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National Poetry Month: A Q&A with ‘I Know Your Kind’ author William Brewer

I Know Your KindIt’s rare that any book of poems, not to mention a first book, is as powerful as I Know Your Kind (96 pages; Milkweed) by William Brewer. This book, rooted in the physical and spiritual landscape of West Virginia, tackles the opioid epidemic in verse. Focusing on the small town of Oceana (nicknamed Oxyana for the record number of overdoses there), Oceana acts as a stand-in for West Virginia as a whole, which has the highest OD rate in the country.

The book is at once dreamlike and visceral, and the images in it draw on the beauty and pain of a West Virginia that is, in Brewer’s words “last on every list,” a state that people in the nation’s capital, only a few hours away, barely acknowledge and clearly don’t care much about.

Brewer, who has two poems in the Spring/Summer issue of ZYZZYVA (which you can purchase here), is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. He will be reading with other ZYZZYVA contributors as part of the Spring Issue Celebration at East Bay Booksellers at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 13, and then in a solo reading for the Marin Poetry Center at Mill Valley Library at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 31. This interview took place at a cafe in Oakland.

ZYZZYVA: Your book seems deeply rooted in a sense of place, but in order to write about it, you seemed to need to get some distance, to be able to see it clearly. Can you speak to that a bit?

William Brewer: I didn’t leave it to write about it, but I realized by leaving just how much it impacted my aesthetic brain. The way I visualize and imagine the world is completely determined by where I grew up.

There’s a kind of sheer beauty to West Virginia that makes it a very distinct place, visually speaking, and it also possesses a sense of ancientness. Out here [in California], the Sierras are still growing, but the Appalachian Mountains are incredibly old. That’s where all the coal and minerals and gas come from, those ancient deposits. They exude an intense energy.

In West Virginia, the landscape has long been the driving force of its economy. The mountains were a source for prosperity for some, but often those who live there watch its great natural beauty destroyed for the benefit of others. At the same time the mountains themselves can make you feel like you live in a prison. The mountains make it difficult to get anywhere. There are places that are just really inaccessible, and communities have been existing there for a hundred plus years without much input from the outside world.

On a larger scale, West Virginia is surrounded by states that are more prosperous and have a lot of political sway and cultural input. Because of that, West Virginia is often seen as a sort of black hole, a place that doesn’t exist, or that at most is a place people have driven through, but not a place to which anyone really goes. Which is a shame, because it’s really a remarkable place.

Lots of really intelligent people think it’s a part of Virginia. It’s a place where you are constantly told you don’t matter. Add to that a failed economy, and in some places a deep sense of physical isolation, and you can pretty quickly feel a deep disconnect from the rest of the country.

Z: Do you think that fueled the opioid epidemic?

WB: I think a couple of things fueled the epidemic. One is that pharmaceutical companies saw an opportunity to abuse people for profit. I’m always going to point to that before I point to people. People are down and out everywhere and they are really down and out in West Virginia. You’re constantly being told that you don’t matter, that no one cares. And that gets illustrated pretty clearly when you see just how okay pharmaceutical companies have been with watching West Virginians die. They made a clear value judgment about West Virginian life. They used bodies for profit. In the past decade, out-of-state drug companies shipped 20.8 million prescription painkillers to two pharmacies four blocks apart in a southern West Virginia town with 2,900 people. They knew what they were doing.

Z: I read in an article about small town America that bright children are often encouraged to leave from an early age, to seek opportunity elsewhere. Did you have that experience?

WB: No, not really, though brain drain is a real problem in WV. For me personally, I was basically a visual artist up until my senior year in high school, and so the plan had always been for me to go away to art school. At the last minute I decided I wanted to attend a liberal arts college, basically because I fell in love with reading and wanted to do that and only that for four years. But another part of it is that I grew up in Morgantown, which is a college town, home to West Virginia University, so it was far more common for someone from there to stay for college than it was for them to leave. Most of my friends wound up staying.

Z: So how did you make that shift from visual art to poetry?

WB: The summer after my junior year I went to Brown University for a pre-college summer school. That’s really where I was first introduced to poetry. I was exposed to so much, especially other students who were so much more sophisticated than me—they knew so much about art and literature; it really opened my eyes to a larger world. There was just so much data that I had no awareness of at all. So then I didn’t want to go to art school, because I felt illiterate. I took a creative writing class, and it opened up a new horizon for me. Fast-forward to college where I take a poetry workshop and it immediately clicked because poetry is very visual. I essentially translated my art brain into a poetry brain. And that still holds true today—if I’m writing well, I’m not really thinking so much as feeling like a five-year-old with a crayon. It’s all about trust in my imagination. But my imagination needs to be fed a lot of material and energy. I feel like I need to read about two books of poetry for every one poem I write.

Z: Who were your early influences?

WB: Mark Strand was the first poet I loved, which made a lot of sense when I later learned he’d studied as a painter before he took up poetry; the visual quality of his work really made sense to me. I was introduced to Jack Gilbert by my first great poetry teacher and mentor, Christopher Bakken, and Gilbert’s work really lit up my brain because here was this poet from Pittsburgh—which was just south of where I went to college and just north of where I grew up, not to mention a place I love—describing landscapes that are very much a part of my DNA, and doing so in a way that imbued them with a great deal of value, without turning them into set pieces. He made them dynamic places that influence how you live your life. I’d never seen that before.

Z: That’s one of the things that struck me about your first book, the way landscape is interwoven with action. At the same time there’s a dreamlike quality that compliments the subject.

WB: Yes, I want the poems to have that dreamlike quality. I think for me that’s also an expression of reality. The strangeness of what the epidemic has done to places sounds dreamy—or, more specifically, nightmarish—when you put it in words, but it’s reality. The idea of EMTs running between houses or people collapsing on the streets sounds like a terrible dream, but it’s real.

Z: How did you come to write about the opioid addiction?

WB: I never planned to write about it or about West Virginia. I certainly didn’t want to write about coal miners or timber people or people living down in the holler, or however else people see West Virginia. I mean you can write about Texas without writing about cowboys. As a literary idea of a place we allow people to write about Texas cowboys and about people who have never been on a horse in their life.

Basically it just worked its way into my private life. Someone close to me told me they were a heroin addict, and my first reaction was repulsion. I said something like “You’ve just pissed it all away, you should be ashamed of yourself.” Then I realized how wrong I’d been, how this person had come to me at their most vulnerable and I wrote them off in the most completely unsophisticated way. It kind of snapped me awake. I thought, if that’s my reaction, someone who’s educated and thinks of himself as thoughtful and caring, then the average reaction is probably no better. There’s something really wrong about this. I thought about that individual and my friends, my community, and the state as a whole, and I wanted to understand why.

I wanted to make something that would be there for people who were suffering. In this little state that no one seems to care about, people are dying, and no one has anything to say about it.

It was clear to me that there was a great spiritual hurt that was there before the epidemic began, that was part of being from West Virginia. You are at the bottom of every list—worst schools, most depressed, highest poverty level, everybody’s sick. This notion of being beaten down, of being told you’re nothing and that you have no agency, that was already there. The idea that the epidemic was hillbillies partying just isn’t true.

Then I realized that what was going on with the epidemic was a continuation of the West Virginia narrative: Massive entities like timber, coal, and chemical corporations exploited people’s bodies to turn massive profit, with little concern for their health and safety. This is just another round of that narrative, updated for the post-industrial era. Drug companies using bodies to make money. They look at West Virginians as little cash machines with legs. When I realized this new, but ultimately repeated, narrative was happening, something clicked.

Z: I remember that Robert Bly said that after World War II, everything was in tatters, and that it was part of his job to try to put it back together again. Is that how you feel?

WB: No, not really. I don’t think I could ever make a claim like that. This is a record of one person’s perception of a culture. At its deepest core it’s not a book about West Virginia or even a book about the opioid epidemic. It’s a book for people; people that I know, and that I don’t know. The attention that it’s brought to the epidemic is a gift, something I’m happy to be part of. But I see it as a book for people who experience the pain of addiction, whether that’s personally, or in their family, or in their community. Now, that being said, it is still very much a book about West Virginia and the epidemic.

But from the time I started it to now, the epidemic’s reach has grown so far. At this point, I think it’d be fair to say that, were you to walk into a poetry reading, in almost any room in America, and ask everyone who knows someone who has struggled with opioids to please raise their hands, every hand in the room would go up. The book is my way of looking at a deep spiritual cry that seems to be happening.

Most of it was just fumbling in the dark, reacting to what was going on around me. These things became clear as I did the work.

Z: How have people in your community reacted to the book? When you go back, what do they say about it?

WB: I haven’t gone back and read yet, though I will soon—mostly when I’m home I’m just off the radar, seeing family. But I have read in places where the epidemic’s claws are deep and the response has been humbling and incredible and really shows me what poetry can do.

Z: In the book you speak in many different voices—as people close to you, in the voice of the addict, in the voice of those watching. How autobiographical is it?

WB: Some people have asked how I came to describe the effects of the drugs, and the answer to that is when I was in college, I had a bad accident that tore up my leg, and I was administered opioids, beginning with morphine right when I hurt myself and was in the worst pain I could imagine, and the relief they provided was divine. Then I was on prescription pain-killers for a number of months, through surgery and into months of recovery. Luckily, we really heavily monitored my medication, but it gave me an understanding of the kind of deep, almost celestial relief these drugs provide, and how easy it would be to turn to them out of great spiritual pain. If it were offered, I’d be sold. Anyone would be sold. At the same time, I saw how it changed my community. I couldn’t escape it. So all these voices came to me.

Z: So where do you see your writing going from here?

WB: Whether my work is always going to engage with a kind of political or social element, I don’t know. My second book does, but in a different way. It explores this kind of spiritual freefall of post-industrial America and how larger systems of connected to post-industrial fallout and war find their way into your life, even when you try to avoid it. I’m working on long sentences, long lines, and one of the pillar poems from that book is in this issue of ZYZZYVA.

In general, I think I’m always working toward that line from White Noise, “I want to immerse myself in American magic and dread.” The magic/mystery element is very real to me.

William Brewer is the author of I Know Your Kind (Milkweed Editions, 2017), winner of the National Poetry Series, and Oxyana, selected for the Poetry Society of America’s 30 and Under Chapbook Fellowship. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, The Iowa Review, Narrative (where it was awarded the 30 Below Prize), The Nation, New England Review, The New Yorker, and other journals. Currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he was born and raised in West Virginia. You can also find his poetry in ZYZZYVA No. 112.

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When Art Must Step In: Q&A with ‘Bullets into Bells’ Editor Dean Rader

Bullets into Bells The poetry collection Bullets into Bells (Beacon Press) stands as an innovative response to American gun violence. The work is a collection of poetry, each poem paired with a prose response written by an “activist, political figure, survivor, or concerned individual.” Many of the poems are in response to widely reported shootings, such as Sandy Hook or the murder of Tamir Rice, but there are also several accounts of less publicized shootings.

Despite the high coverage of gun violence in the media, reading this book gives the sense that this type of violence is even more pervasive than it seems, and that nearly all Americans have experienced some brush with the life-changing power that guns wield. The authors in this collection call out to politicians, gun owners, gun sellers, and everyday citizens to change our laws and culture around guns. As US Senator Chris Murphy writes in his response, “The only way we can change this reality is if people speak up, consistently and loudly. Ask yourself: what can you do to make sure that Orlando, or Aurora, or Sandy Hook never happens again? It can’t be solely thoughts and prayers buried in tweets or in moments of silence. We must continue to speak out—to tell the stories of loved ones lost and to push for action to save lives.”

Dean Rader, who is one of three editors on Bullets into Bells (along with Brian Clements and Alexandra Teague), was kind enough to talk to ZYZZYVA about the book and the ambitious campaign behind it.

ZYZZYVA: The book includes poetry and essays from a variety of authors, from well-known poets and activists to victims of gun violence and even the daughter of a man who was killed using guns. How did you go about finding contributors for the collection? What kinds of responses did you get?

Dean Rader: Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and I considered many different poems—we may have had as many as 100 at one time. But our publisher, Beacon, wanted to keep it to 50. That seemed like a good number and reasonable in terms of finding respondents. A side note—all of the respondents (and their subsequent pairings to poems) was done by Brian.

Brian’s wife, Abbey Clements, was the other 2nd grade teacher at Sandy Hook when the shootings happened in 2012. Instead of turning one way and going into Abbey’s class, the shooter went a different direction and murdered 20 children (as well as teachers and administrators). Because of Brian’s and his family’s involvement with the Gun Violence Prevention movement, he had access to a number of people who were eager to participate in the book. So, Tamir Rice’s mother, Samaria, writes in response to a poem by Reginald Dwayne Betts. The on-call ER doctor working at the hospital after the Sandy Hook shooting wrote a response to “The Bullet, in its Hunger” by Ross Gay. Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams wrote a response to Robert Hass’ “Dancing.” The poems are amazing works of art; the responses are emotionally wrenching direct human pleas.

The call and response structure of the poems and the responses is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Z: What kind of work went into organizing and editing this diverse group of voices? Were any of these poems published previously or were all written on request for Bullets into Bells?

DR: Most of the poems included were already published, though around ten were written specifically for the anthology. Robert Hass, Dana Levin, Brenda Hillman, LeAnne Howe, Tess Taylor, Yusef Komuanyakaa and some others all wrote special poems for the book. Of course, all of the responses were written in response to individual poems.

The selection process for the poems was at times very difficult and at other times, quite easy. I think the hardest part was settling on only 50 poems. We also wanted the poets represented to be diverse—in terms of race, gender, age, and even in terms of “fame” or publication record. We were also willing to print some poems that were not explicitly about gun violence, like Jane Hirshfield’s “For Those Who Cannot Act” or Ada Limón’s “The Leash.”  Brian deserves all the credit for pairing the responses with the poems.

Z: What role do you think literature, specifically poetry, plays in fighting something like gun violence? What do you hope this work can do to reshape how people think about guns?

DR: America has a history of responding to emotionally moving aesthetic texts. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense was instrumental in solidifying sentiment toward American independence from England. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin galvanized middle class white opposition to slavery. Photographs by people like Dorothea Lange moved citizens and politicians to enact policies surrounding the Dust Bowl. Aesthetic texts like poems educate our emotions—they help us feel in a more informed way. This is important because we often make decisions based on our emotions—our fears, in particular, but also our hopes.

At times, when policy falls short, art must step in. You can list all the statistics in the world. You can give people all sorts of data. But, numbers are faceless. They are cold. They don’t activate our emotions. Poems can and do.

I’m not sure these poems and responses will reshape how people think about guns, but our hope is that they move readers to start examining their emotions about laws surrounding gun violence. The great American poet Wallace Stevens writes, “Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” These poems, these responses, are trying to do just that.

By the way, the book is just one of three interrelated projects. The second is a plan to host a reading in all 50 states. Already there have been readings in Idaho, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Washington DC, California, Alabama, Massachusetts, and Maine. Others are scheduled for Illinois, Arizona, Colorado, South Dakota, and New York. If readers are interested in hosting an event, please get in touch with me. The third component is a supplemental website (https://bulletsintobells.com/) where you can find out more information about the book, its contributors, ways to get involved, other Bullets Into Bells events, and other poems that respond to the gun violence epidemic. I hope all readers of Zyzzyva will send in a poem.

Z: In this collection, there are many poems and responses by parents who lost their children to gun violence and most of them spend the rest of their life thinking about the what ifs. I found these pieces to be the most moving. As a father, you must be particularly invested in this cause. Have you found that becoming a parent changed how you think about gun violence and gun control? What kind of political action do you think is necessary for you and other parents to feel safe sending your children out into the world?

DR: It’s so interesting you asked this question. When I was on the plane flying out to the release party in Boston, I was thumbing through the book, and for whatever reason I kept landing on the very responses you mention. It was one testimony after another by a parent about their child getting shot and most often, killed. I remember tearing up there on the plane. That intense combination of the random and the unjust is almost too much to bear.

I don’t know that I fear for my sons’ safety, but I do know that anything can happen any time, any place. A safe neighborhood is safe until that moment is isn’t. A school is safe until it’s not. Our country, on the macro, is a relatively safe country—but not for everyone. And, it is certainly not safe for everyone in the same way.

There is no doubt that fewer guns out there in the world means fewer deaths. In my poem in the anthology I reference Japan, which has 127 million people and rarely more than 10 gun deaths a year. That’s about as many gun deaths as were in Sacramento County in 2016. Two things Japan has done is 1) simply decrease the number of guns and 2) make it very, very hard to get a gun.

If America’s culture around gun and sensible gun laws is going to change, it will be because of the current generation. Students in the 14-22 age range can, literally, change this country.

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Now & at the Hour of Our Death: Q&A with ‘The Immortalist’ Author Chloe Benjamin

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(Photo by Nathan Jandl)

I refuse, as a rule, to consult all fortunetellers, palm-readers, and tarot-card diviners. I won’t so much as glance at a horoscope; routinely, I forget what my own astrological sign might be. It’s not so much that I believe or disbelieve in what a fortuneteller might have to tell me, but that I distrust myself, not knowing how my future behavior might change in response to what any would-be oracle has to say.

Chloe Benjamin’s second, much-lauded novel, The Immortalists (352 pages; Putnam), follows four siblings who, as children, go to a fortuneteller to learn when they’ll die. Afterward, tensions between the future and the present, between predictions and reality, threaten to break this family apart. I talked via email to Benjamin (whose first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, won the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award) about her powerful, compelling new book, and about death, the present tense, and dance.

ZYZZYVA: I’m not at all alone in finding the central premise of The Immortalists—the possibility of finding out, and maybe even believing in, the date we’ll die—to be both terribly moving and terrifying. What brought you to this idea?

Chloe Benjamin: I know it sounds strange, but I have such a hard time answering this question! I think it’s because concepts, for me, always feel very subconscious—I don’t have a clear memory of the first time the idea hit me, but I do know that the basic kernel was always there: four siblings go to visit a fortuneteller, and then the book follows each of them over the course of their lives. I wish I had better origin stories. Stephen King has a great line that references the muses as “the boys in the basement”—this idea of people working away at some deeper level of a writer’s consciousness. Of course, as a feminist, I amend that to “the gals in the basement.”

Even if I can’t remember the precise spark, I do know that The Immortalists comes very much out of my own neuroses. I’ve always struggled with uncertainty and loss, which are intertwined, for me: the uncertainty of whether and when we will lose our loved ones, our happiness, our stability. And there’s no greater, or at least no more final, loss than death. It’s occurred to me that I would be able to slough off so much worry if I knew that I and those closest to me would live long lives. Of course, we can’t know that, but it got me thinking about what it would be like if we could know—with no guarantee that it would be good news. Is knowledge a blessing or a curse? A liberator or a hindrance? And to what extent are denial and ignorance actually positive forces in human life, in that they enable us to keep going?

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The Demands of Story: Q&A with ‘Outside Is the Ocean’ Author Matthew Lansburgh

IMG_7046 - Version 2In 2011, I was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I spent two years as the Kenan Visiting Writer shortly after the release of my first book, a story collection. One of these stories, “Bed Death,” appeared in the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories, and it was this publication that led to my meeting Matthew Lansburgh. He sent me an email after reading it, and we struck up a friendship. In 2012, I moved back to San Francisco, and during a quick trip to New York in 2015, I finally met Matthew; we spent two days together, during which time he served as my “date” for a literary event.

Later that month, he visited San Francisco, where he met Anne, my wife, who said that talking to him felt like talking to a brother. This sort of easy familiarity often exists between gays and lesbians, but we had numerous other things in common as well: all three of us are writers, of both stories and novels; we all write work that incorporates LGBTQ characters and themes without targeting a primarily gay audience; Matthew grew up in California, where we now live, and he lives in New York, where Anne grew up; his mother is from Germany, Anne’s from Vienna, and this informs their work, albeit in quite different ways. One of Matthew’s ongoing preoccupations in his work is the relationship between his main character, Stewart, a gay man who has moved from California to New York, and Heike, his German-born, overbearing mother. Outside Is the Ocean (192 pages; University of Iowa Press), which received the Iowa Short Fiction Award, is a collection of linked stories with Stewart and Heike at its heart. It is funny and heartbreaking and, as Publishers Weekly noted, it “succeed[s] as a nuanced character study and a resonant commentary on the challenges of romantic and familial love.” I read it in its entirety in a matter of days in manuscript form, and when the book landed in our mailbox, Anne devoured it just as quickly. Though Anne and I have similar aesthetics, we do not always respond with equal passion to books, but in Matthew’s case, we did, even when we discussed the book in private, which is, after all, what really counts.

Anne Raeff: When I was reading Outside Is the Ocean I was often overwhelmed by the sadness and desperation of the characters, but I never wanted to run away. I wanted to be overwhelmed by their desperation. I wanted to experience their weaknesses, their inability to connect, their pettiness, their humanity. Heike is, perhaps, one of the most human characters of modern literature. She wants so desperately to be loved, yet she does not know how to love. She is kind to animals and to people who are even more lost and isolated than she is, but she is cruel to those who are closest to her, who know her most intimately, who know her weaknesses. Perhaps, although she is an immigrant, a woman who came of age in Germany during World War II, she is the archetypal American—full of hope and ideals, yet, ultimately, so alone.

Lori and I interviewed Matthew about his book via email and Google Docs.

ZYZZYVA (Lori Ostlund): Let’s start the discussion with short stories. All three of us love short stories. We read them. We write them. You won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for this book. Anne and I have both received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (FOC). I once served as a screening judge for the FOC, so I know that it receives around 450 story collections a year for its annual contest. Contests (Drue Heinz, AWP Grace Paley Award, Sarabande’s Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, Prairie Schooner Book Prize, BOA Short Fiction Prize) remain an important route to publication for story writers. Can you begin by describing the moment when you learned that you had won the award?

Matthew Lansburgh: I remember the moment vividly! I was walking toward my apartment on 28th Street in Manhattan. I was on the north side of the sidewalk, heading toward Sixth Avenue when I received an email from James McCoy, the editor of the University of Iowa Press, asking me to call him. At first, I had no idea who he was or what the email might be about. At the time, I was sending out stories constantly, and I wondered whether it was someone from The Iowa Review with a question about a story I’d submitted. I’d sent Outside Is the Ocean to the Iowa Short Fiction Award about five months earlier and hadn’t spent much time thinking about it in the interim. (I’ve always believed that the best way to maintain one’s sanity after sending something out to a journal or a contest is to forget about it and keep busy with other projects.)

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Creating Tintypes at the Skate Park: Q&A with Photographer Jenny Sampson

eulalea, emeryville, 2017 (wet plate collodion tintype, from Jenny Sampson's "skater" series

eulalea, emeryville, 2017 (wet plate collodion tintype, from Jenny Sampson’s “skater” series)

Using an anachronistic 4×5 view camera—the kind where the photographer stands draped under a dark cloth—Jenny Sampson has been steadily creating tin-type portraits of skateboarders she encounters at local skate parks, mainly in California, Oregon, and Washington. The resulting portraits are beguilingly fraught with melancholy atmospherics, their distressed tactility an implicit rebuke to the sterile, antiseptic images saturating daily life in a digital age. (Several such tin-types were recently featured in ZYZZYVA No. 111.) Sampson’s practice has allowed her to meaningfully engage with the skaters themselves, and obliquely teach them a bit about her antique photographic technique. (Paradoxically, the process requires the skaters to remain absolutely still for at least 30 seconds.) In the following conversation, conducted by phone, and over Gmail, Sampson shares her experience venturing into the skater’s semi-private preserves.

ZYZZYVA: So how do the skaters respond to you when you bring this unwieldy antique camera into their midst?

Jenny Sampson: The camera is a 4X5 view camera. It’s the kind of camera that sits on a tripod, has the bellows—the part that looks a little like an accordion, and the photographer has to duck under the dark cloth while focusing on the subject.
There usually aren’t many of those types of cameras at skate parks! I also set up my portable darkroom, which includes processing trays and tanks that are visible to everyone. All of this can attract attention, actually helping me engage with people.
Sometimes when I’m developing the tintype, kneeling underneath the darkroom cloth, people don’t know I’m under there—because I’m small, covered, looking like a little mound. After the tintype is developed, I flip the cloth off and people are surprised because they didn’t see me, “Wow! Oh, wow! There she is!”

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Matthew Zapruder

Poet, translator, professor, and editor Matthew Zapruder was born in Washington, DC. in 1967. He earned a BA in Russian literature at Amherst College, an MA in Slavic languages and literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and an MFA in poetry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he studied with Dara Wier, James Tate, and Agha Shahid Ali. Zapruder is the author most recently of Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014) and Why Poetry, a book of prose about poetry (Ecco/Harper Collins, 2017). An Associate Professor in the MFA at Saint Mary’s College of California, he is also editor at large at Wave Books.

When the Oakland-based author visited City Lights last month, ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked to him about Why Poetry. Zapruder also read from the book.

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My American Self: Q&A with ‘Human Interest’ author Valerie Bandura

Human Interest“When the Kardashians talk/at once at each other/I hear an aria/to the first-person pronoun, an icon/as sleek as the four-inch stilettos,” Valerie Bandura writes early in her latest poetry collection, Human Interest (Black Lawrence Press; 75 pages). As a poet, her lens is trained on the America where millions live paycheck-to-paycheck and dream of game-show winnings even as television and our social media peddle visions of unobtainable celebrity. Bandura’s poems are not removed from the daily experience of most people, rather they are our experience, whether we’re wondering in traffic about the life of the driver who proudly displays his “Take the Migrant out of Immigrant” bumper sticker, are irritated that our latest Facebook post didn’t attract more “Likes,” or are concerned about our family and their woes.

Bandura, whose poetry has appeared in ZYZZVA No. 100 and teaches creative writing at Arizona State University, talked to us about Human Interest and her startlingly personal verse.

ZYZZYVA: In your poetry, you never fail to implicate yourself in the strange circus that is American society: 

“I’m with you, but it’s all me, baby/the irresponsible babysitter, the pregnant grandmother/the felon, the pervert, the hot mess/in the reality show I film/in a desperate darkroom of the mind.” 

Of course, the “I” in these poems is not necessarily the author, but I find your poems constantly interrogate the ways all of us—even liberal-minded writers and artists—are complicit. Is this self-criticism important for you as a poet?

VALERIE BANDURA: A speaker who admits failure is more approachable, less threatening, and allows the reader to more easily enter his or her own failures and shortcomings. This is the democratic experience of poetry (my American self, perhaps), to seek to equalize, egalitarianize, the power struggle within the poem, and the people in the poem the reader is asked to judge. No one wants to read about a speaker who’s flawless any more than we want to watch people on TV who are perfect. We crane our necks to see who’s being arrested when we see the red and blue lights of the police. We retweet stupid tweets. If the reader’s entrance into the balance of power presented in the poem is through the speaker, and the speaker is complicit, the reader, too, should, theoretically, more readily admit to failure and weakness.

Art is not an artifact. Beyond the craft and formal considerations of the poem, poetry for me serves a moral and social obligation to deepen and broaden public discourse. This attitude may originate in my being raised in a Russian household, where literature, like other art forms, is integral to a culture’s identity and politics. Where Matthew Arnold may have seen the function of poetry to console or rejoice—what Natasha Sajé calls the “separation of aesthetics and morality” in her essay “Poetry and Ethics”—I see the function of poetry as political engagement, “political” understood in the broadest sense of the term. Self-deprecation is, on the one hand an ethical choice, an effort to enter public discourse.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Ellen Ullman

Ellen Ullman wrote her first computer program in 1978. She went on to have a twenty-year career as a programmer and software engineer. Her essays and books have become landmark works describing the social, emotional, and personal effects of technology. She is the author of two novels: By Blood (published by Picador), a New York Times Notable Book; and The Bug (Picador), a runner-up for the Pen/Hemingway Award. Her memoir, Close to the Machine (Picador), about her life as a software engineer during the internet’s first rise, became a cult classic. Her new book, Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (MCD), tells a continuing story of the technical world as she experienced it while living in its midst for more than two decades.

When the San Francisco-based author visited the famous City Lights Bookstore earlier this month, ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked to her about Life in Code. She also read from the book, which you can hear in the video at 26:53.

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Talking Shop: Troy Jollimore on Workshops, Content on Demand, & the Poetic Craft

Syllabus of ErrorsPoet Troy Jollimore hurtled onto bedside tables everywhere when his widely celebrated debut, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006. Since then, his tightly wound, exploratory poetry has touched on everything from the the nature of beauty to meeting Charlie Brown in a bar. We are pleased to say Jollimore will  be leading ZYZZYVA’s first ever Poetry Workshop. The deadline to submit your work is September 15th. The poet, who has appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 92, 101, and soon in 111, recently took time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about Writing Workshops, living in the age of On Demand content, and what we mean when we discuss Poetic Craft.

ZYZZYVA: Poetry workshops sometimes don’t come to mind as readily as fiction workshops – what do you think the communal, learning atmosphere of a workshop can bring to poetry, specifically?

Writing poems is hard, and we need all the help we can get. That’s an obvious thing to say, but there’s a great deal of truth in it. Beyond that, I could say that every poem, and every act of writing a poem, implies a community, or perhaps several intersecting communities: the readers for whom the poem is intended, the writers of the poems that preceded it and form the background against which it is written, the community one physically lives in, which sustains the material conditions in which poems can be written.

The writing workshop is a quite special form of temporary, semi-spontaneous community; a place where we come together, as people do in church or at the movies, to give our shared attention to one another’s works and ideas and, in the process, to discover and come to know each other a little more deeply. Sometimes a poem will crack open before your eyes in a workshop; sometimes the blockage that was holding it back will simply disintegrate and fall away. Sometimes someone will say something—a casual, offhand remark, as often as not—that solves your poem’s problem, or makes you realize that your poem really doesn’t have a problem. Sometimes you can even find solutions for problems having nothing to do with poetry at all. And sometimes you just walk away feeling enriched and comforted by having spent time in the company of other people who, like you, share this odd particular interest for an art form that has, against all odds, persisted through the millennia.

Z: What kind of intentions–formal, personal, poetic–do you hope people come into the workshop with? 

TJ: To share their passion and enthusiasm with each other. To talk openly about poems and other things they care deeply about. To get to know other people, and themselves, a little better. To open up their work, expose it to the air, and help it grow. To discuss their artistic struggles, to display their imperfect works in an atmosphere in which imperfection is forgiven and even loved for what it is and often turns out to be the first step toward something wonderful. And to make friends. That might sound a little cheesy, but I really mean it. Friendship is vastly important and our present society seems to be becoming more and more inimical to it. Art—whatever particular art form happens to turn you on the most—remains one of the best sites for finding friends, real friends, others of your kind.

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Illness Ends a Career, Spurs Another: Q&A with ‘Hard to Grip’ Author Emil DeAndreis

EmilDeAndreisEmil DeAndreis’s memoir, Hard to Grip (310 pages; Schaffner Press), is delivered in five stages, which is fitting, because in many ways this book of baseball and chronic illness is a grief memoir. DeAndreis begins jubilantly with his story of a promising high school career, becomes absurdist when he arrives at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, and then takes a sharp, dark turn as he is confronted with an unlikely diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis. DeAndreis, 23 and preparing to pitch professionally in Belgium, must reckon with the end of his career because of a disease that most commonly affects middle-aged women. The writer, who is now a College of San Mateo professor as well as the author of a novel, must break down and rebuild his value system—he can no longer find his self-worth in toughness or physical strength; it hurts to even make a smoothie at Jamba Juice. The second half of Hard to Grip is about denial, anger, and eventual acceptance as DeAndreis mourns the loss of the game that defined his life.

I met DeAndreis when he was 17, and I was 14—a freshman at the same high school of which he was the star baseball player. San Francisco’s public school league is far from elite, and DeAndreis accurately portrays himself as a big fish in a small pond. But at 14, that pond was an ocean for me. DeAndreis, like many other ex-players, seemed destined for greatness—and then, like almost every other player, returned home. I understood, vaguely, that his arm had failed him. I never knew the failing was a chronic illness that altered his life far beyond sports.

Though DeAndreis’s career was unexpectedly taken from him so early, the fact is that every athlete faces the moment he or she can no longer play. DeAndreis writes at one point about a conversation he has with the players he coaches today. They ask him what it’s like to not play baseball anymore. He tells them “it’s like a disease you learn to live with.” They understand, as does the reader, that everyone eventually loses the game.

ZYZZYVA spoke with DeAndreis about the way chronic illness pushed him from the pitcher’s mound to the classroom and the world of writing.

ZYZZYVA: I know you started to work on Hard to Grip right when you were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. A lot of the book is about accepting this nasty twist of fate, but what was it like to write about the experience right as it was happening?

Emil DeAndreis: Writing after the diagnosis was all I could do—I just lied to everyone about the disease at the time. I was not honest about it, because I didn’t want the sympathy. As a 23-year-old, that was the last thing I wanted. You are now weaker. You are helpless. You are harmless. You are all these things. Now it’s been so long that I don’t even care. But finishing the book was that closure.

The narrative arc of this book is the narrative arc I experienced. I was writing this since 2011 when I was 24 and when I turned 30 I was still writing the book. In the course of a life, it’s a small window of time. But so much change happens for anyone in that time.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Edie Meidav

Edie Meidav is the author of the novels The Far Field, Crawl Space, and Lola, California (all published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and of the story collection Kingdom of the Young (Sarabande), which is her newest book. She is recipient of a Lannan Fellowship, a Howard Fellowship, the Kafka Prize for Best Fiction by an American Woman, the Bard Fiction Prize and other citations, and her essays were published in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 95 and 100.

When Meidav came to the Bay Area earlier this month, ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked to her about Kingdom of the Young at the Booksmith in San Francisco. She also gave a reading from the collection, which you can view after the jump.

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Fearless Ballet: Q&A with Deb Olin Unferth

(photo by Elizabeth Haidle)

(photo by Elizabeth Haidle)

Wickedly funny and utterly relatable in its depiction of human plights and personal tragedies, Wait Till You See Me Dance (200 pages; Graywolf Press) marks the return of Deb Olin Unferth to the world of short stories. From the banal life of an adjunct professor harboring an unrequited love in the titular story to a man held prisoner by his phobia in “Fear of Trees” (published in ZYZZYVA No. 108 along with three other pieces), each story within the collection is imbued with Unferth’s wit and dark humor, capturing the spectrum of human drama with a tinge of believable absurdity.

Unferth talked to ZYZZYVA about her often-volatile relationship with writing, the influence of her family on her work, and her philosophies on craft.

ZYZZYVA: It’s been a decade, since your last short story collection, Minor Robberies, and a little over six years since your memoir, Revolution. Was the process of writing Wait Till You See Me Dance any different for you this time around?

Deb Olin Unferth: It was easier this time, to be honest. I’ve been in hiding for so long it feels like, working on three books at once takes a long time.

Z: Hiding or teaching? I’ve noticed that in many of your stories the protagonist is an educator of some sort.

DOU: Well, I’ve always taught when I write, been doing that forever, but recently I’ve been involved in a prison project that’s been taking a lot of my time. It’s a two-year writing program teaching inmates at a maximum-security penitentiary down in southern Texas.

Z: That’s interesting considering the main character in “Mr. Simmons Takes a Prisoner” teaches inmates, and—like many of the characters in the collection—is portrayed in an incredibly vulnerable way. You depict Mr. Simmons as an apathetic father and husband, who’s contemplating abandoning his family for a prisoner he’s teaching, yet you manage to make him sympathetic through it all. Is this vulnerability a conscious effort on your part?

DOU: It’s funny you mention “Mr. Simmons …” That story was based on my father. He volunteered, like Mr. Simmons, to tutor an inmate, help them rehabilitate before being released back into society. My dad started meeting with her all the time, writing her letters, paying for her textbooks and courses. When I wrote the first draft of the story I think I was a little mad at him—it was not a funny story. Years later I rewrote it for this collection and, at this point, my dad and I had healed our relationship. He literally sent me a fax saying he wanted to be closer to me and included these letters between him and the prisoner. I was furious with him back then and that was the original draft’s tone. So, when I took the story out of the box and rewrote it, I could see his humanity: he was a changed man and so was Mr. Simmons. In terms of vulnerability with my characters, I just want there to always be something at stake.

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