editing or lesson planning, I prefer silence and solitude. But when it comes to writing poems, I prefer to write right in the middle of things—in life’s midst. The writing life can be a lonely one, if you let it, and writing in public has the effect of reminding me that poetry is a living art form and that my readers are very much real, as well.

Writer’s block, I’ve found for myself at least, isn’t about having nothing to say or about some mysterious, intangible dam: it’s about permission, or its lack. If I’m feeling “blocked,” it’s usually because I haven’t given myself permission to write a poem I know I want to write or, even more frequently, because I haven’t given myself permission to try something very new or wild, something that scares me or is wholly unfamiliar. I combat these feelings by telling myself that, as Gabrielle Calvocoressi recently said to me, drafts and early revisions are or ought to be mainly about play, not about revision or craft outright. And if that’s all I’m obliged to do when faced with a blank page, writer’s block seems ludicrous. It’s playtime, I’ve recently been telling myself. Enjoy it.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?

I think for me I know a piece is done when I’m moved to speak the words out loud. When I start getting an itch to recite it to myself as I’m near the end of the drafting process, I know I’m close. When the internal rhythms and music of a piece feel strong enough, I know the poem is, well… what I call “ready or ready enough.” I have a folder on my laptop with that title, where I keep pieces that are ready for other eyes and other modes of transmission beyond the privacy of my own page. What the poems in this file are ready for, exactly, varies. Sometimes it’s submission, sometimes it’s the keen eyes of my poet friends, or sometimes it’s the opportunity to sit, satisfied, alongside my other “ready” poems while I think about their potential and their promise.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?

What an unenviable choice to make! I think I’ll go “dead poets” rather than living poets on this one. I think my favorite dead poet would have to be Stevens. I recently got up the nerve to get my first tattoo (a phrase from “The Man on the Dump”) that I had been meditating on for years: stanza my stone. I admire deeply Stevens’ lifelong fascination with the relationship of the imagination to reality as well as the relationship of art to our lives. Stevens was also the consummate hedonist—an image of him I cherish deeply (reiterated in David Perkins’ A History of Modern Poetry and elsewhere) is of the poet cutting an apple and dipping each slice into a mound of mayonnaise. Stevens once confessed, “I am a miserable sinner and love being so,” in a letter to a friend. Perhaps Stevens taught me about permission as well: permission to ensconce art at the center of one’s life, permission to worship the imagination, permission to delight in the glories of the secular world.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently seeking publication for my first book, a collection titled New Narcissus. I’m also at work on some new poems that give in to my penchant for culture, popular or otherwise: a poem about the 30th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, a poem about I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, a poem that uses death-row inmate John Battaglia’s crimes as a jump point for a meditation on pain, and a poem that considers the prospect of teaching Ovid to my students while I struggle with the concept of love. I’m also currently working on reviews and interviews for Pleiades, The American Literary Review, and American Microreviews and Interviews.

Where can we find more information about you?

You can visit www.caitlinpryor.com to learn more and read my work. I also tweet (very infrequently) and Instagram (frequently) at @darlingaesthete.

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Contributor Spotlight: Andrea England

Andrea EnglandAndrea England’s piece “Orange Dress” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 22, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?

I grew up on a farm in Middle Illinois, but ultimately, the Midwest is a place I keep coming back to. I came to Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2008 to embark on a PhD. That’s long finished, but I’m still here. Influence-wise, well… I never thought I’d utilize landscape in my poems to the extent that it would be a focus, or lead me to thinking or writing about environmental non-action. The region has also, of course, influenced the speakers and other personas in my poetry.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?

I had a friend who’d always lived on the East Coast. He was beside himself with the cornfields that went on for miles. This makes the sunsets remarkable. Between these and the Great Lakes, it’s a tough choice.

How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?

The rural Midwest (farming) probably influences my work the most. I think that as poets, we all write about similar issues and experiences. It’s the landscape that distinguishes one from another. Most of my poems, no matter what the context, begin with a singular, textured, image. These images depend on the atmosphere around them. For instance, think of what humidity does to your hair… Or roosters.

Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.

I always read before I write. I always start with pencil and paper. Ideal environments? Out of the house. People get so weirded out about writer’s block. In all honesty, I try not to think about it except in saying that it’s part of the poeming process as much as anything.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?

I wish I were one of those writers who could say I believe poems get finished. It’s a letting go process for sure. Ultimately, the poem’s got to feel unpredictable in the end and sound like something might overtake me at any moment.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?

I have a big crush on Natalie Diaz right now. Her work is honest and the way she uses syntax to create music is fascinating to me. Honesty is one of the most difficult things to come by these days — music perhaps a little easier, but both? And the em dash? How does she do that?

What’s next for you?

I’m in the middle of a round of Tupelo’s May 30/30. If I survive that? Lake Michigan…

Where can we find more information about you?

I’m not very good about the “more information” piece. I Facebook a little, but if anyone wants to build me a website, I’d probably accept.

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Midwest in Photos: Asphaltum

“I need a map that has yet to be drawn, one that will chart for me the peaks and valleys over which I’ve been riding, one that will help me decipher and untangle the roads that crisscross like arteries over the heart of the heart of this country.” –Rocco Versaci, “Not in Kansas Anymore,” Midwestern Gothic Issue 13

Asphaltum

Photo by: Kevin Yuskis

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Interview: Toni Nealie

Toni NealieMidwestern Gothic staffer Giuliana Eggleston talked with author Toni Nealie about her book of essays The Miles Between Me, approaching sensitive topics, the influence of identities, and more.

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Giuliana Eggleston: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Toni Nealie: It’s home these days. I walk my dog on the wide sidewalks of Oak Park, Ilinnois, those hated by Hemingway (my kids have gone to the same school that he did.) My family, work and cultural life are centered here. I teach at Columbia College Chicago, am the lit editor at Newcity, write in Oak Park, fight with rabbits and squirrels here.

GE: Much of your new book of essays, The Miles Between Me, deals with the experiences you’ve had moving from New Zealand to Chicago. Has this move affected your use of place and setting in your writing?

TN: Place is central to my writing. I grew up with the dramatic landscape of Aotearoa’s mountains, ocean and native forests. It is ever-present in these essays, but I chart my growing appreciation for the Midwestern landscape.

GE: Has your writing style changed at all with the move?

TN: Very much so. Previously I wrote journalism, now I am writing more lyrical, digressive, thoughtful prose. Uncoupling myself from straight narrative was freeing.

The Miles Between Me

GE: In your essay “On The Rights and Privileges of Being an Alien,” you address difficult subjects such as racial profiling when traveling between countries. How do you approach writing about these sensitive topics? Are there areas you try to avoid, or specifically touch on?

TN: It is hard to balance my personal encounters with racism and immigration against the enormity of what other migrants go through. I’m only telling my story, and as painful as it was for me, I know my experience pales in comparison to that of others. I found it hard to weigh the discourse about borders and immigration against people’s real fears of terrorism from outside threats. My main concern was toward the people closest to me, how they would perceive what I was trying to do when talking about family matters.

GE: Your essays can be deeply personal, letting the reader in on intimate areas of your life such as your family, fears, and memories. Are there any challenges you face when making yourself this vulnerable? What do you hope to achieve by opening yourself up to the public in this way?

TN: My main achievement is writing to make sense of my own life and some of the forces in it, but I hope that aspects of my individual perspectives will ring true on a universal human level. I have met several women who say they were brought to tears when reading the first essay, because it mirrored the experience of losing their identity through isolation or loss of job and had made them feel very alone. I’ve had strangers of various ethnicities who relate to the dualities and questions and general weirdness offered in “Meditations on Brownness” – how your perception of yourself can be so different to the box bureaucracy or society tries to squeeze you into.

GE: Your writing is often influenced by your identities–your status as an “alien” in the United States, the color of your skin, being a woman. Have these identities always been strong factors in your life, or have certain experiences brought them into sharper focus? How have these identities factored into the development of your writing style?

TN: They have been brought into sharp focus! I’ve been conscious of race and gender issues for a long time. Having children leaves you in no doubt that you are a woman. But until I moved to the U.S. my life wasn’t as compartmentalized, and being a woman and a brown person wasn’t as fraught as I have encountered here. Politicians don’t let a day go by without attempting to curtail women’s agency. We see daily the suffering of people outside the dominant circle of power and influence. Not to say that gender and ethnicity aren’t issues in my homeland, but the U.S is such a vast country, with a history of religious values, geopolitics and race dynamics that create a polarized present.

GE: While your writing takes its form primarily in essays, it has a very lyrical and poetic quality nonetheless. What is your writing process like, and what inspires your more poetic style? Is it the natural way you write or do you spend time crafting your phrases?

TN: I draw on both movement and stillness when I write. I like to walk and think and read poetry or lyrical work before I sit down. I am naturally a very social person, used to busy newsrooms and noisy offices. To write, I have the music off to be in a more meditative state. I like the play and rhythm of words on the page. I’m a slow writer. These essays took a lot of time!

GE: The topics of your essays are very autobiographical, focusing on your personal experiences and illuminating aspects of life through first-hand accounts. When do you first know you are going to write about something you have experienced?

TN: Initially, I thought I was going to write a book of general nonfiction, but I was pressed to make sense of my own life and the essay is able to combine biography, factual research, poetry, imagination, digression, playfulness, and anecdote until it makes its own alchemy and is none of the above. The essay draws on my own life, but it is carefully curated and imagined.

GE: What’s next for you?

TN: A nonfiction book-length project and a fiction project that I am researching, but too soon to say what will work yet. I could do with an agent!

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Toni Nealie is the author of The Miles Between Me, an essay collection about homeland, dispersal, heritage and family. Her essays have appeared in Guernica, The Prague Revue, The Offing, The Rumpus, Hobart and Entropy. Her essay “the Displeasure of the Table” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from New Zealand, she worked as a journalist and in public relations in NZ and the UK. She holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. She teaches and is Literary Editor of Newcity.

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