The Eggshell Parade brings you an interview with writer Mark Baumer.
The Eggshell Parade brings you an interview with poet Joe Weil.
The Eggshell Parade brings you Connor Syrewicz reading (an edited-to-meet-FCC-regulations version of) his short story “Tomorrow ‘Dun Gone”, which appears in Issue 9 Spring 2012 of Superstition Review.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Emily Vogel.
The Eggshell Parade brings you an interview with writer Minrose Gwin.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from writer Catherine Lacey. Catherine reads her short fiction piece “(Grew),” which appears in issue 12.3 of DIAGRAM.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from writer Woody Brown. Woody reads his short fiction piece “Sillyhead,” which appears in issue 12.3 of DIAGRAM.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Neil Shepard.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Marie-Elizabeth Mali.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Kelli Russell Agodon.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a The Noisy Reading Series reading and interview from poet Michelle Bitting. Michelle reads her poem “Free,” which appears in the winter 2012 issue of diode.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a The Noisy Reading Series reading and interview from poet Michael Homolka. Mike reads his poem “Family V,” which appears in the inaugural issue of Phoenix in the Jacuzzi Journal.
Animal Collection is a new book of stories by Colin Winnette (author of Revelation, discussed here at THEthe). Like his previous book, it is a subtle blend of experimentation and dramaturgy. The concept: each story contains some kind of animal behaving in unusual and, in some cases, very human ways. From being cuckolded by a beaver, to falling in love with a hummingbird, to being impregnated by an iguana, human characters interact with animals in intimate and occasionally visceral ways. The result is a commentary on the strangeness of our own behavior, and the collection is proof of the power of certain art forms to defamiliarize ourselves to ourselves. This, to me, is the potent achievement of Animal Collection.
Here is the interview:
Brian: When we spoke about Revelation, a major theme of the conversation was the happy constraints of a framing concept. Here we have a collection of stories, each of which revolves around the image of a certain animal. How did this concept occur to you? How “happy” of a constraint was it?
Colin: The germ for this project was pure constraint…or, better, like a dare / challenge I gave to myself because I was afraid. I had been asked to participate in a reading put on by Publishing Genius and Beecher’s Magazine at AWP DC a few years ago. I was super excited about the reading, many writers I admire were participating, and so I kept googling the reading and looking for info. Then, like the day before the flight, I discovered a poster for the event that claimed all of the authors had chosen an animal to write about and would then read that story in front of said animal’s cage…I had not done that. So I was sort of terrified and convinced of my own failure. Then there was a blizzard in Chicago (where I was living). A major one. All flights were grounded, school was cancelled, six feet of snow fell in something like two or three hours, and people were buried in their cars on Lakeshore Drive. Hunkered down in my apartment, nervous I would never make it to AWP in all of that, I decided to write 26 stories, one for each letter of the alphabet, each of which would center around an animal they had in custody at the Washington D.C. Zoo. A lot of these stories were awful, but some I loved. That was how the whole thing started. I wrote a lot more, revised considerably, and worked out a larger, more considered structure for the collection itself over the next few years. So, in a way, it was the happiest of constraints…except for those poor folks on Lakeshore Drive.
Brian: We have stories of metamorphosis, anthropomorphism, and something in between. In your thinking about this project, did you envision a clear boundary between the animal and the human? Is there a scale or spectrum of humanness or animal-ness? It’s obviously more fluid than that, but how fluid was it in your mind when you conceived of these scenarios?
Colin: The overall project, initially, was extremely fluid. As it came together, I began to detect certain underlying structures, and I worked to tease those out or, sometimes, to counteract them. Every story operates on slightly different terms so the boundaries shift. They are specific to each piece, and to the function of the “animal” in that particular piece.
Brian: More than even metamorphosis, we have visceral images of the human merging with the animal – eating a tarantula, having sex with an octopus, aborting an iguana baby, having one’s private space completely overrun by insects and vermin (which include men, in one story). This to me was a very disturbing turn, which contrasted with the lighter and outright funny tone of some of the other pieces (but maybe that’s because I’m squeamish in general). I guess the question is – if a story collection is a recipe comprised of different flavors, how did you manage the balance of the various flavors we have here?
Colin: This was a topic of much conversation with a friend of mine, actually. The poet Ben Clark read these stories over and over again while I was working on them. He read many of the stories I wound up deleting and drafts of the stories that wound up looking completely different. At one point, he sorted all of the stories into separate categories. Something like: animal as human, human as animal, animal into human, human into animal, and so on. The various functions of the animal figure, as he could best figure them. So that was a helpful guide. But, more than anything, I was guided by the associative qualities of whatever animal occurred to me at the time I was writing the piece. That was a way I secured a certain level of variation throughout the text. Whichever animal occurred to me when I was setting out to write one of the stories would come with a cluster of associations. Some fairly common or general, and others deeply personal. Those associations dictated the movement of the story, and what was possible. So the stories had a kind of emotional and intellectual logic to them from the get go, which I then refined during revision. For that reason, some of the variation I hoped for was pretty much there from the beginning, but Ben helped me to see the “recipe,” helped to point out the ingredients, so that I might balance the whole thing more purposefully.
Brian: One unifying component of pretty much all the stories is the breakdown of relationships – lovers, families, friends. How does envisioning people as certain animals aid this feeling of disconnection and dissolution? Could it be misconstrued as a distraction (i.e., why not just depict humans as humans, rather than as animals?), or is that part of the point?
Colin: Well, I grew up on Disney films, so who knows what kind of havoc that wreaked on my sense of what exactly is “human,” but…
It’s different in each story, but the function of each animal brings something to the equation that I feel wouldn’t be there otherwise. For example, the iguana. That story is terrifying to me. It’s a joke my friend Blake and I used to make, that we always thought our parents didn’t understand us, when the reality is, they just couldn’t sometimes. It wasn’t possible. It’s entirely possible that I know Blake better than his parents ever could, just because we’re about the same age. The terms of our era were so radically different from our parents’, the disconnect was so severe, there was just no real way to bridge the gap. Any parents who are willing to listen to their kids and genuinely accept what they think and feel and do, without question, without feeling complete alienation and bewilderment every once in awhile, those are some pretty amazing people…or they’re faking it. It’s the kind of parent I hope to be (the genuine article, the amazing kind, not the faker), but what terrifies me is the question of whether I will have the self-awareness to realize when I’m not. Anyway, the joke Blake and I used to make was that it was easy to say parents “just don’t understand,” up until the day your kid is suddenly dating a Tyrannosaurus, and all you can think to say is, “I just don’t want you hanging out with that dinosaur! It’s unnatural!” Of course there’s something about racism in there too, I suppose, but for me it’s more about feeling fundamentally alienated from your child’s life. Or that’s the hook of the story. That’s what complicates it. I mean, would you have allowed her to birth the iguana?
And, just for the record, humans are totally animals.
Brian: Speaking of – the other major “human” theme is one that I’ve already briefly mentioned – the invasion of one’s space and privacy. To what extent is this a comment on the fact that the spaces and zones we build around ourselves are arbitrary and fragile? Am I putting words in your mouth here? Better than a tarantula, I guess. Stylistically, though, one way to convey this invasion of privacy (beyond various really creepy scenes) is the use of the second person. You open the collection in the second person, and one entire story consists simply of “You are here.” Who is you in Animal Collection? How many you’s are there?
Colin: Arbitrary and fragile, yes. Those are words I would use…and even have used when answering earlier questions. Each You, as with each animal, and each story, is very different. It is a way of incorporating the reader at times, or of generating an extra-textual character who is being addressed. For example, the Beaver story does not ask that the reader occupy the space of the You, any more than he/she would any other character. But the You story, that’s all about you, Brian, or me, or whoever is holding the book, really. On the one hand, it’s extremely literal. It’s also a joke. A bit of fun. But one that I felt was essential. It’s one of the last ones I wrote. I was pretty proud of it.
Brian: We have lots of animals, but also lots of voices and perspectives. As many as there are stories, really. This builds on that multivocal component of Revelation. I tell my students that writing is less akin to directing a film as it is to acting in one. How do you get your mind around the different voices and personae from story to story, especially when they’ll only live and breathe for a short time? To what extent do you “become” the voices you depict?
Colin: I abandon a story pretty quickly if I can’t embody the characters I’m writing. For me, it’s literally a physical sensation. I can feel it. I move in certain weird ways sometimes when I’m writing. You’re completely right that it’s like acting in a film, rather than directing it. Although, sometimes, once you know your characters well enough, and if you want to create a kind of stiffness or something, you can move them around like a director, like set pieces. I didn’t do that much here in AC, but I did do that a little in Revelation. They’re different projects, but they do overlap in certain areas. With AC, I was very invested in the voice of each character, or each story. It comes out when I read them, which is something I really love to do. (As a side note, whenever I read the “Tarantula” story, someone inevitably asks, “did you really…?”). I can’t say exactly what caused it, it likely has to do with the associative qualities each animal brings to the story, and what those associations allowed me to access. I was also able to play around a lot with these pieces, so I wasn’t stuck in one voice for any particular length of time. I could start writing and ride the wave of a particular voice until it stopped. Until it was done, and I could just end right there. I didn’t have to keep coming back to it and dragging more out of it. What I loved about writing this book is that I felt so free to make each piece be exactly the length it needed to be. I felt no pressure to extend a piece to make it more like a “short story” or to cut the longer pieces down so they better fit with the flash pieces. The book needed range. It required a variety of approaches to telling a story—and these are all stories, even if they’re poems. It’s a bestiary, an abecedarium, a zoo. It’s an animal collection.
LMB:You talk about the body as a representation of the world around us – it is. Everything we are is everything there is. But the body may not be the only way we exist. If our hair is the war, as you explained in your WAR HAIR, and the war is our body, does writing keep us from falling apart? Does our writing become extraphysical?
CA: Thank you so much for this opportunity to be interviewed. I’m punchy. Last night I woke to smoke and fire engines. The building next to mine was on fire, the building I SHARE A WALL WITH, and I had to crawl down three flights of steps because the smoke was thick. It’s SO NICE to be alive and writing to you!! But I want to say to your question that while I was standing on the street watching firemen chop a hole into my neighbor’s roof and pour hundreds of gallons of water into their living room, that I was creating a (Soma)tic poetry exercise. I have already created one for writing poems after being mugged. That one’s in my new book A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON (Wave Books). Last night I started this new (Soma)tic for surviving fire. Part of it involves meditating on your STUFF, your THINGS that survived. I’m FULL of adrenaline, which is now a secretion for the poems. To be honest, it wasn’t clear right away if the fire was in my building, and the smoke was so thick that I had to press my nose into the hallway carpet to inhale deeply and get my ass moving! What a relief when I made it outside! But then after making it outside comes the part of being alive where you FEEL literally FEEL so awake, watching your home be rescued, hopefully you’re watching it be rescued. And the smoke in your hair and clothes, what is this awful smell from? Plastics, wood, vinyl, what, what, WHAT?
I agree that the body is not the only way we exist, which is why I separate – or EXPOSE – the word SOMA living inside SOMATIC. (Soma)tic. Soma is the spirit, and adding a tic makes it somatic, or, a body surrounding a spirit. Hmm, but does writing keep us from falling apart? I want my blood, my vomit, my piss and semen IN my poems. Poetry permitted me my physicality; it piloted me away from believing all the pricks in my fucking high school that wanted me to kill myself because they didn’t like faggots. But one day we WILL fall apart, our cells will be destroyed by disease, or guns, or strangulation, and we will be unhappy. I know I will be unhappy. I’m NOT one of those people who struts around claiming to have made peace with Death. I will be at war with Death for as long as I can stand it, and I have (Soma)tics prepared for writing poems under the influence of chemotherapy and other horrific ways we survive. I love living. I LOVE LIVING. I am one of Poetry’s brides. My white gown sweeps the ground now as I pace back and forth while typing these answers to you.
LMB: I have a ghost in my house. You live with a ghost too. All of my friends look down my long corridor and find heaviness there. No one believes it is harmful or negative, and some of them can’t even explain why they feel the way they do. I had a fervent solipsist walk in and say “I feel something right there.” I decided to write a set of poems to the ghost, who, as it turned out, was found to be a female child who could not pass on. You’ve said poetry is a religion. If poetry is a religion, can we speak to these spirits, can we be guided by them in our writing?
CA: I’d love to read your ghost poems!! I’ve had several ghosts in my life. I’m someone who didn’t believe in them until I finally saw one. When I lived with my friend Elizabeth Kirwin we had a ghost show herself in 1994. What an incredible experience!! It’s the sort of thing that happens and you’re so glad that someone else was there because you feel like you’re losing your mind. But this ghost was a definite “intelligent haunting,” as opposed to what occultists and mediums refer to as a “residual haunting.” In other words, she was not stuck in replaying an event, she was aware and desiring contact. Elizabeth and I talk about this online at PARANORMAL POETICS.
But the ghost I live with now was my neighbor Owen who killed himself in 1999, a very sad young man. He was only 21, he’s such a sad ghost to have around. He whispered in my ear in 2006 to use my hair MY WAR HAIR to remind me that we are at war. Americans, we who are the plural of war, our disgusting American plurality of war, and I want to never forget it. Owen’s ghost is responsible for me writing this poem about war every morning since spring of 2006. I hate the poem, I hate Owen’s ghost, I hate my fucking hair SO MUCH! I wish that I had never listened to him, and I wish that he had not been such an idiot and killed himself.
In the 1980s my neighbor and friend Jim McCormick lived below me. In 1988 he found out that he was HIV positive and killed himself. It was so terrible, and I could smell him through the floor, much like the smell of Owen’s dead body years later when I moved across town. But the maintenance man Willie opened Jim’s apartment door, and we saw him. Poor Jim, he didn’t do it right and had to take drastic measures, most likely leading to an excruciating death. I miss him, he was such a good man. He was one of those old-school queers, very effeminate, gentle, witty, collected lots of antiques. Jim had a print of a painting that I fell in love with. While we were waiting for the police to come I covered my mouth and nose from the stench and stared for a long time at that painting because I thought I might never see it again, and I couldn’t figure out who painted it. Jim’s ghost PUSHED me last week after all these years when I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with my friend Michelle Taransky. I had no intention of seeing the special exhibit “Visions of Arcadia,” but I felt DRIVEN to see it at the very last minute. I didn’t like most of the show because they FUCKING LIED saying it was work by Matisse, Cezanne, and Gauguin. 95 percent of the paintings were other artists. But THEN, THEN, OH MY GOD, THEN at the end of the exhibit, THERE WAS THE PAINTING, the very one Jim had hanging in his apartment!! Only this time it was not a print, but the actual painting from Spain. It’s called THE DREAM, painted in 1912 by Franz Marc, so it’s 100 years old THIS YEAR!! I’m so excited to have it back in my life, and now I have a beautiful card of it that I carry around with me.
Maybe you and I could collaborate on a (Soma)tic poetry exercise about how ghosts have made us brave? My friend Jim whom I just mentioned was also a huge fan of the artist Thomas Eakins. In the 1970s Jim had a brass plaque made and hung at Eakins’s Philadelphia studio at the corner of Juniper and Chestnut streets. In 1986 when I first met Jim he walked me over to the plaque, something that he was very proud of. A few years ago Blick Art Supply renovated part of the building and moved in. But the plaque suddenly vanished!! My friend Frank Sherlock (do you know his poetry? He’s such a fucking genius poet!!) and I would show the plaque to anyone we were with when walking by the location. And it appears in our collaborative book of poems THE CITY REAL & IMAGINED (Factory School Books). BUT IT VANISHED, the plaque. Maybe construction workers took it and sold it? I don’t know, but it was gone. And when I went into the store to talk to the manager I was told that they didn’t know anything about it. That was it. A shrug. I mean, YOUR art supply store for ARTISTS is right in the fucking bottom floor of the building where one of America’s greatest artists had his studio, and you don’t care.
Jim’s ghost was on my side!! I started writing about this situation online and the local newspapers picked up on it started quoting me. An outrage started to churn in Philadelphia about this, and my phone started ringing off the hook. THEN the threatening emails started to arrive from Blick headquarters. And I kept saying, “PUT THE PLAQUE BACK AND ALL WILL BE WELL!!” But they’re a corporation and think that they don’t need to give a shit what one fat-assed faggot in Philadelphia thinks. FINALLY they threatened me with a lawsuit, and I said GREAT!! PHILADELPHIA WILL LOVE THIS!! AND NO ONE WILL BUY YOUR FUCKING PAINT BRUSHES AND EASELS AND TURPENTINE!
Then I received a very nice email and phone call from the granddaughter of the owner of the company. She apologized for all of the flack I was getting. It turns out that she had scouted out that very location in Philadelphia and THAT PLAQUE my old friend Jim McCormick had made and hung decades ago was THE REASON she wanted to put one of their stores there. She even had a photograph of the plaque. She had a team of designers make another plaque, one that looked exactly like the one Jim had hung, and now it’s back on the corner of Juniper and Chestnut in Philadelphia, where it belongs. Jim’s ghost was with me the whole time. The threatening legal letters only infuriated me instead of frightening me like they were designed to do. I feel like Jim KNEW this reasonable, intelligent, caring person was there at the company, and that if I just HUNG IN THERE and kept FIGHTING that she would eventually hear about it. I miss Jim. It irritates me that we die. Every single day it annoys me.
LMB: As you write in Preternatural Conversations, when I read your work I feel an “I.V. drip of/sphinx’s blood.” Sometimes when I first read the book I felt lost, like I’ve dreamt, woken up, tried to recapture the image, failed, tried again — and when I did, it’s right there, shimmering. Poetry should hit you in the face with shimmer. What do you think about the poetry being written from today’s new poets?
CA: “Preternatural Conversations” is a newer piece written soon after the manuscript was finalized for Wave. But yes, it’s in jubilat, I’m very excited, the amazing poet and editor Emily Pettit published it, and I enjoyed making the little film for it. I’m so happy with this piece, mostly because it’s about using psychic tools to communicate with people and dogs. But another reason it makes me happy is because I FINALLY figured out a way to tell Ed Dorn off without being mean. I was finally able to make light of his grotesque bigotry against faggots, and say “I want to dress special for this.” HAHA!! When I FINALLY got it out of me in this way I was thrilled. Making fun of someone’s bigoted, small-minded views of the world can take some of the power back. And when I taught at Naropa this summer I read the poem. It was one of those marvelous opportunities with hundreds of people listening and a fantastic stage and I had LOTS AND LOTS of red and purple glitter COVERING me that night. Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman started Naropa as we know, and Ginsberg was one of Dorn’s prime targets for his homophobic rages. So JUST BEFORE reading the Dorn piece I said “This poem is for our fairy godfather Allen Ginsberg who helped build this queer stage!” This made my year, doing that!!
What do I think about today’s poets? Anyone who says they would rather go back to another time for poetry is an idiot!! NOW is the time for poetry!! NOW!! There are so many brilliant poets writing RIGHT NOW!! I mean they are OUT THERE at this VERY MINUTE writing poems that are going to blow my mind and break my heart!! When I was a teenager writing poems I had no idea that my favorite poets were going to actually be my friends. This is something I’ve had to get used to, being a great admirer of poems written by friends. Shimmering, yes, as you say. But also an awakening, because I feel startled so often by the poetry of my friends!
LMB: So you were at the Radar Writer’s Retreat in Mexico. Once in Mexico I threw copal, tobacco and chocolate into a fire for the Abuelo of the mountains in Tepoztlan. We made wishes, and I admit that mine came true, which was both painful and necessary. For me, there is something about Mexico that has influenced nearly all of my writing. Location, politics and culture clearly affects your work, in that you are deeply impacted by the world itself, and its goings-on, but how did Mexico treat you? Do the countries you go to speak to you?
CA: Oh I loved Mexico!! And I love the RADAR Lab!! I’m grateful to Michelle Tea and Ali Liebegott for their incredible dedication, making this possible!! It was one of the best weeks of my life getting to make poems in the middle of this paradise, and it truly is a paradise along this jungle ocean shoreline!! Here is the outline of what I did down there, the (Soma)tic Poetry Exercise:
For 9 consecutive nights I prepared my crystal-infused water dream therapy. Each morning I would implement the final stage of the dream therapy, then I would listen to a different PRINCE album in its entirety: DIRTY MIND, CONTROVERSY, PURPLE RAIN, etc. Lying still with eyes closed, allowing the dream to braid and dissolve inside the musical landscapes of my beautiful, androgynous muse. As soon as the album finished I would write for fifteen minutes, which was not so much a dream-journal as it was a dream-lost-inside-PRINCE-journal.
After breakfast I went down to the beach. Each morning from 9 am to noon I would sit in the same place, one foot closer to the tide each morning. On the last day I sat directly in the tidal break with sturdy paper and a pen whose ink embeds into paper, a pen invented to prevent check fraud. PRINCE may wash my dreams away, but the ocean would not take my poems.
For a few minutes I would close my eyes and listen to the tide. Then I would suddenly open my umbrella and stare at one of its polka dots, each one a different color of the spectrum. After staring at one polka dot for five minutes I would suddenly look out at the beach, coral reef and ocean. The polka dot’s color would show itself in the hue of a broken shell, or be found in the bow of a distant ship. One morning my eyes landed on the white of the umbrella, which is all the space surrounding the polka dots. I decided to go with it. When I tore the umbrella aside I noticed FOR THE FIRST TIME tiny white crabs who made their homes at the wettest part the sand, continuously washed by the tide. The study of the crabs consumed my morning. One day I looked up from writing to see a hundred yellow butterflies fluttering in a line down the beach above the surf a few feet from my face. The parade of beauty kept me in awe: giant sea turtles, iguanas, and magnificent sea birds. One day I placed my large Lemurian crystal in the sand under the surf. RADAR Lab’s amazing chef Christina Frank sat with me to witness the little silver fish surround the crystal. They LOVED IT! They would ride the surf to the crystal, surround it and KISS IT, ride the tide out, then ride it back in and KISS IT AGAIN!
From 3 pm to 6 pm I would sit in the bathtub to write. My favorite childhood liquid was FRESCA! I thought it went out of business, but it just moved to Mexico! I drank FRESCA all day long at the residency, and used it for the bathtub meditation, drinking mouthfuls, letting the grapefruit bubbles roil in my mouth while turning the shower on. I would touch the falling water with the tips of my fingers then I would swallow the FRESCA and turn the water off. I would meditate on arguments from the archive of my unforgiving brain. Arguments I had, and arguments by others. Once I heard my mother and sister shouting in another room. My mother yelled, “I SHOULD HAVE ABORTED YOU!” My sister yelled back, “GRANDMOM SHOULD HAVE ABORTED YOU AND WE WOULD ALL BE FREE FROM THIS GODDAMNED MESS!” My mother BURST into tears, my sister left the room with a smile. She saw me and said, “I TOLD HER!” I returned her smile and hugged her, saying, “YES you did, my dear!” The MOMENT we embraced THE RELIEF of our grandmom’s imaginary abortion WASHED OVER US BOTH! We laughed from so much pain and nonsense for a rolling tide. The brain holds all of our disasters in little, decrepit files marked and mismarked and repeating their vomitus sick, and sometimes a little too quiet from too much damage. These notes became nine poems, my homage to my mother who was not aborted, and to her children, who were also not aborted.
LMB: I find it interesting that you say our mothers (and the others we sentimentalize) are usually drawn up as sacred texts. One of the reasons I’m drawn to your work is because I can relate to having a fucked-up childhood, whether we view it now as fucked up or simply different. A euphemism or no. You escaped a lot of what you experienced by reading. So you learn to grow and move through history through your work, instead of being haunted inside of your work. That’s brave. How hard is that to pull off?
CA: It’s not possible for me to take for granted that I come from poor, mostly illiterate, country people, and yet have somehow found this endurable, rich existence of poetry. And I don’t say I BELIEVE poetry can save our lives, I say I KNOW it can!! And I don’t mean it redirects emotions, or conciliates in the sense of pacification, no, I mean poetry can actualize an entirely, wholly new pattern of awareness. My boyfriend Earth (aka Mark) was murdered in Tennessee about a decade ago. In my new book A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON there is a (Soma)tic exercise I created for us to investigate trauma. I used the music of Philip Glass, which is PERFECT as a trance vehicle, in fact his music makes it almost easy to enter a trance state. But I used these (Soma)tic techniques I’ve developed for the “DOUBLE-SHELTER” piece in the new book, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I am changed.
The word “escape” isn’t right for me. I escape nothing because poetry for me is about plunging into everything despite how much it might wind up jeopardizing my happiness. Poetry is worth my fear being resolved. Thank you for this interview.
It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?
Most of my poems are conjured between the pages of old fairy-tale books and on flickering screens. It’s true that many of them wield swords.
Lately, they’ve been exploring the disappeared home of my childhood in Tennessee. The home I grew up with no longer exists, the gardens and woods I remember wandering nothing but ugly rubble I can only bear to look at on Google Earth once in a great while. They have never done anything with the rubble, so I must regrow everything from memory. The rocks and roots, the violets and daffodils, the acres of old oaks and bear caves. My brothers and their old pickup trucks
They’ve also been ducking into classrooms: algebra, cartography, old stories barely remembered. Conjuring memories yet again: Sunday school, high school dances, dusty yellow polaroid photographs that show a girl feral, big-eyed, holding her little brother’s hand.
My poems do best in a fantasy landscape. Colors metallic, ice mountains, enchanted deserts, alien flora and fauna…it’s where my poems really feel most at home.
The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?
My poems may bite. They may also reveal secrets, gossip, cry into a bottle of beer. And I don’t even drink beer! My poems are much less polite and they smile less than I do. They are survivors, the detritus of battles lost.
A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interview liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation. I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink, what your poems dream about?
They dream of apocalypse. Of futures where she might be a robot, or a witch. Often, they dream of disasters: hurricanes, broken cell phones, girls who must rescue themselves from glass coffins. My poems bloom best at night and are pollinated by large green moths.
Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interview looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?
They have come to tell you a story that comes with a warning and a gold coin. They have come to tell you about the inside of someone else’s skin. They have come to tell you about the hidden dangers of mud dauber’s wasp nests and goat’s milk full of cesium’s daughters. They have come to show you the way out. My poems want to rescue you but are often only able to watch.
The seven sections of Colin Winnette’s slim new novel Revelation correspond to the seven angels of the Book of Revelation. They bring with them fire, hail, receding oceans, bitter water, falling stars (and bodies, in a chilling moment), darkness, locusts, sinkholes, and, of course, those pesky horsemen. The seven sections also depict seven stages of the life of Marcus, whose love and despair we encounter intimately. These biblical calamities, very subtly rendered in unique and memorable visages, are backdrops to Marcus’ struggle, a reminder that life’s great apocalypse – its end – is always an intensely personal one. I had a chance to speak with Winnette about his work on this novel, his other projects, and the writing life.
Brian: Can you talk a little about your development? What authors and styles have shaped you? How has attending a program changed your outlook (or not)?
Colin: Influence is a tricky thing to talk about. I can say that Ben Marcus’s work was extremely important to me. It still is, but at one point it totally saved me. Or, reinvigorated me. I was finishing up undergrad and I was in love with writers like Beckett, Proust, Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, these iconic figures who did what they were doing so masterfully that there seemed nowhere to go at all after that. That was also the result of my age at the time and what being in school can do to you. I didn’t realize it then, but I had a pretty narrow vision of what it meant to be a writer and what one could do with fiction. But then I picked up Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women and I was just totally blown away. It was an entirely different approach to working with and examining language than I had ever encountered before. Those books led me to Gertrude Stein and William Gaddis and all of these authors who were breaking language apart, yes, but also reclaiming it, making it do new and fascinating things. And, I mean, they had been doing this for a long time and in different ways, and here was Ben Marcus doing it still in his own way and just killing it. So I suddenly felt very free again. It’s interesting the difference between grad school and undergrad. In undergrad I was constantly being told what good writing looked like. It looks like Carver. It looks like Chekhov. It looks like Pynchon (and indeed it does!). It looks like Austen. Etc. Workshops were little help because they were often the same kind of thing: I think you should do this, or I think this should happen, etc. Initially I lacked the confidence to assert myself. Then, when I gained a little confidence, I asserted myself by just ignoring pretty much everybody and only listening to the 2% I thought made sense or seemed to come from a good place. I started to tune a lot out. So I left undergrad fed-up, but with a lot of energy. I wrote and worked and traveled and didn’t write and two years later I went to grad school with a much different attitude. I used that time to write as much as possible. I listened to people and read as much as I could, but took the whole thing less…personally, I guess…than before. I took it seriously, but I knew the conversations we were having in class were often selfish in that we were all interested in enhancing our work by discussing the work of others. Helping one another wasn’t exactly the point, although we certainly did help one another from time to time. And I should say I think all that’s great. The two most important things grad school gave me were time and a sense of purpose. I felt encouraged to work and I had the hours in the day to do it. Or if I didn’t have them, I made them because I knew my time was limited. I taught myself how to make time to write. I was writing a lot on the train and in bed my first year. I wouldn’t let myself sleep until I had done a certain amount of work. I’m not sure I would have had that kind of discipline at first if I weren’t in a program. Now, it comes much more naturally. I had to learn how to kick my own ass.
Brian: I found that the discipline angle served as a wheat/chaff scenario in my own fiction writing classroom. The students who wrote well were the ones who put the time in. Is that level of focus and concentration waning in the generations that come after us? Is it something that can be taught?
Colin: Obviously practices vary. The kind of disciplined work ethic that worked for me in the past just wouldn’t work for everyone. It’s very personal, I think, and the method I described is one that fits with the way I am, in general, about many things. I can be rigid and extremely hard on myself, especially when I’m working on something I care about very much. And it doesn’t even work for me all of the time. In fact, being too disciplined or too hard on oneself can often be a hindrance, and can drive one to resent something that should ultimately be pleasurable and thrilling. So another thing I had to learn was to not be so hard on myself all the time. It’s a balance, I’d say, something I’ll be perpetually tweaking. But can discipline be taught? I think yes and no. You can’t make anyone do anything, really. Or, who would want to? But you can give them (and I assume we’re talking about students here) ideas about what to do. In a classroom setting, I think it’s important to emphasize the variety of ways that people have worked and will work. I think it’s important for young writers to write often, even if it’s bad. Especially if it’s bad, maybe. Just write it all out and use up all your clichés and lazy sentences. For me it was like I just poured all of this garbage out onto the floor, but in it were these little pieces of rubbish that I actually kind of liked. These nuggets I could polish and be proud of. Seeing it all messed together like that, it was easy to start understanding the difference between something I thought was good or attractive or effective and something that wasn’t. There’s a process of learning to identify what interests you and what you’re trying to do and what helps you do it. But that’s just how I do things, you know? As a kid, I was the one who poured all the Legos onto the floor then went digging for the pieces I wanted. I needed to see it all at once. But I had a lot of friends who were much cleaner and more deliberate in their selection. And we both eventually built whatever it was we were building. There’s no right way to do it. You just have to do it.
Brian: Ben Marcus and Adam Levin speak highly of Revelation. How do mentors shape your work?
Colin: I’ve always had relationships with other writers and artists. For me, it’s essential. I’ve also been blessed enough to attend schools with curriculums that involve one on one meetings with faculty, so a lot of my education occurred in that intimate kind of setting. I learn a lot from other people. Or, really, I learn everything from other people. And I love people very much, so it’s always a pleasure to get together with someone whose work I admire or who is really insightful and engaged and talk through things and get to know one another better. Having Ben Marcus respond to the book was really one of the most thrilling things that ever happened to me. He’s a champion and I owe him a lot. Adam Levin teaches at SAIC, where I earned my MFA, so I had the opportunity to work with him both in class and as an advisor. He has an incredibly active mind and cares very much about fiction, so our conversations were often incredibly invigorating.
Brian: Do you have any interest in teaching your craft?
Colin: I love talking about fiction. And I love talking about fiction with people to whom it really matters. People who have a personal connection to writing. Often, but certainly not exclusively, you meet those people in an academic setting. You meet people who are trying to figure things out for themselves, trying to better understand their work, trying to improve, and so it can be a wonderfully open and productive environment. It can also be a hostile and competitive environment. It’s a mixed bag just about everywhere, I think. But I’m optimistic. I’m happy for the good when it comes. I’ve had a number of teachers who really inspired and encouraged me. The bad experiences tend to melt away and the good ones still drive me years later. One of the best gifts a writing teacher can give, I think, is the sense that the work of a young writing student is as important as the work they themselves are doing. It sounds obvious, but I think it’s much more difficult than most people realize. I’ve had a number of teachers who did this, but one of the first was Brian Morton, whom I worked with at Sarah Lawrence College. While our opinions about fiction were occasionally at odds, I always felt that he approached the conversation as earnestly and attentively as I did. He was studying, his mind was always working, and he was kind and generous and honest. He was an early guide, but also an attentive friend. It was a gift. My interest in teaching writing would come from a desire to give other young writers something like this, because it meant so much to me. And still does.
Brian: You manage the imagery from the book of Revelation so gorgeously and subtly in your novel. How did this idea occur to you?
Colin: It was really very sudden and intuitive. Honestly, I was first attracted to the idea primarily as a constraint. I had no idea why, but it just occurred to me to write a book that was seven chapters long, each chapter of which would be invoked by the sounding of one of the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse. And I knew each chapter would jump forward radically in time, so that the book covered the entire span of a character’s life. It wasn’t until I had written the first draft of the book and was beginning revisions that I really started to understand what was interesting to me about using this structure/content, other than the fact that it gave me the push to begin the work as well as a set of loose guidelines to move the project forward. It’s something I say all the time about the book, that it was a sort of exorcism of certain narrative modes I was steeped in as a kid growing up in a small Texas town, as well as the models of “great writing” I was beaten over the head with as a young writer.
Brian: How important are constraints for anything that you work on? This is, to me, the delightful irony of experimentation. You exhibit freedom and limitlessness through the very limits you impose on yourself.
Colin: I was extremely interested in working with constraints at one point for many reasons, one of which was exactly the reason you detail here. I followed and studied the Oulipo, and other artists working with constraints, like 60s/70s performance artists or musicians, and many working today. I’m interested in the idea that we are always working with constraints, only some are more apparent than others. When I sit down to write a work of “fiction” on my MacBook, in Microsoft Word, a vast number of decisions are made for me before I even begin. One’s limited knowledge of the tradition in which they’re working can also be viewed as a series of constraints guiding all of one’s production. Making the conscious decision to impose constraints is a way of acknowledging and engaging with the constraints that are already in place. There’s a quote from one of the more famous Oulipians, Raymond Queneau, in which he says, “…inspiration, which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery. The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.” It is also a way of knowing more about what you are doing before you do it. For me, it is also a way of incorporating one’s limitations into the work itself. And, as you and Queneau point out, the marvelous thing is the way in which engaging with limitations or constraints, be they self-imposed or otherwise, can actually be liberating.
Brian: Most other narratives of this type depict a man-made apocalypse and thus morph into social commentary. Some would argue that even the end-of-days apocalypse is man-made, due to sin, etc. What causes the events in Revelation?
Colin: Yes. Exactly. It’s funny no one’s thought to ask this so directly before. The quick and easy answer would be to say there is no answer. Or, we don’t get to know. This is something the characters in the book are struggling with, or trying to ignore, or successfully ignoring. I’m much more interested in the ways we come to understand, deal with, or not deal with traumatic events in our lives, rather than tracing any kind of causal relationship, casting blame, etc. I’m interested in the stories we tell ourselves. I think examining those stories brings us closer to an understanding of what it means to be an actively living/seeing/perceiving thing.
Brian: This is a good point. Your answer clearly applies to Marcus. We don’t get to see the ups and downs (mostly downs?) of his life actually happen to him. We’re always, at the beginning of a section, thrown into some sort of aftermath, or dénouement, of another major life change. You have a taste for, as you say, the way we re-present these moments to ourselves, after the fact. I find it would make for a very interesting film. Have you thought of this book cinematically? Does thinking cinematically help you?
Colin: I think it’s hard not to think cinematically at this point, at least when writing a book with such clear scenes and imagery. I certainly pictured every scene I wrote in my head as I was writing it. And movies have dramatically impacted the way I imagine things. This is true of other work I’ve done as well, that the work relies so heavily on the concreteness of a certain image or gesture that I have to really picture it before I can write it. I have to see it and look all around it and check it for weak spots. I’ve been so effectively trained by movies and television as to how one looks at and around a thing, that my imaginative eye often examines an imagined thing in these camera-like sweeps and zooms. I am a slave to the machine. But I think you’re also talking about the narrative itself here, and I would have to say that in constructing the story I wasn’t thinking at all cinematically. I also would be interested in seeing a film that moves in this way (I’m sure they’re out there. In fact, I’m sure I’ve seen a couple without realizing it). I think most movies emphasize the moments that this book tends to leave out. We are attracted to stories with high-drama and with rising tension that moves toward a rewarding climax because it makes the events of our lives seem meaningful. I am not belittling this method of storytelling. I love it, in fact. And I’m interested in it. I’m interested in the ways we construct meaning. And I think we always draft the narrative of meaning after the fact. There is a quote, though I cannot remember who said it, that thought occurs in the wake of experience. This idea has been stated in one way or another by many, I’m sure. And I like that. If it’s something that’s been said over and over in myriad ways and contexts, that seems right.