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?
I had been submitting my first book, BOUND, for about four years before it was picked up by Inside the Castle. The publication of the book and the relationship with the press changed things for me in the sense that I was introduced to a new audience and lots and lots of authors who, like me, were writing books that wanted to think about stuff like: What does it mean to be a book? What does it mean to be intentionally blurry, to infuse and defuse genres? What does it mean to be imperfect, anti-craft, hyper-aesthetic, and unhygienic about content? I met a lot of people who thought about literature like I do, and I’m really grateful to the press and to John Trefry, who runs it, for the huge amount of effort and dedication that goes into continuing to publish work that is often considered impossible. I’m really looking forward to this upcoming year’s catalogue, which includes Madison McCartha and Never Angeline North, among others I’m excited about.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually didn’t! During undergrad, I focused on fiction and even applied to MFA programs in fiction, but due to various factors decided to get my MA in Literature instead. For a while after that I mostly only had time to write literary criticism. There was just no time for creative work.
But, after a major surgery in my mid-twenties, I felt really drawn to start writing creatively again. It was a brain surgery and I actually think that my sense of temporality changed for a few months while I was recovering. I wasn’t thinking in long, straight lines anymore, but rather in loops and images. I became much more interested in the point where a line of thought crosses back over itself, the way meaning can palimpsest. I was trained at that point to read and think in the genre of the very long novel (The Wanderer by Frances Burney, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Dickens in general), so it was disturbing not to have the kind of focus I was used to after the surgery. However, it was replaced by intensity and what I think of now as an approach to writing (and reading) that is truer to memory structure and affectual response. In short—I started writing poetry after that surgery because I started to think differently.
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?
This question makes me realize something I’ve never realized before. For fiction, the process always starts with the first sentence, which appears to me fully formed and is also often the only part of a project that I unwittingly memorize. I could list from memory all the first sentences of every piece of fiction I’ve worked on in the last couple years (but I won’t). When I think of them all together though, I realize that the first sentence always reads like an invitation. Not from me as the author to the reader, but from the book to me as a writer. One of the strangest aspects of publishing, especially with bigger presses where lots of people look at your work and comment on it before it goes to press, is that all those eyes can be in your head while you’re writing. I can really get stuck wondering what my editor or future reader will think and when that happens, the process becomes laborious and unmagical. I think having a first sentence that keeps me grounded and connected to the story as my own and no one else’s has become more and more important to me.
In terms of poetry, I hate to admit this since I teach creative writing and am always telling students that the real writing is revision, but the truth is my poems come quickly and close to their final shape. In my defense, though, I don’t write poetry unless I can be really immersed in the process and basically let everything I encounter flow through me to potentially take shape in the poem. To use a different metaphor, it’s kind of like I put on my Death Industrial Complex glasses and only see the world through them for a while. Really I’m always thinking about the poems and so they show up closer to finished when I get them on the page. I do also collect phrases on my phone or wherever I have to write that will make their way in. Here’s a little section from the Death Industrial page in my Notes app:
Fashion will heal their ideas about
Death. I can move metal with just my mind. I mean to make you look
At the blunt
edge of the spoon.
there’s only one part of me
when it comes to
i don’t plan on pleasing
So, just a series of words and phrases that ended up going into about four different poems from the collection.
Fiction is very different. More than anything, writing fiction reminds me of when I was an actor in college and I had to run out onto a dark set and place myself while the lights were down. Obviously, you have to know exactly where everything is so you don’t bump a table and ruin the scene before its even started and in the darkness, there’s always a moment of panic while your eyes adjust and the glow tape X that lets you know where to go appears. Fiction is like that for me—I know exactly where the major pieces are, but I’m delicately feeling my way around in the dark trying to find them. Accidents always happen, but there’s a kind of time traveller’s thrill in knowing I can just go back and revise and no one will every know. Acting was never that forgiving.
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?
Every poem or story has a sort of synesthetic quality to it and so my work gets grouped according the aura or vibe or color. BOUND was hot pink, bubble letters scrawled over legal documents and graves. I often worked on three of four poems for that book on the same day. As the vibe of the book comes to me, I start to sieve everything I encounter—words, colors, stories, photos, stuff on the street—and collect the bits that match the vibe into different poems. So, yes, I know I’m working on a book from the very beginning, but sometimes poems or passages take on a different cast and end up in a different project once an original concept takes its final form. In Death Industrial Complex, I started thinking about keeping a few moments or poems that are more tonally off in order to add texture, and point to a world outside the book.
Often, I'll think I know the arc of a project and find that I’m not actually going to be able to contain that arc in just one book. Death Industrial Complex, for example, originally started as a series of five sections that would consider the work of five different conceptual photographers. Francesca Woodman was only supposed to be 1/5 of the book, not the whole thing. I wrote a few poems for the Cindy Sherman section and pretty quickly realized that there wasn’t enough room for both, let alone three more.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I really try not to think about that part while I’m writing because I find that if I do, it really limits how I treat the page as a medium. There are poems in BOUND and Fidelitoria that are more like Ouija boards than poems—because of the typography and other textual elements, they aren’t really intended to be read aloud. I actually have a recurring nightmare that I’m supposed to read aloud, but the book I’m reading from is written in shapes or an alphabet I don’t know so instead of reading, I describe the shapes. I end up doing pretty much exactly this at readings occasionally—holding the book up to show the audience what the page looks like and then describing where the words are on the page.
All that said, I’ve loved doing readings from Death Industrial Complex. That book is filled with commands and threats and brags and just totally outlandish, ultra language. My favorite poets to watch read are, of course, very performative—people like Abraham Smith, Joyelle McSweeney, and Valerie Hsiung—and I think there’s an element of Death Industrial that really wants to be spoken and embodied that allows me to enter into the territory of drama and mood that those poets traverse.
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 main questions I’ve been exploring in for the last few years (especially in Death Industrial Complex and MONARCH) all deal with identity formation in the context of a consumer culture. How does the messaging we’re exposed to dictate or even generate our desires? How do we know for certain we want what we want and we are who we are when we’re persuaded and manipulated so insistently to buy X, look like Y, aspire to Z. Are there any forces that exist outside consumerism? I’d like to think that magic, spirituality, and the occult all still retain pockets of freedom but it’s also apparent that large portions of even that which traditionally exists only on the interior, and therefore comprised our “true self” or “identity” no longer does.
The current question, for me, is about who we are in private. Do we have a private self any more? Do some of us have more of it than others? Do we value our interior lives less than ever before? Why? Shoshanna Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2018) thinks about this within the context of social media and surveillance policies and all the quick click “opting in” we do. She says, “When the fact is if you have nothing to hide, then you are nothing. Because everything that you are, the place inside you, your inner resources from which you draw your sense of identity, your sense of voice, your sense of autonomy and moral judgment, your ability to think critically, to resist, even to revolt—these are the capabilities that can only be grown within. Jean Paul Sartre calls it the will to will. And that will to will grows from within and you should hide it. And you should cherish it. And it should be private. And it should be yours.”
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?
I don’t think all writers have the same role. When I was in my late teens/early twenties I was really into reading every book that had ever won the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award. I wasn’t really aware of the idea of prize culture or the way these prizes often perpetuate normative structures. Instead, I got the sense that the role or purpose of the writer was to inspire and entertain while documenting some kind of cultural truth from a thoughtful or empathetic or possibly melancholy lens in order to provide the reader with a way to, I don’t know, reflect more deeply on what it means to be an individual or a human. This still seems to be what most authors try to do. I think this can be a totally wonderful role for a writer to fulfill—Jeffrey Eugenides is one of my favorite authors and I think he embodies the positive aspects of this more traditional role.
The role of the writer in larger culture that I’m more interested in right now, though, is the author who is willing to be imperfect in a way that often reflects the imperfection that they’re writing about or within. I’m simply much more absorbed by writers who are both looking at fissures in culture and allowing their work to be part of that fissure, and also be fissured. I appreciate this as a resistance to an otherwise pretty homogenizing industry.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It really depends on the project. Most of my experience has been with presses like Inside the Castle and 11:11 who don’t want to change the book much, but who are really generous about collaborating on design. For both, I sent a bunch of “mood board” images and John Trefry (for Inside the Castle) and Mike Corrao (for 11:11) incorporated elements into the design of the book, ranging from font choice to cover image to section breaks. This is truly collaborative, because once I see what the design editor has done I’ll often remove, add, or reorder some poems. I’ve been really, really lucky to work with presses who respect the vision of my books and also really understand what I’m going for, even when I send a bunch of pictures of Criterion collection covers or grimoires or French tarot decks.
On MONARCH and Death Industrial, there was more editorial input into the actual narrative or atmosphere or structure of the book. In both cases, this input really helped me to see the project from farther away and to understand the scope in a way I couldn’t because I was so close to the projects for so long.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I asked my mentor at Iowa, Dee Morris, if I should tailor my graduate school applications to each school or try to match the school’s aesthetic preference in my creative materials. I was very worried I would be too experimental for most schools, and that I was simply throwing away money by applying. I think most advisors would have absolutely told me to tailor the material and maximize my chances of acceptance as much as possible. Dee didn’t. She said to present myself exactly as I was, be clear and honest about my interests, and send the creative work that was most me. If I presented myself in any other way, she explained, people would expect me to be that person. When I failed, I’d disappoint them. If I succeeded, I’d disappoint myself. I think of this advice outside the context of grad school applications all the time. It’s become my definition of integrity.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
My first response is that I can move back and forth between the two genres easily, but a lot of my poems are very long, with narrative arcs and characters and certainly all of my fiction is very lyric. So much so that I’ll often take a line that I cut from a poem or that never found its way into one and put it in a story. The truth is that I traverse genre easily because I’m always in operating in the space between poetry and fiction anyway, so I don’t have to lean too far in either direction to be in one genre or the other.
As for the second part of the question (which I’m reading as “what’s the appeal of writing in one genre over the other”), I’ve noticed that I choose fiction when I have something more direct, rhetorical, or argumentative to say and I choose poetry when I’m thinking through a question. I suppose poetry is a more meditative space for me, while fiction is more interrogative. I started writing fiction for the first time in almost ten years right after the election. That came from a place of wanting to speak clearly, persuasively, and analytically. For me, anyway—I can think of a few dozen poets who are as persuasive, political, analytic, etc, as any fiction writer, but I’m not one of them.
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?
If I’m teaching or working, my writing routine is just to do it whenever I can in whatever pocket of quiet I can find. When I have an office on a campus, I have kind of a weird love of going there on the weekends and holidays and being mostly alone in an English department and writing. It feels like being awake after your parents have gone to bed and walking around the house and doing whatever you want. I like to get up every hour or so and walk all the steps in the building and just feel the weirdness of being by myself in an industrial place built for crowds.
Now, though, I’m of course not going to campus and I have a pretty set routine for the first time in a long time. I spend the morning kind of thinking over what I’m going to do and clearing out anything that might distract me while I’m writing. I usually start to write around noon. If I’m at the first draft phase, I’ll light incense and I usually listen to white noise while I write. Then, I pretty much just try to write or stare at the screen until I’m exhausted. I’ll go for a walk and then come back and read through what I did, maybe making edits or if its really going well, I’ll write some more. Occasionally, if I have a lot of ideas I want to get on the page, I’ll spend a couple days in an Airbnb and write all day. That’s a rare luxury, though. In the evening, I might research if I need to.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I think it’s actually Joyelle McSweeney who taught me this: there’s no such thing as getting stalled or writer’s block. It’s possible to sit in front of a Word doc and not do anything for hours, but that’s still writing. The idea that writing=production of words definitely turns writing into a product, not a process. So I guess what I turn to is just my willingness to sit and work and get nothing at all for it. I’m also comfortable writing very, very badly and then erasing it all the next day. Doing that actually makes me feel more powerful and in control of my work than waiting for the perfect sentence or sequence of ideas to arrive.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I’m from suburban Iowa where lawn care is pretty much a fetish, so the scent of cut grass and this organic bug spray that I think you can only get at Hy-Vee. It smells like vanilla cake batter cut through with lemongrass.
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?
Yes, absolutely. Probably my best piece of advice for young writers is to never tell yourself that any of your obsessions are unworthy of inspiring you or even being the subject matter of your work. BOUND was very much inspired not just by fairy tales and film noir, but also by trashy magazines and pop music. In the act of writing, I’ve been so surprised by what influences my work (Death Industrial began, in some ways, when I saw a photograph by Francesca Woodman at The Art Institute of Chicago when I was a teenager and combined with the many, many fashion magazines I was reading at that time and that combined with my current obsession with listening to podcasts about cults) that I’m pretty sure that every experience I’ve ever had will make it into my writing at some point.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Alice Notley, Carrie Lorig, Johannes Göransson, and Chelsey Minnis are just a few of writers who have been important to me for poetry. I think of all of these people as writers who know that aesthetic perfection is not the point, or even important. So many writers are all stadium (to use Barthe’s terminology in Camera Lucida) and they strive to present perfectly cohesive and highly controlled pieces that guide the reader very carefully. While I admire many of the poets who do this, the ones who have been important to my own work are the ones who helped me see that there’s a way to also allow punctum—a glitch in the presentation, a mistake, a moment that exists outside interpretation. This is the portal to unbound, raw expression.
For fiction, there are so many contemporary writers who are important to me. A few: Carmen Maria Machado, Megan Abbott, and Ottessa Moshfegh. One thing these writers all have in common is that they’re using genre to get readers to think subversively. What they do reminds me of how Orson Welles loved to make B movies because he could say the stuff in those movies that the studio would cut out in something with a higher budget, yet everybody (maybe even more people) would come to see “trash.” Megan Abbott writes these compulsively entertaining modern noirs about women that are also about trauma, memory, gender dynamics, power etc.
My own work, as I mentioned, usually comes from some theoretical question. For example, I wrote Fidelitoria after seeing Lauren Berlant speak and I wrote MONARCH after taking courses with the trauma theorist Cathy Caruth and the post-humanist Cary Wolfe. In all of those instances, there was some question I was trying to think through with the writing. I wasn’t writing a critical essay, though, and fictionalizing and dramatizing theoretical concepts is sort of an odd approach to take. The work of Machado, Abbott, and Moshfegh has really helped me to see a way forward.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Right now I’m working on a spirit board that will accompany my upcoming poetry collection, Fidelitoria: Fixed or Fluxed (11:11, 2020). I’m only midway through the process, so it still feels very much like something I’ve never done before. There aren’t a lot of templates of this kind of genre (Part board game? Part divination tool? Part occult device?) to look to for guidance, although I’ve found some great examples in archives as well as a few actual boards that I’ve found in antique stores or, one time, on the side of the street. Although their work is more oriented towards divination decks or tarot guides, I’ve been guided by Jessa Crispin, Kim Krans, Jessica Dore, and Gala Mokomolova. Oh, and Ariana Reines, of course!
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?
Something to do with mindfulness and trauma therapy. Not long before it became deadly to breath close to other people, I finished a yoga teacher training program. Obviously, I haven’t gotten to do much teaching but I hope to someday facilitate a course that merges restorative yoga, creative meditations, and divinatory tools. I’m obsessed with Bessel van der Kolk and Tara Brach and all of those thinkers who can actually teach how to change your thoughts through breath, movement, and intentionality.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing, housesitting, and being a nanny are pretty much the only jobs I’ve ever been good at. The common thread is that I like being immersed in a foreign world, whether that’s someone else’s house or something I created.
There have been points in my life where I seriously thought I’d do something else. As an undergrad, I studied acting and quit because it felt too creepy to embody somebody else’s words when I had my own. Starting out in grad school at University of Minnesota, I studied eighteenth century gothic novels by women and quit because I wanted to be goth(ic) more than I wanted to think about it.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I read so many books that I think are great—some of the most recent ones include Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw (a lyric novel, yet also a very “gritty” thriller about a high class escort who has just returned to the states after over a decade in Dubai) and Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas (a hyper image-driven, atmospheric novel about a group of prep school girls obsessed with losing weight). For poetry: Womonster by Oliva Cronk, Darkcutter by Kina Viola, and Toxicon & Arachne by Joyelle McSweeney.
I feel like I see far fewer films that I think are really great, but I recently saw and loved Vox Lux.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A duo of novellas united by exploration into the way that witchery or the occult have been co-opted by capitalism. Think buying divination decks from Urban Outfitters or crystal infused makeup from Goop or Victoria Beckham. Some of the driving questions are: What happens when magic ceases to be terrifying? How does that change its cultural currency, especially for those most historically associated with depending on occult power?