Midwest in Photos: Tracks Past the Unknown

February 4th, 2017

“The great trains howling from track to track all night. The taut and telegraphic murmur of ten thousand city wires, drawn most cruelly against a city sky. The rush of city waters, beneath the city streets. The passionate passing of the night’s last El.” – Nelson Algren, Never Come Morning.

Photo by: Todd Donery

Interview: Julie Iromuanya

Julia IromuanyaMidwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with author Julie Iromuanya about Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, her development as a writer, rural alienation, and more.

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Megan Valley: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Julia Iromuanya: I’m a Cornhusker! My parents, who are from Nigeria, are immigrants to Nebraska. I was born and raised in Lincoln.

MV: How has teaching creative writing in the University of Arizona MFA program influenced your writing?

JI: One thing that is most exciting about being part U of A’s MFA program is working with students who have such a broad range and depth of literary influences. My writing and thinking is pushed and energized by the work the students are producing and their needs as writers. For next term, I’m developing a craft course on deconstructing race in fiction. It’s something I’ve wanted to teach for a long time, but I never really had the space to create it. I’m really having to re-think how I conceptualize “play” around identity in my own work.

MV: Was there a breakthrough moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?

JI: I’ve always identified as a writer, so I don’t believe I ever had a “breakthrough moment.” When I was a little girl, I had a makeshift office in our dining room with my own typewriter — I even sent out query letters to publishers when I was eight or nine. I think I had a “breakthrough” in the sense that I got serious about my craft and discipline as a writer some time in graduate school. At that point, I started to be more disciplined about developing as a writer and pursuing literary opportunities.

MV: You’re the daughter of Igbo Nigerian immigrants and grew up in the Midwest; in your first novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, your main characters are a Nigerian couple living in Nebraska. How have you been shaped by both of those cultures? How has your writing been shaped by both of those cultures?

JI: I’ve been shaped in more ways than I can count. Growing up I certainly experienced the outsider-insider position, in the sense that I could feel both inside and outside of each culture depending on the context. But I wonder if, in general, that’s the condition of being a writer. Maybe we need to be at a slight remove from any given situation to be able to truly see it and reconstruct it in creative ways.

mr and mrs doctor

MV: Most American immigrant stories are set in cities, but your novel places Job and Ifi in semi-rural Nebraska. How would their story be different if they lived in New York City or Los Angeles?

JI: I was very purposeful about my decision to set Mr. and Mrs. Doctor in semi-rural Nebraska. Being a Nigerian immigrant in a place like Chicago, for instance, is a broader experience. There’s a lot more cultural diversity and a longer history of contact with immigrants. In my made-up town of Zonta, Nebraska, I wanted to magnify my characters’ sense of isolation, alienation, and difference. Nebraska is a place that conceives of itself as “middle America” and the “Heartland” with roots in family values and tradition. But what does it mean to not be part of the “family”? All of my characters — including Cheryl, Job’s first wife, a white native of Nebraska — are conceived of as outsiders and misfits in one way or another. In this marginal space, their proximity to one another is sharpened. So two characters like Job and Emeka, who come from starkly different backgrounds in Nigeria, are not only forced to inhabit the same space, but they must rely on one another. As result, while they can at times be viewed as friends or even brothers, they could also be seen as adversaries.

MV: What’s the best piece of advice on writing you’ve ever received?

JI: I don’t have any singular bit of advice that stands out in particular. I just know that I have benefited in so many ways from the generosity of my teachers and other writers along the way. At the University of Nebraska, I’m indebted to the time and energy my entire faculty offered me, but, in particular, my dissertation chair, Jonis Agee. No matter how awful I felt when I showed up for a meeting, I would leave marching with my head raised and ready to get to work.

MV: In a previous interview, you advised student writers to save all their writings, as one thought can lead to great success. Was that the case with Mr. and Mrs. Doctor?

JI: Indeed it was. Mr. and Mrs. Doctor started as a character sketch exercise in Susan Hubbard’s undergraduate fiction workshop at the University of Central Florida. For many years, I continued to return to that character — Job — until I discovered that to tell his story properly, I would need to write a novel.

MV: What’s next for you?

JI: I’m working on two other novels. A common feature of my work is exploring the condition of Nigerian immigrants, and their descendants, in America, and that continues to be the case with these projects. I know that is a little nebulous, but for now that’s all I can offer by way of description. ☺

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Julie Iromuanya is the author of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (Coffee House Press), a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for Debut Fiction. Her scholarly-critical work most recently appears in Converging Identities: Blackness in the Modern Diaspora (Carolina Academic Press). She was the inaugural Herbert W. Martin Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Dayton. She has also been a Jane Tinkham Broughton Fellow in Fiction at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a Bread Loaf Bakeless / Camargo France Fellow. Her work has also been supported by fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Vermont Studio Center. Iromuanya earned her B.A. at the University of Central Florida and her M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she was a Presidential Fellow and award-winning teacher. She is an assistant professor in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Arizona. More info at julieiromuanya.com

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Summer 2017 submissions are open: Fiction, Poetry, Nonfiction

Submissions are now open for our SUMMER 2017 issue! We’re accepting fiction, nonfiction, and poetry! Read about what we’re looking for here.

All subs are open until March 31. We can’t wait to read your work!

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Contributor News

Andrew Bode-Lang (Issue 22) recently had his fiction chapbook, Field Trips with Exceptional People, released by Red Bird Chapbooks! The collection “questions our celebrity culture, examining what makes someone exceptional and how the rest of us relate.” Interested? It’s available here.

Ron A. Austin (Issue 14) was awarded a fellowship by the Regional Arts Commission for Literature. Read more about the award here.

Cindy Hunter Morgan (Issue 13) has a poetry collection forthcoming from Wayne State University Press in March 2017. Her collection, Harborless, “[confronts] the mysteries surrounding the objects that cover the floor of the Great Lakes by both deepening our understanding of the unknown and teaching great empathy for a life most of us will never know.” More details can be found here.

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Winter 2017 issue – cover and contributor listing

It’s going to be a big year for us here at Midwestern Gothic. We have two new books we’ll be releasing into the world, and we’ve officially shifted to bi-annual publications for the journal. In these uncertain times, we need art more than ever, and all of us here at MG are committed to continuing to publish diverse voices and providing a platform for important stories.

We decided, given all the changes we’re enacting, to re-design the journal from the ground up: in addition to publishing photos, changing the physical dimensions of the book, and including nonfiction writing in each issue, you’ll see changes starting with the cover design. Basically, we can’t wait to share the final product with you all, and are so proud of how it’s shaped up.

But, for now, we are beyond thrilled to present the cover for the Winter 2017 issue:

The cover art is by Romina Lutz, and the cover itself was designed by Jeremy Bronaugh, one of the minds behind Hypertrophic Press.

We also cannot believe the line-up of talent (including the 2016 Lake Prize fiction and poetry finalists!) that we have in this issue:

The Winter 2017 issue will be releasing officially on Monday, February 13—so mark your calendars.

If you’re headed to AWP 2017 in Washington, D.C., however, we’ll have copies available for purchase early!

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Midwest in Photos: Reefpoint Marina

“The light, the sky, the water, they were all things you looked through during the day. At night, they were things you looked into. You looked into the stars, you looked into dark rollers and the surprising platinum flash of their caps. No one ever stared at the tip of a cigarette in the daylight hours…” – Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son.

Photo by: Jennifer Tomaloff

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Interview: Robert Fernandez

Robert FernandezMidwestern Gothic staffer Kristina Perkins talked with poet Robert Fernandez about his collection Scarecrow, truth in the abstract, tracking the music in poetry and more.

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Kristina Perkins: What is your connection to the Midwest?

Robert Fernandez: I came to the Midwest at 23 to begin graduate studies at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I remember driving into Iowa City in the early morning, Fatboy Slim’s remix of Jim Morrison’s “Bird of Prey” on the speakers, and feeling hopeful that it could be the beginning of something great. After graduating, I was accepted to Iowa’s PhD in English. My wife and I bought a house, participated in the literary life of the Workshop, and eventually became friends with a number of local writers. While still in the PhD, I was offered a creative writing job in Nebraska, and have been teaching poetry workshops here ever since.

KP: You were born in Hartford, Connecticut. You grew up in Miami, Florida. You earned your MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You currently live in Nebraska. Given these changes in landscape, how has your understanding of the Midwest shifted overtime? In what ways has your poetry reflected this shift — if at all?

RF: I admit I didn’t have much of a sense of what to expect from the Midwest. I had some sense of the region’s history, and I understood Iowa’s significance in the political landscape, but I had no real read on the area’s culture or ethos. I did know some Workshop mythology—its tales of hard-drinking writers like Cheever and Berryman—but, to be honest, my sense of what to expect was probably mostly conditioned by having watched the film adaptation of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (1999). I half expected to be partying in barns, breaking up fist fights, writing poems next to a space heater during heavy snowfall. (Which turned out to be not far off.) I think I expected something much more rustic and “American Gothic,” but ultimately it’s a very middle class, well-appointed town.

Settling in was refreshing because there wasn’t the feeling of the dispersion and relentless hustle of South Florida. It was new to me to see a community of people intent on a shared, non-lucrative, marginal practice, and to see that practice celebrated in the larger community.

I’ve done almost all of my work here in the Midwest, but my books are mainly Florida books. There is, however, a noticeable shift in Scarecrow away from a dominant coastal sensibility toward something more landlocked, Midwestern.

Scarecrow

KP: Scarecrow is your third collection of poetry, following We are Pharoah (2011) and Pink Reef (2013). What do you see as the most notable difference between Scarecrow and your first two collections? How have you grown as a writer and poet between and among these publications?

RF: If I were to make some general distinctions, I’d say that We Are Pharaoh attempts, through its interconnected lyrics and sequences, to transmit a sense of the lifeworld of South Florida and a sense of its basic contradictions: extremes of wealth and poverty, a multiplicity of languages and identities, and the desire for continuity and history where the earth and money always acutely threaten to erode both. It’s a global place, charged with the feeling of possibility (every fifth car on the highway is a $150K car) as well as the heaviness of blockages to possibility, behind which the earth continuously reveals itself with sublime profligacy and extravagance. Pink Reef, a book-length serial poem, distills Pharaoh’s methods and lends them a more ungoverned, devotional emphasis. Scarecrow was written after completing my translation of Mallarmé, Azure. Unlike We Are Pharaoh and Pink Reef, Scarecrow is interested in how to move forward when restless willing and striving are no longer possible. It’s also the only book in which the collapse of the distinctions between the sacred and profane isn’t a primary conflict.

The books are very different from each other, but I’d like to think there are clear continuities borne out of the same essential questions. If I’ve developed as a writer, I’d say it’s in my ability to recognize and affirm those questions and to pursue the poems on their own terms in a more joyful manner.

KP: Scarecrow seems to push and pull at the extremities of life, using tangible Gothic details to help navigate the spaces between despair and hope. In your poetry, what is the relationship between the concrete and the abstract, the visceral and the philosophical? How do you choose to explore, complicate, or expand this relationship?

RF: I’d refer to Coleridge, whom I may butcher a bit here, and say that — contra what the Imagists said about going in fear of abstractions — when the imagination is present (here a disclosive faculty, able to see things that are concealed or beyond our scope) even something seemingly abstract can have the taste, feel, and force of truth. One should really go in fear of “fancy,” which Coleridge places in distinction to the imagination, because fancy only manages to synthesize or arrange what’s already at hand and thus doesn’t reveal or transport with the inevitably of a truth.

The questions this brings up are philosophical in nature: Is a work constructed or revealed? Willed or given? Is it really possible to be (in Alain Badiou’s terms) a subject of truth? How does one remain open and have fidelity to such a process?

KP: In previous interviews, you’ve emphasized the importance of sound in poetry, claiming that “poetic truth is foremost the truth of music.” What, to you, is the relationship between poetry and music? How is your work in Scarecrow influenced by this relationship?

RF: I think this is a question of metaphysics, in the sense that Heidegger pursues it, one taken up by modern poets like Rimbaud, Lorca, Jack Spicer, and Amelia Rosselli. These poets, in distinct ways, are making related and radically revisionist claims about our understanding of the human. Rimbaud claims “It is wrong to say: I think. One ought to say: I am thought.” And: “I is someone else. No matter for the wood that finds itself a violin…” Lorca talks about the duende as a “spontaneous creation,” “a power, not a work…a struggle, not a thought.” Spicer remarks that “Prose invents—poetry discloses.” And Rosselli says that “…the poem is made of liberation, not of reflection…”

Is the poet an agent that imposes truth, or one taken up by its demands? Is truth a matter of unconcealment or of correspondence—of the emergence of something unforeseen or of rational thought?

For the Pythagoreans, music was an ecstatic process—one that takes us outside of ourselves—and I think that when something truthful emerges in language it’s not essentially a matter of calculation or willing, but of anticipatory preparation and receptivity—of being prepared to be taken up by and submit to a rhythm not given in advance.

For me, Scarecrow is a very foreign book—it’s not a familiar music, not a mode I’m really at ease with; nevertheless, I tried to be as rigorous as I could be in tracking its music.

KP: Who is your favorite contemporary poet, and what type of inspiration do you draw from their work?

RF: I’m especially fond of the work of Mary Hickman. I was born in 1980, and I also like several US poets born around that time: Ariana Reines, Jon Leon, Farnoosh Fathi, Lynn Xu, Shane McCrae. Ten years or so on either side of 1980, I’d also mention Darrin Gonzales, a student of mine, and Anthony Madrid.

KP: What’s next for you?

RF: Since Scarecrow, I’ve completed two new books, Niños del Sol, which is a collection of voiced, rhyme-driven lyrics, and Crowns. I’ve also completed a fairly substantial body of visual-poetic work, which I’m calling “imaj-vers.” For instance, I recently completed a big visual book, Grand Grimoire (12.5X10.75in). With its debts to graffiti, illuminated manuscripts, children’s art, and studio art, Grand Grimoire is, at around 250 pages, a more sweeping (if smaller scale) extension of the other imaj-vers works that have occupied me for the last year: photographic, sculptural, and video sequences that use visual media to make poems. Finally, my translation partner and I have undertaken a translation from the Creole of the great Haitian poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy’s Antigòn (1953), an adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone into a Haitian context. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to see some of this work into the world within the next few years.

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Robert Fernandez is the author of the poetry collections We Are Pharaoh (Canarium, 2011), Pink Reef (Canarium, 2013), and Scarecrow (Wesleyan, 2016). He holds an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, The New Republic, Poetry, Conjunctions, A Public Space, and elsewhere. He was selected by Robyn Schiff as a New American Poet by the Poetry Society of America, and received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a Gertrude Stein Award for Innovative American Poetry. In 2014 he served as an editor for the PEN Poetry Series. He is co-translator of Azure: Poems and Selections from the “Livre” (Wesleyan, 2015). Author site: www.robert-fernandez.com

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Update to MG Subscriptions

It’s 2017, and since we’re changing things up with Midwestern Gothic already—hello, bi-annual Winter and Fall issues!—we decided to update our MG Subscriptions as well:

Print — 1 Year, 2 Issues — $20 (+ Shipping)
This option will get you print copies of both (2) issues of Midwestern Gothic in a calendar year (or, 2 contiguous issues if you start your subscription in the Fall).

eBook — 1 Year, 2 Issues — $5
This option will get you digital copies of both (2) issues of Midwestern Gothic in a calendar year (or, 2 contiguous issues if you do not start your subscription at the beginning of the year). Buyer can choose which type of delivery file they’d like to have.

Print — 2 Years, 4 Issues — $40 (+ Shipping)
This option will get you print copies of 4 issues of Midwestern Gothic in a two-year span (or, 4 contiguous issues if you if you do not start your subscription at the beginning of the year).

eBook — 2 Years, 4 Issues — $10
This option will get you digital copies of 4 issues of Midwestern Gothic in a two-year span (or, 4 contiguous issues if you do not start your subscription at the beginning of the year). Buyer can choose which type of delivery file they’d like to have.

Print — MG Press + Midwestern Gothic Bundle — 2 Issues, 2 books — $40 (+ Shipping)
This option will get you print copies of 2 issues of Midwestern Gothic in a calendar year + 2 MG Press titles current in the catalog or forthcoming publications (buyer’s choice).

You can find more information on subscriptions here, or by clicking the banner below.

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Midwest in Photos: Sunset Dreams

“I always held my breath when we crossed that overpass in the years to come, making our way to my Aunt Peggy and Uncle Bob’s house, imagining how it would feel to have the freeway falling away into the road falling away into the earth falling away into itself, layer after layer like a bizarre Russian Doll, crumbling beneath me until I’m falling, too, deep enough to where everything that’s left is only spinning.” – Jennifer Murvin, “Listen for the Birds,” Midwestern Gothic, Issue 11.

Photo by: Patty Kuo

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Interview: John Keyse-Walker

John Keyse-WalkerMidwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with author John Keyse-Walker about his novel SUN, SAND, MURDER, writing a book he wanted to read, writing as a second career, and more.

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Megan Valley: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

John Keyse-Walker: I grew up in rural Ohio, in a township just west of Cleveland. Except for a stint at Duke Law School in Durham North Carolina, I have made my principal home in the same county where I was born, Lorain County. I practiced law for thirty years in Lorain County and even after retirement, spend the majority of the year there.

MV: You have lived in Florida as well. How has each region influenced your writing?

JKW: My mysteries are set in the British Virgin Islands, which I think have a very small-town Midwest vibe. In the BVI, everyone knows everyone, people are friendly, and it’s hard to have secrets – all of which reminds me of Ohio, just with better weather and a more exotic setting. So I can say that the BVI I write about could, with a few changes to the stories, as easily be about Ohio or someplace else in the Midwest. As for Florida, it has instilled in me a love of the sea, the beach, and fishing, all of which figure significantly in my writing.

MV: For thirty years you were a lawyer. Did always know writing was something you wanted to do?

JKW: Writing was something I did, daily, as a lawyer but it was very different from the writing I do as a mystery writer. Did I always want to write fiction? I am an avid reader and I think every reader has at least passing thoughts of writing someday but it certainly was not a passion or a lifelong ambition for me.

MV: Why did you set SUN, SAND, MURDER in the British Virgin Islands?

JKW: Toni Morrison said “If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I had visited the BVI a number of times and grew to love the island of Anegada there. I wanted to read a crime novel set there, so I had to write it. It is the perfect place for a mystery – lots of quirky characters, a lush tropical setting that is almost a character in and of itself, and such a low crime rate that a murder there is truly a shock.

SUN, SAND, MURDER

MV: Would you say you approach writing as a hobby?

JKW: I think it fits into the category of being a really fun second career for me now. What better career than one with flexible hours, an opportunity to research interesting topics, a modest amount of notoriety, and the ability to do the work sitting on my back deck overlooking Lake Erie or on the beach on Pine Island, in Florida?

MV: What was the inspiration for Anthony Wedderburn, “De White Rasta?”

JKW: There was a fellow I saw a few times on Anegada who inspired the look that Anthony has. He was a white guy, sported blond dreadlocks, and just drifted around the island. I never spoke to him, so the whole backstory of Anthony is pure invention. Indeed, Anthony was not intended to be a significant character when I started writing. He was simply going to find a body on the beach. But when I started writing his part, I liked him, so he took on a more prominent role in the book.

MV: After a career as a lawyer, your first novel is – fittingly – a crime novel. Do you stick to this genre?

JKW: It’s interesting that you would think it’s fitting for a lawyer to write crime fiction. Actually, my legal career was all civil cases, so criminal law almost never entered into my practice. But, to answer the question, I have no intention of writing outside the crime/mystery genre. It’s what I love to read, so it’s what I love to write. I think the genre is one of the most effective at providing the reader with pure entertainment and that, to me, should be the first objective of a writer.

MV: What’s the best piece of advice about writing you’ve ever received?

JKW: Write what you love. You are with the story, setting and characters in a novel for a long time, many hours spread over months and years. If you are not writing about something you passionately love, the topic or setting or characters will become tedious. None of us do good work if the work is tedious.

MV: What’s next?

JKW: I have completed the second book in the Special Constable Teddy Creque series, and it is currently with my agent. I have ideas for at least four books in the series, so I hope to complete at least that many. And I am currently working on a stand-alone murder mystery set on a German ocean liner on a round-Africa cruise in the days before the outbreak of WWII. The stand-alone is a project I really love because it is based on a cruise around Africa that my grandparents took aboard the North German Lloyd Line’s SS Columbus in 1939. Imagine visiting ports like Casablanca, Dakar, Cape Town, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Port Said, Villefranche, and Gibraltar in the pre-war era. Then couple that with a group of international passengers in an era of significant tension in the world, and isolationist sentiment in the U.S. I am having a great deal of fun writing it, and hopefully readers will have as much fun reading it.

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John Keyse-Walker grew up in Columbia Station, Ohio, the son of a vegetable greenhouse operator and a stay-at-home mother. Much of his youth was spent exploring the fields, woods, and rivers near his rural home, or fishing and swimming in Florida, where his family had a modest second home. While he enjoyed reading, books took a backseat to outdoor pursuits. He attended the College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio, majoring in political science. He went on to obtain a law degree from Duke University School of Law (Go Blue Devils!), where he met a fellow student and Southern belle, Irene Walker, who became his wife. After law school, he took the Ohio bar and began a practice in Elyria, Ohio. For the next thirty years, he had a diverse practice consisting mostly of trial work, and for many years served as his firm’s managing partner. In 2012, he retired, planning to devote time to travel, fishing, tennis, kayaking, and volunteer work. When he found those pursuits failed to fill the hours in the day, he began to write. After two years of on-and-off efforts, he completed his debut novel, SUN, SAND, MURDER, which won the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.

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