- Fjords: Interview with Caitlin McGuire
- Sidney Thompson’s Interview with Kirk Nesset
- 10 Questions: Saint X
- Pampered Pet Tours with Professor
- Ray, we hardly knew ye…
- Interview with Kirk Nesset, Our Flash Fiction Contest Judge
- Nesset Captures National Award
- On meeting author Kirk Nesset and writing flash fiction…
- A Conversation between Kirk Nesset and Nicelle Davis
- Pitt News Interview
24 Apr 2015
Interview with Kirk Nesset (Fjords Review, July 24, 2014)
by Caitlin McGuire
(Kirk Nesset’s translations of Edmundo Paz Soldán’s poems, “Disappearances,” “Man of Fictions,” “In the Library,” “Pilar,” and “After the Breakup,” appeared in Fjords Review, Volume I, Issue 3.)
Nesset is author of two books of short stories, Paradise Road (University of Pittsburgh Press) and Mr. Agreeable (Mammoth Books), two books of translations, Alphabet of the World: Selected Work of Eugenio Montejo (University of Oklahoma Press) and Disappearances: Stories by Edmundo Paz Soldan (Calypso Editions), and a nonfiction study, The Stories of Raymond Carver (Ohio University Press); his book of poems, Saint X (Stephen F. Austin State University Press), appeared in 2012. His stories, poems and translations have appeared in The Paris Review, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere, including four of Norton’s anthologies — Flash Fiction Forward, Flash Fiction International, New Sudden Fiction and Sudden Fiction Latino. He was awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, a Pushcart Prize and the Perry Poetry Prize, as well as grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He teaches creative writing and literature at Allegheny College, and serves as fiction writer-in-residence at Black Forest Writing Seminars (Freiburg, Germany).
CM: How did you come across Edmundo Paz Soldán’s writing?
KN: I heard him read at Allegheny College, where I teach, and I found his fiction compelling. This might have been eight or nine years ago. We talked that evening at a party at a colleague’s house. What a charismatic, generous, deep-thinking person, I thought. I began reading his work, the short stories especially. A year later, an editor at W. W. Norton wrote to ask if I had any translated flash to submit for an upcoming anthology. I didn’t, but soon afterwards did: pieces by Luisa Valenzuela, Juan Jose Saer, Eduardo Galeano and others. One of the others was a younger, less known but very talented Bolivian writer, Edmundo Paz Soldán. His story “Counterfeit,” as it is titled in English, was chosen for Sudden Fiction Latino.
(Edmundo Paz Soldán)
CM: Name a place you’ve written about but never been.
KN: I wrote a poem this summer about the final days of Oliver Hazard Perry, the American naval commander who defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie. He sailed up the Orinoco River on a diplomatic mission into what is now called Venezuela, and caught yellow fever and died coming home. I spent six weeks reading and researching before I wrote those twenty-four lines. Biographies, journals, letters, newspapers, history, geology, geography, scientific data about period flora and fauna, and so on.
KN: I’m working on a story now set in Tallinn, Estonia’s capitol city. A different matter altogether, this is. I’ll need to visit the country to finish the story, I’m thinking.
CM: What do you consider the biggest struggle in translation?
KN: Making the thing float in English. Making the poem a poem or the story a story. A translator needs to be both a translator and an experienced writer. A fully bilingual, highly learned mind does not a poem or story make, necessarily. The most accurate, painstakingly faithful transcriptions are just that — transcriptions, not translations. They’re not stories or poems. They’re servile. We’ve all seen them. Some of our most cherished epics, even, have been crucified thus. Exquisitely precise, true to a fault to the material, intricately footnoted. They don’t breathe or shimmer or risk volatility, that ambiguous dance that makes poetry poetry. In the worst cases, they’re colorless or clunky or both.
KN: The translated piece in the end should be as correct as it can possibly be, even if correctness means compromising slightly or more than slightly. Even if it means moving away from the original for the sake of musical and compositional unity and of emotional resonance. The ideal translator should combine, as Donald Frame says, the learned humility of the good scholar with the imagination and daring of a gifted verbal artist working in poetry as well as in prose. Which is to say translating isn’t solving a puzzle. It’s not just transplanting and refiguring grammar. It’s about release and reentry. The fiber of thinking constituting the piece isn’t fiber you were born or grew into, usually. The rhythms aren’t rhythms you had thought possible, given your home base in language. So you move into the piece, the story or poem, tantalized, letting its thinking think thoughts your mind really can’t think, or couldn’t before, and now does somehow, and you feel its strange rhythms and try on its tones — and returning, hope to transmit it and make it your own. By transporting the goods from one world to another you transport yourself. There’s almost no better way of emptying yourself, of letting something or someone get into your skin.
CM: Name the greatest lesson you learned in school.
KN: The lesson of not giving up. Of sticking with something. Of getting the words down, the work done. I had a teacher in eighth grade who’d beat our butts in front of the class if we came to school without homework, or with homework unfinished. This created strong incentive to finish. I only got paddled once. Once was enough.
CM: What is your favorite word in Spanish? In English?
KN: That’s a difficult question. As writers we tend to be in love with and enchanted by language. Words are the be-all and end-all. Words are uncanny, at times strange and surreal. They’re the building blocks of this thing we often blithely and mistakenly call “reality.” Ideas and understanding count for something, yes, but words matter more, along with the music of their arrangement. New favorite words bubble up every hour. How to narrow it down?
CM: What was the last so-good thing that made you glad to be an artist?
KN: In May my sixth book was accepted by Calypso Editions (NYC). A book titled Disappearances, a gathering of translated microficciones by Edmundo Paz Soldán. We’re hoping the book will appear late spring or summer.
CM: What are you currently working on?
KN: At the moment I am finishing a manuscript of flash fiction, a bizarre, inspired book-to-be I’m calling Burn. I am also banging together what seems to be a novella, an eighty or ninety page something-or-other that may join a small constellation of old and new stories, all of which I hope to call the next book-to-be.
23 Apr 2015
Sitting Radar: Sidney Thompson’s Interview with Kirk Nesset
(American Literary Review) See original article
On November 21, 2013, I had the opportunity to sit down with Kirk Nesset and his well-behaved Pomeranian at Oak Street Drafthouse in Denton, Texas. My interest in meeting him stemmed primarily from my interest in his flash fiction. I frankly declare that “I Want You to Kill Me,” from Mr. Agreeable, is one of the best short stories ever written, short-short or not. Like many of the other stories in the collection, it’s as provocative and visceral in its abstract expressionism as any painting by Chaïm Soutine, with unsettling intimacy, absurd joy and heartbreak. After a couple of IPAs, we proceeded around the corner to Andaman Thai Restaurant, with Ryan the Pomeranian quiet as a mouse at Kirk’s feet in his portable carrier (with the exception of one brief escape).
The first thing about Kirk that struck me was his precision. With great deliberation, he minces his words, and I don’t mean he “weakens” or “softens” them, and neither is there an over-wrought pause between. There’s a vigorous delicacy to his manner and an exactness, a cleaving, to his word choice — a sheerness. A navigation. He’s one who will tell on himself wryly but not for the cheapness of a laugh, though I laughed plenty. He’s simply an honest poet. I found the jazz of him somewhat reminiscent of Barry Hannah, my mentor and friend, so it came as little surprise to learn that Barry was his friend, his hero, for many years, too. We discussed, among other things, Barry’s “Even Greenland,” one of the classics in the genre of sudden fiction. Here is my account, albeit polished, of those other things.
Sidney Thompson (ST): What were your sources of inspiration as an aspiring fiction writer, and what are they now?
Kirk Nesset (KN): I read a great deal as a child, so I was inspired early. Aesop and Grimm and the Nancy Drew books had the most impact, I think, early on. Then Louis Carroll and Poe, Zane Grey and Jack London. London’s autobiographical portrait of an artist, Martin Eden, pretty much knocked me to pieces. By the time I hit high school I’d read all of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mansfield, O’Connor, Thomas Wolf, Lawrence Durrell and Hesse, and had dipped into many others. Mainly this was because of a wonderful thing my parents had done. In 1969, relocating to California from Seattle, they “killed the television,” as the phrase went then. After that all I did at home was read and sing and play guitar, stack wood and play board games. As an English major later at college and grad school, I was still a voracious reader, most voracious during the summer. The books I loved then made me the writer I am, I believe. They not only taught me craft but taught me how to perceive. Don Quixote. Tom Jones. Middlemarch. The Brothers Karamazov. Lolita. Beckett’s Malone Dies. Atwood’s Surfacing. DeLillo’s White Noise. I’m still completely TV-illiterate, and not nearly as informed as some about film. I’m not embarrassed to admit it. Bookish is good.
(ST): Are there more recent writers?
(KN): Most inspiring to me have been Barry Hannah, Jeanette Winterson, Alice Munro, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders and of course Carver, along with DeLillo and Atwood. I used to read around a lot more. These last years I’ve read less widely and comprehensively. I was relieved years ago when Barry Hannah told me how he had been reading. He was presenting that evening at Allegheny College and I’d gone to the hotel to pick him up. He was sitting reading in the lobby and tucked the book in his bag when he saw me. In the car I asked who he favored these days, expecting to hear names and titles one heard on the breeze then. I may have mentioned those titles and names. Barry said he had heard of those authors but hadn’t read them. Rather than reading around, he told me, he was rereading the books he loved. Some of them he’d read, he said, twenty or twenty-five times. The book he’d slid in his bag, by the way, was Beckett’s Molloy.
I didn’t study writing in a writing program, I should say. I’m truly “old school.” I studied literature. I didn’t know I was aspiring to write until I was well into grad school. I’d never presumed to think that writing was a thing people did. I began at UCSB as a Renaissance scholar and wound up writing on Carver. Lit crit and theory drove me to creative writing, it seems. But the books I had read and was reading were key. Aside from a pair of writer’s conferences, and aside from the help of some generous mentors — Barry Spacks, Steven Allaback, Christopher Buckley — the literary models were crucial. The books I had read were my teachers.
(ST): In hindsight, as author of The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study, what about Carver’s writing (or Gordon Lish’s editing) do you believe is possibly the least understood or appreciated?
(KN): The inexplicable thing about Ray, what we don’t talk about when we talk about Carver, is atmosphere and tone. The eerie moods he creates. For sure, Gordon Lish helped to cultivate this. Mainly it comes from compression, constriction, verbal omission, a ruthless bareness, not to mention the awkward, almost extraterrestrial voices Carver finds. It’s a poetics of silence in prose, you could say. Everywhere in Carver are hints about what can’t be represented, or written, or said. People tend to see social drama — the catastrophe of the plight of the lower middle class, poor prospects, alcoholism, et cetera — and don’t notice the nuances. Carver’s work is richer and stranger than that. The prose is sometimes so blank, so terribly “real,” it borders on expressionism. He hyperextends realism, such that an oppressive, inhospitable world seems that much less full, less hospitable. The stories make you “feel the force of the paradox,” as Claude Richard writes, “that ensures that the deepest anxiety is, precisely, that which does not let itself speak.”
(ST): While primarily a fiction writer, you also publish poetry and translation. Are there discernible differences in style, subject matter, or mood when you approach one genre or another?
(KN): Actually, when you weigh the numbers of pieces appearing over the years, you’ll see I publish more poems and translations than fictions. They’re shorter, easier to place and more manageable, given space considerations. But you’re right, I do consider myself a fiction writer first and foremost. Lately I have also been publishing essays—on Carver, and on writing, fiction pedagogy especially. Issues related to genre do arise, yes, each time I sit down to write. Above all when I begin something new. “Approach” is the key word here. When I’m working from a prompt, or a solicitation from an editor, I tend to move fairly straightforwardly into the genre in question. It’s always a challenge, of course, starting a piece. With nonfiction I tend to outline and plan ahead, even if I wind up discarding those plans. The writing is intuitive, certainly, but it’s nice to line up your ducks, even if you don’t shoot them all down. With fiction, I locate a character and setting and try to discover what’s lurking. What’s intriguing, disturbing. And then sniff out motivation, causality, tap into the mystery, hoping the story will grow or unfold, revealing its secrets. With poetry, typically, it’s the exhilaration of language itself that draws me in, that incites the poem. Some of my verse is narrative, and much of it makes sense. But it doesn’t have to — which is incredibly freeing, since nonfiction and fiction only rarely allow for such freedom. Margaret Atwood believes different parts of the brain are at work in what she calls ambidextrous writers, depending on genre. When you write fiction you’re methodical, organized. And poetry is “a state of free float.”
What’s complicated, though, I find, is that sometimes you write and look what you have and don’t know what you’ve written. I’ll write what I think is a poem, and take out the line breaks and see it’s a story, a compact micro tale. Or vise versa. I have pieces in the mail now, I hesitate to admit, that are submitted in both genres. As stories and poems. Which genre will win?
Translation on the other hand is something else altogether. I like it and do it a lot, maybe because as a way of writing it feels less intimidating. It’s like sitting down to work out a puzzle. It’s not my soul or vertiginous inner abyss on the line, seemingly, but somebody else’s. The matter is already there on the page. There’s more to it, though, as we know. A translation isn’t a puzzle, finally. It isn’t just transposition, substitution, clever maneuvers with dactyls and dictionaries. It’s its own creature. It’s an enacted, unfolding thing, an experience in a new tongue that approximates the original. It may be easy to start, but the piece in English must live and breathe as a poem or story. It needs a beating heart. It needs musical and emotional coherence, as well as semantic finesse.
(ST): Of your short-short story collection Mr. Agreeable, Barry Hannah declared, “Nesset is attuned to the fine-edged songs of the mundane,” while Bret Lott said that you have “given us a beautiful bouquet of crystal shards, each one of which, when held to the light, refracts and amplifies and makes new the entire notion of light.” How conscious are you of technique — of discovering and refining that fine edge, that crystal shard—when inside the writing process of your first draft?
(KN): I’d like to say that I just draft when I draft — write like an ape, go to town, let the gate down. But that’s very rarely the case. Which is why the process of drafting is often so awful to me. I write slowly. Excruciatingly. I’m lucky to get a page a day, if that. And while I’m aware of the fact that polish comes later –attention to the fine edges and shards — I can’t just madly excrete, idiot savant that I am, that we all are, or should be, initially. For me, voice must click from the very first sentence and keep clicking from there, or come close to clicking. Otherwise, I won’t believe the voice, or the piece, enough to go on. So yes, there is attention to technique from the start, but not the intense attention that comes later. The early sensitivity is about getting voice right. Which necessarily includes sentence rhythm, diction, cadence and sound.
Other writers work or worked this way, too, obviously. Flannery O’Connor, Richard Ford, DeLillo and Hannah, among others. I worked with Ford, in fact, late in the 80s, at the Squaw Valley Writers Center in California. I remember asking him what he did in a draft when he got stuck. He backtracked, he told me. He returned to where the voice of the prose sounded true, and looked to see where it diverged, or derailed. He’d work to fix that, he said, and proceed from there.
I love revision, as a lot of us do. There’s very little suffering there, unlike with drafting. And I’m a ruthless reviser. If I’m lucky I’m done after sixty or seventy drafts. Usually it’s more like a hundred, one hundred fifty. Two hundred drafts isn’t unusual, depending.
(ST): Depending on what?
(KN): Depending on how the story complies, unfolds, aligns energetically. On the way voice, rhythm, urgency, tension and pace comply or fail to comply. Fail to arrive. Or arrive. Become manifest on the page.
(ST): About your collection Paradise Road, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, Ann Beattie said, “These stories are melodious when they need to be, jangle when we need to hear what’s discordant.” I understand that you have a background in music. How coincidental are Beattie’s instincts?
(KN): I’m less conscious than some, I think, about what sings or clacks in my work. Crafting sound is an intuitive process, at least for me. Even a sharp listener, a musically-illiterate writer at some point senses the orchestral nature of narrative, the melody and harmony and rests and refrains in every story or poem, the rise to crescendo. Still, my writing wouldn’t sound the way it does, I suppose, if music hadn’t preceded. I was a musician long before I was a writer. Musicians think in sounds, express and emote in nonverbal ways. Language is rhythmic and sonic, obviously. And if your ear is trained, writing is music as well. I’m as interested in the way something sounds on the page when I write, or revise, as I am in what the thing says, or conveys. It’s hard to say, though, how exactly I know what I know, or how influence works. I’d like to say that the way I manage and measure my stories or poems arises from song. That my modulations in voice, rhythm, or awareness of such, arise likewise. But no. It’s a thing you can’t nail down, since what we absorb is internal. Is internalized. And what’s internal is mysterious, finally.
What’s not mysterious is the fact that music is fun. Much of it for me, all of this singing and playing on stage, is about not writing. I’m in two bands now, with three rehearsals a week, 5 or 6 shows per month and daily music homework. That’s a lot of time away from writing, or from preparing to write. Nabokov had his butterflies, so I can have this, I guess. For me, we could say, music is creativity minus the agony, unease and worry, the incinerating self-conscious flames. It’s not lonely or solitary. And there’s free beer.
(ST): What do you love or hate most about writing or publishing, and what do you intend to do about it?
(KN): I love hearing that something I wrote mattered to someone. Especially when whatever it was mattered to someone for reasons I could never have imagined beforehand, much less intended. I got a letter years ago from a high school teacher saying he liked my book on Carver so much he wanted to apply to grad school in English. And he did. And got in. I still get fan mail for Mr. Agreeable and Paradise Road, some of it strange, some vaguely frightening, but most of it very uplifting.
I love, too, the rare affirmation that comes in the form of acceptances. Stories, poems, essays, translations, pieces slated for press. Book manuscripts, especially, which can be exhausting to the point of nightmarish to peddle. There’s a glow, you know, that remains, after the news comes, which can last days. Wow, look, you think, I’m not only not getting kicked or beaten today, but somebody likes what I wrote. And wants to promote it.
Best of all I love the feeling of completing a draft. The glow of that lasts quite a bit longer.
(ST): What do you hate?
(KN): That nothing’s consistent. The process and progress of writing, I mean. I thought early on that there were lessons you learned that eventually made it all easier. On one level that’s true, maybe. Mostly it’s not the case. Each project is like building Rome again from the ground up. The process is laborious, tedious, fraught with doubt and misgiving.
I also don’t like the fact, speaking of which, that writing turns you so inward at times you think you’re moving completely over the edge, which isn’t pleasant. But even more I despise the alternative — not writing. Sometimes you need to lay off awhile to refill. A day or two is okay, but after that things get tricky. How did Kafka put it? “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”
More and more these days, though, I don’t hate much. I try to be grateful for what I’ve accomplished or earned and resent less and less. Because if you’re in this for good you can’t expect much. You write and write and take what you get and feel thankful. The rewards usually aren’t very visible. When I was fresh out of grad school, rejection was a palpable, personal thing. An agent would respond with cutting remarks — less than charitable, cruel, but also helpful and true — and I’d feel disemboweled for weeks. Which doesn’t help. You eventually stop taking things personally. Your skin thickens. It has to, or you won’t last in this business. I read a review weeks ago of Saint X, for example, my new book of poems. The reviewer destroyed it. Did I hate her? Yes, momentarily. Then I reread the review and thought, how sad. Here is a woman who seems to take the craft seriously and has a degree but hasn’t yet learned to read, can’t tune in to the way poetic language evokes. How sad, when journals give reviews to reviewers unprepared to review.
What to do, you ask, about the diminishing hating, and loving? Keep writing. If we’re here for the long haul there’s not much else to do. The best meditation practice, we know, comes in part from not attaching to notions of outcome. The same goes for writing. “The point of sitting is to sit,” my teacher Sasaki Roshi told me, once upon a time at the L.A. Zen Center. The point of writing, likewise, I think, is to write.
(ST): What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
(KN): My sixth book, a book of translations, is due out next summer at Calypso Editions, a fine arts press in New York. Disappearances, the new book will be called. A selected anthology of micro fictions by a wonderful, highly visible Bolivian writer, Edmundo Paz Soldán. His enigmatic, mellifluous fictions, translated pour moi, have gotten some attention in this country already. They’ve appeared in the Boston Review, Chicago Review, Literary Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, PANK and Arroyo, among others, including two of Norton’s anthologies — Flash Fiction International and Sudden Fiction Latino.
At the moment I am finishing a manuscript of flash fiction, a bizarre, inspired book-to-be I’m calling Burn. I am also at work on a historical novel, set in northern California in the 1880s. And a travel book involving the Philippines and Filipino cuisine. And I am banging together what seems to be a novella, an eighty or ninety page something-or-other that may join a small constellation of old and new stories, all of which I hope to call the next book-to-be.
Kirk Nesset is the author of two books of short stories, Paradise Road and Mr. Agreeable, as well as a book of translations, Alphabet of the World, a nonfiction study, The Stories of Raymond Carver, and, his latest, a book of poems,Saint X. His stories, poems, translations, and essays have appeared in such journals as The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Witness and Prairie Schooner. His flash fiction has been widely anthologized: most recently in Flash Fiction Funny, but also The Pushcart Prize Anthology XXIII, Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories, Sudden Stories, and New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond, among others.
Sidney Thompson is the author of the short story collection Sideshow, recipient of Foreword Magazine’s Silver Award for the Best Short Story Collection of 2006. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such literary journals as The Southern Review, Carolina Quarterly, Prick of the Spindle, Danse Macabre, Ostrich Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Clapboard House, Ragazine.CC, NANO Fiction, TheNewerYork’s Electric Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature, The Story Shack, Beetroot Journal and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, while his poetry and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in RHINO Poetry, A capella Zoo, IthacaLit, The Fertile Source, The Fat City Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Paste Magazine, The Human, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Arkansas and is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Texas.
31 Mar 2013
TEN QUESTIONS FOR KIRK NESSET’S SAINT X
(These ten questions were posed as part of Lois Marie Harrod’s blog interview series. See below for the other interview links.)
What is the title of your book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I’m not sure that the book began with an idea, and don’t recall where or when the title arose, or the ideas associated with the title. The book was accepted eight years ago, and just appeared in December. Some of the poems that make up the collection I wrote 20 or more years ago in Los Angeles, one of the more apocalyptic cities I know.
What genre does your book fall under?
What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I wouldn’t call the haunted entities inhabiting my pages “characters”– but if pressed to the wall, I’d say maybe Grace Zabriskie, Vincent Shiavelli, Crispin Glover, Tilda Swinton, Klaus Kinski.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Saint X chronicles the joy and despair of a millennial age, charting love’s ills and the grind of mortality; its human figures are honored if not saved by nuanced reflection, measured perception and the pleasures of song.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book was published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press (Nacogdoches, TX). They did a great job on Saint X, it’s a beautiful, carefully-made book, and I’m pleased and proud to be part of their catalogue.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I think I had an early version of the manuscript together after nine or ten years of writing poems. But six more years passed before I had anything that looked like the book Saint X became.
What other books would you compare this one to within your genre?
That’s a tough question. Ideally, a new book of poems is nothing like anything else that’s been written, but informed by everything I’ve ever read or experienced. Neruda has always had great impact on me. As has Rumi. Rilke, Levertov, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Marvin Bell and Gerald Stern figure here, too. Especially Gerald Stern.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Though it doesn’t look or sound or feel much like Saint X, Stern’s staggeringly lovely Lucky Life is behind everything I do, I think, in my own book, and in the book I’m finishing now. I wouldn’t say, though, that Saint X rose out of an act of inspiration. The poems seemed to arrive on their own, almost unbidden, and at some point a pattern emerged, a gravitational energy.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Its intensity and oddness, I’d say. It’s not a casual or typical read — whatever that means. Its figures are bizarre but familiar. People born under punches, shaken by rattles and flares, latter-day pilgrims who stare at the statue that stares at America; people for whom disobedience is still a first duty, and death but a question of style. People wearing bandages rather than smiles, perversely on foot while the saddled horse follows. People who seem to survive and still seem to be laughing. “[T]hese poems,” as Li-Young Lee notes of Saint X, “will make you think twice, think again, and feel glad that such an unsettling imagination is at work in poetry.”
If the book unsettles Li-Young, well, I guess I’ve done all I can.
For more info on Saint X, click HERE
(By Sunday, April 6, 2013, another writer will be added to the list of those interviewed. Please check back here.)
Previous Interviews include:
Vassiliki Katsarou http://raggedsky.com/blog
Adrianne Kalfopoulou http://www.adriannekalfopoulou.com/articles/round_robin.htm
For further reading: http://loismarieharrodblogger.blogspot.com
05 Jan 2013
Pampered pet tours with professor
The Campus — Chelsea Fleishman (see original article )
Their friendship knows no bounds.
From work, to the gym and even at the bar, their complementary sets of luscious locks and pearly whites are iconic.
English Professor Kirk Nesset and his black Pomeranian, Ryan, are celebrities at Allegheny College.
“[They] stroll the Oddfellows hallway like a pair of gangsters,” said Kiley Fisher, ’13.
At last Thursday’s Single Voice Reading, Ryan listened attentively in the first row as Nesset read his flash fiction and poems he had translated.
“If Ryan’s not paying attention, I know I’m doing something wrong,” Nesset said.
Senior Michael Babeji recalled the time he and a few fellow students watched Ryan while Nesset’s band, Uncle John’s Band, played at Grounds for Change.
“All the while Ryan would intermittently bark, as if cheering for his owner,” Babeji said.
Nesset isn’t the only one performing for the public eye.
“Once, in the English department hallway, Kirk brought out a hula hoop and Ryan performed show tricks,” said William Brewer, ’11. ”In that moment he was the star, or, at least a part of the same star team.”
Ryan’s been jumping through hula hoops, wiping his feet on the carpet and even playing dead since his first summer with Nesset.
Just over four years ago, those big brown eyes gleamed at him through a pet store display case, melting Nesset’s heart and breaking his wallet.
Nesset admits that he was always more of a cat person, but his love for Ryan has slowly transformed him into a dog-lover.
It also helps that Ryan, who was raised with Nesset’s three cats, has developed catlike qualities.
“He’ll sit on the back of the couch and lick his paws or he’ll groom other people,” Nesset said.
Nesset feels that Ryan serves as an ice-breaker, particularly when he interacts with students from other schools.
“These are visiting writer-student-interactions that might not have happened without the dog intercession because, first, people want to see the dog, and then they talk about writing,” he said.
Kiley Fisher, ’13, attested to Ryan’s calming energy.
“He makes me feel a lot less nervous about proposing dumb story ideas and asking Kirk to help me with my life decisions,” she said. “Mostly because it’s easier to make eye contact with Ryan [than Kirk].”
Ryan is a registered service dog, having passed entry screening for physical soundness and temperament.
He has also been dubbed Oddfellows’ unofficial therapy dog.
According to Nesset, at least one student walks into his office every day with the sole intent of seeing Ryan. Students and faculty often drop by to play with the dog, sit on the couch with him or even take him for a walk.
Although Ryan’s company is what guests most often crave, it’s Nesset’s own personality traits that reveal why the dog is so adored.
Students describe their professor’s character as nurturing, engaging, attentive and calming, words that could easily be used to describe Ryan.
Brewer referred to the man-dog relationship as a team of sidekicks, portraying them as one entity rather than individual performers.
“It’s always that way, it seems, between man and dog,” Brewer said. “That’s why we love them.”
Regardless of the pressures of celebrity status, Nesset finds that Ryan has completely embraced his public role here at Allegheny.
“I think part of the psychology is that Ryan thinks he has a huge family here,” Nesset said.
01 Jan 2013
Kirk Nesset is an eclectic author and teacher who has deeply studied the works of Raymond Carver, and brings a fresh, empathic perspective to the life and work of the great short story artist. Below, my talk with Kirk about his own books as well as the life and prose of Carver.
Jill Dearman: There’s been a lot of ink lately (again!) about the love-hate relationship between Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish. As a Carver expert, what are your thoughts about the longer, original tales vs. the highly edited versions?
Kirk Nesset: Carver’s biography is just out, and it’s getting reviews, so the dead horse is getting beaten again. My feeling is that Carver benefited much from his interactions with Lish, in the same way Eliot needed and benefited from Pound, who edited him almost equally mercilessly. Carver’s stories are wonderful in their various ways, early to late, even if many from What We Talk About, the volume that Lish worked over most, seem bloodless and bare. I prefer the stories that Carver “restored,” I suppose, which is to say swelled out again after Lish cropped them dramatically. “A Small, Good Thing” and “So Much Water So Close to Home,” for example. They’re written with Lish’s restraint, even as they provide emotion fullness and, in each case, something like muted resolution. Still, they’re not the original stories. They’re closer to the originals—but tighter, more taut, and more strange. Harsh editing taught Carver a lot. He became his own Lish, his own axe, in the end, and it helped. The later stories do seem more generous, yes. They’re fuller. But they’re not hopeful, exactly. Or friendly.
What troubles me most about the debate is the fact that people continue to make such a fuss over it. The whole thing seems petty to me. Mean-minded. It smacks of territoriality, ownership. It seems to want to depict Carver as victim, either that or minimize him, make him less the unique writer he is. Carver was a better writer after Lish did what he did, ruthless as much of that editing seems. The drastically reduced stories of What We Talk About made the miracle of Cathedral possible. Cathedral embodies a compromise, or union, in terms of tone and delivery. Even if by that point Lish was out of the picture.
JD: You’ve published a lot in literary journals; do you see the world of short stories and poetry changing as the culture of publishing changes so rapidly?
KN: Things have changed a lot already, I think. There’s so much more fiction and poetry available now than when I began writing, it’s almost overwhelming. This isn’t just an internet phenomenon, either. With so many writing programs springing up around the country, things have proliferated. There are many, many more writers, and more readers, and more venues for writing and reading. Everybody seems to be starting a webzine, or print journal, or publishing company. I’m seeing more interest in flash and sudden fiction, too, in print and online, which pleases me much. Flash and sudden fiction are something the New York publishing machine is clearly not at all interested in. To say nothing of poetry!
JD: How much does your Northern California upbringing influence your writing, and after sixteen years in Pennsylvania, have you adjusted to your new home turf?
KN: I was raised in a small town west of Santa Rosa, near the coast. A tiny, very backwoods sort of place. So after years of apocalyptic Los Angeles, where I took my first teaching job, rural northwest Pennsylvania was a kind of homecoming, despite its harsh winters. I seem to operate less effectively as a writer in cities, except for short stints. Okay, a few things here still strike me as odd, and now and then oddly humbling. Like blue laws. In most parts of the country you can buy what you want whenever you want it, and not get taxed heavily. In most places you don’t still see people smoking in bars. Illiteracy isn’t uncommon in my county. Poverty and obesity are serious issues. It’s bracing. I’ve learned much in my years living here. I’ve met the place half-way, I suppose, and I’m not the same person, or writer, I was. My house at the edge of its forest is amazingly quiet, too. I need that to work. I can see deer and wild turkey from the window, and osprey and eagles. There’s a bear that crosses the road near my yard.
JD: What’s your writing practice like and what books have had the biggest influence on you?
KN: I tend to work in the morning on fiction and poetry, and translate in the afternoon. At the moment I’m working on several book-length projects simultaneously, which means there is plenty to do all the time. I have to force myself to take a day off, when I do. I’ve been away from teaching this whole year on sabbatical, actually, which has been a long weird wonderful dream—nothing to do for fifteen months but write, write, write, and read, and ride the mountain bike. As far as reading and influence go, I’ve been impacted by books, certain books, like most of us have. The Nancy Drew novels drew me in deeply, at a young age. As did the books of Zane Grey. An elementary school teacher I had read them aloud to the class each day after lunch, and wept during the sad parts. Jack London’s Martin Eden was impactful for me, as were Shakespeare’s plays, and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Lolita knocked me to pieces. As did The Sun Also Rises, and all of Flannery O’Connor, and later, Atwood’s Surfacing, DeLillo’s White Noise, Franzen’s The Corrections, and McCarthy’s The Road. Did I forget to say Carver? I studied him intensely, so I guess he’s in me for good. Even writers who haven’t read Carver can’t escape Carver, it seems. You read the work of other writers who have read him, who were altered or moved by him, and you absorb him that way.
JD: Thanks, Kirk. So for now, readers, I leave you with a question: what have your experiences with editors been like?
Interview with Kirk Nesset, Our Flash Fiction Contest Judge
See original article
Potomac Review’s Morgan Moyer virtually sits down with Kirk Nesset.
M: Do you start out, usually, intending to write a flash fiction piece? When and how do you know that what you’re working on will be flash?
KN: Lately, actually, it seems like I’m always starting out thinking I’m writing flash fiction. It’s less ponderous, less daunting, in terms of build-up, or planning. How awful can writing two or three pages be? Thirty or forty pages later, I’ll finally finish, pleased but bemused to see all it gained on its own, almost in spite of me and what I hoped to achieve. The flash format in cases like these is a spur, or a trigger. A trick to get the writer writing, thinking it won’t be such a big deal. Which isn’t to say the tiny tales aren’t big deals, and often hard to deliver. I spent three weeks working on “I’m Not Camille,” the title piece in my new manuscript of stories—a story barely four pages long. It fought me every step of the way.
M: What elements make up a good flash fiction piece, in your opinion?
KN: Brevity is essential, naturally. Which involves concision, compression, compactness, accelerated pacing, economy in delivery on all levels. Beyond and above and because of all this, we wind up with impact, and depth, especially in closing; we find the kind of universality one expects in a poem.
M: Do you have any advice for flash fiction writers?
KN: Write less, I would say, and read more. Read all the great works you can get your hands on, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf — and after, and before. Read Norton’s collections of flash and sudden fictions over and over. Study the pieces you like best, or find useful as models, with the attention of a jeweler examining texture and color in gems, and placement and setting. When you do write, revise your piece mercilessly. Seventy or eighty drafts are just the beginning.
M: Where do you see flash fiction going in the near and far future?
KN: That’s a tough question. In the near future, the profusion of mediocre micro tales will keep crowding the net. Farther down the road, flash fiction will help to save literature, I think. It’ll keep people reading—on their phones, on their pads, and in their heads, where much of what we know, or can know, or experience, will finally be downloadable, and downloaded.
Kirk Nesset is author of Paradise Road, Mr. Agreeable, and Alphabet of the World: Selected Works by Eugenio Montejo. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, others, and most recently The Potomac Review issue 48.
01 Jan 2013
“Nesset Captures National Award,” Interview in the Meadville Tribune (November, 2006)
November 10, 2006
By Mary Spicer
11/11/06 — Kirk Nesset was in his office at Allegheny College Thursday morning, just about to teach his 11 o’clock class, when the telephone rang. When he said “hello,” life as Nesset knows it changed forever.
Ed Ochester of University of Pittsburgh was on the line — calling to notify the associate professor of English and creative writing that he has been named 2007 winner of the coveted Drue Heinz Literature Prize.
“I was completely astounded,” Nesset recalled. “This just isn’t a ‘better’ achievement award for a writer of stories. It’s the ultimate.” In addition to $15,000 cash and publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press, “it’s an instant boost to anybody’s career — and a vote of confidence, I think.”
Designed to recognize and support writers of short fiction while making their work available to readers worldwide, the award has been described in PittChronicle, Newspaper of the University of Pittsburgh, as “one of the nation’s most prestigious awards for a book of short stories.” The competition is open to previously-published writers; manuscripts are judged anonymously by a different nationally-known writer each year.
Nesset’s winning manuscript, “Paradise Road,” was judged by Hilary Masters.
The short stories in “Paradise Road,” in Nesset’s words, “explore in their various ways the pitfalls we suffer trying to find lasting meaning in love, experiences that tear us to pieces, making us think trust won’t ever again be possible — experiences that lead us more deeply into ourselves, hopefully, into compassion for self, and for others.”
A formal announcement will be made by University of Pittsburgh Press in December or January.
“I’m tickled,” Nesset said with delight. “They kick us around for years and years and then they pick us up and dust us off and kiss us.”
Winner of the also-coveted Pushcart Prize in 1999, Nesset describes himself as “always working in multi-directions.” His latest project, for example, is “Alphabet of the World,” a translation of the poems of Eugenio Montejo, a Venezuelan poet. “I found that working in Spanish — and creating works of English out of Spanish — has really expanded my sense of what my own language can do,” Nesset said.
The translations themselves, he added, are selling like hotcakes. “Everyone loves translations. They love ethnicity, especially if it’s from countries that are in opposition to (President George W.) Bush. Montejo’s a great writer. I’ve learned a lot about him, and it’s very transforming to work in another writer’s mind. And to translate work from another way of thinking. Spanish and English are two different ways of thinking.”
Originally from northern California, in the western Sonoma County area north of San Francisco known as the Russian River region, Nesset studied at University of California Santa Cruz and University of California Santa Barbara. Before coming to Allegheny, he taught for four years at Whittier College in California.
Now in his 11th year at Allegheny, where he teaches fiction and poetry writing as well as a variety of courses exploring American and English literature, Nesset spends alternate summers as writer-in-residence at the Writers Center at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York.
Next weekend, however, he’ll be working in yet another direction, performing at Meadville Town Tavern singing and playing lead guitar for Unkle John’s Band. The music begins Friday night at 9:30 p.m.
Today I met the man Kirk Nesset, author of two short story collections (one of which, Paradise Road, I bought and am currently reading/enjoying), a critical study of the short stories of Raymond Carver, and a volume of translated works from the Spanish writings of Venezuelan Poet and Essayist, Eugenio Montejo, as part of my college’s Literary Festival. Today was to be Nesset’s reading and writing workshop; these events were wonderful, homely, and informative and entertaining at the same time, and it was a real pleasure to meet this man today.
Besides writing poems, stories, and non-fiction, Nesset teaches creative writing and literature at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. Though tall and young-looking with his blonde-colored bowl cut hair style, the man is rather soft-spoken, wise and contemplative in both voice and thought, and in our small talk with each other, I found a sophisticated innocence that exists strongly both within and despite the elements of his fiction writing (like I said, I am reading and enjoying his book of stories). In his reading today, I was inspired by the flow and poesy of words into composing three new poems for my 50 poem project. When I told him I was sorry if this was distracting to him after the presentation, the man laughed, and said, “No, it is actually flattering when one writer is inspired by another’s writing, reading, or both.” Then he continued showing off his Pomeranian, Ryan (whom I got to hold for a while during the writing workshop, by the way.)
In the hour-and-a-half-long workshop, Nesset introduced us to some flash fiction pieces and got us to exploring writing themes and plots from a miniaturist standpoint (this is my paraphrasing of his words, of course). As Nesset put it, if we can make it seem fresh, inventive, and exciting to us in less than 500 words, we can learn to extend it even longer and make long works work the same way. I wrote an entire piece in the workshop, a 1-page work entitled “No Point of Reference”–I might put the piece up in the future.
Overall, the man has proven to be an asset to both literature and humanity, and I enjoyed learning from him today. Maybe in the future I will write a review of his book; I am two stories in currently, so it will take me some time, but I promise to let the people know what I thought of it once I finish it. Keep with me for future updates.
Also, tomorrow, March the FIRST, I will be reading in front of people in my school for the Festival’s student section. I am sifting through my material to find good stuff, but I am nervous. Keep me in your thoughts and prayers as I prepare for this, and thanks very much in advance for all the support.
OK, that’s it–good night and good nachos, folks!
[PANK / February 13th, 2010 / All Things Pankish / Interviews ]
ND: The stories in Mr. Agreeable are considerably shorter than the stories in your first collection, Paradise Road. The two books demonstrate your control of narrative. You can hold a reader’s attention for thirty pages and/or rip their hearts out in two. How did you decide on the short-short form for Mr. Agreeable? What advantages are there in writing for brevity?
KN: You can risk more, I think, working in miniature. You can experiment. You can do outlandish things with structure and point of view, and with language. You can do just about anything, as long as the piece finally feels focused and whole, and as long as there’s impact. Which is wonderfully liberating, if you’re used to working in longer forms, where we tend to respect laws of verisimilitude. In flash mode, you kind of throw character out the window. Premise and theme predominate, as does voice, and omission—what you don’t say in a story, that is, but imply. You can’t possibly develop a character in two or three pages. But you can represent a universe in the head of pin, and shatter the reader quickly, the way one hopes to do in a poem.
The best thing about flash fiction, though, is that it’s less daunting to write. Or seems to be, initially. You sit down with your sketchpad or keyboard and the feeling is, Well, this won’t be so bad. Five hundred words can’t be that daunting. And it isn’t. Except that sometimes you write twelve or fifteen pages to find that one paragraph, or one sentence, that glows, and build your tiny tale around that. Or you realize, after drafting a while, that the piece you’re writing isn’t flash fiction at all. I finished a story lately I thought would be flash, or at least sudden. I wrestled with the thing for a year. It needed to manifest on its own terms, as fictions often do. It turned out to be eight thousand words, or just over.
I didn’t set out to write a book of short shorts, I should say, by the way. I’d imagined sprinkling the miniscule fictions in with longer stories, and had been configuring differently. But an editor at Mammoth wrote to ask if I had a book’s worth of shorts, saying he’d seen the shorter short fictions, and liked them. Lucky me, I guess. Books of short stories are horrendously hard to sell, as you know. Books of flash fiction are harder yet. As in impossible. Unless you’re Lydia Davis or Etgar Keret. Or Barry Yourgrau!
ND: I’m looking forward to reading your book of poems, Saint X, due out in 2010. What can you tell us about this collection?
KN: Like the short fictions, the poems examine persona, and they deconstruct self. They unravel the psychic fabric we layer over ourselves and each other, for whatever reasons. They puzzle over romantic failures, and sniff up what’s sacred in human endeavor, or try to. It’s a zany collection of poems, I think, solemn as few of them are. They don’t pretend to appeal to the reader on the rational level. A number of them began as exercises in verbal collage. They’re at the farther end, you could say, of the “risk” continuum. Writing poetry is a more tenuous enterprise than writing flash fiction, obviously. Writing a poem is like stepping along in the dark on ice in a wilderness. The poem insists that you not know where you’re going, then says, Okay, step over the edge. It invites you to fall, to say something unsayable. To stop making sense, as David Byrne said in the 80s.
ND: If you were stranded on the cliche desert island—and doomed to die alone—without an audience for your work—would you continue to write?
KN: Yes. Absolutely. The kinds of inner transformation writing offers, in all its guises and forms, would make it worthwhile. Would make it necessary. Don’t you think? Besides, the writing habit would be hard to break. And ridiculous as it sounds, the writer-zealot in me who lives to communicate thinks that some poem or short fiction I write, and seal up in a coconut shell, will survive. Will be read. And maybe matter to someone.
ND: While doing research for this interview I came across some great photos of you playing guitar like a rock star. It turns out you play and sing in a band—a Grateful Dead cover act, right? How do you think music informs your writing?
KN: I started playing guitar in a disciplined way long before I began writing, or began writing seriously. So your question is hard to address. The writing I do wouldn’t look or sound the way it does, I’m pretty sure, if music hadn’t come first. Musicians tend to think in sounds, and express and emote in nonverbal ways. I do, anyway. To a degree, writers share in this, too. Language is rhythmic and sonic, and if your ear is trained writing can be music as well. I’m as interested in the way something sounds on the page when I write, or revise, as I am in what the thing says, or conveys. But it’s hard to say how exactly I know what I know, or how influence works, or what might come out in the wash in the end. I’d like to say that the way I structure my stories or poems arises from music, and that my modulations in voice, or in rhythm, or my awareness of such, arise likewise. But I can’t. It’s a thing you can’t pin down, since what we absorb is internalized. And what’s internal is mysterious, finally.
One thing I can say with certainty is that writers work words and sentences the way musicians work measures and notes. We improvise a lot, of course, as we go, unless we’re working in poetic forms. When I play a riff of lead on the guitar with my band I’m playing notes, yes. Notes that are measured. But what makes music music isn’t just notes, or the beat or arrangement. What makes the riff the riff is the way you inflect. The way you pack notes in a phrase, or bend a note, or sustain it, or tweak it, or nurse it, whatever. It comes down to voice, really. Language and writing work the same way. Voice guides articulation. It informs rhythm and timing.
ND: Next time I sit down to write, what CD should I be listening to?
KN: In an ideal world you’d be sitting in silence. Or listening to the sound of the spheres, as they said in days before Galileo. Recorded music can get in the way of writing, I think. Not necessarily, not always, but often. It can add to the clutter of motion and noise, this media onslaught we suffer so much of the time. Silence, though, I admit, is intimidating, or can be, especially when you sit down to compose. Some albums or stations, I notice—if I’m conscientious about what I put on—can draw me deeply into the writing. Ambient music works best for me. And now and then, this droning downbeat electro-lounge stuff I find on the internet. Renaissance dances are helpful, I find. Motet and madrigals. Gregorian chants. The two best single albums I’ve found to compose to are David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Ab Ovo’s Le Temps Suspendu. And if I’m going great guns on a draft, Seventeen Seconds, by The Cure. These work for me, anyway. We’ve all got our own triggers.
ND: One of the narrators in Mr. Agreeable says, “The inner dark might be dark but the dark doesn’t lie. It brings into relief what’s beneath the facade, the useless colossus of what one is and does and believes.” All of your stories incorporate “dark” elements to expose the person behind the mask. What drove you to write a book that takes the facades off the Mr. So-and-Sos of the world?
If I was driven at all, what drove me were names, dumb as it sounds. In each case I began with a title. “Mr. Agreeable.” “Mr. Destitute.” “Mr. Ironic.” “Mr. Transcendent.” I was on a “Mr.” kick for eight or ten years. A number of these pieces turned out not to be stories but poems. I’d land on a title, basically, and dive in to explore the persona. I’d find a situation and a figure to dramatize something, a condition or quality—agreeability, transcendence, ecstasy, irony. Then I’d weigh the condition in light of a particular life, a particular way of seeing, a particular constellation of images. “Mr. Excitement” came first. I’d seen a man in fact in a supermarket, a bizarre, joyful guy, with those very words on his tee shirt. So I came up with a voice. An observer, a narrator. A wistful, crestfallen man. And a young daughter. At some point in the process I hit on the pivotal sentence, the one we look for moving into our drafts. It came as a question, from daughter to father: “Why is that man so happy?” she asks.
I didn’t set out to knock down facades, to answer your question. If that’s what happens in the stories, I’m happy to hear it. On some level, that’s what any good story should do, I suppose. It should see behind or beneath the facade. It should expose common myths, or distortions, truisms, public or private—the myth of the stable self, above all. Fiction examines the masks we wear, among other things. It wonders why it’s this mask and not that, and how the thing got there, and what it replaced. It describes, if and when possible, what the mask seems to want to protect. “[T]he essence of man is derived from the chaos of fakes,” Nabokov observes, discussing Gogol. “We did not expect that, amid the whirling masks, one mask would turn out to be a real face, or at least the place where that face ought to be.”
You’re right, though, we’re certainly driven as writers, like it or not—driven by questions we don’t often know how to frame. What drove me, in this case? Curiosity, on one hand. What’s in a name? I must have been thinking. How far can it pull a particular character? What are the contradictions this odd creature suffers? How did he get here? How is she not only fractured or tortured, but nuanced, complex? What is he dreading, or hiding? How does this story need to be told? Why does this sentence seem to need to be worded exactly like this, to quickly crescendo, or stagger, or rise and fall like a wave?
On the other hand, we’re driven I think by a need to understand. To understand on a personal level, on the cellular level, on the level of soul. Our characters, each and all, of course, are ourselves. They’re the various facets of the writer mutually at war with each other. All this scratching and digging we’re doing is finally about seeing why we’re the peculiar beings we are. Which is daunting, I know. But worth the risk, if we take the chance and let the thing happen, let the story unfold. If we get quiet enough to hear the voice on the page, and be guided, understanding will come, I believe. Or something at least in our knowing and not-knowing will change. Transformation happens in minute, subtle ways. In us, and our characters. The facades crack, the masks begin slipping. We might not end up with answers, but the pertinent questions, the stories, remain.
04 Oct 2015
Is it boring to write about/talk about your work? Or is it sort of a nice closure after working on it for a long time?
Definitely not boring — though touring and talking about the work in many ways forestalls the closure you speak of. The book won’t lie down and die quietly, as we say.
1. I know that writing doesn’t generally spark from just one influence or impetus, but what was the impetus for this collection?
This collection was written — unbelievably, even to me — over the course of 20 years, so it’s hard to talk about an initiating event or events, or a spur of any kind. I did notice, I guess, at some point that the stories in Paradise Road seemed to need to belong together. To a degree I tailored the stories after the fact so that they might mutually reflect on each other.
2. What informed your decision not to use quotation marks?
I fell away from quotation marks years ago, and for some reason haven’t been able to return to them. It’s a stylistic choice — which is to say an emotional one. If pressed to the wall, I might say — well, that characters like mine in this book aren’t stable enough identity-wise to warrant the stability that such demarcation implies. But that’s awfully philosophical sounding. I like the way dialogue and narration tend to bleed together — in anybody’s work — when one reads down the page.
3. How do you navigate between different styles, non-fiction, poetry, fiction? Or, is there an easy relationship between the three?
One navigates between them with great difficulty. I do, at least. It’s kind of alarming to find that the poem you began has morphed to a story, or vice versa — or to find at some point that you can’t distinguish the fictional web you wove, the lies you told, from the “truth.”
4. Pushcart mentioned that “Until recently, [you] sang and played guitar in a post-punk, postindustrial, neo-goth band called Cousin Stanley.” What instrument do you play? Do you write song lyrics? If so, does that make its way into more formal writing?
I’m part of a Grateful Dead cover act now called Unkle John’s Band — I play lead guitar and am one of the vocalists. I haven’t written original tunes in a while, given time constraints. During the Cousin Stanley days, though, I did find lots of crossover. Between songwriting and poetry writing, that is. We’d come up with a tune as a band in rehearsal, and I’d take the tape home and knock one of my poems apart — a published poem, often — and see how it came over sung. Going for rhymes, I should say, in revision. In transposition. Striving to rhyme, I suppose, where before I’d avoided it.
5. I also read that you DJ an FM radio show. What do you like about radio?
I do a weekly gothic and electro-industrial show in Meadville called Black Planet. I broadcast as a persona. As Dr. Death — a fellow both like and unlike me. He’s a character, basically. Another of my creations. I enjoy being somebody I’m not, and in public no less — heard but not seen. But unlike the figures you find on the page, this guy’s alive. I’ll admit he scares me sometimes.
6. If you could write/do anything, what would you do?
Visit the Philippines, and write a long travel piece documenting my journey there, island to island, and my impressions. And sell the piece, of course, to The New Yorker, or GQ, or Harper’s. For many thousands of dollars.