Ten Questions for Morgan Talty

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Morgan Talty, whose novel, Fire Exit, is out today from Tin House. In this tale of complex interpersonal relationships, belonging, and family secrets, a white man named Charles yearns for contact with his daughter, Elizabeth, a member of the Penobscot Nation—just across the Maine river from where he has quietly watched her grow up. Although he was raised on Penobscot territory, where he lived with his white mother and his Penobscot stepfather, Charles was forced to leave due to his lack of Penobscot blood. After Mary, a Penobscot woman, becomes pregnant with Elizabeth, Charles was asked to stay silent about his paternity. But forces eventually conspire to bring Charles back into Mary’s and Elizabeth’s orbit, dramatizing the long reach of colonial violence in the United States, which through biopolitical tools like racial categorization continues to weaken social ties and mutual affection—even among those who should be closest. The Associated Press praises Fire Exit, in particular its “gripping ending to a thoughtful, heartfelt exploration of what it means to be part of a family and a community.” Morgan Talty’s debut story collection, Night of the Living Rez (Tin House, 2022), won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize, the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, and the New England Book Award. Talty is an assistant professor of English in creative writing and Native American and contemporary literature at the University of Maine in Orono.

1. How long did it take you to write Fire Exit
It took almost six years to write, a little more than six if you consider the editing process with my wonderful editor, Masie Cochran. But the idea of the book—or the engine of the novel, the very inexplicable situation that sparks the opening line of the novel—came to me in 2015. If percolating counts, then eight years.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Finding the right point of view, then developing Charles’s character in a way that affected the story but made room for the story to affect the characters, which, in my view, helped deepen the emotion I felt for them (and for the reader as well). 

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I have a room in our house where I write now; it’s my temporary office until we can get a shed built where I plan to work. Before I had a child I was able to write whenever, but that’s harder now. I am fortunate, though, to have Jorden, my wife—who is a “retired” teacher and now a stay-at-home mom—by my side so that I can go and write in the upstairs room. Without her I wouldn’t be getting anything done. Really. 

4. What are you reading right now?   
Delinquents and Other Escape Attempts: Linked Stories by Nick Rees Gardner, which is forthcoming in August from Madrona Books. I’m not reading it for the first time; I’m on my second read. It is a brilliant collection. A much-needed addition to contemporary literature, it offers both a searing critique of societal failures and a compassionate portrayal of human resilience in the face of addiction. 

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?   
Every book I read I annotate, trying to figure out the logic of the story. Some stories are easy to figure out, meaning I can make a solid, concrete argument for how the writer achieves something like emotion. But some stories are harder, and then there are stories whose logic I can’t figure out. Those writers, the ones who create work I can’t figure out, are the ones I return to time and time again, the writers whose work will last for a long, long time. I’m talking about the greats, of course: Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, Denis Johnson, and the many others who have left us with stories. For the living writers today, I can list a dozen whose work will be remembered for years to come. But when it comes to rewriting one version of Fire Exit, I was reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which taught me a few things. 

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Fire Exit?
How intimately I knew these characters. It was like I spent my life growing up with them. I knew their histories, their secrets, their desires. This came from having spent so much time writing about them. 

I’ll also add that after finishing the book and spending quite a bit of time away from it, I couldnt remember parts of the book because I kept recalling moments from earlier drafts that got cut! And so when I reread the final version I received, I recognized it all but also saw the roughly fifteen hundred pages of cut material and scenes lurking in the shadows, so to speak. It was a surreal experience. 

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
When talking about the final major change we made to the book, my editor, Masie Cochran, and agent, Rebecca Friedman, both said to me, “Just let it go, and you’ll see the story is still there.” They were right. 

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Fire Exit, what would you say?
“Have fun, loser.”

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I did research into the mental health aspects of the book, particularly electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). But the real work was having to keep the work alive in my head while I was not writing. That was the hardest form of work. 

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
I gotta go with what Rick Bass said to me: “Make something inexplicable happen, and then work to reconcile it, to make sense of it, while being specific.”


Ten Questions for Evan Dalton Smith


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Evan Dalton Smith, whose debut book, Looking for Andy Griffith: A Father’s Journey, is out today from the University of North Carolina Press. In this blend of memoir and biography, Smith digs into the life of the eponymous actor, whose death in 2012 spurred him to understand his strong feelings about the man. Not only was he the star of The Andy Griffith Show, a television program that was culturally significant throughout Smith’s childhood, but Griffith was also born and raised just an hour north of where Smith grew up in North Carolina. Griffith’s story unfurls alongside and intertwines with Smith’s own personal history, including the early death of his own father that led him to idolize Griffith, whose role as the character Sheriff Andy Taylor, a widower, often focused on his relationship with his only son. In heartfelt prose, Looking for Andy Griffith offers a searching meditation on the South, our attachment to pop-culture figures, masculinity, fatherhood, and powering through life’s setbacks and challenges. Kirkus calls Looking for Andy Griffith “a poignantly candid memoir.” Evan Dalton Smith’s writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review, the New Yorker, Slate, and elsewhere. He has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, Millay Arts, and MacDowell.  

1. How long did it take you to write Looking for Andy Griffith?  
That’s a complicated question. I’m fifty-five years old and this is my first book, yet I published my first writing in the early 1990s. Looking for Andy Griffith is a memoir and also a biography of the actor Andy Griffith, who died in July of 2012. I began the writing just after Andy died, realizing I was grieving for this man I never met because he was a surrogate father figure to me, and I wanted to investigate why. It turns out many felt the same as I did. Then through research I discovered all this cultural machinery behind Andy’s career and around The Andy Griffith Show that fascinated me. I published an essay about Andy Griffith in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2013. The essay took about seven months to write; I remember after it was published I wrote on social media that I’d been working on it all my life. Then—while I was writing a book proposal built from that essay, determined to at last publish my first book in my mid-forties—my marriage abruptly ended. Somehow in that desperate chaos the book sold maybe six months later, in 2014. I discuss a lot of the upheaval that delayed writing the book in the book itself. So part of the narrative is about failure, my inability to write the book. I turned in the first draft in 2021. The book’s pub date is May 28, 2024. Today! Let’s call it ten years. And I never once grew weary of the subject!

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Challenges were legion but, as some asshole said, “Every challenge is an opportunity.” The largest challenge, initially, was economic, which I detail in the book. And battling my own ego, as I couldn’t afford to travel as much for research as I envisioned. But this caused deeper dives into archival research, and I made some fun discoveries. The other big challenge was ultimately deciding to write the book I wanted to write rather than the one I imagined was expected, letting my own willfulness win out.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
When I was young I often wrote new material just before sleep and would revisit it the next day. But for most of the years I was writing Looking for Andy Griffith, I was a divorced parent of two kids and working multiple low-paying jobs, with little spare free time and barely scraping by. So I was often living in survival mode; that level of stress can disrupt the ability to form new ideas. I worked in fits and starts: on my lunch break at my grocery-store job, sitting in my car in a strip-mall parking lot, or dictating to my phone on my daily commute—sometimes with hilarious results, which I detail in the book. I try to complete a rough chapter draft before making any edits. Sometimes I write on legal pads, sometimes on my phone. Whatever is working in the moment. Right now I’m writing this sentence using the Notes app on my phone. My son encouraged me to switch to Google Docs, which is helpful for early chapter drafts. Nothing works entirely well, yet everything works at one time or another.

4. What are you reading right now?  
Rebecca Donner generously blurbed Looking for Andy Griffith. I asked for a blurb because I loved her award-winning book of creative nonfiction, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, as did everyone else (it’s the greatest title of all time); her book possesses a bold and masterful narrative that is dizzying in scope and execution. So after my head stopped spinning I picked up her first novel, Sunset Terrace, which I missed when it came out in 2003, and it has finely-wrought storytelling. It should be reissued so more people have access to it.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general? 
Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City was an inspiration. It’s about navigating his relationship with an absent father, which is also part of my story. Nick’s prose has the lyricism of an accomplished poet. I also write poems, so I love it when a great poet writes wonderful prose. I have a huge affection for people who cross genres. Also Anne Carson’s poetry. All of it. I love the willfulness and artistry of her work. Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence, which is about his inability to write a book about D.H. Lawrence and has great humor and pathos in it. In my book I mention reading Dyer’s book at the darkest time of my life, which coincided with beginning work on Looking for Andy Griffith.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Looking for Andy Griffith?
I worried I’d grow tired of the subject and of watching The Andy Griffith Show, which I’ve loved all my life, but it looks now as if that will never happen.

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My agent was generous and forward thinking, and when we first met she said something like, “This is a weird little book, but you can gradually make a career out of writing several weird little books.” (Although my next book is a big weird book.) My editor was very patient and encouraging and made great suggestions. I recall he flagged a chapter he liked and asked for “more chapters like this.”

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Looking for Andy Griffith, what would you say? 
That is a loaded question. I talk about my frustrations and failures in the book, that I hoped I would finish the writing about a year after it sold and launch a career—after my life in Manhattan had unraveled and I was unmoored and isolated in New England. I wanted to write books with titles like “A Global History of North Carolina Barbecue” or “The Hotel Lobby Bars of New York,” which I’d still love to do. But then I found myself working four jobs, including one at a grocery store, during the pandemic. Had that not happened, though, how I approached the material in Looking for Andy Griffith wouldn’t have happened. It gave me a template and the confidence to tackle the subject of my mother’s addiction to a prescription narcotic, which I discuss a little in Looking for Andy Griffith. Mom’s addiction began in the early 1970s, when I was a small child, and lasted until after I was in college. The particular drug has a compelling world-historic origin story, and there was a failed battle to ban it, which set in motion things that are still playing out in the culture. I’m enormously excited by the subject and research for this new project [about that subject]. And my family is on board. I am finishing the proposal now. Even greater, I’ve fallen in love and have a life partner now as a direct result of my book’s late publication date. And I wouldn’t trade my life now for anything. So everything seems to have worked out exactly as it was supposed to. If I could speak to myself ten years ago, I’d say, “Have faith, and stop punishing yourself.”

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Lots of research, some detective work, a ton of driving, interviews, and phone calls—most of which I enjoyed. I like people and enjoy hearing their stories, and I spoke to many more people than those who made it into the book. I cut maybe twenty thousand words.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?  
The best advice I intimately understand, and that I wish someone had conveyed to me when I was young, is from a picture book I read to my kids called You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! It’s about the legendary baseball pitcher and details how Sandy was wild when he was a rookie because he was trying to strike everyone out and not let anyone hit the ball. His career may have ended then, but he learned to relax, let his teammates do their jobs and field the hits; then he threw more strikes, which resulted in more strikeouts, more wins. It just means to relax and do the work; there are teams of people to help you. Writing is solitary, but you are not alone. I’m very grateful to the entire team at UNC Press: Lucas, Thomas, Sonya, Mary, Lindsay, Ann—just to name a few. Thank you!

Evan Dalton Smith, author of Looking for Andy Griffith: A Father’s Journey.   (Credit: RJD)

Ten Questions for Mesha Maren


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Mesha Maren, whose new novel, Shae, is out today from Algonquin Books. In this heart-wrenching tale, a teenager from rural West Virginia, Shae, falls into an intense love affair with Cam. Their romance becomes complicated by Shae’s pregnancy and Cam’s awakening to her trans identity. While the two attempt to work through a new relationship dynamic, Shae’s growing addiction to opioids after the birth of her daughter with Cam throws their lives into turmoil. While Cam moves on from their small town—exploring music, higher education, and a more authentic sense of self—Shae finds herself with few good options to support their daughter or to move into a brighter future. Publishers Weekly praises Shae’s sense of place and emotional connection: “Maren beautifully evokes both the natural beauty of Appalachia and Shae’s plaintive longing for Cam…. Maren continues to show a knack for portraying the complexities and contradictions of an often-misunderstood part of America.” Mesha Maren is the author of the novels Sugar Run (2019) and Perpetual West (2022), both from Algonquin Books. An associate professor of the practice of English at Duke University, Maren has received the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, an Elizabeth George Foundation grant, an Appalachian Writing Fellowship from Lincoln Memorial University, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ucross Foundation.

1. How long did it take you to write Shae
The notebooks I have with the early drafts of Shae date to 2017, and I fiddled around with the document for the final time in fall of 2023.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Oh, I suppose the same thing that is challenging about writing anything: You’re translating images and emotions into written language, which is essentially a series of random marks on a page that we have all agreed to use as stand-ins for the “real thing.” There is no essential relationship between the letters in the word tree and the green and living thing outside my window. We’ve just all agreed that those marks make up a word that stands in for it. Sign, Signifier, Signified. We’re up against all that. French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls expressive gestures, like pointing, our “first language,” and that’s basically what we’re trying to do when we write—point at something. But we’re using, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, “a gesticulation so varied, so precise, so systematic, and capable of so many convergent expressions that the internal structure of an utterance can ultimately agree only with the mental situation to which it responds and of which it becomes an unequivocal sign.” It is not the random marks, the t and r and e and e, that make the meaning but rather a union between the writer and the reader, following what Merleau-Ponty calls the “verbal chain” and going “beyond each of its links in the direction that they all designate together.” He also says, “Communication in literature is not the simple appeal on the part of the writer to meanings which would be part of an a priori of the mind; rather, communication arouses these meanings in the mind through enticement and a kind of oblique action. The writer’s thought does not control his language from without; the writer is himself a kind of new idiom, constructing itself, inventing ways of expression, and diversifying itself according to its own meaning. … Great prose is the art of capturing a meaning which until then had never been objectified and of rendering it accessible to everyone who speaks the same language.” But simply making something accessible to readers of, say, English is not the same as capturing a meaning; rendering something accessible to readers of a certain language is the stuff of instruction manuals, and capturing a meaning never before objectified is the work of a novelist or poet. When I write the word sofa anyone who can read English can have access to a certain level of my meaning, but the reader is not picturing the same sofa that I have in my mind. Even if I get more specific, and I say “blue, velvet sofa,” they are still not picturing the same sofa; and the reason why is not merely about the need to bring in more specificity. I could describe every last inch of the blue, velvet fainting-couch I have in mind, and my description still might fail to capture my meaning, much less render that meaning accessible to the reader. Or it might not fail. That’s the beautiful mystery of writing: The “meaning” comes from an alchemy of the writer’s language mixing with the connotations supplied by the reader—connotations the writer has very little control over. One reader may have lost their virginity on a blue, velvet sofa; another may associate such a sofa with their dying dog or that time they shat themselves. Much has been made over the years of German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s description in The Origin of the Work of Art of Van Gogh’s painting of a pair of shoes; Heidegger goes on and on about the “toilsome tread of the worker” and the “tenacity of her slow trudge” and “the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls.” Thirty-some years later, art historican Meyer Schapiro rather gleefully pointed out that the shoes were not even women’s shoes. He tracked down the “truth” of the shoes, bought in a flea market in Paris, but I don’t think that really matters. What I care about is the fact that the meaning evoked in Heidegger’s mind—the loneliness of the female peasant, the push and pull of life and death and seasons passing—was created by a relationship between Van Gogh’s painting and Heidegger’s associations. An entirely different meaning is created in the relationship between Van Gogh’s painting and my mind. That’s the beauty of art. In The Origin of the Work of Art Heidegger also says, “In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting…. Only this clearing grants and guarantees to us humans a passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are.” I think “clearing” is the best description I’ve ever heard for the space in which something like Van Gogh’s painting and the connotations that Heidegger brings to that painting can come together to create meaning. But that is also what makes writing so hard: You are pointing, and the reader is following—and these two things come together in a specific “clearing” that the writer has, at best, partial control over.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write in a cabin that my father and I built together when I was fourteen. I write on average five or six days a week for somewhere between four and seven hours a day.

4. What are you reading right now?   
I often dip into rereading periods, especially when I am in the middle of drafting a new book. Right now I am rereading Suttree by Cormac McCarthy and Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. Also on my bedside table are Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner; Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson; Pig Earth by John Berger; Death in Venice by Thomas Mann; and The Meadow by James Galvin. I have been reading bits and pieces of those books before I fall asleep and when I am waking up. And just today I started rereading Joy Williams’s State of Grace. I was cleaning my house, and my eye fell on it. I hadn’t read it in a while, so I flipped it open and couldn’t put it down. I guess now I’m rereading that novel too.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?   
Often it is not authors but photographers and filmmakers who influence me the most. For Shae it was the films Wanda by Barbara Loden, Harmony Korine’s Gummo, and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers as well as the photo collections As It was Give(n) to Me by Stacy Kranitz, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of Their Dreams by Alessandra Sanguinetti, Upstate Girls: Unravelling Collar City by Brenda Ann Kenneally, Girl Pictures by Justine Kurland, and Beneath the Roses by Gregory Crewdson.

I am of course influenced by authors, or rather I am influenced by their books. People like to ask writers whether or not they think about their audience while drafting. It doesn’t work for me to think about a human audience for my work. The closest thing to an “audience” that I have ever been able to imagine is other books—my books talking to other books. I think the “audience” for my novel Sugar Run is A Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, Fay by Larry Brown (and other books by Brown), and the Carlos Saura film Deprisa, deprisa. The closest thing to an “audience” for my novel Perpetual West is Fat City by Leonard Gardner, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy, Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter, and the film Amores Perros.

Shae is in conversation with the films and photo collections I mentioned above as well as Glass, Irony and God by Anne Carson, Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Shae?
I was surprised by how fun it was to write. I have never been one of those writers who complains about how hard writing is. If I didn’t like writing then I wouldn’t do it. A day when I have written is always better than a day when I have not. But with my first two novels, especially with the first one, I had all these worries about doing it correctly or being able to do it at all—but with Shae those worries were gone. It really felt like what French painter André Marchand said: “In a forest, I have felt many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me … I was there, listening … I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe, and not want to penetrate it.” Writers get off track when they try to penetrate something instead of letting it penetrate them. Shae penetrated me, and I am happy for it.

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My agent, Bill Clegg, and I had a lot of very interesting conversations about second-person point of view. Shae was originally drafted in second person, with the main character, Shae, speaking directly to her ex, Cam, as in a letter. At one point, maybe five drafts in, Bill mentioned that he felt the second person was limiting his ability to see or understand Cam and Cam’s relationship to Shae. We had a lot of great conversations about it—this was before we even showed the manuscript to my editor—and it chimed in my mind with this one aspect of Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet. Carson talks a lot about triangulation. Love, novels, metaphors, they all “triangulate, haunt, split, wrench and delight us.” She writes, “Novels institutionalize the ruse of eros. It becomes a narrative texture of sustained incongruence, emotional and cognitive. It permits the reader to stand in triangular relation to the characters in the story and reach into the text after the objects of their desire, sharing their longing but also detached from it, seeing their view of reality but also its mistakenness. It is almost like being in love.” When I wrote from Shae’s perspective speaking directly to Cam, there was a level of intense intimacy there, which is what I wanted. But there was also a lack of triangulation; there was just Shae and Cam bouncing back and forth with no third point. When I shifted the narrative to just first person, Shae was suddenly speaking about Cam to a third entity, the reader. Cam is still refracted through Shae, but there is a third point for triangulation now. While some of the intensity of the intimacy is lost, what is gained is Shae’s ability to reflect on Cam and her relationship to Cam; what is gained is the bittersweet realization that Shae and Cam never quite matched up, never quite understood each other, and it is through Shae talking to the reader about Cam that this realization is possible.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Shae, what would you say?
Probably just the same thing I say to myself every day: Lighten up. Go outside. Eat a good hamburger. Look at the way the sun shines through that newborn leaf. Listen to the car wheels pass like waves. Remember to go to the Tractor Bar on Sundays and laugh and share food and smell the billiard chalk.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
In order to write this book I had to be born outside Alderson, West Virginia, in September of 1984 to back-to-the-land parents from New Jersey and Iowa. They both had to move to the same corner of Greenbrier County at the same time, and my dad had to play his saxophone on the balcony of an old Victorian house on Greenbrier Avenue so that my mom would hear him and look out her window across the street and think he was cute. She had to ask him to play at her friend’s birthday party so they could flirt and then make me. I had to sit in the dirt under our front porch and watch a white cat give birth in my sister’s lap and stain her favorite strawberry-patterned dress with blood. Then the river had to flood so I could find a worn-out collection of Alfred Tennyson poems in a pile of free books during the cleanup. I had to read “The Lady of Shalott” and fall in love, and I had to memorize the poem while I swung one hundred times back and forth under the black walnut tree. I had to be lonely, and I had to believe that if I recited that poem for my sixth-grade talent show that I would make friends and not be lonely anymore. I had to recite it right after a cute, little redheaded kid in a cowboy hat lip-synced “Achy Breaky Heart” to roaring applause. Everybody had to look at me funny. I had to become more lonely.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
I don’t believe in writing advice. I know it might sound counterintuitive since I teach creative writing, but I tell my students the same thing: What works for me likely won’t work for you. We are each doing our own pointing, in the Merleau-Ponty sense, creating our own verbal chains, and what I’m pointing at, and maybe more importantly how I’m pointing at it, is not the same as what you or anyone else is pointing at or how you are pointing at it. Author Tom Spanbauer once said to me, “I don’t believe in third person.” And I love Tom, as a writer and a teacher. I sat in the “pond scum circle” writing group in his basement in Portland for a whole summer, and I have all the love for him. But I guess all I’m saying is that what worked for him and his pointing (limiting himself to first-person point of view, among other things) doesn’t necessarily work for me. For me the only “advice” that has ever been helpful has come from reading all kinds of different writing and noticing when I see a kind of pointing in the writing that sings along with the kind of pointing that I feel myself doing. So maybe the best “writing advice” I ever got was when author Matt O’Wain handed me copies of Larry Brown’s Fay and Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, and author Katherine Min told me I should read Laura Kasischke’s A Suspicious River, and author Fred Leebron said to me, “Haven’t you ever read Robert Stone?” 

Mesha Maren, author of Shae.   (Credit: Grant Miller)

Ten Questions for Melissa Mogollon


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Melissa Mogollon, whose debut novel is out today from Hogarth. In this formally inventive tale, the plot unfolds through one side of a series of phone conversations between protagonist Luciana, a Colombian American high school senior, and her older sister, Mari, who is away at college. In her brash and playful voice, Luciana by turns cajoles, confronts, and regales her sister with the drama of teenage life both out in the world and at home. Family dynamics have become particularly challenging for Luciana, who finds herself sharing a bedroom with her sick grandmother, Abue. While the two have long been close, Luciana is nonetheless stressed by her role as caretaker. Luciana also must deal with her mother, Elena, who is at odds with Luciana not only about how to treat Abue but about how to live her own life: Elena is not exactly thrilled about her daughter’s recently announced queerness. Meanwhile Luciana learns more about her grandmother’s past, unravelling a troubling history that reframes her understanding of her family. Publishers Weekly praises Oye, saying the book “manages to convey the fierce love that binds the women across generations. When they finally arrive at varying degrees of acceptance, it feels inevitable rather than contrived. Mogollon wows with tenderness and uproarious profanity.” Melissa Mogollon holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Originally from Colombia and raised in Florida, she now teaches at a boarding school in Rhode Island, where she lives with her partner and dog.  

1. How long did it take you to write Oye
About two years of writing total—spread out over the course of four to five years.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Crafting a way to demonstrate the difference/tension between what my protagonist was thinking versus what she was actually saying—since it’s all told in [her side of a] dialogue.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I work at a boarding school full-time now, so I’m only able to write on breaks: winter, spring, summer, weekends, etcetera. But while I was finishing and editing Oye, I had the privilege of being able to write full-time, so I was basically writing and revising every weekday from about 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. And then I’d take around a month off between drafts. Sometimes my ADHD was really helpful with its hyper-focus and tunnel vision, but other times the indecision about a word or comma could keep me on the same page for days.

4. What are you reading right now?
I’ve started reading Cinema Love by Jiaming Tang, Victim by Andrew Boryga, Broughtupsy by Christina Cooke, There Is a Rio Grande in Heaven by Ruben Reyes Jr., and Hombrecito by Santiago Jose Sanchez—so much 2024 debut goodness. These are all sitting on my coffee table waiting for summer.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?  
Omg. So many. Julián Delgado Lopera’s Fiebre Tropical, Randa Jarrar’s Map of Home, all of Jennine Capó Crucet’s writing, but especially How to Leave Hialeah; the same with Melissa Lozada-Oliva, but particularly Dreaming of You and Candelaria. Then: Hache Carrillo, Alexander Chee, Ilya Kaminsky, Ross Gay, Kristen Arnett, Myriam Gurba, Jamil Jan Kochai, Dawnie Walton, Kiley Reid, Kaveh Akbar, Margot Livesey, and Natalie Diaz.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Oye?
That [the problem with] writing with ADHD is not that you don’t finish the book. It’s that you write the same book eight different ways. Indecision and perfectionism are dangerously close!

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
The editor who we sold Oye to ended up leaving the publishing industry a few months into editing, and I was devastated. I told the new editor who I was reassigned to, Clio Seraphim, that I felt like I had lost Oye’s “mom,” or its biggest champion. Clio very kindly listened to me and let me know that, while she understood, Oye actually had many other “moms” in the background who were working on and rooting for it the whole time; it felt entirely natural and exciting for her to step into the role of “primary mom.” I was really touched by that. Clio did not owe me or the book anything. But she took Oye on as if she had wanted it and bought it herself. I’ll be forever grateful to her for that.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Oye, what would you say?
Make. A. Freaking. Outline.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I shockingly got very into weightlifting while editing and revising Oye. I had never done something like that before, but I found that developing a new source of strength was awesome. It helped me do something, somatically, with all the jitters and adrenaline that I was building up every day from writing. And feeling physically strong and capable helped me push through the harder mental days while finishing the book. I also went to a lot of comedy shows. So fun. Laughing is important. And obviously I walked my dog—the cutest animal in the world.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
As a writer, sometimes it’s better to lean into your strengths instead of trying to make up for your weaknesses. Sometimes the story needs that.


Melissa Mogollon, author of Oye.   (Credit: Joy Imani Bullock)

Ten Questions for Nicolás Medina Mora


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Nicolás Medina Mora, whose debut novel, América del Norte, is out today from Soho Press. In this complex tale that crisscrosses centuries, histories, geographies, and literary styles, a privileged, young Mexican writer enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop finds himself suddenly unmoored by the anti-immigrant politics of the Trump administration, which threatens his ability to remain in the country to complete his degree. At Iowa the twenty-something protagonist finds his peers intellectually and ethically lacking and is confounded by the way they pigeonhole him as a person of color without grasping the sociopolitical nuances of Mexican culture that mark him as a member of the nation’s ruling class. Meanwhile he must navigate the restless politics that are unsettling his native country, including a new president who threatens his father’s livelihood, and family developments that force him to confront his mother’s mortality and his father’s complicated role in the Mexican drug trade. Kirkus praises América del Norte: “A piercing critique of the shallowness of academia and the soufflélike weightlessness of American culture. … A debut from an author to keep on your radar, assured, darkly funny, and impeccably written.” Born and raised in Mexico City, Nicolás Medina Mora has degrees from Yale University and the University of Iowa. His writing has appeared in n+1, the Nation, and the New York Times. He currently lives in Mexico City, where he is a writer and editor for Revista Nexos.

1. How long did it take you to write América del Norte
A long time! The oldest chapters date from 2013; they were originally undergraduate essays. But I began writing the book in earnest only in 2016, when I moved to Iowa City to start an MFA in nonfiction. Back then I thought América del Norte was going to be a long essay about the Mexican elite. But then Donald Trump got elected and my prospects of becoming a permanent resident of the U.S. vanished overnight. After I moved back to Mexico City in 2018, I realized that the story I wanted to tell, which now included the events that led to the end of my time in the U.S., would be better served if I wrote it as fiction. So I suppose you could say that the third and definitive birthday of América del Norte took place in 2020—the year it became a novel.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
The most difficult task was devising a structure that could contain the many threads of the novel without losing the reader’s attention. The book considers, among other things: the conquest of Mexico; the rise of Donald Trump; the absurdities of U.S. writing programs; the story of a wealthy Mexican family; the Mexican-American War; the work of a Neo-Baroque painter, an American musicologist, and a Bergsonian filmmaker; the life and times of a fascist ideologue of the Mexican Revolution and of a seventeenth century astrologer; the North American Free Trade Agreement; the Austria-Hungary Empire; the tale of two teenage Indigenous immigrants; etcetera. The editorial guidance of both my agent, Elias Altman, and my editor at Soho Press, Mark Doten, proved essential. They helped me fine-tune the paratactical jump-cuts between threads to ensure that the reader never got lost, that the confusion the book is designed to induce felt like a deliberate choice rather than an involuntary accident. Even more importantly, they pointed out that maybe it would be a good idea to have, you know, something like a plot. 

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write everywhere: at my study at home, in bed, on flights, while stuck in traffic, at the office of the magazine where I work. I’m a firm believer in Walter Benjamin’s advice to carry a notebook at all times, lest an idea run away from you. But when I have to tackle a big chunk of Serious Writing, as opposed to scribbled notes, I like to clear my schedule for the whole day and wake up at five or six in the morning and work until I run out of steam—or, to be more precise, until the Ritalin I take for my ADHD wears off, which usually happens around five or six in the afternoon. 

4. What are you reading right now?  
Katherine Rundell’s Super Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne. It’s a sharp and elegant study of the best Anglophone poet of all time, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m also rereading Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo’s Latin America: The Allure and Power of an Idea, an erudite and often quite barbed polemic against the notion that the half-billion people who live in the parts of the western hemisphere that were colonized by the Iberian empires share anything beyond an accident of geography.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?  
There are too many to name, but the autobiographical side of América del Norte is very much in conversation with Roberto Bolaño, Ben Lerner, and Teju Cole. Its treatment of history owes a great debt to Gabriel García Márquez, W. G. Sebald, and Benjamín Labatut, as well as Walter Benjamin and Louis Althusser. The two chapters that consist of a single long sentence are an attempt to pay homage to the greatest Hispanophone prose writer of our time, Fernanda Melchor, and the metafictional gestures that appear throughout are obviously lifted from Jorge Luis Borges. The main character’s evolving conception of what it means to be at once Mexican and white owes everything to the work of Heriberto Yépez’s Transnational Battle Field, Wendy Trevino’s Brazilian Is Not a Race, and Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields. I’d always thought that my patron saint was Alfonso Reyes, the great Mexican stylist, but the other day a friend who read my novel pointed out that its structure and concerns are strikingly similar to Carlos Fuentes’s Where the Air Is Clear. I guess that happens with influence: When it’s most intense, it works unconsciously. 

6.  What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of América del Norte?
The capaciousness of the novel form. Until I decided América del Norte would be a work of fiction, I’d mostly written journalism, essays, and criticism. But once I gave myself permission to make shit up, I discovered that fiction can contain nonfiction much more easily than nonfiction can contain fiction. This has nothing to do with fact-checking or veracity—it’s a question of form. My thesis adviser at Iowa, John D’Agata, a writer whom I admire and respect, has made a forceful (and, to my mind, rather compelling) argument for the proposition that essays ought to be liberated from the tyranny of facts. In the end, though, I chose the opposite path: Instead of writing an essay that included fiction, I decided to write fiction that included essays. This is because, at their core, novels aren’t long works of narrative but linguistic containers for the novelist’s obsessions—or, as my old teacher Roberto González Echevarría might say, archives that document their passage through a particular place and time. And the great thing about archives is that they can hold all kinds of documents, all manner of writing. You can put everything and anything you like in them.

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
When we had our first conversation after Soho Press decided to make an offer on América del Norte, my editor, Mark Doten, told me he thought the novel should be longer, weirder, and funnier. The most important part of his comment was the last bit: The draft that he’d read already contained moments of humor, but it was for the most part rather self-serious. Mark helped me see that a novel that doesn’t make you laugh out loud every few pages isn’t nearly as good as one that does and that the only way you can get away with seriousness is to balance it with satire, slapstick routines, and self-parody.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started América del Norte, what would you say?
Don’t rush to publish. You’re making a work of art—not enchiladas. A novel worth its salt should take time to write. Otherwise, unless it’s very short and narrowly focused, it will probably be undercooked—or, in my case, something much worse: embarrassing juvenilia.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I did a great deal of research while writing América del Norte. Some of it, such as reading works of scholarship and primary sources about the Mexican-American War or the life of José Vasconcelos, was specifically for the book. But to be honest, while I was writing the novel, I felt that everything I read, saw, and experienced was, however indirectly, research for my project. My diaries, e-mails, and text messages from 2016 through 2018, for instance, became important parts of the book’s archive, as did the notebooks where I’d copied long passages from the books that I’d read since my undergraduate years. The task of the novelist, I think, consists of treating life as a research project.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Natalia Reyes, a wonderful writer and scholar who was in the fiction workshop at Iowa while I was there, once told me that every bit of dialogue should dramatize a conflict between the characters. It doesn’t have to be anything too big or too loud, but there has to be a clash, a contradiction, a disagreement, or a fight. Otherwise there’s no tension or propulsion, and you’re not writing dialogue but rather transcribing conversations.

Nicolás Medina Mora, author of América del Norte.   (Credit: Soho Press)

Ten Questions for Dorothy Chan


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Dorothy Chan, whose new poetry collection, Return of the Chinese Femme, is out today from Deep Vellum. In these sharply playful poems, Dorothy Chan presents the speaker to readers as they already figuratively, if unconsciously, envision her: an object of consumption, the most delectable “dish” on the expansive restaurant menu that Chan’s collection is designed to spoof. With Gurlesque verve and formal dexterity, Chan feasts, struts, frets, and cackles through poems that understand the self as an illusive concept dancing somewhere on the spectrum between essence and performance. The poems’ “Chinese femme” dazzles as she tosses out bits of pop culture, superstitions, family anecdotes, gossip, and confessions before reframing each one with astute assessments, hilarious takedowns, or personal mantras—which may be disavowed as quickly as they are posited: “There are too many poems about fathers. / Or not enough,” she writes in “Triple Sonnet for Veronica Lodge’s Tigers.” The poems’ humor, however, belies their serious critique of the sexist, Orientalist assumptions that gum up the collective imagination like so much icing on the “gender reveal cakes” that infuriate the speaker of “Triple Sonnet for Hers and Hers Towels and Princess Aurora’s Blue/Pink Gown.” Dorothy Chan is the author of the poetry collections BABE (Diode Editions, 2021), Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, 2019), and Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018). Their poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Poem-a-Day from the Academy of American Poets, Poetry, and elsewhere. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire.

1. How long did it take you to write Return of the Chinese Femme?  
I’m a strike-while-the-iron-is-hot writer. I’m all about instinct and feeling and passion. Return of the Chinese Femme took me a year to write. And then I took another year to edit it. I was being finicky on purpose because I already knew this was my favorite book I’ve written (so far).

I love indulgence. Part of the “finicky on purpose” process of creating this book was printing out the manuscript numerous times and laying it out on the floor, determining and re-determining order, and employing other organizational tactics. I love indulgence. Yes, my pleasures include getting an ombre gel manicure, drinking an Aviation or Vesper at a nice bar, ordering everything at dim sum, and filling a fitting room with endless outfits on a trip. But touching the printed Word doc of a completed manuscript is an indulgence that surpasses all of the above. It’s because of the tangibility—how the complete collection is one step closer to being released in the world.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
In my workshops I always emphasize to my students that poetry is hard, but that’s why it’s fun. I love to take every challenge of writing as the infinite volta of discovery. Speaking of volta, the Triple Sonnet is my baby—my signature poetic creation. One of the challenging parts of writing this collection was making my Triple Sonnet fresher than ever. But of course, including references to Dennis Rodman’s style in one of my favorites, “Triple Sonnet for Dennis Rodman, #91, on my Television Screen,” helped. I don’t do sports, but I get basketball…aesthetically.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Every day—because I consider notetaking to be an integral form of the writing process. I just checked: I have 753 notes on my iPhone’s Notes app. These notes contain amusing things I overheard, fashion boards I want to revisit, fragments on nostalgia, Chinese words that will make their way into my poems, Chinese idioms my father teaches me, dreams I write down before they flee, etcetera.

4. What are you reading right now?  
Sonnets and chapbooks from my Honey Literary workshops! I adore the atmosphere of our Honey Literary workshops and the brilliance, grace, and enthusiasm of our Hive.

This is not an exhaustive list, but poetry books I’m always reaching for include Gustavo Hernandez’s Flower Grand First, Rita Mookerjee’s False Offering, Jessica Q. Stark’s Buffalo Girl, Taneum Bambrick’s Vantage, Divya Victor’s CURB, Rosebud Ben-Oni’s If This is the Age We End Discovery, Yanyi’s The Year of Blue Water, Diamond Forde’s Mother Body, Eugenia Leigh’s Bianca, Nabila Lovelace’s Sons of Achilles, KB Brookins’s Freedom House, and many more. I’m really excited to get my hands on Jason Koo’s NO REST with Diode Editions.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I love this question because I love that my table of contents is organized like an evening menu:

I. Recipe for an Asian Femme: I’m a Snack; I’m a Tease; I’m the Dish

II. The Triple Sonnets: Classic Amuse-Bouches with a Twist

III. The Recipes for Disaster, Sex, and Popular Culture

IV. An Ode to Decadence

V. One More Dessert for Discovery

I like organizing my books into odd-numbered sections. For some reason I find elegance in this move, perhaps because I have a deep passion for and studied art history during my undergraduate years at Cornell University. I affectionately call a three-part book structure a “triptych.” Return has a five-part structure, thus pushing us into further elegance.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
People who pursue MFAs have many reasons for doing so. People who do not pursue MFAs have many reasons for doing so. I can only speak on my own experiences. Whenever students ask me this question, please note that I preface it rather extensively. I will say that my experience of meeting my Poetry Family, Norman Dubie and Alberto Ríos, during my MFA, is not an experience I will ever trade.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Return of the Chinese Femme?
The ease with which I created my section titles astounded me. But of course the Triple Sonnet is my signature “amuse-bouche”—it’s the volta-based gift that just keeps giving.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Return of the Chinese Femme, what would you say?
Just keep writing.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I believe that the best poets and writers are also the best researchers. Research can also take many forms and various disciplines. Rewatching episodes of Batman: The Animated Series and Riverdale was one of the most fun aspects of researching popular culture.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
“Always remember this: ‘Write to think; don’t think to write.’” —Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

“In poetry we want to f with the ineffable.” —Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

“The best line of the poem is the line that I am reading; and that does not exclude the title.” —Alberto Ríos

All three of these quotes by my mentors / Poetry Family grace every syllabus I’ve ever created.

Dorothy Chan, author of Return of the Chinese Femme. (Credit: Joshua David Watson)

Ten Questions for Alison C. Rollins


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Alison C. Rollins, whose second poetry collection, Black Bell, is out now from Copper Canyon Press. A dynamic collection filled with images, diagrams, and verse experiments ranging from concrete poetry to a poem in the form of a Turing test, Black Bell offers a poetics of Black survival and liberation. The book’s title alludes to a device worn by enslaved people in the nineteenth century as a form of constraint and punishment. Rollins refashions the bell device literally and figuratively in this collection, with poems contemplating the material, cosmic, and spiritual dimensions of bells while incorporating their sound into the verse itself: Several poems begin with notes that they be performed with the accompaniment of bells. Rollins herself incorporates musical performance into many of her readings, including by wearing a device reminiscent of the one alluded to in the book’s title, an archival image for which can be found in the collection. Black Bell otherwise pays homage to Black historical figures, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Langston Hughes, Harriet Jacobs, Phillis Wheatley, and others whose creative life force infuses the collection. Publishers Weekly praises Black Bell, calling it “an unflinching and incisive compilation.” Alison C. Rollins is the author of Library of Small Catastrophes (Copper Canyon Press, 2019). A recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, a Harvard Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, Rollins holds an MFA from Brown University and is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

1. How long did it take you to write Black Bell?
I consider book publication to be a lifetime in the making, so my answer would be my current age of thirty-six years. This book’s discussion of time and space operates in some ways like a time capsule for me across the past, present, and future, so the concept of “how long” is beyond realistic measure. Black Bell is my second poetry collection, so in many ways it builds and expands on my first book, Library of Small Catastrophes, which was published five years ago, in 2019. 

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
During the latter stages of writing this book, I battled feeling quite lonely, so that was a struggle. But I know that in my making I am never truly alone. Writing a book that is steeped in history and the archive but is also fresh and queer was a fun but particular challenge in terms of asking readers to trust that the narrative strands of the book pleasurably thread together, even when they feel particularly disparate or far reaching. I was pregnant while I did the final edits of the book, so watching my body house a child while preparing to usher a new book into the world was no small task!

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write most days, often using the Notes app on my phone or in little locket journals using mechanical pencils. I don’t hold myself to a rigid writing schedule but instead listen to my mind, body, and heart and write accordingly. I view self-care and being in community with those I love to be forms of writing that are not connected to labor and capital. It is just as important for me to rest as it is to produce. Now, as a mom, I have a little baby to care for, so realistically I write whenever I can get a moment to myself!

4. What are you reading right now?
I just finished Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes and am currently reading Toni Morrison’s Paradise, Camille Dungy’s Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, and Airea D. Matthews’s Bread and Circus.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I knew I wanted to have four sections to represent a quartet and with the understanding, in thinking about the word stanza translating from the Italian to room, that a room has at least four corners. Music figures prominently in the collection, and I knew that I would have one section regarding the seasons open with a Stevie Wonder quote and another section with a Sun Ra quote. One of the epigraphs of the book is taken from Moses Roper’s 1837 A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, From American Slavery, in which he shares the story of a young, enslaved girl trying to escape; she is wearing iron horns and bells, a contraption Roper says the owners of enslaved people made them wear as a form of punishment. The book’s four sections are in tribute to her fugitivity.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
The MFA is a terminal degree that has a particular function, such as serving as the qualification for an academic job. Obtaining a job qualification and being a writer are arguably two different things. I got an MFA after already earning a master’s in library and information science and working for years as a librarian. I recommend writers do whatever they need to hone their craft while centering joy, play, love, liberation, and rest. 

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Black Bell?
I found myself surprised that poetry, as a genre, would uniquely afford me a type of liberatory play on the page and in my lived experience as a poet. I surprised myself by experimenting more with language as malleable sound that can be powerfully manipulated in terms of both speech and silence. I’m thinking a lot about voice and percussion instruments with this collection. I also am thinking more thoughtfully and critically about the act of giving a public reading as a work of performance art. 

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Black Bell, what would you say?
I would reassure the earlier me by letting her know that she is going to create something outside the bounds of what she has ever read before or thought was even possible. I would tell her to follow her gut, stay the course, be strong, and keep dreaming, imagining, pushing!

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I am a researcher and librarian at heart, so I did a lot of research in physical archives as well as in online databases for this book. “Freedom on the Move” (a database of fugitives from North American slavery), the New York Public Library, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture are just a few of the sources I drew from for the collection.

For this collection I learned the trade of arc-welding to be able to practice metalwork to make a “sound suit” to wear while reading, or rather performing, poems from the book. I delved further into performance art and sonic practices for this book, viewing the poetry as a musician or composer would a musical score. Additionally, I developed a small but substantial collection of bells to use in connection with the work to create a more percussive live experience when I give public readings.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
It would probably be Toni Morrison’s prompt, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” coupled with Thelonious Monk’s belief: “A genius is the one most like himself.”

Alison C. Rollins, author of Black Bell.  

Ten Questions for Callie Siskel


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Callie Siskel, whose debut poetry collection is out today from W. W. Norton. In these finely wrought lyrics, Siskel offers a personal history in the shadow of a father’s early death, considering how absence and loss can shape a life as much as any tangible presence. The poems are simultaneously concrete and philosophical, with snapshot memories from childhood through adulthood captured in sensate detail, then mined for revelation—which remains always just out of reach, much to the consternation of the self-aware speaker: “Why this need to eke out meaning / from every errant thing?” she asks herself in “Prophecy in Blue.” The poems capture the fragmentary quality of traumatic grief, as they seize upon remembered moments and attempt to wrestle them into narrative coherence. Poems of personal experience are interspersed with ekphrastic pieces contemplating the works of Caravaggio, George Clausen, Monet, and others: “When told I look like a man’s image / of a woman, I believe it,” she writes with wry humor in “Jeanne,” a poem titled for Amedeo Modigliani’s wife, a frequent subject of the artist’s paintings. The heavy permanence of canonical art becomes a counterpoint to the ephemerality of human life, a contrast that by turns soothes and troubles the speaker, “[t]hat we would be outlasted / by a heavy coat of paint.” Victoria Chang praises Two Minds: “Siskel’s poems are wise and thoughtful, quietly evocative.” Callie Siskel’s poems have appeared in the AtlanticKenyon ReviewYale Review, and elsewhere. The author of Arctic Revival, winner of the Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship, she is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and holds a PhD in creative writing and literature from the University of Southern California.

1. How long did it take you to write Two Minds
I wrote the oldest poem in the book, one of many elegies for my father, twelve years ago. Just now I’m realizing that I’ve been writing the book as long as I had my father—I was twelve years old when he died. That symmetry also feels asymmetrical (my time with my father feels so much longer). As someone who looks for meaning everywhere, I feel some sense of catharsis knowing my efforts to inscribe him in writing took as long as he existed physically in my life.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Writing about loss was challenging—dilating that painful moment in time, looking backward. One of the questions underlying Two Minds is to what extent grief shapes who we are. At one point the poems wanted me to answer that question “completely.”

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write at my computer when I feel inundated by an idea or a phrase. Right now I’m working on a series of linked poems, which has sustained momentum. I’ve written late into the night and first thing in the morning. The time of day is less relevant to me than the sense of urgency that I have to feel in order to commit to the page. I’ve tried writing by hand, to free myself from my impulse to edit as I write, but I’ve recently embraced that my process is to edit as I go; I prefer to create by taking things away. Revising while writing allows me to distill my thoughts and to reach for a clearer line of communication. Once I’ve reached that place, the poems come much more easily.

4. What are you reading right now? 
Eliza Gonzalez’s Grand Tour, Leslie Jamison’s Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story, Saskia Hamilton’s All Souls, and Sigrid Nunez’s The Vulnerables, all of which are keenly about transformation. I like to read poetry and prose at the same time—often poetry in the morning with coffee and nonfiction/fiction in bed.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
Reordering until the editing voice inside my head quieted and I was able to read the collection front to back without the impulse to change it. I also had help. My teacher told me which poems she felt should appear earlier in the manuscript and which near the end. My friend told me to order it poem by poem, and to trust those movements intuitively. Breaking it into five sections also helped because it took some pressure off “the beginning” and “the end”—each section presented another chance to do it differently—and ambivalence and opposition are themes in the book.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I would! Maybe less for the sake of the degree than for the experience of having a number of years to focus primarily on writing and to build a community that lasts way beyond those years. I appreciated how the MFA empowered me to take my writing practice more seriously. The financial support and experience teaching creative writing to undergraduates was also extremely valuable.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Two Minds?
The poems that came the easiest, the most suddenly and least painfully, are among my favorites in the book. The same is true for some of the poems that are furthest away from the direct subject of loss. Perhaps that makes sense—that I’d like the poems less bound up in struggle—but I tend to place a lot of value on difficulty, whether that be emotional or technical, and writing the book taught me that there is also beauty in lightness, mindlessness, and ease. 

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Two Minds, what would you say?
I would be tempted to say, “You will publish a book.” But I wonder if that would have eased the nerves I needed to write in the way that I did, without thinking about how the poems would one day become public. While I am always thinking about a reader—singular—I find that writing uninhibitedly, without a larger audience in mind, is the only way for me to disclose and excavate my inner life. Perhaps I would just say, “You will finish a book,” and leave it at that.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
There were the things I did to support my writing—teaching, leading book clubs, editing, copywriting—and the things I did to nourish my writing: academic research, therapy, and hiking. I was doing a lot of hiking with friends in the year before I finished the book, and I credit it with allowing me to see things differently, and, conversely, to live more in my body than in my head. I think the arc of writing a poem is similar to the experience of ascending and descending physical terrain. Ideally the view at the top surprises and reorients you.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
If you already know what you want to say, if you are attempting to transcribe the past, it won’t come alive on the page.

Callie Siskel, author of Two Minds   (Credit: Lauren Kallen)

Ten Questions for Sheila Carter-Jones


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Sheila Carter-Jones, whose new poetry collection, Every Hard Sweetness, is out today from BOA Editions. In this dynamic work that bridges the lyric and experimental, Carter-Jones explores the intersection of personal and sociocultural history. In a mix of archival images, erasures, and more traditional verse, Carter-Jones unfolds the narrative of her father’s wrongful detainment in a state mental hospital and the fallout for her family during his nearly seven years inside the facility during the height of the Civil Rights movement. She documents her father’s institutionalization as a symptom of a broad scheme to criminalize and incarcerate Black men, one that dates to the nation’s founding and continues into the present. Carter-Jones also explores the will to survive, as she traces her and her family’s life in the shadow of their patriarch’s absence, witnessing their daily rounds of work and intimacies that sustain life despite oppression and peril: “With tiny gestures I put fork to / mouth,” she writes in “Fissured.” Terrance Hayes praises Every Hard Sweetness, calling it “a fabulous combination of old school storytelling and vibrant hybrid experimentation. … Carter-Jones weaves masterful stories from the mercurial feelings and rhythms of everyday experience.” Sheila Carter-Jones is the author of Three Birds Deep (Broadside Lotus Press, 2012), winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Book Award. A recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Carter-Jones has published poems in the Mom Egg Review, Northside Chronicle, Pittsburgh Quarterly, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in creative writing from Carlow University, where she facilitates writing workshops for the Madwomen in the Attic Program.

1. How long did it take you to write Every Hard Sweetness?  
It took so many years to write Every Hard Sweetness. I really can’t count the years in definite numerical terms. I had been writing around the hard sweetnesses for a very long time—more than twenty years.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
The most challenging thing about writing the book was how to manage and balance my emotions with language that could not only express but also hold and carry those same emotions forward without destroying the interior of each poem.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write
I write at my dining room table, where I can see the sun rise in the early morning. It’s so peacefully quiet I can sit with myself undisturbed. It is my poetic ritual to write or read-into-writing every day. This is how I center myself for the day.

4. What are you reading right now?
I read several books at one time. I’m realizing that I read to contextualize my work, and I don’t mean necessarily just for setting or history but for the language, rhythms, cadences, and nuances of image and metaphor that begin to take shape in my mind. Once I feel the movement of a story or facts, I am led into my own writing sensibilities. All this is to say that I am reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard, and What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I began to organize the poems based on the symbol for infinity. That is, I moved from one connecting poem to another—whether in time, space, or personal and public experience—in order to create the appearance of one endless experience that African American people go through at various times and places, and always. And I must admit that I didn’t know I was doing this until the poems made me aware of the unconscious movement that was taking place. I learned more deeply that creative energy has a way of doing its own thing—and to trust it and fight against allowing my mind to censor it.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I would recommend that writers think deeply, perhaps over a period of time, about how they want to experience their writing, what work they want their writing to do in the world, and how they want their work to enter and live in the world to do that work. From this viewpoint, at least a well thought out decision can be made as to whether there is any value in pursuing an MFA.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Every Hard Sweetness?
I was surprised to learn that I actually could use words and images to act as purveyors of emotion. With this understanding, or from this perspective, I could write the hurting things while focusing on language, language use, and structure. Also that’s how I ended up using pictures and graphics to deepen meaning—a kind of see-for-yourself idea.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Every Hard Sweetness, what would you say?
This is an opportunity to develop a courageous spirit. Be brave! Be brave! Above all, be brave!

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
To complete this book I did a meditative practice every day, morning, and evening. I did yoga. I played my flute, running notes together—never a song, just making sounds that seemed to correspond to my feelings. I guess one could say it was improvisation. I went to my hometown and walked to the creek to sit quietly. I talked with old friends and new ones. I spoke with the two journalists who investigated the state hospital I write about in the book and met with one of them. I did research and read the book the other journalist had written as a result of the investigation.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
“Never be ashamed or embarrassed about your life.” This advice opened me and rearranged my heart. It helped me begin to understand how I could get writing to function for me, to lift me.

Sheila Carter-Jones, author of Every Hard Sweetness.   (Credit: Corey Lankford)

Ten Questions for April Gibson


This week’s Ten Questions features April Gibson, whose debut poetry collection, The Span of a Small Forever, is out today from Amistad. In this mix of lyrics, prose poems, forms, and experimental poetics, such as erasure, Gibson considers chronic illness, child-rearing, spirituality, and the trials and triumphs of Black womanhood. In language that is by turns meditative, elegiac, and enraged, the poems confront the speaker’s long battle with poor health and a toxic medical establishment that brings as much pain as it relieves, as she recounts in “Misdiagnosed.” Yet the poems make space to celebrate, as in “An Awkward Ode to My Awesome Stoma,” a musical praise song for “my fishing hook / emptying pink mess / pulled through flesh / my Jesus side wound / my Sisyphus.” Sisyphean exhaustion is a prominent theme, both physical and emotional, particularly when it comes to enduring microaggressions and social violence; a fatigue that ultimately boils over in “The Black Woman Press Conference,” a section of the book in which the speaker pulls no punches in naming injustices, calling out perpetrators, and enumerating unabashed desires: “nothing can stop this flowering.” Memories of childhood mingle with later reflections on motherhood to poignant effect, capping off the collection with an epilogue in the voice of the speaker’s son, who “tells me how the world began.” April Gibson is a poet, writer, and professor from the South Side of Chicago. A winner of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and a Loft Literary Center Mentor Series Award in Poetry, she teaches in the Department of English, Literature, and Speech at Malcolm X College in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.

1. How long did it take you to write The Span of a Small Forever?
It took about ten years to write.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Time, patience, and distance. Time to actually write. Time to be patient with myself and my process. Some things cannot be created until other things are left behind. Time to distance myself from some of the realities beneath the poems. Time to reflect on who I was and who I was no longer. Time to let those versions of myself grow into their own stories, for the narrative to move from personal to collective, from catharsis to art.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
It really depends and has changed a lot over the years. When my children were younger I often wrote very late at night, after they were asleep and into the early hours of the morning. Now they are young adults, and I am a much older adult who needs to go to bed before midnight, so I often write on the weekends, especially Sundays because it’s my most peaceful day. Also, I teach full-time, and we all know how hard it is to write and teach. Needless to say, there may be some inconsistencies in generating work, but I always forgive myself. When I do write, be it intentionally or by a stroke of inspiration, I’m not generally at a desk. I may be propped up in bed with a million pillows, in the corner of my couch, outside on a porch, on rocks at the lake, or just about any place that does not make me feel like I’m “working.” And for some odd reason every time I am on a plane I am inspired to furiously write. I should take more flights, I suppose.

4. What are you reading right now?  
Too many books at once. What’s sitting on my random reading pile right now? All About Love by bell hooks, American Precariat: Parable of Exclusion edited by Zeke Caligiuri et al, A Little Bump in the Earth by Tyree Daye, More Than Meat and Raiment by Angela Jackson, Feelin by Bettina Judd, and so many books I promise I will get to soon.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
The book is organized in sections, and the sections hold the poems in a way that is threaded by a theme or driven by a thematic emotional core, which, at least for me, is generally expressed in the section titles. The order offers readers a flow that starts with a kind of origin and carries out to an almost-end while offering a spectrum of feeling and reflection throughout that I hope shows a circling, a connection within and between sections.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
Leaving aside the discussions about student loan debt (which is a serious concern), I simply don’t think it’s essential for every aspiring writer to pursue an MFA. It really depends on their larger goals, their motivation, their life experiences, and a plethora of other factors. What I miss most about being in an MFA program is the dedicated time I gave my writing and having a consistent writing community. Because even after you have learned a great deal about craft, MFA or not, you will still need time and the right people around you (and to always read, read, read!). If writers can find or create those things outside of an MFA, they are heading in the right direction.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Span of a Small Forever?
Finding connections in my own work that I did not intentionally place there. I’d notice how pieces years apart would be in conversation. I also noticed how I was evolving the same conversation with myself over time. I would have these aha moments as I was putting the collection together, especially when organizing where poems would go, and I’d be amazed at how one piece fit so neatly with another, followed by my audible “Hmm” or “Yes!”

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Span of a Small Forever, what would you say?
Take as long as you need. You’ll know when it’s time, and you’ll be glad you waited.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
The hardest part of writing this book was working to make more time. I had to do the work of teaching, parenting, and taking care of my health while completing this book, so I had to be creative with time and resources. One thing I did was work to secure fellowships and residences so I’d have designated writing space and time. And like many writers I conducted research for this book, from learning medical terminology to double-checking historical events and making sure I’d learned the proper names of products or items, since I name them throughout my work. But due to time constraints, I’d have to come up with creative ways to acquire information related to topics in the book, like asking my doctors a million medical questions and studying their after-visit notes, since I spent an excessive amount of time at the hospital. I also involved my sons in my work to reduce the strain and stress of being a writer and a parent. In some ways my children became part of the team. More than anything I had to talk to people—not in a formal-interview way but to just converse with folks, from my grandparents and parents to siblings and friends. So much of my writing is rooted in memory, and memory is tricky; it’s not right or wrong, but it can be singular sometimes. I wanted to bring in more collective memory, even if I was writing mostly in first person. I wanted that perspective to be informed in a more nuanced way. It could be as simple as asking someone, “Do you remember that time when…?”

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
So much good advice on how to write has been shared with me. Once, over a decade ago, I shared a poem that used a reference that was from African American culture, and the mostly white participants expressed confusion, which led to the premature conclusion that my reference should be removed. But there was one person—the only other Black woman in the workshop, I think—who knew with ease and appreciation exactly what I meant. The facilitator, who was also a Black woman, told me: So long as the people it’s meant for understand, don’t take it out. I forgot about that until now. But I realize it was about a practice of having agency and controlling your own narrative.


April Gibson, author of The Span of a Small Forever.   (Credit: Min Enterprises Photography)

Ten Questions for Garrard Conley


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Garrard Conley, whose debut novel, All the World Beside, is out today from Riverhead Books. In this historical drama set in Puritan-era New England, two men—a doctor named Arthur and a minister named Nathaniel—find their Christian faith tested by an attraction to one another that defies tradition and threatens their ties to their community. As they become increasingly bound to one another, their wives and children are unwittingly caught up in their affair and must maneuver to shield themselves from the consequences. Nathaniel’s son, Ezekiel, who considers Arthur his father as much he does Nathaniel, is sympathetic to the men’s predicament and seeks a world in which people can live more freely. Meanwhile Ezekiel’s sister, Sarah, has the opposite reaction, with her father’s “sinfulness” launching her on a more zealous religious path. Publishers Weekly praises the book, calling it “a potent chronicle of an underexplored era in queer history.” Garrard Conley is the author of the best-selling memoir Boy Erased (Riverhead Books, 2016). His work has been published by the New York TimesOxford American, Time, and Virginia Quarterly Review, among other outlets. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

1. How long did it take you to write All the World Beside
If thinking can be called writing, then I spent about seven years writing All the World Beside. The book involved a repeating pattern of thinking, researching, writing, and redrafting through about three or four major overhauls to the novel’s structure.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I was very conscious of the fact that my characters, many of whom we would call “queer” today, would not have conceived of themselves along those identity lines. Writing with an eye toward the modern reader’s understanding—really trusting the reader to get it without my saying it—was a challenging craft concern.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I want to say I can write anywhere, but the truth is I migrate throughout the house because I need to feel comfortable to write. One month in the bedroom, another at the kitchen table. I get into obsessive habits and rituals, everything you’re not supposed to do. If I’m at work on a project, I write every morning for two to three hours, anywhere from 6:00 AM to 11:00 AM.

4. What are you reading right now?
I just reread 1984 for a segment I did on Ali Velshi’s show on MSNBC. What a marvel that book continues to be. “Doublethink” is a concept that saved me from fundamentalist thinking.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?   
It should, I hope, come as no surprise that Nathaniel Hawthorne is a big influence on this project. As part of my research I also ended up loving a biography of Anne Hutchinson by Eve LaPlante called American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of All the World Beside?
I was most surprised to learn that the women of my novel were very much in charge of the framing of this gay love story. In many ways it’s how the people around the gay love story react that shapes the entire narrative.

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
Both my agent and editor gave me some version of this very helpful advice: Don’t get so conceptual with your project that you lose sight of the living, breathing characters that matter most.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started All the World Beside, what would you say?
Get ready for about fifteen drafts. Get ready for doubt and false starts.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I traveled to multiple historic towns to get a feel for the period. I visited the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society to read letters from the period. I read a lot of sermons—so, so many sermons. 

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Commit to the vision.

Garrard Conley, author of All the World Beside.   (Credit: Brandon Taylor)

Ten Questions for Heather McCalden


This week’s Ten Questions features Heather McCalden, whose debut memoir, The Observable Universe: An Investigation, is out today from Hogarth. In this surprising and touching book, McCalden, born in 1982, confronts the death of her parents in the early 1990s from AIDS-related complications, delving into the history of the disease while linking its emergence to the development of the internet. McCalden structures her book in a manner that captures the frenetic reality of the Information Age, with brief, titled vignettes recording memories, bits of research that read like Google-search revelations, and meditations on science, linguistics, family lore, and trivia that fascinate the author as she circumambulates her loss and attempts to better understand her parents’ lives as well as her own existence. The notion of “virality” functions as a powerful metaphor bridging the medical, digital, and social histories that McCalden seeks to comprehend. Publishers Weekly praises The Observable Universe, saying it “movingly illustrates the fragmentary experience of grief.” A multidisciplinary artist and a graduate of the Royal College of Art in the United Kingdom, Heather McCalden has been awarded residencies by the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and Mahler & LeWitt Studios. The Observable Universe won the Fitzcarraldo Editions/Mahler & LeWitt Studios Essay Prize. She lives in New York City.

1. How long did it take you to write The Observable Universe: An Investigation
Overall the process took around six years. I began the book in late 2015—not consciously, but I was just making notes, doing research, and composing sketches of scenes/feelings that all centered around virality. At that point in time I had been out of art school for about six months and was still operating under that paradigm of success, meaning I was glued to the idea that I should be making art installations. With this at the forefront of my mind, I couldn’t really admit to myself that maybe I was writing a book, and for a long time I believed I was generating content that would get siphoned into something visual or experiential. Eventually this changed in 2016 when the volume and diversity of material grew to such an extent it would be impossible to contain it in anything other than a book. After I hit this “acceptance” stage, I worked on Universe nearly every day until the summer of 2019. It was revised in 2021, when I received the Fitzcarraldo Essay Prize and again when Hogarth optioned the North American rights in 2022.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Facing the darkest aspects of my psyche day after day and figuring out how to put language to it.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?  
My preferred location is my desk, but I can make anywhere work for writing if need be. I write after coffee and before the sun drops out of the sky. I do it every day; I just love hanging out with words.

4. What are you reading right now?   
As usual, too many things! Fiction: Orbital by Samantha Harvey, Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti, and Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan. Nonfiction: There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension by Hanif Abdurraqib, Atlas of AI by Kate Crawford, and I Heard Her Call My Name: A Memoir of Transition by Lucy Sante. 

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
For this book there were several influential authors: Joan Didion, Raymond Chandler, William Gibson, Mary Ruefle, and Eve Babitz. Outside of literature, I kept Kate Bush and David Bowie close at hand. I needed the energy of lateral thinkers.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Observable Universe?
I’m not sure if this counts, but I genuinely gasped when I realized I could quote the film The Matrix in the book without stretching the plot, so to speak. I was so floored that this was possible that I immediately texted a friend who simply responded with, “Now you can retire.”

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
There were many things my agents and publishers said to me, but the one thing that really stood out to me was a poem I found in the New Yorker called “112th Street” by James Longenbach taped above my desk. It’s one of those poems that comes into your life by chance and then ends up being something of a North Star. The first few lines:

If only once, if ever you have the chance,
You should climb a volcano.
The hermitage at base camp, the glasses of brandy—
That’s the past.
Who wants to think about the past?

You want to push forward, climb higher, while all around you,
Inches beneath your feet,
Earth is seething, a river of liquid rock.

The words were a reminder to keep working, keep climbing, keep pushing beyond the past.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Observable Universe, what would you say?
First I’d say: Just go ahead and write the thing; no one cares. Then I’d say: Trust yourself; if you can manage that, the writing will come.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I mean, of course there was the research, and the sleepless nights on Wikipedia, and trips to the library with the inevitable (and totally embarrassing) issues with the copy machines. But there were also Friday evenings spent at the cinema, long walks along the Thames (I was living in London until 2019), and weekday mornings at the Rough Trade East Café. At the time Rough Trade—a record store—opened quite early, at like 9:00 AM or 10:00 AM, and they had a special on coffees: any type your heart desired for only £2. I used to go in about five minutes after they opened, get a cheap (but amazing) flat white, and just tune into whatever eclectic music the staff happened to put on that day. It used to warm up my brain to prepare for the writing.

Lastly: Dance. In another life I was a dancer, and while I no longer take technique classes, I do spontaneously dance in the kitchen.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Annie Dillard wrote, “It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick.” Another way of saying this came out in a lecture by Canadian writer Douglas Glover: “Don’t save your good ideas for the end.”

Heather McCalden, author of The Observable Universe: An Investigation.  

Ten Questions for Zefyr Lisowski


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Zefyr Lisowski, whose new poetry collection, Girl Work, is out this week from Noemi Press. In these unflinching poems, Lisowski contemplates womanhood as a kind of labor, one performed under the weight of history, stifling social arrangements, and troubled memory. Interrogating the nature of childhood trauma, the poems envision it as something like a horror-movie curse, casting the speaker into a cycle of traumatic repetition via fraught encounters that occur both out in the world and within the psyche. The reader follows the speaker through sidewise accounts of these traumas alongside narration of everyday experiences, appraised with a critical attention that frames them as products of interlocking systems of oppression, which grant the speaker varying degrees of privilege and precarity: Her whiteness offers protection even as her trans identity makes her a target for violence. Refusing to indulge feelings of self-pity, the speaker nonetheless moves toward a position of self-compassion, one necessary for survival: “Poem, I don’t need to tell you what happened, / but I’m finding myself in it even as we speak, as I write / again toward this body so many / have written on already.” Zefyr Lisowski is the author of the poetry collection Blood Box (Black Lawrence Press, 2019). A poetry coeditor of Apogee Journal, she is also a 2023 NYFA/NYSCA Fellow, a 2023 Queer|Art Fellow, and a recipient of support from the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, Blue Mountain Center, the Center for the Humanities, and Sundress Academy for the Arts. Her new book, Girl Work, is the winner of the 2022 Noemi Book Prize.

1. How long did it take you to write Girl Work?  
I wrote the first poem at a haunted arts residency at a former robber baron’s hunting lodge in 2018. I finished the first draft of the book approximately a year later. That said, I continued working on Girl Work, in various forms, until 2023—although the last major revision was in 2022, before I sent it to Noemi. While editing I tried to preserve the me who I was when initially writing it—messy, at times vindictive, sometimes wrong, and committed to a language of directness. Time has softened all of those things, but I still respect who wrote that initial draft, even if she feels more like a stranger now. 

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
The book started in response to the whiteness (and wealth) of the most mainstream iteration of #MeToo. Around the same time as the #MeToo movement’s 2016 mainstream resurgence, I noticed a more localized trend among white trans people of talking about transness as a state of death, independent of class or race. In both of these trends, differently classed experiences of sexual and physical violence were collapsed into the same experience, and womanhood was positioned primarily as a deracinated state of victimhood or ruined innocence. I myself am a recipient of violence, many times over. I also am a laborer. I also am white, which serves as a mitigator of the intensity of the frame and was an identity notably left out of many mainstream #MeToo discussions. I was interested in writing a book that spoke to these intersections of class, race, and sexual violence while refusing to ascribe a redemptive or palliative “goodness” to the speaker—to live more in the mess.

So the most difficult thing about the book was writing about violence without positioning the speaker as a perfect victim—looking at the messy ways that sexual violence, labor, and emotional cruelty led the speaker to, at times, a cruelty of her own. Or perhaps the most difficult thing was writing about what scholar Achille Mbembe terms “necropolitics”—the politics of who is granted death and who is granted life in a society, with death often ontologically inscribed onto Indigeneity and Blackness—without foreclosing the potential of life for the subjects about whom I was writing. This was difficult, in part, because I don’t think I fully pulled it off; regardless of the care I took, including during the revision process, Girl Work is still a wound of a book. But those central concerns still animate the whole of the text, the gristle on which I chew.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
I’m an inconsistent writer, a disposition caused in part by the other waged labor I do and the conditions of capitalism; I write when I’m able to write. Sometimes daily, often weekly, occasionally monthly. But I think about writing every day, which I suppose is a sort of writing itself. The exception to this is at residencies, where I’m prolific in both my reading and writing: Again, capitalism.

In terms of where I write: my bed, or my desk, or stretched out on the floor, tummy down. When: late morning and late evenings. Pre- and post-work. When feeling lonely, or not. Writing, initially, was a way to access love without the fear of loss. As I’ve grown, it’s become a way to know loss and love sound like almost the same word anyway, to find care in that nonetheless. Now I write for myself. But I also write to show what I’ve written to lovers, friends, community—to get back from them in turn. Regardless of where, when, or how, I write to receive.

4. What are you reading right now?   
Currently I’m reading Diana Khoi Nguyen’s second poetry collection, Root Fractures, and I just finished Jules Gill-Peterson’s brilliant, incisive A Short History of Trans Misogyny. As a birthday gift my girlfriend got me the complete novels of Lynn Ward, the leftist woodcut illustrator whose wordless novels paved the way for the modern graphic novel; I’ve been savoring my way through them. Similarly languorous and brilliant is Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, which I read during a recent hospital stay, sparking a renewed interest in her work; I’m following it up with The Passion According to G.H. And of course I’m always reading the work of my friends. I’m especially excited about Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s Watchnight and have read some brilliant essays and poems by Sloane Holzer I can’t wait to see in the larger world. Finally, since her passing, I’ve been rereading the funny, transformative work of luminary activist, mother, and revolutionary Cecilia Gentili. If you haven’t read Faltas, do so immediately. 

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
When I first wrote this book I structured it around the spiral—the circle of the well from the 2002 film The Ring, the conviction that this (labor, gendered violence, the aforementioned necropolitics) will keep happening, the anguish of repetition. I wrote out of a desire to see the thing unguarded, whether that thing be beauty or violence; and I wrote out of a lack of faith in terrestrial redemption. That version of the book was nearly published several times, and I still hold tenderness for its tenderness. But after several years, a minor breakdown, and a complete reconfiguration in my understanding of what my life could look like, I started to hope; and I realized that while the book is haunted by repetitions, love repeats thematically too. From there I started threading more poems into the collection that cared for, rather than cut, the reader—and gradually the spiral uncoiled. Now the book is structured around descents and ascents, which feels more honest—or at least more complex. The last significant change in the collection happened when my editor, Diana Arterian, suggested moving the poems that laid out the concerns of the book most explicitly—whiteness, violence, labor, and beauty—to the first half of the book. This provided space in the second half for a more capacious kind of holding as well, a more total transformation of the speaker’s relationship to herself and the world.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
The short answer is no. The long answer is maybe. My MFA was a fraught but incredibly generative experience: I wrote a whole first draft of the book there, and I was also told by a classmate that by writing about the whiteness and transphobia of the program in said book, I was “shooting my allies.” The program was fully funded; I received outstanding feedback on the first draft of the book; I was miserable. That said, I’ve been able to professionalize as a writer in part because of the credential of the MFA. And since the MFA I’ve built back my sense of community, which I had grown disillusioned with completely for several years. Which is to say: The damage wasn’t permanent. I think MFAs are rooted in white supremacist, ableist, cisnormative standards, although there are certainly programs that don’t follow those fault lines of power. I think that for anyone minoritized in our society, any interfacing with systems of power needs to be tactical and very intentional. But I don’t think that precludes going for it anyway. Just to be safe: If you’re considering a program, don’t go into debt. Try not to move somewhere you wouldn’t move already. And outside the program surround yourself with those who love you enough to be honest. Living, I believe, not working, is the work.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Girl Work?
The book started from such a despairing place, so the fact that it wrapped back around to a state of hope by the end of the writing process was a balm and a gift. But maybe that’s to say I was surprised at how my life changed, and the work reflects that life. Life, after all, is a form of active revision too. Growth shouldn’t only happen on the page.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Girl Work, what would you say?
Not to sound like Dan Savage, but: Things will get better. You will heal, surround yourself with those who love you and those you love. Grief complicates a life but is also a measure of care and, as such, it enriches it too. Continue working on multiple projects beyond this one—they’ll buoy you. Rest more. Nurture your relationships. Let it cook.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
At a reading I gave in 2018, early in the writing process for this book, an audience member came up and told me, “You must have gone through a lot of therapy to write this.” It was such an (accidentally?) accurate read. I’m skeptical of a lot of things about therapy—at its worst, it individualizes systemic problems—but I have to acknowledge the ways it helped me. Before I wrote the book, I started thinking through it; and before I started thinking through it, I felt it through. Therapy helped me feel.

So much of Girl Work is about embodied trauma, so writing it was an exercise, often unsuccessful, in avoiding retriggering myself. Things that helped: working in forms that had their own containers built into them (which is why there are so many visual poems cropped in by the dimensions of the page and long columns of text in the book). Taking frequent walking breaks. Smoking herbal cigarettes. Watching movies with friends. Pursuing other hobbies (teaching myself how to play banjo, building a dollhouse, writing and recording a musical based on The Ring, getting back into drawing comics). Laughing. I couldn’t have written the book without all of these.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
My Queer|Art mentor, T Fleischmann, told me once that I sometimes use the lyric to avoid naming more difficult truths. So many of the writers who are most important to me, such as June Jordan, engage in a poetics of directness, a way of naming and not looking away from machinations of power. I love the delights of a pretty line or sentence, but often they obscure rather than clarify. T’s dictum to say the thing directly is hard because it requires a deep vulnerability and conviction of purpose in my words and acts. I strive for that bravery every day.


Zefyr Lisowski, author of Girl Work.   (Credit: Ayesha Raees )

Ten Questions for Cindy Juyoung Ok


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Cindy Juyoung Ok, whose debut poetry collection, Ward Toward, is out today from Yale University Press. In these sharp poems that range from traditional lyrics to formal experiments, Ok presents a personal narrative of identity formation amid a struggle with mental health as well as a critical dismantling of received ideologies and traditional ways of seeing the self and others. With bleak humor, an eye for the absurd, and careful attention to the line, the poems offer a window into the Kafkaesque labyrinth that is the U.S. medical establishment, elegiac analyses of racist violence—particularly against Asian Americans—and critiques of popular culture. In her foreword poet Rae Armantrout, who selected Ward Toward for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, calls the collection “radically honest and unpretentious…. Cindy Juyoung Ok is a wonderfully inventive poet with a command of her craft.” A writer, editor, and educator, Cindy Juyoung Ok is a MacDowell Fellow whose poems have been published in the Nation, the Yale Review, the Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere.  

1. How long did it take you to write Ward Toward?  
Four years. Its oldest poem is from autumn 2018, and its newest poem is from autumn 2022.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
I had understood a first book to be all one’s successful poems put into a manuscript as though a shrine to a period or a portfolio of competence. Only once I gave up the urge to stuff individual pieces into a document as an archive of the ego could I write the book. The phrase “ward toward” came late but felt like receiving a revelation, upon which I formed a shorter manuscript that was a wholly separate entity from the storage unit I had accumulated. There are poems I find taut or elegant or even relevant to the book’s concerns that were not included. I thought a book could be carved out of a block of poems, but instead it had to start from blank space.

The most practical challenge of writing the book was not having workplace health insurance for the first year and most of the last year. I received insurance through the Affordable Care Act but did not get off the wait list for a primary care physician. It would have been much easier to write if health care were as accessible as it is when my contracts are full-time with school districts or universities.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Nothing ritualistic. I write on pads when I have something to write with, which can be during any hour or season and with seemingly undivinable frequency: three ready poems at once, not a line for nine months, and so on. It brings me only annoyance to force consistency or write bad poems. I don’t find that they lead to more interesting ones so I prefer to wait until ready poems seem to exist to me whole. I usually write in bed or on a couch, and when those are unavailable I resort to a desk.

As a process, writing is like pooping. I try not to push it, and I hope that all my passive non-writing activity is digesting well and can become, through my trusty body, something new. Strain is not often necessary. The products, though, differ: What comes out in a poem is, I hope, the best and most concentrated bits of me, parts I could never hold in and which can live beyond my one mind and small life.

4. What are you reading right now?  
[…], which Fady Joudah mostly wrote this autumn during the ongoing U.S.-backed genocide of his people in Palestine. I include poems from his collection at my readings (with his knowledge and blessing, as we share a publication date and are reading each other’s books now), and I am grateful for the book’s wildness and precision, for the fathomless generosities he offered in these poems and also personally in this period: When I lost income, he offered aid; when I received an unfavorable medical diagnosis, he offered, as a physician, to discuss its details with me.

While writing recently on a piece by Christine Imperial that undoes the visuality of U.S. colonization in the Philippines by marring texts by Dean Worcester, I was disquieted to realize the extent of National Geographic’s complicity in creating the visual imaginary of the other, of colonialism’s needs and ends in the U.S. I started reading the images and texts of issues from various years, and they are terrifying, amazing, telling. In news of another sense, I’ve begun The Smell of Risk: Environmental Disparities and Olfactory Aesthetics by Hsuan L. Hsu, who considers in daring detail how the Western aesthetic project has categorized and metaphorized smell, how art makes sense of air.

And I am always reading student work. After reading the reviews in Anthony Cody’s Borderland Apocrypha (found from Trip Advisor) and Courtney Faye Taylor’s Concentrate (created in Yelp form), my student Avery began collecting and working with beauty-product reviews, crafting pieces in which the speaker has experienced pain or even hospitalization because of a product but hugely recommends it because it works, or they feel happy. Her poems and prose discern this pattern but are careful not to satirize the review writers or blame any individual for the structures at play, and extensive research on daily performativity clearly intrigues her impulses.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
The poems are formally constrained in their enactment of material constraint, as with boxed stanzas. So their arrangement also has a stringent logic in three sections, or “wards,” with reiterative transitions between adjacent poems.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I neither particularly recommend nor argue against graduate school, but funded programs provide a way to structure time differently than many jobs. For a public school teacher to suddenly have the option to wake up without an alarm and read or cook—it moved my mind, even as I planned to return to my full-time job and imagined the degree as a break from a nine-to-five that was more like six-to-six. I lived reasonably on my stipend and additional gigs, which was not as feasible for those with costly roles as family caregivers or with major student debt, or as relevant for peers who were financially supported by parents or partners.

Most of my writer friends I met at residencies, conferences, and readings, and all my publications and jobs came through applying to public calls. Having the degree was not a prerequisite for my job as an incoming assistant professor in an MFA, and there is so much evidence that there are no true prerequisites to writing itself.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Ward Toward?
It surprises me still that I wrote Ward Toward alone. No one had read it when I sent it into just one contest, whose screeners and then contest judge were the first ones to meet the book. My friends are thankfully the basis of my days and years in all ways, and my spouse is otherwise my thrillingly brilliant first and last editor, so it is unusual that the making of a major undertaking, one I felt proud of, happened this way. If I publish another book, I hope I will be able to describe writing it alongside and through and because of many others.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Ward Toward, what would you say?
Nothing related to writing: Buy a water filter. As your grandparents continue to die off realize how many people raised you and how devotedly. Apparently soap is different from face wash. The city provides free radon tests. The pain of your wishes coming alive is preferable to the pain of the alternative.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Most of what I did was not writing. I taught at a dozen universities and nonprofits, moved to and left nine cities, attended hundreds of dinner parties. It can hardly be called work, but time passed and the poems happened. Writing the present yields my dullest stretches of words. To make poems I need to live and have such a distance that there is no catharsis to be sought or risked.

Before turning the book in for production, I also contacted everyone mentioned in its pages, even if unrecognizably, and cited any conversation I felt was referenced. This included calling my childhood friend in prison, checking every relevant line with my mother, and tracking down a retired group therapist from a decade prior who had no recollection of me but was pleased with my recounting of our interaction. I hoped not for permission necessarily but to prevent surprise. Happily, everyone was supportive of the book and delighted to be included.  

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Two years ago I used the word “grooming” to refer to a short story character’s routine of hair brushing and face washing. My students momentarily recoiled and then explained that my usage of the word seemed strange, as they experienced the primary meaning of the verb as the initially metaphoric one: to manipulate, usually younger people, toward sexual and other violent ends. The exchange was a piece of writing advice these writers were providing me:

You cannot refuse language’s constant renewals by claiming nonparticipation. The meaning of all words is socially determined, and their users are a part of, and responsible for, their changing possibilities.

Cindy Juyoung Ok, author of Ward Toward.   (Credit: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey)

Ten Questions for Tomás Q. Morín


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Tomás Q. Morín, whose new book, Where Are You From: Letters to My Son, is out today from the University of Nebraska Press. In these intimate and candid epistles, Morín writes to his child about his daily life, family history, literature, and the precarious situation for people of color in the United States. The title of Morín’s book alludes to a story James Baldwin once told about being asked where he was from and his answer—that he was from New York City—not convincing his interlocutor. Morín recounts being similarly questioned about his origin, despite his family’s long history in Texas and a lineage that traces to Spain, “the land from which our people crossed an ocean to come here to these continents to steal, murder, and enslave,” he writes. Yet as a self-described brown man, Morín finds himself the focus of racist attention and wondering how his son will fare in decades to come: “When you lift your head from this book and look around, what do you see? What are the faces like, O boy of the future?” Morín also offers meditations on the nature of love, relationships, self-knowledge, and a host of other topics he shares in hopes of influencing and connecting with his child through the years. Tomás Q. Morín is the author of the memoir Let Me Count the Ways (University of Nebraska Press, 2022), winner of the 2022 Writers’ League of Texas Nonfiction Book Award, and the poetry collections Machete (Knopf, 2021), Patient Zero (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), and A Larger Country (American Poetry Review, 2012). He is on the faculty of Rice University.

1. How long did it take you to write Where Are You From: Letters to My Son
The first draft took eight weeks. But then it was another few years before I added the last third of the book. Turned out I hadn’t yet lived what remained to write.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Hmmm, I guess not becoming so overwhelmed by my postpartum depression that I would become frozen and not be able to channel what I was feeling into the writing.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Gosh, that depends. I love writing at this giant desk I’m typing these answers on now. I’ve been lugging this desk around move after move. In the times I haven’t had access to it, my office (especially when campus is empty) has been a wonderful spot to work. Ditto my car, on the Notes app of my phone. As for how often, well, not nearly as much as I would like. But often enough to remain connected to the work.

4. What are you reading right now?   
I’m reading Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, Fugitive/Refuge by Philip Metres, and on deck is Szilvia Molnar’s The Nursery.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
For every book, different literary angels perch on my shoulder and whack my knuckles when I go astray, haha. Okay, they don’t really whack my hands like the nuns of old, but they do keep me company. For this book, there were four: James Baldwin brought me courage, Albert Camus light, Ralph Ellison fire, and Dostoevsky—he brought the zany humor.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Where Are You From?
The groundhogs. How they burrowed their way into this book still feels somewhat mysterious to me. I’m glad they were there to guide me.

7. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
A hundred percent. I would never advise anyone who wanted to become a shoemaker to skip the apprentice stage.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Where Are You From, what would you say?
I’d say: Things will get better. You’ll get better. It won’t always be this hard for you and your family.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I couldn’t have completed this book without Prince’s album Piano & A Microphone 1983. Those songs gave my work routine and my sentences a rhythm that I could count on.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Philip Levine said, “Write everything that occurs to you to write because you never know what’s going to stick.”

Tomás Q. Morín, author of Where Are You From: Letters to My Son.   (Credit: Jeff Fitlow )

Ten Questions for Phillip B. Williams


This week’s Ten Questions features Phillip B. Williams, whose debut novel, Ours, is out now from Viking. In this historical narrative with a supernatural twist, the plantations of 1830s Arkansas are overtaken and liberated by a heroic woman named Saint, who wields immense, otherworldly power. Under Saint’s aegis, the formerly enslaved people travel to a hidden town where they are able to build lives for themselves and their families. For a time, they live in a kind of paradise, without fear of violence or persecution by outsiders. But eventually the shelter provided by Saint begins to feel constrictive, and the town’s residents wonder if they are truly safe within the narrow bounds their savior has measured for them. Kirkus praises Ours, calling it “a gorgeously written, evocative saga of Black American survival and transcendence, blending elements of fantasy, mythology, and multigenerational history.” Phillip B. Williams is the author of two collections of poetry: Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books, 2016), which was the winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and a Lambda Literary Award, and Mutiny (Penguin Books, 2021), which won a 2022 American Book Award. A recipient of a Whiting Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts, Williams teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at New York University.

1. How long did it take you to write Ours
Sixteen years, from 2006 to 2022.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Having patience enough to allow myself to fully discover and build the vision.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I can only write in places that feel like home, so my own home, a close friend’s place, etcetera. I cannot write in public places. I write whenever it feels best to do so. It can be late at night or in the afternoon. Rarely do I write in the morning because rarely am I ready to do anything in the morning. I do not write as often as I used to. It comes in spurts, during which I write compulsively until the project is complete. Most of my time is spent doing the other, often disregarded, activities of writing: thinking and reading.

4. What are you reading right now?   
Right now I am reading Tayari Jones’s novel An American Marriage and Michael Dumanis’s second collection of poems, Creature.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?   
Gabriel García Márquez, José Saramago, Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Thomas Glave, Amos Tutuola, John Steinbeck, Zora Neale Hurston.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Ours?
That characters talk back. My process of writing Ours was basically one long free-write. I didn’t have an outline; so much of the plot revealed itself to me as I was writing. This posed an interesting problem: I felt that I both guided the story and was guided by it. Imagine me pacing my home, talking aloud to no one present (except in my mind), asking, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Then I would write the scene and shake my head in disbelief that a character wanted to do that.

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
They both shared the sentiment that the book will have a life of its own and that said life would be major.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Ours, what would you say?
Nothing. I’m not about to change the trajectory of what I’ve created. If I encourage younger me, I might get cocky. If I warn younger me, I might take fewer risks. I’m not saying a thing.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Lots of sleep. You will see this appear more and more in interviews. I was and remain exhausted after finishing this book. Finding time to rest, comfortable enough blankets, the right rain sounds, the best candle—all of this was necessary work to unwind from the endless writing schedule that was Ours.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 

Phillip B. Williams, author of Ours.  

(Credit: Nicholas Nichols)

Ten Questions for Omotara James


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Omotara James, whose debut poetry collection, Song of My Softening, is out now from Alice James Books. In these intimate lyrics, James explores family history, memory, and the body as a site of emotional, social, and cultural knowledge. The poems play the scales between high lyric music—as in “Pier 52,” in which a lover “looks through the wound of my life like it’s light. So I let him. The last cube of ice.”—and bold humor: “Bitch, / wake up! Why are you / sleeping?” God queries the speaker of “When I Dream of Escape.” Desire—for sustenance in the form of food, sex, or spiritual fulfillment—is a recurrent theme, one that serves as a counterpoint to some of the collection’s other primary concerns: betrayal, loss, and violation. “I ask: is pain grief, leaving the body? / If so, freshly-seeded trauma stay close,” James writes in “Black Woman Gets a Massage: Has Discourse With God.” Library Journal calls Song of My Softening “a stunning debut…. It’s not often that fat women feel such thorough representation of themselves…not only in the beautiful moments but in the sorrowful ones.” Omotara James is the recipient of the 2023 J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation, a 92NY Discovery Poetry Award, a Bread Loaf Katharine Bakeless Nason Award in Poetry, and other honors. Her chapbook, Daughter Tongue (Akashic Books, 2018), was selected by the African Poetry Book Fund for the New Generation African Poets Box Set, and her poems have appeared in the Nation, BOMB, the Paris Review, and elsewhere.

1. How long did it take you to write Song of My Softening?  
In a way, I have been working on Song of My Softening for over thirty years. I remember being about eight years old, pressing my pencil to my first diary, trying to articulate an experience for which I had no words. I’m referencing “Untouched,” which is one of the first poems to appear in the collection but was actually one of the last poems to be written. The oldest poem to appear in this book was drafted around 2007 or 2008, which would make this collection sixteen or seventeen years in the making.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Finishing the book presented the largest challenge. I loved writing this book. I couldn’t stop writing. Each time I felt the book was complete, I would write new poems that felt essential to the text as I understood it. The collection was solicited soon after I finished my MFA program. I was in the midst of processing the death of a loved one while completing my thesis. When the book was accepted the following year, in 2020, as a society we were collectively thrown into grief over losing family members and close friends. The collection became my healing site, my safest place. My refusal to part with it came out of not knowing who I would be without it. Who I would be if I wasn’t writing my first book was too frightening a concept to confront. But eventually I did part with it, albeit begrudgingly. Inside the work of the book, I felt like my best self. As I felt my most knowing self come to the fore, I refused to let her go. The person I was while writing the book was my best friend and sharpest critic, and it took me a minute to realise emotionally that this person wasn’t going anywhere.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I tend to write every day and everywhere. I write in bed, at the kitchen table, outside on my balcony, in the loo. Many of these poems began while I was driving and had to pull over, or on the train to my MFA program. More than a few of these poems were written in the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House at New York University between the hours of 10:00 PM and 2:00 AM, waiting for the Uber surge-charges to fall. That stated, I also can go days or weeks without working on a project. But I’m usually writing in some capacity, even it’s only a voice memo or text message I send to myself. There’s always something I’m trying to articulate to myself that keeps me up at night; I relish the opportunity. Mainly I find myself writing in those unguarded moments, in which one allows the yearnings of one’s life to align flush with one’s God-given desires.

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m currently reading all of the books in my bed, which I shove into a corner at night and hope don’t poke me in the eye while I’m sleeping: The Ferguson Report: An Erasure by Nicole Sealey; I Am Still With You: A Reckoning With Silence, Inheritance, and History by Emmanuel Iduma; The Best American Essays 2022, edited by Alexander Chee; and Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma by Melanie Brooks. I’m also reading a precious advance copy of Redwood Court by DéLana R. A. Dameron. The richness of the characters and the discourse between the stories is exciting and fresh. There’s always an audiobook in rotation, and right now it’s Yellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
The old standards of innocence and experience form the structure of the text. The speaker of the poems continues to interrogate the slippage between these concepts, as she navigates and reflects on the constraints of a life. In many conventional texts, the innocence of a character, especially a femme character, is not decided by what the character does but rather by what is done to her. This conditions the reader to accept that they are removed from the agency of their own innocence. I work to challenge that reading of innocence. That definition of innocence. This text is broken down so that innocence and experience are based on the choices made by the speaker. The speaker is very much aware of her own agency in the world of experience. To be clear, this is not a work of autobiography, but it is a text crafted from the perspective of my lived experiences.

It can be said that the first half of life is for reeling and the second half is dedicated to healing and revealing. The speaker switches between the present tense and the reflective flashback, because as the speaker accrues experience, every previous experience bears down on the present moment, expanding it. In other words, the past acts continuously on the present moment, so that the slippage between tenses forms the organic timeline and organising principle of the collection.

I also endeavor to frame the impact of music on poetics and vice versa. Musical groupings and instruments mark different sections of the text.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I would recommend that writers engage with other writers. To the writer starting out: Find the best readers of your work, the folks who get you and don’t want to change your project, but who are also not afraid to ask questions. Gift someone else the privilege of your knowledge and experience. Holding space for others is the best education in empathy. Empathy can only improve the rigor of your work. There’s nothing more sacred than the poetry talks I have with a couple of close friends. One is from my MFA program and the other is from a writing conference I attended. Wherever you think you can find your peers, go there, and tend to those friendships. If you find someone in a local workshop who relates to your work and gives you helpful feedback, take an interest in their project and be generous. I only ever regret the times when I could have and should have been more generous. Those were my greatest lessons.

I am entirely grateful for my MFA experience, and I would do it again. However, I am not advocating for anyone to plunge themselves into debt for an MFA program. Don’t do that.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Song of My Softening?
My affinity for ekphrasis. I enjoy art of every register: high and low. I am always moved by the gesture of love and hope contained within art that doesn’t lend itself to that reading. I was also surprised by the satisfaction of a full rhyme properly placed. Especially amongst my peers, the presence of a full rhyme felt lowbrow or out of place. Reclaiming and centering the full rhyme almost felt like a rebellious act.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Song of My Softening, what would you say?
No matter how bad it gets, don’t give up. All is not lost. Cultivate a ritual for retreat and return. Also, trust your instincts. Your instinct to wait to publish is right. You only get one debut. Most systems are created to exclude and/or exhaust you. Folks will try to divide you from your body-autonomy, your personal agency, and from your instinct. Don’t listen to them. You are the expert on what you feel, so you’re going to have to learn how to listen to yourself. This will literally save your life. All of your poems are waiting for you, and you’ll write them when you’re ready. You’re going to surprise yourself.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
We concentrate so much on writing process, but actually in my experience writing the book is the last stage of the process of cultivating attention and awareness and interrogating my own motivations to create art. For me this included meditation and therapy.

I was a fine arts minor in college, and reconnecting to my love of art and art history has been important to my writing process. Buying my little house plants and trying to take care of them as best as I can has contributed to the balance of this book project. Most of all, music. Music as a spiritual practice and as a physical practice has grounded me within this book. I immersed myself in the music of my youth, even if it was the music I didn’t care for at the time but existed in the zeitgeist while I was growing up. I’ve always depended on music to lift my spirits, to be my confidant and collaborator, and to understand me. It helps me unlock my inner consciousness.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I was at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Vievee Francis gave us an incredible writing prompt around understanding our personal ethos. In addition to stressing rigor, she emphasized the importance of care with respect to process. She said when writing about a difficult subject it’s important to create a way into the work as well as a way out of the work. She was speaking toward writing rituals, which allow a delineation between writing life and real life. She gave examples.

The trope of writers having to suffer for their art is something we internalise, even when we realise it’s an unhealthy trope. This advice reflects a generosity of process, which will find its way into the work. I try to turn this advice over whenever possible to anyone who might need it as much as I did.

Omotara James, author of Song of My Softening.  

Ten Questions for Margot Livesey


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Margot Livesey, whose new novel, The Road From Belhaven, is out today from Knopf. In this coming-of-age tale set in nineteenth-century Scotland, a clairvoyant girl named Lizzie lives on her grandparents’ farm, where she plies her family’s trade amid confusing visions of the future. As she attempts to influence events, Lizzie finds herself at a painful loss: cursed with the knowledge of what she either cannot change or cannot foresee. Disillusioned with rural life and the strictures of traditional femininity, Lizzie follows a charismatic young man to the city, where she finds herself overwhelmed by love and ultimately unable to escape the call of motherhood and her family’s homestead. In the Washington Post, Laurie Hertzel praises The Road From Belhaven: “Livesey’s piercing and eloquent novel manages to convey the wonderful mysteries that life offers along the way.” Margot Livesey is the author of a story collection, an essay collection, and ten novels, including The Boy in the Field (Harper Perennial, 2021) and Eva Moves the Furniture (Picador, 2001). A recipient of honors from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, she is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

1. How long did it take you to write The Road From Belhaven?
I began the novel in March 2020, when it became clear that I would not be able to go back to Scotland for many months. I wrote the last words in 2023.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I wanted to write a novel that was set in the 1880s but that wasn’t a “historical novel”; it just happens to be set in the past. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring was very inspiring.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I have a room upstairs in our house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It overlooks the neighbours’ garden, and I try to be at my desk first thing every morning. The computer I write on is never allowed to go online.

4. What are you reading right now?
Katherine Min’s posthumous second novel, The Fetishist, and Martyr!, Kaveh Akbar’s first novel.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Rereading Thomas Hardy’s work, especially Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman, was very helpful. Hardy is so persistently interested in mistakes as a determining force in the lives of his characters. Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, which is set on a farm in the northeast of Scotland, was very influential.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I have the good fortune to teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where my students learn in six months what it took me six years to learn, writing between shifts as a waitress. But I would never say that pursuing an MFA is the only road to becoming a writer.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My editor, the fabulous Jennifer Barth, told me to write a book only I could write.

8. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Road From Belhaven?
I changed my mind about the meaning of a crucial word. I can’t explain without giving away the plot.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I had to go to the gym most days, and I had to do research into farm life in nineteenth-century Scotland. I also did research, if that’s the word, into the supernatural.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Tolerate your own mediocrity. Believe in the optimism of revision.

Margot Livesey, author of The Road From Belhaven.  

(Credit: Michael Lionstar)

Ten Questions for Diana Khoi Nguyen


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Diana Khoi Nguyen, whose second poetry collection, Root Fractures, is out today from Scribner. The mix of lineated verse and prose poems—many of which appear in sections staggered throughout the collection—alongside concrete poems creates a collage-like portrait of one Vietnamese American family’s formation, breakdown, and fraught survival in the United States in the wake of the Vietnam War. The poems shift tonally from expository to lyrical, weaving the speaker’s own impressions with overheard speech, bits of historical information, images, and other kinds of language—in both English and Vietnamese—capturing the fragmentary nature of contemporary life, particularly for those from diasporic identities and survivors of trauma and loss. Terrance Hayes praises Root Fractures: “This astonishing second collection renders poetry into an act of kintsugi, embellishing what is broken in a family’s legacy so that it can be held in a new light.” Diana Khoi Nguyen is the author of Ghost Of (Omnidawn, 2018), which received the 2019 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and a Colorado Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A Kundiman fellow and member of the Vietnamese diasporic artist collective, She Who Has No Master(s), Nguyen teaches creative writing at Randolph College’s low-residency MFA program and is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

1. How long did it take you to write Root Fractures?  
I think it happened over various intensive writing sessions, roughly thirty days each year between 2017 and 2021. It’s funny: In early 2021, I’d known that I had enough poems for a new book, but the thought terrified me; so I printed them out, stuck them in a translucent folder, then proceeded to travel with the unordered manuscript for over a year—while actively avoiding engagement with the manuscript. It wasn’t until I gave birth in June 2022—and moved back to the area where I was born and grew up (perhaps not unlike salmon returning home to spawn), left the infant with my parents, drove to my childhood public library (where I spent hundreds if not thousands of hours in my youth), and laid out the pages on a conference table—that I sculpted the book into being.

This long gestation period revealed to me, retrospectively, that I needed to take care of a human entity (and also conceive and spawn one first) before I could focus on the next book. I had never planned on becoming a parenting body and being.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
A similar thing with the first book: Did I give fair treatment to the living (and deceased) members of my family without making concessions in my own truths? It’s so hard to balance family and one’s work, especially when we do not view shared history in the same way. I think the gestation period was longer than I had anticipated because I hadn’t yet figured out a curated experience that felt right with respect to family fairness.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write for fifteen-day periods, twice a year, with close friends across genres and disciplines. Initially it began as practice of writing thirty poems in thirty days, to put myself into a pressurized situation to write again after completing an MFA and working tiresome full-time office hours in the years post-MFA. Since then I’ve revised the intensives into more fruitful chunks—and the best part of these sessions are the people I invite to write/make alongside me. It’s so inspiring to witness others drafting and creating each night, all of us sharing vulnerable offerings, only to start again the next day.

4. What are you reading right now?  
Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, who is easily one of my favorite living writers. As with anything that is a favorite, I’m savoring each sentence, each page, going back to start again at the top of the page—as if to make the moment last a little longer—rather than ravenously devouring the book, which is how I normally read (and also physically eat, ha!). I’ve also just started Beautyland by Marie-Helene Bertino, who activates, delights, and stimulates my brain with each clause of her sentences—not to mention how the science-oriented elements of her novel are nourishing a deep thirst in me.

As for poetry, I’m also reading Paul Hlava Ceballos’s banana [ ], which feels urgent, innovative, and essential. And Claire Wahmanholm’s Meltwater, which keeps me rapt even though I’m reading it again for the fourth time—it taps into all my intersecting concerns and anxieties: parenthood, grief/loss, fear about climate change and the alarming signs our environments reflect back to us.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
A primarily intuitive one. The collection consists of many long series, which I didn’t want to stack back-to-back. So I knew I would break them all up—and I even broke up poems that weren’t sectioned—so that I had patches to work toward a quilt, or various threads to weave into a larger whole. From there I made decisions about how to enter the collection and how to close it out. Then: What were the movements? How many sections would there be, and how would those sections open and close, etcetera? The best part was figuring out what to cut/carve, since I had so many pages of potential pieces to include. I love seeing how much hair is on the floor after a haircut and, because I love metaphors, (I can’t remember who to credit for this one) to see a poem or book as an iceberg: So much lies underwater. As readers, we only see just a small percentage of the ice above water.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
Not necessarily. Only if they’d like to have the maybe-terminal degree. I say “maybe-terminal” since some consider creative writing PhDs to be more “terminal” than the MFA alone. And only if they need institutional structure—with its pros and cons—and attendant community and resources. Usually most writers do want all of these things. But it’s certainly not necessary to hone one’s craft as a writer. And! I also recommend that writers consider low-residency MFA models, which I didn’t know about when I applied for MFAs; I love the intensive mentorship that low-res models offer—that one-on-one attention and correspondence. It feels more helpful to me, as an introvert, than the sometimes impersonal (if not sometimes hostile or apathetic) workshops with semi-strangers. That said, I don’t regret my own MFA journey—but I wish I could have tried other ones too! Perhaps in the multiverse.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Root Fractures?
How hungry I was to write prose in blocks! But that shouldn’t have been surprising, since the triptychs in the first book employed elements of writing in a text-box block—just with the interruption of the collaborating family archival images. Honestly, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation inspired me to write long, winding sentences that surprised me with each clause and turn. What a gateway! And now I’m writing prose for whatever this new autobiographical prose project will turn out to be.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Root Fractures, what would you say?
This is pretty random: I’d remind myself to look up “root fractures” in a search engine and spend time with all those X-rays of damaged teeth! Of course that’s what root fractures are in other realms (chiefly dental)—I hadn’t realized until after the manuscript was well on its way to becoming a book. It wouldn’t have changed my experience of assembling and titling the book, but I wish I had incorporated that into the creation of it.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Oh, so much video work! And listening to others in the Vietnamese diaspora—folx who have generously sat with me and shared their responses to my open questions. I made a point of trying to connect with folx of Vietnamese descent in my various travels for work so that I could listen to their narratives and experiences. I wanted more voices in my mind—to add to the ones I know/knew so well.

As for the video work, I had been engaging—and continue to engage—with family home videos, crafting short experimental documentaries, or video-poems, which sometimes have audio, text, or neither. Surprisingly, or not so, it was especially helpful to work with crafting multi-channel video pieces. (The learning curve for Adobe Premiere is so high! But I’m grateful I now have access to the program through an employer.) Something about learning to sequence through multiple video channels really transforms how I think about juxtaposition, overlap, and order in both poems and manuscripts.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
It’s deceptively simple: Don’t stop writing, no matter what. Which is easier said than done. I have wanted to give up so many times—especially before I established my close inner community. I don’t even remember where I heard this advice—maybe from someone on a panel at a university somewhere—but it’s stayed with me. I share this advice with others. Never not write. Find a way to carve out space/time for this essential practice, which can be so excruciating at times (both the carving out of space and also the act of writing). And yet it does feel so good to have written, right?!

Diana Khoi Nguyen, author of Root Fractures.   (Credit: Karen Lue)

Ten Questions for Zachary Pace


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Zachary Pace, whose debut book, I Sing to Use the Waiting: A Collection of Essays About the Women Singers Who’ve Made Me Who I Am, is out today from Two Dollar Radio. In these intimate and thoughtful essays, Pace offers a personal queer history, an inquiry into human expressivity, and a meditation on the formative influence of popular culture. Beginning with an exploration of the author’s own “queer voice”—and the way social norms encode gender into certain vocal sounds—the collection considers nearly a dozen female performers and how they affected Pace’s worldview, self-conception, and artistic sensibility. Pace approaches his subjects with a mix of memoir, reportage, and critical theory, including Madonna’s engagement with Jewish Kabbalah, Rihanna’s personal and musical “multiplicity,” and even the Pocahontas character from the eponymous Disney film, whose song “Colors of the Wind” enthralled a ten-year-old Pace. Poet and literary critic Wayne Koestenbaum praises I Sing to Use the Waiting: “This impeccable book sends me back, with a renewed heart, to the songs Pace masterfully covers, with a delivery as splendid, as emotionally impressive, as the lauded originals.” Zachary Pace is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. Their writing has been published in BOMB, Bookforum, Boston Review, Literary Hub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

1. How long did it take you to write I Sing to Use the Waiting?
I started the first piece in 2016 and finished the last piece in 2023, then spent a year editing with the Two Dollar Radio team. Two weeks before the book went to the printer, I got a round of somewhat heavy edits that ended up bringing the whole thing home in a major way.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I’ve been worried, and I’m worried now, about having revealed too much information about myself and the people in these essays. In the intimacy of the book, I feel very vulnerable.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I take notes while walking and riding the subway. I e-mail notes to myself while I’m at work during the day, then I’ll transfer the notes to a Word document on my laptop, where I tinker at night. I have a desk in my apartment that’s meant for working on the computer, but I always end up sitting on the couch with my laptop perched on a pile of coffee-table books and my elbows propped on my knees.

4. What are you reading right now?
Why Mariah Carey Matters by Andrew Chan, On Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson, The Krishnamurti Reader, and The Book of Life: Daily Meditations With J. Krishnamurti.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Too many to name in one place, but most crucially: Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, Richard Siken, Carl Phillips, Maggie Nelson, Wayne Koestenbaum, Hilton Als, Cathy Park Hong, Greil Marcus, and Hanif Abdurraqib.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I think it’s one good way to meet friends and teachers who will encourage and inspire you. Going to readings, taking some workshops online or in person, joining a book group—these are great ways too.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
Eric Obenauf of Two Dollar Radio gave me the first of a few rounds of revisions, and I’m going to include a comment from that Word document here—a comment that galvanized me during the whole yearlong editorial process: “Tie this in to the broader themes of this collection as a whole…to better understand this whitewashing of history, or how music managers try to cover a singer’s identity to better align with a public persona so that it fits within a straight, white, patriarchal view of how things should be in our society. And how this affects queer children struggling to understand their own identity within this framework.” Eric understood what the book was meant to be even better than I did at this point, and I kept returning to these words to remind myself while revising.

8. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of I Sing to Use the Waiting?
I was surprised by how much information I ultimately let go. I’m a completist, through and through, so in the earliest drafts I compiled every detail that felt remotely relevant and tried to keep all the information totally up-to-date. I’m still surprised by how many details that once struck me as interesting and important are no longer part of the book. At some point I felt more comfortable focusing on certain events without having to recreate an exhaustive history.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Miles and miles of walking. Often when I walk away from the computer, I think of the words I was trying to find, and I have to rush back to my laptop or type them on my phone before I forget. I walk several miles a day and spend that time thinking about whatever I’m working on. And I listen to the musicians I’m writing about, while walking and otherwise, for hours and hours a day—obsessive, repetitive listening is both work and life-affirming pleasure for me.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
It’s not exactly advice, but a game-changing bit of feedback resonates with me to this day. In my first year as an MFA student, a well-known poet visited to give a guest workshop, and I brought a poem that I was especially proud of to class. The poet didn’t like my poem at all. I realize now that it relied entirely on sound and wordplay and had nothing profound to say. The poet asked me, “What is the price of music?” This question led me to appreciate the value of not only using lyrical language but telling a meaningful story.

Zachary Pace, author of I Sing to Use the Waiting: A Collection of Essays About the Women Singers Who’ve Made Me Who I Am.   (Credit: Jared Buckhiester)

Ten Questions for Kimberly Blaeser


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Kimberly Blaeser, whose new poetry collection, Ancient Light, is out today from the University of Arizona Press. These haunting poems illuminate the nature of loss as it is experienced on multiple levels—personal, familial, cultural, historical—and the ways in which life manages to persist in spite of it. Mixing English and Anishinaabemowin, lyrics and visual poetry, the book also explores the paradoxical power of language. It can be “a salve,” as Blaeser puts it in the book’s opening poem, “Akawe, a prelude,” enabling people to name the dead or communicate pain. But it can also serve as tool of control, regulating the ways in which people express themselves. This is particularly true in the United States, where English was forced upon Indigenous populations. Ancient Light directly confronts the nation’s violent colonial legacy, asking readers to understand “our continent, draw 1491” and how it was “reshape[d] by discovery,     displacement,” as she writes in “Poem on Disappearance.” Yet the book retains hope for a more peaceful and open-hearted future, “an abundance we make / of the broken—when burst becomes seed,” Blaeser writes in “Mazínígwaaso: Florets.” The former poet laureate of Wisconsin and the founding director of In-Na-Po, Indigenous Nations Poets, Kimberly Blaeser is the author of several poetry collections, including Copper Yearning (Holy Cow! Press, 2019). A recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, Blaeser is an Anishinaabe activist and environmentalist enrolled at White Earth Nation. She is a professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and a faculty member of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ MFA program in creative writing.

1. How long did it take you to write Ancient Light?  
I wrote some of the poems in Ancient Light as early as 2016 and had two books that came out since then—Copper Yearning in 2019 and Résister en Dansant in 2020—but the poems didn’t belong to those volumes. So it would be fair to say I have been working on the poems for seven years. The book was a finalist or semifinalist for a couple competitions, so I knew it was close. The experience of the pandemic and awareness of racial injustice heightened by the murder of George Floyd led me to sharpen the premise and movements of the book. The possibility of and need for healing, different pathways, and another way to be in the world grew more urgent both in our physical spaces and in the book as it moved toward its final version.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Ordering the poems to support the movements of the collection proved the most challenging. Generous early readers and the reviewers for the press all offered advice on reordering. Each idea seemed valuable, but none agreed with the others! As an exercise, I created section titles. This illuminated the bones of the collection. It led to some rearrangement, but I also added some poems and subtracted others. Ultimately I chose to remove the section titles, not wanting to impose a single map on the reader or even on the poems—since I hope the poems will manifest intuitive connections and prove themselves wiser than their transcriber. I did add a poetic prelude, which I view as a map of sorts.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I often write in kayaks, on the ledge rock at our cabin in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), in a hammock beneath an ancient oak on our property in Wisconsin, on decks here and there, and also at my desk in my home library. In recent years, I have been blessed to travel to writing residencies—most recently in Italy, where I wrote in the foothills of the Alps and in the mountains as well as in beautiful gardens overlooking Lake Como. All that to say, I often write outdoors, by hand, when it is daylight, with the “where” of my writing often determining the content. I frequently begin my day with coffee, my journal, my camera, and a book, each of which contributes to morning writing. On mornings at BWCAW, I often paddle out with coffee in a thermos to a favorite bay and settle in there. I try to work every day, even if I only produce a few notes or the skeleton of an idea. I have drafted many poems first in my journal. When I have longer writing sessions, I mine those jottings or drafts. This I do frequently at my desk at night when the house is quiet.

4. What are you reading right now?  
I have just begun Brendan Shay Basham’s novel Swim Home to the Vanished. Brendan is both a poet and a prose writer, so his fiction is lush and suggestive like poetry as well as narratively powerful. I am also reading, partly rereading, a collection of poetry by Algerian writer Samira Negrouche, The Olive Trees’ Jazz. Samira writes mainly in French, and this collection is translated by Marilyn Hacker. Even though we live continents apart, I relate to Samira’s embodiment of the tentacles and repercussions of colonization, her understanding of the indelible mark violence leaves on people as well as places, and I appreciate the spiritual allusiveness of the poems.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
After its prelude “map,” Ancient Light begins with poems depicting the conditions and consequences of colonization—a possessive mindset that leads to exploitation of resources, of Indigenous bodies, of language itself. It moves then to suggest a turn toward potential sources of healing. Poems embody specific instances of relatedness or of lives illuminated by “ancient light” in the many ways this may be cast or manifested: modes of being embedded in Anishinaabe language for instance, traditional Indigenous knowledge, or patterns of the land itself. Certain poems or particular scenes complicate the human factor, as the book includes both grief and many kinds of loss—some of it personal. Finally the collection gestures toward alternate understandings, ways of measuring, and a different scale of value. The spilled light of tradition remains viable as pathway and tool of survivance—“an abundance we make / of the broken—when burst becomes seed,” as one poem claims.

6. How did you arrive at the title Ancient Light for this collection? 
The title actually arose from a particular encounter, which later become a visual image, now a “picto-poem” in the book with that phrase in the title, “Waaban: ancient light enters.” While canoeing with my son, I made photos of a Great Blue Heron. We came under the spell of the immense bird as it lifted off or landed with great pomp, stalked and swallowed whole yellow-bellied fish, spread its wings and stretched its legs into forever as it flew backlit by sunset sky. When I later looked at the photos, and they seemed anemic compared to the experience itself, I realized we never only see what we see—we always see what we bring to the moment. I brought my understanding of the Anishinaabe Crane Clan and stories of bineshiinyag, or bird relatives, as messengers between Earth and sky. I ultimately created the picto-poem, in which woodland beadwork symbolically becomes the sky and pieces of poetic language wrap themselves around that other way of knowing. I began to think about the ways all our experience is suffused with these ancient understandings. Because visually in that moment the spilling light helped illuminate the internal and external experience, I thought about how long and far light sometimes travels before it reaches us and we apprehend it. From that ruminating, the title arrived, and I understood it as representative of more than that single experience.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Ancient Light?
Although I have often written ekphrastic work, have been experimenting with the layers of text and image I call picto-poems, and work in concrete as well as lyric poetry, I was surprised at how readily these various creative approaches came together. I found they “play well” with one another. I have also been writing and continue to write slight poems, all entitled “The Way We Love Something Small.” I thought of them as a series of poems; but in assembling Ancient Light, I realized they are an aesthetic as much as a form.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Ancient Light, what would you say?
Mainly I would say, “Don’t hurry.” I really need to repeat that as a mantra. When I feel inspired by an idea or project, I tend to expect the path to be straightforward. It seldom is and certainly wasn’t in this instance.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I am Anishinaabe, and I used quite a bit of my Indigenous language, Anishinaabemowin, in Ancient Light. Although I spent early years with grandparents for whom this was a first language, I am still a language learner. I once asked in a poem, “How can you conjugate after forty?” But because I understand the importance of the work of what I call #LanguageBack for the nonprofit I founded (Indigenous Nations Poets), I put in effort to move from “baby” Ojibwe. I incorporated the appropriate prefixes and suffixes that signal relationships, and I worked to carry the embedded language teachings into the poems (even when Anishinaabemowin might not be used itself).

Because, as I mentioned earlier, I often have both camera and pencil on nature adventures, I also upped the ante on my photo work. Photos often help inspire the poems and vice versa. Then I work through the process of bringing them together in diptychs or picto-poems. Even though only a handful of these ultimately made it into the collection, figuring out how to wed the visual and verbal involved my learning some technological razzle-dazzle.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I sometimes cling too closely to “sense.” When lamenting this in conversation with one of my writing friends, he suggested I trust my intuition and trust my reader to follow the leaps of that intuition. I remind myself of this advice often.

Kimberly Blaeser, author of Ancient Light  (Credit: John Fisher)

Ten Questions for Cynthia Zarin


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Cynthia Zarin, whose debut novel, Inverno, is out today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In this psychologically driven narrative, a woman named Caroline awaits a phone call from her beloved, a man named Alastair. Meanwhile the personal history of each and their passionate but difficult relationship unfolds over several decades. The passages move associatively, contemplating the changes that have taken place over the years, both in the larger world and in Caroline’s and Alastair’s singular and twined existences. Inverno is also a kind of ghost story, as present-day Caroline stands waiting for Alastair’s call in the same spot in Central Park he had roamed as a teenager. The book offers a moving meditation on space, time, and the strange crossings of paths and separations that occur over the course of a life. In the New York Times, Sigrid Nunez praises Inverno’s “elegance and incantatory prose…. The narrator has a riveting, lyrical voice and a deliberately digressive but expertly controlled style.” Cynthia Zarin is the author of five books of poetry, including Orbit (Knopf, 2017), as well as five books for children and two essay collections, including An Enlarged Heart: A Personal History (Anchor, 2013). She teaches at Yale University and lives in New York City.

1. How long did it take you to write Inverno
I began writing what would become Inverno about ten years ago. It started as a letter, and then, over a great while, it became a book.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I think finding out that it was, indeed, a book! And then, after that, to figure out the structure of the novel and how to chronicle Caroline’s experience in a way that a reader could move with her back and forth in time.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I try to write in the morning but my schedule is peripatetic, which means that I find time when I can.

4. What are you reading right now? 
Right now I’m reading a marvelous, musical book by Alan Garner called Treacle Walker, about the friendship between a boy with a lazy eye and a rag-and-bone man. Also reading The Order of Time by the Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli, given to me by a student who knows these questions [about physics] interest me.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?  
That would be a very long list. I spent almost all of my childhood and adolescence simply reading, and I am sure that almost everything I’ve read has influenced my work. For Inverno in particular, Hans Christian Anderson, Ibsen, Faulkner, Montale—the list goes on. I am admirer of Natalia Ginzburg and Elizabeth Hardwick. But the list is infinite.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Inverno?
That it was a book, after all! And that many people seem to find their own experiences in Caroline’s predicament.

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
I think that, simply, my agent thought it was a novel: During the time these pages were taking shape, we drew a picture of the structure of the book on a napkin in a London restaurant.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Inverno, what would you say?
It is a mistake to think you know what you are doing.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
A portion of the book, if not all of it, occurs when Caroline is waiting for a phone call in Central Park, in the snow. I learned a good deal about the history of the telephone while writing the book, which is really a window into the history of communication.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Start with what interests you, and keep going. 

Cynthia Zarin, author of Inverno.   (Credit: Sara Barrett)

Ten Questions for Erika Howsare


This week’s Ten Questions features Erika Howsare, whose debut nonfiction book, The Age of Deer: Trouble and Kinship With Our Wild Neighbors, is out now from Catapult. In this insightful mix of history, folklore, reportage, and personal narrative, Howsare considers the lives of deer and their relationship to humans. “Deer speak to our twin American obsessions with death and its denial,” she writes in her introduction, priming the reader for a nuanced exploration of creatures that she says limn the border between flesh and spirit, nature and civilization. As game, deer have long been killed for sustenance or sport. But they also evoke the numinous and are central to various cultural mythologies that venerate them as psychopomps or heavenly messengers. Howsare explores her own encounters with the animals, as a child living in a community of deer hunters outside Pittsburgh and during recent adulthood as a homesteader in rural Virginia; she takes the reader along on her travels to view cave art and observe folk rituals in which deer are central. “They were wild, a word that comes from willed, as in self-willed: passing their own time on earth,” she writes, confronting the fundamental aliveness that people and deer share. Publishers Weekly praises The Age of Deer: “The prose is elegant…. Readers will be enthralled.” Erika Howsare is the author of the poetry collections How Is Travel a Folded Form? (Saddle Road Press, 2018) and, with Kate Schapira, FILL: A Collection (Trembling Pillow Press, 2016). She holds an MFA from Brown University, and her writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. 

1. How long did it take you to write The Age of Deer?
This book feels like it arose from a mysterious place; I don’t remember a singular moment when the idea came to me, and I’ve realized that in some ways its roots go back a long way into my life and family history. But in terms of its actual manifestation: I began to put ideas together in 2019 or so and had a proposal drafted by 2020, including several chapters. In February 2021 Catapult Books offered the book a home, and I committed to finishing the manuscript within eighteen months. After I turned it in, it became clear that I would need to make some massive cuts—and revise, of course—and that process took several months in itself. So altogether about four years, although there were some slower periods in the beginning while it was gestating, and again near the end, when it was with my editors.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I’ve practiced hybrid writing for a long time—literary blendings of poetry and prose—but this book is a different kind of hybrid: It’s definitely prose, but it combines journalistic reporting, researched material about history and science, and cultural studies, along with a bit of memoir. Some of those modes are a lot more familiar to me than others, and I had to push through some insecurity at times about tackling the less comfortable subjects. While deer would seem to be a very defined topic, they really contain multitudes, and managing the vastness of the material, making it into a collage that felt coherent, was the major (and very pleasurable) challenge.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I almost always write at home, and in the span of writing this book I graduated from working on my bed or couch to having my own tiny, perfect office: major upgrade. I work best in the morning but that preference always needs to be balanced with the realities of homeschooling two kids, ongoing house and homesteading projects, etcetera. Fortunately, for this book, there was always something needing to be done that wasn’t actual composition—planning, correspondence, etcetera—so if I wasn’t feeling inspired or only had thirty minutes, I could make at least a little progress almost every day. Near my deadline I escaped for a weekend at a rented cottage and worked like mad to polish up the chapters. 

4. What are you reading right now?
I just finished Terry Tempest Williams’s When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice and started Amit Chaudhuri’s Sojourn. Also on deck are Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, Anne Carson’s Decreation, Miranda Mellis’s The Revisionist, and the latest Brooklyn Rail. I recently loved Joanna Pocock’s Surrender: The Call of the American West and Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
I was very lucky to study with Thalia Field in grad school; during her course on deep ecology was the moment when I thought, “Oh, these are my questions, the ones I’ll be working with for the rest of my life.” Her book Personhood (as in the personhood of animals) certainly influenced The Age of Deer. Rebecca Solnit, John McPhee, Joan Didion, Merrill Gilfillan, and Cole Swensen.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
All I can say is that I’m extremely grateful I had the experience of pursuing an MFA that did not result in debt.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
All these folks have been very helpful, but one of the most key pieces of advice came from my editor in the UK, Clare Bullock, who read some early drafts and gently told me to stop writing as though the book would be read by a stern professor. This was so perceptive. In poetry I am, if anything, overconfident. But I realized that in tackling this nonfiction project I had some anxiety about getting it right, and some part of me was back in school worrying about my grades.

8. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Age of Deer?
As I said, the origins of the book are obscure to me. I thought I had chosen to do it because it was an interesting topic that would let me ask all these questions and make all these points. By the time I finished I actually felt that the topic had chosen me. Writing the book has led me toward certain ways of being and certain relationships to the world that I now realize I have needed for a long time. Physically and spiritually, it has opened doors of perception. Since deer have often played the role of messenger or guide in world mythologies, this has a pretty eerie resonance.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
There was definitely a ton of research, of both the reading kind (books, scientific articles, news stories) and the experiential kind (I took a number of trips and reported on things like hunting, fawn rehab, and roadkill compost systems). I always had an eye out for deer in stories and art and, of course, real life. Running and yoga and being with my people keep me anchored. I also kept writing poetry throughout the project and took a great course through Orion magazine, taught by Alison Hawthorn Deming, that allowed me to reflect on the writing process more broadly, as did a companion project: making a podcast miniseries called If You See a Deer.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I was in college and showed a few early poems to my dad, he told me, very simply, to keep going.

Erika Howsare, author of The Age of Deer: Trouble and Kinship With our Wild Neighbors.   (Credit: Meredith Coe)

Ten Writers on Writing Advice: 2023


For the last six years Poets & Writers Magazine has published Ten Questions, a weekly series that interviews authors of new works of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. The idea is to celebrate the publication of their books while sharing insights about their professional journeys, offering the magazine’s readers both inspiration and practical tools to apply to their own craft and careers. Authors reveal useful, surprising, and sometimes touching details about their writing habits, artistic influences, experience working with agents and editors, and more about their path to publishing everything from debut books to the latest title in an already expansive oeuvre. As 2023 draws to a close, we share some of our favorite responses this year to the question that speaks directly to our desire for some guidance through the often-dark labyrinth of the literary life: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?  

“To write your story because no one else can write it. Writers approach the same person or event or era of historical significance through their own unique lens. When we lean into where our hearts guide us, the words on the page reflect our style. It is important to understand craft rules and to read widely, because we see how others follow, and break, those rules. But ultimately our work should reflect our own vision and our own voice.” —Jamila Minnicks, Moon Rise Over New Jessup

“‘Risk clarity.’ —Vievee Francis” —Gabrielle Bates, author of Judas Goat

“The late poet Robert Creeley once turned to me—in light of some self-deprecating remark I had made about my most recent book and projects—and told me, ‘Be serious!’ In a world that seems to care very little about what writers get up to, I have done my best to take that to heart.” —Laird Hunt, author of The Wide Terraqueous World

“As I write in the book, frustrated after receiving a C-minus in Nikki Giovanni’s advanced poetry class in college, I scheduled an appointment with her during her office hours. She told me, ‘Kwame, I can teach you how to write poetry, but I cannot teach you how to be interesting.’ While nineteen-year-old me thought those were pretty harsh words, it turns out that I have spent my entire writerly life walking around as an eager and engaged participant so I’d have something worth writing about.” —Kwame Alexander, author of Why Fathers Cry at Night: A Memoir in Love Poems, Recipes, Letters, and Remembrances

“All rules of writing are there to be broken. Otherwise, if we just simply follow all the rules, it’s not art: It’s ChatGPT, or artificial intelligence (AI). The paradox is that while we’re still learning to write, we do have to learn the rules. Only then can we become good enough to break them and form our own rules. I wonder if that’s what would differentiate human writers from AI.” —Nathan Go, author of Forgiving Imelda Marcos

“In Beyond the Writers’ Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction, Carol Bly writes, ‘Literature has low enough standards. But we can avoid writing the worst literature if we make ourselves ask ourselves, every two or three sentences we write, “Is that what I really think?’’”  —Stacy Jane Grover, author of Tar Hollow Trans

“Read more than you write.” —Robyn Schiff, author of Information Desk: An Epic

“I think a lot about something Kimberly King Parsons and Chelsea Bieker taught in their class called ‘Rejection, Revision, and Renewal,’ especially as I move into promoting the collection. I even wrote it on a note card and taped it to my desk: ‘Keep your head down and shut out the noise, because nothing beats a good writing day.’” —Megan Kamalei Kakimoto, author of Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare

“Have fun. Make friends.” —Curtis Chin, author of Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant

“Marry rich! (I didn’t take that advice.) The second-best piece of advice was to start something new when I’m in a rut. We have to have a little fun, too, if we want to stay in love with what we do. After The Hurricane Book is out, you best believe I’ll be working on some sci-fi erotica for a bit.” — Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones, author of The Hurricane Book: A Lyric History

Clockwise from upper left: Jamila Minnicks, Gabrielle Bates, Laird Hunt, Kwame Alexander, Nathan Go, Stacy Jane Grover, Robyn Schiff, Megan Kamalei Kakimoto, Curtis Chin, Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones. (Credit: Minnicks: Samia Minnicks; Bates: Liesa Cole; Hunt: Eva Sikelianos Hunt; Alexander: Portia Wiggins; Go: Crest Contrata; Grover: Elizabeth Keith; Schiff: Nicole Craine; Kakimoto: Van Wishingrad; Chin: Michelle Li, Studio Plum Photography)

Ten Writers on the Books They Are Reading: 2023


During 2023, Poets & Writers Magazine’s weekly Ten Questions series interviewed fifty writers about the path to publishing their new books of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. We asked them about their writing habits, the challenges they encountered while completing their manuscripts, surprises they faced along the way, and more. In this week’s installment of Ten Questions we share ten responses writers offered this year to one of our favorite questions: What are you reading right now? If you have a little extra time this holiday season—and we hope you do—may these writers’ reading lists inspire your own: Head to your local bookstore, library, or favorite online retailer to pick up a few books to see you through these last days of the year.

1.The Biography of X by Catherine Lacey…. It’s wildly ambitious and thrilling on the sentence level.” —Maggie Millner, author of Couplets

2. “I’m reading Mott Street by Ava Chin. Chin traces the history of her family, going back decades, from coast to coast. It’s a personal history and offers insight about American history through the lens of her family.” —Victor LaValle, author of Lone Women

3. “I’m reading the novel Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman, which I knew would be an emotional and lyrical tour-de-force.” —Chaitali Sen, author of A New Race of Men From Heaven

4. “Rereading Susanne K. Langer’s Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures (well, I’m always picking the book up), my husband’s Constellation Route, and Garrett Hongo’s The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo. I just started Deena Mohamed’s graphic novel (I love graphic novels), Shubeik Lubeik, and just finished Peter Orner’s Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin and Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love. I’m in the middle of Mark Whitaker’s Saying It Loud: 1966—the Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement. I read several books at once because my attention is constantly shifting and I want to see how one text connects, or doesn’t, to another. I’m moving in and out of my colleagues’ texts; I am determined to read all of their books—and that is a lot of reading. On my desks and tables are perhaps more than twenty five books. Like any writer! Monica Youn’s From From. Clint Smith. Kyle Dargan. And on and on. And I am on pins and needles waiting to read Dee Matthews’s Bread and Circus.” —Vievee Frances, author of The Shared World

5. “Blake Butler’s memoir, Molly, out this fall. It’s bleak and beautiful. Also the writings of painter William N. Copley, Percival Everett’s Dr. No, and Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women.” —Emma Cline, author of Guest

6. “I have exceedingly broad reading interests and some rules around how I read. I tend to decompress after writing a book of poems by reading work outside of poetry for a short while. But we are in the midst of such a rich publishing year, I couldn’t resist! I just read Vievee Francis’s The Shared World and Charif Shanahan’s Trace Evidence—both marvelous. My ancestral research has led to reading, and rereading, historical slave narratives and accounts, including: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by HimselfThe History of Mary PrinceCelia, A Slave Trial; and a volume of collected works titled Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies edited by John W. Blassingame. I usually read something different at night than during the day. Recently I have been reading chapters of How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment by Skye C. Cleary, Todorov’s Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, Jay Murphy’s Artaud’s Metamorphosis: From Hieroglyphs to Bodies Without Organs, and Susan A. Glenn’s Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism.” —Airea D. Matthews, author of Bread and Circus

7. “I seem to be perpetually rereading The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. I’m also rereading Angels by Denis Johnson as well as three books for a seminar I’m teaching this fall: King LearThe Age of Innocence, and Song of Solomon. I just picked up Francisco by Alison Mills Newman and To the North by Elizabeth Bowen.” —Jamel Brinkley, author of Witness

8. “I’m reading The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez.” —Myriam Gurba, author of Creep: Accusations and Confessions

9. “I’ve just recently pivoted to read the finalists for the National Book Award—in various genres—whose books I hadn’t yet read. But I am also reading Touching the Art by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Greenland by David Santos Donaldson, and some advance copies of forthcoming books: The Great Divide by Cristina Henríquez and The Long Run: A Creative Inquiry by Stacey D’Erasmo, about artistic stamina, among other things.” —Justin Torres, author of Blackouts

10.The Pole, the new novel by J. M. Coetzee.” —Sigrid Nunez, author of The Vulnerables

Clockwise from upper left: Maggie Millner, Victor LaValle, Chaitali Sen, Vievee Francis, Emma Cline, Sigrid Nunez, Justin Torres, Myriam Gurba, Jamel Brinkley, and Airea D. Matthews. (Credit: Millner: Sarah Wagner Miller; LaValle: Teddy Wolff; Sen; Paige Wilks; Francis: Matthew Olzmann; Cline: DV DeVincentis; Nunez: Marion Ettlinger Higher; Gurba: Geoff Cordner; Brinkley: Daniele Molajoli;  Matthews: Ryan Collerd)

Ten Questions for Jennifer Savran Kelly


This week’s Ten Questions features Jennifer Savran Kelly, whose debut novel, Endpapers, is out now in paperback from Algonquin. In this literary mystery, Dawn, a book conservator at a New York City museum in the early aughts, finds herself in the midst of a life crisis, feeling perplexed about her gender, romantic relationship, and artistic career. Running out of time to prepare the work she is expected to show in an upcoming gallery exhibition, Dawn finds something that offers a clue to all three of her problems: a love letter written on one side of the cover of a 1950s lesbian novel, which had been torn off from the original book and stashed behind the endpapers of another. Compelled to find the letter writer, Dawn confronts a queer past that is even more oppressive than the present. This new historical knowledge inspires Dawn to take artistic action with a project challenging popular queer narratives in literature. Publishers Weekly praises Endpapers, calling it “richly imagined…. [I]t’s Dawn’s evolution as an artist and a person that gives the novel its beating heart. Readers will find lots to love.” Jennifer Savran Kelly is a bookbinder and production editor at Cornell University Press. A winner of a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation, their work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Hobart, Potomac Review, and elsewhere.

1. How long did it take you to write Endpapers
I had a vision for the story in 2014, but when I sat down at my computer, all that came out was one very long, winding sentence. I thought it was terrible, so I closed the document and didn’t open it again until two years later, when Trump was running for president and it looked like he might actually win. Suddenly, because the main themes of the book were gender fluidity and Judaism, I felt a greater sense of urgency to tell the story. I finished writing it in 2019, but after many more revisions with my agent and editor, I wrote the actual last word sometime in 2022.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I wanted to tell a story about different instances in history, both recent and further back, of oppression of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups. But I was afraid I would end up writing a treatise instead of a novel. As I researched the Holocaust, the Lavender Scare, and post-9/11 New York City, I paid careful attention to personal accounts of what it was like during those eras—and not only about events—so that I would be able to create characters who felt alive on the page, with personal motivations and desires. As interested as I am in these histories, I didn’t want to simply report on them. I don’t mean to diminish the important role of historians; as a fiction writer, however, I wanted to create a world in which readers could envision themselves. I hope I was able to achieve that to some extent!

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I have a small, antique desk next to a glass door in the corner of my living room. I wish I could say I write there, but more often I write cozied up on my couch, usually with one or both of my cats snuggled nearby. I work full time and have a teenage kid, so I do almost all my writing in the early hours of the morning before anyone else in my house wakes up and before my workday begins. Occasionally I find time to write on weekends, or I get away for weekend retreats when I need to make more progress on something.

4. What are you reading right now?   
I have the honor of reading an advance reader’s copy of the book Cactus Country: A Boyhood Memoir by Zoë Bossiere, forthcoming from Abrams Press. I can’t wait until everyone gets the chance to read it! I’m also listening to an audiobook version of Jane Eyre, which somehow I’ve never read. I’m so happy I’ve finally made my way to it; the narrator is Anna Bentinck.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
In general, Marilynne Robinson, Jorge Luis Borges, and Miriam Toews. I first read Robinson’s Housekeeping in college, and everything about it—from the prose to the story—just floored me. If I’d dared to think of myself as a writer back then, that book would have inspired me to write a novel much earlier. Toews was a later, accidental find. I was taken by the cover of All My Puny Sorrows on a bookstore shelf, and I’m glad I trusted my instincts. It’s a great story, but I’m also really impressed with Toews’s craft. I never imagined I could laugh my way through a novel about someone’s sister wanting to commit suicide, but Toews finds many moments of humor in the grief.

While I wrote Endpapers, I reread James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and discovered Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh. Though they’re very different books, the beautiful writing and the passion in both inspired me greatly. I also reread portions of Female Masculinity by Jack Halberstam, which I’d read in college. It was the first book that made me feel like I could begin to understand my feelings about my gender.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Endpapers?
Until I found a publishing home for Endpapers, a main subplot focused on the Holocaust. The editors at Algonquin liked the story, but they thought it would serve the novel better if I replaced the Holocaust storyline with one from a less-written-about time. My first reaction was resistance. I’d already done a lot of revising, and it meant changing about a third of the book. But their reasoning made sense to me. A subplot about a Holocaust survivor can’t help but overshadow a main plot about someone trying to come to terms with their gender in the early 2000s.

A brief internet search brought my attention to the Lavender Scare, which I hadn’t known much about. During the McCarthy era, the government sowed a moral panic about homosexuality, resulting in thousands of government employees losing their jobs. The tactics used to discover people’s sexuality were kept secret and trials were held in private. People who were accused of being homosexual or even associating with homosexuals were denied access to information about their own cases. When the Lavender Scare finally ended, after decades, many of the government files were destroyed.

In my research I also discovered that the invention of the queer pulp novel had overlapped with the Lavender Scare, allowing people in the LGBTQ+ community to both see themselves in literature for the first time and to find one another. Ultimately this allowed some groups to organize. Within twenty-four hours of learning about these two things, I couldn’t wait to revise Endpapers. The new setting also gave me an opportunity to tie the subplot deeper into the main plot, by drawing a meaningful bookbinding connection between the two characters.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
The first time I spoke with my agent, they said one of the things they liked best about Endpapers was that Dawn, the main character, is messy and human and not a model of queer perfection. I wrote Dawn as someone who’s weathered her fair share of difficulty and who has anxiety, but I have a lot of empathy for her, and it surprised me to learn along the way that some readers think she’s a real jerk. Although I can certainly see their point, I struggled because I didn’t want to sanitize her for the sake of making a likeable character, yet I wanted readers to sympathize with her, at least to some degree. My agent’s feedback gave me the courage to move ahead with a character who doesn’t depend on having a consistently kind demeanor to demonstrate that queer people—and all people everywhere—deserve dignity.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Endpapers, what would you say?
Believe in the process. Have patience and keep an open mind. Look for the agents and editors who share your vision for the work and trust them.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I did a fair amount of research—first on the Holocaust, then the Lavender Scare and queer pulp fiction. I also had to remind myself of the popular culture and headlines from 2003; it’s amazing how much has changed in twenty years, especially the technology.

Less tangibly, I had to do a lot of self-reflection because, like Dawn, I didn’t have language like “nonbinary” or “genderqueer” when I began writing the book. I’m pansexual, and I’ve pretty much always questioned my own gender and played around with androgyny, but I never knew what to call that, so I wasn’t confident I had a right to be telling this story. It forced me to face a lot of thoughts and feelings I’d tried to put aside many years ago.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
There have been two, and I can’t choose between them! One is for long-form writing: Keep going, and don’t look back until you get to the end. Make notes all you want, but don’t revise until you complete the first draft. I’m sure this doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me—although I cheat from time to time when inspiration calls for it or when I know a revision will actually help me move forward. The second is to find a way to make your main character do the one thing they’re most afraid of or that goes against everything they’ve ever thought they would do.

Jennifer Savran Kelly, author of Endpapers.   (Credit: Darcy Rose)

Ten Questions for Melissa Rivero


Today’s installment of Ten Questions features Melissa Rivero, whose new novel, Flores and Miss Paula, is out today from Ecco. Three years after the death of patriarch Martín, his widow, Paula, and their adult daughter, Flores, are living together in a New York City apartment, a cramped space that magnifies their clashing personalities and old resentments. But their disputes are more a function of generational and cultural divides than real animosity: Paula, a Peruvian immigrant, wants her daughter to marry and settle down, while Flores is equally flummoxed by her mother’s approach to the opposite sex. Financial insecurity ratchets up the tension as Paula’s retail job does not offer much opportunity and Flores’s student loans have her working long hours and considering unorthodox methods for paying off her debt. Meanwhile Flores begins to question how well she knew her parents when she comes across a note from Paula to Martín that implies her mother might have been hiding secrets from him. The women must find a way to unite, however, when their landlord kicks them out of their apartment—a shared challenge that will force the duo to come to terms with each another, their shared past, and uncertain futures. Publishers Weekly praises Flores and Miss Paula: “It all hangs together nicely, setting the stage for a surprisingly moving conclusion. This is a treat.” Melissa Rivero is the author of The Affairs of the Falcóns (Ecco, 2019). Winner of the 2019 New American Voices Award and a 2020 International Latino Book Award, she is a graduate of New York University and Brooklyn Law School, where she was an editor of the Brooklyn Law Review. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.       

1. How long did it take you to write Flores and Miss Paula
About four years. It started as a short story when I was in Kweli’s Art of the Short Story Workshop, back in late 2017. I quickly realized it was not a short story. I wrote the bulk of the manuscript during COVID-19 quarantine and finished it in the fall of 2021.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I found it challenging to write about Martín, the father. My dad had cancer, and for years I did my best to avoid revisiting his illness. Then the pandemic hit. I was home, in a small apartment in Brooklyn, helping my kids with school on Zoom while simultaneously working a very intense full-time job. I didn’t see my mother or any of my family for months. Friends here in New York and family in Peru died. A lot of things came up for me. Writing kept me grounded, but it also reopened some wounds, as it often does. 

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
It depends on what’s happening in my life. When I had a full-time job, I wrote on the subway and on the weekends. I edited the day’s work at night, once the kids were asleep. During quarantine, I wrote for thirty minutes a day—between breakfast and the start of the kids’ school day online. Now I write every weekday for about one to two hours. I can’t really go for longer stretches than that. Sometimes I write on weekends, but I try to save those days for reading, spiritual work, and long walks.

4. What are you reading right now?   
I’m reading The Essential June Jordan and listening to the novel Nuestra parte de noche (Our Share of Night) by Mariana Enríquez. I’m also a comic book fan and just finished Dark X-Men, #4.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
So many. But generally Cristina Garcia, Isabel Allende, and Gabriel García Márquez. Hernan Diaz blows my mind too. I love poetry and flip through a collection daily. I usually reach for Ada Limón, Natalie Diaz, or Patricia Smith’s work. And Jane Austen. I revisit her work regularly.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Flores and Miss Paula?
Paula surprised me! When I first started writing this book, I thought Paula would be just one of many characters in a Flores-centered novel, but she had other plans. I kept hearing this woman commenting on Flores and her life. She whispered to me like one of my tías sitting next to me on the sofa at a house party. Always with something to say! I had to give her more space on the page.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My agent, Julia Kardon, reminded me that I can and will write another book, regardless of how this one does. When you publish a book, you inevitably worry about how it will be received, if it will do “well”—whatever that means to you, your publisher, etcetera. I appreciated that kind of support from her because the truth is I still have a bit of imposter syndrome, and publishing in general is a trip.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Flores and Miss Paula, what would you say?
Try to have fun! Even when the world seems like it’s falling apart and you’re feeling down, go back to the work. You’ll find joy there, or find the parts of you that you need to see and acknowledge. Both are important.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I interviewed several people, including folks with similar backgrounds and jobs as the characters in the novel. I also kept my job, even though people were quitting left and right during the pandemic. I’m not sure I could’ve finished the novel if I didn’t have a steady paycheck—so much of the world felt uncertain at the time. In the end, though, I was burnt out. But I promised myself that if I sold this book I would quit the day job, and I did. I might have to go back to a full-time job, but at least now I have a better sense of what kind of setup would work for me at this point in my life.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
“Butt in chair.” It’s what writer M. Evelina Galang told me once. The only way you’re going to write something is by actually writing. I have back issues, so I alternate between my butt in the chair and standing. But the point is that I get to my desk and write.


Melissa Rivero, author of Flores and Miss Paula.   (Credit: Bartosz Potocki)

Ten Questions for James W. Jennings


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features James W. Jennings, whose novel Wings of Red is out now from Soft Skull Press. In this autofictional tale, a substitute teacher, writer, and artist named June Papers finds himself homeless in “New City,” a version of New York City. Despite his “half-a-million-dollar education” and immense talent, socioeconomic circumstances—including a felony record that frustrates his ability to find steady work—have left him with “no real next move except walking and wishing.” Readers follow the loquacious June as he navigates New City’s streets and the characters he encounters there. Some of those characters are students and faculty at the schools where he continues to teach on a substitute basis, the truth of his dire circumstances largely invisible. All the while, June is recording his journey, jotting down his observations and reflections, offering a running, metafictional commentary that at times evokes Beat narratives like On the Road. “Living is quite the adventure, the moon’s whipping around us, we’re ripping around the sun, and we hardly feel a thing,” June writes early in the novel as he cruises through New City’s subway. June’s voyage, however, is no madcap cross-country trip but rather an exercise in survival, one that exposes the flimsiness of American ideals like meritocracy, the value of higher education, and bootstraps individualism. Kirkus praises Wings of Red: “Jennings’ distinct style can be jarring at first, but the reader will quickly sink into his rhythm and appreciate the lively nature of his present-tense verbiage and his quick syntax.” The author of the novel Strays, James W. Jennings holds an MFA from Brooklyn College in New York City and works as a high school English teacher in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.

1. How long did it take you to write Wings of Red
The core of Wings took a little less than a year to write. I’d been training to write a book a year since I was seventeen or eighteen, and Wings was my real go at it. Most of Wings was written in one long, maniacal block of time. I did not know I’d spend thirteen years molding and sculpting it.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. I have different responses. At first I thought the most difficult part about writing Wings was living through the life I had to live while writing it. This much is true and expressed in the work itself, but the more I feel through it now, and think about those last few edits, the more I’m made aware that the writing itself was also difficult. I struggled with the urge to tame my voice in order to appease America-at-large as the publication date approached, and it felt pretty nasty. There’s nothing worse to me than that feeling you have when you know you’re being fake. I try to avoid that at all costs. Writing is like running to me; I enjoy neither, really, but I need to do both every day to feel healthy and know where I stand.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write every day. Religiously. My literature isn’t too far from my journaling, stylistically, so I’m always on. I wake up, pray, write my dreams down, go running, run errands, write, create, eat, blah, blah, blah. Repeat.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I am not reading. I’m busy running and writing and trying to be nice to people while folks around me seem to be losing their minds; 2023 has been rough. To be honest, I haven’t found many books lately which speak truth to light the way Wings—or even Strays, my first novel—does for me. As arrogant as it may sound, I’d one-hundred-percent rather reread my own work. Or The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I always reread The Alchemist.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
I love Toni Morrison. Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese filmmaker, inspired me with his courage and collaborative spirit. Bob Marley. I was born the day following his death, on Mother’s Day in 1981. Lynne Tillman wriiites. Alex Garland, the English novelist and filmmaker, inspired me because he was so young and successful, and I had similar ambitions. Initially I thought he was kind of old, being published at twenty-seven. The Sun Also Rises left quite an impact on me. The Biblical character Solomon and Ecclesiastes. I love Paulo Coelho. I love Amiri Baraka for writing Blues People (now known as Black Music). I got to interview his son Mayor Ras J. Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, and he’s just as dope as his father. I’m inspired by anyone who’s putting pen to page these days. It takes a lot of courage to care enough about what you think and feel to put it down permanently and watch it have to stand the test of time.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Wings of Red?
The whole experience still feels otherworldly. I grew so used to writing Wings that Wings being published is perhaps the biggest surprise. It’s hard to remember what was surprising before it was published. Oh, I have it. What was surprising while writing Wings was how much I worried about other people’s opinions and how liberating it was to feel free to be me. The writing when I was in between leases and scraping for every penny felt oddly euphoric and grounding at the same time.

7. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
If it’s free, sure. Why not? If not, tens of thousands of dollars in loans for a fine arts degree in a capitalistic society is not a humane recommendation. Whenever I come across a writer at that stage, I try to gauge if they can’t not write. If they’re obsessed, like most of us writers, it doesn’t matter either way. Otherwise I give them grace and space and hope they have a kid in time to sidetrack them from putting another half-hearted work of literature into the world.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Wings of Red, what would you say?
I would say, “Everything you’re ashamed of now will become your superpower in the future. Experience is your inheritance. You’re one of the richest people in the world. Everything you’re embarrassed by now will become a gem of honor once you see how powerful truth really is. You are royalty. Learn to love your story. You’re the living dream of your ancestors.”

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I created a nonprofit, 49th Hour Workshop, to publish Wings. I invested thousands of dollars into Wings of Red merchandise (including ethically made clothing, postcards, stickers, shades with little wings on them, and other things). I created worlds and ecosystems for Wings to exist well before I was finished with the first draft; then I had to pivot, knowing it wasn’t time for the book yet and had to find another way to execute the novel. I knew Wings had the potential to change the world because every idea that came from trying to create a safe and nurturing environment for it ended up being somewhat successful. With Wings I was initially a decade too early, but I learned invaluable lessons while working on it. And I still have a lot of the Wings merchandise—which I have a lot of fun giving away.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Ecclesiastes. All of Ecclesiastes is great advice—jaded but true. Also, one day in workshop at the conference organized by the journal Callaloo, Percival Everett told us that we were treating writing like karate or kung fu, and warned us against sticking to so many rules: “Writing is a street fight,” he said. You do what you have to do, basically.


James W. Jennings, author of Wings of Red.   (Credit: Rose Margetson)

Ten Questions for Kimberly Grey


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Kimberly Grey, whose debut essay collection, A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing, will be published on December 5 by Persea Books. In this lyrical exploration of motherhood, the parent-child relationship, and language, Grey blends memoir and critical theory to tell a personal story and investigate its meanings for the self and within the larger culture. The narrative moves back and forth in time, from the narrator’s life in the present to consider experiences from childhood through the recent past, particularly involving the author’s troubled interactions with her nuclear family. A chronicle of grief filtered through the mind of an academic and poet, the book charts an intellectual’s attempts to assuage the trauma of loss by considering what great thinkers—from Roland Barthes to C. D. Wright—have said on that and other proximal subjects. The book also functions as a metacommentary on the efficacy of writing and verbal communication, particularly in the face of obliterating sorrow: “It’s taken me thirty years to understand the rules of my mother, ” Grey writes, deploying grammar as a metaphor to understand interpersonal dynamics. “Mostly unspoken. Mostly unfollowable: be my mirror, don’t be my mirror. You are not wanted here, but you are not to leave. Verb contradictions. It’s why I so desire to understand mother as a verb.” Kimberly Grey is the author of the poetry collections Systems for the Future of Feeling (2020) and The Opposite of Light (2016), both published by Persea books. She is the recipient of Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a teaching lectureship from Stanford, and a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship. Her work has appeared in A Public Space, Kenyon Review, Tin House, and other journals. She is currently a visiting professor of poetry at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

1. How long did it take you to write A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing?  
I became estranged from my entire family in August 2015. About six months later, in early 2016, I began writing the initial sections of the book. I was too traumatized during those early months to write anything, but that entire first year was just about creating little snippets of writing. I was a fellow at Civitella Ranieri in Italy during fall 2016, and that is when the book began in earnest. I wrote the title on my bulletin board in my studio so that I would begin recognizing it as a book and I’d pass by it every morning when I went to make my tea and toast. It became like an echo that felt more like a real sound every day. By spring 2021 the book was fully formed, though I tweaked it a bit until I had no choice but to turn in the final version to my editor. So all in all, it took about five years to complete.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
I was conditioned from an early age to never speak out against anyone in my family, to keep family secrets, to never criticize my mother or hold her accountable for anything. This was a kind of implicit, insidious grooming that started in early childhood, so the idea of writing the truth of how I was treated by my mother was terrifying, almost to the point of paralysis. I had to continually give myself permission to write about my true, lived experiences with abuse and scapegoating and how traumatizing and life-altering it has been. But I do think some small fragments of fear never went away, and so the book does employ intellectualization as a sort of protective mask. That made things a little less challenging. Or at least allowed space for the book to happen.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write in my home office mostly. I’m not really a coffee-shop writer, and I tend to not apply for residencies much, as I prefer my own familiar space. I need complete silence to really concentrate on language and form. It takes time to get into that headspace, so I don’t write as often as other writers. I try to make a point to set aside three hours a week for writing, sometimes Sunday mornings. But if I don’t feel like writing during that time, I’ll read or do something else. I’m very much a write-when-it-comes kind of writer. Which often means slower production. But I have no interest in being prolific. I’ve gone months without writing anything. I’ve also written twenty poems in one month. It’s all just dependent on the outside factors and forces of teaching and life.

4. What are you reading right now?  
I’m currently reading Elaine Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book. It’s this interesting amalgamation of literary criticism, philosophy, and cognitive psychology that explores how writers create art through the act of mental composition. She asks, “By what miracle is a writer able to incite us to bring forth mental images that resemble in their quality not our own daydreaming but our own (much more freely practiced) perceptual acts?” I’m really interested in her assertion that “our freely practiced imaginative acts bear less resemblance to our freely practiced perceptual acts than to our constrained imaginative acts occurring under authorial direction.” The book is teaching me something about perceptual agency that aligns itself with hybrid-genre work.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?  
Probably most central to all my work is Anne Carson. She is a true hybridist, creating books that are artifacts, art-objects, and amalgamations of poetry, art, opera, translation, image, etcetera. I like how many of her books aren’t even classifiable, employing so many different disciplines and modalities that the book asserts its own categorization. For me, meaning is multiplied by the sheer multitude of approaches and disciplines. Other writers that have greatly informed this book and my work in general include Renee Gladman, Roland Barthes, Etel Adnan, and Maggie Nelson.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing
I was surprised at how hybrid the book became. I started off truly wanting to write a more narrative book of essays. But the more research I did into trauma theory, the more I realized that writing about trauma requires an entirely different approach to narrative and progress. The idea of any kind of continuity or story advancement felt impossible while in the throes of severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When one is traumatized they are literally stuck, so much so that many trauma therapies work on “unfreezing” stuck memories from the brain using bilateral stimulation (sometimes through eye movements, sometimes through hand buzzers). So the book became this exercise in a different kind of progress, a progression of the mind trying to process and understand trauma. Because of this I found myself moving among prose, poetry, and image; each became its own experimental improvisation toward understanding, toward eventual meaning.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
I read some very early essays in this book to my friend, the wonderful poet Spencer Reece. We were both living at Civitella and walked down the backside of the castle into Umbertide to have a coffee in the center of town. We sat across from each other on these sweet, little sofas, and I read aloud to him in this public space, loud enough that other people could hear me. This was a sort of induction into the work one day becoming public. Afterward we went to this little church in the square, and Spencer, an ordained priest, held my hand and said a prayer for me to overcome my pain. That’s when I knew, for sure, I’d finish the book. No matter what complications or challenges in writing came, I had to write it.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing, what would you say? 
This is impossible for me to answer because this is a book I never thought I would have to write. I could never have imagined I’d be exiled and dislocated from my entire family. It was something completely unfathomable to me. I also think there is no “earlier me” that I could possibly access or imagine anymore. Trauma makes before-and-after versions of us, whether we like it or not. For me, my life feels like it has been split into two, and I no longer have access to my before-life or who I was before this estrangement. So the only way to answer this question is to access the me that I was immediately after the estrangement, those first six months when I couldn’t write anything. If I’m being completely honest, I think that I was hoping that this wasn’t real, that my family would want me back and there wouldn’t be a story to write. That my trauma would be corrected by them. That I would—in some magical way—be told I was actually a loved and valued daughter, sister, aunt. The book only came once I realized that was never going to happen, no matter how hard I wished it would. So I would say to that person: You are going to write the book, and it won’t feel like a relief. It won’t cure your pain. It won’t make the world alright or take away your suffering. But it will be the first time you’ve really had a voice. The first time you let yourself write something that feels necessary. And that means something.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I wrote this book while completing my PhD, and my entrance into theoretical research—including trauma, narrative, and psychoanalytic theory—were central to the book’s making. Melding research with memoir and poetry was a new challenge, but it added a sense of veracity, even authenticity to the writing. I feel like the polyvocal conversations I have with other writers, philosophers, artists, and theorists helped to authenticate my own experiences. I also feel like I became a smarter and more well-rounded creative writer by broadening my knowledge of theory and literary criticism.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
My first poetry professor, Stephen Dunn, told me that I had to learn to love lines and sentences as much as ideas. I don’t think I fully understood what he meant back then, but now I know he was instructing me to fall in love with the tension between the line and the grammatical sentence; how the unit of the line itself manifests as a unit of meaning, independent of the sentence but married to it as well: two distinct manifestations of meaning. When I was at Stanford University, the poet Eavan Boland once told me, “If you ignore your autobiography, you will never become an authentic poet.” At the time I did not believe her. I was even angered by her comment. I only realize now that she was granting me permission to write about my life and my family—something I had been conditioned since childhood not to do. I prided myself on my “fictional constructions” and asserted that I came from the Wallace Stevens school of thought, regarding poetry as “the supreme fiction.” But that’s because I did not yet have permission to write about my life. I didn’t think I could. She gave me that, and I am forever indebted to her.

Correction: An earlier version of Ten Questions incorrectly stated that Kimberly Grey’s essay collection was published on November 21. The book will be published on December 5.

Kimberly Grey, author of A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing.  

Ten Questions for Subhaga Crystal Bacon


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Subhaga Crystal Bacon, whose new poetry collection, Transitory, is out today from BOA Editions. In this searching consideration of gender that bridges the personal and political, lyric and docupoetics, Bacon elegizes forty-six trans and gender-nonconforming people who were murdered in the United States and Puerto Rico in 2020. The elegies—whose titles contain the name, age, and death date of each life—memorialize those lost and bear witness to the mounting toll of violence against people whose gender falls outside the normative binary. Bacon, who uses she/they pronouns, explores their own coming of age in the years after the 1969 Stonewall Uprising opened the door to greater openness for queer people and increased activism demanding social inclusion and equal rights. Without drawing an equivalence between the lyric “I” and the lives mourned in Transitory, Bacon nonetheless explores parallels, including experiences of discrimination and violence the speaker encounters at work as a teacher and on other fronts. Aware of the problematics in Transitory’s monumental project, Bacon incorporates metacommentary and reflection about “the need to name this, the brutality of tallying the dead,” as she puts it in “Why I’m Writing About the Murders of Trans & Gender Nonconforming People in the Year of COVID.” Diane Seuss praises Transitory, particularly its use of poetic form: “The forms provide elegance. Dignity. The details, affinity…. I could feel each loss with profundity.” Subhaga Crystal Bacon is the author of Blue Hunger (Methow Press, 2020) and Elegy With a Glass of Whiskey (BOA Editions, 2004). They live on the eastern slopes of the North Cascade mountains in Twisp, Washington.

1. How long did it take you to write Transitory?
I wrote the first poem in early July 2020 during a workshop about writing poems of protest in form. That first poem was an acrostic for the word justice, repeated twice to accommodate the twenty-one transgender people murdered since the start of the year. I knew once I’d finished that catalog that I’d have to write a poem for each of those who were murdered that year. I finished the bulk of the manuscript in December then began fleshing it out with some personal poems to provide context as to why I had written the collection.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Tracking the reports of these murders was extremely painful. I checked the Human Rights Campaign website a couple times a week. Some weeks there’d be nothing and in others a record would appear of a death that had happened earlier in the year. Or the death of a teenager, like Brayla Stone, who was only seventeen. Then I’d spend days reading everything I could find online, taking notes and thinking about the poem’s form, living with grief and loss. There were some very low days for me, when I’d be holed up in my study working and emerge at the end of the day really weighed down by what preciousness had been stolen from families and friends.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I’ve tended to alternate between my study and our kitchen table. My partner is a painter and spends most of her day in her studio, so it’s really best for me to work in my own studio space. I recently did some rearranging of books and sort of “fluffed up” the space so it’s more inviting again. It’s a nice room, and it’s good to be able to close the door and carry on if my partner comes in to eat during the day, keeping our shared space communal rather than expecting her to tiptoe around if I’m at my computer.

I retired from college teaching last June, and I love having the freedom to write every day if I want, apart from the month of April, when in the last couple of years I’ve written a poem a day. I work in an intuitive way. I have a very interior life and am frequently investigating myself, my thoughts and feelings, my memories and impressions, so I’m grateful to have the freedom to follow those impulses and see where they lead. We live on beautiful, spacious, open land, on about thirty acres in north central Washington that bump up against undeveloped land. We take turns walking our labradoodle, Lola, out there, and I often write on my phone during our walks. If I’m not writing, I’m revising or submitting new work. So I’m writing in some way most days.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I’m just back from the Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival in Ohio, where I was on a panel with Jennifer Martelli, Jessica Cuello, and Stacy Gnall on poetry of witness. I was lucky enough to snag a copy of Jessica’s first book, Pricking. It’s an enthralling collection about medieval French history and the persecution of Cathars [a sect of Christianity], Jeanne d’Arc, and “witches,” so it feels timely and deeply connected to anti-trans violence and state-sponsored persecution. She’s one of my favorite poets.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
The book mostly organized itself as I arranged the poems chronologically in order of the deaths. The more challenging work was integrating the poems about my own queer journey and experiences with homophobia and threats of violence, my history as a queer person who’s been blessed to live to elderhood. I have a wonderful group of writing friends from my MFA cohort at Warren Wilson College, and they helped me to place those poems. The book starts with a long poem I wrote in August 2020, when there were no deaths reported. It’s a poem that situates me as the “watcher” and gives some context for what that was like. I scattered the personal poems every so many pages to provide a kind of relief from the otherwise unrelenting horror of the murders.

6. How did you arrive at the title Transitory for this collection? 
The word transitory came to me early on to resonate with transness and with all the things trans can mean as a prefix. Life is transitory— but more so for trans people, particularly people of color, for whom the life expectancy is thirty-five years. The original title was Transitory: A Catalog of Gleaned Sketches of Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People Murdered in 2020. It’s unwieldy but I wanted something that would point to how little information there is about these lost lives. In the end my writing group suggested just Transitory, to let it be more evocative and less literal. They were right of course. And what Sandy Knight did with that word on the cover, conjuring both the words trans and story, is brilliant!

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Transitory?
You know, I recently read an interview with the poet Joshua Jennifer Espinoza in the anthology Subject to Change: Trans Poetry & Conversation, in which she says, “Investigating your own gender—whether you are cis or trans or anything else—allows you to experience the world in a new way, allows you to be more sensitive to the oppression faced by those whose gender is not legible within this system.” As a queer-identified person of a certain age, I came late to investigating gender identity. It was surprising to me how little I both understood and was comfortable with my own gender. Once people started talking about this more and identifying themselves and their pronouns, I went through a shift from queer and cis, to queer and nonbinary, to queer and “anything else,” something that feels quietly trans-masculine. The final poem in the collection started out titled “Cis/Sister” but is now titled “This/Sister.” I finally have the language and freedom to know myself in this way, as my true nature. It’s a deeply personal knowing that shows itself only shyly. I wish I’d remembered to edit my bio in the book to reflect my pronouns correctly as she/they.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Transitory, what would you say?
It’s okay for you to reveal more of yourself in your poetry! There’s a poem in the collection titled “I Have Room for You in Me: A Litany,” and it’s addressed as much to myself as to others.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
My true work is spiritual awakening into my true and total nature. The tradition in which I teach and practice, Trillium Awakening, is a tantric path, which means that we accept everything as it is. It’s not a transcendent path of up and out but an embodied path that accommodates and welcomes the down. Writing this book took me into the down in a big way, living briefly the lives and dying the deaths of those I elegized. Without my spiritual capacity I don’t know if I’d have had the stamina to do it, to keep tracking the deaths and bringing them into the light—to the limited extent I was able to.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
My early teacher, Larry Levis, told me that I scared myself and backed off of going where the poem wanted to go. He was right! I recently read a piece in Poetry by Kiki Petrosino that was good advice on this count, to enter “the field of language dressed as a pilgrim, not a tractor…to witness, to encounter, to love those poems onto the page. Love; this is the work.”

Subhaga Crystal Bacon, author of Transitory.   (Credit: AKR Photography)

Ten Questions for Sigrid Nunez


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Sigrid Nunez, whose new novel, The Vulnerables, is out today from Riverhead Books. In this delightfully meandering narrative that reads like a long letter from a brilliant and gossipy friend, Nunez explores the surreal experience of living through the early days of the pandemic in New York City. The narrator, an author, moves into the apartment of another writer whose parrot needs care while that writer is stuck with her in-laws in California. Meanwhile the narrator offers her own apartment to a different acquaintance in need of a place to stay. Fond of macaws, the narrator is thrilled to care for the bird in the author’s swanky home—until she finds she must share the space with a surprise, human tenant. Like Nunez’s two most recent novels, The Friend (2018) and What Are You Going Through (2020), both also published by Riverhead, The Vulnerables is less about what happens than what the narrator thinks about it, the many memories and ideas sparked in the mind as it confronts the unpredictable events and personalities that chance throws in its field of perception. Some of the most engaging parts of the book are the narrator’s recollections of bygone experiences; seemingly disconnected from the pandemic “plot,” these reveries become moving—and often amusing—meditations on childhood, friendship, romantic love, and human vulnerability in a chaotic and violent world: “I want to know why I feel as though I have been mourning all my life,” says the narrator. A particular treat for the writer-reader, the novel is full of literary allusions—from Charles Baudelaire to Sylvia Plath to Colm Tóibín—and musings on the writing life. Kirkus praises The Vulnerables: “Sharp—and surprisingly tender.” Sigrid Nunez has published nine novels and Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag (Atlas, 2011). A winner of the National Book Award for The Friend and many other honors, she teaches at Hunter College in New York City.

1. How long did it take you to write The Vulnerables?
About two and a half years.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
With writing any book, the challenge is always the same: how to find the right words in the right order to express what I mean to say as precisely and artfully as possible. But in this case there was another challenge: how to write a novel in a world that has come to be defined by continuous disaster.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I usually write at home. I try to write every day, preferably in the morning. But when that’s not possible, I try to write at whatever time of day I can.

4. What are you reading right now?
The Pole, the new novel by J. M. Coetzee.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
That would be an endless list. Like most writers I read a lot, and I read like a writer. This means that, in one way or another, just about anything I read is likely to influence whatever I might be working on. If I’m reading something very good, I can expect to find at least one thing that the writer has done well that I’ll be able to put to my own use.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
That depends on the writer. If someone wants not only to write but to teach writing, an MFA is important, given that many schools won’t even consider a job applicant who does not have an MFA.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My agent, who was the first person to read the manuscript, assured me that, despite the book’s often dark, sad subject matter, most readers would find it funny and hopeful. Which is turning out to be true.

8. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Vulnerables?
Possibly that it wasn’t all as hard to write as I had feared it would be.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
One of the novel’s minor characters is a mini macaw named Eureka. I didn’t know a lot about that breed, or about parrots in general, so I had to do some research.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Never assume the reader is not as intelligent as you are. That will stop you from being too explicit, and it will spare your reader the irritation of being told what they already know or what they can imagine or deduce for themselves.


Sigrid Nunez, author of The Vulnerables.   (Credit: Marion Ettlinger Higher)

Ten Questions for Jim Redmond


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Jim Redmond, whose poetry collection Because You Previously Liked or Played, is out today from Deep Vellum. In lineated verse and prose poems, Redmond digs into the troubled psyche of a nation in thrall to digital culture. The poems chart the transformation of language into tech-company jargon, relationships into social-media contacts, and politics into zero-sum propaganda campaigns. In a voice that moves from deadpan irony to melancholy and the shades between, Redmond attempts to unwind the twisted logic of the Trump administration, conspiracy theorists, internet trolls, and all manner of toxic personalities poisoning the well of human connection. “I did not look away,” says the web-scrolling speaker of Redmond’s “Feed.” How to interpret such a statement raises one of the animating questions of the collection: In this age of instant information and online “torture porn,” as Redmond puts it, how do we differentiate between bearing witness and voyeurism, between innocent bystanding and complacency? Jim Redmond is the author of the full-length poetry collection, Get Back to Work (2021). His poems have appeared in Blackbird, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, Redivider, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a PhD in creative writing from the University of North Texas.  

1. How long did it take you to write Because You Previously Liked or Played?   
Well, in a sense, the book encapsulates something of my whole poetic life span. A few of these poems were written way back in 2008, or maybe 2007. Then there are approximately a dozen others that I’ve written in the last year or so. The majority I wrote while finishing my PhD at the University of North Texas, but there’s a good number of poems from my time in Ann Arbor and just after, in Austin, Texas.  

I think all the way back to my first poetry workshop at Western Michigan University, when my professor, Gary McDowell, handed us a packet of poems he’d cobbled together from poets he was reading at the time. This was way back when people could still locate the department photocopier. And reading those poems was like, wow—this is a poem? A poem can do that? That packet of poems became a little makeshift bible of sorts, and I was born again and again. Some of the poems in this book, fifteen years later, are disciples of that moment.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?   
One of the difficulties for me was determining the shape and the scope of the book. It’s gone through so many iterations that I reached several points where uncertainty and self-doubt became more of a guiding principle than did a clear vision or center of gravity for the book. Perhaps that’s not the healthiest relationship to one’s work, but it’s not altogether unproductive either.  

The book could have been over and done with many times, as I suppose any book can be. My own redirection in artistic taste and my confrontation with the possibilities and limitations of poetry, its place and power in the public sphere, played a part, but so did the so-called pressures of the marketplace. I don’t think I ever intentionally tried to write toward whatever I perceived as the trends at any given moment, but several years of manuscript rejection certainly does give one pause. A certain unspoken social pressure begins to incubate, something more nebulous and all-consuming than the direct feedback we receive from known entities like friends or colleagues or fellow workshoppers. 

The poems did become more political and also more skittery, roaming, with a denser philosophical surface. So the challenge was deciding where a book ends and another begins. What if the heart says one thing, and the market another? But what if both remain silent? Does a fault line or clear fracture in one’s poetic life dictate that thin difference separating two book jackets on the shelf? Catalysts come and go. Things cool and harden into place before turning molten once again.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
There were times when I’ve had a writing routine. It was easier in the college days, of course. But even while on the “job,” there were times when I’d devote my hour or two a day to the practice of poetry: the process in which I would recollect and then wrestle with some idea or epiphany. Or a beautiful line comes to you, and you say, “Let’s see where this goes.” So then you push a couple of words around the page for a couple of hours. And I did arrive at some good poems because I’d exercised the right muscles, because I was ready to give shape to whatever luminous little moment I’d stumbled upon.  

But I always, always find some way to fall out of the routine. Some writers, given that daily gift of the muse or a work ethic, wonder what life would be like without the process of writing. How could one live? Well, I’m here to tell you that life does go on. And that it’s ok to have your own relationship to writing and poetry, whatever that might look like for you.  

For some the daily writing routine is necessary, a vital part of the living process. For others perhaps it becomes too much of a job; it becomes a transactional input and output. And if the output isn’t outputting, then what? Is that it? I never want to lose my love for what a poem can do. This is something I have to be mindful of; I have to be open and let poetry give life outside the frame of professionalization.

4. What are you reading right now?
Well, there’s always some book open to its middle somewhere, or I’m a quarter of the way into this text, or have the first page of that text splayed out on the couch, the desk, the dresser. I like to start something theory-based, a little literary criticism. I like to let the excitement of the new idea take over for a couple of pages; then I usually move on before considering its plausibility, argumentation, evidence, and finer points.  

I’m in Iowa now, and there was just a huge book sale put on by Planned Parenthood at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. On the last day of the sale, the poetry section was still looking pretty ripe. I picked up a half dozen or so poetry collections from the 1980s and 1990s and a critical compilation on Wallace Stevens.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
At first I wanted to start with some of the poems that were more representative of a child’s perspective—the early indicators or antecedents of the political problems that were to come later in the book put forth on the personal level. And then I thought the second section would have a larger social reach, addressing the weight of shared history, the “we” where we’ve found ourselves—and lost our humanity. Then I guess a third section was supposed to be some return to the personal once again, with whatever gain of perspective. 

Ultimately the book ended with the childhood poems, the flowers of evil just about to bud before the close. It reminds me of what A. Van Jordan said about his second book, M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A; he ended up leading the collection with the speaker MacNolia’s big spelling-bee win instead of leading up to it. His logic was to give some of the outcomes first. 

If the book starts with the end of Trump’s presidency, then we might have some sense of finality already baked into the star chart. Or some sense of relief. Then we can start asking, “How did we get here? How could these things happen?” From there some perhaps uncomfortable answers developed through the course of the book are given a clearer frame, a needed foreground.

6. How did you arrive at the title Because You Previously Liked or Played for this collection?   
I wanted the title to touch upon some kind of moral implication, a finger ready to point. But at whom? And for what? What precisely are the parameters of the problem, and what is the source or the cause? I wanted to capture some of the confusion surrounding the whole process of meaning-making in our Web 2.0 world. More specifically I wanted to incorporate something of the function of contemporary, web-based consumer culture. The way that we are continuously fed information in an increasingly targeted fashion that requires little reflection, that reinforces our confirmation bias.   

We might be a mere function of the machine at this point, but we’re still culpable, aren’t we? Within the consumer model, the rational is replaced by the emotional appeal. But what is at first emotionally striking becomes mere habit through repetition; atrocities and outrage turn into the banal. So how do we break out of that? Can poetry help us see something in a new, and suddenly clear, fashion? The book’s title speaks to some of that banality. It’s an accusation, but it’s wrapped in the verbiage of corporate nomenclature or customer-relations speak. 

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Because You Previously Liked or Played? 
I was surprised by the book’s resiliency as an organic life-form. It’s ability to take up different directions, forms, redactions, and redundancies. It made it past the X-Acto knife, the blow torch, the specter of T. S. Eliot’s pen, the tiny teeth of one thousand termites, all of those rejections from publishers—all are a part of it now.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Because You Previously Liked or Played, what would you say?  
Don’t worry about the book having to be any one thing. Write toward what you want to discover. Don’t be too protective or closed off to suggestions from anyone at any point.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I had to lean into my inner political junkie. I didn’t just read “news” articles, listen to talk radio, and watch the various cable news offerings of the day, but I also spelunked through message boards, comments sections, tweets. I tried to think about the differences among traditional media and “independent” journalism and Web 2.0 offerings in terms of the messaging and the medium—and how something interesting could be done with all that through poetry.  

In a sense the work came down to discourse communities, getting a sense of how different forms of communication take shape according to who is participating and in what format. The language they use to mark themselves, their interests, the world. I went into some disturbing directions with this, including using the language as a means of interrogating some of the psychology addressed in the book: alt-right circles, men’s rights, Gamergate-like online communities.    

The hope is that the book is ultimately a kind of critique of toxic masculinity. But sometimes even touching any of this subject matter can be so dark, uncomfortable, hopeless that you’re left wondering: What is the line between trying to dissect or discredit something and simply amplifying or falling prey to the poison? Poetry lets us dwell in these difficult spaces; it refuses the easy answers, enacts a pressure chamber, and, maybe, if done well, that pressure placed on our humanity somehow affords it a new, resilient shine.   

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t play it safe; keep taking risks. It’s perhaps some of the first advice we receive as writers, but often we fall into a routine and set style and so perhaps do end up playing it too safe. I guess the tension point is between experimentation and obsession. Many writers, myself included, end up writing about the same thing over and over. We keep chasing that perfect poem, or there’s some question we can never fully answer, something that keeps haunting us. There’s something admirable and beautiful about that, certainly, but perhaps there’s some balance to be struck. 


Jim Redmond, author of Because You Previously Liked or Played.   (Credit: Iqra Cheema)

Ten Questions for Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones, whose debut, The Hurricane Book: A Lyric History, is out today from Rose Metal Press. In this hybrid collection of essays, poetry, documents, and other text, Acevedo-Quiñones weaves personal narrative with the history of Puerto Rico, told through the lens of six hurricanes that have rocked the island over the last century. The book investigates the colonizing power of the United States and its effect on Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the diaspora, including the author’s own family. Mixing Spanish and English with attention to the poetic and psychological dimensions of language, Acevedo-Quiñones considers how traumatic events can reverberate through generations—on the grand scale of culture and on the smaller scale of intimate relations among parents, children, and extended kin. Jaquira Díaz, author of the memoir Ordinary Girls (Algonquin Books, 2019), calls The Hurricane Book “a multilayered, powerful book…a gift.” The author of the chapbook Bedroom Pop (Dancing Girl Press, 2021), Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones holds an MFA in creative writing and literature from Stony Brook University, where she taught poetry to undergraduate students. Her poems and fiction have appeared in the Brooklyn RailRadar Poetry, Wildness, and other publications. Originally from Puerto Rico, she lives in Brooklyn.

1. How long did it take you to write The Hurricane Book
I started thinking about it a decade ago, but most of the writing was completed over three years. When I sent the first draft to Rose Metal Press in 2020, I had been working on it for a year. The press decided to publish it on the condition that I expand and edit it significantly, so I did that between 2021 and 2023. Glad I did.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
It’s difficult to choose one thing! Most of it was challenging. I felt out of my depth in every way. I share an apartment with three roommates, so dealing with this subject matter for years in a little bedroom did a number on my mental health. I’m very mistrustful of my own memories. And I was writing about a country I left half a lifetime ago. There was this struggle between my need to show everything and my fear of it. I wasn’t working in my preferred genre. I was writing this hybrid lyric thing that was hard to fall into a rhythm with at first. But form is content and all that! I’m envious of writers for whom writing comes easily. It’s one of the most difficult things in the world for me. I can confidently say that the easiest thing about writing the book was working with the sections that dealt with irrefutable historical facts, however disturbing. It was truth I could count on when I doubted myself in other threads.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I often work multiple jobs and move apartments every couple of years, so the former impacts how, when, and where I write. If I could write in a sensory-deprivation chamber or in a tiny house by a creek every day between 7:00 AM and 10:00 AM, I would. I’m hypersensitive to all kinds of stimuli and lose my nerve exponentially as the day progresses, so I’m partial to writing as soon as I wake up—in bed on a legal pad—before most people I know wake up. There are periods in which I do this daily, and those are the times I feel most sane.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I just read Yvette Siegert’s translation of Alejandra Pizarnik’s Diana’s Tree, and I am starting to read Brutalities: A Love Story by Margo Steines. I’m attracted to stories about exile, from our bodies or known places. I’m interested in seeing how some abandonments return us to ourselves and how others boomerang. One of the things I’m looking forward to the most after my book is released is reading with impunity! I haven’t had much time to do so with the book and a full-time job.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
I wasn’t actively thinking about their influence on my writing as I worked on the book, but I reached for Puerto Rican authors I grew up reading (Julia de Burgos, Luis Palés Matos, Mayra Santos, René Marqués, Rafael Acevedo) and wove them into the text because they were such an important part of my education. Authors who’ve impacted me significantly as a writer are Alejandra Pizarnik, Melissa Febos, Mary Karr, Lydia Davis, Claire-Louise Bennett, Elizabeth Bishop, Carmen Maria Machado, Ruth Stone, Adrienne Rich, and Louise Glück. This list is all over the place! But they’re always in my head.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Hurricane Book?
I didn’t show my family the manuscript before it was released, but there are a couple of close family members I reached out to about some sad, revealing content (in general terms). I didn’t want them to be too surprised if they read it. Their response was unexpectedly gracious, considering the subject matter. They basically said, “It’s your truth!” I’d been agonizing about it. But I now think people who know me understand that this was made with care.

7. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
Only if the MFA program offers financial aid, health insurance, and/or a flexible schedule. I got a full ride and still had to work two jobs. I don’t know how single parents or caregivers do it. Yes, I learned a lot from authors I love and respect, but my MFA experience was good because of my peers. We were active in each other’s lives and gave each other consistent and constructive feedback. We had a magical bubble out in Southampton, New York, for those two years, and I’ll always be grateful for it. Those people are still my best friends. But writers don’t need to enroll in an MFA to find that community and structure. If you have/can get the money, go for it. But if you don’t, find a writing group, go to free readings and talk to the person you’re standing next to. If there are no writing groups where you live, start one. If there are no reading series, go to your local bar or coffee shop and ask if you can plan one. Put up flyers. Because there are writers looking for you, too.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you wrote The Hurricane Book, what would you say?
I’d tell her to worry less about the “why” of it. There’s a reason why you didn’t let it go, even if it’s still not clear. Get it done; do your best. Stop punishing yourself for not coming to any grand conclusions.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?  
There was a ton of research involved: I looked through ancestry and census documents to try to fill in the gaps in the family sections; sourced clips, photos, satellite images, and weather maps from newspaper archives, the Library of Congress, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service, and other government agencies; went through medical and academic articles for the sections on eugenics and post-hurricane response/relief. Thankfully I received a grant that helped me pay a fact-checker. I also had to have deeply uncomfortable conversations with my mother about our shared mental-health history.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Marry rich! (I didn’t take that advice.) The second-best piece of advice was to start something new when I’m in a rut. We have to have a little fun, too, if we want to stay in love with what we do. After The Hurricane Book is out, you best believe I’ll be working on some sci-fi erotica for a bit.

Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones, author of The Hurricane Book: A Lyric History.  

Ten Questions for Curtis Chin


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Curtis Chin, whose memoir, Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant, is out today from Little, Brown. In this engaging and insightful debut, Chin looks back on his early life and young adulthood in the 1970s and 1980s as the Chinese American son of restaurateurs in Detroit. Opened by Chin’s great-grandfather in 1940, Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine fed generations of Motor City diners: “It was one of the rare places in the segregated city where everyone felt welcome.” For Chin, the restaurant is more than a place of employment, where he and his family and their staff worked up to eighty hours a week: It serves as a second home, school, and social sphere, a microcosm in which the trials and tribulations of the outside world play out in distilled form or, at times, in stark opposition. In scenes at Chung’s, as well as in his bustling house, in classrooms, and elsewhere, Chin charts his personal evolution in a Detroit marked by racial and economic tensions and within a large and loving, if frenetic, family that extends beyond blood ties to welcome friends and even a family of Vietnamese refugees. Chin grapples with being “a gay Asian kid trying to juggle multiple identities,” his call to art and literature—“poetry saved me,” he writes—and other milestones in “a well-led, and well-fed, life.” Kirkus praises Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant: “Chin is a born storyteller with an easy manner, and this memoir should earn him many readers.” A cofounder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City, Curtis Chin served as the nonprofit’s first executive director. He wrote for network television and now writes and produces social-justice documentaries; his films have screened in more than a dozen countries. He has received awards from ABC/Disney Television, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other institutions.

1. How long did it take you to write Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant?
I started writing a memoir about ten years ago, but those early drafts had a different focus and tone. While the setting and title stayed the same, it centered on my younger childhood. The stories were funnier: about my mean grandma who would boil our pets for dinner or my grandpa who ran the Chinese mafia. After COVID, the murder of George Floyd, and the rise in the reporting of anti-Asian hate crimes, I decided to get a little more serious. I shifted the age range to include stories about high school and college—when I was grappling with my racial identity at a predominantly white school—as well my coming out process and my shift from being a Republican (aka the Asian Alex P. Keaton) to being a political independent.  

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
After deciding to write about my teen years and early twenties, I had to be more introspective about the challenges I was facing. My original goal in writing this memoir was not necessarily to delve into these heavier subjects, but in the end I think they make for a more satisfying story. I also think it makes the book more relevant to what’s going on in the country these days.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I don’t have a set routine for writing. I really just go with the flow. As long as I am thinking and engaging with people, I feel like I am supporting my creative journey.

4. What are you reading right now?
As one of the cofounders of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, I have a lot of friends who write. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. Right now I am catching up on the to-be-read pile from these friends, many of whom have come out with books in the past two years.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Well, my writer friends are obviously influential for a variety of reasons, but for writers who I don’t personally know, I would have to say Frank O’Hara and Li Young Lee. My first genre was poetry, so they gave me the foundation of language. In terms of writing this memoir, I read a lot of coming-of-age books like Tara Westover’s Educated; J. R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar; Saeed Jones’s How We Fight For Our Lives; Phuc Tran’s Sigh Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In; and more.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant?
This may sound strange, but I was surprised by how much food played a role in the book. As a kid, I was the worst cook in our restaurant. Everyone else in my family was a master chef, so I was sort of banned from the kitchen. Instead I grew up working the dining room and interfacing with our customers, which is probably why I am such a social person. But the kitchen played a bigger role than I thought.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
“Stay calm.” That stuck with me, though I don’t know if that means I adhered to it. 

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant what would you say?
I might have started the book earlier, when my dad was still alive. In writing the book I talked to my mom several times a week, just to confirm details and dates. It would have been nice to also get my dad’s perspective on some of these past incidents. In some ways, that’s why my mom features a little more prominently in the book than my dad.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
My day job is making social-justice documentaries, so I spent a lot of time filming, editing, and then promoting my films. Since I was on the road so much, the book was a great project to work on in the hotel room.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Have fun. Make friends.

Curtis Chin, author of Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant.   (Credit: Michelle Li, Studio Plum Photography)

Ten Questions for Justin Torres


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Justin Torres, whose new book, Blackouts, is out today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In this matryoshka doll of a novel, a young man visits an older man from his past who, now on his deathbed, wishes to bequeath a trove of documents to him. The primary text he offers, Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns, is a real book published in 1941 that collects narratives of queer men and women. Along with other archival images and records, pages from Sex Variants punctuate the novel, their sentences strategically struck through with black ink in the manner of erasure poetry. Indeed, the spare, leftover language functions as verse, essentially rewriting the psychology book by centering queer subjectivity while raising questions about the nature of institutional “knowledge” and the harm it can cause, particularly to marginalized populations. Meanwhile the two men tell each other stories, filling each other in on their shared and separate histories—a process that is particularly confounding for the younger man, who suffers memory lapses, or blackouts, which he hopes his companion may be able to help him better understand. Alexander Chee praises the novel: “Blackouts gives me what I read fiction for, what I read for at all―the sense of a brilliant mind creating a puzzle in the air in front of me, all intelligence and surprises.” Justin Torres is the author of We the Animals (Mariner Books, 2012), which won the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award, was translated into fifteen languages, and was adapted into a feature film. His writing has appeared in the NewYorkerHarper’sGrantaTin House, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He teaches at the University of California in Los Angeles.

1. How long did it take you to write Blackouts
That’s a tough question to answer. It’s been over a decade since my last book, We the Animals, came out. I like to think everything I was reading, pondering, dreaming, and writing in that decade has found its way into Blackouts. Mostly I was stretching to become a different kind of writer, and that took time.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
The structure. The image permissions. Allowing myself other, more metaphorical kinds of permission. The exposure. I could go on. It’s a challenging book.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I don’t have any sacred ritual. My boyfriend and I were in a long-term, long-distance relationship, so when the teaching term ended, I would head to Oxford, England, and spend most of my summer there. Summer generally allows me to get more done. That’s also where I spent the Covid lockdown, and it was in those quiet, strange days that I finally finished the book.

4. What are you reading right now?   
I’ve just recently pivoted to read the finalists for the National Book Award—in various genres—whose books I hadn’t yet read. But I am also reading Touching the Art by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Greenland by David Santos Donaldson, and some advance copies of forthcoming books: The Great Divide by Cristina Henríquez and The Long Run: A Creative Inquiry by Stacey D’Erasmo, about artistic stamina, among other things.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Blackouts is, in many ways, a book about reading—in the straightforward literary sense of that word; in the sense of reading people, situations, images, history; and in the queer sense of reading (and being read). The book directly references a number of texts and writers: Manuel Puig, Jaime Manrique, Jan and Zhenya Gay, Toni Cade Bambara, Juan Rulfo, Kathleen Collins, Heather Love, Patricia Gherovici, Jesús Colón, Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Emma Goldman, and many, many more.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Blackouts?
Finishing the book. There were so many days (most days?) when I didn’t think I would, or could.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My editor, Jenna Johnson, was so involved in all matters spiritual and practical, I really don’t know where to begin. She’s on every page. We would have these long phone conversations when I felt I was truly lost in the woods, and she would describe to me what I was up to, what the pages were doing, and what else they might do. She was my editor for We the Animals, and we’ve become incredibly close over the years we’ve worked together—I mean, it must be something like fifteen years at this point! I could go on forever about how fortunate I feel to have her by my side; it’s one of the most important relationships in my life, no hyperbole. The only pressure I ever felt from her was to be honest to the vision I had for the book, not to concern myself with anything els­e—the possible reception, for example, or how long I was taking to finish, or whether or not I’d be able to include images or use colored ink, and on and on. Her constant refrain was, “Just do what you feel you need to do. Let me worry about the rest.” And so I did. I’m still probably allowing her to worry about much too much!

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Blackouts, what would you say?
I don’t know, this particular kind of question never makes much sense to me. My past self would not accept advice from my future self. We know us too well to trust one another.

But I know what my friends would say: Please don’t neurotically trash talk your own book to everyone you meet.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Reading. Researching. Reading more widely and more broadly. Seeking out people—like my man, my friends, mentors—who are smarter than me and generous enough to share what they’ve learned of the world. Rereading.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Believe it or not: Slow down.

Justin Torres, author of Blackouts.  

Ten Questions for Shannon Sanders


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Shannon Sanders, whose debut story collection is out today from Graywolf Press. These linked tales unfurl a panoramic narrative of a family and their social circle from the 1960s to the early twenty-first century. In a mix of third- and first-person narration, these tautly controlled stories delve into the nuances of interpersonal relations among family, friends, romantic partners, colleagues, and acquaintances. An assemblage of characters—from children to older adults—receive careful attention as Sanders explores how the past informs the present in the way people respond to the situations into which they are thrown and the people with whom they are forced to contend. Personalities gel or clash, people who seemed familiar turn out to have unknown dimensions, and individuals find new vistas within their own inner landscapes. Publishers Weekly praises the “exquisite emotional acuity” of Company. “This is a winner.” Shannon Sanders received the 2020 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, and her fiction has appeared in One Story, Electric Literature, Joyland, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Maryland with her family.

1. How long did it take you to write Company
Each individual story took anywhere from one day to two weeks to write, but the collection as a whole took about six years. I wrote the first few stories very quickly between 2015 and 2017, then slowed down when I started having children. I added a few more stories in 2020 before taking the book on submission. After Graywolf acquired the book, my editor urged me to add one last story, which I drafted in 2022. Not exactly a linear process, but an exciting one!

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The writing itself was, almost without exception, a total pleasure. What was extremely challenging was finding time to write! During the time I spent drafting the book, polishing it with my agent, and then taking it out on submission, I had three babies—including twins—and a global pandemic entered the equation. For more than a year, I was working a full-time job without childcare while trying to complete the book. I often thought I would never finish. But I did!

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
In a perfect world I would write at nighttime in a quiet part of my house while my kids are asleep and knock out a consistent word count each day, or most days. Sometimes I’m actually able to pull that off. Tracking my daily progress helps, as does motivating myself with small incremental rewards.

Mostly, though, what I can manage is to spend most of the week thinking about the work: mentally outlining, visualizing scenes, shuffling around the pieces in my brain. Then, with some support from my husband, I step away from home for a few hours on the weekend to get the ideas out on paper. I’ve found that with three little kids and all the household chaos that comes with them, the change of scenery is really important. It helps me fight the temptation to spend my writing time doing laundry.

4. What are you reading right now? 
Zadie Smith’s The Fraud. Everything she’s ever published I’ve consumed as soon as I can get my hands on it. I also just finished Tessa Hadley’s story collection After the Funeral and Other Stories, which was excellent, as all her stories are.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Like so many people I was raised on the work of Toni Morrison. Not just her novels but her literary criticism, her work on race, and the lore about her writing in the morning before her children woke up. As I mentioned above, I’ve been greatly inspired by Zadie Smith. And I also owe a major debt to several contemporary Black writers whose story collections came before mine: Danielle Evans (who has been a favorite writer of mine since her first book), Deesha Philyaw, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Jamel Brinkley, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and others.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Company?
I knew intuitively that the stories were linked from the time I started writing them, but it was still a fun process to discover the connections among the characters and their circumstances as I worked on them. The book’s editor, Yuka Igarashi, raised some wonderful questions during the process, which generated ideas about how I could further develop the history of the family at the center of most of the stories. Eventually pieces started coming together on their own. It surprised me that it got easier as I went along!

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
When I was a teenager I overheard a friend of my parents talking about an acquaintance whose adult sons had paid her a surprise visit from out of town to express their collective disapproval of her new boyfriend. I remember being shocked by that story—that the sons had taken the time to drive across state lines to interfere with an adult woman’s romantic life. That anecdote became the premise of “The Good, Good Men.”

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Company, what would you say?
I wish there were a way to bottle the confidence and perspective that come from a few years of sending work out and amassing rejections. If there were, I’d be tempted to pass it out to lots of new writers, including my earlier self. But actually I think that entire process—submission, rejection, lather, rinse, repeat—is an incredibly valuable part of the journey to completing and publishing a project. Learning not to take rejection too personally or seriously was one of the best things that happened to me during the process of writing this book. It helped me learn to keep my focus where it mattered. So instead of handing her that magic bottle, I think I’d tell my earlier self: Don’t worry. This won’t be linear, and it won’t be quick, but you will learn from it.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Does my day job count? I’m an attorney, and I work for a financial regulator. My day job requires lots of noncreative writing, which I find really helpful for keeping my muscles limber. The better my thoughts sync up with my typing fingers, the easier it is to get ideas out on paper.

I’m also an avid knitter. I highly recommend knitting to anyone with restless hands! If I’m stuck trying to work out a tricky plot point or dialogue sequence, I pick up my needles and it seems to unlock something.

This particular book didn’t take too much research. I felt that I knew the characters deeply after years of thinking about these stories, many of which were inspired by anecdotes I’ve heard from loved ones. But occasionally I had to reach out to an older relative to ask questions about family history, and that was always fascinating.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Worry less about the writer’s life, whatever that is, and more about the writing. Less energy toward beret-shopping, more toward doing whatever it takes to get your words onto paper.

Shannon Sanders, author of Company  (Credit: David Choy)

Ten Questions for Isle McElroy


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Isle McElroy, whose new novel, People Collide, is out today from HarperVia. In this surreal tale, a man named Eli finds that his consciousness has somehow been transferred to the body of his wife, Elizabeth. The couple had been living in Bulgaria, where Elizabeth was sent to teach through an elite fellowship program administered by the U.S. government. Living as his wife awakens Eli to the fact that perhaps he did not know Elizabeth as well as he thought he did, and he comes to see both her—and himself—in a new light during this strange interlude: “I occupied a space where neither she nor I seemed to exist, free from the expectations of our personalities,” McElroy writes in Eli’s voice. But where is Elizabeth? When a credit card transaction in Paris alerts Eli to her possible whereabouts, he embarks on an international mission to find his wife, presumably living in his skin. Along the way he must prepare for a future in which this body-swap remains permanent and for the changes that will ensue in his marriage and other relationships. Publishers Weekly calls People Collide “engrossing…. It’s an impressive twist on the familiar trope of marital ennui.” Isle McElroy is a nonbinary author based in New York. Their first novel, The Atmospherians, was named an editor’s choice by the New York Times and a book of the year by Esquire, Electric Literature, Debutiful, and other outlets.

1. How long did it take you to write People Collide
I had the idea for the book in 2015, but I didn’t begin writing it until late 2020. After all those years thinking about the novel, the draft came out fairly quickly, in only a couple of months. I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel draft as quickly as I wrote this one.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Keeping track of when to use male and female pronouns for Eli-as-Elizabeth, and when to intentionally blur those lines, was difficult on a technical level. In revision I had to make a lot of decisions and changes about how he referred to himself, but it was exciting to consider how his self-understanding changed throughout the book.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I normally write at my desk in my apartment. I’ve been living here for about three years, and I wrote most of People Collide at my current desk, gazing out the same window. I prefer to start writing early in the morning, before the sun comes up, normally for only a few hours. Though I used to write every day, I’ve settled into a five-day schedule, to preserve the weekend mornings for sleep and time with loved ones.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I’m finally reading Annie Ernaux! I’m in the middle of The Years and loving it.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
For this book, Katie Kitamura’s A Separation was a huge influence. And I love everything that she’s published. Catherine Lacey has been a major figure for my work overall, as have writers like Helen DeWitt, Renee Gladman, and Donald Barthelme. Something about the joy and bounce of their sentences really appeals to me, on both an aesthetic and intellectual level, and I try to bring that to my prose.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of People Collide?
I was surprised by the process of physically writing the book. Though I wrote a lot of my first novel by hand, much of it was drafted on my laptop. But I wrote the entire first draft of People Collide across four composition notebooks, and I was able to discover a process for writing I hadn’t done before—writing on the right side of the notebook, leaving the left page blank for notes. I feel like I stumbled on a process I’ll use for a long time.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
I began the book at a cabin in Maine I had rented with two writer friends. One day we all split off to write, and I took a desk looking out at the woods. My current bedroom at home did not have a window, and for the first time in months I felt like I could write freely and toward something. I wrote the entire first chapter of People Collide in one sitting, often looking up into the woods. I attribute this book to that window!

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started People Collide, what would you say?
I wouldn’t tell them anything! I started writing this novel because I was supposed to be working on a memoir project I found impossible. I began People Collide to avoid writing that more difficult book. This took a ton of pressure off the writing process. I don’t want to even insinuate to my earlier you that they might stumble into a novel.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I think that I needed to spend a lot of time on my bike. I love biking in Brooklyn, and though it doesn’t look anything like writing, biking has become a perfect way to both decompress and leave the house after a long day of writing. I don’t remember having many ideas on my bike, but it frequently served as a transition outside of the writing space to a more public space, off to see friends. It served as a kind of bridge between my social life and my writing life, insulating the latter.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Celebrate the small victories! There is too much grief and disappointment in a writing career to overlook any single moment for joy. Grab drinks with friends when you publish a story. Buy yourself flowers to commemorate a great review. Text your partner the best sentence you wrote that day. Nothing is too small.

Isle McElroy, author of People Collide.   (Credit: Jih-E Peng)

Ten Questions for Cintia Santana


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Cintia Santana, whose debut poetry collection, The Disordered Alphabet, is out now from Four Way Books. This engaging and surprising book interrogates language in quite literal terms, with epistolary poems addressed to specific letters of the Roman alphabet. In free verse and more experimental forms, these poems whirl down and across the page, accumulating meaning through sonic play and free association. Densely packed and ecstatic, the lines at times call to mind the spring-loaded articulations of nineteenth century Anglican poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, particularly when read aloud: “Held / heart / holed / whole. / Harpooned. / Heart on / but hard. / Hell / in a hand. / With harps. // Hark! I said / Hear me,” Santana writes in “[H].” The letter poems are interspersed with self-portraits, elegies, and other meditations all in conversation with the collection’s overarching inquiry into the nature and efficacy of verbal expression. Ross Gay praises the collection: “The Disordered Alphabet tussles with diction, wrangles with syntax, struggles with the sentence and the line in a kind of linguistic unmaking that somehow becomes a beautiful, unsettling song.” Santana teaches fiction and poetry workshops in Spanish as well as literary translation courses at Stanford University. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon ReviewNarrativePleiades, the Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. Her work has been supported by CantoMundo and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.

1. How long did it take you to write The Disordered Alphabet?  
Somewhere between five and fifteen years. The idea to write a letter addressed to each letter of the Roman alphabet came to me in the spring of 2013, and I was sending out the manuscript by 2018. But the oldest poem in the book is an abecedarian about mushrooms that I wrote in 2007. And the newest is a complete rewrite of my poem to the letter M undertaken in 2022, long after I had turned in the “final” version of the manuscript.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Revisiting the grief that preceded the writing of the poems. That was hard but also necessary. Like many writers, I process the world most deeply through words. For me, giving language to something, finding a name for it, enacts a kind of metabolic process.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
It depends on the season. The reading and writing I do during the academic year is primarily in support of my teaching. I generate most of my poems in the summer, at the workshops offered by Kenyon Review, Napa Valley Writers, and the Community of Writers. It turns out that I write well under overnight pressure. During the school year I revise and send out work I’ve written in the summer. But in some ways I’m always writing. I carry a notebook in which I write down images, ideas, scraps of language, phrases, even solitary words. As I tell my students, poetry is everywhere—you just have to pay attention.

4. What are you reading right now?  
I’m currently rereading a couple of things. Hugh Raffles’s poetic and encyclopedic The Book of Unconformities: Speculations on Lost Time, a book that came to my attention early in the pandemic, thanks to a beautifully written New York Times review by Parul Sehgal. I’m also rereading Translation Zone, winner of the 2022 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize. It’s a first book by a friend, Brian Cochran. His poems are these acts of emotional and linguistic magic. I’ve been his fan for a long time, and over the last few years his work has reached a level such that I’m always asking myself after reading a poem, “How did he get there?” I also just returned from CDMX, where I did some catching up on contemporary Mexican poetry—recent works by Sara Uribe, Tedi López Mills, Eva Castañeda, and Elisa Díaz Castelo.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
As you might imagine, titling my collection The Disordered Alphabet was of no help. I knew there was an emotional arc to the process of grief, but I also knew it wasn’t linear. I felt the first two sections needed to begin with the speaker’s various losses and a subsequent grief that could not easily be named nor voiced. The third and last section revealed itself more slowly; poems that reflect a wider view of lived experience, of the stunning beauty of the world that persists, that insists even, under the eaves of loss. Or is sharpened precisely because of loss.

Ordering the poems within those sections was harder. I had heard a good rule of thumb was to order poems in such a way that each one could be entered into more deeply as a result of the ones that preceded it. At a CantoMundo retreat, Andrés Cerpa gave me the best general advice that I think I’ve received: to read all the poems out loud, even record them, and listen with an ear for tone.

Eventually I covered my living room floor with all my poems and moved them around a bit every day or two. Standing over them one day, I realized that, of course, there was no one best order. Many compelling orders exist. I think that holds true for most manuscripts.   

6. How did you arrive at the title The Disordered Alphabet for this collection? 
It could be said that the title goes back to my childhood. I mostly grew up in California, but Spanish is my first language. A short while before I was to enter kindergarten, when I knew no English whatsoever, my parents sat me down in front of the TV to watch Sesame Street. They felt that I could learn some English in this way, including my ABCs. My father helped me practice because I would need to recite them soon for a teacher to decide if I was ready for kindergarten or not. No pressure for a five-year-old, right?

When the day of truth arrived, I started off quite confidently—before faltering somewhere around M or N. At that moment stumbling over the very atoms of language felt highly consequential. Somehow, nonetheless, I was allowed to begin an illustrious kindergarten career. Fast forward to reading a lot of Borges.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Disordered Alphabet?
The day the letter R wrote me a letter! In the spring of 2013, I was grieving two losses that had occurred very close in time. I was angry. I wanted to take “God” to task. So one day I wrote a poem, a letter to the letter A that began, “You are the Alpha and the asshole. The ass of the assassin. Yet I await you in the artic, anorak and all. Astound me. Anchor my ache and astound me now.” Like I said, I was angry. And I also felt in need of some kind of mercy. The A poem that’s in the book has no trace of this first draft, but that’s how I began to write my letters to the alphabet. I was trying to make sense of life’s “grammar,” a grammar filled with oddities and exceptions, that had become increasingly difficult to parse.

Epistolary writing felt like a fitting form, as it also implies someone distant or absent. In the U.S., grief is a party of one. It’s an experience that feels particularly invisible, silent, and silenced. So how can we—how do we— give voice to our grief? With whom do we speak of it? How can the unspeakable be spoken, be given form? The Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro says, “the poet is a small god.” In The Disordered Alphabet I think of the letters that the speaker addresses as major gods, divine and indeterminate. Much like language or a divine power, the Roman letters are insufficient—to be implored yet remaining distant. The epistolary form allowed me to voice questions about grief while telling it slant.

As I was finishing the manuscript, I decided the first iteration of my R poem needed a complete rewrite. And that’s when R started to write me a letter. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it was really something. Suddenly I was thrown into a different vantage point: What would a god-letter have to say back to the grieving speaker?

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Disordered Alphabet, what would you say?
Don’t be afraid of silence. Silence, which manifests at times as writer’s block, scares me. There’s a poem, “Mr. Vastness and Mr. School Answer My Letter,” in which I found my way to the line, “be not deceived, Sister of Lazarus, / by silence, spring of speech.” It’s easy for me to forget that silence is often a time of great gestation. It’s important to observe it—by which I mean not only noting it but also honoring it by giving it the space to be. It’s the urge to fill it, rather than the silence itself, that often proves excruciating.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I did a fair bit of research on the atomic bomb and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My husband, Hideo, is—conveniently—a physicist, and I would sometimes ask him, “Can I say this? Is this counterfactual in some way?”

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
As an undergraduate I was enrolled in a fiction workshop in which we read Ted Solotaroff’s essay “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years.” Solotaroff had discovered many young, gifted writers during his time as editor of the New American Review. But ten years later he saw that half of those promising writers had all but disappeared. Solotaroff determined that talent wasn’t the deciding factor. Instead he saw persistence as the defining difference—persistence despite the many hurdles (including economic) the work of writing entails. Solotaroff states, “For the gifted writer, durability seems to be directly connected to how one deals effectively with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without. . . .” With that in mind, I promised myself that I would still be writing—no matter what—ten years out. Life has brought many interruptions, many distractions, and the writing years have hardly been even, but I have continued to write. Some years that’s meant little more than scratching down things in a notebook with little or no “finished” anything. But I’ve kept my promise to myself: I have continued to write ten years out—and then some.

Cintia Santana, author of The Disordered Alphabet.   (Credit: Rewa Bush)

Ten Questions for Heather Lanier


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Heather Lanier, whose debut poetry collection is out today from Monkfish Book Publishing. These contemplative lyrics interrogate the meaning of faith, attempting to square traditional Christian doctrine with the complex realities of contemporary life. At heart a quest for spiritual enlightenment, the collection blends reflection with wry humor and irony to unpack the contradictions of religious dogma and the speaker’s conflicted feelings. “Mary, did they wag their fingers no / at unpasteurized milk? Did you have to count / your protein for too little and your tuna / for too much, fretting mercury might metalize / the haloed brain of the divine?” the pregnant speaker wonders in “The Messiah Could Have Gotten Listeria.” Motherhood is a major theme of the book, which tracks the transformation of the female body and mind during gestation, childbirth, and the subsequent years of attempting to balance family, work, friendship, and life’s daily difficulties and rites of passage. Kirkus praises Psalms of Unknowing, calling it “a powerful poetic reckoning with motherhood and religion.” Heather Lanier’s essays and poems have appeared in the Atlantic, Salon, Time, and elsewhere. The author of the memoir Raising a Rare Girl (Penguin Press, July 2020), she is an assistant professor of creative writing at Rowan University in New Jersey.

1. How long did it take you to write Psalms of Unknowing
In some ways, forever. I wrote the oldest poem in the book eighteen years ago. But most of the poems were written in the last decade, maybe even the last five years. (Meanwhile, I was also writing nonfiction.) I spent about a year thinking about how the poems would become a book.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Putting it all together. I had almost two decades’ worth of poetry. I’ve assembled chapbooks before, and the chapbook length holds a single theme well. But full-length books often need multiple thematic strands interwoven. You want a book of poetry to create surprise, but not discord. You want variation without jarring interruption. And you want a conversation. It’s tricky. I tried a lot of different groupings of poems. But once I found a central throughline, feminist spiritual seeking, everything fell into place. All the other themes—pregnancy, grief, motherhood, political rage, religious questioning, etcetera—were filtered through that lens.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
It depends on the season. I shift my goals based on what’s possible. My ideal is to write five days a week, two hours a day, in the morning after my husband and I get the kids to school. That’s possible during certain periods of the semester, and not at all during the summer. When the semester gets super busy, I aim to just open a Word document (or the writing app Scrivener) every weekday and sit with it for at least thirty minutes. The summer is chaos. I have to get creative. Regardless of the season, I almost always write at home—at my desk, on a couch, or at the dining table.

4. What are you reading right now? 
A friend recommended Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and Denis O’Hare, so I’m reading that. Fascinating stuff. (I wrote a little bit about it here.) I just finished my friend James Crews’s lovely book, Kindness Will Save the World: Stories of Compassion and Connection, and on deck I’ve got Camille T. Dungy’s Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden and Carolyn Hays’s Letter to My Transgender Daughter: A Girlhood.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I mentioned that I used feminist spiritual seeking as a throughline. So the opening poem, “Pumping Milk,” sets that up, with the figure of a half-naked woman getting ready to pump milk at the office and asking questions about what it means to be human. After that the book is arranged in four sections. I didn’t want any of the sections to feel too monolithic (as in, And now the Pregnancy Poems!). Each section contains at least two threads that are a bit contradictory so that the contrasting notes speak to each other to create a third thing. For instance, the first section focuses on pregnancy and grief. By pairing poems about carrying life with poems about losing it, the first section creates a larger conversation about the risks we take in living and loving. Each of the book’s sections is subtitled with a feminist renaming of the parts of the Holy Trinity in the Christian prayer: “In the Name of the Mother…”, “And the Child…”, “And the Holy Unknowing…”, and “Amen.” So the entire book is structured around a (probably heretical) prayer that nudges female and nonbinary language into Christian tradition.

6. How did you arrive at the title Psalms of Unknowing for this collection?
The phrase “psalms of unknowing” appears in a poem called “Free Bible in Your Own Language.” I had been walking on a university mall when I spotted a booth with that phrase on a sign. And I was feeling snarky and amused by it. Like many people, I’ve felt plenty alienated by the language of the Bible, so I started riffing on what kind of language “my Bible” would contain. Curse words, 1980s pop music, and, ultimately, an ease with unknowing. That phrase, “psalms of unknowing,” pushes back against fundamentalism and makes space for a spirituality that emerges from doubt, uncertainty, and openness.

The title also echoes a book called The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymously written text that is foundational to the contemplative Christian movement, which emphasizes receptivity to the divine. While my book is filled with lots of things—rage and silliness and sorrow—it’s guided by the spiritual practice of receptivity.

7. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I would! Especially if you want concentrated time to study your craft. But I’m not a fan of going into debt for one. I encourage people to aim for fully funded programs, or low-residency programs where you can keep your job. I had an amazing time at Ohio State University writing for three years, teaching college students, and living on my $1,200-a-month stipend. But that was when you could rent an apartment in Columbus, Ohio, for $400 a month. (Also, my apartment had raccoons in the pantry—so, you know, tradeoffs.) With the expensive housing market, I know it’s harder to avoid loans for living expenses. But universities should be supporting their grad students with tuition waivers and fair stipends.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Psalms of Unknowing, what would you say?
I’d say, “Just keep going.” I guess what I mean by that is: Just keep listening to the work, one poem at a time. I’d also say, “Don’t fear motherhood. It will be the best thing for your writing.”

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I took a class on how to assemble a poetry collection, with Nancy Reddy at Blue Stoop. My graduate degree did a great job of helping me write individual poems, but we didn’t spend much time in courses learning how to shape a collection. I needed help. Nancy was great.

I also had to deconstruct my fundamentalist upbringing, spend a decade rejecting Christianity, relearn it through a Buddhist lens, and spend another decade practicing contemplative meditation. And there was that whole getting-pregnant-with-two-children-and-giving-birth-to-them thing. But more specifically, I spent a week at a monastery on a silent retreat, meditating with a group of people. That’s where the final poems in the book come from.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Isak Dinison’s quote—as passed down by my mentor, Lee Martin—the last word of which I technically misremembered. Here is my version: “Write a little every day, without hope or fear.”


Heather Lanier, author of Psalms of Uknowing.   (Credit: Justin Lanier)

Ten Questions for Myriam Gurba


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Myriam Gurba, whose new book, Creep: Accusations and Confessions, is out today from Avid Reader Press. In these trenchant essays, Gurba weaves memoir with cultural and intersectional-feminist critique to consider the many forces of violence bearing down on women, particularly queer women of color. With an unflinching gaze, Gurba considers the “creeps” among us and the ways in which their transgressions and crimes affect individuals and the collective imagination. Gurba finds the dark thread linking all manner of bad actors, both real and apocryphal: domestic abusers, serial killers, the monsters of folk tales, and literary icons, among others. Included in the collection is Gurba’s viral takedown of the novel American Dirt (Flatiron Books, 2020)—“Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca With Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature”—in which she lambasts the author for exploiting the suffering of Mexican migrants and the publishing industry for investing in culturally appropriative books. Publishers Weekly praises Creep: “Full of lean prose and biting commentary, this is as emotionally heavy as it is hard to put down.” Myriam Gurba is the author of the true-crime memoir Mean (Coffee House Press, 2017), the story collection Painting Their Portraits in Winter (Manic D Press, 2017), and Dahlia Season (Manic D Press, 2017), which includes stories and a novella. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris ReviewTime, and 4Columns.

1. How long did it take you to write Creep?  
It took me about ten years to write the book. While Creep is structurally different from my memoir, MeanCreep is Mean’s prequel and sequel. In many ways, Creep is also a book-length response to a question I’m often asked and one that never fails to irk me: Is writing about sexual violence cathartic?

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Remembering and aestheticizing my experiences of domestic violence were the most challenging aspects of writing Creep. Revisiting that period of my life was psychologically, physically, and spiritually painful. I don’t recommend it: 0 out of 5 stars. 

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write at home and prefer mornings. I wrote part of Creep in bed while I was recovering from COVID-19. That felt very Frida Kahlo. I write according to an irregular schedule, so it’s hard for me to measure how frequently I write. I tend to binge-write. Sometimes I’ll sequester myself in cheap motels in rural towns and spend days writing, occasionally emerging in search of food, coffee, and other mind-altering substances. 

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general? 
Tatiana de la tierra has been immensely influential. She was a brilliant, radical, beautiful, and fat friend who wrote poetry, fiction, and essays. She was also an editor, publisher, activist, librarian, pornographer, and all around magical dyke. She never shied away from using humor, and encountering the comedy in her work gave me permission to experiment with humor in my prose.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Creep
The strong presence of my ancestors took me by surprise. I hadn’t anticipated that they would play such a central role in so many of the essays, but they elbowed their way in and asserted themselves. Their presence makes Creep an intergenerational family memoir and history. 

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book? 
In Creep I describe a school field trip that I took to an egg farm. My classmates and I were greeted by the unmistakable stench of chicken shit. Rural California often smells like turds.  

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Creep, what would you say?
I would strongly advise myself not to date the guy I wrote the title essay about. 

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I had to heal from domestic violence. Culinary therapy helped with that. Following recipes and working with my hands soothes me. I baked a lot of pies, brewed my own corn beer, and made mountains of tortillas.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Write while fully caffeinated.

Myriam Gurba, author of Creep: Accusations and Confessons  (Credit: Geoff Cordner)

Ten Questions for Megan Kamalei Kakimoto


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Megan Kamalei Kakimoto, whose story collection, Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare, is out today from Bloomsbury. This haunting debut confronts the physical and mythological terrain of Hawai’i, deconstructing its status as a tropical dreamscape to reveal a thornier topography shaped by the politics of colonial conquest and its aftermath. Female characters of mixed native Hawaiian and Japanese descent are at the forefront of these stories, walking the tightrope between the expectations of mainstream American culture and the specific norms and taboos of their heritage and family dynamics. The opening tale recalls Jamaica Kincaid’s famous “Girl” in its overwhelming list of directives and guilt-inducing questions from mother to daughter: “After everything that has happened to us, don’t you want to make your father so proud?” The pains of adolescence, love, sex, grief, nature, the supernatural, and metacommentary on the writing life all find their way into these narratives, equal parts sensual and cerebral. Publishers Weekly praises the book: “Marked by a wry sense of humor and an unerring touch for the surreal, Kakimoto’s stories add up to a powerful exploration of gender, class, race, colonialism, and domestic violence. This eloquent outing marks Kakimoto as a writer to watch.” Megan Kamalei Kakimoto is a Japanese and Kānaka Maoli (native Hawaiian) writer. Her fiction has been published in Granta, Conjunctions, Joyland, and elsewhere. She has been a finalist for the Keene Prize for Literature and has received support from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, where she was a fiction fellow. She lives in Honolulu.

1. How long did it take you to write Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare?
I wrote the stories in Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare over the course of four years, though the oldest story, “Temporary Dwellers,” dates to 2016. I like to think the version that emerged out of revising the collection as a whole is vastly different from its first-draft iteration, though perhaps I’m too close to the project to see this objectively.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
By far the biggest challenge of seeing Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare through to completion was pushing past the brick wall of my fears and anxieties over how these stories would be received. In the contemporary publishing landscape, there are so few native Hawaiian writers being published, so I felt an enormous responsibility to do right by not only my fellow Kānaka writers but also the Hawaiian community as a whole. The characters in Every Drop are inextricable from their Hawaiian roots, with Hawaiian mythology and superstitions permeating every story in the collection. I felt deeply overwhelmed thinking about how this book needed to speak for a particular Hawaiian experience, which is absurd, since there’s no such thing as a monolithic “Hawaiian” experience. Yet this is a consequence of writing on the periphery of a marginalized experience—it’s very hard to unburden ourselves of the expectations we imagine our communities have for us, simply because there are so few of our voices being championed in the first place.

So writing past the fear, or maybe into the fear, of an imagined readership and its criticism was a challenge I wrestled with throughout the writing, editing, and now publication process. I imagine it’s something I’ll encounter for a while longer, or at least until we see more Kānaka writers platformed and supported in the publishing industry.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I’m most content when I’m writing every morning—the last three years of my MFA had afforded me this gift of time. Now that I’ve graduated and am balancing a work schedule, I still try to carve out a consistent writing routine, waking at 6:30 AM to get in a couple hours of work, then reading and revising in the late afternoons. Consistency works for me; I feel grounded, fulfilled, and at peace when I can return to a project morning after morning. I also love the romantic ideal of writing in coffee shops, though, to save money, I’ve mostly been writing at my home desk.

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m an avid rereader and am trying to make some headway with my novel in progress, so I’ve been rereading a lot of books I admired on the first read and hope to be in conversation with. These include Territory of Light by Yūko Tsushima, Motherhood by Sheila Heti, Savage Tongues by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, The Need by Helen Phillips, Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon, The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams, and America Was Hard to Find by Kathleen Alcott. An eclectic range, I know, which I imagine (and hope) will feed into a very strange book.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
This book would not have been possible without the works of Kiana Davenport, T Kira Māhealani Madden, and Kristiana Kahakauwila forging a path for Kānaka Maoli writers. On the sentence level, I’m always studying work by Toni Morrison, Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, and Amy Hempel; they make me strive to become a better writer.

I try to keep a stack of books on my desk whenever I’m working on a new project. For the collection, I kept close Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt, Tender by Sofia Samatar, Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz, Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link, Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons, and a handful of others.  

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I think if you’re clear in your intentions of what you hope to get out of an MFA, it’s worth pursuing, though by no means do I believe it to be an author’s singular path to success. For me, I was burned out working a PR job that drained all my creative energy, and I longed for a literary community in which to immerse myself. All signs pointed toward an MFA, so long as I wasn’t going into debt for it. Pursuing the MFA at the Michener Center for Writers proved to be one of the most significant and meaningful creative experiences of my life.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
Both my agent, Iwalani Kim, as well as my editor, Callie Garnett, were invaluable partners in ushering this collection into the world. Their constant reassurances about my small questions and concerns, though it shouldn’t have surprised me, really put so much of my anxiety at ease throughout the often nebulous path of publishing.  

8. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare?
Moments of surprise were by far the most delightful when writing these stories, particularly when a character would do something unexpected or outlandish, something at which I would otherwise cower or maybe resist. I think that’s so much of the pleasure of writing for me, the opportunity to be fearless on the page. I’m a people pleaser by nature, which doesn’t afford a lot of room for fearlessness.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
To manage the aforementioned anxiety of writing this book, I ran constantly. I signed up for the Honolulu Marathon to give myself a goal to work toward that had nothing to do with world-building or sentence-making. Then I got injured. I took to rhythmic cycling classes, which were easier on my knees and on which I continue to lean while navigating the anxieties of bringing a book into the world.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?   
I think a lot about something Kimberly King Parsons and Chelsea Bieker taught in their class called “Rejection, Revision, and Renewal,” especially as I move into promoting the collection. I even wrote it on a note card and taped it to my desk: “Keep your head down and shut out the noise, because nothing beats a good writing day.”   


Megan Kamalei Kakimoto, author of Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare  (Credit: Van Wishingrad)

Ten Questions for Edgar Kunz


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Edgar Kunz, whose new poetry collection, Fixer, is out today from Ecco. At the heart of this touching group of narrative lyrics, a young man grapples with the legacy of a troubled father. In the long title poem that forms the backbone of the collection, the speaker breaks into his deceased father’s apartment, attempting to make sense of the troubled man’s life through the objects he’s left behind: “Your coat. The cash in your pockets. / The cellophane from a fresh pack. // Zippo with a carving of a whale, / proud ship in the distance.” On either side of this monumental event, the speaker finds himself navigating his own troubles and struggling to exceed the limitations of class, gender, and family history. The collection opens after the speaker has abandoned a lover and fears that this transgression has fulfilled a pattern of toxic masculinity that deserves punishment: “I wanted / to be revealed by some visible sign // a welt to ride the ledge of my cheek,” Kunz writes in “Day Moon.” But the speaker is too self-aware to fall into mere repetition compulsion, and the collection offers a window into a psyche awakening to the power of will against destiny. Attention to beauty, to love, and to art demolishes the fear and shame that cover our better natures: “Where they pry // the rotten timber away, / the brick is a brighter / shade of red beneath,” Kunz writes, narrating a neighbor’s home renovation project in “New Year.” Edgar Kunz is the author of Tap Out (Ecco, 2019). He has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. His poems have appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Poetry, and elsewhere. He lives in Baltimore and teaches at Goucher College. 

1. How long did it take you to write Fixer?  
After my first poetry collection, Tap Out, I struggled to write—a few flashes here and there, but mostly the poems were terrible! I wrote almost nothing worth saving for more than a year. Looking back, it’s obvious why: I was avoiding my subject. Just before Tap Out hit the shelves, my dad died. He was an addict in free fall, and I’d been grieving him a long time. But then he’d actually gone and died, and with him went the potential for reconciliation. I went home and buried him and cleaned out his apartment with my brothers and went back to my life. It took time to find the courage—and the required distance—to write about it. And one day I wrote a little poem about breaking into his apartment, and then another one about where I think I might have been when he died, and another one about the last time my brother saw him. I couldn’t stop. I wrote the middle section of the book, a long poem called “Fixer,” then filled in around it with love poems, weird-job poems, and poems about artificial intelligence, urban gardening, and trying to find a good therapist. I wrote most of the book in a month.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
I struggle to write well when I know the subject of the poem going in. Once the book started to show itself, it became clear it needed a bit of narrative clarity here, a bit more elaboration there. There were holes I needed to fill, threads I needed to develop. That was hard for me. The poems often felt didactic, corny. The book ended up being quite short—about seventy pages—because I cut every poem that felt willed or predictable.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I have very little discipline. Even when writing is going well, I’ll go weeks and weeks without writing a word. I have very little discipline: Barf. What I mean is, my process has, so far, been inconsistent. Bursts followed by fallow periods. I’m trying to get better about accepting that. I used to believe it was about clocking in and hammering out your drafts. I mean, it’s important to take the work seriously, but don’t trap yourself into false models of production and worth. Reading is writing is something people say, but also dinner with friends is writing. Going on long walks is writing. Laying down is writing. You can go long periods without setting down a word and still be gathering the necessary materials, storing up energy. 

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m halfway through Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had, and it’s fantastic; I’m a huge fan. I’m rereading Victoria Chang’s The Trees Witness Everything—brilliant. Books out this year I’ve read and loved include Megan Fernandes’s I Do Everything I’m Told, Alina Pleskova’s Toska, Maggie Millner’s Couplets, and Thea Brown’s Loner Forensics. Will Schutt’s translation of Fabio Pusterla’s Brief Homage to Pluto and Other Poems is excellent too.

I’m also reading The Lord of the Rings with a group of friends. We’re all trying to read the trilogy at the same pace; I think we’re set to finish in October. Our pal Danny is a de facto Tolkien scholar, and he very kindly fields our questions about wraiths and wizards and the durability of hobbits. Super fun.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I didn’t know I was working on a book until I wrote the middle poem, a series of eighteen-line sections exploring the period after my dad died. Once that was done, I had to sort out a middle and an end. I had a couple of poems on hand I liked, including “Day Moon” and “Night Heron,” the two earliest poems to make it into the book, and I knew I wanted to write more about work and labor, falling in love, building a life in a new city. Soon I had two hinge poems that led into and out of the long middle sequence, “Squatters,” which ends with the mother calling to tell the speaker about his dad’s death, and “Tuning,” an aftermath poem that follows a section featuring a piano tuner. After that, it was a matter of writing drafts and grouping them by intuition into first-section poems and third-section poems. Eventually, after much shuffling, an order revealed itself, and I stuck with it.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
Sure. The MFA gives you time to write, a boost to your sense of yourself as a writer (important!), and a group of smart people who also care about writing and who hopefully want to help each other get better. Graduating with a book manuscript would be great, but the real goal, I think, is simply to improve and to lay the groundwork for a writing life. If you can find one friend in your program whom you trust and who can commit to exchanging work with you regularly after the MFA, you’re golden. And don’t go into debt for it if you can help it. If you can quit your job and move to a new city, I’d only apply to full-residency programs that offer full tuition remission and pay you enough to live on. If you can afford it and/or can’t move, low-residency programs can be a good option. Ask about scholarships.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Fixer?
I’m surprised by how rangy the poems ended up being. They’re funny and weird and hopeful and tragic. I’m proud of my first book, but it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs. I think I pulled off something more tonally complex in Fixer. It’s truer to the texture of my life. 

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Fixer, what would you say?
Read more. Drink water. Call your friends. Spend less time worrying about not writing and more time doing things that bring you joy. 

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
In the years between publishing book one and starting book two, I took on a series of escalating home-improvement projects. I don’t know if I had to do them to complete the book, but I wasn’t writing, and I still had the urge to make, fix, take apart, and rebuild. I refinished the hardwood floors in our living room, constructed a series of fences around the yard, got a speaker system for free off Craigslist and repaired it by soldering new capacitors to the board. I’m in the process of replacing all the doors in my house with old solid wood doors with cut glass knobs. Fitting things together in the physical world is so satisfying. I get tired of poetry. The drafting and drafting to get a poem even a little bit right, then undoing it the next day and starting over. I live behind a Subway, and one day one of the guys who works there came out and slapped the fence I built and said, “Nice fence.” I was so happy.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Louise Glück was my teacher during my Stegner fellowship, and she told me once that my poems “tend to achieve a premature polish.” In other words, I can make a poem seem, at first glance, finished—taut, lively, convincing. But often, in early drafts at least, I haven’t yet done the thinking and feeling the poem requires. It was a brutal assessment, but true—and useful. I’m learning to let my drafts be messier for longer, to linger in the exploration and discovery phase.

Edgar Kunz, author of Fixer.   (Credit: Ariana Mygatt)

Ten Questions for Robyn Schiff


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Robyn Schiff, whose new book, Information Desk: An Epic, is out today from Penguin Poets. In this book-length lyric, Schiff chronicles her experiences working in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City during the 1990s. A study of memory as much as of art, the verse meanders through the Met’s prodigious collections and exhibitions, narrates encounters with the public at the eponymous desk, navigates relationships with museum staff members, and explores the more current reality from which the speaker gazes back in wonder at her time inside this vast repository of human craft and creativity. Schiff orchestrates an engaging drama of consciousness that lures the reader down each page, capturing the mind’s quicksilver leaps from past to present and back again as it pings in Proustian fashion from sensory trigger to anecdote to meditation on history, science, and a panorama of other subjects treated with a mix of vulnerability and wit. Robyn Schiff is the author of three previous poetry collections: Worth (University of Iowa Press, 2002), Revolver (University of Iowa Press, 2008), and A Woman of Property (Penguin Poets, 2016), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The recipient of the 2023 Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize, she is a professor at the University of Chicago and a coediter of Canarium Books.

1. How long did it take you to write Information Desk?  
It took me about twenty years not to write it, and then another six to sit down and do it.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Limiting and defining the scope. Information Desk takes place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which holds over a million objects created over a span of about five thousand years. The poem derives its energy wandering the corridors there and encountering works of art. Deciding which objects to attend to was an exciting challenge.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
When I’m really writing, deep in a poem, I do so seated at my desk—as often as I can for as many hours in a row as possible, at multiple intervals around the clock. But I’m much more often not writing. I’ve never been interested in writing every day, and sometimes years have passed between poems. I value these pauses as much as I value intense periods of creativity, and in a long life in poetry, these phases have come to balance out.

4. What are you reading right now?  
I was reading Henry James’s novel Roderick Hudson but had to return it to the library in a different country before I finished it, so I picked up Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. As soon as I finish that I’ll return to Roderick, a new copy of which has just arrived. For poetry, I’m reading Lynn Xu’s And Those Ashen Heaps That Cantilevered Vase of Moonlight. For nonfiction, I’m reading Black Bodies, White Gold by Anna Arabindan-Kesson.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
Information Desk: An Epic is a book-length poem in three parts divided by three invocations to wasps.

6. How did you know when the book was finished?
I’m not sure it is finished. In the course of the poem, on page 113, I ask myself how to exit the museum where the poem takes place. Ultimately I finished the poem shortly after that point because I close the museum after a workday there and lock the door; but I wonder if there might be a volume two? Ask me again in a few years.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Information Desk?
There isn’t one single surprise that stands out but a confluence of unexpected factors: I didn’t imagine that I would relocate homes as often as I did during the composition (I worked in six different houses), anticipate a pandemic, or expect a profound social and political reckoning and its backlash. It was a surprise to find these present-tense situations shaping the poem.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Information Desk, what would you say?
There’s a pandemic coming: Go visit your parents, and then make time for a big trip to the Met—it’s going to abruptly close.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I had to look closely, remember, grieve, research, and redirect.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Read more than you write.

Robyn Schiff, author of Information Desk: An Epic.   (Credit: Nicole Craine)

Ten Questions for Alise Alousi


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Alise Alousi, whose debut poetry collection, What to Count, is out today from Wayne State University Press. In these thoughtful free-verse lyrics, prose poems, and forms like the ghazal, the personal and political are interwoven, with explorations of family life and friendship standing alongside interrogations of national histories and mythologies. “Deadline,” for example, considers the Confederate anthem “Dixie” as an example of a white man’s appropriation of African American culture, linking it to other forms of political and interpersonal violence. The sharpness of “Deadline” contrasts with softer verse that paints touching portraits of beloved places and people, as in “Sister,” which recalls a childhood incident with the eponymous sibling whom the speaker realizes is “still tough, unnamable to this day.” Set by turns in Iraq and Michigan, the poems explore the meaning of home and the psychic dissonance that can arise from diasporic identity: “Where do things happen when they happen on a train,” the speaker of the collection’s title poem wonders. Kazim Ali praises What to Count: “This is not poetry at any distance, but one feels inside a life, across the table from the poet, hearing news from a friend. There are an array of formal approaches here, as well as Alousi’s commitment to her community and the care she has for it.” Alise Alousi is a 2019 Kresge Literary Arts Fellow and has received awards from the Knight Foundation, Mesa Refuge, and other organizations. Her work has been widely anthologized, including in Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2008). She works at InsideOut Literary Arts and has been an active part of the literary arts community in Detroit for many years.

1. How long did it take you to write What to Count
The majority of the book came together over the last few years, but there are poems that I included that were written much earlier. I really want to say a lifetime, so let’s go with that!

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
The times when I had to put it aside. There were periods when work and family and life took over my days, in ways good and hard, and where I did not have a consistent connection to my own writing. My friend Dunya Mikhail once described poetry like a friend in a café waiting for her. Well, my friend Poetry was waiting there for me for a while; I am a happier, better person when I get to see her every day.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write five to six days a week, early in the morning before work and before anyone else is awake in my house. When I feel a poem begin to take shape, I steal time throughout the day and evening to look at it and make small edits. Like anything growing into itself, I love when a poem is getting there, when I can’t stop coming back to it.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I am reading Noor Hindi’s Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow. I am teaching a brilliant group of teen writers at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and this week we had a great conversation about Hindi’s poem “The World’s Loneliest Whale Sings the Loudest Song.” So much to admire. Other books I have adored are the chapbook Flower Boi by Detroit writer MARS. It’s a work of genius, and I can’t wait to see what is next for them. My favorite novel of late was definitely Kelsey Ronan’s Chevy in the Hole. And in nonfiction I recently finished Animal Joy by Nuar Alsadir. I want to go back and reread the beginning. Always a good sign!

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I think a first book, especially one that comes together over a longer period, can be harder to organize, and that was the case with What to Count. In having someone review an early version of the manuscript, the one piece of advice they had was to divide the book into sections. Once I figured out the three sections and that they could loosely thread the poems into one manuscript, that helped quite a bit.

6. How did you arrive at the title What to Count for this collection? 
The title comes from a much older poem in the book that I wrote during the economic sanctions against Iraq. I was involved in a Detroit area antisanctions group, and the poem speaks to trying to get people to pay attention to the staggering loss of life that took place as a result of items like medicine and equipment not being let into the country. The number of daily deaths grew while most of the world ignored what was happening, and that was deeply angering for me and for people who were paying attention. The last time I traveled to Iraq was during that period, and so the poem also holds that memory for me. The title also encompasses the way we move through life, especially as artists and creatives. I like that the title can be read as both heavy and childlike. The repetitive counting of things has been something I have done since I was a child, so there’s the whisper of that voice too.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of What to Count?
I always appreciate the surprise of a poem coming together. Seeing the process of the manuscript coming together felt similar and was a surprise and kind of an epiphany. The other thing that has surprised me is how excited I am to work on the next manuscript. Whether that takes shape as a chapbook initially or a full-length manuscript, it feels like it will be a different process and book than the first one.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started What to Count, what would you say?
Embrace your successes when they happen for you. Especially as women, we can have moments of regret or shame around periods when we are less productive or when things aren’t happening as quickly. And then when the success comes, we can psyche ourselves out of owning it fully. I have experienced some of that, and I am working hard to plant myself in this moment. It helps to be surrounded by people who share in your happiness, which has definitely been the case for me. I am surrounded by the best community of writers in Detroit, truly. My husband and daughter have also cheered me on and supported me every step of the way.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?  
I am not a fast writer or editor, so I was fortunate to be at Mesa Refuge for a residency for two weeks during the final editing, and that was really beneficial. I also was invested in the cover design for my book. I knew I wanted the work of a Detroit woman artist. When I saw the final design with the work of Megan Heeres’s I saw the moon and the moon saw me, it made my heart sing. The moon comes up quite a bit in the book, as do circles and eyes, so there were many connection points. I also worked with artist and poet Koss on a book trailer, which I love. Thinking about the visuals was a fun part of the process for me.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I would say the best advice is always, Do the thing, as my colleague Peter Markus once said to me. You gotta just plant yourself in the chair and write. The advice I would give is: Find someone who is a good reader of your work. I met mine, Jen Garfield, at Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, years ago. We don’t live in the same part of the country and have never been in the same room together since, but we have maintained a regular practice of writing together, sending each other work for feedback, talking about where we are submitting work, etcetera. If someone gets your voice, who you are on the page, that’s the best gift in the world. Find yourself a partner whose advice you truly trust.

Alise Alousi, author of What to Count.  

Ten Questions for Jamel Brinkley


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Jamel Brinkley, whose new story collection, Witness, is out today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This moving group of tales explores the experience and ethics of being an observer or bystander—in the drama of one’s own life, the lives of others, and unfolding history. Characters grapple with the choice to respond or act and face the consequences, good or bad, that lie on either side of that decision. Other times action seems an impossibility in the face of overwhelming events, as in the devastating “Comfort,” which follows the grief-stricken sister of a man who has been murdered by a New York City police officer as she struggles to move beyond her rage and sorrow. Kindness is a form of volition in these stories, providing moments of grace that often go unseen or unacknowledged but nonetheless hold the world together. Kirkus praises Witness: “Brinkley’s stories carry a rich veneer worthy of such exemplars of the form as Chekhov, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, and James Alan McPherson. … After just two collections, Brinkley may already be a grand master of the short story.” Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press, 2018), which won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the John Leonard Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. His work has appeared in the Paris ReviewA Public SpacePloughshares, and The Best American Short Stories. He was raised in the Bronx and Brooklyn and currently teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

How long did it take you to write Witness?
Thanks to a fellowship at Stanford, it took me a little over four years, including revisions and edits, although the oldest story, “Arrows,” was first drafted back in 2013. The newest story, “That Particular Sunday,” snuck into the collection in early 2022, during the editorial process with Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  

What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
The collection gathers characters who, in many cases, fail to perceive or fail to act. One challenge was to find ways around their perceptual limitations and deliver stories that were still vivid, sharp, true, and full of feeling. Another challenge was to make sure that any passive tendencies on the part of the characters didn’t cause the stories themselves to become inert.  

Where, when, and how often do you write?
I tend to write at home, at my desk, and I hope to write for two to three hours in the morning at least four or five days a week. This summer I’ve been putting in some afternoon sessions as well. That frequency is only possible when I’m not teaching during the academic year, however.

What are you reading right now?
I seem to be perpetually rereading The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. I’m also rereading Angels by Denis Johnson as well as three books for a seminar I’m teaching this fall: King Lear, The Age of Innocence, and Song of Solomon. I just picked up Francisco by Alison Mills Newman and To the North by Elizabeth Bowen.

Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
For Witness, James Baldwin and Gina Berriault were crucial, as were Mavis Gallant and William Trevor. More generally, I also think a lot about Edward P. Jones and my teachers Yiyun Li, Marilynne Robinson, Lan Samantha Chang, and Charles D’Ambrosio.

Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
It depends. You certainly don’t need one to be a writer. Pursuing an MFA was the right move for me personally, and I had a positive experience. There are no perfect MFA programs, and if you sift through all the lazy nonsense out there, you’ll find some specific and valid critiques of them. But a good program that is the right match for you can supply time, an engaging community, a little bit of money, and a credential that perhaps can be useful. I wouldn’t recommend the experience to egoists. If you assume you are superior to other writers, are offended by the idea of being critiqued, or get a kick out of poisoning atmospheres, do not pursue!  

What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
Simply having consistent sources of intelligent encouragement, which both my agent and editor are, has been invaluable.

What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Witness?
One of the pleasures of writing short stories for me is the surprise of an ending. The moment when I realize how and where a story is going to land—when I hear that sound, its click of completion—is so delightful and sometimes chilling. In the process of writing a collection, I get to have that experience over and over again.

What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I had to do research on various topics, such as deed theft, and on various kinds of workers: people who drive delivery trucks, who work in hotels or in flower shops, who stage homes that are being sold, and so on. The research was interesting and pleasurable.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?   
I’ve gotten lots of good advice, but one piece I’ll mention is to embrace the problems that emerge as you’re writing. I think of these problems as puzzles that invite the response of the writer’s unique creativity and as portals that will eventually lead you to the work’s depth and complexity. 

Jamel Brinkley, author of Witness.   (Credit: Daniele Molajoli)

Ten Questions for JoAnna Novak


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features JoAnna Novak, whose memoir, Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood, is out today from Catapult. In this mix of personal narrative and meditation on the painter Agnes Martin, Novak reckons with the transformation of her body and mind during pregnancy and what it means to be a female artist. As Novak finds herself overwhelmed by her changing physical state and lack of creative motivation, mental health problems come bubbling to the surface. When an attempt to seek medical advice results in her doctor admonishing her, she finds herself sinking into despair. Yet her engagement with Martin—particularly the painter’s struggle to make art while living with schizophrenia—opens a channel for Novak to find equilibrium and new inspiration. Seeking both communion with Martin and a new perspective, she travels to Martin’s longtime home in New Mexico and shuts herself off from the world for several weeks of introspection and writing. Kirkus praises Contradiction Days, saying “the story pulses with honesty and vulnerability, spiraling to a satisfying ending.” JoAnna Novak’s story collection, Meaningful Work (Fiction Collective 2, 2021), won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest. She is the author of three books of poetry, most recently New Life (Black Lawrence Press, 2021), and a novel, I Must Have You (Skyhorse, 2017). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and other publications.

1. How long did it take you to write Contradiction Days
I wrote the first draft in seventeen days. The subsequent drafts were rewrites. I wrote the first revision in four months. I wrote the second revision in six months. I wrote the third revision in seven months. I wrote the fourth revision in twenty-one days. This began in July 2019 and concluded in March 2022.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
At first, writing with some degree of authority or confidence about Agnes Martin: putting that unspeakable connection—aesthetic, biographical, psychical—into words. Once I got over that hurdle, sitting with the person I’d been as the protagonist of the memoir and offering her compassion became the greater challenge.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
In a notebook, on the computer, or on my typewriter, a mint-green Hermes Media 3. At my desk, at the kitchen table, on the Amtrak, on benches in galleries, in museum bathrooms, at the library, once every few years at a bar having a glass of wine on an empty stomach, in hotel rooms.  

I go through phases of writing first thing in the morning—4:00 AM until 7:00 AM, maybe. And when I’m on a deadline, I’ll write until two or three in the morning. (Last night I pressed send on something at 2:25 AM.) In a perfect world, I’d write all day, with lots of wheel-spinning in the morning that gives way to a hyper-focused afternoon that invites some after-dinner work. This is very infrequently achievable because I have an almost-four-year-old!

4. What are you reading right now? 
Abbe Rivaux’s biography of Mother St. John Fontbonne. Caroline Knapp’s Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs. Henry Hoke’s Open Throat.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Agnes Martin’s writing was critical to my writing of this book, not only for its role in the plot but for its lessons in firmness, warmth, and clarity. I read most of John Berger as I wrote the third draft. The poems of Yi Sang. Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, and Natalie Goldberg. Stephen Batchelor. Shunryū Suzuki.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
Yes, if it’s paid for. Or, if it costs money: Don’t compromise your daily survival.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Contradiction Days?
How about two things? While I was working on the final rewrite, I interviewed a number of women who’d known Agnes Martin. Her friends, her colleagues, artists like Ann Martin and Lizzie Borden and Pat Steir. Their generosity astonished me. And then there’s a moment in the memoir when the narrator watches old interviews with Agnes, sees her and hears her voice in a very intimate viewing situation. The potency of that experience still shocks me.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Contradiction Days, what would you say?
You have time.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Definitely research. I started reading about Agnes a couple of months before I wrote the first draft in Taos, New Mexico, and I continued for the next three years. Conducting interviews. Taking art history courses. Looking at as much art as I could. Also: having a baby, becoming a mother, and witnessing my priorities shift.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
It’s not a neat pull quote, but my first fiction-writing professor, Barbara Tannert-Smith, was always trying to get me to work in scenes. She told me to think of scenes as boxes. Discrete boxes, with their own contents—characters, action, setting, etcetera. That analogy has only become more helpful as I’ve continued writing. The containment of a scene can be a powerful source of tension and driver of plot. And it helps me stay grounded and forward-moving, especially when I’m working in flashback or deep interiority. Thank you, Barbara! I wrote the first draft of Contradiction Days in text boxes of 6 x 6 inches.

JoAnna Novak, author of Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood.   (Credit: Falyn Huang)

Ten Questions for Caleb Azumah Nelson


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Caleb Azumah Nelson, whose new novel, Small Worlds, is out today from Grove Press. In this coming-of-age narrative, Stephen, the son of Ghanian immigrants in London, struggles to balance his creative ambitions with filial duty. Stephen’s love of music and dancing—“the one thing that can solve most of our problems,” Nelson writes—was ingrained in the boisterous church he grew up attending with his parents. Despite the familial origin of his passion, Stephen’s parents nonetheless wish their son a more conventional life as they seek to build a prosperous future in Britain. Despite efforts to acquiesce to his parents’ wishes, however, Stephen finds himself drawn to the music scene in ways that feel affirming and life-altering. In London and during visits to Accra, Ghana, the protagonist contends with his heritage and how to integrate his authentic self with his ancestry. Publishers Weekly praises Small Worlds: “Nelson’s assured writing captures the pulse of a dance party, the heat of a family’s bond, and the depth of spiritual fervor to conjure a story­ as infectious as a new favorite song.” A National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, Caleb Azumah Nelson is the author of Open Water (Grove Press, 2021), which won the Costa First Novel Award and was named a best book of the year by Literary Hub, the Millions, Time, and other publications.

1. How long did it take you to write Small Worlds?  
I wrote the novel over the course of a year or so. The first draft took three nonconsecutive months; I was writing while on tour for Open Water. The remainder was the editing process, which really cemented the shape of the book. 

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Time was the biggest challenge this time ‘round! I tend to write in quite intense periods and love the rhythm of consistency, but I found myself squeezing writing in this time ‘round.  

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
When I’m working on a novel, I write Monday to Saturday. I’m up early, usually at 5:30 AM, and then I’ll exercise, grab some breakfast, and get to my writing/photography studio. I’ll be at the desk from 7:00 AM until midday, then the rest of the day is mine; I’ll usually go for a long walk or to a gallery to unwind the mind.

4. What are you reading right now?  
I’m rereading Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang, which is the best thing I’ve read all year.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general? 
This novel was heavily influenced by Toni Morrison; Jazz was the last novel I read before I started writing. I’m always reading poetry as I’m writing fiction. This time ‘round Langston Hughes, Raymond Antrobus, June Jordan, and Sarah Lasoye were poets I was reading closely as I was writing. 

6. What trait do you most value in your editor or agent?
I’m so grateful for both my editors and my agents, who are encouraging of my wandering mind and curiosities. But I’m most grateful for our editing process, in which they are less prescriptive and always asking questions for me to ask myself.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Small Worlds?
I’m always trying to leave room in my writing for surprise. I don’t plan a huge amount, instead relying on the understanding of the emotions I’m trying to express. But I didn’t anticipate writing a novel about fathers and sons and the ways in which our family histories can haunt us.

8. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
In the meeting I had with my editor in the process of selling my first novel, she asked if there was anything else I wanted to write. I described a novel about faith, family, and community, which also continued to explore how expression—specifically music—could act as a site of freedom for Black people, and that’s where Small Worlds started. There was also a short story I wrote a few years back, which is where the characters in this book first appeared; it was useful to spend time with them in this way and was the beginning of understanding the voice necessary for the novel. 

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I took a research trip back to Ghana, where I’m from, during the course of writing. It was the first time I had been back in sixteen years. As I was writing the novel it was feeling more and more necessary to make the trip. I wanted to feel the texture of the place, to feel the heat, to see the light. I took all my cameras out there with me, and the images I made ended up being really fundamental to finishing up the novel. 

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?  
My agent told me the first time we met that a lot of writing is fictionalising memory; I write this in all of my notebooks.

Caleb Azumah Nelson, author of Small Worlds.   (Credit: Stuart Ruel)

Ten Questions for Sarah Rose Etter


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Sarah Rose Etter, whose new novel, Ripe, is out today from Scribner. In this surreal tale, Cassie, a depressed marketing writer at a Silicon Valley tech company, struggles to make it through days of cold hyperproductivity surrounded by coworkers she calls “Believers,” who are too obsessed with ascending the corporate ladder to notice the homeless population and pollution of San Francisco that preoccupy Cassie. Literally trailed by a black hole from her early childhood, in which she absorbed the capitalist logic of her father and abusive mother, Cassie is entrenched in a battle between her “true self” and “false self” when she suspects she is pregnant. With her boss bearing down on her and the air newly dangerous with wildfire smoke and a contagious virus, she must decide what she really wants from life and how to come to terms with the black hole that has remained her constant companion. Publishers Weekly praises Ripe: “A scathing look at corporate greed and its many dire consequences, this is deeply felt and cathartic.” Sarah Rose Etter is the author of The Book of X (Two Dollar Radio, 2019), winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, and the story collection Tongue Party (Caketrain, 2011). She lives in Los Angeles.

1. How long did it take you to write Ripe?
Ripe took about five years to write. I started the book in 2018, just the first twenty-five pages or so. Then I set it aside while I was touring for my first novel, The Book of X. I returned to the project shortly after my father died suddenly of a heart attack. We went into lockdown a few months after he died, and I just found myself in isolation with this grief. My father had always joked about me writing this book, and I didn’t know what else to do with what I was feeling other than write the book he wanted. The first draft took about six months. The next three and a half or four years were really spent in edits, going back and forth with my agent and then my editor at Scribner. That really helped get the book solid on the plot level and on the line level. Editing is always the longest part of the process for me.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
There were really two challenges—one emotional, one technical. Emotionally, I had to crack open my heart and allow myself to really examine my relationship to capitalism, my father, my other relationships, and love. I had to let the ugliness happen on the page. It’s really important for writers to be able to look at the weak, vulnerable, ugly, messy parts of a character. That also requires the author to examine some of their own weak, vulnerable, ugly, messy parts. That part of writing is always very intimate for me.

On a technical level, the black hole [in the book] was a huge challenge because it’s this phenomenon that we barely understand at all in the real world. So making that translate into a presence in a novel took tons of research and many, many edits. The black hole behaved differently throughout several drafts, and it took a long time to land on it being this ominous presence. Then it was a lot of work to simplify all of the research about black holes so the reader could understand the magnitude of it, both in reality and in Cassie’s life.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
When I’m working on a first draft, I’m usually writing pretty manically. Typically, I’ll write for one hour a night after work during the week, then 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays. That’s my schedule for five or six months until I get the first draft out. I need to spend as much time as possible in that section of my brain before it moves on to something else.

I have a desk in the corner of my apartment that I use for my full-time job and my drafting of books. One thing that helps me separate the full-time job from novel writing is music. I have a playlist for each novel, so I’ll listen to the same songs on repeat as I’m writing. I’m sure it would drive some people insane, but it really helps me tunnel back into the world of the book very quickly.

But, you know, how often I write depends on where I am in the process. Right now, since I’m in the promotion cycle, it’s less about writing and more about talking about writing. After this is over, I’ll go back into my little hole and hopefully write another draft.

4. What are you reading right now? 
Well, there is the sophisticated answer that will impress everyone and then there’s the actual truth. I read a lot, so I don’t mind sharing both. Sophisticated Answer: I’m reading a few books that I’m blurbing, one of which is The Cleaner by Brandi Wells, which I really, really loved. It reminds me of Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh in a great way. I also just finished Death Valley by Melissa Broder, and I always love being in her head. I also got completely obsessed with Poor Things by Alasdair Gray, the novel the new Yorgos Lanthimos movie is based on. I believe that’s being released in the U.S. soon, and it’s so weird and innovative and great.

Actual Truth: I’ve just recently gotten into horror and mystery books, which is funny because I think most people who’ve ever read my work would think I was already interested in those. I just finished reading Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, and it’s fantastic—so well done. It also feels a bit ahead of its time. About a third of the way through the book, the vampire changes gender, and the pronouns change. I’ve also been reading a lot of the books that are adapted into TV shows and movies, so The Shining Girls, The Exorcist, the Tana French books. I’ve just been examining how these books come alive on the screen because I’m a nerd.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Sylvia Plath is obviously right up at the top. I remember in eighth grade, the teacher put “metaphors” up on the projector and asked the class, “What do you think this poem is about?” and I knew immediately that Plath was pregnant, intuitively. And I was hooked on her after that.

Before I write every book, I pull together a stack of five or six books that I want to be in conversation with. For Ripe, it was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath; Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion; Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi, translated by Vincent Kling; The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen, and Problems by Jade Sharma. I also read Hot Milk by Deborah Levy while I was writing this, and that helped me a lot on the sentence level. During editing, I tend to read a lot of poetry, so Morgan Parker, Elisa Gabbert, Tommy Pico.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Ripe?
The most surprising thing was that I ended up trying to preserve the memories I had of my father while I was writing Ripe. Suddenly the father in the book really morphed into a way to immortalize my father. His advice, his way of thinking about business and work, his love of museums—these were all things that I was really afraid I was going to forget about him. At some point, this novel became a way to make sure I didn’t forget anything about him. I was so deep in my grief when I wrote this book, I remember worrying that I would forget how my father’s voice sounded. So the book is deeply personal; it’s very complicated and very close to my heart.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Much like Cassie, I worked in Silicon Valley for a year. It made my parents very proud, and it felt like a big deal. But then I got there, and I realized it wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be. During my first week in San Francisco, I stopped in a coffee shop. The owner was working the counter and made me a coffee. We started chatting about where we were from, that kind of thing. And she mentioned that the night before, a man had set himself on fire outside of her store. She’d tried to put out the flames and was really shaken up over it, of course. Hearing that just knocked the wind out of me. I think that was the exact moment I got the sense that maybe I was living in a bad place. It was the moment the illusion of San Francisco shattered for me.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Ripe, what would you say?
This is a hard question. My only goal is to write the best book that I can at the time. I do think I did that with Ripe. I worked insanely hard on this novel. At many points, I did have this deep fear, which I think happens for all writers, that I’d written a terrible book and nobody would publish it. So I think maybe I would go back and tell her that all the work wouldn’t be for nothing.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I did a lot of research for this book on pomegranates and black holes. I was researching both of them extensively—learning about their histories, their role in art, all of it. I was eating pomegranates constantly. I was watching documentaries, reading papers by astrophysicists. I really was just consumed by both of these things for the entire time I wrote the book.

I also spent a lot of time with visual art. That’s huge for me. We were in lockdown for much of the drafting, so I was making sculptures and painting a bit. I did want the novel to be sculptural, and that’s a lot of the reason it took on the shape of a pomegranate.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Finish the first draft. That’s it. It’s so simple, but we make it so complicated. Even if it’s messy and ugly and wrong, just finish it. Without the first draft you have nothing; you just have an idea for a book. And everyone—I mean EVERYONE—has an idea for a book. It’s just vaporware if you don’t finish the first draft. It’s so easy to get caught up in thinking: Who’s going to publish it? What’s the cover going to look like? I want a review in the New York Times! But all of that is fantasy without a first draft. Obviously editing is important, but you have nothing to edit without a first draft. Finish the draft. Nothing else matters.

Sarah Rose Etter, author of Ripe.   (Credit: Lee Jameson)

Ten Questions for Lillian-Yvonne Bertram


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, whose new poetry collection, Negative Money, is out today from Soft Skull Press. In this mix of free verse, prose poems, and experimental forms that make poster-like visual artworks of the page, Bertram explores the meaning of value and how we measure it in dollars and cents; the way we treat one another with care, neglect, or violence; and what mass culture holds up as ideal images and narratives. The poems leap from blunt confession to musical wordplay to high-lyric elocution: “The arrow grazed the doe in the morning, / shaved bare its shoulder,” they write in “Intima.” Surprising juxtapositions characterize the collection, as in the stark contrast of the elegant doe of “Intima” and the speaker’s “cunt / made of deer meat” in the next poem, “Raise Her Dark Matter.” Publishers Weekly writes that Negative Money leaves “the reader with an increased awareness of the fragility, absurdity, and loneliness of the world…. This profound book will stir readers into necessary reflection.” Lillian-Yvonne Bertram is an associate professor of English, Africana studies, and art and design at Northeastern University. They are the author of several poetry collections, including Travesty Generator (Noemi Press, 2019), which won the 2018 Noemi Press Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Poetry Series, and Personal Science (Tupelo Press, 2017).

1. How long did it take you to write Negative Money?  
Several years, as I didn’t set out to write exactly this book. It is a compilation of poems I’ve written over time, some a decade old or more. I was writing poems and figured that, at some point, they would coalesce into something I could call a book. My preoccupations over time remain the same, so poems several years old still spoke to more recent ones.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Once I had the poems it was challenging to think about what kind of story they could tell, what was missing, what needed to be added or amended. Things I wrote in the past I wouldn’t write today, but I also wouldn’t necessarily change them. Reconciling the different types of writer I have been proved to be more challenging than I expected.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Anywhere I can, really, but also hardly ever! I have been working on other projects for a while, and so anything strictly “creative writing” hasn’t happened in many months. I do a lot of thinking and ideating, so hopefully that counts.

4. What are you reading right now?  
E-mail; lots and lots of e-mail. News and other sorts of content. But the most recent book I was reading was Crying in the Bathroom by Erica L. Sanchez.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I tend to organize poems in groups, so there are maybe five or six groups of poems in the book, of four to six poems each, and those groups share similar themes or ideas. I wouldn’t put all the poems in a group one after the other, so it becomes a matter of spreading them all out so that they can still speak to one another, but also to the poems that intervene so that there is interconnectedness among the phantom “sections.” It all falls together rather organically, or so it seems to me.

6. How did you arrive at the title Negative Money for this collection? 
I was thinking about how I have far more debt than capital, and how many people can be fully employed but never keep any of the money they earn. That’s most of us. I began to think of this situation, of making money but not actually owning it or being able to keep any of it, as a kind of “negative money.”

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Negative Money?
I found myself feeling deeply insecure about the work, in part because some of it was written so long ago. I had to rethink how I felt about certain things when I wrote them and consider what they could mean now that my relationship to them is different and now that the world in which they will be read is very different. 

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Negative Money, what would you say?
“Develop a consistent writing practice, and just write!”

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I did a lot of revising—a lot—and other kinds of reading. I also spent a lot of time away from the poems, from the book, trying to spend time outside. Again, I don’t think in terms of books exactly, so I don’t write towards the book as a goal, which meant I never sat down and thought, “Okay, here are things I need to do to complete this book: A, B, and C.” The book itself is an arbitrary unit, after the fact. It is born only once there is enough writing. 

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
The same piece of advice I give to others but never follow myself: “Just write!” That’s it. I don’t have anything profound to say about it, other than to just write and not bother with these ideas of whether you can or you should or if it’s good or whatever. Just write. 



Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, author of Negative Money.     (Credit: Adrianne Mathiowetz)

Ten Questions for Stacy Jane Grover


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Stacy Jane Grover, whose debut essay collection, Tar Hollow Trans, is out today from the University Press of Kentucky. In these complex inquiries into place and selfhood, Grover explores her upbringing and the emergence of her trans identity in Appalachian southeast Ohio. With a profound desire to be “a country woman, of the land, that place of undefined gender,” Grover nonetheless travels to the city seeking a more liberated existence, only to find a different form of “constraint” away from her beloved nature. In Grover’s research into family, regional, social, and medical history, she uncovers the many queer narratives interwoven with the people, places, and rituals of Appalachia: a great aunt who subverted gender norms and was murdered at sixteen; early-twentieth-century government interventions into the lives of rural women, seeking to “feminize” them in the name of health and hygiene; communal practices that put less pressure on the nuclear family and more on an extended network of kin. These narratives shape Grover’s understanding of her own personal experiences with friends, family members, and the various characters—both in person and online—that she confronts while resisting any certain conclusions about herself or the place where she grew up. “If there’s any hope in identity as a project, in all that we hold and practice to make sense of ourselves, whether we call it queer or transgender or Appalachian, it might be found in being bewil­dered, in forgoing knowability to bestow upon ourselves a complex interiority and wonderous possibility,” she writes. Publishers Weekly calls Tar Hollow Trans “a unique, fascinating collection.” Stacy Jane Grover is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati and holds an MA in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Tar Hollow Trans is her first book.

1. How long did it take you to write Tar Hollow Trans?  
The process of writing the book took about fourteen months, from pitching the book to my editor to turning in the completed manuscript.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
The book was a real learning process for me. I had published essays in magazines, so I wasn’t even sure if I could write something book length. I also hadn’t found a consistent daily writing schedule. I had to learn through writing the book how to discipline my creativity so that I could write whenever and wherever I needed to.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
I write every day, usually in the mornings, and also as the day allows. I write at my desk in my office or on the porch. I do write a lot on my phone—so, often, wherever I happen to be.  

4. What are you reading right now?  
I’m actually not a big reader in my free time, and it’s hard for me to read anything while I’m drafting. So I usually only read in preparation for something I’m going to write. I’m in a nice break period right now.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?  
I almost exclusively read Anne Rice when I was younger. Following her online shaped how I’ve come to understand writing as daily work, how to stick to an artistic vision while being open to change, and the need to be sincere with one’s audience.

Alison Stine and Carter Sickels have been dear friends and mentors. They’ve taught me through action how to be a writer who uplifts other writers. I’ve only had one creative writing class, and it was with Kristen Iversen. I know the essay as a form because of her teaching and generous spirit.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Tar Hollow Trans
The shape the book took surprised me the most. I proposed an entirely different book from the one I wrote. I couldn’t write the original book I had an idea for, because I hadn’t lived it. When I allowed myself to be honest and sincere on the page, the essays began to take a different shape, and the forms they took outweighed my want to stick to the original idea. So instead of a book of essays about my transgender life in Appalachia, I ended up with a collection of essays that explore the process of trying to write myself into those identities, when I am not sure they’ve ever truly fit me. That’s why I love the essay as a form, because it allows for so much flexibility and spontaneity.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
In January of 2021, I tweeted that I wanted a contract for a book on being transgender in Appalachia. Maybe a day or two later, my editor—then unknown to me—contacted me about pitching her the idea. I was actually working on a different book idea at the time.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Tar Hollow Trans, what would you say
Writing won’t ever save you. Focus on living your life.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
My work is research intensive, so I had to collect family stories, conduct archival research, and read lots of books and articles on gender theory and Appalachian studies. I read almost all of the work that I cite in the book during my MA, which I completed two years before I came up with the idea for and started writing the book.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
In Beyond the Writers’ Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction, Carol Bly writes, “Literature has low enough standards. But we can avoid writing the worst literature if we make ourselves ask ourselves, every two or three sentences we write, ‘Is that what I really think?’”

Stacy Jane Grover, author of Tar Hollow Trans   (Credit: Elizabeth Keith)

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  • June 3, 2024