My Night as a Dumpster and an Urchin, and Other Poems

My Night as a Dumpster and an Urchin

++++++and I know you will not listen, you are like the cupboard,
but please forgive, yet again, my shredding, indefinite removal

++++++of the stars, who aren’t getting any smaller, who kindle in a tree
or two: oblique, engrossing stars—who are you trying to convince, who

++++++rounds out your list? They tremble, and bait the moon, and I envy them
their lexicon—their burning, wax arms are hallucinations from my trapped, clacked-up

++++++shudderings. They could almost hear me: I am numb, like them, and the asteroid
belt, that longest of legs, has hounded us for a hundred thousand years against a corner

++++++and back into our unbelievable mouths. Let us put our hands together and make one
knotted steeple, we are young only as trash. Let me hum a few chords while we predict

++++++the inevitable years when we’ll be old and control our every orbit: I have spied
on robins, cloven vandals in my eyes, the fists of comets marking targets on my clean wrists

++++++and listening to the sonorous copyright vespers we never sang. Let me be a flooded
drain then, a scarf coughed up against my light chin, my eyes craven. The avenues under

++++++our woven skins are burning but I’ve seen worse, drowning in the imbalance
of magnets and whittled to an edge by clouds, a riven urchin. How could the living

++++++be praised? To what songs do they strum? The bruised suns we strung
up for our exhibition beat their cold boots together and dust covers the wet earth.

++++++Let this be quick and feverish, an elegy for my reprinted kidneys, tethered
like telephone wires to liquid and obvious clouds. Where are my cerebral

++++++and distant fathers, my clandestine arteries, some believable dialogue?
We could disappear from here for free—there will be a dearth of us in the night.


My Night as a Thorn and an Aerogramme

Only Thursday tastes like this: a mouthful of cheap
++++++sepals and reeds breathing. I walked to the river

and watched my father commence his drowning
++++++only to remember that he is made of sand.

Let me stand stock-still in the street: the phone screams,
++++++but only if you beg it; only autumn demands our teeth

to smolder like craters; only the rug can shelter more stains than
++++++my voice: a wavelength of winter, broken tables down my throat.

I am a burning aerogramme: to bury my high-strung rats you must carry
++++++me a little farther, and to barter my thrushes the night must drop

its dead finches. You want to pinch the hips of my livelihood?
++++++I am a burning aerogramme, a puncture in lumber, an upturned

dumpster: must I remain apostrophic? Drive home the thorn—
++++++my glands have grown dry from shouting with this colorblind voice.


My Night as a Plumage and a Portrait

I live in a house up the road but I am not a surgeon.
++++++I cannot fix you with honey or with gauze.

I collect tin cans but ignore the driftwood.
++++++I run a shower when ragweed sticks to my fists.

My words are stars in black parentheses. For me
++++++the moon is always covered in wintered blood.

I have no money in my chest of drawers. My chest is full of leaves
++++++and umbra. I sit in the angular square and lift not one vesper

from my lips. Through the long curtains of my eyes comes the first
++++++refusal of light—charring through the windows of nebulas,

I flicker into a river down twin tongues. Down twin tongues,
++++++gravity doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except for that bridge

of ill-born supernovas piling like dust on a tired moon. I banished
++++++the planets from this cage. In this cage my self-portrait

is a plumage of black teeth. When wind surrounds the mausoleum
++++++with wet leaves, I wait for the rain to rub its fingers all over me.


My Night as a Mannequin and a Casket

With me you tried your worst but still fleshed me
++++++out, plastered me with all this desperate skin,

and now I burn these hundred mites from my tongue,
++++++bury signposts in the directions of bricks, and distill

the venom from my lungs. I chased our bodies outside,
++++++plagiarized the night, and revived us from the compost

heap of my skull—but we won’t live like twigs or oars,
++++++backlit rivers, adjectives slipping into seasons.

I lull trains to pass the time, hang useless frames, and remember
++++++our worst night—when the steam off the rain declared

us membranes that bristle, awaiting close locusts
++++++to drill sky-drunk inside our chests like wax

spears. That kindling of birds in your mouth dissolves
++++++to glycerin, our mannequins cut off their ears, a radio

busts through the window with cold marrow, whispers
++++++flood your fractal teeth, and my knuckles refute the fact

that we were born. Now our bodies begin to rust
++++++under new skins, but I’ll remember you: your eyes

like moths in the dark—and you’ll remember
++++++me the way a casket knows who lowered it.

Graf Photo-1Derek Graf was born and raised in Tampa, FL. He received his B.A. from the University of South Florida, where he studied under the poets Katie Riegel and Jay Hopler. He currently lives and works in Stillwater, OK, where he is completing his MFA degree at Oklahoma State University. His chapbook, What the Dying Man Asked Me, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications in 2015. His poems have been featured in The Boiler Journal, Misfit Magazine, and Meat for Tea: The Valley Review. He likes to make new friends. Find him on Facebook at 


MFA and the Myths of Being an Artist

They say cardio is the first to go, which I suppose explains last evening’s huffing and puffing through my first run since the day before residency began. Normally I’m a runner—around 25 miles a week—but last night it was hard to tell. Each step on the asphalt was foreign. My lungs were weak. Despite what the passing cars may have seen, I was the Stay Puft Marshmallow man.

The first time I heard “M.F.A.; My Fat Ass” was at a closing event at the end of last term where the graduating students spoke a few words reflecting on their journey through the program and, particularly, how they fared in the final semester. A fiction writer with a lighthearted countenance and an admittedly soft middle offered the above definition of the degree he would be awarded the following day. His cohorts chuckled in agreement.

That’s all I remember about him, but it struck a chord, and I made a silent note-to-self. We writers do, after all, sit a lot.

But just like writing, exercise has been a savior for me. We could get into self-image and how women are depicted in the mass media, we could even get into childhood issues—blah blah blah—but the fact is, what’s done is done. I am a woman in this culture, with this upbringing, with this mind chatter. The antidote has been physical activity. Running, yoga, cycling, hiking—whatever it is, the mind chatter changes from This body is not good enough to Damn, I am grateful for this body. Physical movement quiets my mind chatter. Every time I hear “M.F.A. = My Fat Ass,” I cringe.

Admittedly, during the 10-day residency our schedules are tight. A single day at residency looks like this: hour commute, followed by an hour blogging, two in seminar, a (seated) lunch, another seminar, a workshop, perhaps dinner, and a two hour evening reading with four graduating student writers and one featured guest writer. Then the commute back home. Nine days of it. Thirty miles driving. My body moved barely an inch.

I’m not whining though—the residency rocks—but what about the other five months of Project Period? For me at least, at times of my life when I’ve been particularly sedentary, it’s more of outlook than schedule. There are a ton of myths about being an artist. And just like the media’s image of women, I have at times bought into those wonky narratives. Hook, line, sinker.

*     *     *

Myth #1: Poor artists.

Ten years ago I was in another graduate program. (Some people buy cars; I collect almae matres.) Berklee College of Music gave me some scholarship money; I packed my bags. Instead of finding $75 for a soft-shell guitar bag, I bolted industrial-strength straps made to move pianos onto my hard-shell case and carried the weight on my back like a tortoise. Instead of picking up a long, warm coat for the Boston winter, I shivered in my leather motorcycle jacket, which was just long enough to assist the freezing rain in sliding down my back and soaking my jeans from belt to boots. I was broke. Adamantly broke.

Myth #2: Starving artists.

At Berklee, dinner was usually rice and beans; breakfast was rice pudding from the leftovers. My roommate and I split $200 for food each month. The mono-nutrient diet upset my belly and my energy was low, but when I caught my roommate spending $2 for a slice of pizza between classes—1% of our food budget for the month on one meal—I nearly slid into a rage. I stomped home and sulked over another Tabasco-doused rice bowl.

Myth #3: You need to suffer for your art.

I walked two miles to Berklee each day, through the snow, uphill both ways, barefoot. Okay, it’s a bit hyperbolic, but you get the gist. Each day my shoulders were burdened with instruments like my body was a pack mule.  Every day that damn guitar case tried to kill me.

Myth #4: Talent is innate, and “making it” is a concept only available to a privileged few.

All my classmates were rockstars or the offspring of rockstars. Talented. Beautiful. On their way to successful careers doing exactly what they were born to do. I, on the other hand, was a folk-singing daughter from a very normal family. I wasn’t a prodigy, nor were my parents. My pedigree, I believed, would be my ultimate handicap.

Not surprisingly, despite graduating with honors, then signing, recording, and touring, the way I burned out was less like a Bacchanalian feast of cocaine and backstage groupies, and more like a balloon flying through the air, coming untied, and simply dropping to the ground, useless, spent.

It took me years to realize I had done it to myself: I had bought the myths.

*     *     *

Things are winding down here in low-residencyland. Those of us not graduating have already disappeared into an online world called Project Period. During the next five months we will strain to stay connected through Sunday check-ins, monthly reading conferences, Facebook groups, occasional coffee dates for the locals, and, most celebrated, through online magazines and literary journals where, hopefully, we’ll see our colleagues’ bylines. Writing is a solitary activity, but the residency stokes a warm campfire. The re-entry back to day jobs and family life is welcomed, but strange. Mostly, it is a welcome return to normalcy.

I’m looking forward to reconnecting with my family, catching up on sleep, eating a simple meal at home. Basically, finding balance between mind, body, and spirit.

And at the top of my to-do list is exercise. Over the past eight days, my thighs have become a wee bit bigger. My belly is somewhat more rotund. And oh, my hips, my hips, my hips. Thankfully, the mind chatter hasn’t started, but I’m not going to wait for it. I don’t buy into the artists myths anymore. It’s possible to live the creative life as an artist and the balanced life of a healthy human. Even as we make time to write, eat, sleep, we must make time to care for our physical bodies. They carry us through this creative life. They are the only true vehicle we’ll ever have.

Family, home, paychecks.
Heartbeat, breath, sweat.

Body, mind, spirit.


When I am three years old, I feel the burn of a cigarette on my arm. It is followed by an instantaneous, “Shit,” flick of the butt, and a cadence of apologies while my head presses against his chest. Inside, I hear someone orchestrating a wild percussion.

This is the only memory I have of my father.

*     *     *

“Easy to misinterpret as hostility or—look!—as a person who wants out of the relationship.”

My boyfriend, Greg, and I lie belly-side down on our bed, front-page research displays before us on the laptop. I point at keywords on the screen while he lies next to me, the laptop’s light reflecting off the curves of our faces—his stoic and patient, mine hopeful and nervous.

“Unmotivated. This is how I feel when I wake up. It’s why our apartment looks the way it does. It’s why, despite the fact that I am graduating soon, I still haven’t figured out what comes next… .” I stop, avoiding the snowball that rolls down the well-known mountain of guilt and anxiety.

“Irritable. Well, I don’t need to explain there,” I laugh, trying to ease the pain of explaining me. I think about arguments in enclosed rooms and how I run outside of them; a swift movement of my hand turning the doorknob, my hand squeezing and thrusting the thickness of the door, a result of a shutting that slams—the infamous freight train conducted by the madwoman with wind in her hair. I think about a car ride I took after a fight I don’t remember anymore, the one where he stood on our third floor apartment patio and watched me flick him off from a half-cracked window while I drove too fast over parking lot speed bumps.

I think about how depression holds a magnifying glass over your problems and eliminates your blessings like ants beneath a beating sun. I think about public places like the pasta aisle of the neighborhood grocery store where we talked about genetically modified food labeling; debated about the political decisions of genetically modified food labeling; argued about genetically modified food labeling being a human right, verses the plausibility of those who label; exploding about the necessary labeling of genetically modified food, whether we can trust the labels or not. Then, the existence of contradicting feelings—one where the pasta aisle compresses around me, and the other where my anger is expanding my body larger, my incessant need to get out before I am crushed, and the incessant need to get out before I crush. The organized grocery aisles swirled past me and mixed together—frozen bags and boxes of vegetables and lasagnas, bottles of olive oils and salad dressings, packaged sliced breads and pre-made dessert cakes—until I found the front of the grocery store, where I sat pissed off and terrified on a gray padded bench, next to a man with soft wrinkles and dark liver spots wearing a jet-black Vietnam Vet hat, who looked at me and smiled.

*     *     *

Depression is a pissed-off bitch.

*     *     *

When I am five years old, I stand behind the plastic side railings of the hospital bed and I cannot cry, unlike my mother and brother who stand next to me. I look at the drawing I made of my father, his body a cerulean blue box with macaroni orange stick arms and a canary yellow halo. He stands with a crooked smile next to a similar crooked-smiling boxed man with long beaver brown hair and matching beard.

*     *     *

We are lying in our bed of navy cotton sheets. I feel his hand move across my inner leg, his warm breath and lips that kiss my shoulder.

“Not tonight, Greg.”

*     *     *

Depression is a dried-up lover.

*     *     *

My family has always lived in Cape Coral, Florida—a town described as “for the nearly dead and newlywed.” Small businesses freckle various streets of Cape Coral with palm trees, churches, schools, and gas stations in-between. Our mall, the next town over, is named after Thomas Edison. It slowly retrogresses to its social surroundings. Two Christmases ago when I visited my family, my younger brother came running out of his bedroom, saying he heard on the radio that a man in the Dillard’s fired thirty rounds from his semi-automatic gun.

On a home visit during Labor Day weekend my senior year of college, I went to dinner with a best friend from high school—a girl I rarely speak with and only reach out to when I reminisce the pubescent era on the drive home. What started out as a glass of red wine at a restaurant with easy lights and a piano player; turned into vodka, flickering neon lights, and blasts of classic rock at a strip club, then blackness.

My friend shook my arm, “Colleen, we are here. We are at your house. Do you need any help getting inside?” Fuck. I recalled the night as I grabbed the seat belt, untangled myself, and slammed her car door while I held my black flats and made movements like a pinball to my mother’s front door: colorful shots in plastic cups; sets of licking lips sitting around a lit-up stage; a girl in a pink G-string who looks seventeen sliding up and down pole number one; a woman in a red G-string who looks forty sliding upside down on pole number two. This is a place I most likely would have visited in my senior year of high school, even my sophomore year of college. I smell of things like stomach acid, ash, and sweat.

The next afternoon, my mother held my face up as the surface of my body tingled, like when a foot falls asleep, and twitched like an eye open for too long, in episodes of hyperventilating. My fingers became cryptic branches that poked out in unnatural ways. My mouth gaped open and closed the way a fish’s lips do when he is caught and above water. I had forgotten how to breathe, how to move, how to blink. I am shit. I thought I was better than this town. It looked at me, squinted in recognition, pinched me, and swallowed me whole.

She told me, “Breathe, sit up, and stay with me,” and I wondered if I could die this way, if it was possible to live after this if I don’t, if I would get “better” like last time, if I would get like this again, like this time.

*     *     *

Depression is a thirsty motherfucker.

*     *     *

When I am six years old, I am inside a hot yellow plastic tube on the playground at recess. Inside, I scream. I want to run away, but I want to stay, and I can’t understand why these feelings exist at the same time. I want the boy outside to go away. He has done nothing to me, but when he tries to come inside, I hit him anyway.

*     *     *

On our first date, Greg and I met one another nearby in downtown Orlando, Florida. Several weeks before, he had asked me to go downtown one night, which made me think all things uncomfortable—excessive drinking, loud music, and heels. I declined and filed him in a mental manila folder titled, “Downtown-at-Night Guys” next to the empty “Downtown-During-the-Day Guys,” a significant difference of don’t-take-me-seriously and take-me-seriously.

I continued to talk to him on the phone, a surprising flare of curiosity considering the guys I had been recently turning down in my single life. The more we spoke, the more I envisioned the both of us downtown in the daytime—a place I seemed to have subconsciously kept vacant. Like when he told me his reason for chartering a fraternity on campus was to reinvent the typical group of guys who congregate to bench weight, drink hard, and attract girls into an estab-lished group of respectful brothers who would be good enough to one day stand next to each other at their weddings. Or that he shamelessly told me when he was younger, the only dog he ever had was a toy—a stuffed German Shepherd he gave haircuts and named Peach.

He stuck out like a bookmark amidst the beige manila coloring. I wanted the Sunday farmers’ market of raw and organic produce, food trucks and their condensed aromas, pedestrian crossings that lead to hole-in-the-wall restaurants with innovative tacos and imported pineapple sodas, the rhythm from street guitarists, him.

During our walk, Greg tripped over uneven brick sidewalks and his gray shirt developed sweat stains in the shape of goose eggs—a terrible choice of color for Central Florida’s heavy atmosphere—all of which I had genuinely observed as adorable. We talked about our dreams and thoughts over raw fish wrapped in seaweed: his idea for a science fiction novel, my hopes to write and publish a memoir. We started topics of conversation, digressed to other welcomed topics, and each unfinished conversation left us in the midst of their peaks to live in a parallel world.

*     *     *

When my therapist talks about medication, he tells me they are, “simply pills that bring out the strength within.” I could comply and admit that they are, in fact, just tools to build a bridge that start after the smoke of a psychological trigger, internal thunder, aggressive silence, and end at happy trees, trotting unicorns, and a glistening Jesus.

When he talks about mental control, I could tell the counselor that he’s right, I do have it within me to be better—a trivial and repetitive fortune cookie message consistently vomited, dripping off of bumper stickers, elementary school posters, tattoos, Facebook statuses, high school posters, self-help books, Tweets, pamphlets, my counselor’s thin lips, my mother’s quivering lips, my boyfriend’s bitten lips.

But no. Depression is picky. She grabs a pan, sifts out gold, and keeps the dirt. She is an indistinguishably unmotivated, irritable and paralyzing prevalence. She is the catalyst to most, if not all, arguments. She teases, reaches for the flame of connection and pulls back before the swirls on her bony fingertips burn into a smooth plane; maintaining the value of her impetuous and tyrannical identity, an identity that lingers in freezing waters, layered beneath thick ice, clear enough to still see what exists on the other side, me before depression took hold.

*     *     *

Depression is the bitch I know the best. Depression is the me I know best.

*     *     *

I don’t know who I am. I know who I have been, who I could be, who I wish to be. She is intangible, but she exists. This “she” blurs in and out of my life but this “she” is the me who dreams confidently of being a writer. The me who makes love to her boyfriend because she wants to and not because she feels she has to. The me who can say no to things she doesn’t believe in anymore, like strip clubs and overindulgences of alcohol. The me who braces herself for the release of love she found hidden below, the little girl who lost her father when she was five. The me who can spit in Depression’s face and tell her to shut the fuck up when she takes control. The me who is a mixture of a bitch, a lover, and a good woman all at the same time, just because she is human.

The me who I will grab a hold of some day and plan the rest of my life with.

*     *     *

Together, we stand on a rock. Lower rock formations, shiny and slick, surround us in stacks. The trees are a color of bright green I’ve never seen before—except for adjusting the contrast on a color photo. Above us is the waterfall of the Rainbow Falls Trail I picked out, 2.7 miles of hiking down and 3.6 miles of driving to the hiking lodge, pointing with my finger at a spot on the plastic map ridged like a topography globe.

Rainbow Falls is the highest single-drop waterfall in the Smokies. Below us is a family of hikers standing next to a sign warning them not to climb on rocks near the waterfall, as several people have fallen to their deaths, and many others have suffered serious injuries over the years. The family looks up at us and walks on.

Rainbow Falls got its name from the rainbow it produces in its mist. At the highest rock, the mist tinges my neck and face and my pores contract, like eyes squinting with happiness. This is the first and only time I have hiked a mountain, seen a waterfall, and felt in that moment I knew who I was and who I would always be: a woman with the world at her feet.

I close my eyes. Greg says something but his words are obscure among my state of mind. I open them and our eyes meet, his brown and curious, mine hazel and wet.

“Greg, can you do something for me?”

“Of course.”

“Can you remind me of this place?”

Ladd_AuthorPhoto_optColleen Ladd is a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Creative Writing. She’s been published in The Feminist Wire and is currently working any chance she gets to save up to go to graduate school for a MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in non-fiction. She wants most in life to be a part of something bigger than herself.


Wizard Grits: The Secret Life of the Indie Publisher

I never thought I’d be doing this. I recall sitting in a foxhole as a paratrooper, reading the book of Psalms and thinking, hey, I kinda looove this. I always thought the point of poetry was to confuse.  Thousands of couches later, five books and literary festivals all over the world, I want to take a second to share the addictive effects of writing which led to the strange world of becoming a full on publisher.

For the last ten years I have been launching books of poetry into the world via my press, Write Bloody Publishing, which began as a labor of love for poets I’d meet on the road who only had crappy looking chapbooks to sell. Our first year we sold 40 books. This year we sold over 22,000 physical copies. Our small mode of success all came from “punch in the gut” lessons that led to nuggets of truth. I want to share these with you, so you don’t have to make the same mistakes, as an author or publisher. So you load up on some useful knowledge which can be applied to your own writing or book-producing life.

Write Bloody now has over 100 titles, but when I looked back I realized I blew it, in some way, every single year. As I was mentoring a local young press here in Austin, I realized I have spent many years dumbfounded and naïve in terms of making money at publishing. It shouldn’t take you this long. I don’t want you to have to pull your hair out, sweating over the returned books and bizarre profit margins.

Most of us have the same goal in the indie publishing world of hunting down the unknowns and letting their voice be heard. I hope my chuds and fails, I hope they can help that vision expand. Here are your nuggets.

Make them like the first poem. Every book is a first date. They gotta like the way you look and then see what you’re about.

I spent a lot of time on cover art, hashing it out with the authors and tweaking every little nuance. Don’t do this. Once you have something cool, which means cool enough to suck the eye in and let the book be opened, stick with it. That’s all you want and, even more so, need. Also, don’t let authors choose cover artwork. They are talented but don’t speak the language of design. Learn the language of design so the cover artist isn’t pulling their hair out when you say, “It doesn’t pop,” or, “There’s too much orange going on.” Work with authors and ask them their current favorite covers, but don’t let them grind you down when they might not even be sure of what they want. There will always be tiny changes that DO NOT MATTER or help the movement, mood, or sale of the book. Put it in the contract that authors can comment but the final design will be determined by publisher. Authors don’t have a clear idea that time equals money and the more edits they make to the art will not increase the sales of the book, or the “wow” of the cover. Tinkering will grind down your budget fast. You can also just save a ton of money and do a minimal approach like Wave books to cover art. Their books look great, and they show their great taste in author selection with great font design.

Make them like the first poem. Every book is a first date. They gotta like the way you look and then see what you’re about. If the cover looks good and the first poem rules, you have sold a book. It isn’t always like that. 50 Shades of Grey has a horrible gloss cover with no spatial design or fascinating color palette. They still sold a ton of books. But if you are struggling in a tiny market like poetry or short fiction, your covers have to rule.

I know what works, but I am not good at texturing and adding dimension in Illustrator. I hire freelancers and hunt them down if I like another cover, or a rock poster. If design isn’t your strong suit, don’t skimp on hiring someone to do the cover, but don’t hire the most expensive. Make talented friends.

You will have some bigger sellers than others. I have learned, as author and publisher, that the bigger sellers love the people. They have long lines to get books signed after an event, and they sign something unique in each one. At the end of the Sarah Kay reading at AWP, there were over 120 people in line. We learned to have a handler prepping the names, a money taker, and the author sitting to sign. The handler keeps the conversations down to 30 seconds max. The book becomes a souvenir of the reading, and you gain a life long fan once it is signed.

Use this to your advantage. Do you have an author that can be funny, tell stories and be moving? Put them on the road. Our bigger sellers were champions of the road. They didn’t oversaturate their hometowns. They did a great huge book release party at home and then hit the libraries, theaters, house shows, and slams of the U.S.

The big sellers, before we signed them, had a website, press kit, press photo, mailing list, and merch. They had merch beyond just their book on the road. Cool hand towels with sayings on them, book bags, posters, koozies. It all made the road a place to make money, instead of just a promotional money dump by the press.

We tried to run a booking agency, and financially it wasn’t doable. We realized we can’t pay for the tours. But we realized that telling the author to hit the road did something to the touring author: If they didn’t put on a good live reading, they wouldn’t sell books, and thus wouldn’t be able to afford the hotel room or a good meal, and then would be tired for the next reading. Every reading, all of sudden, really matters. Being on time matters. Being nice to promoters and signing books matters. The audience begins to feel like the author gives a shit about being there, and they are often rewarded financially and with a lasting fan-base.

The constant tricky decision and choice that can make or break a press came up this year: Do we order 1000 copies and pay 2 bucks a book in China, or order 250 for 3.90 a book and print IN THE USA? You aren’t sure how long it will take to move 1000 copies. One mis-step, where you hire three new authors and all the books tank and take too long to make back the money can fold and shut down a press. It was important for us to print in the USA. We had to pay more but we also get to hold our head up higher. And the smaller quantity meant less profit, but less risk. Less risk is key in the beginning. This was so important. We also only had a storage unit for the copies so less was better and the slow growth meant we didn’t need a loan.

We used to pay quarterly. Big mistake for a small press. You should only pay royalties once a year. Books have returns. I was paying out money that didn’t exist—meaning that I should’ve waited to see how the year played out, January to December, and then waited 4-5 months due to the delay in returned books showing up. I used to pay an author for their sales of 200 books and that money was gone. 5 months later 120 of those copies would come back as destroyable returns but I had already paid out the money on 200 like an idiot. I had no idea when I started that if a book is opened and there’s a crease on the spine, that book is no longer sellable if returned. The glue makes it an awful recycle option. This was the year we cut into our profits a little more by using Eco-Libris to plant trees for the first run of books. It was a good lead to drumming up press for our publishing house, and the authors thought it was badass. It never made us get more sales, but it felt good.

2007 was the year I knew we needed better distribution. I had no idea how to cold call a distributor, one that had a sales team and hit all the trade shows for us. I thought distribution made you rich. I found out that amazon takes 50% and a distributor takes 27%. They wanted to see three years of accounting records before they would sign us. A big mistake was that I kept no records. I paid my taxes, but couldn’t show growth. The distributor told me to not get my hopes up, because most poetry titles they had didn’t sell. I became determined to keep better records and hire an accountant to help me keep monthly records. It was a hard time for poetry book sales. Bookstores were folding. I found that collecting money myself from 50 bookstores across the USA was a nightmare. The manager wasn’t in, some books might have been stolen, the check is delayed, etc.

Some writing is for the journal and stays asleep. Some is purely for the book. Some is for the book that sounds wonderful out loud. Find those pieces and create a relationship where you are on the audience’s side.

I also found out this year that shipping grinds you down. If you ship 200 books a year, no problem. If you start shipping 500 a year, it steals 8 hours out of every week. I found U-Line and they can send bubble mailers next day way cheaper than Staples or OfficeMax, and I started using Endicia, a program that helps with labels, printing shipping labels, and storage of addresses. I tried having a third party ship, but there were a lot of mistakes. I for sure needed distribution to handle it all.

Have a debrief when an author comes back from the road. Find out which cities and readings sucked or ruled. Ask if they want to tour with others. You make more money alone, but it can wear you out. I recommend touring with one or two authors max, so you can stay in one hotel room and save dough. It also gives you more stage time, which leads to more book sales.

When you do a reading, if you are at a venue with an open mic, or other readers and folks are drinking, 25 minutes is plenty. An hour is good if you are a headliner at a college and are famous. Adjust your set once you are there. What if the mood is grim and you planned all your fart haiku’s based on Eileen Myles’ Peanut Butter poem? Adjust your set, wear a watch or set your cell phone stopwatch on. NEVER ASK IF YOU CAN DO JUST ONE MORE. If there’s a standing ovation, you don’t need to ask, just do it. Have that piece planned. Never say thanks for coming out. Never say “are you still with me?” It is not your job to express yourself, and if they don’t get it, fuck ‘em. It is your job to make them know. Make them know. Some writing is for the journal and stays asleep. Some is purely for the book. Some is for the book that sounds wonderful out loud. Find those pieces and create a relationship where you are on the audience’s side. They do not need your enlightenment. They are honoring you with their time, sometimes money. Do not shit on them. Every time you do, you shit on the next 100 writers that have to fight to change their minds.

You will get hate mail from scorned writers that don’t realize that your position of power as a publisher is miniscule. They will think you have all the cards and aren’t being fair. Let them go on. When sending rejection letters, make suggestions for where else you appreciate as a press.

For us we have a mission: We know most folks think poetry is a drag and we are determined, as long as our family of authors have the energy to keep going, to change an audience’s minds and let them know that a great line of poetry is a bullet and a novel is a slow strangle.

When you get distribution, you will need to put around 100 of each title in stock, more for the hot titles. Get that money ready ahead of time if all your records for growth in 3 years looks right on.

We were asked to make ebooks. Ebooks are only 10 percent of our profit. Poetry is different. People want to smell poetry books and rub them on their butts. They want to crack them, dog ear, and rip apart and put them onto their bulletin boards. This is beautiful.

Amazon is a beast. But the public loves it. We link all our titles to only, but most our sales still come from Amazon. They have a new rule where if your distributor runs out of stock, they will reject orders. Keep your stock hot and up to date. Strange things will occur where you didn’t know you were out of stock because a book store snatched up a load suddenly. You will be playing constant chess regarding having some money, needing to buy book stock, and not having the actual money for 6 months. Hopefully you have a financial wizard on your team. Or a real wizard made of grits.

Why am I still making books after ten years of struggle and unforeseen obstacles? Why are any of us in the indie lit world pushing up against the behemoth of the mainstream publishers? Is it a war? Is it a winnable war? Is it a war worth winning? I think we have a little something extra. For us we have a mission: We know most folks think poetry is a drag, and we are determined, as long as our family of authors have the energy to keep going, to change an audience’s minds and let them know that a great line of poetry is a bullet and a novel is a slow strangle. To show them the evidence that poetry is working class. Poetry is the future of lit. Its power is becoming common and greater. I can feel it.

swiss_derrick_061109DERRICK C. BROWN is the winner of the 2013 Texas Book of The Year award for Poetry. He is a former paratrooper for the 82nd Airborne and is the president of one of what Forbes and Filter Magazine call “…one of the best independent presses in the country,” Write Bloody Publishing. He is the author of four books of poetry. The New York Times calls his work “…a rekindling of faith in the weird, hilarious, shocking, beautiful power of words.”

The Stories We Share

Survivor (as in “Eye of the Tiger”) is to play a free show in Los Angeles later this summer. I stumbled upon this exciting news the other day while browsing Thrillist LA’s list of (they say) every free outdoor concert in LA. It was mid-afternoon, June gloom burned off, the sky clear blue, the asphalt in the parking lot outside my office softening at a warm 90-something degrees.

Meanwhile, I sat shivering inside at my desk as I do every afternoon, clutching a mug of jasmine tea and wrapped in my sweater against the AC which blasts like we’re all penguins here and the company means to keep us happy with native habitat temperature.

With numb fingers, I jotted down the date of the show and pulled up YouTube for a dance party down memory lane. My favorite Survivor song is still, as it has been for nearly thirty years, “The Search Is Over.” I cranked the volume. My shoulders swayed. I softly sang along. When the tune ended five minutes later, I found a YouTube mix channel to keep me grooving in my cushioned ergonomic-knock-off chair all afternoon. Survivor led to Journey, led to Heart, to Foreigner. It was a totally ‘80s dance party. I want to know what love is, I want you to show me.

And then my boss popped his head into my office.

“Having a flashback?” he asked, leaning on the door jamb.

“You can blame Steven,” I replied.


Steven was my first crush. He was smart, cute, a grade ahead of me, and his family’s house was up the street from mine. Maybe because we were heading in the same direction, or maybe because I was younger and someone asked him to ensure I arrived safely, but it didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that Steven walked me home from camp every afternoon the summer before fifth grade. I was a little awkward. I hadn’t yet learned how to be cool in close proximity to a crush. I yearned for the ease of conversation like in pre-school days, before we all differentiated into genders with crush-worthy eyes and unreasonable desires. I longed for a third party to break the ice. Nevermind. I got something better: a song.

Steven had a lovely voice. On the winding hills of West Lake Shore Drive, in our Velcro high tops, wet bathing suits hanging from our backpacks, my pony tail swinging, lips red and sticky from the afternoon’s Italian Ices, Steven a shoulder’s width away, he began to sing.

How can I convince you what you see is real
Who am I to blame you for doubting what you feel
I was always reachin’, you were just a girl I knew
I took for granted the friend I have in you

I spent the summer memorizing the words to the song he said was his favorite, and wondering if there was a secret message he was trying to relay to me through them. The next year I discovered Duran Duran and bought my very first cassette—a-ha—at the mall with some allowance money. Of course I listened to the Beatles, and I had been singing Simon and Garfunkel with my dad since forever. But that summer before fifth grade I was blissfully between kid and tween. Steven was my first crush; Survivor my first band. The story of that summer is embedded in the track. The Search Is Over.

I was living for a dream, loving for a moment
Taking on the world, that was just my style
Now I look into your eyes, I can see forever
The search is over, you were with me all the while


“See?” I said to my boss after telling him the story. “You can blame Steven for the dance party.”

“Music and scents,” he said. “They always bring me back.” Joan Jett began to rock the computer speakers. My boss told me about Amanda and the first band he loved.
There’s a little movie of long ago that springs into our minds when we hear a song or smell something familiar. We all have these stories that bang around in our chests, waiting to be tapped with the right reminder. Every event in our lives is recorded in the proverbial black box. Once retold to another, it sparks a memory in the listener whose own story then flutters against his ribs. Look at Humans of New York, or listen to the recordings at StoryCorps. It doesn’t take long to feel blessed to hear the narrative people share. To feel honored to be witness to their stories. To feel connected.


Recently, I found myself in a Facebook crossfire between strangers linked through a mutual friend. The strangers were from different states, different times of the friend’s life, and on opposing sides of the political battlefield. Seventy-five comments later, the conversation jumped to another thread like wildfire leaping a fence. The ammunition built as more strangers united by the single friend took sides. Useless clichés and commonplace platitudes were thrown back and forth. Each side barely listened to the others’ shibboleth.

We have to have these debates. Our evolution depends on it, and the vitriol is part of the passion. But rhetoric aside, beneath the politics and other dividing lines, don’t we all have the fluttering wings of stories yearning to release? Beyond the hierarchy of supervisors and employees, doesn’t the whiff of Thanksgiving dinner or the bridge of a song recall some elemental, specific, human experience that we each once had? And aren’t they all, despite the nuanced differences, essentially the same? Love. Sadness. Awe.

Our humanity is not expressed in politics, but in the narratives of our lives. Humans have shared them with one another since time began. Songs and storytelling have existed in wealth and desperation, from the beginning of history to the present day, in every corner of the globe. The common ground of our shared human experiences is the thread that stitches us together, despite our egos, our dogmas, our fears.

If there’s any hope for humanity—not the species, but the spirit—it is here: in the tales of first loves; in the songs that lift our spirits; in the emotions we all know. And in the stories we share.

Chipped Edges Crumble & A Criss-Crossed Sky

Chipped Edges Crumble

In summer, Gram lazily waves at me with the flyswatter while Gramp chain-smokes Swisher Sweets in his underwear, wrestling always playing on the heavy wooden-entombed TV. Even the flies are hot, buzzing in wide erratic circles around the trash, full of green and beige scooped cantaloupe rinds. I feel like Gram’s china, cornflower blue and fragile, a chipped edge turned toward the back of the hutch, dusted only when company calls. Outside, there is a small breeze, and the thick concrete step is warm and welcome on my rear. I cross and uncross my legs, pick at my funky toenail, wonder where my cousin is, and watch the road where nothing ever happens, the sidewalk that ends in a crumble before the faded stop sign.

A Criss-Crossed Sky

We wanted a criss-crossed sky. Unpronounceable food. Premium toilet paper. So we moved to the city, where bustle became background hum. We gaped at personal ads in indie lit zines (free at all 87 coffeehouses, with a Moroccan yerba mate), dangled hamachi crudo and kosho ponzu over each others’ open mouths, then made love on a jutty-metal mattress above hardwood floors, college kids planking on the fence outside our poo-speckled windows. Rave-dancing cockroaches in the kitchen, my jacked wallet and laptop, a triple homicide two blocks away wore us thinner than my faded 1994 flannel, resurrected for this fine young city. We stopped eating and sexing. You busted the kitchen door like cops, flashlight cocked, crushed roaches by the shoeful. It was my goddamn shoe. You screamed about mixed kale and arugula, because ‘[I] should damn well know how [you] hate arugula, by this point.’ You scrubbed the shit from our glass until your knuckleskin cracked and bled into soapy streaks. Not even the pedicab drivers hipstering or the homeless men humpbacking could cheer you. Finally, we were dairy and gluten-free, non-GMO, all organic, no hormones, additives, or irradiation, no artificial flavors, fertilizers, preservatives, pesticides, or colors. But, at the end, only air on our plates. And we couldn’t even see the fucking sky.

hlnelson_headshotH.L. Nelson ( is head of Cease, Cows and Associate Editor of Qu. Her publications include Writer’s Digest, PANK, Hobart, Connotation Press, Thrice, etc. Her poem “Absolution” was nominated for the 2013 Best of the Net. She’s compiling an anthology with stories by Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, Lindsay Hunter, and others.

Word from the Editor

I knew that being the editor of Lunch Ticket would require filling some pretty big shoes, but it wasn’t until I was directing the journal that I fully understood the extent of what that implied: it wasn’t just a matter of successfully leading a staff of almost 40 volunteers, but of building upon what the editor before me had established. The goal of that structure, though, wasn’t just to stitch together various pieces of writing and art that we thought were good, and call it our latest issue. The goal of that structure was to curate a publication that mattered.

But who am I to say what matters? And who are we to say that our publication matters? Well, that’s a great question. But hear me out, and then decide for yourself—because that, I think, is the point.

As it is affiliated with Antioch University Los Angeles, Lunch Ticket has a social justice-oriented mission. Accordingly, we seek to publish work that pushes this agenda. But how does a piece do that?

Pieces that are social justice-minded show a capacity for the moral imagination. That doesn’t mean it has to be sugar and rainbows—in fact, it tends to be the opposite: they ask the hard questions; they look issues squarely in the eye that people generally shy away from; and they tell the reader that they now have to make a conscious choice. The reader, once the piece has been put down, has been made aware of things through a point of view not necessarily their own, and must take newfound responsibility for the way they act in relation to all others. These pieces are simply trying to make sense of the world, but they do so in a way that reveals something about the state of humanity that forces us to make a choice about it, whether personal or extra-personal, because we find that it isn’t necessarily the world itself that has to be made sense of but the people inhabiting it. And as such the effects of that choice ripple outwards. These pieces close the gap between what is you and what is not you; and in so doing, their purposes pass from simply invoking feeling to having true meaning.

Therefore, I think it matters what a piece of art, in general, has to say. The pieces in this issue, then, as with all others, aren’t just shouting into a void or adding to the noise: people are listening. And I think they listen more carefully than we give them credit for.

David Bumpus


My favorite Boston bookstoremy singular favorite in a city purportedly abounding with more bookstores per square mile than any other—is like a reversed Narnia wardrobe. When I think of it, there’s a wide glowing window display and thirty minutes disappearing faster than a J.P. Licks frappe. Those thirty minutes would be, of course, window-browsing moments. Step inside Harvard Book Store and delightful minutes in the shop would translate to hours gone by in the outside world.

In my thirteen years as a Bostonian, I often bathed in the warm glow of the Boston Book Store display. Nothing fancy: no bells, whistles, or tourist traps splayed with the university logo. Just a series of windows along the Mass Ave. sidewalk set with new releases, best sellers, and staff picks. Curious portals to new worlds and ideas.

Despite the adage, I found cover art mattered. So did font. A book in the window with an interesting cover could pull me through the heavy front door into the stacks. If I didn’t have more than a few minutes on my slushy commute, I’d scrawl titles in my journal. Middlesex. Me Talk Pretty One Day. The Lovely Bones. Often, I did find minutes to spare for an inside browse around current titles. A jaunt downstairs to the used collection. I’d wander around a bit until a cozy section seduced me, and there loosen my scarf, unbutton my coat, let my bag fall to the floor. Sometimes I stood propped against a bookcase as my eyes scanned the spines. Many times I’d tuck away in a corner, fold myself small on the floor, limbs piled together, so other patrons could step over me while I travelled through narratives of other lives, other eras.

Time slipped by in those visits. In the face of books and stories, the universe felt endlessly expansive. But, eventually my stomach would rumble and my feet start begging to get out of those damn boots. In the last few minutes I’d stop at my touchstone, Fiction – W: every visit I was sure to check the Jeanette Winterson shelf. I don’t know why I did, but because of her I discovered other writers nearby: Sarah Waters. Alice Walker. Jeannette Walls. Ah, the beauty of a bookstore.

All over Cambridge and Boston were independent book and music shops alike, and cafes to sit and read. The streets were lined with shops offering respite from the cold. Shelves stacked with imagined worlds to warm the soul. It was a glorious place to live for a girl like me, amid a culture of people who loved books, music, and cafés.

Meanwhile, Starbucks had arrived. Up and down Mass Ave., independent cafes—along with their weekly open mics—began to close down. Napster showed up, and record shops shuttered. Even through this shift, bookstores remained, and I remained oblivious to the corporate restructuring of the book and music industries taking place across the rest of the country. Despite the intellectual colonization that was streamlining America’s interests, Boston’s book and literary culture thrived.

Sometime in the mid-aughties, I left New England. I had a combination of bitter cold weariness, dark days depression, and an itch for something new. Barely sure where Los Angeles was in the general scope of “southern California,” I headed west. On the way, my best friend called from San Francisco.

“I can’t wait to hear you tell me how much you love February,” she said.

Sure enough, two months into SoCal living, I texted her from Santa Monica. It was February. The sun was hot on my shoulders. I was barefoot on the beach. I was smitten with the Golden State.

I’ve been in Los Angeles for eight years now. I love this town, and I love February—I’ll shout it from the Hollywood Hills. (I probably have.) There’s inspiration tucked into every side alley. Songs and stories in every guest house. I could write through the endless summer about all the things I adore about this town. But oh, I do so miss those Boston bookstores.

Here in L.A. I understand why people leap to Amazon. I understand the one-stop-shop online easy-peasy lemon squeezy la-dee-da. It’s cheap. It’s fast. It’s practical.

One Friday evening last autumn I had a hankering for a particular book. I skipped out on a yoga class to hit the library before it closed, but I didn’t check the listed hours and ended up standing alone in the library parking lot staring at the locked entrance. That night I drove the streets of North Hollywood, Burbank, and Studio City, searching for a place to buy my book. The one shop I knew about was open, but on their Barnes & Noble shelves I couldn’t find what I wanted. To reclaim the fruitless evening, I called a friend and the night ended with margaritas. The next day I clicked to Amazon.

Now, to be fair, Los Angeles does have bookstores, and a few excellent ones at that. The problem is like good wine, which I try to stay away from it since I can’t afford to be ruined by good taste: Boston spoiled me. Bookstores were part of my daily commute. The city provided independently curated collections every half block. They seduced me even when I had no thought of books in mind.

Here in L.A., bookstores are destinations to drive to. Events for which I need to clear my calendar. In Los Angeles I never just happen upon a bookstore. I am never seduced.

I suppose this is a call to action. Bookstores in Los Angeles—and perhaps in your town as well—are not just going to set up shop on the broken sidewalk next to our parking meters. They’re coy. They sit in out-of-the-way spots and wait for us to find them.

But you remember, don’t you, the way time used to slip as your eyes scanned the spines? The way you stumbled upon new authors because you, like me, had a touchstone in Fiction – W. How you heard your name calling from the covers and the fonts laid out near the front entryway under the bold sign “New Releases”?

As it turns out, there is one bookstore near my house. I sometimes bike past The Illiad on my way to yoga. A few months ago, I climbed the ladders up to the top shelves, crooked my head to one side, and read every spine in search of the titles on my semester reading list. It is a used bookstore, and scented with that familiar mustiness of old pages. There are stacks in disarray at the front desk which is attended by delightfully unkempt introverts.

I’ve always been torn about buying used books and CDs: no payment for the writer, for the artist. And yet: it is a bookstore. Bookstore means unbuttoning my coat and laying down my bag. It means walking through the Narnia wardrobe and losing myself, unintended, in an ever-expanding universe. In this world of virtual shops and productive shopping, The Illiad is a heaven of exploration and hidden treasures.

In the end, I found all but five of the books on my list. For the rest I used the Amazon gift card I received over the holidays. This is the way I intend to do it for now on—local, independent bookstore first, even if it is inconvenient or a little out of the way; independent online retailer second—many brick and mortar stores, including the Harvard Book Store, are also online retailers; Amazon as a last resort.

After all, as writers and book lovers, it is not enough to have a stack of tomes next to the bed. We must support our literary culture, and at the very least, find and support one place of book lover refuge nearby. Because some nights are for margaritas. But some are for books.

Kiese Laymon, Author of Long Division

If you haven’t read or written or listened to something at least three times, you have never really read, written, or listened.


++++++++++++++++++++++++i—Kiese Laymon, Long Division


Long DSome authors write along the questions, Is it true, is it necessary, is it kind? Long Division is true. More than ever, it is necessary. But is it kind? Rarely are things in this complicated world that are true and necessary also kind. Long Division does not shrink away from this dichotomy—instead, it rises to meet the challenge. The bravery of writing a story without shrinking away from the violence, the ugliness, the disappointments, and the sorrow of it, while still running full-tilt towards unabashed, unashamed love is itself a revelation and a revolution.

Long Division is one of those rare novels whose opening hook is so engaging, so vibrant, so off-the-page-and-walking-next-to-you-alive, that it’s almost less like reading a book with characters than it is like being pulled into a story with some people you just met—that’s how wholly formed and fully realized the characters feel. Much of that is attributable to Laymon’s gift for capturing the natural, authentic flow of speech, and the ways in which dialect and location work together to become a character in its own right. Rather than having the calculated sense of I AM A DISTINCT VOICE, the unique nuances of each character’s speech—from City and LaVander to Baize and Shalaya—are distinctive, rich, complex, and resonant. They are voices that are glaringly absent from the books comprising “The Canon.” They are the voices that readers need to hear. They are the voices that remind us of many truths that are inconvenient to white MFA students. That, in itself, is an inconvenient truth. Which is why Long Division is necessary.

There’s a lot of that kind of messy truth in Long Division. Not all of it is comfortable to sit with—in fact, most of it isn’t, and that’s precisely the point. A lot of these truths, and the subsequent questions they raise, are difficult issues to deal with in our realities—issues of race, of class, of location, intersectionality, and the “queering” of bodies—despite the difficulty of these topics, the way that social critique works inside Long Division is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Through City (both of him), Laymon truly allows his readers to lay down their defenses and honestly listen. But most importantly, through each twist and turn of the narrative, Laymon asks the reader a very important question—one that they will hopefully carry back out into the “real world” and keep in the forefront of their minds: What does is truly mean to make social or political “progress,” and if we buy into the popular political narrative, that we as a country have made so much progress over the past century, then Why does it still hurt?

Long Division is adept at sidestepping a classification—while reading it, you’re going to move through a series of questions: Just what is this novel, anyway? Is it literary fiction? Is it sci-fi, or does it live in that nebulous realm of slipstream? Is it magical realism? What am I reading and how am I supposed to feel about it? As in life, so is it in art: the genre lines are blurry, because human beings are blurry, and no matter how desperately we try to squeeze each other into neat little boxes, the truth of the matter is our stories just won’t fit. Which is why the metanarrative, the “story-within-a-story” format, works to the advantage of the novel and its three distinct timelines (1964, 1985, and 2013). In the novel Long Division that we are reading, the protagonist of our novel, City, is reading a different novel, also called Long Division, about a different character, also named City. All three timelines are fictional, but due to our reader suspension of disbelief, we are working under the assumption that the 2013 timeline is “true” and the 1964/1985 timelines may or may not be true, depending on whether we believe that (our) City’s Long Division is a journal [true] account of time travel, or if we believe that the second Long Division is just a novel. Were it not for Laymon’s name on the cover of the book, the suspension of disbelief would be wholly intact, and the reader alone would be in charge of deciding who was the “real narrator” of the book—Laymon’s structure places a lot of faith in the reader, a decision that is risky but pays off through the unifying message of love that is woven into the tapestry of the narrative arc of each unique timeline and the places where the different world collide. You can easily work Long Division into the same discussion you’d have about Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Audrey Niffennegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, or Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—and you should—because this story has earned a place beside these authors.

“LaVander Peeler cares too much what white folks think about him,” but thankfully—Kiese Laymon does not. What he does care about, though, is love. The love that these characters have and build for each other. The questions about how these characters want to be loved, whether they think they deserve to be loved, and most importantly: How can a community love each other in the face of a dominant culture that does not love them? How can a community hang onto each other and become stronger, instead of climbing down into the hole alone? Many readers will see accurate reflections of their world, and rejoice in finding themselves in the pages, celebrated on their own terms, and subject to the same pivotal moments that define the world of a novel. Other readers may be invited into a world that exists right next to their own—like a trapdoor in the forest—close to their world, but still removed. They will be asked to be quiet in this world, because through that trapdoor is what’s most important: listening. Really, truly listening, and for once, hearing what is being said, without just waiting for their turn to speak.

–Allie Marini Batts, Lunch Ticket Managing Editor

kieselaymonKiese Laymon
is the author of the novel,
Long Division, and the essay collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Long Division was named one of the Best of 2013 by a number of publications, including Buzzfeed, The Believer, Salon, Guernica, Mosaic Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and the Crunk Feminist Collective. Laymon has written essays and stories for numerous publications including Esquire,, Colorlines, NPR, Gawker,, Longman’s Hip Hop Reader, The Best American Non-required Reading, Guernica, Mythium, and Politics and Culture. Laymon is currently a Professor of English at Vassar College. He proudly calls himself a black, southern writer, and unabashedly addresses racism and cultural issues in his work. His outspoken and honest approach to conversations about social justice evidence his leadership in the literary and activist communities. 

Antioch alumni Daniel José Older and Jamie Moore spoke with Laymon about writing, language, cultural standards, and love in our communities.

Daniel José Older: One of the things that we love about Long Division is that it tells a great story while guiding us through so many layers of power, history, and pain. Complex in both theme and narrative structure, but City’s voice and honesty carry us along lovingly. How did you set out structuring the novel?

Kiese Laymon: Hmm. Man, real interview, huh?

DJO: Bwahaha. Sorry, brother.

KL: No, that’s great. That’s great. I feel like you kind of have to scrap three or four structures—or three or four or fourteen structures before you find one, and for me, the primary structure initially was—I wanted to think about this in terms of days—like, over how many days actually did the novel take place? And the first big draft, it was about seven days. And then structurally, that didn’t make too much sense because really, the meant of a lot of this stuff happened on a Sunday, and so then I just thought I needed only two, three, four days. And then, I was like, “I can have the equivalent of seven days if I break it up into three different time periods.” So I was kind of stuck on this idea of seven or eight days, somehow, some way. And I just ended up still having seven or eight days, but just in three different time periods instead of having it just consecutively one time period. I don’t know if that’s a great answer, but that’s true.

DJO: Once you had that structure, did you find freedom within that structure? Did everything take off from that?

KL: Yeah. You know, that’s how I feel. I feel like once you find the structure, then you can kind of really play, and you can actually create the flow and resonance, you know? So that’s what I felt. But you know, this book is kind of tricky because for the longest, I didn’t—we didn’t know if it was going to be sold as two different books. I wanted it to be like, a book where if you read it like this, and then you could flip it and read the other one like this, but the publisher decided they wanted to do interspersed chapters, so that—when they made that decision, that dictated a lot of how the structure actually changed, because you know, you needed to be kind of thoughtful about how certain chapters ended and how other chapters began, because sometimes chapters would end and begin in different time periods. Yeah, so I don’t feel like I nailed the structure at all. But I’m working on this new thing, and I feel like I got it. I feel like I got it now.

DJO: Hmm. Would you do something different?

KL: If I could do it over again?

DJO: Yeah.

KL: Oh, yeah! Most definitely.

I think like, authorship is crucial to the narrative. Like, you know—who’s writing whom? Who’s creating whom?

DJO: Structurally, specifically?

KL: Yeah. Structurally, if I could do it over again, I—I mean, what I really want to try to do is I want to try to start that book in 1985. Yeah. Structurally, I would start it in 1985, and I think that the interspersed chapters—I mean, you know—I don’t think I would do it. Now I think that I’ve sold the book, I’d have a bigger say. I actually would try to like, yeah, do what I wanted to do with it. First of all, not have any author’s name on the book, start the book in 1985, have the flip book start in 2013 and have a middle section that was 1954. That’s what I wanted to do. I just didn’t have enough pull to pull it off.

JM: Yeah, definitely the way that the reader interacts with the text physically, too. I think that definitely would change the reader’s experience.

KL: Yeah. I mean,absolutely. I think there’s something to say about, you know—first book coming from a person of color being this kind of difficult—structurally difficult book. Which I keep hearing people say. And I think that’s important but, you know, I’m all about revision, and if I could do it over again, I’d definitely try to do something different. But the main thing I want to do, is I just really wanted my name nowhere on the book.

DJO: Why’s that?

KL: I think authorship is crucial, right? I think like, authorship is crucial to the narrative. Like, you know—who’s writing whom? Who’s creating whom? And I think when you see my name on the book, like, I understand why it might have to be there, but—you know, at the end of that book, I’m still interested in who’s writing Long Division? You know what I’m saying? Like, which City is writing Long Division? Is Baize writing Long Division? I just think the way to—I think the way you have to push it out to the market is just—you know, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. But that’s all good. We can’t always do what we want to do, but next time I’m gon’ do what I want to do.

DJO: I mean, for me, the structure, you could’ve done that, or you could’ve done the other way, and the book still would’ve sung to me, because at the core of it, what I took from it was: yes, an amazing story, yes, characters that I both loved and believed in deeply, but also that it spoke to what it means to be an artist of color on an emotional and intellectual level at the same time. And no essay I’ve ever read has done that, and no book I’ve ever read has done that the way that Long Division did. Because it’s fucked up out here, and Long Division

KL: It’s fucked up out here.

DJO: It’s fucked up out here, and Long Division knew that. And so my question is like, did you go in—in your head, were you like, “It’s fucked up out here, and I’m gonna write a book about it”? Or were you like, “I’ma write a book.” And during the course of it, you’re like, “Damn, it’s fucked up out here.” Like—[Laughs]—you know what I mean?

KL: Yeah. You know, I wrote—I knew it was fucked up out here when I wrote, when I started it, and I wanted to see if I could propel a flat while kind of constantly talking about how fucked up it is—

DJO: Yes!

KL:—and how beautiful it is out here because have a lot of—because we have to rely on one another and need like—

DJO: Yes.

KL:—you know, sometimes intimate, sometimes terrible ways, and ultimately, you know, I just think—I think the people are trying to write us off the face of the Earth.

DJO: Yes.

KL: And I just wanted to write a book that was unafraid of actually talking about being written off the face of the Earth—

DJO: Yes.

KL:—so that’s what I tried to do.

DJO: You did it, brother.

KL: Thank you.

JM: I have a question about language, and I think this is a conversation, Daniel, that you and I have had before when I was preparing for this lecture about reclaiming voices for our MFA program. Whenever we have characters that are speaking any type of slang or any kind of urbanly-identifiable language, we are questioned about the authenticity of our characters. I know that you have ongoing conversations about the necessity of having your characters speak a certain way that reflects the region, so I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit.

KL: Yeah. I mean,—[Laughs]—I don’t want it to be a doom and gloom interview, but you know, this American literary enterprise—it doesn’t just attack our bodies—the major attack is on our language, and I think that is the fucking craziest attack, because like, we, black and brown folk, have like, broken and bended and breathed life into this bullshit-ass language that we were given, and then people see our language often, and they’re like—literarily they’re like, “No,” you know, “So-and-so’s not gon’ get it. Middle America’s not gon’ get it. Blah blah blah blah blah.” And the book literally is about how we navigate being present in our language and growing in our language. So the first sentence, “LaVander Peeler cares too much what white folks think about him,” I’m thinking about—that’s an important sentence to start the book. It’s important that another black boy is talking about how another black boy presents himself to white folk.

And at the end of that sentence, it’s, you know—he’s acknowledging—he knows he’s talking to a lot of different people, but he also knows white folk are listening, and even at fourteen he knows what he’s not supposed to say to white folk, so I just think—I’m trying to say like, we’re not like, all super rhetorically flexible, but I think we’re—I think most of us are kinda sorta like, rhetorically flexible by necessity. And I just wanted a book that was aware of that. But at the same time, I feel like Paul Beatty already wrote a book of like, some you know, super hyper-literate, fucking, “read everything in the world” kind of narrator. And I like that book. I love that book. But I didn’t want them to be like, super literate, you know? I wanted them to be literate, but not super literate.

DJO: Were there moments for you, when you were writing this book, that you just stopped in your tracks and had to take a moment, either literally, right then and there on the page, like, “Holy shit,” or like, you just had to step away from the process, either out of awe or frustration?

KL: Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question. I feel like—you know, that’s a really good question. Nobody ever asked that question before. There were three moments, I think, that fucked me up for a few days. The first was when I realized what LaVander Peeler was gonna have to do at that—at that contest. That got me. That got me misty for a while and just kind of—kind of broke my heart in this way that was good, but ultimately I was just like, “Fuck.” And later on in the book, when City is leaving Baize in the hole, that got me. A lot. That—that really got me. ‘Cause you know when you write a novel, these characters are real, and—to you. And that—that broke me. And then the last scene, which I wish I could write over, but—you know, when they’ve gone through all of this, and you know, he’s looking at his hands, and he’s thinking about what he’s been through, and his grandmother’s going down the street—you know, I just see the image of him walking into these woods with his grandmother’s car slow-crawling down the road, and they’re literally about to get in this hole together because they don’t feel like they have anywhere else to go. And I feel like the book starts with this question of like, what is love, and how does love look between like, two black boys? And I think that answer at the end is a really fucking sad, sad, sad, also slightly hopeful scene for me. So when I wrote that scene, I was like—I knew I was done with this book. This book is—I just—I didn’t know what to feel about that last scene. And ultimately, I didn’t—I just hated that I felt like I was telling the truth.

And your book in a lot of ways is your heart. And so, I’m just like, yo. I trust that there’s people out there that’re gonna do right by my heart. And I’m sure a lot of people out there aren’t, but as long as a few people do do right by it, I think we gon’—you know. We gon’ be alright.

DJO: Yeah. I think what makes that book so real in part is that it asks the question that it takes an entire book to answer.

KL: Right.

DJO: You know?

KL: Man…

JM: But I feel like when you reach that truth, it’s harder to put your work out into the world. You’re almost afraid to share those things about culture—about black love that aren’t necessarily talked about. How do you deal with that personally, I guess? How do you deal with the fear of that conversation out in the world? Because once it’s out there, you know, people will talk about it and take it out of context and do whatever. Do you have fear about that?

KL: Oh yeah. I have, like, immense fear. Especially in this hyper-mediated world, where people can look and see what everybody is saying about your book or your article or your short story—I was really afraid. But I mean, that book is really about community, you know? Like, I didn’t want that boy—I didn’t want City to be in the hole by himself, the way Invisible Man was, because I just think that that’s not us, and I don’t want that to be us. We all have to navigate that state of aloneness, but I just think community is essential. And so putting this book out there, telling the kinds of truths I think I’m telling, or exploring the kinds of truths I think I’m exploring, was made a little easier when you just think that there are other folks out there who are kinda sorta dealing with the same shit, or dealing with differently intricate or differently and fucked up shit, and you just trust that there’s a community of people out there who want to read. And want to write. You know?

You know, what you—yeah. And so you just trust. And I just think about love, right? At some point, you just gotta be like, “Here. Here’s my heart. You can do whatever you want to it.”

DJO: [Laughs]

KL: I mean, at some point!

JM: Right.

KL: And your book in a lot of ways is your heart. And so, I’m just like, yo. I trust that there’s people out there that’re gonna do right by my heart. And I’m sure a lot of people out there aren’t, but as long as a few people do do right by it, I think we gon’—you know. We gon’ be alright.

DJO: Wow.

JM: Yeah.

DJO: Whew. Shifting gears, although I just want to stay right there for a second—[Laughs]. Okay. How to Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America: it was a revelation in voice storytellling and truth-telling. It feels like an almost spontaneous purge because the flow is so on point and unflinching. But like with Long Division, there is so much rigor in its construction and meaning. Did you sit down knowing that you were going to write like, “Oh my fucking god! Rah!” And just vomit it? Or were you like, “Hmm, let me be strategic about this. Let me do this with construction.”

KL: I was just in a really bad place in my life, man. And I was just kind of writing to try and stay alive and not hurt people. And initially, I would write all of those pieces to my uncle—when he was alive, actually. I was writing it to him, but I didn’t—you know, I didn’t have the—like, I was talking about in the book. I didn’t love him enough to like, show him these essays. And then ultimately, I had written all the essays—I mean, the book was a lot bigger. I had written a lot more essays, but I had never written that story, the actual piece called How to Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America—I had written that. And then one day, my editor was like, “Yo, there’s like, a gap between seventeen and twenty that you don’t really talk about.” And then I said, “Alright.” So I just told myself, “I’m just gon’ sit down and try to remember.” So when I initially published it, it was called How to Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America: A Remembrance, ’cause it was—I hate when people say it wasn’t writing (___), because it was literally just like, I was just trying to remember. But that was the last piece that I’d written in the book, and—I don’t know how to say it other than just like, I was just trying to keep myself—keep the valuable part of myself alive, man, and I just—the only way I could do it was through writing.

DJO: Mm. Mm.

KL: That just sounds mad, like—

DJO: Nuh-uh.


DJO: No, that sounds real. Do you feel more at home writing fiction or non-fiction?

KL: Man, that’s a great question because—the best part of that question is “at home,” right? I feel most at home in fiction, but non-fiction is easier for me to do. In fiction, you know, I’m literally in a home. I can get—my job is to get lost in the home of these characters. My job is literally to be at home. You know what I’m saying? When I’m writing fiction. But non-fiction, because there’s an immediate audience, and you know, you’re dealing with a smaller unit of analysis, I feel like it’s easier, but I definitely feel more at home in fiction. But that shit is harder. I don’t care what nobody say—I mean, that shit is harder.

DJO: Wait, really? You find fiction harder?

KL: It’s harder for me, man, ’cause like—

DJO: That’s so interesting.

KL:—page 270 has to somehow reverberate with page 2. And you gotta let all kinda motherfuckers come through your brain, and you gotta try to like, let those people breathe and talk and fucking shit and do all that stuff—

DJO: True.

KL:—in ways that people want to continue to read, and you can’t count on there being an audience. Like, this is the thing for me, right? With essay writing, it’s easier for me because—it’s easier for me to voice, because I can write to whom I know want to listen. I know there’s gonna be a group of people out there who’s gonna read the shit I write.

DJO: Right.

KL: So that audience propels what I’m doing. But with fiction, for me, it’s just harder. It’s just too many things to balance. I like it more, you know? I’m more at home. But it’s a lot harder. But for you, it’s easier, huh?

DJO: Man, when I tell you that I sit down to write a short story, and I’ll just be like, “[Rapid fire sound effect],”—I mean, I’ll stop and shit, but I just like—I see it, and I get excited, and I write it, and it’s smooth. When I sit down to write an essay, it’s like, “[Violent stomping sound effect]—[Groans].” I cannot do that shit!

KL: [Laughs] What about you, Jamie, what do you think?

JM: I feel like fiction is easier for me, too, as well. And that’s maybe, for me, because I’m allowed to not directly confront any emotions as my own and instead, I kind of put echoes of myself into other characters, and I’m allowed to let other people play out situations that I’m too afraid to confront.

KL: Right.

I mean, the—there’s a lot of answers to that question, but—I mean, the first one is that I think we gotta ask ourselves like: How do we want to be loved? And how do we deserve to be loved? And do we have the capacity to do that?

DJO: That shit’s real.

KL: That makes sense.

DJO: I did want to ask if you have just a general—you know, like we’ve talked about. We all out here kind of trying to figure out our path, and the system is fucked up, and white supremacy is real in the publishing world and even saying that, you know, like, becomes a problem somehow for people. So fuck all that, but what are the conversations that we need to be having with each other that we’re not, and what are the—you know, what are the words that need to be spoken that aren’t being spoken amongst ourselves, not to white people?

KL: I mean, the—there’s a lot of answers to that question, but—I mean, the first one is that I think we gotta ask ourselves like: How do we want to be loved? And how do we deserve to be loved? And do we have the capacity to do that?

DJO: Wow.

KL: And I think that’s a fucking—them’s three questions motherfuckers lifetimes avoiding.

DJO: Yes.

KL: You know what I’m saying? How do you want to be loved? Like, how do you deserve to be loved, and do you have it in you? To love that way? And I think those questions go to the root of like, white supremacy, and they go to the root of like, black and brown love. I think they go to the root of—shit, everything that I value, but I just think we run away from that, man. And you know, I think we all run away from it, but men tend to run away from it in the most violent ways, I think.

DJO: That’s real.

KL: Or in differently violent ways. In ways that hurt people more, I think. But yeah, so—so that’s one of the questions. And I think another question I think we should be willing to ask each other—and this is real. This is real to think about writers. This is real about people who, you know, are janitors, who are administrators, who are teachers—I think the question has to be like, can somebody pay you enough to not love your people?

DJO: Damn.

JM: Mm.

KL: You know what I’m saying?

DJO: Yeah.

KL: Can you get paid—’cause I think that’s what people trying to do. Can they like—and, and if the answer is yes, I think we need to be clear about: What’s your rate? You know what I’m saying? Like, what is your going rate? If motherfuckers can pay you enough to not love your people, how much is that? Is that eighteen dollars an hour? Is that a hundred thousand dollars? Like—ultimately, I think we need to get the point where the answer to that is no.

Fanm-084Daniel José Older is the author of the upcoming young adult novel Shadowshaper (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015) and the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which begins in January 2015 with Half Resurrection Blues from Penguin’s Roc imprint. Publishers Weekly hailed him as a “rising star of the genre” after the publication of his debut ghost noir collection, Salsa Nocturna. He co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History and guest edited the music issue of Crossed Genres. His short stories and essays have appeared in, Salon, BuzzFeed, the New Haven Review, PANK, Apex, Strange Horizons, and the anthologies Subversion and Mothership: Tales Of Afrofuturism And Beyond. Daniel’s band Ghost Star gigs regularly around New York, and he facilitates workshops on storytelling from an anti-oppressive power analysis. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic, and hear his music at and @djolder on Twitter.


Jamie Moore (headshot)Jamie L. Moore is the author of the novella, Our Small Faces (ELJ Publications, 2013). She is a 2014 Kimbilio Fellow and an alum of the VONA workshop and Squaw Valley Writers Workshop. Her work can be found in Blackberry: A Magazine, Mojave River Review, Emerge Lit Journal, Drunk Monkeys, and Moonshot Magazine. She currently works as an Adjunct English Professor at College of the Sequoias, and is working on completing a novel.

Lev Grossman, Author

Lev Grossman

Photo: Amy Sly

Lev Grossman graduated from Harvard College in 1991 with a degree in Literature.  He also attended a Ph. D program at Yale University for three years. Grossman is a New York Times national and international best-selling author. His first novel, Warp, was published in 1997. His second novel, Codex, became an international bestseller. The Magicians, the first book of a trilogy, was a New York Times Best Seller, won the 2010 Alex Award, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His follow-up, The Magician King, was an Editor’s Choice pick for The New York Times. The third installment of the trilogy, The Magician’s Land, is set for release by Viking on August 5, 2014.

Grossman is Senior Writer and book critic for Time. He has interviewed Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Salmon Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen, J.K. Rowling, and Johnny Cash. Grossman has also written for The New York Times,, Entertainment Weekly, TimeOut New York, The Village Voice, and The Wall Street Journal.

Lev Grossman has served as a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle and as the chair of the Fiction Awards Panel.  He attended Antioch University of Los Angeles as a guest artist and lecturer during the MFA Creative Writing Winter/Spring Residency, 2013.  

Lev lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, Sophie Gee, and three children, Lily, Benedict, and Halcyon.

David A. Napier interviewed Lev Grossman online via Skype on April 24, 2014.

David A. Napier: You live in a creaky old house in Brooklyn, New York. Does historic architecture inspire or influence your writing? Do you have a favorite place where you choose to write?

Lev Grossman: My house is certainly very old. I wouldn’t actually call it historic, but technically, it is historical. Actually, old places are really important to me. Especially as a fantasy writer, I think fantasy is a lot about history, and it’s a lot about deep time, and it’s a lot about feeling as though the place you’re in has a rich history that’s gone back a long ways. In Tolkien, they’re always walking around, and you get a real sense they’re passing places with history. There are these old barrows and these places that have names you don’t even know where they come from. And the characters don’t even know the names mean either. You get a sense that this place has been inhabited thousands of thousands of years. So, I like old places and I feel drawn to them. And that’s probably the reason why I bought the house that I live in. I guess my favorite place to write would be, probably is my house, it’s certainly one of my favorite places to write. I find that I have less and less choice about where I write these days. So I try not to get too attached to any one place.

DN: What inspires you to write magical fantasy fiction?

LG: I feel like novels tend to have many multiple sources of inspiration, which kind of combine to get you over the bar to actually sit down and write them. Certainly, like a lot of people, I was infatuated with fantasy fiction when I was little. In particular, the Narnia books, but also Tolkien, TH White, Anne McCaffrey, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony. I read, you know, whatever I could find. This was back before the real heyday of mainstream fantasy, before Harry Potter and all that stuff. So you kind of had to dig a little to find that stuff. But I definitely dug. And I kept on, I remained a fantasy reader even as I grew up, which isn’t true of everybody. But when I started writing The Magicians, well, I had a long history of being a fantasy reader. Interesting things were happening with fantasy at that time. You were having people like Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, who were doing things with fantasy that nobody had ever done before. George R. R. Martin. I mean people were really expanding what you could do with fantasy. I suddenly thought, wow, this is exciting. I’ve got to get in on this. The background reading. And then in a funny way writing fantasy was a reaction against my education. My upbringing in a family as the son of two English professors who were very committed to literary fiction and the most strict, rigorous sense of the word, I thought it would piss them off a little if I wrote fantasy. I don’t think I was entirely wrong about that. So, you know, it came from a lot of places.

DN: In one of your blog posts, you mentioned taking a break from writing fiction for a while. Was this a sudden impulsive thought, or an idea that may soon become reality?

LG: Oh, I never take a break for very long. Sometimes I say I’m going to take a break in order partly not to jinx myself. I think it’s a bad idea to say, alright, now I’m going to write a whole ton of fiction. But I’ve already started a couple of other novels since I finished the last one. You know, it gets pretty compulsive after a while, so you can’t really stop.

I am less interested in impressing people and more interested in communicating with people.

DN: Faulkner learned his craft while working in a post office in Oxford, Mississippi. You switch hats between book critic for Time magazine and fiction novelist. Does multi-tasking help or hinder your creativity?

LG: An example that I always think of is Kafka, who was a lawyer by training, but I think he worked at something like an insurance adjustor, and it involved him reading a lot of grisly accident reports sort of disastrous industrial accidents that required a lot of insurance payouts. And I’m pretty sure that made its way into his fiction. With Time, it’s less the connection, it’s less direct, and it’s certainly very good. It trains you to write as opposed to sitting around thinking about writing. You know, when you have a weekly magazine job, you really can’t sit around and wait for the muse to come and inspire you. They give you a page, you fill it with words, it’s going to be shipped out on Wednesday and they’re going to print three million copies. You can’t mess around. And I think some of that, I don’t want to say perfectionism, but learning to skip the kind of the contemplative, meditative, waiting for inspiration to strike stage, has been a real help for my fiction. And my fiction has probably gotten more accessible over the years, and writing for a popular audience like Time’s audience has definitely influenced me. I’ve become very interested as a novelist, I’m interested in people reading, writing stuff that people read. I am less interested in impressing people and more interested in communicating with people.

DN: You mentioned Kafka and several other authors. Do you have a favorite fictional quote?

LG: “There is plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hopebut not for us.” – Franz Kafka.

DN: In storytelling, how do you best describe things that don’t exist?

LG: I always maintain that describing things that don’t exist is not a particular problem of the fantasy writer but a general problem of the fiction writer, because none of this stuff exists. Mrs. Dalloway doesn’t exist. You know, none of this stuff exists. But when it comes to writing things that really don’t exist, I don’t know, I think I have one of these unhealthy escapist imaginations. My therapist once told me he thought I would stop writing fantasy once my treatment was completed. And we’re still arguing that one out. It’s very easy for me. I have a very active imagination. It’s very easy for me to slip out of this world and into different worlds that don’t exist. I think I’ve been doing it since a very young age. It’s very easy. And those worlds seem very real to me. You sort of go in your mind, you sort of think about it, add little touches, you know. Someone’s casting a spell and there’s smoke coming out of his fingertips…what sort of sounds does it make? You think about these things happening and you demand the same level of detail that reality has, and sure enough, those details kind of appear. When you say to yourself, what does it sound like when a hippogriff lands on your lawn? What sort of sounds does it make? You think about it, and you think, oh, right, that’s what it sounds like, and you do your best to describe it. The details kind of come when you ask for them.

DN: So does it strictly come from your internal imagination, or do you use the external environment? Do you walk the streets of New York? Go to an amusement park? Go someplace where you have a connection, an ah-ha moment, where you say to yourself, I can use that in my work.

LG: I wish I could come up with a specific example because I know what you’re talking about. It’s not something I go out and look for, but every once in a while, you’re walking down the street and you see something real and you think, oh, that’s it, I can use that. I am seeing a little aspect of this unreal thing that I’m trying to describe and, you know, maybe it’s, I don’t know, I’m struggling to think of a good example, but you see a texter, or you hear a sound, or you smell something, and you think, right, I’m going to take that and match that up with this thing that isn’t real, and it’ll feel more real.

DN: What advice can you offer to emerging writers who strive to publish in today’s marketplace? 

LG: It’s a challenging one. Well, it’s both more and less challenging than the one I entered. And God knows it took me long enough to get published myself, so I’m familiar with the struggle. The first step for me in getting published was getting an agent. And that solves about 70 percent of your problems. The skill of writing and the skill of getting published are not always united in the same person. It’s very good to be able to find somebody on your behalf. If you’re trying to get yourself published, it’s like trying to defend yourself in court. Never a good idea if you could avoid it. You are somebody who could do it, and knows what you’re doing. Yeah, that’s probably the first thing I’d do, because it’s very hard to find an agent. But if you could do that, that’s sort of your first option. Of course, there are a lot of other options to getting published. I see people break out, having begun telling their stories as podcasts, a lot of self-published authors are breaking out these days and selling a lot of copies, so, of course, that’s very increasingly a viable channel. And then, it poses different problems. It’s easy to self-publish. It’s hard to get your work discovered in the marketplace of self-published work. So it creates a different problem for you. The last thing I’d say is, you look at people who write the kind of work that you feel you’re writing, and you look and see who’s publishing them, who’s representing them, what editors buy that kind of work, what publishers put it out. You look at someone else, see how they did it, and see who’s mining the same veins you are.

DN: When I fly on airplanes, I often peruse the aisles and calculate how many passengers read paper books versus e-books. Do you have any personal preferences in terms of how you like to read? Any thoughts on reading hard copy versus e-reader?

LG: I’m about as reactionary as they come. I don’t read e-books. I don’t read things on screen. It’s not the same experience as reading things on paper.

DN: Why not? Why isn’t it the same experience for you?

LG: That’s a good question. It’s a hard thing to put into words. Partly, I am fond of typography. And good typography basically doesn’t exist in the world of e-readers. When you’re reading a paper book, each page has been laid out specifically in that way by a typographer who knew what they were doing. I find that the rhythm of turning pages is part of it for me. The sense of solidity. I don’t like the fact that words on a screen disappear when you turn off the device or throw away the file. I like the fact that when I close a book those words still exist, and I can put it on my shelf and have a kind of visual reference: here’s this thing that I read. I like the fact that I can look around my study and see all these books that I’ve read. I think it’s a different experience from opening up a Kindle and looking at the menu of books that are there. I’ll be able to pass these books to my children. It’s just incredibly important to me. I’ve already started doing that. My library is migrating upstairs into my oldest daughter’s library. These are things that paper books do for me that e-readers don’t. That said, you know, people buy my books as e-books, and I take the money, so obviously they have a great deal of value. But they don’t have the same kind of value to me as paper books.

DN: What techniques do you employ to drop readers into the fictive dream?

LG: It’s a good way of putting it because that is the goal. It’s my goal. I think of it as trying to remove barriers, remove barriers to entry. I get rid of anything that will stop the reader from sliding down into this imaginative world that you’re trying to create for them. So I tend to think of it in negative terms, what’s not there. Pacing is very important to me, especially at the beginning of the book. I don’t mess around. I try to get things going as soon as possible, and am very economical. Humor is very important. Vocabulary. I don’t set about beating people over the heads with long words until twenty or thirty pages in where hopefully they’re already stuck. Making characters likable. If you can show a character who suffers misfortune in a stoic way early on, I feel as though the reader is very rapidly on their side. I didn’t do that in The Magicians, but it’s a trick I’ve learned since then. It’s terribly important, though. There are some sentences that you cannot quantify, there’s something unexplained about them that the reader wants to solve. You know those sentences when you see them, but it’s tough to reverse engineer them. The openings, I rewrite the openings a hundred times. It’s the most important.

If you look at the opening of The Magician King, you’ll see that the opening paragraph is, sentence-for-sentence, lifted almost entirely from the greatest opening passage that I could think of which is the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. If you were to compare those two paragraphs, I literally typed out the first paragraph of The Big Sleep, I wanted to do something similar. And I never came up with anything better. The Chandler paragraph ends, “I was everything a private detective should be. I was calling on a million dollars.” And it became, “He was everything the king of Fillory should be. He was hunting a magic rabbit.” I’ve employed the cheapest tricks imaginable.

DN: Most successful writers develop a toolbox of craft techniques to help them write. Do you have any specific tools that help you?

LG: Yeah, I suppose I must. I outline a lot. I am a big believer in outlining. I’m not a big believer in sticking to your outline, but having an outline in place when you begin writing, I find, is invaluable in helping you to face the void. It doesn’t seem quite so empty when you have an idea, which may be a delusional one, but at least you have an idea of where you’re going. Some days, what I’m writing seems so terrible to me that I’ll just decide, I’m not even going to revise what I am writing, I’m going to write the most terrible thing I can imagine, I’m just going to write the stupidest thing I can think of next and just go with that, and I’ll fix it later, but just getting my fingers moving, getting the words on the page, even if they’re terrible, might lead to something good. I spend a lot of time trying to find ways to come at my writing as if I were seeing it for the first time. I use software called Scrivener. I don’t know if you know of it?

DN: I’ve heard of it.

LG: I resisted it for many years because of the complicated learning curve, but it’s software created for novelists with the idea of writing long narratives. It’s optimized for that. And when I used it, I realized that Microsoft is a tool for writing business letters, and I was using the wrong tool this whole time. Scrivener, it’s pretty useful, and I recommend it to everybody.

DN: Have you ever considered using software like Dragon, to record your voice and have it type for you?

LG: I’ve never tried it. As you may have noticed, when I speak I hesitate a lot. I’m a much more fluent communicator when I am writing. I think writing would become even harder for me if I had to say it aloud. At this point, I function better with the keyboard than I do with my actual mouth. Likewise, writing things longhand, I know lots of people who write first drafts that way. I can’t do it.

DN: At what point in your writing process do you know how a story will end?

LG: I know before I start. If I am considering writing something, I’ll never start a story or a novel unless I know how it’s going to end. That’s the most important and maybe the only requirement. I have to write towards a goal, otherwise, I can’t improvise one. I have to know from the start.

DN: Do you believe it’s important to teach what you know? If so, how so?

LG: I only teach once or twice a year. It’s funny. Both of my parents are teachers, but I don’t teach very much. How would you teach what you don’t know?

DN: I meant the importance of passing your knowledge on to other people.

LG: I don’t have much experience at being a writing student. I didn’t go to an MFA program, but not for the lack of trying. I didn’t get in to any of them when I applied. The idea of teaching writing is still one that I am learning to understand and trying to figure out what aspects of it can be taught. I don’t actually believe that you can teach somebody to write. Everybody has to teach themselves to write. But it’s possible that you can teach people to teach themselves how to write. I think that might be teachable.

DN: When you’re writing, do words come easily to you, or do you struggle with wordsmithing? Are you in the trenches constructing sentences and they’re just a blur, not making sense, or do words come naturally to you?

LG: On the level of sentences, on the level of putting words together and putting them on a page, that stuff flows quite easily for me. I don’t meet a lot of resistance. And that partly comes from being a professional journalist and literally doing this day in, day out. And sometimes it’s nonfiction and sometimes it’s fiction, but at this point, matching words to ideas and words to things isn’t where the challenge is. The challenge lies elsewhere. It lies in knowing the characters, accessing the deep feelings, and knowing what this sort of compelling vision is. That’s the hard stuff for me. And that is as hard today as when I started out. But actual composition is not the hardest part for me.

DN: Are you a fan of “how-to” craft books on the topic of creative writing?

LG: I don’t know. I’ve never looked at one. I’ve often thought that I probably should, and I never have. I don’t even know what the good ones are, but I should look at them because I am very much of believer in learning that way. And I’m sure I have stuff to learn from them.

DN: The craft books I’ve read discuss the importance of the narrative, finding a balance between characters, dialog, description, how to develop themes and motifs. Some of that must come naturally to you. Or is it a skill you’ve acquired through trial and error?

LG: I wasn’t born with any writing talent whatsoever. When I was in high school and college, I wasn’t a particularly distinguished writer, so everything I’ve learned comes from repetition. You’re reminding me, though. About six months ago, somebody sent me a link to a short article by Chuck Palahniuk, the guy who wrote Fight Club. He wrote this short essay, which was basically, I have one writing tip for you and it’s going to make you a 20% better writer. I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right. So, I should probably read more stuff like that.

I’ve always had a problem of convincing fantasy readers to read this thing that’s probably a little more literary than they’re used to, and convincing the literary readers to read something that’s kind of in a genre that they wouldn’t normally pick up. I’m always fighting that battle on two fronts.

DN: What big obstacles did you encounter with respect to creative writing? Did you overcome them? Or do they still gnaw at you?

LG: Some I learned to avoid after a while. I have no particular gift for short stories. You tend to start out writing short stories, and one thing I had to overcome was I don’t have a good feel for them as a writer or a reader. And I spent years trying to write short stories. I only started finding my voice when I switched to trying to write a novel. That was a big challenge for me. What else, other than lack of self-esteem and all that other stuff. My parents are both writers. It took me a long time to find the confidence to forge my own voice because I felt so overshadowed by theirs. I never really found my voice as a writer until I started writing fantasy. But I write fantasy in a more literary way than most fantasy writers do. And so I’ve always had a problem of convincing fantasy readers to read this thing that’s probably a little more literary than they’re used to, and convincing the literary readers to read something that’s kind of in a genre that they wouldn’t normally pick up. I’m always fighting that battle on two fronts.

DN: The Magician’s Land is the third book of a trilogy set for release in August 2014. Do you feel exuberant or relieved?

LG: [Laughs] I don’t think those are mutually exclusive. I would definitely say two of the things I feel are exuberance and relief. It’s good to feel you’re on the downslope, feeling a certain kind of heavy lifting is done. Relief? Yeah, I feel a lot of relief these days. Writing novels is one of these things where gratification is very much delayed. You get up, you write a bit of your novel, and no one is applauding you or congratulating you. It takes two or three years usually before anybody says, “Hey that was pretty good that thing you did.” Sometimes it’s hard to keep going. So it’s wonderful to finish something and have people read it and react to it, because I haven’t done that since 2011, and I missed it, a lot.

DN: What does keep you going?

LG: It’s easier now than it used to be. With The Magicians, after it came out people wanted the next one, and I thought, oh, great, people actually want this. I don’t know what kept me going. Codex took six years. The Magicians took five years. It was nothing healthy. It was compulsion. It was an appetite for total neglect. It was hard to keep going. That was the hardest part about it. People often ask me, “Oh, when you were writing The Magicians had you already planned out a whole trilogy?” I didn’t even think The Magicians would be published, so I never bothered to plan out any books after that. I would sit down to write and think, you idiot, why are you spending years of your life doing this when it probably won’t be published? Keeping going was very hard. I’m proud of anybody who keeps going and finishes a novel. Whether or not it gets publishedthat was a hard thing they did.

DN: True. Are you sure The Magician’s Land is the third book, or will there be a fourth one? What would they call that, a quadroset? I don’t even know the term for a fourth.

LG: Oh, I don’t know. [Laughs] It’s like when Douglas Adams ended up writing six books in his Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy. He just kept calling it a trilogy. He would say here’s the fifth book in the trilogy. I don’t expect another Magician’s book to happen ever. I feel I got out everything I had to say that I could say in that way. Although, I think of Ursula Le Guin who wrote the Earthsea trilogy, which was a big influence on me, and then twenty years later, she went back and wrote a fourth book. And I feel like if Ursula Le Guin does it, then it’s okay: I can do it, too. So perhaps we’ll have this conversation again in 2034. And we’ll have the fourth book in the trilogy.

David A. Napier

Photo: Tom Dochstader

David A. Napier is an MFA candidate at Antioch University of Los Angeles. He is a former senior executive with an international consulting firm in San Francisco. He currently resides in San Diego, California and serves the needs of the community as a holistic health practitioner while completing his first novel. Napier is a contributing writer for Annotation Nation. He owns the front-half of a black Labrador Retriever named Tucker.

Cosme Cordova, Artist and Community Arts Organizer

Cosme Cordova

Photo: Kiandra Jimenez

Cosme Cordova was born in San Pedro de la Cueva in Sonora, Mexico, and brought to Riverside, California at five years old, where he still resides. Cordova is the owner of Division 9 Gallery (Riverside, California). In 2002 he co-founded Riverside’s Arts Walk along with Mark Schooley (Riverside Community Arts Association), which has run monthly art shows in Downtown Riverside since its inception.

His artwork has been exhibited throughout California, Arizona, and Mexico. Some of those galleries include Galleria Rustica and Bunny Gunner Gallery in Pomoma, CA; Dennis Rogue Gallery in Palm Desert, CA; Rockrose Gallery in Los Angeles, and the Riverside Community Arts Association, Riverside Art Museum, Sweeney Art Gallery, Riverside Metropolitan Museum, and others in Riverside, CA. Cordova has also curated many art shows and hosted citywide art events such as the annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Celebration, which attracts thousands of people, and Artnival, an art themed carnival produced by Cordova and local artists.

Cordova has been honored as the City of Riverside’s Artist of Month.

Lunch Ticket’s Art Editor Kiandra Jimenez interviewed Cordova at Division 9 Gallery in April, 2014.

Kiandra Jimenez: You are an artist who is deeply involved in the arts community in your town of Riverside, CA. You founded the Riverside Art Walk, and you run a gallery, Division 9 Gallery (D9G). What motivated you to spend all that effort on behalf of your community, versus having a solo studio practice and focusing strictly on your own creative work?

Cosme Cordova: In the beginning I didn’t really think about it too much, I just went ahead and did it. I was showing in different places: Pomona, Los Angeles, Palm Desert. I found myself traveling far and wondering why the same type of galleries or venues didn’t exist in Riverside for our artists. When I first started there was Back to the Grind [a local coffee house], and I would show there, but Riverside didn’t really have many galleries or other institutions that embraced local artists. So, I said let’s figure out a way that we can create a Riverside arts community.

Coming from a low-income community I only lived three miles from downtown, but I never came to downtown. I was in my little neighborhood, the group of people that I hung out with and was raised with. But when I started attending Riverside Community College (RCC) I was introduced to downtown. When I eventually did make it to the institutions that did showcase artists, I didn’t feel really welcomed. I didn’t feel a warm feeling. That is another reason why I decided to do something for myself—to represent the people I was raised with, and present different cultural images from artists that had different points of view about life.

Now that I’m older I look back; I was 30 then, now I am 42. I felt there was nothing for me and I wanted to do something for myself. I was angry, so I used that anger as a vehicle to open doors for myself. When I was younger I would be upset that there weren’t venues, but as I got older I realized that was my vehicle, my tool to open my own doors and create my own venues, and share my own imagery. I wanted to make sure that it didn’t matter how poor, how rich, how educated or uneducated you were as an artist. The artwork had to be unique, your own image, not a representation of other artists who are well known.

Division 9 Gallery in Riverside, CA

Division 9 Gallery in Riverside, CA

Artists come in and show me their portfolios and they look like Dalí’s, Picasso’s, or Pollock’s artwork. That’s fine, but I want to make sure that I represent artwork that represents them and you can see their own identity on the paper or canvas.

KJ: Do you have some advice/jewels of wisdom for those of us who want to devote some aspect of our creative careers to service? How do you balance your creative work with your involvement with community?

CC: We all have something that makes us tick; we all have something that makes us go forward. When we wake up we look forward to doing that one thing. Whatever that one thing is, you need to invest your time in doing it. What I mean is you have to be dedicated to something you love.

Unfortunately, nowadays we all need to have a job, but there are plenty of jobs in the art world, you just have to find something that coincides with your world.

KJ: So how do you balance your creative work with your involvement with the community, your gallery work? Would you see yourself as the artist with his brushes in the trunk, who’s driving and putting all his focus in his community and gallery work, or do you take time to pull over and paint every few miles?

I’ve been trying to get myself more organized so I have more time to create. I feel like I’m a slingshot. My energy to create pushes the rock back, I’m always stretching it as far as I can. It’s stretching, stretching, but while I’m doing that I’m actually creating ideas or concepts in my head; I’m constantly thinking of ideas I want to create. Eventually, I have free time and I create twenty, thirty images.

I think I’m blessed because I’m doing things that I love to do. I put events together, I organize events, I do my artwork, I do graphic arts for people, from business cards to logos to brochures. I get to install artwork. I get to meet people.

Cosme Cordova, Prolific Dormant I, 2012. Mixed media (drypoint etching, monotype), 16. 5 x 10.5 in.

Prolific Dormant I, 2012

KJ: Let’s switch focus and discuss your own art practice. Describe your work and the ideas behind it—specifically what are you trying to communicate?

CC: The basis of my work all comes down to where I was born. I was born in Mexico and brought at the age of five to the United States. So, my perspective on United States and Mexico is interesting because it is not a normal point of view. My parents came from a very poor town. When we left, I believe there was only one TV and one telephone in a town of two thousand. Dirt floors, we were born on dirt floors to give you an idea.

So coming from a very poor background and coming to United States is like the experience of normal people here going to Disneyland. I always tell people, United States is like Disneyland. The streets are clean, the grass is clean, there is violence, but it isn’t as violent as other places, things do change if enough people get behind something, whereas in Mexico and other countries they don’t. You almost have to have a revolution for things to change.

So my artwork is always based on that perspective of making sure I don’t forget where I come from and the world that I live in, which is the United States, is Disneyland.

Cosme Cordova, Prolific Dormant II, 2012. Mixed Media (Drypoint etching, monotype), 18 x 12.5 in.

Prolific Dormant II, 2012.

The recent work I did was pronto plates, etchings, and monotype, a combination of the three. It all started because I had an old iMac that I had for five years and it broke down. I felt like I couldn’t throw it away. So what I decided to do was take it apart. And once I took it apart I found all the pieces interesting and I wanted to create jewelry or something with it. Long story short, I came across this story of China or Japan, where there were three hundred employees that were on top of a roof, they were going to commit suicide because they were not treated right in their work area. I forgot for what computer company, but when I opened up the Mac I was like ‘wow, this is intriguing, this is a lot of work put into one computer.’ So I wanted to exhibit artwork that represented and showcased those workers.

I ran some of the motherboard through the press, and inked it. And I did some etchings. I used flies, rats, roaches in the imagery, my interpretation of them, because that is how these people were treated as humans.

I did this painting of a big old chunk of steak in the shape of the United States. I wanted to showcase that we are the meat and potatoes of the world. People come from afar with nothing in their pockets, don’t know the language when they get here, all to get a piece of the steak. It’s a huge painting, and I hung it on barbed wire. Barbed wire represents to me you have to cross the border, you have to cross the lines. It’s forbidden to come over here. But if you get pass the barbed wire…

KJ: You get steak?

Cosme Cordova, We Are United, 2006. Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 46 x 3.75 in.

We Are United, 2006

CC: [Laughs.] Yeah, you get steak.

KJ: What about the one that features the boot?

CC: The boot is in the shape of Mexico and also hung from barbed wire. The barbed wire represents people who had to cross the border. The boot comes from a story my father told me about when he came over illegally. There were several times where he was hired to come over to pick fruits and vegetables. There were times when the United States would actually go and get Mexicans to work here with papers. But, there were other times when my father had to cross the border illegally. He’d have to pay a coyote, which is the person you pay to cross you over. My dad told me he’d put his money in his boot, because you never trusted the guy who was going to get you across. Or, if you were chased or robbed, the last thing they would take is your boots. I mean, if they take your boots they’ve taken everything. [Laughs.]

Cosme Cordova, Crossing Borders, 2006. Acrylic on canvas, 36.5 x 33 x 3.75 in.

Crossing Borders, 2006

So I wanted to create imagery of my dad’s story. Also, you’ll see the United States tree way in the distance.

KJ: You work a lot with the shape of the United States, borders, and birds in your work. What significance does these themes have for you, and how has that significance expanded through your career. Have you always used these symbols?

CC: The United States symbols came later in my career. But I embraced the bird more as a symbol of freedom, flight. To be able to go to Mexico and come back to United States freely—I wish the world was like that, where we didn’t have any borders and we could go from one place to another.

Birds symbolize a spirit of freedom. They’ve come into my life, not just my artwork, often. I have interesting stories of crows. I’ve walked everywhere till I was 25. I never had vehicles, my parents didn’t have vehicles, and so I’ve always walked or taken the bus. So the majority of times when I was walking by myself and thinking about things somehow a crow would appear, so I always felt a connection with them. I don’t know if it’s because I am intrigued with them, but I always seen them do interesting things. Their knowledge fascinates me.

KJ: How long have you been an artist? What/who inspired you and what continues to inspire you?

CC: The inspiration for being an artist was my grandmother. She did a lot of pottery and weavings with palm fronds. She would create flowers, crosses, tortilla holders, mats, intricate designs. She was even asked to weave one for a famous Catholic Church in Mexico City because word had spread of her work. There was a TV channel that interviewed people from different towns, well, they came to our town and interviewed her. That was an inspiration for me.

KJ: Now what town do your people come from?

CC: San Pedro de la Cueva [San Pedro of the Cave] in the state of Sonora.

KJ: You’ve been very forthcoming about your battle with dyslexia. You don’t have to disclose it, but you chose to, why?

CC: I just think it’s important because a lot of people don’t. It’s been embraced more now, but when I was younger it wasn’t. I didn’t realize I was dyslexic until I got to college. I believe many teachers thought because I spoke Spanish I was trying to translate and so things got confused. So I was in Special Ed classes through high school, which allowed me to be more creative. [Laughs.]

About a week into college my professor told me to go see a counselor to see if I had a learning disability. I had to take a test and sure enough I was dyslexic. My whole world changed, which sucked because I had to restart the whole engine. I had to relearn English, relearn reading, math.

I really tried hard. I had friends who had other people write their stuff, but I really wanted to do it on my own. It was very frustrating and stressful. I still remember the day I was riding down the highway and I just saw it all as a boxing match—me fighting with dyslexia against what you consider an average normal person going to college and getting their degree. And so I was fighting myself, questioning if I should continue. My counselor would tell me, “you’ll get there, it’s just going to take you eight years.”

But that’s what dyslexia is and I was never afraid of telling people about my fight: showing people that you can get things done with dyslexia. I traded a lot of artwork for people to help me write. Or I helped other people in my creative work by doing graphics, logos and in exchange they would read something for me, write something for me, respond to an email for me.

Dyslexia is not a disability; it’s actually a gift. Dyslexics think differently. The normal brain, the normal institution makes you believe that two plus two equals four. But my brain makes me believe that I can add one plus one, plus one, plus one to get four.

KJ: Do you feel like the life of an artist includes sacrifices or compromises non-artist does not have to make? If so, what’s the trade-off?

CC: I sort of wish I was not an artist sometimes. [Laughs.] Its not like I chose it, people say, “well you can stop being an artist.” No, you can’t.

It’s like you look at something on a table and you see something different. Someone throws something away and you think, “I can make something out of that.” You look at your garden, everybody plants their roses in a single file line, and you say, “I want to get a yellow one, blue one, and make a face out of them.”

Being normal as in you wake up, take a shower, go to work, have lunch with your buddies in the office, come back home, have dinner, watch TV, weekends free, benefits, dental, health, vacations, save money for retirement. I don’t have those things, but I feel like I’m retired dealing with no retirement money. [Laughs.]

Yeah, there are trade-offs. They should put that in the dictionary. Artist means to struggle. It shouldn’t be, a creative person who likes to work with different mediums. No, you’re struggling. [Laughs.]

KJ: Thank you, Cosme; it was a pleasure.

CC: You’re welcome, and thank you.

Kiandra JimenezKiandra Jimenez is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles. A writer and artist, Kiandra lives in Moreno Valley, CA, where she homeschools her children and writes poems from her organic vegetable garden. Her work is forthcoming in the anthology Orangelandia: The Literature of Inland Citrus.

Elizabeth Earley, Author

Elizabeth EarleyElizabeth Earley holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her stories and essays have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The First Line Magazine, Fugue, Hair Trigger, and Glimmer Train, among other publications. Elizabeth is the recipient of the David Friedman Memorial Prize for Fiction, has twice been a finalist for the AWP New Journals Award, has received two pushcart nominations, and was a finalist for the 2011 Bakeless Literary Prize for Fiction. She is the editor of Bleed, a literary blog from Jaded Ibis Press. Her debut novel, A Map of Everything, was published in March, 2014.

Lunch Ticket’s contributing editor Ashley Perez talked to Elizabeth via email in March, 2014 about her debut novel, the publishing industry, and the writing process.


Ashley Perez: How has the journey been for your first novel? From writing to publication?

Elizabeth Earley: Long. There was a long period of time between beginning this novel and finishing it when I tried to write other books. From start to finish, it might have been about four years. After my agent, Malaga Baldi, sold the novel to Jaded Ibis Press, it was about a year before it was published. Since publication, it’s been a whirlwind with a debut at AWP and a 6-city book tour. All of the events have been a lot of fun. People showed up, old family and friends I hadn’t seen in many years, so it was both a book tour and a reunion tour. The tour began at the beginning of March, which coincided with National Brain Injury Awareness Month. This was a perfect synchronicity, as all of the author royalties I make from the sales of this novel will be donated to people with traumatic brain injury (TBI).

AP: In A Map of Everything, each chapter/section is indicated with an element of the periodic table. In Rob Roberge’s blurb he calls it, “the most structurally inventive and emotional remarkable books.” Was it organic during the writing process or something that came about in revision?

EE: I didn’t think about structure while I was writing. I just powered through. Later, when I had all of the raw material, I went back through to break it up and arrange it in a meaningful way. It was when I read back through and edited and plotted out the arrangement that it occurred to me to make the periodic table the frame. It was just such an obvious and perfect fit because Andy (a character in the novel) says that whatever god is, it can’t be articulated, but it can be approximated by calling it everything, the organizing principle of everything, and the intelligence that presides over that organization. The periodic table is a human-made chart that represents everything that exists. It’s an attempt to break everything down into its base elements and organize those, which is kind of a joke. Human intelligence can be so arrogant! There’s so much it doesn’t account for. There are so many gaps between what we’re given as scientific explanations for the world and what we actually experience, what we actually live through. This story traverses those gaps, exposes those questions, and pulls the reader into them. It doesn’t offer answers, but it offers hope. And reverence. Reverence for the questions and the patterns and the raw experiences.

AP: You also have shifting points of view that provides a wonderful experience for the reader that allow them to experience the different characters. How did that come about?

EE: That was a function of a class I took in graduate school called Prose Forms. In it, we were encouraged to experiment with different prose forms including letter, parable, first person, and “how to” or second person as a way of getting at the nerve of truth. I found it incredibly effective for this material in particular. Different prose forms offer unique ways to access and experience universal truths through story. For example in this novel, the second person, used when the protagonist has lost control, distances the narrator from the pain of the experience and offers insight and direction while allowing a more intimate involvement of the reader. The overall effect is a darkly humorous, fast-paced voice that teases out important absurdities and nuance in the action.

AP: A Map of Everything is a duel narrative of A. The narrator growing up, dealing with relationship and addiction issues and B. How her sister’s accident and subsequent brain injury affects the entire family over a two decade timeline. The narratives were intertwined so beautifully that I wonder did you ever consider telling them separately? Or could one not exist without the other?

EE: I never considered telling them separately, no. They certainly could not exist, at least not in the way they now exist, independent of one another. They are, by nature, intertwined. One of the major concepts of the novel, inherent in the story as well as the structure and the way it’s told, is that everything is interconnected, intertwined—events, relationships, people, and even time.

AP: In your essay “Is This a Fiction Novel?” (published on the Jaded Ibis literary blog, BLEED), you call A Map of Everything an autobiographical novel. You also mention being very protective of your family. What was it that made fiction a safer venue for you to explore this narrative?

I don’t think it was safer. It’s never safe to write about one’s family and one’s truth.

EE: I don’t think it was safer. It’s never safe to write about one’s family and one’s truth. And the decision to write a novel wasn’t inspired by a desire to protect my family. Rather, it was inspired by my love of fiction and the form of the novel. I’ve long admired writers who’ve pushed the form, evolving it into something better and more intricate. My goal was to push the form even further. I wanted the novel to be suggested by facts, by my own real experiences, but not bound to them. Still, when we write what we know and what we’ve lived through, the voice is so authentic that people inevitably take it as literal truth. For example, my publisher actually thought that at one point. She was ready to position the book as a memoir, and this was after I signed the contract. I told her that, although inspired by real events, the book is fiction. She was particularly disappointed to learn that my mom in real life didn’t give birth to twins on her bathroom floor.

AP: How was the experience for you at AWP this year as a debut novelist? You did a reading and a signing, right?

EE: It was a whirlwind! There were more people there than I can fathom, and at the signing event I did received huge support. My books sold out from the table by the end of the hour. And, I got to see and hug and talk to so many people I’ve either only ever met online or hadn’t seen in years.

AP: This is your first book tour. What has been one of the most memorable moments for you?

EE: In Phoenix, a woman came to the event with a copy of my book looking worn and well-read. There were many paper clipped pages and the edges of yellow sticky notes poked out from everywhere. She told me that she worked with families of traumatic brain injury survivors, had heard about my book, and got an advanced copy. She said it was the best profile of the spiritual, psychological, physical, and relational effects of TBI that she had ever come across and that she was recommending it to every family she worked with. I was very moved and honored. I felt an acute sense, for the first time, that this book is much bigger than I am and will reach much farther than I ever could.

AP: You recently did an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the book’s publicity with proceeds of the book going towards the Brain Injury Association of America. How have people responded to that?

EE: Just to clarify, I am going to be donating 100% of the author royalties that I earn from sales of the book to charity as well as directly to people I know and love with TBI. People have responded warmly to the idea.

AP: Why did you pick that particular charity?

EE: BIAA is a charity that benefits people with brain injuries, but I’m open to considering other charities that specifically benefit people with traumatic brain injuries, especially children.

AP: Can you tell us about your writing process? What does a day of writing look like for you?

EE: When I’m working on a book, I typically give myself a daily word count to meet that feels realistic. This could be anywhere from 500 to 2,500 words per day. The discipline of the daily word count helps me to produce material, whether usable or not. At times, I’ve held myself accountable to another writer or group of writers for meeting daily or weekly word counts. And I never have a specific time set aside for writing. Instead, I steal whatever time throughout the day that I feel particularly inspired or that just turn up as available. Riding on the train, waiting for a friend at a coffee shop, my lunch break, anything.

AP: What are you working on now?

EE: I’m not exactly sure. I started working on a memoir then stopped. Now, I’m thinking about working on that same memoir again. Or, another novel suggested by facts. Or, a nonfiction book about public bathrooms. I’m up to my knees in that stuck-in-between place, but I think (I hope) the wet cement is starting to recede.

AP: You mentioned being at the stuck-in-between phase right now in terms of writing projects. After being focused for so long on one project, what do you feel is the most important thing about moving on to another project?

EE: Just to clarify, I wrote two complete novels since finishing Map. My agent is now pitching the most recent of those. So it hasn’t been a matter of focusing on this one project, A Map of Everything—I’ve always been good at immediately moving on to a new project once finishing a draft of a previous one. This time though, after finishing my last novel, I became pregnant. I wasn’t prepared for the way that being pregnant, especially in the first trimester, would cripple my concentration and creativity. The stuckness has mostly been about that. But now I am getting into the initial research part of a new novel, which is one of my favorite parts.

AP: Any advice for new writers?

EE: Write a lot, read a lot, make friends with other writers, make professional connections, and ask people for help. Then, when you’ve eventually achieved some success, be generous in helping other writers.

AP: Thank you!

Ashley PerezAshley Perez lives and writes in Los Angeles. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Ashley’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Weekenders Magazine, BLEED, Drunk Monkeys, The Weeklings, and the anthology First Time: an Anthology about Lost Virginity.

Douglas Kearney, Poet

Douglas Kearney

Photo: Eric Plattner

Douglas Kearney is a poet, performer, and librettist from Altadena, California. Kearney has received a Whiting Writers Award, a Coat Hanger Award, and fellowships at Cave Canem, Idyllwild, and others. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including Poetry, nocturnes, Pleiades, Callaloo, Fence, LA Review of Books, The Iowa Review, and The Ninth Letter. His produced operas include Sucktion, Mordake, and Crescent City. He lives with his family in California’s Santa Clarita Valley. Kearney teaches at CalArts, where he received his MFA in Writing.

Kearney’s first full-length collection of poems, Fear, Some, was published in 2006 by Red Hen Press. The Black Automaton was published in 2008 by Fence Books, which was a PEN Center USA Award finalist in 2010 and Catherine Wagner’s selection for the National Poetry Series. His chapbook-as-broadsides-as-LP Quantum Spit was released by Corollary Press in 2010. His chapbook SkinMag was published in 2012 by A5/Deadly Chaps. His most recent poetry book, Patter, was released March 2014 by Red Hen Press.

Candace Butler spoke with Douglas Kearney via telephone.

Candace Butler: Your new book Patter is an emotional outpouring: at times crude and witty but overall real, emotional, and serious. How long did it take you to write and assemble the 46 poems in Patter?

Douglas Kearney: Well, the vast majority of that book was written between 2010 and January of this year. There were a couple of poems that existed as far back as 2008. For example, the “Goooooo or Goooooo or Goooooo” poem—I think the first draft of that would be from 2007 or 2008. “The Pool, 1988” is the oldest in the book, but the bulk of those poems were written between 2010 and now. So they are really highly concentrated in that they’re grappling with the process of becoming a parent and responding to my wife’s pregnancy, which was basically from summer of 2009 to March 2010. Our twins were born in March 2010, so the bulk of the book has been the last four years.

CB: Patter has a unique blend of wordplay, structure, and creativity. Two of my favorite poems are “Sonnet Done Red” where words overlap without becoming obscure and “The Miscarriage: A Poetic Form” where one word carries the weight of the entire poem. Then, “Word Hunt” is not like any poem I’ve read before. Could you explain your inspiration for “Word Hunt”? What do you hope readers will find in this poem?

DK: What I hope people will find in the book as a whole—are you saying the book as a whole or specific, individual poems?

CB: I said the poems, but you can speak to both.

DK: I’ll go with the particular poems that you mentioned, “Sonnet Done Red” and “A Poetic Form.” “Sonnet Done Red” is trying to make it’s way through two questions at once—that you point out beautifully. One is the nature of poetic composition. How does poetic form order thinking? So “Sonnet Done Red” means to visualize the Elizabethan sonnet’s approach toward reckoning questions of and arguments essentially about, in this case, love. For me, the conundrum that warrants that is, “I love your body. I hate it.” As it travels through the rest of the book, it becomes a question around how does a male, or let’s say the person who isn’t carrying the child, cope with fertility issues and miscarriage in light of a physical trauma experienced by the child-bearer. How do I talk about the love that I have for, in this case, my wife as a person who isn’t there just to make children with? How do I deal with that question when we are trying to have children, when there is a miscarriage, or when there are other reproductive blocks?

For me, a big challenge of the book was how to write about my wife’s body without either turning it into this mythological mysterious space where the woman’s body is unfathomable or this site of failure. Both of which are problematic ways men have written about the female body as this Other state that is mysterious, beautiful, and horrible. I wanted to document attempts at that. Even if those attempts fail, I wanted the reader to be aware that the initial question—I wanted to document those failures. The “Done Red” poems all document a kind of attempt to write around that process and write to that process. With “Miscarriage: A Poetic Form”—to go back to what I was saying earlier—this kind of collision between this refined, rhetorical poetic structure of certain formal approaches to writing are difficult, raw, and emotional. Initially, I had written down the poetic form, and I was going to write a poem that would fit that poetic form—several internal rhymes, perfect rhymes, slant rhymes, then a broken internal rhyme; though if you look at some literary guides, it’s impossible to write a broken internal rhyme because a broken rhyme happens at the end of the poetic line. The final rhyme is actually impossible. It’s not viable—to use a term that would apply both to matters of pregnancy and composition. So within that poem, it’s really just about how to write about something that is so difficult to articulate. What happens when all we have left is the form of what was supposed to exist?

CB: You make bold typographic and form choices, your language can be dense or brash. Your strong emotional content can, and does, evoke a strong response from readers. “Blues Done Red” is even a flowchart. Because your poetry is so edgy and different from other American poets, do you ever fear that your work will be perceived as having an element of shock value?

DK: That’s always a possible risk. My only real response to that is I feel like I’ve done the work to move beyond that. If someone does not wish to engage the work, then ultimately there’s nothing I can do about that. And I’m aware of that—that some people may not ever engage the work. They find it shocking. They’re not interested. They don’t like the cover of the book. Any number of reasons. I feel there are so many things to keep a person from reading a poem that for me—and I use this term a lot—the “contract” that I have between the reader and myself is that if I make a decision to typographically set a poem a certain way, you know, that is a compositional decision that I make.

Sometimes we choose a word for its sound or another word that might essentially be the same thing but might not be as raw—we choose this other word. For me, for example, if we’re talking about “Kronos: Father of the Year,” which uses the word cunt—that isn’t necessarily a word for an erotic poem. It’s a word you might not want to use in conversation, but Kronos is an entity who ate his children for fear that they would supplant him. This is not a person who thinks much of bodies that are not his own, so why would he be gentle? There’s a level of contempt he has for other bodies. He converts his children, essentially, into shit. He feels that they are shit. Or that they will haunt him later. This isn’t a character who would speak in a lovely way. It would be off-key. It wouldn’t make sense to have him blush at the c-bomb. And, ostensibly, we could all agree that saying a mean thing about somebody is preferable to eating them. (laughs) I don’t think that he’d be like, “Oh, but I can’t say that.”

So, maybe there are people who will be shocked. There are people who will feel like that’s all I’m doing, just trying to shock, and to them I would say read more closely because there is more to it than that. And that’s my job—to make sure there’s more to it than that. If they read it closely, and they still decide, you know, “I still don’t think there’s much to it,” then both of us have done all that we can do if we’re being honest at that point. But the “Fathers of the Year” poems—they’re not about nice people. If they are possibly nice people, they’re appearing in this work in a moment where we are being very skeptical of what it is they’ve done.

I think that cultural literacy is very important….I’m very suspicious of terms like tolerant and sensitive because I think both of those things displace responsibility.

CB: Can you discuss your vision of the audience for your poetry? To whom do you hope to speak?

DK: I was asked this question a couple weeks ago. I think that—and this is to me an honest answer—anybody who wants to listen or wants to read closely. And when I say read closely, I don’t mean it to sound so self-important or patronizing. When I say read closely, I don’t mean pore over it like every line I drop contains a universe of wisdom, and you are there simply to receive it and be edified by it. I guess I just mean somebody who is willing to go along for the ride and be alert to what’s happening in the poem. If I did not feel that the poems were worth considering—if I didn’t feel like there would be something that would amount to something pleasurable, that would amount to something worth your time, I wouldn’t have published the book. I am the first and harshest critic, I think, of whether a poem I’ve written gets into a book. They’re not compendiums of everything that I’ve written over a short amount of time. There are poems that don’t get in there. There are poems that I like very much that don’t get in there, but they don’t get in there either because they don’t build on anything that another poem doesn’t do better or they’re really only talking to me and a very, very, very, very small circle of people. Those kinds of poems I’m not going to publish. Facebook is for that. CC on an email is great for that. For a book, though, I want people who are willing to read closely, who are willing to have an experience that might surprise them. If you already know what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it, then there’s no point for you to read it. But I’m hopeful that somebody who reads the work is willing to be surprised by something. It’s not always a happy surprise, but I don’t think people who read poetry are always only looking for a singular, simple experience of pleasure or affirmation or, on the other end, tragedy or horror. I want people who are alert to a complicated set of emotional responses not always delivered in a way that’s complicated and difficult to follow.

CB: Your live readings engage the audience. And that’s one definition of Patter, a speech geared toward audience participation. Does the audience always react the way you hope they will?

DK: You want to know what my main hope is for an audience reaction? I want people to ask questions. Even if the question is, “wait, did he just say what I thought he said?” That’s a fine question. Hopefully the question isn’t, “why the hell did I just waste my evening being here?” I’m really interested in people having to actually think to themselves, “how am I supposed to respond to this?” Not in a defensive way. In that way where a listener thinks, “this seems to be about a really horrible thing, but the tone doesn’t seem like it was horrible; how am I supposed to understand that?”

Or from “The Miscarriage: A Minstrel Show,” for example, “why are there minstrels in this poem space?” Or “is that just there to shock?” Well, what better way to talk about the notion of shame and having to behave as if everything’s okay than the image of the minstrel? Especially if you’re talking about black subjectivity, right? It’s literally putting on a happy face that does not contain the actual, real experience. That’s the kind of question that I’m interested in. I had a poem in my last book, “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-folk” about the Middle Passage,and people were asking, “Should I be laughing?” That’s the kind of response I’m generally looking for: should I? I love should when people are talking about their own personal reactions because it means that they’re actually asking themselves a question. It means they’re engaging the work.

If people laugh at certain parts during a poem, I usually don’t get too revved up. Sometimes there’s a surprising work where somebody laughs or there’s a work where somebody doesn’t laugh, but the reaction I want—the only reaction I feel that you have a right to ask of an audience—is just that they listen. If people are on their cell phones texting or something, I get pissed. Other than that, the response belongs to you. I can’t say what that is. I can say of a certain poem, I felt like this is what I was communicating. But if there are ambiguities in the poem or ambiguities in the delivery or somebody missed a part of it, then you have to allow for responses you, as the writer, didn’t expect. That’s really important and that’s part of why we write.

By the same token, people are skeptical of artistic intention sometimes—and maybe in other art forms that’s there—but we’re talking about poetry, which is based on language. We use language every day to get an intended result without thinking about it. If you call me and say, Are you ready to do this interview? and I say, Yeah, I guess. If you’re ready, that would be different from, Yeah! I’m ready. We’re skilled at understanding what someone else is saying on a daily basis. If we were not, we wouldn’t be able to get shit done. So I think that while I can expect certain things from just basic communication we have going, I also recognize that poetry creates a space where we pressurize things or make them more complicated. Generally, I get the range of responses I think are likely to happen.

CB: Do you have any writing rituals?

DK: When the kids were born, I really got back into writing freehand. Before, I started writing on the computer. When I wrote The Black Automaton, a lot of that was written directly into the computer because I had more time. I had time to sit down at the computer and know I was going to be able to sit there for a couple of hours without any kind of interruption. And once we had the kids, that really changed. Just trying to sit in front of the computer made it harder because sitting down there, locking eyes with that screen, becomes a kind of disengagement with the external world for me. It’s harder. It takes longer. Whereas if I’m writing in my journal, I can scribble something down in a minute and then get up and get back to whatever I was doing. Or standing up in the kitchen, I can kind of just scribble it down and move on. I’ll be honest. If I set my laptop up at the table, and my children ask me a question—we have twins—it’s like, you just interrupted me. Clinically, it would register on a Richter Scale. It’s very different if I’m just scribbling something down. I actually feel bad in most cases writing in my laptop when I am with the kids because my patience drops. In some kind of way, the freehand allows me to describe the color of the idea if I haven’t found the right word, the right sentence. It preserves it better than when it’s all left in line in the computer. I don’t feel like I’m chasing it in quite the same way.

CB: You mentioned once that you had several unpublished manuscripts in your files. Do you ever draw from those manuscripts? Do you have any unfinished poems you look at occasionally?

DK: I allow there to be a fair amount of distance between me and those. I look at them, and one of the harsh things I have to tell myself is, are you looking at that because you’re desperate for content, or are you looking at it because you feel like you can actually pull something from it? The manuscript that has the ghost life that stays with me, in a way, from other manuscripts is the first full, chapbook-like manuscript I wrote, all based on this Romare Bearden collage called “The Dove.” I do feel like I could publish those as a book. They’re very different from the way I write now, I think. And I feel like, except for maybe two or three of those poems, they were solid. At the same time, I do wonder what it would be like to go back and look at that book now and revise those poems. If I ever wanted to do a collection that was all ekphrastic poems, I would certainly pull from them.

I do go back to other manuscripts. I do feel like there’s certain things that can inform my newer writing. A couple of those manuscripts were really project-based: I’m going to write all about x, y, z. And in those cases it’s really hard to imagine going back and really taking any of those poems. I think that whatever gymnastics I had to do in my head to write them has now become a part of a skillset that I have. And now, I can go back and maybe use some of the techniques. That, to me, is all that’s there. That, to me, is kind of like freestyling in being a rap artist. You don’t record all of your freestyles and turn them into full songs, but you turn the phrase in your head at some point. You realize that you can extend a rhyme into a song at some point. And so The Dove Sessions—that’s what the name of those poems are, I think—I do sometimes imagine I could go back and work with them. And then I pretty much pillaged all I could of Drowning the Cities for The Black Automaton. There’s still maybe 35 or 40 pages in that one that I didn’t use in The Black Automaton, which could make a short book or maybe a chapbook. But I feel like The Black Automaton improved on so many of the things that I was messing with in Drowning the Cities that to go back to that would literally be a going backward. I wouldn’t be making progress. I would be putting forth work that wasn’t as good as what I’d already published.

CB: You designed both The Black Automaton and Patter. How did you come to incorporate these images of red ants that invade Patter, which are bright red on the cover but by the end of the book are gray, flattened, and dismembered? Can you talk about your design process, from idea to execution?

DK: Yeah, absolutely. I’m so glad you used the word invade. They really are invading the book. The last poem, or series of poems, in The Black Automaton is called “The Six Cities.” The “Goooooo or Goooooo or Goooooo” [poems] were published some time ago in, but The Black Automaton ending with “The Six Cities” was in some ways a kind of artifact of the Drowning the Cities manuscript. They engage the question of infertility. So with Patter coming in sequence after that book—five years after [The Black Automaton] came out—I wanted there to be a kind of connection between the two books, so the ants are carrying the last line from The Black Automaton into Patter. When you open the book, the words are the last line of The Black Automaton. They’re bringing back that connection into the book. I always thought that if I were going to have the opportunity to design a whole book, ultimately where I would like to get is where the poems in the book would begin on the spine of the book or the cover of the book. If you’re designing an entire book, then that means you can do something that most poets who don’t design their own books or designers who don’t write poetry don’t get the opportunity to do, which is to really make the entire object of the book the poem. And in some ways, Patter is closer to that. It’s by no means the accomplishment of that notion. It’s closer, I think; it edges out into the end paper of the book, you know? It hasn’t gotten to the spine. It hasn’t fully gotten to the cover, but that’s something I think about as being a really interesting possibility.

Coming up with the section breaks for The Black Automaton, there is a logic behind all those different cities. I kind of think about those sort of dividersas themes. I think about it like an Easter egg. I wouldn’t want to publish what that is, or I wouldn’t want to say what that is. But if someone else figured it out and published it, that would be fine. So if I told you, it would be kind of off the record. But there is a logic behind that, and many poets work with images, visual things abstracted, that sort of structural constraint. For book covers as well as for those dividers in The Black Automaton, it’s like giving the image part of your brain a chance to work. Because I happen to be able to make those images, it becomes fascinating for me. You have all the representations of The Black Automaton itself, including the book cover, posters, and flyers I made—or the design of the website. I always wanted those representations to not be 100% clear about whether that great big automaton figure was dancing in a city that happens to be on fire or was violently destroying that city. With varying degrees of success, I tried to make that more ambiguous. I will say that if I had wanted it to look like the automaton was destroying the city, I would have drawn it differently. Again, a person might look at it and say, “well, it looks like it’s destroying the city to me,” but I know on my end of things that I would have made different choices if I wanted that to be the one way to read it, to see it. And the way the ants move from the cover, from that kind of invasion, from serving a purpose that seems to be working mostly for the book to being crushed at the end definitely follows a kind of a trajectory—a different narrative that’s acting in concert with the poems and the book as a whole. Did that answer your question at all?

CB: Yes, definitely. Thank you. As you know, Antioch University has a strong emphasis on social justice. Can you talk about what is important to you in shaping ideas about justice and social activism?

DK: I think that cultural literacy is very important. And that is to say I’m very suspicious of terms like tolerant and sensitive because I think both of those things displace responsibility. If you’re tolerant of something, you’re tolerant of things that are not going correctly. You don’t have to tolerate a healthy heart, a so-called regular heart. So it still puts the person who is being tolerant in a position of being able to define what is normative; they have the power to decide whether or not they are going to tolerate it, so it’s a bit problematic. I think saying somebody is culturally sensitive is similar. We’re sensitive to things that are sore or tender or delicate. Also because so much of our language is patriarchal, “being sensitive”—often considered a feminine trait—requires us to “weaken” ourselves. That is how a patriarchy mobilizes and understands that term. Someone else is weaker, and we have to be nice. Again, we haven’t shifted the power dynamic at all when we say, “culturally sensitive.” I think cultural literacy is more important because it puts the responsibility on the person who must be culturally literate to acknowledge what’s happening in culture.

The dominant group expects everyone to be literate in its culture to the point that they can sometimes forget that they’re actually talking about culture. They think they’re talking about nature. And so cultural literacy, to me, is something like in the poem “Thank You But      Please Don’t Buy My Children Clothes with Monkeys on Them.” The company—Keystone Keepsakes—called a doll that had a little black girl, “Lil Monkey.” I’m not sensitive to the association of black people to monkeys any more so than a person who does not wish to insult an entire community of people would—I mean, why did that person do that? Why did that company do that? It’s just stupid. Unless you’re actually trying to insult somebody. And if you are trying to insult somebody, then own that shit and say it.

To me, another part of cultural literacy is to understand the range of how cultural [representatives] are pulling from a performance of a kind of cultural literacy that I think a lot of us actually have access to, whether you’re talking about the quotation of hip hop lyrics and pop music in The Black Automaton to references to modernist poetry. I think these are all things that are parts of our cultural milieu that we all kind of have access to should we choose to take it. And if one doesn’t have that access, in the age of Google it doesn’t take much energy to get that access. So that’s one thing that I’m interested in. I am interested in access: who gets to get things. When you close a door, who doesn’t have access anymore? And who do you let into the room before you close the door? In some ways, access is one of the fundamental questions around social justice. Do we all get to make the same mistakes? Do we all get to make the same advances?

So access is something that I’m questioning. For Patter, I actually created a notes page on Tumblr ( so that you can go to the Tumblr site as opposed to the notes in the back of the book, which there do exist in Patter. There’s this place on the web where you can go and link to an article or music video, and it’ll say, “Page 43.” That’s another kind of access. Students, they read this. Teachers, they read this. Buyers of poetry, they read this. How can I increase the access in some way without assuming that a reader needs every clue, every reference?

You know, bringing children into the world is a difficult thing. And when you’re living in a society where certain children are seen as disposable, seen as threats, seen as less valuable than other children, these are more complicated questions; someone figures: we don’t have to kill them if they’re not born. I think that Patter, in some ways, builds a question around social justice particularly as we see through a lens of race, which is a lens. Typically, race is more often a lens than an actual subject in poems. I mean, African American poets are called upon to speak about race. I think oftentimes we’re not speaking about race so much as we’re talking about cruelty, shame, and violence. And racism and race then becomes a lens by which we view these things. I think people are equipped to dismiss race dynamics because they don’t think they have to deal with race when they are not black, not Other. And so they kind of ignore the fact that racism happens to fucking humans. Racism doesn’t happen to computers. It doesn’t happen to trees. It doesn’t happen to animals. It happens to people. And if you’re a person, ostensibly you should be interested in people. Those are the kinds of questions around social justice that I am interested in. The poems in the section “It Is Designed for Children” are directly commenting on some of these kinds of questions, such as what it means to terrorize people and how come everybody doesn’t get the same kind of care.

Cultivate the pleasure of writing poems. Try not to feel guilty about spending two hours deciding whether or not its blue or azure.

CB: How do you start a poem? How do you know when a poem is finished?

DK: Ah, the beginning and the end. I think that I’ll start at the back and move forward. There are some poems where I feel like I’ve gotten the perfect balance of ideas and a raw, energetic space; craft and more reflective layers. There are times when I feel like I’ve gotten the maximum tension out of a poem that I can get. Then three weeks will pass and I’ll be like, “I can’t believe I thought that was the right word.” Then you go in there and you change one word, and suddenly there are all these new sonic possibilities. There are times where I have revised a poem incorrectly. By that I mean, I might look at a poem and decide that what the poem needs is a tighter sonic construction, and that comes at the expense of something else. To me, that’s an incorrect revision. It doesn’t mean that revising makes your poems weak. In fact, I think when I revise correctly, what is strong about the poem is strengthened through the process of revision—not the other way around. The beauty, of course, is that I can go, okay, this poem has lost its way. Let me go back to version, you know, 12. I think that was where I was right before I started doing this thing that I felt ruined the poem. I can go back to version 12, and I can pick up there and not let that happen. I have this knowledge that this is going to fuck it up. So if I just don’t do that, and I go back to 12, I can make a stronger 16. I can make a stronger version 23. I love revision. And I love revision enough to sometimes say that perhaps getting to the stage where I’m tweaking and tweaking and tweaking a poem is really my happiest place. I have to be alert to whether the poem is done or whether I’m just twiddling with it because it’s easier to revise a poem that is almost done than it is to start a new one.

Starting a poem. There’s the start that is the gift poem, and that is when you sit down—you’ve been thinking about something in the back of your head. Maybe you have a title. Maybe you have a turn of phrase or something. And the poem just kind of spells itself out, and you’re basically transcribing. That happened a couple of times. That was the case with “Swimchant,” “The Chitlin Circuit,” and a couple of other poems that really felt like they were there when I sat down. And my revisions were really minor. Those are great. Oftentimes, I’ll have an idea or premise for a poem that gets me very excited. And I’ll sit, and I’ll try to get it down. And, you know, the first draft toward it hasn’t figured it out yet. And I just have to be patient when that happens. I have a premise, you know, a kind of a project will come to mind, and I just have to sort of figure it out. And something else that kind of gets me started, I’ll read some criticism and the writer’s identifying some interesting approach that he or she is finding in a number of different poems, and that makes me go, “Oh, that sounds pretty cool. Let me go try that.” It’s like a restaurant at that point. Oh, I’d like to try that. Let me see. (laughs) Let me try that food. Let me try “the nearly baroque.” I’d be interested in trying that.

There’s pretty much any way into a poem. I guess the only thing I’m reluctant to do—Like lots of folks, I listen to NPR a lot, and NPR is always full of stories that make me think, “Oh, wouldn’t that make an interesting poem?” But I have a feeling that there are, you know, 3,000 other poets listening to the same broadcast and thinking, “oh God! That’s perfect. They’ve genetically created a monkey that glows in the dark. That’s what I’m writing a poem about!” Like, naw. Just, naw. I can’t. I don’t want to do that because there’s probably going to be a thousand poems on that. And I think the idea of two poets—a hundred poets—writing about the same thing doesn’t bother me—it’s just, you know, the snarky essay that’s going to come out later, “clearly, these poets all listened to the same broadcast.” I don’t want to be on that list. That’s horrifying (laughs).

CB: How do you keep challenging yourself?

DK: Just not wanting to be bored or boring. I feel like when I finish a book, then at some level I’m telling readers I’m done with x, y, z. And not in a collapsing-over-a-sofa-I’m-done but a sort of okay, I did that, you bought that, you read that, probably don’t want to do it again because you have it. If you want Patter again, you’ll read Patter. So when I finish a book, it’s very difficult for me in some ways to revisit. I think having those ants drag in that last line is a way to create a linkage, but also a way to transform at some level that poem from The Black Automaton to this new space. I might realize in two years that I still haven’t written the poem about miscarriage that helps me make sense of the miscarriage my wife had. I might write that poem, but I will tell you it would take a whole lot of hand-wringing for me to put that in another book because in some ways I feel like, well, I’ve written about this. And I’m completely aware that there are things I’m writing about over and over and over even now. I think there’s something different about taking on a trope or taking on philosophical questions or taking on a public event and revisiting it. There’s something a little different—and this is not a judgment on anybody who does so—but for me it feels a little different to talk about a personal event and publish it and then write about it some more and publish it again, especially after a book like Patter where that was the focus. If I wrote two or three more poems about fertility, infertility, and miscarriage and included them in another book that wasn’t focused on that, I’d honestly be a bit leery. I might keep them, but I don’t want to rewrite Patter.

So for me, whenever I’m faced with a new book or a long pause in writing, the phrase that comes to my mind is, I have to find a new language. I have to find a new language to justify another book of poems. It’s restless and it’s frustrating, but I find it rewarding. If I’m writing the same way I wrote in The Black Automaton, I would feel like I was pulling one over on people. I finished The Black Automaton in 2008: it’s been six years. If I’m still writing the same way—if I’m still thinking the same way—if I haven’t come up with another way to solve compositional problems, then that’s something that I pay attention to. I stay alert to that impression or that possibility.

Of course I know that the interrogative mood—the interrogative mood in a sentence—has not been exhausted. There’s always another way to go back to the interrogative or the imperative. But for me, I’m trying to do as robust and as rigorous work as I can. I feel like that’s one of the things that poetry offers us the chance to do. I feel like that is part of the deal. If I’m going to write another poem, let alone another book, then at some level I’ve got to be thinking, is this enough?Have I learned anything from the last poem I’ve written? And if not, you know, what’s that about? It’s not always self-censoring: I write anyway. It does affect what I choose to try to publish, what I choose to send out to journals, what I choose to put into a collection.

I’m working on another collection right now. And just this last weekend, I chucked about 10 poems out of it, which is a significant setback in finishing the manuscript. But they were slack. They might have been interesting, but they didn’t do what I felt they needed to do. They were ideas that felt too facile to pursue. So I kind of just chucked them. I probably won’t be able to generate an entire manuscript that I won’t be using this time around. And this was literally Monday of this week. So in the time between Monday and today, I’ve decided on a new title for that project that I think captures much more of what I think I can do. I’ve kicked out those poems, I’ve written one new poem, and I’ve started a couple of other poems that I think are helping me position where I think about this manuscript. How I do it is I listen to or read different poems, essays, music, arguments, and critical engagements to try to find new ways of entering the sentence—to try to find new ways to think about the problems I’m still thinking about. You’re running, and you’ve reached your limit. And you have to convince yourself to run one more lap. You have to say, you’re so close to writing a good poem. What you learned from that one—how can you go further? It’s kind of a mind game.

CB: Some of your poems rely heavily on rhythm and sonic quality. You mention an embarrassment of pop rap radio in “Rallying” in Fear, Some, and there are references and allusions to entire musical styles as well as individual songs throughout your work. What musicians have you been listening to lately? What’s on repeat in your playlist?

DK: I’ve been listening to that group Haim.

CB: Really?

DK: It’s one of those things where I feel like I’ve got to one day just buy a Haim T-shirt and walk around with it like,yes, I’ve been listening to Haim. On a basic level I enjoy it, the punched way they sing. Even though there’s one main lead singer, they all sort of take on this adaptation of clenched-teeth sort of t-t (sound), this very rhythmic, percussive singing that I find really interesting. I also like the vocal samples that I push through—that hey!—these kinds of interruptions in punctuation.

At the same time, I have been listening to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain a lot because of how narrative the tracks are, how evocative these pieces are. They’re not using the kind of riffs or circular structure that a lot of the music I typically listen to uses, whether it’s hip hop samples or jazz riffs—jazz phrases. I feel like it stretches out in a way that I’m trying to get to myself because I do feel like my default is to write very tightly. Not necessarily tight in a precise way but a constrained way: as in I have 15 words, and I’m just going to use those 15 words over and over and over. That reminds me a lot of hip hop production and the loop. But sometimes I feel like I need to somehow allow myself a sixteenth word.

I find myself listening to a lot more rock in general. Queens of the Stone Age is a group I listen to. But I think the album that’s given me the most pleasure—where I’m kind of just sitting there like, wow, I could really listen to this a lot—is probably Haim. I don’t know what that’s going to do to the work, butI’m not listening to it strategically like that.

I’m about to get some software that will allow me to go back to making beats. I used to make beats, and the software I had died. So I haven’t been able to do that. Once I have that software again, it’ll probably change a lot. I was listening to a podcast today talking about the rapper Jean Grae. I’m really excited about her project, which is called Gotham Down. I was listening to her on that, and I was like, “Oh holy shit, I need to get that.”

Also, L.A. beat music! I’ve been listening to a lot of Flying Lotus and Mad-lib Instrumentals. There’s something about how expansive those things can get with just the presence of a single sample—not in the way that I tend to think of samples in relation to a rapper or when a rapper’s going to rap over a track, which is what The Black Automaton was about. I think that when a person is making beat music—and they’re not concerned about somebody speaking over it—it allows for all kinds of weird little disembodied yet associated things to happen. That’s really something I’m interested in: like, how to make a poem that looks like a wall of graffiti. Andyou’re kind of like, okay, I see why all these things are in the same space, but they seem like they were written by very different people at different times and are only associatively connected. I’m not really sure how that connection is working, but it feels like graffiti or a message board or one of these places where multiplicity happens.

So I guess I would say Haim, Miles Davis, beat music, and Queens of the Stone Age.

CB: What’s next?

DK: Okay, so the next book is called, well, right now is called Minstrel Cyborg Spider Radio, a collection of my opera libretti, and that’s supposed to come out in the next year or so. And then another one that I’m working on right now, which is more poems, until Monday was called Stagger Put Work In, but now I think it’s just going to be called Buck.

CB: Buck?

DK: Buck. B-u-c-k. And I told that to my wife today, and she laughed. Usually that’s a good sign. Both of these should be out within the next couple of years. So that’s what’s next. And the other projects that I’m working on include a few operas that won’t be in Minstrel Cyborg Spider Radio and then poems.

CB: What advice do you have for aspiring poets?

DK: Well, this is my mantra that I use for aspiring poets, which is—because we as poets often have to deal with people who aren’t really paying attention to what we’re doing—and so I say, “If nobody’s watching, at least be naked.” You might as well be naked. And then that way, if somebody does watch and say, hey, show me some more of that, then you know they were actually after what you have and what you’re interested in and not necessarily your take on official verse culture or whatever that phrase is, right? Do the thing that you find most interesting. Because, to be honest, if you wanted to be a conformist, you should get into a job where being a conformist would reward you much more handsomely than it does in poetry. Getting a teaching gig is a great blessing for a poet, but hell, if you’re going to do something you don’t really want to do, become a banker so you can get a yacht or some shit (laughs). Maybe getting a sabbatical every five years, why conform to get that? If you’re going to write poetry, write the shit that lights your fire. That doesn’t mean that you don’t pay attention to craft. It doesn’t mean you don’t ever read anybody else’s work. It does mean developing your approach, developing your eye, honoring your eye, honoring your voice. That’s something worth pursuing.

The other bit of advice that might be more practical is learn to love the writing of poetry. It’s not the same thing at all as publishing poetry. It’s often not the same thing at all from having finished a poem. Cultivate the love of writing the poem, and then your access to the joy will be much higher. If you’re interested in publishing poems, you can be happier by becoming a poem publisher because there’s always somebody making poems. If you just want poems out in the world, then become a publisher or copy your friends’ poems and post them on a website—that’s another way to think of publishing. But cultivate the pleasure of writing poems. Try not to feel guilty about spending two hours deciding whether or not it’s “blue” or “azure.” Love the act of writing the poem. Publishing poems after that is a completely different discipline. They’re not the same thing. You have to be really alert to the fact that they’re different, and that might be easier than cultivating the love of writing the poem. Know the difference between writing a poem, finishing a poem, and publishing a poem—and appreciate the difference. That’s the most practical advice I can give you.

Candace ButlerCandace Butler is a writer, artist, and musician residing in her hometown of Sugar Grove, Virginia, a small rural town in the Appalachian Mountains. She is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing Program at Antioch University of Los Angeles (AULA). Her publications are listed on her website: