Category Archives: Interviews

12.2 | Interview

Jess Marinaro

An Interview With Kristen Gentry

Kristen Gentry is an award winning fiction writer whose work has been published by journals such as Crab Orchard Review, Jabberwock Review, Electric Literature, among others. She is an alumni of both VONA and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Mama Said is her debut short story collection.

Gandy Dancer: Mama Said is an exploration of the love, joy, and resilience of a Black family in Louisville, Kentucky. What were your motivations in choosing Louisville as a setting?

Kristen Gentry: Initially, the stories were set in Louisville simply by default—it was the place I knew best—and, to be honest, the setting description was pretty paltry. When I met editor Liz Van Hoose at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, she advised me to highlight Louisville as a setting because it’s not often featured in books. With her advice, I developed Louisville as the setting and it became a prominent element in the book. I wrote the bulk of the collection while living in Rochester, New York. Being away from home sharpened my clarity about how Louisville is distinct. It also revealed how my knowledge of the city and its people differs from popular media portrayals and stereotypes.

GD: The characters in Mama Said are almost all connected by family ties. What are some of the challenges that come with writing family dynamics? How often does a fiction writer have to reach into their own experience, and how does that influence the finished product?

KG: I think one of my biggest challenges with writing family dynamics is not overloading the present moments with the characters’ backstories and relationships. It’s important to let readers know the history that the current conflict rests upon, but it can be hard to balance that history and maintain the plot’s forward momentum.

How often a writer feels it necessary to reach into their own experience is going to depend on the writer and the stories they want to tell. I did so often for the stories in Mama Said. I wasn’t always pulling and recounting actual events in the fiction, though there are nuggets of true life woven into some of the stories. My mother did actually tell me she wished she could drive off of a bridge, as Claudia tells JayLynn in the title story, and my family had a horrible Thanksgiving when my aunts ate all of the chitlins but contributed nothing and my mother was supposed to show up but didn’t as events play out in “A Satisfying Meal.” However, I made a lot of stuff up, too, because it’s fiction. Nigel and the Thompsons are completely fictional. So are Melissa and Beverly. My goal in writing is to capture an emotional truth in the story, and that emotional truth doesn’t have to originate from true events.

GD: There are a lot of characters in this collection, all of whom feel vibrant, alive, and grounded in their own experience. As you wrote, did these characters develop together as a family/community unit, or was it easier to consider each character more separately at first?

KG: I always imagined JayLynn, Angel, and Zaria within the context of their family. “Grown Folks’ Business” was the first story I wrote in the collection. In that story, readers are introduced to Angel. She and her conflict become known through the juxtaposition of her voice and her parts of the story set against the voices of her mother, Maxine, and Aunt Sandy. “A Satisfying Meal” is the second story I wrote for the collection. JayLynn is the protagonist in that story, but she’s set against the large cast of her family. Family shapes the daughters in such an integral way; I mirrored that shaping in the writing and development of their characters.

GD: The title, Mama Said, speaks to the thematic significance of motherhood that is a consistent throughline across these stories. The daughters are torn between emulation or rejection of their mothers, such as Angel’s imitation of her mother in “Animal Kingdom.” She notes, “Maxine rested in her mouth, a second tongue she couldn’t speak yet but echoed in her laugh” (191). Can you talk about the complexities of mother-daughter relationships in this story, in which Angel has two contrasting mother figures?

KG: Angel is old enough to recognize that her mother is flawed. Maxine is reckless and suffers from addiction. But Angel also sees her mother’s redeeming traits. She knows that Maxine is not the villain Aunt Sandy often paints her to be. Maxine is beautiful, funny, and simply fun to be around. This is everything that Angel wants to be, the inheritance she feels she’s due as Maxine’s daughter, though Angel begins to understand that it can be difficult to separate the redeeming traits from the flaws. Maxine’s recklessness is what sometimes makes her funny or fun to be around, but it also played a role in creating her drug habit. Her beauty attracts danger and men that could do her harm. Drugs change people, and I feel that many children of addicts are often negotiating between their parent on drugs versus the parent as they knew them before the addiction and/or who they imagine they could become clean of the drugs. It feels like the parent is constantly flipping and changing, flashing redeeming traits and flaws, because they are. Really, we all are, but drugs create extremes.

GD: Female friendship, especially Black female friendship, is an important element in many of these stories. How does friendship united by both gender and race—such as friendship between Black women—differ from other kinship or family ties in this collection?

KG: Black female friendship outside of blood ties is most prominent in “Animal Kingdom” and “In Her Image.” The biggest difference I see playing out in the friendships in both of these stories is the freedom from those family ties. That freedom gives the character an opportunity to shape who she wants to become rather than feeling burdened or bound by the narrative of who she is within her family. In “Animal Kingdom,” Angel is with Kayla and Jade, away from Aunt Sandy’s judgment. She’s free—and encouraged by Jade—to explore a freer, wilder self that is not unlike the behavior she imagines of a younger Maxine. In “In Her Image,” Stella teaches Claudia how to pray and manifest a life full of romantic love and domestic bliss, unlike her mother Jean’s lonely single life. Friendships for Angel and Claudia offer support and a chance to reinvent themselves.

GD: All the unique perspectives the readers get as we move through the collection culminate with the final story “Everything You Could Ever Want.” Within this story, JayLynn finds a moment of connection with her often distant mother, “‘Come here baby,’ she says so quietly that you aren’t sure the words are real, that you haven’t imagined them or the jasmine scent of her…Your mother is here” (268). How did you decide that this story made the most sense to place at the end?

KG: The overarching narrative of the collection is driven by JayLynn’s desire for Claudia to be clean, to be present, to be the mother she used to be before depression and addiction. Actually, that’s the hope for all of the daughters. “Everything You Could Ever Want” seems like a natural end because it presents a culminating crisis moment and resolution for that desire.

GD: There are so many important moments in these stories that stuck with me, and will continue to stick with me after reading. What are some of the moments that stick with you the most after writing this collection? What do you hope readers will carry with them from Mama Said?

KG: The final image of Claudia sitting alone in “In Her Image,” thinking of her mother, Jean, haunts me. As does Nigel pleading with JayLynn to tell Claudia what has happened in “Everything You Could Ever Want.” JayLynn’s intense fear of not messing up Claudia’s sobriety or sullying her happiness is actually what clings in that story. It’s incredibly heartbreaking that JayLynn’s afraid to even attempt to get what she wants the most, which is her mother’s comfort and support. But that story’s ending also stays with me, and that lingering is much more positive.

After reading Mama Said, I hope readers carry a sense of being understood and a greater understanding of the complexities of addiction; it is not simply “a personal problem.”

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11.2 | Interview

Elizabeth Roos

An Interview With Stephanie Vanderslice

Stephanie Vanderslice is the author of The Lost Son, a historical fiction novel published by Regal House Publishing in March of 2022. She is a professor and director of the Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas, a Huffington Post writing life blogger, and boasts multiple publications on writing. These include The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life: An Instructional Memoir for Prose Writers published by Bloomsbury in 2014, and Can Creative Writing Really Be Taught?: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy, also published by Bloomsbury, which received its 10th anniversary edition in 2017. Regarding The Lost Son, Benjamin Ludwig perhaps says it best: “The Lost Son is an unflinching look at how one woman, and her two sons, reinvent themselves against a backdrop of violence and violation. I loved this book.”

Gandy Dancer: The Lost Son is a historical fiction novel that follows Julia Kruse, a German immigrant and mother who is forced to rebuild her life in 1920s Queens, New York, after her infant son, Nicholas, is kidnapped and taken back to Germany by her husband and the child’s nurse. As a writer, what drew you to write about this material?

Stephanie Vanderslice: In the early aughts, I learned that my great grandmother, Julia, had actually been my step-great grandmother who married my great grandfather at the end of World War II. I also learned that soon after her second child was born, her first husband and the baby’s nurse had taken him from her and gone back to Germany. She was left to support and raise her oldest son. During WWII, her two sons did fight on opposite sides. Once I learned this history, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had two young sons myself at the time and spent a lot of time thinking about how someone could even survive this, could even trust another person to marry again. With little information to go on, I started making up my own story.

GD: Throughout the novel, there are a number of time shifts between Julia’s life as a child in Germany, her life in the 1920s just after the loss of her baby, and her life in the 1940s during World War II. Can you talk about the decision to tell the story in this way rather than telling it in chronological order?

SV: I ended up making these shifts to keep the story compelling and as a nuanced way to foreshadow. That is, to bring the story to a turning point in one timeline, and then shift to another and do the same thing, to keep the reader’s attention. Also, the very first full draft of this novel was written for National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.com), where the challenge is to draft (and I emphasize the word draft) a 50,000 word novel in one month, which works out to about 1600 words a day. In order to stay productive, I made a list of at least 30 scenes that needed to happen in the novel. That way, when I rose at an ungodly hour every single day to get my word count in (I am not a morning person) I could choose the scene I was most motivated to write that day, which was not necessarily the next scene chronologically. So I didn’t originally draft it in order either but eventually, I put it in chronological order and then started juxtaposing scenes/timelines for better effect and narrative movement.

GD: The settings of 1920s and 1940s Queens, New York, as well as the periphery settings, feel so tangible while reading. With so many time periods and settings, what was your research process like for this novel?

SV: My research consisted of “casting a wide net” and reading and watching as much as I could. I read a lot of novels and memoirs that took place in New York City and Germany during this time period, as well as memoirs of parents who were separated from or lost children. I find memoirs from people who lived through an experience especially helpful as primary sources. I also watched movies set during this period, read a few general history books of World War II and watched Band of Brothers all the way through twice (as well as read some memoirs from soldiers who had been part of the “Band of Brothers”). I kept a map of Europe in 1945 over my desk so I could easily see where battle lines were in Germany when the last part of the novel takes place. I’m from Queens, originally, as well, so a lot of the landmarks are from my childhood—Eddie’s Sweet Shoppe, which is still there, and Merkens, which is long gone. My grandfather used to take me to Merkens as a child, and I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye. Once I was revising, moreover, I kept a running list of questions that needed answers, like, “what kind of jobs did people have in breweries?” or “how would you find a soldier fighting in Germany at the end of World War II?” Then I looked them up on the internet or, asked them flat out on a discussion board on NaNoWriMo that specifically dealt with World War II history, which was very handy. Keeping the running list meant that once I was deep into writing and revising, I didn’t get distracted or interrupted by internet rabbit holes and instead, pursued those answers at another time. I have to work really hard not to be distracted because history is endlessly fascinating to me.

GD: Julia’s sister, Lena, is a recurring character in the novel. Their relationship is strained, though they support each other in times of need. What were some of the difficulties of writing their troubled relationship?

SV: What a good question. Well, I’m an only child, so imagining that relationship was something of a challenge. As an only child, if anything I tend to romanticize sibling relationships. But in imagining a real but strained relationship, I thought about a lot of friends I have whose sibling relationships are imperfect and how those relationships worked. Finally, I’m just someone who is interested in people and relationships and that’s something I’m very sensitized to, perhaps also because I was an only child who grew up among adults, watching them relate to one another. Lena is a composite character, partially based on a great aunt I only knew from stories but who was ahead of her time as a nurse from the 20’s onward who worked for Bell Telephone (as a nurse) but eventually volunteered and went to England as a WAC in World War II. But their relationship is also partially based on the relationship between my paternal grandmother and another great aunt who liked to criticize my grandmother’s parenting. Most of my characters and relationships are not based on any one thing but are composites of a lot of people and relationships I know.

GD: Nicholas’s napkin ring becomes symbolic in the novel for both Julia and Johannes, Julia’s first son and Nicholas’s older brother who was left with Julia in America. How did you choose a napkin ring to represent the loss of Nicholas?

SV: While buried deep in my research of German people between the wars as well as German immigrants, I discovered a lot about practices among these families, and somewhere along the line I learned that it was common for everyone to have their own napkin ring, often given as baby gifts like silver spoons or cup and plate sets. Then I started to think—what if Nicholas’ napkin ring had been bought as a christening present but he’d never had a chance to use it? From there I started using Pinterest to actually research what traditional family napkin rings looked like. In the early 1900s they were actually quite ornate and I “chose” Nicholas’ napkin ring from actual photos. From there it was easy to imagine Robert discovering it.

GD: In the 1940s chapters of the novel, Julia struggles to heal from her trauma with the help of her gentleman caller Paul Burns. Paul, too, understands loss. What were the challenges of bringing these two characters and their complicated pasts together?

SV: The challenges were bringing together these two middle-aged people who have been through a lot and not overdoing it. I tried to walk that line though I think I might have overstepped by a toe, occasionally. There are people that say Paul is too good to be true, but honestly, I thought that if Julia was going to trust anyone again, it would have to be someone like that, someone who did seem almost too good to be true. Otherwise, what would be the point? These are both people who are both reasonably happy on their own; there has to be a real spark between them to risk their individual happiness for happiness together. As much as she resists it, I think Julia realizes instinctively that Paul is a somewhat unusual person, especially compared to her first husband. Early on, she says she’s never felt so listened to (by him) in all her life, which is not surprising since her only real experiences, in adulthood, are of Robert and Lena, who were both too self-centered to listen to her. She’s hungry for the kind of real, sensitive attention she gets from Paul. And he is, I think, drawn to her because he sees her as different, as well as also an immigrant, like him. I believe too, that we can be very drawn to people who can heal us in some way, and they both instinctively perceive that potential in one another without being able to name it, at first.

GD: At the end of the novel, Johannes successfully finds Nicholas in Germany. However, theirs is not a happy ending. Is this the ending you always had in mind? Can you talk about this ending and the difficulty of writing endings?

SV: It’s not exactly the ending I had in mind, but it’s a compromise. It’s hard to talk about the ending without giving away too much, but I wanted it to be satisfying without necessarily being perfectly happy. We are all forced to make meaning out of the things that happen to us, we are all in many ways an amalgamation of everything that has ever happened to us, good and bad, something that I think feels even more visceral during times of war or crisis—and this idea is something that Julia and Paul both have to come to terms with. In terms of writing endings, I want to resist tying everything up neatly but to come to some kind of resolution that also looks ahead in time. That is, I also wanted to try to connect to readers in the present, to show the ways in which we are all struggling to contend with and make sense of our lives whether it’s during a horrific world war or a major pandemic shadowed by political strife and a climate crisis. I once read a memoir by Faye Moskowitz in which she talked about how, as a young wife and mother in the years after World War II, she really struggled to find meaning in the world. I think young people today, people in general, can relate to that.

GD: In addition to being a novelist, you’re a professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. How do you think teaching creative writing has affected your personal creative projects?

SV: The great effect that teaching creative writing has had on my creative projects is that I am constantly talking and thinking about writing as a craft and am often reminded to take my own advice or the advice I would give a student. In this way, teaching creative writing has definitely made me a better writer. Sometimes I’m so deeply immersed in a project it’s hard to see where craft advice applies, but when I step back and help students apply that advice to their own work, I am able to see, hey, I can use this too.

GD: To conclude, the staff of Gandy Dancer would like to know what your future writing plans are. Are you currently working on any projects that you would like to tell us about?

SV: I’ve got a couple of things I’m working on. I’m finishing up a textbook on the teaching of creative writing that’s due soon. And I’ve been working on a memoir spurred by almost losing my husband to a Sudden Cardiac Arrest last year. I’ve also been working on another novel on and off for the past several years that is the second part of a Queens triptych of which The Lost Son was the first book. Not a series, per se, but novels that also take place in Queens, during overlapping time periods with some overlapping minor characters. This second one, Beautiful, Terrible Things is a family saga that begins in Astoria with the aftermath of the sinking of the General Slocum in New York Harbor in 1904, resulting in the largest loss of life to hit New York City prior to 9/11, and ends in early 2004 (Julia’s grandson is a major character, for example). I’ve written several traditional drafts of this novel but now I’m thinking about completely rewriting it as a novel in stories. With this novel, I’ve been overly bound to chronology, I think, and reworking it this way will give me more opportunity to experiment with narrative. In this way I’ve been very influenced by J. Ryan Stradahl’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest, which does incredible things with interlocking/imaginatively scaffolded narratives. Your professor, Rachel Hall’s collection, Heirlooms, has also been influential for me as another way to tell a larger story. After that, I have an idea for a third Queens novel that will cover the 60’s through the 90’s and will probably be the most personal, but that’s way off in the distance. Trying to take my writing life, and life in general, one project, one day, at a time.

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11.1 | Interview

Julia Grunes

An Interview With Stephen J. West

Stephen J. West is the author of Soft-Boiled: An Investigation of Masculinity & The Writer’s Life, a book-length essay published by Kelson Books in July of 2022. In describing West’s book, Lucas Mann, author of Captive Audience, perhaps says it best. He writes, “In tackling a subject as ever-present and fraught as masculinity, it’s easy for writers to retreat to the two poles of the conversation: romance or ridicule. All the more remarkable, then, that Stephen J. West dances around that trap, with prose that is wry and funny and skeptical, but also deeply heartfelt and true. Soft-Boiled leaves no stone unturned in its investigation of this unified myth of American manhood, and West is a smart, fun, kind-hearted investigator, willing—like Frank Streets, the enigma at the book’s center—to let us ride along and see what happens next.” In addition to Soft-Boiled, West’s work can be seen in Brevity, Ninth Letter, PANK, and more. He is also the curator of the Undead Darlings broadside series. He currently lives in Rochester, NY, where he is a visiting assistant professor of English at St. John Fisher College.

Gandy Dancer: Soft-Boiled: An Investigation of Masculinity & The Writer’s Life is a book-length essay that encourages leaning into discomfort, and your narrator leads by example from the beginning, defining himself as someone who “blushes over [his] immense privilege” as a straight, white man. Was this vulnerability and self-awareness in your writing something that you struggled to reach, and if so, how did you manage to find this authorial voice?

Stephen J. West: My comfort zone as a writer has always skewed toward self-consciousness and wide-openness on the page. I think this is part of the reason that as a teenager and college student at SUNY Geneseo, I didn’t feel fully comfortable writing poetry and fiction even as I felt a strong desire to write. I hadn’t really heard about creative nonfiction at that time, and felt a little lost without a “home” genre. I mean, how can someone call themselves a writer if they don’t have a form they are comfortable writing? I would fill notebooks with ideas I had for stories, outlining plots and character conflicts, thinking through metaphor and meaning, and really all of the “ideas” of writing without any of the art.

After I graduated from Geneseo, I went to graduate school for a PhD in English at the University of Iowa. But really the main reason I applied was because of the reputation of their fiction and poetry programs. I think it was a bit of luck that I discovered the Nonfiction Writing Program at Iowa. I was able to take grad workshops in CNF and learn about the essay and, voila! I found a form that fit my instinct for self-consciousness and thinking aloud on the page. I’ve been leaning into it ever since.

GD: Throughout Soft-Boiled, you explore the differences between Frank Streets and your narrator, between a private investigator and a writer, while also honing in on the similarities. At what point in your writing process did you start to make these connections, and how did that inform this book as one that explores masculinity and what it means to be a good man?

SJW: I’m glad you see that the book cares about the work that writers do! I had a feeling early on that the dialogue between a private investigator and an essayist could lead me to explore the ways that writers—particularly in creative nonfiction—pursue the truth of their experiences. After I graduated from Iowa, I was skeptical of how truthful CNF can ever really be. So much of the “truth” of the genre hinges on the trust of the writer-as-narrator. I was suspicious of even my own relationship to truths, how easy it is to manipulate information into outcomes and meanings that I desire as a writer—the tail wagging the dog (I’ve always hoped to find a time to use this cliché, and here we are!). So, before I even started writing the book, I knew that I was interested in using the context of private investigation as a means to explore the relationship between writer and reader—and writer and self—that is fundamental to the genre.

The masculinity part came later. I came to realize that a project aimed at questioning the core values of creative nonfiction and how it goes about presenting subjective truth could feel too academic, too impersonal, unless I aimed that scrutiny and investigation at myself. After a few encounters with Frank Streets and my awareness of how different he and I are as people—as men—I spent some time drafting meditations on my relationship to masculinity, and then the larger cultural conversation surrounding hegemonic white masculinity became necessary the further into the writing I went.

GD: A large part of the journey in your book seems to revolve around connection with place, and how for so long your narrator “forged an identity in feeling displaced” until he makes a conscious decision to accept where he came from—Western New York. Can you talk more about the way that your perspective on place has changed, and what that means for you as a writer?

SJW: I still think the book could be even more about place. One big craft question I ask in the book is: what responsibility do writers have to the peoples and places that they present in their work? And this feels even more pressing when talking about creative nonfiction, and a book like Soft-Boiled in particular that uses the lives of real people and the places they identify with as an engine for the writer’s self-investigation. Place is a vital marker of identity and culture in Appalachia, and I think writing this book helped me see how important that is to the people that live there. How that place is represented matters, and I’ve been thinking more lately about how even a region like Western New York and its displacement—are we Upstate? Sub-Canadian? Eastern Midwestern?—has meaning to the people that call it home.

GD: In your book, you tell the reader so much about yourself and your inferences about the people whom you speak to, but draw the line at telling your wife K’s story of her vision loss. In your experience, how do you know what is your story to tell and what isn’t?

SJW: I don’t really know which stories are mine to tell and which aren’t! Making inferences is one thing, but the tricky nature of assuming the experience of someone else’s trauma felt like a point worth emphasizing in the book, given the importance I wanted to place on that larger question as it relates to craft. I guess for me the interesting part is the question itself—and I know that is an evasive answer.

GD: How do you deal with the imposter syndrome that you describe feeling in your book, and has that changed since Soft-Boiled has been published?

SJW: I wish I had a good answer for how to deal with it, but I don’t. It is so common. I saw a post on social media where someone was saying, “it’s impossible for everyone to have imposter syndrome but it seems like everyone has imposter syndrome,” or something like that. And it does seem so pervasive among writers and artists. I kind of think it is a good thing? Because doesn’t it suggest you are self-critical? And shouldn’t that be good for artists and writers, especially if they are trying to capture something real and truthful about the world? It can go too far of course, but I think some self-scrutiny is a good thing.

GD: Near the end of the book, there is what seems to be a pivotal moment while you are comparing “quiet and quarantined” art in a museum to the street art that you see in Oaxaca, how that street art was “the kind you can touch.” How does the idea of having art “you can touch” inform this book and the type of artist that you are today?

SJW: Thank you for pointing to this moment! I think it has to do with authenticity. What is an authentic experience with art? I think that “quiet and quarantined art”—art that is finished, archived, respected, hallowed, etc.—feels like an exercise in historicizing. I want art that is an exercise in what is here and now, raw and unfolding.

GD: In Soft-Boiled, you discuss the importance of the mundane, of being satisfied with a “small and simple life.” What advice do you have for writers who worry that their lives aren’t interesting enough? Your narrator, for instance, says that he might have “a transcendent moment looking at the time stamp on an ATM receipt.”

SJW: I still worry that my life isn’t interesting enough. I’m convinced that it isn’t. But the essayist in me says that the mind can be just as important as the events of a life when it comes to writing, the thinking and the processing of it. You can aim your mind at just about anything, from the flickering lightbulb to the infinity of the universe, and trace that thinking on the page. How many essays might be written from a meditation on a single ATM receipt?

GD: Lastly, in addition to your writing, you are the curator of the broadside series Undead Darlings, which publishes pieces of authors’ works that did not make it to their final drafts. Can you say a bit more about this project, and what inspired you to create it?

SJW: I’ve always been interested in visual art along with writing. I proudly have a BA in studio art from the now defunct SUNY Geneseo Art Program. When I went to Iowa, I continued to take art classes and became really interested in bookbinding and letterpress printing through the University of Iowa Center for the Book. I’ve kept up with my self-education on printing techniques at Flower City Arts Center in Rochester, NY, and that’s where I work on Undead Darlings. Undead Darlings is a series of broadside editions where I collaborate with authors to come up with print editions that feature selections of text they deleted out of published books—the cuts that hurt the most for them to make. It’s been a rewarding way to use my training in printmaking, build more connections among the literary community, and make pretty material things as a result. You can see some of this work at undeaddarlings.com.

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10.2 | Interview

Maria Pawlak

An Interview with Leslie Pietrzyk

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of the novel Silver Girl, released in 2018 by Unnamed Press and called “profound, mesmerizing, and disturbing” in a Publishers Weekly starred review. In November 2021, Unnamed Press published Admit This to No One, a collection of stories set in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post called it “a tour de force from a gifted writer.” Pietrzyk’s collection of unconventionally linked short stories, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Kirkus Reviews named it one of the sixteen best story collections of the year. Her previous novels are Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day. Short fiction and essays have appeared in Southern Review, Ploughshares, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, The Sun, Shenandoah, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Iowa Review, Cincinnati Review, TriQuarterly, New England Review, Salon, Washingtonian, Southern Indiana Review, Washington Post Magazine, and many others. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and in 2020, her story “Stay There” was awarded a Pushcart Prize. Pietrzyk is a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program and often teaches in the MA Program in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. Raised in Iowa, she now lives in North Carolina. Website: www.lesliepietrzyk.com

Gandy Dancer: Admit This to No One is a short story collection that follows the story of a politically-motivated attack on the Speaker of the House. The collection explores how this attack affects the women in his life, but its short stories are not ordered in a clear-cut, wholly chronological manner. What motivated you to order the short stories the way you did?

Leslie Pietrzyk: I can’t be so bold as to say that straightforward chronological order bores me…but shaking up the timeline of events offers interesting and unexpected perspectives. I felt that a book that’s loosely linked—through place and theme rather than characters—would need to signal early on its intention to create its own rules, to show it may not be guided by the beginning-middle-end constraints of a more traditional work. Additionally, while we live life chronologically, how we come to make sense of our place in the world very much feels non-chronological to me. More and more, I want my writing to reflect that experience.

GD: Power is a constant theme in Admit This to No One. One of the lines that struck me the most exemplifies this is the short story, “Stay There,” which reads, “Politics is about power. Maybe art is too.” I’m interested in exploring that declaration further. How did creating and publishing this short story collection inform your view of that thesis?

LP: In a very raw sense, politics is about persuasion, about crafting a narrative to draw others to your side, about creating a sense of the “truth.” Art, too, is crafting a narrative: sending one’s private vision out into the uncaring world and hoping for an emotional response, hoping that others will recognize and respond to your “truth.” Who could be more power-hungry than the person saying, “Listen to me. Here’s what I think”? I can only speak to the art of the written word here, but writers create worlds from mere words on the page, convincing readers to imagine Hogwarts is a real place, putting them on the raft with Huck and Jim, creating worry that Hamlet won’t have the guts to avenge his father’s death. One of my favorite moments as a writer is when a reader assumes something I’ve written is true; I just love saying, “No, I made that up.” In my mind, I’m adding, And I made you believe it was true.

GD: This collection grapples with challenging and uncomfortable conversations happening nationwide, from gender, to sex as power to racism and “de facto” segregation. Throughout your writing process, how did you handle the nuances and misgivings present in these topics? How did you approach them?

LP: I knew this book was taking risks, so I understood upfront that some readers might not be willing to follow me. That’s okay. There are plenty of other books in the world. My approach as I shaped these stories (mostly during the lockdown) was to lean into the most uncomfortable option at every writing crossroads: what would make the character the most uncomfortable here? What would make the reader uncomfortable? What would make me, the writer, most uncomfortable? Once I identified that option, I went with it. As for handling these tricky topics, while I worked to get things right, I also understood that I might fail at points. But, speaking generally, I stayed aware of avoiding crummy tropes like the “white savior,” and I tried to be hardest on what I’ll call “myself”: the character who was the nice white suburban lady with good intentions. I wasn’t going to create characters merely to mock them or poke at easy villains. I wrote with the hope (and possibly good intentions!) to reflect the complexities of the world around me.

GD: Building from that, “This Isn’t Who We Are” takes a departure from many of the stories that preceded it in its narration and structure. Instead of directly connecting to the Speaker, it uses an arresting second-person voice to force the reader to think about how race functions in D.C., but also throughout the United States. Can you talk about how that piece came to be? Were there any difficulties or trepidations you had to work through in writing it?

LP: Trust me, this is the scariest story I’ve ever written! It came from my walks around my neighborhood, observing all the well-intentioned yard signs (which I’m not inherently opposed to) about kindness and such, even as I thought about various unkindnesses and subtle microaggressions found on our neighborhood listserve. This led to my thinking about microaggressions I have witnessed and/or perpetuated, sometimes unknowingly. This story was intended to be a fictionalized interrogation of myself and my actions, as uncomfortable as that was going to be. This is one of those lucky times where words just spilled out in a torrent. The more distant second-person POV (not me or I, but “you” did these things) helped access this difficult material. I’m certain my editor was extremely nervous about this story, and she offered a fair amount of input on it. I confess that for everything she asked me to remove, it seemed I added something else, literally until the day I handed in the final draft. I’ve heard from a lot of people who have found this story especially thought-provoking, which is gratifying.

GD: Admit This to No One is a title that demands. How did you decide on that story’s title for the book as a whole? What does keeping secrets do to a person? What does demanding someone else to keep something hidden do to them?

LP: This book originally had a different title that I loved, that the editor definitely didn’t love or even like. I had about a third of the book written, and when I reread what I had, I found that phrase “he will admit this to no one” in the title story (which had a different, truly awful title), and I latched onto the phrase as an organizing theme to guide me through writing the rest of the book: what is each character not admitting to him/herself? Fortunately, the editor loved the title, and quickly I realized that this title was far superior to the one I had been so attached to.

These are characters with a number of secrets, living in a secretive city. While my characters feel shame around these secrets they’re holding, many are perfectly ordinary desires (i.e., wanting to feel loved). But this culture of secrecy begins to feel dangerously routine, and—it seems—the only escape my characters find is through self-destructive actions, smashing the status quo. That’s the sort of deep tension a writer dreams about.

GD: Many different points of view are featured in Admit This to No One, from the second-person, explored in “This Isn’t Who We Are,” to young teen girls, middle-aged women, and women in their 20s. We are even given a few male perspectives, such as Drew in “Wealth Management” and The Speaker himself in “We Always Start With the Seduction.” How do you go about writing from so many different perspectives? Were any your favorite to write? Which were the most difficult?

LP: Point of view is one of my favorite craft elements to ponder, so it doesn’t surprise me that I ended up with so many different perspectives. As I work on a long project, I enjoy thinking about questions and situations from different angles. Mary Grace was a later addition to this cast, and I’m afraid I really, really loved thinking like her and capturing her voice. I’m mystified and fascinated by someone extremely powerful yet content to remain in the background. I bet I’ll write more about her in the future. The Speaker was my biggest challenge. I had to fight the countless stereotypes of what a politician is like while also making this man believable as an actual politician. He’s pretty unsavory, so I worried that readers would immediately dislike him, so I wanted to find some scraps of his humanity. But he’s so guarded, I couldn’t get a first-person voice. Ultimately, I understood that he’s “the Speaker,” a man who sees himself perpetually in a role, someone who may not have an “I” left. Third-person was perfect for him, as was the reader mostly viewing him through the eyes of the women.

GD: This collection is incredibly timely, asserting itself in the turbulent present with references as varied as from Hillary Clinton declaring “deplorables,” to the alt-right pipeline many of America’s young boys and men fall into. How do you balance writing something that speaks to the now while also crafting something that functions in the future?

LP: Another challenge! And another reason it’s hard to write fiction about politics, which is ever-changing. I’m grateful my editor was understanding about last-minute insertions. The most topical bits I included are tiny details vs. giant plot points, so that’s one suggestion for writers who want to stay au courant, to think about the way something small will reverberate in a larger sense. I spent some time considering what the social justice protest should be about in the final story, “Every Man in History,” which, technically, is set several years in the future. I wanted a cause that would feel relevant to today’s readers while also sounding plausible yet unresolved as the book ages. I was thrilled to land upon removing the slaveholder names from Washington D.C.’s famous monuments because that cause connected the literal city back into the story.

GD: A bonus question! I know that you are an avid cook and that cooking is a big part of your life. I am always fascinated by passions intersecting, and am curious if cooking informs your creative process. Is it part of your creative process at all? Did you find yourself cooking one particular dish while you worked on Admit This to No One?

LP: Often I write until the early evening and then cook dinner. The cooking becomes a way to unwind as my mind drifts free. I was doing a lot of the heavy-duty writing on these stories during the early days of the lockdown, when it felt scary to go to the grocery store, and when many of us were finding different ways to source food. On Saturdays, I lined up to buy big vegetable boxes at our local farmer’s market and learned to cook with what I had, rather than choosing a recipe and buying those ingredients. There were some misses, but in retrospect, I enjoyed that creativity, and we discovered some excellent dishes, like pesto made from the lovely greenery on the carrots. Don’t get me wrong: I also ate a lot of Pop-Tarts during this time. Honestly, what a failure not to work a single Pop-Tart into the book!

[This is similar to the carrot top pesto recipe I used: www.forkintheroad.co/carrot-top-pesto/]


Maria Pawlak is a junior English education major from Owego, New York. She is passionate about many things, from reading and writing to complicated Spotify playlists and yolk-only chocolate chip cookies. When not reading or writing, she can be found at her job as a Resident Assistant in Seneca Hall, working in the Writing Learning Center, or giving ardent speeches about the literary merits of traditionally women’s fiction.

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10.1 | Interview

Amina Diakite

An Interview With Gail Hosking

Gail Hosking was born on an army base and continued her childhood as a military brat, living in southern Germany for a good part. She attended Alfred University, holds an MFA from Bennington College, and taught at Rochester Institute of Technology for fifteen years. Her books include the memoir Snake’s Daughter: The Roads in and out of War (U of Iowa Press), The Tug, (poetry chapbook from Finishing Line Press) and a new book of poems Retrieval (Main Street Rag Press). Her essays and poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Post Road, River Teeth, Solstice, Reed Magazine, Upstreet, Lilith Magazine, Cream City Review, Passages North, Consequence Magazine, and The Threepenny Review.

GD: Retrieval does a fantastic job at expressing the unwanted inheritance of the Vietnam War. It illustrates the effects of war on family structures and society and provides emotional links and connections. In the collection, there are multiple mentions of two different parallel worlds lived simultaneously. Can you elaborate on these two worlds?

GH: One world, of course, is the actual war—what you read, what your father tells you, what people say. Letters arrived from a place you’ve never seen or heard of before. The other world is the one of high school and friends. Football games. Your Latin grades. America moves from day to day without any thought of war. No one talks about the war, so you divide your life into two parts in order to survive. You want more than anything to be a “normal” student. The poem “Split Frame” is an illustration of this. Two different worlds exist at the same time, and one must carry those two worlds around in heart and mind.

The author Viet Thanh Nguyen says that the war is lived twice–once in the actual war and the other in memory. “Nothing ever dies,” he says about war. This, I have witnessed, is the life of a soldier who has seen war.

Can you talk more about the collection’s title? What are you hoping to retrieve with these poems? What does remembering allow us to do?

Retrieval refers to retrieving bodies after the battle is over. In literal terms, helicopters fly in and bodies are picked up, put into black bags and brought back to base. Retrieval also refers to our memory, which is returned after we want to forget. In essence, it’s about going back to get what was lost, what must be brought back into full view, what’s been hidden in a nation’s psyche. Remembering lets us connect the past with the present. Hopefully, remembering helps us understand the present better.

Your position as an “army brat” is interesting and notably different from how many other children may remember their childhood. Would you say that as a child you were more aware of the realities of the world, and as a result, you “enjoyed the world of a child” less? In your poem “I’ve Got to Say,” the speaker mentions their college students “in classes someone else pays for, grown children” playing at war. Can you elaborate?

Indeed, life of an army brat—at least in the 50s and 60s—was far different than the life of a civilian child. We lived separate from the civilian world on bases surrounded by barbed wire. I lived in Germany then and witnessed bombed out buildings left over from WWII. I heard stories, saw men without legs, and watched my father clean his weapons on the dining room table in preparation for the next war. I watched men drinking beer go over battles well into the night. I stood in front of the buildings at Dachau and saw the horrendous photographs of Jewish prisoners. When I returned to the United States and lived with my grandmother (going to a civilian school), I was surprised how little everyone knew about the Cold War. How much of their lives wrapped around school dances and family vacations. We had come from different worlds. I wanted more than anything to be a part of their world with swimming pool parties, etc. but I had already seen too much. I often felt lonely because of that.

I did not see that kind of understanding in the 18-year-olds I taught at RIT. The only people who came close to that kind of wisdom were the children of immigrants.

When crafting these poems, was there an instinct to have all the poems be in first-person point of view? How does the point of view aid in what you want your readers to take away from this collection?

The instinct for the “I” was there from the start. It demanded my possession of these stories, admitting to the emotions. In that way they read like a memoir, which also demands the “I.” I didn’t think of this as I was writing the poems, but I see now it was my way of forcing my generation to see what was going on as they tried to ignore the war. It was my way of being heard and seen after so many years of silence.

During the development of this book, what was the writing process like? Did you write with the intention of curating a collection, or did you realize they belonged together after the fact?

I did not for one second think of a collection as I was writing these poems. In fact, I rarely took my poems seriously because my first loyalty was to essays and memoir. Even though many were published, I never thought of putting them together in one book. But as time went on, it became obvious to me that I rarely let go of the theme of war. Eventually I gave the collection to a friend/poet/editor who chose the strongest poems, put them in order, and gave me permission to send the manuscript out. I think had I been thinking all along about curating a collection, I might have been too self-conscious, which is not good for the writing process.

There is much pain, anger, and sadness within these poems. Poems like “For Richard Nixon on the 40th Anniversary of My Father’s KIA,” “White House,” or Ode to Captain Iacabelli: Company Commander’’ are hyper-specific and seem to contemplate blame and the consequences of choices. The value of blaming extends an opportunity for accountability. Who do you think is to blame?

Blame was indeed not my intent, but of course, it’s there. The president, the nation, all of us. Our country makes choices. If you look at our history, you can see that we are a nation of war. Accountability sometimes comes with time, as it has about Vietnam on a national level. People admit how wrong it was to blame the soldiers themselves. “The higher ups”—what my father called those in charge—are finally admitting, too, how wrong the war was. Vietnamese are writing their side of the story. The bigger picture keeps arriving, and now it’s far easier to see all those details our nation kept hidden for so long. Blame is a big word, and it does not cancel out what’s happened, nor is it a word to linger over. Blame gets us nowhere. Only the truth will help us.

In poems like “Lawdy Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” and “What’s going on?” you incorporate lyrics from songs that have had an enormous impact on American society. How did these songs and artists influence your writing? What is the significance behind borrowing these lyrics?

The music of those years was essential to my upbringing. We had no TV in Germany then and only one American radio station called “The Stars and Stripes.” That station played the top one hundred songs from America, had shows like “Gunsmoke” and “Dragnet,” and gave us the news of the world beyond our base. My mother was young and loved to dance and listen to American songs. She went to the Elvis movies on base. She collected records and played them constantly. When I came home from school, she would be dancing with her friends. So the music is embedded in my body. I cannot see images from that time without a background song list. Though not my intent at first, I see how the songs included in the poems are a way of witnessing those two worlds at the same time: the world of the Cold War and the Vietnam War at the same time as life for a child continues. These worlds live side by side. That’s one of the main points of my writing. There are families that are affected as political decisions are being made in the distance.

In your poem, “Sometimes,” I enjoy how you express the “both/and” aspect of love. You say, “sometimes love divides.” Do you still feel that “love” is the dividing factor of our country versus pride?

I’m not sure if love is a dividing factor in our country. Pride, of course, is there. But love is actually the link that keeps us together. In spite of awful things happening, when it comes down to it, love most often takes over. I knew my father loved me, for instance, even as he left me. My father’s love for the military/this country did indeed divide us at times. There was no other way around it. “We are military, Honey,” my mother used to say, which was meant to explain why we lived as we did.

What was the intention behind the form of the book? Why three distinct sections?

The section idea was my editor/poet/friend’s idea. I gave her a pile of poems and she was the one who helped me order the pile, get rid of the poems that didn’t work, and encouraged me to send it out. Now that I think about it, I see that memory itself is divided, comes to us in sections. Time is divided. You have the childhood part, the essence of the war part, and then the post part. More or less.

In your author’s note, you say, “writing is a good way to spend a life.” What brought you to writing as an outlet?

As a child I used to write letters to pen pals. I was a reader. But writing essays and memoir and poems came to me late in life. I started writing about my father (only for my sons) when I came close to the age he was at his death (42) and then I was encouraged to write a book using the photographs he left behind. It became Snake’s Daughter: The Roads in and out of War and was published by the University of Iowa Press. I went back to school to learn to write better. I got an MFA from Bennington and then could not stop writing. Along the way I have had many essays and poems published. Now it’s just a way of life. A way to make sense of the world. A way to connect with all that I witnessed growing up.

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9.2 | Interview

Sara Devoe

An Interview with Albert Abonado 

Albert Abonado is a poet and essayist currently residing in Rochester, NY. He received his MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and teaches at The State University of New York College at Geneseo and RIT. Abonado’s work has appeared in the Boston Review, Colorado Review, The Laurel Review, Hobart, Waxwing, among other publications. He has also received fellowships for poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.

GD: JAW is split up into four parts. It is clear there are different themes and motifs that compliment each section, can you describe your process of assigning each poem to a part, and what defining factor you would give to each part? 

To be honest, the sections were probably the hardest part for me to decide when putting the book together. Should it be two sections? Three? What if I just did the book as one continuous series of poems? 

I wanted that first section to be a kind of thematic primer. These are my concerns. This establishes the voice you will hear for the next however many pages. Family, loss, identity—these are my obsessions and I wanted these up front. I think of the subsequent sections as being threads that all come from the first section.

I really wrestled with the Tito Manuel and Harold/Kumar poems. I’d toyed with trying thematic sections where the series were integrated throughout the book, but ultimately, concluded that they deserved their own sections. I felt the momentum of the series gets lost when distributed throughout the collection. Here, among their siblings, the poems have more push, more propulsion.

I wanted to give some sense of an arc in the book, wanted the reader to feel as if they have been on some kind of journey, examining concerns that were historical and immediate, which explains the choices for many of the poems in the final section. I think of the final section as being more forward looking. Actually, my opinion of that final section changes daily. Sometimes, I feel that this is where the book opens up, explores possibilities that lie ahead. Yes, there’s death, but also a sense of things to come. Other times, I think, no, this section is really a meditation on loss and grief, about the need to preserve through memory and story. My feelings about the sequence of sections reflects my feelings about the poem. I shouldn’t end up in the same place I started. I want to be transformed.

GD: Some of the motifs I noticed that carried through the entirety of the book were that of fish, mammals, insects, and of course–teeth. How do you tie in these motifs with some of the overall themes of this book, like heritage, family, race, and existentialism? 

Honestly, I think my obsessions with teeth has to do with all the years in high school that I spent in braces. 

I wish I understood the connection. If I had to guess, many of the motifs, fish for example, have cultural ties. My family is from the Philippines and fish was a staple in our kitchen. I was never much of a fisher, but every summer, my family would make trips to the beach or to the piers and fish until dark on a Saturday. In that way, the fish becomes a place where family, culture, and identity might intersect. 

When I explore those themes, I latch on to something to ground them, something familiar, at least to me. We all have idiosyncratic relationships with objects, unique associations with animals, mammals, and insects and whatnot, and sometimes those relationships collide on the page in absurd ways. The logic of the poems can be slippery, can slide from one theme to another with the fish or the teeth acting as conduits, a means of opening up new ideas, discovering intersections. A friend once said that my poems have trap doors that I open up halfway through the poem and crawl into just to start the poem again, which was such a delightful gift of a description, and I think captures the ways in which those motifs work in the poems. The associations that I make through images or sentences are in many ways a record of me processing an obsession: family, race, death, culture, faith. I return to those obsessions again and again, no matter how hard I try to resist them. 

GD: I found there were several poems in this book placed next to each other that I considered to be almost “sister poems.” Some of these include the placements of “In a Field Called Vietnam” next to “On Citizenship,” “Bear Suit” next to “House of Birds” next to “Brother Octopus,” and of course the six Tito Manuel poems. Can you talk a little bit about the process of how you wrote these poems, especially in terms of revision? 

Oh, I love this idea of sister poems. I do think of all the poems as being related to one another, some more clearly than others. Each poem has its unique biography, but they largely start the same way: I’m curious about an image or phrase or story. I ask myself what happens if I put these words next to each other? And this happens again and again until I feel I can’t sustain it any longer. For example, the Tito Manuel poems emerged from the stories my mother would tell me about my uncle. My uncle passed away when I was pretty young, so I never had the opportunity to hear these stories directly from him. I wanted to bring those stories to life. I wanted to hear his voice, and in doing so, reconnect with my uncle, that history, that cultural heritage. I pieced together what I could, drew from other sources to assemble my uncle.

With the exception of the poems in the Tito Manuel series or the Harold and Kumar series, the poems were largely born independent of one another. I certainly have my obsessions and that accounts for the similar themes and the repetition of motifs and patterns. After all, I can’t escape myself in my writing. I’ve learned by now to trust those obsessions, to follow them down the rabbit hole. I’ve learned that repetition does not have to mean redundant. It can suggest urgency. It can be a deepening relationship. The poems could be collectively telling me that I am not done with this material yet.

Once I assembled the poems into a collection, I had to reconsider the function of the poems. Before, the poems operated independently, living in magazines or on my laptop without worrying about any other poems, but now I had to think about their relationship to one another, think about the bits of language that might clash and adjust the poems for that. I had a lot of help, too, from my editor, whose perspective helped guide many of those revision choices.

GD: There are several references in these poems to past relatives, movie figures, and poets. What made you decide to address Harold and Kumar from the movie Harold and Kumar go to White Castle in this collection?

Every April for National Poetry Month I organize a little writing group that writes a new poem every day, and we exchange those poems via email for the whole month. Many people do something similar, which is why April is sometimes also known as National Poetry Writing Month, or NaPoWriMo for short. The Harold and Kumar poems began as an exercise for one of those months, a little experiment. I wanted to see what would happen if I wrote poems to Harold and Kumar.

When it comes down to it, I just really loved the movies. They are brash, fun, and bizarre. Qualities that I, in many ways, love seeing in poems.  There’s a little more to this, though. Right now, we are witnessing an increased representation of Asian Americans in the media. I just finished up the series Warrior on HBO Max and marveled at the complicated Asian characters.. At the time those poems were written, however, I hadn’t really seen many examples of such subversive or complex Asian American characters. Harold and Kumar felt fresh. They were silly, horny, ridiculous characters and I wanted to pay homage to that. Of course, I recognize the unfortunate irony of this increased representation arriving at time when a Filipinx woman is brutally attacked in broad daylight and world leaders carelessly refer to COVID as the kung flu, which is to say there is still much more work to do.

GD: One of the most prominent literary devices I’ve noticed throughout these poems is imagery. There’s the repeating images of children, animals, living things having their guts torn open like in “House of Horses”–can you outline your creative process in terms of conjuring these images?

I love the use of the word “conjuring” in your question. Poems are like spellcraft, aren’t they? We try to make the abstract qualities of our experiences into something tangible. I value the image in the poem not only for its ability to immerse us in experience, to ground our poems, but also for its versatility. The image can, among other things, transform, connect, reimagine, subvert, underline, and sometimes all of these at the same time. 

The image, also, is important to my process. This may sound familiar to some of my former students, but the image acts as a springboard. I use one image to lead me to another. They become the engine to the poem. What memory or emotion or animal or color or shape or sound does this image evoke? There’s a certain thrill in those discoveries, like tumbling through the wiki-pages of your brain, finding connections you never expected to find. 

I know myself enough by know that I need to interrogate those choices: Did I push this image far enough? Was I lazy and did I settle for the easy, more obvious choice? If so, is there something more that I can do with it? Are there more interesting places I can take this image? I try to hold myself accountable for the choices I make in my poems, and this is true of the images. I want those images to be more than window dressing. They need to be a dynamic part of the poem.

GD: It’s clear there is a lot of family history and cultural ties that appear, such as in the poems about Tito Manuel. What was your research process like for this book of poems? 

In terms of research, much of it was asking for more stories from my family. I wanted to devour these stories, verify some of the details, confirm the timelines, and build on the stories they shared. I did a little research to clarify some questions I had about historical events, but mostly, the poems drew from a reservoir of experiences. Many of the stories, the jokes, the history are things I grew up learning and knowing.

GD: The first section of the collection seems to tackle a lot of themes about race and privilege in America. For instance, in “Frederick Douglass: A Triptych,” it seemed as though the poem was tackling how the work put in by Frederick Douglass has to not paid off–we are still battling the same issues with racism we were back then. Would you consider this to be one of the overarching themes in this section?

I think that’s an astute reading of the first section. My concerns about identity, racism, American-ness, and privilege are certainly at the forefront of many of those opening poems. As I said before, I think of that section as a thematic primer, a kind of thesis, for lack of a better word, except it’s not so much an argument as it is an interrogation. What does it mean to Filipino American? What does it mean to be the son of immigrants? What does it mean to have one’s identity flattened by whiteness? 

GD: Many of the poems in this collection seem to be in conversation with each other. For instance, the scenario in which Tito Manuel meets a relative on the Death March in Tito Manuel Meets a Cousin Drinking Water on the Death March” is brought up again in “Idle,” but in a much softer, sweeter tone. If you could pinpoint a few main events that inspired this collection, what would they be, and how did you go about sacrificing other memories and events? 

I think there are some formative experiences that act as a kind of nucleus for the book, so I love that you asked this. Many of the poems tie back, in one way or another, to this brief period of time in my life where I found myself returning to the Philippines. I hadn’t been back to the Philippines in maybe ten years, and then suddenly, I found myself going every year for a wedding or a funeral or an anniversary. I feel that so many of the poems I have written speak to those events, particularly the funeral of my grandfather. 

But choosing the poems was a real struggle. What rubric can I apply here? How to compose a collection in which the poems “speak” to one another? I had to read through the collection several times to get a sense of the thematic threads that hold the book together, and from there, began a process of winnowing the poems out.  In the end, I was mostly intuitive about the choices. Did this or that poem feel right for the collection and the themes I was exploring?

GD: Is there anything you’re currently working on or having coming out soon we can look forward to? 

I’m working on a new manuscript. Many of the poems explore a terrible accident my parents experienced a few years ago. Only now do I feel I have a perspective on those events, and so, I find the more recent poems explore the mortality of our families, my relationship with my Catholicism, and how I have turned to poetry to fill my spiritual needs. Some of these poems have been picked up in magazines here and there, so those should be appearing in the relative near future. The book, however, will take a little time to finish. 

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9.1 | Interview

Rebecca Williamson

An Interview with Sonya Bilocerkowycz

Sonya Bilocerkowycz is the author of On Our Way Home from the Revolution which was the winner of the Gournay Prize. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Colorado Review, Guernica, Ninth Letter, Image, Lit Hub, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere. Before completing her MFA at Ohio State, she served as a Fulbright Fellow in Belarus, an educational recruiter in the Republic of Georgia, and an instructor at Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv. In 2019, she joined the English department at SUNY Geneseo. She is the Managing Editor of Speculative Nonfiction.

Gandy Dancer: On Our Way Home from the Revolution is very much about history—personal, cultural, and political. It’s clear that a lot of research was done. Can you talk about your research? Besides the texts listed at the back of the book, what other forms of research informed your collection?

Sonya Bilocerkowyc: As a nonfiction writer, I absolutely love research and talking about research, so thank you for this question! Archival research was critical for the book, as I was able to locate Soviet-era documentation about my family members, and the information in those NKVD documents altered the course of the book project. I’m really grateful to my Ukrainian friend Marianna who assisted in finding them. It wouldn’t have been the same book if we hadn’t discovered those few brittle and yellowing pages from the archives.

I returned to Ukraine twice while I was writing the book, in 2017 and 2018, and those trips were also a form of research. There are a series of essays in the book called “The Village,” which document excursions to my family’s village in western Ukraine over the years. As a personal essayist, I tend to document everything—snippets of conversation, which flowers are in bloom, the shoes I’m wearing, what the politicians are saying on the radio—and these observations sometimes find their way into the essays. So, I knew when I visited in 2017 and 2018 that it wasn’t just for pleasure, that I needed to see what had changed and how I had changed. Being in the village again was important for the manuscript.

GD: Several of the essays, such as “On Our Way Home from the Revolution” and “Duck and Cover,” feature structures separated by different acts. “Samizdat” also has several acts, and you also add side notes of important reflections. What is the significance of the side notes? How do you think this act-like structure lends itself to the themes of identity, history, and memory across the collection?

SB: I like this word “act” you’re using, as it reminds me of theater, and I sometimes think of the essays that way. The act-like structure helps me to visualize what each section is accomplishing in terms of emotions and stakes, and then to arrange them in a way that creates maximum tension and revelation for the characters.  

“Samizdat,”—a term for banned writing that was circulated underground—is about literature and the political implications of words. I use five books to organize the five acts of the essay, and the side notes you’re referring to are actually quotes pulled directly from each of those five books. My vision for the quotes is that they serve as a kind of “underground” text that exists just below the surface of the essay’s main text. A few of those five books—Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Miłosz’s The Captive Mind—first appeared underground as samizdat, in fact, since they contained ideas viewed as oppositional by the Communist state. My hope is that the mysterious voices in the pull quotes will raise further questions about who is allowed to write and under what circumstances, and also remind us of the resiliency of words. As Bulgakov tells us, “manuscripts don’t burn.”  

GD: Can you talk about the order and sequencing of the essays? How did you decide where to begin and which should follow?

SB: On Our Way Home from the Revolution begins with the narrator in Ukraine during the 2013-14 Maidan revolution. The events of that year cause a kind of identity crisis for the narrator and prompt her return home, both literally and figuratively. After the revolution, she seeks to better understand what her diaspora family had experienced in Ukraine during the first half of the twentieth century, and the book proceeds in a vaguely chronological manner back to the present day. The penultimate essay in the collection is about the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which Mikhail Gorbachev said was “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.” I liked the idea of ending the book on a precipitating event for a different revolution. After all, revolution is a circular word. 

GD: I also wanted to touch on the more experimental structure of “Word Portrait,” “Article 54 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR,” and “Encyclopedia of Earthly Things.” To me, these essays provide a brief break in the overall narrative structure, while still informing the reader about important cultural and historical moments. Was this your intention for these essays?

SB: I think that’s a helpful characterization. The first two listed are documents-as-essays, and while they are involved in the narrative plot, the reader doesn’t really understand that until the end of the book. I planted them earlier, however, hoping readers would revisit and view them differently once they learned about the accusations against the narrator’s great-grandfather.

“Encyclopedia of Earthly Things” explores the process of cultural mythmaking. Despite the fact that much of the book is invested in deconstructing idealized myths, the narrator still feels some urge to participate in mythmaking. Perhaps because she is an artist—she can’t help herself. It’s a really indulgent essay, full of cultural shorthand, references, superstition, and it was written with a Ukrainian reader in mind. In that sense, it is a respite from the larger narrative plot, though its themes are still very much entwined.

GD: I noticed you use a lot of repetition—certain words, phrases, and ideas. The first phrases that stood out to me are “I was a tourist in the revolution” and “we fought for two years.” Also, there is the rainbow—or veselka—and the way it creates a full circle in more than one essay. I believe that these images served to emphasize important ideas throughout the text. For example, veselka, or a rainbow, is described as a “full circle,” which I think is important because it signifies how the narrator goes through a cycle in discovering who they are. The narrator starts in one place, and while she does learn new things about herself and her history, she ends up in the same place of love for Ukraine. Was this your intention? 

SB: Absolutely. As I said earlier, revolution is a circular word. The state will continue to disappoint, the people will continue to rise up, etc. I knew the collection was going to have many recurring elements, though I believe there is still growth and change, specifically for the narrator. While the circumstances in the beginning are really similar to the circumstances at the end, it’s not totally cynical because the narrator herself is not the same. In repeating words and phrases, I sought to mimic this larger truth on the level of the sentence. Ideally, the reader experiences the repeated image differently with each encounter, even if it’s just a slight variation. The word (or the world) may be the same, but you are not. The narrator still loves Ukraine, but that love is matured and nuanced because she has had to grapple with Ukraine as both victim and perpetrator.  

GD: In “Samizdat,” you mention that you “take it for granted that writing is an art and not politics.” Later in that essay, you also mention how writing is not just “safe” or “expressive.” When and how did you come to this realization about writing? Was it a gradual realization or a particular moment like your essay being republished during your time in Belarus? 

SB: Experiencing political pressure in Belarus because of something I wrote was perhaps my first personal encounter—and a relatively minor one—with this phenomenon, though it continues to ring truer and truer. In the decade since I lived in Belarus, I’ve become obsessed with the work of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who was murdered in 2006 for her reporting. I’ve become obsessed with the work of James Baldwin, a Black American writer surveilled by the FBI in the 1960s and 70s. (The bureau’s Baldwin file was 1,884 pages total.) Writing is dangerous, though of course these are only the most dramatic examples. There are many who face quieter forms of repression for their words which challenge the status quo. I now understand that all writing is political, even if it does not explicitly address politics. 

GD: The essays titled “The Village” seem to serve as turning points in the collection, especially if you look at the rest of their titles: “Fugue,” “Interlude,” “Reprise,” and “Da Copa.” There is generally a return to Ukraine—to Marina and Yarosh—and a discovery of information that affects you, such as knowledge of Marina’s death or the guilt of what your great-grandfather may have done. They seem to serve as an emotional arc, kind of like a circle, of the narrator realizing that she has discovered what the revolution means to her, especially in the end when she tells her granddaughter it is okay to go. How do these essays serve the emotional arc of the narrative? 

SB: Interestingly, I’ve never had an interviewer ask about all of the “The Village” essays at once, and so I really appreciate your question. For the narrator, the rural village where her grandmother was born and raised is a touchstone for her own Ukrainian identity. It seemed appropriate then, in a book trying to sort through the complexities of that identity, to use the village as a physical stage for the tensions and questions the narrator is working through. The narrator wants so desperately to belong to this place that was her grandmother’s and yet she learns that true belonging comes with incredible trauma and guilt, things that she had been sheltered from to some extent. This is really the emotional climax of the book.

The book also has a lyrical bent and the village essays lean heavily into poetic symbolism. The river Ikva, the eggshell-blue headstones, the storks on the telephone pole, last year’s pig, this year’s poppies—the village images are established in these essays, and they form their own emotional thread through the text.

GD: Several times through the text, you come back to the phrase, “a reflection of a reflection” in regard to the idea of memory. Memory is just one the major themes, along with identity and history, that consistently appear throughout the collection. In the titular essay, you write, “I still do not know who I am to this revolution, so I do not write my name on a brick.” Since completing this collection and having time to reflect since its publication, how would you answer this question today. Who are you within this ongoing revolution? What do you hope your collection teaches readers from around the world?

SB: I hope readers will be urged to examine their own complicity in unjust systems. I think that’s what I know now that I didn’t know before writing the book: that I am personally implicated in evil. Historian Timothy Snyder, who studies Nazism and Stalinism, instructs us to take responsibility for the face of the world because “the symbols of today enable the realities of tomorrow.” Today, I am trying to take responsibility for words and through words. 

GD: It has been difficult for many writers to find inspiration for their work during these turbulent times. How has the state of the world affected your writing? What are you currently working on?

It’s been a really hard year, hasn’t it? I’ve found myself reading a lot of Black feminist writers and abolitionists, and their ideas are having a huge impact on my work. For example, an essay draft I started two years ago about a prison in Ohio, and which I never really knew what to do with, is now revealing itself to be an essay about prison abolition. This fall I wrote an essay about police arresting jaywalkers in Belarus (sometimes called Europe’s last dictatorship) and about U.S. police arresting Black Americans for jaywalking. My current writing is deeply preoccupied with police power, what Walter Benjamin calls an “all-pervasive, ghostly presence in the life of civilized states.” This is a logical development in my work, since On Our Way Home from the Revolution was invested in the question of why people become agents of state violence. 

 

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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: www.narmo.milne-library.org. 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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