Volume 28 of the Sierra Nevada Review has arrived! Thank you to our contributors, readers, and editors for all of your hard work and dedication to the craft of writing.
Volume 28 of the Sierra Nevada Review has arrived! Thank you to our contributors, readers, and editors for all of your hard work and dedication to the craft of writing.
Reading his publication history—Brevity, The Southeast Review, The New York Times—you’d never know SNR contributor Matthew Komatsu started writing in earnest in 2013. Sierra Nevada Review’s Michael Fischer sat down with Komatsu to talk about his work in SNR’s most recent issue, his feelings about being called a war writer, and the pitfalls of “MFA voice.”
Michael Fischer: There are things in “Penuel” that go unexplained; you seem to be trusting the reader to catch on. How do you make those decisions on when to spell something out for the reader and when to take a chance on leaving them in the dark?
Matthew Komatsu: I think I always tend towards trusting a sophisticated reader. It’s an interesting balance to walk, because being in the military and writing quite a bit about military stuff, it’s really easy for jargon to creep into the language. In fact, I was just going through this with another piece lately, where I’ve been challenged on the use of jargon within the piece. I think there’s a time and a place for everything, so I think the use of military jargon can actually serve a point. For example, Phil Klay has a story in Redeployment which is essentially nothing but a collection of military jargon. The entire story is nothing but jargon. He does that purposely, so I think it serves a purpose.
That’s a long way of saying that you can’t explain everything. You have to retain a certain level of sophistication. And then, second, I think it also helps to trust your own instinct for some of these things. I’ll be honest: there’s also a part of me that—because of my personality—it’ll come off a little rough around the edges, but I don’t care if a reader doesn’t understand every single aspect of a particular story.
So for me, with “Penuel,” I thought it was from the get-go going to be very difficult for a lot of readers. I mean, I think anybody who went to Sunday school will probably recognize that story, but maybe not. I did my best to place it with the intro and to bring the reader into the experience, but beyond that it’s really a story about struggle. Even if I don’t explain everything, I want there to be a reason for why I do or why I don’t, and hopefully it all builds up towards the end, towards what I’m hoping the piece achieves.
MF: And what is that, in your own words? You mentioned struggle. To me it was a meditation on the evolution of man’s struggle against man, taking a moment to explore that as you’ve experienced it.
MK: Yeah. One of the things I like about “Penuel” is that it’s probably the most personal piece I’ve published. A lot of the other pieces I’ve been able to kind of divorce myself from in terms of creating the narrative eye versus the authorial eye. In “Penuel,” I really felt like there was a lot of blurring between the narrator on the page and who I am as a person. It was exciting to write that way, just in terms of relating a current period in my life where I do feel as if I’m struggling with the idea of God and faith.
The very end of that piece brings into focus some of the reasons I’ve found to struggle with that. But by the same token, the piece is also about the intellectual paradox of dealing with something like the supernatural or faith, where you can grasp at logical straws and things like that all day long, but in the end it becomes very difficult to tie science back to what is essentially unscientific. I wanted that to be present within the piece as well.
MF: I want to talk about the tone of the piece. It balances a more intellectual tone with some earthy, accessible, more casual moments that are blunt and immediate in a really gratifying way—a way that doesn’t seem to get enough respect in the literary world. How conscious are you of that tone balance as you’re writing?
MK: I think a lot of the time for me it comes from an organic place. I find myself doing that kind of thing a lot in writing, as I’ve matured as a writer, just moving back and forth between modalities within the writing itself. I think there’s something poetic about counterposing two different things in relationship next to each other.
The painting that I reference in “Penuel” is all about that: the concept of the chiaroscuro, which is essentially light against dark, in super high contrast. That influenced the writing as well, in terms of balancing this intellectual, very thoughtful way, but then there’s the layman’s reality of what he would’ve seen on that particular night, which is essentially two men kicking the shit out of each other. Two different ways of viewing it, and I think when you put those two next to each other, if you do it right, there can be a very poetic aspect to that where you can essentially represent the different viewpoints, neither being more valid than the other. I think there’s something kind of fun about that.
But I totally see what you’re saying about the—I’ve heard an agent refer to it as “MFA voice.” The literary world is full of people who are dressing up their language and things like that. I think your point is probably valid, that if you do read the journals it tends to be more the flowery language and things like that. I’ll be honest: my take on that is, particularly within the literary world, it’s mostly just pushing back on Hemingway at this point, which I think is necessary. But at some point, the pendulum is going to swing the other direction and we’re all going to go back to writing like Ray Carver—the spare prose.
MF: “Penuel” is very concise. I’d love to hear you talk about the length of essays in general, about this grade school idea that still seems to exist in some corners, which says that the longer, 8,000-word essays are the important ones in a writer’s arsenal.
MK: I’ve written long and I’ve written short, and I think it just so happens for me that right now my shorter pieces have been the ones that have been seen more widely. I’m a very new writer. I used to write when I was a kid and then I did some journaling through adult life, but I really only started writing in 2013. When I started my MFA program, I was terribly unsophisticated about what nonfiction writing was. Once I started the program, I got exposed to all these different things. I think I saw Brevity within my first month of my MFA program, and it just so happened that I was working on something at the time that would end up in Brevity.
I think the timing of it all, seeing these short pieces—whether you want to call them lyric or flash nonfiction or open forms, which is what I prefer—it really opened my eyes to what the possibilities were. All of a sudden, I was getting this update of information about what nonfiction was. It really was as radical as thinking nonfiction is what you read in the newspapers to thinking nonfiction is what you read in journals; the two worlds are on opposing ends of the spectrum. I think there’s just some formative stuff in there in terms of how I discovered short essays, in terms of my overall writing life as well.
For something like “Penuel,” to be honest, the more drafts I got into it, the more I thought that being brief was actually the way to go because, for something like this—grappling with one’s faith—that’s the subject of 800-page books. There are literally library shelves full of books that essentially do that exact thing. So for me, when I look at “Penuel,” I actually tend to see it as the beginning of a conversation, if anything.
I really do like going short. I like the idea of condensing the information down and just trying to get at the true nature of a thing, and then just leaving it out there. There’s great long prose out there, but then there’s some really great short prose, where you hit the end of it and you wish it was longer, but not because it would be better if it was longer; you just wish it was longer so you could keep enjoying it. So when I write short, that’s what I’m going for. I want people to want the piece to be longer, not because they think it would be better that way, but because they enjoy the writing.
MF: How do you decide when to just write a given story—beginning, middle, end—and be done, and when a story would benefit from one or more interwoven narratives, time jumps, thematically-related vignettes, the kinds of things you see so much now in literary journals?
MK: I think the best advice that I’ve gotten on the idea of structure is that form has to follow function. If the form makes sense for the function of the piece, then that’s what you do. That advice actually came from my creative writing professor at the Air Force Academy, a guy by the name of Donald Anderson who I’m still in touch with. He’s the editor for War, Literature, & the Arts. Really good dude, but also not given to lengthy explanations to dipshit students like me.
It’s interesting that you bring that up because that’s actually what my thesis essay is about; it’s on the idea of structure in creative nonfiction. The biggest thing for me is that if you tend to write in that way (i.e. in open form) then I think that’s what you do, or at least that’s where you begin. Sometimes it stays that way and other times it becomes more chronological; it becomes tighter or it becomes potentially just a single, chronological piece.
I think the real answer to your question is it’s all going to be what you want to do with the piece as a writer. If you feel like taking a chronological storyline and blowing it up into a bunch of little pieces ends up enhancing the story, then I think that’s what you need to do. I know for me, it’s just how I write—either in segmented or fragmented forms. I’m sure it won’t always be that way.
I see “Penuel” as being the most linear piece I’ve potentially ever written. For me, discovering open forms was really important because it freed me to interrogate the chronological, which for me to write that way is very difficult. I actually really appreciate the chronological—the beginning, middle, end essays—just because I feel like sometimes open forms essays can kind of hide behind structure and use that to obscure a lack of art. So I think there’s a flip side, for sure.
MF: Do you ever worry about—or would you care if you were—being pigeonholed as a war writer, a war essayist? Are you conscious of that? Would that be a label that bothered you?
MK: It used to bother me. It bothers me less now, because if you look at it, that is primarily the stuff that I’ve written about. People are always going to want to fit people into a classification. We do it all the time in everyday life. It doesn’t bother me too much, because I think as writers we place a little bit too much stock in what that classification looks like and think that somehow it limits us.
The reality is that, for guys like me, it’s so early on in a career the possibilities are literally endless. I think about it in terms of pitching a book. If I pitch a book to an agent right now and it happens to be a book about goblins and elves, they’re not going to reject it because I’m a war writer. They’re probably going to reject it because it sucks. So it doesn’t bother me too much. Honestly, that’s the kind of stuff that I want to write for the moment. I was reading a thing on James Salter this morning and I think the ultimate compliment is to be referred to as a writer’s writer—for that to be your classification. But nobody really gets a label until they’re almost dead or dead anyways.
MF: You’re a big fan of SNC MFA faculty member Benjamin Busch’s memoir, Dust to Dust. What was it about that book that spoke to you the most from a craft perspective?
MK: At the point that I read Dust to Dust, the only book that I had read about war that had experimented with structure was Michael Herr’s Dispatches. I’ve read a lot of war books and a lot of war memoirs, so when I read that it really opened my eyes to what the possibilities were of the use of structure in terms of interrogation of our own personal histories.
There are two things that Dust to Dust really caused me to reconsider. One was the idea of structure and structuring a book and a memoir, and memoir itself. Second, you know Ben is a poet. I mean Ben is a lot of things: he’s an actor, he’s an artist. But he came to writing through poetry really, so the language in Dust to Dust, especially in a couple of the sections within the book—I mean it’s just stunning. There are literally sentences that are so finely crafted within that book that they will make you green with jealousy.
I think those two things were probably my biggest inspirations from Dust to Dust. Play with structure, challenge the traditional and see if you can make it work. And then the other thing was pay attention to your individual sentences and really work to make them beautiful.
MF: As you said, you’re a relatively new writer. But as a new writer, you’ve already placed your work in some very well-respected journals. What’s your ultimate goal for your writing?
MK: I’m working on a memoir right now, which is kind of a war memoir, it’s kind of a memoir memoir, maybe a little bit “essay collection-y.” Right now it’s in its second draft, it’s a lot of different things, and it’s a pretty unconventional approach. Well, I say it’s unconventional, but these days it’s getting harder and harder to figure out what exactly is unconventional, so I’m working on a memoir. I’ve got a couple other ideas for some essays in long-form journals, pieces that I would like to get done as well. And then I’ve actually got a great idea for a novel that I refuse to let myself work on until I get done with the memoir. So the answer to your question is, I’m working on a lot of different things, but the memoir is the primary thing that I’m focused on for this year.
Matthew Komatsu is a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska. A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, he is in his third and final year of the University of Alaska’s MFA in Creative Writing (Nonfiction) program. As he is still in uniform, he is obliged to remind you that nothing he says represents official policy or position, but if you’d like to see more, stop by www.matthewkomatsu.com.
I recently spoke with award-winning poet Traci Brimhall about blending genres, the writing process, grief, and why she just might be the Quentin Tarantino of poetry.
Wendy Hill: Your third book, Saudade, is forthcoming in 2017 from Copper Canyon Press, and you call it an autobiomythography. How did you approach genre in Saudade? What were the limitations in poetry, biography, memoir, or myth that led you to create a genre of your own?
Traci Brimhall: I can’t claim to have invented it on my own. Audre Lorde wrote the book Zami: A New Spelling of my Name and called it a biomythography, so I’m certainly borrowing terminology there. For me, books tend to start with a world first, and then the writing tends to shape that world and give it edge and color. When I wrote the first piece that grew into Saudade, it was prose. It taught me a lot about what the book was about and would become, but it didn’t work as a poem and ended up being cut from the book very early on. I believe in mess, and mess always comes first in my writing. I followed bits of my mother’s biography and her childhood in Brazil, and I followed my own autobiography imposed on her, and I followed existing myths, and I made my own. I cook in the same way. I’ll read four recipes to figure out what is essential and what possible extra ingredients there could be and then invent something.
And here’s what sucks: writing two books before this didn’t teach me what I needed to know for this book. I couldn’t figure out what it was trying to say or what form it should have, and none of the genres that helped in its creation helped me understand the shape it should have. The book was initially over 100 pages, and I seriously hacked away at it to make it manageable as a poetry book. From those trimmings I’ve written a novel and a children’s book, and honestly I still don’t feel done. I’ve been thinking I want to do a series of comics to tell one of the other stories that’s still in me. Maybe since I’ve heard stories about Brazil since I was a kid, this false history I’ve invented will also be a part of my future. I don’t know. I don’t know why I need this story so much or why I can’t leave it, or perhaps more accurately, why it won’t leave me. It was much easier for me to abandon previous books. We are important to each other, I guess.
WH: I’m currently writing about my various female family members, and I have found that the writing is an attempt at connection, a tether between us I’m trying to strengthen, and also an attempt at distancing. That duality is an engine driving the writing. What were the dualities that came up for you while writing Saudade? What do you feel is the book’s engine?
TB: Yes! It definitely does both, and changes. I’ve been thinking about the way in which I’m taking ownership of my mother’s stories, and how that ownership is both homage and disfigurement. For instance, she was chopping wood with a machete one day and cut her finger clean to the bone. She had to be rowed upriver to a bigger town with a doctor and that took forever. The story goes, at least as she told it, that if she’d arrived a minute later, she would’ve lost her finger. In my poems a girl loses a hand, but that hand remains animated with life and starts writing poems on trees and performing miracles. It’s mostly my own imagination and the truth of invention, but the truth of my mother is in there too.
There’s also this— the dead child in the story is mine, but my mother died while I was writing this book inspired by her stories. So the dead child became both mother and child somehow, reaching both directions into different generations of family: a twined grief. When she died, I understood I had been asking the book the wrong question and the ordering fell into place. A story of daughters is always a story of mothers. Now I don’t know any other way to tell it.
WH: Grief is so tumultuous, and so varied. I think of it as existing on a continuum from small waves to a tsunami. I have found that the writing produced while grieving is raw and unpolished in a way that even years later, seems to defy polishing. I’m really interested in the fact that you began the book and then, in the process, the book was changed by grief. Can you talk a little more about the influence of your mother’s death and the influence of grief on the writing?
TB: I think organizing a book is often about shaping the question it’s asking. My mother’s death helped me realize that my book’s question was wrong. The book was supposedly about her or inspired by her, and yet the question had nothing to do with her. And for grief and writing, I guess the most important relationship between those two is just that poetry requires that I tend to my grief. I’m so impatient with my feelings. I know that sounds counterintuitive to be a poet and not like feelings, but I can’t wait to get past my feelings most of the time. But understanding your feelings and feeling your feelings are two different things. When I sit down to write, I make time for the difficult. I say the damned thing, or I surround what I can’t say with what I can. It’s not where I go to still talk to her, though it’s where I go to talk to the absence she left.
WH: You mentioned worldbuilding as an entry into writing. One thing that strikes me about your work is the prevalence of animals. In Rookery and Our Lady of the Ruins they appear in great variety. There are mosquitoes, foxes, lions, frogs, more than I could list, and I particularly enjoyed their presence in both books. What role do animals play in the worldbuilding of your books? What role do they play in your new work?
TB: So one of the answers I’ve often given to this is that when I moved away from New York, I just started to see the world more through nature. All of a sudden “bird” could mean more than “pigeon,” and I got really obsessed with looking at the world and naming things in it, like a lady Adam in the heartland of North America. Animals can also do a good job of placing a work in the world. This new book has eels and macaws and pirarucus (giant fish in the Amazon) and botos (pink river dolphins that turn into men).
But lately I’ve been interrogating this. I asked another poet over dinner that if they could lay down one of the obsessions they’ve carried with them through their writing life, what would it be? For me, I decided I needed to stop hurting animals. It’s like a Tarantino movie for small mammals in my books. I think I hurt them as a way to incite people into feeling. I want to do that without any animals dying. My husband has joked in the past that my next book should be called In Which Everything Lives.
WH: The poor animals! Your poetry explores violence and suffering in a way that is both haunting and extraordinarily beautiful. Do you feel any desire to invert that or diverge from it, to write about “lighter” topics in a way that is as equally surprising as the way you write about suffering?
TB: I don’t know that I can avoid suffering. That shit will just come for you whether you are prepared for it or not. I don’t know that I can direct too much of what I write. I don’t want to use poetry as a place to avoid something. Strangely, the happiest poems I think I’ve ever written were just after my son was born. That was such a god-awful time. It was sleepless and anxious and physically painful. But I would take an hour off once a week and go to a Starbucks down the road and write. Those poems are gleeful to me. Maybe it’s even a mania, but even though life was crazy hard at that time, all that came to the poems was the joy. It would be nice if all suffering could give you joy as well, but that hasn’t been my experience. Just that baby. Just those poems.
WH: In your reading life, have there been books that changed you profoundly as a writer, that propelled your writing in a new direction?
TB: I know I’ve felt those little permissions, like, “I didn’t know a line could be that long!” or “I didn’t know you could say that in a poem!” And I think I haven’t read a book that made me follow it per se, but sometimes I’ll read poets like Anne Carson or Alice Notley or Claudia Rankine and be like “There are no rules at all!” And the boundary breaking that they do inspires me to make my own freedoms.
WH: I was recently on the fringes of a conversation between two writers arguing about the importance of art above all worldly concerns and writing what pays. At the time I was reading Our Lady of the Ruins, and had come across an interview with you where you said you were living out of your car while writing the book. I immediately felt a profound gratitude for the book in my hand, and the lines of poetry that were reverberating in my head. Can you talk about the place writing occupies in your life, and how your relationship with writing either evolves or stays constant, or perhaps does both?
TB: Man, oh man, that stuff has changed for me over time. My rituals have had to change as my life changed. Before writing Our Lady, I would’ve said I needed at least three hours of silence for drafting. When I wrote Our Lady, I was usually writing in my head, or I’d scribble things down on a postcard and send it to a friend. But I wouldn’t allow myself more than 10 minutes for the actual writing part. I lived with the poem in my head before I ever got a postcard and stamp, and sending the poem away from myself kept me from trying to torture it into some weird version of perfection. It really changed the way writing worked for me, or where I did the writing, or where I thought the writing came from, or all three. After those experiences and that book, of course things changed again. For a while, what worked was stealing time. I tend to be early for things, so I would try and write whenever I was waiting for someone. If I felt like I was stealing time, something felt urgent when I wrote. And of course it keeps changing. I’ve been trying to spend 2016 in silence, partly because that urgency went away. I don’t want to write poems for my ego and to keep up whatever level of production felt natural before. I don’t want to write things that sound pretty but say nothing. I want silence to do the work it needs to do. I want silence not to be a place of anxiety but a place of sufficiency. I want my silence to be a gift to myself and not a punishment or a lack. I’ve been wondering if maybe poems don’t always need to come from a place of urgency. Maybe there’s another source. But lately I’ve felt that swelling behind the dam. I think they’re coming back for me. Someone once said poetry is the long preparation of the self to be used. I think that silence was a respite and a rest. I think the time to be used is coming soon.
WH: I’m so looking forward to reading the new book. When can readers get their hands on Saudade?
TB: Fall 2017!
Traci Brimhall is the author of three collections of poetry: Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award; and Saudade (forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press); as well as an illustrated children’s book, Sophia & The Boy Who Fell (Pleiades Press/SeedStar Books). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Slate, The Believer, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, Orion, and Best American Poetry 2013 & 2014. She’s received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the National Endowment for the Arts. Currently, she’s an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Kansas State University and lives in Manhattan, KS.
The week that SNR contributor Andrew Bertaina spoke with Sierra Nevada Review, he had just found the holy grail: one of his flash fiction pieces had recently been published by Tin House, one of America’s most prestigious literary journals. Bertaina spoke with one of SNR’s managing editors about this latest publishing success, his writing process, and his feelings on the future of the printed page.
Michael Fischer: Walk me through the conception of “One Person Away From You.” What were you trying to accomplish with the piece? When you sat down to write it, what was the goal?
Andrew Bertaina: When I think about that piece—which I actually wrote a number of years ago—the process of writing it involved waking up really early in the morning and writing. Which I almost never do, for various reasons—kids and stuff—but even back then I didn’t do it. And I found that my attention is a resource that gets used up throughout the course of the day. When I wrote that piece, I found that when I woke up really early in the morning I had a really clear vision and singular voice that carried me through. I wrote it over the course of about a week’s worth of time in hour-long writing sessions.
I think if I have a skill or talent in writing it’s conveying a feeling of loneliness, and I think that something about being up in the morning and having no one else up in the house with me and then doing things—there’s a part in there where the narrator hears somebody showering next door. That was just apartment living, which I was doing myself at that point in time: up early in the morning, and you’re feeling that sense of loneliness, and then hearing someone else’s shower go on, or seeing somebody across the way in your apartment building, and that immediate experience of not knowing anything that’s going on with them at all, and then imagining your way into their life. Which I feel is a part of what we’re up to in fiction anyway, crossing over that barrier.
MF: When you say you were writing in one hour increments, did you get a whole draft in one hour or did you literally write it in pieces?
AB: I wrote it incrementally over the course of about a week. And then of course I always go back and edit things. It’s hard because people talk about, “How many drafts do you do?” And I’m like, “I’m not sure,” because I’ll read through the beginning over and over and over. The first paragraph often gets read 20, 30 times or something like that. Because I feel that you have to read your way into the piece in order to get the voice, and I find for anything longer, I have to do that. In the course of about a week I had my rough draft.
Plot-wise, not a lot changed, which is often true for me. I write on an inspiration and I just go from point A to point Z, and then I spend the majority of the time after that first draft fixing sentence structures, pulling up or pulling out metaphors and things like that.
MF: You mentioned finding the voice of a piece. I think writing convincingly in the voice of the opposite sex is something that many writers just can’t do well. How did you approach that challenge? Were you very conscious of writing through the perspective of a woman, or did you just let the voice flow and trust that it was going to be authentic?
AB: More the latter, though I am always hesitant. It’s funny because this is a piece that I had workshopped and one of my friends said, “Did you just follow me around for a day?” And it was a female friend. I was very close friends with my mother and I was very close to my sister growing up, so part of it is that I have an easier relationship often with women. I think my primary relationship for a long period of time in my life was my mother. In some ways, my experience of her was the loneliness of being a single parent. I think just seeing that, when I start writing in that voice—which like I said, if I have a thing that I often do it’s often writing about loneliness—I feel comfortable.
Beyond that, some feelings are universal to the human experience and I would say that loneliness is one of them. So I’m probably going to try to capture that more than I might try to capture what it feels like to go out shopping for clothes or something like that, which, honestly, I just don’t understand. But if I’m capturing an emotion, that transcends gender and I’m comfortable in that space. All that being said, yes it is challenging, and the majority of my narrators are male in part for that reason, because I do think it’s difficult to do.
MF: I want to talk about the idea of judging—or not judging—characters when you’re writing. The narrator here is such an easy target in a lot of ways, but she’s written with real empathy. She comes across as weird and obsessive but also heartbreakingly normal and universal at the same time.
AB: I’m not a particularly visual reader. In some ways though, my writing has a lot of images and metaphors in it. I follow the voice and I think of the construct of language and think of what the language is trying to convey. I think what that character might think, but I don’t think particularly about how the character might come off. I’m almost surprised afterward when people will be like, “Oh, I can’t believe X or Y.” Actually, I find it somewhat strange when writers say, “I was just responding to the voice; I didn’t know what was going to happen next in the story.” But sometimes that is, in fact, the case.
You’re just writing a voice and then thinking the thoughts that this person would think and not worrying about that particular perception of them. And again, there’s an internal sort of dialogue that we all have in our heads that’s not externalized, and so in some ways this character is just externalizing something that, in reality, they would never say to their friend or somebody on the street. But hopefully what you’re doing in a story is making that internal voice that we all have that’s narrating our lives—sometimes in really problematic ways, which is true for this character—and maybe that does make them an easy judge. But I hope that would be the vehicle that would have someone reading it and not thinking, “Oh well this is clearly the way they are in the world.” This is the way they think about the world, but may not be the way they are in the world.
MF: What respective roles do you feel each of the minor characters—the women from upstairs, the woman on the subway—play in the overall arc of what you were doing?
AB: Well, the obsession of the narrator is forming a connection with someone who’s now gone, so now this person is going about forming obsessive connections with anybody in the world. So you’re seeing that made manifest, how desperate the person is to connect, and then how little it’s happening. Particularly if you live in a big city, you can be sitting so close to somebody—and I suppose this is true everywhere—where you’re literally touching their leg, hearing everything that they’re doing, and yet they can know nothing about you. I wanted to juxtapose those things over the top of each other because this person is being denied a connection with people who seemingly could give it, and yet there’s no real connection there; it’s all imagined. Which is again what the narrator is doing with the ex as well.
MF: You’re a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast, so you’re on both sides of the submission process. When it comes time to submit your own work to literary journals, what’s your thought process and plan of attack?
AB: In some ways, I would say I probably do it wrong. I probably don’t do it well. But I think it depends on where you’re at in that process, and what you’re trying to accomplish. What I did do at first, when I had only like one publication credit, is I just did a lot of research. I hate to say it, but you’ve got to do a lot of research and figure out all the literary magazines that are out there. Look at them and say, “Do I actually want my work to appear in this magazine? What does it look like? Is it online or in print? Do they pay their writers? Can I find a couple pieces that are similar to mine?”
My aesthetic is definitely that good writing is good writing. I’m sometimes annoyed when a journal says, “We only except X or Y kind of stories.” Well, the history of fiction is the history of writing in a variety of different forms. To me, good literature is good literature, whatever form it takes, whether its experimental or extremely traditional. When I was starting out, I sent my stories to fifteen or twenty places (after doing some research). I just got excited about writing and in that process got some things published. And over the course of time, now I’m submitting to what I consider to be the top fifty journals or so. I give the piece a rundown and then just move down a list, a spreadsheet that I have that’s not very sexy, but that I spent a lot of time putting together.
It’s really hard work and spreadsheets and things like that. It depends partially on what you want to accomplish, and where you’re at in your writing and what you need. The best way is probably to just start at the top and just work your way down, but that may not be the right thing if you’re just starting out. You might just want to see your name get out there and get things published and get excited about writing. I’m not sure there’s a right way other than to do your research.
MF: You recently had a piece published by Tin House. What was the emotional experience for you, placing a piece somewhere that prestigious, in the kind of journal everyone is trying to get into?
AB:It’s funny, I was listening to a podcast about the way that we experience pleasure in our lives. Say you have a trip planned. You’re supposed to plan it way out in the future so you have time to look forward to it. The story in Tin House, the editor over there, on Thursday was like, “We’re accepting this piece. We’re going to publish it on Friday.” There wasn’t even any time for me to be like, “Yay, I’m doing this thing.” It was just scrambling, emailing him my bio at like 6 p.m. and the next morning around 9:00 it was up. It was such a narrow span of time, and then the piece is out there and you get however many Facebook likes and three of them are family members. And then it’s like, “Wow, nothing changed.” Whereas in some ways I wish I’d had more lead time on it because it was really quick.
On the other hand, I have something coming out in Threepenny Review, which I’m very excited about, in 2017. I think I found out about that in February. And that seems so distant that it’s like, “Oh.” But in both cases, I’m excited about it. I love it. I’m excited to see who’s in Threepenny Review that month and be like, “Oh look it’s little me,” next to these writers who are, in my mind, extraordinarily famous. But yeah, it doesn’t really change much.
I think that’s the perception that I had when I started the publication process, is that once you start to get published, people are going to be banging down your door. But it’s not the case. I mean it’s exciting, but yeah, life just goes on. If you’re going to keep writing, you’re going to keep writing stories, and if you’re not, you won’t.
I think literary fiction will always have a place, but it’s always going to be a smaller place in society. It’s a bit of a niche interest even though it’s a strong interest of mine. I have a writer friend who always says, “Celebrate what’s to be celebrated.” I try to keep that in mind as time has gone by and I’ve gotten less excited by getting published than when it was first happening. I think that despite that, your life may not change, but it’s important to celebrate, even if you’re not particularly good at it. Go get a drink with a friend and say, “I got a story published,” and be proud of it. That’s something I’ve gotten a little better at, is being proud and sharing work with people I interact with during my day, which I wouldn’t always do. Saying, “Oh by the way, I’ve got something coming out.” And that’s nice.
MF: Speaking of writers you think of as famous, who are some writers that you’ve admired over the years?
AB:It’s a boring answer, especially for a white male to give, but David Foster Wallace is definitely the person who I read in my twenties who made me think, Man, this is amazing, what people can do with writing, but my mind just doesn’t work this way. It works in a literary sense, but I don’t have a philosophical, mathematical interest like he does that allows for some of the things that he’s able to accomplish in fiction. So, he’s definitely a writer whose work I keep coming back to and that I teach in my class.
I love Zadie Smith—I love her nonfiction more than her fiction actually—and I do read more nonfiction now than I used to. And I love it when people read contemporary writers. I love Tolstoy, I love War and Peace, but Steven Millhauser’s short stories are amazing. Charles D’Ambrosio is someone who I find that I recommend to people. Kelly Link is someone who starts to transcend that form; you get the literary fiction mixed with what would traditionally be genre.
Those are a sampling of writers whose work I look to, but I tend to emulate when I read a lot of somebody, and then I don’t like it because it always feels a little bit like a cheap pastiche, you know? When you’re reading a master in a form, then for you to try to write the same story and it has a tendency to just feel like, “Here’s a master doing it and now I’m getting my feet wet and trying it out.” At this point I’ve been writing long enough that I have a little bit of my own style, a little bit of my own voice, and I have some things that I do—which sometimes they’re different in fiction and nonfiction, though I don’t always draw a huge distinction between the two—that are my own. And I think that it’s good to read broadly for that reason, because I think having one voice in your head is not going to serve you well.
In my graduate program, it did annoy me because my classmates were always like, “Why do we have to take English literature classes and read? I want to focus all my time on writing.” And I’m definitely the person who says, “Yes, absolutely, you have to make time to write.” So many people don’t make time to write. If you want to write, you’ve got to write. But you really need to read quite broadly, and you may be able to relax it a little bit if time starts to get tight, but you need that baseline. I spent years of my life reading really, really intensely, in order to build up a baseline that set the stage for me to get into writing, because I wasn’t particularly interested in it in undergrad. It was really after undergrad, having a few years off and just reading broadly, that I got interested. It gave me a perspective on how one might go about writing.
MF: You’re a circulation specialist at the American University library, so you have a closeness to the printed page in your daily life that the vast majority of people no longer have. How are you thinking about the hand-wringing that goes on over the future of publishing and the printed page in the digital age?
AB:I think literary fiction is going to be around. You can find articles from a hundred years ago or longer about how nobody reads anymore. People are reading; people are consuming text. They’re doing it online more than the printed page, but again I think there’s going to be a subgroup of people who just get really interested in literary fiction and those are the people who are writing and reading and consuming it, and I think that that’s okay.
I have my own feelings about the role that, say, commercial fiction plays in actually making enough money so that publishers can take a chance on literary fiction. I’m at the circulation desk and I’m checking things out. And they’re college students; they’re mostly checking out books for papers. But sometimes people come in and check out commercial fiction, and I wind up having an argument with my colleagues about whether one should be reading commercial fiction or literary fiction and what those differences are—things like that.
So, I definitely have a dog in the fight, but I don’t get particularly concerned about the difference between digital and printed page. Because I do think people still read and will continue to read. It’s a long answer for saying I’m not too worried about it.
MF: When you submit, is there a part of you that would rather see your work published in a physical journal?
AB: Yeah, I do prefer to have something come out in a journal that I can have. Aesthetics do matter to me, so it’s nice when it’s a nice journal. Like the issue of Sierra Nevada Review that my piece is in is a very nice, very beautiful issue. So I do actually prefer that, though it’s nice to have a piece come out and then be able to immediately share it with everybody, say, “Here, I wrote something, here’s the link.” I have a preference for a journal, but I can see some of the nice parts about having something digital.
And if every journal goes online in the future, I think we’ll adapt and it’ll be okay. But I don’t think that they will, because there’s always going to be this market for a physical journal. It unites the pieces that are in it more than an electronic journal does. When I’ve had my pieces in strictly electronic journals, the pieces feel less connected to one another and less related than when they appear in a physical journal. I think you can see the aesthetic more. It shouldn’t make a difference, but I think you’re more likely to read a physical journal, multiple stories right in a row, and see the connections and conjunctions between them than you will if you’re reading something online.
MF: Talk a little bit about your writing community. Do you have anything where you live or online? How do you situate yourself within a community of writers?
AB: I don’t much, which is partially a result of having young children, which means my time is very focused in that direction. After I graduated, I was the one who started a writing group with some people who I thought were talented, and we kept that up for maybe two or three years. I had almost stopped writing, and I had one or two publication credits to my name, and I ran into one of my friends from the writing group at an event. My friend said, “If you’re not planning time to write, just write short things that are 500 or 1,000 words.” And so I said, “Okay, I’m going to do that.”
So, I went home and I wrote four short pieces, in I think one sitting, and those have all wound up getting published. I’m not particularly involved. Hopefully I’ll get involved more as more time comes up. But I think those connections are worth seeking out, because I think I almost would’ve just said, “Well, maybe I’m just not going to write” if I hadn’t had that conversation with a friend.
I think if you’re a writer you need to be active in having a writing community. The MFA experience I had is very unique, but you are going to lose those connections once you get out in the real world. It’s finding those people whose opinions and writing you value, so even if you’re not always plugged in you have people who are checking in with you about your writing, your thinking. But by all means, I think if you have more time it’s great to be involved in your local literary community, and that’s something I will build up as time goes by, because I think there is a value in that.
MF: Do you run your pieces by anyone when they’re in drafts or do you just trust that you’re at a point where you know when things are ready and what needs to be fixed?
AB: I run them by people briefly, but not substantively anymore. I just write things to what I feel is completion, and then I’ll ask people to figure out if there’s anything glaring to it. At this point I usually draft four or five times and then—I don’t know if that’s good or not, but I know that’s what works better for me. The pieces that I’ve touched less—and like I said it may have something to do with the way that I write, which tends to be by inspiration—it’s better for me to really trust that first draft and just edit it a lot than it is to go back and take everybody’s feedback.
Because I’m writing shorter things now, that’s easier to do. It’s funny, I tell my college writing classes, “You have to be your own best editor.” By all means it’s lovely to have those voices in the room in an MFA program, but at some point you leave that, and hopefully you’re carrying the best of those voices with you in your own mind. You have to be the best reader of your own work. So at this point, I’m the primary reader of my own work. That story that appeared in Tin House; I didn’t send it to anybody else. I just wrote it, edited it, and sent it out.
MF: What’s your long-term goal for your writing? More flash fiction, a novel?
AB: I think flash and then stuff that’s slightly longer. Right now, I don’t have the time and investment that it takes to write a novel because like I said, something longer I think you have to read your way into. I don’t think I can read my way 200 pages into something every morning. Not that you’d have to go that far, maybe it’s reading your way into a chapter.
Maybe I’m a reflection of the culture in that I’m not seeing the necessity for it. I like to have short bursts of inspiration. Why write a novel when you can express all those ideas in about five pages? And that’s where I’m at right now. But who knows? The reality is, when I started out—everybody wants to write a novel, right? So five years from now, I may be in the middle of a novel and look like a liar. I’m not going to say never, but it’s not what I’m interested in right now.
Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, D.C. He obtained his MFA in creative writing from American University where he also now works as an instructor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than thirty publications including: The ThreePenny Review, Tin House Flash Fridays, Hobart, Apt, Isthmus, Sierra Nevada Review, Sweet and Catamaran. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.
I recently sat down with writer Wyl Villacres for a wide-ranging conversation about his work, his life, and why he’s sick of running into Irvine Welsh.
Wyl Villacres is a bartender from Chicago. He’s the author of the chapbook, Bottom of the Ninth (WhiskeyPaper 2015), and his stories have appeared in The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and Hobart Pulp, among others. Wyl was included in the 2014 Best of the Net anthology and was a notable selection for Best American Essays in 2015. He holds an MFA from Sierra Nevada College, along with a tremendous amount of student loan debt. Follow him on Twitter: @Wyllinois.
In part one, Wyl and I speak about his writing process and a few of his better known pieces, including Fire, The Bees, and Diet of Worms from our 2016 issue. We also talk about going to church with girlfriends’ parents to score brownie points, always second-guessing one’s work, and how to digest lazy workshop criticism.
In part two, we delve deeper into Wyl’s outlook on life, politics, and race. We touch on why Wyl doesn’t submit to journals that charge reading fees, the role live lit performances play in his work, and the time Wyl got arrested during Occupy Chicago.
I have a colorful chat with the the founder and inspirational muse of Poetry in the Port, Damian Rucci. Rucci, a “no-holds-barred” visceral poet, details his experience in creating a lasting and impactful poetry scene as well as some tips on starting your own readings!
Poetry in the Port occurs on the first and third Thursday of every month at 7pm at Espresso Joe’s in Keyport, NJ. Poetry in the Port is a showcase of local writers and poets. The night begins with a featured readers set and followed by an open mic.
Hosting your own open mic is vital to allowing your community see the talent that is in the neighborhood. In the case of Poetry in the Port, it is beneficial for local businesses as well!
Check it out below!!
I sit down before an early spring Words on Main event to speak with the bi-weekly spoken word reading’s founder, Cord Moreski. Morseski, a poet and a teacher, details what it is like to start your own poetry scene and helpful information if you are interested in starting your own!
Words on Main occurs on the first and third Friday at 7pm at Dino’s on Main in Asbury Park, NJ. Words on Main is a showcase of local writers and poets. The night begins with a featured readers set and followed by an open mic.
Hosting your own open mic is vital to allowing your community see the talent that is in the neighborhood. In the case of Word’s on Main, it is also beneficial for local businesses!
We at the Review are just as excited as you are for the 2016 edition to hit the shelves! Get hyped for its release with a little interview with Brenna Womer, one of this year’s awesome contributors. Check out what Brenna has to say about writing inspirations, her piece “Frâiche” that we’ll be publishing, and which review is right for you.
What was the first experience with writing you had?
From a young age I had the desire to keep a journal and would go through phases where I’d commit to writing an entry every day. But I was inevitably dissatisfied with my inability to give adequate weight to my experiences, and often, I ended up tearing out the pages days later and ripping them into tiny pieces because I was embarrassed. Writing was stressful because I expected everything I wrote, every idea I had, to be spectacular. I quit writing for years, then picked it back up in college with fiction, and after a few semesters I learned it was okay to just get my ideas down, to play around with words and characters. When I took the pressure off myself, writing became fun.
What are some authors that you’ve read that have helped you to develop your writing style?
Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From was the first collection of short stories I ever read and I was greatly influenced by his use of domestic settings and his masterful creation of tension between characters. My stories are very character-driven and I strive to write characters as complex and relationships as tumultuous as Carver’s.
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt will always be one of my favorite collections. I love Aimee Bender’s portrayal of characters, often women, during periods of disruption and adjustment. I also enjoy her discussion of female sexuality—what sex means to different characters and how they use it. These are themes I like to explore in my own writing.
In Junot Diaz’s book This is How You Lose Her—another of my favorites—not only am I immediately drawn in by the voice and his use of language, I admire the bold way he writes about class, race, sexuality, and masculinity. He consistently tackles difficult themes with honesty and authenticity, and his stories always leave me in awe.
What inspired your piece “Fraîche”?
“Fraîche” was actually born of a prompt in my graduate fiction workshop. Our assignment was to write a story using a borrowed form, and because eating is something I love so much I consider it a hobby, I thought I would try to write a story in the form of a menu.
What was your writing process for this piece?
Well, I began with the idea of a menu, and because I’m interested in relationships, periods of adjustment, and sex, I thought I would have the main character on a first date. I am a woman and I’ve been on dates, so it just felt natural to write this from a female’s perspective. I honestly didn’t even realize the story was in second person until I was finished and read back over it. I love to read second-person stories but haven’t written many myself, so I was relieved by how painlessly the point of view was established. I’d like to think second person helps alleviate some of the main character’s angst in this story because of the POV’s innately perceptive and instructional tone.
I didn’t have a strategy for weaving the menu items into the narrative, so I started looking through recipes for meal ideas. As I put the menu together, ingredients started sparking my own memories, so I decided I would write the story as a string of word associations and disjointed, worried thoughts as they might occur to someone on a first date as they read down a menu. It really was a fun piece to write!
Where’s the weirdest place you’ve ever written?
Oh goodness. The other day I had been revising a memoir piece at a coffee shop for about four hours when I finally made myself pack up and go. But I kept writing in my head and while I was driving home I had this idea for a sentence, so at a stoplight I opened up my laptop on the passenger seat and typed manically until the light turned green. Cops use laptops while they’re driving, so that makes it okay, right?
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
As I touched on when I was telling about my journaling failures, putting pressure on yourself to be endlessly insightful and eloquent will do nothing but foster self-consciousness and frustration. Start with a prompt and see where it takes you. If there is a character you want to flesh out or a place you would like to describe but you don’t yet have a story they fit into, just write what you have. The notepad in my phone is filled with random ideas, notions, and mini character sketches I jot down while I’m at work or happy hour or eating dinner, and when I’m stuck on a story or looking for inspiration, I scroll through those notes. Also, it’s fun to look back at the notes and find the seed of a now 10-page story.
My biggest piece of advice, though, is to pay attention. Be nosy. Listen in on conversations, watch people, ask a lot of questions and be sure to listen to the answers, and if you are curious about something, don’t just let it flit by without pursuit.
How do you know the literary magazine you’re sending work to is the right fit?
Reading literary magazines is the best way to figure out whether you think they would like your style, and it’s also a great way to keep up with how the writing community is evolving. I’m very fortunate to be a part of the English Department at Missouri State University where the Creative Writing faculty is very focused on keeping up with what’s new and exciting in the writing world. And because they are, one of my professors decided we needed a literary magazine library. It is a great resource, and if I’m wondering whether or not my writing would fit with a particular publication, my first move is to run downstairs and see if we have their magazine.
If you don’t have access to the publication, at the very least you should be able to find something on their website, most likely under the submissions tab, that will give you an idea of what they like to publish. Our library didn’t have a copy of Sierra Nevada Review, but when I read on their website that they prefer work that is unconventional and experiments with form, I thought they might be interested in a flash piece in the form of a menu. And I’m so happy they were!
Be sure to pick up our 2016 copy this summer, and look for Brenna’s work in the poetry section!
Brenna Womer is a Creative Writing graduate student at Missouri State University where she teaches composition and serves as an Assistant Editor of Moon City Review. Her work is forthcoming in Grist’s Online Companion and the Sierra Nevada Review and has been published in NEAT. and Midwestern Gothic.
Hayden Takahashi is an English undergraduate student at Sierra Nevada College where she currently serves as an Assistant Editor with the Sierra Nevada Review.
An Interview with Allyson Dwyer
Check out the conversation I had with local playwright and poet, Allyson Dwyer! Hailing from Matawan, NJ, Allyson talks to me about what it is like being a writer in an up and coming scene as well as what Beatles album she feels her writing most embodies. Allyson is a frequent open mic reader and a featured poet at both Damian Rucci’s Poetry in the Port and Cord Moreski’s Words on Main, the two local poetry readings at the Jersey Shore.
by Brandon Dudley
Something I learned very early in the Sierra Nevada College MFA program, thanks to my mentor Alan Heathcock, was how helpful fear can be in the writing process. According to Al, he knows he’s doing something right when he’s nervous hitting the submit button on the work. That’s something I’ve tried to remember every time I send out a story.
Fear, at its best, means the writer is tackling something close to their core. They’re tapping into something important and meaningful and harboring genuine emotion. They’re exposing something true about themselves.
That doesn’t mean the work is necessarily in any way autobiographical. It could be about getting stranded on Mars, or getting attacked by a bear, or being hunted by a witch (you’ll have to forgive the movie references, I’m writing this on the day of the Oscars). But the subtext is true; the emotional core of the story is true.
It’s something I’ve noticed editing the Sierra Nevada Review this year. The stories that risked some form of exposure, that created some genuine fear in the writer before they hit submit, those were the ones we enjoyed, admired, and, with many, accepted.
Something else Al told me early on resonated here as well: “The greatest grief of human experience is that we are all separate.” We are all bound within our own bodies, and the closest we can get to true empathy—to understand the world as another person sees it—is through storytelling. And that’s what made it so obvious that those writers were exposing something true: we felt that connection. The separation was erased, just for a moment, because the writer was willing to put a crucial piece of themselves on the page.
I thought about that often as I read the work submitted to the Review. All other elements being equal, the stories that risked exposure in some way always rose to the top. By exposing themselves, by subjecting themselves to that fear, these writers were more likely to bridge the gap separating them from the reader. It doesn’t always work, of course, because our experiences vary so widely that what resonates in one reader might not in another. But more often than not, that bravery lifts the reading off the page and creates a genuine empathetic experience. And the work that risks little or nothing? Well, it feels like reading little or nothing.
By writing to expose yourself, you’re actually writing toward others. It doesn’t push people away, as I’d at times feared, it invites them in. Instead of making them recoil, it makes them want more. We are people greedy for connection, and the best way to make that connection is to take risks, to lean into your fears, and write until it scares you.