Today we are pleased to feature author Steve Howe as our Authors Talk series contributor. In conversation with Zoe Speidel (of the Spoken Word Hour on KUNM), Steve discusses “Repossession,” his nonfiction piece published in Issue 18.
Specifically, Steve and Zoe discuss how the essay can almost be seen as a coming-of-age story, as it reflects Steve’s own awakening in Chicago, when he first learned how racism occurs on a systemic level. Steve discusses his own privilege and shares the importance of being “careful as a writer to not appropriate anybody’s viewpoint and language that’s not your own.” Steve also talks about his passion for research and reveals that “you need to do more research than ever gets on the page.”
A writer friend was visiting from North Carolina. She is a country girl, lived—at the time—in an Airstream in the woods. She posts online pictures of her view sometimes (not too far from civilization to have access to WiFi) and it couldn’t be more different from mine. Trees, dense and green, mountains and untended ground cover. Me, I have trees out my window, too, the third floor of a six-flat in Andersonville on Chicago’s Northside. One tree grows so close to the building that squirrels jump from its branches to a ledge outside our window, dash across to where they can vault to the flat roof of the duplex next door. It drives our cat Pablo insane, this run of squirrels on the other side of the glass, close enough to make eye contact. The wild he can see and too, the wild it sparks in him. Philip (my husband) and I have come to call this Squirrel Highway, and we watch the show of it from our seats in the sunroom.
We—Philip, Pablo and I—live on a Chicago side street, a place of multi-family buildings and the occasional single-family house, small strips of grass that are not quite yards. Mostly sidewalk and street out front. Cars parked bumper to bumper, except when it snows, and then, between the cars covered in heaps of white powder, shoveled-clean spots with kitchen chairs and garbage bins and yellow police-type tape (we can buy it at the Ace Hardware down the block) stretched between broom handles sticking up in the snow. “Dibs”, we Chicagoans call this practice. As in: “I was up in the early morning dark and subzero Chicago winter weather to shovel this small patch of territory out, buddy. I call dibs.”
But this time when my friend visits, it is autumn, early autumn, and the trees are still leafy and the air is only slightly chilled and we have gone out for a walk to my favorite bookstore three blocks away. Women & Children First, an independent that despite the odds (Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon) has been in operation since 1979.
We are strolling, in no real hurry, book-talking and catching up. The city bustle is behind us back on Clark Street where it never seems to stop: buses, a taxi garage open 24 hours, bars and restaurants (fine and casual), firetrucks with lights and sirens going, a small (wonderful) bodega that sells both PBR and craft beer, fresh produce and canned vegetables, expensive organic and gluten free stuff, toilet paper and brightly colored hard candies in plastic packaging labeled with Spanish words or Asian lettering.
On my street, a small branch of Chicago’s famous grid system, there isn’t much going on. Middle of the day in the middle of the week. Ahead of us, a half-block away maybe, is an animal walking off-leash on the sidewalk.
Dog, I think, and maybe say. A little irritated because it is without a human, and I have once been bitten badly in this city by an off-leash, un-humanned, “friendly” dog.
“I don’t think that’s a dog,” my friend says. The animal, large, gray, slows ahead of us, sniffs things. It looks a little ragged. We cross to the other side of the road, watching.
“Coyote.” She says. Or I do.
This neighborhood used to be called Uptown, but in Chicago the borders of these places are movable, depending on realtor input. Uptown was a little scary when I was growing up, gangs, poverty and territorial divisions that made some people angry, made some dangerous. Now though, after years of encroaching gentrification little by little, we call it Andersonville, like they call the more desirable blocks with big houses and pretty graystone two-flats a quarter mile away on the north side of Foster Avenue, long ago home to working families of Swedish descent. It is a satisfyingly diverse neighborhood these days, a little grubby and a little grand, and I’ve lived here close to ten years.
I pass my neighbors as I walk along my street on the way to the El in the mornings. There is the paid dog walker with dreadlocks and a red hoodie and five pooches of various sizes pulling in different directions on their leashes. “Morning,” I say. “Yup,” he says. There are the two Asian women who tend their gardens in front of the apartment building three doors down from mine, squatting low and pulling weeds, pushing their wide-brimmed hats back from their foreheads to answer when I say hello. And there is the Cambodian Buddhist monk walking toward me, his saffron robes flapping at his legs. “Good morning,” I say, and make eye contact. The first time I did this, he looked slightly startled, although not displeased. “Mmm mmm,” he said in response, not sure of his English yet, or maybe not sure of me. He looked quickly away. That was a few months ago. Now, after almost daily passings, he holds my gaze, says clearly and with a smile, “Good morning.” Sometimes even before I do. There is the man who lives down the street in the two-flat where a Princess Leia (rest in peace) poster facing outward used to hang in the front, first floor window; he wears bottle-thick glasses and sits on his front stoop with a mug of coffee in his hands and nods when I say hi, smiles like we might really (after ten years) know one another. We don’t, despite how close we live to one another; I don’t know any of my neighbors, but I have watched them and imagined (and occasionally written) their stories for years.
My writer friend who lives in the country is a traveler. She has driven all over the United States, lived in different parts of it for weeks at a time, writing, writing, writing. She is one of those writers who does not believe the old adage “write what you know,” but instead is inclined to “write what you want to know, write what you can learn, write what you discover.” It is her curiosity that informs her writing, that makes it strongest. It is as if the writer in her is not fully satisfied with only what she sees out her window every morning.
I thought, when I started this piece, that it was going to be about writing, about craft. That coyote, I thought, unexpected and slightly exotic on the city sidewalk, was going to be a metaphor for the wild possibilities in even the most pedestrian (sidewalk, get it?) of stories. The extraordinary in the ordinary. And maybe it is that. But as happens with all of my writing, I don’t really know what it is about until I have written it. So let me see.
My writer friend and I stand still near the grass on our side of the street and the coyote swivels his big head toward us. He is a handsome boy (or girl) with a sharp snout that looks almost more feline than dog-like; he reminds me of our skinny Pablo: pointy face, ribs like framework showing under his coat, impressively long tail. We don’t move nor does he, a game of chicken on opposite sides of the road, only despite this wild sighting, my friend and I aren’t afraid. We know somehow, there is no danger here. Wild is not always dangerous. Then a battered-up car with a rubber-band engine passes between us and him, and when we look again, the animal is gone.
I have written this moment over and over again in my journal. Looked at it from all angles. A couple on a first date in a short story see the coyote at night, his wildness sends them into an alley where they press against one another against the wall of a building, breathing heavily and biting one another’s shoulders. A mother, already overly protective, in another short story sees the coyote and keeps her kindergartener out of school for the day. And then for the week. And then for the month. She lies to her husband when he goes to work in the morning. Sometimes, I write it simply like this: I saw a coyote today. On the sidewalk. I saw a coyote. A coyote.
I think I want it to be a sign, this sighting. Something that tells me something else I do not yet know. I haven’t yet figured out what that is, but that doesn’t keep me from wanting. From wondering.
And so maybe this is not a piece just about writing, but about the yearning toward wonder. (Or are those the same things?) About how living in this crowded place in the city, where noise and bustle is just a block away, makes me wonder daily—like a writer should. Who are you? I wonder when I stand on the Argyle El stop platform on an early Saturday morning and a woman in a midnight-colored, shimmering sari and a yellow down jacket stands shivering under the heat lamps; when, at noon, two tuxedoed men holding hands (obviously in love) climb aboard the 22 bus heading toward downtown. When I hear the sounds of what might be prayer from the Cambodian Buddhist Temple down the block. What are you saying? When a coyote walks casually down my city street. Where are you going? How did you get here? What is your story?
It is winter now, and the snow has begun to fall in the city. I hear outside my window the sound of shoveling, of making a “dibs” spot. I hear those sounds I will hear over and over again after the long Chicago’s winter, car wheels spinning and spinning and spinning, engines gunning. That stuck sound. People trying to get out. And when that happens, I understand that, too. Escape. Escape. Like my writer friend in the woods did so often. Like the coyote did when we had our heads turned. Escape. Escape this place where after months of cold and snow I sometimes fear my wonder will freeze over.
But just a couple of days ago it was autumn, at least that’s what it felt like, chilly but not cold, the earth warm enough to still be green. Where my friend lives in North Carolina, there is a drought, there are wildfires. The view from where she lives now, I imagine, is still pretty, but there is smoke at its edges and the ground cover is brown, dead. Her view, like mine, like all good views, must keep changing. A couple of days ago, it was windy here in the city, bits of paper were strewn in the grass and the gutters, advertisements for cleaning ladies, menus for delivery, homework on loose leaf blown from the clutches of children, other scraps blown from where they had been slipped under windshield wipers, or into mail slots or in the diamonds of metal fences. Now the snow has covered the scattered debris. It is white outside, the snow making everything new again, clean: streets and sidewalks and front stoops, and all the places in between.
If I stand up from behind my writing desk and look out the window, I might see the Asian women and the man in thick glasses shoveling their sidewalks. I might see the Cambodian Buddhist monk walking briskly down the street toward the bodega, his saffron robes flying out from under his parka, his rubber boots covering his bare legs almost to his knees. There will be small, wild footprints out there, too, in the strips of yards, in the middle of the street. The dog-walker has been through, probably. The squirrels.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Trina Young.
Trina Young is a recent grad from DePaul University with a passion for any kind of writing she can do. She was one of the winners of the Pegasus Young Playwrights competition in 2010, and has had one poem published by Afterimage Online’s Inklight gallery. She continues to submit to journals in order to build her credits and be included among many other talented people. She currently writes for Blavity, a site for black millenials to fight the stereotypes against them, and would like to eventually write for comedy TV as well. She lives in Chicago, IL.
Two degrees Fahrenheit, even in the dead of winter, is unusual for East Tennessee. In fact, our city’s school system has closed out of concern for the safety of the children at least twice this winter because of extreme cold, with mornings beginning somewhere near zero. But today, the school is on a two-hour delay, and my eleven-year-old son is indignant that we are walking to the bus stop, given that the precedent has been set for closure just days before. Today is proof that people adapt, and no doubt the school board has finally succumbed to the suspicion that the cold has settled in, and we should simply accept it and get back to work.
My son and I are bundled up: layered pants, shirts, two coats each, balaclavas and scarves, gloves. He has grocery bags over his tennis shoes to protect them from the snow and we walk arm-in-arm so he doesn’t slip in the grass beside my steep, icy driveway. I’m wearing the shearling boots and fleece mittens I bought when I lived in Ohio. There I had learned about cold and snow beyond what Tennesseans normally experience. There I had learned that during a “Level 3,” a driver might be arrested if found on the roads for anything other than an emergency. In Ohio, I made my first snow tunnel after the 2003 President’s Day blizzard left us with five-feet-high snowdrifts. In Ohio I saw frozen grass, and pavement glazed with half an inch of ice in January of 1999. And since then, I’ve also seen balmy Decembers, unseasonable sixty-degree January days, and heard thunder cracks in February. Weather events like these remind me to take nothing for granted.
I muse to my son that ours might be an everyday walk to the bus stop for kids in Minnesota, and that we should be glad for the experience, to appreciate our mild winters better. My son isn’t convinced, and merely grumbles, “My face is cold.” He doesn’t remember the Chicago winter, but then, he was five when we left. He doesn’t remember subzero afternoon walks (with windchills of twenty below), to the grocery store after days of being shut inside, or stepping into university buildings to warm up every ten minutes before moving on. After I relocated home to Tennessee, whenever I heard anyone say “it’s cold,” I rolled my eyes dramatically. Eventually I learned to bite my tongue before saying, “When I was in Chicago . . .” and accepted that everyone has his or her superlative account.
Even so, and no doubt because of its proximity to Lake Michigan’s winds, Chicago offers its residents a Biblical experience of winter. Biblical like a curse to painful childbirth; like razed cities and plagues taking firstborns. Biblical like deluges and apocalypses of sundry sorts. The first time I traveled to Boston, I experienced something similar. Walking to the subway with blistering gusts throwing snow into my face, I turned to look at a bareheaded student with what looked like frozen tears on his wind-scalded cheeks. My students and I were walking into the wind at an angle, and one arctic blast made us retreat for a moment of cover, as if we were being shelled. I could see the rail station when I peeked around the corner, so we readjusted our hoods if we had them and soldiered on.
Poet Robert Frost, who lived across the river in Cambridge but died in Boston, knew “enough of hate” to write “that for destruction ice/ Is also great/ And would suffice.” When Frost was my son’s age, his family moved from San Francisco to New England after the death of his father. Frost took a turn in Michigan too. I’m sure for him all winters were Biblical: a literary metaphor for the ways that human beings lose their memory of safety, security, or warmth, and yet trudge on, with only their faith to guide them. It’s no surprise that in 1940 he bought a house in Miami and spent the rest of his winters there.
Though I like “ice music,” and have claimed that I’d like to attend the annual Ice Music Festival in Geilo, Norway, I doubt I ever will. Watching the instrument makers craft the ice into cellos, horns, or xylophones inspires me, but then the idea of ice is much easier to consider than the reality. How do they play the instruments without shivering? How can anyone listen attentively? Truthfully, I would rather listen to a recording or watch a performance on video. Taking the art of ice further, I realize that “ice hotels” in Scandinavia or Canada–though magical–will never be more than a hoped-for day trip, my nights booked in a brick-and-mortar inn with a fireplace. For most of my adult life, I’ve been fascinated with Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, but I can’t actually imagine booking a trip to any of these places in the winter. I blame so much on my cold nature, my sometimes anemia, my fear of enduring another attack of chilblains. I feel old in the winter, soaking my feet to warm them.
Despite all of this, I’ll admit to enjoying the cold some. When I’m armored against it with wool, or sheltered in a tidy, tea-rich kitchen, I can appreciate the stillness and the solitary beauty that snow brings. I don’t think I could ever live somewhere without a winter, but I used to believe that I could live somewhere without hot, muggy summers. Since then I’ve made my trades. Extremes of temperature and humidity (or its opposite) do nothing but keep me inside all day, a sad animal. Whether I dream of the vernal garden trowel, or the deepening shadows and blue sky hikes of autumn, the transitional seasons still strike me best. To inhabit the climate that calls to one’s nature, and to remain as long as the season welcomes–this seems the very mantra of writers and migratory birds. I look at my weather monitor on my desk and find that in the span of five hours, the temperature has risen thirty degrees to the edge of freezing. I ponder a walk, just before pulling my blanket tighter around my legs and settling in.
Matthew Gavin Frank is a contributor for Superstition Review’s Issue 7. In this interview, SR talks to Frank about work and his newest piece, The Morrow Plots.
SR: After so much time spent in the food and wine industry, what inspired you to pursue degrees and careers in writing and poetry?
Matthew Gavin Frank: I loved writing well before I fell into the food and wine industries. I remember—I was about 10—going through my parents’ dresser drawers when they were otherwise occupied. I remember it as a Saturday. My dad was likely working. My mom was likely working-out: one of those Jane Fonda VHS tapes. In one drawer, I found a short essay she wrote about her own father’s death when she was 13. She spent her life teaching grammar—past participles and shit—to 7th graders, but, up until that point, I never knew she wrote. And, she never wrote anything again outside of letters to the editor. So stumbling onto that essay allowed me a richer engagement of my mother as a human being, I think.
Soon after that, I remember (this was 5th grade) collaborating with my friend Ryan Shpritz on a series of gross-out stories. A few years ago, when my wife and I were visiting my family in Chicago, my mom sat us down with these scrapbooks she made when my sister and I were toddlers. In the column that asked for my interests, she wrote, “Ghosts, blood, anything ghoulish.” Fucking blood. According to my own mother, one of my primary interests as a toddler was blood. So my later collaboration with Ryan, on this series of stories called “Death at Dark” (I, II, III, and so on) had its roots in those early interests. Mrs. Buccheim, our teacher—fabulous perm—allowed us to read our work in front of the class each week. She loved that we were writing extracurricularly. Once, in D at D part VI, I think, some poor sap caught his hand in a garbage disposal, and we compared the resulting carnage to a punctured egg yolk. Shannon Elliott, the cheerleader, cried. After that, Mrs. Buccheim, bless her proper heart, put a stop to our public readings. So, I then realized that writing not only had the power to reveal, but the power to get one banned.
This knowledge sort of fed all kinds of ideas about revolt, writerly and otherwise. Soon, I started thinking a lot about food. Growing up in a microwave-and-saturated-fat-centric family, it took me a while realize that the food world was larger than a radiated Lean Cuisine paired with Crystal Light pink lemonade. There was some impetuous revolt growing in me in my late teens in response to the crappy undergraduate meal-plan dinners (if you could call them that) served in Hopkins Hall, where I worked for a while—a very short while—clearing trays and washing dishes. I remember the particular dinner that inspired this culinary rebellion. It was this disaster of Creamed Chipped Beef on Texas Toast. It broke me. I began reading books on food and wine, determined to do better than this, which took a while actually. At some point, I came across an article on Barolo wine and vowed to go to the region where it was made. After a couple days, lazing in the vineyards, eating fresh pasta and white truffles, I vowed to return to live there and, upon returning to the States, trashed my microwave in vulgar ceremony. I thereafter took all sorts of restaurant jobs, and found a common thread: when chefs get together after work for drinks, and one chef asks me what I like to do in my spare time, and I say, “write poetry,” it’s ever a great conversation killer. Eventually, I realized I needed to chat about such things with some like-minded folks.
SR: I have heard some poets say that it is important for young writers to first go out into the world and experience life before writing about it and/or attempting to go into a MFA program. Others insist that the jump straight from undergraduate school to a MFA program is necessary. As someone who left home at age 17, experienced the world young, and returned to academia, what advice would you give to young writers?
MGF: I feel perfectly ill-equipped to give young writers lifestyle advice. There is no prescription for this shit. If you need and want to write, you will need and want to write, whether flipping eggs in an Alaskan diner for a living, or immersing oneself in academia. Folks are always talking about how MFA programs can be ruinous to burgeoning writers, who should first experience the world and gather stories; other folks insist that the training provided by the MFA is not a stylistic evening-out, but is essential to burgeoning writers and that it’s the outside world with its various bankrupt distractions that can be ruinous. So, everything can be ruinous, is the thesis, I think.
I tend to believe that these extremists are giving both the MFA program and the “world-at-large” too much credit. If you want and need to write, I’m not sure either choice has the power to strip that away and ruin you. Everything is situation-specific. The shunning of the academic construct in order to lead a vagabond lifestyle worked for me. That’s what I needed to do. I know incredible writers who never left academia—went straight from undergrad to MFA to PhD to a tenure-track position. That’s what they needed to do. I do think surrendering to whimsy is important, but such whimsy manifests itself in myriad ways for myriad people.
SR: I noticed that comments about your books by poets such as Norman Dubie and Cynthia Hogue are quoted on your website. Did you work with them during your time in the MFA program at ASU and if so how do you feel that they have influenced your writing?
MGF: Yeah, I worked with Norman and Cynthia, also Beckian, Jeannine, Alberto—all of whom were fabulous and influential. I love Norman’s poems for their drama, their characters, their social conscience, generosity of spirit, and their hilarity. I love watching the master of the dramatic monologue do his thing. I love how some of his poems combine the best of PBS’s Nova with the joy inherent in the telling of a fabulously bad joke. Norman once told me: “Dude, all my poems are jokes,” which is, of course, a joke, I think. This has inspired much of my own work. Wrapping joke in verse is hard, but so much fun. I can sense Norman’s joy in writing these poems as I read them. And every so often, Norman drops the veil, and steps, larger-than-life, center-stage. I love these moments, when he breaks the fourth wall. His poem, “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont” is a great example of this. It ends:
In a year the owl will go on a shelf in the shed
Where in thirty years there will be a music box
Containing a lock of hair, her rosaries,
Her birth certificate,
And an impossibly sheer, salmon-pink scarf. What
I want to know of my government is
Doesn’t poverty just fucking break your heart?
Reading this for the first time, I felt like Ronnie Ballenger had just pulled the chair from beneath me at the junior high lunchroom table again, and Kelly Konopka laughed so hard milk came out her nose. I’m similarly disarmed and embarrassed, and delighted. As a poet, it seems Norman could not help himself here. There is a time for restraint in poetry, and a time when restraint should not be part of the poem’s language. Norman understands this. And the result is often an exhilarating, guilty pleasure. The line break after the “What” is essential to this effect, this surprise. In my own work, as a challenge, any time I try to pull off the presence of a booger, or something like it, that’s Norman’s influence.
Cynthia’s work taught me to stay in one place, poetically-speaking, for a while, to allow the poem to become itself. To keep looking at the thing again and again and again—to micro-examine the thing via various contexts and lenses, and then, just when you think you’ve got it, to turn away from the thing, to stare into the opposite direction, and then to describe what you see there. This sort of technique allowed me, in a thematically-linked book like The Morrow Plots especially, a fulcrum to which subsequent poems could attach like burrs, and spin.
SR: Was The Morrow Plots the original title for the poem? And if so, did it come naturally? What made you choose it as the title for the entire collection?
MGF: When I lived in Upstate New York—way up on the Canadian border—during the awful winter, I became obsessed with The Morrow Plots, an experimental cornfield on the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign campus. The local and campus agronomists conduct important crop experiments there, and then disseminate the findings among the U.S.’s farming industry. So, it’s an important square of land, and hallowed ground in downstate Illinois. You do not trespass on the Morrow Plots. The legal and social consequences for such things are dire. The Plots are regionally revered. Yeah: holy, even. I was born in Illinois, and I think I was oddly homesick for the Midwest all the way up there near Canada among the defunct Go-Kart tracks and Shining-esque hedge maze that my wife and I lived behind (the area was a bedroom community for Manhattanite boaters in the summer time, and so had all of these kitschy tourist traps that would go skeletal come winter). Upon researching old newspaper articles from the ’20s and ’30s, I found that the Plots were then known as a popular site for violent crime, or a dumping ground for bodies. And, if some mutilated remains went unclaimed, the University of Illinois would claim them for “experimental purposes.” And now, The Morrow Plots are a National Historical Landmark. So dealing with that discrepancy consumed me for a while. This is a great, if nauseating, way to sink into the comfort of the winter blues. But I was so glad to reemerge after that one. See some light after all the murder. I had to temper a lot of the darkness by reading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s sumptuous At the Drive-in Volcano that winter. So yes, this obsession came naturally, and acted as that fulcrum on which I hung a bunch of murderous Midwestern things.
SR: In The Morrow Plots there is an enchanting set of lines that I am curious about. “…The book opening/to your knees/explodes with border scenes—/skeletal fish becoming women/with piñata faces.” The imagery and the musicality are beautiful. Where did your inspiration for these lines come from?
MGF: Firstly, thank you! When I was long ago an undergraduate at The University of Illinois, I used to sneak into Lincoln Hall at night. I was taking a Biology course from this guy George Kieffer—this wonderful old madman on the cusp of retirement who would run around his lecture stage, waving his hands and screaming about having found dead bodies in the nearby Boneyard Creek. He would triumphantly howl, to his teenage and twentysomething students, “You’re all headed toward Max S [the end stage of entropy], Max S! That’s when you’re dead!”
It was one of those buildings that had locked behind Plexiglas cases all sorts of wrinkled beasts pickled in jars of alcohol. I remember halls of fetal pigs, halls of snakes—both of which are good for poetry, of course.
So I would sneak in there at night, climb to the top floor, exit a window, and sit on the roof’s ledge overlooking the center of campus. Sections of the roof were made of copper and were beginning to green. I would often write up there, read up there by a pocket flashlight. From that vantage, The Morrow Plots were visible. I have this memory—fabricated or real, I can’t tell—of sitting up there, watching the stars or some other youthful romantic shit, with two books open on my lap: a biology textbook, and a glossy book of old Mexican movie posters. One book on each thigh. I’m trying to hold them both open, while also trying to not fall off the roof. The stars. The Plots. In the biology book, I remember some anatomical cross-section of a cod or something. In the second, an image of the second. Honestly, I don’t know if this is true or not, but this memory, when coupled with the violent history of The Morrow Plots, served to inspire this line, and this poem. The poem struggles, I think, to make all of these odd histories gel with the images that attend them. Struggles to deal with the ways in which height and distance both reveal and obscure. And how everything on earth is, of course, magnificent, terrible, and indistinct from a rooftop.
SR: Is there a particular poem or poet that first provided inspiration for your stylistic choices as a writer?
MGF: The poet Mike Madonick was the first poet who taught me that the muse occurs during the writing process, and not beforehand. That, to write a poem, in his words, is like, “[being] a dog let loose in a field, you pick up scents, another dog perhaps, a pheasant, or the quick motion of a grasshopper turns your head, and then your owner calls, you scramble back or you want to run or you just stand there and cock your head, look at him because you’re puzzled about the strange demand he’s put on you, as if he owned you.”
I was lucky enough to have Mike as a teacher, and am lucky enough to have him as a friend. I remember, as an undergrad, I declared a psychology major. Then, I took my very first poetry workshop with Mike, and he said something as simple as, “Poets are fucked-up people, generally,” and I rushed out of class and switched my major to Creative Writing, as if Madonick had given me some sort of permission to be my dumbass self, and to do the dumbass things I wanted to do.
SR: What advice do you have for writers with an interest in travelling and/or cuisine as subject matter for their work?
MGF: Don’t skimp tent-wise. Purchase one that decently blocks out the rain. This is your home for a while. Make it so. Create a little nightstand in the corner with a stack of books you plan on reading, and your notebook. Keep your watch, glasses and lantern on it, each in their own little spot.
Remember how when you were five, the optometrist told your mother in front of you that you’d be blind by age 30. Remember how you used to walk around your parents’ house at night, feeling your way in the darkness, practicing for blindness. Remember bumping into your dad’s collection of antique metal Coca-Cola trays. Remember the loudness. Finger your glasses on that makeshift nightstand in the tent—see in them, and your (however limited) retention of your sight, a lovely Fuck You to that optometrist’s version of fate. Contemplate fate, and other such nebulous things, no further. Go to sleep and dream about pasta.
If camping along the ski valley road in Taos, New Mexico, bring your own toilet paper, lest you want to succumb to the discarded Subway napkins the guy the next site over push-pinned to the pit toilet wall.
When camping in Kruger National Park in South Africa, listen at night to the hippos laughing. Take notes in vocables.
Camp at Wonder Lake in Alaska’s Denali National Park in mid-September. Wake up in the middle of the night to see the aurora borealis dancing pink and green over the mountain. Write a horrible poem about it. Revise it into a better poem, but realize it’s still horrible. Write a new poem. Put an oyster in it.
In a pinch, when preparing ramen noodles over a propane camp-stove, choose the pork flavor; boil the noodles in half-water, half-pineapple juice. Contemplate the illusory makeup of gourmet. Remember: ratio is everything. Two cans of Stagg Chili + one can of Libby’s Corned Beef Hash = tolerable high-calorie meal. One can of Stagg Chili + two cans of Corned Beef Hash = digestive demoralization from the throat on down—this is a ratio that may cause you to abandon your current course, flee the woods, get on the first plane to Paris, and have a vegetarian dinner at L’Arpege. After that, think differently about the tomato.
Meet your spouse in a Latin jazz bar on one island or another—one that you previously defined as fickle. Propose to her at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. Do this realizing that you are surrounded by nuclear test sites. Do this realizing that nearby Arco was the first town in the U.S. to be lit by atomic power. Do this realizing that you are camping on the rocks on which the astronauts practiced for moon landings.
No matter where you are, surrender to the street food, even though it will make you sick.
I’m terrible at sitting through speeches. I can sit in a lecture hall and watch a PowerPoint, participate in productive class discussions, and I take great chemistry notes. But when it comes to listening to a single speaker stand on a podium without any sort of interactive media, I usually end up thinking about the ceiling or dinner or Words With Friends or something equally not speech-related. The speaker’s well-prepared words waste away right outside my eardrums. It’s pretty embarrassing, the sad state of my attention span.
Thankfully though, this was very much not the case with Margaret Atwood’s keynote speech at this year’s AWP conference in Chicago. Maybe it was the opulent theater, or that I had already eaten, or that her stories are some of the most influential works in my personal reading and writing career…but I was absolutely rapt during the entire event. Her words were well-chosen, hilarious, and put together in a speech just long enough to make it worth the windy walk, short enough to keep me out of Lala-land. Here, then, for all the folks who couldn’t make it, or those who did but were on their phones (tsk tsk), are the main points I took from her time on the podium.
MARGARET ATWOOD on THE CRAFT OF WRITING
Reading is just as important as writing. Writers who don’t read don’t actually want to write, they just want someone to listen to them talk about their life.
Spelling is the least of your worries as a writer. Leave those sorts of details to editors and that bouncing paperclip in the corner of Microsoft Word.
Part of studying the craft of writing is ripping things up and starting again.
“Artsy-fartsy” vs. “Craftsy-waftsy”: There is a difference between the art and the craft of writing. “Art” implies an elitist state of being, while “craft” is the proletarian act of doing. Even if you are a gifted artist, you will not develop without getting down and dirty with the crafting of your skill.
Writing is a tool, and so can be used to make, fix, or destroy things. Make sure that you are always using the right tool for the right job. That is, your voice, style, and tone should fit the content and emotion of your work.
Keep your literary “key signature” and “tempo” in mind while writing. Is your piece in a “major” or a “minor” key? How fast should it go; where should your story speed up and slow down?
What is your voice? Who is speaking to whom? How much does your reader get to know?
When faced with writer’s block, try some of the following:
Change the tense or narrator.
Alter your first scene.
Go to the movies.
Some words from Charles Dickens to keep in mind: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”
There will always be someone who doesn’t like your work. That doesn’t mean that there are any fewer people who do.