Author Interview

Featured Authors

Featured Authors: An Interview with Joanne Dominique Dwyer

As you note at the beginning of your book, the title translates to “beautiful ugly.” Do you have a sense that poetry, or the poems in this collection, exist in the tension between these poles?

Poetry at its most intoxicating is courageous. It may be layered and complex or primal and stark. But it always delivers the gift of upheaval as it simultaneously soothes. I have found that poetry that alters me most always contains the components of dichotomy. The unsurpassed poems stimulate our minds, while at the same time they calm our bodies. They frighten and embolden us. They make us fall off our bicycles and they comb our hair. They are the revolution songs that make us dance uninhibited and pelvic, and the sotto voce voice that brings us down off the ledge. They send us into the labyrinth of a dark and windswept forest where we are naked and near hypothermic while concurrently spooning us soup under the light blue electric blankets of our long gone grandmothers. They exist, live, express, relate, hide, shine, cry and die within the oppositional and affiliate territories between the verdant and the barren borders of paradox. For this reason, I believe it is not so much the tension between poles, but the intersecting zones and junctures, the places where two seemingly contradictory powers commune that supplies the source of Poetry’s muscle and juice.

Some definitions of belle laide that I have come across include: a beautiful-ugly woman, an attractive unattractive woman, and a woman who has the power to seduce, though if broken down into individual physical components, the seduction makes no sense. I find it interesting that there is no equivalent in English to this French phrase that seems a just pairing for poems that tackle the dichotomies of Illumination and shadow, adoration and wound, captivity and abundance. Poems, that on occasion, walk the high wire with no net below. Poems that arrive with a small budget circus come to your little town, just when the heat and the sound of cicadas would have made you a mad man or woman delivered in chains borrowed from the elephant tamer onto the floor of the town’s one jail cell. Poems that pilgrim through the polarities of trust and hesitation, sanity and psychosis, the undomesticated and the urbane.

Writers, all the time, come up against the question of how to write of suffering, of injustice, personal or global, without making the reader, or the writer, want to throw themselves into the pit dug in the backyard, designed not for a grave, but for a celebratory feast. A natural writerly inclination can be to infuse language with beauty that contradicts caliginous subject matter, conceivably as a means of transformation, of tempering – or perhaps because there is never one without the other. Never beauty without sorrow; or ugliness without beauty. In writing celebratory, pastoral, occasional or love poems, the opposite holds true as well. The love poems that comprise a section of their own in Belle Laide, contain, in addition to the expected carnal lust and hallowed intimacy, tension, shadow, and mistrust. Corporeal and devout adoration is paradoxically paired with watchfulness and even derision, as if the lover is also the enemy.

I once read that perhaps the best definition for a concept of God is the intersecting point of paradox, the place where all the multitudes of seemingly disparate polarities unite. The place where the unapologetic totality of everything and the utter blank emptiness of nothing joins, coexists, and interlaces their arms around each other.

There’s a clear investigation of strong emotional acts throughout the book: desire and mercy, for example. What drew you to explore words with such wide implications and connotations?

The investigation and exploration of the implications and connotations of individual words is one of my favorite (a short curl at the temple fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries. syn see parasite) poetic pastimes. Inquiry into the meanings of words can become an infatuated obsessive endeavor for me, escorting the poems into unexpected directions and territories. I often feel an enormous and amorous excitement when I learn some obscure and archaic, perhaps close to extinct, usage of a word, as above with the word “favorite”.

Words are the tools of the writer, the way pigments are the tools of the painter. Multifarious meanings are contained within single words. Words are bound and are freed by their variances and endless tones and shades. It is the fact of several concurrent and sometimes oppositional meanings of a single word that contributes to the varied interpretations and the personalization of how any given reader receives and understands, and makes a poem germane to them.

I am reminded, just now, of a passage from Neruda’s memoirs on the power of the word and of the beauty of language itself. I have always been conflicted by the fact that he was able to forgive the ruthless ravage and savagery of Spanish Colonialism because of his love for the language they left behind. In seeing the language of the conquerors as a gift, Neruda was capable of making peace with the paradoxical.

He states:
“…They swallowed up everything, religions, pyramids, tribes, idolatries just like the ones brought along in huge sacks….Wherever they went, they razed the land…But words fell like pebbles out of the boots of the barbarians, out of their beards, their helmets, their horseshoes, luminous words that were left glittering here…our language. We came up losers…We came up winners…They carried off the gold and left us the gold…They carried everything off and left us everything…They left us the words.”

Though the close attention to vocabulary and etymology may seem an intellectual endeavor, my poems are birthed more from emotional derivations than intellectual ones. They begin in wet meadows or in volcanic ash with a spawn or spade or a miner’s headlamp, rather than being birthed from the cerebral chambers in the turret of the brain’s tower. So words that carry a higher voltage of emotion like desire (humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself – T.S. Eliot) and mercy (earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy season justice – Shakespeare) are bound to be in the camaraderie of sounds and meanings within my poems.

In the poem “Coat-of-Arms” the first line states “Desire is not the root of all suffering.” I am contradicting the Buddhist tenet that desire is the cause of all evil and suffering. Neither the poem, nor the poet, wants to blindly fall prey to any religious doctrines in entirety. One of the poet’s most important roles throughout history has been to present a view of beauty and of revolution, to question the status quo, if not in action, then in thought and in sensation.

And I hope as a poet not to fall prey to purely pragmatic and rule-oriented prescriptions for the writing of poetry. Poetry, after all, is subservient to imagination and imagination alone. Though it might be true that no one has a truly original thought (or feeling), poems are best left to travel by foot or by Maserati, at the poet’s discretion and to dress or undress without too many social or intellectual constraints.

Many of your poems display an interest in the societal roles women and female bodies. Can you say a bit more about this?

I have never intentionally set out to write a feminist poem, nor to write strictly from the point of view of a woman. But as a woman, I suppose, short of setting upon myself the task of writing from the point of view of a gender other than my own, I naturally, without thought and premeditated proscription, write from the perspective of my gender and from my maenad and gynecoid body. Does it mean as a woman I can better empathize with the plights of other women than men can? Do I write poems such as “Under House Arrest” and “Harem” – one tracking a current situation of subjugation and confinement of women, the other presenting a historically re-rendered portrayal of a comparable inhumanity, because I am a woman? It is because I am a human being disturbed and saddened by the mistreatment and harm we impose and act out on each other, whether that impulse towards cruelty stems from the imbedded inequality between genders, sexual orientations, races, cultures, and classes or comes out of intolerance for differences generated from the perverse, innate and antiquated need for othering, for making separate that which should not be separated.

Many years ago, when I was a very new writer, I wrote a poem assuming perspective from inside the head of Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, as she was lying unconscious in a hospital with burn wounds incurred from a fire her grandson set inside their apartment. The poem alternated between her thoughts while hospitalized and her grandson’s thoughts while inside an imagined juvenile jail. A concurrent and parallel internal dialogue between the two (as imagined through my lens) was taking place, a dialogue ultimately of asking for and of granting forgiveness. I wrote the poem because the story I read in the newspaper was a startling and painful. The idea that a grandmother could be lying in a hospital dying from a fire intentionally started by her grandson and a twelve-year boy was sitting behind bars riddled with remorse was a human story, that for me crossed boundaries of gender or race—perhaps one that existed in mythology, perhaps not a new story, but nonetheless a devastating one. A story that involved and encompassed a history of a race not my own, but ultimately it was a human story between a grandmother and a grandson. And perhaps it could be argued, or agreed, that it is a very human inclination, poetically and otherwise, to tell and re-tell and to re-shape and re-imagine stories, not just for the purpose of documentation, but as androgynous anodyne.

During my short-lived connection to the slam performance world, I read that poem aloud in a large theater in Albuquerque, NM. There was uproarious noise coming from one of the rows. Later, I was told a Black woman writer from San Francisco was the maker of the noise. The story of her outrage came back to me in bits and pieces, including a tirade in the parking lot after leaving the theater. I sought her out the next evening in a bookstore in Santa Fe where she was reading from her novel. We had a long talk that continued via email for a few months. Her opinion was that I had no right as a white woman to write from the perspective of a black woman. That it would have been fine for me to write a poem telling my reactions to the story of Betty Shabazz and the fire, but it was definitely not okay for me to step into her thoughts and feelings in persona form because I was a white woman.

The telling of the Shabazz poem story may seem a sidetrack, a departure, from the question of writing from the female perspective, from the female body, though perhaps that is exactly why the memory of the poem and another’s reaction to it came into this discussion now—the fact that I was writing from an imagined state of being another human being, and not just another woman, but also a twelve-year old African American boy. That poetry can involve our crossing districts and precincts and entering into the lives of others. That poetry is not just a narcissistic, let me tell you all about me, a gussied-up blog of what I ate and thought today, but that poetry is imagination at its best. That imagination is not just conjured images and sonic metric derivations of line and language, but that it might be a compassionate journeying into territories similar, yet vastly dissimilar to our own experiences.

In the original version of the poem about women in Afghanistan, titled “Under House Arrest”, directly following the line like arms held up against a crowd throwing stones was the line like a poem without action to back it up. I wrote that line to convey my feelings of guilt, of hypocrisy, of appropriating others’ pain for the name of art, while not really adding to the cure by giving the time and energy true valor or sacrifice requires. I was questioning whether the writing of a poem is anywhere sufficient enough a response to such conditions as life under the Taliban. Put simply, I was asking myself, far more than any reader, is the writing of poetry enough?

Ultimately, I succumbed to the advice of a few teachers who really hated that line. The poem existed before I “studied” poetry, and under the influence of those more “learned” than I, I excised the line, but added the new opening section comparing with details the life of free women living in first world countries to the life of the women living under the terror and confinement of the Taliban. But to this day, I don’t know if the line was just a terrible line of poetry or if it disturbed other poets by making them have to consider the question themselves of whether or not the act of writing poetry is enough to absolve us of social inaction.

But yes, the female body in all it reverent curves and sagging crevices, in all its copious, capricious, lustful locomotions and in all its repressed, banged-up and bandaged catatonia is both gangrenous and magnificently beatific, and a featured guest in Belle Laide.

Birds appear about sixty times in this collection. What function do they serve for you, whether concrete or metaphorical?

Birds enter my poems often; though I had no idea the number of instances was so high. There is a large saucer-shaped concrete birdbath outside the window of the room I wrote many of the poems in. In those stalling, gathering, still moments of conjuring poems, lines and words, the birds were visual visitors breaking the spell of the concentrated internal wanderings. They arrived to bathe and to drink as one comes to an oasis in the desert. They came individually and more often in flocks. They came colored and winged and flamboyant and rare; and they came drab, droned, dun-colored, but still winged, still capable of flight.

Animals, in general, inhabit and contribute evocatively to the lyrical environment of my poems, with birds being the most invited guests, next to human beings. But are they actually invited, or is it more likely they are permitted admittance only after the fact of turning up uninvited? I never quite know who or what will arrive on the doorstep of the poem. Some ideas, images and lines will land, knock and wait for entrance; others break down the door and demand to be taken in. As if I am a gate keeper, the final decider of the poem’s guest list and therefore the fate of the party. Sometimes discretion is exercised as to who and what may enter; and other times there is no room for rational thought or fear, no place for mistrust of even the hungriest, most desperate and unstable guest coming across the threshold.

Though a tiny warm-blooded creature hardly fits the depiction of what we think of as a frightening guest. A house sparrow’s heart beats 460 times per minute and the ruby-throated hummingbird’s 615 times per minute. I can offer that it’s likely the birds and other animals are in my poems as reminders of a world outside of the human realm. That they correspond to parts of our intuitive, instinctive selves and serve as liaisons between worlds. A bird represents a life lived in nature, not one insulated from it, and not one based on intellect, but on sensorial prompts.

The abundance of birds in my poems symbolize something forgotten, oppressed or powerless, fragile and in need of protection. And in other instances birds function to signify freedom, wildness, soaring. Their winged flight is in stark contrast to human concerns, to human internment. Birds are imagistic and archetypal devices that function under paradox—at times exemplifying vulnerability and at other times embodying the strength that comes when a life is lived out-of-bounds, away from the restrictions of cultural and societal gravity.

It also occurs to me that birds are the opposite of ground dwellers. They may land fleetingly in water or in grass fields to find food, but primarily they live in the tops of trees and in the sky, never staying in one place for long. Even their impulse to nest is ephemeral. They share a common trait with associative poetry: they are both instinct-driven to travel and migrate, arrive and leave. There are periods of sustained feeding and nurturing, but always the inevitable fleeing and flight, never remaining too long in one domain.

Belle Laide, Joanne Dominique Dwyer

Everything that matters is new again with Dwyer: tone, sound, attack; the brash, uneasy mix of materials, diction, and rhetorical poses; the volatile conflation of carnal and spiritual desires; emotion. A human being breathes these lines and the cumulative effect of her language—dense, swiftly veering, now oblique, now head-on—is overwhelming and welcome.

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Featured Authors

Featured Authors: An interview with Neela Vaswani

Your previous book, Where the Long Grass Bends, was a collection of short stories with a strongly mythic cast, and your memoir is told in meticulously rendered vignettes. How did you move from fashioning fiction out of the tales of your childhood, to turning your childhood and young adulthood into a (nonfiction) tale?

When I write in any genre, the raw materials and techniques are the same—it’s just the approach that differs. Early in the book I say, “I pledge allegiance to story,” and that’s what I always aim to do, to honor the simplest and most valuable truth at the heart of any story.

One thing that was different for me in moving from fiction to nonfiction was crossing the wiggly border between “unreal” and “real.” I had to learn to develop a kind of flexibility towards my “real life,” to see it as a story, a narrative, and to cast myself and my parents as characters in that story. Another adjustment was learning to create a kind of nonfiction voice/persona that had the ability to meditate, to think out loud with insight and a retrospective distance, and then to also disappear inside the “character me” in scenes.

I also had to wrangle tone. In writing some experiences from my childhood, I felt there was a sticky tone of defensiveness or self-consciousness that got in the way of the story and my overarching points. In adjusting my written tone, I found that I felt differently about my real-life experiences; I loosened my grip on them and let them be an organic part of who I am rather than something “that happened to me.” I’d experienced that same kind of personal release and cleansing when writing fiction, but with nonfiction it felt even more profound.

Your background is Indian- and Irish-American—two intensively chronicled, often romanticized, identities. When the personal has so much overlap with the familiar, how did you confront the challenge of making your experiences read as yours?

The simplest thing I did was to focus on the particular way I see the world—as me, Neela, rather than as someone who is “half Indian, half Irish.”  Still, I had some negotiating to do.

At first, it was difficult for me to explore my Indian-American identity without falling into the same story-patterns and language as other Indian-American writers. I felt that same caution when writing about biracial identity; there has been so much written, especially recently, about our identity and experience. I wanted to try to speak from those traditions and shared experiences while also telling my story in a fresh way.

Through early reader response, I found that most people felt my father’s section was more “interesting” and “exotic,” and my mother’s more mundane. So I went back to my mother’s section and worked on showing what was unique in her childhood. I wasn’t just writing about my mother being Irish-American; I was writing about a girl whose mother was dying of cancer, who negotiated with the religion she’d been born into, whose closest friend was gay in an unwelcoming climate, whose passion was historical inquiry, who was obsessed with cleanliness and the idea of travel to the Far East, etc.  At the same time, I wasn’t just writing about an Indian experience; I was writing about a Sindhi experience, a refugee-Amil-Bombay-doctor-Sufi-Sikh-Hindu-Jesuit educated-meticulous-creative-intensely private-Sindhi-Indian.

When we talked about Where the Long Grass Bends you said, “one person’s story cannot be told independent of another’s.” You Have Given Me a Country reads, in part, like a lived argument for that inseparability. Did the telling of your parents’ stories alter, or amend, your sense of your own?

Knowing my parents’ stories and stepping into their skins via the telling of those stories definitely helped me to understand them—and myself—better. The simple act of casting my parents as “characters” opened up their history and humanity in a new way for me. I also found that little things from my childhood that had seemed meaningless at the time (for example, lighting a red candle on Christmas Eve or my father’s love for model trains), suddenly made sense, had context and meaning.

I felt very strongly that I could not tell my story without first telling my parents’ stories. One surprise for me was that in writing about my mother’s culture, I was able to connect with it more strongly than I ever had before.  The strange thing about my Irish-American heritage is that it had always felt like something that belonged to my mother but not necessarily to me, perhaps because I am not Catholic and don’t “look Irish” in a traditional sense. No one has passed me on the street, done a double-take, and asked, “Hey, aren’t you a Sullivan from County Kerry?!” 

The structure of You Have Given Me a Country seems almost quilt-like—distinct sections stitched together to create a decipherable whole. How did you approach blocking (to borrow again from quilting) the elements of your life to build a memoir that is also a meditation on race, family, and how we decide who we are?

The memoir actually started as my Cultural Studies PhD dissertation. I had the factual and scholarly skeleton to build from and I filled it out with journey, characters, personal reflection, and scene.

The first section sets up my parents, the second is our story as a family, the third and fourth delve into a type of poetic analysis of categorization, love, and nation. The final section returns to a more narrative approach and brings the reader up to a fully informed present. It’s my hope that the more theoretical and historical aspects of the book will resonate because readers are first introduced to these concepts through the lives of the characters—who are real people. I felt it was important to make sure the reader was invested in my family before exploring the equally important “personal as political” aspects of the book. I tried to set the emotional blocks in place first, and then the philosophical.

Photographs are interspersed in the text—were they always a part of the project? What role do they serve?

In the earlier narrative sections of the book, the photos serve as artifacts, as pieces of historical grounding. In the more theoretical sections about love, sexuality, and legislation, I made sure to include photos of my cousin John, his partner Jim, and my mother and father. In those sections which are a more fact-driven, I used the photos to create intimacy and humanity.  
Most of the contemporary photos in the book are ones I took. The photos from the past are ones I chose from a larger selection, so even in that way, through my selection, the reader is given another bit of my “view” on the story.

There’s a photo of my mother and uncle standing on their Long Island lawn—newly middle class, my mother in her First Holy Communion dress and veil and my uncle in his Boy Scout’s uniform. What I love about the photo is that it is slightly blurry and on an angle. The photo doesn’t reflect the text, but it captures the spirit of the story. When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by this particular picture because it looked to me like my mother and uncle were wearing uniforms that showed they were a part of something American. Growing up brown, in-between, and minority on the exact same Island, the photo called to me with a sense of belonging that I both longed for and found terrifying.

When writing about my father, I included a page from his passport stamped with the word CANCELLED. I wanted to connect the idea of a “cancelled” citizenship, the strange official-ness of passports and stamps and nationality, as opposed to what resides in the human heart. That’s the power of images I hope I successfully integrated into the memoir.

You Have Given Me a Country, Neela Vaswani

A blend of history, memory, myth, and cultural studies, this memoir blurs borders of genre and identity, exploring what it means to be biracial in America. Following her heritage, Vaswani reveals the self as culmination of all that went before.

For a classroom-ready reader's guide written by the author herself, follow this link, and explore more titles with reader's guides in Sarabande in Education

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Featured Authors

Featured Authors: An Interview with Ander Monson

You write across genres—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—with a great sense of formal play in all three. What made you chose poems as the appropriate vessel for this collection? How does verse direct you as a writer?

All of my work—and the work I love to read—is powered by verse. With the exception of some of my nonfiction, I have a hard time not thinking about the way the words sound in my mouth, and how much breath I can hold in a sentence. All writers should train as poets because of what it does to your thinking about language and the microcosm of the line and the sentence.

Having said that, these poems were always poems, and the subject matter only really presented itself in this form. Revision is a process of trying to rethink and reshape and reconnect some of what’s going on, and given that a lot of this material has to do with the space between total noise and silence, this all presented as poem.

There’s a web element to the book too— Many of the poems in the book are refigured and reinterpreted somewhat, and you can read them in a different (and partly user-selected) order along with a lot of other material. The website is set up to be clicked through based on recurring images and ideas in the poems, so you can click on “blood” and it’ll take you to another “blood” poem, or into some very different spaces than you see in the book. I hope it reads as its own experience independent of the book, but that it also expands the reading experience you get reading the book, too. Maybe that’s too dorky to try to explain, but I’m pretty excited about it.

The collection includes a number of “sermon” poems. What drew you to sermons, and how does calling a poem a sermon affect the reader’s experience of it?

I’m a longtime fan of the rhetoric of sermons, particularly the ability of the sermon to contain litany after litany, to build and cusp and connect, and then to subside into the rafters. A sermon is beautiful language. It’s persuasive language, but first it has to sing. I wasn’t interested in making a mockery of the form, and I hope they don’t read that way, but repurposing the form to use to get to some rather odd territory. Calling a poem a sermon situates the reader more clearly to the speaker, and allows me to go rather more strident and imperative with the voice than I am usually comfortable with. And since so many of my poems work as dramatic monologues, it seemed like an obvious (and weirdly freeing) decision to try to access the registers of sermons. Plus it is another form to work with, another way of summoning that pleasurable double experience in the reader: it is a poem, it is a sermon, and it is somewhere in the matrix connecting or overlaying these two things.

The poems in The Available World bounce with wordplay; my favorite is “randomness/radon gas.” How does the mouthfeel (to appropriate a cooking term) of a word influence the way you construct a poem? How does sound shape your writing?

Mouthfeel is a great way to think about it, actually. Doing some research on tortilla chips for my nonfiction book,Vanishing Point (2010, Graywolf Press), I found my way into a scientific subfield of sensory evaluation, which tries to quantify the way things taste, feel, smell, are crushed, how long they hold their crunch, and so on. Mouthfeel is very much of that world, and yet it’s also inherent in the way I write poems. Part of the process of these poems (particularly the title poems) involved entering the text of the original poem into translation software to translate to Spanish, or to French, or to whatever, then re-translating it back to English. This produced a level of arbitrariness that I found useful. Then I had to go back to the new poem, usually differing in significant ways from the original, and try to rebuild it so some of that awkwardness and randomness was squeezed out of it, leaving only what I thought was meaning-making. That arbitrary machine process also produced some interesting language that would have never occurred to me, which is particularly appropriate for these poems that try to engage aspects of the digital world.

One of the constants in your writing for me is the persistent interest in technology, and the impulse to use technology to make life understandable, habitable. Does writing provide a similar way of ordering experience?

Writing is of course a technology, the poem a technology, the story, the essay, the video game, the painting. And those technologies are designed to allow us to explore and understand and sing and represent the world in different ways, no less than what virtual spaces do for us, or superaccurate simulations of global positioning data, or the ways in which scientists poke and prod and describe the world. My interest in these technologies has a lot to do with obsolescence and that inherent tragedy, our own ruination, and awareness of our passing with regard to time and knowledge. But the way into the technologies for me is often through the surfaces of them, which I find beautiful and moving and which I try to apprehend and represent, for in doing that I feel like I can pause time—which is what the poem does, after all—and try to gather all these threads together for a moment. Everything for me is about order and disorder, and as you suggest, writing is absolutely just another way of knowing, and because I fail at so many of these other ways (writing programs in assembly language that might simulate a voice or a virus, for instance), this is the one that I can access the most satisfyingly and often.

Your poems are full of what you call “somnambulists”—how does the accumulation of detail and the obsessive action of the poems act as an ice jam, a building up that allows us to break free?

There is an unthinkingness to the ways in which data collects in the poems, in the ways it washes over you (as reader/ recipient of the poems). I think of these poems as trying to articulate a way in which to live in this world of availability, or at least to count what I can while I can as it all stacks up and towers over and spills, tsunami-style into the world. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. There’s definitely a systole and diastole, a gathering and release (or I think I have the order wrong, but the sound is better this way, so sometimes you have to leave it as is, errors and all), happening in the poems. The poems are obsessive because I’m obsessive, and the poems refract and magnify that and apply it to the world in ways that I can’t normally do because I’m either not smart enough to do it in the moment, or am afraid to unhinge myself like that. Form gives you that tension between paralysis and release, because left to its own devices, everything just decays, degrades, diffuses.

The Available World, Ander Monson

Inspired by the cult Japanese video game Katamari Damashii, these poems increase in size and momentum, rolling more and more into their orbits as they go. Formally inventive and fun, The Available World examines the beauty and terror of excess.

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Featured Authors: An Interview with Alex Taylor

One small town kid to another, I know that writing is not a common occupation when you grow up in a rural place. When did you know that writing was what you wanted to do? Is there anything you’ve learned along the way?

My father was an educator, so books were always important parts of my life, and I inherited my father’s natural curiosity, something that most writers have in spades. As a senior in high school, I read The Sound and the Furyfor the first time. While I missed a lot, I grasped enough to understand that that book was working on a level much deeper and closer to the bone than the horror and sci-fi I’d been reading. In the beginning, I just wanted to write ghost stories. I suppose I still do in some ways. But after reading Faulkner I became entranced, possessed. I’d write a short story every week. And these were no longer stories about vampires and ghouls—these were stories about real people with real problems. They were awful stories, yes, but I was putting in the years of loneliness that it takes to be a writer. Faulkner cultivated in me a love for language and also a desire to pierce the heart of existence. I would simply tell any young writer to not wait for experience or life to happen. Sit in the chair. Be alone. Read. Write. Read again. There is pain and doubt, though those come later. In the beginning, I think you’re unaware that you can fail. I know I was unaware. So I just did it.

You have used the geography and culture of Kentucky as the cornerstone of your writing. Can you talk about your love for Kentucky, and why you’ve chosen not to chase the bright lights of big city life?

Well, Kentucky’s kind of a strange place. We’re a stubborn, no-nonsense kind of people, and we still retain a pioneer’s attitude about the harshness of surviving in a malevolent world. Very few folks have ever had a boot put to their throat, but a good many Kentuckians have, and this makes us interesting. Plus we’re still clinging to our guns and religion, and I’ve always been attracted to both those elements of the culture. Anything that makes folks in Washington or New York nervous is probably full of good energy. That’s my take, anyhow. As far as geography goes, anyone whose been to my part of Western Kentucky knows that it’s been ravaged by the coal industry. So the landscape, in many areas, is uninhabitable. In some ways, this is kind of good. Nothing but scrub cedar and sedge grass will grow there, but at least it won’t be developed into subdivisions. I love that paradox. As far as city life goes, this trend of young folks from the country wanting to hit the pavement is baffling to me. There are plenty of attractions in cities, but there’s also a kind of black melancholy that descends on me if I stay too long in a city. I’m probably not giving cities enough credit and maybe I’ll wind up doing time in one. But I’m fairly comfortable drawing a hard line on this one.

Could you talk about the tone of your work? What about the macabre and grisly attracts you as a writer?

I tend to write about nasty events and murderous behavior in part due to the fact that I grew up in such a stable home. My parents were and are rocks. But when I started attending school I quickly learned that a good many of the kids in my class weren’t faring as well as me when they went home each night. These were kids who might have to fight their dad just to get a spot on the floor to lie down in. It stood in stark contrast to what I’d known. But really, any story worth its salt has to have a strong sense of danger and of consequence. Some writers that I read are beyond my understanding because their characters may be well-drawn and three dimensional, but nothing is being asked of them. Plus, I think it is the duty of the modern writer to confront the existence of evil.

A common construction seems to be playing off the tension of “three’s company.” Usually one character, if not all three, ends up with the short straw. It makes for enthralling reading. Do you consciously triangulate? Why?

No, I’m just trying to construct believable characters and then throw them into desperate situations. Sometimes that comes out in a triumvirate of sorts. I have a story in there called “Things Both Right and Needed” where this fellow is convinced the other two folks in the tale murdered his brother. I guess three people is a manageable number to work with on the page. You can have one fellow and pit his desires against another fellow. Then introduce another element—in the case of the story I was just talking about, it’s a woman—which introduces really a fourth element, the element of sex, which is always replete with trouble. Really, what I’m trying to do is ratchet up the tension. One way to do that is to keep piling on the obstacles my protagonist has to maneuver around in order to get what he or she wants.

When using dialogue, you successfully stay true to the dialect of the region you are writing about. Does this make writing more difficult or do you find it frees you up to paint a richer, more whole picture?

I want my readers to understand that I’m writing about country people, people that may or may not have been to college, who likely don’t use correct grammar but are intelligent and self-sufficient nonetheless. I use the dialect in order to capture these people. I probably wouldn’t write about them if they did speak perfectly. Plus, it’s through incorrect language and sentence constructions that new and vibrant images and tones are born. I overheard a child say once: “And there he come, straight out of the nowhere.” To me, that’s beautiful. That definite article ‘the’ right before ‘nowhere’ alters the meaning of the sentence is such a fascinating way, as if ‘nowhere’ is a specific region where only harridans and strange wizardly folks are known to live. Using such a dialect really doesn’t seem like much of a hindrance to me. The only drawback is that you can overdo it. But, then it’s often hard to say what a reader will find inauthentic. To some people, the world I’m writing about doesn’t exist.

Besides writing and reading, do you have any other hobbies or interests that feed into your writing?

I try to fish a lot. That seems to correspond with writing in that both are acts of faith and can be incredibly disappointing or exhilarating. Writing, like fishing, is an attempt to catch some piece of mystery that tugs at the end of your consciousness. I also adore firearms, though I don’t know if this helps my writing. The gun is a truly magnificent creation, a tool of definite and exact purpose, containing both the elements of control and chaos. I love country music, and that more than anything I’ve mentioned thus far feeds my writing. The narrative technique in those old songs is incredible and they are infused with wit, humor and pathos for the plight of all of us. I admire the simple directness of country music, something I don’t really have in my writing. I’m kind of a thick writer in that I love imagery to the point it often chokes out my narrative.

Many of your characters are eccentric. Is there any particular character fryou most enjoyed writing and, if so, why?

I really enjoyed writing Buzzard, the Christian biker in “The Long Poem Continuous”. He’s a cantankerous fellow who doesn’t have a lot of patience for intellectual grandstanding and educated ignorance. The two poets in the story are clearly people that operate under no code whatsoever. They’re products of a broken system, fools whose only belief is a belief in nothing. What I like about Buzzard is that he is clearly the more virtuous of the three, despite his aliteracy. He’s more virtuous because he has the courage to plunge, literally in this case, into belief.

The Name of the Nearest River, Alex Taylor

A resonant debut from an unexpected new voice in southern fiction. This collection reveals hidden dangers in the coyote-infested fields, rusty riverbeds, and abandoned logging trails of Kentucky, where men take too much whiskey and women take too many men.

For a classroom-ready reader's guide written by the author himself, follow this link, and explore more titles with reader's guides in Sarabande in Education

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Featured Authors: An Interview with Ashley Butler

The variations of style and content throughout these essays are quite broad and inventive. Can you talk about how you decided on the structure for this collection?

I’m often not aware of what an essay is about until after it’s been written and I’ve had some time away from it. The overall structure of the book became more obvious after Anechoic was written. After a while one essay or inquiry just seemed to follow the next. I’m also grateful to many readers for helping the collection find a form.

The five senses become characters in their own right by the end of this book.  Sight, for example, makes several appearances. In the essay “Causality:Casualty” you state, “Believe me when I say, one must remain hidden in order to maintain the feeling that one sees completely.” Could you further discuss the significance of the senses, specifically sight, in this collection?

Bentham’s Panopticon: that circular building whose circumference is lined with cells and whose center is occupied by a tower in which a guard turns to survey the prisoners. To some extent, what one sees is determined by expectations of the larger community or culture in which an individual finds herself at a given point in time.  Art historian Jonathan Crary reminds us that “sight is an historical activity”—a rose is a rose is a rose. We write to write ourselves in the process of writing.  Sight is a means and not an end.

Relativity plays a large role in this collection. A favorite quote in the collection is from Goethe when he writes, “No one who has never seen himself surrounded on all sides by nothing but the sea can have a true conception of the world and his own relation to it.”  Could you talk about what this quote means to you and what it means to this collection of essays?

In “Italian Journey,” Goethe begins by telling us how calm and quiet the four-day boat trip from Naples to Palermo is and only then does he mention the adverse wind and how he’s been violently seasick.  From the simple line of the marine horizon, he writes, he’s found another approach to his landscape painting.  It’s as though by being at sea (unencumbered by trees, hills, etc) he might realize some presentation of a limit beyond the body.  And this would be available only to the eyes. In Dear Sound, and in writing in general, I think openness is important, that is, to try to make a space so something can pass through.

Throughout this collection, you explore the lives of pioneers, specifically pioneers of space, speed, and science. How did you approach your research for these essays?

I spent a lot of time in archives and special collections.  The research for Anechoic took a year and a half though very little of it was included in the essay.  In some ways, the research became more about the obsession to know, to find some meaning in, or to somehow objectify, the feeling of absence.  For the other essays, the research served slightly different purposes though it’s always used to think through a more subjective inquiry.

Along the same lines, of all the famous explorers and scientist, etc., that you researched for this book, including the likes of Houdini, Yuri Gagarin, and Nikolai Federov, who was your favorite subject and why? What is it you hope to learn or convey by these stories of great exploration?

Tsiolkovsky drew up plans for an elevator between the earth and outer space—one long wire anchored in the sea and stretching up through the atmosphere. For his ideas Tsiokovsky risked being exiled or labeled mad/unsound, etc and thus considered less than human, or less civilized. Although he was ridiculed at the time, some of his ideas may not seem as radical or unusual now. In Dear Sound, the scientists offer another way to think through the essayist’s relationship to grief and the unfounded hope that the dead could send messages by making a light flicker, etc.