Guest Post, Benjamin Vogt: Writing About Family Boldly and With Personal Truth Guiding the Way

Benjamin VogtIn 2009 I finished my first memoir. I’d worked on it for a few years, performing copious amounts of research on international garden design, horticulture, psychology, landscape theory, as well as interviewing a few family members. Well, I actually only interviewed my mom, and that was a two hour heart-wrenching session where for the first time in my life I got to know her as a person more terrifyingly real than I ever imagined.

During a visit home I was anxious. I didn’t want to broach the interview we both knew I wanted to do (and that would be the key to my memoir), but as the visit was ending she finally asked when I was going to get around to it. She often asked this of me as kid when I had the stomach flu – I held in my vomit until the very last minute, resulting in a big mess nowhere near the bathroom. Sorry. Too much info. I am a memoirist you know.

I felt awkward during our interview. I shook. I felt sweaty and cold. It was strange. I wasn’t ready for this kind of memoir – the one where you speak the deep truth by having confronted it in your lived life. A few weeks later my mom emailed me the deeper, deeper truth, saying she’d never speak it in person to me. It was the story of her siblings being beaten and molested, of her stepfather spiking her vanilla malt and trying, unsuccessfully, to molest her, too. I learned that for my family the garden was an escape, a place to center and come to grips with life.

I edited that memoir, Morning Glory, in 2010 because I knew it lacked structure, and a big part of the reason it lacked structure was because I was afraid to dig as far I needed to. It still lacks structure, and has sat idly in an external hard drive ever since. But my new memoir, which I began working on in 2009, is risking more. It’s bolder. It’s asking big questions. It’s taking a stand. All because I’m putting more of myself on the page.

I’ve taken four trips to Oklahoma to interview family and experts about state history, about homesteading stories from 1894 to the 1940s, about prairie ecology, about Mennonites and Cheyenne beliefs. Exploring my love / hate relationship with my birth state has helped me find the pain that Oklahoma represents for many cultures, human and plant and animal. As an accelerated microcosm of manifest destiny, my family helped destroy the prairie — I want to right that wrong I’ve felt in my bones longer than I’ve known how to name it.

But I’m terribly afraid that in saying the above, I’ll alienate the older members of my family who see the Plains in rose colored glasses, or that I’ll be accused of not honoring the sacrifice of my immigrant family who spoke only German. But the more I read, the more I travel, the more I remember my childhood in the hot, red dirt, I know what my truth is and that I have to speak it loudly – so loudly it hurts people’s ears and hearts. If I can’t risk my life here, on the page, alone in my office, how can I ever risk it out there? How can I live with myself if my inner and outer selves don’t merge? These questions have become my second memoir’s structure. Through a failed first book and much more active research than I ever did in nine years of grad school combined, I’ve come to gain confidence and faith in my writing and my life. At 37, it’s taken me many failures to write boldly, to write and trust my truth – and if Turkey Red is ever read by family, I will surely fail again. But I will have profoundly succeeded, too.

An Interview with Artist John Sonsini

John and BritneyOn Saturday, February 9, artist John Sonsini presented his artwork at the opening of his exhibition at Phoenix’s Bentley Gallery. Upon walking into the gallery, the size alone of the paintings commanded attention. The life-size portraits made an instant impression. While I stopped to view the paintings, I came to realize a commonality that I am rarely able to see in most artwork: the voice of the subject.

We often see art as a discourse for political and social statements. The opinions of artists can often overshadow the person that is being painted; the subject is a tool to express a particular belief. In Sonsini’s portraits, however, he embraces the simplicity of focusing on a particular person, and allows us to see the complexities that are hidden in the faces and gestures of everyday people. To him, this is what his art is all about.

Viewing the Work

In the following interview Sonsoni states, “I have always been interested in painting faces, figures. That always interested me. But, of course, for many years I’ve been painting portraits only, painting from life. I usually am interested to paint someone who has strong features, a commanding presence.”

These presences were obvious to me as I viewed the portraits, as I was able to sense the appreciation that Sonsini has for the men he paints. By creating a scene on his canvas that is relatable, real, and unblemished by any silent statement, the audience is exposed to a kind of art that goes beyond the norm.

Because of this simplistic approach to the meaning of his art, I was curious to know how Sonsini decided he was ready to expose his craft to the public.

Sonsini’s desire to exhibit his work is definitely to the advantage of all who are able to view his portraits. By letting the characteristics of his subjects speak for themselves, we are able to admire a portrait of raw emotion and qualities.

Thank you, John Sonsini, for answering Superstition Review’s questions.

1. Q: Who/what gave you the idea to become a public artist?

A: Well, of course, there are artists who don’t view exhibiting (which is a public experience) as all that important. But, in my case, I had always intended that exhibiting my work was an important continuum of the process of making art.

2. Q: Are there any artists in your family? What do they think of your career and work?

A: Actually my father was very gifted, in particular when it came to drawing. He had a natural ability. He really could draw anything. My family was very set on my being an artist. They always encouraged me to go in that direction when I was young. And, I believe they’ve enjoyed seeing me develop a career in the arts.

3. Q: How do you decide who/what to paint?

A: I have always been interested in painting faces, figures. That always interested me. But, of course, for many years I’ve been painting portraits only, painting from life. I usually am interested to paint someone who has strong features, a commanding presence. It’s quite difficult to sit for a painting. It takes a great deal of concentration and focus. Not everyone I’d like to paint is interested in modeling, or even has the time available. I ask each prospective model to work five hours each day until the painting is completed. So that does take quite some time. So, you see, ‘who’ I want to paint is all tied up in ‘who’ really can commit to that sort of focus and daily sessions.

4. Q: Do you believe that skilled painting can be taught and learned? Or is it a natural talent?

A: Well, you refer to the ‘skill’ of painting. You’re asking IF someone can be taught the skill of painting, as in a classroom. Well there are all sorts of technical issues that can be passed along, taught. But, really how one uses those things…I think that has to be just learned from doing, working, and of course, the best lesson is probably just…trial and error. But, sure, there are certain technical skills that could be taught and learned.

5. Q: Why do you use oil paints to create your art? Do you use any other mediums? Why or why not?

A: Yes, I work with oils. I like the fluidness of the medium. Because oil remains wet for quite some time, it is very suitable for working and reworking from day to day. And, of course, the color, the pigment in oil I find to have a saturation that I haven’t found in other mediums.

6. Q: What have your sitters thought of the process and your finished portrayal of them? Are you able to cultivate a kinship with them? How long does a piece usually take to complete?

A: Before I set out to do a large painting of someone, I always ask that we work for a few days drawing or a small painting. In this way it allows a new model to kind of test out the work before we launch into a large project. Most sitters seem to like the process. It’s very organized. We take a break about every half hour, then a long lunch break mid day. Most sitters seem to enjoy the finished painting. And, especially after so many days working on a painting, and getting to see the process, and understanding that the painting is a handcrafted object. In other words, anyone who’s expecting a photographic likeness well, I think, after a few days working, it would be obvious that my painting will be a far more painterly portrayal. A full figure portrait usually takes about 10 – 14 days to complete.

7. Q: Do you have any hopes or plans for your future in the art world?

A: A new painting I’m working on at the moment for an exhibition at the Autry National Center of the American West, here in Los Angeles. I’m painting a large portrait of two vaqueros/cowboys as part of a new installation at the museum, organized by Museum Curator Amy Scott. And then a group show in NYC at Salomon Contemporary in the Spring. And, of course, I’m very pleased to be showing my most current group of paintings here in Phoenix at Bentley Gallery.

John Sonsini’s paintings are on display at Bentley Gallery in Phoenix until tomorrow, February 28.

Guest Post, Lori Brack: On Completeness

Contributor Guest Post: Lori Brack

In the midst of things, at the between of things, I wonder why I ever believe in completeness. Again, my plans for a project, my idea that I can predict how I will approach something, my faith that these things are manageable – all slide away.

Without meaning to, with other things to do and books to read piled around me, I began reading Ernesto Pujol’s new book Sited Body, Public Visions: silence, stillness & walking as Performance Practice. On that rainy gray morning I read it until I had to stop on page 49. I stopped because every page calls me to write and write in response, in collaboration, in imitation. I have fallen into the trance of a voice, a mind, a generosity. Pujol’s writing is doing that thing to me that is the reason I go to art: he is writing things I have guessed, have intimated, have intuited, have maybe even known, but never articulated. So reading feels like coming to myself even while I am reading the inner and outer life of someone quite unlike me.

I want to write and write. I want to quote and quote. I want to ask and ask: Must I “finish” in order to respond? Must I get all the way to the end – of the book, the day, the job, the semester, the life – in order to be moved, to know something? Here is Ernesto on his work as a visual and performance artist: “It takes a passage of time, sometimes a lifetime, for an art practice to mature, to know itself, to reveal its secret depths and complexities. . .” So Ernesto answers me, perhaps. The ends of things, or maybe the pauses between things, bring maturity, knowing, revelation. Every page is a revelation. Every page ends and then goes on as my hands turn and turn, my eyes leap and shift, wet orbs of light and reading.

I have known Ernesto for a little more than 10 years. We have collaborated on two projects – an exhibition and a work of performance – in that time. His Field School Project published my first chapbook in 2010. He commissioned the work as a script for Farmers Dream, an all-night performance in a warehouse in central Kansas. My long poem is a partial, unfinished and unfinishable memoir of a span of difficult months in my life when I turned to the work that Ernesto envisioned. I hoped the project might save me. I used the assignment as an opportunity for reading and re-reading my grandfather’s farming journal. He wrote his daily activities, the weather, his goings out and comings back in the same big book each day from 1907 when he was a bachelor at 19, until he was a married 30-year-old father of two in 1918. My mother would be born in 1925, by which year he no longer wrote every day. On March 9, 1912, he wrote “Cut wood in morning. Shoveled sand out of river in afternoon. Went after milk. Spotted heifer (Star) was fresh about 4 p.m. Milked cows. Clipped my hair at night.” He recorded the middles of things – chores that need doing and then redoing because of the fecundity of nature.

I did not meet this grandfather who worked with his hands and back, who supported the people I grew up knowing best – my mother and her sisters. He died when my mother was 13. I have a photograph of her, freckles over her nose, sitting with her mother on the still-humped grave on his birthday in August 1938. In 2001, she would die on the same date, long past knowing the calendar in her illness, living the last weeks of her life entirely in the bed her parents had bought and used a lifetime earlier. When I visit my sister, I sleep in that bed. I am not finished sleeping yet. It is not only the photograph or the smooth wood of the headboard and footboard that know.

Ernesto writes, “You are dead. You are reading this, but you are dead. You died long ago, but you are being remembered. A child is remembering you.” In those sentences I become the girl at her father’s grave, I become her father I know only through his handwriting, I become my 75-year-old mother at her death; I become myself.

The grave is so new that only a temporary marker, a round metal sign with letters pushed into slots, leans a bit in the foreground. Toward me. I can almost make out his name and the single date, but I am imagining into the picture, doing what I do best: reading through a lens of what reading suggests I understand. Already, stopped only at page 49, I flip back through Ernesto’s book looking for what I think is there. Are the words printed or are they the ones I put there as a reader, as a writer?

When Ernesto was small, he writes in the first paragraph of Chapter One, he was able to make it rain, his favorite weather, “a child of the shade, moist moss and wet ferns.” How often have I written about that shade? Mine was Midwestern, shaggy elm tree and shrub shade of back yards. His was tropical island shade, fronds and leaves. In our separate and still lived lives, we share greengray timelessness, when morning and afternoon almost all the way to night cast the same light. Under the rough spreading bushes of the back yard, I planted my first seeds – black grenade shapes of four-o-clocks also called mirabilis (amazing, wondrous), which opened in late afternoon shadows when the temperature dropped and the soil went cool against bare feet.

I will go on reading this gentle book past the page, each page where I stop. I will go on writing it as a reader writes, incompletely and through the half-illuminating, half-blinding lenses of my experience. I write from a dim room where I am comforted by the scents of moss and milk. Writing and reading as a writer are the ways I know to re-enter that room and when I find a book like Ernesto’s, that miracle in my hands, it helps me through the doorway and I am t/here.

Ernesto Pujol’s memoir/performance text is available through McNally Jackson Books, New York.

New Summer Series: Dispatches from Delhi

My name is Arjun Chopra, and this summer I’m moving to India for two months to be a T.A. at New Era Public School, a K-through-12 institution in New Delhi.

Why, you ask? There are so many reasons.

1. It’s going to be an incredible work experience. I’ll be working 8-hour days, 5 days a week, grading papers, assisting teachers in putting together lesson plans, and maybe I’ll even get to teach a class or two myself. For a kid like me who has spent his whole life as a nose-to-the-books student, this kind of rigorous workload will be a stark change and a welcome reprieve.

2. My entire family lives there. And when I say entire, I mean entire. My great-grandparents, my grandparents, their children, their children’s children, my first cousins, my second cousins, my second cousins once removed. It’s an extensive list of people, people I feel privileged to spend quality time with. I will learn how to cook quality Punjabi food at my grandmother’s house. Take a crash course in martial arts at the studio by my cousin’s place. And hopefully take a road trip to somewhere awesome in a different region with the family members who are ready to go.

3. But most importantly, I’m going because as a student and a poet, I know I can’t grow without exposure to new stimuli. If I want to learn different things, I have to be exposed to different things. The same goes for if I want to write something new.

I’m going because I want a change, but not the kind of change where I shrug off who I am and become someone else. I need a change in perspective, a shift in paradigm, a break from what has become my everyday so I can expand as a worker, a writer, and a person.

That’s also why I’ll be chronicling my exploration in this “Dispatches” series for Superstition Review, to document my journey not only for personal fulfillment, but in the hope that maybe others can learn something, even a kernel of something, from the things I write about.

So, cheers. I have a feeling it’s going to be a great summer.

Meet the Review Crew: Daniel Redding

Each week we feature one of our many talented interns here at Superstition Review.

Finally completing a journey that began in January of 2008, Daniel Redding will be graduating this May with a B.A. in English from Arizona State University. Upon graduating, Daniel will pursue a Master’s Degree in English with an emphasis that will be determined by the location of his future graduate school.

A veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Daniel is 26 years old and has been married for over three years to his wife, Leanne. They recently welcomed their baby daughter, Emma Jane, into the world on November 9, 2011. While in the Marine Corps, Daniel served as a combat correspondent, with responsibilities ranging from journalism, photography, videography, layout and design editing, media relations, and much more. In 2006, Daniel deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He also served as head Marine layout and design editor for the Camp Pendleton Scout Newspaper on two separate occasions.

Daniel currently serves as Advertising Coordinator with Superstition Review. Working with SR has been an invaluable experience for him; combined with his military background, his understanding of how newspapers and literary magazines similarly work has grown.

Daniel is serving as an English tutor at the ASU affiliate, Metro Tech High School Writing Center, which is helping prepare him for what he will experience when he begins his career as an English professor.

A native of San Diego, California, Daniel is an avid sports fan. He stubbornly wears his San Diego Padres baseball cap regardless of what enemy territory he is in. As a diehard follower of David Sedaris, Daniel will laugh out loud when reading a good piece of satirical lampooning.

The Shape of the Eye, Memoir by George Estreich

George Estreich, poet and author of “Shape of the Eye”

Issue 7 contributor George Estreich recently published a new memoir, The Shape of the Eye, in which he describes the blessings and challenges of raising his daughter Laura, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Estreich is known for his book of poems, Textbook Illustration of the Human Body, which won the Rhea and Seymour Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books.

While writing Shape of the Eye Estreich was faced with new challenges, both technically and personally. Having a strong background in poetry, Estreich found writing a memoir to be both a foreign and familiar experience: “When I wrote poems, I was mainly concerned with language, line by line and word by word […] In a way, I was still writing poetry, trying to get each sentence right, to find the right word and metaphor and form. At the same time, those formal choices became part of a larger goal.”

Creative nonfiction can have its own challenges, especially when the topic is so personal. Estreich commented on that intimate quality of Shape: “It’s odd to have written so much autobiographical work, in poetry and prose, because I think of myself as a private person. So there was a tension between necessary truth-telling and privacy. Also, if one is writing about people one cares about, and one acknowledges that true stories can do harm to relationships, then writing and family are in tension too. Storytelling is an ethical act. I don’t have a formula for resolving these tensions, and I don’t think there is one, but these issues were never far from mind.”

Despite the challenges creative nonfiction presents, Estriech found that, “in writing nonfiction prose about Laura, [he] wanted to be, in a small way, an agent of change.” Estreich goes on to say, “I wanted to raise questions about what “normal” meant, and to raise the question of who counts in our society. More specifically, I wanted to oppose a complex and singular portrait of Down Syndrome to the generic, medically ratified portrait that most people know.”

Estreich’s memoir has received attention from both the medical and literary fields. He has spoken and presented excerpts of the novel at the Willamette Valley Down Syndrome Association, the Spring Creek Conference on Nature and the Sacred, and the World Down Syndrome Conference in Vancouver. Estreich remarked: “I don’t know what effect Shape has had, but I hope it’s been positive. I do know that the responses to the book so far have been very gratifying, from other parents and from medical professionals. I’ve spoken to a number of medical audiences, and am always glad to have the chance to answer questions and have the necessary conversations. In general, I’ve found an extraordinary amount of goodwill, which reflects the goodwill Laura seems to inspire in person. This isn’t to say that attitudes don’t have a long way to go, about Down Syndrome or disability in general. But as a writer and a father, I’ve been very happy with the response to my book so far.”

The Shape of the Eye is a finalist in the 2012 Oregon Book Award for creative nonfiction and has been nominated for a Reader’s Choice Award (you can vote online for the memoir here). You can read an excerpt from Shape of the Eye and find out more information on George Estreich’s webpage.

Interview with Cary Holladay

Cary Holladay grew up in Virginia. She is the author of five volumes of fiction, including A Fight in the Doctor’s Office (Miami UP 2008) and The Quick-Change Artist: Stories (Swallow Press / Ohio UP 2006). Her work has appeared in New Stories From the South: The Year’s Best. Her awards include an O. Henry Prize and fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the NEA.

She teaches at the University of Memphis, where she is Director of the River City Writers Series and a First Tennessee Professor.

Interview with Cary Holladay

Superstition Review: In your story, “Land of Lightning,” why did you decide to use Tinsley’s voice for the narrator?

Cary Holladay: Because Tinsley has lost so much—his wife, his marriage, his daughter. All of that grief has tested his strength of character and has brought him to a state of wondering—about being a husband, being a father, and what it means to send your daughter off to war.

SR: Burton Laughinghouse is a name and a character that really sticks out in the story. Why did you decide that the name would be fitting for him? How does it embody his character?

CH: “Laughinghouse” is a name I heard or read somewhere and was captivated by. I have a weakness for unusual names, but using them in a story can be risky, like a joke. The name embodies Burton Laughinghouse’s character in an ironic way; he’s playful but selfish, a disruptive force, a con man. His love of birds is real, but he exploits the people who befriend and assist him.

SR: There is an element of religion in the story when the characters speak of God, praying, and the devil being present in Glenna’s life or when the devil was asked to leave. What do you believe it brought to the story and what importance does religion have for the characters?

CH: It’s such a part of them that they feel the pull of its compass no matter what they do. Glenna, especially, feels the burden of her sin for having injured Ned Page. She feels guilt for being attracted to Burton Laughinghouse. Religion is part of the personal mystery that these characters carry with them.

SR: The incident with Glenna Dancy and Ned Page with the arrow was briefly mentioned in the beginning of the story but is really brought to life at the end. Tell us why you decided that this story would make for a perfect ending. What way did it tie the whole story together?

CH: That incident grew out of the fear I felt in high school archery class. A bow and arrow is a powerful, primitive, effective weapon. To aim and let that arrow fly at a living target is to pronounce a death sentence, or at least pose severe danger. The scene tied the story together because it expressed the contradictions in Glenna’s tormented inner self—her sexuality, her anger, her ego. She’s combative. Like Tinsley’s daughter who died in a helicopter accident in Iraq, Glenna has a warrior’s heart.

SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?

I’m finishing a collection of stories set in Virginia’s horse country and have begun writing a novel about the pirate Blackbeard. I’m reading buccaneer legends, lore, and history.