Monthly Archives: July 2013

To Be a Poet

Guest Post by Christopher Soto

Christopher Soto Photo

“Dad, I want to be a poet.”

He didn’t understand what I was trying to tell him and, honestly, I didn’t understand either.

We were sitting together at lunch in downtown Long Beach when I told him that I would not be taking the job at his company after my graduation from college. Instead, I would be dropping my double major, graduating early, and moving to San Francisco to write.

“I want to be a poet.”

In San Francisco I shared my room with a queer latino photographer and a cute french boy. We lived in the basement of a three story house, in the hood, with fifteen other people. I spent my nights drinking beer and reading about anarchy. I spent my days recovering from hangovers and writing about the juvenile detention center where I once volunteered.

I finished writing my first novel in that house and, somehow, I got a phone call from Deborah Landau at NYU while living there too. On the phone, I was offered admission to the MFA program (emphasis in poetry) at NYU. My decision was made quickly.

“I want to be a poet.”

After living in San Francisco for a number of months, I decided that I needed more writing material, more life experience. I wanted to backpack the country! And so I left all my belongings, pulled all my savings, and took to the road– spending time around Rhode Island, New York, Illinois, and eventually Tennessee (where I learned how to garden).

I spent a month in the woods of Tennessee, sleeping alone in a tent, using my jacket as a pillow. I woke to new mosquito bites and the sight of hippies shitting in the trees. My meals were plucked with my hands, my showers taken from the stream, and I never felt so free.

“I don’t want to be a poet.”

Sitting at a bone-fire below the naked sky, I realized that I didn’t want to be a poet anymore. I didn’t want anything. We were reading excerpts from our journals as if there were auditoriums of people surrounding us. And we knew that the degrees, teaching jobs, and publications would never make us more of poets. We already were poets, words fluming with the smoke.

Earlier this year I gave up a job and a double major. Then I gave up a new city, my belongings, and my savings– to travel, to write, to learn contentedness. I don’t want anymore. I am not an aspiring or emerging poet. I am a poet.

In the Fall of 2013 I will begin my MFA at NYU and I will continue writing in this fashion- as if nothing exists except for the poet and the poem, as if my poems understand all that I am willing to give in order for them to exist, as if they would never ask me to give everything. And we will be free together.

About the Author 

Christopher Soto is a queer latino poet from Southern California who published his first chapbook, How To Eat Glass, with Still Life Press in 2012. He is currently an MFA candidate at New York University.
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Misplaced Person – Eric Lundgren

Eric Lundgren Photo

Eric Lundgren is the ideal writer to interview about place–first off, his soon-to-be-released, amazing first novel The Facades is all about it, and second of all, because I see him everywhere, all over town. He pops up the way memory does. Like, hey, where did that come from? I’ll be downtown looking at the quarters at the bottom of a fountain and wondering why people don’t just throw pennies (you get one wish, no matter what the value of the coin happens to be, right?) and I’ll look up and there’s Eric Lundgren, across the park. Or I’ll be driving along Kingshighway, stuck behind some city utility truck that reeks of tar, and I’ll see Eric Lundgren walking along the road. I don’t even think there’s a sidewalk there! But in a flash it’s too late for me to shout out, offer him a ride. And, you know, it’s really hard to turn around right there. Anyway, the point is as far as I know Eric Lundgren is everywhere. I have a feeling the rest of you are going to feel that way soon. Keep your eyes open.

David Schuman

Eric Lundgren – Essay in Response to Interview Questions

I was born in Cleveland in 1977. I lived there for only six months and have never been back, except once passing through it on an Amtrak train. I can’t decide if I want to visit or not. Sometimes I prefer my own delusions about places. According to my parents, I also joined them in the late seventies for a backpacking trip across the Alps. In the pictures I appear as a spectral presence and barely formed being. That trip still represents my longest stay in Europe, although I have returned to spend time in the U.K., Germany, and France. My knowledge of Europe comes mostly from its fiction, although my parents are very well-traveled and my father taught high school German, so we hosted guys named Horst, Gerhard, and Klaus at the house when we were kids. I think a dream of Europe hangs over my otherwise very American work.

Naming the Midwestern city in my first novel after Trude, from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, felt like a provocative gesture when I started the book, eight years ago. The idea of a continuous city where everything is familiar and only the name of the airport changes, I took this to be a widespread coastal prejudice about the Midwest. The challenge would be to render my Midwestern Trude as a locale of real intrigue, sadness, and fascination. In trying to achieve this, I ended up conflating many of my own Midwestern experiences, many of them taking place in Minneapolis/St. Paul, where I grew up, many others drawn from St. Louis, where I’ve been living while writing the book. So maybe I ended up undercutting my own point and saying that all Midwestern experiences are on the same continuum—I’m not sure.

One of my ambitions is to write about the Midwest not in a gently humorous mode, a la Garrison Keillor, or as a theatre for quietly snuffed realist dreams, but in a sort of estranged, almost grotesque mode, the way Flannery O’Connor wrote about the South, or the way Thomas Bernhard wrote about Austria. This could be a deeply bad idea. I find the region on the whole quite weird, including the widely held belief of its inhabitants that it’s a second-class place and not really worth discussing in detail.

So yeah, the play of light and shadow on wind-flattened cornfields, emptied Main Streets, agricultural conglomerates, methamphetamines, taciturn people in sweatshirts, prairie dogs, the crickets at night, abandoned movie palaces, Super Walmarts, the schizophrenia of the weather – these are all elements of the region that feed my imagination.

A correspondent for Al Jazeera wrote a column arguing that all American cities would come to resemble St. Louis in the 21st century. That may be—in any case, you do see staggering inequities of wealth displayed here. Total wealth and total poverty coexisting within a few city blocks of each other. We have all the urban problems. You’re acutely aware of living in the shell of an older, greater city. But sometimes I see a building and I’m not sure if it’s in the process of demolition or half-built – going down or up. That sense of ambiguity draws a lot of creative people here. There is a sense that you can do something.

The Arch, unlike many other visual clichés I’ve encountered, gathers depth and magnificence the longer you live beside it, seeing it from different angles and in different light. I remember returning to the city in a rainstorm once and watching it almost hover out of a cloud. In 1965, William S. Burroughs wrote that it looked like the only landmark to survive an apocalyptic event, and I was pleased to see that this was the premise of a recent SciFi network series. Despite what an icon it has become, there is a quiet reverence for the Arch here. Likewise, my time in this city has been rich, surprising, multifaceted.

About the Author

Eric Lundgren was born in Cleveland, grew up in Minneapolis, studied in Portland and St. Louis, and would like to be in Berlin this summer. His first novel, The Facades, is published by The Overlook Press in September.

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Debut Author Interview – Martha Amore

Martha Amore

When I think back to my undergraduate days at the University of Michigan, I remember Martha Amore as bright, passionate, and uncompromising. She had convictions and stood up for them. So it intrigued me to discover that she had recently published her first novella—how would the fierce, aware energy with which she had once impressed me convey itself in her role as a writer, both on the page and in conversation? I contacted Martha to find out.

John F. Buckley

JFB: Martha, your novella appears with two others in Weathered Edge, which recently came out on Vered Publishing and Design House. How did you decide on that title?

MA: We wanted to use a word from each of our novella titles, but then we hit upon Weathered Edge, just a word from mine and Farmen’s title.  We all decided that worked best. Weathered Edge captured the heart of each of our stories, and sounded awfully Alaskan as well.

JFB: Without spoiling any surprises, what can you tell us about your third of the book?

MA:  My story is about a mountaineer who has a baby and gives up climbing. Her husband does not, and much drama ensues.

JFB: How closely do its themes, concerns, and obsessions coincide with the works of your co-contributors, Kris Farmen and Buffy McKay?

MA: Great question!  The really strange thing is that this book was not a creative collaboration, but simply a collection. Each of us had already written a draft of our novellas when VP&D House approached us on the collection. I knew both of the other authors, but they did not know each other.  So here is the strange thing: the themes, concerns and obsessions coincide beautifully! Each story is about survival, each deals with obsessions of various types, and also focuses on what it means to be/become Alaskan. I’d like to point out that Buffy McKay, who is Alaska Native, also explores what it is to be Alaska Native, and her survival story expands from the personal to cultural survival.

JFB: Here’s a chicken-egg question. How did the book come about? Did you three each have a novella written ahead of time and eventually decide to publish them together, or did you begin with the idea of a joint project and then write the novellas? Coming from a whole ‘nother direction, if your book (or novella) were a superhero, what would be her origin story?

MA: We each had a draft of our novellas—in my case, it was a series of linked stories that had already been published in Room Magazine—and our publisher approached Kris and I for this collection.  We needed a third novella, and I knew Buffy McKay and her wonderful writing, so I suggested her as a third. Good thing, too, because her novella is not only beautifully written, but a powerful and unique story. If our book were a superhero, her origin story would be: a Chinook salmon (that’s Buffy) mated with ocean superhero Salty Dawg (that’s Kris) during a terrible winter storm (that’s me) and Weathered Edge was born!!!

JFB: Vered is located in Anchorage, Alaska, where you live. How important was it to use a local publisher rather than sending your manuscript all over the map?

MA: VP&D House is not only local as in Alaska or even Anchorage, but local as in located in Spenard, which is a very funky district of Anchorage.  I love that my first book comes from Spenard! This is hugely important to me! I see the future of great publishing going a similar route as great music and great theater and great food: local!

JFB: How did you end up in Alaska anyway? The last time I saw you, over twenty years ago, we were at a party (or several) in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

MA: Yes, I think it was several! I lived in San Francisco for many years with our Michigan ex-pats, then decided to take the leap and move to the country of my dreams: Alaska. I’d only been here once before, but I was dating a man who lived in Reno and had spent time on the Kenai Peninsula. We both were in love with Alaska, so off we went, no jobs, no friends, no home. Now we have jobs, friends, a home, plus a bonus of three little girls!

JFB: How do you think you’ve evolved as a creator since your undergraduate days? Your energies lately seem to flow in multiple directions—writing, keeping bees, teaching English, raising kids, being a roller-derby bad-ass, raising kids to be miniature roller-derby bad-asses. The list may be endless, for all I know. Are you becoming more dynamic as time goes on?

MA: Hahaha!  Just for the record, I am the least bad-ass roller girl rookie you ever met! In fact, I’m retiring from the big girl league and just working as a coach for the junior league (they are much easier to knock down!) But yes, I find that I am becoming much more dynamic as I age. Since turning forty, my motto is “If not now, then when?” Believe me, that motto has gotten me into huge trouble!

JFB: Who are some of your inspirations in art, in life, or both?

MA: I am the type of person who is constantly awed by others. Writers, artists, musicians, roller girls, and just plain nice folk.  I find that when someone puts me in a state of awe, I am touched personally and creatively. A sample of this year’s list:

  • Musicians Sinead O’Connor and Meg Mackey (local)
  • Writers Annie Proulx, James Baldwin, Jeanette Winterson, Louise Erdrich, Seth Kantner, Pam Houston, and both my co-authors, Buffy McKay and Kris Farmen
  • Alaskan artists Indra Arriaga and Angela Ramirez
  • A colleague at UAA, Fawn Caparas
  • Each of my daughters for various reasons
  • Rollergirls: Wickedspedia, Pat Riot, Ness U. Up, and Dirt Bag

JFB: What’s your writing process like?Are you a scrupulous note-taker, a flyer by the seat of your pants, a maelstrom of furious inspiration, a methodical assembler of language? When and where do you write?

MA:  No, I do not take notes or keep a journal, though I should. I write when I get the time, which is usually during the school year on mornings that I do not have to teach. I am a binge writer. When I am obsessed with a story, I work really hard to get it out. When I am not, I live my life and feel guilty that I am not writing. I write at home in my loft or at my favorite local café, Kaladi Bros., which is next door to my favorite used bookstore, Title Wave. My goal this year is to make myself write on a more disciplined schedule and get a novel out there!

JFB: I remember recently reading something about the Modernists’ having instigated the idea that a writer must revise, revise, revise. What do you think? How much do you yourself revise a given work?

MA: My revision is everything!!! I will write a lot of slop that approaches (here and there) something like the truth, then the real work begins.  I am with Hemingway on this one: a terrible writer, but a great reviser!

JFB: Are you exclusively a fiction writer, or do you explore other genres as well?

MA: I take poetry workshops when I get the chance. I am a terrible poet, but I find that studying poetry improves my fiction. I love to read non-fiction, and have written some here and there, but my true calling is fiction.

JFB: Getting back to Alaska a bit, how did your time in the University of Alaska Anchorage MFA program influence your writing and your sense of yourself as a writer?

MA: I can honestly say that I learned to write in the MFA program at University of Alaska Anchorage. The workshop-style program worked wonders for me, and I had great professors as well as talented schoolmates. As a fiction writer, and maybe as a woman writer in particular, it can sometimes be hard to take myself seriously.  One of the wonderful gifts the MFA program gave me was the clear message that my writing is serious and important.

JFB: Alaska, of course, is the largest state but far removed from the Lower 48. How much does its geographical expansiveness and isolation shape the writing that arises from there? Is there an “Alaskan style?” If so, what are its core elements?

MA: Great question!  I love this question!  I believe there is a collective creative consciousness that is very affected by the landscape, the people and the history of a place. Alaska most definitely shapes me as well as other writers up here. We are isolated and expansive, and we cling to one another to keep warm! The only reason that I am still writing is because of the huge amount of support and love that I get from Alaskans.  Anchorage is exploding right now with creative energy in music, art and literature. Everywhere I go, I bump into people who are getting high on this energy and then adding to it. Lots of conversations in cafes, playgrounds, bars and grocery stores.

JFB: Do you have any other projects planned for the future? What can you tell us about them?

MA:  Yes, my next book is a novel about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. My central character is a commercial fisherwoman who is a Kurtz-type persona, descending into madness but in her case, quite righteous.

JFB: Thank you so much, Martha, for your time and consideration. I look forward to reading Weathered Edge, as I hope many others do, and to hearing more about your growth as a verbal artist in future years.

About the Author:

Martha Amore is a fiction writer living in Anchorage, Alaska, with her husband, three young daughters, dog, cat, chickens and bees. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts degree at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she now works as a writing instructor. She is also currently a visiting instructor at Alaska Pacific University. In her spare time, she coaches junior roller derby. Her first novella has just been published in Weathered Edge, a collection of three Alaskan novellas edited and published by Vered Publishing & Design House (VP&D House).

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Poetry Spotlight – Shivani Mehta

SM_b&w2

I was introduced to Shivani Mehta during the 2012 AWP Conference in Chicago, and quickly came to discover that she is a brilliant prose poem writer. I quite enjoyed her debut collection Useful Information for the Soon-to-be Beheaded from Press 53, and have reread the title poem more than once to understand what it is doing. It combines the best surreal elements from her prose poems in the form of an instruction along with two footnotes. Even with all of these elements, Shivani manages to imbue the poem with a very human quality that keeps it from being much more than just clever. Hope you enjoy!

Martin Ott

Useful Information for the Soon-to-be-Beheaded

The following is an excerpt from a pamphlet designed by the Commission on Public Severance, handed out to condemned individuals as they waited in line for their turn at the guillotine.  Reproduced here with permission:

1.  Close your eyes tightly so as not to get dizzy when your severed head falls off the executioner’s block and rolls across the wood platform, picking up splinters and human debris.

2.  When you cease to feel movement, it is safe to open your eyes.  Remain calm as you watch your body dragged off and stacked on a pile of headless bodies. Your head will be tossed or kicked into the basket of severed heads.[1]

3.  This is likely to be the last time you will see your body. Expect a period of adjustment to the separation. You may experience a lingering sensation of movement in limbs you no longer have. This will pass.

4.  This is where your head will remain for whatever period of sentience it has left.[2]  Your vocal chords will not work. You might begin to feel a sense of freedom, of lightness, buoyancy, like a balloon that is suddenly untethered.

5. Think back to the day you were born, remember what it felt like the first time light fell across your closed eyelids, the weight of air on your forehead. Remember the last time you were born human, the sensation of trailing your fingers in a lake, cupping water in your hands. Or, think of the time you were a bird, remember stretching your wings, pushing against the wind, taking flight. Remember that it always ends this way.


[1] If the basket contains other heads, they will ease your transition. If your’s is the first head in an empty basket, try not to think about the abrupt separation from your body.  Focus instead on the details of your new surroundings: the closely woven fibers of the basket in which your head lies, the checkered spaces between the weave where sunlight passes through, the intermingled scent of sweat, tears, blood that permeates the air.

[2] On average, severed heads retain approximately fourteen seconds of sentience. However, exceptions have been known to occur.  It has been reported that some severed heads remain sentient for several hours, and in a few cases, for more than a day.

About the Author

Shivani Mehta’s first book, Useful Information for the Soon-to-be Beheaded, a collection of prose poems, is out from Press 53.  Her work has appeared in numerous journals.  Shivani was born in Mumbai and raised in Singapore. A recovering lawyer and accomplished mother of toddler twins, she lives in Los Angeles with her family.  In exchange for a promise that they will never have to eat brussel sprouts, the children allow her to write prose poems whenever she likes.

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