Managing Submissions in the Age of AI

Jonathan Vatner

Last July, shortly after announcing that Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s speculative essay collection, A Black Story May Contain Sensitive Content, had won Diagram’s 2023 chapbook contest, editor Ander Monson received a raft of text messages from concerned friends. He discovered that he and Diagram, a literary magazine that publishes chapbooks through New Michigan Press, were being excoriated on X (formerly Twitter) because Bertram had created the chapbook using artificial intelligence (AI).

“So many people were attacking us and Lillian-Yvonne for what they thought was an ethical breach,” Monson says. “They heard ‘AI-written book wins literary contest,’ which is not exactly what happened.” While Bertram did use AI, it was explicitly to engage the technology in an artistic experiment: Bertram employed a process called “fine-tuning” with GPT-3, the technology underlying the ChatGPT chatbot, in which they fed it text by Gwendolyn Brooks to shift the AI engine’s linguistic “tone and approach,” as Bertram put it in the introduction to their chapbook. They then repeatedly prompted GPT-3 to “tell me a Black story.” Each time, GPT-3 came back with a different, often fascinating reply. Bertram lightly edited the most compelling responses for inclusion in the book.

“People had thought I’d intentionally tried to fool Diagram by submitting AI work,” Bertram says. “But Diagram knew what the project was. I wasn’t trying to fool anyone.”

Bertram’s case points to questions that editors and literary organizations are increasingly wrangling with as they face a rise of AI-generated and -enhanced submissions: Should they allow authors to use AI, and, if so, what counts as an acceptable use of the technology versus cheating? How can they weed out illegitimate AI submissions, not only for contests, but also during regular reading periods?

Sci-fi magazine Clarkesworld bans all submissions that have been touched by AI. “We consider them the fruit of a poisoned tree,” says Neil Clarke, the magazine’s publisher and editor in chief. He’s referring to the alleged training of AI on pirated text, which has spurred copyright-infringement lawsuits by the Authors Guild—a writer-advocacy organization—and numerous writers.

Mary Gannon, executive director of the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), recommends magazines take a stance on AI and make it explicit in their submission guidelines, whether forbidding such tools or requiring disclosure of their use. She also suggests that publications consider other options to deal with AI, such as requiring authors to confirm during the submission process that AI was not used or testing suspect work with detection tools like Copyleaks or GPTZero, which charge rates between $8 and more than $20 per month, depending on the level of service.

“The big issue is whether or not an author is being transparent about the origin of the work,” Gannon says. In January, for example, author Rie Qudan, winner of Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for her novel, Tōkyō-to Dōjō Tō (Tokyo Sympathy Tower), revealed at the award ceremony that about 5 percent of the book used verbatim language from ChatGPT.

Also in January, Jessica Bell, publisher of Vine Leaves Press in Athens, Greece, discovered an AI-generated memoir submission in the slush pile. She was taken with the query letter, from someone claiming to be a disabled man “who had gone through quite a bit of hardship.” But the sample pages were a dry how-to manual for surviving hardship, not the promised memoir. When she discovered that he had published more than ten books on Amazon in two months, she became suspicious and checked the memoir text with Copyleaks, which confirmed that the sample pages were AI-generated.

Bell decided to change the press’s submission guidelines, stating that AI-written submissions “will be rejected.” But, she says, “I fear that it’s not going to stop people.”

When Christine Stroud, editor of Pittsburgh-based Autumn House Press, heard about the Vine Leaves AI submission on an online forum through which CLMP members communicate, she revised Autumn House’s submission guidelines to forbid work generated or supported by AI. She had heard about the rise of AI-supported academic papers but had not realized literary writers would submit AI-generated work. “It was perhaps naive of me to assume folks were not doing it,” she says.

Some magazines, like Clarkesworld, have been inundated with AI submissions that are essentially spam. Clarke believes that charging a reading fee would deter these submissions. (Most contests do require a fee, though many regular magazine or book submissions do not.) But a fee could further marginalize already burdened populations, especially in communities that are geographically isolated—from which Clarke, for one, has been trying to cultivate submissions. Not only can even a few dollars be prohibitive for such communities, but credit cards may be unavailable to them. Short submission windows can be an alternative deterrent for AI fraudsters, says Clarke. But he has resisted shortening Clarkesworld’s reading period—despite receiving thousands of AI-generated submissions—because that step, too, would make it less likely for some overseas writers to contribute.

Clarke also avoids AI detection tools like GPTZero because, as a 2023 Stanford study showed, they are more likely to erroneously flag writers for whom English is not their first language.

Still, the fight against AI is only getting harder. Clarkesworld has banned several thousand individuals for submitting AI-generated stories and fields more AI-generated submissions as time goes on, says Clarke. He says he might reconsider the magazine’s stance against such submissions when AI systems are ethically trained, but he doubts he will change his mind even then—unless the quality of the writing improves. “A good story works on multiple levels, and an AI story doesn’t. It doesn’t know what it’s writing.”

 

Jonathan Vatner is the author of The Bridesmaids Union (St. Martin’s Press, 2022) and Carnegie Hill (Thomas Dunne Books, 2019). The managing editor of Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology, he teaches fiction writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center.

ChatGPT Revises Authorship

by

Bonnie Chau

4.12.23

Want a poem in the style of Frank O’Hara or a story in the style of Flannery O’Connor? Your wish is ChatGPT’s command: Just send the request and the words unfurl across your screen. In about thirty seconds, ChatGPT can unleash a 494-word “Flannery O’Connor–style” story about a quiet, plain-looking girl in a small Southern town hurling a Bible at a preacher’s head. A five-stanza “Frank O’Hara–style” poem, rhapsodizing the bustle of music and strangers on city sidewalks, takes ChatGPT less than fifteen seconds to write.

A chatbot created by the San Francisco–based research lab OpenAI, ChatGPT was released for use by the general public in November. Although artificial intelligence (AI) has been in development for decades, ChatGPT has struck a cultural nerve—particularly among those who make their living with language. ChatGPT’s learning model was trained on a mind-boggling 570 gigabytes of text, mostly English-language material from various sources and time periods. With powerful algorithms, ChatGPT uses a probability-based language-prediction model to generate each word in a sentence, producing coherent content in a conversational tone. Its poems and stories demonstrate an understanding of basic narrative structure and different genres while also incorporating customizable details about setting, style, and character.

These capabilities have raised fears that AI could render the human writer obsolete. ChatGPT has, indeed, already replaced some human authors for a certain set of readers. Through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program, users have been selling AI-generated picture books and quick-premise, high-concept works of “literature.” In February, Reuters reported that there were more than “200 e-books in Amazon’s Kindle store as of mid-February listing ChatGPT as an author or co-author.” And there may be more than that, since Amazon does not require writers to “disclose in the Kindle store that their great American novel was written wholesale by a computer,” according to Reuters.

For teachers of writing, many of whom are writers themselves, ChatGPT also poses concerns. Commentators have written diatribes about ChatGPT’s threat to education in publications such as the Atlantic and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Some have discovered that students are turning in assignments written by AI that contain factual errors and that they present as their own original thinking. It stands to reason, however, that creative writing students derive pleasure from the writing process, and so there may be less incentive for them to turn in an AI-generated story or poem to a workshop.

If the existential threat posed by ChatGPT to authorship is overblown, it has already caused havoc in parallel realms. In February the popular sci-fi magazine Clarkesworld announced that it would have to temporarily close to submissions because of an influx of AI-generated stories. Neil Clarke, Clarkesworld’s publisher and editor, tweeted about the decision, saying he thought the phenomenon was financially driven: With a pay rate of 12 cents per word and stories of as many as 22,000 words, Clarkesworld authors can earn $2,640 per story.

It’s not clear how lower-paying or nonpaying magazines will be affected, but editors of those publications are talking about it on the online member forum of the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP). “We’ve decided to proactively ban the use of AI in works we publish unless specifically invited,” wrote Joshua Wilson, editor and publisher of the Fabulist. “Along with this stated policy, we’ve also updated our contract to include a no-AI section.” Miracle Jones, an editor at Epiphany and a contributing editor at the Evergreen Review, suggested that nominal submission fees could thwart people from running blanket-submission schemes with AI-authored work. And new apps designed to detect AI-generated writing, such as GPTZero, could help overwhelmed editorial staff by filtering such submissions.

Not all editors are raising red flags, though. Liza St. James, a senior editor at Noon, said the uproar over ChatGPT has prompted her to think about Oulipian constraint-based practices. “I guess my first thought is that if a bot-generated text merits publishing, we would likely credit the human who called it forth from the machine—who made it exist in the first place,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Most published works are already the result of some amount of collaboration. Why not find creative ways to embrace this, or even to showcase it?”

“I want to be open-minded about what imaginative people can do with new tools,” Jacob Smullyan, founding editor of Sagging Meniscus Press, wrote on the CLMP forum. “One reaction I hope to see is a critique of human practice akin to how artists reacted to photography. How much of what we already do is revealed by these new tools to have less inherent dignity, to be already mechanical and superficial?”

Writers dazzled by ChatGPT, however, may not be aware of the potentially harmful biases embedded within the texts it generates. When I asked the chatbot directly about the kind of texts it draws from, it told me that the majority was “likely to be from the public domain.” For books, that typically refers to volumes published in the first two decades of the twentieth century and earlier. “It is possible that a large portion of the literature in the public domain was written by white male authors, especially in earlier time periods when women and people of color had fewer opportunities to publish their work,” ChatGPT conceded. This is troubling because it means that ChatGPT’s language algorithm contains all the biases, including racist and sexist tropes, entrenched within older literature. (I requested a story “written in the style of Raymond Carver, if he were Chinese” and received as a first sentence: “He looked at the bowl of rice in front of him, feeling empty and lost.”)

Margaret Rhee, a feminist scholar and new media artist and poet, conjectured that writers who are new to experimenting with AI might not have thought about the ethical implications of working with biased technology, which should be reckoned with for a project to be effective. Often the best AI-assisted projects, Rhee said, will have a turn of some kind, using technology to serve a subversive agenda. One example is artist Rashaad Newsome’s recent “Digital Griot” projects, in which Newsome trained a chatbot with texts by writers such as bell hooks and James Baldwin, allowing users to move through indexes, archives, and history in a counter-hegemonic way.

In the New York Times and MIT Technology Review, various people associated with OpenAI and Microsoft’s Bing chatbot have said that the only way to continue improving AI technology is to release versions that are bound to make mistakes, which they will then address. AI is a new frontier, after all, with the many challenges and unimagined outcomes—both troubling and exciting—that a new frontier entails.

 

Bonnie Chau is the author of the short story collection All Roads Lead to Blood (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2018). She currently serves on the board of the American Literary Translators Association, teaches fiction writing and translation at Columbia University and Fordham University, and edits for 4Columns, Public Books, and the Evergreen Review.

Audience for Audiobooks Grows

by

Jonathan Vatner

12.14.22

Last year, Randye Kaye, an author and prolific audiobook narrator, was looking to create audio versions of her own two books, Happier Made Simple: Choose Your Words. Change Your Life, which she self-published with Ignite Press, and Ben Behind His Voices: One Family’s Journey From the Chaos of Schizophrenia to Hope, a memoir she published with Rowman & Littlefield.

Kaye’s motivation was to tap into a growing market for authors: Audiobooks “can reach an entire audience who might not have been able to find the time to sit down and read the book,” she says.

Indeed, audiobook revenue grew 25 percent in 2021 to $1.6 billion, the tenth straight year of double-digit growth, according to the Audio Publishers Association. In 2011, 7,237 audiobooks were produced; by 2021 that number rose more than tenfold to 73,898. While those figures do not differentiate between small and large publishers, more independent authors are trying their hand at audiobook production, says Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association.

For Kaye’s audiobooks, Ignite Press suggested that she try Findaway Voices. Launched in 2016, this service enables anyone to produce professional audiobooks and distribute them through more than forty outlets, including Audible, the biggest name in audiobooks; Google Play; Libro.fm, which shares proceeds with independent bookstores; Chirp, which promotes discount audiobooks to a large audience; and OverDrive, which distributes to libraries. Another popular choice for independent authors and presses is ACX, a subsidiary of Audible, which is owned by Amazon. Both companies help authors cast a narrator and automate the distribution process, but Findaway Voices offers a higher royalty rate. ACX offers a comparable rate only if authors agree to distribute exclusively through Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.

Although Kaye had narrated a handful of audiobooks by other authors through ACX, she chose Findaway Voices for her books. “ACX can be fabulous—they offer a lot of help for authors,” she says. But she wanted wide distribution without sacrificing royalties.

Kaye may soon have a bigger audience than she expected. This past September, Findaway Voices titles became available on Spotify; the audio-streaming giant purchased parent company Findaway in June 2022 to add audiobooks to its music-streaming business. Findaway’s distribution arm allows any publisher to sell audiobooks on Spotify, from the Big Five through independent presses and authors. Findaway Voices is being touted as the smoothest route for the latter to get their audiobooks to Spotify, though authors can use any company willing to distribute through Findaway and Spotify.

Kaye, who is now working on advertising and marketing to boost her audiobook sales, is happy about the additional retail channel. “I’m not sure what it will do to the personal nature of Findaway, but as long as they continue to be professional and friendly, it doesn’t bother me.”

The move by Spotify to add Findaway not only expands the audience for audiobooks, but it also promises special features. A new section in the Spotify app lets users browse a library of 300,000 audio titles for purchase, allowing users to download books to their device, speed up or slow down the narration, pick up where they left off, and rate books they’ve completed. Spotify has not offered a streaming subscription for audiobooks, as the company does for music; each title must be purchased separately.

Spotify has not planned to create any exclusive contracts for audiobooks, so authors using Findaway Voices should still be able to sell through other outlets.

Cobb interprets Spotify’s entry into the audiobook market as good news for authors and publishers: “The Spotify listener is not the traditional book consumer, which might bring people who have never listened to an audiobook to the format.”

Cory Doctorow, coauthor of Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back (Beacon Press, 2022), is more skeptical of Spotify’s intentions. He points out that many podcasters lost significant portions of their audience when Spotify bought their podcasts and made them exclusive to its streaming platform. “It’d be pretty naive to think the way Spotify treats authors is better than the way they treat podcasters,” he says.

Overall, though, Doctorow believes Spotify’s foray into audiobooks is a step in the right direction. The added competition may even nudge Audible toward loosening restrictions—known as digital rights management, or DRM—that prevent its audiobooks from being listened to on other platforms. “If the alternative to Audible is nothing, then it can treat creators really badly. If there’s an alternative like Spotify, it’ll treat them better.”

 

Jonathan Vatner is the author of The Bridesmaids Union (St. Martin’s Press, 2022) and Carnegie Hill (Thomas Dunne Books, 2019). He is the managing editor of Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and teaches fiction writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center.

In Conversation With Garth Greenwell, Audible and Publishers Reach Settlement, and More

by

Staff

1.15.20

Every day Poets & Writers Magazine scans the headlines—publishing reports, literary dispatches, academic announcements, and more—for all the news that creative writers need to know. Here are today’s stories.

“Almost all of our lives and thinking exist in spaces of ambiguity, uncertainty and doubt,” says Garth Greenwell. “Art seems to me precisely the tool we have for allowing ourselves the fullness of human thinking.” In a new conversation with Amy Gall, Greenwell talks writing process, politics and public life, sex and love. His second book of fiction, Cleanness, was published yesterday by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Poets & Writers Magazine)

Attorneys for Audible have announced the company will settle with the seven publishers who filed a lawsuit against the audiobook giant in August last year. The plaintiffs, which include all of the “Big Five” houses, had submitted that a new in-app feature, Audible Captions, violated copyright by generating unauthorized text. The terms of the settlement have not yet been disclosed, but documents are expected by January 21. (Guardian)

Having just completed ten years at Henry Holt, Steve Rubin shared that he will be leaving his position as chairman. “My time here has been among the happiest in my career,” Rubin says. (Publishers Lunch)

Belarusian writer and Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich plans to launch a new press exclusively dedicated to publishing women writers. Works by Eva Veznavets and Tatyana Skorkina will be among the first titles. (Calvert Journal)

The Atlantic has announced it will begin to publish fiction “with far greater frequency than we’ve managed in the past decade.” “Birdie” by Lauren Groff is kicking off the new editorial initiative. 

Jeanine Cummins talks to the New York Times about her forthcoming book, American Dirt, and the risks and responsibilities of writing from the perspective of Mexican migrants as someone far removed from their world. 

Jenny Odell reflects on a fortuitous encounter with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, and what reading the transcendentalist taught her to see in her own writing. “Hard as I might work, I will be anything but self-made.” (Paris Review Daily)

Book Marks anticipates eleven titles by Indigenous authors set for release in the first half of 2020. 

Dialects of Desire: A Q&A With Garth Greenwell

by

Amy Gall

1.15.20

Garth Greenwell isn’t interested in creating literary heroes. “There is a kind of luxury in narratives where the moral calculus is clear. I think it’s one of the reasons why we’re still so addicted to World War II dramas,” he says. “That was the last moment where we felt like the good guys and the bad guys were really obvious. But we don’t live in a world like that and we don’t inhabit selves in which goodness and badness are clear.” 

There is perhaps no better example of Greenwell’s love of moral complexity than his wildly successful debut novel, What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), which was long-listed for the National Book Award, named one of the best books of the year by more than fifty publications, translated into a dozen languages, and hailed as an “instant classic” by the New York Times Book Review. Though it is a work of fiction, What Belongs to You was, in part, inspired by Greenwell’s four-year stint as an English teacher at the American College of Sofia in Bulgaria from 2009 to 2013. The book explores a relationship between an unnamed, closeted American narrator teaching English at a high school in Sofia and his lover, Mitko, a young, broke, local hustler whom the narrator picks up in a public bathroom. What on its face might have seemed like a narrative of clear “moral calculus” was, in fact, a deeply nuanced exploration of sexuality, class, and citizenship.

But as Greenwell worked on What Belongs to You he kept having to set aside characters and storylines that fell beyond its scope. His new novel, Cleanness, out now from FSG, returns to the world of the narrator but allows readers a much fuller picture not only of his life but that of the citizens of Sofia and their dual struggle for identity and purpose. “It’s not like one book is a sequel or a prequel,” Greenwell says. “They’re promiscuous with each other,” with events in Cleanness happening before during and after those that take place in What Belongs to You. Each chapter in Cleanness functions as its own stand-alone story. In one, the narrator listens to the painful coming-out tale of one of his students which echoes back to his own doomed first love. In another, he meets his friends for a political protest and witnesses comradery, hope, and an incident that reminds him of the incredible precariousness of peace. In the central chapters of the novel, we witness the narrator fall in love with R, a fellow closeted man he meets online, with whom he experience new levels of trust and intimacy. We also watch the narrator engage in a sexual encounter with a stranger that nearly ends in his death. But each chapter continues to twist and complicate any easy judgements we might make about the characters we meet. And in turn it asks us to make room for contradiction and change in our own lives and to look at each other, not as heroes or villains but as humans.

Though he is best known for fiction, Greenwell got his start as a singer, having trained in opera beginning in high school, before moving on to poetry, criticism, and essay writing. Having moved back to the United States in 2013, he continues to balance a life of writing with a life of teaching in Iowa City, where he is a visiting professor at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. 

I spoke to Garth shortly before his book’s release about the uneasy marriage of capitalism and sex, the future of democracy, and, of course, love.

What I love so much about this book—and your writing in general—is how little you moralize sex that includes pain or violence or an embodiment of a kind of toxic masculinity. You leave readers feeling like maybe this kind of sex is healing, or maybe it reinforces shame, or maybe it’s both, but there’s a lot of breathing room for contradiction.
I think the earliest really explicit piece of the book I wrote was “Gospodar” [which involves a sadomasochistic encounter the narrator has with a stranger in Sofia]. I remember as I was writing that feeling like I really wanted to get at a certain experience of sex that I wasn’t sure I had seen represented, and to get there, it required a commitment to explicitness and a lack of squeamishness and concern about audience. I had to write things that would be off-putting and disturbing to many people. But I wanted this experience of rawness and explicitness to be paired with a very high art feeling and all of the filters of consciousness and literary tradition. That was exciting to me, and I was trying to write in a way that gave me access to both of those things.

I hope that the book doesn’t offer any single message about sex or the kind of sex the narrator seeks out. The argument the book makes is sex is all of those things and sex is always going to present dilemmas that outpace any moral calculus we might bring to them. I think that’s true of a lot of things in human life and that doesn’t exempt us from responsibility or the necessity to hold ourselves accountable but it refuses us the luxury of any too-easy accounting. 

It does feel like there is something more self-aware and therefore more connected about the narrator’s sexual relationships in Cleanness
I believe this is a much more social book than What Belongs to You—there are so many more characters and the narrator has many more relations. I know the bar is set in a different place, but to me this is also a much happier book and there are more moments when someone intervenes in the narrator’s ratiocination and kind of gives him a way out, especially in the central love story with R. In some way the book wants to posit that one of the things love is, is a way of opening a door for the other and giving the other relief.

Is that what you think love is?
I do use fiction to think. One of the things I think narrative can very powerfully do is test ideas in a kind of reality simulation. In What Belongs to You the narrator had previously thought that attention is love, that to look at something and attend to it is a form of love. But he revises that and says love is not looking at someone but looking with someone and facing what they face. And it led me to a moment where I was like, I do think that’s true. 

I feel like it will be years before I know whether something similar happened with this book, but I do think that one of the things we do as lovers is recontextualize one another’s lives. I would not want to turn it into something tritely optimistic—and I’m always skeptical of open doors or whether an open door will ever lead anywhere other than another room that will eventually feel as stifling as the ones we were in before—but that experience of opening out to someone else is exhilarating. 

You mentioned “Gospodar,” which was originally published as a stand-alone story, as were some of the other chapters in this book. I’m curious how you approached structuring those pieces, because the book feels so seamless. 
There was a lot of revision. There were surface-level revisions of repetitions across previously published pieces that I took out, but then the big question was putting the pieces in relationship in the larger structure and figuring out how time would work across the book as a whole. I knew I didn’t want the book to be chronological. I wanted there to be relationships that were more mysterious and out of time. But then I wanted something chronological at the heart of the book. It felt important to me for the three R chapters, and for that central love story to have a beginning and a middle and an end. But then the first and third parts I found myself realizing I wanted to have a kind of mirroring structure, where they were resonating with each other but also showing very different reflections of the narrator and his experiences in Sofia.  

And then when it came time to put a label on the book there was the question of what we called it. Is it a novel? Is it a story collection? I finally felt like neither of those were right to me. Cleanness really feels, to me, like a book of fiction which is how FSG is publishing it, which makes me really happen and readers can think of it however they want. 

I know it’s been a while since you wrote poetry, but do you think poetry allows you to make bolder structural choices with fiction?
I very much feel that poetry is akin to sculpture, and that I was carving language out of silence and trying to exempt language from time. I wanted to take a thought and make it suspended in white space. But that eventually came to feel kind of stifling to me. I sweated so much over individual words and over feeling like I had to choose the words that would kind of open in this infinite way and be infinitely resonant, and in prose I don’t feel the same anxiety about finding the precise single word because I’m so often drawn to syntax that says this or this, or some combination of this and this and this. I think both of those strategies [in poetry and prose] are after the same thing, which is amplitude and resonance. But the reason I’ve kept writing prose and haven’t yet returned to poetry, although I would love to, is there’s something exciting and surprising about the very un-sculptural movement that the kind of sentences I’m drawn to allow for.

There’s a kind of musicality in your prose, I think. The way the words rise and fall, the kind of drama of each sentence. I know you were an opera singer in your younger life, do you feel like you take that practice to the page, too? 
Music is endlessly inspiring to me. I don’t listen to music when I’m writing but I reach for musical analog for an effect I want in writing. Because of the training I had in the Bel Canto tradition, one of the lessons I take with me into writing is the fact that language is something that exists in our body. It has materiality and corporeality. And in a way that’s not so different from poetry; opera can show you the way that emotions can be generated by suspending language in time. An aria takes very few words and suspends them over great distances, and there’s a way in which that itself becomes a kind of expression or embodiment of desire. 

But I also find inspiration in painting, film, theater, dance. Sometimes a particular artist becomes crucial to a project. My partner is Spanish, and we were in Madrid while I was editing What Belongs to You. There was a wonderful El Greco exhibition at the Prado, and I went almost every day, usually sitting for an hour or so in front of a single painting. I can’t really articulate why, but it was helpful. Maybe it’s that El Greco’s paintings so often seem to make artistic struggle visible; sitting with them gave me a weird sense of solidarity. 

What is your writing schedule like? Is that something that also gives you a sense of solidarity? 
When I was working as a high school teacher, the only way I could be productive was to have a strict schedule: I wrote from 4:30 to 6:30 every morning. I still like to write first thing in the morning. Routines are important for me, and I find it hard to work well when I’m in an unsettled situation: traveling, say. My partner and I bought a house recently, and my writing room is the garage, which the previous owner converted into an artist’s studio. On warm days, if I keep the door open, a neighbor’s cat will come in to say hello: the best distraction.

I also can’t work with a word or page count: It makes me miserable to feel that I have to meet some metric of productivity. Anytime I have a deadline it takes over my life; I hate deadlines. The only metric that matters for me is time: I have to be at my desk, doing nothing else, for a certain amount of time. I write by hand, and keep all screens in another room. I tell myself that it doesn’t matter if I don’t write a word: As long as I sit with my notebook for a certain number of hours, I’ve done my work.

To go back to what you said about Cleanness being a “more social” book, I also think this book gives a larger sense of what it takes for gay men to navigate relationships in Sofia. Has the situation for LGBT folks in Bulgaria in general changed or improved since your time there?
I don’t want to pretend to speak about that authoritatively because I do feel further and further away from life on the ground. When I was teaching at the American College of Sofia (ACS), I and a few other faculty members and a very passionate group of students tried to start a Gay Straight Alliance, and that was stamped out by the administration. So we had a club that was about human rights in a kind of generic way that was really a gay club even though we couldn’t call it that. But, shortly after I left, the campaign was continued by Garrard Conley, author of the book Boy Erased, and other faculty. And a couple years ago ACS became the first high school in the Balkans with a GSA.

At the same time, my sense is that the increasing influence of Putin in that part of the world has made gains achieved by queer people feel very provisional and perilous. I was in Bulgaria from 2009 to 2013, and for the first three years there was a feeling of incredible progress around LGBT rights and visibility and then around 2012 it felt like this very concerted pushback campaign in which conservative politicians and the Orthodox church began speaking in unison with Putin about gay propaganda. Which, let’s acknowledge, is very much what’s happening in the United States right now on all fronts.

Yes, the protest chapter in Cleanness felt like it contained a really familiar urgency. In what ways have your experiences of political protest in Bulgaria been similar or different to your experiences in the United States?
I had never experienced anything in the United States that felt like what was happening in Bulgaria in 2013 with these enormous street protests across the country. You really did feel like all of Sofia was in the streets. There was also a kind of extremity that I have not seen in the United States. I think it was six people set themselves on fire in protest of conditions, and that kind of public martyrdom is not something we’ve experienced on that scale in the United States. But seeing the kind of misinformation campaigns and meddling on the part of Putin that happened in America in 2016 really felt like a kind of deja-vu. Again, I’m not qualified to make this statement, but it does feel like what Putin has been doing in the West by encouraging chaos is something he had been doing in the area of former Soviet influence for a long time. 

What was most surprising to me about the protest scene in Cleanness is that it did not erupt in violence.
One of the things that I wanted to explore in that chapter was the feeling of contingency, that at any moment what is a kind of haloed expression of democracy could become violent and that there were elements really trying to create that chaos. This is something I feel very strongly happening in the United States. I believe in the institutions and traditions of liberal democracy, not because they have ever been perfect but because they offer us the best mechanisms we have ever devised as human beings for addressing wrongs. It terrifies me how close we are to the brink of letting those institutions fall away and how that is a crisis coming from all sides. 

I think there is active malevolence and an active desire to destroy those institutions in favor of a kind of authoritarianism and state violence coming from the right. And then from the left I think there is an entire loss of faith and confidence in the idea that those institutions are worth defending. There’s a way in which the central question of the chapter about the protest is a question that I feel very much in America right now, which is: Where do we look for a unifying story or vision? Where do we look for a story we can tell about ourselves that feels adequate to our history and also enabling of a future? 

It’s interesting to think, if our structures of government and our relationship to power and capitalism were different, how would the sex we have be different?
Yeah, one of the things that wasn’t talked about much with What Belongs To You was the intersection of the body and economics. How we inhabit our bodies, how we have sex happens in a context, and that context is ideological and economic and political and historical. Sex in a Soviet-style apartment block in Sofia is not exactly the same phenomenon as sex in an Italian city or sex in a park in Louisville, Kentucky. 

But I’m also always trying in fiction, and of course one can only fail, to show how erotic relationship is structured and conditioned by politics and economics but not exhausted by them. I refuse a sense of human life as merely determined by these larger structures. To me, fiction lives in the relationship between those larger structural forces and human agency. That space, which is not exactly a space of freedom but is not a space that is foreclosed or fully determined. 

That’s one of the most convincing arguments I’ve heard for why someone should be a writer.
[Laughs.] Well, almost all of our lives and thinking exist in spaces of ambiguity, uncertainty and doubt. And yet in much of our public speech and all of our political discourse we use language in a way that wants to deny all of those things. Art seems to me precisely the tool we have for allowing ourselves the fullness of human thinking. 

 

Amy Gall’s work has appeared in Tin HouseVice, Glamour, Women’s Health, the anthology Mapping Queer Spaces, and elsewhere. Recycle, a book of her collages and text, coauthored with Sarah Gerard, was published by Pacific Press in 2018. She is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship and earned her MFA in creative writing from the New School. She is currently working on a collection of linked essays about queer bodies, sex and pleasure.

 

Garth Greenwell, author of Cleanness and What Belongs to You. (Credit: Bill Adams)

Still Dancing: An Interview With Ilya Kaminsky

by

Garth Greenwell

2.13.19

I first met Ilya Kaminsky more than two decades ago, when we were both undergraduates. Even before the publication of his first very beautiful book, Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004), Ilya’s brilliance was unmistakable. He was different from anyone I had ever met, in the breadth of his knowledge of the poetic canon across time and languages, in the intensity of his commitment to poetry as something more than an art, as a kind of unifying principle of existence. Shortly after Ilya published Dancing in Odessa, he began circulating among his friends a new manuscript, a kind of parable-in-poems about a country whose inhabitants suddenly go deaf, refusing to hear the authorities. Ilya produced version after version of this project, eventually titled Deaf Republic, over more than a decade, while editing anthologies and publishing translations, until it acquired a nearly legendary status among his fellow poets. Graywolf will publish it in early March. 

Ilya was born in Odessa, in what was then the Soviet Union, in 1977. Substantially deaf from the age of four, he spoke no English when he immigrated to the United States with his family at sixteen. He studied at the University of Rochester and Georgetown University and has a JD from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. His honors include a Whiting Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Metcalf Award, a Lannan Fellowship, Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His anthology of twentieth-century poetry in translation, Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, was published in 2010. He is also the editor in chief of the literary journal Poetry International. After several years teaching in the graduate creative writing program at San Diego State University, Ilya now holds the Bourne Poetry Chair at Georgia Tech. The following exchange was conducted via e-mail this past November and December; it also draws on conversations, many of them on long evening walks, from the month Ilya and I spent together in Marfa, Texas, in late 2016, as Ilya was finishing his manuscript.

What was the genesis of Deaf Republic? How did the idea of a country suddenly going deaf come to you?
I did not have hearing aids until I was sixteen: As a deaf child I experienced my country as a nation without sound. I heard the USSR fall apart with my eyes. 

Walking through the city, I watched the people; their ears were open all the time, they had no lids. I was interested in what sounds might be like. The whooshing. The hissing. The whistle. The sound of keys turning in the lock, or water moving through the pipes two floors above us. I could easily notice how the people around me spoke to one another with their eyes without realizing it. 

But what if the whole country was deaf like me? So that whenever a policeman’s commands were uttered no one could hear? I liked to imagine that. Silence, that last neighborhood, untouched, as ever, by the wisdom of the government.

Those childhood imaginings feel quite relevant for me in America today. When Trump performs his press conferences, wouldn’t it be brilliant if his words landed on the deaf ears of a whole nation? What if we simply refused to hear the hatred of his pronouncements?

I want the reader to see the deaf not in terms of their medical condition, but as a political minority, which empowers them. Throughout Deaf Republic, the townspeople teach one another sign language (illustrated in the book) as a way to coordinate their revolution while remaining unintelligible to the government.

What led you to write about this invented country at war, and how did you discover your central characters, Sonya, Alfonso, and Momma Galya?
Like many others, I am a misplaced person, a refugee, a man cut in half by history. A part of me is still in Odessa, that ghost limb of a city I left. While these characters are imagined, they are also my family. I keep seeing images related by my grandmother about her arrest by Stalin’s regime in 1937:

When the police come to arrest her, they go straight to the kitchen. Right past her. The first policeman. Second policeman. Third. Straight to the kitchen. To the stove. To smell the stove, to see if she has burned any documents or letters. But the stove is cold. So they walk to her closet. They finger her clothes. They take some for their wives or daughters. “You won’t need any of this,” they tell her. And only then do they shove her into their black car.

They are so busy taking her things that they don’t notice the child in the cradle. 

The infant stays in the empty apartment when she is taken to the judge. (The child in the cradle, my father, will be stolen and taken to another city. He will survive.)

She doesn’t know this. She also doesn’t know her husband was shot right away. The judge tells her, “You have to betray your husband in order to save yourself.”

She says, “How can I do that to the father of my child? How will I look into his eyes?” 

She doesn’t know he is already dead. 

And so she goes to Siberia for over a decade. And behind her, the infant stays. 

Though the invented country you write about resembles Eastern Europe, the first and last poems in the book explicitly address our American moment. Do you think of this as a book about America? 
As Americans we want to distance ourselves from a text like this one. But there is pain right here in our neighborhoods: We see stolen elections, voter suppression. Is this happening in a foreign country? No. A young man shot by police in the open street lying for hours on the pavement behind police tape, lying there for many hours: That is a very American image. And we talk about it for a bit on TV and online. And then we move on, like it never happened. And children keep being killed in our streets. This silence is a very American silence.

That image of a shot boy lying in the middle of the street is central to Deaf Republic. Of course, the book is a dream, a fable. But as you note, it begins and ends in the reality of the United States today. That is intentional. It is a warning of what we might become. Of what kind of country we have already become.

Americans seem to keep pretending that history is something that happens elsewhere, a misfortune that befalls other people. But history is lying there in the middle of the street. Showing us who we are.

In all the years of our friendship, I don’t think I’ve ever asked you why you first began writing poems. How did you first discover poetry?
The late 1980s in Odessa was the time when poets worked at newspapers. Many newspapers were faltering. It was a somewhat hungry time. It was the most exciting time. A publisher came to my classroom.

Who would like to write for a newspaper?

A room full of hands.

Who would like to write for free for the newspaper?

One hand goes up. 

Which is how I found myself at twelve years of age writing articles for official and unofficial newspapers.

In the hallway at a newspaper I met an old man with a cane, Valentin Moroz, a legendary Odessa Ukrainian–language poet, a man who was often in trouble with the party officials in Soviet days.

He was reading Osip Mandelstam in the hallway, sitting next to me in the hallway, unable to sit still, unable to read quietly, unable to pretend that he isn’t inhaling the large gulps of free air with every line of verse. His voice trembling as he read a stanza, then turning to a young deaf boy: “Do you hear? Do you hear? This is Mandelstam, this son of a bitch, Mandelstam, no one writes better than this son of a bitch Mandelstam. Don’t you know this Mandelstam?” 

I didn’t know.

Moroz stood up. He read in the busy hallway standing up. He took me by the hand.

To the tram.

To his apartment.

He recited poems by memory all the way from the hallway to the tram station and all the way on the tram to his place.

I left his place with a bag of books and with a handwritten note not to come back next week unless I had read and memorized poems by Mandelstam.

Thus began my education.

And how did you start writing in English?
When we came to this country, I was sixteen years old. We settled in Rochester, New York. The question of writing poetry in English would have been funny, since none of us spoke English—I myself hardly knew the alphabet. But arriving in Rochester was rather a lucky event—that place was a magical gift; it was like arriving at a writing colony, a Yaddo of sorts. There was nothing to do except for writing poetry. Why English then—why not Russian? My father died in 1994, a year after our arrival to America. I understood right away that it would be impossible for me to write about his death in the Russian language, as one author says of his deceased father somewhere, “Ah, don’t become mere lines of beautiful poetry.” I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it; no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.

What changes for you as a poet when you write in a second language?
Even the shape of my face changed when I began to live inside the English language.

But I wouldn’t make a big deal out of writing in a language that is not one’s own. It’s the experience of so many people in the world; those who have left their homes because of wars, environmental disasters, and so on. 

What’s important for a poet speaking another language are those little thefts between languages, those strange angles of looking at another literature, “slant” moments in speech, oddities and their music. 

Could you say more about those oddities?
The lyric itself is a strangeness inside the language. No great lyric poet ever speaks in the so-called proper language of his or her time. Emily Dickinson didn’t write in “proper” English grammar, but with a slanted music of fragmentary perception. César Vallejo placed three dots in the middle of the line, as if language itself were not enough, as if the poet’s voice needed to leap from one image to another, to make—to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase—a raid on the inarticulate. Our contemporary, M. NourbeSe Philip, has created her very own music out of the language of colonial power. Paul Celan wrote to his wife from Germany, where he briefly visited from his voluntary exile in France: “The language with which I make my poems has nothing to do with one spoken here, or anywhere.”

How important is language or nationality to your identity as a poet? Do you consider yourself a Russian poet? An American one? Is that a meaningful distinction to you?
Well, I still write in Russian from time to time. And I read in Russian a great deal. But do I consider myself an American poet? Yes, I do. But, then, I must answer a question: What does it mean to be an American poet? What is my American experience? It is laughing with my friends, making love to my wife, fighting with my family, loving my family, loving the ocean (I love water), loving to travel on trains, loving this human speech. But we all have these things, don’t we? Yes, we do. And therefore, I fiercely resist being pigeonholed as a “Russian poet” or an “immigrant poet” or even an “American poet.” I am a human being. It is a marvelous thing to be.

Ilya Kaminsky (Credit: Bob Mahoney)

In these poems you don’t flinch from the terror and carnage of war. But there are also very beautiful, even ecstatic poems of marriage and new fatherhood. What is the role of joy in a poetry of witness? What place is there for beauty and laughter in art that confronts horror?
Yes, many poems in this book have to do with civic strife. But the story circles around the life of two newlyweds, the moments of small joys in a young marriage. It is a book of motherhood and fatherhood; it is a book of private happiness. I am a love poet, or a poet in love with the world. It is just who I am. If the world is falling apart, I have to say the truth. But I don’t stop being in love with that world.

True witness isn’t just about violence and war. To only notice those things is to witness only a part of our existence. But there is also wonder.

I see it as my duty to report this lyricism in the whirl of our griefs. It is a personal responsibility for me: My father was a Jewish child in occupied Odessa who not only suffered, but also learned to dance. He was shaved bald so that Germans wouldn’t notice his dark hair. The Russian woman who hid him, Natalia, hid him for three years. It is not an easy thing, to keep a restless child inside for three years. Natalia taught him how to tango. And so they danced for the three years of that war, in a room where the curtains were always drawn. Once, he escaped outside to play and the German soldiers saw him, so he ran to the market and hid behind boxes of tomatoes. All my friends tell me there are too many tomatoes in my poems. They say there is too much dancing. Is there enough? I don’t know. 

Today Ukraine is at war again. I go there about once a year. Donetsk is occupied. In Odessa, that party town, there are terrorist attacks. A café I liked to frequent got blown up hours before I was to meet a friend there. That friend, the poet Boris Khersonsky, gathered neighbors around the ruined entrance to the café and read his poems aloud. Some folks brought food to give away for free. 

Even on the most unnerving days there are very tender moments. We have a duty to report them, too.

Here is another image from the early 1990s, from a different war: Transnistria, just sixty-five miles from our apartment in Odessa. I am fifteen years old. People knock on our door saying they fled without a change of underwear, asking to please let them make a phone call. In this chaos people lose their pensions, their homes, but they still go to the city garden in Odessa and dance while old men squeeze their accordions. Old women polka across the street, their medals clinking, beer bottles raised in the air as the rest of us clap from the benches. Time squeezes us like two pleats of an accordion. 

Is it foolish to speak of little joys that occur in the middle of tragedy? It is our humanity. Whatever we have left of it. We must not deny it to ourselves.

Your story begins when a boy is shot while he’s watching a puppet show. In the second half of the collection, Momma Galya organizes a resistance movement from her position as a director of the local puppet theater. For American readers, can you talk a bit about the importance of puppet theater in Eastern Europe and about why you made puppet shows so central to your book?
The carnival has often been a feature of rebellion. Puppets serve many purposes—on the one hand, especially here in the States, they make people laugh. But they aren’t just comedians; they are often the tools that bring the sharpest criticism to life, making those in power a laughingstock. They are an art of revolt. 

At many points in European history puppetry was blamed for inciting revolutions and forbidden. England, Portugal, Germany, and France had laws criminalizing puppeteers at various times. This is not surprising, as the police state is always nervous of places where people gather together. 

When the Czech language was banned in the Austro-Hungarian empire, puppeteers continued performing in Czech as an act of defiance. Later, during the Nazi invasion, Hitler closed hundreds of puppet theaters, but the anti-fascist puppet plays of Karel Capek were staged underground. 

In England the puppets Punch and Judy were wildly popular, appearing onstage to laugh aloud at the powers that be and breaking every law. They were the heroes of the poor, gathering huge crowds at fairs. The church and government called Punch the corrupter, and, of course—happily—he was.

In America, we have Bread and Puppet Theater, which is one of the best things about Vermont. They believe in the revolutionary role of public art in a time when so much art has been commodified. They had plays in the time of the Vietnam War, after the Kent State shootings, and during both Bushes’ Iraq wars. And you won’t find it in mainstream newspapers, but here in America, riot police fired bean bag rounds at protesters who refused to disperse after watching puppet shows in Eugene, Oregon, in 2000. 

Our reality, like that of Deaf Republic, is as fabulist and mythical as it was in medieval Europe. We just refuse to see it. 

Russia’s most famous puppet is Petrushka, a Punch-like figure first played by the skomorokhi, traveling players. In Soviet times, the Sergey Obraztsov puppet theater in Moscow, the largest in the world, was wildly popular. And even in Siberia, in the gulag—as my grandmother, who spent over a decade there, told me many times—there were small puppet theaters put on by the prisoners. 

She said when men or women from a puppet theater were executed or died of exhaustion, other prisoners hung puppets on their window, or laid their puppet on their empty bed.

Much of your career has involved making a case for the importance of poetry as a tool of political witness and resistance. I also think, from conversations we’ve had, that you believe poetry is the most powerful mode of human communication across gulfs of time. What are your thoughts on how poetry is able to address both its own particular moment and the no-moment of eternity?
Poetry is the art that smashes the borders of time, to misquote Boris Pasternak. For me poetry is a moment of awe—that silence that travels from one human body to another by means of words. Gilgamesh was written four thousand years ago and it transforms us still. Or take our contemporary Gwendolyn Brooks. She died almost twenty years ago but is perhaps more relevant now than ever before; people feel compelled to make a whole new form—the golden shovel—in response to her music. 

This is what poetry is: not a kind of public posturing but a private language of music and imagery that is strange and compelling enough that it can speak privately to thousands of people at the same time. 

In poetry, borders of nationhood and time collapse: Sappho and Catullus are just as relevant now as Allen Ginsberg and Claudia Rankine.

The poem is a charm; it must actively cast a spell on the reader now. If it doesn’t, it fails, whether the poem is about a face that launched a thousand ships or about a woman standing in a line outside a prison wall or about plums in the icebox. That freshness of speech ravishes the human in us. 

I don’t see any value in asking whether poetry can exist outside of the political. Poetry is not about an event. It is the event. Art is the resistance of complacency: It always stands in opposition to numbness. 

That is why it just doesn’t die, poetry—despite so many death notices. It is always there, waking us up when we get numb, poking us in the eye.

 

Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). A new book of fiction, Cleanness, is forthcoming from FSG in January 2020.

Ilya Kaminsky (Credit: Bob Mahoney)

Shape-Shifter: A Profile of Marlon James

by

Kima Jones

2.13.19

Marlon James and I have met before, many times, but never in Los Angeles. A Facebook update this morning informs me that James’s favorite city in America is L.A. I’m waiting for him in the lobby of the Line hotel, Koreatown’s very hip, very industrial, very dope—to quote its enthusiasts—singular travel destination, but I’m worried about the noise. Elevator jazz is playing overhead, and the aqua-blue couches and glass dining tables are packed with folks just like us talking about business deals, and art, and literature, and vastness, and coffee roasters, and Hollywood. When he arrives we sit at the far back of the lobby, away from the bustling entrance. I ask, “Why is Los Angeles your favorite city?” and he says “ha” in the new way we’ve all come to share the sentiment: being reminded that hundreds, sometimes thousands of “friends” and “followers” are reading the minutiae of our daily lives, even if they don’t click Like or leave a comment. The practice is popularly known as lurking. I call it research. “I still think art can happen here,” he says. “New York has museums, but museums aren’t culture. Museums are a graveyard for culture. If I am this year’s Patti Smith, I cannot go to New York, but I can still go to Los Angeles. There’s a sense of possibility here. Kendrick, and Anderson. Paak, the Black Hippy movement, Kamasi Washington, all of that is Los Angeles.” He turns the question on me, and I don’t even need to think about the answer. I love the desert, the mythos of the Western frontier, the apocalypse. “I’m going to die in the desert,” I say, and we both briefly acknowledge the setting sun, pink with hints of orange, bouncing off the backs of buses moving slowly down Wilshire Boulevard, before getting down to business.

I ask him a question about the world since Donald Trump when he lets out another hearty laugh. Hearty laughter and Facebook will become a theme of our two and a half hours together. “That’s usually a question I get from the foreign press,” he says. James doesn’t take a breath between sentences. “The most powerful aspect of fascism is that nobody knows they are sitting in fascism when they’re in it. Trump is disruptive, but he’s not transformative. We’re going to see more literature coming out of this administration than coming out of 9/11. 9/11 was instantaneous. We’re not even sure how to process this yet.” I’m reminded of the tense, private conversations I’ve had with friends since the 2016 election: reviewing our savings, taking on extra work, scaling back, canceling vacations. We’re sure that the worst of the recession is on its way, and none of us are prepared to survive it. Forget talking about the bizarre, carnival-like press conferences; no comment on the sitting president’s outrageous ideas regarding climate change; I don’t bring up the migrant children in detention centers. I’m still anchored to the end of James’s last sentence. He’s right, I can’t even process the daily news. In the name of self-care, unplugging, unwinding, getting over and getting through, I close my app like everyone else. 

I’ve sat down with James many times before, so I know his cadence. We’re talking about novelists now, and apathy, and James is about to bring his point full circle. “Every book is political. Not political is politics,” he says. “I’m not on a mission, but I think a writer has to talk about what’s in front of them, even when writing about shape-shifting creatures.” 

Marlon James is the author of four highly acclaimed novels. His first, John Crow’s Devil, which was rejected seventy-eight times before it was published by Akashic Books in 2005, went on to be named a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. His follow-up, The Book of Night Women (Riverhead Books, 2009), won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Minnesota Book Award and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction and an NAACP Image Award. His magnum opus (to date), A Brief History of Seven Killings, won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for fiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, and the Minnesota Book Award. 

His new novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, published by Riverhead Books in February, is the first book of an epic fantasy trilogy about Tracker, a hunter known widely for “his nose,” who is tasked with hunting down a mysterious boy who hasn’t been seen in three years. Tracker, who some have called a wolf, finds himself working with a ragtag band of hunters, some human and others supernatural, including a shape-shifting mercenary named Leopard, all searching for the boy. As Tracker and his group move closer to discovering the boy’s location and true identity, they come under attack by enemies near and far. Weighing in at 640 pages, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is in many ways the novel that James was destined to write. While much of the media hype has been focused on the fact that James wrote an epic fantasy, I am intrigued for all of its other riches: This is James’s first book that is not set in his native Jamaica, his first book about empire. I would argue that James has never been more free. Though he read African mythologies and epics for three years before writing one word, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a testament to his own make-believe. “I really wanted to geek out and write the story I wish I read as a kid,” he says. “I am writing the stories that I want to read about Jamaica. I wrote the stories that I wanted to read about Jamaica.”

Mic drop.

The Man Booker Prize win catapulted James to international stardom. With the win, he joined the “one-name club,” composed of those writers and artists whose legend has no ceiling and no floor: Jesmyn, Edwidge, Colson, Zadie, Toni, Hilton, Jamaica, Gwendolyn, and now Marlon. With that kind of glory comes fame: Melina Matsoukas, the visionary, two-time Grammy Award–winning director of music videos, films, and television shows (most notably Issa Rae’s Insecure on HBO), is leading the adaptation of A Brief History of Seven Killings for Amazon Studios. 

After such a meteoric rise to the heights of literary fame, I am curious about whether his approach to writing this new book was different from the others. “All my books start with trial and error,” he says. “There were four or five versions that I tried. This is the one that worked. I was talking to Melina [Matsoukas]—do you know her?” he stops to ask me. It was my turn for hearty laughter. Of course I know Beyoncé and Solange’s personal director. We have brunch all the time. He returns the laughter. “Well, we were talking about Showtime’s The Affair and the changing perspective. That’s when it occurred to me that Tracker could tell this story, but if you want to believe him, that’s your business.” How perfect, I thought. The Black woman director adapting your most critically acclaimed novel is also talking shop with you about your draft-in-progress. This is some kind of psychedelic, neon-haired P-Funk dream that could only happen in a Black Los Angeles where Black people not only know the future, they are writing and directing it. 

Still, James is modest in discussing his success. “I write the kind of books where if people don’t say, ‘Read it,’ people don’t read it. God bless those people who can write best-sellers. I don’t write great white saviors; my books are pretty nihilistic; things don’t end well, and I think something like a Booker Prize got more and more people to read my work. It’s hard for literary authors, for authors writing people of color.” James is standing for his ovation, but he’s also aware that every pair of hands in the auditorium counts. 

“Yeah, but what about the bad parts?” I ask. There’s rarely a story this enchanted without a poison apple. 

James is only the second Caribbean winner to win the Booker, following Trinidad-born V. S. Naipaul, who won the award in 1971. “It also changed the kinds of scrutiny I get,” James says, “which brings us back to Facebook. Any little thing I say on Facebook ends up in the Guardian and international media, but it hasn’t made me less outspoken.”

James is referring to two particular instances here but offers no further elaboration, and I don’t prompt him to say more. In November 2015 James responded to novelist Claire Vaye Watkins’s five-thousand-word Tin House essay “On Pandering” that would rock the Internet for weeks. In it Watkins discusses motherhood, misogyny, publishing, and pandering, which she refers to as performing for the imaginary white, male audience. “I have been writing to impress old white men,” she wrote. For as much as “On Pandering” does do, there is so much that it doesn’t do: It doesn’t consider the lives and journeys of writers of color, it doesn’t consider that her readers are people of color, and it doesn’t hold white, female publishing gatekeepers accountable for continuing to popularize and publish a very particular type of literature again and again. James wrote on Facebook: “While she [Watkins] recognizes how much she was pandering to the white man, we writers of colour spend way too much time pandering to the white woman. I’ve mentioned this before, how there is such a thing as ‘the critically acclaimed story.’ You see it occasionally in certain highbrow magazines and journals. Astringent, observed, clipped, wallowing in its own middle-style prose and private ennui, porn for certain publications.” The Guardian would go on to say that James “slammed” and “blasted” the publishing world in his retort, but James did what Black people do every day: He pointed at what was standing right in front of him and called it out for exactly what it is. 

Fast-forward two years and James would find his Facebook posts in the news again. On June 16, 2017, a jury acquitted officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of thirty-two-year-old Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, just north of Saint Paul, where James has lived for more than a decade. Castile, an employee of Saint Paul Public Schools, was shot seven times. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, live-streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting on Facebook, and one can see Officer Yanez still pointing his gun at Castile’s dead body. Reynolds’s four-year-old daughter is in the backseat. 

The Washington Post picked up the story following James’s Facebook essay-post “Smaller, and Smaller, and Smaller,” written the day after Yanez’s acquittal. Though James is one of the most famous people in Saint Paul and one of the most recognizable, he carries the burden of not appearing “too big” or “too close” (a phrase coined by comedian Dick Gregory in 1971) to white people but especially to police officers. He points out that while some Minnesotans want to “rebrand this state as North,” in reality, North is merely a romanticized concept in race relations. This is where I press James for more. We talk about living in this country, in the world as Black people, as writers, as people who travel frequently and observe everything. I bring up Garnette Cadogan’s groundbreaking essay “Walking While Black” and James nods in recognition. “Garnette’s piece made me think about how I don’t know how to stand still. Talking about Philando Castile, I don’t know if I should stand up and get shot, read my phone and get shot, blink and get shot. I don’t know what actual physical activity I can do, including standing still, that I can do and not get shot.” 

“And Tracker?” I ask, thinking of James’s protagonist roving through forests, mountains, and enemy territory with bands of people after him.

It’s obvious that James has thought a lot about his newest protagonist and state-sanctioned surveillance and violence. “It’s important for Tracker and Leopard that shape-shifting is a pleasure, and it’s a nature, a survival, but not in the same way. They’re not being monitored and watched. They don’t have a city system and a state working against them.”

At this point we take a few moments for ourselves to clear the air of the weight of Black death. Thankfully James has one of those urgent texts that happen when you land in L.A., and I need more water. 

When we return to the table, James is laughing. “It’s amazing that people think I am outspoken on Facebook, because I still feel like I have to hold back. I feel if I really, really said what I want to say, I could still be deported,” he says. We are laughing again partly because that is both a half and whole truth, and as Black people we are on the inside of it: It is true that James will always say what needs to be said, and that’s the source of his authority and mastery, and it is also true that James lives with the everyday threat of harassment, deportation, and violence, if someone in power decided to make it so.

“Are you ready to talk about this novel finally?” I ask. Beaming, he claps his hands and pumps his shoulders a few times like a beautiful, broad-shouldered athlete being interviewed after a victory. “Ready!” he says with a smile. 

James explains that break dancing, Labelle, Star Wars, and Jamaican fashion magazines of the eighties and nineties were his first experiences of futurism. I want to know what appeals to him about genre, specifically. Any close reader of James’s work will tell you that A Brief History of Seven Killings, which delves into three electrifying decades of Jamaican history around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, is pretty genre-defying itself. It is clear that James has a fondness for crime and mystery, an admiration threaded through all four of his novels. “Most of the books I read when I was younger were fantasy, comics, crime, and children’s books, and children’s books themselves are usually all of those things. Part of it is growing up in the Caribbean.” Here, James paraphrases Gabriel García Márquez: “Living in the Caribbean is wilder than the wildest fiction.” James credits his grandparents and his favorite aunt for his love of imaginative fiction. “Stories you’re told as a kid are always fantastical. I’m growing up in Jamaica, and I’m in a Jamaican pharmacy, not even a bookstore, you’re not going to find Moby-Dick. You’re going to find a novelization of Star Trek. Even my sci-fi fantasy cinema language is not the movies; it’s the books I read. It’s very dime-store, very pop comics; quite frankly it’s whatever got dumped in the third world, and I gobbled up all of it. I mean, I read Superman III as a book.” He returns to his love of Los Angeles briefly and says, “L.A. is the place where genre fiction exploded with the two genres I like the most: sci-fi/fantasy and crime. The crime novels of L.A. have a wider campus than anywhere else.”

James wants readers to be “exhausted” by the time they finish Black Leopard, Red Wolf from putting the full story together for themselves. “I realized reading all of the African epics, the awesome complexity of these narratives and how much intelligence that they’re expecting from the reader. People are more complicated than simple story; the gods are more complicated than that. They expect you to have the intelligence to navigate the treacherous waters.” And James flings us directly into turbulent, unreliable waters in Black Leopard, Red Wolf. He forces us to second-guess Tracker, Leopard, the entire cast of characters, and ourselves. While most epic fantasies look to the hero-crusade model, James knew from the outset that his trilogy would do none of that. “Respectability politics is Black people playing Anglo. It’s tying to a value system that I have no interest in writing about. I wasn’t interested in writing a sci-fi movie in brown face. Firstly, if you’re interested in African storytelling, realize that the trickster is telling the story, so the whole sense of authenticity and authority that we attach to storytelling—throw that out of the window. I knew I was going to write a hedonistic, queer, selfish character. I’m not interested in inner nobility. That’s a European, Christian narrative from the Crusades.”

And the novel is gay. “Gay gay,” James adds. We’re both reminiscing about our time as baby queers who weren’t yet out. I tell him about my times riding the train from Poughkeepsie to basement parties in Brooklyn where money was collected at the door by a dyke elder, bottles of Heineken were for sale in the kitchen, and we were left alone to grind against each other for hours in the dark. Ladies only. James chimes in, recalling his own closetedness and coming out.  “I was in the Bronx with the Jamaicans,” he says, “and I’d take the 5 train to Barnes and Noble, to Union Square. Just to walk around. Just to be out. Our built-in desire to shape-shift is always there.” James scoffs at the notion that an African epic can’t also be queer. “The novel is super fluid and super sexual because Africa is fluid and sexual. Pansexuality, queerness, nonbinary is not new to Africa. White people like to think it is.” Being queer doesn’t mean that someone isn’t problematic, and Black Leopard, Red Wolf’s Tracker isn’t without his problems. He’s a misogynist, but unlike other authors, James takes his character to task. “It was very important to me that Tracker is called out on his sexism. I’m not having that.”

Before our time together comes to an end, I tell James that he can’t get away without talking about process and craft. James is a tenured creative writing and literature professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul. When I ask him how he managed to write another 600-plus-page book, he scoots closer to me and shows me his iPhone screen. He opens his gallery to dozens and dozens of panoramic photos of his office wallpapered in bright index cards and sticky notes, mostly pink, yellow, and green. He shows me maps of various African dynasties and the map of his own new novel that he designed himself. I can see that besides being meticulous and organized, he’s simply happy that someone asked him about craft—for once. Before closing his phone he gives me a final observation on craft: “People disregard plot because they’re not really that interested in their characters.”

We get up to hug and ask the lobby attendant to take our photo together, though we’ll see each other soon: The very next night, on the rooftop of the same hotel, Riverhead Books and Entertainment Weekly will throw a party for him. The Los Angeles Times will be there, Roxane Gay, Carolyn Kellogg, the who’s who of literary L.A. 

James will be standing in the center of the room, dashing in a traditional Arabic black thobe with a high slit on one side, his thick hair pulled back, a composed celebrity. There will be two signature cocktails, a large spread, and heaps and heaps of praise for what is sure to be this year’s blockbuster book. Every guest will be greeted at the door by James’s team with the question, “Are you a black leopard or a red wolf?” When I arrive and it is my turn to answer, I scan the room for James and lock eyes, blow him a kiss, before turning to his team and saying, “I am both.” 

 

Kima Jones is a poet and prose writer living in Los Angeles, where she owns and operates Jack Jones Literary Arts, a book publicity company.

Marlon James. 

(Credit: Sara Rubinstein)

Episode 24: Marlon James, Ilya Kaminsky, Valeria Luiselli & More

Related Reading: 

March/April 2019

Summary: 

Our annual Writers Retreats Issue features twenty-two of the most inspiring retreats in the country; a profile of Marlon James on the release of his new epic fantasy novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf; an interview with Valeria Luiselli about her new novel, Lost Children Archive; a conversation with poet Ilya Kaminsky about his new collection, Deaf Republic; the second installment of How to Get Paid; Reviewers & Critics; the art of translation; writing prompts; and more.

In the twenty-fourth episode of Ampersand, editor in chief Kevin Larimer and senior editor Melissa Faliveno discuss new books by the three authors featured in the new issue: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James; Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky. 

The opening spread of this issue’s cover profile of Marlon James by Kima Jones. Photo by Sara Rubinstein.
 

02:40 Marlon James, the author of three previous books of fiction, including the Man Booker Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, is back this month with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first installment of his Dark Star Trilogy, an epic fantasy that’s being called “The African Games of Thrones.” And this book is truly epic: It follows two shape-shifting mercenaries, Leopard and Tracker, on an odyssey through a Dark Ages version of the African continent, across ancient cities and dense forests, in search of a missing boy. Along the way they encounter all sorts of mythical creatures, including vampires, witches, wizards, trickster monkeys, and one very wise buffalo. Adventure and swashbuckling ensue, but so do deeper explorations: of truth, power, queerness, and the desire to understand one another.

04:25 Marlon James reads an excerpt from Black Leopard, Red Wolf.

The opening spread of this issue’s conversation between Ilya Kaminsky by Garth Greenwell. Photo by Bob Mahoney.
 

12:03 Ilya Kaminsky’s new book, Deaf Republic, is a kind of parable-in-poems set in an unnamed occupied territory during a time of political unrest. The poetic narrative starts with a gunshot: While breaking up a protest, a soldier shoots and kills a young deaf boy—and this horrific act renders the entire town deaf. The citizens coordinate their silent insurgency with sign language as the book follows the private lives of townspeople encircled by public violence. It’s a love story, a collection of poems about terror and carnage and witness and political dissent—and the power of puppeteering. Ilya was born in Odessa, in what was then the Soviet Union, in 1977. Substantially deaf from the age of four, he spoke no English when he immigrated to the United States with his family at sixteen. And yet he studied at the University of Rochester and Georgetown University and has a JD from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. His honors include a Whiting Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Metcalf Award, a Lannan Fellowship, Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is the editor in chief of the literary journal Poetry International and, after several years teaching in the graduate creative writing program at San Diego State University, Ilya now holds the Bourne Poetry Chair at Georgia Tech.

15:12 Ilya Kaminsky reads three poems from Deaf Republic.

The opening spread of this issue’s interview with Valeria Luiselli by Lauren LeBlanc. Photo by Tony Gale.
 

19:44 Valeria Luiselli’s new novel, Lost Children Archive, follows a family of four—whose names and ethnicities we never learn—as they road-trip across the country, from New York to Arizona. The couple are audio archivists, and their destination on this journey is Apacheria, the place the Apaches once called home. “Why Apaches?” asks the ten-year-old son. “Because they were the last of something,” answers the father. The family, which is facing a crisis of its own, is trying to hold onto its own foundations while attempting to understand those of the country across which they travel. It’s a book that is at once a great American road trip novel and an investigation of the complexities of family, immigration, justice, and equality in the United States. Born in Mexico City in 1983, Luiselli has lived in South Korea, India, Spain, and elsewhere; she now lives in New York, where she teaches a creative writing workshop with her niece, at an immigration detention center, to mostly Guatemalan children for whom Spanish is their second language. In the fall she will begin teaching at Bard College, where he was recently appointed writer in residence. She is the author of four previous books, including Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, The Story of My Teeth, Faces in the Crowd, and Sidewalks

21:58 Valeria Luiselli reads an excerpt from Lost Children Archive.

27:48 The cohosts talk about one of their favorite subjects—made-up words!—after receiving an e-mail from Jim Armstrong, an avid listener of Ampersand who shared a project in which he came up with a new word for each letter of the alphabet, including wrught, vocabullary, and emaul. On his website, armstrongwords.com, he offers the definition and etymology of each word, then provides some useful examples. Thanks for reaching out, Jim!

This episode is brought to you in part by the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. From July 16–28, the University of the South will host the 30th annual Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Thanks to the generosity of the Walter E. Dakin Memorial Fund, supported by the estate of Tennessee Williams, the Conference will gather distinguished faculty to provide instruction and criticism through workshops and craft lectures in poetry, fiction, and playwriting. Fellowships and scholarships are available, and the application deadline is March 20. Apply online and find out more at sewaneewriters.org.

Valeria Luiselli audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, read by the author, Kivlighan de Montebello, William DeMeritt and Maia Enrigue Luiselli.

Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast is a production of Poets & Writers, Inc., and is edited and mixed by Melissa Faliveno. Music for this episode is provided by YACHT, BitBasic, Adam & Alma, and Clinic. Comments or suggestions? E-mail ampersand@pw.org.

My Past and Future Assassin: A Profile of Terrance Hayes

by

Hanif Abdurraqib

6.13.18

One can make a home wherever the body finds itself at rest. I imagine this to be true always, but especially now, while taking in the large plastic novelty fish hanging high on the wall above the head of Terrance Hayes. Even while slouching in his chair, Hayes towers above the table in front of him, so that the fish, a marlin, appears as a crown under the glow of red light humming overhead, darkening half of the marlin and half of the face of the poet. We are at Great Jones Cafe in lower Manhattan, a place Hayes told me is his “go-to spot” when we spoke earlier, trying to nail down where to meet. When I arrive, I find him alone in a corner, drink already on the table. Hayes is a Southerner at heart, having spent his childhood and early adulthood in South Carolina, so it comes as no surprise to find out why he has led me here, to this place he tells me he comes to every weekend, often alone. “I didn’t know how quiet it would or wouldn’t be in here,” he tells me as I sit down, in reference to my request that we find a low-key location for our interview. “But it’s the only place in this city where I can get good grits, so it’s one of the few places in this city I love.” I imagine this to be his way of welcoming me into a small corner of his home.

We are talking about primary colors, Hayes and I. He is describing for me his most recent project. His poems were commissioned by composer Tyshawn Sorey for Cycles of My Being, a song cycle that “explores the realities of life as a black man in America” (or so it is described in the publicity material), performed by renowned tenor Lawrence Brownlee at Carnegie Hall, Opera Philadelphia, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. So Hayes sent Sorey some work to be played in front of a mass audience. He tells me he agonized over which poems to send—“you know how I am with this shit; nobody knows what poems are except for poets,” he says—and eventually bent to the will of the composer, who had asked Hayes if he had any poems about hope, or about hate. Hayes balked at the idea. 

“They wanted [it] to be hopeful, but a hopeful poem isn’t my tendency,” he says. “And a hateful poem isn’t my tendency either.” He eventually wrote a poem specifically for the show but then set it aside. 

This story is less about the song cycle for me and more about what is happening with the interior of Terrance Hayes. “I’m not interested in primary colors,” he tells me when I ask him why he has no interest in hope or hate. “It’s not nuanced enough. I’m interested in the spaces where colors overlap. It’s like when people call someone a racist and think that’s the end of it. That ain’t the end. Racism is a symptom of fear, or greed, or some other bullshit. So even if I wrote a poem about hate, it ain’t gonna be about hate when I’m done with it. My personality likes a challenge, so I can write a poem that many would consider hopeful.”

“But aren’t you a hopeful person?” I ask. 

“Am I?” he shoots back playfully, smiling before sighing and stirring a small tornado into his drink with the tip of his straw. “I mean, the endgame is always going to be death, so how hopeful can anyone really be?”

We are talking about death, Hayes and I. Or, it seems, death is the river’s mouth our conversation is flowing into. This makes sense, in some ways. We are here to talk about his new book of poems, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, published by Penguin in June, which is overwhelming in every sense. Overwhelming in its brilliance, yes, but also overwhelming in its pacing, its style. Each poem is the exact same length—a sonnet’s requisite fourteen lines—and carries the exact same title: “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” The book, despite its breadth and clever turns, is a confrontation. Not an unwelcome one but a confrontation nonetheless. Hayes is too crafty to force his way, unwanted, into a room, so his poems are like the slow and steady picking of a lock, until the door handle clicks. Instead of entering, the poet stands outside, satisfied with his work.

Hayes began the process of writing the sonnets with inspiration from Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets series. Coleman’s sonnets, much like Hayes’s own, are winding, endlessly questioning, and rich with syntax and alliteration. A stunning formalist, yet inventive and often two steps ahead of her peers, Coleman, who died in 2013 at the age of sixty-seven, spent much of her life as a poet struggling to make a living from her craft. Born and raised in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood, Coleman worked several odd jobs until her poems began to take off, and even then it was hard for her to make ends meet. Her hustle manifested itself in her poems; chasing new ways of crafting a poem became a form of survival. She was a mentor to some and an inspiration to many more, but Coleman wasn’t always granted the acclaim she deserved. Her work—unlike the work of Hayes—wasn’t fully celebrated until after her death.

Hayes is gathering his roses while he is still alive to grasp them—thorns and all. One such thorn: Hayes, who now lives in New York City after several years in Pittsburgh, where he taught at the University of Pittsburgh and was codirector of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics there, appreciated the love he was shown in the smaller city but notes that it became overwhelming. “They had my face up in the airport,” he says. “I couldn’t handle it.”

This is not to say that Hayes is entirely humble, however—nor should he be. But he is grounded, possessing a healthy blend of logic and confidence. You know the long list. The author of six poetry collections—Muscular Music (Tia Chucha Press, 1999), Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002), Wind in a Box (Penguin, 2006), Lighthead (Penguin, 2010), How to Be Drawn (Penguin, 2015), and now the new book—he has won much of what a poet can win, including the National Book Award for Lighthead; the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for Muscular Music; a Whiting Award; an NAACP Image Award; and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. He is also a chancellor at the Academy of American Poets. All that and he’s still relatively young, just forty-six years old. Young enough to have decades of future success but old enough to have watched skilled but less decorated writers die, without much control over their legacies. 

As for his own legacy, Hayes tells me that he is most concerned with how he’s viewed as a teacher. He is at NYU now and finds himself at home in the classroom. He tells stories about his talented students and how there is a mutual pushing and pulling forward. None of it is about money, he tells me. 

“This is why I just want to leave my kids my poems,” he says, referring to his two children. “I want to leave them art.” He pauses and references something he recently mentioned to his ex-wife, the poet Yona Harvey. “Money is nothing to be governed by, because once you get it, it’s never enough. When I die, I want my kids to have my art. Surely that will be worth something one day.”

Confidence and logic.

We are talking about Wanda Coleman again, as the darkness falling on Great Jones Street becomes richer, nighttime beginning to flood in through the windows. “I wrote an American Sonnet to Wanda Coleman,” he tells me, picking apart the catfish on his plate. “And I sent it to her. We exchanged letters, and then suddenly she was ill. She died in 2013, and I registered that, and then,” he pauses, “and then around the election I decided to do something else.”

Hayes says he had a “reaction” to the election, and I understand instantly what he means, as I felt it too. For all of the “now more than ever” tropes about writers and poets being needed at this particular moment—particularly writers and poets of color—the election did create a sense of urgency for many, not necessarily to share all of their work at once, but to establish a legacy of work, something that might be left behind, if there would be nothing else left of us. If things got “real bad,” whatever that meant. For Hayes, though, the week of the election also had another emotional touch point: Wanda Coleman’s seventieth birthday would have been on November 13, 2016. 

“I had this obsession with writing these shorter poems, because I had been writing long poems,” he says, referring to the work in his last book, How to Be Drawn, which included a number of multiple-page poems such as “Who Are the Tribes” and “How to Draw a Perfect Circle.” He continues: “And I thought I could do this for her. I thought to myself, ‘Can I access the thing I most love about what she did, in these times?’” It became something he chased after relentlessly. “Also,” he smirks, after I ask him what other motivations existed for his use of the form, “I like a volta.”

It seems, at least to me, that a volta is defined best by the hand that crafts it, and so therefore a volta can be anything. Formalists will define it as the turn, or the rhetorical division, the shift, between the sonnet’s first eight lines and the final six. For Hayes the volta is in the project itself, tethered to his always shifting definition of the assassin in the work. “I’m trying to go in one way and come out another way. So, yeah, I’m trying to see how many turns I can fit into a poem, but also I like the sonnet as a way of addressing an idea: How can I write a traditional love poem to someone or something I don’t deem worthy of my love?” After a long pull of his drink, he adds, “I just don’t know what other form would be able to hold this particular moment.”

A love poem for an enemy or a foe is largely about restraint, I suppose. Which makes the project of the book and the restraints on the poems themselves even more fascinating. The central conceit is this: How can I reach out and gently touch that which might not be so gentle toward me? And how can I be sure that in honoring these foes with love, in my turning to face them, they won’t change?

Sometimes the foes are invented, and sometimes the foes are direct and predictable—country, or president, or racism. But the book is most interesting when the foe is Hayes himself. “I’m in a different phase of my life now,” he tells me after we talk briefly about what it is to want to love yourself when you are your own enemy. “Having been married and not being married [now] also bears on the sonnets,” he says, staring into his drink. Hayes is recently divorced from Harvey, though they remain on good terms, he insists, raising their children, a son and a daughter, shuttling between Pittsburgh and New York. “I haven’t talked…. People been asking this shit, but I don’t wanna talk too much about it. But what I will say to you is that sometimes the assassin is you, or sometimes the assassin is a beloved, and that role feels transferrable. It’s like the stuff in the book about Orpheus and Eurydice.” He pauses here, which is rare for Hayes when he gets into a stream of conversation. He is talking about a series of poems in the book that detail the ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. The poems are decidedly distinct from the others, in both tone and what they are attempting to unravel. They are the poems in the book in which Hayes is hiding the least, taking himself to task, or taking the idea of love to task, or taking the idea of forever to task. 

In one of the sonnets he writes:

I tried to tell the woman

Who sent me songs, it’s departure that makes company 
Hard to master. I tried to tell her I’m a muser, a miser
With time. I love poems more than money & pussy. 
From now on I will eat brunch alone. I believe 
Eurydice is actually the poet, not Orpheus. Her muse
Has his back to her with his ear bent to his own heart.
As if what you learn making love to yourself matters 
More than what you learn when loving someone else.

 

“Most of that is me tying back to a different kind of relationship,” he says. “Who is the assassin between Eurydice and Orpheus? Who is the poet between those two? I’m thinking about…what does it mean to be married to a poet? What does it mean to be married to a motherfucker who’s gonna be playing his music no matter what? He’s a poet. It’s what he’s gonna do. But there are consequences to that. And so you might say, well, maybe she’s the poet then. I’m just…I’m wondering about the beloved as an assassin.”

This sits between us heavy on the table, the most open Hayes has been to this point in our talk. We leave it there, untouched.

I write the poems so I don’t have to talk about this shit,” Hayes tells me when I ask him which part of the response to his work he values more: his playfulness and precision with language or his sentimentality. He is not saying this to dismiss me, and we both understand this. It’s a moment in the conversation when he is talking to me as a writer, someone who he knows has likely had similar responses to questions like this. “Anything I say in a poem, I mean it,” he says. “Feeling and intuition is the only important thing to me. You can persuade someone through logic that perhaps what they’re thinking is wrong. But you can’t persuade someone that their feelings are wrong. You can’t tell a motherfucker that they ain’t hungry if they’re hungry. No words in the world can do that. So I trust feeling as a bedrock thing. Can you want to kill a motherfucker and simultaneously love them?”

To trust one’s feelings can be all-consuming, especially if those feelings are brought into a harsher light by a mess of a political moment. Hayes is invested in his obsessions, even if his obsessions are about the nation unraveling. 

There are poets who are slow and deliberate speakers, working to make sure every sentence holds weight. But Hayes is a rapid-fire conversationalist, spreading his long arms wide, or gesturing with one massive hand. Like his work, he is challenging you to keep up with him and to pick out what’s worth expanding on. And if you don’t catch it, he’ll expand on it for you anyway. And in this moment the topic worth expanding on is Donald Trump. 

“Everything I do has to be in service of poetry,” he says, with a little more excitement in his voice. “I can’t be waking up and thinking about Trump all day. And if I do, I have to do it in service of a poem, or else he’ll be a block.”

He is talking about boxes and how every box, like every poem, has multiple sides through which it can be entered. He decided to put Trump in a box and kept turning the box until his truth looked different from every angle. He found this to be more interesting than it would have been with, say, Barack Obama. 

“Obama is super interesting to me, but I already know some of the sides to that cube. He’s a six-sided truth, but I know about half of those sides. As a brother, as a dude who loves basketball, as a dude who got old. To look at something and see yourself in it is easy. I’m not moved by that. With Trump it’s about power and the way his power has a bearing on everyone else. I can meditate on that for at least six months.”

The restraints of the sonnets have been liberating, he tells me. This is only interesting because of how the book wrestles readers inside of it and gives them little room to move within it. If anything, a reader then becomes a part of the interior of the box, which Hayes is turning around in his hand. I don’t mean this to sound negative: One of the book’s strongest points is how readers have to fight their way into and then out of it. Like all of the work Hayes has offered in his career so far, it is both inviting and asking a reader to earn enjoyment of it, in this case through a means of discomfort with the repetitive nature of the poems and their aim.

Hayes tells me he has become so obsessed with the project that he can’t unravel himself from it, which makes sense. He is conflicted, because he knows he can’t do another book like this, but he also knows that he isn’t done with the fascination. “I mean, I got seventy good ones, and I don’t want to overdo it,” he says, blending his usual cool and confidence with the anxieties he holds. “It’s like [ John] Berryman, right? He put out 77 Dream Songs, and then later he put out all of them. And like, there were some all-right ones in there, but shit. I was good with seventy-seven.”

It is political, in some ways: Hayes is surviving the world by writing against it. When I ask him if the work has made him feel any better, he matter-of-factly states, “Well, the shit is still going on, you know?”

There are other ways out, Hayes says. He draws, going to a class once a week and trying to improve his hand as a visual artist. Hayes has experience in the craft, receiving a BA from Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina, where he studied both English and painting. His drawings and paintings provide the artwork for the covers of his books. It’s easy to get lost in the visual form, but he keeps returning to the sonnets. Twisting a forkful of mashed potatoes around, and up toward his mouth, he pauses.

“There’s no law that says an obsession can’t continue beyond the production of the obsession, you know?”

It’s getting late, and the fish over the head of Terrance Hayes has begun to droop its long face lower. This is a trick of the eye, I’m sure. Perhaps Hayes is growing taller, more excitable with conversation, and the fish is shrinking in the face of that. Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” is playing through the café’s speakers, and small crowds of revelers have started to filter in, the way one might expect as a night stretches its palms wider. It is perhaps late only for me. Hayes insists he doesn’t sleep much. “I go to bed around two or three in the morning and wake up around seven. I’m good with four hours a night,” he tells me, as my body involuntarily trembles at the prospect of such little time in bed. He does his best work in the hours after these, when even the revelers beside us begin to lose steam (“I like a nap, though,” he insists). This disclosure makes for an interesting moment between us: me winding down, and him warming up.

Hayes and I find ourselves in the golden hour of our conversation, too. The talk about poems and craft has perhaps drawn all it can draw from the two of us, and now we’re just talking about basketball. Hayes was an Academic All-American basketball player during his time at Coker and has remained attached to the sport. Throughout the conversation Hayes insists that he is always thinking about poems, no matter what else we’re speaking on, but he seems at ease here talking NBA. The plates are cleared off the table, and he has leaned over his drink, swinging his massive palms in one direction or another as he makes a point. An athlete and sports fan and writer, Hayes has an intimate relationship with the game. Like me, he is in it for the narratives, which I do suppose means that even in our talk about basketball, we are talking about poems. 

“LeBron James shoots free throws every day,” Hayes tells me. “And you gotta think, ‘Why is this dude shooting free throws every day if he gets paid to shoot free throws?’ He’s doing that shit with no one watching, because he’s after something different.”

I nod, and Hayes continues.

“I think about that versus someone like [Philadelphia 76ers rookie] Ben Simmons, right? Ben Simmons should be a huge star right now, and he’s perplexed by that….”

I take the opportunity to interject that Simmons isn’t a huge star yet because he can’t really shoot, but Hayes is off, sprinting a mile a minute to reach the end of his thought. 

“Yeah, but Kobe Bryant struggled with that same shit too, right? Kobe had to fight through the same thing of doing the things that should make you famous and expecting fame. But it ain’t about the fame, though.”

In many ways, I know what’s coming next—Hayes the speaker is rarely separate from Hayes the poet—but I let him draw back the curtain with his own language. “It’s about the glory. There’s a difference in fame and glory. Fame is when everyone else is peeping what you’re doing, but glory is when your peers recognize the work you’re putting in. Glory has to be number one. Glory has to be number one, because no one else has to be there.”

I ask the obvious question, the one about whether or not an artist or an athlete or a parent or a construction worker can have glory without fame. Because this is the thing with Hayes, who is undoubtedly famous and has basked in his share of glory. It has created a mythology around him that he seems equal parts thrilled to revel in and sometimes uncomfortable with. Minutes before the conversation took this turn, we were speaking about pressure, and in the middle of a response, Hayes shook his head and said, “God forbid I ever start writing bad poems,” and one ear might hear I know all of my poems are good, but to another, the poet is saying I don’t know what I would be without my insistence on living up to my own standards. So I wonder out loud how you survive at the intersection of fame and glory, or if you can cut one off in service of the other. Hayes takes a moment.

“Yeah, I think so. On the days I’m writing and I’m in a good groove, I hit moments where I think, ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’ It’s the closest I can get from this,” he says, gesturing toward his head, “to getting it together on that page. And that’s glory. I’m doing that for me, with no one watching, knowing that the people I’m writing for—poets—are doing the same thing. And it only happens a few times, but when it happens it feels good. I did a 360 dunk once, and I was alone in a gym. No one saw it but the other guys on my basketball team, and those are the only people I cared to see it. A 360 dunk is fucking hard. I want the people who know how difficult the work is to bear witness to the work.”

The red light above our heads has only become more aggressive in its lapping up of the darkness, and by now we are both radiating in its shine. Hayes casually regales me with a tale of watching basketball with former NBA player and coach Phil Jackson last April, a story that few poets would have in their back pocket. “We talked about Buddhism and shit. You know, it was a good afternoon,” he says in an “Isn’t New York wild?” kind of way, to which I nod, thinking about the times I’ve been to this city and felt tiny. The gist of the story is that during their first basketball-watching excursion, Jackson insisted that Hayes not mention LeBron James, whom Jackson had found himself feuding with over a Twitter debate. When the 2017 NBA Finals came around, Jackson invited Hayes to his Manhattan apartment to watch them with him, and Hayes balked. “He invited me back to watch the NBA Finals and told me I couldn’t talk about LeBron James!” Hayes says, half-yelling and half-laughing, as energetic as he has been all night. “I can’t talk about LeBron James during the NBA Finals? I like LeBron James! So I was like, ‘Nah, I’ll pass.’ I watched the Finals alone.”

It’s the kind of casual story told by Hayes during which one realizes that he moves through multiple worlds in a singular way, something that can’t be said for many of his peers, though he is still very much among them and often in service to them. He blurbs books vigorously, he reads poems endlessly, and until recently he served as the poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine. (Rita Dove took the reins in June.) He derives great pleasure from teaching—during our conversation he is most excited when talking about the ways his students show him to and through poems. But he is also someone who pens work for operas and has his face in an airport and casually watches basketball with one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. And it all seems simple to him, something he has been working toward since he began working. Both fame and glory.

We are talking about death and isolation again, Hayes and I. It’s a fitting end to our time together. Hayes says his true inclination is to stay inside; he likes New York because he feels like he can do that here, and not many other places. He tells me he both loves and hates the way the city folds around him—loves it for its many options and hates it for its many options, all at once. 

When we get to the topic of rap, Hayes is succinct, melancholic. “I think when it comes to rappers, Biggie Smalls is closest to my sensibilities,” he insists, spinning the last bit of ice around in his drink. “He scares me, and the consequences of his art, too…. The consequences of his art informed his life. I think of this like Sylvia Plath. The fact that Sylvia Plath would write ‘Ariel’ and then put her head in an oven, or the fact that Biggie Smalls would say he’s ready to die and then die. There’s something closer to the truth for me. Closer to my understanding of the consequences of what we do. The body’s relationship to the art’s consequences.”

I nod, and look at the time. When I look back up, Hayes is looking outside, while the street, drenched in sirens, howls. 

 

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet and critic from Columbus, Ohio.

(Photos: Tony Gale)

Episode 20: Terrance Hayes, Lauren Groff, A. M. Homes & More

In the twentieth episode of Ampersand, editor in chief Kevin Larimer and senior editor Melissa Faliveno preview the July/August 2018 issue, featuring a look at how authors, agents, editors, booksellers and publicists work together to reach readers; the secrets to maintaining a long-term author-agent relationship; the summer’s best debut fiction; a profile of poet Terrance Hayes; author Lauren Groff on her new story collection, Florida; self-publishing advice, writing prompts; and more.

00:01 Terrance Hayes reads an excerpt of a poem from his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

01:12 The cohosts discuss Lauren Groff’s complicated relationship with her state of residence, Florida, which serves as both backdrop and inspiration for her new collection of stories of the same name, out this month from Riverhead Books. Contributor Bethanne Patrick, otherwise known as @TheBookMaven, profiles Groff for the new issue of the magazine. Kevin and Melissa talk about some of the stranger aspects of Florida (hat tip to the website Florida Man) and share some of their own stories about the Sunshine State, which involve hair removal, Tinkerbell, sunburn, and unsupervised teenagers on the loose. 

07:22 Lauren Groff reads an excerpt from one of the stories in Florida, “Dogs Go Wolf.”

 

12:55 Terrance Hayes reads a poem from his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, out this month from Penguin. Hayes is the cover profile of the new issue, and poet, essayist, and critic Hanif Abdurraqib, author of the essay collection They Cant Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio, 2017), interviewed Hayes at the Great Jones Cafe in Manhattan for the piece. 

14:56 Hanif Abdurraqib reads the opening section of his profile on Hayes from the new issue, “My Past and Future Assassin.”

 

18:52 Terrance Hayes reads two more poems from his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

22:18 A. M. Homes, the celebrated author of more than ten books—including novels, story collections, and a memoir—reads an excerpt from the title story in her new collection, Days of Awe, out this month from Viking.

28:31 In honor of the twentieth episode of Ampersand, Kevin and Melissa compose a celebratory haiku. (With sincere apologies to the masters of the form.) If you can do better—and we’re pretty sure you can—send us your Ampersand haiku at ampersand@pw.org

 

Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast is a production of Poets & Writers, Inc., and is edited and mixed by Melissa Faliveno. Music for this episode is provided by Podington Bear, Blue Ducks, Audiobinger, and YACHT. Comments or suggestions? E-mail ampersand@pw.org.

The Poet at Work: A Profile of Kevin Young

by

Clint Smith

10.11.17

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is located at the intersection of 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. It is eight blocks from Langston Hughes’s famous brownstone, seven blocks from where James Baldwin once attended high school, and a three-minute walk from Zora Neale Hurston’s former artist-collective residence. It sits directly across from the Harlem Hospital Center and is surrounded by an array of delis, bodegas, and brownstones—quintessential emblems of Harlem that drape the neighborhood’s landscape. 

After stepping off the subway, I walk fifteen feet to the right and purchase a chicken-and-rice meal from the shawarma cart that is parked near the sidewalk in front of the center each day. I sit on one of the benches in front of the building as cars glide down Malcolm X Boulevard, their music thumping with enough bass to shake the street. 

Mid-chew I look up and see Barry Jenkins, director of the Academy Award–winning film Moonlight, surveying a table of used books. The moment is almost too prototypically Harlem to be true. Here is one of the preeminent black artists of our time—and one of the most critically acclaimed directors in Hollywood—quietly perusing used books on Malcolm X Boulevard as passersby bustle along without saying a word to him, as if he were simply a fixture of the Harlem ecosystem. The Schomburg Center is, in many ways, the central home to the culture that Jenkins embodies, and its new director, the poet Kevin Young, sits at the nexus of participant and purveyor. 

When I step inside the Schomburg, I am escorted to meet Young in a small conference room with a dozen chairs, two square tables pushed against each other, and three rectangular windows that overlook a small courtyard. Young walks into the room with a stack of papers and several books with innumerable dog-eared pages. He moves with a sense of self-assuredness that one would expect from someone with his résumé, but counterbalances it with a disarming sense of humor.

Today he is wearing a light-blue oxford shirt with its sleeves rolled up to just below his elbows. The screen of his watch flickers as he moves his hand during the conversation. The ID at the end of his black lanyard is tucked into his left shirt pocket as if he didn’t want you to know that he is the director of the leading research center for black culture in the country. His thick, black beard is flecked with subtle streaks of gray, and he often runs his fingers through it while his other hand rests on the opposite arm. His hair is closely cropped on the sides, but the top of his head abounds with tightly coiled black curls that sprout up along his scalp. His glasses are round and thick and black and slide from the bridge of his nose when he laughs, which he does often, in a way that invites you into the conversation. I’m here to talk to him not only about his position at the Schomburg Center but also about his new role as poetry editor of the New Yorker as well as his new book of nonfiction, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, published this month by Graywolf Press. 

I first met Young two summers ago at the Cave Canem retreat—an annual weeklong workshop for black poets that serves as a refuge from the predominantly white literary spaces we spend most of our time in. Many of the fellows came from MFA programs and workshops where, as Junot Díaz put it in his 2014 treatise in the New Yorker, “the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight, and male.” 

I was not in an MFA program myself but had taken a poetry workshop as a small weekly reprieve from the datasets and statistical analyses of my own graduate studies in the sociology of education, only to have a similarly disillusioning experience as the only black person in a room full of mostly white writers. I talked to Young, for example, about how I had written a series of poems in the voice of my barber and didn’t bring any of those poems into the class because I didn’t want to endure the stress of navigating a scenario where my workshop mates had to decide how to engage a poem laden with the N-word. He laughed in the way some people do to signal that they understand—that they really understand—and nodded. “Cave Canem exists because of that need,” he said. 

At that first meeting, the gap between us couldn’t have felt wider. I was a twenty-something-year-old poet and graduate student who had not yet finished a draft of my first manuscript. I was simply thrilled to have even been accepted to the retreat. Young was a Guggenheim fellow and the author of ten poetry collections, including Jelly Roll: A Blues (Knopf, 2003), a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and a book of nonfiction, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Graywolf Press, 2012), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a winner of the PEN/Open Book Award. He was a professor of creative writing and curator of one of the most impressive literary archives in the country at Emory University. All that by the age of forty-six. And yet he was so different from what we imagine our preeminent literary figures to be. There was no bravado or pretense. There was no condescension or sense of snobbery. My first memory of Young is seeing him playing pool with poet Major Jackson in the lobby of the dormitories where we were all staying. He snacked on a bag of chips between shots, and when I walked in he looked up and asked, “You know how to play?”

That week, as Young led our workshop, it was clear that the collective project we were all embarking on was about far more than what we were putting onto the page. It served as reaffirmation that our work, our experiences, and the cultural idiosyncrasies of our voices were not something that should be compromised in order to be part of the literary community, but something that meaningfully contributed to its terrain. For many, it is often the only reminder they receive. “I think [Cave Canem] often serves as a healing place for folks,” Young says. “It helps focus the tradition that has always been there.” 

More than simply being a space of healing, Cave Canem, Young points out, has fundamentally transformed the landscape of black literature since it was founded two decades ago. He is adamant about this point. 

In the past decade alone, for example, there have been four black winners of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry—Tyehimba Jess (2017), Gregory Pardlo (2015), Tracy K. Smith (2012), and Natasha Trethewey (2007)—as compared with three winners in the previous eighty-five years of the prize combined. Smith and Trethewey would go on to serve as poets laureate of the United States. Both of their first books were published after winning the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Young was the judge who selected Smith’s debut, The Body’s Question (Graywolf Press, 2003). 

“It’s just like this unprecedented thing,” he says, leaning back in his chair, soaking in the realization as if having it for the first time. “Obviously not all of that is because of Cave, but Cave is part of what I would call the Renaissance of Black Letters, and it’s one that I think the Schomburg can be, and should be, at the center of.”

For young writers, part of Young’s approachability stems from his recognition that not so long ago he was also a young writer attempting to find a literary community. The community he found would be both personally and artistically transformative. 

In 1987, Sharan Strange and Thomas Sayers Ellis, who would soon become friends and peers of Young’s, hopped in a car and drove from Boston to Harlem to attend James Baldwin’s funeral. The prophetic luminary had died in France, but his body had been brought back to the neighborhood of his birth. His community wanted to give him a homegoing celebration imbued with Harlem’s unique character and give so many of those who loved him most an opportunity to say goodbye for themselves. At the funeral the young writers encountered figures like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Amiri Baraka, all of whom spoke at Baldwin’s service and all of whom represented the pinnacle of African American letters. Baldwin’s death was made especially difficult for the young writers who trekked from Boston not only because they were mourning the death of a distinguished black literary figure, but also because they never had the opportunity to meet him while he was alive. As Young puts it, they “swore to themselves that they would not let another black writer die without having met that person and connected.” As a way to remedy that problem, Strange and Ellis, joined by their friend Janice Lowe, started a reading series in which they paired young emerging black writers alongside their more established counterparts. The group became known as the Dark Room Collective and held the reading series in an old Victorian at 31 Inman Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where several of the young artists lived. 

Writers like Derek Walcott, Alice Walker, and Yusef Komunyakaa made their way through the Cambridge residence—metal chairs unfolded across wooden floors and couches slid against the walls to make room for the guests who had come to see these literary forebears alongside their progeny. 

Young, then an undergraduate at Harvard studying under the likes of Seamus Heaney and Lucie Brock-Broido, remembers attending some events there, before he became an official member of the collective himself, and being stunned at the sight of two hundred fifty black people packed into a single room—sitting on floors, peeking around corners, holding their breath—listening to poetry. “I think it spurred a community,” he says, pausing, reflecting on the word. “It spurred the writing community in Boston, which was really interesting then but probably was whiter than it knew, to really think about itself in new ways. It was important in that way.”

He must see it in my face as he describes how the series unfolded because he smiles knowingly as I share how shocked I am that a group of relatively unknown aspiring writers could get some of the most important artists of the day to show up and read at their house—for free. Young says that they simply wrote to them and said, “Hey, we have this thing and it’s special and we get this many people and we can get you great dinner.” “And folks came out,” he adds. “It was both a different time and also it’s an eternal thing that if you provide the space and build it,” they will come. 

After Young joined the group, the collective began traveling to venues beyond the Inman Street house to read their work. They read in other places throughout Boston and then across the country. “We’d read in a bar in Miami or we’d all get in a car, and me and Major [Jackson] had the cars and we’d drive,” he says with a laugh. “We’d drive to D.C. and sleep on people’s floors. Even then I knew it was a particular moment in time.” 

There were many poets who weren’t formally in the collective but whose presence and friendships shaped the distinctive literary sensibilities of the group. Among them was Elizabeth Alexander, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a current professor at Columbia University, and someone to whom Young felt particularly close. Alexander recounts with nostalgic tenderness the moment she met Young and another young undergraduate writer at Harvard, both of whom were in the nascent stages of their literary careers. 

“I read on Harvard’s campus through the Grolier Bookstore when my first book of poems came out in 1990. There were these two adorable, alive young men listening very, very carefully and they came up to introduce themselves afterward—Kevin Young and Colson Whitehead,” she wrote to me in an e-mail. “Kevin sent me copies of the literary journal he edited and told me about younger writers who were his friends and comrades. We talked about writers and poems we admired and loved.  Later on, we sent each other manuscripts—we’ve been good book editors to each other. Now we text to make each other laugh.”

There is a photograph of the Dark Room Collective taken in 1996 that serves as an illuminating artifact of the time. Seven of the members—Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, Major Jackson, Nehassaiu deGannes, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Sharan Strange, and Adisa Vera Beatty—are sitting on a New England beach, some looking off in different directions, some looking directly at the camera. The photo is in black and white, and the young writers each appear to be wearing a mix of black, white, and beige clothing so their bodies blend into the sand. Young sits between Jackson and Trethewey—looking directly at the camera—his full beard then a tightly groomed goatee, the tight coils of hair on his head and a flock of thin dreadlocks falling down just past his shoulders. 

The very existence of the photo and others like it—color coordinated, posed, pensive—captures the group’s youthful ambition. Even before they achieved such high standing in American letters, they understood themselves as something worthy of being documented, archived. 

The collective would dissolve in the late nineties as its members transitioned to graduate school, new jobs, and opportunities to pursue their work full-time. 

Young’s life prior to his literary ascent was one of constant movement, expanding his conception of home beyond the limits of geographical location. His mother and father—both of whom grew up in segregated, rural Louisiana and were the first in their families to attend and graduate from college—were studying to become a chemist and an eye surgeon, respectively. As a result, they moved the family around every few years as the two of them pursued their careers. Before Young turned ten years old, he had lived in six different cities. But he always thought of Louisiana, where much of his family remained and where he frequently visited, as home. 

He attended high school in Topeka, Kansas, a place from which few might expect great writers to emerge, though Young points out that among both his heroes (Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes) and his contemporaries (Ed Skoog, Gary Jackson, Ben Lerner), Topeka has produced some of the top literary talent in American poetics. 

Young attended Harvard as an undergraduate, where he joined the Dark Room Collective, and in the years that followed, his career, like many of his collective-mates, took off. He was awarded a Stegner fellowship from Stanford before going on to receive his MFA from Brown. He had brief tenures at the University of Georgia and Indiana University before moving to Emory University, where he remained for eleven years and served as curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, a 75,000-volume collection of both contemporary and centuries-old work. He also served as curator of the library’s Literary Collections, which contains the archival work of canonical writers such as Seamus Heaney, Lucille Clifton, Alice Walker, Jack Kerouac, and Flannery O’Connor, among others. 

During this period, Young’s writing was prolific, and his work helped to shape the twenty-first-century landscape of American poetry. He won or was a finalist for some of the genre’s most prestigious awards and served as steward not only to the work of the past—through his work in the archives—but also to the work of the present, editing several anthologies, including The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink (Bloomsbury, 2012), The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing (Bloomsbury, 2010), and Jazz Poems (Everyman’s Library, 2006). Part of what served as a catalyst for Young’s prolific output was the unexpected death of his father in 2004. “I think I realized life is short,” he says. And part of Young’s mourning took place in his work. His books Dear Darkness (Knopf, 2008) and Book of Hours (Knopf, 2014) eulogize his father in a series of poems that move between gentle nostalgia and violent grief. 

Last fall Young left the temperate seasons of Atlanta for the dynamism of Harlem to become the new director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Upon his arrival, he wasted little time ensuring that he would continue to build on the work of his predecessor, Khalil Gibran Muhammad (who left his post after five years to become a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School). Within the first few months of Young’s tenure, the Schomburg Center was named a National Historic Landmark by the Obama administration, and the center finalized plans to acquire James Baldwin’s papers, something that was of particular import to Young both because Baldwin is a son of Harlem and because the nature of our social and political moment renewed public interest in his work. 

“It was very important to me that the papers not just be announced, but be open,” he says. “And so, the day after we announced them, they were open to research service. And the researchers have come in droves to see them.”

The connection to Baldwin is also personal for Young, who says he could not have written his debut nonfiction project, The Grey Album, without the virtuosic guidance of Baldwin’s prose. The Grey Album was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the PEN/Open Book Award, but, more important, it expanded Young’s reputation from that of an acclaimed poet to a distinguished and erudite cultural critic. “Even [for] this new book, in which I think a lot about America and American history and race…his spirit provided an essential guide,” he says about Baldwin. 

Young’s new book, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, and his new job fit together in ways that have aligned with unsettling relevance. The book traces the history of the hoax and deceit in the American cultural and political life—moving from P. T. Barnum (who founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus) in the late nineteenth century to Greg Mortenson’s infamously fabricated memoir Three Cups of Tea (Penguin, 2007) to Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech. Young began research for the book long before the assent of Trump into mainstream national politics and certainly long before anyone could anticipate the extent that “fake news” would become common parlance in contemporary political discourse.

But as Young outlines in Bunk, there is a long and often insidious precedent for a society in which facts become secondary. And both through his book and in his role as director of the Schomburg, he hopes to more forcefully push back against the insurgent phenomenon. “Libraries are more important than ever now, because we provide free and accurate information for people across learning levels,” he says. “That’s what we do.”

The greatest hoax of them all, Young believes, is race. No other type of insidiously conjured fraudulence has endured as long and has had effects as deleterious. “I trace the hoax [of race], as an idea and a concept, and one that emerges in the eighteenth century—it isn’t a word until then,” he says. “I came to understand that that’s not an accident. In many ways, some of the aspects of the hoax and its systematic and stereotypical qualities allowed race to become more fixed around the nineteenth century. We tend to think there’s progress and things get better, but there’s a real hardening along originally unclear racial lines—or blurry ones, or ones not fully understood as biological and unredeemable in the case of black people, brown people, Native American people—all of these qualities became more and more fixed for very different reasons but similar ends, which is to justify slavery or displacement or aspects of supremacy.”

Ideas like those in Bunk serve as the bedrock of discourse at the Schomburg, where many black writers, artists, and public intellectuals come to share their work. Part of Young’s commitment as director is to flatten the hierarchies of intellectual engagement. It’s not that he wants to reduce such writers’ standing as thought-leaders in the community—indeed, many of them are his friends and colleagues—but he wants to continue opening up the space for more people to enter it. In reflecting on an event that took place right after he became director, Young says, “The discourse at that event, which was one of my first events as director, was so impressive. Just community folk asking really smart, interesting questions. The way I think of it is it’s not just scholars. Every student is a scholar; every scholar is a student. We have a lot of folks who are doing deep reading who are really engaged.”

Inevitably, the nature of Young’s new job means that he doesn’t have the same chunks of time to write that he once did as a young professor, but he says it’s well worth it. “I get to go to a place, every day, where Langston Hughes is buried and his spirit is felt. That’s amazing.” And it isn’t as if Young feels like he has less writing time; it’s just that now he has to be more purposeful in creating it. “I feel like people have this notion of writing that it’s inspiration-based and romantic. Both little-R and big-R romantic. I don’t think that’s how it works. I think we can put it many ways—perspiration not inspiration—but I think it’s really just being there in your space. It’s physical in order to prompt a mental space, but it isn’t inspiration, exactly. It’s being there and writing.”

I share with him my own struggles of clearly demarcating how much of my time I spend reading and how much of my time I spend writing. That when I do more of one, I never feel like I am doing enough of the other. I tell him how, for different writing projects, like the piece I am writing on him, I attempt to set specific word goals each day but become overwhelmed when I don’t meet them. He balks. “No, God no. You have to just think of it [all] as work. I think that’s the thing that changed for me a long time ago,” he says in the way people do when they’re reintroduced to a habit they attempted to leave behind. “It’s working. That’s why they call it your work.”

Going forward, Young will have to be even more purposeful about making time for his personal reading and writing—this month he begins his tenure as the poetry editor of the New Yorker, the first black person to hold the position. David Remnick, editor in chief of the magazine, gushed over Young’s work as both writer and editor when I called him. The two had met briefly at a dinner party at Elizabeth Alexander’s home years ago, and Remnick continued following, and then publishing, Young’s poetry and essays. “I love his work and have read him for a long time,” he says.

While online poetry journals and literary magazines have provided more and more opportunities for poets to be published, the New Yorker, with its circulation of 1.2 million, remains the largest commercial platform for poets to have their work engage the larger world. “The opportunity to get read at that scale is not a common thing for poets,” says Remnick, who wanted someone in that position who not only understands the role that the New Yorker has played in putting poems in front of those who may not regularly read them, but who would also use the platform to publish a range of different voices. “I think Kevin will,” he adds.

When I ask Young about it, he becomes more coy than he’s been in the previous moments of our conversation. His responses become briefer, as if the opportunity were a fragile vase that the wrong words might break into pieces. “I remember reading the New Yorker book of poems when I was a kid. I’m looking forward to participating in that tradition too,” he says shyly. I try to hype him up. “This is a big deal!” I tell him, attempting to pull something from him that it becomes increasingly clear he is not willing to give. I try again: “When these things happen to you, are you able to step back and say, ‘Man, I am the director of the preeminent center on black culture in the country. I’m going to be poetry editor of one of the most historically renowned literary magazines—”

He leans back in the wooden chair and laughs. “Every night, I say those exact words.”

He then becomes more reflective. “I think you’re busy doing the work of it, but that’s why you have friends, so you can sit back and celebrate or reflect. Also, it’s an actual day-in and day-out thing. You’re trying to get that work done.”

Throughout his career his friends have indeed lifted him up in celebration, and still, they recognize that despite the success he remains the person so many of them knew as an eager undergraduate trying to emerge in the landscape of black literature. “Kevin feels like his same self to me over all these years,” Elizabeth Alexander says. “He has always been prolific, hilarious, omnivorous, meticulous, dauntless, and sure-footed, a lover of black culture in its everythingness.” 

 

Clint Smith is a writer, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, and the author of Counting Descent (Write Bloody Publishing, 2016), which won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and a 2017 recipient of the Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review. His writing has been published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the New Republic, among other publications. He was born and raised in New Orleans.

 

Photos: Tony Gale
 

Worth the Wait: A Profile of Arundhati Roy

by

Renée H. Shea

6.14.17

Arundhati Roy must be tired of hearing the same question: What took you so long? But then, it has been two decades since her debut novel, The God of Small Things, was translated into forty-two languages, sold eight million copies, and won the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and she was catapulted to international fame and remarkable financial success. Now, with the June release of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Knopf), she is not apologizing for the wait. Busy traveling, writing, and establishing herself as an outspoken activist, Roy explains that about ten years ago, the “mad souls,” the constellation of characters in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, grew insistent. “Anjum, Tilo, Saddam, Musa, and the gang moved in with me and colonized my imagination,” she says. “And for me, while fiction is necessary, I prefer it to be timeless rather than timely. So when I write fiction, I am prepared to wait for it to come to me. I am never in a hurry.” 

Yet for someone who prefers not to hurry when it comes to fiction, she is certainly capable of moving with a sense of urgency, if her prolific, and often polemic, nonfiction is any measure. Roy cites a “watershed moment” when, in 1998, the newly formed Hindu Nationalist government in India conducted a series of nuclear tests, “which were greeted by the media and establishment with a nationalist fervor and talk about the return of ‘Hindu pride’ that changed the nature of what could and could not be said politically.” Roy had her say in an essay titled “The End of Imagination,” a critique of these policies. “While India was being hailed as a great new economic power,” she says in retrospect, “within India millions of poor people were being further impoverished by the new economic policies; tens of thousands of small farmers, deep in debt, were committing suicide. Young Muslim men accused of being ‘terrorists’ on very flimsy and often fabricated grounds were being thrown in prison. Kashmir was on fire.” Her essays and speeches turned into a steady stream of books, including Power Politics (South End Press, 2001), The Algebra of Infinite Justice (Viking, 2001), War Talk (South End Press, 2003), Public Power in the Age of Empire (Seven Stories Press, 2004), Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers (Haymarket Books, 2009), Broken Republic (Penguin, 2011), and Capitalism: A Ghost Story (Haymarket Books, 2014). Fiction had to wait because, she says, she had no choice: “I could not watch all this happen as I continued my glittering career as a prize-winning novelist. I began to travel and write about these things because it was urgent and necessary to do so.” Her efforts did not go unnoticed. Roy was awarded the Lannan Cultural Freedom Award in 2002, the Sydney Peace Prize in 2004, and the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2006. (She rejected the most recent award, from the Indian Academy of Letters, because she opposes the government’s policies.) And she’s been giving back, contributing prize money and royalties to fund various causes and small organizations, mainly in India.

Even though the characters from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness took up residence in her imagination, she wasn’t ready to share them until about seven years ago, after a visit with her friend John Berger at his home in France. A mentor and also a Booker Prize winner, in 1972, for his novel G—in other words, someone whom she listened to before his death early this year—Berger told her to go to her computer and read to him whatever fiction she was writing, which she did. Impressed, he said she should go right home and finish the book, which she intended to do. But a few weeks later, in Delhi, she found an anonymous note pushed under her apartment door asking her to visit the Maoists in the jungles of central India—an offer she couldn’t refuse. This was followed by a period of still more waiting, though eventually, she asserts, those characters themselves brought the novel to closure: “They compelled me! Stubborn people. I had no choice.” 

“She lives in the graveyard like a tree,” reads the first sentence of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness—an opening that is enigmatic, tantalizing, and predictive. The “she” is the aging Anjum, a central character whose mother, thrilled to have given birth to a boy, discovers “nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part.” So Anjum, originally known as Aftab, begins her journey, as readers begin theirs, into the world of the Hijra. A somewhat ambiguous term, Hijra refers to a person whose gender is neither male nor female, including those born intersex, though it most frequently refers to individuals who were born male but identify as women. (In 2014, the Supreme Court of India recognized Hijra as “a third gender,” thus conveying legal status.) Roy is careful to point out, however, that she has not “used” Anjum, whom she refers to as “a Beloved,” to typify a category of people: “She is herself and distinct. Yes, she has a schism running through her, like many others in the book. Many of them have borders of caste and out-casteness, of religious conversion, of nation and geography.” 

The novel crosses other borders of both perspective and place. Set primarily in present-day New Delhi, with a political backdrop of Kashmir’s struggle for independence, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness spans more than thirty years, often through Anjum’s eyes as she establishes herself in that space where her relatives are buried. “Over time, Anjum began to enclose the graves of her relatives and build rooms around them,” Roy writes. “Each room had a grave (or two) and a bed. Or two. She built a separate bathhouse…[she] called her Guest house Jannat. Paradise.” Beginning by taking in down-and-out travelers, Jannat Guest House becomes a community center of sorts, where nearly all the characters in this intricately plotted novel find themselves—some, as Roy playfully writes, “for The Rest of Their Lives,” some to bond as family, some only for a moment of comforting connection.

It is in Jannat Guest House, a place of physical as well as spiritual union, that Anjum and others recognize as well as honor a continuum of life and death—a place where “the battered angels in the graveyard that kept watch over their battered charges held open the doors between worlds (illegally, just a crack), so that the souls of the present and the departed could mingle, like guests at the same party.” This became a guiding image for Roy, who worked with designer David Eldridge and photojournalist Mayank Austen Soofi to create the cover art for the novel: a vertical picture of a decaying white marble grave with a withered rose placed right below the title. The haunting image melds beauty and decay and suggests the compatibility of change and permanence. 

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Roy shifts places, time periods, and viewpoints with the grace of a master choreographer as characters take circuitous paths that are at times parallel, then intersecting or conflicting, ultimately seeming a matter of both coincidence and fate. She works at that unstructured structure. “To me, the way a story is told is almost more important than the story itself. I think I might be incapable of telling a story in chronological order,” she says. “For me, a story is like the map of a great city or, at the very least, a large building. You can’t explore it by driving down the main street or entering from the front door and exiting through the back. You have to live in it, wander through the by-lanes, take blind alleys and have a smoke with the people who live there, look into the rooms from the outside in. That’s the fun of it!” 

 

Arundhati Roy in New York City.

(Credit: Tony Gale)

The novel is teeming with indelible characters: politicians—some murderously demented—accountants, teachers, militants, and mothers in a multigenerational story. There’s the irrepressible Ustad Kulsoom Bi, guru and head of the Hijra household that Anjem joins initially; the incorrigible Saddam Hussain, a name he chose for himself; the two Miss Jebeens, one killed by a bullet that passed through her skull into her mother’s heart, the other abandoned on a Delhi street and claimed by Anjum; the shape-shifting Amrik Singh, “a cheery cold-blooded killer.” A central quartet of characters—Musa, Naga, Garson Hobart (a code name for Biplab Dasgupta), and Tilo, the one the other three love—meet as students, go their separate ways, then weave in and out of one another’s lives in a plot that moves between the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Old Delhi, the glittering new wealth of malls and hotels, and the mountains and valleys of Kashmir.

Although it’s tempting to see some of these characters as representations of different viewpoints in Indian politics, Roy objects: “Even Dasgupta is partly the voice of the establishment and partly a lost, lovelorn wreck. Hazrat Sarmad, Hazrat of the Indeterminate, is the deity of this book.” Thus, Roy’s characters are, first and foremost, complicated human beings who remind us that “we do a great injustice to people when we ‘unsee’ their identities and the discrimination they suffer because of that identity,” she says. “Equally, we do great injustice when we see nothing of a person except to brand them with one single identity. Sometimes people do this even to themselves.”  

The dazzling array of characters, while hardly autobiographical, does suggest Roy’s own wide spectrum of experiences, lived passionately and thoughtfully. She was born Suzanna Arundhati Roy in 1961 in northeast India to Mary, a Syrian Christian, and Rajib, a Bengali Hindu from Calcutta. Her parents divorced when she was two and her brother, Lalith, three and a half. In interviews, Roy emphasizes that she did not come from a privileged background. Quite the contrary: When her mother left her alcoholic husband, she struggled to make a living, finally starting an independent school in Kerala. Roy went to boarding school and began secretarial college. At sixteen, she quit and moved to Delhi to study at the School of Planning and Architecture. For a while, she lived what has often been described as a bohemian lifestyle with architect Gerard da Cunha. After they broke up, Roy returned to Delhi to work at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, where she met and married Pradeep Kishen, a former history professor and Oxford graduate who had become an independent filmmaker. Roy wrote screenplays and acted in several films they collaborated on, but she became disillusioned with what she saw as the elitism of the film world. After they divorced, she made her living in various jobs, including leading aerobics and yoga classes, until she turned her attention to writing.

It’s no surprise then that Roy dismisses those questions about what took her so long by pointing out that we are the sum of our experiences. A couple of decades between novels was hardly time wasted. “I absolutely could not have written this book without having lived the last twenty years in the way that I have. All that I saw and understood and experienced has been infused in me and then sweated out as fiction.” 

With only two novels to her name, what accounts for Roy’s enormous international popularity as both novelist and dissident? Some argue that she reinforces the views of the Western liberal media and literary elite and affirms a tourist’s romanticized view of India’s ancient but flawed and crumbling beauty. That’s way too simplistic a perspective for many, however, including scholars such as Pranav Jani, an English professor at Ohio State University and the author of Decentering Rushdie: Cosmopolitanism and the Indian Novel in English (Ohio State University Press, 2010). He acknowledges that the West often views Indian authors through “a veneer of exoticism” because they are “deliciously Other.” Roy to some extent fulfills that expectation with her descriptions of the lush environment and her “unequivocal condemnation of caste and gender oppression,” Jani says, but she offers more. “While her sustained focus has always been on India, she has consistently contextualized Indian issues within global ones: The same systems of capitalism and militarism that produce inequality in India are the ones that create inequality here.”

Controversial as well as charismatic, Roy recently took on the icon of icons not only to India but the Western world: Mahatma Gandhi. What began initially as a brief introduction for a new edition of The Annihilation of Caste by B. R. Ambedkar turned into a book-length essay titled The Doctor and the Saint, in which Roy analyzes the political debate between Ambedkar and Gandhi, arguing that the latter’s more moderate call for the dissolution of only the “untouchable” caste sidelined the former’s fight for justice. She characterizes Ambedkar, himself born an “untouchable,” as the true champion of the poor—with predictably heated results. Writing the introduction to the 2017 edition, published by Haymarket Books, Roy defended herself: “Given the exalted, almost divine status that Gandhi occupies in the imagination of the modern world, in particular the Western world, I felt that unless his hugely influential and, to my mind, inexcusable position on caste and race was looked at carefully, Ambedkar’s rage would not be fully understood.” 

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy strides onto similarly dangerous ground with the Maoists, or Naxalites, a revolutionary guerrilla force in central India. Believing that “there is an unreported war taking place against these populations,” she interrupted her writing to follow instructions that began with the note under her door and spent time living with Maoist insurgents and tribal villagers. Her initial article, published as a cover story for the Indian newsweekly Outlook, became the book Walking With the Comrades (Penguin, 2012). She argues that the official military campaign against the Maoists is actually a war against the poor, specifically the indigenous tribes who live on land with great mineral reserves. “Here in the forests of Dantewada,” she writes, “a battle rages for the soul of India.” Not surprisingly, response ranged from adulation to outrage.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes some of the same risks. Toward the end of the novel, Roy presents a ten-page letter from Miss Jebeen the Second’s mother, Revathy, a member of the Maoist Communist Party of India. The letter explains the plight of those like her who have few choices, experience rape and torture, “live and die by [the] gun,” yet who recognize that the party “does many wrong things,” that “women join because they are revolutionaries but also because they cannot bear their sufferings at home.” Likely some will interpret this letter as an eloquent exposé of an unreported war; others are likely to interpret it as a lengthy intrusion of political polemic. 

Roy, however, does not see a conflict or controversy in this example or in other overtly political dimensions of the novel. “I am very much against the idea of a novel as a disguised vehicle to write about ‘issues.’ To me a novel is a prayer, a world, a way of seeing. But in the telling of a story, these issues are the very air we breathe. To avoid them would make me a dishonest storyteller. It has always amazed me how people manage to tell stories about India without mentioning caste. It’s like writing about South Africa in the 1960s without mentioning apartheid. Apartheid was not an ‘issue.’ It was the DNA of that society at the time. So too with the practice of caste and what is happening in Kashmir. So too with the brutal violence, both state and societal, against the poor, and so too with the people who resist it.” 

In the twenty years since the publication of The God of Small Things, speculation has run high about what Roy’s next novel might be. Satire was one guess. It’s true that irony, even cynicism, makes its way into the novel: There are soldiers who “fired their light machine guns,” the concept of “post-massacre protocol,” and sadistic officers who take a “torture break.” There is sly sarcasm in Roy’s description of India as the new superpower: “Namaste, they said in exotic accents, and smiled like the turbaned doormen with maharaja mustaches who greeted foreign guests in five-star hotels.” And there’s the Shiraz Cinema, converted to an “enclave of barracks and officers’ quarters.” She writes, “What had once been the cinema snack bar now functioned as a reception-cum-registration counter for torturers and torturees.”

But despite such dark humor and sardonic observations, Roy’s generously expansive novel lacks the brittle spirit of satire. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is filled with utopian communities—unconventional, misguided, and temporary as they may be—the Khwagagah or Dream Palace of the Hijra, the Jannat Guest House, even the fighters in Kashmir calling for Azadi, or freedom. It’s a novel filled with the search to belong, to find “my people,” to seize love in some form, whether as romance, motherhood, or camaraderie. Roy even tucks in Anna Akhmatova’s brave optimism: “I am not yet cured of happiness.” In fact, when asked to respond to Appalachian novelist Ann Pancake’s charge that “the greatest challenge for many twenty-first century artists is to create literature that imagines a way forward,” Roy sounds downright idealistic: “The ‘way forward’ will only come about when we change our way of seeing, when we redefine what we mean by words like ‘progress,’ ‘civilization,’ and ‘happiness.’ To do that we have to take a good look at ourselves. I think good novels help us to do that. And perhaps some are, in themselves, another way of seeing the world. In a non-didactic way, I hope The Ministry is that and does that.”

She’s right. Ultimately, it’s not politics that stay with us; it’s a beautifully written, powerful story. One of the most touching scenes in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is Musa recalling his young daughter, Miss Jebeen, demanding he tell her a story at night.

And then she would begin the story herself, shouting it out into the somber curfewed night, her raucous delight dancing out of the windows and rousing the neighborhood. Yeth manz ne kahn balai aasi! Noa aes sa kunni junglas manz roazaan! There wasn’t a witch, and she didn’t live in the jungle. Tell me a story, and can we cut the crap about the witch and the jungle? Can you tell me a real story? 

Perhaps that’s what Arundhati Roy has done with this ambitious novel that spans a continent and several decades of war and peace and people who live in palaces and on the streets as well as undercover and underground—a novel that’s worth the wait. Once again, she has told a real story. 

 

Renée H. Shea has profiled numerous authors for Poets & Writers Magazine, including Tracy K. Smith, Julie Otsuka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Maxine Hong Kingston. She is currently working on a series of textbooks for Bedford, Freeman & Worth, including Advanced Language and Literature (2017) and Foundations of Language and Literature, forthcoming in 2018. 

The Emotional Realist Talks to Ghosts: A Q&A With George Saunders

by

Kevin Larimer

2.15.17

In the late spring of 2000, on my first feature assignment as a twenty-seven-year-old editorial assistant for this magazine, I took the five-and-a-half-hour train ride from New York City to Syracuse, New York, to interview the author of one of that summer’s most highly anticipated books, the story collection Pastoralia (Riverhead Books). George Saunders had not yet received the kind of popular acclaim and critical recognition that followed him in the years to come, in the form of a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called Genius Grant; the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story; an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; the Story Prize; and so many other honors. He had not yet appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert or This Week With George Stephanopoulos, or been named by Time magazine as one of the hundred most influential people in the world. He had not yet delivered the convocation address at Syracuse University that was posted on the website of the New York Times and then, within days, shared more than a million times on social media.

Back in 2000, when the author had published just one collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (Random House, 1996), and his second was just starting to gain momentum, the name George Saunders was already on every critic’s tongue, but the literary world had yet to discover the true depth of the author’s talent. Seventeen years later, we still haven’t touched bedrock, though his subsequent books—two more story collections, In Persuasion Nation (Riverhead Books, 2006) and Tenth of December (Random House, 2013); a novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (Riverhead Books, 2005); a children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (Villard, 2000); and a collection of essays, The Braindead Megaphone (Riverhead Books, 2007)—have added to the already overwhelming evidence that we are in the presence of a writer whose boundless imagination, laugh-out-loud humor, moral acuity, and, though he would protest the characterization, generosity of spirit truly set him apart.

Saunders’s soaring talents are once again on display in his long-awaited debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, published in February by Random House. Presenting a kaleidoscopic panorama of voices (the audiobook employs a cast of 166 narrators), Lincoln in the Bardo is set in a graveyard, over the course of a single night in 1862, where President Abraham Lincoln grieves the death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie, while the boy’s ghost confronts a congregation of other spirits in a strange purgatory—called the bardo, in Tibetan tradition. It is a wonderfully bizarre and hilariously terrifying examination of the ability to live and love with the knowledge that everything we hold dear will come to an end.

Seventeen years ago, Saunders offered to spend more of his time with me than any professional obligation or friendly courtesy required of him. It was my first, and fortunately not my last, opportunity to get to know this bighearted, wholly original writer. In December we met again, at a hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where we spoke for several hours about emotional realism, humor as a form of honesty, the flexibility of form, and, because this is George Saunders, poop jokes.

In 2000, I asked you if you’d ever tried to write a novel, and you replied, “Most of those stories in Pastoralia started out as novels. I’ve tried and I just recently got to the point where I’m not going to try anymore. If it happens, it’ll happen organically.” Here you are with your debut novel—so, did it happen organically?
The idea for Lincoln in the Bardo had been around for a long time, and I found myself saying, “Well, I’ll do it, but I’m not sure it’s going to be a novel. I’m hoping it isn’t. I’m going to push against it whenever it starts to bloat.” And that principle seemed to be a good compositional principle, you know? If something tries to push its way into the book, you give it a stern look and say, “Are you just here because you think this is a novel? Because that’s next door.” So that meant, too, that all the moves I developed [writing stories] over the years were of course the ones that I used. How could it be otherwise, you know? But about halfway through, I said, “Oh, this is a novel only because it’s on a bigger stretcher-frame.” But each of the individual sections was being executed by the same principles as a story would be. So that was a relief.

You just treated it like pieces of a story.
Yes. And I don’t know if other writers do this, but there’s that moment where you go, “Oh my God, I’m writing a novel. Anything goes!” And a couple of times I got in trouble because that mind-set took over. And then I would get that back in the box and say, “No, it’s by the same principles as all these stories: efficiency, one section producing and then leading to another. That’s it.” And then I would get back on track. So it was like the more I said, “The principles don’t change, but maybe the scale changes,” then I could do it. It was really a comfort to know that, in art, form is a way of accommodating one’s natural inclinations. If your natural inclination is to make small, concise structures, then form shows up and says, “Would you like me to help you link your small, concise structures?” And then form seems organic; it doesn’t seem whimsical. It doesn’t seem arbitrary. It seems organic, because it’s what allows you to accommodate your strengths.

Actually, at one point, a long time ago, I tried to do sort of a third-person version of this. And it was just dull, you know? “Lincoln walked into the graveyard. It was a dark and stormy night.” And sometimes you get into a zone like that, and you recoil. Like, no, no, no, I’m not using that voice. I can’t do it.

How far did you go using that voice?
A page. Maybe two pages. It just felt creepy. And it was funny, because I loved that idea, but the prose was doing nothing to get me into a happy zone vis-à-vis that idea. It was just, like, typing about Lincoln. So that was no good. But I did try, over the years, to write a play. Kind of the same thing: It made me more convinced that there was definitely a story there, but that wasn’t it. The play wasn’t it, for sure.

That wasn’t the form that was going to allow you to tell the story.
No. And strangely enough, the book is kind of playlike. But it was just, you know, sometimes you think—for me, for example, when I think, “I’m going to write a poem today,” it’s a guarantee that bullshit will come out of my head, because I’ve said I’m going to be a poet, and I just don’t have that gift. So my “poems,” in quotes, sound like poems in quotes. They’re just not good. The play was like that. It had a certain kind of faux-dramatic quality that just wasn’t interesting.

And how far did you get into the play?
I finished it. I did twenty or thirty drafts. I kept thinking, “I’m going to figure out something here that makes this work.” At one point I put a big sign across it: Don’t Touch It! Just stay away.

That makes me think of something Colson Whitehead said when we talked for a recent episode of our podcast, Ampersand, about The Underground Railroad and how the idea for that was something he’d had fifteen years ago. And he just put it aside. He said he wanted to wait because he didn’t feel like he could do the idea justice. He wanted to become a better writer before he tackled that subject matter.
That’s exactly the feeling I had about this…. I feel like my whole trajectory has been as a person of quite limited talent who’s a little strange and learns to harness that strangeness to accent the talent. So then you’re walking on a pretty thin ledge for the first two or three books. I think the thing has been trying to make my work—I’ve said as “happy” as I am, but I’m not sure I’m really that happy—I’m trying to make my work more like me. And so, over the past twenty years, the process has been trying to expand my toolbox to allow access to these different emotional valences that I didn’t really have access to early on. Or, I had access to them but only through a really dark route. I don’t think those early stories are particularly not hopeful. I think they’re kind of hopeful, but you’ve got to go a long way to get there, you know?

I suppose it’s like one’s personality: When you’re young, you’re a little insecure, you’re a little stealthy, and you try to find your way in the world, so you start embracing certain approaches and eschewing other ones. Then maybe at some midlife point, you go, “Wait now, I wonder if there’s more to me than this,” and you start to try to become more expansive, or maybe just get a little more comfortable in your skin, and you go, “Okay, I’m going to reconsider.” So for me it was an artistic enactment of that, which happened when I started writing essays. Especially the travel essays. Andy Ward, whom I worked with at GQ, had a really nice way of encouraging me when I would get into a place where I wasn’t relying on humor quite so much. And that in turn led to the Tenth of December and a couple of stories where suddenly I was drawing more directly on my real life…and finding that you could actually do that and still have a good prose style. Those kinds of things were the ladder that led me to be able to try this book.

What was the initial germ of the idea for this novel?
We were in D.C. and driving by Oakhill Cemetery, and my wife’s cousin just casually pointed up and said, “That crypt up there…” I don’t know if we could actually see the crypt, or if we could just see the graveyard, but he said, “Lincoln’s son was buried up there.” And at that point, I didn’t even know Lincoln had a son. I’m not exactly a history major. And then she said, “Yeah, you know, he died while Lincoln was in office, a very low moment in the presidency, and Lincoln was so bereft that he apparently snuck out of the White House, crossed the city at night, and then newspapers at the time”—I’ve verified this since—“said that he had touched or held the body several times.” So that’s just one of those weird historical things. One, that a president at that point in history could leave the White House. This was during the Bill Clinton years, so you thought, “Bill Clinton’s not coming out at night.” And then also, as a father, just this sense of loss, and also the idea that, at that time, to touch and hold a body wouldn’t have been considered quite as morbid as we consider it. And this doesn’t happen to me, I’m not a real visual person, but there was just a pop of that image of Lincoln with the body across his lap—the Pietà,  a monument or memorial or whatever. And then your mind goes, “Oh, that’d be a good story,” and I just had a feeling like, “Yeah, not for you.” Because maybe at that point…what year did we see each other?

That was 2000.
So it would be around that time. A little earlier than that, because Clinton was president. At that point I had just gotten up on my feet a little bit with a certain voice and a certain approach to material that for me was very new. So when I just did the mental transposition of that material with what I thought was my voice at that point, it’s almost like sparks: “Nah, that isn’t right.” So I put it aside. I’m not sure I was so confident I ever would write about it. But I remember kind of thinking, “Yeah, there are people who could do that, but in this life, maybe it’s just not me.” And there are lots of stories in the world; I just happened to hear that one. No problem. But it definitely persisted. And the way I knew it was, I have a range of, like anybody, happiness and not-happiness, and whenever I’d be happy, that idea would almost come stand behind me and go, “Would you please?”

But every time I thought of it, I got that uncomfortable feeling like it was more than I could do. I’m not sure I was quite as confident as Colson that I would get there, but I just wasn’t able to get over it. So that’s interesting: an idea that just refuses to be boxed. That’s kind of weird. And I hadn’t actually ever had that feeling before. I normally don’t even think in ideas. So I felt a trap was being set, because when I was a younger writer, I would have those kinds of ideas: A novel in which…

The grand elevator pitch.
Right. And then nothing would happen. So I was really resisting it. But when I have an idea like that, it’s trying to summon me into some new artistic ground. I was permitting parts of myself into the book that I had been keeping out all these years—genuine parts, and parts that I wanted to have in there. And somehow the idea went, “Come here, come here, come here. Trust me, trust me.” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I think it’s a trap.” And the idea said, “It is! It’s a good trap!”

And suddenly, you find yourself in really interesting, dramatic situations where the only way out is to summon up those previously suppressed or denied parts of your psyche that can finish it. And for me, those tended to be the more hopeful parts, actually. Or, hopeful and narratively straight, being comfortable with drama, no need to turn around and make jokes, just stay in that zone a little longer than I would normally be comfortable with. And then turn around and make the joke. It was a great experience.

I listened to an interview you gave around the time Tenth of December came out. And you were talking about how you were a little nervous about the reception of it, because you felt like it had more realism in it than your earlier work. Do you see this as a kind of trajectory, that you’re kind of pushing toward more realism?
It’s funny, in talking about writing, I think people tend to make binaries. I don’t know why, but a student will come in and say, “I don’t know if I want to be funny or serious.” Or sometimes they’ll link it to people: “I either want to be Kerouac or Flannery O’Connor.” I don’t know why these writing problems present as binaries, but they seem to be neurological. So then of course one of the things you can do is, you can destabilize the binary. If you like O’Connor and Kerouac, put them on one side of the binary, and who’s on the other side? In this new novel, it’s a kind of realism, but when I think about writing a truly realistic book, I don’t have any interest in it. So I would say it’s emotional realism. And the goal has always been—that’s actually what it is, that’s the first time I’ve realized that: It’s just to have the fiction somehow simpatico with my actual emotional life, or let’s say with our actual emotional lives. I think that was always the goal. In CivilWarLand, that’s what I was trying to do. I was in a pretty rough patch. But I think the idea would be to say, “Okay, I’m going to try to remember every emotional state I’ve ever been in, and then assume that there are a bunch I haven’t been in, and that out in the world, all the ones I’ve ever experienced are still going on. It’s not like being a depressed eighteen-year-old went away because I turned nineteen.” So then you try to experiment, to imagine all those coexisting [states]; develop a style that would allow you to talk about that. I don’t really care much about realism, except in that sense. What does the human mind actually produce for us? What experiences and prejudices and impulses and desires? How do those desires actually play out in the real world? To get to the point where you could actually accommodate that would be the goal. And that makes sense for my work, because this novel isn’t—there are only three living people in the book, so I don’t know if we could really call it realism, but I think it certainly felt like I had more room to be emotionally realistic. In other words, to be able to write about grief not glancingly but rather directly. There’s some of that in the early books, but it’s always just a quick hit and move on, almost like a marker of grief. To be able to turn directly to it for three hundred pages feels to me like a step in the direction of emotional capaciousness, let’s say. So the goal would be, when I’m three hundred years old and I’m finishing my last book, that to anybody who walked in I’d be able to say, “Oh yeah, I get that. I love you, I understand you. Let’s have a book about you.” Whereas even now, there are some areas of human experience where I’m just like, “Yeah, I don’t know enough.” Or maybe I don’t have enough generosity of spirit.

In the interview you did with Random House—the one that appears in the back of the ARC—you talking about this book being a sort of chorus of voices. And you say, “These are people who did not in life manage to bring forth what was within them.” Where did that come from? It’s a psalm, I think.
It’s the Gnostic Gospels, yeah. In some ways it’s just traditional ghost theory, which is, “Why are you here?” “I want my liver back!”

Unfinished business.
That kind of thing. And that kind of melded with the Tibetan bardo idea, which is to me the more interesting and scarier idea: whatever way that your mind works in real time, right this minute, right this second. The body’s going to drop away, and that’s going to continue, but exaggerated. So with Heaven and Hell, it becomes a little complicated. It’s not: “Turn left, you’re in Heaven; turn right, you’re in Hell.” It’s: “Where are you right now?”

There’s that binary you were talking about again.
Exactly. There’s something that’s Heaven-esque maybe. So if a person had gotten into a relationship with their thoughts in this life in a way that made them mostly pretty loving and happy, then I guess the idea would be that when you kicked off, that would continue. Or if you were an intensely self-flagellating, suspicious, greedy person whose every thought was sort of infused with that, then when you die, that could continue. That’s the theory. But the fun thing about this book was, your temptation was to say, “Well, let’s figure out what the afterlife is, and I’ll put it in a novel.” Well, I’m pretty sure that whatever it is, it’s not what you think it is. So part of it was fun. To make the afterlife surprising was a pretty natural thing for a comic writer to do. You know how to make things weird and surprising, so to take the afterlife and just make it a little bit strange. I didn’t want it to look like the Christian Heaven, I didn’t want it to look like the Buddhist Heaven. I wanted it to look like nothing you’d seen before, to simulate the idea that if you went there, you’d be like, “Oh my God, what is this?”

You’re referencing Heaven a lot.
They’re not in Heaven.

I read this novel as much darker. It inhabits a much darker space.
Yes, that’s true.

Back when we first talked sixteen years ago, you said that you could only write comic fiction. You said, “Humor, I don’t know, but comic.” So, is this a comic novel?
Yes. I think so. But…I got to certain places where, in early rounds, the material was so straight. Sort of slavishly straight. It just had a History Channel vibe in the early drafts. And that panicked me a little bit, because that’s where it looked like it wasn’t emotionally honest. It was something else. So I kind of panicked and dropped in a couple funny things. And they just didn’t belong in that book. They were kind of funny, but they also were…it’s like somebody in the middle of a marriage proposal who senses he’s going to get a “no,” so he does a fart joke. You know? You think, “Well, that’s a desperate move.” So then I had a few days of just saying, “Okay, wait a minute now.” Again, in the binaries: I was saying funny versus not-funny. Then I thought to myself, “Is there a way to turn that? And whatever it is that I have always thought of in my work as funny, or people have thought of as funny, can we rename that a little bit?” Just to give myself a little bit of room. And I thought, “Well, all right: How does a joke work in fiction?” I think the way it works is, you and I are walking through the story together, reader and writer, writer and reader, and there’s something I’ve said behind us, and I suddenly remember it. As we’re going into the apartment building, I eat a banana, I drop the peel. And then we’re coming out of the building, and I remember that, you know? And you have just said something really arrogant to me, and then you step on the peel and you fall. That’s comedy. But really, at its essence, it’s the writer remembering what he said. In other words, it’s a form of narrative alertness. So then I thought, “Okay, since this draft is a little straight, is there a way that I’m not being narratively alert enough?” And I could show you, there’s one particular moment where I had the three ghosts arriving, and I’d forgotten that they all had these crazy features, these physical manifestations. Just by the act of putting those descriptions in, the text came alive, and the text coming alive made me hear them better. And I gave them a couple funny lines. So the whole thing came alive, but with, I would say, narrative alertness. So then suddenly it gives you a little more freedom to do things that don’t break the tone of the scene. From then on, I’m like, “Oh yeah, you don’t have to be funny.” People like it when narrative alertness becomes funny, but there’s a lot of forms of narrative alertness. Cormac McCarthy is the most narratively alert person you could ever ask for. Not particularly funny, but when he’s moving through a landscape, he doesn’t forget anything that he’s made. It all comes home in that beautiful language.

The Orchard Keeper.
Unbelievable. And he sometimes can be very funny actually. But you can see that he’s not addicted to or looking for that. He’s just 100 percent alive in his fictive reality. Actually, Toni Morrison—I taught Sula this year: same. She can be very funny. But the main thing I feel with her is that the fictional world is just crackling with life, and the author is just generously looking around, blessing it all, and asking, “What do I need?” And that question means: What will make the most beautiful sentence I can put in front of you to make you feel as alive in the fictive reality as I am? So whether it’s humor or not is maybe a low-level understanding of that kind of interaction between reader and writer.

Well, I’ll tell you, when I started reading this I wasn’t sure what to do. Because I know you, and I’ve read all your books, and then here’s this novel. And it’s had such big fanfare. “George Saunders has a new novel, and I have all the feels,” that sort of thing. And I was reading along, and pretty early on you write, “When we are newly arrived in this hospital yard, young sir, and feel like weeping, what happens is, we tense up ever so slightly, and there is a mild toxic feeling in the joints, and little things inside us burst.” And so I stopped for a second, because so much of it, too, is that when a reader enters your work, so much depends on where the reader is as well. You don’t have complete control over the reader.
Not at all, no.

So at that phrase—“little things inside us burst”—I guess I was feeling emotional, and I knew I was about to read a novel about a father losing his son. And I have young kids. You know, it’s all those little things that are happening in the reader. So I read that sentence, and it’s like, “Oh, the dead are weeping.” And there are very real emotions in here that I’m thinking through as I’m reading. But then the very next sentence is, “Sometimes, we might poop a bit if we are fresh.” And right there we realize we’re in George Saunders’s world.
It’s so funny you should pick that out, because in the manuscript, that’s said on page two. In the galley, it’s deeper, but in what I worked on for many years, it was two. And I remember thinking, “I just hope my readers will make it to the poop joke.” And that’s my weakness, but I was just thinking, “That’s where I’m signaling that I’m all here.” I didn’t turn into a super-straight realist guy, which is a fear of mine, because humor came into my writing as a form of emotional honesty. We’re talking about when I was really young. I kept it out when I was trying to be Hemingway, which is a form of emotional dishonesty. My wife and I got married, we had our kids, we were having a great time, but we were pretty poor, all working really hard. The humor came back in at that point as “Holy shit, what’s going on here? This is really hard.” So that was honest. My fear is always that as you get old and august, the world actually stops being so difficult, and it’s not that funny anymore. Please note that I’m saying this in a British accent. [Laughter.] So in that case, again, that would be a form of emotional dishonesty. Just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. In that first long section I hope my readers don’t think I’m that guy now, that I’m just indulging in a straight historical narrative with capital-R Romantic tendencies. For me, that joke was a place to sort of breathe a little. You with me? I didn’t leave anything behind. I’m still doing it.

You did it.
But it sounds like you could have used a few more beats of the emotional stuff before the poop stuff.

You get a great mix of both in this novel. In all of your work.
You know what it reminds me of? If you were a Led Zeppelin fan, and then, what’s the album, the one with “Over the Hills and Far Away” on it?

Houses of the Holy.
There are parts of that album where you think, “Oh my God, where’s Jimmy Page? Where’s the guitar?” And they know that, and they’re kind of setting you up a little bit with those swelling strings, and then all of a sudden it starts. So to me, it was a little bit like, let’s make sure we don’t leave anything behind.

Let’s go back to something you said earlier about the essays that you were writing. You had mentioned that those gave you an opportunity to do a little bit of work on writing about your own emotional responses to things, which is in your fiction, but it’s not you, George Saunders, saying, “I feel this way.” There’s a part in the “Buddha Boy” essay, which a lot of people talk about because it’s a terrific essay….
Oh, thanks.

Do you mind if I read it?
Yeah, no, I love it.

“You know that feeling at the end of the day when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away, and for maybe the first time that day, you see with some clarity people you love and the ways you have during that day slightly ignored them, turned away from them to get back to what you were doing, blurted some mildly hurtful thing, projected instead of the deep love you really feel, a surge of defensiveness or self-protection or suspicion. That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets? I feel like that now, tired of the me I’ve always been, tired of making the same mistakes, repetitively stumbling after the same small ego-strokes, being caught in the same loops of anxiety and defensiveness.” I love that you had the presence and the courage to write that. I really connect with that notion. I think anybody who is sentimental, as you said that you are…
I am.

Perhaps nostalgic…
Yes.

And is very busy and maybe has kids, as we do, you can’t help but feel that way. Some of us feel that way a lot more often than others.
Those would be the good people.

But to push that idea a little further, I have those feelings, exactly what you’re talking about there. And it’s this tremendous feeling of guilt, because I have those moments, and then I even think of myself having those moments, like, “Oh, okay, at least I’m aware enough to be feeling this.”
Yeah, I think that’s true, actually.

But then an hour later, I’m checking my phone and looking at tweets. Yet it’s a wonder I ever leave the house and let my kids and my wife out of my sight. You know what I mean?
I do. I do. I think that you’re right, first of all, that the awareness that one is less loving or less present than one would wish is actually pretty good awareness, you know? Because there were times in my life when I didn’t even have that awareness. I just was…right. I think that’s where, for me, a person’s desire to get better on that score is what leads them to something. For some people, it’s a spiritual push, meditation or prayer. But I think just to be aware of that is huge. But as you say, it doesn’t change.

It doesn’t solve anything.
I know I can’t run a marathon, and I still can’t.

I could go out and train.
I could do that. But I’m aware I don’t want to. And I think that’s part of art. Part of fiction writing is a small training in assessing how good your awareness is. You come back to the page you’ve written, and you’re reacting to it by reading it. And the critical thing is: How fine-tuned and honest are your reactions to your own work? So a part gets slow; do you notice it? Do you honor the fact that you noticed it? Are you willing to try to fix it? And then the second level is: You’re aware of your reaction to the work, then outside of that you’re also aware that that reaction is also temporary and may change. So how then do you revise? You go ahead and make the change. But then the next day you come back and do it again. And at some point, you reach a steady state where your reaction to the piece is pretty consistent. Then you’re good. But for me, that mimics the process of being in the world. How are you feeling right now? How reliable is your feeling about how you’re feeling right now?

I want to say one thing parenthetically about the GQ pieces, because you are right that I was able to turn to my own emotional state to write about them. The other thing that I learned is just the simple mechanics of…describing the setting, which I don’t usually do in my fiction. I feel like I can’t get anything going with that. Well, when you have to do it, you find that you can get something going. So there was a part of me that got more comfortable with the power of just describing physical stuff. That was something I had been suppressing. So the idea that I would spend a couple lines describing someone’s looks or something, I usually wouldn’t do it, except if I could get a little joke in there. But now I have more confidence that if I am given the task of describing your face or this street outside, I’ll be able to come up with some language that is interesting in its own right. That is something I learned from magazine writing. You’re driving through South Texas for three hours, and it’s gorgeous. You think, “Do I have something I can say about this?” Once I gave myself permission to do that, I found that, sure, your years of writing have made your language skills good enough to describe a mountain.

I want to refer to something in an essay you wrote, “My Writing Education: A Time Line,” about your experience earning a master’s degree in creative writing at Syracuse University in the 1980s. You wrote about a meeting you had with one of your teachers, Doug Unger, and basically that he didn’t pull any punches in telling you that your thesis was essentially not…it was “crap,” I think, is the word he used.
He didn’t say it was crap; he just didn’t say it wasn’t.

Right. [Laughter.] And your response was that it was difficult to hear, of course, but that he had the respect to do such a thing for you, to not just feed you a line about how brilliant you are. That’s one of the things an MFA program can offer: respect. Because for a creative writer, where else can you go in today’s society where everyone around you respects what you’re doing—maybe they don’t necessarily like your work, but the act of writing is respected. That sort of validation for writers is something we try to provide at Poets & Writers, too: What you’re doing is important. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about your experience teaching at Syracuse. When we talked in 2000, you had been teaching there for maybe three or four years. Did you have a sense then that you were going to be there for twenty years or more?
I hoped so. Yeah, those early years were really rich, and they still are. There’s something to be gained by staying in the same place for a long time. But I like this idea of respect. That’s correct. And I think, also, what Doug gave me in that moment and what I got from my whole time there was just that standards don’t move, you know? This thing that we are doing is actually really hard, and there are no guarantees that anybody will be able to accomplish anything. So when you get to an MFA program and you realize that there actually are standards that aren’t being imposed by your teachers; they’re being imposed by the world, by culture, and the rabbit hole you have to go down is very, very deep. There are levels of exertion and understanding that you haven’t even touched yet. And the whole purpose for that journey is so you can be most uniquely yourself. That’s what it should do. It should be neither a teardown nor a feel-good factory. But just to say, this thing that you’re doing is really, really difficult, really, really essential. You don’t even know yet. “Know you do not yet” [in Yoda voice]. You’ve got to say, “Actually, this is even harder than you think, and also, we don’t know how it’s going to be hard for you in particular.” To set that up I think is really useful. In some ways, it’s maybe like going to medical school—except for the money—but in the sense that someone teaching young doctors doesn’t say, “It’s all right. You don’t have to worry about tonsillectomies, because you probably will get only about six in your career, so don’t bother.” You know? That’s not a thing. The way you’d know a culture was going down the shitter would be if someone was doing that. I think it’s the same with the arts. But it’s complicated, because part of that process is to nurture, but part of the process is to not over-nurture, which I think can be a problem in MFA programs. You come to love these people so much, and the delivery of bad news is not fun. But respect is the key thing, because if you really loved a young writer and you saw that she was doing something contrary to achieving her full potential, it would definitely be an act of love to put up a sign to stop her from doing that, in whatever way worked. Basically, my prayer is: “Let me positively inflect this person once or twice while she’s here.” More, if possible, but once or twice would be great. If I could just have one interaction so that five years down the line, she goes, “Ah! I now know what he was talking about.” Or the best is when students have walled off certain material that they don’t want to do, they don’t want to do it, but it’s essential to them, and you somehow help them take the wall down. That’s really wonderful. Or when they have been hurt or maybe diminished by some life situation, and you can make them see that that actually is their material, and it’s all right.

Have you noticed any changes in how writers are approaching the MFA?
There are two observations. One is that the relation of the young writer to the MFA program has changed certainly since I was a student. At that time, the idea was kind of like, “Oh, that’s freaky. Let’s be outlaws and do this thing that isn’t actually going to make us richer or whatever.” And there weren’t very many programs. I’d never heard of one until the week before I applied. I didn’t know they existed. And then there’s the false and damaging assumption that if one wants to be a writer, you must go to an MFA program. And the related one, which is, if you go to an MFA program, you’ll definitely be a published writer. That whole suite of assumptions makes a lot of pressure for students. It’s what we call “professionalization,” and I think that’s not so good, and I predict there’ll be some kind of backlash against it. I predict there will be—there probably already is—a group of people who say, “I’m not going to an MFA program; I’m going to do it on my own.” And then we’ll have a series of successes from those writers, and the pendulum will swing. There’s nothing wrong with it, but the most damaging thing is when a student doesn’t get in and thinks, “Therefore I’m not a writer.” That is not true. And it’s a function, at least in our program, of the numbers. We get 650 applications for six spots. We have six spots because those are all that we can afford to fully fund, which we feel is kind of ethically or artistically important. So if you’re number seven, you’re great. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t get in.

Another thing you mentioned in that essay is that when you first got to Syracuse and were studying with Tobias Wolff, who is just an amazing writer, a master—
He’s a genius.

But you had the realization that he’s also a real person. He creates this amazing art for four hours in the morning, and then he goes grocery shopping or picks up the laundry or whatever. And that leads into something I want to talk about, which is how to respond to success. Because here you are, and if people see you picking up your laundry, it’s like, “Wow, George Saunders has this normal life.”
Not as often as you’d think. Mostly they’re just like, “Hmm, who’s that bald dude?”

You’ve been the cover story in the New York Times Magazine and appeared on talk shows; you sang a song with Stephen Colbert. You’ve achieved a very high level of success in this field. And literary journalists and bloggers and everyone on social media will pump that up, rightly so, but we don’t often talk about how, as a writer, you are supposed to respond to that sort of thing.
That’s a great question. I think one thing you can do is watch it. I’ve said before, if you eat a bunch of beans, you’re going to fart. That’s it. It wouldn’t be a disgrace, but you might notice it. So I think anybody, at any level, who has gotten any attention knows this syndrome, which is the birthday syndrome. You get something published, you tell your friends, they get excited, and you get elated, which, as a word, has positive connotations. But I actually see it as kind of a negative. You get elated: You can’t think about anything else and you want more. It’s like a sugar buzz. And then the next day, it’s not your birthday anymore, and you’re like, “What the fuck is wrong with all these idiots?” You know? That’s just the human mind responding to stimuli. So I think part of it is to ask yourself, “Where am I on that scale right now? How full of shit am I based on this attention that I’m getting?” And by the way, that would also go the other way; if you were being criticized, you would have anti-elation.

Deflation.
It’s the same thing, though, because you’re still thinking about only you and your hurt feelings. I think part of my deal is to sort of take everything in my life and subjugate it into the goal of using my talent wisely. So if success starts to occur, go on full alert to the ways in which your natural biologic reactions to success might screw up your work. One way is, you get into the rarefied-air syndrome, where you’re only in cool places being praised. That’s death. You can’t do that. The other thing would be believing that it’s objectively true that you did well. That’s anathema to an artist. Even after a work is done, you have to be going, “I should have done better; I know I could have.” That’s how you get to the next thing. I think most of it is just not believing in it too much, and maybe if you still have a little skill left you say, “Let me also not enjoy it too little, because it doesn’t happen all the time; it doesn’t happen to everybody.”

If we think about talent, talent is like a flower. I wasn’t doing publishable work until about thirty-three. Well, the odds are, it’s going to wilt. It may very well wilt before I die. So you have to treat it as something that you were gifted with briefly, and it may or may not be around. But I also think of it as kind of a fun adventure; especially in this time, I feel like it’s not a bad thing for a writer to work herself into a more public role, to kind of push herself into the public mind a little more so as to push back against some of the stuff that’s going on. But it’s like everything else. Anything that happens to you is going to have some effect on your artistic abilities, so I think part of it is to manage. Even when we met the last time, I had just come out of that period when I’d written a book at work, and the way I understood that was, okay, this is part of it. This is part of the artistic journey. I don’t have enough money, and my hours are getting burned up doing this work. All right, I accept. And then it becomes ennobled. And I found myself empowered by that. If I thought, “Ah, I’m getting cheated by the world,” then that’s disempowering. But to say, “This is part of my writer’s journey,” then suddenly you can take more of it.  

We have a little more time, and there are two topics that I want to touch on: One is the election and the other is death.
Wait, there was an election? Oh, you saved the good one for last.

It was very interesting to go back and reread, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” which was published in the New Yorker last July. I’ll confess that when I first read it—and this is maybe part of the problem—but my reaction was one of curiosity, almost like being at the zoo or something. Who are these creatures? What’s happening? It was almost a morbid curiosity. Now, rereading it, I think, “Why didn’t we see this coming?” I personally thought good would prevail. And it didn’t.
It did numerically.

It did numerically, but the system did not.
Well, that piece was really hard for me to finish, and I think it was exactly for the reason you’re naming. I went there thinking it was kind of a fringe—at the time, I think 40 percent of people who were going to vote said they would vote for Trump. But I thought it was kind of a fringe thing that would burn out. In other words, I found myself in the position of somebody who takes on the story, “Some People Like Football Better Than Baseball: Who Are They?” Well, they’re everybody. Or it’s a mix of all kinds of people. So I went in with this idea that I was going to try to pinpoint or diagnose this slender, fading movement, but in fact it’s half the people who voted. I’m still puzzling over it, actually. The one thing I’m sure of is this: The people who supported trump were either willing to ignore or could not see the humiliation and fear that he was causing in good people: Muslims, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, gay people, black people, any people of color. You’d have to be sort of willfully blind to not see the anxiety his rhetoric was causing in those people. So the thing that I think a lot of progressives are struggling with is, how could you discount that? Now, that’s an interesting question. Because the first-level answer is, they’re racist. I think it’s responsible to take that and try to break it apart a little bit, and one Gallup poll recently suggested an interesting answer, which was that most of the Trump supporters had a relatively low level of interaction with the other. They didn’t live near the border; they didn’t live near undocumented communities; they didn’t have a lot of friends of color. So it’s sort of a projection. When they have a fear about an undocumented person, it’s almost all projection.

And how were they getting their perspective on these matters? Fox News?
Well, this is the interesting thing, because that’s what my assumption was, so I would do these little fishing questions like, “So, where do you get your news?” And they’d say, “I get my news from all over.” And it’s funny, at the time, last spring, I took that to mean they also watched CNN or something. But now, in retrospect, I think they meant Fox and Breitbart and alt-right sites. They were seeing Fox as a little bit left of center. In the reporting, I would get these weird refusals of data sets to intersect. We’d be talking about something, and their facts were coming from somewhere I didn’t know about. And at the time, I don’t think that network of right-wing sites was as widely known. That explains a lot of the data in that piece. So I’m still puzzling over it.

But I think for writers, it’s a time…I feel kind of excited about writing. I don’t think I’ve ever felt in my life that it was a more essential task. When there’s leadership in place that is purposefully encouraging anti-factuality, that got elected on repeatedly being as nonspecific as possible, constantly invoking linguistic tropes, meaningless linguistic tropes, using these rhetorical stances to alienate and terrify groups of people, that’s when language shows up and goes, “I did matter all along! You writers knew about it.” So, right is still right, virtue is still virtue, and I feel a little bit energized about it. Now, the one thing I noticed during this thing that scares me is that this left-right divide is getting fatal. I went with these Trump supporters, and I got along with everybody and had a really nice time. They were very friendly; we chatted; I insulted them and they insulted me. But one thing that was funny—if I was feeling insecure, I’d drop the fact that I’m a New Yorker writer, in general. And I don’t think there was a single Trump supporter—there might have been one guy in Wisconsin—who knew what that was.

I expected, “Oh, that liberal rag.” Not even that. “Is that some liberal thing?” sometimes. But they didn’t know what it was. So that means then I went home and worked five months on a ten-thousand-word piece trying to be very measured but not a pushover and all this stuff. Who read it? We read it. Now, I’m a fan of preaching to the choir; the choir needs to huddle around the most profound version of our ethos. But it was weird to think, “If I wanted to bust out and really speak directly to Trump supporters, how would I do it?”

That’s the question.
It’s a big question.

You mentioned that you feel  hopeful and energized now. That’s a very good message, this idea that language does matter now. Maybe now more than ever. But the hard thing is trying to reconcile the fact that no one really gave a shit about the language Trump was using during the campaign.
I would break that down, because many of us, including you, care deeply about it.

Of course. It didn’t have an effect, though. When I was hearing him say some of these things—“Grab them by the whatever”—I was like, “Oh, well, it’s over now,” because there’s no way someone’s going to vote for that.
It’s disqualifying, right, right.

But they did.
Yeah. And that’s a deep well. One thing I’m trying to tell myself in order to stay hopeful is that heartbreak is the difference between what you thought the world was and what the world actually turned out to be. So you thought this person loved you; they didn’t. Aww. Well, actually, that’s on you, in a sense. So those of us who are feeling crestfallen or heartbroken at this time, I’m trying to say to myself, “That’s your problem! You were out there in the rallies, why didn’t you know?” So then isn’t it literary to say, “I’m going to adjust my view because it was too small. I misunderstood America. I misunderstood the country.” That’s okay. You’re allowed to misunderstand. Also, America is allowed to be as fucked up as it wants to be. My perceptions just can’t be out of sync with that. That’s one thing.

Now, we talk about specificity. With this thing, a fifth of the country voted for Trump. That’s a pretty small number. To elect someone else would take a sliver of about 15 percent. Say 15 percent of the population would have to flip over into an anti-Trump stance. That’s really easy.

Or just vote at all.
Right. But part of me is wanting to say because of our election procedure, this looks like the country has totally changed, but the truth is—and this is something I left out of the piece because it didn’t come into focus—so many of those people I talked to were as much anti-Hillary as for Trump. To me, that’s mystifying, but that was their position. So I would imagine if you just plunk in Joe Biden next time, it all shifts. So I’m not hopeless. It’s still depressing, mostly because it makes me sad to think of all the people I met on this trip down in Phoenix, and so many wonderful Mexican Americans and also Mexican immigrants who were so humiliated by this. You know, they work so hard, and now the country is sort of turning them into enemies. And that’s heartbreaking. That’s disgusting, actually, and it makes me sad. But the other thing it does is it backlights our whole history a little differently. You talk to any African American and you say, “America’s racist!” they’ll go, “That’s not news.” So I think part of the sadness but also maybe the invigorating thing for me as an older person is to go, you know what? I maybe never saw this country correctly. And as you get older, a little bit of an Aaron Copland vibe gets in your head, like, “Oh, this lovely country that’s been so good to me.” It’s a time for me to maybe reconsider, for everyone to reconsider, and say, “Yeah, this is not new, this kind of oppressive rhetoric and this kind of knee-jerk, reactionary demagogue thing. We’ve been fighting it a long time.” I think heartbreak comes from the fact that many of us felt that that was in its death throes and that this next administration would be the end of it, or at least a good movement towards the end of it, and now we have to wait.

It’s also perhaps naive for some of us to have thought that we understood this country. It’s a huge country. There are so many people, so many different kinds of people, and to think that we know who we are as one united…
Right. And so much of that comes from our mind, what we want to see. But to turn it back to writers: What an incredible moment to say, “Okay, we don’t know.” And let’s just generalize: “We don’t know the Midwest.” Well, that’s a good project, because it’s full of human beings and therefore full of literature. I remember coming the other direction; I was in Amarillo before I came to the Syracuse program, and I’d been working in a slaughterhouse, and we’d been having a lot of drama in our circle of friends and family—real deaths and drugs and all kinds of dark stuff. And I came out here very hopeful that that would give me a badge of authenticity, kind of like when Kerouac met Neal Cassidy. I came out, and I found that a lot of the people I met in the artistic community hadn’t had much experience there, and so therefore it didn’t hold much interest. It was sometimes just a one-line joke, you know? “Oh, Amarillo, I drove through there. Bunch of currency exchanges.” And I remember, it was maybe one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life to see that I wasn’t going to get in there with that. There was no understanding that there was an entire human community there that I loved, and they were suffering. So now, it’s a tremendous literary mission to say, “Can we reimagine our country?” It’s going to take some legwork, and it’s going to take some curiosity, which is in short supply these days, in both directions. 

Well, shifting gears here—
Let’s move on to death!

Let’s move on to death. It seems like the perfect place to end our conversation. You’ve mentioned that you find death such an interesting and terrifying thing to write about. It’s in all of your work, but this book in particular, because all but three people are dead. And a horse.
Thank you for noting the horse. [Laughter.] I think it’s because I have a reasonable level of belief that it’ll actually happen to me. I remember, as a kid, being in my grandparents’ house in Texas, and it was a smallish house, and I could hear their sleep-noises, and it hit me really hard—and they were in their sixties, so they were old to me at that time—and I couldn’t sleep, and I thought, “They’re going to die, my God.” And that just-woke-up sort of confusion: “What if they die right now? They could. Well, they could. They’re going to, and they could.” I don’t think I’m fascinated with it, but I kind of feel like, you know, if you’re on the tracks and you distantly hear a train, come on! I’m not fascinated with the train, but—

It’s a fact, coming.
Yes.

I guess another way to phrase the question here is that, similar to how taking the election as this sort of negative and looking at it as a positive, which you so beautiful did, it’s a similar thing with death. I think that the kind of general feeling about death is that it’s a negative. And yet it’s going to happen to every one of us. And you seem to have taken the positive view, which is that it makes life, life.
Yes. Let me put it another way: As with the election, it’s not that you think the thing itself is positive, but being willing to accept the reality of the thing is positive. Then you accommodate it. It’s kind of like—actually, it’s sort of anti-denial. Denial is something I’m very prone to, and it’s always gotten me in trouble. Okay, look, death seems to be, as far as I can tell, it’s going to come for me. So is there any way I can accommodate that knowledge? No matter what, whether it enriches your life or fucks it up, it’s still healthy to acknowledge. So if you go to a party, and you know everyone is leaving at midnight, it should affect the way you pace yourself, or the way you are there.

I think what happened with me is, again, because of that thin ledge of talent I have, I’m not a writer who could write a story about something that has no urgency for me. There are really talented writers who say, “Oh, I’m going to imagine that I live in that apartment.” I can’t even do it, something so casual. I flounder in that mode. So I have to make sure that my stories get on something that really matters to me. Death would be one. I always quote Flannery O’Connor: “A writer can choose what he writes, but he can’t choose what he makes live.” So coming at that idea from the other direction, if your prose is flat, that means you’re not writing about—well, it means your prose is flat. And it means you better stop that. So for me, what that means is, when I get off into something where the prose starts jangling, then full-speed ahead, don’t worry about what it’s about. But that tends to be about mortality. And it might just be a lack of subtlety. I’m not too good at making a story in which nothing big happens. I mean, the masters do. Chekhov, he always can do that. I think I’m maybe just not that subtle. So for me, peril, death, has to be there for me to get the necessary energy.

This whole novel is predicated on death. Did anything about writing it surprise you?
Oh, yeah. So much. But mostly it’s—this is Poets & Writers, so we can talk about it—but mostly it was the internal dynamics. If you’re writing a story as over-the-top as this one, it’s all in the doing. It’s all in the line-to-line and section-to-section transfers. And my thought was, if ever once I got too cheesy or on the nose, all the air goes out of the balloon. So much of the editing work was: If I juxtapose this speech with this speech, what does it feel like? If I cut this speech and move this one up? I just finished section nine; which way am I going? And the constant enemy was kind of—I was going to say “banality,” but it’s not really that. I think a lot of the energy is, as a reader, going, “What the fuck’s going on here? Who are these people?” And then, just about the time they figure out who they are, then I have to keep moving it. The idea was to keep the reader always a little bit behind me but interested. So sometimes if you make a too-obvious structural move, the reader passes you. “Oh, it’s a ghost story.” That’s really hard to talk about, but it’s all the micromanaging of text and transitions and the way the speech is made, which I really like, because if my attention’s on that stuff, the big questions come in anyway, and they come in naturally. So the surprises—there were thousands of things that surprised me.

I have to ask you about one of the voices in the book: the hunter.
Yeah.

Where did that come from?
I don’t know.

You pause on that character it seemed to me in a slightly different way. It was more detailed in terms of what he had to do in the afterlife. All the thousands of animals he killed during his lifetime were gathered around him, and he had to hold them all, one by one, “for a period ranging from several hours to several months, depending on…the state of fear the beast happened to have been in at the time of its passing.”
I mean, I could make something up, but the truth is, this is what I love about writing. Basically, they’re going from Point A to Point B; they need to pass some people. What I love is to suspend the part of your mind that says, “Well, who should they pass?” and just go, “No, who do they pass.” And that guy just showed up. I don’t know why. I honestly…the only true answer is: I don’t know. He just showed up. And in that space…it’s funny: You’re walking through the woods, and you go, “Okay, I need somebody to show up on the left,” your mind turns there, and it supplies. That’s the difference between someone writing well and someone not. And I don’t think you can say much more than that. But you do train yourself, I think. I’ve noticed the training is mostly been to repress the side of me that wants to figure it out. Who should I have show up? No. Maybe just a vague turning in that direction that’s informed by everything that’s behind you, and then a trust that whatever the little intuitive leap is, is actually coming from the subconscious in a deeper way. But it’s literally like training yourself in putting up a little roadblock to your conscious mind and saying, just stay back a little bit. You don’t have to go away, but just stay back. And then veering over here and seeing what you’ve got. I mean, how do you talk about that?

You don’t want to look behind the curtain.
No, you don’t. But it’s also years of being in that exact space and being somewhat confident. And I would even say, in that moment when you turn away from the conscious, there are several different strands of other things. There are several candidates going, “I’m over here! I’m over here!” And there’s a micro-moment where you can go, “No, no, no, no, yeah.” So it’s really freaky.

Well, this book is full of those moments. As you say, it’s a comic novel, but when I was reading it, moments like that are haunting.
Oh, thanks.

Your work is full of those moments where it’s comic, laugh-out-loud moments, and then this little twist.
Part of that, again, is that alert[ness]. I’m trying to imagine where you are. Now, again, you can’t exactly, but it’s surprising how you sort of can. So if, on a micro-level, you feel like you just landed a very nice, profound, serious moment, and I’m watching Kevin—what if I do the poop joke? So it’s interesting, you know? You’re enjoying the pleasure of that deep, literary, serious moment. Now, you know, if we just left it alone, does that trail off? And if we follow it with another one, do you now feel like it’s becoming predictable? It’s a challenge of teaching in an MFA program, or teaching writing in general: Those little skills are so small and subrational, in a certain way. You can’t teach those moments, and yet everything abides in them. So that’s why I do a lot of close line-editing with my students, because in that way you can sort of communicate, if you have a sentence that’s this way, and you can edit it and make it this way, and that way’s better, you’ve kind of engaged that moment a little bit. That’s very interesting. And the danger is, in school, we’re always analyzing the effect after the fact, in analytical language. Which may or may not have anything to do with how Tolstoy did it in the first place. That’s the thing. I try to remind myself of that, that we’re talking about literature often from the wrong end of the telescope. That’s the conundrum of a writing education.

I was saying earlier how you can never know the mess of neuroses and emotions and everything that a reader is bringing to it, but on the other hand, just in my case, I’m not feeling anything new. I’m not going through anything so special that hasn’t been gone through by other people, you know?
Think of it this way: If we’re walking down the street, you’re having your thoughts, I’m having mine, somebody gets hit by a car; suddenly, we’re both in exactly the same space. So I think in art and writing, you can do the same thing, sometimes just with a simple sentence, you know? “They crossed the river.” You might be having a bad day, but suddenly, you’re crossing a river.

 

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.

The Very Persistent Mapper of Happenstance: A Q&A With George Saunders

by

Kevin Larimer

7.1.00

Don’t tell George Saunders you can’t get there from here. En route to an enviable writing career, he traveled from a working-class childhood in south Chicago to the oil fields of Indonesia, a slaughterhouse in Amarillo, Texas, and the stuffy office of an environmental company in Rochester, New York. Along the way he collected an MA in creative writing from Syracuse University, where he studied with Tobias Wolff, and a degree in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines.

Saunders readily admits he didn’t chart his course, and he approaches the writing of fiction the same way—with no particular destination in mind. As a result his stories end up in some unexpected places: a prehistoric theme park; a future world where citizens belong to two classes: “Normal” or “Flawed;” and a self-help seminar where participants learn to identify who has been “crapping in your oatmeal.” Ask him why his stories, at once hilarious and macabre, are littered with severed hands, dead aunts, see-through cows, and Civil War ghosts and he’ll share your curiosity. “Where does this shit come from? I don’t have an answer.”

Today Saunders teaches creative writing in the graduate program at Syracuse University. He lives with his wife of 13 years and his two daughters, ages 9 and 12. His first collection of short stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, was published in 1996 by Riverhead Books. In May, Riverhead published his second collection, Pastoralia. Villard will publish his modern fairy tale “for adults and future adults,” The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, illustrated by Lane Smith, in August.

Recently I visited Saunders in Syracuse. During lunch at Erawan Restaurant and over coffee in his sunny Victorian home, he revealed two qualities that make him so popular among his students—a friendliness and a generosity one wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in someone at this stage of a successful writing career. He also displayed a quality one would expect to find in the author of such stories as “The 400-Pound CEO” and “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror”—the uncanny ability to find humor in unlikely places.

One of the things that’s immediately intriguing about you as a writer is your sort of non-traditional background
That’s a nice way to put it …

Well, it doesn’t seem like you’ve been stagnating in some university setting.
No, that started up here. It was kind of an inadvertent path. When I look back I’m always a little bit embarrassed because it’s not like I had any sense. I had such a malformed sense of the world at each point that I ended up making some stupid decisions without really realizing what the options were. I grew up in Chicago in a pretty working-class neighborhood so writing wasn’t something…well, I didn’t really know who did it. It never occurred to me that I might do it. But I never even read a whole lot. I remember reading Johnny Tremain—that was a big watershed. I got a degree in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. This was at the height of the oil boom, so I went over to Sumatra and worked for a couple years in the oil fields. After that was a period of just bombing around with no real sense of what was going on. I worked in a slaughterhouse for a while in Amarillo, Texas. I was probably twenty-four or twenty-five. In that town if you wanted to get some money quick that’s where you went, and they would hire anybody and you could stay for as short as you wanted.

What did you do at the slaughterhouse?
I was a knuckle-puller. It’s a leg thing. It would come in on a hook. It would look like a big chicken leg. There was this complicated series of cuts. You had a hook in one hand and a knife in the other. The cuts were very surgical, some of them. When that was done you just sort of heaved it across onto this conveyor belt. It was like this big Rube Goldberg thing and it would go somewhere else. At one point I got demoted because I was too slow and I went to this place where all the stuff that was left over at the end came by on this big belt and you had to separate it. There was one box that was for bone and one was for fat and one for miscellaneous. The story was that the bone went to make pizza toppings, and fat was for marshmallows. It wasn’t too good.

So you were de-knuckling the leg. Of what animals? Cows?
Oh, cows, yeah. It was hard to tell. It could’ve been brontosaurus for all I know.

You’re a vegetarian now.
Yeah, but that’s pretty recent. One wasn’t a result of the other.

How did these kinds of experiences inform your work?
I always wanted to write but had never read anything contemporary. When I was in Asia there were all these great things to write about during the oil boom, but I didn’t have the vocabulary. I found myself drifting and not knowing how to put the stuff that was happening into the work because I had never seen it done before. But then I read that story “Hot Ice” by Stuart Dybek and that was basically my neighborhood where I grew up. To see that in prose… I couldn’t pretend that only Hemingway mattered after that. Dybek was a big breakthrough because I could for the first time see what you had to do to reality to make it literature, because I knew the neighborhood and I knew the people and I could see what he’d done to it.

You played guitar in a bar band in Texas.
A really bad bar band. We were called—it’s really embarrassing—we were called Rick Active and the Good Times Band. It was along Route 66 in Amarillo, where they had these drunk palaces where you’d go to drink and they’d pay us each $50 a night and we’d play the same set six times over and over again, never practice, no original songs. This was 1986. I should’ve known better then. In a way it’s like half of your mind is saying, “It’s okay, I’m just slumming, I’ll write about this some day,” and the other half is just that there weren’t a whole lot of other options.

Were there any other early influences?
Monty Python was a huge influence—the way that they would get at something archetypal through a side door was always really interesting. We just turned our kids on to that recently. The argument sketch. Do you remember that one? “I’m here for an argument.” “No you’re not.”

I remember watching Monty Python with my father. He was really busy and we didn’t do a lot together, but every Sunday night we’d watch that. In our neighborhood, a very working-class neighborhood, jokes were really a currency. If you could tell a joke or even if you could imitate somebody it was a really big deal. Junot Díaz, who teaches here at Syracuse, has this great theory that writers come out of any kind of situation where language equals power. So in his case, in the Dominican Republic, English was clearly a meal ticket. And I think that’s true. So that combined with just sitting there with my father roaring at Monty Python…somehow humor became validated. But for years, like a lot of working-class people, writing was that thing which I could not do. It had to be just beyond my grasp or it didn’t count, right? So it was only when that sort of dropped that I could really have fun with it. But that was relatively recently.

Humor is obviously a very big part of your writing. Humor combined with sentiment. I’m thinking of the ending of the short story “Isabelle” in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. It’s heartbreaking.
I’m increasingly happy to be a funny writer. What I find really funny is the straight faces that people keep in spite of the fact that life is so full of suffering. I think of the poses people strike, and the hatred that they develop in spite of the fact that in fifty years we are all going to be dust. We have to occupy those places so that’s really funny to me. Whenever I try to write hard and earnestly it always comes out like that. I have to sort of trust it. I can’t write anything that isn’t comic—I don’t know about funny—but comic. Earnestness is my enemy.

You’ve written short stories and a novella. Have you ever tried to write a novel?
Most of those stories started out as novels. I’ve tried and I just recently got to the point where I’m not going to try anymore. If it happens it’ll happen organically. I’m not going to sweat it because in the past when I tried to write a novel I thought, “I’ll have to do something fundamentally different, I’ll have to stretch things out.” But if I have any gift it’s for compression. At forty-one I’m like, “Well it’s nice that I can do something. I don’t have to do everything.” We’ll see what happens.

When I was working as an engineer at the environmental company there was just no way that a novel was going to happen. When I was in that job I was desperately trying to figure out another way because not only was it not a lot of money, but not a lot of time with the kids. There’s that great quote by Terry Eagleton: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” That was such a beautiful lesson because you come home half despising yourself because you’ve done such stupid things with your day. You’ve groveled and you’ve not even groveled efficiently. Then you come home and you’re exhausted and you’re not capable of generosity and I find it really sad.

A lot of your stories, like “Pastoralia” and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” take place in this beaurocratic, artificial universe. Disneyland gone wrong.
I think it’s mostly that job I worked at the environmental company. It was a provincial office of a medium-sized company that was based in Texas so it had all the rigidity with none of the brilliance. There were probably thirty people there and they were all pretty anxious and by the time I got there they were shrinking the place down. It wasn’t huge enough that it was faceless. We all knew each other. There was quite a bit of inside space where there was no natural light. My own ego, my youthful arrogance, and my own high expectations of myself were put suddenly in conflict with this because, you know, by then I had two kids. I was maybe thirty-three or thirty-four and nothing was going as planned. I hadn’t won the Nobel Prize yet and Hollywood wasn’t calling because I hadn’t published anything, so there was something about that that made it seem absurd. It was a pretty petty place and there were a lot of rules. I mean at one point I was sending stories out and I got a nice rejection from the New Yorker and I was so excited because an actual person had responded and in a fit of madness I mentioned this to my supervisor at the end of the day. And he got this stricken look on his face and he said, “Well actually, George, it’s come to our attention that you are using corporate resources to produce your ‘writing’ so we’d like you to discontinue that.” And this was a guy who knew me and he knew my kids. So that wasn’t too good.

How are you able to negotiate some of the awful things that happen in your stories—death, dismemberment—with humor?
That’s a South Side of Chicago thing because our whole world—communicating anything emotional—was to be sarcastic. If you wanted to say you loved somebody you’d punch him in the crotch. My impulses are always very sentimental, I mean mawkishly, sit-comishly so. So in some ways I think it’s a cloaking mechanism. If you have in one scene a kid getting his hand cut off, I think in some funny way you’re more willing to accept a sentimental scene. I don’t know if you’re more willing to accept it, but maybe the juxtaposition of those two things is more interesting. As a writer I’m really aware of my defects and how much I have to find other things to substitute, so humor helps. It’s got its own inherent energy so if you can sustain funniness you almost always have to sustain something else. Pure funny you see sometimes in humor columnists who are just funny, but in fiction to keep funny going you almost always dredge something else up. I think.

For some reason I think of Charlie Chaplin.
Yeah, The Great Dictator. I think partly it’s ritualized humility. If you think of the great evils: When China invades Tibet they’re not funny, they’re not self-doubting. There’s no trace of humor in what they’re doing. And Hitler: not a guy who’s at all prone to see funniness in himself. One of the great things about fiction is that if I write an asshole into a story it has to be me. I can’t generate him. And it’s always funny in the reviews they say my stories are full of losers. I know where I got all those things. I didn’t just make them up. I think it’s ritualized humility.

In your stories, one thing that continually strikes me is guilt. I’m thinking of “Winky” in Pastoralia, and just about every story in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.
Well, I think it’s the Catholic background. The binary that got set up was that you were either doing good or you were doing evil, and you were never doing good. If you actually appeared to be doing good there was probably something wrong with your intentions. I think if you have any moral tension, guilt is part of it. If a person can feel guilt they are at least cognizant of a moral interplay. It’s a powerful emotion—one, because it implies you’ve done wrong, and two, that you know you’ve done wrong.

When I was a kid in Chicago, the big thing was to go to a Bears game because it was expensive and people didn’t really do it. But this family that lived two doors down from us—they were maybe ten years off the boat from Poland and they didn’t have much money and they lived in a house that was completely bare, no furniture. It always smelled like noodles and they were always kind of barking at each other. One day the kid came over and said “I got Bears tickets.” It was like someone in the poorest neighborhood saying they had a house in the Hamptons. So I said, “Great, we’re going to go.” It was his father, his uncle, Greg, and me. It was a big journey with trains and buses, and we stopped at other Polish relatives and there was a lot of cheek-pinching. But I was going to endure it all to see Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. So we finally got to Wrigley Field and just before we go in the father says, “All right, boys, we’ve got a little problem which is that we only got two tickets, but don’t worry about it we got it figured out. The Andy Frain guys they never look up when they take your ticket.” So they picked each one of us up—we were maybe ten or eleven—picked us up and put us on their shoulders. And in those days they were still wearing those big overcoats, and they had us put our feet down their overcoat and they buttoned it up. And so the plan was that they were going to walk in and they would take our tickets and not look up. Now I was the all-time Goody Two-shoes, straight A, never had an evil thought. And I was just appalled to be cheating, and cheating publicly. Then the father says, “Now if they do look up, all you got to do is look retarded.” And he was serious. The idea was that if they thought you were retarded they would let you in for free. So he says, “Now let’s see how you’re gonna do it.” So we had to practice. And we started in. What I was really deeply ashamed of afterward is how willing I was. I was not going to get caught. If they busted us, I was going to go into the retarded thing, I was going to do what he said.

Something of that is in my writing too. When I’m getting ready to send something out, I get really intensely self-critical. To my credit I get really fanatical about revising, but sometimes that can bleed over to just lock-up.

I think sometimes you can find yourself frightened of what you’re going to find if you look at it too closely too soon. I finish something and I think it’s good and I don’t want to go back to it too early. How many times do you wake up the next morning and say, “That’s trash,” you know?
I think you’re right. Part of being a writer is to know when to trust yourself. I know I’m going to have a cycle. I’m going to love it more than it should be loved at first, hate it more than it should be hated later. You let your ecstatic side have it for a while, then you let your neurotic, self-doubting side. For me it was a breakthrough to realize that that wasn’t abnormal, that you weren’t right or wrong in either of those two, that you were right in both and wrong in both, and you just had to let it have a long shelf life and then it would start to make sense. Part of it, too, is knowing when to quit.

When I start to write a story I always have a simple design that would make it sort of classic and beautiful, but I can’t do it. I have some kind of weird thing that twists it, but the twist isn’t meaningless. Somehow the distortion that always happens if I work hard is useful. It’s like having this dog and going out in the field and saying, “Bring me back a pheasant.” That dog is your talent, and it runs out and and it comes back with the lower half of a Barbie doll. But if every time it brings back the lower half of a Barbie doll, you put those things together and you think, “That’s kinda good.” I don’t fight it anymore.

You write on a computer. You also said you revise a lot. How do you trust your ecstatic instinct electronically?
The kind of writing I do I wouldn’t be able to do without a computer. Until I get to the end part of a story I work on the screen almost exclusively. Any time something strikes me I just put it in or cut it or whatever. If there is anything significant that happens I’ll save it. But the main thing I do is to try to keep it really free. Nothing is ever lost. I can always go back to it. It’s like those fast motion pictures of trees growing. I don’t know if it’s true with trees or not but let’s pretend it is. You sort of see this thing accreting and parts disappear and come back in but in the long run it’s working in a general direction. I couldn’t do that on hard copy.

For me, writing has become—it sounds a little pretentious but sort of true—a spiritual practice. If you’re open to whatever the story presents with no attachments to what you did yesterday or any attachments to what you want the thing to be or how you want to be perceived, but just open to the needs of the story, that’s kind of ecstatic. It’s really beautiful to say, “What I did yesterday or for the last twenty years might be shit but that’s okay.” It’s interesting to see how the artistic form teaches you. It instructs you on your own shortcomings as a person. I love that writing can really help me turn back the spiraling neurosis. It can help me be a little bit less stupid, less judgmental and unkind.

You said it is important to be there when you’re writing, not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. Is that harder for you now that you have a couple books?
It was really hard after the first book because I just thought I had squeaked through a door. “The Falls” was the first story of the new book that I wrote and it was a real lucky sort of breakthrough because it was so different from the other book. And I remember writing it and thinking, ‘No I shouldn’t send it out because it’s not like the other ones.’ But when the New Yorker took it I thought maybe whatever it is I have to offer is not totally manifest in that book, it’s something different, and that was a nice feeling to think it’s not really about style but something else you have to offer.

And maybe you don’t even know what it is yet, and maybe you never will. Maybe you’ll be eighty and you just keep cranking stuff out and you’re good enough and then you die. When you’re young you think, “I want my work to last,” and then you see that nothing lasts. Shakespeare doesn’t last, nothing does. The moment of doing it is really all there is. Everything else is all delusion. It’s hard to remember, especially now when books are coming out.

Tell me a little about The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.
I have two daughters, and I would tell them these made-up stories about this little girl and they were funny and in some ways they were funnier than anything else. They were freer and not so programmatic. And I wrote it. It’s basically a short story really. And I liked it. There was something Monty Pythonesque about it. I didn’t have to worry about any realism and I had a really good time working on it and I sent it to Daniel Menaker at Random House and he bought it. As kind of an extra bonus he sent it to Lane Smith and Lane had read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” So that instantly became more of an important book than it was. That was really a thrill. I’d go down to his studio in New York and there would be a whole wall of sketches. Not only were they true to my work, they were twice as good as I could’ve ever dreamed of. One, he understood that the book is an exaggeration, but two, he understood the flavor of the exaggeration. It was really a thrill for someone who is not a bit visual. It was a good lesson for me because he is the least neurotic person I’ve ever met. He goes into the studio every day habitually and gets it done. I’m sort of a Catholic, “I think it’s good but it probably isn’t.” The Eeyore School of Literature.

Are you currently working on more stories?
I’ve got one that Lane Smith and I might do if I can get it to be good enough. It used to be a novella. It seems to be pretty funny. It started to be a kid’s story and then it extended to be about genocide. So unless there’s a big need for a child’s guide to genocide it won’t be that. I’m sure this summer I’ll be working. I don’t really make too many plans. I just sort of see what develops.

Kevin Larimer is the assistant editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Fiction writer George Saunders in Syracuse, New York, in the spring of 2000. (Credit: Jayne Wexler)

Turning Time Around: A Profile of Donald Hall

by

John Freeman

11.1.14

Old age sits in a chair,” Donald Hall writes in his new book, Essays After Eighty, “writing a little and diminishing.” And so it’s not a surprise on a late August afternoon to find the former U.S. poet laureate and author of more than fifty books, including twenty-two poetry collections, perched by a window of his New Hampshire home like a rare bird, resplendent with beard feathers, pecking at a manuscript. It’s a hot, still day, and the poet who once barnstormed the country stumping for poetry, speaking out against the Vietnam War, is a few weeks shy of eighty-six—his once-notable height a rumor. Hall responds to a knock slowly, rising deliberately and moving to the door with a walker, like a man who has learned the hard way just how unreliable feet can be as they approach ninety.

Photo by David Mendelsohn
 

He waves me through an immaculate New England kitchen into the living room, where it is easily ten degrees cooler. “It’s the wonder of a porch,” Hall says, and begins telling a story about his great-grandparents, who bought the house in 1865, and his grandparents, who ran its farm when he was a child. Those days have long passed, though, along with so much else. The chair Hall once burrowed into later burned when he dropped a cigarette. He sits down in its replacement. There’s no car outside either; driving is something he’s had to give up too. These forfeitures, and the fact that we are in a town without a store, lends the room a hermetic, plush silence. Andy Warhol prints surround us. There is a portrait with President Obama, who awarded Hall the 2010 National Medal of Arts. I wonder if I should have taken Hall’s response to my interview request at face value—that he was “old as hell,” that he would get tired.

But over the next few hours something remarkable happens. Hall turns time around. His face brightens, his voice deepens—he expands. Arms waving, eyes flashing with a performer’s glee, he unleashes energetic and startlingly pitch-perfect impressions—of his longtime friend Robert Bly, of the sonorous-voiced Geoffrey Hill. Tale by tale the room peoples with ghosts. Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Adrienne Rich parade through his stories and recede. A different era of poetry, when anthologies could lead to fistfights, is briefly resurrected, a time when one could live by one’s wits rather than on an adjunct’s crumbs.

In many ways we have Robert Graves to thank for these hours of narrative fireworks. Half a century ago, Graves visited the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Hall was then teaching, and encouraged the young poet to make a go of freelance writing. All it took, Graves instructed, was a twenty-minute nap and a bit of mercenary energy. All that was required, Graves said, was for the poet to use everything he had. Almost immediately after Graves departed Michigan, Hall began his first prose book—String Too Short to Be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm (David R. Godine, 1961), about the very house and farm where we now sit—setting up his eventual move to New Hampshire in 1975, with his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. This farm was to be their retirement.

Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of that flight, and twenty years have passed since Kenyon died of leukemia at the terribly young age of forty-seven. A three-time survivor of cancer, Hall did not expect to be here either, certainly not alone. “I was given a 30 percent chance of living five years in 1992,” the poet says. “I think, like a lot of people, I always thought I would die young,” he adds. “Instead, Jane died.” Hall’s father, who worked in the family dairy business, died at fifty-two. His mother, however, lived to be ninety and met all of her great-grandchildren, something Hall hopes to do as well. (He has two children from his first marriage and five grandchildren.)

In the interim, he has followed Graves’s advice and used everything. So now he brings forth his view on the territory before him in Essays After Eighty, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in December, in which he ruminates playfully and hilariously on the subtractions of old age: driving, drinking, sex, smoking, and physical vanity. It is a shockingly funny book, sometimes an irreverent one. He thumbs his nose at death, the very thing that in many ways made him a poet. “When I was nine or ten, a whole bunch of aunts and uncles died right in a row,” Hall remembers. “I sat in bed, at ten years old, saying to myself, ‘Death has become a reality.’ That was my language at ten.” He laughs.

His first love as a writer was Poe. As Hall wrote in Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), he composed his first poem, “The End of It All,” in the writer’s shadow. “Have you ever thought / Of the nearness of death to you?” the poem goes. He wonders at this precocious portentousness now, and then grows serious again. “I used to dread it. I don’t think about it much now, at eighty-five.”

Then, as now, he looked forward. He was in a hurry to grow up and leave Hamden, Connecticut, befriending students at nearby Yale in his teens, leaving home for his final two years of high school at Phillips Exeter. Hall’s mother and father met at Bates College, but the elder Hall always felt he had missed out on a life of the mind. He was determined the same would not happen to his only child. Donald was going to go to Harvard, and he did, arriving in the late 1940s amid a swell of enrollments from the GI Bill, and joining one of the greatest concentrations of poetic talent ever to be seen in one place. John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, John Hollander, and Robert Bly were all students there at the time. Richard Wilbur was a fellow.

“It was that American century,” Hall says now, “which lasted from 1944 to 1963. There was a great sense of looseness and power, that anything could happen.” Entering Harvard Yard, Hall recalls, one would be hawked a copy of the Daily Worker, the 1920s Communist newspaper, by a Brahmin student; same-sex couples held hands. “Frank O’Hara threw the best parties,” Hall remembers. “I knew him then as a fiction writer, but he was already writing all those poems on the side.” What Hall didn’t learn on campus he gleaned by lurking around the famous Grolier Poetry Book Shop. “I met Bob Creeley, who was a chicken farmer in New Hampshire. I met him in Grolier’s—that’s where you met everybody. We talked, I thought he was terrific, he was smart, and so I looked up his poems and they were terrible. Later I loved his poems; it took a while.”

Hall’s most important friendship, however, was with Bly, who had entered college after service in the army, but had seen no action. He’d had rheumatic fever. “He was like a dean and never smiled and didn’t open his mouth much. He wore a three-piece suit,” Hall remembers. “He’d come from western Minnesota to Harvard. For a while he was looking like a Harvard man, but a year later it was lumberjack shirts. We started talking about Robert Lowell—this was two years after Lord Weary’s Castle—and Richard Wilbur’s The Beautiful Changes. We were courting each other and so on; I thought he was a bright guy and he obviously [thought I was], too.”

Their friendship has lasted sixty-five years. Every poem Hall has published has been shown to Bly, and, Hall says, probably vice versa. They began writing to each other as soon as Hall left for England after graduation, and now their correspondence stretches to more than twenty thousand letters, most of which are archived at the University of New Hampshire. “I just got a letter from him the other day,” Hall says, “but it was handwritten, not typed, just six lines.” Bly is now eighty-seven years old but remains, Hall says, his optimistic self. “He always says he looks forward to seeing me soon again.”

Every single member of the generation with whom Hall entered Harvard, except for Ashbery, has now died, along with so many of his friends and contemporaries—Louis Simpson, James Wright, Maxine Kumin, Allen Ginsberg—and Hall takes seriously the task of remembering them and their time. The manuscript he was working on when I interrupted him will be a kind of update to his classic 1978 book, Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions (Harper & Row), which spun a series of keen-eyed portraits of the great poets Hall had met, from Robert Frost, whom Hall first encountered at age sixteen as a young enrollee at Bread Loaf, to T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, whom Hall interviewed for the Paris Review when he was serving as its first poetry editor, from 1953 to 1961.

Many of the new portraits will involve people Hall befriended when he moved to England to study literature at Oxford University in the early 1950s: Thom Gunn and Geoffrey Hill, both of whom he published at the very beginning of their careers, along with Ted Hughes and others. Sixty years after his first arrival in England, Hall remembers the time well and fondly, in spite of its deprivations. “Rationing ended during my first year at Oxford. Clothing was utility. You could not get Stilton cheese. It was all for export. You got Danish Blue, which was horrible. I had my ration card to hand in at the college. But I loved it.”

Hall met Hill for the first time in 1952, when the English poet was just twenty. “The poetry society had its final cocktail party, which meant South African sherry,” Hall remembers. “I invited him to it because I had read his poem in [the Oxford University student magazine] the Isis. I remember meeting Geoffrey and talking to him in the corner, and he talked to me in this most astonishing way, as if he were tipping his cap. I thought he was making fun of me; I thought he was making fun of me for being working class. No way. His father was a constable in a village in Worcestershire. That was the end of my first year. In the second year I saw Geoffrey almost every day. We went to pubs, talked poetry.”

Hall returned to the United States in 1954 with a manuscript in his back pocket that eventually became Exiles and Marriages (Viking), his debut volume, a finalist for the 1956 National Book Award alongside books by William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and his old teacher from Harvard, John Ciardi. W. H. Auden would win that year for The Shield of Achilles (Random House). Hall had received his acceptance letter from Viking on the day that he learned his father would die of cancer. He read reviews of the book to his father on his deathbed. “My cup…runneth over,” Hall remembers him saying.

Like so many poets of his time, from W. S. Merwin to Rich to Galway Kinnell, Hall began his career as a formalist, only to immediately feel the inadequacy of the forms in conveying, as he has written, the “crucial area of feeling.” He sorted out this anxiety by editing, with Louis Simpson and Robert Pack, an anthology called New Poets of England and America (Meridian Books, 1957), which formed a kind of footbridge between Britain and the United States. With an introduction by Robert Frost, it was as notable for whom it included at the beginnings of their careers—Gunn, Hill, Rich, and Merwin—as for whom it left out: Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, and others. It was not meant as an exclusionary gesture, Hall says now. “When Simpson and Pack and I made that anthology, we weren’t trying to champion one kind of poetry over another. We were just publishing what we thought were the best poems.” Poet Ron Padgett echoes the sense that perhaps the ensuing brouhaha over the anthology—and Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry: 1945–1960 (Grove Press, 1960)—was overrated. “Anthologies don’t create divisions or reinforce them,” he wrote in an e-mail, “except in the minds of people who want to think about such things instead of about specific poems.”

From the anthologies and into the university, Hall’s movement in the first four decades of his career charts the creation of the poetry establishment as we know it today. In the early 1960s he accepted a post at the University of Michigan, teaching poetry when creative writing programs were an unusual thing. The novelist and biographer Edmund White, who was a student of his in 1962, remembers Hall as “sort of round-faced, slightly chubby, like a very healthy chubby man. And he would sit on the edge of the desk, and in those days you could smoke in the classroom. He would sit and smoke a cigar. He introduced us to high-class gossip. He had just interviewed T. S. Eliot for the Paris Review, and Ezra Pound. So he was full of anecdotes about that. I suppose the kind of intensity and awe that he brought to his discussions of those people made us all feel that being a poet would be exciting.”

White was writing poetry at the time, and Hall eventually came to discourage him by pointing out that “Everything I was doing could have been done better in the nineteenth century,” White recalls. White saw Hall ten years ago at Princeton and reminded him of this fact, to which Hall said, “I think that turned out all right.” However, Hall did encourage Lawrence Joseph. “He was an absolutely fantastic teacher,” Joseph wrote in an e-mail. “I know of no one who knows about and loves poetry more than he does, and his generosity knew no bounds. It’s been a great, lifelong gift having had one of our finest poets and prose writers as a teacher.”

Today Hall remains glad that he taught, but relieved that he left when he did, after thirteen years. “I was beginning to play the tape. You know what I mean. When I began, kids would ask a question and I’d never thought of the subject, so when I answered I learned something. But at the end they weren’t asking anything I didn’t know about. It was very good to get out of teaching at that point.”

While he was at Michigan, Hall’s first marriage imploded, and he went through a difficult period of heavy drinking and self-pity. He eventually met Jane Kenyon, one of his students, and married her in 1972. They decided to spend a sabbatical year at Hall’s grandparents’ New Hampshire farm, where Hall had cleared brush and milked cows as a child, in 1975. Once there, Jane didn’t want to leave. “She said in October of that year she would chain herself in the root cellar before going back,” Hall remembers. “In December I resigned from the English department.”

Turning his back on tenure and health care at the age of forty-seven worried Hall so much he took out a subscription to Money magazine. Very quickly, however, the freedom from teaching relieved his anxiety. “The burst of energy, to be in this house, and to be writing all day!” Hall exclaims now. “I was working ten hours a day! I always managed to work on Christmas Day, just so I could say so. Jane, unless she was in the depths of depression, would be up in her study working.” It was in this house that he wrote most of his breakthrough book, Kicking the Leaves (Harper & Row, 1978), which finally smashed the shackles of the old formalism and breathed a Whitmanesque breadth into his lines. Here, too, he wrote his Caldecott Medal–winning children’s book, Ox-Cart Man (Viking, 1979), which began as a story told to him by a friendly uncle, who talked about a man who used to load up a cart with goods to take to the market in Portland, Maine, and then sold everything but the cart before returning home.

Hall has always been an active correspondent, but in New Hampshire his correspondence expanded exponentially. If you wrote to him, he responded. Novelist and poet Alice Mattison, who was Jane Kenyon’s best friend, remembers striking up a correspondence with her friend’s husband in 1986, the year Hall’s The Happy Man was published by Random House. “It did not get a lot of attention,” Mattison says now. “His editor left; it was orphaned. Not a lot of people knew about it. I loved the book, so I wrote him a letter, and he answered the letter in detail, and we were just launched.” In over twenty-five years, their correspondence hasn’t stopped. “There have been times when letters overlapped and we began two correspondences,” she says.

Mattison, like many of Kenyon’s friends, was devastated when Kenyon got sick and died. “There was nothing like going out for coffee and cake with Jane,” Mattison says. “I used to hike with her sometimes; she would carry along a backpack with everything you could think of, and we’d stop every ten minutes to have snacks and water, talk. She came at life with incredible intensity, and was kind.” Hall’s grieving for her was intense—and public. And it was followed, as he has written, by a period of manic promiscuity. Mattison has not considered any of it out of bounds. “I was grieving too; I was also quite beside myself. I thought he made sense. I didn’t think he was crazy. The losses—one’s own personal losses—are the only losses in the world when they happen to you. Nothing would have seemed excessive.”

Throughout our afternoon together Hall mentions Kenyon frequently, always in the present tense. Her grave is not far away, and if the pain of her loss is not so near as to draw tears, Hall seems to remember it in small ways and big—reflexively, fondly, without shame. She reappears throughout Essays After Eighty, and the memory of surviving her loss remains acute. “I wrote poems on her death or out of her death for about two hours a day,” he remembers. “I couldn’t keep on after that. And then I had another twenty-two hours of misery. But when I wrote about her, I was almost happy, and writing about her death and all that misery was something that kept me going.”

Now, another half dozen volumes of poetry later, there will be no more poems. “Poetry is sex,” Hall says, alighting with mischief and melancholy, when I ask if he really has given up writing new poems. “No testosterone,” he adds. Prose remains, however, even if it requires more work than ever. “I used to write a book review in three drafts,” he says, hardly bragging. Talking about one of the pieces in his new book, he idly mentions it went through eighty drafts. How is that possible? “I will write down a word, and I know I’m not going to use it eventually, it’s a blank word I will fill in later, and probably in eighty drafts I’ve had ten or eleven words in one place, and each time it’s replaced by something more particular, or that fits the tone better, or with a better sense of opposites, you know, putting together words that don’t belong together.”

This work, and personal correspondence, keeps him busy. As he writes in Essays After Eighty, each day begins in the same way: “In the morning, I turn on the coffee, glue in my teeth, take four pills, swallow Metamucil and wipe it off my beard, fasten a brace over my buckling knee…then read the newspaper and drink black coffee.” Kendel Currier, his aptly named assistant and cousin, comes by to drop off manuscripts for further revision, and he dictates several letters to her. “His messages are lengthy, friendly, chatty, modest, full of reminiscences, and sometimes funny,” Padgett says. “He’s what—eighty-five?—and I can barely keep up with him.” Mattison wonders if Hall is helped here by his disclosures. “He is totally honest, he has no sense of privacy, doesn’t have a lot of secrets, and so he just says whatever needs to be said.”

Mattison is on the receiving end of one of Hall’s latest obsessions: his poems. He may have stopped writing them, but he has begun revising poems—again—to create a new (and much smaller) selected volume, to be released in 2015. She is one of his self-designated “hard-assed friends” to whom he has sent revised versions of his poems. “I can’t help myself,” Hall pleads when I ask why he does it, this continuous revising. “You do fifty drafts, publish it in a magazine, see it in the magazine, then start rewriting it. You put it in a book, and then the book would come,” he continues, then switches into the first person, as if to own up to the mania. “I’d put it here,” he says, pointing to a shelf crowded with photos of Geoffrey Hill and other friends. “I’d hate to open it up, because I know the first thing I’d look at, I would want to change something.” And so he does. 

 

John Freeman’s most recent book is Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York (OR Books, 2014), an anthology of poetry and prose about New York in the age of income gaps. He is writing a book about American poetry for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Far From Ordinary: A Profile of Tracy K. Smith

by

Renée H. Shea

2.10.15

Tracy K. Smith was twenty-two when her mother died in 1994. Nearly a decade later, she published The Body’s Question, her first book of poetry, in which she reflected on that loss. In “Joy,” which carried the epigraph “In Memoriam KMS 1936–1994,” Smith writes to her mother, longing to “pick up the phone / And catch your voice on the other end / Telling me how to bake a salmon / Or get the stains out of my white clothes.” Another decade later, she returns to that wrenching loss in the memoir Ordinary Light, published this month by Knopf. Smith’s first book of prose, it is a book of excavation and navigation: The poet revisits her mother’s passing in light of her father’s death in 2008, the year her daughter, Naomi, was born, and in light of the birth in 2013 of her twin sons, Atticus and Sterling. 

Smith, who characterizes herself as having been “still an adolescent” when she lost her mother, believes “it took losing my father to help me come to better grips with that first loss and think about what I needed to believe my mother’s life and her death had imparted.” And now, with three children of her own, Smith wishes her mother were nearby to consult about practical parenting concerns, but of course that wish goes deeper: “I want to think actively about the continuum to which I belong—the one that includes my mother and her mother and sisters and their ancestors—and also my children. In my mother’s absence, I want to cement that connection, and words are the best glue I know.” 

But why prose? She’s already written poems about her mother, and her Pulitzer Prize–winning Life on Mars is, in many respects, an elegy for her father. A memoir in verse offered an intriguing form, one that is familiar territory—Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah (1986) and, more recently, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, which won the 2014 National Book Award, are exemplary—but Smith credits the influence and encouragement of the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, her mentor in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, for emboldening her to venture into prose. Smith had never heard of the mentorship program, which pairs older masters with younger artists under forty, until 2008, when she was nominated and flown to Munich along with two other finalists. Each had an interview with Enzensberger and then all four went to dinner, an experience that Smith insists turned into more camaraderie than competition. 

She and Enzensberger have become great friends after what sounds like a jet-setting year of being flown to many of the places where he had speaking engagements: “We rendezvoused in Tenerife and Paris, and gave a reading together at the public library in London. We spent much of a summer in Munich, where he lives, working on the book and getting to know each other.” In addition to face-to-face meetings, the two e-mailed back and forth, with Smith sending him parts of her work for comment. The idea she began with was, by her own description, “a big, ambitious mess” about a whole range of experiences, but Enzensberger urged her to focus discrete memories toward “a narrative with characters that moved beyond the private realm to take in and consider the relevant public history.” 

From the beginning, Smith says, she knew she wanted to write “genuine prose,” possibly because some of what she wanted to explore had already been unearthed in her poetry. “But I also wanted to embrace a fuller sense of myself as a writer,” she says. And she wanted to work within “sentences, clauses, paragraphs, the whole to-do,” since, as she writes in Ordinary Light, “Being able to tell a good story was currency in my family.” Prose gave her a certain amount of freedom to explain and elaborate. She realized how much she relies on metaphor in her poetry to evoke “a strange, powerful sameness between two otherwise disparate things.” In prose, she initially felt reluctant to elaborate on an image or interrogate statements she made, but soon discovered her expansive abilities. “I learned that prose can bear the weight of much more explication,” she says. “I can think and rethink, even second-guess or analyze something on the page in prose without going overboard. The sentence, in prose, can be as tireless as an ox.”

Enzensberger recognized, perhaps before Smith herself, that her story was about her family, with her mother as the central character. Smith opens Ordinary Light with her mother’s deathbed scene, the family’s vigil during the final hours of her mother’s life, remembered twenty years later:

Then we heard a sound that seemed to carve a tunnel between our world and some other. It was an otherworldly breath, a vivid presence that blew past us without stopping, leaving us, the living, clamped in place by the silence that followed. I would come back to the sound and the presence of that breath again and again, thinking how miraculous it was that she had ridden off on that last exhalation, her life instantly whisked away, carried over into a place none of us will ever understand until perhaps we are there ourselves.

From that solemn moment, Smith circles back to her childhood as the adored and indulged baby in a family of five children and, further back, to her parents’ coming of age in Alabama at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Dedicated to her daughter, Naomi, Ordinary Light began as a way for Smith to bring her parents back to life, “to reconstruct them,” as characters for Naomi. “At least that was my intention,” Smith says, “though in the execution it has become a book about me—about excavating my own experiences, anxieties, and evolving beliefs.” 

When asked about the title, she hesitates, musing that “maybe it’s the feeling of wholeness and safety and ongoing-ness that we slip into sometimes in our lives.” But after Smith settled on Ordinary Light as her title, she added an opening quote from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” one of her favorite short stories. As Baldwin’s narrator recalls the perfect family Sunday afternoons of his childhood when all’s right with the world, he cautions: “But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light.” In her new memoir, it is this moment that Smith explores for herself and her own children—the moment when we hear the tiger at the door.

***

In many ways, Smith seems to have lived a charmed life. Her father retired from the Air Force at forty-five because he did not want to uproot the family once again by accepting an overseas post. Trained as an electronics engineer, he found a job in Silicon Valley, eventually working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Her mother, while active in her church and community, did not work outside the home except for a short stint as an adult-education teacher. Tracy, eight years younger than her closest sibling, recalls a childhood when “all of my siblings doted on me, then left for college. So I had this abundance of attention for a time, and then a period of abundant solitude.” A participant in gifted programs throughout her public school education, she graduated from Harvard College in 1994 with a BA in English and American Literature and Afro-American Studies. After an extended return home following her mother’s death, Smith attended Columbia University, earning an MFA in 1997; she went on to a two-year stint as a Stegner fellow at Stanford University. She taught at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, and at the University of Pittsburgh before joining the faculty at Princeton University in 2005, where she is currently a professor of creative writing. 

Smith has published three collections of poetry—The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), and Life on Mars (2011), all with Graywolf Press—each receiving critical acclaim and significant literary prizes. In the introduction to her first book, which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, poet Kevin Young, the contest judge, heralded an exceptional new voice:  “Smith is a maker, a wordsmith of the first order.” In 2012, Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Two years later Smith received an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Among her other awards and fellowships are the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, an Artist’s Residence at the Fundación Valparaíso in Spain, and an Essence Literary Award. 

Smith had a series of mentors even before her time with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, as she developed her identity as a poet. A reader from the outset (one of the chapters in Ordinary Light is titled “My Book House”), she experienced a sort of epiphanic moment in college when she read Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging.” She describes how everything in that poem—the male speaker, the Irish setting—should have been completely foreign to her, yet, she says, “I felt so much a part of the landscape and the family he was describing that I realized this was what I wanted to do with language.” Ultimately, she got to know Heaney as one of her teachers. At Columbia, Mark Doty became, and remains, an important influence and mentor to her, someone who she says is “so generous and present” to his students. 

Yet the seemingly idyllic life of Smith’s nuclear family—“us as an invincible unit,” is how she describes them in Ordinary Light—can prepare, though never entirely protect, its members from the loss of certainty and security and, especially, the realities of racial politics. Smith is known for sharpening a political edge in her poetry, whether she’s writing about science fiction, pop culture, or current events, and this memoir is no exception. “In writing this book, I was forced to speak about and into many of the silences that ran through my life: silence about race, silence about the painful features of African American history, silence about my own choice to turn away from or reenvision the religious faith I was raised in,” she says.

One of the side effects of the memoir, Smith discovered, is that her adult perspective remained active even when she was writing about childhood: “So Tracy the citizen was allowed to engage with these private stories, just as Tracy the mother was allowed in at times,” she says. What she calls “shifting subjectivities” becomes especially clear when she writes about returning as a child to Alabama, where her parents grew up, to visit her large extended family (her mother was one of thirteen siblings): 

I was ten years old, living with a vague knowledge that pain was part of my birthright, part of what was meant by a word like Home. It was not the kind of beautified self-inflicted angst that can transform a girl into a swan or a doll or an ice princess in the ballet…. No, what I felt, what I feared and discerned, even from my rather far remove, was the very particular pain that was tied up in blood, in race, in laws and war. The pain we hate most because we know it has been borne by the people we love. The slurs and slights I knew were part and parcel of my parents’ and grandparents’ and all my aunts’ and uncles’ lives in the South. The laws that had sought to make people like them—like us, like me—subordinate. 

“Growing up black in America is inherently political,” Smith says, and her own experience proved that collision with that reality is not limited to the South. In Ordinary Light, she remembers the sting she felt when one of her high school teachers in Northern California offered faint praise as encouragement by pointing out, “You’re an African American woman. You should take advantage of the opportunities that will bring you.” Even as she received one acceptance after another to impressive schools, including Harvard, Smith writes that this man’s “voice whispered in the back of my mind whenever the word diversity was printed among the catalogue copy.” 

Through writing Ordinary Light Smith has also come to some peaceful terms with the fierce religious faith that guided her mother’s life. Even as a child, she struggled to understand her mother’s devotion, especially regarding the concept of salvation, “when the world of my family was the only heaven I needed to believe in.” As an adolescent and young college student, Smith felt the growing distance from her mother in her sense of religion as something imposed, even oppressive. Writing Ordinary Light has helped her appreciate the key role of the African American church of her parents’ era in fostering a sense of family, community, and discipline “in a world full of disparities.” Even her father, with his systematic, orderly mind, Smith says, prayed with and read the Bible to his children. He was a man grounded in both the worlds of science and faith. In Ordinary Light, we meet the meticulously ordered world that her parents, especially her mother, created for their children, inspired, in many ways, by their religious beliefs: “a life that would tell us, and the world, if it cared to notice, that we bothered with ourselves, that we understood dignity, that we were worthy of everything that mattered.” 

Smith believes that the process of writing the memoir helped her codify some of her own beliefs and anxieties about religion and to speak “honestly” about how she sees God—something she needed to do for herself but that has also helped her decide what elements of her religious inheritance she wants to offer her children. “I hope they will bring their own ideas and feelings to the conversation,” she says. “I don’t want to subject them to the hard-and-fast, top-down approach to belief that repelled me.” Would her mother, who grew more religious after her cancer diagnosis, approve? Smith’s not sure, though her siblings have responded positively to the book, and she believes that “much of what the writing has urged me to discover along the way would make perfect, familiar sense to my mother.”

***

Coming at a difficult time in her life, when her first marriage had ended, the offer of a position at Princeton was, Smith says, “a benediction that my life would go on, that everything would be okay.” So far, it’s been more than okay. She relishes teaching: “Let’s just be honest and say that we academics have the best, most humane work schedule in the world, and I get to spend my workdays talking to smart young people who are devoted to the very same thing I love.” Admitting that Princeton’s faculty roster of luminaries is “pretty daunting,” she characterizes her colleagues as “happy and fulfilled and therefore very generous” and feels part of the family: “I feel that I’ve grown up at Princeton. I came here with one book. I was a child. That’s a paradigm I’m comfortable with, being the youngest of five kids, and so the eminence of my colleagues felt right, familiar. I’ve always been in the position of admiring the people around me and striving to play catch-up.” Her colleagues apparently agree. Poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon, who invited Smith to do her first public reading of Ordinary Light last December at the Irish Arts Center in New York City, describes her as “a truly exceptional poet, with an eye for the arresting image that puts most of us to shame,” noting also her commitment to teaching: “My office is right beside hers, so I have a sense of her being a teacher who is at once diligent and delighting in her work.”

Last summer Smith became a full-fledged member of that community in a more rooted way when she and her family moved from Brooklyn, New York, where she had lived for fifteen years, to Princeton. She doesn’t really miss the city, and she’s a bit surprised. Apart from the practical reality that she and her husband, Raphael Allison, a literary scholar and poet, were driving to New Jersey to teach every day while their children were in Brooklyn, she says she was emotionally ready to leave: “I have so much more mental space and more patience, now that we’re living in a house and surrounded by so many trees. I used to pity New Yorkers who moved to the suburbs: I had the smug idea that they were ‘giving up,’ but now I think how much of an inherent struggle it assumes, and I chuckle.” Tina Chang, one of Smith’s best friends and poet laureate of Brooklyn, understands, though she says she went through her own “mourning” process when her friend moved. “As always, we write letters and allow our writing to lead us through our friendship,” Chang says. “What has always been interesting to me is that Tracy can occupy any physical space, and her mental space follows. Whether her body occupies India, Mexico, Brooklyn, or Princeton, her poetry fills up that geography, illuminates it, and makes it more alive.” 

So, with most of the boxes unpacked, full-time teaching under way, and three young children in tow, Smith is already contemplating another prose work, and she’s on to more poetry projects. New poems are included in a folio that accompanies a Smithsonian exhibition of Civil War photos called Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, Poems and Photographs, Past and Present and in an anthology about Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello that is forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press. She is also working on a translation of poetry by contemporary Chinese author Yi Lei and has signed on as librettist for an opera about the legendary 1960s battle between the disparate visions for New York City of urban planner Robert Moses and journalist and activist Jane Jacobs. Although most would be content to accomplish in a lifetime what Smith has already achieved, she considers herself at the end of the first part of her career, and she’s thinking ahead. She’s always been drawn to questions of what we leave behind, what it means to survive, to endure. In her poem “Letter to a Photojournalist Going-In,” from Duende, the speaker wonders if all we do is “kid ourselves into thinking we might last.” But Smith seems more like the tiny creature in “Flores Woman,” who defies the inevitability of her own extinction: “Like a dark star. I want to last.” 

Renée H. Shea is the coauthor of a series of textbooks for Advanced Placement English, most recently Conversations in American Literature: Language, Rhetoric, Culture (Bedford St. Martin’s, 2014). She has profiled many authors for Poets & Writers Magazine, including Julie Otsuka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

Tracy K. Smith

(Credit: Christy Whitney)

Tracy K. Smith Named U.S. Poet Laureate

by

Dana Isokawa

6.14.17

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden has named Tracy K. Smith the next poet laureate of the United States. Smith, who will take on the role in the fall, will succeed Juan Felipe Herrera, who has served as poet laureate since 2015. “It gives me great pleasure to appoint Tracy K. Smith, a poet of searching,” said Hayden in a press release. “Her work travels the world and takes on its voices; brings history and memory to life; calls on the power of literature as well as science, religion, and pop culture. With directness and deftness, she contends with the heavens or plumbs our inner depths—all to better understand what makes us human.”

Smith, forty-five, is a professor at Princeton University, where she directs the creative writing program. She has written three poetry collections, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Life on Mars (Graywolf, 2011), and a memoir, Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015). “As someone who has been sustained by poems and poets, I understand the powerful and necessary role poetry can play in sustaining a rich inner life and fostering a mindful, empathic and resourceful culture,” said Smith in the announcement. “I am eager to share the good news of poetry with readers and future-readers across this marvelously diverse country.”

Smith is the first poet Hayden has appointed to the position, which was established in 1936 as the “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” and later renamed the “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry” in 1985. Each poet laureate serves for at least one year and is responsible for raising national awareness and appreciation of poetry. Charles Wright, Natasha Trethewey, Philip Levine, W. S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, and Charles Simic have all served as the poet laureate in recent years.

Each poet approaches the role, which comes with a $35,000 stipend and minimal specific duties, with a different focus. Robert Pinsky, who served as poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, launched the Favorite Poem Project, through which more than eighteen thousand Americans shared their favorite poems. Several laureates have focused more on bringing poetry into the classroom: Billy Collins curated 180 poems for high school teachers to share with their students every day in the school year as part of the Poetry 180 project, while Kay Ryan strengthened poetry’s presence in community colleges through a national contest and videoconference. Other laureates have opted to raise awareness poetry by collaborating with the media, such as Natasha Trethewey with her Where Poetry Lives video series with PBS NewsHour, and Ted Kooser with his weekly newspaper column, American Life in Poetry.

Smith will have plenty of inspiration to draw on when she starts her term in the fall. She is the first poet laureate appointed under the Trump administration, a time that has highlighted the political divisions in the country. If there’s anyone who can remind the American public of the power of poetry to give people a more nuanced way of thinking and understanding one another, though, it’s Smith. “It makes sense to me that the world of commerce and the world of politics would be invested in convincing us that we can each be one thing only: loyal to one brand, one party, one candidate,” she said in an interview with Yale Literary Magazine in 2015. “Too often we forget that we can say no to such false thinking, that nobody is single-sided, two-dimensional…. Poems activate and affirm our sense of being individuals, of having feelings, of having been affected powerfully by the events and people that touch us.”

Read more about Tracy K. Smith in “Far From Ordinary: A Profile of Tracy K. Smith,” written by Renée H. Shea and published in the March/April 2015 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Tracy K. Smith

(Credit: Christy Whitney)

Q&A: Hayden Leads America’s Library

by

Dana Isokawa

12.14.16

Nominated by President Obama this past February, Carla Hayden took office in September as the nation’s fourteenth Librarian of Congress. She is the first woman, and the first African American, to hold the position, which involves overseeing the library (a collection composed of more than 162 million books and other items) and its three thousand employees, as well as the nation’s law library, the office of the poet laureate, and the U.S. Copyright Office. Just a little over a month into her term, Dr. Hayden spoke about her plans for making the library more accessible, and a typical day in the life of the Librarian of Congress.

How are you hoping to make the library more accessible to the public?
We’re working on a digital strategy to make the collections available to everyone online. The collections range from comic books to the papers and memorabilia of Rosa Parks to the manuscript collections of twenty-three presidents. We just launched our new home page. It’s more active—you can really get a sense of what the collections are. We’ve also been tweeting every day, one or two things I find in the collections. The response has already been pretty wonderful because I’m tying it to what’s going on in the world. During the World Series we tweeted the baseball-card collections we have. On Halloween we posted the collection of Harry Houdini’s memorabilia—his personal scrapbooks and his funeral program—because he died on Halloween, in 1926. So we’re using social media and technology to touch as many people as possible in interesting ways.

How else do you envision people engaging with the library?
We’re really excited about the possibility of traveling exhibits that can go to local communities, including an eighteen-wheeler that can pull up in a rural area or on a reservation. We want people to be able to get on that truck and have an experience they might not have had if they can’t visit Washington, D.C. We’re hiring a new exhibit designer who has museum experience, and we’re hitting the road and drawing people in. And raising general awareness of the fact that it’s the nation’s library, it’s America’s library.

What do you see as the role of the poet laureate?
Our current laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, shows how to bring poetry into people’s lives in an active and everyday way. He’s demystifying it, and working with teachers, librarians, and people who work with young people to get them excited about poetry and to recognize it around them and in themselves. He wants poetry to be more spontaneous. As he has said, it shouldn’t be something you labor over—you should feel it and write it. He has this activity where he has the kids line up, like a soul-train line—the kids go down the line and write down words they’re hearing. They come out with a poem at the end.

What happens during a day in the life of the Librarian of Congress?
One month in, it is a period of discovery and getting to know not only the collections and the resources, but also the people who care for those collections. That’s been one of the greatest joys and discoveries—the curators are so knowledgeable at the library. So I go from budget meetings to visiting a collection to having the head of the British Library visit to participating in the National Book Festival and things like the poetry slam at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival.

What are you reading now?
Mysteries. I also just picked up The Gershwins and Me by Michael Feinstein; I got a chance to meet him, and got him to sign it, which was really cool. I have so many books stacked in my home—I have baskets of books waiting, just waiting. I try to think of them as pieces of candy, that they’re treats. If you walked into my apartment, you’d probably think, “This person likes to read,” and be able to find a few things to pick up.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Such Great Heights: A Profile of Annie Dillard

by

John Freeman

3.1.16

Annie Dillard wasn’t sure she was going to like me, she says, not long after I arrive at her cabin near Cripple Creek, Virginia, in the dark vastness of a November evening. Night had dropped abruptly as a curtain, just as she had warned it would, and were it not for the nearly topographic directions she’d e-mailed beforehand, and a few tips by telephone from her husband, Bob—that is, Robert D. Richardson, biographer of Thoreau and Emerson and William James—I probably would have been skulking about in the dark, kicking into one of the old iron forges Confederates used to make cannonballs a hundred fifty years ago. “I wasn’t sure if you were one of those guys who doesn’t like taking directions from a woman,” she says.

Instead, thanks to Dillard’s directions and a good bit of luck, my friend Garnette Cadogan—who came along as my copilot—and I are sitting at her dining table, cupped in the mountain cove’s silence that fills the room like a held breath, we men sipping whiskey and trying to play it cool as one of the most sensitive, listening intelligences ever to breathe American air perches before us like a falcon, unsure whether we’re for the eating or for the protecting. Dillard inquires if we mind smoke, lights an American Spirit and inhales deeply. As Bob lays out a simple supper of sweet potatoes and salmon, she steps into the silence, quizzing us on some of the books we’ve read recently.

Not surprisingly—for a writer who casually dropped into one of her books, as an aside, “I have been reading comparative cosmology”—the path into this conversation gets steep very quickly. Her references fan out, leaping from one outcropping of literary news to the next until my bad planning or Garnette’s driving or what is being read in New York seem a long way down. What do we think of Karl Ove Knausgaard? Is it possible he might not be as interesting as he thinks he is? Have we heard of Belomor by Nicolas Rothwell, the Australian writer? Now that is a masterpiece. Pico Iyer’s book on Graham Greene? He’s very good at Ping-Pong, Dillard adds, improbably. What about women, Garnette asks, after Dillard lists a string of books by men. Are there any women writers she likes? “I don’t read as many women as I’m told I should be reading,” Dillard replies. “I don’t like doing what I am expected to do.”

We start talking about humor, and as if tuned by sonar to Dillard’s needs, Bob returns holding a book on stand-up comedy by Phil Berger.

You can almost hear the pops and fizzes of combustion as the flue clears and Dillard’s mind gulps down the oxygen it has been feeding on for years—books. It’s something to behold. Here is the sensibility that emerged from a white-glove Pittsburgh background because she read a novel about Rimbaud and wanted her mind to be on fire too. Here is the writer who pulled it off, chiseling out Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974), the Walden of our time, in nine months because she read a book on nature and felt she could do better. And thus Dillard wrote that great, elegant prayer to the seasons, largely at night, in the Hollins College library in Roanoke, Virginia, powered by chocolate milk, Vantage cigarettes, and Hasidic theology. Here is the woman who, upon winning a Pulitzer Prize for that book at age twenty-nine, turned her back on fame and stepped even deeper into the void—this time all the way out to Lummi Island, Washington, in Puget Sound, to write a sixty-six-page narrative on pain and eternity and God, Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977).

In person, the effect of all this is like meeting a mountaineer whose work lay behind her but whose stories of having done it still get passed around as legend. If Holy the Firm pointed to the peak Dillard was trying to climb, and her next book, Living by Fiction (Harper & Row, 1982), was a nod to the people who had gone before her and failed, then the ones that followed, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper & Row, 1982) and The Writing Life (HarperCollins, 1989), told the story of actually doing it. The false starts, the caffeine yo-yos, the encounters in the Amazon or the Arctic—or at church—that kept pushing the horizon further out; the tapping at supporting rock walls and the bolts she’d drilled into them to see if they’d hold; the occasional plummets. All the hard work of staying awake, and the descent. One of the reasons Dillard is so beloved is that she tried just as hard to make the case that we could all do it, live this way, that all you need to do is work with a demented singularity of purpose.

But most of all, through everything, she has never stopped reading. “I have written down every book I’ve read since 1964,” Dillard explains as I turn the Berger book over now, wondering in what obscure corner of her mind she will sock this information away. These diaries now get packed off to Yale’s Beinecke Library as fast as she fills them, just the name of the book and occasionally a checkmark, if it was really loved. I remark there’s something almost monkish about this notational labor, surely she must be the best-read person for hundreds, if not thousands of miles—an assertion she refutes before I can finish the comment by telling me about Bob’s physician, who had read one of her books in German and English, just for the comparison. 

As for her, what is she after, inhaling those hundred or more books a year since age five? That library in the sky of her mind she has built. What is she seeking? “It’s what I’m for,” Dillard says simply, putting out her cigarette. “Somebody has to read all these books.”

For the past ten years, that—and painting, and walking—is what Annie Dillard has been up to. “I had a good forty years of writing,” she explains to me later, but she stopped writing after her novel The Maytrees was published by Harper in 2007. “There’s no shame to stopping. My last two books were as high as I could go,” she adds, referring to the novel and For the Time Being (Knopf, 1999), her book about belief in landscape and time. The smoke has barely cleared from these books, though, and it is only now, as her oeuvre has settled into the culture—or perhaps, most important, the loam of its writers—that its radical illumination has begun to reveal its long neon half-life.

It is through the doorways Dillard torched open that writers as diverse as Jonathan Lethem and Maggie Nelson have stepped, the latter of whom was one of Dillard’s students at Wesleyan and is now a friend. “Her books are wild,” Nelson writes to me. “They do what they please; they do what they need to do; they keep their eye trained on the things that matter most.” Geoff Dyer was also enabled by Dillard’s permission and contributes an introduction to The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, which is being published this month by Ecco with selections from all of Dillard’s work, including the lamenting and powerful uncollected essay she published after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

I tell Dillard the story of a writer I know, Phil Klay—a future marine, no less—who didn’t learn of the attacks until days later because he was walking the Appalachian Trail. “I was on the beach in Cape Cod,” she replies, nodding. “I came out of this shack I was writing in and figured now might be a good time to disappear.” She then taped a twenty-dollar bill to the gate at the top of the dunes, on the hope a passing stranger with honor and time to spare would pick up some provisions, some batteries. Someone did. Meanwhile, rather than wait, Dillard went back to doing what she has dedicated an enormous portion of her life to doing: contemplating the infinite.

Even in the dark near Cripple Creek, bedtime approaching, it’s clear the apparatus for this life remains in place. Dillard lives in a cabin separate from her husband’s, and has a third where she paints. All of this will be shown to us in the morning. “Bob,” Dillard says, just before turning in, eyes over my shoulder, “those are headlights.” For a brief second Richardson’s face flashes with alarm, and then indeed two beams begin to snake up Dillard’s long gravel driveway. As Bob walks out onto the porch to greet the surprise guest, Dillard explains to us that this is most likely Gary LaVallee, a friend from the area who helped Dillard clear the land on which she built the two additional buildings.

Gary’s methods are as extreme as Dillard’s observational register is austere. He doesn’t work with a crew, just his car, which he repeatedly drove into tree trunks on the nearby hillside to fell the evergreens, then hacked up what was left with an ax. His arms are as muscled as those of a professional rugby player. His eyes twinkle benevolently. Somewhere in the hills nearby he is building an enormous, five-thousand-square-foot cabin, alone, by hand, with eighty-foot logs he raises by himself with a pulley system. Gary talks genially and then excitedly when he finds out Garnette is working on a book about Bob Marley: “I heard him open for Springsteen.” He offers to pick up milk or anything else for Bob and Annie, and when told they’re okay, gently leaves.

Until recently, Bob and Annie inform us as Gary departs, he was driving around the hills of Cripple Creek in an antique dump truck with no brakes and a pile of boulders in the back. Now Gary gets around mostly by pickup or car, and occasionally he parks in their drive to use their Wi-Fi and get on Facebook.

“I’m not sure I believe in God,” Dillard says, packing up her books and supplies for a night of reading, “but I believe God watches out for Gary LaVallee.”

Annie Dillard in Key West. 

(Credit: Brian Smith)

In the morning the cabin is clobbered by light. Deer stand in groups chewing on dewy grass so far away, yet still visible, the eye needs a moment to adjust its lens before one can count the animals. Hunters cannot shoot on this land and the animals seem to know it. Dillard owns most of what the eye can see, but is loose with her ownership. Appalachian land is cheap. Some of it she has bequeathed already to her friend, the activist physician Paul Farmer. It’s quite a spread; her great-grandfather founded the company that became American Standard. Bob boils rich Cuban coffee strong enough to compete with the view. As he begins frying up eggs, he raises Annie on a walkie-talkie to let her know breakfast will be ready soon. By the time she arrives at the table, Bob has pointed out cardinals and owls in the brush.

As we eat, details of Dillard’s biography—the known things—slip out in asides and in peripheral conversation, echoing some of what Bob told us the night before over a nightcap. How they met because she wrote him a fan letter for Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (University of California Press, 1986); how he was already teaching her book to students when she wrote; how they met for lunch—both of them married; and how they didn’t look back when it was clear they were falling in love. He is Dillard’s third husband. “She is the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Bob tells us when she is not present, “and I’ve known some smart ones.”

“I got my name from my first husband,” she explains to me later in an e-mail. “I had no intention of getting married, let alone young. Richard Dillard, my poetry-writing professor, talked me into it. It was fine. That was a ten-year marriage, after which I headed west and met Gary Clevidence. We were together twelve years. With Bob it’s been twenty-eight years and counting.”

The novelist Lee Smith met Dillard as a freshman at Hollins, and has known her ever since. “The class was filled with talent,” she wrote to me, “but Annie’s was always extraordinary.

The group of us became a gang, a cohort, a karass—and we had fun, too. Inspired by Richard Dillard and his friend George Garrett, often on campus, an antic spirit prevailed. We wrote and put on plays, took over the newspaper, published our own literary magazine, Beanstalks, when the upperclassmen running the real literary magazine turned us down. We satirized everything and everybody. We loved to party, and we especially loved to dance.

This was true of Hollins girls in general. When several mostly-English majors formed a (really good, by the way) rock band named the Virginia Wolves, several of us became go-go dancers and performed with them at Hollins, UVA, and other literary festivals. We all had go-go names (I was Candy Love), white boots, glittery outfits, and cowboy hats—I don’t think Annie was an actual traveling go-go girl (no outfit) but she always loved to dance, and still does, to this day, as does my entire class, which always shows up for reunions (even the 45th, our last) with music like “Barbara Ann,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “My Girl,” etc. (I know, I know…you’d have to see this to believe it. Husbands flee.)

Watching Annie and Bob over breakfast, editing each other’s stories and officiating over the presentation of flatware, coffee, second and third helpings, it’s clear that whatever came before, this is the show. It is the big love, and they move with the grace and irascibility and tender watchfulness of a couple well into what Richard Ford called in his third Bascombe novel “the permanent period.” Virginia is one of three places they call home, boxes shipped ahead every six weeks like provisions sent further up a slope, the two of them following by plane with backpacks, like students. Spring and summer they spend on Cape Cod; in fall they are here in Virginia, and in winter they wind up in Key West, where over the decades they’ve come to know some remarkable writers—Joy Williams, Ann Beattie (who nursed Dillard during a recent hip surgery, coming by with movie rentals and hot meals), and the biographer and essayist Phyllis Rose. “These are some powerful, remarkable women,” Bob says, his eyebrows adding commentary.

“She was also one of the most generous teachers I’ve ever seen,” Rose writes when I ask her later about her friend. Dillard went to Wesleyan in 1979 at Rose’s request, after deciding her years in the Pacific Northwest were over and she was looking for someplace new—a general theme in Dillard’s life. “She was generous with her time, her hospitality, her advice, and even sometimes her money. She usually had classes meet at her house, and outside of class time students were welcome too, for Ping-Pong or potluck.” A Ping-Pong table sits on the cabin’s porch behind us.

Maggie Nelson says the games were part of the whole instruction method. “Annie made a writing workshop an ‘experience,’ involving an Act One, sitting in a classroom; then an intermission of sorts, which consisted of taking a brief walk through the Connecticut woods to her house; then an Act Two, with refreshments and reading aloud in her living room. On the way to her house there was a hole in a chain-link fence, which she taught us to crawl through, likely in celebration of both trespassing and accessing liminal spaces. She encouraged us to get out into the world, which explains at least one afternoon I spent playing video games with the owner of a local baseball-card store, in order to write a profile of him.”

I realize, when Dillard beckons us from breakfast for our tour of her own liminal spaces, that her demeanor is not that of a famous person reduced to interior scale—or even of a genius judging the brain capacity of two citified visitors—but that of a teacher who never truly left the classroom. She taught for four years at Western Washington University in Bellingham, followed by twenty-two years at Wesleyan, after all. “Studying with her was a top-to-bottom education on being a working artist,” novelist Alexander Chee tells me.

“I knew I liked you guys when I realized you read fiction; you’re fiction people,” Dillard says as we get ready to check out her cabin and her study. It’s a short walk over to the buildings, maybe a hundred paces, but in that space the energy changes. It feels wilder, more animal; a skull and pieces of wood sit on a table. The cabin itself is plastered with photographs of her friends and family; her daughter, a poet and Iowa MFA graduate who lives in Arkansas and whose privacy Annie asks me to respect; Gary LaVallee; Bob. There’s a photograph on her refrigerator door of a place in Turkey. Serious travel—for health reasons—is something Annie and Bob have had to give up recently, but, she says, “If I went again I’d go into the Hula Valley, the wilderness. Just to see it.”

A small shelf of books sits next to her laptop—an old hardback copy of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, among some beat-up paperbacks. Some volumes of her own books. Her books are no longer coming out at the alarming rate at which they appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s, but this is where she still does the work she doesn’t consider work, firing off letters of encouragement and interest to writers all over the world.

Pico Iyer struck up a fast and ongoing long-distance friendship with Dillard, stoked by her correspondence. “Her e-mails to me, long and incandescent, veered between fervent literary recommendations (of Hardy, Joyce Cary, Robert Stone) and exuberant reminiscences of her cavorting on the beach and love of the [Pittsburgh] Pirates and delight in miniature golf.” If he was expecting a symposium in person, he was mistaken. “When we met, all she wanted to do was play Ping-Pong, in her backyard, each returned slam threatening to send a stack of books on esoteric theology or meteorology skidding off the dining table a few feet away. At some point, I realized that I was meeting the closest I could get to my longtime hero, D. H. Lawrence: someone furiously alive, attentive to everything and impossible to anticipate.”

As it did for Lawrence, painting has become Dillard’s primary mode of expression in later years. (She turned seventy this past year.) “I switched to painting,” she tells me. “Not really my art, but it lets me make something new. I paint people, mostly faces, in oils, on black-gessoed paper.” She invites Garnette and me to investigate the studio, which is as compact and crammed with information as a human skull.

The austerity of the studios she describes in Teaching a Stone to Talk, The Writing Life, and Holy the Firm come zooming back like déjà-vu. Tacked-up pieces of paper describe radial-axis instructions for depth and perspective. Another piece of paper lists the radio stations on satellite radio. An orphaned pack of American Spirits gleams. The view out the window unfurls the cove and the mountain across.

Bob radios back that it’s getting on toward noon, so we leave the studio and cabin and pile into his Toyota and head off in search of Gary LaVallee’s Valhalla, as locals have dubbed his massive log cabin in progress. We bounce treacherously up a muddy boulder-strewn drive out onto a high bluff only to discover this isn’t Gary’s yard at all. Whoever lives here has managed to transport, intact, an unmuddied, vintage 1940s low-rider with exposed piston, up the mountain, where it sits near a farmhouse, as improbable and somewhat sinister as a puma in a library. We circle around and down and off the hill and backtrack into town, Annie and Bob pointing things out along the way: the Confederate-era forge, the remnant of the railroad the army built into the mountains to haul the iron out, the hotel that was opened but never really took off.

Our destination is the Cripple Creek Mall, an ironically named general store where you can buy anything from MoonPies and soda made with real Carolina sugar to extension cords, hats, toilet drain snaking equipment, packaged ham, dried kale, bullets, and several strains of honey. Dillard talks to Eddie Younce, the proprietor, asking after his and his family’s health while he comments on how good she looks, after which Eddie delivers a detailed forty-five-minute dissertation to Garnette on the best places to gather and make honey in Appalachia. “I could sit and listen to my father and his friends talk about honey for two, three hours,” he tells us.

At some point during Eddie’s monologue, Annie and Bob back silently out of the store. We find them later down the lane, standing, holding hands, as if this is all there is to do in the world. It’s past noon and the sky is showing it and already I know we’re going to have to hurry to get out of Cripple Creek before dark. We hustle back to the house and through a lunch of chicken and potatoes before they send us packing. The light chases out of the hollows and falls again quickly as the little roads turn to interstate and Garnette and I race so I can make a train back to New York City. The next day, after I’ve woken in New York and the deep, soft pocket of earth we visited feels a million miles away, Dillard writes to me, the first of many e-mails about the late E. L. Doctorow, Key West, the Pacific Northwest, landscape and family, and generosity, as if she hadn’t been demonstrating it all along.

“Working in a soup kitchen is great for a writer or any artist,” she writes in one. “There are many unproductive days when you might hate yourself otherwise. You are eating the food, using the water, breathing the air—and NOT HELPING. But if you feed the hungry, you can’t deny you’re doing something worth doing.” She may have stopped writing, but Annie Dillard continues to feed the minds of generations of writers. As she might say, that’s what she’s for.

 

John Freeman is the founder of Freeman’s, a biannual anthology of new writing.

Telling Stories in the Sunlight: A Profile of Judy Blume

by

Kevin Nance

7.1.15

At the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar, Rachel Kushner was onstage discussing her first novel, Telex From Cuba (Scribner, 2008), which was inspired by stories from her mother, who had grown up on the Caribbean island ninety miles to the south in the 1950s. In the audience that day was best-selling author Judy Blume, a longtime resident of Key West, Florida, and a member of the Literary Seminar board of directors. When she heard Kushner utter the phrase “the fifties,” an epiphany hit Blume with the force of a thunderclap. She had a story to tell, she realized—a big, important story rooted in the fifties but about which, curiously, she had spoken to no one for more than half a century.

Photographs by Kevin Nance
 

Over the course of fifty-eight days in late 1951 and early ’52, when the then Judy Sussman was in the eighth grade in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, three airplanes crashed there, all in or near residential neighborhoods and all with significant loss of life. When the first plane plummeted from the sky, it was believed to be a freak accident in an era when commercial air travel was relatively new and glamorous. When another disaster followed, the adults in Elizabeth began to wonder whether something was awry at nearby Newark Airport, while the kids—including Judy and many of her classmates at Alexander Hamilton Junior High—spoke of sabotage, aliens from outer space, perhaps even zombies. And when the third plane went down, it seemed to many that the town was under siege, or the victim of some modern version of a biblical plague. The airport was shut down for nine months pending a safety review, which ultimately failed to explain the crashes. 

And for decades afterward, the future writer, who had watched her town endure unthinkable horror—her own father, a dentist, was called in to help identify burned bodies from dental records—kept those dangerous memories in some vault in her mind, locked away.

“I must have really buried this someplace so deep inside of me that for more than forty years it never occurred to me, ever, that I had this story to tell,” Blume says in a tone of wonder at the elegant Key West home she shares with her husband, nonfiction writer George Cooper. “How is that possible? It was really deep, I guess. My husband says I never told him this story. My daughter, who became a commercial airline pilot, said, ‘Mother, I cannot believe you never told me this story.’”

Better late than never. In her latest novel, In the Unlikely Event, published by Knopf in June, Blume unpacks the events of those two months when the sky kept raining down catastrophe on Elizabeth. The product of months of research and years of writing and editing, In the Unlikely Event hews closely to the actual details of the crashes and then, with the imaginative sympathy that has been a hallmark of Blume’s novels for young people and adults over the decades, describes the toxic fallout that afflicted the lives of the townspeople. The result is a portrait of a community in crisis, in which grief, fear, and outrage are balanced, to some extent, by the characters’ capacity for heroism and a faith that, even in the shadow of tragic events, life goes on.

“Because that’s what you do when something terrible happens,” the author explains. “You keep going, doing what you do.”

Along the way, Blume weaves a tasseled shawl of historical detail of New Jersey in the early fifties—the era of Frank Sinatra, Martin and Lewis, Nat King Cole, cocktails at the Riviera, Jewish gangsters, Liz Taylor haircuts, Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare, and sci-fi movies dressing up A-bomb paranoia in Halloween costumes—in which the comfortingly mundane reality of the characters provides a vivid contrast to the disruption of the airplane crashes. The novel’s heroine, Miri Ammerman, and her uncle, the young reporter Henry Ammerman, who breathlessly covers the crashes in the purple prose of small-town newspapers of the day (the word inferno comes up with alarming frequency), struggle to maintain their sense of normal life in the midst of extremely abnormal circumstances.

“I have a fabulous memory for my early life, but I remember very few things about the crashes—which is why I had to do so much research,” Blume reflects, still puzzled, one typically perfect afternoon in Key West. “I do have a very vivid memory of where I was the afternoon of the first plane crash. I was in a car with my parents on a Sunday afternoon, and it came over the radio: ‘We interrupt this program to tell you…’ The crash was a block from our junior high school—one block!” She thinks back, shakes her head. “I knew that the crashes happened, but I don’t remember my feelings about them. Was I scared? Was I not? I don’t know.” Another thoughtful pause. “But all the mundane stuff, how people lived back then, was right at the tips of my fingers. I am, after all, a kid of the fifties.”

It was in that seemingly carefree yet oddly stifling decade that Judy Sussman began to develop as a storyteller—not a writer yet, as she kept her tales in her head—which served as a way to explore questions that often couldn’t be asked out loud, even of her parents, as beloved as they were. “Full of secrets,” Blume, still peeved, says of that decade. “Nobody told you anything.”

 

The 1970s were hardly better. When the author’s narratives began to be recorded and published in her late twenties and early thirties, she was immediately celebrated—and in some circles deplored and censored—for her frank fictions that touched on, among other things, the physical and sexual development of girls and young women. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (Bradbury Press, 1970), still perhaps Blume’s best-known novel for teenagers, was primarily about its sixth-grade heroine’s struggles in a mixed-faith family, but caught the disapproving eye of cultural conservatives who objected to its candor about brassieres, menstruation, sanitary napkins, and the like. In Deenie (Bradbury, 1973), Blume broached the topic of masturbation, and in Forever… (Bradbury, 1975), she graduated to teen sex. Her books’ directness on these and other “adult” themes made them simultaneously among the most banned and most popular books of their era. (To date, according to her publisher, Blume’s books in all genres have sold more than eighty-five million copies, making her one of the world’s most commercially successful writers.)

“I was very interested in writing about real life, about growing up,” Blume says. “Nobody talked about those things back then, so the books were a way to satisfy my curiosity.”

Kristen-Paige Madonia, author of the young-adult novel Fingerprints of You (Simon & Schuster, 2012), grew up feeling similarly about Blume’s novels for teens. “My sister and I took turns reading Margaret, which was incredibly important to us,” says Madonia, who got to know Blume personally years later. “Judy took subjects that were masked and muddy and made them okay and understandable. She was very clear about things that were happening to us as young girls—boobs and periods, all that—and you felt you were in dialogue with her. She was with us, speaking to us, which was far more comfortable than having that conversation with your mother or a teacher. Her voice is so accessible, so warm and down-to-earth, and I think that’s why she’s connected to so many readers over the years.”

In later years Blume turned to adult fiction, producing a pair of best-sellers, Wifey (1978) and Smart Women (1983), both published by Putnam. Although writing had always been a joy—“I felt as if I were reborn every morning,” she says—Blume suffered an existential funk in the early 1980s after reading Dad (Knopf, 1981) by William Wharton, whose prose struck her as so superior to her own that she felt paralyzed. “I was so caught up in the book that it totally took away all my confidence,” she says. “I just felt, ‘Why am I doing this? I can’t write this well. I will never write as well as this.’ And I couldn’t write at all for three months.”

Eventually, Blume got her groove back, in part by making peace with what she sees as her own limitations as a prose stylist. “It was never about putting the words on paper,” she says now, over a dinner of grilled snapper and Key lime pie at an open-air beachfront restaurant. “I’m not that kind of writer, as many people would tell you. It’s about getting the story out, the story and the characters. It’s not about the language. I do what I have to do to tell the story.”

With that pragmatic approach, Blume has written several new books in recent years, including a third blockbuster for adult readers, Summer Sisters (Delacorte, 1998). But her editor at Knopf, Carole Baron, says that Blume’s way of describing her writing process doesn’t do it justice. “She’s a great writer, whether she believes it or not,” says Baron, who also edited Summer Sisters. “Her dialogue in particular is perfection. And I do believe that’s one of the reasons—whether in adult books or books for the young—that Blume has always connected with her readers. She knows how to speak to them through the words of her characters. Her writing is deceptively simple, but it delivers a blow. To say that it’s not about the language, she’s selling herself hugely short.”

As for the popular (and vaguely dismissive) characterization of Blume by some as a “YA writer” who occasionally writes books for adults, the author shrugs. “Children’s books, YA books, adult books—it’s all the same process,” she says. “Lots of times, I don’t know which it is. I’m just telling a story.” With a knife, she slices through a thick layer of meringue on the pie, as if hacking away at the fluff of the argument. “I hate categories,” she says with a rare frown. “You have to be published by a certain department, and there are children’s book buyers, YA book buyers, adult book buyers. But that’s about the marketplace, not the book.”

Last year, as the deadline for the delivery of the manuscript of In the Unlikely Event began to loom, two issues—both related to language and storytelling, as it happened—presented themselves as potential roadblocks in the publication schedule.
 

One was that after having written the first of the novel’s four parts, Blume took two years off from the project to work on the film adaptation of her novel Tiger Eyes (Bradbury, 1981), directed by her son, Lawrence Blume. (As a published author, she chose to retain the surname of her first husband, John M. Blume, an attorney. They divorced in 1976, after which she married a physicist, Thomas Kitchens. They divorced after two years, and she married Cooper in 1987. “I’ve been with George for thirty-five happy years,” she says with a smile, “to make up for everything else.”) When Blume returned to work on In the Unlikely Event, she came to see Part One as too slowly paced and too crowded with characters. “I kept telling Carole, ‘I want to speed it up!’ You know you’re in danger of damaging your book when you want to take out big chunks of it and throw them away. And Carole would say, ‘Put that back!’”

As Baron recalls, “My feeling was that when we experienced the horror of the first airplane crash, we should know who the people were.” She got her way.

The second issue was that the newspaper articles about the airplane crashes, attributed in the book to Henry Ammerman, were largely based on actual accounts that originally appeared in two local newspapers, the Elizabeth Daily Journal and the Newark Evening News, both now defunct. It didn’t feel right to publish the real-life newspaper stories verbatim under Henry Ammerman’s fictional byline, but with her deadline approaching, Blume despaired of finding enough time to rewrite the stories.

At that point, Cooper entered the fray. “I’ll be your Henry Ammerman,” he said. Under Blume’s supervision in the role of a tough “city editor,” as he put it, Cooper got to work, recrafting the newspaper articles, retaining and sometimes putting his own spin on their hyperventilating prose style. “I took all the stories and added some flourishes of my own,” he says now. “I tried to tailor them to the fictional narrative, building on the story that was building in the fiction.”

“I would have said the exact opposite,” Blume says. “The news stories gave me the structure for my narrative.”

During the writing of Summer Sisters, Blume, who then lived in New York City, frequently talked about her love of summer, so Cooper said to her, “You could have more summer in your life if we went someplace in winter.” “Great,” she said, “let’s try to rent a place somewhere for a month.” They rented a place in Key West, fell in love with the island, and returned again and again, eventually making it their home in 1997.

 

“You live a regular life here,” the author says during a contented walk on the beach at sunset, “and you forget how lucky you are until someone reminds you.”

The self-styled Conch Republic has been good to Blume, and not only because of its nearly endless summer. For decades the island has nurtured a community of poets and writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, John Hersey, James Merrill, and Shel Silverstein, a context in which Blume fits like bougainvillea on a breezy Old Town veranda. And from her twin perches as a best-selling author and a board member of the Literary Seminar, she has been well positioned to mentor many young writers whose work she admires, providing advice and much-needed advocacy at some of the most crucial stages of their careers.

“I wanted to be a writer because of Judy Blume and her books,” says Carolyn Mackler, who first met the author while interviewing her in Key West for an article in Ms. Magazine. “She was my hero, and she was very welcoming and generous and kind to me on that visit. I was twenty-four, and during the interview, I mentioned that I wanted to write novels like hers. She said, ‘When you get a draft that you feel comfortable with, call me and we’ll talk.’ She really ended up guiding me through writing and publishing my first novel, Love and Other Four-Letter Words [Delacorte, 2000]. She read an advance copy and gave it a wonderful book-jacket quote. She’s been a mentor to me for seventeen years.”

Something similar happened to Madonia, whose short story, “Cheap Red Meat,” won the first Key West Literary Seminar Fiction Contest, in 2008—largely because, unbeknownst to the young writer, Blume had come across the story in the contest slush pile and fallen in love with it.

“I got down there and was waiting in line to have my book signed by Judy Blume,” Madonia recalls. “She saw my name tag and said, ‘It’s you!’ She loved what she saw in that short story, and really fostered my career from that moment. Half an hour later we were exchanging numbers and making plans to have breakfast. You know, you meet her and forget that you’re talking to someone unbelievably famous. And whenever I’ve hesitated in my career or had doubts, she’s always been the one I reach out to. She always says, ‘Go write another book. That’s who you are.’”

After decades of feeling reborn every morning at her writing desk, Blume herself has reached a point in her life when she’s not sure whether she’ll write another book. And if she does do so, she insists that it won’t be another lengthy, scrupulously researched tome like In the Unlikely Event, which arrives in bookstores at a muscular 416 pages.

 

“I’m seventy-seven years old and I don’t want to write another long novel,” she says. “I don’t want to spend three to five years doing that. I’m not saying that I’m never going to do anything, because I have a lot of creative energy.”

Baron isn’t buying it, at least not entirely. “I think the thing about this new book that’s different from her other novels is that there’s a basis of fact in dealing with these airplane crashes,” she says. “Judy is so thorough about her research, so adamant about getting every single fact right, that it added a layer to her editorial process that I don’t think she’s ever experienced before. So, sure, I believe she’s not going to undertake another book that has such a basis in nonfiction. But Judy is a storyteller, and storytellers are always telling stories. She said the same thing to me about this maybe being her last novel, and I said to her, ‘When you’re ready, I have an idea.’”

Who knows? Thanks in part to the comfortable climate and her long walks around Key West every morning with Cooper, the author appears significantly younger and more energetic than her actual age might suggest. But as always, Judy Blume is a pragmatist who understands her limitations. After many happy years in their gorgeously landscaped, high-modernist home in Old Town, Blume and Cooper are making plans to sell the house and downsize to a much smaller condo on the nearby beach. The heavy spadework of In the Unlikely Event—the digging up of what had been buried for so long—has been done. An assignment has been completed, a burden lifted.

Standing on a Key West pier taking in yet another gorgeous sunset, Blume heaves an unmistakable sigh of relief. “If this is my last book, then I’m really happy about it,” she says. “I feel I was meant to tell this story, and now I’ve told it.”

 

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinNance1.

Far From Ordinary: A Profile of Tracy K. Smith

by

Renée H. Shea

2.10.15

Tracy K. Smith was twenty-two when her mother died in 1994. Nearly a decade later, she published The Body’s Question, her first book of poetry, in which she reflected on that loss. In “Joy,” which carried the epigraph “In Memoriam KMS 1936–1994,” Smith writes to her mother, longing to “pick up the phone / And catch your voice on the other end / Telling me how to bake a salmon / Or get the stains out of my white clothes.” Another decade later, she returns to that wrenching loss in the memoir Ordinary Light, published this month by Knopf. Smith’s first book of prose, it is a book of excavation and navigation: The poet revisits her mother’s passing in light of her father’s death in 2008, the year her daughter, Naomi, was born, and in light of the birth in 2013 of her twin sons, Atticus and Sterling. 

Smith, who characterizes herself as having been “still an adolescent” when she lost her mother, believes “it took losing my father to help me come to better grips with that first loss and think about what I needed to believe my mother’s life and her death had imparted.” And now, with three children of her own, Smith wishes her mother were nearby to consult about practical parenting concerns, but of course that wish goes deeper: “I want to think actively about the continuum to which I belong—the one that includes my mother and her mother and sisters and their ancestors—and also my children. In my mother’s absence, I want to cement that connection, and words are the best glue I know.” 

But why prose? She’s already written poems about her mother, and her Pulitzer Prize–winning Life on Mars is, in many respects, an elegy for her father. A memoir in verse offered an intriguing form, one that is familiar territory—Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah (1986) and, more recently, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, which won the 2014 National Book Award, are exemplary—but Smith credits the influence and encouragement of the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, her mentor in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, for emboldening her to venture into prose. Smith had never heard of the mentorship program, which pairs older masters with younger artists under forty, until 2008, when she was nominated and flown to Munich along with two other finalists. Each had an interview with Enzensberger and then all four went to dinner, an experience that Smith insists turned into more camaraderie than competition. 

She and Enzensberger have become great friends after what sounds like a jet-setting year of being flown to many of the places where he had speaking engagements: “We rendezvoused in Tenerife and Paris, and gave a reading together at the public library in London. We spent much of a summer in Munich, where he lives, working on the book and getting to know each other.” In addition to face-to-face meetings, the two e-mailed back and forth, with Smith sending him parts of her work for comment. The idea she began with was, by her own description, “a big, ambitious mess” about a whole range of experiences, but Enzensberger urged her to focus discrete memories toward “a narrative with characters that moved beyond the private realm to take in and consider the relevant public history.” 

From the beginning, Smith says, she knew she wanted to write “genuine prose,” possibly because some of what she wanted to explore had already been unearthed in her poetry. “But I also wanted to embrace a fuller sense of myself as a writer,” she says. And she wanted to work within “sentences, clauses, paragraphs, the whole to-do,” since, as she writes in Ordinary Light, “Being able to tell a good story was currency in my family.” Prose gave her a certain amount of freedom to explain and elaborate. She realized how much she relies on metaphor in her poetry to evoke “a strange, powerful sameness between two otherwise disparate things.” In prose, she initially felt reluctant to elaborate on an image or interrogate statements she made, but soon discovered her expansive abilities. “I learned that prose can bear the weight of much more explication,” she says. “I can think and rethink, even second-guess or analyze something on the page in prose without going overboard. The sentence, in prose, can be as tireless as an ox.”

Enzensberger recognized, perhaps before Smith herself, that her story was about her family, with her mother as the central character. Smith opens Ordinary Light with her mother’s deathbed scene, the family’s vigil during the final hours of her mother’s life, remembered twenty years later:

Then we heard a sound that seemed to carve a tunnel between our world and some other. It was an otherworldly breath, a vivid presence that blew past us without stopping, leaving us, the living, clamped in place by the silence that followed. I would come back to the sound and the presence of that breath again and again, thinking how miraculous it was that she had ridden off on that last exhalation, her life instantly whisked away, carried over into a place none of us will ever understand until perhaps we are there ourselves.

From that solemn moment, Smith circles back to her childhood as the adored and indulged baby in a family of five children and, further back, to her parents’ coming of age in Alabama at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Dedicated to her daughter, Naomi, Ordinary Light began as a way for Smith to bring her parents back to life, “to reconstruct them,” as characters for Naomi. “At least that was my intention,” Smith says, “though in the execution it has become a book about me—about excavating my own experiences, anxieties, and evolving beliefs.” 

When asked about the title, she hesitates, musing that “maybe it’s the feeling of wholeness and safety and ongoing-ness that we slip into sometimes in our lives.” But after Smith settled on Ordinary Light as her title, she added an opening quote from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” one of her favorite short stories. As Baldwin’s narrator recalls the perfect family Sunday afternoons of his childhood when all’s right with the world, he cautions: “But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light.” In her new memoir, it is this moment that Smith explores for herself and her own children—the moment when we hear the tiger at the door.

***

In many ways, Smith seems to have lived a charmed life. Her father retired from the Air Force at forty-five because he did not want to uproot the family once again by accepting an overseas post. Trained as an electronics engineer, he found a job in Silicon Valley, eventually working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Her mother, while active in her church and community, did not work outside the home except for a short stint as an adult-education teacher. Tracy, eight years younger than her closest sibling, recalls a childhood when “all of my siblings doted on me, then left for college. So I had this abundance of attention for a time, and then a period of abundant solitude.” A participant in gifted programs throughout her public school education, she graduated from Harvard College in 1994 with a BA in English and American Literature and Afro-American Studies. After an extended return home following her mother’s death, Smith attended Columbia University, earning an MFA in 1997; she went on to a two-year stint as a Stegner fellow at Stanford University. She taught at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, and at the University of Pittsburgh before joining the faculty at Princeton University in 2005, where she is currently a professor of creative writing. 

Smith has published three collections of poetry—The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), and Life on Mars (2011), all with Graywolf Press—each receiving critical acclaim and significant literary prizes. In the introduction to her first book, which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, poet Kevin Young, the contest judge, heralded an exceptional new voice:  “Smith is a maker, a wordsmith of the first order.” In 2012, Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Two years later Smith received an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Among her other awards and fellowships are the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, an Artist’s Residence at the Fundación Valparaíso in Spain, and an Essence Literary Award. 

Smith had a series of mentors even before her time with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, as she developed her identity as a poet. A reader from the outset (one of the chapters in Ordinary Light is titled “My Book House”), she experienced a sort of epiphanic moment in college when she read Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging.” She describes how everything in that poem—the male speaker, the Irish setting—should have been completely foreign to her, yet, she says, “I felt so much a part of the landscape and the family he was describing that I realized this was what I wanted to do with language.” Ultimately, she got to know Heaney as one of her teachers. At Columbia, Mark Doty became, and remains, an important influence and mentor to her, someone who she says is “so generous and present” to his students. 

Yet the seemingly idyllic life of Smith’s nuclear family—“us as an invincible unit,” is how she describes them in Ordinary Light—can prepare, though never entirely protect, its members from the loss of certainty and security and, especially, the realities of racial politics. Smith is known for sharpening a political edge in her poetry, whether she’s writing about science fiction, pop culture, or current events, and this memoir is no exception. “In writing this book, I was forced to speak about and into many of the silences that ran through my life: silence about race, silence about the painful features of African American history, silence about my own choice to turn away from or reenvision the religious faith I was raised in,” she says.

One of the side effects of the memoir, Smith discovered, is that her adult perspective remained active even when she was writing about childhood: “So Tracy the citizen was allowed to engage with these private stories, just as Tracy the mother was allowed in at times,” she says. What she calls “shifting subjectivities” becomes especially clear when she writes about returning as a child to Alabama, where her parents grew up, to visit her large extended family (her mother was one of thirteen siblings): 

I was ten years old, living with a vague knowledge that pain was part of my birthright, part of what was meant by a word like Home. It was not the kind of beautified self-inflicted angst that can transform a girl into a swan or a doll or an ice princess in the ballet…. No, what I felt, what I feared and discerned, even from my rather far remove, was the very particular pain that was tied up in blood, in race, in laws and war. The pain we hate most because we know it has been borne by the people we love. The slurs and slights I knew were part and parcel of my parents’ and grandparents’ and all my aunts’ and uncles’ lives in the South. The laws that had sought to make people like them—like us, like me—subordinate. 

“Growing up black in America is inherently political,” Smith says, and her own experience proved that collision with that reality is not limited to the South. In Ordinary Light, she remembers the sting she felt when one of her high school teachers in Northern California offered faint praise as encouragement by pointing out, “You’re an African American woman. You should take advantage of the opportunities that will bring you.” Even as she received one acceptance after another to impressive schools, including Harvard, Smith writes that this man’s “voice whispered in the back of my mind whenever the word diversity was printed among the catalogue copy.” 

Through writing Ordinary Light Smith has also come to some peaceful terms with the fierce religious faith that guided her mother’s life. Even as a child, she struggled to understand her mother’s devotion, especially regarding the concept of salvation, “when the world of my family was the only heaven I needed to believe in.” As an adolescent and young college student, Smith felt the growing distance from her mother in her sense of religion as something imposed, even oppressive. Writing Ordinary Light has helped her appreciate the key role of the African American church of her parents’ era in fostering a sense of family, community, and discipline “in a world full of disparities.” Even her father, with his systematic, orderly mind, Smith says, prayed with and read the Bible to his children. He was a man grounded in both the worlds of science and faith. In Ordinary Light, we meet the meticulously ordered world that her parents, especially her mother, created for their children, inspired, in many ways, by their religious beliefs: “a life that would tell us, and the world, if it cared to notice, that we bothered with ourselves, that we understood dignity, that we were worthy of everything that mattered.” 

Smith believes that the process of writing the memoir helped her codify some of her own beliefs and anxieties about religion and to speak “honestly” about how she sees God—something she needed to do for herself but that has also helped her decide what elements of her religious inheritance she wants to offer her children. “I hope they will bring their own ideas and feelings to the conversation,” she says. “I don’t want to subject them to the hard-and-fast, top-down approach to belief that repelled me.” Would her mother, who grew more religious after her cancer diagnosis, approve? Smith’s not sure, though her siblings have responded positively to the book, and she believes that “much of what the writing has urged me to discover along the way would make perfect, familiar sense to my mother.”

***

Coming at a difficult time in her life, when her first marriage had ended, the offer of a position at Princeton was, Smith says, “a benediction that my life would go on, that everything would be okay.” So far, it’s been more than okay. She relishes teaching: “Let’s just be honest and say that we academics have the best, most humane work schedule in the world, and I get to spend my workdays talking to smart young people who are devoted to the very same thing I love.” Admitting that Princeton’s faculty roster of luminaries is “pretty daunting,” she characterizes her colleagues as “happy and fulfilled and therefore very generous” and feels part of the family: “I feel that I’ve grown up at Princeton. I came here with one book. I was a child. That’s a paradigm I’m comfortable with, being the youngest of five kids, and so the eminence of my colleagues felt right, familiar. I’ve always been in the position of admiring the people around me and striving to play catch-up.” Her colleagues apparently agree. Poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon, who invited Smith to do her first public reading of Ordinary Light last December at the Irish Arts Center in New York City, describes her as “a truly exceptional poet, with an eye for the arresting image that puts most of us to shame,” noting also her commitment to teaching: “My office is right beside hers, so I have a sense of her being a teacher who is at once diligent and delighting in her work.”

Last summer Smith became a full-fledged member of that community in a more rooted way when she and her family moved from Brooklyn, New York, where she had lived for fifteen years, to Princeton. She doesn’t really miss the city, and she’s a bit surprised. Apart from the practical reality that she and her husband, Raphael Allison, a literary scholar and poet, were driving to New Jersey to teach every day while their children were in Brooklyn, she says she was emotionally ready to leave: “I have so much more mental space and more patience, now that we’re living in a house and surrounded by so many trees. I used to pity New Yorkers who moved to the suburbs: I had the smug idea that they were ‘giving up,’ but now I think how much of an inherent struggle it assumes, and I chuckle.” Tina Chang, one of Smith’s best friends and poet laureate of Brooklyn, understands, though she says she went through her own “mourning” process when her friend moved. “As always, we write letters and allow our writing to lead us through our friendship,” Chang says. “What has always been interesting to me is that Tracy can occupy any physical space, and her mental space follows. Whether her body occupies India, Mexico, Brooklyn, or Princeton, her poetry fills up that geography, illuminates it, and makes it more alive.” 

So, with most of the boxes unpacked, full-time teaching under way, and three young children in tow, Smith is already contemplating another prose work, and she’s on to more poetry projects. New poems are included in a folio that accompanies a Smithsonian exhibition of Civil War photos called Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, Poems and Photographs, Past and Present and in an anthology about Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello that is forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press. She is also working on a translation of poetry by contemporary Chinese author Yi Lei and has signed on as librettist for an opera about the legendary 1960s battle between the disparate visions for New York City of urban planner Robert Moses and journalist and activist Jane Jacobs. Although most would be content to accomplish in a lifetime what Smith has already achieved, she considers herself at the end of the first part of her career, and she’s thinking ahead. She’s always been drawn to questions of what we leave behind, what it means to survive, to endure. In her poem “Letter to a Photojournalist Going-In,” from Duende, the speaker wonders if all we do is “kid ourselves into thinking we might last.” But Smith seems more like the tiny creature in “Flores Woman,” who defies the inevitability of her own extinction: “Like a dark star. I want to last.” 

Renée H. Shea is the coauthor of a series of textbooks for Advanced Placement English, most recently Conversations in American Literature: Language, Rhetoric, Culture (Bedford St. Martin’s, 2014). She has profiled many authors for Poets & Writers Magazine, including Julie Otsuka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

Tracy K. Smith

(Credit: Christy Whitney)

Internal Tapestries: A Q&A With Louise Glück

by

William Giraldi

11.20.14

In his essay “Meditations of a Sitter,” Louise Glück’s onetime teacher Stanley Kunitz penned a line of such searing veracity it seems a condemnation of entire quadrants of the human tribe: “The empty ones are those who do not suffer their selfhood.” To suffer a selfhood means to embody the soul of self, to know yourself en route to becoming yourself. Glück studied with Kunitz at Columbia University in the mid-sixties, and for nearly five decades she has been the American poet most willing to communicate the flammable vicissitudes of selfhood, to detect the temblors beneath the self’s consistent adaptations to the facts of living. The facts of any life are impotent and ineffectual until literature intercedes, until it takes hold of those facts and twists them into the light, casting a refraction that allows us to glimpse them anew.

Glück’s refractions reveal the counterpoint between fable and fact, between mythos and mundanity, between the paralysis of silence and the necessity of assertion. Her new book of poems, Faithful and Virtuous Night, published in September by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, betrays an intimate surrealism, a congress of parable and dream—it’s more a stranger to normality than anything she’s ever written and ceaselessly thrilling in its tonal effects. Thoreau believed that “truth strikes us from behind, and in the dark,” but in Glück truth seems to strike always from below, from beneath the half-lit undulations of desire and dread.

Glück shares a birthday with Immanuel Kant and is the author of thirteen books of poems and a fierce collection of essays. She is the Rosenkranz Writer-in-Residence at Yale University, and for eight years served as judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, a service of which she remains immensely proud. As a poet she’s so decorated that if she were a general you’d have to squint into the glare of her: the Bollingen Prize for Vita Nova (Ecco, 1999), the Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris (Ecco, 1992), the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Triumph of Achilles (Ecco, 1985), the Wallace Stevens Award, the Lannan Literary Award—on and on. We spoke for several hours one July afternoon at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her immaculate apartment is adorned with artwork by the poet Mark Strand, and out back breathes her beloved garden, transplanted here from Vermont thirteen years ago.

What’s remarkable about the architecture of Faithful and Virtuous Night is that one can land anywhere inside this book and find a poem that is both self-fulfilled, unconcerned with what precedes or follows, and also a component in the larger whole that informs the unfurling narrative. You’ve erected similar scaffolding in the past—in all of your books since the 2007 collection, Ararat, the poems coalesce and function as a single movement—but in its intricacy and dynamism the architecture of this new book seems to me entirely different.
It seems to me different too. There were years when I thought I’d never resolve the issue of this structure, never be able to give a shape to these poems, which usually means there’s a piece missing, as was true here. I had first thought that the long monologue—which is now divided, interspersed with these surreal, fragmented narratives and prose poems—I had thought that the long poem would be a whole that moved roughly chronologically from section to section, but it seemed lifeless when I put it together that way. I tried rearranging the sequence but that wasn’t the answer. At some point, fiddling with order, I put the title poem next to “An Adventure.” That juxtaposition suggested the shape this book wanted. But that shape didn’t really find itself until the end—when I wrote prose poems, which I’d never done before—they were written in a tide of exhilaration at the thought that maybe I could finally finish this book.

Those prose poems are ligatures that allow the whole to cohere with such startling poise. They recall the way Hemingway’s vignettes function in his story collections, the narrative tendons connecting muscle to bone. I cannot conceive of this book without them.
I can’t either. It was my friend Kathryn Davis who prompted me toward them. She’d read every poem as it was written, and during one of my many stages of hopelessness she said, “I think you should be reading Kafka’s short fiction.” I’d read Kafka’s short fiction before but thought I’d try again, and although I didn’t love it this time around, that was useful to me, because I didn’t feel daunted by him. I read the short-shorts—“The Wish to Be a Red Indian” and others—in bed, where all my mental activity now occurs. My bed usually looks like Proust’s bed; my whole life is lived there. I got my notebook—which I keep around usually for other purposes, because if I let myself think that I might write something I become so paralyzed with longing and despair I can hardly bear it—and I wrote a little prose poem. It was, I thought, terrible, not even worth typing. But I was having dinner with Frank Bidart that night—I’m willing to be humiliated in the presence of my friends—and so before I threw away the prose poem, I thought I’d see what Frank thought. And Frank, as you know, can be a tough critic. He told me I mustn’t throw it out, and after that I wrote a little squadron of them. The book was then very easy to put together. I’d been trying for two years, but I didn’t have that last mode. It didn’t need another large thing, another tone, but it needed another mode, another facet to the prism, another method by which to examine these same materials.

What a bolt of insight for Kathryn Davis to recommend that you go back to Kafka. The frequent playfulness and stabs of comedy in your work are too little noticed, and the same is true for Kafka: Many readers don’t notice how funny he can be. I’m delighted by your dedication to great prose writers. The poetic persona in “A Summer Garden” is reading Mann’s Death in Venice. Do you see a novelist’s sense of narrative as different from your own?
Yes, I think prose writers work with narrative very differently. When I’m trying to put a poem or a book together, I feel like a tracker in the forest following a scent, tracking only step to step. It’s not as though I have plot elements grafted onto the walls elaborating themselves. Of course, I have no idea what I’m tracking, only the conviction that I’ll know it when I see it.

The novelist enjoys a clear advantage over the poet who employs narrative: The novelist has characters who need something, and they have either to achieve their needs or not achieve them. The plot is the pursuit of those needs. The poet doesn’t necessarily have that. I like your image of stalking through the wood, unsure where it ends. The novelist had better see to the end of that wood. Not that there can’t be surprises in what is found there, but better at least to glimpse it in advance.
I depend on that ignorance, on not seeing to the end of the book, because if I have an idea, initially it’s likely to be the wrong idea. I mean my ideas come later, after the fact. Ideas are not a part of how I conceive of a book.

Reading you, and especially these new poems, I’m often in mind of a quip by the English critic Desmond MacCarthy: “It is the business of literature to turn facts into ideas.”
It’s pretty, but I don’t know if that’s what I think. I don’t like that trinity of words: business, facts, ideas. I don’t think literature exactly has a business, and the minute someone says to me what the business is, I immediately want to prove that that’s too limited a notion. For instance, I want to substitute tone for fact. If you can get right the tone, it will be dense with ideas; you don’t initially know fully what they are, but you want by the end to know fully what they are or you won’t have made an exciting work. For me it’s tone—the way the mind moves as it performs its acts of meditation. That’s what you’re following. It guides you but it also mystifies you because you can’t turn it into conscious principles or say precisely what its attributes are. The minute you turn tone into conscious principle it goes dead. It has to remain mysterious to you. You have to be surprised by what it is capable of unveiling. As you work on a book of poems you begin to understand what is at issue, but I don’t have any attitude toward the facts. And if MacCarthy’s terms are correct, I would prefer the notion that a poet turns ideas and abstractions into facts, rather than the other way around.

All through your work, certainly from Ararat on, much of that rhythm happens by the repetition of simple terms. In this new book the same terms appear again and again: silence, winter, mother, father, night. The overlap of personae works the same way, when the poet’s perspective repeatedly intrudes upon and augments the perspective of the larger narrative.
Yes, there’s that overlap, as you say, because over and over there are the same materials, though to my ear they’re passing through a very different lens. More interesting to me than the repeating words (which seem fairly ordinary) are the repeated images. When I put the book together, I was astounded by the internal tapestries. I hadn’t consciously built in those recurrences or echoing gestures and vignettes, but there they were—there was the train, and the train again, and the train was a character. Averno I thought of the same way, actually. It’s not a shaped narrative arc the way some of the others are, but it’s a meditation on a set of conditions and dilemmas, so all the poems revolve around certain repeating images, such as the burned field, which is right out of Henning Mankell. Averno was my homage to Mankell. I tried to use something from one of his books in every one of the poems. Nobody noticed it, which is good, but it was there for me.

In her book Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, your friend Wendy Lesser speaks about your abiding love of murder mysteries and of Mankell in particular.
Mankell makes me happy. Murder mysteries are a way of releasing the unconscious mind to speculative, shapeless, dreamy seeking by absorbing the conscious mind in a compelling quest. One of the advantages of aging is that you know you’ve read a book, or believe you’ve read a book, but you don’t really remember it. You remember only that you love it. And somewhere near the middle you realize that you actually do remember all of the details of the plot. It’s immensely pleasing to read something you have confidence in, something that won’t disappoint you. The only disappointment might be that you’re missing the thrill of uncovering the killer, but it’s a small disappointment if you love the world that’s being constructed.

In that regard Wilkie Collins is unmatched—one can read his best novels every few years with identical pleasure. He’s better than Dickens in the construction of a thrilling, alternate world that dictates its own stipulations. Do you remember The Woman in White?
And The Moonstone, yes. I read those books first in my adolescence and a few times since then. I bought The Moonstone again when I felt I had exhausted all available murder fiction, and I had trouble getting into it. Maybe I’ll try again. I certainly need something to give competition to the iPad. I seem to be in an iPad period. I don’t read on it. I just watch things that move.

Your legion of devotees might be startled to hear about your iPad.
I was startled myself. I never had the Internet until last year. This is all brand-new for me. The iPad was given to me at a reading. I told the person: “Don’t give this to me. I will never turn it on.” But the person shoved it at me, so then I had it, and I felt sort of responsible to it. So I sat with it for about six months. And then one day I began poking at it. I knew people poked at it. But nothing happened, and I thought: “Well, I just don’t have the gift.” Then I realized I needed some sort of hookup. That took another six months. By this time my niece was in a television show, Orange Is the New Black, which was available only through streaming. It turned out, on this little device, you just press something and there they all were. And it became my bed buddy. It’s really the freakiest thing because I became an addict very fast. At the moment it has usurped the place of reading in my life. Part of me thinks this is dangerous; my own vocation will dissolve. Another part of me thinks this is exploratory, that if my vocation is so fragile or precarious it isn’t a vocation. After all, there were two years when I read nothing but garden catalogues, and that turned out okay—it became a book.

You mean The Wild Iris. I’m certain you’re the only American poet who’s won the Pulitzer after two years of reading nothing but garden catalogues.
Well, there’s something my brain needs in such indulging, so I indulge it. This iPad addiction seems to me endlessly curious. Something may come of it. I’m an opportunist—I always hope I’ll get material out of any activity. I never know where writing is going to come from; it isn’t as though I have something in mind and this iPad is the source. This is just dream time, the way detective fiction is. It stills a certain kind of anxiety and at the same time engages the mind. As the mind is engaged and anxiety suppressed, some imaginative work in some recessed portion of the being is getting done. Not to say that every moment is contributing to a book or a poem, but you can’t know in advance what will. Don’t prejudge your stimuli. Just trust where your attention goes.

You once said to me on the phone, “Follow your enthusiasms.”
I believe that. I used to be approached in classes by women who felt they shouldn’t have children because children were too distracting, or would eat up the vital energies from which art comes. But you have to live your life if you’re going to do original work. Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake. When I was young I led the life I thought writers were supposed to lead, in which you repudiate the world, ostentatiously consecrating all of your energies to the task of making art. I just sat in Provincetown at a desk and it was ghastly—the more I sat there not writing the more I thought that I just hadn’t given up the world enough. After two years of that, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be a writer. So I took a teaching job in Vermont, though I had spent my life till that point thinking that real poets don’t teach. But I took this job, and the minute I started teaching—the minute I had obligations in the world—I started to write again.

The catalyst for Faithful and Virtuous Night was your agon with not writing, with wordlessness.
Yes, I was moaning to my sister about losing words, about the deterioration of my vocabulary. I said to her, “How am I ever going to write when I’m losing words?” and she said, “You’ll write about losing words.” And I thought, “Wow, good, I’ll write about having no speech, about deterioration.” Then it was the most exciting thing, a wealth of material—everything I had been bemoaning was actually unexplored territory. That was the catalyst, as you say, for the whole endeavor—a liberating, a permission. The idea of writing about not writing seemed promising because I knew a lot about those not-writing states, but they were not something I’d ever written about. One of the experiences of putting together my large book of extant poems was an astonishment because my sense of my life, now fairly long, is that almost all the time I’m not writing. I was flabbergasted putting together that large book, nearly seven hundred pages. And I thought: “How can that have happened? When did I write all that?” My feeling concerning my life is that always I was not working. Well, apparently I was.

The gestures of silence lurk everywhere in Faithful and Virtuous Night, as they do in your work as a whole, but is your conception of your own silence a kind of illusion? A seven-hundred-page collection of poems is not silence.
No, it’s real, not an illusion at all. I go through two, three years writing nothing. Zero. Not a sentence. Not bad poems I discard, not notes toward poems. Nothing. And you don’t know in those periods that the silence will end, that you will ever recover speech. It’s pretty much hell, and the fact that it’s always ended before doesn’t mean that any current silence isn’t the terminal silence beyond which you will not move, though you will live many years in your incapacity. Each time it feels that way. When I’m not writing, all the old work becomes a reprimand: Look what you could do once, you pathetic slug.

I recall those lines from “Approach of the Horizon”: “It is the gift of expression / that has so often failed me. / Failed me, tormented me, virtually all my life.”
Do you know Iris Murdoch?

She’s superb. I love the humor in Under the Net.
I’d been rereading all of Murdoch before I began this new book. I often reread a writer—read one book and then want to enter that world more fully. In any case, I can hear Murdoch in those lines you just recited. I love The Black Prince, A Severed Head, The Green Knight, even strange things such as A Word Child. There’s something in her archness, not a tone I’d normally think to emulate, but there’s something delicious in it. Her people might be murdering and raping but really they’re thinking about what goodness is in the world, bizarre juxtapositions of that kind. Something of her got transferred to this new book. It’s a matter of tone. The interest of the poems is in the tone in which large pronouncements are made, not necessarily the pronouncements themselves. The pronouncements are constantly being scrutinized by the tone, which is taking objection to some of the things being said. It’s not a book in which large bannerlike truths are being unfolded.

There’s a disciplined seething detectable just beneath the surface of these new poems, a fervency of feeling we know is there just as we know distant planets are there—not because we can see them but because they cause a bending, a wobble in the light of their stars. In these new poems, the tone, the pitch is bent to reveal the seething beneath it. The book has such a patient turbulence.
That’s nice, a patient turbulence. It’s there as a background but the whole book seems to me to be about moving beyond that turbulence, or that seething, as you say, and into this uncommon zone where you’re on a horse flying through the air. How did that happen? What’s distinctive in this book is that sense of dreaminess. But there are two parallel issues regarding silence: one is the silence that is the faltering of a gift or a need for expression, and there’s also silence that is the result of deterioration, a faltering in the being that is a product of age. Although I’ve been writing about death my whole life, deterioration or the weakening of the powers is brand-new to me. The subject is gloomy, I suppose, but new material is exhilarating. The quality I feel most intensely in this book is a quality of euphoria, a floating, a whimsy. It’s an undertaking of a large adventure, which is the adventure of decline. It seems an oxymoron, I know, and will come to seem a gloomy fate, but now—as long as it produces something of which you’re proud, you’re grateful for it, delighted by it. 

You said once that the life of a poet oscillates between ecstasy and agony, and what mitigates those extremes is the necessary daily business of living.
Yes. Friends, conversation, gardens. Daily life. It’s what we have. I believe in the world. I trust it to provide me.

William Giraldi is the author of the novels Hold the Dark, published in September 2014 by Norton, and Busy Monsters (Norton, 2011). He is the fiction editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University.

 

Far From Ordinary: A Profile of Tracy K. Smith

by

Renée H. Shea

2.10.15

Tracy K. Smith was twenty-two when her mother died in 1994. Nearly a decade later, she published The Body’s Question, her first book of poetry, in which she reflected on that loss. In “Joy,” which carried the epigraph “In Memoriam KMS 1936–1994,” Smith writes to her mother, longing to “pick up the phone / And catch your voice on the other end / Telling me how to bake a salmon / Or get the stains out of my white clothes.” Another decade later, she returns to that wrenching loss in the memoir Ordinary Light, published this month by Knopf. Smith’s first book of prose, it is a book of excavation and navigation: The poet revisits her mother’s passing in light of her father’s death in 2008, the year her daughter, Naomi, was born, and in light of the birth in 2013 of her twin sons, Atticus and Sterling. 

Smith, who characterizes herself as having been “still an adolescent” when she lost her mother, believes “it took losing my father to help me come to better grips with that first loss and think about what I needed to believe my mother’s life and her death had imparted.” And now, with three children of her own, Smith wishes her mother were nearby to consult about practical parenting concerns, but of course that wish goes deeper: “I want to think actively about the continuum to which I belong—the one that includes my mother and her mother and sisters and their ancestors—and also my children. In my mother’s absence, I want to cement that connection, and words are the best glue I know.” 

But why prose? She’s already written poems about her mother, and her Pulitzer Prize–winning Life on Mars is, in many respects, an elegy for her father. A memoir in verse offered an intriguing form, one that is familiar territory—Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah (1986) and, more recently, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, which won the 2014 National Book Award, are exemplary—but Smith credits the influence and encouragement of the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, her mentor in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, for emboldening her to venture into prose. Smith had never heard of the mentorship program, which pairs older masters with younger artists under forty, until 2008, when she was nominated and flown to Munich along with two other finalists. Each had an interview with Enzensberger and then all four went to dinner, an experience that Smith insists turned into more camaraderie than competition. 

She and Enzensberger have become great friends after what sounds like a jet-setting year of being flown to many of the places where he had speaking engagements: “We rendezvoused in Tenerife and Paris, and gave a reading together at the public library in London. We spent much of a summer in Munich, where he lives, working on the book and getting to know each other.” In addition to face-to-face meetings, the two e-mailed back and forth, with Smith sending him parts of her work for comment. The idea she began with was, by her own description, “a big, ambitious mess” about a whole range of experiences, but Enzensberger urged her to focus discrete memories toward “a narrative with characters that moved beyond the private realm to take in and consider the relevant public history.” 

From the beginning, Smith says, she knew she wanted to write “genuine prose,” possibly because some of what she wanted to explore had already been unearthed in her poetry. “But I also wanted to embrace a fuller sense of myself as a writer,” she says. And she wanted to work within “sentences, clauses, paragraphs, the whole to-do,” since, as she writes in Ordinary Light, “Being able to tell a good story was currency in my family.” Prose gave her a certain amount of freedom to explain and elaborate. She realized how much she relies on metaphor in her poetry to evoke “a strange, powerful sameness between two otherwise disparate things.” In prose, she initially felt reluctant to elaborate on an image or interrogate statements she made, but soon discovered her expansive abilities. “I learned that prose can bear the weight of much more explication,” she says. “I can think and rethink, even second-guess or analyze something on the page in prose without going overboard. The sentence, in prose, can be as tireless as an ox.”

Enzensberger recognized, perhaps before Smith herself, that her story was about her family, with her mother as the central character. Smith opens Ordinary Light with her mother’s deathbed scene, the family’s vigil during the final hours of her mother’s life, remembered twenty years later:

Then we heard a sound that seemed to carve a tunnel between our world and some other. It was an otherworldly breath, a vivid presence that blew past us without stopping, leaving us, the living, clamped in place by the silence that followed. I would come back to the sound and the presence of that breath again and again, thinking how miraculous it was that she had ridden off on that last exhalation, her life instantly whisked away, carried over into a place none of us will ever understand until perhaps we are there ourselves.

From that solemn moment, Smith circles back to her childhood as the adored and indulged baby in a family of five children and, further back, to her parents’ coming of age in Alabama at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Dedicated to her daughter, Naomi, Ordinary Light began as a way for Smith to bring her parents back to life, “to reconstruct them,” as characters for Naomi. “At least that was my intention,” Smith says, “though in the execution it has become a book about me—about excavating my own experiences, anxieties, and evolving beliefs.” 

When asked about the title, she hesitates, musing that “maybe it’s the feeling of wholeness and safety and ongoing-ness that we slip into sometimes in our lives.” But after Smith settled on Ordinary Light as her title, she added an opening quote from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” one of her favorite short stories. As Baldwin’s narrator recalls the perfect family Sunday afternoons of his childhood when all’s right with the world, he cautions: “But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light.” In her new memoir, it is this moment that Smith explores for herself and her own children—the moment when we hear the tiger at the door.

***

In many ways, Smith seems to have lived a charmed life. Her father retired from the Air Force at forty-five because he did not want to uproot the family once again by accepting an overseas post. Trained as an electronics engineer, he found a job in Silicon Valley, eventually working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Her mother, while active in her church and community, did not work outside the home except for a short stint as an adult-education teacher. Tracy, eight years younger than her closest sibling, recalls a childhood when “all of my siblings doted on me, then left for college. So I had this abundance of attention for a time, and then a period of abundant solitude.” A participant in gifted programs throughout her public school education, she graduated from Harvard College in 1994 with a BA in English and American Literature and Afro-American Studies. After an extended return home following her mother’s death, Smith attended Columbia University, earning an MFA in 1997; she went on to a two-year stint as a Stegner fellow at Stanford University. She taught at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, and at the University of Pittsburgh before joining the faculty at Princeton University in 2005, where she is currently a professor of creative writing. 

Smith has published three collections of poetry—The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), and Life on Mars (2011), all with Graywolf Press—each receiving critical acclaim and significant literary prizes. In the introduction to her first book, which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, poet Kevin Young, the contest judge, heralded an exceptional new voice:  “Smith is a maker, a wordsmith of the first order.” In 2012, Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Two years later Smith received an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Among her other awards and fellowships are the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, an Artist’s Residence at the Fundación Valparaíso in Spain, and an Essence Literary Award. 

Smith had a series of mentors even before her time with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, as she developed her identity as a poet. A reader from the outset (one of the chapters in Ordinary Light is titled “My Book House”), she experienced a sort of epiphanic moment in college when she read Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging.” She describes how everything in that poem—the male speaker, the Irish setting—should have been completely foreign to her, yet, she says, “I felt so much a part of the landscape and the family he was describing that I realized this was what I wanted to do with language.” Ultimately, she got to know Heaney as one of her teachers. At Columbia, Mark Doty became, and remains, an important influence and mentor to her, someone who she says is “so generous and present” to his students. 

Yet the seemingly idyllic life of Smith’s nuclear family—“us as an invincible unit,” is how she describes them in Ordinary Light—can prepare, though never entirely protect, its members from the loss of certainty and security and, especially, the realities of racial politics. Smith is known for sharpening a political edge in her poetry, whether she’s writing about science fiction, pop culture, or current events, and this memoir is no exception. “In writing this book, I was forced to speak about and into many of the silences that ran through my life: silence about race, silence about the painful features of African American history, silence about my own choice to turn away from or reenvision the religious faith I was raised in,” she says.

One of the side effects of the memoir, Smith discovered, is that her adult perspective remained active even when she was writing about childhood: “So Tracy the citizen was allowed to engage with these private stories, just as Tracy the mother was allowed in at times,” she says. What she calls “shifting subjectivities” becomes especially clear when she writes about returning as a child to Alabama, where her parents grew up, to visit her large extended family (her mother was one of thirteen siblings): 

I was ten years old, living with a vague knowledge that pain was part of my birthright, part of what was meant by a word like Home. It was not the kind of beautified self-inflicted angst that can transform a girl into a swan or a doll or an ice princess in the ballet…. No, what I felt, what I feared and discerned, even from my rather far remove, was the very particular pain that was tied up in blood, in race, in laws and war. The pain we hate most because we know it has been borne by the people we love. The slurs and slights I knew were part and parcel of my parents’ and grandparents’ and all my aunts’ and uncles’ lives in the South. The laws that had sought to make people like them—like us, like me—subordinate. 

“Growing up black in America is inherently political,” Smith says, and her own experience proved that collision with that reality is not limited to the South. In Ordinary Light, she remembers the sting she felt when one of her high school teachers in Northern California offered faint praise as encouragement by pointing out, “You’re an African American woman. You should take advantage of the opportunities that will bring you.” Even as she received one acceptance after another to impressive schools, including Harvard, Smith writes that this man’s “voice whispered in the back of my mind whenever the word diversity was printed among the catalogue copy.” 

Through writing Ordinary Light Smith has also come to some peaceful terms with the fierce religious faith that guided her mother’s life. Even as a child, she struggled to understand her mother’s devotion, especially regarding the concept of salvation, “when the world of my family was the only heaven I needed to believe in.” As an adolescent and young college student, Smith felt the growing distance from her mother in her sense of religion as something imposed, even oppressive. Writing Ordinary Light has helped her appreciate the key role of the African American church of her parents’ era in fostering a sense of family, community, and discipline “in a world full of disparities.” Even her father, with his systematic, orderly mind, Smith says, prayed with and read the Bible to his children. He was a man grounded in both the worlds of science and faith. In Ordinary Light, we meet the meticulously ordered world that her parents, especially her mother, created for their children, inspired, in many ways, by their religious beliefs: “a life that would tell us, and the world, if it cared to notice, that we bothered with ourselves, that we understood dignity, that we were worthy of everything that mattered.” 

Smith believes that the process of writing the memoir helped her codify some of her own beliefs and anxieties about religion and to speak “honestly” about how she sees God—something she needed to do for herself but that has also helped her decide what elements of her religious inheritance she wants to offer her children. “I hope they will bring their own ideas and feelings to the conversation,” she says. “I don’t want to subject them to the hard-and-fast, top-down approach to belief that repelled me.” Would her mother, who grew more religious after her cancer diagnosis, approve? Smith’s not sure, though her siblings have responded positively to the book, and she believes that “much of what the writing has urged me to discover along the way would make perfect, familiar sense to my mother.”

***

Coming at a difficult time in her life, when her first marriage had ended, the offer of a position at Princeton was, Smith says, “a benediction that my life would go on, that everything would be okay.” So far, it’s been more than okay. She relishes teaching: “Let’s just be honest and say that we academics have the best, most humane work schedule in the world, and I get to spend my workdays talking to smart young people who are devoted to the very same thing I love.” Admitting that Princeton’s faculty roster of luminaries is “pretty daunting,” she characterizes her colleagues as “happy and fulfilled and therefore very generous” and feels part of the family: “I feel that I’ve grown up at Princeton. I came here with one book. I was a child. That’s a paradigm I’m comfortable with, being the youngest of five kids, and so the eminence of my colleagues felt right, familiar. I’ve always been in the position of admiring the people around me and striving to play catch-up.” Her colleagues apparently agree. Poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon, who invited Smith to do her first public reading of Ordinary Light last December at the Irish Arts Center in New York City, describes her as “a truly exceptional poet, with an eye for the arresting image that puts most of us to shame,” noting also her commitment to teaching: “My office is right beside hers, so I have a sense of her being a teacher who is at once diligent and delighting in her work.”

Last summer Smith became a full-fledged member of that community in a more rooted way when she and her family moved from Brooklyn, New York, where she had lived for fifteen years, to Princeton. She doesn’t really miss the city, and she’s a bit surprised. Apart from the practical reality that she and her husband, Raphael Allison, a literary scholar and poet, were driving to New Jersey to teach every day while their children were in Brooklyn, she says she was emotionally ready to leave: “I have so much more mental space and more patience, now that we’re living in a house and surrounded by so many trees. I used to pity New Yorkers who moved to the suburbs: I had the smug idea that they were ‘giving up,’ but now I think how much of an inherent struggle it assumes, and I chuckle.” Tina Chang, one of Smith’s best friends and poet laureate of Brooklyn, understands, though she says she went through her own “mourning” process when her friend moved. “As always, we write letters and allow our writing to lead us through our friendship,” Chang says. “What has always been interesting to me is that Tracy can occupy any physical space, and her mental space follows. Whether her body occupies India, Mexico, Brooklyn, or Princeton, her poetry fills up that geography, illuminates it, and makes it more alive.” 

So, with most of the boxes unpacked, full-time teaching under way, and three young children in tow, Smith is already contemplating another prose work, and she’s on to more poetry projects. New poems are included in a folio that accompanies a Smithsonian exhibition of Civil War photos called Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, Poems and Photographs, Past and Present and in an anthology about Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello that is forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press. She is also working on a translation of poetry by contemporary Chinese author Yi Lei and has signed on as librettist for an opera about the legendary 1960s battle between the disparate visions for New York City of urban planner Robert Moses and journalist and activist Jane Jacobs. Although most would be content to accomplish in a lifetime what Smith has already achieved, she considers herself at the end of the first part of her career, and she’s thinking ahead. She’s always been drawn to questions of what we leave behind, what it means to survive, to endure. In her poem “Letter to a Photojournalist Going-In,” from Duende, the speaker wonders if all we do is “kid ourselves into thinking we might last.” But Smith seems more like the tiny creature in “Flores Woman,” who defies the inevitability of her own extinction: “Like a dark star. I want to last.” 

Renée H. Shea is the coauthor of a series of textbooks for Advanced Placement English, most recently Conversations in American Literature: Language, Rhetoric, Culture (Bedford St. Martin’s, 2014). She has profiled many authors for Poets & Writers Magazine, including Julie Otsuka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

Tracy K. Smith

(Credit: Christy Whitney)

A Slender Hope: A Profile of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

by

Renée H. Shea

7.1.09

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received the call on her thirty-first birthday, last September. She was taking a bath at her sister’s house in Lagos, preparing to go to dinner, when her brother told her she had an important call from Chicago. Wrapped in a towel, she grabbed the phone through a barely open door and heard from the MacArthur Foundation that she’d received one of its five-hundred-thousand-dollar fellowships, known as genius grants. With that call, Adichie joined a diverse group of scientists, artists, humanists, teachers, and entrepreneurs, as well as writers—company that still amazes her: “Half the time I think I shouldn’t be there. When I was in Lagos, anytime something happened, like the TV wouldn’t work, my friends would ask, ‘Well, what does the genius think?’”

Photos by Doug Barber.
 

Although she was shocked at receiving a MacArthur, Adichie should have been used to hearing such news. Her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus (Algonquin Books, 2003), a coming-of-age story about a Nigerian girl who must endure the cruelty of her evangelist father, was long-listed for the Booker Prize, short-listed for the Orange Prize, and won both the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Three years later, her follow-up novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (Knopf, 2006), a story set in Nigeria during the Biafran War in the late 1960s, won the Orange Broadband Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. More than that, its publication marked her arrival as one of Nigeria’s most important voices.

Recently she returned to the United States, where she lives part time, to promote her June release, The Thing Around Your Neck (Knopf), a collection of short stories, some originally published in magazines such as the New Yorker, Granta, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and Zoetrope. She had been on tour in England, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada for the book’s overseas publication earlier this year. Accustomed to being in transit, she divides her time between Nigeria and Maryland, where she lives with her partner, a family physician, who practices there. “I’m so emotionally invested in Nigeria as a country and society, which I feel has so much potential it hasn’t lived up to, that sometimes it gets exhausting. There’s so much to do, and I want to be involved. But then I find I need to leave to have some space. I quite like America, my home of convenience, where I don’t have to deal with things like electricity shortages.”

Adichie grew up piecing together “tiny stories,” as she describes them, about the Biafran War, which raged from 1967 to 1970 and ended almost a decade before she was born. The conflict resulted from ethnic tensions among the Christian Igbo population in eastern Nigeria, which seceded to form the Republic of Biafra, and the largely Muslim Fulani-Hausa in the north. At least a million people, mostly Igbo, died from massacres and starvation during this brutally violent period, though some estimates put that figure as high as three million. Both of Adichie’s Igbo grandfathers died as refugees who had to flee their hometowns. Her grandmothers survived and, as she says, “somehow kept children and relatives together. My parents, part of the postindependent [Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960], hopeful middle class when the war started, lost most of their property”—in addition to family and friends.

Her parents rebuilt their lives and raised a family of six children. Her father was professor of statistics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he was appointed vice-chancellor in 1982, and her mother became the first woman registrar. The fifth of the six children, Adichie grew up speaking both Igbo and English. She recalls the thrill of reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the groundbreaking novel about the clash between Igbo tradition and British colonialism, when she was ten years old. “I realized that people who looked like me could live in books.” But her parents encouraged her to pursue a practical career, so writing had to wait.

She began studying to be a doctor in Nigeria but, urged by her sister Ijeoma, came to the United States on a scholarship to Drexel University, in Philadelphia. She transferred to Eastern Connecticut State University, in Willimantic, where she lived with her sister and her sister’s husband, and took care of their son while they started a medical practice. During that time, she wrote Purple Hibiscus, reworking it during her tenure as an MFA student at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

Set around the mid-1990s, when Nigeria was under the control of a junta led by General Sani Abacha, Purple Hibiscus is narrated by fifteen-year-old Kambili Achike, whose father, Eugene, is both a courageous champion of human rights and a religious zealot who terrorizes his wife and children. Kambili, though desperate for her father’s approval, cannot measure up to his impossibly high standards: “I needed him to hug me close and say that to whom much is given, much is also expected. I needed him to smile at me, in that way that lit up his face, that warmed something inside me. But I had come second. I was stained by failure.” After a military coup, Eugene sends his children to stay with their Aunty Ifeoma, an outspoken university teacher, who introduces Kambili to “a different kind of freedom,” including traditional religious beliefs and more humane and expansive relationships. Even in this debut novel, Adichie depicts characters whose personal lives are played out on the larger canvas of a society beset by corruption and violence.

Moving back in time, Half of a Yellow Sun takes its title from the flag of the doomed Republic of Biafra and tells the story of the civil war from three interconnected perspectives. The main characters move back and forth between the earlier more peaceful part of the decade and the bloodshed that ended the 1960s. Adichie, who spent four years researching and writing the novel, tells the political saga through the lives of well-to-do twin sisters Kainene and Olanna, the urbane, intellectual Odenigbo, and the white British journalist Richard as their comfortable lives unravel into a struggle for survival. At the center of the novel is Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old who comes from a poor rural village to work as Odenigbo’s houseboy and is eventually conscripted into the Biafran army. Reviewers praised the novel for its epic scope. Rob Nixon, writing in the New York Times, lauded Adichie for positioning “her characters at crossroads where public and private allegiances threaten to collide.”

Adichie says she always knew she would write a novel about Biafra. At sixteen, she wrote what she describes as “an awfully melodramatic play” called “For Love of Biafra,” and earlier in her career, she wrote short stories that dealt with the war. In “Ghosts,” one of the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck, she revisits this time period with a meeting between a seventy-one-year-old mathematics professor retired from the University of Nigeria and a colleague, who was assumed to have died as a result of the 1967 violence but had, in fact, been living in exile. Adichie says this story is “in some ways a love letter to my father,” and the tenderness of that tribute comes through in the professor’s reflections on his past:

 

We hardly talked about the war. When we did, it was with an implacable vagueness, as if what mattered were not that we had crouched in muddy bunkers during air raids after which we buried corpses with bits of pink on their charred skin, not that we had eaten cassava peels and watched our children’s bellies swell from malnutrition, but that we had survived. It was a tacit agreement among all of us, the survivors of Biafra.

 

That period has remained a powerful political issue in Nigerian society, but Adichie felt that the conversation about it retained “an implacable vagueness” and was largely uninformed, particularly for her generation. Half of a Yellow Sun, which was well received in Nigeria, changed that to some extent. “I often get feedback from friends, from friends of friends, about how the novel has become a starting point for talking about the war. My Nigerian publisher told me about a family in Lagos—the man is a newspaper publisher. Their daughter read the book and asked her mother about the war. To the husband’s surprise, she began to tell their daughter stories of what her family went through—yet he had never heard these in all the years of their marriage.”

In a 2007 article, Vanity Fair featured Adichie—along with Doreen Baingana, Uzodinma Iweala, and Helon Habila—as part of the new generation of young writers leading an African literary renaissance. The piece described Adichie at a literary festival in Nairobi, looking “radiant, fresh off her rock-star-style tour of Nigeria and splashy New Yorker debut…part[ing] the crowds, Cleopatra-style” and hailed her as the heir to her countryman Achebe, whose Things Fall Apart celebrated in 2008 fifty years of continued popularity and influence.

Adichie says Achebe is her hero and guiding literary spirit. While there is remarkable variety in the work being written by the Nigerian authors in her generation, Adichie believes they all share a certain freedom that was forged by Achebe’s writing. “When Achebe published Things Fall Apart in 1958, it was a novelty,” she says. “There may have been five other African writers writing in English. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for people like him, feeling they had this burden of responsibility, of being a pioneer, thinking, ‘the dignity of my people rests on my shoulders.’ I don’t have that burden. I’m not representing anyone—and I owe this freedom to that generation.”

Most of the twelve stories in The Thing Around Your Neck focus on contemporary situations, whether the setting is Nigeria or the United States. They explore the subjects of immigration and exile, shifting values, and cross-cultural communication among families and communities. In “A Private Experience,” two Nigerian women—one a privileged Igbo student who is visiting her aunt while on holiday from her medical studies, the other a poor Hausa trader from the marketplace—find themselves hiding together during a violent riot provoked by a man who drives over a copy of the Koran that had dropped on the street. Based on an actual incident in northern Nigeria, the story explores the brief intersection of these women’s lives during a dramatic moment that links them regardless of their tribal, religious, economic, and educational differences. “Sometimes we like to say we’re really not different,” says Adichie. “I think we are, yet what interests me is that we still can make connections.”

“Cell One,” one of two stories previously published in the New Yorker, depicts a well-off family whose son, Nnamabia, is a member of a gang whose members “had mastered the swagger of American rap videos [and] were undergoing secret and strange initiations that sometimes left one or two of them dead.” Nnamabia, the spoiled brother of the female narrator, is arrested after a gang shooting. Although it is unclear whether he is guilty, in prison he experiences the corruption of the prison guards and finally confronts his own selfish and irresponsible behavior when he speaks up for another inmate who is being brutalized by them. At the story’s end, he seems deeply changed, but can he sustain this transformation? “I believe in redemption,” Adichie says quietly, then adds, “I’m very suspicious of excessive happiness. The way the world works is a struggle, but I believe in hope—in slender hope.”

In many of these stories, hope seems in scarce supply when it comes to marriage. The wife in “Imitation” tries to take in, via long distance, the news that her husband’s mistress has moved into their home in Lagos while she waits for him in their affluent home on Cherrywood Lane in suburban Pennsylvania. In “The Arrangers of Marriage,” a new wife resists changing her name
from Chinaza to the Americanized Agatha, only one demand made by her husband in an effort to speed up her assimilation—and acceptability. Patriarchal attitudes seem to dominate, regardless of the Nigerian or American setting, as an expression of the imbalance of power, particularly when sex is part of the bargain.

“I’ve always had a problem with marriage as an institution,” says Adichie. “The way it’s set up, women automatically make more compromises than men.” Despite the inspiring model of her parents’ forty-five-year marriage, she gets angry at the way our society makes a fetish of marriage. “Undue privilege is awarded to married people in so many ways. I’m all for partnerships as long as they’re mutually beneficial, satisfying, respectful. I’m part of a couple and I’m quite happy, but I also think I could be quite happy if I were not part of a couple. In Nigeria, sometimes women act as if their lives are complete because they’re married—and it’s just not true. Maybe it’s the feminist in me, but I see the lies that people tell themselves about marriage and think how unwilling we are to admit that it’s not always a perfect thing.”

Although the subject is different, a similar fierceness fuels the story “Jumping Monkey Hill,” whose title refers to the name of a resort, where an aging British intellectual and his wife lead an African writers workshop. As two narratives unfold—the third-person narrative that describes the workshop and the story that the Nigerian participant Ujunwa Ogundu is writing—so does a brutal indictment of postcolonial paternalism. In the final scene, the pompous academic dismisses Ogundu’s story, saying, “This is agenda writing, it isn’t a story of real people.”

“That is the one story propelled by rage,” Adichie says. “I’m not interested in writing about myself, but that one is personally based on what really did happen to me. I felt diminished.” In fact, she had to change her thinly disguised portrayal of the workshop leader before Granta would publish it because of fear of a lawsuit. She still makes no apology for the unflattering depiction: “For me it’s about who is policing the production of literature, who is saying what is acceptable, especially for Africans. If someone tries to tell you what your own story should be, that’s ridiculous.”

Adichie takes her commitment to authentic storytelling well beyond her own writing. Along with her efforts to promote literacy in Nigeria, for the past two years she has led workshops in Lagos for aspiring writers. In 2007, when Fidelity Bank invited her to give a reading, she agreed but said she wanted to do more for the community. She proposed a series of workshops “to help writers polish their craft, to give them a chance to be with other writers, to demystify the publishing process—and hopefully to get them comfortable with the idea of being read by others.” The first workshop was advertised with no requirement other than a brief writing sample—and over two hundred applied. Adichie chose twenty-five participants and had enough success that the bank agreed to expand the project. In 2008, applicants exceeded seven hundred, mostly from Nigeria but a few from Cameroon and Zimbabwe. Dave Eggers from the United States, Binyavanga Wainaina from Kenya, and Marie-Elena John from Antigua joined her as guest faculty serving a group ranging in age from eighteen to fifty. “Friendships formed. People exchanged books and stories. One person from the first summer ended up at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, another just published his first novel in Nigeria,” Adichie says. “Some participants formed Web groups where they continue to read and support one another. So I like to think that their writing lives are better, in general, because of the workshop.”

Nigerian Breweries has signed on as sponsor for the next three years, and this September Eggers will return along with other international writers. The workshops received wide media notice, and the accompanying literary events during the evenings drew substantial crowds. Adichie says the attention has been both “moving and humbling” but also useful. “Being known has given me a platform to talk about the things I care about, which is an incredible luxury.” For Adichie, success has meant more than making a name for herself as an author. It has given her the ability to see her slender hope realized in the lives of her fellow Nigerians—and to see the rest of us inspired by her work.

 

Renée H. Shea, professor of English and modern languages at Bowie State University in Maryland, has written profiles of Andrea Levy, Rita Dove, and Sandra Cisneros, among others, for Poets & Writers Magazine. She is coauthor of the book The Language of Composition: Reading, Writing, Rhetoric (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2007).

Be Bold: A Profile of Ocean Vuong

by

Rigoberto González

6.12.19

Ocean Vuong made his literary debut in April 2016 with Night Sky With Exit Wounds, a poetry collection that chronicles a family’s journey as refugees from Vietnam to America, where the poems’ young speaker grows up attuned to the turmoil of his family’s traumas while becoming aware of his sexual identity. Vuong’s meteoric rise in popularity was immediate, and so was the positive critical response to his lyrical voice.

In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani raved about “his ability to capture specific moments in time with both photographic clarity and a sense of the evanescence of all earthly things.” The book’s warm reception was accompanied by a number of prizes and honors from the Whiting Foundation (Whiting Award), the Lannan Foundation (Lannan Literary Fellowship), the T. S. Eliot Foundation (T. S. Eliot Prize), Publishing Triangle (Thom Gunn Award), Forward Arts Foundation (Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection), and others. The New York Times went on to name it one of the top ten books of 2016. All for a first book of poems by a relative newcomer to the literary scene.

Rather than follow it up with another book of poems, however, Vuong shifted gears and turned his attention to a different genre entirely—fiction, in the form of a novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, out in June from Penguin Press. The book centers around the strained relationship between a mother, who struggles with PTSD induced by memories of the Vietnam War and her abusive marriage, and her son, who is contending with his sexuality as he comes of age on the drug-ravaged streets of Hartford, Connecticut. I recently sat down with Vuong to discuss his path from poet to novelist, a story that begins with—as Vuong puts it—“a little gay kid from Hartford, who read in the library with his head down so that people didn’t know he was reading.”

Born in Saigon in 1988 to a family of rice farmers, Ocean Vuong was only two when his extended family left Vietnam and traveled to Connecticut after making a brief stop in the Philippines. The seven-member household included his grandmother, “who would start to sing any time there was conflict,” Vuong says. “Since she was the elder, it cast a kind of spell over us so that we could survive our problems.” The cultural adjustment for this mostly illiterate refugee family was not easy, to say the least. Vuong’s father returned to Vietnam not long after their arrival, and his mother found a job as a manicurist, a profession she still practices. “Everything was erupting all the time,” Vuong recalls, “but it was our shared journey that kept us together.”

Though the Vuongs were the only Vietnamese family in a mostly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, they were embraced with generosity and kindness, which made them more comfortable with the reality that they now lived in a different country. “I didn’t know that most of America was white until I was eight or nine,” he says. The concept of white supremacy was encountered much later, when he eventually left the working-class side of Hartford to seek job opportunities as an adolescent in the more affluent and commercial areas of the city.

In the meantime, he was having to contend with two life-changing realizations: that he was gay and that he had, despite a love of reading, dyslexia. The learning disorder is a family affliction; Vuong’s mother and brother also have it. Much later he would find out that so did Octavia Butler and F. Scott Fitzgerald, which helped him reconcile with the possibility of becoming a writer. “I would insist it’s not a setback or an illness,” he says. “It’s just a different angle of looking at language that actually reveals a lot and was very advantageous for me as an artist.”

Vuong says he also sees his queerness as a source of strength in the way he thinks about the world. “For queer kids, when the world around you is dangerous, you go into your own refuge,” Vuong says. For him it was books. Coming out to his mother, however, was a different kind of challenge—one that he didn’t think would end well for him. In fact he was prepared for the worst and planned his exile from his family.

“I waited until I was seventeen,” he recalls. “I had enough for a bus ticket and $2,000 in my pocket saved up from my job at Panera Bread. I had my bag with me when I sat down with my mother. I was ready for rejection.” But that rejection never came. At this point the family had already suffered serious losses to drug overdoses, victims of the opioid epidemic that was affecting this working-class community, a harsh reality he weaves into his new novel. “Where would you go?” his mother asked. “What would we do without you?”

Relieved, Vuong set down his bag and began to imagine a future in Hartford the way his family had so many years ago. His mother suggested he try college first because her son “had a belly full of English.” And if not, she suggested, “You can always come work at the nail salon.” Vuong jokingly adds, “I thought, ‘Well, it’s not a bad job. Where else can you work and watch Oprah all day?’”

His time at Manchester Community College was brief but instrumental in changing his perceptions about who had the right to dream big. “I was fortunate to walk into my first class, a composition course, and be met by single mothers, people with two jobs, people in their forties—all walks of life—and it felt like for the first time I saw a teacher have faith in this community of outsiders, investing in our imaginations, and challenging us,” he says. “Folks that were not supposed to be having these discussions were allowed to.” By now he had started to keep a journal, feeling the magnetic pull to poetry—Rimbaud, Lorca, Vallejo, Neruda—copying poems from library books to his notebook because he couldn’t afford to buy books of his own.

Encouraged by his community-college education, Vuong decided to pursue a degree—one that could eventually lead to a job that would help his family—so in 2008 he enrolled in business school at Pace University in Manhattan. After two weeks, keenly aware that he didn’t fit in among the men in business suits and internships, he dropped out. “I still had my library card,” he says, “so I rekindled my love of reading. But I also began attending open mics to read from my scribbles in my notebook. I wasn’t ready to call it poetry.”

It was at one of these events that he heard about MFA programs, in which he could not only nurture his passion but perhaps also fund it. He was also eager to get back to college so he could stop deceiving his mother about his activities in New York City. Unbeknownst to her, he had been couch surfing since leaving Pace. But first he needed to complete his undergraduate degree. “I applied to the most affordable place I could find: City University of New York,” he says. He ended up attending Brooklyn College.

Although he credits Brooklyn College with giving him access to the literature he needed to finally feel well-read, it was the cafés, bookstores, and other venues that held poetry readings that gave Vuong the community he was looking for, forging friendships that fortified his resolve to keep going. “I met Saeed Jones,” he recalls, “who was fabulous and glorious, with a big, hearty laugh. And when he told me he was attending an MFA program at Rutgers in Newark, I knew that it was possible.” Soon after, he connected with poet Eduardo C. Corral, who at the time was living in his family’s double-wide in Casa Grande, Arizona, working at Home Depot, and running a popular blog called Lorcaloca. Corral’s blog gave Vuong a glimpse into the ways the writing profession welcomed or rejected writers of color. When Corral announced he was moving to New York City in late 2011, Vuong knew this too was a sign: “We had similar stories—both of us gay boys from working-class immigrant parents. He became a kind of mentor because his journey was like a map for me.”

Corral recalls their first meeting: “Ocean’s attentiveness is what first caught my attention. He was kind and curious, always asking questions, eager to listen, to learn. This attentiveness also extended to language.” Since then they have stayed in touch, though Corral contends that theirs is a bond not forged by literary success but by the amazing truth that they are sons of non-English speakers, who have been able to shape careers and help their families financially through a profession that, in effect, excludes their loved ones. “We now get to write about our immigrant families and claim a place for them in poetry,” he adds.

Ocean Vuong

(Credit: Jon Crispin )

In 2014, prompted by his intimate but influential writing community, Vuong applied to MFA programs, but only in the New York City area because he wanted to remain close to friends. He chose NYU because it offered him funding without teaching obligations. But on that fateful first day of class, he received a call from Michael Wiegers at Copper Canyon Press, letting him know the press had accepted his book for publication. “What people don’t understand,” Vuong says, “is that I had been working on Night Sky With Exit Wounds for eight years. And one of the reasons I sent my manuscript to that press was that they promised a personal rejection, and since I wasn’t enrolled in school yet, I was craving feedback.”

For Wiegers there was no doubt the manuscript needed to be in the world. “I was struck by his ability to risk toeing the edge of sentimentality, without crossing over it,” he says. “His poems were open and vulnerable and bold enough to take on the big topics of love and grief and war and familial legacy. These were gentle poems that were graceful and confident—and did not need to perform themselves toward the deep desire they contained.”

The prospect of publication would give Vuong something tangible to show his mother. “Since my mother could not read, I insisted that the book have my picture so that she could see it was really me and show all of her customers at the nail salon,” Vuong says. A few days later, Don Share from the Poetry Foundation called to offer him the $25,800 Ruth Lilly Prize. The timing was perfect for Vuong, who could now proceed with confidence, fine-tuning his book for the next two years without dealing with financial stress or the anxieties of an uncertain future. Two years later, Night Sky With Exit Wounds was published to considerable fanfare.

Besides giving his mother a book and, after years of financial hardship, a down payment for a house, Vuong also had the opportunity to show her a bit of the literary world he had just entered: “She has come to a few of my readings, and she sits in the room so that she can look at the audience responding to my work. She calls me a scholar, not a poet, because in Vietnam, scholars are revered.” What did he get for himself after that flurry of fellowships? “My only splurge was a coat,” he says.

Vuong, who now lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, credits his Buddhist upbringing with his ability to navigate all the attention in stride. He meditates five times a week and keeps reminding himself of the person he was when he first fell in love with writing. “I bring him to the present,” Vuong explains, “not the person who won the awards—he has nothing to teach me. So when people ask what is the secret of my success, I say Submittable.” 

He has maintained this sobering stance as he steps into the role of teacher and mentor at his new job as assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “I tell my students that I didn’t have a social life. I had a library card,” he says. “I sit down with them and ask them to privilege intention over motivation.” But he admits it’s a challenge to keep students focused on the art of writing during the era of social media, which he believes fuels competitiveness. 

“My interactions with Saeed and Eduardo and Rickey Laurentiis were important, but afterward I went home to the page, not to Facebook or Twitter,” he says. Nevertheless, he is determined to give his students the kind of positive experience he had with his own teachers like Ben Lerner, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Sharon Olds.  

What also keeps him centered is the reality of his family’s urgencies. “They still need my support,” he says, particularly now as the current administration implements a policy to revoke residency from Vietnamese refugees deemed “violent-crime aliens.” Vuong says, “Those are my people! We come from a troubled history, and with such trauma come problems. It’s unfair to penalize a community for an affliction exacerbated by this country’s participation in the Vietnam conflict.” While he waits to find out how these policies will directly affect his family, Vuong turns to his first love, poetry, for solace. In May 2018 he partnered with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center to launch the Center for Refugee Poetics at the Asian Arts Initiative, an organization and venue in Philadelphia, with a day of activities exploring poetry and the refugee experience. Its next symposium has yet to be scheduled, but the center hopes to expand the reach of the conversation, which began with the Southeast Asian refugee diaspora.

With the publication of an acclaimed debut comes the inevitable expectation of the second book. Shortly after the release of Night Sky With Exit Wounds, as the accolades came pouring in, Vuong was courted by a number of literary agents, who suggested he write prose. But Vuong hesitated moving on from his previous project when deep inside he knew, he says, that the first book, “an eighty-five-page paperback, did not answer all of my questions. How does it contain everything I have been asking all of my life, like what does it mean to be a queer American body, or poor, or a refugee?” So he decided to investigate those concerns further in a different genre, to find out if he could learn anything new. 

While on a residency in Italy, courtesy of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, Vuong found himself browsing the castle’s extensive library, where he connected to other poets who also wrote prose, such as Anne Carson and Maggie Nelson. “I realized then that I wasn’t out in the sea by myself,” Vuong says. “Poets have been there and thrived with the sentence and the paragraph.” 

Vuong chose to explore fiction writing because he wanted “the book to be grounded in truth but realized by the imagination. That’s why the opening chapter reads like an essay.” He also credits his education as a poet with the skills necessary to move into prose. In both he could “orchestrate an entire world,” he says. Nonfiction, he notes, would have presented issues he wanted to avoid: “As a person of color, when it comes to memoir, we are seen as anthropological conduits, a vehicle of exotic information. I wanted to insist on agency as an artist, with the freedom to embellish, and then claim it as my own rendition.”

An early role model was Maxine Hong Kingston, who had set out to write the great American novel but whose book The Woman Warrior (Knopf, 1976) was presented as nonfiction. He decided not to erase that effort and succumb to the pressure to write a memoir. “I wanted to insist that these lives—yellow, brown, poor—inspired me to create art as I wanted to create it, not as others wanted me to create,” he says.

Page after page, he allowed memory to shape the fabric of the fictional narrative. He understands the impulse of readers to want to make direct connections between the writer and the writing, and he expects many will also want to draw lines between the poetry book and the novel, but that’s beyond his control. He’s more invested in his right to invent. “Writers of color are not supposed to have the musculature of an imagination,” he says. “When we use it, we’re being bold, and that’s what I want to do—be bold, make things up. I’m not here to give people the juicy bits of my community. I’m not a journalist; I’m an artist.” 

That said, he set out to write a book with a clear mission: “I wanted a voice in the conversation about what it means to be a body inhabiting this incredibly complicated, violent, and precarious country.” His inspiration was the community he hailed from: “When I moved to New York City and I’d tell people I came from Connecticut, there was this perception that I had come from a place of wealth. But I was a refugee. So I wanted to expand on working-class identity in a place where people lived rich and diverse lives. There are immigrant populations from all over the world in Connecticut. I want to shift the telescope and show that this world has always existed.”

Two years and four drafts later, a manuscript of the complete novel made its way to Frances Coady from the Aragi Agency. “I explained to Frances that I was a poet, that a poet doesn’t submit anything until it’s finished,” he says. For Coady, it was worth the wait: “When I read an early draft of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I experienced one of those glorious privileged moments in publishing when you know that what you are holding in your hand will affect readers in the most profound ways you can imagine.” The novel was sold to Ann Godoff at Penguin Press in April 2018.

Though the book was acquired for a notable sum, Vuong doesn’t want to dwell on that. He’s got more immediate concerns, like his family’s well-being—“the distress signals arrive and I have to answer,” he says—as well as his own. Diagnosed with agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder in which one experiences fear of places and situations that might cause panic, helplessness, or embarrassment, which at times keeps him from performing the most basic functions, like going to the grocery store, he has had to rely on his partner, Peter Bienkowski, for support. A former copyright lawyer, Bienkowski quit the profession to help Vuong through the demands of travel and presentations. He drives Vuong to and from the university so that he can teach his courses and meet committee obligations, because, as Vuong admits, “I failed my driver’s test five times.” On difficult days, Vuong stays home, at the cost of canceling appearances or meetings. “People have been surprisingly understanding,” he adds.

As for his own expectations with the release of his novel, Vuong doesn’t care to fantasize about its future or the rewards that might come with further success: “I don’t see myself as a success story even though I’ve experienced success. Everything I learned along the way was a strength. If I didn’t have my communities, that many consider broken or forgotten, I wouldn’t be where I am. I don’t want to be a sob story or anybody’s project. I want to show that you can have pride no matter where you come from and joy without forsaking the pain it took to get here.” 

 

Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Ocean Vuong and his partner, Peter Bienkowski, along with their dog, Tofu. (Credit: Jon Crispin )

A Great Good: An Interview With Jacqueline Woodson

by

Rigoberto González

8.17.16

Jacqueline Woodson is the author of more than two dozen acclaimed books for young adults, middle graders, and children—a body of work that places African American characters at the center of richly drawn narratives that have helped young readers engage with real-life situations such as interracial relationships, child abuse, poverty, and homosexuality.

Her own childhood story—she was a precocious daughter of parents in a troubled marriage, who found solace in the imaginative world of books, and eventually in writing—forms the basis of her New York Times best-selling memoir Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014), which won a National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Newbery Honor Award, an NAACP Image Award, and the Sibert Honor Award. Brown Girl Dreaming also traces Woodson’s journey from Ohio to South Carolina to Brooklyn, an eye-opening childhood in which she learns, among other things, about the regional differences of the black experience during the 1970s.

With the release of Another Brooklyn (Amistad), her first adult novel in twenty years, Woodson revisits that important period of dramatic social changes. August, a young black girl who moves with her father and brother from Tennessee to the culturally rich Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, comes of age during a time when her empowerment as a black woman offers new freedoms as well as familiar demons: classism, racism, and sexism. Another Brooklyn follows August as she learns the hard lessons of adolescence, uplifted by the strength of her girlhood friendships and guided by her family’s religious conversion. All the while, the terrible truth of her mother’s fate back in Tennessee weighs heavily on her emotional well-being.  

I sat down with Jacqueline Woodson at her home in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn for a conversation about her new book, New York City’s literary legacy, gentrification, Islamophobia, and happiness.

The dedication of Another Brooklyn reads “For Bushwick (1970–1990) In Memory,” which covers the span of August’s coming-of-age in the novel. The reader also gets to observe Brooklyn come of age, as it negotiates the changes and challenges of those eras, through the perspective of a young black woman—a point of view that’s relatively absent from the portrayals of Brooklyn in literature. What drew you to tell this story at this stage of your career? Why this book now?
The Bushwick that’s on the page is a true place, as it exists in the book. I wanted to put that on the page in its true existence because when a neighborhood becomes gentrified, its new inhabitants think they’ve discovered someplace new, but that place had a story before them. Bushwick is its own character, and this book is one of its biographies. I wanted to pay homage to the Bushwick I grew up in, so my dedication also suggests this book is an elegy to a place and time that is no longer with us. Overlaid on that biography is the narrative of the four girls, which is fiction. After having written Brown Girl Dreaming, which is a memoir, I really wanted to move away, just for a moment, from children’s literature and explore something I felt was invisible, which is the story of the black girl in Brooklyn. 

In the novel, we meet August as an adult looking back at the place where she grew up. But what does Jacqueline Woodson have to say about the Bushwick of today?
August in the book is looking back with a kind of melancholy or longing for this intensity of that period she lived through. Jacqueline Woodson looking at the place now—I look at it in wonder because I still go to my old neighborhood a lot and I’m just surprised by the fact that I grew up with white flight. Most of New York City was on the edge of white flight at the time, but now I’m watching the reverse of white flight, with white folks coming back into the neighborhoods their ancestors fled from. It makes me marvel at how cyclical everything is.

I’m trying to place Another Brooklyn as part of the borough’s writer-of-color lineage. I see Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, published in 1959, and there are a few contemporary works, such as Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper, but one has to really dig hard to find those narratives that are not centered on white characters. What areas need that literary attention in order to expand what is celebrated as Brooklyn’s—and New York’s—cultural heritage?
There is so much territory left to explore in New York City in general. I feel like Brownsville is not on the page, East New York is not on the page; there are stories from the Bronx and Harlem, but since Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas not enough books about the black NYC experience are getting talked about. DJ does a great job in Shadowshaper, writing the black Latino perspective on the page, but we need more. Even in the Bushwick I grew up in there was a larger Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Ecuadorean population—I would love to see those stories, that Brooklyn.

And I’m even remotely interested in the vision of the kids of the hipsters who are growing up in those neighborhoods now. I know their stories are not going to be my story because of our differences in class and race, but I feel they too are part of all of these deep pockets that are not represented. I’m waiting for more stories from Queens—from Jackson Heights and the Hindu population. There’s so much that still needs to be told in order to shape this city in a way that’s nuanced. We still have a pretty flat narrative.

There are a few parallels between Jackie’s story in Brown Girl Dreaming and August’s in Another Brooklyn: Both young black women have roots in the South and eventually journey north with one parent. One gives shape to her memories through her affinity for language, the other comes to terms with her losses through her knowledge as an anthropologist of the rituals of death and dying. Agency is an important fire in your work. So is memory. How do you see these as critical components of a young black woman’s experience?
Starting with memory, when you look at who we are as a people and how we got here and what we were allowed to hold on to: We were allowed to hold on to our spirit—a certain amount—and we held on to our memory. No one could take that away unless they beat us unconscious. I believe in genetic memory, that our ancestors are pretty much with us. And I believe in asking questions about the past to make historical connections because that’s what gives us strength. And in terms of agency, I grew up in the 1970s, which was so much about black power—taking your power, owning your power, making yourself visible in the world even if the world wasn’t reflecting you back. So as a writer I feel that every time I sit down to tell a story it is to create that mirror for myself and for other readers who have historically not seen themselves in the pages of literature, and to talk about how badass we are, because there’s so much strength in being a person of color and having survived.

Another Brooklyn is being marketed as an adult novel. But with contemporary YA novels being edgier, taking risks that keep their stories ahead of their time, could you imagine your younger fans reaching for the latest Jacqueline Woodson title? Is the YA designation fast becoming a fuzzy category?
Oh, I think I see my audience reaching for this book the way I once reached for Judy Blume’s Forever—“Wait, she has an adult book? There might be some sex in it!” So I definitely see that happening. Also, having been publishing for twenty years, my population has grown up now, they’re adults. So I definitely see them reading it. But I do think that distinction between YA and adult is fast becoming a fuzzy line in terms of subject matter. There are still differences in the approaches to writing the two narratives, but today’s YA author is claiming more permission to take risks in order to keep up with a changing world, which is why our books continue to be banned. 

Is Another Brooklyn an adult novel because of the treatment of sexuality? Not only August’s own sexual desires but also all of the lessons August learns about women and their bodies: from Muslim women, from prostitutes, from her own friends who are experimenting and pushing boundaries. Why is this still important work to do on the page?
For too long we were given the wrong messages about our bodies, especially as women of color, and I wanted to show that a girl’s sense of her body is really shaped by the outside gaze, by the mirrors in her community. But I also wanted to show her agency and the way women can come together more powerfully. At one point in the book I have August with her girlfriends, and she’s thinking about how boys don’t understand why girls cover themselves even when they’re alone. It’s important work to do on the page because we are sexual beings and we have a right to be so and to walk through the world with these bodies. Living in the age of Beyoncé is really exciting for me—she’s not only celebrating the black body, but also the big body. I grew up with Twiggy as an idea of what is a beautiful body, but thankfully I also had Angela Davis and Diahann Carroll. I was informed differently, but when I’m coming to the page—because the narrative is so much bigger than real life—I have a responsibility to write what I believe in, in terms of representing more fully who we are as women.

There are so many rich layers to the life of August—her girlfriends, her brother, her love interest, the father’s love interests. She’s at the center of a complex support network, but one character who really stands out is Sister Loretta, who guides the family through their conversion to Islam. August says, “My Muslim beliefs lived just left of my heart,” meaning she understood everything that religion was providing for her and her brother, including structure and a mother figure. Was this a decision that came about given this country’s escalating Islamophobia? What do you hope readers take away from this encounter with a black Muslim family?  
It’s really a scary time to be living in. And Islamophobia happens when people are thinking, “Muslims are those people over there and have nothing to do with us.” Putting their humanity on the page was really important to me. We exist in all kinds of religions and this is the religion of this family, and the book deals with how this girl is taking in this religion because she’s negotiating it against this space and time of friendships and sexuality and puberty and adolescence. And faith. That’s all part of August’s journey.

I was talking to a friend about the shooting in Orlando, and during these times of crisis it’s so hard to remember the kind of work we do as artists. It’s nonstop. Much of it is economic, but so much of it is also emotional and at the core of who we are. Like Audre Lorde said, “We must wake up knowing we have work to do and go to bed knowing we’ve done it.” And writers, especially, every time we sit down to work we are working to impact a great good. And even though I am not always conscious about what is happening, when I sit down to create the narrative I know that all the information coming in from the world is informing that narrative.

The four young women at the center of Another Brooklyn—August, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi—create such a special bond that it’s difficult to see those friendships begin to crumble. You once said that one question you wanted to explore through writing was “what is the happily ever after?” After completing this novel, dozens of books into your career, and as times change, what have you come to understand about happiness?
That it ebbs and flows like every other emotion we have. I think that if I were happy all the time I’d be the most boring person in the world. The nuance comes from working towards happiness and not always getting there, or some days getting there surprisingly so. That I can wake up in the morning and get to write is amazing to me, so the mere fact that I’m here and that I’m able to tell my story is the happily ever after for me.

 

Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

My Past and Future Assassin: A Profile of Terrance Hayes

by

Hanif Abdurraqib

6.13.18

One can make a home wherever the body finds itself at rest. I imagine this to be true always, but especially now, while taking in the large plastic novelty fish hanging high on the wall above the head of Terrance Hayes. Even while slouching in his chair, Hayes towers above the table in front of him, so that the fish, a marlin, appears as a crown under the glow of red light humming overhead, darkening half of the marlin and half of the face of the poet. We are at Great Jones Cafe in lower Manhattan, a place Hayes told me is his “go-to spot” when we spoke earlier, trying to nail down where to meet. When I arrive, I find him alone in a corner, drink already on the table. Hayes is a Southerner at heart, having spent his childhood and early adulthood in South Carolina, so it comes as no surprise to find out why he has led me here, to this place he tells me he comes to every weekend, often alone. “I didn’t know how quiet it would or wouldn’t be in here,” he tells me as I sit down, in reference to my request that we find a low-key location for our interview. “But it’s the only place in this city where I can get good grits, so it’s one of the few places in this city I love.” I imagine this to be his way of welcoming me into a small corner of his home.

We are talking about primary colors, Hayes and I. He is describing for me his most recent project. His poems were commissioned by composer Tyshawn Sorey for Cycles of My Being, a song cycle that “explores the realities of life as a black man in America” (or so it is described in the publicity material), performed by renowned tenor Lawrence Brownlee at Carnegie Hall, Opera Philadelphia, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. So Hayes sent Sorey some work to be played in front of a mass audience. He tells me he agonized over which poems to send—“you know how I am with this shit; nobody knows what poems are except for poets,” he says—and eventually bent to the will of the composer, who had asked Hayes if he had any poems about hope, or about hate. Hayes balked at the idea. 

“They wanted [it] to be hopeful, but a hopeful poem isn’t my tendency,” he says. “And a hateful poem isn’t my tendency either.” He eventually wrote a poem specifically for the show but then set it aside. 

This story is less about the song cycle for me and more about what is happening with the interior of Terrance Hayes. “I’m not interested in primary colors,” he tells me when I ask him why he has no interest in hope or hate. “It’s not nuanced enough. I’m interested in the spaces where colors overlap. It’s like when people call someone a racist and think that’s the end of it. That ain’t the end. Racism is a symptom of fear, or greed, or some other bullshit. So even if I wrote a poem about hate, it ain’t gonna be about hate when I’m done with it. My personality likes a challenge, so I can write a poem that many would consider hopeful.”

“But aren’t you a hopeful person?” I ask. 

“Am I?” he shoots back playfully, smiling before sighing and stirring a small tornado into his drink with the tip of his straw. “I mean, the endgame is always going to be death, so how hopeful can anyone really be?”

We are talking about death, Hayes and I. Or, it seems, death is the river’s mouth our conversation is flowing into. This makes sense, in some ways. We are here to talk about his new book of poems, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, published by Penguin in June, which is overwhelming in every sense. Overwhelming in its brilliance, yes, but also overwhelming in its pacing, its style. Each poem is the exact same length—a sonnet’s requisite fourteen lines—and carries the exact same title: “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” The book, despite its breadth and clever turns, is a confrontation. Not an unwelcome one but a confrontation nonetheless. Hayes is too crafty to force his way, unwanted, into a room, so his poems are like the slow and steady picking of a lock, until the door handle clicks. Instead of entering, the poet stands outside, satisfied with his work.

Hayes began the process of writing the sonnets with inspiration from Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets series. Coleman’s sonnets, much like Hayes’s own, are winding, endlessly questioning, and rich with syntax and alliteration. A stunning formalist, yet inventive and often two steps ahead of her peers, Coleman, who died in 2013 at the age of sixty-seven, spent much of her life as a poet struggling to make a living from her craft. Born and raised in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood, Coleman worked several odd jobs until her poems began to take off, and even then it was hard for her to make ends meet. Her hustle manifested itself in her poems; chasing new ways of crafting a poem became a form of survival. She was a mentor to some and an inspiration to many more, but Coleman wasn’t always granted the acclaim she deserved. Her work—unlike the work of Hayes—wasn’t fully celebrated until after her death.

Hayes is gathering his roses while he is still alive to grasp them—thorns and all. One such thorn: Hayes, who now lives in New York City after several years in Pittsburgh, where he taught at the University of Pittsburgh and was codirector of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics there, appreciated the love he was shown in the smaller city but notes that it became overwhelming. “They had my face up in the airport,” he says. “I couldn’t handle it.”

This is not to say that Hayes is entirely humble, however—nor should he be. But he is grounded, possessing a healthy blend of logic and confidence. You know the long list. The author of six poetry collections—Muscular Music (Tia Chucha Press, 1999), Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002), Wind in a Box (Penguin, 2006), Lighthead (Penguin, 2010), How to Be Drawn (Penguin, 2015), and now the new book—he has won much of what a poet can win, including the National Book Award for Lighthead; the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for Muscular Music; a Whiting Award; an NAACP Image Award; and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. He is also a chancellor at the Academy of American Poets. All that and he’s still relatively young, just forty-six years old. Young enough to have decades of future success but old enough to have watched skilled but less decorated writers die, without much control over their legacies. 

As for his own legacy, Hayes tells me that he is most concerned with how he’s viewed as a teacher. He is at NYU now and finds himself at home in the classroom. He tells stories about his talented students and how there is a mutual pushing and pulling forward. None of it is about money, he tells me. 

“This is why I just want to leave my kids my poems,” he says, referring to his two children. “I want to leave them art.” He pauses and references something he recently mentioned to his ex-wife, the poet Yona Harvey. “Money is nothing to be governed by, because once you get it, it’s never enough. When I die, I want my kids to have my art. Surely that will be worth something one day.”

Confidence and logic.

We are talking about Wanda Coleman again, as the darkness falling on Great Jones Street becomes richer, nighttime beginning to flood in through the windows. “I wrote an American Sonnet to Wanda Coleman,” he tells me, picking apart the catfish on his plate. “And I sent it to her. We exchanged letters, and then suddenly she was ill. She died in 2013, and I registered that, and then,” he pauses, “and then around the election I decided to do something else.”

Hayes says he had a “reaction” to the election, and I understand instantly what he means, as I felt it too. For all of the “now more than ever” tropes about writers and poets being needed at this particular moment—particularly writers and poets of color—the election did create a sense of urgency for many, not necessarily to share all of their work at once, but to establish a legacy of work, something that might be left behind, if there would be nothing else left of us. If things got “real bad,” whatever that meant. For Hayes, though, the week of the election also had another emotional touch point: Wanda Coleman’s seventieth birthday would have been on November 13, 2016. 

“I had this obsession with writing these shorter poems, because I had been writing long poems,” he says, referring to the work in his last book, How to Be Drawn, which included a number of multiple-page poems such as “Who Are the Tribes” and “How to Draw a Perfect Circle.” He continues: “And I thought I could do this for her. I thought to myself, ‘Can I access the thing I most love about what she did, in these times?’” It became something he chased after relentlessly. “Also,” he smirks, after I ask him what other motivations existed for his use of the form, “I like a volta.”

It seems, at least to me, that a volta is defined best by the hand that crafts it, and so therefore a volta can be anything. Formalists will define it as the turn, or the rhetorical division, the shift, between the sonnet’s first eight lines and the final six. For Hayes the volta is in the project itself, tethered to his always shifting definition of the assassin in the work. “I’m trying to go in one way and come out another way. So, yeah, I’m trying to see how many turns I can fit into a poem, but also I like the sonnet as a way of addressing an idea: How can I write a traditional love poem to someone or something I don’t deem worthy of my love?” After a long pull of his drink, he adds, “I just don’t know what other form would be able to hold this particular moment.”

A love poem for an enemy or a foe is largely about restraint, I suppose. Which makes the project of the book and the restraints on the poems themselves even more fascinating. The central conceit is this: How can I reach out and gently touch that which might not be so gentle toward me? And how can I be sure that in honoring these foes with love, in my turning to face them, they won’t change?

Sometimes the foes are invented, and sometimes the foes are direct and predictable—country, or president, or racism. But the book is most interesting when the foe is Hayes himself. “I’m in a different phase of my life now,” he tells me after we talk briefly about what it is to want to love yourself when you are your own enemy. “Having been married and not being married [now] also bears on the sonnets,” he says, staring into his drink. Hayes is recently divorced from Harvey, though they remain on good terms, he insists, raising their children, a son and a daughter, shuttling between Pittsburgh and New York. “I haven’t talked…. People been asking this shit, but I don’t wanna talk too much about it. But what I will say to you is that sometimes the assassin is you, or sometimes the assassin is a beloved, and that role feels transferrable. It’s like the stuff in the book about Orpheus and Eurydice.” He pauses here, which is rare for Hayes when he gets into a stream of conversation. He is talking about a series of poems in the book that detail the ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. The poems are decidedly distinct from the others, in both tone and what they are attempting to unravel. They are the poems in the book in which Hayes is hiding the least, taking himself to task, or taking the idea of love to task, or taking the idea of forever to task. 

In one of the sonnets he writes:

I tried to tell the woman

Who sent me songs, it’s departure that makes company 
Hard to master. I tried to tell her I’m a muser, a miser
With time. I love poems more than money & pussy. 
From now on I will eat brunch alone. I believe 
Eurydice is actually the poet, not Orpheus. Her muse
Has his back to her with his ear bent to his own heart.
As if what you learn making love to yourself matters 
More than what you learn when loving someone else.

 

“Most of that is me tying back to a different kind of relationship,” he says. “Who is the assassin between Eurydice and Orpheus? Who is the poet between those two? I’m thinking about…what does it mean to be married to a poet? What does it mean to be married to a motherfucker who’s gonna be playing his music no matter what? He’s a poet. It’s what he’s gonna do. But there are consequences to that. And so you might say, well, maybe she’s the poet then. I’m just…I’m wondering about the beloved as an assassin.”

This sits between us heavy on the table, the most open Hayes has been to this point in our talk. We leave it there, untouched.

I write the poems so I don’t have to talk about this shit,” Hayes tells me when I ask him which part of the response to his work he values more: his playfulness and precision with language or his sentimentality. He is not saying this to dismiss me, and we both understand this. It’s a moment in the conversation when he is talking to me as a writer, someone who he knows has likely had similar responses to questions like this. “Anything I say in a poem, I mean it,” he says. “Feeling and intuition is the only important thing to me. You can persuade someone through logic that perhaps what they’re thinking is wrong. But you can’t persuade someone that their feelings are wrong. You can’t tell a motherfucker that they ain’t hungry if they’re hungry. No words in the world can do that. So I trust feeling as a bedrock thing. Can you want to kill a motherfucker and simultaneously love them?”

To trust one’s feelings can be all-consuming, especially if those feelings are brought into a harsher light by a mess of a political moment. Hayes is invested in his obsessions, even if his obsessions are about the nation unraveling. 

There are poets who are slow and deliberate speakers, working to make sure every sentence holds weight. But Hayes is a rapid-fire conversationalist, spreading his long arms wide, or gesturing with one massive hand. Like his work, he is challenging you to keep up with him and to pick out what’s worth expanding on. And if you don’t catch it, he’ll expand on it for you anyway. And in this moment the topic worth expanding on is Donald Trump. 

“Everything I do has to be in service of poetry,” he says, with a little more excitement in his voice. “I can’t be waking up and thinking about Trump all day. And if I do, I have to do it in service of a poem, or else he’ll be a block.”

He is talking about boxes and how every box, like every poem, has multiple sides through which it can be entered. He decided to put Trump in a box and kept turning the box until his truth looked different from every angle. He found this to be more interesting than it would have been with, say, Barack Obama. 

“Obama is super interesting to me, but I already know some of the sides to that cube. He’s a six-sided truth, but I know about half of those sides. As a brother, as a dude who loves basketball, as a dude who got old. To look at something and see yourself in it is easy. I’m not moved by that. With Trump it’s about power and the way his power has a bearing on everyone else. I can meditate on that for at least six months.”

The restraints of the sonnets have been liberating, he tells me. This is only interesting because of how the book wrestles readers inside of it and gives them little room to move within it. If anything, a reader then becomes a part of the interior of the box, which Hayes is turning around in his hand. I don’t mean this to sound negative: One of the book’s strongest points is how readers have to fight their way into and then out of it. Like all of the work Hayes has offered in his career so far, it is both inviting and asking a reader to earn enjoyment of it, in this case through a means of discomfort with the repetitive nature of the poems and their aim.

Hayes tells me he has become so obsessed with the project that he can’t unravel himself from it, which makes sense. He is conflicted, because he knows he can’t do another book like this, but he also knows that he isn’t done with the fascination. “I mean, I got seventy good ones, and I don’t want to overdo it,” he says, blending his usual cool and confidence with the anxieties he holds. “It’s like [ John] Berryman, right? He put out 77 Dream Songs, and then later he put out all of them. And like, there were some all-right ones in there, but shit. I was good with seventy-seven.”

It is political, in some ways: Hayes is surviving the world by writing against it. When I ask him if the work has made him feel any better, he matter-of-factly states, “Well, the shit is still going on, you know?”

There are other ways out, Hayes says. He draws, going to a class once a week and trying to improve his hand as a visual artist. Hayes has experience in the craft, receiving a BA from Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina, where he studied both English and painting. His drawings and paintings provide the artwork for the covers of his books. It’s easy to get lost in the visual form, but he keeps returning to the sonnets. Twisting a forkful of mashed potatoes around, and up toward his mouth, he pauses.

“There’s no law that says an obsession can’t continue beyond the production of the obsession, you know?”

It’s getting late, and the fish over the head of Terrance Hayes has begun to droop its long face lower. This is a trick of the eye, I’m sure. Perhaps Hayes is growing taller, more excitable with conversation, and the fish is shrinking in the face of that. Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” is playing through the café’s speakers, and small crowds of revelers have started to filter in, the way one might expect as a night stretches its palms wider. It is perhaps late only for me. Hayes insists he doesn’t sleep much. “I go to bed around two or three in the morning and wake up around seven. I’m good with four hours a night,” he tells me, as my body involuntarily trembles at the prospect of such little time in bed. He does his best work in the hours after these, when even the revelers beside us begin to lose steam (“I like a nap, though,” he insists). This disclosure makes for an interesting moment between us: me winding down, and him warming up.

Hayes and I find ourselves in the golden hour of our conversation, too. The talk about poems and craft has perhaps drawn all it can draw from the two of us, and now we’re just talking about basketball. Hayes was an Academic All-American basketball player during his time at Coker and has remained attached to the sport. Throughout the conversation Hayes insists that he is always thinking about poems, no matter what else we’re speaking on, but he seems at ease here talking NBA. The plates are cleared off the table, and he has leaned over his drink, swinging his massive palms in one direction or another as he makes a point. An athlete and sports fan and writer, Hayes has an intimate relationship with the game. Like me, he is in it for the narratives, which I do suppose means that even in our talk about basketball, we are talking about poems. 

“LeBron James shoots free throws every day,” Hayes tells me. “And you gotta think, ‘Why is this dude shooting free throws every day if he gets paid to shoot free throws?’ He’s doing that shit with no one watching, because he’s after something different.”

I nod, and Hayes continues.

“I think about that versus someone like [Philadelphia 76ers rookie] Ben Simmons, right? Ben Simmons should be a huge star right now, and he’s perplexed by that….”

I take the opportunity to interject that Simmons isn’t a huge star yet because he can’t really shoot, but Hayes is off, sprinting a mile a minute to reach the end of his thought. 

“Yeah, but Kobe Bryant struggled with that same shit too, right? Kobe had to fight through the same thing of doing the things that should make you famous and expecting fame. But it ain’t about the fame, though.”

In many ways, I know what’s coming next—Hayes the speaker is rarely separate from Hayes the poet—but I let him draw back the curtain with his own language. “It’s about the glory. There’s a difference in fame and glory. Fame is when everyone else is peeping what you’re doing, but glory is when your peers recognize the work you’re putting in. Glory has to be number one. Glory has to be number one, because no one else has to be there.”

I ask the obvious question, the one about whether or not an artist or an athlete or a parent or a construction worker can have glory without fame. Because this is the thing with Hayes, who is undoubtedly famous and has basked in his share of glory. It has created a mythology around him that he seems equal parts thrilled to revel in and sometimes uncomfortable with. Minutes before the conversation took this turn, we were speaking about pressure, and in the middle of a response, Hayes shook his head and said, “God forbid I ever start writing bad poems,” and one ear might hear I know all of my poems are good, but to another, the poet is saying I don’t know what I would be without my insistence on living up to my own standards. So I wonder out loud how you survive at the intersection of fame and glory, or if you can cut one off in service of the other. Hayes takes a moment.

“Yeah, I think so. On the days I’m writing and I’m in a good groove, I hit moments where I think, ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’ It’s the closest I can get from this,” he says, gesturing toward his head, “to getting it together on that page. And that’s glory. I’m doing that for me, with no one watching, knowing that the people I’m writing for—poets—are doing the same thing. And it only happens a few times, but when it happens it feels good. I did a 360 dunk once, and I was alone in a gym. No one saw it but the other guys on my basketball team, and those are the only people I cared to see it. A 360 dunk is fucking hard. I want the people who know how difficult the work is to bear witness to the work.”

The red light above our heads has only become more aggressive in its lapping up of the darkness, and by now we are both radiating in its shine. Hayes casually regales me with a tale of watching basketball with former NBA player and coach Phil Jackson last April, a story that few poets would have in their back pocket. “We talked about Buddhism and shit. You know, it was a good afternoon,” he says in an “Isn’t New York wild?” kind of way, to which I nod, thinking about the times I’ve been to this city and felt tiny. The gist of the story is that during their first basketball-watching excursion, Jackson insisted that Hayes not mention LeBron James, whom Jackson had found himself feuding with over a Twitter debate. When the 2017 NBA Finals came around, Jackson invited Hayes to his Manhattan apartment to watch them with him, and Hayes balked. “He invited me back to watch the NBA Finals and told me I couldn’t talk about LeBron James!” Hayes says, half-yelling and half-laughing, as energetic as he has been all night. “I can’t talk about LeBron James during the NBA Finals? I like LeBron James! So I was like, ‘Nah, I’ll pass.’ I watched the Finals alone.”

It’s the kind of casual story told by Hayes during which one realizes that he moves through multiple worlds in a singular way, something that can’t be said for many of his peers, though he is still very much among them and often in service to them. He blurbs books vigorously, he reads poems endlessly, and until recently he served as the poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine. (Rita Dove took the reins in June.) He derives great pleasure from teaching—during our conversation he is most excited when talking about the ways his students show him to and through poems. But he is also someone who pens work for operas and has his face in an airport and casually watches basketball with one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. And it all seems simple to him, something he has been working toward since he began working. Both fame and glory.

We are talking about death and isolation again, Hayes and I. It’s a fitting end to our time together. Hayes says his true inclination is to stay inside; he likes New York because he feels like he can do that here, and not many other places. He tells me he both loves and hates the way the city folds around him—loves it for its many options and hates it for its many options, all at once. 

When we get to the topic of rap, Hayes is succinct, melancholic. “I think when it comes to rappers, Biggie Smalls is closest to my sensibilities,” he insists, spinning the last bit of ice around in his drink. “He scares me, and the consequences of his art, too…. The consequences of his art informed his life. I think of this like Sylvia Plath. The fact that Sylvia Plath would write ‘Ariel’ and then put her head in an oven, or the fact that Biggie Smalls would say he’s ready to die and then die. There’s something closer to the truth for me. Closer to my understanding of the consequences of what we do. The body’s relationship to the art’s consequences.”

I nod, and look at the time. When I look back up, Hayes is looking outside, while the street, drenched in sirens, howls. 

 

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet and critic from Columbus, Ohio.

(Photos: Tony Gale)

The Poetry of Perseverance: An Interview With Ada Limón

by

Carrie Fountain

8.15.18

Ada Limón is a North Star poet for me. She’s up there with Lucille Clifton, W. S. Merwin, and Adelia Prado in a great influential constellation. I’m drawn to Limón for the same reasons I’m drawn to the others: It’s as much for her surprising and sublime departures as for the earthbound truths they lay bare. And I have feelings when I’m inside her poems. I sigh. I laugh out loud. I cry. A lot. I do, I cry a lot. 

Often when people hear of a reader having an emotional response to a poem, the engine assumed to be driving that response is the narrative subject matter: the familiarity of it, perhaps, or the dramatic imagining of it. It’s the compliment narrative poets like myself have come to dread—the relatability of the poem. That happened, or that could have happened to me, thus this is a successful piece of art. And, of course, great poems like the kind Limón writes often incorporate emotional subject matter and narrative. But focusing on subject matter alone doesn’t do powerful poetry like Limón’s justice. What drives her poems—what makes her new collection, The Carrying, so moving and masterful—is her dexterity with voice and diction and her giftedness with metaphor. It is her deep wellspring of surprising and evocative images and her syntactic superpowers. Most of all, it’s her intellect and intelligence. The poems are keen reflections of a mind constantly at work, seeing and wondering and moving toward meaning but not always the meaning to which the poem and its reader thought they were headed. 

The Carrying, published in August by Milkweed Editions, follows Limón’s four previous collections, including Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions, 2015), which was a finalist for not only the 2015 National Book Award, but also the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award. It was also named one of the top ten poetry books of the year by the New York Times. Her earlier books include Lucky Wreck (Autumn House Press, 2006), This Big Fake World: A Story in Verse (Pearl Editions, 2006), and Sharks in the Rivers (Milkweed Editions, 2010). Limón, forty-two, serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina and the 24 Pearl Street online program for the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She splits her time between Lexington, Kentucky, and Sonoma, California. 

We had this conversation over the course of a week, just as the first advance copies of The Carrying were making their way into the world and just after I’d swallowed my copy whole.

Carrie Fountain: Ada, your book blew me away. Even the second time I read it—“Come on, Fountain, get it together”—I could hardly do anything but cry and sigh and gasp at the art of the poems, especially the very surprising revelations on which they open at their endings. It’s a gift. There are readers out there right now ready for, waiting for, needing these poems to change their lives. 

As a maker and a reader of poetry collections—these weird books that aren’t necessarily narrative or even inherently linear, but also aren’t random in terms of tone or subject matter or voice—one of the things I admire most is how full The Carrying is and how complete and collected it feels as an artistic gesture. There is so much here of the world, of the beauty and responsibility and heartbreak of going through life in a human—a woman’s—body, and deep existential questions about life and legacy and fate. So, how did you make it? You know: How? And how did you know when you were finished, when it had gone from a group of poems to a collection?

Ada Limón: Oh, Carrie, thank you for this. It’s odd, the making of a poetry book, isn’t it? We write one poem at a time. One small poem and then, hopefully, another one comes. With The Carrying, I was experiencing long periods of painful silence, feeling completely overwhelmed by the degenerating state of the world, but then I would be reminded of how writing can bring me back to the world, into my being. In many ways the poems in The Carrying were answering the question, “Where do I put all this?” The poems came in fits and starts, and sometimes they’d flood over me, and sometimes I’d stare into the abyss for a long time wondering if I’d ever write again. When I finally had about thirty poems, I realized I was writing something real, making a complicated living thing. Then I started to push myself to plunge further, to be as veracious as possible and follow the craft, follow the song as far as it would take me. Before I even realized it, the manuscript was nearly done. To be totally honest, the book still terrifies me. But maybe that’s a good thing? 

Fountain: I think I know that terror, and the accompanying feeling that maybe it’s a good thing, a good signal about the particular qualities of the art you’re about to release into the world. I’d love to hear you say more. Did you feel this with your previous books? What is it about The Carrying that terrifies you?

Limón: I think what scares me the most is that I’m writing more about the body and from a place of physical vulnerability. In my previous books I have been open to an emotional vulnerability, but in The Carrying I address more of the frailty of my own body. I also think this book is more overtly political than other books I’ve written. I feel like some part of me has lost interest in play, in poetry for the sake of play, and now I want only to get to the root of things. This book feels driven by a serious engine. I’m not saying it doesn’t have hope. I do have hope, too, but much of the poems are written from inside the well with only a glimmer of light coming from the earth’s surface. 

Fountain: “I want to only get to the root of things.” How perfect a sentence to describe these poems. So many roots in this book. Aside from the poems that are about familial roots, and the poems that locate the body as a place where things may or may not take root, there are also so many actual roots. One of the poems I’ve returned to again and again, “The Burying Beetle,” ends with these lines:

 

                     I lost God awhile ago.
And I don’t want to pray, but I can picture
the plants deepening right now into the soil,
wanting to live, so I lie down among them,
in my ripped pink tank top, filthy and covered
in sweat, among red burying beetles and dirt
that’s been turned and turned like a problem
in the mind.

 

Even in these haunting lines from your poem “A New National Anthem,” we find something dark and violent taking root beneath the surface:

 

                                              Perhaps,
the truth is, every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us as we blindly sing
the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands
hoping our team wins.

 

There’s so much going on in these poems under the surface. Many of them make their turn down there, below. Is this something you were working toward actively as an organizing metaphor, or was it more a subconscious thing—a thing beneath the surface—or was it coincidence? Tell me what it means to you to “get to the root of things” in poems.

Limón: In your poems I always see the trembling thing underneath. I suppose the main thing that I mean by “the root of things” is that I am most interested in the process of writing poems as questions, as a troubling of the water, sending down the echo sounder and seeing what comes back. But also my obsession with physical roots is true too. Trees, trees, and trees. No one has ever called me a nature poet, but nature is what I return to most frequently. The earth below our feet, the water that moves through us and connects us to the oceans and rivers. And how we are nature too, even in our own destruction. How the human animal is also an animal. 

Fountain: It makes me wonder what a nature poet is, if you’re not considered one. It isn’t that there’s not enough nature in your poems. I’m laughing thinking of the nature quota set by…Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver? Counting how many birds alight on branches in early morning, how many vistas, how many species of cacti named.

But then again, your poems aren’t contained wholly in nature—not containable by any category, really. Your poems contain the natural world, but also the world-world, the world of highway overpasses and torn pink tank tops and your funny friend Manuel—who’s my friend too! And beyond the image level, your poems aren’t “about” nature. I read “The Burying Beetle” to my husband, and the two of us discussed it at length, its many turns and gestures. Neither of us ever talked about it as a nature poem.

Still, I’m interested in these labels because I think they’re sometimes more about who gets to write what, or who is expected to write what. I think that’s changing—the lines are blurring, the categories are widening, there are more voices—but not fast enough. 

Your poem “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to Be Bilingual” examines this, doesn’t it, in a searing, hilarious way? The world sometimes wants to tell poets what they as poets, especially women, especially writers of color, should write about. Your poems and your presence in the world of poetry upends these expectations in such a wonderful way. You’re you. You’re Ada. You truly contain multitudes. I think this is important and inspirational for the generation of poets coming up.

When my first book came out, someone in a review called it “fake ecofeminism.” It was a man, shocker. Another guy—in the Harvard Review—said the poems were obsessed with my “body parts.” Back then I was hurt. I felt ashamed. There were only one or two body parts in that book. Most of the poems are about the conquest of the New World. Still, I heard that review and I just took it in. I didn’t know any better. Maybe I was too much: too sexual, too conversational, too woman. And at the same time, maybe I wasn’t enough—not intellectual enough, not valid enough, not a man’s woman poet. 

Then, by the time I put out my second book, which is a lot about having my first child, I’d somehow unburdened myself from that worry. I think I’d begun to divest myself—rather organically—of my own internalized misogyny. I’d begun selling off the little acre of patriarchy between my ears that I’d so long cultivated without knowing. And with that, my readers changed. My ideal readers changed. I wasn’t writing to satisfy Mr. Body Parts anymore. In fact, I was looking him in the face and saying—kindly, because of course—“Maybe these poems aren’t for you. That’s not my problem.”

Some of the most powerful poems in The Carrying are about intimate things, women’s things: trying to get pregnant, coming to terms with not getting pregnant, the many ways we’re forced to change our idea of what our lives will be in the child-rearing department. Even the love poems here—and there are so many, so lovely—are about the tender, weird, specific qualities of married love. 

I wonder: Do you feel there’s been a shift in the way women’s voices are read in poetry, especially women of color? And maybe all this is a roundabout way of asking, Who is your ideal reader? Do you have one? Has it changed?

Limón: I think you’re right. The uselessness of poetic and stylistic categories is becoming more evident as poetry and the world continue to evolve. The idea of divesting ourselves of our own internalized misogyny, of granting ourselves permission to write about whatever world we live in, of silencing the grouchy goateed hipster critic inside that writes cheeky snark from his parents’ basement in order to prove his own intelligence, that’s some of the heaviest work we do. Silencing that good-ol’-boy critic that lives in you and scares you into thinking, “Should I take the ‘I’ out? Should I erase my being?” I’m still working on silencing that dude. Daily.

When Bright Dead Things came out, I was nervous about the fact that it spoke about “the body” and loss, and I worried that it would be seen as sentimental. For the first time in my poems, I wasn’t thinking of writing to prove anything, to show off formal acrobatics, but rather I was writing the poems I needed for my own survival. I was disavowing myself from a “project” and just working on what mattered to me. I had no idea what would happen once those poems entered the world. It was thrilling to see people respond favorably, but it was absolutely not what I was expecting. Still, there were reviews that spoke of “identity” being the driving engine and even “shallow identity verse,” which seemed to be saying that if I wrote about being a woman, being Latinx—or, oddly, even if I didn’t—by default my poems were being driven by only a sense of alienation or, worse, manipulation. I maintain that this does not happen as much to men. 

It’s funny that you brought up a reviewer writing “fake ecofeminism” about your work, as I received the descriptor “bogus feminism” in a particularly negative review, written by a man. I don’t think of it anymore, and I do like what you say about, “Hey there, this isn’t for you.” I happen to like the ocean and black-and-white movies, but it doesn’t mean we all have to. You can go on liking slushy machines and Fox News. I do think there’s been a shift in how we not only read women, but also how we talk about the work. It’s slow, however, and it’s frustrating, but it’s shifting. I think, for me, it all comes down to permission and capacity. I’m giving myself permission to write the poems I want—as different as they all are—and I am focusing on the human capacity to hold within us so many different things at once. 

I don’t know if I have an ideal reader, but I know that with The Carrying, I’m writing for someone who perhaps has gone through the same things as I have, or similar things. Perhaps the older you get, you realize that so many people are suffering in so many ways and you get tired of privileging your own pain, or imagining your own isolation. I suppose, if this book is for anyone, it’s for those who have both struggled and searched for a way back into the world. 

Fountain: This isn’t your first rodeo by any stretch. The Carrying is your fifth collection. You’ve been at this a while now. We’ve talked a little about how this book feels different now, as it makes its way into the world, but I wonder, too, how has your writing practice changed over the years? What have you learned about yourself as a writer, and what continues to evolve?

Limón: Like you, I’ve written for a long time now. I’ve written seriously and with purpose for twenty years. I’ve written a failed novel, a messy draft of a YA novel, and poems, poems, poems. So many words, and all the while I hope I am getting to be a better, smarter writer every day. Speaking of which, I’ve only just started I Am Not Missing—your new young adult novel—and I’m obsessed with Miranda the half-Mexican girl who is the story’s protagonist. She’s wonderful. 

One of the things I’ve learned this far into a life in language is to be grateful about all of this. I get to read and spend time with words as a vocation. Yes, it’s work, and there is so much failure and so much getting it wrong. But still, we are so lucky. I wish people talked about that more. Just to be able to do this work, to meet people along the way, to celebrate other writers, to live in a life of words? I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that gift. As corny as that sounds, I don’t know where I’d be without poetry.

Fountain: I’d love to hear more about your fiction writing. So many times, while reading your poems, I’ve thought, “I’d love to read Ada’s fiction.” I have this feeling only for my favorite poets, the ones who really take me to a place and time. This isn’t about the narrative quality, but rather it’s about a surprising, specific image and inviting voice. Do you have a yen for writing fiction? 

Limón: I love that you ask that. I do love to write fiction, but I’m not sure if it’s my strong suit. I think I need to keep practicing and keep learning. Right now, I think I write very “poetic” fiction. You know, there’s a lot of a woman standing in a field thinking about other times she stood in a field. All my plot shifts are emotional and psychological. What I love most is describing—both the landscape and the humans and their interactions. I love dialogue, too. But I think I’m a little too satisfied when nothing happens. That’s what I admire so much about your work. You’re this exquisite poet with an excellent ear, and an internal engine of unraveling drives your poems, but you are also able to write a real story. I Am Not Missing just moves so well and real things happen, big things. I’m envious of your storytelling ability. Maybe I’ll get there someday. Maybe my characters will stop daydreaming and go on a real adventure one of these days.

Fountain: I know The Carrying is hot off the presses, but I can’t help but want to know what you’re working on now. Where are you headed? 

Limón: I think I will work on napping next. And gardening and breathing and wandering. It’s been a wild three or four years making this book, and I might rest my poem brain a bit. That said, I just wrote a poem today. So maybe poems will just come eventually? I am also working on some personal essays. These days I’m just trying not to rage too much at the world while still staying active and aware and working toward truth. On a good day, I just work on being a real person who wants to make real living things and give them to the world. 

 

 

Carrie Fountain’s poems have appeared in Tin House, Poetry, and the New Yorker, among many other publications. She is the author of the collections Burn Lake (Penguin, 2010) and Instant Winner (Penguin, 2014). Her first novel, I’m Not Missing, was published by Flatiron Books in July. Fountain received her MFA as a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and is now writer-in-residence at St. Edward’s University in Austin. She lives in Austin with her husband, playwright and novelist Kirk Lynn, and their two children. 

Ada Limón (Credit: Tony Gale)

Vagrant & Vulnerable: Dawn Lundy Martin, Nicole Sealey

by

Dawn Lundy Martin

8.16.17

The poets whose work I return to again and again answer a call that compels them, meaning their poems cannot not exist. I can’t escape them, even though what I want from poetry is lightless, weightlessness, to be untethered. The poems—for the writer and for me, the reader—create the feeling, however temporarily, that I am free.

Nicole Sealey is one such poet. Born in St. Thomas and raised in Apopka, Florida, she is the author of Ordinary Beast, published this month by Ecco, and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. She is also the executive director of Cave Canem, a nonprofit organization in Brooklyn, New York, that cultivates the artistic and professional growth of African American poets. In fact, in mid-June we spent a week together at Cave Canem’s retreat at the University of Pittsburgh in Greensburg. There we had our first substantial conversation, though we’ve been in each other’s orbit and mutual admirers of each other’s work for years. Despite the sweltering heat that hit us in that special landlocked way, we talked about poetry and craft, our new books—I, too, have a new collection, Good Stock Strange Blood, out in August from Coffee House Press—aesthetics and language, vulnerability and vagrancy, luxury and yearning, drag and systematic repression.

Somewhere in my thoughts I held Sealey’s poem “A Violence,” from Ordinary Beast, as we spoke. I thought of how it feels like a poem for our times; at the end, it references what the mind cannot sustain. We are left to imagine what that is, exactly, though she gives us good direction. In Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of the art that he was coming to love as a young man, how it “lived in this void, in the not yet knowable, in the pain, in the question.”

Our discussion spanned several days, and I felt the calling that compels us both through our focus on the craft of our poetry and how we think meaning gets made. As our conversation spread (during the week of the retreat, the Minnesota police officer on trial for the killing of Philando Castile was acquitted of all charges in the July 2016 shooting), we never overtly said the names of those people who have been unjustly killed by police, but they are ever-present nonetheless. While at the retreat, we all heard of legal absolutions that confuse the rational mind. But the conversations between most of us who attended remained focused on poetry. Why? I think—and this is what I noticed in my talk with Sealey—that the art that moves us does something else entirely than speak to the thing at hand. What we do as poets is figure out how to negotiate the limits of the so-called rational world. This is a means of survival. And it is also, finally, where weightlessness might be found.

Nicole Sealey: I don’t know if you remember, but about a decade ago I wrote a review of your debut collection for Mosaic magazine. I wrote:

Just as the great American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston encouraged readers—through her mother’s words—to “jump at the sun,” so does poet Dawn Lundy Martin urge in A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering. It is the leap, not necessarily the landing, that forces risk and invention. Martin has taken such a leap and, in the process, invented new ways in which to engage and experience language. A Gathering of Matter…does not consult with convention, but rather vehemently argues with it.

I didn’t think it possible, but Good Stock Strange Blood takes even greater leaps and risks even more. Can you trace your journey from A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering to Good Stock Strange Blood?

Dawn Lundy Martin: When I was writing A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering, I was doing two things. One, I was figuring out how to speak to childhood traumas; and second, I was thinking of black displacement—like our relationship to a postcolonial continent. So I was trying to make work about something really big and something really small, and do it via a poetics that was interested in language’s inexactitude. Language feels too bulky to speak to trauma. What happens when we open our mouths to speak it? Out comes dust. Blathering. A cry. A stammer. A circling, a return again and again to try to say what happened.

I was working from the idea that language was not enough, that it fails us—often even in regular communication, like, say, an argument with a lover—and that where poetry enters is in the re-formation and ratcheting of language, so that it does its best job at speaking. This is especially important when it comes to trauma, which has no language, and the displacement of an entire people, which is almost unimaginable. By the time I got to Good Stock Strange Blood I’d been working in the art world and influenced by the ways utterance happens in art by folks like Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and Lorna Simpson. I’d also been working a lot in the prose poem and attending to the sentence.

The sentence is such a curious method toward utterance for me. It really wants to control us with its yoke of grammar. In Discipline and Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life, the prose poem becomes a way of thinking through the concerns of freedom—both internal and external, individual and collective. In my mind, however, Good Stock is my strangest work to date. The approach to language is ranging—lots of lyric poems extracted from Good Stock on the Dimension Floor, the libretto I wrote for the politically trouble-making global artist’s collective HowDoYouSayYamInAfrican? And other approaches: essays, journaling, prose poems, poems that are poems and poems that approximate poems. Which is to say, the aesthetic approach is less contained, less namable. More vagrant.

Vagrant is the word I would use to describe Good Stock Strange Blood. But if I had to describe your work in one word, I would use “vulnerable.” Immediately, when reading Ordinary Beast, I’m struck by the opening poem’s gorgeous and stinging vulnerability. How does this kind of nakedness impact how you think about writing poetry? And when I say “vulnerable” or “naked,” I mean I feel a rawness in your work—the poems feel stripped of artifice, even as they make themselves available to us as crafted poems. This is a rare and gorgeous balance.

Sealey: Straight out of the gate there’s an assumed familiarity between the reader and myself, void of pretense. Part of the pleasure I take in being a writer and reader of poetry is this instant intimacy. By the first page, we’re practically what one would refer to as family—at this point, I’m comfortable in my nightclothes and headscarf. As you know, the relationship between reader and writer is reciprocal. We bring with us all that we are, the sum total of our experiences up to that point. There’s an exchange happening—one that encourages vulnerability, one that can transform strangers into kin. Which is why, without a second thought, I’m comfortable opening the collection with “Medical History,” its lines: “I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had sex with a man / who’s had sex with men. I can’t sleep.”

I read somewhere that in order to be likable, one mustn’t share too much too soon. I’m not convinced that this rule applies to art, particularly poetry, as some of the best work is some of the most exposed and indicting early on—take Sympathetic Little Monster by Cameron Awkward-Rich, Rummage by Ife-Chudeni A. Oputa, and Beast Meridian by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, for instance. All that to say, when poets sit down to write, we don’t think about being vulnerable. We just are.

But I so admire this idea of vagrancy. Did you consciously give yourself permission to be “more vagrant,” or was this an unconscious evolution? And I’m in love with the italicized voices that interrupt the “narrative” of Good Stock. Who are they?

Martin: Vagrancy just evolved. I’m less interested in doctrine than I used to be and more compelled by uncertainty. I know so little about how to write an essay but have been teaching myself how to write them, which is very exciting, like learning a new language. And the essays teach me about wandering. As much as I feel like the books are an evolution over time, I feel like they are also one big utterance—always circling around the same haunting themes in an attempt to get it down better. I think of that thing my mother does when she’s listening. She doodles by tracing a word or scribbles over and over, making a deep imprint.

In terms of the italicized voices, sometimes they are an interior voice I want to gift the reader. It’s the voice in my head—or a fabrication of it—or a certain register, which in a way is an invitation into my heart. In other moments, it can be like singing into one’s own ear. I happen to be, probably to my own detriment, a fairly abstract thinker—meaning the voice I whisper into my own ear is like a clock questioning time. When I write, however, “Something larger than ourselves to hold us,” I am writing about black people and thinking very concretely about how we as black people have historically always been left to build our own apparatuses for our own support, defense, relaxation, and protection.

And speaking of support, answer this: If someone you don’t know approaches you with an open hand and that open hand, you understand, is open for you to place a poem into, which poem do you place into it from Ordinary Beast and why? You know nothing about the person or what they need, just that their hand is open, and that they are desperate.

Sealey: Without a doubt I’d place “Hysterical Strength” in the hand. The first half of the poem describes true accounts of superhuman strength—a child lifts a car, a woman fights a bear, etcetera. These accounts are then juxtaposed with the strength black people have had to harness to exist in a world that, I would argue, has for centuries tried (and failed) to kill us. The poem speaks to our struggle and to our strength. I need that someone to know that they’re not imagining things, that this is not normal and that they’re stronger than some people would have them believe. Yes, I would hand over “Hysterical Strength.”

When I hear news of a hitchhiker
struck by lightning yet living,
or a child lifting a two-ton sedan
to free his father pinned
     underneath,
or a camper fighting off a grizzly
with her bare hands until someone,
a hunter perhaps, can shoot it dead,
my thoughts turn to black people—
the hysterical strength we must
possess to survive our very
       existence,
which I fear many believe is, and
treat as, itself a freak occurrence.

There have been so many poems that have saved me in this same way. The most significant being Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die.” Whenever I get to thinking otherwise, that poem affirms that I’m not imagining things, that this is not normal, and that I’m stronger than some people would have me believe.

What about you? If someone approaches you for a poem, which from Good Stock Strange Blood do you give that person?

Martin: There are these lines in the middle of the new book—a square block of italicized text:

Symptomatic of being a slave
is to forget you’re a slave, to
participate in industry as a
critical piece in its motor. At
night you fall off the wagon
because it’s like falling into
your self.

This is a reminder that we have to be vigilant, especially now with people running the country who are explicit in their disdain for black people, women, queer people, and the poor. The other day I was listening to this heartbreaking podcast about the resurgence of predatory home-lending practices. Instead of buyers acquiring mortgages, mortgage companies are offering “contracts” and telling buyers that this is a cheap route toward home ownership. “Buyers” never accumulate equity, so as soon as they miss a payment they’re out. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about this in “The Case for Reparations.” This was one way black people were kept from owning homes in the 1960s and ’70s. The practice is back. And guess who’s the secretary of treasury. A guy who has made billions from people losing their homes. Playing the game often doesn’t work—you know, being a good citizen, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.

But turning back to aesthetics, I’m energized by the ranging approaches to telling stories in Ordinary Beast and the range of forms you inhabit and invent. How did you develop these multiple means toward narrative? And I’m interested in how drag and gender is configured in the work. I love the emergence of all these drag queens who speak up through the interstices of the book via epigraph.

Sealey: In the movie Love Jones, the character Darius Lovehall says, “When people who have been together a long time say that the romance is gone, what they’re really saying is they’ve exhausted the possibility.” I say this to say, these multiple means toward narrative is my attempt to keep the relationship I have with poetry interesting…yet manageable. Writing is hard, at least for me. Having an architectural plan with which to imagine and engage poems makes the process less so. I love form for precisely this reason and find the constraints ironically freeing—the restrictions actually lend themselves to specific music, associations, and imagery that probably wouldn’t happen otherwise. This is definitely true of the various forms in the collection.

For the last decade I’ve been at work on “Legendary,” a series of personae sonnets inspired by the queens featured in Paris Is Burning, a documentary film about drag pageants in 1980s Harlem. Thus far I’ve drafted about a half dozen poems—only three of which were solid enough to make it into Ordinary Beast. What most interested me is the double interiority of it all, the idea of being a subgroup of an already marginalized community. In a perfect world—one free of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia—these queens, who were at the top of their game and art, might have lived the fabulous lives they emulated; instead, their high-ranking status was limited to makeshift ballrooms. The series acknowledges their restricted authority and, in so doing, is as much an assertion of their power as it is commentary on the lack thereof.

I’m interested in the way you use fragment and fracture as tools to reconstruct “truth” in Good Stock Strange Blood. “—The Holding Place—” is a great example of this.

Martin: When I look back at some of my earlier work and the way I used the em dash, I understand the usage to be a literal stutter, cut speech that won’t come out. Like trying to speak with a hand around the neck. In Good Stock, the fragment is a disruptive force to the poem itself. “—The Holding Place—” in particular is meant to self-destruct in the speaker’s attempt to grapple with her own blackness. Originally this piece was in the libretto, and the speaker, NAVE, I imagined, had been born from the head of Sarah from Adrienne Kennedy’s one-act play Funnyhouse of a Negro. Being born black on earth has rendered NAVE both mutant—her body made of many arches and windows—and crazy. NAVE’s is a madness meant to speak to what racism can produce. The truth is the poem can’t hold all of this, so it falls apart in these places of radical ellipses. I’m more than willing to let the poem slip out of the reader’s grasp at times to get as close as possible to the utterance that enacts the near impossibility of our simply being.

A little game I’ve played over the course of my four books is to borrow a line or two from a previous book in each new book. In this case “matter that matters” is extracted with slight variation from A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering and in its new location doing completely different work on what “good stock” might mean to American black bodies.

Ordinary Beast is such a striking title—hard and soft at the same time. I noticed how beasts and animals find several locations in the book. In the last poem, that beautiful moment, “There’s a name for the animal / love makes of us” still resonates in my imagination. What is the beast to you?

Sealey: Those lines from “Object Permanence,” the final poem in the collection, speak to how love can transform someone into something wholly unrecognizable—if we’re lucky, into something better. Whatever “better” looks like. The speaker seems surprised by her own affection for her beloved, by her own capacity to love, which suggests a shift in the way the speaker now engages with “love.” I can’t imagine her having similar thoughts about the love that came before the one she muses over in the poem.

I just did a quick roll call in my mind of all the animals in Ordinary Beast—fish, horses, tadpoles, a bear, scarabs, goats, elephants, locusts, dogs, caterpillars, unidentified “strays” as well as a variety of birds, one of which is made of fire. Fun fact about me is that back in the day I was studying to become a veterinarian. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but I’ve maintained my interest in animals, human beings included. I think we’d like to think that we’re more evolved than ordinary beasts, but the truth is we’ve got some growing to do. As a species that prides itself on its consciousness, there are many who are content to live in the dark. And even more who would have us join them. What is the beast to me? At the moment, it is mankind—some men more than others.

 

Dawn Lundy Martin teaches in the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh and is codirector of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. She is the author of several books and chapbooks, including A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (University of Georgia Press, 2007), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize; Discipline (Nightboat Books, 2011), which was selected for the Nightboat Books Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Candy, a limited-edition letterpress chapbook (Albion Books, 2011); The Main Cause of the Exodus (O’clock Press 2014); The Morning Hour, selected by C. D. Wright for the 2003 Poetry Society of America’s Chapbook Fellowship; and Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life (Nightboat Books, 2015), which won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry. Her latest collection, Good Stock Strange Blood, was published by Coffee House Press in August. Her nonfiction writing has been published in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and boundary 2.

Dawn Lundy Martin (left) and Nicole Sealey at Cave Canem’s 2017 retreat at the University of Pittsburgh in Greensburg. (Credit: Richard Kelly)

Q&A: Nicole Sealey Leads Cave Canem

by

Tayari Jones

4.12.17

Cave Canem was established by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte in 1996 to nurture black poets both on the page and in the publishing marketplace. The Brooklyn, New York–based organization’s many programs include writing workshops, master classes, a reading series, publication prizes, and an annual retreat, which brings together more than fifty poets, or “fellows,” each year. In January Nicole Sealey, previously Cave Canem’s programs director, became the organization’s new executive director. A veteran arts administrator (including a previous role as the assistant director of Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program), Sealey is also a poet; her first full-length collection, Ordinary Beast, will be published by Ecco in September. A couple of months into her new position, Sealey spoke about the future of Cave Canem.

Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship to Cave Canem?
Almost ten years ago I participated in Cave Canem’s eight-week fall workshop in New York City, facilitated by Marilyn Nelson. I was a very young writer and it ended up being a formative experience in my life. We got serious about craft and made lifelong connections in the process. I’ve met many of my closest friends through Cave Canem, the closest of all being my husband, John Murillo. The very least I can do for an organization that has served me well for the last decade is to return the gesture. 

How does being a writer influence the way you will lead the organization?
Cave Canem has always had a “poets first” philosophy, which has served the organization well for the last twenty-plus years. Remember, the organization was founded by rock-star poets and directed for the past decade by Alison Meyers, also a poet. In that tradition, I plan to lead with both head and heart, which are the qualities I value most in poetry. 

What’s ahead for Cave Canem and for you as the new executive director?
In May we’ll be capping off our twentieth-anniversary year with Cave Canem 20/20: A Panoramic Vision of Black Poetry, a two-and-a-half day poetry forum at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn. The forum will offer readings, skill-building panels, artist conversations, and more. I’m also looking forward to my first retreat as executive director. The retreat takes place in June at the University of Pittsburgh in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. It’s our flagship program, and where, as Harryette Mullen says, “black poets, individually and collectively, can inspire and be inspired by others, relieved of any obligation to explain or defend their blackness.”

So much has changed since Cave Canem faculty member Elizabeth Alexander recited “Praise Song for the Day,” the inaugural poem for Barack Obama in 2009. What do you see as the role of Cave Canem, and poetry more broadly, in the new political climate?
“So much has changed” is a very gracious way to describe the political climate in which we now find ourselves. In “Praise Song for the Day,” the speaker asks, “What if the mightiest word is love?” I have no doubt that it is love, but the new administration would have me believe that the mightiest word is fear or, worse yet, the president’s name. It is neither. It is love. And what is love if not a society based on justice and equality? With this in mind, the role of Cave Canem in particular, and poetry in general, is and will be to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With love. Bigly. 

Are there any outreach programs on tap to connect poetry with readers?
Cave Canem’s Poets Tour, a nonprofit speakers bureau, connects national audiences with Cave Canem fellows through readings and workshops. This year we hope to increase the number of participating fellows and reach out to presenting institutions, including high schools, universities, museums, libraries, and prisons. We want to bring black poets to diverse communities.  

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.         

Nicole Sealey

(Credit: Murray Greenfield )

A New Center for Black Poetics

by

Tara Jayakar

8.17.16

From late nineteenth-century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to Harlem Renaissance icon Langston Hughes to contemporary poetry stars Rita Dove and Toi Derricotte, the influence of African American poets on America’s literary culture cannot be overstated. But until recently there was no center that had significant institutional support and was specifically dedicated to sharing and studying the legacy of African American poetry.* Earlier this year, poets Dawn Lundy Martin, Terrance Hayes, and Yona Harvey decided it was high time to start one. The trio launched the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP) as a creative think tank to spark conversation and collaboration among poets and other artists, and to promote and archive the work of African American poets for future generations.

“We recognized that there was this huge impact that African American and African diasporic poets were making on American arts and letters,” says Martin, who codirects the center alongside Hayes. “We wanted there to be a place where we could really think and work through what that means.” Housed at the University of Pittsburgh, where both Martin and Hayes teach in the MFA writing program, the center held its first event in March—a set of conversations and readings about race, poetry, and the humanities—and will host similar events throughout the academic year. Its first course on African American poetry and poetics, led by Lauren Russell, the assistant director of CAAPP and an English professor, will be offered to undergraduate and graduate students during the 2017–2018 academic year and will feature visiting speakers each week. Hayes and Martin also plan to launch a residency and fellowship program, through which poets, artists, and scholars can work at the center for periods between a month and a year.

Part of CAAPP’s core mission is to archive and document the work of African American poets, which will be accomplished through both a physical collection of books and an online archive of lectures, readings, and discussions. While organizations like Cave Canem create space to nurture new work by African American poets, and other university centers such as Medgar Evers College’s Center for Black Literature and Chicago State University’s Gwendolyn Brooks Center work to promote black literature, CAAPP will focus specifically on the research and scholarship of black poetics, particularly as it relates to historical, artistic, and cultural repression, as well as corresponding social justice movements. “Cave Canem is twenty years old, and there still hasn’t been a large body of work about how it came into being or archival work around it,” says Hayes. “Our organizations historically haven’t had an opportunity to take care of our own information, to build our own insights around that work…. Now we are in a position to be our own historians and our own archivists, and write our own biographies about the importance of these roots.”

The University of Pittsburgh has long been a home for the work of African American poets. The university press, with editor Ed Ochester at the helm, has published notable titles by both emerging and established African American poets, recently Derricotte, Ross Gay, Rickey Laurentiis, Nate Marshall, and Afaa Michael Weaver. Hayes and Martin hope to work with the press on a book prize, and harness other university resources. “What a university can do is provide infrastructure, in a way that’s just not set up in most sectors of our society,” says Hayes. “Infrastructure and research capabilities.” The pair have enlisted faculty from other departments, including English and Africana Studies, to advise CAAPP and possibly teach future courses. “We think of ourselves as a start-up,” says Martin. “And like innovators in tech, we want to be open and inclusive as we generate new ideas about what it means to work in the fields of African American poetry and poetics. This seems especially important in these trying and divisive times.”

A significant part of CAAPP’s work will also intersect with the university’s MFA program. Graduate writing students will be able to take courses offered by the center and have the opportunity to help curate, design, and teach these courses. This goes hand in hand with how Hayes sees the MFA as an opportunity to teach students the tools and skills needed to hold positions of power in poetry and arts organizations. “A person who is interested in getting an MFA and being a poet can learn how to live in the world, whether they are directing centers or working as librarians, archivists, or critics,” says Hayes. “Just to alert and inspire a poet to do that is a possibility. Maybe you want to run a press or be an editor of a press. I don’t see why the MFA can’t be an opportunity to begin that conversation, as opposed to assuming that all you can do is write or teach.”

*Editor’s Note: After this article went to print, it was brought to our attention that a center dedicated to studying African American poetry was already established before the launch of CAAPP. The Furious Flower Poetry Center, housed at James Madison University and founded by Joanne Gabbin, has been cultivating and promoting African American poetry since 1994. We regret the error.

 

Hayes and Martin hope that the center will also help make the university’s MFA program a more welcoming space for writers of color, an important effort in light of increased discussion about race and diversity in MFA programs. For Martin, this means creating and maintaining a space of cultural inclusion. “Pittsburgh is a place where there are other students of color, and the graduate faculty is extremely diverse. There’s already some understanding between folks who are there, so you can start from a place of not having to work through your values and struggle to articulate your cultural perspective.”

The CAAPP directors plan to offer courses that intersect with visual art and music, in order to explore how thinking across disciplines can parallel thinking across cultures and perspectives. “Certainly, we feel like if anyone is prepared to build those new conversations, it would be African American poets and poets of color in general,” says Hayes, adding that CAAPP aims to include non-black people of color and other marginalized communities in the conversation. “We talk about collage and hybridity—that’s what people of color are. [We’re] not thinking about segregation, not thinking about fences around what we do, but looking across those bridges, saying, ‘Well, how are these people across the street interested in what I’m doing?’ even if they’re not poets. They might be architects, they might be scientists.”

Moving forward, the center will hold a community workshop, reading, and exhibition from November 9 to November 11 on poetry and politics titled “Black Poets Speak Out,” featuring Jericho Brown, Mahogany Browne, and Amanda Johnston. The directors also hope to host a reading by emerging women and trans poets. Martin and Hayes are optimistic about the social impact of the center’s work. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Martin, “especially given the state of violence in this country—violence against queer people, violence against black people, violence against women—it makes sense to take up things like African American literature, African American culture, African American history, African American poetry and art as a part of making the world better.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

Which Story Will You Tell? A Q&A With Alexander Chee

by

Amy Gall

4.17.18

Sometimes it pays to procrastinate. It took Alexander Chee fifteen years to complete his second novel, The Queen of the Night, and about seven years in, during a particularly bad case of writer’s block, he spoke to his agent, Jin Auh at the Wylie Agency, about putting together a collection of essays instead. “It was one of many moments where I was like, ‘Is there anything I can do to get out of writing this novel?’” Chee says. While, thankfully, he persevered and completed The Queen of the Night, which was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2016 to much critical acclaim, Chee continued to gather his previously published and discarded essays during the slow periods in his fiction writing. “It was this weird shadow creature that grew in the process of writing both my first and second novels,” he says, “almost like a back passageway to them.”  

Chee has made his name as a fiction writer. His first novel, Edinburgh (Picador, 2001), which tells the story of a Korean American boy who is forced to deal with the devastating effects of being molested by his choir teacher as a young teen, won the $50,000 Whiting Award. The Queen of the Night, a sweeping period novel in which an orphan moves from America to Europe to become one of Paris’s most famous opera divas, was a national best-seller and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. But for as long as he has been writing fiction, Chee—who is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire—has also been quietly publishing essays in venerable journals and magazines such as n+1, Guernica, and Out. And with the release of his first essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, out this month from Mariner Books, his “shadow creature” has stepped fully into the light.

The collection, which includes both previously published essays and new works, covers a wide range of subjects, all explored through the lens of Chee’s own life—from performing in drag, to a rose garden he grew outside his Brooklyn apartment, to a stint as a caterer for conservative socialites William F. and Pat Buckley. But as disparate as some of the topics are, they all circle back to one central question: How do we live and write truthfully? For Chee, a Korean American gay man growing up in a small white town in Maine, who came out at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the answer to that question has been fraught. But in his essays Chee explores the ways in which, despite tremendous external resistance, he forged a more consistent, authentic self both in life and on the page. The book is part memoir, part writer’s guide: While Chee mines the territory of his own life, he also offers useful advice about how other writers might do the same. In his essay “100 Things About Writing a Novel,” for instance, he offers this sage bit of wisdom for fiction writers: “The family of the novelist often fears they are in the novel, which is in fact a novel they have each written on their own, projected over it.” Many of the essays also include writing advice from Chee’s mentors, including his beloved undergraduate teacher Annie Dillard, and Deborah Eisenberg, his first professor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. In some ways, the book is far less a back passageway than it is a map, leading the reader to a deeper connection with both herself and the risky, rewarding act of creation. 

I spoke with Chee about his new book, a lively conversation during which we discussed how to keep working during bouts of self-doubt, methods for successfully spying on yourself, and whether dancers do in fact make the best writers.

How do essays function for you in relation to fiction?
I studied with Annie Dillard, and that set the tone for how I came to think about essays and their possibilities. Annie told us, and I didn’t realize how radical it was for her to say this, that you make more money from nonfiction. If you become good at essays you can sell them while you’re working on your fiction. If you’re trying to start a writing career, you can use a finished essay as both a writing sample and an introduction to an editor, and while that editor may not like what you’ve written specifically, it might create a relationship that will yield work in the future. Everyone else [who taught in my writing programs] had a kind of, “I don’t talk about business in class” mode, which, I think, is unfortunately quite common in creative writing. And I say unfortunately because the truth is that one of the ways you democratize literature is by teaching people how to make some money so that they can get by.

Yes, and how to talk honestly with each other about the money they are making.
Yes, and how to stand up for the money that they are making. Annie encouraged us back then to have all of those conversations, taught us the format for submitting work, taught us to use the Best American anthologies as a guide to the places we should be submitting work to, taught us even to double check the addresses in the mastheads because some of them used codes to sort out who was only combing Best American anthologies for their address. Annie Dillard is no joke.

You’ve said before that we are living in a more “essay friendly” time. Can you say more about that?
The irony of the Internet, which was supposed to rob us of our attention span and be the death of journalism, is that it has actually promoted a new passion for longform nonfiction. It’s also given us more opportunities to find and discover poets, who are a big part of the movement towards essays as well, since they are doing work that is increasingly hybrid. In general, the best thing I can say about social media and the Internet is that it has allowed a lot of people to bypass the gatekeepers, such that I don’t know if there’s a real gate any more.

You say in the book, and you’ve mentioned this on social media before, that readers often want to know what’s “true” in fiction. What is your relationship to “the truth” in writing, and does it vary between mediums?
I think fiction is the thing you invent to fit the shape of what you learned and nonfiction is the thing you invent to fit the shape of what you found or maybe even what you can’t run away from. One thing that I noticed during the editing process of this book was how often it felt like I was dying. [Laughs.] It was just soul crushingly depressing and difficult work and it took so much longer than I thought it would. I had this kind of idea of, “Oh, I’ve published a lot of these essays before and this won’t take a lot of time.” Boy was that naive. It was shocking how naive that was. I think that’s because when you do it right, and this goes back to what Annie used to say, it’s a moral confrontation the writer has with the truth of their experience. That is no joke, and that is not a thing you can just rush through. In literary fiction I think you’re watching someone else in a landscape, wondering if they’re ever going to figure out who they are. In nonfiction of this kind, what you’re doing for your reader is riddling through the ways you lie to yourself and others and trying to get at what you actually believe.

Yeah, it’s horrible.
And that’s why you feel like you’re dying, because the part of you that your ego has held is saying, This is me, while the essay is saying, Well, it’s nice that you think that, but…

You’re actually over here, in this big pile of shit.
Right. Mary McCarthy wrote this essay collection Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. In between each of the essays she has a few pages about what she made up, what she lied about, what she didn’t mention, and she just calls herself on all of it. And it was this interesting early lesson when I read it about how much you have to be on your guard about yourself.

What were some of the lies you had to let go of in writing this book?
I engaged in a kind of forensics of the self. It was something that, again, Annie had taught. An early exercise of hers was called something like, So you think you know your hometown? And she asked us: “Do you know the major populations in your hometown, do you know the major industries, do you know the flora and fauna of the different seasons, do you know the historical events that shaped the founding of the town? How much do you know and how much are you actually just around for?” I continued to take that approach with myself. I reread my journals and all my e-mails. I look at my social media “likes” history to find out what I’m actually paying attention to, and my browser history for the things I won’t even allow myself to “like” publicly. I act like a spy on myself, like someone who doesn’t love me and is just going to report on me. It’s a trust-but-verify relationship to the self.

In the book you write about how Annie Dillard said to you, “Sometimes you can write amazing sentences and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence.” Has getting that kind of feedback helped with this honest relationship to the self?
[Laughs.] I had a high school English teacher who said to me, “What I love about you is, I can knock your head off, hand it to you, and you just put it back on, straighten it and keep going.” And I think my ability to just hear people say those things and figure myself out in relationship to what they’ve said has made a big difference. As I’ve learned from a long teaching career, not everyone is built that way, and I’m very glad [my English teacher] identified that early on. He once took a paper of mine and read it aloud without telling me he was going to read it and at the end he just said, “This is an example of what not to do with metaphors.” I could have been upset but I thought, “Okay,” because I respected him and I knew I was showing off what I could do with words in a way that was overblown. 

In this collection, was there a hardest essay or an easiest essay, or were they all hard and easy in different ways?
That’s a good question. They all presented different challenges. Some of them were written in the nineties and abandoned and then revisited and abandoned again. “The Guardians” and “Autobiography of My Novel” were, for a long time, one essay and then I turned them into two essays. I started [the original piece] when I was about to finish my first novel, Edinburgh, and it was originally going to be one of those essays you publish in support of your novel—which has become this weird tradition that my essayist friends really hate because they’re like, “Who are these fiction writers showing up, thinking they can write an essay and flooding the market with low quality pablum?” And it’s true that writing a novel, writing a short story, and writing an essay are distinct skills.

My essay “Girl” was one that I actually workshopped initially at Iowa. I worked on it for a few years before deciding it was possibly juvenilia and set it aside. And then every few years I would pick it up and think, “This is pretty good, I should do something with it,” and I never would. And finally Guernica reached out to me and said, “Do you have anything about gender?” And I sent them that essay. I think I was like a lot of my students. I thought success in grad school or in a writing class was a kind of low bar, that it didn’t mean anything about success in the world, which to my mind had to be so much harder, and so I talked myself out of submitting a lot of work that I could have submitted earlier and who knows what would have happened. I think in this culture there’s such a value placed on hard work that your inherent talent can seem like something silly. So I ignored it for a while.

In “After Peter,” you talk about your involvement in the activist group Act Up and growing up in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic. I’m wondering, how did coming of age in that time affect your sense of your body and sex and intimacy?
I think intimacy is always fraught but it was differently fraught because of the AIDS epidemic. At that time, in the nineties, I was also just starting to experience the return of memories I discuss [in the essay] about being abused, and so my body was a kind of unfamiliar territory. Dustin, my husband, has memories of being in Hell’s Kitchen during the same time and seeing guys going up to the rooftops to jack off and watching each other at a “safe distance.” He said it was like jerking off in silence with the biggest condom of all, this gap of space between buildings.

Do you feel like writing has changed your relationship to your body?
I think, in general, I often ignore my body because of writing, to my own detriment. So I’m trying right now to reinhabit my body. But I have noticed that students of mine who have a background in dance are often quite talented at writing as well. There’s some way of thinking about how the body can be articulate that translates into how you tell stories on the page. I don’t know if it goes the other way. I’d love it if it did. The body is the instrument for the essayist in particular. It’s the instrument by which the events are recorded; it’s the instrument on which the events are replayed. It’s a very complicated, interdimensional relationship we have with our bodies when we’re nonfiction writers.

You’ve written about your family in different ways in this collection. The line of what writers will share and won’t share about family is always different and I’m wondering where that line is for you.
One thing I know is true for Asian and Asian American families is there’s a lot of intergenerational silence, so my mom [who is white] is the source of a lot of the stories I have about my dad’s family, which she learned when we were in Korea, because she doesn’t have any of those social taboos. There is also the silence of my father’s death, which is certainly a profound one for me—I’ve spent a lot of time in relationship to my memories of him and my imagination of him. One of the first essays I wrote, which I almost put in this collection but held back, is a confrontation with the memory I have of my father and what would happen if I told him I was gay, because he died before I could come out. That early experience of having to think through that and write what his reaction would be, which also meant writing about my mother and my sister, got my family used to the idea that I was going to write this book. And my mom read it and offered some insights into what she felt I’d gotten wrong about her, but she said, “It’s your truth.”

“Girl” was such a powerful example of all the ways you’re straddling different worlds: boy/girl, gay/straight, Korean/Korean American/white. Does writing feel like it creates bridges or synthesis, or is it just an observation of the gaps that are there?
I have come to view writing as a sort of prism. Early on, at a time when I was experiencing a crisis, I had a therapist who said, “You are different with different people because you are uncertain whether you can be whole with any of them, and the result is that you feel inauthentic with all of them and you may even feel inauthentic to them. So you need to pursue a complexity in the relationships you want to be your core relationships and that will help you feel more authentic to yourself.” That was the source of a profound breakthrough because what I was experiencing as depression was a kind of self-rejection predicated on my imagined sense of other people’s rejection.

At some point you have to make a choice about which story you are going to tell about yourself. Are you going to tell a story of you as a failure who never did the thing that you wanted to do—which is the story you essentially tell yourself, a kind of private theater of pain—or are you going to tell the story that you’re working on, a story that can actually reach other people and connect outward to the world? If you’re busy telling yourself that other story about your own failure, chances are you aren’t writing. You may think you are protecting yourself by keeping yourself from writing, but that’s really not protection at all. That’s just another story trying to talk you out of being yourself.

Listen to Alexander Chee read an excerpt from How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

Amy Gall’s writing has appeared in Tin House, Vice, Glamour Magazine, Guernica, Brooklyn Magazine, and PANK, among others, and in the anthology Mapping Queer Spaces. Recycle, her book of collage and text coauthored with Sarah Gerard, is out now from Pacific Press. She is currently working on a collection of linked essays about sex, violence, and bodily return.

Novelist Alexander Chee, author of the new essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, out this month from Mariner Books.

(Credit: M. Sharkey)

Blind Ambition: A Q&A With Gregory Pardlo

by

Yahdon Israel

4.10.18

If nothing succeeds like success, Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America is Gregory Pardlo’s noble attempt to show what becomes of the people who die trying. “My father’s world operated on homespun destiny,” Pardlo writes about his late father, Gregory Pardlo Sr., who lost his job as an air traffic controller during the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) Strike in 1981, “the kind of destiny that was dictated by character and the inevitability of Hollywood endings.” While it was this belief in the inevitability of Hollywood endings that fueled Greg Sr.’s decision to see the strike to its end, president Ronald Reagan’s firing of the 11,345 air traffic controllers who refused to return to work two days later was a dismal reminder that life ain’t a movie. That for all we, as Americans, want to believe in the Dream; here is our rude awakening.

The essays in Air Traffic, published this month by Knopf, function like someone who jumps up from sleep, thinking the nightmare is over, only to discover this is reality. Pardlo’s rendering of his life and the people in it takes on a quiet nobility because the author resists the temptation to achieve any simple resolutions. There are no grand statements to be made. No fortune cookie wisdom. No moral to the story. If Greg Sr. was driven to death by the promise of the Hollywood ending, Pardlo is in the parking lot of life doing donuts. This is where Air Traffic succeeds.

Instead of showing the ways in which Greg Sr.’s ambition makes his family exceptional, Pardlo undermines that ambition by highlighting the ways in which the paternal failure makes them like everyone else. Pardlo’s understanding that he is nothing “special” enables him to come to terms with some of his own failures as a father, husband, and poet.

I interviewed Pardlo at his home in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, where we talked about his aversion to happy endings, his disillusionment with narratives of progress, complicated relationship to his Pulitzer win, and why alcoholism is like religion.

One of the first things I want to talk about in regards to Air Traffic is that the book ends without any real sense of closure. As if the wounds you’re describing haven’t healed yet. What was your intention in ending the book this way?
My aesthetic in general is not to pursue a conclusion. Real early on in my writing development, I read Lyn Hejinian’s essay, “The Rejection of Closure.” That essay had a big impact on me in thinking about how to avoid the Disney kind of happily ever after ending. Life doesn’t work that way—particularly when you’re talking about an addiction or recovery narrative. The idea that one can be sick, and be healed, and be done with it is not a narrative that works in terms of recovery. There is no recovery. Just a lifetime of maintenance.

One of the strategies I had when I started writing the book was to look for the opposing ideas. Where I have one argument being made affirmatively in place, I want to make an opposing argument in another. I’m working against the idea of a narrative having a teleological arc; this idea that the story is moving towards something.

This is a book about manhood, and a lot of it is focused on your father, but I was wondering: What was behind your decision to not write about your mother as much? Not only do you describe her as the one who holds the family together, but it’s difficult to talk about manhood in all its nuances without the women who help to contextualize what that manhood means.  
If I’m going to be honest, it’s garden-variety sexism that the role of the mother, in the family, was always a secondary presence. Although she was most certainly a primary presence in my day-to-day life, in my imaginative life she was a supporting character. It sounds awful to say that but flat off, the impulse was to deal with my dad.

When I first started this book, I was most interested in the PATCO strike and the labor history around it. The more I learned about the strike, the relationship between the FAA and the controllers became more clearly paternal—so that theme of the father-son relationship pulled me in that direction. Then I discovered I’m not really dealing with my dad; I’m dealing with myself. 

While I was writing this book, I was regularly visiting my therapist. One of her questions early on was, “When are you going to write the essay about your mom?” I didn’t know how [to write an essay about her] because my mother has always been a far more complicated character to me than my father. Case in point, for the intervention piece—which is not only the last piece of the book, but also the last piece that I wrote—I interviewed my mother. I wrote the piece and sent it to her. She wrote back that she loved it but felt that my depiction of her was a little harsh. My depiction of her was in service of her own ego, but that is the logic I applied to my dad. It doesn’t apply to her. So I’m still trying to find the emotional framework to render her fully.

Though the book is labeled a memoir, it reads so much more like essays in that the writing seems to be more concerned with the journey than any particular destination. There’s this very subtle way in which your father’s wanting to be the center makes you feel like you’re the supporting character in your own life. And you write every essay as though you’re experiencing your life through the eyes of someone else as opposed to your own.

Even the way you describe your drunk episodes, they seem sort of like they’re just treated as incidental. I felt it was an honest depiction of how our problems tend to happen in real time. They manifest themselves in the background. If it were something that you’re going to take hold of and keep in your eyesight it probably wouldn’t be a problem. I don’t know if you did that on purpose, but the most insidious things that happened in your life are the things you don’t see. You’re so focused on your father and brother, you lose sight of yourself.
That’s absolutely right. One of the things I love about the essay is that I can have that kind of dual presence as author and character. In terms of the tension of the book, obviously there are points in there where I, as a writer, am not going to see what I’m doing entirely. There is no omniscient narrator, but there are many points in the book where I am conscious of how I’m allowing my “I” character to be flawed.

We can see the patterns of my dad’s big, tragic moment set against my own tragic moment and my brother’s tragic moments. If not explicitly, “narrativizing” the blind spot is definitely an agenda of the book. It is a strategy of mine to read the character of “I” as a character, which means there are flaws that I, the writer, am aware of after the fact. As a writer I can see the thing my character “I” did and say, “Oh, well that was stupid,” but it’s not for me to go back and correct it. I don’t need to protect him. I don’t need to justify him.

That being said, the book does have this sort of arc where the beginning is so much more “ambitious” than the end. In the first essay we’re introduced to your father, who is determined to die in this grand way. But as the book goes on, ambition is subdued—in that everything, in comparison to your father’s death, just seems so much smaller. I’m wondering if that’s a question that this book is concerned with: What happens when you have too much ambition in a world that doesn’t make space for it, or doesn’t believe certain people—like your father—should have any?
You’re right. I think it’s my disillusion with the narrative of progress altogether. By damn near every metric of the American Dream, my life is a success story, but there is no point at which I want to stop and say, Alright we’ve made it. We think about the narratives of black progress, of uplift, and how that narrative has this teleology. What is the end game of the black uplift story?

How do we know when we’ve made it? My frustrations with that narrative—and how that narrative keeps us thinking about racism as the one dominating presence in the lives of black folks—was a distraction. There’s some shit there obviously. But I realized that so much of our family narrative was distracted by racism, by larger sociopolitical narratives, so that we didn’t pay attention to the ways that we interact generationally.

When I say this I’m thinking about Gayle Jones’s Corregidora. How the great-grandmother’s trauma gets passed down so that generations later, you still hate the slave master ’til the point that you’re unable to focus on what you’re doing in your own life. The extent to which I worship my father is a direct consequence of the way he makes himself a hero in my life. I grow up believing that his progress, his narrative, is more important than mine. I am a supporting character in his story. His story is the story of black uplift. His story is the civil rights story. My generation and on, however, are just there to bear witness to that narrative—and I realize that my father couldn’t see how he was part of this intergenerational story that was supposed to go beyond him because, in his mind, his story ends with him.

This goes back to narrativizing my own blind spot. As an artist, as a writer, as a person in the world, how do I claim my life, in service of my life, as opposed to being this subordinate character in my fathers? Or in service of the civil rights narrative? Or in service of some class, racial uplift narrative? How do I just do what I want to do and not feel beholden to some larger American narrative?

So is ambition something that you actually come to own or is it something that you inherit like debt? You inherit this sense that you have to do something bigger than yourself to prove that you have a right to exist. In this sense, any grand scale achievement, like your Pulitzer win, becomes a symbol of “progress.”
Right, when people come up to me and say, “You being a black Pulitzer Prize winner is important for the community,” I’m like well, that’s awesome, but I also just like writing poems. And I would also like to be congratulated for writing nice poems.

When you won the Pulitzer what was your honest response to it? Block out the white noise of everyone else responding to you. How do you, Gregory Pardlo, feel?
Fear, because I am sensitive to the ways other people’s narratives inhibit my ability to craft my own.

So if the larger narrative is about this black man who wins the Pulitzer and whatever else we turn this into for our own gain, what would be the Gregory Pardlo narrative about winning the Pulitzer?
It would be: We gotta read these poems more closely, and talk about these poems more, which, of course, is a consequence of the Pulitzer. But I think the larger, predominating narrative is “Look at this black man winning this historical prize.”

One of the things I heard a lot after it was announced that I was awarded the Pulitzer was, “When I found out you won, I felt like I did too,” which is great. I don’t resist that narrative, but what that also feeds into is me being a kind of inverted sacrificial lamb. That what I have done was in service of this larger thing that has nothing to do with me. As soon as I try and answer that question, I find myself reaching for somebody else’s narrative about my potential.

It also sounds like what you describe your father did anytime he wasn’t the center of attention: He found a way to steal it. It’s not really your win; it’s everybody’s win, which is to say no one won. But that doesn’t fully answer my question about what you would want the narrative of the Pulitzer win to be. I think this is the central difficulty of what this book is trying to articulate: How do you think outside of those contexts that define you?
As much as I want to wrest control of my own narrative, it is ultimately dependent on the larger context from which I derive my identity. I cannot be an isolated person in the world. My enjoyment of life, my sense of self-worth, is tied up in the ways I feel that I contribute to other people’s lives.

Something that I didn’t get around to writing about, but is probably in one of the early drafts and notes, is that having children was so important to me [because] that…was my father’s story. My great-grandfather, grandfather, and my dad all had kids—and I didnt want to be the one to drop the ball. I can’t isolate my loving my kids from the pride I take in being a father as part of this lineage of fatherhood.

But at the same time, the contradiction there is I do say that I wish I was standing at the podium holding this trophy, not for the sake of the larger community, but to get my father’s acknowledgement. The trophy is a measurement of success that my father would recognize.

In the essay “Intervention” you ask your younger brother, Robbie, how he wants to be remembered when he’s no longer here. I’m going to ask you the same question—how do you want to be remembered?
Having had this conversation and thinking about my legacy, an ambitious telling would be to have Gregory Pardlo High Schools around the country. What that symbolizes for me is a sense of permanence.

In this same essay, you also described your alcoholism as being the closest thing you have to religion. What did you mean by that?
That is the only place that I feel it’s necessary to acknowledge helplessness. If the ambitious me feels like I can contend with whatever happens in the world outside, the thing that I cannot promise myself with any sense of security is that I’m going to be sober tomorrow.

Alcoholism is the one clear space in my life where my ambition is neutralized. There is no external narrative there. I am entirely in relation to myself. And the only way that I can even look forward to being sober tomorrow is by acknowledging that I have no control over that promise. It’s necessary for me to humble myself in the face of that threat.

Yahdon Israel is a writer, from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, who has written for Avidly, the New Inquiry, Brooklyn Magazine, LitHub, and Poets & Writers. He graduated from the MFA Creative Non-Fiction Writing program at the New School. He is the Awards VP of the National Book Critics Circle; runs a popular Instagram page which promotes literature and fashion under the hashtag Literaryswag,  and host a web show for writers called LIT.

Photographs by Rog Walker.

In Technology We Trust: A Q&A With Victor LaValle

by

Yahdon Israel

6.13.17

Whenever I read a book, I try my best to read it on its own terms. To not allow my understanding of what I think I know—or expectations for what I think should exist—compromise what’s right in front me. What I mean is I try to get out of a book’s way; I try to get out of the writer’s way. Instead of leading, I allow myself to be led, bearing witness to the journey.

In the same way that it’s “easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” in the words of Frederick Douglass, it’s easier to make mistakes than it is to admit them. This is certainly true for me and, after reading Victor LaValle’s newest novel, The Changeling (Spiegel & Grau), I see I’m not alone. Borrowing its basic premise from folklore, The Changeling is a story that lends language to what happens, or what can happen, when a father, in this case a man named Apollo, is blinded by the fiction that he knows best, even when reality suggests otherwise. Under his nose, and on his watch, Apollo’s son, Brian, is switched out with the baby of a troll, but it is only his wife, Emma, who suspects it—not that she suspects their baby is a troll per se, but Emma knows the child they have is not theirs. Apollo isn’t convinced. This is where social media and technology enter the narrative.  

For Apollo, Facebook is the site for which the fiction of his fairytale fathering can be turned into fact. He floods his feed with pictures of his newborn son. Some are clear, others blurry. He receives Likes and comments about what a good father he is, and it’s the Likes that blind him from what should’ve been obvious. The fact that Apollo’s own baby could be switched without his noticing wouldn’t only mean father doesn’t know best, and that Emma knows better, but also: that he knows very little at all. The simmering tension between Apollo and Emma boils over when Emma chains Apollo to a radiator, beats him bloody, kills the troll baby, and disappears into the New York City night. How does Apollo, a man intent on maintaining appearances, figure out that things aren’t always what they appear to be? How does he recover that which he has lost? He learns to listen. No longer to the chamber of voices that echo only what he wants to hear—the language of social media—but to those voices that were always there, telling him what he needed to hear, even when he did not want to hear it.

While reading The Changeling I started to become self-aware of the dependency of my generation (often referred to as “millennials”) on social media—its ability to make us seen and “likeable.” And by the end I realized that the most important technology we have is our ears, our ability to listen to one another. The photographs of me and LaValle, taken periodically during our interview, perfectly illustrate this realization. You’ll notice that there are times when either I’m not listening to LaValle, or he’s not listening to me, but that’s because we each have something in our hands that prevents us from doing so. “If the concept of God,” James Baldwin wrote, “has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” This is how I’ve learned to feel about anything that’s been given to us with the intention of making us “better” and ultimately failed—whether it’s technology, social media, or even literature. Only when we put down those things that can oftentimes obscure our vision can we truly see—and hear—what’s right in front of us.

LaValle is the author of three three previous novels, The Ecstatic (Crown, 2002), Big Machine (Spigel & Grau, 2009), and The Devil in Silver (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), as well as a collection of stories, Slapboxing With Jesus (Vintage, 1999), and the novella The Ballad of Black Tom (Tor, 2016). He teaches writing at Columbia University and lives in New York with his wife, author Emily Raboteau, and his two sons.

How long have been working on The Changeling?

About three years. I was trying to take a page from writers who are not super precious with their work. They just produce and produce and produce—and every second or third book might be great, the second one is really damn good and the third one is garbage. But so what? You’re just working through your stuff. I put out The Ballad of Black Tom last year; The Changeling is this year; I’ll have another one next year. This is so I don’t get too fussy.

The first draft of this book, my editor, Chris Jackson, told me, “No one’s gonna sign up for that.”

What was the book when you gave it to him?

It literally began with the scene in the kitchen where his wife locks [Apollo] up and is beating the hell out of him and killing the baby. And it just went from there. My publisher, editor, and I all went to lunch together. The publisher, she says, “I’m not going to let Chris buy this book if it starts like this because I can’t imagine anyone who would get into it—and she had good reasons: “You’ll break a lot more people’s hearts if it feels like this is happening to them,” my publisher told me. “I’m not telling you to make it nicer. Right now, you’re doing the equivalent of a horror movie where it’s a gory beheading versus you’re an hour into the movie and you start to really care about these people and then it means more. If you do that, we’ll buy the book.” It was very good advice.

That makes sense because the first hundred pages are like a family history, explaining the circumstances that conspired to make Apollo and Emma’s marriage feel real. What I appreciated was your ability to create a timeline that felt to me like it was happening as it happened to the character.

Sometimes, as readers, we have access to certain information that the character doesn’t. That’s not the case here. The bomb drops on the reader and character at the same time. There’s very little shelter. It really shows how we, as people, move about the world with the information we have—and how that information is often very limited. And the people who withhold information from us, often our parents thinking they’re protecting us, but they’re also putting us in unforeseeable danger as well. I feel like we’re always learning about things that anyone outside of the situation assumes we should already know. You’re just now learning that the thing that you thought didn’t happen actually did. How much of this book is art imitating life? How often do you find yourself navigating moments like the ones Apollo navigates?

Well I always feels like I’m catching up, finding out information late, if at all. I’m always surprised about what I don’t know that I should’ve known—about family members, myself, my kids. And I definitely want the reader to feel like Apollo, in that most of the time he doesn’t know what the hell is going on.

And the irony of that is he’s named after a god. I mean, he’s also named after Carl Weathers’s Apollo Creed, but that is a god’s name. So Apollo, the character, is always at the mercy of what he can’t see. And what’s funny is, every time he tries to assert his authority, a woman usually subverts him. What struck me was the amount of empathy you had for your female characters.

For the past three years I’ve been reading books by men, and thinking about how they write women differently. And it all started when I read The Women by Hilton Als. It’s a 135-page critical memoir about how he basically didn’t realize who his mother was until she died. And not who his mother was in terms of her role in his life. He realized that all he had ever seen of her was as his mother, completely neglecting the fact that she had an interior life. You give each of the women characters a rich interior life. Is that something you knew you wanted to do?

I was trying to think about two things: The particular fairytales about changelings are almost always exclusively about mothers who realize their children had been switched and what they do as a result; and the unstated implication of that is the fathers wouldn’t care or wouldn’t notice because they weren’t present. And my thinking about that bonded with this idea of the “new dad.” Of a certain age and younger there are these men who go, “I’m going to change those diapers,” “I’m going to be at the school.” And the danger of being those new dads—and this is my opinion—I get so much credit for being little more than a minimal dad. I show up for school on Family Fridays and the mothers and teachers are like,“Oh! It’s so good to see you! Oh you’re such a good dad!” and the mothers who are always there volunteering and basically giving blood to the kids are stepped over just so I can be told I’m a good dad—and I haven’t been there for six months! And so I was really thinking about this idea. But as I tried to step up my game, and as Apollo in the book tries to step up his game, as a man and as a father, the seesaw Apollo is walking up, there’s still a bunch of women standing on it so that he can ascend, completely convinced that it is not going to drop out on him at all. And that lead me to thinking, “Well what if we told this fairytale in way that did not go, ‘Oh look how great the dad is,’ and instead the dad is doing his part,” but…these women have been doing this very thing for thousands of years.

Another reason the women characters feel full is because of my wife, Emily Raboteau. I was telling her about how Emma kills the changeling baby and then just runs. Emily asked me, “Well why did she kill the changeling baby?” And I was like, “because she has to, because the plot needs it.” And she was like, “Now that I’m a mother, even if I saw a demon baby I don’t know that I could kill it. It would be too hard.” And this led me to think about how there needs to be message boards where these mothers are sharing info about how to get their babies back. Some Reddit group where they’re talking about the old myths. Then it evolved into something more than her just killing the baby because she was angry at Apollo. The first version was Emma killing the baby because she was angry at Apollo. And Emily asked, “Why would she kill her baby if she’s mad at Apollo? Why doesn’t she kill Apollo?”

And that’s a way to still make the man the center of the narrative.

Exactly! So I asked her, “Well what would be a good reason?” and she said, “The only reason I would ever kill some other baby is if it meant I got my baby back—and it would still kill me to do it.” And so those conversations, her just sort of pushing back, filtered into the book in a lot of good ways that make all the women present in a real way.

Although the book follows Apollo, which by default should suggest he’s the protagonist, Emma strikes me as the protagonist. She’s the real MVP. I feel like Apollo is the threshold for which we get to see Emma be great. In that, the book strikes me, if nothing else, as a love letter/apology to Emily, your wife, for years of, I can only imagine, you not listening to her. This book seems to be saying, “For all the years I haven’t been listening, I am now.”  I used to think all that mattered in a conversation was being right. Now I realize people want to be understood. Listened to. Believed.

Sometimes with fiction, readers try to interact with a book on a cosmetic level—plot, character, theme, etc.—to avoid the emotional logic on which the book operates. And that’s the level I think this book is working on—this remorse, this understanding of your place in the world as a father. That for doing so little you get so much, in contrast to the women, the mothers, who do so much but get so little.

I agree with you. At a certain point, I started treating Apollo as the antagonist and Emma as the protagonist so that I could get rid of the male ego thing, but also so that when Apollo says [to Emma], “You’re what’s wrong with this family,” when he think she’s gone crazy for not believing the troll to be their baby, that would only happen if he is the antagonist, and have everyone just sort of hate him. And then when Emma runs, after she kills the baby, the reader maybe responds, “I thought she was the one I’m supposed to like.” And then she’s gone and maybe this gives you time to begin to like Apollo. Part of Apollo’s journey is going from the man who tells his wife, “You’re what’s wrong with this family” to a man who at the end says, “We can’t win without each other.”

Yahdon Israel has written for Avidly, the New Inquiry, LitHub, Guernica, and Brooklyn Magazine. He graduated from the New School with an MFA in creative nonfiction. He currently serves as the VP of Awards and Membership for the National Book Critics Circle and runs a popular Instagram page that promotes literature and fashion under the hashtag #literaryswag.

Photographs by John Midgley.

How does Apollo, a man intent on maintaining appearances, figure out that things aren’t always what they appear to be? How does he recover that which he has lost? He learns to listen.

In Technology We Trust: A Q&A With Victor LaValle

by

Yahdon Israel

6.13.17

Whenever I read a book, I try my best to read it on its own terms. To not allow my understanding of what I think I know—or expectations for what I think should exist—compromise what’s right in front me. What I mean is I try to get out of a book’s way; I try to get out of the writer’s way. Instead of leading, I allow myself to be led, bearing witness to the journey.

In the same way that it’s “easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” in the words of Frederick Douglass, it’s easier to make mistakes than it is to admit them. This is certainly true for me and, after reading Victor LaValle’s newest novel, The Changeling (Spiegel & Grau), I see I’m not alone. Borrowing its basic premise from folklore, The Changeling is a story that lends language to what happens, or what can happen, when a father, in this case a man named Apollo, is blinded by the fiction that he knows best, even when reality suggests otherwise. Under his nose, and on his watch, Apollo’s son, Brian, is switched out with the baby of a troll, but it is only his wife, Emma, who suspects it—not that she suspects their baby is a troll per se, but Emma knows the child they have is not theirs. Apollo isn’t convinced. This is where social media and technology enter the narrative.  

For Apollo, Facebook is the site for which the fiction of his fairytale fathering can be turned into fact. He floods his feed with pictures of his newborn son. Some are clear, others blurry. He receives Likes and comments about what a good father he is, and it’s the Likes that blind him from what should’ve been obvious. The fact that Apollo’s own baby could be switched without his noticing wouldn’t only mean father doesn’t know best, and that Emma knows better, but also: that he knows very little at all. The simmering tension between Apollo and Emma boils over when Emma chains Apollo to a radiator, beats him bloody, kills the troll baby, and disappears into the New York City night. How does Apollo, a man intent on maintaining appearances, figure out that things aren’t always what they appear to be? How does he recover that which he has lost? He learns to listen. No longer to the chamber of voices that echo only what he wants to hear—the language of social media—but to those voices that were always there, telling him what he needed to hear, even when he did not want to hear it.

While reading The Changeling I started to become self-aware of the dependency of my generation (often referred to as “millennials”) on social media—its ability to make us seen and “likeable.” And by the end I realized that the most important technology we have is our ears, our ability to listen to one another. The photographs of me and LaValle, taken periodically during our interview, perfectly illustrate this realization. You’ll notice that there are times when either I’m not listening to LaValle, or he’s not listening to me, but that’s because we each have something in our hands that prevents us from doing so. “If the concept of God,” James Baldwin wrote, “has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” This is how I’ve learned to feel about anything that’s been given to us with the intention of making us “better” and ultimately failed—whether it’s technology, social media, or even literature. Only when we put down those things that can oftentimes obscure our vision can we truly see—and hear—what’s right in front of us.

LaValle is the author of three three previous novels, The Ecstatic (Crown, 2002), Big Machine (Spigel & Grau, 2009), and The Devil in Silver (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), as well as a collection of stories, Slapboxing With Jesus (Vintage, 1999), and the novella The Ballad of Black Tom (Tor, 2016). He teaches writing at Columbia University and lives in New York with his wife, author Emily Raboteau, and his two sons.

How long have been working on The Changeling?

About three years. I was trying to take a page from writers who are not super precious with their work. They just produce and produce and produce—and every second or third book might be great, the second one is really damn good and the third one is garbage. But so what? You’re just working through your stuff. I put out The Ballad of Black Tom last year; The Changeling is this year; I’ll have another one next year. This is so I don’t get too fussy.

The first draft of this book, my editor, Chris Jackson, told me, “No one’s gonna sign up for that.”

What was the book when you gave it to him?

It literally began with the scene in the kitchen where his wife locks [Apollo] up and is beating the hell out of him and killing the baby. And it just went from there. My publisher, editor, and I all went to lunch together. The publisher, she says, “I’m not going to let Chris buy this book if it starts like this because I can’t imagine anyone who would get into it—and she had good reasons: “You’ll break a lot more people’s hearts if it feels like this is happening to them,” my publisher told me. “I’m not telling you to make it nicer. Right now, you’re doing the equivalent of a horror movie where it’s a gory beheading versus you’re an hour into the movie and you start to really care about these people and then it means more. If you do that, we’ll buy the book.” It was very good advice.

That makes sense because the first hundred pages are like a family history, explaining the circumstances that conspired to make Apollo and Emma’s marriage feel real. What I appreciated was your ability to create a timeline that felt to me like it was happening as it happened to the character.

Sometimes, as readers, we have access to certain information that the character doesn’t. That’s not the case here. The bomb drops on the reader and character at the same time. There’s very little shelter. It really shows how we, as people, move about the world with the information we have—and how that information is often very limited. And the people who withhold information from us, often our parents thinking they’re protecting us, but they’re also putting us in unforeseeable danger as well. I feel like we’re always learning about things that anyone outside of the situation assumes we should already know. You’re just now learning that the thing that you thought didn’t happen actually did. How much of this book is art imitating life? How often do you find yourself navigating moments like the ones Apollo navigates?

Well I always feels like I’m catching up, finding out information late, if at all. I’m always surprised about what I don’t know that I should’ve known—about family members, myself, my kids. And I definitely want the reader to feel like Apollo, in that most of the time he doesn’t know what the hell is going on.

And the irony of that is he’s named after a god. I mean, he’s also named after Carl Weathers’s Apollo Creed, but that is a god’s name. So Apollo, the character, is always at the mercy of what he can’t see. And what’s funny is, every time he tries to assert his authority, a woman usually subverts him. What struck me was the amount of empathy you had for your female characters.

For the past three years I’ve been reading books by men, and thinking about how they write women differently. And it all started when I read The Women by Hilton Als. It’s a 135-page critical memoir about how he basically didn’t realize who his mother was until she died. And not who his mother was in terms of her role in his life. He realized that all he had ever seen of her was as his mother, completely neglecting the fact that she had an interior life. You give each of the women characters a rich interior life. Is that something you knew you wanted to do?

I was trying to think about two things: The particular fairytales about changelings are almost always exclusively about mothers who realize their children had been switched and what they do as a result; and the unstated implication of that is the fathers wouldn’t care or wouldn’t notice because they weren’t present. And my thinking about that bonded with this idea of the “new dad.” Of a certain age and younger there are these men who go, “I’m going to change those diapers,” “I’m going to be at the school.” And the danger of being those new dads—and this is my opinion—I get so much credit for being little more than a minimal dad. I show up for school on Family Fridays and the mothers and teachers are like,“Oh! It’s so good to see you! Oh you’re such a good dad!” and the mothers who are always there volunteering and basically giving blood to the kids are stepped over just so I can be told I’m a good dad—and I haven’t been there for six months! And so I was really thinking about this idea. But as I tried to step up my game, and as Apollo in the book tries to step up his game, as a man and as a father, the seesaw Apollo is walking up, there’s still a bunch of women standing on it so that he can ascend, completely convinced that it is not going to drop out on him at all. And that lead me to thinking, “Well what if we told this fairytale in way that did not go, ‘Oh look how great the dad is,’ and instead the dad is doing his part,” but…these women have been doing this very thing for thousands of years.

Another reason the women characters feel full is because of my wife, Emily Raboteau. I was telling her about how Emma kills the changeling baby and then just runs. Emily asked me, “Well why did she kill the changeling baby?” And I was like, “because she has to, because the plot needs it.” And she was like, “Now that I’m a mother, even if I saw a demon baby I don’t know that I could kill it. It would be too hard.” And this led me to think about how there needs to be message boards where these mothers are sharing info about how to get their babies back. Some Reddit group where they’re talking about the old myths. Then it evolved into something more than her just killing the baby because she was angry at Apollo. The first version was Emma killing the baby because she was angry at Apollo. And Emily asked, “Why would she kill her baby if she’s mad at Apollo? Why doesn’t she kill Apollo?”

And that’s a way to still make the man the center of the narrative.

Exactly! So I asked her, “Well what would be a good reason?” and she said, “The only reason I would ever kill some other baby is if it meant I got my baby back—and it would still kill me to do it.” And so those conversations, her just sort of pushing back, filtered into the book in a lot of good ways that make all the women present in a real way.

Although the book follows Apollo, which by default should suggest he’s the protagonist, Emma strikes me as the protagonist. She’s the real MVP. I feel like Apollo is the threshold for which we get to see Emma be great. In that, the book strikes me, if nothing else, as a love letter/apology to Emily, your wife, for years of, I can only imagine, you not listening to her. This book seems to be saying, “For all the years I haven’t been listening, I am now.”  I used to think all that mattered in a conversation was being right. Now I realize people want to be understood. Listened to. Believed.

Sometimes with fiction, readers try to interact with a book on a cosmetic level—plot, character, theme, etc.—to avoid the emotional logic on which the book operates. And that’s the level I think this book is working on—this remorse, this understanding of your place in the world as a father. That for doing so little you get so much, in contrast to the women, the mothers, who do so much but get so little.

I agree with you. At a certain point, I started treating Apollo as the antagonist and Emma as the protagonist so that I could get rid of the male ego thing, but also so that when Apollo says [to Emma], “You’re what’s wrong with this family,” when he think she’s gone crazy for not believing the troll to be their baby, that would only happen if he is the antagonist, and have everyone just sort of hate him. And then when Emma runs, after she kills the baby, the reader maybe responds, “I thought she was the one I’m supposed to like.” And then she’s gone and maybe this gives you time to begin to like Apollo. Part of Apollo’s journey is going from the man who tells his wife, “You’re what’s wrong with this family” to a man who at the end says, “We can’t win without each other.”

Yahdon Israel has written for Avidly, the New Inquiry, LitHub, Guernica, and Brooklyn Magazine. He graduated from the New School with an MFA in creative nonfiction. He currently serves as the VP of Awards and Membership for the National Book Critics Circle and runs a popular Instagram page that promotes literature and fashion under the hashtag #literaryswag.

Photographs by John Midgley.

How does Apollo, a man intent on maintaining appearances, figure out that things aren’t always what they appear to be? How does he recover that which he has lost? He learns to listen.

Where Big Books Are Born: Tayari Jones on the Ucross Foundation

by

Tayari Jones

2.14.18

Getting to Ucross is not easy. There aren’t many direct flights into Sheridan, Wyoming. You have to fly to Denver, where there may or may not be a tiny plane waiting to take you the rest of the way. After that, budget another forty-five minutes by car. Unless it’s snowing. If that is the case, you’ll get there when you get there, but once you do, it’s paradise. I have a theory about artists residencies: They are helpful only if they provide something that you don’t have at home. A friend of mine who has a big family says that a retreat is any place her kids are not. When I was a young writer accustomed to writing on a desk shoved into a closet, a room with a window constituted luxury. By my fourth novel I had a room of my own, but I didn’t have peace and natural wonder. Ucross is situated on the open prairie. As an early riser, I delighted in glorious purple-streaked sunrises. Just outside my studio, deer pranced like jackrabbits. Needless to say this was a far cry from my life in Jersey City, where I once looked out of my window just in time to see a greasy raccoon scurry up a lamppost for a better look at the drunks tussling in the middle of the street. In the quiet dawn of Wyoming I solved a major problem in my novel An American Marriage. There in my studio, completely alone, I decided to experiment with an epistolary format. The solitude of Ucross lent itself perfectly to the idea of separated lovers communicating by post. The helpful staffers provided me with a typewriter so I was able to duplicate the way my hero would write letters from prison. Each morning for a month I awoke filled with anticipation. I tiptoed downstairs to my studio where my characters waited for me to break the silence of the dawn with the sharp click of a typewriter, scoring their words onto clean paper.

Three Points of Productivity:
1. It’s multidisciplinary. There’s less of a sense of competition—and less pressure to network, or to be networked—when folks aren’t in the same lane.
2. Meals are provided. Until you don’t have to feed yourself, you don’t realize what a hassle it is to feed yourself; also, good healthy food makes for a strong writing day.
3. The hikes are gorgeous. A daily sojourn into nature became a way to loosen up knots in my story; it was a meditation of sorts.

 

Tayari Jones is the author of four books, including the novel An American Marriage, published by Algonquin Books in February.

Ucross Foundation: Two- to six-week residencies from March through early June and from mid-August through early December to poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers on a working ranch in Ucross, Wyoming. Residents are provided with lodging, studio space, and meals. Next deadline: March 1. Ucross Foundation Residency Program, 30 Big Red Lane, Clearmont, WY 82835. (307) 737-2291. www.ucrossfoundation.org

(Credit: Stephen G. Weaver)

Where Big Books Are Born: Danez Smith on the Millay Colony

by

Danez Smith

2.14.18

I left the Millay Colony with a new relationship to deodorant and a new respect for wild turkeys, but it was my second collection and the relationships with my friends and collaborators that were born anew in that beloved barn. My month at Millay was split between a four-week individual residency and a weeklong group residency with the Dark Noise Collective, my artistic and chosen family. I showed up to Millay a lotta bit nervous but curious about what doors in my work would open up there, out of my element. (I’m very much used to being Black&FreeInTheCity, not Black&LostInTheWood.) Thankfully the staff and the land itself, which seems infused with some soft blessing by Edna herself, make it hard not to settle in and let the work take you. Millay is where my book became a book. I had time and space to play in new forms, get to the questions I didn’t always have the time to think. I got to the bottom of myself there. Millay offered comfort and the space for deep meditation and investigation. During the group residency, our relationships to one another and our work had no choice but to deepen, having been given so much time to be with one another, away from noise and worry. Millay is held up in my heart as one of the best places artists can go to toil and dance in the hard labor that feeds them most.

 

Three Points of Productivity:

1. The cooking is excellent, the groceries for all other meals are provided, and the kitchen is great for dancing.
2. The land surrounding the residency is perfect for people who love nature and people who are new to it and scared of it just the same.
3. If you’re ever feeling low on inspiration, you can just Google all the writers and artists who have carved their names into the doorframes to get some juice.

 

Danez Smith is the author of two books, including Don’t Call Us Dead, published by Graywolf Press in 2017.

The Millay Colony: Two- and four-week residencies from April through November for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers at Steepletop, the former estate of Edna St. Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, New York. Residents are provided with lodging, studio space, and meals. Next deadline: March 1. Millay Colony for the Arts, 454 East Hill Road, P.O. Box 3, Austerlitz, NY 12017. (518) 392-3103. www.millaycolony.org

(Credit: Whitney Lawson)

Craft Capsule: Every Novel Is a Journey

by

Tayari Jones

2.6.18

This is the twenty-fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Last week I wrote about how I came to make Roy the protagonist of my new novel, An American Marriage. The decision was frustrating because I came to this tale seeking to amplify the muffled voices of women who live on the margins of the crisis of mass incarceration. So imagine how hard it was for me to make the Roy’s story the main color of the take and relegate Celestial’s point of view to a mere accent wall. It nearly killed me. I was prepared to pull the novel from publication.

Luckily, I had a craft epiphany.

Roy is a great character. He’s like Odysseus, a brave and charismatic man returned home from a might battle. He just wants to get home and be taken care of by a loving wife and sheltered in a gracious house. His voice was very easy to write because he is easy to like; his desires and decisions make it easy to empathize with him. He is a wrongfully incarcerated black man. What decent person wouldn’t root for him?

Celestial was bit more challenging. She’s ambitious. She’s kind of stubborn. And most important, she isn’t really cut out to be a dutiful wife. Back when she was the protagonist of the novel, I used to say, “I am writing a novel about a woman whose husband is wrongfully incarcerated…” and everyone would expect the novel to be about her fight to free him. And it wasn’t. It was about her decision not to wait.

On the level of craft, it just didn’t work. For one thing, you can’t write a compelling novel about what someone doesn’t do. (There is a reason why Bartelby doesn’t get to narrate his own story.) Second, as I wrote last week, Roy’s crisis is just too intense and distracting for the reader to care about any other character as much.

So, what to do?

I foregrounded Roy. He is the protagonist and readers find him to be very “relatable” (my very least favorite word in the world). I took Roy on the journey, and I invite readers to accompany him. As the writer, I came to the table understanding that the expectations put on women to be “ride or die” are completely unreasonable; furthermore, there is no expectation of reciprocity.  But rather than use Celestial’s voice to amplify my position, I allowed Roy the hard work of interrogating his world view, and the reader, by proxy, must do the same.

The result is a novel that was a lot harder to write, but the questions I posed to myself and my readers were richer, more complex, and I hope, more satisfying.

 

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

Craft Capsule: Finding Your Story

by

Tayari Jones

1.16.18

This is the twenty-first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Like most thoughtful people, I have noticed that the world is on fire and I want to use my skills to help extinguish the flames. To this end, I set out five years ago to write a novel that addresses the injustice of wrongful incarceration. I applied for and received a fellowship to the Radcliffe Institute and I became a dedicated researcher. I learned a lot, so much so that I got angry just watching Law & Order, my ex-favorite television show. I was informed, “woke,” and motivated, but I couldn’t write a novel because I had no story. The problem was that I was trying to write to the issue, and I can only write a story that is issue-adjacent.

I know I have a novel when I have a question to which I don’t know the moral/ethical answer. When it comes to wrongful incarceration, I am not torn. The state should not imprison innocent people. Full stop. Also without ambiguity: The prison system is cruel, corrupt, and in desperate need of reform, if not abolition.

So where was the novel?

The answer revealed itself in a food court where I spied a young couple. She was dressed in a lovely cashmere coat. He wore inexpensive khakis and a polo. They were clearly angry, and clearly in love. I overheard the woman say, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” He shot back, “What are you talking about? This shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”

Just then, I knew I had a novel. The reason is that I understood that they were both probably right. I didn’t know him, but I couldn’t quite picture him waiting chastely by for seven years. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine her behind bars. But did he have a right to demand her loyalty when both seem to agree she would be in no position to demand the same? Was this question moot since she would not likely face this challenge? Was this a kind of privilege? Could she mitigate this privilege by waiting like a modern-day Penelope? Should she?

So we have a couple with a conflict, and at stake between them are issues of reciprocity, duty, and love. Yes, there is the injustice of mass incarceration. And yes, this injustice is fueled by racism and prejudice. Neither of them doubt this, and neither do I. But the question of “will you wait for me” is foremost on his mind.

The result is my new novel, An American Marriage. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, married only eighteen months, when Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit. When he is slapped with a twelve-year sentence, the questions of desire and responsibility are at the center of the characters’ lives. As a writer, I was genuinely torn: Roy needs Celestial to be a link to the life he left behind, and Celestial loves her husband, but she has only one life. I wrote this novel not only to satisfy my heart’s curiosity as to what they would do, but to also satisfy the part of my mind that wondered what should they do.

I realized that my passion for the issue of incarceration was the reason that I couldn’t write about it directly. A novel is not me, as a writer, telling the reader what I already know. And an honest novel is not about me pretending to take on “both sides” of an issue about which I have a clear opinion. I had to start with my issue and then walk away from it until I found the thing I didn’t know. To truly challenge the reader, I had to challenge myself as well.

 

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

 

Craft Capsule: Gin and Scotch Tape

by

Sandra Beasley

5.2.17

This is the eleventh in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Years ago a distinguished poet hosted our class’s workshops at her home in Virginia. The house was perched on an incline; down the hill was her writing cabin alongside a pond. We met at her dining room table and tried not to be distracted by the hawks swooping outside the windows.

A student brought in a draft that compared the scent of gin to Scotch tape. Setting aside all other matters of theme or craft, the discussion lingered on this comparison. The simile was bright and original. But was it accurate? That only a few in the room had ever sampled gin, and even then only of an aristrocrat variety, did not aid our analysis.

Reaching her limit, the professor sprang up from the table. “We’re settling this,” she said. She walked into the kitchen and retrieved a roll of Scotch tape. She went to a corner of the dining room, opened a cabinet, and pulled out a bottle. She walked the gin around the table so we could sniff accordingly.

Lesson one? To compare the scents of Scotch tape and gin doesn’t quite work, because the former obscures the latter’s floral qualities.

Lesson two? Always be prepared to have your simile put to the test.

Lesson three? Never let a turn of figurative language, no matter how vivid or clever, hijack what you’re trying to say. I can’t remember who wrote that poem, or where its heart lay. I only remember the gin and Scotch tape. 

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: Left Brain, Right Brain

by

Sandra Beasley

4.25.17

This is the tenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

 

***

I attended a high school geared toward professions in science or technology, so I have an active analytical streak and crave objective rubrics for understanding the wildly creative poems, stories, and essays that I read. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

One of my mentors, Gregory Orr, articulated four “temperaments” of poetry in a 1988 essay titled “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry.” You can envision these facets of craft as quadrants, positioned on an X-Y axis. To the left, limiting impulses: “Story” in the upper quadrant and, below it, “Structure.” To the right, impulses that extend limitlessness: “Music” in the upper and, below it, “Imagination.” Though designed for poetry, I find these temperaments useful for prose as well. As writers, we each typically favor two of the four in our work. Which temperaments bring you to the page? Which come easiest to you? Which do you need to consciously strengthen in your work?

This system gives us a way to articulate differences in aesthetic without ranking them. I’m relieved to set aside presumptive hierarchies. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: Beware the Indeterminate “It”

by

Sandra Beasley

4.11.17

This is the eighth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Beware the indeterminate “it,” I often say, when fine-tuning a draft.

But that word is so convenient. “It” carries the football from the previous sentence. Whatever “it” you just defined, you’re sticking with it for another ten yards, right?

Except that you’re fumbling the play. Too often, relying on “it” dissipates your language’s energy. Circle every “it” that leads off a sentence. Revising to avoid these instances will force your verbs into action, and clarify your intent.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes an indeterminate “it” will remain, one that has earned its place on the field. The pronoun can be strategic—signifying not just gender neutrality but an absence of comprehension or known name, a fumbling toward meaning, the building of suspense.

In the right hands, “It” can be a potent force. Just ask Stephen King.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Targeted Revision

by

Sandra Beasley

4.18.17

This is the ninth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each Tuesday for a new Craft Capsule.

***

“Too many hours of revising—to no clear end!” my student complains. He is tired. He feels like the poem never really gets better. There’s always more work to do.

Welcome to revision: the arbitrary realm in which we debate “the” versus “an,” “this” versus “that.” Spend an hour putting a comma in. An hour later, take it out.

Part of the problem is that we complicate the revision process by making our aims abstract. One big revision, we promise ourselves, will make the poem “better.” Don’t privilege “better,” which is a meaningless term. Assign clear and objective tasks. Devote one round of revision exclusively to heightening your imagery, another to reconsidering your verb choices, a third to playing with lineation or tense.

Think of each revision as an experiment. Often these experiments will feel like evolutionary progress, and you’ll keep their results intact. Not always, especially as you near the end of the revision process. When the new version fails to appeal—when you find yourself resisting, reverting, defending an earlier choice—you are locating the poem’s true form. You are identifying what makes this poem yours, and yours alone.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: Find Your Metaphor

by

Sandra Beasley

4.4.17

This is the seventh in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

A friend of mine, a poet, was trying to figure out what bothered him about a draft of my poem. “A poem should be like a wall,” he told me. “You build it brick by brick.” He pointed out that, in his opinion, key bricks were missing.

I didn’t share his vision, but I admired that he had one. I’ve come to value developing a metaphorical model for your genre. A model can help you identify your goals, name your struggles, and proceed toward success.

Perhaps you follow the lead of “stanza,” the Italian word for “room.” You come to think of each poem as a house. How do the rooms differ in function, size, and occupancy? Where does your central drama take place? What comprises your roof?

Perhaps you come to think of your essay as a harp. Each researched fact glimmers, an available string in a golden frame. But you can’t play them all at once. Only in choosing which notes to highlight, and how to sequence them, can you create music.

Personally, I always think of memoir as an egg. I’m protective of the inspiring memory, smooth and undisturbed in its surface. But I have to be prepared to break the egg. I have to make the idea messy before I can make a satisfying meal.

Perhaps your novel is a shark. Perhaps your villanelle is a waltz. Perhaps your short story is a baseball game. Don’t adopt my metaphors. Find one of your own.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: The Egg in My Pocket

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.21.17

This is the first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

As a project for school, my thirteen-year-old son, Will, spent several days carrying an egg around. His task was simple: Keep the egg from breaking.

The experiment was intended to show what it’s like to have a baby, to approximate the feeling of constant vigilance that never leaves you once you have a child. Ultimately, of course, it was supposed to make hormone-addled adolescents think twice before doing something stupid.

As a mother of three, though, I wasn’t convinced. A baby is nothing like an egg, unless it’s an egg that cries, wets itself, sucks on you constantly, and wakes you up four times a night. But as my son described the feeling of carrying his egg—he named it “Pablito”—I realized that it did remind me of something. “It’s always there,” Will said. “You can’t forget it or take it for granted. You feel protective and anxious all the time.”

Carrying an egg around is like writing a novel. No matter what else you’re doing, the fact of the novel is in the back of your mind. If you go too long without attending to it, you get nervous. It is always with you, a weight solid and yet fragile, in constant danger of being crushed. Like the egg, the weight of a book-in-progress is both literal and metaphorical. Within the accumulating pages, as inside the delicate eggshell, are the raw ingredients for something greater. Keeping it intact requires patience, time, attention—and, most of all, commitment. This concept applies to any stage of the process: The egg is both the idea that you nurture long before you begin to write, and the writing itself, which must be fostered and sustained.

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Deny the Accident

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.7.17

This is the third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Jackson Pollock’s reply to an interviewer’s question about how he composed his paintings of “accidental” splatterings has stuck with me. “I don’t use the accident,” he said. “I deny the accident.”

The sheer bravado of this is thrilling, and as a writer I find it to be a useful way to think about my work-in-progress. When I’m putting words on the page it’s easy to second guess, to question the often-unconscious choices I make as I go: the trajectories of characters’ lives, shifts in direction and focus, minor characters who gain traction as the story moves forward. The editor in my head starts whispering: You’re going in the wrong direction. Why are you spending so much time on that character? You need to focus, get back to the story you originally envisioned, stick to the plan.

Over time I’ve learned to trust my impulses. Whatever else they may be, these unanticipated detours are fresh and surprising; they keep me interested, and often end up adding depth to the work. Not always, of course—sometimes an accident is just an accident. But believing that these splatterings on my own canvas are there for a reason, as part of a larger process of conception, gives me the audacity to experiment.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Tolstoy’s Short Chapters

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.28.17

This is the sixth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Anna Karenina is more than eight hundred pages long. So why does it feel shorter than many three-hundred-page books?

As I read this novel recently I noticed that Tolstoy cuts his long scenes into short chapters, usually no more than two or three pages. This makes sense, considering it was published in serial installments, from 1873 to 1877, in the Russian Messenger. Tolstoy often ends a chapter in a moment of suspense—a door opens, a provocative question is asked, a contentious group sits down to dinner, characters who’ve been circling each other finally begin to talk—which propels the reader forward into the next chapter.

The psychological effect of these short chapters is that this huge book is easy to get through. Reading in bed late at night (as I tend to do), I’m tempted to put it down, but then I riffle ahead to find that the next chapter is only three pages long. And I really want to find out who’s behind that door.

Three pages. I can do that—as a reader and as a writer. 

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Visual Prompts

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.21.17

This is the fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

For many writers, visual and tactile stimulation is an important component of the creative process. William Faulkner used to map his stories on the wall in his study. If you visit Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, Mississippi, you can still see the notes for his 1954 novel, A Fable, in his precise, small handwriting. Edwidge Danticat has said that she has an evolving bulletin board in her workspace where she tacks up collages of photos of Haiti and images from magazines.

I, too, have a new board for each book I write. When I’m starting work on a novel I gather scraps like a magpie. My Orphan Train board was covered with postcards from the New York Tenement Museum depicting the interior of an immigrant Irish family’s cramped apartment, a black and white photograph of a young couple at Coney Island in the 1920s, a map of the village of Kinvara in Ireland. I hung a hand-carved Celtic cross on a green ribbon and a stone shamrock on a red ribbon from Galway; a Native American dreamcatcher from Maine; a silver train pin from a New York Train Riders’ reunion in Little Falls, Minnesota. I tacked up note cards: “Food in Ireland 1900s” was one (“wheatmeal, hung beef, tongue, barley”). Another listed ideas I wanted to explore (“links between misplaced and abandoned people with little in common”).

For A Piece of the World, I included a print of Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World; photos I took, inside and out, of Christina’s home in Cushing, Maine; some Emily Dickinson poems (“This is my letter to the world / That never wrote to me”); and postcards of other paintings Wyeth did at the Olson house, including Wind From the Sea and Christina Olson (both of which make appearances in my novel). I photocopied sketches Wyeth made for his portrait of Christina. I even included a small handful of grasses I’d plucked from the field Christina sat in.

I find these idea boards fun to assemble and inspiring as I work. My mantra, always: Find inspiration where you can.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

An outline of A Fable on the wall of William Faulkner’s study at Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi.

(Credit: Joe Bonomo)

Craft Capsule: Making Conversation

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.14.17

This is the fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Dialogue is hard to get right. It should sound like natural speech, but in fact it’s nothing like it. I like to send my creative writing students out to cafés and parks with notebooks to transcribe bits of overheard conversations. Then I ask them to type up these transcripts and turn them into dialogue between characters. Inevitably their written dialogue bears little resemblance to the overheard conversations. When you write dialogue you must eliminate niceties and unnecessary patter, and cut to the core of the exchange—unless the patter is crucial to the story, conveying a dissembling, depressed, incoherent, or boring personality. At the same time, it should sound natural, like something someone would actually say. The writer George Garrett called this dovetailing—trimming for verisimilitude and impact.

In direct and indirect speech, your characters should constantly be saying “no” to each other. Most of us (myself included) tend to avoid conflict in our real lives, but conflict is crucial in fiction. It keeps the story interesting.

Richard Price, in his novel Lush Life, allows his characters to talk and talk and talk. Price maintains a delicate balancing act; his characters’ words matter. What they say changes the direction of the story. But he never burdens his dialogue with exposition or forces it to convey plot points that don’t come up naturally. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway writes, “In order to engage us emotionally in a disagreement, the characters must have an emotional stake in the outcome.” Price’s characters are nothing if not emotionally invested.

Price’s dialogue is vital to the story because it moves the action forward. He constantly puts his characters in conflict with one another. Their conversations are full of surprises—self-revelation, inadvertent admissions, hearsay, evidence—and kinetic energy; they crackle with life. Real life.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Making Conversation

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.14.17

This is the fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Dialogue is hard to get right. It should sound like natural speech, but in fact it’s nothing like it. I like to send my creative writing students out to cafés and parks with notebooks to transcribe bits of overheard conversations. Then I ask them to type up these transcripts and turn them into dialogue between characters. Inevitably their written dialogue bears little resemblance to the overheard conversations. When you write dialogue you must eliminate niceties and unnecessary patter, and cut to the core of the exchange—unless the patter is crucial to the story, conveying a dissembling, depressed, incoherent, or boring personality. At the same time, it should sound natural, like something someone would actually say. The writer George Garrett called this dovetailing—trimming for verisimilitude and impact.

In direct and indirect speech, your characters should constantly be saying “no” to each other. Most of us (myself included) tend to avoid conflict in our real lives, but conflict is crucial in fiction. It keeps the story interesting.

Richard Price, in his novel Lush Life, allows his characters to talk and talk and talk. Price maintains a delicate balancing act; his characters’ words matter. What they say changes the direction of the story. But he never burdens his dialogue with exposition or forces it to convey plot points that don’t come up naturally. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway writes, “In order to engage us emotionally in a disagreement, the characters must have an emotional stake in the outcome.” Price’s characters are nothing if not emotionally invested.

Price’s dialogue is vital to the story because it moves the action forward. He constantly puts his characters in conflict with one another. Their conversations are full of surprises—self-revelation, inadvertent admissions, hearsay, evidence—and kinetic energy; they crackle with life. Real life.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Visual Prompts

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.21.17

This is the fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

For many writers, visual and tactile stimulation is an important component of the creative process. William Faulkner used to map his stories on the wall in his study. If you visit Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, Mississippi, you can still see the notes for his 1954 novel, A Fable, in his precise, small handwriting. Edwidge Danticat has said that she has an evolving bulletin board in her workspace where she tacks up collages of photos of Haiti and images from magazines.

I, too, have a new board for each book I write. When I’m starting work on a novel I gather scraps like a magpie. My Orphan Train board was covered with postcards from the New York Tenement Museum depicting the interior of an immigrant Irish family’s cramped apartment, a black and white photograph of a young couple at Coney Island in the 1920s, a map of the village of Kinvara in Ireland. I hung a hand-carved Celtic cross on a green ribbon and a stone shamrock on a red ribbon from Galway; a Native American dreamcatcher from Maine; a silver train pin from a New York Train Riders’ reunion in Little Falls, Minnesota. I tacked up note cards: “Food in Ireland 1900s” was one (“wheatmeal, hung beef, tongue, barley”). Another listed ideas I wanted to explore (“links between misplaced and abandoned people with little in common”).

For A Piece of the World, I included a print of Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World; photos I took, inside and out, of Christina’s home in Cushing, Maine; some Emily Dickinson poems (“This is my letter to the world / That never wrote to me”); and postcards of other paintings Wyeth did at the Olson house, including Wind From the Sea and Christina Olson (both of which make appearances in my novel). I photocopied sketches Wyeth made for his portrait of Christina. I even included a small handful of grasses I’d plucked from the field Christina sat in.

I find these idea boards fun to assemble and inspiring as I work. My mantra, always: Find inspiration where you can.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

An outline of A Fable on the wall of William Faulkner’s study at Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi.

(Credit: Joe Bonomo)

Craft Capsule: Visual Prompts

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.21.17

This is the fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

For many writers, visual and tactile stimulation is an important component of the creative process. William Faulkner used to map his stories on the wall in his study. If you visit Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, Mississippi, you can still see the notes for his 1954 novel, A Fable, in his precise, small handwriting. Edwidge Danticat has said that she has an evolving bulletin board in her workspace where she tacks up collages of photos of Haiti and images from magazines.

I, too, have a new board for each book I write. When I’m starting work on a novel I gather scraps like a magpie. My Orphan Train board was covered with postcards from the New York Tenement Museum depicting the interior of an immigrant Irish family’s cramped apartment, a black and white photograph of a young couple at Coney Island in the 1920s, a map of the village of Kinvara in Ireland. I hung a hand-carved Celtic cross on a green ribbon and a stone shamrock on a red ribbon from Galway; a Native American dreamcatcher from Maine; a silver train pin from a New York Train Riders’ reunion in Little Falls, Minnesota. I tacked up note cards: “Food in Ireland 1900s” was one (“wheatmeal, hung beef, tongue, barley”). Another listed ideas I wanted to explore (“links between misplaced and abandoned people with little in common”).

For A Piece of the World, I included a print of Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World; photos I took, inside and out, of Christina’s home in Cushing, Maine; some Emily Dickinson poems (“This is my letter to the world / That never wrote to me”); and postcards of other paintings Wyeth did at the Olson house, including Wind From the Sea and Christina Olson (both of which make appearances in my novel). I photocopied sketches Wyeth made for his portrait of Christina. I even included a small handful of grasses I’d plucked from the field Christina sat in.

I find these idea boards fun to assemble and inspiring as I work. My mantra, always: Find inspiration where you can.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

An outline of A Fable on the wall of William Faulkner’s study at Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi.

(Credit: Joe Bonomo)

Craft Capsule: The Art of Targeted Revision

by

Sandra Beasley

4.18.17

This is the ninth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each Tuesday for a new Craft Capsule.

***

“Too many hours of revising—to no clear end!” my student complains. He is tired. He feels like the poem never really gets better. There’s always more work to do.

Welcome to revision: the arbitrary realm in which we debate “the” versus “an,” “this” versus “that.” Spend an hour putting a comma in. An hour later, take it out.

Part of the problem is that we complicate the revision process by making our aims abstract. One big revision, we promise ourselves, will make the poem “better.” Don’t privilege “better,” which is a meaningless term. Assign clear and objective tasks. Devote one round of revision exclusively to heightening your imagery, another to reconsidering your verb choices, a third to playing with lineation or tense.

Think of each revision as an experiment. Often these experiments will feel like evolutionary progress, and you’ll keep their results intact. Not always, especially as you near the end of the revision process. When the new version fails to appeal—when you find yourself resisting, reverting, defending an earlier choice—you are locating the poem’s true form. You are identifying what makes this poem yours, and yours alone.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: Beware the Indeterminate “It”

by

Sandra Beasley

4.11.17

This is the eighth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Beware the indeterminate “it,” I often say, when fine-tuning a draft.

But that word is so convenient. “It” carries the football from the previous sentence. Whatever “it” you just defined, you’re sticking with it for another ten yards, right?

Except that you’re fumbling the play. Too often, relying on “it” dissipates your language’s energy. Circle every “it” that leads off a sentence. Revising to avoid these instances will force your verbs into action, and clarify your intent.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes an indeterminate “it” will remain, one that has earned its place on the field. The pronoun can be strategic—signifying not just gender neutrality but an absence of comprehension or known name, a fumbling toward meaning, the building of suspense.

In the right hands, “It” can be a potent force. Just ask Stephen King.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: Left Brain, Right Brain

by

Sandra Beasley

4.25.17

This is the tenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

 

***

I attended a high school geared toward professions in science or technology, so I have an active analytical streak and crave objective rubrics for understanding the wildly creative poems, stories, and essays that I read. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

One of my mentors, Gregory Orr, articulated four “temperaments” of poetry in a 1988 essay titled “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry.” You can envision these facets of craft as quadrants, positioned on an X-Y axis. To the left, limiting impulses: “Story” in the upper quadrant and, below it, “Structure.” To the right, impulses that extend limitlessness: “Music” in the upper and, below it, “Imagination.” Though designed for poetry, I find these temperaments useful for prose as well. As writers, we each typically favor two of the four in our work. Which temperaments bring you to the page? Which come easiest to you? Which do you need to consciously strengthen in your work?

This system gives us a way to articulate differences in aesthetic without ranking them. I’m relieved to set aside presumptive hierarchies. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: Real Time vs. Page Time

by

Wiley Cash

9.26.17

This is the twentieth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Several years ago I worked with a student who was writing a novel about a guy training for a career in the sport of mixed martial arts. The novel was exciting and interesting, and the writing was strong and compelling. Until the fighting began. The minute the bell rang and the fists and feet started flying, the pace of the narrative turned glacial.

This may come as a surprise to you; it certainly surprised me. The talented author was actually a former MMA fighter, so it seemed impossible that he was unable to write an exciting fight scene. Then I realized that fight scenes are rarely exciting on the page. I believe this is true for two reasons. First, a fistfight is a process, and processes rarely make for compelling reading. Second, fistfights are exciting because they unfold in real time, which is wholly different than page time.

I want to talk about process first. Process is part of our daily lives, and many of the processes we undertake are performed through rote memory: brushing our teeth, making coffee, pouring cereal. These processes aren’t very interesting, and they don’t really need to be written about in detail. Readers may need to know that your characters drink coffee, eat cereal, and brush their teeth, but they don’t need to see this happening. Telling them it happened is enough. This is an example of when telling should be privileged over showing. But sometimes you may want to show a process, especially if it proves a level of expertise. Perhaps you’re writing about a character who is skilled with firearms, and you want to show that level of knowledge and skill. Perhaps you should have a scene in which the character goes through the process of breaking down and cleaning a firearm.

Most often, when readers start down the road of reading about process they’re not interested in the process itself; they’re interested in the outcome. The fight scenes in my student’s mixed martial arts novel are a good example. While the scenes were very technical and showed the same level of skill and mastery that I just mentioned, as a reader I quickly became bogged down in the descriptions of the movements, and I lost a sense of the movements themselves. I found myself skipping through the process of the fight in order to discover whether or not our hero won the fight. I realized that as a reader I was more interested in the outcome than I was in the process. The scene hinged on the result of the fight as an event, not on the act of fighting.

Not only were the fight scenes weighed down by process, they were also slowed down by the act of reading. Let’s step out of the ring. Think about the fights or dustups or schoolyard shoving matches you’ve witnessed. How long did they last before someone stepped in or called the parents or the teachers came running? Thirty seconds? A minute? A few minutes, tops? These events almost always unfold very quickly. The movements are fast; words are exchanged at a rapid clip. Your eyes and ears are able to take in the movements and the verbal exchanges simultaneously. Now, imagine trying to portray these events verbatim on the page. Think about how many words would be required to nail down both the movements and the dialogue. It would take much longer to read that scene than it would to witness it.

There’s an old writerly saying that dialogue isn’t speech, but rather an approximation of speech. Sometimes, this is true of action, especially in terms of process. 

 

Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Last BalladA Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. He currently serves as the writer in residence at the University of North Carolina in Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA program. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Wilmington, North Carolina. His website is www.wileycash.com.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Active Dialogue

by

Wiley Cash

9.12.17

This is the nineteenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

When I work with new writers, one thing I often notice is their lack of faith in their dialogue: They don’t trust that it’s strong enough to stand on its own. They feel that they must add something to really get the point across. These writers add action words to their dialogue tags in an attempt to hide any flaws they fear may be hiding in their characters’ verbal interactions. In other words, they do everything they can to make certain that the reader gets the full import of what the characters are attempting, consciously or unconsciously, to communicate.

Often, and unfortunately, these action words take the form of gerunds. Let me follow this with a caveat: Gerunds in dialogue tags are not always a bad thing if they’re used purposefully and sparingly. I use them. Other writers I admire use them. But if I’ve used a gerund in a dialogue tag then I can defend it because I’ve already spent a good deal of time trying to consider whether or not to use it.

The gerunds in dialogue tags that bother me are the ones that are clearly there to underpin weakness in the dialogue. This happens when writers feel they need an action to complement a line of dialogue. Here’s an example:

“What do you mean?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders.

Let’s add an adverb and make that gerund really awful.

“What do you mean?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders nervously.

The writer (in this case, me) felt the need to add that gerund (and perhaps the adjective as well) because the dialogue itself was pretty weak. “What do you mean?” is a boring question. Anyone can ask this, but your character can’t just be anyone. He has to be a particular person with particular turns of phrase and particular movements (what are often called “beats” in dialogue) to flesh out what he means.

Let’s give it another try, and this time let’s write a better line of dialogue that essentially says the same thing as our original, just more clearly.

“What am I supposed to say to that?” He shrugged his shoulders. “What does that even mean?”

I tinkered a little with the original line and split it into two, but I divided the two lines with the beat of action. I feel like my two lines are pretty strong, and they seem particular to this person, whoever he is. Because my dialogue is strong, it doesn’t need the support of action. So my action can stand alone.

The action also does something the dialogue cannot do. It illustrates visually what the dialogue means verbally. The phrase “What am I supposed to say to that?” is a phrase of exasperation, so the action takes this a step further and shows exasperation. The follow-up question of “What does that even mean?” amplifies both the original question and the action.

If I had kept the gerund shrugging it would have combined the dialogue and the action, which crowds the reader’s mind in asking her or him to do two things at once: see and hear. Let’s focus on asking one thing of our reader at a time. The act of reading is not the act of movie watching, which often requires viewers both to see and hear at the same time. Literature and film cannot do the same things in the same ways.

The gerund shrugging is also a weak action word because it does not have a clearly demarcated time of beginning. How long has this guy been shrugging? After all, we enter the word “shrugging,” and presumably the dialogue, as the shrugging is already under way. On the other hand, when we read the line “He shrugged his shoulders” we are entering the action at the moment it begins. It has not been unfold-ing since an indeterminate moment in time. The action feels particular, as if it is caused by the line of dialogue that precedes it. It gives us a chance both to digest the dialogue and imagine the action. It does not ask us to do both at the same time with the confusion of wondering when the shrugging actually began. This is deliberate writing. We should all be deliberate writers.

I want to close with a few lines of dialogue from my upcoming novel, The Last Ballad. In this scene, a man has just come up a riverbank and met a small boy standing at a crossroad. The boy is staring down into a ditch where his injured dog is lying. The man asks the boy where they are.

The boy lifted his eyes from the ditch and looked around as if getting his bearings.

“Gaston,” the boy finally said.

“Gaston,” he repeated. He looked down at the boy. “Do you mean Gaston County?”

The boy shrugged.

“Mama just says ‘Gaston’ when she says ‘here.’”

I worked really hard on this scene. I wanted it to communicate an edge of laconic strangeness. The boy’s poverty has rendered him a bit provincial. The man’s travels have rendered him a bit wistful. I purposefully separated the actions from the lines of dialogue and cordoned them off in their own sentences.

But what if I’d used gerunds?

“Gaston,” the boy finally said, lifting his eyes from the ditch and looking around as if getting his bearings.

“Gaston,” he repeated, looking down at the boy. “Do you mean Gaston County?”

“Mama just says ‘Gaston’ when she says ‘here,’” the boy said, shrugging.

Written this way, the scene unfolds too quickly. The boy gives his answer about their location before getting his bearings. The man’s quizzical repetition of the word “Gaston” is marred by his deliberate action of looking down at the boy. The words and the actions do not go together. They must be separated and addresses and experienced on their own terms.

My advice is this: Trust your dialogue. If you don’t, make it stronger. Then, once your dialogue is strong, bring in action beats that amplify the speaker’s message, not messy gerunds that clutter it.

 

Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Last BalladA Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. He currently serves as the writer in residence at the University of North Carolina in Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA program. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Wilmington, North Carolina. His website is www.wileycash.com.

 

Craft Capsule: The Scourge of Technology

by

Tayari Jones

1.23.18

This is the twenty-second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The cell phone is the worst thing to ever happen to literature. Seriously. So many great fictional plots hinge on one detail: The characters can’t connect. Most famous is Romeo and Juliet. If she just could have texted him, “R, I might look dead, but I’m not. Lolz,” then none of this would have happened.

In my new novel, An American Marriage, both e-mail and cell phones threatened my plot. Here is a basic overview: A young couple, Celestial and Roy, married only eighteen months, are torn apart when the husband is wrongfully incarcerated and given a twelve-year prison sentence. After five years, he is released and wants to resume his old life with her.

A good chunk of the novel is correspondence between our separated lovers. In real life, they probably would have used e-mail. But the problem, plot-wise, is that e-mail is so off-the-cuff, and there is so little time between messages. I needed to use old-fashioned letters. Their messages needed to be deep and thoughtful, and I wanted them to have some time to stew between missives. But who in their right mind (besides me) uses paper and pen when e-mail is so much faster and easier?

The fix was that Roy uses his allocated computer time in prison to write e-mail for the other inmates, for pay. As he says, “It’s a little cottage industry.” He also explains that he likes to write letters to his wife at night when no one is looking over his shoulder or rushing him. 

So look how this fix worked: You see that even though he is incarcerated, his is still a man with a plan. The challenge was to figure out how to avoid e-mail in such a way that it didn’t read like I was just trying to come up with an excuse to write a Victorian-style epistolary novel.

The cell phone was harder to navigate. Spoiler: Celestial has taken up with another man, Andre, in the five years that her husband is incarcerated. A crucial plot point, which I will not spoil, involves Andre not being able get in touch with her. Well, in the present day there is no way to not be able to reach your bae, unless your bae doesn’t want to be reached. Trouble in paradise is not on the menu for the couple at this point, so what to do? I couldn’t very well have him drop his phone in a rest-stop commode!

To get around it, I had to put Andre in a situation in which he would agree not to call Celestial or take her calls—although he really wants to. Trust me. It’s killing him. But he makes an agreement with Roy’s father, who says, “Andre, you have had two years to let Celestial know how you feel.  Give my son one day.” Andre agrees and has to rely on faith that their relationship can survive. The scene is extremely tense and adds suspense to the novel. I had to get up and walk around while I wrote it.

I predict that future novelists will not grapple with this quite as much as we do, as technological advances will be seen as a feature rather than a bug. But for now, you can still write an old-fashioned plot that doesn’t involve texting or tweeting—you just have to figure out a work-around that enhances the plot and understanding of your characters.

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

 

 

 

Craft Capsule: Finding the Center

by

Tayari Jones

1.30.18

This is the twenty-third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

My new novel, An American Marriage, involves a husband and wife with an unusual challenge: Eighteen months after exchanging their vows, he is arrested and incarcerated for a crime he does not commit.

I was equally interested in both their stories, but for some reason early readers of the manuscript were way more interested in him (Roy) than her (Celestial.) At first, I was convinced that this was sexism, plain and simple. Men’s stories are considered more compelling. To try and make Celestial more appealing, I tried to give her a more vibrant personality. But regardless of the details I added to embroider her, beta readers still felt that she was “undeveloped” and that Roy was the character who popped. It almost drove me crazy. Finally, I realized that Roy held the readers’ attention because his problem was so huge. (He’s wrongfully incarcerated, for goodness sake!)

Undaunted (well, maybe a little daunted), I read stories by my favorite women writers who write beautifully about women’s inner lives. I checked out Amy Bloom, Antonia Nelson, Jennifer Egan. How did they manage to make emotional turmoil so visceral? In these writers’ hands, a small social slight can feel like a dagger. Why couldn’t I do this in my own novel?

I found the answer in the work of Toni Morrison, for all answers can be found there. It’s a matter of scale. There is a scene in The Bluest Eye where the lady of the house is distraught because her brother hasn’t invited her to his party, although she sent him to dental school. By itself, this is terrible and totally worthy of a story. However, in the same frame is Pauline, the maid who has suffered all manner of indignities in an earlier chapter. In the face of Pauline’s troubles, the matter of the party seems frivolous.

With this, I discovered a fundamental truth of fiction and perhaps of life: The character with the most pressing material crisis will always be the center of the story. Although Celestial’s challenges as a woman trying to establish herself in the world of art is intense, the fact of Roy’s wrongful incarceration makes her troubles seem like high-class problems and to center them in the novel feels distasteful to the reader, like wearing a yellow dress to a funeral and fretting over a scuffed shoe.

The solution: I made Roy the protagonist. Celestial’s voice is still there, but she is a secondary narrator. It was a hard choice because I was drawn to her story in the first place, but it was being drowned out by Roy’s narrative. Finally, I had to stop fighting it. The protagonist of An American Marriage is Roy Othaniel Hamilton.

It took me five years to figure this out. Of course, every craft solution makes for new craft obstacles. I’ll talk about the fall-out from this shift in my next (and final) Craft Capsule, next Tuesday.

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

Severe Weather in the Sunshine State: A Profile of Lauren Groff

by

Bethanne Patrick

6.13.18

Lauren Groff never wanted to live in Florida. “I mean, Florida is the biggest joke of all the states,” she says. “It is the punch line to every other state’s joke.” Nevertheless here she is: the acclaimed novelist, short story writer, and twelve-year resident of Gainesville whose husband works in his family’s construction and real estate business and whose two sons have only ever called the Sunshine State home. 

“It’s a struggle every day,” Groff says, biting into toast with preserves at Oxford Exchange in Tampa, where we’re having breakfast on the third morning of the 2018 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. “We moved here because, well, family businesses—they’re impossible to get out of. We’re never leaving.” She smiles ruefully as she chews. “I haven’t come to terms with being a Floridian yet. This is not my vision of myself. I feel if I were given my druthers, I would live in Paris full time, but that’s not where life brought me.”

It is in Florida, however, where Groff has honed her writing voice—all of her books have been published in the years she has lived here—and it is in Florida, perhaps, where she has discovered her most powerful subject matter. Groff’s new story collection, appropriately titled Florida, published in June by Riverhead Books, is ambitious, personal, and dangerous. Made up of eleven stories, it begins and ends with narratives told from the perspective of a character at odds with her circumstances. “Ghosts and Empties” follows a woman, a mother, as she runs in the predawn darkness trying to both escape from and return to her spouse and children. The final story, “Yport,” shows the same mother on vacation in France with her sons and, in the last scene, crouching in fierce maternal protection over one of them.

“I believe short story collections have to be an argument,” Groff says. “The argument here is about my life in Florida. In the beginning you see my narrator prowling, trying to get away from her family. At the end you see her crouched in this almost unbearable neuroticism of motherhood.” Another crunch of toast. “So the argument about maternity comes full circle.” 

Yet Groff’s best work may not be in her starts or her finishes, but in her middles. She is an artist who knows how to pace herself, comfortable in suspension.

Lauren Groff grew up in Cooperstown, New York, a small town of fewer than two thousand that is best known for the Baseball Hall of Fame. She is the eldest daughter of a doctor and a biology teacher. She and her two siblings all participated in sports, were required to get good grades, and took after-school jobs starting at age fourteen. “It was pretty much a lovely, normal-type family,” she says. “But problems—we never talked about them. If there was a problem, we’d find out through other people who’d heard about the problem, not from the family member directly.”

Groff pauses for a sip of coffee. “They still do this. If my mom’s mad at me, she’ll never tell me. I’ll have to find out from my dad or sister what’s going on. My dad’s family is mostly Dutch, and they have a lot of that shunning tradition. When he’s mad, he’s mad. He really shuts down. He won’t talk. He gives you the silent treatment.”  

While she hastens to clarify that she has “the best parents; they’re really lovely people,” she also notes that her parents’ psychologies permeate her art. “Part of it is you need to find the stories people are keeping from you, but you also need to find the deep-down secrets you’re keeping from yourself,” Groff says. “There’s a lot of cowardice in not facing the things that keep you up at night.” 

“The things that keep you up at night” could serve as a tagline for most of Groff’s work, which includes three novels, The Monsters of Templeton (Hyperion, 2008), Arcadia (Hyperion, 2012), and Fates and Furies (Riverhead Books, 2015), and the celebrated story collection Delicate Edible Birds (Hyperion, 2009). But the line is a perfect match for Florida, whose stories all seem to inhabit the same dark world, one in which the physical dangers of hurricanes and snakes hint at the far deeper, more complicated emotional and psychological threats that lurk just under the surface of Groff’s characters.

“I’m interested in the cowardice and also in the deep beneath,” says Groff about her work. “I try to express these things and also express the ambivalence about them. I think parts of my new book where the narrator doesn’t ask questions that may reveal a worse story are important. It’s a very deliberate act of hiding. In ‘Ghosts and Empties’ my narrator is constantly trying to look into other people’s lives but not necessarily looking into the scary parts of her own life.” It is no wonder then that Groff chose the story as the first in her new collection. Each successive story digs deeper from there—the characters growing bolder, daring to look a little closer at the scary parts. 

Groff may have been too busy to look very closely into any parts of her own life while she still lived at home in Cooperstown: She earned fourteen varsity letters in high school, maybe not competing with but certainly keeping up with her younger sister, Olympic triathlete Sarah True. However, after high school and before enrolling at Amherst College in Massachusetts, Groff spent a year in France living with a family of caterers. “Between the wine and champagne and every meal with dessert and cheese, I gained forty pounds,” she says. “When my parents came to pick me up at the airport, they didn’t recognize me.”

She eventually took off half the weight—“My souvenir of France, the other 20 pounds”—and at college signed up for soccer and crew. Joining the latter turned out to be a significant event, because the team captain, Clayton, became her boyfriend, then her fiancé, and then her husband. They lived first in Philadelphia and then in Madison, Wisconsin, where Groff earned her MFA in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, before grappling with their next move. Clay wanted to live and work with his father in his native Florida and eventually raise kids with Groff close to his family. Groff made a decision. 

“I had my husband sign a ten-year contract. I said, ‘I’m out of here in ten years.’” She pauses. “That decade is technically over, and we should renegotiate, but the most important part of the contract wasn’t about where we lived. It was about how we live. 

“I told him that if I made this move for him, then here were my demands,” she says, and it becomes clear that this was no hypothetical contract. This is on paper: “I’m a writer. I’m going to continue to be a writer. I will never be a full-time mother. You will wake up with them. I won’t see you or the children in the morning. In the afternoons we’ll get a babysitter until I’m ready to come out of my office.” 

She adds: “I understand that if I’m cornered, I get really resentful, and resentment just kills marriage.” 

Groff says she is glad she put her needs in writing because, no matter what people believe, American parenting remains a sexist enterprise. “My husband is the primary parent, but my kids’ teachers still call me first,” she says, which can lead to a complicated situation when Groff is traveling for author events. “Sometimes I have to say, ‘What am I going to do? I’m in California.’ You can hear them thinking, ‘Ohhh, so you’re that writer mom.’”

The contract may be clear to Groff, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t disputes. “Sometimes my husband takes it less seriously than I do, but regardless of your gender or parenting status, if you’re the writer you have to take it more seriously. It means you’re taking yourself seriously as an artist.”

Separating herself as a spouse and parent from herself as an artist works, Groff says, because she’s very good at compartmentalizing. “I’ve come to understand that there are multiple Laurens, not a single one who is better or worse than any other, and that they can overlap and even contradict one another. The writer in me is deeply hostile to the mother in me, and the mother in me is fiercely protective of her children versus her work.” She compares the two states to writing and giving a reading. “Those are two very different skills, and they need to be cultivated separately. It’s all a matter of listening carefully and maintaining a fine balance and, if something goes awry, attempting to reset.”

Every morning Lauren Groff wakes early, around 5 AM, to take a long run through the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a 21,000-acre expanse set on a freshwater marsh. “The other day I was running in the silence of the prairie and the fog was coming off of the tawny grasses, and there were big rain puddles all around. Just glorious.” 

Now, Groff says, she finds it very spiritual to be in Florida nature, but this was not always the case. “When we first came to Florida, Clay took me through the Everglades by bicycle,” she says with a laugh. “At one point I looked ahead on the path and saw four giant alligators lounging in the sun, their jaws wide open. Clay had already ridden past them. We were separated by four giant alligators! I screamed and said I was sorry that he had to die this way. He rode back to me really fast. They didn’t even move.”

She was petrified to go back outside for a while, and she uses that brand of fear to great effect in the stories in her new collection, setting her narratives in snake-infested swamps and buildings covered in kudzu. When Groff saw Spanish moss for the first time, she says, “It reminded me of armpit hair.” Her remarkable gift for dark description can be seen in all of her books, starting with her debut, The Monsters of Templeton, but it took on more power in her first collection of stories, Delicate Edible Birds, in which one character describes depression as “this black sack filled with cobras.” 

One story from that collection, “L. DeBard and Aliette,” a strange twentieth-century version of Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Peter Abelard’s legendary love affair, caught the attention of novelist Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them (Penguin Press, 2013). “My reaction was, ‘Who is this person?’” Holt says. “At the time I was an editor at One Story magazine, and I asked to interview her; there are some people you feel like you’ve known forever, and Lauren is one for me.” 

Holt emphasizes Groff’s dedication to her work. “I don’t know a single person who works harder or is more disciplined or is harder on herself than Lauren is,” she says. “She’s incredibly focused, and her life is very structured but in a good way. I think the fact that she used to be a competitive athlete helps.” 

“I love the way running forces your thoughts into a different form,” Groff says about her current favorite athletic activity, “the same way a poem written in a strict form makes strange new connections between thoughts.” But she also admits: “In case it wasn’t already apparent, I’m an anxious person. My writing is all about calibrating anxiety so that I have enough to finish the piece I’m working on—but not so much that it swamps me.”

This may help explain why her books are so distinct from one another. She needs to finish each one and then put it away. “I need to be a completely different person than I was when I start my next book, every time,” she says. Each book is a reaction against the previous book, from The Monsters of Templeton, in which the fifty-foot-long body of a sea creature surfaces in a town’s lake while a disgraced student returns home to search for her father after his mysterious disappearance, to Fates and Furies, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Fiction and President Obama’s choice for his favorite book of the year, which tells the divided story of a marriage—the first half from the perspective of a failed playwright named Lotto, the second half from the perspective of his wife, Mathilde—threaded together into a revelatory portrait.

Groff isn’t the only author to take such a stance on previous books, of course. At this year’s AWP conference she gave a reading with novelist Nathan Englander, who shares her perspective on past work. “We’re both oppositional personalities,” she says about the author whose most recent novel is Dinner at the Center of the Earth, published by Knopf last year. “So we were discussing how ready we each were to oppose the previous book we’d written. It actually is a revolt, a revolution against what came before.” She says she does this every time, no matter how successful her previous project. “I do it on purpose. And I think for me it’s a way to kill the previous book. I am invested in becoming a better person, and I don’t think I can do that by staying the same. As I write my way into my evolution, I become a better writer, too.”

Her agent, Bill Clegg, thinks Groff’s appeal is “something elemental and volatile in her sentences and plots, a tension between her capacity to create beauty and her impulse to subvert and destroy it,” he says. “She never lets you fully relax into a character or a story or even a passage, and that tension is exhilarating. Reading Lauren’s work, you have a sense that she writes first from a deeply personal place and is accessing these forces as they exist in her.”

And sometimes, Groff would be the first to admit, those forces can be quite explosive: She is not afraid of burning things up—literally. This past New Year’s Eve she threw the pages of something she’d been writing for twelve years onto a bonfire. “I’ve been struggling a lot with creativity in this ‘brave new world’ of Trump’s America, which is so vastly different from what I thought was my America,” says Groff. “Many artists right now are thinking about how to be creative when there’s so much to do. Creativity saved my personal life, but maybe it’s not enough to save our society. I want to bear down really hard on our responsibility to other people.” 

The irony of the twelve-year manuscript and her ambivalence about Florida is not lost on Groff. “Everything about me now is different, down to the cellular level, except for the house I live in. I had a bias when I came down here, and I wasn’t open to loving it.” She is glad to discard all of what she calls her “knee-jerk Northerner hostility, thinking Florida was all hicks or uptight retirees,” she says. “Gainesville is a university town full of everyone from students to farmers to hard-core punks to artists. There are good people wherever you land.” 

But “to escape the Florida heat for the summer, at least,” Groff and her husband have renovated a barn in rural New Hampshire. During the February cold they ran the woodstove and watched insects that had burrowed into vintage beams emerge, “falling into confusion onto our shiny new floors and walls.” Like those insects, she says, houses take on the personalities of the humans who live in them, humans who “remain pressed into the walls and floors like ghosts, even after they’ve passed.” Some of her unforgettable characters in Florida feel like ghosts pressed into its pages: a penniless grad student in “Above and Below,” two abandoned little girls in “Dogs Go Wolf,” and a bereft widower in “Eyewall.”

The cover of Florida features a golden panther on the prowl. “It’s a vision of danger and wildness,” says Groff. “Everything about Florida, every object and animal and plant, is translated through the characters’ mind-sets, an indicator of alienation or fear or anger—or anxiety.” Groff says that Florida bothers her, shakes her up, brings her to a new place. “It’s a set of contradictions for me. For a long time it was my nemesis, but it’s also my home, where I wake up every day and where my children were born and where my husband is from—and if it can give rise to the three best people I know, it can’t be all bad.”

We’re sitting on a bench beneath an enormous bush—or tree, or vine. Or something. Florida is multilayered in ways that are not always obvious, much like Lauren Groff, and as we talk an image occurs to me, one that may help explain the collective tone of the book. “It’s almost as if each story in this book is a horizontal layer, and when you stack them on top of one another, you can see a Lauren-shaped figure in the middle,” I say. 

“That was my working image for it,” she says, “but I never thought anyone would see it. Funny that it has to do with construction. I seem to be fascinated by community, houses, ambivalence, anger, other books, loneliness, and place. Turns out you can do a lot of different things with those elements.”

Others agree. A few weeks after this interview, Lauren Groff was awarded a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship. Past the beginning of her career and nowhere close to the end, Groff shows the kind of creative stamina and artistic endurance that will sustain her through the middle. As for whether or not the argument she poses in Florida comes full circle, Groff says about her current relationship with the state: “I’m pulled strongly in two separate directions, and they’re both valid, but I’m suspended within them.” 

In other words, she’s right at home. 

 

Bethanne Patrick is a writer and book critic who tweets @TheBookMaven. She is working on a memoir for Counterpoint Press.

T. S. Eliot Prizewinner, a New National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and More

by

Staff

1.14.20

Every day Poets & Writers Magazine scans the headlines—publishing reports, literary dispatches, academic announcements, and more—for all the news that creative writers need to know. Here are today’s stories.

Roger Robinson has won the 2019 T. S. Eliot Prize for A Portable Paradise, which was published by Peepal Tree Press in July last year. John Burnside, the chair of this year’s judging panel, notes the collection “finds in the bitterness of everyday experience continuing evidence of ‘sweet, sweet life.’” Established in 1993, the annual £25,000 award honors the best new poetry collection published in the United Kingdom and Ireland. 

The Library of Congress has selected Jason Reynolds to serve as the next National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. He is the seventh person to hold the position and will succeed Jacqueline Woodson, who began her term in 2018. He plans to focus on outreach to young readers in rural America: “I have plenty of colleagues who are terrified or uninterested in going to those places, but if we love children, you can’t only love the ones who are convenient.” (Publishers Weekly)

“Because I have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and because in the Muscogee way all of the children we come into contact with are all our children, I have to do what I can to help make a place for sunrise.” Joy Harjo talks to the Washington Post about her experience as U.S. poet laureate and the crises of our era.  

At Publishers Weekly, Allison Hill shares her vision for the American Booksellers Association. She will be assuming the role of CEO in March, succeeding Oren Teicher, who retired in November last year. 

Literary Hub presents a list of 282 of the most anticipated books publishing in 2020. “Get going—this is going to take a while.”

The Guardian catches up with the women writers who are challenging gender bias in the espionage fiction industry

Vikram Paralkar talks about his latest book, Night Theater, and its imagining of an afterlife, “in which the very things we seek to escape (bureaucracy, drudgery) are heightened and ubiquitous.” (Electric Literature)

“The characters who were let go were not beloved. That’s why they had to go.” Neda Disney shares the origins of her debut work of fiction, Planting Wolves. (Los Angeles Review of Books)

Joy Harjo Named U.S. Poet Laureate

by

Staff

6.19.19

Today the Library of Congress announced that Joy Harjo will be the next U.S. poet laureate. Harjo, who is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, is the first Native American poet to serve as laureate. She will begin her term on September 19, succeeding poet Tracy K. Smith.

“Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry—‘soul talk’ as she calls it—for over four decades,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in a press release. “To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,’ and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making. Her work powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”

Harjo is the author of several poetry collections, most recently Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (Norton, 2015), and the memoir Crazy Brave (Norton, 2012). She is the recipient of the 2017 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation, the 2015 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, and the 1991 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, among other honors. On Monday, Poets & Writers, the nonprofit organization that supports this publication, awarded Harjo the $65,000 Jackson Poetry Prize.

“I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem,” said Harjo of her appointment. “I count among these ancestors and teachers my Muscogee Creek people, the librarians who opened so many doors for all of us, and the original poets of the Indigenous tribal nations of these lands, who were joined by diverse peoples from nations all over the world to make this country and this country’s poetry.”

Harjo succeeds Tracy K. Smith, who served two terms as laureate and focused on bringing poetry to rural and underserved communities. During her tenure, Smith edited and published American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (Graywolf Press, 2018); launched The Slowdown, a daily poetry podcast produced by American Public Media; and read and spoke at many events across the country as part of her American Conversations tour. “As we approach the end of Tracy K. Smith’s two terms as the Poet Laureate of the United States, it’s a moment to celebrate her as arguably the most active and effective poet in this role,” tweeted Graywolf Press executive editor Jeff Shotts in late May. “That Tracy has done this work, had these conversations, and held this role as a Black woman in a racist and violent nation during this racist and violent presidency is impossible to overstate.”

The poet laureate position, which was originally titled the “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress,” was established in 1937. Recent poet laureates include Juan Felipe Herrera, Charles Wright, Natasha Trethewey, and Philip Levine.

Joy Harjo: An Interview

by

Stephanie Izarek Smith

7.1.93

Joy Harjo is a poet unafraid of self-discovery. She explored painting, dancing and medicine before focusing on a writing career. Born in Tulsa in 1951 to the Muscogee tribe (of the Creek Nation), Harjo is both Muscogee and white, and her acceptance of both heritages plays a crucial role in her work: Her poetry preserves her Native American background, while integrating aspects of the mainstream American culture in which she was also raised, to create a unique, poignant voice. 

Harjo attended high school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and went on the study at the University of New Mexico, where in 1976 she was in the first graduating class of its creative writing program. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1978. She has taught creative writing at the University of Arizona and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of New Mexico. 

Harjo has published four books of poetry and several short stories, and has written several screenplays. She is a winner of several awards, including an Academy of American Poets Award in 1978, two National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowships (in 1978 and 1992), the Josephine Miles Award for Poetry from PEN Oakland in 1991, and the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award in 1991. Harjo has also served on a policy panel for the NEA. 

Now living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Harjo has a 23-year-old son, Phil Dayn, and a 19-year-old daughter, Rainy Dawn, who is the subject of the poem “Rainy Dawn” that appears in Harjo’s most recent collection of poetry, In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). 

From a hotel room in Lincoln, Nebraska, Harjo reminisces about her childhood creative stirrings. “I went outside very early in the mornings to draw in the dirt while everyone was still sleeping. I’d sit there and imagine what I could paint. And what always came to me out of the imaginative sphere were images—not particularly words, but images. Maybe that’s how I think, because sometimes I feel that I write as a painter. It’s almost as if I paint the poems.” 

Harjo came from a family of painters. Her grandmother Naomi, a full-blooded Creek Indian, and her Aunt Lois, who was the family member closest to Harjo, were painters. Both women received their BFAs in fine art in the early 1900s and painted in the classical European style, but their subjects were often Native American. In her living room, Harjo has a painting by her grandmother of Osceola, the Seminole warrior who would never surrender to the U.S. government. Harjo uses a different medium, but the same collaboration of classical and Native American influences is the marrow of her poetry. 

Reading was a large part of her childhood. She loved poems and memorized them, first because she was forced to in school, and then because she enjoyed doing it. For her birthdays, she requested poetry books, but she was on her own in the quest for quality poetry because she did not have any outstanding educational figures to guide her. 

In high school, Harjo trained as a dancer under Rosalie Jones, a dancer of the Blackfeet tribe, and toured as a dancer and an actress with one of the first all-Indian dance troupes in this country. The show was called “Deep Roots, Tall Cedar” and gained recognition from many professional dance companies because it combined elements of classical European drama with traditional tribal drama. 

After the tour ended in 1968, Harjo, who was 17 years old, returned to Oklahoma, where her son, Phil, was born. She next moved to New Mexico, leaving Phil’s father behind and enrolled at the University of New Mexico as a premed student. Within one semester she returned to art. The university setting introduced Harjo to a world of poets from backgrounds similar to her own and among the group of Native American writers at UNM she found a poetry that spoke of familiar places in a language she understood, something she had never encountered before. “Most of the poetry available to my generation was set in New England or in the Northeast and was written by men, or women emulating the male experience. I always had to change myself to conform to the poem. But I loved the melodic tones, the rhythm, and the music—those are the things that pulled me into a poem, as much or more than the idea. 

One of the first poetry readings Harjo attended was given by Galway Kinnell, who became a source of great inspiration to her. She views him as a musician as well as a poet in the way he writes and reads his poetry. Harjo recounts with verve another significant event that was the turning point in her “unconscious decision” to take up the art of writing poetry: “I was watching a documentary one Sunday afternoon about a tribe in New Guinea. There was a storyteller, but he was also a poet—you could tell by the way he spoke his words. The story was about a hunt for a wild pig, and as he spoke he became—through his inflections and physical movements—the poem, the animal itself, while remaining human. It touched me as nothing else had.” 

When asked about other important influences on her poetry, she says, “There are people who were very important to me. They were poets who I felt were human beings with integrity—integrity to the word and integrity to their country (the land), and to their human beingness. I think of people like Pablo Neruda. One of my favorite poets from Uganda, Africa, who influenced me very much is Okot p’Bitek. I love his piece ‘The Song of Lawino.’ I also like the work of other African writers—West African writers especially. In this country, I became excited by the African American writers: Ishmael Reed’s fiction, the work of Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, Leslie Silko, and Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, a novel that was pretty much a poem. All were important to my writing.” Harjo had also read the Bible twice by the time she was 12 years old. 

Harjo became disenchanted with the academic view of poetry, because it distorted poetry’s sheer beauty. “I think that what’s happened within the past centry, and it probably came with T. S. Eliot—although you can’t blame everything on T. S. Eliot—is that poetry became the property of the academic. It was taken away from the people in a sense, and I don’t believe that’s where poetry belongs—it belongs to the people. Yes, you can take apart literature, separate it, and see how it works, but as with taking apart the human body, you can’t see the spirit, which is at the root of it. It is the same with a poem—you can’t touch the spirit.” 

Harjo sought a more creative approach to teaching and adopted a method that was directly influenced by one of her students. “I was teaching a class that involved African music and its connection to the spoken word. There was a young Ghanian man who told an incredible story about how he studied to be a master drummer. At seven years old, he was the apprentice to the master drummer, who would send him out into the bush every morning. He had to listen to all of the sounds going on around him, including the sound of the sun coming up, the insects buzzing, the people going for water, and the sound of the hunters as they went out into the bush. He would take it all in, and his ongoing lesson was to repeat those sounds on the drum and perfect them. Of course, it was the same lesson that went on for years, but it was the first teaching method I felt made sense. The workshop method is useful for technique and craft, but the approach seems more like business rather than the sacred art that poetry is.”

As a poet, Harjo viewed a changing society as an opportunity to explore the new attitudes toward her culture and humanity through writing. “I have felt the explosion of the civil rights movement in this country and have been challenged by the shock waves of human rights struggles all over the world. I’ve been especially involved in the struggles of my Indian peoples to maintain a place and culture in this precarious age. My poetry has everything to do with this. I came into writing at a poignant historical moment. I was lucky to be a part of a major multicultural movement with other writers.”

The beginning of her writing career also coincided with the rise of the women’s movement. Harjo noticed a great many poems being written straight from “the kitchen table,” and her poetry fit into this niche as well. “This poetry spoke very openly and honestly of women’s experiences. I considered it to be an incredible revolution in which we gave ourselves back to ourselves. Women had been stripped away by the language, by expectations of the language, and by expectations of the poets and the fathers of the poets. And we are not out of it yet.

“I am seen as a feminist poet. The way I interpret feminism in my own work is the power of a woman to be a warrior—to recognize the warrior characteristics within herself, which include self-love, vulnerability, honesty, integrity, a sense of morals, and so on.” But in a broader sense, Harjo’s poetry reflects the truths of being human, our relationship to one another, and our relationship to the physical world we inhabit. 

Harjo views herself as a woman who has had to learn—or who is learning—to honor the female within herself. “I think it’s easier to honor the male in our culture because it’s much more accepted. There are almost no truly powerful and sustained images of female power. None. Look at Marilyn Monroe? The Virgin Mary? And what images exist for Indian women? The big question is, How do we describe ourselves as women in this culture? It’s unclear. 

“I’ve had to nurture and accept all the elements of myself—both the creator and the destroyer; accept both my white and my native relatives, and accept the female and the male. It’s an ongoing internal war. I almost destroyed myself by the time I was twenty, because I felt like I had to be one or the other. Finally, at one point I made a stand, and here I am.” If there is any one poem that exemplifies her reconciliation of self, Harjo says it is “I Give You Back” in She Had Some Horses (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1983), her second collection of poems. 

Harjo’s subject matter is drawn mainly from the Native American tradition of exalting the land and the spirit, the realities of American culture, and the concept of feminine individuality. Her characters may be actual people like Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and Russell Moore, or they may be imaginary entities. “I imagine like a fiction writer sometimes. Most readers assume that the events in a poem actually happened to the poet. Not everything I write is autobiographical. In my work, I add to or change the truth. It is still the truth, just presented in a different form.” 

There is an inherent spiritual quality to Harjo’s poetry, but she doesn’t feel that she is any more spiritual than the next person. “Part of the way I am comes from being around Native American people, but I wouldn’t really use the world ‘spiritual.’ It is natural for human beings to be in awe of the sacred and to realize that the sacred is everywhere. But humans seem to have lost their way, although every once in a while someone may find it, and I think that’s the artist. The artists and the poets are the ones who search for the sacred place.” 

Her first collection of poetry, a chapbook, What Moon Drove Me to This? (I. Reed Books, 1979) is now out of print. “It should stay out of print,” says Harjo. “It was a very young book. There are probably only two good poems in it—poems that showed promise. It was a painful book, written during a difficult period in my life. You could see the beginnings of something, but it wasn’t quite cooked.” 

Harjo’s second book, She Had Some Horses, sold over 11,000 copies and is now in its eighth printing by the same publisher. Horses are a recurring image in many of her poems, but when asked about their meaning, she laughs and replies, “I don’t really want to say, and I get asked that question often. I just leave the horses to themselves.” 

Secrets From the Center of the World (University of Arizona Press, 1989) was a new kind of book for Harjo, combining photography with poetic language. The photographer/astronomer Stephen Strom was looking for a Native American writer to collaborate with him on his book of photographs of a Navajo reservation. “My friend Rain Perish, a Navajo artist and writer, couldn’t do it and referred him to me. We met, and I loved his photographs. Whichever way you turned the pictures, the perspectives made sense, and I think his being an astronomer and spending so much time looking at the universe affected his vision. He sees the world with immense detail. I wrote some text to go along with the photos, made the rounds to all of those places, and then rewrote the text.” Harjo and Strom worked on the arrangement of the photographs together. 

Harjo had already visited most of the places featured in the photographs. “I spent a lot of time going out as a student activist to work with the Navajo people. Many of my friends were Navajo, so I learned the language. I learned the language to the point where I could speak it pretty well, joke in it, and I actually started to dream in it. For me, Secrets From the Center of the World is, in a way a tribute to that time of my life, to those people, to the land, and to the language, which I think influenced my writing very much.” 

In Mad Love and War, Harjo’s most recent book of poems, departs from her original chant-oriented writing style. “In Mad Love, the story started to take precedent. Even though the lyric is important for me, the narrative had more of an edge. Maybe I’m getting farther away from the poetics. My next book will be very different. Harjo’s next collection—The Field of Miracles—is a prose narrative, which she hopes to finish within the next year. A recent short story appears in a Norton anthology called Best of the West, a collection of works by writers west of the Missouri, and another story appears in an anthology of short stories by Native American writers called Talking Leaves (Harper, 1991). 

Harjo’s work has grown in density and in scope, and her increasing love of music has become a major element in her poetry. She plays tenor and soprano saxophone and is now learning to play the flute. She is excited by the literary possibilities that arise out of writing and playing music. “I started playing the saxophone about halfway into writing Mad Love and could already see the effect of jazz. Even though I’m just learning the elements of jazz, I listen to it a lot.” She doesn’t think that her poetry is “jazz poetry,” although it is very much influenced by the music. “I’m close to my tribal music and ceremony, and there is a relationship to jazz. There is a history of connections among the Muscogee, African American, and Seminole people. What I hear in jazz is my people, and I feel related to the music.” 

Harjo’s relationship to jazz runs parallel with her relationship to American poetry. “I am an American, but it took me a while to reconcile my feelings toward American poetry. James Wright praised the American condition, as did Richard Hugo, who truly came out of the American experience. Adrienne Rich, too, is very important—more important to America than America wants to know or realize. I think academics felt betrayed by her when she refused to wear the clothes of her fathers. She refused the forms of her fathers, and left the house of her fathers. When she left the house of the fathers and embraced the mothers, academia felt betrayed. But I look to her honesty as much as her incredible gift of language and intellect.” 

Harjo has recently formed a band called Poetic Justice, with a drummer and a bass player, and would like to record a mixture of poetry and music. She has already completed one projected called “Furious Light” (distributed by Watershed Foundation in Washington, D.C.), taped a reading of poetry from She Had Some Horses and In Mad Love recorded over music. The music was taped separately in this instance, but Harjo is eager to produce a tape that integrates poetry and music even more dramatically. 

In addition to working on her new book and pursuing her musical career, Harjo is teaching and writing several screenplays for a television series called “Tales From the Center of the Earth.” The acknowledgement and integration of all creative energy—art, history, emotion, music—are highly important to Harjo’s work and daily life. The personal growth Harjo sees through the evolution of her writing is key. “If my style didn’t change and evolve, I would quit writing. Poetry is reciprocal. As poetry feeds you, you have to nurture the art and give it time and attention. It does give back to you, I suppose like anything else.” 

 

Stephanie Izarek Smith is a writer an editor based in New York City. She is currently writing a collection of short prose and poetry.

The opening spread of “An Interview With Joy Harjo” as it appeared in the July/August 1993 issue. 

Vote of Confidence: The Life-Changing Support of an NEA Fellowship

by

Kevin Larimer

4.12.17

For more than fifty years the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been a vital part of this country’s creative ecosystem, providing funding and support to writers, translators, and organizations, as well as partnering with arts groups and non-arts sectors to create programs, such as Poetry Out Loud and the Big Read, that celebrate America’s rich cultural heritage and promote access to the arts in every community. For readers of this magazine, of course, the most visible—and sought-after—support offered by the NEA comes in the form of creative writing fellowships: $25,000 grants given in alternating years to poets and prose writers, enabling them “to set aside time for writing, research, travel, and general career advancement.” In short, they allow writers to be writers—even if that means simply giving them the ability to pay the rent or the student loan or the babysitter or the credit card bill—in a world that rarely acknowledges their work in financial terms.

But this isn’t all about the money. This is about being part of a tradition, built over the past half century, that honors artistic excellence in its many forms. This is about writers who are also nurses and farmers and teachers and librarians receiving support and validation from experts in the field—a measure of reassurance that the work they do before or after the day job or the night shift is valuable. And, yes, this is about patriotism: the federal government sending a message that the work of poets and writers is integral to an open society in which free expression is not only protected, but also encouraged. 

This and much more is at stake as we move through the congressional budget process following President Trump’s ill-advised proposal to eliminate federal support for the NEA. And while these kinds of decisions often come down to numbers on a spreadsheet, it is important to highlight the real people—with lives and loved ones and dreams and challenges—at the other end of those fellowship checks. I spoke with nine fellowship winners, from 1977 grant recipient Joy Harjo to 2017 fellows Kathryn Nuernberger and Monica Sok, about what receiving the NEA’s creative writing fellowship meant to them, both in terms of practical financial assistance and as a vote of confidence from the federal government at that particular time in their personal and professional lives.

Joy Harjo | Kimiko HahnJulia AlvarezPeter Ho DaviesAnthony Doerr  
Benjamin Percyfrancine j. harrisKathryn Nuernberger | Monica Sok

“To be an artist in my family was somewhat expected. My grandmother and great aunt were painters. With Indian oil money, they obtained arts training—but more than that, they were afforded the time to create. Two of my most valued possessions are paintings by them. My grandmother Naomi Harjo even played saxophone. But to be a poet, especially as a single mother, with no additional income, made for a different story. My family was proud of me, but their constant concern was: How are you going to make a living? We already had one poet in our family tree, Alexander Posey, a Muscogee Creek poet who founded the first native daily newspaper, but he made a living as a journalist, not as a poet. I knew that I would write no matter what, and I wrote my way through jobs, classes, and childrearing. The Pueblo novelist and poet Leslie Silko was the first writer I knew to be awarded an NEA fellowship, and she urged me to apply. I was about to graduate with my MFA and didn’t have anything lined up except a return home to New Mexico and an application for teaching creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, then a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. I remember that late spring afternoon of 1977 opening the letter from the NEA announcing my fellowship. It was the gift I needed. It was enough money to assist me with writing what would be my breakout/breakthrough book of poetry, She Had Some Horses. I used the money for rent, utilities, supplies, and childcare. The fellowship bought me time. And it bought more than that; it brought affirmation. It put my family and community on notice that what I was doing as a poet—a strange occupation for a young native mother who needed to make a living—was considered worthy of support. My next fellowship came in 1992. It gave me the time I needed to get over that hump period that happens in the lives of all of us who create art. She Had Some Horses had set a mark. The second fellowship helped me leap the fence and make a collection that envisioned a book of poetry as an oral event.” —Joy Harjo, NEA fellow, 1977, 1992; author of ten poetry collections and a memoir, Crazy Brave (Norton, 2012)

 

 

“In the early 1980s I was studying Japanese at Columbia University and working in one of the college’s secretarial pools. When I wasn’t retyping a professor’s paper, I took advantage of the best typewriter in the world, the IBM Selectric, and put it to use for my own purposes. I was the busiest-looking secretary on campus, writing poems that would become my first two books, Air Pocket then Earshot. I was also a thirty-one-year-old new mother without an MFA—which is to say, without mentors or connections—and I felt alone, isolated. All my poet friends had books, but the support for presses was rapidly drying up. For me, mailing out a manuscript with the enclosed SASE was expensive. And waiting for snail mail was crushing. This was the backdrop to a parcel I received in our small mailbox: a thin envelope from the National Endowment for the Arts. I read it in the crack-infested vestibule of my apartment building in New York City and wept. It was 1986, the year I knew I’d be okay—more than okay. The NEA fellowship in poetry gave me validation that cannot be measured. Validation, for me, was a license to trespass: to continue writing fragments about the female body from an Asian American woman’s point of view. It may be difficult now to believe how radical this was: to hold a legal pad and pen in a coffee shop and write with confidence. The fellowship marked a turning point in my life, as it does for so many writers who receive the same gift of validation from the NEA.” —Kimiko Hahn, NEA fellow, 1986, 1992; author of nine poetry collections, including Brain Fever (Norton, 2014)

 

 

“My first job out of graduate school was as a poet in the schools in Kentucky, a two-year residency funded by the Kentucky Arts Council and the NEA in 1975. I traveled around the state giving writing workshops and exposing people of all ages and backgrounds to poetry—students in elementary schools and colleges, farmers in communities in Appalachia, and reform-school teens in Louisville. After the Kentucky residency, I went on to teach across America in poetry programs funded by the NEA. I taught migrant workers in California’s San Joaquin Valley; bilingual elementary school students in Baltimore; senior citizens in nursing homes, church basements, and Sunshine Centers, as they were called, centers where a free meal was provided, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This last residency culminated in a book of their writings, Old Age Ain’t for Sissies, as well as a series of public readings in the community funded by the NEA. African American eighty-year-olds recited their poems before enthusiastic audiences, feeling for the first time in their lives that they had a voice and were being heard. The program helped create a strong, compassionate, connected community. The NEA is a cultural resource we can’t afford to lose. No other programs are so widespread, addressing so many different age populations and areas of the country. We must not think of the NEA and its programs as something ‘just for artists.’ It is a vital educational resource, which doesn’t quit after our school years are over. We are educating our citizenry in the rich literary resources of this great country and helping them evolve and develop their own expressive tools. An informed citizenry means a stronger, more united, compassionate, and educated America. The individual grant I received from the NEA in 1987 allowed me to take time from full-time teaching and work on the stories that would eventually become my first published novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, based on my family’s immigrant experience after escaping the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in 1960. The novel now forms part of the curriculum in many schools and universities—the NEA at work again, enabling the creation of a diverse culture that enriches us all. Finally, in 2015, it was the NEA that nominated me for a National Medal in the Arts. For a little immigrant girl to end up receiving an award from the president of the United States was the American Dream come true. But none of us get where we want to go by ourselves. Along the way we encounter helpers, fairy godmothers. The NEA has served that role for me and so many others. I don’t have a magic wand to wave, but I do have a pen to write down this plea: Keep this incredible national treasure endowed and vital for the next generations of students, artists, writers, and readers, so that they can continue creating the country we all dream this can be.” —Julia Alvarez, NEA fellow, 1987; author of twenty-two books, including the children’s book Where Do They Go? (Triangle Square, 2016)

 

 

“I was lucky enough to receive NEA fellowships in 1998 and 2016. Both enabled me to write for a year. Both provided a considerable morale boost. Both made possible the books I was working on. That much is likely true for most recipients, of course. In my case, though, as an immigrant to this country, both also felt like an embrace from my adopted home. The emotional significance of the $25,000 grants, in other words, far exceeded their already handsome monetary value. The NEA also cemented my bond to the U.S. in another way. In between my two awards I had the privilege of serving on the panel that selects NEA fellows, which is how I found myself in a federal building on Pennsylvania Avenue at 9 AM on September 11, 2001. We saw smoke rising from the Pentagon through the windows of our conference room. Shortly thereafter, we were evacuated. That afternoon, back at the hotel, we decided, in spite of shock and sorrow, to continue our work. A small gesture, of course, but it felt like something worthwhile, a modest assertion of life and hope, of creativity, in the face of destruction, and one only made possible by dedicated NEA staffers. That night I walked down to the White House, which was floodlit like a beacon, and stood with the hushed crowd gathered before it. There’s been much talk of patriotism in the years between then and now, much talk about what the country stands for. The NEA, representing as it does a nation’s faith in the arts, seemed to me that day and ever since, an institution any country could and should be proud of. The federal building where the NEA was based on 9/11, incidentally, was the Old Post Office Pavilion, now the Trump International Hotel. The cost for a night in its largest suite on September 11, 2017: $25,000.” —Peter Ho Davies, NEA fellow, 1998, 2016; author of four books, including the novel The Fortunes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

 

 

“My wife and I were married in 2000, but we couldn’t figure out how to live in the same town. She was working for Hewlett-Packard in Boise, Idaho, and I was hopscotching around the Midwest chasing teaching gigs and fellowships. We were paying two rents, spending all our money on airfare and telephone bills, and multiple times a year I cajoled my Subaru across Wyoming and Nebraska with our goldfish in a gallon water jug beside me. Every night I asked myself, ‘How important is it to me to be a writer? Important enough to spend anniversaries and Valentine’s Day and random Tuesdays apart? Just because I want to chase a silly dream?’ Then I won an NEA fellowship. I promptly sold the kitchen table, gave away most everything else, drove two thousand miles west, and moved in with my wife. For the first time since we were married, we got to wake up together every morning on a consistent basis. And after she went to work, I got to turn on my computer and face down the dragon of my next book. Years later, serving as a judge on a panel to award those same fellowships, I discovered that all over the country, writers and their loved ones were weighing similar choices: Make a car payment, or write an essay? Take a second job so a partner can finish her novel? The National Endowment for the Arts allows artists and their families to prioritize creativity, even if only for a few months, and sometimes those months are all an artist needs to give back to the country a piece of work that will outlast us all.” —Anthony Doerr, NEA fellow, 2002; author of five books, including the novel All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner, 2014)

Benjamin Percyfrancine j. harrisKathryn Nuernberger | Monica Sok

“If I could have any superpower, it would be to stop or stretch time. And whenever someone asks me what I want for my birthday or Christmas, I say, ‘Time.’ There is never enough of it. Here is the math of 2011: Two young kids, one still in diapers; two teaching gigs—at a traditional and a low-res MFA program—which translates to maybe a thousand manuscript pages in need of editing; one leaky roof; one totaled car; one novel under way; twelve speaking gigs; ten book reviews; six short stories; $40,000 in student loans; a five-hour flight to one set of grandparents; a five-hour drive to the other. There’s nothing startling or appalling about these numbers; I was responsible for many of them, and I was building the life I wanted. But working sixty hours a week and chasing bills and scrambling from one speaking engagement to the next and trying to be there for my family sometimes added up to a schedule that made me feel stretched so thin you could see through me. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I’m not sure I can keep up this pace,’ and she said, ‘I don’t want you to.’ The NEA fellowship allowed me to slow down and carve out time so that I could properly research and pour all of my creative energy into a book that I couldn’t have written in such a harried, exhausted state. Time. That’s what these grants give their recipients. The gift of time, which is in such short supply for all of us. And, of course, money: to hire a babysitter. To fly out a grandparent for help. To teach fewer classes or take on fewer freelance assignments—or escape whatever other obligations are keeping us away from the page, the canvas, the studio, the darkroom. And here is the lovely, complicated calculus of the NEA: Those dollars become hours, and those hours become novels, memoirs, sonnets, sonatas, landscapes, photo essays, documentaries that have an incalculable effect on enriching and expanding the lives of their audience.” —Benjamin Percy, NEA fellow, 2012; author of seven books, including the novel The Dark Net (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

 

 

“Being awarded the NEA Fellowship changed the direction of my life. At the time it was awarded, I was teaching at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a secondary school in northern Michigan. I enjoyed the job but wasn’t writing enough. While a brilliant few are able to meet the time demands of high school teaching loads and still write, I didn’t have that stamina. Additionally, northern Michigan, though beautiful, was culturally isolating. Short on money and time, I worried I might get stuck in a career that would have meant limits on my writing. Winning this fellowship allowed me to accept my current residency at Washington University in St. Louis. It also gave credibility to my work. For poets, that’s a big deal. While, as artists, we all want to make work that is satisfying on its own merit, most poets do not survive on their work alone. As important as the work is to our audiences, I believe part of the reason harsh critics of the genre can get away with claiming poetry has no social poignancy is because we stand to make so little money in our field. Book contracts offer smaller advances than in other genres, so publishing does not always equal income. People who love poetry often depend on this community of reading and performance, and those events are generally free to the public. With our short form, we have a vibrant and accessible presence online. But it means the power of this art is not in its capital. We do what we love, and fellowships, such as the NEA’s, are monetarily crucial. The National Endowment for the Arts fellowship has, quite simply, allowed me to continue my work.” —francine j. harris, NEA fellow, 2015; author of two poetry collections, including Play Dead (Alice James Books, 2016)

 

 

“The recipient of an NEA grant sits precariously at the