Donna Vorreyer is the author of three full-length poetry collections: To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016) and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Colorado Review, Harpur Palate, Baltimore Review, and Booth. Her visual art has been featured in North American Review, Waxwing, About Place, Pithead Chapel, and other journals. Donna currently lives and creates in the western suburbs of Chicago and runs the monthly online reading series A Hundred Pitchers of Honey.
Charlise Bar-Shai: What made you want to become a visual artist? Donna Vorreyer: I have always loved to view visual art, and I was lucky enough to grow up with the Art Institute of Chicago just a short el ride away. I also used to love making visual art when I was young, and even won keys in some Scholastic Art competitions in junior high. But I moved away from it as I grew more interested in writing, and since I had limited time for creative pursuits as a full-time middle school teacher, the writing took precedence. I retired during the pandemic lockdown, and having so much time at home allowed me to start tinkering with some attempts at visual art: small daily sketches of things I had around me at home, some black and white grid portraits based on old photographs, some collage work with found material. The joy I got from that sort of creative work was less stressful and different from writing. I decided to take a class with poet Ciona Rouse and her sister, artist Lanecia Rouse Tinsley, and their encouragement to use what I knew from the writing process to explore the visual set me on a path to start creating more visual art. Over the past three years, I have used their encouragement (as well as online videos and tutorials) to try to grow as a visual artist, focusing mostly on abstract work. I do it mostly for the enjoyment of it, to see what I can learn, how I can grow, what themes emerge as I learn to experiment with shape, color, and texture.
CB: Have your written works inspired your visual pieces? Is there an overlap in your creative process? DV: That’s an interesting question and the answer is no, not really. So far, it has been helpful for me to keep those two processes separate. I have been writing my whole life, and I have had some “success” as a writer, in terms of publication, so I feel a certain type of pressure when I’m writing, a pressure to make it “good,” to live up to what I’ve done in the past. I have no such ego about art. I can more easily mess up and laugh about it than I can with the written word. In that respect, making visual art is less stressful for me than writing, and I’d like to keep it that way.
Working on a poem has a completely different feel than working on a painting, but what writing and painting have in common is that they both start messy – just getting things down, not necessarily focused and certainly not precise. It is in the next steps that they diverge. When I write, I love to revise, to focus on the diction, the sound, the line breaks and form, sometimes over months, before deciding that a poem is done. Each of these moves is deliberate as I make my way toward a final piece that is doing what I want it to do. In making visual art, I have a tendency to experiment more, to add and remove elements until I have a pleasing arrangement, sometimes completely foregoing an original plan or idea to follow something that emerges in the making.
CB: Did your time as an educator influence your artistic process? Did your students inspire you? DV: My students always inspired me when I was teaching, not only with their own talents but with their joy and openness to the world, their ability to take risks and try things that were new to them. In that way, I think that they have influenced my process in the sense that I have had to follow my own advice. I used to tell my students that no one could ever ask them for any more than their best, and that doing your best is what matters, even if it doesn’t have the result you want or expect. When I make a piece of visual art, I keep that mantra in my head, as things often don’t turn out how I want or expect them to, but I’ve found a way to embrace that and move forward from those “failures” and see what I can learn from the experience.
CB: Have you arranged a solo exhibition for your work? Do you have a plan for one? DV: I still have a hard time calling myself an artist, and I also have absolutely no knowledge of navigating the world of art in that way. (I have noticed that it is very expensive to enter shows, etc., which makes me nervous.) But my local library will be exhibiting a collection of my work in the new year, and that is exciting to me. So far, I have stayed within the world of literary journals, which is familiar, in terms of sending my art into the world to see what others may enjoy. Who knows what the future might hold?
CB: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an artist so far? DV: The biggest challenge has been to let go of my inner critic. My good friend, writer and artist Kristin LaTour, has been so helpful to me in that respect—if it’s no good, it’s just paper. Throw it away. If it’s on canvas, paint over it. Just have fun. And I’ve also created a group of writer friends who also make visual art —we live all over the country, so we share in a group online where we are sending work, what we are making, how we are feeling about it. It’s helped me keep moving forward, to view myself as an artist, and to recognize that I don’t have to be a good representational illustrator to create something beautiful.
CB: I want to discuss your piece “Order and Chaos.” I love the way you seamlessly blended painting and collage. Can you describe your process when creating it? DV: “Order and Chaos” began with collaging pieces of an old dictionary page regarding Mathematics. I placed them haphazardly onto the paper, almost in defiance of the rules and order that Math requires.
The other layer began with creating painted papers in dark shades (mostly black) with hints of greens and blues. Once the papers were painted, using a brayer to leave the grainy texture, I ripped them into curved shapes before placing them in a cyclical pattern that was more orderly than the text pieces. I like that the piece can work in multiple directions and places the text almost in the “eye” of the circles.
I often paint and rip papers to give the appearance of brush strokes in collage rather than using clean edges. I find it pleasing and more organic. I’m particularly pleased that this piece now has the perfect home with a dear friend who was a Mathematics teacher for years.
Jules spent adolescence entering garments with flexible flourish. Leotard the III tightened the skin of his royal last name. Rooms stepped around him, encompassed his acrobatic torso. If ever a toe haltered the stiletto point, it was his. His performances scattered worldwide, lisped from pursed lips to the downward flare of nostrils from one landowner to the next. He yearned for these collusions with applause. It was enough swell of ego to gust the wind through his unrepentant bowels to last him a lifetime of meteor-showered luminosity of relief.
When the Spring of Jule’s youth undid him, something outside the margins of reality strangely knotted itself into frenzied updrafts when he colluded with Miss Happ–an operatic soprano from Dodge City, Kansas: the windiest city in the US. She diffused air circulation into microbursts of high and low pressurized notes and somehow solidified sound into weather.
Frictional force flanked Miss Happ’s vibrato into a paroxysm of whitecaps and clouds. A chronic surf from the sky regurgitated rain and hail through Miss Happ’s polyphonic chords and Jule’s ‘double cabriole derriere’. Not even the circus traveling ahead of them with Siamese twins from Yakamo, and a 90-year-old looking infant could capture a quarter of the fanaticism of crowds who gathered for Jules and Miss Happ. Somehow through the margins of their 20 flat, skeletal cranio-facial muscles, within and without, the duo manipulated resonances of vocal tracts and leapt through thick, stilted air to arouse downpours to disgrace droughts, when landowners spent most summers weeping over parched crops.
When Jules and Miss Happ parted ways, he took root with climate and radiance. Town after city after town drowned their desire in his exquisite array of unitards. His rainbow-hued onesies diffused the torment of tangled couples unsettled by sexless agitation, over-cleansed cottages, and reassessed orientation. The audiences spun in circles. They rallied their particular gods. They whooped with Jules.
Every town dealt its own bleating fear, and through the flow of water found ecstasy.
And somehow, the wreckage of a swollen river bared itself and raged through every lack.
Meg Tuite’s latest collection is Three By Tuite. She is author of six story collections and five chapbooks. She won the Twin Antlers Poetry award for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging and is included in Best of Small Press 2021 and Wigleaf’s Top 50 stories for 2022, 2023. She teaches writing retreats and online classes hosted by Bending Genres. She is also the fiction editor of Bending Genres and associate editor at Narrative Magazine. http://megtuite.com
Past Lucky Diamond, Montana Lil’s, casinos roofed in Lincoln Log green. Past Lithia Ford and Montana Motor Mall, cars shining back the blue sky knife-edged white. Past Albertson’s and Ace, I turn off at last:
The Bitterroot—I say it as if I can claim it—seems to languish as it rests at ebb, biding time. I mine rocks like gold from the only uniced spot, the eaten away bank. My toddler throws them in the river, shallows it. More: I claw all I can from amid pine roots.
Shamelessly, to please her, feed her needs and have her touch the earth I take it, eat away. What’s that if it’s not what water does, unblamed?
Our going-to takes away. Our staying takes it too:
Ice clutches bed rocks all its rest then with this brutal blue takes off with them, drops them downstream when it reevolves to water.
On the road home we stop for bowls. Disposables pass through my hands to a large black receptacle. Does everything return to earth? To us? I do not like the food but eat it anyway because she does. I’d raze a forest, dam a watershed. I’d cut out the heart of the country and give it to her. Full now, I drive on.
Back past the dealerships with their lots of cars just like ours, glinting like pebbles in the sun. Past the casinos, warm and dim and carpeted, little wombs where you drop a coin in the machine and hope somewhere down the road it gives it back.
Lauren Tess’s poetry appears in or is forthcoming from a number of journals including Poetry Northwest, Nimrod, Salamander, Meridian, and Cimarron Review. She received a 2023 Academy of American Poets College Prize as an MFA candidate at the University of Montana, and a 2021 Open Mouth Poetry Residency in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Lauren currently lives with her family in Missoula.
Ashley Goodwin:I’d like to talk about your poem “The Machine.” I was moved by the bond between a mother and her child. Could you describe how you came to write this poem? Lauren Tess: Thanks so much! It’s lovely to hear that you were moved by the relationship in “The Machine.” When I sat down to write, I wasn’t thinking about circularity, an idea I only came to as I was composing the last stanza. Some things on my mind at the time were the outing itself, which was essentially as it’s described in the poem, and some guilt at pulling rocks out from between the exposed roots of trees just barely clinging to the riverbank. I felt I was accelerating their demise.
To get to Maclay Flat Nature Trail on the Bitterroot River here in Missoula, where we go in this poem, we have to drive down Brooks Street, which is overrun with big-box stores and car dealerships. I’m always trying to love and find value in these eyesores, these artifacts of our greed. Then there’s a jarring contrast between this commercial corridor and where it leads: these trails at the base of the Bitterroot Range. I wanted to make a world in the poem where the two locales aren’t mutually exclusive, and one isn’t the doom of the other. I’m not sure I succeeded, but after the first draft, I saw that some of the stanzas began and ended with the same word, and thus, I discovered a cyclicality in the poem that I hope for in life.
I’m choosing to have the long view, that the desires that brought about Brooks Street are the same desires that can save the world. That the love I have for my daughter, even though it leads me in this poem to selfishly pollute, waste, and claw away at the riverbank, is at heart completely selfless and full of hope, and that we all have this selflessness and hope in us, and it can be found anywhere.
AG: What is your process for composing? LT:When I sit down to write, I usually take time (lately, an hour or more) to quiet my brain and arrive at a kernel from which to begin a poem. The kernel is often a mundane moment or outing. Then I write, by hand, in an unlined notebook. The writing itself takes less time. After that, I type it up, adjusting line breaks where needed to what feels like the right line length. Sometimes during the transfer I will change a couple of words.
AG: On your website it shows you have two forthcoming poems called, “Turnout, Highway 200” and “Hoverfly.” What can you share about these? LT: I like to think these both also touch on my effort to reconcile being an animal that has happened to evolve some different traits from other species, and also being beholden to the built world in almost all aspects of my daily life. “Hoverfly” is about taking a walk as I was preparing to move apartments and observing the insect lift off from a flowerhead. Also in there is Beryl Markham, the first person to fly solo and non-stop west across the Atlantic, and her gliding over the ocean toward Nova Scotia after her plane’s engine died, suspended in uncertainty. (She crash-landed and was okay.)
“Turnout, Highway 200” is about a few minutes spent with my partner and our daughter on one of those scenic pullouts here in Western Montana. We had meant to go for a proper hike in an archetypal wilderness, but this ended up being our outing. We were by the side of the two-lane highway, and on the other side of us was the Blackfoot River and huge mountain peaks. Since I always feel like an interloper, the in-between space of this turnout felt like home for me, for the few minutes we were there.
AG: What is the most important piece of advice you have received as a writer? LT: That’s a tough question! Sometimes I feel like I can make anything into writing advice, for better or worse. My partner Brendan, who’s a writer, has often urged me not to revise too much, and this has been really useful advice. I know a lot of people find extensive revision to be an essential part of writing, but that’s not the case for me. Usually, I find it best for myself and my writing to abandon a poem that isn’t good rather than try to make it good. I write poetry because it’s fun and exciting and teaches me things about myself. In dedication to this fun, excitement, and discovery, I choose to write a new poem rather than try to revise a mediocre old one.
AG: What are your current poetic influences? LT: Lately, I’ve been inspired by Donna Stonecipher and Ed Roberson. They have mastered certain things I’m working on in my writing. As I read their poems, the words travel along my tendons; I feel their writing in my muscles, and I become more dimensional and feel my physical being as part of the physical world, and this is a joy. In The Cosmopolitan, Stonecipher shifts scales and locations so deftly, and writes about cities as if they were intimacy deployed or deferred; in her poems, the built world is as tangibly organic as a heliotrope. And Roberson’s syntax is always like oxygen; I think maybe my breathing actually changes when I read it, as his writing makes me feel euphoric. His poem “Prairie with Road” from MPH is one of my favorites.
AG: What does your writing space look like? LT: My writing space right now is a slightly uncomfortable armchair in one room of our apartment. We call the room the office. The chair is beside a window with a view into a maple tree’s canopy and our apartment parking lot. I do not like to write poems at a desk or table, and I need to have a view to outside. I always write during the day; I don’t think I’ve ever written a good poem at night.
Our heads bobbed up and down like buoys. I flailed my limbs how the swim instructor taught me, desperate to keep myself upright. I’d never swum in the ocean before, finding the texture and flow of the waves unmanageable. All I’d known was the stillness of the chlorine pool at the tennis club, where I’d spent long hours floating in the shallow end while the adults drank.
But this wasn’t Palm Springs. This was Sicily.
For the first time in my life, I was undergoing jet lag, never hungry at mealtimes. I slept in two-to-three-hour intervals on top of the covers, sweating out of every pore, the ceiling fan more decorative than functional. Aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins had made the trip for my great aunt’s bat mitzvah. When she retired from the Red Cross in the 80s, she followed a lover to Sicily who soon abandoned her for someone younger. But it wasn’t in her character to return home defeated, so she stayed. After spending her adult life as a devout atheist, she claimed that God showed himself to her in the ocean one day, not unlike the parting of the sea. She reconnected with her Jewish identity, at first practicing privately. Once she could confidently sing the prayers in both Hebrew and Italian, she joined a local congregation, whose recent formation symbolized the end of Jewish persecution in the area. Soon, between Shabbat and holidays and volunteer projects, her whole schedule was defined by the temple. Her bat mitzvah would be the culmination of her new identity, a permanent marker of her faith. At 75, she was the oldest person in her community to undergo this tradition.
On our third day in Sicily, I felt a stinging underneath my belly button, then a warmth in my groin. I rushed to the café bathroom to find a splotch of maroon in my Gap underwear. I took about 20 squares of toilet paper and folded them into a sturdy rectangle. Thankfully, the pseudo-diaper couldn’t be detected under my flowy skirt, the silhouette hidden under layers of paisley cotton. It wasn’t until later that night when my mom spotted the blood in the trash can that she finally knew what had occurred and offered to teach me how to insert a tampon. I screamed as it went in and she hushed me, fearful we’d wake my grandparents in the next room, who we were sharing our suite with. She ran her fingers through my hair and assured me that I’d be alright, that she didn’t start using tampons until she was in high school. I wasn’t sure if she was telling the truth or just trying to get me to feel better. Pads were going to have to do for now, even in my bathing suit.
The trip was the most time I’d ever spent with my mom’s side of the family. Most of her relatives lived in Palm Springs, where she grew up. Up until then, we’d only seen them for brief visits around the holidays. After my mom graduated from UC Berkeley, where she met my dad, they settled in San Francisco, got married and had me. She was often called the black sheep of her family, an animator amongst lawyers and doctors. Our relatives never made an effort to understand her, which alienated us from them. The car rides to Palm Springs were often plagued with a sense of fear of what my uncle or grandma might say to antagonize us, although they always hid their insults behind the guise of play.
In the days leading up to my great aunt’s bat mitzvah, most of the family would leave the hotel mid-morning to set up camp on the beach, where we’d linger until dinner time. Unlike my cousins, I had no desire to go into the water, so I always brought a book with me. That summer, I was making my way through the Divergent series, often picturing myself as the heroic Tris. There I was, 13, laying out on the hot sand for days on end, watching my second cousin rub almond-scented tanning lotion into her chest, listening to my grandma bicker with my grandpa about putting too much on the Amex. Tris’s life was so much more exciting than mine.
The day before the bat mitzvah began like the rest of them. We settled in the same spot. My mom did her usual twenty-minute morning swim. My cousins all splashed around closer to the shore, throwing wet sand at each other, playing Marco Polo and Colors. Lily, the youngest, got thrown to the ground and cut her shin open on a rock. She sobbed as her mom bent over her with the first aid kit. The rest of the cousins, completely unphased, went on playing without her. I was already well into the second book of the series when my uncle, my mom’s brother, approached my towel.
My uncle was more muscle than fat, a stocky 5’6’’. When he walked, his feet turned out slightly, his legs struggling to bear the weight of his upper body. His hair came out in odd patches, remnants of biotin shampoos and collagen supplements. He looked nothing like the TV ad models. Against the wishes of his third wife, he had an affinity for extreme sports, spending his weekends jumping out of airplanes or participating in endurance swims, in which someone in a little boat next to him would have to pour liquid food into his mouth so that he didn’t starve. He never survived these trips unscathed, often landing himself in the hospital. But it didn’t matter. He had money and health insurance and a family that did nothing more than give him a friendly slap on the wrist every time he almost died.
“Camille,” he said. “Get up.”
I looked up at him in confusion. I hadn’t slept more than an hour the night before. Throughout the two weeks we’d already been in Sicily, he had never addressed me directly.
When I didn’t offer a response, he yanked the book out of my hands.
“Come on,” he said.
My uncle led the way towards the water. My cousins all followed him like puppies, yipping and screaming. My mom was already wading about 100 feet from the shore. Suddenly, I was the only person left on the sand. I had been so enraptured reading that I hadn’t noticed everyone either head towards the water or back to the hotel.
“Don’t be a wimp, Camille!” My uncle yelled back at me. I looked towards my mom. She smiled and waved, clearly having not heard him. Just to get everyone to stop looking at me, I took off my cover-up and walked towards the water.
“Does she even know how to swim?” my uncle’s stepson Devon asked. He was a recent addition to the family. I hated the way he smelled like Axe body spray and armpit all the time, even after showering.
“She knows how to swim,” my mom said as she paddled towards us, then stood when it got too shallow. “Don’t be silly.”
We slowly waded our way in together. The adults were able to walk farther due to a height advantage, so for a little while, us kids swam next to them as they marched on. Once everyone was in deep enough, we formed a loose triangle, my uncle leading as our central point. I tried to stay next to my mom, but she kept swimming in front of me. Ever since we’d gotten to Sicily, she seemed uncharacteristically distracted. Back home, she noticed every small thing, if my dress was missing a button, if I had lied about doing my homework. Now she seemed somewhere else entirely. When we were alone in the hotel suite, she spent most of her time catching up on work. She didn’t seem to notice when I slipped out or when I charged Junior Mints to our room. One time, I even took a small bottle of vodka from the mini bar just to see what she’d do. I made a farce out of trying to open it. She looked over, smiled, and went back to her call with my dad, who couldn’t get enough time off work to join us.
I kept looking behind me. The shore receded. Soon enough, with so much water in my eyes, I couldn’t make out our umbrellas and beach towels from the rest of the landscape.
“Duck!” My uncle yelled. A wave, medium in size, was approaching. My heartbeat quickened and I lost feeling in my arms. At the last possible moment, I plugged my nose and ducked like everyone else. A few seconds passed in total darkness before I miraculously came up on the other side. I managed to use my right arm to tread while I moved my bangs out of my eyes. Everyone suddenly came into view. Devon was cutting his arms through the water like an electric mixer, thwacking Lily in the face, who seemed to have recovered enough from her injury to join us. Then I saw my uncle with his hands on my mom’s shoulders. He had this dumb, sweaty grin on his face. She was laughing but there was something about her expression that suggested she wasn’t fully in on the joke. He pushed her under the water.
“No!” I screamed. “Stop!” I aggressively dog-paddled my way towards them. “Stop it!” I screamed again, but my uncle just laughed. In a quick succession of mental images, I pictured my life without my mom. My dad sobbing over her grave. All my graduations she wouldn’t attend, the dance we wouldn’t share at my wedding. No more Passovers on the porch, no more Halloweens knocking on doors in Seacliff.
My rapid mourning turned rageful.
Feeling as though I was left with no other choice, I socked my uncle in the jaw. He let go of my mom instantly and reached for his cheek. For a fraction of a moment, I felt Tris-like, heroic, like I had done some good for the world. My mom devoted her life to caring for me. For once, I had returned the favor.
My mom bobbed up to the surface, coughing up saltwater. She rubbed her eyes and as everyone came into view, she smiled and laughed through her nose. More water came out.
“I’m fiiiiine!” She said, elongating her vowels. “Come on.” She nodded her head in the direction we were initially heading in.
The cousins all turned their attention to my uncle, who was screaming: “What the fuck!” His face was only six inches or so from mine.
“She was drowning,” I said, my words all chopped up from trying to get my breath back while treading.
“Camille,” my mom said. “It’s fine. We were just playing.”
“But I—you were going to die.”
My mom giggled. All the cousins joined in a choir of laughter.
She paddled closer, wedging herself between me and my uncle. “I’ll never die,” she said.
My uncle was silent at dinner. I caught glimpses of him leaning his left cheek into his palm, trying to cover up the swelling as he ate his spaghetti in massive, messy bites. His new wife did most of the talking, even sang for us after a few glasses of wine. She bragged about her 4-octave range and her time studying opera in Vienna. The younger cousins, who had not yet learned how to feign politeness, plugged their ears and grimaced at her out-of-tune and nearly glass-shattering performance. Devon, her son, rolled his eyes in embarrassment. I tried to discreetly check my flip phone under the table, waiting for a message from my dad. I wanted to tell him about what happened in the water, but I didn’t want to bother him while he was at work.
“Camille,” my grandma hissed at me during the dessert and coffee course. “Put that away.” It was only then that I noticed the soft glow of the screen under the white, lace tablecloth. I reddened through my sunburn and focused on cutting up my tiramisu into perfect triangles.
Back in the suite after dinner, my mom wrapped ice in a washcloth and held it to my right knuckles.
“My little pro-fighter,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. Too many things I wanted to say floated around in my head, all canceling each other out. I studied the patterns in the carpet and counted how many squares I could see in my visual field.
“Hey,” she said to get my attention. “I’m fine, ok?”
“But you were drowning,” I said, automatically. My voice cracked a bit, warming up after my hours of silence. “You were going to drown.”
“You’ve heard the stories of Tahoe,” she said. “We’ve always been like that, your uncle and I.” The ice was melting. She fumbled around her luggage and pulled out a plastic bag to put the DIY ice pack in. “You don’t have an older brother,” she explained. “This is how he shows his love.”
I had trouble understanding her comparison of love and violence. I had grown up with parents who hugged the bad feeling out of me, rewarded me with treats and presents when I got good grades or moved onto the next level of piano lessons. If violent love was a part of her identity, why had she never treated me that way?
“I think you need to apologize to him,” she said.
“Why?” I asked, tears welling up in my eyes. I was so convinced that I had saved her. Shouldn’t she be thanking me?
“We still have a week left here,” she said. Her phone rang and she reached for it on the coffee table. “Please do this for me.”
She took her call into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
I did not like the dress my mom bought me for the bat mitzvah but there was nothing else fancy enough in my luggage to replace it. Yellow was my least favorite color, but my great aunt, who had micromanaged her special day into oblivion, had assigned each generation its own hue. The top was a little too tight, so some skin spilled out of the bodice. The skirt was made up of layers of tulle, which made a scratching sound every time I moved.
My mom did my make-up and hair before tending to her own, so I sat there watching an Italian talk show, all done-up at nine in the morning while I waited for her. Although I did not want to apologize to my uncle, I was afraid of upsetting my mom further.
I’m sorry for punching you, I wrote on the hotel stationary, then crossed it out. It seemed too curt. I’m sorry for what I did yesterday. I was scared and I acted before I thought. Please forgive me. This seemed acceptable. I mouthed the words to myself a few times. It felt silly to rehearse something that was supposed to come from the heart, but I knew that I’d freeze the second I had to face him. It was better to go into the situation with some level of preparedness.
The temple was small and fit only our family and a few of my great aunt’s friends from Torah study class. Other congregation members stood in the back out of courtesy. I spent most of the service entranced by the architecture, the stained-glass depicting scenes from the Torah, the intricate fresco on the ceiling. The service was conducted primarily in Hebrew and Italian. After my great aunt led us through all the typical blessings, she gave a lecture, in English, on the significance of her Torah portion. That week in the Book of Numbers, God encouraged Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites. Although the Torah typically condemns violence, according to my aunt, this was a time where vengeance was permitted simply because God said so. As she slowly read through her speech in her best radio reporter voice, I rubbed my sore knuckles. Was my act of violence morally good because I had saved my mom in the process? I couldn’t help but feel a spiritual connection to the portion, as if God had been the force that turned my hand into a fist. I decided then that I wasn’t going to apologize.
The service was followed by a luncheon in the temple’s courtyard. My great aunt rented a hardwood dance floor and a DJ who exclusively played Italian covers of 80s hits. After sneaking a glass of wine, which I chugged out of fear of being caught, I decided that nothing mattered and joined my cousins on the dance floor. I showed them some moves Sammie, my occasional babysitter, had taught me back home, like the “Shopping Cart,” in which you pantomime pushing a cart down an aisle while you check the labels for expiration dates. Soon I had everyone, even my grandparents, doing it.
But not my uncle. He remained at one of the circular tables, slowly sipping a glass of wine and snacking on grapes. When his wife tried to pull him onto the dance floor for the Horah, he vigorously shook her off. I watched her scan the room in embarrassment, hoping nobody had seen their minor altercation. His left cheek had turned a reddish blue. It looked as though there had been attempts to cover up the swelling with his wife’s make-up, but it being summer in Sicily, any concealer had already melted off.
“Oh, come on,” my mom yelled to my uncle as the DJ smoothly transitioned from the Horah to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” “Quit being such a curmudgeon.”
He acted as though he didn’t hear her and clicked through his Blackberry with his right index finger.
“All right, Mr. Grumpy,” my mom said. “Have it your way.”
Suddenly, my uncle backed his chair away from the table and started towards the building. My mom chased after him. After about thirty seconds, when I was sure nobody was watching, I shimmied off the dance floor.
The poorly ventilated temple was now warmer inside than out in the courtyard. I took my kitten heels off and followed the low hum of voices down a few hallways until they got louder. When I sensed my mom and uncle were just on the other side of the wall, I sank down onto the cool tile and quietly folded myself into a cross-legged position.
“I’m not going to tell you how to raise your daughter,” my uncle was saying. They seemed to be standing in the alcove by the bathrooms, which helped carry their voices to me. “But she has no manners. Also, what’s up with her? You know.” He paused which led me to believe he was making some sort of hand gesture.
“She’s just a little under the average height,” my mom whispered. “She’s catching up.”
“And what are you feeding her?” he asked. “Do you just let her have junk whenever she wants? I see her out on the beach, just eating, eating all day. The other kids, they’re out there getting their necessary exercise, you know. It’s good for them!”
“She’s on vacation. Can’t you just cut her some slack? She’s your niece.”
“Has she even gotten her period yet? Aren’t you worried about her?”
“Yes,” my mom said. “She’s gotten her period. She’s just a bit of a late bloomer, that’s all.” I felt my face get hot in embarrassment. The idea of any man knowing what was going on down there felt like the end of the world.
“I was just trying to help yesterday,” he insisted, changing the subject. “I wanted her to feel included.”
“Bullshit,” my mom said under her breath.
“I don’t know why you’re getting so defensive,” he said, raising his voice. “Camille is the one who hit me. And she hasn’t even apologized.”
“You know, I wanted her to apologize,” my mom said. “I felt bad about what happened. She doesn’t have a brother. She doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up with one, all the rough housing and all.”
“For once, can you let me finish?” My mom asked. “You never let me finish.” That seemed to shut him up. “I’m tired of you treating me as a lesser parent because I didn’t stay near mommy and daddy and I didn’t go to law school and I don’t make my kid do a sport every goddamn day. You parent different than I do, and that’s fine. Your kids are fantastic in their own ways. And even if I don’t agree with how you do everything, I’m an adult. I would never say anything bad about my own nieces and nephews.”
There was a ringing in my ears, then total silence. I looked down at my belly, which now appeared to me three sizes bigger than it had been the day before. I’m not sure how much longer they went on fighting after I stopped listening. I sat there until a janitor approached with a mop and told me, in Italian, to move, which I only understood by his hand gestures. I shuffled back towards the party barefoot.
David and the girls left for the grocery store in our rented baby blue Civic a few minutes ago. Based on how far from town we are, I have about an hour to myself.
Every summer since the twins were born, David and I have rented this house in Martha’s Vineyard to get some quiet before heading into Boston to visit his parents. It’s not something we could ever afford on our own, but David’s family friend lets us stay here for practically nothing.
And now the girls are eight, although only yesterday they were crying at all hours of the night or giggling wordlessly with gummy smiles. I’m not ready for them to grow up and be their own people. I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m no longer depended on.
Ever since that trip to Sicily, I haven’t swum in the ocean. It’s not a fear of the water, considering I often attend a water aerobics course at the gym near our house back home. It’s something about the ocean itself, the vastness, never-ending sensation of it. My knuckles get sore just thinking about it, thinking about him.
But recently, it’s been calling to me, like when someone says your name in a dream.
The summer house is on the sand, the water only a short walk from the back door. I quickly gather the few things I’ll need, worried if I wait too long, the desire will pass. A few feet from the water’s edge, I lay out a towel and take my shorts off. I put my phone underneath my sun hat and lay the book I’m reading, Bolaño’s 2666, on the brim so that the hat doesn’t blow away. I’ve been lost in the 900-page epic all summer and picture myself as everyone on the page. I think about the books I read in middle school, about living vicariously through Tris, about wanting to escape the present circumstances, the blood in my underwear, the belly forming. I walk towards the water. It’s warmer than expected. I march at a steady pace towards nothingness, no end in sight, although I know it’s there, miles and miles away, another shore with another beach just like this one. When I can no longer walk, I lean forward and begin swimming. I glide for a few minutes until I can barely make out the house behind me. After surveying my surroundings to make sure there is nobody to interrupt me, I plug my nose and dunk my head under. At first, I study the water, cool blue in the afternoon sun, but when my eyes get tired, I close them and lean into the blackness. My tears seem microscopic against this great body of water. In a few moments I will resurface, my body’s final push towards survival, but for now, I curl my knees into my chest, put my free hand against my cheek, and give in.
Sofia Wolfson is a musician and writer from LA, currently living in Brooklyn. She has toured the US and UK with original music and her fiction has been published in Westwind and Open Ceilings. She currently attends the New School MFA Writing Program. Learn more about Sofia and find her music at her website, Instagram, or Twitter.
Eden Smith: You are not only an author, but a songwriter and musician. How does creating music affect your creative writing? What is the difference in your process between writing song lyrics and writing fiction? Sofia Wolfson: The most important lesson I take from writing songs that I try to infuse into my prose is concision. In a song, you’re only given a few minutes to get the whole story out. When I first turned to short stories in high school (after years of writing songs), I felt so freed by the blank page that I started writing these really lengthy and convoluted sentences. I quickly learned that prose and lyrics had a lot more in common than I originally thought, and soon enough my stories started to sound more like my songs, precise and honest. I always ask myself: how can I get this emotion across as clear as possible? But that doesn’t mean I don’t get to play with language. I find myself lifting many figurative elements from lyric writing (wordplay, alliteration, an obsession with the sound of words) when I’m crafting stories.
Both songs and stories start in the same place for me: I have to be engaging in another activity, whether that’s driving or running errands or walking around a museum, to get some sort of spark of inspiration. I find it extremely difficult to start from nothing and just write, whether that’s composing music or drafting a story. I’ll jot down a lyric or two in the notes app if it’s a song, or a brief summary of a conflict if it’s a short story, and save the note for when I get home. It’s usually pretty clear to me from the beginning if something will become a song or a story, but there have been times when I have explicated a concept in both lyric and prose form. In the novel I’m working on, certain chapters have a song sibling on my forthcoming record; there are memories, scenes, moments I’ve felt compelled to explore in both song and story-form. Almost all of my songs and stories have begun while I’m out and about, which can be frustrating at times if I’m unable to get it all down quickly!
ES: This story explores the transition from child to teenager and the richness of Camille’s Jewish culture, set against the backdrop of the Italian coast. How did you negotiate trying to capture these places and identities? SW: What I love about fiction is that I’m given the opportunity to imagine my way into spaces unknown to me. Through a combination of research and imagination, fiction lets me go beyond my lived experience. Camille undergoes a series of internal struggles not unlike I did at that age, but I wanted to employ some device to separate me from her, so that I could construct her with a bit of distance, which is where the setting of Sicily comes in. I have never been to Italy, despite having taken a few semesters of Italian in college. I chose it because I not only grew up interested in the country (my dad speaks Italian and spent time there in his 20s), but also because I wanted to set the story in a place with a rich and fraught Jewish history, which mirrors Camille’s own struggles with her religious identity. The Italian coast interested me because I wanted there to be tension between the beauty and luxury of the setting and Camille’s own bodily/emotional struggles.
ES: When did you decide that this story would be told from Camille’s point of view? What challenges or constraints did you run into when writing in the voice of someone so young? SW: I find family vacations to be very emotionally rich and formative experiences. I wanted to tell the story through Camille’s POV to explore how an unknown setting can shape a child’s relationships and internal life. There’s something very dissonant about witnessing your parents on vacation, seeing them outside of their daily routines. There were a few moments while drafting the story where I wanted to include a detail or insight that I had to omit simply because it would not make sense for a pre-teen to know, which can frustrate the writing process. But writing in a child’s voice is something I’ve taken much interest in over the years, so I found the experience to be primarily enjoyable. I was a theater major at an arts high school and despite quickly figuring out I was not cut out to be an actor, I relished in all the written work we had to do, all the character studies and scene analyses. I think that primed me for getting into different characters’ psyches. Much of the process of constructing “The Book of Numbers” was tricking myself into being Camille, reliving that awkward age, and letting her tell me what she was thinking.
ES: As I read “The Book of Numbers” I was struck by the theme of the tension between loving and being hurtful. Whether in the interactions between Camille and her uncle, or her uncle and her mother, love and hurtfulness often get mixed up in a very human way. Can you elaborate more on the connection you see between these two themes? SW: I was interested in the idea that hurt can be masked not only by love, but by family obligation. So often I’ve heard people justify hurtful actions by using (or rather, misusing) the language of love, which has always unsettled me. I think my generation is willing to fight back a bit more against the idea that there has to be a certain level of decorum and kindness to people who hurt you simply because of social constructions. The story was my way of exploring what happens when you attempt to put love and pain in their respective boxes (which you point out often get very mixed up in each other), and to assure the younger version of myself that the complexities I was feeling at that age were completely justified, that not everything (especially the bad feelings) has to be housed under the tent of familial love.
ES: Your descriptions of characters are arresting; you have a knack for knowing what details to include to paint a vivid character sketch. For example, the introduction of Camille’s uncle: “Against the wishes of his third wife, he had an affinity for extreme sports, spending his weekends jumping out of airplanes or participating in endurance swims, in which someone in a little boat next to him would have to pour liquid food into his mouth so that he didn’t starve.” This made me laugh, for starters, and it also relays a lot of information about the kind of person he is. Can you tell me a bit about your process for describing characters? SW: Thank you! I think it helps to be an introvert. I get most of my inspiration for characters at parties, or working one of my many public-facing jobs over the years. I love asking questions and getting people talking. I don’t know what it is about my face or body language, but people seem to love to tell me their entire life story (haha). The characters that end up in my stories are usually amalgamations of people I’ve met briefly at parties/work, people I’ve people-watched, and people close to me. No character is exactly based on a person in my inner circle; instead, I find a lot of joy in collaging details together to bring people to life on the page. What I love most about fiction is that I can mold characters to my liking in order to illuminate some sort of theme or answer to a question I’m trying to get at. I’m always trying to find that balance between the character appearing painfully and honestly human, and the character being used as a vessel to house larger meaning for the story.
ES: Can you tell us about any new music or writing projects we should be on the lookout for? SW: My forthcoming record Imposing on a Hometown will be released next year. Three singles from it (“View,” “New Year’s Eve,” and “From up Here”) are already out! I’m currently in revisions for my first novel, which is an ekphrastic exploration of an age-difference relationship between visual artists, set in LA (where I grew up). It’s my dream to see it published one day.
After years of writing and editing fiction, I’ve developed a real soft spot for articles on literary craft. At their best, they intimate the secrets of effective storytelling. But so many of them (including onesI’vewritten) assume that deep discussion of deft writing is the way to go. And while learning from the work of masters is certainly valuable, we can also get personal and discuss what we actually do as writers, directly engaging with one another’s competencies and foibles. By sharing our ongoing journeys towards mastery, we can cultivate an honest and accessible conversation on literary craft—one that enacts an ethos described by meditation instructor Jeff Warren:
Make your problem someone else’s solution. We can all learn to use the energy of our challenges and turn it into care for someone else. Call it Cosmic Love Judo.
Let’s take a Cosmic Love Judo tack to literary craft by trying something more workshop, less TED Talk. Here’s how I used perspectives on literary craft to revise the first section of a story I thought was close to completion.
This is the way that story began for something like fifteen drafts:
This section bothered me for a while, and eventually I determined that the issue was its exclusive focus on the narrator’s thoughts. That focus had allowed me to quickly lay out the situation at hand—the latest crush—but the trade-off is that we (as readers) have no idea where we are; unanchored in time and space, we’re adrift in the as-yet undefined world of the story. This opening is overtly at odds with the standard craft advice of grounding the reader—advice that Benjamin Percy champions in Thrill Me:
When a reader first picks up a story, they are like a coma patient—fluttering open their eyes in an unfamiliar world, wondering, where am I, when am I, who am I? The writer has an obligation to quickly and effectively place the reader in the story.
I overdid it on addressing the “who am I?” by placing the reader exclusively in the narrator’s thoughts. I wagered that if those thoughts piqued the reader’s curiosity, then I could launch the story quickly and defer placing the narrator in a scene. But that approach was adopted back when I thought this story might be at most five pages. Soon, it was over fifteen, and that initial opening was obtrusively ineffective. So I replaced it with this…
Now the story begins with concrete details as a naturalistic entry point into the narrator’s life. And those details are presented in a way that aligns with other perspectives on craft, like this one regarding the nature of details in Thrill Me:
Be specific when something is interesting. When something is interesting, you look at it longer. You prolong and amplify it.
In the new version of the opening, the narrator’s attention stays on things that have a particular quality. Meridienne ripples the atmosphere of the classroom. Her gaze gives the impression of gauging distances. The prose is concerned with specificity meaningful to the narrator.
All this is not to say that the best way to start a story is in medias res with scene. Rather, the consideration of revision here suggests that stories can be improved by considering what the text needs to do for the reader. I previously thought this opening had to start the story quickly, but I later realized it must situate the character in the change that launches the story: the first experience of the new synthetic crush. This is the sort of clarity we can gain when we engage in revision and workshopping.
Speaking of workshopping, did you take issue with other aspects of the initial opening? Do you think the revised version is falling short of doing the work it should? If so, that’s fantastic; your literary sensibilities have leapt into action! If not, don’t worry; there are plenty of opportunities to develop and exercise those sensibilities, or maybe the passages presented here work for your sensibilities. Stories can of course work in different ways for different people. And that’s part of the beauty of crafting fiction. Storytelling, like all art forms, is amenable to different sensibilities, allowing us to engage with it over a vast aesthetic range.
Strategies to Try
Decide what should have primacy at the story’s outset. For a story you’ve been working on or thinking of starting, consider what absolutely needs to come through in its first paragraphs. Voice? Setting? A situation? Once you’ve determined that, explore what you might do to further develop this element of the story. Can you also layer in other elements?
Identify how part of a story is falling short. For a section of a story you’re wrestling with, ask, “What work does this section need to do?” Depending on the nature of the section (for example, its length or location in the story), it may need to accomplish multiple kinds of work, like develop the characters and create tension. Use your answer to this question as the basis for revising that section.
I have been thinking again, as I often do, about poetry as an inquiry.
I was staring at my blank page, so this was, in that moment, an incitement: What am I wondering about? I don’t mean literally a question that could be answered by research. I mean an opening of some sort, an uncertainty that can barely be articulated, a yearning or a bafflement that is deeply rooted in my experience of living.
In that moment, I idly thought and ended up scribbling “I wonder why against the dim light and gray sky the tree across the street seems to burn even brighter.” Yes, I could probably answer that question with some research into the effects of light and color and optics, but the possibility that some things can seem more clear in unclear situations opened something. I did feel like I could muddle around in the space created there. Between image and question, I could ease into a creative space.
Trying to feel my way into my own questions is also a useful exercise as I grapple with a collection of newer poems struggling to work together. Can I discern in my recent poem attempts what are my questions, where is the focus of my concern? I ask myself that because if I can better understand my questions, I hope to better hone my poems in the revision process. I suspect that from a far enough vantage point, a common concern will emerge from a large number of those poems. And if I can catch that whiff of inquiry, a path will be cleared to create a collection that coheres not around obvious theme but rather around a deep question.
By asking myself to define my question, I may risk writing poems that are ghastly earnest and stiff with self-conscious thought. To be too aware of where my head is at can block the whole process entirely, creation and revision (as revision itself is a creative process). It’s almost like I have to pose a question and then hum loudly over my own thoughts, distract myself by doing the dishes or mopping the floor, let any response drift in and fade off, leaving sticky things behind: a bit of spider web, a crumb of chocolate. From those bits, I can work.
Do all poems have to have an inquiry behind them? I suppose this is arguable. But deep down inside, I think so. Sometimes though you have to dive deep beneath the veils of your own work, behind the imagery, the humor, the distractions, the voice, the masks, the showing off, to catch yourself peering out, to read your eyes. What do you fear? What do you hope? How do you live?
Benjamin Faro’s poem, “A Party of One and Many,” is forthcoming inNimrod Journal. A brief but moving piece on grief and reminiscence, it was chosen by Amsterdam University College’s creative writing students to be the focus of an interview with Faro. They have also curated a variety of questions for Faro about “A Party of One and Many” and his writing process. We are pleased to include those questions and Benjamin Faro’s responses in an interview below. Due to the time difference, this interview was conducted by Brennie Shoup, Superstition Review’s blog editor. Read more about the collaboration between AUC’s creative writing students and Superstition Review here.
Benjamin Faro is a green-thumbed writer and educator living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on stolen Taíno lands. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Equatorial, an international curation of undergraduate poetry, and is also pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte, where he serves as Poetry Editor for Qu Literary Magazine. His poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of literary journals, including Atlanta Review, EcoTheo Review, Interim Poetics, JMWW, Portland Review, West Trade Review, and others. Learn more on his website.
Brennie Shoup: Hello! My name is Brennie Shoup. I’m Superstition Review’s blog editor, and today I will be interviewing Benjamin Faro on behalf of the Amsterdam University College Students, who have curated a variety of questions about his piece, “A Party of One and Many” (I believe [this] is the title of it). And they were super happy to read this poem, and they wanted to talk to him about the process and his work. So, would you like to introduce yourself?
Benjamin Faro: Yeah! Sure. So my name’s Benjamin Faro, and, you know, this is a piece I wrote over this past summer. And so it’s relatively recent, and I’m really grateful for the questions that the students sent and for this opportunity.
BS: We are so happy to have you and so happy that you agreed to do this interview. We’re so excited to see what you say about your process and all that. I’m sure the students are really happy about that, too. So, getting into the first question: what inspired you to write this piece?
BF: Yeah, so, recently—within the last few years, I would say—a number of people in my life have passed away, unfortunately. And as people do, we sit with that, and we think about that. We think about those people. And even after the writing of this piece, another person close to me passed away, and one of the unique things about it—all of these people liked to cook. They’re people that I know from the kitchen, which, of course, is where the poem is set.
Thinking about those things, and thinking about how—as you get older—the more people you know will pass away. That number accumulates, and then you find yourself thinking about, “Oh, it’s the anniversary of so-and-so’s death, and this person’s death.” And thinking about that in terms of a celebration. I realized I can bring these people together in one space, like as I was cooking and thinking about all of them. And, interestingly, in a way that probably would never have happened if they were alive because they lived in such different places… [I was] really just sitting with the idea of having all of these people with me in the post-life.
BS: Yeah, I think the poem definitely has that sort of unity, and I think it really comes through. And the title of this piece specifically—and maybe your poetry in general—how do you decide on those titles or on a title for a work?
BF: I’ve been thinking about titles… It’s been a focus of mine in my work over, I’d say, the last year or two—and really trying to—you know, of course, maybe not all of my titles achieve this or reach this end… But I really try to make all of them do some kind of work, whether that’s contextualizing the space in which the poem is embedded or initiating a narrative or something like that. Or just stimulating some kind of contemplation. And I think that’s why this title went a little bit… hinting that there’s an ambiguous number of people here—or number of entities, at least. That hinting at that idea of celebration with “party” and playing on that word… Yeah, sometimes you just land on a—I don’t know—as with poetry… I know that I wanted it to do something there, and this is what I landed on.
BS: Yeah! I will also say the title, at least for me, when I saw it was very intriguing—very like, “Oh, what does this mean?” Would you say that you also try to intrigue the reader a little bit with your title as well?
BF: For sure, yeah! You know, that’s what, I guess, what I meant by bringing them to a space of contemplation, of being—of wondering, of curiosity. Like “What’s behind this?”
BS: I would say you definitely did that with this poem. It’s very much like, “Oh, I wonder what that means,” like what the poem is going to be about. So, for our third question: what is the meaning behind the poem’s narrow form—to you?
BF: Yeah… I was thinking about this question, and, of course, I thought about all of them. But this one in particular I was thinking about as a question where thinking about it—after the fact—actually I think is more clear than how I was thinking about it in the moment of writing. And it kind of feels like it was a subconscious thing to make it this structure. I mean I did it on purpose, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking of the reasons that I’m thinking of now.
And the reasons that I think of are that I think it mirrors the kitchen, the tight space that it’s talking about. I’m a young adult, but I have lived in nothing but houses with small kitchens or apartments with small kitchens, so that’s kind of the feeling of this setting. But also what it’s talking about in the sort of—the slippery slope between reminiscing and then dwelling, and the kind of tight space that dwelling on somebody who has passed can bring you in emotionally and mentally. It’s a very constricted mental/emotional state. And I think it reflects both of those things.
BS: For sure. For me, I feel like the form works—I think you did a good job choosing that. And then, for our fourth question: do you think that art can or cannot be—or should or should not be—political?
BF: I have had mentors—people, poets—I’ve heard them say that all art is, in some way, inevitably political. And I don’t know that I think that that’s true. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure what I think about this. But I think that it can and cannot. And which is related to my answer to the should, which is that I don’t think it’s my place to judge whether or not someone should be political with their work. If they decide to… Because it’s your own creative space. And if in your own creativity, it manifests as political or as some people might call political—or the intention is political… Then more power to you.
If your creative space is something that, you know, isn’t—and that’s hard to define, but I do think that they exist—then also power to you. I think they can both happen.
BS: Yeah, and then just for you—would you say that the majority of your pieces are—I’m just curious, I guess—about how you would define most of your pieces or your work.
BF: I mean, most of my work—I don’t know that most of my work falls into any certain category—but I definitely have two major things happening, one of which is definitely political. And it’s thinking about the socio-political state of the world, the United States—so it’s explicitly political. And then, another body of work that kind of explores the space of family and emotion and what’s there, which is hard for me to say is political. I don’t know if I would call it that.
BS: I think that’s a great answer! So thank you. And then for our fifth question: how do you know when a poem is complete—or is it ever complete?
BF: This is something that I’ve thought about also. I can ask myself—or anyone—can ask themselves a couple of questions. Have I surprised myself? Have I said something that I have never experienced before? Either reading or in my own writing. Which, that alone doesn’t mean that you’re done. But if it’s not there, then maybe that’s a good indicator to keep digging.
And then, I was thinking about this in terms of fullness and comfort. Of course, [I] read it over many times and give it space between readings, but… Upon repeated readings, does it feel full? Does it feel like it’s asking for more? There’s something, you know—there’s a vacant space. Or does it feel nice and bulbous and full?
And then comfort—it may feel full, but the things within that fullness… Do they want to be in there? Are they comfortable there? Or does something not want to be there? And then, if you pull it out, that affects the fullness again. I think those are two criteria to think about.
BS: That’s a great answer! Something really actionable—something people can look at… And I assume something you use sometimes for your own work. And then, for question six, we have—what is your process for discovering literary journals to submit to? Do you have a system for keeping track of your submissions or deciding where is best to put your piece?
BF: The simpler questions first: my system for keeping track is Submittable basically. I’m on there, and I can keep a handle on that. Deciding where to submit to is a matter of reading, which is a thread through the next couple of questions—is reading. But super crucial, and that’s also my process for discovering journals—is reading. Reading until I find someone—or a poem that I’m blown away by. And then I go down and read the bio—okay, where else are they published? And then go there and then read. And see who else is there, and do the same thing. It just becomes a rabbit hole of finding great writing.
And I built a database—a whole excel database of hundreds of journals. It’s plotted out like—what do they accept? Is it flash, fiction, poetry? Their submission dates and all of that. It’s a work in progress, but it’s what I use.
BS: Awesome! I feel like excel spreadsheets, you know? Gotta use them. And then for question seven—what do you wish you had known before starting out as a writer?
BF: This was an interesting question to me because of the wording—“started out” as a writer. Because it makes it feel intentional, which I don’t feel is true in my case. I feel like I had an affinity for it for a long time—like in college. And even before that, musically, creatively fiction—and then set it aside because of career and stuff like that. And then [I] came back to it. And then it really took off. So I didn’t really “start out” in the way I perceive this.
But something that I learned early on that was helpful—and I think would be helpful to people who are thinking of spending their time being writers—again, comes back to reading. It’s profoundly helpful to just read and see, expose yourself to all of the different ways creative people out there are expressing themselves and doing it in ways that you never thought about. And then that is inspiration for you to do something in a way you’ve never thought about. So for me, and I know for many people, reading is a super inspirational tool. I think I’d say that.
BS: Awesome! Would you say currently—and I know this isn’t part of the question—do you usually lean toward reading poetry or do you like to read all kinds of things?
BF: I like to read all kinds of things—poetry, short stories, novels, non-fiction… I really enjoy all kinds of things. And you can get different kinds of inspiration from different kinds of things. But I think, related to the next question about writer’s block—is inspiration and stuff like that. When I’m in a space of writing, or when I’m looking for inspiration, then I will intentionally read poetry, because that’s what I’m looking for.
BS: Awesome. Yeah—so going on to that next question. Do you believe in writer’s block? And if yes, how do you deal with it?
BF: Yeah. I feel like my creative space or productivity or whatever has been in a little bit of a slump over the past… Well, maybe for a few months, from maybe August, September, October, there was a lot going on, and that can affect things. Whatever the reason is that you get into creative slumps. And then you sit down, and it’s not as much as coming out as what you may be used to. So that definitely happens, because I’ve experienced it, you know?
I think, for me, what worked—reading, like I was saying. And that’s the big one—I’ve realized. I have not been reading, and I get so much… The “wow” factor that you get from poems—from reading—is a really powerful thing. And I think if you’re a creative, you—or, maybe I should say… Many creatives feed off of that “wow” energy and what to do that, then. And turn around and figure out a way to do that. And that can be a way to access that energy.
Maybe switching up routine… Something I realized was—you know, simple—and maybe it’s simple things. Something I realized—because I’m a morning writer—is I was waking up and trying to write first thing and then walk the dog later. But I realized that if I wake up first and then go walk her, take her thirty minutes outside and wake up a little bit and come back, I’m in a better space. I have more energy. It’s important to also pay attention to yourself and how you’re working and how you’re feeling—your energy levels. And make little changes, if you can.
BS: I think that’s super valuable advice—thank you for that. And then this is our final set of questions. Do you consider yourself an artist? And did you answer change overtime?
BF: I think I do consider myself an artist. And I think my answer… Thinking back, I think I was an artist at different times in my life. There was a time when I was an artist doing this kind of thing, and there was a time when I wasn’t in a creative space. And maybe at that time I wasn’t an artist, and now I am. I think it can fluctuate—it’s a flexible, fluid state of being.
BS: Alright! Well, thank you so much. If there’s anything else you think you would want anyone to know about this piece or about your pieces in general?
BF: I don’t know that there’s anything else I would want people to know about it. Just—when it comes out, read it and experience it. Let it bring you to the space that it brings you to. And I’m grateful for that.
BS: We are super grateful that you submitted to Superstition Review, and congratulations on getting it published in Nimrod Journal! That’s so exciting, and it definitely deserved it. I read it, and I was very much “wow”ed, I guess you could say. The “wow” factor—I very much liked it. And I know that the creative writing students in Amsterdam also really enjoyed it. And I’m sure they’re super appreciative of this interview and getting to know your process a little bit. So thank you so much!
BF: It’s been a pleasure! Thank you—to you and the students.
“Cubic Zirconia,” a poem by Erica Goss, was published Dec. 5th in Moria.
I’m fake-sick, trying to fool my body into declaring war, a war I cannot see, only feel. I think most wars are like this: once unleashed, they have their own ways of behaving that have nothing to do with us. We won’t know when the worst is over, can’t move until the all-clear shatters the air leaving us limp with relief. Or maybe my body is having a torrid affair with a lover who doesn’t exist. Wouldn’t be the first time. The racing heart, the prickling skin, the dazed feeling. It’s all too real to be real, has that tang of the huckster, the con, the snake-oil salesman. I’m alive, too alive, brain lit with a cheap glow, like the cubic zirconia rings at the jewelry counter, shining from their little velvet boxes with a ridiculous optimism you never see in real diamonds. Today, my mouth tastes like a metal spoon, and it all smells slightly burnt. On little ghost feet, tiny dead creatures scatter under my skin. Everything sparkles.
Erica Goss is the author of Night Court, winner of the 2017 Lyrebird Award from Glass Lyre Press. Her flash essay, “Just a Big Cat,” was one of Creative Nonfiction’s top-read stories for 2021. Recent and upcoming publications include The Georgia Review, Oregon Humanities, Creative Nonfiction, North Dakota Quarterly, Spillway, A-Minor, Redactions, Consequence, The Sunlight Press, The Pedestal, San Pedro River Review, and Critical Read. Erica served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California, from 2013-2016. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, where she teaches, writes and edits the newsletter Sticks & Stones. Learn more on her website.
Amsterdam University College’s creative writing students, in an on-going project with Superstition Review, have chosen Erica Goss’s “Cubic Zirconia” for a feature in our blog. They have also curated a variety of questions for Erica Goss about “Cubic Zirconia” and her writing process. We are pleased to include those questions and Erica Goss’s responses in an interview below. Due to the time difference, this interview was conducted by Brennie Shoup, Superstition Review’s blog editor. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.
Brennie Shoup: Hello! My name is Brennie, and I am Superstition Review’s blog editor. Today, I will be interviewing Erica Goss on behalf of the Amsterdam University College students, who have curated a variety of questions for her about the recent piece she submitted to Superstition Review. Alright, would you like to introduce yourself now, Erica?
Erica Goss: Hi, Brennie. Thank you so much for having me! It’s really an honor to be here, and thank you to the students at the Amsterdam University. I’m Erica Goss, and I’m a poet and nonfiction memoir writer. I live in Eugene, Oregon, and I’m very happy to be here.
BS: Alright, awesome. We’re so happy to have you! So why did you choose “Cubic Zirconia” to be the title of your piece?
EG: Well, I don’t know if you realize it or not, but it’s actually a pandemic poem. And I realized that the world is getting really tired of pandemic poems. Who wants to read another poem about loss and death and our government’s completely bumbling response to the whole thing? So I was trying to figure out—I guess, not consciously—a fresh way to tell this same story. And I had just had my second booster shot. So I don’t usually have any reactions to boosters. I don’t have reactions to flu shots—I just don’t. But I thought about what was going on in my body. The way to protect yourself was to fool yourself into thinking you were sick. And that’s where the fake flu came from.
So in May of this year, I was writing in my journal, sitting outside in my garden. That was right after I got the vaccine. And then the idea of the fake flue somehow popped in my mind with the idea of fake diamonds—which are “cubic zirconia.” They were a big deal for a while. Everybody had a cubic zirconia. Somehow, they just struck me as flashy and fake—and that that flashy and fake thing went with getting a vaccine to trick your body into thinking it was a real thing. Like you might trick someone into thinking a cubic zirconia was the real thing—a real diamond. Those two ideas combined in my head, and then the poem took off.
And, of course, cubic zirconia is a good title. It’s probably better than “I’m having the fake flu” or something like that. It was always the title, and then I just had to figure out how the poem fit in there.
BS: I have to agree. It’s an extremely good title—very eye-catching. You know, you see and you’re like “I want to know more.”
So your last line “everything sparkles,” the students really loved it. So why did you choose it as your last line?
EG: Well, thank you for the nice words on that last line. That last line was very deliberate. I picked that last line before the rest of the poem was done. I kind of knew that would be the last line. It refers to that false sparkle that the vaccine and the cubic zirconia share. And it’s also a reference to the Shakespeare quote, “All that glitters is not gold” from The Merchant of Venice. It’s kind of a round-about way of saying everything sparkles—everything can’t really sparkle. Something’s false in there if everything sparkles, right? But sometimes when you’re sick, I’m sure you’ve had that feeling of when your blood pressure drops when you stand up, and you almost feel like you’re going to black out. And everything is kind of fuzzy at the edges. That’s also sort of what went into that. It’s a physical and mental way of connecting those two ideas.
And then maybe it was an optimistic comment on the coming of summer. I wrote this poem in May and June, and hopefully a reduction in the pandemic—which I think did happen, at least during the summer. Our numbers are probably going up now because of the winter. I was kind of like, “Maybe we can have this—maybe this fall sparkle can actually be real.” That was why I put that at the end.
BS: Yeah, yeah. I would say—it’s interesting how it’s almost hopeful but also a warning at the same time. I think that’s very cleverly done.
EG: Yes, that’s true.
BS: And then, how long did the process of writing “Cubic Zirconia” take? Did you spread it out over a long time, or was it a poem that came together relatively fast?
EG: I guess it took a little while. The poem started on May 20th, which I know because I wrote it in my journal. Students, always have a journal and put the dates on. So there’s a note on May 20th titled, “Here I am gardening after the second vaccine booster. I’m outside putting mulch around my strawberry plants like a slightly deranged mother, wobbly from poison. I’m having a fake flu; I’m having the cubic zirconia version of the flu.” And then I just sort of made those notes, and I was like, “Hmm. I think there’s something here.” That was around almost the end of May, and I finished the poem early in June. So I think it was probably about three weeks from start to finish. And from my notes and stuff, I think it went through about ten drafts. It was kind of mushing around—although I always had “everything sparkles” at the end. I had to get the poem to dribble down into what that would actually mean. How I could end on that line. I think that’s what took longer than actually composing the poem, composing it so it would end there. Yeah, took about three weeks.
BS: I always find it interesting that sometimes those end lines come to you, but not necessarily the middle ones. A lot of people know endings for stories or poems at the beginning, right?
EG: Yes. That’s true. You have to write your way to that ending. And if you’re really kind of—if you’re really depending on that ending, then it really limits how you can write the poem. If you decided to chuck the ending, you could change it. But I really wanted that to be the ending.
BS: Yeah, I think it’s a good ending. Do you write your poems through personal experience? If so, do you find it hard to put your thoughts into words? You sort of already touched on this with the journal, but maybe if you want to expand.
EG: Yeah, all of my poems come from my life. All of my writing comes from my life in one way or another. For poems, I write many, many, many, many words, and the hard part is deciding which words to keep—because most of them are removed, right? In the process of writing a poem, I’ll probably get rid of—I don’t know—a thousand words, maybe at some point. If I really count up all the drafts, and all the times that I put the word in and took it out again; I go back and forth with that.
But it’s a really good question to ask about personal experience. I think some of us writers—especially young writers—have been told falsely that they should not rely on their own personal experience. So then you get these really confusing messages. I have some teachers say, “Write what you know,” and then some say, “No, no, don’t write what you know.” The thing is that if you want to write about what you don’t know, by the time you write about it, you now know it. It all becomes part of what you know.
I think it’s a really good place to start—in your personal life—and some writers never go farther than that. Some move into different topics, different subjects—some have them kind of thrust upon them. I was thinking of a lot of the poets who are in exile, who never wanted to be in exile, and suddenly they’re faced with political upheaval that they never asked for. But they’ve got great stuff to write about; they’re writing eloquently about that. Or disasters that happen, or things in your family that you didn’t foresee. These are not things you could possibly anticipate, because you wouldn’t want to have them happen. You wouldn’t necessarily ask for that stuff. I think it’s always a good idea to start with what you know very, very well, and then keep educating yourself. So that what you know grows, right? So that you keep adding to your wealth of experience that you can pull from. And keep notes! Write all that stuff down.
I think I read somewhere there was an auction with Joan Didion’s stuff, and people were looking at her notebooks. I guess they’re selling for millions of dollars, and she would keep notes all the time. There were even some notebooks that were blank that belonged to her—but still sold, just because they belonged to her. She didn’t get to fill in all the notebooks, but it’s a good practice. So then what you know grows, and you know more and more. You never run out of ideas.
BS: I think that’s a good way to never run out of ideas, yeah. It’s a good thought. And then, how does the process of writing nonfiction differ from your process for writing poetry?
EG: That is a really good story. I look at both of them as ways of telling a story. Sometimes I’ll look at a topic, and I’ll think, I don’t know if it’s going to be a poem or an essay or a piece of prose—or an article. I don’t know, often when I’m looking at topics. Sometimes I know right away this will be a poem. Most of my writing starts out as a poem. Even a review or an article—I think I’ve written almost a hundred reviews, up to this point. And they almost all start out with the question being, “How did it feel?” To me, poetry is about how did it feel, and prose is more like what happened. So if I want to tell a story about something that’s long and involved and has many chapters and requires research—I’m certainly not going to write that in a poetic form. I think really long poems lose their energy pretty quickly, and I think people really don’t want to have a poem that’s longer than—at the absolute most—500 words. To me, that’s a long poem.
I was looking at how long most of my poems are when you contacted me. They’re usually around 200 words. That’s about it—that’s where I run out of gas, too, as the writer. If, for example, I’m writing about something that has to do with politics or mental illness—you know, all the topics I tend to write about a lot—the environment… If I really want to write a poem, I’m going to look for those—not cubic zirconia moments—but those real diamonds in there that show how a particular event in history or something recently happened effected me or somebody I know. But I’m not going to use the same approach if I want to tell the story of that event—unless I wanted to write a whole cycle of poems. And that’s something I haven’t attempted yet, but that’s possible.
I mean, some people are great at writing political poems, and that is not one of my strengths. But writing about topical issues… Like weird things you see in the newspaper, or just an odd fragment that someone says in passing. Those can be really good triggers for poetry. They are not such good triggers for prose I think—for prose I want to tell you a lot more details. And I don’t want you the reader to figure things out, so much. But for poetry, I’m giving you, the reader, a lot more leeway, and I’m trusting you to make those connections because that’s what I think poetry does the best. It stimulates your brain into making connections that—I have no idea about, that you will make on your own.
That was a little bit long-winded, but I see them as two separate ways of telling a particular story. I could tell the same story in poetry or prose, but it would be a different experience for the reader—for sure.
BS: I think it’s very interesting to see someone who writes both of them, and how those processes differ, even for the same person. And then, do you ever follow prompts when you write? And how many hours a day would you say you write?
EG: I do often follow prompts when I write. I find them very helpful when I’m stuck for something to write about. Sometimes the urge to write will just hit, but I don’t have any particular topic in mind. And sometimes those can be the most fun because I’ll just do things… I have another poet friend, and we’ll switch off words. We’ll each come up with a few words, and we’ll just toss them around to see what happens because poems are—someone said—machines made of words. And they require words to exist, but the relationship can be fairly loose and open to interpretation. So when you have good words—or any words, really—you can find the story in those words. You don’t even really need to know what it is before. It’s like going somewhere without a map. It can be more fun because you can discover things on your own. And you might get lost, but you’ll find your way back hopefully.
So prompts are really useful—like I said—if I’m in the mood but I don’t really have a topic to write about. Or if I’m sort of stuck, it’s a way to stave off the writer’s block. If I’m feeling stuck or if I’m feeling like the poem is ending too soon—sometimes that happens, it’s like, “Oh, it wrapped up.” But I know it’s not really done. My brain jumped to the end, and now we’re done.
Then I’ll go through prompt books. I have a lot of them here. Some of them are my tried and true ones, and I’ll just read. I don’t even need to know what the prompt is, just reading it will get me going. But I would have to say: the most generative prompt for me is reading other people’s poetry. If I’m stuck on a poem, especially—this doesn’t work for prose, but this works for poetry. If I’m stuck on a poem, I’ll just sit down and start reading Shakespeare sonnets, or I’ll start reading some poetry by Mary Oliver. It almost doesn’t matter, as long as it’s good poetry. And I will slowly get over the anxiety that I’m stuck, and those ideas will flow.
And the stuff that I write isn’t going to sound like Shakespeare or Mary Oliver. It just opens some doors for me, neurologically.
How many hours a day do I write? I write anywhere from one to eight hours a day, depends on the day. The days where I get a lot of writing done are really good days; I always feel really great at the end of it. The day’s a blank canvas, and I have articles to write; I have reviews; I have an essay I’m working on. I’m starting to write a book. And I just kind of go, “Yay!” And I can just lose myself in my writing. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been in a dream all day, and I wake up and I’m like, “Oh, it’s five o’clock, and I’m awake finally.”
But most days are not like that. The days I have teaching to do, or I have other obligations. Sometimes I’m waiting at the doctor’s office, and I’m scribbling things… In fact, often I’ll be writing things in my book. It kind of depends on the day, but also… If you want to be a writer, it’s one of those things that you can really fit into all the little pieces of your day. It would be very hard to fit ice-skating or soccer into these little bits of time that you find that you have. But you can do something as innocuous as writing. You can do that. You can even write on your phone, if you want to do it that way. You can end up with a whole lot of ideas at the end of a busy day, if you just pay attention.
BS: Yeah, I have to say young me really took advantage of the Notes app on my phone. And then, for our next question, do you mind if readers don’t fully understand what you try to transmit in a poem?
EG: Well, I can’t really anticipate what readers will see in my work. But I think it’s really exciting and amazing that we all bring this wealth of experience and expectation to any work of art that we encounter. I was really lucky last summer that I went to New York City, and I went to a bunch of art museums. This was what popped into my mind when I read the question. I was just walking along, looking at photographs and sculptures and art and mixed media and videos and all the stuff that they have… I was thinking, everybody in this room is seeing something different from what I’m seeing. We’re all looking at the same thing, but we’re all bringing our own life experience and our own particular biases and lack of biases to these works of art.
And I think it’s the same with reading. With writing, with encountering any written work… I also think that readers create the poem when they’re reading it. They create that as they are reading. They’re finding things in the work that I didn’t even know existed. And sometimes people will tell me that: “You know, this poem reminded me so much of my mom!” And it’s like… It was about a tree in my backyard, so who knows, right? And that’s what’s so mysterious and wonderful about sharing your art, which is why I really encourage people to try and get their art out there in any way they can. Share it, publish it, find ways to further that conversation. Because you never know who you might touch with a poem you wrote or whose life might be influenced that way.
But the gift of connecting with readers is that you don’t know what they’re going to find in your poem, and that’s really exciting I think.
BS: I love that response. And, then, for our final question, or there’s two questions here, I guess: What prompted you to start writing poetry? And then was it always your genre of choice?
EG: I started writing poems when I was very young. I think I was eight when I wrote my first poem, and from then on, I would write these little poem-like things in little spiral-bound notebooks that my parents would buy for me. I was lucky my parents would always encourage me to write, and they always praised my writing—even when it probably didn’t deserve it. And they introduced me to their writer friends, and I grew up thinking a poet was a totally normal thing. You could be a poet; that would be a job you could have, a practice that you would have.
I saw how my words could move people, and that was kind of exciting and kind of startling. Once I scared my mom to death by writing a poem about death. And when I saw her react like that, I wrote a poem to counter that one, which was about being born. I was hoping to make up for the death poem. But I think the death poem was inspired by finding a dead bird that had hit the window outside, and I was just looking at it… And it was not moving. I didn’t feel sad; I just kind of felt curious, like, “What is this about?” The poem was curious. I still have it; it’s a very strange little block of words. I can’t believe I wrote that when I was eight.
But I think poets are a little odd that way. I’m not sure it’s a gift—or the other thing. Even really young poets look at things differently than other kids, other people. It teaches you not to talk about things that you know you’re going to get a weird look for, but it can put you in a strange corner, too.
I don’t know what prompted me, but I know it was a very strong urge. I loved words; I learned how to read when I was really young. And I taught my brother to read when he was really young. I just loved how words were so important and so amazing. I love fonts; I love big words; I love word stamps. Just the physicality of words. I always did, even as a kid.
So essays and memoirs—which is the prose that I write—those are both an extension of the poetry-writing urge, I guess. Even my reviews—as I mentioned before—all start out in a form that I would call a prose-poem. I do certainly write notes that look like prose. But they feel more to me like “How did it feel?” impulse that you have in poetry. I’ll ask myself: How did it feel to read this book? How do I feel at the end of it? Do I feel confused? Do I feel anxious? Do I feel like maybe the author has taught me some new thing that I didn’t know before, that I didn’t know existed? Those are usually the good ones. Do I want to read more by this writer? That’s another signal that this was a really good book. And if I don’t feel those things, how can I present my experience reading that book in a way that is most open to the reader, who might read this book and not… Like I said, we don’t know what a reader is going to see in a piece of written work, so they may read my review and go, “I really want to read that book!” Whereas I was a little confused.
With essays, I guess I’m looking for that deeper meaning. I’m looking for the motivations in the story, whether it’s about me or someone else. But with poetry, it’s very clear to me that that is an emotional thing. That is about the emotions of that moment. And with “Cubic Zirconia,” I guess I was feeling a little bit sarcastic at the same time as I was feeling kind of terrified. Because this pandemic has been going on so long… And it’s like, “What can you do?” The only thing you can do is get your shot and then wait, and hope you stay well. Poetry’s always been my number one genre, and I think from that point, from that practice, all of the other wants have evolved. They revolve around that style of writing, that type of writing.
BS: Well, that’s so interesting! I loved hearing all of your responses to all of the questions. They were so well thought-out, and I know that the students will also really appreciate them. We really thank you for taking the time to submit to Superstition Review and then agreeing to do this interview. It really means a lot, and we really loved your work and all of that.
EG: Well, thank you, Brennie, for asking me. And I’m so happy to be able to share some thoughts about poetry and writing with more people. I’m very happy that you asked me.
“bright and clean in Tokyo,” a poem by Uchimura Kaho (内村佳保), was originally submitted for Issue 30 of Superstition Review.
bright and clean in Tokyo
My uncle is dead. He was wrapped in dry ice, wearing a white kimono on the tatami. My mother’s brother. He was often angry. Few things did we ever talk about. The doctor told me he was dying. A car from the Funeral Home carried him away. We were as black as ravens. It takes a long time to burn a person. Uncle takes two hours. Imagine the bones at the excavation site. Not all the bones will fit in the urn. I order an egg sandwich at the crematorium coffee shop. The sound of the teacups. The salad arrives quietly. No one smiles widely. No one is crying, either. The sweep window leads to the garden. Death is right next door. People are burning, but the crematorium coffee shop is very bright and clean.
Uchimura Kaho (内 村 佳 保 ) is a Japanese writer. Her work won the grand prize at the Reconstruction Agency Slogan Competition 2017, Shimazaki Toson Poetry Competition 2021, Minokamo city Poetry Competition 2021, and Tajimi city Poetry Competition 2021. She is the author of three novels, Jyuusan-sai-no-taidou, Inishie-gatari vol.1, and 7-second unison which won the grand prize at Funahashi Seiichi Under 30’s Literary Prize 2021. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly, Mantis (Stanford University), The Ekphrastic Review, New World Writing, Cordite Poetry Review, Eunoia Review, Sazeracs, Smoky Ink, Seashores, and Déraciné. Learn more on her website.
Amsterdam University College’s creative writing students, in an on-going project with Superstition Review, have chosen Uchimura Kaho’s “bright and clean in Tokyo” for a feature in our blog. They have also curated a variety of questions for Uchimura Kaho about “bright and clean in Tokyo” and her writing process. We are pleased to include those questions and Uchimura Kaho’s responses in an interview below. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.
Uchimura Kaho: Hi! I’m Uchimura Kaho. I’m a Japanese writer. When I was a junior high school student, I published my first novel, Jyuusan sai no taidou (2008). When I was a university student, I published my second novel, Inishie gatari vol. 1 (2014). Until I was a university student, I mainly wrote novels. When I was about to graduate from university, I started writing poetry as well. At the university library, I picked out a few poetry magazines, and I felt as if someone was telling me to try writing poetry.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I also began to write in haiku, tanka, and senryu and submitting them for awards. Japanese people believe that spirits dwell in all things. What I feel when I compose poems, haiku, tanka, and senryu, is that they have the rhythm of Japanese spirits. The cherry blossoms, geckos, flies, rice balls, the full moon, the stars, and the gentle breeze and so on… They are all telling me to compose things as haiku, tanka, and senryu.
I compose their words into letters with them. Sometimes, they ask me to compose haiku, tanka, and senryu that I have never thought of. For example, one of my tankas is, “On the night of the day I dropped 500 yen, there was a full moon, and I found my lost item in the sky.” Believe it or not, the full moon gave me this tanka as a gift as I was walking down the street at night. I asked the full moon, as I walked, if I could change the tanka a bit—in my mind, of course—but the full moon told me this tanka was good—absolutely good, and that I should keep it as it was. As a result, this tanka won first prize in a newspaper tanka competition. So I guess, the full moon was right.
Tanka, haiku, and senryu are short, so I try to convey the hunch as directly as possible. Poems and novels are longer, so I try to mix in a little bit of my feelings with the hunch. It is like mixing a little bit of blue into red to make purple. When I can make a beautiful purple, I feel very happy. The process is the same whether I’m composing works in Japanese, English, or other languages.
Now, I’d like to talk about my poem “bright and clean in Tokyo.” When I was offered this interview, I was in Nagano prefecture, where I won the grand prize at the 196th anniversary of Kobayashi Issa’s passing haiku competition. And I thought the scenery of Nagano and the photos I took in Seattle seven years ago when I performed at the Seattle Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival were perfect for this poem. I hope you enjoy these photos, as well.
Since I experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve often thought about human death. Most Japanese people are cremated when they die, and I wanted to introduce Japanese cremation, so I wrote this poem. Death is rather sad and has a dark aspect. But the coffee shop next to the crematorium is quiet, well-cleaned, and filled with silent light, as if the fear of death is absorbed somewhere in the room. The people who are being burned are about to pass the point of no return while we are right there, eating sandwiches as if nothing happened. Opposite worlds are contained and coexist in the same space, and this is repeated day after day. This is an unexplainable, strange feeling that I want to share with you.