Author Archives: courtneyp

Book Review: Val Brelinski’s The Girl Who Slept with God

 

2017
Fiction
$16; 368
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-14-310943-3

 

 

 

Val Brelinski’s The Girl Who Slept with God
by: Rebecca Evans

The Girl Who Slept with God, by Val Brelinski, is both a tragic and coming of age memoir infused with elegant writing of religion, hardship, and courage. Grace Quanbeck, at seventeen, has just returned from a mission trip in Mexico and is pregnant. Her father, Dr. Quanbeck, a Havard-educated astronomer, reacts and moves Grace and her younger sister, Jory, just shy of fourteen, to a home away from their religious community and private Christian school set in rural Arco, Idaho in the 1970’s. Their new house, next door to Hilda Kleinfelter, who later becomes a strong support role as a surrogate parental figure.

Grace insists the baby is God’s child, like Mary and the immaculate conception. Is this the truth? Is she in denial from a traumatic rape? Is she simply crazy? Any of these options seem viable and, as the story unfolds, these questions remain unanswered through the eyes of the narrator, young Jory. Brelinski blends this coming-of-age story with the challenges of socialization for a teen whose circumstances create isolation and conflict.

Jory’s mother closes herself off from the world, struggling with anger and appearing addicted to prescription pain medicine. Crazy seems viable. Grace remains shut down, demanding and strong-willed, wearing the same clothing for months at a time, never leaving their safe-house. Denial seems feasible. Grace, a devoted Christian, follows Biblical rules not just as law, but as if her life depended on it. An immaculate conception seems plausible.

Jory struggles to maintain a sense of herself and discover her own identity. She gains an education on becoming a teenager in her new secular school, attending a dance for the first time, a taste of alcohol, and an accidental LSD trip. Her friend, Rhea, becomes someone Jory longs to align with, along with Rhea’s enticing influence on Jory into the world of teen-exploration. Their distant new neighbor, Hilda, holds as a source of stable foundation, even shopping with Jory for her first new dress. The ice cream man, Grip, older by a decade and Jory’s first kiss, gains a close friendship with the sisters. Later, Grip plays a critical role in a turn of events, capsizing this story.

Brelinski’s uses third-person narrative point of view through Jory’s eyes, allowing the story to read like a novel instead of a personal teen journal. Through this approach, Brelinski shows Jory’s thoughts but uses beautiful prose and metaphors, “Jory stared up through the station wagon’s huge windshield at the frozen-looking stars. She could see forever with her new microscope/telescope vision, which allowed her to zoom in and out over and through great distances. ‘I’m a star,’ she said to Rhea.” (p. 191). Jory’s ability to see beyond what’s in front of her, all the while evaluating current circumstances with wisdom beyond her youth, demonstrating her hard-earned life-knowledge.

The story lags a bit in the center, when Jory finds her freedom as a teen. Brelinski places scenes that do the same work side by side, plateauing the emotional arc instead of advancing it. Brelinski’s work does offer a balance of the dysfunction of family life, religion, and identity with believable characters that come to life. Similar to “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor, The Girl Who Slept with God has one inevitable end, yet there remains an element of believable surprise. Brelinski’s gift with this inevitable ending presides in establishment. Brelinski’s build of psychological traits in Grace, Jory, Grip and Dr. Quanbeck, create a laser-focus, that not only shapes, but drives the story to this one final moment.

Rebecca Evans served eight years in the United States Air Force, and is a decorated Gulf War veteran. She hosts the Our Voice television show, advocating personal stories, and mentors teens in the juvenile system. She held the title of Mrs. Idaho International and earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Boise State University and honored with the BSU “Women Making History in Idaho” award.  Her work has appeared in Gravel Literary magazine and is forthcoming in Scribes Weekly’s Anthology and Fiction Southeast She’s currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College and serves on the editorial staff of the Sierra Nevada Review.  Born in Chicago and raised in Northern Indiana, she currently lives in Idaho with her three sons.

Interview with Jake Young

For Poet Jake Young, it is the pita drizzled with olive oil and za’atar in a Druz Village, clusters of Pinot grapes falling off the vine in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the sweetness of diseased fruit that reveals culture and its inherent connection to the land, and to one another. Between teaching, writing, working on a PhD degree, and serving tables on the weekends, soon-to-be Dr. Young found the time to connect with SNR contributor Kathryn deLancellotti to talk about his new book American Oak; the land that formed him, and his thoughts on craft and creativity.

Kathryn deLancellotti: Jake, your book American Oak, published by Main Street Rag, just came out. Congratulations! The first poem of the book “Vino Hermoso” begins “so much goes into a beautiful wine.” Can you talk about what, in your opinion, goes into a beautiful poem, and why?

Jake Young: Thank you Kathryn; it’s such a pleasure to talk with you. Like wine, there’s a lot that goes into a poem that we can recognize with our senses—control of rhythm, imagery, syntax, lexicon, metaphors—but there’s also so much that we as readers are unaware of, and often even as writers we may be unaware—this is largely the realm of influence and the unconscious. Who are those artists who have come before without which this new piece could never have been written? What had to be dreamed beforehand for this image or that metaphor to be imagined? Perhaps the most important thing that goes into a poem (and wine) that often remains hidden from view is time. It’s very rare for a poem to come to me fully formed. The earliest poem in my book was written nearly a decade ago, and I continued to revise it off and on throughout that time. As to why, I’m not sure I have an answer. That’s one of the mysteries surrounding art that I find so intriguing—that we don’t really know why people feel the need to create. What’s the evolutionary purpose of writing a poem? Or of painting? What’s clear to me is that we have a need to do so (and Paleolithic cave art reveals that we have had this need for a long time); we have an urge to be creative and artistic. So if you pressed me why I think poetry demands what it does of us I would have to say that because without putting what is required into a beautiful poem you may still produce a poem, but it won’t necessarily be beautiful.

KD: In the book you write about working in the cellar with Carlos, an El Salvadorian man, and how for the first time in your life you started to think in Spanish. You go on to say “I know this is not my doing. /Like wine, I’ve absorbed/what’s around me.” Can you share a little about your upbringing?

JY: I grew up surrounded by books, and reading and writing have always been an integral part of my life. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time in my father’s studio while he printed books or broadsides on his hand press. I often sat on the floor and made my own books out of the piles of cutoffs strewn around the place. When I was three, my father published a limited edition of one of my books. He turned my drawings into engravings, printed them on handmade paper, and bound them in cloth over boards. Two years later, Chronicle Books put out a facsimile trade edition—15,000 hardback copies. My father still shakes his head sometimes, and says that I got a better book deal when I was in kindergarten than he’ll ever get.

KD: How did your father, who is also a poet and a teacher, and who read Emerson aloud to you as a boy, influence your academic and artistic pursuits?

JY: While I don’t actually remember my dad reciting Emerson when I was young, I have fond memories of him and my mom reading to me in the evening before bed, and my dad has always recited lines from poems and from songs whenever something reminds him of one. Both of my parents are strong advocates of education, and have always encouraged my interest in literature.

KD: How did growing up in the mountains across the road from a vineyard helped to inspire American Oak?

JY: In college I studied English literature, and worked part time in the dining hall to help pay my tuition. I loved working with the cooks in the kitchen, and when I graduated I decided I would try to find a job in a similar environment for the summer before I began my MFA at North Carolina State University. I applied to many restaurants, bars, and wineries in Santa Cruz, California, including the tasting room that’s across the street from where I grew up. I was lucky enough to get hired on there to work that summer, and the next, and after I graduated Ryan Beauregard invited me to help him work the crush. I ended up working there for three more years before deciding to go back to school for my PhD.

Most of the poems in American Oak I wrote during those years, though the idea for the book was suggested to me in the last year of my MFA by my friend and mentor Wilton Barnhardt. Wilton is an amazing fiction writer (and fellow wine aficionado), and after looking through some of my poems he pulled out two that I had written about wine, including an early version of “Wine is for Drinking” (a poem about a woman who works in a tasting room, as well as about desire and transformation), and Wilton told me that I should write a book of wine poems. I took his suggestion to heart, and my time working at a winery gave me plenty of material to write about, as well as time to learn about wine and develop a passion for it.

KD: In a poetry workshop I took with your father, Gary Young, he told me that the job of the poet is to take care of goodness and truth, and beauty will take care of herself. You write mostly in a narrative style with straightforward, inclusive language, yet you’re able to write about multiple things at once thus creating poems layered with meaning. Are you conscious of the way you use metaphor, or does it creates itself so long as the poet tells the truth about the world they’ve absorbed?

JY: I work very hard to not think about how I use metaphor in my early drafts. There is meaning in imagery. We are symbolic creatures, meaning-making animals, capable of generating significance and value from the world around us. I have a tendency to rely too heavily on philosophical musings in my writing sometimes, which is one of the worst ways to try and ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’—not only is it often uninteresting language, but it’s also usually difficult and pretentious, so not even good telling. Once I have worked on a draft of a poem long enough, and it has gone through sufficient revisions to resemble a poem and not just notes for a poem, then I begin to pay more attention to individual elements of craft such as the metaphor(s) within the poem. I’ll ask myself questions such as does the word choice contribute to the tone and meaning of the poem? Is there a central metaphor, and if so how is it structured? Are all the parts of metaphor constructed as to lead the reader to take, as Robert Bly has called it, “a leap”? That said, even conscious construction of a metaphor will often miss what the unconscious is aware of—as long as we make a conscious effort to tell the truth, beauty will come along for the ride.

KD: There’s a meditative, Zen-like quality to your work. It explores the natural world with wonder and praise for its beauty as well as its rot. Do you incorporate a spiritual practice other than writing that takes you to these transcendent places, or would you say it is more innate within you, something you capture with your art?

JY: There is beauty in rot because decay is necessary for growth. We all carry our deaths with us from birth. In this sense beauty is innate within all of us, and any recognition of this entails that transcendence is as well. While I was raised Jewish, I don’t consider myself religious, though I do believe that any sense of the spiritual requires that we pay attention, something that I find has become increasingly difficult in a world so full of information and commotion; but if we are able to slow ourselves, to take the time to think, to reflect, to ask questions about ourselves and the world around us, we can reach a certain kind of transcendence or spirituality. I often find myself in such a state of mind out in nature, or driving, or sitting out on my porch late at night, and these are the moments when I find I take time to pay close attention to the world and to let myself be inspired to write.

KD: Why is food and wine and its connections to culture and to the land important to talk about in today’s climate both politically and environmentally?

JY: Food is a human universal—it connects all times and places. Winemaking is one of the oldest known crafts (along with poetry), and there’s a growing body of anthropological evidence that wine and beer, along with growing grains for bread, played a central role in the formation of settled societies. Environmentally, food and wine are literal connections to the land; and looking at where we grow our food, and how, necessarily demands that we look at our environment. This is increasingly important in the age of the Anthropocene; humans have left scars on the earth that can be read at a geological level, and global climate change is one of the greatest threats to us a species we have ever faced. Politically, food and wine are important because they reveal structures of power and distributions of wealth, which often go hand in hand. This is true on a state-wide or national scale, such as the case of the socioeconomic distribution of food deserts in the U.S., as much as it is on an international scale, revealed by such problems as who decides which grains African nations should grow, how much acreage of rainforest in Brazil should be cut down for beef production, or the use and regulation of fertilizers, pesticides, and GMOs. While there are many environment and political issues that need our attention, it’s my belief that that if we want to fix most of the problems in the world, our food system is not a bad place to start because it is where so many other issues intersect.

KD: What made you decide to pursue a PHD in Creative Writing? Did you feel limited as an artist and/or professional with an MFA degree?

JY: I decided to pursue a PhD for a couple of reasons, the main reason being that I missed the culture of my MFA program. I loved staying up late discussing literature with my friends, or reading poems to each other in the afternoons, and while my friends in the wine industry were always very supportive of my work, poetry was always my passion and not theirs. The other main factor was that after working in the wine industry for a while I realized the physical toll it takes on a body, and the few options for health care that are available for people in the industry. I suffer from melorheostosis, a rare bone disease that affects about half the bones in my right leg below my knee, where the bones have continued to grow beyond the point they’re supposed to and have taken on a calcified appearance that medical textbooks describe as looking like melted candle wax. I began to think more about my long-term plans with respect to my career and my health, and decided that the academy was the right decision. I don’t regret pursuing a PhD at all, but I knew I didn’t want to leave the food and beverage industry, so when I moved out to Columbia, Missouri I did a bit of research and found the restaurant that I felt had the best wine list, and was lucky enough to get hired on at The Wine Cellar and Bistro. I’ve been working there for over two-and-a-half-years now, and I’m so glad to have been able to find a way to continue to balance my passion for food and wine with my passion for literature.

KD: Can you share with us a few authors you return to the most? How have they influenced you not only as a poet but as a human being?

JY: The poet who has influenced me the most is obviously my father. When I think of other poets who have been central to my own formation as a writer, as well as who have impacted my character, the ancient Chinese poets Li Po, Tu Fu, and Su Shi come to mind—while wine was a common subject of ancient Chinese poetry, and poetry drinking games were frequently played, no one wrote more often or more beautifully about drinking than Li Po. Pablo Neruda has many wonderful poems, particularly his odes, about food and wine, and is a master of description and metaphor. Antonio Machado, another Spanish language poet, has become an increasingly important influence on my work, and his proverbs continue to remind me of the traditions of which all poets enjoy and extend. As a writer from California, I constantly return to Philip Levine, Larry Levis, and Robert Hass, all of whom remind me to be attentive to my surroundings, wherever I am. And of course my mentor Dorianne Laux, whom I had the great fortune to study with during my MFA—she and her husband Joe Millar are amazing poets and people, and they (and their work) always encourage and challenge me to be the best version of myself.

KD: What’s next? Do you have another book or project you’re currently working on? Where’s the muse taking you?

JY: Right now I’m working on a currently unnamed collection for my dissertation. Many of the poems open with epigraphs, and the pieces largely focuses on notions of influence, history, time, and mortality. Change is perhaps the central theme of the collection, though I suppose that could be said of most poetry collections. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus mused, “The only thing that endures is change.”

 

Jake Young received his MFA from North Carolina State University, and currently attends the PhD program in creative writing at the University of Missouri–Columbia. His first collection of poems is American Oak (Main Street Rag, 2018). He has published in numerous journals, and his most recent work appears or is forthcoming in Miramar, Askew, Cloudbank, and The Hudson Review. In 2014, Jake attended the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. He also serves as the poetry editor for the Chicago Quarterly Review.

 

Book Review: Sheila Hamilton’s All the Things We Never Knew

 

2015
Memoir
$13.99; 312 pages
Seal Press
ISBN: 978-58005-584-0

 

 

 

Weaving a Narrative Case for Early Detection: Sheila Hamilton’s All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness 
by Lisa Peterson

“It is my hope that my experience might serve as a cautionary tale for other people who are concerned about a loved one’s mental health.” – Sheila Hamilton

Radio and TV producer, reporter, anchor, and host, Sheila Hamilton, brings her probing investigative skills as a journalist as well as her own personal insights and vulnerabilities to her debut memoir, All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness. Hamilton immediately alerts readers to the territory she intends to explore by opening her introductory chapter with a summary of the storyline:

I missed much of the unfolding of my husband’s mental illness. By the time I’d pieced together the puzzle of who David actually was, he was falling apart. My once brilliant, intense, and passionate partner was dead within six weeks of a formal diagnosis of bipolar disorder, leaving my nine-year-old daughter and me without so much as a note to understand his decision.

Hamilton goes on to present grim statistics linking risk factors for suicide with the presence of mental disorders. Outcomes might improve, Hamilton postulates, if people were better informed about the signs of mental illness and treatments for brain disorders. She ends the introduction with the hope that her story, “will be a catalyst for positive change in the ways we approach, regard, and respond to the social fallout of mental illness.”

The narrative itself begins in medias res. Estranged from her husband, David, Sheila has already filed for divorce and is on a date when she receives an ominous phone call from the sheriff’s office. Instead of resting at home under his own mother’s watchful eye, David snuck out, drove to Larch Mountain, broke into a woman’s house, and stole her gun. Sheila is stunned. She knows his mental state is tenuous and now the police are considering him “armed and dangerous.”

With the stakes established and the tension raised, Hamilton drops us onto a page, set in different typeset, with the word STIGMA underlined at the top. Underneath, the text begins with: “According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services administration, nearly one in five American adults (18.5 percent), or 43.8 million adults, had a mental illness in 2013.” The rest of the page emphasizes the persistent stigma surrounding mental illness as well as how David’s “sense of shame” exacerbated his particular case. These mental health informational interstices, inserted at the end of each chapter, can be a bit jarring. Yet we are also primed for them by our exposure to elements of mental dysfunction within the narrative. Often, the formality of these pages is mitigated by explicit links to David (as a person with mental illness), to Sheila (as the spouse and caregiver to a person with mental illness), and to their daughter, Sophie (as a child who has both witnessed her father’s illness and survived his suicide). These side-bar-like panels are clearly intended to be educational, providing facts, definitions, treatments, and resources regarding mental illness, but they also provide a break in the midst of a narrative that can feel heavy at times.

The next chapter returns readers to the beginning of Sheila and David’s story, describing the day they met in a coffee shop, with David “juggling construction plans and a pager while he ordered a double-shot cappuccino.” While at the time Hamilton was “immediately drawn to his erratic, discombobulated energy,” she briefly steps out of the narrative to tell us that, with the wisdom of hindsight, she interprets this behavior differently: “disorganization and anxiety are two of the early warning signs of bipolar disorder.”

As their relationship becomes more serious, David takes Sheila to meet his parents. He warns her that his father is “moody, charming, and complicated.” Sheila witnesses the manifestation of these varying moods within the first twenty minutes of meeting David’s father and we see hints of the genetic source of David’s illness. Here again Hamilton steps away from the narrative to make a retrospective comment: “Denial and mental illness are easy bedfellows, and in that first meeting and many others, David’s family gave no indication of a family history of mental illness. I would eventually learn David’s family history through his sister, a psychologist, and his medical documents, crucial pieces to a puzzle I’d tried to fit together for more than a decade.”

After meeting his family, Sheila and David enjoy some happy times together as they marry and have a daughter, Sophie. But their bliss is short-lived. Even while Sophie is still a baby, Sheila discovers David’s infidelity, leading Hamilton to comment, “Nothing would ever be the same again.” Indeed, the affair is just the beginning of a downward spiral of disorganization, deceit, and denial that grows as David’s illness continues to progress undiagnosed and untreated. By weaving together the narrative of what she experienced in the moment with reflective insights about David’s mental illness, Hamilton reinforces her thesis that if she’d been better informed, she might have pursued a formal diagnosis and treatment of David’s bipolar disorder before his life spiraled out of control.

Knowing what’s coming and armed with the information about mental health that Hamilton has provided us between chapters, we are able to see the signs that she herself, in the moment, cannot recognize. And even though we, as readers, know David will eventually commit suicide following his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, we keep hoping for an intervention that will save him. But as David’s behavior becomes more erratic and we watch the tragic cascade of his decline, we also begin to question ourselves—would I recognize the early warning signs if someone I knew was suffering from mental illness? And if I did, would I have the courage to act—even if that person was resistant?

Given Hamilton’s intention to not only share her story but also increase awareness and spur social change, her choice to weave personal narrative with educational panels proves effective. While primarily a work of literary nonfiction, the short interstices provide a guide of sorts—supplying readers with well-researched information about mental health and suicide. In addition, Hamilton includes a five-page listing of “Resource Organizations” as well as fourteen pages of “Notes” with citations from each chapter—clearly she has done her homework.

By delineating the narrative from the side bars through page breaks and typeset, the book can be approached in several different ways. For example, readers can progress sequentially, allowing the supplemental information to complement the narrative. Alternately, those who are most interested in Hamilton’s personal story can skip over the informational interstices. For people hoping to learn more about mental health issues, they can dive deeper into specific topics of interest using the resources at the back of the book. With all that said, it is important to remember that Hamilton’s story is but one case study—each individual’s experience will vary—and as with all health matters, it is important for readers to be their own health advocates: to explore their options, be informed consumers, consult with knowledgeable professionals, get second opinions, and participate in conversations with others facing similar challenges.

All the Things We Never Knew is a compelling personal narrative supplemented with informational panels on mental health issues, crafted by Hamilton via the lens of retrospection and the investigative skills of a reporter. Well-written, with both clarity and urgency, this book would appeal to anyone interested in or affected by mental illness or suicide—whether as a caretaker, family member, friend, or as someone who is living with a mental illness themselves.

 

Lisa Peterson is a serial career changer with titles that include professional ice skater, teacher, entrepreneur, researcher, game designer, and most recently, writer. Lisa has jumped from a plane, climbed Mount Fuji, and traveled to every continent except Antarctica. She holds two degrees from Stanford and is currently pursuing her MFA at Sierra Nevada College.

Book Review: Jill Talbot’s The Way We Weren’t

 

2015
Nonfiction
$15.95; 304 pages
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 978-1593766153

 

 

 

Competing Histories of Shame: Jill Talbot on Family and Loss in The Way We Weren’t
by Michael Fischer

The mother stands at a window, staring out at the rehab center parking lot like a lonely, cooped up pet, waiting for her daughter. The daughter thinks she’s visiting her mother at “special school,” one where even the teachers don’t get to go home at night. She’s too young to know the truth. Besides, it’s Christmas.

Finally, a car pulls up and the daughter tumbles out wearing her holiday best, flying toward the front door of the rehab with a gift in her hand. Even years later, the mother can hardly bear this image of her daughter, “running for the mother who is locked up and not allowed to leave.” The daughter’s gift is a framed piece of paper with three words on it: “Please come home.”

It’s upon stark, poetic scenes such as this that Jill Talbot builds The Way We Weren’t, a first- and third-person memoir-in-essays that pries open motherhood, addiction, obsession, place, and memory. Having been abandoned (or maybe Talbot does the leaving, she admits, depending on where you start, on who’s keeping score) by her lover Kenny when their daughter Indie was only four months old, Talbot fights to be a good parent and professor while trying to beat back alcoholism, financial ruin, and the dislocation brought on by constant moves.

Using everything from court documents to a wine menu to a mock course syllabus, Talbot paints a portrait of a woman chased by her regrets. She zigzags across the country with her daughter in search of home, sobriety, and a steady teaching gig, fixated on a man she remains desperate to reconnect with (“There had been too many years of silence… I had to say something. Anything.”) Looking back, she tries to figure out which memories actually happened, and which ones she has invented over time. “Years from now,” Talbot admits, during a third-person recounting of a conversation with Kenny, “she will not be able to recall if there ever was such a morning conversation over coffee or it was just something she wrote.”

As a child, it’s easy to believe that family traumas like the ones Talbot describes affect you and you alone. I remember visiting a parent in rehab when I was young, staring at the drooping Christmas tree set up in the entryway, and wondering why this was happening to me. Adults seem—if only by virtue of age, height, seeming omnipotence—eminently capable and emotionally solid, able to prevent all hardship if they only cared enough. Indeed, the misery memoir subgenre is full of adults who still believe this, angry at their parents for not raising them well enough.

Talbot, who with her four college degrees would seem on paper to be the epitome of stability and control, exemplifies the fact that it’s never quite that simple. She illustrates the searing reality of what it’s like to be a parent in crisis, doing her best but still falling badly behind. She diagrams the pain of watching oneself fail, in slow motion, the people one loves most: town after town, job after job, bottle after bottle.

Given the obsessive spotlight Talbot trains on her own pain and relationship (or lack thereof) with Kenny, it’s ironic that some of the most thought-provoking and insightful moments in her book are the ones that pass with no comment at all. I found it sadly telling that Talbot makes more money working waitress jobs than she does during her posts as a college professor, a PhD and boundless passion for her subject worth next to nothing on the job market. The ominous, unspoken truth is that if a woman as driven, intelligent, and educated as Talbot can find herself sleeping on an air mattress as a broke single mother, any of us can.

Even more troubling is the fact that, over the course of more than a decade, only one county court manages to wring a single child support payment from Kenny. The system lets the absentee father off the hook, betraying Indie and leaving Talbot to fend for herself. The reader learns this in an italicized epilogue to a court transcript (“No payments have been received since, and his whereabouts remain unknown”); the courts’ culpability goes unmentioned, hanging in the air like stale smoke.

Talbot does have a tendency to soak too long in the waters of her own hurt, often framing her story as a solitary—as opposed to shared—struggle. This seems unfair to Indie, whose suffering is often relegated to the background. At one point Talbot writes of how she feels most at home near borders and in undefined spaces. “I suspect Indie feels a bit of that, too,” she muses, seemingly as an afterthought. When Indie almost dies after a bout of carbon monoxide poisoning, Talbot quickly moves past scolding herself for missing the obvious signs that her furnace was killing her daughter. Instead, she focuses on the fact that if either Talbot or Indie had died, “Kenny wouldn’t know it”—a far less important train of thought, I would think, than the effect of this experience on Indie.

But while the narrative sometimes veers into self-pity and rumination, it is Talbot’s overarching interrogation of memory and her own faults that holds the work together. “Fiction and history,” she writes, “are neighbors.” Even when a history is shared, “we tell competing versions of it.” Did Kenny leave, or did she? Which of them is the bad parent, which the lost soul?

It would have been easy for Talbot to paint Kenny as a one-dimensional villain and herself as the hero of her own story: the parent who stayed and did the right thing, the long-suffering single mother with a heart of gold. Instead she catalogs her every parenting mistake and gallon of wine, bares all her flaws without mitigation—an unflinching honesty to counterbalance the book’s more solipsistic moments. No one here is a victim, Talbot seems to say. And everyone is. Whose version, whose memory, whose truth can be trusted? Who can be sure?

Fischer_Headshot.jpg

 

Michael Fischer is a managing editor of Sierra Nevada Review, a Moth Chicago StorySlam winner, and a Luminarts Foundation Fellow in Creative Writing. His essays appear or are forthcoming in The Sun, Brevity, Hotel Amerika, The Rumpus and elsewhere.

Interview with Courtney Harler

I asked SNR contributor and MFA grad Courtney Harler about her writing, and found myself immersed in a discussion about the seemingly endless duality writers experience between the outside world and the worlds we contain within.

Wendy Hill: First off, congratulations on your recent Pushcart nomination for “Wild Turkeys,” which appeared in The Vignette Review. You recently completed your MFA in fiction and accepted a position with Chicago Literati. Can you talk a bit about your path as a writer? When did you first know you wanted to write and what has that impulse looked like throughout your life? How has it evolved and/or remained the same?

Courtney Harler: I always knew I wanted to write, but I spent the first thirty-five years of my life denying that urge. I grew up in a somewhat unstable environment, emotionally and financially, and as those two insecurities fed off one another, I suspect I felt compelled to make a more “practical” career choice. I studied business management for my undergraduate degree, then worked in information technology. A dozen years later, I returned to graduate school for English Literature. Even then, I thought of myself as more of a reader than a writer.

In 2013, I finally found the courage to pursue my writing in earnest. I took a few classes and started to work up a portfolio of short stories for graduate applications. I remember the day Brian Turner called to offer me a spot in the Sierra Nevada College MFA Program. I was at the vet with the new kitten, and I answered the unknown number out of perverse curiosity. Turns out, what with the dogs barking and the cats hissing, Brian and I couldn’t hear each other very well—but I discerned the word “welcome,” and I’ve felt such in this tribe of artists ever since. The SNC MFA was exactly where I needed to be to learn and grow as a writer. The work’s never done, of course, but I have a path now, and no more excuses.

WH: Before receiving your MFA from Sierra Nevada College, you earned an MA from Eastern Washington University. Your thesis from that degree was about Chris Cleave’s novel Little Bee. You argued that Cleave presented a literary exploration of the Nigerian spirit child, a child who is born to die, in order to explore political and post-colonial questions. You work with themes similar to the idea of the spirit child in your fiction, what are the larger ideas and undercurrents you are interested in exploring?

CH: I’m not sure Cleave agrees with my theoretical assessment of Little Bee, but nevertheless, his eponymous character, and the cosmological concept itself, haunted me throughout my first years as a graduate student. Many of my own stories feature a child who is lost, as well as a mother who loses herself to that irrevocable loss. The Nigerian spirit-child is caught in an endless cycle of birth and death; the mother also is suspended in that hopelessness. But—the loss itself has power and beauty too, something undeniably redemptive, in the way a mother can honor a lost child with her grief, her memories, her work.

WH: Many of your stories are set in rural communities, and the settings in your work are vivid. Can you talk a little bit about place in your own life, and the role setting plays in your work?

CH: I’ve lived too many places to enumerate here, but I identify most with open, undeveloped spaces. I grew up in Kentucky, roaming the hills, though I wasn’t born there. When I moved there as a young girl, I learned to observe rural life as an outsider, an interloper, and I think that’s why “country” settings resonate with me—I’m forever trying to parse that world. The geographical and cultural landscapes of my childhood still inspire and confound me.

For my work, setting simultaneously anchors and unsettles both my characters and my readers. I’m not always successful, but I like to approach setting as a fully dynamic element. At first, the setting might be knowable, but it must eventually present its own challenges. I’m not suggesting the theme of “human versus nature” here, though that arc is compelling. Instead, what I hope to achieve in my work is a more fluid—yet ever more fraught—exchange between setting and character. I think both comfort and conflict are inherent in that kind of “natural” relationship.

WH: That’s an interesting point. Comfort and conflict are inherent in a lot of formative relationships: parents and children, siblings. Place often functions in our lives like a formative relationship; it is one of the things that makes us. Where a person is from, or sometimes where a person is, is usually something we run from or something we want to carry with us. In “Lies & Mash”, how do you see this dynamic working for Shelby? 

CH: Shelby loves the purity of the natural world in which she lives—the trees, the crick, the corn. However, she also feels confined by its societal circumstances—her role in her family, work, and religion—which result in an oppressive sense of isolation. In short, Kay makes young Shelby realize that their ways in the backwoods are backwards, unenlightened. Shelby, unable to accept such a view, vilifies Kay as an outsider for her “lies,” which are actually unadorned truths gained from more urban life experiences. Knowing she’ll never leave moonshine country, Shelby then takes what she can from Kay—the gift of the child, a symbol of both continuity and progress—but can never admit her own desire to explore the outside world herself. Shelby draws her solace from the child, tries to ease her own guilt by repeating Kays “lies” as truths; isolated as they are in this rural setting, the truth becomes a story in itself.

WH: Your work focuses on family relationships, birth, death, loneliness, animals— the themes of rural life particularly—and many of your characters/narrators are in the world at an odd angle. When themes recur in an author’s work, it usually points to their particular areas of interests, or even obsessions, the ideas they can’t let go of that inform their art. What is your personal connection with these themes and how do you see the ideas you can’t let go of informing your fiction?

CH: I like that particular phrase, “in the world at an odd angle,” which makes me think of Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I feel like I do approach these themes on the diagonal—I try to cut through, or make sense, of these traumatic life events. And I’m always alone in that process, but I’m also never alone in that process. As I struggle, I can’t ignore the memories or the people who make those memories, not to mention the other writers who give me the courage to sit with myself. I do often write from personal experience, but I can’t call it “truth,” even as I hope for authenticity. The most I can call it is “slant,” because time—past, present, and future—overlays retrospective emotions and their changing lenses. On top of it all, or at the bottom of it all, I usually find guilt, which is a powerful motivator. Regret is different, softer, while guilt strives. Perhaps I am obsessed with my own culpability, and I turn that guilt into story to make amends. “Lies & Mash” is ninety nine percent fiction, though that autobiographical one percent (of guilt, of course) is the truest seed of the story.

WH: Most of your stories are told in the first person, a very intimate point of view. Is this choice connected with your exploration of guilt?

CH: When I first began to write fiction, and “Lies & Mash” is one of my first “official” short stories, the first person point of view afforded me the easiest entry into the protagonist’s innermost motivations. Using “I” allowed me, as the writer, to forge an immediate empathetic connection with the narrator by tapping into my own struggles with guilt. Yet, Shelby’s guilt ultimately became problematic for me. As a young girl, how culpable can she be? As she matures into adulthood, can we understand her motives on a different level? During revision, I also began to see how first person point of view can lend itself to unreliability, and then I began to more fruitfully explore the relative nature of truth/lies within the context of the story’s arc. I’m curious to know how readers interpret Shelby’s guilt. Does she “deserve” the privilege of mothering Amber Lou? I don’t know.

WH: What are your pet peeves as a reader, the things that will make you put down a book immediately? Do you have a least favorite book?

CH: I’m too stubborn to put down most books. If a book is poorly written, my temperament requires me to follow through, even if I have to speed read to get it done. Also, I teach writing, so I’ve trained myself to be a patient, generous reader. Sometimes what a writer is trying to convey isn’t exactly evident on the page, but I can intuit a certain intent. If that intuition bears fruit in the end, I might find value in a book that initially didn’t interest or impress me. That I recall, I’ve only put down two serious books in my life—Ulysses by James Joyce and The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco—and only because my obligations at the time prevented me from giving the book its due. Those two books are still on my list. Like I said, stubborn.

WH: Can you tell us about the projects you have in the works?

CH: I’m working on two books of fiction. The first is a collection of short stories, set mostly in rural areas. The collection began as my master’s thesis, and it still needs a lot of revision, and maybe some newer, fresher stories, too. The second is a novel-in-stories based on the life of a woman born into a religious cult. I’ll be traveling to New York and Sicily for research on that book. In between these projects I write a lot of flash fiction, typically when something in daily life deeply disturbs or interests me.

For nonfiction projects, I write book and film reviews. Lately, I’ve been working on a personal essay about a body-positive burlesque show. It’s exciting to branch out into these new creative areas, but I confess, I’m always thinking about how to fictionalize real-world experiences. I consider everything I read, witness, observe, or learn as fodder for future fiction.

Courtney Harler writes and teaches in Las Vegas. Her work has appeared in Northwest Boulevard, Neon Dreams, The Vignette Review, Blue Monday Review, Chicago Literati, From the Depths, The Normal School, The Wild Word, and Ghost Parachute. More of her work is forthcoming soon in Palaver, Far Off Places, Tittynope Zine, and Tiferet. Most recently, Courtney’s short story “Cracked” was published in Legs of Tumbleweeds, Wings of Lace: An Anthology of Literature by Nevada Women.

Book Review: Kevin Hazzard’s A Thousand Naked Strangers

 

2016
Non-Fiction
$16; 261 pages
Scribner
ISBN: 978-1-5011-1086-3

 

 

 

Ten years on an ambulance in Kevin Hazzard’s A Thousand Naked Strangers
by Clare Frank

The blood-red cartoon ambulance catches my eye. As do the words NAKED and PARAMEDIC. This looks like my kind of book. I was a firefighter for nearly thirty years before I began writing. One of my challenges is finding balance—conveying witnessed trauma with enough grit to honor reality, but not so gratuitously that readers put the book down. Stateside, no one sees more trauma than ambulance paramedics, so I’m curious if this author achieves that balance.

In A Thousand Naked Strangers, author Kevin Hazzard recounts ten years of his life serving as a medic on the streets of Atlanta. He takes us from his early days in medic school to the shady world of code-two ambulance companies (outfits making their money on non-emergency transports), to the real deal—the busiest rig in the seediest parts of Atlanta. This is what he wanted. And this is what will break him.

With a mordant manner, he makes grisly ambulance calls and his path to burnout edgy and enjoyable. His writing background (as a freelance journalist and television writer) is apparent. With exacting word choices, spot-on metaphors, and an eye for dark humor, he creates a distinctive and credible voice. He observes small, absurd details, which makes the otherwise gory moments palatable for those who haven’t chosen a life requiring latex gloves and eye protection. One of his boots makes an irritating scratching sound after a vehicle accident: it’s a piece of skull he can’t dislodge from the lugs. A gunshot wound causes a man’s face to “flop down like congealed cheese off lukewarm pizza.” And when Hazzard gets stuck with a possibly contaminated needle, his boss reaches out, “If you bang your wife tonight? Make sure you double-bag it.” The irreverence is what makes the book funny and keeps the morbidity in check.

But Hazzard delivers more than a collection of adrenaline-fueled tales. He illustrates how his line of work affects those who crave it. It jades. On slow days, he bets on calls and plays “Which car would you want to be hit by in an accident?” And it immortalizes. He and his partner get so good at defeating death, they stop seeing danger. They don’t wait for cops and have to be saved from a riotous crowd. “This is our scariest day on the ambulance. It ends our brief stint as para-gods.” Hazzard owns the truth looming in a joke everyone in the business knows: What’s the difference between God and a paramedic? God doesn’t think he’s a Paramedic. Hazzard is brave enough to take this book in an introspective direction, showing readers casualties on both sides of the rubber gloves.

As memoir should, Hazzard’s story includes personal transformation. But it’s the weakest part of his book. The journey is predictable—from bright-eyed rookie to cynical veteran. Hazzard gives us no peek into his childhood, military school background, or journalism work— no hints about how nature or nurture formed a personality driven towards blood. The last sentence in the book attempts to answer the question, but it feels unsatisfying and perfunctory.

Still, he offers plenty of growth opportunity for readers. In addition to immersing us into a world most see only through Hollywood’s eyes, he has a refreshing subtext. Despite his irreverence, he manages compassion for those in circumstances they can’t get out of. The people he loads on his gurney come in all shapes, sizes, and conditions. A patient tired of cancer treatments leaves the hospital and lands on a park bench where maggots feast on a face sore. A grandma is dying from a broccoli floret no one can dislodge from her throat. Drug dens produce “frequent flyers.” A man nails himself to the wall with a nail gun, so his girlfriend can’t throw him out. A disordered person attempts suicide to flee an alien attack. But to Hazzard, they all bleed red, are having the worst day of their lives, and need someone to care about them in that moment.

This is a fast-paced, compelling story—a book worth reading if for no other reason than it’s an honest account of a world easy to look past, even though chances are everyone will ride in an ambulance at least once. Granted, I’m partial to true stories about emergency services. But well-told ones are a rarity. They tend towards self-congratulation or humorless reportage. Hazzard’s is neither. His book will make you laugh and cringe as you learn about what life looks like from the back of an ambulance. This is the balance I seek.

 

Clare Frank started firefighting at seventeen and ended up the highest ranking female chief for the State of California. Along the way, she became an arson investigator and attorney. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College, and her memoir is in progress. She lives near Tahoe with her husband and two big dogs.

Interview with Gayle Brandeis

Award-winning writer Gayle Brandeis is having a big year. With both a book of poetry and a memoir out in 2017, she sat down with me to discuss the female body, the challenges of writing a memoir, and the intersectionality of dancing and writing.

Wendy Hill: The Selfless Bliss of the Body, from Finishing Line Press, came out in June. How did the book come into being and what was your inspiration for the book?

Gayle Brandeis: I’ve been writing poems since I was four years old, and while the poems in the collection aren’t that old, a couple, including the title poem, were written when I was an undergrad (which was—gulp—about 30 years ago!), so this book has been in the works a long time. The manuscript has morphed greatly as I’ve tinkered with it over the years, as has the title—for a while, it was named “Lack/Luster” based on a poem about desire that no longer appears in the collection; I decided against that title after I realized it was handing reviewers an easy diss if they didn’t like the book (“Lack/Luster is lackluster”, har-dee-har-har). For a time, the manuscript had a section of love poems about my first husband; then it had a section of divorce poems about my first husband; then I took my first husband out of the manuscript entirely. It’s been quite the living document, this collection, a sort of evolving witness to my various obsessions over the years. After a friend observed there seemed to be several collections packed inside the manuscript, I decided to give the book more of a focus and winnowed it down to those poems that most specifically addressed living in a mortal body in the world.

WH: The phrase “selfless bliss”, in relation to womens bodies, strikes me as so radical and subversive. We live in a culture that expects women to be selfless when it comes to the things we do for others, one thinks of motherhood or volunteerism, or the way we treat friends or lovers. And feeling bliss in and about ones body is not normally associated with selflessness. It is a gorgeous concept, and one that I am so excited about.  Can you tell us more about how the title came to be?

GB: Thank you so much! When I wrote the title poem back when I was nineteen, I was at the beginning of my exploration into how our bodies connect us to something bigger, how our atoms are connected to other atoms, how we’re all buzzing together at the most basic level. There can be a pretty intense feeling of bliss when we move so deeply into our own body, we move beyond our own body, be it through dance or sex or being out in nature or whatever gets you to the starstuff we all share. There’s definitely a spiritual element to the poem, but there’s also a reference to “le petit mort”, that sexy little death that can obliterate the self.

Here’s the poem:

the selfless bliss of the body

i

somewhere, under skirts
of black, a nun brings
herself to orgasm,
making love with the christ-
nature of her hand, her husband.
as toes tighten, white thighs
tremble, she closes her eyes
and dies and dies with him
in the selfless bliss
of the body

ii

speaking your name,
i feel myself spiral
into my body as my voice
spirals out, uncovering,
discovering, the space
between my bones, swollen
with my small history,
empty, happy

iii

the body is a verb, not a noun:
even in a monk’s stillness,
the circle of breath, twist
of double helix, turns
always turns
towards its absence,
towards the empty body
of pure vibration

 

WH: I love that, “the body is a verb.” Your versatility as a writer is impressive. You have written award winning fiction, a great craft book, Fruitflesh, a phenomenal book of poetry, a young adult novel, many essays, and you have a memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mothers Suicide, coming out from Beacon Press. How do you approach genre when you begin a project, and what do you see as the intersections and divisions between the genres?

 GB: You’re so kind—thank you! When I begin a project, I often don’t know what form it wants to take—I may start with an image, or setting, or situation, or dream, or phrase that’s stuck in my head, something that sparks my curiosity in some way, and then I’ll see where it leads me. Sometimes it takes several drafts for me to know what I’m really working with. Several of my prose projects started as poems—The Book of Dead Birds began as a poem about dead birds in my life; several sections from my memoir are essentially cannibalized from poems I had written; a project I’m currently working on started as a collection of linked poems, evolved into a novel in prose poems, and now seems to want to be a play. Short stories become novels; essays spin down into poems; a novel I thought I was writing for adults ended up being one for young readers—it’s a constant dance, and I just try to stay open to where the work wants to go, and then craft it until it becomes most fully itself. Of course, each genre has its own specific set of challenges (as does each specific project), but they are all linked by language, and I always want to find language that is as fresh and alive and full of music as possible. I love fitting words together, seeing the friction or heat or flow they create. Language as alchemy.

WH: Can you tell us more about the memoir?

 GB: It’s the hardest and most necessary thing I’ve ever written. My mom hanged herself one week after I gave birth to my youngest child in 2009, in the midst of a psychotic break, and this memoir chronicles that chaotic time and my attempt to make peace with her and her final act. I actually stole the title from the documentary she was working on at the time of her death; she wanted the film to showcase her own artwork and raise awareness about the rare diseases she thought wracked our family. I transcribed the film and wove it into the memoir; that gave me a springboard to explore our family’s complicated history with mental and physical illness, and created space for her to speak for herself.

WH: Youve said that you cut twenty percent of the memoir in the editing process, that you realized that material was something you needed to write, but didnt belong in the finished product. What considerations inform your decision to cut when you are editing, and do you ever find yourself making emotional decisions about your projects or are you more of an unemotional editor?

 GB: I would say the ability to hack so much away was primarily a function of time—setting the manuscript aside long enough that I could gain a bit of detachment from my own words, and see them with craft eyes instead of through a lens clouded by emotion (the emotion didn’t go away, of course—it just kind of settled like sediment in a pond as I was focusing on craft stuff). Time away from the manuscript also helped me realize that my mom was more the center of the project than I was, myself, so all the stuff that didn’t involve my relationship with her—the end of my first marriage, etc.—really didn’t need to be there, even though writing it was cathartic and important for me. I had thought the memoir was ultimately going to be about me breaking my own silences—and it is in many ways—but the heart of the story turned out to be my attempt to come to a place of understanding my mom, and anything in the narrative that didn’t contribute to that understanding needed to go. Once I had that epiphany, cutting the manuscript felt liberating—each thing I removed gave the manuscript a clearer, tighter focus. Another thing that informed that revision was the death of my beloved father last year. Compared to that loss, letting go of words, even hard-won ones, was a piece of cake.

WH: What was the thing that most surprised you when writing the memoir?

 GB: There were so many moments of surprise through the process, but I think the most surprising of all was the fact that I was able to finish the thing. I really wasn’t sure that was possible. I felt as if I’d be writing the memoir my whole life—it felt so big and painful and overwhelming. When I finished the first draft, I couldn’t stop crying. I knew I had a lot of revision ahead of me, but the fact that I was able to find a shape, a container, for my pain and confusion, completely transformed my relationship to my own story.

WH: Many memoirists, especially if they teach writing, encounter other writers who want to know how to navigate the complexities of writing about real people. This has always struck me as an unanswerable question, one each writer has to answer for herself. What is your approach to this question when students ask it?

 GB: I agree—everyone has to find their own answer to this question. You have to ask yourself what you personally risk by writing about real people and whether that risk is worth it. I also suggest that writers hold nothing back in their early drafts, the drafts they will show to no one—don’t self-censor; don’t worry about what anyone will say or think. Write what you need to write; you can weigh the consequences of putting it in the world after you’ve gotten everything on the page. My sister struggled with my writing the memoir, which led to some painful conversations, but she ultimately gave me her blessing, and that fills me with such gratitude and relief; I know as long as we can talk about it, all will be well. Of course not everyone is as blessed with such understanding loved ones; each writer has to do what is best for their own well being.

WH: What most informs your writing life? Is there an element of your childhood or personality that you most associate with the desire to write?

 GB: My first poem was titled “Little Wind”—“Blow, little wind/blow the trees, little wind/blow the seas, little wind/blow me until I am free, little wind” and I think that writing, from the very beginning when I was so young, has been where I’ve felt most free (well, that and dancing). I’ve always been shy—writing has been where I can be most brave, most fully myself. Writing is how I best process the world, how I best figure out what it is I know. I think my lifelong tendency to step back and observe the world around me, to bear witness with all my senses, deeply informs my writing, as well.

WH: Most, if not all, of your books can be read as political texts. In The Book of Dead Birds you address environmental concerns and race. In Delta Girls your main character is a female migrant farm worker. Your new work addresses the female body and suicide, which is so misunderstood and stigmatized in our culture. How does your work as an activist connect to your writing? Do you see any division between the two roles? Are they driven by the same influences?

 GB: One of my mom’s greatest gifts to me was teaching me the power of the written word. She wrote what she called “poison pen” letters when she was upset about something, and I saw these letters make a difference in the world—she started letter writing campaigns through the PTA Safety Committee at my elementary school that led to a traffic light being installed at a dangerous intersection near the school, and got guns and ammunition removed from our local K-Mart. I started writing letters to the editor and the President at a very young age, so writing and activism have long been intertwined for me. Winning the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement gave me an additional sense of responsibility as a writer to continue to weave social issues into my work. The challenge is finding the right balance between art and politics, to not have too much of an agenda in my creative work, to let the politics be part of the fabric of the story, organic to it, so it doesn’t feel like me standing on a writerly soapbox (although there are places for that, in opinion pieces and the like). I am more engaged as an activist than ever in resistance to our new administration, but my resistance isn’t always in the form of writing. I haven’t worried so much about getting my own individual voice out there as I have in being part of a collective voice. It’s also been important to me to create space for voices that need to be heard, either by sharing work via social media or through the choices I make as editor in chief of Tiferet Journal, which promotes tolerance and empathy through literature and art, and founding editor of Lady/Liberty/Lit, which focuses on writing that addresses issues of freedom of body and voice by women-identifying writers.

WH: I spent much of my young life as a fairly serious ballet dancer, equally obsessed with ballet as I was with writing and reading. You have a background in modern dance. Do you see any correlations between telling a story with the body, with movement, and telling stories with words? Does your training as a dancer inform your writing?

 GB: Writing and dance have both been my greatest creative passions since I was very young, too! In college, I was in an alternative program (now called The Johnston Center for Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands) where we created our own concentrations, so, as far as I know, I am the only person in the world with a BA in “Poetry and Movement: Arts of Expression, Meditation and Healing.” In my explorations there—and since (although I don’t dance nearly as much as I’d like these days)—I have sought to write in a way that’s as muscular as dance and dance in a way that’s articulate as language. The nexus of the two arts is the body, of course, and I want to bring physicality onto the page, to write words people will feel in their own bodies. My craft book, Fruitflesh, was very much born of this desire, and I hope it’s helping other writers tap into their own bodies as rich sources of material for their work.

WH: I remember seeing you dance with such beauty and abandon at an MFA dance party about a year ago. I was taken with the sense of freedom you exuded in those moments. Thats something I strive for in my life, although I never feel like I quite achieve it, or to be honest, even get close.  That sense of freedom comes across in your writing as well as your dancing, and in our culture I think achieving that is an extraordinary and inspiring thing. Is that something you cultivate?

 GB: Thank you so much! As a kid, I danced freely—at home, at least, since I was too shy to do so in public. Unless I was on the ice. I was a figure skater, and, much to my coach’s chagrin, when it came time to perform a solo in an ice show or competition, I would often throw away my carefully choreographed routines and improvise to the music, let it move me across the ice. Something in me just took over. It was like being in a trance state. I love that feeling, that experience of entering a creative current and letting it whisk me away. I have always been more of an improviser than a technical dancer, more in the moment than focused on discipline. I suppose that describes my writing process, too.

I have to admit, I became a self-conscious dancer for a while—I went through several years of being very uncomfortable in my own skin as a teenager. I remember being at a party my freshman year of college; a friend said “You’re such a controlled dancer” and it felt like a slap in the face. I didn’t want to be controlled. I wanted to be wild. Free. I wanted to let music move through me the way it did when I was younger, so I suppose I did work on cultivating that abandon in a way; I made a conscious effort to break down the blocks that were keeping me from my original sense of freedom. Now dance is an unfettered joy for me again. I guess you could say it takes me to that place of selfless bliss.

WH: Where can we get our hands on The Selfless Bliss of the Body and The Art of Misdiagnosis?

The Selfless Bliss of the Body is available through your favorite bookseller. You can also order it through Finishing Line Press at https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/the-selfless-bliss-of-the-body-by-gayle-brandeis/

The Art of Misdiagnosis is available pretty much wherever you like to buy your books (support your wonderful local indies if you can!), or you can ask your local library to order it (libraries rock, too!)

I have to say having a memoir go out into the world feels very different from publishing a novel. I’m still wrapping my mind around the fact that this intensely personal experience (both the living of it and the writing about it) is going to be a product in stores. I see my mom’s eyes stare at me from the cover and something still catches in my throat. It’s a vulnerable feeling, but of course I’m grateful the book found such a wonderful home, and my dearest hope is that it will become a lifeline for those who need it, that it will help others feel less alone.

Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Two books are forthcoming in 2017, a memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press) and a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Press). Her work has appeared in such publications as Salon, The Rumpus, The Nation, and The San Francisco Chronicle; one of her essays was listed as “Notable” in Best American Essays 2016. She was named a Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer Magazine and served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014. She is Editor in Chief of Tiferet Journal and the founding editor of Lady/Liberty/Lit, and currently teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College.

The Sierra Nevada Review is now open for submissions!

​The 2018 Sierra Nevada Review is now open for submissions! We welcome your unconventional, surprising, and risky poetry, literary nonfiction, and fiction from September 15th to February 15th. Visit  https://sierranevadareview.submittable.com/submit and become a part of our 29th volume. Visit http://blog.sierranevada.edu/sierranevadareview for submission guidelines.

Interview with Matthew Komatsu

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.

 

Interview with Traci Brimhall

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.