Sara Ryan

“The evidence of human activity can be abundant and diverse. It’s terrible and beautiful, but it’s all happening on this earth, suspended in the universe, which is a miracle on its own.”

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Excellent Evidence of Human Activity (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2019)

Your writing suggests several personal passions and areas of activism: the environment, living creatures, expressions of love. How do your convictions inform your writing? How much of your writing is motivated by a spirit of activism?

I wouldn’t say that my writing is motivated by activism, necessarily, but a lot of those feelings about the environment and animals stem from empathy! I’m an observant person, and I collect a lot of my griefs and concerns about the world, animals, my relationships as I observe them, and put those concerns into my writing. I do have a lot of worry about the environment and climate change, though, and much of what I write about in regards to those topics comes from the news and what is happening in the world right now. A lot of those current concerns are hard to care about without considering activism and politics and the way that powerful entities are treating our world.

I’m interested in your decision to omit conventional capitalization in some of the essays. Can you elaborate on this? And on why the essay “This Was Never About Pain” breaks this “un-capitalized” pattern?

I’m a poet first, and even though I write a lot of nonfiction and this book is mainly short essays, my poetic aesthetic never really leaves me. I choose not to capitalize words, other than proper nouns, as an aesthetic choice. I think lack of capitalization evokes a play with the formality of “the essay” and visually signals that these essays won’t be traditional or expected. However, in the longer essays, “This Was Never About Pain” and “Maybe We Will Lie About This,” my editors and I came to the consensus that opting for more traditional capitalization made more sense.

“This Was Never About Pain” braids biographical and autobiographical elements, analysis of a historical figure and self-reflection from you, the author. When intertwining your narrative with William Temple Hornaday’s, did you discover more about yourself? Additionally, when did you realize that the two narratives would fit together well?

I wrote this essay in a nonfiction workshop, and we were actually challenged to write about “the first time something happened to us,” “a historical figure” and “an animal” – I didn’t know how I would respond initially, but I did a lot of varied research stemming from my own interests and personal memories. I thought of the first time I was stung by a bee, a memory that feels very bright in my mind. I thought of this character, William Temple Hornaday, who I had researched for a different class, and I thought about buffalo. Initially, these three threads of the “braid” felt very separate, but upon researching more and more, they start to bleed together. That’s the beauty of research: how connections reveal themselves to you. I also think that researching people, like William Temple Hornaday, allows us to look more clearly at ourselves, our personalities, our idiosyncrasies. I am not very similar to Hornaday at all, though I did feel like learning about him made me look at myself in a new light.

Your collection explores extinction as a theme and a reality. You describe extinction as “another kind of pain” in the essay mentioned above. You suggest that extinction is about human selfishness, hence the very pointed title Excellent Evidence of Human Activity. Can you elaborate more on your desire to explore extinction? How do you think the theme reality fits into the wider canon of literature?

Extinction can mean so many things! The natural world carries extinction with it, almost constantly, but there are also small extinctions that happen in our daily lives, in contemporary, modern contexts. I wanted to explore how extinction can exist on multiple planes and take multiple meanings – the entirety of life on Earth could go extinct, or your love for a boy can go extinct, an animal, a bird, a family relationship; all of these things have their own life expectancies. Some live on, some end earlier, some die natural deaths, and some die because of selfishness. I wanted to illustrate the multitudinous ways that endings happen.

Extinction is sometimes about human selfishness (the buffalo, the bees), but extinction has also been happening for thousands if not millions of years, before humans walked this earth. It’s easy to blame humans for their silly human-ness, but I think it’s harder to realize that everything will die, and sometimes there’s nothing we can do about it.

The narrating voices of this collection are quite acrobatic, shifting and turning in surprising ways. Occasionally, the narrator refers to an elusive “you,” perhaps an ex-lover. Can you explain your creative process when writing about past love? What makes love integral to your book, which is about nature and the state of the environment?

I have loved places and landscapes and animals, but I also have loved people and men and family. I wanted to show how love can be varied and important in many forms. I wanted the “you” to be a bit ambiguous, because it’s hard to name who we love and why; it could be a person or animal or place, or even myself.

Toward the end of your book you write that “nail-biting is a form of self-cannibalism… I don’t feel like I’m eating myself, because that’s too strange to think about.” This suggests the destructive nature of humanity, which you examine throughout the book. While most of the other pieces are about humanity negatively impacting the environment and living creatures, this passage deals more with self-destruction. Why did you choose to write about both self-destruction and destruction of the world?

I think that this goes back to human selfishness—I wanted to show that, even with the world churning away and living and dying and being hurt, we still worry about ourselves and our own personal destruction. I wanted to show these large concerns about the world and the environment, but I also wanted to show some selfishness. Even while caring about the world around me, the animals, the environment, the national parks, the rivers, the canyons, I can’t help but worry about my love life, my family, my bad hangnails, my teeth. It’s hard to compartmentalize life, and so I tried to show that these concerns all bleed together.

The essay “Twenty-One Ways to Leave Your Lover” was a refreshing turn in the collection. Just when I thought I had figured out the narrator, the themes, and the motivation of the book, I felt thwarted by this essay. Additionally, this essay follows a very different structure. The numbered list was an enjoyable surprise. Do the impact of a bad lover and the environmental impact of humanity represent different “evidences of human activity”?

As I said in an earlier answer, I wanted to show how human activity happens on large and small scales. We destroy the earth in many ways, but we also sabotage relationships and have annoying experiences with lovers and kill house plants. This essay began as a list poem, but I pushed myself to consider it as an essay, as a small extinction in the narrative of this book. I also think that this essay is somewhat funny (I read it almost every time I read from this chapbook) and breaks up the darker themes of death and extinction.

How has your educational experience impacted your writing life? Has your exposure to higher education influenced the themes you explore in your work?

I think that my educational experience has mostly dictated when I write and how much I write because I’m often writing towards a deadline or a final project or a workshop due date. However, I think that my interests remain my own, and would still be my own outside of higher education. Perhaps I am more comfortable or prone to turning to the library or outside research because graduate school has encouraged me to do so; however graduate school or higher education definitely doesn’t mean I’m a better researcher or more qualified to research than anyone else.

If anything, being a student has always been there to nudge me forward when I needed a nudge or a reason to write. It took me a long time to be comfortable pursuing and beginning larger nonfiction writing projects on my own, without a class structure, but now I feel confident in saying that, if higher education fell away from my life, I would still be writing poetry and nonfiction voraciously, and even perhaps in a more raw and genuine way.

Writers often bring personal experiences to the writing desk. How have your experiences of gender, ethnicity, faith, or age impacted the voice or topics of your writing?

As a woman, I do feel like I am very in tune with the environment and the animal world. Men often want to control us all: the animals, the environment, the natural world, and the female body. This is something that has definitely made its way into my writing.

Self-reflection seems important in your book. When did you know that your own personal reflections needed to be put on paper? Is there value in revealing to an audience ways you have self-corrected or grown as an individual? Could you discuss, as a nonfiction writer, your commitment to a lifestyle of transparency?

I think, as a poet as well, that I can’t write without being personally invested in the writing. There is a lot of great writing right now about the natural world and the environment and climate change, but I wanted my commentary on these issues to be uniquely my own, and that required my reflections and my personal experiences to be a large part of my thoughts on the natural world. I also think that being genuine is important, especially while making an effort to be transparent. I never want to be a benevolent and faultless narrator; I make mistakes and am selfish and self-destructive, but I also care about animals and the natural world around me. I think that recognizing faults and personal growth goes hand in hand with discussing the natural world and the environment, especially since humans have long made mistakes with how they have treated the world.

“A Mischief of Rats” talks about how disgusting rats are and uses them to describe what humans are like. If I may, what inspired you to write this piece? Is this your perspective on what our species has become?

I mostly was inspired to write this piece by learning that a group of rats is called a “mischief.” It got me wondering—why? Rats are predictable, and driven by simple needs like hunger. However, humans are actually mischievous—they’re vindictive and manipulative and selfish. Who are we to say that rats are horrible creatures when we are just the same, or maybe even worse?

In “Keeping Plants Alive,” you write about your sister and your desire to take care of a flower. Are there connections between your sister and the flower?

I wrote this piece about my inability to keep house plants alive and my desire to keep my sister alive. My younger sister, an addict, has been close to dying many times, and I only want to keep her alive, but like the plants, it isn’t that simple. You can over-water them, fuss over their leaves and soil, and ultimately do more damage than good. This piece was a reflection on wanting to take care of a plant, or my sister, but needing to get a plant that is “hard to kill” because I’m too harsh with how I love things.

In “This is a Time Capsule,” you write about nature, beautiful animals, and some delicious food. I love the ending: “today, the world is suspended in orbit, grinning on an axis tilt, just far enough from the sun, like some kind of magic.” Could you discuss this a bit?

I wrote this piece thinking about how it is so easy to see the ugliness in the world, the death, the extinction, the pain, the disaster, but how important it is to see the good things as well: the apple tart, the family of panthers in Florida, the baby giraffe, the new species of dinosaur discovered. I placed this piece at the beginning of the chapbook to show how this evidence of human activity can be abundant and diverse. It’s terrible and beautiful, but it’s all happening on this earth, suspended in the universe, which is a miracle on its own.

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Sara Ryan is the author of the chapbooks Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned (Porkbelly Press) and Excellent Evidence of Human Activity (The Cupboard Pamphlet). In 2018, she won Grist’s Pro Forma Contest and Cutbank’s Big Sky, Small Prose Contest. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from Brevity, Kenyon Review, Pleiades, DIAGRAM, Thrush Poetry Journal, and others. She is currently pursuing her PhD at Texas Tech University.

https://www.sararryan.com/

 

Erica Soon Olsen

“I wanted to explore the American relationship with the natural world in a different way, looking at European myth and folklore and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the landscape of the American West.”

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Girlmine (Bull City Press, 2019)

What inspired you to become a writer? How do you stay inspired?

I’m the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of immigrants. My mother came to California from South Korea in the 1960s, and my father’s mother and his grandparents came from Norway and Sweden, settling in Brooklyn, New York, in the first decades of the twentieth century. Growing up, I was often around relatives who spoke another language or who had a very different background from my 1960s–1970s suburban upbringing. This inspired and continues to inspire my curiosity about other people’s stories—the ones that were told to me and the ones that were never told, the secrets.

What draws you to writing flash fictions?

I don’t usually call my very short stories “flash fiction,” but I do like the implications of the word “flash.” It suggests an explosion, a burst, a flare of some kind.

Do you have a favorite flash author?

Yes, Carl Sandburg. I like his stories in a book called Rootabaga Stories, from 1922, which I think is supposed to be a book of stories for children, but they are surreal, like American Kafka on the prairie. My favorite one of his stories is “The Two Skyscrapers Who Decided to Have a Child.” Is it OK if I quote something? The skyscrapers tell each other, “if we have a child she must be free to run across the prairie, to the mountains, to the sea. Yes, it must be a free child.” Their child is a cross-country train. And then there’s a terrible accident, a railroad accident. It’s a tragedy in six pages.

One noticeable aspect of Girlmine is its size. What led you to make such a compact collection?

Bull City Press, the publisher, calls Girlmine a micro-chapbook. It’s part of a series called Inch, which used to be a small-format literary magazine and now features the work of one author in each chapbook, varying between fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. So the size of the collection was determined by the requirements of the micro-chapbook format.

In Girlmine, you allude to Daphne, Apollo, and other mythological figures. Could you say more about this?

In my previous story collection, Recapture, there’s a lot of questioning of the natural world, especially places like national parks and scenic landscapes. For example, in a story called “Grand Canyon II,” the premise is that the Grand Canyon is off-limits to visitors because of a disaster. Grand Canyon II is a convincing replacement created through 3D printing. In another story, “Utah WildMall Rangers,” park rangers work in an environment where the canyon country landscape is sort of perpetually Instagram-ready, with scheduled rainbows—but the place starts to malfunction. With these new stories in Girlmine, I wanted to explore the American relationship with the natural world in a different way, looking at European myth and folklore and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the landscape of the American West. So, for example, in Girlmine, the story called “Daphne: The Aspen Version” begins: “In ancient Greece, Daphne flees Apollo and is changed into a laurel tree. In Colorado, in the Uncompahgre National Forest, she becomes an aspen, taking root on the steep north-facing slopes below Lone Cone, looking toward Mount Wilson and El Diente. It happens in August, bow-hunting season.” I liked the combination of myth and a detailed, accurate description of setting. The story takes place near where I used to live in southwestern Colorado, in a part of the forest where I’ve camped and hiked many times.

What would you say the overall message about women is in Girlmine?

Let’s see. The collection overall has no message about women, though the male characters in the stories may believe such messages exist. In the sequencing of the stories, the girls and women may seem initially to be closer to nature or more capable of transformation, but by the end, the lonely male Norwegian house spirit, who has accidentally emigrated and is trapped in America, also transforms himself.

Is there a story in Girlmine that borrows or remixes real events from your life?

The last story, “Assimilation, Sunset Park,” is the most directly inspired by real events. Not the idea of a house spirit! That part is inspired by Norwegian folklore. But the details of emigration from Stavanger, Norway, and the house in Brooklyn are based on emigration stories from my father’s family.

Did the title Girlmine come after you chose that story to be the opening story, or did you choose the title and write a story based on it?

The story and its title came first. When I gathered these stories together, it seemed like a title that would fit the whole collection, with its emphasis on experiences that are in some way enchanted or treasured, for better or for worse.

Are you working on another short story collection? If so, what are some themes you’re exploring?

I’m working on some new short stories. I’m also working on a nonfiction book manuscript about the sense of home and the places where my Korean, Norwegian, and Swedish ancestors lived. By this I mean both their actual houses, some of which are still standing today, as well as their larger communities. In the book, I revisit these places, many of which I’ve been lucky enough to visit in person, and explore my own lifelong search, as a multiracial American, for a place to call home. There’s a connection between the stories in Girlmine that reference Scandinavian culture and this nonfiction project. The general focus of my new writing is the intersection of emigration history with stories of the American West.

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Erica Soon Olsen was born in Hollywood, California. She is the author of Recapture & Other Stories (Torrey House Press), a collection of short fiction about the once and future West, and a micro-chapbook, Girlmine (Inch #40, Bull City Press). Her stories and essays have also appeared in Gulf Coast, High Desert Journal, ZYZZYVA, and other literary magazines. She lives in northeastern Utah.

https://www.ericasoonolsen.com/ 

Karen Babine

“Cooking is just one more way to counter the unknowing in the world.”

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All the Wild Hungers:  Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions, 2019)

First of all, I read in your interview with Erica Rivera for City Pages that you hoped that the book was universal enough that people could read themselves in it, whether they were familiar with cancer or not. I think All the Wild Hungers does this so amazingly well. As someone who personally saw a complicated dynamic between food and cancer in my grandmother’s life, I haven’t found any other writing to portray this so accurately and earnestly. How did the food metaphors and representation of life through food, both pain and celebration, come to you? You said early on that you began seeing food everywhere. What made you see food everywhere? 

The book really started when my  mom’s doctors started talking in food metaphors—her cabbage sized tumor, the chemotherapy infusions, the drug cocktails. At the same time, my middle sister was pregnant and we were all following Baby Center for how big the baby was each week, and it was always a fruit or a vegetable. Because my mom’s was a uterine tumor, and my sister was pregnant, and both were described in food terms—that’s the friction that really started the book. I’m always looking for where ideas rub against each other to create heat, which is a different thing than tension or conflict. Here were several things that shouldn’t coexist in this way, and yet they were. After my mom recovered from the hysterectomy that removed the tumor and she started chemo, my goal, as someone who likes to cook, was to feed her anything she’d eat—and my stress relief of choice was thrifting, where I started to find all kinds of expensive Le Creuset and Descoware cast iron for really cheap. It started with a skillet, whose name is Agnes, and exploded from there. I’ve recently moved to Chattanooga and getting my cast iron up on the wall was one of my first projects.

How did you decide on the overall organization and form of All the Wild Hungers? How did you make the decision that 64 short essays works best? 

I always knew that the essays would be short—and I kept thinking of them as micro-essays, because I wrote each of them to stand alone—but the overall organization didn’t come till later in the process. There wasn’t a particular order how I wrote them; they usually started with ruminations over what I had cooked the night before. I was doing Morning Pages—three pages of longhand writing before I did anything else in the day—and that’s how the book got written, three pages at a time. There isn’t a significance to 64. That’s just how many there were. In terms of large-scale organization, I wanted to avoid chronological order, and so I tried all kinds of options, including organizing by color, but in the end my editor asked me to try putting it in chronological order, which I did, and of course it solved all the problems I was having with connective tissue.

Throughout the book, there are so many surprising polarities presented via food metaphors. There is the obvious and perplexing comparison of the size of your sister’s baby in terms of fruit and vegetables contrasted with the size of your mom’s tumor. There is also the sharp contrast of emotions when considering the sorrowful, vulnerable moments of your mom’s illness alongside the lighter moments about comfort food and cast iron. Why does food play such a universal and all-encompassing role in our lives? At any moment, food seems to be present and even pivotal in shaping that moment. Why do you think that is?

Food is universal—we all need sustenance to survive. And it’s good to remember that food is never neutral. We place all kinds of values—and politics—over who gets food, who does and does not deserve assistance, food deserts, food culture growing out of specific places. Food is always political, always a link to some other idea, some other person, some other group. But in my own experience, food is how we love each other. I come from rural northern Minnesota. Where two or three are gathered, there’s always something to eat. The county where my hometown is grows all the potatoes for McDonald’s French fries, but I also remember the little old ladies in our church going out and gleaning potatoes in the fall to make lefse, which is kind of a very, very thin potato flatbread, sort of. Those ladies held so much history, so much food history in their hands. This week, I flipped through the 1986 Bethany Lutheran Church cookbook that holds my favorite banana bread recipe—Helen’s Banana Blueberry Bread—and made Dorothy Johnson’s Golden Delight pancakes. I wasn’t a huge fan of them, but honestly, there are few things in the world I trust more than old church cookbooks with recipe titles like “Never Fail.”

Another interesting polarity: When thinking about your love for research and the lack of research available for your mom’s type of cancer, how did you face this opposition and the acceptance of the unknown? 

That part was really hard and I think that’s why I ended up so deep in cooking—it was something I could know, something I could depend on. When I started thinking about the many ways we deal with the unknown, I came to some of the essays on mythology, philosophy, chemistry. There are a thousand ways to know something.

In both this work and Water and What We Know, readers notice the strong sense of place and your deep roots in Minnesota. I was wondering if there is connection between your family’s traditions with food and being dependent on or related to place?

Oh, yes, without a doubt. I didn’t expect this book to be so strongly place-based, but the reality is that you can’t separate a food culture from its place. It’s dependent on how long the growing season is, what food deserts are in place, what the soil can grow, all of that. I was thinking about the food associated now with the pandemic, the various Twitter and Instagram accounts helping people cook what’s in their pantries—but a few weeks ago, as I was stocking up, I told my dad that I just needed to remember that we know how to do this. I needed to stock up like it was the early 1980s in northern Minnesota on one parental salary with the grocery store 15 miles away and a garden with a growing season of three months. I started thinking about what we ate when I was a kid. A lot of meat in the freezer, potatoes in the basement. I don’t have a garden anymore, but I do have a chest freezer (one of the first things I bought after I graduated and started my first job) and I stocked up on frozen veggies. I made my mom’s honey whole wheat bread a few days ago—I’m not a bread baker—and that’s going to take some practice, but all my classes are online now, so I have the time to let the bread rise while I do other things. The smell of it reminds me of my childhood, where my mother made that bread weekly because it was cheaper than buying it.

On the first page on All the Wild Hungers, you introduce yourself as a member of “a small, tightly knit family that likes to think in Proper Nouns, to name things.” Throughout the memoir, you bring this affinity for names to life. You affectionately refer to your niece and nephew as “the niblings,” and, as your vintage cast-iron cookware collection grows, each skillet, Dutch oven, and pot receives its own name: Agnes, Estelle, Phyllis, Poppy. By naming the niblings and the individual pieces of cast-iron cookware, you transform general into specific, abstract into concrete. By naming things, you acknowledge their importance. Does the same go for a book’s title? For you, a person with plenty of practice naming things, how does the title of All the Wild Hungers acknowledge the specific, concrete importance of the stories told within?

To be honest, I’m terrible at naming. I’m really bad at titles—All the Wild Hungers came from a dream, if you can believe it. But you’ll notice that the only people in the book who have names are those who have passed away. If they’re alive, they’re referred to by their initials. That was deliberate. I wanted the reader to start skipping over the initials, or substituting their own associations with those initials, towards that universal quality. The other part was that the only story I felt I could tell was mine. The kids couldn’t consent to being in the book, so I wanted to create some distance for that reason too. But I’ve always been a little weird in naming things. Most important objects in my life get a name.

All the Wild Hungers is subtitled “a season of cooking and cancer.” Though these topics seem unrelated at first, you tie them together by telling stories about the “food metaphors” your mother’s oncologists frequently used, such as “cabbage-sized tumor” or “drug cocktail.” These metaphors seem to trouble and fascinate you. Do remember when you first questioned a doctor’s use of a food metaphor? Could you immediately pinpoint why the metaphor troubled you?

The subtitle is a play on seasons of the year, seasoning food, and we ended up cutting out the third piece, which was cast iron, and you season your cast iron as well. It’s no secret in the book that I’m not fond of my mother’s oncologist and I’m still not. I always felt like he treated her cancer and forgot she was a person. I think I was probably predisposed to dislike anything he said.

About two-thirds of the way through All the Wild Hungers, you write: “This is the place where I fully ignore the ugly food metaphors of cancer and decide that I will create my own damn metaphors.” What new metaphors have you created since you finished writing All the Wild Hungers?

Nothing really since the book was finished, though this year was the first time in four years that I didn’t celebrate the Holy Week of the Kitchen. Social distancing and pandemic fears put the kibosh during that week and my cat died, so I didn’t really feel like cooking. But since moving to the south, I’ve been looking for the different ways food functions here and how I can be a part of it. In January, three friends and I started a cookbook club, where we choose one cookbook, the host makes the main dish, two make the sides, and the fourth makes dessert (obviously there can be more involved…we only had tables big enough for four). The first one was Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s The Splendid Table and I hosted. It was so much fun. February was Beth Dooley and Lucia Watson’s Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland at H’s house. March was supposed to be at A’s house, but we canceled because of the pandemic and had a virtual happy hour instead.

Throughout All the Wild Hungers, cooking seems to become a sacred ritual. At one point, you write, “I place my faith in old church cookbook recipes titled ‘Never Fail,’ today of all days, when we hold tight to the vehemence of I love you and that what remains are these: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.” If we’re defining religion in the broadest sense of the term, does it seem accurate to interpret cooking as a type of religion? Were you thinking about faith as you were writing All the Wild Hungers?

I think it’s more accurate to say that cooking is just one more way to counter the unknowing in the world. My dad’s a retired pastor and I’m fascinated by theology, even as I would have trouble identifying where my faith stands these days. But in that chapter, I’d just come from my friend’s wife’s funeral and even though I’m not Catholic, I was comforted by the rituals of the funeral.

One of my favorite moments in All the Wild Hungers was when you, a vegetarian, tried to master a recipe for bone broth. As you cooked, you thought, “If my mother eats bones, her bones will become strong.” This thought process seems similar to what Christians consider as they take communion, the idea that the body and blood of Jesus Christ give them the power to overcome their own sinful natures. Even if the religious connection wasn’t intentional on your part, does food, both the cooking and the eating of it, contain a healing component for you?

Oh, definitely—there’s a chapter in there about eucharist, and the idea of consuming the thing you want to become is a very old idea. Like I said, my dad’s a pastor and I grew up in a rural community in which food was a part of everything: coffee hour after church, soup suppers on Wednesday nights during Lent, lunches after funerals. The culture I grew up in believed in food as a way to love each other, a way to be together.

In an interview with Julija Šukys, you said, “Food is never neutral. Food is political. It is the product of history, culture, and place.” You allude to the relationship between social class identity and food when speaking about growing up in a household that is very conscious of waste, stating, “To be a bad cook was to waste food and that waste was unacceptable”. In what other ways do you see American identities connected and intertwined with food?

You can’t separate food from its place. We often think of corned beef and cabbage as quintessentially Irish, but corned beef was the cheapest cut of meat Irish Americans could get. The Irish in Ireland will have rashers of bacon—closer to ham than our bacon—with their cabbage. There’s a part in the book where I found a Swedish rice pudding recipe in an old Nebraska cookbook which resembled my own family’s recipe, except it was baked, not simmered. That probably reflected the fuel available in both places.

In the same interview, you talked about the role of research in your writing and how it is often your favorite part of the process, particularly for your nonfiction work. You said, “Most of the research I did was serendipitous, and it appeared when I needed it.” Do you find that this is often the case when writing nonfiction or was it a nice coincidence? How do you usually go about the research process while writing?

Research is my ignition point and it often comes from a place of serendipity, an article I read or a tweet, or something like that. It’s often the point that makes me want to go read more, figure out something I didn’t know before. The volcano essay from my first book, Water and What We Know, literally started by reading an article about the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption and learning that it was the largest landslide in recorded history, which caused my brain to go really? In all of recorded history, that was the largest? And that sent me on a scavenger hunt of research about volcanoes, which led to a lot of interesting places. I teach writing—and have taught first year writing for a long time—and a lot of my students consider research a dirty word. We only dislike research when it’s not something we choose. But we get lost in the links of Wikipedia all the time. One of my current favorite guilty pleasures of odd research is a blog called The Court Jeweller, which is about the jewels that various royal families are wearing. The history—and the sheer distance from my life and anything I understand—hits me in all the right places right now.

Do the process of cooking and the process of writing overlap? When reading about the way you care for the slow but rewarding process of making specific foods, I always go back to how similar and true this rings for writing. It’s often so slow and tedious but also so nourishing and healing. Do you see other similarities between the two? 

I can see the similarities, for sure. Both of them often exist in their finished states in a way that makes it hard to see all the work that goes into their creation. It’s easy to forget that a piece of writing had a lot of drafts and revision under it, or that the beautiful Instagram dinner is the product of a lot of trial and error. Anything worth doing is worth learning the process of it, getting into the muscle memory of the thing. My mom made this wonderful honey whole wheat bread when I was growing up and I make it occasionally (bread isn’t my favorite baking activity), but I made some last week. The more you do it, the more you realize what the dough is supposed to feel like when you’ve kneaded it enough (I don’t think I knead mine enough), and the same is true for writing: when you know your process well enough, you recognize things about where you are in the writing that you can’t see otherwise.

Here’s a passage I love: “But this is the way we think about illness, about suffering, about crucibles, the goal of which is to come out on the other side with some sort of transcendent knowledge, a revelation, an epiphany, an arc toward recognizing how different we are now from who we were before cancer. But that’s ridiculous. We want that shining epiphany, but we don’t get it. I don’t know why we expect is, but we do.” Do you see this relating to writing at all– that either as writer or reader we expect to have those types of experiences? How do we deal with times, especially as writers, when that is not the case, when we expect the “shining epiphany, but we don’t get it”?

I really wanted to resist a narrative arc in this book, because there wasn’t a moment where we could say hallelujah, she’s cured! and then get on with our lives. I very deliberately don’t write about things that hurt very often, because it often does feel like there’s pressure to figure out what it means, what the experience has to teach us, and how it makes into the person we are, and I really wanted to acknowledge the fact that no, things don’t happen for a reason. They just happen. And we have to figure out our way through the best we can.

In your interview with Julija Šukys, you discussed the micro-essay as a variation of the prose poem: “Each micro-essay is based in an idea, not just an image or a story. Each piece presents an intense moment and idea, and then it’s over, and the reader can take a breath and digest it, and move on, or move away.” This innovative form truly fits the content of All the Wild Hungers, which twists the familiar narrative of cancer and recovery into something new, begging the question—which came first, the form or the content? When you started writing All the Wild Hungers, did you intend to experiment with form, or did you simply focus on the ideas?

I didn’t expect to experiment with form. In their original form, these pieces were much longer—and I only thought I’d get one essay out of it, but that quickly turned out not to be the case. As I was trying to empty my brain onto the page, I worked hard to figure out what I needed to do to make the page relevant to readers. I avoid thinking about how readers can relate, because as I keep going back to the Hmong memoirist Kao Kalia Yang quoting her father, that “the human life is individual, it is not unique”—and even if there’s been cancer in your experience, it’s not the same as my mom’s and that’s not enough to sustain a page. I needed to figure out a way in for a reader who had no experience with cancer—and for me, that always means towards playing with the ideas that underlie an experience. Experience, or story, then, becomes the example, or the illumination, of something else.

The micro-essay seems to be a relatively new form. Since All the Wild Hungers contains 64 of them, you seem like a bit of a pioneer. Have you considered your role in shaping a larger literary movement? Do you expect the micro-essay to become an increasingly popular form?

Nah, it’s not new—Brevity has been publishing flash nonfiction for twenty years.

In that last question, I asked you to look forward to the future of the micro-essay. In this question, I’d like to ask you to look backward. Who did you draw inspiration from when writing All the Wild Hungers?

Flash nonfiction wasn’t a form I’d spent much writing in before this book, so I did a lot of reading, a lot of research into it, from going back into Brevity’s archives, rereading Dinty Moore’s awesome Rose Metal Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction, but I also spent a lot of time reading short books, to figure out what made them tick. I read Brian Doyle’s The Wet Engine, Julija Šukys’ Siberian Exile. I did a lot of reading into prose poetry, particularly looking at the poetic volta. It was a good reminder that the genres have more to learn from each other than separates us.

At times, your writing questions the idea of the individual as something that can exist apart from its place or its community. You discuss the science of cells from other people existing within our own bodies, and you mention the “generational memory” tied to some of your favorite recipes. However, in your interview in Fourth Genre, you argue that “while we may have common experiences, it’s absolutely impossible for us to relate to the experience of another.” There’s an interesting juxtaposition here. Our identities are strongly tied to things like our biology, memory, history, and community, but we still struggle to identify with each other. In All the Wild Hungers, or your writing in general, how do you deal with this juxtaposition? Do you try to craft an on-page persona that readers can relate to, or do you try to appeal to universal themes, or do you do something else entirely?

One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had with my students this semester involves talking about how the writer is the one who controls how much the reader knows and it’s the writer who controls how close the reader gets to the subject. I taught the Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy, who wrote her first book in 1964 about biking from Ireland to India alone, and she’s got a very distant narrator on the page. We never get very close to what she’s thinking or feeling—and there’s even a scene in Azerbaijan where she is almost raped, but the entire scene is only a paragraph long, and the tone doesn’t change. She could be writing about what she had for breakfast. She had to be terrified, but we don’t see that in her narrator—and then we could talk about why she made that choice, why she probably chose to include that moment in that way, and how she was a solo woman traveling when few women were writing that work. The majority of travel writers were (and still are) men. Her readers would likely be men. She likely didn’t want to give them any excuse to say well, what did you expect, traveling alone? In that interview with Julija, she commented that readers don’t get to know me very well by the end of it—and that’s deliberate. The book isn’t about me. I’m just the one taking all these pieces and trying to make sense of something that is fundamentally inexplicable.

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Karen Babine is the author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer and Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life, winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. She is currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

www.karenbabine.com

Paula Carter

“When we are able to be honest and vulnerable, without hedging, that is when we are able to reflect the deep truths of our world.”

carter images

No Relation (Black Lawrence Press, 2017)

The experiences that you share in No Relation are emotionally complex and deeply personal; what was the process of writing, editing, and eventually publishing such vulnerable material like for you?

I often share with my students a quote from Robert Olen Butler that directs an artist to “go into the white hot center” of themselves without flinching. When we are able to be honest and vulnerable, without hedging, that is when we are able to reflect the deep truths of our world. 

That is not to say it isn’t hard and scary! The week before No Relation was published I had a bit of a panic attack as it became real that I was putting this raw part of myself out there for everyone to see. Still, I am so grateful to all of the writers who have come before me who have been willing to do that. Writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Rachel Cusk. I wanted to contribute to that tradition in my small way. And what I have found is that when I am willing to be vulnerable as a writer, the reader is willing to go there with me. I’ve had many people reach out to say the book made them feel seen and that is a remarkable thing. 

In “Memory” you write: “On Science Friday, Steve Ramirez of MIT explains how we think of memory like a tape recorder. We think we can replay it just as it happened. But it is not like that at all. He calls it a ‘reconstructive process.’ Every time we remember something we must recreate the memory and that can change it. He says that you might insert new knowledge into a memory” (23). No Relation seems to be deeply informed by this explanation of memory, even down to the structural mimicry of the way that memories return, not necessarily in chronological order. How did you decide upon the order of the essays in the book? 

When I first started writing the book, I made a list of moments and memories that were particularly vivid and that kept returning to me. Then I took them one at a time and wrote an essay about each one.  I knew the book wouldn’t exactly be in chronological order; as you mention, like memories, things from the past speak to each other in surprising ways. One memory seems connected to another, even if they were years apart.  And I knew it was in the paring and the way one piece would play off of another that the power of such short moments would be felt. It was in the conversation the pieces were having with one another that I was going to be able to say what I wanted to say. However, the final order is something I played with a lot, moving a piece here or there to see how it might be read differently depending on what had come before it. 

Also, I also knew that I was only one part of this story – that there were other people (James and the boys) who had their own version of what happened and their own way of remembering the events. I wanted to include a thread in the book about memory and the way we remember in order to acknowledge that this is the way I remember it, but it is not the only way of remembering it. 

I found the essays about Octavia especially engaging. How did this connection come about? Was there research involved in the process of writing these essays in which you connect yourself to the historical figure of Octavia?

Research is an important part of my writing process. I notice something that confuses or interests me and then research that thing in order to understand more about my own reaction to it. 

After I left James and the boys, I tried to find other people who had had similar experiences to help me understand and process my own. And what I discovered is that although there wasn’t a lot written about it, so many people had had some version of the experience. Also, I realized that it isn’t a new phenomenon. We like to think that the demise of the nuclear family is a modern fate, but it is not. While doing research, I read Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz. It explores how our modern conception of marriage and family (two people who fall in love and then have 2.5 kids) is really fairly new. I wanted to ensure some of that history ended up in the book. Then, Octavia captured my imagination. We hear so much about Antony and Cleopatra … and then there is Octavia at home caring for all their kids! It made me angry and where there is anger there is often something that needs to be said.

Something I’ve heard writing professors recently discuss is the difficulty of writing an ending. “In Town for Other Reasons” seems to be a very natural conclusion to your book. Was this the inevitable ending or was this something that you had to wrestle with? 

Endings are difficult! They’re difficult because they are so important. The final moment can tell a reader how they should reflect back on everything else that has come before. If the final chord is off-key, the song feels unresolved. And I did struggle with the ending. As I mentioned, I moved pieces around a lot as I was deciding what the final order would be. “In Town for Other Reasons” was always towards the end, but not the final piece. I had been ending on pieces that were even a bit darker/heavier. One of my trusted readers suggested I move this one to the end, and it then made so much sense. The chord resolved. 

Do you have any advice for new and aspiring writers of creative nonfiction?

Clearly I’m in the love with the flash form. Even if it isn’t your form, a practice of writing a short piece regularly (it doesn’t have to be every day – for many of us in our busy lives that is too much and then we just won’t do it at all) can train a writer to see the moments in their lives that are asking to be explored. It also is a great way to practice identifying and describing significant details – which details reveal the moment’s meaning?

Some of the best advice I received was to slow down. I felt like I had to hurry up and get my work out there. And with so many online spaces that need content, you can find ways to do that. But, if you are in a hurry, you may never discover the depth and beauty you are capable of. Writing in many ways is about reflection. Give yourself the space to do that.  

Which writers (of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction) inspire you the most? Are there any particular writers whose work you would say influenced No Relation?

Certainly. I had written some flash pieces before, but hadn’t considered writing a whole book in the form until I read Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas, which is a memoir told in flash. I was so moved by the book and so taken with the style that I almost immediately felt that I wanted to write something similar. It ended up being a model for No Relation throughout the whole process.

I am inspired by so many writers … how does one choose? Recently, I’ve been inspired by Luis Alberto Urrea whose novel House of Broken Angels is playing with the line between fiction and nonfiction, something I’m always interested in. Megan Stielstra’s essay collection Once I Was Cool I return to when I want to think about variety in structure – also the essays are just really fun. Also, Rachel Cusk. Outline, the first book in her trilogy, I cannot stop talking about! And her memoir Aftermath is a great example of someone not flinching when they reach that white-hot center.  I can feel my blood pressure rising just mentioning these books. When you look at a book just sitting there, it seems so docile. But there is so much power in there.

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Paula Carter is the author of the flash memoir No Relation. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. Based in Chicago, she is a part of the live lit community and is a company member with the storytelling group 2nd Story. She holds an M.F.A. from Indiana University, Bloomington and is currently teaching creative nonfiction at Northwestern University. 

https://www.paulaccarter.com/ 

 

Jen Soriano

“In my belly I could feel the formation of a knowing, like a cumulus cloud forms from water vapor….”

mttd

Making the Tongue Dry (The Platform Review Chapbook Series, Arts by the People, 2019, 2nd edition 2020)

order a copy here

Delight Ejiaka: According to your website, you have a background in journalism and communication. How did you go from telling other people’s stories to writing more personal essays?

I believe that all of our stories are connected. Reporting on other people’s stories was a way for me to understand parts of my own story. It was also a way for me to help lift up entire communities who are often marginalized, criminalized or spoken for in mainstream media coverage. I’ve tried to use journalism to help tip the scales toward more just and balanced representations of communities of color.

As far as my journey to writing more personal essays, it’s been a long one! It’s taken me a while to give myself permission to use my own voice. As a woman of color, I get lots of messages from society that my story doesn’t matter, that I shouldn’t take up space for myself, that shining a light on my own experiences is selfish and even narcissistic. I think a lot of women and especially women of color get bombarded with these messages, and sadly sometimes they’re reinforced by our own families, friends and communities. So it’s taken me many years to overcome these internalized messages and to build the confidence I’ve needed to start to share more personal stories.

I’m lucky to be surrounded by a social justice community that has trained me to recognize these messages as lies that uphold systems of racism and sexism. This community has also supported me in spending more time focusing inward. I now see personal essays written by women, trans and nonbinary people of color as feminist exercises and radical acts of love. Sharing our own experiences not only takes courage, it contributes to greater visions of who we can all collectively become.

The opening essay “A Brief History of Her Pain” is very visceral and does not shy away from images of womanhood, menstruation, conception, and childbirth. Why did you choose to write the essay in sections that highlight female pain in different time periods and make it the introduction to your book?

“A Brief History of Her Pain” is an embodied essay and so many of the choices that were made in its writing were made first by my body. The content and the structure of this piece quite literally emerged from my body. My cognitive mind came in later, through revision. After years of laying awake at night wrestling with pain, I began to have thoughts and sensations that told me this pain was not only my own. In my belly I could feel the formation of a knowing, like a cumulus cloud forms from water vapor; the knowing told me that the pain in my body was pain that connected me to many others, and especially to other women who have suffered and continue to suffer disproportionately from unexplained chronic illness.

One night, when my body was twisting and writhing and trembling on its own, I was struck by the realization that in another era, I would have been regarded as possessed. My body told me: you’re a witch! This must have been what many women accused of witchcraft had to feel. So when I began putting words to these experiences, I followed the flow of my body and its sensations and thoughts, and they took me down this path of weaving the present together with different stages of history, to show the endurance of the misdiagnosis of female-bodied and femme-identified pain.

I chose to make this essay the opening of the book because it shows one specific way that history can repeat itself, unless we deliberately intervene in harmful cycles. I hoped it would be an enticing doorway into the chapbook’s unifying theme.

After reading the first essay I wondered why you did not use it for the title of the book. It felt like the emotions that it evoked were so strong and its images were so surprising. What made you decide on Making the Tongue Dry instead?

There was a practical reason for this decision, and also a literary reason. The practical reason is that “A Brief History of Her Pain” was fairly widely read (by my standards!) when it was first published in Waxwing. So if I had titled my chapbook A Brief History of Her Pain, I ran the risk of misleading people into thinking it was just the singular essay repackaged, rather than a collection of essays published as a new chapbook.

The literary reason is that I just like the way Making the Tongue Dry sounds! It has a poetic resonance to me—it’s somewhat mysterious, surprising, and hopefully makes people want to pick up the chapbook to find out more.

Your attention to images, evocative diction, and use of white space seem very lyrical to me. Could you talk a bit about your choice to write nonfiction with a poetic twist?

This gets to another reason that I went beyond journalism to start writing personal essays. I write to get closer to emotional truths that gnaw at me, and that I don’t get to tease out much through everyday conversation. These emotional truths are often complicated, and sometimes ugly, but also often beautiful and deep, and the traditional prose structure of paragraphs and left-margin-justified words on a page can’t always do justice to what needs to be expressed at these deeper levels. I’m no poetry expert but I think that’s why poetry is a literary art that’s so concerned with form. White space, line breaks, prosody and rhythmic syntax all help create an altered experience. Poetic twists can help get to those emotional truths, truths that lie deep but that ironically, when unearthed, help us soar.

The first essay advocates for equality for women and discusses how women were treated like problems whenever they went to hospital, with one doctor calling female patients with fibromyalgia the worst and asking them to go meditate by themselves. The first essay also mentions that women of color are more likely to be undertreated for pain. Later, you introduce new concepts of disconnection, unity, and love. How do these themes connect with inequality and pain? What would you say is the thematic structure of the book?

Erin Jones, the Platform Review editor who chose my chapbook for publication, wrote that my essays urge the reader to sit up and take notice of harmful systems. That is, at core, the purpose of this collection.

Especially now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we’re in a moment unlike anything we’ve seen for generations, it’s critical for us to take notice of the systems that have helped save lives and livelihoods, and those that are threatening lives and livelihoods alongside the virus itself.

This chapbook asks readers to look at our own roles in perpetuating or breaking old cycles, and our roles in sowing the seeds of change. At a time of crisis, when a new way of organizing the world seems particularly urgent, these essays bear witness to the impacts of harmful systems while evoking our capacity to persist, resist and transform.

Many essays in your book explore identity and self-realization. In “Unbroken Water” you talk about finding your motherland and people. When I saw the zest with which you devoured stories about your grandfather and how he fought in the war, I thought the stories might be curative or a source of temporary relief. Could you discuss this?

I hope readers find some sense of relief in these stories! I always say my work is not necessarily a beach read—but that I hope they can enjoy it nonetheless.

For me, writing is not necessarily a curative process, which implies a linear progression from harm to cure–it’s a necessary process that I need integrated into my life, like breathing or drinking water. I just don’t feel right when I’m not writing or creating in some way. And when, in that process, I can discover something new—like the fact that my grandfather’s story helped me understand why I myself feel such a martial energy toward justice, or that reflecting on my trip to the Philippines helped me solidify the values with which I do my work toward liberation—the writing ritual becomes elevating as well as sustaining.

I really love the recurring image of water in your book. When there is dryness, there are cracks, and cracks divide the land. Disconnection from your ancestors, the breaking of cities, and the exploitation of the Chico River complicate your image of “the Philippines as a whole singular body… [a] place with intact villages and communities.” How did seeing that brokenness affect your writing?

I think I write because of this brokenness. Most of us have heard that saying, if you can’t find the book you want to read, then write it yourself. I didn’t read a book by a Filipina author until I was in my twenties. I graduated from college without ever having read a single Filipinx author. This isn’t because there aren’t Filipinxs out there writing, it’s because of racism and colonialism. The United States colonized the Philippines for almost 50 years, and still has a strong influence over the Philippines’ culture and economy. The United States has also successfully hidden its imperial past, and part of this has included a systematic marginalization of Filipino-American culture and influence within the United States. Because of colonization, including the 300 years of Spanish colonization that preceded American colonization, the cultural and historical record of Filipinos is fragmented. Our identities and our lands have been pillaged and left torn. Through writing I attempt to assemble some of these pieces, to uplift the power that comes from our endurance, and to celebrate that we can love and accept ourselves even if we aren’t entirely whole.

The mom in “Razing Boys” tries to raise her son by shielding him from other little boys and dressing him with care in a toddler bomber jacket. This makes me wonder about the unresolved trauma of colonization and oppression you have seen. In your experience, are different generations impacted differently? Do the younger generations flee or are they protected from the realities of life by their parents?

Each individual person, each distinct family, and yes I believe each generation, reacts to the legacies of history differently. Right now, I believe we are experiencing a generational thaw. I think for many Filipinx-Americans, because of colonial legacies of violence and displacement, our parents and grandparents had to fight, flee and freeze just to survive. A lot of our elders don’t talk much about the past, and I do believe this has been to shield us, but I also think it’s part of their own coping with unresolved trauma.

Now, I see Filipinx-Americans and Filipinx-Canadians of the Gen X and millennial generations talking openly about intergenerational, transgenerational and historical trauma. Many of us are being more forthcoming about oppression within our own communities, about mental health needs, and about the need to transform colonial mentality and enduring structures of colonization, even as migrant settlers on Native land ourselves. This gives me hope.

The novel coronavirus has thrown so much into question, and too many people are suffering and will continue to suffer from the health and economic impacts of this pandemic. Many Filipinx-Americans are disproportionately impacted because so many of us are frontline health workers, and we are also small business owners and Asian people who have had to bear the brunt of rising anti-Asian racism. So many new traumas are emerging from this moment. But I think we’re better equipped than were generations before us—better equipped with the awareness, language, trauma-informed institutions, and expectations that we deserve the means and the systems to heal. And so even in the face of this crisis, I continue to believe that we are entering a new era of healing from what previous generations had to simply survive.

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Jen Soriano is a Filipinx-American writer, performer and social justice movement builder originally from Chicago. She writes lyric essays and performance poetry about the intersections of race, gender, trauma, health, colonization, and power. Melissa Febos has called her work “luminous” and chose her essay “Unbroken Water” as winner of the 2019 Penelope C. Niven Prize. Aisha Sabatini-Sloan chose her essay “War-Fire” as winner of the 2019 Fugue Prose Prize, calling her work “vivid” and “cinematic”.  Jen is a 2019-2020 Hugo House Fellow and Jack Jones Yi Dae Up Fellow, and received her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop. Connect with Jen on instagram at @jensorianowrites.

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jensoriano.net

Interview with Newfound Prose Prize Finalist Jen Soriano

In Corpore Sano Presents Jen Soriano

Lesley Wheeler

“The streambed tilts a muddy ear // and I pour words into its drain, the cup- / shape someone’s heel dug filling up / as if with rain.”

The State She’s In (Tinderbox Editions, 2020)

What five songs would you want to have played at the launch of your book?

State-Cover-1 (1)

For mood, “Ugly Man” by Rickie Lee Jones and “It’s No Game” by David Bowie. I reference “Oh Shenandoah” in the book, a very old song that has been recorded a million times, but let’s go with the Tom Waits version. “Lord Randall” is another traditional one quoted in “Rescue Ballad,” a poem about the Orlando shooting; here it is sung by Jean Ritchie. I gesture to several other songs, including “Dixie” in “Turning Fifty in the Confederacy,” but…no, thanks. I’ll end instead with the call of the mockingbird, if that’s allowed. (I really love the Cornell Ornithology Lab—what a resource!)

If you were reading from your book at its launch, which poem would you open with and why?

I had hoped to figure out an ideal reading order by trial and error this spring, but of course my book tour has necessarily been cancelled. Maybe this summer? But maybe it would be the first poem in the book, previously published by the wonderful magazine Ecotone:

State Song

Because I call you, wind strips trees
of brittle limbs they did not need.
The streambed tilts a muddy ear

and I pour words into its drain, the cup-
shape someone’s heel dug filling up
as if with rain. Because I call us

together, the mountain blushes. A curtain
parts, loosens into rags of steam. Sun
and clouds pattern fields with roving

spotlights. Because I call you, power
thrums the ground. Now is the hour,
gilded, grand. I call this dazzle ours.

Could you say a bit about your research process when you were writing this book? How do you know when you’ve done enough research? In what ways does research make a poem better?

Because the book includes so much history, I did a lot of research, using archival materials at my university and digitized records of the local historical society. For example, a poem called “John Robinson’s List, 1826” is based on this. I read books about traditional ballads; Native American, colonial, and prehistoric habitation of my part of Virginia; and fauna and flora. I built “L” partly out of the Wikipedia page for 1967. I also used old books to give myself walking tours. I found most of that work deeply interesting, worthwhile in its own right because it turned me into a better-informed citizen, and there was plenty of it I didn’t end up incorporating directly. Yet as I tell my students, research is also aesthetically useful, furnishing poems with interesting detail and unexpected vocabulary. As far as doing enough of this background labor: even a great researcher never gets right to the bottom of the subject. You learn enough to get the words to flow, and then you go back and double-check everything, and then you double-check everything again and again before you eventually call it a day.

Your book seems to answer Joy Katz’s call for “more, and better, poems about whiteness,” her call for “intricate poems, stark poems, messy poems, musical poems, poems of scorching flatness that confront, frame, and mess with whiteness.” Do you have advice for other writers who might want to write about whiteness?

That’s what I was trying to do, but I feel totally unqualified to make pronouncements on the subject. Writing about U.S. history without thinking through racial genocide and oppression seems wrong, but in writing about whiteness, I’m often not sure where to stand. I screwed up a lot, writing poems that were appropriative, virtue-signaling, or in some cases seeking to defend white women in problematic ways—women who were racist but also deprived of the full rights and respect all human beings deserve. Mostly I couldn’t pull off that balancing act. There were poems that went through twenty versions that I had to scrap in the end. I hope I stripped the failed material away, but I know that in my older books in every genre, I now find ignorances that make me cringe, although I meant to write inclusively and compassionately at the time. I aspire to keep evolving enough, though, that I will always be ahead of my old self.

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annevalerieportraitlw022720-01 (1)Lesley Wheeler’s new books are The State She’s In, her fifth poetry collection, and Unbecoming, her first novel. Her essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, is forthcoming in 2021. Her poems and essays appear in The Common, Crab Orchard Review, Ecotone, Massachusetts Review, and other journals, and she is Poetry Editor of Shenandoah. She lives in Lexington, Virginia.

Chaun Ballard

“Our experiences shape us and mold us. There is so much learning and growth, and I believe these are then processed in and through our poems and reflections.”

Ballard

Flight (Tupelo Press, 2018)

In “Dear Basketball: A Posthumous Letter From St. Louis,” you incorporate lines from Kobe Bryant’s retirement poem. What advice do you have for a young poet writing poems inspired by others? How do you choose poems to write a response for? 

For me, whenever I read something, a word or phrase might jump out at me – and beg to be expanded upon. It’s not like I immediately plan on incorporating someone else’s words; but as I read something, or listen to something, there comes that tug in my mind or heart that demands a response to be written.

The poems I choose to respond to are the poems that call out to me. There’s something there that tells me, after reading, “You need to write about [insert subject].” This could be deep in the subconscious. The mind pulls from a line, an image, the rhythm or beat.

In fact, in “Dear Basketball: A Posthumous Letter from St. Louis,” you might notice that the rhythm actually connects to Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” and this was not purposeful. But because Plath’s poem is in my head from past readings, that rhythm is in my mind (whether I am aware of it or not), like a song, and so even this impacted my drafting.

When I first read Kobe Bryant’s retirement poem, I said to myself, “I want to write a basketball poem as well;” but, when I tried, the poem that came out actually had little to do with basketball. Rather, the poem focused on my childhood, where I played basketball with a crate instead of a rim and threw fish-sticks in a garbage can. What came out was a poem that maneuvered from Missouri to California, where basketball truly became my first love. I had no idea that the poem would move in this direction.

It is important for young poets to remember this: Allow the inspiration to influence your writing, but not dictate your writing. Take the inspiration, but do not force it to shape your words. Instead, allow the inspiration to work freely in a piece. Allow yourself to be surprised.

Keep in mind: You are not trying to write what someone else has already done; you are trying to write the poem that still needs to be written.

If we collectively look out a window and see a bird, all of us would write a different bird poem because of our unique perspectives—even though we were all inspired by the same encounter. Write your own piece.

You use several numbered lists in your book, from “Twelve Ways of Looking at Darkness” to “Using the Laws of Motion to Explain Ferguson,” as well as “Alternate Names for Black Boys.” Do you begin these poems as lists or do they develop into lists? What, in your opinion, is the most effective way to write a list poem? 

Every poem is a bit different in its becoming. I tend to compose my poems, which means they come out in their own natural rhythm and build from that spoken aloud cadence.

When it comes to form (and whether to include lists or strophes), I think it is important to allow the subconscious to work first – to allow those words to come out – before trying to make sense of the direction or shape the poem should take.

Unless I am following a specific writing prompt, the poems that have lists typically become that way through revision. After completing a first draft, I go back and try to identify what the poem is about. This means I must chip away at lines and words that may not be helpful. I prune or sculpt, remove the rock that is not needed. After doing so, I have a better vision of what the poem wants to be. Here, I try not to guide the poem, but allow the poem to develop organically.

The next step in the process revolves around these questions: How do I make the content stand out from being solely words on a page? How do I make this content more than one dimensional?

I find that creating a list or dividing a poem into strophes can heighten the tension in a poem, much like a countdown before a rocket is launched. I notice that I often use these lists in that way – in an effort to build tension or enhance the tone of the piece.

The entire poem “Gazelles” seems to build to the last line, “They run when we run,” which stands alone.  How do you write an effective ending of a poem? 

There are many ways to end a poem, but of the many, there are a couple practices I find myself returning to again and again.

One way is to allow the poem to end itself. Trust that the poem will tell you when it is done. If you have that intuition, if you have read a lot of poems, if you compose aloud, the rhythm of the poem – like a song – will tell you when it is over. In this, the content and cadence are often connected.

The other way to end a poem comes with revision: when you go back and decide what the poem is about, and what you want it to be about and how to make it effective. That’s when you can polish your ending.

Regardless, I try not to end the poem by providing a tidy resolution (no “ta-daah!” moment), but rather, allow it to end naturally.

I don’t feel like I am the owner of the poem itself. I feel like the poem uses me as its vessel. It knows where it wants to go or how it wants to close.

What are some of the most prevalent ingredients that made you the poet you are?

I love this question. Imagine each of us as a recipe. Five cloves garlic. A pinch of salt.

To answer this, I would say that there are four main ingredients that make me the poet I am at this particular moment. The four largest influences in my work revolve around the following: 1) the concept of form and fixed form, 2) musicality, 3) the work of those I have read and studied and learned from, and 4) my experiences.

My introduction to poetry (as a discipline) was an undergraduate class that focused on fixed form and trying to write within those restraints. It opened my eyes to structure, and experimenting with fixed, nonce, or bent forms is something I always enjoy dabbling with.

And then there’s music. Growing up, there was always music in the home. I was raised with The Temptations, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Prince. Then came the early years of rap music and beat-boxing. Songs we used to sing and dance to influence my poetry ear now, and I realize that – back then – I was discovering the rhythm of words and literary devices before I knew they were literary devices.

My mom sang in the church choir, and my sister was always singing around the house. My brothers listened to their music, and since I was the youngest child, I was impacted by the various musical styles and genres that I was immersed in.

Without a doubt, the reading of poetry has a great impact. Finding those poems or those books of poems that I feel speak to me, that I can relate to, and inspire me to write continuously encourages, pushes, and challenges me. I love learning from contemporary and past poets. Right now, Louise Glück is a poet I’ve been spending a lot of time with. Her book Meadowlands is one of my favorites.

The final ingredient is that of life experience and story: growing up in a particular location and time: living in the neighborhood surrounded by other neighborhoods in St. Louis, living in an apartment surrounded by other apartments in southern California. My transition from childhood innocence to young adulthood came in a community where gangs were prevalent. It was a big adjustment coming from St. Louis and moving to San Bernardino, where people would do hard drugs right next to our basketball courts, where someone would take out their handgun and leave it on the side of the court next to us while they shot hoops.

Our experiences shape us and mold us. There is so much learning and growth, and I believe these are then processed in and through our poems and reflections.

How do you go about titling your poems? Do you begin poems with a title in mind or choose them later on?

It depends, but usually the titles come after – unless, again, I’m writing in response to a particular prompt.

Sometimes I have a line that I want to start a poem with and see where the poem goes from there. After I finish, the title would then come after I see what has been created.

I think titles are important because they can do so much for a poem. Sometimes a poem can be written that simply seems “okay,” until the title is changed; and that title change can impact how a reader processes the content.

If it is a poem included in a manuscript, I have to ask how the title fits into the entire world of poems, how it works with or against the titles around it.

If it is simply a title for an individual piece, then how does the title converse with the piece itself? What work is it doing for the content?

A title, to me, needs to pull weight. It needs to have a purpose. If every word in a poem is deliberate, then the title too should be.

I’m curious about the role of allusion in “(More) Alternate Names for Black Boys.” Some of the names are used elsewhere (like abracadaver, abrakaboom, and Rorschach). Could you elaborate?

Poems are not isolated islands. Everything we read, see, and listen to gets filtered through our minds and the poems become a conversation between the self and the world around us.

When a poet alludes to something or somewhere or someone else (whether it’s a real-life event, a term from an academic discipline, or a line used from a movie), and the reader recognizes it, immediately another layer is added to a poem. In doing so, the reader gets to encounter discovery.

To me, incorporating references, words, and images that hold sociocultural or political or academic connotations further the conversation created by the poem, and that, I feel, is significant – for both the reader and the writer.

In “Golden Shovel,” your form alludes to “The Red Wheelbarrow,” but you change the last line to read one duck rather than chickens; I think this change to the original poem is interesting. Why did you choose this?

I love William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” It is one of those poems I have memorized, and I enjoy the poem because I remember those very wheelbarrows being in the backyards of the neighborhood I grew up in; and so, simply in its imagery, this poem resonates with me.

It triggers a sense of nostalgia, which set the tone while I was drafting the piece. Here, I am back in my birthplace, my hometown, sitting on the porch with my older brothers, waiting for my father to come home – because it is Wednesday, and we get an allowance on Wednesday.

During these years, if my father got home a little later than normal, we’d ask him, “Where was you at?” And rather than answering us directly, he would respond with his always-used return phrase: “To see a man about a duck.” Thus, the shift in the last line from “chicken” to “duck:” to connect directly to a phrase my father used to say in my personal history, a phrase that feels very comfortable and close to me.

You know, one of the things I love about the golden shovel form is the connection it creates between the new poem and the poem included within its lines. It sparks some kind of exchange or an exploration of possible parallels or antitheses or commonalities—even when the two pieces might have very different reasons for existing.

Some of your poems include African American Vernacular English. How do you decide when to switch voices in your poems, and what affect do you desire to accomplish by doing so?

Some poems are set in a time and place in my life where a very particular dialect was used. Because I use more than one dialect, I know that language shifts from context to context. The vernacular tells the reader where the poem is situated.

Through employing my different dialects in a poem, I hope to create more of a setting: to situate the reader in an environment with depth and to make that place feel true to what it is. In staying true to the language, I can be true to the poem’s purpose.

I believe that language creates a real connection. Diction matters. The dialect should reflect the specific situation and experience.

Of course, even if I am using certain language reflective of the AAVE (or of standard English), that does not mean I am writing only to (or for) a particular audience, but rather, that the poem was simply created with a particular event, time, place, and exchange in mind.

“Midway” opens with, “So now when the ghost asks me / my age, I say,” then offers a list of metaphors about who the speaker is. Why did you take the poem in this direction?

Poetry asks of the writer, or speaker, to deliver its message in a way that is unique, unexpected, lyrical, beautiful. It, at times, asks the speaker to show and not tell.

In “Midway,” it would have been easier for me to simply write, “Now that I am this age, I realize how young you were and how much of life you missed. Now that you are gone, I can look back and say you were very young when you were taken away.” It would have been easier to write, “How naïve and innocent we were when we were young. And how many decisions we made based on being naïve and innocent.”

But, had I written that, I don’t know if I would have ended up with a poem. It would have sounded more like a letter or rumination on the past – very prosy. Instead, I wanted to stay true to what poetry asks of any poet and that is to make “it” both new and real, relatable, imaginable.

In the poem, the list of metaphors are all different ways to show that years have passed – in particular, that years have passed since we have lost loved ones. The metaphors aim to show this passing of time and all the ways in which our lives change as we age: with our jobs, with our bodies, with our responsibilities.

“Running in My Sleep” mixes images of war, sex, marriage, and religious exaltation—could you elaborate on what the poem means to you and how long you spent in the writing process to develop it?

When I think about “Running in My Sleep,” it has a literal and a metaphorical meaning. Literally, there are times when I breathe or sweat or move like I’m running while I’m knocked out in bed.

Sometimes I wake up and my wife tells me, “You were running in your sleep again” or she asks, “Were you playing basketball?”

I don’t know why I do this when I’m supposed to be resting (no wonder I’m tired in the morning…), but I decided to spend some time thinking about all the things that could be going on in my mind when I have these episodes.

My point in using the images was to contemplate the many experiences that make us breathe differently: how they are similar, how they are dissimilar.

Our breathing correlates to our feelings, how we process the environment around us. There are times when we try to suck in all the air. There are times when we let out long sighs.

All of these I try to explain through metaphors revolving around breathing and how one breathes when running – whether awake or asleep.

The poem itself connects with the idea of survival, and the idea of running to survive. Flight. The concept of this.

I don’t recall exactly how long this poem took to draft, but it wasn’t a one-and-done. I remember spending a lot of time debating the order of the lines. The sounds of the descriptions and playing with rhythm—deciding how that too correlates to the subject matter.

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Chaun Ballard’s chapbook Flight (Tupelo Press) is the winner of the 2018 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in Lunch TicketNarrative MagazineThe New York TimesTupelo Quarterly, and other literary magazines. He has received nominations for both Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize.

www.chaunballard.com 

https://chaunballard.com/flight/