Interview with Amy Monticello, Author of “Close Quarters”

March 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Jason Tucker, 2012

Photo Credit: Jason Tucker (2012)

Brief Biography:

Amy Monticello is the author of Close Quarters, a memoir-in-essays (Sweet Publications, 2012). Her work has appeared in Creative NonfictionThe RumpusSalonThe Iron Horse Literary ReviewBrevity, and elsewhere, and has been listed as notable in Best American Essays. She is an assistant professor of English at Suffolk University, and lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you become a writer?

Amy Monticello: I loved language at an early age, and the act of writing–even practicing my letters on that tri-lined paper–excited me. For most of my adolescence, I kept a thorough (and sometimes hyperbolic) journal. I began to take writing more seriously in high school when I edited my school’s newspaper, and switched from journalism to creative writing as a major at Ithaca College. It was there I realized that writing was more than a hobby I wanted to pursue on the side of something else–I wanted to try and make a life of it.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have specific audience you write for?

Amy Monticello: Yes, but those audiences depend on what I’m writing. Also, the rhetorical nature of writing means I can’t always predict what audiences will feel implicated by something I write. That’s part of the surprise.

Geosi Gyasi: What has been your biggest challenge as a writer?

Amy Monticello: Time. My life is a triathlon of teaching, parenting, and writing, and they constantly compete. Especially since becoming a parent (my daughter is eleven months old now), I almost never have time to write in long stretches. I’ve learned to make the most of ten minutes here and there, and to write on my phone while on the train to work.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it that easy to write non-fiction?

Amy Monticello: I don’t think it’s easy to write in any genre. Nonfiction is difficult, though, because it’s sort of deceptive. Real life provides the raw material, but that material needs to be shaped and shaded into something meaningful. You can’t just tell it straight.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you earn enough from writing?

Amy Monticello: I earn very little from writing by itself. But publishing did help my search for a tenure-track teaching position, which pays the bills. And earning tenure depends, in part, on continued publishing. So, they are intertwined.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever get rejections from publishers?

Amy Monticello: Oh, yes. Most of what I send out gets rejected. I’d say at least 85-90% of what I hear from publishers is rejection. And I think that’s doing pretty well. There’s a spectrum of rejection, from the form letter to the personal note from an editor who liked your work, even though they didn’t accept it. I consider some forms of rejection to be wins. They indicate if a particular piece is likely to find a suitable home, or if I need to take it back into draft form.

Geosi Gyasi: Which writer(s) do you look up to for inspiration?

Amy Monticello: The list is constantly in flux. Lately, I admire writers whose work embraces the contingency of their subjects: grief, disability, parenthood, pain. I read everything Heather Kirn Lanier writes (check out her incredible blog, Star in Her Eye). And everything by Eula Biss. Sarah Manguso’s mind thrills me. Sarah Einstein’s essays are exquisite studies in compassion. Laura Bogart’s writing about pop culture is magnificent. Liz Scheid’s book, The Shape of Blue, is a lyric stunner. Ta-Nehisi Coates levels me every time. I’m still reading The Atlantic because of him. B.J. Hollars’ work has a huge range, but I always know it by its sensitivity and perspicacity.

Geosi Gyasi: Is there any vast difference between non-fiction and essay?

Amy Monticello: Essays are short-form nonfiction. They have many stripes and structures. They’re versatile and slippery, and that’s why I love them.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re the recipient of the S.I Newhouse School Prize in Nonfiction. Could you tell us what this prize is about?

Amy Monticello: The Newhouse School prize is part of the annual award series from the literary journal Stone Canoe, which publishes writers with a connection to upstate New York (I was born and raised in Endicott, New York). Every writer whose work is accepted by the journal is automatically entered into the contest. Judges in each genre select winners from the year’s contributors. I was very fortunate and very honored to win in 2013.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve also twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Do prizes matter to you at all as a writer?

Amy Monticello: Nominations are lovely! It’s become weirdly taboo to say that, and I don’t know why. Winning a Pushcart is incredibly rare, but an editor at a literary journal believing in your work enough to nominate it is meaningful adjudication. These editors have a lot of work to choose from, and to know that your work was especially resonant means something. I’m always thrilled and thankful to be nominated. Prizes themselves are such long shots that I don’t spend much time thinking about them, and rarely enter contests, mostly because I’m too poor for the entry fees.

Geosi Gyasi: Let’s move onto your book, “Close Quarters”. Could you tell us something about the book?

Amy Monticello: Close Quarters is a memoir-in-essays published by Sweet Publications, which produces gorgeous handmade books that go on to become e-books once the print versions sell out. Close Quarters is about my father’s small sports bar by the same name, and his relationship with my mother after their divorce. My parents had a complex, but loving friendship for decades, and I wanted the book to challenge stereotypical representations of divorce as an acrimonious, family-destroying act. I wrote the original draft as part of my MFA thesis.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: How do you judge the success of a book?

Amy Monticello: Sometimes, I’m not sure. I’ve read unpublished manuscripts by writer friends that affect me deeply, and I think they are already successful books. There are such few guarantees in publishing. A completed manuscript that moves its readers is a real accomplishment.

Geosi Gyasi: You earned an M.F.A in creative writing at The Ohio State University in 2008. What inspired you to pursue an M.F.A?

Amy Monticello: Two things: 1) I wanted the three relatively unencumbered years of an MFA program for writing within a community of mentors and peers. Writing can be an isolating practice, and MFA programs can really underscore the importance of community for a writer. 2) I wanted the teaching experience that came with the assistantships offered at the programs to which I applied. During my undergraduate years, I did a little volunteer teaching at a local juvenile detention center, and I knew I wanted to teach as a profession someday. The MFA degree felt like the right combination of educational experiences for me.

Geosi Gyasi: What event(s) do you remember most about your student days at The Ohio State University?

Amy Monticello: Oh, my. Those three years were quite magical. I met my husband in the program, right at the outset of my first year, and I still remember the party where we had our first real conversation. I also remember certain days in workshop, where my professors—most notably, Lee Martin, Lee K. Abbott, and Erin McGraw—said something that permanently changed my process. I remember many essays written by my classmates that set the bar higher for my next essay—I can still quote from some of those pieces, and I feel a special giddiness when I run across those pieces in literary journals or in my friends’ now-published books. OSU’s program is also a highly social one, and I made friends over beers at the now-closed Larry’s bar in Columbus that I love like family. Tons of quotable conversations there, too, some of which aren’t suitable for the Internet.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us a bit about your piece, “Shame”?

Amy Monticello: “Shame” is a tiny essay—a flash essay, published in Brevity—about a giant emotion that governed much of my pregnancy. I wanted to confront the kind of arrogance it takes to have children. We live in a society that deifies parenthood, especially motherhood, and yet there were times not all that long before I became a mother where I could barely take care of myself. During pregnancy, I had a sense that I didn’t deserve the privilege of raising another human being, and yet a part of me also knew that wasn’t fair, that the mistakes I’d made in my early adult life had taught me about empathy and forgiveness and self-acceptance. All things I prioritized in the parent I wanted to be. I also wanted to draw a line between the baby inside me and the father I had recently lost. My father lived a life ruled by regret, but he was also this incredibly sensitive and compassionate parent whose mistakes were often made from the same place of vulnerability that made him wonderful.

Geosi Gyasi: I am also much particular about your piece, “Communing with Cancer”. Could you tell us something about it?

Amy Monticello: “Communing with Cancer” is about losing my father to renal cell cancer at the same time my husband and I were trying to conceive. I wanted to make a metaphor out of caring for my dying father—something that happened rapidly as the cancer quickly progressed—as a form of parenting and preparation for a baby that was taking a long time to come. I tried to weave these two narrative strands, along with a lesser strand about euthanizing my mother’s horse, in order create a braided essay about the magical thinking surrounding birth and death.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind telling us how you came to love dogs and cats?

Amy Monticello: I mean, really, why choose? Cats and dogs are different, wonderful and frustrating in different ways. I grew up with both at home, and we also had horses, goldfish, and, briefly, a hamster. My mother and I are both animal lovers, and I just can’t play favorites when it comes to fur babies. I’d also have a fox and an owl and a raccoon, if I could.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you give us a gist about your forthcoming work, “The Way I love You”?

Amy Monticello: You know, that title has been a sort of placeholder title for a couple of distinct projects. The book I’m working on now is a set of linked essays about pregnancy and grief (the aforementioned essays above are part of this), and how some events in our lives launch permanent changes in who we are. I want to show how desired change, like having a planned child, can be excruciating and isolating, and how unwanted change, like losing a parent, can be punctuated by unexpected joy. I also want to explore how we hold mutually exclusive wishes in our hearts. For example, so much of what my husband and I have been able to give our daughter is due to the resources generated by my father’s estate. And yet, I’d give it all back if it meant he could participate in her life.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve also been a book reviewer at Kirkus Media. Which books did you read and reviewed?

Amy Monticello: I wrote reviews for self-published books, which was a fascinating job. It gave me an inside view of a publishing model I expect we’ll see gaining legitimacy in the years to come. I read many memoirs of varying quality, but also a couple of books by real scholars with theories about cancer treatments and plant cell biology and religious zealotry.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any question to ask me?

Amy Monticello: Yes! What essay or book by a Ghanaian author should a teacher of nonfiction include on her syllabus?

Geosi Gyasi: There are a number of recommendations. Here are a few of them: The African Predicament by Kofi Awoonor, The Eloquence of the Scribes by Ayi Kwei Armah and Transcending Boundaries: the diaspora experience in African heritage literatures by Kofi Anyidoho.


Interview with Brent Spencer, Author of “The Lost Son”

March 2, 2015
Photo: Brent Spencer

Photo: Brent Spencer

Brief Biography:

Brent Spencer is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Stanford Creative Writing Program. He is the author of the novel The Lost Son, the short story collection Are We Not Men?, and a memoir called Rattlesnake Daddy: A Son’s Search for His Father. He directs the Creighton University MFA program in creative writing.His short stories have been published in Best American Mystery Stories, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Missouri Review, Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, and other places. He is also the co-writer, with my wife, Jonis Agee, of the screenplay for Full Throttle, a film produced for Roger Corman’s New Horizons Pictures Corporation. Their screenplay Baghdad Rules was a Gold Level Award Winner in the 2010 California Film Awards, and it won Best Action Screenplay in the 2010 Chicago Screenwriters Network Contest. Their screenplay Everlasting was the third-place winner in the 2009 Silver Screenwriting Awards.

Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write “The Lost Son”?

Brent Spencer: Counting all the times I stopped to bang my head against the wall, it took about ten years. It was my first novel, so I was doing a lot of on-the-job-training. I was learning how to write a novel while I wrote the novel. This meant a lot of false starts, re-envisioning, and repair work.

Geosi Gyasi: What was the greatest challenge in writing “The Lost Son”?

Brent Spencer: The decision to go with several points of view and to honor the individuality of each point of view. The deeper I got into the novel, the easier this became. But it was quite a challenge at first to establish the voices and remain true to them. Then, when my agent said a couple of publishers didn’t care for the idea of multiple points-of-view, I sat down to re-tell the story from one point-of-view. I had barely begun when my agent called to say she had sold the novel. Later, a couple of reviewers singled out the multiple points-of-view for praise. I’m still processing what that sequence of events might or might not mean.

Geosi Gyasi: Why did you choose to write a memoir about your father?

Brent Spencer: I based the father character in my novel on my father. Then, a few years later, my father died in a sailing accident on the boat where he lived. I inherited all of his papers, which had been scooped up from the sea. He was the kind of person who kept everything—every letter he received, copies of letters he sent, and every receipt for every cup of coffee he ever drank. Because he had been out of my life for over thirty years, these papers proved to be a treasure trove of information, answers to questions, and solutions to mysteries about him. All this made me want to tell the actual story of his life and death and of our troubled relationship, so I wrote “Rattlesnake Daddy.”

Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult to write a memoir as compared to a novel?

Brent Spencer: It was monstrously difficult. There were days when I wanted to chuck it all and just write another novel, but that wouldn’t have helped me come to terms with my father the way a memoir would. So I stuck with it for another ten years. In the end, I wasn’t able to answer every question and solve every mystery of my father’s life, but who does? A father is a mystery you never fully solve.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you start writing?

Brent Spencer: I was a typical teenager who was by turns angry and depressed, so I invented poetry. Or at least I thought I did. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the world’s great poetry and that it was so much greater than my own! It turned out to be a happy discovery, though, pushing me to improve my writing. I never thought I’d be good enough to sit at the same table as any of my favorite writers, but I thought maybe I could get good enough to hide in the garage behind their house. From poetry I moved on to short stories, then to novels, and then much later to creative non-fiction, screenplays, and, most recently, plays.

Geosi Gyasi: You hold an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Could you tell us why you chose to study at Iowa?

Brent Spencer: I had been working at one or more jobs for years, writing on the side like a secret addiction. I wanted to go to a place where the balance would be reversed, where the most important thing—writing—could be done proudly in full daylight. I also knew I had a lot to learn as a writer and thought a program like Iowa’s might help me develop more quickly than I could on my own. To tell the whole truth, I had sent away for the application every year for several years and chickened out when the deadline came. Finally, a writing teacher of mine at Penn State, Robert C.S. Downs, dared me to go through with it.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?

Brent Spencer: Are you kidding? I can recite it from memory, a poem that went “See the one-eyed doll. / You say she is blind, / but I say she winks.” So you see why Shakespeare and company had no fear of competition from me!

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us about what you do as the Director of Creative Writing and Coordinator of Film Studies at Creighton University?

Brent Spencer: I sometimes fool myself into thinking I’d prefer a life in which all I did was write all day, but I know that life would drive me crazy very quickly. Luckily, my day job allows me to work with talented writers, watching them develop and then, of course, taking all the credit! Seriously, it’s great fun to work with undergraduate and graduate writers of fiction and screenplays. I just finished writing a note to an undergraduate who has written a story as good as anything I’ve read in print in many years. To be honest, she arrived in my workshop fully formed. I had nothing to do with her development as a writer. But I’m enjoying the heck out of watching her grow and spreading the good word about her talent. Coordinating the film studies minor allows me to teach screenwriting occasionally, and that brings me in front of an entirely different collection of who just impress the heck out of me.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us anything about “Are We Not Men?”

Brent Spencer: My second book is a collection of short stories in part inspired by the movie Island of Lost Souls. And at one point, the man-beasts, trying desperately to cling to their human side, chant “What is the law?” And they answer, “Not to eat meat! That is the law! Are we not men?” And it seemed to me that men in general are like those man-beasts, always having to remind themselves of their civilized sides, which are always in danger of being overwhelmed by their inner beasts. Most of the stories in that collection confront that theme in one way or another. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard the Devo song when I wrote the book. It’s a great movie, by the way—a classic horror movie with lots of elements of German Expressionism. Very haunting. I’m talking about the original 1932 version directed by Erle C. Kenton. Great stuff.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: What is your greatest challenge as a writer?

Brent Spencer: For me it’s the balance of craft and vision—knowing how much craft to exert on the material and to what degree I should allow the material to go where it wants to go. Every story has a balance of those two elements , and part of my job is to find it and maintain that balance. “Balance” is the wrong word, I suppose, since the balance might be 30/70 or 10/90 or 3/97, depending on the story. But for me that balance is critical. A lot of my training is through literature, so I have to let go of that in order not to be constricted by old models and ways of telling a story. I keep photographer Robert Frank’s words always in mind: “More energy! Less taste! Remember—keep moving!”

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about critics when you write?

Brent Spencer: I want to be sure I satisfy smart readers, and some of them are critics, so in that sense, yes. But I’ve had my share of negative reviews, and though they can sting a little, I’m grateful if it’s a smart review that engages the work fairly. And that’s almost always been the case. But no, I don’t set out to please a critic. I just try to tell the best story I can tell and hope others will like it.

Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you often write for?

Brent Spencer: I like to think of my ideal reader as smart and a bit of a smart-ass. I imagine that reader on my shoulder like a good-angel-bad-angel combo. If they laugh, cry, and sigh at the right places, I’m happy. But if they blister me with snide laughter in the wrong places, I appreciate that, too. It keeps me honest. It sends me back to the desk for another revision.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you gain from writing?

Brent Spencer: Weight. Lots of weight. OK, seriously, I think I gain insight into how my mind and heart work and into how the world works. Writing fiction requires you to look long and hard at how people behave, and it requires you to dramatize and analyze how and why you see the world the way you do. The more you write, the smarter you get about yourself and the world. But I also like surprising myself with a good line or a sharp insight.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have specific theme(s) you often write on?

Brent Spencer: I find myself writing often about working class people, probably because those are the people I grew up with. I wouldn’t know how to write about people who don’t have to work for a living. And often I find myself writing about fathers and sons, though I may have that out of my system now that the memoir is published.

Geosi Gyasi: Which books have greatly inspired you as a writer?

Brent Spencer: So many! When I was a teenager I read 1984 every year. I liked the science fiction element but I mostly read it because I loved the descriptions of the creamy blank pages of Winston’s journal. I wanted to fill those pages. And Vonnegut’s rollicking pages. And The Great Gatsby blew me away. And Hemingway’s stories. And the nuanced, novel-like stories of Alice Munro. And the quirky smarts of Grace Paley’s stories. And the wry humor of Raymond Carver. And the way Lorrie Moore can make you bust a gut laughing one minute and break your heart the next. And Shakespeare! I forgot Shakespeare, the hardest working man in the word business! Far too many to identify here.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you see yourself writing more books?

Brent Spencer: I always have a number of ideas and a few projects that are in some state of completeness. So yes, I see myself continuing to write. At this stage in my life, I don’t know how to do anything else. Even if publishing were not an option, I’d still write. The pleasure I get from writing is greater than the pleasure I can imagine from anything else. Even the pain of writing is greater than most pleasures.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you enjoy reading your own books?

Brent Spencer: No, not at all. When I give a reading from my work, I revise as I’m reading, even though the work has been published. Once a piece is published, I can see too easily all its problems, and sometimes I see how they can be fixed, insights I didn’t have access to until the thing was published. It’s maddening. If I could avoid reading them altogether, I would, but the ham in me craves an audience.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not writing?

Brent Spencer: Only every morning. Often in the afternoon. And always, always at night.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you a great reader?

Brent Spencer: I don’t know about “great,” but I read a lot—literary work, crime novels, poetry, essays, non-fiction, whatever grabs my attention. I was the kid who read every word on the cereal box. They know me too well at the public library. I’ve single-handedly kept at least two online book retailers afloat. I love everything about books, not just the contents but the feel of them, the texture, the heft, the smell. I even love the feel of my fingertip swiping across the face of an e-reader. I don’t understand the debate over books vs. e-readers. It seems to me any technology—old or new—that gets more books into more hands is a blessing. My wife, the writer Jonis Agee, is a great reader. She reads easily four times more books than I read. Sometimes it seems as though she has a book in each hand. She’s a two-fisted reader!

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us about your work as a screenwriter?

Brent Spencer: My wife and I have always been die-hard movie fans. One day the phone rang and a voice said Roger Corman was calling for my wife. I handed the phone to her and said to her what no man has ever said to his wife: “Whatever this man asks you to do, say yes.” She took the phone, listened, and said yes. Corman, the legendary Hollywood producer/director, had asked her to work on a screenplay about car racing. He was a fan of her book Taking the Wall and thought she might do a good job. So she and I worked on the script together, and when we delivered it, Corman said it was the best screenwriting he’d seen in a while. They made the movie but haven’t yet released it. We’ve written a few since then, a couple of which have won awards, but no others have been produced yet. It’s the one kind of writing we can do together, so that makes it more fun.

Geosi Gyasi: What advice do you often give to your creative writing students in their first class?

Brent Spencer: I tell them that everyone has at least one story to tell, that everyone can be a writer, that the notion that writers are born with their talent or blessed by the gods is a myth, that all a writer needs is some small skill at typing, the ability to sit still for a few hours at a time, and the willingness to tell the truth no matter what.


Interview with Valerie Nieman, Author of “Hotel Worthy”

February 26, 2015
Photo: Valerie Nieman

Photo: Valerie Nieman


Valerie Nieman’s second poetry collection, Hotel Worthy, is being published in March 2015 by Press 53, which also published her debut collection, Wake Wake Wake.

She was a 2013-2014 North Carolina Arts Council poetry fellow, and has received an NEA creative writing fellowship as well as major grants in West Virginia and Kentucky. Her awards include the Greg Grummer, Nazim Hikmet, and Byron Herbert Reece poetry prizes.

Nieman is the author of three novels: Blood Clay, a novel of the New South, which was honored with the Eric Hoffer Prize in General Fiction; a novel about the Rust Belt of the 1970s, Survivors; and a science fiction title, Neena Gathering, recently reissued as a classic in the post-apocalyptic genre. A fourth book, Backwater, is now in submission, and research for a new novel included a month hiking solo in Scotland. She also has published a collection of short stories, Fidelities.

Nieman graduated from West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte. A longtime newspaper reporter and editor, she now teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University and at venues ranging from the John C. Campbell Folk School to WriterHouse. She was a founding editor of Kestrel and currently the poetry editor of Prime Number magazine.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you become a writer?

Valerie Nieman: I was a reader, and one thing led to another. Even though we lived in the country and my parents struggled financially, they always found a way to provide me with books. We had a large bookcase full of classics that I read, well before I could understand the characters and plots! The nearest small town had a library, and I kept my card very busy there. I was also encouraged to write by my parents and teachers. My first publications came in the sixth grade.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a novelist, poet, short story writer and travel writer. My question is, which genre of literature do you mostly indulge in?

Valerie Nieman: I think of myself as a novelist first, poet second. I have more or less quit writing short stories, and I seldom write nonfiction any longer. I completed revisions on a new novel, “Backwater,” last year, and I am at work on a three-book series of historical fantasy. My new book of poetry, “Hotel Worthy,” is primarily lyric poems, but the next two works-in-progress both have strong narrative arcs. “The Leopard Lady Speaks” is a novel-in-verse about a sideshow performer, while a second book combines nonfiction and poetry from a month spent hiking and wandering in Scotland.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about your work as a literary magazine editor?

Valerie Nieman: I was one of the founding editors of Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Art in the New World. We were associated with Fairmont State College, now Fairmont State University, in Fairmont, WV. The magazine we started in 1992 continues today, bringing together the best of Appalachia and the world. I’ve kept in touch with Kestrel since leaving West Virginia in 1997, but it wasn’t until 2010 that I became involved in another literary magazine, Prime Number. This journal sprang out of a friendship with Cliff Garstang, a classmate at Queens University of Charlotte, and is supported by our mutual publisher, Press 53.

Geosi Gyasi: What influenced your book, “Blood Clay”?

Valerie Nieman: As always, a number of things come together to start a novel. First, I was a newcomer to a rural community in North Carolina, trying to adjust to a place with tobacco but without coal. Second, I have been horribly fascinated with dog attacks on people for many, many years – something I finally realized went back to a childhood memory. When dogs attacked and killed a child in the area, things came together and I began the “what if” process that transmutes a disparate collection of truths and half-truths into a cohesive piece of fiction.

Geosi Gyasi: What theme(s) do you often write on?

Valerie Nieman: The effort to find, and keep, a home. I think that is the essential one. I’m also concerned with truth-telling and bringing what is hidden to the light.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you judge the success of a book?

Valerie Nieman: If it connects with readers, it has achieved its goal. Now, money would be nice, but often that doesn’t happen. To see the words come together between covers, and to have people read my work and sometimes respond – that’s what it is all about.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have specific audience you write for?

Valerie Nieman: It depends on the book. I write across a wide range of forms and genres. My novels have included science fiction, blue-collar realism, a Southern crime drama, and a coming-of-age crime story, as well as the work in progress, set in early Scotland.

Geosi Gyasi: What has been your biggest challenge as a writer?

Valerie Nieman: Time. Distraction. And laziness. It can be difficult to find the time to write, less now than when I was struggling with a demanding newspaper job and a farm. Now my biggest issues are that I can be easily distracted – I have far too many interests that can pull me away from the keyboard, from hiking to woodworking to kayaking to gardening. And sometimes I am just (mentally) lazy and want to go to a movie.

Geosi Gyasi: Where was your short story collection “Fidelities” set and why?

Valerie Nieman: Most of the stories were set in rural West Virginia, written after I had graduated from West Virginia University and was working as a journalist and building a small organic farm. Some of the stories were inspired by stories I wrote or people that I met through my newspaper work.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it that easy to write poems as compared to short stories?

Valerie Nieman: For me, poems are easier than short stories. I seem to be wired to go to one extreme or the other, a one-page poem or a full-length novel. Short stories demand so much in the crafting of character and setting and plot – I want to just keep going.

Hotel Worthy by Valerie Nieman

Hotel Worthy by Valerie Nieman

Geosi Gyasi: Do you earn enough from writing?

Valerie Nieman: Oh, heavens no! Like most writers, I have always had a day job – first as a reporter, then newspaper editor, and now as a professor of creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University.

Geosi Gyasi: The sound of the title of your poetry collection, “Wake Wake Wake” sounds fascinating. Could you say anything about the title?

Valerie Nieman: Originally, it was “wake,” until I realized that the great Kay Byer of North Carolina had published a collection by that title. I went back to the book, which had three sections organized around the definitions of “wake,” and made it “Wake Wake Wake.”

Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever get rejections from publishers?

Valerie Nieman: Most of the time. The acceptances are precious and much appreciated.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve won several prizes for your work. Which of the prizes stands out best for you?

Valerie Nieman: Each one is special because of the emotional as well as financial support it represents. The National Endowment for the Arts fellowship made me feel that I was truly a literary writer, and allowed me to take a year off from the newspaper to write and research. I am still getting benefits from that year, including the current novel-in-progress that depends on research done during the grant period. The North Carolina Arts Council fellowship made me feel that I was accepted as a writer in my adopted state. It was wonderful to be part of an international event with the Nazim Hikmet Society’s annual awards and gathering, and I learned about an Appalachian writer previously unknown to me when I won the Byron Herbert Reece poetry prize.

Geosi Gyasi: You worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for more than a quarter-century. Could you tell us if there is/are any similarities between fiction writing and newspaper reporting?

Valerie Nieman: Training as a journalist is a wonderful thing for a writer. For one thing, you get over any romantic notions of writer’s block. You learn to get words on paper, somehow. You learn how to research, how to read people, and how to write clearly and concisely.

Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you look up to for inspiration to write?

Valerie Nieman: I have a whole cadre of writing friends who keep me focused and keep me encouraged. We have each others’ backs, even over long distances and long separations. I am in a poetry workshop with two wonderful poets, Sarah Lindsay and Mark Smith-Soto, and several people read “Backwater” in a series of drafts, their suggestions making it better each time. My father and my late mother, of course, for constant love and inspiration and support.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you name some of your favorite writers?

Valerie Nieman: This is the toughest question for me! My house and office are both filled with books, and I read across such a wide range of styles and forms. I will say that my earliest influences included Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare (in the prose version by Lamb) and Tennyson. I found science fiction as a young teenager and fell deeply in love with Ursula LeGuin, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Harlan Ellison and others. Also along the way, Poe, Hardy, Frost, London, Yeats. Too many contemporary poets to name. I am a Margaret Atwood fan (and looking forward to hearing her speak in March). Most recently, I have delighted in the novels of Jose Saramargo.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind telling us anything about your new book coming out in March?

Valerie Nieman: “Hotel Worthy” is my second poetry collection, representing poems written between 2004 and 2014. The poems range widely in subject matter and setting, from the cold winter nights of western New York State and the hills of West Virginia to the shores of North Carolina, even the painted caves of the Perigord. I characterize them as poems of love, loss, and survival. One thing that quickly became evident as we were preparing the book – my lines have gotten longer. Much longer. The publisher used a larger format, but I still had to trim and adjust some poems in order to fit them to the page.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re on the faculty at the North Carolina A&T State University. Could you share with us what you teach and how you combine teaching and writing?

Valerie Nieman: I think the best thing I can bring to my undergraduate creative writing classes is my enthusiasm. I hope that I can show them a thing or two, but writing will be as it always is, a solo pursuit; you have to believe in yourself and take joy in the process. I am incredibly fortunate to be able to teach creative writing, and to be surrounded by bright young minds sparking up stories and poems. And they teach me a great deal – A&T is an HBCU, a historically black college or university, celebrating its 125th anniversary beginning this year. Aggie Pride!

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us anything about your book, “Neena Gathering”?

Valerie Nieman: “Neena Gathering” was my firstborn, a novel set in West Virginia after civil wars have torn the nation apart. I drew heavily on the places I saw around me then, as a hill farmer in the northern part of the state. The book came out in 1988 as a paperback original, and was doing well – though a Brazilian edition was produced, I never saw a copy of “Mundo Perdido” – but my publisher was swallowed by an even larger one and the entire paperback line was terminated. There is a second act, however. A couple of years ago, Permuted Press contacted me about reissuing the book as a “classic in the post-apocalyptic genre.” They did a beautiful job with a new cover on a trade paperback edition, as well as a Kindle book and an audiobook.


Interview with Vasiliki Katsarou, Author of Memento Tsunami

February 21, 2015

Interview with Emmanuel Sigauke, Author of Mukoma’s Marriage & Other Stories

February 19, 2015
Photo Credit: Memory Chirere

Photo Credit: Memory

Brief Biography:

Emmanuel Sigauke teaches English at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, California. The Zimbabwean wordsmith, educated at University of Zimbabwe and California State University is the founding editor of Munyori Literary Journal. He has published poetry and fiction in numerous magazines such as The Pedestal, NR Review, The Rattlesnake Review, African Writing Online and StoryTime to note a few. Sigauke is the sole editor of the African Roar 2013 anthology of short stories, a selection of thirteen stories sourced from a bigger pool of fifty from writers all across Africa. His collection of short stories, Mukoma’s Marriage and other Stories, was published in 2014. He is currently working on a novel.

Geosi Gyasi: Perhaps, we could as well begin from home. How often do you return to Zimbabwe?

Emmanuel Sigauke: Every two years, although I now want to go there more often. Interesting things are happening on the ground. I am working on launching an annual summer writer’s workshop; quite a big deal to me. And somewhere in the chaos of life there one salvages something good; just like all returns to the sources should be.

Geosi Gyasi: What is your assessment, from the writer’s point of view, of the current political situation in Zimbabwe?

Emmanuel Sigauke: It’s what it is. Now I just watch from a distance. I seem to worry more about the direction of American politics, about the disturbed racial waters of America, than concern myself with the drama of Zimbabwean politics at the moment.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you actually leave Zimbabwe? Why did you decide to go to America?

Emmanuel Sigauke: I left in 1996, following a fiancée, chasing love.

Geosi Gyasi: Would you have been a “serious” writer today if you had not left Zimbabwe?

Emmanuel Sigauke: Leaving Zimbabwe took away some of the seriousness at first. America had its own demands for dealing with the new realities of how to make a living. With the time I spent in menial and part-time jobs, and attending school fulltime, and raising a family, etc, I stopped writing seriously for a number of years, but then around 2004, when I started college teaching, I resumed writing, and by 2007, I was publishing again in magazines and journals, and was finally, through social media and other means, reconnecting with literary friends like Memory Chirere, Ignatius Mabasa and others, who had by then already published serious books. America almost killed my writing….

Geosi Gyasi: Growing up in Mazvihwa, were you aware of the apartheid system in the neighboring South Africa? How similar, in your view, was the apartheid system to the then white minority rule of Rhodesia?

Emmanuel Sigauke: Mazvihwa is closer to Pretoria than to Harare, so yes, we were very much aware of the dreadful presence of apartheid South Africa. Nearly all my elder brothers went to work in South Africa in the 70s, so they brought back stories, scars, and sweets. At Zimbabwe’s independence, I remember some apartheid threats to the new Mugabe government playing on our radios. There were times when in Mazvihwa we could easily tune in to South African radio than we could to Zimbabwean, so I remember South Africa saying things like, “We will destroy your little Harare in a second”, or something to that effect. It wasn’t a good thing for apartheid SA to have an independent northern neighbor apparently. As to similarities, the minority government in Rhodesia used the same segregationist methods as those used in SA, but it seems the latter also destroyed more traditional values than in Rhodesia. In Rhodesia we had our intact villages, the Mazvihwas, the Mberengwas, with a strong sense of home and tradition. Our southern neighbors urbanized even their villages (because I’m told a village in South Africa is not the same idea of village we have in Zimbabwe). The dynamics are obviously deeper than this.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us about your childhood memories of Mazvihwa?

Emmanuel Sigauke: Too many to pinpoint. I do a better job of recalling memories in my writing. One thing though is although I have grown to fully accept Mazvihwa as home, it never quite accepted me when I was growing up there; I had a foreign last name; they said I came from Chipinge or Chimanimani, or Mozambique. The truth is I am the son of a Mozambican father and a Zimbabwean mother from Masvingo. So Mazvihwa was right; I wasn’t quite from that area. In fact, one enduring memory I have is of a dizzying bus ride from somewhere, when I was two; the bus ride from Masvingo rural, where I was born; then it was decided I should grow up in Mazvihwa. Happy memories point to the time after I started writing, when the Mavihwa people of my age realized that I was writing stories about our Mazvihwaness. Then when I went to secondary school and I would get number 1 all the time, at our little Mazvihwa secondary school, I got to be accepted more.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think that the political situation in Zimbabwe is so bad that one just can’t survive there?

Emmnuel SIgauke: People are surviving in Zimbabwe. It’s something I don’t understand, but it is happening. In fact, there is so much laughter there, and so much US money being spent like nobody’s business, so much survival it makes you feel inadequate in some essential way. The infrastructure is crappy, the roads are dying, there is growing corruption even by ordinary people. Things don’t move if you don’t bribe your way; only it’s not called bribery: they want to think of it as tips, “money for coca-cola”, “money to help your sister, or your brother”. One dollar here; two dollars there. Rarely do they seem to ask for a lot; the little dollar here, five dollars there, and before you know it the one hundred dollar bill you broke this morning is gone. By the end of two weeks you can’t quite account for three thousand dollars. Everything you want seems to be there, but then you also lose your cash fast. It’s mostly cash we use there (not credit or debit cards or cheques). Zimbabweans don’t seem to hesitate to spend the USD as it comes: in fact, one Shona statement I heard in the village was: “Takadherera dhora”, and I am not going to translate this. Of course, much of the quick spending reflects the reality that most people don’t make enough to save; it comes, it goes.

Back to your question: Politics seems to be something happening in the background while people figure out ways to earn the dollar. The roads are dying (I already said this), but the cars are getting bigger, moreToyota Hiluxes, the Pajeros, the Range Rovers. The smaller ones thrive, and the drivers have become experts in zigzagging their way. I tried to drive straight and I popped a tyre in a pothole during a rainy day in Harare. And that taught me fast to zig-zag.

The water gets cut frequently; some people have drilled boreholes on their properties; electricity goes often, generators get turned on; etc… Of course, not everyone can afford these alternative means, and forcing a whole country to be used to inconvenience seems mean, is actually citizen abuse; but surprisingly, it seems a good number of the people understand the situation, are used to it, and sometimes even defend the government, mention Western sanctions, etc. In some ways life in the city has become similar to the village. In Borrowdale you see women carrying water buckets in the same fashion the ones in Mazvihwa do it. What happens is that when the weekly water cut happens, there is at least one home with a borehole water supply that neighbors can access, so you see them line up, some pushing wheelbarrows, others carrying buckets, stocking up for the remainder of the week. You look at this and something within you breaks, but of course, you have to be helpful, go help fetch the water!

Sometimes trying to discuss with the locals on the state of things leads nowhere, as some people seem not to want to participate in a discussion critical of the status quo, sometimes not out of fear, but out of topical exhaustion, a realization that you can talk all you want, but that’s not what brings food on the table. So then before the debate ripens, there is some distraction, perhaps it’s the beer you are drinking (how cheap it seems, that beer, at one dollar a pint, even at club rate!), or a car with a pot of mazondo meat arrives and everyone rushes to it to buy the beef foot for a dollar each, and next, the man who grills gizzards starts his fire and we are all gathered around him in anticipation, because he used to be a real chef for a well-known hotel.

Geosi Gyasi: Emmanuel, the truth it that, you ought to explain to our understanding, the meaning of “Takadherera dhora”?

Emmanuel Sigauke: We spend the US dollar without hesitation; it’s what we do easily, like it’s nothing. In other words, we don’t have much respect for the dollar. Poor translation, this, but one direct statement I heard in the town of Gweru, was: We brought our own dollar to nothing (hyper-inflation); next, it’s going to be this US dollar. Of course, it was said with humor.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any hopes of returning to Zimbabwe to resettle?

Emmanuel Sigauke: My friends have convinced me to resettle (“You don’t have to come back to stay per se; but buy property, property has value; it’s a big investment”). It’s a country of people who are believing they can survive anything, and they can do anything for themselves. So you begin to dream of owning property in a place like Borrowdale Brooke, only to realize you can’t afford those million-plus dollar homes. There is a way Zimbabwe and its Zimbabweans (those who never left, or those who left and resettled) makes you feel inadequate, makes you feel poor, as if you drive the wrong car (which is often true), or you live in the wrong neighborhood in your America (which is also true, because these people have stretches upon stretches of land on their property, etc). But you also see serious poverty here and there, yet never a lack of smiles and laughter. If you offer to give them the remaining dollars in your wallet, they will not say no, but after a while you will realize you didn’t have to do so necessarily. In fact, you are the one finally broke; I don’t know if you can be broke from being already broke. Each time I go back to Zimbabwe, I don’t have enough time to understand the new Zimbabwe; but it’s a great experience; I always come back more educated.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: So for Zimbabwe and it’s numerous worsening issues, do you really think you’ll succeed in establishing the annual summer writer’s workshop you’re planning?

Emmanuel Sigauke: I think so, as much of its success depends on my determination and the support of my sponsors, who already do other projects in Mazvihwa. They employee indegenous innovation using what resources the land provides for it’s own progress. My workshop follows a rural model in which I bring the professional writers to the rural areas and they spend a week with local (Mazvihwa) budding writers, fascilitating intensive writing workshops.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you clarify this for me: Are you a poet or writer?

Emmanuel Sigauke: I am both. I am other things too: essayist, memoirist, playwright.

Geosi Gyasi: What was your main role when you helped found the Zimbabwe Budding Writers Association? I am much more particular about the word “budding”.

Emmanuel Sigauke: I joined the organization early; but the founding was done by Albert Nyathi and a group of young writers who attended the one meeting I didn’t attend, because I was in Mazvihwa on holiday. I remember the word “budding” referred to the stage at which our writing was, more than it referred to our ages. We ranged from primary school students to university professors to grandmothers or grandfathers who had felt the calling. We were vibrant; we were loud and proud. At one point we received serious funding from a Nordic country, and we opened branches, what we called chapters, all over the country. I was the secretary-general for a number of years, and I went to help launch all these chapters. We were a serious bunch. A lot of the prominent contemporary writers in Zimbabwe used to be members of BWAZ.

Geosi Gyasi: You studied English and Linguistics at the University of Zimbabwe and went on to study English at California State University. What is it about English you wanted to study to the highest level?

Emmanuel Sigauke: The one time I wrote the best essay at Gwavachemai Secondary School in Mazvihwa led to every teacher steering me towards English. No one seemed to care that after a while my Mathematics was beginning to suffer; it was enough that I was good in English. I loved the attention. That, compounded with the fact that I had also become the “writer in residence” for my school, and the English police, and the debate chairperson, etc. And I enjoyed reading; I enjoyed the English too. By the time I reached California, it was too late to change my habit, and I am glad that now, as an English professor, I am serving English well, just as it is serving me.

Geosi Gyasi: What was the main medium of language you spoke at home in Zimbabwe?

Emmanuel Sigauke: We used Karanga, but once the English bug caught on, some of us started throwing in some phrases of English in our Shona, even as we herded cattle. English is a very good cattle-herding language.

Geosi Gyasi: Does the place where you live matter to you when writing?

Emmanuel Sigauke: It does. I am able to distance myself from the setting of my stories. I like this ability to write about Zimbabwe from a distance. I can be imaginative.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you name just one writer who has been so influential to you as a writer?

Emmanuel Sigauke: D.H. Lawrence.

Geosi Gyasi: You are the founding editor of Munyori Poetry Journal. Why did you decide to set up this journal? How is it doing?

Emmanuel Sigauke: It started as a result of my interest in web design. I had just finished a course in HTML and I wanted to practice what I had learned. I had many choices, and I took the literary route, since I was already a writer. Then once I made a call for submissions, I knew I had reached a point of no return. Now I am looking forward to turning this into a small press that will publish books. I have received enough material to start anthologies.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when a piece of work is right for your journal?

Emmanuel Sigauke: I select works that feel right the first moment I read them. If the work needs more work, I often work with the writer to improve it.

Geosi Gyasi: What is your greatest achievement as a poet/writer?

Emmanuel Sigauke: The publications I have made, one a poetry volume and another a short story collection. But the time I did a poetry blog and blogged 400 “poems” felt good. Of course, later I would discover that most of those pieces were crappy. Still, I saved them, and once in a while, when I want to feel the pain of their failure, I revisit them, and occasionally, I am able to turn one into polished work.

Geosi Gyasi: When do you anticipate retiring from writing?

Emmanuel Sigauke: I don’t yet feel like I have even started; so retirement isn’t a thought I have entertained.

Geosi Gyasi: Does your poetry book, “Forever Let Me Go” have anything to do with your sojourn in America?

Emmanuel Sigauke: Excellent question. The book was originally entitled “The Eyes that See Me Go”; then my editor recommended that I use “Forever Let Me Go”. I had a poem with that title; which came as a response to Kazuo Ishiguro’s title “Never Let Me Go.” But to answer your question: Yes, there was a time when my stay in the US had begun to cause me to think that this was a forever, that I would never set foot in Zimbabwe again, so then it was a request to the eyes that saw me go, that should I be gone forever, please, let me go, forever. But when you read that poem, you may never guess; the poem itself is about someone soaring, following their dreams, succeeding in life. I like to read it to high school students, to help them follow their dreams in life. But yes, I remember that time when America made me feel like I would never return to Zimbabwe ever. Notice that the feeling had nothing to do with Zimbabwe; it had everything to do with America…and how it made me feel. I have since recovered from that state of stasis.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us how your poem, “Hurry, A Zimbabwean in Concert!” came into being?

Emmanuel Sigauke: I wrote it after attending a Tuku concert. It was great day, the true point at which I was reconnecting with the Zimbabwean community in California.

Geosi Gyasi: I am not sure why I should be asking you this, but do you have any secret flaw as a writer?

Emmanuel Sigauke: Yes, working on projects for too long; feeling bad for a while about it, but then getting used to the prolonged effort until I justify it as the essence of that work’s artistic process. There is a novel I have been working on since 1999. And still, it’s not going anywhere. I’m glad it’s not a secret anymore.

Geosi Gyasi: Which specific genre of books is often found on your bookshelf?

Emmanuel Sigauke: Literary fiction, poetry and drama. I have lots of short story collections too; the literary kind. Blame it on my training. Once in a while I sneak in a science fiction work, which I end up not reading for one reason or another.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think talent matters in the making of a great writer?

Emmanuel Sigauke: It does. But hard work counts a lot too.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about your book, “Mukoma’s Marriage and Other Stories…”

Emmanuel Sigauke: I think I spent more work on it than I should have. It went on forever; the work. It’s a collection of connected stories. My editor suggested once that I should turn it into a novel, but I wanted it to be a short story collection, for the pieces to stand alone, to allow me to be inconsistent if I had to, without the pressure for a seamless whole. To some, the book will seem autobiographical, but really, it’s not. I just happen to have had many brothers out of whom the brother figure in the book was shaped (just a few borrowed features and characteristics). It features maigurus too (sisters-in-law), and a great moment early this year was when I took a copy of the book to Mazvihwa and one of my sisters-in-law started browsing it; she spent a few hours with it, and I had a sigh of relief when she commented: “Amazing how you are able to make all this up.”

Geosi Gyasi: Is there any question you think escaped me?

Emmanuel Sigauke: Not really. You worked me hard already. Thank you for these questions though.


Interview with Canadian Poet & Novelist, Anne Simpson

February 17, 2015
photo credit: John Berridge

photo credit: John Berridge

Brief Biography:

Anne Simpson is a Canadian poet and novelist, who has written seven books, including two novels. Her most recent novel, Falling, won the Dartmouth Award for Fiction. She also won the Griffin Poetry Prize for Loop, one of four books of poetry she has published. She has been a Writer-in-Residence at universities and libraries across Canada. In 2012, she volunteered at the Osu Children’s Libraries in Ghana.

Geosi Gyasi: Perhaps, we could begin from your poetry collection, Is. Could you give a brief background to why you chose this title?

Anne Simpson: Is has to do with the beginning of life in terms of cells dividing and then becoming a human being, or at least that was what I had in mind for the first long poem. I kept thinking about the strangeness and wonder of something coming into being that hadn’t been there before. And so, throughout, I think all the poems have to do with existence (or the verb, “to be,” from which we get “is”). Towards the end of the book, there are poems about a man with Alzheimer’s, so I was thinking about both the beginning of life and the end of life, and how birth and decay could be conveyed in language. But really, my main concern throughout the book is this: What does it mean to be alive?

Geosi Gyasi: The first poem we encounter in the book is “Book of Beginnings”, which stretches over several pages. How much time do you spend on structure and/or style of your poems?

Anne Simpson: I believe that content and form are very connected. It may look odd to see so much white space on the page, but it allows for time to pass between poem sections, and so it allows for breathing space. In “Book of Beginnings,” my idea has to do with the intersection between creation and time. Once something comes into being, it comes into time. A story can be told about it. So I went back to Genesis for inspiration. And if there could be a creation story told about anyone’s life, how would it start? That was what I was thinking about.

When I read “Book of Beginnings” out loud, it’s like a long chant. I love the way some poems have the potential to be incantations. They’re like songs, if you see what I mean. Perhaps this helps to describe the structure of “Book of Beginnings.” The structure of it is like a long creation song.

Geosi Gyasi: How does your profession as an artist affect your writing?

Anne Simpson: I am very visual. I painted large canvases (oil paintings) for years before I started writing poetry and fiction full time. Now I always think about how something sounds – how a poem sounds, for instance – and how it appears on a page. The words on the page, and the white space around the words, or how a poem looks on a page—all these things are fundamentally important to me.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you intentionally set out to end the book with the poem, “Double Helix”?

Anne Simpson: Yes, I wanted to end with “Double Helix” because I wanted to tell the story of ordinary people. Our DNA tells our story. So I thought: “What if I wove together the stories of two people – a woman and a man – who decide not to have a child because they know they could pass on a defective gene?” I wanted the poem to have several strands, just like DNA, and yet to be one long, constantly turning narrative.

Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to complete Is?

Anne Simpson: I don’t write poetry every day, but Is took me about two years. I often stopped to do some work, and then I’d start again.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve often been described as a poet, novelist and essayist. Do you have a special preference among the three genres of literature?

Anne Simpson: I love all three genres. Poetry isn’t as taxing to write (as fiction can be). I’m struggling to revise a novel right now, and it’s an overly ambitious book, so I have to try and simplify it and settle down with the characters to find out what they’re thinking. Fiction allows a writer to stay in an imagined world for a very long time, but it also allows a writer to delve into social and moral issues. When a character makes a mistake, for instance, it’s my job to see how that mistake affects other characters. I like the fact that fiction lets me look at the world from a different perspective. What is it like to be the characters who inhabit the world I’ve created? These are not always good characters. They are often flawed. So I have to try to stand in the shoes of the characters and yet try to stand outside them at the same time.

Poetry allows for some story, but not to the same degree, since it’s not necessarily about a narrative arc (think about haiku, for instance, that merely sketches a moment in time, but makes that moment seem eternal). Yet some poetry does have a strong story to tell, but it is not the same as fiction. Sometimes my poems start with an image and go from there, but I’m usually trying to find the answer to a question of some sort. So poetry is also a form of meditation on a question. It has a deftness about it. It can be brief, yet say so much about longing, for instance, or loss.

As for essays, I like the way I can think about a question long enough to understand why it interested me in the first place! I can think about the question of climate change and our responsibility to the environment, but I can turn around and discuss why we look at paintings and what happens to us as we look at paintings. The essay is a wonderfully malleable form: it can stretch out as far as we want it to stretch. But essays are also hard to write, because it’s not easy to gather a lot of rambling ideas into a coherent shape!

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: When did you actually become a writer?

Anne Simpson: I became a writer when I started taking it seriously.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you happy as a writer? Do you earn a living out of writing?

Anne Simpson: I’m happy as a writer and not happy as a writer: it’s always an up and down thing! But when you ask yourself what you’d do if you couldn’t write or if you weren’t allowed to write—that’s when you know you’re meant to write.

I make part of my living as a writer, part of my living as a writer-in-residence or as a teacher, and part of my living as an editor. Writers are multi-taskers.

Geosi Gyasi: You studied at Queen’s University and the Ontario College of Art. Can I assume that your study in art and design is the very reason you work as an artist?

Anne Simpson: I did academic studies in literature at Queen’s and fine art studies at the Ontario College of Art (now called OCAD University). I guess I’ve always been interested in art and in making art. Writing is another form of making art.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve lived in France where you worked in a L’Arche residence. Did you learn how to speak French when you were in France? Could you tell us about some of your experiences in France?

Anne Simpson: I bought a second-hand bicycle in England and went all over the countryside on that bicycle. I got as far as Inverness in Scotland. When I went to France, I was still travelling by bicycle. I have no idea how I found my way to Trosly-Breuil in France, though I had wanted to go there. It really seems a little crazy when I think about it now, because I was travelling alone and I was only nineteen years old. Anyway, I arrived in Trosly-Breuil, and although I spoke imperfect French, I stayed for a few months, working in the home community for L’Arche that had been started by Jean Vanier. I was drawn to working as a volunteer among people with disabilities.

Geosi Gyasi: You also studied art in Italy. Why Italy? How long was your stay in Italy?

Anne Simpson: I was in Italy a couple of times. The second time I was there with the Ontario College of Art and I stayed there about eight months. It’s a lively culture, and so it’s a very interesting place to live.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it appropriate to say that Nigeria was your first introduction to Africa? What took you to Nigeria?

Anne Simpson: I went to Nigeria as a CUSO volunteer teacher on a two-year contract. I was new to the teaching profession, so I had a steep learning curve about learning to be a good teacher! I was also adventurous and I travelled a lot. It wasn’t always easy to live there, because I missed Canada. But I was so heartened by my experience with people there: they were invariably generous. And so my two years there broadened and enriched my life much more than I knew at the time.

Geosi Gyasi: You were the writer-in-residence at Osu Children’s Libraries, in Ghana. Do you mind sharing some the things you did at the libraries whilst in Ghana?

Anne with Ghanaian School Children

Anne with some Ghanaian School Children

Anne Simpson: I was so happy to be in Ghana. At the Osu Children’s Libraries I did a couple of workshops on poetry and it was a lot of fun, I hope, for everyone involved. At the library in Goi, we made a poetry tree and the children made poems on paper leaves to put on the tree. Those were just a few of things I did there.

Geosi Gyasi: I’m not sure why I’m asking this, but could you educate us on the importance of libraries?

Anne Simpson: Well, I think it begins with books, and loving books. To be in the presence of a lot of books, if you love them, is like being in the presence of family and friends. You want to spend time with them. The American writer, Ray Bradbury, said that he didn’t go to college, but that after he graduated from high school he spent ten years, on and off between jobs, I guess, at his local library. He said that he “graduated” from the library.

What you’ll find with any writer is that he or she loves to be inside a library. It’s not because the library has a computer; it’s because the library is a place to read and think. We don’t have enough spaces to read and think now, and so we should regard libraries as precious places.

Geosi Gyasi: How vibrant is the literary scene in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, the place where you live? Do you belong to any community of writers?

Anne Simpson: I live in a very small town in Nova Scotia. There are a few writers here, and we get together often. I’m not involved in a writing group, though. And yes, I belong to several provincial and national groups of writers.

Geosi Gyasi: Why do you think the judges chose your poetry collection, Loop, as the winner of the 2004 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize?

Anne Simpson: Well, it’s hard for me to say what the judges saw when they read it. I know that I put everything I had into Loop. There’s a way in which writing can span the world; it can stand apart and look at what happens in the world and bear witness to the joys and tragedies people experience. I look at the events of history, very often, but I also look at ordinary events in ordinary places.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you continue to teach at St. Francis Xavier University? If so, how do you combine teaching and writing?

Anne Simpson: I teach a course in the English Department now and then, but I don’t do this as much now. I love to teach individuals who care about writing, so I have been a writer-in-residence in many universities and libraries. But I am doing this work less and less. I guess I know that time is short. I need to write what I can in the time I have left in my lifetime.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us something about the Writing Centre at St. Francis Xavier University?

Anne Simpson: The Writing Centre at St. Francis Xavier University is an academic writing centre. We found that students needed help with writing assignments and essays, so the centre was established to assist them.

Geosi Gyasi: Who is your all-time favorite poet/writer?

Anne Simpson: I don’t have one writer I would put above other writers. There are so many who have influenced me. I’ve always loved the American fiction writer, Marilynne Robinson, and Jack Gilbert, an American poet. Alice Munro, a Canadian short story writer, Michael Ondaatje, a Canadian poet and novelist, and Anne Carson, a Canadian poet—all of these writers have influenced me. This is only the beginning of a long list: Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And this doesn’t begin to cover the some of the great writers of the past, like George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Virgina Woolf… You see, there is no way I could stop at just one writer.

Geosi Gyasi: How would you like to be remembered?

Anne Simpson: I don’t know what I’ll be remembered for, if I am remembered! But I know that all writing comes out of our lives—we live our lives first and writing comes second. So being a mother, raising a family with my husband: that comes first. My books, somehow, or other, come out of the spirit of living my life, and trying to do that as lovingly, and as wisely, as I can possibly do it.


Interview with Dennis Hinrichsen, Author of “Skin Music”

February 16, 2015
Photo: Dennis Hinrichsen

Photo: Dennis Hinrichsen

Brief Biography:

Dennis Hinrichsen’s most recent works are Skin Music, co-winner of the 2014 Michael Waters Poetry Prize from Southern Indiana Review Press [forthcoming autumn 2015], and Electrocution, A Partial History, winner of the Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Prize from Map Literary: A Journal of Contemporary Writing and Art [forthcoming spring 2015]. His previous books include Rip-tooth (2010 Tampa Poetry Prize) and Kurosawa’s Dog (2008 FIELD Poetry Prize). An earlier work, Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, received the 1999 Akron Poetry Prize.  New poems of his can be found in The Adroit Journal, Memorious, Michigan Quarterly and Radar as well as a number of recent anthologies including Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, New Poetry From the Midwest 2014 and Clash by Night (an anthology inspired by The Clash’s London Calling).

Geosi Gyasi: Could we begin with your poem, “Repairwork”. How did you come to write it?

Dennis Hinrichsen: “Repairwork” was one of those happy accidents that came out of my work on another poem, “Replica, Shroud of Turin.” A few years back, a full-size replica of the Shroud of Turin was on tour with a number of other crucifixion exhibits here in Lansing so how could I resist. A room full of faux sacred objects. A kind of Xerox of Christ, and a bunch of interesting questions about holiness and replication. So I dragged my family there, my parents who were visiting, and that was our outing for the day. It did not disappoint. The shroud was beautifully displayed and guarded by two gentlemen from the Knights of Columbus, complete with pot bellies and fur hats, sashes, swords. They reminded me of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton from The Honeymooners. But they were serious in their work and when one of them offered a brief history of the shroud, I listened. The fire, the repair. The OJ trial was happening or had just happened so I was intrigued by blood evidence and imagined a sewing circle of nuns who might have pricked their fingers and marred the cloth with their secular blood as they repaired a holiness.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you begin a poem?

Dennis Hinrichsen: Sometimes I court a poem as I’ve just described. This one intrigued me from the beginning so it was easy to follow through. More often though poems begin with a whisper of something. An idea, an image, a piece of language, a formal question. Sometimes poems come from a response to whatever I’m reading. Or as off-shoots to poems I’m currently working on. I always have a list of 5-10 poem ideas that I’m thinking out. I generally have 2-3 poems in some stages of drafting. They key is that invitation: something in the idea needs to intrigue me and lure me on. And then I’m hooked.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it often difficult beginning a poem?

Dennis Hinrichsen: Sometimes not hard at all. Once I have that critical mass–the materials–I abandon myself to them and just riff through a pretty messy and expansive draft. Then I start fine-tuning. I try to move from the incandescence of those first moves to something more laser-like in the finished piece where that tension between content and form hums like a tuned guitar string.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you write “Lion and Gin” out of a personal experience?

Dennis Hinrichsen: Yes, my father died not unexpectedly. He knew it was coming, he had it all planned, the obit was already written, the cremation already set up, the plot paid for, the service pushed to a later to-be-determined date. So there was nothing for the living to do. It was strange. He was dead and headed toward the oven in an eye-blink and we were home in a state of shock more or less. So my brother and I went back and had them bring the body out so we could metabolize it all, and rub his hair, and pat his chest, and crack a few jokes. I had read earlier, or read later I can’t recall, a poem about phase shifts so that was the seed idea–that move from solid to gas or vapor. So that got me to the ice in the close and the drinking. And then the opening just occurred to me as a way to add a level of grandeur to the poem as contrast–why not a lion?–what a boy might think of his father–so the portrait had a flawed tension to it.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you often end a poem?

Dennis Hinrichsen: I wait for an audible click when I read the poem out loud. One of my teachers, Marvin Bell, says somewhere, “At heart, poetic beauty is tautological: it defines its terms and then it exhausts them.” So that click occurs when I read the poem out loud and recognize that there is nothing left for me to do but move on to the next poem. Find new stuff, work to new exhaustion.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when a poem you’re writing is not going well?

Dennis Hinrichsen: When I don’t hear that click, when I stumble when I read the poem aloud, when I’m not surprised by my choices, or excited about the direction of the poem. When that happens, I stop. Move onto something else. Come back later and start at another spot. Keep pushing forward. Drafting. Revising.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you know the most difficult poem you’ve ever written?

Dennis Hinrichsen: The new poems are harder and harder to write, therefore really interesting and challenging. I’ve been writing for a long time so there are subjects that I just don’t want to address any more because I’ve been there, done that, so finding new subjects can be tricky. I’m also not interested in writing poems that allow me to get by on my default skill sets. So I try to find things that I can’t possibly write and then rely on my process.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of published work?

Dennis Hinrichsen: Yes, very well. It was actually three poems that were faculty-selected and published in the school magazine. That was the start.

Geosi Gyasi: You received a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Iowa in 1977. Could you tell us some of your memories when you were a student at Iowa?

Dennis Hinrichsen: Ah, 1977. Nearly 40 years ago. What stands out is the intensity, the amazing brilliance of the other students, and that much of what I learned there still resonates in huge ways.

Geosi Gyasi: Which writers have most influenced your writing?

Dennis Hinrichsen: I consider myself immensely blessed that I came of age as a writer just as that great generation of writers born in 1926 were writing those amazing mid-career books that moved them from a formal tradition to free verse. So I was reared on The Book of Nightmares and Body Rags, Not This Pig and They Feed They Lion, Shall We Gather at the River, The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir, The Moving Target and The Lice. An amazing starter kit. And then the poetry in translation that followed. Neruda, Vallejo, Parra, et al. And then finally back to William Carlos Williams. The source code is in there somewhere.

And then others followed: Charles Wright in huge ways, Jack Gilbert, Linda Gregg, Jorie Graham’s early work, Linda Gregerson’s The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, Sharon Olds.

I have to add film here too. I spent long hours going to movies [instead of doing my math homework] as an undergrad so all those great auteurs are there: Godard, Truffaut, Bresson, Antonioni, Buñuel, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky et al. American noir as well.

The composer/writer John Cage adds that part of me that is experimental. He visited campus when I was an undergraduate and I was able to volunteer with hundreds of others in the performance of Mureau. It was a pretty heady experience being inside the composition and occasionally standing next to him singing/making noise/channeling Thoreau as we moved around the auditorium. His approach/influence is always there in my process.

Kurosawa's Dog by Dennis Hinrichsen

Kurosawa’s Dog by Dennis Hinrichsen

Geosi Gyasi: You had a 10-year stint as a technical writer in Boston. Could you define the label, “technical writer”?

Dennis Hinrichsen: I more or less functioned as the intermediary between brilliant engineers and a readable text. I was lucky in that I was not tethered to writing computer manuals. I worked initially for the Department of Transportation and then for an engineering firm so the content was much more interesting. I would read Dante on the Red Line and then write about these massive efforts to bring light to the world. It was also intriguing to write outside the permissions and protection of the academy. In fact, as a poet in that environment I had to cuss a lot and talk tough and keep that part of me on the down low. Otherwise I would have been doubly damned–gay on one hand in a macho world and incapable of understanding technical stuff on the other. But I’m grateful for it. It steeled me in ways that continued when I taught at a community college. You get pretty clear as to what drives your writing when permissions and support are at a minimum.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you talk about the inspiration behind your 2009 collection, Kurosawa’s Dog?

Dennis Hinrichsen: The death of my father was the focal point of that book. He was a smoker, had developed emphysema, so he had some pretty clear markers as to the endgame. I had always been interested in his life. He was first generation American, born on farm house table in Iowa, ultimately disinherited given his status as second son. He then ran away and joined the Navy by lying about his age, and then ended up working in the city for the same company for the rest of his life. So I was always intrigued by that arc, the city/rural tensions, his small victories, the angers and regrets. There was a lost childhood in there that brought up Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat, there was the mad man/three martini lunch persona, there was the death of a salesman. So a lot of things to explore.

Geosi Gyasi: What sets your poems apart from other writers?

Dennis Hinrichsen: I’m not sure anyone can answer that question about their own work. I try always to push vision and music, work line and stanza, syntax, cut narrative with speed. I try constantly to surprise myself, as Frost instructs, and the reader by paying attention to the cinematic rush of the work. I like edges and crashing things together. I’m not the only one doing these things.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you want readers to like your works?

Dennis Hinrichsen: I imagine all writers want readers to like their work. But that’s a tricky question. We all operate at some particular wavelength from absolute clarity on first read to impenetrable levels of opacity and density and everything in between. That’s the beauty of poetry. Readers too come with a variety of expectations and skill sets. That’s the rub. Some work requires more than readers are willing or able to give. Poetry is a compressed, nuanced, textured art form in a world of tweets and FB posts. What to do? I go back to an idea I read or heard from William Stafford: you write the poems you need to write, offer them to the world, and then wait to hear back.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you satisfied as a writer?

Dennis Hinrichsen: Overall, yes. I’m writing the poems I want to write, I’ve had great good fortune. There is so much left to discover.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the most interesting aspect of writing?

Dennis Hinrichsen: The breaking through, the surprise, the moment when the poem settles into place. The joy of making something that informs it all.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you show your manuscripts to friends before they’re sent out to publishers?

Dennis Hinrichsen: I show individual poems to friends and work through drafts based on their feedback, but not the manuscripts. That is a process I do solo.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not writing?

Dennis Hinrichsen: I never feel like not writing. I am always thinking about poems, seeking new ideas, thinking about interesting formal constraints. There are times, however, when I choose to not write. The idea hasn’t reached critical mass, so I let it stew, collect more material until a pressure builds and I can go to the blank page with some ideas and energy. But there is always something to work on, a new idea, or a poem still in draft stage. On one level it’s my work, my blue collar work, so I just keep at it.

Geosi Gyasi: What are your plans for the future?

Dennis Hinrichsen: I have two books, a chapbook and a full length book, coming out in 2015, so I’m at work on a new book as yet untitled. Hope to have it done by summer’s end.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you spend some time talking about your most recent works, Skin Music and Electrocution, A Partial History?

Dennis Hinrichsen: Skin Music, due out Fall 2015 from Southern Indiana Review Press, co-won the Michael Waters Poetry Award so thanks to Michael and everyone at SIR Press. Not sure what to say. It pushes my work forward by allowing a CNF impulse to influence some of the content and form choices. So there is an annotated film script in book, a memoir of sorts, a couple of prose/lyric hybrids. It’s kind of a midwest river town book with appearances from Paul Celan and John Cage, Jimmy Cagney, Caravaggio, Bucephalus, and St. Catherine of Siena among others.

Electrocution, A Partial History, due out earlier in Spring 2015, won the Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Prize from MAP: A Journal of Contemporary Writing and Art so thanks to the editors there. The chapbook contains mostly newer poems that continue that CNF/lyric hybrid impulse that opened up content for me and re-booted how I thought about formal choices. This all coincided with my leaving teaching and having ample amounts of time to explore and play. I feel like a kid again with a new toy in a new space and the poems are the result of that energy my delight generates.



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