Paula Cisewski

“The story is ruptured, and my own narrator’s memory is ruptured/should be interrogated, and so these tools are useful. For this project, a more traditional narrative would feel dishonest.”


Misplaced Sinister (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2015)

Your most recent publication is prose. Does this mark a shift in your writing away from poetry?

Not a shift so much as an addition, an attempt at saying in new territory. My third full-length collection of poems, The Threatened Everything, will be released by Burnside Review Books soon; and a fourth, Quitter, will be published thanks to Diode Edition’s Prize shortly after. (I’m thrilled these two manuscripts have found a way to make it out into the world near each other in time, as I’ve always considered them related.) I’m also slowly-drafting a fifth, mostly ekphrastic, poetry collection. I think I will always be most at home as a writer inside poems.

Throughout Misplaced Sinister, the prose holds a poetic feel to it. I love the lines, “How well a maze busied and innate, impossible instinct to search.  How terrible my alarm when the #2 lead path I was drawing would bump into an ink wall.” The words are prose, but I can feel where line breaks might go. How does poetry influence you when writing prose? In what ways is your approach to writing prose similar or different from your approach to writing poetry?

Thank you. I have spent most of my life relying on lyric, line break, sound, and association for meaning-making and breaking, for exploration, for questioning. Working inside sentences and paragraphs for long stretches of time is a strange arena. Now that I am experimenting in prose, I suppose I bring what I know (or what I don’t know) to the page. In both genres, it seems like I spend an inordinate amount of time “listening” for what things are speaking to each other, for what is the next right thing to say.

You have several books of poetry published including Ghost Fargo, which won the Nightboat Poetry Prize. What inspired you to write Misplaced Sinister rather than poetry? 

Misplaced Sinister is a section of a larger book which is taking me an almost unbelievably long time to write: I mean, eight years and counting. The themes of the book: a lost brother, broken systems, even some biographical sketches have surfaced and resurfaced in unrelated poems book by book. Poetry has done something, but not everything, for the way I need to explore this content. Since I both require and suspect narrative structure as it relates to this non-story of a thing that needs telling, it is what I find myself immersed in for the moment.

Misplaced Sinister has a fragmentary structure with sections broken into pieces and various interjections which mesh together beautifully. Will this structure carry over into the larger book you may work on?

Thank you, again, and yes. Each section of the book is structured differently, but fragment and interjection are more or less constant. Documents are used. Erasures. The story is ruptured, and my own narrator’s memory is ruptured/should be interrogated, and so these tools are useful. For this project, a more traditional narrative would feel dishonest.

While possibly expanding Misplaced Sinister into a larger work, will more poetry like the opening poem “Into the Labyrinth” which first appeared in REVOLUTION-esque be integrated into the book?

No, I am surprised to say that I don’t think so. In fact, “Into the Labyrinth” has migrated out of the larger manuscript and into the poetry collection Quitter, which I’ve been writing alongside the memoir. Seven or eight labyrinth poems—many called ballads which have had the fortune to appear in literary magazines over the past couple years—have taken that same journey from one manuscript to the other. Often I cannot help but write a poem, but, if ultimately that poem does not forward the prose (not necessarily forwarding the narrative, but troubling the central questions) in some way, it needs to find a new home. I am still very attached to “Into the Labyrinth” opening the chapbook. It serves as a kind of prologue. It did not serve the bigger project, however.

Towards the beginning of Misplaced Sinister, left-handedness is associated with alienation in the “Grandma Grey” anecdote. The final lines of the chapbook relate left-handedness with indecision. Did the prose, as writing sometimes loves to do, take itself in that direction or did you write with the transition in mind from the beginning? 

I write almost nothing—at least nothing that works for me—with much of a plan in mind from the beginning. The “handedness” theme echoes several other ideas throughout the book; usually those pieces are meant to be in conversation with the more lyric or mythic pieces which surround them.

In your recent work, labyrinths play a significant role. What about labyrinths leads you to include them in your writing? 

Partly, I suppose, just their recursive nature: I am forever revisiting. Partly, the whole mythic nature of personal retreat and of facing one’s beast. Mostly the prison metaphor.

In your interview with Andy Fitch, you described the landscape of Threatened Everything as “haunting,” and said you will continue to write about nature and smallness. Do these themes intersect with either left-handedness or labyrinths as you continue to think and write about them? 

Did I say “haunting?” I feel weird if I called anything I wrote haunting. I should have said “haunted.” The world of that book feels haunted and vulnerable and, at times, a little possessed.

Could you tell me a little about your process in writing poetry as well as revision?

I love both and do them as often as I possibly can. Plus I read as much as I can. I still have to schedule blocks of writing time into my calendar to protect it, which can be the hardest part when a person has any other kind of life commitments.

Would you describe your thought process as a labyrinth, maze, or tour puzzle while writing or thinking through a potential piece of prose or poetry?

Oh yes. Each in turn.


Paula Cisewski is also the author of Quitter (Diode Editions Book Prize, forthcoming 2017), The Threatened Everything (Burnside Review Books, forthcoming), Ghost Fargo (Nightboat Poetry Prize, selected by Franz Wright), and Upon Arrival (Black Ocean). She has been awarded fellowships from the Banfill-Locke Center for the arts, the Jerome Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. She teaches, both academically and privately, and curates artful literary events in the Twin Cities.

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