Category Archives: Interviews

Robert Held

An Interview with John Gallaher

John Gallaher is the author of The Little Book of Guesses (2007, Four Way Books), winner of the Levis Poetry prize; Map of the Folded World (2009, University of Akron); co-author, with G.C. Waldrep, of Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (2011, BOA Editions), as well as co-editor of Time Is a Toy: The Selected Poems of Michael Benedikt (2014, University of Akron Press). His poetry appears widely in such places as The Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Field, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and Pleiades, and in anthologies including The Best American Poetry. Gallaher is currently associate professor of English at Northwest Missouri State University, and co-editor of The Laurel Review and The Akron Series in Poetics.

I had the good fortune of interviewing John Gallaher between two of his readings-one in Rochester, New York, where he read alongside Nickole Brown at Dine and Rhyme, a fundraising event for his publisher BOA Editions, and the other at SUNY Geneseo. During his reading of “XV” from In A Landscape, a poem about his cousin Lyle surviving a freak crash of the cargo plane he was co-piloting, Gallaher paused for a moment to comment that he couldn’t shake the idea that the students in the first row of seats looked like they were in an airplane cockpit. Gallaher weaves comments and anecdotes like these into his readings so often and so well that they become part of the poem. Some poets might take offense at being called a great storyteller, but I doubt Gallaher would. Gallaher told me he’s delighted by reviews of In a Landscape that call authorship into question. Wayne Coyne, lead singer of the Flaming Lips, for instance, writes, “Gallaher is not a writer or a poet, he is a psychic using words to trick us.”

ROBERT HELD: How does the conversational tone figure into your work?

JOHN GALLAHER: John Ashbery, when he wrote a blurb for one of my books, said “In some ways it seems like John Gallaher’s poems write themselves.” You could look at that as a negative, as if I’m not even an author at all. But that’s part of the John Cage idea: the context creates the art. If we really believe this stuff we say all the time about “if this author wasn’t there to write this work someone else would have because the age needed it,” let’s add to that “Okay, I don’t exist. Okay, you talk.” In Triggering Town, Richard Hugo talks about how poets have obsessive language, words that obviously mean more to the poet than to everyone else. In some ways, that sounds too mystical to me. I want words to be kind of conversational words, but at the same time, I think maybe for me it’s conjunctions that mean more to me than they do to most people. Maybe, perhaps, kind of, or… I love that language, because it’s not the language of finality; it’s the language of continuance and that means we have hope.

RH: Could you talk about your fascination with John Cage?

JG: My fascination with Cage started back in the 80s when I was an undergraduate. Right after Cage died, there was a documentary that someone made about him, and it was showing in a classroom. I wasn’t enrolled in the class or anything, but I walked by and saw this thing going on, and it looked so odd…It was these two guys playing chess with John Cage’s lilting voice talking about something or other. I went in and started watching it and was fascinated. At that time, I read Silence and I liked it and thought it was really neat. Later, in about 2009, I had a little bit of research money from my university to buy some books, so I replaced my copy of Silence which was long missing, and bought another one of his books, A Year from Monday. I also bought a CD, titled In a Landscape, of some of his earlier compositions. I sat down to write one day, and I was very not interested in writing as I had been writing. I was listening to In a Landscape, so I put that at the top of the page and started typing, and I typed for three months.

When people think John Cage, they think of “4’33,” some of his most avant garde compositions, but John Cage also made a lot of really melodic compositions. In his writing, too, some of it is very discordant, but interspersed are these anecdotes, just straightforward anecdotes-things that someone told him or that he knows from his own life, and I really like that aspect of the writing. Cage shows us that you can talk—you can just talk—and at the same time you can be having this theoretical conversation. This understanding allowed me to do the same kind of thing in my new work.

RH: You mentioned in your reading that the motive behind the new direction in In a Landscape was that you were tired of imagination and art.

JG: I’d been doing collaborative writing with my friend G.C. Waldrep, and when you’re doing that, you’re in this communal space, which is a big act of imagination. When we were finished with our collaborative work, we retreated into our own personal spaces, and for me, that meant a kind of denial of imagination. Of course, that’s all B.S., but this thinking worked to trick myself out of the imagination that I was very happy with and that I’d grown accustomed to. I call it the “John Ashbery imagination,” and because I loved that so much, I wanted to walk away from it, and say “I’m not going to make anything up. I’m not going to imagine something; I’m only going to recall… I’m not even going to try for music. I’m going to try for prose.”

RH: Speaking of Ashbery, you’re often compared to him. How would you explain your relation to his work?

JG: So many of us are so indebted to the barriers Ashbery broke down, to the territory he opened up. He inscribed that territory, so anyone who follows in that path will have Ashbery elements. At the same time, you can’t wear someone else’s clothes. So, how do you go into someone else’s territory and build your own house? How do you have your own psychological entity, but still inhabit that world? I was thinking, what are those of us who are writing in this vein denying, or what are they walking away from, and are we walking away from things that we don’t need to walk away from? In the 90s, I was reacting very strongly to a kind of 80s poetry that was pretty serious, kind of elegiac, had to do with parents and children. I walked away from that tone, but also that content. Now that we’re in an Ashbery landscape, what about that content? Can we bring some of that material back into our world that we’re making here?

RH: One thing I admire about both your work and Ashbery’s is the use of names. How do names function in your poems?

JG: There is one person who has been named in every single book I’ve written-I don’t think I’ve missed any-Margot. But I don’t know any Margots; I just like that name. Naming is also a New York School thing, but in New York School poetry it was real, well-known people, but when I name someone in a poem, it’s going to be someone like me that no one really gives a shit about. If you’re John Ashbery and you name Frank O’Hara in your poems you say “Well, it’s Frank O’Hara; this is important!” We can deal with made up names because there’s a power in those names, and I like that, but then with In a Landscape, I said forget that, I’m going to say Brendan; I’m going to say Natalie, and they have to deal with that, and I have to deal with that.

RH: How do you navigate the nonfiction aspect of your poetry?

JG: We have to respond in some way to veracity. You have to make these constant negotiations of “oh, I can’t tell that. I can tell this story but not this one little part of it.” One of the things I’ve decided is that anything said to me is open game. When I’m talking about someone in my poetry, I’m often writing about something they’ve told me, and I feel like that’s fair: they gave it to me. But if I pass by a window, and I see you doing something in a room, that feels like invasion. Unless it’s something really public, like my wife has some brothers who have had trouble with the law and are in jail. That happened, so I can write that. It might be uncomfortable for the family or them, but it happened. I have to say, though, my father doesn’t read anything I write. What if he did? He might not like some of it, but some, I’m sure he’d be okay with. I’m not mean. I’m not vindictive.

RH: How did you grow up? What is your life like now?

JG: I live in Missouri in a small town of 11,000 and have a couple kids. We ride bicycles, and I’m a youth soccer coach. As a kid, I moved around a lot. I was adopted. We don’t talk much about adoption as adults, what adoption does, not in a tragic way, just the regular way anyone who has been adopted goes through a certain psychological veil that people often deny, even the adopted child who doesn’t want to upset the applecart. You were brought into this space, this new family, and if you complain about it maybe you’ll be sent away. I was three-and-a-half when I was adopted, and I felt a little like I was performing. They say who you become is 50% nature and 50% nurture. I’m missing context about who I am. I think, at the same time, that this applies to everyone, to every child and every family: I came from space and showed up here suddenly, and I’m bringing some of my space with me. We all think, “These people are crazy. I’m not crazy, am I? Am I one of these people? Oh my god, I belong here.”

My life now is an interesting one because it’s a cornfield basically. A lot of people want to sentimentalize this setting or push it into the past. Talking about someone whose house abuts a cornfield, it’s either going to become a horror movie—children will walk out of the cornfield—or it’s either going to be this sepia tone, Americana thing, but what if it turns out there’s just a normal life there, you know? I get the same TV channels as everyone else

RH: With In a Landscape are you trying to open up that story?

JG: I think so. I was nearing fifty at the time I began the book, and my children were young, and other people, other men especially around the age of fifty, were dying of heart attacks around me, these middle-aged dads dying. It became this sort of “here are my stories, kids, in case I’m not here to tell them.” Being conversational was important to me, and not lying was really important to me, not making things up, but also really trying to say what I think about things, because that’s part of our story-try it! There’s not really a writing prompt for this. I was thinking about that today, because I was thinking about visiting a class and having a writing prompt for them, but the writing prompt I really want to give is this: tell me what you really think about asbestos, and use some object to explore this, like what was your last experience with a teacup? What happened? And then, of course, do you love your parents?

RH: Do you have any advice for undergraduate creative writers?

JG: It was easier in my age, because no one expected anything from you. I didn’t expect anything from me. All the literary journals were hard to get into, and all the people getting into them were thirty and up, even for the first time. So when I was twenty-four or twenty-two or twenty, I really felt like there was time, but now it seems like there’s so much pressure on everyone. Even when you’re still in school, you’re supposed to already have all these books and accomplishments behind you. I say, take your time, do your thing. I was thirty-six when my first book came out, and now no one asks me how old I was when it came out-I could have been twenty-six for all anyone cares now; it doesn’t matter. It only matters when you’re in the midst of it. Most of us don’t get to be the big innovators. Most of us just get to inscribe our little part of the territory. But for the people who do make the big innovations, like Ashbery, most of the innovation is done early in their career, but the best work come later.


Robert Held is an English (creative writing) major at SUNY Geneseo, makes video poems, wants to be a big boy, likes videos of farming equipment and playstation, and stepped in a muddy puddle today but didn’t get his socks wet! He’d be best friends with Voltron.

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Amy Elizabeth Bishop & Erin Koehler

An Interview with Karin Lin-Greenberg

Karin Lin-Greenberg earned her MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, an MA from Temple University, as well as an AB from Bryn Mawr College. Her short story collection, Faulty Predictions, was the winner of the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction from the University of Georgia Press. Her stories can also be found in literary journals such as The Antioch Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and the Berkeley Fiction Review. She is currently an assistant professor at Siena College, where she teaches creative writing.

Erin Koehler: We think the title Faulty Predictions encompasses the entire collection well. Can you talk about how you determined the collection’s title?

Karin-Lin Greenberg: I wanted the book’s title to be the title of one of the stories in the collection. I looked at all the titles and thought about whether there was one title that could encompass the themes and ideas in the entire collection, and I decided “Faulty Predictions” made the most sense. In each of the stories, characters set out with a particular set of expectations, and by the end, their “predictions” about their lives are turned upside-down. Generally, the characters learn or understand something about their own lives by the end of the story that they didn’t know at the beginning. Usually, something they didn’t expect to happen occurs over the course of the story.

Amy Elizabeth Bishop: The settings in Faulty Predictions are diverse—from Ohio to Illinois to Kansas, North Carolina, from college towns to big cities. How did you choose the settings for your stories? And how important is setting to you as a writer?

KLG: The settings are all places where I’ve lived or imagined towns that are similar to places I’ve lived. I’ve moved a lot in the last decade, and I wanted to incorporate each place I lived in my fiction. Some sense of setting is always important for me. I tell my students that we need to know a general sense of where things are taking place; if we don’t know, we often get scenes where characters are talking to each other, and readers can’t picture where the characters are. I’ve heard this called Talking Head Syndrome. In some of the stories in the collection, like “Bread,” I don’t specify a particular setting because place isn’t a terribly important element of the story. However, we know that some scenes are set in the protagonist’s house, others in a car, and others in a grocery store. In other stories, like “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes,” setting is incredibly important. I think in that story setting drives the plot in many ways. I taught for three years in a small town in Ohio that was very similar to the imaginary Morningstar, Ohio, of “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes.” The only outsiders in the real-life version of Morningstar were the people who came to teach at the college. I wanted to capture a sense of what it felt like to be an outsider in a small town, and I wanted to come up with a character who might be perceived as even more of an intruder than the academics who came to teach at the college. I thought a character who tore down an established business in Morningstar and opened a restaurant that was very out of place in this town could create some active dislike from the people who’d lived in the town their entire lives.

EK: The characters in your collection are unique, quirky, even, yet they feel very real too. We especially loved the characters in “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes” and this small town perspective. Are your characters often born out of real life experiences, people you know, or do they come to you in other ways?

KLG: Mostly my characters are imagined. They might be sparked by something that happened in real life or something that I observed or read or heard about, but for the most part I like to make up characters from scratch. I don’t think I’ve ever written a character that’s completely based on either myself or someone I know. I might take one or two traits from real life people, but I’d say about ninety to ninety-five percent of each character I write comes from imagination.

AEB: Character names seem important in your stories. In “Prized Possessions,” in particular, names are meaningful. How do you choose character names?

KLG: I’m mostly concerned with names matching who the characters are. I think about the ages of the characters and where they live and the time period in which the story takes place, and I try to choose names that feel right. I often find myself writing near bookshelves filled with books, so when I’m stuck for a character name I’ll look at the spines and the names of the authors and a lot of the time my eyes will rest upon either a first name or a last name that seems to fit the character I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll just do a Google search for something like “Most popular last names in North Carolina in 1990” and see what comes up. Sometimes I’ll poke around on baby name websites, but I don’t care too much about the meanings of the names; for me, these websites are just a way to scroll through lots of names. I generally try not to use names that are symbolic, but in “Prized Possessions” I believed the characters would name their twins Hope and Chance. So that was more of a decision to characterize the parents than to have these kids stand for these abstract ideas.

EK: A number of the conflicts in your stories take place within families or in friendships, which can be fraught in similar ways. In “The Good Brother,” for instance, adult siblings, who are thrown together for a surprising errand, come to understand each other. In the title story, Hazel and the narrator reach a similar moment of understanding. In “Prized Possessions,” there is resolution for the protagonist in both her family and her friendship. Can you talk about writing these moments and the role of humor in them?

KLG: I think the humor often arises from the situations the characters are in. What’s important for me in stories is to have two things going on, an upper story and a lower story. The upper story is simply where stuff happens. Sometimes people call this the actual plot. I try to be aware of making sure there’s enough going on in scene in my stories. I ask myself whether characters are doing things, whether they’re talking to each other, whether they’re in conflict in some way with each other. I want to make sure they’re not just sitting around thinking and pontificating. The lower story is where there’s some sort of emotional resonance to the stuff that happens in the story, and this can also be called the emotional plot. So the upper story is where the humor happens in action, but the lower story is where there are moments of understanding and resolution.

AEB: The stories in Faulty Predictions are told in a variety of points of view. “Editorial Decisions,” begins the collection with the first person plural, and you use first and third limited elsewhere. How do you choose POV?

KLG: For me, point of view is generally attached to character. If I’m working with a character with a distinct voice, I’ll usually gravitate toward first person. In “Editorial Decisions” I had a group of characters who were all thinking and acting in the same way, so I thought first person plural made sense as a way to tell this story. I think about second person as a distancing point of view, sort of like a displaced first person. I generally don’t think of it as a point of view that puts the reader in the character’s shoes. I chose second person narration for “Designated Driver” because I thought the protagonist would have a hard time telling the story in first person. It’s easier for her to not quite take responsibility for her missteps and instead push these actions onto a “you” character.

EK: There’s a lot of action in these stories—people going places, seeking out other characters or things, getting injured, etc. What types of scenes are most difficult for you to write, and which comes the most naturally?

KLG: First drafts of any sort of scene are always difficult for me. I tend to overwrite and indulge in tangents, and then in revision I cut away and keep only what’s important. I like the revision process a whole lot more than I like the process of getting the first draft of the story down. I enjoy writing dialogue, but I find in revision I can usually cut away at least half of the dialogue I initially wrote, which tightens up the subsequent drafts.

AEB: Your collection won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2013. Can you talk about the process of putting together a collection? Did you submit Faulty Predictions to other contests?

KLG: I started submitting a collection of stories to contests for book-length collections starting in 2006, when I graduated from my MFA program. We had to complete a manuscript as a final project, and my manuscript was a collection of stories. After I graduated, I submitted the stories that I wrote during my MFA to contests, but I was also writing new stories. I kept submitting to contests every year, and each year I would take out some of the older stories and swap in newer stories. I think the collection got stronger over the years as I kept working and writing and swapping out stories. In 2009 I was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor, which gave me a lot of hope and encouraged me to keep going even though by that point I’d gotten dozens of rejections for the collection. By the time the collection won in 2013, it probably looked about ninety percent different from the collection I started submitting in 2006. “Faulty Predictions” itself was written in 2012, so it was a really new story. Actually, three of the stories, “Faulty Predictions,” “Late Night With Brad Mack,” and “Half and Half Club” were all written within a few months before I submitted the collection in May. Those are the three stories in the collection that weren’t first published in journals because they were so new that I didn’t have time to get them published before the book went to press.

I learned a lot over the years about putting together a collection. At first, I thought that if a story had been published in a journal it belonged in the collection. So for many years I submitted collections that I don’t think held together thematically or in terms of voice or tone. Then I started thinking about collections as a whole and studying collections I liked. Even if the stories in these collections were about different kinds of characters and were set in a variety of places, they generally all felt like they belonged together in some way. So I got rid of some stories from my collection that didn’t fit in with the other stories. These were mainly stories that were more driven by voice than by character or plot and also some stories where I was more concerned with lyrical language than plot. In this collection that I submitted in 2013, I tried to include stories that felt tonally similar and had some humor to them, even if they were about serious topics.

AEB: We’re struck by the story about “Prized Possessions” being rejected numerous times before winding up in the prestigious journal Epoch. How do you know when to push on with a story and how do you know when to give up?

KLG: A big issue with “Prized Possessions” was that I submitted it too early. It was a story I was excited about, and I’d written multiple drafts of it and just couldn’t wait to submit it. It really wasn’t finished yet; I still had a lot of things to figure out with it, and I should have gone through a few more drafts before sending it out. I’m a lot more patient now as a submitter; I’m willing to put a story down for a while and revisit it before I send it out. “Prized Possessions” is the oldest story in the collection, and it started as an exercise in a class I took in graduate school. I think I often submitted work too early while I was a student.

Ultimately, figuring out when to push forward and when to quit has a lot to do with how much I believe in the story. And, maybe more importantly, whether I can stand to keep working on it. I’ve worked on some stories for five or six years before they got published (of course this isn’t steady work, but rather returning to the stories every few months). I think it’s also important to take another look at a story that’s been rejected a lot of times and see if I can figure out whether there’s something that’s simply not working with the story. And, if I can figure this out, the next step is seeing if I can figure out how to revise what’s not working. If I’m really lucky, some kind editors might jot down a few notes about why they rejected the story, and if I find that several of the notes say similar things, that might also help to lead me to what to revise.

EK: What are you working on currently?

KLG: I’m currently working on a bunch of things. I’ve been writing stories set in upstate New York that I hope will one day work together in a collection. I had fun putting together a collection that jumps around in terms of settings, but I’m now interested in writing a more cohesive collection. I’m also working on a novel that grapples with the question of what it means to be successful. And since I teach these genres and am constantly reading and thinking about them, I’m also writing some poetry and some creative nonfiction.

 

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Keara Hagerty & Mary Linden

An Interview with Amina Gautier

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Amina Gautier currently teaches at DePaul University in Chicago. Her short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals such as the Antioch Review, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, and North American Review. Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award, her latest collection At-Risk explores struggles faced by young African Americans. Her second collection, Now We Will Be Happy, was recently awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and will be released September 1, 2014. It was a pleasure to hear Gautier bring her work to life during her visit to SUNY Geneseo, and we were thrilled to work with her on this interview.

GANDY DANCER: Can you talk about how you selected the title, At-Risk, for your collection? We were struck by the contrast between the title, which suggests statistics and sociological reports, and the stories, which examine the particular lives of individuals. Also, your characters often allude to feelings of invisibility—they refer to themselves as “statistics” and “indistinguishable black kids.” How does the concept of invisibility intertwine with the idea of danger or being at-risk?

AMINA GAUTIER: At-Risk is comprised of ten stories which center on the options available to underprivileged “at-risk” African American youth in Brooklyn, New York. The stories in the collection are set in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the war on drugs, the tail end of Reaganomics, increased budget cuts in public education and the rise of gifted or enrichment programs to aid underprivileged public school kids. Though the point of view varies from first to third and from male to female, all ten stories feature child protagonists and are told from the points of view of the kids or adolescents in the story. In compiling the collection and entitling it At-Risk, I sought to give names and faces to children who have been marginalized and to put narrative pressure on the term at-risk itself, believing that when we affix labels like at-risk, low-income, disadvantaged or underprivileged to the same kids we claim we wish to help, we enact a dehumanizing process of erasure upon them. Furthermore, in choosing to tell the stories from the vantage points of children, I sought to depict children in a realistic manner devoid of the sentimentalized renderings they so often receive, to pierce the veil of nostalgia that encourages readers to remember childhood as a period of innocence and leisure and remind us how dangerous a time childhood can be.

GD: Other characters in At-Risk seem very aware—and often irritated by the fact—that they fall under the gaze of those with more privilege. Dorothy, the protagonist in “Afternoon Tea,” especially resents the women who view her as someone to rescue. What do you hope readers will understand from following characters like Dorothy, characters that are skeptical of the role models and charity imposed upon them?

AG: When readers encounter characters like Dorothy and Naima and many others in the collection, I hope that they will see them as individuals rather than types and that this way of seeing will color their real world experiences as well, so that they think first before they condescend or presume to know what others desire. Well-wishers and do-gooders abound in this world (for which I am thankful); yet truly compassionate people can become enamored of their own volunteerism such that it takes on a life of its own and overrides, erases, silences or fails to take into account the needs of the people to whom it is being rendered. At such a point, altruism disappears and vanity rears its head.

GD: Many of your protagonists seem to be girls on the brink of adulthood, just going through puberty. What are the specific challenges or pleasures associated with writing from the point of view of someone younger than you?

AG: I don’t focus greatly on the gender of the protagonists in the collection; both males and females get plenty of narrative time with me. Part of the point of the collection is to depict adolescents—the point of view characters are all between the ages of ten and sixteen, which is a time period that happens to cover puberty. As Henry James demonstrated in What Maisie Knew, writing from the child, or adolescent’s, point of view can enrich fiction by adding an additional later of conflict, vulnerability, and depth above and beyond the conflict of the story’s own dramatic action. Point of view becomes an extra conflict area. ‘Adult problems’ such as gun violence (“The Ease of Living”), drug addiction (“Some Other Kind of Happiness” and “Pan is Dead”), assimilation, racial profiling, and drug use (“Dance for Me”), homophobia (“Boogiemen”), pedophilia/statutory rape (“Girl of Wisdom”), unplanned pregnancy and single motherhood (“Afternoon Tea” and “Held”), drug dealing (“Yearn”), and public education budget cuts (“Push”) are more revealing seen through the lens of a younger protagonist living in a culture riddled by such problems will lacking the maturity to make sense of or the power to effect change.

GD: Some of the most interesting relationships in the collection are those between mothers and daughters or mothers and sons. Can you talk about your interest in these relationships—and other intergenerational ones, such as the one between Jason and his grandfather in “The Ease of Living”?

AG: I think it’s pretty safe to generalize and say that (unless you’re a child celebrity with an income) until you reach adulthood and your circle widens to include co-workers and other types of people, as a child/kid/teen, the people in your life with fall into three main groups of (1) people to whom you are related, (2) people in your neighborhood or on your block, and (3) people you know from school. Unless I wished to write a collection about adolescent orphans, it would have been virtually impossible to write a collection about adolescents without including their relationships with members of their families. Families come in units other than nuclear, so the stories mirror and reflect reality by depicting a variety of different family structures that reflect those we encounter every day.

GD: “Girl of Wisdom” depicts the development of a sexual relationship between Melanie, a young girl, and a much older man. Despite her youth, it’s hard to view Melanie as a victim and Milton as a villain. What were the particular challenges of writing these characters? How did you perceive Milton, and how did you want him to be perceived?

AG: The understanding of the story rests upon point of view. I wouldn’t say that point of view is a challenge for me as the writer, but it may well be a challenge for some readers. “Girl of Wisdom” uses dramatic irony, so that the reader is privy to information about Melanie that Milton is not. The very first word of the story tells us Melanie’s age, but this is information given in narrative, not dialogue. Therefore, the reader knows that Melanie is underage, but since Melanie deliberately withholds information about her age from Milton, he is unaware that she is underage.

GD: The stories in At-Risk are loosely linked by setting and theme. Can you talk about the order of the stories and how you organized the collection?

AG: “The Ease of Living” and “Yearn” are the only two stories in the collection in which characters recur. Thus, the decision to begin with one and end with the other constitutes a deliberate choice that allows the stories to function as the frame for the collection to which the other eight stories cohere. The ten stories are all set in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, and East New York during a six year period comprising the late 1980s and early 1990s and roughly half of the stories are about kids who escape the vagaries of their neighborhood’s dangers and the other half who don’t. Each of the stories in the collection has a mirror image, a counterpart, a “flipside,” if you will, which should be apparent upon reading. In regards to the ordering, the chronological order of “The Ease of Living” and “Yearn” was intentionally reversed. Thus the reader begins the collection being told what Kiki and Stephen’s fate will be in “The Ease of Living,” but is allowed to see them in the last story “Yearn.”

GD: We got really invested in your characters, such as Kim and her sisters in “Held,” and Jason and his grandfather in “The Ease of Living.” What are you working on now? Any chance we might encounter these characters again in a novel?

AG: Time will tell.

 

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Carly Fowler & Laura Golden

Featured Artist: Hannah Glaser

This volume of Gandy Dancer includes Hannah Glaser as the featured artist. Hannah is a junior at SUNY Geneseo, creating personal and realistic works of art in multiple mediums. 

GANDY DANCER: While we reviewed your artwork, we were blown away by your use of realism and personal touch. Your experience and passion really spoke to us. Could you tell us how long you’ve been creating art, and if there is a medium that you prefer to work with?

HANNAH GLASER: I’ve been making art ever since I can remember. When I was little I was drawing constantly with markers, pencils, pens, anything I could find. I also went to an art camp in the summers for about five years in a row, and entered paintings and drawings in the county fair. But I never actually got to take an art class until the end of high school. It’s pretty hard to choose a favorite medium because I haven’t really mastered any of them yet, but if I were to pick two, they would be watercolor and oil painting.

GD: It seems like a lot of your artwork has a personal touch to it. Could you talk us through the process of making your art and the personal experiences and emotions behind it?

HG: My artwork usually starts with a photograph that I or a family member has taken. the photo is usually one that I find myself looking at repeatedly, one that I have an emotional connection to. I’m a very quiet person, so a lot of what I understand about people I have learned from observation. Sometimes, in my photos, I find a sort of magical moment, where the image actually captures the person and not just their likeness. My goal in creating art, especially portraits, is to convey a usually unseen part of a person in visual form. Not just part of their personality, but some deeper truth of their character. I think the painting of Michael with his cat Tucker is the one piece of my work that comes closest to achieving this.

GD: In your artist biography, we noticed that you study English at SUNY Geneseo. Do any of your paintings have a written counterpart?

HG: My writing and my artwork tend to focus on similar themes, such as identity and relationships; but I’ve only done a few works that include both written and visual components. the first was a painting I did for a contest in high school, in which I focused on the transition between childhood and adulthood. I painted poems in ink into the dark blue background of the painting, so they were subtle and hard to read. the other piece is actually this painting of Michael and Tucker. I took creative writing the year before I started the painting, and wrote a poem about the original photograph. I was somewhat happy with the poem, but I felt that the image was necessary to understand the full meaning of the poem.

GD: You paint a lot of animals. Could you tell us the backstory of that? Is there a story about Danny’s Lamb, which you submitted?

HG: I’ve loved animals since I was very little, and I’ve been constantly surrounded by animals. I very often feel that I connect better with animals than people, so being at college without any pets is kind of like living without oxygen for me. Sometimes I actually talk to my dog Bear on the phone, and he gets all excited and starts running around the house. Every summer we visit the farm where my mom grew up in upstate/Milford, New York, (I’m from Maryland). the painting of Danny was taken outside my Grampa’s dairy barn on that farm, and the farm now belongs to Danny. When I was little, we used to help Danny herd or feed the cows, and we spent a lot of time with the other animals, such as horses, ducks, goats, and sheep. My whole family is kind of animal-crazy. Christmas parties for us usually have as many pets as people. I have three aunts and uncles who are vets, an aunt who’s a dog trainer, uncles who are farmers, and many animal-raising cousins. I like to think that I take after my Gramma a bit, who unconditionally loved all animals, including her pet deer and opposum she fed every day. Danny actually told me that he can’t stand sheep and he wishes I could turn it into a calf, but I think he was probably fond of them at one time. the picture was taken by my Grampa, Fred Powers, who loved photography and was very talented.

GD: We’ve heard that you have work hanging in galleries. How has that experience been?

HG: The painting of Michael and Tucker is currently at the SUNY Student Show in Albany, but it should be on its way back soon. It’s been really nice to get to show my work, and it encourages me to keep creating more artwork.

GD: What projects are you currently working on?

HG: Currently, I’m focusing all my attention on my thesis Exhibition, which will feature several watercolor paintings. I’m designing the paintings to be pages in a children’s book, which I hope to publish in the next year or so. the paintings are winter scenes of a girl and her dog, and the book is meant to be a Christmas story. I’m really enjoying working on it, but the amount of time it requires has been rather overwhelming on top of all my other classwork.

GD: Do plan to continue making art after Geneseo? What does your artistic future hold?

HG: I definitely plan to keep making art, probably for the rest of my life. Next year I’ll be applying to MFA programs to study studio art, and I hope to write and illustrate children’s books, which will undoubtedly be filled with animals.

 

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Lucia LoTempio & Kathryn Waring

An Interview with Erika Meitner

Erika Meitner is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the MFA program at the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow, and also earned an M.A. in Religion as a Morgenstern Fellow in Jewish Studies. Her first collection of poems, Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore, won the 2002 Anhinga-Robert Dana Prize for Poetry from Anhinga Press. Her second collection, Ideal Cities, was a winner of the 2009 National Poetry Series Award and was published by HarperCollins in 2010. She is currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches in the MFA program.

Lucia LoTempio: You had me with the epigraph with Copia. Where did you find that definition and example sentence? I was literally giving you snaps after I read it.

Erika Meitner: Lucia, the definition was mostly from the Oxford English Dictionary, but the epigraph includes additional definitions from other dictionaries too—so it’s a sort of amalgamation of everything I could find on the word that seemed pertinent to the book. Believe it or not, that example sen- tence was in the OED, and as soon as I saw it I had to nab it for the epigraph.

Kathryn Waring: I read on your website that you decided to title the collection Copia after seeing a photography project by Brian Ulrich. There’s definitely a striking similarity in images here (I’m thinking specifically of your first poem, “Litany of Our Radical Engagement with the Material World,” though obviously these images threads throughout). How did you discover Ulrich’s photography, and have you ever spoken to him about your collection?

EM: Katie, I’m glad the imagistic connections to Ulrich’s project are clear! I’m not sure what exactly led me to Ulrich’s work (other than possibly Google). I know I became interested in this idea of ‘Ghost Box’ stores and ‘Dead Malls’ first, and found Ulrich’s photos online later. I read and listened to many interview with him, in addition to looking at his photos. And then I got to see his work in museum format at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2011—which was a few years after I had started writing from his poems online. But I’ve never spoken to him about my book.

LL: The copia of commercialism and material goods are at the forefront of your book, yet there is also a focus on absence and empty space, like with the speaker’s body in “By Other Means.” Similarly, your exploration of Jewish history and the Yiddish language within the collection offer a contrasting discussion of memory. How did you begin to approach these ideas/topics within the collection?

EM: I’m not a project book kind of person—meaning when I set out to write, I just write poems; I don’t usually think about a collection as a whole. It happened that my obsession with Detroit (and its abandoned buildings) coincided with my struggle to have a second child, and those empty buildings (in retrospect) became a really fitting metaphor for my body. At the same time, my grandmother had died, taking her language (Yiddish) with her. Which is to say that life happened, and art became a way to work out the deeper meanings and resonances of things that were happening to me, rather than the other way around.

LL: I know geographic location is important in your other collections, but in very different ways (I’m thinking of Ideal Cities, in particular). Can you talk about the importance of this specific place, and locality in general within Copia?

EM: While poems about Detroit are a big part of this book, when I started the poems in Copia, I was actually thinking a lot about what it meant to be from or of a place. I’m first-generation American. My mother was literally a refugee—a stateless person—as she was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, which is where my grandparents settled after they were liberated from Auschwitz. My father’s family escaped the Nazis in what was then Czechoslovakia by moving to Israel when it was still British Mandate Palestine. I grew up in very Jewish parts of New York, in Queens and Long Island, and my family and friends are mostly still in the tri-state area. But I’ve been living in rural Southwest Virginia since 2007, and trying to figure out how to bridge that dislocation became a central tenet of Copia. So a lot of the poems take place in and around the town I live in now, but some of the poems also go back to the Bronx of the 1950’s and 60’s (which is where my mother spent her later childhood), the Queens of my childhood, and Detroit. While Detroit is an actual place in these poems, it’s also a bigger part of the story of American desire and consumption. And I think that Detroit is a city that’s changed so much in a relatively short period of time, that even the people we spoke with when we were there acknowledged a feeling of dislocation inherent in the dissolution and renewal happening in various neighborhoods around the city.

KW: What was your process like when deciding on the organization of the collection, both throughout the book as a whole and within the separate threads of each section?

EM: Because I was working from series of photographs in many of these poems, some of them share titles (like “Niagara”). I was also really interested in what happens when you approach the same concept via wildly different content (as in “Terra Nullius” where I was trying to explore the idea of ‘no man’s land’). To organize the collection (and to order most of my books), I need wall space. I usually try to go to an artist’s colony (most recently, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts) where they have studios for writers that have giant bulletin boards on the walls. I’ll post all the poems I’m try to organize, and shift them around until I can see the connections between them (which can be both subtle and more overt). I also ask poet-friends to read the manuscript, as often they see connections in my work that aren’t obvious to me. In Copia, the first section is all about desire—often physical desire for a ‘you,’ or desire for objects. Section two deals with domesticity and violence, place and dislocation—desire for a home and homeland. There’s a word in Judaism—“galut”—that means exile; more specifically, it refers to the historical exile and dispersion of the Jews after the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th Century BCE (when Jews were uprooted from their homeland and subject to alien rule). What I was trying to get at, in section two, is not only the harshness/violence of the mountain landscape in rural Southwest Virginia (where I’ve lived for the past seven years), but also what it means to be people in exile, and be in a place that feels wholly alien and Christian, and detached from the Jewish areas in New York where I was raised. Section three has to do with infertility—desire for a child—and includes my documentary poems about Detroit, which function as a metaphor (all those abandoned buildings) for my body, for a hopeful sort of re-birth from the ashes. So desire ties the book together, but the subject material was disparate enough that the book needed sections.

LL: Aesthetically, this book is beautiful. I love when collections have off-beat shapes—and with Copia, this fat square is so necessary considering your fabulous long lines. I felt like it was almost selfish with space, while at other times luxurious in its usage of it, which is awesome considering the subject matter. Did you work closely with BOA with design?

EM: Thank you! It’s interesting—I did choose the cover art for the book (and the amazing book designer, Sandy Knight, made the art on the cover work in really creative ways), but I had no idea what size the book would be until it showed up in a box on my doorstep. I was so happy with the larger format of Copia. I knew when I was looking at the page proofs that none of my lines wrapped—which was something that had happened with all of my previous books—there were always two or three poems where the lines wrapped past the end of the page. But I didn’t know how good-looking the book would be until it arrived, or how big it was!

KW: Another thing I loved: the playlist. I’ve never seen a poet construct a Spotify playlist to parallel their collection before. Is this the music you just happened to be listening to while writing the collection, or songs you think pair well with specific poems within Copia? What gave you the idea to share this music with readers via Spotify?

EM: I actually got the idea from the blog “largehearted boy,” which has a section called “book notes” where authors create playlists for their books. Some of the music is stuff that I was listening to when I wrote the poems, or inspired the poems in some way. Other songs evoked the flavor (time/place) of some of the poems in various sections. I felt like the playlist was one other sensory way to help readers find their way into Copia.

KW: I’ve been thinking a lot about the crossover between poetry and creative nonfiction lately, and if the two genres should always be so black-and-white in their categorizations. In the reading guide you posted on your website, you list quite a few nonfiction books as background reading for Copia— personally, I was super-excited to see Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy on that list. You spent a lot of time in Detorit conducting research and interviewing local residents in order to write the poems in section III, correct? Have you ever thought about writing a CNF essay using some of that research? Or are there topics/ideas/images within the Detroit section that you think naturally come across better in poetry versus an essay?

EM: I actually did write a nonfiction essay to go with the Detroit pieces that doesn’t appear in my book, but you can find it online with the Detroit poems, at Virginia Quarterly Review. In this instance, I do think the poems allow me to use some of the language of people and place in different ways than the more factual essay does. But it was important for me that my process for the project was transparent and contextualized in some way, thus the essay.

KW: I know Copia is still hot off the presses, but is there anything we can expect to see from you in the near future? Any ongoing projects you’re cur- rently working on?

EM: I’m currently at work on a collection that’s tentatively titled Fragments from Holeymoleyland (and the title comes partially from my visual artist friend Kim Beck’s piece “Holeymoley Land”). I also borrowed much inspiration and a title and cover art from her for Ideal Cities. Anyway, my new collection has to do with various kinds of violence—and especially gun violence. I’m headed to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in December with my family for six months on a Fulbright Fellowship, where I’ll be teaching at Queen’s University Belfast, and also doing some research and interviews on the conflict in Northern Ireland as part of the project.

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