Midwest in Photos: Sunflower Field in Kansas, July 2012

May 13th, 2017

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Photo by: Katie Moore

Interview: Lee L. Krecklow

Lee L. Krecklow authorMidwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talked with author Lee L. Krecklow about his book The Expanse Between, atmospheric research, growing from failure, and more.

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Audrey Meyers: What is your connection to the Midwest?

Lee L. Krecklow: I’ve lived my whole life in Wisconsin, and while I’ve always kept residence near the city of Milwaukee, I’ve spent enough time in rural areas to feel that connection, as well. Growing up, my parents owned owned a cabin on a smallish lake in central Wisconsin, where I spent time in forests and fishing and hunting. Later, after the cabin was gone, I took to camping and backpacking, exercising the skills of quiet and stillness I learned as a child. I point those things out because I feel that being connected to the region requires a balanced understanding of the whole landscape.

AM: How has living in Milwaukee impacted your writing style? What specifically about Milwaukee inspires you to write?

LLK: Having lived here my whole life, I understand the connection to the city, to the region, but the impact is difficult for me to understand. In my mind, it’s like asking a fish how it’s influenced by living in water; impossible to comprehend without knowing an alternative. That said, I see Milwaukee as an encouraging, fertile launching pad for artists of all kinds. There’s a rich music scene, so many amazing painters and a network of small galleries, a film and theatre scene. But it’s a difficult place to thrive as an artist. Filmmakers and musicians want to be in LA. Painters and playwrights want to be in New York. For some, Milwaukee is between nowhere and somewhere, and that notion, the influence of that, is writ large in The Expanse Between. None of that is said to deprecate the city. It’s a lively artistic community. But sometimes, to be known is to be elsewhere.

AM: In The Expanse Between, a writer is propelled into revisiting the work of writing fiction because of events in his reality. How did you come up with this storyline?

LLK: The seed from which this story grew was the idea that “fictional” forms of narrative are often not very “fictional,” and reality-based, “non-fiction” forms–be they in literature or documentary or television series–are not always true to life. We draw blurry lines when defining what we consume, sometimes without enough consideration, or with consideration that serves our own artistic purpose. How much credit does a creative artist deserve when he or she borrows heavily from reality? How does what we borrow impact the subject itself, or influence people’s beliefs about the subject? These are the ideas I was exploring.

The Expanse Between book

AM: What genre do you think The Expanse Between fits into best? Why?

LLK: One of the reasons we apply genre labels is to define what our readership ought to be, and obviously I’d love as wide a readership as possible. However, you also want people to be satisfied by what they read, so you can’t label so broadly. The genre I settled on was “literary noir.” This is a literary work at its core. Its alternating perspectives are frequently internal, and I’d like to think the language warrants an association with other mainly literary works. However, there’s no doubt the narrative is driven by psychological elements innate to suspense or noir. There is voyeurism. There is darkness. There are threats to safety. The Expanse Between is influenced by those types of works, as well.

AM: Did you need to do any research for The Expanse Between? If so, what kind of research helped you contextualize the story?

LLK: Not explicit, formal research, but certainly atmospheric research, if that’s a thing. Many of the locations in the book have real-world counterparts, and I’d go to those places and sit and just journal my emotions while I was there. There’s a bookstore in the novel, and I used to visit its model in downtown Milwaukee and spend an hour just sitting and looking and smelling and hearing. I went to the beach that the characters visit and cataloged the same.

AM: What are some of your techniques as a writer to create suspense for your reader?

LLK: I love blind spots, both for readers and characters. We’re most intrigued by the things we can’t see. One of the techniques I use to achieve this is an intimate but alternating third person perspective. The reader has close, internal perspectives from each of the players, but never at the same time, so one doesn’t have access to certain characters’ thoughts or emotions during key moments. The reverse is that the reader has certain pieces of information that the characters don’t, information which might help the characters or their relationships. Hopefully that creates tension and urgency. I’m also not above allowing some actions to take place off the page, so that a reader needs to keep reading into the future in order to understand what took place in the past. That’s just another form of blind spot.

AM: How do you “get to know” your characters when writing about them? In other words, how do you make your characters feel real to you?

LLK: They all need to experience some emotions that I can connect with. I need to understand why everyone does what they do; that’s the only way to own them. I’m an excessively empathetic person, one who can see both sides of most arguments, so this isn’t usually an issue for me. That doesn’t mean I’ve experienced or agree with everything my characters do. Far from it. But I can extrapolate my own experiences, push them further emotionally, in order to understand the people I write. A line I’ve used conversationally: I’ve never been punched in the face, but I’ve accidentally walked into a wall, so it’s not a stretch for me to understand taking an unexpected blow to the head.

AM: What did you learn about yourself as a writer while creating The Expanse Between?

LLK: Oh my, so much! This story started as a screenplay, back while I was a film criticism student, roughly 17 years ago. So over the course of nearly two decades, during which I wrote and directed two short films, published more than a dozen short stories, completed a different, failed novel, and nearly completed what I hope will be a successful next novel, I couldn’t help but learn. I learned that I can fail, very easily, and that I should look for the signs of a failed projected from those around me whom I trust. I learned that if I fail, it’s okay, that I’ll take that failure and use it to turn the next project into something better. And I learned that anyone trying to create anything is your friend, and you should foster those friendships and learn from the people around you. They are trying to make their way in the same world that you are.

AM: How do you push yourself to grow as a writer? For example, do you explore new genres, try new styles, or pursue complex characters, etc.?

LLK: To grow as a writer I try to grow as a reader. There’s no shortage of advice out there telling you the same thing, that writers must read, but really, it’s true. I like to try new things outside my comfort zone. Often, what I try is not for me. But the worst thing that happens is that I learn why I don’t like it, and I reinforce what I do like. The best thing that happens is I discover a new nuance in my voice, something inside that I wanted to express, but which I wasn’t certain how to channel, and now here is a writer doing that thing, and suddenly, by reading them, I’ve learned and grown.

AM: In The Expanse Between, the main character Thomas is motivated to write because of an external catalyst. What drives you to write?

LLK: Beautiful question. Thomas is mainly driven by ego. Yes, the things he sees in the book do motivate him, put his purpose is recognition. Validation. I’d love to believe that I’m the opposite of that, but I can’t be certain. I think about the years during which I was not being published, and I still worked at it. Not writing, not performing the act itself, meant not feeling balanced, meant a brand of depression. And while I felt unbalanced, I could cure myself by writing, but it was never work that would be published. So I was writing for the sake of the process. And that, I hope, is the difference between me and Thomas. That regardless of readership, I am a writer. It’s something I do independent of validation. However, there’s enough ego inside of me to know that I want others to share what it is that I’m feeling, and that a piece that’s published is far more satisfying than a piece that sits in a drawer.

AM: What’s next for you?

LLK: I’m working on a novel titled An Irrelevance of Butterflies. It’s a bigger novel, inspired by a number of my short stories, and I’m very excited about it. Additionally, short fiction continues to call to me. I love exploring ideas in short form, and I’m routinely looking for appropriate homes for that work.

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Lee L. Krecklow is the author of the novel The Expanse Between (Winter Goose Publishing, 2017). He was the winner of the 2016 South Million Writers Award for his story “The Son of Summer and Eli” (The Tishman Review 1.2), and his work has recently appeared in Eclectica, Oxford Magazine, Storychord, Midwestern Gothic and others. Find more by visiting www.leelkrecklow.com.

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Interview: Philip Metres

Midwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with poet Philip Metres about Sand Opera, creating a space for voices, a list of invaluable advice for writers, and more.

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

Philip Metres: I grew up in the leafy northern suburbs of Chicago, but I didn’t feel Midwestern until I went off to college on the East Coast and felt distinctly out of place. I remember hearing Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression on our college radio station, and it felt like home. I think of avant-garde poet Dmitry Prigov’s poem:

I’d be Catullus in Japan
And in Rome, Hokusai
And in Russia, I’m the same guy
Who would have been
Catullus in Japan
And in Rome, Hokusai.

I suppose I’ve always felt a little out of place.

A few years later, I spent six years in Bloomington, Indiana, pursuing my Ph.D. and M.F.A. The past fifteen years I’ve been teaching in Cleveland, Ohio. Three different MidWests—some partly gothic; occasionally, when I drive by the abandoned houses in certain neighborhoods of postindustrial Cleveland, I feel in the presence of ghosts. The killers were dressed in suits and wielded redlines, racially-selective loans, and variable interest rate mortgages.

MV: Your most recent poetry collection, Sand Opera, received Honorable Mention for the 2016 Arab American Book Award. What part of the book are you most proud of?

PM: It’s a difficult question to answer, because I’m grateful that the book exists, that the poems came to me and wrestled me into existence. The book wrote me as much as I wrote the book. I’m grateful, too, that a good number people have read and reviewed it, and that my friend John Morris is now in the final stages of editing a Teacher’s Resource Book for Sand Opera, which will enable high school and college teachers to keep teaching the book, even though that war is more or less over (though the wars are never over). I wanted to create a space for the Iraqi (and American) voices that weren’t being heard in the mass media narrative of the war. I hope I honored them, my Iraqi friends, and those whose words I read through testimonies of the war.

MV: What do you wish you had known before you began writing?

PM: I’ve written a half-dozen clichés and erased them in trying to answer this question. The advice I tend to give to my students about writing poetry is this:

1. Mightier than the sword is the pen. Carry it always, and something to write on.
2. Explore the possible. Read and steal greedily from “the mind of the past” (Emerson).
3. Get in the mood: find solitude and quiet the mind. The world inspires us, but also distracts us. It is both source and obstacle. Love it the way you love any dangerous friend.
4. Imagine (or hear) a particular voice in a situation and let the voice speak through you. Steven Wright: “I am the receptionist of my brain.” Listen to contrariness.
5. Handwrite without erasing OR don’t use the delete key: go forward. Flow downstream. (This is for the first draft only!)
6. Move through image, not idea. “Show, don’t tell.”
7. Listen to the sounds of words; let the music move, but don’t be bound by rhyme.
8. Experiment with form: lineation and stanzas should enhance the meaning.
9. Flip the script. Surprise yourself. Discover where you are going and let the ending find itself. Explore “the turn”— where the poem surprises by reversing flow.
10. Put it away at least overnight; let the inspiration cool off. What is durable will remain mysterious.
11. Show it to others without explanation and listen (really listen!) to their feedback.
12. Revision is where you show your courage and you let go your ego. Revise toward where the poem is going, not what you wanted it to be.

MV: Sand Opera is built off of the position of Arab Americans being “named but unheard.” How can poetry confront that problem?

PM: Trump (whom I hope will be a mere blip in our national story) has emboldened those who see Americanness through a lens of imperial whiteness. People of color, undocumented workers, and women have been derided or endangered by the rise of this reactionary fervor. So much of what’s happening is demonizing. Writing poetry can be a site of listening to one’s own voice as it emerges on the page, surprising its writer with its otherness and self-ness all at once—just as reading poetry can be, as we explore the mystery of what it means to be human. Poetry is one of many art-technologies involved in this process, but it’s the one that’s chosen me.

MV: You also translate Russian poetry. What aspects of Russian poetry have been the most influential on your own?

PM: I went to Russia after college on a fellowship to study “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Relationship to Historical Change,” partly because I wanted to learn about Russia (the so-called “Evil Empire”) and its legendary poets, but partly because I wanted to learn how to be a poet myself.

Translating and meeting those poets completely transformed my idea of poetry and its relationship to the political sphere—I became less interested in poetry as a political weapon and more interested in its alternate way of being, both part of but also beyond politics, or rather, beneath all politics. The primal ground of being. Translating poets like Sergey Gandlevsky and Lev Rubinstein and Arseny Tarkovsky became an education in poetry’s possibilities. I know the poets I’ve translated better than any other poets because I’ve lived inside those sonic language architectures longer than in any other poem.

MV: You’ve said in a past interview that American culture is “addicted to the war story.” How does Sand Opera approach and treat that “addiction?”

PM: Our culture seems almost starving to hear soldiers’ voices. On the one hand, I understand it; the soldier is one who has faced death directly, and lived to tell about it, in the service of country. On the other hand, I find it ominous and even dangerous how these voices colonize our discourse about what war (and what other countries and people) look like. Nearly always, in the traditional war story, the countries and peoples end up as stage props in the story of a soldier coming of age. War should not be a rite of passage for our youth; it should be a last resort when our very existence is at stake. The Iraq War was not merely a tragedy; it was a criminal imperial decision that led to further criminality, mass death, and, ultimately, ISIS. My approach in Sand Opera was to listen to Iraqi voices, and all those whom that war affected, as well as to explore the operating procedures of the larger War on Terror: extraordinary rendition, torture, Guantanamo Prison, etc.

MV: What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

PM: I’m already living many lives at once, as we all do: husband, father, son, teacher, church-goer, musician, basketball coach, etc., etc. Other possible vocations? Diplomat and therapist and journalist all come to mind. I’m interested in peace-building and peacemaking, with ourselves and with others.

MV: You’ve said Sand Opera had been in the works for about a decade before it was published. How did the collection change in that time, especially as much of the poetry addresses political situations that were ongoing during that time?

PM: It moved from being a book attempting to intervene on an ongoing conflict to one that needed to last for the ages. Dealing with that fact only made the book better. Only time will tell if it has been successful. Perhaps it is the humus from which other better poems will emerge. I’m grateful, for example, that Solmaz Sharif found the arias helpful in the process of writing her first book LOOK, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

MV: What’s next for you?

PM: I’m working on a handful of projects, which alternate depending on my mood: The Flaming Hair of Fate (a memoir about living in Russia), Shrapnel Maps (poems on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), The Sound of Listening (essays on poetry), a book of translations, and a book of interviews with Russian poets. I love getting lost in words.

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Philip Metres is the author of Pictures at an Exhibition (2016), Sand Opera (2015), I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (2015), To See the Earth (2008), and others. His work has garnered a Lannan fellowship, two NEAs, the Hunt Prize for Excellence in Journalism, Arts & Letters, two Arab American Book Awards, the Cleveland Arts Prize and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland.

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Contributor Spotlight: Adam Carter

Adam Carter’s nonfiction piece “Watching Ryan White From the Sidelines” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2017 issue, out now.

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

I was born and raised in a small factory town called Kokomo, Indiana, where my essay for Midwestern Gothic takes place. I attended college in Bloomington, Indiana, later went north to South Bend for law school, then eventually landed in Indianapolis, where I practiced criminal law as a public defender for ten years. The vacations of my youth consisted of trips to downtown Chicago, the Lake Michigan dunes, or Cedar Point, while later my job took me to every maximum security prison in the State of Indiana. This combination of work and life experience gave me a unique perspective on the Midwest that I hope is reflected in my writing, be it accurately portraying a Midwest town or addressing larger social justice issues.

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

I just returned from a holiday trip to Indianapolis, and what struck me was the variety of people. There is a stereotype of the typical “Hoosier”—overly friendly, a tad naïve, very Christian and white—and that is easy to default to. In reality, Indianapolis is the crossroads of the Midwest, connecting Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Columbus, Louisville, and countless other cities and towns. The people I spoke to on vacation came from a wide variety of backgrounds, and held a wider variety of beliefs. This is what I find fascinating about the Midwest, the variety of characters. As you move away from the city the backgrounds tend to homogenize, but the characters themselves remain as unpredictable as the Midwestern weather.

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

The city I grew up in, Kokomo, Indiana, and the even smaller town of Russiaville where our school was located, reoccur as themes in my writing. It’s odd how the town you grow up in seems like your whole world as a child, then you move away and discover new places, yet it still plays a significant role in who you are. When I lived there in the early 1990’s it felt past its prime—a used car that doesn’t just need a paint job, but one with a bad clutch and a suspect transmission. Everyone wanted to move away, yet not many did, and I don’t think those that stayed regret it. There’s a pride and stubbornness that comes from growing up in a small town, and that’s not always a bad thing. It’s certainly something that I find myself exploring in my writing.

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

I like to write at home, alone, and usually late at night. I need to feel isolated from the world in order to put cogent thoughts together. As for inspirations if I’m not reading, I’m not writing, so I always try to have a book of some kind cracked open on the nightstand. I tend to write sporadically, I’ve never been sure if that is writer’s block or simply poor time management, but it is something I have been working on. Sometimes an idea will hit me in the middle of the night and won’t let me go until I crawl out of bed and commit it to the page. This is nice from a creative standpoint I suppose, but can wreak havoc on my sleep schedule.

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

When it is published? In all seriousness, I struggle with this. I like to think it is finished when I am making minor word changes, only to go back the next reading and revert to what I had before. But, in reality, I often return months later to pieces that I thought were “finished” and make major revisions, only to question if I improved the piece or just made it worse.

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

I would be hard pressed to pick an individual favorite, but several Midwestern writers have had a significant influence on me. Writer’s like Donald Ray Pollock and Frank Bill do a brilliant job of presenting characters that aren’t happy Midwesterners waving from their porch rocking chairs, but instead are made up of something darker. Likewise, in a story like “All Through the House” Christopher Coake shows the reader that murder and betrayal are not foreign to little Indiana towns. The ability of these authors to present the unlikely nature of the Midwest in likely ways is inspiring to me.

What’s next for you?

I am one semester into a three year MFA program at the University of South Florida. Over the next two-and-a half years I hope to complete a series of short works in both nonfiction and fiction, as well as a novel manuscript. After that, it is hard to say, the Midwest has always seemed to draw me home.

Where can we find more information about you?

You can follow me on Twitter @CarterInIndiana.

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Midwest in Photos: Hands

“You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories.” – Garrison Keillor, Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon.

Photo by: David Thompson

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Interview: Bryn Greenwood

Midwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with author Bryn Greenwood about her novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, spiritual claustrophobia, cannibalization of the heart, and more.

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

Bryn Greenwood: My family originally came from England to Ohio, and from there to Kansas. We’ve been here ever since, even through the Dust Bowl. When I’m overseas, when people ask where I’m from, my instinct is always to say Kansas, rather than The United States, even if that requires me to explain what and where Kansas is. (It’s the big rectangle in the middle of America! is my go-to line.) This is such a big country and I’ve met so many fellow Americans who were as alien to me as someone from another country, that it makes sense to identify myself by my cultural roots rather than by my nationality.

MV: While much of your life you’ve lived in Kansas, you also taught in Japan for a time. What made you return to Kansas?

BG: After Japan, I lived in Florida, and as strange as it will seem to outsiders, it was the landscape that made me come back to Kansas. In both places, I lived in very dense metropolitan areas with heavy vegetation, and in Japan, I lived at the western edge of the Honshu mountain range, what people call the Japanese Alps. It turned out that I don’t thrive in situations where I can’t see the open horizon easily. I could travel for hours and still not be able to see enough open space to alleviate my anxiety. And for a girl raised out in Western Kansas, the ocean is in no way the same. It’s actually a little terrifying. Hemmed in by buildings and trees and mountains and water, I felt spiritually claustrophobic, if that’s a thing. I remember the first week I was back in Kansas, I drove out to see my sister, and as I was passing through the Flint Hills, I had to pull off on the shoulder of the highway. I felt like could finally breathe again, and it was a little overwhelming.

There’s a lot of that open sky aesthetic in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. I have so many fond childhood memories of being out under the night sky, surrounded by open fields, far away from towns and roads.

MV: What did living in Japan teach you about yourself?

BG: Nothing flattering, honestly. I learned that even in such a fascinating place with so much cultural history, I still preferred to be alone and to read books. I saw a lot of Japan, but I also spent a lot of nights holed up in my tiny apartment doing what I would have done in Kansas: reading.

I also learned that you can take a redneck out of the wheat fields, but she will promptly attach herself to the cultural equivalent thereof wherever she goes. In my first six months in Japan, I got in trouble for dating the local Kawasaki motorcycle mechanic. Having grown up the granddaughter of poor, dirt farmers, I didn’t realize that in Japan, teachers are a professional class, like doctors and lawyers, so it was considered inappropriate for me to be romantically involved with someone who had not attended high school, and whose parents were rice farmers. My boss made me end the relationship, because that’s how things work in rural Japan. As a single woman, I was expected to defer to my boss as a stand-in for my father.

MV: You refer to yourself as the daughter of a “mostly reformed drug dealer,” and your novel, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, focuses on Wavy, the daughter of a drug dealer. How do you use inspiration from your life in your writing?

BG: I think writers are like boxes of baking soda that you put in the ice box to absorb odors. We soak up everything around us, sometimes without even realizing it. When I started All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, there were scenarios and situations that I drew directly from what I’d experienced with my father’s life. Armed compounds out in the middle of nowhere and drug-fueled parties attended by people both unsavory and extraordinary. I don’t know that I could have written those things if I hadn’t witnessed them. There were other more subtle things that I didn’t even recognize until much later: turns of phrase and physical characteristics that I unwittingly borrowed from real people, and real emotions that I revisited. Even though the book isn’t autobiographical, like Wavy, I had a passionate affair with a much older man that started when I was thirteen. In going over the book for final copy edits, I could see the places where I cannibalized my own heart to describe joy and loss. I think that’s the work of writers.

MV: You have a WordPress blog where you interact a lot with reader’s comments and questions. Why do you think this is important to do?

BG: For me, one of the most important things about fiction is that it creates dialogue. If I write something and a reader responds, I want to interact with that reader, because that’s how we create understanding, empathy, compassion. I love talking about books, my own and others, just to exchange ideas and impressions with other readers. I’ve had a fair amount of hate mail over this book, but as long as a reader is polite and sincere, I’m still interested in talking to someone who is angered or troubled by the story I told. It’s not meant to be an easy, comfortable story. Why shouldn’t people be upset about it? The only people I don’t talk to are the ones who say, “You shouldn’t have told this story.” I won’t waste my time justifying my work to people who think I don’t have a right to express my own experiences and my own feelings.

MV: Also on your blog, you’ve said that when you read about writing, you don’t write anything because it makes you question yourself. How, then, would you say you approach writing?

BG: So often, essays on writing end up being prescriptive, even when they don’t intend to be. So if I read too much about the craft of writing or the philosophy of writing, I suffer from the same performance anxiety I used to have when my eighth grade English teacher called me to the board to diagram sentences. Then I’m too much in my head, worrying about whether I’m doing this “right.” As soon as I start questioning my approach to writing or my technique, I freeze up and stop writing. When the writing is going well, I simply submerge myself in the characters and their desires. Later, after I have the story down, I can worry about things like, “Did I use this word too many times? Is this a cliché? Am I emotionally manipulating the reader? Is this in fact the forty-seventh character I’ve written with abandonment issues?”

MV: Relatedly, you’ve said your greatest pleasures are those moments when you’re reading something that makes you forget you’re a writer. What are some of the books that have given you that pleasure?

BG: Obviously, there are likely tons that I read before I become so aware of how being a writer changed me as a reader, so I’ll just name some more recent ones off the top of my head, without even checking my reading list, because they’re ones that have stuck with me so firmly.

The Mount by Carol Emshwiller
Effigy by Alissa York
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht

Of course, I often reread books like this in order to look at how the writer has done what they did, but there’s so much joy on a first read in being immersed in a story and not giving a moment’s thought to how the story has been crafted.

MV: There are sixteen narrators in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. How do you craft that many distinct voices within one book and why did you decide this was the best way to tell your story?

BG: Confession: all my stories start this way. I love the way every character brings their own experiences and their own biases to a story, so even when I know I won’t have a place for a particular character’s narrative, I like to investigate how they see things. In case they have some important insight that I don’t. This book is just a large scale example of that approach. Because of the nature of the story, and the way it divides people, I wanted to reveal a lot of it from people who are at the periphery of the action. In some ways, it’s like a fictional documentary, as though I went around and interviewed all these people who had some small piece of the story.

In terms of making all the voices distinct, I only hope I was mostly successful. Where there was a clear divide between the educational and socio-economic classes of characters, it was much more straightforward. Where I was dealing with characters who were of similar backgrounds, I had to make much finer distinctions. For example, I had two working class men from the same small Kansas town, both with middle school level education, both mechanics by trade, one older and widowed, one younger and unmarried. I had to look closely at word choice and speech patterns to distinguish them by age, by personality trait, and even religious beliefs. On a surface level, they have similar voices, but they swear differently, they have different conversational tactics, they have differing outlooks on such amorphous things as hope, faith, love, friendship.

MV: What’s next for you?

BG: Most definitely there are more multiple-POV stories ahead for me. The project I’m currently working on revolves around a set of triplets, so there are three characters right off the bat. That same project has me obsessing over the idea of “normalcy” when it comes to our physical selves. So much of a person’s identity is wrapped up in the body that person inhabits, and even more of the world’s perception of a person is about the physical body.

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Bryn Greenwood is a fourth-generation Kansan and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She earned a MA in Creative Writing and continues to work in academia as an administrator. She is the author of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (August 2016, Thomas Dunne Books) and the small press novels Last Will and Lie Lay Lain. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

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Contributor News

Stephanie Kilen (Winter 2017 issue) had her story “If There Is Anything We Can Do” published by F[r]iction in their December issue. It has been nominated for a Pushcart and for Best American Short Stories. In 2014, she won Phoebe’s Fiction Award for her story “Pie Girl.”

Steve Henn (Winter 2017 issue) had his poetry book, Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year, published by Wolfson Press in December.

Jan Harrington (Winter 2017 issue) will have her book, Waiting for the Hurricane, published this spring by St. Andrews University Press. She won the 2016-17 Lena M. Shull Book Award sponsored by the North Carolina Poetry Society for the manuscript, which included her poem “The Chicken Dinner Candy Bar” from MG’s current issue.

Elizabeth O’Brien (Winter 2017 issue) has work in the 2016 issue of Best New Poets, out now.

Tyler Barton (Winter 2017 issue) recently launched the FEAR NO LIT 2017 Submerging Writer Fellowship. The fellowship is an opportunity for an excellent writer (who does not have a book, is not in an MFA/PhD creative writing program, has not won any major awards) to get a chapbook, a reading at AWP 2018, money to get to AWP 2018, and money to spend as they please.

R.S. Deeren (Issue 20) was accepted to the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee English PhD program with full funding and received the Chancellor’s Graduate Student Award.

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Contributor Spotlight: Catherine Kyle

Catherine Kyle’s piece “Ode to a Parallel Universe in Which I Make My Point” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2017 issue, out now.

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

My main connection is that I went to Western Michigan University for grad school. However, years before that, I made a long-distance friend (over AOL!) who lived in Michigan too. From the time I was 14, I’d go to see him every few years and we’d explore parts of the region—Chicago, Frankenmuth, Grand Rapids. It was pure coincidence that I ended up in Michigan for grad school. By that time, my friend didn’t even live in the state anymore. But when I moved to Kalamazoo, I already had fond memories of the Midwest.

Between these two sets of experiences—recurring adolescent vacations and four years of grad school—Michigan took on something of a symbolic quality for me. It became a place where I could find my voice. My friend and I shared a lot of meaningful conversations and I think, especially since our culture tends to define teenage girlhood within a very narrow set of parameters, having that unstructured space to explore abstract ideas, to listen to someone else explore abstract ideas, and to be taken seriously as a thinker—it really taught me something. It opened me up to a version of myself that was defined by thoughts and emotions rather than hobbies and appearances. In short, my times spent there were steps on the path to a more introspective life. Being accepted to Western’s Ph.D. program helped affirm that connection. Michigan became the territory that gave me a chance as a writer, thinker, and teacher. So actually, I owe it a lot.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the many creative individuals I met in the Midwest. In Kalamazoo, I met dozens of people who were deeply, profoundly devoted to literature. These people encouraged me, challenged me, inspired me, and helped shape my ideas about who I wanted to be as a writer.

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

What comes immediately to mind is the landscape. I come from Washington State, where there are lots of different kinds of nature within close proximity—even from downtown Seattle, you can see snowcapped mountains, evergreen forests, and a large body of salt water. What struck me about the Midwest was its almost hypnotic amounts of grassland. Lots of my favorite memories of Michigan come from driving late at night with friends, staring out the passenger’s side window at rolling gold grasses and star-specked skies. Those stretches of plains are rhythmic in a way that lets your mind wander to unexpected places.

I also did experience something of the hospitality for which the region is so famous. I’ve lived on the west coast and the east coast and in two countries outside the U.S., and nowhere but the Midwest did people come up to me in grocery stores and advise my shopping choices! That friendliness was very compelling.

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 think there is a part of me that will always be standing on Marina Beach, near where I grew up, staring out over Puget Sound. That place is indelibly burnt in my mind. It’s basically all my chapbook Flotsam is about. As far as the Midwest goes, the places that come to mind are more or less locations where I felt the desirable weight of other people’s expectations. By this I mean places where I doubted myself but someone else believed in me, and the desire to be accountable to them made me keep going in whatever I was trying to do. Waldo Library. Water Street Coffee. The Kalamazoo Amtrak station. Parked cars on snowy days. These were all places where someone else’s faith pushed me and ignited some kind of determination, which I think is important in writing.

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

The first poems in the manuscript I’ve been working on, which is all about parallel universes, were inspired by dreams. For example, I had a dream about a parallel universe in which I have a daughter. In reality, I don’t have children and I don’t plan on having any. But the dream was so vivid and bittersweet that I had to write it out in order to come to terms with it. Working from a dream space freed me from the inclination to make things realistic, so the poems that followed are all imbued with surrealism, magical realism, and fairy tale logic. It’s been tremendous fun writing them.

That said, another source of inspiration for this series has been fear. A friend once described a writing activity where you list the things you want to write about, then list the things you’re afraid to write about, then throw out the first list and move forward with the second. I kept that advice in mind as I wrote these. “The things you’re afraid to write about” has been a guiding theme.

When I was really stuck last summer, I’d draw a Tarot card and write something based off of that. If you go this route, I’d advise finding a deck with art that really speaks to you. I used the cards’ color and imagery as much as their archetypal meanings when gleaning inspiration.

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

I’m not a big reviser. I’ll spend hours on a piece trying to make sure it says what I want it to say the first time around. I do reluctantly revise days or weeks later if something is feeling significantly off upon repeated readings, but I’ve learned that in general, my best work comes from the gut.

Everyone has their opinions and tastes when it comes to poetry. After a lot of reading, I’ve determined that I want three things from a poem: strong emotion, strong imagery, and shocking content. I don’t mean luridness for luridness’s sake. But I want a poem to startle me somehow, either through its use of language or the sentiment it expresses. We all look for different things in poetry. But this is what I want and what I aim to create. If a poem is lacking any of that, it’s probably not done.

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

My longtime favorite fiction writer is Toni Morrison. She weaves beauty and horror together unlike any other writer I know. She stares into everything that makes our species terrible while also acknowledging our capacity for goodness in an understated, unsentimental way. There is no other writer who makes me shudder so much at what people are capable of—not just in extreme circumstances, but in everyday, unnecessary cruelties—but also believe there is something to be redeemed, that we shouldn’t just throw out the entire project of being human. She doesn’t offer hope in a placating way, though. Her writing continually makes me realize that it is up to us, in the day-to-day, to sway the world in a cruel or compassionate direction. We can’t just smile and say a few platitudes and assume everything will be all right. Our small decisions matter.

I don’t have one favorite poet. Lately I read two books by Sharon Olds and Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong and those absolutely blew me away. I love Olds’s frank treatment of sexuality. Vuong’s use of imagery—and again, that ability to confront human cruelty while also suggesting it’s not all that defines us—was just incredible.

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m gearing up for a new semester of teaching literature and first-year writing. I’m teaching Persepolis for the first time in a few years, so I’m thrilled about that. Creatively, I’m brainstorming plans for this summer, which is my main writing season. I’d love to try a graphic novel or another poetry manuscript.

Where can we find more information about you?

My site is www.catherinebaileykyle.com. That has links to Facebook (in case you like gleeful status updates about student analyses of anime), Twitter (updated maybe twice a year, but I’m trying to be better), Instagram (in case you like pictures of cats, though I do post some creative writing stuff there), and Pinterest (in case you like pictures of more cats, though this has some creative writing stuff too). I’m really interested in how the latter two intersect with writing, since they’re primarily image-based. Add me on there so we can talk about image-hunting and things that can’t be photographed.

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Midwest in Photos: Primary Trains

“But the future bores me. I imagine following it like a leaf into traffic. I imagine eating it like a heart made of oatmeal.” – Laura Kasischke, White Bird in a Blizzard.

Photo by: Sera Hayes

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Interview: Keith Taylor

Keith Taylor authorMidwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talked with poet Keith Taylor about his collection The Bird-while, writing as a life-long identity, the paintings of Vermeer, and more.

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Audrey Meyers: What is your connection to the Midwest?

Keith Taylor: I first moved to the Midwest – South Bend, Indiana – over 50 years ago. After spending a few years away, I returned to live in Michigan. I’ve been lucky here: I married a woman from Detroit and I’ve had good work that has allowed me time to write. And think. The attitudes of the Midwest have become my attitudes.

AM: How has living in Ann Arbor impacted your writing?

KT: Oh, Ann Arbor is an easy place for writers to live. Bookstores! Readings regularly at the University or around town. A general attitude that a life in the arts is possible and reasonable. There is a large community of the arts here and most people can find the support they need. And there are places to publish!

I think I would have become a writer without Ann Arbor, but I would have been a very different writer.

AM: As a creative writing professor at the University of Michigan, how does the classroom and your students affect your writing?

KT: Mostly, to be around serious young students of writing, the professor has to try to keep up with the new work that is being done in the country, the work that is influencing the students. That keeps my reading fresh, and keeps me reevaluating my own work. I think that is a necessary part of the process.

I came back to teaching rather late. I was 47 years old when I left bookselling to focus on teaching, so it is different for me than for many writer/teachers. I never expected to have these long vacations, this institutional intensity focused on the work.

AM: Since The Bird-while is your 16th collection of poetry, what inspires you to keep writing?

KT: At some point – maybe 20 or 25 years ago – it became clear to me that I was a writer whether I wanted to be or not. And this had only a little to do with the actual making of books. Not only was the act of writing essential to my self definition, but it had become the way I think. The way I understand the world. Now, I would be lost without it.

The Bird-while book

AM: Nature, the spirit, and mind are prominent themes in your book. How do they interact and relate to one another? How do you express this in poetry?

KT: Wow! That’s a big question! Millions of pages have been written on this — not only in Western philosophy but in Buddhist philosophy too. And I don’t have an answer for it. But there is something in the image – in finding the image in the world and then finding the words to recreate the image. Something there. We reach out past mind to the world and the distinctions disappear. Gary Snyder – wise poet and life long student of Zen – entitled his selected poems No Nature. If there is no distinction between mind and nature, then there is no nature. But it is hard to write this quickly. It sounds too easy.

AM: Where did you spend your time writing The Bird-while? In other words, what setting helped you to create these poems?

KT: Most of my work this last decade has been written in my little house on the west side of Ann Arbor or in a little cabin up at the University of Michigan Biological Station, where I’ve had the pleasure of teaching for the last dozen summers. I do keep a journal and it goes with me everywhere I travel, so ideas get jotted down around the world. But the poems mostly take shape at home.

AM: Your book is uniquely structured by not having section breaks. What does this style accomplish for your poetry? What motivated you to make this choice?

KT: Yes, thanks for noticing! My sense is that the process of thinking, of experiencing the world that goes into a book of poems – and for me, into this book in particular – was not broken into units. Yes, there are clusters of poems related by image or idea, but they are connected to other clusters. I didn’t want a big break between them like a numbered section would indicate. I imagined the breaks as hesitations. I was going to leave blank pages, but then it occurred to me that I could get my old friend Tom Pohrt to do illustrations for those moments. I feel very fortunate that he agreed.

AM: What life experiences influenced your poetry in The Bird-while?

KT: Oh, all my life experiences influenced the book! But that’s too easy. Certainly, my own aging is a part of this book, a recognition of the exquisite small moment. There are lots of moments of my reading in here, sometimes obvious, and sometimes quite hidden. But I am a person of books and I bring them with me even when watching birds. Museums have always been important to me. And there are several museum moments in this book. Travel, of course. Maybe travel is less important in this book than it has been in some earlier ones, but it is still here – even if some of travel recounted is from my daughter’s trips rather than mine.

AM: How did you implement Emersonian sensibility into your poetry?

KT: I’m not sure I set out to implement Emerson in my work, but I have studied him closely at different times in my life. His idea of being open to the natural world, the giant eye-ball, has always interested me, but more as a description of things I already sensed in myself than as something I had to impose on myself. There is a radical uncertainty in Emerson, and I cherish that.

AM: What were your main challenges when writing these poems?

KT: The challenges never seem to change. I have to find the time to make poems in a world that really doesn’t care whether I make them or not. And even now, in my mid-60s, I have to convince myself that the process and the poems themselves are worth the time. Perhaps no artist is ever free of self-doubt, but we have to recognize it and resist it all the time.

The world presents endless subject matter for poems, but not all of that can get into my poems. I have to find the right words for the things that need to be in my poems. That challenge will never end.

AM: What do you hope readers take away from your poetry?

KT: Another tough one. Yes, I have hopes for my readers, even if they are not front and center in my mind in the moments of composition. I hope I can communicate something of the exquisite facts and mysteries of the world. Of my experience of it, anyway. I would hope readers might share that and might be pleased by the words I found to express it. That’s a lot to hope for, I know. It might be impossible.

AM: What’s next for you?

KT: The poems won’t end. Even as I’m working on a chapbook sized collection of short poems about my neighborhood, I’m beginning to take notes on three larger poems, three that might make a book all on their own. They are poems that contain information and thinking and that move slowly through thought. I’m not sure I can write them the way I’m imagining them now.
I have two bigger prose projects in mind – and I think I have to quit working before I can sit down and work on those. I’m going to stop working for the big University in a year or so, mostly to get to these projects.

And I’ve decided there are a couple of things I want to see of the world before I leave this vale of tears. I want to officially see 1,000 species of birds. That’s about one-tenth of the birds on the planet, and it can be done quite easily. I’m at 680 right now. I’ll have to do some more trips to interesting places.

And I want to see all the paintings of Vermeer. My reasons for this are various, but it’s mostly because they are small, exquisite, so clearly done with love, and are so important to the development of the modern artistic temperament.

I haven’t really intended to write about these two “projects” at all, until someone suggested to me that 35 Paintings and a Thousand Birds is a pretty good title. We’ll see.

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Poet and writer Keith Taylor teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs in creative writing at the University of Michigan, directs the Bear River Writer’s Conference, and is the poetry editor for Michigan Quarterly Review.
His sixteenth collection, The Bird-while, was published by Wayne State University Press February 2017. Fidelities was published in 2015 by Alice Greene & Co. Keith’s work has appeared in such publications as Story, The Los Angeles Times, Alternative Press, The Southern Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, The Iowa Review, Witness, Chicago Tribune, and Hanging Loose. Other books are Marginalia for a Natural History published by Black Lawrence Press, and Ghost Writers, a collection of ghost stories co-edited with Laura Kasischke, published by Wayne State University Press.

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