“I’m obsessed with emotions. I sometimes wonder how we all get through life with the overwhelming burden of human emotion.”
four prose poems in is this up
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I’m an only child, my mother raised me to be a reader, and my dad is very curious about the world and the way things work. I think those things combined early on to make me want to be a writer. Reading was my favorite hobby and I loved to use my imagination as a child (what kid doesn’t?!), so I think that wanting to learn new things and create my own stories and worlds was a natural result. Most importantly, my mother always encouraged me in whatever wacky thing I was doing.
When it was time to start deciding on what to do with my life, though, I didn’t consider writing. I loved it still, but I felt drawn to study Christian theology. After I finished school, I was reading George MacDonald and I started brainstorming ideas for theological fairytales with my husband Dominic. He thought I had something and encouraged me to start writing. That’s where Silent Simon and my other writing for children began. If not for my husband, I never would have written a word in adulthood. And after a few years, that writing suddenly became writing for adults as I processed my disgust after the 2016 election.
How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?
Ha! I wish I had a writing space. That sounds luxurious. I just write at the kitchen table, on the couch, or on my bed. I’ve written on a park bench and in my car. Maybe one day I’ll have a designated space to write that is just mine, but for now, I just write however and wherever I can.
Could you share a representative or pivotal excerpt from your contribution to is this up? Perhaps something that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
I’d have to choose the first sentence of “Mess on Milwaukee”: “It was new and strange.”
Why did you choose this excerpt?
I chose it because I think that line and “Mess on Milwaukee” in general establishes the fact that I will explain nothing. The reader may continue through all four of my pieces without knowing what’s going on, and I like that. I don’t intend to confuse readers, but I write what I like, and I like reading mysterious and enigmatic things that make me think and feel without necessarily reaching conclusions.
is this up features work by two writers, so my writing appears with three pieces by Ben Slotky: “A Thousand Feet Tall,” “Million Pounds of Clouds,” and “Thinking About the Then.” I believe “It was new and strange” well describes Slotky’s work as well. For example, here’s a line from “A Thousand Feet Tall”: “Your hat is tilted to shade our eyes. You look down at the stones, the pebbles. Your clawed foot presses down on the pebbles. Now you are a crocodile, a crocodile detective, and this isn’t the same anymore.” Later in the piece, Slotky writes, “And this was a moment, an instance, a dot of glue. A fish in the sun. A father a thousand feet tall. A memory, an instance. Crystal and distinct.”
The intense sense of dislocation and unreality in these pieces is overwhelming—in a good way. That dislocation coexists peacefully with the trueness of the pieces. They are each really lovely and meaningful and jarring. A million thanks to Dominic Caruso, the editor of is this up, for including my work alongside Ben Slotky’s!
What obsessions led you to write these pieces?
I’m obsessed with emotions. I sometimes wonder how we all get through life with the overwhelming burden of human emotion. My constant over-analyzing of my own negative emotions led me to write “Lake Bluff Boulevard” and “Sweet Little Xochimicqui,” and “A Mosaic of Your Face” is sort of a study in madness. Another obsession is with strong images; I prefer symbols and allusions over clear language that leaves nothing to the imagination, which is why I used wooden coins in “Lake Bluff Boulevard” and numbers and pozole in “Sweet Little Xochimicqui.”
What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect how you are and are trying to be as a person?
I’m a Christian, so I hope to be formed and informed by the Bible, liturgy, and Christian mysticism. I don’t really consider myself a “Christian writer” because my work is not explicit or evangelistic, but I do hope that my writing will be similarly influenced. I usually aim to include an element of redemption, even if that element is muted or shrouded. I use hymns, liturgy, and Bible quotes (usually from the prophetic or apocalyptic books) to add depth, distinction, and meaning to my writing. However, there is not much redemption in the pieces that appear in is this up, except for a few lines here and there–for example, the reason the woman does not kill the American Lady and her husband in “Lake Bluff Boulevard” and the need for another victim at the end of “Sweet Little Xochimicqui.” This idea of God’s presence in what’s missing or unexplained was something I learned in my seminary preaching class, which really influenced the fiction I would later write. Also, I think the constant questioning and seeking and just surviving in my writing reflects how I try to live; I’m only human, and I’m always calling out for help from Jesus. What else can I do?
What songs soundtrack the writing of these pieces?
When I was writing these pieces, I was listening to a lot of Sarah Vaughan, Van Morrison, and The Head and The Heart. I played “Autumn in New York,” “Sweet Thing,” and “10,000 Weight in Gold” about one billion times each. Vaughan’s perfect voice and phrasing and the wealth of poetry in Van Morrison’s music were inspirational and I still can’t get enough of them. The lines “I was burned out and lost” and “There’s no light in here now” from “10,000 Weight in Gold” were especially piercing to me; I was going through a difficult transition in 2016 and 2017, and I think the pain of that song made it into these pieces and a number of other things I wrote during this time.
What’s the oldest story in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
“Mess on Milwaukee” is the oldest—I wrote it in May 2017 for a fifty-word contest, which it lost. While working on it, I remember wanting to communicate the feel of the time and place, but not the content or events. I’m not sure I accomplished that goal, but I loved the result.
Which story in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“Sweet Little Xochimicqui” is probably the most meaningful because it’s about my depression, my childhood, and my son. Personification has always been my favorite literary device, so it was actually a lot of fun to write when it wasn’t making me cry! I also enjoyed using elements of my childhood like pozole and my old bedroom. Each monster is real, of course, and that’s why this piece is so dark, at least to me.
Which story is the “misfit” and why?
In a way “Mess on Milwaukee” is a misfit because it’s joyful and forward-looking. It’s the only hopeful piece of the four, and it makes me smile every time I read it. Because of that, it’s definitely distinct from most everything else I’ve written. But on the other hand, all the pieces are rooted in my personal experiences except for A Mosaic of Your Face. Mosaic is full of references to Bayonne, New Jersey (which is where I lived when I wrote it), and I used many phrases that my son actually said to me, but the premise of the story is not something that actually happened to me. I mean, that would be crazy. In that way, it’s the one fictional story, while the other pieces are much closer to creative nonfiction.
Of these prose poems, what was the final story you wrote or significantly revised?
“Sweet Little Xochimicqui” was written last. It began as an addition I wrote for an existing piece, when an editor told me that the original piece was missing something. She didn’t seem to like it with the addition, and the original piece was eventually accepted by another journal. I removed what I had added, morphed it into something that could stand on its own, and renamed it “Sweet Little Xochimicqui.” I love that it really became its own animal, completely different in tone and atmosphere from the original piece. It was a little magical.
Could you share with us a glimpse of your writing practice or process?
My writing process begins with getting interested in something. It could be something as subtle as the way a word sounds. I start making notes about this thing. For days or weeks, I mentally circle the thing and the ideas that spring from it, until my head feels like it’s about to burst, and then I start making more in-depth notes. I write everything down, even really crazy ideas. My mind latches onto one of those and I obsess over it until I have a fully-formed concept. That’s when I begin my first draft. For example, I was fascinated by Bayonne. It was unlike any place I’d lived before, and I made lists of whatever interested me, like Jooche’s Sweet Shop down the street from my apartment, the mechanical room in the library basement, the 81 bus, and Warsaw Deli. I eventually had a bank of ideas to work with when I finally sat down to write something weird about the city.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I don’t know if this qualifies, but I love to just ask, “What if?” and go from there. I usually do this in conjunction with my favorite things, like cities I’ve lived in, outer space, or time. For example, when I wrote “A Mosaic of Your Face,” I asked myself, “What if there was a personal evil in Bayonne, conspiring against you?”
In terms of revision, my strategy is to edit the piece over and over until I’ve removed every extraneous word. Every word that remains really has to earn its place. Writing flash and short stories has taught me to cut the fat!
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your contribution to is this up? How would you answer it?
I wish I’d been asked what agonizes the woman in “Lake Bluff Boulevard” so much: it’s her job as a nanny.
What are you working on now?
I just completed a 1500 word piece for The Cantabrigian Magazine’s Wyoming Project. The Cantabrigian’s website describes the project as “[p]art choose-your-own adventure, part exquisite corpse, part fiction pyramid scheme”: authors contribute by using previously written work as prompts. I’m not sure what Jamie Hovis, the editor-in-chief, had in mind when he asked me to write something for this project, but I’m using my ‘chapters’ to explore the dislocation and sense of loss I’m feeling after moving back to California this summer after ten years of living in other states, so it’s been therapeutic for me. I also can’t believe I was invited to contribute to something; getting that email from Jamie was very validating. Now, I’ll be working on completing the short story and flash that got derailed by my cross-country move.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I was very involved in my high school drama club. Acting was another childhood dream, and it invigorated and enriched my adolescence. I still love reading plays, mostly Neil Simon. I also took ceramics classes throughout high school, which I absolutely loved. This sounds terrible to write, but I loved getting involved in a project so deeply that I forgot anyone else was around; in high school, that was a great reprieve.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
KEEP WRITING NO MATTER WHAT! I never believed I’d fulfill my childhood dream of becoming a writer. Somehow it happened. But it never would have happened if I hadn’t kept on writing and submitting my work. Also, I do believe in taking others’ advice and reading widely and improving your writing, but I also strongly believe that what matters most is whether you like your writing or not. I enjoy writing. I like exploring the world through the filter of my weirdness. If my writing became artificial in some way, I might just stop doing it. I guess my advice is to write for yourself.
Laura Arciniega is a fiction writer whose work has appeared in is this up, Burnt Pine Magazine, Saint Katherine Review, Rock & Sling, formercactus, and elsewhere. She also earned a Certificate of Merit in the 2017 Deep River Books Writer’s Contest for her unpublished middle-grade fantasy novel Silent Simon. She was born in Southern California and spent her childhood there and in Mexico, Illinois, and Texas. She holds an MDiv from Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. Laura lives with her husband and son in the Inland Empire.
Find her on Twitter @LauraAArciniega