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Interviews

Interviews with Current and Past Contributors, as well as with Other Writers, Poets, and Artists

ZYZZYVA Interview Series: R.O. Kwon


R.O. Kwon’s first novel, The Incendiaries, is published by Riverhead (U.S.) and Virago (U.K.). She is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Noon, Time, Electric Literature, Playboy, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. She has received awards and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Born in South Korea, she’s mostly lived in the United States.

Kwon recently spoke to ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about The Incendaries at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

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I Have No Formula: Q&A with ‘The Secret Habit of Sorrow’ Author Victoria Patterson

The Secret Habit of SorrowVictoria Patterson’s eye is trained on Southern California. But she’s not only writing about the Los Angeles we know from cinema and television screens. Her stories trace tales of disappointment and regret across the senior living centers, grocery stores, and backyards of cities like Long Beach, Newport Bay, Costa Mesa, and others. Much like the work of Alice Munro, each of the stories in her latest collection, The Secret Habit of Sorrow (224 pages; Counterpoint), read as though they could be the start of a novel, with a breadth of complexity to her characters and the trying situations they find themselves in.

We come to Patterson’s cast of flawed protagonists at particularly vulnerable moments in their lives. Whether they’re attempting to raise a child apart from the instability of a drug-addicted partner or reeling from the mistake of  sleeping with a parent’s new boyfriend, Patterson approaches their stories with a generosity that doesn’t belie the poor choices they’ve made or the unfair hand they’ve been dealt, and a keen level of detail that makes their victories –– however minor –– feel earned.

Victoria Patterson recently spoke to ZYZZYVA about her writing process, the delicate balance of drawing material from real life, and more.

ZYZZYVA: You are one of the few contemporary writers whose short stories suggest for me a life beyond their page count, to that point that I’m halfway surprised when I reached the end of many stories in The Secret Habit of Sorrow –– as it seems to me that the characters and their struggles could continue on. As someone who is also an accomplished novelist, do you know whether a project will be a short story or novel right from the start?

Victoria Patterson: The writing process is still mysterious to me. I like to let stories take me where they want to go, so in that regard I have no specific page count in mind.

But I do usually know early on whether the material will manifest itself as a novel or a short story. With both, there’s an enormous amount of note taking and daydreaming before I begin to attempt words on the page.

Z: The stories in The Secret Habit of Sorrow span from a period that includes 2006 to the present. I noticed in the Acknowledgements that many of the stories are listed as appearing in slightly different form in their original publications. Is that a valuable part of the creative process for you, being able to revise stories when they are ultimately put together for a collection?

VP: I like to think that I’m getting better as an artist as time passes, so it’s only natural for me to revise stories that have already been published. At some point, I have to leave them alone. At some point, a story is done. But why not go back and improve them, if I can? Especially from a distance of years, which gives me a better perspective and a detachment, so I can ideally be more ruthless.

Z: Tone is such a delicate thing to control on the page. But the details you select really speak to the mood of your stories; for instance, I love the kind of dismal description we get when serial philanderer Nick watches his new girlfriend sitting at the end of a dock in “Paris”: “Nick likes how she looks casual and sexy. She could be in an advertisement for Viagra or mutual funds. The sun is down but it’s still light, a long pink spray across the skyline, and overhead a mottled half moon the dirty white of cauliflower.” Those lines tell me everything I need to know about Nick’s midlife existence, without any dialogue or internal monologue. How much is tone on your mind as you’re writing?

VP: Wasn’t it Michelangelo Antonioni who said that life is made up of small moments, not major ones? Life is also in the details, the ones that a writer’s eye catches. No one can teach this. So much of tone comes from an accretion of details lurking in the background. I think for me this comes intuitively and with practice and revision. I have no formula. Sometimes I luck out; sometimes it just takes time and revisions.

Z: Just as much as Nick or any of the other individuals who populate your stories, Southern California itself feels like a character in this collection. What is it about Southern California that continues to be an influence on your work?

VP: Southern California is my terrain. It’s in my blood. It’s what I know best.

ZYZZYVA Volume 33, #1, Spring 2017Z: “Appetite” first appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 109. It’s a story that deals with writers and motherhood, yet neatly sidesteps any of the clichés associated with stories about both. One frequently hears about writers who get in trouble with their family members for writing about them, but “Appetite” is unique in that it explores the perhaps predatory nature of the writer who draws from their personal life: at one point the narrator, a writer, reflects on her intimate relationship with her friend Claire and remarks, “For a moment I imagined myself as a parasitic, ballooning animal sucking off Claire’s shrinking body.”

As a writer, do you find there’s a balancing act in taking inspiration from real life relationships without veering into that more predatory category?

VP: That’s always something I’m considering.

I was listening to a Maggie Nelson interview with Brad Listi on his Otherppl podcast, and they were discussing this very thing. Listi quoted Norman Mailer as saying–and I’m paraphrasing everything here – that a writer who is afraid to offend people is like a surgeon who is afraid to cut. Maggie made the point that expectations are gendered and especially with mothers, saying that no one likes to imagine mothers as surgeons cutting anything.

There’s pressure on female writers. We’re supposed to be nice, not brutal truth-tellers, especially if we’re mothers. It’s culturally frowned upon to do otherwise. I’m working against this.

Ugly is ugly, though. Bad behavior is bad behavior – it doesn’t matter who it comes from. There’s a fine line. I’m not saying go all out and be a vulture. But at the same time, it’s imperative that I be willing to challenge those archetypes.

In my work, I’ve tried not to censor myself, and I’ve lost a few relationships and burdened others. But so far, I don’t regret it. My current thinking goes: If I’m going to be uncompromising with others, I have to be willing to be even more uncompromising with myself.

Victoria Patterson is the author of the novels The Peerless Four and This Vacant Paradise, a 2011 New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her story collection, Drift, was a finalist for the California Book Award, the 2009 Story Prize, and was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The San Francisco Chronicle. She lives with her family in Southern California and teaches at Antioch University’s Master of Fine Arts program. You can read her story “Appetite” in ZYZZYVA No. 109.

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A Maddening System: Q&A with ‘The Golden State’ author Lydia Kiesling

The Golden StateEssayist and critic Lydia Kiesling’s first novel, The Golden State (304 pages; MCD), already long listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, is an enrapturing torrent of a narrative, exploring the daunting beginning of motherhood and the complications of marrying a foreign national. New mother Daphne must balance caring of her sixteen-month-old daughter, Honey, with handling the stress of getting her Turkish husband, Engin, back into the U.S., all while dealing with her job at the Al-Ihsan Foundation in San Francisco. These circumstances send her on a ten-day epic roadtrip, beginning with a drive to Daphne’s late mother’s hometown, Altavista: “The beauty here is the great slate sky The sound of the birds in the morning the color of the hills and the fields at dusk.”

Daphne’s acerbic and slightly self-loathing wit is lined with absurd humor and Kiesling’s clever syntax: her lack of punctuation allows us to further inhabit the heart of Daphne’s disquiet.

The Golden State is a trenchantly-written take on both the female and immigrant experience, making the somber read as captivating. Kiesling recently spoke to ZYZZYVA about the origins of the novel, her protagonist Daphne, immigration in America, and more.

ZYZZYVA: You started your career writing essays and criticism, and are now the editor of The Millions. Have you always wanted to write a novel?

Lydia Kiesling: I’ve been writing essays and criticism for a long time; all along I secretly wanted to write a novel. That’s not something I wanted to admit to myself until a

couple of years ago, but every time I tried a new form of writing, that was the direction I was moving toward. I also enjoy reading narrative non-fiction, and I think people really enjoy writers who can do that well. But fiction was always what I was working toward. 

Z: There were so many aspects of your protagonist Daphne that resonated with me: she’s Type-A, but also a bit of clueless and naive. The honesty of her character really drew me in. Where did Daphne come from?

LK: Well, it’s funny because I’ve seen two reactions to the book. People sort of go in two camps: ones who can relate to her as a character and as a person, and ones who don’t relate to her at all; so that influences their experiences, and those who can’t relate to her kind of treat the novel like a horror story. I think Daphne is a little bit over the top, but I would be lying if said she wasn’t somewhat of a relatable character.

Z: Stylistically, I noticed there weren’t a lot of commas in Daphne’s speaking lines, which makes it seem as though she is talking on and on (and on), adding to her neurotic quality.

LK: I took someone who is very similar to me and put her in more difficult circumstances to see how she would respond. One of the things I thought about all the time when I had a baby (my oldest one) was how much I longed to be alone with her; I was a bit traumatized because I went back to work in an office setting when she was about ten weeks old. I was surprised to find it demoralizing. On the one hand, I had this fantasy of going somewhere with her, and yet when I was alone with her I realized it was miserable. It really taxes your mind and body in a different way. I was trying to think of a person like me who got what I wished for, in a sense, but under the worst conditions and what that would be like.

Z: Another thing I resonated with me was Engin’s Green Card-related distress. As a foreigner myself, I’ve spent hours researching this. All the details of the situation’s complexities were so spot on! Have you experienced this firsthand?

LK: I have friends who were not in identical circumstances but in pretty similar ones, so I started looking into it. I think people look at the book now and see what it’s about and think it’s very timely because of Donald Trump. But in all reality, the immigration system has been messed up for a long time. What struck me about my friend’s situation was that it was extremely arbitrary. All you have to do is meet the wrong border guard and they can decide they’re interpreting something in a different way, or they don’t like how you’re fulfilling some byzantine and arcane requirement, and then they can detain you indefinitely and you have no recourse in that moment. As we’ve seen, it’s happening now and that gives way for a lot of abuses. It involves guards being wrong and choosing an interpretation of a policy that suits them, but also there’s some ineptitude: paperwork being lost, things not moving forward and having no visibility on why that is –– it’s such a maddening system.

And when you read through these websites, you understand why it costs so much to hire a professional to navigate it for you. There’s one line that makes me laugh in relation to overseas consular processing: “if you’re case is approved, you will receive a packet. Do not open this packet.” You’re supposed to bring it to the consulate and open it under a specific circumstance, which I think is absurd. I wanted to put a little of that frustration in the book. I’m sorry you can relate to that!

Z: Northern California’s landscapes really came alive in your prose. Can you tell me about your chosen setting of Pauite County?

LK: Pauite County is fictional, it’s a mishmash of several counties in the North State. Anyone from Modoc County will see the resemblance. My mom is from a town called Alturas, which is where Altavista was fictionalized from. The only reason why I decided to do this amalgam of counties was that I wanted to have the political happenings, and I felt like if I called it Modoc County I’d have to replicate the exact board of supervisors and their meetings. I wanted to give myself a little bit of room. It’s a very rural area; the counties that have now theoretically signed on to create a 51st state, the State of Jefferson, are about 1/3 of California’s land mass but 5% of the population. It’s a large landmass but sparse population, and the town my mom grew up in is decreasing in population.

Z: What made you decide on Turkey as the country where Engin is from?

LK: I went back and forth on the decision, but I lived in Turkey for a year and studied Turkish there and later in grad school, so that choice made the most sense. Paradoxically, since I had more knowledge and information about Turkey, I was scared to misrepresent it. Initially, I thought the husband could be from Denmark, which I then thought was very offensive to Denmark since I’ve only been there one day in my life and I would have to figure out the rest. Fortunately, I realized it was a bad idea and that I was just trying to evade my anxieties. I love Turkey and the Turkish language, so that’s definitely a theme. It definitely provides an interesting contrast, to have a spouse living in one of the world’s’ megacities with a population of 20 million versus the sparsely-populated Northern California.

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A Tacit Acceptance of Unknowability: Experimental Philosopher Jonathon Keats and His Alien Instruments

Alien Instruments 1Recent years have seen tribal lines drawn across the globe, with an increasingly divisive and xenophobic political climate both in the United States and abroad. It’s a change in tenor we perhaps should have seen coming, but many of the most strident political analysts have been taken aback by the “Us vs. Them” rhetoric that has become so prevalent since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, known for past endeavors such as the Pangaea Optima and Superego Suits, has proposed one idea for alleviating the current culture of hate: to turn our eyes – and ears – to the stars.

Of course, NASA and other space programs around the world have long since abandoned manned missions to deep space, but Keats has another notion entirely in mind, one that employs the universal language of music. The San Francisco artist has composed a Universal Anthem to be performed by several new constructions he has come to call alien instruments. “The Universal Anthem really is about inclusiveness at every level, which requires that beings other than humans have access to it,” Keats says, detailing the necessity for creating these instruments. “Therefore, all assumptions about sensory organs need to be called into question, and we need this much larger, more expansive view of what music can be made of, and what sorts of implements can be used to precisely modulate qualities of frequency and amplitude.”

The idea of utilizing music to achieve unity has been employed before, at least on a planetary scale. In 1971, the UN Secretary General U Thant commissioned a “Hymn to the United Nations” as an alternative to patriotic national anthems, but the hymn still relied on classical music structure and English lyrics—neither of which Keats finds ideal for achieving interstellar contact or fostering a sense of global unity. “What I care about in very tangible terms are the interactions happening on this planet right now, and those interactions are extraordinarily perilous at the level of geopolitics and the environment,” Keats explains. “I could go on and on as far as all the ways in which our tribalism and xenophobia are toxic, are ruinous. We need mechanisms for encouraging and facilitating inclusiveness in every possible way.”

As a result, Keats began his composition of the Universal Anthem by thinking about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that everything in the universe must follow the rules of entropy, becoming more disorderly over time. Keats describes entropy as “the quality you would most trust to be universal.” Keats’s Universal Anthem “requires no knowledge of Wagnerian leitmotif, for instance,” and instead follows these same rules of entropy, with each voice gradually decomposing.

Alien Instruments 2Keats has created a visual transcription for the Universal Anthem, using – of all things – Adobe Photoshop and its noise generator. The resulting images resemble nothing so much as the static on an analog television or even the popular style of Internet art known as pixelart. But Keats insists this visual depiction is only one way to transcribe the Universal Anthem, and as with many popular forms of music, such as jazz, “it’s all open to interpretation.”

Keats suggests there is great potential for entropy to be used as the basis for music; even songs by popular artists like Taylor Swift could be transcribed using his method. While Keats acknowledges that Swift could strike him with a potential lawsuit for disseminating her music into space, he argues that in helping her reach a potentially interstellar audience, she could be the first artist to go beyond Platinum sales to Universal—and, so, “Swift shouldn’t sue me, she should thank me.”

Composing music based on the law of entropy, Keats argues, could make music emotional on a galactic level, as all known creatures share a will to live and a fear of death. This style of music could “broaden the gamut of what we know” and allow those of us on Earth to “become a small part of something greater.” Keats hopes “this de-centering might help counteract some of the xenophobia that is rampant in the United States and Europe,” and bring about “the kind of massive generalized introspection that is going to be necessary to overcome this tribalism.”

Alien Instruments 3But, how then, best to perform these compositions? It’s difficult to imagine strumming a guitar onstage and expecting those same notes, no matter how amplified, to reach extraterrestrial ears. To that end, Keats has devised several quite beautiful and intricate “alien instruments,” which are currently viewable upon appointment at the Modernism Gallery in San Francisco. These instruments include Gravitational Rattles, which appear to be standard variety potatoes you could find at your local Trader Joe’s – and, indeed, they are. But these potatoes also allow the performers to alter their gravitational mass at will, depending on how many they hold in their hands (or juggle, as one man did to the delight of onlookers at the opening night of Keats’ exhibit). “If we’re going to make instruments that include not only what is audible to humans but also gravitational waves, it makes the distance between us and those south of the border seem all that much more minimal,” Keats says. He hopes a renewed musical understanding could ultimately help foster “the sort of cooperation we need in order to get on as a society, as a species, and as a planet.”

On the off chance these aliens boast superior hearing ability to humans, Keats has created the Ultrasonic Organ, which replaces conventional organ pipes with dog whistles. Most humans cannot hear past 20,000 hertz on the audible spectrum; dogs can hear as high as 45 kilohertz, making the Ultrasonic Organ ideal for reaching distant beings with hearing more in line with our canine companions. Much like a traditional organ, the Ultrasonic Organ’s airflow can be modulated by a foot bellow.

Keats has also constructed the Gamma Ray Bells, whose gamma ray exposure can be controlled by the performer simply by lifting the bell’s lead casing. It’s worth mentioning that gamma rays fall outside the normal human sensory range, but their type of electromagnetic radiation might just be the ideal vehicle to reach certain species currently unknown to us. One has to wonder, then, if the ideal instrumentation for the Universal Anthem might be one that human beings can’t even experience?

Alien Instruments 4Keats argues such an idea goes entirely against the Universal Anthem’s goal of inclusiveness and harmony: “We desperately need humans to be part of this interaction, part of this communication, part of this musical phenomenon, as well as any other organisms,” he states. “First of all because we only know of us, so it makes sense to include us, and secondly because, well, I happen to be human –– as far as I know.”

Despite creating this attractive array of intergalactic instruments, Keats freely admits he approaches this project with little to no musical training. “I studied recorder in fourth grade,” he says. “One semester I learned how to play and then over break I forgot, and so for the second semester I simply didn’t blow into the instrument. That was my first and last experience with any instrument at all.” Even so, Keats has put a great deal of time into informally studying musical theory, as well as astrophysics and the various other components of this endeavor.

Keats does not see his lack of formal proficiency as a hindrance or liability: “I think in everything that I do I rely on the fact that I am ultimately a generalist, a dilettante, a charlatan,” he relates. “I am not bound by any rules, though I certainly make myself aware of the rules in the process of exploring ideas.”

In many ways, Keats’ insistence that a lack of musical training should serve as no detriment to playing these instruments brings to mind the punk rock movement of the late ’70s, which encouraged passionate neophytes to pick up a second-hand guitar or bass and bash their way to a connection with a live audience. “I like the idea that this is a kind of punk tradition that we’re talking about here, when we talk about making music with aliens,” he says.

He also cites post-war avant-garde musician John Cage, whose work utilized a sense of chaos and order not dissimilar to entropy, as a major influence. “I once composed a ringtone that was a remix of John Cage’s 4’33.” My version was a 4-minute-and-33-second long silent ringtone, such that you never knew when your phone was ringing,” he explains. “As a result, you might imagine that it was ringing even when it wasn’t, and you would have this sort of phantom silence, which might even be more pure than the digital silence I generated for the ringtone. We need more silence in the ever noisier world in which we live.”

Keats’ appreciation of Cage reiterates that these instruments are meant to be as accessible as possible. “Certainly some musical training could be helpful,” he states, “but it also might get in the way.” Instead, performers could “enter into a tacit acceptance of unknowability” and experience “a state of not knowing together,” which could actually be “a great basis for a dialogue that doesn’t have any of the power dynamics or structure that typically informs the conversations we have.”

Alien Instruments 5While Keats has composed the Universal Anthem as a starting point, he insists these instruments lend themselves freely to improvisation. “Improvisation is probably more powerful, ultimately,” he states, “and maybe the practice of composing is really practice for improvisation.” Improvisation proves so integral to Keats’ view precisely because “that’s where you have true interaction.” Interaction being a potent remedy to the culture of hate we have become mired in: “The Trumpian strategy is maybe undermined when there are so many ways in which communication is happening, ways that are so complex and so intertwined and so rich that any attempt to pit ‘us’ against ‘them’ is made impossible, and, in fact, ‘us’ and ‘them’ become indefinable.”

Naturally, the notion of jamming out with interstellar beings conjures so many moments from science-fiction movies, whether it’s the iconic cantina band from Star Wars or the blue-skinned opera singer in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, but Keats insists that no aliens yet depicted on film come close to his perception of hypothetical extraterrestrials. “In some cases, like Plan 9 from Outer Space, [the alien is] more hostile or intimidating, and in others, like E.T., it’s more sympathetic, but it’s always Other. It’s always about the difference as opposed to the similarities.” Keats’ project doesn’t hone in on these perceived differences, but rather imagines all the ways we could be alike: embracing a depiction of aliens “where you can’t tell who is who, or where the differentiation is the least of it rather than the most if it.” Given the gorgeously crafted aesthetic of Keats’ instruments, it comes as little surprise that Keats is willing to loan out the instruments as props in film productions. “I would love to see how these instruments and this kind of music might bend the assumptions of science fiction,” he admits.

Beyond appearing at a theater near you, Keats hopes his instruments may one day come closer to achieving their intended purpose by being standard issue equipment onboard future space shuttle launches. “Any mission whatsoever to space, amongst the other equipment that should be onboard the spacecraft, certainly these musical instruments should be part of the gear,” he says. “You never know, you want to be prepared.” And Keats is nothing less than prepared for a potential day in the future where the human voice and mass will intermingle and perform with beings whose experience of music and the universe might, in truth, be closer to our own than we ever imagined.

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Bending Towards Instinct: Q&A with ‘Invitation to a Bonfire’ author Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a BonfireAdrienne Celt’s Invitation to a Bonfire (256 pages; Bloomsbury) is a novel delightfully unconcerned with passing literary trends. Celt has her eye trained on the past, on both the esteemed literary works that have influenced her and the massive social upheaval that was the Russian Revolution. Invitation to a Bonfire opens on the young Zoya Andropova, an orphan of the Revolution who makes her way to safety in the United States only to become the victim of petty cruelties at New Jersey’s prestigious Donne School. Zoya observes the strange customs and practices of American culture while finding solace in tending to the school’s greenhouse.

As the years pass, Zoya finds herself at the center of a bitter love triangle between a bestselling Russian writer and his wife, a couple who may or may not bear a passing resemblance to Vladimir Nabokov and his partner, Vera. This shift in the book’s storyline does not go unnoted, as Celt transitions from boarding school bildungsroman to the high suspense of a vintage Patricia Highsmith novel. Recently, Celt, whose story “Big Boss Bitch” appeared in Issue No. 107, talked to ZYZZYVA about her literary influences, including Nabokov, as well as her interest in Russian history and what it means to “be American.”

ZYZZYVA: So much of the style and milieu of this novel, from its period setting and incorporation of epistolary elements, put me in mind of classic works of fiction rather than any contemporary peers. Both the writing and life of Vladimir Nabokov register as a clear influence, and I was also reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Perhaps you could talk about some of the novels that inspired Invitation to a Bonfire. Did you envision this novel in conversation with those works?

ADRIENNE CELT: Remains of the Day is one of my favorite books, and although I can’t say it was an intentional influence on Invitation, I’m gratified to be considered in conversation with it. And I can certainly see the resonance: both are steeped in yearning for a time gone by, and both offer narrators whose unreliability comes less from a desire to mislead, and more from a desire to cling to their fracturing past, the things they once knew to be true. So maybe it was there without me knowing. God knows a lot of books must have left that kind of subconscious impression.

In terms of novels I turned to specifically, you’re right that the spirit and tone of this book are first and foremost inspired by Nabokov, particularly Lolita, Pale Fire, and Pnin (and of course the title is a hat-tip to Invitation to a Beheading.) I also re-read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which is maybe more contemporary than your question suggests, but arguably just as haunted by romantic notions of the past. Mostly, with that book, I was interested in how much personal history a narrator could offer, especially early on, without causing the plot to drag—Tartt does an incredible job of folding Richard’s backstory into his motivations and his moral character, and I definitely had him on my mind.

Beyond that, maybe some Patricia Highsmith? Maybe some Jean Rhys? I read both those writers while working on my early drafts, and I borrow a sense of propulsion and atmosphere from both of them.

Z: The first part of the novel is largely concerned with Zoya’s journey to America following the violence of the Russian Revolution, which you capture in particular detail. What kind of research was involved in writing about that period of history?

AC: One of my college majors was Russian (the other was philosophy), which meant I had a basic understanding of the Russian Revolution already at my fingertips when I began—and I think it’s worth mentioning that some of that education took place in St. Petersburg, so I wasn’t drawing purely on American attitudes and culture. I hope that makes a difference. Of course I didn’t remember all the dates and specifics perfectly, so I went back and made an outline of the various smaller revolutions that finally led to the collapse of the aristocracy and the rise of the Soviet Union, which I cross-referenced with a calendar of my character’s birthdates and major life events. Honestly, a lot of my research for this book was purely checking dates, and making sure I wasn’t being too anachronistic—which is as true for events that took place in America as in Russia.

People who have never written historical novels, I think, might be surprised which pieces actually have to be deeply researched: it’s so often the little things. There were big patches I could sort of feel my way through by instinct, but when I wanted to figure out what kind of flooring would plausibly be in a Russian apartment, I checked with my college Russian professors, because a guess didn’t feel good enough. There are also, of course, historical novelists who get much more into period-specific detail than I do: I work from a place of character first, and fill in the details as necessary.

Z: As much as Zoya’s struggle is rooted in her experiences as an orphan of the Russian Revolution, a great deal of her story felt universal to me; she is the quintessential outsider, and I think anyone who has ever felt ostracized or different from others would relate to her experiences in boarding school. “Things can go ugly fast,” her confidante Hilda states. “People can be ugly,” and we see this at the Donne School. The first part of the book follows Zoya as she observes her fellow students in an attempt to her learn what it means to “be American.” What made you want to write about the concept of “being American” from the perspective of an outsider to the American experience?

AC: I wanted to write about “being American” from an outsider’s perspective because I think we often don’t understand that there is an “outside.” We think that the American point of view is all there is. (Not that provincialism is unique to our country, but we’ve always been a little extra about it.) When you have an outsider looking at something—a culture, a philosophy, a way of life—you’re forced to recognize that it’s not inevitable. America, as it exists, is not inevitable. That’s kind of a radical thought, but also totally natural and obvious.

Zoya is a wonderful avatar for exploring this, because she’s rarely been an insider in any system. So, while her alienation is sincere, her use of cultural norms becomes a kind of game, or experiment. After a while, she realizes that if an arbitrary system of rules is deciding what’s “morally good”—and different systems decide to attribute “good” to different things—then maybe “moral good” doesn’t have any inherent meaning. Maybe satisfaction can be a moral good. Maybe love can.

Z: Speaking of the parts of the novel, there is a distinct shift that occurs as we move into the second part, in which the novel takes on some suspense leanings, almost operating in the genre of Highsmith. Was there a conscious decision to change the tone and direction of the novel halfway through, or was that something that seemed to happen organically during the writing process?

AC: Ha! So my name-check of Patricia Highsmith has come back around.

The shift was organic. In the original drafts, the first section was shorter, because I wanted to get to the suspense more quickly. But I’m always fascinated by how people come to themselves—how identity is formed over time, through experience and decision-making—which means I’m always going to be invested in giving my characters fleshed-out lives.

I also think that the two parts need each other: the second half wouldn’t operate the same way without the slower burn of the novel’s first section. Learning who Zoya, Lev, and Vera are as people teaches you a lot about what they truly want, and what they might be willing to do to get it. Once you understand someone’s desires, you can see the stakes of their actions more clearly. Plus you attach to them with greater tenderness.

Z: You raise such a fascinating idea in this novel––both Zoya and Vera seem to argue that sometimes an artist needs to be saved from themselves; that perhaps custodians of an artist should prevent certain works from being let out into the world in order to preserve an artist’s legacy. As someone who often finds himself drawn to the messy, more personal films or novels that lead to artists receiving a critical drubbing, this is a thought I love pondering. Have you ever wished, even fleetingly, that an author’s readership could be the guardians of their body of work?

AC: Really, who is the guardian of an author’s legacy if not their readers? I’m not saying I agree with the lengths that Zoya and Vera go to, as an example for the average person—they definitely take “protecting someone from themselves” to new heights. But all books become, in a sense, the property of their readers once they’re published.

On the other hand, if you’re asking whether writers should allow their readers and critics to direct the course of their career, I would say no. I do believe in having sensitivity to the reader’s experience while you write, but not in trying to please everyone. It’s a losing battle, for one thing, and—as you point out—it can scare artists away from making their most personal, groundbreaking work. 

In the end, it’s more important to bend towards instinct than popularity.

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The Wilds of Embarrassment: Q&A with ‘For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors’ author Laura Esther Wolfson

For Single Mothers WorkingLaura Esther Wolfson’s debut memoir is eye-catchingly titled For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors (176 pages; University of Iowa Press). Wolfson is a translator, not a train conductor, yet both professions lend themselves to traveling across borders while maintaining a certain distance—throughout the collection of short stories, Wolfson moves between countries, from the USA to France to Georgia; between languages, from Russian to French to Yiddish; and between her own story and the stories of others. Wolfson’s crossings are propelled and connected by a variety of forces, including her love for her two ex-husbands, her research into her previously unexplored Jewish heritage, and her suffering from lung disease.

Part of what makes For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors—which won the 2017 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction—so unique is how Wolfson’s relationships with different languages affect her relatively commonplace experiences. In “The Husband Method,” for example, Wolfson remembers her and her Russian husband’s transition to America, and how Russian became their private language. On the other hand, Wolfson shares in “Proust at Rush Hour” how French provided her with a steady job. Yiddish, a language Wolfson is far less fluent in than Russian or French, mends her broken identity in “The Book of Disaster” in a way no other language is able to do. Wolfson recently spoke to us about the way she blurs fiction and non-fiction, the role of humiliation in writing, her literary influences, and more.

ZYZZYVA: In the beginning of “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors,” the eponymous short story that gives insight into your first marriage, you write: “Reader, I married her son.” What’s the significance of your allusion to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre?

Laura Esther Wolfson: At first, the Jane Eyre allusion was nothing more than a joke. The reader thinks she knows what’s coming, because “Reader, I married him” is so familiar. But, approaching the end of that sentence, she cycles rapidly through a shifting series of expectations and dawning understandings: first, lulled by the initial familiar words into not following too closely; then, brought to attention by the initial twist: the female narrator’s “I married her,” so that, if she pauses on the penultimate word, ‘her,’ the reader may briefly imagine that the narrator married her, the mother-in-law–which, in a sense, she did. (Gay marriage was of course unimaginable at the time of the events recounted and remains so in today’s Russia.) Finally, she grasps that these words, followed by ‘son,’ in fact introduce the narrator’s husband.

After For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors came out this spring, a friend who has championed my work for decades pointed out that by addressing readers directly on the first page, I was flinging wide the door and welcoming them into the book in its entirety. Placed at the opening of the book, the Jane Eyre sentence takes on a larger significance than it possessed when that section was originally published on its own, in a magazine.

Z: Throughout many of the short stories, you discuss your efforts to connect with your Jewish heritage. For example, you devour the works of Jewish writers and study Yiddish. What made you hungry, as an adult, to explore your origins? As you note in “The Bagels in the Snowflake,” you did not grow up practicing Judaism, and the Snowflake Bakery was the “sole passageway” you had to your heritage. 

LEW: As a child, I was told that the descriptors “Jew” and “Jewish” applied to me, yet I knew nothing, but nothing, about the meaning of those words. They were a locked box. Imagine being told all your life that you are French, yet when you find yourself among French people, you cannot converse with them in what is supposed to be your common tongue. You don’t know what Paris is, or Bastille Day. Imagine a Jew who doesn’t know who Moses was, or the meaning of Yom Kippur—basic, basic things. That was me. Eventually, this unknowing struck me as peculiar.

The house where I grew up was home to a cornucopia of books on architecture, ballet, psychoanalysis, socialism, and innumerable other subjects, plus the classics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American literature, the juvenilia and minor works of many great authors, the full 16-volume series of Oz books, all eight of the Little House series, other classics of children’s literature, a 22-volume encyclopedia, and, yes, the King James Bible.

The sole Jewish books were Isaac Bashevis Singer’s retellings of folk tales in editions for children (but none of the works for grownups that won him the Nobel), a tome about Abba Eban (a statesman, scholar and founder of the State of Israel) and a single copy of the Haggadah (the guide to the Passover ritual, or Seder, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt). The latter is generally found in multiple copies in Jewish homes; at Passover, everyone present is handed a copy for the evening, so that all can follow along and participate. Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah) cannot and do not exist alone, yet here was one, all by itself—an anomaly. Clearly the last vestige of something, but what?

Quite a bit later, it occurred to me that there must be more books about Judaism, many more, and that it might in fact be possible to learn about this mysterious thing that had shaped me in ways I barely grasped. Surrounded by books my whole life, I should have known that there are books on every topic under the sun. But the realization came late, when I was nearly 30.

When I studied Yiddish—and language study necessarily encompasses study of culture—I learned that various habits and phrases that I had thought unique to my quirky family were in fact shards of the Ashkenazy (Eastern European Jewish) tradition and worldview. Discovering that I belonged to a larger culture was immensely comforting, and also a revelation.

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The Texture of the Light: Q&A with ‘Edith’ author Meg Freitag

EdithMeg Freitag’s Edith (83 pages; BOAAT Books), winner of the inaugural Book Prize from BOAAT Press, comprises a series of vivid, voice-y lyrics addressed to a pet parakeet—the titular Edith—who dies halfway through the book. It turns out speaking to a pet bird makes a certain kind of affectionate disclosure possible; the experience of reading these poems is often one of overhearing an earnest speaker struggling to explain herself to a tiny, mute beloved. But the speaker’s love for her pet is also inextricable from her tenderness toward the world, and her mourning for Edith is bound up in other losses, too, including the end of a relationship, a transcontinental move, and the deaths of friends and idols.

This intimate address is only part of what makes Freitag’s speaker so endearing. She’s also winningly imaginative, once comparing heartache to an elaborate pinball game, and standing beneath a glowing sky to being “inside / A plum … some needful giant / Was holding a flashlight to.” In a scene typical of Freitag’s dizzying dream sequences, the speaker is “walking around Costco / Without any skin on while a throng of people / Followed [her], clicking those little devices / Which are meant for training dogs / Every time [she] touched something.” The book is also carefully, almost novelistically structured; while we know from the get-go Edith is doomed, the events of her death reveal themselves with suspenseful, dilatory slowness.

Long before the book’s publication, my friends and I read and circulated all the poems of Freitag’s we could find online, gushing about their luminous nouns, their surprising swerves, and their unspooling epic similes, which manage to precisely characterize our mushiest, most interior experiences. Who hasn’t watched their lover from across the room “like a snake / With its eye on a prairie dog’s / Hole?” Who hasn’t, in the throes of dread, felt “all the blood / Moving through [them] with great / Effort, like it was full of seeds?” In the following interview, conducted over email, Freitag discusses how exactly images like these occurred to her, as well as mirrors, dreams, and writing by ear. 

ZYZZYVA: The majority of these poems are addressed to Edith, who we learn is the speaker’s pet parakeet. Over the course of the book, I feel like Edith evolves from a mourned pet to a sort of emissary from the afterlife; speaking to Edith becomes a way of speaking to the dead, or to the void, or to an indifferent god. What drew you to this kind of highly lyrical, odic apostrophe?

Meg Freitag: I’ve always been really interested in recurring characters in poetry collections. John Berryman’s Henry, Bill Knott’s Naomi, Herbert Zbigneiw’s Mr. Cogito, for instance. At the time when I started the Edith poems, I was reading Josh Bell’s No Planets Strike, which is a wonderful and bewildering book. He uses the name “Ramona” like a touchstone in his poems. No matter how wild they get, he’s able to pull the poem back to its center with just three syllables.

When I first started writing to Edith she was still very much alive. I had no idea the turn things would take. The Edith poems started as a kind of exercise, a way to lighten up my writing a bit and hopefully generate more material for workshops. Edith and I had been through a lot together over the years, and I was taken with this idea that she’d been passively complicit in it all through witness. I was still searching for my “voice” at that time. When she died about six months into the project, the whole project immediately took on a new significance. I don’t know that at any point during the writing process I thought about the Edith poems as eventually comprising a book with a cohesive emotional arc, with a sort of composite narrative. This is something that only really revealed itself to me when I was putting the book together. During the writing of the poems, I just had this feeling that I followed through its evolution and eventual natural conclusion. It was all very organic for me.

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Craft Talk: Dean Rader on Poetry Workshops, Writing Hurdles, & Looking Outward

Works & DaysDiligent readers of ZYZZYVA will have noticed Dean Rader’s dazzling poems in numerous issues of the journal, most recently in our Art & Resistance-themed Issue 111. We’re pleased to announce that Rader will also be leading a ZYZZYVA Writer’s Workshop in Poetry on August 18th, which is currently accepting submissions. The deadline to enter is June 18th –– so do not delay! The poet recently took time out of his busy schedule, which includes teaching writing at the University of San Francisco, to discuss the merits of the Workshop format, writing hurdles he’s overcome, recent poetry collections he’s read, and much more.

ZYZZYVA: Do you feel the communal aspect of a writing workshop, in which participants receive critical feedback from both the instructor and other attendees, can help improve the quality of a poem – or is it more about the discussion a poem can generate among the group? 

Dean Rader: This is my professor (and my poet) answer but both things are valuable—especially in a one-day workshop. As a full-time professor and as someone who reads a lot of poems for contests and publication, I feel like I know what elements make a poem really sing. I also think it is important for writers to get feedback from other writers who are engaged in a common pursuit. One of the most critical things for any writer is learning what advice to take and what advice to ignore—these kinds of workshops are great for this.

One last thing—immersive workshops do both short term and long term work. There are immediate benefits that might make the poem under discussion stronger, but conversations and techniques and strategies learned in the workshop have long lasting benefits that can make future poems stronger than they might have otherwise been.

Z: In your collaboration with fellow poet Simone Muench in ZYZZYVA No. 101, known as the Frankenstein Sonnets, the two of you devised a new form for constructing poetry, one that saw you both piecing together a poem stanza by stanza. Do you ever instruct your students to experiment or devise new forms like this to break them out of their usual patterns?

DR: Oh yes. It’s a regular assignment in all of my writing classes. In fact, I have even begun assigning the very same system Simone and I used for our own poems. Often, they result in some of the best work of the semester because most people are capable of writing two interesting stanzas. One of the hardest things is writing a flawless poem from beginning to end. But, without the pressure of having to write a perfect poem, you would be amazed at how creative people get. Plus, you never want to let your collaborator down. Greatness rises to the surface…

Z: If a student comes to you and says, “This poem I wrote is bad,” what’s typically your first response?

DR: I usually quote this great passage from Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Most of our poems begin badly. There is nothing wrong with writing a bad poem. I have written many. I have written bad poems this month. Typically, I ask my student if there is a way to save the poem, and we sometimes look for one line or one image or one moment that contains the energy or the edge of the poem. I ask the student to cut everything but that one part and start from there.

But, beyond that, I also believe that we sometimes have to write a series of failed poems in order to write the one that succeeds. What if the successful poem can only have been written because of multiple failures?

As I suggest above, poetry is about playing the long game.

Z: Early in your writing career, was there a specific hurdle you were able to jump over, whether it was a way to unlock your creativity or simply begin viewing yourself as a poet? How did you overcome it? 

DR: That is a great question. The answer is yes, absolutely. Probably two main hurdles.

The first was simply wondering if I have what it takes, if I have the talent and the commitment to devote my life (or at least the professional part of my life) to poetry. There are two components of that fear—talent and dedication. I remember Edward Hirsch telling me one time that he came to a realization at one point in his career that he would rather fail at poetry than succeed at anything else. I too came to that realization, perhaps a little later than some, but it made all the difference in my work. There are other poets out there with more natural gifts than I have—Terrance Hayes is a better poet than I am. Jorie Graham – way better. W. S. Merwin – so much better it’s like Kevin Durant and my 6-year old son playing horse. But, I’m playing the long game – I believe my best poems are to come. I’m committed to being courageous about my work.

The second hurdle was believing in that choice—believing that if I gave myself to poetry that poetry would return that gift. Like most poets, early on I was confused about my voice and/or what I wanted my voice to be. I both wanted to sound like poets I admire and did not want to sound like poets I admire. Somehow, that involved letting go of past voices of restrictive ideas about what a poem should look like or sound like or do and let my poems embody poetry’s flexibility, its nimbleness, its openness.

Z: What are some poetry collections you’ve recently read and would whole-heartedly recommend to prospective Workshop attendees? 

For me, the most impressive collection of the last decade or so is Lighthead by Terrance Hayes. A very different book but one which I like and I think students will like is Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón. King Me by Roger Reeves is great, as is Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang. If folks have not read W. S. Merwin’s The Lice, now is a great time to do so. Copper Canyon just issued a 50th anniversary edition of it – that book changed contemporary poetry. Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire is a must. I also recommend a book many people may not know – Simone Muench’s Lampblack with Ash. Lastly, if folks are interested in the ways in which poems can take on controversial political issues, I urge readers to check out Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence—with poems by Juan Felipe Herrera, Rita Dove, Billy Collins, Danez Smith, Robert Hass, Natalie Diaz, Dana Levin, Yusef Komunyaaka, Jane Hirshfield, Martin Espada and 40 others. Each poem is paired with responses by survivors of mass shootings, parents of children killed in shootings, and other activists. Often, contemporary poetry can feel like it is facing inward, but these are all poems looking outward.

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The Truest I Could Be: Q&A with ‘The Ensemble’ author Aja Gabel

Aja GabelAja Gabel’s first novel, The Ensemble (352 pages; Riverhead), reminds me of why I first, long ago, might have fallen in love with reading. It’s immersive and sweeping, featuring ambitious professional musicians—Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry—who form a string quartet. Walter Pater posited that all art aspires to the condition of music; I don’t know if I agree (that “all” makes me nervous), but I’ve thought for years that there isn’t nearly enough writing about music, and musicians. (A few exceptions I love include Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, and now The Ensemble.)

Gabel and I spoke over email about Baldwin, point of view, YouTube performances, and, of course, music.

ZYZZYVA: We’ve talked about our shared past lives as would-be professional musicians. Can you tell me about yours, and about what led to your leaving it behind?

AJA GABEL: “Leaving it behind” is the right phrase to use, but it’s something I had real trouble doing. I started playing violin when I was 5 and switched to the cello when I was 10. I played very intensely until I was about 22, until I finished college. I mostly played chamber music, but studied privately and performed solo as well. It became clearer earlier than that, though, that I wasn’t going to be the sort of conservatory-going, professional career-chasing musician I’d dreamed of being when I was younger. I don’t think I accepted that clarity for a while, though. I continued studying and playing anywhere and everywhere throughout my twenties. I didn’t really let it go—I mean really let it go—until I went to Provincetown to start writing this novel. That was the first time I didn’t take my cello with me when I moved. Not playing every day opened up this space in my brain, enough landscape for an entire novel about the pursuit of music to take hold. Unfortunately, that meant my skill level quickly dissipated. I can still play, but I wouldn’t do it publicly.

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Endless Fascination: Q&A with ‘L.A. Man’ Author Joe Donnelly

L.A. ManYou can’t accuse Joe Donnelly of taking it easy. In a decades-spanning career, the Los Angeles writer has profiled the “who’s who” of Hollywood––from America’s sweetheart Drew Barrymore to iconoclast filmmaker Werner Herzog––in the pages of publications like L.A. Weekly, where he served as deputy editor for a number of years. During that time, his short stories have earned him an O. Henry Prize (“Bonus Baby,” from ZYZZYVA No. 103) and have been adapted into short films. Donnelly also co-founded and co-edited Slake, a short-lived but highly acclaimed journal that gathered journalism, fiction, poetry, and art, all with a distinctly L.A. feel.

L.A. Man (284 pages; Rare Bird Books) represents a carefully curated selection of Donnelly’s journalism. The book includes profiles of actors as disparate as Carmen Electra and Christian Bale, as well as the madmen and outsiders that capture Donnelly’s imagination: the Z-Boys who skated rings around the empty pools of 1970s SoCal; ex-hippie turned international drug smuggler Eddie Padilla; eccentric comedian and dramatist Lauren Weedman, whose solo theatrical shows Donnelly likens to witnessing The Who perform for the first time; and many more.

Donnelly talked to ZYZZYVA about some of the famous names that appear in L.A. Man, life in the sphere of the filmmaking industry, and the enduring allure of Los Angeles.

ZYZZYVA: Throughout L.A. Man, you have a tendency to profile filmmakers, actors, musicians, and other artistic figures at moments when they’re either established icons (Lou Reed, Werner Herzog)—or alternately right when they’re at the precipice of fame. For instance, you met with Wes Anderson just before Rushmore put him on the map, and you note that even when you spoke to Christian Bale pre-Dark Knight he wasn’t quite a household name yet. When you meet someone at the start of their career, does that tend to make you feel more invested in their career trajectory and want to keep up with their artistic development? 

JOE DONNELLY: Not really. I feel like I tend to go all in when I’m doing the pieces, or a lot of them anyway. There’s a desire to make them definitive even if they come at transitional points in the subjects’ lives, and I don’t tend to feel much invested in their trajectories afterward unless, of course, they are figures whose lives and art will continue to relate to my life in a tangible way. Those are few and far between. I don’t have many heroes in that way, though Lou Reed was certainly one of them. Of more interest to me than the super famous figures such as Herzog, Barrymore, Bale, or Penn, etc. are the continuing stories of artists such as Craig Stecyk and Sandow Birk, or Eddie Padilla, the subject of “The Pirate of Penance,” and the wolf OR7, whose life and story has more implication to me than whether or not Wes Anderson makes another good movie.

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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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