Category Archives: Interviews

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.


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.

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


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


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


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

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.

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


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.

Interview with Andrew Bertaina

The week that SNR contributor Andrew Bertaina spoke with Sierra Nevada Review, he had just found the holy grail: one of his flash fiction pieces had recently been published by Tin House, one of America’s most prestigious literary journals. Bertaina spoke with one of SNR’s managing editors about this latest publishing success, his writing process, and his feelings on the future of the printed page.

Michael Fischer: Walk me through the conception of “One Person Away From You.” What were you trying to accomplish with the piece? When you sat down to write it, what was the goal?

Andrew Bertaina: When I think about that piece—which I actually wrote a number of years ago—the process of writing it involved waking up really early in the morning and writing. Which I almost never do, for various reasons—kids and stuff—but even back then I didn’t do it. And I found that my attention is a resource that gets used up throughout the course of the day. When I wrote that piece, I found that when I woke up really early in the morning I had a really clear vision and singular voice that carried me through. I wrote it over the course of about a week’s worth of time in hour-long writing sessions.

I think if I have a skill or talent in writing it’s conveying a feeling of loneliness, and I think that something about being up in the morning and having no one else up in the house with me and then doing things—there’s a part in there where the narrator hears somebody showering next door. That was just apartment living, which I was doing myself at that point in time: up early in the morning, and you’re feeling that sense of loneliness, and then hearing someone else’s shower go on, or seeing somebody across the way in your apartment building, and that immediate experience of not knowing anything that’s going on with them at all, and then imagining your way into their life. Which I feel is a part of what we’re up to in fiction anyway, crossing over that barrier.

MF: When you say you were writing in one hour increments, did you get a whole draft in one hour or did you literally write it in pieces?

AB: I wrote it incrementally over the course of about a week. And then of course I always go back and edit things. It’s hard because people talk about, “How many drafts do you do?” And I’m like, “I’m not sure,” because I’ll read through the beginning over and over and over. The first paragraph often gets read 20, 30 times or something like that. Because I feel that you have to read your way into the piece in order to get the voice, and I find for anything longer, I have to do that. In the course of about a week I had my rough draft.

Plot-wise, not a lot changed, which is often true for me. I write on an inspiration and I just go from point A to point Z, and then I spend the majority of the time after that first draft fixing sentence structures, pulling up or pulling out metaphors and things like that.

MF: You mentioned finding the voice of a piece. I think writing convincingly in the voice of the opposite sex is something that many writers just can’t do well. How did you approach that challenge? Were you very conscious of writing through the perspective of a woman, or did you just let the voice flow and trust that it was going to be authentic?

AB: More the latter, though I am always hesitant. It’s funny because this is a piece that I had workshopped and one of my friends said, “Did you just follow me around for a day?” And it was a female friend. I was very close friends with my mother and I was very close to my sister growing up, so part of it is that I have an easier relationship often with women. I think my primary relationship for a long period of time in my life was my mother. In some ways, my experience of her was the loneliness of being a single parent. I think just seeing that, when I start writing in that voice—which like I said, if I have a thing that I often do it’s often writing about loneliness—I feel comfortable.

Beyond that, some feelings are universal to the human experience and I would say that loneliness is one of them. So I’m probably going to try to capture that more than I might try to capture what it feels like to go out shopping for clothes or something like that, which, honestly, I just don’t understand. But if I’m capturing an emotion, that transcends gender and I’m comfortable in that space. All that being said, yes it is challenging, and the majority of my narrators are male in part for that reason, because I do think it’s difficult to do.

MF: I want to talk about the idea of judging—or not judging—characters when you’re writing. The narrator here is such an easy target in a lot of ways, but she’s written with real empathy. She comes across as weird and obsessive but also heartbreakingly normal and universal at the same time.

AB: I’m not a particularly visual reader. In some ways though, my writing has a lot of images and metaphors in it. I follow the voice and I think of the construct of language and think of what the language is trying to convey. I think what that character might think, but I don’t think particularly about how the character might come off. I’m almost surprised afterward when people will be like, “Oh, I can’t believe X or Y.” Actually, I find it somewhat strange when writers say, “I was just responding to the voice; I didn’t know what was going to happen next in the story.” But sometimes that is, in fact, the case.

You’re just writing a voice and then thinking the thoughts that this person would think and not worrying about that particular perception of them. And again, there’s an internal sort of dialogue that we all have in our heads that’s not externalized, and so in some ways this character is just externalizing something that, in reality, they would never say to their friend or somebody on the street. But hopefully what you’re doing in a story is making that internal voice that we all have that’s narrating our lives—sometimes in really problematic ways, which is true for this character—and maybe that does make them an easy judge. But I hope that would be the vehicle that would have someone reading it and not thinking, “Oh well this is clearly the way they are in the world.” This is the way they think about the world, but may not be the way they are in the world.

MF: What respective roles do you feel each of the minor characters—the women from upstairs, the woman on the subway—play in the overall arc of what you were doing? 

AB: Well, the obsession of the narrator is forming a connection with someone who’s now gone, so now this person is going about forming obsessive connections with anybody in the world. So you’re seeing that made manifest, how desperate the person is to connect, and then how little it’s happening. Particularly if you live in a big city, you can be sitting so close to somebody—and I suppose this is true everywhere—where you’re literally touching their leg, hearing everything that they’re doing, and yet they can know nothing about you. I wanted to juxtapose those things over the top of each other because this person is being denied a connection with people who seemingly could give it, and yet there’s no real connection there; it’s all imagined. Which is again what the narrator is doing with the ex as well.

MF: You’re a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast, so you’re on both sides of the submission process. When it comes time to submit your own work to literary journals, what’s your thought process and plan of attack?

AB: In some ways, I would say I probably do it wrong. I probably don’t do it well. But I think it depends on where you’re at in that process, and what you’re trying to accomplish. What I did do at first, when I had only like one publication credit, is I just did a lot of research. I hate to say it, but you’ve got to do a lot of research and figure out all the literary magazines that are out there. Look at them and say, “Do I actually want my work to appear in this magazine? What does it look like? Is it online or in print? Do they pay their writers? Can I find a couple pieces that are similar to mine?”

My aesthetic is definitely that good writing is good writing. I’m sometimes annoyed when a journal says, “We only except X or Y kind of stories.” Well, the history of fiction is the history of writing in a variety of different forms. To me, good literature is good literature, whatever form it takes, whether its experimental or extremely traditional. When I was starting out, I sent my stories to fifteen or twenty places (after doing some research). I just got excited about writing and in that process got some things published. And over the course of time, now I’m submitting to what I consider to be the top fifty journals or so. I give the piece a rundown and then just move down a list, a spreadsheet that I have that’s not very sexy, but that I spent a lot of time putting together.

It’s really hard work and spreadsheets and things like that. It depends partially on what you want to accomplish, and where you’re at in your writing and what you need. The best way is probably to just start at the top and just work your way down, but that may not be the right thing if you’re just starting out. You might just want to see your name get out there and get things published and get excited about writing. I’m not sure there’s a right way other than to do your research.

MF: You recently had a piece published by Tin House. What was the emotional experience for you, placing a piece somewhere that prestigious, in the kind of journal everyone is trying to get into?

AB:It’s funny, I was listening to a podcast about the way that we experience pleasure in our lives. Say you have a trip planned. You’re supposed to plan it way out in the future so you have time to look forward to it. The story in Tin House, the editor over there, on Thursday was like, “We’re accepting this piece. We’re going to publish it on Friday.” There wasn’t even any time for me to be like, “Yay, I’m doing this thing.” It was just scrambling, emailing him my bio at like 6 p.m. and the next morning around 9:00 it was up. It was such a narrow span of time, and then the piece is out there and you get however many Facebook likes and three of them are family members. And then it’s like, “Wow, nothing changed.” Whereas in some ways I wish I’d had more lead time on it because it was really quick.

On the other hand, I have something coming out in Threepenny Review, which I’m very excited about, in 2017. I think I found out about that in February. And that seems so distant that it’s like, “Oh.” But in both cases, I’m excited about it. I love it. I’m excited to see who’s in Threepenny Review that month and be like, “Oh look it’s little me,” next to these writers who are, in my mind, extraordinarily famous. But yeah, it doesn’t really change much.

I think that’s the perception that I had when I started the publication process, is that once you start to get published, people are going to be banging down your door. But it’s not the case. I mean it’s exciting, but yeah, life just goes on. If you’re going to keep writing, you’re going to keep writing stories, and if you’re not, you won’t.

I think literary fiction will always have a place, but it’s always going to be a smaller place in society. It’s a bit of a niche interest even though it’s a strong interest of mine. I have a writer friend who always says, “Celebrate what’s to be celebrated.” I try to keep that in mind as time has gone by and I’ve gotten less excited by getting published than when it was first happening. I think that despite that, your life may not change, but it’s important to celebrate, even if you’re not particularly good at it. Go get a drink with a friend and say, “I got a story published,” and be proud of it. That’s something I’ve gotten a little better at, is being proud and sharing work with people I interact with during my day, which I wouldn’t always do. Saying, “Oh by the way, I’ve got something coming out.” And that’s nice.

MF: Speaking of writers you think of as famous, who are some writers that you’ve admired over the years?

AB:It’s a boring answer, especially for a white male to give, but David Foster Wallace is definitely the person who I read in my twenties who made me think, Man, this is amazing, what people can do with writing, but my mind just doesn’t work this way. It works in a literary sense, but I don’t have a philosophical, mathematical interest like he does that allows for some of the things that he’s able to accomplish in fiction. So, he’s definitely a writer whose work I keep coming back to and that I teach in my class.

I love Zadie Smith—I love her nonfiction more than her fiction actually—and I do read more nonfiction now than I used to. And I love it when people read contemporary writers. I love Tolstoy, I love War and Peace, but Steven Millhauser’s short stories are amazing. Charles D’Ambrosio is someone who I find that I recommend to people. Kelly Link is someone who starts to transcend that form; you get the literary fiction mixed with what would traditionally be genre.

Those are a sampling of writers whose work I look to, but I tend to emulate when I read a lot of somebody, and then I don’t like it because it always feels a little bit like a cheap pastiche, you know? When you’re reading a master in a form, then for you to try to write the same story and it has a tendency to just feel like, “Here’s a master doing it and now I’m getting my feet wet and trying it out.” At this point I’ve been writing long enough that I have a little bit of my own style, a little bit of my own voice, and I have some things that I do—which sometimes they’re different in fiction and nonfiction, though I don’t always draw a huge distinction between the two—that are my own. And I think that it’s good to read broadly for that reason, because I think having one voice in your head is not going to serve you well.

In my graduate program, it did annoy me because my classmates were always like, “Why do we have to take English literature classes and read? I want to focus all my time on writing.” And I’m definitely the person who says, “Yes, absolutely, you have to make time to write.” So many people don’t make time to write. If you want to write, you’ve got to write. But you really need to read quite broadly, and you may be able to relax it a little bit if time starts to get tight, but you need that baseline. I spent years of my life reading really, really intensely, in order to build up a baseline that set the stage for me to get into writing, because I wasn’t particularly interested in it in undergrad. It was really after undergrad, having a few years off and just reading broadly, that I got interested. It gave me a perspective on how one might go about writing.

MF: You’re a circulation specialist at the American University library, so you have a closeness to the printed page in your daily life that the vast majority of people no longer have. How are you thinking about the hand-wringing that goes on over the future of publishing and the printed page in the digital age?

AB:I think literary fiction is going to be around. You can find articles from a hundred years ago or longer about how nobody reads anymore. People are reading; people are consuming text. They’re doing it online more than the printed page, but again I think there’s going to be a subgroup of people who just get really interested in literary fiction and those are the people who are writing and reading and consuming it, and I think that that’s okay.

I have my own feelings about the role that, say, commercial fiction plays in actually making enough money so that publishers can take a chance on literary fiction. I’m at the circulation desk and I’m checking things out. And they’re college students; they’re mostly checking out books for papers. But sometimes people come in and check out commercial fiction, and I wind up having an argument with my colleagues about whether one should be reading commercial fiction or literary fiction and what those differences are—things like that.

So, I definitely have a dog in the fight, but I don’t get particularly concerned about the difference between digital and printed page. Because I do think people still read and will continue to read. It’s a long answer for saying I’m not too worried about it.

MF: When you submit, is there a part of you that would rather see your work published in a physical journal?

AB: Yeah, I do prefer to have something come out in a journal that I can have. Aesthetics do matter to me, so it’s nice when it’s a nice journal. Like the issue of Sierra Nevada Review that my piece is in is a very nice, very beautiful issue. So I do actually prefer that, though it’s nice to have a piece come out and then be able to immediately share it with everybody, say, “Here, I wrote something, here’s the link.” I have a preference for a journal, but I can see some of the nice parts about having something digital.

And if every journal goes online in the future, I think we’ll adapt and it’ll be okay. But I don’t think that they will, because there’s always going to be this market for a physical journal. It unites the pieces that are in it more than an electronic journal does. When I’ve had my pieces in strictly electronic journals, the pieces feel less connected to one another and less related than when they appear in a physical journal. I think you can see the aesthetic more. It shouldn’t make a difference, but I think you’re more likely to read a physical journal, multiple stories right in a row, and see the connections and conjunctions between them than you will if you’re reading something online.

MF: Talk a little bit about your writing community. Do you have anything where you live or online? How do you situate yourself within a community of writers?

AB: I don’t much, which is partially a result of having young children, which means my time is very focused in that direction. After I graduated, I was the one who started a writing group with some people who I thought were talented, and we kept that up for maybe two or three years. I had almost stopped writing, and I had one or two publication credits to my name, and I ran into one of my friends from the writing group at an event. My friend said, “If you’re not planning time to write, just write short things that are 500 or 1,000 words.” And so I said, “Okay, I’m going to do that.”

So, I went home and I wrote four short pieces, in I think one sitting, and those have all wound up getting published. I’m not particularly involved. Hopefully I’ll get involved more as more time comes up. But I think those connections are worth seeking out, because I think I almost would’ve just said, “Well, maybe I’m just not going to write” if I hadn’t had that conversation with a friend.

I think if you’re a writer you need to be active in having a writing community. The MFA experience I had is very unique, but you are going to lose those connections once you get out in the real world. It’s finding those people whose opinions and writing you value, so even if you’re not always plugged in you have people who are checking in with you about your writing, your thinking. But by all means, I think if you have more time it’s great to be involved in your local literary community, and that’s something I will build up as time goes by, because I think there is a value in that.

MF: Do you run your pieces by anyone when they’re in drafts or do you just trust that you’re at a point where you know when things are ready and what needs to be fixed?

AB: I run them by people briefly, but not substantively anymore. I just write things to what I feel is completion, and then I’ll ask people to figure out if there’s anything glaring to it. At this point I usually draft four or five times and then—I don’t know if that’s good or not, but I know that’s what works better for me. The pieces that I’ve touched less—and like I said it may have something to do with the way that I write, which tends to be by inspiration—it’s better for me to really trust that first draft and just edit it a lot than it is to go back and take everybody’s feedback.

Because I’m writing shorter things now, that’s easier to do. It’s funny, I tell my college writing classes, “You have to be your own best editor.” By all means it’s lovely to have those voices in the room in an MFA program, but at some point you leave that, and hopefully you’re carrying the best of those voices with you in your own mind. You have to be the best reader of your own work. So at this point, I’m the primary reader of my own work. That story that appeared in Tin House; I didn’t send it to anybody else. I just wrote it, edited it, and sent it out.

MF: What’s your long-term goal for your writing? More flash fiction, a novel?

AB: I think flash and then stuff that’s slightly longer. Right now, I don’t have the time and investment that it takes to write a novel because like I said, something longer I think you have to read your way into. I don’t think I can read my way 200 pages into something every morning. Not that you’d have to go that far, maybe it’s reading your way into a chapter.

Maybe I’m a reflection of the culture in that I’m not seeing the necessity for it. I like to have short bursts of inspiration. Why write a novel when you can express all those ideas in about five pages? And that’s where I’m at right now. But who knows? The reality is, when I started out—everybody wants to write a novel, right? So five years from now, I may be in the middle of a novel and look like a liar. I’m not going to say never, but it’s not what I’m interested in right now.


Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, D.C. He obtained his MFA in creative writing from American University where he also now works as an instructor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than thirty publications including: The ThreePenny Review, Tin House Flash Fridays, Hobart, Apt, Isthmus, Sierra Nevada Review, Sweet and Catamaran. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.


An Interview with Wyl Villacres

I recently sat down with writer Wyl Villacres for a wide-ranging conversation about his work, his life, and why he’s sick of running into Irvine Welsh.

Wyl Villacres is a bartender from Chicago. He’s the author of the chapbook, Bottom of the Ninth (WhiskeyPaper 2015), and his stories have appeared in The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and Hobart Pulp, among others. Wyl was included in the 2014 Best of the Net anthology and was a notable selection for Best American Essays in 2015. He holds an MFA from Sierra Nevada College, along with a tremendous amount of student loan debt. Follow him on Twitter: @Wyllinois.

In part one, Wyl and I speak about his writing process and a few of his better known pieces, including Fire, The Bees, and Diet of Worms from our 2016 issue. We also talk about going to church with girlfriends’ parents to score brownie points, always second-guessing one’s work, and how to digest lazy workshop criticism.

In part two, we delve deeper into Wyl’s outlook on life, politics, and race. We touch on why Wyl doesn’t submit to journals that charge reading fees, the role live lit performances play in his work, and the time Wyl got arrested during Occupy Chicago.

Allegiance to Nature: An Interview with SNR Contributor Sadie Shorr-Parks

       Sadie Shorr-Parks piece, “Rat King Coal” was published in the 2015 edition of the Sierra Nevada Review. “Rat King Coal” concerns itself with the author’s allegiance to not only the Appalachian Mountains, but also nature itself in West Virginia. It is a critique of the coal companies in this area that are decimating natureSadieShorrPark Picture and, with their practices, making its inhabitants gravely ill.

      In addition to being published in the 2015 edition of the Sierra Nevada Review, Sadie Shorr-Parks works as a lecturer at West Virginia University where she teaches writing and rhetoric. Her nonfiction has recently appeared in Defunct Magazine and Sierra Nevada Review. Her poetry has appeared in Blueline and Lines + Stars, among others. Her poem “Greys, Counted Carefully” was recently anthologized in the book Gutters and Alleyways (Lucid Moose Press.) Sadie has written book reviews for Iowa Review and Southern Literary Review. She currently lives in Morgantown with her fiancée and her dog.

Tara Tomaino:

When you are sitting down, fingers thumbing through news feeds and to-do- lists, what is you best go to method for focusing on tasks at hand? In other words, when you sit down to write, can you describe your ideal atmosphere and head- space to achieve optimal creative outpour?

Sadie Shorr-Parks:

I think I’m always writing. I have a good memory, so I’ll write when I’m walking my dog or headed to campus. I’ll keep lines in my mind all day, work on them, and then jot everything down when I get home.

But when I’m sitting down to write, I like to be near a window. The view helps so much. The window in my studio looks out on a creek and a wooded hill. There’s even see a chubby groundhog that’s always running around my yard, endearing me.

To get in the right headspace, I usually listen to “Public Service Announcement” by Jay Z before I start writing. But I tend to switch to Bebop once I get going. I don’t like listening to music with lyrics while I write.


“Rat King Coal” is a place piece as much as it exists in other realms. Can you describe writing about “place” in non-fiction, or really any genre, and perhaps the writer’s allegiance or rebellion against the surroundings they describe in their work?


“Rat King Coal” grew from my dueling perceptions of nature as both a savior and danger. Like a lot of people who grew up in cities, I have this Walden-y idea that spending time in the woods will make me a better person. It’s why I moved from Philly to the Appalachian Mountains, I thought it would be healing to be around more trees.

Quickly after I moved to WV (West Virgina), I learned about mountain top removal, a coal mining technique that blows off the peak of a mountain. Obviously, this form of mining is catastrophically bad for the area. The water, air, and soil all become polluted. The houses and schools in the area get coated in coal dust and the residents get pelted with debris called ‘flyrocks.’ Clusters of people near the mining cites are developing tumors. In one area, the rain had the same pH as stomach acid. It’s nightmarish.

So my interactions with nature in Appalachia became more guarded. I was so afraid of my drinking water. I had to recalibrate my thoughts on surroundings. I became afraid, always wondering if there would retribution for decapitating a mountain range. There must be, right? The mountains must be so mad at us, right?

This piece is a critique of the coal companies in West Virginia. I wanted to show the emotional toll mountain top removal has on a population, or at least on me. My allegiance lays with the mountains and its inhabitants, not the coal kings of West Virginia.

In a broader sense. A strong sense of place keeps nonfiction honest. A person doesn’t exist in a vacuum.


What I enjoy about the “Rat King Coal” is its ability to transcend form. To me, I could see this as not only a piece of short non-fiction, but a poem as well. Would you mind detailing the attention you gave to each section break and why the piece appears on the page as it does?


In “Rat King Coal” I wanted to create a clipped, leaping experience for the reader to mimic how thoughts move during fear. Fear feeds on disorientation, and I hoped the section breaks would heighten the sense of the narrator’s thoughts restarting and regressing.


What element of nature inspires you most in your writing? Aspect of society?


I spend all day staring at sky, especially the clouds. Now that I live in the mountains, there are always the best clouds in the sky. I especially like dusk clouds, so smudged and moody. I’m cloud watcher. Clouds are enormous, yet so appealingly flighty and impermanent. They are a constant source of inspiration.

I also write a good deal about 20th century art and artists. I recently finished an essay on Rothko’s color fields, which, like the sky, are vast and atmospheric in their own right. Rothko’s really knock my socks off. I’ve even been knitting some Rothko style blankets right now, big swatches of color.


How do you represent people in your life through your work? Do you keep the names the same, change them? As a writer, what is your allegiance to the truth in people if you decide to write about them?


Writing about a loved one is tricky. I want show my loved ones in a positive light but not wash out their complexities. Writing an essay about a friend feels like the most formal version of talking about them behind their back. I try to approach with a similar level of tact and indulgence.

I try to choose stories that I can tell truthfully without hurting my relationship.


You are currently and English professor at West Virginia University. Can you tell me how you juggle the dueling responsibilities of being a mentor and focusing on your own writing? What have you gained as a professor? What have you sacrificed?


My student’s essays are so playful. They’re young, they value fun, and they don’t feel the need to divorce that from academics. My students remind me how important it is to that approach writing with joy and curiosity. They are just starting out as writers so some of their voices are so unique.

Putting together lectures and lessons plans does take up a lot of my time. But the process feels so similar to writing, with the emphasis on clarity and communication, that I enjoy the practice. I pour myself a coffee and think about the clockwork happening inside of a text and how I can remove the clock face for my students. I’m also teaching myself and brainwashing myself three days a week, on the importance of technique in writing.


What sort of revision process went into “Rat King Coal”? Can you describe your process for submitting work for publication?


The first draft of “Rat King Coal” didn’t have any sections breaks and was quite a bit longer. As I revised, and realized what I was trying to say, the piece took a shorter, more

segmented form. I ended my revision process by scanning essay and making some smaller changes based on meter and rhythm. Sound dictated a lot of my choices in “Rat King Coal.” I love reading this piece out loud.


Chocolate or Vanilla? Dogs or Cats?


Dogs, for sure. I have a dog, Gideon, and he’s one of my best friends. He’s a stray so I don’t know what breed he is. People call him West Virginia Brown Dog, but I don’t know, that doesn’t seem real.

Chocolate. I’m eating chocolate muffin right now and will probably be eating a chocolate cookie later today.

pictaratomainoTara E. Tomaino is a student of poetry at Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program and the Poetry Editor for the Sierra Nevada Review.  She enjoys spending quality time with her cat and her never ending rolodex of thoughts in Dark City (Asbury Park), NJ.

An Artist In Translation: An Interview with Derek Updegraff

Derek Updegraff photoDerek Updegraff’s short story, “Thursday Morning at A. R. Valentien,” was published in the 2015 edition of the Sierra Nevada Review. The story follows Greg, a middle-aged busboy frustrated with his life, who has a fraught and enlightening experience while waiting on country superstar Reba McEntire.

In addition to the Sierra Nevada Review, Derek Updegraff’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Bayou Magazine, Rosebud, Chiron Review, Posit, and other journals. His poems and translations have appeared in Natural Bridge, The Lyric, The Classical Outlook, Saint Katherine Review, Metamorphoses, and elsewhere, and his articles on Old English language and literature have appeared in Oral Tradition and Texas Studies in Literature and Language. He is the author of three chapbooks of poetry, and in the spring of 2016 his novelette Into the Ends of the World will be published by Blue Cubicle Press in the Overtime single-story chapbook series.      

He holds BA and MFA degrees from Cal State Long Beach and MA and PhD degrees from the University of Missouri. He is currently an Assistant Professor of English at California Baptist University and lives in Riverside with his wife and two daughters.


Brandon Dudley: To start off, I wondered if you could talk a little bit about what inspired your story. Does the spark of a story tend to start with ideas, themes, images, or is it something else entirely?

Derek Updegraff: Well, with this story the thing that triggered it was the setting. I worked at the restaurant in this story as a busboy when I was in my mid-twenties. I had an MFA, and I was newly married, and I was doing the adjunct circuit, teaching mostly at San Diego Mesa College but also at UC San Diego, but adjuncts rarely get summer classes, and so I would take on odd jobs in the summers, one summer at Barnes and Noble, one summer at the restaurant in this story, and so on, until I went to grad school again to break the cycle. So I knew the atmosphere of this setting well, the dining area of the restaurant as well as the inner-workings of the kitchen and the hotel it is connected to, and I always knew it was a great setting for a story, but I didn’t know what the story would be or when I would write it. As it turned out, I waited almost ten years until I dipped into the memory of that space. The characters came next, but the space led the whole thing into existence. And the second question you ask is a good one. Do we as writers begin a story with an idea, a theme, an image, and so on, and for different stories we might have different types of starting places, but as I look back on my other short stories, I would have to say that I tend to begin with the concrete rather than the abstract. I don’t worry over theme much, especially at the early drafting stages, and I usually start a story because of some tangible, sensory detail, whether it is a setting I’m intrigued by, a bit of dialogue I overheard that plays over in my mind and calls for expansion, or any image or experience that sticks with me and wants to be explored more fully in a story, even if its particular use is not yet clear to me.

BD: Your main character has this very moving scene in the restaurant with, of all people, Reba McEntire. Why did you choose Reba?

DU: I don’t remember if I was a few paragraphs into the story or a few pages in, but at some early point in the drafting process, I realized that the busboy character—Greg—needed to be middle-aged and not in his early or mid-twenties, and I knew that the minor conflict of his feeling demeaned by his job could carry the story only so far. So I started thinking about situations that I could drop Greg in that would bring about the crisis, and I think I always knew that an encounter with a customer was inevitable. And as I was mulling over possible scenes, it occurred to me that this was not just any environment. This was a restaurant attached to a pretty impressive hotel in an exclusive area of San Diego, and in the time I worked there I saw a handful of celebrities dining even though I never served them or talked to them. And the staff would tell stories of the different celebrities who had frequented the place. Tiger Woods was a regular because the hotel is right there at the golf course. At any rate, I figured out that Greg needed to have an interaction with a celebrity, and I made a list of names of the people I had seen there for myself and the people I had heard were once there, and then I added a few inventions of my own. The person who stood out on that list was Reba. Perhaps because she was one of the individuals I really saw in the place but never talked to. But more than that she seemed like the perfect choice. She’s not an obvious choice. Hers is a subtle but consistent fame. Not over the top. And she seems to me to be the kind of person who really would have responded to Greg in a sweet manner. I have no idea what she’s like in person, but she seems like she’d be sweet, doesn’t she? So I thought about the list for a day or two. I wrote this story during a semester when I was teaching a lot, and there were often days between the drafting. And after she emerged as the front runner, I returned to the writing knowing that Greg would meet her. Then she helped characterize Greg, helped fill out his backstory. He needed to have his adolescent fantasies. She needed to be someone he respected and admired but has not thought about in many years. She was able to fill that need. She was a gift, really.

BD: One of my favorite aspects of the scene with Reba was the way you increased the tempo of your sentences. The increased rhythm helped created this palpable sense of desperation and urgency within the encounter. It felt very poetic, really, and so it wasn’t a surprise to then find out that you are also a poet. I wondered if you could comment on the two forms and how they influence your writing? How does poetry influence your fiction and vice versa?

DU: I’m glad you appreciated those sentences. That long paragraph before the final break at the end is probably my favorite section in the piece. I wrote the sentences quickly in the first draft, and I’m usually a fairly slow writer, and then I went back and added, deleted, and changed things only as clarity and sharpness dictated, not wanting to undo the original impulse. The rhythm was a product of me genuinely sympathizing with Greg there in that moment, when his body is frozen and his mind is racing, certainly a more subjective moment than the evenness of much of the third-person-limited blanketing the story. And I’m glad you called it poetic. I was certainly aiming for quick continuation—I think often times the word “and” is the best word we have as writers—but the rhythm created by the language, by the relatively even distribution of stresses or strong sounds amid unstressed lighter sounds, does have something to do with my background in poetry writing. For me, sound is an important aspect of every mode of writing. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing a poem or a short story. If I’m not reading aloud in the middle of composing, I am certainly always reading aloud once a draft exists. Over and over. Even prose paragraphs. I read them aloud multiple times to make sure everything sounds right. The importance of sound was impressed on me when I was an undergraduate studying with Gerald Locklin in Long Beach. He taught form and meter even though he mostly moved away from them after his early writing, but he made his students write villanelles and sonnets and other forms, just as he had been made to, and he helped me hear iambic and trochaic rhythms, and anapestic and dactylic rhythms, rather than just seeing them through scansion and lifeless notation. I stayed at Long Beach for my MFA in fiction, and during that time my writing world centered on learning the craft of the short story, but I continued to study poetry with Gerry in those years, formally and informally, and then when I was at Missouri I was once again surrounded with tremendous writers who helped me in various ways, but I was also immersing myself in linguistics and early medieval literature courses, two areas which had been of tangential interest to me as an undergrad and MFA student. We can’t be experts in everything, every genre or time period, but we do need to read a lot and have a general sense of all that’s come before as well as what’s being written today, and then we need to delve into some of those spots, and where exactly we’re jumping in is going to influence our understanding of craft and help shape our individual styles. For me, the study of language became important, as did the history of meters and developments of sounds in English. And not just sounds but internal structures. In that scene with Reba, there is at least one moment of chiasmus, as well as other types of parallelism. The chiasmus I’m thinking about is: “and while he was staring at Reba, and while Reba was staring at him.” And in the moment when I was first drafting that lengthy paragraph, I don’t remember actively thinking, Hey, that’s neat; there’s chiasmus. But I do remember finding it as I reread what I’d written, and I was delighted to see it there, and to hear it there. So certainly that awareness of and appreciation of sound and structural conventions in poetry and in language generally has had an influence on my prose. And as far as fiction having an influence on my poetry, I think that’s there too. I remember being in a poetry workshop in Scott Cairns’s office with a handful of other grad students, and we were all just getting to know each other’s work. And after about the second or third round of workshopping, someone commented on my poems often having a clear narrative focus. And that’s true though I don’t think I knew I was relying on it so heavily. The poems I like the best have crisp, concrete details in them and avoid abstractions, and often times they tell a story, whether directly or implicitly. In my own poems I frequently employ dialogue and write in the third person. I don’t do it all the time now, but occasionally my poems are simply very short stories in verse.

BD: I’ve seen that you also translate work from Old English, Middle English and Latin. What sparked your interest in that field, and how has working in translation affected your own work?

DU: Well, there are a lot of things I could say about all of that, but I’ll try not to carry on for too long. My dad is a classicist and has taught Latin and Greek at the same private high school for over forty years. He had planned on becoming a professor. He went to Oberlin and Stanford and then in his mid-twenties took a job at a high school that he thought would be a temporary job, something that might last for a few years before he moved on to something better. But he fell in love with the place and has stayed there for his whole career, and I was able to attend the school on scholarship as a teacher’s son. I started taking Latin in seventh grade, and I just hated it. I stuck with Latin throughout high school and had my dad as my A.P. teacher, but in those years I was not an ideal student. At some point in high school I remember getting into writing, though it was a lesser interest than what it would become for me in college, but I didn’t yet have an interest in studying languages. I’ve always loved and admired my dad, but Latin was his thing, and as a teenage boy I didn’t want my dad’s thing to be my thing. As I was growing up, people would always ask me if I was going to be a teacher like my dad. And the answer was always “no” when I was a kid, and here I am now, a teacher who loves teaching, a teacher who has also been teaching since his mid-twenties. And the truth is that I did grow to love literature in my adolescent years, even though I writhed a bit within the institutional structure that is school. And so as I began to take writing and the study of literature seriously in my late teens and early twenties as an undergrad, and then as an MFA student, and eventually as a PhD student in my late twenties, I found myself choosing to take courses in classical and medieval Latin, and I was reading Catullus and Horace and Ovid and others again, in the Latin, and loving it and thinking to myself, How could I have not loved this stuff earlier. What was wrong with me? And I probably realized that to be a writer meant to understand language, and then what had been boring to me before—declensions and conjugations and structural principles—became really fascinating stuff because it gave me insights into what language really is. I don’t think people can really understand their own native language until they have studied at least one or two others in depth. In the fourth grade I became fluent in Spanish because my family lived outside of Madrid for a year, and that’s another story for another time, but I forgot all of my Spanish within a year or two of being back in the States from lack of use, and I don’t have many memories of learning or studying Spanish. I just learned it as kids so easily do. But as an adult I really came to know English well because I was studying other languages, because I was learning Old English and Middle English, and some Old Norse and German, though the latter was for reading comprehension only. As of today, I can’t speak a second living language, and I’m a little embarrassed by that since I was bilingual at one point in elementary school, but I do love working with dead languages, especially Old English. I had my first course in Old English as an MFA student, and I took it because I needed to get to sixty units and I remembered liking Beowulf well enough in translation as an undergrad. Not to go on and on, but I was instantly hooked, by the language, the seemingly loose but actually complex meter, the subject matter, everything. Many of my favorite poems are in Old English. And there are great prose pieces too. Saints’ lives. Homilies. Really beautiful, interesting works. I ended up writing my dissertation on some of the works by the monk and homilist Aelfric of Eynsham. And one of my in-process book projects is a series of translations of his saints’ lives, though that book is moving along very slowly at the moment due to time constraints. But there’s a real need for updated translations. There are plenty of Old English texts that have not been translated into present-day English or are available only in outdated translations. Many of Aelfric’s saints’ lives, for example, have not appeared in translation since the 1800s. I have a new translation and edition of his Life of St. George coming out in a journal this fall, and as time permits I’ll keep chipping away at producing more. And to get to the second part of your question, I would say that for me all the modes I write in influence each other, as I said earlier with fiction and poetry, and I consider translation to be its own mode too, as Walter Benjamin claimed it to be, because often what happens when we translate is the pushing through of our own ideas, emotions, experiences, and so on, even though they are navigated through, or maybe sprung from, the work of someone else. But we do get into a gray area here, and some people like the safer word “adaptation” when a new work seems to have emerged from the old one, but I still prefer “translation” in those looser cases because a translation is always a new work—it’s never the same work—but there are certainly a lot of ways to handle the source text, so the translator’s intention then remains a valid thing to keep in mind. For me, when I translate Aelfric, I like to think there is more Aelfric in there than Updegraff because I want to pass along Aelfric to others, even though they’re also getting a bit of me, of my diction, and so on, since language is always idiomatic, but then in some of my translations of Catullus, for example, people get more Updegraff than Catullus, and that’s because the love interest in his poem becomes the love interest in my real life, and his places and situations are turned into my places and situations, and I don’t worry about such things then as the difference between the speaker and the poet because that distinction isn’t important in all lyrics and is a relatively recent obsession within the history of lyric poetry, so what we had—for me—was Catullus the poet and then what we get is Updegraff the poet as standing in or leaping from the moment first expressed by Catullus. The final thing I have to say about working in translation has to do with reading for craft, which is something all serious writers have learned to do and is something I try to teach my creative writing students. Although there is always some overlap, I teach works differently in a creative writing classroom than I do in a literature classroom, and I ask my creative writing students to learn to read as writers do. Well, the translator reads with the same slowness and structural appreciation as the writer should. Most writers read other writers with an eye toward craft and the functioning parts of the whole, and we listen with an ear toward craft, and while we’re attending to the pieces, we set meaning on the shelf—that illusive and debatable thing—at least in the beginning. The best literature professors and critics read this way too, of course, but many readers focus on information and content, or their own pleasure, and while those things have their importance, the translator is forced to contend with craft in a very intimate way, and the serious writer also learns to do this at some point in his or her career.

BD: It sounds like your father was a major influence on your writing life. Who else would you consider influences?

DU: Yeah, he was and still is. And I mentioned Gerald Locklin and Scott Cairns earlier, and really all the writers I had my fiction and poetry workshops with, folks like Aliki Barnstone, Rafael Zepeda, Stephen Cooper, Suzanne Greenberg, and Charles Harper Webb. I would read all their books and learn from them as writers and teachers, and of course often their influential people would become my influential people, as it happened with John Fante, whom I might not have ever read if it weren’t for Steve Cooper and all he has done through the years to promote Fante’s work. Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff might be the writers who have most shaped my fiction. Many other names come to mind, like Aimee Bender and George Saunders, but I think Carver and Wolff have taught me more about the short story than anyone else. And there are many other poets that come to mind as well, like Richard Wilbur, Wendell Berry, Alicia Stallings—who goes by A. E. Stallings—Stanley Kunitz, Philip Levine, and Heather McHugh. And even some of the more artful critics like Roland Barthes, who blended the academic and the creative in ways more people should do.

BD: I saw in your profile on Poets & Writers that you just launched a BFA program at California Baptist University. I wondered if you could talk about how your years studying writing, the good parts and the bad, have shaped this new program?

DU: That’s a good question. Thinking first about teaching, I can say that much of what I do in my courses is modeled after what my own professors did in their courses. There is a common workshop structure that, as far as I have experienced and could tell from talking to friends in other programs, is the norm for creative writing classes, but within that common workshop structure each professor has idiosyncrasies, some of which I liked as a student and some of which I didn’t. At one of the institutions I attended, a guest poet was brought in whom I was excited to have. Well, within the first day or two, she or he had us writing things in class, there on the spot, and then required us to read aloud what we had just written for an impromptu discussion of the newly created work. And that terrified me, and it upset me, because even though I had been in a number of workshops and knew that bringing in writing and reading it aloud was part of the deal, I had never been required to read something I just pieced together. As a student, I always looked forward to my workshop days. I loved reading my work aloud and getting feedback, but I wanted to read only the material that I had worked over long enough and thought ready for the workshop environment. So, I actually got up out of my seat and walked out of the class before my turn came around to read. And I dropped the class that day, and I felt bad that the guest poet probably thought I was a rude person for leaving, but really I just acted quickly out of panic because I had never before been told to read something aloud on the spot like that. Now as a professor, I do often have my students complete writing exercises in class at the beginning of the semester before we have gotten into full workshop mode, but I would never require my students to read aloud what they just jotted down in class. I tell them my story about the displeasure I felt in that bad experience—or almost-bad-experience since I left without reading—and then I ask for volunteers to read aloud their in-process works, only volunteers in the early days, while reminding them that they will all be reading aloud their more polished versions in the coming weeks of workshopping. So that story comes to mind, but really the bulk of my years studying writing has been positive, very positive, because I thought highly of my creative writing and literature professors and had some great peers whose feedback I always looked forward to receiving in workshop. So, pedagogically speaking, I think to a large degree we are all shaped by the programs we come out of. But to answer the main part of your question concerning program development, I think it was helpful that I studied in more than one genre at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. For me at least. So I wasn’t designing with an eye toward the needs of the fiction writer or the needs of the poet exclusively, as I might have been likely to do if I was one or the other. But instead, after identifying the core number of tiered workshops that would be required in a given genre, I looked at the existing courses in my department and across the campus and tried to gather elective units that would be helpful supplements to the fiction writer or to the poet or to both and then create some pieces that were missing. And some of my colleagues assisted with this and brainstormed with me. The result is, as it seems to me, a good mix of asking students to take courses in a couple of genres—whether fiction, poetry, nonfiction, screenwriting, or a topical subgenre—but then to settle on one specifically to pursue more at the upper level and to center on for a final project, all while taking literature courses and other courses in the nonliterary arts that might inform the student’s chosen genre. And I think one thing we did well was to give our students a good amount of freedom within the major’s gathering of non-writing courses. I can think back to one of my degrees in particular and remember that there were some curiously narrow requirements that have since been loosened up. So I think that is a strength of this new program, that students get an appropriate mix of range and specialization in their creative writing courses, and quite a bit of freedom too with the time periods and genres they study in their literature courses.

BD: Could you tell us a little bit about what you’re writing now? Where can we expect to see you next?

DU: I’m working mostly on fiction right now. It’s hard sometimes wanting to work in fiction, poetry, and translation since at different times I feel pulled in multiple directions, or if I’m in a period when I’m focusing on one mode, I feel as though I’m neglecting the others. And I like to think I’m a scholar too, and writing academic articles certainly takes a lot of time. Well, all writing takes time, doesn’t it? But at this moment I am in fiction mode more than the others. And for me—at least in this period of my life—that means working on short stories rather than a novel. As far as forthcoming publications go, I do have fiction, poetry, translation, and academic writing slated to appear in various places toward the end of 2015 and throughout 2016. My next short story being published is called “Story at Midnight,” and that is scheduled to appear in issue 60 of Rosebud, which is a nationally distributed magazine people can pick up in Barnes and Noble and other bookstores. The last I heard, issue 60 was scheduled to be on the shelves in late November or sometime in December. So, if interested, people can go buy it then and read that story. And I recently sent off a collection of short stories to a few places. I titled it Chrysalis & Other Stories and sent the manuscript off, and then shortly after that I changed my mind and sent off a slightly differently arranged manuscript titled The Butcher’s Tale & Other Stories. They’re essentially the same collection. The “Thursday Morning” story is in there. I wish I could answer right now by saying that so-and-so press will have that book out in 2016 or 2017, but maybe it will be 2026 or 2027. That’s the way it goes sometimes, and I try not to worry about time too much, for acceptances or for my own life. One of the best interviews I’ve ever read was with Tobias Wolff in Jay Woodruff’s A Piece of Work. At some point in the interview Wolff is talking about craft and time and how time is on the side of the writer, and he says that in most cases writers produce their best works with some life seasoning. That’s a paraphrase, but I know for certain he uses the word “seasoning” because that word, “seasoning,” stood out to me. I first read that interview in my twenties. It was helpful to me then, and it’s helpful to me now that I’m in my thirties, and I suspect it will be helpful to me in my forties, and fifties, and so on, because as long as I’m still around and able to write, I want to get better and keep producing my best stuff. I think it’s important to like your own writing. All of us writers need to like our own writing. We need to feel proud of the things we’ve written, be glad that they exist, but then we need to look ahead and strive to create better things than we’ve done before. That’s my goal anyway. So I hope that collection of stories gets picked up by a press soon, but either way I’m on to the next thing, which today is another story I’ve recently started, but I can’t say what it’s about because I don’t like to talk about pieces while they’re in-progress.

B Dudley

Brandon Dudley is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, where he is assistant fiction editor of the Sierra Nevada Review. His fiction has been a finalist in the Slice Literary Writers Conference Bridging the Gap Competition and a Million Writers Award nominee. He has had interviews and criticism published in storySouth and Fiction Advocate. He lives in Maine with his wife and two sons.