Longtime readers of this blog may recall that I recorded a song called “Soft Light” a while back. Today, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve teamed up with several extremely talented music producers to release eight new versions of the song! The producers are all students in my colleague Jen Mitlas’s music production course at Montgomery County Community College, and they’ve each come up with a different take on the song. Worth noting: All proceeds from sales of this album will support a scholarship fund for students in the Sound Recording and Music Technology program at Montgomery County Community College.
Tricia Crawford Coscia recently graduated from Bluegrass Writers Studio’s MFA Program and writes mostly while commuting to and from her job with Witness to Innocence, where she supports exonerated death-row survivors in their action and advocacy to end the death penalty. Her first book, The Face You Draw into Your Skin is Not Your Own was published in fall, 2019 by Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared in A & U: America’s AIDS Magazine, Connecticut River Review, Many Colored Brooms, Parting Gifts (March Street Press), the anthology 50/50: Poems & Translations by Women Over 50 (Quills Edge Press), Peregrine Journal, and The Chaffin Journal. Tricia was a finalist for the Disquiet International Literary Prize in Poetry in 2019, runner-up for Bucks County, PA Poet Laureate in 2017 and 2019. Tricia lives in Morrisville, PA with her husband Joe, their children and a menagerie.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the publication of The Face You Draw into Your Skin is Not Your Own. I thought many of the poems were really wonderful. I’m always interested in hearing about a book—especially a first book’s—journey. How did you end up working with Finishing Line?
Tricia Crawford Coscia: The book emerged from my MFA thesis, and would not have gelled without the nurturing, influence and wise critique of teachers and fellow poets in the Bluegrass Writers Studio, a low residency program at Eastern Kentucky University. While the poems are not physically set in Kentucky, the collection was seeded there, fed and watered by a community of writers connected to land, loss, recovery and humanity. Kentucky seemed like an apropos home for the book, and the work felt compatible with some of Finishing Line’s other titles.
More practically, Finishing Line has a free reading period in November, and submission fees for a full manuscript were not in my budget. (Side note: I do not begrudge small presses charging submission fees, they need them to survive and they provide an important venue for work, poetry that may not otherwise get out in the world.)
CS: I first knew you as a visual artist. Were you also writing poetry at that time? Or was there an evolution from your visual work to writing poetry? If so, can you tell us about that? Do you see any ways in which the two art forms are related? In terms of sitting down and doing the work, how are the two processes alike? How are they different?
TCC:I always loved writing, and even more so, reading, and at the same time visual art influences in my life were strong. When I was young, before art school, I had ample access to museums and art materials. My mother, sister and brother-in-law were artists, and I understood art as an occupation. It was an exciting time for visual art, very tangible to me. I think I am a kinetic learner, so I loved, and still do, the tactile and physical creation of imagery—hands in clay, moving a brush through thick paint, knotted string, even the sting of photo chemicals in the darkroom. It fascinates me that all people draw, just naturally, even if only with a stick in dirt. I wonder if all people write, even if in secret.
I gravitated toward art that incorporates language – Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, the brief utterances in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings. For my own work, I might have been intimidated by language. I could express myself in images more abstractly; stay inside a sort of protective cloud. There were things I wanted to remain hidden inside me. Over time, I wrote in scraps here and there, but never thought of it as poetry to be shared.
My day jobs involved supporting artists and helping other people access means to create. There wasn’t a lot of space for my own work—that is not a regret, just a fact. I think the first real poems grew out of starting a family- trying to find metaphor for the terror, ache and ecstasy of fierce love, being responsible for bringing other beings into the world and helping them navigate it. With four children, maybe I just needed something portable, that I can do in my head, jot down in the margin of a work document or speak a quick phrase into my phone now and then. The poetry has stayed—in the recesses of my brain, in how I think. There’s more there than I could ever write down. A lot of it gets forgotten.
When I sit down to capture a poem, it is not much different than working with paint or clay. There will be a line, an image or an idea, and I start with it and let the rest emerge. At times I already have much of it in my head before I write. As I write I feel it, and I have to let myself explore that. I still hide behind imagery. Metaphor can be great armor. Then there’s the crafting of it- once I understand what it is becoming, I get more technical- sound, line breaks, getting rid of the unnecessary. When I painted, I found it hard to know when a painting was finished. It’s like that with poems, as well. I once went through a manuscript with a teacher and took out almost all the end lines – because the poems had already ended. Some of those end lines became titles, because they really were just naming what I had already said.
CS: There’s a strong sense of narrative in these pieces—in fact, I felt like many read like short stories. Do you agree with this? When creating your poems, do you find yourself drawn to narrative and other elements we most readily identify with fiction?
TCC: I do agree that there is a strong sense of narrative, and many of the poems derive from specific events or stories, or elements within stories. I often work from a moment or an image that is part of a larger story, although maybe not enough to be a short story in itself without expansion. I am interested in the details and the underpinnings—they are not literal; often the pronouns refer to a collective “you”, for example, rather than one identified person. This collection has several narrative threads- different poems connect to a larger narrative, although not in the way of a specific story trajectory. There is a thread of personal loss, the loss of specific people; a thread of communal loss such as through war, racism and privileged disconnection; and a smaller thread of hope and recovery through resilience of the human spirit and natural world.
CS: I’m always fascinated by structure and form—and after reading your collection, I’m guessing you are as well. Can you talk a little about this—how you determine which forms work best for a certain piece—and what form and structure can, if used wisely, bring to a poem?
TCC: A lot of the choice of form is kinetic- what feels like the right way for these particular words to move for the reader, or for the reader to move through the poem. Sometimes that requires steady, even, consistent couplets and at other times white space and indentation to create disruption, a forced halting or breath. I’ve learned to always read the poems out loud and that helps me to determine the form. I usually try a poem in a number of different forms before I arrive at the final version, relying a lot on instinct as to what feels right.
Sometimes that means making order out of something vague or chaotic, as in “She Imagines Herself Breathing”. I allowed the form to twist and shift a bit in “The Soft Spot” in the way of the malleability of memory. “Rules of Engagement for Combat Robots” gives weight to the left-justified commands, the imperatives that begin each stanza. Then indenting the subsequent lines allows a pause, a slowing down for the thoughts that follow. “Secret Weapons” takes a more literal visual form. It is a poem about (in short) young adult women choosing IUDs for birth control out of fear for their rights after the 2016 election. Playing with the form, I centered it, not something I’d usually do. The stanzas formed feminine shapes like hips or uteruses, but it was when I noticed they also looked like shields that I decided to go with it- it felt like it gave the words some power, like amulets.
CS: Then there’s a larger question of structure. The book is broken into twelve sections. Can you share how this came to you? Was this part of the plan from the start—or did it arise later as you were putting the book together? What was your goal in utilizing this kind of framework?
TCC: The book went through many iterations of structure, including a more chronological version and a thematically ordered version. Young Smith, my thesis mentor and poetry professor (and a wonderful poet) helped me see the threads, and then benefit of stretching out and interweaving them rather than compartmentalizing. There is an obscure narrative in the text of the section breaks, which was originally a longer, narrative poem. In grappling with that I realized it had a trajectory that connected with the larger collection and decided to break it up in that way to help tie the poems together and create a larger narrative thread. It was written about the loss of a specific friend, but the central feeling applies to the loss of others. Through that, I was able to coalesce the different people addressed as “you” into a kind of collective “you” of lost ones.
CS: There’s a lot of the natural world in these pieces. Can I assume you take inspiration there? If so, can you explore/explain?
TCC: Growing up, at first, we were close to the ocean, then we moved a few times, but my mother always made sure we were adjacent to woods. I am one of eight siblings, so solitude was rare, but I could always wander off in the woods. In a big family it is easy to go unnoticed for a while. A lot of my childhood memories are of the natural world—things on the ground, leaves, sticks and shells, paths through the woods, tumbling in the breakers. I learned to swim in the Long Island Sound, rather than a chlorinated pool. I’ve had the privilege of access to mountains, streams and oceans, and a fearless mother who held snakes and fed raccoons by hand off our back porch. Spiders were rescued in cups and put outside. My father had a terrible fear of dogs but could imitate bird calls and would converse with them. We always understood that we are part of, not apart from, the natural world, so I guess it is inseparable from my work. At the same time, I’ve watched familiar landscapes eroded by suburban encroachment, wider highways and ridiculously large houses. I think a lot about all the little things underfoot – like the tiny frogs in the Poconos you can’t avoid, honeybees in the clover (there used to be so many more of them).
CS: What’s next?
TCC: The previous question is an appropriate segue for this one, as the current collection I’m working on is rooted in the natural world, especially in the current threat we face in climate change and its intersections with social injustice. The work takes form in both poetry and prose and is kind of pre and post-apocalyptic, written from several perspectives – a reminiscing “me”, a present me, and a great grandmother me. It deals with the direct, detailed human impact on specific places and ecosystems, survival (not always human) and resilience.
Part of the process for the new collection is a running conversation in imagery and text between my husband and I. Joe is a photographer and he documents the landscape along the Northeast Corridor train line, an eco-system I became familiar with as a child traveling between Long Island and the Philadelphia suburbs. He sends photos on his way to NY while I am commuting to Philadelphia and I respond to an image with poetry in the form of texts. The photos, (great on their own), for me spark memories of that same landscape from earlier times, awareness that much of the New Jersey coastline and long Island will likely be going under. (For a look at the photos that have inspired some of my work, check out his Instagram @joseph.coscia)
Poems in The Face You Draw into Your Skin is Not Your Own that grew from this conversation and are precursors to the new work are Branches in the Swamp/Roots in the Sky, The Clay will be Our Salvation, Ignore the Expiration Date. It is very much a work in progress, but the environment, seas and different species seem to be developing as characters in themselves. Tucked within poems are “recipes” from the natural world, for surviving things like floods and Neo-Nazi invasions. It has taken me to some strange places, listing everyday objects that can be weapons, perusing survivalist websites, understanding the effects of poisonous and medicinal herbs. I think a lot of what came out in The Face You Draw into Your Skin is Not Your Own has liberated me for this next adventure.
States of Wonder, the latest ambient music EP from Android Invasion, explores the tension between nature and technology, striking as it does so a precarious balance between organic and electronic sounds. The key track to listen to as far as this balance is concerned is “Mysteries of Spring,” though “Chemical Plants” offers a creepy, gooey, post-apocalyptic Blade Runner vibe, suggesting that technology may be getting the upper-hand in all of it. Also noteworthy is the guitar line in the EP’s fourth and final track, “A Matter of Little Urgency,” which calls to mind mid- to late-60s surf instrumentals. Best of all, the EP is free to download: https://www.hungryhourmusic.com/statesofwonder
In a word, Tim Cundle’s Compression is gritty. The novel follows quasi rock-star Michael Flanagan as he returns to the seaside town of his youth for a class reunion. Complicating matters is the fact that he, band-mate Elliot Kurtz, and a handful of other friends witnessed and participated in the cover-up of a killing ten years earlier. Haunted by his crime, Flanagan has spent years on the road evading his ghosts in a haze of music, drugs, and pornography. As a result, he’s never quite grown up. As such, Compression is as much a late-bloomer coming-of-age novel as it is a crime novel, and the narrative is all the richer for it. Though an act of manslaughter haunts the proceedings, it’s learning to confront his past and embrace life in the here-and-now that gives Flanagan’s story it’s heft and arc.
What gives the novel added depth and texture is Cundle’s skill at describing the ins and outs (mostly outs) of Flanagan’s rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Throughout, the protagonist weighs his own real-life experiences against the myths, images, and expectations fans associate with their hedonistic heroes. Despite rumors to the contrary, he’s a lonely guy whose life consists largely of long stretches of time spent in planes and hotel rooms. Any pretense of glamor has long since departed from his life. That he fancies himself a punk only adds to his existential dilemma. Among his greatest fears is that his anti-corporate attitude is all bark and no bite — in essence, that he’s a fake.
But the novel itself is certainly not a fake. Cundle clearly knows his stuff, particularly with respect to music. Part of the fun is picking up on the hidden and not-so-hidden references to music of the 80s and 90s that punctuate the novel. Is the observation that God’s got a sick sense of humor a nod to Depeche Mode? The reference to someone being touched by the hand of God a reference to New Order? The name-checking of Darby Crash a reference to… well, the late Darby Crash of the Germs? (Okay, so that last one was a little more obvious.) Even the conceit of the novel — a rocker returning home for a high-school reunion — itself feels like a page out of Janis Joplin’s tortured life.
All told, Compression is a gritty, smart, and surprisingly sensitive tale that spans the divide between crime and coming-of-age novels and, in so doing, underscores the universal necessity of coming clean — if only to oneself.
Review by Marc Schuster.
J. C. Todd is author of The Damages of Morning (Moonstone Press), a 2019 Eric Hoffer Award finalist, and What Space This Body (Wind), the chapbooks Nightshade and Entering Pisces (Pine Press) and the collaborative artist books, FUBAR and On Foot / By Hand (Lucia Press). Her poem “Frida” appears in the artist book Mother Monument exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in DC. Her poems are widely published in such journals as the American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Paris Review, THRUSH, and Virginia Quarterly Review, and anthologized, most recently in Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California and A Constellation of Kisses. Honors include the Rita Dove Poetry Prize and fellowships from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. She serves as a poet with the Dodge Poetry Program and has been a member of the creative writing faculty of Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Program at Rosemont College.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on The Damages of Morning. There’s a lot of history in these pieces. Have you always had a thing for history, especially this particular, horrible time? If so, what attracts you to it?
J.C. Todd: Thank you, Curtis, for all these questions that go directly to the core of the poems. They’ve sent me back to the origins of this long project in the seeds of poems from travel journals dated eighteen years ago.
I’ve always had a thing for people and their stories. Where they come from, how they got to where they are. The stories that underlie this book led me to historical and cultural museums and documents, to diaries, recollections, histories and fiction and poems and visual art that reveal life during the twentieth century wars in Europe. Many of the poems in this chapbook include bits of stories I’ve heard or read and snatches of visual memory from travels to Central and Eastern Europe
CS: Was the idea for a book dedicated to this time and these themes part of the plan from the beginning, or did you find yourself with a few poems and then discovering a current you wanted to follow? If that’s the case, when did the notion hit?
J.C.T.: I write poems. When recurrent images, themes, or tonalities draw together in a critical mass, I begin to wonder what argument they are making, what dilemma or bewilderment they are investigating, what they are searching for. I have in the back of my mind Denise Levertov’s observation that after gathering poems into her first book, she decided she would no longer write poems but instead write books of poems. I wish I could do that, but my interest and pleasure is in the close work of drafting the poem.
You ask what triggered the impulse toward The Damages of Morning. In 2001, I was invited to Lithuania to be part of Poesijos Pavasaris , the Spring Poetry Festival. That year happened to be the tenth anniversary of the nation’s independence from the Soviet Union. There were readings in Vilnius, the capital, and Kaunas, a major literary center, and then the poets and translators traveled around the country in vans to give readings in former Soviet factory towns, libraries and schools in villages, university courtyards, small cities like Elektrenai. Late one afternoon, leaving the concrete apartment blocks of Elektrenai, we were almost immediately in the countryside—birch and evergreen woodlands interrupted by small farms. At dusk we passed a farmer, yoked to a plow like a beast of burden, cutting a furrow. At the back edge of the field, a thin cow stood by a tilting shed. This glimpse burned into my mind, into my imagination. Although I didn’t realize it until a decade later, it was the image that ignited the poem, “Country Living.” And there was another, equally powerful trigger–the scent of an armful of lilacs given by a trio of women–grandmother, mother, daughter, who had come to a reading in an old Soviet community hall. That aroma led to “Bud.” When I wrote these poems, I didn’t have the sense of a book or a chapbook, but only of writing into a moment.
CS: We’re taken into the horrible tides of war—the confluence of the personal and the innocent against the conflagrations that consume us, a kind of communal madness our kind can’t seem to escape. What drew you to this perspective, especially to the role of the children and other noncombatants?
J.C.T.: Children and ordinary citizens don’t choose war, but in order to stay alive they have to battle the ravages of war. It’s their stories that I’m drawn to. The poems in Damages focus on Central and Eastern Europe during and after World War II. That’s the war I was born into, safe in Brooklyn, NY, but I didn’t realize how war was embedded in me until I traveled to Lithuania and later to Latvia. Since then, I’ve come to believe that throughout our lives, each of us carries the war she/he is born into, spreading its seeds into our own times. Thus the perpetuation of an imagination for war and violence instead of an imagination for peace. During the protests of the sixties, I sang along with Pete Seeger’s “I ain’t gonna study war no more.” Now I think that studying war–how it’s rooted in me and in all of us– is a way to resist the conditions that lead to it.
Poetry has taken me to the Baltics and Germany a number of times. Being in the Baltics, especially, with its vivid reminders of war-time butchery–walls pocked with sprays of bullet holes, the museum of the KGB in Vilnius, the forest at Panerai, which has grown up over the mass graves of tens of thousands of Jews and righteous Gentiles and resisters, being there and hearing the stories brought the lives of the people into me so deeply that I had to share them. The epigraph of the book makes this clear. It’s from Rebecca Seiferle’s translation of Cesar Vallejo’s poem #43 from Trilce: “what escapes into you, don’t hide it. . . .” How do we learn about ordinary people? Through family and neighborhood stories. In this way I have become their family by telling their stories in persona poems and close third-person poems. I wanted them to live in me and in the reader, so we could feel the courage and horror of their dilemmas and their choices. So I wrote as a young teen filled with innocent longing, surrounded by war, struggling for psychological separation from her mother. A pregnant woman, in a village whose gardens and fields have been firebombed, figuring out how to feed herself in order to feed her unborn child. A farmer, who must preserve his starving cow for milk, hooking himself to the plow. And to illuminate the heroism of survivors by counterpoint, two voices are those of their military oppressors, including Josef Mengele. That was a scary point of view, becoming transpersonal with his malign mind.
CS: There is another tide here—the importance of memory—and not in a passive way but as an active pursuit—the responsibility for all of us, the survivors, to remember. Was this theme also in your mind from the start—or did you find it arising as you ventured deeper into the project?
J.C.T.: No one dies in these poems; they live on as survivors rather than as generic victims, as the millions who died. That’s how I want them to be remembered. As I assembled the poems into a chapbook, I thought about how memory becomes a means of transmission from generation to generation, not only through stories but also through cellular and genetic memory and inherited trauma. To answer your question, memory is important to me and so it is woven into the content of many of the poems. As I revised and sequenced the poems into a chapbook, I worked more consciously with the theme of memory, brought it more to the surface.
Aren’t memory and desire at the root of the stories we tell ourselves? Don’t these stories teach us who we are? So maybe the responsibility is to learn the whole story. The story America tells about World War II is a story of heroes. American troops liberated concentration camps; American aid protected the Netherlands from starvation. In the Baltics, I discovered the shadow stories of civilians hanging on to life through bombings and battles and blockades, stories preserved and retold in song, film, photography and family anecdotes. Had my great-grandparents not immigrated from Germany, these could have been my family stories; I might have been born in the midst of the war and grown up in a Displaced Persons camp. So, yes, I did feel a responsibility to listen to the stories and transform them into poems. While the poems are threaded with dire moments, there are brief glimmers of hope–a bulb, a bud, a broth, a box woven from twigs and roots, all of them gathered from tales told by the children and grandchildren of survivors. That’s also part of the responsibility of witness: to affirm that life continues.
CS: I was drawn to the structure of your pieces—they’re so compact and hard-hitting. Can you address the role of structure in your work—how you decide what’s right for a piece?
J.C.T.: The shapes and sonic structures of the poems in The Damages of Morning rose from the voices of the speakers; they reveal character. The almost-bitten-off phrases of a girl on the verge of running away from home. The non-stop litany of things to do of a woman making a family meal from a single spring hare. The syllabically measured voice of a military commander. I think of the poetic line as a visual measure, an emotional measure, an aural measure, an informational measure. Like a many-layered sound byte, it has to be complete unto itself, even as it flows from the line that precedes it and into the one that follows.
There’s a deep pleasure in the discoveries that a structure forces. Sometimes, form is a distraction from the terror of the subject; for instance when drafting and redrafting the poem in Mengele’s voice, I was unnerved that I could even have these thoughts. Form became a personal shield against his misanthropy: I put him in a 7-11: lines of eleven syllables grouped into stanzas of 7 lines. The joke of it kept me writing and kept his voice fresh.
On a deeper level, the essence of these poems and their work is to bring the suffering of the past into the present, to universalize it by making it palpable. I need form as a container and restraint to funnel my own bewildered suffering into the kind of witness that humanizes historical facts and reportage by turning them into story-song. Isn’t the work of poetry, of all art, to transform action and emotion and thought into essence? Aristotle used the ancient Greek term enérgeia, described by British poet Alice Oswald as “something like ‘bright, unbearable reality.’” In the dynamic of “bright” butting up against “unbearable” the energy of the poem is sparked. That’s a joyful moment, fleeting, but real and alive with hope.
CS: What’s next?
J.C.T.: More survivors’ stories. I can’t shake their grip. A new manuscript that’s circulating, titled “Beyond Repair,” follows survivors of wars in the Middle East. Its scope includes civilians, most of them Iraqi and Syrian, and combatants, most of them American. One section of poems, a hybrid sequence of flash-fiction sonnets, are interior monologues of a female Air Force officer, a physician, responding to the daily stresses of her life on a U. S. Air Force Base near Baghdad. She is not a traditional stateside soldier’s wife or a Penelope resisting suitors while her man is off fighting. Instead, the sequence counters the valorization of warrior-hero with the figure of a woman, like Whitman’s wound dresser, working to save lives in the midst of persistent death. Inspired by my daughter-in-law’s tour of duty in Iraq, I read military blogs of personnel stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan to understand the day-to-day lives of the troops and how war zone traumas persisted when they returned home.
I’m also writing poems centered on the life and work of the German Expressionist artist, Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), best known for her prints and drawings on the effects of war and oppression on workers’ lives. This is my first fling with intentionally writing a book of poems, although it began with a single poem responding to her etching, Die Pflüger (The Ploughman), whose subject is a pair of boys yoked to a plow. Another man & plow! Sometimes I wonder if a genetic memory of trauma inherited from my German ancestors is guiding me.
Charles Holdefer, author of Dick Cheney in Shorts and George Saunders’ Pastoralia: Bookmarked, is an American writer currently based in Brussels, Belgium. His new novel Bring Me the Head of Mr. Boots will be released in the fall by Sagging Meniscus. His fiction has appeared in many magazines, including The New England Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, North American Review, Los Angeles Review and Slice. His story “The Raptor” won a Pushcart Prize. More information is available at www.charlesholdefer.com.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Bring Me the Head of Mr. Boots! I really enjoyed it. This past summer, you put out another magic-themed book, Magic Even You Can Do, by Blast. Mr. Boots isn’t an extension of that earlier offering, but it does continue the exploration/utilization of magic. And it’s not just a gimmick—I think a reader can tell you have a real fondness for the art. I’m assuming you have some personal experience in the area—can we start with that?
Charles Holdefer: Was I a magic geek, you mean? I’m afraid so. As a kid I chased after people, begging them to take a card. Drove my family crazy. Card manipulation got me interested in gambling and cheats and con artists. A movie like The Sting romanticizes that world but it does a good job of showing how personality comes into the mix. Fooling people involves knowing how they think. From there it’s not such a big leap into storytelling.
CS: So there’s the element of magic here—but you’re also working with some deeper connections. What is it about this subculture that makes it so appealing to the fiction-writer you?
CH: There’s a built-in play on desire, what people want. Even the irritating, cheesy kind of magic—I sure you know what I’m talking about—looks different from inside a performer’s head. And inside is where much of the story resides.
You can prance around in a sparkly suit and pull doves out of your trousers. How many people really want to see that? Not many. But that’s not the real story. What if you need to prance around in a sparkly suit? It’s very important to your sanity and well-being. What’s that all about? Why?
My main character isn’t that kind of performer but he’s driven to lengths that most people would avoid.
CS: I’m a long-time fan of your work—and it seems there’s been a trend toward more humorous treatments in your last three books (even though we see Erich, Mr. Boots’ main character, through some not-so-funny travails). Do you agree with this observation? If so, why the turn toward the humorous? Is it a reaction to our times? Or is it something you’re finding in yourself at this stage of your life/career?
CH: More humor—I suppose that’s true. My novel The Contractor was a lot different in tone, in overt seriousness. In some ways it’s still my favorite book. It also pissed off some people. But lately I’m not feeling more jocular. Maybe I’m just trying to cheer myself up in not-so-cheerful times.
CS: Humor isn’t a monolith—and there are many different kinds of laughs—the folks and situations we identify with and the others that make us cringe. What kind of situation to you find yourself more drawn to? What is it about it that attracts you?
CH: That’s hard to explain. Laughter is anarchic, like sex. If I pretended to be able to explain it, I’d mess it up. I like both empathetic and cringe humor. Some of my work is satire for political purposes but laughter doesn’t really have an agenda. How it gets coded comes afterward, in context. But this much I do know: it’s no respecter of rules. For that much at least, there’s a parallel with magic. Gravity, schmavity.
Another way of looking at it is like this: humor isn’t something a writer invents. I’d actually like to debunk that notion. Of course, in a technical sense, you have to get it down on paper, draft it, shape it—that’s a lot of work—but humor, even outrageous humor, is simply out there in the mix of human relations, a fact of nature like a powerful river. If you want, you can jump on it and go white-water rafting.
CS: Let’s talk about structure and form a bit. I’m a big fan of the short novel—and Mr. Boots fits that description. Did you have this size in mind when you started—or did it just work out that way? What do you consider the strengths (and weakness) of this smaller novel?
CH: Yes, it’s a skinny book! I have great admiration for writers who can pull off a 600 page, multi-generational saga with a huge cast of characters. Hats off to them. That said, if they don’t pull it off, you’re left with a lot of dutiful sociology, which bores me.
For Mr. Boots, I didn’t start with a particular size in mind. I knew the triggering incident that got the hero in trouble. And I had a mental image of his family, his struggle to move on after a failed marriage. That was something I wanted to explore and get right. Politics or cultural questions are not dwelled on, though they’re never far from the surface. What a short novel lacks in terms of a “big picture” is compensated for, I hope, in the pleasures of focus and pace.
CS: And another structural question—the chapters are also very short, which helps the book move along at a nice clip. I enjoyed the fact that the chapters were also given titles, which—for me at least—gave it a kind a vaudevillian vibe. What were your thoughts behind titling your chapters?
CH: I’m fond of vinyl albums where all the songs come in at two minutes, 30 seconds, or three minutes, tops. Keep it punchy. No time for noodling or extended solos. If you land enough punches, there’s a cumulative effect. By the end it’s not a collection of singles, but a larger experience, a whole emerging from the pieces.
CS: What’s next?
CH: Trying to finish up a little book of political shorts that came out in literary magazines. These will be flash bedtime stories for adults. Is that a genre? Also, working on a plump novel.
Nathan Leslie recently won the 2019 Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize for fiction for his book Hurry Up and Relax, which will be published on Oct. 15, 2019. Leslie’s nine previous books of fiction include Three Men, Root and Shoot, Sibs, and The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice. He is also the author of a collection of poems, Night Sweat. Nathan is currently the series editor for Best Small Fictions, the founder and organizer of the Reston Reading Series in Reston, Virginia, and the publisher and editor of the new online journal Maryland Literary Review. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, Julie.
Curtis Smith: First of all, congratulations on winning the 2019 Fiction Award from The Washington Writers’ Publishing House. Winning a contest is great—but I know a lot of writers struggle with the question of whether or not to pay a fee and submit to contests. What’s your experience been? What advice would you offer younger writers who are considering a book-length contest?
Nathan Leslie: Curtis, thank you so much for the opportunity to chat with you. It is a high honor. Great first question–as a writer who is also an editor I think a lot about the logistical side of submitting. I do try to enter maybe five to ten contests a year. The expenses obviously add up and the likelihood of winning is small, but for the book-length contests it is worth the risk and investment, in my view. The reason for this that it is difficult these days to find an open reading period and for $25 to $30 I can provide some small support to a press and get a fair read. That said, I try to be picky regarding which contests to enter. I certainly avoid entering just to enter and I try to find a press I admire and one with which I feel as if I have a fighting chance. This was the case with WWPH. Though I had failed to win the contest several (many) times before, I received positive feedback regarding my last contest entry a few years ago and felt as if I had a decent chance. Essentially, I got lucky. But all it takes is one stroke of luck. I mean, I can accept rejection on 99 manuscript submissions as long as I receive a YES on 1. As for individual short story or poem contests, I usually stay away. It’s a personal preference perhaps. Certainly being published by a top tier magazine, for instance, would be wonderful, but the odds are stacked against any one individual work and I simply suspect that more writers enter these contests, making the likelihood of acceptance that much slimmer. Of course, entering contests is also a way of supporting presses and literary magazines–which is another reason to enter a few. As a sidebar, I’m personally, however, not a supporter of paying $3 for a Submittable fee for more for a regular submission to a literary magazine. I do it on a rare occasion, but mostly I find it to be an annoying practice. It’s one thing to establish a prize and charge a fee where the winner of the prize receives publication and prize money. It’s another thing entirely to charge a reading fee. Reading fees used to be frowned upon in a big way but now many have come to accept them as the new paradigm. I generally find the claim that one would pay $3 to the USPS anyway for a print submission to be a specious argument. Why? 1. For years authors were able to submit via e-mail for free via e-mail. And 2. Paying $3 to send a submission via snail mail is not sending the money directly to the magazine and/or a corporate entity (Submittable). To me it is clearly unethical that authors should be charged by a literary magazine for regular (non-prize) submissions as a (sneaky) way to fund their magazine, and the many magazines who do this should be ashamed of themselves. It is an unfair burden placed on authors. Ten years ago this practice would have never been accepted, but now it has become normalized as a result of Submittable’s footprint specifically. So it is fair to say that literary submissions have been corporatized. It ain’t right.
CS: You’ve published novels and poetry as well as short fiction. In the sense of approach—the hours you spend at your desk—how do these ventures differ? Is there a unique mindset or set of strategies for each genre? What are the commonalities?
NL: I tend to focus on short fiction and flash fiction, primarily. I just find the short story to be so efficient and inherently elegant. That said, over the last few years I have ventured more and more into short novels and novellas (I have two completed novels I am shopping around, for instance). Novels, for me, take an expanse of uninterrupted time, even if the novel is on the shorter side. I have difficulties writing a novel when I’m teaching, for instance. Too many interruptions to remain “in the flow,” so to speak. For a novel, I need several months in the summer when I can focus solely on my writing. Short stories and flash fiction (and poetry) I can work on at any point during the year. The mindset is completely different because I’m writing several thousand words as opposed to sixty thousand plus. Also, even if the characterization is equally complex, the plotting of a short story tends to be much more streamlined and less intricate and it’s the plot that, for me, takes the most energy and attention. I tend to write flash fiction and short fiction throughout the year, especially revising and tweaking stories that I compose in the summer. So for me there is a seasonal nature to writing. Compose mostly in the summer and then revise and tweak and develop in the fall through spring.
CS: You’re very active in the literary community. You run a reading series and you’ve edited a number of anthologies. I’m sure these things are time consuming—they must take attention away from your writing—but I’m guessing they also come with rewards, both expected and not. Can you talk a bit about these ventures and what you get out of them?
NL: Thank you for noticing. I do have a number of pots on the stove currently and for me what is fun about that is they all kind of feed into one another. Let me start with Best Small Fictions. In the Spring of 2018 Tara Masih asked if I wanted to take the BSF reins and I said heck yes! I had been a fan of the project for several years and it was and is an amazing opportunity. I’m sure I have spent more time on Best Small Fictions in 2019 than any other project, but it is a labor of love and it is just so exciting to have the opportunity to consider and weigh in on the best flash fiction out there. I lost track of how many individual pieces I read for BSF 2019, but I’m sure it was over three thousand thousand in number. Also, for Best Small Fictions 2019 we branched out to include many, many international works. This was not always the case before–previous incarnations of BSF tended to be more American-centric. BSF 2019, on the other hand, is an anthology of world literature. This makes it a tremendously exciting anthology. The thing is BSF is a collaborative effort so I must mention my editorial board members, staff and also specifically my terrific assistant editor Michelle Elvy who stuck by me during some notable changes in publisher and structure, Elena Stiehler the wonderful publisher at Sonder Press, and also Rilla Askew who served as guest editor. In addition to this I also have my own small literary biannual, Maryland Literary Review, which has been a great way to stay active as a fan and reader of contemporary poetry, short fiction and creative nonfiction. I began this project last spring, and though we are new I believe folks have enjoyed what we have published so far. Lastly, I have a monthly reading series Reston Readings, in Reston, Virginia which has been in existence for three plus years now. With all three of these editorial/organization projects, I most appreciate two specific facets. First of all, it is nice to give back to the literary community by giving other writers an opportunity. Without lit mags, small presses and and a decent reading series or three, contemporary literature would dry up. We live in what seems to be an increasingly ignorant age; I view these projects as a kind of buffer perhaps. Secondly, on a selfish note, when I can step back and put on my editor or organizer hat I can also step back and enjoy the words themselves and learn from them. It’s important to find inspiration not only in the world itself and my own self-generated concerns and inspirations, but also in the creations of others. Why? Because on some conscious or subconscious level the creativity of others seeps into my own writing. I am not an island. I find sustenance and inspiration in what others are up to also. This was the case big time with BSF–not only did I have the chance to accept for publication so many authors from all over the world, but I also gained exposure to so many authors whose work I was not familiar with. I learned a ton.
CS: I really enjoyed Hurry Up and Relax. There’s a lot of comedy here—which I admire because comedy is hard to write (for me at least). But it’s not always a comfortable comedy—we have the stress of living too close to one another, the sterile lives of office, tired marriages, simmering frustrations, the imperfect science of making connections. Are there certain comedic elements you look for when mapping out a piece? In the end, what tone do you find your work gravitating toward?
NL: This collection is quite different for me in some regards. Though I have embraced satirical/comedic elements in some of my previous collections and in Tommy Twice, for instance, it was certainly not the main thrust of my writing. For this collection, something shifted. We live in such a surreal world now where, thanks to the internet and social media in part, unheard of events happen all the time. Bizarre attitudes and theories are deployed on a daily basis. Crazy is seemingly the new not-crazy. So it wasn’t exactly difficult to tap into some of this absurdity–I just opened my ears. That’s the scary part: though it seems as if Hurry Up and Relax is satirical (and it is), in many respects it’s actually just a reflection of reality. That said, I have a companion collection of stories that I have been shopping around, also (and which I composed during the same time, over the last few years). This book, A Fly in the Ointment, is primarily gritty-realist in tone and mood. I have room to embrace both approaches to fiction (as well as others). I suppose I am easily bored and if I just do the same thing over and over again, what’s the point? I want to push myself aesthetically.
CS: I admired the dialogue in these stories. I think I noticed that because I labor over my own use of dialogue. Do conversations between your characters flow for you or do you wrestle with it? What standards have you developed for yourself in terms of how your characters speak?
NL: Thank you so much. It is a difficult question to answer with any semblance of absolute clarity. For me dialogue is more intuitive than anything else and rooted in characterization. I do consciously wrangle with dialogue, but I also believe dialogue simply is an expression of character and having a clear sense of who I am writing about. That’s the most important component of dialogue for me. I’m not sure I have any specific standards for the dialogue that I write other than I do want it to sound authentic. That is vital–nothing is worse than canned dialogue where it feels as though the author is telegraphing. Dialogue is notoriously tricky. I guess at the end of the day I would say that is more about feel and nuance and ear than anything else.
CS: Let me ask another craft question. Some of the questions a writer asks of a piece are the basics—should this be first or third person—should it be present or past tense. In this collection, you alternate between these. When do these basic constraints come to you? What elements draw you toward one or the other? Why is it important for a writer to have all these different lenses in their toolbox?
NL: Not every story is the same, of course. Some stories call for first person present, others call for third person attached past. It just depends on what I am trying to achieve. For me it is so important to be able to vary my approach depending on my intent. I probably gravitate a bit more towards first person than any other point of view, just because I like to work within the voice and allow the voice of the character to be up front. However, in my last book–Three Men (2017)–I wrote all three of the novellas in the third person. I just like the variety.
CS: What’s next?
NL: Well, I have a few books of fiction (two novels and two short story collections) that I’m shopping around for possible 2020 or 2021 publication. I am also working on a lot of new flash fiction and short fiction as well as on some prose poems (more prose than poetry–proems?). In addition, I have been writing some satirical pieces in the non-fiction vein recently. I will continue on with Best Small Fictions 2020 (nominations open up later in the fall), Maryland Literary Review and Reston Readings. I think with all of those projects in the mix I should be able to stay out of trouble.