Contributor Spotlight: Scott Onak

December 11th, 2018

Scott Onak author headshotScott Onak’s story “L3 Loves Hudson” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I was born and raised just outside of Chicago, went to school in mid-state Illinois, and have spent the majority of my adult life in the city—as have my parents, and their parents. The region has given my writing, more off the page than on, its earnestness, its humility, and its quiet, stubborn endurance.

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

One aspect, at least around Chicago and a large part of Illinois, is the lack of elevation, and how it would change your mindset to live among mountains instead of prairie, or to be able to look down on towns. I sometimes think that’s why Chicago rose, and why cities rise in flat places, to give us some high distant mark to focus on. What an anomaly, especially when flying into and out of O’Hare, to see this abrupt assembly of buildings.

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

I went out West for grad school, and there I was able to write about Chicago and discovered from that distance what visuals remained, for whatever reason: driving up the entrance ramp onto Lake Shore Drive, heading downtown, when the skyline is lit in a wall before you, the lake on the left in total darkness. Or the beach on summer evenings when the air still remains so hot, in the soft aftermath of sunset. These found their places in the novel I was writing at the time.

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

Where the writing gets done varies, but I usually seek out noise, coffee shops, just enough distraction around me to create a private sphere. Consistency is best, routine essential, but I give myself the room not to force it, to know when I need to recharge. Reading helps with blocks. Often if nothing is happening on the page I realize my reading has slackened, and I need to replenish the store.

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

Feedback from a trusted reader + putting a draft away (a week, a month, longer) + the continuing experience and practice to develop a sense of when I’ve reached the core of a story, when it’s had its say.

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

One of them in Virginia Woolf, for her audacity, because her books grow more and more ambitious, constant challenges to herself, and for her exploration and sensitivity to time, both as a device and subject, which also occupies a lot of my own work: the passage of time, the longing inherent, the inevitability.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a new novel set in San Francisco and very much enjoying the process, which is different from the previous one. I’m also writing a short story set there, though it’s a historical piece, which is new for me. I spent some time in San Francisco years ago and apparently I need and am ready to write about it.

Where can we find more information about you?

www.scottonak.com

Interview: Joe Kapitan

Joe Kapitan author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Marisa Frey talked with author Joe Kapitan about his collection Caves of the Rust Belt, how to link the fantastical and the real, what “caves” are to him, & more.

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Marisa Frey: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Joe Kapitan: Um, pretty much everything. Other than four years spent in the military, my entire life has been spent here in the Midwest—most of it in the Cleveland area, plus my college years in South Bend, Indiana.

MF: The stories in Caves of the Rust Belt are character-centric, diving into one person’s experience in each story. What was important to you about approaching the writing this way?

JK: I try to keep Tim O’Brien’s advice in mind when I write. He said that good fiction has both imagination and emotional gravitas; that it must engage both the mind and the heart. And the only way to the “heart” is through characters, whether likable or unlikable, heroines or villains. In a lot of my stories, especially the stranger ones, characters become the link between the fantastical and the real. So many great writers do this: Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Colson Whitehead, George Saunders. Saunders’ classic novella Pastoralia is a great example. The outrageous premise of the bizarre amusement park only works because it’s tethered to the real world through the normal human problems of the characters: getting along with difficult co-workers, and being the parent of a sick or drug-addicted child.

MF: The “caves” in Caves of the Rust Belt are sometimes physical and sometimes emotional—a sinkhole, characters who get laid off from their jobs, murky and unreliable memory. How did you come to the title? What are “caves” to you?

JK: That’s a very insightful point, and one that eluded me for quite a while. I originally sent this collection out in a different form, under a different name, not even labeling it as a collection of Ohio stories. What a mistake. It collected a dozen rejections. Once I decided to repackage and re-brand it, so to speak, it dawned on me that the idea of “caves” was so pervasive in many of the stories, from literal sinkholes and pits and the shifting earth’s crust to metaphorical “caves” of depression and loneliness. That’s what caves are to me: dark and unknown voids, where you’re bound to encounter fears.

MF: Your stories have a gritty edge, often giving off an air of desolation and hopelessness. What was it like to write them?

JK: I believe there is something fundamentally Midwestern about the dogged pursuit of the positive amidst the negative. In my lifetime, Cleveland has battled a polluted lake and a burning river, political corruption and civic bankruptcy, economic downturns, vacant buildings, the vacant faces of addicts and the urban poor, and (until recently) chronically underachieving sports teams. Any glimmer of positive news—young people flocking to the city to live! Hosting a political convention! Cavs win 2016 championship!—is splashed across the front page of the news because we crave it. Q. What gets us through the nasty winters here in Cleveland? A. Knowing how great the summers are here. So to answer your question, it didn’t feel different to write this way. I just felt real, and normal.

MF: Caves of the Rust Belt is a collection of short stories. What appeals to you about this genre?

JK: I guess I love that short fiction is so approachable. I think that’s how most of us experience life each day—as a series of short stories or flash-fictions. When you see an ancient, one-armed man selling hot dogs at the ballpark, or a well-dressed woman standing at the highway exit with a cardboard sign asking for money, don’t you start to build their back-stories in your mind, even subconsciously? I know I do, and I don’t think at novel-scale. I imagine in snippets.

MF: What does your writing process look like?

JK: Disorganized and anemic, mostly. I have a full-time career and a family, so my writing consists of the time-fragments I find in the liminal spaces between those larger spheres of my life. Most of Caves was written during lunch hours at work, over a period of years. It’s a hard way to write, because I feel time-pressured and it’s difficult to find the “zone” under those conditions. I look forward to the day when I can flip the script and set aside dedicated writing time.

MF: You’re also an architect. How does that work its way into your writing?

JK: I’m a very visual person, so my writing ideas often come from visual cues—an imagined scene, or one from a dream. I guess I always look for the structure beneath my writing, too, just like a building. I need to understand the framework of a story and how it will support what I want to do, and those frameworks can be orderly or fragmented, whichever best serves the overall design.

MF: How has your writing changed over time?

JK: The biggest change I’ve seen in my own writing is that I’m now more trusting and courageous about my voice and my choices. Over the past several months, I’ve heard two veteran writers, Benjamin Percy and Matt Weinkam, say the same basic thing—that you need to learn the rules so you can break the rules. That message really resonates with me. It’s like becoming an architect. You must go through a training period and pass a standardized licensure test, not so you become homogenous or an automaton, but so you can learn the appropriate limits of expressing your individuality. So you learn how much you can break the rules before it all comes crashing down around you.

MF: What’s next for you?

JK: I’d love to finish my novel, but at the rate I’m going, it will take another decade. I keep telling myself it’s a marathon, not a sprint. But it’s a marathon I didn’t properly train for.

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Joe Kapitan writes from a glacial ridge line a day’s march south of Cleveland. Besides being a proud two-time Midwestern Gothic contributor, his short fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared or will appear in The Cincinnati Review, Booth, PANK, Wigleaf, Hobart, Notre Dame Magazine, and others. His collection of Ohio-based short stories, Caves of the Rust Belt, will be published by Tortoise Books in October 2018.

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Contributor Spotlight: Jen Ippensen

Jen Ippensen author headshotJen Ippensen’s piece “Centennial Seamstress” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I grew up in the country outside a little unincorporated town called Worms, Nebraska. I remember doing a census during elementary school, and if I recall correctly, the population was 26. Although I’ve also lived in cities, as an adult, I’ve lived and worked in several small towns throughout Nebraska. What strikes me is what’s missing: things like anonymity, conveniences, and diversity associated with more populated places. I spend a lot of time thinking about what people in these circumstances endure, what they long for, and what they discover when they branch out.

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

Growing up in the Midwest, I think I’ve always had some awareness of the instinctive politeness developed in those from middle America, including myself, but as I’ve become more observant, I’ve found there’s a lot more to being Midwestern Nice than that. Sometimes when I’m with people from other places, I notice that I read a room differently than they do. Midwesterners, if we choose to be, are attuned to the subtle vibrations that stretch out on a tension-filled string between two tight-lipped smiles, the messages exchanged through a glance, a turned shoulder, the touch of a hand. So much is communicated through what isn’t said. I suppose we’re often considered passive aggressive. But what’s interesting to me is that we bite our tongues and repress our desires—until we don’t. Stories bubble up in tiny, seemingly-benign interactions and, of course, in those moments when the dam breaks.

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

Those moments—images, feelings, events—that lodge themselves deep within let us know we have something to explore, something to discover, something to say. If I consider an experience that’s stuck with me or sink into a moment that’s been on my mind, I might find a truth to investigate, reveal a story to tell. In this way, memories are exceptionally important.

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

I’m inspired by all kinds of things: what I read, see, hear. I make notes and deposit potential ideas in the back of my mind where I like to let them roll around for a while. I tend to do a lot of thinking and feeling before I do much actual writing. Then, when I sit down to write, the computer can paralyze. If I’m feeling too judgmental about my work, I turn to writing longhand. I like the way it feels, scratching words out on paper, and for some reason it frees me from the self-imposed pressure of getting it right.

When I’m struggling with a problem in a story, I try to wrap myself around the character or situation as I’m falling asleep, and sometimes I’ll wake in the night with a solution rapping on my brain. I love to write late at night or even in the middle of the night when my schedule allows it. If I’m having a hard time writing, I also turn to water: shower, bath, swimming pool, whatever I can find. My children recently invested in a fairly sizable tank for their goldfish, so now I have the continuous sound of the filter waterfall trickling into the tank. It’s nice. I wake to that sound and it makes me feel like maybe I can make words happen. Once I get something down, I revise and revise and revise. Occasionally, it’s tinkering, but much of the time my revisions are so extensive a final draft looks nothing like the first draft. I have to write my way to understanding my characters and their situations, write my way to understanding what it is I’m trying to say. For me, that usually takes a lot of words and a lot of time.

My writing group is also extremely important. They challenge, support, motivate, and inspire me. When I’m with them, it feels like home. I believe writers need to spend time with other writers to maintain both our creative energy and our sanity.

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

I wish I knew how to tell when a piece of writing is finished. I could probably revise forever, or at least second guess myself forever. But when I think a story is close to finished, it helps to set it aside and come back to it later, sometimes much later. If I find myself wanting to read it aloud, that’s a good sign.

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

It’s impossible for me to choose one favorite author. I’ve loved so many writers and books at different times in my life. And I turn to different authors, books, stories, poems, plays, or essays for different reasons. That being said, I admire pretty much everything about Lorrie Moore and I especially love Birds of America: the characters, language, humor, heart. When I read Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior I was captivated by the details; I approached detailing in a whole new way after reading that collection. When I think about strong voice, I always think of Quincy Troupe’s poetry collection Transcircularities because the first time I read it I kept turning to my husband and saying “listen to this.” I was the same way with Lindsay Hunter’s Don’t Kiss Me. I just had to read some of those words out loud. I’ve spent a lot of time with Stuart Dybek’s “Nighthawks,” especially the “Transport” section where he incorporates so many literary devices; it’s magical. I could go on and on. Some of the work I’ve seen published online lately is incredible too: “Annihilation” by Celia Bell (Virginia Quarterly Review) and “All of Us Animals” by Annie Frazier (Longleaf Review) come to mind because it feels like every word works so hard.

What’s next for you?

I have a number of short stories that need revision attention and some new ideas I’m wanting to explore soon.

Where can we find more information about you?

You can check out my website www.jenippensen.com and follow me on Twitter @jippensen.

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Contributor Spotlight: Laura Dorwart

Laura Dorwart’s piece “Ohio” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I currently live in Ohio, where my husband is a professor. Half of my family is from northern Michigan, where they live now, and my husband’s family is from the Midwest as well (Iowa and Nebraska). I appreciate the Midwest for its simultaneous hardiness and tenderness and its embrace of ambivalence, and I think a lot of that comes out in my writing.

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

It’s a study in contradictions, at once dense and awash in empty space. In some spots, it’s also one of the most affordable regions in the U.S. in terms of housing, which seems a bit banal to mention but is really key to the dynamics here, and the life we can live here that we would absolutely not be able to anywhere else.

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

We recently drove through Friend, Nebraska, where my husband’s great-great-grandfather was a doctor and his great-grandfather was a dentist, and I was obsessed. I wanted to write several novels based in Friend. You can imagine a whole constellation of parallel lives in the Midwest, one in each town. I’m very into constellations and parallels, and ice cream. There’s always very good ice cream here.

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

Manic and impulsive (seriously). I don’t think I’ve ever found my ideal writing environment, but if I did, it would involve a lot of coffee and twinkling lights. And slightly haunting rainforest sounds. Something at the intersection of café, children’s museum, haunted house, and spa room.

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

When I’m spent and exhausted, I turn my attention to something else, and usually that turns into a new project.

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

I can’t pick just one, but I love authors whose work is fleshly and primal: Lidia Yuknavitch, Roxane Gay, Kathy Fish, and Kathy Acker come to mind. In terms of poetry, I love Judy Grahn and Victoria Chang.

What’s next for you?

We have an 11-month-old daughter, so that’s kind of a perpetual “next.” I have pieces coming out in Riggwelter Press and elsewhere, and am working as a full-time freelance writer. It’s going surprisingly well.

Where can we find more information about you?

My website is www.lauradorwart.com, and my Twitter handle is @lauramdorwart.

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Contributor Spotlight: Stacy Boe Miller

Stacy Boe Miller’s piece “I Might as Well Start at the Beginning” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

We lived in a tiny Wyoming town when I was a child but had to drive to South Dakota for everything: shopping, fast food, the hospital I was born in. My grandparents lived in Indiana, so a couple of times a year we drove what then took 22-25 hours across the Midwest. I would watch all those fields and towns go by year after year and I spent many wonderful summers in Indiana. I spent my middleschool years in a town fifteen minutes south of Indianapolis. My childhood was made up of time spent in Wyoming, South Dakota, and Indiana. I always felt like I was living on some border of the West and the Midwest. My husband got his PhD from the University of Minnesota, so we spent four wonderful years in student family housing in Minneapolis with our three kids. We loved living in that city.

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

This is a complete generalization, but I have always felt the people to be so hardy. It is probably the winters that lead me to feel this way. And the wind. People deserve

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

I have been so surprised to find how much I write about the place I grew up. I consider the place I grew up to be more Western than Midwestern. Wyoming is a very western place in a lot of ways. I write about the landscape and culture a lot, even though I haven’t lived there for decades. It really shaped me and shaped my family. I don’t think I would have the perspective on it that I do though if it weren’t for the time we spent in Minneapolis. Forty percent of the population in student family housing was from outside of the US or Canada, so I built real long-term relationships with people from all over the world. I have traveled extensively, but that doesn’t always include hours and hours of listening to peoples’ stories. I don’t think I would write (or live) the way I do had I not gained such a global perspective. I will always be grateful to Minneapolis for that.

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

Right now I’m entering the third year of an MFA Creative Writing program. During the semester a lot of my writing comes from prompts or assignments. I also have three kids and own a really small business. I sneak in writing whenever I can: after they’re in bed, while they are all asking me questions, while dinner is in the oven, etc. My focus is poetry, and sometimes that feels more manageable because I can think about one poem and hold it all in my head as I do other things. I keep a notebook in my purse all the time, I take notes on my phone, I try to get out on walks or runs so that I can be without the distractions of family. I do not get up and write at the same time every day. I never have, and I probably never will. I’m finally okay with that.

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

I never know. And then if I do reach some magical place where I think a piece of writing is done, I know all I have to do is show it to someone, and they will suggest an edit. This goes for both poems and non-fiction. There are moments when I think to myself, I want the world to see this piece in this state. I guess that’s as done as it gets.

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

This is the hardest question for me to answer. I spend a lot of time reading women poets, Laura Kasischke, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, Natalie Diaz, Donika Kelly, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Alexandra Teague . . . I could keep going.

What’s next for you?

I will be working on my thesis this year, which will be a book of poems. I’m really excited about this. I have fantastic mentors and a really talented cohort. I am also slowly working on a memoir. The piece you are publishing is what I wrote when I envisioned the first chapter. When you accepted it, I thought to myself, “If someone wants to read the first chapter, maybe they would want to read the whole book!” So thanks! Stay tuned.

Where can we find more information about you?

Working on an author website, eventually, but for now you can find me on Twitter. @stacyboemiller

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Interview: Jamie Wendt

Jamie Wendt author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Jo Chang talked with author Jamie Wendt about her poetry collection Fruit of the Earth, the significance of religion in her work, being an English teacher, and more.

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Jo Chang: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Jamie Wendt: I was born and raised in the north suburbs of Chicago. I spent four years in Iowa at Drake University getting my Bachelor of Science in education and my Bachelor of Arts in English. I also spent some time in Nebraska for the University of Nebraska low-res MFA program. After college, I returned to Chicago, where I currently reside. The city has such an amazing literary culture. I am enjoying raising my two kids in such a diverse environment.

JC: As a graduate of Drake University in Iowa, and a current resident of Chicago, can you speak about what the Midwest means to you, and how the region has influenced your writing, if at all?

JW: I am very much a product of the Midwest. I love Chicago and cannot see myself living anywhere else. My street is lined with more trees than the suburban street I grew up on. Chicago has so much natural beauty mixed with stunning artwork and architecture, and it has so many characters and unexpected images that make walking through my neighborhood part of my writing process. When I was in college, Iowa had a big impact on me as well. Going back and forth between the Chicago-area and Des Moines during college helped me figure out who I am. Iowa is beautiful and my experiences there occasionally pop up in my poetry. I was often the first Jew that my classmates ever met, and it caused me to read dozens of books on Judaism in order to answer their many questions. Those books caused me, in turn, to fall in love with Judaism as a lifestyle instead of simply a religion. While my new book, Fruit of the Earth, does have a handful of poems set in Chicago and Iowa, the book focuses more inward on my personal grappling with my community, my faith, and the moving on through stages of life.

JC: As a high school English teacher, do you feel like your relationship with your students has influenced your development as a writer?

JW: Being a teacher is such a rewarding challenge on a daily basis. I have often been inspired by the stories that my students tell me. As a teacher, I try to get them to realize that writing is an outlet to help them make sense of their experiences and to own those experiences. I want my students to realize that writing can help them figure out what matters to them most and that by writing well, they can gain the power of influence and persuasion. I have always wanted to be more than a “teacher who writes” and now that my book is being published, I feel like I can define myself as a “writer who teaches.” I like that, and I hope that my students see that it is possible to do what you love in your free time while having a very fulfilling career.

JC: Your pride for your Jewish heritage shines through in your essays on Jewish writing, your contributions to the Jewish Book Council, and your forthcoming book, Fruit of the Earth. Can you speak about this relationship, and what personal significance it holds for you as a person and writer?

JW: When I think about places that have personal significance to me and that also recur in my poems, the Jewish home is the place that keeps reappearing. Everything that I do throughout the day, from food I eat, to the Jewish artwork and mezuzot throughout my home, to the prayer I say before bedtime as well as the interactions I have with others and the books I read, they are all somehow connected to my Jewish values. Writing “Jewishly” is subconscious for me. Jewish images recur throughout my poems because they are such a part of my daily life. I have been writing book reviews for the Jewish Book Council for many years, and I treat those reviews somewhat as donations to the continuation of the Jewish literary tradition. I want to be a part of the conversation, whether it is through a book review, a poem, or an essay, many of which can be viewed on my website: jamiewendt.wordpress.com.

Fruit of the Earth book cover by Jamie Wendt

JC: Fruit of the Earth explores displacement and division as it travels between the Old Country and the Promised Land. Can you explain how you gathered inspiration and research for this book?

JW: Writing poetry helps me make sense of my life, even though I’m rarely conscious of what a poem will focus on or where it will end up until I go back to revise. But oftentimes, I am writing about Jewish experiences, which Fruit of the Earth revolves around. Israeli culture is very inspiring to me. I’ve been to Israel four times, and whenever I arrive home, I find that my writing returns to the beauty of Israel, whether it’s the land and the sea, or something simple, such as the appearance of Jewish garb on so many people, or the initial strangeness of picking up hitchhikers, which is normal there. The sand seems to get everywhere: your toes, your hair, your towels, your pockets. There is just so much sand from the Mediterranean to the desert, and the land literally sticks to your skin there. And then, freedom and war are so intertwined and complicated, and the histories are enormously thick and layered. I feel a much stronger connection to the land of Israel than to America. When America makes politically atrocious decisions, I am disgusted. I talk about it; I protest. But when Israel does something that I find appalling, part of me feels personally responsible simply because Israel is the Jewish country. Israel is the place mentioned on nearly every page of Jewish prayer-books and it’s the country whose news I read daily. I try to explore and understand my Jewish heritage and roots through many poems in Fruit of the Earth. I am very interested in the way that personal moments, whether mundane or significant, intertwine with the political.

JC: Your first collection of poetry, Fruit of the Earth, debuted in 2018. Can you describe the process and your feelings as Fruit of the Earth’s publishing date drew near?

JW: It took me about five years to write and revise Fruit of the Earth. Many early drafts of these poems were part of my MFA thesis for the University of Nebraska. I’ve removed poems, heavily revised many, added others, played around with the order over and over again, and each time I changed something about it, I would submit the manuscript to a contest or open reading period. In late 2017, I printed out the whole manuscript for probably the dozenth time and laid the poems all over my living room floor, experimenting with a new order. I ended up creating five sections. Soon after I switched the order around, I submitted it to Main Street Rag Publishing Company, and they accepted it. I was thrilled, of course! There have been a high number of pre-sale purchases, so while my book was slated for release in September 2018, it was actually released on July 30. I’m very excited about hearing from readers about their thoughts on my poems, and I’m looking forward to participating in many readings.

JC: What does your typical writing schedule look like when you are working on a project? How do you allocate your time spent drafting and editing, but also to tasks such as your day job and personal obligations?

JW: Making time to write is one of my biggest challenges, mostly because I have two young children. Typically, I spend about four hours writing on weekend afternoons when my kids nap. I’m a teacher, so having summers off helps me focus more intently on a specific project and I am able to write more than I do during the school year. But due to being busy with my kids, my time is only available in short blocks, so I always create a goal for myself during the specific window of time that I have on a given day. My goals usually include something like, “write a new poem” or “revise two poems from last month” or “provide feedback on my writing partner’s poem.” I am often inspired by reading poems, so I always read before I write, usually for about twenty minutes. I rarely take notes or draft in a notebook; although, occasionally I will create lists of images surrounding a particular place or subject. I like to just get right into a poem by typing and letting my subconscious guide me through a first draft.

JC: What’s next for you?

JW: My book tour! I’m so excited about the release of Fruit of the Earth and to have the opportunity to read and discuss my poems with audiences around the Midwest. Please check my website for event details! In terms of future writing projects, I have been writing many poems lately on pregnancy and early motherhood as well as poems about my family’s connections to Chicago. I am excited about the possibilities for these poems, but I am focusing most of my energy right now on Fruit of the Earth. Please view sample poems and purchase information at this link to my publisher’s site: https://mainstreetragbookstore.com/product/fruit-of-the-earth-jamie-wendt/.

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Jamie Wendt is a graduate of the University of Nebraska Omaha MFA program. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Drake University. Her debut poetry collection, Fruit of the Earth, was released in July 2018 from Main Street Rag Publishing Company. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals, including Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, Third Wednesday, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been published in Green Mountains Review, the Forward, Literary Mama, and others. She teaches high school English and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children. Find her at jamiewendt.wordpress.com.

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Contributor Spotlight: Laurence Levy

Laurence Levy author headshotLaurence Levy’s story “The Rules of Time Travel” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

My family has lived in Ohio since the early 1800s, and from childhood I have been fascinated by the history of its cities. I used to pester my grandparents to share stories about the “old days” in Toledo, especially its history of labor strife, ethnic communities, and gangsters. As a child, I’d ride my bike into foreign areas of the city, looking for secret places and hoping to get lost. I loved the old houses in neighborhoods where my family no longer lived, and I imagined the people who occupied them. For the past ten years I have written literary fiction set in recognizable Toledo neighborhoods, which demonstrates that I never abandoned my childhood interests.

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

For a decade after college, I moved around the country, but I returned to Toledo because it is home. I am comfortable with its rhythms of speech, its guarded optimism, its sense of community, and its stubborn politics. AIso, I want my children to know their extended family, understand its history, and root for the Detroit Tigers.

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

A sense of place is at the center of all my writing. My childhood explorations of Toledo by bicycle are similar to the way I jump into writing stories without knowing where they will lead.

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

I enjoy the process of turning a stranger’s expression, a disturbing memory, or a meditation about a city street into a created world. After Toledo’s historic Jeep factory was demolished, I walked around the cleared land until I could imagine the life of someone who once worked there. I combined his fictional history with stories incarcerated kids told me about their violent protests in that same neighborhood against neo-Nazis. The creative process is a mystery, but I trust that if I keep jamming story fragments into my brain, something interesting will happen. I don’t believe in writer’s block, but sometimes the creative process is slow to work.

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

A story is finished when I can’t find any more words to trim from my over-detailed drafts.

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

It’s difficult to choose a single favorite writer because I’ve fallen in love with so many of them. In my teens, I read great stylists without really understanding what they were writing about—Faulkner and Joyce, for example—because their texts were mysterious and transcendent and promised to reveal the secrets of the universe. However, viewing literature as sacred text wasn’t helpful to my development as a writer. When I began to simply tell stories, instead of creating art, I became a much better writer.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a novel set in a near-future Toledo (surprise) based on an imagined conflict between immigrant families and America Firsters. It takes place in the midst of an epidemic blamed on Islamic refugees.

Where can we find more information about you?

Write to me at Laurence_Levy@owens.edu

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Interview: Gary Lemons

Midwestern Gothic staffer Jo Chang talks with poet Gary Lemons about his collection Snake III: The Hunger Sutras, being inspired by dreams, the importance of kinship, and more.

Jo Chang: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Gary Lemons: I moved to Washington, Iowa—a small town south of Iowa City—from Vermont—to qualify for the less expensive tuition rate for in-state students at the University of Iowa where I’d been accepted into the undergraduate poetry workshop. Prior to that move I’d never been to the Midwest.

Washington was an Amish community and the house I stayed in was in the middle of an Amish enclave if you will. I stumbled on to this the first day by going into a cafe/general store thirsty as well as curious about the horse-drawn wagons out front—something you only see in Vermont during the mid-winter when the maple sap is running. The Amish people were wonderful to me. They knew of any empty house one of their members moved out of and before I knew it they moved me into it. The community cleaned it and aired it out and hauled firewood for the winter and filled the cupboards with canned vegetables and fruits and brought fresh oil for the lanterns and re-installed the gravity feed water system from the elevated cistern to the house. There was no electricity and the hot water came from a pipe run through the box of the wood stove into a holding tank where it was then mixed with cold water to control the temperature. There was a standpipe in the front yard beside a trough for watering horses.

I spent that summer and fall working on Amish farms—haying and planting and weeding and harvesting—cutting wood and caring for horses. I learned so much about patience and tradition and compassion and tenderness but I also learned about discipline and to the degree I was able—character—and what it means to make a vow and keep it. I turned 21 that summer.

So my first exposure to the Midwest was transformational. The long bright buttery sunlight—the smells of horse and fresh cut hay—the sweat running out of your hair into your eyes and the goodness of a people seemingly lost in time all contributed to a sense of finding a sort of beginning—a ground in myself where I could build something for the years to come. I fell in love with Iowa you might say and no one was more surprised than I was to find that a slower more contemplative life could offer more nourishment for a poet than the fast-paced urban existence I knew from growing up in Washington D.C.

JC: You spent two years in the undergraduate poetry workshop at the University of Iowa. Can you speak about your time there, and how the world of academia has affected your writing, which, by contrast, is very focused on nature and the earth?

GL: After my year establishing residency ended I left Washington and moved to Iowa City. It was hard saying goodbye to my community—my first Sangha if you will—but I was completely stoked to jump into the workshop life. I had already audited classes with John Berryman and William Stafford but it was now time to fully enter the crazed and almost caricature existence of a young poet in an extremely exclusive literary incubator.

My first teacher was Donald Justice. I admired his work tremendously and was—as we all were—in awe of him. He seemed to tower over us—blotting out the sun—his proclamations regarding the merit or mostly the lack of it in our writing caused earthquakes in the heart and drove many of us directly into the Iowa City bars to assuage the ensuing angst the comes from having Mr. Justice listen to your poem and then raise both eyebrows and say something like, “No—that is not quite it at all.” Crushed.

But he instilled critically important lessons that are a part of my writing life to this day—discipline to write every day—which built on the time spent with the Amish doing daily chores exactly at the same time in the same way over and over again—reading all poems but especially my work out loud while listening—truly listening—to the way the words touch each other to form subtle meanings—how they evoke subliminal responses not readily available in the words alone or as they lie silent on the page. He also harangued on the importance and privilege of editing—of never being satisfied with what you wrote but knowing it is a surface beneath which more important and more significant understandings are waiting for release through the process of emergence and reemergence in the drafts. He taught us never to stand in the way of the original outpouring but from that point to ceaseless question yourself as you amended it until only what you wanted to say—the reason you wrote the damn thing to begin with—remained. I honor him every day for that.

I also had a semester with Marvin Bell who was a singularly kind and accessible teacher whose main contribution to my life as a poet—and it was a huge one that I appreciate even more as I grow older—was how to talk about a poem—how to reveal those secret urges and flashing insights that are a part of the composition into a language in which the poem can be discussed and shared. A byproduct of this skill is the ability to talk about—or critique constructively—the works of other poets without insult or injury. We learned how to discuss and improve our work within a community of poets who became trusted advisors and not enemies.

And then my last two semesters I spent with my favorite living poet Norman Dubie. This is where my work became my own. Norman’s greatest gift to me was his refusal to acknowledge my inauthenticity. He knew when I was faking it. He kept up a fluid wall that I walked into every time I spoke in a borrowed voice. Through his interest and dare I say—love—I discovered my voice; not that it doesn’t change somewhat with every poem but what Norman helped me find was that place in me where the summaries of personal experience wait for words to find them. Norman taught me to believe in and trust the dissonance of images and thoughts and dreams that are uniquely mine in the same way his were uniquely his. It was at this point that I began to believe that a life spent writing poetry was not a secular calling but a form of spiritual practice in that every poem is drawn up and out of one mystery into another.

JC: When you used to live in Vermont, where you became “entangled more deeply in the changes the ’60s offered young poets,” you speak about the kinship and shared passion among the other young poets you shared space with. Can you also speak about the importance of community among poets, especially young or beginning ones, and about your own experience?

GL: Oh it’s so important. My earliest memories as a poet are all about hanging out with like-minded friends. When you’re young everything in this world is new and yet has already received a label defining and naming it—we get to do that all over again as poets and this act of discovery and identification is sharpened by learning where to look and how to see—which are two different and equally important parts of creating anything new in my opinion—we learn to look and see from birth and the way we assimilate this into experience—how we educate ourselves—is pressured and formed and controlled by exterior forces like parents and teachers and ministers or gurus or others in authority. Most of what we see and how we look is dependent on influences not of our own making or choosing. That’s just what being a child is all about and the big hope is that when it’s all said and done we were at a minimum treated kindly.

Then you’re a teenager or a young adult—you’re on your own and your friends become your family—your new world. This is wonderful and liberating until it isn’t—until the freedom to escape becomes just another perhaps larger and more interesting limitation. And the realization comes that once again you’re wasting time doing things that don’t kindle an inner flame.

So that’s when the process becomes more selective. You hang with people that excite you—that teach you, that care for you—that disagree articulately without punishing you—that share if not the same path then a common direction. And you walk with them.

So many nights and days spent with other poets reading from Sexton or Rilke or Baudelaire or Eliot (“I will show you fear/in a handful of dust”) or Dickinson or Plath and really digging into the words: feeling them together and shouting them—memorizing them—rolling in them like they were (and they are) great fields of grass with a gentle downhill slope to the sea, taking them in and letting them live inside of you while all the time hoping one day to find similar but original material in yourself.

There’s nothing like the friendship between young poets. Essentially the idea of the artist as a loner is just another anachronism that all the juice has been sucked out of and that now hangs inside a sarcophagus waiting for some explorer to pry it open and declare they’ve found the long-lost mummy of a really bad idea.

JC: To follow the question about community and networking between poets, what do poetry workshops mean to you? The Bread Loaf writers workshop played a role in shaping your craft and securing you a place in the University of Iowa’s undergraduate poetry workshop. Who were your most memorable mentors? How did you feel about the communal aspect of workshops?

GL: Poetry workshops are really important. They changed my life in so many ways mostly by supplying directions on the blank signs along the road I was on—suddenly I had a sense of belonging to something far greater and older than myself—a sense of tradition that required only curiosity and a degree of reverence to join.

I was at Bread Loaf twice. I got to work with poets like John Ciardi and William Meredith and Diane Wakoski and Miller Williams and James Tate among others. Wow—every hour of every day spent in their company or with fellow students like Carolyn Forche—one of my favorite poets or Bill Ransom or John Huey. You have to remember this was the late ’60s—everything was being redefined and personal freedom was tops on the list—how to become yourself—how to find and define your character—whether or not to wear straight leg or bell-bottom jeans—it was a privilege to participate in that particular moment in history. Maybe young poets feel that way today—I would if I were suddenly 19 again. These are momentous times and so much is riding on the next twitch. And workshops are places where solidarity happens and where life-long friendships begin. From which the poetry of the future waits for the current now moment to arrive.

Perhaps the most valuable thing I came away with from Bread Loaf and I imagine this is true of every workshop is the gift of reading my work out loud in front of an audience. I’d never done that before. It scared me to death to stand up every evening and read the poems I wrote that day to a group of other students under the eye of one or more of the teachers. It was expected of us and after awhile I grew to love it—I love reading my work to this day with the same feeling of amazement and the same underlying excitement bordering on panic that I did when I first started.

JC: You have stated that at the University of Iowa you “studied the craft of poetry. Then [you] went out into the world to learn the lessons of poetry.” Evidently, your time spent living on the Assiniboine Reservation and in Alaska has been essential to your craft. When did you realize that nature holds such potential for poetic influence? Did you actively seek it, or was it serendipitous?

GL: By craft of poetry I mean specifically the way poems work metrically and syllabically. How the lines relate to one another. I studied and practiced over and over again writing sestinas and villanelles and sonnets and heroic couplets and played with other tools for releasing the underlying music in words. I loved this. I still do.

But there’s something lost when your work happens at a cluttered desk near a window looking out at the real world. I began toward the end of my second year to feel I’d wrung just about every drop from my life experiences on the planet. My poems became less real. More and more abstract in an attempt to create linkages between what I felt and what was going on around me. Eventually it came to me that if I wanted connection to the big planetary world I needed to see more of it. I refer to this as Jack Kerouac syndrome in that it’s almost a cliche for young writers to lose themselves out on the highway in order to bring back something found in the ditches along the way. But that’s what I did.

Norman was nice enough to offer me a 15-hour independent study class for my graduating semester at Iowa. I only needed 15 hours to graduate so this meant I didn’t need to take any other classes. It meant I could be gone all semester as long as I sent weekly poems back to him and kept up with other assignments—in other words I could hit the road with his permission if I was responsible enough to do the work and send it back on time.

So I did. I wandered in Mexico—especially Oaxaca and Mazunte. My recent book—Dia de los Muertos—published by Red Hen Press—came out of that experience some forty years later. I went to Alaska and worked on the Pipeline. I built grain elevators and feed mills all through the Midwest and still got my poems to Norman and finished the semester while on the road.

Then I couldn’t stop. Rather than go on to graduate school I stayed out there at the extreme edge of very hard work getting my ass kicked by hillbilly foremen and learning what I referred to as the lessons of poetry. This is again about seeing and looking. I was seeing things I’d never otherwise see. Pushed into experiences—some of them near intolerable and some soaring and achingly beautiful—that were unavailable without maximum effort to find them. And I looked and gathered and mostly just lived without real intention until at some point I grew tired of it—about 25 years later as it turns out.

An incomplete list of what I did during this time would include welding pipe, fishing in Alaska, high steel in the Midwest where I also built grain elevators and feed mills, logging in the Pacific Northwest, and my favorite job of all—tree planting high elevation clearcuts all over Washington state and Oregon. It was retrospectively my redemption to finish my manual labor career by planting over 500,000 trees wandering just below the snowline in places of the most surreal and desolate beauty imaginable. With a crew of men and women—mostly artists—many of whom planted millions of trees over the course of their time in the woods.

The 5 years I spent on the Assiniboine Reservation in Poplar Montana—well—that’s a whole book in itself but a thumbnail edition would say something like this is where I learned not how to fly but how to land.

So yeah—I got a big kick out of working with my hands. Doing things. Contouring things or reshaping things. In a strange way it’s not so different than the poet’s work of walking a feeling into an idea into a finished poem through the application of all sorts of tools.

Snake III: The Hunger Sutras book cover by Gary Lemons

JC: Your forthcoming book of poetry, Snake III: The Hunger Sutras, is the third book in the Snake Quartet, and continues the journey of Snake, who is the sole survivor of the “cleanse” that wiped the Earth nearly clean. What was the inspiration behind this book, and the entire Snake Quartet? Was there a certain image, or moment, that sparked inspiration?

GL: The original voice of snake appeared in my book Bristol Bay & Other Poems—Red Hen Press. That poem came from an actual dream and was a sort of an apocalyptic vision where the Earth get tired of hosting parasites and destroys all life on it by unleashing cataclysmic forces such as hurricanes and earthquakes and fire and floods (sound familiar?).

The dream kept coming back in more detail narrated by a strange voice. I wrote down what I was given—mostly late at night—sometimes all night—as the poem decloaked. This turned into the first book in the Snake Quartet.

The last living thing—and there will always be one last thing before there is no thing—discovers the dreaming way even as it was being killed—the path out of form back into cosmic consciousness if you will where life goes during times of destruction and where spirits reside once their bodies are gone. The Buddhists call this Pralaja, or when the manifest universe returns to non-existence. So just as Earth was finishing this last living thing—rolling it and pulling limbs off it (making it snake shaped)—it popped out of view. It dreamed itself into a safe place. Taking the collectively destroyed plant and animal world with it. But not just living energies but their dreams and superstitions and mythologies and intuitions and fantasies and lies and grievances and essentially housing the entire kit and caboodle that once existed on Earth. Snake was born.

But only for a while. Because it was still alive it could not reside permanently in the dream world—it had to return to its body—now snake-shaped—at which point Earth came for it again. Around and around for thousands—then millions of year until Earth grew tired and slept—which was and is her natural state until activities on the surface disturb her. Now snake is alone on the the empty planet—wandering through artifacts and remnants—phantoms and ruins carrying the missing life forms inside of her. She is now the repository for what is gone.

This came out of a dream. A long sequential story pretty much as I just described poorly filled with horror and beauty and sorrow and moments of deep grace that together turned into a—oh why not just use the word—channeled experiences something like what I understand people to mean when they use the term automatic writing. I didn’t edit or censor it until the first book was finished. Then I went back through it with a very small pen making very light strokes so as not to disturb the force of what I consider a gift. The ensuing three books came from the same source through a similar process. Essentially I am occupied.

I felt the entire time and still do as the fourth book wobbles toward the finish line that I was being presented with a new way of looking at an ancient—perhaps inceptional mythology that was born at the exact moment the universe came into being. The end of a thing held inside the creation of it. It is a frightening thing to write from this place but ultimately it feels in phase with my life’s work as a poet.

JC: Why did you choose to tell this story through the narrative of a snake, rather than a man? What did it add to the story? What were some of the challenges of this approach, and how did you work through them?

As mentioned above I really didn’t decide. The vision if you will came uninvited and fully materialized into my dreams and imposed its weight in such a manner that the poems were made to pack it into view.

And to be clear—snake is not a man nor is she a woman exclusively. She’s both. He and she are the composites of all and the all—so I’ve been told by snake—is genderless. How could it not be. Gender is a point in time whereas forever or eternity or better—infinity—is timeless. Snake would say something like we are infinite consciousness momentarily expressed in specific forms obsessing over temporary identities rather than our true nature—which is formless. So snake will speak from the perspective of a man or a woman and sometimes both in the same poem. I can’t do anything about this. If you think it’s confusing you should talk to W. Nick Hill, who is attempting the Herculean effort of translating some of this work into Spanish, which is very precise about pronouns.

The challenges were largely two-fold. The first one was to endure the sorrow the poems instilled as I wrote them. Sure all I had to do was look at the headlines every day to confirm something catastrophic is moving our way—but still—that was no consolation for the real pain some of the poems evoked. Secondly I needed to stay out of the way of the poems as I wrote them. Which I realize is a strange confession but part of learning to write these poems in a new voice was to learn new skills as a writer and this was the most important one. To let be.

The voice of snake was originally spoken/written in a southernish dialect similar to the ones I heard around me growing up in Virginia and D.C. That was hard—to phonetically get the words right required lots of misspellings which the computer didn’t like at all.

After the fact, I sort of got what was going on with snake by seeing her aspects in other mythologies. The Garden of Eden—the Ouroborus—the Damaballah—Onjare—there are endless stories and gods and goddesses related to or created out of snake energy. I didn’t understand this as I was writing the books—which is a good thing—but I later came to understand that our societal and cultural myths and superstitions likely share a single source—fear. And in the non-dualist tradition this is balanced equally through action and service and sacrifice by courage and the dynamic interaction between these two giants eventually turns into love.

JC: The two themes that are introduced in Snake II and continue throughout the rest of the Quartet include appetite and history, or “the consumption of things at the expense of things” and “the idea that thoughts, imaginings, made objects, past events, inert forms, mythical narratives, rumors, and beliefs have an actual life and that our history is always incomplete if it doesn’t recognize these are real.” What is the intersection between these two themes, and how did you instill them into your poems?

GL: At the beginning of the Hunger Sutras you’ll find Patanjali’s Sutra 31 offered as a mantra repeated over and over again to diminish or even end the urges or appetites of the flesh. It’s what I call the Hunger Sutra.

We have the first book—Snake—describing events and their causes at the final moments of life on Earth. Armageddon unleashed—the End Game in which all the pieces are swept from the board—the last of things shouting and crying out grief and pain into the poems snake carries through the dream world into these books.

The Hunger Sutras asks the question—why is this chaotic and destructive influence happening whenever and wherever life is found? Why are families separated at borders—why is there ongoing war with increasingly more deadly weapons resulting in truly horrifying loss of life—why are diseases mutating and resistant to best science—why such inequity between those at the top and those at the bottom—what systems are in place acting as a garrotte around the neck of the planet—why are rivers burning and coral reefs dissolving and the oceans so choked with plastic and sewage the creatures there have no place left to live—why famine on a national scale—drought on a global scale—fires burning entire cities and those in charge walking around behind a little white ball with cigars in their mouths?

Snake begins with the premise that injustices and cruelties—wars and violence—all maladies and most illnesses are caused by hunger. The need to eat to survive. And what do we eat—other living things. We satisfy our hunger by killing something else that also wants to live. And for those of us evolved enough not to kill animals we still kill plants as if they are not sentient entities equally alive and present in their bodies.

Snake is sure that all things—from cancer cells to lichen on a rock to the Kings and Queens of State to the antelope and sponges and elephants and egrets and tulip bulbs underground all winter—you get the picture—all things are driven by the same imperative—they must eat to live.

So the question becomes: How do we find—as a world—any level of grace and non-violence when the seminal urge of life is a violent one—is essentially a murderous one that requires the death of one thing to continue the life of another?

There’s no answer to this—that’s what I’ve discovered in the writing of the Quartet. I thought at first the fourth book—Original Grace—might provide an alternate reality in which things lived as, say, minerals live. I thought a solution would appear. But it didn’t because I’m convinced in this reality this is the underlying truth. If so the question then becomes not how do we fix it but how do we live in the space around it—how do we accept hunger as the necessary cornerstone of existence while at the same time learning to love and honor one another?

So this is what I meant earlier about poetry in my life being part of a spiritual practice if you will. I’m trying to answer these questions at a personal level—not just conceptually.

JC: Do you have any advice for becoming more attuned to nature and its poetic capabilities?

GL: Well I’m always giving myself advice but by the time I get around to offering it to anyone else I typically realize they probably know more than I do. I’m trying not to know stuff—I’m convinced that “knowing” is also a form of appetite and the best thing I can do is just feel and intuit my way through the darkness rather than construct well-lit rooms where theories based on current facts turn to nonsense. Today’s science is tomorrow’s voodoo so to speak.

But for what it’s worth I believe in the medicinal value of silence. Less noise—more quiet moments. Feel the body you’ve been given—no matter your age or abilities—feel the life force coursing through the flesh of you—soon it will become apparent it’s the same life force in others—in trees and chickens and polar bears and strangers and children and enemies. We are connected by the essential truth that we’re alive and the best way for me to understand this is by finding a place to simply breathe in silent council with a tree or a mountain or a friend. To attempt in my poor way to illuminate the threads that at the end of the day connect us to one another.

I also understand this seems impossible for some. It’s seemed impossible to me. If you’re in a war zone—if you’re homeless—if you’re working for minimum wage or less and can’t pay bills or feed children—if you’re sick or elderly or displaced or pursued it is difficult and apparent fantasy to believe in a place of grace or rest.

My yoga teacher—Erich Schiffmann—says something like—if even for an instant we can stop energizing the old beliefs there might come an inkling of another way. And the practice of doing this whenever it occurs to you every day over time will start to dissipate the fog that keeps the actual true nature of things unclear. But again—when hunger is the driving force behind existence it takes an amazing amount of desperation and/or character and/or practice to trust into the goodness of the totality and believe that what is happening right now is not big picture real and not the truth but a lie fueled by consensual turning away.

JC: What’s next for you?

GL: I’m working on the final edits for the fourth book in the Quartet—Original Grace which will publish with Red Hen in the spring of 2020. Another book—The Book of Spells—is finished and scheduled for a spring 2022 launch. I have three other books—Collateral Joy, The Undertaker’s Mute and Dark Sky Preserve finished and I’m not sure what to do with them. There are numerous other books in progress.

I should pay homage to Red Hen Press and particularly Kate Gale and Mark Cull and Tobi Harper. Red Hen takes chances by publishing outside mainstream literature and is a fantastic force for change not just in the literary world but in the schools and sub-cultures of Los Angeles and the greater world. Even if I had no relationship with them I’d admire them. I am constantly amazed at the professional support I receive from them both as a poet and as a person.

My wife who is German and I are going to Germany this fall to seriously take a look at the possibility of living there. For lots of reasons. Otherwise, I walk our little dog, tend the gardens—hang with my friends, practice yoga and enjoy the gift of having the beautiful and truly amazing Nöle Giulini as my partner on this wave. Oh yeah—and write four hours every day as Donald Justice once advised.

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Gary Lemons received an undergraduate degree in poetry from the University of Iowa in 1973 and then spent the next five years living in small towns throughout the Midwest—mostly in Iowa—building grain elevators and feed mills. He fished for many years in Alaskan waters from Nome to Dutch Harbor but mostly in Bristol Bay (Bristol Bay & Other Poems—Red Hen Press) and later worked as a tree planter re-foresting clear-cuts all over the Pacific Northwest. He has seven books of poetry in print with two more scheduled. He is a yogi and currently teaches gentle yoga with his wife at their studio—Tenderpaws—in Port Townsend, Washington.

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Contributor Spotlight: Joliange Wright

Joliange Wright author headshotJoliange Wright’s piece “The Mother Church” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I was raised in Indiana in the eighties. My family were working class people who went to union meetings through the week and church on Sundays. The foundational layer of my material as a writer was laid in the Midwest. Some of the voices in my head are those voices.

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

For me, the great migration of people from the South to the Midwest in the 1950’s, when car manufacturing opened up middle class jobs to previously working poor folks, is a complicated and rich subject for thought and study. This is the so-called “Hillbilly Highway.” This is how my family came to be there.

Of course, there was an African American history woven into this story too, which my family didn’t discuss. But it’s been an exciting part of my study to understand the whole picture better. The complex labor history in the region is deeply connected to the political reality we’re living in today.

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

I was a competitive baton twirler as a child, and so we drove through the Midwestern states a lot for competitions. I had a lot of extreme experiences, and it seemed like everyone was striving, struggling. The people in my immediate life worked nonstop. If there was a dollar to be made, they worked for it. In church people spoke in tongues, and it was not explained. As much as I’ve tried to build, and have built a life outside these contexts, these early experiences built my character and began my understanding of the world.

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

I have a lot of practices to help me write because I don’t have an easy time getting things on the page. I scribble three pages every morning, just stream of consciousness, where I scream and rant and write neurotic to do lists. It’s like a purge. And I meditate. I send myself love and hippie stuff like that. That’s on a good day. I need silence and solitude. I disable the Internet. I keep novels I want to emulate open on my desk. I have pictures of artists and writers I love all around my studio, like Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe and James Baldwin. The strength in their eyes pushes me forward.

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

I don’t think I ever know, but sometimes I start weeping when a certain sentence gets written. And sometimes that’s the end.

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

Someone asked me this recently, and I felt indignant that I should have one (as opposed to twenty). James Baldwin is probably my greatest writer hero. But I depend so much on Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Dorothy Allison, Edwidge Danticat, Virginia Woolf. I love Roberto Bolano for taking me into other realms of consciousness, and Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich for reminding me about the women who came before. I read Mary Oliver when I miss nature and Lucia Perillo when I feel sad but don’t understand why.

What’s next for you?

I’m starting work on a PhD in the fall at the University of Southern California. I’m really excited to work with the faculty in the creative writing program—they’re all such good writers. And real people. I’ll also get to read theory and get smarter in ways I haven’t known how to before. I recently started working on a novel, which I’m taking nice and easy.

Where can we find more information about you?

I have two other stories, in Consequence Magazine and Lunch Ticket, both important literary magazines covering the culture of war, and social justice issues, respectively. You could check those out. I haven’t made peace with the internet, so I don’t have social media, etc. You could write me a letter… I’ve always wanted to have multiple intense letter writing relationships, like Rilke.

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Interview: Susan Hahn

Susan Hahn author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Jo Chang talked with author Susan Hahn about her book Losing Beck, the temporality of all things, the peacefulness of writing, and more.

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Jo Chang: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Susan Hahn: I have always lived in the Chicago area. I was born in Chicago at Henrotin Hospital—a place which no longer exists—and spent the first nine years of my life living in my grandparents’ apartment in West Rogers Park with my parents and other family members.

JC: As an Illinois resident, how has the Midwest shaped your development as a writer, if at all? Do you draw inspiration from the place you grew up in?

SH: Absolutely. I think those early years spent in West Rogers Park affects so much of what I write. That crowded apartment, with my grandparents being immigrants from Russia (just about the whole neighborhood at the time was made up of immigrants from Russia or Germany) and World War II having just concluded, with many of the older members in the community having lost relatives, most definitely had an effect on me as a small child. From an early age I had the feeling of temporality about all things—animate and inanimate.

JC: Can you speak about your experience working at the Woodlawn Mental Health Center as a group therapist, and how you managed to incorporate art and writing into your practice?

SH: I had been at the University of Chicago on a PhD program in educational psychology but knew I was in the wrong field and asked the placement office to help me find a position. They did, with a job at the Woodlawn Mental Health Center. There I was a researcher for a psychiatrist affiliated with the University—mostly I went into schools gathering information for a project they were working on. I knew this wasn’t quite right for me either and I enrolled in a year long program at Forest Hospital (another place which no longer exists) in Des Plaines and became certified as a group therapist. It was actually there that I saw how to use creativity to reach deep emotions.

I finally ended up at the Gestalt Institute of Chicago in a program involving the use of art in therapy—another year long program. However, half way through it one of the directors read a poem of mine and said some life changing words to me. She said, “If you just wrote this, go home, shut the door and become more the poet you are.” (I have to add that another person there, of some authority, said my work would never be published.) What to do? I chose to go with what felt intuitively right!

JC: Your work with TriQuarterly literary magazine has spanned more than two decades. How have your roles as both editor and co-editor in chief impacted the development of your craft, if at all?

SH: There was an irony to being Editor of TriQuarterly and Co-editor of TriQuarterly Books because I am a very slow reader. I avoided English classes in college because I knew that books took me a long time to read—I’d examine every sentence I didn’t quite understand, always asking if it worked. So with thousands of manuscripts a year coming in I had to develop ways to get through them. It soon became clear to me that I knew I had to publish something if I almost held my breath reading it, hoping that the author would not mess up the story or the poem by its conclusion. And, I was known for calling writers, asking them what exactly they meant or were intending with a particular phrase or paragraph or stanza. I would, however, only do this if I intended to accept their work and just need further clarification. I know I learned from this and I think the writers did too—at least I hope they did.

Losing Beck book cover by Susan Hahn

JC: Your book Losing Beck explores the intersection of art, passion and history spanning from 1912 Paris, the two World Wars, and the present. What was your inspiration for Losing Beck, and did writing it require much historical research? If so, how did you begin the process?

SH: Again, back to my experiences at TriQuarterly and TriQuarterly Books. There were a few writers (mostly female) who would get close to panic as their work was about to be published and want to withdraw it, fearing that what they wrote, when published would ruin their careers, or a relationship—that someone would identify it to be about “him” or “her” and that there would be repercussions. This reaction affected me and troubled me deeply. As a result, some of the female characters in Losing Beck, most especially Jennie Silver and Christiane Juul, confront this issue and it forms an important part of the book.

In addition, I did do a lot of historical research. I read extensively about Nijnsky’s life and watched videos of his dances. Also, I took a class at the University of Chicago about the poetry that came out of the trenches of World War I. I needed that one poet and that one poem for the narrative and toward the end of the class I found him and it. Much of what shaped Losing Beck came from this singular poem. Also, there was a lot of fact checking when it came to historical events and the ages of my characters – the need that they be in sync with certain events in history. I had several rough timelines. Finally, it was interesting to me that for all my reading and research, how much just singular details I learned about captivated me and helped give form to the book.

JC: The main character Jennie Silver channels her emotions into writing as a way to manage her conflicting desire and repulsion for a certain individual in her life. As someone who understands the ability of art to bring peace to people in times of need, does writing also serve a cathartic purpose for you?

For me writing is the most peaceful, centered place I can be, even when I’m dealing with difficult emotional subjects. So yes, it is cathartic and ever so life giving.

JC: Do you have any advice for up and coming writers?

SH: My advice would be don’t be afraid to put it on the page. You can always cut it back or take it further—embellish it. But don’t be afraid to write it. Just put it down, think about it, and strengthen its power.

However, if what you’ve written doesn’t fit with your larger manuscript or you are truly uncomfortable with it, put it in a drawer or somewhere you can find it for later use. Clearly, what you’ve written has some meaning for you—the time to include it just might not be right in the present time.

JC: What’s next for you?

SH: While waiting this past winter for the copy-edited pages for Losing Beck I became tremendously restless and realized there was another book I wanted/needed to write. It sort of insisted on being given voice. So I wrote it rather quickly—I honored it. Now it is finished and I think I will soon send it into the world for others to weigh in on it. Whatever happens, it exists in solid form and, as its only reader so far, I am excited about it. So for now, before Losing Beck appears in December, I rest….!

**

Susan Hahn is the author of nine books of poetry, two produced plays and two novels.
Her second novel, Losing Beck, was published in December 2018. Among her awards and honors for writing are a Guggenheim Fellowship, Pushcart Prizes or Special Mentions in fiction and poetry, The Society of Midland Authors Award, a Jeff Recommendation, and selection as the inaugural writer-in residence at The Hemingway Foundation.

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