During my time as a journalist, I’ve found that the hardest part of my job isn’t reviewing, or writing features: it’s the interview. An intimate one-on-one where anything can go wrong if you ask the wrong question (or the right question at the wrong time) can be nerve-wracking for first-timers (or even seasoned veterans).
I’ve interviewed dozens of people, and each time I do I get this horrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. When this happens, I remember a few pieces of advice that I’ve heard over the years, and it helps put me at ease. Hopefully, this will help you with any future interviews that you may have to do.
1) Give a shit
This is probably the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard in regards to pulling off a successful interview. If you don’t care about what someone has to say or what they’ve done, your subject will notice it. They will pull away, mentally retreating from your interview, and your piece will suffer for it.
Listen intently, react to what the other person is saying. It doesn’t matter if it’s the most boring thing you’ve heard, or you don’t care about the topic. You’re there on assignment, and it’s your job to make sure that you get a solid interview. Even if you have to fake it, care about what you’re doing.
Research your subject before hand. Find out what they’ve done, who they work for, etc.
Prepare a list of questions that you can ask if you end up off topic to get you back on track. At least ten, just in case you lose your place.
An unprepared interviewer will fall on their face, and your subject will notice if you haven’t done your homework. If you go in blind, you will regret it.
3) Don’t be afraid to deviate from your prepared questions.
That said, don’t stick to your prepared list of questions for the duration of the interview. Let the conversation flow naturally, and you’ll be surprised where you’ll end up. I’ve gotten fascinating information out of subjects because they feel comfortable just talking – it’s a great way to get away from stock PR responses and delve right into the heart of what makes their work special
4) Don’t go for the big guns right away. Lead up to it.
A friend of mine was talking about an interview he had, where he had asked a rather hard-hitting question right off the bat. The subject was immediately on the defensive, and immediately shut off.
I interviewed the same person a few months later, and asked a very similar question, but lead up to it with a series of smaller, more broad questions to start with. I got a great, honest response from him, and it just became the next part of our conversation.
Be careful how quickly you try to go into “investigative journalist mode.” It can backfire on you very quickly.
Calm down. Take a deep breath. If you’ve prepared, have some questions ready, and just approach it as two people having a conversation, you’ll be fine. It may be a bit intimidating at first, but your subject is a person, just like you, and will appreciate an honest, genuine conversation with someone about their work. So loosen up and have fun with it!
Superstition Review will launch their 12th issue on Friday, December 6, 2013. Since its founding in 2008 by Patricia Murphy, ASU’s online literary magazine has made it their goal to publish engaging and innovative works of fiction, nonfiction, interviews, poetry, and art. They have published over 550 established and emerging authors from all over the world and are thrilled to announce the expansion of their family of contributors with their upcoming issue.
All staff members, contributors, members of the literary community, and friends and family are welcome to join S[R] in the celebration of the issue’s launch at Mesa Arts Center on December 6 from 6-8PM. Light appetizers will be provided by Pomegranate Café, a local vegan and vegetarian restaurant owned by Superstition Review’s Issue 1 Poetry Editor, Cassie Tolman. Guests will have free access to the museum where contributor, Tom Eckert’s and Arizona artist, Linda Ingraham’s artwork is displayed in “From Lemons to Lingerie: The Still Life Redefined,” an exhibit titled after the artists’ ability to “redefine the typical still-life with their unusual medium choices and surrealist subject matter.” S[R]’s Founding Editor, Student Editor-in-Chief, and Section Editors will speak of the work that went into producing the issue, and discuss their favorite pieces of art, fiction, interviews, nonfiction, and poetry featured in issue 12. Tom Eckert will speak about his artwork, and contributor, Josh Rathkamp will read his poetry.
The poet reading in the trailer is Mia Sara, (Ferris Beuller’s girlfriend from the movie Ferris Beuller’s Day Off). The vocalist singing in the trailer is Sydni Budelier, our Student Editor-in Chief. A full program is as follows:
6:00-7:00 Snacks, Tour Exhibitions
7:00-7:05 Trish Introduces Issue 12
7:05-7:10 Sydni Discusses Issue 12
7:15-7:25 Ruth Faber from AZ Free Arts
7:25-7:35 Sculptor Tom Eckert
7:35-7:40 Josh Rathkamp Reads her work
7:40-7:55 Section Editors Discuss Work
Art, Meredith: on Lucas Foglia’s photography
Art, Alyssa: on Nicole Hill
Fiction, Hannah: on Svetlana Lavochkina’s “Two Prodigal Molecules of the Gulf Stream”
Interviews, Monica on Margot Livesey Interviews, Erin: on William Kittredge
Nonfiction, James: on Nathaniel Millard’s “Arse Poetica: Vecinos (Neighbors)”
Nonfiction, Julie: on Meg Thompson Poetry, Abner: on Aidan Rooney’s “Pairings”
Jennifer Haigh frequently delves into the complexities of family life by placing her characters in difficult situations. The Condition is no exception. This nonlinear novel begins with a young family, the McKotches, on vacation. Fast forward 21 years and the family has been torn apart by illness, divorce, and secrets. With seamless transitions between past and present, The Condition is the story of this family and how they got to their present state.
The diagnosis of daughter Gwen with Turner syndrome is the catalyst for the family’s dissolution. Haigh writes about this condition, as well as other biological facts, with ease and effectively incorporates them into the novel without seeming weighty. However, Haigh’s novel defies norms because it is not centered around Gwen’s illness. The novel is more interested in how the family interacts with one another and deals with the circumstances they are in.
Family dynamics lie at the heart of this novel. Although the characters all live separate, distant lives, they are connected by their family bond. To some extent, each character is trying to escape their past while simultaneously being pulled back to it. The Condition gives a realistic portrayal of a family whose children have already left home and the struggles involved in keeping that family together. Each chapter is narrated by a different member of the McKotch family and these narrations are woven together with interactions between the characters.
Like most of Haigh’s work, not everything is resolved by the end of the novel. Each member of the family continues to remember their history differently based on their perceptions and misconceptions. But this is only appropriate for a novel that reflects real familial interactions. Jennifer Haigh understands the discrete complexities of familial relationships and has crafted a novel that will leave you thinking about your own family.
Available on goodreads this week, a review by our content coordinator Bianca Peterson.
Bigger Than Life: A Murder, A Memoir by Dinah Lenney
Dinah Lenney’s Bigger Than Life: A Murder, A Memoir is both cleverly written and moving as she reflects on her father’s murder, the aftermath, and the complex relationships between the two father figures in her life—her biological father and her stepfather. Lenney uses a mix of present and past tense to both reflect on the events and take her audience back in time to the moments they occur, allowing readers to experience the events alongside her. The technique creates an emotional connection between Lenney and her audience as instead of merely baring witness to her past feelings of pain and loss.
She begins with a prologue with the subtext “Eliza Wants to Know,” detailing the curiosity of her oldest child and her own anxiety of finally telling her children the truth about their grandfather’s death. From here, the pieces slowly fall into place as Lenney begins to drop details concerning the murder before bringing the audience back in time to the day she first received the phone call from her half-brother.
What ultimately makes Lenney’s book so compelling is that it is a story not only about loss, but also the aftermath of loss and the path to healing. Lenney’s story doesn’t come to a close after the full details of her father’s death are revealed, but years later when she finally begins to heal from the ordeal. Furthermore, the novel comes full circle as she returns to the dilemma introduced in the first chapter: telling her children the truth about their grandfather’s death. Moving and highly compelling, Lenney’s strength transfers to the reader as they make the journey with her.
In 2009 I finished my first memoir. I’d worked on it for a few years, performing copious amounts of research on international garden design, horticulture, psychology, landscape theory, as well as interviewing a few family members. Well, I actually only interviewed my mom, and that was a two hour heart-wrenching session where for the first time in my life I got to know her as a person more terrifyingly real than I ever imagined.
During a visit home I was anxious. I didn’t want to broach the interview we both knew I wanted to do (and that would be the key to my memoir), but as the visit was ending she finally asked when I was going to get around to it. She often asked this of me as kid when I had the stomach flu – I held in my vomit until the very last minute, resulting in a big mess nowhere near the bathroom. Sorry. Too much info. I am a memoirist you know.
I felt awkward during our interview. I shook. I felt sweaty and cold. It was strange. I wasn’t ready for this kind of memoir – the one where you speak the deep truth by having confronted it in your lived life. A few weeks later my mom emailed me the deeper, deeper truth, saying she’d never speak it in person to me. It was the story of her siblings being beaten and molested, of her stepfather spiking her vanilla malt and trying, unsuccessfully, to molest her, too. I learned that for my family the garden was an escape, a place to center and come to grips with life.
I edited that memoir, Morning Glory, in 2010 because I knew it lacked structure, and a big part of the reason it lacked structure was because I was afraid to dig as far I needed to. It still lacks structure, and has sat idly in an external hard drive ever since. But my new memoir, which I began working on in 2009, is risking more. It’s bolder. It’s asking big questions. It’s taking a stand. All because I’m putting more of myself on the page.
I’ve taken four trips to Oklahoma to interview family and experts about state history, about homesteading stories from 1894 to the 1940s, about prairie ecology, about Mennonites and Cheyenne beliefs. Exploring my love / hate relationship with my birth state has helped me find the pain that Oklahoma represents for many cultures, human and plant and animal. As an accelerated microcosm of manifest destiny, my family helped destroy the prairie — I want to right that wrong I’ve felt in my bones longer than I’ve known how to name it.
But I’m terribly afraid that in saying the above, I’ll alienate the older members of my family who see the Plains in rose colored glasses, or that I’ll be accused of not honoring the sacrifice of my immigrant family who spoke only German. But the more I read, the more I travel, the more I remember my childhood in the hot, red dirt, I know what my truth is and that I have to speak it loudly – so loudly it hurts people’s ears and hearts. If I can’t risk my life here, on the page, alone in my office, how can I ever risk it out there? How can I live with myself if my inner and outer selves don’t merge? These questions have become my second memoir’s structure. Through a failed first book and much more active research than I ever did in nine years of grad school combined, I’ve come to gain confidence and faith in my writing and my life. At 37, it’s taken me many failures to write boldly, to write and trust my truth – and if Turkey Red is ever read by family, I will surely fail again. But I will have profoundly succeeded, too.
Call for Summer Interns and Fall Trainees, Superstition Review
Are you interested in the field of publishing? Do you wish you could get marketable job skills while earning college credit? Do you like to have a little fun while you learn? Then an internship with Superstition Review is right for you. We are currently accepting applications for Interns in Summer Session A and Summer Session B, and Trainees for Fall Session C. All work is done completely online through Blackboard, Google Docs, Skype, and email. I welcome interns from all fields, but especially from creative writing, literature, web design, art, music, film, and business.
Superstition Review has published 10 issues featuring over 500 contributors from around the country. Each spring and fall we take submissions from established and emerging writers and produce an issue full of dynamic Art, Fiction, Interviews, Nonfiction, and Poetry.
Summer 2013 Internship
Students will register for a 3 credit ENG 484 course in Summer 2013 (there are two sessions: A=May & June and B=July & August). Students will gain experience with the processes and practices of a national literary publication. While we don’t produce an issue in the summer, we do maintain an active presence on our Blog, Facebook, Goodreads, Google+, iTunes, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Twitter accounts.
I am seeking trainees for the online literary magazine Superstition Review. Trainees will register for a 3 credit hour ENG 394 course in Fall 2013. The course will offer a study of the field of literary magazines; it will introduce students to the processes and practices of a national literary publication, and it will include review and reading of contemporary art and literature. Students will be encouraged to create their own literary brand that will help make them more marketable for publishing jobs. Upon successful completion of ENG 394, trainees will enroll in ENG 484 in Spring 2014 and become active interns with the magazine.
Trish provided valuable experience in my field of interest that is not offered anywhere else. This class has been a huge eye-opener for me and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to work in the publishing and editing industry before graduating. The skills I learned have given me a huge amount of confidence as I begin my search for a job, and I’m so glad this course was available. Trish is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and very trusting of her students. Although all the work for SR goes through her, she allows for students to take some control and engage in the work fully. Thanks for the wonderful experience!
I really enjoyed this course and found it to be one of my favorites taken so far at ASU. I feel like the instructor taught me a lot and really challenged me. The class was well structured and I always felt as though I knew what was expected of me, but what I like was that within the structured assignments there was a lot of room for me to work independently and complete assignments in my own way. I would recommend this course and others by this instructor to friends.
Trish is extremely personable and is great at making people feel welcomed and she listens very well to her students.
Trish is extremely accessible and welcoming. I felt very comfortable coming to her with questions, even if they seem stupid. I feel I got a great internship experience that will help me post graduation.
Very organized, and even though it was an online class, the instructor was always willing and available and kept in contact through email.
I was able to learn so much about publishing, editing, and running a magazine. There were always tasks that could be completed that were never regarded as busywork. Patricia is very knowledgeable, friendly, respectful, and encouraging. She truly values the work of her students and her students themselves just as much, if not more, as we value her teaching and her.
Very personable and involved with the students as to what is going on in their academic and personal lives.
Trish is very knowledgeable in what she does. She’s technologically savvy, and very educated in literature and the arts, as well as aware of current happenings in the modern literature and art world.
Applications are open January 31 and will be accepted until positions are filled.
When I was given the opportunity to interview Teague Bohlen about his upcoming talk at ASU I was thrilled—his flash fiction/photography pieces were some of my favorites from Issue 10. His stories are compact and powerful.
In just a few weeks Teague is scheduled to talk at ASU about a topic of personal expertise—Superheroes. If you enjoy this interview, don’t miss the opportunity to hear Teague speak at the Polytechnic Campus on February 13 from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Brooke Passey: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, we are all so excited to hear you speak at ASU in February.
Teague Bohlen: Thank you for having me, both for this interview, and at ASU in February. It’s always good to come back to Tempe, and February is quite possibly the best time of the year to do it. Especially from Colorado.
BP: The title of your talk is “Superheroes in Narrative: Comics Come of Age in Print and Film.” That is intriguing to say the least! Can you tell us a little about where you plan to focus the discussion? Will you talk about the craft of writing with superheroes, the history behind it, the transition to film…? Give us a teaser.
TB: The idea behind the talk is how the archetype of the hero—specifically, in this case, the superhero—has changed over the many years since its modern inception. I’m going to start with a bit of the history of the superhero itself, how it’s changed, and how those changes have been reflected not only in the comics from which those heroes come, but also in traditional literary narrative. It’s an interesting parallel, I think; there’s been a specific maturation of both media over the last few decades–for sure, more for the previously kid-focused comic book medium, but there are certainly parallels. Now that the geeks have inherited the pop-culture earth, so to speak, this is becoming even more apparent, from a book like Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay to a deconstructive film like Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods.
BP: On your website you mention reading Peanuts comic strips in high school. When did Superhero comics become important to you?
TB: I’ve been reading comic books since I was a young kid. Some of my earliest reading memories were of comic books. My uncle once brought me a huge box of comics when my grandfather passed away—I was five. My grandfather was gone, and my uncle—in some wonderful gesture of love and sorrow and sympathy—brought me a box of comics. There were Archie and Batman and Scrooge McDuck and Spider-Man, the last of whom I already knew from the PBS show The Electric Company, and from his Spidey Super Stories books. A couple of years later, I remember getting hold of the issue of Amazing Spider-Man in which Gwen Stacy—Spidey’s girlfriend—is killed. I remember that blew my mind. They killed someone; someone important. She wasn’t coming back. It was just like real life. I remember it was like a world opened to me—these weren’t just stories where everything worked out (which was true for books like Superman, etc., where the status quo and the cast rarely changed).
BP: This might be slightly off topic but I have to ask you about your upcoming collection of flash fiction/photography. Three of your flash fiction/photography pieces were featured in our last issue (all of which I adored, especially All His Shirts) but what inspired you to combine these two artistic mediums?
TB: I’m glad you enjoyed those. I’ve really come to love flash fiction. I edited for a great journal for a few years—Quick Fiction, now sadly defunct—that really made me appreciate the form. I’d been working in the medium for a while, and a lot of my flash work seemed to be centered around the Illinois Midwest, as was my first novel. It’s where I grew up, and where my heart still very much lies. The idea of adding photography came about when my cousin, Britten Traughber, chose to focus her own artistic bent on the same region. So much of her amazing work is set there, and it seemed like a natural pairing-up. We both wanted to allow the fiction to stand alone, and the photos to stand alone—and to be able to appreciate a new third thing, this alchemy of the two together, when they appear next to each other on the page.
BP: On a similar note, after reading your very serious and compelling stories I was surprised to find out that you were such an expert on comics. How do these two very different styles work together in your life?
TB: For a long time, I wasn’t sure they did! But then I moved from being a TV critic to being more of a pop-culture critic, and then a pop-culture humorist of sorts, and all that’s come together in interesting ways. I have a comic-book novel floating around in my head, which I want to get to at some point–that’s a book about people who like comics, who live in that world and speak that cultural language. People always try to pigeonhole your work into one thing–oh, he’s serious, or oh, he’s funny–but the truth is that most of our best writers are both, and more. Sometimes I spread myself too thin, but I think the range is good. It works for me, anyway.
BP: I read your pieces on Terrian.org and noticed that those photographs were also taken by Britten Traughber, who you just mentioned is your cousin. Did she take all the pictures for your upcoming collection?
TB: She did; the book is very much a collaboration between her and me, and the coming together of our work in rural Illinois. I come from a close family, so I feel like she’s more my sister, really. I’ve always admired her work, and since we share a Midwestern focus in some of each of our work, it seemed like a natural partnership.
BP: And last, but not in the least bit serious, let me end with a question about sugary snacks. I came across an article you wrote in 2009 titled, “The 10 Dumbest Comic Book Hostess Ads.” You made some very pertinent points, but what insights would you add to that article if you had written it after Hostess took their tumble?
TB: Ha! What a good question. You know, just to go back a bit, I love that series of silly lists I did for Village Voice back in the day. I miss doing them. They were crazy fun to research and write up. I’d like to do it again sometime. As for how that particular piece would have changed today, given the apparent demise of Hostess and all its wonderful products…well, honestly, the whole disappearance of Ho-Hos and Fruit Pies has me too depressed to even think about it. Though maybe I should write up something about where Hostess mascots Twinkie the Kid and Fruit Pie the Magician ended up–I’m thinking a lounge act on some ’70s-throwback cruise line.
BP: Thank you so much for your time. It has been a pleasure and we look forward to hearing from you again very soon.
TB: Thank you for the questions, Brooke! Looking forward to coming to ASU and talking comics. We’ll nerd-out, academic-style.
Superstition Review would like to welcome faculty advisor Betsy Schneider. She will be advising the art editors starting this fall. As an introduction to the staff and readers, we interviewed Betsy and we are very glad to share the interview with you.
Betsy Schneider is a photo-based artist and educator. Her artistic concerns range from trying to understand time, decay and the body, to exploring childhood, culture, and relationships and looking very closely at strange visceral things such as candy, placentas and the mouth. She uses a variety of photographic tools including APS, digital, medium format and view cameras and digital and computer generated video. Her work manifests itself through exhibitions of rectangles on the wall, video installations and books.
Her work is in several private and public collections including that of actor Jamie Lee Curtis, Museet for Fotokunst in Denmark, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. She has taught and lectured across the US, Scandinavia and the UK. She is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow and an Associate Professor in the School of Art at Arizona State University.
Superstition Review: What is it about the medium of photography that first drew you to it?
Betsy Schneider: My mother always encouraged me and my sisters to express ourselves through art. My birth interrupted her PhD program in psychology focusing on children’s art. So I had a crayon or a pencil in my hand from as early as I could hold it. But I was a very active child and didn’t have the focus to be good at drawing. I was a cartooner—a doodler. My notes from school are covered with intense little doodles—even now at faculty meetings I can’t stop making these little drawings. But they don’t go anywhere.
So when I was about 11 I was picked to be a yearbook photographer—and I loved it. At the time I didn’t really see it connected to art—but it seemed like something I did well and enjoyed. But even photography took patience and I didn’t have enough through high school. So throughout high school I kind of forgot about photography and art—thinking I would be a lawyer and later a writer (yeah—that doesn’t take any patience at all).
While I was trying to write I realized that my ideas flowed so much more well, so much more fluidly through photography. This was at the end of college—and I thought –this is it. That was when I was about 21—and to waaay oversimplify it—I’ve been here making photos ever since.
SR: What are some of your influences and favorite artists?
BS: Why is this always the most difficult question? But it’s a good and important question. I tend to be influenced in waves and by a huge variety of things. First the people in my life (and I’ll get to that in the later question). But also wider cultural influences like politics and history and cultural history. I don’t watch that much TV but when I do I can’t stop talking about it. I tend to be totally overwhelmed by my life experiences and I flow with them.
But specifically—literature—I majored in English at Michigan. William Blake, William Faulkner, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, Maurice Sendak,–but also TV shows from my childhood, like MASH and MAD magazine.
Photographers and artists—Emmet Gowin, of course Sally Mann, Nicholas Nixon, Michael Apted’s 7 Up Series. I could go on and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Ask me tomorrow and I’ll have a new list.
SR: How long have you been with ASU, and what are some of the classes you teach?
BS: I have been teaching at ASU since 2002—and I teach the range of photo classes from basic photo black and white to the graduate seminar in photography. A few of my specialized classes are Portraiture—which focuses on the meaning and purpose of making pictures of people and a class in Digital Culture which addresses the ways in which digital technology does and doesn’t change the meaning and function of photographs. Some of my areas of concentration are time and the relationship between the still and the moving image, childhood and family, relationships, but also the visceral. I’m interested in why we make pictures and what the result of making pictures is.
SR: What do you enjoy most about teaching in your field?
BS: The energy and ideas from the students and the feedback between what I do, my life, their ideas, their work and my own. I love that I teach something that connects so closely to life and I love that I form strong bonds with the students and that I think I make a difference in their lives; they certainly make a difference in my life.
SR: It seems that much of your subject matter is very personal and very simple, like for example, your children playing. Would you say that your art is a part of your lifestyle?
BS: Yes—its essential. The fluidity between my everyday life and my work is essential to who I am as both a person, a parent, an educator, and an artist. They are all intricately connected. I thrive on connections.
SR: Your Guggenheim project is now drawing to a close. What can you tell us about the experience?
BS: That’s a subject for a long interview. Intense and moving. I’m exhausted right now. Will be finished with taking the photos and interviewing 250 13-year-olds by the end of October. I am exhausted and thrilled and ready to give birth to this work.
Splash of Red is an international online literary arts magazine that publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, art, interviews, and graphic narratives. They have published interviews with many Pulitzer Prize winners, US Poet Laureates, and acclaimed writers as well as some of the top editors and publishers in the country for their Industry Interview Series. What sets these interviews apart from others is that they focus on the readers of the literary magazine, many of whom are writers themselves. The interviews delve into writing processes of the interviewees, editing techniques, and strategies for getting around writer’s block. And the Industry Series investigates the other side of the table that writers rarely get a glimpse into in order to better their odds at getting their work published. But the meat of the publication is the fantastic submissions that come from all over the world.
The name of the publication comes from three inspirations: 1) the infamous red ink in draft after draft to get the best quality writing, 2) the blood and passion that goes into only the most skillfully crafted art, and 3) great work stands out just like a splash of red.
In 2010, Splash of Red organized numerous live events where authors came to speak with audiences for live Q and As. Some of the authors included Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz, famed writer Eleanor Herman, and Daniel Wallace – author of Big Fish, who spoke with eager audience members following a showing of the film based on his novel at a local independent theater. Additionally, the online magazine involved local communities by spearheading a special public mural on the New Jersey boardwalk in Asbury Park. Three artists chose three poems published on the website and created pieces of art inspired by and including those poems which were then painted in multiple large murals across the backdrop of the mid-Atlantic.
Interested fans can follow Splash of Red on Twitter, Facebook, or become a member and get email updates about newly published work and events. One of the things they pride themselves on is creating an online literary arts community where readers can post comments on anything published on the website, submit art inspired by splashes of red for their Red Gallery, and involving members in creative decisions and directions for the publication including suggestions for interviewees.
If you take any one thing away from this blog post, take this: check it out. The website is www.SplashOfRed.net and feel free to peruse, read, comment, and investigate at your own leisure. Make it your own and enjoy!
Matthew Gavin Frank is a contributor for Superstition Review’s Issue 7. In this interview, SR talks to Frank about work and his newest piece, The Morrow Plots.
SR: After so much time spent in the food and wine industry, what inspired you to pursue degrees and careers in writing and poetry?
Matthew Gavin Frank: I loved writing well before I fell into the food and wine industries. I remember—I was about 10—going through my parents’ dresser drawers when they were otherwise occupied. I remember it as a Saturday. My dad was likely working. My mom was likely working-out: one of those Jane Fonda VHS tapes. In one drawer, I found a short essay she wrote about her own father’s death when she was 13. She spent her life teaching grammar—past participles and shit—to 7th graders, but, up until that point, I never knew she wrote. And, she never wrote anything again outside of letters to the editor. So stumbling onto that essay allowed me a richer engagement of my mother as a human being, I think.
Soon after that, I remember (this was 5th grade) collaborating with my friend Ryan Shpritz on a series of gross-out stories. A few years ago, when my wife and I were visiting my family in Chicago, my mom sat us down with these scrapbooks she made when my sister and I were toddlers. In the column that asked for my interests, she wrote, “Ghosts, blood, anything ghoulish.” Fucking blood. According to my own mother, one of my primary interests as a toddler was blood. So my later collaboration with Ryan, on this series of stories called “Death at Dark” (I, II, III, and so on) had its roots in those early interests. Mrs. Buccheim, our teacher—fabulous perm—allowed us to read our work in front of the class each week. She loved that we were writing extracurricularly. Once, in D at D part VI, I think, some poor sap caught his hand in a garbage disposal, and we compared the resulting carnage to a punctured egg yolk. Shannon Elliott, the cheerleader, cried. After that, Mrs. Buccheim, bless her proper heart, put a stop to our public readings. So, I then realized that writing not only had the power to reveal, but the power to get one banned.
This knowledge sort of fed all kinds of ideas about revolt, writerly and otherwise. Soon, I started thinking a lot about food. Growing up in a microwave-and-saturated-fat-centric family, it took me a while realize that the food world was larger than a radiated Lean Cuisine paired with Crystal Light pink lemonade. There was some impetuous revolt growing in me in my late teens in response to the crappy undergraduate meal-plan dinners (if you could call them that) served in Hopkins Hall, where I worked for a while—a very short while—clearing trays and washing dishes. I remember the particular dinner that inspired this culinary rebellion. It was this disaster of Creamed Chipped Beef on Texas Toast. It broke me. I began reading books on food and wine, determined to do better than this, which took a while actually. At some point, I came across an article on Barolo wine and vowed to go to the region where it was made. After a couple days, lazing in the vineyards, eating fresh pasta and white truffles, I vowed to return to live there and, upon returning to the States, trashed my microwave in vulgar ceremony. I thereafter took all sorts of restaurant jobs, and found a common thread: when chefs get together after work for drinks, and one chef asks me what I like to do in my spare time, and I say, “write poetry,” it’s ever a great conversation killer. Eventually, I realized I needed to chat about such things with some like-minded folks.
SR: I have heard some poets say that it is important for young writers to first go out into the world and experience life before writing about it and/or attempting to go into a MFA program. Others insist that the jump straight from undergraduate school to a MFA program is necessary. As someone who left home at age 17, experienced the world young, and returned to academia, what advice would you give to young writers?
MGF: I feel perfectly ill-equipped to give young writers lifestyle advice. There is no prescription for this shit. If you need and want to write, you will need and want to write, whether flipping eggs in an Alaskan diner for a living, or immersing oneself in academia. Folks are always talking about how MFA programs can be ruinous to burgeoning writers, who should first experience the world and gather stories; other folks insist that the training provided by the MFA is not a stylistic evening-out, but is essential to burgeoning writers and that it’s the outside world with its various bankrupt distractions that can be ruinous. So, everything can be ruinous, is the thesis, I think.
I tend to believe that these extremists are giving both the MFA program and the “world-at-large” too much credit. If you want and need to write, I’m not sure either choice has the power to strip that away and ruin you. Everything is situation-specific. The shunning of the academic construct in order to lead a vagabond lifestyle worked for me. That’s what I needed to do. I know incredible writers who never left academia—went straight from undergrad to MFA to PhD to a tenure-track position. That’s what they needed to do. I do think surrendering to whimsy is important, but such whimsy manifests itself in myriad ways for myriad people.
SR: I noticed that comments about your books by poets such as Norman Dubie and Cynthia Hogue are quoted on your website. Did you work with them during your time in the MFA program at ASU and if so how do you feel that they have influenced your writing?
MGF: Yeah, I worked with Norman and Cynthia, also Beckian, Jeannine, Alberto—all of whom were fabulous and influential. I love Norman’s poems for their drama, their characters, their social conscience, generosity of spirit, and their hilarity. I love watching the master of the dramatic monologue do his thing. I love how some of his poems combine the best of PBS’s Nova with the joy inherent in the telling of a fabulously bad joke. Norman once told me: “Dude, all my poems are jokes,” which is, of course, a joke, I think. This has inspired much of my own work. Wrapping joke in verse is hard, but so much fun. I can sense Norman’s joy in writing these poems as I read them. And every so often, Norman drops the veil, and steps, larger-than-life, center-stage. I love these moments, when he breaks the fourth wall. His poem, “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont” is a great example of this. It ends:
In a year the owl will go on a shelf in the shed
Where in thirty years there will be a music box
Containing a lock of hair, her rosaries,
Her birth certificate,
And an impossibly sheer, salmon-pink scarf. What
I want to know of my government is
Doesn’t poverty just fucking break your heart?
Reading this for the first time, I felt like Ronnie Ballenger had just pulled the chair from beneath me at the junior high lunchroom table again, and Kelly Konopka laughed so hard milk came out her nose. I’m similarly disarmed and embarrassed, and delighted. As a poet, it seems Norman could not help himself here. There is a time for restraint in poetry, and a time when restraint should not be part of the poem’s language. Norman understands this. And the result is often an exhilarating, guilty pleasure. The line break after the “What” is essential to this effect, this surprise. In my own work, as a challenge, any time I try to pull off the presence of a booger, or something like it, that’s Norman’s influence.
Cynthia’s work taught me to stay in one place, poetically-speaking, for a while, to allow the poem to become itself. To keep looking at the thing again and again and again—to micro-examine the thing via various contexts and lenses, and then, just when you think you’ve got it, to turn away from the thing, to stare into the opposite direction, and then to describe what you see there. This sort of technique allowed me, in a thematically-linked book like The Morrow Plots especially, a fulcrum to which subsequent poems could attach like burrs, and spin.
SR: Was The Morrow Plots the original title for the poem? And if so, did it come naturally? What made you choose it as the title for the entire collection?
MGF: When I lived in Upstate New York—way up on the Canadian border—during the awful winter, I became obsessed with The Morrow Plots, an experimental cornfield on the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign campus. The local and campus agronomists conduct important crop experiments there, and then disseminate the findings among the U.S.’s farming industry. So, it’s an important square of land, and hallowed ground in downstate Illinois. You do not trespass on the Morrow Plots. The legal and social consequences for such things are dire. The Plots are regionally revered. Yeah: holy, even. I was born in Illinois, and I think I was oddly homesick for the Midwest all the way up there near Canada among the defunct Go-Kart tracks and Shining-esque hedge maze that my wife and I lived behind (the area was a bedroom community for Manhattanite boaters in the summer time, and so had all of these kitschy tourist traps that would go skeletal come winter). Upon researching old newspaper articles from the ’20s and ’30s, I found that the Plots were then known as a popular site for violent crime, or a dumping ground for bodies. And, if some mutilated remains went unclaimed, the University of Illinois would claim them for “experimental purposes.” And now, The Morrow Plots are a National Historical Landmark. So dealing with that discrepancy consumed me for a while. This is a great, if nauseating, way to sink into the comfort of the winter blues. But I was so glad to reemerge after that one. See some light after all the murder. I had to temper a lot of the darkness by reading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s sumptuous At the Drive-in Volcano that winter. So yes, this obsession came naturally, and acted as that fulcrum on which I hung a bunch of murderous Midwestern things.
SR: In The Morrow Plots there is an enchanting set of lines that I am curious about. “…The book opening/to your knees/explodes with border scenes—/skeletal fish becoming women/with piñata faces.” The imagery and the musicality are beautiful. Where did your inspiration for these lines come from?
MGF: Firstly, thank you! When I was long ago an undergraduate at The University of Illinois, I used to sneak into Lincoln Hall at night. I was taking a Biology course from this guy George Kieffer—this wonderful old madman on the cusp of retirement who would run around his lecture stage, waving his hands and screaming about having found dead bodies in the nearby Boneyard Creek. He would triumphantly howl, to his teenage and twentysomething students, “You’re all headed toward Max S [the end stage of entropy], Max S! That’s when you’re dead!”
It was one of those buildings that had locked behind Plexiglas cases all sorts of wrinkled beasts pickled in jars of alcohol. I remember halls of fetal pigs, halls of snakes—both of which are good for poetry, of course.
So I would sneak in there at night, climb to the top floor, exit a window, and sit on the roof’s ledge overlooking the center of campus. Sections of the roof were made of copper and were beginning to green. I would often write up there, read up there by a pocket flashlight. From that vantage, The Morrow Plots were visible. I have this memory—fabricated or real, I can’t tell—of sitting up there, watching the stars or some other youthful romantic shit, with two books open on my lap: a biology textbook, and a glossy book of old Mexican movie posters. One book on each thigh. I’m trying to hold them both open, while also trying to not fall off the roof. The stars. The Plots. In the biology book, I remember some anatomical cross-section of a cod or something. In the second, an image of the second. Honestly, I don’t know if this is true or not, but this memory, when coupled with the violent history of The Morrow Plots, served to inspire this line, and this poem. The poem struggles, I think, to make all of these odd histories gel with the images that attend them. Struggles to deal with the ways in which height and distance both reveal and obscure. And how everything on earth is, of course, magnificent, terrible, and indistinct from a rooftop.
SR: Is there a particular poem or poet that first provided inspiration for your stylistic choices as a writer?
MGF: The poet Mike Madonick was the first poet who taught me that the muse occurs during the writing process, and not beforehand. That, to write a poem, in his words, is like, “[being] a dog let loose in a field, you pick up scents, another dog perhaps, a pheasant, or the quick motion of a grasshopper turns your head, and then your owner calls, you scramble back or you want to run or you just stand there and cock your head, look at him because you’re puzzled about the strange demand he’s put on you, as if he owned you.”
I was lucky enough to have Mike as a teacher, and am lucky enough to have him as a friend. I remember, as an undergrad, I declared a psychology major. Then, I took my very first poetry workshop with Mike, and he said something as simple as, “Poets are fucked-up people, generally,” and I rushed out of class and switched my major to Creative Writing, as if Madonick had given me some sort of permission to be my dumbass self, and to do the dumbass things I wanted to do.
SR: What advice do you have for writers with an interest in travelling and/or cuisine as subject matter for their work?
MGF: Don’t skimp tent-wise. Purchase one that decently blocks out the rain. This is your home for a while. Make it so. Create a little nightstand in the corner with a stack of books you plan on reading, and your notebook. Keep your watch, glasses and lantern on it, each in their own little spot.
Remember how when you were five, the optometrist told your mother in front of you that you’d be blind by age 30. Remember how you used to walk around your parents’ house at night, feeling your way in the darkness, practicing for blindness. Remember bumping into your dad’s collection of antique metal Coca-Cola trays. Remember the loudness. Finger your glasses on that makeshift nightstand in the tent—see in them, and your (however limited) retention of your sight, a lovely Fuck You to that optometrist’s version of fate. Contemplate fate, and other such nebulous things, no further. Go to sleep and dream about pasta.
If camping along the ski valley road in Taos, New Mexico, bring your own toilet paper, lest you want to succumb to the discarded Subway napkins the guy the next site over push-pinned to the pit toilet wall.
When camping in Kruger National Park in South Africa, listen at night to the hippos laughing. Take notes in vocables.
Camp at Wonder Lake in Alaska’s Denali National Park in mid-September. Wake up in the middle of the night to see the aurora borealis dancing pink and green over the mountain. Write a horrible poem about it. Revise it into a better poem, but realize it’s still horrible. Write a new poem. Put an oyster in it.
In a pinch, when preparing ramen noodles over a propane camp-stove, choose the pork flavor; boil the noodles in half-water, half-pineapple juice. Contemplate the illusory makeup of gourmet. Remember: ratio is everything. Two cans of Stagg Chili + one can of Libby’s Corned Beef Hash = tolerable high-calorie meal. One can of Stagg Chili + two cans of Corned Beef Hash = digestive demoralization from the throat on down—this is a ratio that may cause you to abandon your current course, flee the woods, get on the first plane to Paris, and have a vegetarian dinner at L’Arpege. After that, think differently about the tomato.
Meet your spouse in a Latin jazz bar on one island or another—one that you previously defined as fickle. Propose to her at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. Do this realizing that you are surrounded by nuclear test sites. Do this realizing that nearby Arco was the first town in the U.S. to be lit by atomic power. Do this realizing that you are camping on the rocks on which the astronauts practiced for moon landings.
No matter where you are, surrender to the street food, even though it will make you sick.
I am thrilled to announce the launch of Issue 10 of Superstition Review. This marks our 10th semester, our five year anniversary, and a host of new designs and new developments.
This was also the first semester of our new format for the magazine internship program. My job was to manage two groups of interns: a set of trainees enrolled in a 300 level course, and a set of interns enrolled in a 400 level course. Together, all 38 interns this semester contributed to the exciting work and redesign of the magazine. And Graphic Designer Crystal Slater and Web Developer Tyler Kilbourne were an absolutely amazing team to work with on the redesign.
We’re featuring 10 artists, 10 fiction writers, seven interviews, nine nonfiction writers, and 20 poets. The section editors, faculty advisors and I met every week on Skype to discuss the submissions. We were honored to look at so much wonderful work and we really hope you enjoy reading it.
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