28 October 2009

An Interview with author and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of two novels, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly (City Lights 2008) and Pulling Taffy (Suspect Thoughts 2003). Sycamore is the editor of four nonfiction anthologies, most recently Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity (Seal 2007) and an expanded second edition of That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (Soft Skull 2008). She lives in San Francisco, CA.

This interview was conducted in September 2008

Jory Mickelson: Tell us more about yourself.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore:
I grew up in an upper class Jewish family and was the typical overachiever student. In order to learn what I wanted to learn—that is unlearn my background, privilege masking itself as violence, I came to San Francisco when I was nineteen. I became immersed in finding and creating the kinds of cultures I write about. I learned the truths behind the myths of higher education, the idea of career, and the values of assimilation.

JM: When did you start writing?

I started writing as a child. Writing is the one way that I have to process my life, to cope. I started by writing elaborate escape fantasies. In my late teens, I mostly wrote poetry and became interested in language poetry…how to take everything you think and reduce it into five words, the concentration on the placement of words on the page, distilling my experience into something tiny. I became obsessed with form.

I then started writing prose, stories about sex work. I always believed in experimentation. I felt like I articulated and experience I didn’t see translated on any interesting level in print. This is where writing became about simultaneously articulating and processing my life and the lives of those around me. From this point, I began writing political essays. Not many people doing direct action (activism) write about it.

JM: You also edit anthologies?

I learned a lot about writing by editing anthologies. It taught me how to think of an idea and to put the idea out there, seeing how people relate to it. The goal is not to create consensus, but to gather as many voices as possible.

My first publication was in an anthology, Queerview Mirror. Anthologies are more like what literary magazines are supposed to be. They allow a space for writers who don’t have a career or connection already. It is a place to find publication, usually around a specific idea.

JM: Has having several books published affected your writing?

Being published was exciting, but it did not change my confidence in my work. I have always been confident in my writing. I was excited that other people had access to my work and that I was able to see how they responded to it.

I have six books that have been published and in some ways, I am still an outsider to mainstream, commercial publishing. I think the big tragedy in publishing is the current obsession with niche marketing. This limits the kind of work that is allowed to been seen in the world.

There are formulas to what supposedly sells. An agent told me that my newest book needed more narrative structure and closure or that I should call it a memoire. The agent believed that this would allow my book to become a hot marketing item. I resisted this. I have been lucky enough and persistent enough to publish my work on my own terms.

JM: What are your views on queer literature and publishing?

In the 1980s and 1990s there was a lot of nonconventional literature being published. Kathy Acker and Paris Schulman were considered edgy. Now corporate publishing wouldn’t pick up these writers. It seems that everything needs to be clearly delineated, such as gay white men who write funny memoires. People are uncomfortable with things that don’t fit. Even small presses suffer from this. Is it a lesbian book? Is it a gay men’s book? It always comes down to marketing. Trans(gender) is trendy now. There are memoires by several trans people. What about a book about being a trans person who doesn’t want to go through the entire transition? A theme like this would not be embraced by the publishing industry.

I think that publishers should begin by instead of asking, “Will this sell?” they should find something that inspires them and then figure out how to make it sell.

JM: What writers have influenced your own work?

David Wojnarowicz’s Close to Knives is the first book that ever expressed my own sense of rage at the world, and also hope in the same world. The writing is explosive, elegant and hallucinatory. It is a deeply political work at the same time.

Lissa McLaughlin’s Troubled by His Complexion is written in the second person. She uses narrative, but not in a linear manner. It freed me. It allowed me to break away from any set style of writing.

Rebecca Brown creates a world that you have to enter into. You ask yourself, “Where am I?” Her writing overlaps between what is felt and what really happens. Her work is much messier than conventional prose. Emotion and reality are on par with one another. These are just a few of the authors how have influenced me.

JM: What is your role as a writer in the world?

I feel that being a writer means that I process the world around me and articulate myself in the world. At its most primal, writing is about survival. On a second level, a lot of my writing is editing. As an editor, my role is to put others work out there on their own terms. I always want to interject critical voices onto ideas that remain silent or are being erased: queer assimilation, sex abuse and sex work to name a few. Writing for me comes down to survival, critique, accountability and instigation.

19 October 2009

Meat Pies, Mountain Men and Mining: An Interview with Jeff Mann

Jeff Mann grew up in Covington, Virginia, and Hinton, West Virginia, receiving degrees in English and forestry from West Virginia University. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Spoon River Poetry Review, Wild Sweet Notes: Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry 1950-1999, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Laurel Review, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, Crab Orchard Review, West Branch, Bloom, Appalachian Heritage, Best Gay Erotica, Best Gay Poetry, and Best Gay Stories. He has published three award-winning poetry chapbooks, Bliss, Mountain Fireflies, and Flint Shards from Sussex; two full-length books of poetry, Bones Washed with Wine and On the Tongue; a collection of personal essays, Edge: Travels of an Appalachian Leather Bear; a novella, Devoured, included in Masters of Midnight: Erotic Tales of the Vampire; a book of poetry and memoir, Loving Mountains, Loving Men; and a volume of short fiction, A History of Barbed Wire, which won a Lambda Literary Award. He teaches creative writing at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

This interview was conducted in March 2009.

Jory Mickelson: When did you start writing or consider yourself a writer?

Jeff Mann: I attended West Virginia University and graduated with an English literature degree and an outdoor recreation degree. I ran across a book of poetry by Sylvia Plath my senior year of college. After I graduated, I moved home and worked odd jobs. I read more about Plath and the criticism of her work. I decided I wanted to be a poet. I contacted an undergraduate professor I respected and talked to him about getting a Master’s degree in English. There was no Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at WVU in 1984. I got my Master’s in English.

JM: You currently teach creative writing at Virginia Tech, what prompted you to become a teacher?

Why teach? I ask myself that quite a bit. (Laughs.) In graduate school, it’s what you had to do to get your tuition waived. Teaching didn’t interest me, but I didn’t know how else to make a living. It was also a way to talk about writing and literature and get paid for it. I have been teaching ever since graduate school.

After all this practice, I have gotten pretty good at teaching. I got an certificate of teaching excellence award from Virginia Tech. I have reached a point in my life where it isn’t about my own dreams anymore. Teaching is about helping other people. I have a strong sense of myself as a teacher now. It is a privilege to be part of the creative process for my MFA students. I get to contribute to the next wave of writers who will come after me.

I have taught many kinds of creative writing—poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction. I used to teach a GLBT literature class off and on. I am currently trying to make it a permanent course here at Virginia Tech.

JM: Your work expresses a deep love for Appalachia. Would you call yourself a regional writer or a writer of place?

I realize that my insistence on being frank about my sexuality and about living where I live has limited me in some ways. Being a regional writer or a gay writer allows some authors to dismiss me, to not consider me a serious writer. LGBT writers and regional writers are constantly dismissed.

A lot of details in my fiction are from Appalachia. Much of my nonfiction and my memoir have been about being queer in Appalachia. My poetry tends to be more universal. I want it to transcend, geographical region and sexual orientation.

I would say that the sense I get from the AWP (Associated Writing Programs) and some of my MFA students are that queer and regional writing aren’t worth paying attention to. I have a large ego, like all writers and Southern men. I am easily offended. (Laughs.)

JM: You are one of the few writers that I know who talks about both your love of place and the environmental degradation of it. Annick Smith does this in her book In This We Are Native. Can you tell me more about that?

It is hard not to talk about environmental degradation in Appalachia. Mountain top removal is a very heated topic here. Mining companies have destroyed Central Appalachia with coal mining. Central Appalachia is what gets written about most of the time—the poverty, the coalfields, and the uneducated hillbilly stereotype. I don’t live in Central Appalachia, but I feel passionately about this.

The economy is failing, the coal is running out, and the new method of mining is blowing up the tops of mountains with tons of dynamite. The mining companies take what little coal there is and ruin the environment in the process. A few years ago, I attended a tour of mountain top removal for West Virginia writers.

Ann Pancake has written a novel on this topic, I think it’s called, Strange as This Weather Has Been. You are probably familiar with her; I think she lives out in your part of the country too.

JM: She does live in the Pacific Northwest. Another topic that comes up frequently in your work is food, why food?

I am always about to be on a diet. I love food. I am a daddy bear and that sounds better than “slightly overweight, graying, middle-aged man.” (Laughs.) My writing deals with physical pleasure, the senses and the body. My work is sensual, whether I am writing about sex, alcohol, nature or food. That is part of it.

I come from a family where preparing and serving food was about how you care. It is also a masculine role for me. In my family men cook as often as women. My father won’t say “I love you,” he will make you a batch of biscuits instead. Food is about family traditions, kinship and heritage. So many of the dishes I eat or ate growing up are related to the fruits of Appalachia and the South. There are also the English, Scottish, Irish and German traditions to consider. I think about my ancestors and the food that has been passed down by them. I grew up eating all sorts of pot pies. When I was in England, there were all kinds of different meat pies. There is a direct food connection there. It gets passed on.

JM: Tell me something about your approach to writing, your technique if you will.

I am old fashioned in a certain sense. I am interested in poetry that deals frankly with real human issues and emotions. Poetry just isn’t about language play or intellectual ideas for me. I am not an elitist. Although my poetry is multilayered, you can take away something from it after the first reading.

Robert Frost and Nathanial Hawthorne are my models. You can get something from the first reading of a Frost poem, but every time you come back to it there are other layers, other meanings to explore. It isn’t confusing or impenetrable.

I write in a free verse style, but I am concerned about sound devices and rhythm. I don’t mean just rhyme, but there is assonance, alliteration, etc. I have a pretty good ear. I have been playing around with some formal verse recently.

JM: What would you say is the hardest challenge about being a writer in Appalachia or a queer writer in a rural area?

Just to keep writing. That is hard enough for most writers to do. Even though we writers think our work is fascinating, the world meets us with a resounding “I don’t give a shit.” The mainstream gay community has little interest in small town or rural queer experience. It is hard to get published as a queer or regional author. There are limitations.

Then I think, “What the hell else would I do?” If I were not to write, what would I do with myself? Just being a teacher isn’t sufficient for me. A friend of mine Irene McKinney, the Poet Laureate of West Virginia, said that when she was young she felt all sorts of painful passions and if she didn’t express them, she would explode. As an older person now, in her seventies, she says she writes because her whole self-definition is wrapped up in being a writer. I have to agree with her on that.

The greatest challenge is to keep on writing when the rest of the world doesn’t give a shit. Just continuing to write is saying, “Fuck you.”

JM: Do you have any last words for our readers?

William Faulkner, after The Sound and the Fury was published, wrote a commentary on it. He said of the black characters: "They endured." When I hear that phrase, it gets me shaking.

To LGBT writers, I say keep going. Be stubborn and ornery. Endure. As I know from my own writing niche as a queer mountain man, there is an audience out there for my work. It may be small, but people are hungry for it. That is who I am writing for.

Update! New places to see my poems!

Two of my poems were just published in the amazingly beautiful November issue of Oranges & Sardines. I am on page 38 and 39.

The new issue is now online:

More information on O&S:

Available in print soon from amazon.com:

07 October 2009

Book Notes on American Romances by Rebecca Brown

Paperback, 162 pages
From City Lights Publisher
June 2009
ISBN: 9780872864986

The first thing I noticed about American Romances was the blurb on the back covers by Thurston Moore, guitarist for Sonic Youth. So when I opened the book and saw quotes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work, I was surprised. For me, there was no connection between a “noise band” and the author of the Scarlet Letter. And this is how many of Rebecca Brown’s wonderful essays unfolded as I read them: startling connections between disparate elements, musings on cinematic characters and imagined encounters with historical figures.

In Brown’s opening essay “Hawthorne,” she weaves the author’s life with that of Brian Wilson, one of the Beach Boys. (He grew up in a California suburb called Hawthorne.) Brown takes details from both of the men’s lives and builds surprising parallel narratives. “Brian wrote a string of hits. He was a native genius, American music’s answer to the sophisticated pop of the British Invasion.” And a paragraph later, “Nathaniel’s books were a string of hits, much-read and well-reviewed. He was revered at a time his countrymen were trying to create a particularly American Culture…distinct from the English and European models they’d been handed.”

Another essay “A Child of Her Time,” examines the truth of memory against the factual truth. Brown weaves her own personal history in and out of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. And then there are the footnotes. Footnote 2 to this essay offers a commentary that undermines the point she makes in the body. Footnote 4 becomes its own essay examining the characters of Hawthorne’s corpus, offering yet another theme to run along-side the author’s own childhood.

Brown uses footnotes liberally and with great skill, but not in any traditional way. The footnotes in American Romances create complex dialogues between the main essay and the additional information. Footnotes are used as exposition, as side trips through history or to create contrary voices.

My favorite essay in the collection is “Invisible,” which gives the cinematic history of the Invisible Man and/or Woman. Footnote 5 is longer than the entire essay. In fact, the real story of “Invisible” is told through the footnotes. To read the meaning in full is to peel back the surface layer and delve into the hidden commentary put at the end.

American Romances
is 162 pages of startling turns, subversion and literary sleight of hand. Brown manages to confound and delight without an ounce of arrogance or elitism. Rather, these essays are a kind of nonfiction chutes and ladders. One cannot predict where these essays will arrive, but the ride is enjoyable.

03 October 2009

Oh the Horror: An Interview with poet Chad Helder

Chad Helder is the Stoker Award-winning editor of Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet (Dark Scribe Press 2008), an anthology of queer horror fiction, which he co-edited with Vince Liaguno. Helder's first book of poetry, Pop-Up Book of Death, will be published by Queer Mojo Press, an imprint of Rebel Satori. He is currently working on a new collection of horror poetry for Dark Scribe Press. He is also the creator and writer of Bartholomew of the Scissors (Bluewater 2008), a comic book miniseries with art by Daniel Crosier. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Jory Mickelson: You recently won a Bram Stoker award for your anthology Unspeakable Horror, tell me more about that.

Chad Helder:
The Stoker award was for category “Superior Achievement in an Anthology.” I co-edited it with Vince, the founder of Dark Scribe Press. It was the press’ first book. That was pretty exciting.

In June, I attended the Horror Writer’s Association convention in Burbank, CA and they had the awards ceremony there. There was a big dinner in a ballroom. It was very Emmy-esque. Our presenter was Ellen Datlow, probably the world’s greatest anthologist. It was a huge honor.

JM: Are you editing anything now? You have worked on several different projects in the past.

I am not editing anymore; I am just writing poetry. The submission period for Unspeakable Horror started in the fall of 2007 and ended in May of 2008. I was reading 35 stories a month for it. We managed to but the book together by December 2008. That was it for me editing. I am not writing comic books right now either. I am working on a collection of horror poetry for Dark Scribe Press and have about 60 pages of poems. I need to get going on it if I am going to meet my deadline.

JM: Can you define horror poetry?

Horror poetry is poetry that uses subtexts and borrowed images from the horror genre. My stuff tends to be very surreal and postmodern, in the sense that it consciously borrows from horror movies. My poems want to be horror movies. I also use my dreams as a source for my poems. I dream about monsters from the horror genre.

I think that you have to be careful. If you Google “horror poetry” you will find a lot of stuff on the Internet. A lot of it can be really bad. The same thing happens if you search for love poetry online. When poetry is awesome, it is awesome, no matter what the genre or theme is. Sylvia Plath wrote a poem with vampire overtones. I really love Plath.

JM: Your poems can blur the lines between poetry and prose. How do you differentiate your work from being flash fiction, prose poetry or something else?

Sometimes my poems are on the line between flash fiction and prose poems. More often than not though, my poems look like poems on the page. There is also an extra focus on language—metaphor and figurative language. The line between the two genres is a fun one to play with. I like narrative poems that straddle the line between the two.

JM: You have some experience with self publishing. Can you tell me how self publishing and having others publish your work compare?

Pop-Up Book of Death is being published by Queer Mojo Press. Originally, I had printed up some copies of an earlier version of that manuscript in order to have an event at Village Books in Bellingham. I sold about 30 copies of the book. I revised and expanded the book and signed a contract in March for it. Now Pop-Up is going through the paces. Publication is underway, but I don’t know the month it is coming out yet.

I think that it is cool and fun to self publish. There is a lot of work you have to do to self publish successfully. There is a lot to be said for working with small presses too. I know how to write poetry, but I don’t know how to be a publisher. Let publishers do it, work with a small press. Publishers do a lot: cover design, marketing, having printed copies for an event. I am a poet; I don’t know how to design a book cover.

I am not a big fan of desperately hunting for a publisher. I am a bigger believer in networking. That is how you meet a publisher, not by culling 500 rejection slips. I have a very specialized market: gay + horror + poetry. I am thrilled I found a publisher for my work, but it was through the connections I made, the people I got to know. That said, I think that the prejudice against self publishing is ridiculous. Bad work gets self published, but so does a lot of good work.

JM: Are you still involved with writing comics?

At this point, that appears to be over. I am not writing for Bluewater anymore. Bartholomew of the Scissors started as a novel. I had put all of this work into a novel and it wasn’t coming together. I met Darren Davis from Bluewater and then I wrote up a pitch and delivered it to him. I had to learn how to write a comic script. The end product turned out pretty close to the visual images of writing a poem. There was a focus on the visual and is some ways it comics and poems are similar.

I wrote four issues and then Darren had to find an artist interested in drawing the comics. Daniel Crosier was an artist doing wood burning on wood planks. He said that he wanted to draw the entire series. And he did. I think that Bartholomew is the only comic ever done that way—burned into wood. It looks really creepy and there are also a lot of fire themes in the story. It ended up working well.

It was going to be published as a trade paperback, but I think that got canceled. I also wrote for Vincent Price Presents. I did seven horror stories and the reviews were both good and bad. I was writing under the banner of Vincent Price and I think that Vincent Price fans wanted something very specific. I wanted to write my weird horror stories and I did.

JM: Did you read comics as a child? Did you work on horror comics because of Tales from the Crypt or similar works?

Not at all. I started reading comics in my 30s. I never read them as a kid, but I love them now. I didn’t get into poetry at all until my third year of college. I wanted to be a writer because I read Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. When I started writing poetry though, even my first poem had horror themes in it.
When I was younger I was very scared of horror. I would have to turn the TV off if a horror movie was on. For me personally, the whole reason that I am into horror is because I am gay. I had a really rough time with the closet and internalized homophobia. It manifested itself in a psychic or dream world of vampires, monsters and dread. I think that there is a strong connection between the 1980s vampire movies and a fear of gay men.

JM: What are you working on now?

I am working on finishing up the new collection of horror poetry for Dark Scribe press. I hope it is well received by both the gay community and horror readers. I play with the issues of gay identity and horror in the poems. It is a delicate balance because I don’t want to fall into using the stereotype of being gay as other or gay as monstrous. Hopefully the poems overturn the stereotypes in interesting ways and then go beyond that into something very unexpected. I am also going to be reading some of my poems for the October Chuckanut Radio Hour in Bellingham.

If you would like to hear Chad read from his work, he will be appearing on the Chuckanut Radio Hour on October 13th at 6:30pm at the Leopold Crystal Ballroom. Tickets are available at Village Books or www.brownpapertickets.com You can also visit Chad’s website Unspeakable Horror at http://unspeakablehorror.com/


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