H.R. Webster has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Vermont Studio Center, and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program. Her work has appeared in the Massachusetts Review, Poetry Magazine, Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, 32Poems, Muzzle, and Ecotone. You can read more poems at hrwebster.com.
What Follows -- (https://blacklawrencepress.com/books/what-follows/)
Alina Pleskova is a poet, editor, and Russian immigrant turned proud Philadelphian. Her work has been featured in American Poetry Review, Thrush, Peach Mag, the Poetry Project, and other places. She co-edits bedfellows magazine and is a 2020 Leeway Foundation Art & Change awardee. Her first full-length collection, Toska, will be published by Deep Vellum in 2023. More poems at alinapleskova.com; more nonsense at @nahhhlina.
I met H.R. Webster at a septuagenarian lesbian wedding in an upstate New York backyard. As summer dusk took its languid time, we smoked on a porch swing and talked about how we hoped for (well, insisted upon) the return of disco. During their vows, the brides unzipped matching tracksuits to reveal matching tiger t-shirts (because they were “still tigers in the bedroom.”) The night felt like a bright-hot lightning jolt through my heart, pandemic be damned.
I looked up H.R.’s work on my bleary train ride home and felt resonance, total absorption, and awe equally. Months later, I was delighted to learn that she had a full-length collection coming out. Reading What Follows, out in June 2022 from Black Lawrence Press and now available for pre-order, gave me a lightning feeling all over again. These are poems, yes, but I also think of this collection as a spellbinding and exquisitely sensory catalog of disclosures.
The word I keep returning to is aliveness. The poems live through and relay hurt, loss, desire, desperation, humor; humanness and nature in all their violence and beauty. There’s no one way that they are, just as there’s no one way to be in the world, which is constantly reminding us of its ever-fluctuating capacities to allure and horrify. This book’s intrepid vulnerability and unguardedness brought me back to my body, which I’ve largely avoided checking in with during these last few life-upending years – exultations, injuries, and all.
It was no surprise to find that H.R.’s reflections on rural life, poetics and process, the notion of sex positivity, and poetry of/about the body are every bit as insightful, witty, and expansive as her poems. Slasher films, dead cows with names, orgasms, and mosh pits are all somehow invoked in the same conversation. Once you get your hands on What Follows, cue the soundtrack offered here and find a sturdy porch swing – you won’t want to get up again until you’ve read every word.
AP: In introducing What Follows to me by email, you said that it’s “intentionally a slasher movie title”. Why did you want the title to invoke slashers?
HRW: The deepest horror in slashers often is not seeing someone killed, but rather seeing someone else encounter the dead body (I’m thinking, for example, of the moment in the original My Bloody Valentine when the body is found in the laundromat.) I think that’s where horror lies in poetry too—in encountering the body. What a poem demands of its audience is similar to what a slasher demands—implication through imagination.
In What Follows I’m interested in pulp at play within the pastoral. So much of horror is about the anxiety of being in the wrong landscape, what happens when you pass over the sometimes-invisible boundary from one landscape into another. I’m thinking about movies like the 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre — the fantasy of the pastoral is part of what creates its horror.
AP: The speaker seems intimately familiar with rural life: poems often take place in or reference a bucolic setting/atmosphere, but it isn’t regarded in any Romantic sense. The book is populated by snakes, horses, mountain lions, all kinds of foliage, fields, barns. But also blood, rot, sick, bodies (animal and human animal) behaving in ways that are disturbing or awry, devourings, death. I’m thinking of the term Joyelle McSweeney coined, necropastoral.
For example, there are two poems called “The Calf” – one describes a stillborn calf, and the other, a calf who barely got to be alive: “She lived a week. Sucked my fingers / to the quick and smelled of sick. Our cemetery was already full / of glass crazed crows, a racoon, shot when he wouldn’t look away…”
Nature is brutal, I thought. But in the same poems, I’m struck by lines like, “Blouse seam split / when the wrist is held but / the shoulders turn away.” A calf’s violent birth calls to mind a human behavior that, depending how one sees it, is violent or hot or both.
I felt this paralleling throughout: the brutality of nature and of sex, of being human. How this can be seen as primal (even necessary) or horrifying. This is a long-winded way of wondering whether you grew up or spent a lot of time in rural settings? And if so, how does that affect one’s responses or relationships to the life-death cycle, “the body”, violence, and sex?
HRW: I love that term, necropastoral. I think that necropastoral poetics and slasher movies both explore what McSweeney calls the “place where the farcical and outrageous horrors of Anthopocenic ‘life’ are made visible as Death.”
I did, indeed, grow up in rural spaces, all over the country (why some western animals like the mountain lion live in the book even though the plant life often locates it in the south—it's not a book about one landscape in particular but about a relationship to landscape more broadly). My parents have a homestead and I was raised with the kind of intimacy with the bucolic that disallows the Romantic. I was in some ways deeply sheltered by the isolation of these spaces, but I also had my first encounter with sex through witnessing and participating in animal insemination, brutal, and the constant drive towards death-oriented reproduction. Those first encounters, and the horror of female animals who were simultaneously valued and violated, shaped my early political and erotic understanding of my own body. I left home and had sex. Promiscuous sex that was anti-reproductive, interested only in pleasure. To plot my escape from the paradigm of the milking barn I didn’t need to turn a blind eye to the brutal possibilities of sex, but I did need to break from the economics of reproductive capitalist thinking in relationship to sex. Sex and death were what put food on the table, but neither sex nor pleasure was ever spoken of.
I think you’re right in identifying pleasure in the human behavior evoked by the brutality of the farm, the heat of some of those moments. My mother likes to tell people the names of the animals they are eating when they come over for dinner. “Are you enjoying your steak? That’s Maybell.” She does this mostly to make people uncomfortable, but also because there’s a deepened pleasure to eating the meat when you’re entered into intimacy with the animal’s life and death. The tenderness (petted, fed apples, named and nicknamed) and the slaughter. That intimacy invites your mortality into the room. I think that knowledge is carried into the way I write about the body in these poems.
AP: “That intimacy invites your mortality into the room.” Damn, I’m saving that. There’s a framing here of intimacy allowing you to see more clearly, rather than just more closely. A clarity that doesn’t let you romanticize (or Romanticize.)
I love your sentiment of not wanting to turn away from “the brutal possibilities of sex.” Even after having seen what one has seen. I wonder if you’d want to talk about that more as it relates to sex in this book. There’s a poem, “Scaphism” — a torturous manner of death that I’ll leave readers to look up or learn about in your book! — that discusses sleeping with two different lovers in one day: “I am both ashamed and not ashamed. I like to tell the truth. I like to make men love me // with my body. But I am always afraid. Afraid / and leaden with power.”
There’s a directness here that I appreciate; a nuance and complicatedness regarding sex that I rarely see in poetry or many other places. I feel like so much poetry that takes sex or the body as a dominant theme sticks to a script: the trauma path, transformative self-discovery, or a liberatory erotic vibe. In What Follows, all sorts of things happen to bodies and there’s no monolithic way to regard the experiences. There’s shame, empowerment, pleasure, humor, disgust, fear, so on. I wonder if you could speak to making space for that in your poems? Or anything you want to say about writing into/about sex and sexuality?
HRW: This is one reason I was so excited to talk to you—I admire the way you write about sex so much (Desire doesn't aspire/to anything other than itself).
Poems are places where, for me, we can welcome simultaneous, opposite truths. I think that is an important space to occupy, radical paradox, for political transformation to be possible. I think a lot of writing about sex works with a carceral-feminist logic: bad people do bad sexual things and good people have beautiful/pleasurable/pure sex. There is no muchness, no abundance of friction, very little possibility in this thinking. We have all caused harm and been harmed—and I also think it is a mistake to position that tension in the past of our lives. The potential for mess and damage and humiliation in sex is not something we grow out of, a problem to be solved or escaped through monogamy. I’m not interested in writing into a sex positivity that doesn’t embrace that sex is funny and gross and dangerous.
When I was young I imagined sex that led to a kind of languagelessness, an erasure and liberation from my own crushing consciousness. I was obsessed with the idea of sex as religious experience, and I was drawn to poetry for the same reason — I believed it was possible to reach into language’s failures with poetry. But I was thinking about these things with the single-mindedness of a lonely child. There was no “other” in that desire for languagelessness. I did not imagine who my partners were, who my readers were. I’m learning my way as I write towards a more expansive version of that desire as part of conversation and community, and therefore wonderfully muddy.
“Scaphism,” and a lot of the poems from that part of the book came from an experiment with my writing. So much of the writing I was coming across was slowly winding towards explosive or revelatory closing lines (which to me feels very straight and male, a singular orgasm closing the whole show out). Or they were filled with revelation, but couched in second-guessing gestures about what was really meant. The experiment for me became saying exactly what I meant to say, and then seeing what followed from there.
AP: Yes! So here for the expansiveness that you describe, especially: “I’m not interested in writing into a sex positivity that doesn’t embrace that sex is funny and gross and dangerous.”
And thank you! I was super excited to talk to you, too. My poetry education happened in an adhoc/informal way and it took until my mid-20s to realize that most established, “feminist” (big air quotes) poets didn’t offer the nuanced ways of approaching these subjects that I sought (not so much for “permission”, as we poets love to say, but affirmation or wanting to see how to do it well.) But my peers and contemporaries? Yes. And here I am with your book, getting just that. I’m very grateful for your work, for this and many other reasons.
Speaking of established ways of doing things, I’m cracking up and nodding at explosive/revelatory closing lines as analogous to a straight dude orgasm. Show’s over, ta-da, be impressed!
The poems in What Follows often display a meta self-awareness about being poems, or the process of writing. And how sometimes we can’t regard things “poetically” – language and poetry have limitations:
“I decided to be a happy girl, / and I was. The conventional lyric: / salt, pony, vena cava.” (from “Hapax Legomenon”)
“It’s exhausting, this fear of being followed. / That’s not a metaphor. I’m not a man. / I have no pretty ways to say it left.” (from “Occlusion”)
“I want this poem to end on the line: the dullest knife is the most dangerous” (“from Love Language”)
As with how you approach writing about sex/sexuality, this strikes me as more honest. The poems feel real, living. We come to poetry for multitudinous reasons, and a big one for me is being in the presence of a human voice and not an omniscient Seer. I don’t mind being reminded that I’m in a poem, or feeling like the speaker is working something out in real time, vs. an ornate sentiment or arc that ends with – going back to the revelation thing – some big epiphany.
Your description of writing “Scaphism” has me curious about your process and writing experiments. How did you arrive at being able to say exactly what you meant to say? I’m wondering if, in a way that almost seems counterintuitive, having a process or formal constraints helped you get there.
HRW: Writing in form has become more a part of my process recently. Often the final poem isn’t in a received form at all, and form is more a process than a product (although there are sonnets in the book and a few nonce forms that exist within invisible constraints).
Working in form as a process has allowed me two things: to sacrifice control of the poem to music and to know when a poem needs to speak directly to its poem-ness, either through its form or through sky-writing/flag waving/bellowing. The loss-of-control aspect of form-as-process can feel a bit like being in a mosh pit. You realize at some point your feet are not touching the ground. It feels always on the brink of getting completely out of control, collapsing. Form is a break from our habits of language and being, and is useful to me as a tool in the moment of initial composition. There needs to be a reason, though, for me to complete a poem in form (like the two sonnets you pointed out). That reason is almost always violence. Maybe why I use the analogy of the mosh pit. Music that moves us to dance is MOVING US, punk is honest about this. Received form is a way to speak more directly to the violence of representation (of the world, of others, of the self). Form moves from process to product in my writing when I know I cannot let myself off the hook for that violence. I’ve been interested in the conversations happening around “mess” and poetry recently but confused by why form is often positioned as anti-mess. I think a well-executed sonnet is the messiest of poems.
AP: That’s a really astute point about form often being positioned as anti-mess. I’ve seen this conversation circulate online, and have been guilty of regarding form that way, too – or at least, regarding forms with intricate rules as too constrained for discursiveness, which doesn’t acknowledge how form can lead to unexpected outcomes. Your way of thinking of form as a way to relinquish control and break from our usual modes of thinking/writing/being makes a lot of sense. (Also, I was a punk before I ever identified as a poet, so extra resonance.)
Now I have to ask: does What Follows have a soundtrack? Your poems are lyrical in their emotiveness and musicality, but there’s a bite – or what Lisa Russ Spaar called “dark, alluring ambages of personal and cultural sexual powerplay” (!) – that makes ‘lyrical’ seem too lulling of a descriptor. These poems could be in the pit and not worry about messing up their hair. If I were to give them a soundtrack, I’d go with PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire? But I want to know what your soundtracks were/are!
HRW: I do have a playlist for What Follows. Songs I played over and over and over again while I was writing. I am a believer in obsession, I both listen obsessively and am drawn to music that obsesses. Some albums I listened to a lot while working on the book: The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, Misfits’ Walk Among Us, Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Sessions. Some songs— Patsy Cline “Crazy,” Tom Waits “Temptation,” Prince “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow,” My Bloody Valentine “Only Shallow,” Leonard Cohen “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Sharon Van Etten “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” Johnny Cash’s cover of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Eartha Kitt’s version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Big Thief “Not,” Brenda Lee “Emotions.”
The music I write to is also the music I cook to, drive to, walk to. This is part of the relationship to the lyric, perhaps. I am less interested in visiting emotion than living within it— with all the exhaustion and ambivalence and risk that comes from swimming too long. Brevity is so much of the tradition of the lyric poem, but I am wary when I find myself writing towards “moments.”
Lyd Havens is the author of the chapbooks I Gave Birth to All the Ghosts Here (Nostrovia! Press, 2018) and Chokecherry (Game Over Books, 2021). Their work has previously been published in Ploughshares, The Shallow Ends, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others. Lyd lives in Boise, Idaho, where they will graduate from Boise State University in December 2021.
Chokecherry -- (https://www.gameoverbooks.com/product-page/chokecherry)
Mariel Fechik is a musician, writer, and librarian from Chicago, IL. She is also the interviews editor at Atwood Magazine. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and Bettering American Poetry, and has appeared in Hobart, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Cream City Review, Glass, and others. She is the author of Millicent (Ghost City Press, 2019) and prone to separation with Taylor Yocom (Ghost City Press, 2021).
Grief is a funny thing. It is one of life’s cruelest tricks; it is a blunt knife bearing down for indeterminable periods; it is a cold splash of water when you’re least expecting it. And yet, in the right hands, grief can be molded into something beautiful. Lyd Havens possesses the right hands. This is not to say that their pain isn’t palpable - their newest collection, Chokecherry (Game Over Books, 2021), is a monument to pain in many forms. The loss of three beloved family members. Parental estrangement. Violences large and intimate. But Havens’ words are teeming with life, cliche be damned. Their imagery pierces and comforts; their love for their grandparents and uncle a massive, glowing thing. The thing about this monument to pain is that it is also a monument to beauty. Despite grief, despite the often quiet violence of death, Havens promises “to remember.” And that promise, and all that comes with it, is beauty.
MF: What was the first poem you wrote for Chokecherry, and did that poem inform the rest of the collection?
LH: I think it was “Notname,” & I think you were one of the first people to read it! In some ways it did, since it’s about grief & that’s objectively the core theme of Chokecherry. And it was in every single version of the manuscript that became Chokecherry. But what really informed the book was my grandmother’s death in July 2020. It was already such a devastating time (my grandfather had died almost exactly a year prior, & the pandemic has felt like grief on the most macro of macro-levels), and after she passed away I remember just sitting at my desk, looking at all the poems I’d written or was writing, & it began to click into place.
MF: This book grieves three different people, all of whom are so tied, with you as a sort of ballast between. How did you strike this balance?
LH: This might be morbid to say, but I had a lot of practice writing about grief. My uncle died in 2008. My very first poems were about him & how my 10/11-year-old self was coping with his death & everything it brought about for my family. So when my grandfather died, I’d been writing about grief in some capacity for a decade or so. But I was also incredibly close with my grandparents—I dropped out of high school & spent all my time with them afterwards. Like, when I competed in poetry slams as a teenager, they both came & cheered everyone on. My grandma even read a poem there once. They were, & are, such a huge influence on the way I live my life.
So, I have a grief that I have lived with for most of my life—it still stings to say that. And now I’m grieving two of the most important people in my life. It’s a juxtaposition that I carry every day, so I think that’s how I got that balance. Just from the way my life has changed over the last two & a half years.
MF: Even from only seeing them in your poems, they seem so lovely and so lively. I get the sense that they've shaped your sense of self a lot more than some people who have lesser relationships with their grandparents.
LH: They really were, & I count myself as incredibly lucky to have had them, & to be related to them. Like, they hung out with my friends sometimes, & my friends adored them. I know a lot of people would be mortified to have their grandparents hang out with their friends, so I really do feel so lucky.
MF: It feels like “etymology” is a central idea to this book, especially in relation to memory and self-understanding. Can you talk about that a bit?
LH: There are two aspects of my life that shaped that lens of “etymology”: being the person who looks the most like my late uncle, and my estrangement from my father. When I was younger, it used to really bother me when I was told how much I look like my uncle—I didn’t want to be compared to a dead man, especially one I missed so much. It also didn’t help that my uncle died by suicide, and I attempted suicide at a very young age. I was so afraid that there was some kind of curse, that the eldest child of each generation was going to kill themselves. I wrote a whole essay about this earlier in the year, and maybe one day it’ll see the light of day, but that idea of etymology came from reflecting on that, as well as a more recent sense of pride in how much I look like him. It was a comfort to my grandparents, and it’s a comfort to my mother. All my best features were also his. I can appreciate the beauty in that now, even with the bittersweetness.
On the other side of that: the other “grief” of Chokecherry is my estrangement from my father. Maybe that’s more a heartbreaking rage than a grief. But in those first few months after we became estranged, I had no idea how to unpack the legacy of violence and trauma he left me & my whole family with. “Boomtown,” the very long middle poem in Chokecherry, was my first step toward that. I wrote “Someday I’ll Love Lyd Havens” while I was revising “Boomtown,” & it was quite cathartic, naming the fact that even though my father was violent, I’m not “destined” to be violent, just like I’m not “destined” to end my life. I still have a lot of work to do in unpacking that, but in a lot of ways those poems were the first steps.
MF: Reading that, I'm reminded of how often you reference mirrors or reflections in the book. Did you find that these metaphorical mirrors helped process the feelings you just mentioned, both in relation to your uncle and your father?
LH: I love that you asked that, because the essay I referenced is called “Mirrorings”! I write a lot about mirrors, and that’s definitely why. In [the poem] “Chokecherry,” I write that I was hanging up a mirror in my bedroom the night my uncle died, and that’s a memory that’s always haunted me. My connection to the mirrors goes pretty far in that respect too.
MF: There's a line in "Unsayings" that really stuck with me: "Memory: the most unreliable part of the body." This, to me, also has to do with that idea of reflection - in both a physical sense and a mental one. And it's such an interesting juxtaposition with the book's final line, "I promise to remember." Can you talk about the role of memory here, unreliable and not?
LH: I’ve always written from memory, so in a way it was just a reflex. But my grandmother also spent the last year & a half of her life with dementia that rapidly deteriorated after my grandfather died. In the first few months of the pandemic, I was one of her caregivers, and watching her forget herself was absolutely agonizing. Those months leading up to her death might be what informed the book the most, because all everyone around her could do was remember on her behalf. And since I already default to writing about memory, I was thinking about memory a lot. The memories of who she was before she got sick, the memories of my uncle & his death, & how painful it is that I have more memories of him being dead than alive. Memories from my childhood. Memories from the year I became estranged from my dad & my grandfather died suddenly, & I was the least fun person to be around all the time. In some ways, remembering began to feel like an obligation, but also a blessing? Like, at least I can remember this, at least I can record it. And some of the remembering in Chokecherry isn’t as heavy as all that. There’s a poem about my best friend holding my hand while I was getting tattooed. There’s a poem where I mention singing Bruce Springsteen at karaoke. Hopefully, the next book or the book after that will be more about that kind of remembering.
MF: Speaking of Bruce, I know that music is really important to you and comes up often in your work. How does music impact your writing?
LH: I grew up listening to the music my parents grew up listening to, with very few exceptions (KT Tunstall and Brandi Carlile were my gay awakening in 2006). But once I started using the Internet, particularly Tumblr, I started to develop my own taste, which I think back then people called “hipster” (maybe they still do??). I heard Laura Marling for the first time in 2010 and she’s been my number 1 musician ever since. In some ways I live by her lyric “I speak because I can / to anyone I trust enough to listen.” But she’s been an influence of mine ever since then—she’s incredible at telling a story through her lyrics.
This doesn’t come up at all in Chokecherry, but in 2019 I saw Lucy Dacus live and she performed what was then a new song and asked that no one record it. That song was “Thumbs,” which is on her most recent album (that I’ve been listening to nonstop). The song’s about going with her friend to meet the friend’s estranged dad, & Dacus fantasizes about killing him because he’s just so awful. Hearing that song in that moment, about 10 months after becoming estranged from my own dad, was honestly life-changing, both as a writer and just as a person. To write about love and hatred at the same time, in such a precise & devastating way—that might be what I’ve been aspiring to all this time. That song gave me a lot of permission to write an angry yet loving book, and I didn’t even hear it again until after the book was finished.
Beyond that: I’m a huge fan of The National, especially their lyrics. I quote their song “Humiliation” in the penultimate poem. All my friends will attest to my undying love for Sufjan Stevens—if I could have found a way to fit him into Chokecherry, I would have. And when I was in the process of revising the book, I listened to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel. “The Only Living Boy in New York” played at the reception after my uncle’s memorial, and even though it’s such a difficult memory, I’ve always had such a deep love for them, & that song in particular. My grandparents really liked them too, so it felt right to listen to them during that process. I’m pretty sure “America” will be my #1 song when I get my Spotify Wrapped at the end of the year.
MF: Laura Marling, as we both know, is the most incredible. And honestly, I can see that influence in your writing. Outside of musicians, who are the writers who sit on your shoulder when you write?
LH: Ah, that makes me so happy! Ocean Vuong has influenced me so deeply, both in his writing & what he’s said in interviews. I don’t know him at all outside of his work, but he seems like a generous person in every sense of the word. I also just think the things he does with language are mesmerizing. I’m moving in a couple weeks, and counting down the days that I get my copies of his books out of storage so I can reread them.
More recently, I read Dorothy Allison’s short story collection Trash, and I’ve felt her “presence” in my writing life ever since. She doesn’t hold anything back. There are some poems in Chokecherry that I’m still occasionally terrified of, but Dorothy Allison has helped me face that terror. She’s helped me realize that I shouldn’t be afraid of my work.
I’m also very lucky that one of my favorite writers was also a professor of mine. I’ve raved about her book, Idaho, to anyone who’ll listen, and I recognize how biased I am, but Emily Ruskovich has definitely been on my shoulder a lot for the last three years. In a class I took with her, she said that “beauty is clarity,” & I think about that a lot. I’ll probably embroider that on something and put it above my desk soon.
MF: I love that quote. I love this idea that other writers can live in your work like specters, without necessarily being overt. And truly, there is a sense of clarity at the end of each of these poems. I’m wondering about "Boomtown" specifically, which seems like the centerpiece of this book in a lot of ways, and does a lot of work to clarify or synthesize a lot of the book's themes. Can you talk about that poem's journey a bit?
LH: Oh, god. I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard on a poem as I have on “Boomtown.” It started in a poetry class, where our final was supposed to be a chapbook of poems. Early on, I realized how badly I needed to challenge myself as someone who mostly writes 1, 2 pages maximum poems. So I asked my professor (Emily Pittinos, who’s a phenomenal poet & person) if I could write a chapbook length poem. She was incredibly enthusiastic about it, and helped me so much with the many revisions.
The poem started during a class field trip to the Idaho State Museum, where we were doing ekphrastic exercises. I found this painting of a house/general store near a set of railroad tracks, and the sky is just this brilliant pink-orange. I was drawn to it not just for that, but because there was a sign in the window of the house that said “Wallace”—my mother’s maiden name.
At the time, I had only been estranged from my father for two months. I was also getting over my first love. I truly was heartbroken, and like I said earlier, not very fun to be around. So, “Boomtown” ended up becoming partially an ekphrasis/alternate history, as well as a record of my coping. Because it started in a museum, I used a lot of notes & materials I had from an art history class I’d taken the prior semester for inspiration as well. And then there were just memories I was trying to process: I talk about a road trip where my mom nearly walked out of the car because my dad was just being so unimaginably shitty. There are facts about my father that predate my birth that I’d been trying to unpack for years. Chokecherry is a book I absolutely had to write, & “Boomtown” was a poem I absolutely HAD to write, & see to the very end.
MF: I love the use of a museum as a microcosm of memory. I was going to ask which poem in this book is most vital to you, but I think you may have just answered that.
LH: “Boomtown,” for sure. The titular poem, “Chokecherry” as well, if only because I am incredibly proud of that poem. “Maine Laments,” for all the life in it, especially my grandmother’s life. “A determination,” simply because it was the first “happy” poem I’d written in ages, and because it’s for my best friend. But truthfully, I have a deep love for every poem in the book for one reason or another. I’ve never been prouder of something I’ve written—and I’m so grateful that it’s out in the world now, and that people have found something to love in it.
MF: Titles fascinate me. How do you encapsulate an entire book into one brief phrase? Why Chokecherry?
LH: It had so many titles before that, & none of them were quite right. I’ve never had that much difficulty naming something. The team at GoB was incredibly patient with me, & Chokecherry eventually came up & immediately felt like the perfect fit. (Thank you, Josh & Jillian!) I think it works so well because the poem it’s named after encapsulates a lot of what the book is about: family, grief, coping, geography. A few people have also brought up that it reminded them of the idea of a family tree, and while I wasn’t thinking of that, I like that interpretation too. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I realized how many of these poems take place outside. So, I think it’s fitting that it’s named after something of the natural world.
MF: What is the one thought or sentiment that you hope people leave Chokecherry with?
LH: Maybe a reassurance that multiple truths can exist at once. Chokecherry is about grief, but it’s also about gratitude, and how they have collided throughout my life. That medley is confusing & complex, but it’s real & valid. Let yourself feel it, and know that you’re not alone in that complexity.
And to paraphrase a line from “A Determination”: chase joy whenever you can. This honestly goes beyond Chokecherry—it’s something I’ve clung to during the last year of isolation. Whatever that joy is, chase it, feel it, cherish it. Welcome it in.
Alma en las palabras
Capotian interview with Aurora Revólver
Translated by Emma Edwards
In 1972, Truman Capote published an original text that came to be the autobiography he never wrote. The title “Autorretrato (Self-portrait)” (in Los perros ladran, Anagram, 1999), and he interviews himself with cunning and brilliance. Those questions that serve to proclaim their frustrations, desires, and customs, now, extracted for the most part, from the following “entrevista capotiana,” with which we will know the other face, that of life, of Aurora Revólver.
If you have to live in only one place, of which you could not leave, where would you choose? That idea gives me a lot of anxiety, but I guess if I had to choose it would be a very big house in a town in Andalusia, with a burrito and pool if I could.
Do you prefer animals over people? Lately I have been talking with many cats but I think I still prefer some people.
Are you cruel? I want to think not but I guess that the ego and the unconscious end up generating cruelty.
Do you have a lot of friends? Yes, in fact I’m amazed to have so many great people that I love and who love me. That is the hell.
What qualities do you look for in your friends? Vitality and tenderness.
Do your friends usually disappoint you? No, they usually surprise me well.
Are you a sincere person? I try now but I have been a big liar.
How do you prefer to occupy your free time? Chatting with people and making collages.
What scares you the most? Death and darkness.
What shocks you, if there is anything scandalous? Intolerance, racism, violence.
If you had not decided to be a writer, to lead a creative life, what would you have done? To be a librarian or truck driver.
Do you practice physical exercise? I am the person who does the least physical exercise in the world, although now I am
reconnecting with my body, well in reality connecting because I have never been connected.
Do you know how to cook? Until recently nothing. Now more or less yes, and I make potage that shocks you.
If Reader’s Digest commissioned you to write one of those articles about “an unforgettable character” who would you choose? Paquera from Jerez.
What is, in any language, the word filled with the most hope? The word tenderness.
And the most dangerous? The word I.
Have you ever wanted to kill someone? Yes.
What are your political tendencies? Liberty.
If you could be anything else, what would you like to be? Rapper or lawyer.
What are your major vices? Smoking, biting my nails and eating breakfast in bars, and ego.
And your virtues? Creative capacity, tenderness, and passion.
Imagine that you’re drowning. What images, inside the classic scheme, would pass through your head? Something that I felt guilty about in life, a sardine sandwich my Aunt Manoli has made, my friend Iván and I drunk, my friend Cynthia drawing and the final shot of Chris Marker’s Jetée.
In 1972, Truman Capote published an original text that became the autobiography he never wrote. The title “Self-portrait” (in The Dogs Bark, Anagram, 1999), in it he interviewed himself with cunning and brilliance. Those questions that served to proclaim their frustrations, desires, and customs, now, extracted for the most part, form the following “Capotian interview,” with which we will know the other face, that of life, of Carolina Sánchez.
If you had to live in just one place, without the ability to leave, where would you choose? I would choose to live in a small house in the Andes Mountains, in a place like Iguaque, in Colombia, where you can walk and visit the moor and the river. The problem is that I would die of hunger because they don’t cultivate anything.
Do you prefer animals over people? It depends on the circumstance. I like cats, dogs, birds, fish, weird colorful insects. The relationships between humans and other forms of life intrigue me, like the animal, the vegetable, the mountains, the territories.
Are you cruel? No. At times my humor is a little dark.
Do you have many friends? Yes. Even though my routine is very lonely. They are in general people that I’ve worked or studied with. And the type of friends who with I have very special connections, they are those that I have met traveling or those that I’ve traveled with.
What qualities do you look for in friends? That they like to talk, we have to have some common interests…
Do your friends usually disappoint you? No, the other way around.
Are you a sincere person? I would like to be more. For me sincerity is something difficult to measure.
How do you prefer to occupy your free time? I like to walk, go to the movies, travel, drink and chat over coffee. To read. Also it depends on who I’m passing the time with. At first sometimes I just meet with someone and then we find something to do.
What scares you the most? The violence in my country, Colombia. Every form of irreparable hurt that happens daily: assassins from social and civil leader, forced displacement, gender violence, the exploitation of nature and territories through mining and exporting monocultures. Racism, classism, and xenophobia scare me. Those problems don’t only happen in Colombia and require a brake.
What shocks you, if there is anything that does? I searched the etymology of scandal and I found that “the word scandal came from the Latin word scandălum, at first it meant pitfall, the rocks that barely emerge in the sea and that cause ships to be rerouted and shipwrecked.
If you hadn’t decided to be a writer and taken on the creative life, what would you have done? Well, I think that it has always been difficult to dedícate yourself to only writing, especially living from the writing. That’s why in general you always have to work on other things as well. I have worked in literary and academic editing, in cultural management. Also I am a researcher and I’m working on a Latin American studies program. I consider all of these activities to also be creative. I don’t well know where the limit is between the creative and non is…
Do you practice physical exercise? I like to ride bikes and do yoga.
Do you know how to cook? Yes.
If Reader’s Digest wanted to commission an “Unforgettable Character” article, who would you choose? My grandfather or my grandmother. Both are very sensible people, knowledgeable and fun that teach me a lot. Additionally they’re great readers.
What is, in any language, the word filled with the most hope? I can’t decide between care and community. Something between them.
And the most dangerous? To force.
Have you ever wanted to kill someone? No.
What are your political tendencies? I believe in the power of the citizens and the social movements to defend access and basic rights like to education, health care, just working conditions, the city in the territories, and nature. In Latin America, these minimal precarious rights have been for Neoliberal politicians and Capitalists and are a privilege for few. In particular, I consider that the feminist movements, indigenous and Afro wisdoms have a lot to teach us about the good life, the care and cohabitation in/with the territories. And also I think that education permits us to perceive the world from other perspectives and that enriches our decisions and ethical positions.
If you could be anything else, what would you like to be? I would like to be a tree, or water.
What are your major vices? Work, eagerness, coffee, desserts.
And your virtues? Work, curiosity, enthusiasm. Typical of a Sagittarius, my sister would say.
Imagine if you were drowning. What images, inside the traditional way of thinking, what images would go through your head? My sisters, my mom, my family. My childhood home next to a wetland and a forest where I grew up in Bogotá.
In 1972, Truman Capote published an original text that turned out to be the autobiography he never wrote. The title “Self-portrait” (in The Dogs Bark, Anagram, 1999), in it he interviewed himself with cunning and brilliance. Those questions that served to proclaim their frustrations, desires, and customs, now, most of them extracted, form the following “Capotian interview,” with which we will know the other face, that of life, of Nicolás Linares.
If you could only live in one place, without the ability to leave, which would you choose? I would like a forest that I hope would have it all. Water, mountains, and animals. Like in a fable.
Do you prefer animals or people? Obviously the animals.
Are you cruel? I don’t consider myself a cruel person. However, I can be sharp and stiff.
Do you have a lot of friends? Life has taught me that I have met many people and little friends. But with certainty in my heart, those I have, I care for them, I grow and trust in their friendship.
What qualities do you looks for in your friends? Honesty, solidarity, affection, support, and good humor.
Do your friends usually disappoint you? Whenever I have been disappointed in someone, over time I realize that the deception had been my responsibility. I work daily to strengthen my self-confidence.
Are you a sincere person? I’m not sure. But I would like to be. Mainly, I try not to lie and I am constantly in check that my feeling, my thinking, my acting and my saying, my word, agree. Be in harmony. It's a loop, I'm going to live in it as Silvio says.
How do you prefer to occupy your free time? I am a father of a family. “Free time” is a few hours at the end of the day. Very scarce, not a complaint. I meditate, I make crafts that I really like, I see one or another movie.
What scares you the most? In general I don’t consider myself scared of much. But I feel anxious and sad to see the unconsciousness and disconnection that we as a humanity have with our home, planet, mother. It’s disconcerting because life should be organized around survival and not around destruction, as it does today.
What shocks you, if there is anything that does? Ignorance. Today it is not a lack of access, it is laziness and apathy. But the information is here and the overwhelming majority don’t want to know anything. They don’t want to see. The truth terrifies them to the point of wanting to be sedated from the culture of banality. The masses have surrendered.
If you had decided not to be a writer, to lead a creative life, what would you have done? I think instinct would have led me to work in the field of biology. But it's also very likely that, at one time in my life, I've already left it behind. I would have finished rewriting and I'm not sure I could have found, without the philosophical direction, as a compass and the map that the words gave me to find my way.
Do you practice physical exercise? I walk when I can. I camp on the mountain if the weather lets me and I have a seven-year-old son who demands at least a mile to scooter every day. I loved riding skates, skateboarding, and playing soccer, but a knee injury forced me to retire early.
Do you know how to cook? The pandemic has taught me to be resourceful in the kitchen. My partner would say yes, I believe.
If Reader’s Digest commissioned you to write one of those articles about “an unforgettable character,” who would you choose? I would take the opportunity to talk about Manuel Quintín Lame. Indigenous Colombian, social leader and revolutionary that lived a childhood full of poverty and deficiencies but done from necessity and gallantry. Tireless and valiant for the rights of his own, justice and freedom.
What is, in any language, the word filled with the most hope? Oneiric. The possibilities are infinite.
And the most dangerous? Guilty. As if whoever pronounced it wasn’t.
Have you ever wanted to kill someone? Yes, but the anger is harsh and that’s it. I believe it’s a part of maturing. To be able to grow one has to come to understand that, if they want to be accepted, they have to accept. The tolerance is difficult, but necessary. The idea is that, in this world, every world fits. In this order of ideas…the dead don’t have room. More clearly, death is not a punishment. It’s a liberation.
What are your political tendencies? I don’t believe in political systems. I feel a lot of admiration for the way of social organization in which my American ancestors lived their lives. The tendency to which I am affiliated is the contemplation of the mother, the organization of life based on what we call the “Law of Origin,” to organize the reflection of the cosmos.
If you could be anything else, what would you be? I am multiple things. I change diapers, I grow vegetables, paint walls, make backpacks, and start bonfires. I don’t change. I am open to learn more things to do and be.
What are some of your major vices? I don’t consider myself a vicious person. I enjoy a lot of things, but they don’t get in the way of my life or create problems beyond the conflicts of normalcy.
And your virtues? I have always tried unsuccessfully to organize myself. I have gotten better. Virtue is not to renounce your intent.
Imagine you were drowning, what do you imagine, inside the classic scheme, would pass through your head? Surely my entire childhood. My father, my mother, my family.
Marie Vibbert is the multi-talented author of Galactic Hellcats (Vernacular Books), sixty short stories, more than thirty poems, six games, and four comics. She has been published by Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Little Blue Marble, Asimov’s, and many more. Discover her robust body of work at marievibbert.com.
S. Elizabeth Sigler has been published by Hobart, Re-Side Magazine, Fembot Magazine, and a few others.
I spend nearly all of my spare time reading, writing, or in writing classes. Marie taught a (virtual) class on Speculative Fiction through Literary Cleveland in the fall of 2020. You’ll see that I referenced my class notes when I thought of my questions for Marie. I was inspired by the things that she said in class and further inspired by the things she said in our interview.
ES: In the second week of your Speculative Fiction class, you talked about a study in which some participants were expected to churn out a number of vases and were graded on each one (quantity), while some other participants were graded on their best vase (quality). You referenced this study again in week four when you said that “the more individual things you write, the less precious each one is going to feel to you. You can always create another vase.”
Let’s talk more about the vase study, how you learned of it, and how it inspires your writing practices.
MV: That study comes from a book called Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. (I looked it up because there is the problem, where you say, “I read a study once.” You absorb the anecdote, but your brain doesn’t have footnotes.) This one stuck with me; it was brought up by one of my Clarion instructors.
I use it because it rings true to my own journey as a writer. The moment that I went from the perpetual wannabe who was not going anywhere to what I can now see as the beginning of the path to publication is when I stopped being so precious about what I was writing and started churning out short story drafts. As I started churning them out, I started being able to layer in more characterization or change my voice.
It’s the same as learning to lift heavy objects. You can’t just pick up a one hundred pound barbell. You have to start with a five-pound. When I first started doing weight training for the football team, I was humiliated because the bar weight is forty-five pounds, and I had to lift the bar, just the empty bar. By the end of my first year, that bar had two twenty-pound weights on it. Then it had four. You don’t get there without putting in the work, without putting in the reps. I think that we make art harder than it is. We try to make it like it’s magic, like there has to be some secret, some trick. Once you put in the work, you will learn things by doing them.
ES: Kind of like the chart you showed us in class where you track how much you write every day- you map out your word count.
MV: Right, one of the things I had to learn, I learned this from a self-help book called Mastery by George Leonard- it was written by this man who became an aikido master at age seventy. He talked about how to set goals you can deliver on. Your goal cannot be something you haven’t done yet. Then you build on it, and you build small micro-goals.
But what he talked about more was not giving up on the plateau. All skills plateau. Learning isn’t a straight upward line, no matter how much you want it to be. You are learning even while you feel you are treading water. The important thing about my chart, if you look at it, is that there are plenty of days with zero words. It’s about consistency.
ES: Five thousand word days feel incredible. People get addicted to that feeling, and they want to do it all the time.
MV: It’s a great feeling. But you can’t force it. The way to go from being a hobbyist to a professional is to be able to produce on days when you’re not feeling great. I want to say it was Cory Doctorow at Clarion who said (I’m paraphrasing), “I had days where words poured out of me, and I thought they were brilliant, and I had days where I was pulling each one like a busted tooth from the back of my mouth, and when I look back on the output from those two days there’s no difference in quality. It is just a difference in how I felt; it was my mood.” It’s okay to have days when you feel like you’re writing trash because you’re writing.
ES: You talk a lot about Clarion. What was that like?
MV: Clarion was amazing. Here’s another quote. Kim Stanley Robinson said: “look around the room. Only the eighteen of you know what this experience was like. Other people, last year’s Clarion class, next year’s Clarion class -- they know by analogy.”
Eighteen students live on the campus of the University of California San Diego. For each of the six weeks, you have a different professional science fiction writer as your guest instructor. You write a story a week, and you read seventeen stories a week because you have to read everyone else’s story. Then we critique them- we all get together in a room, and we go in a circle. Each person gets three minutes to say anything they have to say about the story, and we hand each other our marked-up copies at the end.
The experience was amazing, not because of any techniques that the instructors gave, though they gave great techniques. It’s the emotional experience of focusing on your writing so much for so long. Tearing apart the idea of story until you get down to its bones. Learning that you have to come face to face with the ugly truth of your ego and your emotional baggage while you’ve got to write six stories in six weeks and critique the stories of seventeen brilliant peers. You learn a lot about yourself.
ES: Sounds like a fantastic opportunity!
MV: I still hang out with my Clarionauts. Every day I do a workout at Noon with two of my Clarion classmates- Patrick lives in Pittsburgh, and Gabby lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
ES: Speaking of location… one of your stories takes place in Tremont. One takes place at Case Western. An interactive game of yours takes place in East Cleveland. Another interactive game of yours features Cleveland history. I love that one! How long have you lived in Cleveland? How does your city influence your writing- is it intentional or something that just happens as you write?
MV: Thank you, I had a lot of fun with that game. My husband’s art makes it live; his art is so beautiful. We’re working on another game together. It was supposed to come out last year. It may come out next year. If you saw his art, you would cry.
Cleveland is very important to me. I was born in East Cleveland. I’ve lived in the Cleveland area my entire life, went to Case Western. In a lot of my stories, I sneak the Cleveland in there, or I sneak in a reference. The time traveler in “The Time Mechanic”  is from Cleveland. Why not?
At some point in the future, Cleveland is going to be the place that everyone says they’re from, even though they’re not. In my novel Galactic Hellcats, the parts on Earth are in Cleveland. I don’t think I name the city, but everyone who reads it who’s from Cleveland is like, “that’s Cleveland.”
ES: I have a love/hate relationship with my day job. Sometimes I feel like it gets in the way of my writing. It was refreshing to hear you describe your day job as something that inspires your writing. You said that coding stimulates a similar part of your brain, right?
MV: It’s all about problem-solving. When I’m coding or troubleshooting a software problem, it still takes creativity; it takes imagining the different ways things could happen, figuring out the parts I can’t see because this bit is hosted on a vendor’s site, and I can’t access that chunk of code. Imagining where the problem might be keeps you flexible; it keeps your brain working.
If my day job were writing, it would probably burn me out. I know a lot of writers who go to college, get an MFA, start working in tech writing, or business writing or manual writing, and then their fiction writing dies because they don’t want to do what they did all day. The human mind, the human body needs variety in inputs. To go from the unemotional problem-y world of computer programming and then take the problem solving, but in emotional ways, to writing, it helps me stay fresh. It helps me get on my second shift.
A big part of being able to hold down two jobs is having a partner who’s willing to put in a lot of extra time taking care of the house. Props to Brian. He’s a good guy. He does a lot of the laundry and the cleaning and the cooking.
ES: Seven of your stories were published by Analog, six of them were published by Daily Science Fiction. When you have that many publications at one outlet, do you get to be on a first-name basis with the Editors? What’s it like to work with someone more than once?
MV: I’m going to let you in on a secret- I’ve sold ten to Analog, three are still to come out, and I’ve sold eight stories to Daily Science Fiction.
I have a feel for Trevor Quachri at Analog. He likes humor, he likes it to be funny. He’s okay with aliens that speak English. A lot of things that the neckbeards at the science fiction conventions tell you that “you can’t do, actually” he’s fine with. People have this idea that Analog is super stuffy, but no, he wants the stories to be fun more than some other editors and Analog in general because of their emphasis on science and appealing to a nerd audience. Not a geek audience, but a nerd audience. Your hero has to be good at something.
ES: What is the difference between a nerd and a geek audience?
MV: Geeks are quirky, and they want to be different from the mainstream. Nerds are all about the mind because their most powerful tool is their mind. They have a high IQ, not such great social skills. Just like how the geek has had to deal with people pushing down the geek for nonconforming, the nerd has had to deal with people pushing down the nerd for not excelling in nonmental ways like social ways or physical ways. It’s hard for me to balance my nerdy geekiness with having been an athlete- I see the pain on both sides.
One of the cool things about joining the football team was meeting all of these women who grew up as jocks. I didn’t have friends who were jocks, and I see a similar kind of trauma in the jock girl that I see in the geek girl- of people telling you not to be into what you’re into.
ES: What else did football teach you?
MV: Football taught me a lot. It taught me that I didn’t know my physical capabilities. You can move further along on any path or journey than you realize. When I started, I could do ten push-ups a day, but by the end of the year, I was doing one hundred push-ups in one set. There’s a power and a joy in being able to conquer your own body.
It taught me a little bit about awareness. In football, especially when you play defense, you have to be constantly- aware --not just of where the ball is but of where the other players are and how things are developing in space. It helped me with describing action, being aware of what’s important in a scene.
ES: The submission process is a lot of work and waiting. How did Galactic Hellcats end up at Vernacular Books?
MV: Magic. Pure magic. I sent thirty-six queries to agents. I received three or four partial requests and two full requests. I submitted the novel itself to Bane when they had an open series, to Apex when they had an open call, to Angry Robot when they had an open call, and I got nothing. Just rejection rejection rejection. I met agents at events, I had friends give my name to their agent, and their agent rejected me.
One day I just happened to tweet, “I know I should be working on so many other projects, but I keep going back and revising the space biker girl gang novel.” J.M. McDermott, the Editor in chief at Vernacular Books, immediately responded with, “could you send me that?” Within two weeks he was like, “can I buy this book please?”
That was February of twenty-twenty, fast for the publishing industry. They didn’t edit me much, just a couple of sentences that were awkward. There were no major edits to the manuscript. I revised it eighty times; I wrote it a long time ago.
ES: In High School?
MV: Junior High School. I was in eighth grade when I wrote the first draft. Don’t get me wrong; this has nothing to do with that draft. In the first draft, their names were Liz, Cleopatra, and Margi. Ki went by klepto because she was a kleptomaniac. That’s the kind of subtlety you have when you’re fifteen.
ES: Has anything about the process been a surprise in the past year?
MV: To see that selling a novel lends legitimacy that selling short stories doesn’t. Remember, I’ve sold sixty short stories in print, and I still get people who say, “oh, I thought you said you’re a writer? What’s your book?” There’s a double standard there. Short stories take work too.
ES: Would you ever put your short stories in a collection?
MV: I have always wanted to do a collection, it would be called Rustbelt and Robots, and it would be all of my most grungy, Cleveland-y centric stories.
ES: The three main characters in Galactic Hellcats are different but equally badass. Can you tell me more about the real-life inspirations behind them?
MV: They all have specific inspirations. The most direct is Margot; Margot was in the drawing that Gracie  did back in nineteen-eighty-six. One of the girls looked just like our friend Margi Peterson, so Margot started out being based on Margi Peterson. In this version, she’s very much her own person. I based her on some girls on the football team who were military veterans. A lot of her mannerisms were based on them.
Ki was the main character in the first draft, but I tried to make it more balanced. Ki is me if I had no self-control and all of my filters turned off. That makes her a source of mischief and drama and terribleness. There are parts of my little sister Lizzie in Zuleikah, just in the mannerisms.
Lizzie is taciturn and quiet, so Zuleikah is taciturn and quiet. I imagine there’s a lot of thinking on the backend, but there’s not a lot coming out of her mouth.
ES: That’s a fun combination!
MV: Yeah, I ended up changing their names for various reasons. I liked the idea of a thief being named Ki, but then Ki and Margi both ended in i, so I changed Margi to Margot, and I decided that everybody on planet Ratana would have a name that somehow meant royal or royalty or nobility. Zuleikah is from an African language.
ES: Let’s say that someone reading this interview wants to preorder Galactic Hellcats. Which local bookstore would you point them to?
MV: I would one thousand percent point them towards Mac’s Backs on Coventry Road. Mac’s Backs has been there a long time, and Suzanne has been very supportive of local authors. I can’t wait until I can sit in the beanbag chair in the science fiction balcony again.
1. In “The Time Mechanic,” which was originally published by Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show in September of 2014
2. Gracie is Vibbert’s twin
We Call Upon the Author to Explain (III): Hillary Leftwich and Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock
Hillary Leftwich is the author of Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock (CCM Press/The Accomplices 2019), which is featured in Entropy’s Best Fiction list of 2019 and is a finalist for the Big Other Book Award. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review and runs At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. Currently, she freelances as a writer, editor, journalist, and teaches writing at Lighthouse Writers. She is a Kenyon Review scholarship recipient for 2021, and her writing can be found in both print and online in The Rumpus, Entropy, The Missouri Review, Denver Quarterly, Hobart, and others. She lives in Colorado with her partner, her son, and their cat, Larry. Find more of her writing at hillaryleftwich.com.
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, The Washington Post, Brevity, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and more. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. Their novel All City (Seven Stories Press) and their essay collection Psychopomps (CCM) were published in 2019.
Hillary Leftwich is a writer, an editor at Heavy Feather Review, a generous friend, and wears many other hats as well. Her book Ghost are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock came out with Civil Coping Mechanisms Press last year, and Hillary was kind enough to talk with us a bit about her process, how her other jobs influence her writing, and her motivations for writing.
Alex DiFrancesco: There's a wide variety of pieces in the collection Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock. What made you place them all together here, what do you think were the defining themes and overarching connections that defied things like genre and point of view?
Hillary Leftwich: Really it was just everything I had written from 2010 up until today. The essays about single motherhood, my son's biological father, the jobs I had to do to make money, and individual pieces were written for my son. The entire book is basically a love letter to my son from young, stupid mom me up until today, as if to say, I'm sorry your childhood was often terrible. These words are all I have. Forgive me.
AD: There's a heavy use of color in a lot of these pieces that creates an overall mood that is sometimes the defining take-away from a piece. Can you talk more about these sensory decisions, and how they shaped some of the pieces?
HL: I want the reader to feel as if they are in a movie with me and see what I'm trying to surround them with. I want them to remember what they read long after. The very act of remembering can impact our memory. So, it’s necessary to include vibrant sensory details in order to connect a scene in our brain to avoid disruption. For example, in Eye of the Hummingbird, the main character shoots his wife. Her blood is the color of raspberry jelly. Combining taste and color with something horrific can signal our brain to associate these with our own memories, both positive and negative. This is just one technique I use when making sensory decisions.
AD: There are a lot of call-backs and some of the varied pieces seem to have a recursive nature, taking on the same themes for different perspectives. In a way, in the pieces structured around the young woman's kidnapping, I felt like I was a bit in the world of Twin Peaks, where we're seeing odd snippets of a way something like this can define a small part of the world. Was this an influence? What were your other influences?
HL: I always had an obsession with learning about people, specifically women, who disappeared or were murdered. I wanted to know why. I watched a lot of true crime shows. I grew up reading about Adam Walsh’s son, children kidnapped and murdered, women, many sex workers, found killed. All of these stories broke me and intrigued me to want to learn more. Many of the stories I read or shows I watched were told from both perspectives—the victim's as well as the murderer. It wasn't until I began working as a private investigator many years later that I realized the shows and the movies are nothing like what happens in real life. In real life, the photos of someone murdered are horrific and stay with you like a loop in your brain forever. This has always been a heavy influence on me, those days, those cases. To get in the mind of someone who could cause such damage to another human being is terrifying, but sometimes necessary to solve a crime.
AD: I got the feeling, often, that the characters were very deep wells we were only getting the tiniest glimpse into. Did you write more than what went on the page? Or was it all in your mind? Do you see writing more stories for these characters and perspectives?
HL: I tried writing longer pieces on many of the stories, but it just didn't want to go any further. Instinctively I think as writers, we all know when to end a piece. It's just a gut reaction saying, stop. No more. Nowadays, I want to write longer pieces. I think sometimes certain stories should end abruptly and some should have more time to talk.
AD: You're an editor, a writer, a mom, and from what I understand, do other day-jobs in there, too. Can you describe where you fit your writing into this bigger picture, how you get so much work done?
HL: I used to get up at 3 am to write, but now that I'm unemployed, I'm having a hard time writing. It's the pressure and the anxiety, you know? I think many folks are feeling the same way—this pressure of all of the "free time" to write. But the world is burning, and in many ways, it’s necessary for change, but also brutal. Every day there is hope and every day there is heaviness. I can't write, not on a regular basis, nor do I want to. Not now. My eyes are wide open.
AD: Violence echoes throughout this collection. Can you talk more about these ripples, how the act of violence affects the stories told here, and the way they're told?
HL: I come from a violent background. I never took it upon myself to write about violence. But you can’t escape your past, right? Still, given what I've experienced, both in my life, my son's life, as well as my professional life, it was inevitable. When I discovered Ai Ogawa, I loved and connected immediately with her ability to write from all perspectives, including the murderer, including the person who inflicted the pain. For me, to be able to tell a story from the eyes of someone who is clearly going to die, or to switch this around and tell a story from someone who is about to kill someone, can be a way in which to take control of a situation. I feel Ai mastered this technique or knew it intuitively, and this is why her work is so stunning.
AD: The final question of this series is always from the line in "We Call Upon the Author to Explain" that goes "prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors can't fix." With that in mind, if you had to cut one thing from this collection, from a story to a line, to a word, what would it be?
HL: I'd probably cut out a lot of the traditional poetry. I was first starting to experiment and find my voice, and looking back now, I should have stuck with the prose poetry. But it's all about learning, right? That’s what’s up.
Josh Denslow is the author of the collection Not Everyone Is Special (7.13 Books). His stories have appeared in Catapult, The Offing, Hobart, and Pithead Chapel. In addition to constructing elaborate Lego sets with his three boys, he plays the drums in the band Borrisokane.
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, The Washington Post, Brevity, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and more. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. Their novel All City (Seven Stories Press) and their essay collection Psychopomps (CCM) were published in 2019.
I first met Josh Denslow in the sometimes exciting and sometimes frustrating landscape of Lit Twitter. Josh's opinions were something I valued, so I was not surprised to find that his work was equally valuable. His book, Not Everyone is Special is a sublime mixture of the ordinary and the extraordinary. In this interview, Josh and I talked about craft, letting your work surprise you, and being receptive to feedback.
AD: You start off with a Tom Waits quote, then immediately drop us into a set of characters and a location that would fit right into one of his songs, a year-round, road-side Santa’s wonderland complete with characters who are pretty broken in various ways. You also have a Waits-like sensitivity for the interior lives and hopes and dreams of these people. What do the underbelly of America, the sorts of characters who inhabit this landscape, these unsung people and places, mean to you?
JD: I have a real affinity for the people who didn't get a proper chance. Whether through their own failings or pressure from outside forces. The way life is structured for most people is that success feels unattainable. The world is constantly reiterating that you aren't supposed to feel like a winner. Ever. But I think the real problem is the metric we use for success, and how much of it is based on the observations and judgments of others. Life is full of small successes that go unobserved by everyone except the person living it.
And that's what really draws me to my characters. They might feel down on their luck, but in small ways, they are remaking themselves, and those are the successes I'm most interested in. Those moments where despite their inclinations, they make a choice that takes real guts and bravery. And that's true for Keith at the Christmas-themed amusement park. He's angry at the world and at himself, and most notably in this story, at the guy who plays Santa each day. But near the end of the story, after he discovers the situation with Santa is much worse than he'd initially expected, he makes a choice that transcends even what he'd thought of himself. In my opinion, that makes him a true hero.
AD: You have an amazing talent for drawing a character in a single line, like in “Punch,” when you introduce Nadine with, “She had long golden hair like the lady in the Golden Locks shampoo commercial, but was three hundred times prettier.” Is this an economy of words you usually use for the short story? Do you think you’d draw such a character more heavily in a novel?
JD: Thank you so much! Truly. Though I have always written fiction, I spent my college years and most of my twenties focused mostly on screenwriting. When I first started fiction in earnest again, it was pretty apparent that dialogue was my favorite part to write. I would jump over descriptions to return to more dialogue. I began to suspect that my descriptions were a weak point in my writing because they are almost non-existent in scripts. My workaround was to blend the way characters are described in one-sentence bursts in scripts with the more conversational descriptions that might be spoken by the characters in the story. And now I have this thing I do now, like in the example you pulled from "Punch" above, where you learn about Nadine, but also, you learn even more about the narrator making the observation.
Also, having now written three unpublished novels, I can say I still do the same thing no matter the length. I like the way it works because it gives you a rough sketch and then you can fill in the rest based on the characters' actions and dialogue later.
AD: In that same story, you don’t start building the alternate world until a few pages in. Did the story start out with this world of free punch vouchers in mind, or was that a turn that surprised you in the writing?
JD: I knew from the start I was writing a story about a world with punch vouchers. The surprise was everything else! I didn't know about the suicide or the crush on Nadine or the prized couch until I started writing. That's usually the way for me. I have a vague idea, like the punch vouchers, that is enough to get me going and then I discover character and plot along the way. In Punch, I was definitely discovering the rules of the world as I was going as well. That being said, I rewrote that story from scratch quite a few times before I got it right. It stands as the most rewritten story in the entire collection.
AD: I’m interested in your world-building techniques. Sometimes you achieve alternate worlds in a series of new namings of existing things. Sometimes you create new rules and entire bureaus to regulate them. This creates a feeling that we’re in an alternate reality, but one close to this one. Tell me a little more about your techniques and how you intentionally create your realities with them.
JD: I wish I could say I had it all worked out before I start writing, but I don't. Not even close. Each time I make a small tweak to our world, I have to then discover how big of a ripple effect it might have. If it just affects one person, I can usually keep the world almost exactly like ours. But if it affects everyone, as in the title story where everyone has a superpower, I have to follow those ripples further out. That's where regulations and oversight bureaus come into place, and then I get to have fun figuring out how my characters would get around the rules. I don't think about the machinations too much as I get started. Instead, I wait until the story begins to unfold as I write, and then I discover how the mundanity of this new world would look.
AD: In “Proximity,” your main character uses teleportation for mundane things, but there’s also the implication that these things can mean a great deal to other people’s lives. How does this use of fabulism with the everyday appeal to you as a writer?
JD: One of my main goals with the fabulism elements has been to try capture what it would be like if a person in our exact world developed a power. In Proximity, he uses his teleportation ability to try to sabotage his mother's relationship with a new guy. I think the problem is relatable, as well as the lesson he learns from his petty cruelty, but the means by which he achieves it lands us in a world just slightly different than ours. And I believe that if someone did discover they could teleport, they would have a hard time rising above the normal problems that plague them. They'd still be very, very human.
AD: I want to go back to the unexpected in your work. Sometimes it appears in a turn of phrase, and sometimes in larger, plot-oriented ways. How do you cultivate this in your work? What advice would you give someone trying to cultivate it in theirs?
JD: If it seems unexpected to the reader, it was probably unexpected to me too. I find if I set the story in motion and let the characters begin interacting and talking, they will guide me where I need to take them. Nothing gives me a bigger thrill than surprising myself! My advice would be to follow your characters wherever they take you, even if it becomes a completely different story than the one you set out to write. By remaining too rigid, you lose that spontaneity. Plus you end up forcing your characters in directions that feel unnatural.
AD: There’s a recurrence in your stories of directionless people -- people with odd jobs they don’t care about, people who live mostly in the day they are in without planning anything for their future. Why do you focus on these people, and by focusing on them, does it open up other elements of your stories for you? Would your stories change if they were focused on a different type of character? Do you think this sort of character opens up more subtly human moments in the stories?
JD: A lot of times, our jobs define us. When you meet someone for the first time, one of their first questions is usually what do you do? I am guilty of giving my characters jobs that other people might not want. So yes, I think directionless is certainly one way to look at it. But I actually see it as stuck in one direction. My characters don't take the big risks in life. They land on a path that makes them feel safe and never deviate. They are terrified of failure. The path they are on is the only thing they have. And because they won't be making any unnecessary turns, they lose the ability to look too far ahead. They confuse feeling safe with being safe. As I went through my stories over the last decade, I purposefully chose the stories with characters like this to include in the collection. I think if I changed the characters in these particular stories, and they became more adventurous and believed in themselves more, then they wouldn't be forced to make the decisions that they have to make. Small victories make up a life. Getting by is what we all do, just in different ways. By meeting up with my characters in these small but tough moments, we get a glimpse into the messy world of being human.
AD: I think, despite being about a murder, “Blake Bishop Believes in True Love” is one of the sweetest stories I’ve ever read. What made you decide to give Blake and Poppy a happy ending?
JD: I love that it's one of the sweetest things you've read! That makes my day. I have a real soft spot for Blake and since I really piled it on him during the course of the story, I thought the least I could do was give him a chance at happiness. I hate to be a downer though, but he's still in a pretty bad spot at the end. Literally. He and Poppy have chosen a terrible hiding place.
AD: This interview series is called "We Call Upon the Author to Explain" after one of my favorite songs. That song has the line "Prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors can't fix" in it, and so the last question of every interview in this series is: if you had to cut one thing in this book, from a word up to a scene or a story, what would you take out?
JD: There's a moment in the first story, the one with the guy working at the Christmas-themed park, where he is describing himself. (In fact, the story was previously called "How I See Myself" before Third Coast had me change the title to "Too Late for a Lot of Things.") He pushes against the ways he's heard people of his height described (he's less than five feet tall) as he talks about himself, but more than one reader has been offended by that moment. I would take that out. The story works perfectly well without it. Which is always the case, isn't it?
Lexie Bean is a queer and trans multimedia artist from the Midwest. Their work in film, literature, and curation revolves around themes of bodies, homes, cyclical violence, and LBTQIA+ identity. Lexie is a Lambda Literary Award Finalist and passionate about creating honest and complex trans narratives that "transition and grow" alongside them. Their writing has been featured in Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, Ms. Magazine, Them, Logo's New Now Next, Bust Magazine, Autostraddle, and more. The Ship We Built is their debut novel supported with residencies at the Sundress Academy, Paragraph New York, and the Santa Cruz Bookshop. Like the protagonist, Lexie has a deep resonance with water, letter writing, and is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Tin House, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity, and more. Their essay collection Psychopomps (CCM) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press) were both released in 2019, and their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021.
Years ago, I answered an open call to an anthology that was to be called Written on the Body, a series of piece written by transgender surviviors of sexual violence to parts of their body. The book, curated by Lexie Bean, went on to be a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards. While Lexie was putting the book together, they were also creating a series of poems and drawings centered on two children who would eventually become the main characters for their forthcoming YA book, The Ship We Built (May 26, 2002). I recently read the final version of this book, and talked to Lexie about the book and their process of creating it.
Alex DiFrancesco: You're a fellow Sundress Academy For The Arts (SAFTA) alumni! How much of this book did you end up writing there? Were there any parts of the residency that were particularly helpful to you in writing it?
Lexie Bean: Yes! Long live Jayne the donkey! Before going to Tennessee for the residency, The Ship We Built was already a picture book and a series of about thirty short poems following the two kids who eventually became Sofie and Rowan. They were all written during long car and train rides inside random notebooks. I knew they all belonged in the same universe. I used that week at SAFTA to type out what I had, re-arrange them, and add in poems to fill in the gaps. It was the first time I had created an arc following their story - it was also when I realized Rowan was trans.
I loved that I stayed in the cabin, which did not have electricity. This encouraged me to write and draft new sections by writing by hand. It also structured my day around the sun - forcing me to stop working once it got dark. I've had issues in the past with taking breaks and letting myself rest.
AD: The story is set in the 90s. What made you decide to place it there? What research or brushing up on cultural phenomenon in that time period did you have to do to get it right?
LB: I set it in the 1990s because I wanted it to be on the cusp of new technology existing. This is just before the average household had computers and internet access. As a result, Rowan and mostly everyone else in his world had to rely on their immediate communities for representation and access to resources. Of course, more recent technology also changes the language people have to describe themselves and their experiences. One of Rowan's biggest struggles is not having the words - it's one of his main sources of doubt around himself, his relationships with others, and imagining a future. In the book, I lean heavily into the pop culture references because Rowan is the type of person who wants to connect with people and "be normal" so desperately, he has a tendency to overcompensate with what he knows about his 90s world.
Researching was a lot of fun for me. One of my favorite things I did was go on YouTube and watch reels of commercials from 1997 and 1998. I also rewatched every movie, episode of Boy Meets World, and even the 1998 Kids' Choice Awards that I referenced in the text. While revisiting them, I took notes on what I thought would have stood out to Rowan.
AD: The young person voice in this story is flawless. What were some of the tricks you used to achieve consistency of tone with it?
LB: Thank you <3 A few things! I did a lot of my very first drafts handwritten with crayon or gel pen - and went to the extent of holding the writing utensil like I did when I was Rowan's age. On a more personal note, I feel like a part of me stopped around 9 or 10 because that's when certain kinds of abuse escalated for me. I feel some ease tapping into that headspace because a part of me will always be there. At times, I have felt ashamed of this fact. Writing The Ship We Built has allowed me to find a place to let that person breathe.
AD: In your acknowledgments, you describe this as the book you needed when you were young, that you home [typo here I think] someone like you finds. What books that existed helped you when you were young, even if they weren't trans-specific stories?
LB: I was actually a very slow reader when I was in elementary school, and was placed in the "resource room" for the readers who fell behind the class. Still, there were books that were dear to me. I read a lot of Magic Tree House books, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. My rich cousin had beautiful Little Mermaid picture books that I re-read every time I went to her house. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson was probably the first novel I read many times. I deeply resonated with the main character, but at the time I didn't have the words for why that was.
AD: They're called "cootie catchers" in Michigan? In PA, we called them "fortune tellers!"
LB: Haha yes! I think it's because it was one of the only ways cis-boys and cis-girls at the time would get so close to holding hands under the paper's folds. I actually never learned how to fold one, which perhaps was a part of my queer foreshadowing.
AD: How difficult was it to write about the sexual assault in the story the way you did? It looms over the whole story, but at the same time, it's never confronted directly until near the end. What was the choice to avoid it while still discussing it so often in the writing like?
LB: Rowan, like myself and most kids in that situation, knows there is danger in everything that's said. His fear of his own voice and the need to write letters to begin with is heavily influenced by violence done to his body. I hesitated to have any sort of resolution around it at the end because I know how rare is to find one. I was 17 when I could finally tell anyone about what had felt normal for too long. This was almost ten years after it started. I decided to allow Rowan to confront it more directly in The Ship We Built because kids (and adults) reading need to know it's possible to ask for help and/or acknowledge openly what's been done.
It looms over the story because it looms over Rowan's life. It elevates his joy, his imagination. He latches onto what he needs to for survival, and that includes the reader's listening ears. I also think it's important for survivors to be able to honor their experiences, let them be real - without the pressure to discuss it constantly or make it the center of their life story.
AD: There is a scene I love in this book, where the young trans person, Rowan, sees an older trans person at the gas station and calls them "the gas station guardian angel." When you go into the world as a trans person, do you ever have the thought that you're this person for someone? Did you ever have a figure like this in your own life?
LB: That scene was somewhat inspired by my own life! My "gas station guardian angel" wasn't a trans person, I am not sure if she even identifies as anything under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. This person was Krystal Harris. She sang the song "Super Girl" in The Princess Diaries soundtrack. She had short spiky hair and a nose-ring, like the character in The Ship We Built. I had never seen someone who looked like that before. I kept her CD under my pillow until the case cracked. She also had a song called "Angel on My Shoulder" and I thought she had the most beautiful voice in the world.
Sometimes I have a hard time imagining that I am that person for anybody, as I don't pass as "visibly trans." However, I know that I am and have been because people have shared their stories with me. I'm thankful for those stories because I always want people, whether they are cis or trans, to know that it's okay to change.
AD: The story ends with the letters, which are meant for a sympathetic ear, and sent out by balloon into the unknown, found by someone even lonelier than the main character, who we can assume has similar abuse problems at home. Why did you choose to end the story with this person who is even more isolated than the narrator?
LB: I wanted to give readers, in particular young cis or straight readers, to see a non-judgmental response to Rowan's thoughts, dreams, and pleas. It shows there are many ways to listen and it's okay to take your time to figure out how you want to respond. Also, Rowan throughout the book assumes this other lonely character has a nice dad. We find out it's more complicated than what Rowan's thinks. It's a subtle cautionary tale of the stories we tell ourselves to avoid what's really going on with ourselves and others.
AD: This interview series is called "We Call Upon the Author to Explain" after one of my favorite songs. That song has the line "Prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors can't fix" in it, and so the last question of every interview in this series is: if you had to cut one thing in this book, from a word up to a scene or a chapter, what would you take out?
LB: If I had to choose, it would be the Author Afterward. To some degree, I felt like I had to put it in there to explain and justify why I included a sexual abuse narrative interwoven with a trans one. As it is based off of my own experience, it has been some profound internal work to break the character's shell to speak up on behalf of Rowan and all other "Rowans." At the end of the day, I am glad and even thankful the Afterward is a part of the book. I trust it's my responsibility as an advocate to reach people outside of my own community and guide them to new thinking.
Ben Purkert is the author of FOR THE LOVE OF ENDINGS (Four Way Books), named one of Adroit’s Best Poetry Books of 2018. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Tin House Online, and elsewhere. He holds degrees from Harvard and NYU, where he was a New York Times Fellow. He serves as the editor of Back Draft for Guernica, an interview series focused on poets and revision.
By: J. David
Q: What was the most interesting thing someone else taught you about your own poems?
Ben Purkert: When my mom read my book, she asked me why I write so much about water. And I was like, what do you mean? But, of course, she's right: water makes an appearance in practically every poem. And I had no idea, it wasn't anything I did consciously. Apparently my subconscious likes to swim.
Q: Pick one—beginning or end? And why?
Ben Purkert: Definitely the beginning. Because it's a twofer: whatever begins must eventually end. As Mary Ruefle writes, "In life, the number of beginnings is exactly equal to the number of endings."
Q: Favorite form poem?
Ben Purkert: I don't have a favorite, but I enjoy when poets seemingly invent their own forms. Like Jon Woodward's Rain, where he uses five-line stanzas of five words per line, or Renee Gladman's Calamities, where she starts each poem with "I began the day...". I understand why some traditional forms are revered, and they have rich histories, but do we really think there is something inherently sacred about fourteen lines versus, say, thirteen or fifteen? In my mind, it's all about what happens creatively when constraints are applied to the imagination. I'm less interested in what form a form takes, if that makes sense.
Q: In your book you obviously talk a lot about endings, which itself is the doorway into absence. That made me curious, what is it you wish most to be absent from the world (ya know also taking into account what its absence would mean)?
Ben Purkert: Your question makes me think of Mahmoud Darwish's In the Presence of Absence. He wrote the book near the end of his life, a self-elegy of sorts, and it includes this line: "You are a dead man who has found himself alive." In a way, I think Darwish is describing generally the role of the poet: to re-animate the past, to bring what is hidden to light, to make absence present again.
Q: What was the genesis of the book? Where did the idea come from?
Ben Purkert: There wasn't really one idea that governed its creation. As a first-book poet -- and I think this is the case for many first-book poets -- it felt more like a small body of work was accruing, and then I had to try to make a coherent collection from it. I had to step back from the work and see what themes were naturally emerging and which poems were speaking more directly to one another. That process of organization, for me, was the hardest part. Suddenly you're not a poet anymore; you're a curator.
Q: Can you say something about the architecture of the book? What was the writing and editing process? Did you decide the sections and what poems applied or did you have help?
Ben Purkert: So much help! I'm indebted to the various poets / friends / teachers who read multiple versions. After looking at the poems for so long, you start to distrust yourself. You know sometimes when you forget the password to something and initially you try a few combinations that you *think* might be right, but then eventually you get fed up and try one that's completely random? Like, even though you know there's only a 1/1,000,000 chance, you still give it a shot? I kinda reached that point with my book, because ordering poems is just such a different skill than writing them. I don't know if this is true or not, but I once heard that Lucie Brock-Broido, after writing enough poems to form a book, would glide to the top of her stairs and throw all the pages over her shoulder. However they landed, that was her next book.
Q: There is something within us that allows us to be in relationship with the outside world. Do you think that if we lost our planet, our ability to love others, and our minds, would we still be human (drawing from your three sections)?
Ben Purkert: Damn. I love your question, because it puts so much pressure on what being human really means. Let me try to respond this way... For me, I think the ending of a poem is always the most interesting part. Because that's when the poem waves goodbye to you or gives you a hug or pushes you out of a moving vehicle. That moment of abandonment is also, I think, the most human. It's the fallibility of the poem, its own mortality. It must end. And so, to attempt an answer to your question, I do think that the various forms of loss you describe are fundamentally human. "The art of losing isn't hard to master," Bishop writes, and I do feel like humanity has indeed gotten it down pat. Losing is what we know best, or will know eventually. Maybe that's what will signal the end of humanity, when there is quite literally nothing left to lose.
Ruth Awad is an award-winning Lebanese-American poet whose debut poetry collection Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press 2017) won the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize and the 2018 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She is the recipient of a 2016 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in POETRY, Poem-a-Day, The New Republic, Pleiades, The Rumpus, The Missouri Review Poem of the Week, Sixth Finch, Crab Orchard Review, CALYX, Diode, Southern Indiana Review, The Adroit Journal, Vinyl Poetry, Epiphany, BOAAT Journal, and elsewhere.
by J. David
Q: Lately I’ve been really interested in the things we sometimes take for granted as writers, but are integral to every aspect of our writing – things like why it is we write, what our art is capable of, why our is art important – so to you, I ask what is your intention for your art in the world?
Ruth: I’m just trying to tell a story that has personal meaning and that other people might relate to. The world is chaotic, and confusing, and mean; and I think one of the kind things in the world is art. Art can make you feel seen and understood – and if my work can accomplish even a moment of that, I will be satisfied.
Q: That answer ties perfectly into one of the themes that emerges in your book: conditions of visibility. Whether it be the young men in Lebanon during the war being recruited by local militia groups, to the invisibility of casualties in war, or I’m thinking specifically of the poem Town Gossip- where you and your sisters stuck out as being outliers, perceived as strange because of cultural differences.
Ruth: Definitely, and that’s also one of the great things about art: we can put those smaller moments under the magnifying glass and find meaning in them in order to elevate these personal stories so that they are not only personal but they’re also capturing something universal. The collection as a whole deals with assimilation and immigrating to the United States while attempting to navigate the process of holding on to your homeland and also trying to find somewhere to belong in this new place.
Q: Where did the idea for this collection come from? Did the idea come to you and then you went and asked your father if you could write about him or was there a first poem you wrote and then the idea followed?
Ruth: I definitely had no idea what I was doing for a long time. When I first was in grad school, I writing a lot of breakup poetry, which there is definitely a time and a place for – but Judy Jordan, who ended up being my thesis advisor, was like, I hate this shit, essentially. She said: Write something that is meaningful to you, like what is your story, who is your family? I took that to heart and I wrote one poem about being young and watching my dad pray and just what kind of magic it seemed like to me as a child – the poem that ended up in the book was a later version of this: My Father Keeps the Pack Together. So Judy saw that poem and liked it because it was a story only I could tell, and that’s what kind of started the collection. I began writing more poems about my father’s faith and how he grew up during the war and everything took shape from there.
Q: As much as this collection is about your father, it is even more so about you because tied in to entire collection is the idea of “home” in broad sense – what is belonging, and what places or people do we belong to. Along with that is the idea of things being carried and passed on, and I am thinking specifically of the poems Inheritance and New Mother. What have you inherited and what is home for you?
Ruth: There’s a study I read that looks at the link between trauma and heredity and I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately in the aftermath of the book, as I’ve been in more of a reflective mode with the collection. Just thinking about how even though you don’t experience something firsthand, when you’re close to someone and close to that history and related to them by blood, there is this inherited history, so to speak. One of the things I’ve inherited from both sides of my family, for lack of a better word, is grief – as long as I’ve known my dad there has been this heaviness to him, something you can’t pinpoint. And my mom has struggled with depression her whole life; it’s something that has been a cornerstone in both my familial and personal history. That’s not to say I never experienced happiness, but I learned a lot because my parents didn’t shield me from the spectrum of human emotion and were honest with me.
To answer your question about home, it has been kind of elusive for me because we moved around a lot when I was growing up. My dad was climbing the corporate ladder so we kept passing from state to state all over the Midwest. Columbus is probably the closest thing to home for me, just because it’s a place I chose to be and not I place I was brought to. I always say wherever me and the dogs land is home, but more and more Columbus is starting to feel like home. I like that it feels like a place that has spoken to me directly.
Q: What kind of grief was it that you were least prepared for?
Ruth: I hope this doesn’t sound trite, because I know people who’ve lost children, or their parents at a very young age, and on and on. But I’ve learned grief is unreasonable, you can’t really tell it what to do. The grief I was least prepared for was my dog Pete’s death last year. She was my first dog, I had her since she was 12 weeks old, and I had her for 11 years. I got her on the heels of kicking a bad drug habit and being sexually assaulted multiple times in a very short amount of time. Then I remember Pete coming into my life and thinking this creature fucking saved my life. She forced me to care about myself and take care of myself so I could take care of her, and I wanted to. So losing her was like coming to terms with an enormous debt I could never repay and I was heartbroken over losing her and humbled with gratitude that she ever existed. It was the biggest spectrum of emotions I’ve ever felt, and I’ve had to learn how to carry that love differently ever since.
Q: Which poem from the collection was your favorite?
Ruth: Let me be a lamb in a world that wants my lion is my favorite for many reasons. It’s the last poem I wrote toward the collection, so it’s more endeared to me because it’s newer. And then, I love reading it out loud. That voice came to me and it just felt powerful and compelling, so I just ran with it. I challenged myself to write past where I thought the poem should end and see what happens, and it took the poem in interesting directions.
Q: Now that the collection is finished and out in the world, what’s next?
Ruth: I’ve been trying not to put too much pressure on myself to come up with a theme to write toward. I’m doing my best to produce good poems and seeing where the process takes me, so for right now, there are so many possibilities that I can’t say where I’m going yet.