Contributor Spotlight: Josh Weston

October 30th, 2018

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.

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!

|

No Comments

|

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!

|

No Comments

|

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.

|

No Comments

|

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.

**
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.

|

No Comments

|

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

|

No Comments

|

Interview: Nick Dybek

Nick Dybeck author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Henry Milek talked with author Nick Dybeck about his book The Verdun Affair, perseverance and community among writers, love in war, & more.

**

Henry Milek: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Nick Dybeck: I was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I went to college in Ann Arbor and graduated school in Iowa City. Most of my extended family is from Chicago, and I even lived and taught for a year in the Twin Cities. I’ve got the upper Midwest well covered.

HM: You’re a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and now teach at Oregon State University. How does your academic experience inform your teaching? How do both inform your writing?

ND: Like so much else involving writing, the lessons I learned at Iowa were essentially contradictory.

When I arrived at the Writers’ Workshop, I had this notion that I was pretty good—I’d gotten into a competitive grad school after all! It didn’t take long to learn that if I had any hope of actually making a go of it as a writer, I had to get a lot better and work a lot harder. The classmates I grew to admire most were not necessarily those whose talent was immediately apparent—they were the ones who chained themselves to their desks and wouldn’t take no for an answer no matter how many times The New Yorker or Black Warrior Review rejected their work.

In class, I learned a ton from my professors—Elizabeth McCracken, Edward Carey, Frank Conroy, and Jim McPherson, among many others. I still hear their voices when I work, still parrot their wisdom to my own students. At the same time, the nights I spent talking and joking about books—over drinks, poker games, Wiffle ball—were just as important and formative for my writing and teaching as anything that happened in the classroom, mostly because they bolstered my faith in the form we were all devoting ourselves to, and offered me the support and courage to press on.

Now that I teach in an MFA program myself, I continue to embrace this contradiction, encouraging my students to chain themselves to their desks, while also finding as many opportunities as they can to hang out with the writers they are lucky enough to form a community with for two years.

HM: You recently released your second novel, The Verdun Affair. What was different about writing this than your debut, When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man? How do you feel you’ve grown as a writer since your last book?

ND: The old saw “write what you know” has never really worked for me—that’s why I haven’t published much about the Midwest, despite growing up there. In fact, it wasn’t until a year or two after graduate school when I began writing Captain Flint—a coming-of-age story that takes place in an apocryphal town on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, an area I’d only visited once when I wrote the novel’s first sentence—that I really began to feel the imaginative wheels start to turn and offer me a story I could stick with. When I began to think about my next project, I decided take this approach a step further, setting The Verdun Affair in 1920s Europe and 1950s Hollywood—places that were impossible to “know” because they no longer existed. Had I not written Captain Flint, I probably never would have had the guts/hubris/foolishness to take on this material.

The Verdun Affair book cover by Nick Dybeck

HM: The Verdun Affair is a period piece taking place in post-WWI Europe and then later in 1950s Los Angeles. What were the challenges of writing a story within these eras? What kind of research did you engage in and how did it change the way you approached the story?

ND: The Verdun Affair started with a single image I heard described in a story on the BBC’s Newshour: a man roaming the moonscape of battlefields near Verdun, picking up bones for a nearby memorial called the Douaumont Ossuary. I was haunted by this image for months but knew very little about the time and place, and less about what might happen to the characters I was beginning to create. There was a lot to learn. I did mountains of research. I read books on WWI in general, Verdun and the Italian Front in particular, life in rural France, war trauma, the rise of Italian Fascism, fin-de-siècle Vienna, midcentury Hollywood. It was only in reading book after book, encountering story after story—those of American ambulance drivers, Hungarian cavalrymen, Italian army deserters—that my own story began to take shape, often in surprising ways. For example, the story of a French amnesiac named Anthelme Mangin, which I discovered by chance on the shelves of The Strand in New York City, became a vital plot point in The Verdun Affair, completely changing the direction of the narrative. All to say that research didn’t aid the writing process of this book, it was the writing process.

HM: Did you have a particular strategy for getting into the heads of characters from this era? How did you aim to make them relatable and realistic to a modern audience?

ND: Historians have often referred to World War I as the defining event of the twentieth century. World War I gave us violence on an industrial and global scale and redrew the map of the world, while simultaneously dismantling centuries-old power structures like the Hapsburg Empire and many of the cultural traditions and assumptions that attended them. I think that the men and women of the interwar years are inherently relatable to a modern audience because their perceptions ultimately informed and defined ours. That said, part of what drew me to the material was the challenge of wrapping my head around what it would be like to live in a time of such intense upheaval and trauma (I don’t think our current American moment compares, at least not yet!). I found the actual voices of people who lived those times—which I encountered in journals, memoirs and letters—to be essential. I was living in New York City when I started writing the book, and spent many hours in the Rose Main Reading Room of the NYPL tracking down some pretty obscure books. It was a lot of fun, actually, to watch as these old memoirs—many of which had not been checked out in years—arrived from the basement stacks via dumbwaiter, and to wonder what stories might lie within. Who would I get to meet?

HM: The book follows the complicated love affair between two Americans in post-war Europe. How does the aftermath of the war inform the characters’ love?

ND: Part of what drew me to the Anthelme Mangin story was what it suggests about the power and ubiquity of grief in the years just after WWI. When the doctors at Mangin’s asylum published his picture in newspapers hoping that someone would identify him, they received thousands of replies and identifications, many of which were obviously erroneous (respondents freely admitted that the son they had lost was, to take just one example, six inches taller than Mangin, yet they were still certain the man in the asylum was their boy). The world had just survived a cataclysm on a scale that would have been unimaginable only a few years before. The formerly impossible had become possible. And it was almost as if people were saying: Well, if that was possible, then what else is? Consequently, there was a shift towards the irrational during the interwar years, evident in Dadaism and Surrealism, in a resurgence of Spiritualism, in radical politics like Italian Fascism, for example.

In the early pages of my book, Tom, the narrator, meets Sarah Hagen, an American widow who has come to Verdun in search of her missing husband. Both Tom and Sarah are traumatized, both are grieving, so it makes sense that they might be drawn to each other. But, given the context of the time, it also makes sense that they might want things from each other that are irrational, even impossible. In some ways, the private extremity and desperation of the love affair between Tom and Sarah is meant to get at the larger mood of the time.

HM: What connections do you see between themes of love and war? How do these themes help connect the era of The Verdun Affair with the present?

ND: The characters in my book would have had no choice but to take Freud’s theories about the opposition of Eros and Thanatos seriously. There’s an early scene in the novel where a troop of school boys have come to Verdun to help Tom and other officials of the Verdun Diocese collect bones. To clown around for his friends, one of the boys picks up one of the bones and pretends that it is his penis and that he is…pleasuring himself. Of course, had this boy been a few years older, he might have been one of the casualties at Verdun himself, but, having missed the experience directly, he’s not just able, but perhaps compelled, to make a joke of it all, to generate some mischievous, erotic energy as a way of coping, of going on. On one level, the boy is both callous and callow, but there is also something understandably human in his response, in the desire to cancel out, or act against, the destruction and tragedy evident all around him.

In a sense, Tom and Sarah are doing something similar, falling into a love affair that, for a time anyway, is all-consuming, existing in opposition not just to the tragedy that surrounds them, but also to the obligations the war continues to impose upon them, even after the armistice. Their affair offers them a more hopeful, coherent, and familiar narrative, one that might even redeem the losses they have borne, at a time when the old stories seem to have been destroyed along with the world order.

I certainly wouldn’t be the first to point out the political parallels between the interwar years and our own historical moment. I would be lying if I said that I don’t experience the same desire to cancel that larger moment out in my day-to-day life, to trick and soothe myself with jokes and fleetingly reassuring narratives.

HM: What’s next for you?

ND: World War II, obviously!

**

Nick Dybek is a recipient of a Granta New Voices selection, a Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award, and a Maytag Fellowship. He received a BA from the University of Michigan and an MFA from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He teaches at Oregon State University. He is the author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man and The Verdun Affair.

|

No Comments

|

Contributor Spotlight: Samuel Piccone

Samuel Piccone author headshotSamuel Piccone’s piece “Impotence” 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 didn’t spend a lot of time in the Midwest until my early 20s. I grew up in Colorado, and aside from spending time with family in Indiana, I was kind of on the outside looking in. The first time I really left home/was on my own was for grad school in Illinois, and then after that, bounced around until landing in Iowa for a couple years. It always felt like the first place I discovered on my own as an adult, and I think that’s probably why it’s something I write about so much.

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

The landscape, especially the plains, has always seemed a little magical to me. When I lived in Iowa, I spent a lot of time driving into the heart of it without any real destination, thinking it would be a good way to orient myself. But I found myself getting lost more often than not, and in a way that kind of scared me into paying attention to the world around me at a sharper level. The scale of everything changed. I’d stumble upon some small town and feel like I’d been found, then drive miles through farmland, get swallowed back in that void of being alone with the world, and feel really small again. I’ve never been anywhere else that could extract those feelings and mirror them back to me in such a stark way.

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?

For me, place is the seed where a lot of poems begin, but not necessarily where they end. It’s a key dangling above my head that unlocks the core of whatever I’m trying to get at, and the only way to reach it is to deal with it like any being that has problems, answers, needs, etc., and interrogate it. If specific memories or experiences regarding a place end up being the focal point of a poem, that’s great, it means they were supposed to. But I’m always hoping that those memories will reveal something stranger or take me somewhere else entirely. I think when the past becomes a backdrop or a counterpoint to a very different subject, it breathes new life into that memory, and my personal experience becomes a new experience for both me and the reader.

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

Joe Millar, a teacher of mine at NC State, gave me some simple advice that always works— “take time off the top.” Before dealing with work, errands, relationships, the general crap of day to day life, poetry comes first. Thankfully, my best/clearest hours are in the early morning, so I usually spend that time revising drafts that are close to being done, reading, jotting down some ideas to kick around in my head the rest of the day.

In terms of inspiration and writer’s block, there are a couple things I lean on. I participate in a bimonthly writing group with a bunch of friends, mostly from my time at NC State, where we write a poem every day for thirty days. I mostly end up with a pile of junk, but there’s usually an idea or two in there that I’m excited to explore. Also, I’ve found using form is a great way of getting over any kind of block. It makes my voice sound unfamiliar and lets me wrestle with language from a different angle.

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

I’m not sure if anything I’ve written is ever finished, but I know when a poem is overdone, so I kind of look for the breaking point of a poem and get as close to it as I can. If as I’m cutting a poem down to its essentials I hit a moment when it feels like I’ve lost something or taken wrong turn, then I’ll back things up and put the previous version of the poem away for a while. When I come back to it, I start cutting again and repeat that process until I can’t do anything else with it at the time. I’m either end up with something that feels as complete as I can get it or scrap material to take back to the drawing board.

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

Of course, I have a ton of favorites, so I won’t bore you with a list. I will say one of the most influential is Yusef Komunyakaa. He was the first poet I saw read in person, and thereby became the first contemporary poet I read on my own (outside of a classroom). His images never cease to amaze me. They do emotional work in the poem, they’re linguistically interesting and well-crafted, and they’re strange on some level. I think it’s tough to get an image to do one of those things, let alone all three.

Where can we find more information about you?

samuelpiccone.com

|

No Comments

|

Interview: Simon Jacobs

Simon Jacobs author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Henry Milek talked with author Simon Jacobs about his book Palaces, getting lost in the city, book tours, & more.

**

Henry Milek: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Simon Jacobs: I was born in Dayton, Ohio, where I lived until I went to college in Indiana. When I was 21, I moved to New York. I was molded in the Midwest.

HM: To what extent—if at all—would you classify your work as Midwestern? In what ways does your connection to the region distinguish your writing?

SJ: I think my work has gotten more Midwestern over time: having some distance from the region for the last six years has allowed me to take a broader lens on it, I think, and to better inhabit its spaces whenever I go back. PALACES ends in New York because that’s where I was when I started writing it, but it reaches back to Indiana and Ohio, which are formative in the novel as they were for me. The novel I just finished, String Follow, is set aggressively in the kind of southern Ohio suburbs where I grew up, but I don’t think I could have written it any earlier: it took those twenty-odd years to seed. I’ve always been a slow, methodical, and deliberate writer – it’s a working style that comes from my mother, who’s a novelist, and from Ohio.

HM: Your new book, PALACES, follows two Midwesterners who head out east, much like yourself. How do you feel your origins in the Midwest changed your perception of New York? How did your own experience influence your story?

SJ: The narrator has my timetable (Dayton to Indiana to NYC), but that’s about where the direct connections end. I was new to NYC when I started writing PALACES, so I filtered my new experiences of the city through the narrator, especially in a sensory and spatial way. I have a terrible sense of direction, and when I first moved to the city whenever I traveled somewhere new I would carry post-it notes on which I’d written step-by-step directions guiding me there. If I strayed more than a block or two in any direction, I’d get totally lost. I’m sure that this found its way into PALACES.

Palaces book cover by Simon Jacobs

HM: PALACES is your first novel. What was different about writing a full-length novel compared to your previous shorter work?

SJ: It took much longer, which gave me more time to be wracked with doubt. The novel began as a set of fragmentary scenes that I knit together over 3 or 4 years, connected by tone, and they gradually became part of a larger framework. I was interested in exploring this tone – the second person perspective describing this insular, conflicted relationship – which I’d been working out for years in my short fiction. With the book, I felt like I’d finally realized its fullest form.

HM: Much of PALACES actually takes place in New York, where you portray it to be in a near-apocalyptic state. What was your strategy in crafting the city in such a distinct, original way? What effect do you hope this achieves?

SJ: I was trying to present a city that was falling apart in crucial ways, but where it wasn’t always totally clear which ways, because you’re presented it through the eyes of a narrator who’s convinced that everything around him is terrible and loaded with ominous significance. Through that lens, everything becomes a portent. It brings you into the recursive, paranoid headspace that the narrator occupies: the inner becomes the outer.

HM: There’s a sort of surreal blanket cast over the entire book—it takes place in the real world, but never quite seems to fit into it. How do you go about writing in this style? Did you ever worry about crossing the line where your work was so absurdly surreal the reader would get lost? How do you balance surrealism with reality just right?

SJ: Yeah, this was a very conscious effort as I was writing the book: I wanted to keep the reader tied as closely as possible to John’s insular perspective, so even as the book drifts away from reality I tried to cleave to the narrator’s physical experience and spatial sense, so that even when the action became opaque it was physically immediate, and the narrator remains embodied even as the world changes around him.

HM: You recently had a book tour where you performed several public readings of your work. Aside from being part of the traditional ritual of releasing new work, do you think that a book tour is an efficient means of reaching an audience in this day and age? Is it more difficult—or easier, even—for this type of thing to prove successful in the digital age, with digital distribution, social media, and everything else that entails?

SJ: I have no idea how successful my tour was in practical terms, but I loved doing it. It was definitely my favorite part of publishing PALACES, even if there were events where I was reading to just a handful of people. Performing is my favorite part of the process – after complete solitude for most of the writing, it’s refreshing to bring it out into the open and see how the work lands on live ears. It gives me an opportunity to interact with the writing in a new way, to find collaborators, or to play off other readers. I would continue to find ways to do it even if it was a terrible business decision.

That said, I do think a tour is still an efficient way to reach an audience, especially as a writer who’s published mostly on the internet: when you publish stuff online, you’re not tied to one regional community, and you can build up a lot more of a following that’s not necessarily tied to a book. I was lucky when I did my tour that for most events I was able to partner with local writers in the places that I visited, and most of these writers were folks who I first read online. You’re not writing in a vacuum, and doing a tour like this is a great way to try and engage with literary communities all over the place.

HM: Would you say you’re more influenced by your contemporaries, or by writers of the past? Which do you think is more important to read for those who hope to be a writer today?

SJ: Well, everything being written now responds in some way to writing that already exists, so truly there is no way of escaping the past. I guess I would say my reading is a pretty evenly split between past and present: PALACES, for example, was influenced as much by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (in its structure, jokes, and obscure rules) as it was by Charles Burns’ Black Hole (in its tone, teens, and totemic objects), and those books are 150 years apart.

That said, I never read poetry or short fiction until I read them on the internet, so in many ways, the present can crack open the past: Margaret Killjoy or Ben Kopel could lead you to Ursula LeGuin or Patti Smith. Regardless, if you’re a writer I think the most important single thing you can do is to read as diversely as possible, to steep yourself in as many different perspectives as you can.

HM: What’s next for you?

SJ: I’m working on the edits for a new short story collection, Masterworks, which is due out from Instar Books in late 2018. I’m also slowly expanding my first book, Saturn, a collection of David Bowie stories that Spork Press first published in 2014, steadily transforming it into something new. Administratively, I’m questing for a home for the novel I mentioned earlier, String Follow, which is about a group of suburban Ohio teenagers who slowly become enthralled by a mysterious and occult force that winds its way through their community.

**

Simon Jacobs is the author of the novel Palaces (Two Dollar Radio, 2018), and of two collections of short fiction: Masterworks (Instar Books, 2018), and Saturn (Spork Press, 2016), a collection of David Bowie stories. He is from Dayton, Ohio, and currently lives in New York City.

|

No Comments

|

Interview: Keith Taylor

Keith Taylor author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Henry Milek talked with author Keith Taylor about his book Ecstatic Destinations, celebrating nature, local writing, & more.

**

Henry Milek: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Keith Taylor: My family moved to South Bend, Indiana, when I was 11. For many years I had a terrible time – it was, after all, the late sixties; we had moved from rural Western Canada to a beat up Midwestern city in decline (Bendix, the largest employer in South Bend, had recently closed and all the factories were empty); and I had to get through my adolescence.

I probably blamed the Midwest for many things that other explanations. I left as soon as I could, after my first year of college. I went to Europe on a one way ticket and stayed, mostly penniless, for the next three years
In 1975 I moved to Michigan, and things began to get better. Michigan culture – or at least the culture I first got to know – is focused on the Lakes. Those Lakes, the Great ones, anyway, share a border with Canada, and many of my ancestors had lived just on the other side of them. I almost felt as if I were home.

By 1979, after I had moved to Ann Arbor and married a woman from Detroit, I was seeing a larger set of connections in the region. As I got to know Detroit – then in it’s most difficult period – I grew to love it, too. The simple fact that within five hours I could drive from Detroit to Sault Ste. Marie, cross the bridge, and be in the northern forest of Canada that stretched all the way to the Arctic – well, those differences intrigued me. They still do. I like to think that they inform my writing.

At the same time I became a bookseller in a large book shop in Ann Arbor. The first and, at the time, the only Borders Book Shop. I had already read widely in the regional literature and both my employers and our customers began to expect a certain expertise about Midwestern literature. So I wanted to read this stuff and my job rewarded it.

The attitudes of Midwestern literature and the Midwestern literary life became many of my attitudes. Later, when I became a teacher at the University of Michigan, those attitudes shaped my teaching.

HM: You recently retired from a long career of teaching. Now that we’re few months past the end of the school year, do you have any final thoughts on the whole experience? Any achievements you’re particularly proud of?

KT: When I am asked how I got my job at UM, my usual response is that I went around back and climbed in through the bathroom window just before they bricked it up. I like to think I did a good job at Michigan, but I’m not at all sure someone like me could ever end up in a position like the one I had ever again. After all, I only have an MA from Central Michigan University. When I came in, I had a couple of very small press chapbooks, a fairly long list of mostly regional small press publications, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Michigan’s English Department needed some help, and I could help them. There weren’t nearly as many unemployed MFAs around then as there are now. And then I didn’t screw up and I wasn’t completely self-absorbed; that was important. Even though it wasn’t great money, being a Lecturer at a university paid better than being a clerk in a bookshop. And (my teaching friends hate it when I say this) the work was a lot easier than selling books; the vacations were amazing; the benefits were good.

I was always interested in student work, undergraduate work at first and later that of the graduate students in Michigan’s MFA program. These students forced me to keep up with the changing patterns of contemporary letters. I was paid to stay fresh, and that was amazing.

And, of course, the greatest lasting pleasure of that work is reading the books by the successful graduates. There are probably more than a hundred people whom I worked with who are regularly publishing books, and I try to keep up with all of them. As a teacher I was more important to some than others, but I still think I added something to the process of their work, even if only by removing a tiny obstacle or two.

Books are important to me. I am proud that I could help a new generation of writers produce theirs.

At Michigan, just to keep myself interested, I reached out to other departments, other kinds of artists and thinkers. I worked with musicians, biologists, dancers, scholars of modern Greek, historians and others. I’d like to see some things I’ve helped create – like the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, or the writing course at the Biological Station, or the Bear River Writers’ Conference – continue.

All of that said, I’m not yet missing the teaching. I still feel kind of relieved I don’t have to live up the expectations of students and colleagues any more. It was getting harder to do, anyway. To misquote one of my own poems – I have fewer people to disappoint.

HM: You’ve been involved with a couple different programs through the University of Michigan that combine writing and nature, namely the Biological Station and Bear River Writers’ Conference. Why do you think it’s important for writer’s to work in such environments? How specifically does it help a writer grow?

KT: I’m typing these answers sitting at a picnic table on the south shore of Douglas Lake at the University of Michigan Biological Station. I’m not teaching this summer but have an appointment as their Artist-in-Residence. It will probably be my last summer up here, because other people, other artists, need to have the experience I’ve had here.

I’ve already passed the reins of the Bear River Writers’ Conference on to Laura Kasischke and Cody Walker, two remarkable writers who have had a long connection to the conference. I think the money situation there is in pretty good shape and the conference shouldn’t have to worry about things for quite a while.

Now I won’t make a blanket statement that an artistic experience of the natural world is important for all writers. I read and honor too many writers who don’t feel that at all, even some who make fun of those of us sometimes categorized as “nature writers.” I’m far too old to get pissed about that now.

But much of my most intense experience of the world is in the forests and on the waters that flow through wild places. I have spent much of my life learning the names for things and trying to understand the natural history and science of these places. I am comfortable here (even though I just swatted a mosquito).

Then there is the simple fact that the world, all of it, all of us, need these places to stay alive. Need clean water, need clean air, need to find a way to ameliorate the effects of climate change. If anything I write can reinforce these attitudes, even in only a tiny way, then I certainly think it is worth it. I cringe a little bit here because that sounds as if I have some non-artistic agenda, and I don’t really. This is the material that often moves me to the work.

I will be happy simply to celebrate it all. While I was trying to figure out the answer to this question, a ruby-throated hummingbird buzzed past my head and a loon called from the lake. I wish you could all hear this and hope your children have the chance.

Specifically? Working with scientists or having an in depth experience of the natural world helps a writer learn the names for things and processes that shape that world. A writers’ conference helps remind us all that we are not alone in the process of making things.

HM: On top of your academic career, you’ve been an active and prolific writer for years. How did you manage to balance your professional and creative life for so long?

KT: I was a writer long before I haphazardly assume “the profession” of teaching. It had already become the way I defined myself and the way I understood the world. I came from people who didn’t have a lot of money, so I always had to work. My reading and writing always fit around the day job – before, after and, yes, during.

All of my jobs, even teaching at the University of Michigan, came after and were incidental to the writing. The real work. Many times I was willing to sacrifice the job for the writing. After I became a teacher of writing, then the job didn’t seem as far removed from what I really wanted to do. A big university provides people a lot of resources to help pursue undefined ideas, and I took advantage of that. And there are those vacations – did I mention that? Long extended periods of time when I could read and write – the two greatest pleasures of my life!

I have gone through periods, never very long, when I haven’t been writing, but I’ve never blamed the day jobs for that. I’ve blamed my own lethargy.

Ecstatic Destinations book cover by Keith Taylor

HM: Your new chapbook, Ecstatic Destinations, is based around a very specific part of Ann Arbor. Why write about this? What did you hope to capture and share about the city with your reader?

KT: First, it started because I was moved to poetry by watching the skate-boarders at the local park as they did their thing so elegantly. I drafted that poem while sitting on a park bench across the park. It seemed that they were flying. When I looked up from that work, I saw that there were two used condoms lying down at the end of the bench. Then I thought that the poem wouldn’t be true if I didn’t have the condoms in there. That became the last poem in the chapbook. So there was a very specific occasion that began this.

I’ve often made noise about the necessity of the local, so I thought I would act on that idea as this book began to take shape. Lots of the good liberals in my sometimes overly precious little town are embarrassed by the place, the easiness of living here. I understand that entirely. Yet I live here, and I like it. I decided that in this small way I would exercise ideas I give lip service to. I would find the poems in my otherwise unassuming neighborhood.

If readers outside take something from this, I hope they can understand the appeal of some of things of that neighborhood. Or, at least, they might be sympathetic to the process of finding poems at home. For the people in my neighborhood, I hope they recognize the poems that are around them.

But this collection has smaller ambitions than some I’ve done. I’m happy to keep it in its little place. I was really happy that it was published by an Ann Arbor press, too. That seems right.

HM: Do you hope that Ecstatic Destinations connects more with readers who are familiar with its setting, as you are, or with those who are not, allowing you to introduce it to them? Might your chronicled experiences in the book apply to anyone’s experiences with a place they are intimately familiar with? Or would you describe it instead as a portrait of your experience alone?

KT: Oh, these are my experiences, my perceptions. I don’t think I’ll convince anyone to turn a little piece of unmaintained parkland into a sacred grove of biblical proportions. I don’t think anyone will find the hand of God writing cryptic messages in jet trails. Yet I hope some readers might recognize the possibility of this kind of perception.

This is a very small print run by a small press in a particular place where I have a few readers. I expect that most readers of this book will be in my town, where I’m lucky enough to have a small audience. If it reaches past that, won’t that be something! A very pleasant surprise.

HM: How does Ecstatic Destinations represent where you are today as a poet? Compared to your earlier work, for instance, what do you see having changed about your process or purpose?

KT: I don’t think the process has changed that much. I am moved toward a lyric poem, usually short, by a specific image or a series of words that have a distinctive sound to my ear. I work with that until something starts taking shape, and then I spend a good deal of time trying to determine if that hangs together.

By claiming my neighborhood as the place of these poems, it changes things a bit. I’m not our searching wild places and trying to understand the things there. I’m not sure yet if that’s actually a new direction or simply a short diversion. We’ll see.

Again, it’s too early to tell, but I’ve noticed that most of the poems I’ve written since Ecstatic Destinations have people in them, are centered on other people, tell their stories or find images in other people’s actions. That seems new, but I have no idea yet if it will continue.

I’m also working on two long poems, ones I imagine as 10 pages long or even longer. Poems I’ve had to do research for and think about over long periods of time. I have no idea if these poems will come to be anything yet, but I’m hoping. They will definitely be different.

HM: Looking back over your extensive list of collections and books, what do you find connects all of your poetic work? What are the core ideas and ideals that pervade your poetry?

KT: That’s a tough one, and perhaps it might be best to leave to someone else to answer, if anyone wants to spend that much time with my work. For most of the last half century, I have tried to define, imagine, and often celebrate my place in the world. I have tried to do that in language that is direct, unadorned, complicated when it needs to be but as simple as possible.

HM: What’s next for you?

KT: At the very least, I hope to continue reading and writing at the pace I’ve always worked.

Right after I finished at the University, I decided that I would step up my book reviewing. I’ve always done it, but I think now I could do more. I have some good venues open to me that I haven’t always taken advantage of, mostly because I was too busy and they didn’t pay much or anything. I think an active discussion about books stimulates the literary environment, and I can help in a small way. So I will.

I have three large prose books I want to finish while I’m still here, in this vale of tears. We’ll see if that happens.
The poems will keep coming I think. I’m hoping to have a New and Selected Poems out when I’m 70, four years from now. The trouble is I don’t think my main press (Wayne State University Press) is much interested in that. I might have to find someone else to do it, and then I’ll have to negotiate rights. That won’t be much fun.

Although I hate the phrase “bucket list,” I do have a couple of big things on that, things that will necessitate some travel and that will cost probably more money than I an afford. It will be fun.

And I want to work at keeping my perceptions of the world fresh and open. I know there’s a complacency that comes with age. I’ve felt it waiting out there just on the edge of my imagination. Old folks sometimes try to say it’s “wisdom,” but I’m not so sure.

**

Keith Taylor has authored or edited 17 books and chapbooks. His most recent, the chapbook Ecstatic Destinations, was published in 2018. His last full length collection, The Bird-while (Wayne State University Press, 2017), won the Bronze medal for the Foreword/Indies Poetry Book of the Year. His poems, stories, reviews, essays and translations have appeared widely in North America and in Europe. He has recently retired from the University of Michigan, where he taught Creative Writing for most of 20 years. He has received a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and one from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs. He has been Writer/Artist In Residence at Isle Royale National Park, the Detroit YMCA, The International Writers’ and Translators’ Centre of Rhodes, Greece, and the University of Michigan Biological Station.

|

No Comments

|