I’ve been thinking about collaboration as a means of queering. In writing, collaboration queers the traditional artist-as-precious-genius notion by forcing writers to relinquish creative control while still in the midst of creating. It queers the solitary writing process by exposing our artistic vulnerabilities. It queers the commercial author machine by sharing profit and leaving less room for a promotional cult of personality. It can even queer the almighty “I” on any given page.
I’m currently at work on a collaborative poetry project with Carol Guess about a character named NonMom. Like me, and like Carol, NonMom is queer. Love and sex aren’t structured around binary gender for NonMom. She lives without interest in the heteropatriarchal family structure. She rejects easy categories. Sometimes she refuses a stable identity altogether.
So I’ve also been thinking about what it means to claim that term, queer—andnot just as a verb, which academics (including myself) love to do. I’m talking about a concrete, women-loving woman (to use my own life) kind of queerness. Around the time that Carol and I began this project, I also began to claim queerness for myself in concrete ways, though I hesitated to use the term at first, because it was not a term I’d claimed in the past. When I’d been in straight relationships, I had written about queerness a little—but only in “persona” poems. I’m embarrassed to say this now, afraid of suggesting to you that I was in the closet or simply oblivious. Those notions don’t capture my life in the slightest.
As Carol (who is a frequent collaborator) has pointed out to me, a collaborative poem is a kind of persona poem. The reader knows the “I” is compromised. If needed, the author can hide—but she can also write a role for herself. I didn’t want to hide in NonMom. I wanted to enter into something big and complicated with the support of another queer writer. I wanted to create some of the most confessional poems I’ve ever written by claiming not just queerness in NonMom’s voice, but also her refusal to keep quiet. She’s outspoken about her desires—and her lack of a desire for children, which is embraced in her very name. I, on the other hand, am still learning how to speak up about such things.
A former colleague once spoke to me about an acquaintance who identified as a lesbian but married a man, had a child, then divorced the man and fell in love with a woman. It was just that she made such a big deal about being a lesbian, my colleague explained, and then she wasn’t, and then she was again. It was the swerve that bothered her, apparently—the shift from one lane to another, or perhaps worse: occupying multiple lanes. The question that needled: How could anyone be more than one thing?
In collaboration, voices can meld, but they can also clash in fruitful ways. I often teach collaborative work from literary journals and anthologies (like They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing). One of my favorite collaborative essays to teach is “Pink” by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade. I ask my students why it matters that the essay has two authors. Many admit that they didn’t at first notice there were two authors, while others say they knew because one author calls herself “straight” and speaks of an ex-husband, while another calls herself “a proud gay woman”—though it’s not necessarily clear who is speaking at any given moment in the essay. At this point, someone in class typically reminds everyone that who you’re with doesn’t determine your sexuality. Maybe someone else says sexuality can change. A pregnant pause enters the room. Eventually we conclude that although there are two distinct authors, the lines between their identities and experiences intersect and even blur. After that, my students usually create fantastic collaborative essays that use “I” to challenge the very notion of a stable identity.
On the page I am Rochelle and I am NonMom, who is also Carol, who is also I. We travel a loop through the poem, leaving in the center a wide-open space for being.
We are pleased to announce that former Superstition Review contributor Sigrid Nunez has just released a new book titled What Are You Going Through. Sigrid is a New York Times bestselling author and her newest book is one of seven she has written over her career. What Are You Going Through is narrated by a woman who uses the stories of friends, family members, and even strangers to assess the beauty of human nature through the conversations they hold. The narrator is a passive listener until she gets whirled into a life-changing encounter of her very own. What Are You Going Through is currently available for purchase on Amazon.
“Reading Sigrid Nunez’s absorbing new novel is somewhat akin to having a long conversation with someone who is telling you something very important, but is telling it in a very quiet voice. You have to really pay attention. Be assured, however, that the experience will be worth it. You will emerge calmer, meditative, more thoughtful, as if you have benefited from an excellent literary massage of sorts.” –The New York Times Book Review
Learn more about Sigrid at her website here or by reading her Issue 10 interview here.
Join Arizona State University’s Department of English in welcoming author Jonathan Safran Foer at a virtual event to be hosted on October 1, 2020 from 6:00-7:30 p.m. The goal of the Common Read program is to have incoming freshman read and write about a topic of interest that relates to ASU’s mission for change. For this event, the focus will be on environmental protection, as is described in Jonathan’s book We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. The event, where Jonathan will discuss his book and answer questions from students and staff, is free and open to the public. More information about the event and a link to register for the reading can be found here.
You can find out more about Jonathan and his latest book here and more about ASU’s Common Read here.
Join us in congratulating our faculty art advisor, Rebecca Fish Ewan, on her new book Doodling for Writers, published by Books for Hippocampus. Rebecca Fish Ewan is an artist and author and founded Plankton Press. In addition, she is currently a professor at ASU and teaches for the landscape architecture program. She has previously written two books, A Land Between and By the Forces of Gravity. Her new book Doodling for Writers features her own cartoons, as well as tips and tricks for authors who want to incorporate drawing into the writing process. It guides the reader through processes that will enhance their writing with prompts and activities to guide the way. Ewan’s book will be released on October 6th, 2020 and is available for pre-order here.
The Superstition Review blog posts two types of content from past contributors to our magazine, guest posts and Author Talks. Both of these are posted regularly on the blog and are a great way for us to hear authors talk about their writing process and what they have been up to since being featured in the magazine. We now have an easier way for past contributors to submit both guest posts and authors talks to the blog. Both can be submitted by following a link to Submittable, an online submission form found on the front page of our magazine, or by clicking here.
This interview was conducted via email by Summer Blog Editor Kelsey Kerley. It regards Davon Loeb’s memoir, The In-Betweens (published in 2018) as well as his process and experiences as a writer and educator.
Davon Loeb is the author of the lyrical memoir The In-Betweens (Everytime Press, 2018). He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Camden, and he is an assistant poetry editor at Bending Genres and a guest prose editor at Apiary Magazine. Davon writes creative nonfiction and poetry. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and one Best of the Net, and is forthcoming and featured in Ploughshares Blog, PANK Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Mauldin House, JMWW, Barren Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. Besides writing, Davon is a high school English teacher, husband, and father living in New Jersey. Currently, he is writing a YA novel. His work can be found here: davonloeb.com and on Twitter @LoebDavon.
The In-Betweens is a coming of age journey about a biracial boy who is trying to navigate the nuances, struggles, and joys of growing up in two different cultures, a Black family and a white-Jewish family, while living in non-diverse communities. This memoir, written as poetic flash and lyrical nonfiction, explores how racial and cultural identity is shaped through family, friends, and community, as well as how each of these factors are deeply complex and tumultuous, especially in the very divided America we have today. And as noted by Paul Lisicky, author of The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship and Later, “…The In-Betweens is awake to the awe of being in a boy, and the beauty and danger of negotiating a culture that wants to drive space between us, inside us.”
Superstition Review: Could you describe the inspiration for your memoir The In-Betweens?
Davon Loeb: My inspiration for my memoir The In-Betweens was really about trust—trusting myself, in my stories, in my craft. Ever since I was young, I was imaginative. Writing this collection was just about going back to being that little kid again, back to a world of make-believe, to when I was encouraged to dream, to tell stories. Sure, the MFA helped develop some skill, but this was about the persistence that followed. I was inspired to do the work, to write, to commit to this collection.
SR: Some of the chapters that stuck with me most as I read your memoir were the one-page chapters, the small snippets of a moment in time that were packed with emotion. Could you please discuss your process for writing the sections?
DL: I wrote those chapters to tell a story, and sometimes that story only grew into a paragraph or a page simply because the memory itself was small; it was a fragment, but the emotion was still like a hot wire. So I tried to lean into single images as support for the frame of those smaller chapters. In the chapter “5-Series BMW”, my stepfather is working on his car in the garage. The BMW is an image in itself but also a symbol for masculinity. Instead of explaining masculinity, the image and the symbol do the work for me. Once there, in the minute of the moment, I need to trust in the storytelling—really believe in the brevity. After finishing the memoir, I realized these flash chapters balanced the book well.
SR: You’ve managed to capture so many unique moments of your own childhood while still making them relatable to the reader, creating a sense of nostalgia and memory of things they have never known. Which memoirs and memoir authors inspired you?
DL: I intentionally wanted to capture memories that readers could identify with. I’m a real believer that it’s sometimes our duty, as writers, to create universality through individual stories. I wanted my readers to experience the same dirt of childhood, to be hand over hand with me, through the joys, the laughter, the tears. I’m so glad it worked, and readers felt a connection to this little boy. In regard to reading memoir, the genre was actually new to me. I started my MFA as a poet and left writing memoir. A reasonably short list of some of my favorite memoir authors are the following: Paul Lisicky, Roxane Gay, Porochista Khakpour, Tyrese Coleman, Chloe Caldwell, Tracy K. Smith, and more names I know I’m missing. I actually read more poetry than memoir, and that list would be too long.
SR: As well as being a writer, you are also a teacher. How has your experience as an educator influenced your writing?
DL: So much of writing is being vulnerable, which is like teaching. I believe the best teachers are the ones who are not afraid to be themselves, not afraid of getting “eye-level” with their students. When writing this memoir, I took the same approach. I said, “This is who I am. I am not scared to show you,” because readers can see through a façade as quickly as students can. But the relationship between the two is also evident in my craft as a writer and educator. I teach Literature and Composition; I read and write all day. This is my life, a muscle always at use. Consider this: as writers, we are constantly changing, a course of lifelong revisions; in the same way, teachers are forever adapting, sometimes in the moment in a classroom or as society shifts, like now, during a health pandemic. Nonetheless, these roles are inseparable; they are equally part of my identity, and I could not do one without the other. Though it can get messy. My students love to Google me, and read my book, which is cool, but sometimes makes for an interesting conversation. The point I try to impress is that I am forever in it, forever learning, forever a student.
SR: One of the main factors of an identity that you discuss in The In-Betweens is race. How did you go about addressing this topic and what did you find most challenging about it?
DL: Discussing race is definitely the crux of a lot of my writing. I try to focus on race as something fluid, rather than stone. I want readers to value my experiences, as well as understand that my experiences are not the tell-all stories of racism or the entire black experience. I felt especially confronted with my race or my blackness in the last couple months, during the protests and public murder of George Floyd. I’m biracial. I grew up in a predominantly white community. While some aspects of my upbringing were discriminatory, I still had a great childhood and adolescence. There’s a duality that exists here, in the danger of being a minority, but also this safety in racial ambiguity. That is challenging to write about, to straddle two cultures. So instead of steering away from that, I drive forward, push to the uncertainty, the in-between of my race, of where I fit in this American narrative.
SR: As an educator, what impact do you think or hope books like your own will have on younger generations?
DL: I hope books like mine will help students who have never read an author that looks like me to realize different authors do exist beyond what they’ve read since starting education. Different stories exist, ones that are similar or dissimilar from their own. I want my students to know that the writing community is incredibly diverse. I believe that if our Nation wants to rewrite its identity, it starts here, with books in schools. As an educator, I really hope, if anything, something I’ve said will inspire younger generations to tell their stories, and know, really know, their stories matter.
SR: One of the most notorious issues in English education is a lack of diversity in the voices and stories children experience in the classroom. Have you seen any indication of a change in this pattern? What steps do you think need to be taken to increase literary diversity in the classroom?
DL: Yes! Education is changing. We need to take some steps away from the Canon. Sure, continue to read and teach Shakespeare, of course, but syllabi and curriculums need to change and adjust the perimeters to what is literature. When I was a kid, my mother required me to read books by black authors, but in school, that rarely happened. So what do we say to the kid who has never read a book with a character similar to them? Do we tell them their stories don’t matter to us? To give an example, there’s a children’s book, Farah Rocks Fifth Grade by Susan Muaddi Darraj, who is a wonderful author, and Farah is the first Arab-American character I have ever seen in a children’s book. I think about that, and it makes me so sad and disappointed. I think about that kid who is Arab-American and has never, ever, read a book about them. I think about the kid who knows nothing about Arab-Americans besides the single narrative often depicted in the media, and that kid maybe needs a book like Susan’s more than the other. For our society to grow, the required-reading list needs to reflect our country. But to get there, for these stories to arrive on our students’ desk, we need education to change as much as publishing needs to change. We need diverse leadership like Lisa Lucas, the Vice President & Publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books, who is reshaping the publishing industry.
SR: In “Thoughts On Hair,” you portray the plight of racially ambiguous and mixed race children attempting to fit in. You emphasize in particular how you have experienced the perception of your race changing based upon how you style your hair. What do you think experiences like that among others say about the way racially ambiguous people are perceived in our society? Do you think this perception has changed since you were a child, and if so, how?
DL: As a child, I struggled growing up in a black family where I was biracial while living in a white community where I was non-white. I was regularly in-between cultures. But I do believe the perception of racially ambiguous people has changed since I was a child. We have always been here; but I think through entertainment: television, movies, sports, books and other media, the focus has shifted toward people of mixed race rather than away from them. While this should not denounce people who are not racially ambiguous, I can barely think of any professional athletes who were biracial when I was a kid. Today, one of the highest paid quarterbacks in the NFL is biracial; he is the face of the NFL. Though that has other implications, it also says something about our society, good or bad. On a personal note, I am interracially married and have a biracial daughter. My wife and I will raise her in a way where we celebrate all of her multitudes, rather than just focusing on her differences.
SR:The In-Betweens was first published in 2018. Now, in late 2020, we have seen a shift in the sociopolitical climate as more and more people are becoming aware of social justice issues and movements. Have you found that reactions to your work have changed now that the present context is so different than it was when you originally published?
DL: Thank you for asking this question. In 2018, my book was important to me, to the friends and family who supported my work, and the small group of writers and editors who valued this collection, some of whom even wrote reviews of The In-Betweens. For them, I am forever grateful. People like Chris Campanioni, Steve Burns, Yi Shun Lai, Roy G Guzmán, and Paul Lisicky, thank you. Now, in late 2020, the shift in the sociopolitical climate has given my memoir a new life, a resurgence. I have always believed these stories of race, identity, and culture were important, but it feels like a greater interest is stirring. I’m not sure what that means—more sales or more reviews or whatever; but I do know that it means my story can reach you and maybe before it could not. That is important and invaluable. I’m fortunate that literary journals and magazines have repurposed and republished chapters of my memoir. These literary spaces have offered a second home to my work. I am grateful for the reviews and interviews that are still happening in 2020, almost two years after publication. Yes, the context has absolutely changed, and my gratitude for the love and support of The In-Betweens is so immense.
SR: This book has much to do with several varieties of learning, from learning about yourself and your family to learning about your greater identity as part of a whole. What is the main take away you want your readers to gain after having experienced all this learning with you?
DL: The main take away I want readers to gain after experiencing this with me is to learn that we are more similar than we are different. I might be of another race, culture, or what have you, but the stories that make me who I am are just like the stories that shape you. My identity is rich, and I’ve learned to love who I am and all that I am through storytelling, through writing this memoir. In a way, we write our own memoirs every day—through photos, videos, posts, calls, and texts, we are forming our memories of life into an order of things. Writing The In-Betweens was my attempt to order my life, to order it with purpose, with an attention to cadence, image, and sentiment. I want you to experience that; I want you to read my book, but I’m okay if you don’t. I would rather you partake in your own memoir, in whatever form it will be, but do it, believe in it, and share it. You’ll realize just like I did that what connects us is stronger than what divides us.
Today we are excited to welcome back poet Sarah Carey on our Authors Talk series. In this podcast, Sarah shares some tips for getting “unstuck” in your creative process. She revisits an unfinished poem and walks us through her process of revision with fresh eyes—giving us some incredible insight along the way.
“Don’t give up, explore the hidden…practice self-love, forgiveness, kindness towards yourself and others, and rest.”
Today we are pleased to feature Benjamin Soileau as our Authors Talk series contributor. With jazzy Louisiana music playing lightly in the background, Ms. Kennedy Soileau—Benjamin’s wife, first reader, and editor—interviews Benjamin about his writing process and recent fiction piece, “What Paul Would Do,” published in SR’s Issue 23.
Benjamin explains that the idea for his short story stemmed from an old family memory: one where his father would send Benjamin and his little brother outside into the garden with a jar and list of bugs to catch for some pocket change. From here, writing “What Paul Would Do” came naturally, unlike some of Benjamin’s other stories. However, he explains that the biggest challenge in writing “What Paul Would Do” was working with the interrupted grief in Gayle’s character. In reflecting on Gayle, Benjamin notices nearly all of the characters in his story grapple with “a grief interrupted.”
Kennedy remarks that she finds the protagonist’s simultaneous likability and reprehensible action to be an interesting “balance act.” To this, Benjamin acknowledges, “We’re all capable of terrible things. Just like, you know, we’re capable of good things. Terrible. Beautiful. We’re all mixed up.”
Benjamin and his wife also take time to discuss the way he captures cajun-style dialogue and story structure with his language. Although some of his inspiration may have come from Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories or Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” (which he read around the time he composed “What Paul Would Do”), Benjamin explains that his ability to construct the voices in his stories comes from listening to the family voices in his grandmother’s kitchen who “spoke French half the time.” He believes this particular voice is dying while the “land is slipping away” and “the culture, of course, is going with it.”
Benjamin and Kennedy also consider their unique relationship, with Benjamin acting as a writer and husband and Kennedy acting as his editor and wife. Benjamin mentions the challenges of this editing process, but he notices it gives him someone to write for and impress. Kennedy explains how their relationship dynamic switches to a writer-editor relationship during this editing phase. While she feels apologetic about marking up his story with a red pen, she likes to see how the stories change between the first and last drafts. Benjamin concludes, laughing “They usually do [change], quite a bit. I wish they’d change a lot quicker.”
“We are hungry for the secret news about life.” – Stanley Kunitz
As writers, as readers of poetry and prose and drama, we are, more or less, hungry for mystery and surprise, hungry for understanding that is not washed in the dust of everyday living. We are hungry for the secret news about life.
Like the mythmakers before us, who were trying to ground a belief system and initiate people into society through the use of story and poem and play, we too are hungry to explore who we are, why we are here, the purposes of living and dying, our places in the worlds of space and of time, what love is. Unlike the mythmakers before us, though, as we deal with these existential realities, we know that we don’t have the answers; we know that we don’t know any secrets besides our own; and we know that most of those are still secret from us even after we have spent our lives searching for them.
Because of this, because the human mind cannot be easily explained, the creation of art, as well as art itself, is unpredictable. Sure, we can break down the processes of the brain to synapses firing and axons stimulating and all that electrochemical junk (scientific terminology there), but the mysteries of the mind, of its processes of creation, of why we have certain thoughts and why certain people can produce new cuisines, or a starry night on canvas, or a little night music, or a midsummer night’s dream is beyond us. In fact, that it is beyond us is the very thing that gives art in any form its power; that they had not thought of it in quite that way themselves but they make the connection the artist created nonetheless is what makes an audience say, “Yes.”
Where scientists create narratives of the brain – big bangs and quantum mechanics, electron transfers, and quarks – explainable, empirical, and, they hope, synchronic – we writers are doing something equally important, creating verities of the mind – a man who turns into a domed beetle, a woman weighted down by her waterlogged dress and sinking below the surface of a clear stream growing murky, a catalog of unabashed gratitude – each one a little mysterious yet still familiar, each one individual yet understandable.
Writing (like any art) in its own peculiar way holds up mystery in order to be confirmed; it holds up proof in order to show the question mark. Art is natural science, history, philosophy, psychology, theology, experience and enigma pressed into a superball, but one with a big chunk missing from it. And that superball is bounced in a child’s room, with unheard of abandon, and with all of the crazy spin that missing chunk causes and that child can muster. Where it ends up – under the bed, crashing into the lampshade, hidden among the toys, lodged between the wall and the dresser, simply gone until it strangely, magically reappears months later in a shoe that had already been checked – is anyone’s guess.
Art is all of this. Writing is all of this. And here is the most wonderful thing about it: it always fails to satisfy our hunger completely.
And this, for me, is where the joyful pain (the painful joy) of writing lies.
Whenever I sit down at my desk, I’m hungry for words; I’m hungry for understanding – even though I know that they’re not completely available to me, that they are in a sense beyond. I believe in the pursuit of words, in asking questions, in exploring the ambiguity and complexity of being human. I feed my insatiable hunger for language as I write: for sound and sense, for rhyme and reason, for glee. I write, and I know that I’m writing from and within my own ignorance and toward my own failures, my inability to know it and to say it exactly the way I want to say it, whatever it is.
Wordsworth said, famously, that the process of writing poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility.” For me, though, it is the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in anxiety and uncertainty, in pain-behind-the-eye head-thumping mistake-riddled frustration, and finally (every once in a while) in satisfaction and thus something that resembles tranquility (until I of course work on the next poem, or until a month or two or a year down the road I of course see something in my finished poem I don’t like.)
Feeling comfortable in this unsure process, having the techniques learned, then letting both go, letting the unanticipated, the newness take over, in a sense, feeling lost, that is what gets me moving toward something. As I write, it is right for me to feel lost. Because that spurs discovery. The great guitarist from the band King Crimson Robert Fripp once said, “The key characteristic of mastery is the assumption of innocence within the context of experience….If you walk out on stage not knowing what you are going to do, you might just do it, but not as a novice, where you really don’t know what you are doing. The master has integrated all of the skill set of a professional and then throws it away. Or assumes the innocence.”
Planning, practice, patience, passion, concentration, discarding, perseverance, worry, wonder, confusion, ignorance combine to move something forward toward artistry and someone forward toward mastery. I know I must approach my work with arrogance and humility. We know this. When we create art, we want our god hand to shine like yellow fondant-drape sunlight on the steeple, on the whole cathedral of our creation; we think that we can satisfy that hunger for knowing and saying, but the closer we get to art, the more we appreciate what we cannot do and what we must push ourselves to become.
And for me, more and more, what I cannot do yet (and may never be able to do) and what I must push myself to become (yet may never become) are the true gifts, the ones that keep my hunger gnawing.
Today we are pleased to feature author Laurie Blauner as our Authors Talk series contributor. She discusses her experience working with creative nonfiction in her work “I Was One of My Memories” in which she writes to grieve the loss of her pet cat, Cyrus, but the book encompasses much more than that. Rich Ives joins her to talk about the ins and outs of writing creative nonfiction and distinguish its significance and strength as a literary form.
Having appeared in previous issues of SR, Laurie has worked in poetry and fiction writing, now she has chosen to tackle the creative nonfiction genre with some advice from Rich Ives. They first discuss the importance of analogy in nonfiction and Laurie, when she began writing this piece, asked herself “how much am I allowed to use my imagination”. Rich responds to this question by highlighting the “complexity of certain kinds of truth” determining that “truth is not singular” which distinguishes the creative nonfiction genre from a typical research-based essay. According to the pair, truth and context are some of the main concerns of creative nonfiction. Laurie notes that the genre allows people “to become each other’s witnesses” providing a thoughtful insight to the writing process and how to approach creative nonfiction.