Nick Flynn, Author

Nick Flynn

Photo: Dion Ogust

When I spoke with Nick Flynn, it was a Sunday afternoon in late May. Hot, humid, and there is no better way to say this—it was loud. The kind of loud that reminds you life is loud and busy and happening all at once. He was solo with his 7-year-old daughter, Maeve. She was writing songs that day and she was on a roll. She sang parts to him and I listened as he gave some very real feedback.

I think maybe the second chorus you can do “everywhere you go” but maybe mix it up? Yeah, you name the places then, cool. She’s just having this moment where she’s just all about writing songs. Who knows how it happens. She’s written in this little notebook like four in like the last half hour. You know just keep riding it. When you are on a roll like that with poems you know you sort of think it’s going to last forever but then after a while you realize it won’t. You get these little bursts of inspiration and then maybe a couple of years will go by before you get another burst. You’ve got to take advantage of it, Maeve.

Over the span of our telephone conversation he fixed a bench in their home, continued to engage with Maeve, walked her to the park, ate ice cream, and talked to neighborhood kids. Flynn is a busy man but at no point did any of this appear to be stressful or burdensome to him.

I don’t do a whole lot that I don’t want to do.

What I’m most curious about when we begin to talk is how he writes in the distinctive manner he does—the creative nonfiction that moves back and forth in time, the poems that can wreck you in a single 30-second read, the religious references—but what I ask first is about the epigraph of his new book, My Feelings. It reads “for Jeff Shotts,” who is the Executive Editor of Graywolf Press.

He’s been my Editor for four books now. Jeff has been amazing. You sort of realize the longer you stick around certain individuals, the effects they can have are huge. I’m all about the collective and all that stuff but certain things don’t happen unless someone does it. Jeff has really stood up and stepped up in this really significant way. He was my editor for the first book back in 2000 and then I think in the second book he was in graduate school. He went to Washington University to study poetry. He realized he needed to know more and so he went and really just got into it. He was, I don’t know how old he was, maybe his 20s or something and it seemed like that commitment was really great for him. He decided to immerse himself in contemporary poetry and just study it and to try his hand at it himself. People stay at Graywolf. It’s unlikely I would ever leave. They have a really good commitment to the work, to showing up for it.

As he’s talking about Graywolf there is an incredibly blistering sound. I couldn’t place it and before I can ask he tells me he’s drilling a bench in his home.

I’m trying to fix a bench while we do this; I’m multi-tasking like a crazy person here. I’m fixing a bench, my daughter is writing songs, I’m doing an interview, I’m talking about Jeff Shotts, it’s insane. What an insane life.

Flynn has published all of his poetry with Graywolf Press, which includes Some Ether (2000), Blind Huber (2002), and The Captain Asks for A Show of Hands (2011), and now My Feelings (2015).

Jeff and I, we’ve had conversations about the work. Jeff doesn’t take, Graywolf doesn’t take just anything. I’ve sent them things before and if I don’t get any response from them I know they don’t really like it. I’ll have a sort of little project or something, maybe send them the start of it—hey what do you think of this? I just won’t hear anything from them and I’ll know okay, I guess that’s not going to go anywhere. I’ve sent little threads of things, beginnings of things and if he gets the sense that there’s some potential to something, he’ll give it a shot. This last book, My Feelings, like most of my work, was kind of a mess when I first gave it to him. It’s almost not even recognizable as the thing I gave him but he saw enough potential in it. That’s the thing I like about Shotts, he wouldn’t have said yes if he didn’t see that potential. He wouldn’t have given it the go ahead and said yes, lets put this in a line up for the future. Two years ago I sent him the first draft of what would become the book. A lot of poems left and a lot of poems came in during those two years. My father died in those two years and now this book sort of has this whole—I mean some people might read it as being about my father’s death but it wasn’t initially. I don’t know if you read it that way? I could imagine it being read that way.

Though I definitely took note of the poems with his father—I think anyone that’s read his memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City would be in tune with those poems—they didn’t seem to be the central focus of this new book. I told Flynn that they seemed to be a small section of the larger text and they highlight the progression of his father’s illness at its worst. He doesn’t believe this book is a project book like some of his others and when I mentioned I thought the overall feel was less about his father and more a look at mortality, he agreed.

Yeah, mortality. That’s also what happens when you reach a certain age, you start writing your mortality poems. There is a thing about your last parent dying that suddenly the gaping maw of mortality gets a little closer. Like if you’ve been able to ignore it or been reckless or whatever through your youth, suddenly it becomes much more real that we’re next in line. Like next over the cliff is you. It becomes very clear. Whatever sort of romance you might have had about it is suddenly less romantic and just becomes more real. Like oh yeah—this shit’s not going to last forever. My first book Some Ether was written 15 years ago and I was younger but it took 10 years to write it so that was 25 years ago, it was half a lifetime ago. And in that time things change and that’s one thing too I don’t really, I don’t have any apologies writing about seemingly the same subject in this book as in Some Ether—I write about mom and dad because it’s seen from a completely different perspective at least for me, they feel totally different to me.

I read My Feelings in one sitting; it’s that kind of book—a damn good book. As I read, I kept trying to think of how to describe it. I finally wrote down “an extension of Some Ether, an extension of it in the future.” I asked him if this was accurate or if I was missing something.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s good. It’s Some Ether in the future.

Flynn then turns to talk with Maeve and make their plans to head to the park now that the song writing has subsided for the moment. His wife, actress Lily Taylor, just left for Bulgaria where Flynn will meet her in several weeks. She’s shooting a prequel to what Flynn called “the American classic, Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Taylor is playing Leatherface’s mom before Leatherface did terrible things. As they head to the park, father and daughter, I ask about the variation in the book—the fact that these poems don’t seem to be done with the intent of being in the same book. At least not quite like Blind Huber and Some Ether did.

It’s sort of by intention, not a project book. The first book I guess was maybe somewhat of a project book but the next two had unifying content or concern or examination like The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands. You know what unifies the new book is the title I guess, it’s just what is rattling inside me. Whatever is in there is what I put in—my feelings.

Throughout the new book, the religious references are noticeable. Mentions of Moses, Adam, St. Francis, communion, Ecclesiastes, Saul, and Damascus—all woven between poems of his father’s illness, addiction, and his mother. I wondered if those references were intentional and Flynn assured me it’s always intentional. I recently sat in a class with him at one of Antioch’s residencies. He spoke about something he called the closed image system, an idea he attributes to the poet Sarah Messer. It’s the idea that each project has its own set of images, they often repeat, sometimes in various forms, but they’re the writer’s attempt at trying to understand them. For instance, in The Ticking is the Bomb, Flynn notes his closed image system as: photos, monkeys, shadows, swimming, and Proteus.

I think Jesus makes a lot of appearances in my books in general. I’d say Jesus fits into that closed image system. I wasn’t raised Catholic and so I feel like I can approach biblical stuff from an outsiders perspective. You know I don’t have that much baggage around it. At least I don’t think, maybe I do. But I seem to have less than my Catholic friends who are really maybe furious with the Catholic church. Sometimes a lot of Catholics when they grow up have a lot to work through. I don’t have that so I can just look at Jesus like wow what a strange person or interesting person. I can see the good stuff and the weird stuff. I guess it doesn’t have that much weight; it’s just a character. And with the biblical stuff some things just sort of appear like that reference to Ecclesiastes in the poem “Father, Insect.”

Flynn suddenly turns to talk with Maeve and starts spelling: h-a-p-p-i-l-y.

I’m not a very good speller but I think that’s how you spell it: h-a-p-p-i-l-y. What’s that? Oh you had it right, okay. Good. So yeah, that Ecclesiastes quote, I’m not even sure where I got that from? It just sort of seemed like something that fit into the larger project whatever that was but this still wasn’t a project book.

If you’ve read any of Flynn’s three memoirs, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, The Ticking is the Bomb, or The Reenactments, then you’ve likely noticed the timeline and structure. Moving forward, moving backward—whatever he seems to be thinking at the moment becomes the next chapter. The poems in this new book do that too. They also contain a creative nonfiction quality of linking the personal with the outside. When I read the notes section at the end, I was surprised at some of the references of where these poems came from—some from films, pieces of art, and news stories. When I was reading them I thought they were personal. Until I read the notes I didn’t know it was a reference to something else. Despite being inspired by outside forces, they still always feel incredibly personal.

That’s the whole thing about turning the dial on the radio and whatever catches your attention is going to have a lot to do with what your internal psychic landscape is at the time. Everyone who turns the dial will land on a different station. When you read the newspaper, your eye will go to one headline while my eye will go to another headline. If that seems like important information then as a creative person you have to trust that and ask yourself—why is it? Why are you interested in that thing and why am I interested in this thing and what does it connect with? It usually connects with something deeper and larger and weirder—some sort of question that you need to ask. It’s very personal. So yeah, I trust that and a lot of times it is something I need to connect with.

Flynn addresses another child at the playground who is yelling—“you are it!”

I do want to play tag but I’ve got to finish this and then we’ll talk. I’m it? How can I play tag when I’m talking? I’m always it, I’m always it.

That makes me think of the two most recent poems in the book, the ones I wrote last were “My Joke” and “When I was a Girl.” And “When I Was A Girl” was written less than a year ago, I was at a workshop teaching and it came out. It creeped me out on various levels. I was writing it for this book on Monticello and Thomas Jefferson’s home and I was playing with this poem for a few months, and I came up with that line “when I was a girl” and there’s something so wrong about it. It seems so weird, to put next to the Thomas Jefferson thing. It just beyond my comprehension really. I like to have poems that are sort of beyond what’s my own comprehension so I don’t know someone else will have to tell me what that poem is about. But I know there was an energy around it. I usually read it at my readings now. I think there is some sort of very weird energy to it that I think is totally out of my control. Whenever I read it, I don’t really understand—I’m like oh what is this part, here’s another part, this is strange. There’s something about that, it just feels right.

At Antioch University’s December residency, Flynn included this poem as part of his reading one evening. I remember that title eliciting laughter from the crowd. Though as soon as he started reading it, the room was silent. Something about it was reverberating and resonating even if no one could explain why.

Even what you appropriate says a lot about you. We could all be given the same pile, all be given Hamlet and we would all be allowed to appropriate five lines from it, choose 5—those 5 lines would reveal something. Reading those 5 lines would say something about you. Part of your job as an artist is to push as close as you can to finding out why you chose the line that resonates for you. You’ll never get to the end of it, you’ll never figure it out exactly but you will sort of have some sense. That’s what I tried to do with The Ticking is the Bomb, that six year project I was on about state-sanctioned torture. Which I was like why the fuck am I writing about Abu Ghraib? Why am I on this thing? I was just hijacked. And then I did eventually figure out that I suppose it’s a sort of look back, it’s early childhood stuff—mom and dad, in a very strange and surprising way to me. That was an interesting process.

At one point I mentioned that The Ticking is the Bomb was about his daughter being born. He considers it to be largely about state-sanctioned torture. Later he said, “We both might be right.”

It just seems like a part of what one does. If you’re writing a piece of nonfiction like Jon Krakauer writing about the Mormons or something he probably doesn’t have to do that. One of my favorite moments that he has in Into the Wild is when he’s writing about Chris McCandless and he stops about three-quarters of the way through and has this section about why he’s interested in writing about Chris McCandless. He says the reason I’m doing this is because I was Chris McCandless when I was 20 years old. I did these crazy fucking things. He tells this crazy story about getting trapped in an ice cap overnight and nearly dying. He talks about taking these risks as a kid and why he did it and suddenly the whole book opened up. That’s sort of what interests me but obviously there are other types of fiction writing where you don’t have to do that and you can’t always do that with poetry. They all have very different energies around them. But the thing I’m interested in about creative nonfiction is that it has that element—you have to ask yourself why you are writing about this particular thing and not about the million other things you could be writing about? That’s actually hard work. That’s actually the more difficult work—stop and answer that question. It’s hard work to accurately portray the world too. To figure out why you are choosing to spend six years of your life writing something is really the question that should be asked just for your own sanity. Otherwise it’s kind of a strange life if you’re just like oh yeah, I wrote about the Titanic and the Great Chicago Fire and Anne Frank. Why did I choose those three things to write about? Why did I spend my entire life doing that?

Though he’s written three successful works of creative nonfiction, poetry is his focus for now. He mentioned being in a sort of poetry mode, one where he can imagine doing another book of poems next. It isn’t likely this will be soon since he is taking time off these days. He says this feels right to him and if or when a poem comes, it will be a gift. It’s hard to imagine him taking any sort of break but it’s not hard to see where his focus is. This is a writer in such high demand but he never seems exasperated by it all, seems like he has all the time in the world for everyone in the world.

Life, work, fatherhood, husbandhood—It all seems part of the same life. By paying attention to my daughter I feel I am being allowed a glimpse of eternity.

He mentions his daughter in several of the new poems and there is always an accompanying sense of wonder in those pieces. Along side those poems are many that elicit a soul-crushing type of narrative. Perhaps one of the most intense poems in this collection is “The Washing of the Body.”

That poem took me 20 years to write. There is a passage in there where I say “Twenty years I’ve tried to write this/only to end up/this isn’t it, this isn’t it.” In 1995, our friend Billy Forlenza died and we were, as the poem lays out, we were presented with the task of washing his body which is something none of us had ever done before and I’ve never done since. It’s a very old, sacred thing to do. We knew that at the time, the three of us really took it very seriously. He was a dear friend of ours. There were a lot of friends around that time that were dying. It was sort of at the tail end of this age of onslaught of AIDS where a lot of people died. He was one. You know he’d probably be alive today with the medicine we have. There is something about that; he contains, that poem contains the energy of a lot of people that died. That time in my twenties a lot of people were dying. The only equivalent would be people going to war where you’d have that many people you knew who had died. Good friends of ours were dying. I mean it happens with overdoses and things but it was this really massive die-out and it was happening especially with the people I was hanging out with. I lived a lot in Provincetown, there were a lot of gay folks there, a lot of New York artists, and it just got especially bad, especially hard. I sort of touched on a little bit of the AIDS epidemic in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City when my friend Richard had died but I haven’t really ever gotten fully into that experience. It was a lot. A lot of my twenties was me dealing with friends who had AIDS.

And I’m glad you like that poem, it took so long to write. It’s one that I think is done but it’s one of the ones I’m the least sure about in a certain way. It’s so funny because I began it before Some Ether came out. I mean I tried to get it into Some Ether but it wasn’t ready, you know? It didn’t feel like it was ready for that but it’s from that era. It was actually begun before I began Blind Huber, before Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, I began that poem. I would go back to it every couple of years and work on it a little bit and just think it’s still not ready. Everyone else who is in that, Marie Howe, Michael Cunningham, and Michael Klein, have all written about that incident. We should do a little chapbook or something about this experience now that I’ve finished mine finally.

I started to wonder if it was the sheer amount of time that it took to write that allowed it to build that emotional charge. This seems to be a theme for Flynn—Some Ether took him nearly ten years to write and it still stands as an incredibly emotive first book of poetry. When he won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for it, the judges noted this surge “These poems establish their emotional authority through their very movement—their wayward, whispering music.”

That’s the thing—sometimes time distills the charge, the emotional charge. And sometimes it’s the immediacy of something. Sometimes it’s the crafting, you can cut away and get to the essence and it doesn’t have that charge. A lot of poems are abandoned too. I have folders full of poems that I sort of keep returning to though. I kept returning to “The Washing of the Body” thinking there was something there. Like I said, I’m not sure if there is, but I’m glad you like it though. That makes it all worth while.

There is a line in this poem that I must have read no less than ten times. It goes “…your back/still warm where the blood pools…” On first read it made me weep. On second, third, fourth read I just kept wondering why is that line destroying me?

Your back is still warm where the blood pools—yes, like suddenly that very specific thing of the body, what the body does, it was weird. The top of him was very cold and we turned him over and his back was very warm. A nurse had to tell us why because we were very confused by it all. It is details like that that make a poem come alive, you know? It’s really specific, really being in tune to the world at that moment, at a really heightened moment. And in the poem I mention the thing about the ring on his finger—that was the one thing we couldn’t get off of him, his ring. We were trying to get it off but couldn’t and after all those years those are the things—the blood pooling, the ring, the lights fluttering above his head, and the conversation we had—those are the things I remember. The conversation in the poem was pretty accurate too. We were all trying to find our way into describing it in the middle of doing the experience. There were three writers standing around him too—such a specific thing.

This mention of detail instantly reminded me of when my brother-in-law, now a doctor, was in school. He went through that phase where their learning is taking place almost solely on cadavers. It didn’t bother him for a long time. People interested in that field always seem so sturdy in their work. And then he came home one day and just sort of collapsed before my sister and said “She had pink finger nails, she had pink finger nail polish on.” And that’s what got him. That little human detail he finally noticed brought him to his knees.

The nail polish—that’s chilling actually. That’s a really chilling image. You should use that in a poem. My mercenary self feels bad for your brother-in-law—that’s a good line for a poem.

Yes, it is, I say.

Well you better use it before I do. Or we can both use it—it’ll just be different poems.

Sarah Miller Freehauf Sarah Miller Freehauf is the Managing Editor for Lunch Ticket, Founding Editor of Teenage Wasteland Review, Editorial Assistant for Divedapper, a reader for [PANK], Interviewer for The Review Review, and an MFA candidate in Poetry at Antioch University Los Angeles. She also teaches high school English and Creative Writing in the Midwest. Her most recent creative work can be found in Stone Highway Review & Poemeleon.

Allison Joseph, Poet

Allison Joseph

Photo: Rusty Bailey

Allison Joseph is the author of six poetry books: What Keeps Us Here (Ampersand, 1992), Soul Train (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1997), In Every Seam (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), Imitation of Life (Carnegie Mellon, 2003), Worldly Pleasures (WordTech Communications, 2004), Voice: Poems (Mayapple Press, 2009), and My Father’s Kites: Poems (Steel Toe Books, 2010).

Joseph teaches at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, where she helped found Crab Orchard Review, a literary journal, and the Young Writers Workshop, a coed residential summer program for teen writers.

In 2012, she won the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

Born in London, England to Caribbean Parents, Joseph grew up in Toronto, Canada and the Bronx, New York. Joseph is a graduate of Kenyon College, and earned her MFA from Indiana University. She resides in Carbondale, Illinois, with her husband Jon Tribble.

Kiandra Jimenez interviewed Joseph by email.

Kiandra Jimenez: As a black woman writer, I am deeply interested in the intersection of culture, history, personal narrative in writing that speaks of and to the black woman’s experience. In my own writing, I strive to incorporate a wide breath of experience that has space for myself, as well as the community I write from. In my own studies I’ve found the language to describe this process, this act—Karla Holloway describes it as “texts that are at once emblematic of the culture they describe as well as interpretive of this culture,” and Sonia Sanchez has stated, “I write to tell the truth about the black condition as I see it. Therefore, I write to offer a black woman’s view of the world.” The late Barbara Christian stated black women’s literary works are the “counterparts of their communities’ oral traditions.”

In your poetry, there is a strong narrative, cultural-historic experience that seems to be born from the tradition Holloway, Sanchez, and Christian spoke of, can you speak to your personal writing impulses, and also how your work engages with the black woman’s experience? Personally, I am deeply aware that I write as participant, observer, and recorder and I wonder if this is something you consider when you pen your poems?

Allison Joseph: Yes, I write to be recorder, observer, participant, and sometimes, even judge. I want to engage the world as I see it with my whole self—all of those different aspects of it. I need sometimes to hang back in the shadows with my pen and paper, and then other times, I need to take center stage in my own creations. The trick is to know when to hang back, and when to step forward. It’s a perpetual ongoing balance.

KJ: Your poems speak to my childhood, in fact, a number of them mirror my experiences growing up as a black girl in South Central Los Angeles, but what I find most intriguing and inspiring in your poetry is your ability to capture the human experience so that your work strikes a chord with readers regardless of race. As I’ve gone about penning poems, writing in general, I strive to include “universal themes,” and I wonder if this is something you consider when penning your poems.

AJ: Thanks so much. I consider that a great compliment. It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of poetry. In terms of what I write about, I consider no subject too small. Often it’s the small moments, that through the amplification of poetry, reveal the larger, more profound truths that we all come to recognize and treasure.

KJ: In a previous interview with Blackbird Journal (2005), you stated that you were a “slow thinker” when it comes to responding immediately to historical events, you also spoke about layering history, personal, and cultural truths into your works. Can you share your process of negotiating these layers into your work? How deliberate are you when you work, or is this layering process natural? I imagine part of what you meant when stating you are a “slow thinker” is that part of your writing and thinking process is layering these truths. In light of the recent, national unrest we’ve witnessed in reaction to the many young, black male lives we’ve lost unnecessarily, I wonder has your process changed? Have you attempted to pen poems in reaction, and if so, has your process remained slow, methodical?

AJ: I think that layering process is natural, a part of poetry itself. Poetry is such an ancient art, and I consider myself young within that art. I find it hard to write poems in reaction to world/national events unless there’s a way in that’s so evident to me that I can’t deny the urge to write about such events. It takes me a while to gather the evidence, you know?

KJ: You’ve shared the impact studying under Yusef Komunyaaka had on you as a young poet, particularly with embracing and including your culture into your writing. Was this a struggle for you early on—and if is so, how did you overcome it? And to add, how do you advise young poets find their path in balancing culture, personal history, and universal themes?

AJ: It was more fear than anything else. Young poets worry that their experiences—whether urban or rural, immigrant or native, small town, suburb, or big city—aren’t worthy of the written word. But for me the urge toward poetry, that seductive feeling of being swept away by words, was enough for me to overcome that fear that my experiences weren’t worthy of poetry itself.

KJ: In My Father’s Kites, your poem “A Daughter’s Villanelle,” defiantly states, when referring to your father’s life, “I write about your life because I can,” and also states, “If you could read these words, I’m sure you’d damn / me write to hell for everything I said.” In the poem, “Absence Without Leave,” you write, “I lived a life I knew I had to hide / my father’s edicts resolutely grim,” can you speak to how you overcame your father’s edicts, and found the space within yourself to defiantly write about his life?

AJ: Only after his death could I speak my own individual truths about him. In a sense, I had to turn him into a character, a figure I could control through language. That’s why so many of the poems in that book are formal—those forms gave me a way to control/confront the “character” of my father as presented in the book. Part of elegy is confrontation—not just with the idea of death, but with the person who has died. For me, I needed formal tools to achieve that confrontation.

KJ: One of the things I find most inspiring about My Father’s Kites, is your ability to accomplish a number of important things—first, you are wholly authentic on the page, which allows us an intimacy that provides a complex, loving portrayal of your father. In the collection you fully humanize him by showing his harsher sides, but also, you show us the gentle sides of your father. The result is a deeply intimate meditation on your complicated relationship with your father. How did you create space for the love and pain, and straddle the line between capturing what was tender, but also harsh of your father?

AJ: It took a while—the poems were born out of the impulse toward elegy I mentioned earlier. It was a project that began in grief. But in the course of writing individual poems, I realized there was a story I needed to put together, to shape like a fiction writer does. Then I put it away for a long time. I needed not to see it, and give it time for it to become less emotionally charged. It was only when I saw that Steel Toe Books was looking for manuscripts by writers of color did I engage with it again.

KJ: Your poetry has a wonderful narrative quality, with poems as well as entire book collections having a full story arc. In particular, I’m thinking about In Every Seam, and how you take readers from your childhood to your marriage. Is story arc something you aim for in every poem, collection?

AJ: Not always, but arcs are a way of helping the reader to manage the particular poetic territory you are working with. Some of my chapbooks don’t really have an arc per se, more of an overall mood in those shorter collections.

KJ: In your poetry book, In Every Seam, you speak directly to your experience at Kenyon College as an undergrad, in particular, the poems, “Higher Education,” and “Academic Instructions” confront the racism you encountered, and the position of “teaching, educating, explaining,” you found yourself in. I’m interested in how your feelings about your experience has evolved, or not, now that you teach. In what ways did your experience at Kenyon College shape the professor you are today, and the great work you’ve done in creating the Young Writers Workshop for High School students at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale?

AJ: My experience at Kenyon was a rough one—I was one of three black students in that year’s freshman class. I was acutely aware of being other, of being a black person in the midst of a place where the black experience was rarely part of the curriculum. I’m glad to say it’s much better there now.

KJ: Can you describe your writing process, practice.

AJ: I write when I can. I have no set writing practices, or times, or methods. I write when I’m not doing other things—in the odd times when I’m traveling, or in hotels, or when I get time to be alone with my thoughts.

KJ: What are you currently working on?

AJ: My next chapbook, Little Epiphanies, is due soon from Imaginary Friend Press. I’m working the last few edits on that one.

KJ: What poets, writers have greatly influenced your work, and how?

AJ: Gwendolyn Brooks, Dorothy Parker, my teachers from graduate school—especially Yusef and Maura Stanton, Robert Hayden, James Wright, Sylvia Plath.

KJ: What are you currently reading?

AJ: I’m educating myself more about world poetry. I know a lot about contemporary American poetry, so I felt I needed to learn more about figures like Borges, Akhmatova, Neruda, etc. I felt I needed a bigger lens to see poetry through. It really helps to see poetry as a world language, and not just something American.

KJ: I have a confession, your poem “On Sidewalks, On Street Corners, as Girls” felt lifted from my life. You sung the songs I sung with girlfriends, cousins, even with my mama, who loved “Mrs. Mary Mack,” but what stirs me deepest in this poem is the lines, “our chants heard in every / school yard, every parking lot / everywhere small dark girls / could gather to hear their voices swell.” Are your poems an effort to swell those voices, to present them again, preserve them?

AJ: Most definitely. If poets don’t preserve those moments, those voices, such moments in time are at risk of disappearing entirely. I never worry these days about whether an aspect of experience, whether it’s past or present, is too insignificant to write about. I figure if it engages my imagination, it needs—requires—preservation.

KJ: One final question, staying with “On Sidewalks…” the poem states, “We’d spend every afternoon after school / and every shred of summer daylight / riffing, scatting, improvising / unafraid to tell each other / shake it to the East / shake it to the West / shake it the one / you love the best,” do you feel your poems continues that riffing, scatting, telling those “small dark girls” to shake it, helping them to “hear their voices swell?”

AJ: I certainly hope so!

Kiandra JimenezKiandra Jimenez is a multi-genre writer, homeschooling mother, and avid organic vegetable farmer from California. She teaches creative writing at UC Riverside Extension and serves as Visual Arts Editor and staff blogger of Lunch Ticket literary journal. She is a current MFA candidate in Fiction and Poetry at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her current work can be found in Orangelandia: The Literature of Inland Citrus and Winged: New Writing On Bees. Kiandra recently finished her first poetry book, Seeds Spent Plants Sow. Visit her at

Kerry Madden-Lunsford, Author

Kerry Madden

Photo: Manuel Ruiz

Kerry Madden-Lunsford grew up traveling around the South as the daughter of a football coach. Her first novel, Offsides, drew on her experiences, but is not an autobiography.  She is one of the few writers authorized to write a biography of Harper Lee, Up Close: Harper Lee, which made Booklist’s Ten Top Biographies for 2009 for Youth. She divides her time between Los Angeles, where she is a mentor at Antioch University’s MFA program and Alabama, where she’s an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

She was interviewed via email on March 5th, 2015.

Lisa Trahan: What inspired you to become a writer? Have you always wanted to write, or is it something you discovered you wanted to do later on in life?

Kerry Madden-Lunsford: My fourth grade teacher told me I was a good writer. It was the first time a teacher said anything of the sort. They usually said, “Aren’t you a nice, big, tall girl,” or “Don’t you listen well?” or “You must be an alto.”

LT: Your novels are written for the Young Adult category. How did you choose this age group versus younger children or adult fiction?

KML: Actually, I write more “middle grade” novels, ages nine to twelve, though the Harper Lee biography is YA. I don’t know—I just really love that age. I remember it well, and honestly when I started writing for that age, I thought I was writing YA. The books I read growing up—The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, all the Little House books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and even Sarah T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic still inform the way I write today.

LT: Your first novel, Offsides, deals with life as the daughter of a football coach, based loosely on your own experiences. How did moving so often affect your writing? How was it growing up in such a male-oriented field?

KML: Moving so much made me memorize accents and faces, so I could fit into each place, although the Pittsburgh to Knoxville move was the roughest. My father used to say, “You won’t even remember these people. We got football games to win—now get your ass in the car.” I vowed not to forget out of sheer defiance. It wasn’t easy on the gridiron because I wasn’t a jock or a cheerleader, but then I found the theatre department, and it didn’t matter anymore. I’d found my people. Also, the coaches’ wives were my very first storytellers, and they were hilarious and they let me eavesdrop and hang around the kitchen while they made cheese grits, drank gin and tonics, and told great stories. But come to think of it, I have lived in twelve states and then in England and China. I applied to become an exchange student in England and that year changed my life. I also spent my first year of marriage teaching in China, and now I live in two states—Alabama and California. So I would say that moving greatly affected who I am today in a very positive way. I never would have said that as a kid, but now I really love the adventure. I’ve written so deeply about places where I’ve never lived—Maggie Valley, North Carolina, and Monroeville, Alabama—that I feel like I have lived in those places somehow. I’m drawn to the South because of how crazy it can be, but I miss the west too, where we raised our kids.

LT: You wrote an autobiography of Harper Lee for young adults. How was that different from writing it for adults?

KML: End notes! I had to make sure EVERYTHING was attributed, and if I were to write another biography, I would start doing the end notes immediately. I kept casual track of everything, which meant having to go back and spend weeks organizing and re-checking every detail. Now would I keep those details accurate from the get-go. I loved my interviews—it was amazing to go to Monroeville, Alabama and interview people who grew up with Harper Lee. Their stories and ways of telling a story were a tremendous gift to me. I wanted to do right by them and of course by Nelle Harper Lee herself.

LT: It was announced that Harper Lee is releasing a second book. How do you think that may affect her legacy?

KML: I don’t think it will affect her legacy. Her legacy is bedrock. I’m thrilled for her. It will also give us a chance to see how the young Harper Lee found her voice as a writer.

LT: To Kill a Mockingbird focuses strongly on racism and morality. Are there any themes you like to focus on in your own works?

KML: The new book I’m writing for kids is called Are You There Vulcan? It’s Me Millie-Graciella and it’s about a girl whose father gets deported while living in Birmingham, Alabama. So I definitely feel like it has themes of racism and morality. Millie-Graciella talks to Vulcan, the giant cast iron statue that stands over Birmingham on top of Red Mountain, and she writes letters to him since God quit listening a long time ago. I tend to have themes of risk and starting over, basically fish out of water stories—and that’s certainly been influenced by all the moving I did.

LT: As an associate faculty member at Antioch University, which has a strong social justice focus, do you think there’s been a change in literature towards more diversity?

KML: I absolutely do. I think of the essays and works by Elizabeth Bluemle, Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, Annie Sibley O’Brien, etc. Even the Newbery Award this year, The Cross-Over, by Kwame Alexander, was wonderful news, because not only did he write a fabulous book, he’s reaching out as an author to kids everywhere and letting them know they all have stories to tell. Kids of all races and backgrounds need to see themselves represented in literature, and I’m thrilled we’re moving in that direction.

LT: Have there been any changes in MFA programs in general towards more diversity, and/or social justice that you’ve noticed since you first started writing?

KML: Oh, I think definitely so—we’re also just more aware of diversity. When I was getting my MFA in Playwriting, the most famous woman playwright was Wendy Wasserstein followed by Beth Henley. Mostly we were still doing William Inge, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and then August Wilson was coming on the scene. But it’s not only great to see diversity happening across literature, it’s essential to who we are as artists and storytellers, and so I’m thrilled to see all the new work from Suzan Lori Parks, Junot Diaz, Roxane Gay, Jacqueline Woodson, Nikki Grimes, Kwame Alexander, Jose Rivera, Pam Munoz Ryan, Josefina Lopez and so many others.

LT: What is your writing style and/or do you have a set routine?

KML: I try to write in the mornings or if I get on a roll, I can go all day, but that never happens or rarely happens with teaching and parenting, but I do try to start first thing. I pay myself first—by writing—and then dealing with emails, Facebook (horrible time suck), and just the white noise of the Internet. I switch up and write in different places sometimes too. The dream is when I can go away to a cabin and write—it doesn’t happen much, but I love going away to write and escaping the distractions of home. I try not to beat myself up anymore if I have a shitty writing day.

LT: Do you have any advice you would give writers who are interested in writing young adult fiction?

KML: Read everything. Join SCBWI. Go to their conferences, join their critique groups, go to the writer/illustrator days. Get involved in any way possible. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators will help any serious writer navigate the world of writing for young people from picture book to young adult.

LT: What is your most rewarding experience or what do you love best about writing for young adults?

KML: Meeting the kids—I love meeting the kids and going into the classroom. I also just love a good writing day. That’s reward enough for me.

LT: Are you working on any new projects?

KML: I’m working on several pictures books: Georgia Ivy and the Pump Organ, Ernestine’s Milky Way, All Bees Home for Christmas, Who Will Squeeze Olive, and No Licky Chops. Some of them may turn into early reader. I am also working on an adult novel, Hop the Pond, which I’m very close to finishing, (please good God in Heaven let it be done!). It’s 312 pages and we’ve almost reached the moors so the end is nigh. And I have a memoir about teaching in China that I’ve avoided for a while called Laurie Anderson in the Rice Fields. I hope to get back to it one day soon.

LT: Are there any young adult books you are reading right now that are particularly your favorites or you’re looking forward to?

KML: I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson, recommended by Antioch student, Tai Farnsworth, and she was so right. My daughter, Norah, read it first and pushed it into my hands and said, “Read this now!” And I’m loving it. I’m reading Kathi Appelt’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Camp, which is wonderful, and Deborah Wiles’s Revolution. I’m also listening to The Night of the Gun by David Carr, because I’m a sucker for addiction memoirs—he’s the best along with Caroline Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story, and Heather King’s Parched.

Lisa TrahanMs. Trahan is an MFA student at Antioch University in Los Angeles. In 2004 she traded the chilly coast of the Atlantic for the friendlier shores of the Pacific. She plays and watches soccer, when not writing about life in crazy LA.

Susan Straight, Author

Susan Straight

Photo: Skye Moorhead

I recently interviewed Susan Straight on the telephone. During the first session, my recording software failed just as my two-year-old son woke up howling from an unusually short nap. A tired and hungry toddler is like an escaped rhinoceros; I have not quite worked out the glitches of single motherhood. Graciously, Susan allowed me to reschedule, understanding first-hand the difficulties of being a single parent, a difficulty she never allowed to impede her aspirations and accomplishments. Based on our conversation, her fiction and essays, various speeches I found on YouTube, and the seminar she taught at Antioch’s Winter MFA residency, I was left with an impression of Susan’s clarity of purpose, as well as her no-nonsense perspective on hard work and dedication.

The award-winning author of eight novels, countless essays and short stories, Susan Straight is also a well-loved professor at UC Riverside’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, which she co-founded. She was a finalist for the National Book Award for Highwire Moon and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for A Million Nightingales. She has won the Edgar Award and the O. Henry Award for her short stories and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lannan Literary Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Robert Kirsch Award. Her stories have appeared in Zoetrope, McSweeneys, The Ontario Review, The Oxford American, The Sun, Black Clock, and others. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Family Circle, Salon, Los Angeles Times, Harpers, The Nation, and other magazines. She was born, raised, and still resides in Riverside, California.

Diana Greenwood: This past December, you taught a seminar at Antioch entitled, “Is Regional Fiction Some of the Best in American Fiction?” where you stressed the importance of landscape in story. Can you speak to the function and importance of landscape in your novels?

Susan Straight: Some of the writers I brought up in the presentation, like Alistair Macleod who writes about Cape Breton and William Gay who writes about a small rural place in Tennessee, writers like us use landscape as a major character.

For me, the landscape of fictional Rio Seco but also just Southern California in general, that’s always a major character in anything I write. From the very beginning, when I was sixteen or seventeen and writing my first short stories, I wanted to write about the way pepper trees looked and the way their branches drooped. I described them variously as dusty rooster tails or if there’s a Santa Ana wind and you’re under a pepper tree, it feels like seaweed swaying all around you. Even the very last thing I wrote, which was an op-ed piece for the LA Times about the bookmobile, I went back to the pepper tree and realized that I’d been writing about the same landscape for my whole life. Everything from what blooms here, to how the ground looks at the end of August, to how the sky looks, that’s very important to my fiction.

DG: I have heard you say that two things, originally that there are two types of people: those who leave and those who stay, and then later, you added a third categorythose who leave and come back. After toying with the idea of being a Brooklyn writer, you returned to Riverside. What is it about your childhood, your memories, and your life in Riverside that creates a need for storytelling?

SS: I wasn’t a Brooklyn writer because I didn’t even know what Brooklyn was back then. But when I was younger and read stories and novels set in New York City, I wanted to live someplace where there was a fire escape and tall buildings. I wanted to have an apartment and be able to sit out on the fire escape and read. That was my romantic vision of New York.

I was speaking at Rancho Los Alamitos, a historic place near Long Beach, and I was giving a talk. And a woman came up after me and she said there’s a third kind, “those who come back.” She had come back to Southern California after having been gone. We were trying to figure out if that made us sentimental or whether it made us losers.

For me, I left for USC and then I left for two years to go to Massachusetts for graduate school. When I was in Massachusetts, it was winter and it was twenty-seven below zero and there was snow. I still kept writing about palm trees and graffiti and chain-link fences and bougainvillea and realized again that the landscape of Riverside was what was calling me. But also I think I knew back then that no one else had really written about Riverside. People had written about inland Southern California. Laura Kalpakian writes about a fictional San Bernadino landscape and some people had written about the desert. But there was really no one who had written about a place like Riverside so that’s why I ended up doing it.

DG: Your novels illuminate communities, cultures, and people that exist in a very real sense in the United States, but that have often remained unexamined. As an author writing these intimate stories, some of which are culled from your own neighborhood, what is your responsibility in regard to the communities you are writing about?

SS: Since I still live in exactly the same place where I was born, I don’t know if I feel a responsibility about it. People tell me stories every day and I think it’s important for fiction to tell a good story. I’m telling stories about people for the most part no one hangs out with or no one ever hears about.

For example, a guy that came over this morning, Louie Lozano, who’s a Chicano guy born in Corona whose parents are from Mexico. I’ve known him for probably fifteen years. When we talk about old Corona or working in the lemon groves or my brother and his orange grove, he’s a natural storyteller. I don’t know if I feel responsibility towards anybody. Because he doesn’t care. He would never read anything I wrote anyway.

The responsibility is more to the reader to tell a great story that somebody is not going to put down. That’s the best way I can think of honoring a community is by making sure people actually read about them and don’t put the book down.

DG: To push that idea of community a little further, what sort of impact does what happened in Ferguson or is happening in Baltimore have on our artistic responsibility towards social justice? Does this affect you as a writer?

SS: Ferguson and Baltimore are examples that have gotten national attention. But as you know, we’ve been having police shootings and other shootings in Southern California for fifty years. I’ve been writing about that for my whole life. In fact, I published a story, “Angel Wings,” about a police shooting in 2010 that was just taught in Romania and Turkey and several other places. Because I just got an email from Romania, from someone who taught the story to her class and they were crying. There is plenty of social justice to write about here in our area. I haven’t thought about Ferguson and Baltimore because we have so much to write about here. I think I’ve written about twenty short stories and essays about black men and violence in this area.

DG: In an interview with the LA Times last year, you spoke about where you have written your novels: at a gas station counter, in cars, on your porch, on legal pads, and small notebooks. Many new writers are overly concerned with finding the perfect setting or time for writing. What advice do you give to your MFA students about getting over these limitations and fears?

SS: If you always have to wait for the muse to come, it’s going to take a long time. Especially if you have kids, you know how that goes. It’s good to be resilient and be able to write wherever you can and not to think about yourself and think about the imperative nature of the stories you want to tell.

If you look at professional basketball players or actors, they’re working all the time. Basketball players, they’ll play at the park, they’ll shoot free throws wherever. Actors and actresses are working all the time. Some of my best friends have always been hair stylists. It’s really funny. They’ll look at your hair wherever. When I’m in church, my friend, Tracy, will look at my hair and be like, “You need to come in tomorrow.” I’ll say, “I know.” And she’s like, “If you don’t come in pretty soon, I’m going to bring scissors to church. I’m just gonna do your hair here.” I always thought that was funny because writers, we’re workers like anyone else. Even though we are making art, it is funny to say I can only write at this time or I can only write under these conditions. I think a lot of people feel this way but I never have. I’ve been too desperate.

DG: In the same article, you dispel some misconceptions about being a mother and a writer, namely that we cannot find inspiration amidst the chaos of motherhood. You wrote in your car waiting for your girls’ practices to be over. Did you ever feel like you were not writing enough or getting enough on paper amidst all the time constraints of being a mother, a young mother, a single mother?

SS: I worked as hard as could and I had all these kids and I was teaching. I always wanted more time to write. That never changed. I never felt guilty that I wasn’t getting enough down on paper. I was writing pretty much every minute that I wasn’t with my kids or working. I didn’t watch a lot of TV during that time. I watch more TV now, that’s for sure. I published a novel every two years for a while. My last kid was born in 1995 and I published Highwire Moon in 2001. Then it was more like five years between books because the kids were in junior high and high school. They played a lot of sports and I did a lot of driving. But that was also a trilogy that just took more time to think about. I never feel guilt because I’m always working.

DG: Your Rio Seco trilogy began with the historical fiction, A Million Nightingales, then was followed by Take One Candle Light a Room, and ended with the prequel, Between Heaven and Here. It took fifteen years for you to complete these three books. Can you speak to the conception and development of this trilogy? How did you know when it was completed?

SS: Interestingly enough, it started out with several images: there was the young woman who was killed and her body left in a shopping cart; then this boy I met in my middle daughter’s kindergarten class, having seen cigarette burns on him; and then the woman I found during slavery. I found her by accident in the stacks at the UC Riverside library while looking for something else and there was a story about a mixed race slave woman named Manon Baldwin. She was freed after saving her master’s wife but she had to buy her son from him. Then she owned her son and couldn’t free him.

I had started the present day story about the woman killed in the alley and her body left in a shopping cart. Then I thought about the mothers. Somehow there was this relationship between the mothers and daughters that was based on a lot of sternness and fear because that had been passed down from slavery. And that’s why I ended up starting with A Million Nightingales. The idea of mothers and daughters separated when the daughter is sold away and then this daughter having to buy her own son. After that, I went back to Between Heaven and Here but I couldn’t quite finish it yet because I wasn’t sure about the son, the boy that had been burned.

So I ended up writing Take One Candle Light a Room, which is about Fantine, a travel writer. She was a little easier to focus on then and she’s the one who hears, “There’s two kinds of people, people who leave and people who stay.” She hears that from her own mother. So I was still trying to write about mothers and daughters and that relationship, which is: we want you to stay home yet we want you to be successful. But there are some mothers that just want you to stay home and that was Fantine’s mom. I was finally able to come back at the very end and finish Between Heaven and Here.

I still am writing about Victor. He shows up in a book I’m working on right now. So I don’t know that I’m done. I’ve finished that trilogy which is about that family. But the one character who is still showing up now and then is Victor and a little bit of Glorette.

DG: What are you working on now?

SS: I’m finishing a novel that’s set in Prince Edward Island, which is a completely different landscape. Maritime Canada, that’s the landscape of my stepdad. I’m finishing that now. There’s a section that takes place in Southern California and Victor is in that. But this one is in the land of Anne of Green Gables. And it’s two cousins whose mothers were sisters and their mothers both left the island. So it’s also about leaving and staying home.

Then the other project I have is a group of linked short stories all set around different freeways of Southern California. That’s called Take the Golden State. I just finished two more of the stories in that one. I think there are ten stories in that now. Maybe two more to go.

DG: A lot of your characters range in ethnicity, age, class, education, time period, and even to a certain extent, geographical location. How do you approach writing these varied voices?

SS: It’s just all fun. They are all great voices. Like you said, everything from Louie Lozano telling his story, to me meeting somebody down on the river bottom and while I’m walking the talk, they tell me the story of their life. As long as it’s an interesting story in a distinctive voice, I think they’re all fun. I guess I don’t ever think about myself. I just think how to tell the story right so it doesn’t bother me if they’re all different. Although I don’t know much about rich people, I will confess.

DG: What does a recommended reading list look like in one of your classes?

SS: That depends on what class it is. I teach seminars for graduate students. I teach the mixed race novel class for three hundred undergraduates. For that, we do books with narrators who are mixed race. So we’ve done Wingshooters, by Nina Revoyr, Girl Who Fell From The Sky, by Heidi Durrow, Everything I’ve Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, and Highwire Moon, which is mine. So that’s four books with young mixed race narrators.

I’ve taught a class called “Road Trip Novels.” And then we did Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. We did Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines. We did Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontesand we did Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

DG: Obviously your students learn a great deal from you. What have you learned from them?

SS: They tell great stories. I just had a publishing roundtable at UCR last week. I had two agents and two editors come and talk about the business of publishing and the way it works and what they’re interesting in. I had two alumni come. One is Minh Pham. He finished a memoir about growing up as the immigrant son of a Vietnamese woman who works in a nail salon. His essays are about what it’s like to grow up in this landscape of the nail salon, which is a hidden landscape in America.

Then I have another student, Paula Tang, who is half Korean and half Chinese. She’s almost done with this really funny collection of stories about growing up in this small mostly white community where there’s only one Chinese restaurant. And how all the people only want specific Chinese food that has nothing to do with the character who knows how to cook. With my students, there’s always a joy in hearing a different story that no one has ever told before. I never get tired of that.

DG: Thank you, I appreciate your time.

SS: Well, hang in there with the kids.

DG: I have two and I’m a single mom now so it’s a bit nuts. But it is funny how the less time I have the more I’ve actually gotten done.  It’s sort of what you talk about—a bit of a misconception. But I think a lot of young writers are paralyzed by those fears. I really appreciate what you’ve shared, in the seminar and the articles I’ve read, about your experience being a mother and working writer.

SS: Isn’t it funny? Whether someone’s a painter or anything else, you always hear about someone who is just morosely sitting around waiting for that moment to come. But I don’t think we have that luxury when we are single parents, when we are parents at all, but especially single parents.

And it’s not about whether trying to earn money either, it’s more like, “What are you going to leave behind in the world?” I would always say I want to leave behind three great kids and a bunch of great books. So if that’s what I want to leave behind, then there’s way less time to sit around feeling sorry for myself. But it’s true there’s less shopping. I don’t even care about clothes. I just wear whatever I wear. I don’t care so much about how my house looks or my car or any of that stuff. That’s the stuff that’s less important to me. But every single moment that I could be reading and writing, that’s what I want to do.

Diana GreenwoodDiana Greenwood is currently an MFA student at Antioch University of Los Angeles and Fiction Assistant Editor for Lunch Ticket. She has translated texts from French to English (published in Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked), ghostwritten for an autobiography, and written blogs for the Huffington Post. She lives in South Florida with her two young boys, husband, and an unstable Boston Terrier named Oliver.