Sara Moore Wagner

“I have always had an urge to locate myself in stories.”

Tumbling After (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2022)

Could you share a representative or pivotal poem from your book? Perhaps something that that invites the reader into the world of the book?

Why did you choose this poem?

This poem represents the main aspects of the collection as a whole—the way motherhood and domesticity split and rearrange women, and the way I was also rearranged by the move into the position of “housewife.” It also is both persona and confessional. I like to blend the two, to comment on how we make ourselves based on shared cultural traditions—how we situate the self in the history of self-making and identity. It also sets the tone of the chapbook—that it will be about a split, a tearing of the self from something else. Rumpelstiltskin is interesting to me because he is that trickster character, which is typically reserved for male characters. I wanted to turn that on its head.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

This book came from the desire to understand, as a woman, the vilification of myself and of other women who make choices outside of what is considered proper behavior for a wife and mother. I have always been drawn to myths, fairy tales, and stories we tell over and over again, particularly to how women are represented in a kind of communal societal narrative. As I was writing Tumbling After, and my forthcoming full-length debut Swan Wife, which shares a few of these poems, I had a real desire to explore various male and female characters, from Rumpelstiltskin to mythic monsters like Lamia and the Empusa, relating them to the self, to make sense of my own narrative journey into single motherhood. I have always had an urge to locate myself in stories.

What’s the oldest poem in your book? What do you remember about writing it?

The oldest poem is “Gertrude Complex.” The book came in pieces over a long period of time, but this first poem holds a lot of its themes. Gertrude from Hamlet is a figure who is seen as a “bad” mother. If you think about Gertrude, we, as an audience, never know what motivates her. From the outside, she seems “frail” or weak, driven by a desire to maintain her own lifestyle. When I wrote the poem, I remember the distinct feeling that that was bullshit. As mothers, we do what we can for survival. I think she did try to protect her son, in “low and shadowed” ways that the audience might not see. And of course, we mainly see her reflected in the male characters. The Gertrude in me is a mother who is more aware of the human condition than her child, but is also one who must, to a certain extent, mislead her child in order to make it all ok.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

I knew there was a distinct before and after to this book—the unhappiness/unrest, then the splitting/tearing apart. This mainly related to the Jack and Jill narrative. Jack is a trickster character. No matter how shady and annoying he is, he’s still the spritely Jack. Tricky female characters don’t get the same treatment. Tumbling After nods to the Jack and Jill nursery rhyme, is set in the before and after, and implies the breaking apart of a union of two separate people, so for me it felt really natural to have two distinct sections.

Which poem in your book has the most memorable back story to you? What’s the back story?

I wrote the poem “For Annie Von Behren…” after I took a walking tour of downtown Cincinnati (I live in the suburbs of Cincinnati). During the tour, the guide told a story about Annie—how she would let her husband shoot apples from her head as part of a stage show. When they were in Cincinnati, he shot her in the head in front of an entire audience of people. Later, when he was let off of the charges, people applauded. I couldn’t stop thinking about that story, especially after researching her a little more, seeing her history as a prolific and accomplished actress. I kept thinking—why would you let a man do that? Then it hit me—I have also sacrificed a lot of myself for a man, for his career, for his comfort. We’re not so different. We’ll be the ones erased.

Could you share with us a glimpse of your writing process for this book?

In some ways I see this book as the “alternate ending” of Swan Wife. In my complicated romantic history, I left a relationship, had a period of single motherhood, then married my husband, who made me believe in real love. I was trying very hard to get that all in one book, then I realized it’s two stories—one about guilt and rupture (Tumbling After)–and then one about finding oneself in a more traditional relationship, about occupying that role without conforming to stereotypes and more oppressive cultural expectations of what a wife is, which is the heart of Swan Wife. Once I realized it couldn’t all fit in one, I had a choice. I could end Swan Wife with a split, or with the happier ending. Because I felt “done” with those single mother poems, I felt past that period, I let Tumbling After tumble out and become its own thing.

What has the editorial and production experience with your publisher been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

It has been a really beautiful experience for me with Red Bird. They were very present in the editorial process, pairing me with a wonderful editor who worked one on one with me. When the book was through that step, they sent me covers hand drawn by four different artists who had read my book. These were all so beautiful. It was difficult to pick a cover, but I went with the more feminine and domestic take on my chapbook, even though they all would have fit beautifully.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?

I think I would like to be asked about the bodily elements of this book. I have always been interested in grotesque realism, as discussed by the philosopher Bakhtin. Fairy tales have been sanitized over time. The woman’s body, when exposed at all, is usually used as a tool for pleasure or gratification. I have a desire to bring back in a bit of the grotesque. Birth is gross, bodies are gross, and in this book, I attempt to not just break down stereotypes about the “good” and “bad” woman or mother, but to tear down that clean image of the mother or woman. We have bodies like everyone, bodies that tear and ooze. It was important to me to highlight some of that.

What are you working on now?

Because I’ll never stop being drawn to persona and to mythic or historical figures, I have been immersed in writing a book-length historical exploration of Annie Oakley. It’s about the beginnings of the American myth, and about how much guns have shaped America. Of course, it is also about gender dynamics. Annie Oakley was an Ohio girl, like me. My mother was a champion sharpshooter, and our family history is riddled with gun violence. I have been working out how to tell Annie’s story, America’s story, and my family’s story, which has been a huge but very fulfilling undertaking. Because I don’t live far from her birthplace, I have been able to visit her museum, her grave, and the Annie Oakley Festival. The research aspects have been really fun. It gets me out of my own head!

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

I would LOVE to be able to paint. I am very jealous of people with that kind of talent. I think a lot in images, which I transfer onto the page using language because it’s really my only medium. I have friends who can do all the things super exquisitely, and I’m so envious. I love to paint, and I do it with my kids, but I don’t have any real skill. I also think the world in general can immediately see the beauty in a painting or piece of visual art—I work hard to bring that to my poems, but it would be nice to be able to convey that instant impactful image.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Give yourself time. I made a five-year plan for myself, which has now become a ten-year plan. Don’t expect any instant gratification or success. It rarely happens that way. Put in the work of reading, writing, revising, learning about journals and presses, then tell yourself you won’t worry about failure until x amount of years passes—make it a lot of years—then you can focus on the craft instead of the acceptances or rejections. It’s easy to get caught up in that. I do believe hard work and dedication to craft is what ultimately pays off.

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Sara Moore Wagner is the winner of the 2021 Cider Press Review Editors Prize for her book Swan Wife (2022), and the 2020 Driftwood Press Manuscript Prize for Hillbilly Madonna (2022), and the author of two chapbooks, Tumbling After (Red Bird chapbooks, 2022) and Hooked Through (2017). She is also a 2022 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award recipient, a 2021 National Poetry Series Finalist, and the recipient of a 2019 Sustainable Arts Foundation award. Her poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies including Sixth Finch, Waxwing, Nimrod, Rhino, Beloit Poetry Journal, and The Cincinnati Review, among others.

www.saramoorewagner.com

Stephanie Niu

“Why not visit the moon to visit the woman defined by her distance from the earth?”

She Has Dreamt Again of Water (Diode Editions, 2022)

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

I’m a believer in the power of a little chaos, and this extends to my writing space. Maybe this is my own excuse for keeping a messy desk, but I find that a bit of disarray encourages me to be creative. As I write this, my desk contains three different notebooks (open, or bookmarked with pencils), two different beverages, and one book of poems that is working part-time as a coaster, part-time as muse (Dancing on the Tarmac by Tarik Dobbs; the visual and hybrid poems are cracking my brain open). Sometimes I feel like a DJ at a turntable deciding which thought goes onto which piece of paper; perhaps I prefer it that way.

Could you share a representative poem from your book? Perhaps something that that invites the reader into the world of the book?

The title poem of my chapbook, “She Has Dreamt Again of Water,” refers not to me but to Chang E’, a goddess from Chinese mythology who flew to the moon after consuming a forbidden elixir. In short, I wrote this poem out of the unexplainable jealousy I felt toward Chang E’ upon hearing this myth as a child; that she got to disappear, be remembered.

Why did you choose this poem?

Many poems in my chapbook explore the tension between distance and intimacy, especially within family. Chang E’ is a character I feel both distanced from and drawn to, and I wanted to explore this tension in a more personal way. I love the possibilities poetry offers for different ways of engaging with ideas that defy traditional narrative, plot, reality. Why not visit the moon to visit the woman defined by her distance from the earth? In a similar way, many of the other poems in my collection transport the reader directly into a place or emotion that is otherwise faraway: the benthic zone of the deep sea, the bottom of a dammed lake that contains a drowned town, inside the consciousness of a pelican.

What’s the oldest poem in your book? What do you remember about writing it?

The oldest poem in my collection is “Freeway.” I began it at the start of 2018. Although it’s further in time from some of the other poems in this collection, the poem felt like a natural fit with the images of physical geographical distance, silent sea creatures, and diving.

Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

When I was working on manuscript order and individual poem edits, I kept getting stuck making the same revisions, doubting them, undoing them, doubting, redoing, etc. Around this time, I saw an image on Twitter that freed me by allowing me to look at revision in a different light. The image contains a slightly rusty sign, likely in a diner or some other food establishment, with red text in all-caps that says:

IS IT HOT ?

DOES IT LOOK GOOD ?

ARE YOU PROUD

TO SERVE IT ?

After seeing this image, I asked myself these three questions about each poem, and it became obvious what I needed to do. One poem needed to be more hot. Another needed to look better. A third, I was already proud to serve.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Write, write, write. (Are we surprised?) One of the most helpful things I was told by my first poetry mentor, when I kept asking about publishing, prizes, etc., was this: the young poet should be in their studio. Meaning: nothing else really matters, yet. Though I fail often, I strive to keep this in mind.

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Stephanie Niu is the author of She Has Dreamt Again of Water, winner of the 2021 Diode Chapbook Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Copper Nickel, The Georgia Review, Southeast Review, and Storm Cellar, as well as scientific collaborations including the 11th Annual St. Louis River Summit. She lives in New York City. Find her online at https://stephanieniu.com/poetry or on Twitter as @niusteph.

Katie Manning

“Writing is often done alone, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.”

How to Play (Louisiana Literature Press, 2022)

Could you share a representative poem from your book? Perhaps something that invites the reader into the world of the book?

What obsessions led you to write your book?

I love games! My family played a lot of games when I was growing up, and my spouse and I have so many board games, card games, dice games… so I started using games as prompts. The poems aren’t about the games, of course, but the games were the springboard into the poems.

What’s the oldest poem in your book? What do you remember about writing it?

The first poem I wrote in this collection was “Scrabble with E.B. White.” I was actually playing online Scrabble with my best friend from high school, Krystin, and the words we were using seemed strangely connected to Charlotte’s Web, so that prompted the poem. Over the next decade, I wrote other game-inspired poems and put them all in a folder, but it was a back-burner project, never the work I felt pressured to do. These poems only became my primary focus last summer when I pulled them all out and said to myself, “I think I could pull these together into a chapbook collection now.”

How did you decide on the title of your book?

How to Play might be the only working title for a manuscript that has ever made it to print! I usually change the working title right at the end of the process, but this one still felt right. It’s taken from the words that are at the top of the instructions booklets for most games.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

I love this question, probably because I’m always partial to misfits. 🙂 I think of “Scheherezade’s Last Words” as the misfit of the Table of Contents because it doesn’t have the name of the game—Tales of the Arabian Nights—in its title. The game gets a shout-out in the epigraph instead.

What has the editorial and production experience with your publisher been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

Louisiana Literature Press was the first place I sent this chapbook because I love their publication model as a teaching press, and they did not disappoint. From the wildly affirming letter of acceptance sent by the editorial team to the collaborative process and great communication with Jack Bedell, I’ve had a great publishing experience.

I told them early on that I had an idea for the cover, and they told me I could run with it, so I got to hire one of my former students, Mark Garcia, to create the knolling image with game pieces and design the cover. Mark even came to my house to photograph some of the game pieces that he didn’t own. This is the most involved I’ve ever gotten to be with one of my book covers, and I’m so thrilled with the result!

What are you working on now?

My new project-in-process borrows language and techniques from Charles Darwin: animal observation, questioning established knowledge, openness to discovery. I’m writing poems that chart an evolution of survival through one lifetime, capturing trauma (miscarriage, parent death, etc.) and the life that continues after trauma. This project holds particular fascination for me because I was raised in a Christian tradition that often portrayed Darwin as a villain, but as an adult, I’ve found that Darwin’s work (and science more broadly) points me toward the divine.

I’ve also started looking for a publisher for Hereverent, a full-length manuscript of poems that I created using the Bible as a word bank. I took biblical language out of context in protest of those who take that language out of context and use it as a weapon.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

Oh, I love this question! My high school days were spent doing more choirs, musicals, and plays than anything else. I was first chair viola in 8th grade, and I took up bass guitar in my twenties. I still actively sing in choirs (or did pre-pandemic), and I lead music at my church. I started creating poems when I was 4, but I didn’t think of that as my primary art until the end of college. So I’ve always been involved with many arts, as many writers are; once in a grad school poetry workshop, we realized that the 10 of us around the table had all been choir kids.

I like to say that when I run out of words, I’m going to take up painting (like Joni Mitchell). I sometimes get ideas for paintings, but I don’t have the skill to create them… at least not yet. I do hope that some time in the not-too-distant future, I really will take some classes and have a long painting phase. (I don’t think I actually have to run out of words to do this, of course).

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Connect with other writers! It’s so important to find your people. Find writer friends so you can encourage each other, share opportunities, commiserate over rejections, celebrate each other’s successes, etc. Writing is often done alone, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.

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Katie Manning is the founding editor-in-chief of Whale Road Review and a professor of writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She is the author of Tasty Other, which won the 2016 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, and her recent chapbooks are How to Play (Louisiana Literature Press, 2022) and 28,065 Nights (River Glass Books, 2020). Her poems have appeared in American Journal of Nursing, december, The Lascaux Review, New Letters, Poet Lore, and many other venues, and her poem “What to Expect” was recently featured on the Poetry Unbound podcast from The On Being Project.

www.katiemanningpoet.com

Marianne Worthington

“…I discovered in my research about early women performers in country music… that they had such little control over their own lives as performers.”

The Girl Singer (University Press of Kentucky, 2021)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I thought I would be a musician when I grew up, and for a very long time, I was. I was always able to have a part-time gig as a church musician because I could play the organ. Writing came much later for me when I finally entered college at age 27. I studied poetry and creative nonfiction writing with the late Jeff Daniel Marion at Carson-Newman University. He really encouraged me to think about making writing a more central part of my life. He emphasized the journey, the path of writing rather than an end product—writing as a way to grow and live in the world. It really wasn’t until we moved to Kentucky in 1990 that I started writing with more seriousness once I discovered the vibrant and diverse writing communities that exist here.

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

I wish I could say that I have a designated writing space, but mostly I write wherever I happen to be at the time. Usually that means I’m either in the comfy chair in the bedroom, on the couch in the living room, at the kitchen table, or propped up in the bed—one of my favorite places to write. I also enjoy writing outside on my porch when the weather permits.

Could you share a representative poem from your book? Perhaps something that invites the reader into the world of the book?

Why did you choose this poem?

One of the disturbing facts I discovered in my research about early women performers in country music was that they had such little control over their own lives as performers. Their costumes were assigned to them, their words on stage were scripted, the songs they could sing and the instruments they could play were mostly beyond their own control. But the worst: almost all the women had to take on an assigned performance name. So, Myrtle Cooper became Lula Belle; Linda Parker became The Little Sunbonnet Girl; Alma Crosby became Little Shoe; and Rubye Rose Blevins became Patsy Montana. I wrote “Barn Dance (Chorus)” in their collective voices as both a protest poem and a tribute poem. All the name-nouns used in the poem were actual stage names of these women.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

roots music, country music, folk music

murder ballads

women performers with big hair and big guitars

collecting/remembering family histories

the wildlife that lives around my neighborhood, particularly the groundhog next door who I’ve been watching for about four years. (Year before last, she emerged from hibernation with two babies who played and sun-bathed like puppies!)

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

I had a lot of help with arranging the poems and with titling the collection. Everyone who helped me had a different take on how the poems should be ordered and what the book should be titled, but ultimately, I was able to glean the best of their suggestions. It takes a village, truly.

Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

Maybe “Pentecost 1965” has the most meaningful back story because the Acts Man is so deeply embedded in my memory. And I don’t know, never knew, his backstory. He was just always there: riding his bike-tent through the streets of Knoxville. He invoked in me a deep wonder, how to live with unanswered questions, and an odd stability in my place—like a fixture—that grounded me. I will never stop thinking about him.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?

“My Maternal People” was added late in the process of building the book. I think the poem helped me think about the importance and influence of women in my life and that, in turn, helped me to articulate what the book was really about.

Could you share with us a glimpse of your writing practice for this book?

I had been compiling these poems over a long period of several years, and I had been sending around the manuscript for a couple of years, but once the manuscript was chosen for the Fireside Industries imprint of UP of KY, I worked really hard to order and to revise the poems. I took several poems out of the manuscript that didn’t really fit the themes of the book, and I spent a lot of time on the floor where the pages were spread out on the rug in my reading room. I wish I could say I have a disciplined and scheduled writing time, but I do not. I tend to work in fits and starts, but even when I’m not actively writing, I am thinking about writing and composing in my head.

Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

Here is a prompt I fashioned for a class recently. I use this one myself whenever I’m stuck—particularly the “container” part:

1. Write down an incident that is both a memory you have and a specific place associated with that memory (like: I remember when I fell down the steps at my grandmother’s house). Now write toward making a poem, although you don’t have to give the memory and the specific place equal treatment in the poem. In addition to describing what happened, work for sensory details and/or verbs that suggest feelings associated with the memory. Likewise, help the reader see/smell/hear/taste/touch/ a place. (My grandmother’s staircase was steep; the hallway was dark; I was running when my father said not to; the stairwell smelled like furniture polish, etc.)

2. Make a container for your poem about memory/place by fashioning it like a sonnet. This will help you decide which details are the most important/resonant. You can observe the formal features of various sonnet forms, or you can relax the form and think of it as fourteen related lines. (Thanks to the work of poets like Diane Seuss and Kim Addonizio, I respect the versatility of the sonnet and worry less and less about the “rules” of sonnet-making.)

What has the editorial and production experience with your publisher been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

The wonderful thing about University Press of Kentucky is that their people are so talented in what they do. I got emails and phone calls on the regular about when and how the manuscript would be processed and all the stages it had to go through on the way to production. That was exciting and reassuring for me. The press sent me a questionnaire about my preferences for cover art and they took into consideration several photos I sent of various, anonymous “girl singers.” I had also sent a still capture from a home movie my mother had made of Dolly Parton in performance when she was about 14 or 15 years old. The cover artist, Aurora Noctua, used that photo to fashion the girl singer for the cover. I love the cover so much, and I’m so grateful for Aurora’s talent. She was, at the time of the design, a college student and an intern at the press.

What are you working on now?

Like The Girl Singer in the early stages, I have another “pile of poems” that I’m not sure yet is a book, but I am working diligently on making it into a book. I’m continuing to write about subjects that motivate me: loss, illness, family, and the culture of “invisibility” that many women my age experience. I’m also exploring the possibility of putting together a chapbook or collection of flash creative nonfiction pieces. I’ve had several of them published since the pandemic began, and I would love to have them collected.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

Well, I have a musical background (although I don’t practice that much anymore), but I’m not sure I would want to change paths now. I don’t have the energy for so much practice and performances anymore!

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

In addition to the obvious advice of “read as much as you can,” I would say to find a good writing teacher to study with and find other students who are also interested in creative writing. Get to know your local librarians; write for your campus newspaper; read literary journals—so many of them are online now. Building a writing community is not only supportive but motivating as well.

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Marianne Worthington is co-founder and editor of Still: The Journal, an online literary magazine publishing writers, artists, and musicians with ties to Appalachia since 2009. Her work has appeared in Oxford American, CALYX, Chapter 16, and other places. She received the Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council and artist’s grants from Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Berea Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship. The Girl Singer was released in 2021 and was awarded the Weatherford Award for Poetry in 2022. Marianne grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and lives, writes, and teaches in southeast Kentucky.

https://marianneworthington.com/

Zoa Coudret

“We carry so much anxiety about change—change in ourselves and change in those who are close to us—yet we can’t escape the process of (re-)creation.”

Already Becoming (Harvard Square Press, 2022)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

I grew up in a small town in lower Michigan. Literature always interested me, but I didn’t have any ambitions to write much until my senior year of high school. My K-12 education was pretty deficient in literature, and I never encountered anything contemporary in a class until college. So it was Oscar Wilde who inspired me to try coming up with my own stories. My early work was almost entirely bad imitations of much cleverer people. I wasn’t a very adventurous child, intellectually or otherwise, and even through my twenties I didn’t find a writing community. It took years for my work to feel like it was coming from an authentic place.

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

I have several writing spaces, none of which is very noteworthy. But the one I’m currently at (my campus office) has a grim reaper decoration that I decided after Halloween to make permanent, fragments of poems by Natalie Shapero, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and others pinned to my corkboard, and a collage that I made in a poetry workshop.

Could you share a representative poem from your book? Perhaps something that invites the reader into the world of the book?

Why did you choose this poem?

This one captures anxieties about personal identity and our cosmic helplessness that are at the center of this book.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

The first one is simple: the obsession to define, redefine, and explore myself through writing. Another strong obsession was change. As someone who acknowledged my queerness in my mid-twenties and transness around 30, I’ve had to think about this a lot. Even though I’ve felt like I was refining myself rather than changing, other people don’t see it that way. Some demand a constant reckoning of these refinements, like institutions where you have to change your name or family members who want a detailed accounting of your queerness and why they weren’t aware of everything you experienced and felt.

What’s the oldest poem in your book? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?

Because I wrote this in a span of 72 hours (with another 24 for editing) for the 3-Day Poetry Chapbook Contest, the oldest isn’t that much older. But it’s “Desires are already memories,” and in a way it catalyzed the rest of the book because it showed me that I could successfully create a poem using the formula that I had come up with for this project. I started by creating lists of words found in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities. I tried to use as many of those words as possible. This process proved to be inspiring and got me through a very, very long weekend.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

The arrangement was mostly organic. I tried to alternate poems that are more personal with ones that are more conceptual or narrative-driven. At one point, I grouped some together that touch on climate change and societal collapse. I wanted the reader to think about how these different expressions are related and exist in the same world, so splitting them into distinct sections didn’t seem right. The title is taken from a poem in the collection, and it is a phrase that I found in Cosmicomics. Specifically the epigraph in the story “The Form of Space,” though the context isn’t as important. The meaning I’m giving it is that we are always already becoming who we will be. We carry so much anxiety about change—change in ourselves and change in those who are close to us—yet we can’t escape the process of (re-)creation.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

“Newly arrived” is a strange one that I almost cut. It contains a highly exaggerated story based on when I drove with my roommate to adopt their cat, told from the perspective of someone seeing him from outside the window of our house. On the way there, we really saw a gray wolf run across the road in front of us at a place called Witch Lake, so it felt right for an occult story within a poem. I gave it a much different tone and point of view than the others in this collection.

Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

I generally don’t begin with prompts, but my favorite one I’ve ever used is to go to window-swap.com (which shows you a video feed from a random window) and write about the place that it gives you. It’s interesting because I don’t only think about what’s outside, on the edges of the frame, but also what’s hidden inside the place. My short story “The Vacation,” which was published in Longleaf Review, began this way.

What has the editorial and production experience with your publisher been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

It’s been a fairly simple process because of how the competition was organized. I created the cover using a photo that I took in Norway several years ago. I wasn’t going to use a photo, but the sculpture by Gustav Vigeland of two people intertwined in a circle felt so appropriate for the themes of this collection.

What are you working on now?

Too many projects! I’m in an MFA program, so I’m working on my thesis, a novel about veganism, queerness, and dairy farming, as well as a critical paper establishing links between queerness and veganism. But also a vampire murder mystery set in present day Richmond, Virginia, that might turn into a novella in flash.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

Architecture. I love thinking about the use of space, the balance of aesthetics with practicality, and the effects of construction projects on the local and global environments.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Apply for everything that interests you, especially if it has the possibility of funding. Go to every conference, workshop, etc., that you can afford. Follow your excitement, not what’s popular. Don’t waste your time sharing work with people who don’t take it seriously. 

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Zoa Coudret is a genderqueer fiction writer and poet. Their work has appeared in Longleaf Review, Peach Mag, New South, No Contact, The Lumiere Review, and elsewhere. They are an MFA candidate in fiction at Northern Michigan University and work as an associate editor for Passages North. You can follow her on Twitter @ZoaCoudret and Instagram @zoaxvx. Visit their website, zoacoudret.com, to learn more about them and find out how to buy their chapbook.

zoacoudret.com

Charlene Kwiatkowski

“I had been feeling like there was a poem missing but couldn’t put my finger on why. After writing it, I realized it was the ‘bridge’ poem my manuscript needed, linking fantasy and reality….”

‘Let Us Go Then’ (The Alfred Gustav Press, 2021)

What’s your chapbook about?

Here’s the back cover blurb: ‘Let Us Go Then’ invites you down European streets into scenes framed with art. Like parallel trains travelling through space and time, the poems map a trip alongside a marriage.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

This book resulted from taking a month-long trip to Europe in 2017 with my husband (we were two years married at the time—still newlyweds in my opinion). I went with the idea to write at least one poem for each place we visited. I jotted down observations, impressions, and interactions while on trains, planes, and Airbnb beds. This chapbook was a way to combine many of my loves, perhaps obsessions: cities, art, architecture, literature, and language.

Could you share with us a glimpse of your writing practice or process for this book?

Upon returning home to Vancouver (Canada), I reread my journal entries and flagged then recopied the phrases that held my attention and felt generative. (A couple poems were written on location but are barely recognizable now.) I’d sit with these phrases and write where they led, knowing I wanted to have a variety of forms in my book to reflect the variety of places we visited. For example, there’s a villanelle for Monet’s Garden and a haibun for Rome, the prose part imitating the couple’s rambling and getting lost until an unmistakable landmark, not unlike a haiku, reorients them. Most of the poems were written within a year but edited over three.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

It was fairly simple—I arranged the poems chronologically to mirror the physical journey the speaker and spouse take. Narratively, that made the most sense in simultaneously mapping a marriage journey where memories, experiences, and insights accumulate along the way. (For this reason, I’m a strong proponent of reading a collection in order!)

I submitted the manuscript with a different title (Follow Me), but my excellent publisher David Zeiroth suggested ‘Let Us Go Then’ after the last line of the final poem (“let us go then, you and I”) that is taken from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The opening phrase of my book is “You and I arrive…” so it forms a circle that I find rather satisfying, especially since that last poem begins with the recognition, “We have come full circle.”

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

I would say “Le Spectacle” because it’s the only one of the ten poems written in third person and that doesn’t take place in the present. This is my Nice poem and I was struggling with what to say about this seaside destination. As a former English Literature student, the thing that most interested me was a plaque I saw on Hôtel Suisse that said, ‘James Joyce stayed here in October 1922 where he began writing Finnegans Wake‘.

With this in mind, I turned to a writing exercise from the book The Practice of Poetry (edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell) that I would never have imagined leading to a usable poem. It prompted me to write the answer to the question: What would it have been like to witness James Joyce’s arrival in Nice in 1922? For a speculative poem, I did a surprising amount of research. While situated in the past, the poem is written from the vantage point of the present with a heavy dose of satire.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?

“Kingdom of One” was a late addition to the manuscript. It’s a poem in transit, documenting a train ride to Neuschwanstein Castle that King Ludwig II of Bavaria commissioned in the 19th century and which inspired Disney’s iconic logo. I had been feeling like there was a poem missing but couldn’t put my finger on why. After writing it, I realized it was the “bridge” poem my manuscript needed, linking fantasy and reality as well as the speaker’s external and internal journeys more acutely. Its intimate tone makes way for further reflections, confessions, and revelations.

What are you working on now?

I’m slowly building up poems towards a full-length collection. I’ve got a title that came to me in a dream years ago that I really hope will hold. Due to space constraints, not all my Europe poems could fit within the chapbook so I’d like to publish the whole suite within a larger body of work one day. (And that way, those who didn’t receive the limited-run chapbook can still read the poems!)

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Charlene Kwiatkowski’s debut poetry chapbook ‘Let Us Go Then’ came out in late December 2021 (by subscription) with the Alfred Gustav Press. Her work has appeared in ArcEkstasis, PRISM International, Red Alder Review, and elsewhere. In 2020, she won Pulp Literature’s Magpie Award for Poetry. She lives with her husband and daughter in Vancouver, BC, where she works at an art gallery.

textingthecity.wordpress.com

Ellen Chang-Richardson

“This fluidity of existence continues to interest me, and it is something I explore through my poetry. In terms of becoming a writer, I came to that after exploring another life.”

Unlucky Fours (Anstruther Press, 2020)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

I grew up as a third culture kid which definitely impacts how I approach life and by extension, my writing. Being a third culture kid means that I spent most of my formative years living in cultures that were not the one I was born into. As a result, my views on the world are highly fluid. I was born in Toronto, Canada (the eldest child of two East-Asian immigrants), grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Shanghai, China, before coming back to Canada about twelve years ago.

This fluidity of existence continues to interest me and it is something I explore through my poetry. In terms of becoming a writer, I came to that after exploring another life. From 2010 – 2019, I had a career in luxury sales, contemporary fine art and cultural fundraising. Though I enjoyed what I did, it never felt quite right; in April 2019, I decided to leave it and dive into writing. It’s been going pretty well so far.

How do you decorate your writing space?

Books on books, fine art on the walls, three plants (a ZZ, a snake and a jade), wine rack, repurposed 80s bar cart (full, of course) and a small Buddhist altar with a string of red and gold fabric firecrackers to bring me luck.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?

Some of my favorites are Test Centre by MA|DE (Zed Press, 2019), Paper Doll by Manahil Bandukwala (Anstruther Press, 2019) and The Sorceress Who Left Too Soon by Erin Emily Ann Vance (Coven Editions, 2019). Canlit (Canadian literature) releases incredible titles each year.

The Riverbed by Yoko Ono (Yoko Ono/Andrea Rosen Gallery/Galerie Lelong, 2015) and Meteorites by S. Brook Corfman (Doublecross Press, 2018) are definitely two shorter books that have influenced my work. They are not what you might consider traditional chapbooks (the former is an accompaniment to an exhibition and the latter is a 25-page book printed and arranged like a deck of cards); but they are short enough to fall into the category.

What might these chapbooks suggest about your writing?

That it is not traditional and may verge on being highly conceptual.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

The nature of people.

What’s your chapbook about?

In short, two-faced people and two-faced political systems. At length, on working through personal betrayals to find peace.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

In the beginning, the chapbook was actually written as one long poem. After tabling it at one of my Little Birds Poetry workshops however, my peer editors suggested I try breaking the poem into individual poems to highlight that different sections were about different people. I took their advice and rearranged my newly segmented poems into a narrative flow.

In Mandarin Chinese, the number four when spoken aloud sounds very close to the word for death. It is unlucky and we will avoid using it if at all possible. In this sense, Unlucky Fours works thematically to pull my chapbook together.

Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it? 

I edit voraciously, usually spending many days with the same poem. I tend to go through various versions before the piece feels complete, sharing with my first reader along the way. When I feel like I’m nearly there, I’ll table the poem at a Little Birds Poetry workshop or send it to a close writer friend of mine to read and edit. I’ll then review suggestions and spend another few days revising. At this point, punctuation and spaces are given as much weight and thought, as the words they frame.

What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

Jim Johnstone and Erica Smith of Anstruther Press are amazing to work with. Jim is a thorough and thoughtful editor, receptive to feedback and collaboration throughout the editing and proofing process. Erica took the mystery and magic of my chapbook to heart and designed a cover image based on an 18th century Janus mask – it’s an absolute favorite of mine.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?

Are there hidden depths to the vocabulary you choose to use in your poetry?
Yes! For instance, umber is considered the color of debauchery. It is used midway through the chapbook to describe a specific scene/system.

What are you working on now?

Two new chapbooks and my first full length collection.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Find your own voice and don’t forget to read writers of all backgrounds and walks of life.

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Ellen Chang-Richardson is a Canadian poet, writer and editor of Taiwanese and Cambodian-Chinese descent. Winner of the 2019 Vallum Award for Poetry, her writing has appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic, Cypress: A Poetry Journal, long con magazine, and more. Her debut chapbook Unlucky Fours is now available with Anstruther Press (2020). In addition to her writing, Ellen is the founder of Little Birds Poetry and the co-founder of Riverbed Reading Series.

www.ehjchang.com

Mandy-Suzanne Wong

“It’s my hope that Sumiko and Ayuka embody the tremendous strength that women who are different—whose perspectives refuse to dance to the canned music of the status quo—must cultivate within themselves, often alone and against all odds, in order to keep their ideals alive.”

wong image

Awabi (Digging Press, 2019)

How did you first come up with the idea to write Awabi?  How did you first learn about the ama and become inspired to write about them?

For me the project began not with the ama but with their prey: sea-snails of various kinds. Google images of living awabi (abalone), and you’ll find that they’re both beautiful and adorable. I also love the Japanese legend of the sazae snail (Turbo cornutus), which in reality can live for several decades and in the legend transforms upon its hundredth birthday into a sazae-oni: a snail-demon, part snail, part vengeful mermaid. The ama are among the sazae’s primary predators. In fact, in my earliest ama story, which does not appear in Awabi, the narrator is a sazae.

In your acknowledgements, you write, “Every day I am inspired by the courage and tenacity of Sumiko, Sanae, and Shizuka Nakagawa” (55).  Are these ama you have met and interviewed?  What was it like to speak with them?

I have not yet met the Nakagawas, lacking the money to travel to Japan; but their tireless efforts to preserve the ama’s traditions and attitudes, in part by educating the rest of the world about them, are discussed online and in documentary films. Shizuka, in particular, describes how difficult it was for her as a young woman to watch everyone of her generation leave her village for the cities even as she made the decision to persevere as an ama, so strongly does she believe in their way of life and their devotion to conservation.

Was it difficult to write about such a specific group of Japanese women?  How did you handle authenticity and agency while writing these stories?  What were the difficulties you encountered while writing these stories, and what inspired you to persevere?  What advice would give a writer trying to write a story that feels (and is) authentic?

“Authenticity” in fiction is a huge, complicated, and crucial question; one about which I have agonized again and again. It’s one of those great questions that spawns so many other questions and even calls the entire practice of fiction writing into question. What is “authenticity”? Is there such a thing among humans, objectively speaking? Especially when we live in layers and layers of socially constructed simulacra? The question of what “authenticity” entails may not even be an objective question but a subjective one: something every writer has to decide for themselves, which may change with every project. Fiction writers are in the business of making stuff up. Aren’t we? In which case “authenticity” isn’t our affair. Or is it? Do we also somehow reach for truths? These are questions I think each writer has to ask herself.

Your chapbook is set up as a duet of short stories that speak to each other, reinforcing the same ideas and themes while also filling in spaces left blank by each story. (For example, “Sumiko’s Daughters” explores the relationship between an ama and her daughter and granddaughter, while “Ayuka Breathes” explores the competing relationship between an ama, her husband, and the ocean.)  Could you discuss how these two stories interact with each other?  Why did you choose to have only two short stories?

It was exactly as you say: I wanted to explore how different kinds of love might feel to an ama and generate unique conflicts in her life. Mother-love for Sumiko. Lover-love for Ayuka. Though I didn’t exactly plan it this way, as it turned out, the ocean—or some personal, ill-defined but keenly felt idea thereof—seemed to cause upwellings of both love-kinds, even though I think of them as distinct and specific. Two stories? That was a practical decision. I wanted very much to submit to Digging Press, and any more than two stories would have exceeded their word limit.

One theme of these stories seems to be the idea that love both sustains and feeds off the loved one.  You write, “Ama followed the awabi as they followed their human mothers into the ocean, devoured the sea-snails as they fed on their mothers’ milk.  Predator-daughter-mother of the deep, where all was slippery, shadowy, roving, waving, Sumiko understood the flowing blending of visible and invisible life” (13).  I was wondering if you would elaborate on this theme?

I’d love to! In fact, I’m planning to do just that in my novel-length expansion of Ayuka’s story, which I’m working on now. Stay tuned!

Something I noticed is that the reader rarely gets to be underwater with the ama. The reader most often sees the ama breaching the water after a dive, or on land.  In a book where so much of the characters’ lives revolves around the ocean, why keep the ocean so mysterious and separated from the reader?  Is this to keep the reader from romanticizing the ama?

Great question. Especially for Ayuka, the ocean is her private realm, which is why she doesn’t want Hiroki to strap a camera on her. Especially since “Ayuka Breathes” tries to explore several characters’ points of view, I wanted us to share Hiroki’s mystification and frustration with Ayuka’s secretiveness.

Your stories deal with issues like climate change and femininity, yet never come off as preachy.  You focus the stories on the characters so that the reader is left remembering Sumiko and Ayuka along with the acidification of the oceans.  Was this difficult for you to do?  What advice would you give a writer to help them focus on their characters’ humanity and avoid sounding didactic?

Thank you! That’s a terrific compliment for me because this is exactly what I was hoping to achieve: as one of my favorite artists —Kathryn Eddy, who’s also an animal activist—says art cannot be didactic or else it isn’t art, it’s propaganda. For me, I think, the key was to make each individual character as unique and specific as possible with lives chock-full of dreams, activities, and details and with personalities that couldn’t possibly be generalized. I tried to fill myself with every character, to glut the story and my perspectives on the story with the characters’ specific conflicts and emotions, making it obvious to myself that a paragraph full of climate-change factoids that anyone could find on any search engine just wouldn’t fit in.

Something else I noticed about these stories is how you weave fiction with historical and scientific facts.  Specifically, in “Ayuka Breathes,” you mix lyrical prose with science through the character of the physiologist Riku Hayashi.  I especially enjoyed the part where you write, “In his small room and awestruck tones, Riku told her that on a daily basis she was diving far deeper and longer than all the other ama, their ancestors, and every funado in every record he could find” (44).  How much of Riku’s findings have been proven today?  What was the process of research for creating Riku’s character and his findings? Like Riku, were you struck by what you learned?

We’ll hear more about Riku’s research in Ayuka’s novel. 🙂

In your preface, you explain the Japanese characters (kanji) in the words “awabi” and “ocean,” and later, you give the meanings behind the names Namako and Hana.  In the acknowledgments, you thank Michelle Rosquillo for helping you with the kanji.  How did learning kanji affect your perception of the stories you were writing and the people you were writing about?  When you were naming the other characters, like Ayuka and Hiroki, did you name them with specific meanings in mind?  Why did you choose to explain Namako and Hana but not any of the other names?

I love that within their pictorial bodies, kanji imply the relationships between real beings: the kanji for both “awabi” (below) and “ama” (see book’s Preface) both contain the grid-like shape that’s part of the kanji for “ocean,” and this is a relationship I could see even without being able to read Japanese properly. It means the ocean is right at the heart of Japanese people’s perceptions (whether or not they’re conscious of it) of both a human animal and a nonhuman one—which suggests in turn that the ocean itself could be imagined as partly human, partly nonhuman. So the fluidity of these categories is much more evident in Japan’s kanji for them than in our words for them. Coming to realize this influenced my thinking a great deal.

I chose to explain “Namako” and “Hana” because Sumiko, the protagonist, had a hand in or at least influenced the selection of those names; and the names in turn influenced her feelings about her daughter. Ayuka, Hiroki, and Tomoki didn’t get to choose their names for themselves, so they don’t really play a part in the characters’ experiences, which is why I didn’t explain them. “Ayuka” in particular, however, is a very strange name with an amphibious and ambiguous meaning which I will explore in her novel.

japanese symbol

Awabi kanji

Throughout Awabi, I noticed themes of feminism weaved in. Your book is about powerful Japanese diver-women who defy the usual cultural expectations of women (having pale skin and being thin); Awabi also brings to light objectification and violence when western visitors were appalled by the women’s “thick, brown, naked bodies” and also when Sumiko is dancing and being violated by men. Awabi also shows the oppression of women: “Highborn women had to be sweet and agree with the men in everything. And they were often afraid…” It was also “unheard of for feminine concerns to override husbands.” There were basically two “feminine subcultures” a young woman could choose from and belong to, and one was vanishing. Finally, we see that Ayuka seems to trust the ocean more than her husband. This book gives light to women’s voices, how powerful and wise the voices of women can be. Could you discuss how it is a call to action, to listen to the stories, wisdom, and concerns of women?

Thank you for the amazing way you’ve pulled together all these instances of Awabi’s feminism! These stories are most definitely a call to bear witness to the unique concerns of women, especially when they ring dissonantly against what society-at-large thinks women’s concerns ought to be. For Sumiko, having a stable domestic lifestyle with a steady income just isn’t what matters most. For Ayuka, appeasing the men around her—her husband and the doctor whom everyone believes possesses the power to save the village—just isn’t what matters. Both my ama are unusual in that it’s nonhuman ecosystems that matter most to them. It’s my hope that Sumiko and Ayuka embody the tremendous strength that women who are different—whose perspectives refuse to dance to the canned music of the status quo—must cultivate within themselves, often alone and against all odds, in order to keep their ideals alive.

Much of Awabi reads almost like a poem to me. It is very lyrical. It is beautiful and each statement seems to have many underlying meanings. I absolutely love your use of metaphor and concrete images. Do you also write poems? Are there poetic techniques you use in your prose?

Again, thank you so much for this tremendous compliment. I haven’t written poetry in a long time, but I read a lot of poetry, and poetry has a great deal of influence on how I craft my prose styles. Where prose writing these days takes many of its cues from everyday, popular speech, the best poets make a point of using language in ways that are deliberately weird, deliberately unexpected. As Clarice Lispector says, poetry “sensitizes language.” I have a lot of fun trying to do that with my prose, trying to make my word choice, syntax, and imagery extra-sensitive to the content as well as deliberately surprising.

Another huge theme in your book is environmentalism. Over the course of generations with these Ama, we see the Ocean growing warmer, more polluted, more acidic, and over-fished. At the end, we see Ayuka throwing “herself overboard as if into a lover’s arms, maskless and weeping.” Is this symbolic of a last attempt to save everything? If so, in your mind, is this final attempt successful? Do you think there is hope?

Wow, that’s a great interpretation—one which I hadn’t actually thought of but which suits everything in the story perfectly. Thank you! As for whether or not there is hope for the oceans: sometimes I like to think so because it seems to me that humans should be unable to reach the oceans’ deepest depths and therefore unable to ruin them. But I’ve been reading that some ocean scientists fear that there will soon be no more “wild” oceans, that humans will have soon contaminated everything after all, that even which oceanic animal species remain alive will depend solely on what humans want to eat. That prospect scares me to no end.

When writing about the fictional village of Kaiyono, did you have an actual, real-life village in mind?

Kaiyono is a sort of composite of the several ama villages I’ve researched in the Mie and Shima Prefectures of Japan. “Kaiyo” is a Japanese word for “ocean.”

In your book, we see the rise of commercialism and pollution. Do you think there is a good way to combat commercialism or a sustainable way to develop regions commercially?

I don’t have any answers; but commercial capitalism is unsustainable. I read in Immaterialism by the American philosopher Graham Harman that structures like commercialism and capitalist extractivism, foundations of “Anthropocene civilization,” have become so entangled in so many human lives, providing jobs and so on, that there is no easy way to undo them.

In your book, you speak a lot about mothers and daughters and how the ocean is also the mother of the Ama. Does this connect to the idea of “mother earth”?

I do love the idea of the daughter-mother as the earth/ocean-mother; it suggests a caring relationship between humans and the Earth which, as humans are all too eager to forget, goes both ways. At the same time—and this is a tension in my thinking that I have yet to resolve—like several feminist eco-critics today (e.g. Isabelle Stengers), I do have reservations about the whole concept of a “mother earth” aka Gaia. The Earth is not a human; it’s a unique being and system of beings that is absolutely nothing like a human or indeed like any kind of earthling mother. Thinking about loving the Earth as akin to loving a human mother or goddess risks affirming anthropocentrism all over again: it risks putting just another humanoid figure at the center of our priorities.

The marriage relationship between Ayuka and Hiroki is obviously strained. I see  parallels between this relationship and the relationship of humans and earth. Did you have this or something else in mind when writing about Ayuka and Hiroki’s marriage?

Thank you for bringing this up! I’m really so grateful for your multi-leveled engagement with my work! I definitely agree that it is vitally important for humans to think about what we’d call “ecological” relationships as having the same level of complexity, intimacy, and priority as interpersonal relationships such as parent-child and partner-to-partner relationships. That said, I think it’s a matter not of fostering a relationship with “The Earth” as some kind of huge goddess-like abstraction but of particular persons caring for particular earthlings in close proximity—as the ama care for awabi babies, for example, or as Hiroki struggles to learn to care for his wife as a not-just-human being.

In an interview with eyelands, you talk about your story “Coconut Octopus.” You say, “the coconut octopus’ ingenuity was just too wonderful for me to ignore. This diminutive species really does make body armor out of discards – even out of garbage that humans cast into the ocean. It’s this kind of flexibility that will give nonhuman animals the best chance of surviving what we’re doing to the Earth.” I was wondering if there is some connection between the adaptability of these ocean creatures and the adaptability of women in Awabi. In a way, we have all been affected by some sort of trash, even the Ama women (commercialism, strained relationships with men, etc). They seem to be flexible, but are still dwindling in numbers. Could you say more about this?

Great point. It seems to me that the most flexible among my ama is Ayuka, and this is because she is partly nonhuman (or, better, more nonhuman than most humans!). Scientists are finding that some nonhuman species can actually thrive in the seemingly impossible situations we humans are creating. According to the research I’ve done so far, it’s the invertebrates who stand the best chance: a good example is the coconut octopus who uses garbage to its advantage; also certain jellyfish species thrive in polluted, deoxygenated waters where boned fishes can’t survive. Humans, on the other hand, are unlikely to survive what we are doing to our own home planet. Nearly all of the recent epidemics which have killed so many people have begun with humans encroaching on wild habitats and there contracting diseases; and nearly every such disease is exacerbated and spread by factory farming. We like to think that we are the smartest therefore the most adaptable species, but how smart is it to deliberately destroy one’s own habitat? What other animal does that? I can’t think of one.

In Awabi, the Ama see the ocean change so much just in the course of a lifetime. Do you think that by the time you are the age of the Ama, the ocean will have changed as much?

Wow. That’s a huge question. And I have to start with the caveat that I don’t write fiction in order to prophesy, really just to imagine the world from odd or marginalized angles. One thing I’m learning from my research on ocean animals is that it’s impossible to generalize about Earth’s oceans. A single corner of an ocean, say, around the Shima peninsula, contains a wealth of ecosystems; and a different corner, say, the reefs around Bermuda, contains a wealth of totally different ecosystems. Each ecosystem has been subject to different anthropogenic stresses at different times and to different degrees. In Bermuda, my native country, the reefs and the parrotfishes who are their caretakers are protected by rigid laws; so our surrounding waters haven’t seen the amount of devastation that, for example, the Caribbean waters have. Nor have we experienced anything like the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, with its devastating ecological consequences. In addition to that disaster, given that many of the national and international regulations that once tried to protect nonhuman ecosystems are being overturned by governments around the world; given that global warming is accelerating unchecked; and given the extent to which Japan engages in overfishing, whaling even in international waters, and polluting its local waters with heavy industry—it seems likely to me that the ocean in the ama’s vulnerable locales could well be unrecognizable in a few decades’ time.

Is there a question that I didn’t ask you that you would like to answer?

These questions are really amazing. They go way beyond what I dare to hope for from any reader. Some of your questions affirm ideas that the stories didn’t really make explicit; others go beyond the stories to make valuable new connections. Thank you again so much!

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Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s chapbook Awabi (Digging) was the winner of the Digging Press Chapbook Series Award. Her novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal) was a finalist for the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award, American Book Fest’s Best Book Award, the Permafrost Book Prize, and the Eyelands Book Award as well as a PEN Open Book Award nominee. Her nonfiction work includes the award-winning Artificial Wilderness (Selcouth), Listen, we all bleed (New Rivers, forthcoming), and Animals Across Discipline, Time & Space (McMaster). Her work appears in Black Warrior Review, Entropy, The Spectacle, her monthly column at Manqué, and elsewhere.

Jen Fawkes

Mannequin and Wife is a literal map of my obsessions. Old things, the ties that bind us, genre-blending, classic Hollywood, femme fatales, Shakespeare, cannibalism, loneliness, coping strategies, nostalgia, the unknowable-ness of other people (not to mention ourselves), the deep ironies of human existence, and our all-powerful, all-consuming need for control.”

Mannequin and Wife: Stories (LSU Press, 2020)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

I was raised by a struggling single mother who dreamed of being a writer. She was a voracious reader, and she allowed me to pick books from her shelves, which is how I ended up reading books like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and A Spy in the House of Love before I was ten. My mom implanted an abiding love of literature in me, as well as the notion of “being a writer,” but I lack much in the way of self-esteem or -confidence, and as a very young woman never imagined that anyone could possibly want to read anything I’d written. When I turned thirty, however, I decided to give myself over to writing fiction entirely, and I did so (with mixed results). I got an MFA and then a PhD, and sixteen years after I decided I would be a writer, dammit, I have two books coming out. Which is very nice, but not at all what I imagined.

Could you share a representative or pivotal excerpt from your book? Perhaps something that invites the reader into the world of the book?

Yes! Here’s how the book’s first story, “Sometimes, They Kill Each Other,” opens:

“We’re worried about Misty. The youngest stenographer in the pool, she’s been with the firm less than three months. Like the rest of us, she graduated from Ms. Purdy’s Academy, the finest stenography school in the tri- state area, and like Penny, the most senior of us, and Phyllis and Mabel, identical twins who work in tandem, Misty took top honors in her class. It isn’t her typing or her shorthand that has us biting our manicured nails and tugging nervously on the collars of our cashmere sweaters. It’s her flagrant flouting of convention.

Each of us took an instant liking to Misty, from Holly, who can be an utter grump, to Janine, who’s recently switched to decaf, to Penny, who can take months to warm up to a new girl. Having come from Ms. Purdy’s, Misty fit into our tight- knit sweater-set- and- sensible- shoe collective nicely. The fact that her bangs were a bit short and her lipstick the wrong shade of pink didn’t bother us in the least—such imperfections made Misty more appealing. After gently correcting her mistakes, we felt a motherly sense of accomplishment, as though we’d had a hand in her development.

At eight a.m., we stenographers hit the ground running. We don’t stop until the other side of six p.m. There’s no nesting for us; unlike secretaries, we lack the luxury of a desk. Ours is a transient, hardscrabble existence, one that finds us perched on a chair in Personnel in the morning and, after an egg salad or turkey or ham on rye from the sandwich cart, wolfed in the elevator, trotting through the halls after a roaming, dictating vice president in the afternoon. With nothing but a notebook, two pencils, and a thermos full of strong black coffee (or decaf, in the case of Janine), we go where the wind blows us.”

Why did you choose this excerpt?

I chose this excerpt for the same reason that I placed this story at the beginning of the book: I believe the “we” POV invites the reader in, ushers them directly into the narrative, makes them feel as though they’re part of the action. I also believe that “Sometimes, They Kill Each Other” teaches the reader what’s to come: unconventional, darkly comic stories that will ask them to participate in meaning-making; stories that are concerned with what it is to be a woman, as well as a member of the human race.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

Mannequin and Wife is a literal map of my obsessions. Old things, the ties that bind us, genre-blending, classic Hollywood, femme fatales, Shakespeare, cannibalism, loneliness, coping strategies, nostalgia, the unknowable-ness of other people (not to mention ourselves), the deep ironies of human existence, and our all-powerful, all-consuming need for control.

I think every writer (of literary fiction at least) is driven almost exclusively by her desires. The trick is to learn how to shape and channel the product, how to formulate something that others can both grapple with and appreciate.

What’s the oldest story in your book? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?

The story that opens Mannequin and Wife, “Sometimes, They Kill Each Other,” is the oldest story in the book. It’s the first story I wrote that (I feel) really works as a piece of short fiction. I wrote it while pursuing my MFA in 2009, and it took me so many tries to get it right. I tried situating the POV in several individual characters, but when the idea of using the collective first – “we” (the POV of the stenographers in the office) occurred to me, everything else fell into place, and I wrote the whole story (which is essentially the same version that’s in my book) in one sitting. Which has never happened since. Unfortunately!

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

The title story, “Mannequin and Wife,” is the most recently-written piece in the book, and the opening story is the oldest, in terms of chronology. These stories were written over an eleven-year period, so there’s a good bit of distance between them. But I didn’t intentionally order the stories this way – oldest first, newest last. I just tried out various orders (there are twenty-two stories in the book, so this was quite a lengthy process!), and the final order is the one that seemed, to me, to work best.

In terms of the book’s title: I think Mannequin and Wife is not only intriguing but also aptly represents the book’s focus on the difficulty of navigating our most fundamental relationships.

What are you working on now?

I’m editing my next book, Tales the Devil Told Me, winner of the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, which is due out in May of 2021, and attempting to overhaul a novel, a work of speculative feminist historical fiction, set partly in Nashville in 1863 and partly in Ancient Greece.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

Definitely dance! My first aspiration was to be a Solid Gold dancer, and then a Fly Girl. I grew up dancing (ballet mainly, but also jazz and modern), and I really wanted to pursue it, but my body type is all wrong for ballet (I’m something of an Amazon), so it wasn’t in the cards.

As someone who must engage in intense daily cardiovascular exercise in order to survive, I still imagine that being a professional dancer – expressing my artistic impulses through my own body – would have been an ideal life for me. Of course, I’m also aware that in my imaginings, I am completely romanticizing the life of a dancer.

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Jen Fawkes is the author of Mannequin and Wife: Stories (LSU Press). Her story collection Tales the Devil Told Me won the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and is forthcoming in May 2021. Jen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, Lit Hub, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, The Rumpus, Best Small Fictions 2020, and elsewhere, and has garnered prizes from Washington Square Review, The Pinch, Salamander, and others. She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, with her husband and several imaginary friends.

https://www.jenfawkes.com/

Khristian Mecom

“The world is always chaos, but what you make of that chaos and how you allow it to shape you is for you to decide.”

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Things That Cannot Be Tamed (Honeysuckle Press, 2020)

Rebecca Courtney and Hannah Hicks: Things That Cannot Be Tamed discusses the sky, the sea, and the wilderness, in turn. This grounds your book in the physical world, in landscape. Did you begin writing by using those landscapes to shape each chapter, or did that happen as the story took form?

The seed for the chapbook was twofold: I was interested in women pilots who operated in a male-dominated field and the question of why so many people believed in the idea that place (or landscape) shaped them or determined who they were. So, there was definitely an intent to make the landscape a character in the chapbook and in the stories of these women’s lives. Ultimately, I think the idea I landed on (pun slightly intended) was that landscape can shape you, if you allow it to.

Things That Cannot Be Tamed explores the theme of finding home. How were you influenced by your home when writing this story?

Having been born in one place and raised in another, there was a personal element involved for sure. I think like Ida, I was wondering how much of where I’m from influenced me versus how much of where I spent most of my life influenced me. And if I was disconnected from that original place, does that matter? Is it still in me somehow? I’m not sure I answered any of those questions for myself, though.

Having grown up and lived in the contiguous, and mostly Southern, states, how much did you research climate and culture while writing your book?

I did a fair amount of research on Alaskan Inuit culture and myths, as well as pilot related inquiries.

You weave the story backwards in a beautiful narrative of three strong women overcoming the trials of life. What was your inspiration for writing the story this way? Did you always plan to start with Ida, or did you decide this while revising?

The first story I wrote for the book was “We All Come From Somewhere,” which was meant to be a stand-alone short story, and when I finished writing it, I didn’t really have an intention to write more. However, it was one of those strange writing moments when I created Ida’s grandmother that it felt like she was this fully-created character who was waiting for me to tell her story. Eventually, I committed to writing more, and I wrote “Sedna” and then “Things That Cannot Be Tamed.” In putting the chapbook together, I thought it would be interesting to tell the story backwards, in a way, introducing characters and then getting to their full story in the next part.

The middle chapter mentions “the promise of impending change.” The book starts by talking about how enduring the women are. Do they endure because they hope in change, or because they have no other option?

Both. That’s the thing about hope: often, you don’t have any other choice.

In the first paragraph you ask the question, “Did a harsh climate make one harsher?” Does this connect to the idea of nature versus nurture, the physical environment versus the people who care for us?

That is a good interpretation. I perhaps meant it more literally: maybe tough environments naturally make you tougher, or maybe we all just adapt to our climates, and that forms our character in some way. But through the writing of the whole chapbook, I came to realize that family and our own nature is just as important as the nature outside of us.

Ruth seems different from the other two women. Her birth was preceded by “a series of tragedies” that “was the catalyst for Ruth becoming Ruth.” Her life is different, but she still has the same love for Alaska. Why did you create Ruth like this, especially since she is in the middle of the generational line—was it partly to strengthen the bond between Ida and Arna?

Ruth’s creation stemmed from the fact that I named her Ruth because I liked that name and then needed a reason why Arna, who had already been established as spiritual women, would give her daughter a biblical name like that. (Yes, sometimes writing is about solving problems you create for yourself.)

But choosing that name was important, as I liked how the story of the Biblical Ruth kind of had a resonance to the Sedna myth: how marriage has this way of determining a woman’s life and fate. I was also interested in telling a story about what happens when your life doesn’t work out the way you want it to, and then what? What do you do then? So that inherently lead to Ruth’s story being different, as her unhappiness is deeper and her relationship with the landscape is different (as it’s not really where she wanted to be). And while Arna is content with being part of the land and Ida finds a way to define herself outside of it, Ruth has a harder time coming to terms with it.

Ruth’s love story with Will is a break from the tragedy of her life, from her husband leaving her to raising their daughter alone. She keeps her boundaries carefully in check and refuses marriage, even at Arna’s disapproval. Do you think she would have married Will if she had not already been hurt by another man?

Yes, probably, but would it have worked out? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t think it’s so much her boundaries as it is that she has figured out that marriage and the dream of it, or any other life, don’t matter to her happiness.

I love the final scene when the raven carries Arna “clutched in his talons, flying over the trees, over the river, over the sea.” Does this moment convince Arna to return to the Alaskan spirits?

Yes, but I also see that moment as Arna returning to herself, or deciding to be true to herself again. Grief is an all-encompassing thing that can make you feel as if it’s not just the person who you’re grieving over who is gone. So not only does Arna recommit herself to her beliefs but recommits to herself and pushing on despite all her losses.

I notice Ida’s love of flying and the family story about ravens. This reminds me of your interview with Honeysuckle Press when you said, “magical realism has always been my genre of choice for the fact that you can…add in elements that create a sense of that same strangeness and magic that fairy tales contain.” Do the ravens bring magical realism into your story?

The raven and the other “magical” elements are meant to be left up to the reader to decide how magical they are or not. That’s the great thing about magical realism (and generally, letting weirdness into to your writing), as you can add layers and meaning in interesting and odd ways that you don’t always have to have an explanation for.

You graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. How did that experience influence your writing?

I learned most of what I know about writing from attending my MFA program and being guided by thoughtful yet tough professors. The great thing about MFA programs is that they give you the time and the community you need to develop as a writer. Beyond the nuts and bolts of writing, it has taught me how to take myself seriously as a writer as well.

What was it like when you first held your book in your hands? Is there anything you would do differently in your writing life?

Holding your book in your hand is definitely a strange experience in some ways (also a proud moment) because, at last, something you wrote exists outside of a Word doc and your computer. And second, what I would do differently in my writing life is learn to revise more extensively. I’m terrible at it, really, but trying to get better. I just have little patience for it, and plus, I’m not a writer who rewrites extensively. I once heard a writer state they wrote 7-8 versions of a single short story, and I was shocked, because nope, that’s not my method at all. But it’s important, also, to develop your own habits and way of working that work best for you. So, I will never rewrite something 7-8 times, but I still feel that revision is a constant struggle for me.

The title Things That Cannot Be Tamed seems to imply that the three women cannot be tamed by standards, expectations, or their own dissatisfactions. Each woman finds her place and her peace in the Alaskan wild. Is there wisdom here for readers who want to find peace during chaotic times in their lives?

I am by no means an expert at finding peace or contentedness, so the only wisdom I have is the wisdom of my characters, who always seem to have things a little more figured out than I do. What these three women would impart to readers is that the world is always chaos, but what you make of that chaos and how you allow it to shape you is for you to decide.

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Khristian Mecom is the author of the novella Love & Black Holes (Black Hill Press/1888Center) and the chapbook Things That Cannot Be Tamed (Honeysuckle Press). Born in Oklahoma, she grew up and lives in Florida where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. Her short fiction has appeared in Slice Magazine, Fourteen Hills, Passages North, and elsewhere. Find her online at https://khristianmecom.wordpress.com/.