Thursday, November 29, 2012

Interview with poet Marcela Sulak

Marcela Sulak was born and raised on a rice farm in South Texas. I was born and raised on a rice farm in Eastern Arkansas. So, right away, I was drawn to her work. I got ahold of a copy of her first full-length collection Immigrant and was really impressed with it. I found her poetry to be very sensual and evocative, in a way that many poets attempt but few achieve. She was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me:

Me: How did you come to writing?

Marcela Sulak: Before I could read, my mother read to me. My mother also gave me a great appreciation for language because she always used the most fascinating verbs when setting us to chores. We were never to “give” the chickens our table scraps. We were always told to “fling” them or to “toss” them, for example. We looked forward to hearing how we were to dust the house and vacuum. My siblings and I tried to come up with better verbs for chores, and to anticipate her choices.

I grew up on a rice farm five miles outside of a town of about 250, so characters in books were often as real to me as the people around me. So it was natural to turn to theater, in which boundaries are blurred. On our farm, we had a two-story barn that my father and uncles no longer used, that we children commandeered. I wrote plays and we—my three siblings and three cousins who lived down the road—acted in them, using the barn’s trap door to great effect. I was not the oldest cousin, so I had to make the plays enticing to my older cousins, which meant they’d get the lead roles. Which meant I paid careful attention to subsidiary roles. This is great training for writing poetry.

Me: In Immigrant, you trace the histories of several civilizations through certain foods, like radishes. What is it about these foods or these cultures that interests you?

Sulak: My grandfather began rice farming in the first years it was introduced into Texas, in the 1920s, I believe. Much of the land was virgin land, meaning that no one had ever farmed it before. Nearby was cotton and sugar cane. I was fascinated by the way crops changed the landscape and the culture of a place. When I lived in Venezuela, I got to observe how class struggles played out in terms of who was given propriety over the land. I spent time on the llanos with a friend who was a biologist. I spent time with indigenous peoples on the Brazilian and Venezuelan borders, and listened to them explain their social structures in terms of the gendering of agricultural tasks (women grew yams and yucca. It was not men’s work). In the Czech Republic, I was fascinated by how you could take a walk and come home laden with all the food you needed for a meal (fruit on the roadsides, planted during the soviet years, chamomile, mushrooms). How the herbs had their own stories and healing properties. I suppose plants have always seemed alive to me. They have stories, and I loved hearing them.

Me: I have to say I’m drawn to the fact that you grew up on a rice farm in Texas. I grew up on one in Arkansas. Do you write about rice farming (or just farming) much? What sort of reactions have you gotten to it?

Sulak: All my life I have heard about Arkansas rice, but until now, I’d never met an Arkansas rice farmer, so I hope we can talk in greater detail about your farm.

In each of my books (chapbook, Immigrant, and now, the new one) I seem to have a Texas farm section. Finally, a friend and colleague told me, “you need to write your next book about rice farming in Texas.” So I’ve started research. But I’m a little nervous about it. My family has very strong opinions about such things as accuracy when it comes to depicting family stories. I generally tend to use stories as I use cookbooks—as suggestions for raw material.

Until recently, though, literature did not reflect the world if you lived in Texas. Standard fare in books published in American literary centers—Boston or New York in the North East, Chicago in the Mid-west—depicted things like snow! The first time I saw snow I was 22 years old and living in South Bend Indiana for grad school. They depict the changing of the leaves, four seasons, apple trees, subways or the elevated rail, commuter trains, maple syrup. When I read books set in Texas (I came late to Katherine Anne Porter), I feel a shock of recognition, as if some part of my life has been validated. That’s the reaction I’ve had from people who live in communities depicted in Immigrant. It’s a relief.

Me: Why “Immigrant”?

Sulak: Who isn’t an immigrant, or a descendent of immigrants? Almost no one in the world. And if we ate only foods that were indigenous to the lands on which we live, you’d be eating only corn, squash, beans, tomatoes, chocolate, and that’s only if you were lucky enough to have been born in Mexico. I wanted to show how connected all are to one another by virtue of the fact we are all immigrants—even the most seemingly permanent features of our cultural landscapes have been carried from somewhere else, too.

Me: Your writing is very evocative and appeals to the senses, while also engaging the mind with complex ideas. Which is more important for a poet, do you think?

Sulak: Thank you!

What is an object without an idea? We don’t even notice objects if they do not embody ideas or feelings. I think of a poem as an object that has been reconciled with its idea. The most potent poetry of ideas is often full of things: Wallace Stevens or Marianne Moore, whose poetry is really about the mind at work. There are very few poets--Rosemary Waldrop (Driven to Abstraction) or Ellen Hinsey (Update on the Descent) that can write convincingly about abstract ideas without resorting to the senses.

I think through my senses. Sometimes I only know that I have an idea because of the way I feel, physically. I feel it in my body. So when I write, I hope that objects—sights, sounds, taste, smells--serve as portals to invite the reader into the world. They have to allow the reader to enter, and they must allow the reader to construct a reality for herself in that world. Generous poems share their bounty with the reader, and don’t ask readers to account for how they used this bounty.

Once I gave my students an exercise based on Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s Ten Walks and Two Talks. They were to walk for 60 minutes a day, and write down 60 sentences in the course of each walk. Just observations. Not reflections. One of the students read her observations to the class, and everyone responded with a version of “Wow, you really do not get along with your mother, do you?” She was shocked. She was, in fact, going through a tough spot, but she had no idea how we got that from her observations of a walk through a rose garden in Jerusalem.

Me: Would you mind telling me a little about your writing process: do you write every day, do you have a specific routine, etc.?

Sulak: I try to journal every day when I get back from biking my 5-year-old daughter to school. Before my daughter was born, I would journal for about half an hour in bed before my mind became engaged in other things. I try to journal in a way that would be interesting to read. But the content can be anything—the etymology of a word, a new strategy for dealing with motorcycles in the bike lanes in Tel Aviv, a draft of a poem, a recipe.

I try to set aside at least an hour for some kind of creative writing, either translation or poetry. When I say I spend days writing, I mean revising. It is rare I spend days simply creating something completely new.

But semesters in which I teach academic subjects, I usually reserve my writing days for critical articles. Then I will save Friday mornings, when my daughter is in school only half a day, for poetry. Sometimes, when I am working on academic articles, my mind goes off in tangents. I used to use a lot of footnotes, but now I collect the footnotes and put them in a file called “scraps,” and they are often where my poems come from.

But I always carry my notebook with me, everywhere and always. You never know when you’ll see or hear something that you must write down, in case you can use it later. I use about 5% of what I write down, probably. But the discipline of attentiveness, of being in the moment, is why I do it.

Me: What has the process of publishing a book been like? Have you enjoyed working with Black Lawrence Press?

Sulak: I love Black Lawrence Press. They are young, energetic, bursting with new ideas, and enthusiastic. Before I found them, I sent my little book to the requisite competitions for about three years, and was always a finalist in 3 or 4 each year. I discovered BLP’s open reading period and sent to them because I liked their catalog and have read almost every book of poetry they publish. Sometimes I’ve taught their books. The press feels like home.

Me: What’s your favorite poem from the book and why?

Sulak: Each of the poems serves a different function in the book, so it is difficult for me to answer that question, but I can say what I like most about the book’s reception is that people have noted that the poems never “exoticize,” and one reviewer said the book was light years ahead of current U.S. policies on immigration. That makes me happy because, though I wasn’t aware of the political implications of what I was writing at the time, I do believe that in so many countries, immigrants are the ones who do the hardest work and are often most loyal to their adopted countries, and though they are as much a part of the culture and social fabric as anyone else, they are so often feared and treated as scapegoats. I wanted to show how we are all, in a very real sense, immigrants, and I tried to do this by depicting the migration of fruits and vegetables through the world, and the importance of said fruits and vegetables to national or communal identities.

Me: Who are you reading? Who are your inspirations?

Sulak: At this very moment, I am reading the Israeli poet, Orit Gidali, whose work I am translating into English. Her work shows how “words carry with them the traces they have been,” by virtue of the fact it is in Hebrew. So her words carry on their backs Babylon, Egypt, Talmud, and they track biblical and diaspora sand all over her twenty-first century kitchen, bedroom, and through airport transit lounges. I also find the Arab-Israeli Taha Muhammad Ali’s So What? New and Selected Poems, translated by Peter Cole, emotionally intelligent and incredibly moving. Sadly, the Nazareth-based poet just passed away last year. Recently I’ve loved Heather Christle’s What is Amazing. Other poets whose recent work stays with me: Sabrina Orah Mark, Rachel Zucker, Steve Gehrke, Terrance Hayes, A. Van Jordan, Takashi Hiriade.

Me: What else are you working on now?

Sulak: I usually have several kinds of projects going at once, and I rotate focus on them, depending on deadlines or moods or schedules. I have just finished a poetry manuscript called (for now) The Ladies’ Guide to Hebrew, based loosely on 18th century manuals of etiquette, and also on etymologies of Hebrew words. Having moved to Israel 2 ½ years ago, I am still grappling with learning the language, but I love that Hebrew words are so thingy.

I am translating two volumes of the Israeli poet Orit Gidali, and through the process of translating, I have also responded with many of the poems that are in The Ladies’ Guide.

Finally, there’s an academic study of foreign and immigrant poets living in New York in the 1920s, writing what they considered “American” poetry, but often in languages other than English. I am interested in their depictions of time-space, and in their use of scientific discoveries, especially relativity, as well as their responses to technology.

* * *

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hard Times

I've taken a day to work on a project sans family since I haven't had a chance to write in four days. In general, it's been tough finding time. But now, I'm sitting in an empty house, missing my wife and my little girl, and instead of writing, I'm thinking about how we don't actually make enough money at our teacher day jobs to pay our bills, and how our crappy insurance just got even crappier so that now, essentially, we don't have insurance ($5000 deductible, have to pay full price for meds, etc.), and the whole thing seems really difficult. Impossible. The kind of thing you just throw down and walk away from. I've taken steps -- I can't really be explicit because, you know, the thing about the internet is anybody can read it -- so I'll just say I'm doing what I can to rectify the situation, but it will take time. And it's not going to be easy. It's a challenge to focus on writing when the difficulties in life seem so momentous. Worse than that, it's difficult to enjoy my time with my family when I can't stop thinking about these things. It sours me on life. So I end up wasting the time I should be spending on important things worrying.

My father grew up in the Depression as a share cropper. Struggle is nothing new. The Depression was caused by rampant greed. The current economic situation was caused by just the same thing, but we never learn. People are still out there clamoring about the poor corporations and billionaires being so mistreated. They throw out words like Socialism and don't even know what that means. It's all about greed and pettiness and it's disgusting and sad. It holds us back. As someone else said, there will always be some indentured servants eager to praise their masters. I wish I could get clear of the pig-headedness that allows this to keep happening, but I can't. It's hard to set it aside for even a moment because, sadly, it has such an effect on my life.

So what do you do? It's tempting to consider writing as an escape, and it can be that, but good writing is not that, not at all. Good writing has an agenda, but a more subtle one than propaganda. Good writing tries to change the world. Good writing teaches. It focuses on the real, capital T Truth. It fights the good fight.

Let me be clear: teaching is the most important thing we can do (aside from actually saving a life, as a doctor or fireman, perhaps, or a police officer, though even that is a form of teaching). Teaching is at the core of who we are as humans. We are social animals; we learn from each other. We are born with few, if any instincts. Everything we know we've learned, we've been taught. This is how we communicate. This is how we interact. Some of us teach by writing.

I'm going to keep working. Then I'm going to go see my family. There are all these assholes in my way, but they're not going to win. They say that history is written by the victors. That may be, but it's taught by teachers.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

10 Questions with Me

I've read a couple of these self-interviews lately...okay, I've scanned the titles of a couple of these lately, and no one's really been interested in interviewing me in a while, so I thought I'd give it a shot. Here goes 10 questions with me:

Q: Why are you from a place that's not here?

A: Because no one is from here. And people who are are liars or weird.

Q: Have you ever worn suspenders?

A: Once. I don't like to talk about it. It was at a party and someone dared me. I've never worn a bowtie, though, so there's that.

Q: What's the best frog?

A: Those Canadian tree frogs. I forget what they're called...unless...could it be Canadian tree frogs? Anyway, they have a kind of natural anti-freeze in their blood and they freeze solid, except for I guess their vital organs, in winter. Clearly, they are the best frogs. Those ones that people lick to get high are probably second just as a sympathy vote.

Q: What's wrong with spaghetti?

A: So many things are right with spaghetti that it seems self-indulgent to point out the one thing that isn't right, but I just can't remain silent about this anymore. I don't care for tomato sauce. Partly, it's because I'm getting older and it bothers my stomach a bit, and partly, it's gross. I like the white sauce better, even though it reminds me of a cross between semen and glue. Which is pretty much what's wrong with spaghetti.

Q: What are you reading instead of what you're supposed to be reading?

A: I'm reading Why I'm Not a Christian, by Bertrand Russell, because it's in my bathroom. I won't say it's terribly interesting -- most of his arguments, so far, are pretty obvious, though perfectly valid. For example, he points out that Christ wasn't much of a moral leader because he publicly denounced unbelievers to hell. I have a stack of books I'd like to read -- I just bought the two Charles Portis novels I've yet to read (Masters of Atlantis and Norwood) and hope to knock those out soon.

I'm supposed to be reading crap I'm teaching, which I've already read, but like to reread as I teach it so it's fresh. It's hard to find time, though. Also, I've got a stack of review books.

Q: Have you considered interstate trucking?

A: I have! The biggest problem with that, I think, would be the fact that I fall asleep pretty much immediately after getting into the car. It's a problem, since I usually drive when we go anywhere. Often, chewing gum helps. I'm not much of a cap person, either, and I feel like truck drivers usually wear caps.

A big plus, I'd have to say, is gas station chicken. Gas station chicken is probably my favorite food group. I imagine that if I were to become an interstate trucker, I'd eat a lot of it. I also like Pringles and key lime pie. I'm pretty sure I could get Pringles at gas stations, not so sure about the pie. That's pretty much why I haven't put a downpayment on a rig, yet.

Also, Kurt Russel's character in Big Trouble in Little China was a trucker, and he's definately one of my heroes.

Q: What's your favorite memory about pudding?

A: I don't actually have any standout memories about pudding. My dad used to make banana pudding when I was a kid, which was cool, I guess, but he'd make a LOT of it and it would take a long time to eat, and by the end, it was all soggy and kind of gross. Pudding isn't really my thing I guess. I'd rate it slightly above jello, though that jello with fruit and shit suspended in it does have a kind of aesthetic appeal.

Q: Tell me more about spaghetti.

A: I'm intrigued by the tradition of eating some sort of bread with pasta. Who came up with that? It's like having a burger with your steak. I prefer pickles with pasta. They're green. You need some green with all that red. Aesthetics are important.

Q: How come I've never heard of you?

A: You haven't been spending enough time at the post office.

Q: Say something pithy about stalactites.

A: Stalactites are what's left when the earth's tears dry.

Friday, November 09, 2012

J. Bradley's Jesus Christ, Boy Detective stories

Jesus Christ, Boy Detective, stories by J. Bradley.

Every so often something comes along through the internet pipeline that genuinely makes me glad to be a reader. It isn’t too surprising that J. Bradley would be responsible for one of these rare, rare instances with his Jesus Christ, Boy Detective series. I’ve gathered a handful of these stories, published all over the internet (and one in a chapbook). I cannot believe that a publisher hasn’t picked these up as a collection. I’ve also heard that he’s working on a novella, so I can only imagine someone will pick that up and make him famous. I mean, you know, as famous as an actual talented writer can be. Which isn’t really that famous. But I digress.

The idea is that Jesus Christ is in the body of Timmy Hightower, a boy detective. This is a great idea, which I’ll give you a moment to savor, but Bradley doesn’t just run with it a la the Hardy Boys, he delves into the character of Jesus, as presented in certain texts you may be familiar with. Think of the boy Jesus, murdering birds, an alien wandering the middle-eastern landscape with unimaginable power, one foot on Earth, one in heaven. Now make him a boy detective. 

The structure of these stories varies, but is mostly episodic, beginning en medias res with the scene of the crime, moving through the investigation and solving of the crime, and then ending with a nod to the larger plot.

Bradley’s stories are micro-fiction, usually. “From Jesus Christ, Boy Detective: The Royal Flush of Fate,” appeared in Unshod Quills introduces us to Timmy becoming the vessel for Jesus. “From Jesus Christ, Boy Detective: Everything Will Be Slashed,” appeared in in Red Lightbulbs and features Jesus Christ, Boy Detective dancing around the conventions of the boy-dective genre (and roundhouse kicking a bad guy). “Jesus Christ, Boy Detective and The Freshly Squeezed Slugger” appeared in Paragraph Line and fleshes out the character, introducing more violent crimes (it should be noted, Timmy Hightower/Jesus tend to investigate some pretty grisly stuff). This was the most complete of the stories thus far.

Here’s one in Whole Beast Rag (?) which is a little bit of a pain to get to (you might have to sign up): “Jesus Christ, Boy Detective: the Early Bird Gets the Shaft.” Here, Timmy Hightower/Jesus investigates a case of murder by arrows. There are also tantalizing hints concerning the larger plot. Cityscapes contains “Jesus Christ, Boy Detective: It’s a Small World After All.” Bradley progressively develops minor characters, such as Leopold, the knife-wielding associate. Bradley plays with the idea of faith – God must remain as uninvolved as possible because, “while the belief is off the charts, it’s a violent maddening one” and any sort of confirmation could spark violence that “would make Sodom and Gomorrah look like a backyard barbeque.”

There is a chapbook: We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, a Jesus Christ Boy Detective Mystery, available here: It’s phenomenal. Here’s one on Nothing To Say, xTx’ blog:

I’m hoping Bradley is able to put out a collection, a novella, SOMETHING very soon. These stories are like choice B-Movies (of the “creative and really good despite the low budget” kind, not the “so bad they’re a little less bad” kind.). Until that happens, read the stories. Show Bradley some love. You won’t regret it.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Writing Update, November

I haven't really announced this because I haven't received the actual contract, but I had a novella picked up by a press I'm pretty damned excited about. If you've read many of my reviews lately, I've referenced a couple presses I'm really keen on, and this is one I've referred to several times. Sorry to be vague, but I don't want to put anything out there until I have the contract. I'm really happy about this. It's a small press, but it's a damned good one. No idea when the book will actually come out. The book's tentatively titled Man of Clay. It's a kind of slave narrative set in Arkansas during the Civil War which follows a gollum owned by a mad genius-type. Very dark and brutal with some steam-punk stuff and also probably the best thing I've ever written.

Along with that, Riceland, a poetry collection about my childhood on a rice/catfish/etc. farm in Arkansas, is forthcoming next year. I'm excited about this because it's also probably the best poetry collection I've written.

I also had a print version of my formerly ebook-only YA novel Sunlight recently released.

I've got a zombie novel coming out very soon, a supernatural/comedy novel coming out...well it's been pushed back a couple times so who knows, and a novel about my days in a punk band (called The Saviors) coming out probably next year. Lots going on. I've got a handful of other novel manuscripts making the rounds. I'm currently wrapping up another one -- a very strange post-apocalyptic joint. I think

Sooooo next I think I'll either do some poetry or maybe start on a parable-type story I've been kicking around.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Interview with Donna Lewis Cowan

Donna Lewis Cowan’s debut collection, Between Gods, is out from Cherry Grove Press. The poems weave elements of spirituality was it figures in everyday life with characterizations of mythical figures, among other things. Cowan was kind enough to answer a few questions about the collection, about her writing process, and about the life of the writer.

CB: How did you come to writing?

DLC: According to my mom, my first poem, about snow, was published in Highlights magazine when I was in first grade. But I really began seriously writing poetry after my brother, a year older, started writing it in high school. I think I just thought it was what you were supposed to do at that age. We also had to do a senior project for English class - one play, three short stories, or twenty poems - and after trying unsuccessfully to write stories, I opted to write the poems. I then didn't write poetry much until my senior year of college, when I took three poetry electives at the same time, and it really got me going again.

CB: Would you mind telling me a little about your writing process: do you write every day, do you have a specific routine, etc.?

DLC: I definitely don't write every day, though I probably jot down ideas or lines every day. I don't write poems in a linear way; many times I'm cobbling together lines from different pieces of paper, like making a collage. It takes me a long time to write a poem; I'll let lines sit for a while until the meaning becomes clearer. It's rare for me to write a poem in one sitting.

CB: One of my favorite poems in the book is “Thaw” because of its liminal feeling – you manage to capture a tight scene that is rife with pathos and meaning. What was the impetus for this poem?

DLC: I wrote a number of "cold weather” poems in the summer of 2007: "Thaw," "Snow," and "Thingvellir, Iceland" are kind of a trilogy. I was very affected by the shootings at Virginia Tech that April; that's where I went to college, and as an English major I'd taken classes with some of the professors most affected. I realized later that those poems - which just started out as my dreaming about winter during a humid D.C. summer - were trying to make sense of that event; they were all in some way about the earth shifting beneath your feet, about those seismic changes we can’t control.

"Thaw" (the full text is here) describes the feeling of ice skating, with a partner, on a lake. Skating for me is very sensory - the wind in your face, the speed, the constant need to rebalance your body, the drag of the ice on the blade and how you can feel yourself cutting into the ice. With a partner you're experiencing all those feelings, with the added complexity of trying to stay in sync, trying not to fall and take him down with you. I never realize what a poem is doing when I'm writing it, but now I can see how much it is about risk, faith, the "accidental healing" that happens all the time in relationships.

CB: Many of these poems (like “Thaw”) seem autobiographical; what are your thoughts on telling the truth as a poet?

DLC: A number of the poems are derived from direct experiences - places I've visited, relationships I have or had - and interestingly, I think those poems are more opaque than many others in the book, particularly when compared to the mythology-based and persona poems. I think when I assume a role, as in the dramatic monologue in "Penelope" or the reframing of the myth in "The Siren," I can act out aspects of myself that I wouldn't want to admit to in other formats. It's me, but not-me. It seems like many female poets write persona poems early in their careers, and I wonder if is because in finding your voice, you're still not sure if you're really allowed to say exactly what you feel. (What will your mother say?)

CB: What’s your favorite poem from the book and why?

DLC: Probably "Transplant." A few years ago I read an article in the Washington Post, about how many people who have organ transplants experience personality changes. It made me think of how technology is becoming so integrated into our lives, and the poem tries to get at the ramifications of that. As in "Thaw," it has that struggle between science and faith.

CB: What’s the significance of the title “Between Gods?”

DLC: I took a photo years ago in Croatia, that always moved me and I wasn’t sure why. It was an image of a simple white house on a tiny island – literally, the house wasn’t much bigger than the island – and I liked the balance of the blue sky above it and the Adriatic sea below it, they were in perfect symmetry. It made me think of water gods, versus the gods in the sky, and how the little house was between them - vulnerable to them but at the same time protected by them – and it seemed a good metaphor for many of the issues in the book. I thought about using that photo for the cover, but then found one I liked better.

CB: What’s your experience with Cherry Grove (and publishing a book in general) been like?

DLC: I’ve enjoyed it. I started a Facebook group for authors from my publisher, which has allowed us to find each other for readings and networking.

I also started a website,, which started out as a means of blogging about the publishing process, and evolved into every-Monday posts about finding poetry in everyday life. Whatever is happening that week, I find a poem that fits, or expands on, that experience.

CB: You make many references to gods in the book. Which god/goddess do you relate to most? (Or find the most interesting?)

DLC: I realized that the mythological characters in the book are all trapped by their circumstances -there’s Daphne, Calypso, the Sirens. So that’s something that interests me, what you do in that situation when you’re paralyzed, how do you reframe your world? Probably because I have a hard time keeping still.

CB: Who are you reading? Who are your inspirations?

DLC: Right now I’m reading Nabokov’s collected short stories – I try to read one every night, as I’m trying to figure out how to write fiction, trying to understand that different rhythm. “Lolita” is one of my favorite books, and it is interesting seeing how his fiction writing evolved.

Writers I always return to for inspiration are T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Margaret Atwood, H.D. Rilke, David Brendan Hopes, Mary Karr, Annie Proulx.

CB: What are you working on now?

DLC: I’m working on some war-related poems, which I think will end up being a chapbook-length group. I want to start writing fiction; I started a novel earlier this year that I scrapped after thirty pages, thinking that I need to start smaller since it’s such a different process. And I’d love to write children’s books as well.