December 16th, 2017
“And the nation calls for its soul, / calls for its blood and belly, / and we, we number the five / fingers of our fists and try / anything to stay alive / without poems.” – Philip Levine, “My Poets.”
Photo by: David Thompson
December 16th, 2017
“And the nation calls for its soul, / calls for its blood and belly, / and we, we number the five / fingers of our fists and try / anything to stay alive / without poems.” – Philip Levine, “My Poets.”
Photo by: David Thompson
Midwestern Gothic staffer Sydney Cohen talked with author Carol Smallwood about her book Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms, the subconscious roots of writing, working with formal verse, and more.
Sydney Cohen: What is your connection to the Midwest?
Carol Smallwood: My connection to the Midwest goes back to homesteaders and I’ve always lived in Michigan and my children also live in Michigan.
SC: During your career as a librarian you wrote and published works that provided guidance and advice to other librarians in the field, including outreach programs and budget-saving methods. What changes did you work to implement in the field of library science, and how do you believe this field has evolved since your time as a librarian?
CS: My first book was on Michigan resources after teachers asked me what was out there to use for Michigan Week. There was so much available that was free it ended up being published by Hillsdale Educational Publishers and it was followed by an updated edition. The library field has of course been impacted by technology like every other profession and I was part of doing away with the card catalog and setting up the collection online.
SC: Your book of poetry, titled Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms, addresses varying spheres of life spanning from nature to domesticity to mortality. How did you go about tackling such a diverse breadth of topics in your collection? Is there a common thread running through each realm of your book?
CS: The title was used because that grouped the topics of the poems I’d already had written and which are really related to one another. Using a foreword, introduction, prologue, epilogue in my poetry collections is probably a reflection of being involved with nonfiction.
SC: Your newest collection, Prisms, Particles, and Refractions, blends together the seemingly disparate worlds of art and science. Your writing explores the metaphorical and literal texture of light in three sections that put physics and poetry in conversation with one another. What was your inspiration for writing this collection? What, if anything, did you discover about art or science that you did not know before?
CS: As a fan of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, I was made even more aware in the meeting of science and philosophy. As he noted: “We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.” It is exciting to live in times that have made such strides in the exploration and understanding of the cosmos. In Hubble’s Shadow (Shanti Arts, 2017) also examines the influence of discoveries. Understanding the human brain is also an exciting new frontier.
SC: The Midwest plays an important role in your family history, with your lineage rooted in Michigan. How does the Midwest feature in your writing, whether overtly or subtextually? What works of yours do you consider particularly Midwestern?
CS: We cannot get away from where we’re from: even the composition of our teeth is directly related to water as a child and our culture is so much part of us we do not see it. As far as using the Midwest in titles, I wrote an essay, “Midwestern Spring,” about the coming of the season in the Midwest for Interweavings: Creative Nonfiction (Shanti Arts, 2017). I edited the third edition of Michigan Authors—the last print edition before it became a Library of Michigan and Michigan Association of Media in Education database online: authors and illustrators are eligible for inclusion in Michigan Authors and Illustrators if they are born in Michigan, live or have lived in Michigan or have works about or set in Michigan.
SC: You have written an extremely impressive and extensive array of works, including poetry, fiction and nonfiction. What do you find is the most challenging aspect of the writing process? What comes easily for you?
CS: Nonfiction was what I started with, then I did fiction, then poetry. The most challenging is finding what you want to write about, or rather what you are capable, ready to do. Most writing I believe happens in our subconscious, that subterranean wild place of dreams: it is at odd times it pops out when it isn’t convenient, like when driving, trying to fall asleep. Brooding (often not knowing it) brings about the most finished work, that is, much of it has formed and you just need to let it go into words even if it only begins with a line, a concept.
SC: In the film industry, directors who have achieved a large amount of success are sometimes afforded a “blank check,” which they use to create whatever projects they want. As a writer who has achieved immense success and acclaim, do you find you have the agency and professional backing to create your own passion projects?
CS: Unfortunately, the poetry I often use is the formal or classical kind such as the pantoum, villanelle, and others, and editors sometimes prefer free verse, that is, nothing with rhyme and form. My poetry collections combine forms to appeal to different taste and am composing the rondeau now with the help of the great paperback: How to Write Classical Poetry: A Guide to Forms, Techniques, and Meaning
As far as library anthologies, they are topics I know will be popular, serve a need, and sometimes co-editors or publishers suggest topics; after editing, writing, or co-editing over five dozen, they still are enjoyable as librarians come up with wonderful work.
SC: When teaching English, what was the most important piece of advice you would tell your students?
CS: Read closely and be curious about word choice. I remember in the second grade the wonder of words came to me when the reading book had the word “suddenly” after all the one syllable words. It had power, mystery, was grown up, and couldn’t believe words could have such musical magic.
SC: If you could sit down with any author or book character, from any point in history, who would it be? What would you discuss?
CS: John Galsworthy is the one author I would really like to meet after reading him since high school. I’ve got most of his short stories, plays, essays, novels and keep learning from him. Over and over his novels never lose their relevance—the Nobel Prize Winner died before I was born but the world he creates is a place always new.
SC: What’s next for you?
CS: Next is more library anthologies and poetry collection under contracts. Hopefully another poetry collection now making the rounds will be accepted: A Matter of Selection and another collection inspired by a quotation is underway. I enjoy doing interviews more than book reviews and as poetry judge for the Women’s National Book Association am helping spread the word about its 2018 Writing Contest. Thank you very much for this opportunity.
Carol Smallwood’s over five dozen books include Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, on Poets & Writers Magazine list of Best Books for Writers. Recent anthologies include: Writing After Retirement: Tips by Successful Retired Writers (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014); Bringing the Arts into the Library: An Outreach Handbook (American Library Association, 2014); Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences (Lamar University Press, 2014), Divining the Prime Meridian (WordTech Editions, 2015).
Her most recent literary collections are: Interweavings: Creative Nonfiction (Shanti Arts, 2017) and In Hubble’s Shadow (Shanti arts, 2017). Prisms, Particles, and Refractions (Finishing Line Press, 2017). Library Outreach to Writers and Poets: Interviews and Case Studies of Cooperation (McFarland, 2017);and Gender Issues and the Library: Case Studies of Innovative Programs and Resources (McFarland, 2017). Carol has founded and supports humane societies. She’s received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations and appears in Who’s Who in America; Who’s Who in the World, Wikipedia.
Midwestern Gothic staffer Sydney Cohen talked with poet Curtis Crisler about his collections THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS] and “This” Ameri-can-ah, pop culture inspirations, the relationship between poetry and theater, and more.
Sydney Cohen: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Curtis Crisler: I am a Hoosier. I was born and raised in Gary, Indiana, a.k.a. “Little Chicago” when I was growing up—part of the tri-states—Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. Now, I live in Fort Wayne—the second largest city in Indiana.
Also, to chronicle urban Midwestern life, I have coined “urban Midwestern sensibility (uMs).” An uMs “examines the Great Migrants who’ve migrated from the south to the north, from about the time of 1915 through the 1970s (even though some have written it wasn’t a fluid migration, but more broken up into two periods). Urban Midwestern sensibility examines the black migrant’s past, present, and future.” I am now submitting the manuscript, Playbook for an Urban Midwestern Sensibility (Crafting Work Cross-Genres), for publication. It is a book on craft, and “illustrate[s] my vision, through craft, and what an ‘urban Midwestern sensibility’ (uMs) fully encompasses through the genres of poetry, fiction, drama, and essay.”
SC: Your upcoming book of poetry, THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS], is a playfully inventive manipulation of form and sound with influences from history and pop culture. What was your inspiration behind the collection? Which pieces do you find particularly moving, and why?
CC: My initial inspiration was a manny (manuscript) I was submitting and trying to get published called The Black Album [poems]. It was a play on all The Black Albums done by artist like Prince, Jay-Z, and Metallica that played off The White Album of the Beatles. It did make it to the finals of the 2014 Omnidawn Open. After that, I put the manuscript away. I was thinking I wouldn’t publish it, and maybe after I died, it could be one of those treasures found and later released. A couple of years later, and the death of Prince, connected me to myself. What I mean by that is that I feel I live in the grey area of life, not the black or white so much. So, I put together THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS], writing some new poems to replace some in the original, The Black Album [poems], and I dedicated the manny to Prince. I wanted to address my headspace on the times, the passing of one of my favorite artists, and poems that wanted to play in the ether of existence. So, I let them loose.
I feel all the pieces are moving in THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS]. In the first section, called “Grey Hot Tracks,” the first poem, “Living in Grey Matters (a pattern),” along with the poems, “living in the grey matter cento,” from the third section, and “Living in the Greyz Redux” (the sixth and last section), are three poems that were seminal to a thematic lyrical throbbing of me living in the grey matter (this life). These three occurrences (poems) were detrimental to the book’s existence. These three sections pulse in a reality that is so uber-realistic that they become surreal. Also, the first poem, “Living in Grey Matters (a pattern),” addresses how we are desensitized to people being killed on video due to technology, and how it renders such a disassociating occurrence to many that the effect of death seems tame in our social construct. The poem ponders an implied question I can’t seem to answer, Why can’t some trained police officers get an unarmed person from point A to point B without them ending up dead? The poem goes on to pose more philosophical questions we never seem to reconcile. The “re-” throughout the poem plays on the denotation of the prefix: 1) indicating return to a previous condition, restoration, withdrawal, etc.: rebuild, renew, retrace, reunite, or 2) indicating repetition of an action: recopy, remarry (dictionary.com). For me, the recurrence of killings in our public space is not a reoccurrence but a continuation, and we can view the loss of lives like tutorials on YouTube. Yet, it’s nothing new, especially from a musical representation of brutality—good, bad, or indifferent. From Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to Tupac and Biggie; from Public Enemy to NWA and Ice-T; from Prince and Sweet Honey in the Rock to Marvin Gaye and the Temptations; from Jimi Hendrix to Aretha Franklin to Stevie Wonder to Sam Cooke to Nina Simone; from Billie Holiday to Paul Roberson; to Mahalia; to Armstrong, back to Buddy Bolden and King Oliver, back to Robert Johnson and Lead Belly; back to the slaves moaning in the cotton fields, there has been music about the conflicts between blacks and many of the authorities in America.
The second section, “The Grey Singles,” makes the surreal real. The fourth section, “Top 10 Greyz,” is like dreaming underwater. And the fifth section, “The Grey 12-inches,” springboards romantically through the lens of Junior’s song “Mama Used to Say,” and represents the most linear theme within the book. The combination makes for a great conception album—I think, but I could be crazy.
SC: You graduated from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne with a minor in Theater. As poetry is largely a performative art, how does your theater training play a role in the way in which you write, understand and share your work?
CC: The mechanics of performance: stage presence/awareness, articulation, projection, breathing, and body control—the body as an instrument—is so apropos in theater and poetry. The poem works through the body, lives there, and then is released like breaths a woman has when giving birth. If Betty Davis really said something to the extent that acting is being on stage naked, and slowly turning around, I feel her statement embodies poetry as well, where you get to see, hear, feel, the truth of words coming to life. Like Lucille Clifton, I am open to poetry, so poetry comes to me. Also, like a friend and poet, Eric Baus, I am obsessed with the poem, the object, the subject, the words, until I’m not. The call to write can come at any time, and usually does, but just like theater, you live with a character, become the character, know the character, the same can be said with a poem. Maybe it’s why I believe when my books are published that they are my children graduating from high school, and going out into the world—some go to college, work at libraries, bookstores, middle schools, high schools, travel overseas—some have fast tongues—some are clever and slow—some don’t care what you think of them—some just want to look you dead in your eyes, and say, “Hey,” just so you can feel their breath on your face.
SC: Another one of your collections, “This” Ameri-can-ah, is comprised of eclectic and humoristic poems that work to illustrate American life. How does your writing subvert, or reaffirm, notions of “American” poetry? How does your work contribute to the discourse around what it means to be American? In your definition, what is Americana?
CC: “I have always been enamored by the relationship/s of man and woman, woman and woman, woman and child, woman/man and son/daughter, man and animal, nature and nurture, poor and privileged, the ‘other’ and the status quo, religion and science, sci-fi and comics, insider vs. outsider, and so on. This comes from examining my surroundings—the people around me, the environment around me—my community—local, regional, and global” — Playbook for an Urban Midwestern Sensibility (Crafting Work Cross-Genres). America is built on relationships, good, bad, indifferent. Along with all the controversy of our differences, we tend not to notice the things that make us alike. We trust each other more than we think we do: think driving, and for the most part, everyone doing what they need to do to get to where they need to be—most times this happens without fault. Think buying food from grocery stores, farmer’s markets, restaurants, etc. Even when things go badly, say we get in a car crash, or meat, milk, and vegetables get tainted with something bad, for the most part it is a blip on the screen of our lives in the milieu of all the people that make up America. That’s not to say that people don’t die or get maimed in car crashes, or that people don’t die and get sick from viruses. Yes, those can and do happen, but far less than we think. Most Americans have access to the above mentioned; still, many don’t. I worry about them. I believe America is both circumstances: being alike, functioning alike, for most of us, but the other side of the coin are those who aren’t in that majority—they have problems functioning (be it inadequate education, job opportunities, housing, health care, lack of viable transportation, living in food deserts, etc.) compared to their counterparts.
The Americana part, for me, is how we manage to get through this messy existence. Somehow, we do get through it, or we don’t get through it, or we just keep trying to get through it—living with the memory of it all.
SC: Your poetry is rife with historical and pop cultural references. Which cultural figures inspire you the most? Is your integration of these figures conscious or subconscious? What work do these references do to ground a poem in a specific historical or cultural moment?
CC: I wish I knew which cultural figures inspired me the most, but I’m always moved by a person’s artistry, and how a person does what she/he does. I wouldn’t know who would come up in a poem, per se, until I was conceptualizing the poem. For example, with “Richard Pryor and me,” I have always felt Pryor shifty when too many people were around, but when it’s just us (that us is me, but it’s a universal we too)—with us, he could be real. And, it felt like he was more real on stage than he could be in real life. With “Boxing Arethas,” Aretha Franklin’s singing knocks it out the box, and is home as well because she connects me to every house I’ve ever lived in, and reminds me of weekends, and my mother. Aretha’s singing places me, viscerally—is happy, dark, soothing, angry, and punchy. She shows up in the last section of the book too. Prince died. Wow! Prince, M.J., and Madonna were all born in 1958. I was born 7 years later. M.J. died in 2009. Prince died 7 years later. If Madonna dies in 2023, I’m done. I won’t know what to do with all the 7s (thinking of Prince’s song as I say this).
I can’t say if it’s conscious of unconscious—probably a combination of both, at least in the case with Prince for this book. An exception would be my book Don’t Moan So Much (Stevie): A Poetry Musiquarium (Kattywompus Press). It is a book with poems of wonderment and praise for Stevie Wonder.
I am at a time in my life where family members, friends, peers, and the cultural figures I grew up with, die. That’s just a fact of life, and one that sucks. I think people can see death has a huge presence in this book, and it does, but in many interesting ways—death turns people into birds, has us reneging on our dietary choices when we become zombies, has your Greek teacher and his son sharing pie with your grandmother, has you not calling Stuart Scott back in time, or has you visit Donny Hathaway’s daughters in verse. How I got to these gems took a lot of mining. Death and Life are symbiotic. But sometimes, I’m like, “DAMN!”
SC: What are the greatest challenges to writing poetry, and what comes easily to you?
CC: I think the weirdest thing that challenges me the most is when I finish a project. I always feel like I will not be able to do anything productive again. And, since I address books like they are my children, maybe subconsciously I feel another child is out of the question. This is rather scary to think that it is all gone—verve, creativity and the like. Yet, the lady in my head gets me going again and again and again, until she tells me we have a baby on the way. That’s crazy, right?!
Unfortunately, the things that come easily to me are my mother’s voice and those voices that live in the margins. My mother’s voice works like a tuning fork for me. The voices in the margin, I feel like I speak for them, or that I have a platform where they can be heard. Narratives are always there, I just need to pay attention to them. Like I stated earlier, I really enjoy writing about relationships.
SC: What is your ideal writing environment—the sights, sounds, and smells?
CC: Okay, this is weird, but I’m going to answer this with an answer I gave to Chris Rice Cooper for her blog, “Celebrating 20 years of National Poetry Month from Around the Globe: 113 Poets on Sacred Spaces, Sacred Places…” I was one of her featured 113 poets on April 6, 2016. She posed a question, like yours—
What is your sacred space/place where you do most of your writing? Describe that sacred space/place using all of the five senses.
Now, I can write anywhere. I think you have to be mobile, and with our new technology, I can wake up out of the night and text myself on my phone when I get one of those images or lines of words that bombards my subconscious. I’d just like to state that first, but I do have a favorite place to write. My favorite sacred space is laying on my couch. I’ve always wanted a couch where I can relax or fall to sleep on after a long day of work, after a good workout and, a couch that accepted my body and wanted me there. I have that with this couch. When writing, I am adorned with my fantabulous throw cover and a myriad of pillows holding up my head and my legs for the most comforting experience I can have while writing. This way, my circulation doesn’t get cut off like when I’m sitting in a chair at my desk. I love the noise of the wind moving the trees to the left of me, as I hear birds, squirrels, cars, and voices in the distance, or just the moaning of my abode when the snow, rain, and sun encroach and play upon it. The environment around me plays heavily on my writing experience, for I know when I need something, and I can’t see it or hear it, I open my senses to where I am, and my environment comes rushing in with answers. But there is the ultimate experience, like when I’m in the zone. I have completely become one with my couch and my stirring for a more comfortable position as I type and type with a madness and the words that I will fuss with like a wife and husband fussing over finances. When in the zone, all sound is lost, and there is a whiteness around me (as best as I can express/explain it), and the couch is the foundation of where this takes place. For example: I always tell my students, and audiences now, that Black Achilles (Accents Publishing: an independent press for brilliant voices) was written on my back, with my left leg on top of the back of my couch since I had to have it elevated to control the swelling after my Achilles tear. My mother was in one of my comfy rocking chairs to my right, talking to me, talking on the phone, talking to the television, eating, snoring, and caring—the music of the chapbook, and a once in a lifetime experience. That is the truth! No need to embellish. Mama is my love. Also, there’s nothing like waking up out of the zone, or a needed nap, with the imprint of decorative pillows or couch on my face. Somehow, when I do come back to life, it’s the smell and feel of the couch, and the requisite markings on my face, arms, and legs that let me know I’ve put the work in. I then sigh, and murmur into the day, or night. I need to write an ode to my couch—give my couch a name.
SC: What’s next for you?
CC: I am working on quite a few things. THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS] will be a new kid on the block, so I will be marketing and promoting it heavily through interviews like this, readings, etc. I have another book coming out, Indiana Nocturne(s): Our Rural and Urban Patchwork that Kevin McKelvey and I have been working on for around 10 years, give or take. Kevin is from Lebanon, Indiana—a rural farming area, and I am from Gary, Indiana—an urban city area. We are friends, and met in grad school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Our book brings our rural and urban histories together, through poetry, and illustrates that even with our differences we are Midwestern and Hoosiers. Oh, we will also have an artist from Indiana who will do the artwork for our cover. We wanted to keep it all in house, so to speak. Playbook for an Urban Midwestern Sensibility (Crafting Work Cross-Genres) is a book on craft the elaborates on my urban Midwestern sensibility (uMs) through poetry, fiction, drama, and essay. Currently, I am looking for places that would be a good fit for Playbook for an Urban Midwestern Sensibility (Crafting Work Cross-Genres). The last thing that I am working on is a young adult book called Cheetah and Earl. I hope to start submitting that to places soon.
Curtis L. Crisler was born and raised in Gary, Indiana. He received a BA in English, with a minor in Theater, from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), and he received an MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Crisler’s book, THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS], was picked by Steel Toe Books for their 2016 Open Reading Period, and will be published in 2018. His recent poetry books are Don’t Moan So Much (Stevie): A Poetry Musiquarium (Kattywompus Press) and “This” Ameri-can-ah (Cherry Castle Publishing). His poetry chapbook, Black Achilles, was published by Accents Publishing. His previous books are Pulling Scabs (nominated for a Pushcart), Tough Boy Sonatas (YA), and Dreamist: a mixed-genre novel (YA). Other chapbooks are Wonderkind (nominated for a Pushcart), Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy, and Spill (which won a Keyhole Chapbook Award). He is the recipient of a residency from the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COA/P), the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), Soul Mountain, a guest resident at Hamline University, and a guest resident at Words on the Go (Indianapolis). Crisler has received a Library Scholars Grant Award, Indiana Arts Commission Grants, Eric Hoffer Awards, the Sterling Plumpp First Voices Poetry Award, and he was nominated for the Eliot Rosewater Award and the Jessie Redmon Fauset Book Award. His poetry has been adapted to theatrical productions in New York and Chicago, and he has been published in a variety of magazines, journals, and anthologies. He edited the nonfiction book, Leaving Me Behind: Writing a new me, on the Summer Bridge experience at IPFW. He’s been a Contributing Poetry Editor for Aquarius Press and a Poetry Editor for Human Equity through Art (where he’s now a board member). Crisler is an Associate Professor of English at IPFW. He can be contacted at www.poetcrisler.com.
We’ve got another interview to share with y’all!
Anna Prushinskaya did with Evelyn Hollenshead of Pulp – Arts Around Ann Arbor about her book A Woman Is A Woman Until She Is A Mother, where she discussed her essay collection, motherhood, and how becoming a mother has changed her writing.
“…becoming a mom made me want to have more direct impact through my writing.”
More good news to share! Anna Prushinskaya, author of the recently-released MG Press title A Woman Is A Woman Until She Is A Mother, was interviewed by Juliet Escoria of Electric Lit!
“The title of the book is A Woman Is A Woman Until She Is A Mother in part because I was thinking about the categories of ‘woman’ that I have contended with in my life — motherhood being one of them — the broader implications of those categories, and about the power of a woman’s story.”
We are beyond thrilled to share with y’all that MG Press book A Woman Is A Woman Until She Is A Mother was chosen as one of Entropy magazine’s “Best of 2017 Nonfiction” titles! We’re so proud of Anna Prushinskaya, and so honored that she trusted us with her beautiful collection of essays. Join us in saying congrats to Anna!
Here’s what the Entropy staff said about the collection:
“Anna Prushinskaya’s A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother is a frank, courageous, and beautiful meditation on the strange alchemy of migrating from one identity to another.” — Helen Phillips
The “Best of 2017” List is based on nominations from the staff at Entropy and nominations from readers. In no particular order, the list highlights the best nonfiction has to offer from the year. For more information on Entropy‘s “Best of 2017” List, click here.
“What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” – Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays.”
Photo by: Lindsey Steffes
Midwestern Gothic staffer Carrie Dudewicz talked with author Dan Hoyt about his book This Book Is Not For You, experimental and fragmented writing, the literature of Rock and Roll, and more.
Carrie Dudewicz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Dan Hoyt: In 1988, I did a reverse Gatsby: I left the East Coast (Massachusetts) to go to the University of Missouri, where I completed a bachelor’s and stayed for a master’s. While at Mizzou and right after, I worked at both of the daily papers in Columbia, Missouri: The Daily Tribune and the J-School-run Missourian. I taught for a semester in Romania, and I lived in Binghamton, New York, for a year and a half or so, but since 1988, those are the exceptions, and I’ve mostly been a Midwesterner for my entire adult life: In the 1990s, I worked at two other Midwest newspapers (The Kansas City Star and The La Crosse Tribune), I got my PhD at the University of Kansas in the early oughts, I taught for six years at Baldwin-Wallace University in Ohio, and now I’m an associate professor at Kansas State University. I’ve got the golden handcuffs, so Manhattan, Kansas, is probably where I’ll spend the rest of my days. I’m the aesthetic and intellectual product of large public Midwestern Land Grant universities, and I’m so grateful for that. The Midwest made me a journalist. The Midwest made me a fiction writer. The Midwest made me a teacher. I don’t even say “cah” for “car” much anymore.
CD: You’ve spent much of your life in the Midwest. How does living in this region influence how and what you write?
DH: I write about the fucking messed-up and wonderful lives we have here, just like on the coasts. I write a lot of Midwest realism and Midwest magical realism, too, like my story where a man gets decapitated at a Burger King (the one right here in Manhattan, Kansas, actually) and then both halves of his body live on. A lot of people on the coasts don’t know that, that we have supernatural powers out here and that we live and bleed and we listen to punk rock in the basements of homes of very cool people and we make art and we wash out as purple politically and we give some of that blood to people in need and we plug into the internet and we drive faster than Springsteen and then we die here and we die a little bit every day, like everybody everywhere, and I don’t know what that really means, except our lives are messy and complex and not at all flat or boring or worth being fucking flown over, so I try to tell stories of those lives: of the 21st-century Midwesterners being caught looking silly on security cameras and trying to be rappers and trying to love without getting too fucking hurt. These are my people because I am these people. Neptune, the first-person narrator of This Book Is Not for You, has spent all but a couple of weeks of his life in Missouri and Kansas. He’s an anti-racist skinhead, and a punk, and a reader, and a writer, and he has a criminal past, and he’s an alcoholic, and he flails at love, and he tries, and he does stupid shit, and he’s haunted by ghosts, and he belongs to Lawrence, Kansas, and all of him belongs to this land. He belongs to Bloody Kansas. I don’t know — did I answer this one? Sort of maybe?
CD: This Book Is Not For You is a fascinating combination of multiple genres, told in a chain of “first” chapters. What inspired you to write such an experimental novel? How did that experience compare with writing more in more traditional forms?
DH: Oh, man, I’m going to answer the second question first, perhaps in a clever attempt to evade the first question. I started this book in 2003, when I lived in Lawrence, Kansas, and I didn’t finish it until 2014, and if it hadn’t been experimental and fragmented, I don’t think I could have finished it. I kept putting it down and picking it up and letting it sit for years, but because I was writing Neptune’s voice in these small bursts — in some ways I think of them like punk songs, short, fast, loud rude — I could summon him up somehow. He’s lived with me a long time. That’s how he thinks. That’s how he works. With more traditional forms, well, with short stories I tend to write in fragments too, but there’s a stronger process of sewing them together, of trying to hide the ragged seams. Neptune’s all ragged seams: they can show. Okay, now, that first question: I’m not sure what inspired me to write an experimental novel, except the book was born in this experimental town, in Lawrence, Kansas, a place that belonged to Native Americans and to abolitionists and to rock and rollers back in the day when it was going to be the next Seattle and to William Burroughs who lived there and to all the folks hanging out at the Replay Lounge. I wrote some of the first snippets on bar napkins, on the back of junk mail. I knew I wanted the voice to be punky, to challenge the reader. Man, that was a long time ago. I suppose something inspired me.
CD: Early reviewers say that the structure of the story, being told in only chapter ones, acts like a reset to the reader. Where did you get the idea to do this? Does this novel require that reader reset? If so, why?
DH: Yeah, I think there’s a really nice blurb that says there’s a reset for the reader on every page or chapter, but although I think that blurber is an incredibly astute judge of literature (Thank you, Andrew F. Sullivan! He was one of the judges of the Dzanc Fiction Prize, and because of his kindness and generosity — along with Kim Church and Carmiel Banasky—Neptune got to live a life in other readers’ heads. I’m so, so grateful to y’all), I don’t think the book resets. Neptune typically — eventually! — picks up where the last chapter left off, but, of course, the bigger point is that Neptune himself wants a reset: he doesn’t want to write the book or can’t write the book or can’t quite open up, but despite all this he still tries, and he tries to stop doing shitty things, and he tries to escape from his past, and each new chapter of course is something new, a fresh start. I think this idea came because, oh, hell, I think because it was fun?
CD: Similarly, was one experimental element more difficult to write than another? Was one more enjoyable?
DH: So many parts of it were enjoyable. It was superfun to bring in the ghost animals, and it was superfun to be snarky with the reader, and it was superfun to get all meta on the reader’s ass, and it was superfun to add the inside jokes and the noir elements and the Ghost Machine, which is a haunted Sony Walkman. Man, it was all fun! Which, I have to tell you, is so much easier to say and actually believe when the book is finished and printed!
CD: Are there specific experimental novels that inspired you? If so, which ones?
DH: Well, there are all those folks who did and are doing metafictional type stuff, and she hasn’t written a novel (at least that I now of), but I admire Kelly Link’s amazing prose and her sheer bad-ass bravado: Fuck yeah! Throw a zombie in! Apparently, too, there’s some sort of moment in House of Leaves that says “This book is not for you,” and the weird thing is, I’ve tried to read that book, and it just doesn’t kick into gear for me (that clutch just grinds), and I didn’t even know about the reference until after This Book Is Not for You was published, so I think the answer here is maybe? But, no, definitely not House of Leaves.
CD: As a professor at Kansas State University, how does your teaching influence your writing career and vice versa?
DH: Well, I love my students, and their work means a great deal to me, and because of that, during the school year, I spend a lot more time on their writing than on mine, but that’s kind of a shitty way to start here, so, well, shit, I get to be engaged in stories all the time, to think about narrative, to meet strange and wondrous characters that I would never create myself. I get to be inspired by my students, and I get to be energized by their hope and their possibilities. I try not to let my own writing influence my teaching beyond that I think people should try to do their damned best to write the richest versions of their own stories, the ones they want to tell, the ones they need to tell.
CD: You do a lot of teaching about literature and rock and roll. What drew you to this subject? How is rock and roll (generally) written about in fiction?
DH: I’ve been a rock and roll fan since my age was in single digits, but I probably got into rock and roll novels in my 20s. It’s a genre that allows for all kinds of cool interactions between form and meaning. My students seem to think that rock and roll literature is mainly about bands that fail, and, okay, they have a point there, but the literature of rock and roll does so many interesting things, like let us observe a really close friendship between a brother and sister (in Stone Arabia), or let us think about what being a “real” punk means (in A Visit from the Goon Squad). I’ve been putting together the Rock and Roll Reading at AWP (the fifth-annual will take place in Tampa), and it’s great, and everyone reads a piece that’s only as long as a song — just a few minutes — and let me tell you, the literature of rock and roll can do any damn thing it pleases. It’s up to the singer. Just sing loud, even if you can’t even sing.
CD: Is there a specific time of day you write best? If so, what is special about that time?
DH: I am a believer in writing pretty soon after you get up, so that the day doesn’t swallow you up along with your chance to write, and so that you can go through that day knowing you’ve written, that you’ve done it, and you, you my goddamn son, you do not have to feel guilty. But I teach and really care about it, and we have a 13-month-old, and the internet announces a fresh new catastrophe every second in 2017, so I’m fucking busy all the time, and accordingly I don’t have a special time to write, not really. I try to grab whatever I can. I’m 47 now, which feels ancient (thanks again, year 2017!), so all time feels special. I’ll take any hours you’ve got, minutes even.
CD: What’s next for you?
DH: Fiction-wise, I’m working on two novels, a realistic one set in Manhattan, Kansas, on Fake Patty’s Day (a day when students often begin drinking at 6 in the morning) and a more magical one set during the first 100 days or so of the Trump administration. I’m also working on a nonfiction book about the 1991 Fifth Down Game, when the officials made a mistake, and Colorado beat Missouri with an extra down on the final play of the game: It’s about the growth of big-time college football and mistakes and psychology and leadership. Life-wise, during the winter break, I’ll be roughhousing with Sey, our son, reading a stack of novels, playing some new vinyl, listening to bands at Manhattan’s Church of Swole, cooking some meals, taking walks, and calling my elected representatives: I’ll be yelping at them. I’ll be making New Year’s resolutions. I’ll be making up people who don’t exist, and, you know, they’ll feel alive.
Dan Hoyt’s debut novel, This Book Is Not for You, won the inaugural Dzanc Fiction Prize and was published on November 7, 2017. Dan’s first short story collection, Then We Saw the Flames, won the 2008 Juniper Prize for Fiction. Dan’s stories have appeared in The Sun, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, and other literary magazines. Dan teaches creative writing, mainly fiction, and lit classes, such as The Literature of Rock and Roll, at Kansas State University.
Midwestern Gothic staffer Kristina Perkins talked with author Holly Amos about her poetry collection Continual Guidance of Air, her obsession with experience, finding her community, and more.
Kristina Perkins: What is your connection to the Midwest?
Holly Amos: Born and raised. I was going to say that I spent over 20 years there but then I realized I STILL live in the Midwest, though Chicago and rural Ohio are two very different places. When I think of the Midwest I think of my childhood—ditches, fields, small patches of trees. The middle of nowhere being everywhere. It’s a place that has deeply informed who I am (and who I am not). It’s a place I both reject and embrace. At some point I forced myself to stop saying “pop,” and I’ve been saying soda for so long now it was hard for me to remember that “pop” is what I used to call it. THAT was the Midwest marker I just couldn’t keep!
KP: How has your relationship to the Midwest influenced your writing?
HA: In the landscapes, the animals. In the colors. I think certainly in the wanderlust—in the yearning (I hate that word). Growing up where I did is probably part of the reason I read so much as a kid. I read Michael Crichton’s Sphere a lot. The idea that nobody had really seen a giant squid alive, that it lived that far down, was and still is comforting and exciting to me. I think it represents possibility. Not many people leave where I came from, and growing up, my brother and I walked across the field to play with our cousins. In some ways it was really lovely. I’ve just always wanted something back home couldn’t give me. Not that I’ve exactly found it.
KP: You work as an assistant editor for Poetry, a highly esteemed literary magazine. How has your job—and all the copy editing, proofreading, and fact-checking it entails—changed how you read and write poetry?
HA: Every time I use a tab I feel bad! They’re very unhelpful for typesetting in almost all cases. It’s also made me slow down and better try to recognize the immediate bias I’m bringing to a poem, whether it’s my mood, how much time I have or don’t, what else I’ve been reading lately. I think (and hope) I’ve become a more patient reader. There are a lot of poems I came to love while proofing an issue of the magazine that I didn’t love at first. So if I can tell I’m just not in the mood for something I check myself and come back to it later with a better head. I think that’s helpful for writing, too.
KP: In a previous interview, you’ve noted a rise in political, social-justice oriented poetry. Your own work in your debut full-length collection, Continual Guidance of Air, is similarly political, centering the lives of animals in the fight for animal and environmental rights. How do you understand the relationship between poetry and activism? How might poetry be wielded as a tool for political change?
HA: I think poetry can be an empathy conductor. It can also be a channel for information. I did a RHINO Poetry Forum recently (shoutout to RHINO!) where I talked about this and used a couple of examples, like the poem “I am not the most important forest you’ve been in” by Beyza Ozer. We are overloaded with headlines all the time, and at some point, I think most people just shut off. It’s easy to not read an article because you see the headline and you know what you’re getting into, so you sort of skim that information because it’s important, but you don’t necessarily engage with it. And sometimes that’s just self-preservation, you know? But poems, by nature, are things you have to engage with. If you don’t, there’s no point in reading. So poets have a rapt audience. It might be limited, sure, but it’s the best audience in the world for creating change, in my opinion. The poem by Beyza Ozer is not titled in a way that alerts you to the fact that it’s political, which I think broadens its reach, in a way. Like if someone is just DONE for the day, just wants to read a poem to sort of escape, they might come to this one. Except the very first line is the type of thing you read in the news. The rest of the poem is political in various ways and not political in various ways. By I think there are so many ways a poem can sneakily encourage openness and empathy in even the most DONE readers.
KP: Your poems in Continual Guidance of Air are rawly emotional and beautifully corporeal, navigating the embodied spaces between anger and pleasure, pain and hope. How do you understand the relationship between the body and the poem? How does your work capture this relationship?
HA: Thank you for this! I’ve been asked about the relationship between the body and the poem before and it’s really tough for me to answer. The way I think and the way I write are both definitely a product of my obsession with experience. Of how we experience. Of the fact that that it’s physical and mental—that the physical is filtered through our mind, that there are things we can do mentally to impact the physical experience and vice versa. While running my first marathon my feet started hurting a lot toward the end, and I decided to try and control it mentally, since pain is a mental message. In my head, I just started repeating “no pain no pain no pain” and after maybe 30 seconds or a minute it stopped. (This is part of one of the poems in my book, “Specific Motion.”) I’m obsessed with this. I’m obsessed with experience as something we craft, whether directly or indirectly, for ourselves or for other selves, and as something we respond and react to. I mean what else is there? In writing a poem, we are deliberately crafting experience and responding to it simultaneously. I think writing alters the origin experience(s), and also creates a new experience. It’s a blossoming effect. That in and of itself is an incredible thing, and an exciting thing.
And to go back to your question, the body is very much part of that. Without the body there might be a type of experience (the soul—or being part of the universe—just atoms, just matter—that’s still a type of experience, in my mind—and it might be something we feel or sense as beings—I don’t know)—but as long as I’m a bodied individual my experience is always going to be directed through that body, until it isn’t. So that feels really necessary to me in writing a poem, because ultimately I am trying to get somewhere deeper or more illuminated.
It’s also something I think about all the time in terms of animal rights. What does it feel like to be a chicken in a battery cage, what does it feel like to be a cow who’s just given birth and had her baby physically removed from her hours later so that a person can drink her milk. I’m talking about empathy, but for me empathy is very much tied to mentally trying to imagine a bodily experience. Like a chicken in a battery cage—I know what it feels like to feel cramped on a train. How awful that can be. How anxiety ridden and just physically uncomfortable. And then thinking about my entire life being that experience only. It’s devastating.
So what I’m also arguing is that empathy is something we practice—it’s not something we have. And the more we practice it the easier it is. Which can be uncomfortable, just like running, or yoga, but its worthy of the discomfort. And eventually we find ways to cope with the discomfort, ways to get beyond it while not foregoing the practice. Like foregoing cheese. It was uncomfortable at first. I craved it for a while and just had to sit with those cravings. But eventually my reaction, my response to not eating cheese changed and I no longer felt discomfort. Sorry for all that, but you know that old saying, “If you give a vegan a platform, they’ll take it.…”
KP: Relationships—between humans and animals, between humans and humans—form the backbone of your poetry in Continual Guidance of Air. Previously, you have offered a series of “Notes for a Young Poet,” writing: “Find your people / (I’m your people) and hold them all together. A small but / powerful porch of humanness.” How has finding your community—be it among co-workers at Poetry, former peers from your courses, or the animals in your home—influenced your identity as a writer?
HA: Oh my god well it’s everything. The first time I really, really felt like I found my community was in grad school. I know I was very lucky to have the people with me that I had. And then I started going to AWP and to readings and was like, “Wait there are more people like this??!!” But up until that point I’d been working at a company that bought real estate tax liens. It wasn’t something I wanted to keep doing, but I had always imagined that I’d keep one foot in the “real world” and one foot in the “poetry world.” When grad school was ending I realized I didn’t want to lose the community I’d found, so I quit that job and decided to apply to anything arts-related. Interacting with poets and poetry lovers at the Poetry Foundation, through The Dollhouse (a reading series I co-curated), and just through being a writer in the world, allowed me to no longer see the “real world” and the “poetry world” as separate. I think that’s a big deal. I also think it influences my identity as a writer. We are all soooo affected by one another, on micro and macro levels. I don’t think everyone wants to feel that all the time, but I think that’s a really important thing to honor AND to wrestle with, and I think doing so is crucial to social change.
KP: Describe your ideal writing environment. What (or, perhaps, who) is around you? What are you listening to? What utensils are you using? What are you looking at?
HA: I actually don’t like the idea of an ideal writing environment. I am very wary of routine when it comes to writing, wary of developing specific habits. I just worry about stasis and stagnation and I also think it’s important to cultivate openness. So I have a tendency to write lots of places. On a scrap of paper on the train to work, in my phone when I’m outside with the boys who have become ever-present in my writing (they’re dogs!), or on my laptop during a quick break at work because I just read something that did that thing where you immediately need to move with it.
KP: Who do you write for?
HA: Everyone, I hope.
KP: What’s next for you?
HA: I’ve been writing new poems that I think/hope are engaged in a broader sense. But I also have been thinking about non-poetry writing a lot and just started an essay about something that is very uncomfortable for me to talk/write about. It’s something that consumes me in many ways, and I’m hopeful it will be cathartic but also helpful to other people. Really, I’ve written barely anything so far because it takes a lot to get into it, but I’m excited about it, which is something!
Holly Amos is an animal rights advocate and vegan. She is the author of the full-length poetry collection Continual Guidance of Air as well as the chapbook This Is a Flood. Currently living in Chicago, she is the assistant editor of Poetry and a poetry editor for Pinwheel; she also co-curated the Dollhouse Reading Series.
We’ve recently received some stellar news from our contributors! Join us in celebrating these awesome folks:
Jim Daniels (Midwestern Gothic Issue 12) released two new books recently: Street Calligraphy, a collection of poetry, and Challenges to the Dream, an anthology of writing from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards at Carnegie Mellon.