Regarding place-based writing: there sometimes is a concern that regionalism can quickly become provincialism. However, I believe that your poetry eloquently disproves this. Though it is highly localized, your writing brings personal/familial experience to so many larger narratives: racism, alcoholism/addiction, and masculine violence, to name just a few. Do you use the local to tackle the universal? And if so, how so?
That is a great craft question. So, I use the personal and attach it to the general. By showing the reader things we all have in common (parts of the body) we are able to give our personal experiences more relatability.
Are you still writing your book of prose on crying? Could you talk about what prompted the collection and when you decided to write essays rather than poems? I’m wondering how different the prose will be from, your poem “Aesthetics of Crying” in Heliopause. (I too look at myself in the mirror when crying––something about my puffy face validates the whole act and usually keeps me crying, so I can get it all out.)
It is very nearly complete, and will be published by Catapult in early 2020. (That date looks imaginary!) I began writing the book because I was wondering what it would look like to have a map of every place I’d ever cried. At first I thought I was writing a prose poem, or perhaps a short essay, but then the more I researched the subject, and the more I began to notice the submotifs emerging—the unexpected connections between crying and elephants and the moon and gravity and race and parenthood—the more it became apparent that I would need to write an entire book in order to let those connections take root and grow. So, I did. That poem you mention was an early exploration of some of the ideas that served as seeds for the crying book, and both are interested in what it means to be a crier and an observer of crying, sometimes simultaneously.
We often learn and teach that we should read poetry both on the page and out loud, noticing the differences between the personal, internal reading and the public, vocal one—and your work, I think, really earns that dual experience. I absolutely love reading your poems out loud. Do you think about your work as spoken pieces, or more as page pieces? Or is there no distinction?
For me there’s no distinction: when I’m writing poems I am interested in what they do both visually and aurally. They are “page pieces” in that I think you need to see them on the page to see everything they’re doing with respect to line breaks and form. But yes, they are spoken pieces, too, and I do speak them aloud as I’m drafting and revising. My hope is that my poems can be chewy and interesting on both levels. For example, the Birney poem is a ballad, and I would imagine that someone at a poetry reading might hear that first, but not be sure what it is, then look at it on the page and think, “Oh, OK, I see how that’s working.” Similarly, what fun is a ballad if it just exists on the page? Those things were meant to be spoken aloud (or sung!).
In “Loved Ones,” Zara and Hassan are often speaking without really saying what they’re feeling, or listening to one another without actually hearing what’s being said. There’s a kind of layer of remove between them that I’ve seen displayed in other stories of yours as well. Are you conscious of this layer when writing dialogue? What do you think it offers in terms of characterization?
I think it’s typical of relationships that are in trouble, or show symptoms of trouble, when people have become sucked into themselves so much they can’t hear the other person anymore. When this happens in my stories, people speak but their words glance off each other instead of making contact. What does this tell about them? Probably that they are now in the process of mentally detaching from the other person.
What and/or who are your influences? What are you inspired by?
Is it terrible to say my Instagram feed? I follow a lot of artists on IG; it’s often the first thing I do after my eyes open in the morning, before I even get out of bed. I don’t know if that’s healthy, but it is what it is. Sometimes I try to recreate what someone else has done—right now, I’m into Jared Muralt for his colors, Kim Jung Gi for sheer wow factor, and Nicolas Nemiri and Ashley Wood for their linework. All these guys have great IG feeds.
Felix Scheinberger has also been a big influence on me, ever since I got his book on watercolors. Not that you’d be able to see their influences when you look at my work. That’s partly because I’m not at their skill level yet, but it’s partly because the work I’ve been doing with Edward needs a more abstracted approach and less textural clutter.
In "The Pearl Diver's Son," your short story in our fifth issue, you detail the effect of oil pollution on the diminishing profession of pearl diving off the coast of Khobar, as seen from a young boy's perspective. I was struck by the careful attention to detail about the dhow, diving, and the city in flux as the oil industry began employing large groups of local adolescents. How did you go about researching this period of time and the practice of pearl hunting? I'm especially curious if you began this draft with the story itself or the research?
The history of the Arabian American Oil Company, or ARAMCO (now Saudi ARAMCO) was always lurking around my childhood home, in the form of history and coffee table books that the company produced to document its own meteoric rise. Yet my interest in the subject didn't arise until more than twenty-five years after my father's retirement from the company, where both he and my grandfather worked for several decades. For years, I dismissed my childhood on the oil compound as inauthentic—that somehow my family's story was illegitimate because of its neocolonial origins. Now I see that, for a writer, the subject of ARAMCO's rise is solid gold—rich and fascinating, and tied directly to the fates of two nations, Saudi Arabia and the United States. .
In “Too Rushed,” your essay in our fourth issue, you write, “It’s 2018, and I’m not here to make a new argument: mental health patients are not more violent than the rest of the population.” Despite the fact that there is considerable research to support your argument, people continue to argue to the contrary, particularly in the wake of national tragedies caused by gun violence. Why do you think this is?
I know this has been said a lot, but: one of the only times that politicians discuss mental health is in the aftermath of a mass shooting. And they usually deliver the this is a mental health issue line in a really soft-spoken voice. It’s so irritating. They steer news coverage away from gun control. It’s not to say that mental health isn’t a factor. But the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent.
I admire that in your poem, “A Poem to Remind Myself of the Natural Order of Things,” we aren’t quite sure who—or, I suppose “what”—the you is until the sixth line. I’m curious about why you structured the poem this way—why the “you” is examined before the reader is even sure what we are looking at?
I’ve been having lots of spontaneous conversations about octopuses (octopi? the octopus?) in the last few weeks, probably because when anyone mentions an octopus, I, like a 2nd grader armed with some facts, am eager to put what I know on the table. At any rate, a number of people have articulated an idea that the octopus is the closest thing we’ll get to an alien consciousness on Earth because they are so different from humans. This strikes me as odd—that a species native to the planet would be considered alien because its intelligence developed along a different line than our species, because it is so different from us. In a Western, Judeo-Christian framework, the world is scaled to the human as ideal, and that’s strange to me..
I’m very interested in your use of persona for your “Ghost of Marvin Gaye” series. How did your exploration of Gaye’s persona come about?
I found myself very interested in the afterlife of Gaye, and the way his particular type of death could lead to a set of unanswered questions in whatever the afterlife might look like. I was interested in kind of picking through those questions and trying to unravel them bit by bit. Marvin Gaye is so layered and complex, but it often feels like there's only room for one or two projections of him in the discussion. I wanted to place his ghost in the modern day, in hopes that I could shorten some distance between him and his many narratives.
Your poem in our new issue is an elegy for Michelle Boisseau, a poet we both admired a great deal, who died last fall of cancer. I remember her as fiercely smart and funny, warm and generous, and yet about as unsentimental as you can get. How did you know her, and what did she mean to you over the years?
I was drawn to Michelle the minute I met her, in a workshop in the mid-nineties. It was full of groaning male energy, and she was wry and funny and circumspect and female, and I was a young queer writer, seduced by surface but wildly unsure—so she was exactly the person I needed. I turned in a poem called "The Elements," and she said, with a serious half-smile, great, but where are the elements in this poem? She had a point. She took the piss out of poetry. She was also, and without pretension, always, always the smartest person in the room, the warmest and the coolest. I think I knew she was someone worth knowing, worth keeping, so we struck up a friendship that lasted over 20 years. I loved her very much, and I can hardly believe she’s gone; I don’t know what else to say.
First off, I just want to say that I’m a fan of The Book of Formation and the interviews you edit over at The Believer. In particular, I love the Gordon Lish interview from back in January 2009, and how Lish is interviewed in letter-form. Although you didn’t conduct that particular interview, this premise of genre mixing is evident in The Book of Formation in the sense that it’s told in both prose and interviews. In what ways did your work as an interviews editor and as someone who regularly conducts interviews influence this approach taken in your novel? What else influenced the novel’s form?
Conversation is the majority of language around us all the time. So it’s a little surprising to me that more people don’t write books in dialogue. I mean, that’s the language we know best. It’s not like we walk around narrating our lives, like novels. We talk and hear other people talking, and that’s the work that words are doing for us in our lives.
One of the qualities I admire so much about your poems is how they will introduce a seemingly familiar situation or term which will then be used in a way that is totally unfamiliar to the reader. You have a bird calling association that turns sublimely murderous, a kid who dislikes cats who then pulls a dead one from his backpack, and so on. In your poem that we published, “There Go Gordon’s Goats,” we are maybe expecting from the title that we’ll be taking a look at British labor party politics, but instead it seems there are literal goats, and a missing son. What drives you to make these sort of strange, but pleasurable, misdirections?
I think all poets, in different ways, are seeking surprise. There are infinite ways to get there. My way, well, yeah—it’s telling that you use the words “strange” and “murderous.” I don’t set out to write dark poems and I don’t consider myself a morbid person. But a certain level of danger does seem to be a feature of the climate where my imagination is able to live.
Given that you’re from Arkansas, I was hoping we could start with you talking a bit about the setting of “Animals is Family” and any personal connection you might have to it. What drew you to return to Arkansas for this story?
The truth is that the most outlandish parts of this story really happened. I went to a bar named T-Bo’s in Camden, Arkansas, with my new stepbrother, who’d recently gotten out of the Army. There was in fact a female mountain lion loose in the bar.
Kelly Luce and russell podgorsek
“Two of Swords Counterpoint” is unusual in that it is accompanied by a musical arrangement. Could you talk a bit about how this project came to be?
Kelly Luce: Russell Podgorsek, the composer, and I met in Austin a couple years ago when he wrote a piece of music to accompany a flash fiction piece of mine for NANO Fiction's Sehr Flash issue...Russell and I stayed in touch and decided to collaborate again. I'd had the idea for a story about a woman unearthing an unlikely piece of music—a concerto for viola—for a while, but didn't know where to go with it. Russell encouraged me to get dramatic, which helped me loosen up and play around. I have a tendency to be too subtle in early drafts.
One of the striking features of your translations of Nathan Trantraal’s verse is the use of dialect. What is your process for translating not just the meaning, but also the sense and sound of Trantraal’s poetry into English?
This was one of the most interesting aspects of translating this poetry. Nathan writes in the vernacular or “Kaaps” dialect, a variant of Afrikaans spoken almost exclusively on the Cape Peninsula in the Western Cape province of South Africa. He uses phonetic spelling for the most part, and, as there is no official Kaaps dictionary, there are no set “rules” (contrasting with “standard Afrikaans”). My first draft was a “straight” translation using conventional English spelling and grammar. The translation was technically correct, but the meaning and impression the originals conveyed was totally lost.
I find it refreshing that your work deals so explicitly with the personal. In the case of “Google Your Feelings,” you’re quite upfront in your discussion of your own anxiety. Do you find yourself drawing lines between what you’re willing and unwilling to share with readers, or is writing a place for you where nothing is off the table?
Things that are truly off the table are so far off the table I can't even see them, I don't even know what they are. Maybe someday I will. But I often gravitate toward subjects that make me uncomfortable, or that push social boundaries of some kind in writing about them. I've written about mental health a few times—my own anxiety in several pieces, depression and suicide in my hometown in "The Tracks." The hardest part of writing about mental health doesn't have to do with disclosure for me.
You fold in references to medical journals, Oscar Wilde biographies and turn-of-the-century magazines with dexterity, but also recreate entire historical scenes in the present tense. What prompted you to play with tense and chronology in these ways?
The truth is I’m that person. You know, The one who you can’t watch a movie with because she carries on a running commentary about how the actor playing the FBI agent from Mississippi is actually from Glasgow, and that he worked for two years with a speech coach just so he could do the role, and that he is married to so and so, and he was arrested for drunk driving in 2003, and by the way that murderous bear is all CGI... (I’m also famous for reading the entire plot of the movie on Wikipedia and ruining the ending).
You have described The Anatomy of the Battle as your most important novel...could you describe the qualities of the novel that make it so important in the context of your career?
In the initial plan, this novel was only meant to be the story of the last phases of my father’s illness when he died of a tumor in the last year of the last century. But then in the process of writing, the importance of his previous existence and especially of his fascist training became evident, even just in order to understand his behavior during his illness. By studying fascism, which I knew very little about, I understood that many qualities I had attributed to his personality or to chance were actually related to the particular historical era he lived in and to his visceral involvement in the ideology of the Mussolini regime.
The five stories we’ve published in Issue 2 all come from the same collection, Logic and Sensitivity Are Not Incompatible. What was it that originally drew you to translate this collection?
Nao-cola was one of the first Japanese authors I really latched on to, and I've always loved the way she writes, but when I found Logic and Sensitivity Are Not Incompatible I thought, wow. I'd never really read something like that before, where so much of the collection's intensity comes from the unapologetic variety of the stories contained within it. I liked the characters reoccurring in unexpected places, and the narrow path it treads between cohesion and total lack of it, piss-taking and poignancy. It seemed to me like a total madhouse of a book, and I really respected that.
In addition to your work in translation, you’re also a poet and a playwright. How do you see your work in these different fields affecting your writing more generally?
I am a poet and writer who translates. Not the other way around. I translate because I believe literature has the power to bring people of different cultures and languages together. These are dark times and as always, the light of literature and the arts is necessary to brighten our lives and bring us closer to one another. As a bilingual, bicultural poet, I feel it is my duty to do what I can, as effectively as I am able, to re-create our beloved poetry of Iran into English, as poetry.
What made you decide to center a book of essays around Florida?
I grew up in the Tampa Bay Area and have gone through phases of loving and hating my home state. I think, as a writer, it’s good to begin a project in this place of ambiguity, or two extremes of emotion. I noticed that even though I had wanted to leave Florida in my mid-twenties, I would feel defensive when non-Floridians would make jokes about the state being trashy—you know, like the “Florida Man” stories about a guy trying to pay for a beer with a taco, or something, or riding an alligator to the mall. They’re funny stories because they sound so absurd, but what are we really laughing at in them?
You were quoted in Publishers Weekly saying the New York Review Comics imprint is seeking “stuff from everywhere. It’s not going to be just really literary comics.” I wonder if you could talk about that more – do you see an over-emphasis on a certain kind of comic in current American publishing?
Part of what I meant was that we are committed to doing a wider range of stuff than simply long-form narrative comics. Both Lucas [Adams] and I believe strongly that single-panel works, for instance, deserve the same kind of attention, and that our series wouldn’t be complete without them — without the brilliant Glen Baxter, and the absolutely inimitable Abner Dean, and so on.
Your book is a collection of interviews with Las Vegas residents, interspersed with your own reflections on the city and its history. Tell me a little about the interviewing process. Was each interview done in one session or over multiple days? Did you ask questions or just let each person monologue?
Every one of them was completed in one session, some lasting two or three hours and one lasting about six. They came to our house in all but two cases. I led them through it with very simply stated questions. Most of them were photographed on the same day they were interviewed, out on the balcony of our apartment, against a screen. I’d done this various times in the past. My first book, Curious Journey, was an oral history and I did a lot of interviewing of Irish migrants for the novel I Could Read the Sky. . . .
Much of the poetry you write is rooted in a historic moment or event—is that true for your poem “Goodnight” as well? Was there a specific avalanche or did this come from a more general look at miners and the conditions they face?
Though, as you point out, much of my poetry is “rooted in a historic moment” this poem, “Goodnight,” comes from a more general look at miners and their engagement with and knowledge of their environment. It came out of conversations I had with a colleague, Diana Di Stefano, who’s an environmental historian and happens to have written a book on historical avalanches titled Encounters in Avalanche Country. I was fascinated by the way the miners impacted their environment and the ways the result of that impact sometimes impacted them adversely. This poem is, in part, about that relationship.
Something that struck me in the first story in In the Devil’s Territory (and others in Praying Drunk) was how immediately unlikeable the protagonist is, yet also how his voice compels us to continue reading, even as we squirm at how he phrases things, what he objects to, or how he views his family. Is the concept of needing a likeable protagonist a myth?
I don’t ever think about likeability or unlikeability. I think about want, need, desire, grievance, and preoccupation. Sometimes I think that one result is that the stories can become something of a Rorschach inkblot test – different readers respond differently to different narrators, and it might say as much about the reader as it does about the narrator. . . .
Lisa rose bradford
You have been working with Gelman’s poetry for several years. In what ways has translating so much of his work contributed to your development as a translator?
I find his work contagious. When I first read Carta abierta, I thought I was exploring ways to write about grief but ended up so moved by the text that I decided to translate it. The book is loaded with euphony and torture, and I realized I needed to recreate that clash of elements, which took a lot of experimenting and polishing. Another thing that struck me about this book was his neologisms: difficult to render, but a lot of fun in the search for analogous roots, prefixes, suffixes, or compounds. . . .