“An Essay Needs to be about Exploring”: An Interview with Angela Pelster

4645778215_ce3994b9b0_oAngela Pelster is the author of Limber (Sarabande Books, 2014), for which she won the Great Lakes College Association New Writer Award. This book was first described to me as a “collection of essays about trees,” which is like saying Moby Dick is a book about a whale. Trees may serve as a starting point, or ending point, but her essays roam widely through history, nature, science and the quirky details of our daily lives. Pelster writes from the crossroads of essay, poem, memoir, fable, short story, meditation and prayer—which sounds like a dangerous intersection, but makes Limber a fascinating, compelling book. Pelster is also the author of a children’s novel, The Curious Adventures of India Sophia (River Books, 2005), which received the Golden Eagle Children’s Choice Award. She lives with her family in Baltimore and teaches at Towson University.

The last few sentences in “Mango” describe how I imagine an essay might start for you: “I collect the signs like a doctor tapping on a patient’s body, looking into ears, pressing on a spine, drawing blood from the unseen places. It is difficult to know… when the world will bend and let slide a little secret from its corner.” How does an essay start for you?

Beginning an essay is always a bit of a mystery to me, and so also always a little terrifying since I never know if I will be able to do it again. But one thing that is consistent in each beginning is the uncertainty about what the essay is really trying to say. I can’t write about a subject if I already know what I think about it, or even where I want to get to emotionally in the writing; it needs to be discovered as I go. I always tell my students that if they know what they want their essay to be about, if they feel there is a point they need to make, then they’re writing the wrong essay. An essay needs to be about exploring, about figuring things out; it needs to be about asking a genuine question and sincerely seeking an answer. If any of the essays in Limber work, it’s because they were born out of a real uncertainty.

The rest of my writing practice is probably pretty standard. I despair for awhile that I’ll never write again. I write a few terrible sentences. Then I finally write a nice sentence inside some terrible paragraphs, and I’m off. I find I need to have something, anything, on the screen, before I sit down to actually start a new essay. I’ll type whatever nonsense comes to mind, press enter a few times, and then put my cursor above it in order to have the illusion of a safety net of words beneath me. And then, of course, once it’s all down I revise, revise, revise.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Ampersand Books

imgresFounded by Jason Cook, Ampersand Books is the epitome of publishing in the twenty-first century—brash, fresh, and aggressive. Ampersand, and its imprint Bloody Fine Chapbooks, have moved at a breakneck pace on a shoestring budget to produce a list of books thick with dark wordplay and wry humor. From the haunting (and haunted) poetry chapbook Ear to the Wall by Carrie Causey, to the clever collection When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother by Melissa Broder, to Roberto Montes’ funny and frightening I Don’t Know Do You (just named one of the “best, most original poetry books of the year” by NPR), Ampersand hit the ground running in 2009 and hasn’t looked back. For Ploughshares, Jason Cook divulges a secret or two of Ampersand’s success and what he sees as Ampersand’s place in the literary landscape of the future.

Kate Flaherty: Ampersand’s manuscript submission process—where you only consider manuscripts from authors whose work has appeared in your magazine, Ampersand Review—seems supremely practical. What were the grounds for this process? Does it make Ampersand’s inbox slightly more manageable?

Jason Cook: The inspiration for that process is, essentially, laziness. I knew that if I wound up in a staring match with a stack of unread manuscripts, I’d almost immediately surrender and go play on Facebook for 3 hours. Engaging in a conversation with a writer whose poem or story you just published is a whole different thing than reading yet another query letter, and usually you can give a “nay” or “maybay” before seeing it.

I think it also makes writers feel a little more comfortable about pitching me books that don’t exist yet. I don’t think many indie publishers do that, but I’m having fun shaping these books as they emerge.

KF: While distinctive from one another, Ampersand titles share a certain air of cynicism tinged with nostalgia for a world that never was. Ampersand’s fiction titles are particularly melancholy—for example the wistful snapshots that make up Joseph Riippi’s The Orange Suitcase or the exhausting psychological paralysis of Spencer Dew’s Here Is How It Happens. Explain this Ampersand worldview.

JC: Since the editorial staff is composed of exactly me, I guess that’s just what I like. I like books with a broken heart, but with enough self-awareness to wonder whether it matters.Continue Reading

“Bringing the Poem Back to the Actual”: An Interview with David J. Daniels

rural-jurorDavid J. Daniels writes poems that sneak up on you. Smart and worldly, emotional and funny, they convey a sense of life-as-it’s-lived: culture both high and low, our strivings and failings, the countless ways we let each other down and hold each other up. Because of the immediacy of voice and freshness of language, you might not realize at first that his poems also often rhyme and come to life in sophisticated formal structures. David’s first book, Clean, received the Four Way Books Intro Prize and was recently named a finalist for the 2015 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He is also the author of two chapbooks, Breakfast in the Suburbs and Indecency, both from Seven Kitchens Press. He teaches at the University of Denver.

Matthew Thorburn: Two poems in Clean have postscripts – “Public Indecency” is followed by “The Casserole: a Postscript” and “Letter to Curtis, Dead at Twenty-Four” is followed by “Postscript to Curtis.” I love the idea of a poem having a sequel. Could you talk about how these poems came to be? Did you finish a poem and then feel there really was more to say?

David J. Daniels: Thom Gunn has two adjacent poems in his collection Boss Cupid, “In the Post Office” and “Postscript: The Panel.” The first is an elegy, delivered in second person to the dead, and the second begins fairly directly in prose form: “Reciprocation from the dead. Having finished the post office poem, I decide to take a look at the stained-glass panel it refers to, which Charlie made I would say two years before he died.” There’s a lot I’ve learned from Thom Gunn – his attention to rhyme and syllabics, his mix of high and low dictions, his use of asides – and these poems have lingered with me, the latter providing a commentary and new mode of interior inquiry into the former. I love that! Continue Reading

“It’s All About the Panic”: An Interview with Mary Biddinger

Akron_PostcardMary Biddinger’s poems are poignant, playful, a little mysterious, in love with language, and full of surprising connections: between music and meaning, between memory and imagination, between nostalgia and a yearning for what’s next. I’ve read and admired her poems since we were in the same undergraduate workshops at the University of Michigan twenty years ago. She is now the author of four collections of poetry—most recently A Sunny Place with Adequate Water (2014) and O Holy Insurgency (2013), both from Black Lawrence Press. She teaches at the University of Akron and in the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. She also edits the independent literary magazine Barn Owl Review, which she founded in 2007.

Matthew Thorburn: Deadpan, comic, rueful, weary but maybe a touch hopeful too—there’s a particular tone of voice that makes A Sunny Place with Adequate Water a very cohesive collection. You hear it from the start, with that “adequate water.” Is this something you worked towards as you wrote the poems?

Mary Biddinger: I wouldn’t be exaggerating by saying that tone is everything to me. I remember using a particular manner of voice as a kid, and being told to watch my tone. At that point I realized that words could mean different things, depending on their neighbors, and their inflection. About ten years ago I realized that it was okay for poems to be playful. I’m a naturally goofy person who enjoys pleasant sarcasm. I hope that comes through in my poems. The book is also very much about dualities, and doubling, both the good and wicked versions of ourselves, and voice contributes to this.Continue Reading