12 Winters Blog

Interview with Grant Tracey: A Fourth Face

Posted in July 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 11, 2018

As a publisher, one of your hopes when working with an author is to facilitate their creative productivity — to not only bring out their completed work but to also establish a relationship that nurtures their imagination and their ambition. When I met Grant Tracey in 2015, over coffee in his hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa, he confided some frustration. He hadn’t published a book since 2009, a collection of short fiction, and he had plenty of material for a new book, but he’d come home from the most recent AWP Conference feeling overwhelmed and downtrodden. Various sessions he’d attended had implored authors to be cyber-beings, with websites and Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and in general to embrace all sorts of newfangled media.

 

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Grant, however, wasn’t interested in any of that. He was a storyteller, and he wanted to focus on his craft, not get bogged down in the world of the Net. I only knew Grant by reputation, as the longstanding fiction editor of the venerable North American Review, the longest continuously published literary journal in the country (in fact, my wife and I were in town for the magazine’s bicentennial celebration conference). I definitely wanted Grant and his work to be part of Twelve Winters Press, regardless of whether or not he had any interest in being a cyber warrior. Certainly, a vigorous Web presence can only help sales, but what matters to me most is the quality of the writing — and the quality of Grant’s writing wasn’t in question at all.

I went away from that conversation with a handshake agreement to bring out a new collection of stories (which evolved into Final Stanzas, released later that year in paperback and e-book, then, a bit later, as a unique audiobook). In the process of working on the project with Grant, I discovered he’d also written a detective novel (his first full-length novel). My curiosity piqued, I asked to see the manuscript, wherein I was introduced to Hayden Fuller, an ex-pro hockey player turned private eye, navigating the mean streets of 1960s Toronto (Grant’s true hometown).

It turned out that detective noir was Grant’s first love as a writer. We published Cheap Amusements, the debut Hayden Fuller Mystery, in 2016, and in the process unleashed a torrent of inspired prose from Grant, complex stories he’d been percolating for years apparently. Twelve Winters has just released the second Hayden Fuller Mystery, A Fourth Face (in hardcover, paperback and Kindle), and Grant has already delivered the third installment of the series, which we plan to bring out next year, while Grant is researching and writing the already outlined fourth book.

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I coaxed Grant into slowing down the composing process long enough to answer a few questions about this newest release, and what follows are his thought-provoking and entertaining responses. (See also my interviews with Grant about Cheap Amusements and Final Stanzas; in addition, we published Grant’s memoir regarding the impetus of Hayden Fuller in an e-book, Toronto, 1965: Cheap Amusements’ Beat.)

Hayden Fuller is back in A Fourth Face. Trying to avoid any spoilers, what’s your protagonist up to in this new novel?

A former teammate, Bobby Ehle, is suspected of murdering his wife and asks Hayden for his help. Bobby has a history of domestic violence, but Hayden believes in the possibility of his innocence and takes the case. From there the trail takes him into a world of dangerous and experimental psychedelic drugs (the mind altering Red 45), quack doctors with their phony cosmetics and plastic surgeries, and a terrorist organization, N’oublie jamais, bent on destroying Expo 67. Hayden also goes on an inner journey, confronting for the first time, the traumas of his own past. The pace is quick, and the violence accelerates.

The title of the novel is a call back to Cheap Amusements and that novel’s exploration of the “third face,” an idea, first expressed by writer/director Samuel Fuller. He believed that we all have private and public faces, but also a third face, ones that we don’t even know we have until faced with trauma or extreme stress, like Fuller experienced on the battle lines in World War II. The third face is the repressed primordial impulse that we all carry. In A Fourth Face, reporter Stana Younger suggests that it, the fourth side of our complex selves, represses what the third side did, denying its culpability and reality. So if, Bobby, in third-face mode, did murder his wife, the fourth face denies what the third did, saying that the third face is not a part of the “real” Bobby Ehle.

Oh, a couple of footnotes. One: this novel, in part, was inspired by the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, where Terry Lennox asks Philip Marlowe to help him out of a possible “domestic jam.” Marlowe, in the Robert Altman film version, comes to discover that Lennox did kill his wife. Two: the Red 45 subplot is something Mickey Spillane might have concocted for a Mike Hammer thriller. No doubt, Spillane’s later Mike Hammer offering, Survival Zero, was an influence on A Fourth Face. Chandler and Spillane are among my favorite writers of crime noir.

I’m sure in the writing of this new Hayden Fuller Mystery you got to know Hayden even better. What did you learn about him? Was there anything especially surprising that you didn’t know before about your protagonist?

Two things. One, there’s a big reveal in the novel that I don’t want to give away, but that plot turn totally surprised me. Hayden came to me in a dream and told me about what had happened in his past, so I just had to work that into the book. It becomes a big part of the inner journey in Neon Kiss, and I think Hayden’s trauma helps explain the violence of the first book’s ending or “execution.” I didn’t feel that I needed to explain Hayden’s actions in Cheap Amusements, but this novel helps contextualize the debut novel’s final moments.

Second, I had no idea what was going to happen to Hayden’s relationship with Stana Younger (which seemed to be over at the end of Cheap Amusements), but relationships are complicated so I allowed the two characters to surprise me with where they were at, and where they were headed as friends, and as possible rekindled lovers. People, emotions, are complicated and I allowed for that messiness, muddy quality, to grab hold of me.

There’s a sensitivity, vulnerability to Hayden that is a part of me, and I guess as I keep writing him, taking risks, I’m surprised at how much I’m willing to explore and reveal of who he is, and in turn, who I am.

It seems like you’re really in the groove now writing about Hayden. You wrote A Fourth Face pretty quickly, and you’ve already completed a draft of the third Hayden Mystery, with plans for a fourth developing. My sense, then, is that you feel really comfortable with Hayden and the world you’ve created for him. How would you describe your comfort level with the characters and their world, and would you agree that the writing of the novels is coming along fairly easily at this point?

When you first suggested to me that with Cheap Amusements we had a series here and not just a one-off, I have to admit I was both extremely elated but also scared. Did I have it in me to continue to write not just this character but plots full of surprising twists, turns, and deceptions? But once I started writing the second novel (which I drafted in just under 40 days, writing every day) things just flowed and the fear went away. Hayden’s voice was overwhelming, there from the beginning, grabbing a hold of me. It’s me, but not me. Hayden’s a smart-ass, sensitive, and like Holden Caulfield, has little patience with phonies. The voice is a good fit with my sensibilities.

My writing style, for this series, is full of allusions. For example, Top Cop Sal Lambertino now wears suits instead of policeman blues, and Hayden describes his outfit as “Sloan Wilson grays,” a reference to a great novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. That’s part of Hayden’s voice, as is the short-jabs of sentences, the quirky one-liners, and the eyes tuned to psychological subtexts.

Stana Younger is also evolving into a character I really like. She’s tough, pragmatic, and fighting to make her way in the male-dominated field of reporting. After the first novel, she may have struck some readers as a femme-fatale, but such labels are too limiting. She’s a complex person who has made some bad decisions in the past, but she’s decent, caring, and committed to empowering the underdogs and outliers. She is also a great resource, with her police connections and fact-finding skills, providing Hayden with much needed information on each case. Sal is the no-nonsense, best friend, the state-sanctioned authority figure, a top cop. And the nattily-attired gangster Babe Migano also helps out Hayden, when it serves his interests. He is an underworld figure who straddles the line between genuine charm and menace. Migano is a cross between 1960s Rod Steiger and Jackie Gleason. If you can imagine that.

Do you feel Hayden is evolving organically, or are you having to coax his character along from time to time?

I never have to coax him. He always surprises me. I’m an impulse writer, comfortable with uncertainty, never knowing what will turn up next. But I trust in the process, my instincts, choices the characters make, that the journey we take will be a meaningful one. I begin with a plot outline and of course the big so what: who killed whom and why, but once the writing begins subplots emerge, side characters elbow their way on stage, and the novel takes me on a series of detours and highways I hadn’t expected to travel. The original plot outline changes dramatically.

I do know that I want each book to have a “hey wow” finish (like Dr. No’s island blowing up at the end of a Bond film), but I don’t pre-plan the shock ending. Somewhere on the journey, maybe three-fourths through, I see it and write toward it. Spillane, by contrast, often began his novels with the shock ending and then worked his way to find how to get there.

The goal is to entertain readers with a thriller, a good whodunit, but also to give them a lead character who is real and not just solving a crime but discovering in the process of detection who he is. The inner and outer stories.

On the one hand, you know a lot about Hayden and his world from your own experiences and interests—hockey, Toronto, the 1960s, etc.—but I’m sure some research or fact-checking is needed from time to time. Can you talk about how much research has gone into the writing of the books so far?

Crime books. As I mentioned before, I read the old masters: McBain, Chandler, Spillane, Thompson. I also admire John D. Macdonald, Richard Stark, Benjamin Black, and Max Allan Collins. Together they help inform, not so much an aesthetic, but a back drop of possibilities, contexts for my own writing in terms of plotting choices.

Movies. My fashion sense grows out of 60s fare: Honey West, The Green Hornet, Route 66, and Naked City. And any film with Paul Newman. Coolest cat ever.

Hockey books about the original six era. For A Fourth Face I read and re-read Roch Carrier’s Our Life with the Rocket; Benoît Malançon’s The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard; and Jean Béliveau’s My Life in Hockey to contextualize 1955’s “The Richard Riot,” which is an important backstory to the N’oublie jamais movement in the novel. I also read Pierre Berton’s 1967 to get a greater appreciation for that year’s Expo in Montreal.

When Cheap Amusements came out in 2016 you were able to give several readings, some in your own backyard and others in Chicago and elsewhere. How did those readings go? How did people respond to Hayden Fuller and the book?

The readings are a lot of fun. I get into it, becoming all the characters, inhabiting their spaces, and I want to give the audience the best performance I have in me that night. I want them to enjoy the energy with which I write.

Fans of mysteries are pretty knowledgeable so when they ask me about influences on my work and I mention writers I admire they know who I’m talking about and they can make those connections. I think one of the things audiences respond to in my books is the comic touches to Hayden’s voice. They like his smart-ass asides, his use of cultural allusions, and his brand of not-so-subtle understatement.

People also like the plotting. They say it’s complex (in a good way) and full of surprising turns.

Moreover, audiences seem to like that Hayden is a former hockey player (at least when I read in hockey towns like Minnesota and Chicago that was the case). That wrinkle gives the book a different flavor. In the 1950s and 60s, William Campbell Gault wrote a series of detective novels featuring Brock (“the Rock”) Callahan, a former lineman for the Los Angeles Rams, who is now a private eye in the City of Angels. My series, in part, is inspired by his earlier series.

In addition to being a writer, editor, teacher (among other things), you’re also an experienced stage actor. How does your acting inform your presentations of Hayden, etc., when you give readings?

The keys to acting are empathy and authenticity. Placing yourself in the spaces inhabited by others and fully understanding, appreciating, without judging, where each character is coming from. Acting is also about keeping it simple and true. Direct, honest. That’s what I try to do in my writing, and that’s what I try to do when I read, inhabit every space. Ron Carlson, in his great book, Ron Carlson Writes a Short Story, says that direct dialogue is a place of genuine freedom; those are the spaces where characters exist outside the modulated voice of the writer. As a writer, when you engage in dialogue, you have to take on each character’s agendas: what they want and what they are willing to do to get it. Or maybe, I should say, you have to allow the characters to take you on surprising journeys. When they speak let them lead. Don’t fit them into a pre-defined agenda. Listen to what they have to tell you. And from there the plot will shift.

I’m also a big fan of the actorly beats. Those are the moment-to-moment choices an actor makes, following the impulses of the dialogue and what’s happening in the scene with his acting partner and within the play’s given circumstances. I’m always aware of beats when I read and let them spin me with surprises.

I also use a lot of beats in my writing. Not just in terms of shifts in dialogue, but I like, as did Ernest Hemingway, using brief descriptors, to create pauses, and thus increase the tension and psychological subtext of each moment. For example, two characters are talking and character A notices character B is chewing on her shirt collar. This is a beat. A pause. And it implies something within the given circumstances of the moment.

Tell us about the Gas Station Pulp Mystery series which you’ve started editing since the last time we talked (about Cheap Amusements).

It’s an imprint series of the North American Review Press that publishes a once-a-year crime novel. I love pulp fiction and the series blends that genre with the inner-directed drive of literary fiction. So I’m seeking character-driven pulp stories, loaded with action but also psychological nuance. Our first book in the series, Black Fin by Mary Frisbee, will be forthcoming soon. I’m currently reading material for our second Gas Station Pulp book.

Neon Kiss is the third Hayden Fuller Mystery (which the Press is planning to get out in 2019). What was your inspiration for the third book?

In the early 1980s I was visiting San Francisco and someone approached me on Geary Street and asked a bunch of questions, trying to figure out my faith (at the time I was an agnostic existentialist). Anyway, I made some disparaging comments about fundamentalists and how I couldn’t get behind their concept of a conditional God: receive my love if you do these things. My idea then was, if there is a God, he loves and accepts all. The fella really dug that comment and said something about how my idea of love fit right in with his church, and the notion of surrendering ourselves over to the way, giving up worldly things, and he invited me to attend a service that afternoon.

I thought about it. The fella had charisma. But, ultimately, I didn’t go. I was a bit freaked out to be honest with you. But I often wondered what would have happened to me if I did go? Would I have wound up in a commune somewhere? I know, I know. I’m sounding a little paranoid here, but a writer has to run with those imagined probabilities. That episode on Geary Street, in part, became the inspiration for the story.

Moreover, I wanted to tell a story about control. How people with dominant personalities and charismatic charm can control those who are less outgoing. At the heart of the novel is an abusive story: one sibling controlled by a megalomaniacal older sibling, who wants to “dismantle the universe,” and thus create his own reality. Twisted relationships of power I find endlessly interesting.

I’m sure at some level Dashiell’s Hammett’s The Dain Curse had a hand in my writing of Neon Kiss as does my fascination/repulsion with cults. John Buell’s The Pyx, in terms of subject matter and structure, was also an inspiration.

When I first drafted the novel, the young runaway woman, at the center of the story, was white. She falls into the cult and becomes the key to Hayden solving the double mystery (what happened to his father and who is behind the cult’s nefarious goings on). However, after visiting and being transformed by my experiences at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in July 2017, I decided to make the young woman Métis. I was really struck with the injustices First Nations Peoples faced at the hands of the Canadian Government.

Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, if a native mom raised a child alone, there could possibly be a knock at her door and that child would be taken out of the biological mother’s home and raised by a white couple. This was so shocking to me (and don’t get me started on residential schools and natives being force to learn white laws and ways) that I was compelled to revise my novel and put a Métis presence at the center of it. Like I said, the visit to the museum was transformative. If you haven’t gone. Do so. I was inspired.

This theme of human rights injustice will be revisited in the fourth Fuller novel, Shot/Reverse-Shot.

And lastly, the novel is a continuation of what happens in A Fourth Face, and here Hayden further explores his troubled relationship with his father. That becomes the novel’s inner journey.

I know you have big plans for the fourth book—you’ve even landed a sabbatical to assist the writing of it. What can you tell us about that Hayden project?

It’s 1966. Hayden is back in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens and he has just won the Stanley Cup. An independent film producer wants to make an indie film, sort of a sappy Canadian Disney thing, and uses several Habs players as extras, filming that year’s Stanley Cup final versus Detroit for footage in his film.

Danny Davis, a minor character in Cheap Amusements will be more prominently featured this time around. Stana Younger, now living with Hayden, and working for a Montreal newspaper will also be strongly featured.

However, back to the main plot line. The indie, hockey producer used to make graphic sexploitation films, stuff in the spirit of the Defilers, and although he’s trying to go all family friendly, his sexploitation chickens come home to roost, and after one of the stars of his film is murdered, a Habs player is blamed for the killing. Hayden, an extra on the film, tries to prove his pal’s innocence.

The journey takes him into a world of sexploitation film-making, First Nations People’s Land rights, and a badass motorcycle club, the Northern Arrows. The title, Shot/Reverse-Shot is double-voiced: a film term, but also indicative of bullets flying.

I’ll be living for four weeks in Montreal, spring 2019, to both write the novel and explore the city and spot locations for the novel’s main lines of action. It’ll be a big challenge for me. I know Toronto really well, but I’ve never been to Montreal before. It has been a long-time dream, going back to my days at Trent University and hearing friends from Montreal (Ivan LeCouvie and Dave Coons), regale me with stories about fountains, bistros, and St. Urbain’s Street. I’m really excited to soak up the culture. If ever so briefly.

But, alas, I’ll always be a Leafs fan.

It would appear Hayden Fuller is taking up just about all your creative writing energy. Is that true, or are you working on some other projects, too?

I’ve started to branch out. At first Hayden was taking up all my time. I was constantly reading other crime novels, detective series, to find inspiration for future Fuller novels.

It takes a lot of energy to write a novel, but the Fuller books have given me the courage to try writing longer works, one-offs, outside the Hayden series. I just finished drafting a stand-alone crime novel, Winsome, sort of modeled on Geoffrey Homes’s Build My Gallows High and William P. McGivern’s Odds Against Tomorrow in which a 36-year-old cab driver, living in Winsome, a small upstate New York town, is confronted with the demons of his past (a prior kidnapping case) and is thus blackmailed into returning to a life of crime (a bank heist). A former radio operator in Korea, Eddie Sands is a good person who has made bad choices. He also suffers from PTSD.

The story is set in 1966, seven years after a 1959 failed kidnapping case in which Eddie’s wife, Karen, double-crossed Eddie and his pal Sy, and led the police to the boy’s location. The child didn’t press charges because Eddie and Karen treated him so well. He claimed only Sy was involved in the kidnapping. Sy, who didn’t treat the kid so well, was captured, and in true gangland code, didn’t rat the other two out. Eddie and Karen have taken on new last names and now live in relative anonymity. She’s a waitress. Together they share a home in a trailer park.

I had my good friend Mitchell D. Strauss read it (he also shoots my author photos for the Hayden Fuller series), and he gave me some really great revision strategies that I’m going to adopt over the next four months. Hopefully by Thanksgiving, I’ll have the new, improved Winsome ready to shop around.

Recently, I’ve also tried my hand at writing short crime stories. “Sun on Prospect Street, 1938” is a 1900-word hit men story inspired by an Edward Hopper painting hanging at the Cincinnati Art Museum. The painting made me think of two people sitting in a car, looking at an empty street, preparing to do what they have to do. It’s a humdinger!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’m just grateful for the opportunity to write what has always been a passion of mine: detective stories. I began writing my first stories in high school, featuring Rick Dragon, Cleveland’s toughest private eye (I’d never been to Cleveland, but the rust-belt town appealed to my love of grime and the smell of dust and dirt). Story titles such as “Accidents Will Happen” (I was a huge Elvis Costello fan back then) and “It All Makes a Lot of Sense” tells you all you need to know. In my MA workshops, I wrote literary fiction and detective stories (as a matter of fact, mobster Babe Migano first appears in a story I wrote way back in the fall of 1984. I think it was called “Find the Girl.”).

However, in workshops, I was often made to feel that detective fiction was less than, that I should be aspiring to write a story worthy of inclusion in an O. Henry Award anthology. My work was taken to be highly stylized and labeled “parody.” What, really? Parody. Come on, now. Raymond Chandler’s not a parodic writer. Neither am I.

We’re both stylized writers, but not parodic. Chandler sought to be the F. Scott Fitzgerald of crime fiction. There are a lot of links between Farewell My Lovely and the Great Gatsby: the yearning for an irretrievable past; a man searching for his lost love; the doomed romanticism of the narrative voice. Anyway, in such a workshop environment, I shoveled my love of crime detection under smoldering leaves, but it was always there, hiding around the edges of my literary stories.

In 2008 the landscape shifted and genre hybridization became more and more apparent in the world of literary publishing, as stories borrowed from speculative camps and you saw a host of literary hyphenates. I’m not a postmodernist writer. I’m a high modernist; however, not to give away any spoilers, I do, at the end of A Fourth Face, deconstruct, or at least, gray up the binaries, of the classic Mickey Spillane ending: Mike Hammer rescuing a badly beaten and tied-up Velda from a gang of communists or degenerates or communist degenerates if you like.

Anyway, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m really writing what I love and I thank you, Ted, and Twelve Winters for allowing me to pursue what got me into writing in the first place. As Sam Spade toasts in The Maltese Falcon: “Success. To crime!”


Grant Tracey is an English professor at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches film and creative writing, and has been the fiction editor of the North American Review for over seventeen years. He has published nearly fifty short stories, four collections of fiction, and articles on Samuel Fuller and James Cagney. His collections are Final Stanzas, Lovers & Strangers, Parallel Lines and the Hockey Universe, and Playing Mac: A Novella in Two Acts, and Other Scenes. In 2016 Grant published his debut crime novel, Cheap Amusements, the first Hayden Fuller Mystery. Thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Grant was the recipient of an Iowa Regents Award for Faculty Excellence in 2013. In addition to his writing, editing and teaching, Grant has acted in over thirty community theater productions. (Author photo by Mitchell D. Strauss)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Interview with Pauline Uchmanowicz: Starfish

Posted in February 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 28, 2016

Since founding Twelve Winters Press in 2012 and beginning to publish in 2013, oftentimes I’ve had to do a fair amount of detective work to find the projects I wanted to bring out. For example, I might read a writer’s work that I like very much in a journal , and their contributor’s note says they have a novel, or story collection, or poetry collection that’s looking for a home–then I go about tracking down the author and trying to get a look at their manuscript. In other instances, wonderful manuscripts have come to me out of the blue, as if handed down by the literary divinities. Such was the case with Starfish, a collection of poems by Pauline Uchmanowicz.

Last June my wife Melissa and I attended the North American Review Bicentennial Conference in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and we had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of Stephen Haven, the director of The Ashland Poetry Press. After the conference, Stephen and I stayed in touch about this or that poetry- or publishing-related issue. In the fall, an email arrived from Stephen with a manuscript attached to it: a collection of poetry by Pauline Uchmanowicz. Stephen admired the collection, but it wasn’t going to fit into Ashland’s publishing schedule, so he was wondering if Twelve Winters may be interested in it.

I, too, was much impressed by the work, and downright moved by many of the poems. I contacted the poet, who directs the undergraduate creative writing program at SUNY New Paltz. It turns out she was at the NAR Conference also, and she had visited Twelve Winters’ table, and picked up The Waxen Poor, a poetry collection by J. D. Schraffenberger, so she was familiar with the Press and with the quality of the work we were producing. Soon we came to an agreement to release her spellbinding collection in print and digital editions.

I asked Twelve Winters’ contributing editor John McCarthy to work with Pauline to finalize the manuscript for publication, and I’m happy to report that Starfish was released last week, available in print, Kindle and Nook editions. It’s become a tradition that I interview our authors about their books, and so what follows are Pauline’s unedited responses to a series of questions I sent her.

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You’ve been published widely, including two chapbooks of poetry, but Starfish is your first full-length collection. Would you discuss the evolution of this project, and its path to publication?

Bill Knott, with whom I studied in the 1980s, liked to boast that Stéphane Mallarmé wrote few poems in his lifetime, and “nearly all of them perfect.” Also during the 80s, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (to paraphrase remarks he made at a public reading) said it surprised him when poets proclaimed to be working on a book: “You don’t hear a painter say, ‘I’m working on a museum installation.’ A painter works on a painting; a poet works on a poem.” (The present-day art and publishing worlds might contest this dictum.) Meanwhile, Virginia Hamilton Adair—though her work appeared widely in top literary journals—published her first volume of poems, Ants on the Mellon, at the age of eighty-four.

So, for the past thirty years, always “working on a poem” until as realized as possible, I was never in a hurry to publish a full-length volume until the time to do so felt right. Now is the time.

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Stephen Haven, director of The Ashland Poetry Press, shared your manuscript with me because he was impressed by it, but budget issues were impacting his wherewithal to bring out new titles. Obviously it’s been challenging for poets to place their work with presses for a long time (forever?), but is your sense that it’s becoming more and more challenging?

Thank you for mentioning Stephen Haven, a wonderful poet to whom I owe sincere gratitude. The fact that he passed my manuscript on to you in part illustrates what follows.

In some ways, because of independent, small-press, online, and self-publishing, it’s easier than ever for poets to place their work—but in many ways much, much harder, due in large part to the proliferation of MFA programs and professionalization of Creative Writing as an academic discipline. Moreover, these days there is so much competition—and among very good writers. At the same time, the poetry world has always been somewhat insular, with established writers helping younger ones break into publishing. Poets continue to need support from the literary community and also must make themselves known within it—whether small-scale or large. For better or for worse, writers today who “network” increase their chances for publication. Of course, many talented writers (and editors) rightly promote others like themselves.

Crucially, the current wave of small presses—perhaps the lifeblood of “print” today—remains vital to keeping publishing possibilities alive, often through contests and awards with submission fees to defray costs. Also, due to the sheer volume of books that come out each year, poets have to do much more of the marketing and promotion than ever before, even if working with national or university presses.

All that said, working closely with Twelve Winters Press has been a privilege, my own input valued throughout the publishing process.

Starfish is divided into three parts. What was your thinking in terms of its structure, and the arrangement of the poems? Were there any agonizing choices, or once you figured out your modus operandi did the structure come together fairly easily?

In addition to book design (and TWP does a great job), the ordering of poems remains essential among elements in any poetry volume. While I’d like to claim a grand scheme for organizing Starfish into three sections—a trinity of mind, body, soul, for example—instead my decision was based on how poems might meaningfully unfold consecutively as well as side-by-side (verso and recto). Specific themes, motifs, and catalogs became apparent, such as a suite of poems that questions what to relinquish, what to retain, proceeding from the final lines of “Beachside Burial”: “why no one returns / for what was left / behind?” But broad categories do emerge. For example, the middle section has several seaside poems, while in contrast the final one is announced by the poem “Landlocked.” Also, after working for so many years on the manuscript, I had a fairly good idea of where to place each selection.

The poems in the collection tend to be brief, often a single stanza. Has this brevity been typical of your poetry throughout your career, or is Starfish a departure in this regard?

My preference as a reader has always been for small, well-made poems featuring suppressed subjectivity (as in the absence of “I”) and universal emblems—poems that likely will endure in terms of structural integrity and subject matter—fifty or a hundred years from now. The poetry of Ted Kooser, mid-career Louise Glück, and Jean Follain, respectively, comes to mind. So yes, “miniatures” have been a staple of my work all along. Sometimes I do aim to write beyond a page or two, but the process can feel forced (for me), so that I end up editing a poem down to its imagistic essences. With small poems, one can hone in on manifold parts, such as verb choices and rhetorical figures that underscore meaning overall.

I recently attended a program by Juan Felipe Herrera, the U.S. Poet Laureate (and a former creative writing teacher of mine); and one of the issues he discussed was the difficulty associated with writing a long poem and maintaining the intensity of the emotion from beginning to end. Would you agree that longer poems (however one may define “long”) can be challenging for a poet, especially in terms of sustaining the poem’s energy and emotional impact?

Associated with poetry writing today is the buzzword “elliptical,” meaning that beyond sustaining long form and retaining within it a unified vision a poem ought to take surprising, unexpected leaps relative to imagery, as Billy Collins’s work notably does. Such a poem might arrive at an epiphany or apocalyptic closure, circling back to early moments in its body. But I agree that it can be difficult to sustain vision overall in long form, which some poets resolve through use of numbered or titled section breaks. Also, I do see many poems published today that are long-lined and long form, confessional in tone and at times adopting diffused autobiography for “emotional impact.”

Your question also reminds me of a former newspaper editor I worked with who, on the subject of “length” and wordiness, once quipped by way of analogy, “I would have written you a short letter—if I had time.” The challenge of poetry writing in general, I believe, is to use the least amount of words possible to achieve what critic Paul Fussell calls “absolute density.”

Juan Felipe also said that for him, in revision, he often cuts the opening and ending lines of a poem, finding that its core is where the “heat” resides—and by cutting the beginning and ending lines, he can intensify the poem’s emotional impact. As a poet and as a teacher of creative writing, does his process strike a familiar chord with you? How would you describe your writing and revising process?

Juan Felipe’s revision process has resulted in good poetry for him, and in some ways resembles how I work. Like for many poets, a piece of my own may start with a line or an image that places pressure on what follows; I don’t usually cut first lines. Other times, I know where a poem will end, so the challenge becomes building to those final lines. This was the case with the allegorical poem “Death,” which ends with the eponymous figure speaking to a recently departed soul.

But I do find myself cutting not just last lines but whole stanzas. And in teaching creative writing, I sometimes do recommend that student poets cut a final line or couplet, which could serve as the opening of a “new” poem. I’m also big on recommending transpositions, so that the placement of engaging or charged material resonates at well placed moments within a poem.

Speaking of teaching . . . many writers/poets who teach find teaching rewarding but also draining, especially their creative energies. How do you balance teaching with your creative output? Do you find that teaching in some ways encourages and informs your writing and publishing?

The fresh and surprising output of young writers is always delightful to me, making it easy to devote energy to their creative endeavors over my own. Whether teaching writing or literature, I aim to be “fresh” myself in terms of readings, written assignments, and pedagogical approaches. One can spend hours reading and commenting on student work, or on preparing lecture notes and assignments. And in addition to a heavy teaching load, during any given semester I’m directing an independent study, Honors Program thesis, or editorial internship—sometimes all three at once.

Since I direct an undergraduate Creative Writing program, a huge block of my time and energy goes into programming—over a dozen events an academic year with demanding details involved, from booking writers to securing funding. We also put out an expansive student literary magazine, which I edit.

I believe all of these endeavors “encourage” my writing. But the way it gets completed is the same for how teaching and administrative tasks do: I compartmentalize. I’ve always admired writers who work every day—say by rising at 5 a.m. to squeeze in an hour before going to a job. That’s not me, though my writing notebook is always within reach beside the morning cereal bowl and coffee cup.

Which poems in Starfish were the most difficult to write? Were there any technical issues with the poems that presented particular challenges? Are there poems that you’re especially proud of?

Almost every poem in Starfish was difficult to write, some requiring a ridiculous number of drafts (Bill Knott sitting on one’s shoulder, as it were). The same technical issues attend to every selection in the book: the aim of achieving “absolute density” mentioned above. But every once in a while, a poem just “happened.” For example, flipping through a notebook one day, I came upon “Postmark” (untitled at the time), which I barely remembered even writing. So the challenge was to find the emotional center of the poem then to tinker with a few words, and also find an expressive title. A recurring technical puzzle for me in general involves line breaks. I tend to end-stop (rhythmically) lines and always want to find alternate ways of phrasing or incorporating enjambment instead.

At one point, I was proud of the meta-poem Explication de texte, which actually did come about when I was teaching a graduate seminar with close reading at its core. The poem is a single sentence, with every line commenting on itself by using the language of prosody. Usually though, the “current” poem I’m working on most enchants me.

You do other sorts of writing besides poetry (reviews, for example). For lack of a better way of asking this question—do you feel that all your writing, regardless of form or genre, comes from the same place? Or do you have to tap into different parts of your … brain … soul … psyche … to write, say, verse, as opposed to an essay or review?

No matter what one writes, there’s always a rhetorical performance involved, and many of the devices and techniques used to craft poetry influence my writing in prose, from sharpening and tightening for readability and clarity to aiming for lyricism or metaphors that suggest the subject at hand.

Does writing a book review or author profile derive from a different aspect of consciousness than writing a poem? Sure, absolutely, because one’s energy is on representing and championing other people. What does come from the “same place” though is the desire to write as exactingly or as beautifully as possible.

How important do you believe it is for younger poets to be well studied in the history and traditions of poetry? Do you believe it’s crucial to become at least proficient in fixed forms (like the sonnet or sestina) before working with less formally structured poems?

Not to lapse into clichés here, but we all know too many young people who become turned off to poetry before they even engage it fully because canonical works are not familiar to them in terms of imagery or cadences. So I tend to start with free-verse short forms (readings as well as writing assignments)—to focus on what a line is and how it operates—then introduce basic poetic units. But I do believe it’s vital and necessary for younger poets to study and understand historical traditions and also to experiment in fixed forms and accentual-syllabic meter. My tendency though is to always insert the qualifier that a poem crafted in response to an assignment (write a sonnet, write a poem in terza rima) may “modify” a fixed or traditional form.

Overall in teaching poetry writing, I take a page from Martín Espada’s pedagogy: the goal is for each person to develop a unique poetic identity in terms of language and subject matter, with focus on the image (Espada). Thus, learning to read and write poetry means understanding and appreciating poetic images.

Recently I was reading Paul Valéry’s thoughts on writing poetry, and I was particularly struck by his belief that too many young poets, of his day, put too much faith in inspiration, and therefore not enough effort into the hard work of writing and revising a poem. What role do you think inspiration plays in the process, and would you tend to agree with Valéry (as I’ve represented him here)?

I can’t speak to young poets as a whole, but while some known to me reject revision, believing “inspiration” to be an article of faith, most come to the realization that drafting, revising, and polishing are important aspects of “writing” poetry.

On this subject, when interviewing Charles Simic for a profile in Chronogram magazine, and mentioning that his sparse, elegant poems appear divinely made, I was reassured when he stated, unequivocally: “There’s no muse. I don’t take dictation. It’s really a slow process of making the poem—of endless tinkering and revising to make it sound inspired.” So, a goal is for a poem to appear inspired—as if just written down in a single sitting—even if its genesis was far different than that.

Nearly every poet I know enjoys public recitation of their work, and many seem to feel that public performance is the truest way for an audience to receive their work. What are your feelings? Do you enjoy sharing your work via your voice, and do you feel you’re able to represent your poetry more completely than when it is merely read on the page?

Nationally and internationally celebrated poets I’ve heard speak on page-versus-stage poetry have maintained that a poem should read easily on the page and also be easily comprehended—for its lyricism as well as its meaning—when read aloud. I believe if a poem has integrity it will be well received in print or performance. As far as reading one’s work aloud, for me, that takes practice as well. I’m especially struck by what Richard Blanco says on this subject in his brief memoir, For All of Us, One Today, about how he prepared to read his occasional poem for President Obama’s second inaugural. If you watch the video of Blanco’s performance it appears seamless and effortless—but hours and hours of rehearsal went into his four minutes or so on the podium.

Who are some poets, past and present, that you especially admire, and why? Would you point to any poet or two who have been particularly instructive or inspiring?

My list is long and lengthy. I like all kinds of poets and poems from various eras, mainly beginning with the British Romantics (John Keats and William Blake, especially) and moving forward. I like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman from the nineteenth-century American canon. Poets I read over and over again in translation include Jean Follain and Wisława Szymborska. I like dozens and dozens of American poets (some already named but worth repeating here): Lucille Clifton, Ted Kooser, Kay Ryan, Martin Espada, Linda Gregg, Carl Dennis, and often whomever I happen to be reading or teaching at the moment. I also seek out books by poets whose works I’ve enjoyed reading in literary journals, or who may have won a distinguished prize, like Ansel Elkins for Blue Yodel (Yale Younger Poets Award, 2014). It’s always good to check out what young writers are up to today.

What new projects are currently underway?

I’m “working on a poem” (and another, and another). My notebook is stuffed with nonfiction essays in progress and I’ve recently written a number of short fiction pieces. My next deadline (about one week from now) is for four book reviews.


 

Pauline Uchmanowicz is the author of two poetry chapbooks and has received residency grants at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. A freelance writer in the Hudson Valley, her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in Crazyhorse, Ohio Review, Ploughshares, Provincetown Arts Journal, Radcliffe Quarterly, Woodstock Times, Z Magazine, and elsewhere. She is associate professor of English and director of Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz. (Author photo by Franco Vogt)

Interview with Grant Tracey: Final Stanzas

Posted in September 2015 by Ted Morrissey on September 1, 2015

I’d known of Grant Tracey and his writing for years, because of his editing of the North American Review, but I had never met Grant before this past June. A few weeks previous to our meeting, in late April, my wife Melissa and I were visiting Cedar Falls, Iowa, the home of the University of Northern Iowa, where Grant teaches; and I was sitting in on a creative writing class being taught by my friend and Twelve Winters Press author Jeremy (J.D.) Schraffenberger, when Jeremy mentioned that his colleague, Grant Tracey, had a short story collection that he was interested in publishing, but he was disenchanted with the process of looking for a small-press publisher. In fact, even though Grant had published three previous collections of fiction, he was considering self-publishing this new book.

Final Stanzas - front cover

I realized immediately that a great opportunity for my press, Twelve Winters, had presented itself, out of the blue as it were. I told Jeremy that I was very much interested in looking at Grant’s collection, and he put us in touch via email. Grant graciously sent me a collection to read through, in a couple of installments, both published and unpublished stories (seventeen pieces all together, I believe). Then in June Melissa and I attended the North American Review Bicentennial Conference in Cedar Falls, and we arranged to meet Grant for coffee on our first morning there. By that time I’d read Grant’s terrific stories and very much wanted to bring out some sort of collection. So when we got together at Cup of Joe, it was just a matter of going over the contract details and possibilities for bringing out the book in print, digital and audio.

Grant decided on eleven stories for the collection, ten previously published and one new story. I asked the Press’s faithful and talented editors Pamm Collebrusco and Adam Nicholson to read the collection, which was still untitled. As luck would have it, the Press’s publishing schedule opened up for the fall, and we could bring out the collection quite quickly, especially in the world of publishing, where it may take years for an accepted book to see the light of day. By early August, Pamm and Adam had sent their editorial notes to Grant. We were getting close to having a finished manuscript, but the collection still didn’t have a title. Grant didn’t want to use one of the stories’ titles for the collection’s title, but rather he wanted some phrase or image in the stories to suggest the title. I thought the phrase “final stanzas” from the story “Turnstiles” would be perfect–and Grant also liked it.

On August 24, Final Stanzas was released.

It’s become a Press tradition that I interview the authors upon the release of their books, so I sent Grant some interview questions, and what follows are his unedited responses. I think you’ll enjoy the interview almost as much as the delightful collection itself.

Grant Tracey 1

What’s the time span of the writing of these eleven stories? In other words, how old is the oldest story, and how recent is the most recently written?

The oldest story in here is “Dead Flowers.” I wrote that in 2009 right around the time my last collection Lovers and Strangers was coming out with Pocol. It was a story inspired by my troubled relationship with my father and a lot of things that went down during my childhood. I thought I had moved past them, but writing the story proved to me that I hadn’t. Anyway, that’s the oldest. The newest in terms of publication date is “Ossining, 1918.” Aethlon printed that just last June. However, I had been shopping that story around for three to four years.

The newest in terms of composition is “Written on the Sky” (I wrote it about a year and a half ago and it appeared in Green Hills Literary Lantern) and “Still the Bomber,” which I revised yet again, just weeks before sending it to you. “Ossining” was an important story because it was the first one where I really felt like I was playing with time. I was free to move into the past and flash-forward into the future whenever I wanted because the narrative sensibilities were that of an artist, James Cagney. “Written” was a voice-driven piece. I’m not as comfortable in first-person—I like the control of limited third—but this was a very autobiographical story, and I felt the voice was real and honest.

It’s funny that you mentioned autobiography a couple of times. At least in one of your stories you refer to a real-life colleague at UNI (Dr. Julie Husband). I trust she’s all right with being a character in your fiction. Usually novelists and short-story writers cast at least a thin veil over themselves and friends and family. Why did you decide to dispense with the veil altogether in this case, and is this a technique you’ve used with some regularity in your fiction?

Two reasons why I dispensed with the veil: one, I respect and admire Dr. Husband so I wanted to give her a shout-out; and two, all that stuff about Philip Roth in the story I got from reading an article of hers on the writer, so I wanted to, in a sly way, acknowledge that. And yes, I asked her permission. She was amused. Anyway, many of the stories are artistic creations, imagined probabilities, not biographies, but two or three come pretty close to my life or people I know. The second story in the collection, “Seeing Red, Feeling Blue,” was inspired by the relationship between my sister and mother. The event never happened but some of the sensibilities in that story derive from the complex dynamics of their love for each other. In “Written on the Sky” the mother takes the son out of school to see Woody Allen movies. My mother did that. She somehow always knew when I was struggling and needed to get away from all the crap that goes on in junior high. But the rest of that story is a leap of the creative imagination. Yes, I had a neighbor who I had a crush on. And yes she liked to sun bathe, but we never hung out and discussed theatre. She did say I looked like Johnny Cash, however. Oh, and the scene with all the Playboy playmates fastened to the wall? That did happen. My father took me to a bachelor pad where I couldn’t tell you what the paint color a certain wall was. But all kidding aside, if there are any connections to real people in these stories, they are for the most part accidents or composites.

The actor James Cagney seems to be a hero, or at least a person of particular interest to you. You’ve published critical work on him and chose a quote from one of his movie roles for the book’s epigraph, as well as his being the main character in two of the stories (plus in a third, a character has named his dog Cagney). What about James Cagney do you find so fascinating or perhaps even inspiring?

I think he’s one of the most authentic actors of all time. Cagney had a simple approach to acting: plant your feet, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth. And that’s him. I also love his energy, the way he moves. He talks fast, has a territorial lean, raises an eyebrow with all-knowing awareness, and plays things big. So many actors, especially working today, go for the less-is-more, naturalism style of acting. Underplay, underplay, underplay—Steve McQueen style. That’s cool. But Cagney was like Orson Welles once said, “a thousand firecrackers going off all at once.” I also found the contradiction between his tough-guy persona and the quiet, shy person he was off screen fascinating. Cagney tired of playing the tough guy and wanted to branch out, but it was difficult. Audiences loved the tough-talking wise guy, but I’m attracted to the man who wanted more from his art. Earlier, I called him an artist and he was. He took the craft of acting seriously, read Nobel Prize-winning authors, danced, painted, and saw art as essential to living a better, richer life.

Besides the two included in Final Stanzas, are there other James Cagney stories that you’ve written? Are these stories fictionalized biographies, or wholly made up tales based on your perception of Cagney as a person?

I haven’t written any other Cagney stories, not yet, but I plan to. The two stories here are tales based on my perception of Cagney as a person. Tony Kushner, when I met him at [University of Northern Iowa], said about Abraham Lincoln (whom he’d just written a screenplay about) or Jackie Gleason (whom I was writing some stories about) that it’s okay to take imaginative leaps from the historical record as long as you don’t alter the personality or reality of the person. Stay true to the character. I like that way of thinking about it.

Both of the Cagney stories featured in Final Stanzas were grounded in some reality. Cagney was a catcher on a local baseball team that did travel and played at Sing-Sing. I took that reality and blended it with an event that happed to me. In the late 1970s, my parents ran a group home, and the social worker overseeing things arranged a softball game at a local prison. Our team consisted of a bunch of group home parents and their kids, and I played catcher against a prison team. My dad was on the field that day with us and during the game kept looking up at the turrets and guards and machine guns and shook his head, mumbling, “I hope we get out of here. Alive that is.” He was joking and not joking at the same time. I think he was feeling mighty claustrophobic.

Anyway, I took two realities and blended them into fiction. Cagney’s father in that story is, in a way, modeled on my father. Both were alcoholics, both loved their sons deeply. For “Faraway Girl” I wanted to write a kind of weird love story that was also a detective yarn of sorts. In 1932, to protest the roles Warners was giving him, Cagney walked off the studio lot and went back home to New York. What follows is my imagined probabilities of what he might have done during his “vacation.” The story and the characterization of Melissa Coors is also inspired by Shirley MacLaine’s dynamic performance in Some Came Running and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (the list stuff that Missy is told to follow versus Jimmy Gatz’s lists and desires to re-imagine himself).

When we first started talking about the Press bringing out this collection, I believe the manuscript you shared with me consisted of twelve previously published stories; then a day or two later you emailed me five newer, unpublished stories to consider as well. Ultimately you decided on ten published stories, plus “Still the Bomber.” Can you describe your thought process as to how you arrived at Final Stanzas in its final form?

Yes. There are six previously published stories that aren’t in the collection, including one, “Bright Lights,” that I’m quite proud of, but I didn’t think it fit in with the arc of what Final Stanzas became. I realized as I was putting the order of the stories together that much of this collection is, not to sound too theoretical, about the interface of life and art, how one informs the other. It’s a circle, a perpetual feedback system: we get meaning from and impose meaning on art. And all of the stories are, in some way, about seeking out an authentic existence: whether it’s a college student trying to create a student film and live life his way (“The Hermit Finds Solace”) or an actor fighting for better scripts and trying to rectify things with his teenage daughter (“Still the Bomber”). For all of the characters in these stories living in a world of art matters because it’s what sustains us.

You teach film studies in addition to creative writing at UNI. How has your love of and critical analysis of film informed your story writing? What cinema-informed lessons have you brought to your teaching of creative writing?

My experience in community theatre has improved my writing. I’ve acted in over twenty plays, most recently taking on the role of Peter in Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. What I love about acting is making the hot choice, the risky choice, and that’s what I try to do in my writing, flip the moment, find a contrary impulse, and never let the characters on the page be defined around one truth. Humans are way too complex for that. Secondly, from acting I get the central question to all art: “Where’s the love?” Stories to me are about love, how we respond to and live with or without it. Right now I’m working on a craft essay entitled, “On Method Writing,” in which I look at how to write more meaningful dialogue in fiction. Writer Ron Carlson has argued that in dialogue characters speak from their own space, freed up from the controlling voice and narrative point-of-view of the writer. Yes! But how do we create real meaning within that space?

Looking at the films of John Cassavetes, the writing of Julie Orringer and Clifford Odets, I explore how well-written dialogue creates trigger words, key bits, that characters respond to. This leads to beat changes, shifts in a scene, escalating or ameliorating the tension. As an actor, when I learn lines, I don’t necessarily focus on the last few words or “cue” of the other actor’s utterance. Instead, I ask what’s the intent behind his or her words that force a response from me. What do I want? What’s emerging here? I circle the word the other actor speaks that elicits a response or new tactic from me. That word is my trigger. For example: character A says, “You never do the dishes. I came home and this place was a mess.” Character B, me: “I didn’t know you wanted me to do the dishes.” Character A: “What do you think I wanted? I can’t write when the place looks like this.” Anyway, the trigger words here: “dishes,” “wanted” and “write.” This is a simple example, but Sidney Lumet said that acting is a verb, and I think each time we write a line of dialogue we should asks what verb best describes this utterance. Am I shaming, chastising, praising, cajoling the other person? If we look at the small sample of dialogue above us, Character A first scolds. Character B attempts to placate. Character A responds to that choice with greater anger, shaming.

If your dialogue in a scene isn’t working, change a verb, an intention. Choose a different one and re-write the line of dialogue accordingly.

You turned the story “According to Chelsea” into a stage play, which you directed in what you called a “guerilla theater” production in 2014. Talk about that experience, including the process of transforming a short story into a dramatic script.

It was amazing. There’s nothing like hearing words you wrote performed by an actor, because that actor infuses the words with life and makes them his or her own. It’s a truly collaborative experience and suddenly you realize that the art really is bigger than you. As a writer you surrender what you wrote over to the actors and engage with the choices they make and what they bring to the project. Of course to write the play I had to really expand upon a rather short short story, writing extensive dialogue scenes and developing a subplot involving Wally Bober’s brother Manny and their Zeyda. In Paddy Chayefsky’s teleplays there are always two main plot lines. Take a look at Marty. There’s the love plot: Marty and Clara. And then there’s the subplot: the in-laws needing their own space, struggling with Marty’s aunt, and asking Marty and his mother to take her in. From this subplot, emerges the desire of Marty’s mother to discourage her son’s love for Clara. I often like to have two narrative strands, like Chayefsky, going on in my stories, but for the play I really developed those two plot lines.

If a century from now the world only knows Grant Tracey, short-story writer by one story from this collection, which story would you want it to be, and why that one?

That’s a tough one. I’m fond of “Ossining, 1918” because, like I said earlier, it was a real breakthrough in terms of the art of time in fiction. I also love “Still the Bomber” because I struggled with that story for five years and found a way to tell a story with a lot of half-scenes: nine or so. “Written on the Sky” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize so I guess I should pick that one, but I’m not going to. I do like the ease with which I slipped into a first-person voice there, but my favorite of all in the collection would be the lead story and the one the book’s title comes from, “Turnstiles.” The story is personal, in the sense that it’s set in a part of Toronto my mother grew up in (and she was raised above a mom and pop Variety store). I am of Macedonian-Roma origins, and those are my grandparents in that story. “Turnstiles” also comes closest to Bernard Malamud in terms of its narrative telling voice (and Malamud is my favorite short-story writer, and I’ve always wanted to write a Malamud–type story. I was thinking of the Assistant and an early story by John Cheever the whole time I was composing this). “Turnstiles” wrote itself quickly. It was one of those rare gifts for a writer where it was just there. Yes, I revised for language but the narrative arc emerged fully upon the first draft. It has hockey in it (my favorite sport) and ends with an image that is original and kind of cool. I just really, really like it. I realize this is a personal response, but hey, that’s how I roll. It’s the one I want to be remembered by.

You’ve acted in several community-theater productions, and in fact this past summer you were on the stage again. Therefore, you were keenly interested when I talked about the potential of creating an audiobook edition of Final Stanzas for the Press. What do you have in mind for the audiobook?

I think I’d like to have members of the local theatre community read some of the stories. I’d read 3–4 of them and surrender the bulk of the project to other voices, getting actor pals to read. The variety of voices I think might enhance the work and make the audio experience a rich one for our listeners. I’ve already got the green light from five community actors. They’re ready.

It was in essence dumb luck that the Press got the opportunity to bring out this terrific book. Our mutual friend Jeremy (J.D.) Schraffenberger mentioned to me offhandedly that you had a collection you’d like to publish, but you were considering doing it as a self-published project because you didn’t want to go through the hassle of finding a publisher for it. Is that more or less where you were with this book when my ears perked up, and I asked Jeremy to put us in touch? If so, why did the process of finding a publisher seem so unappealing to you? Or, if not unappealing, how would you describe your feelings of looking for a publisher?

Honestly, I was burned out. At AWP, one of the panels I went to said if you want to find an agent or a small-press publisher you must have a web presence. Well, I don’t Facebook, tweet tweet, or blog. I have no web presence. I’d rather be writing fiction than documenting my life for others to read. Platform was the word they kept saying, platform. Well, I do have a platform, I’m Fiction Editor at the North American Review, but I don’t have a presence or platform online. So I was discouraged. I wasn’t willing to change. I’m not comfortable talking about myself. My work, yes. I tried entering contests, was a finalist at Snake Nation, but that was about it. I wasn’t getting a nibble. So I was thinking I’ll just self-publish. I’m a full professor. It’s not like I’m fighting for a promotion. And most of the stories had already been accepted in small magazines. But I’m glad I waited and Jeremy put us on touch. I was extremely happy that when I met you and we drank coffee together, you said I didn’t have to have a big web presence. You allowed me to be myself and I appreciate that. What I wanted more than anything was to work with an editor in producing a product that enhances the stories. I’m an old-fashioned, retro writer. I admire stories that have a strong narrative arc, explore the human heart and questions of love, and seek out authenticity. And working with Twelve Winters and you has really brought the stories to life. I’m proud of the look and feel to Final Stanzas and all that you’ve done to make it such a rewarding experience. The cover art; the inside font; the headers: wow. And I’ve never had my work copyedited the way Adam and Pamm did. It was awesome and a little embarrassing. I couldn’t believe all the errors they caught and I’m grateful that they did. A big shout-out to them!!

Finally, tell us about your current writing project, which you describe as a crime novel set in 1965 Toronto?

I’m a big fan of detective stories. But as you probably guessed I like 1950s and 60s crime noir, stuff that’s edgy and doesn’t rely on CSI to solve its murders. But as much I love the genre I’m troubled by all the misogyny that abounds. So I wanted to write something that was a nod to the retro crime noir antecedents, without necessarily subscribing to the darker elements of sexism. Moreover, I wanted to find a voice that was unique: literary but also hard-boiled. What I admire most about Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Richard Stark is that you can tell their prose style apart from all the rest. Chandler is a romantic coated with loneliness. Similes abound. Spillane, especially in the early years, revs up the anger, aggression, and male hysteria. And Stark. He’s bare and spare, full of a professional’s restraint, but every now and then he gives you a mouthful of glass.

The plot to my novel: Former Toronto Maple Leafs left-winger and now private-eye, Hayden Fuller, didn’t expect to be back in Maple Leaf Gardens, let alone mixing it up with a consortium of corrupt NHL owners and ruthless gangsters in the burgeoning permissive society of Toronto, 1965. When Cathy Stabulas goes missing, Hayden’s on the case, confronting his past while moving forward in a much different game, one involving murder. Cheap Amusements is a 65,000-word crime novel with a skate in the world of hockey (sports figures are conspicuously absent from two-fisted tales) and another in the violent undertow of the American hardboiled. The narrative is full of double crosses, liars and lies, and deadly deceptions (double twists abound). Hayden, like a pinball cushioning off bumpers, bounces from one encounter to another. Sure he’s a smart-ass, but he’s caught up in a whirl of irrational chaos and hopes—like that thudding pinball—to stay in the game. Oh, and his name? A composite of two of my favorite noir icons: actor Sterling Hayden and director Samuel Fuller.

Grant Tracey is the fiction editor of the North American Review and a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches film studies and creative writing. He has published nearly fifty short stories, as well as three previous collections of fiction. He has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. (Author photo by Mitchell D. Strauss)

Fictionalizing the Life and Voice of Washington Irving

Posted in June 2015 by Ted Morrissey on June 13, 2015

The following paper — “Fictionalizing the Life and Voice of Washington Irving” — was presented at the North American Review Bicentennial Conference at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls, which ran from June 11 to 13, 2015. This paper was part of the “Voice and Point of View” panel on June 13. Other papers presented were “Expanding the Powers of First-Person Narration” by Buzz Mauro and “The Art of Narrative Telling: Transforming Cheever’s Voice” by Grant Tracey. In addition to presenting, I also moderated the panel.

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809

I’m here today to talk about writing my novel An Untimely Frost, which I worked on between about 2006 (I think) and 2011, eventually publishing it via my own press, Twelve Winters, in 2014—Twelve Winters Press, by the way, has a table at the conference. The inspiration for the novel was Washington Irving’s rumored courtship of Mary Shelley.  It seemed to me that a romantic relationship between the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the author of Frankenstein could make for an intriguing chemistry.  I didn’t know where or when I’d learned of that rumor, and I wasn’t especially interested in verifying its accuracy because I decided very early on that I wasn’t going to write a fictionalized biography of Irving and Shelley and their time together.  Rather, I was going to use them as sources of inspiration and an armory of period details as needed. [As noted, I didn’t research the actual relationship between Irving and Shelley when writing the novel; however, in preparing this talk I came across this rare bookThe Romance of Mary W. Shelley, John Howard Payne and Washington Irving (1907)–which would be of interest to anyone who wanted to know more about the famous authors’ “romance.”]

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For an earlier project, which resulted in the novella Weeping with an Ancient God, I wrote a fictionalized biography of author Herman Melville’s real-life experiences among cannibals in 1842.  I was dedicated to staying true to the established details of Melville’s life and times, which made for a challenging artistic endeavor.  I like to believe that the novella turned out pretty well, but oftentimes I did feel hemmed in by reality and by Melville’s biography.  Not to mention, real life rarely provides us with a satisfying narrative arc, which tends to handicap a novelist.  It’s a bit like running in a three-legged race.  It’s an experience all its own, but there’s no helping that the entire time one is keenly aware of how much easier it would be to race the usual two-legged way.

weeping-with-an-ancient-god-front-cover

Thus, when I began writing about Irving and Shelley, I had no intention of shackling my creativity to their real lives.  I began by concocting fictional names for them, eventually ending up with “Jefferson Wheelwright” and “Margaret Haeley.”  I also decided early on that Jefferson Wheelwright would be my first-person narrator.  I obviously had some familiarity with Washington Irving—and I’d taught “Sleepy Hollow” a couple of times in a college course—but I didn’t feel that I knew him and, more importantly, his voice well enough to create my Jefferson Wheelwright persona.  To prepare, I did read several biographical sketches of Irving and more of his fictional stories.  However, what I really wanted to steep my brain in was his real-life speaking voice, and the closest I could come to that, given that he lived in the early and mid nineteenth century, was to study his published letters.

I got hold of two collections in particular, both edited by Stanley T. Williams.  One collection, brought out by Harvard University Press, concerns Irving’s letters “from England and the Continent, 1821-1828,” and the other, brought out by Yale University Press, consists of his letters “from Sunnyside and Spain,” spanning the years 1840-1845.  I made use of both collections, and in fact one of the epigraphs for the novel comes from a Madrid 1842 letter.  However, I found the letters from the earlier period to be more helpful since they correspond more closely to the time frame and the geography of my novel’s setting.

I culled the letters, along with biographical information, for two sorts of material.  First, while I wasn’t writing a fictionalized biography based on Irving’s life, I was open to transferring and transforming real-life details from Irving to my creation, Wheelwright.  Second, and more vital, I wanted to capture as nearly as possible Irving’s narrative style.

Without reading through the biographical notes and letters in their entirety again, it’s difficult for me to recall all that I borrowed in terms of real-life details and events.  I did skim through the letters in preparation for this presentation, and I was surprised in a couple of instances regarding details that in my recollection I had wholly made up, but in actuality stemmed from my research.

One of the character details that I know I extracted from Irving’s letters had to do with a skin condition of his legs and feet that plagued him in the 1821-28 period.  For instance, he writes from Germany on August 20, 1822:  “I grew very lame in trudging about the dutch [sic] towns, and unluckily applied a recipe given me by old Lady Liston (may god bless her, and preserve her from her own prescriptions!)—it played the vengeance with me [. . .] I could scarcely put my feet to the ground & bear my weight upon them [. . .]” (“Wi[e]sbaden” 19).  Elsewhere Irving talks about seeking treatment from various physicians.  I decided early on in the writing process that some sort of foot condition would be part of my Jefferson Wheelwright’s situation.  I guess I vaguely thought it might have some metaphorical value, connecting to his fear that he was not evolving, not moving forward, as a writer and artist.  In An Untimely Frost, Wheelwright requests the aid of a London physician, Dr. Carter.  In Chapter 2, I write,

On the first morning, he listened to my complaint while touching and gently kneading my feet and toes, which were blotchy red, except around the toenails where the skin was a vibrant purple.  Spots on my feet were pained to the touch while my toes were dead numb. [. . .] The good doctor said it was a circulation problem; he said that even though exercise irritated my feet, rest was counterproductive, that we must increase the blood flow to nourish the nerve fibers.” (11)

In reality, Irving was laid up for days and even weeks with bouts of his “cutaneous condition,” but I didn’t think that would make for an especially exciting narrative, to have Jefferson Wheelwright lying around his hotel room for days on end nursing his feet, so I had Dr. Carter prescribe exercise.  Carter becomes an important character in the novel—although when I first introduced him in the second chapter I had no idea whether it would be a cameo appearance or lead to a larger role.

In addition to physical details I also borrowed one of Washington Irving’s personality traits, namely his lack of interest and acumen when it came to business affairs.  He let his elder brothers manage the family’s business interests, while he focused on his literary aspirations.  In my novel, I write:

So far I was having a splendid time lounging in the gigantic bed at The Saint Georges [hotel], drinking the black-black Italian coffee, and scribbling my tale.  I even felt a brief—brief, mind you—pang of guilt at the idea that this is what I did to earn my keep in the world.  Like many of the Wheelwright men, I’d tried my hand at business, but to dismal results.  I simply do not have a head for numbers and inventories and so on—I can conjure whole worlds with my pen, yet adding a column of numbers and arriving at the correct result seemed beyond me (I believe because midway I would lose interest and begin daydreaming of haunted castles on lonely, wind-swept cliffs). (10)

There were numerous details from Irving’s life, especially his writing life, that I commandeered for my purposes, but even more important was capturing Irving’s narrative style—and in particular the style he used in his letters to friends and family, which was somewhat different, on the whole, than his published authorial voice, such as in The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall stories.

I wrote a brief essay about trying to capture Irving’s voice for Glimmer Train Press’s Writers Ask series (it appeared in number 54 and I reprinted it in An Untimely Frost).  Since it is brief and to the point at hand, I would like to insert it here in its entirety:

Like the vast majority of writers who have come out of a university creative writing program, I was taught to write contemporary literary fiction.  However, for over a decade now, I’ve been mainly attracted to historically based narrative, both as a reader and as a writer.  When we think of writers tackling a story or novel set in another time and another place, we imagine them doing extensive research on things like people, on the chronology of events, on various aspects of the material world they are attempting to fabricate—and we tend to imagine rightly.  For me, though, there is another sort of research that must go on as well, the results of which are not as easy to spot in a story as, say, an infamous assassination or an obsolete gadget; and that is researching the structure of language itself.  It can be a nebulous term, but what I’m most interested in is a setting’s voice.

Voice should contribute to the ring of authenticity, to be sure, but, more than that, voice can actually compel the movement of the narrative; voice can shape its structure.  William H. Gass spoke to this phenomenon in a 1976 interview for The Paris Review, saying that “word resemblance leads you on [as a writer], not form.  So you’ve really got a musical problem, certain paragraphs you are arranging, and you imagine you are orchestrating the flow of feelings from one thing to another.”  Gass summed up by saying, “Once you get your key signature, the theme inherent in the notes begins to emerge:  the relationship between art and life and all that.”  Gass, author of some of the most admired books in the English language, suggests that the physical structure of the words on the page—and the meanings, feelings, moods that they convey—help guide the writer to, essentially, everything else in the narrative:  plot development, characterization, theme, setting. . . .

The importance of this sort of research in historically based fiction is nicely illustrated in Charles Frazier’s highly acclaimed novel Cold Mountain, which is set in Civil War-era Appalachia.  In an interview available online, Frazier said, “I wanted the language of the book to create a sense of otherness, of another world, one that the reader doesn’t entirely know.”  Frazier did library research regarding the material world he was creating, finding “words for tools and processes and kitchen implements that are almost lost words.”  Beyond that, however, he was interested in “getting a sense of the particular use of language in that region, the rhythm of it.”  Frazier culled period letters and diaries for much of his information, but he also had the benefit of having actually heard “that authentic Appalachian accent” when he was a child.

For my own writing I’ve been attracted to more distant times and places, and as such have not had the benefit of hearing period speakers so printed examples of voice have been my guideposts.  Nevertheless, the feel and rhythm of the language can filter into one’s writing by paying attention to the linguistic structures.  For my current project I’ve been creating a first-person narrator based on the American author Washington Irving.  It isn’t a fictionalized biography.  It’s more that Irving’s persona has been the primary inspiration for my protagonist.  When I first became interested in the project, I tracked down an obscure collection of Irving’s letters that he wrote between 1821 and 1828.  The book has been invaluable to me in my effort to develop an effective narrative voice.

Simply put, in Irving’s day a well-read New Englander structured the language in ways that sound quite foreign—quite exotic even—to us now.  Take, for example, this letter written at “Beycheville,” France, October 17, 1825:

I have had something of a dull bilious affection of the system which has clung to me for more than two weeks past. . . .  The greater part of Mrs Guestiers household, who have lately removed here, are unwell—I have tried to shake off my own morbid fit by exercise—I have been out repeatedly hunting, as there were two packs of hounds in the neighborhood, but though I have taken violent exercise I do not feel yet reinstated by it. (50)

The terms are spectacular, yes—heaven help anyone who contracts “a dull bilious affection” and Irving’s reference to “violent exercise” makes me think of junior high P.E. class—but even more meaningful to my eye and ear are the syntactic rhythms.  Today one might say, “I’ve been feeling sick for a couple of weeks,” but for Irving the “affection of the system” has “clung” to him “for more than two weeks past.”  The structure implies that his sense of unwell-being is a sort pernicious companion of whom he can’t quite rid himself, in spite of his taking “violent exercise”—giving the act of exercise a physicality, as if it were an item from the apothecary’s pantry.

Yet I have no particular interest in my protagonist’s contracting a bilious affection or partaking of violent exercise.  Rather I want the structure of the language.  I want to tell my own tale, but I want to form the sentences as Irving might have had he written of the same events nearly two centuries ago.  I normally keep the book of Irving’s letters on my nightstand, and every so often I open to a random page and read awhile, perhaps a few pages but often as little as a sentence or two, because I’m not searching for information:  I want to keep retracing the sentence rhythms in my brain, like wagon wheels along a worn track, so that when I sit down to write, the words flow as naturally in the direction of his prose style as if he (or someone like him) were composing them himself.  (I must go now—I feel the onset of a bilious affection.)

There haven’t been a lot of reivews of the novel, and the ones that have appeared are somewhat mixed—but the reviewers seem to appreciate the narrative voice that I was able to create.  For example, Anne Drolet writes in the North American Review:  “Morrissey styles Wheelwright’s voice after the patterns and idioms of 19th-century British speech, and that choice lulls the reader into the historical setting” (47).  I presume being lulled into a setting is better than being jarred into one.  Cécile Sune says in her blog Book Obsessed:  “The writing is beautiful and elaborate, and is a testament to the research Ted Morrissey conducted for this book . . . As a result, it feels like a Victorian novel”—ultimately, though, she only gave it three out of five stars on Amazon (damn it).  And most recently William Wright writes for the Chicago Book Review:  “There are moments of true brilliance in An Untimely Frost.  It reads like it was written by a post-modernist emulating Henry James [I like that line], which proves to be an intriguing combination”—but Wright concludes with “Perhaps with more ruthless editing, the novel could have been a triumph.  As it stands, it was a wonderful idea that wasn’t quite pulled off.”

I’ll tell you what, critics are hard to please.

My five years floating around in the fictional consciousness of Washington Irving was an interesting artistic experiment, and it really stretched me as a writer.  When I finished with the novel, I began writing a series of interconnected short stories—each in third-person, with shifting points of view, and set for the most part in an unnamed Midwestern village in the 1950s.  I finished the twelfth and final story just a few weeks ago, and eventually I’ll be bringing them out in a collection titled Crowsong for the Stricken.  I’m considering other long-term writing projects at the moment, and one idea is to return to nineteenth-century London, but not Jefferson Wheelwright.  Never say never, but I believe I’ve said all I care to say in the voice and persona of Mr. Wheelwright.

Works Cited

Drolet, Anne.  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  North American Review Fall 2014 (299.4):  47.  Print.

“An Interview with Charles Frazier.”  BookBrowse [c. 1997].  Web.  9 June 2015.

Morrissey, Ted.  An Untimely Frost.  Sherman, Ill.:  Twelve Winters Press, 2014.  Print.

—-.  “Researching the Rhythms of Voice.”  Writers Ask #54.  Portland, Ore.:  Glimmer Train Press.  Print.

Sune, Cécile.  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  Book Obsessed 10 Oct. 2014.  Web.

Williams, Stanley T., ed.  Letters from Sunnyside and Spain by Washington Irving.  New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 1928.  Print.

—-.  Washington Irving and the Storrows:  Letters from England and the Continent, 1821-1828.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1933.  Print.

Wright, William.  “A Hot and Cold ‘Frost.’”  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  Chicago Book Review 18 May 2015.  Web.

(Note that the portrait of Washington Irving was obtained via Wikipedia at this link.)

Interview with J.D. Schraffenberger: The Waxen Poor

Posted in July 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 19, 2014

I don’t recall the exact year that I met Jeremy Schraffenberger (2005? — give or take), but it was definitely at the University of Louisville during its annual literature and culture conference. I chaired a critical panel on which Jeremy was presenting a paper. As the day progressed and we ran into each other here and there, we discovered that while we both enjoyed academic writing, creative writing was our true passion — mine, specifically, fiction, and his poetry. Over the years we often met up in Louisville, and when my first novel, Men of Winter, came out in 2010, Jeremy was kind enough to help me set up a reading in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as part of Jim O’Laughlin’s Final Thursday Reading Series. By then Jeremy (who publishes and edits under the initials J.D.) was on the tenure track in the English Department at the University of Northern Iowa and part of the editorial masthead of the North American Review. In the summer of 2013 I was able to return the favor and arranged for Jeremy to come to Springfield, Illinois, to be a “Poet in the Parlor” at the historic Vachel Lindsay Home; while he was in town, he also gave a fascinating talk on the history of the North American Review and its fast-approaching bicentennial (in 2015) — the talk was hosted by Adam Nicholson at The Pharmacy Art Center.

In 2012, I established Twelve Winters Press with the intention of using it to bring out my books, or keep them in print, and to bring out the literary work of others. Last winter I contacted Jeremy about possibly working with the Press on some sort of project under his editorial direction — and much to my delight he informed me he had a collection, The Waxen Poor, that he was interested in publishing. He sent me the manuscript, which I was able to read (again, much to my delight) before meeting him in Louisville for the conference this past February. After his reading in the beautiful Bingham Poetry Room in Ekstrom Library, we sat down to cups of coffee in the Library’s Tulip Tree Café and discussed his collection and made plans to bring it out this summer.

I’m happy to report that The Waxen Poor is indeed out. See Twelve Winters Press’s Poetry Titles page for full details.

The Waxen Poor - front cover (1)

I interviewed Jeremy via email about his intriguing collection, which includes poems published in such notable journals as Brevity, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Notre Dame Review, and Prairie Schooner, among many others. What follows are his unedited responses to my questions. When I had the honor of introducing Jeremy at the Vachel Lindsay Home, I said that I always enjoyed his readings because he was the sort of poet that I respected most: one who takes his poetry seriously but not himself. I believe this engaging combination of qualities is apparent here.

Jeremy for The Waxen Poor - 400 (1)

What’s the time span represented by the poems in The Waxen Poor? That is, how early is the earliest poem and how recent the most recent?

The earliest piece in the collection — and the one that really sparked this whole project — is the prose poem “Full Gospel,” which was originally published in the summer of 2006 in Brevity and was later reprinted in Best Creative Nonfiction. I bring this up only because I find the question of genre interesting. I originally wrote “Full Gospel” as a poem, but then as I started to revise, I became less and less interested in lines and line breaks and more and more interested in segmentation or braiding as a way to craft the piece. I can’t say that I was consciously blurring generic boundaries — I was just trying to write something true — but I’m still not quite sure how to categorize it. Is it an essay? A poem? A prose poem? In the end, I suppose, that’s not terribly important, but insofar as it might reveal something about the composition process — in this case, I think, how memory is organized — I think it’s an intriguing question.

Two other early pieces are the first one in the collection, “Brother Tom,” and the last, “Born for Adversity.” It was important, I think, that I knew where I was heading as I wrote and revised. I would certainly not consider The Waxen Poor a novel in verse, but I did feel that there was something of a narrative arc, if not an actual plot — even if it remained subtextual — that guided me along as I worked. I had a clear sense of the beginning and I knew the end, and so the challenge became what to do with the long expansive middle. As Margaret Atwood wrote, “True connoisseurs … are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.”

The most recent poem in the collection is the sequence of “Judas” poems, which came as something of a surprise to me as I wrote them. I hadn’t expected to cast “Brother Tom” as a Judas character, but there it is. Sometimes you can’t — and maybe you shouldn’t — control your characters. You can see that I’m trying to complicate Judas/Tom, though, by calling him “A man of tradition, assassin of the ages, / My translator, my traitor, my Judas, my friend” — the same kind of complication I’m attempting to bring to the entire collection. These “Judas” poems came to me about three years ago, and so The Waxen Poor represents five years of work.

Did you set out to write a collection around the topic of “Brother Tom,” or did the concept of collecting them develop over time? Either way, can you describe the thought process behind the collection?

In my mind The Waxen Poor was always a cohesive project. After “Full Gospel” I began organizing individual pieces around the character of “Brother Tom.” I wanted to explore this fraught relationship between two brothers, each of whom is like the other but also quite different — one a poet, the other struggling with mental illness. The poems are meant to be both personal and more broadly mythological, and I’ve tried to balance (or “harmonize” might be a better word) the experiential with the imagined, the everyday with the elevated. You could also say that the project is in some ways a coping mechanism, like Eliot’s “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” That is, how are we to deal with the pain and suffering in the world but through our art? When trying to understand and contend with something like mental illness, some of us turn to art, to poetry, for answers.

Many of the poems seem to be highly personal in their subject matter. Can you discuss the process of tapping into those emotions via the creative process?

As I said, I see the collection as something of a coping mechanism — but then in some ways, all art functions as a mechanism of this kind, even if you’re not dealing with emotionally fraught subjects. What do we make of this world around us and all of the various experiences we have? How do we give our lives any kind of meaning but by forming it, shaping it? Even the most experimental, appropriative forms of conceptualism in which all subjectivity has been evacuated are ways to cope.

That said, there are some poems in The Waxen Poor I can’t read in public anymore because they’re too emotionally difficult for me to get through, but I think that probably means something important is happening. I try to tell this to my creative writing students, that if something is too painful to write, you should write it, not for the sake of therapy — though that might end up being part of it — but because when a poem is difficult in this way, you’re getting near something that you care deeply about, even if it’s in ways that you can’t quite articulate yet. When we find a form for our pain or confusions, we’re allowing others to identify with it, with us. We’re letting our readers in.

The form of these poems varies considerably, and there are even some prose poems included in the collection. Can you discuss the interplay between subject and form for you as a poet? For example, how much one influences the other?

I’m a formalist insofar as I believe that form is meaning. To sever the two is to do a deep violence to the poem — and to misread it entirely. I think it takes a long time before this insight, which is easy enough to say and understand intellectually, sinks in deeply enough for it to be true as a writer. Or at least this has been the case for me. The prose poem is a perfect example of this fusion between form and meaning. I never set out to write the prose poem sequences you find in this collection. Rather, I discovered that this was the form the poem had to take — especially the somewhat surreal ones in which the thoughts and images and phenomena all seem to tumble forth, like consciousness itself. Likewise, some of the unrhymed sonnets in the collection were discovered. That is, as I began writing, I felt the rhetorical movement of the sonnet happening, the turn, and so I began shaping it accordingly. This means paying attention to more than just the “subject,” more than what the poem is supposedly “about,” and opening yourself up to different ways of knowing.

But there are a handful of exceptions. The poem “Abecedarian Advice” is a received form that I didn’t “discover” but rather imposed on myself as a challenge. And the four “Meds” poems are acrostics that spell out the names of the antipsychotic drugs “Haldol,” “Thorazine,” “Zyprexa,” and “Lithium” down the left margins of the poems. I like the way these formal experiments turned out because I found that I ended up thinking about things I never would have thought about before. The somewhat arbitrary restraint can ironically be very liberating. In fact, I think the acrostic is the most underrated form. With other forms, like the sonnet, for example, you’re dealing not only with external characteristics like rhyme and meter but also an internal rhetorical shape that isn’t always the right fit for the poem. The acrostic, though, can accommodate absolutely anything. It gets a bad rap and seems unsophisticated because we’ve all written them in elementary school. But I think there’s something refreshing about the form’s simplicity.

Several of the poems in the collection had been published individually, but it seemed that you hadn’t been circulating the collection for a while. Can you discuss the history of the collection in terms of your thoughts on its publication as a whole?

Well, I did send this manuscript out into the world for a while, entering it into contests and open reading periods at a handful of presses that I like. But I’m a constant and somewhat obsessive reviser, so I pulled it back and have been working on it periodically for a few years. I’d add a poem, remove a poem, tinker with the chronology, worry over line breaks. Was it Valéry who said that a poem is never finished, it’s only abandoned? I guess that feeling had something to do with it — a desire not to abandon the poems. And because it’s a collection that I care deeply about and is in some ways very personal, I felt it had to be just right — and it had to find the right place, too, that would present it in the way I think it needs to be presented. I’d say it’s finally ready for the world, and so I’m excited now that it’s found a great home with Twelve Winters.

You play with both Christian and Classical allusions (and bring these together in the title and cover illustration, which you found). Why overtly connect these two traditions?  What do you think is the effect of their interplay in the collection?

First, I’d say that even though I am not a Christian, Christian symbols and metaphors are culturally inescapable. And so these stories and images live with us and inform our very identities quite deeply. To deny them is to deny a rich vein of cultural and personal meaning. So, too, with the Greeks. As much as the Christian bible, the Iliad is a foundational text that we should allow to enter and affect our work, even today. In this way, I’d call myself a traditional poet — though that word “tradition” rings vaguely conservative, doesn’t it? What I mean to suggest is that I’m traditional in that I attend to the past — this great gift of literature that has been left to us — and try to make meaning of and from it. I’m reminded of something Barry Lopez wrote: “If art is merely decorative or entertaining, or even just aesthetically brilliant, if it does not elicit hope or a sense of the sacred, if it does not speak to our fear and confusion, or to the capacities for memory and passion that imbue us with our humanity, then the artist has only sent us a letter that requires no answer.” I suppose I’d say that what I’m trying to do is in this collection — and in all of my work, really — is to respond to the letter that’s been sent to us from the past, while writing a letter of my own in the present. Not to mix my metaphors, but I believe artists are not so much influenced by tradition as they exist at a confluence, where the past meets the present, like two rivers meeting.

With your wife Adrianne Finlay being a novelist, you’re a two-writer household. I suspect that creates an interesting dynamic. Can you discuss what that is like, and how it may affect your own creativity?

My wife is always my first reader — and my best. Having another writer in the house is always beneficial for when you want to know if something makes sense or sounds right. But also because there’s a mutual understanding that we each need time to do our work, and so we make time for each other in that way. Of course, a big difference is that she deals with long narratives while I deal with shorter lyrical pieces, and so we’re often trying to accomplish much different things. For Adrianne, I think, clarity is very important — as is plot — whereas I might value strangeness or obscurity in a poem. As a poet, I also think the form is just as important as the meaning — as I said before, it is the meaning — but writers of novels I think tend to be less interested — not uninterested, just less interested in the overt music of language. Or they want to foreground something else. To dwell too decidedly on sound and language might interfere with the story. That said, we both teach fiction and poetry, and so we’re each well enough acquainted with the other’s genre to be good readers. And so, while The Waxen Poor is, indeed, a collection of lyrical poems, I do think that my work slips in and out of narrative and dramatic modes, too. That’s something I think I pay more attention to because of Adrianne.

What projects are you working on now?

What’s been occupying a lot of my creative energies lately is my work as associate editor of the North American Review. The magazine was founded in 1815, so we’re about to celebrate our bicentennial, which is really quite remarkable. I mean, how many things in the United States get to celebrate a bicentennial? It’s exciting but humbling. At any rate, I’m directing a conference to mark the occasion. We have so many great events planned, including keynote readings by Martín Espada, Patricia Hampl, and Steven Schwartz. People can find the call for papers here.

I’m also editing a book called Walt Whitman and the North American Review, which collects the seven essays Whitman published in the NAR in the last decade of his life, along with the many reviews, essays, and articles on him and his work that appeared in the magazine’s pages. Editorial work is challenging but also deeply gratifying.

J.D. Schraffenberger is the associate editor of the North American Review and an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s the author of the collection of poems Saint Joe’s Passion (Etruscan), and his other work has appeared in Best Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Mid-American Review, Notre Dame Review, Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with his two daughters and his wife, the novelist Adrianne Finlay.

(Author Photo by Adrianne Finlay)