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.