Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jessie Carty is the author of four poetry collections which include the chapbook Fat Girl (Sibling Rivalry, 2011) and the award winning full length poetry collection,Paper House (Folded Word 2010). Jessie teaches at RCCC in Concord, NC. She is the founding editor of Referential Magazine.

Me: Will you tell us a little bit about your new collection “Fat Girl?” Why did you choose this title?

Jessie: I usually have a very difficult time with titles, but “Fat Girl” was always the title for this chunky chapbook.

Me: It seems like weight is the last viable topic of scorn for people—you can’t make fun of anything else and be accepted, socially, but you can still mock someone’s weight. And yet, at the same time, we, as a nation, are growing heavier. Is there something worthwhile in this scorn? Or is it purely a negative thing?

Jessie: Unfortunately, there are still so many people who want (and/or need) to have someone to ridicule. Like you said, it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to make fun of people for their race, ability or sexual orientation (although many people still try to take people down for those attributes still as well), but many people feel that weight is still fair game. I think it comes down to two things: 1 – the fat man is funny so therefore it is ok to make fun of fat people scenario 2 – fat people deserve to be mocked because they should be able to control what they eat. I do find it a negative thing. You never know why someone may be fat. It could be due to medication, they could have recently given birth or heck maybe they just like to eat. Why do you care? (And, of course, I don’t mean you – I mean the universal you).

Me: Do you find public performance of your work to be useful? Necessary?

Jessie: When I started writing again after about a 5 year break (oh that sad little break), I found it extremely meaningful to get out there to read my work because I wanted to connect with other writers. I gave up writing, in part, because I lacked that connection with other people. The internet (dating myself here!) has made it much easier for me to return to writing because it is so much easier to find like-minded people. I also love to hear other writers read their work; it almost always inspires me to write as well. All that being said, now that I am working full-time again I have found that I have less time to participate in open mike events. Now, I have to focus more on readings where I’m specifically scheduled.

Me: How has teaching influenced your writing?

Jessie: I’ve always felt like a teacher, even when I was sitting in a cubicle working insurance claims back in the day. I feel I was teaching through my blog even before I officially began teaching in the classroom. Probably the biggest effect is that I have less time to actually sit down to write. It has made the time I do have to write, however, more precious and productive. A few of my students, of course, have also shown up in poems.

Me: You’re an editor for Referential; can you tell us a little about the journal? How does editing affect your writing? Does it help/hurt?

Jessie: A few years ago I started a YouTube based lit mag called Shape of a Box but it became time consuming. I really loved editing, but I didn’t want to just start another online magazine. The idea for Referential came to me in late 2009 and I launched into at the beginning of 2011. I started with an open call from which I picked a poem to feature. After that people submit poetry, fiction, non-fiction, art, and mixed-media to “refer” from different pieces on the site. I occasionally have new calls for featured work, but the actual business of reviewing referrals has kept me pretty busy.

I think editing has definitely made me a better writer. It is always harder to see the flaws in your own writing, but when you see something in someone else’s work that makes you cringe it is much easier to go back to your own work to then remove the cringe worthy.

Me: You update your blog pretty regularly—writer to writer, let me ask: do you find a blog valuable as a writer? If so, how?

Jessie: I started my blog when I was working full-time in an office and going to graduate school. I had it as an outlet to process all that was going on, but as time has gone on I’ve found less time to actually work on it. I’m now down to about 1 post a week although I will post more if I have book reviews and/or interviews (such as this) to post. My blog has become my personal website. With wordpress software I can register my domain name and create pages so that I not only have a blog, but I also have a place to put up my resume, publication links etc.

A blog can be great for two things 1 – for you to connect with other writers and readers 2 – as a cheap way to put up a website where people can find everything about you in one place. The one thing I always caution about blogging is don’t do it if you aren’t going to read blogs by other people. It is, at least at the start, about community.

Me: Who are your biggest literary influences and how have they influenced you?

Jessie: I always find this kind of question terribly difficult to answer. I remember falling in love with nursery rhymes, Dr. Seuss and Robert Louis Stevenson as a child. I loved the rhythm and play of words. I still love that in my own writing. In junior high and high school there was Poe and the romantics (especially fell in love with Blake). What teen doesn’t relish in some melancholy? In college I went through my modernist phase and found myself trying to be a mini-Eliot with allusion riddled poems. All this is background, but I’d have to say now that the freedom of contemporary verse is where my heart is. I love that we can write about ANYTHING especially in the south. Moonshine poems anyone?

Me: What have you read recently that really blew you away?

Jessie: Another tough one! I’m actually reading the novel “Freight” by Mel Bosworth which is wonderfully lyric and narrative all together. I also read Christine Garren’s most recent chapbook “The Difficult Here.” She was my first poetry teacher as an undergrad and she still blows me away. I am inspired by people who write differently from the way I write, but do so in such a magnificent way. I could never write like Christine, but I can dream.

Me: Will you tell me a little about your writing schedule? Do you write every day? Do you have any rituals that help bring inspiration?

Jessie: I have moved a little bit away from writing everyday although I still seem to write at least every other day (that may have something to do with having two days where I teach from 3-9 and others where I teach from 11-2:30 – which days do you think are better for writing?) I still love to write poems by hand so I tend to attempt a new one or two once I have had time during the day to type up anything in the journal from the days before. That always feels like a wonderful little ritual. Speaking of Blake and inspiration together, I am currently using the Tiger poem as a jumping off point whenever I feel blank. I just pick a word in the poem and go with it.

Me: What are you working on now?

Jessie: I dropped a hint about with the Blake Tiger project, but I’m also writing poems from the perspective of Pammy, the daughter of Daisy in the The Great Gatsby.

Monday, September 26, 2011

I read somewhere that adults aren't supposed to have nightmares--only children do. If this is true, I must be in a state of arrested development. That state would be Tennessee...(if you didn't get that, ask Mr. Wendel). Hardly a week goes by that I don't have a nightmare about spiders or snakes or spiders that spit snakes out of their mouths while the snakes make fun of my weight.

Not all of my dreams are nightmares, of course. Usually, things that should be nightmares are actually pretty funny at the time, or vice versa. I occasionally write things based on my dreams because, in addition to being odd, they tend to be quite detailed and often pretty well-structured. But, honestly, my dreams are usually too weird to be readable.

Having a baby has affected my dreams in three ways. 1. My sleep is frequently interupted, which means I wake in the middle of dreams and therefore remember them. 2. Sleep deprivation makes my dreams even more vivid than usual, and 3. My anxieties are even more extensive than usual because now I've got all my concerns about the baby to add to the usual mix. Now, instead of me being the one at school, naked, frantically trying to dress while the teacher calls roll (and my name does start with a B) it's her.

Here's a pretty tame one: the other night, I dreamed that a nuclear apocalypse had come. FINALLY. It was during a break, and most of the students at the school at which I work and live were gone, though a few remained. The administration called a school meeting, and we all gathered in the theater. We had a radio set up to monitor broadcasts, and out the window, we could see mushroom clouds. Everything was bathed in red light. The administration, as usual, rambled on and had nothing worthwhile to say. They asked if there were any questions. I took that opportunity to go up on stage and begin a comedy routine. And I KILLED. I was mostly doing impersonations of faculty pets, but man, did the audience love it. This performance lasted for several hours, and then we went out to gather what supplies we could. Of course, the remaining students all wanted to sleep over in Carroll, OUR DORM, but we had to say no; there was an apocalypse on, after all.

I used to have dreams that came true, pretty frequently, in fact, but they were always completely useless to me and almost never afforded me the opportunity to get rich. I might dream about eating lunch in the cafeteria with a different group of kids--when I was in school--and then, a few days later, I'd be in the cafeteria and feel deja vu and realize: OMG! I totally dreamed this! Or I might dream about walking around a a strange place...or sitting on a bench in a mall I'VE NEVER BEEN TO. Ang then my awesome power would manifest, and I'd totally go to a new mall or walk around a table somewhere.

All of this has led me to the conclusion that my subconscious is an ass. It plays tricks on me. It intentionally creates Jungian and Freudian scenarios just to mess with me when I wake up. When I was in college and started goint to therapy to deal with my mother's illness, I started dreaming that there were people living behind my bathroom mirror, repeating everything I said in German and occasionally throwing pies at each other. In my waking life, I'm no more afraid of Germans than anyone else who doesn't share a border with them. But this was my subconscious mocking my fears over my own emotional stability, but in an absurd, kind of cutesy way. The people in the mirror sounded remarkably like the cast of Hogan's Heroes.

I did used to have very vivid nightmares about demons plaguing my family and me. I used to dream about my mother as a ghost, howling right outside my door and begging to be let in. My wife complains from time to time about my violent thrashing at night, or the fact that I frequently wake her up by launching out of bed. I still, frequently, dream about various groups of people being out to get me/mydaughter/etc. in a Dystopian future kind of way, except the groups are usually dressed in cow costumes. I can easily interpret these as meaningful images. The armed groups of cow-costumed folks might represent cultural influences. They gather together like a herd of cows, no one challenging the authority of the group, regardless of whether the group is behaving justly or not. They are trying to influence my daughter in some negative way, so I'm trying to escape them. The fact that the cow-men shoot at us with spinach guns, well, I'll leave that one up to your interpretation.

* * *

The other day at lunch, some coworkers were talking about their dreams. They turned to me and asked what kind of dreams I had. For the next 5 minutes, they listened as I related a pretty standard dream I used to have. Then they all got up and left. They've been dodging me ever since.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

My Sesquac
By Glenn Buttkus

I have always believed in the existence of Sasquatch. When I was a kid, my grandfather used to talk about an Indian legend coming out of NE Washington, near Colville and Kettle Falls, the legend of “the wood ape”. It was always portrayed as a monster, a bogeyman. In the 1950’s I paid little attention. Then the 1960’s descended upon us, and there was a plethora of Bigfoot sightings, footprints, and incidents in the news.

Sasquatch is a derivative of the Indian word “Sesquac” meaning “wild man”. It was first coined by the Coast Salish Indians on Vancouver Island, and in the interior of British Columbia. In the Indian languages clear across North America there are more than sixty different names and terms for Sasquatch. The name Bigfoot was just a media term, generated out of sightings and footprints in Northern California back in the 1950’s.

For over 400 years there have been records of sightings of a large hair-covered manlike animal in the wilderness of North America. There have been literally thousands of sightings, and 350 of them have been in Washington State. The last one was on September 10, 2004 in Ferry County. The witnesses are usually people with unimpeachable character. The huge tracks have been photographed, and plaster cast for over 70 years. Native American legends continuously refer to them as non-human
“People of the Wild”.

A lot of folks feel that Sasquatch is a fine fable, and they would like to believe in it. But where is the truth? The evidence suggests the presence of an animal, probably a primate that does exist today in very low population densities. If true, this species likely evolved alongside humans, and it became astonishingly adept at avoiding human contact through a process of natural selection. To others, this same evidence just points to a cultural phenomenon, kept alive today through a combination of misidentification of known animals, wishful thinking, and the deliberate fabrication of evidence.

Putting together all the sightings, incidents, and reports, BFRO has come up with a profile of Sasquatch. It is considered a large, hairy bipedal non-human primate that is distributed over North America. Its size, and its odd gait let people know that they are seeing a creature different from man.

Its skin color ranges from deep black or charcoal to deep brown, sunburned reddish brown, and gray. A few albinos have been seen. It is covered with hair, not fur. Being a primate, it does not molt its hair, replacing one hair at a time; thus the hair cannot be found in wooly patches. The body can have varicolored patches of hair. Most of the time the hair appears clean, glossy, and shiny, but it can be otherwise. Females tend to look cleaner than males. Males have lots of facial fur. Females do not. Long hair on their shoulders bounces “like a cape” as they run. There is long hair on the buttocks, and long hair covers the genitalia.

Then there is the odor of the beast. 15% of encounters reported a stench. Gorillas when stressed exude a gagging powerful aroma. Sasquatch heads look small for their bulk. Sagittal crests exist on adult males, probably bony, which makes them look like they are wearing a hooded sweatshirt. The size of the brain, its volume, is at least the size of a gorilla. It has deep-set eyes under a conspicuous brow ridge. Their faces are flat with prominent cheekbones. Deep brown eyes are predominant, with a red component, like a bloodshot sclera. Albino Sasquatch have blue eyes. The nose is pug-like, but human in shape. The mouth is thin-lipped, and the lips are yellowish. They have large square teeth. Their ears are usually hidden under the hair. The muscles on the back of the head flare out to the shoulders, obscuring the neck, like a weightlifter. So when they turn to see something, they have to turn their whole body, and not just their head.
Like man, each one is an individual. They have been described as everything from ape-like to looking like an old Indian.

Their trunk is carried forward in a hunched over position. They can stand upright, but mostly they don’t. Their shoulders are very wide, about 40% of their height. In a very large man this runs like about 25% of his height. The Bigfoot chest is estimated to be 60” to 75”, and many have described their stentorian breathing. The females have prominent breasts, hair-covered except for the nipples. Their arms are massively muscled and long. Their forearms are covered with longish hair, making them look a little like a forest Popeye. They have very large hands, “the size of paddles”. The fingers are short, and the thumb is closer to the wrist than ours. The hand lacks the thenar pad, that mound of muscle at the base of our thumbs, and this is a corollary of the lowest opposability found in the higher primates. They have dark fingernails, not claws.

Their legs are real big, like 20” in circumference. The calves all look huge. The foot can be up to 27” in length, with no arch, and toes that splay outward. The skin on the soles of their feet is very thick. Their height average is about 7’10”. The tallest reported was 10’ tall. Many that are seen are only 6’-7’ tall, suggesting that these are the younger ones. Their weight is estimated to be 550 to 650 pounds. They think that the largest males, at 10’ tall, with 27” feet, could run 1,000 pounds. They have wide arm swings and very long strides. When seen they are usually just walking. They seem to glide when they walk, and they do not lock their knees, so they look like they are riding a bicycle. Those wide arm swings seem like a cross-country skier with poles. There is no up and down movement of the upper body. Their step length is up to 5’ at a stride, with their feet mostly in line; very little straddle. This is something that a hoaxer cannot duplicate. They do not often run, even when shot at. And they are considered powerful swimmers as well.

They are primarily a nocturnal creature. Perhaps they see well in the dark, with larger eyes, larger pupils, and more rods in their retina. They can walk with ease in total darkness, but they have been seen out foraging during the day too. Often they are spotted just after daylight. They have heightened senses. They stand very still in the forest and listen. But several times they did not detect a human sitting still in full view. With those thick soles on their feet they can travel through blackberry bushes, devil’s clubs, and over sharp rocks without a problem.

In terms of their diet, they are considered an Omnivore, with a substantial Carnivore component. They have been observed catching ground squirrels, and even preying on deer or bear. They can be scavengers too. They eat a lot of road kill. They have snatched kill from hunters. They only eat garbage as a last resort. They only kill livestock infrequently. Some Sasquatch look very well fed, others are skinny.

It is postulated that Bigfoot infants are small, like human babies; but they become fleet of foot quickly. They stay with the mother until puberty, at about age 10. They measure about 6’ tall at that point. Offspring seem to be spaced at about 5 years apart, based on records of group footprints. Mating has been observed between May-June. Most births occur between February-May, suggesting less than a year for gestation. On two occasions females have been seen carrying dead infants. Older grayish Sasquatch probably live to be about 35 years old, so that is three generations per century. Old ones have thin hair, snaggle teeth, open sores, and deeply wrinkled skin. When one dies, it is suspected, various carnivores eat the corpse. Possibly, they themselves are cannibalistic. Rodents eat the bones, and moths consume the hair. The residue of the corpse would fall prey to the acidic environment of the forest. There would be no remnants left that would be visible under the seasonal leaf and needle fall.

They sleep mostly in temporary shelters, padded with available vegetation, like bear grass, leaves, ferns, and moss. Sometimes partial roves are fashioned from broken boughs. Once discovered, a nest is abandoned. The Sasquatch is solitary and constantly on the move. Caves and permanent shelters are only used rarely.

Their upper body strength is legendary. They seem to like to exercise this strength, throwing basketball sized rocks in long arcs to ward off intruders. They have been known to lift up the corners of mobile homes and RV’s, cars and trailers. They can lift and throw full fifty-gallon drums, which would weight 450 pounds, or large rocks that would weigh 200-300 pounds. They twist the trunks of small trees, possibly marking the way, or their territory.

Mostly they travel in silence. They can make patterned repetitive knocking sounds with rocks or pieces of wood. This can be used for long distance communication, or for deterrence. They are capable, however of a complex collection of sounds, starting with whistling [like the Yeti], up through moans, howls, and chilling screams that can rise up from a deep growl. Sometimes, though rarely, they have been heard producing a melodic sound, a collection of complex vocalizations; like a primitive language; soft tones like a woman talking off in the distance. They even make giggling, laughing, and crying sounds.

Mostly they are solitary creatures, but sometimes they can be seen in a group, foraging. The young ones play, and often can be seen, while the adults stay hidden. Males seem to be sighted more often. They move around more. They have a natural curiosity. They will investigate a lighted window at night, or noisy animals in a barn. They will not tear open a backpack, like a bear would. They seem orderly and systematic in stone stacking. They are often polite. If food is deposited for them, they have a tendency to return the favor with a gift; a dog skull, a little pile of stones, fresh evergreen shoots, a small freshly killed squirrel, live kittens, or a turtle. Are these shared food or gifts?

They react calmly to women and children. They try and avoid men. When startled they will leave leisurely, sometimes while even being shot at. There is absolutely no documentation over the last 100 years of a Sasquatch doing deliberate harm to a human being. They tolerate children and small animals. They, like gorillas, have a special distaste for aggressive dogs. They have been seen slapping a 75-pound dog, knocking him 40’, and they have killed them, swinging them against trees. Perhaps this is a reaction based on centuries of conflict with wolves and coyotes. While hiking, if you were to happen onto a Sasquatch, one should not stare at it. Sit down, and groom a companion, or eat food. Sometimes, out of curiosity, they will tarry.

They do not seem to use tools. Sometimes they use sticks or rocks, but rarely. When they die it is mostly from parasites within them secondary to their eating habits and the manner of food. They could die of wounds, or dental disorders, or even gunshots. One does not find remains of dead bear that have died of natural causes either. There are 700,000 bear in North America. There are probably only a few thousand Sasquatch. In America, the highest concentration of Sasquatch population is in Washington, Oregon, and California in the Cascades, which morphs into the Sierra Madre. Most sightings are just chance encounters of single individuals. They are seen most often right at dawn. They are not seen at all during the dead of winter. They may hibernate. A Bigfoot would have to forage over hundreds of miles to sustain its food needs.

This species is deviant from Homo sapiens by anatomy, forehead crest, feet, hands, musculature, body posture and gait, behavior nocturnal, lack of compelling use of tools, lack of apparent language, lack of cultural traits, and sociology. The paleontological affiliation, or identity with Gigantopithecus, as championed by the late Grover Krantz, has many aspects to recommend it. Gigantopithecus Black was a great Asian creature, probably an ape, of the Miocene Epoch; about 24 million to 5 million years ago. Anthropologists have only found a handful of bones to substantiate Giganto’s existence. Possibly, descending from Giganto, the Sasquatch has co-existed alongside humans for hundreds of thousands of years. There is a theory that man hunted Giganto into extinction. Perhaps Sasquatch has a genetic memory and aversion of man the hunter. Maybe, in the shadows, Bigfoot migrated across that land bridge with Asian primitive man. Gigantopithecus was thought to be 9’ tall, and weight 1,000 pounds. Sound familiar? They were the largest “documented” primates to ever walk the earth. At some point there would have been millions of Giganto skeletons extant. Today we have only found a few bones. The entire world’s collection of Giganto bones would fit in a small suitcase. So, again, most animal bones are reabsorbed into the biomass. The process of fossilization is rare.

Some scientists today are endeavoring to prove that Sasquatch, this hulking creature of legend, is not myth. Jane Goodall called for a legitimate study to determine whether the greatest apes that ever lived are still with us, that they persist in the world’s moist mountain regions. Stone age creatures are still with us; some reptilian, some insects, and mammal hybrids. So why not Sasquatch? Goodall stated that the existence of hominids of this sort is a very real possibility. Mythical giant ape-like creatures lurk in the traditions of nearly every Native American linguistic group, from central Asia to the central Rockies.

Not long ago a group of BFRO ( Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization ) enthusiasts and amateurs camped out for two days in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, near Skookum ridge, out on Skookum meadow. They put out food deposits that were mostly fruit. They basted some of the food with pheromones. They blasted out pre-recorded Sasquatch calls on loud speakers at night trying to attract the animal. On the second night they recorded and heard a powerful reply to their broadcast. They collected from one spot where a Sasquatch had lain down to reach across for some fruit, some hair, footprints, and scat. Not wanting to just walk up to the food, this animal lay on its side, and reached across. They were able to fill this imprint with 400 pounds of plaster. So in that Skookum meadow, a giant biped sat down in the mud. The cast clearly shows a hairy forearm the size of a small ham, an enormous hairy thigh, and outsized buttock, and a thick Achilles tendon and thick heel—all from a creature that is not supposed to exist.

When we look at the Bigfoot/Sasquatch phenomenon, there are several theories to explain the sightings.
1. Fear manifestations
2. Misidentification of bears
3. Paranormal/UFO-related
4. The Collective Memory Hypothesis
5. The Sasquatch/Giganto connection.
What is interesting to me is that the patterns of eyewitnesses are not demographic; rather they are geographic. These are not certain types of people. They are just all kinds of people who venture into certain areas.

In addition to the sightings around Mt. Adams there have been numerous sightings on the Olympic peninsula, in and around the Olympic National Park in Grays Harbor County. Loggers, farmers, and tourists have all seen Sasquatch over there. Interestingly, my wife and I spend a lot of time out there on the coast as well, but that is a narrative for another time.

I spend time recruiting friends to run those forest service roads in both areas around midnight with me, creeping down them, having large flashlights, no weapons, and high hopes. So far we have not had the encounter I seek, but I have an intuition about my Sesquac; he waits for me on one of those lonely roads, on one of those late nights. I have seen a UFO up close. My house is haunted and my whole family have seen our “guests”. I was fated to both believe in Sasquatch and to see one in person. But like playing the state lotto, and having a good feeling about winning one of these years, it is difficult to calculate the odds of my success.

* * *

Glenn's bio: Born in Seattle on June 14, 1944, on Flag Day; numerologists seem to love these numbers. Lived like a gypsy child, moving around a lot, growing up with three stepfathers. I was the kid who sat on a bluff above Puget Sound staring out at the islands in the stream and dreaming of buying one some day, when I was a wealthy actor or writer or both. Whenever I want a chuckle I go back and look at some of my earliest poetry, as a teen ager in the 50’s. It seemed to improve during Viet Nam, and my time in the service. I did become a professional actor for a decade, quitting in 1977, and going back to school to be a Special Education teacher, working with the blind. So for most of my vocational career I worked with adult legally blind veterans, a very rewarding job. But I never lost my love of movies, and never stopped writing poetry. I did stop writing novels. Two of them gather dust on a shelf in my basement. I remain unpublished but not unappreciated thanks to blogging and Facebook.

Monday, September 19, 2011

I was never the creative one, though I tried; when I was a kid, I'd gather my crayons and pencils together, my colored paper, and wait for inspiration to hit, but it never did. I could never draw. My doodles devolved into awkward attempts at geometric patterns. Later, in college, when I took art classes, the professor would stare and puzzle over my attempts at sketches, and once began spouting statistics on alien abductions, apparently inspired by my drawing of a monkey. Our nanny taught my sister and me to make paste, and we went crazy with that, but it was always my sister's vision we followed.

In fact, when I was growing up, my sister was the creative one. Her imagination was somewhere between a barely-restrained wild animal and a tornado. She could turn our living room into a swamp full of aligators who'd drag us down to the depths if we touched the carpet, so we spent many afternoons hopping from couch to chair to piano. Or she pretended there were cowboys on the next ridge, waiting for a chance to pick her off with their Winchesters, poor Little Mini Haha that she was, a lone squaw searching for her Indian brethren. She made clubhouses in the tops of closets, tried to dig a swimming pool in the yard with spoons and trashbags (to line it with) and, at her peak of ambition, attempted to excavate a cliff she was sure was the collapsed tunnel of a gold mine. I went along with her, but, when asked if the Sioux Nation were coming over the hills to help fight off the Cavalry, I saw nothing, but said, "Yes."

In school, when I was given the opportunity to take a test to get into Gifted and Talented classes, I failed. I told myself the questions were esoteric; all of the kids who'd already been in GT passed because they already knew the answers from GT. When one of the questions stated I was trapped in a room with a mirror and a table and asked how I would get out, I had no idea. I'd never been asked to be creative in school, before; I didn't know it was even acceptable.

When I was growing up, my friends were creative. They could draw, write funny stories; they made movies. I helped with the movies, but I was always the awkward, out of place one. Unable to improvise with the conviction my friends showed, I suggested we write scripts, but when asked what to write, I couldn't help. So we continued improvising. I mostly just followed the others; I was just glad to be asked to participate. I was the one who told dirty jokes I'd overheard from my father; they were the ones who came up with fresh ideas.

Actually, I remember the first creative thing I wrote. It was in the sixth grade, I believe. The assignment was to make an autobiography. We were supplied a series of prompts such as What does your family do on the weekends? or What's your favorite holiday? The sad reality was that I had no answer for most of the questions. Or, rather, I was ashamed of the answers I had. On the weekends, we watched TV. My father drank. My favorite holiday--now that was a toss-up. Was it Easter when my brother hid eggs in cow piles? or the Christmas when my Uncle Wheelbarrow (it's a long story) got drunk, dressed up like Santa, and asked me if I wanted a woman for Christmas? I looked around at my classmates--most of them upper class or, at least, middle class; we were middle class on paper, but dressed as lower, at best. We didn't even have a VCR until I got into high school, saved up the money, and bought one. My classmates seemed worldly, happy, worst of all, normal. I answered the few prompts I could, but fell well below the minimum length. So I made the rest of it up. I created a normal family who did normal things; the teacher was fooled. I don't remember what grade I received, though I did well enough; I just remember being ashamed of the whole ordeal.

It was much later in the 11th grade when I discovered the usefullness of creativity. The teacher, who happened to be my aunt, gave us extra credit for creative work every so often. I was ending a relationship at the time. I wrote a terrible poem about it. My aunt was so affected that she made me stay after class and convince her I was not on drugs, suicidal, etc. I was quite pleased.


I've always surrounded myself with creative people. The high school friends I mentioned, my bandmates from my days as a musician; later, in college, I hung out with writers and artists, though most of them took themselves too seriously and lacked the real creative verve of my childhood friends. There have been a few standouts. I wanted to live in a Platonic Society but had no aspirations to be the king, just another philosopher. Maybe the treasurer.

Really, I'd give just about anything to go back to the days when we Xeroxed a zine and distributed it around the high school campus and put up flyers and rented out the Progressive Club to perform. Even when I'm nominated for an award or have a book picked up by a publisher, it doesn't quite compare to the thrill of learning that all 50 copies we made of Bert the Bemuzzled Shopping Cart issue 3 were sold.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Helen Losse is a poet and editor. Her new collection Seriously Dangerous was recently released from Main Street Rag.

Me: What’s the significance of the title of your new collection “Seriously Dangerous?”

Helen: Wow! Let’s jump right in the deep end and hope to swim. The title Seriously Dangerous and the book cover, a fiery cross on a black background, are intended to make a bold statement: Something is seriously wrong with our nation and our world and that something is dangerous. And yes, “the cross without a savior” refers to the KKK. Racism is alive and well in America today. Cowards hide behind our founding fathers and Martin Luther King Jr. but seem to understand neither. I suppose I should tell you that I wrote my master’s thesis on the value of unmerited suffering in the life and works of Martin Luther King Jr., who became far more radical than “I Have a Dream” in the years from 1963 until his death in 1968, and that my study of King helped mold my world view. The study of African American history continues to inform my work.

Me: Spirituality seems to play a key role in your writing. What is the connection, for you, between spirituality and poetry?

Helen: I am a Christian with a message to tell. Poetry is often the medium by which I speak. Good news not only deals with heaven but also with creating a world free of racism, poverty, and war.

Me: Do you feel that your writing has changed since your previous collection, Better with Friends, and if so, how?

Helen: No, not a bit. Better With Friends is a book of poetry that explores the intersections of memory (factual and embellished), dreams (daydreams and night dreams), reverie, and prayer, so that all of one’s thoughts can be envisioned as prayer—so that “pray without ceasing” makes sense even when we sleep. Both books were produced by gathering (collecting) poems rather than writing them “to be a book.” My writing has not changed, but Seriously Dangerous was professionally edited; it is a more coherent book, but individual poems in both are equally strong.

Me: How did teaching influence your writing?

Helen: Actually, I’m not sure it did. I loved teaching and left, not because I was a bad teacher but because I was a very good one, who used up a lot of energy teaching. I felt it was unfair for my family to get what was left, especially when my children were small. I approach writing with the same fervency as I did teaching; I considered both a ministry.

Me: You’re an editor for the Dead Mule; how does that affect your writing? Does it help/hurt?

Helen: Yes, I’m the Poetry Editor. That means I do about 99.9% of the work concerning poetry without checking with anyone. It also means I have a system to speed up the work. I have received countless opportunities due to my work (and exposure) on the Mule. My second chapbook and first book were both published by people I met as a direct result of my position there. In fact, that’s where I met you, Cort. Valerie MacEwan, Editor and Publisher of the Dead Mule, has allowed me the privilege of editing without the responsibilities of establishing a web site. At the Mule, we say “we’re a big ole southern family.” Val is like a sister to me; I love her dearly. She and her husband Rob do the technical stuff; all I do is have fun. All, I say—except writing the occasional rejection letter. Writing rejections makes me consider how close we writers are to our words, how we grow to love poems, sometimes even the bad ones.

Me: The Dead Mule focuses on Southern Writing. Do you consider yourself a Southern Poet? If so, what exactly does that mean?

Helen: This is an answer I’m going to have to make up as I go—you know, like we used to do on essay tests when we didn’t know the answer but knew three facts and had to make it work. I know, we require a Southern Legitimacy Statement from all of our writers (poets and prose writers) as a way to avoid the long lists of accomplishments in a standard bio, that some writers take the SLS too seriously, and others have a lot of fun writing them. I publish all kinds of poems—narrative and lyric, formal and free verse, prose poems, poems by poets from our April Southern Poet Laureates to first timers, and one or two now and again that really aren’t quite up to snuff—in an attempt to make the Mule as diverse as the south. I even accept a few haiku. I’m a poet, who lives in the south and loves it, but I don’t really know what a southern poem is. Does anyone?

Me: Who are your biggest literary influences and how have they influenced you?

Helen: I studied poetry at Wake Forest University with Jane Mead (The Usable Field) who influenced my writing more than any other poet. She encouraged students to “find their own voice,” and I think I have. Dennis Sampson (Within the Shadow of a Man) also influenced me greatly when I was beginning to write by advising me to write clear grammatical sentences. I would say Eve Hanninen, editor of The Centrifugal Eye, and Scott Owens, editor of Wild Goose Poetry Review challenge me to revise more and to eliminate unnecessary words. They both work me hard.

Me: What have you read recently that really blew you away?

Helen: When I read Jessie Carty’s chapbook Fat Girl (now in pre-order) to write a blurb, I was blown away by her bravery and transparency. I was totally convinced that “less is more” by JS Absher’s Night Weather. And I’m always in awe of Tim Peeler’s command of the English language—completely unassuming, then he lets it fly! I wonder what that man’s IQ is. But one totally unexpected ah ha! came as I read Yehoshua November’s God’s Optimism.

Me: Will you tell me a little about your writing schedule? Do you write every day? Do you have any rituals that help bring inspiration?

Helen: Now you’re putting me to shame. I only wish I were organized enough to write daily. And it’s hard to promote a book and write that much. Usually, I read poetry by other people before I write. I do actually read more than I write. I have a muse named Helena.

Me: What are you working on now?

Helen: Okay. I’m going to let the cat out of the bag. I’m working on a re-release of a chapbook that will be used to raise funds for re-building my home town Joplin, MO, after the May 22 tornado destroyed much of the city. My husband and I had left Joplin, where we had been to celebrate my Mother’s 90th birthday, just four days before the tornado hit. My immediate family suffered no losses, but our high school, a hospital, and countless businesses and homes were destroyed. The response to help rebuild Joplin has been huge, but, of course, it’s an on-going process. A group called Joplin Expats made up of people who no longer live in Joplin but consider it their hometown have pledged to help in various ways for the next three years. Profits from this chapbook, Paper Snowflakes 2011, will be my contribution. I’ll be working through a group called Joplin Bright Futures that helps poor children in the public schools. Paper Snowflakes, first published by Southern Hum Press, has been out of print for a while. The chapbook is mostly about growing up in Joplin. I have reworked a few poems and included a few new ones. Paper Snowflakes 2011 will be released from Rank Stranger Press later this year.

Monday, September 12, 2011

My wife had an idea. One day she was watching me sort my mail into little piles; one for bills, one for junk, one for rejection letters from literary journals. It was a particularly busy day, and I'd received several responses from various journals.
“You have too many books,” she said out of nowhere. I nodded and opened a letter.
“You need more shelves,” she added.
“Too expensive,” I said. “Hey, they signed this one.”
“Try Goodwill, or the Salvation Army.”
“Still too expensive,” I said. “Unless I get the really cheap ones that look terrible.”
"Maybe we could repaint them, or something."
I opened another rejection letter. “This one says, ‘Thanks for the Read’. Guess
that’s good.” I tossed the letter into the growing pile. “What I need is somewhere to put all these,” I said.
"Why don't you throw them away?"
I paused. "Sentimental value, I guess," was all I could think to say. I have a folder that I keep all my rejection letters in, but it really seems a waste of space. I keep all the important information on a file on my computer, but I still hold on to those letters. I guess I must think that maybe some morning I'll wake up and they'll all have transformed into gold.
“I've got an idea. How many rejection letters do you have?” She asked.
"I don't know. A lot."
"We could decoupage a shelf," she said.
Thus it began. We found an ugly old bookcase at Goodwill, about 2 feet wide by 2 1/2 feet tall, and covered it in a medium body gloss gel glaze we found in the paint section at Hobby Lobby. Then we arranged some of my older rejection letters on one shelf, and put another layer of gel over it. We made a collage of the letters, turning them every which way and tearing some of them to make them fit however we chose. The medium body gel dries clear and holds the texture, so we were able to see the brush strokes. Then we used tinted gel to make each shelf a different color. Blue, pink, purple, green, yellow; the bookcase resembled one of Warhol’s celebrity paintings.
So now I’ve shelved my rejection letters. But rejection letters are an ever-amassing product. We found, after we’d used all of them up, that they just keep coming in. We decided to use them to cover a lamp, first the shade, then the body. We’ve been eying a coffee table, and hope eventually to decorate an entire room (the rejection room) in rejection letter decoupage furniture, or to start getting published.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

James Valvis is an incredibly prolific, solid poet and writer who's been producing great work for several years, now. A retired soldier, a father, a poet and novelist; he's that rarest of things: a writer who can crack a joke. He's got a new collection, How to Say Goodbye, coming out soon from Aortic Books.

Me: You write poetry and fiction—do you consider yourself a poet or novelist? What—to you—is the difference between writing poetry and fiction?

James: Both. Neither. I consider myself a writer. That’s all. I don’t bother with classifications. Writing is writing, and I’m happy to do (and sell) any kind of writing. My goal is to excel at all the kinds of writing that interest me. Many of my favorite writers have been solid at a number of different forms and genres. Like Stephen Dobyns, Raymond Carver, William Saroyan, etc.

The difference between poetry and fiction has been blurred so much I don’t know that there is one anymore. If you read the work of, say, Russell Edson, I can see little that separates it and surreal micro-fiction. Very often, when a poem runs long, I take out the line breaks and sell it as flash fiction. Or a story that runs too short can be turned into a poem. Once I turned a literary poem into a science fiction story and it sold at a better place than a lot of my intentionally SF short stories. Go figure.

In fact, I think there’s a strange effect on the ADD-addled modern psychology. People will not read a poem that runs three pages—because it’s too long. But they will read a flash fiction tale of the same exact length because it’s viewed as short.

Me: How has being a father influenced your writing?

James: Immensely. Besides the flood of material it gives me, it has changed how I see even the old material.

For instance, I wrote a lot of stuff about my parents before my daughter was born. Now I see that same material in a different way. It’s not necessarily a better way. I’m not saying that. But it is different, and so it has opened up that material again, making it fresh for me. There’s no doubt you view your parents much differently when you become a parent. Like, suddenly it’s you who has to say no, hand out punishments, demand good grades, etc., and this shines a new light on your childhood.

People without kids, I’m afraid, are forever doomed to see their parents from a single angle.

Me: Who are your biggest literary influences? & how have they influenced you?

James: Well, there are two ways to read this question. There are the literary influences, and then there are the personal relationships that influence your writing. I would say my wife is the biggest influence in my life, including my writing life. My work ethic and writing approach have more to do with the time I spent working with my father in his woodshop and the time I spent in the U.S. Army than any literary person.

Still, I suppose you mean literary influences. And that’s an almost impossible question to answer in any abbreviated way. There are so many it becomes hard to remember half of them. In the end, my literary influences are the entire canon, those who influenced me directly and those who influenced the ones who influenced them. I will say that when I was a young man the two authors I felt very connected to were Raymond Carver in fiction and Edward Field in poetry.

What excited me about them was the way they took everyday situations and language and transformed it into something that had a deep emotive impact on the reader. I wasn’t much for intellectual puzzles, especially back then. I didn’t want to shock people or perfect the world through activism or create for myself a cult of personality. What I wanted was to get on paper the essence—not the reality, but the essence—of what I had experienced as a human being in a way that all people who could read would find valuable. It seemed to me that those authors, and others like William Saroyan, had done that.

Me: What have you read recently that knocked you on your ass?

James: You mean, besides my dentist bill?

Hmm. What doesn’t knock me on my ass? I wrote an essay once, published in Thoughtsmith, about how I love reading old and long-forgotten paperback novels because I think they need me. I’m profoundly grateful to writers of all stripes, since reading is my primary solitary pleasure. I get sentimental about everything I read and it takes a lot for me to dislike something. It can happen, but the writing has to be very, very poor. Usually that kind of terrible writing gets knocked out by the editing process. But sadly, not always.

Anyway, I just finished reading a book of poems by Mather Schneider, He Took a Cab, which I got to read early because I was asked to write a blurb for the book. I thought it was outstanding. Schneider is a writer more people should know. I was also recently reading and loving the stories of Etgar Keret and more poems by Ron Koertge. Finally, I have to mention Vern Rutsala, the best unknown poet (even to other poets) in America.

Me: How would you describe the Valvis style or voice?

James: I wouldn’t. First, that’s something for others to say, not me. But also because I don’t think I have one. I write everything, and in many, many styles and voices. I think there are people out there who try for a style or a pose. They bully everything they write into that style—never mind what the poem or story wants to be.

I try to let my writing be completely free to be whatever it wants. Often technical concerns determine the voice or style of a piece. One of the reasons I can write as much as I do is I do not put up obstacles to writing. I’ve been reading some poets for years who have never once cracked a joke in a poem. Not once! Now, either these are the most singularly humorless people in history, or they are simply blocking anything that might be funny from their work, since they consider it sub-literary. Not surprisingly, I write more than they do, and they can’t figure out why.

Me: You are very prolific. Can you tell me a little about your writing routine?

James: I try to write every day. I try to write both a poem and some prose every day. I don’t always succeed at this, especially the prose part, but lately I’ve been averaging about 300-400 poems, 20-50 short stories, and 2-3 novel drafts a year.

I write in the morning, right after I exercise, since that’s when I’m freshest. I used to be a night writer, but I no longer have the mental energy to perform that deeply into the day. I write for about three or four hours—with some of that time spent editing and some spent playing Hearts.

I try never to let myself buy into excuses to not write. I never leave the desk without getting something done. I write seven days a week, and on all holidays: Easter, my birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, my anniversary, even Super Bowl Sunday. I cannot write on the road, so I don’t write on vacations, but I always bring a novel draft for revisions. I consider a day with no writing progress to be a wasted day.

Me: What are you working on?

James: As far as new stuff, just poems at the moment. I’ve spent the summer editing a YA novel that I expect to send out sometime before the end of the year. I was planning to start a new novel draft in September, but I’ve been called to jury duty, and so I have to put it off until mid-October, since I don’t want to be interrupted mid-novel with something that far out of my routine.

Because I have to wait on the novel, I thought I might spend September writing nothing but short stories. In 1999, to honor Saroyan, I wrote 30 short stories in one month and posted them online as they were drafted. I’ve since wondered if I could do it again. Maybe this will be the month.

Me: If you were to be remembered for one work, which would it be?

James: My daughter.

As for the writing, I have no clue. In a way, I hope there isn’t one. My good friend Michael McNeilly, may he rest in peace, was a brilliant poet. He wrote reams of terrific poems and some short fiction. But he also wrote the turtle poem. You should read it. It’s an awesome poem, one of my favorites, not just my Michael but by anyone. And yet it was so successful and so loved it overshadowed all the other wonderful work Michael did. It was all anyone wanted to talk about.

I wouldn’t want anything I write to do that. I’ve written a lot of poems and stories. To me, they’re like children. I refuse to pick a favorite.

Me: I am looking forward to reading your forthcoming poetry collection. Can you tell me a little about it?

James: How to Say Goodbye (Aortic Books.) It’s due out soon! Maybe September or October 2011. It’s my first full-length collection. Hell, it’s my first collection of any kind. I’ve never even put out a poetry chapbook before, so this is the first time people will have the chance to own a poetry book with my name on it.

It’s a whopper, too. I don’t know how many pages it will end up being, but I sent Kevin almost 300 pages of poetry to consider. It represents over 20 years of my verse. The work is not thematic, but it runs the gamut of styles and subject matter.

I hope people buy it—for everyone they know.

Me: How has being in the military influenced your writing?

James: First, I learned a lot about discipline in the military. I especially learned not to complain. When I listen to some talk about writing, I don’t wonder if they could make it in a war. No chance of that. I wonder instead if they could make it through the first week of Basic Training.

Second, it gave me material not commonly found in the small press. Let’s face it. There are not many poets who would join the military, let alone the army. Yet such an experience is more interesting and singular than whipping up mocha at Starbucks for spending cash while finishing an MFA. Also, when I write a poem about war or army life or soldiers, it has authority because I joined while there was a war going on, trained for war, and knew men who had been in war. I’m not speaking in generalities, which is—rather than sentimentality, as is so often said—the true enemy of effective verse. These are real people to me, not pawns I can use to grind a political axe.

You see, the general population, and especially the general poetry population, are both fascinated and repelled by the military. We tend to get either vilified as baby killers or erected as saintly martyrs. We’re either the evil tools of the imperial government, a real life version of the faceless storm troopers, or we are ignorant victims taken advantage of by dark forces inside the halls of American power. It never seems to occur to people that most of us might be fairly bright souls who believe in America, flawed though she is, and are neither insane blood-thirsty murderers nor children in need of protection from our own ignorance and impending destruction. In the end, most of us are not heroes either. Especially not me. I spent most of my time in the Army filling out forms to send people on leave or attach them to some temporary unit. Hardly Audie Murphy.

A lot of my army poems and stories are anti-war, since who likes war but crazy people, certainly not most of the guys I knew, but a number of them deal with how soldiers and vets are viewed as pawns by everyone, including and maybe especially by those who claim to be speaking for our welfare.

Monday, September 05, 2011

My wife and I used to live in an old building on the campus of the school at which we work which carried with it many established problems, including ants. And I don’t mean a couple of ants in the kitchen; I mean rivers of ants, dark, oblivious, moving trails that deflated my human-centric ego until I felt like an outsider in my own house. This was just after we’d graduated grad. school and really started on our careers; we’d officially tiptoed into the realm of the middle class, and as such, we were suddenly surrounded with influences we didn’t understand. Whereas, once upon a time, we’d have simply killed every ant we saw, questions of co-habitation and environmentalism were raised: Must I kill everything that annoys me? Sure, these ants might get into our food, but really, they were just trying to live, and if I DO kill everything that annoys me, what kind of person does that make me?

The question was soon answered when some friends came to visit: I am the kind of person who doesn’t want to be embarrassed in front of my friends by having thousands of ants in my house. So I went to the store for some ant spray and traps.

I grew up using traps and bug spray—we had roaches and spiders in my dad’s house from time to time. We killed everything that wasn't invited. When wasps nested in the eaves, we’d douse them with chemicals and watch them drift lazily to the ground and die. My father used to joke that when he put peanut butter in the mouse traps, he found me with purple fingers.

At the grocery store, while looking at the poisons, I saw glue traps and poison for rats and mice with pictures of rats eating poison. The rat and mice models on the covers of the packages were fat, happy, well-fed, groomed, and clearly trained—I mean, how else to get them to model? Someone trained that rat to stand there and pose while the lighting, angles, and all the other necessities of photography were worked out. And that kind of training required nurturing, a gentle touch. Someone fed the rat, kept it healthy, cared for it and then used it to model for poison. It seemed bizarre. Imagine training your cat to be a cat-poison model.

I bought the ant traps and set them out. But I kept thinking about that rat on the box. I used to work at a bank which used glue traps (which aren’t very effective) for mice, and poison outside. Squirrels would get into the poison. Of course, some people think squirrels are nuisances. My father raised cattle and shot dogs whenever they came close enough to bother the cows, worried that they'd start a stampede and injure the cattle. He didn't stop to check for collars or tags. Neither do poisons stop to check for collars and tags.

And, those who are in the know will tell you, poisons just cause the bugs or mice to adapt, so they become stronger and more resistant. This leads to population booms of resistant bugs or mice. This is what I hear. It makes sense, but I’m certainly not an expert on vermin adaptation, regardless of what some of my exes might say.

When the friends left, I did some research. There are all kinds of home remedies for getting rid of ants, like making a line of chalk, for example, because ants don’t like to get their feet dirty. This seemed difficult to believe. Other friends and family members suggested more drastic poisons that killed the ant queen—the only way to really get rid of the ants. We were frozen at the idea of whole-sale slaughter, but the ants came back. How were we going to live in our new roles as enlightened WASPS with ants in our kitchen? And real wasps in our eaves?

We woke one morning to banging on the door. The decision was taken out of our hands; the school had hired an exterminator.

We spent the next year as vegetarians, shooing wasps outside, gathering ladybugs and releasing them into the wild to live free, but I kept thinking about our ant-apocalypse. Clearly, when the chips were down, we would abandon our new-found patchouli-ism. I felt like a fraud. We bought eco-friendly cleaning products, but they cost more and didn't work as well as soap and water usually would. The following summer, we found a really good sub shop with a great Italian sub, which ended the vegetarianism. The truth is: we like meat. I still put bugs outside sometimes, especially in winter, so they’ll just go to sleep. The truth is: I don’t mind most bugs, as long as they aren’t in my house.

But I’m still bothered by that rat model, by questions of profound morality as demonstrated by ones actions, but this was a much more complex issue than simply whether to relocate pests or use dye-free toilet paper. My new ‘influences’ had nothing really to say about the ethics of this.

The truth is, I don’t think I’m cut out to be middle class. I cuss and tell dirty jokes, sometimes even when I’m sober. I’d rather have fried things in big portions to eat than exotic stuff that tastes bad. We moved out of that house after a couple years and moved into the one we’re in now. This one has mice, but it’s okay; the snakes keep them down. Don’t think I won’t kill either if they get in my way, but at least I won’t dress them up and use them as models first.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

I recently had a chance to speak with novelist and writer Matt Baker about his recent novel Drag the Darkness Down, one of my favorite novels of recent years.

Me: Drag the Darkness Down was your debut novel. Can you describe the genesis of the book—what drew you to this story?

Matt: I had the main character’s name – Odom Shiloh – already in mind when I sat down to write it. I constructed the name from two signs off interstate 40, advertising their businesses, Odom-something and Shiloh-something. I’d see it every morning on my commute to work. And one day it hit me, Odom Shiloh. I wrote about forty pages, which is largely the same as it appears in the book, in a quick burst. And I knew I had something. The story really just evolved as I was writing it. The only deliberate choice I made was the decision to make it steer into darker territory.

Me: A recurring theme in your work seems to be hidden organizations and secret lives. What draws you to this idea?

Matt: Well, secret lives are where it’s at for characters and people in real life. Public lives are often boring, superficial, and safe. I think the hidden organization idea is less conspiratorial and more the fact that our lives are managed and influenced and infiltrated, and to some degree manipulated, by unseen entities, and that we’re largely okay with it and don’t give it much thought. So, it creates some fertile ground for creatively exploring what these organizations could be doing, are doing, and what they’ve done in the past.

Me: What has your experience with No Records Press been like?

Matt: It was wonderful. Miles Newbold Clark, my editor, is an engaged and passionate editor, and truly gifted at what he does. He convinced me to keep a few of the very dark scenes in the book - there were a few that I considered watering down or deleting altogether. He tightened the story, shaved off some of the fat for me. No Record just released a new book a month ago, Time Crumbling Like a Wet Cracker by Ryan Dilbert. I read an early version and it's a really good book, a wild, wild story with time traveling and other hijinks.

Me: Who are your biggest literary influences? & how have they influenced you?

Matt: The first book that I really fell in love with was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I’m a Charles Portis fan. When it comes to understated comic writing, I don’t who is better. I think I learned more about how to write a story by reading George Singleton stories more than any other writer. Stephen King’s The Shining was influential. King is so fearless. He’ll go anywhere, do anything; supernatural, historical, realism, all with loyal devotion to the story. James Whorton, Jr’s Frankland and Approximately Heaven. Jack Butler’s Jujitsu for Christ and anything by Donald Harington. Reading The Dixie Association, as a nineteen year old college dropout, reinvigorated my outlook that you can be a smartass and get by okay. The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell perfectly mixes comedy and tragedy, which is something I tried to do in DTDD.

Me: You mentioned Skip Hays' The Dixie Association. Were you able to study under Hays at the University of Arkansas? Did he have any good advice for you?

Matt: I took two undergraduate workshops with him. He encouraged me, and I learned a lot of the mandatory basics in those classes. He's a gifted teacher and a very nice guy. He once drove down to Monticello (about 300 miles) for a reading that I'd organized for The Oxford American, and all I could offer was a bed to sleep in and a pack of Camel Lights and he said, 'What time do you need me?'

Me: What have you read recently that knocked you on your ass?

Matt: I really love Jeffrey Rotter’s The Unknown Knowns. It came out a few years ago. Tom Williams The Mimic’s Own Voice knocked me on my ass. Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination. Dave Zeltserman’s The Caretaker of Lorne Field. I re-read all of Daniel Woodrell’s novels earlier this year and so that would be a few more ass whooping’s. Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower swept me up really good. Lambs of Men by Charles Dodd White, a tough and terse book that walloped me a bit.

Me: DtDD was set in Arkansas and had a very Arkansas feel reminiscent of Charles Portis, Skip Hays, John Fergus Ryan, etc. Do you consider it a Southern novel? Are you a Southern Writer?

Matt: I’m not a Southern writer. I grew up in Kansas. My family is from Indiana, with a few distant relatives from Kentucky, but there’s nothing bona fide southern in our pedigree. It’s set in Arkansas because I really like Arkansas, and, too, I lived there for about ten years. It’s a very unique place. Aside from its physical beauty, its residents are some of the warmest, strangest, fiercest and funniest people I’ve ever known.

Me: Can you tell me a little about your writing routine?

Matt: My rule is five evenings a week for two hours. This is writing new material, not re-writing or editing. I cranked out a lot of stories and several novels that way in just a few years. I’ve tried to stick to that the best I can and still believe in it.

Me: What are you working on?

Matt: Right now I’m finishing a sequel of sorts to DTDD. Birdshit narrates this time and it’s part crime caper and part literary gothic, I suppose. It’s got the usual twists and turns, and Blakey Flake shows back up, so you know it’s going to be a fun ride. It’s got them hidden organizations you mentioned earlier, and secrets that need to be revealed, and all of that goodness.

Me: If you were to be remembered for one work, which would it be?

Matt: Geez, that’s tough. I have an unpublished novel that I’d love to publish someday that I think wouldn’t be terrible to be remembered by. DTDD would be fine as well. And I’ve written some short stories that not many people have read because they were published in print journals, but I think they stand up pretty well.

Me: You recently published a novel under a pseudonym. What drew you to use the nom de plume? It seems to tie in with your theme of secrets nicely…

Matt: Right, secrets. Well, it’s a ghost story, basically. And I wrote it about four or five years ago and didn’t know what to do with it. I’m a fan of horror novels and films, but I know there’s some discord between literary fiction and genre fiction in the publishing industry. So, I just used a pseudonym. But, now that I think more about it, publishing is changing so drastically and is much more nimble than it used to be, so maybe the rigid categorizing, which mostly served as a guide to where books belonged on the sales floor, probably isn’t as necessary anymore.

Me: Have you hit your stride as a writer? How do you know?

Matt: I don’t know if there are a lot of strides in the writing gig. But I do know there’s a lot of luck, huge mountains to traverse, windy roads to navigate, and plenty of inevitable crashes, too. Just keep driving, is what I say.