Authors Talk: Steve Howe

Steven Howe

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.”

You can access Steve’s piece, “Repossession,” in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

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.

Guest Post, Elizabeth Frankie Rollins: I Lost a Manuscript

Elizabeth Frankie RollinsThe Lost Manuscript: A Particular Silence

This spring I lost a manuscript. A hundred and fifty pages of handwritten text that I’d been working on for a year.

We’d suffered an upheaval of the home, a bedbug infestation. To get rid of these fiends, you must evict yourself from the rooms they have taken. Defeated as soon as you begin, you must vacuum, wash, bag, roast, poison or discard your belongings. Once you have removed all evidence of yourself, the exterminator sprays down a poison that must remain on your floor for months. The bugs don’t die easy. The poison must be set down in layers. It was not these actions alone, but the required repetition of these actions, that unhinged me.

I like to write in the morning, sitting in bed. The book I’d been working on, months of research and piles of handwritten text, was kept in a binder. I always write everything by hand first, but this time I was trying an added experiment of not entering any of it into the computer. I wanted to see how organic the structure might be if I didn’t interrupt the writing for typing.

Obviously, I kept this binder by the bed.

I think I believed that my binder would be immune. A book being created feels pristine, supernatural, imperishable. But when I opened my binder after cleaning out the bedroom, the first pages were full of blood. My blood. Also, black specks of feces. Those bugs drank my blood and then shat it out in the pages of my book.

In the hysteria that ensued, I vacuumed the pages on the back stoop, thrust them under the doormat in a vortex of ripping pages, wind, weeping. After, I heaped them into doubled plastic bags. There, memory fails.

A day or so later, I realized that I didn’t remember what I’d done with the manuscript. I remarked to my husband that it was somewhere in the sea of black trash bags we had surrounding our house, filling our shed, in the Bluebeard’s chamber of our closed-off bedroom. We fondled bags. We opened them. We looked. It wasn’t there.

We had been throwing away bags of stuff marked “bedbugs” for days. I am known for my memory, which is sometimes obscenely accurate. But I couldn’t remember anything after I’d vacuumed and bagged the thing. And if I couldn’t remember, then it was entirely possible that I’d done the unthinkable, that I had thrown it away, that it was in the landfill, baking alongside diapers and banana peels.

I had spent months researching historical Tucson. Free weekends, winter break, I spent hours in historical museums, on historical websites, in libraries. I read books on WWI, on Tucson history from 1860-1920. I wrote pages capturing the mirroring sorrows of war, epidemic, broken landscapes. I birthed a Paul, an Aggi, a family.

I mentioned the lost manuscript to friends, but my telling was impassionate, distant. Oh well, I’d say, I have lots of other books to write. The friends looked at me strangely. It must be in the shed, they’d say. Aren’t you upset, they’d ask?  Are you okay? I shrugged. They told me of Maxine Hong Kinston’s fire, Hemingway’s stories lost on a train, Dylan Thomas’ misplaced manuscript (three times!), of Flaubert, burying his book in the face of oncoming war (never found). There’s internet sites listing lost manuscripts through the ages. None of this resonated with me. These lists of absences seemed strange. The truth was, the book was simply growing silent.

One day, my husband said something to me about the main character. “Paul, who?” I responded. He blanched and stared at me in genuine alarm.

As a practice, I often imagine the book I’m writing as I fall asleep, so that I can see the characters up close. When I tried this, on our squeaky airbeds in a room with blank walls and bugs in the outlets, it was as if I looked through the wrong end of a telescope. The figures were small, smaller, tiny. I couldn’t hear what they were saying or see them distinctly at all.

People asked: Would I rewrite? Would I write about the losing? Would I write something else? I gave vague answers. I decided I’d write it in some radical format: short, sharp bursts of text. I decided that I would never write it. I decided to write it without the research. In truth, the whole story had gone faint and muffled. There was nothing to be done about it. It was sinking away. But I didn’t want anyone to know that. It seemed like such a sad failure.

Bedbugs are a shadow plague, difficult to eradicate. They linger and drink and hide. Over a couple of months, our house was increasingly dissected and strewn. Our mattress and belongings roasted in the sun. We didn’t sleep well. We touched hands at night, across the poisoned floor, our hollow beds squealing. The loss of the book fell into the folds of the loss of our home, fell into the loss of our immunity.

When the bugs were finally gone, we moved our whole house around. The bedroom was a place where creatures had crawled across my face, thrust tubes into my skin, drank from my blood. There had been too many mornings where the lasting blooms of bites on my body pointed to our continued entrapment. I could not sleep there anymore. So we created a new house. Everything came off shelves, was cleaned, set up in new rooms.

In the great rearranging, I noticed that a shelf of older, handwritten manuscripts bulged noticeably. I pulled these binders out and found some thin poetry books jammed behind them. It was strange and nesty and behind all these books, there it was. Wrapped in plastic and fragile as an infant, the pages of my book. A ferocious sense of motherhood arose and I walked around the house, weeping and holding this baby to my heart.

Without meaning to, I buried it to protect it, as amulet, as saint, as bone. Unearthed to light, it came right back. Thoughts about the text streamed in as though there had been no hiatus, no terror, no muffling, no loss. The book re-entered my vocabulary.

I am altered, knowing that what is created, invented, and conceived in the mind can be silenced.

I get back to the writing nonetheless.

 

What he remembers jumbles, rolls, slides. He cannot keep it organized and understandable. He has returned, but some part of him is nowhere, is vanished, a hole. At the bar, they’d told him of their wheat-less, pork-less, beef-less, sweet-less days. He listened and nodded and had no reply. He wished he’d been there. He wished he’d stayed, folded bandages, melted tin, grown gardens. He would have himself, if he had stayed. Something to go on. What would make it different now? How would he fix things? The massive weight of all that Paul did not know rose before him. 

 Italicized text from the lost and found manuscript, titled, Are There Words for Everything? 

 

Matthew Gavin Frank discusses “Warranty In Zulu” and other projects

Superstition Review was pleased to feature Matthew Gavin Frank’s poems in our very first Issue. Recently I had the opportunity to correspond with Frank to discuss his latest published work, Warranty In Zulu. Frank has published several poetry manuscripts including, AardvarkSagittarius AgitpropFour Hours To Mpumalanga, and 6 X 6. His prose has also been published in Blue Earth Review, Plate Magazine, Brevity, Transfinite, and elsewhere.

Superstition Review: How is Warranty In Zulu different from your other works?

Matthew Gavin Frank: Warranty is far more research-based than my previous collection, Sagittarius AgitpropWarranty began as a project to engage the ways in which the exhibits of South African museums and galleries have changed since the fall of apartheid in 1994, documenting how the “landscape” of the South African art scene has changed in style, substance, and accessibility with the socio-political landscape, with the aim of uncovering a larger statement about the interaction between politics and aesthetics.

SR: What has it been like working with Barrow Street Press?

MGF: Risking overstatement: heavenly. Barrow Street is wonderfully hands-on when it comes to the editing process, design, lay-out, etc. They’re very involved, continually offering feedback and suggestion, which contributes to the rare, essential dialogue between writer and editors (who, in the case of Barrow Street, are brilliant writers themselves). The experience of working with them will likely save me a crap-load of time when it comes to self-editing future manuscripts before submitting.

SR: What was the most difficult part about writing Warranty In Zulu?

MGF: Avoiding “othering” or “exoticising” the various cultures of South Africa. In order to aid in this, I felt I had to immerse myself in the country via research and travel, many-handed observations. After numerous trips to South Africa, my wife’s homeland, and her family’s country of residence, the project became laced with the personal, the various narrators herein (many inspired by unofficial interviews, casual conversations, and folklore) engaging issues of history, identity, confused observation, the nature of healing, irrational fear, irrational love and the collision between insider and outsider voices. While not every poem in the manuscript is set specifically within South Africa (most are), each struggles with similar thematic strains.

SR: How have your life experiences (such as working the Barolo wine harvest) shaped your views in your writing?

MGF: I’ve been incorporating things from my own life into the work, more than I have in the past. In the past, I always had a great time wearing masks, playing the asshole, protecting myself. But lately, I’ve been finding greater fulfillment in taking a risk, meaning: being honest. Or more honest at least. This desire ignited at about the same time I began to feel a draw to return to the Midwest, my roots, after wandering and traveling quite a bit. Both desires can, I think, be leashed to my mother’s recent illness. In 2006, Louisa (my wife) and I had just, on a road trip (after leaving Tempe), landed in Montpelier, Vermont, and decided we wanted to live there for a stretch. On the day we were to sign our lease, we received a phone call from my sister in Chicago telling us that my mom was sick. We fled Vermont, returned to Chicago for a year, lived in my parents’ house, and took care of the family while she battled illness (and won, thankfully). This infected my writing with the honesty I mentioned earlier. Does this mean I’m being merely confessional? Attracted solely to the Midwest and the actual? It’s complicated, but no way. As if to balance this, I’m presently working on a series of short essays based on photographs I took in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a poetry manuscript based on couching the bad joke in verse. Its working title is “Your Mother.”

SR: What are you currently working on creatively?

MGF: Well, the Oaxaca book, tentatively titled, SELF-HELP, MEXICO, deals with the aftermath of living in my parents’ house in suburban Chicago for over a year, helping my family during my mother’s battle with cancer. Louisa, and I, struggling to rediscover our footing as a married-couple-in-love, fled to Mexico. Our search for ourselves, our sanctuary, our relationship, took us from the wild crowds and violent social protests of Mexico City, to the culinary jewel of Oaxaca City, and finally to a tiny indigenous Zapotec village in Oaxaca’s Sierra Juárez mountains. The manuscript, which is still in-progress (I’m hoping to finish my final tinkering before 2010 ends), is fusing the narrative storytelling techniques typical of memoir with historical and folkloric research, becoming a series of sort-of lyric essays, and situating the sense of loss and confused search of one particular young married couple within a larger socio-cultural context. In this village, we discovered an unlikely band of U.S.-American expatriates of various demographics, on grappling journeys of their own, contributing to a community both unique and ubiquitous in its quest for some version of fulfillment. I’m going to go back to the “Your Mother” project after I’ve finished SELF-HELP, MEXICO. My nonfiction book, POT FARM, about my work on a medical marijuana farm in Northern California will be coming out from the University of Nebraska Press in 2011 or 2012.

SR: What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

MGF: Travel. Eat things that scare you: cock’s combs, for example. Force perspective onto your life. Allow your memory to distort things. Write a lot, even if it’s crappy. Read a lot. Be vulnerable. Allow the act of writing to play various roles in your life: mother, father, son, daughter, lover, pet goldfish. Argue with all of them, even though you love them. I will not say, be persistent. I swear to you: I will not say it.