Category Archives: Interviews

Volume 7 | Interview

Noah Mazer

Interview with Ófeigur Sigurðsson and Lytton Smith

Ófeigur Sigurðsson is the author of six books of poetry and three novels. He was awarded the European Union Prize for Literature in 2011 for his novel, Jón, making him the first Icelander to receive the prize. His novel Öræfi: The Wasteland was published in Iceland in 2014 to great critical and commercial acclaim, and received the Book Merchant’s Prize in 2014 and the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2015.

Lytton Smith is the author of My Radar Data Knows Its Thing, While You Were Approaching the Spectacle But Before You Were Transformed By It, and The All-Purpose Magical Tent. He has translated several novels from the Icelandic in addition to Öræfi and is a 2019 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship. He is a professor of Creative Writing and Black Studies at SUNY Geneseo.

Gandy Dancer: Reading Öræfi in translation, I couldn’t help but dwell on the passages that remind us of the presence of Interpreter, who relays Bernharður’s words to Dr. Lassi, who writes the report described in Bernharður’s letter received by Auth. in the spring of 2003. Reading passages in which Interpreter filters out “all the delirious babble and needless descriptions” and weaves together “a pithy narrative, an escalating, logical series of events,” it’s hard not to remember that English-language readers are consuming a text which has been translated. Were you aware, when writing these lines, that Öræfi would eventually find its way into English?

Ófeigur Sigurðsson: Good question! No, I was not aware of that; it would probably have blown my mind, since there were already so many layers of narration. The “babble” and “needless descriptions” was to me a little joke, since the narrative is consumed with some babble but necessary descriptions. My state of mind, as I was writing the novel, was such that I was sure nobody would ever want to publish it, so I felt completely free to do all kinds of literary stunts and had a lot of fun writing it.

GD: The reader is consistently reminded that the information we receive is traversing a chain of memory and interpretation in order to reach us, as exemplified in passages like “The snow was packed around me, hardened like concrete, said Bernharður, interpreted the interpreter, wrote Dr. Lassi in her report, or so Bernharður wrote to me in his letter that spring of 2003.” Throughout the novel I found myself assuming that this technique is designed to make the reader question the truthfulness of the narrative: at the end of the book, the narrative, although based on a false premise, seems as though by virtue of its construction by only by one person, to be reliable after all. What can be said as to the ultimate truthfulness of the narrative?

ÓS: Well, in the end it becomes clear that it is a work of fiction, as the author speaks from the future. This chain of memory and interpretation is an experiment to make transparent the multi layers of how stories generally come into being. The ultimate truthfulness of every narrative, I think, lies in the narrative itself. Meaning that it has to be agreeable with the reader, even all the unbelievable things, supernatural and so on, have to be credible to make an emotional or mental connection between the text and the reader.

Lytton Smith: I’d also add that a narrative’s truthfulness has to do, I think—and maybe this is the translator’s experience speaking—with the moment and context in which you’re reading the book. That the author is both writing from the future (as the afterword makes clear) and from the past (because working with things retrieved from the glacier, from the recent past for we as readers now, and echoing a real-life, mid-20th century tragedy), I can’t help but read the truth of the narrative as a warning about how susceptible we are to climate. That doesn’t even have to mean that we accept a human role in climate change, though of course I do; it’s just that we’re not at all humble before the environment at this point in U.S. history, and that’s such a dangerous thing. The book’s a fiction, Ófeigur writes, but maybe it’s very much not, too…

GD: The novel’s blurb presents its plot as the “mystery of Bernharður Fingurbjörg,” although the way that the plot unfolds separates the book from the trope of a mystery which hinges on clues and signs and a collection of suspects. The unanswered mystery that remained for me at the end of the novel: who is the Author? Does it matter who they are?

ÓS: The author of the book is a fictional author. It was intended so to give the discovered letter more credibility. And also, stretching the concept of authorship, there is a author behind every author.

GD: Öræfi combines a character-driven plot with passages on Icelandic geography and toponomy, a tally of seemingly every suicide in the Öræfi region from 1611 to 1793, a theory of poetics based on alkaline or basic fungi which grow inside the bodies of poets, and histories of Iceland’s sheep and dogs. Is the novel written out of a particular formal tradition that American readers might not be familiar with?

ÓS: Not that I am aware of, no; I do not think so. But, what I was trying to do was mix the European novel (whatever that might be, exactly), mainly my favorite authors at that time, for example Thomas Mann and Thomas Bernard, with the Sagas and the Icelandic folklore. Combining amateur writing with professional, natural talent and trained writing. If I succeeded, I am not sure. But every novel is an experiment, an experiment with form, structure, plot or non-plot. It is an adventure, a journey into the unknown. Thomas Mann said something like, if the author knew beforehand what the novel was going to be about or how it will finally be, he would never be able to write it. The novel seems, Mann said, to have a mind of its own. So the work of an author is to follow his intuition to find the way. The author has to invent a new form for every book. There is no formula for art.

LS: And, to echo Charles Olson and Robert Creeley’s mantra, form is never more than the extension of content. But it’s always interesting to think about how translation has to retrace what might have been the author’s mindset: one task a translator has is to find touchstones that might work for the reader reading in the target language, i.e. American literary English; while European writers were a touchstone for me (and Bernard especially), you also find yourself thinking about discursive American writers with whom readers might be familiar, such as Richard Bach.

GD: What, if anything, was lost in the translation of this book from Icelandic to English? Translating poetry from English into Spanish this semester, I’ve found that English slides around its own rules of grammar more easily than Spanish does, and there’s often not a way to avoid leaving something behind. What concerns did you have for the English version of Öræfi, and how were they dealt with in the English version of the novel?

LS: Most students of translation at some point get told Robert Frost’s adage that poetry is what gets lost in translation, and many more people know that saying than actually read translations. And there is something left behind, as you neatly put it, of course there is: in your case, the particular cadences of Spanish, which is softer in its consonance (at least to my ear) than English or Icelandic. But I think we have to remember any language is always in motion, like a glacier is; it’s just invisible to us until a major event—a glacial flood, a coinage of a divisive word or syntax, a translation—happens. So there will be nuances of Icelandic history and culture that don’t make it across; details that resonate with many Icelandic readers will either fall on deaf ears in the U.S. or not make it into the translation. And yet I think, if the translation has worked, the atmosphere has become a bridge between these two texts. I know it’s more abstract that your question’s asking, but I think of translation as an anti-nationalist endeavour: it’s not replacing one national literature with another, but recognizing the impossibility of national categories, that we’re always globally influenced (see Ófeigur’s last answer!). Different Icelandic readers will get different things; it’s not that there’s a guaranteed, essential version of the novel in Icelandic. So while you try to get everything across, you can’t, because the novel is always a moving target, its language more like a river than an ice sculpture.

GD: Students of literature are trained not to conflate narrator/characters of a text with the author. In a book where characters frequently perform the literary equivalent of turning to the camera and addressing the audience directly, and in which the author and a central character share the experience of having been teenage Icelanders in death metal bands, how wise is it to assume that there is separation between author and character?

ÓS: I am sometimes of the opinion that all the characters are the author, and if I remember correctly, I think it says something of that sort in the book. At least, the characters reflect the author, some in a negative way, some in a positive way. Writers use their experience to build characters. I, for example, have a lot in common with the Regular, I gave him a lot of my own past, same experience regarding the death metal, same address, same interests, same experience in Öræfi with Kiddi, and a lot of people see him as me, the author, me included, sometimes, although the trip and meeting Bernhardur is pure fiction. And I agree with not conflating characters with the author, for the work of fiction should stay a work of fiction and not be dragged into reality by trying to find the truth. There is no reality-truth in fiction, only fiction-truth.

GD: Dr. Lassi speaks for nearly six pages about her disillusionment with her career as a veterinarian, which she reduces to “castrating and killing.” Within this speech, addressed to the Interpreter, Dr. Lassi speculates briefly that she will give up veterinary medicine and apply herself “to creative writing,” which she calls “the most exalted and most sinful thing, worse than castrating and killing.” What should we make of this statement’s place within a work of fiction? Is Dr. Lassi right, or does her judgement reflect her inexperience with writing?

ÓS: Well, I do not know what to make of all of Dr. Lassi’s opinions. She was hard to handle and a bit of a untamed beast. You are right in assuming that her judgement reflects her inexperience. That is a very good point, since she is insecure after being intimidated by her parents when she was young and wanted to become a writer. Now, wanting to break out of the security of her daily job as a vet, she hesitates about going into the insecurity of being a writer. But she is right in a way. Writing is linked to guilt since it is most often non-economical and seems not to be doing any good, to be a waste of time, done alone in a room, to be for lazy people, etc. As with all artists, she often doubts her ability and talent. Art is not about just doing a job; you have to create the job first and then do it well. Maybe she was reading Literature and Evil by Georges Bataille? I don’t know, maybe that’s it.

LS: I just want to add that I love how Ófeigur’s responding here in a way that recognizes characters have a life of their own! I think they can both be parts of ourselves (of our psyche) and also unknown to us, for we never fully know our deepest selves. And maybe that’s what makes translation possible: we’re not trying to faithfully copy a certain answer, but sharing the experience of trying to explore and understand characters and plots alongside the author. I’ve been fascinated recently with the metaphysical problem known as the Ship of Theseus: if you have Theseus’s ship set up as a museum artifact, and a board rots, and you replace it, and another, and another, one at a time, until all the boards have been replaced, do you still have Theseus’s ship? Maybe that’s what translation is: the ship of Theseus.


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National Book Review Month: An Interview with Heather Molzon

Posted by Grace Rowan, GD Creative Non-Fiction Reader for 6.2 

During the month of February, love is in the air. At SUNY Geneseo, the love of books and the art of reviewing is celebrated through the English Department’s third annual National Book Review Month (NaRMo). Readers can submit reviews of their favorite books to the NaRMo website: The website provides five easy steps to writing a book review and how to submit the review once completed. NaRMo is accepting reviews from a variety of genres including Children’s Books, Drama, Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Poetry.

To learn more about NaRMo and why book reviews are a great asset to not only the Geneseo literary community, but also the campus community, I interviewed the Coordinator and Student Chair of NaRMo here at SUNY Geneseo, Heather Molzon. Heather Molzon is a senior Creative Writing major with a Communication minor. Continue reading

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6.2 | Interviews

Interview with Shara McCallum

Lily Codera

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Shara McCallum’s Madwoman: an Exploration of Female Identity, Race, and Strength

Posted by Arianna Miller, GD Co-Poetry Section Head for 6.2

Shara McCallum was this semester’s visiting poet at SUNY Geneseo.  I had not only the pleasure of sitting down for lunch with McCallum, both also of reading her diverse collection, MadwomanMadwoman spans across what it means to be a woman, to have the privilege of being a black woman who appears white, and to accept being the daughter of a schizophrenic, all with the underlying presence of her Jamaican heritage.    Continue reading

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An Interview with Anne Valente

Anne Valente’s debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, was released from William Morrow/HarperCollins in October 2016. Her second novel, Utah, is forthcoming from William Morrow in early 2019. Her first book and short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, won the Dzanc Books Short Story Prize (2014), and she is also the author of the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics, which has been re-released by Bull City Press in 2017. Her fiction appears in One Story, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among others, and won Copper Nickel’s 2012 Fiction Prize. Her work was selected as notable in Best American Non-Required Reading 2011 and her essays appear in The Believer, The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, and The Washington Post. Originally from St. Louis, she currently lives in upstate New York where she teaches creative writing and literature at Hamilton College.

Gandy Dancer: In your short story collection By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books), there are so many memorable characters, like Francie and her father in “Terrible Angels,” or the young women in the title story. Can you talk about how you create and develop such a range of compelling characters?

Anne Valente: Thank you for these kind words. For each story, setting and conflict often come to me first; I imagine a particular landscape or place, or else a particular situation, i.e. “What would happen if x happened?” From there, I then imagine how someone might react to that situation, and characters tend to be born out of how a particular someone might act or react. I’m also drawn to language and lyricism and how a particular character’s voice might interpret the world. In this way, characters also come for me from the rhythm, diction and syntax of the language.

GD: A number of the stories here make use of the first-person plural. Can you talk a bit about what this point of view offers? Why don’t more writers use first-person plural?

AV: I’m not sure why other writers don’t use first-person plural more often–maybe it’s considered off-putting, or even clunky as a central perspective–but I love its use and what it can do. Who’s telling the story always matters, and the social implications of a collective perspective are fascinating to me. A writer can play quite a bit with where the borders between the collective and the individual might rest, depending on whether there’s an individual situated within the collective or if the narration never identifies individual narrators. A writer can also explore how events, traumas, or everyday experiences affect an entire community. There is a great deal of tension in first-person plural between what everyone is experiencing and what only a few of the collective are experiencing, and for me, it’s a wonderful tool to employ in fiction.

GD: Many of the stories in By Light are coming-of-age stories. Is it difficult to get into the headspace of a young child or adolescent?

AV: The distance between adulthood and adolescence seems at times like it would be a bridge too far in trying to remember what it was like to be that young, but I feel sometimes like I’ve maintained a child’s sense of wonder as an adult. The same fascinations occupy my attention now as they did when I was small–how spiders build their webs, what it’s like to live in the ocean, whether there are any edges to the universe or if space just keeps going and going. For these reasons, getting into the headspace of a child doesn’t feel insurmountable, though I want to respect each individual character and not solely make them a reflection of who I was as a child, and in some ways still am.

GD: As a woman writer, do you find it difficult to write from a male perspective? Are there any tricks to this? Is there anything you keep in mind while writing from a perspective not your own?

AV: When I began writing, I actually wrote far more male characters than female characters. I feared an audience assuming that my characters were autobiographical, but more than this, I think I also internalized that readers were more receptive to male characters–in other words, that male stories were the ones that mattered. Because I’d absorbed so many masculine stories, it didn’t feel particularly difficult to occupy a male perspective, though certainly not all male characters occupy masculinity in the same way. However, I’ve since become far more invested in what it means to write an identity that I don’t share. We are essentially required to do this as fiction writers, but this becomes tricky when we are writing from a position of power or privilege regarding another identity. While I don’t have any fast and true tips for how to write outside of one’s perspective, empathy is at the heart of all good writing. To understand another character is to understand that particular character and not what we assume their gender, sexuality, race, age or ability represents.

GD: Many stories feature the use of the fantastical or supernatural. One of our favorites was “Dear Amelia,” which explored humans turning into black bears in the backwoods of Maine. Tell us the truth, were you a Sci-Fi fan growing up? How do you see the realistic and supernatural working together?

AV: I actually never watched or read much science fiction, but I devoured ghost stories and urban legends as a kid. I’ve found that many of the things I was most interested in during childhood–the supernatural, the world of science, the insects and trees in my backyard–continue to make their way into my writing and what I most love. I don’t really see realism and the fantastic as diametrically opposed but instead a spectrum along a border, and for me that border has always been relatively permeable. Science fiction, the supernatural, and magic realism can all be incredibly subversive, and, for me, they’ve become a tool of exploring alternative narratives to dominant modes of history, culture and human thought.

GD: Were some stories in this collection harder to write emotionally than others? We’re thinking of “Minivan” and the title story, in particular. Is there a certain headspace that you must be in to write these type of stories?

AV: Some were definitely harder than others. The title story felt especially difficult, given the world these young women must live in–and despite the extreme nature of it, how that world parallels our own. At the time of writing the story, I was noticing a lot of silence in my personal and professional life around sexism and sexual violence against women, and I wanted to create a world on the page where it could no longer be ignored.

GD: By Light came out in 2014, and then your first novel Our Hearts Will Burn us Down (William Morrow), was published in 2016. It started as a short story. Can you talk about the process of developing the story into a novel? What were the challenges in that?

AV: I never thought I would develop a short story into a novel, as every story that I’ve written has always felt done to me, or else written as its own, contained world. However, I wrote the short story version of “Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down” shortly after Sandy Hook, and as I watched the news cycle quickly forget yet another mass shooting–and one of the worst mass shootings we’ve seen–the story felt undone to me. Since the short story was centered on elementary school children, it was a challenge to modify that world into a community of high schoolers for the novel. I’m also pretty invested in lyricism in short stories, and I wanted to maintain that kind of prose for a novel without overburdening the reader. A greater emphasis on plot had to factor into a longer work as well.

GD: Can you tell us a bit about Utah, your forthcoming novel? We can’t wait to read it! Does it also meld the real and the fantastic?

AV: Thank you! The forthcoming novel does meld the real and the fantastic, to the extent of the kind of world the characters occupy. Utah takes place in a present-day world where planes are beginning to fall from the sky due to global warming and erratic weather patterns. As a result, two sisters must take a road trip to their mother’s funeral. One sister is a former NASCAR driver, and the other has just been released from prison for having burned down a library. It’s a strange narrative in pulling together so many strands of research that I knew nothing about before beginning to write: American racing, paleontology, falconry, geocaching, women’s prisons. But it was an adventure to write.

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Oliver Diaz & Evan Goldstein

An Interview with Kate Daloz

Kate Daloz was raised in the woods of Vermont, in the geodesic dome her parents built during the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she taught creative writing, and was a founding member of Neuwrite: Columbia Scientists and Writers. Her work has been featured in American Scholar, New Republic, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America, is her first book.

Gandy Dancer: We Are As Gods, seeking to chronicle a movement of hundreds of thousands of young people across the US out of cities, is a truly massive undertaking. We were wondering how you did it. Approximately how many interviews did you do? How did you record them and what methods proved most efficient for pulling these stories out of your sources and into cohesive narratives? How did you maintain all these threads while writing?

Kate Daloz: In addition to formal interviews, I talked to a lot of people informally, so I’m not one hundred percent sure of exact numbers, but it was scores of people and probably hundreds of hours. As many interviews as possible were in person, but I did a lot over the phone and by Skype. Whenever possible I recorded conversations using the voice recorder on my iPhone. I also took notes during the interviews, in case the recording failed. In person, I usually take notes by hand, but when it’s not in person and I don’t need to be making eye contact, I type because I’m faster that way. After each interview, I take extra notes on whatever I wanted to remember about the conversation itself (the setting, the mood, and any insights or areas for follow-up). Then I type up loose transcriptions, making it very clear where I used paraphrase and which were the subject’s exact words. I also include timestamps in the transcription so I’m always able to easily go back and double-check the original sound file. I give each interview a simple title of the subject’s name and the interview date.

Using the writing program Scrivener, which allows you to break a project into small, flexible parts, I make files for each area I know I want to write about (“communal child-rearing,” “Summer ’71”). After I finish each interview, I go through it and cut-and-paste its contents into the appropriate files, labeling each chunk with the interview title. This way, when I’m ready to start writing, say, about the summer of ’71, everything everyone told me about it is in one place, labeled with the source, so I can remember whose version was whose.

GD: You give vivid depictions of these communes’ landscapes. Although primary source material and interviews must have been useful for getting to know the settings in which you worked, it seems like you visited these commune sites (and, of course, grew up next to one). How much traveling did you do to write this book?

KD: I take every opportunity I can to go back to Vermont! Growing up in the area was absolutely vital for allowing me to write with authority about the landscape and seasons—what the air smells like in January as opposed to June. I only actually visited the site of the commune a few times, but on one of those visits, I brought a blank map and had former residents walk around with me and help identify where gardens and structures had been forty years earlier. Back in Brooklyn, I also used Google Maps and to get the specifics about routes and distances really accurate.

GD: In a few sections of the book, you qualify this back-to-the-land movement in terms of its racial and class makeup: the people who lived in these communes were almost exclusively white and middle class. How did you reconcile the seeming exclusivity of this movement?

KD: That’s a really great question and one I’ve continued thinking a lot about since finishing the book. Like many Americans during the Obama era, I found myself having more and more intense conversations with friends and family about race and class. I had long since noticed the extremely narrow demographic that made up the population I was writing about, but when I read “How Privilege Became Provocation,” in the New York Times, by my friend Parul Sehgal, something clicked. I suddenly understood the back-to-the-land phenomenon in a new way: as an expression of privilege. Though I tried not to use that word very much in the book itself, it informed the way I described my characters’ backgrounds and choices, as well as their confidence, assumptions, support networks, and blind spots. It let me approach some of the recurrent questions about simplicity movements (Who are these idealists? Why don’t more of these radical experiments last?) and emerge with new answers.

GD: In many ways, the communes are not perfect, particularly in their gender-specific divisions of labor. Are these difficulties products of inherent human flaws or a product of the fact that the communards still lived within American culture?

KD: Another great question! What I like to point out is that partnership, cooperation, and collaboration always involve conflict and negotiation. There’s a persistent fantasy that stepping outside of traditional structures—monogamy, say, or the nuclear family—will somehow also mean stepping away from disagreement and interpersonal tension. But domestic issues—questions about cooking, cleaning, childcare, financial security, how money should be saved and spent—have to be addressed, no matter how your family is structured. While it came as a surprise to many ’70s-era communards that it was harder to be “married” to twenty people than to just one, they learned a tremendous amount about group conflict resolution and how to structure healthy communities—lessons that are still in widespread use today.

GD: Have you explored any contemporary communes or cooperative living environments? If so, what is your opinion on these back-to-the-land-inspired movements and communal living experiments?

KD: I haven’t spent as much time in today’s collective houses, live-work spaces, or independent farms as I’d like to, but there’s no question that another back-to-the-land-ish movement is taking place today. If I could sum up the contrast between today’s idealists and those of the ’70s, I’d say that people undertaking these experiments today are far less naïve and ill-prepared than the ’70s back-to-the-landers. This is partly because they have the experience and practices of the ’70s generation to draw on—but they also have the Internet, with its almost limitless ability to connect people, resources, and ideas.

And it’s worth noting: The intellectual origins of today’s Internet culture, with its emphasis on sharing, stretches straight back through the Whole Earth Catalog, to the early hippie communes of the American Southwest.

GD: Throughout the book, we see many communes struggling with the question of whether they can transform society. Do you think any came close to inspiring a restructuring of American society? What do you believe is the largest success of this movement?

KD: America went through so many huge changes after the 1960s that it’s hard to give credit to any one element, especially one as short-lived as the commune movement. But as I’ve already indicated above, its participants’ extreme inventiveness and rejection of the mainstream gave rise to many structures and practices we take for granted today, from recycling programs to homebirth advice to food co-ops. The two biggest, I’d say, are organic food and the connected, information-sharing culture of the Internet.

GD: Do you see any similarities or differences between young people’s responses to American society in the ’70s and young people’s responses to the same social structures today?

KD: I had already begun working on this book when the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements started, making the parallels between today’s activism and that of the ’60s and ’70s much more obvious.

As much as I admire and am grateful for the real changes they brought about, I do bristle a little bit at the “Baby Boomer Exceptionalism” narrative that often accompanies comparisons between their activism and that of other generations. While there’s no question that Boomers’ idealism and frustrations with social ills spurred them to action, it’s also vital to point out that they were born into a period of tremendous economic confidence and inherited a job market in which a college degree pretty much guaranteed a comfortable livelihood. That background of privilege—not just on a personal, but on a generational level—was essential in letting such a large number of people feel secure enough to risk such widespread rejection of the status quo.

GD: What are you working on now?

KD: Right now, I’m working on another personal-history-as-American-history book—this one is about my grandmother’s sudden death in 1944, during WWII, and the decades of secrecy and shame that surrounded her story.

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5.2 | Interview

Interview with Kate Daloz

Oliver Diaz and Evan Goldstein 

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5.1 | Interview

An Interview with Sonja Livingston
Sarah Steil

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Gandy Dancer Proudly Presents… Your 5.1 Managing Editors

Posted by Erin Carlo, GD Public Relations Manager and Fiction Reader for 5.1

Gandy Dancer 5.1 managing editors, Evan Goldstein & Oliver Diaz

Gandy Dancer 5.1 managing editors, Evan Goldstein & Oliver Diaz

First and foremost, we would like to welcome our readers and contributors to the fifth anniversary edition of Gandy Dancer!  We are delighted to welcome an entirely new cast of submission readers who are eager to discover what it means to produce a journal as well as gain new perspectives on literary journalism.  The start of the new semester also brings a brand new dynamic duo who will take the stage as Gandy Dancers managing editors.


I had the opportunity to ask our newest managing editors, Evan Goldstein and Oliver Diaz, a few questions about themselves and their new roles as managing editors, and I am pleased to share their responses with you.

When did you first hear about Gandy Dancer?

Oliver: First semester sophomore year. My sister was a senior taking the Editing and Production workshop, in which Gandy Dancer is produced, and she introduced me to the journal, told me about the process, and that it might be a good idea to submit to it.

Evan: I first heard about Gandy during my freshman year, when I was in the intro to creative writing class. I was thinking of applying to the creative writing track, and I wanted to look at Gandy to see what kind of writing I should aim for. I think I looked at issue 2.1, the one with the photo of the guy in the forest as the cover. I remember I was impressed and scared by the poetry, and I wanted so badly to be able to express myself on that level. Continue reading

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Christy Leigh Agrawal

An Interview with Carey McHugh

Carey McHugh received her MFA from Columbia University. She currently lives in Manhattan where she works at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. Her poems have appeared in Smartish Pace, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, The Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds &c., was selected by Rae Armantrout for the Poetry Society of America’s 2008 Chapbooks Fellowship. I had the pleasure of interviewing Carey about her new book, American Gramaphone, a collection of poems, when she came to SUNY Geneseo for a reading.

CHRISTY L. AGRAWAL: I’m really interested in the titles in this collection, and how they engage in conversation with no only the poems themselves but also one another. According to the Notes section in the back of American Gramophone, many of these titles are actually extracted directly from mysterious relics of a disparate American and human history: a photograph of a car accident scene, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a how-to book of taxidermy, and so forth. Can you tell us a little bit about your process of creating a title? How do you select and then synthesize titles for your work?

CAREY MCHUGH: I’m always on the lookout for titles, and I take them from scraps of the everyday: from informational websites, artwork, conversations, old encyclopedias, museum placards, signs on the backs of trucks. I look for peculiar or creepy or linguistically odd nuggets that I think require further investigation. In these cases, the title provides the context for the poem, and I build out the text to answer or echo the title. When I take titles from the world, I often lean toward moments that might already hold a narrative. The title sets the scene up front, and I am free to explore the emotion of the scene in the body of the poem. For example, there is a poem in the book called “Death (as a Woman) Comes for the Draughtsman.” It’s taken from the title of an Alfred Kubin pencil sketch. The title already gives us the story, so the poem is free to explore the atmosphere of the moment: the panic, the astonishment.

CLA: I’m curious about when and how you determined that these poems were going to be part of a series since there is so much reverberation between the poems, both formally and thematically. Were all of these poems written specifically for this book, or did they come together somewhat independently to form this book? How did you decide how to structure them in different sections?

CM: I wish I could say that I sat down and wrote all the poems effortlessly and fit them together seamlessly, but that would be a giant lie! I started this book in graduate school and over the years, it’s had many forms. I’ve taken poems out and replaced them with newer poems, and then at times I’ve gone back and reinstated poems that I’d removed. There is an element of experiment when it comes to putting a collection together, but I feel like the book has a solid center, and the poems circle common themes and landscapes, so even though the poems were written over the span of about a decade, the book feels very cohesive to me. From the beginning, I knew that the book should be in three sections, and though I wanted the sections to vary slightly in tone, there are still threads—themes and structures that run throughout the book.

CLA: As I was reading, I noticed a distinct quality of transience: many of these poems exude a slightly unnerving energy, as if they waver on the edge of some inevitably approaching precipice that threatens to bring either everything we ever wanted or everything we ever feared, or both. This feeling of impermanence and imminence is mimicked in the agrarian landscape, where an ever-changing land can signify many things, even opposing ideas. How does the agrarian landscape depicted in this collection relate to the, at times nostalgic, emotions evoked within the poems, and what does this setting mean to you?

CM: This book inhabits a space at the intersection of memory and imagination. I had a rather transient childhood, but my extended family lived (and still lives) in Tennessee. It was the one constant landscape in my life. We would return to visit each year, and I think I was always a little surprised to find it intact; there was a fear that it might have vanished in my absence. I think this notion lives in the poems. When I was very young, my father and grandfather owned a cattle farm, and they would let me and my brother tag along as they worked—branding cattle, mending fences, baling hay—it seemed like such a mysterious world! Much of the agrarian imagery in the book comes from my memories of that time. In many ways, I think I’m writing to revive or respond to that landscape.

CLA: The way in which the form of your poems intersects with their content is very engaging, inviting readers to interpret the poems as not only a grouping or words, but also as aesthetic creations. One of the first times I picked up on this subtle relationship between structure and meaning was when I was reading through “Prep Guide for Basic Drill and Ceremony,” a description of a surgical kit that twice mentions ribs while also mirroring the image of a ribcage in that it’s composed of twelve lines, the same number of rows that compose the average human ribcage. What is your process of creating form and physicality for your poems? Do you structure them after they’ve been written or as you go, and how important is form to you in relation to meaning?

CM: Symmetrical stanzas with consistent line lengths appeal to me. They work to pin down a poem. They offer a tension that contrasts with the emotion and chaos of imagery in the text. I let the poem dictate the form as it unfolds; however, I should also confess that I go through phases where I become obsessed with certain structures. For example, many of the later poems that I wrote for the book are in single-line stanzas.

CLA: In “Supply Notes from The Home Book of Taxidermy & Tanning,” only two poems away from the end of this collection, is the first and only place in which the word gramaphone is mentioned, with “grinding wheel” right before it. I looked up the meaning of grinding wheel and discovered that it is “a wheel used for cutting, grinding, or finishing metal or other objects, and typically made of abrasive particles bonded together,” and it actually looks a lot like a record, the kind that might be played in a gramophone. I realized that this book could function very similarly to how a figurative grinding wheel as a record would function in my mind: a sometimes chaotic, sometimes smooth, and refractive melding together of the agrarian, the American, the bodily, and the emotional, a blend used to pierce and carve and grate and smooth and dissect and reconstruct the sound of some distant and yet ever-present song of humanity. This song is made even more complex by the word “taxidermy” in the title of this poem, which brings to mind ideas of preservation, of the impossibility of resurrection or recreation, and the insufficiency of physicality next to memory. This all led me to wonder how you decided on the title American Gramophone, and that soft pink and yet violent, fleshy image (which I read online is a hog and not a pig!) for the cover, as entryways into this collection?

CM: The gramophone is such a strange and beautiful creature. I like the curve of it, the squat body and long stem—almost a flowering hibiscus. Nearly a water bird. I like that this machine holds the prospect of these organic forms. Many of the poems in the book take place in an agrarian past, in a landscape with its own strange machinery and muted song. The gramophone seemed to be the perfect machine to bear this folklore and to amplify the sonic imperfections (all the scratches and skips) that exist in a dwindling memory. I was researching gramophones one day when I came across the title of a record label based in Omaha, Nebraska called American Gramaphone. I liked the title so much that I stole it for a poem (though I spelled it slightly differently). In my mind an American gramophone is a strange, inelegant machine—put together on the fly, maybe with spare parts, with all its seams showing. A rustic instrument that could echo a difficult landscape and the work required to maintain it. As the book evolved, I realized that this is how I wanted the collection to be held together.

As for the hogs…I was trolling the Library of Congress website (another valuable title repository!) when I came across the photo of a man working on an exhibit featuring three wooden hogs. A blurb that accompanies the photo explains that the exhibit was created for a livestock show held in Chicago in the late 1920s. The exhibit featured a hidden phonograph, which described the devastating effects of roundworm on hog populations. As the phonograph played, the pneumatic hogs would deflate—presumably to emphasize the devastation. The blurb that accompanies the photograph begins with the following sentence: “And now, the educated hog.” This sentence was so funny to me, so brilliant and strange that it became a title for one of the final poems that I wrote for the book. I love the photo, and luckily, it is in the public domain, so we were able to use it for the cover.

CLA: In our poetry workshop we discussed how your collection of poems builds meaning by continually defining and redefining things: bones appear again and again throughout this collection, however, each time in a different way (in my favorite moment they are described as: “the rigid endorsement of the body.”) This process of definition and redefinition not only creates a very detailed and multifaceted sense of meaning, but it also generates a sense of movement or fluidity: an unyielding refusal to be still. “It is what we fear the most: being motionless,” you write in “The Haywagon,” voicing part of the tension that drives me forward through this collection: a resistance to being defined or ‘rooted’. And yet, there’s a fear of being un-rooted or disconnected. How do you encompass and unify so many contradictory feelings and concepts in the same space, and what do you hope your readers will take away from this fusion?

CM: I think the book generates much of its momentum from this tension that you discuss: the impulse toward motion versus the wish for preservation. Being motionless implies a lack of agency, a stasis, a surrender. However, humans are also record keepers by nature, and this requires the need for reflection—the effort to distill a single moment demands a pause, a circling back. Record keeping comes in many forms: taxidermy is the record of a kill, planting and harvest are records of landscape and season. Photographs, sculptures, paintings, poetry and other artistic endeavors preserve an attitude, an emotion, a memory, a narrative. The final poem in the book is called “Original Migration Guide as Wholecloth Quilt.” What better record of the past than a textile built from lived-in fabrics—extracted, patched together and handed down? We may never be able to fully inhabit a memory, but it seems impossible to stop trying.

CLA: Many writers (including myself) worry about having to choose between a career in writing (which might take the pleasure out of writing by putting too much pressure on it) and a career away from writing (a choice that might be less fulfilling); hearing you talk at SUNY Geneseo about how you found your way really helped assuage my concerns about all this. Could you offer some advice or warnings or encouragements to us young, hopeful poets and writers?

CM: There are many career paths that offer opportunities to exercise your writing muscles—law, journalism, publishing, and teaching, among many others. Pursuing this type of professional path doesn’t mean you’re giving up on your creative writing life—it just means that you have health insurance and can pay your rent! Be practical. That’s my best advice. But whatever your day job might be, keep a toe in the creative writing world. For me, having a workshop is essential—for feedback and for deadlines. It keeps me writing. I’m a member of an informal, three-man workshop, and we’ve been meeting for over a decade now. They’ve been instrumental in providing criticism, motivation and encouragement. They helped me bring my book into the world. As for the rejection letters: they will always keep coming, no matter how much you publish. Expect rejection—then you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you find that a piece has been accepted.

CLA: What’s on the horizon for you? What can we look out for next?
CM: I recently found this incredible, pocket-sized first-aid book for miners in an antique store in Sweetwater, Tennessee. It was originally published by the Washington Government Printing Office in 1922. The book has helpful tips for assessing and treating wounds, ruptures, and poisons, as well as instructions for transporting injured miners. It’s very detailed, and a little frightening. I’m currently working on a series of poems that takes titles from the section headings in the book. The project is in its very early stages, but hopefully it will work its way into a new book or a chapbook. I’d like to say that I have mapped out a second book, but I’ll have to see what direction the new poems take me.

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