My interview with Matthew Ferrence, author of APPALACHIA NORTH: A MEMOIR

For a blog focused on the idea of place in all the stories we tell, I can’t think of a better person to talk to today. I met author and professor, Matthew Ferrence, at a writers conference in the spring, where I picked up his memoir, Appalachia North — the first book-length treatment of the cultural position of Northern Appalachia.

Matthew and I are from similar places. But more than a book of essays exploring geology and place, Appalachia North is a very personal memoir that allows the reader to journey alongside the writer as he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. From the book jacket:

Appalachia North is an investigation of how the labels of Appalachia have been drawn and written, and also a reckoning with how a body always in recovery can, like a region viewed always as a site of extraction, find new territories of growth.

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Matthew, how did you come to write this book?

I wrote through a somewhat circuitous path for Appalachia North. The project began with a rejection, for a collection of essays I’d been working on for some time. But that opened up a conversation with Andrew Berzanskis, who was then editor-at-large for WVU Press (he’s now a senior acquisitions editor at the University of Washington Press), and a contract to write a book about northern Appalachia. While we both knew this was to take the form of a memoir, what we didn’t know is that I was going to be banging on the keys and finding some dreadful resistance. I’d recently finished treatments for my brain tumor, and I wrote an essay called “The Foxes of Prince Edward Island,” which was all about that. And I knew that I really wanted to write about recovery and brains and foxes.

So, one day I just decided that I’d do both, and see what happened if I tried to simultaneously write the book I had a contract for, and the book that was gnawing at me, somehow as one book. With that, the writing started to open up, and I began to see the connections between geography and self, between recovered bodies and recovered regions, of how erosion could function as a reframing metaphor of beauty and hope. Then, draft done, I had to tell Andrew. Who, much to his credit, looked at this new book he hadn’t bargained for, saw what it could be, pushed me to revise toward directions I’d neglected, and Appalachia North came into form.

I love the idea of mapping — both of your native geography and (the native geography) of your body. Could you describe the process by which you came to “see” the terrain of your journey enough to write it?

Mapping as a literal act came with the earliest versions of the book, that I would seek out the corners of the official parts of Appalachia north of the Mason Dixon line, to sort of survey and consider the delineations. As I did that, I was surprised by the recurring mutability of the lines that seem so permanent on an actual map. Most of all, I was struck by how the three counties of northeastern Ohio included in the official Appalachian Regional Commission map were late entries, “becoming” Appalachia forty-some years after the ARC put out its first map. So I became preoccupied with thinking about ways that map lines just don’t work. That connected with my figurative sense of self as an Appalachian exiled by birth, simply by the fate of being from Pennsylvania instead of the parts that usually count as Appalachia. This has bugged me for a long time.

For the body, I experienced the way clinical treatment exiles a person from a sense of self, because your body becomes defined by blood test numbers, and MRI scans, and radiation beam coordinates. Your sense of self becomes a cartography of medical rationality, and that makes you feel, well, not yourself really. You get lost the more you’re mapped. Somewhere in that irony, you start to get a sense that you’re tired of letting other people draw the maps.

Get Matthew’s memoir here!

In your essay, “Conduits,” you discuss those who make geographical maps — generally, those people in power. By writing about place, you do feel you’re map-making? Do you see this as a way to wrest some control over your native place?

For sure. Like, just the other day, a colleague was saying they didn’t really agree with my “claims” that Pennsylvania is part of Appalachia, because they spent a lot of time in “real” Appalachia in the North Carolina mountains. I was sort of stunned, frankly, because even the official maps back me up on this one! But at the same time, this is the tyranny of cartography: that people can draw lines for whatever reason they want. Money. Politics. Taxes. On and on. And there was some weird power exercised here in this very moment, about who gets to actually lay claim to the definition of a region…and in this case, as is often the case, the person making the definitive claim was not from the region and “correcting” someone from the region. We don’t even get to draw maps of our own places.

Yet the terrain — I love that word! — just doesn’t care. Trees grow. Dirt erodes. Mountains emerge. When you’re walking in the woods on many borders so clear on a map, you really can’t tell where the line is, since terrain is fluid. Really, there is no line. So in looking around at places on the ground where the lines are supposed to be, I started thinking a lot about all the lines that people try to place on our lives: healthy and not, for one, or legit Appalachian or not. Maybe because I’m on the “wrong” side of both of those lines, I became determined to refuse the lines altogether.

You challenge the conventions of regional dialect in one of your essays. As in, we’re supposed to say “Appalachia” a certain way — to prove we’re an insider in the region. Why this struggle for Appalachian authenticity, do you think? Why does it remain a region so intent on staying true to its roots? What does it mean for you?

I get the hard and fast claims for rightness in saying App-uh-latch-a, because lots of people have been made to feel small and unimportant for being themselves. Authenticity — including accent — becomes a way to fight for your own sense of worth. So on one hand I totally root for that, and I kind of relish the way Appalachians can smack down the folks who don’t know anything about the region. But at the same time, well, I don’t want to be kicked out of where I’m from. That’s the trouble of the northern part, for sure. We can feel sort of absent. Another one of my pet peeves: all sorts of people (again, who are not from here) keep telling me this is the Midwest. And I’m always thinking, fuck off on your Midwest. They’ll make some claim about jello salads or politeness, but it all comes with this sense of diminishment. Because they usually mean this in the context of explaining either how they’re from more sophisticated spaces not the Midwest, or as a way to deepen their disdain for northern Appalachia by refusing to even acknowledge it as being a place with its own claim to regionality.

I want to be clear, I don’t mean this to disparage the Midwest, but very much to defend how places like it, and like Appalachia, have to stick up for themselves as legitimate locales, as distinctive and meaningful, because everyone basically says over and over, fly-over country. So, on pronunciations, I love the variance of Appalachia, which has a whole spectrum of pronunciations, which is another way of saying it’s a place of vibrancy and nuance. I’m not going to give away my corner of that, so I’ve become comfortable using both the soft and hard vowels, but will still totally make fun of someone from outside the region who pronounces it wrong. The nice thing is, I can make fun of them no matter what they say. Cruel, I suppose.

In your memoir’s preface, you say, “So many writers…seek to make a declaration: this is what a place is.” You, like a good essayist, seem to be happier delving into the ambiguities of place. You also seek to reclaim your native place for the next generation — your own kids among them. How do you do this without defining that place?

Yes! This is what we love, I think, ambiguity and gray edges and journeys. I say this a bit cheekily: essayists love to squirm away from anything declarative, relish the provisional, even as we love to make big claims…which we then overturn and twist and turn inside out. On the matter of place, the big thing to me is that it matters, but when a place seems to carry rigid definitions — Trump Country, Red States, Fly-Over, all that — such restrictions wind up wrecking a place. That’s when we become totemic monoliths or, really, tools. So, for me and for my kids, I long for a vibrant connection to terrain and geography, with a sense that what a place means can also evolve and contradict and carry the fluidity the essayist loves. I want my kids to love a place, but I want them to be able to live in it with a sense of reciprocal love. I’m frustrated and angry, these days, by how places redouble their restrictive sense of who counts, who looks or loves or behaves the “right” way. That’s the wreckage of definition, as it crushes back to stereotype and turfiness and xenophobia and trope. Ambiguity, I think, invites inclusion and expansiveness. Because we can’t say this instead of that.

The language of geography and of the body — especially around medicine — can get really technical; yet, you do a lovely job of softening both of these languages. Instead of unapproachable moments of medical jargon, you note the moments of “mercy” between you and our doctors. You call it: “The precise language of medicine facing off against my growing recognition of life.” Yet, as a writer, language is your tool. Did it ever feel useless? Did you ever think, I don’t know how to write about what’s happening to my body in my language?

The veer to the metaphorical helps, for me at least. The peripheral look, the askance view, the detailed description of some concrete object that suddenly emerges with a new dimension of meaning, well for me, that’s how language becomes the only way to make sense of the ineffable. The biggest example is my recognition of the geology of my home, that it’s a dissected plateau instead of a worn out mountain. My Dad filled me in on that, part way through the writing, and it was a literal geological process that changed everything for me, metaphorically. Suddenly, I could see the post-surgical me in a different way, not as something grand that is now worn out and wrecked, but something shaping into a new form that can carry its own beauty. The metaphor was everything. On the flip side, cliché strikes me as the enemy of health writing, because it’s almost all you get from people when you’re ill. Directness felt better, on the page, that this happened and that happened. Combining the direct with the cascading metaphors helped me use language very much as the tool for narrative recovery.

In your essay, “The Molt,” you compare your emotional state, traversing your medical condition, to molting, as an animal does. Through your sickness you waited for “the hardening,” for a new shell, as it were, to help you bear up. Yet, the best writing, I believe, comes from exploring those times before the hardening, don’t you think?

I agree. Totally! I guess the hardening is the lived desire, that you just want things to stop being difficult, to end, maybe to stop feeling, at least for a little bit. Because things are so difficult. But, no, the hardening is a false desire, because actually developing it would be catastrophic. Maybe the essayist’s stance is to write about the moments when hardening fails and, more so, to write as an act of resisting hardening. Writing softens us up, so we can actually find the substance.

What’s your favorite thing to teach students in your college courses — about nonfiction writing and about Appalachian Studies?

About Appalachia, it’s pretty much always a combo of you’re in it and you are it. Up here in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, there aren’t a lot of people who actively think about themselves as Appalachians, nor who have had any reason to think deeply about the region. Yet close to half of our students are from places that are literally in Appalachia. I love the immediate shake-up that provides, which I shared. First you think, that can’t be right. Then something like, but I’m not… And then, …but wait I am. So what we all think about Appalachia is…not accurate!

That moment of recognition and depth is what I love most about nonfiction itself, that we find new avenues constantly, so long as we cultivate a practice of curiosity and attention.

I love helping students unlock the potential in two disparate personal narratives, or figuring out how oblique research can deepen a complicated narrative line. Most of all, I love getting to spend time with a group of students all committed to the deep reflection of the world we walk around in. And language. Maybe this is really the best part: helping students understand the power of the lyric sentence, how the gestures of poetry and art, applied to real experience, yield the best nonfiction.

In thinking about your take on place, I learned that you’re taking a run at the PA House in 2020. In what ways did your writing get you to this decision?

Without a doubt, part of the motivation stems from writing books that have allowed me to dive deeply into how my home turf has been used and exploited by politics. That’s part of the framing of my candidacy, in fact, that there are stories that we tell ourselves over and over again that never turn out well for us. So let’s write new ones. The incumbent, as well, has not been, shall we say, a friend of the arts during his decade-and-a-half in office. My rallying cry, I suppose, came from his remarks suggesting that the state shouldn’t give student aid to people majoring in “poetry or other pre-Walmart majors.” Well now. Hmmm. That didn’t sit with me. Even if we want to stay in the spheres of practicality and economic policy, the arts sector is huge, and can have a tremendously positive impact on rural areas like ours. And at the same time, I long for a politics that doesn’t limit its vision to the spreadsheet. Politics is about people, in fact is the people. We talk about vision in politics, but we rarely see candidates who want to run on creativity and possibility.

I’d say the brain tumor factors in here, too: for one thing, I saw first hand what it means to get sick and suddenly see how expensive staying alive is. I was lucky, because of my insurance. Many other people would be bankrupt now, if they’d faced what I did. That’s not right. Then, existentially, I’m tired of living in a world attenuated by the small-minded nightmares of regressive politicians. Part of the after-effect of having a brain tumor is the relative ease at which I find myself saying, fuck it, and doing the thing that matters to me that’s the sort of thing we all have a tendency to be afraid to undertake. Running for office is that. I refuse to leave Appalachia to the troglodytes. The national narrative tells us that’s who we all are, and we most definitely are not. I want to stand up and write it differently.

What’s next for your writing? What should readers look out for?

I have two projects I’m wrestling with right now, each in very early stages. One is fiction, which is taking shape as either a novel or a collection of linked stories. Appalachian. Eco-futurist. Focusing on the possible presence of magical creatures in nighttimes threatened by a radical growth in light pollution. The other is an essay project, more or less the writing of a Catholic Mass, to address the ways I am simultaneously deeply lapsed from the Church yet unable to shake the feeling of mystical deep spirituality I find within it. In both projects, I’m trying to find a way to toggle toward radical beauty, to write of dark things but with gratitude and joy. I’m thinking of Ross Gay’s work in both poetry and nonfiction here, and how moving I find his devotion to that serious artistic stance. More and more, I find myself wanting to write toward hope and goodness, particularly as the world churning around us seems to only call us to critique, which is vital, but also wearying. Art helps us imagine new futures, and I long to imagine my way toward hopeful ones even when most of what we see suggests dystopia as our fate. Maybe we can write a better future into being.

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Matthew Ferrence lives and writes at the confluence of Appalachia. He is the author of Appalachia North: a memoir and All-American Redneck, a well as numerous essays published in North American literary journals. He teaches creative writing at Allegheny College and in 2020 is vying for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, representing Crawford and Erie Counties.

Find him here:
www.matthewferrence.com
www.electferrence.com
@mjferrence on twitter
canappalachia on Instagram

My interview with award-winning poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis

I’ve developed a love affair with poetry this year. So, I found Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ poetry collection, HAINT, at just the right time. I met the author at a recent literary conference and was delighted to discover that she too grew up in Northeast Ohio. Names and images of our home set the stage in her poems of childhood, such as “East 149th Street (Symphony for a Black Girl)” and “Akron at Night,” but many more of her poems present a powerful universal ode to girlhood, adolescence, and adulthood as a woman seeking love. Poet Ross Gay, another Northeast Ohio native, said of HAINT, “Although heartbreak is the origin of so many of these poems, it’s love that makes them go. Love to which they plead and aspire and pray.”

Teri was kind and generous enough to tell me more about what makes her poetry–and life–“go.”

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My interview with photographer and author Johnny Joo

I’m so thrilled to present this interview with Johnny Joo, a fellow Northeast Ohio native, whose photography* I’ve featured at the blog before. But this time, we get the stories behind the lens…

Johnny Joo is an internationally accredited artist, most notably recognized for his photography of abandoned architecture and surrealistic digital compositions. Growing up sandwiched between the urban cityscape of Cleveland and boundless fields of rural Northeast Ohio provided Johnny with a front row ticket to a specialized cycle of abandonment, destruction, and nature’s reclamation of countless structures. Since he started, his art has expanded, including the publication of four books, music, spoken word poetry, art installations, and videography.

Johnny, how did you first get into photography–and abandonment photography in particular?

I was an art student in high school, and photography was another art class I could take, so I took it to fill space with as much art stuff as I could–not thinking that I would like it as much as I did. I got super interested in the whole science behind it and being able to capture a moment in time that would not happen again. For one of the first projects, I photographed some empty rooms in the high school, and also photographed an old farm house. It reminded me of Silent Hill and other horror games and movies I enjoyed.

I thought it was a great subject for photos, and I loved the way nature wore it down to create something so dark and eerie, yet calm and beautiful. That’s the film photo of the empty class room [above]. I gave the rest of my film and binder to my photography teacher, so I don’t have anything else, but I did keep my favorite photo–and it’s the first photo I developed successfully.

I just kept photographing any abandoned or creepy historic place I could find (along with EVERYTHING else) and started sifting through papers in some of the old buildings and found so much history left behind.

I thought it was interesting to piece a life and history together–being able to know so much without ever having known any of the people beforehand.

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My interview with author, poet, and publisher Larry Smith

When I first met Larry Smith in Ohio, he was sporting a Cleveland Browns cap–not an unusual fashion choice for a sports venue or bar, but we were at a literary conference. From this first impression, I could sense two things: the cap wasn’t ironical and Larry was my kind of literary people.

As it turns out, the Ohio-based author, poet, and director of Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing and I have much more in common than rooting for the home team. There’s an abiding sense of creative responsibility, a promise to tell our own stories, that comes with hailing from a place like ours. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Larry and I try to make good on that promise. Larry has definitely made good on his.

This National Poetry Month of April, Larry was also gracious enough to take the time to answer over email my questions–about the writing life and what it means to publish poems and stories rooted in place. “There is always some blurring of identity here,” says Larry, “between Larry Smith and Bottom Dog Press.”

Though much of my life is Bottom Dog Press, my life extends beyond that, and Bottom Dog Press is more than I am, too, it’s over 210 books and about 500 authors.

Let’s learn more…

Larry, how did growing up in the Rust Belt, specifically an Ohio mill town, affect your writing sensibilities and choices?

Well, this goes to the heart of it and of myself. You can’t take out of me the Ohio Valley and the working-class world I grew up in. I was nurtured on that life and those values of hard work and character, of family and neighborhood, of just accepting and caring for each other. I write from who I am, and though I worked as a college professor and live in a middle class neighborhood now, I am still that kid getting up to deliver morning papers and watch my father pack his lunch for work on the railroad.

Your education had a major impact on your life’s direction. In your memoir, you recall that your 6th grade Friday Poetry Day, under the direction of your teacher, Mrs. Merzi, was when you discovered poets, such as Dickinson, Frost, and Whitman–and yourself as a writer. Who have been some of your poetic inspirations?

As a working-class kid, it was a delight and an affirmation to read and share poems at that early age. Mrs. Merzi not only handed us poems to read but had us write and share our own. I’m still doing that in creating my own work and publishing that of others at the press, but also at our monthly Coffeehouse Reading Series in this area of Ohio with featured poets and open-mic sessions. It’s been going on for over 20 years.

Probably like most of your readers, I have grown as a writer and a person through my reading of fine poets, fiction writers, essayists, and memoirists. When I dropped math and decided I was an English major in college, I couldn’t believe I could make a living doing what I loved.

As a teacher, my early bulletin board held the slogan “Literature is Life.” I still believe that.

The list of writers who inspired me would fill a small book. To name a few: early on it was Robert Frost, E. A. Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Emily Dickinson, then Kenneth Patchen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (I’ve published biographies of both)–all of them poets of the people. From there, William Stafford, Denise Levertov (our peace poet), Paul Blackburn, James Wright (always), and Philip Levine, et. al., as well as great thinkers, like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

My own work appears in 8 books of poetry, most recent being Lake Winds: Poems and Thoreau’s Lost Journal, and Tu Fu Comes to America. In the latter, I write the hard and beautiful life of an immigrant poet struggling in Cleveland, Ohio. The working-class world never disappears, nor should we “escape” from it.

In your memoir, you talk about the time when you were newly married and starting a family as a busy time, but a time you weren’t writing. You say, “my life was writing me.” Can you offer any advice to young aspiring writers?

Oh, for me, all I can say is the writing comes in waves, and your job is to be on deck for the next poem or story. As a young parent, I wrote less, but there were always those early mornings or late hours when the lines would start coming and I could become a co-creator with the poem itself. Don’t fret, it cancels creativity, and write the next poem, not the next career. It takes a while learning that.

You lived through the Kent State massacre of 1970 and said the events “radicalized you in new and deeper ways.” Can you talk about how it affected your thinking and writing?

Ah, Kent State—I believe I write in my memoirs that it radicalized both my wife and me in deep ways. She was working at Robinson Memorial Hospital when the dead and wounded were taken there. We shared that and the frightful world of those days at Kent. While we had always been opposed to the Vietnam War, we renewed our commitment to resistance and peace.

When I was hired at Bowling Green State University’s Firelands College that same year, one of the first things I did in this rural community college was organize an outside peace demonstration. And at that point some of our speakers were veterans returning home and speaking out against the war. It was powerful and we were a clear part of it. My three year old daughter Laura was standing with us.

Can you tell us a little about your Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing, why you started it, and what your mission is?

In 1985, I was on the West Coast researching the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, going to the Bancroft Library at Berkley, perusing the diverse publications of that era in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I was also meeting some of the figures from then, including those writers around City Lights Books and Press. I began to see writing as not just literature but as immediate and relevant toward creating change. I came back with a determination to create a publication like that in Ohio. Poet David Shevin joined me in this venture, and I found support in fellow writers like Bob Fox, Joe Napora, Terry Hermsen, Jeanne Bryner, others.

We borrowed the term “Bottom Dog” from Edward Dahlberg’s novel about working-class and poverty in the Midwest. I had learned out West, not to pretend you were more than yourself. We were underdogs, and knowing that, we could keep our feet on the ground and find alternative ways of reaching others. We’ve focused on working-class, Appalachia, Laughing Buddha Series, but also just on deeply human voices in our Harmony Series. We serve the underserved.

Your press has survived for more than 34 years and 210 books. What’s next for Bottom Dog/Bird Dog? Any upcoming titles we should look out for?

Within the last year we published four very strong Ohio poets: Craig Paulenich’s Old Brown, Kathleen S. Burgess’s What Burden do Those Trains Bear Away, Charlene Fix’s Taking a Walk in My Animal Hat, and most recently, Jeff Gundy’s Without a Plea. It may be time for another book of my own, tentatively title “Pears.” The title comes from poet Charles Simic who once advised me, “When they ask for apples,/ give them pears.”

Writing as alternative, that has always inspired my life and work.

Thank you to Larry Smith for the insights and inspiration. May we all represent our places so well!

Find out more about Larry Smith…

Larry Smith grew up in the industrial Ohio River Valley and graduated from Muskingum College and Kent State University with a doctorate in literature. He taught at Bowling Green State University’s Firelands College for over 35 years and is the author of 8 books of poetry, 5 books of fiction, a book of memoirs, 2 literary biographies, and more. He’s written film scripts for “James Wright’s Ohio” and “Kenneth Patchen: An Art of Engagement” and is director of Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing in Ohio. He reviews for New York Journal of Books.

Images are credited to Larry Smith

Readers, writers, now, it’s your turn: Where do you read or write from? How does the history–or now–of your place inform what you say? How are you celebrating National Poetry Month? I’d love to hear from you!

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My interview with Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas presenting at Lit Youngstown’s 2018 Fall Literary Festival*

Love poetry or hate it (btw, you don’t really hate it), Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas is right there with you.

What’s it like to be a poet laureate? I asked Dave Lucas that–and more–in this interview over email. Here’s what the author, teacher, and “poetry evangelist” had to say.

Dave, how much does it mean for you to have been chosen as Poet Laureate of Ohio, and what’s up next for 2019?

If you’d asked me this a year ago, I would have said how honored I felt by the selection and how excited I was for the two years to come.  A year into my term I still feel honored and excited, but more than anything I feel gratitude.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to see parts of my home state I’ve never visited before, to talk about poetry in such varied settings and with so many people for whom poetry is a way of making meaning of their lives.

In 2019 I hope to continue those travels, but I also hope to “meet” more Ohioans virtually through the “Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry” project.  The project entails a monthly column syndicated in Ohio newspapers and media outlets; this year we hope to create a podcast version as well, so that we can promote poetry in whatever medium Ohioans get their information and culture.

As Poet Laureate, I imagine you’ve met many Ohioans in your travels around the state. What has surprised you most?

I’ve certainly been struck by the number and quality of poetry programs taking place at the regional and local levels.  These are workshops, reading groups, recitations, slams, and more, and I’ve encountered them everywhere I’ve traveled in Ohio.  The internet has of course been revolutionary for bringing people together around a common interest, but there’s something wonderful about seeing people gather in common physical space to talk about poetry.

In your Poet Laureate column on the Ohio Arts Council site, as well as in the classroom, you send the message that most of us love poetry, even if we don’t know it yet. Can you talk a little about how you define poetry and give us a couple examples of the kinds of poetic language we can find outside of what we traditionally think of as poetry?

Literary history tells us that anyone who attempts to define poetry today is about to be proven wrong tomorrow.  That’s both the pleasure and challenge of trying to say what poetry is or isn’t.  So I try to maintain as broad and flexible a definition as possible.  I think that poetry is the aesthetic pleasure we take in language.  Words are for play as well as work, as the groan-worthy puns of any good “Dad joke” will demonstrate.

So puns and jokes in general might be examples of the poetry we find outside of “poems.”  So are the metaphors we use to describe the world.  Riddles, jingles, lyrics, mnemonics, and more.  For instance, I’ve just finished a column (my sixth installment) about the artistry of slang, which Walt Whitman treats as the democratic aspect of poetry.  In this column I argue that even if you haven’t read a poem since high school, you participate every day in the artistry of language simply via the creativity of the slang you use.

One of the daunting things about poetry is the idea that we poetry readers think we’re supposed to read it “right” and find buried meaning. How can you assuage our reader-guilt at perhaps understanding a poem only on its surface level?

Too many of us seem to have been taught that poems are supposed to be solved, some “deeper meaning” discovered and extracted like a vein of ore from a mine.  If we can’t find “it”—or if we find something that we’re told is not “it,” we feel inadequate.

Let’s change the terms.  For example: you hear a song for the first time.  You don’t get all the words, but you like it enough as a whole—its rhythm, its sounds, how it makes you feel, etc.—that you want to hear it again.  You don’t feel guilty about not getting all the words; you just want to listen a second or even a third time.  You keep listening.  Eventually, you get all the words, often before you’ve realized it.

Your poetry collection, Weather, begins with place poems.

“River on Fire”
Stranger, the way of the world is crooked,
and anything can burn. Nothing impossible.
Who comes to send fire upon the earth may find
as much already kindled, may find his city
bistre and sulfurous. Pitched and grimed.
On those suffered banks we sat down and wept.
There the prophets, if there had been prophets,
would have baptized us in fire. Who says impossible
they fill his mouth with ash, they quench him
as if a man could be made steel. A crooked way
the world wends, and the rivers, and the prophets.
Go down and tell them what you have seen:
that the river burned and was not consumed.

…and your collection ends with a poem that examines the language we use for Northeast Ohio’s natural landmark of Lake Erie. How did you decide how to order the collection: as an argument for or against something, as a journey from one time to another, from the external to the personal–or something else entirely?

As you mention, the book begins and ends with the lake.  (Of course, it shows up in the middle of the book, too.)  For me, the lake—or my idiosyncratic idea or myth of it—is what Seamus Heaney calls “the first place in myself.”  So I wanted to begin in that place and with local flora and fauna before moving into the human and even personal histories of (or in) the region. The whole book is an attempt to marry those different histories and mythologies into a coherent vision of place.

Your newer poems center around myth. Can you tell us how the new collection is shaping up and where we can find one of the poems?

The new collection has been “done” several times now.  I assume the writers among your blog’s readers will nod and sigh in recognition of what I mean.  I hope it will be “done”—again—soon.

You can read “About Suffering—,” my take on the myth (and on other takes) of Icarus and Daedalus at the online home of The Threepenny Review.

Do you see poetry changing along with our digital age, with the Instapoets (poets who feature their poems on Instagram), for example? What do you think about it?

The Instagram phenomenon is interesting to me because “Instapoetry” blends forms and genres: you experience the poem as a photograph of the poem.  So you get an experience of the poem as a visual artifact, something different from what you might experience at a reading or a performance.  It’s a reminder of just how many ways we can experience language, and the subtle differences between one experience and another.

What’s your best piece of poetry-writing advice?

The only piece of advice that I believe to be true for anyone who wants to write (poems, or anything else)—no matter who they are or what they want for their writing—is to read as much as possible, to read enthusiastically and omnivorously.

Thank you to Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas for giving us a lot to read and think about!

Find out more about Dave Lucas…

Dave Lucas is the author of Weather (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry.  Named by Rita Dove as one of thirteen “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize.  In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio.  A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised. 

And more…

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*Photo credit: Courtney Kensinger

OH

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I have to say, I felt a little bit vindicated when reading author Lauren Groff‘s latest interview with Poets & Writers magazine (her short story collection, Florida, was released earlier this year) in which she asserts: “Florida is the biggest joke of all the states. It is the punchline to every other state’s joke.”

Oh?

That statement, itself, feels like a joke to this Cleveland, Ohio native. A quick recap for the Buckeye State-uninitiated: OH is flyover country; Cleveland is the “Mistake on the Lake”; the home team Cleveland Browns’ last season went 0 and 16. (Yep, it’s a rebuilding year–again.)

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Rust Belt Girl roundup for June 8, 2018

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s a Rust Belt Girl roundup for an end of the work week that also coincides with the beginning of CRAZY summer vacation.

Going with the “roundup” theme, I can say that the cows are loose, having broken the fence, and now they’re just roving around the plains willy nilly. (I know I’m impressing you with my vast knowledge of cowpoke life right now.)

Let’s be real. There are no cows. The cows are the items on my to-do lists, lists which don’t actually exist anymore, because so much of my life has gone digital.

I used to have real paper-and-pen lists: meal plans and menus, work to-dos based on deadline, and post-its galore with snippets of story ideas. Concrete things I could hold in my fingers. Then I’d go about numbering the items according to importance.

What happened? Hmm. Could it be that I jumped on social media last year, and my lists are collateral damage?

Whatever. The upshot: I’m bringing back the lists, because they’re real.

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My interview with author Amy Jo Burns

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Amy Jo Burns is the author of Cinderland, and her writing has appeared in Salon, Good Housekeeping, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Tin House’s Open Bar, Ploughshares Online, and in Roxane Gay’s anthology Not That Bad. Her novel Shiner is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.

Amy Jo was gracious enough to answer a few questions from another Rust Belt girl–me–about her literary memoir, Cinderland, which I discussed in a previous post; about her Rust Belt upbringing; about juggling the responsibilities of writing and motherhood; and about her upcoming novel, Shiner, which I can’t wait to read!

Amy Jo–your memoir, Cinderland, is set in your hometown outside Pittsburgh. How did that particular post-industrial place inform your upbringing? Does your memoir’s title reflect the place in which you were raised, the abuse you suffered as a girl, both?

I chose the title Cinderland because it represents an inner fire that remains after old, unnecessary things have died away. I see so much of myself in the landscape that I grew up in. The abandoned buildings, overgrown lots, and empty warehouses of my youth were (and are) placeholders for new things to come, and they are so beautiful to me. The story of the Rust Belt is still being written, even if some people call it a dead zone. There is life inside! Rust and cinders aren’t dead things. They’re just in a state of transformation, and I think that became a powerful metaphor for me to explore my own coming of age in my memoir.

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In your memoir, you discuss your Christian upbringing and throughout the book use biblical allusions. (Your abuser you call Mr. Lotte.) In using the language of the Bible, did you feel like you were wresting some control over that part of your childhood? Something else?

The Bible was my first introduction to language, so it felt very natural for me to use biblical references as a way to represent how I see the world. This was such a good question for me to consider, because I just realized in borrowing some of that language, I was actually able to release some control over the painful parts of my past. For so long I tried to manage what had happened to me and my grief over it, and it only ended up suffocating me. I was afraid to let it be what it was.

Sometimes I think “religion” tries to manhandle who God is, and having faith is the opposite: letting God be God, and finding rest because of it. For me, that meant letting Mr. Lotte be held accountable for what he did. It was not “Christian” for me to try to hide away his transgressions, even if some people in my community swore it was. When I was writing the book, I came across this verse in Proverbs 17:15:

“Whitewashing bad people and throwing mud on good people are equally abhorrent to God.”

I’d never heard that before. It’s not an exaggeration to say it changed my life to see that God has no interest in camouflaging a man’s true character for the sake of fake peace.

You were a student of ballet, growing up. Had you known the true story you present in your essay, “Body on Fire,” of Emma Livry, a young ballerina whose costume caught on fire during a performance at the Paris Opera in 1862, or did you come upon it more recently? Can you talk about this idea of burning or “consuming” of women with respect to today’s #metoo movement?

I came across that story about two years ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Emma Livry had GUTS as an artist and as a woman, and I think she probably felt just as frustrated to perform for an audience full of men she didn’t trust as so many women still feel right now. Livry’s biographer, a male, seemed to suggest she was a victim of her own making, that it was her own vanity in wanting a certain kind of ballet skirt to wear that ultimately killed her when her tutu caught fire. I call foul! I think she knew her patrons saw her as nothing but a body for consumption. She fought to dance the way she wanted– wearing what she wanted–for herself, first and foremost. She paid a price for it. Livry wasn’t spared because of her talent or her drive. Instead, she was treated like a piece of machinery. That’s what resonates for me with today’s #metoo movement–she was blamed for choices that were never really hers to make.

Have you changed as a writer since becoming a mother, besides having less time and energy to write?

Yes! I wanted to finish Cinderland before I had children because I thought parenthood would make me overly sentimental. I didn’t want to write about my own childhood with too much nostalgia. It’s funny, though, because the opposite has been true. I’m much more raw as a person and as a writer now that I’m a mother, and I like it. My sense of self has totally shifted. I’m constantly becoming someone I’ve never been before, which is weird and wonderful and a little scary. There’s a new urgency to what I write now, like I’m trying to capture each meaningful truth before it disappears.

Also: now I write while Paw Patrol plays in the background. I gave up on trying to find the ideal working environment. It doesn’t exist. That helps me value my writing time without letting it become too precious.

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The power of a shared place: revisiting my conversation with Rust Belt Boy author, Paul Hertneky

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Bridging the gap: a Pittsburgh bridge. Image courtesy of pixabay.com

Place is powerful.

This should come as no surprise to you that I feel this way. There’s power in a place’s sights, sounds, and struggles. We are shaped by our native places. We share a kinship with people who stomped the same stomping grounds of childhood. (Don’t believe me? I will immediately become besties with anyone, the world over, wearing a Cleveland Browns jersey.)

What better time to muse about our native places than Father’s Day? (OK, maybe Mother’s Day, but I’m biased.) As we in the U.S. approach the holiday with trepidation–how many gas grills can one man need?–I suggest another kind of gift for the father or father figure in your life (no, I don’t get a cut here):

I was thrilled to come across Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood.
And I was even more thrilled that the author, Paul Hertneky, agreed to talk to me about his native place (just a couple hours east of mine) outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

For those who missed it, or who would like to revisit it, here it is, my…

Author Q&A with Paul Hertneky of RUST BELT BOY: Stories of an American Childhood

Fret Not: 5 Tips for a Top Author Interview

 

Let’s cut to the chase.

Interviewing skills–basic but thoughtful asking and listening–are crucial for the curious writer, reader, or moderately engaged human being. Think: job interviews, first dates, meetings with new acquaintances…

Of course, author interviews are, by far, my favorite kind of interview to conduct.

For a fan, an author interview is a great place to be–second only to actually taking up shop in the author’s head.

I’ve learned to interview by doing, having conducted 30 or more interviews in the past year alone–most for my day job, a few for this blog (including–shameless plug —my interview of Furnishing Eternity author David Giffels, which was featured on WordPress Discover.)

I fielded enough questions about that interview that I thought I’d address the topic here:

Curiosity is the first step to a good interview. Confidence is the second. Preparation is the third. Remember that trio, and you’ll be OK. Want to nail an interview? Follow these tips:

5. Ask. You may or may not be granted an interview with your favorite author. Sometimes you might have to go through the author’s agent or other representative; in this era of social media, you can find someone. Sometimes (unless you’re the New York Times) you will be turned down. But you won’t know unless you ask.

4. Own it. Come to the interview, whether over the phone or in person (never through email, please!), knowing that you are in charge. It is the interviewer’s responsibility to guide the discussion. Don’t assume that a meaningful conversation will happen organically. Prepare, and both you and your subject will be put at ease.

3. Prepare (prepare, prepare). Come with open-ended questions, more questions than you think you’ll need, but only ask about 10. Tell the author in advance how much time you will need–30 minutes to an hour, tops. Research the author’s site, and don’t ask anything you should already know from an online search. That wastes time. If you’re interviewing the author about his/her latest book, be sure you’ve digested it thoroughly. Bonus points if you can read the rest of the author’s body of work to prepare fully for the interview.

2. Be different. An author interview should uncover new answers–which requires new questions. I don’t read competing book reviews before I’ve written mine, and I don’t read all the interviews out there with an author until after I’ve worked up my own questions. Think of your unique audience. What do they want to get from reading your interview. Don’t know? Ask them to submit their questions; you can choose the best one or two to add to your list.

(drum roll, please)

1. Listen up. So, you’ve prepared thoughtful, unique questions for your author interview. Make sure you get the answers. Take the fear of not hearing or misunderstanding–and potentially misquoting–an author by recording the interview. Always ask for permission first. Then record using your phone or a trusty recorder (my inexpensive Sony ICD-PX333 has never let me down). This frees you to take part in the conversation. Truly listen, and be ready to ask follow-up questions.

Do I fret (Daily Prompt)? Do my palms still go clammy with nerves when I conduct an interview? Yep, every time. But it’s worth it to find out what makes an author tick, don’t you think?

Need some good questions to ask your author? Bookfox has 50 here.

Do you conduct interviews for work or for your blog? What are your top tips?

Let me know. Thanks! ~Rebecca