Review of “The Argonauts” by Maggie Nelson

 

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Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts comes at a time when mainstream queer culture is all about resisting definitions. Refusing to apply clear and concise labels to oneself can be both a radical act and a way to walk the middle ground without having to declare open support for any community except for the self. At its core, The Argonauts is about walking that middle line and combining dichotomies to achieve a creamy middle. In it, Nelson explores gender, sexuality, and motherhood in a fluid, stream of consciousness style that transitions from one subject to another, curling back on itself occasionally to show the interconnectedness of these issues.

At the heart of the book is Nelson’s relationship with Harry Dodge, an artist. Near the beginning, she says, “Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed.” Nelson implies that the reason she writes is to express the inexpressible through words, even though they can never quite do the job. On the other hand, when she describes the passionate arguments she had with Dodge on the subject, she says, “Once we name something, you said, we can never see it the same way again. All that is unnamable falls away, gets lost, is murdered.” This reflects the combining of public and private spheres mentioned throughout the narrative.

As a memoirist, Nelson has a desire to express the inexpressible parts of private life, from the act of fishing inedible foods out of her son’s mouth to, at the climax, how it felt to give birth. As the book goes on, she does a similar thing with Dodge, revealing more and more of him beyond his gender identity until Dodge himself writes his own story of seeing his mother when she was dying of cancer, intertwined with Nelson’s recount of the birth.

The public and private becoming one is no strange thing to people in the queer community. Some of the most private things, one’s sense of gendered self and one’s romantic and sexual affections, become wildly, terribly public, often with steep consequences. As Nelson notes, once a person is seen as “queer,” that signifier is all some people think about when considering them and their work. This goes both for the straight, cisgendered population as well as the queer community. When a queer person reads a book by another queer person, the tendency is to look for the hidden clues and try to identify with all of them, essentially making the work again about the author’s identity.

Nelson recognizes this, and sets forth to craft a story that both validates her and her partner’s queer identities while making them a facet of their whole. She talks about the association of pregnancy with heteronormativity and poses the question:  when does queer stop being radical and just become a part of a person’s identity? Can an issue that’s been so public for so long finally move to a wholly private sphere? Should it be wholly private? Throughout the book Nelson grapples with these questions, detailing small anecdotes of her life, intertwining them and presenting them as the expressions of the inexpressible.


Maggie_Nelson.bw_1024x1024Maggie Nelson is the author of Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa Press, 2007), The Red Parts: A Memoir (Free Press, 2007), The Art of Cruelty (WW Norton, 2011), and The Argonauts (Graywolf, 2015). Nelson is also the author of several books of poetry, including Something Bright, Then Holes (Soft Skull Press, 2007), Jane: A Murder (Soft Skull, 2005), The Latest Winter (Hanging Loose Press, 2003) and Shiner (Hanging Loose, 2001). Nelson currently lives in Los Angeles where she teaches on the BFA and MFA faculty of the School of Critical Studies at California Institute of the Arts.


About the author of this post:  Hope Kennedy is a sophomore at North Central College, where she’s studying English and Management. Likes include writing, cats, and sleeping in on rainy days. Dislikes include inaccurate movies based on good books, the sound people make when they chew ice, and that awkward smile you exchange with a stranger when you make eye contact.

Review of “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals” by Patricia Lockwood

Poet Patricia Lockwood has received a deluge of positive reviews for her work, and 2014’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals will fare no differently. The new poetry collection features poems such as “Is Your Country as He or She in Your Mouth” – the poem from which Lockwood takes the name of the book – “The Fake Tears of Shirley Temple,” and, her viral sensation, “Rape Joke.” The cover art is an original work of cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt, the same artist used for Lockwood’s first publication. The two-tonal, white and green jacket art features an all-white silhouette of a hybrid human-deer, featuring two sets of sharp antlers, fanged teeth and a wiry tongue. This is set upon a heavily blue-green backdrop splattered with crude, toon-like details of leaves. This, along with the haunting title, sets the mood for Lockwood’s strange and elusive poetry; a mood that is tense with the unification of nature and sexuality, the human and the inhuman.

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Lockwood is unbelievably frank in her metaphoric and sometimes literal language. Her ability to marry the natural with the unnatural is as seamless as turning a deer into a porn star. Equally praiseworthy is her integration of pop culture into works that seem to belong in a culture all their own. In “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer,” she writes “Every deer gets called Bambi at least once in its life, every deer must answer to Bambi.” Conjuring up images of childhood films, and walks in the woods, Lockwood twists the childhood imagery. The seemingly universal deer nickname suddenly becomes a frightening call to the loss of innocence.

Her viral sensation, “Rape Joke,” lives up to its fame. The irony of the piece is in the writer’s moment of worry that all she’d be known for was the poem about the rape joke.   Stylistically, the poem is denser than many of her others, less lyrical, and more like prose-poetry. Almost every line begins: “The rape joke is”, a statement that readies the reader for the following definitions of the rape joke itself. Lockwood often personifies objects and abstractions in her poetry, and the rape joke hauntingly takes the identity of the rapist himself, a chilling move which resonates through the rest of the book. She writes, “The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you’re asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you.” But, whether or not Lockwood is sincere in her fear “Rape Joke” becoming her signature work, it seems it already is. Rape Joke was selected to be in The Best American Poetry 2014 and won the Pushcart Prize, awarded to poetry, essays and small fictions etc., published in small presses.

Lockwood should rejoice; “Rape Joke” and her collection are worthy of any bookshelf for their strange charms and cultural appeal alone. The poetry in this collection is beautiful, dreamlike, and startling like a nightmare, all qualities which amount to some of the loveliest poetry conceived in the last few years.


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Patricia Lockwood’s poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, Tin House, and Poetry. She is the author of Balloon Pop Outlaw Black (Octopus Books, 2012), Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (Penguin Books, 2014), and the viral internet sensation “Rape Joke” (The Awl, 2013).


 

About the author of this post: Ryann Overstreet is a junior at North Central College where she studies Writing and Philosophy. She has two orange cats that she is obsessed with and eats a box of pasta a day.

 

Review of “We Are Called to Rise” by Laura McBride

Laura McBride’s first novel, We Are Called to Rise is populated with rich and complex characters, and a setting that reflects the contradictions of life—that there can be something wonderful underneath the guise of filth, and vice versa. Las Vegas is typically seen as just The Strip, a place where prostitution is legal and there are strippers galore. However, the truth McBride reveals is a much more complex counter to this sleazy image. She says:

Maybe it’s surprising, but most Las Vegas children don’t grow up quickly. They aren’t fast like their coastal counterparts. In Vegas, children pass through their novel environment unconsciously… They’ve been taught not to notice, and it’s only the transplanted ones—the children who arrive from Boston when they are nine—who think to tell their friends back home about the naked billboards, the “Live Nude” signs, the doggy-sex flyers.

McBride masterfully shows the complexity of the setting through the life of Avis, a woman stuck in her past whose marriage has been falling apart under her nose. The modern, suburban lifestyle Avis reached wasn’t expected of her. Based on her violent past and her mother (a young woman who jumped from abusive boyfriend to abusive boyfriend), it was assumed she’d end up perpetuating the idea of Vegas as a seedy, violent place. However, she claws her way up to the lifestyle she dreamed of as a child: a nice home in a nice neighborhood with a loving husband and a child. Under the sheen of this shiny new life, there are still struggles that must be dealt with: illnesses, deteriorating relationships, and the idea that maybe, just maybe, she hadn’t done things quite right raising her son.

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This idea—struggling to reach an ideal and realizing it’s not all that it seems—is also seen in the story of Bashkim Ahmenti, the eight-year-old son of Albanian refugees. His parents, trying to achieve the American Dream (to be self-sufficient and industrious), own an ice cream truck, but they constantly argue. Bashkim’s baba, who was, for a time, a political prisoner in Albania, and his nene, who misses Albania terribly, are both prone to anger and defensiveness, yelling at each other over every little thing.

A physical manifestation of the theme seen in both Bashim’s and Avis’s stories is when Bashkim’s nene buys a young pear tree, just a sapling, despite his baba’s objections. They plant it together, and it grows wonderfully in the ground behind their apartment building. It seems perfect, but when the tree bears fruit they’re hard as rocks, and don’t taste good at all.

All of this wonderful complexity vanishes near the end of the book. The resolution makes some attempts at bitter sweetness, but the gritty reality set up in the beginning melts away and leaves only a simple ending that seems entirely too coincidental to be realistic. Such a neat ending leaves out all of the loose ends that build intrigue throughout the novel. At just over three hundred pages, it’s an average size novel, but perhaps if McBride were given more room, she could have reintroduced the negative, however slight, that underlies all positive things in her book, as in life.


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Laura McBride is a writer and community college teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada. She once thought of herself as an adventurer, having traveled far from home on little more than a whim and a grin, but now laughs at the conventional trappings of her ordinary suburban life.  We Are Called To Rise is her first novel.


About the author: Hope Kennedy is a sophomore at North Central College, where she’s studying English and Management. Likes include writing, cats, and sleeping in on rainy days. Dislikes include inaccurate movies based on good books, the sound people make when they chew ice, and that awkward smile you exchange with a stranger when you make eye contact.

Interview with Emilia Phillips

emilia-phillips-by-tracy-tanner-summer-2015Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016), and three chapbooks, most recently Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Centenary College of New Jersey, poetry faculty for the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop, and the interviews editor for 32 Poems


Your poetry collection, Groundspeed, is coming out in 2016. Is there anything you’d like to tell us about it?

I wrote it because I was afraid not to write it. The poems were written during or after the death of my brother and while I was being treated for melanoma. It was compulsively written, born out of fear for my own life and those I loved, so for me the stakes are incredibly high. Because of the poems’ insistence, the language is much more straightforward than the poems in my first book; Signaletics wanted to preserve a connection to mystery and Groundspeed wants to—but, I’m afraid, doesn’t—get answers.

I noticed in the poems “Phaeacia’s Orchard” that you reference the Greek god, “Eros,” and in the poem “Groundspeed,” you mention the Norse spirit “Valkyrie.” Do you have an interest in mythology?’

You know, our greatest mythology is a complex system of symbols whose meanings, narratives, and details differ depending upon the slant, background, and experience of those revealing the mythology to us. That mythology is language. If someone has an interest in language—and Western culture—that person should have an interest in mythology. Our language and our cultural narratives are established upon the backs of that great turtle. If you’re a writer, you’re conversing with it anyway.

When did you first start writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer?

As a kid, I had an ongoing comic series called The Adventures of Really, Really Big Eyeball Man, and I wrote songs (the first one I remember was about a health food cereal my dad gave me and I rebranded as “Dirty Teeth Cereal” because it looked like stained baby teeth). I had lots of imagined narratives that I would entertain for years, many too cliché to indulge and divulge now. I also had an elaborate character system on AOL Instant Messenger that I kept up for years—you laugh, but I really think those were some of my first exercises in persona. Later, I got really into music and so I wrote some bad love songs to sing with my guitar, and I spun my wheels in the mud of some (now incredibly embarrassing) fanfiction. I had a quarter-long creative writing class in high school, which was fine but it didn’t really ignite the fire. I had a couple of great English teachers that at least got me to declare an English: Pre-Law major when I went to college. I had an Intro to Creative Writing class with a poet named Earl Braggs, and that’s when I fell for writing. From there I took poetry and fiction workshops every semester. I got involved in the writers’ conference there, and I went to Europe with other creative writing students. I had two other teachers—Richard Jackson, a poet, and Tom Balázs, a fiction writer—who set me on a good path in writing and reading.

When were you first published? Can you tell me about the experience?

I was first published in my undergraduate lit mag, The Sequoia Review, and then shortly thereafter, Pamela Uschuk and William Pitt Root, who I’d met at the Meacham Writers’ Workshop at my undergrad school, selected me as the “Discovery Poet” for the journal Cutthroat. They took four poems, and I suddenly felt like I could actually do this poetry thing. They were so kind and supportive, and I’m not sure I would’ve made that leap from writing to submitting without them.

How has your writing evolved over time?

Oh, man. You know, I did a reading last year in Venice Beach and the reading series’ coordinator told me that he read a lot of my work but none of it sounded like it was from the same person. I agree and disagree. I’ve taken a number of formal approaches, but I think there are certain concerns and obsessions—the body, forensics, ephemera and ephemerality, the ineffable, etc.—that carry through all these poems.

I will say that that the first book, Signaletics, was interested in liminal spaces, particularly as that concept relates to the body, e.g. forensics, criminality, automata, and so on.  I wanted to know, how can we reconnect the body to mystery? But it was also a book about anxiety, and so there are times when it uses mystery as a means for the speakers to be seen and hidden at the same time.

Bestiary of Gall, the chapbook after the book, was a palette cleanser; it was full of fragmented poems about animals or animalistic characteristics of humans. The poems were pretty experimental in terms of what they left out, what they weren’t willing to say.

Then came a chapbook-length poem in sections called Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike, which I wrote entirely in one weekend, in a lull while working on Groundspeed. This chapbook responds to a number of influences: stop motion animation, especially Czech surrealist artists like Jan Svankmajer and Jiri Barta and the American duo the Quay Brothers; photographs of abandoned places found on the internet, also known as “ruin porn”; and the poems of my dear friend Gregory Kimbrell’s first book The Primitive Observatory, due out in March 2016 from the Crab Orchard Series, which have no allegiances to personal experience but rather, in some zoetropic view of a imagined, occultish past turned immediate. Beneath the Ice recounts the “lives” of objects in a place once abandoned, now reencountered by a new wave of people—of wanderers, if you will—who encounter the place, but because they aren’t native to the place, of the “old stock” now gone, they have no names; they are known by their roles, The Citizen, The Diplomat, etc. We focus on objects, animals, and people in equal measure. Because of the abandonment, even apocalypse, these are sparse sections, many of which started out as simply four lines. In some ways, the poems themselves allowed me to wipe the slate clean for my own process, in much the same way that the land is wiped clean.

A lot of your poems evoke strong imagery for me. What’s your process when it comes to writing poetry?

Sometimes I write in my head when walking or driving. Sometimes I write in my notebook. Sometimes I write with my students when I give them an exercise. Sometimes I have to go to the word processor. Sometimes I have to write and rewrite notes on a poem for months, even years, before I can ever write it. Sometimes an idea comes to me and I sit down and I write a nearly complete poem. Sometimes I’ll think I’m done with a poem (or a book, for that matter) and then I’ll send it to someone and, before they can respond, I know what I need to change. Sometimes I need an outside reader to know if it’s a poem, and sometimes I just know.

I will say that I keep a writing notebook, a leather-bound Cavallini & Co. with watermarked paper; it’s just gorgeous, and there’s something about it’s materiality that makes me think of permanence (this nice, leather-bound volume) and impermanence (it’s just markings with a pen on a page). I keep disparate notes on anything and everything. I have notes about poems. Quotes from what I’m reading (“My vagabondage / is unlonelied by poems” — Fanny Howe). Doodles. Strange things I overheard (“I ate one pound of Swedish fish!”). Odd business names (“A Leg Up Dog Grooming”). Roadsigns and roadside sights (Abandoned church with sign “New Hope Church”). Reactions to art in museums. A record of facts about oddities or alternative history. Notes about what I did that day (although these I find less compelling). I also listen to books as much as I read them, as this reminds of our oral traditions and reconnects me with sound. I try to read widely and uniquely. I indulge my obsessions.

Right now, while I’m teaching, I try to keep Fridays reserved for writing. I’m currently at work on a third manuscript, which is at 70 pgs., but I have more to do. This book is called Hollow Point, after the type of bullet, and it explores what I’m calling “the choreography of violence” many people, especially women, have to step through in order to live. I’ve also been working on lyric essays, but I keep going back and forth between including them in this manuscript and reserving them for their own book. I like to work on projects, as that helps me get started every time I sit down and look at the page, but I don’t necessarily think I engage on “project books.” I like looking at the macro and micro levels of writing, and I think the arc and tension of a poem should be duplicated in the arc and tension of a book.

Do you have any advice to offer aspiring poets?

Be generous to others—and yourself. Don’t expect everything all at once and, better yet, never expect anything. But don’t ever apologize for the quality poems or your short stories or your essays; know what they are and be proud of them. But never be prideful! Never “find your voice.” Always search for it.


About the author of this post: Brittany Nawara is a senior who studies graphic design at North Central College. She loves art and music and likes to bake in her spare time.

Interview with Rebecca Dunham

imageRebecca Dunham grew up on the coast of southern Maine and earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia, an M.A. from Hollins University, an M.F.A. in Poetry from George Mason University, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Missouri. She has published three books of poetry: Glass Armonica (Milkweed Editions, 2013,) The Miniature Room (Truman State University Press, 2006), and The Flight Cage (Tupelo Press, 2010). Her fourth collection of poems, Cold Pastoral, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, AGNI, The Journal, FIELD, The Antioch Review, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Third Coast, Crazyhorse, and Colorado Review.


How did you get started writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer?

When I was in junior high, I tried to write my own Nancy Drew mystery, mainly because I loved the female detective character and wanted to create my own mystery for her. That only lasted a few pages, at which point I realized that writing was a lot harder than I’d thought it would be! I haven’t always wanted to be a writer, but I have always been a voracious reader, and that love of reading led over time to my interest in writing.

How long did you have to submit before you were first published? If you could do it all again, would you do anything differently?

My first poem was published in Sycamore Review, not long after I graduated from college. I didn’t try to publish my writing while I was an undergraduate, which I think was a good thing, since it kept me focused on learning to write and not worrying about polishing something up enough so that it could be published.

Do you have any advice for young authors trying to get published?

For those writing poetry, I think it is important not to rush. Take your time. Hone your craft. It isn’t a race and whether or not a poem is ultimately published is not the final statement on its worth as a piece of writing. When you are ready to send your work out there, remember that publishing is the business side of writing and try to partition the business practice from your creative one. You need to submit regularly and widely, but you need to find ways to not let rejection in the publishing world leak into your creative life. Easier said than done, I know.

Do you have any writing rituals? Could you explain your writing process?

I don’t have any writing rituals, other than the requirement that coffee be readily available. I do try to start writing at roughly the same time each day—in the morning—and work for about three hours. This is the time of day that I feel most alert and mentally nimble, and at this point when I sit down with a cup of coffee at 8 or 9 a.m., my brain clicks right into writing mode.

In terms of process, I write a lot of terrible first drafts, but I write them pretty quickly. Most of my time is spent revising. Knowing it’s okay if the drafts are bad helps counter any sort of writer’s block.

Who are your literary heroes? What do you love about their writing?

I am drawn to women writers, in particular, in part because of the subjects that their work tackles. I love Margaret Atwood, for her range and gorgeous prose, Emily Dickinson, for her radical attention to language, and Muriel Rukeyser, for her commitment to writing that engages with the world around us. Compelling imagery, music, and a sophisticated use of form and diction always attract my attention, and some contemporary writers I turn to for inspiration in these areas are Eric Pankey, Sean Hill, Joanie Mackowski, and Lisa Russ Spaar.

Have you read anything recently that got you excited?

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine, lives up to all the hype and everyone should read it. Likewise, Anne Carson’s Nox and Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion are amazing. I’m looking forward to reading Beth Bachmann’s new book, since Temper is an amazing collection that yields more and more on each reading.

Who or what influences your writing the most?

Where to begin? My teaching and my students have a huge impact on my writing. The ideas and texts we cover generally find their way into the poems I am writing at the time, and I am both inspired by the risks and energy that student writers bring to their work. My experiences as a woman often provide the catalyst for new work, driving me to connect my life to that of others, contemporary, imagined, or historical.

We heard your fourth book of poetry is in the works—congratulations! It stands apart from your previous work because of its ecological theme; what event(s) influenced you to write about that particular topic? Was Cold Pastoral a sole venture into green writing, or do you see this leading you into a new genre?

Yes, my fourth book, Cold Pastoral, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in early 2017. And it is, in many ways, a departure from my earlier writing. After writing Glass Armonica, a book with a very interior focus, I needed to turn my attention outward. Despite the fact that much of the poetry being written today is for an audience of literary readers, I believe deeply in the social impact that poetry can—and should—have on society as a whole. It’s this that draws me to the work of writers like Claudia Rankine, Muriel Rukeyser, Carolyn Forche, and Anna Akhmatova, to name a few.

When the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred, I found myself incredibly disturbed and researched the incident and its impact both in person and via secondary research. I wrote many of the poems for Cold Pastoral around the time of the 2011 Wisconsin protests (my home state), Occupy Wall Street, and the series of protests during what’s become known as the Arab Spring. These protest movements left their mark on the writing I felt was necessary during this time period.

While I am not sure if I will return to ecological writing, my interest in the documentary poem continues. I continue to explore this form in my current book-in-progress.

A lot of your work in the past has focused on feminism and women’s issues. How and when did you become so passionate about this subject?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t passionate about the issue. My commitment to reflecting on the challenges women face, both historically and today, is an integral part of how I experience the world.

You’ve covered a lot of ground in the time that you’ve been writing. How do you think that your writing has evolved over time?

In each book, I push myself to tackle new challenges, not just content-wise but in terms of developing my craft. This always leaves me with a difficult gap of time between books, a period in which I am writing—I am always writing something—a lot of poems that never find their way into a book. Eventually, I tend to find my way out of that morass, but it is never a comfortable process.


About the author of this post: Crystal Ice is a sophomore at North Central College where she studies English and Writing, and is currently considering a program in Writing, Editing, & Publishing. A budding author, she enjoys writing in her spare time, and maintains two blogs while working on one of her many novels and poems.

Interview with Chloe Benjamin

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Chloe Benjamin is the author of The Anatomy of Dreams (Atria/Simon & Schuster), which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was long listed for the 2014 Flaherty Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her fiction, poetry and reviews are published or forthcoming in The Millions, Ninth Letter, PANK, and elsewhere. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

How did you get started writing?

I was one of those annoying kids who was writing from a very young age—I remember sitting down at a clunky, old computer handed down from my mom’s partner, Molly, and writing stories at the age of eight or nine. I was also a voracious reader, which was critical to my development as a writer—as so many writers rightly say, it’s impossible to be a writer without first and always being a reader. I remember going to the library with my mom and younger brother and filling cloth tote bags full of books, then trying to decide which one to start on the car ride home—I was so excited to read them all that it was almost stressful. I continued to write through high school, starting longer projects and working with the fabulous 826 Valencia in my hometown of San Francisco. I knew heading into college that English and creative writing were what I wanted to focus on.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I did, but as a kid, I was also very involved in other forms of the arts—I did acting and singing, and later, I trained seriously as a ballet dancer. There were times when I thought I might want to go into one of these fields, but writing was a constant throughout all of those interests. I feel lucky to have had parents who encouraged me and never told me I was crazy for wanting to be an artist of some kind. They knew it wouldn’t be easy for me to have a career as a writer, but they always supported me in it.

How long did you have to submit before you were published in a journal?

Many years! I didn’t have any short fiction publications when my novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, was sold to Simon & Schuster, and at that point, I had been submitting short stories to journals for over five years. And before I wrote Anatomy, I wrote another novel that was rejected by almost twenty publishers. So much of success in writing is withstanding rejection. It’s simply impossible to have a career in this field without enduring a ton of it. (Which is not to say it’s easy—I’m still working on thickening my skin!)

Do you have an agent? If so, how and when did you get one? Do you think agents are necessar?

When I was about halfway through my MFA in fiction at the UW-Madison, I had finished my first novel (the one that was rejected!) and submitted to agents. A young agent named Margaret Riley King at WME (William Morris Endeavor) took me on and stuck with me when that first book didn’t sell; two years later, she sold The Anatomy of Dreams, and we’re now working on my next book.

I do think that agents are necessary if you want to publish traditionally (which means that your book is sold to a publishing house, either a small independent or one of the “big 5” out of New York City). On the other hand, if you want to publish non-traditionally—which generally refers to self-publishing—you don’t need an agent. That route is a great fit for some people, but I still feel that traditional publishing is the right fit for me, and that those interested in self-publishing should think deeply about the cost vs. the benefits of that path. When you self-publish, you’re a one-(wo)man show: you have to edit and market the book, design the cover, pay for printing costs and ISBN numbers, do your own publicity, etc. You can pay others to do some of these things, but that means that your costs become even higher. Then, without the publicity and marketing power of a traditional publisher, it’s very hard for your book to garner notice amidst the thousands of other books that may be published that month. It’s a bit like YouTube: a few people become sensations, but it’s very difficult to break out.

I also think that a truly successful book is always a collaboration. Without an agent and then an editor, your work will lack the input and wisdom of others in the field. The suggestions of my agent and editor have helped me to grow as a writer and have deeply enhanced my work

What advice would do you have for young authors trying to get published?

Take it slow and put in the time to work on your craft. Publishing should only come when you’ve taken a piece as far as you can take it yourself—and, ideally, incorporated the suggestions of other smart readers, whether a classmate, a teacher, or an agent. Educate yourself by reading as much as you can. Try to become involved in a local or national literary community, whether through your school, community center, literary nonprofit, attending readings or conferences, etc. Writing is solitary, which makes it even more important to building connections and support the work of others.

Do you have any writing rituals? If you do, what is your process?

I write best in the morning. On an ideal day, I get going around 9AM and wrap up around 1PM; any later than that and my brain usually starts to wilt! Like many writers, I have a day job—I work from Monday through Thursday at an incredible non-profit called Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, which serves victims of domestic violence—so my writing days are Friday through Sunday. That said, if I’m really pushing on a project, I’ll get up before work to write, too. I don’t try to get to a certain word count per day; I just try to make steady progress each week, whether that means I’ve written a section or completed a chunk of research.

Who are your literary heroes?

Vladimir Nabokov, for his language; Alice Munro, for her incisive, subtle psychological portraits and unexpectedly dramatic story arcs; Lorrie Moore, for her lightning wit and brilliance in the short story form; Tana French’s gorgeously written mysteries; and so many others—I also love Kazuo Ishiguro, ZZ Packer, Miranda July, Jeffrey Eugenides, Lauren Groff… I could go on!

Who are you currently reading that you find exciting?

I’ve recently read a lot of novels published in the past year or so. I especially loved Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven; Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me; Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings; and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.

How do you think your writing has evolved over time?

My favorite books are those that have both beautiful writing and an engaging plot. (Donna Tartt does this really well, I think.) But for a long time, I prioritized my prose, and so my stories were the kind in which not much happened. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, but I do think there is a preference for subtlety in literary fiction that made me afraid my work would be seen as less literary if it was action-oriented. I’ve also been nervous to engage too straightforwardly with politics and social issues—afraid that I’ll do it clunkily or capture an issue inaccurately. But in the book I’m currently writing, I’m really pushing myself to engage with history, politics, religion, and race. It’s outside of my comfort zone, but I know it’s making me a better writer, and hopefully a better citizen.

Who or what influences your writing?

I’m fascinated by human behavior and relationships: why people do the things they do; how one event can be perceived entirely differently by different people; how we’re shaped by experience, and to what extent we have the capacity to change. My parents are divorced, and I grew up in a big, modern family, with four parents and two siblings. Some of my parents are gay, and some are straight; the biological father of one of my brothers is a sperm donor. So I had a non-normative set-up, especially at that time, and it made me feel both at home in and aware of difference, diversity, atypical lifestyles.

I’ve also noticed that most of my work circles around religion and science, both of which interest me as ways that we cope with the unknown. I tend to return to the tension between trust and knowledge—for instance, and the tension between science’s approach to the unknown (which is to know it) and religion’s approach to the unknown, which is more centered in faith.

Where did you get the idea to write about dreams? Was it a challenge?

I’ve always been interested in dreams—it’s wild to me that the brain essentially tells stories while we sleep. They’re also fascinating to think about in the context of fiction: dreams are, in essence, fictional stories, but can they also be “true”? Real? I began to circle around a way in which I could combine this with other elements that excited me: a boarding school setting, a charismatic leader, deceptive personal relationships, and experimental scientific research.

It was a challenge to write about dreams, particularly in the context of the research these particular characters are doing (using lucid dreaming to treat sleep disorders). I created that technique using existing research, which gave me a certain amount of freedom, but it also meant that I had to work hard to ensure that the research made sense scientifically—as well as making sense to a reader. The research went through many different permutations. In early drafts of the book, it verged much more on science fiction, but by the final draft, we had made it more realistic. I decided that the book already asks readers to take some pretty significant leaps of faith, and it wasn’t necessary to give them another one.

Sylvie is interesting because she is the exact opposite of what the book seems to portray. What inspired you to create her as the main character?

I wanted to write a character who seems rational and self-aware, but who is revealed to be quite different than the way she sees herself—or the way she wants to see herself. In this vein, dreams offered a lens through which to explore character: What do dreams reveal about us, and what do they obscure? Keller’s research in lucid dreaming is looking in part at human potential, and I was curious about the extent to which we all have various selves, various characters inside us.


About the author of this post: Lauren Banas is a sophomore at North Central College and is currently studying English Writing. Stemmed from a life-long love of reading, she is a constant writer of fiction, specifically that of the fantastical variety. She loves experimenting with new literature though and hopes to pursue a career in publishing.

Interview with Brandon Courtney

Brandon Courtney was born and raised in Iowa. He is a veteran of the United States Navy, and a graduate of the MFA program at Hollins University. His poetry is forthcoming or appears in Best New Poets, The Boston Review, American Literary Review, The Progressive, and Verse Daily. His first book, The Grief Muscles (2014), was published by Sheep Meadow Press. His second collection, Rooms for Rent in the Burning City (2015), was published by Spark Wheel Press. YesYes Books will publish a chapbook of poems, as well as his third full-length collection in 2016-17, respectively.

Brandon Courtney picture


 

When did you first discover you liked writing?

I first discovered that I enjoyed writing fairly late in my life. I entertained a number of potential career paths, including fire science, interior design, architecture, and medicine, before devoting my time and efforts to writing. I grew up in a small, rural town in Iowa, so the idea of writing—especially as a career, or as anything other than a hobby—was completely foreign. I was encouraged to learn a trade skill, and before entering college, I planned on apprenticing as an HVAC technician. After the Navy, I worked at SimplexGrinnell as a fire suppression technician, installing and inspecting kitchen hood systems. Even now, the idea of calling myself a writer seems strange. As an undergraduate, I took my first Creative Writing class; I thought, wrongly, that the class would be an easy “A,” and that I could pad my GPA. I can’t remember now what I received in the class, but it was not an “A.” After that course, I began writing obsessively. I began as a dramatist, actually, and I took several playwriting classes before my first poetry class.

Is your writing a hobby, a part-time job, or do you focus solely on writing and getting published? If it’s not a full-time ordeal, what else do you do?

Right now, I consider writing to be a full-time job, although I work two jobs, as well. Currently, I am a Developmental English Tutor at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, New Jersey. Also, I teach a poetry workshop for Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop Online. Lately, I’m devoting my time to completing two manuscripts, which will be published by YesYes Books in 2016 and 2017, respectively. When I’m not working, or editing the two forthcoming poetry manuscripts, I’m devoted to writing a memoir. After some excellent encouragement and advice from a faculty member at Sewanee, I decided to seriously pursue memoir. In fact, I’m applying to Creative Non-Fiction programs in New York City this fall, and I hope to join a cohort of students and faculty who can assist me in shaping the memoir.

When and where did you first get published?

Strangely, my first publication was in Best New Poets ’09. I was encouraged to submit to the open competition by Jennifer Perrine, a poet who teaches at Drake University, and Kim Addonizio, the guest editor, selected my poem, “Memorandum for the Record.”

How long before then had you tried to get published?

The poem published in Best New Poets was in the first batch of poems I submitted, three in total. I was more concerned with trying to understand the craft. Poetry was completely foreign to me; besides a week in high school, where we probably read Poe and Shakespeare, I had never been exposed to poetry. It wasn’t something that was on my radar. Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until I was probably 26 or 27 that I understood that people were still writing poetry. As an undergraduate, I was more concerned with comprehending what a poem was, and less concerned about submitting. Once I felt more comfortable, I started submitting frequently.

Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published?

My suggestion for anyone attempting to publish his or her work is to read the journal in its entirety. When I submit work, I focus on two things: what is the overarching aesthetic, and what are they not publishing? The first one is relatively self-explanatory. The second, I’ve found, is something many writers neglect. I think, for most writers, the instinct is to send poems that mirror a journal’s aesthetic, but I’ve always tried to send the opposite. Ask yourself, what is this journal not publishing?

Do you have any favorite poets/authors? Why do you like them? What elements of their style make you enjoy their writing?

My all-time favorite writer is Samuel Beckett, who takes minimalism and erasure to the next level. As far as poets, there’s not enough space here, but I’ll list a few poets who I believe are writing some of the most important work right now. Malachi Black, whose collection, Storm Towards Morning, is a masterpiece, both formally and emotionally. I believe Solmaz Sharif is writing poetry that all poets should not only read, but study; the same should be said about Eduardo Corral, Roger Reeves, Phillip B. Williams, Ocean Vuong, and Joshua Robbins. Also, both of TJ Jarrett’s collections are untouchable.

When you are writing, do you have any special rituals or processes?

I have some very strange rituals. Unlike most poets I’ve encountered, who need silence when they write, I have to listen to loud music. Mostly, I listen to Black Metal or Shoegaze. I’ve been collecting records for some time now, and I like having to leave the page to flip a record; it allows me time, I think, to step away from the writing and really think about what it is I want to say, if only briefly. I write a lot about drowning and, in a way, I think listening to aggressively loud music is a kind of drowning. I’m interested in how a particular record’s atmosphere can change the tenor of a poem.

I noticed the recurring image of bottled bourbon in a few of your poems. Is there any special significance to this image, or is it simply a drink you enjoy?

I’ve been sober since December 26th 2007, after struggling with alcohol both in the Navy and after. For a long time, alcohol played a major factor in my life. I also have an extensive family history of alcoholism, so it’s something that continues to appear in my writing. Bourbon was always my drink of choice, as well as my father and grandfathers. There were other drinks, too, but some of my worst, and best, nights were fueled by bourbon.


About the author of this post: Nicholas Drazenovic is currently a senior at North Central College and is a co-editor of 30 North. He is studying English with a concentration in Writing, as well as Computer Science. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a career in either technical writing or software development.