WE’RE BACK

About six years ago, I was a grad student working in the Passages North literary journal office helping the nonfiction readers get caught up on their submissions, and I came across this piece so formulaic-resistant that I became light-headed; I was more on the fiction side of everything and couldn’t exactly express my nonfiction aesthetic until then. What I had found was an essay as genuine and farcical as I pretended to be, written in the same way people have conversations in bars.

That piece was called “An Introduction to Badass Continuum Mechanics, or How They Pound Ass in Baker,” written by Brandon Davis Jennings, a Ph.D candidate out of Western Michigan University, and bronzed with a bio too intimidating for me to call personally with a submission acceptance. An intimidation that would last another year when I left a four-minute rambling voicemail telling him that Elena Passarello had chosen his essay, “I Am The Pulverizer,” to win the PN nonfiction contest. He had left an equally long and rambling voicemail on my office phone that evening. I never deleted it, and I imagine somewhere in the wires of Northern Michigan University, if you plug in and hit the right digits, you can still hear BDJ sighing, chuckling, saying, “Yeah, man . . . okay.”

A year after that, we talk again, me pitching him the idea of a book of essays revolving around the ones I had already worked on and adored. A year later, we meet officially in Minneapolis at AWP where I suffered from nerves and vertigo. We were supposed to talk about the book, but instead we end up playing darts with the last two un-bent tips on the block. We never discussed the book. We barely had any rhythm to tossing. It was all in the same demeanor of two drunks avoiding home. We were supposed to be at AWP, attending panels, brown-nosing, networking, but that was out there, and we were in here. Out of the thousands of liked-minded professionals in that town, I had never felt more at peace until then, dry-mouthed, talking about living, weaving through hazy memories, and waiting for that moment when we were down to only one dart.

If we’re keeping track, the journey of making this book, to me, begins with a Word document printed at Office Max for $32.00 and a phone call to BDJ four hours later, saying, “Yeah, alright. Let’s do it,” and ends, three years later, in two-ish weeks, this Labor Day, when we can bring you The Red Book, (or Operation Iraqi Freedom is My Fault).

We’ve done a ton of work to make this project turn out the right way, and we look forward for you to finally own this book, this life, this humorous, sentimental, heartbreaking, wayward, brutally honest, thoughtful, and, most unapologetically apologetically unapologetic apologetic narrative you didn’t know you’ve been searching for.

On Sexuality, Hair, & Spoken-Word | Zarah Moeggenberg interviewed by Hannah Baggott

On October 4, 2015, I Facetimed with Zarah and her Pomeranian Teddy (named after poet Ted Kooser) to talk about her first book, To Waltz on a Pin.

Hannah Baggott: Before we talk about your book, where are you and what are you doing right now?

Zarah Moeggenberg: I am in Pullman, WA. Pullman is a super-college town. It’s like what you see in TV shows and movies; it was a total culture shock when I moved here. I am still getting used to it, but I would say that I’ve acclimated. There’s a really big Greek life and party scene. Our school’s gotten a lot of press, like unfortunate press for some unfortunate things that have happened here—sexual violence, rape. It’s really horrible, and I am so sorry that’s happened to so many people. It is a good town though. I really love my students. I’m teaching two classes right now, and one of those classes is probably my favorite class I’ve ever taught. They’re amazing—such great energy. So I think that our Greek life and our undergrads get a really bad rap, but they are really smart and I really like working with them.

So, I’m in the middle of nowhere. I’m in the middle of a wheat field—hundreds of miles of wheat field. The closest city is Spokane, and it’s about an hour and a half away. So, you’re kind of just here; you don’t really go anywhere. There’s no water.

I just got a new tattoo yesterday—I do coastlines of where I’ve lived. I have 3 coastlines on my shoulder and arm and back. I was talking to the girl doing my tattoo and I said—“I don’t know what to do here because there’s no water.” You have to drive super far to hike, which is not like Michigan. In Michigan, you can drive 5 minutes and go hiking. So, it’s just different. I’m working on it.

I’m in my second year of my PhD in Rhetoric and Composition. I did my MFA in Poetry, but I fell in love with teaching basic writing. So, I wanted a program that had a Queer Theorist and basic writing, because at many state universities, they move the basic writing to the community colleges. You’d have to establish some kind of a relationship with the community colleges if you want to do research. This school had all of the things.

I’ve been to Seattle twice, but you’re so busy in your PhD that you don’t really have time to do anything outside of what you’re doing.

HB: I’m really interested in the fact that you’re working on your PhD in Rhetoric and Composition as a poet.

ZM: If I wouldn’t have fallen in love with it, I would’ve been done. I had no plans to get a PhD, but things fall into place. I was dating this girl, and we ended up breaking up before my third year of my MFA. I was like: Well, what else am I going to do? I love teaching this, and I want to be better at it, so I just kept going to school. But a few months before that, I had zero plans. I was just going to find some job and hopefully get something tenure-track with in a few years.

HB: So the break-up was good motivation?

ZM: Yeah, it was. I mean, it was a great relationship. I got Teddy.

It has to be the right time for you, and you have to have the energy, because it’s an energy suck. I mean, the MFA is a energy suck, but this… if you want to keep being sucked, you know?

HB: I’m going to quote you on that. I could talk about teaching forever, but I really want to talk about your book, too. How did To Waltz on a Pin come about?

ZM: A lot of it is from my thesis. When I was writing my thesis, I was thinking…Okay, I don’t mean to be incredibly critical of spoken word poets. A lot of what you see on Youtube or in performance is really beautifully poetry, but they publish books and what you see on the page isn’t really a reflection of how it would be performed.

So, some of the poems you’ll notice—especially the longer poems—you’ll be like: Why the hell would you break that line there?

I broke it there because I wanted it to be a script. I wanted people to be able to read it and understand how it is supposed to sound and feel. And I think that’s what’s been missing from what a lot of spoken word artists put into print. That’s a major motivating factor behind what I was trying to do.

I think also that a lot of queer people are so hyper-sexualized in a lot of the texts being produced right now—print text and TV shows. I wanted to complicate what they perceive as love.

Of course, I wrote this before gay marriage was legalized. I just think that it’s so much more than sex. It is. It is so much more than sex.

I really wanted to ensure that what I did produce complicated and humanized what people conceive of as love between women.

I actually finished my book before the third year of my MFA, and I spent my third year revising. But I got trapped—swept away—in looking into PhD programs.

So, when my book was accepted for publication, I was really excited. I was kind of blown away. I felt like I hadn’t touched these poems in a long time. I think that my becoming more intimate with them in the past year has been disjointed.

Tim [of Little Presque Books] and I sent things back and forth a billion times, but each time that I looked at it, I felt more and more removed. Maybe that was a good thing.

Maybe that’s more like you, as a reader. They aren’t something that you’ve created; they’re something you have to get to know.

Maybe it was a good thing that I hadn’t touched the poems in a really long time. I had to go back and revise and go back and forth with Tim—things like line breaks and changing some words and phrases. He made some suggestions that I would’ve never thought of.

I think it’s a good thing to take a break. I’m sure that happens to people, but I don’t really know. I’ve read some interviews and been to readings, but they never talk about that weird time where it’s in the hands of someone else and you just get a little correspondence.

HB: The moment where you let the child go?

ZM: Yeah, I let the child go during a time where I was starting something completely new. In a way, it was kind of easy, but I still really identify with the manuscript.

HB: I think a lot about the intersections of memoir and poetry. How do you feel about that? Is that at work here in this book?

ZM: I think that a lot of me is in the book, and I think that a lot of it is definitely pretty close to true. I think that a lot of it is a wish.

It’s what you wish you would have done—what you wish would have happened.

HB: That reminds me of a line in “Dear Anne” that really struck me: “how to keep everything the same when everything changes.”

ZM: That poem is completely fiction in the sense that I have never been a mother; I’ve never had a child. But I think that it was very much me writing to myself. I think at some point during the MFA, I kind of lost touch with who I was. I think that this is me reflecting a couple of years after I having written it.

That’s probably one of my favorite poems in the whole book; it’s long, but it’s incredibly sad. It’s sad in a wonderful way.

HB: That’s how I felt entirely after finishing your book—almost sick heart-broken, but it was beautiful. I was thinking about this incredible mix of sexuality, sensuality, familial structure, and the normal struggle of trying to get to know someone or have relationships with people. You have a lot of stuff going, rather than one particular narrative structure about one thing. Maybe this has to do with what you mentioned about the hyper-sexualization of queer culture; there’s sex there—there are sensual things happening, but that’s not the core of the book, and it’s not the core of any poem.

ZM: Another thing that I thought about—when you’re queer, you have to let go of your family or renegotiate family. Family becomes something that you’re not necessarily born into, and I think that definitely strings through the book.

There’s definitely a lot of sex in the book. In some ways, society (such a big word, I tell my students not to use that word) hyper-sexualizes queer people, but sex is very tied to identity. That whole taxonomy of hetero, homo, queer—it’s completely socially constructed.

HB: That reminds me of your poem “Things I Haven’t Told My Father,” which speaks to this identity—it brings student identities into the book.

ZM: Some of my students have to take a class if they haven’t declared a major. They have to interview professors. One of them asked me: Why do you come out to your students? (Because I always do.)

In basic writing, my students have to write an auto-ethnography—I mean, I made that assignments. I give them an example paper that I wrote, and mine is about being a gay teacher. I make them base it around a subculture—for me, being a queer professor. So, I think that student’s question probably stemmed from that.

I think that it’s wonderful that gay marriage is legal now, but I think that it has masked the fact, in a really neo-liberal way, that we have a million other issues that don’t get attention otherwise. That was a big part of my book— I didn’t want it to be about classical marriage and sex.

I hope that the book as a whole shows that other people that have been through those things. I think that there are so few texts that have been produced by queer artists. I really hope that mine does something, even if it reaches just one person.

There’s that whole rhetoric of “it gets better,” but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all; sometimes it results in horrible things. I hope that if my text doesn’t say it gets better (because I don’t think it does), maybe it says I’m still here.

HB: The book as a whole makes me think about the small moments that are particular to a queer experience, but are ultimately universal and human, regardless of sexuality.

ZM: I hope it does something. This could be my only book. You don’t know what it’s going to do. You don’t know if it’s going to mean or if it’s going to affect anyone, no matter how many years of energy you put into it.

HB: What kind of effects are you wanting To Waltz on a Pin to have?

ZM: This might sound really cliché, but I hope that it means for people that every person matters, and they have a really real affect on other people. That’s kind of simple, but I don’t think people realize how much they matter.

You have these people in your life that are these little flits of time—like you can have a best friend for a year and think you’re going to be friends forever, but really it was just a blink of an eye in your life. But at the same time, you impact each other. You change each other. I hope people realize that those people you never talk to again—they were meaningful.

The poems “Drawing Her” or “Drag Queen” or “Drag King” and the “Fucking” series—some of those are based off of real people— they really mattered, even though I don’t have contact with them, and probably never will ever again.

There are little moments in your life where it is really meaningful… like in airports. You meet people at bars, you share a drink, maybe they buy it, but you tell each other your whole story, and you never see them again. Maybe you trade business cards, but you never contact them. That’s what the book is like— airports.

HB: What poems in the book do you like most or connect with most right now?

ZM: I still really connect to “Home Haircut” and “Kitchen Table” and “I Always Cover Their Faces.”

HB: I love that “I Always Cover Their Faces” is in this book—it was interesting to see chicken killing within this emotional landscape

ZM: I think that poem challenges you to think about who the speaker is and what assumptions you make about that speaker because of other poems in the book.

HB: Readers are asked to confront their assumptions of the narratology here, just as you mentioned about queer culture. In terms of being open about who you are in terms of your identity, I’ve heard others claim that they don’t want to be boxed in as “this kind” of poet having written “this kind” of book.

ZM: I want people to see me as that—I’m proud of who I am. I want people to be proud of who they are. I think that I would be doing a disservice if I said I don’t want to be known as that queer lesbian poet. I’m proud, and I’m glad that I’m proud, because it could’ve turned out very differently. Not to say that I ever don’t want to be considered that, but I think your poetry changes and your foci change and the way that you write changes as you get older. At this point in my life, I’m happy for people to think of me as a queer/lesbian poet, because there aren’t enough.

Like with teaching, if I were a straight teacher, I wouldn’t have to come out. It would be different if everybody had to come out.

I have the privilege of experiencing the world as passing. When I teach, I have a dress on – heels, my hair and make up is done. I experience the world when people project a straight, cisgender identity on to me, and I don’t have to say anything.

I think that in the classroom and in my poetry – in that world—it is very necessary to say I am here, and don’t project your perceptions on to me.

When you come out, you have to come out over and over again. It never stops. This is never going to stop. I’ll always be perceived as straight, and I’ll always have to come out every semester to every class. If that means that one more student is more comfortable because they have me, that’s worth it. If it means one more student is uncomfortable, that’s worth it.

HB: That’s a brilliant way to put it. I feel like that conversation about passing comes out in your book, too—especially in terms of hair. I feel like there’s a lot of attention to hair.

ZM: I love hair. One day I want to cut my hair, but I have really good hair. I think that hair is the thing that people go to in order to determine your sexuality. Hair did become pretty central to the book. Even I use hair to understand—which is really wrong and heteronormative, but…

As a gay person, hair has been such a big concern of mine because sometimes, you don’t want people to perceive you as straight. There are many things that make me me, but I think being gay is a pretty significant thing. And sometimes, you just want people to see certain parts of you. I keep wanting to cut my hair, because I wish people to see that in me.

HB: I think your book asks us to consider that assumption.

ZM: I definitely try to challenge assumptions, but sometimes, I wish people could see that in me just by looking at me. But then, I’m really glad people can’t see it by just looking at me because it’s safe and it challenges all of their assumptions.

Maybe I can never cut my hair. If I cut my hair, I want it to be for me—not the other reasons. I would like to experience short hair.

HB: What are other poets/books did you read while you were writing this book?

ZM: My biggest influence before I started writing any of these poems was Ted Kooser’s “Delights and Shadows.” I read a bunch of his interviews— his aim is that anyone can pick up his poems and get something out of it. He has the “for the common man” rhetoric that strings throughout his writing, and I think that is very true. He has this one poem “At the Cancer Clinic”—it’s just this really beautiful poem about a women in a floppy hat that’s going through cancer treatment. It just got me. When I read his book, I thought: I want my poems, even if they are about things that sick people out or gross people out because they are gay, I want my poem to be something that everyone can get something out of.

I want them to deliver feelings. It doesn’t have to be something that you’ve experienced exactly, but the feelings would be something you could identify with.

The main spoken world poet that I listened to was Andrea Gibson. I’m a pretty original fan.

HB: You’re a hipster abour Andrea Gibson?

ZM: I’m a hipster about Andrea Gibson. I’ve seen her perform twice, but she has this poem (I think you can get it on iTunes. I’ve only ever heard the sound.) called “Wal-Mart.” I guess what I really like about her poems is that they are all stories. “Wal-Mart” is about your parents processing who you really are. There’s this dialogue between the speaker and the parents—there’s mostly silence from the speaker, and then, all of a sudden, the speaker just goes. In all of her poems, she is really considering her audience—she makes sure it is an experience for the audience in her rhythm.

And Lauren Zuniga—I like that her poems are really political and social justice-y. I think that that’s spoken word poetry at its core, but even her on the page poems are even like POW. She just gets me. She talks about the big issues that really need to be talked about, and I carry that into my teaching. Maybe she affects my teaching more than my poems.

Also, Sierra DeMulder’s “The Bones Below”— I have all of her books, but that book in particular is really intimate. If I could hope that my book was like any other book—if my kid could grow up to be like anyone—I would hope that my book would be or grow up to be like her book.

HB: With these influences and our discussion of spoken word, do you consider yourself a spoken word poet?

ZM: I don’t know—how did I get into this? I got my Bachelor’s at a really tiny catholic college—Aquinas College—in Grand Rapids, Michigan and I had some really awesome liberal faculty. Their creative writing program was really strong.

There was one day where our professor covered contemporary poetry. She showed us one spoken word poem, and I thought: That’s what I want to do. I probably stayed up until 4 in the morning that night listening to spoken word poetry.

I eventually got a series going that went two or three times a semester—an open mic slam with traditional points. We had guest judges and creative writers from the community—they would give feedback. I definitely got better every time, but I’ve only performed in public a few times. I definitely brought that to NMU with Beverly Matherne—she’s a blues poet from Louisiana. I was really lucky to get into Northern the second year I applied to programs; it was really wonderful because that’s her entire background. At the time, performance poetry wasn’t really a part of MFA programs. One thing she did that was really nice—like a gift for me—a performance poetry graduate seminar.

I did some readings in the UP, but I feel like I haven’t been in a place where I could perform… unless you create your own venue. If things would’ve worked out differently, I would have pursued more performance and more opportunities.

So, I am a spoken word poet, but I don’t think that I have a presence right now in not having access to venues and time.

HB: That’s really interesting—how specific this idea of being a spoken word poet has to do with this presence. And there’s so much push back in the academy about “on the page” poems, without attention to the aural art and history of poetry.

ZM: Poetry’s roots are aural. Readers today are more and more interested in picking up something that isn’t a traditional text. I think that poetry will change. There’s so much happening online. Eventually the technology will affect the product and production of the text—it is already changing.

HB: Has technology affected your writing or your approach?

ZM: This is really dorky, but my writing changed when I got my iPhone. There’s the “Voice Memos” app, and I would drive for hours across the UP, and I would just record words and combinations and repeat them over and over.

You may now purchase To Waltz on a Pin HERE.

It was a great experience; it helped me even revise poems. I would recite poems over and over and change up speeds and cut sections. Then, I would get home and edit on my computer based on those recordings. Even now, I’ll record ideas on the voice memos—thoughts on my teaching and research too. That technology has truly affected the way I compose, and it’s integrated into my process.

Hannah Baggott is a poet and Lecturer of English at UNC Pembroke. She holds an MFA from Oregon State University. She is a regular contributor with PDXX Collective and winner of the 2015 Jan and Marcia Vilcek Prize with Bellevue Literary Review and the Joyce Carol Oates Commencement award. Her work can be found or forthcoming in Passages North, [PANK], Ninth Letter, Hobart, and through her website hannahbaggott.com.

Little Presque Books’ Novella Contest Winner

After many long months of planning, waiting, panicking, reading, sighing, I’m thrilled to be able to announce that I can relax a winner has been chosen for Little Presque Books’ first novella contest!

We’ve tallied the votes from Matt Bell, Allegra Hyde, Brandon Jennings, Jill Talbot, and Nicole Walker and am pleased to announce that Dan Mancilla’s “The Deathmask of El Gaucho” has earned first prize and publication in Passages North’s upcoming issue (Winter 2016).

I’d like to express my genuine appreciate for these other fantastic submissions:
Second place finalist: Kim Adrian’s “INK”
Third place finalist: Zach VandeZande’s “Gray City

Semi-finalists:
Ben Drevlow’s “Glory Years”
Matthew Fogarty’s “The Dead Dream of Being Undead”
Mark Jabut’s “Sliders”
Marc Sheehan’s “The Lottery Club”
Claude Clayton Smith’s “The Seasons Here: A Novella for 1970”

I’d like to thank all to those who submitted and supported Little Presque Books. Your time and your contribution to a small press is a huge thing and every part of it is only possible for those who believe in its purpose and prosperity. We hope you continue to be a part of our world.

Steven Moore, guest interviewer, speaks with Brandon Davis Jennings

Your writing seems especially interested in defining or shaping an understanding of masculinity, and in “I Am the Pulverizer” you specifically allude to McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. How do those past representations of masculinity influence your writing? Do you see yourself actively responding to a canon, either in terms of representing masculinity or representing men and violence?

It’s like you’ve read something I wrote before coming up with these questions; guess I better remind myself of what I’ve said in the past.

So: the past influences everything I write about because the past influences everything. Which is not meant to be a snooty deflection. But when I write about masculinity, the past representations of masculinity play a role in shaping the masculinity of the present. Of course Blood Meridian is historical fiction: which places it in a strange time space of its own. The representation of masculinity within it is not real because the time in which the book takes place never was: right? I mean the 1800s happened, but the 1800s in those pages are not the actual 1800s; they are the 1800s from McCarthy’s head. And that’s what all of these representations end up being: what’s in our heads that we are able to get out in a form that others, hopefully, connect with.

Actively responding to a canon? Yes. And the fact that is most important for me is that even before I was aware of that, I was responding to it. But I don’t sit down and think: “How will I actively respond to the canon today?” I write and then after a lot of typing and deleting, I “suddenly realize” that I am responding to the canon. Of course, my canon, is different than yours; or it should be anyway. I don’t believe that there is a canon that is “the right one.” That’s an old and stupid idea, and it will hopefully die off with the old and stupid people who weren’t willing to continue to grow with the world around them. It’s easy to get tired and lazy when you live for too long. Look at how many people are lazy who aren’t even in their twenties yet. I’m scared to death of how lazy I’ll become in ten years.

Violence and masculinity go together, but violence isn’t foreign to femininity either. Really, now that I think about it, violence is one of the major things that the masculine and feminine share. My wife is going to have a baby in less than a month. And I’ll be there for the birth because…Dad. The baby is going to be forced into the world, through my wife’s body. I’ll have a daughter at the end of that violence, but then we’ll kill things to eat them for the rest of her life. But I doubt you wanted me to talk too much about that. The main thing here is that I am trying to redefine masculinity that way when I tell people I am a stay at home dad they don’t wonder if I have a vagina. I don’t. I just have an extremely small penis; otherwise, I would have a real job and make a bunch of money and stuff. You know, be a man. Wrastlin’ n’ boot stompin.

Your essays include a sense of vibrant meta-nonfiction. In particular, I’m thinking of “Ammoniacal Masculinity” and “I Am the Pulverizer” where there is a dialogue between the character inside the narrative and the writer putting it down, or between the writer and the writer, or the writer and the reader. What about those imaginative spaces are attractive to you?

Really that was an accident: at first. Being in workshops for a decade caused me to have a psychotic break, metaphorically (I think). I have severe social anxiety that I am now on medication to control. I had no idea that was the case when I was growing up. I just thought everything sucked and that all people had ulterior motives and that the only way to go through life was to be blackout drunk or angry. I didn’t dream for fifteen years because I couldn’t sleep unless I was drunk or so tired that I passed out. My mind does this annoying thing where it questions itself over every little thing. Taking a multiple choice test without Zoloft is torture for me. Every possible answer is a trap.

And when I was writing fiction this became such a problem for me that I gravitated to non-fiction in order to shut the workshop voice up. I was able to tell the stories I needed to tell in the way I needed to tell them. And those stories required that inner-dialogue. I couldn’t tell them without it. And maybe that’s a crutch. Maybe if I was a better writer I would just chronicle-ize everything and get out of the way of the story. But I’m not a better writer than I am; I’m just as good a writer as I am, and that’s the best I’ll ever be.

I’m not sure what’s attractive about those spaces to me. I guess what makes the most sense in response to that is those spaces are attractive because they grew organically. Kind of like when I saw my wife drinking a Guinness all those years ago. And then I learned she’d lived in Washington State, and then we were eating Sushi, and then I tried to kiss her with a toothpick in my mouth and almost poked her eye out: and she laughed. Then one day she was leaving my apartment and she said, “I’m like a potato.” You know? That’s love, dude. If I could explain my attractions, I’d probably no longer be attracted to them. Just the other day I was at a cafe working (I rarely do that), and there were these two guys talking. One of them said something, and the other guy responded with, “That’s funny.” And the thing is, if you are with someone and they respond to you by saying what you just said was funny, then it wasn’t. They are just expressing what logic dictates they express to keep the conversation cordial. I think burps are funny. My wife does not. Anyway. I hope that explains it.

Can you tell us about the process of drafting and editing your forthcoming essay collection? Are there any surprises or challenges about making the essays successful in the same space, rather than considering them separately?

Boy, oh, boy. Yes. Drafting this collection/memoir/whatever-it-is has been a struggle; I think that is the case with all things you care a lot about. If it was easy to do the things I am passionate about, then I’d probably lose interest in them (notice a pattern?). And ultimately, I don’t know that these essays will be successful in the same space. I do consider them separately, but the more I write, the more I think that separateness is an illusion.

All of the essays will connect with one another because I wrote them, and it’s the same with my fiction. There is some fiction in the essay collection (footnoted and made clear to avoid any Shark Week Megalodon or James Fray-style fiascoes), and I’m not going to pretend that my fiction isn’t colored by my real experiences or that my nonfiction is not colored by my limited ability to recall what was already a limited experience to begin with. For me it’s about truth anyway. And truth and fact are not the same. But you probably already know that, so I won’t go on about it and put you to sleep. Tim O’Brien explains it better than I can anyway.

Your fiction seems to operate more linearly, and more in-scene. (Of course, feel free to object to that characterization.) How do you approach the project of writing fiction rather than essay? Do you have a different goal?

So this is true and false. Most of the fiction I’ve written that has been published absolutely is more linear and in-scene. And this is because the stories I am trying to tell there require it. It’s most likely a product of workshop. I feel like I have to earn the reader’s trust in a different way with fiction than with non-fiction. With fiction it seems like I am often trying to prove to a reader that I can show them a specific branch on a specific kind of tree that way when I ask them to take a tiny hop with me, they’re willing to do it. With nonfiction, I sort of just jump and then if the reader is still with me, I’ll ask them to jump again. They can come with me or not. Why I’m less afraid with nonfiction, I don’t know. I hate to place all the blame on workshops, but I do think constantly being told you can’t do things in workshop can give you PTSD. Surely there is a hell of a lot of good that comes out of workshops for most people. And I am not claiming that my workshops were all or even mostly bad. I’m just saying that after a while if you don’t shut off the voice of that one guy who always says your stories suck, you might start to believe him even if the guy is just an asshole who doesn’t like anything at all because he hates himself and wishes that everyone on the planet was miserable because he wanted to be an astronaut but he’s bad at math.

Your 2014 chapbook of short stories Waiting for the Enemy was described as “a fictional memoir of war.” What does that characterization mean to you? Do you see something about military narratives in particular that calls for obscuring genre?

There’s a lot I can say about this: probably more than there is space for in this interview because I have a strange relationship with fiction/nonfiction. I have a B.S. in Journalism and then immediately went to school to write fiction after graduating from undergrad. It’s rumored that I had two forefathers notorious for story-telling in Monroe County, West Virginia: Windy Bill and Lying Sam. This could be a lie though; I’ve no way to prove it other than saying it’s true because my uncle told me so.

I think it is a weird distinction to make between fictional memoir and novel because, for me, there isn’t that much difference between fiction and nonfiction (in the creative sense: again we could talk about truth and fact, but that’s not super relevant to your question proper.) Novels are fictional memoirs to me. People claim they just “made it all up” but you can’t make something from nothing. And for me, a lot of what I write has a direct link to the facts of my life: whether it be through conversation with others, through reading, or through direct experience.

Probably what that means to me is: “Don’t believe that Brandon is claiming he actually experienced this killing and exploding stuff. It’s fiction.” And that is important to some people because they believe that a writer only has the authority to write about something if he or she is of the experience. And, of course, that is ridiculous. If I want to tell a story from a woman’s POV, I’m going to do it, and I have as much right as a woman does. I don’t think anyone should be kept from writing the stories they need to regardless of experience. Still it is important to cover your ass because of people who are out there believing in stupid notions. If no one has told you before, write whatever you want, however you want. If it’s good, no one will care: except for all the people who are jealous that you did it. That’s where a lot of the bullshit comes from, really.

As far as obscuring genre being a sort of essential quality for military narratives goes, I don’t know that I see it that way. I do admire the hell out of Tim O’Brien, but I also admire Isaac Babel, and Joseph Heller. I believe all three of those writers are equally successful in capturing the human experience; they do it with war. All three of them do it in very different ways. Catch-22 is not obscured the way The Things They Carried is. The Red Cavalry is semi-obscured because it is, supposedly, very much Babel’s experience as a reporter shaped into a cycle of stories. But the thing that is true for all three of those books, I believe, is that they would all be just as powerful if the writers had never been in the military. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been in or what, but I don’t think it matters that much. People can disagree with me on that all day long. But I’m not trying to be part of some exclusive bullshit club where only people who have done X are allowed to write about X. That reduces the overall quality of the writing because you have less competition…because art is the same as economics. Right? I’m kidding about the economics stuff, to be clear. But I do think when we just start valuing all veteran writing more highly than writing done by “just some guy” then we are headed down a dangerous path. Not all writing is art. Sometimes it is just catharsis. There are likely people who would say that about mine. And, obviously, if they tell me I will immediately stop writing and start selling cars.

You’ve been a supporter of other veteran writers like Hugh Martin and T. Geronimo Johnson, both of whom are really fascinating, engaging voices. Can you tell us about any more veteran writing that might be going too unnoticed?

Man. Too unnoticed? This might be sad, but I don’t know much that is going unnoticed because no one is talking about it. You know? I can talk about Bruce Weigl, but he doesn’t need my support; he’s doing fine and has been for years despite not being as successful monetarily as someone like Anthony Swofford. Edward Micus’ collection of poems The Infirmary probably could use a plug or two; he’s another Vietnam War poet that people should be aware of. How many of these are white guys? Fortunately Nimo (Tyrone Geronimo Johnson) actually came through Western Michigan University while I was still there or else I might never have known about his book or been able to claim that I read ‘diverse’ voices. But I really do like his book and enjoyed talking to him about it on a few nights at Waldo’s, drinking way too many Rochefort 10s and pepper shots.

Hugh and I met in Prague: we were suite mates while there for the Prague Summer Program. Who knows when I’d have come across his work if that hadn’t happened, and he’s had a hell of a lot of success; his book The Stick Soldiers is great. A name you might not have heard is Elliot Sanders; he’s a guy who read one of my essays in Passages North and liked it enough to contact me. So I asked him if he had anything I could read.

He sent me this link: APO.

I liked that story a lot. So look him up. It’s flash so you have no excuse not to give it a shot. Ha ha, Veteran writers and shots. Sometimes I hate myself so much it hurts.

What are you reading now? Is there any book lately you can’t wait to tell people about?

Well. I’ve been reading A Brief History of Time, Synchronicity, Sophocles’ Ajax, and my own damn book over and over trying to make it good. So nothing that probably seems very interesting to people who’ve not read my book yet: which is everyone on earth except myself and Tim Johnston: a badass in his own right.

I did recently read Preparing the Ghost by Matt Gavin Frank: a great friend of mine. That was a phenomenal book. I played Dragon Age: Inquisition and Dark Souls 2. Both of those games were amazing. But you didn’t ask that, did you?

I often look back at Male Armor by Jon Robert Adams: it’s a critical text on war writing by a non-veteran that should receive more attention. And then there is Iron John by Robert Bly. That’s a book that has been helpful. I read a couple parenting books. Since I’ll have a daughter in less than a month, it seemed wise to get some sort of idea of what people want me to do to indoctrinate my daughter into the proper way to be a lady (the books weren’t that bad, really).

But I have a little bit of ADD, so I don’t always read one thing at a time. When I do, I usually burn through it in a day. And I reread things quite a lot. Reading on Zoloft has been a different experience for me than reading, well, depressed was. How’s that for too much info?

Is there anything that hasn’t come up that you want to add?

Just that I think it’s great you’ve decided to work at this: writing. It is important. There’ll be a lot of rejection, probably. But one of these days, hopefully, a veteran or someone who is lost will come across your writing and e-mail you to say, “Thanks for writing what you did because it helped me find my way.” Maybe it made them laugh or reevaluate their outlook on something. Yes. I want financial success because that is how you pay the bills. I have two dogs, two cats, and a wife, and I’ll soon have a daughter too. They can’t survive off two contributors copies every few months. But the kind words from strangers on the Internet have been a serious blessing for me. It gets tough to go on some days, and the fact that there are people out in the world willing to say, “Thank you,” can be the difference between finishing a project and abandoning one. I don’t think you asked for a pep talk, but I don’t think most people in MFAs get a lot of pep talked at them. Maybe in the bar among friends, but it’s different when it comes from outside the bubble. And it’s a good bubble. It keeps you floating for a while without allowing you to fall back to the earth, but it won’t let you float too high either. We’re not talking about Red Bull here. Wait. What did you ask me?

– – –

Steven Moore is an MFA candidate at Oregon State University. Visit his Web site here.

Meet Your Judges: Roundtable Conversations (Three of Three)

In preparation for our novella contest’s opening day (Feb. 16th), this week, each member of our Novella Contest Roundtable asks a question of one another, ranging questions everywhere from apocalyptic preferences to first lines in pieces of work. Today, Allegra Hyde speaks to Matt Weinkam, Robin McCarthy speaks to Matt Bell, and Timston Johnston speaks to Brandon Davis Jennings.

Allegra Hyde: As a human, would you rather be equipped with a kangaroo pouch or a unicorn horn? Why?

Matt Weinkam: As a matter of utility alone I’ve got to go with the kangaroo pouch. No question. Think of all the novellas you could carry around in there.

*

Robin McCarthy: In 2014 you spoke at AWP about eco-fabulism, and recently I think I saw that you’ve been speaking about using fiction to address social issues. What do you see as the writer’s role in addressing social issues, and is it unique to arts careers? How do you think seeking out fiction concerned with social or political issues impacts the reader?

Matt Bell: I’ve said this before in other places, so excuse me for repeating myself a bit, but I’ve come to believe that if writers refuse to enter the public sphere then others will speak instead, and many of those voices will not have our best interests in mind. Writers are some of the smartest and most innovative people in our country, but sometimes we’re afraid to seem elitist or overly intellectual, or to not be fun, or to anger anyone because our community is so very small and the costs of an unpopular opinion are real costs. But we need writers to be willing to overcome those fears, to do work that is not merely clever or entertaining, but that is clever and entertaining in the service of something greater. As for the impact on readers, I can speak only for myself and say that much of what I’ve come to care about in the world was powerfully presented to me first in art, which allowed me to access lives outside of my own, which diminished the distance between others and myself. Dismantling the otherness of people and places previously unknown makes our obligations to our larger communities clearer, and I think art is one of the finest ways to accomplish this goal.

*
Timston Johnston: Would you rather be on the front page of your local newspaper for:
a) your guilty plea to a federal crime that was sparked by you reacting to being on the losing end of a Who Wore it Best with Yusuf Islam
or b) your world record of consecutive attempts to toast bread without a plugged-in toaster?

Brandon Davis Jennings: I have a pretty good track record for toasting things. So it makes the most sense to me that I would desire to be in the paper for saying something catty about Yusuf Islam when he and I wore the same thing to the Grammys.

There is nothing funny about this get-up. And if I was on the red carpet and Yusuf walked over to me to congratulate me on the success of my Dr. Proctopuss album and I noticed we were in the same outfit, I would start barking at him. This is not because I like DMX. And then, I believe, in order for the tabloids/regular-news-is-the-same-basically (I have a degree in journalism so I’m allowed to say stupid shit like that), I would have to say something to make sure that everyone was aware of the pun. “You still smell like a cat to me.” And, obviously, this would be reported as some kind of attack against religion, and then I would be viewed as a monster, and he would be lifted up on high because he was the better man. All the while my album would sell more than my book ever will, and I’d go crazy looking for the Arcanstone that Bilbot (that’s a robot Bilbo that I paid to have built with all the money from my album sales) stole it in order to try and save me from madness.

But what I made the front page for, of course, was my reaction to the Who Wore it Best decision. I guess it would have to be: “I thought the only two people wearing that outfit were me and Cat Stevens. I bet Cat’s pissed about this bullshit too.” Then I’d get over it after my re-telling of the Hobbit titled: The Hob-bot earned me a Nobel prize in physics. My favorite character in that book is Gandalf-d2.

Again. Look; listen. Zarah Moeggenberg’s “How to Love Someone.”

From Zarah Moeggenberg’s poetry collection To Waltz on a Pin; as a treat to all of you, we’re giving you a preview from her new book. Read below and/or click HERE to listen to Zarah perform this spoken word serenade, “How to Love Someone.” Enjoy, comment, converse, share. Let’s, together, support this phenomenal artist, this wonderful, often overlooked art form. The book (unfortunately not audio) now available for purchase HERE.

I was at my first pride and she was high up on the porch and behind a gate
And I had to pee and sneak past and when I came back I considered
How her shoulders were soft as hooks and whether to look them down
Into her crossed arms and red wine. And she looked fine in her long dress
And her hidden feet and she smiled at me and I said I know you
And it took me by surprise that I said that because I could have just peed and walked by
And her eyes are some sort of green

And I want to tell her there is a green that color on a building whose copper
Is just starting to go and that it throws me on walks with my dog
That she is obviously allergic to and I clean with PineSol and dust for hours
So that some magic powers allow her to breathe and she breathes soft
Into my sheets which are orange as her lips that I do not tell her are small.
And she is taller than me and she didn’t notice this at first because at first
It was the stutter of her hands into mine and they are worn

And I am finding how they fit and I want to tell her mine found itself on top
And it’s going to stay there because it feels good. And sometimes I want to tell her her laugh
Sometimes gets stuck with her smile. I can see it in her chest. It bubbles up
Then erupts to meet her eyes. They always smile first. I wanna ask her
If she knows that. Sometimes I want to touch her back when it curves
Like a question but I don’t because I don’t always have the answer.
Sometimes I want to find my palm to her jaw and talk to her with nothing
But my cheeks and Sometimes I want to find every weak hinge
In her body and hold her up but I know she doesn’t think I’m strong enough.

Sometimes I search for the right words to throw but she catches everything
That flies and I like the wrinkle of her bridge because I think she’s trying to get
To where I am on the other side. And I like her inquisitions because I like to fish too
And that isn’t something she knows about me yet. You see, she says she wants to move slow
And I am slower than a raindrop in an ocean under Texas. I am a waltz on a pin
I am slower than the snow that melts long into June in the woods. I am the slowest
Poem I have ever written. I want to say my words like an old guitar on a hilltop
I haven’t even climbed. And I will show her how the sound bounces off the buildings
And gets caught somewhere in between. This is how you love her:

You tell her her hands by picking them up. You let nothing go because everything
Counts and everything is wish. You take her fishing, watch her feel the lake
With her thighs. You try to tell her You’re beautiful with nothing but your eyes.
But. You say it with your mouth anyways, your chest full as a drum. Her back
is certain and strong, her shoulders taut. You let it out quiet as the moon reaches
for the shore. You say it sure. You hear the rushes of cicadas. You count the pause
before her cast. You watch her line throw soft and slow. This. This is how you love her.

Meet Your Judges: Roundtable Conversations (Two of Three)

In preparation for our novella contest’s opening day (Feb. 16th), this week, each member of our Novella Contest Roundtable asks a question of one another, ranging questions everywhere from apocalyptic preferences to first lines in pieces of work. Today, Jill Talbot speaks to Nicole Walker, Matt Weinkam to Timston Johnston, Brandon Davis Jennings to Jennifer A. Howard.

Jill Talbot: Your award-winning book, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, begins: “The fish jumped a ladder built of electricity and concrete.” Why? In other words, I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the work a first line must do. Do you think a writer should approach a first line differently when writing a short work (story, poem, novella) versus a long one (novel, memoir, essay collection)? I’d love to hear about the first line in relation to your own writing, too.

Nicole Walker: When I write poems and essays, I rarely sit down to write “a book.” It’s when compiling these disparate pieces that order and arrangement become important. And then, suddenly, it becomes primary. What story am I trying to tell? Where to begin? For Quench, it was important for me to begin with not me. To begin in the world, in an environment, even if that environment was man-made. I wanted to highlight adaptability. I also wanted to highlight stucked-ness. I also wanted to highlight energy. The sentence wants to be matter-of-fact about things. This is where we are. I suppose we should deal with it.

*

Matt Weinkam: What apocalypse do you think is most likely to come (zombies, vampires, aliens, etc) and how prepared will you be for it?

Timston Johnston: What I never understood about the zombie fad is that zombie is rarely/never said (except for Shaun of the Dead (and probably some others I haven’t seen), but even then, they weren’t saying the zed word). This makes me think too much about these zombie-filled realities: the idea of the zombie (or even the word) never exists until the zombies arrive (and then they’re assigned a different name other than zombie); because they’re not heard of, this terrifying and not-understood event creates tons of opportunity for a small isolated incident to become a global catastrophe (think about how we’ll deal with a zombie apocalypse now: somebody’s going to recognize it right away, isolate it, take care of it, get on the cover of TIME, have their own personal fall from grace, and probably become a bank robber or something. No big deal.). Now that I’m thinking about it, is the zombie apocalypse a metaphor (oh, God) for one’s own ignorance of xenophobia, much like X-Men is a metaphor for homophobia? I’m not smart enough to carry on this discussion.

Anyway: what I fear our apocalypse will be is something we cannot fathom, something we will never be prepared for. I’m thinking probably financial collapse or the rise of tap dancing. Whatever happens first will quickly be followed by the other.

*

Brandon Davis Jennings: My wife and I are expecting a baby girl in March, and I am genuinely curious about how babies impact your writing. It always seems like such a big deal when people talk about it in abstract terms. But so was having a dog, or having a lawn to mow. So, the question for you is how do you think being a mother has impacted your writing positively?

Jennifer A. Howard: Congratulations to you and your wife! That’s a lucky little girl coming into your lives.
Sure, a baby upends your schedule. But with a supportive partner (and two or three other grown-ups and maybe a semi-responsible teenager) in your life, you’ll figure out the time-to-write part. It might not be your preferred time-to-write, but you’ll suck it up.

The best thing a baby does for your writing is break your heart. You’ll be overcome with what you’ve done, bringing this girl into the world. This little person who will be sad and uncomfortable and feel loss and miss you when you’re not home and not be immediately good at something she wants to be good at (hand a six-year-old a tennis racket or a clarinet to see what I mean) and who will down the road be rejected by somebody she wants to love her. It’s too much, sometimes, and you will want to become a person with much more power than you are. But you can’t. You will feel a helplessness that manifests in lots of ways. I lost the ability to drive over 65 mph when my daughter was born. I just can’t do it; I feel the pull of the world at the side of the highway trying to tear me off the road. It’ll manifest in your writing too, in ways you can’t predict yet, but probably your writing will be a glorious place to let those feelings manifest because at least you’re safe there, sitting in a chair, typing on a laptop. Being honest on the page becomes a lesser fear.

This is not to say people should have children to become better writers. Because—geez, of course—it is impossible to find time to write! And there are so so many other ways to get your heart broken.

Meet Your Judges: Roundtable Conversations (One of Three)

In preparation for our novella contest’s opening day (Feb. 16th), this week, each member of our Novella Contest Roundtable asks a question of one another, ranging questions everywhere from apocalyptic preferences to first lines in pieces of work. Today, Nicole Walker speaks to Robin McCarthy, Jennifer A. Howard speaks to Allegra Hyde, and Matt Bell speaks to Jill Talbot. Come back Wednesday and Friday for more.

Nicole Walker: I’ve been reading your work about making literary pilgrimages. In what sense is a pilgrimage like a palimpsest? How much of the pilgrimage becomes collaboration? What do we really do with the lives and spaces of other writers we loved and admired?

Robin McCarthy: I like thinking of literary tourism as a strange form of a palimpsest! Each artist’s work is their own, but also an act of preparing space for someone who will come after, who will be influenced by earlier work but not bound to it. For me, pilgrimages have been more about homage than creation (in fact, awareness that I would be writing about trips to literary landmarks has changed the way I enjoy them), so I suppose it’s collaboration in the way that reading a book becomes a conversation between reader and writer. The visitor/reader surrounds him or herself in a writer’s world, and somewhere along the line, that immersion winds its way into the visitor or reader’s future output. As far as what I do in the spaces of writers I love and admire, I do the same thing I do in the spaces of strangers and enemies an on public transportation; I imagine hidden lives, look for clues, try glean a hint of something true.

*

Jennifer A. Howard: What is your guilty pleasure TV show? And not that one, the charmingly bad show, the one you’re not really guilty about proclaiming to love. The one you turn off when someone else comes into the room because you don’t want to explain the draw, even to a person who loves you.

Allegra Hyde: I love a good infomercial. Vacuums, stain-removers, TV trays, Snuggies…there is something so soothing about them. They present problems, then fix them. They make the world right again.

*

Matt Bell: ‬ You’ve recently published a number of pieces written in collaboration with Justin Lawrence Daugherty, and I was wondering if you’d talk a little about that process. Where do ideas generate for your collaboration? What is the process like of going from the first draft to the final product when working with another writer?‬‬‬

Jill Talbot: Justin and I have never met. We’ve never seen each other step into a room. We’ve never heard each other’s voices or seen what it looks like when the other laughs. So the foundation of our process is the ways in which we imagine one another through our words. I think that’s the most significant aspect of our collaborating—we do not know each other beyond the page. And that’s how we began with that first collaboration, “On Writing, Like Lust,” (Pithead Chapel Vol. 3.6)—exploring the ways writers are drawn to other writers because of their style, voice, individual lines, or some other ineffable element (I call them “literary crushes”). That piece is very much “about the writing,” as Justin says. But after that, we wanted to go beyond the writing—so we shifted to how we read ourselves into the lines of others (“On Lines Like Loss, Like Leaving” which appeared in The Rumpus). Each collaboration we have (a work of metafiction and a flash piece) and the ones we have planned (Justin sent me a list of ideas a couple of months ago) is different in form and function, and we’re not always writers and readers in them—sometimes we’re just lonely people in motel rooms or two strangers riding down a road. I would say the other significant aspect of our process, the foundation we work from, is that Justin and I share a longing. We both write of distances and leavings and movings on—we both have a rupture, a failed love, in our pasts that spills across every bar scene we imagine, every screen door we search through, every highway we pick out on a map. We write about maps a lot, the ones we leave for each other, and that’s exactly what we’re doing when we write these collaborations.

“Draw me a map”: One of us suggests a concept—that comes first (I excitedly e-mailed Justin yesterday with an idea). Then one of us begins. Say I begin. When I get it where I want it, I send it to Justin. Then he takes it in another direction, and I’m always surprised and stunned and inspired by what he sends back. Unless we’re sidetracked (by teaching or travel or other writings), we can knock a piece out in a couple of weeks—going back and forth every few days, keeping up the momentum and the energy of the exchange. We don’t revise much—there seems to be a trembling that emerges when we set our words side by side, and we don’t want to disrupt it. Once we have a complete draft, we take a week or so to edit our own segments—always our own—we stay out of each other’s. We do have a go-to reader when we’re unsure, a fiction writer we both admire who knows our individual writings and “gets” us as writers, but more importantly, he knows what “Jill Talbot” and “Justin Lawrence Daugherty” look like in juxtaposition and how that’s working, or not. After we get his feedback, we go back in and make minor adjustments (again, we want that tremble). Justin sends it out to two journals. I do the same. Right now, we have work hanging out in several queues, and we’re currently working on personal/research hybrid about bars. We think of our collaborations as a train bearing down, and we want to keep it rumbling until we complete a collection. I always imagine a joint reading, where Justin will stand at one podium, and I’ll stand at another, and we’ll read our words to each other. But I worry. If we do meet, will what we have disintegrate like mist in the sun?