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An Interview with Brenna Womer

We at the Review are just as excited as you are for the 2016 edition to hit the shelves! Get hyped   for its release with a little interview with Brenna Womer, one of this year’s awesome contributors. Check out what Brenna has to say about writing inspirations, her piece “Frâiche” that we’ll be publishing, and which review is right for you.

What was the first experience with writing you had?

From a young age I had the desire to keep a journal and would go through phases where I’d commit to writing an entry every day. But I was inevitably dissatisfied with my inability to give adequate weight to my experiences, and often, I ended up tearing out the pages days later and ripping them into tiny pieces because I was embarrassed. Writing was stressful because I expected everything I wrote, every idea I had, to be spectacular. I quit writing for years, then picked it back up in college with fiction, and after a few semesters I learned it was okay to just get my ideas down, to play around with words and characters. When I took the pressure off myself, writing became fun.

What are some authors that you’ve read that have helped you to develop your writing style?

Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From was the first collection of short stories I ever read and I was greatly influenced by his use of domestic settings and his masterful creation of tension between characters. My stories are very character-driven and I strive to write characters as complex and relationships as tumultuous as Carver’s.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt will always be one of my favorite collections. I love Aimee Bender’s portrayal of characters, often women, during periods of disruption and adjustment. I also enjoy her discussion of female sexuality—what sex means to different characters and how they use it. These are themes I like to explore in my own writing.

In Junot Diaz’s book This is How You Lose Her—another of my favorites—not only am I immediately drawn in by the voice and his use of language, I admire the bold way he writes about class, race, sexuality, and masculinity. He consistently tackles difficult themes with honesty and authenticity, and his stories always leave me in awe.

**

What inspired your piece “Fraîche”?

“Fraîche” was actually born of a prompt in my graduate fiction workshop. Our assignment was to write a story using a borrowed form, and because eating is something I love so much I consider it a hobby, I thought I would try to write a story in the form of a menu.

What was your writing process for this piece?

Well, I began with the idea of a menu, and because I’m interested in relationships, periods of adjustment, and sex, I thought I would have the main character on a first date. I am a woman and I’ve been on dates, so it just felt natural to write this from a female’s perspective. I honestly didn’t even realize the story was in second person until I was finished and read back over it. I love to read second-person stories but haven’t written many myself, so I was relieved by how painlessly the point of view was established. I’d like to think second person helps alleviate some of the main character’s angst in this story because of the POV’s innately perceptive and instructional tone.

I didn’t have a strategy for weaving the menu items into the narrative, so I started looking through recipes for meal ideas. As I put the menu together, ingredients started sparking my own memories, so I decided I would write the story as a string of word associations and disjointed, worried thoughts as they might occur to someone on a first date as they read down a menu. It really was a fun piece to write!

**

Where’s the weirdest place you’ve ever written?

Oh goodness. The other day I had been revising a memoir piece at a coffee shop for about four hours when I finally made myself pack up and go. But I kept writing in my head and while I was driving home I had this idea for a sentence, so at a stoplight I opened up my laptop on the passenger seat and typed manically until the light turned green. Cops use laptops while they’re driving, so that makes it okay, right?

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

As I touched on when I was telling about my journaling failures, putting pressure on yourself to be endlessly insightful and eloquent will do nothing but foster self-consciousness and frustration. Start with a prompt and see where it takes you. If there is a character you want to flesh out or a place you would like to describe but you don’t yet have a story they fit into, just write what you have. The notepad in my phone is filled with random ideas, notions, and mini character sketches I jot down while I’m at work or happy hour or eating dinner, and when I’m stuck on a story or looking for inspiration, I scroll through those notes. Also, it’s fun to look back at the notes and find the seed of a now 10-page story.

My biggest piece of advice, though, is to pay attention. Be nosy. Listen in on conversations, watch people, ask a lot of questions and be sure to listen to the answers, and if you are curious about something, don’t just let it flit by without pursuit.

How do you know the literary magazine you’re sending work to is the right fit?

Reading literary magazines is the best way to figure out whether you think they would like your style, and it’s also a great way to keep up with how the writing community is evolving. I’m very fortunate to be a part of the English Department at Missouri State University where the Creative Writing faculty is very focused on keeping up with what’s new and exciting in the writing world. And because they are, one of my professors decided we needed a literary magazine library. It is a great resource, and if I’m wondering whether or not my writing would fit with a particular publication, my first move is to run downstairs and see if we have their magazine.

If you don’t have access to the publication, at the very least you should be able to find something on their website, most likely under the submissions tab, that will give you an idea of what they like to publish. Our library didn’t have a copy of Sierra Nevada Review, but when I read on their website that they prefer work that is unconventional and experiments with form, I thought they might be interested in a flash piece in the form of a menu. And I’m so happy they were!

Be sure to pick up our 2016 copy this summer, and look for Brenna’s work in the poetry section!

Signing out,

H


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Brenna Womer is a Creative Writing graduate student at Missouri State University where she teaches composition and serves as an Assistant Editor of Moon City Review. Her work is forthcoming in Grist’s Online Companion and the Sierra Nevada Review and has been published in NEAT. and Midwestern Gothic.

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Hayden Takahashi is an English undergraduate student at Sierra Nevada College where she currently serves as an Assistant Editor with the Sierra Nevada Review.

DIY POETRY SCENE- Part II

Part Two:

An Interview with Allyson Dwyer

Check out the conversation I had with local playwright and poet, Allyson Dwyer!  Hailing from Matawan, NJ, Allyson talks to me about what it is like being a writer in an up and coming scene as well as what Beatles album she feels her writing most embodies.  Allyson is a frequent open mic reader and a featured poet at both Damian Rucci’s Poetry in the Port and Cord Moreski’s Words on Main, the two local poetry readings at the Jersey Shore.

Enjoy!

Tara

Writing Scared

by Brandon Dudley

Something I learned very early in the Sierra Nevada College MFA program, thanks to my mentor Alan Heathcock, was how helpful fear can be in the writing process. According to Al, he knows he’s doing something right when he’s nervous hitting the submit button on the work. That’s something I’ve tried to remember every time I send out a story.

Fear, at its best, means the writer is tackling something close to their core. They’re tapping into something important and meaningful and harboring genuine emotion. They’re exposing something true about themselves.

That doesn’t mean the work is necessarily in any way autobiographical. It could be about getting stranded on Mars, or getting attacked by a bear, or being hunted by a witch (you’ll have to forgive the movie references, I’m writing this on the day of the Oscars). But the subtext is true; the emotional core of the story is true.

It’s something I’ve noticed editing the Sierra Nevada Review this year. The stories that risked some form of exposure, that created some genuine fear in the writer before they hit submit, those were the ones we enjoyed, admired, and, with many, accepted.

Something else Al told me early on resonated here as well: “The greatest grief of human experience is that we are all separate.” We are all bound within our own bodies, and the closest we can get to true empathy—to understand the world as another person sees it—is through storytelling. And that’s what made it so obvious that those writers were exposing something true: we felt that connection. The separation was erased, just for a moment, because the writer was willing to put a crucial piece of themselves on the page.

I thought about that often as I read the work submitted to the Review. All other elements being equal, the stories that risked exposure in some way always rose to the top. By exposing themselves, by subjecting themselves to that fear, these writers were more likely to bridge the gap separating them from the reader. It doesn’t always work, of course, because our experiences vary so widely that what resonates in one reader might not in another. But more often than not, that bravery lifts the reading off the page and creates a genuine empathetic experience. And the work that risks little or nothing? Well, it feels like reading little or nothing.

By writing to expose yourself, you’re actually writing toward others. It doesn’t push people away, as I’d at times feared, it invites them in. Instead of making them recoil, it makes them want more. We are people greedy for connection, and the best way to make that connection is to take risks, to lean into your fears, and write until it scares you.

DIY POETRY SCENE – Part I

Part One:

So You Want to Start Your Own Poetry Collective?

ONE OF THE perks of being in a low-residency MFA program for an aspiring poet is that she belongs to a community of writers. The low-residency program at Sierra Nevada College is undoubtedly a sanctuary for me, an aspiring poet in said MFA program, and provides not only useful tools for my studies but also allows me to enter an intense program surrounded with like- minded individuals. But when the residency ends, when the silent shores of Lake Tahoe are but specks of cloud dew on the plane, I am back in New Jersey and am searching for a continuation of a poetry scene. It’s great to be able to curl up in the corner of my tiny apartment five blocks from the boardwalk of Asbury Park, listening to the Atlantic Ocean instead of the Lake while studying. There is a sense of personal gain, as my corner is now plastered with poems I need to edit or thoughts I need to put to poems. But a girl can only have a conversation with a wall for so long before she wishes for her words to bounce around the streets of her city.

Asbury Park is the Detroit of the Jersey Shore. Once a bustling resort town, it now exists in the shadow of its former self, with Bruce Springsteen echoing through the vastness of Convention Hall. Topping the state’s list of most dangerous cities in the Garden State, it is now just beginning to see a revival. There is a bustling downtown that was not present ten years ago, a new hotel opening in the heart of the boardwalk area, and droves of hipsters gentrifying and spreading their influence faster than plague rats. Famous for its music history, there is also a lot of art and great food to be found throughout the revived areas. This is the all necessary to make any great scene, so the lack of a writer’s group or poetry collective has been a serious concern of mine. I just needed to meet the right people.

Before the beginning of my last residency, I was invited to a local poetry reading by friend and mentor Laura McCullough. She was reading from her forthcoming collection, Jersey Mercy. I happened to be free that night (from the chains of corporate retail slavery that night) and wanted to check it out. The reading was at Espresso Joe’s in Keyport, about twenty or so miles north from my little corner. I had the foresight that if I went I would be able to speak with those like-minded individuals, who also felt like there was a serious lack of a scene at the Jersey Shore.

Cue Damian Rucci. A native to the Bayshore (which includes aforementioned Keyport), this no-holds-barred poet is kicking ass and making poetry his life. Poetry in the Port, his bi-weekly series on Thursdays at Espresso Joe’s, features poets and an open mic for all types poets, whether seasoned or recreational. In his ruffian stature and words, I found a warm embrace to join his fold since he greeted me with a similar desire to reinvent the Jersey poetry scene. Damian, as the backbone to the collective I am part of, will be featured in this blog series as it progresses.

When I am not busy listening to the talents of my clan twice a month on Thursdays at Poetry in the Port, I am at Dino’s on Main in Asbury Park for Cord Moreski’s hosting of Words on Main. Cord is another local poet and collective leader, a kind and intelligent lover of all things words. Every other Friday, Cord gathers with fellow writers at an Italian eatery on Main Street in the city. He follows the same format as Damian, a set of featured poets and a free-for-all open mic. Cord will also share with us some words of wisdom in the coming weeks.

Chelsea Palermo, another New Jersey native and poetess, is the ringleader for the Ministry of Artistic Intent. A talented writer with a beautiful reading voice, Chelsea hosts this monthly workshop in the confines of the Waterwitch Coffee shop. The workshop invites local poets and writers to host a workshop within the group. After the workshop, attendees are invited to share some words with an open mic. We will hear about her tips in creating a poetry scene later in the blog.

The first video blog will be an interview with active playwright and poet, Allyson Dwyer. Allyson is a currently an MFA candidate at Augsburg low-residency program in Minneapolis, Minnesota for playwriting. She will also provide some insight on what it is like to be a writer in a burgeoning poetry/writing scene.

With this blog, I hope to to show you how to create your own local poetry scene within your community.  There is much more than a sense of inflated ego that comes with presenting your art to the world! Hopefully one day you can make a collective that has the power to melt people’s faces off.

Or at least singe their emotional receptors!

tara

Hello From the Other Side: Some Editorial Observations

by Brandon Dudley

As a writer, the submissions process feels a lot like feeding a picky toddler. You offer them the best meal you could possibly make, a meal that includes so much of what they love that there’s no way the child could turn down.

But they just spit it right back at you.

And you don’t know why. You never know, because they barely speak to you. Once in a while, you might get a couple words of explanation, but usually it’s the equivalent of,  “I like this some days but not today.”

So you throw up your hands and go back to the kitchen.

I joined the staff of the Sierra Nevada Review because I was hoping to figure out what goes on inside . And I’ve figured out a few things that might be helpful, or at least comforting, to other writers.

1. Luck helps.

Sometimes, when submitting your work, you just get unlucky. You wrote a beautiful story in second person that just happened to be too much like the second person story we accepted a month ago. You could never know that the reader who happened to get assigned your submission hates dark, twisted pieces, or that we’ve just read one too many depressing stories about dead cats, or we’re just not in the mood for another weird sexcapade again.

So don’t take it personally. Of the 1,300 people that submitted to us between September and February, only about 35 were accepted. That’s an acceptance rate of .027 percent. Even at a small lit mag like ours the odds are long, with or without luck. If you keep working at it, though, luck will eventually break your way. That said….

2. You can help yourself get lucky.

There are things you can do to help improve your luck. Some have been covered ad nauseam on other writing web sites: keep the cover letter short and sweet; format your work properly; follow all the submission guidelines; read the magazine before submitting; polish, polish, polish; etc.

Follow all that advice. You are not the exception to that advice.

This has been covered before, too, but it can’t bear repeating enough: you must grab the reader’s attention right from the start. Because lit mags face a constantly growing pile of submissions, it’s incredibly rare that you’ll get the chance to recover from a weak opening. If you’ll allow me another metaphor, it’s like going on a date. You need to be on top of your game from the time you sit down at the table. You don’t get to be boring and derivative all through dinner and then hope you can wow them with a toe-curling goodnight kiss.

You have to grab the reader right away. Impress us with your language, your plot, your characters, your dialogue. Because we’re looking, desperately, for something to hold on to. We want stumble across something beautiful and tell everyone: Look at this! We really do.

So start strong. That means don’t start with a character’s name, then ramble on for a page about their traits and backstory. That doesn’t make a reader care about the character or the story. Show us the character in some unique and interesting light, or throw us into a conflict from the first line. Impress us with a lyrical, short description of the setting and plants us in a place so deeply we feel like we’re there, then populate it with interesting characters and compelling situations.

Start the date out right, and maybe you. That said…

3. You do not need to shock us to get our attention.

It’s surprising how many submitters go for the gross or strange right off the bat. Usually, this just backfires.

You want to start your story with a graphic scene of violence? How about sending in that piece about the weird and probably illegal act with the dog? You want to start your submission with an anthropomorphic penis riding a camel? Guess what? So did the last submitter (except it was a burro). We’ve read all those stories.

If we can go back to the date metaphor, this strategy is sort of like sitting down at the restaurant, opening the menu, then asking your date if they want to have sex on the table.

All I’m saying is a little foreplay would be nice. Build up to it. Makes us care about the characters, the plot, the conflict, before you throw the truly crazy stuff at us. We’re not prudes. We like the weird. And to be honest, sometimes we like it right from the start. But the key thing is it has to be done well, it has to exist for a reason, and it has to be done for more than just shock value.

In the end, the only thing you can do is your best work (weird or not). Polish it until it shines, send it in, and while you wait, start it all over again on your next piece. More than anything, this gig has taught me patience is key. Great work gets turned down for so many reasons, many out of the writer’s control. But great work will get recognized in the end.

Writers in the Woods Interview Series: Rebecca Makkai

Writers in the Woods Interview Series: Rebecca Makkai

by Carly Courtney

Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Hundred-Year House, winner of the Chicago Writers Association’s Novel of the Year award, and The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut which has been translated into eight languages. Her short story collection, Music for Wartime, was published in June of 2015. Her short fiction was chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008), and appears regularly in journals like Harper’s, Tin House, and New England Review.

You can purchase Music for Wartime here and on most online book-retailers: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780525426691

What is your favorite story from graduate school?

I have a Master’s in Literature from Middlebury College in Vermont. You go every summer for five summers and then you have a master’s degree… but I met my husband there! He was literally the first person I met: I got out of the taxi with my suitcase, and he was the first person that I met. I was like, “He’s really cute!” Then “No, you’re just thinking that because he’s the first person you met at graduate school,” and then I ended up marrying him. We had some wonderful professors, and because it was a summer program, they were from all different institutions. Oskar Eustis, who was, at the time, was already a theatre director (now he’s the director of the Public Theatre in New York- he’s a major director), taught my contemporary modern American theatre class and it was incredible. This is a guy who does not himself have even a college degree, but he was the most dynamic professor that I’d ever had. I remember him, on the third day of class, talking about “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” and he just started openly sobbing, tears falling down into his beard (he had a big bushy beard), just totally unembarrassed, sobbing about this play. It was one of those classes I would retake in a heartbeat. It would be my first choice of any class I’ve ever taken. I was so excited to get up the mountain to hear him speak that I got a speeding ticket!

 

Have you ever published anything you were positive you’d get in trouble for? What was it? What happened?

I’m terrified about a lot of stuff I’ve published. Once your stuff is out there, you do get really bad reviews, it’s inevitable, and sometimes very publicly. Unfortunately, on a bad day, that voice can be in your head as you’re writing. “This is what people aren’t going to like about it, this is what people are going to mock it about, this is who will be offended by it.” You do really have to turn that off. I’m really scared about the book I’m writing now because it’s about the AIDS crisis and that’s not something that I was personally affected by. I know that there will be reviews that question my right to tell that story, or are really eager to point out any way that I got it wrong, and I just have to be okay with that. I thought a lot about whether it is what I really want to publish, and it is. I can’t control what story I want to tell any more than people can control their dreams; you tell the story you want to tell. I just have to be okay with the fact that I’m doing the best I can, I’m trying very hard to get it right and to do justice to the people whose story this is, and I’m going to try my best not to upset anyone, but just the fact of its existence, there is going to be some people who have an issue with it.

What was the weirdest place you’ve ever written? Did anything come of it?

I think you have to be able to work in all different places, you can’t just be able to work in your one special spot. I’m sure I’ve written in weirder places, but what sticks out in my mind is when I wrote a whole story sitting on the floor of an airport during a flight delay. It was very short, I wrote the entire thing right there. It’s a story in my story collection called “Everything We Know About the Bomber.” It was right after the Boston Marathon bombings, right after they caught the one brother and killed the other. So, CNN is playing this endless loop in the airport of basically every photo they could obtain of these people, every fact about their lives, so that’s basically what I wrote. I wrote this really short, weird story that was not directly about them, I changed all the details, but it basically just reads like this absurd news report of all these details, everything we know about this one bomber. I don’t think I would have ever written it somewhere else, I wouldn’t have written it if CNN hadn’t been in my face, I don’t normally write watching CNN, but I guess this is what happens if I do, and it was published in a literary magazine and it’s in my story collection, so good things came from it.

 

Do you have a favorite story in your story collection?

You know, I have to tell you something. I’ve been touring for this book for almost a year and no one has asked me that! I think I do. There’s a story in there called “Good St. Anthony Come Around,” and it is actually, in a very different way than my novel in progress, about the AIDS crisis. It’s set in New York city, it’s about artists, so it’s very different than the novel. It’s the last full story that I wrote for the collection. I wrote it as an entry into the world I was going to be writing about in the novel, I thought I wanted to write about [the AIDS crisis], I wasn’t sure, I was trying it out a little bit with this story. And I really love that story! It’s not a story that other people pick out as their favorite, though. It cracks me up; there are certain stories that people always bring up in interviews, and that readers will talk to me about which stories they like, and some of them never get mentioned. Not that people didn’t like them, maybe they’re just quieter stories, because if I do bring them up I get the “Oh yeah!” but they just don’t get mentioned, and “Good St. Anthony” is kind of one of those. People will occasionally bring it up, but it doesn’t seem to stick out to other people the way it sticks out to me. I think it’s probably that it might not really be the best story in there, I like it a lot, I think it works, but for me I like it because it’s what I’m obsessed with right now. It’s the world that I’ve now dove into, and this was the beginning of that. I think I like it for other reasons than just its artistic merit.

Do you think it’s a good exercise to write a story about what you plan on writing a novel about?

Not necessarily, no. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, or something I ever plan to do again. I have to say, it wasn’t entirely deliberate. It wasn’t like I said, “I’m going to write this story because I’m going to do this novel.” I didn’t realize back then how very much my novel would be about AIDS. I thought it was only going to be a small part of it, and partly it was the writing of this story and the research that convinced me that my novel should be more about that. The only risk of that for a lot of people might be that you write your interest out of it. If you write the short story, and if it worked, then why write the novel? Except for the fact that both are about AIDS, everything about the story and my novel in progress is completely different, different city, different characters, different themes, different tone.

What is the most inspiring book you’ve read in the last 5 years?

I don’t read books for inspiration, I might be inspired artistically, but I don’t read to be told how to live my life or to feel a certain emotion. Sometimes you read to be deeply disturbed or to be mildly entertained, so I’ll answer it in the sense of being artistically inspired. This happens every time I read Alice Monroe, who most people acknowledge is our greatest living short story writer. Every collection of hers ups the ante for me on what I realize is possible in short fiction, and it makes me step up my own game. For that reason I’m usually terrified to read her because every story I read of hers it’s like, “Oh no, I made more work for myself because I have higher standards and new ideas.” But of course I’m still going to read her, I just space it out a little bit. The last collection of hers I read was her last collection called Dear Life and it had stories in there that just blew apart… not my conception of what a story can be, she’s not doing anything that experimental with form or tone, but more these little moves she makes that if you look at them from a craft perspective as a fellow writer, you can see what she’s doing, even if you don’t know how she did it. It’s like being a magician and watching a magician who’s way  better than you, to the point you can’t figure out how they did their tricks, but you know you have to try,  because now that you know that its possible you want to do that too.

If you were a super villain, what would be your goal?

Do I have to be a villain, does it have to be a bad goal? I think I would have pretty good goals: free alternative education for everyone, and do away with Monsanto. Maybe some people would see those as evil, but that’s the thing about villains, they believe they’re right. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. But, for me being like, “Yeah I’d do away with Monsanto, and I’d have Montessori schools for everybody, and all the food would be organic,” someone else might see that as the most villainous plan ever.

Who’s your favorite author to follow on twitter?

There are certain people who are just hilarious, and there are certain people you just grudge-follow, the people who just humblebrag a bit too much. You like to follow them for the wrong reasons. There are people who are just genuinely hilarious and relatable on social media. One of them is Danielle Evans, she’s a short story writer. She only has one book out so far, called Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. She’s just really funny, on Facebook especially. There’s a writer, Jami Attenberg, who lives in New York. It’s partly that she’s really funny, and partly that she has these hilarious pictures of her pug that you kind of can’t look away from.

Do you listen to music when you write?

No. I really feel strongly about it actually. I know plenty of writers who do, I don’t judge them for it or anything, but I always advise my students not to. You need the musical part of your brain engaged with your writing. And if the musical part of your brain is busy listening to Beyoncé, or even to Bach, you’re not tuned into the rhythm of your own sentences. I know some people argue that the music helps infuse their writing with a sense of musicality, but I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think you’re borrowing the rhythms of Bach to put into your sentences, that doesn’t make any sense. I will occasionally listen to music before I write, but it’s more to recapture the mood I was in when I started writing a piece, or listen to a piece that has always meant something to me in relation to what I’m writing, but I do feel like it messes with me. Especially if there are lyrics. It’s like having someone shout in your ear; you don’t realize it, but it really is! If there are writers out there and it works for them, and they are serious, published, amazing authors, I take their word for it. When students say it works for them, I don’t believe them for a second, and I try to convince them that they’re wrong. Especially if they’re not doing well. If they’re making a lot of grammatical mistakes and the sentences aren’t flowing and I’m writing “awkward” in the margins a lot, then I say, “Hey listen, I think I know what your problem is: take the headphones off! Jay-Z is not helping you write this story.”

I know your novel in progress has a cult element: have you ever interacted with a cult or cult members in real life? Was it a preexisting interest?

I was never in a cult or anything, but I will say I had a very weird religious upbringing. My mom was ostensibly protestant, but she and my dad were also both, and still are, deeply into astrology and reincarnation. I kind of don’t want to believe that stuff, but it’s weirdly accurate. I would test her on it, and it was really, bizarrely accurate. My dad got into this, not cult, but occult religion. Occult, to some people, means Satanist, but occult just really means that there are secrets within it, and you have to get to different levels before you can learn the secrets. It’s called Anthroposophy, and he and his wife are really into that. My sister became an evangelical born-again Christian in college, and she’s 10 years older than me, so that was a big part of our household. This isn’t a religious thing, but I just like to laugh about it: my mom sent me to Amish farm camp one summer, so I was exposed to the Amish. And then, my sister started letting these Mormon missionaries into our house, and then the Mormon missionaries were coming once a week, and then we were going to a Mormon church for a month or two. I came out of it completely agnostic, like, I’m going to look at this all from the outside, I’m not in on this anymore. My sister is still really, really religious. It is a little bit of a rift between us. We still get along, but we really don’t see eye to eye on that. I also had a friend in high school who had grown up in a cult in Ohio. It was a boarding school, so when she went home she was still a part of this “group.” Actually, I did also write a story about a cult, but it totally failed. I think because it didn’t really work and I was still interested in [cults] that I felt like bringing it into my novel and seeing if I could make that interest work there.

Did you like “The Cat Poem” from All Def Poetry?

I liked it, but I didn’t think it had a lot of substance to it. I think a lot of spoken word poetry is very performative, which is great, that’s the point, but sometimes we get so into the performative aspect that we forget the person isn’t really saying anything, but it was cute.

 

SNC POETRY CENTER’s Community Discussion Hour

SPRING SEMESTER 2016: THURSDAYS 3-4 PM

Join Poetry Center Co-Director Laura Wetherington every Thursday to explore the collection of books, chapbooks, and broadsides. Most community hours will be open-ended, informal explorations of the Poetry Center’s collection. Occasionally, we’ll have read-arounds and discussions about specific poems.

THEMED COMMUNITY HOURS

Allen_Ginsberg_and_Bob_Dylan_by_Elsa_Dorfman

February 25th–Read-around of Howl by Allen Ginsberg
Howl first premiered 60 years ago. Help us celebrate this monumental work by performing (or listening to!) the poem.

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March 10th–Discussion of Mg Roberts’s poems
We’ll read and discuss several of Mg Roberts’s poems. Roberts will read during our 3rd annual Poetry Center Celebration on March 25-26.

tyrone-williams

March 24th–Discussion of Tyrone Williams’s poems
We’ll read and discuss several of Tyrone Williams’s poems. Williams will read during our 3rd annual Poetry Center Celebration on March 25-26.

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April 7th–Discussion of Lindsay Wilson’s poems
We’ll read and discuss several of Lindsay Willson’s poems. Wilson will read with Writers in the Woods on April 8.

Interview with Roy Scranton on “The Terror of the New”

The Terror of the New: Interview with Roy Scranton

by Carly Courtney

War veteran, journalist, author, and Princeton PhD candidate Roy Scranton has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Boston Review, and Theory and Event, and has been interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air, among other media. His new book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization discusses the importance of learning to face ones mortality when up against the worst enemy humankind has ever faced: climate change.

(available now at  http://www.citylights.com/book/?GCOI=87286100064510 )

Roy Scranton’s essay, “The Terror of the New” was written as a response for a panel titled “Innovative Aesthetic Approaches to the ​ ‘Global War on Terror’” at the 2013 & Now Conference of Innovative Writing & the Literary Arts, in Boulder, Colorado. The panel included Jena Osman, Philip Metres, and Hilary Plum.

 

How did you decide to sequence the many different elements of your essay?

​My essay grew from the insight, present in Stockhausen’s comments about 9/11 and in Don DeLillo’s comments (voiced by Bill Gray) in Mao II, that there is a profound connection between modern art and contemporary terrorism. The organization of the essay was intended to explore that insight, first through Stockhausen and one of his critics, then expanding out through Adorno’s work until we finally arrive at the moment where we can see ourselves addressing the question of “innovation” in art practice.

What do you mean by the Satanic Modernism you reference in your essay, and do you believe it will continue to inspire destruction (to create True art, horrifically compelling) until there is nothing left, or will something stop the cycle of annihilation?

While the modernist ideology of artistic innovation remains potent, it seems too passé where it it not being actively critiqued by contemporary art producers who are more interested on the one hand in recombination, recycling, and recontextualization, and on the other in producing increasingly banal art commodities that come to buyers as if already pre-consumed (Jeff Koons being the most eminent example).​

Have people continued to become more and more aware of (and concerned with) what the government is doing “abroad, to others, and at home, to us” since you began writing your essay?

​The current debate over the acceptance of Syrian refugees might be seen as a symptomatic argument over the repressed memories of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans, much like any other people, are primarily narcissistic in their orientation, and only think seriously about other peoples when they are forced to, usually by violence.

Do you think (if a conservative republican was to be elected president) the increase in censorship in time will lead us back into a Renaissance era of art (not “horrifically compelling,” beautiful but safe, like portraits, etc.)?

​Ever since art developed out of religion into its own sphere of human culture, it has almost always lived on patronage. This was true even during the brief explosion of democratic arts in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. State censorship is not a great worry in the US, because the forces that constrain artistic and literary discourse operate primarily through self-censorship, non-governmental institutional norms (e.g., MFA programs), and market forces.

 

 

Scranton, Roy. “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Reflections on the End of a Civilization.”              City Lights Publishers, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.

The Intersection of Grief and Art: An Interview with Aisha Sabatini Sloan

SloanAisha Sabatini Sloan’s “Ocean Park No 6” appeared in the 2015 issue of the Sierra Nevada Review, and was one of our nominees for the Pushcart Prize. The essay explores the grief of Juliette, a friend of Sloan’s, after the death of Juliette’s son Ramin. The essay weaves the exploration of her grief with an exploration of artists such as Joan Didion, Michael Ondaatje, Richard Diebenkorn, and others, creating a tapestry that explores how art and grief collide.

Sloan is based in Tuscon. Her book, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White, was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013. Her work has been or will be featured in Ninth Letter, Identity Theory, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, Guernica, The Offing and Ecotone. 

A contributing editor for Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics, she has taught creative writing and literature at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, Carleton College and the University of Michigan’s New England Literature Program. 

 

**

Brandon Dudley: I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the creative process behind your essay, “Ocean Park No. 6.”

 

Aisha Sabatini Sloan: It was a long time coming. I had an idea for a project, a broader project, that got sparked when Anne Waldman came to speak at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. She had this really moving description of coming up with an idea for a poem while being in a place in Paris where a young child had been discovered and taken to a concentration camp. I was moved by the idea of visiting locations where something devastating had happened.

Then, I was on the phone with my mom when she was at our friend Juliette’s house, and I was talking about the project, and I just sort of imagined she [Juliette] would be a part of it. That’s where it started, with this almost spiritual beginning, of wanting to visit places of, not trauma exactly, but loss, intentionally, in the web of my life, and she was a really obvious one.

And I also wanted to have a more extensive, intimate research process. I didn’t want it to just be about reading and making connections in the comfort of my own living room. I liked the idea of spending a lot of time thinking about something with someone. And it was interesting to work on something over so long a period of time that was both a creative project and a personal project. We had conversations over the course of a few years, and they weren’t any different than conversations that we had before that, I was just intentionally curious about making sense of something with her. In some ways the creative process was based on her, because she had this curiosity about the connection between Michael Ondaatje and Richard Diebenkorn, but also Wallace Stegner.

In some ways it was a failed project, because I didn’t fully investigate all angles of it, but the creative process was based on following her [Juliette’s] own lines of inquiry and where her grief intersected with her creative interests and the things that resonated with her artistically. She mapped it out for me and I was trying to look into these overlaps where her own experience of say, Diebenkorn intersected with Ondaatje, and it was interesting to map that and actually discover whether or not they made any sense together.

 

BD: That’s interesting because the structure of your piece was one of the things that I really loved about it. I was wondering how you came up with the different elements that you braided together, and it sounds like you didn’t actually come up with them, it was created through following Juliette.

So, that sort of braided structure with all these different topics seems to be one that’s fairly popular in nonfiction lately. I was wondering if you could talk a little about why that might be.

 

AS: Most of my essays, the ones in my book especially, follow that kind of pattern. One of the ways that I learned to trust in the magical intersectionality of the world was from growing up listening to Juliette make sense of things, so obviously I would use a structure that honored her particular brand of seeing, or intelligence. But braiding essays is a structural approach that I’ve been fascinated by for awhile—or collaging, lyric—following associative leaps and finding ways that these riffs are actually less tangential than you’d originally thought.

But braiding isn’t new. Joan Didion has been weaving personal narrative and politics and current events for years. I notice that now that everyone’s doing it, I have started to feel resistance. In fact, I was part of a reading in March called: “Don’t Call it Lyric: Inquiry, the Essay and Independence” with Amarnath Ravva, Brian Blanchfield and Maggie Nelson. It sounds more militant than I think it actually was, in spirit, but the title was informed by a desire to push back against the presumption that as soon as a certain approach becomes fashionable, we forget that there are still a million ways to approach the page.

So I have started to really question, at the start of a piece, whether braiding is what an essay is actually calling for. You still have to synthesize things and find your voice. I think that nonfiction allows for so much formal play because the concept of truth telling is so inherently political, so psychologically fraught. So the way you prevent yourself from lying or warping or censoring the truth might look different from day to day.

 

BD: I was wondering if weaving all those different elements together made it easier to access the emotional core of the essay, which is the death of Ramin, Juliette’s son, because it seemed like a fairly emotional topic.

 

AS: I don’t know that it was hard to write about because it was emotional, necessarily. I cry almost every time that I write. I write toward, or out of, emotion most of the time. For this essay, though, I was trying to figure something out about what Juliette taught me, and part of what she taught me was about loss, but the other half of it was she taught me about beauty. She’s been an artistic mentor my whole life and I think touching that vulnerable place of grief with her while also wondering about how she relates to beauty gave the whole inquiry a foundation or intentionality.

 

BD: One of the elements that came up frequently in the essay was Joan Didion. Is she a major influence on you? Who are some other influences?

 

AS: Ever since I was in high school Joan Didion was the person who got me interested in nonfiction. Reading Blue Nights was a huge influence on my experience of talking with Juliette. Michael Ondaatje was formative for me—just holding Coming Through Slaughter in my hands makes me so inspired I can barely stand it. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts and The Red Parts were all pivotal reads. I practically dissociated when I finished Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss years ago. Fanny Howe’s Winter Sun. Anne Carson’s Decreation. I love Photocopies by John Berger. Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. James Baldwin’s essay collection Price of the Ticket was a bible for me for many years.

 

BD: What are some projects that you’re working on now?

 

AS: I share my father’s paranoia about talking about a project too early, I feel like it jinxes it.

 

BD: Is your father a writer, too?

 

AS: Yeah, he’s a writer, and he worked for many years as a photojournalist. The whole sort of associative thing, talking about different threads, he was my first influence in terms of that. He’s always connecting things and interviewing people and has twelve books that he’s reading, and a movie on, and all that. I feel like in a lot of ways that that formal influence was pretty significant.

 

BD: You said you’re teaching as well. Where do you teach, and how do you think teaching influences the writing, and how does your writing influence your teaching?

 

AS: I’ve been teaching for the past nine and a half years or so. I think I learned a lot about my writing by trying to explain how to do it on a pretty basic level to other people. I taught a creative writing and a literature class at my alma mater, Carleton College, this time last year. And then right before that, the University of Michigan has this program, the New England Literature Program, where you go out into the woods for a couple months and read and write in a journal and there’s no technology. I’ll be doing that again next year. Right now I teach fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders in a residency program that the University of Arizona Poetry Center facilitates in middle schools and elementary schools in Tucson. It has been a huge heart opener. I absolutely love it. Many of my students are refugees and I feel so honored to even share space with them, they are such incredible human beings.

 

BD: That’s interesting. I teach high schoolers, mostly sophomores, and I don’t know how I’d handle teaching middle schoolers. Those younger ages seem pretty tough. But high schoolers are pretty tough. Who knows, maybe they’re the same.

 

AS: I wonder if college freshman and high school sophomores are that different. Well, that’s not fair. Some of my students have been far more mature than I’ll ever be. But teaching freshman composition can feel a bit like recess.

 

BD: I hope, when I’m done my MFA, to at least teach at the college level part-time. So I’m curious how different they really are. I’m hoping they’re at least a little more motivated than high school sophomores.

 

AS: I think it depends. I think it’s always amazing to remember that you actually have some control over that. I get so jaded that I forget that my own interest in something could open something for them. You know, I might give up before I’ve started, but they’ll read something and become sort of entranced by the language and I remember, oh, yeah, we get to try every time to get them as excited as we are.

 

BD: Could you recommend one writer or one essay that, if you could recommend them or it and say “You have to read this,” who would it be?

 

AS: I just finished Wendy S. Walters’ Multiply/Divide, I think that book is doing something remarkable to the question of nonfiction. I just started reading Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World, Patti Smith’s M Train, and Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls and I’m loving them all. White Girls by Hilton Als sort of rocked my world. I am a huge fan of Fred Moten, Jen Hofer, Eunsong Kim, Bhanu Kapil and Claudia Rankine. And my friends are pretty amazing, too: Arianne Zwartjes’ Detailing Trauma and Beth Alvarado’s Anthropologies were really influential for me. Brian Blanchfield just published an amazing essay in Harper’s called “There’s the Rub.”

 

BD: Is there anything you wanted to talk about, or that you hoped I would ask about but didn’t?

 

AS: I’ve been seeing these conversations about the literary world through Facebook, and I was feeling pretty disenchanted for a little while just about the sense of deflation and frustration that a lot of writers of color are feeling right now in the world of publishing, but there was this great conversation on the Poetry Foundation web site called “Talking About What We Don’t Talk About: Roundtable with Eunsong Kim, Amy King, Lucas de Lima, Hoa Nguyen, Hector Ramirez, Metta Sama, Nikki Wallschlaeger.” And Metta Sama says, “What happens if more of us use our positions of power to not stabilize and uphold and invest in the white masculinity of these academic institutions, but use our positions to challenge and, as Grace Lee Boggs implores us to do, REIMAGINE EVERYTHING?” It was a call to action to re-create these systems that we sort of assume are our only choices, you know MFA vs NYC, another false binary.

I got to interview Kwame Dawes for Guernica a while back about the African Poetry Book fund, and he just talked about getting this idea to collaborate with other writers to start these libraries in different African countries and publish work of African poets because he didn’t notice that anyone was doing that. I think the idea of creating programs, whether they are MFA programs or just sort of literary outreach programs, beyond what’s already available, that kind of thing really excites me. I’m curious to see where that goes, that sort of frustration mixed with concern, Maybe ten years from now things could be pretty innovative and exciting if all of this energy gets transformed into something.

 

BD: Thinking of that frustration and that energy, are there any projects you have in the back of your mind that you feel like you might pursue, either your original ideas or maybe other projects that you’ve heard of that you might be interested in taking part in?

 

AS: I’ve definitely been on the verge for a while now of wanting to start something that involves a reading series, maybe an international writer-in-residence program, possibly in Detroit, where my family is and where I’ve been headed. But I’m not sure when that’s going to click, because I keep having the idea and not knowing when to go for it.

I’m a yoga teacher and I like the idea of combining healing practices with writing, because I think when writing is in the service of figuring things out on a personal but also global scale, trying to figure out how you can actually contribute to yourself or the world healing, I think it’s kind of an exciting thing.

I’m not sure how that will manifest, but I definitely hope that at some point it will turn into something beyond just private brainstorming.

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.

Crisp Days and Blue Skies: An Interview with Christine Lasek

christine lasekChristine Lasek’s “Precious Blood” is, on one level, a short story about a grandfather purchasing a pickup truck in which a man committed suicide. But the story, which appeared in the 2014 issue of the Sierra Nevada Review, is also about memory, war, loss and the bonds of family.

Lasek’s debut collection, Love Letters to Michigan, will be published in April 2016 by ELJ Publications. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of South Florida, where she served as the managing editor of Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. She currently teaches creative and technical writing as a visiting instructor at USF and serves as the assistant to the creative writing program director.

Lasek is originally from Troy, Michigan, and graduated from the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor in 2003. Prior to pursuing a degree in creative writing, she worked as a web editor and public relations official for companies in and around Detroit.

Lasek’s fiction and nonfiction have been published in Coal City Review, Tampa Review Online, and VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, among others.

**

Brandon Dudley: What was the initial spark for “Precious Blood”?

Christine Lasek: That’s an easy one.  A friend and I were discussing Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index, a book I was reading as part of a Craft of Nonfiction class.  In the middle of the conversation, my friend said, “You know, my grandfather once bought a truck some dude killed himself in.  He got it cheap because he had to clean it out himself.”  What WHAT?!  And the seed of the story was planted.

BD: Wow. I often wonder about parts of stories, whether they’re based in reality or not, if they’re something that the author really experienced. I can safely say that part of your story was not on my radar, though.

Is that a common way that stories start for you? Is the seed usually some real life event that you just run with? Or is it more often something else, like an image or a specific line of the story that comes to you first?

CL: It depends on the piece.  Sometimes it’s an image, sometimes more.  For me, though, it always has to do with people—how they interact, how they hurt or love each other, how we make sense of it.  I find myself most inspired when I have the chance to meet new people—while I’m getting to know them, my brain is busy creating their back story. Characters in my work often come from that.

BD: I’m curious about the non-linear structure of your piece. Why do you think that was the best way to tell this particular story?

CL: I didn’t start out with that intention.  This story started out as Eric’s story—his section (the first) was in first person, while the other sections were written in third. I wanted to give the reader his thoughts/impressions, then show what led up to the exchange between Eric and his mother in the first section.

But when the piece went through workshop, my classmates felt the story would be better told if all sections were written in third person, in order to illustrate the differences between the three characters. Once I rewrote the first part, I agreed–that change made the piece stronger. So that’s how it came to be in its current form.

BD: I’ve played around with stories that have used a mix of first and third person before, and so far they’ve never quite worked either. What do you think a story needs to make that work, to make that point of view switch necessary?

CL: With POV (and really any style decision you make in a piece), the style element needs to further the theme of the story.  As a fiction writer, when I put pen to paper, it’s more than just telling an interesting story.  I am trying to tell the reader SOMETHING–about what makes us human, about how we relate to each other.  This “something” is the story’s theme.  All of the choices I make in a story need to further that theme, that reason for why the story exists.  When it comes to jumping POVs, the jumps not only have to further the “something,” but their benefits to the story have to outweigh the potential drawbacks (namely, confusing the reader and/or stunting the reader’s ability to form a meaningful connection with a character over time).

BD: How do you think teaching has affected your writing?

CL: This is a giant question.  Let’s just say, as a teacher, I give good advice on writing, and then when I revise my own work, I find that I don’t always follow my own good advice. But the more I teach, the less this happens. Thank you, students.

BD: I saw you have a collection coming out in the spring. Could you tell me a little about that?

CL: My collection is called Love Letters to Michigan and all of the stories take place in my home state.  I didn’t set out to write a series of Michigan-set stories, but when I moved to Florida for my MFA, crisp fall days and blue, blue skies started pervading my work.

The collection is due out in April by ELJ Publications and I couldn’t be more ecstatic!

BD: Besides the location, are there any themes that link the stories in the collection? Are there any themes in general that you feel like you come back to frequently in your work?

CL: The stories in my collection are only linked by place.  The main characters are all ages, both male and female.

But two subjects that I explore again and again in my work include family relationships and “stuff”–the stuff that we own and what it says about us.  I also write a lot of characters who are (or have) single mothers, but I’m not sure why that subject comes up again and again.

BD: Who do you consider influences on your work?

CL: My writing hero is Alice Munro.  The way she creates character, her use of setting, of dialogue–a whole world in a short story, and not just once, but over and over again.  I want my stories to feel like that.  The first collection of hers I read was Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, and I have been hooked ever since.

BD: Where do you see your writing going next? What’s your next writing project?

CL: I am up to my neck in editing the book, but doing revisions always makes me itchy to start something new.  Right now, it looks like the next project will be a second collection of short stories.

 

B DudleyBrandon 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.