Posted By jatyler / 2nd July 2012
As the inaugural novella from Housefire Publishing, Joseph Riippi’s A Cloth House has much to live up to: Housefire is known for wild and wooly writing, some of the most lividly honest literature appearing online, and now they’ve jumped the fence to print ventures, first releasing the anthology Nouns of Assemblage which was immediately lauded as a bright star in a newly formed sky. So A Cloth House sets our expectations for where Housefire Publishing can go with single-author titles, what it can do, how smartly it can burn. And Riippi’s writing does live up to these expectations, absolutely and with gusto, and he is kind enough here to let us take some questioning stabs at his authorly presence.
MB: I’m sure our audience would love to know how it was working with Housefire Publishing – what was the editorial process like, how much did the manuscript change from acceptance to publication, and so far, how has the release been for A Cloth House?
JR: The Houseburners are a spectacular group, and working with them has been an absolute pleasure. They’re smart, passionate, creative—everything you want in a publisher.
A Cloth House was solicited by Riley Michael Parker about 14 months before its release, as one of what was set to be a series of Housefire novellas. I’d had a story in Housefire’s first print release, the anthology Nouns of Assemblage, and Riley sent me a few prompts to see if I’d be interested in doing something longer. Prompts are a big part of how Housefire does things—each month Lindsay Allison Ruoff and Robert Duncan Gray put up new submission guidelines for the online journal, typically a title and a few accompanying form/content challenges. For the book, I had a few title choices (none of which were A Cloth House) and a few rules (none of which weren’t somehow broken in the final piece). But the prompts got me going. Which I think is the point.
Little changed in the edits. I got a little adverb happy in places, yes, and there were chronology issues I definitely needed another reader to sort out. That sort of thing. The substantial change of note came from Kira Clark, who did the bulk of the editing. She suggested fleshing out the childhood friend of the narrator. At the time he was only half-mentioned in a kind of list of remembered things. Two of my favorite stanzas in the book came out of that suggestion, and I’m forever grateful to Kira for that.
As for how the release has been so far, it’s been delightful. I’m looking forward to getting the electronic version ready this summer, and we’re already looking at a third printing, which wholly exceeded my expectations.
MB: In a previous work like The Orange Suitcase, the writing was based more in a vein of realism – chronological, detailed, narrative driven – but with A Cloth House surrealism takes hold, creating an image laden story. Was this a conscious decision, to turn / twist your style in this way? And was it difficult or easy to follow this style through A Cloth House?
JR: It’s funny, because while I completely understand that this book’s much different from The Orange Suitcase, but it came very much from the same memory-y place. The difference, I think, is that the Suitcase used a kind of “realism” that was mostly straightforward sentences and a disdain for adverbs. I wanted hard, tangible descriptions of memories in that book. But with A Cloth House I wanted a voice actively remembering, a language more fluid rather than chiseled. And I think the result, though still built on a simple, straightforward story, works much more like memory does, scattered and surreally, with a lot of adverbs.
I’m not certain of why I wanted to do that. But yes, it was a conscious change from one to the next. And while it was an easy decision, it’s been hard to do. In the next book I’ve been trying to push it in even further, to find a narrator who can make memory malleable, mold it, re-remember.
MB: And if I’m not mistaken, you’ve been hitting towns far and wide to promote this novella. Where have you gone so far, and where can people find you in the coming months if they want to hear some live readings of A Cloth House?
JR: When I first started writing seriously, my highest goal—the “if I can do that, I’ve made it” goal—was to have a book in the window of Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. I not only got to see that with The Orange Suitcase this past March, but got to read at the podium there. (Thank you, Kevin Sampsell, for giving me that). In terms of travelling, I made a Seattle/Portland trip just after AWP in Chicago, and then did a few readings in New York City this spring, including the amazing Franklin Park Reading Series, which I’ve wanted to do for a couple years now. (Thank you, too, Penina Roth, for including me). Just recently I was in Hudson, NY at Chloe Caldwell’s series, and will be at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC with InDigest Magazine on June 13.
I did a lot more travelling for The Orange Suitcase, but haven’t had quite so much time off work this year to do the same. Hopefully for the next book.
MB: You’ve also recently released a new chapbook called Treesisters from Carl Annarummo’s amazing Greying Ghost Press. Can you tell us a little about this?
JR: I love Greying Ghost Press. The books are hand-made artifacts that, when you order one (at bargain prices) you not only get the book you ordered, but also any of a number of pamphlets and other print ephemera. It’s really something.
Treesisters came about as a rather long poem I wrote for Melissa Broder’s reading series here in New York. Ten readers were each assigned a song from Radiohead’s Kid A, and I drew “Treefingers.” I decided the best way to write something based on an instrumental song was to write about sisters in a tree doing sign language.
Greying Ghost’s submission period started a couple weeks after the reading, so off it went, and a year later, I got a box of letter-pressed beauties in the mail.
MB: What else is on the horizon for you? What new projects are you working on and where can we get a taste of them?
JR: The book after A Cloth House has been done for a bit now, called Research: A Novel for Performance. It’s a simultaneous translation—half the script of an off-off-broadway play that ran in New York last year, and half the prose “translation” of the script. My agent and I worked on it for a while and it’s just gone out to a few publishing houses—I’m hoping to find an editor as excited about formal translation as I am.
After that, there’s Because, a short novel I just finished—I think—last week. I’ve been buried in it for a couple months so it’s hard to speak about it at all well.
Lastly, I’ve been trying to write a big ol’ war novel for a while. I started it before The Orange Suitcase, actually. But each time I get into it I go for about ten or twenty thousand words before I have to start over. Maybe I’m not cut out for writing a hundred thousand words. But someday I’ll finish it, and in the meantime a few pieces of it have trickled out: here and here
A Cloth House is really a phenomenal read, a tight and interwoven novella that not only proves the worth and future value of Housefire Publishing but also gives Joseph Riippi an even broader hold in our contemporary lit scene, and should widen his already large readership. But don’t take our word for it – get yourself a copy of A Cloth House here, & read more from / about Joseph Riippi here.
Posted By jatyler / 18th June 2012
Part of the charm of Michael J. Seidlinger’s The Sky Conducting is how the curt and direct writing style – short phrases, pulses of language – is mixed with the novel’s apocalyptic setting. So many books about world-end tend toward the grimmest details, a constant rain of horror and devastation, but Seidlinger instead humanizes his Armageddon, wrapping it in family, in homes remembered, and as such it becomes a book that is easy to hold on to and wonderfully sad to read.
MB: The Sky Conducting heavily relies on reflections of comfort, on humanizing loss. For instance:
The daughter gazed out the window watching nothing and seeing nothing. The rubble impersonated routine life but it wasn’t the same.
The nuclear family had this home.
This home still felt like home. The daughter disagreed. The home died the moment America suffered a heart attack.
Can you talk to us a little about the importance of ‘family’ and ‘home’ in this novel?
MJS: Around the time The Sky Conducting became more than just something in the back of my mind, slowly forming into a stack of ideas and “what-ifs,” I found myself intimidated with how, exactly, to approach something involving the death of America without it literally being about America’s death. I mean, it’s natural to pick at the hypocritical aspects of a nation but most of us already do that on a daily basis. I wasn’t really interested in writing a narrative about road-warrior style survival groups pillaging for food and shelter. There’s this momentum in post-apocalyptic fiction that typically hinges the aftermath to an adventure that’s immediately physical – the impulses and urges, instincts, and imperatives for survival becoming the impetus for most narrative conflicts – however, with The Sky Conducting, I wanted to focus on something closer, more intimate and fixated on the trauma of the everyday citizen.
So if the adventure isn’t physical, it is relocated into the search, and stress test, of something else. This “something else” I wished to be American values. One of America’s most important cultural creations is the concept of “the nuclear family.” Both home and family are constants, pillars of a human being’s need to belong, but our culture turned these constants into something so expected they’re like the obligatory free bread, or chips-and-salsa, at the start of a meal at the average restaurant establishment. We expect these constants to be there, as-is, whether we attain to have them, need them, or not. Every single one of us can fit into one of the four prototypical American nuclear family roles; together we are all daughters and sons, mothers and fathers. The manifestation of the “nuclear family” helped propel the image of the idyllic the happy family” and the safe, quiet, and cozy home into something as easily distinguishable and sought-after as any business or image of success. The concept of the nuclear family is treated with the same care as a business. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that “the nuclear family” is a business.
Wherever we look, the nuclear family plays its part as a step in the ladder the modern American climbs to reach the American Dream, that dream of financial and familial harmony. Even if we don’t intend on pursuing it, we find ourselves chasing some fractured idea of the American Dream. Stripping all of that away, leaving only the nuclear family in a jarring and devastated land, I wanted to take the nuclear family and explore how home and family transform to remain true constants in the characters’ lives.
MB: Personification is also a staple of The Sky Conducting, particularly that of ‘America’ and other countries:
Many countries have died. Countries are people too.
They grow old. They get sick.
Even the big countries. America has been sick for a long time.
How did you decide on this particular approach / method, and what effect do you hope it has on readers?
MJS: Oh, it was entirely by accident. I tend to write and edit as I go so the visual aspects of the text are as important as the scene, setting, and characters involved. The book started out in a standard prose format. I’d write a page or so and then go back and reread. Typically, I change, at most, phrases that clearly needed touching-up in order to read and generally flow better from line to line. There is the occasional scrapping of an entire section, page, chapter, whatever, if a better approach is identified, but with The Sky Conducting, I kept gutting every paragraph, leaving only the lines stacked one after the other. At first I fought against this by continuing to write in standard prose format only to, yet again, end up editing the text into a similar line-stacking form. I can’t remember how long it took for me to just give up and start writing in the line-stacking fashion but when I did, everything else – the small groupings that results of pushing certain lines together for betting cognition, the Breathing Manner, the use of the house logo – fell into place quite naturally. I’m hoping the structural format helps facilitate an accessible momentum for the reader. Bit by bit, as long as the reader is entertained and interested by the lines, the sparseness and condensed groupings should act like gears on a bike, aiding the reader as they ride up and down each incline and decline of the narrative. This is, of course, only what I hope to be the case and that the effect on the reader is at least partly achieved.
MB: Alongside ‘America’, the sky itself plays an integral role in the novel, even though it is restrained in its contact within the narrative:
The daughter looks up to the sky. She can’t see the sky.
The sky disappears and is replaced with a sheet of dark concealing hate.
What does the sky mean to you, and what does it mean to the characters who populate The Sky Conducting?
MJS: People look up to the sky and project what they want to see onto the sky’s clouds. It’s something revelatory when we want it to be; when we have no reason to slow down and crane our necks up for a look, it’s just a sky, easy to devalue, easy to forget, something without any meaning in our lives. I feel like the sky functions well as a meditative device. For the nuclear family, the sky might show them the way, but they seldom give it much thought. There doesn’t seem to be a reason to look up when everything is looking down. It’s something so common it’s treated as an afterthought. Thusly, the sky is the exemplification of everything important and integral that we take for granted – and it’s right there, hiding absolutely nothing; it just so happens that the characters in The Sky Conducting consume themselves with turmoil so much that they haven’t even the thought to slow down, look around, and appreciate what they still have until after-the-fact, when it’s long gone.
MB: Nick Antosca, author of Fires, Midnight Picnic, and The Obese, says in his blurb that The Sky Conducting “marks a confident new direction in [your] work.” Can you talk with us about this new direction – where have you been and where are you headed?
MJS: It used to be that my output was too burdened and bothered by semiotics and the linguistic nature of the English language. Hmm, yeah, my earlier stuff was all about being lost in the words with little to nothing but philosophical quandaries to act as buoys for the reader. Not that my earlier novels are easy reads at all. Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to go back and read any of it.
I went into The Sky Conducting intent on abolishing my linguistic-heavy prose of the past for a truer narrative. I can’t say I was completely successful but at least there was a true beginning, middle, and end with something happening. In my other work, it never seemed like anything was happening. That being said, I’ve become more captivated with the mundane turned on-edge. I love the surrealistic and absurdist narrative mentalities of taking something relatable – be it a setting, situation, concept, or character – and warping the norm so that everything that was suddenly isn’t and the reader can’t help but relish in the mystery while still being able to believe the absurd as something possible. Being able to toy with the surreal while still making it somehow, even distantly, possible is a direction I am compelled to take in the present and near future.
It seems I’m always working on something, or at least telling myself that I am. I can’t help it. If I’m not working on something, I feel like I’m falling apart. If I don’t write every day, I feel like I’m falling to ruin. I can’t help but analyze and edit and analyze and edit and write, and analyze… always about teasing out new ideas, putting more words to the page, and burning whole manuscripts until I have pieces that feel like they are capable of holding the reader’s attention and giving the reader an interesting and entertaining experience.
MB: Lastly, while some authors would prefer to be as far away from the physical design responsibilities as possible, deferring to the press and its staff for those elements, you took on both the interior layout and the cover design for this novel. Is this usual for your work, and how do you separate your design self from your authorship (or is that even necessary)?
MJS: Hmm. I think it’s just because I personally can’t get comfortable enough with an idea until I’ve selected a suitable font, structure, and visual look to accompany the project. The more I think about it, the more I’m beginning to believe that it’s an irrational need to have. I shouldn’t need to typeset everything as I write; I shouldn’t need to have cover pages/front matter, and various images to look at just to start writing… but I do. It’s not a conscious choice that’s for sure. Even when I’m working on cover designs for other friends/authors, I can’t help but read whole chapters of their work until I get a “mood” or “emotional impression” from which I use as material for the resulting design. It’s irrational, yeah, but, I think the design part helps give me an escape from the writing part if and when I hit a problem or challenge that needs a little bit of time and distance to grasp. Throwing the prose into Photoshop, InDesign or Illustrator to slice-and-dice, increase font, boldness, transparency, is different enough so that when I go back to the dreaded Word document with its obnoxious blinking cursor, I have a little bit of a fresher take on the problem. There’s really no way to separate my design-self from my author-self. I’m not sure I can have one and not the other without losing both.
The Sky Conducting is flat out a good book. Don’t let the apocalyptic theme throw you – this isn’t like all of those other novels. This is a vibrant, personal story, and it is as fantastic as it is brutal. Get yourself a copy of The Sky Conducting here, & read more from / about Michael J. Seidlinger here.
Posted By jatyler / 4th June 2012
Amid AWP Chicago, some of the loudest buzz was from the Rose Metal Press table, with much of the clamor centered around I Take Back the Sponge Cake, a book described as “A Lyrical Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” and lauded for its full-color production yet reasonable price-tag. Of course we had to get our hands on a copy, and now, having fully ingested this tremendous sponge cake, we need to know more about how it happened, where it came from, and as luck would have it, behind this book are two generous authors willing to talk with us about it.
MB: As you write in the preface ‘The Making of I Take Back the Sponge Cake’, this collaboration was born out of a lucky convergence between two strangers at the Vermont Studio Center, both attending for one-year artist-staff residencies, but was it ‘love at first sight’, or did it take a bit more time to develop this newfound friendship into a working artistic relationship?
LE & SN: We definitely felt drawn to each other’s work right away, sensing an affinity in our images and styles in the different media, even sense of humor (which is important!). We both felt from the start a good potential for collaboration between us. But it was a bit of a slow build-up to get to the “relationship” part—the actual working together, determining how best to approach the project, and figuring out not only how to be creative together but also how to make decisions together and how to trust to bring the project to fruition. This also coincided with getting to know each other more as friends through our year in Vermont, and exploring our own individual practices as artists—the development of our collaboration seemed a natural part of this progression.
The relationship analogy does seem especially fitting for collaboration: starting with an “art crush” and liking each other as people—but also the willingness to give the time and effort needed to see if this can really go somewhere! Finding someone who has a compatible communication style, with a strong artistic vision who is also willing to let go and negotiate through the collaborative process, is also important—we feel like we really lucked out with each other!
MB: Also in that opening explanatory note we learn that the book didn’t really feel fully formed until you decided to implement the choose-your-own-adventure approach, bringing, as you call it, “the third catalyzing element” of the reader into play. Can you talk with us a little about how important the reader’s interaction with the text and images are for a book like I Take Back the Sponge Cake?
LE & SN: It was helpful for us to add an element of interactivity and play into the project through the choose-your-own-adventure structure—we hoped it would enhance the reader’s engagement with the work and make it more fun to read, but it also made it more fun for us too when putting it together. Read a poetry and art book, or go on an adventure? We wanted to choose both! And we feel like most of our readers will too.
We both share a great fondness for the Choose Your Own Adventure books we read as kids—it felt so exciting to decide your own way and to take an active role in how your reading experience would unfold. We wanted to bring that enjoyment into our collaboration. Plus what you see and read next means more when you have made the conscious choice to get there. When we do live readings from this book, we have the audience choose what we’ll read next by majority vote. You can feel the excitement and attention build as we make our way through the book together, aware of the possibilities and creating a particular trajectory—we hope something similar happens when people read on their own as well.
So much of our individual work has to do with our subjective experiences in this strange world. With the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format we could allow the reader to construct their own subjective experience by journeying through the book. Thinking of the project in terms of a journey, in terms of various journeys, was exciting: at each juncture what turn would they take? And what did we want to place ahead of them for them to discover next? It felt like we were creating an imaginary landscape for them to explore.
MB: And while some may mistakenly view I Take Back the Sponge Cake as a collection of poetry with accompanying illustrations, you make it abundantly clear that the images are in conversation with the text, and vice versa. Can you tell us a bit more about that process, about making art or texts that are in dialogue with one another rather than created as stand-alone entities?
LE & SN: Some collaborations between writers and visual artists have a more linear, and distanced, process—either the writing or the visual art is created first by one person, and then that work is used to inspire the other person and his/her medium. (Often with the words coming first, and the artwork created second as illustration.) But in our case, the collaborative process focused on immersion and conversation. It came more from finding where our existing work overlapped, bringing together those pieces that already seemed to share a world, and then generating more written work (collaboratively and individually) from inside that particular space.
It helped that the body of work we focused on from Loren’s art was her collection of individual drawings on pieces of 4” x 6” paper—about the same physical size as a short lyric poem. So as we began laying drawings and poems down side by side to determine the most interesting conversations and pairings, they visually seemed of the same world too, living in the same dimension, with similar proportions. For the poems we wrote together, we would usually write in Loren’s studio with all of her drawings pinned in a swarm on the wall beside us—allowing it to influence us, but not basing our writing on any one particular piece. And sometimes Sierra would take a group of Loren’s drawings to her studio (which was right next door), and use that batch as inspiration for a new poem.
Once we had generated a fair amount of poems, we came together to decide which image and poem pairing created the most interesting affinity and dialogue—and when the pairing felt right to both of us, we knew we had our answer. We followed the same process for mapping the trajectories: determining which homophone pair belonged with which page spread, and how each word felt to determine where it would lead next in the book. When we had differing ideas, we would discuss our views, and the dialogue between the work on the page reflects in part the dialogue between us—not as a record of debate, but more as an alignment of intuition.
MB: And even as much as I Take Back the Sponge Cake is a unified text by two authors, it contains numerous texts and images that allude to or focus on the idea of separation or the struggle for individual identity. For instance, the poem ‘Pseudomorph’:
Releasing a false body from my body
my shadow emerges and I am beside myself.
I am all startle and
while she is all desire
a body of ink in water–
Or the image of ‘Jackpot Laundry Machine’:How important is separation and individual identity in terms of art and poetry, in terms of making a book like I Take Back the Sponge Cake?
LE & SN: We weren’t thinking about these themes overtly as we collaborated, but it makes sense that they would emerge in both the writing and artwork, and how those two elements came together. The human desire to connect with others is a strong motivational force (for seeking love, for making art), as well as the desire to understand oneself and to create, which requires some separation to do the work, even loneliness or isolation. These two desires can help each other and deepen the experience of the other, but they also sometimes work in opposition.
Both of our individual studios practices often entail a good deal of time spent alone. This project required that we move beyond our individual practices without eclipsing them. Our separateness is just as important as our synthesis.
MB: Lastly, the choose-your-own-adventure structure of this is genius, and beautifully produced, but even with these directions:
If you become lost, or would like to return somewhere that you have already been, please refer to the map on page 52.
and the corresponding ‘Adventure Map’, is there any level of concern that readers might end up missing a poem or image by never taking a path that leads there? Or is that part of what I Take Back the Sponge Cake is about – finding your own way as a reader and then rifling back through the worn and unworn paths alike, seeking out each portion of the book as a whole, trying to locate each and every moment?
LE & SN: We hope people enjoy the book however they decide to interact with it—choosing (and re-choosing) their way through trajectories until they’ve explored all (or most) of them—following several adventures through, and then skipping around (or using the map) to see what possibilities they’ve missed—even reading the book straight through without making any choices. The active choice of the reader is an important part of the experience—in creating this choose-your-own-adventure structure, we trust that each reader will move through the work in the way that is most interesting and meaningful to them. And that makes it exciting for us too!
I Take Back the Sponge Cake is a gorgeous book, one that offers amazing poetry and art while also saying so much about the possibilities of collaboration, and the fact that Rose Metal Press took on a project such as this and produced it as it deserved – in full-color and with beautiful stock – reminds us that so much brilliant goodness is on the horizon of our indie press landscape. Start your own Rose Metal Press adventure by picking up a copy of I Take Back the Sponge Cake here, & read more from / about Loren Erdrich and Sierra Nelson here.
Posted By jatyler / 21st May 2012
Oak Ridge is the third chapbook from Turtleneck Press, a tiny indie publisher that I was admittedly unfamiliar with until they released this title by Adam Moorad, but now they are on my radar, and I will read more from them soon. But in the meantime, we get the pleasure of asking Adam Moorad a few questions about his seedy little Oak Ridge, a vignette structured story of brutal trailer living and the mess that some of us make of ourselves, a chapbook that delightfully disgusted me.
MB: I say that Oak Ridge disgusted me, but what I really mean is that the narrative itself is so painful to bear at times, with your characters sleeping in trash, ailing and without support, sort of torturing themselves by how they live. Where do these characters come from? And do they want to live this way, are they content in this life?
AM: These characters are primitives. They don’t know their lives are disgusting. The trash, the illness, these things are acceptable in their eyes for no explicable reason. They are satisfied with being unsatisfied. Perhaps this is the story’s most disgusting element. How could anyone willing submit to this life? It’s horrible and ugly and painful and these characters find it attractive and comforting. We can’t understand it. They’re content and it horrifies us.
MB: Another reason that Oak Ridge moved me so much was the way in which you constantly infuse serene and often beautiful scenes of nature with the vicious narrative:
The child wanders through the woods at night, setting booby traps. A mall of trees stretches upward, branches bending like the ribs of a carcass. The child crawls into a bed of leaves. Makes a muted moan. Wets itself for warmth. Palate cleft. Hands like Michigan.
How much crafting and editing did it take to so constantly and consisting mesh nature with this suffering and elements of revulsion?
AM: I wanted to experience how these people might view their world. This world happens to be a revulsive one, but one where they find beauty and comfort. A sick child finds itself in the hollow of a ribcage and it’s happy to suffer in the serenity it provides. Nothing more. These images were realized over several months. Oak Ridge was many things before it was anything though it was always about this family.
MB: There is also a seemingly conscious effort to make each sentence direct, definitive:
He is drunk with his hands on a lure. The pole springs forward and a line flies into the stream. The bloodhound watches him waiting. The butterscotch current takes the bobber away, film spiraling around it like acrylic paint.
Is this typical of your style, or is this an approach honed specifically for Oak Ridge?
AM: I feel like writing is a constant process of becoming less and less uptight. You get better at it as you get older. The desire grows to better evoke some kind of a reaction in someone else, physical or otherwise. Style is a byproduct. When you deal with this sort of subject matter, the language should work like a blunt object. Yeah – it’s fucked up stuff. Feel it. Bleed with these people. It will feel good.
MB: As we mentioned in the opening to this interview, Turtleneck Press is a publisher we just recently discovered. How did your manuscript end up in their hands, and what was the editorial and production process like for Oak Ridge?
AM: I like new projects. If I see someone trying to do something that I like and think is important I want to be a part of it. Presses come and go. Some construct pretty websites but never publish anything. By the time I came across Turtleneck Press, they had already released a few chapbooks in what seemed like no time at all. This drive immediately made me want to work with them. Fortunately the manuscript developed a structure that I felt lent itself to the chapbook form so submitted it. The editorial process was nothing more than Brian Warfield emailing me to clarify and rectify my typos (of which there were plenty) in the politest way possible while he quietly when about promoting this book. For that I am grateful.
MB: Oak Ridge also makes me want to read more of your work. Are there any plans to extend this chapbook into a full-length manuscript? Or do you have other book projects you are already in the midst of?
AM: Oak Ridge is one story from a collection I’ve been working on for a year or so. They’re unrelated tales all told in the same strange vein. Some are already published. Some aren’t. Some are still evolving and some might not even exist yet. I’d like to give this collection to the world someday. It’ll happen if it happens.
No joke, when I turned the last page of Oak Ridge, I immediately went back to the beginning and started again. This is how much I enjoyed Adam Moorad’s chapbook, and how quickly I wanted to take his language back in. Do the same, order up, and see what it is that invigorates me in such a fierce way. Buy a copy of Oak Ridge here, & read more from / about Adam Moorad here.
Posted By jatyler / 7th May 2012
I’d never read anything from Ahsahta Press before, but fate sent me a copy of Janaka Stucky’s The World Will Deny It For You, winner of the first Ahsahta Press Chapbook Award judged by Cathy Wagner, and now I know to lookout for their future titles. I’ve also now learned that Janaka Stucky is, beyond being the badass conductor of poetic mayhem behind Black Ocean, a damn fine poet himself, creating in The World Will Deny It For You a tightly wound collection of poems that use minimalistic style to create wide-open moments of great weight. And Stucky too, like all wonderful writers I meet, is willing to be interrogated about this new book, and kindly indulged us here.
MB: Talk to us a little about the final lead-up to your Ahsahta Press contest submission – how long was this manuscript in the drafting stages and what final editorial work did you do before submitting?
JS: Well, I’m a little abashed to say that the manuscript as a whole was assembled in a matter of days. I don’t usually submit to contests with reading fees, and in fact this was the first one I did submit to in about 8 years. I found out about the contest at the last minute and although I didn’t know Cathy Wagner personally, I knew her work—and thought she might like mine. So the manuscript was assembled somewhat frantically over a 72-hour period while I was visiting with the poet, Adrianne Mathiowetz, in Minneapolis. She really helped give an objective eye toward decisions on inclusion, and helped me organize the work. Even an editor needs an editor, and I don’t know if I would have pulled this manuscript off without her help.
MB: Once The World Will Deny It For You was announced as the winner, was there still the usual editorial process with the press editors? How different is the published version from the original manuscript you submitted?
JS: I’d say the versions are very similar. Janet Holmes, who is the lifeblood of Ahsahta, assembled some editorial suggestions—a sort of aggregate of ideas from herself, Cathy Wagner, and other editorial staff members. I pushed back on a few but also saw the wisdom in them. Ultimately, the difference is: a few line edits, one poem cut, and one poem moved to a different spot in the book.
MB: One of the key components of The World Will Deny It For You seems to be the building of contrast between light and dark, for example:
from ‘You Are Invisible. Go Visible.’:
Inside the mouth of the flower remains / The second eyelid / True darkness / Alien light / Resurrecting us
or the poem that follows it:
from ‘The Heart Will Be Destroyed to Give Place to the Light Which It Might Have Contained’:
Nothing cannot pass / Through me the mask / I wear is a pyramid of fire / Fierce geometry of light / A cloud and its shadow / The hesitation of a lightning bolt
Where does the sharp contrast between these two elements come from in your writing process, and what does it mean in your poetry (assuming that it carries some sort of philosophical weight)?
JS: Well, I should begin by saying that I wasn’t even really aware of that theme until you mentioned it—but now it’s so obvious to me! So I can’t claim a conscious philosophical weight, but I know where it comes from now that I’m aware of it… First, I think it comes from the psychological place this manuscript was written in. It’s sort of a sequel to my 2009 chapbook, Your Name Is the Only Freedom, which was a very dark book that was written in a very dark period of my life. This new book is about recovering from that—not an annihilation of darkness, but a creation of light within that darkness, and the cohabitation of the two. Also, interestingly, I think this contrast comes from my writing process itself—which involves a kind of somatic ritual to induce the trance state in which these poems occur. I write at night, with all the lights off in the house except for two votive candles providing just enough light to see what I’m writing. There are other elements to the ritual, but perhaps this one particularly informs the contrast you mentioned.
MB: It seems that all poets are chasing someone or something in their poetry. In The World Will Deny It For You, you open with:
from ‘Everyone Thinks I’m Ancient But I’m Only Seven’:
My maps are useless and invisible; now and then a tentacle / reaches up from the darkness and points to the places you are not. I / remember everything about you but when I awake there is only your hair / in my fists and the journey ahead. When my small boat finally arrives, the / angel in your place will say that I am too late—you are long gone.
Who or what is your poetry chasing in The World Will Deny It For You?
JS: Most of these poems are a direct address to “you,” so I might say that these poems are chasing the Other. For the most part that’s true, but more than chasing the Other they’re about learning to love the Other despite constant imminent loss. The truth is, we will lose everyone we love—there are no exceptions. There is a kind of perfection to that absolute loss that is very painful to grasp, but once it’s embraced it’s entirely liberating. That’s what this book is documenting; the pursuit of that perfect state of acceptance.
MB: As always with editors / publishers who are also writers, I wonder about the effect that publishing has on their work. How does your role at Black Ocean affect your writing? Does the style of another poet ever infect you? Do the editorial skills you’ve acquired immediately translate to better editing of your own work?
JS: Sadly, the brilliance of the writers I publish doesn’t seem to infect me. It does inspire me though, by showing me what’s possible. I like to publish books I wish I had written, in one way or another. I definitely think being a poet makes me a better editor, and so I suppose the same is true vice versa. It gives me perspective and empathy, and those are always good qualities to have.
MB: And now that The World Will Deny It For You is out in the world, what are you working on, what is the next project in your queue?
JS: I have several projects in queue. I’m collaborating with the artist who did the cover of one of our new books, Butcher’s Tree, on a comic that’s semi-autobiographical about my seven years working as an undertaker. I’ve also got a full-length book of poems that’s getting close to completion… I’m taking my exploration of writing from trance states further while I attempt a long poem called The Saint Children. I have other wish list projects, but I’m trying to wait until these are complete before I begin them. In the meantime, I just came off a reading tour for The World Will Deny It For You, but I plan on more appearances around the country before the end of the year.
I much prefer the concrete world over philosophy – but Janaka Stucky manages to mesh philosophical moments with tangible landscapes in The World Will Deny It For You, creating an engrossing and profound poetry collection that has the weight of philosophy yet is entirely (and lustfully) readable. Pick up a copy of The World Will Deny It For You here, & read more from / about Janaka Stucky here.
Posted By admin / 2nd May 2012
By Elizabeth Ellen
Hobart Short Flight/Long Drive Books; 380 pages; $11.95
Reviewed by Brittany Harmon
Elizabeth Ellen, author of Before You She Was a Pit Bull and Sixteen Miles Outside of Phoenix, captivated me from the very start of Fast Machine, a hard-hitting collection about heartbreak, obsession, and the density of human emotion written with a raw power that even Iggy Pop would admire. Combining her best pieces that have previously appeared in literary magazines such as Hobart, elimae, and Monkeybicycle along with fresh material, Fast Machine contains over ninety stories that range in length from very short to very long. It’s perfect for every kind of postmodern attention span.
Though there is no consistent narrator, the strong female voice that runs throughout the book kept me reading, crying, and laughing all at once. Whether she is clawing at the earth with her bare hands in “The Last American Woman” or being metaphorically detached at the hip from an old boyfriend in “Conjoined,” Ellen can be seen picking at her past—brooding over ex-lovers, poor decisions, and moments of weakness—the way one picks at dead skin. Certain lines like, “I had a bad habit of making my life about the people who were no longer in it” and “Your narcissism no longer feels romantic” humanize this collection in an ironically comforting way, letting the reader know that at least one other person understands the fragile and incredibly painful nature of love and loss. Still other stories like “Winter Haven, Florida, 1984” and “Middle School Sex” travel back to the narrators’ youth, revisiting issues of parental abandonment and confused sexuality. While some may find the bluntness with which Ellen describes her subjects alarming and graphic, it is this rare honesty that makes Fast Machine so enjoyable to read. These stories include just the right amount of sex, anger, movie references, and despair to breathe reality into the often misconstrued perceptions of monogamy, bisexuality, and parenthood.
In this compilation are some excellent pieces of flash fiction like “Ground Rules” and “Sixteen Miles Outside Phoenix.” These short pieces stand out because they contain the same intense, gristly spirit as even the longer and more-involved stories. The explicit and consistent pouring of blood and tears throughout the pages is simultaneously heartrending and consoling, as struggles are faced and overcome not in a hokey Hollywood fashion, but in an agonizing, barely-made-it-through kind of way. One can taste both the bitterness and sadness that comes along with tough breakups and the effects of emotional abuse in “All My Friends Think You’re A Piece of Shit” and “I Will Destroy You.” It is very easy to let stories about relationships fall into clichés and ranting prose, but Ellen handles these situations with a maturity that comes with distance and awareness. She gets to the root of her characters, observing and analyzing their actions and traits with a psychologist’s acuity, exposing motivations that for most people never rise to the plane of consciousness.
Ellen speaks to the core of human interaction and makes us question why we act in certain ways, challenging us to accept the inevitable hurt that accompanies all relationships—parent-child, husband-wife, sister-brother, etc. The fact that she is able to tackle these issues is impressive, but the skill with which she executes these experiences is even more remarkable. She doesn’t tell us she’s angry; she takes an axe to a tree, then an axe to her arm. She doesn’t wallow in sadness; she sits in a basement frantically doing word searches, convincing herself that if she does them all her boyfriend will come back.
There’s also a distinct American rock-and-roll spirit that’s invoked in this collection with images of drinking whiskey in the back of a pick-up truck, flannel clothing, and bison, supported with references to Little House on the Prairie, Johnny Appleseed, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Her ability to transform everyday happenings into pieces of art shows great expertise. By the end of Fast Machine, I had fallen in love with Ellen – her style, her voice, her picture on the back cover. Anyone who can write about period sex and the breakdown of the family unit with equal proficiency and tenor is a well-accomplished author by my standards. Fast Machine is a must-read for all of those who have crawled through emotional turmoil, been involved in a fucked-up love affair, or cared about someone else so much that they’ve lost themselves in the process. In a world filled with fairy-tales, Nicholas Sparks’ bestsellers, and Taylor Swift’s pop songs, Ellen’s uninhibited writing is refreshing because it’s real. Her words don’t sound forced or overly sentimental; her work has been carefully crafted. Ellen isn’t afraid to hurt her characters or to show how desperate and lonely we all are.
Posted By jatyler / 2nd December 2011
In lovely white space, bites of poetic prowess fall from Christine Hume’s head, paper the pages of Shot, birth into the plane a baby breathing and absorbed in where it has been and what birthing is. Recently released from Counterpath Press, Hume’s third book Shot is a whirlwind of poetic goodness, and we are lucky enough here to ask her some questions about how this book was built.
To start with, there must be some deeper backstory to Shot that is not explained or unearthed in back cover copy or a preface. Can you give us the history on how this book came to be, where it comes from?
Shot came direct from my viscera, where I found it buried, malformed, but still alive. I wrote it while straddling three major somatic shifts (1) from being happily childless to embracing (bracing) motherhood (2) from being a major to a minor insomniac (3) from being a serial mover to living in a singular place. These transitions permutate like a pure dopamine drip.
In terms of poetic structure, Shot mostly follows an A/B rhythm, placing spare, line-break poetry between poems made of prose type blocks. What is the reason for this specific construction of the content in Shot?
To evoke the cyclic, and the kinetic engine of ambivalence, I wanted to create an architecture of alternating currents or irresolvable dialectics—yes/no, dark/light, fast/slow, prose/brokenness—as you might find in a prosemitrium, the halibun, or fu, which offer the sensation of moving through, drawing onward.
But sometimes, that rhythm is broken open, as in the opening volley of ‘Incubatory’, where the poems take an interrogative form of question and answer or call and response:
Are you comfortable?
I move inside night but am not its insides. I jerk and excise, I do not express. Outside is not made of the same dark as inside.
Can you open your eyes?
My looking does not bound back to me. It wanders further circles of eon in attempt to put the moon out of my moth-mind.
Or, as in the later piece ‘Interlude’, which works in the form of a list of pseudo definitions:
MOTHER ESTROGEN: The ultrasound picks up a luminous moon in this gray, grainy corner.
MOTHER BROKER: Looks like an owl killed by lightning.
MOTHER-IN-THE-TREES: An owl reshapes its face to shove a new sound down its ear. When you dream, you do the same. Your face reforms so that you may experience the next day.
How important is this kind of structural variety in your poetry and the books you build?
Maybe the rhythm is not so much broken as played with or swerved. I do love to enter through the doors that form/structure/method can open.
I hear you re: “Interlude,” but I think of it as a play or dialogue with an all mother cast, pregnant and aphorizing.
If we look at thematic content, the notion of clothing or fashion as metaphor recurs. As in ‘Nocturnal Dimensions of the Future’:
I stuffed night’s hem into my mouth
Night also buttoned up when it couldn’t find a thing to adorn
Or as in the opening lines of ‘My Actress’:
Costumed and impostured in her sheet, my actress cues hormonal ghosts with scheming cunts and sequin eyes.
Where does this kind of thematic pull come from?
If I put on my pjs, I might convince myself that I’m a sleeper. Cover myself with a material substance with deviant powers (language), and you misread me. Am I wearing a utilitarian enough language? Can you disguise me in yours? I’m interested in the moral drag everyone puts on or takes off. I’m interested in the fatigues we wear—the battledress and uniforms, the exhaustion and dead-time. My great hope is staked in ontological fatigue. The fatigue of being myself—the larval inaction of certain states of depression, information overload, and democracy’s abnegation of authority (voter fatigue) etc—might make me dress in slowness and self-doubt. Might redress Aristotelian dependency on catharsis, disrobing my impulse to act. In my fashion world, insomnia is the most promising step toward self-knowledge; it is the monochrome that opens up new futures that are not contained in the present; it is a heightened state of consciousness, a wakeful mission to rekindle our contract with ethics. In the insomnia suit, I writhe in and watch my own discomforts.
Another interesting thread throughout Shot is the only slightly perceptible presence of the male, as in ‘Mirabile Dictu’:
You thought he
wanted to be seen
You thought you
thought when you tire
of night stuck
full of eyes
go with him
and he’ll start
you from the start
Where does the male presence figure into a work like Shot?
Wherever he is. This observation might say more about you than me.
Shot is really a beautifully thin and tenuous vein of poetry, like the inside of a womb or the outside of being, when we are no longer cradled. These poems rock and joust because Hume seems to have taken such care with each piece, such crafting to make each resound with the pain and outward suffering of being set irrevocably free. Shot is a wonderful book that makes poems from conception, that creates life as only words can.
Buy this book here. Read more from / about Christine Hume here.
Posted By jatyler / 1st October 2011
A debut title is a difficult endeavor for any writer. What does it say about its author? What does it tell its readers? How will it provide legs for a second or a third or a fourth book? Ayiti, Roxane Gay’s debut from Artistically Declined Press, is so solid and so wonderfully layered that she doesn’t need to worry. This is a debut that automatically sets Gay towards success.
To begin with, the single greatest beauty in Atiyi is its intentional use of contrast. Consider this excerpt, where a slang and swearing title heads up eloquent lines and tangible depth:
His father splashes his armpits with water, then lathers with soap, then rinses, then draws a damp washcloth across his chest, the back of this neck, behind his ears. His father excuses Gérard, then washes between his thighs. He finishes his routine by washing his face and brushing his teeth. Then he goes to work. Back home, he was a journalist. In the States, he slices meat at the deli counter for eight hours a day and pretends not to speak English fluently.
Gay, unlike most writers, doesn’t relegate herself solely to one mode – instead, she rests her stories between worlds, where the unrefined meet the formal, where the beauty of poetic language is never fully swept away from the dirt and grit of honest and genuine moments. And this use of juxtaposition filters into the content of Ayiti as well, with a great example in ‘Things I Know About Fairy Tales’ – a story that uses an A/B pattern to neatly converse about what a Haitian family believes of both fairy tales and kidnapping:
They put a burlap sack over my head and shoved me into the backseat of one of the waiting cars. They told me, in broken English, to do as they said and I would be back with my family soon. I sat very still. The air was stifling. All I heard was their laughter, my son crying and the fading wail of the car horn.
My father is fond of saying that a woman’s greatest asset is her beauty. Snow White had her beauty, and her beauty was her curse until it became her greatest asset
There is in fact, no shortage of opposites and opposition in Ayiti. The Haitians detest and envy Americans, Haitians living in America long for an idyllic Haiti, Haitian immigrants come to terms with what American is not or will never be, and even Haiti itself is embattled, the people contrasted one against another, creating a resounding layered story-telling, a tremendous depth of meaning that gives us so much to digest (and love) in Ayiti:
The soldier moved in. Every night, he returned to Marise’s well kept home, complained about the heat, the heavy air, the trash everywhere, the dark shiny people throwing rocks and bottles and angry words. He ate her food. He shared her bed, touched her body with his soldier hands; he filled her and frightened her and she felt something she didn’t understand.
Ayiti is a book at once memoir, fiction, and cultural-biography, and Gay does it all via precise and engaging mini-narratives woven into one gaunt and poignant book. This is a debut that feels more like a veteran, and it makes me very excited to see what will come next.
[ stay tuned for our interview with Roxane Gay in the coming days ]
Buy this book here. Read more about / from Roxane Gay here.
Posted By jatyler / 25th September 2011
Gregory Sherl is going to be huge. Plain and simple. His chapbook I Have Touched You won Dark Sky Books’ first chapbook contest and is a whirlwind of sex and want and loneliness and worry. Poems of panic or panicked poems. Then comes Heavy Petting, the inaugural perfect-bound release from Katherine Sullivan’s YesYes Books and the first full-length collection from Sherl, which is as much a torrent of poetry as I’ve never seen – lovely with bitterness and obsession and angst and the most earnest love. And because Sherl is not only awesome but accessible, we get to ask him some questions and report out at this Monkeybicycle hub:
In Bob Hicok’s foreword to Heavy Petting he says, of himself: ‘I made Greg Sherl write poems by telling him he was writing poems.’ Help us detail your side of this MFA conversation – what was this exchange like for you and what did it do to your writing?
The exchange that Bob explains in the foreword was exactly the exchange that happened. He called me into his office and he was like, “You’re a poet.” My thought: “You might be famous and important and people line up to take your class, but you’re fucking nuts, man.”
Still, I sat there holding my awkwardly red, chapped hands and listened to him tell me why I was a poet, not believing him.
I left that meeting confused. When I signed up for his poetry workshop, I did it because my friends were doing it. I had a spare class to take, so I figured why not. I had no idea who Bob Hicok was (I believe he knew this and was probably amused), and I had no idea what poetry was, either.
I had a lot to process.
I will say one thing: I have always felt the compulsion to write. So much so that it hurts sometimes. It sounds cliché (and is) and countless writers feel this way (and they should!), but it’s true. It wasn’t until I discovered poetry that I first started enjoying the actual act of writing. It used to be a chore I couldn’t stop doing—writing shitty short story after shitty short story—and then I discovered these poems, these sequences of lines that sometimes made sense but sometimes didn’t, and then, out of nowhere, I started enjoying the process, the discovery, the creation.
Bob Hicok raves about your poems – even dissects one in his foreword – what does that feel like as a poet, for your first collection, to have such an introduction from such a poet?
It started out as a joke. A “Hey, let me ask my poet hero to write a foreword for my poetry book that maybe twenty people will read.” Did I think he would say yes? No fucking way. But why not go big? You get one first full-length, you know? One. Why stop at a blurb, let’s get a fucking foreword. In a way it made sense. In a way I owe the book to him. If I had never met Bob Hicok, do I think I would have written a book that eventually might have been published? Sure, maybe. But would it have been a poetry collection? Doubtful. Almost impossible to say yes to that. This book starts at the beginning of my life as a poet. Poems in this collection, poems like “Notes on a Candy Cane Tree” and “Tampa,” these are some of my first “realized” poems. They happened in Bob’s workshop. They happened because of him.
What does it feel like? It feels like the most important part of the book. To me, it feels like the book wasn’t a proper book until Bob wrote those few words in those first few pages.
If we dive into the thematic movements of Heavy Petting, many of the poems are either overtly or covertly concerned with food or the consumption of objects or relationships. For instance, from “Opening Credits”’:
We kiss with our eyes closed.
I say You look like the kind of girl who should be on the cover of a box of cake mix.
For foreplay, you show me the knobs on your gas stove.
Or in ”Burnt Lemon Cookies Smell Bad”:
Like: even when I love you I get lonely. Eating Cocoa Puffs
gets lonely. Getting lonely gets lonely.
Or in “Fall Down the Stairs, I Will Catch Your Lonely Head”:
I say I love you like waterfalls love
shampoo commercials. There are only 5 calories in a serving
of Crystal Light. We drink like marathon runners. We drink
each other, drink each other like our fingers are straws
Can you talk to us about how this theme comes into your writing and what intentions it has (or you suppose it has)?
I used to have a joke that I couldn’t write a poem without referencing cereal. Why is this? I thought about it for a while until I realized how blatantly obvious it was: I really fucking love cereal. I eat it almost daily. Sometimes twice a day. The things that happen most in my life are the things that show up in my writing. I am from the school of “write what you know”. Rinse. Repeat. Write more.
Now, this school of “write what you know” has gotten me into a lot of trouble, and I am starting to steer away from this. You will see this a lot more after The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail and Monogamy Songs (a few projects are currently in the works, in very early stages, and they are very, very different than what I have been producing these last few years).
These days I am very excited about the future. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.
Also, thematically, there is a studied focus on relationships, but always between a narrator of the poem (its voice) and an unseen third party (consistently referred to as ‘you’). Are we intended to be your ‘you’ in these poems? Are you targeting us, the reader, the audience? Or is there another reason for the ambiguity here, the openness to our own interpretation?
I want to say yes to all of this just because I don’t know how to answer these questions. I want my writing to target whoever is going to feel something after reading the book. If you felt something from a poem, a line, a word—then I was targeting you. And thank you for feeling.
Ambiguity. Sometimes emotions are so ambiguous, who knows where they came from or why they were there. Sometimes lines just show up and I didn’t ask them to show up but they showed up anyway. They might mean nothing to me, but they might mean something to someone else. Something good, I hope. If that’s the case, then I’m happy and I believe my poem is happy.
One other large thematic focus in Heavy Petting is that of meta-fiction (meta-poetry?) – references to the book itself or writing or poetry. For example, in “Fiction”:
This is what you tell me: you’re writing a book
about forever. My children are in the pages, their
Or in “I Read That in a Book”:
There are too many love poems
on my hard drive, so I’m murdering miss you with a chainsaw,
dropping it from an eight floor stairwell, watching every
letter that smells like you scatter like links from a broken
Or in “Master of Fine Arts”:
In Poetry Workshop, they tell me not to use pop culture references in my
poems. I cross out lines about necking with you in the backseat of my car
while listening to “La La Love You” on repeat. I cross out: Natalie Portman’s
hips are boss, but your hips are more boss.
How do you want this meta-fiction/poetry to function in your poems, and where does it come from?
I find myself constantly talking about myself. This is a bad habit. It is also probably very annoying (I apologize, I think). Anyway, some of my favorite pieces of pop culture are very self-referential, very self-aware of what they are and where they come from (Arrested Development, Kevin Smith, Adaptation, Bret Easton Ellis, Bukowski, Bob Hicok, etc.), so I’m sure much of my own writing was and will always be affected by this. I like the idea that whoever is reading my book is aware that they are reading my book. It is an object, an experience, I hope, and I never want to take myself so seriously that I have to disappear while the reader is having that experience with the object I created.
Remember me, reader, as selfish as that might sound.
I have always been so fascinated with the process of craft, or how something became that something. So, why not accomplish two things at once: Explain how that something was created while experiencing the thing that was created.
As you mentioned earlier, beyond Heavy Petting we can look forward to your novel(la) with Mud Luscious Press The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail and your forthcoming title with Future Tense Books Monogamy Songs. Can you give us a little sneak peak of each, or tell us what differences and similarities we can expect between Heavy Petting and these upcoming titles?
One of the first lines from The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail: “They think about your hair/while they’re inside their wives, think about/your dimple while they try to repair the axel/on their wagon.”
One of the first lines from Monogamy Songs: “K and I are always high-fiving after we fuck.”
There are so many differences between the two collections (so many!), but what I can say about The Oregon Trail and Monogamy Songs is this: they are both love letters. The Oregon Trail is a love letter to a computer game, a never ending fleeting moment from my youth, and Monogamy Songs is a love letter to love, this feeling of now, this hopeful feeling of forever. Love letters in the form of line breaks and page-long paragraphs about video games and a pretty girl whose name starts with K.
These are what these future books are, and I hope everyone who reads them truly enjoys them.
Thank you for asking me these questions, J.A., it was very kind of you.
I hope you all enjoyed reading them, at least a little bit.
Thanks for talking with us Greg! Heavy Petting is really a beautiful book full of beautiful poetry and I could ask a million more questions, but instead, I say to you, readers of this review + interview series: buy the book, digest it and start a relationship with Gregory Sherl, then email him some questions of your own – I’m sure, if I know anything about Mr. Sherl, that he will respond quickly and in kind.
Buy this book here. Read more about / from Gregory Sherl here.
Posted By jatyler / 9th September 2011
Freight is a novel of recounted stories that amounts to a study of (and search for) love and a philosophy of life. Reveling in anecdotes and casual regrets, Freight opens itself up to be a complex fiction, to be a book about memories and existence and meaning, to be more than just a novel.
First let’s talk about the meaning of the word ‘freight’ – how do you define it, how does the book define it, and what makes this word so potent and important for your novel?
I define ‘freight’ as cargo, which is a pretty standard definition, I think, and the book’s definition isn’t much different, only more expanded. The book’s definition is a better catch-all definition in that it’s more inclusive of all things intangible, like thoughts and memories. For the book’s definition and my own, too, I suppose, ‘freight’ is pretty much anything we experience. ‘Freight’ can be a gesture, glance, feeling—something subjectively meaningful. ‘Freight’ is important for the novel because it’s the accumulation of everything important in the narrator’s life. ‘Freight’ is what he’s carrying but it’s also the path beneath his feet.
Freight is deeply concerned with love. There is a thematic insistence on it in the book, reminders cropping up in a variety of forms – some about the love for a girlfriend, some about the love for family, and some philosophizing about the act in and of itself:
No one wants to be an enabler, though sometimes love gets in the way.
So maybe it’s best to love things for what they are, or let them go if we can’t afford to love them anymore.
I loved that it was over.
I loved that I was safe.
I loved that I was home.
Is Freight a love story? A romance? A calling to some kind of love?
Freight is a love story, though mostly the unrequited variety or the just-didn’t-work-out variety. And yes, it is a calling to love, too, a calling to self-love, mostly, to be comfortable and clear in your own skin, your own home.
Freight is also full of stories that sound so genuine and so real, we wonder if they came from the author’s personal experience. For example, this story:
I destroyed two baby birds when I was a kid. I shot them with a BB gun. I’d killed their mother, a black-capped chickadee, or at least I thought I’d killed their mother. My father was disappointed in me when I told him I killed their mother, so he said “Since you killed their mother, you have to kill them too”
Maybe he didn’t tell me to kill the babies, though. I could be wrong. It’s not uncommon.
I was young and fat then. I wore jeans called “Huskies” that my mother bought for me.
Did you kill a bird with a BB gun? Were you a ‘husky’ kid? How much of Freight is a part of your own personal life?
I’ve killed some things in my life, both intentionally and accidentally, some animals, probably a bird or two, and I’ve never walked away feeling good about it. These days I try to be kind to the creatures out there, though sometimes I’m a real jerk to spiders and bees. It’s true that a lot of Freight comes from my own personal life. Even the pure fictions in the book are rooted in some kind of personal truth. I think that’s fair to say about any piece of writing, that even the tallest of tales grow from the precious seeds we keep in our pockets. I’m not sure what that means to ‘fiction’ as a category, but the armor on anything wears thin if you rub it long enough. The knees on a pair of husky jeans, however, won’t wear thin no matter how long you rub them. I know that from experience.
And if we are talking about places where Freight takes some of its cues, there are quite a few parallels between this novel and other classic or contemporary books. For example, like Holden in The Catcher in the Rye your narrator smashes a car’s window because he ‘needed to say something’, and like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried an early chapter of Freight recounts the physical and metaphorical items that the narrator carries with him, including moments that he doesn’t want to carry but must because, as he says: ‘I think it’s important that I don’t forget.’ Does other literature pervade your thinking as you write, or are these instances an indication of a literary collective unconscious?
Great question, and I’d have to say that these particular instances are an indication of a literary collective unconscious, which is funny because I was thinking about this just the other day, not in terms of Freight, but just as an idea of a collective consciousness/unconscious as something that exists. Were you thinking about this, too? I think it’s fascinating, and I’m more than willing to drink that Kool-Aid. Ha. Seriously, though, while these examples weren’t at the forefront of my mind as I worked on Freight, other literature, stimuli, certainly influences how I move throughout my day, how I think at particular times. I was reading lots of indie lit while writing and revising Freight, and Robert Lopez’s Kamby Bolongo Mean River was very much rolling around in my head early on, and Steve Himmer’s The Bee-Loud Glade kept my brain dancing during the later stages. For me it’s about latching on to something that resonates, something strong like a good cup of coffee or tea, a great line, a great voice, delivery. Freight took its cues from daily inspirations and the memories of them.
Freight also takes a leap from R. A. Montgomery’s ‘choose your own adventure’ books by presenting itself as both a straight-forward novel and a book with margin notes that allow a reader to skip back and forth across sections, following indicated page numbers. Can you talk to us about how this design came to be? And what do you think the difference would be for a reader who only reads Freight straight-through versus one who follows the notes to skip across pages of the book?
Being online as much as I am now, I’ve grown to appreciate hypertext and how it allows you to string thoughts together from different places, times, feelings, etc. I feel like hypertext is a good paradigm of how our brains work when processing certain memories or experiencing new things. Trains of thought derail all the time but, unlike actual trains of steel and diesel, they keep moving. They’re more like wormholes, sprouting new tunnels as needed. The margin notes are based on that idea of hypertext, of having the ability to jump back and forth, to explore connections great and small, and to glean a sense of the web-like nature of our existences. In an early PDF I sent along to the folks at Folded Word, blocks of text were bracketed and then footnoted. During the design process, they presented me with the idea of margin notes, and I immediately thought they were great. They really captured what I was trying to do, and felt less intrusive than the original setup. They’re easy, I think, to move between in the print edition because you can simply buzz the pages with your thumb, and they’ll be just as easy to navigate in the e-book because they’ll act as actual bits of hypertext. And as far as determining what the difference would be for readers moving straight through versus those bouncing around, I’m not really sure what would be different. I can only hope that readers find some enjoyment however they choose to digest the book.
And in general, speaking of production and design, how was it working with Folded Word, especially considering that Freight is this press’s first foray into full-length novels?
I’ve been dealing with Folded Word for a few years now, and they’ve always been great to work with. They gave me my first chapbook in 2009, and their work ethic and attention to detail is outstanding. However, that being said, I think both sides were pleasantly wowed with how well Freight came out. I sweated the words from my pores, Folded Word encouraged me through the revision process and then nailed down a great layout, and Brian Manley (our jacket designer) supplied the gorgeous wrapping paper. Everything clicked together perfectly, and as a first full-length novel for both me and Folded Word, I couldn’t be happier with the finished product. I’m certain they feel the same way, too.
Freight is a soothing kind of book, one that feels very much like telling stories around a dinner table, each new narrative attempting to outdo the last while the thematic through-line holds of its own easy accord. Mel Bosworth has asked his debut novel to be more than just a book – he has asked it to be an adventure and a memoir, a collection of stories and a glossary of being, and it all works wonderfully.
Buy this book here. Read more about / from Mel Bosworth here.