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Intermittent Visitors: Lynn Domina

Lynn Domina is the author of two collections of poetry, Framed in Silence and Corporal Works, and the editor of a collection of essays, Poets on the Psalms. Her recent poetry appears or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Poetry Daily, The Louisville Review, and many other periodicals. She currently lives in the western Catskill region of New York.

 

1. What is your writing process?

My writing desk is in my study on the second floor of our house; it faces our backyard, looking out onto a few trees and the birdfeeder. I stare out at the birds for a while. If I’m beginning a new poem, I write several lines, which I invariably cross out later; it’s usually stanza two or three that becomes the beginning of the poem I actually write, rather than the opening I’d written of the poem I’d thought I was going to write. I don’t write well in snatches; I do best when I have at least a couple of hours to devote to what I’m working on, though I can get good work done if I have only one hour. Having access to this amount of uninterrupted writing time is a luxury, I know, and it is possible only because I have one daughter who is now a young adult, a spouse who thoroughly respects that need, and a job that pays me enough so that I don’t constantly have to worry about income.

 

2. What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

Many many years ago, Margaret Atwood was visiting at the University of Alabama, where I was working on an M.F.A. She looked at a few of my poems and remarked, “You have mercy on your characters.” That’s not exactly advice, but it’s a comment I’ve taken to heart. I always aim to approach my material with compassion.

 

3. Can you say a little bit about the genesis of your book?

Framed in Silence began with one poem, “Birds of the Air.” At the time I wrote it, I didn’t realize it would become part of a series, called “Creation Sequence” in the book. I then wrote a poem for each of the significant moments in the creation story in Genesis, so there’s a poem about mammals, sea monsters, plants, human beings, sabbath, etc. That series was really fun to work on; it felt like an exuberant approach to a story many of us know well.  

 

4. Have you had to sacrifice anything in the rest of your life to write?

I’ve made choices that have limited some of my options—I didn’t become a high-powered attorney or stock broker, for example, because I knew my devotion would always be elsewhere. So I don’t have an enormous income, although now I do have a stable and more than adequate income. But none of those choices has ever felt like a sacrifice. On the contrary, I’m grateful I’ve had the freedom to live out my vocation as a poet.

 

5. Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

I’m one of those people who often doesn’t know what I think until I write it—or I’ve come to many new understandings about what I really believe by watching what emerges from my pen. That’s the interesting part for me. If I already knew what I was going to write, I wouldn’t feel much interest in writing it, and certainly no drive to write it.

 

This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

Intermittent Visitors: Kevin Prufer

  Kevin Prufer is the author of five books of poetry and the editor of four anthologies, most recently In a Beautiful Country (Four Way Books, 2011) and Until Everything is Continuous Again: Essays on the Work of W. S. Merwin (WordFarm Editions, 2012; with Jonathan Weinert). His poetry collection Churches is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2014. He is also Editor-at-Large of Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing and Professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston. Find him at www.kevinprufer.com.

 

1. What is your writing process?

I only write very late at night. (It’s very late now, as I type.) Most of that time I spend pacing around my office, flipping through books. The amount of time I spend actually typing is much smaller that the amount of time I spend thinking about what I’m going to type. After I finish a first draft, I reread it and ask myself: now what’s this all about? And when I can answer that question, I rewrite the poem.

 

2. Have you had to sacrifice anything in the rest of your life to write?

Aside from a great deal of time, money and energy, I have not sacrificed much. My entire professional life, though, has been dictated by my moving to places where I could find the time and resources to write. I spent a few years in Cloverdale, VA and St. Louis, MO learning how to do it well. Then I spent 15 years in a very small town in west-central Missouri, teaching and editing a literary magazine, writing in the evenings. Now I’m in Houston. Poetry has taken me to all these places, and away from the places that I might otherwise have lived. But I don’t consider that a sacrifice. It’s more interesting than that.

 

3. Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

A little of both. I do find that I discover what I want to mean through the act of composing a poem, and that the poems I like most are those that create the illusion of a mind at work on an unsolvable, complex problem — whatever that problem may be! At the same time, I think poems do much more than merely enact thought or feeling … or (heaven forbid!) help me understand myself. I wouldn’t inflict my poems on the world if that was all I wanted for them. I believe that poetry is a very effective way that we communicate with each other, that poems are wonderful containers for the communication of complex ideas or for truths that are larger than we are.

 

This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

“The words go just so far, then you come to meet them.”

On Saturday, March 16, 2013, I went to the Saturday University poetry session by Stephen Dobyns at Vanderbilt University. Below are my notes from the two-hour session, which consisted of a talk and then a Q&A, somewhat cleaned up for coherence (and with my comments in square brackets).

 

Language is a diminishment of thought. You have an idea, and you try to say it, but there’s always the knowledge that you’re not saying it right. Problem with language: torment and gift. We can’t really communicate emotion – we know what the other person means when they say they’re hurt/angry/happy/etc but we can’t really know the actual depth and nature of that feeling. Always an approximation.

Language is a diminishment. How do you counteract that diminishment? Metaphor.

Words come out of right side of brain (also: dreams) but syntax from left (also: reason, math, etc.). Words often start as metaphors (eg., threat = crowd of men coming over hill; supercilious to do with eyebrows; language comes from the word for tongue and speech comes from word for scatter – we scatter words in front of somebody). Right brain where you understand gestures, and right brain bigger in children until they start to learn language. [I was curious and did some googling and found this: The right brain hemisphere is dominant in human infants (pdf).]

Metaphor is an attempt to take a signifier of feeling (words like sad/hurt/angry/whatever) and make it accessible so we know the depth and nature of the feeling. Examples:

  • quiet as a crane watching a hole over the water
  • quiet as a house in which a witch has just stopped dancing
  • quiet as the thief the dog just bit

Different kinds of quiet. Use of sense detail so we can feel/understand better.

Or e.g. life candle-flame wind coming. There’s missing words in that example which we instantly fill in – lots of information in that little sentence. If you made an equivalent in discursive thought (life is precarious), you’d understand the logic of it but you wouldn’t feel it – metaphor makes you a participant.

Metaphors are like little stories. You visualize in it, and become a participant.

“The words go just so far, then you come to meet them.”

Art is made out of these types of metaphors. Poems are always communication and/or decoration. If a poem only shows you language and imagery (decoration) then it doesn’t work. If you say something, ten people who read it should have more or less the same idea of what you said, or it isn’t communicative and the poem fails.

Re line breaks – at any line break there’s a pause. Any change away from the default sentence has a lyric element. True objectivity is impossible, so your poems will always have some footprint of your experience, your perspective.

“The writer is coming to greet you in the same way the metaphor is.”

A poem doesn’t have to be formal but always has a relationship between stressed and unstressed syllables. Can’t help it – that’s the nature of the language.

We develop a sense of empathy, through metaphor and art. One of the functions of non-discursive thought is to teach us empathy and to teach us how to live in society. Very important. One other thing a poem will do is to show you the arc of your life and how to live. If there were only one poem that’d be terribly skewed obvs but with thousands of poems you get a picture. Art becomes a tool against self-deception. Any constraint on the poem (thinking about what editors might want) is going to mess up the poem. Poems show the arc of human emotions, too.

Much of my writing has been to please, and when I realized that I wrote Black Dog, Red Dog (now becoming a movie). If you’re censoring yourself in the poem, readers will see it and stop trusting you. A writer can choose not to write about something, but you can’t turn away from what you choose to write about.

Read us: “Sloth,” “Anger,” “Spite,” “Silence.” [“Anger” and “Silence” are here.]

 

Q&A from audience

Q – how did you stop censoring yourself to please others?

I pushed myself to write on uncomfortable subjects. I tried to stay away from political correctness. Worked summer at crippled children’s camp when I was 15. Wrote “Bleeder” about a hemophiliac there. I write a poem to find out what I’m writing about. If I let myself be constrained I’m not serving the poem but worrying about protecting myself from criticism.

Q – you want us to communicate but not to censor, so we have to pay attention to the reader but not pay attention to the reader (contradiction)

That’s a truthful paradox. The important thing is not to lie, not to write a form of propaganda. I don’t write a poem to please someone, but I hope they’ll understand it.

Q – what about editing, workshops, etc where somebody else looks at the poem?

The best thing about a workshop is to show you where alternative readings exist, by how they read it differently than you intend. I know the poem so well, things seem so clear, but in a workshop you can find out where it’s not clear. The class can spend time telling you their confusion.

Also, workshops can toughen you up.

Workshops can go wrong when people are nice to the poem so the author will be nice to their poem when their turn comes. A terrible thing.

Workshops cannot solve your poem’s problems but can help you know a problem is there.

You need frankness and courtesy, maybe with some gentleness but honest.

Q – writing process – thinking through feelings, as you’re developing that, how do you switch when working on other poems with different feelings?

I have to re-feel it.

Poems can move the reader in a nice way or in a dark way.

Q – what kind of socialization does a dark poem help – what does it accomplish?

We can’t pretend those things don’t exist. I have a 3 year old grandchild who they’d throw in jail if he was my size. He’ll look at you and smile and throw a glass across the room. He’ll be socialized not to do those things but they’re not gone.

We need a common courtesy to deal with each other. It’s grease to keep things going because basically we’re not very nice. You’re not evil because you have that temptation. Ideally a poem can help take parts of our unconscious and bring them into our consciousness.

Q – I’ve always written poetry to show something nobody sees. Do you write to communicate things you can’t say in your life?

You can choose not to write the poem, but you need to be honest if you choose to write it.

It needs to be credible.

Q – four aspects of the syllable?

Pitch: high noise (words like shrill, shriek), low (words like soothe, slow). You need to be aware of mood of words matching mood of poem.

Duration: speed needs to natch speed of actions being described. Eg “the sudden blow” in Yeats “Leda and the Swan” wouldn’t work as something like “an unexpected violence” because it takes too long.

Timbre: words you can hear, “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” Robert Lowell, begins with so much noise to show a drowning.

Stress: rhythm and beats.

You have a lot of choices for which word to use and English gives us many more choices than other languages.

Q – back to paying attention to reader, are you looking for clarity – you want us to get it, but can’t be concerned about whether or not we like it

Yes.

Q – writing poetry to write about something personal without thinking about the reader – at what point do we need to think about the reader?

At some point in the writing, the poem stops being about you. Poems aren’t the same as autobiography. You have to give to the poem but the poem isn’t yours, in a sense. First drafts need to be written without that critical voice, and then after you can start working with it. Don’t let the critic in until the first draft is done.

Q – what is your editing process?

Most poems, I get a few lines in my head. Very often the first line I have will be the line I stay with. I start the poem and try to see what comes out of it. Try not to direct it. Then I’ll go through and see what’s missing, and what wouldn’t be clear to somebody who isn’t me, then I work on the structure of the poem, try to create some surprise and go from long to short to long to short to create tension and rest, so it goes back and forth between tension and rest. Maybe move lines around. The whole thing has to stay malleable. I don’t think a poem is done for about a year, sometimes longer. I have to develop a certain objectivity that may be developed by not looking at it for awhile.

A lot of internal rhyme, off rhyme, and taking a sound that declares itself and creating internal rhyme throughout or for awhile, one does this often without even realizing one is doing it. Obvs it has to seem as if it’s natural, somebody speaking, seem as if it’s effortless. Larkin does this amazingly well.

[If this seems like an abrupt ending, it’s because the Q&A ended abruptly. If you want more, he also talks about this stuff in Best Words, Best Order and Next Word, Better Order.]

Intermittent Visitors: Kathleen Alcala interviews Scott Sparling

This is a guest post by Kathleen Alcalá—she interviewed Scott Sparling for Intermittent Visitors.

 

Scott Sparling‘s first novel, Wire to Wire, is about love, glue, drugs, and freight trains in Northern Michigan and New York. It was published by Tin House Books in 2011 and won a Michigan Notable Book Award in 2012. His writing has appeared on OccupyWriters.com and Powells.com. He lives near the tracks outside Portland, Oregon.

1) Your first book was published last year. Tell me what it is about.

I’m probably not the right person to ask. I spent a long time writing Wire to Wire, and it was about different things at different times. At heart, it’s a very messed up love story. Michael Slater, the main character, falls for a seductive, self-destructive woman and struggles to figure out where his loyalties should be—and also where her loyalties are, since she’s living with his closest friend. The woman, Lane, huffs glue to escape some terrible things in her past. Slater’s friend—Harp—feels most alive when he’s riding freights, but he gets sucked into a very dangerous scheme in Wolverine, the small Northern Michigan town where Wire to Wire is set. Dynamite is involved.

Over time, it occurred to me that the whole town should be a place where the forces of sex and money have jumped the tracks. I began thinking of them as natural forces, like electricity and water. When they stay in their wires and pipes, everything’s fine. But when they burst out, they burn down the house or flood the place. That’s happening everywhere in Wolverine.

And underneath all that, it’s about my love for Northern Michigan and trains.

 

2) I met you over thirty years ago, and you were already working on this novel. Did it need to take this long?

Maybe not. There are many parts of the book that haven’t changed much since the late 1980s. But I was not the kind of writer who had the craft of story-telling under control back then. I would readily sacrifice meaning and clarity in favor of cadence. I had a few things I could do well – I had an ear for loud, incantatory sentences, and I could write dialogue well. I could write scenes, but it took me a long time to shape those scenes into a story.

I also spent a fair amount of time in those decades not writing W2W. I started a website that grew into a huge writing and editing project and which has been online for 15 years now. On an average day, the Segerfile (http://www.segerfile.com/) gets ten times as much traffic as the website for my book. I also got married, and my wife and I raised our son. For three years, I put W2W totally aside and wrote a different book, which I’m trying to finish now.

Beyond that, part of getting published involves catching the wave when it’s there. You might not be able to hurry it. In the late 80s and early 90s, a lot of publishers seemed to be looking for the next “Bright Lights, Big City” or the next “Less Than Zero.” It might not have been the best time for a book about two guys hopping freights in Northern Michigan. Maybe that’s just me making excuses—I’d cop to that in a heartbeat. Conversely, I’ve wondered sometimes if the success of Mad Men helped sell W2W, in the sense that it proved the public was interested in the sixties and seventies again. Again, if that’s a ludicrous idea, I stand ready to disavow it.

Finally, I admit to being a lazy and inept submitter of my own material. A good friend told me to send my manuscript to Tin House Books in early 2009. I didn’t do it. Six months passed and finally she took my manuscript and submitted it for me. That’s how a guy like me gets published.

 

3) When I started reading Wire to Wire, I thought, ‘This is highly illegal. And dangerous. How much of this is autobiographical?’ Then I decided I didn’t want to know, and sat back to enjoy the ride. Instead, I would like you to describe the role of music in your writing process.

I often play music when I write. There’s a terrific band, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, who happen to be from Seattle. Their music puts me in the lonely, trancy kind of mood that seems to help my writing. Jesse had four albums out when I was writing W2W (five now) and I put them all on one playlist and listened to them hundreds of times.

When I was editing, I started playing Jon Dee Graham, whom I’ve heard live many times in Austin. His music is incredibly good—so full of heart and life and honesty, and his lyrics are stunning. But it’s also loud. He calls his band, The Fighting Cocks. It gave me exactly the kind of energy I needed to cross the finish line.

Beyond that, there are probably a hundred songs that inspired parts of the books. Jackson Browne’s line, “What I was seeing wasn’t what was happening at all,” informed the frame story. Joni Mitchell’s line about “Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes and the lips you can get, and still feel so alone,” told me something about Slater.

Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” is the story in a nutshell: “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?” And one night in the Tacoma Dome, Prince pointed at me during Purple Rain and sang, “It’s time we all reach out for something new, that means you too.“ I quit my job a few days later so I could write W2W. Basically, when Prince tells you to start something new, it’s not a discussion. That’s what you do.

The list goes on and we haven’t even talked about Seger. Let’s just say I’m under his spell and eternally grateful that I could use a few of Seger’s lyrics in the book.

 

4) You’ve garnered comments such as, “In the tradition of the great noir novels, Wire to Wire, is really something. Like being in a stolen car with no brakes in a world of train hopping, sex, violence, and drugs. It’s all edge from start to finish.” —Willy Vlautin, author of The Motel Life. And yet Open Letters Monthly says, “Wire to Wire ends up being what so many pulp writers think they’re making but end up missing: an exploration of the proper aims of existence.”

Is this a pulp novel?

No, I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s also not a crime novel. It’s literary fiction. It happens to have a plot and some people get killed. It’s got drugs, guns, and dynamite. But I never wanted it to be anything but literary fiction.

That said, I’d also assert that the literary world gets a little weird about what’s considered a genre novel and what’s considered mainstream. Whatever you think of as mainstream is just a genre that’s defined itself as being the norm, which seems artificial to me. Is Franzen writing mainstream literary fiction, or is he working in a genre called Domestic Fiction—books that are mainly set indoors in living rooms, bedrooms, offices, and dorms. How about Suburban Fiction, Sports Fiction? Everything’s a genre, in my view, or else nothing is.

 

5) Tin House is such a good fit for your work that it is hard to imagine it published elsewhere. Did you submit Wire to Wire anywhere else?

Over the years, I sent the manuscript to quite a few agents and publishers. Maybe two dozen in all. But a lot of those were submissions in the 1990s when the writing and the story weren’t as finished as they are now.

In 2008, I sent the manuscript to nine agents, but there wasn’t any interest. Part of the challenge with W2W is that it has multiple beginnings. It’s not until Slater gets to Michigan, which is 100 pages into the book, that the plot really kicks in. So it was hard to give people a sense of the book with just a chapter or two.

I was very lucky to land at Tin House. From my point of view, it was a perfect fit. They understood the book completely. During editing they helped me improve it immensely.

 

6) You also made a great trailer to go with the book. Tell me about that.

Tin House and Juliet Zulu, a creative company in Portland, came up with the video concept and did all the work. They were fabulous – they just told me when to show up and asked me some questions. The hardest part, logistically, was getting into an empty strip club in the afternoon, so I could read from the book while my editor, Tony Perez, pretended to watch the dancer.

For the last scene, we went out to the freight yard, and somehow my book got left on the tracks, so it actually got hit by a Union Pacific train. The binding is all messed up and it’s got huge creases in it. The crew was apologetic, but I loved it. I’m just happy we didn’t cause a derailment.

 

7) Is there another book in the works?

There is. A splinter group from the Occupy movement is trying to steal a kidney from a banker, but what they end up with is not a kidney. The underlying theme is related to the economic collapse of 2008, in which financial instruments with no real value were sold as if they had a lot of value. The book is set in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

I’m currently calling it Dogs Run Free. About halfway through, I realized there were a lot of elements of Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers involved—no surprise, since Dog Soldiers is one of my favorite books. There’s the reference to Dogs in the title, and the accidental way in which the main characters acquire the MacGuffin—heroin in Stone’s book, the kidney in mine—and some character names. At first, I viewed that as a problem to be fixed. But now I see it as something worth exploring. Dog Soldiers is a masterpiece, a National Book Award winner, so why not be open about the way it’s influenced me? I hope to finish it next year.

 

This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

Eye to the Telescope

I’m guest editing Eye to the Telescope’s April issue.

Theme: Immigrations.

Deadline: March 1, 2013.

I’m looking for speculative explorations of border crossings, assimilation, enculturation, acculturation and other facets of moving to and living in a strange place.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “speculative” encompasses the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and magical realism. I will want the treatment of language to be literary (or literary quality) and the content itself will be speculative. For an idea of the sort of thing I’m looking for (only, on theme), check out: David McGimpsey’s “Summerland,” Thomas Lux’s “The People of the Other Village,” Tina Connolly’s “Rehydration,” James S. Door’s “No One Wants to Run Through the Woods Naked Under a Full Moon Anymore,” or Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Magic Cats.”

Notes from Thomas Lux

I went to the first of this semester’s poetry Saturday University at Vanderbilt today, where Thomas Lux read and answered questions about poetry. Below are my notes, somewhat cleaned up for public consumption:

 

Read:

 

Q: re enjambment/process

The single most difficult thing to do is to pay attention objectively to our own work. At a certain point in composition, after first drafts, when editing, you need to put on different glasses—so you have a verb lens (look for passive voice, too many -ing endings, etc.), line break lens, etc. Read your work as if you didn’t write it.

Line breaks are to help teach the reader exactly how you want the poem to be heard.

Most line breaks are in logical/grammatical places (where the reader breathes) but also can be used to set up suspense or a sort of double entendre, where the line makes you think one thing is coming, and then it’s something else. Line breaks may seem arbitrary, but the poet should have a purpose. “I want everything to be auditory.” The bottom line is, nothing is arbitrary—you choose it, so think about it—try different things + pay attention.

The more you work on a poem, the more spontaneous it should seem to the reader.

 

Q re his process

Starts with an image, or a little thing nagging him, or a title that jumps into his head or jumps out of the middle of reading he’s doing. Saves up fragments. When he has time to write, uses fragments to start a batch of poems, maybe 5 or 7 poems at a time, then does drafts cyclically so works on them in order (can’t edit poems out of order)—types them up—works on typescript with four different coloured pens, still cyclically. So edits in order all poems in red, then green, etc (colors don’t matter, just help him to see where he left off). Once all edited in all colors, does clean typescript and repeat until happy. “Part of the obsessive, nutty way I try to put order on something very subjective.” Doesn’t know what he wants to say when he starts. Process of discovery.

Like Robert Frost said, find out what you don’t know you know.

 

Q re meter

The point of meter is working off of or against the meter (for reason). You don’t just fill the meter perfectly (“that kills poetry”).

Writing in received forms of any kind (sonnet, sestina, etc.) or any kind of form (even made up) doesn’t limit us—it frees us, because it forces us to think in another way, and helps us to make discoveries.

All that said, Emily Dickinson said—who cares to count syllables when a thought takes your breath away—but meter helps you find those thoughts.

You don’t read poetry because it’s well-made, even though that’s important, but because of the crazy stuff, the stuff that moves you.

 

Q when/how to decide to abandon a poem that isn’t working

Sometimes poems just don’t fly—wooden. Put them away. Sometimes years later, discover something in them you couldn’t see originally, but usually not. “It’s always more important to work on the next poem.”

Do submissions mechanically and don’t take rejections personally. (Editors are just people.)

Keep a list of magazines you like and keep envelopes ready to go. Send them out as soon as you get them back.

Hire a secretary in your brain to do this, for an hour or two every week.

I advise being as cold about that, and as indifferent, and putting all the passion into writing and making the poems better—not to get published (or to get anything), but because poems are important.

 

Q Do the best poems get heard?

Eventually. Emerson said no such thing as unrecognized genius. You’re trusting a human being—one particular judge wants to grab your book while another might hate it. Sooner or later somebody will pick up your work if it’s good.

Which poems are going to last will be settled long after we’re dead, so it’s pointless to worry about it.

 

Q Ever write a poem perfectly the first time?

No. Usually it takes five or six tries to even get a first draft. Some poets write quickly, but it’s rare for great poetry. Fast writers: Keats—Hart Crane—Rimbaud—but they had an advantage we don’t have, in that they were raging geniuses.

 

Q Titles?

Sometimes find inside the poem after writing, but frequently starts with title. Finds a few words in the middle of somebody else’s otherwise unexceptional sentence, or jumps into head.

When a person reads the title, I want them to have to read the poem.

Our main responsibility to the reader is to not be boring.

 

Q Craft books?

  • Mary Oliver
  • Lewis Turco’s Book of Forms
  • Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics
  • Dorianne Laux

Give yourself exercises. Doesn’t like writing prompts because generally autobiographical (“which is really interesting to us but not always to the reader”) and thinks poet should already have an idea of what they want to write about.

Sometimes I’ll arbitrarily set myself a goal: “in this draft, I will find 7 syllables I can cut.”

Editing—cutting—first + most important revisional tool. We have to be draconian about removing dead syllables, polysyllabic words (because usu abstract/explainey). Be ruthless. Slash and burn.

 

Q Rhythm?

When people say, “how come poems don’t rhyme anymore?” I want to say, “Are you fucking deaf?” because we still rhyme. My poems are full of internal rhyme.

Pay attention to stress syllables: how frequently and where they come.

In normal English, about 60% unstressed; he aims for 50/50 stressed/unstressed.

Also, pay attention to onomatopoeia. Use unpleasant sounds for unpleasant things.

Play with synesthesia. Forgot who said “a poem is only as good as its sensory information.” That’s why abstraction and abstract words don’t work.

 

Q Humour?

People ask, “why are you using humor in your poems?” and I say, “Well, I’m trying to be funny.”

Some people think poetry has to maintain a constant gravitas; he disagrees. Sometimes humour can tamp down something really dark. A survival technique. Playful or whimsy to satire. If you’re not funny in real life, don’t force it.

Unlikely Entomology

My story “The Candy Aisle” is out in The Journal of Unlikely Entomology! This is a story I wrote a million years ago, probably in 2004 or 2005, and which I have tweaked several times since. It’s probably the only thing I’ve ever written where the final line was the first thing I wrote. Anyway, I’m super psyched that it’s finally found a home. You should go read it. I’ll wait.

Okay, so, now that you’re back… my other big news is that I have finally (after about two weeks of struggling with Photoshop and iMovie to create a frame-by-frame 1:41 stop-motion video which you can now go stare at in all its obviously-not-professional-but-surprisingly-decent glory) finished and osted the Kickstarter campaign for Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, an anthology my small press is publishing next month. If the campaign is successful we’ll have a print edition as well as the ebook editions. I’m not the editor, so I can brag a little: this book is SO GOOD you guys. I am pretty excited to be involved with it.

Intermittent Visitors: Donna Miscolta interviewed by Kathleen Alcalá

This is a guest post by Kathleen Alcalá—she interviewed Donna Miscolta for Intermittent Visitors.

 

Donna Miscolta’s first book is the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, published by Signal 8 Press in June 2011. Her short story collection Natalie Wood’s Fake Puerto Rican Accent was a runner-up for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award and a finalist for the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in America’s Review, Calyx, Cha: An Asian Literary Review, Connecticut Review, Conversations Across Borders, Kartika Review, New Millennium Writings, Raven Chronicles, and others. She has been awarded residencies from Anderson Center, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Hedgebrook, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has received numerous grants and awards, including an Artist Trust Fellowship and the Bread Loaf/Rona Jaffe Scholarship for Fiction.

1) Your first book was published last year. Tell me what it is about.

Thematically, When the de la Cruz Family Danced is about assimilation and belonging. Story-wise, it’s about a family needing to overcome the psychic distances that separate them – a dysfunction that has its origins in the suppressed sense of estrangement the father, Johnny de la Cruz, feels from his Filipino homeland. The emotional vacuum within the family is suddenly filled by a young man named Winston, the son of an old flame of Johnny’s. Winston presents himself at the de la Cruz family doorstep, armed with his recently deceased mother’s letter that alludes to a one-time intimacy between her and Johnny de la Cruz.

Winston is handsome, charming and, with the death of his mother, suddenly adrift and seeking attachment. While keeping the letter a secret, he gradually weaves himself into the thin emotional fabric of the de la Cruz family. Winston’s ability to command a dance floor, swim with dolphin ease, and juggle like a magician seems to elevate the de la Cruz family above their average skills practiced self-consciously in a less than middling neighborhood. But things start to unravel with Winston’s decision to reveal the letter to Johnny and are complicated further when the letter disappears. In the meantime, the family suffers a loss that forces them to act on unresolved anger over past failings and uncertainty about Winston’s role in their lives. More information plus reviews can be found on my website and on Amazon.com.

2) Did the experience go as expected?

There was so much I didn’t know and understand about the publishing business. I knew writers who’d been published and I had attended workshops and panels on the publishing process. And yet, I was still under the quaint notion that being published was a fairly straightforward matter and that my book would suddenly appear in bookstores across the country. I didn’t understand how a book is distributed and under what conditions. I knew that as an author with a small press, much of the promotion of the book was up to me, so I did spend a lot of time seeking out reviewers and book bloggers. I was happy with the results of my efforts in that regard. But booking readings in bookstores was a huge challenge and except for a few places locally, my inquiries were politely refused, brusquely declined, or altogether ignored. I’m so grateful to the stores that did embrace and support me. And I owe a lot to fellow writers who helped arrange for appearances with student groups on college campuses and at special events, and who helped connect me with book groups and readers in general. I belong to a very generous and gracious writing community.

 

3) As I recall, your book was published with an international audience in mind. Who did you expect your audience to be, and who have you found your audience to be?

Yes, my publisher, based in Hong Kong, focuses on books of relevance to Asia and the Pacific Rim. I did want to reach an Asian and Asian-American audience. I’m not sure how widely I’ve reached the former, but I have received feedback from Filipino-American readers who have described how deeply they had connected with the story and the characters. Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, which receives the credit for my book finding its way to my publisher, included a review of When the de la Cruz Family Danced in one of its issues. The review was written by Dinah Roma Sianturi, a Filipina writer and scholar at a university in Manila. I absolutely loved her review.

I also wanted to have readers beyond the Filipino community and if I were to hazard a guess, I would say that most people who have read my book are outside of this community. The story appeals across ethnic lines as many of those who have reviewed the book have pointed out. This is important to me because as proud as I am of my Filipina and Mexican background (which my characters happen to reflect), my stories, like so many stories, are about the fallibilities and longings that are part of being human.

 

4) You made a wonderful trailer to go with the book. Tell me about that.

I was considering as many angles as I could that were feasible for me to pursue in terms of ways to promote the book. One of these was a book trailer. I will say I did some research on the effectiveness of book trailers in selling books, and from what I could glean, it seemed that book trailers had little or no impact on book sales. And yet, the idea of a video was so appealing, largely because I saw my novel as a very visual one. Despite evidence to the contrary, I hoped that a trailer could be an enticement for someone to read my novel, and if it wasn’t, well, I would still have a lovely video out in the world that would in itself give pleasure.

Because dance is in the title of the novel and dance appears a number of times throughout the book, I knew I wanted the video to feature dancers. I hired the wonderful dancer Vanessa Villalobos who in turn procured three additional dancers to dance the bolero. To give a sense of the story, I selected a passage from the novel for the voice-over narration that I felt encapsulated it. As an alumna of Hedgebrook, the writer’s retreat for women, I have had the good fortune to meet many talented women, among them the writer Ann Hedreen who with her husband Rus Thompson also makes films through their company White Noise. Ann’s enthusiasm and support for my ideas and Rus’ superb direction, camera work, and editing skills resulted in a beautiful book trailer that I never get tired of watching.

 

 

5) You are working on another book. Tell me about it.

My novel-in-progress, The Education of Angie Rubio, deals with issues of race, identity and family. These are issues that I’m naturally preoccupied with and that reflect who I am as a writer and why I write. I created Angie Rubio when I began to think about how a child learns to view herself, the world around her and her place in it. I wanted to place this self-discovery within the world of education – kindergarten through grade twelve. Each of these grades is marked by some developmental or social milestone, the achievement or failure of which is bound to affect the spirit and soul in some way. The events in the novel show that what we learn, how we learn and how we behave is shaped by where the power lies within a relationship or situation.

 

6) Will you do anything differently in publishing and promoting your next book?

I expect my next book will also be a small press product. Ready and waiting for publication is my collection of short stories. Even though it was a runner-up for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and a finalist for the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the common understanding is that a large publisher will not consider a book of short fiction unless the author is famous or has had work published in major magazines such as The Atlantic or The New Yorker. So I’ve been submitting to more contests and querying small presses. If and when the manuscript gets picked up by a press, I’ll be better informed about pathways to distribution and how they affect access to bookstores. I’ll seek reading opportunities beyond bookstores and I’ll expand the list of book reviewers and book bloggers I developed for my first book. I would hope that readers of my first book will welcome and embrace my second.

What I learned from the often uncomfortable process of promoting your own book is that even though you will feel disheartened by the unresponsiveness of the book business people because you are an unknown, even though you are frustrated because your book won’t be acquired under the conditions set by a bookstore, even though you will not have the resources to mount a big or even a modest promotional campaign, your book will find its way into some readers’ hands and some of those readers will find you and tell you they love it, and it will make your day.

 

This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

the Queen of Canadian Lit

I’m completely underwater these days working on the anthology Apocalypse Now (website! Facebook!), but took time this morning to go to the Nashville Public Library and see Margaret Atwood reading a bit from The Handmaid’s Tale and talking about her work (and singing a made-up hymn about moles! and a bit of an old Grand Old Opry-era country song!) and about writing and about totalitarianism. I did some livetweeting of her lecture at @upperrubberboot.

So, anyway, I talked to her very briefly afterward—while having her sign my old Selected Poems II which I think I bought when I was 14, maybe 15, and which I have reread almost to pieces (it has such greats as “Marrying the Hangman” and “Variation on the Word Sleep“)—about Apocalypse Now (which she has a story in, but since her staff signed the contract, I didn’t know if she knew about it or not) and she told me that her story, “The Silver Astroturfer” was written to be speculative, but that she’s since found out it’s actually happening in China (she told me to google “the 50 cent kids“). Subscribers to the Sunday Times, by the way, can read it here (and the rest of you can read it when the book comes out).

I met Atwood once before, when I worked for the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia and she was in town for (if I recall correctly) a The Writers’ Union of Canada AGM. That occasion featured me as the slackjawed simpleton. I was completely struck dumb by her charisma and fame, and in response to whatever she said to me (I don’t remember now, and I probably didn’t hear her properly at the time) managed to choke out only, “The squares are good” (in reference to the dessert platters). She was very gracious about it—I am sure people are total idiots around her all the time—but my husband still references it when I am particularly awkward communicating with him. It was a real charge to have a chance to talk to her, and to actually interact like a normal human being, to boot.

So! As a separate entry I’ll be putting up a guest blog/interview (probably tomorrow since we need to leave for a Hallowe’en party in like an hour), and then putting my head down again to continue working on getting this book out.

Intermittent Visitors: Kathleen Alcalá

Kathleen Alcalá was born in Compton and raised in the wilds of San Bernardino, California. Attracted to words at an early age, she went on to write five books of fiction and nonfiction. A 2007 Artist Trust Fellow, Kathleen is a member of Seattle7, Los Norteños and ConTinta. She teaches at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island. She agreed to be interviewed for Intermittent Visitors.

 

1. What is your writing process?

My process is to sit in my office until I am so very, very bored I cannot stand it. Then I begin to write, and it is horrible. I save the horrible writing and the next day, it looks as though it holds possibilities—a word here, a sentence there that could possibly be less than horrible if I rewrite them. I do. This goes on until I have a book or a short story. I probably rewrite each and every thing about a dozen times. And this is down from about fifteen times.

 

2. What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

Ursula K. LeGuin once said, don’t write about what you know, write about what you care about. (Only she probably said it more elegantly.) Really, we know so very little. But if we care enough about something, we will learn what we need to know. I spend a lot of time researching my work, both fiction and nonfiction.

 

3. Can you say a little bit about the genesis of Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist?

      Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist is my first collection of short stories, now available as an e-book (www.calyxpress.org).

It was inspired by the stories my aunts and uncles used to tell at family gatherings. The stories were full of intimations, partial or non-existent endings, impossible or mysterious goings-on. This was how I learned my family history.

Later, once I began to write, I was told that I was writing magic realism. Magic realism is often associated with writing from Latin America, and my family is from Mexico. But it is a type of writing that can be found all over the world, especially in places where it is prudent to speak truth indirectly to power. It also reflects a world view that does not privilege technology over intuition or experience. As a result, these worlds have many dimensions, and there are many ways to solve problems that might not, on the surface, appear to be logical.

 

4. Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

Writing is my way of interacting with the world, which I continue to find wonderful and mysterious. It is a way of explaining the world to myself, both the visible and the invisible. If others find it useful or entertaining, all the better. I have heard from many readers over the years, and I came to realize that each reader is reading a different book that may or may not have much to do with what I think I wrote. We each bring our own backgrounds and experiences with us when we enter the world of a book.

 

This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.