Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press), and a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (forthcoming, Noctuary Press), Virginia Konchan’s creative work has appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, Boston Review, The Believer, StoryQuarterly, and The New Republic. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Montreal.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook, Vox Populi, came out in 2015, and my first book of short fiction is forthcoming in 2017. I wouldn’t say having a chapbook out has changed my life drastically. It was great to give a few readings from the chapbook rather than my usual folder of poems. I’m writing fewer ekphrastic and persona poems, and more sonnets; my most recently poems are based on tropes of blindness and memory. Recent fiction investigates virtual reality and how characters negotiate the relationship between aspects of her spiritual and secular lives. And the novel I’m working on is a madcap feminist bildungsroman, a form apart from the rest.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have written poetry and fiction in tandem since undergrad. I think I was first drawn to poetry over fiction because of metaphoric thinking; then I realized how to extend metaphors in prose.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Charles D'Ambrosio says it best: “Instead of sobbing, you write sentences.” I love that idea, of metrical form or discipline to a form as a way to order the emotional life. As far as genesis goes, guiding images or tropes come immediately, but the piece itself is birthed line by line, sentence by sentence, in increasingly slower drafts. I used to write drafts of poems that were close to what was eventually published. Now, in both genres, my process is much more labored and deliberate. I think carefully about the effect my work has on a reader.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
An image, a word, a sentence or line of overheard/found language, or an adopted persona. I now think of my work in terms of book projects.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy giving readings, but I like reading new material, and that’s not always possible. I’m reading this April in Toronto, and plan to read experimental prose, instead of poetry. I tend to get more excited about readings when I know I have the option to subvert expectations, even if they’re just my own.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
The short answer is yes. It’s often the critic or reader that decides what those theoretical concerns are, but if those questions or preoccupations are shared by the writer, all the better.
My chapbook was described by Jill Magi as “Marxism singing a joyful song.” Moving to Canada in 2014, and graduating from a Ph.D. program in 2015 has put what was a few years ago some very abstract ideas about socialism and critical theory into lived praxis, for sure. Much of the critical writing I did for my Ph.D., and in reviews and essays about capitalism, commodification, and cultural theory, has been set into high relief upon moving to a socialist country, and graduating from a theory-centric program (The University of Illinois at Chicago).
The main questions I’m trying to answer now with my fiction, and to an extent my poetry, is how to remain a conscious participant in any political system or aesthetic form, resisting modes of hypnosis, even lyric hypnosis, and bandwagoning. How can the move toward the social, the repeated decentering of the I, in the lyric, still work in concert with a notion of aesthetic responsibility? If traditional modes of lyric address (apostrophe, I/Thou), are obsolete, how should we think of or configure our audience? Why are the acts of of cognition and music-making be opposed in poetry, when in fact poetry can be the highest form of musical thinking?
With fiction and poetry, the questions of audience, of consciousness, of intentionality, of art as a legitimate (though hopefully not self-legitimizing) form of epistemology are ever-important. But today, more than ever, the question of how to live in the information age, while remaining users rather than pawns of technology and social media is also crucial. And also, in brief, the question of the textual vs. digital archive. Questions of performativity (whether of gender, race, ethnicity or sexuality); questions of performance vs. text-based art forms. Questions of postcolonial theory and ecocriticism. And lastly, a lot of my work—poetry and prose—is concerned with animal ontology—animals as the ultimate other. What is our responsibility, as artists, or just as humans, in an age of industrial slaughterhouses, mass extinctions, and eco-devastation: what Gabriel Gudding calls “an apocalypse that cannot be seen”? I don’t have the answer. But I think this is a hugely important question or set of questions that strikes at the heart of what it means to think about survival, stewardship, otherness and compassion in the post-anthropocene.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
To prescribe a role for a writer can be dangerous. Shoulds and Oughts are rightfully the domain of philosophers like Immanuel Kant. Having said that, I think E.B. White says it best: “I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error . . . Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” To that I’d add that writers have a responsibility to respond to the zeitgeist and help create it, by writing works that give structure to this historical moment, and beyond that, to challenge and question the status quo and given (political, aesthetic, cultural) forms.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Cutting back is the easiest; it’s more difficult to reenter the work and try to graft on a different perspective. The conversations that ensue can be productive, but the work can also suffer from the attempts to please or to entertain multiple POV’s. Still: essential, and necessary.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Most recently: “Don’t be afraid to write a grubby first draft,” and “Plot and structure are your friends,” from Vermont Studio Center visiting writer David Gilbert (February 2016).
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Relatively easy, all things considered, though I believe each genre suffers individually from my inability to focus on just one for a long period of time. The appeal is the overlap, between the short story and the long poem, the flash fiction and the prose poem, the lyric essay and others genres of narrative non-fiction. It’s knowing within ten minutes of beginning something that it wants to be, or will eventually be, a story versus a poem. As Stuart Dybek, an equally brilliant poet and fiction writer, says, the abstract definitions of a genre (or genre distinctions themselves) are less interesting than whether the piece moves you and takes you somewhere interesting.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I get up at 7:30, have coffee, meditate, and try to write for two hours before my work day begins. I usually save the evenings for reading or emails. On the weekends, it varies.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading. Running. Yoga. Travel. My cats. My friends.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Pina Bausch and contemporary dance, painting, photography, physics. Artists Louise Bourgeois, Imogen Cunningham, David LaChapelle, Dana Schutz, Barbara Hammer. And, yes, music. Today I am listening to cellist Truls Mørk and editing a few sonnets.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Hmm. I’ll stick with writers. Calvino, Borges, Beckett, Kafka, Flaubert, Cheever, Henry James, the Brontës, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen . . . Rebecca Solnit, Lydia Davis, Rosalind Krauss, Marguerite Duras, Maggie Nelson, Jill Magi, Bhanu Kapil, Kate Zambreno. As for poets, Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson, Mina Loy, Wallace Stevens. Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Alice Notley, Matthea Harvey, Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, Charles Wright. Carolyn Forché, Brenda Hillman, Michael Palmer, Susan Stewart, C.D. Wright, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Timothy Donnelly, Claudia Keelan. So many others, especially contemporary writers.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Start my own business, and publish a novel.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
A Jungian psychoanalyst.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Natural inclination + passion.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Sphinx by Anne Garréta (trans. Emma Ramadan), and John Cassavetes’ Gloria.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Final edits on my novel, Camelot, second short story collection, Midas Touch. And two poetry manuscripts, one all-but-done, and the other in process.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;