Contributor Spotlight: Monica Berlin and Beth Marzoni

August 27th, 2014

berlin_marzoni8Monica Berlin and Beth Marzoni’s jointly-written piece “Once, the Nomenclature of Boulevard & Thoroughfare Turned Common” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 14, out now.

How long have you been writing?
Well, hard to say. We’ve always been, even when we weren’t. We’ve been in conversation for more than a decade—a conversation begun in the winter of 2002. The easiest answer to this question, or the oversimplified answer, is that we’ve been consciously making poems together—the poems of which [Once, the nomenclature of boulevard & thoroughfare turned common,] is a part—for just over two years. Before that, we made poems in correspondence for a few years, and before that we both wrote alone. And we have continued to write alone, but even then our writing lives are the center of gravity for all of our conversation. The whole time we’ve known each other, and then maybe even before we knew each other, our lives a gathering of seeing and looking and listening that led us here, to these lines, these rooms, and that may continue, or that may evolve into another.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Our work together is dependent on that landscape. The landscape is the vocabulary for that work. It’s where we live, or rather where we sometimes live. One of the ways we both find the poems really interesting is that our connection to the Midwest is not the same—that it doesn’t mean the same thing to both of us at the same time. Beth thinks about the landscape photographer Robert Adams, who once said that his job was to go into the landscape that he feared the most and to keep photographing it until it no longer scared him. Monica has tried to figure out how to stop apologizing for the Midwest, how to stop turning away from it, to learn how to be in it, to know it in whatever way we can ever really know any place. We’ve sought to learn to recognize it, sometimes for the recognition that might mitigate its size and shape, its diverse topography and oceanlessness, sometimes to learn to accept it for what it is—sometimes saturated, sometimes parched, always stretching wide and long (Christ, how long is Illinois!) even as it also narrows.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
This way: Marianne Boruch writes: “Never the self congratulating East with its historical weight such a burden, or—in reverse—the blow-it-off-don’t-look-back (yahoo!) of the West. But an ache, a doubt—too many doubts—a shadow, a shrug, a feel for hope and desperation in equal amounts. So we apologize without reason, or because we’re prophets, or because we’re bored, or because we really are sorry about everything and haven’t a clue what to say. Or because we’re just curious and that thought might open up a new trap door to yet another cellar of pain or discovery…. But it is a discipline. One has to stare longer, be stranger, as needed.” And, also, like this: Nancy Eimers’s saying, “But somehow this Midwest—or my introverted version of it—makes possible a certain receptivity out of which passage just may come. Passage—transport—is what I tremble for each time I begin to write a poem or find myself in the middle of one. // What the Midwest is to me is a place to be from, a place to live.” Yes, those ways. And others.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
We aren’t sure that that’s true, and believe us when we say we’ve thought about this a lot, considered it from many different angles and perspectives. And we think the designation, regionalism, in American Literature is usually the work of critics, not writers. The writers we know aren’t interested in being Southern writers or California Writers or god forbid Midwestern writers. They’re just writers. Which is all we ever are first. Subject matter or approach, for any and all of us, may make the case for school or period or style, but no more would we say that New York writers only make New York the matter of their work any more than we would insist that writers from Iowa were only allowed to consider a cornfield. To do so, of course, would diminish the labor of the imaginative realm, every writer’s first and most essential tool. It would also diminish the fact that we are each individuals who live in a place, or who have lived many places. To say that the stuff of our own lives—what we know and are a part of—is the only matter that matters in the reading of our work, or in the making of it, is to restrict that passage of which Eimers refers, to dead-end the passage by suggesting that the only kind possible is out the door onto one’s own front stoop.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
Hm. Well, we love the Great Lakes twitter feed, and are devoted to Lake Superior, despite his pithy hubris. Honestly, we don’t have much patience for social media, but we also recognize that it’s a thing, a thing that we all do. There’s the issue of time, there not being enough, ever. Every tweet or status update or blog post we read, even from a Great Lake, is time spent not making a poem, or reading a poem, and so we both minimize that distraction, because, well, the world is distraction enough. Maybe it’s selfish or unfair to say so, but we rely on others. We have, thankfully, good friends who give a shout out when they read something of ours, and for that we’re grateful.

Favorite book?
It’s an impossible question, but in the best way. So, here’s the truth: we love a lot of different books and we need them all, not all on the same day or for the same reason, or ever for the same reason, but they are all with us, always. What’s in our piles these days: everything. At the top of those piles and for a while have been Ralph Angel’s Your Moon, Marianne Boruch’s Cadaver, Speak, and Bogotá by Alan Grostephan. What are the favorite books of this work, these poems? Muriel Rukeyser’s U.S. 1, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Patricia Hampl’s Spillville. Most honestly, though, there is nothing that this work hasn’t loved us reading, and it has made use of it all—even the weather reports.

Favorite food?
Is coffee a food? Clementines. By the five pound bag. Also Thai—in particular, Thai at this place called, we kid you not, Amazing Thailand. It is in Minneapolis. You can thank us later. Also we like pie and pomegranate Popsicles.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
We are both sometimes shy. We sometimes find it difficult to have coffee (or tea or a beer) with strangers, especially ones we might admire or have crushes on or envy. So, ultimately, we would probably pick a friend, and one who we don’t get to see as often as we would like. We’d probably take Nancy Eimers and Bill Olsen out for sodas. Monica would have coffee. Beth likes to keep things unpredictable.

Where can we find more information about you?
We both have websites—monicaberlin.com & bethmarzoni.com. If you would like to read more of our work, poems are available on-line at Better: Culture & Lit, DIAGRAM, Meridian, New Orleans Review, Quarterly West, and TYPO. Our book, No Shape Bends the River So Long, is coming out from Free Verse Editions at Parlor Press later this year—just in time for your holiday shopping!

Contributor news

Kaitlin Dyer, who’s work was featured in Issue 14, recently had a chapbook accepted at Dancing Girl Press for a February/March 2015 publication.

Darci Schummer, who’s work was featured in Issue 12, has a new collection of short stories, Six Months in the Midwest, out now by Unsolicited Press. For details, check out the publisher’s website.

Kerry Trautman, who had work featured in Issue 9, has a new chapbook, To Have Hoped, to be published by Finishing Line Press. For more information, check out the publisher’s website.

Congrats, all!

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Upcoming events / readings

Lots of great stuff on the horizon, and we hope to see you at some of these wonderful events!

ABOVE ALL MEN BOOK TOUR

Eric is at it again, and will be in Austin on Friday, September 5, at Malvern Books, and in Dallas on Saturday, September 6, at The Wild Detectives.

BOOK FESTIVALS

What: Kerrytown Bookfest
Where: Ann Arbor, Michigan
When: September 7, 2014
Additional details: http://www.kerrytownbookfest.org//

What: Detroit Art Book Fair
Where: Detroit, Michigan
When: September 14, 2014
Additional details: http://www.dittoditto.org/2014-detroit-art-book-fair/

What: Pygmalion Lit Fest
Where: Champaign-Urbana, Illinois
When: September 25-28, 2014
Additional details: http://www.thepygmalionfestival.com/

READINGS

Pygmalion Lit Fest
When: Saturday, September 27 @ 5 PM
Where: The Blind Pig, 120 N Walnut St, Champaign, IL 61820
Who’s reading: Amanda Kabak, Andrew Ruzkowski
Additional details: http://www.thepygmalionfestival.com/

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Interview: Justin Hamm

Justin Hamm PhotoMidwestern Gothic staffer Kelly Nhan talked with author and poet Justin Hamm about embracing the Midwest, crumbling small towns, the museum of americana, and more.

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Kelly Nhan: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Justin Hamm: I’ve lived in Illinois and Missouri my entire life. When I was younger I thought a lot about other places I might move when I got older. I decided I’d stay put if I could catch for the Cubs. Otherwise, I figured I would be a writer for Weekly World News. I’d travel around the country looking for bizarre stories, Bigfoot sightings, that sort of thing (this was before it occurred to me that Batboy was probably just made up in somebody’s basement). This was my version of the run-away-and-join-the-circus dream.

But I stayed. Studied, married, moved states from Illinois to Missouri. And at some point, maybe six or seven years ago, I started to become deeply interested in the region, in its particular people and stories. Within a short time I got married, lost my mom, and became an adult, and I guess in the madness of all that change, I wanted to grab onto something that rooted me. The intensity of the seasons felt important, and the way the fields look different here depending on the month—every small thing I’d taken for granted growing up suddenly mattered. I felt like I’d uncovered a connection that had always been there but that I’d maybe been too immature to see. It was an important moment for me as a writer, certainly, but even more so as a person.

KN: How has the region influenced your writing?

JH: Embracing it has been one of the most important steps in my growth. Place always attracted me, as long as it was someplace other than here. Early on it was Frost’s New England. Later, I worshipped Southern writers and, to an extent, Western writers. Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Rick Bass, and Cormac McCarthy—I wrote mostly fiction, trying to channel them when I wrote, and I cultivated a flashy, ultra-masculine gimmick of a voice.

But whatever was real and authentic at the heart of these writers, I didn’t have anything like that. All my examples at the time were Southern; I didn’t know any writers who could show me how Illinois might sustain literature the way, let’s say, Mississippi could. Finally, without any expectation of publication, or really any plans to even show them to other people, I started writing poems to work through the hard period I mentioned above. There was no workshop deadline, no pressure to impress anyone, and I wound up writing plenty of impressively awful stuff, but also some of the first poems that I think sound like me. Many of those better poems dealt in some way with Illinois, and later, Missouri.

Jason Jordan, who edits decomP, read my first chapbook a couple of years ago, and I don’t remember the exact quote, but he said something to the effect that he equated my poems with being raw and authentic. I’ve never received a compliment that moved me more.

Lessons in Ruin Hamm CoverKN: What can you tell us about your upcoming poetry collection, Lessons in Ruin?

JH: Naturally, I’m excited about getting it out there, and I’m making sure I enjoy the whole process of publication. I never took for granted I’d get this opportunity, and I don’t take for granted that I’ll get it again. The book will be available at Amazon and from select bookstores September 1st and can be pre-ordered from my website justinhamm.net right now.

The poems are mostly narrative, sometimes gritty and sometimes funny (I hope). They’re about Illinois and Missouri and social class and memory and speaking in tongues and death and rust and vengeful birds and accordionists and baseball. Oh, and most of all, they’re about relationships—to home, to parents, to children, to partners, and to friends.

At one level the title offers a way the poems might fit together. They are nearly all in some way or another about this idea of ruin: the physical ruins of place; the emotional ruins of people; or else ruin as a verb, meaning the ways we participate in damaging others, ourselves, or situations. There’s also a strain of a story running through all of them. I hope it is a book that works as a whole as well as at the poem level because I put a lot of work into assembling it with that in mind.

KN: From having read some pieces from the collection, we noticed that you evoke these images of deterioration, of “ruin”, and even include specific names of the people from these scenes. Where do these images come from? And is there hope amidst that ruin?

JH: I’m in the car and moving through the landscape around here a lot. So the inspiration for these images comes from what I see, what moves me: the collapsing barns and abandoned farmhouses and rusted out old cars I pass on my morning commute through rural Missouri, the crumbling small towns with their empty Main Street storefronts dotting the route back home to Illinois, and the forgotten factories here in the town where I live today. They come out of language, too—often, following the language results in images I didn’t expect.

The people are composites, drawn from my own experiences growing up in a blue-collar family along with what I continue to pick up in the course of daily life. Around here—and really anywhere, I guess—you don’t have to look hard to find people who are up against it. Sometimes the people come partly or even purely from the imagination, too. It can be hard to separate out exactly how much of each influence goes into making them. I worry less about that and more about whether they’re honest depictions.

Despite the ruin, and despite the hard luck, there’s definitely still humor and perseverance and tenderness and hope in the collection. Again, honesty demands that. And so you have the humanity of the accordionist who plays to comfort the widow, for instance. The tenderness of the father who wakes early to make pancakes for his daughter. The curious compassion of the small boy who wants to understand his grandfather’s pain at having to sell off the family farm. The awe the husband feels at the woman his wife has grown into during their time together. Or the independent spirit of the mechanic who understands that sometimes he must blow off work and let his daughter blow off school so they can fix the car together and people-watch all day.

KN: What inspired the goal behind your literary journal, the museum of americana and its stated interest in reviving pieces of American obsolescence?

JH: Really it started with my fascination with history in general and Americana in particular. It’s so rich and strange that I hate to think any of it might be forgotten (or worse, scrubbed away by those who refuse to acknowledge it). But at the same time, I didn’t want to be another Antiques Roadshow or American Pickers either. At least not exclusively. I love what those shows do, but I thought what would keep the literature vital would be to try to do something new or interesting with the artifacts it chooses to uncover.

At one point early on in writing the poems that would eventually become Lessons in Ruin, I thought what I was writing toward would be a sort of grab bag that used Americana as raw material for something new. I quickly found out that I wasn’t ready to make what I saw in my head come out on the page. It was too big of an idea at the time. But I thought a whole group of people contributing their particular interests in Americana could come together to make something like what I envisioned. And it has gone far beyond that.

KN: Does working as an editor for a literary journal and reading other people’s work influence your own writing?

JH: From a craft perspective, it doesn’t have that much influence. We have an incredible editorial team, and I try to stay out of their way until we get closer to production. So my role has more to do with coordinating our general vision and then coming in to talk about final decisions. What this means is I’m lucky enough to read mainly the best of what we’re sent. I’ve heard other editors say they learn a lot about what not to do from reading submissions; because of the nature of what I read, I learn more about what possibilities exist, and also about how others interpret a vision that started with one of my own failed projects. It’s inspiring. Constantly reading good work from writers I don’t know makes me want to join the conversation.

KN: Who are some of your favorite Midwestern writers?

JH: There are so many great ones connected to the region in one way or another. Cornelius Eady is a favorite. I also love Jim Harrison and Norbert Krapf, William Trowbridge, Dan Chaon and George Bilgere. Sandy Longhorn’s Blood Almanac and Michael Walsh’s The Dirt Riddles are two Midwestern poetry collections that have meant a lot to me. And Cindy Hunter Morgan is a name to pay attention to—both of her chapbooks are excellent and she’s working on a full-length collection right now. I’m lucky enough call fiction writer Chad Simpson and poet Michael Meyerhofer my friends, and both are immensely talented. I also love classic literature, probably more than I’m supposed to if I want to be hip and contemporary. So Illinois poets Sandburg and Masters are major figures to me. And I can’t leave out Chuck Berry or Bob Dylan. They’re giants.

What’s next for you?

Good question. Lessons in Ruin has provided basic direction for about six years. Even now, I’m writing new poems that seem to belong to that project. I’m not going to stop writing them if they come.

But at the same time, I’ve been working on other things in small bursts along the way. I have a handful of poems rooted in English folk music and fairy tales and I want to get back to exploring those. And I have a chapbook length collection of flash fiction/short stories that are after the spirit of those Weekly World News articles I loved as a kid. I’ve been publishing them individually for a couple of years and hope to eventually see them published together, if they’re good enough.

Lessons in Ruin came out of a process, and it will be interesting to see if it holds up when the next idea strikes. I kept a very general theme or connection in mind, but under the umbrella of that connection, I let the poems figure themselves out and do whatever they seemed to want to do. I tried to be as open as possible to anything that might suggest itself, trusting my own obsessions as a writer or poet would create the cohesion I needed. Later, when I had a lot of poems, I began to carve the book out. I felt like I was sculpting it rather than building it. That’s why it’s hard for me to imagine what the next larger project might look like. If the process holds, I probably won’t know until I’m most of the way there what it really wants to be.

Lessons in Ruin is available for pre-order at justinhamm.net.

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Justin Hamm is the author of a full-length collection of poems, Lessons in Ruin, and two poetry chapbooks. He is also the founding editor of the museum of americana. His poems or stories have appeared in Nimrod, Cream City Review, Punchnel’s, Hobart, Quiddity, and the Bob Dylan-themed anthology The Captain’s Tower. Recent work was also awarded the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize. His website is justinhamm.net.

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Contributor Spotlight: Eric Boyd

DSC00465Eric Boyd’s story “Thundersnow” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 14, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I started out when I was fourteen, I was visiting family in North Carolina, where I was born; a buddy of mine messaged me on AIM and said we ought to write a screenplay together. I don’t remember why that idea came up, I don’t remember, but we did it. At the suggestion of our high school video teacher, we posted the thing to some website and got a surprising amount of interest. Of course the script was never filmed, it wasn’t very good, but one of the guys who wanted to do it ended up becoming a big music video guy. He just did a thing with Matthew Mcconaughey not too long ago. Anyway that director reached out to us years later, when I was seventeen, and we did some adaptation work for him. I think we each made like twelve hundred bucks on a few drafts for some thing that never happened. That’s still the biggest chunk of change I ever made from writing, and that was before I even started doing short stories.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
David Lynch told me to meditate; he said it to me through a television. It was late and I was tired and in a bad place. I mean, I was willing to listen out for any kind of sign to get me out of where I was. At that time I was eighteen and I was here in Pittsburgh, where I’ve lived most of my life, working at a damn drugstore at the time, having customers throw febreeze at my head and everything. What else was I doing? I was ready to go away. So I took Lynch up on his physic offer and moved out to Fairfield, Iowa, because I knew he practiced TM [Transcendental Meditation] and there was a school out there that did it. So I attended the Maharishi University of Management for a little while, meditating and studying video, mostly. That town was great. I miss it and I made a lot of friends there that I believe I’ll have for a good long while to come. There was this weird magic to that place. One time, I was playing pool in the Rec room of the Men’s dorm, and I saw a tornado. The outward facing wall of the Rec room was all glass and I could see everything. A barn flew through the air, perfectly intact, like it was going in slow motion. Then it just fell to the ground out in this field about a mile up. That tornado was coming straight for the campus but I really didn’t have any fear of the thing. It ended up going right around the town; it’d been going in a straight line and then it just moved around us. Later someone told me that the Maharishi promised the school that a storm would never affect the campus—or maybe it was because the town was flat and the campus was on a hill. I have no idea. What the hell do I know about weather? In Iowa it’s all crazy.

Incidentally, I did meet David Lynch while I was at the school. Everyone knew my little story about how I came to be at there, and Bobby Roth [the head of the David Lynch foundation] introduced the two of us. He goes, “David, I want you to meet Eric Boyd,” and Lynch comes up, shakes my hand, and says, “Oh yeah! The one I spoke to through the TVVVV!” He got a kick out of that.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
When I started meditating, I had this huge explosion of work. My first short stories, a lot of poems, short films, screenplays, songs. All of that. I guess that could have happened anywhere but I’m really glad it was in Iowa. Like I said, that place had a real magic to it, and it truly felt like I was in America. What they call a microcosm? There were so many people from different regions of the world, all out there in the heartland to capture this very spiritual thing. Plus they wanted an education and all that. So it was very much like a pilgrimage, searching for the American Dream or something. All these crazy people out in the cornfields. We used to walk on coals in this area called ‘Strawberry Fields’. It was apple pie, truly; in fact, that’s where I first learned of American cheese on apple pie! I still eat that to this day, but up here in Pittsburgh they just fucking microwave it and it’s disgusting.

Anyway, in Iowa there were so many burnouts and failed seekers, and I was certainly among those folks. Everyone was an underdog in some way, if only to society, or themselves; to their aching souls. That’s definitely in my work, I think. I hope. The idea that everyone is fighting for or against something. Everyone wants something to believe in, if only to get them away from the world.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
Probably has to do with edges. Look at a map and you can see where California ends. When the coasts stop, they stop. The Midwest is a little vaguer. It seems more like a mindset than a place, sometimes. It has that blue collar attitude and Pittsburgh certainly has that, but at best Pittsburgh is Appalachia. It’s probably those edges that people can clearly see. The Midwest is the heartland, right? Think about that. Where does your heart actually stop? You have the organ, sure, but it pumps blood to every part of you. The Midwest is like that. I don’t care if you’ve lived in Miami all of your life, you’ve probably eaten corn trucked in from Iowa. That was a part of you. So I think it’s harder to pin down in that regard.

Also, the voice is hard as hell to get right. Midwestern English is hard to pin down. It’s like Indian with all the different dialects. Pittsburghese is pretty hard to get right if you haven’t been there, and it’s totally different from Philly slang, but then that’s why you see more California and New York literature. Maybe it’s easier. I don’t know. I think, for my story, I ended up doing slightly more Southern drawl than Midwest twang, and I’m definitely a little ashamed of that. So maybe it’s more difficult to make a movement out of that. It seems to be taking off in Europe. I think, over there, they’re starting to really see the Midwest, especially the grittier authors like Frank Bill or maybe Don Ray Pollack, as being authentically American. Frank Bill is huge in France now, I’ve heard. It always takes the States a while to catch up, even with ourselves.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I didn’t even have a cell phone for the longest time. I used a payphone a few blocks away from my apartment, and people kept saying, “But what if there’s a fire?” Well, call the firefighters. What the hell am I going to do about a fire? But I finally got a phone when I was about twenty-one. I still don’t have a smartphone, so I don’t know much about Instagram or any of that. I’ve got a facebook, and that’s pretty strictly for messaging friends, keeping in touch with people. If someone, like a fan, adds me on there, I’ll usually accept—but it’s mostly just for personal stuff. I don’t share too much on there unless it’s really important.

Mostly I’m on tumblr. I started a page a long time ago. In fact, I had a page before the one I have now, and I got no idea where that even is anymore. But I post a lot of stuff on there. Around 2008, when I was in Iowa, I started writing six word stories/poems. I was really into Hemingway at the time—in fact, I just bought damn near all of his work recently, but I haven’t cracked back into any of it yet—and his six word story is a knockout. Of course everyone thinks so, but that started me on writing my own. I had an old desktop computer that must have had a thousand or more pieces saved on it; I’d write a hundred at a time some nights. That thing crashed years ago, but I started my tumblr page and began posting six worders every day. Nobody cared much. I mean, I was getting maybe two or three people to like my stuff day in, day out. But eventually, I guess I was just doing it enough to where the tumblr gods, whoever they are, decided to ‘spotlight’ me on the poetry section of the site. I thought I was just going to be featured on that for a month or so; I was posting everything I had. Photos, poems, prose, drawings, scripts. Everything, just trying to make the most of it. But I never got taken down. I’ve got a bunch of followers because of that. I think I’m one of those people where—say you sign up for tumblr and they ask you what you like, and you say mayonnaise or something—they suggest you follow my page. I suppose it’s nice. A lot of people message me, asking for six worders. I enjoy doing that because it keeps me on my toes. They get a piece of writing and I get to try compressing someone’s entire life into six words. It’s a fair trade. In fact, I probably get more out of it than they do. I get to sharpen that knife, you know?

Past that I’ve got a few other things. I’ve got a twitter, but that’s mostly a dump-site for my tumblr posts. Every once in a while I’ll tweet something. The other day I tweeted a clipped version of this chili recipe I came up with. We didn’t have anything in the apartment worth eating on its own, so I threw a bunch of crap together and it ended up being pretty good. The secret ingredient there was espresso grounds.

Favorite book?
That’s tough for me to say. I really don’t read too much. I go in spurts. In Iowa I read a good deal, mostly JT LeRoy—whose work I think became criminally underrated after all that crap happened and the critics soured on her—and I read a lot of technical manuals. How-to’s on filmmaking and woodworking. Stuff like that. In jail I read a lot of Rimbaud and Céline. Real bitter shit. I watch more movies than anything else. But lately I’ve been trying to read more. I read Tobacco Road not long ago. It’s taken me over a month to get through Catcher in the Rye, and it’s not from a lack of interest; it’s just hard for me to read sometimes. If I’m ever stuck, but I really want to pick something up, Bukowksi’s Post Office or Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises have always been staples. The best book I’ve read in a long time, especially because I felt so close to it, was Cain’s Postman Always Rings Twice. Even though I just discovered that book, I feel like I’ve been ripping that guy off for years. The voice, the style, the pacing. When I write, I imagine a character telling me a story, and I hear it the way they tell it to me; I’m just a dictation machine at that point. Postman does that. You feel like you’re in the room, hearing this story. A while back, someone asked me whose work I thought spoke to me; they said how they felt my shit was like Denis Johnson—who’s a guy that I only read because so many people compared my stuff to his, and he’s good, but I didn’t see it that much—and I said I dug James M. Cain. I went on and on about Postman. They said, “That book is like seventy years old.” I guess that was supposed to mean something. I still don’t know what.

Favorite food?
Hot dogs. I couldn’t live without them. I’m pretty happy so many companies are starting to do uncured, all-beef ones. A little healthier, maybe. I don’t have any interest in living forever, but if I can spend fifty cents more for a hot dog that isn’t guaranteed to give me cancer, I’ll eat that hot dog. I’ll just stick them on a fork and heat them off the burner on the stove, like I’m camping out. If you do that, make sure you use a fork with a rod-through handle—plastic or wood, whatever—so you don’t burn yourself. But yeah, hot dogs. I also worked at a Thai restaurant for two years, so that grew on me. I quit there recently. I need a job now.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
I mentioned Frank Bill before, and I did have pizza and beer with him in Louisville once. A good man. Past that, I really don’t know. I want to meet people, not figures. It’s hard to meet an idol. I can’t imagine meeting with someone like Hunter Thompson and not feeling depressed after. Something about shaking a hero’s hand, feeling their bones compressing in yours. It ruins something, I think. You don’t know if they’re false idols until that moment, so I’ll skip it.

Where can we find more information about you?
Like I said, I’m on some of those different websites. Folks are welcome to reach out. And let’s face it, if you want to talk to me, you probably don’t have many friends—I’ll try to be your friend.

TUMBLR

FACEBOOK

TWITTER

YOUTUBE VIDEO OF ME TALKING ABOUT DAVID LYNCH / MEDITATION
(look at that hair)

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What We’re Reading (Summer 2014): Averno

ww_bannerIn this series of summer posts, MG staffer Kelly Nhan will be exploring books and music, festivals and goings-on, anything and everything Midwestern-related, and reporting her findings.

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Averno, by Louise Glück

Averno, Louise Glück’s eleventh collection of poetry published in 2006, hinges around the Persephone myth (each of the two sections includes “Persephone the Wanderer” in different iterations) in which Persephone, traditionally considered the queen of the underworld but also the goddess over crops and plant life, is abducted and raped by Hades. Glück riffs on this tale, out of which she reaps content that places the collection in a distinctly elegiac and contemplative American “confessional” tradition, albeit with a sparse, terse and ambivalent tone throughout; Glück’s lyric draws on the dark hymns of Sylvia Plath. On the most basic level, she shares a similar interest in death and loss in her poetry, a theme that the Persephone myth serves well: Averno was considered the “entrance to the underworld”, the epigraph notes, and the collection’s opener “The Night Migrations” notes, “It grieves me to think/the dead won’t see them—these things we depend on,/ they disappear”.

The changing of the seasons, particularly the onset of autumn, becomes an extended conceit for the inching effect of age and decay, perhaps becoming more palpably felt for the senior poet herself, who has had a long and celebrated career over her seventy years. “October”, perhaps the collection’s most affecting piece, uses this conceit as a vehicle for the speaker’s self-expression: “It does me no good; violence has changed me./ My body has grown cold like the stripped fields; now there is only my mind, cautious and wary, with the sense it is being tested”. These weary “confessions”, however, cannot be taken as pure expression, but rather a performance of confessing.

Often, Glück creates a distance between the poetic voice and the reader. The voice, although quite often in the first person “I”, moves from character to character, embodying Persephone and Demeter, her mother, and also shifts perspective. We gain access to the thoughts of the characters within, but the narration remains fairly flat in affect, which even borders on academic discourse in the first appearance of “Persephone the Wanderer”: “Persephone’s initial/ sojourn in hell continues to be/ pawed over by scholars who dispute/the sensations of the virgin…”.

41cg81kxisL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This emotional distance, in contrast to the collection’s themes of death, rebirth, and trauma at large, shakes the reader at first. Glück seems to prefer the short, heavily enjambed line and terse diction. These lines are most often spoken in retrospective voice, as in “October” (“I stood/ at the doorway,/ ridiculous as it now seems”) or even an unspecified omniscient third-person narrator sweeping over the characters in the Persephone myth. The effect produced is a coolness in her speakers, who in this collection stand in a liminal space and re-tell their transformation or experience. Averno deals with the process of a discursive retracing after trauma, specifically through the vehicle of Classical myth. In laying side-by-side what can be read as intimate personal details as in “Echoes”, detailing a move out to “lake country” or “Fugue” (“My childhood:/ closed to me. Or is it/ under the mulch—fertile./But very dark. Very hidden.”), and the retelling of the Penelope myth, Glück asks the question: How do the small details of a life become reframed in cultural and personal memory as mythic, and thereby worthy of retelling?

In the two versions of “Persephone the Wanderer”, Glück creates two possible endings to the myth: in the first she lives, and in the second she dies. The poems exist between these two possible realities and operate within this gap. She provides two interpretations that frame the myths and in their unfolding, completely alter the outcomes thereof. Many of the speakers in this collection exist in this paradoxical location, between life and the afterlife, earth and the underworld, god and human, the “smallness” of personal consciousness and the grandiosity of myth. This nebulous space leaves the reader, at times, (purposely?) lost in the abstract, unable to grasp the familiar referents that make up experience. Not only is this a disruption of unquestioned dichotomies as those listed above, but also ambivalence about truth-telling and the reading of “pure expression”. Her critical look at the process of memory, even in the case of a well-recorded Classical myth, is reflective of her larger tendency to hesitation.

At times, the speakers retrace their steps and qualify or negate previous statements, even those that initially read as off-the-cuff aphorisms. Following the thought processes of the speakers is often jarring, bordering on discomfort, for the reader. For not only do the words retrace, but the speaker often jumps from one thought or image to another in sparse free verse, largely leaving the thought process out. Glück also uses repetition of phrases that show the process of revision in the words of the speaker. The speaker in “Prism” notes, “The room was quiet”, then right after, “That is, the room was quiet, but the lovers were breathing,” and “In the same way, the night was dark”. Then, “It was dark, but the stars shone”. Eschewing definitive, fixed statements, the personal is less sure and as detractors of the “confessional” might say, less hubristic. It hesitates, it wavers.

Although Averno utilizes the Persephone myth throughout as either the foreground or as more of a meta-textual element for some poems, the variety of themes and tropes with which it engages leaves the collection feeling a bit disjointed. Overall, Glück’s post-confessional lyric works well within the conceit, which allows for a nuanced look at the oft-retold myth. Her diction and syntax often refuse readers’ attempts at close reading in the academic sense despite their surface simplicity. Although these formal choices do contribute to the project of the collection, some pieces wander too far into the oblique and elision, especially in such pieces as the twenty-two section-long “Fugue”. What Glück lacks in diverse images, she makes up for in sudden drops in syntax or heavy enjambment, formal qualities that are jarring but effective for her project.

For fans of Sylvia Plath, Anne Carson, and Rae Armantrout.

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Kelly Nhan is a senior studying English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, and originally from Connecticut. She loves finding good coffee places, exploring cities, reading good poetry, and chatting about feminism. She is interested in going into book publishing, or eventually going to grad school to study post-colonial literature and feminist theory.

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Contributor Spotlight: Rebecca McKanna

RebeccaMcKanna-2Rebecca McKanna’s story “Watch Out for Lions” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 14, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I’ve written stories since I was little. In college I studied journalism. When I interned at a local newspaper, I used to write short stories while monitoring the police scanner when I worked the Sunday afternoon shift. I started taking my writing more seriously in the years after I graduated college when I realized I was spending all my downtime writing.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I was born and raised in Iowa and graduated undergrad from the University of Iowa (Go, Hawkeyes!). Now I’m living in Indiana as I earn my MFA in creative writing from Purdue University.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
In my early and mid-twenties I commuted an hour each way to work, driving past the farmland on either side of Interstate-80 in Iowa. I think seeing that landscape in all four seasons—beautiful in summer, barren and ominous in winter—permanently changed how I viewed where I was from. It got into my blood in a weird way, and I realized what a rich and fascinating place I had grown up in. From then on, the majority of my writing was about Iowans.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
This is a hard question, because I think there are a lot of reasons. Partly, I think it has to do with Midwesterners’ personalities—polite, often averse to attention, hard-working. Partly, I think it has to do with how people outside the Midwest view Midwesterners—as boring people living in flat, boring “flyover country.” Partly, I think it’s hard to boil the Midwest down to one aesthetic. That’s why I think Midwestern Gothic is so important—it helps highlight the diverse stories and writers coming out of the Midwest.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I use social media—especially Facebook and Twitter—to let people know when I have a story appearing somewhere. I think it’s a good way to let people know what’s going on in your writing life, but I never want it to come off in a gross way. I loved Rebecca Makkai’s post for the Plougshares blog about this.

Favorite book?
I just finished House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and I’m obsessed with it. He created a very creepy book that is also a beautiful love story.

Favorite food?
A burger and fries.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
If I could get drinks with Cheryl Strayed, I’d die pretty content. If I could get drinks with Cheryl Strayed, Marilynne Robinson, and John Steinbeck, my head would explode.

Where can we find more information about you?
Visit me at rebeccamckanna.com.

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2nd Annual Massive Midwestern Author Book Giveaway

We’re thrilled to announce our second annual Midwestern Authors Book Giveaway, where you can win books and eBooks from some of the best talent the Midwest has to offer. And the best part is, all you need is a Twitter account to enter.

To enter: Retweet any of the contest tweets next week. That’s it!

You can get a bonus five entries when you sign up for our email newsletter! Click here to subscribe – your entries will be automatically entered for the Grand Prize.

Contest Dates: Monday, August 11, through Friday, August 22.

We’re giving away a slew of prizes daily, with bigger prizes at the end of the second week. The big prizes at the end of the second week are:

Grand Prize: 1 Yearly Print Subscription to Midwestern Gothic (4 issues), 1 Midwestern Gothic: Summer 2014 – Issue 14 paperback, 1 signed copy of This Jealous Earth, and 1 signed copy of Above All Men.

1st Prize: 1 Yearly Digital Subscription to Midwestern Gothic (4 issues), 1 Midwestern Gothic: Summer 2014 – Issue 14 paperback, and 1 Midwestern Gothic eBook (Issues 1-13) of your choosing.

2nd Prize: All 14 issues in the Midwestern Gothic catalog in eBook format.

Not only does retweeting the contest tweet put you in the running to win one of these prize packs, but it also enters you automatically into the drawing for a daily prize. Daily prizes include:

Mon, Aug 11: Michael Perry: The Clodhopper Monologues (a humorous monologue recorded live at the Stoughton Opera House), Population: 485, Visiting Tom, From the Top: Brief Transmissions from Tent Show Radio, Coop; 1 signed copy of Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men (MG Press), 2 Midwestern Gothic eBooks (8 total daily winners)

Tues, Aug 12: Matt Mason: The Baby that Ate Cincinnati (Stephen F. Austin University Press) and Things We Don’t Know We Know (The Backwaters Press); 1 signed copy of Scott Carpenter’s This Jealous Earth (MG Press); 2 Midwestern Gothic eBooks (5 total daily winners)

Wed, Aug 13: Mariela Griffor: The Psychiatrist (Eyewear Publishing); Hobart back issue bundles; Heavy Feather Review back issue bundle (Issues 2.2, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3 included); 1 signed copy of Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men (MG Press) (8 total daily winners)

Thurs, Aug 14: Marick Press: Assorted book bundles comprised of Compass Bearing by Per Wastberg, Lend Me Your Voice by Kje Espmark, The Fortunate Islands by Susan Kelly-DeWitt, A Northern Habitat by Robin Fulton MacPherson, and Poemas Militantes by Raul Zurita; 1 signed copy of Scott Carpenter’s This Jealous Earth (MG Press) (7 total daily winners)

Fri, Aug 15: (Midpoint Prizes): 1 Midwestern Gothic back issue, 1 print subscription to Midwestern Gothic and 1 copy of the latest Midwestern Gothic issue (1 winner); 1 Midwestern Gothic back issue and 1 copy of the latest Midwestern Gothic issue (3 winners); 1 Midwestern Gothic back issue (1 winner); (5 total daily winners)

Sat, Aug 16: Marisa Silver: Mary Coin (Blue Rider Press); Sarah Stonich: Vacationland (University of Minnesota Press); Brian Kimberling: Snapper (Pantheon); Frank Bill: Donnybrook (FSG Originals) ; 3 Midwestern Gothic eBooks (4 total daily winners)

Sun, Aug 17: Bill Hillmann: The Old Neighborhood (Curbside Splendor Publishing), Justin Hamm: Lessons in Ruin (Aldrich Press); Abby Geni: The Last Animal (Counterpoint Press), Laura Relyea: All Glitter, Everything, 3 Midwestern Gothic eBooks (6 total daily winners)

Mon, Aug 18: Aaron Burch: Backswing (Queen’s Ferry Press); Mid-American Review one-year subscription plus current issue , Susan Chehak: The Great Disappointment, Annie D, Dancing on the Grass, and Harmony (Foreverland Press), 1 signed copy of Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men (MG Press) (8 total daily winners)

Tues, Aug 19: Winter Goose Publishing: Assorted book bundles comprised of Terroir by Sheila Scobba Banning, Theory of Remainders by Scott Dominic Carpenter, The Way We Were by Brenda Montgomery, Roma Series: Books 1, 2, and 3 by Gabriel Valjan; Booth Literary Magazine: one year subscription, 1 signed copy of Scott Dominic Carpenter’s This Jealous Earth (MG Press) (7 total daily winners)

Wed, Aug 20: Wayne State University Press (Made in Michigan series): Strings Attached by Diane DeCillis, Making Callaloo in Detroit by Lolita Hernandez, Until the Full Moon Has Its Say by Conrad Hilberry, Strange Love by Lisa Lenzo, Quality Snacks by Andy Mozina; Ninth Letter Literary Magazine: One year subscription; 1 signed copy of Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men (MG Press) (7 total daily winners)

Thurs, Aug 21: Quiddity International Literary Journal:1 subscription, 2 back issue bundles; Chloe Benjamin: The Anatomy of Dreams (Atria Books); 1 signed copy of Scott Dominic Carpenter’s This Jealous Earth (MG Press) (9 total daily winners)

Midwestern Gothic Book Giveaway
The nitty gritty:

  • Once you retweet the contest tweet you are automatically entered into the drawing for the prizes for that day and both of the end of the week prizes (the Midpoint and the Grand Prize)
  • Must have a valid Twitter account to enter the giveaway or to be an email subscriber
  • Must be a U.S. Resident to win
  • You get one entry per day—that means if you RT the contest tweet every day of the contest, you have a shot at winning all the daily prizes, and you get 12 chances to win the Grand Prize at the end of the week.
  • Winners are chosen by Random.org random number generator after each RT is assigned a number
  • Daily winners will be announced on Twitter, and only RTs from that day will count toward that day’s prize
  • If you enter and win a daily prize, you can still enter, once per day, for the rest of the contest duration for a better shot at the Grand Prize. You can only win one daily prize per Twitter account.

Happy Winning! Happy Reading!

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Interview: Peter Ho Davies

informalauthorphotoMidwestern Gothic staffer Kelly Nhan talked with author Peter Ho Davies  about geographic place and identity, short stories versus novels, his background in physics, and more.

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Midwestern Gothic: What is your connection to the Midwest?

Peter Ho Davies: I’ve lived here since 2000, though of course that doesn’t necessarily qualify me as a Midwesterner. I’ve lived in the US since 1992, after all, and I’m still a British citizen. Still, I do feel an affinity for our region. I grew up in England in an area called the Midlands, which had some of the same fly-over state sense of neglect that folks in the Midwest sometimes feel. Instead of the east and west coasts, we were caught between the south (of London) and the north (of Manchester and Liverpool). The Midlands was also the heart of the auto business in England and since my childhood has faced some of the same economic challenges as Michigan.

MG: Your work spans across a staggering variety of geographical locales, historical events, and across time. What is your research process like?

PHD: Sporadic and haphazard. There’s a vision of research, in an academic or scientific context, being very methodical, but when I’m working on fiction I usually do just enough research to spur my imagination and then get to writing. When that inspiration runs out, I go back to the research, waiting for something else to stir me. It’s easy to imagine a neat before-and-after process, where a writer does all the research first, then writes the book, but for me it’s much more of a back-and-forth.

MG: In reviews of your work as a writer, there is always explicit mention about your “Welsh-ness”. Does geographical place, and the culture, dialect, feel, and customs of a geographical place and perhaps its effect on identity, figure as a thematic consideration in your work?

PHD: Identity is certainly something I’m interested in, but often its identity vs place. I’m half-Chinese, half-Welsh but I wasn’t born and haven’t lived in either place, and don’t speak either language. The question for me is often how am I Chinese or Welsh, or both, in the absence of those more direct claims.

51J+adHzifL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_MG: You grew up in Coventry, and have moved across the United States since, including Oregon and Georgia, and now the Midwest. How does the Midwest compare to the other places you have lived?

PHD: I’m going to take the fifth on that one! I learned fairly soon after arriving in the US that it was difficult and dangerous to generalize about the US after living in only one part of it (what did I know then, or now, of the South West, say), and I suspect the same goes for a region like the Midwest. I feel I know Ann Arbor pretty well, but our community is hardly representative of Michigan let alone the region.

MG: You have a lot of experience as both a short story writer, as in your collection, The Ugliest House in the World, and as a novelist. Which do you prefer writing: novels or short stories? How does the process of preparing and writing look different for each?

PHD: I like (and hate) them both. The novel is a freer, more forgiving form, more like life arguably; the story is more confining, but also perhaps more precise, more artful. I’d like to say I prefer the one I’m doing at any given time, but human (and writerly) nature being what it is, I probably prefer whichever one I’m not engaged it at the moment.

MG: You majored in physics as an undergraduate. What inspired you to become a writer?

PHD: I wrote the first story I published just as I started my physics degree and it pretty much ruined me for science! That said throughout my teens I read almost nothing but SF and that’s what I first aspired to write, so science in some sense fed my fiction writing.

MG: As a professor of creative writing, what is one piece of advice you have for new writers?

PHD: The great French novelist Flaubert has a line—”Talent is long patience”—which I like to quote to my students. It’s an odd line, and a hard one to hear when you’re a young writer (when I first heard it I felt something had been lost in translation!) Young writers after all—myself included—see talent as a kind of rocket fuel, something that helps us get where we want to go faster, and easier. That kind of impatience is the enemy of good work for many of us though, I suspect.

MG: What’s next for you?

PHD: Trying to finish my current novel, and maybe to write some fiction set in Michigan.

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Peter Ho Davies is the author of a novel The Welsh Girl, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and two story collections The Ugliest House in the World and Equal Love. His work has appeared in Harpers, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review, among others, and his short fiction has been anthologized in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. In 2003 Granta magazine named him among its “Best of Young British Novelists,” and he was a 2008 recipient of the Pen/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story. Born in Britain to Welsh and Chinese parents, Davies now lives in the US, and teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Michigan.

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Contributor Spotlight: Sarah Howard

SHSarah Howard’s story “Migration” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 14, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I have been writing since before I could write. I remember having my mom write down stories I told her when I was about three or four years old.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I grew up on a farm in Northwestern Minnesota, went to middle and high school in North Dakota, moved to Minneapolis for college and have been here ever since.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
It can’t help but influence my writing since it’s where I’m from and what I know. I like to explore themes of isolation and escapism in my work and focus on characters who don’t quite fit into their worlds, which certainly draws on aspects of my time living here.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
For whatever reason, the Midwest has been portrayed in popular culture as some boring pastoral land full of harmless, simple-minded yokels that “talk funny.” I’ve always actively pushed against that idea when writing things about the Midwest, so until recently I thought that precluded me from being considered a Midwestern writer, even though I am, and I’m guessing I’m not alone. I’m grateful for publications like Midwestern Gothic that are focusing on darker, more realistic aspects of Midwestern life, because as in any region, that’s where the most powerful writing material is. I think it may be difficult for those of us raised in a social environment of passive-aggression and “what will the neighbors think?” to put our true feelings and observations, no matter how complicated, about life in the Midwest into our work, but I feel it’s necessary and worth it.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I do use social media to promote my writing on occasion, but I tend to use it more to talk about what I’m watching on TV. I think it’s a great way to connect with other writers and let people know what you’re doing, but it’s best used in moderation.

Favorite book?
I love so many books but the first one that really had an impact on me was Matilda by Roald Dahl. I read it in third grade and realized for the first time that maybe there was a place in the world for smart, weird kids like me. I’ll always treasure it for that reason.

Favorite food?
This is an impossible question that varies daily. The great thing about Minneapolis is it has food from every cuisine I could imagine craving. But it would most likely be some kind of comfort food, like wild rice soup, prosciutto and Brie on a baguette or the marshmallow cookies my family makes each Christmas.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
I would have drinks at the Algonquin with Dorothy Parker. She would find some amazingly clever way to insult me, and I would be honored.

Where can we find more information about you?
I have an online portfolio at http://sarhoward.tumblr.com, and you can find other things I’ve written and contact info there.

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