“That Swerve that Takes Me Somewhere Else”: An Interview with Rick Barot

Barot_InterviewRick Barot’s poems are assured, finely composed structures in which memory and emotion often take startling, deeply moving turns. He is the author of three books of poems, including The Darker Fall and Want. Rick was born in the Philippines, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now lives in Tacoma, Washington. He teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, where he directs The Rainier Writing Workshop. Recently I caught up with Rick via email to talk about his new book, Chord.

Matthew Thorburn: Chord seems very carefully arranged so that adjacent poems speak to each other, and so that different family stories and personal narratives are gradually woven together into a larger whole. How did you go about putting your poems together as a book? Is this a process that changes for you, from book to book?

imageRick Barot: The arrangement of Chord happened well after I’d finished writing the poems for the book. The poems were written over a span of about eight years, and during that time I didn’t have a sense of an overall theme that the poems were contributing to. I just wrote the poems. Some felt personal. Some felt polemical. I didn’t want to spend any time thinking about what the poems were and how they related to each other. I liked being surprised by what came up. My previous book, Want, had been a kind of project book. When I started it I had a clear sense of it in mind, and in the three years I wrote the poems of that book, I adhered to the theme. That experience taught me that I didn’t want to be that constrained in my next book. Until I had the poems in Chord spread out on my living room floor and I went through the process of moving things around and taking things out, I didn’t know that the book would be anything but a miscellaneous gathering of poems. In fact, to me it still feels like a miscellaneous gathering, even though I know it’s informed by recurring ideas and preoccupations.

MT: The opening poem, “Tarp,” is a wonderful example of something I especially admire in your work: the way you can start a poem with something from everyday life, something as seemingly unremarkable and harmless as a tarp, and then suddenly we find you’re writing about something much darker and closer to the heart. Would you talk about how a poem starts for you—and how you started writing this particular poem?Continue Reading

“Slipperiness of Signification”: An Interview with Lee Ann Roripaugh


In her most recent book, Dandarians (Milkweed, 2014), Lee Ann Roripaugh writes in the borderland between poetry and prose, blurring boundaries and finding the unfamiliar music in everyday language. She is also the author of three previous books of poetry, including Year of the Snake, which won the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose, and Beyond Heart Mountain, a winner of the National Poetry Series. Lee teaches at the University of South Dakota, where she directs the creative writing program and serves as editor-in-chief of South Dakota Review. We recently caught up via email to talk about Dandarians, the fascinating ways in which poetry and prose can overlap, and life as a state poet laureate. 

Matthew Thorburn: Dandarians describes and reflects on a difficult and painful personal history with candor, sensitivity, careful yet surprising language, and sometimes humor. How did this book come to be? Did you conceive of it as a larger project from the outset, or did it come into focus as you were writing the poems?

Lee Ann Roripaugh: For me, Dandarians is in so many ways a book about language: language as communication and miscommunication, language as signal and code, as biosemiotics, as conduit, as electrical current, as currency, as impossible possibility, and perhaps, ultimately, as yearning. And so I suppose the book originated from this place of language as yearning. I was reading up on semiotics and biosemiotics and thinking about desire for connection, desire to write one’s way between self and other, as well as desire to read/make meaning.

I began working on prose poems that were attempting to articulate or explore these themes (a form of meta-yearning, perhaps?) when I realized that the lyric flash essays I’d been working on about betrayals of language—liminal, hybrid words miscommunicated to me from my Japanese mother—with all of their emotional and connotative resonances, with all of their slipperiness of signification, as well as all of their transgressive danger and potential, formed a sort of autobiographical ground zero for these explorations, and that’s when I knew that these essays would form the spine and nervous system of this particular book.Continue Reading

Far Beyond the Pale in 1970’s Missouri: A Tiny Interview With Daren Dean


Daren Dean’s novel, Far Beyond the Pale, explores masculinity, religion, and delinquency in a coming of age story set in rural 1970’s Missouri. The novel follows Honeyboy who has moved back to Kingdom County, Missouri along with his mother following a stint in California. They return, in part, to leave their baggage in California behind but when Honeyboy falls under the tutelage of Vaughn, an outlaw, he finds himself strongly within the grasp of a man whose orbit he can’t escape.

Part of what drew me into Dean’s book was the premise itself though the writing is something else to behold. Every line dazzles. Every sentence feels perfectly in sync with the next one and then the next. There’s something almost hypnotic about the way Dean’s characters speak—especially the narrator, Honeyboy. I talk with Dean about the cadence of 1970’s Missouri slang, delinquents, and his thoughts on politics in the American heartland amidst the 2016 U.S. Presidential race.

Daniel Peña: I want to begin with the title of your newest novel, Far Beyond the Pale, which alludes to a passage in Cormac McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper. What is it about that novel that resonates with you?

Daren Dean: I knew that the core of this story was going to be about rural people who were part of society but were rebelling against it at the same time. I was reading a great deal of Daniel Woodrell, Larry Brown, Mark Twain, and Cormac McCarthy at the time. I knew that this idea of being beyond the pale captured the outlaw spirit of the character, Vaughn, but also the popular narrative about Missouri itself. There was a time in the late nineteenth century when Missouri itself was known as “The Outlaw State” due to the activities of Jesse and Frank James, The Youngers, and others. The phrase “beyond the pale” dates back centuries when Ireland was under English rule and was delineated by a boundary made of fences or palings. To travel “beyond the pale” meant to leave behind the rules of civilization. Vaughn is a rebel in the more contemporary sense. He fought in Vietnam. He felt betrayed by the government but I don’t attempt to make him a sympathetic character because of his background or even go into that. I like the objective approach that McCarthy uses in his narratives or Larry Brown for that matter. My feeling at the time of writing the novel was not to be whispering to the reader and telling them how to feel.Continue Reading

“Another Way to Honor the Book”: An Interview with Odette Drapeau

33-Lettres à un jeune poète

Bookbinder Odette Drapeau has been internationally honored for her modern and dynamic approach to what is often considered a traditional craft. To Drapeau, the book is both “a visual and tactile object where the container and content can connect to generate other visions.” While continually experimenting with new concepts that transform her practice, Drapeau also remains committed to what she calls the true nature of the book—being easy to use and inviting to read. Her professional career spans more than 40 years, from her early studies under book-gilding specialists in Paris and Montreal, to her most recent solo exhibitions at the Lower Saint Lawrence Museum in Québec and Historical Library of the City of Paris. Drapeau is a native of Montreal, where she lives and works.

Lara Palmquist: I first encountered your art through this year’s Nobel Museum Book Binding Exhibition, where your bindings of books by recent laureates Mo Yan and Alice Munro are currently on display. Can you talk about your process and goals in creating these two works?

Odette Drapeau: The Swedish Bookbinders Guild celebrated Nobel Prize-winners Alice Munro (2013) and Mo Yan (2012) at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm by inviting bookbinders from China, Canada, and Sweden to participate with titles from these two remarkable authors.

I felt at home with Alice Munro’s great sensitivity and intense femininity. Creating a “back to back” binding of Runaway allowed me to join the English version to the French translation, choosing white leather for the French and pink for the English. I wanted to unify those books while making them distinctive. Mo Yan’s writing also captivated me—reading his work was a pleasant discovery. Because the meaning of color is very important in China, I chose red and orange to bind a French translation of his two stories “Le veau” (The Calf) and “Le Coureur de Fond” (The Distance Runner); those colors bring luck and happiness.

LP: As a bookbinder dedicated to continually pushing the boundaries of your artistic practice, you have engaged with several unusual materials, including marine leather. What first inspired your interest in fish, ray, and eel skin, and how do these materials continue to inform your work?

OD: I have been dedicated to marine leather for more than thirty years. My discovery of fish leathers— tanned in Gaspésie, Québec—emerged as a lever to unlock change. Suddenly, I had a new medium to work with, a flexible and durable material offering rich natural colors, inviting textures, and varied shades. These new elements enabled me to begin creating original bindings in arrangements comparable to pictorial works without sacrificing the 3D structural contribution of the classic binding.Continue Reading

An Interview with Jennine Capo Crucet

jennine capo crucet

I first met Jennine on the dance floor in a barn on a summer night at Breadloaf. Or at least I like to remember it that way. She’s an electric person, both in the flesh and on the page. She says the unexpected, and also the uncomfortable and necessary. She’s equal parts funny and fearless, irreverent and brilliant. Our interview, below:

MMB: I think of you as a writer who addresses the specific impact a place has on the human experience and shaping of self, but in a way that feels fresh and contemporary. In your first collection, How to Leave Hialeah, Charles Baxter praised you for writing a book that starts “with Cuban American neighborhoods and cultures and then sails off into the direction of the great themes: love, familial bonds, aging, and death. And resurrection.”

Your latest novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, concerns the daughter of two Cuban immigrants, and one who chooses to leave Miami for a more privileged college environment. What do you make of the current dialogue in America on immigration, and how does this fuel your current work, if at all?

JCC: My family bought into the American Dream rhetoric in a pretty hardcore way. ​I was raised to think of this country as the best one on the planet specifically because it welcomed my family and gave them opportunities for a better life. I mean, my parents named me Jennine after the Miss America runner up the year I was born (though spelled differently, I think)—so it goes that deep for them. As I got older, naturally my own ideas about this country grew more complicated, particularly around the issues of immigration. I think what’s most disappointing for me about our current dialogue is how quickly the conversation dehumanizes the people these policies impact. And I thought about that a lot while writing Make Your Home Among Strangers: I wanted the book show how a larger national conversation impacts one person&mdashhow these policies eventually come to shape who we are and how we move through our communities. And what I thought about the most as I wrote certain scenes—namely the ones about the fictionalized version of Elian Gonzalez—was how little things have changed in the last fifteen years, how we’re still using the same broken system, how very disappointing that is.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Autumn House Press

autumn press

Autumn House Press was formed in Pittsburgh by poet Michael Simms in 1998, just as commercial and scholarly presses were responding to economic woes by slashing budgets and shrinking lists, abandoning established poets along the way. Autumn House made a name for itself by publishing an impressive roster of notable poets, including Gerald Stern, Ada Limon, Ellery Akers, Chana Bloch, Richard Jackson, Ed Ochester, Frank Gaspar, and Andrea Hollander. In 2008, the press expanded into fiction and in 2010 began publishing nonfiction; the press also is known for its influential contemporary anthologies.

In June 2015 after several years of training his replacements, Simms turned over the running of Autumn House to Christine Stroud, who selects, edits, and promotes new releases, and Alison Taverna, who manages business affairs. Simms continues as president of Autumn House, but his role is primarily that of mentor and advisor to the staff.

Autumn House’s most recent books include Twin of Blackness by Clifford Thompson, a terrific memoir in which the author, born in 1963, recounts his upbringing in a lower-middle-class black Washington D.C. neighborhood alongside his “twin”: “I feel toward blackness the way one might toward a twin. I love it, and in a pinch I defend it; I resent the baggage that comes with it; I have been made to feel afraid of not measuring up to it; I am identified with it whether I want to be or not—and never more than when I assert an identity independent of it.”

Other new titles are Our Portion: New and Selected Poems by Philip Terman, recently excerpted on Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, and So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village, Jill Kandel’s quiet and candid memoir of moving to a remote part of Zambia as a newlywed in the early 1980s.

Autumn House primarily accepts book-length poetry, fiction, and nonfiction submissions through its three annual contests, which award publication and a $2,500 prize in each genre. Through its online imprint, Coal Hill Review, Autumn House also sponsors a yearly chapbook contest in poetry whose deadline of November 1 is quickly approaching.

For the Ploughshares blog, Autumn House founder Michael Simms shares more about Autumn House’s history, aesthetic, and outlook, and he discusses Vox Populi, his new publishing venture.

Kate Flaherty: Autumn House initially published only poetry. What prompted the addition of fiction and nonfiction? How has the press evolved as you’ve expanded?

Michael Simms: Our fiction and nonfiction initiatives came about as a result of natural growth in our community. My former colleague Sharon Dilworth, who had been the fiction editor at Carnegie Mellon University Press for ten years, put forward some interesting ideas about book projects she wanted to work on and she brought considerable talent and a wide network of authors, including Stewart O’Nan and Kathleen George. Later, Phillip Lopate encouraged us to start a nonfiction line, and he agreed to judge our nonfiction contest for the first couple of years.Continue Reading

“It’s A Bit Mysterious, and I Like That”: An Interview with Frank X. Gaspar

2381600190_347912351c_zFrank X. Gaspar writes poems that are lyrical, powered by swift associations, and full of surprising images and leaps in thought that in retrospect make perfect sense. He is the author of five collections of poems, including Late Rapturous and The Holyoke, as well as two novels, most recently Stealing Fatima. Frank was born and raised in the old Portuguese West End of Provincetown, Massachusetts. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Pacific University, Oregon. We recently caught up via email to talk about Late Rapturous, the strange ways in which a poem can start, and the differences between writing poetry and fiction. 

Matthew Thorburn: Late Rapturous is composed of prose poems as well as poems in long lines that sometimes seem on the verge of becoming prose poems. Would you talk about how it feels to you writing prose poems versus lineated poems? Do the two offer different possibilities or challenges?

Frank X. Gaspar: Interesting that you ask that. I don’t feel any difference in the process; it seems more a matter of how my mind is working at the time. I pay as much attention to sound in the long-lined poems as I do with poems having more traditional line breaks—a lot of attention, actually—but without the line breaks to perhaps reinforce the sound with the eye, the prose poems might not announce their accentual nature.Continue Reading

“This World and the World Just Beyond It”: An Interview with Brynn Saito

Hong Kong Apartment Building

Brynn Saito’s poems are lyrical, sometimes mystical, dream-like yet also grounded in what feels like lived life. Her debut book, The Palace of Contemplating Departure, is marked by a striking voice that sounds both of this world and as if it comes from somewhere far above it. With Traci Brimhall, she also co-authored the chapbook Bright Power, Dark Peace. Brynn lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she directs the Center for Spiritual Life and teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Matthew Thorburn: The distinctive, dream-like voice in these poems hit me right from the first line of the opening poem: According to Theresa I was born from a wolf.Is this something you were conscious of or worked toward as you wrote the poems?

Brynn Saito: I wasn’t conscious of working on those registers—the grounded and the mystical—but both are surely there. I was raised within the Japanese Buddhist and Christian communities—a strange and dynamic spiritual brew!—and those cultural contexts imprinted my orientation to The Word and The World in powerful and unnamable ways. Incidentally, I had just seen Kiki Smith’s Rapture—a sculpture in which a woman rises naked from the body of a wolf—when I wrote the first line of the first poem. I love her piece for the way it concretely manifests the mythic and glosses it with an allusion to the biblical. “Try to praise the mutilated world,” writes Adam Zagajewski. I want to know how to praise (how to know, through poetry) this world and the world just beyond it.Continue Reading

“Digging out weapons in the arsenal of language” : An Interview with Meena Kandasamy

14011389075562meenakanthaswamiMeena Kandasamy is a writer based in India and London. She writes poetry and fiction, translates, and often uses social media to discuss issues of social justice. She describes her own work as maintaining “a focus on caste annihilation, linguistic identity and feminism.” She has published two collections of poetry: Touch and Ms Militancy. Her first novel, The Gypsy Goddess, was published by Atlantic Books (UK) and HarperCollins India in 2014.

The focus of this interview is a collection titled #ThisPoemWillProvokeYou. Kandasamy’s poems, as the title suggests, often rely on a direct relationship with the reader. In this interview, we discuss language, protest, translation, and the role of the poet in the world. 

John Rufo: Your newest chapbook, #ThisPoemWillProvokeYou, features a bifurcation: two sections, the first titled “Love” and the second titled “War.” Could you speak a bit about the inability of language(s) to successfully communicate and/or deconstruct, to commit war and to commit love? I love the poems because you use them to speak of things that don’t exist—or don’t exist yet—and do this incredible act of pointing, accusing, undermining the status quo, flipping off the crimes and situations permeating everywhere today through gang-rape, discrimination towards Dalits, and the loss of lives.

Meena Kandasamy: I do believe that languages are biased, fucked-up structures, clearly reflecting a lot of the status quo, reflecting the inequalities and very often reinforcing them. This does not mean that language does not contain the potential for revolution, or to serve as a call to arms. I’m with Toni Cade Bambara (who, to paraphrase very wildly) once said: “The role of the radical artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” I think language can be used to mask grave crimes (the language of United Nations reports, for instance), or to send across stereotypes, or even sometimes to denude us of all feeling, all outrage. Capitalism does this successfully—using happiness and beauty to sell—and to extend its interests without worrying about the imbalance and inequality. I think this one reason why the role of a poet becomes important—you are not only saying things but you are also digging out the weapons in the arsenal of language, you are reclaiming love, you are celebrating beauty.Continue Reading

At Some Point The Writer Should Be Having Fun: An Interview With Arthur Bradford


An incomplete list of the animals that appear in Arthur Bradford’s latest collection Turtleface and Beyond include a dead cat, a porcupine that menaces a recluse’s outhouse, a dog liberated from the pound, and the eponymous turtle, of face fame. Besides Turtleface, which came out in February, Bradford is the author of the very funny short story collection, Dogwalker. We emailed recently about Denis Johnson, loser lit, and keeping it reigned in.

I’m sure you get this one a lot, but I see some Denis Johnson in this collection. The main character being named Georgie of course recalls Jesus’ Son, as does the story “Orderly” about, well, an orderly.

But I’m thinking more of the deadpan quality of this exchange from “Emergency”:

“Georgie’s in O.R.,” Nurse said.
“No,” Nurse said. “Still.”
“Still? Doing what?”
“Cleaning the floor.”
“No,” Nurse said again. “Still.”

That’s pretty perfect&mdashed;some of the best dialogue in fiction writing, I think. The dialogue in Turtleface and Beyond has a similar feel. In interviews you’ve described Johnson as a hero of yours. Could you talk a little bit about how his writing has contributed to shaping your own?

Yes, Denis Johnson has been a big influence on me. When I first read Jesus’ Son, back in the 90’s when it came out, I had that same feeling I sometimes experience upon hearing a new song or seeing new film that touches on the current culture in a fresh and exciting way. It was so original and cool. It made me want to to try to do something like that myself. I admire the simplicity, humor, and grace of those stories. Later on, while I was an MFA student at University of Texas, Denis Johnson showed up to teach a fiction workshop. It was a total coincidence. I would’ve traveled anywhere for the opportunity to take a class with him, and here he was becoming a writer in residence at the school I was already at. He is a very inspiring and generous person. He didn’t seem to put much stock in the notion that writing can be taught, which is a funny position for a writing teacher to take, but I understood what he meant. Denis drove around Austin in this giant red Cadillac convertible that he tried to sell to me when the term ended. He said he though I could pull off owning a car like that. I wasn’t so sure, but I liked that he thought I could. Or maybe that was just a line he used to try to unload it. I didn’t buy that car, though sometimes I wish I did. Denis helped me get a job working on the film adaptation of Jesus’ Son. If you watch the credit roll my name is the last one to go by.Continue Reading