Contributor Spotlight: Laurence Levy

November 13th, 2018

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

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.

**

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….!

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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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Contributor Spotlight: Josh Weston

Josh Weston author headshotJosh Weston’s piece “The Balloon” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I grew up in apple country, the village of Kent City, MI, and I still live nearby in Grand Rapids. My voices are West Michigan voices. My metaphors, images, and stories tend to be autobiographical, quotidian, Midwestern by default. That also seems really Midwestern: To take the maxum write what you know to heart in the most pragmatic way possible. I hope I don’t “represent where I’m from” in a way that’s exploitative, but it is true that the more I embrace the where-I’m-from-ness in whatever it is I’m working on, the more interesting I tend to find it. I was joking around with some coworkers at the bookstore I used to work at once and my friend Quinn told me my Kent City was showing. He meant I was being crude, trashy. I like crude and trashy, also workaday and blindered-by-ignorance-and-economic-desperation. But then I’d better.

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

“The Midwest” carries exclusively negative connotations. The Midwest is a flyover place, provincial at best, and at worst utterly god-forsaken. “Heartland,” “salt of the earth,” “Pure Michigan.” Only dupes and politicians and Ford Truck commercials use this kind of language to describe the Midwest. We know what they mean. We don’t not have love for the place we live. We just also know they’re trying to sell us something that isn’t there, or if it is, is only to the extent that it isn’t packaged and sold. There’s a pervasive embarrassed anxiety among Midwesterners, even among the upwardly mobile and those who aren’t afraid to say they love where they live — which is almost everyone I know — that they live in a cultural backwater. I pick up on it almost every time someone tells me the story of how they came to live here in Grand Rapids, or the story of why it is they still live in Kent City. And they’re talking to me. One of them. (Well, I did “make it out” of Kent City, but it’s not as if it’s THAT hard to chose to live twenty miles to the south (though in my heart I think it really, really is), and it’s not as if Kent City’s a bad place to live.) I hear it when I tell my own story too. To live here is a failure. We know that that’s bullshit and a totally unhealthy way of looking at ourselves and our neighbors and the world. And yet.

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

I write narratively and autobiographically pretty much all the time. I like it when something that happened seems to burble up out of my subconscious and present itself as able to fit a given need. I like it because it feels easy. I don’t have to invent anything, just describe. It’s fun. Using autobiographical things, messing with them — that’s fun. The parts I have the most fun with are always the parts my friends who read my stuff respond to. When it works the autobiographical seems to energize the writing somehow. Although when that’s the pattern the temptation is to write multi-volume hyper-autobiographical fiction a la Karl Ove Knausgaard.

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

I’m a stay-at-home dad. Which is great. I hate jobs. Plus it allows me to have a more realistically stick-to-able writing routine than I could have when I had to spend however many hours a day drilling holes, or selling vegetables, or shelving books, or carrying drywall. My son is in school full time but my daughter’s still just half day. I write in the morning, after we drop my son off. I get my coffee and go into my office or into the three seasons room if the weather is okay. Ideally, my daughter doesn’t come try to interact with me too much. I write a lot when everyone’s asleep, too, but I have a harder time using that time intentionally because I’m tired and lazy. At night I tend to work on new, more poem-like things — when, that is, the NBA Finals aren’t on and I’m not binge-watching Jessica Jones.

I had writer’s block until about a month after I turned thirty-one. If my own case is anything to go on, writer’s block is caused by not being conscious of the degree to which you’re trying to pander to an imagined audience’s expectations, which is both caused by and leads to toxic self-consciousness. I still do it, but I do what I want the rest of the time.

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

I don’t think I can very well yet. I want to share, share, share right away like some gossipy, stoned town crier. Luckily though, sharing or submitting something doesn’t mean I’ll stop working on it if it keeps nagging me. The moment I got the email that “The Balloon” had been accepted, for example, I opened the document and destroyed it. I’d worked on that for a year. Maybe something is finished when I spend over ten minutes clicking undo. Sometimes it’s probably helpful to be pragmatic, to realize that (to quote Mark Kozelek quoting Tupac) “We don’t have the motherfucking luxury to spend this much motherfucking time on this one motherfucking song.” Sometimes a thing isn’t as good as it could be, or as it ought to be, but it’s good enough for what it can reasonably be expected to achieve. I’ve gotten to that point with some poems and short stories, anyway. Though it’s also true that I have a flash fiction piece I spent over a year on before I realized I would never be able to get it to work until it became the first scene in a novel I have yet to start drafting.

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

Though I’ve only read volumes one and two of My Struggle, and though I read them a year apart and haven’t even tried to articulate why I find them so moving, lately I can’t stop thinking about Karl Ove Knausgaard. It’d be easier to talk about Anne Carson or Marilynne Robinson, or David Mitchell, or J.M. Coetzee. Okay, but now that I look at these names (and consider the others I could name) here’s what they have in common: They’re the authors I feel like I know. Not in a biographical sense. And not in the sense that I’ve read them more than I’ve read other authors, necessarily, or that I’ve read them with any particular rigor. What I mean is: When I read these writers it feels like I’m picking up on who they are, like my brain is uploading the complex patterns that constitute their respective consciousnesses, as encoded in and by their works. So it’s as if my own consciousness gets augmented by what feels like the very high fidelity presence of theirs. I get them. They get me. I don’t know. I’ve sobbed reading Knausgaard with cosmic gratitude beaming from my heart because I felt, in that moment of seeing or understanding Knausgaard, profoundly seen and understood myself. How is he able to create the conditions for that kind of exchange when he (infamously) writes almost exclusively about his own (mere, privileged, thoroughly unremarkable) life? It’s a good question. I think he’s following his instincts as hard as he can.

What’s next for you?

Finishing the first draft of my half-Knausgaardian first novel.

Where can we find more information about you?

If you google me the first several things you’ll encounter will be about Josh Weston the deceased porn star. I’m interested in his life and plan to write about him someday, so I think he’s worth reading about. His mom’s obituary for him alone is worth the five seconds it takes to find on Wikipedia. I don’t have a website or anything. I’m on Facebook. My current profile pic is of a human skeleton half-covered by a boulder that came hurtling from the earth as a piece of pyroclast near Pompeii Italy in A.D. 79. The skeleton was someone who’d survived the initial eruption and was trying to make his way to safety on a bum leg when behind him he heard a low whooshing. It could change by the time you read this, but feel free to friend me. It’s 7/10ths pictures of my kids, 1/5th horrible news, and 1/5th literary things. On Twitter I’m @rewordlander.

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Contributor Spotlight: Stephanie Anderson

Stephanie Anderson author headshotStephanie Anderson’s piece “The McFarthest Spot” 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 on my family’s ranch in western South Dakota, a place I love and respect with people I cherish. The nearest town, Bison, is the subject of “The McFarthest Spot” published here in Midwestern Gothic, but I’ve written more directly about the ranch, my family, and the prairie elsewhere. The region influences my writing primarily by functioning as a center from which many of my essays and stories unfold. With the exception of a couple pieces, everything I’ve published or am working on evokes the grassland and/or its residents somehow. My debut book, One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture, grew out of my dismay over how industrial agriculture ruins Midwestern land and bankrupts the people living there. The prairie is the landscape of my youth, a place that lives within me in memory but also in the present as I return to it via creative and research-driven work.

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

I can probably speak most authentically about western South Dakota, since it’s the area of the Midwest I’m intimately familiar with. To me, the most compelling aspect of western South Dakota is the grassland. It’s unbelievably beautiful, vast, wild, and remote, a place that invites expansive thinking and feeling. We’ve plowed up or urbanized most of the Great Plains, and western South Dakota includes some of the last acres we have left. Some of those acres are partially protected as federal grassland, while others are privately owned by ranchers. That portion of the state is a desperately needed sanctuary for prairie flora and fauna, and one of the last glimpses of what the prairie used to be in the United States.

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?

My writing tends to be deeply rooted in place, whether that’s the Midwest or these days Florida, since that’s where I live now. A specific, vividly imagined setting is the foundation of most good essays and stories, and my settings are often inspired by places I’ve observed directly or that resonated with me in some way. A lot of writers draw from memory and experience like this, so it’s nothing special.

What I’ve learned about that practice, though, is how powerfully one’s state of mind influences recollection and interpretation, and this becomes especially important with nonfiction. When writing about the prairie or my family, for instance, I am in a constant battle with nostalgia since I miss both so much. Sometimes I discover new, unexpected insights into old events I’m writing about, events I thought I understood completely. Conversely, when writing about more recent things, I have to guard against the sharpest, easiest emotions and push myself into deeper, more wide-ranging thought. A difficult but fruitful lesson I’ve learned is that my first observation or argument may not be the most accurate one. There’s usually more if I sit with the piece longer.

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

My writing process is fairly cyclical since, being a writing instructor, I am on the university schedule. I spend the summer writing pieces that I’ve imagined or, in a few rare cases, started during the academic year. I occasionally write a spur-of-the-moment something while traveling—I started one essay on a camping trip, for example—but most of the actual writing happens at my desk or couch, my two greyhounds napping nearby. I spend the fall and spring semesters submitting, since that’s when most literary journals accept submissions; planning/researching new work; and revising any pieces I couldn’t finish over the summer.

As unromantic as this sounds, the most important part of my writing process is discipline. I don’t wait for inspiration or an artistic mood, although if I feel moved to write I try to act on it immediately. I sit down and write as much as I can on the days I schedule for writing, and I submit persistently, even when a piece has been rejected dozens of times. I build in time for revision. I learned these behaviors from my undergraduate and graduate mentors. Writing something, anything, is always better than writing nothing, because one can revise a “nothing” into a “something” later on.

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

It might be easier to say when I know a piece isn’t finished. If I have not revised it at least once—and by “revised” I mean reconsidered completely and made global changes, not just line edits—then it’s not finished. Usually I revise half a dozen times or more over several months, sometimes much longer. If I feel satisfied with a piece, it’s probably still not finished and I need to wait a few weeks before going back and revising a bit more. It might be finished when I feel satisfied with it a second or third time.

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

For fiction, I admire Anthony Doerr’s work. His short stories and novels glitter with specific, evocative details and plumb emotional and thematic depths without wandering into cliché. For nonfiction, I love Eula Biss’ writing. Her essays are astoundingly perceptive—I’ve learned so much from her—and her writing is lean and lyrical. And for poetry, I am drawn to Lyn Hejinian’s work. Reading her poetry is an immersive, immediate experience, and I strive to replicate that effect in my own work.

What’s next for you?

I am working on a collection of essays connected by (surprise!) the Midwest, particularly the prairie, rural life, family, and agriculture.

Where can we find more information about you?

Visit www.stephanieandersonwriting.com or www.facebook.com/stephanieandersonwriting for more info on forthcoming work, including my debut book One Size Fits None, and upcoming events. Thank you for reading this interview!

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2018 Pushcart Nominations

We’re thrilled to announce our nominees for the 2018 Pushcart Prize!

For those who aren’t familiar, the Pushcart Prize is an annual award handed out to short stories, essays and poetry originating from small presses. At Midwestern Gothic we are so fortunate to read and publish some amazing pieces from folks all over the country, and while it’s hard to pick only a few to nominate, there were some that stood out as pure excellence.

That said, please join us in congratulating our 2018 nominees:

Winter 2018 Issue

  • Cortney Lamar Charleston – “Facts Only” – Poetry
  • Matt Whelihan – “Eighteen Dead Water Buffalo” – Fiction
  • Nora Seilheimer “The Breakup Cat” – Nonfiction

Summer 2018 Issue

  • John LaPine – “Today at Lunch Danez Smith Says Nigga” – Poetry
  • Cassandra Morrison – “One Twenty Something’s Notes” – Nonfiction
  • Joliange Wright – “The Mother Church” – Fiction

A huge congrats and a dose of good luck to all our nominees!

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Contributor Spotlight: Jeremy Parker

Jeremy Parker author headshotJeremy Parker’s story “A History of Burning” 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?

Until 2013, I lived exclusively in Wisconsin and Indiana. Though I now live deep in Stephen King territory, almost all of my writing takes place in those formative, mythological, occult places. And I use “occult” in its less colloquial and more literal definition: hidden, occluded. Particularly the Indiana years—I’ve never revisited those places with the bright light of adulthood, so they are still imbued with that childhood magic, mystery, danger, and trauma.

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

That it’s not terribly unlike other places in the country. We have our metropoles; we have our nowheres. This question reminds me of a similar one asked about the setting of the first season of True Detective—the show runner said (and I’m poorly paraphrasing, I’m sure) that it’s one of the few places where there’s enough of an unknown that mystery can still thrive there. When I heard that, I thought back to when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and my friends started getting their licenses, and we had nothing to do, nowhere to go (being nowhere kids ourselves) and we’d just drive, late at night, through backroads, finding the most hidden, darkest, rural, off-the-beaten-path places we could, places you can’t possibly end up on accident. With heads filled with stories about kids who disappeared, gremlins that ran cars off roads, satanic cults, and chainsaw massacres, nothing was scarier than pulling into to the middle of nowhere and having a light turn on or something move just outside the car window, or of the cry of a creature we’d never heard before. We terrified ourselves. And probably the poor people living in those remote places. For me, the Midwest was always about those places, the places that Google Maps can’t take you, where there are no streetlights, where mystery might still exist.

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?

That’s the stage upon which everything is performed. So much of my writing takes place in these mythological set pieces from my childhood, which were the most traumatic and formative. The events in this story, “A History of Burning” are about 80% true—things that either happened to me or to people I knew. I sometimes think that writing is to make meaning or to find meaning,—one, to create new vistas for understanding our world, ourselves, our future; the other to make the past of the world and ourselves make sense. And perhaps for this reason, I keep returning to these places in my writing, like that one house you always dream about.

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

This is a terrible question to ask right now because I’m coming out of a long writer’s block and trying to find a new way to write. My normal process, which produced my story collection, was to procrastinate as long as possible and then to sit down and churn out a story in one-to-three sittings, the fewer the better. I work in this recursive loop where I edit as I write (because I hate editing afterward). This method has failed me for novel writing, so I’ve been Moses on the mountain waiting for something divine to hand me the new rules, but I might have to carve my own commandments.

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

I have a few people I run new stories by—people who will absolutely call out bullshit, insincerity, glaring plot holes, unconscious racism or sexism (you have to check, y’all, no one is as woke as they think they are)—and when they don’t have any criticisms or I am absolutely comfortable about the story despite the criticisms, then I know it’s done.

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

My usual go-to answer for this is Kurt Vonnegut. Finding a copy of Breakfast of Champions in the romance section of a thrift store for a dime when I was 16 absolutely changed my relationship to reading and writing. For once, there was a writer who seemed as perplexed about our world and ourselves as I was and approached fiction like an alien anthropologist. I even jokingly refer to my duties as fiction editor for Outlook Springs “interdimensional ethnographer.” We’re participant observers of our culture and trying desperately to communicate what we partially understand from our limited but powerful vantage point as individuals.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing a novel. Novels. There’s “Stand By Me playing Dungeons & Dragons meets the West Memphis Three” and there’s “mid-apocalyptic cult/commune meets The Leftovers plus Huxley’s Island.” Coincidentally, both revisit characters from “A History of Burning.”

Where can we find more information about you?

City records offices, old Indiana newspapers, court archives, high school yearbooks, random snapshots from disposable film cameras in late 90’s/early-aught’s Midwest raves, the memories of friends, enemies, and loved ones, and my website, which has information about writing and book design, at jeremyjohnparker.com and twitter @jackshoegazer.

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Interview: Brian Laidlaw

Brian Laidlaw author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Jo Chang talked with author Brian Laidlaw about his collection The Mirrormaker, incorporating music and songwriting into poetry, retelling historical myths, & more.

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

Brian Laidlaw: My dad is from Minnesota, so I’d visited a few times as a kid — the lightning storms left an impression on me — but my own Minnesota roots didn’t really sink in until I moved to Minneapolis in 2008 to begin an MFA in Poetry at the U of M.

I had expected to complete my degree and then hightail back to the West Coast, but I found that the literary and music community in the Twin Cities was something genuinely remarkable — unimaginable, really. The institutional support and public funding for the arts, along with a fantastically attentive and enthusiastic audience, made it an ideal place to be.

So I made it the more-or-less permanent home base for my career…. My publisher, Milkweed Editions, is based there, and I continue to do tons of performances, workshops, and community-based collaborations, both in the Twin Cities and in the (amazing and beautiful) rural parts of the state. I spend quite a lot of time on the road at this point, bouncing between Minnesota, Colorado and the West Coast, but it’s always a calm and joyous homecoming whenever I return to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

JC: As someone with ties to both California and Minnesota, regions that seem to exist on opposite ends of the spectrum, how has your experience with space and place affected your writing and/or creative processes, if at all?

BL: For better and for worse, I’m beginning to realize that all my writing is profoundly place-based. Although I don’t write exclusively “about” landscape, the landscape has near-total control over the texts I produce: my geographic setting determines what books I choose to read at a given time, and shapes what activities I choose to do; it influences the way I make sense of those texts and adventures; and it shapes the way I synthesize them into poem-stuff and song-stuff.

So — because of their radically different climates, terrains, and rhythms — I find that I produce starkly contrasting work, depending on whether I’m in Minnesota or California (or someplace else in between.) The new book is all about the Iron Range, and it arose from spending quite a bit of time up in Hibbing, staying with various families, talking and collaborating with locals, and trying in earnest to digest the complex social, economic and geologic history of that area.

The glacial cold and (at least by comparison to my frantic Bay Area home) the glacial slowness of that place are certainly borne out in the style of the project…. The poems are a little more pulverized than usual, and the songs a little more sprawling. Hibbing is Bob Dylan’s hometown, and I think the aspect that excites me most about the project is that, by way of that landscape, the work shares a bit of the North Country-imprint that one hears in Dylan’s own writing.

JC: You incorporate elements of music and songwriting into your poetry; for example, your forthcoming book, The Mirrormaker, has a companion song suite that is available for download along with the book itself. Can you explain how music and poetry coexist and commingle in your craft?

BL: When I first started writing, my poems and songs were formally indistinguishable from one another; they were all highly regular and metrical, often rhyming-or slant-rhyming, often using some degree of repetition.

Over the years those crafts have diverged; I continue to love (to a highly nerdy degree) formal prosody, but now that side of my writing lives almost exclusively in my songs. My poetry, meanwhile, has trended in a more fragmentary direction — so I feel like I have widened my palette. Generally speaking, I’d say that for more linear or logical “arguments,” the sustained, tight, rigorous space of a metrical song is the right formal fit; for more uncertain inquiries, I’ve found that a fragmentary poetic form is better able to guide me into/through the unknown territory.

But this is always in flux: My challenge to myself now is to write more song-like poems and more poem-like songs, whatever that might mean.

The Mirrormaker book cover by Brian Laidlaw

JC: What inspired you to incorporate music into your poetic work?

BL: It was largely in counter-response to the way that mainstream audiences respond to poetry. I think that the national poetry conversation is exceptionally vibrant right now, but I think it’s also a fair generalization to say that most poetry — and especially most experimental / fragmentary / weird poetry — is read largely by other poets.

So I started composing these companion albums for my books as a way — hopefully! — to bridge the gap between the admittedly somewhat “difficult” poetic work, and those readers who might be unfamiliar with this style of contemporary poetry. The songs are a kind of “gateway drug,” I guess, to establish some of the book’s thematic concerns in a more user-friendly medium — and provide some context in which to ground the poems.

That’s part of it. The other part is that, once I’m in a place and doing the research for a project, my creative output is never only poems or only songs — so it makes sense to present the poems and songs in tandem, because in my mind it’s all the same body of work.

JC: Your forthcoming book, The Mirrormaker, is a companion work to your previous project, The Stuntman. What made you decide to expand on The Stuntman?

BL: I actually began The Stuntman and The Mirrormaker at the same time; they both took shape out of an immense stack of poems and repertoire of songs that I had written during various research trips and musical tours on the Iron Range. It was clear that there was far too much for a single volume (I had almost 400 pages of material), so I separated out a cluster of the work that was internally coherent (and Dylan/Narcissus related), which became The Stuntman.

At the same time, I also set aside another manuscript’s-worth of poems (and album’s worth of songs) that, after quite a bit of re-sequencing and revision, would become The Mirrormaker.

JC: The Mirrormaker, as stated above, expands on the previous retelling of the myth of Echo and Narcissus, along with another famous couple, Bob Dylan and Echo Helstrom, to explore topics such as celebrity, history and myth, love and loss, and, to quote the publisher, “[pits] romantic obsession against self-obsession.” What piqued your interest in these two famous couples, and what particular similarities stuck out to you in the beginning stages of the project that made you decide to explore the dynamics between both?

BL: At that time I was taking my first dive into contemporary ecocriticism and ecofeminism, some of which suggests that “Nature” is a construct onto which (Western) humans project their own values and desires. In this way the landscape becomes a kind of mirror for its inhabitants; the residents, rather than genuinely seeing their environment, see only a reflection of themselves.

During that reading, it had occurred to me that Echo is a perfect embodiment (or en-symbolment?) of this phenomenon; we often associate echoes with “natural” spaces like cliffs and canyons, and when we yell HELLO in those locations, it feels like nature is speaking to us when it yells HELLO back — but really that echo is nothing but our own voice. I had long observed that love songs work in almost exactly the same way: for all that the love-song singer purports to be focusing his/her attentions on the beloved, love songs usually end up revealing more about the singer than the “singee.” Again, the beloved is nothing but a mirror in which the singer reflects.

This all came together during a visit to Dylan’s hometown, shortly after I moved to Minnesota. The landscape there is stunning. At the edge of town there’s an overlook that gives onto an enormous red canyon which, mind-bogglingly, is manmade; it’s the Hull-Rust Mahoning Mine, the largest open-pit iron mine in North America. It set me thinking about the rhetoric that underlies extraction economies, like the iron mining industry in Northern Minnesota…. And I was also thinking about the way that songwriters like Dylan (and myself, and all of us) may be guilty of similar behavior when we write songs about the landscapes and people that we love — just like miners, we refer to our relationships, our family dramas, and our hometowns and upbringings as “good material.”

Strangely, it all clicked one night when I was sleeping in the basement of a friend’s house in Hibbing, just a few blocks from Dylan’s childhood home. I had an uncommonly vivid dream in which the basement window slid open and the figure of Echo crawled through — in my dream logic I knew that she was both the Echo from the myth, and also, in a gestural way, the real-life Echo who inspired Dylan’s tune “The Girl From the North Country.”

Although it took several years to come together, the book and the song cycle arose out of that dream.

JC: How do you find inspiration for both your music and your poetry? Does this process change according to each medium?

BL: It has taken me about a decade of doing this poet-musician life full-time, in order to understand the mechanics of the process… But I’m realizing that at this point the inspiration almost always originates in reading other writers and listening to other musicians. That’s the first step.

And then the second step is to work through those ideas in a more embodied — and less intellectual — way. The readings and listenings subconsciously filter through the experiences I’m having while on tour, or while hiding out in the woods or the backcountry, or while leading a workshop, or whatever it may be. But I’m realizing that the physical activity and the geographic movement are essential catalysts to the creative process — whether the eventual output is poems or songs.

JC: What’s next for you?

BL: Just last month I published my first-ever creative nonfiction piece, an essay about a desert hermit named Burro Schmidt who spent decades hand-drilling a tunnel through a mountain in the Mojave. It’s part of an essay collection that I’m working on, which I’m tentatively calling Vertical Pastoral, about the intersection between poetics and rock climbing/mountaineering.

So right now I’m doing a bunch of research about the history of alpinism and mountain aesthetics… I’m also a very enthusiastic and reasonably competent climber, so for the next year or two I’ll spend as much time as possible living in my little yellow school bus, reading about climbing, writing about climbing, and climbing.

**

Brian Laidlaw is a poet-songwriter currently based in Boulder, Colorado. He has released the poetry collections Amoratorium (Paper Darts Press) and The Stuntman (Milkweed Editions), each of which includes a companion album of original music; another book called The Mirrormaker is forthcoming from Milkweed this year. Brian is working toward a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Denver, and continues to tour nationally and internationally with his band The Family Trade. News, music, and tour dates are available at www.brianlaidlaw.com.

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Contributor Spotlight: Michael Kriesel

Michael Kriesel author headshotMichael Krisel’s piece “Forgiving the Grass” 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’m 56 and have lived in central Wisconsin my whole life, except for 10 years in the Navy after high school. I grew up in a rural area, and have lived in a couple of small towns. The last 5 years I’ve resided in Wausau, a town of 40,000, where I attended high school.

Rural areas more easily reflect the symbols of soul. Sparse / pared-down places encourage stoicism, Zen, nature religions / Wicca / mysticism. It’s easier to project your own internal drama / symbolism onto such an environment (especially as a teen writer), as opposed to an urban setting.

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

The small towns, although their character is being homogenized by the sameness of national chain stores, and the generally friendlier, less stressed, less greedy, less self-absorbed nature of the people, compared to both coasts (I’ve never really been in the South). Of course, the social media / texting while walking zombies are eroding that.

There’s also something to be said for Wisconsin’s autumn colors.

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?

Sometimes landscape not only informs / colors the mood of a piece, but is actually the star of the poem. Also, like a regional accent, place speaks through us. All writing is regional writing, if only because all writing must take place in a place, and that place will flavor the writing.

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

Writer’s block means you have nothing to say. Don’t sit there like desire’s bitch, squirming at some keyboard, resorting to some bullshit writing prompt to jump start one more poem or essay. Just get up and walk away. There’s more to life than writing. When desire is thwarted, let go of desire.

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

I got better at sensing that after working in forms for a year or two. Previously I’d only written free verse for 20 some years and it was fuzzy sometimes when a poem was done. Forms encouraged revision, and that gave me a greater sense of “done-ness,” especially as revision became more pleasurable, as I continued to improve at it. But to be able to finish a poem, it’s SO important to include ALL the pieces you’ll need, when you write your first draft.

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

Leonard Onionhouse is my latest favorite. His first novel is in a genre called “theo-noir.” It’s tough guy fiction with a spiritual component. Plus a mix of fantasy & horror.

What’s next for you?

Towards the end of 2018 my first full-length collection is due out from Pebblebrook Press. “Zen Amen” will consist of 70+ single and double occult-themed abecedarians.

Where can we find more information about you?

Here’s a link to my Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Members Page:

http://www.wfop.org/member-pages/#/michael-kriesel/

and here’s a link to an electronic chapbook of my short poems:

Every Name in the Book, at http://www.righthandpointing.net/michael-kriesel-every-name

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