30 September 2009
When I was seven or eight, I wanted drawing lessons. Both of my parents, art teachers, were not eager to pay for me to learn how to draw. My father said that he would teach me. He set to work helping me draw dinosaurs from illustrations in a book. These weren't children's drawings; they were adult renderings of dinosaur anatomy.
My father showed me that a drawing is made up of small lines that all work together to bring together a picture. He broke down some highly complex pictures, drawing a line or a squiggle and having me repeat it on my own page. I learned how to look at a detail, to mimic it and connect it to other small pieces. I didn't realize at the time how important this lesson would be for writing.
For several years, I wanted to be a painter. I viewed the world through a visual screen, always looking at how small pieces related to one another. When I turned to writing as my primary means of expression, I found that I wrote with my eye. Much of my work comes down to one clear image (or sensation) falling into another. In poetry, I use this technique to carry the reader through the narrative of the poem, one small line at a time.
There are moments in my own life when I remember the small lines I drew on that sheet of paper. A curve becomes the jaw of a long dead plesiosaur fighting another for a squid. The moon shines down on me and I remember the way a bend of light catches in a Fiesta ware bowel. There is no escaping the visual image in my writing or memory.
These small lines connect together, sometimes in startling ways, across decades to form a greater picture. They collect themselves in the pale shell of my skull and come out as words on a page and the thin veil of memory behind my eyes. Poetry and life are made of small lines.
27 September 2009
Rebecca Brown’s twelfth book, American Romances, a collection of gonzo “essays,” was released by City Lights in June, 2009. Brown’s other titles include The Last Time I Saw You, The End of Youth, The Dogs, The Terrible (all with City Lights), Excerpts From a Family Medical Dictionary (Granta and U of Wisconsin) and The Gifts of the Body (HarperCollins). A frequent collaborator, she has written numerous texts for dance; a play, The Toaster; and Woman in Ill Fitting Wig, a book length collaboration with painter Nancy Kiefer. Her work has been translated into Japanese, German, Italian, Norwegian and Dutch. She recently co-edited, with Mary Jane Knecht, Looking Together: Writers on Art (University of Washington Press), an anthology of writers’ responses to work at the Frye Art Museum. She lives in Seattle and teaches at the low residency MFA program at Goddard College in Vermont and elsewhere. Her work is included in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, The Penguin Book of Lesbian short Stories and lots of other places.
Jory Mickelson: Tell me how your newest book American Romances came together.
Rebecca Brown: I am calling them essays. They are part fantasy, speculation, silliness and research. I’ve done journalism off and on. Writing nonfiction is also something I have done for a number of years, which is one source. I also did a series of lectures with the Seattle Opera and that turned out both literary and campy. I enjoyed those. A third source for the collection was that I was a teacher for twenty five years where I taught Hawthorne, Stein, etc. I have all of this stuff to work with from teaching.
In The Last Time I Saw You, I wrote about aspects of E. M. Forrester, his fantasy love life and my own affairs, which were coded. Writing American Romances followed a similar pattern.
With this kind of writing I get the pleasure of engaging literary and historical figures. I get to write toward or away from other people. Essays also allow me to indulge my pop culture obsessions. I can say that watching all of these Western movies isn’t a waste of time because I am going to write an essay about it.
JM: You have been writing for more than two decades. In that time, how has your work changed?
RB: One constant in my work is that I have always been very careful aesthetically. I am constantly revising my work. Writing is always hard for me. It always comes slowly. Another constant is that my work is emotionally engaging. At least I hope it is!
The differences? I think that my first book of stories Evolution of Darkness, (published in England in 1984 and in the U.S. in 1992) was written with a very clear “I” directed to “You.” It was a very direct, emotional address. I still do those things, but it used to only be from that “how could you do this to me” place. Recently my writing examines how I have been complicit in my own fate, the “how could I have done this to myself?” It is less about the “I” and more about the “I and others.”
I now write about the pressures on the figure of American masculinity—not just about my dad.
There is a whole history of queer people finding one another in odd places, not just my own relationships. I am writing toward other people now. I hope that I am reaching out and making connection with something larger than myself or my life.
JM: In your essay “Invisible” your footnote becomes its own essay. Can you tell me about your extensive use of footnotes in American Romances?
RB: This is the first time that I used deliberate footnotes throughout a collection of essays. The essay “Invisible” is shorter than the footnotes it uses. The real story is hidden. The footnotes become the real story.
People think that they can skip over them, just like queer people’s lives are often skipped over. Our story and the important story of “Invisible” are in the footnotes.
JM: Footnote 4 in “Invisible” talks about progress and forgetfulness. I have thought a lot about what progress means to queer culture. I get the impression that many younger queer people think that there was the Stonewall Riots and now we are fighting for gay marriage. That’s it. That is our history.
RB: I think the passage you mean is:
“Maybe this kind of forgetting is not that different form girls today saying ‘I’m not a feminist, I just want to be a lawyer,’ unaware that a generation ago not many girls were able to go to law school. Is this progress, when things change so much you forget they ever were different?”
Maybe that is what progress really is, when one’s oppression is lifted to the degree to where it no longer happens. Is that progress or is that fucking terrifying?
Is a young girl thinking that she is not a feminist, just a lawyer similar to straight college students naively thinking that we are all okay and all the same? Does that just cover things up? Is it better to have it out in the open and be called a dyke or a fucking faggot instead?
I remember being the first out lesbian in the state arts commission. There were tons of closeted lesbians on the art commission at the time. The question you have to ask yourself over time is are you going to be bitter about it or is it progress that there are out lesbians all over the place now, that being a lesbian is no big deal.
Does victory mean that you have forgotten your history? It is fucked up. But I don’t want to sound like very generation before me though, “In my day…”
JM: How do you think that queer literature has changed in the past three decades?
RB: I think that there is more hope now. We are in a really exciting era now, full of experimentation. It used to be all straightforward, social realist stuff, “Become a lesbian and you will be a good person.” I think we are getting past that now. We know that it was propaganda, like Communist literature.
Don’t get me wrong, every movement needs to go through that stage. But now we can have writing that doesn’t fit into any one category. There is a lot more aesthetic experimentation.
One trend I don’t like is the, “I don’t think of myself as a queer writer” thing. I think there is a strong feeling that writers don’t want to be ghettoized anymore. That somehow gayness doesn’t matter, but it does.
All writers write from their perspective. Our writing comes from our center, just like our sexuality. It isn’t progress to say that we are all in a melting pot. That’s just dangerous.
I think that there is more interesting experimentation going on these days as queer literature matures. Brian Teare a gay poet from San Francisco for one. Another is Kathleen Bryson and her book, Girl on a Stick. That book is fucking wild.
There is also a lot more stuff from transsexuals, and I don’t mean the gender theory crap, but people writing from their own experiences. Kari Edwards wrote poetry and prose, between forms. It is both politically aware and aesthetically daring. She couldn’t exist forty years ago. Her poetry engages people. It comes directly from her queerness. There is no getting around that.
JM: What do you find discouraging about current queer culture?
RB: Some of the assimilationist stuff. We aren’t all exactly alike. I think “that is easy for you to say” and roll my eyes. I don’t like the taming of queer culture. As if because everyone loves Ellen DeGeneres, everyone loves lesbians, problem solved. Why don’t we get a little bit more out there maybe?
I mean I love the fact that there is an out lesbian talk show host that everyone likes. But that is like saying that if everyone likes Colin Powell, that racism is over.
If we have Ellen on TV then there are no problems with lesbian visibility. We know that isn’t true. I think that this kind of thinking or solution is a band aid that allows the problem to grow worse. On one hand, who would have ever thought that there would be an out lesbian talk show host to begin with? But I don’t want things to stop there.
JM: What are you working on currently?
RB: Writing continues to be very hard. I started a personal essay about someone I knew in the 70s thinking that it would be easy, but it has been absolutely hellacious. In the past few years I have been collaborating with visual artists. I did that anthology for the Frye Museum. I would like to do more of that.
I never know what’s next. It is like those useless questions on grant applications, “What are you going to do with this grant money?” I always want to say, “I don’t fucking know. I am going to live off the money while I write!”
If you would like to see Rebecca read some of her new work you can catch her at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle on Friday, October 23rd, 2009, 7:30 PM.
23 September 2009
Published by Rosemetal Press, October 2008
Reading Tinderbox Lawn by Carol Guess is akin to remembering your dream. The pieces of the story are fragmentary. There is a struggle to weave a narrative thread between them and more often than not, the dream can be interpreted any number of ways depending on how it’s hemmed.
Tinderbox Lawn is a collection of prose poems that function in a similar way. Each poem looks like a paragraph, a block of compact text on the page. The poem--its spacing and line breaks--have been compressed. Because of this condensation, the images, language, and musicality have been refined as well. These poems are muscled. Each poem functions as a stand-alone piece of work, but there is also a narrative--often fragmentary, that joins the poems into a singing whole.
Is there a plot with this start and stop method? Definitely, but not one that most readers of prose and novels expect. The storyline of Tinderbox Lawn functions like a strobe light, focusing the reader’s attention to highly illuminated points of the narrative. Guess’s poems tell the story of two women falling in and out of love against the backdrops of Seattle and Bellingham. True to locale, the Green River Killer, the politics of the war in Iraq, and even strippers make appearances among the poems.
Tinderbox Lawn’s poems aren’t shy. There are no names for the characters except for the voice of the speaker, the lyric “I,” who addresses the reader as “you.” This device creates a continuous intimacy between the author and the reader. “In another incarnation you’re sitting on a dock, dangling / your legs over the edge. You’re new, and in this chapter / I’m new too…” Guess consistently draws the reader into the tapestry of her poems with a conspiratorial voice, startling images, and sometimes, explosive violence.
The musical quality of Tinderbox Lawn’s language is joyous. Many of these poems demand to be read aloud. Guess’s poems dance with sound, both jarring and sonorous.
Guess's collection is an example of prose poetry at its best: highly textured, compact, and sharp. But, the work will not please every reader. Those looking for straightforward poems or prose may find themselves flummoxed. Guess’s work demands that the reader collaborate in the reading process, requiring him or her to fill in some gaps. The pacing can also leave the reader occasionally out of breath from trying to keep up.
Taking each poem individually or collectively as a novel in fragments, the reader of Tinderbox Lawn is rewarded for their effort. Guess’s work sets a high standard for any prose poetry to come.
19 September 2009
When most people are asked to give an opinion about poetry they shrivel up like time lapsed apples. The first response out of a person’s puckered mouth usually goes, “Oh, I don’t know anything about that,” or “I am not much of a poetry person.”
When did we become so fearful of poetry? How did poetry become the intellectual property of stern educators and academics locked away in their dim-lit offices? Usually, we were told how to interpret a poem and graded on it. We weren’t allowed to voice what we felt and thought. We were told that these kind of “subjective” answers were wrong. The truth? Every response to a poem is valid.
If you’re fortunate you’ve encountered poems you love. You might never admit it in public, or push a book of poems under the TV Guide when someone enters the living room, but you might like a bit of verse now and then. Admit it; you know one off-color limerick.
Even if you are not a “poetry person”, you have a good idea of what you like and dislike. Lima Beans? Heavy Metal? That orangey color of the new car next to you in traffic? We have preferences and this applies to literature as well. The only way we are going to know if we like poems are by reading them, even if we do so in secrecy.
Ask yourself the following questions after you read a poem. There are no right or wrong answers. Really. Toss them out entirely—I don’t care as long as you start thinking about poetry. These are only suggestions to help you start forming your own opinions.
There are only two rules to remember: (I lied about there being no musts.)
- Go with your gut feeling about something.
- Think about why you feel the way you do. See if you can figure out why you like a thing or not. Can you find just where in the poem you were confused or elated?
Here are three questions to help you take a closer look at poems:
1. What do you like, if anything, about the poem? What stays with you after you read it? Are there images, lines or sounds that really stick?
2. What don’t you like about the poem? Is there a description, a line or an awkward place in the poem? Take a few moments and see if you can answer how or why it rubs you the wrong way. It may be nothing more than the way two words sound together.
3. At what point does your mind begin to wander? Do you get distracted or bored with any area of the poem? Is there a line, portion stanza your eye and brain want to skip over?
This is the secret to interpreting poetry. In the “professional world” there are all sorts of terms and technical language that go with poems. You don’t need to know them in order to give very insightful and useful feedback. Many people who write poetry tear their hair out trying to get straight answers out of people who are looking at their poems. Friends or workshop participants can get vague, worry about hurt feelings or get hung up in technical language. I think the narrative arc of the poem gets lost before the dénouement. That isn’t of much use to the writer. A clearer way to look at a poem and give feedback might go like this:
“Near the bottom of the poem, the line that starts with ‘and give her back the toast…’ I don’t think that this is a good place to tell us about why he stole the toast from her. A moment ago, the guy who stole the toast was being chased around the table…now you sort of drift off into explanations. Why not stick to more description about the toast chase. I want to know what he is doing with the toast. Is he holding it over the garbage disposal? The toast you were describing has disappeared…”
This is valid feedback. It's your honest opinion. You have identified what you didn’t like about the poem. It got awkward and you've located exactly where it happened in the poem. You can even ask the poet what he or she was trying to do. Perhaps the poet wanted the toast to vanish. More likely, he or she was so carried up in writing about the toast that their attention wavered and they didn’t make things clear. Don’t be afraid to point things out and to ask questions when reviewing a poem; it may save breakfast!
16 September 2009
Published by Vintage, May 1991
One of the perks of interviewing LGBTQ authors is that they love books as much as I do. Even better, they love books that I didn’t know existed. When asked about favorite books, author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore said that Wojnarowicz’s work was “the first book that ever expressed my own sense of rage at the world, and also hope at the same world.” With a recommendation like that, I had read it.
I've been trying to write about Close to the Knives for months, but didn’t know what to say. My first attempt ended up as a series of poems, the oral histories of dead friends preserved in verse. After reading Wojnarowicz’s essays, I was scared that I might forget what I need to remember. His work has no easy definition: part memoir, part social commentary on America during the AIDS crisis, part hallucinatory fiction and also a radical vision of what being queer might mean. Oh, and the prose is stunning in both senses—glamorous and a hard electric shock.
Close to the Knives paints a portrait of America under siege by AIDS and the Regan administration. “I feel that I’m caught in the invisible arms of government in a country slowly dying beyond our grasp…” He could have been writing about a post-9/11 America.
Wojnarowicz never fails to tell the reader hard emotional truth about culture and class, “Some of us are born with the crosshairs of a rifle scope printed on our backs or skulls. Sometimes it’s a matter of thought, sometimes activity, but most times its color.” This book isn’t just a series of impassion essays about the evils of big government and homogenized culture; it delves into the personal (actual and imagined) history of Wojnarowicz’s life. It gets gritty, convoluted and joyful by turns.
Wojnarowicz is a master craftsman of language. He turns out sentence after beautiful sentence, “…small sparks of airplanes in the late blue and yellow and these black pills stirring like small bees in my stomach.”
He also has a deft hand for capturing a sense of place, whether that be driving through a Southwestern desert or a having video booth sex in NYC with strangers. His descriptive prose is exacting brushstrokes on the page, “Outside the windows the river light turned from blues to grays to flashes of rain.”
Close to the Knives resonates as much today as it did nearly twenty years ago. I keep coming back to this book even though I finished it months ago. Passages like “American’s can’t deal with death unless they own it. If they own it, they celebrate it, like in the air force base museum to the atomic bomb” wake me up to the fact that monolithic-America is still alive and hungry.
In a post-Bush America with increasing visibility for queer and transgendered people, we feel safer. Some of Wojnarowicz’s ideas about fringe and outsider culture may be hard to grasp for people coming up and coming out in a same-sex marriage world, but in this “post-queer” world I think that Close to the Knives becomes essential reading. Wojnarowicz will not fail to upset you, get you angry or move you to tears.
11 September 2009
Maybe poetry went wrong for you in high school. Perhaps an English teacher decided to start unraveling Shakespeare like the Da Vinci Code, until it resembled a complicated algebra problem…hexameter. No, I mean iambic!
Somewhere in being taught how to dissect a poem to reveal its “meaning” poetry became nebulous—a dangerous sea for amateurs to navigate alone. I admit it; I felt the same way for a long time. Even though I like poetry now, it can still be murky, confusing or just plain weird.
In 1957 the linguist Noam Chomsky introduced the sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” He wanted to illustrate even though a sentence can be grammatically correct, it can fail to make sense. He called this a “category mistake,” but I say the sentence was a poetic success.
If we can set aside our need for intellectual clarity (meaning) and our fear of not being able to hear how many metrical feet are in a line, maybe we can learn to enjoy poetry for its own sake, colorless greens and all.
My favorite poems open me to new possibilities and shock me with their exciting use of language. Poetry when it is good lifts me out of myself, if only for a moment. Let me leave you with a poem by Ted Kooser from his book Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison.
overcast, cold and still
A hundred yards ahead
a coyote crosses the road at a lope,
stops on a rise, looks back,
runs on. It is less like
the shape of an animal running
than the shape of something flying.
When I get to the place where I saw it,
no tracks in the snow.
09 September 2009
Jeremy Halinen is a poet and the co-editor and co-founder of Knockout Literary Magazine (knockoutlit.org). Some of his recent poems appear in Arroyo Literary Review; Best Gay Poetry 2008; Dos Passos Review; Pontoon: an anthology of Washington State Poets, Number Ten; Quarter After Eight; and Rio Grande Review. Halinen holds an MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University. He resides in Seattle.
This interview was conducted in December 2008.
Jory Mickelson: Tell me a bit more about yourself and your writing history.
Jeremy Halinen: I started writing when I was eight or ten years old. I didn’t start writing poetry until I was in college. I majored in music, but traveled and studied in Italy and Lithuania. I was very fortunate to study under the daughter of Ezra Pound for a semester. I graduated with a B.A. in 2003 and then got my M.F.A. in creative writing from Eastern Washington University in 2005. I now work as a legal assistant, write poems, and am the co-editor of Knockout.
JM: Why do you write poetry?
JH: To me [poetry] is what gets at the root of things. It is rooted in the human voice and vocal expression. It is one of the earliest forms of the arts. I enjoy writing fiction and plays, but poetry is the only thing that sustains my attention. I do write fiction once and a while, although they are usually shorter pieces.
JM: What do you mean that poetry is rooted in the human voice?
JH: Poetry differs when it is printed on the page vs. when it is spoken aloud. I push my own poetry to work on the page. I push it hard to bridge the gap between read and read aloud. But, I do like how you can place a poem on the page (using the blank space as part of the poem).
JM: Is poetry relevant today?
JH: Poetry in the world does more than here in the United States. I would say that poetry is a bigger part of the lives of people in poorer countries. Poetry isn’t a mass media. People’s lives in those countries are not so intertwined with television and radio. They have more time to think and communicate. It does seem like poetry is gaining in popularity though. There are more poetry books printed every year, but who knows if they are being read. I would say that poetry is as relevant as anything else is. More relevant than television, but poetry is not financially relevant.
JM: What would you say to people who don’t read poetry?
JH: No one should be force-fed. Poetry isn’t like those geese that are force fed to make foie gras. There is a trend towards animating poems, online, and I am hoping that this reaches a wider audience. People’s exposure to poetry is limited. It really doesn’t bother me if people don’t read poetry. I think that for a poet to be read widely, he or she has to be very conscious of contemporary life—speak in a voice that people can understand.
JM: Who are some poets that you read and admire?
JH: I read Nathan Whiting; he lives in Brooklyn and is a former marathon runner. He is in his mid-to-late 60’s now. I like Tony Hoagland, Robinson Jeffers, and Mark Doty. I know I am forgetting some people. There is a list around here somewhere of poets that I have read and come back to…
JM: Where do you think queer literature is right now and where is it headed?
JH: Queer lit is growing tremendously. There is a larger audience for it. The queer writing community has really come together and I think the Internet has helped that. There are a few queer literary conferences around the country. I went to Saints and Sinners last year in New Orleans, it was great to be around so many queer people who are passionate about writing. The literature of queer people is very diverse now; there isn’t one specific genre.
In the 1980’s there was a focus on coming out literature. I don’t think writers have to do that anymore. We are finally taking a broader look at the world and our own lives. I think that work can be edgier now. That is not to say that earlier writers weren’t edgy, but there is an opportunity now with such a diverse market to be more experimental.
I would like to see more funding for queer literature. I want to see funding for writing, poetry. Maybe with Obama in office there will be a little trickle down. That would be nice.
JM: You are also an editor?
JH: That started a long time ago. I have always been editing. I was home schooled and my father taught me how to write. I was an editor for my high school paper and in college, I edited literary journals, like Willow Springs at Eastern. Now I am the co-editor of Knockout. One of my favorite things about writing poems is the revision process.
JM: How did Knockout come about?
JH: Brett Ortler and I wanted to start a literary magazine for quite a while. We were working together at Willow Springs at Eastern. We each had one vote out of 30 for which poems went into Willow Springs. (Laughs) We wanted more say in what made it into the magazine. I originally wanted a magazine that was all queer, but Brett wanted a 50-50 split. I came around to the 50-50 idea. We are the first magazine to do this split between gay and straight writers that I know of. We started in February of 2007 and the first issue came out in late 2007.
There are only two of us working on it, so the process is slow. My sister does the design work. We are lucky to have someone with a degree in graphic design to lay out the magazine, not many magazines have that. Still, it takes us a long time to put out an issue. We don’t have 30 people on staff like where I used to work.
JM: What are you hoping to do in the future?
JH: I am considering getting a Ph.D. in creative writing. I feel like my poetry is developing the way I want it to, but an advanced degree can lead to an academic career. I am pursuing a Stegner Fellowship, a two-year creative writing fellowship at Stanford. I also completed my first full-length collection of about 45 to 50 poems. I sent it out to several book contests and small presses. I am also working on a second book of poems.
JM: Do you have any last words for our readers?
JH: For queer poets, please submit to Knockout Literary Magazine. Check Knockout’s website at http://www.knockoutlit.org/
Jeremy was recently featured on the Joe Milford Poetry Show. You can hear another interview with him at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/Joe-Milford-Show/2009/08/15/Joe-Milford-Hosts-Jeremy-Halinen
02 September 2009
Published by Lethe Press, November 2008
Visiting one of my favorite gay bookstores, Lambda Rising in Washington D.C., I picked up a copy of Sea Swallow Me and Other Stories. Here I am again, telling you about my travels and the books that I buy.
Gidney’s collection of short stories run the gambit from the young Rimbaud riding the train into Paris in “Strange Alphabets” to falling for an allegorical figure at a dance club in D.C. in “Etiolate.” Every story in this collection stands apart from the others in its imagination. It is rare for me to find an author who can handle such disparate settings and characters well. I was as immersed in the plantation era “The Safety of Thorns” as much as I was by the medieval Japanese monastery in “A Bird of Ice.”
I am particularly fond of Gidney’s use of several different kinds of myth and fable. These fantastical stories are populated by African Diaspora gods, creatures from Japanese myth, historical figures and even the embodiment of longing. Like the human characters in Sea Swallow Me’s stories, the imaginative ones are compelling and flawed. In “The Safety of Thorns,” it appears that a Green Man or Jack in the green is as lost and confused as the mortals he reveals himself too.
Sometimes there is no need for a mythical villain. My two favorite stories in Sea Swallow Me allow the characters to project their own problems into the realm of fantasy. “Circus-Boy Without a Safety Net” is a wonderful take on the coming out story, opens with the fantastic first lines, “Lucifer came to him in drag. He was disguised as Lena Horne.” Gidney’s two-page wonder, “Magpie Sisters” conflates Vonda’s kleptomania with the bird in the story’s title.
Gidney has some weak moments in this collection as well. “Strange Alphabets” while lovely in its conception lagged in its execution. I was interested in how the story would end, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to wade through the entire piece. It could have been shortened without ill effect. “Her Spirit Hovering” attempted to address the figure of the overbearing mother with humor. His story becomes more of a worn-out joke than a strong piece of fiction.
Again and again, Sea Swallow Me surprised me with its fresh eye and fertile imagination. Gidney’s language can be sharp and haunting. He takes his readers for a ride through strange and dark landscapes. Although the ride is enjoyable, be sure that you keep your windows rolled up and the doors locked.