Sunday, March 31, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Brian Dedora

Brian Dedora’s novel/memoir A SLICE OF VOICE AT THE EDGE OF HEARING was a finalist for both the Relit Award and the George Ryga Prize followed by another “audacious experiment in narrative” A FEW SHARP STICKS, followed by LOT 351, and a book of his visual work from the 70’s and 80’s entitled EYE WHERE, all books through the Mercury Press and Teksteditions. Editorial Visor in Madrid and BookThug in Toronto published his work on the Spanish poet and playwright, Federico Garcia Lorca, titled LORCATION in a bilingual edition in 2015 along with TWO AT HIGH NOON published by Vancouver’s Nomados Literary Press.  BORDER BLUR and DIAGRAMS FOR A VAUDEVILLE OF POEMS published by NoiR:Z, Toronto, 2019.  2020 saw the publication of PLAGUE SPOT and RECYCLED along with PHRASE-O-MATIC in 2021 from NOiR:Z. Also in 2021, PAPER POEMS, Red Fox Press, Ireland, and in 2022 SECTION 2: Gap Riot Press, Toronto and POLAROID POEMS, Paper View Press, Portugal. Dedora lives and writes in Toronto where he hones his skills in film photography with his vintage cameras.

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?

Yeah, a xerox of a xerox expands the text...Oh, I thought, I could take that unfinished poem I wrote in creative writing class where the poem received a “You need to get your geography straight.” and a shitty ‘B- ‘... The poem could be redeemed because its visual along with corrections became, as a visual, a piece by itself. So, time to roll up my sleeves and get busy:  xeroxing on a xerox ten times and reversing the order so the most unreadable of the text appears first then moves to the beginning of readability I then reduced the readable to the size of a postage stamp, so the entire piece laid out coalesces to almost total clarity and then fades progressively to the reduced black shape of the poem. This became my first chapbook but also importantly my introduction to visual and concrete or “experimental”.  I was not really interested in producing a book of discrete lyrical poems and producing this piece, THE DREAM, also broke a period of silence, a dry spell, of which I’ve had a few.  Richard Truhlar and John Riddell of Phenomenon Press wanted THE DREAM for distribution and published my second chapbook a visual of breath diagrams, A POSTERIORI.  Through them I met fellow writers also busy with experimental practices: Michael Dean, Steve Smith, bp, and the Four Horsemen. The lifelong importance of THE DREAM was to show me how I could produce in this vein which I’ve done my entire writing life. This was the way to circumvent what I saw as puny poems with a tight return. My writing from that day forward was the beginning of a long trajectory where the visual and the words became distinct pieces or distinctly separate but always undercutting and circumventing the idea of the poem as I saw it.  Word work has progressed from WHAT A CITY WAS through some ten books to my latest piece THE APPLE IN THE ORCHARD all along perfecting a technique of disruption in regards prose writing. The use of incomplete sentences for the rapidity of thought, inclusion of visual material such as photographs, bits of paper, and paintings.  As to my latest work, THE APPLE IN THE ORCHARD, and how it compares to previous work is that it is the apex of my prose work so far in that it is both experimental and readable, not that the previous books weren’t readable, but my technique has become so much better being built through the experiments of previous work... each book spawns another in this long extension.

How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

The bedroom poems of my youth and the stuff I produced for my creative writing class were junk and in the long run of no real interest.  The problem was I hadn’t yet found my métier.

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?

My writing projects, not counting the lightbulb flashes that produce visual work, are a slow process because they never start as a named project but arise from single written pieces in a host of notebooks.  When any piece typed out or now entered on my computer might begin a new project as it sets off memories of other pieces resulting in a furious search through several notebooks to find what I want and lay them beside what I’ve now typed or entered.  One of the pieces now used in THE APPLE, was written in 1991.  Other notebooks and other pieces begin, as I remember them, in relation to what now seems “something”, no definition yet but a locus of interest. Time-wise the prose projects take up to five years, THE APPLE almost seven which includes the pauses between entries.  There’s a lot of just plain thought work which goes into each project whether book or chapbook... Oh, and the editing, the paring down.

First drafts never look like the finished piece...never.

I don’t work from A to Z on any project it’s always a long typed out piece that after rigorous scrutiny becomes a book.

Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?  Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I enjoy readings and I’m a good performer of my work but a half hour before I go on my guts are about to drop and I’m wondering why the eff do I do this... then it’s the first breath and I’m on. The important thing to remember is you must give back. There’s nothing worse than listening to an ego driven narcissist recite “pohems”.  Why are poet voices in many cases so soft, so without inflexions, so far back in the must get out there to give your audience something to hear...Sheesh!!

Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing?  What kind of questions are you trying to answer with your work?  What do you even think the current questions are?

I don’t have any theoretical concerns when I begin something... it’s a contemporary fixation as so much of writing is held and written within academia...all the better to rave on about it in class and it is a class thing with an agenda. Remember PO-MO speak? What club do you belong to? Yikes, that was such a bore and a kind of mis-direction with a vocabulary to suit.  You must recognize that between 1988 and 2008 I did not write or publish so the whole “theoretical” kind of passed me by. There were some interesting thoughts/theories that grabbed hold especially the questioning of the authorial absolute. I do enjoy reading theoretical essays which I forget quickly but the work is all there in some kind of punctum. I find that area of chaos or non-linearity especially fertile ground as evidenced by my three books, A SLICE OF VOICE AT THE EDGE OF HEARING, A FEW SHARP STICKS, and most recently, THE APPLE IN THE ORCHARD. These books can be read as long poems, collages, or “novels” all of them pushing against the university writing class prose read.  Photography has also undergone huge shifts in its authority, meaning, and being. So, I don’t go out to shoot “theoretical”. I get an idea and then shoot it.  The pandemic lockdown was really productive, I was shooting series every week.  I make folders of these series some I’ve shown many I haven’t.

What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture?  Do they even have one?  What do you think the role of the writer should be?

The role of the writer in the larger culture... that depends on how you’re getting paid and whose words you’re “employing”.  The channels in which writing is read seem to me fairly limited where writers of necessity not only find it difficult to get published but even get heard.  The proliferation of books and voices, the whole global hum places the individual writer in solitary confinement where release is burrowing down into your own language and by whatever means getting out there to speak to someone. It’s the “getting out there” that grinds the initial impulse as so much gets in the way: the petty politics, the outright cruelty, the narcissism in front of unremarkable work, the “give them what they want” and the myriad agendas of all the demographics.  Current questions...!!??  I don’t believe there is any over-arcing moment where the great question can be asked because we don’t know it, I certainly don’t.  Where even, to open, to answering.  There are many demographics where you may never need to step out from, all with their own set of questions and maybe their own answers.  The important thing is to show and teach that everyone can be creative in whatever form makes you burn. I was listening to a Zoom recently where Erín Moure spoke about an essay by Chus Pato concerning thinking.  It’s that type of essay of ideas that excite me... the thing is I could read these essays and never get to work.

Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I love working with an editor as I’ve only had two: Bev Duario and Stuart Ross.

When bpNichol and I did ABC Childhood we wrote a kind of call and response,

then bp would type it, rip the finished piece out of the typewriter and begin immediately inking out revisions where I’d be imploring, “Can we wait a minute?”  The immediate revisions were a way of getting or retaining initial impulse. Work with Bev Daurio was a treat as she would come on you very quietly with hints or suggestions which were brilliant as she saw under what I’d written and then ask for a bit more.  When Bev and I worked on A SLICE OF VOICE AT THE EDGE OF HEARING, she suggested taking one story/chapter and splitting it in two and placing it separately in the book. It was a brilliant move!   Stuart was a very different editor as he worked for clarity without change to an original idea plus he enjoyed when I stood up for certain passages and then made suggestions of, “Can you write three more of these passages?”  I did write three more, The beloved buyer, in THE APPLE IN THE ORCHARD.  The point of working with these editors is we all wanted the piece to be better and so we did.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

You’re the artist, you’re the problem solver.”  Jack Kidder, Victoria, B.C., 1969.  The advice I got before leaving B.C. for Toronto.  I was Jack’s protégé and he taught me about food, art, music, and buying my first piece of art, now lost I’m afraid, a clown in a frilly costume trying to fly with the bird that’s flying past... one must try!

How easy has it been to move between genres (poetry to fiction to non-fiction to photography to visual art)? What do you see as the appeal?

Moving between genres is a matter of keeping myself busy especially after I’ve finished a word event from WHAT A CITY WAS, 1983, to THE APPLE IN THE ORCHARD, 2024. It’s the space when I am wordless and in between a word piece where I need to be busy, so I turn to visual work, whether collage, PLAGUE SPOT, THE PAPER POEMS, and THE POLAROID POEMS or photography.  The analogue photography with its mechanical cameras ( I like the ‘feel’ of it working)  is the same space that needs to be busy and filled but in my camera work I shoot sequences mostly based on flash ideas: Eight photos of scrap paper found on Huron Street where I lived and when developed I wrote out on the white scraps in the photos what I had done ending with “beginning at my doorstep”, titled SCRAP NARRATIVE. You can, if you wish, go to YouTube, look up my name and READ THIS FOTO to see a recent exhibition from the 70s until now.

The appeal... it’s fun but also a degree of fear as I set out to shoot an idea, a tension that makes the work better.  Box Set and Bloonz, published by Viktlösheten Press are prime examples of a flash idea which I shot and made a chapbook out of the results and sent it out where Viktlösheten agreed to publish it.

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 have no writing routine until all the bits I’ve randomly written come together as one something, then it’s a more regular routine with lots of space to think about what more may be included i.e. new writing or a search through the notebooks.  I have wordless periods especially after a large project.  By large I mean a word event that is coalescing and becoming and when “done” I am kind of vacant.

When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

When the writing gets stalled, I turn to my heap of notebooks and read to find something.  Read other writers both poetry and prose and essays especially Lisa Robertson or Erín Moure or anything I might stumble upon or be told about.  

Be easy on myself.  One day I need to type out these notebooks.

What fragrance reminds you of home?

Fresh baked bread and flowers in the house.

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?

Fred Wah also said books beget the next book not merely sequence but an impulse or the next technical or maturing step.   Ideas do come from various sources, mostly visual but also, importantly, light bulb moments that are the quick writes that later form a whole or the flash bulbs for a photography idea.

What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

What other writers or writings that are important...??!!  Have you got time?  I use other writers long after I’ve read them through some form of osmosis where I “hear” their voices and certain passages I write seem to have their voice: Faulkner, Burroughs, Goytisolo, Joyce, Modernists all but I’m still looking for a contemporary prose that really turns me on.  For Canadian prose: Sheila Watson, John Riddell, Aaron Tucker.  For Canadian poetry: bp, Steve McCaffery, Lola Tostevin, Kate Siklosi, Sonja Greckol, Dale Smith, Phil Hall, Erín Moure, Ralph Kolewe, Lisa Robertson, Kirby... How can I possibly name them all whether deep-dive or for singular events... near impossible.

I must include my work on Federico Garcia Lorca as his life and writing were the informatives to my book on Lorca titled, Lorcation, a tri-part book composed of poems, an essay, and a reflective finale grounded in and on the land where Lorca was raised.              

What would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?

Write something completely straight.... nah!  Some poetry, maybe...

Perhaps complete a work that I’ve abandoned a few times and give it a kick in the butt.

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 has you not been a writer?

I have had a life with two “careers” ....  I became a master gilder under the tutelage of the artist William Kurelek at the Isaacs Gallery and went into my own business to become one of the premier gilding picture framers in the country. Alongside this I have followed my own creative lightbulb moments whether written or visual including a twenty-year dry spell...when I concentrated on building an art collection and writing about it. I am not making a financial life by writing, there is no imperative for me to do so.  This privilege is a space I worked my ass off to achieve: the time to follow those creative impulses to make... yeah, that’s it... to make.

What was the last great book you read?  What was the last great film.

The last “informative” books were Erín Moure’s, Theophylline, neck and neck with Lisa Robertson’s, Boat, I just love being inside these books.

The last great film setting me out to a full-blown bawl: ALL OF US STRANGERS,

six nominations at the BAFTA Awards and no win for a film whose narrative is not linear

and, therefore, very upsetting for Fred and Mabel in Mississauga... fuck me...

It ends with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, THE POWER OF LOVE, tears dripping off my chin and full-blown bawling.

The books: after all the edits and with THE APPLE IN THE ORCHARD gone to press... six Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe mysteries .... yup!

What are you currently working on?

Current project is a resurrection of an older work that needs the ‘truth’ to get out of the way for the introduction of the chaos it needs:  THOSE LOW HANGIN’ FRUITS... to be I saw it one morning and how wide this piece could encompass and how I might get there... I saw it whole, exciting and scary.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Saturday, March 30, 2024

VERSeFest 2024 : a report from the ground,

Our fourteenth annual poetry festival, VERSeFest: Ottawa's International Poetry Festival, happened last weekend, four venues across four nights, with more than two dozen poets [including Monty Reid, left, being introduced by Jennifer Baker], and was a resounding success, I don't mind saying. The festival got knocked around a bit across the Covid-era, so this is the first festival with myself as Artistic Director, with a brand-new board of directors for VERSe Ottawa, the organization that looks after the whole thing. And did you hear that three of our four nights held capacity crowds? Every night held incredible readings, without a low point across the board (although there were frustrations about accessibility across a venue or two).

Thursday, March 21, 2024: Avant-Garde Bar, 7pm
Anita Lahey, Monty Reid, Marjorie Silverman, Laila Malik
    hosted by Jennifer Baker / Arc Poetry Magazine,
Daniel Groleau Landry, nina jane drystek + MayaSpoken
    hosted by Allison Armstrong

Opening night held some strong readings, with returned-to-Ottawa poet Anita Lahey reading from her latest collection, offering an Ottawa poem or two. Ottawa poet Marjorie Silverman [above] not only offered a reading from her debut, and a Billings Bridge Mall poem, but her debut as a reader at VERSeFest! Laila Malik [left], another poetry and VERSeFest debut [see the recent interview here], startled the crowd with the strength of her reading (it is such a good book). And Monty Reid, longtime Artistic Director, anchored the whole first set with his own debut reading at VERSeFest (if you're staff or on the board you can't be scheduled, so we had to wait until he left, don't you know).

As part of the second set: it was good to hear new work from returning VERSeFest performer Daniel Groleau Landry; nina jane drystek did some very cool looped sound work (I know nina is shopping a full-length manuscript; once that is out, it is going to be incredible); and MayaSpoken is simply remarkable.

Friday, March 22, 2024 : Happy Goat, Laurel, door 7/reading 8pm
Amanda Earl, DS Stymeist, IAN MARTIN, Mary Lee Bragg
    hosted by Stephen Brockwell
Susan McMaster, Sneha Madhavan-Reese, Shane Rhodes
    hosted by rob mclennan

Amanda Earl, of course, is a stellar reader, and her new book is grand. DS Stymeist [above], also read from a new book, and, akin to Monty Reid, was also debuting as a VERSeFest reader, having spent time as President of the VERSe Ottawa board (and thus, unable to read until after he stepped down). MaryLee Bragg read from her own newly-published book, but the highlight of the entire event (sorry, everyone else) had to be Ottawa poet IAN MARTIN [left] (yes, the upper case is deliberate), who really did provide surreal humour and a quiet, odd warmth through their set. You should be paying attention.

The second set held a reading by the very sparkly Ottawa poet Susan McMaster, who has a new book as well. Sneha Madhavan-Reese provided a sharp and curled straight-lined performance for her latest title (which I've been hearing some very good things about). Hopefully this isn't Shane Rhodes' [left] final Ottawa performance before he and his family move to Australia later on this year (you knew about that, didn't you?). I've really been enjoying his settler-work, playing off the novel (and subsequent film) that provided him his name. (Don't go, Shane! Shane, don't go!)

Saturday, March 23, 2024 : Redbird, 8pm
Stephen Brockwell, Jaclyn Piudik, Chris Turnbull, Derek Webster
    hosted by rob mclennan
Sandra Ridley, David O’Meara, Madeleine Stratford
    hosted by Zishad Lak

Board member (and Ottawa poet) Stephen Brockwell [above] provided a shorter set as last-minute fill-in, reading for Mark Goldstein, who wasn't able to make the event (he's doing fine, but just couldn't make it). Chris Turnbull [see the recent interview here] opened her reading, launching her latest book, with some poems by Phil Hall, to acknowledge the new book Goldstein edited and published, celebrating Hall and his work. It was interesting to hear Jaclyn Piudik [left] read, a poet I've only started reading lately. She has a new book as well, and made a point of opening with some poems by Mark Goldstein. And Derek Webster was just great. He read a poem that played off the work of Al Purdy. Who wouldn't love that?

Sandra Ridley [left; see the recent interview here], launching her latest from Bookhug Press, was her usual evocative, coiled calm, enough to quiet any room. Working in both English and French (as well as translation, Madeleine Stratford's performance had a liveliness and humour across hushed tones. And Ottawa poet David O'Meara, another former VERSeFest Artistic Director (before Monty), reading a handful of new poems, was the anchor that held all in place.

Sunday, March 24, 2024: Spark Beer, door 7pm/8pm
AJ Dolman, Myriam Legault-Beauregard, Nduka Otiono,
    hosted by Madeleine Stratford
Rhonda Douglas, Jason Christie, Klara du Plessis + Khashayar “Kess” Mohammadi,
    hosted by rob mclennan

Our closing night! It was great to hear Ottawa poet AJ Dolman [above; see the recent interview here] launching their long-awaited debut full-length collection, a box of which landed in just enough time to catch our event (there will be a proper, full launch coming up). And great to hear poet and Carleton University prof Nduka Otiono [left] for the first time! He had a critical selected poems not long back from Wilfrid Laurier University Press that was quite interesting. And lovely to catch a reading blending English and French from poet Myriam Legault-Beauregard from her new book, already leaning into a second printing!

Rhonda Douglas was good enough to provide a short opener of new poems (and curious for me to realize I've known her longer than I've known anyone else around here, having participated in a poetry workshop at the University of Ottawa alongside her and Joseph Dandurand, among others, during 1992-3). It was very nice to celebrate Ottawa poet Jason Christie's [left; see the recent interview here] last fall bpNichol Chapbook Award win through his reading, both from the award-winning chapbook as well as through a handful of new poems. I would think he's but the second Ottawa-based bpNichol winner, after Chuqiao Yang (I presume we'll have more, soon enough). And then, Montreal-based Klara du Plessis [see the recent interview here] and Toronto-based Khashayar "Kess" Mohammadi [see the recent interview here] closed out the event, and the festival, through a stellar collaborative set, which included their own individual works, as well as them reading from their recently-published book-length collaboration. There's an incredible amount of activity going on with those two, both individually and combined, that is worth paying attention to. Wow.

You probably also saw the new issue of The Peter F Yacht Club that was launched as part of the festival, holding poems by numerous of our readers and performers? I also had copies of the soon-to-release tenth anniversary issue of Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal], given there were poems within by Amanda Earl and Conyer Clayton. We also had a basket of books leftover from our fundraiser, offering for the sake of donations (although it took two days, unfortunately, to discover that the QR codes we printed didn't actually work).

Given our hugely successful fundraiser, it didn't seem right to ticket all of the events, so three of our four nights were unticketed (honestly, so much of the fundraiser, whether time, books, chapbooks or cash came from at least half that crowd), but there were plenty of folk donating, still, across those four days, which is hugely appreciated by everyone on the board. Thank you so much to The City of Ottawa, Arc Poetry Magazine and The League of Canadian Poets for their ongoing support, and to Spark Beer, RedBird [left], The Happy Goat and Avant-Garde Bar for allowing us the use of their spaces. As many of you know, events such as these don’t occur in a vacuum, and I must thank the help of our current VERSe Ottawa board: Allison Armstrong, Frances Boyle, Stephen Brockwell, Éric Charlebois, David Currie (who really went above and beyond across the course of this entire thing, so thank you) and Zishad Lak for their ongoing and essential work. And Helen Robertson, who ran our book table! Helen is a delight. Of course, an essential thank you to outgoing director Avonlea Fotheringham for keeping the festival alive across the Covid Era, and Rod Pederson, who began this festival in the first place.

[left: Khashayar "Kess" Mohammadi, Chuqiao Yang + Cameron Anstee mid-break, Closing Night] With our rebuilding year, this was a smaller and more Ottawa-localized festival than prior years (unable to cover hotels and travel, for example), so we are hoping to do another version of this in the fall ("fall into versefest," or something akin to that), as well as hopefully announce our next round of poets laureate at the same time. With luck, we can return next spring with a fully-rebuilt festival! And in case you are wishing to donate, you can catch the donate page on our website. Maybe we'll see you at our next event! Otherwise, you know you should be checking out for all Ottawa-area literary events, yes? Monthly calendar! New poems!

Friday, March 29, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Miriam Gershow

Miriam Gershow is a novelist and story writer. Her debut short collection, Survival Tips, is out from Propeller Books March 19 2024. Her novel, Closer, is forthcoming from Regal House in 2025. Her debut novel, The Local News (Spiegel & Grau), was hailed as “unusually credible and precise" and "deftly heartbreaking” by The New York Times.

Miriam’s stories appear in The Georgia Review, Gulf Coast and Black Warrior Review, among other journals. Her flash fiction appears in anthologies from Alan Squire Books and Alternating Currents, as well as in Pithead Chapel, Had, and Variant Lit, where she is the inaugural winner of the Pizza Prize. Her creative nonfiction is featured in Salon and Craft Literary among other journals.

She is the recipient of a Fiction Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and an Oregon Literary Fellowship, as well as writing residencies at Playa, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, and Wildacres. Her stories have been listed in the 100 Distinguished Stories of The Best American Short Stories and appeared in the Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories. Her writing has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award (Ken Kesey Award for the Novel).

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book, The Local News, changed my life hugely and not at all. It turned out to be so meaningful to finally be able to say at 38, I have a book! It validated my creative existence and the long, wild choice to be a writer. I’d been getting stories published for years, but something about a book shifted my sense of how I was choosing to make my life and rooted me in it more deeply. Materially, I was lucky enough to get an advance that paid for eight months of maternity leave when I was a lowly adjunct instructor. But I woke up the day my book was published still with all my insecurities and worries and neuroses. A book couldn’t save me from myself, even though I’d deep down fantasized it somehow would.

My newest book, Survival Tips: Stories, spans 23-years of my writing—some of those early published stories are in there!—essentially my whole career. This makes the book feel a lot more familiar to me, rather than brand sparkling new. It’s been fifteen years since my first book, and in hindsight, I was so vulnerable and full of a combination of disbelief and sensitivity when it came out. I was unable to take in the process fully, kind of watching myself go through it rather than going through it. Not so, this time. I’m meeting this book with joy and so much gratitude and loving every moment of the process.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I was squirreled away reading fiction all of my childhood in the seventies suburban white girl pipeline of Judy Blume to V.C. Andrews to Jean M. Auel to Stephen King. It was always going to be fiction for me.

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?

I’m a quick starter! I love beginnings. I’ve come recently to flash fiction, and some of those first appear – miraculously – close to their final shape. Novels never ever appear looking close to anything. I’m slow through a first draft, never quite sure where I’m going and trying to coax the story out. The shape comes later, though revision and more revision. There are always a whole bunch of scrawled post-its and scraps of paper strewn across my desk throughout novel writing.

4 - Where does a work of prose 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?

I usually begin with a snippet of character – a situation they’re in, a thought they’re having.

I’m pretty clear on whether I’m writing long or short. Only very occasionally do short pieces end up going longer; often that’s a sign that I can’t quite wrangle my ideas in the way I’d hoped to. It’s also not unusual for a longer piece to run out of steam before I’m done with it. That never usually signals a shorter story; it signals that the story isn’t there. Those end up in my very full recycling bin. I’m not shy about throwing out ideas that don’t work.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love readings. I’m an ambivert – love the solitary writing time, love being in community. I see readings as the public celebration after the long, lone process of writing. I love sharing the work. I’m a former theater nerd. Readings are my stage! The danger is if I read a work-in-progress too early; I’ll take the audience validation to mean the piece is finished, when often it’s really, really not. I can perform it into sounding finished when the page alone doesn’t bear that out.

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?

Hmmm…theoretical concerns sounds very high-minded and I consider myself maybe a more intuitive writer. I feel like I’ve always returned to the same questions, long or short, fiction or nonfiction: how do we find connection and what are the many ways we fail at finding connection and how do we recover from that failure and do better?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Ideally, the role is truth teller, which feels essential right now in our post-truth era in the US. My first serious writing teacher, Tom Spanbauer, said, “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth,” and I agree fully with that. With fiction especially, there is the potential to transport readers into the humanity of folks who aren’t a part of their lived experience and create empathy and understanding. I don’t mean didactically. I’m turned off by moralistic work. I don’t need a lesson. But that delicious quality of being swept up in fiction, I really do believe it can change a reader for the better.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential! I love it. I think an outside editor is the best reason to be traditionally published. You have someone as invested in the work as you are, trying to make it better.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

One of my teachers, David Bradley, said, “Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness.” Does this count as advice? I return to it all the time. I really lean into my strengths in early drafts. I’d argue all writers do. For me, my strength are are long, multi-clause sentences with parentheses and em-dashes galore; meandering tangents; a wry, clever narrative or character voice. When I come back to the drafts, I can see how those crowd out other parts of the writing: a clear structure, consistent pacing, a deepening of character vulnerability.  If I over-rely on my strengths, they create weakness in the overall writing. Revision becomes the time to exercise the skills that aren’t as intuitive. I bring this up all the time with fiction students. It’s such a good lens through which to view your own work.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel to flash fiction to creative non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

In the past couple of years, since I started writing short short work, it has been amazingly easy. After years of failure in selling a second novel, writing flash returned me to myself and my writing and my confidence. There was something so delightful and satisfying about a form that I could draft in a few sittings, and then work and work into meaning. For a very long time, endings were the hardest part of writing because it was the moment you had to make something of what you’re writing or admit you were bullshitting. Often I was bullshitting. But this return to short work, and the discovery of flash and micro, which are so short, and so much about the ending, made me realize I do a lot less bullshitting these days. I have a lot to say. And I’m saying it. It feels really good.

And I find myself longing to return to novel writing after spending any real amount of time in flash, and vice versa. They are such good complements to each other, and each makes me appreciative of and restless for the other.

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 wake up, get my teenager off to school, drink some very caffeinated tea (having recently and sadly given up coffee because of my delicate, middle-aged digestive system), and sit in front of my computer. On the best day, I get to work with the writing, spend an hour or two on it, find myself swept up in the momentum, and before I know it, three o’clock rolls around with me in a happy, creative haze as my teenager rolls back in from school.

More realistically, I’m in front of the computer grading my college students’ papers, catching up on emails, setting up book events, scrolling way too much social media, and fitting writing in for an hour or two. The deeper I am in a project, the more momentum it gains, and the more likely I am to be swept up in it at the expense of everything else. Those are the best and most delicious writing days, and I become a relatively absent (or at least spacey) teacher/mom/wife/friend, as a result.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Books. So many books. Literary fiction, graphic novels, story collections, the occasional space opera. Television, everything from prestige streaming series to bad reality TV. Anything away from my desk – walking, knitting, taking a long, hot bath. I need a change of venue if I’m really stalled, to get away from the work so I can at least attempt to return anew.

The question I’m always facing is: am I stalled out because I’m getting to the really hard stuff I’m avoiding or am I stalled out because this story idea is no longer alive in my imagination? I have to fight against the impulse to throw everything out when I’m really stuck.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Childhood home? New rain on asphalt. Current home? Teen boy sweat.

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?

Does family count as a form? My books, most recently, have come from parenthood, marriage, and the ongoing process of trying to make a home.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

So many. I’m just going to give a long list like an Academy Award winner being played off the stage. Authors I adore and who inspire: Jennifer Haigh, Marcy Dermansky, Deesha Philyaw, Rebecca Schiff, Kathy Fish, Mira Jacob, Tom Perrotta, Lorrie Moore, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Gabrielle Bell, Sara Novic, Mary Gaitskill, Kristen Radtke, Dan Chaon. Books that changed my life: The Feast of Love, Lolita, Geek Love, Barn 8, The Great Believers, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Drown, Girl, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Nothing To See Here, The Invisible Circus, The Middlesteins, Notes on a Scandal, Arcadia, A Friend of the Family, Motherless Brooklyn, The Interloper, Fool on the Hill.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I want to write a book where the central character is slowly falling apart, but endearingly or at least really engagingly. Like a slow motion car wreck but with wry humor and a good dose of pathos. I’ve tried writing this book three times, three very different books, none of them very good. For a while, I thought I’d finally put this idea to bed. But recently I came up with a way to resurrect it that has me newly motivated. It might be Sisyphean, but this particular boulder has a very strong pull on me.

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?

Broadway star, though I can’t sing or dance. I can emote.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I think it goes back to the early, transporting experience of reading. Books are magic. On the best writing days, the process of making books is magic too.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Last great book: Beautyland by Marie-Helene Bertino. I can’t remember the last film, so I’m going to give you my second most recent great book: My Murder by Katie Williams.

20 - What are you currently working on?

In all honesty, I’m working on the hustle for Survival Tips – answering questions for cool writerly blogs, sending out postcards to bookstores and libraries, composing emails for my mailing list. After that, I’ll get to work editing my forthcoming novel, Closer (June 2025), with my Regal House editor. And after that, if I’m brave (or really dense) it’s back to pushing my boulder up my hill in the form of a new novel out of the barest of bones of an old, failed one.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Jose Hernandez Diaz, Bad Mexican, Bad American



A man walked in a desert on a Sunday afternoon. It was his birthday. He’d spent the morning walking in the desert after his horse died. The man was starting to feel weaker by the minute. Then he began to see a mirage: it was his fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Cranford. Mrs. Cranford had died ten years ago. The mirage, or Mrs. Cranford, implored him to keep pushing, despite the oppressive heat of the desert. The man leaned toward the mirage, to give it a hug. It disappeared. The man looked up at the sky: the stars were beginning to shine.

I’ve been curious about the prose poems of Mexican American poet, editor and teacher Jose Hernandez Diaz for a while now, finally able through the publication of his full-length debut, Bad Mexican, Bad American (Cincinnati OH: Acre Books, 2024), a title that follows his chapbook debut, The Fire Eater (Texas Review Press, 2020), but leads up to his next collection, The Parachutist (Sundress Publications, 2025). From the very title, Bad Mexican, Bad American sets up a potential collision of two cultures, with one foot in each, but fully neither. “All my ancestors were poor and I / am like my ancestors. I don’t talk // about my personal life much. Why / complain? I had a loving family who // took care of me. A roof over my head. / Beans and tortillas on the stove.”

Constructed as a quartet of poem-sections, Diaz’s poems present a strong storytelling element, almost wistful, and surreal at times; gestural, as though performing a monologue in which things occur but nothing “happens,” offering recombinant threads of origins and beginnings, curious tales told and retold, and surreal bursts that lean into flash fictions. “My name is very plain,” he writes, to open the poem “MY NAME,” “Jose Hernandez. / I used to go by Joey Hernandez growing up. // I never asked anyone to call me that. / It was just a nickname. I always wrote Jose Hernandez // on my schoolwork.” Further down the page, he adds the caveat: “I always wanted an American name, growing up, // like my Poncho friends, Anthony, Jon, and Michael. / It’s not so much that I was a sellout. I just wanted // to fit in.” He speaks of culture and distances, of attempting to find his place amid what seem, at first, to be two separate poles. “I guess that’s part of the reason why I don’t feel comfortable // as a teacher.” he writes, as part of “I NEVER HAD A MEXICAN AMERICAN TEACHER GROWING UP,” “Never seen a Mexican male English teacher. / Also, however, I think I would find // any excuse not to stand in front of a group of strangers.”

While he does lean into the surreal, Diaz works a line comparably straighter than, say, Benjamin Niespodziany or Nate Logan, allowing the bends not through language per se but through the narrative arc, providing turns less sudden than the realization that the mirrored glass is actually liquid. There is also a curious cluster of poems across the third and fourth section of the collection, most of which begin with “A man with a” or variations thereof, offering a sequence of short narratives that manage to spark and twist, deflection expectation through deft turns and smart sentences. Throughout there are some lovely elements, amid such lovely images and sentences, of prose poem style throughout this collection, and I appreciate very much how Diaz is open about those same influences upon his writing, those poets that helped along the way, threading individual names throughout a variety of poems, culminating in the final poem, “AT THE CEMETERY OF DEAD POETS,” that writes:

I was trapped in a graveyard of dead poets. I was technically trapped but didn’t want to get out, anyway. First, I went to Rosario Castellanos’s grave and paid my respects. I addressed her as mother in Spanish. Madre de la Poesia. Then I went to Octavio Paz’s grave. I wrote a small poem on the grave for El Gigante of Mexican letters. It was a haiku and that’s all I’ll say about it. Next, I went to James Tate’s grave. I placed some white roses on the gravestone and shed a few tears. I glanced at the sunset. I said thank you, told him I owed him lunch. Then, I went to Russell Edson’s grave. I dropped off a comic book I’d written and illustrated for him. I poured out whiskey in the grass next to the grave. Lastly, I went to Marosa di Giorgio’s grave by the entrance. I immediately turned into a yellow jackal in the moonlight. The new moon had cast a spell on the city.

The poem “THE SKELETON AND THE PYRAMID,” as well, opens with a riff that could easily fit inside those surreal works of writers such as Gary Barwin, Niespodziany or Stuart Ross: “A skeleton with a sombrero sat on top of an Aztec pyramid.” Or the poem “MEETING JAMES TATE IN HEAVEN,” a poem that opens: “I met James Tate at a carnival in heaven. Tate was riding the bumper cars with his cat, Lucy. I was smoking a cigarette on the Ferris wheel with my dog, the incidentally named Carnival. We met in line to buy hot dogs. ‘My name is Jose,’ I said. ‘I’m James Tate. Nice to meet you,’ he said. We ate our hot dogs at a bench with graffiti scribbled by fallen angels.” For either poem, anyone would be a fool to not be curious as to what might happen next.