Interviews & Reviews


The way we talk about film, how we digest it, is worth a thought. We “capture” images, we “take” pictures. For those oldest reels, where life skitters in shades of black and white, it’s tempting to view the images as a record, as a window or portal to another time. There is a truth in that. Pointing a camera at people unaware their image is being taken, in that between-time when the medium was new and its nature not widely known, has an unnerving quality. When animals are presented in these infant days of moving image the issue is somehow amplified — it’s the obliviousness that makes them more alive, and hence their long-deadness more pronounced. If — according to some physics I don’t understand — we are a way for the universe to observe itself, and the act of observation influences existence in its most fundamental state, then does turning that act of observation back onto ourselves have an equal or opposite consequence? If our eyes were designed for that purpose, do we risk contradicting our reason for being here? At the heart of the capture of any image is the tension between permanence and impermanence. Actors become icons, and we refer to the immortality of the screen, knowing that film degrades, is lost, human error deletes storage, and all those films we’ve streamed and purchased are available only as long as our provider of choice decides so. The travel in time is one taken in memory when we watch a film, if it’s good anyway: the first cinema we frequented, the old carpet in the house we grew up in, the friend who introduced us to a film much beloved, the night we couldn’t sleep because of a scene that haunted us. The bristly material of the fold-down chair as it grazes the rear of your adolescent knees, that person who sat too close, and the one that cried a little too hard. As a smaller person, legs crossed staring up at the tv with the smell of dinner threatening to take the end of the film away. Here we arrive at Garielle Lutz. 

‘As a kid, I didn’t see a lot of movies, but I loved to study the movie advertisements in the Friday edition of the local paper: the ads were always awfully small, and all of them would fit onto half of a page and offered only the logos of the local movie houses, miniaturized samplings of lobby-poster graphics, the names of cast members and big-shot picture personnel squeezed into sideways-squashed lettering that was hard to read, and, most gratifying for me, the list of show times, because something seemed practically occult about those sequences: 1:10, 2:55, 4:40, 7:20, 9:15. (Movie schedules were a big influence on my interpretation of the running times of song titles listed on the backsides of record albums: I began to think that 2:38 parenthesized after a title meant that that was the time of day when I should listen to the song, but most of the times were in the range of 2:00 to 3:30, and I was almost always still at school then, or on my way home, so that would have meant not playing most of my records, and I liked my records.)  The movie ads were the only thing I ever bothered with in the paper (I had no use for current events), and my favorite toy was a cheap projector (fabricated mostly of plastic) that would beam onto a wall anything I positioned in a little skirted expanse beneath the part of the device housing the bulb, and I thuswise whiled away many an evening staring at movie ads magnified into magnificence onto the barest wall of my tiny bedroom. The downtown movie houses in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the thriving, thwarting little city in which I grew up — the Rialto, the Colonial, and the Capri (all on Hamilton Street, the main drag) and the Boyd (a couple of side-street storefronts down from the city’s only skyscraper, a gothamish Art Deco uplooming at the corner of Ninth) — had been curtailedly palatial even from the start and by the time of my childhood had stopped short of offering a portal to anything englamoring. The seats were plush, sure, but the places always smelled like the shoes and socks of people who’d had to walk punishingly far to be charmed.  One Sunday I was taken by the hand to see a matinee of Mary Poppins at the Colonial, but the lady at the box-office window told my parents that the showing was sold out, so we went back home, and I was relieved, because I knew I would’ve otherwise had to sit through the whole miserable thing and keep telling myself, “I should like this, what is wrong with me that I don’t like this, please let this be over and done with soon,” the same thing I always told myself while faced with the longueurs of dreamless Disney dreariments like The Sword in the Stone and Pinocchio. But there was a drive-in theater (called the Boulevard) in our working-class district, and on summer weekend nights my parents often packed me pillowedly into the car for the double features, but aside from my delight in the intermissional operettas about the hot dogs and chocolate bars on offer at the snack bar, the only movies I can remember staying awake for long enough to form much of an impression were Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Walk on the Wild Side.  From the first seconds of the opening-credits sequence of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (early-morning Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, Holly Golightly in black gloves all the way up past the elbows and nibbling a pastry (though I still hope it’s a croissant, not something sticky), I had my first dim inklings of how I wanted to grow up (as Holly) and where I wanted to live (in Manhattan [though the closest I would ever get was a one-month sublet in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, when I was fifty-one, and from 1983 onward I would have to make do with the concrete-canyon effects achievable by walking slowly and desirously eastward on the narrow, Manhattanesque five-block stretch of William Penn Place in downtown Pittsburgh]). That swoon-inducing opening sequence was just about the only thing I took away from the movie as a seven-year-old (I’m sure I dozed off during much of what followed, and there are only snatches of the movie I care enough about to watch now, but those two minutes and twenty-seven seconds at the start were the first of the half dozen or so turning points in my life), and for days afterward I begged my parents to buy me the soundtrack album, and they gave in, and I’ve still got the thing (the running times of the songs range from 2:24 [“Hub Caps and Tail Lights”] to 3:18 [“Holly”]; dismissal time at the elementary school was 3:05).  As for Walk on the Wild Side, I remembered almost nothing from it other than a dawning suspicion that adult life was to be lived in louche black-and-white and with only fitful approximations of affection ever possible from other people. I’ve never since looked at that movie again, but as a teenager I glommed on to a used copy of a 1962 paperback anthology of short fiction called Nelson Algren’s Own Book of Lonesome Monsters, and I must have found the title welcomingly, life-blightingly apt and must have recognized that the man whose name was featured in the title was the author of the novel on which Walk on the Wild Side was based, but I don’t think I read very far into the thing before giving it a toss.  A year or two later (by then I was a mostly mute and ignored beanpole of a  junior at Louis E. Dieruff High School), Lou Reed came out with his Velvetsy recitative “Walk on the Wild Side” and stirred up in me some inchoate, chiaroscurist memories of the movie (by now I knew it had had something to do with prostitutes); the song was perfect, though “New York Telephone Conversation” and “Make Up,” both on side two of Reed’s Transformer album, suited me better in those confusingly boy-crazy days. Oh, and I can remember, but just barely, three other movies of my youth, all seen between ages eleven and thirteen: Funny Girl (why had my mother insisted I take the Union Boulevard bus with her to go see it at the Boyd?  The low-cut blouses seemed both dirty and scary to me) and Grand Prix (almost three hours long, and all about racing; my only childhood friend, who loved cars and glued-together hobby-shop models of them, wanted to see the thing, and I would have gone anywhere with him, though I daydreamed through most of the picture) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (again with my friend; giggles in the car on the way to the Rialto but long faces on the way back).

‘By the time I reached my later teens and set off for Kutztown State College, formerly Keystone State Normal School (a drowsy, modest little campus of low-slung buildings clustered on both sides of a two-lane in Pennsylvania Dutch country, a half hour’s drive from Allentown), I was not so much indifferent to movies as finding myself increasingly shying away from them; I don’t think I saw more than six or seven movies during all four of those years, and by “saw” I mean having sat in the presence of something projected on a screen in front of me but not necessarily paying it any mind.  I would much sooner have gone someplace where I could have watched just those opening couple of minutes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s over and over and over, but this was the mid-1970s, and opportunities like that did not yet exist.  Maybe my limited receptivity to movies makes more sense to me now than it did then, because I’ve since learned that I am neurologically nonstandard and am not rigged for linearity or narrative drive, not attuned to what is called “story sense.”  From childhood through my early twenties, I usually had one tape recorder or another within reach (portable reel-to-reel devices until the advent of cassette recorders), and I was often promiscuous in what I recorded: once, when I was in third or fourth grade, I’d taped a span of dialogue, ten minutes or so, from a movie (The Rainmaker, from 1956, with Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster) that my parents were watching on TV.  I remember listening to that tape over and over for weeks, though I had no idea what the characters were talking about (it was over my head and out of context anyway); I was just enthralled by their saying the same things again and again; and if you’re anything like me, when you listen to something repeatedly like that, something sooner or later happens to the words: their limitive communicational properties, the gunk and slop and whatnot of meaning, somehow get rinsed away, and what you’re left with is no longer speech but instead a bare human bleat or coo (maybe even just barely human), an onrushing current of underdifferentiated sound that nonetheless becomes more and more orderly and consolingly predictable the more you listen to it, and I was listening to it a lot. I was more and more drawn toward experiences like that, humanesque voices on endless repeat; and college, by the time I showed up, didn't seem to be offering anything along those lines.  (Or maybe it did — it’s just that I never wandered over to the halls of music.  A professor over there wrote haiku and had locally published a book's worth of it entitled [with maximal helpfulness to readers, like me, who needed everything spelled out], Haiku Poetry.)  Midway through one term or another, at an appointment during which I was supposed to choose courses for the next semestral go-round, my faculty advisor talked me out of enrolling in an Olympian-sounding seminar called Mental Hygiene (I’d had my heart set on that course, because life seemed to keep pushing my thoughts in unsanitary directions), and he insisted I’d be much better off in a course called Literature and Film.  I have always been one to give in, so I let myself be signed up. By that point I was an English major but seemed to have barely any interest in books (I idolized the kids in the studio-art program but couldn’t draw or manage anything even plausibly minimalist or conceptual, though I was fond of the jargon, and I had just switched my major again after things hadn’t worked out with a semester’s worth of grisly intros to accounting, marketing, and economics).  I guess the draw of the film course was that we’d get credit for just sitting in the dark, and during the second of the screenings (The Informer), it occurred to me that I could close my eyes and keep them shut and nobody would even notice, and that was how I made it through the rest of that picture and, in coming weeks, through all of The Grapes of Wrath and The Maltese Falcon. I’d just show up in the auditorium and sit there in excited lassitude and feel as if I was pulling something off.  I’d tell myself that Andy Warhol would surely approve.  I also blew off reading the books that the movies were based on.  I’d just zip through the pages of the paperbacks and color every word with a thickset yellow highlighter.  The papers I turned in had nothing to do with the books or the movies, and it didn’t even matter.  The prof wanted us to feel free.  I felt trapped anyway. I believe I briefly had a boyfriend.  He wanted us to go to see Liza Minelli in a seafaring romp called Lucky Lady.  He was always drawing life-size, head-to-toe likenesses of Liza Minelli on scrolled-out paper on the floor of his dorm room and then tearing them splendidly to pieces.  We went to see the movie.  I did the “I’m not watching” thing again. We broke up. The next semester, I went to see a couple of movies in a film series held in a fadedly elegant dining room in Old Main. The Boy Friend and Women in Love — I really tried to watch those two, I tried to do what moviegoers apparently muscle-memorily do, but I felt overwhelmed, couldn’t keep up, wanted to walk out, go back to my dorm room, flop onto the bed, and listen over and over again to “Candy Says.”  The only movie house in that town was a bystreet shoebox of a  place that always showed first- or second-run features,  but one week it was improbably screening The Boys in the Band a good four or five years after its release.  I dropped by investigatively on a weeknight, and the audience was sparse: sad sacks steeped in unrelentable middle age, hunched but sleekened teens who looked as if life had already thrown them one too many scares, popcorn-guttling townies who no doubt showed up for everything — all of them alone and unfragrantly male and seated as far away from each other as possible  Within a decade or so, that movie would be maligned as a shaming circus of stereotypes, and for a while it was even pulled out of circulation, but to me it was the first glimpse I’d ever had of the vivid, witty, heartsore society of present-day metropolitan homosexuals.  The movie’s structure (it had been based on a two-act play, 182  pages in hardcover), the propulsions of its plot, the arrowing lacerations of the dialogue — none of those sank in.  The only thing I took away from the movie was the tone, the mood, and it seemed like a tone and a mood I felt I could maybe at least school myself to approximate if I had no choice but to keep growing bodily as a male and if I could somehow bring myself to start opening my mouth around people.  (I never did find an entrance into that society, even if there might have been a smaller-scaled, local equivalent.)  But I had somehow managed to sit through an entire movie from start to finish, without once drifting off or shutting my eyes, and that was progress of a sort.  Another turning point in my development as a movie-watcher was on a chilly Saturday night of my senior year (I was by now a slow-poke, petulant commuter) in Bethlehem, the smaller city next door to Allentown.  An old friend from high school, a student at a selective university across the local river, had proposed that we kill some time at a movie, as long as it was within a six-square-block radius of Luke’s Mid City Lunch, where we’d just finished a dinner during which we barely said a word. Our choices were Taxi Driver and W. C. Fields and Me.  Neither of us had heard of either, but I was familiar at least with W. C. Fields, though my friend wasn’t, and when I clued him in, he said he was in no mood to see a  movie about “some old-time guy.”  So we went to Taxi Driver, and from the start, everything about that movie — its hallucinational neonscape, the nicotine saxophonery of the soundtrack, Travis Bickle’s shatterbrained Honest Johnism, his paranoiac charms — seemed piped directly into all the tubes and ducts and back channels of my neurodivergency and all of my disaffection as a morbidly alienated hick-college isolato with shit for brains. I never once took my eyes off the screen, even though the running time was a longsome one hour and fifty-four minutes.  Audrey Hepburn as Holly in her two minutes and twenty-seven seconds of Mancini-scored daybreak window-shopping at Tiffany’s had been my impractically aspirational second self, my undoubleable gamine lodestar, from the primary grades up until now, but if I couldn’t be Holly, and it was beginning to look an awful lot as if I never could, maybe I could at least be as fucked up as Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, but a Travis Bickle with a touch of the androgyne, with plucked chin and upper lip, lacquered nails, a bracelet or five. Come fall, I was packed off to graduate school in Appalachia.’

An early image-capturing machine was the magic lantern. Magic is slight of hand, it is trickery in the service of beauty, it is technique employed to astound and dumfound. Movie magic and the magic kingdom. When I think of a lantern it’s not as an example from my life. I don’t think I’ve ever used a lantern to light my way. I imagine a raincoated man holding his lantern aloft, scouring dark streets. Or a policeman hurried by a reported crime, seeking a clue in the lantern’s glow. Perhaps an insect-harried porch lantern. These are images brought to me from the recorded image, from photography, and from literature. There are those who regularly use lanterns of course, but this doesn’t detract from the object’s association with the cinematic. Like a waggling cigar, like a twirling walking cane, some objects can now never be disassembled from their use as film props. The lantern’s light emits from the screen, and if the screen observes us back I wonder if it changes us as our faces moon out of the gloom, caught in the lantern light glow. Garielle Lutz’s stories are populated by people smothered in their complexities. Routine work spaces and dour apartments are shown anew through the filter of Lutz’s way of seeing, of reporting, of describing the minutiae of commonplace interactions. If you are reading this then it’s perhaps safe to assume a familiarity with the writer’s singular style, which doesn’t need further comment from me. What does require attention is the off-kilter psychological depth to Lutz’s stories, a depth in part brought about by the familiar being made unfamiliar, by viewing the everyday through the eyes of a strong and unique voice. I think of the best auteur directors, the ones who cast a twisted eye on normalcy, and then I consider the ones who do all they can to escape. Over to Garielle.

‘I wasn’t a very good fit for the program, the college.  It was a party school in a carnivalian town of eyesore Ohioana. The first couple of years, I’d kill entire afternoons pacing up and down the main street, making the flaneur’s circuit of Woolworth’s and the record stores, with hair newly chopped and deformed and punkishly asymmetrical (a little Medusan on one side) from yet another destructo shearing I’d given myself without recourse to a mirror. Nights, I was often at the library, paging groggily through the assigned books, draining the vending machines, browsing the stacks until last call. The eyeglass frames of the middle-aged guy who manned the main-floor exit’s security checkpoint were all out of proportion to anything else on the planet; the lenses looked as big as windshields.  It was in my third year that I rented a one-room apartment whose door sometimes swung reliably wide open of its own accord while I was out, and I often as not was out, because, having outlived my interest in the courses I was taking and the ones I was teaching, I’d finally started resorting to the two movie houses downtown: the Varsity on one side of the street, the Athena on the other.  Both of them were pleasant enough dumps, and the tickets and the popcorn were cheap. I reported to those two theaters the same way that other people no doubt reported to a second, depleting job or to a fittingly sacrificial adultery to spare one’s spouse from another night of one’s wearisome company at home.  I always took my seat with expectations of neither entertainment nor revelation. I went to matinees, evening shows, nutso midnight fare. I sat through stupid comedies eliciting stupid laughter, mainstream dramas about people with plenty enough money to have plenty enough trouble in love.  I became a moviegoer of compulsive depressoid indiscrimination, content with whatever would help me squander whatever was left of my waning, central twenties, because what good was life while you were alive? But I wasn’t so much watching the screen as registering the watchiness of the enviable people enjoying themselves in pairs and threesomes peripherally all around me, and I’d want what the movies were doing for them that they weren’t ever going to be doing for me.  My shoes usually got stuck to soda spilled on the floor, and afterward, on my walk to a convenience store on the way back to my apartment, every stray straw wrapper and leaf clung to my soles.  One night it was a couple of light bulbs I needed. I asked the girl behind the counter if I had to buy the whole box of four or whether I could buy just two.  On the way back I had to carry one light bulb in each hand because she hadn’t bothered to put them in a bag.  I remember that night and that girl more than any of the hundred or so movies I’d watched in that town. She was a dolefully homely chaotical thing looking doped by sweets, and there was a general, far-spreading smell of wet lettuce about her, and flourishes of dark hair on her arms, and you can always tell when you’re seeing somebody else whose first waking thought, day after day, is  “There’s too much of an age difference between me and the world.”  Sometimes it helps to come face-to-face with your double like that.  It helps even more if the other party will never even know it. The least you can do is flee. I left that school without finishing a second degree. The first one had been ruinous for me anyway.  I typed six or seven dozen application letters and got hired for a job in my home state, one of the wide-stretching ones in the East.  The job was at the end opposite the overpacked, overpatinated end where I’d grown up.  It was a job for which I had no aptitude or preparation other than a ready meniality, a willingness to hit the skids, and it took up all my time and seeped even into my dreams.  It was at least a couple of decades before I had anything to do with movies again.

‘I was in my late thirties by this point.  I had a TV — a big lug of a thing that a friend at the time had insisted I take off his hands — and cable-TV service was included free with the rent at the place where I was living, but because I didn’t have any furniture and stuff kept piling up everywhere on the floor, it took only a month or so until the lower half of the screen was completely blocked.  There didn’t seem much point in watching anything if I could see only half of it, and I didn’t feel up to clearing the clutter away, even though another friend kept calling me from another part of the state and berating me for not watching shows like Seinfeld, because he said we were living through a golden age of television.  I don’t know what came over me, but one evening after work I drove to a local mall with a little cineplex and bought a ticket for The Crying Game, because I’d read some words to the effect that it was an absorbingly sad movie, and I felt that it might be time for some sadness of my own to be absorbed, if possible, and watching the movie the first time I did in fact feel that something within me was getting itself blotted up. I went back the next night and watched the movie again, and again I felt my sadness being sponged away at least a little. The next night I drove straight home after work.  The night after that, I returned to the theater, but this time I brought a pocket cassette recorder and recorded the audio of the movie in full.  For two or three months after that, I played the tapes in the cassette player in my car whenever I was driving somewhere, and before I knew it, I started driving a lot more than usual, which was a little odd, because I can’t stand driving.  When I came to the short-streeted business districts of the dun-brown small towns that are all over the place out here, I’d roll down my driver’s-side window and turn up the volume until the speakers were fully ablast.  Eventually my life resumed its usual patternings, and I’d come home after work and listen to my talk-radio shows all night long, but then in 1995 the movie Leaving Las Vegas came out, and I’d read about it in the local paper and it sounded like a movie with plenty of utility, so early one evening after work I drove straight to the cineplex and watched it.  It sopped up a lot of me.  I felt absolutely imbibed. I went back the next night and then the night after that.  I let a few nights pass and then went back again.  My handheld tape recorder had broken a few months before, and the replacement I’d bought was too bulky to sneak into a movie theater, so after the limited run of the movie came to an end, I was all on my own again, except for the music of the Smiths, which I had chanced upon, belatedly, a year or so before.  The only trouble with the Smiths was that their albums were short. Then a few years went by and the century was practically shot, and as the dawn of the new one was approaching, everyone was warning that everything was going to shut down, people were building underground shelters and loading up bunkers with packets full of dehydrated Salisbury-steak dinners, but I never got around to stockpiling anything.  I figured I’d take any apocalypse one day at a time.  New Year’s Day came and went, nothing changed, in the conversations I overheard at work nobody seemed disappointed other than about having to get rid of all that chalky food in all those envelopes, I fell in love with an impatient, deep-brooding beanstalk of a woman with a tempest of darkmost hair and a kennel-sized apartment in a city a couple of states over, and I rode overnight buses there for protracted weekends, I got dumped, for two seasons afterward I broadcast my heartache from dusk to dawn in one America Online chat room after another, and then one day I was idling through the pages of Time Out New York and alighted upon a full-page ad for a movie called Ghost World.  I’ve always been bored with anything having to do with ghosts (I have a soft spot for flying saucers, though), but the movie looked at least halfway valid. It was playing at a narrow theater on a long streetful of bookstalls and roasteries and sweet shops at the easternmost end of Pittsburgh, and I drove in for a Saturday matinee.  I sat all the way at the back, in a row only a few seats wide.  I believe I was the only person in there under the age of seventy.  The movie started out as a dumb teen comedy, then veered readily into the blindingly dangerous dreamways of two misfits a couple of generations apart  I felt that ample helpings of the two halves of myself — the smart-mouthed, bridges-burning teen girl and the geekish male loner sinking through middle age in pleated pants a little loose in the seat — had been scooped out and heaved bloodily onto the screen.  I could hear other people in the audience sobbing too. I drove back to the theater the Saturday after that and then the one after that, and then the Thursday night right before the reels would get packed up and sent off.  Months later, on August 6, 2002, the movie was released on VHS.  That was a Tuesday.  I drove to my apartment after work and led my hulking TV by the cord and out into the hallway, booted it down the stairs and out onto the parking lot, and then hefted it into the closer of the two Dumpsters.  I drove to Best Buy and bought a budget-priced TV-VCR combo of modest screen inchage and the Ghost World video. I watched the movie every night for weeks. That must have been when my relationship with movies started coming of age.  Now I could watch a movie on repeat, pause it, obsess over emotionally crucial moments. But not until a few years later (in the meantime I’d suddenly, improbably gotten married, and then the marriage just as suddenly, just as improbably fell through) would it one day finally dawn on me that the marathon walks I’d now been taking in Pittsburgh for a couple of decades were always the exact same walk, along the exact same route, with the exact same stops along the way, and that even though the city itself was underappreciatedly glorious (it always looked at once thrillingly fresh and lullingly predictable), it must have been the repetition itself that I found most essential and sustaining.  And it was the same way with the few movies I’d find myself inclining toward, like a plant struggling toward available light.  This was never more true than with Michelle Williams’s mutedly virtuosic performance of faltering grace in Wendy and Lucy, an eighty-minute lyrical tone poem of a movie I chanced upon toward the end of summer in 2009 and then watched almost every night, in states of increasingly trancelike devotion, for well over a year.  (I soon accumulated almost a dozen DVDs of the movie against the day that the discs will one after another inevitably degrade.)  The movie is moment by moment a complete grief-shot religion unto itself (example: from 40:58 to 43:54, Wendy’s gawkish, sad-eyed recital, to a distracted auto mechanic, of what she believes has gone wrong with the serpentine belt of her car condenses itself into a low-affect lamentation about everything that goes wrong with a life). A trinity of movies to which I also remain devout and return to with deepening constancy, as if to a shrine, are The Forest for the Trees (a low-budget German film, from 2003, about the unraveling of a self-bewildered twenty-seven-year-old woman who has uprooted herself to teach at a school in a different city); The Dreamlife of Angels (a French film, from 1998, about the brief, tumultuary friendship between two young women who meet at a sweatshop in Lille); and Blue Is the Warmest Color (another French film taking place in Lille, from 2013, remarkable for the most soul-harrowing breakup I’ve seen depicted in any medium). I guess I just eventually find my way toward the movies I most need, and then I stick by their side for life.’ 

Worsted by Garielle Lutz is available from SF/LD.

Read More »

JANICE LEE in conversation with VI KHI NAO

VI KHI NAO: I read the first half of your Imagine A Death during a flight into San Francisco. I am currently in Boulder—where I think the landscape ofthe high elevation may have altered my relationship with your work in the second half. Many of your sentences are long - like Bela Tarr long - and they require strong lung capacity to fully experience, inhale the depth and intensity of your gaze. 

Being near this mountain, I feel I could acclimate to your long, gorgeous, beautiful sentences that open one world into another world into another world. 

Has this long form (the long sentence) been a constant companion in your writing life—the one that you take long walks, long meandering with, the one whom you desire to stay faithful to or is it a decade obsession with an endpoint? 

JANICE LEE: First, I’m grateful for your use of the word “acclimate” here. In thinking about landscapes, which are really important to me, I’m really thinking about climate. And climate not just in terms of the weather, but in terms of everything that is and has been and will be, everything that constitutes the space and the world, everything that unites us. So for me, the sentences are an extension of that kind of immersion in the world, in the entanglement of space. There isn’t just a body in a space, this rigid category between background and foreground, or external and internal, but where does the climate end and the body begin? I’ve always loved slowness and long takes. Bela Tarr, yes. I read Pasolini’s essay “Observations on the Long Take” in college and it changed the way I watched films and saw the world. But the long sentence as a form for me. I haven’t always written this way, no. I’ve definitely had long sentences here and there, but for a while, I was drawn to fragments. Long sentences, like fragments, are still an extension of expressing what can’t be articulated or encompassed in traditional sentence structures. What I love about long sentences is the ability to get lost, and I think this is important. The opportunity to get lost once in a while.


VKN: Do you think pain—in the tradition of length—is a type of slowness? When I study your sentences—your long sentences—& I go through this metaexperience (this slow, extended moment) where at the beginning I am an innocent, possibly naive person, and by the end of your sentence, I feel I have lived five cat lives. I am old and senescent—maybe in the way you have depicted the senescence of the tomato—Do you think long sentences like a camera with the widest lens possible—in either film or photography—are more technically capable of capturing pain—psychological or physical—better? Or do you think the fragments are equally or even more capable of capturing?

JL: That’s such an interesting question! Maybe pain, rather than a type of slowness, is a type of presence. I think about how trauma reconstitutes and reasserts itself in the present constantly, and how the present moment might be tethered to a moment in the past, or, become capable of expanding outwards. I think too about the difference between pain and suffering, at least from a Buddhist point of view. How do we let the pain in, how do we let it manifest? How can we acknowledge pain but not allow ourselves to become attached to it? I think that long sentences do capture a wider lens, the roving camera, so to speak, but it’s about the meandering, the letting go of a defined and linear trajectory, the reminder that no matter the length and windiness of the path, one can still arrive home. The long sentence also can encompass changing vantage points, the multiplicity within a single gaze, or multiple gazes that can exist simultaneously. Any departure from the standard sentence, whether it’s moving into the territory of unending sentences, or fragmentation, I think is about reaching towards a kind of articulation that doesn’t yet exist.


VKN: Do you think trauma can operate in the antipodes—delay the presence? A little. Or a lot. When I read the way you captured “trauma” in your work—I felt like a car going through a car wash.  You are drawn to slowness and to length—n order to create and write Imagine A Death—did the interiority of your consciousness have to mimic your form? Or can you lead a fast and furious life and still produce work the opposite of your project’s vision?

JL: Ok, so I laughed out loud because The Fast and the Furious is one of my favorite film franchises. I’m interested in all the different kinds of inhabitation. I love being immersed, living in, sleeping in, dozing off in worlds like the films of Bela Tarr or Tsai Ming-Liang. I love to be reminded to slow down, to not treat time like a commodity. But I’m also a product of the ’90s and capitalism and action films and chaos cinema and I love the adrenaline rush that occurs inside the safety net of an action film like The Fast and the Furious where somehow, after all of the explosions, it’s still about family and returning home. But yes, trauma messes with time. It can delay, expand, protract, contract, blur, instigate. It’s a reminder that time isn’t linear or constant. I was thinking about what the long take does for me as a viewer, and how I experience the long sentences of Laszlo Krasznahorkai, but while writing, I also didn’t feel like I had a choice. It was as if the writing was almost channeled through me and poured out. The sentences didn’t want to end, couldn’t end, yet.


VKN: Yes, I read that in an interview of yours. Where Satantango and Fast and Furious co-exist in you—you quoted from Ufologist Jacques Vallee: “Mathematical theory often has to confront the fact that two contradictory theories can explain the same data. A solution is inevitably found not by choosing one of the contradictory theories, but by going to the next, third level.” Do you think Imagine A Death is your ontological or mathematical attempt at going to the third level? You were a pre-med major before pursuing biology and writing—had you continued in the medical life—do you think that Imagine A Death is a slow, frame by frame capture of you being a neurosurgeon placing trauma on the operating table, dissecting it second by second? Or is Imagine A Death a type of slow film or photograph in which you develop in the dark room of your imagination?

JL: In some ways Imagine a Death is a gesture of anti-colonialist sentimentality, in its narrative form and through the grammatical resistance of the long sentences, but it’s also about resisting colonial notions of the apocalypse and finality and redemption. This book felt like such a spiritual undertaking. In terms of the analogy with the medical life, Kerotakis and Daughter feel more like the neurosurgeon with a knife performing surgery. And Imagine a Death is more like the accidental but also utterly intentional slow film that was created because I left my camera on in my back pocket, or like those accidental iPhone pictures that capture more than you intend.


VKN: I mentioned pain in your work in relationship to the long sentences because of your compassionate, thorough, expansive consideration and contemplation in regards to apocalyptic suicide (your depiction of the suicidal pigeons) and apocalyptic rape (the pregnant goat that was gang-raped and eventually died). In your long sentences, you slowed down these moments—not just the moment where the writer was abused & revisiting that abuse (re-seeing a moment through a different, more acute lens, or replacing the camera/lens of that gaze with a broader, meta-lens,) and you process that grief (the loss of comprehension for inhumanity and brutality) for the readers. Do you think you can lend compassion to another who is lacking in compassion? Can writing/art/literature alter the empathic vernacular of a psychopath/an abusive person?

JL: Pain is a part of life, right, but how do we decide to exist in the world and in relation to other people despite or because of our pain? How do we desire to be free and imagine a kind of freedom beyond the causes and conditions of what currently bind us? The entanglement of grief and trauma and abuse and how our wounds shape our pasts and our futures—it’s all so complicated and difficult to look at, because it involves us having to look at the ways in which we have been complicit or complacent to or have perpetuated pain in the world, in response to the ways in which we have been harmed, or in the name of survival. Both of those incidents with the animals, and others in the book, I hated having to write them, but they are part of this world, and most importantly, they are part of us. When you ask about lending compassion to another, even if they’re lacking in compassion, I think the difficult answer is yes. We have to. We have to lend compassion to others (which, to clarify, isn’t the same as justification), and, we have to lend compassion for ourselves, which often is harder.

VKN: What are some of the challenges you face in writing a book of such a sophisticated caliber, Janice? And, were you able to resolve some of those challenges? Or are they life-long sorrows that you must revisit frequently by inducting a new birth/book into the world?

JL: Thanks for saying that, Vi. There are the constant challenges around articulation and the limitations of the structures in narrative and language. This book is especially important for me because it really does feel like it took a lifetime to write, the entirety of my being. I had to be open enough to be able to face all of my own demons in this way, and I had to write all of my other previous books to be able to understand myself in relation to language the way I do now. But it’s all ongoing. I feel very drained, but also relieved, after this book. It may be a while before I write another novel. There is some more breathing to do first.


VKN: What are some of your demons? 

JL: My own fears and expectations around success, my doubts and grievances around what it means to be a writer, my feelings of inadequacy and self-worth, my processing of childhood wounds and relationship to my parents, the abusive relationships I’ve been in and my own unconscious complicity in perpetuating toxicity or harm, my own struggles with depression and suicidal impulses.


VKN: What is your definition of success? Also, there are 46 chapters in your Imagine A Death—do you have a favorite chapter? One you return to frequently because it captured something you were unable to capture for so long? One of my favorite moments (Chapter 20) is about a framed photograph dropped in a dumpster “miraculously” finding itself re-hung again in the same spot on the wall. There was something very tender and meta about this moment. How often we discard things because we believe others don’t value them or care as much as we do—but we are often wrong. People do care. I often think about sentences you have written—ones which you may cut down or deleted completely—and how another person may find tremendous value in their existence. Are there sentences you have erased that you feel deep sorrow for? Which sentences of yours should we re-hang? Also, how long does it take for you to write one of those long sentences? Ten minutes? An hour? How does the passage of time operate in the production part of your writing? 

JL: I want to think of success, not as being about achievement or merit or legitimacy, but about desire and attempt and expression and existence. Rather than being tied to notions of good or bad, and rather than being seen in opposition to failure, why can’t success just be, not as a point of comparison or power over someone/something? Can’t failure be a kind of success? Can’t learning from a mistake be a kind of success? Can’t success be a gesture of reaching without turning into grasping, without becoming an attachment or way to measure us against each other?

I love that with the photograph moment as well, and it’s actually an example of a way that the novel started to influence the real world. That photograph is based on a real image (in real life, it’s a painting that my sister created when we were very young). She hates the painting but we had kept it because our mom loved it so much. The night after I wrote that scene in my manuscript, the actual painting fell off the wall and crashed onto the floor. It happened in the middle of the night; no one was around. We were all asleep and were awoken by the sound of breaking glass.

I don’t know if I have a favorite chapter in the book. Right now, I’m quite fond of “The Dream,” where everyone is burning alive, because it says something about death and intimacy for me.

I’ve deleted countless sentences, but I can’t remember them now. They will manifest again, I’m sure, in some other reincarnated form. 

In writing this book, some of the sentences came out very quickly, over maybe 20-30 minutes, and some took more time, hours, or several writing sessions. I only listened to Russian Circles while writing this book, so something about the tension and momentum of that music helped me with rhythm, and helped me keep going.


VKN: A lot of your work that has arrived in this world exists in the capacity of fiction, though you also have a book of essays, a poetry book, etc. You operate on so many different levels—aesthetical strata—from being a graphic designer, professor, editor—how do you desire others to view or is it even possible to categorize your Imagine A Death? Is it experimental documentarism? Autofiction dressed like a bouquet of suicidal pigeons? If such a thing were to exist, what is an ideal way to pigeonhole you?

JL: As I’ve learned to articulate better, especially after hearing/reading writers like Renee Gladman and Matthew Salesses, the category or genre as a construct is important in terms of the expectations it creates, or dismisses, subverts, haunts, resists. And I am operating within certain expectations, but I also want to draw attention to the inadequacy or limitations of those expectations. In that vein, I do very much think of this as a “novel,” but one that hopefully expands on what a novel is “supposed” to be or look like. I love “autofiction dressed like a bouquet of suicidal pigeons,” though I don’t think Amazon accepts that as a genre category


VKN: Also, what Korean film (to watch) and Korean dish—an appetizer perhaps or a gallimaufry of dishes—should be paired with your Imagine A Death? I love when wine is properly paired with food. And, I think of film as a type of wine.

JL: Oh my, such a difficult question because it’s so hard to choose. Okay. The Korean film would be Poetry directed by Lee Chang Dong.

And the Korean dish is one that I haven’t had yet before, but it’s appeared to me in my dreams and my ancestors are insisting that I need to eat it: Gwamaegi, which is a certain kind of dried fish.


VKN: Thank you for this beautiful pairing! I love dried fish and will have to try Gwamaegi when I re-read your book again with Poetry playing in the background. Many writers of Asian persuasion feel compelled to include Asian words or popular phrases or sentences or fragments or Asian language scripts in their work. Your Imagine A Death is mostly devoid of these ethnic gestures. I often feel that experimental writing allows one to be a devoted citizen of the weird, where experimentalism is a type of universal ethnicity. Do you feel at home in experimental writing? Where the textuality and materiality of the experience dominate the narrative mainframe of the literary?   

JL: Such a good question. So at least in this book, I didn’t want the identities of characters to be specified. So I avoid those kinds of identity markers. But in terms of thinking of experimental writing more broadly, my relationship to it has changed throughout my life. In my earlier work, especially after my MFA, I was very drawn to “experimental writing” as a space to resist conventional forms and the canon, as a site for resistance and transgression. This also coincided with my politics at the time, which was much more about disruption and dismantling. At this particular point though, I’m thinking about things a little bit differently. It’s not just about resisting the dominant paradigm, because this then just re-centers the dominant narrative over and over again. Instead, I want to think about this as another worldview that is equally valid, another way to see and be in the world. So how might stories and sentences not only resist formal conventions, but also work against the myth of resolution and redemption, open up our biases around narrative and plot and character? How are our beliefs and assumptions around narrative structures and language related to our fears and beliefs about the state or ongoing future of the world?


VKN: Intimacy & vulnerability seem to be compelling materials for your work. What is the most intimate thing you have experienced lately, and how has it changed you as a writer? 

JL: Okay, I was trying to think of something more sophisticated, but what’s popping into my head and is probably my most honest answer is doing psilocybin mushrooms with my boyfriend for the first time, when we literally melted into each other and became an amorphous blob. Doing mushrooms has also been a major portal for me, especially after the recent deaths of my dad and my dog Maggie, and has allowed me to speak with my ancestors and the dead, and the entire living world around me.

VKN: I am sorry to hear of your losses. Were you close to your dad? How han is your Imagine A Death? And, can you talk about your own visibility in the writing world? Outside of cinema and the camera lens, do you feel visible? If you have experienced a range of invisibility and now you are in the realm of visibility, what is an antidote to invisibility (in relation to politics and patriarchism?)

JL: Thank you so much, Vi. We were close in some ways, and so distant in others. He was living with me though, and he died at home in hospice. But the han, yes so much han, for sure. Probably in everything I write. There’s a point in the book where han is basically defined but not labeled as such. Also, your question about visibility is so important right, and so complex. As an Asian woman, how I’m perceived isn’t always up to me, but it affects how I’m seen, treated, valued, read. There is a kind of hyper-visibility or pre-judgment that erases much of who I really am, which isn’t as easy as just being invisible, and my own awareness or fears about how I’m perceived changes the way I operate in certain spaces. This is something I’m constantly struggling with, not being so attached to my identity or having to be seen in a certain way, letting go of aspects that I can’t control, and to try and just participate in more genuine encounters.


VKN: What is an example of a genuine encounter for you, Janice?

JL: Well, today I had a long and prolonged moment of eye contact with a squirrel who was eating the cucumbers in my garden.


VKN: That is so beautiful!  In two days, your book enters the world! How will you celebrate its birth? I don’t want to hurt your other books’ feelings, but is Imagine A Death—is it a favorite of yours?

JL: It’s definitely the book that feels like it required all of my other books to write. So maybe not “favorite,” but for me personally, it does feel like the most significant. On Wednesday, I hope to eat something delicious (I don’t know what yet), have some kind of small ceremony around gratitude, abundance, and letting go, and will probably walk to the 7-11 to buy some scratchers!


VKN: One of my favorite Korean idioms is this idiom:  눈코 없다 (nun-ko tteul seh eupt-da)—“I don’t have time to open my eyes and nose.” What don’t you have time for? And, do you have a favorite Korean mantra/phrase/axiom? If you were to invent a Korean idiom, what would you invent? Also, this is non-sequitur, but one of my favorite long sentences of yours is: “and also she had come to see the sentence itself as a colonialist structure, and thought that perhaps these long sentences might be something she could give the reader, something they didn’t need but would receive anyways, like a gift, like listening, or something like it, and even in all of that gesturing towards a productive contemplation that might finally lead away from the past, she wondered if it was too late for her, if in fact because of everything she had already done, everyone she had already hurt, was it perhaps too late for us all?”

JL: Ha! That is a good one! I love the curtness of that idiom, how relevant it is, but it also reminds me of how we don’t have time for each other, for ourselves. I want to have more time for everything, especially for opening my eyes and nose. A phrase that’s always fascinated me because of how ridiculous it sounds is 파이팅! (pronounced “Pa-i-ting!”) which is derived from the English word “Fighting!” It’s like a cheer or term to encourage people, and the strange grammatical incongruence is so funny to me. A new one I just learned about yesterday thanks to @fluentkorean’s Instagram is this: 방귀가 잦으면 똥이 나온다  / “If farting becomes frequent, then the need to poop is imminent.” 

Read More »

THE LAST INTERVIEW: Blake Middleton vs. The New Guy at XRAY

Blake Middleton is an actual person. A Floridian. An American. The co-worker of your bartender friend who you immediately like better than your bartender friend after just a few conversations. And a poet. The kind of poet who just wants everybody to feel less fucked. Writing concise, concrete lines that once piled together form a sort-of meditation, a smirking mantra of “Fuck You” in the face of an absurd world.

What follows is a conversation/battle of wits between he and I, revolving around his new book “An Actual Person in a Concrete Historical Situation”—out now from CLASH Books.


Part 1: The Weigh-In


Hey dude. Have you done any 

interviews for your book?

 Whaddup broJust did one w Zac but tryna do more 

Nice. Well, I’m now “The Executioner” at X-Ray 

(self-appointed title) and was thinking about interviewing you

 Oh yeah damn I saw that earlier, congrats manI’m down for whatever, would love to do one w youI’ll send u pdf 

Hell yeah

 Just sentIt’s a small boy 

Nice, I like the small boys. 

Just sent a message to Jenn

 Jenn rocks thank u man 

Yeah she does

You rock too. 

But also fuck you I was playing you this entire time

 Fuck u idiot 

This was a test. Interview is back on

 Good, looking forward to our interview 

Me too buddy.

Fuck you and your extended family

 Gonna respond to all your interview questionswith ‘fuck you’ 

I’ve already planned ahead for this. 

May the best man win

 Damn it appears I have poked the bear 

Interview devolves into goal-less competition, morphing finally

into a ten-part doc investigating the death of one or both of us

 One of us. You, to be specific 

I started this, and I’ll be finishing it as well

 (Thumbs down emoji) 

Part Two: The Interview


Alright, first question. When I read that excerpt of your book on Neutral Spaces, I told you it felt meditative. Not just the space between lines but the space between images/ideas. A lot of writing feels immediately congested to me, or like a scam, something “not real” hiding in those paragraphs. But your book moved quick. Each sentence had its own purpose. And that created a soothing effect on my brain. What’s up with that bruh?

BM: I’m glad it created a soothing effect. Everything feels kind of overwhelming right now, our attention spans are getting worse, and we’re constantly distracted. So the problem is, I want normal people to read my book, but normal people don’t really read books. They purchase books sometimes, but I don’t think they finish them that often. I wanted to write a book people would read. So I wanted to make something spacious and minimal. A book where each line can breathe and stand on its own. A little book that is sparse, direct, no bullshit.


I think the white space does a lot of work in helping the poem feel meditative. It kind of reflects real life, in that there are a lot of gaps and juxtapositions between thoughts and experiences. But ultimately it’s all tied together because the lines are coming from one person, experiencing the world from a singular point of view/moment in time. So the lines aren’t as disparate as they might seem. And hopefully they’re also tied together by tone.

I’ve read the book a few times now. And the first go around, I felt like I was reading the thoughts and observations and memories of a person living in the middle of the pandemic. Then for the second read through, it felt more ubiquitous, just a person coping with and thinking about being a person, and bouncing between many time periods. Was the “life during covid” vibe something you set out to do, at least at first anyway? 

BM: Went through a rough draft and i lie in the sun and laugh at my bank account was the only line written during the pandemic that I used in the final version, which seems fitting. I think I felt like the disconnect between lines written before and during the pandemic would have been too jarring; I didn’t want to write about two totally different worlds from two totally different headspaces in a poem that was already so far outside of how I was used to writing. Also I didn’t feel equipped to write about that time period while it was happening—I had no idea what the fuck was going on. Was also probably just more focused on securing groceries and booze and trying not to die. So it felt like a good endpoint. Before the pandemic I viewed ‘an actual person…’ as a poem that could essentially go on forever, but when the pandemic started that didn’t feel like the case. The poem is radically nonlinear but that’s mostly because the days felt interchangeable to me back then, and the pandemic definitely changed that. Jenna and I were drinking margaritas/wine nightly at the very start of Covid and I wasn’t writing at all. Pretty quickly I realized that I couldn’t be drunk for the entire pandemic and shifted what little focus I had toward editing the book. So I edited the book right when Covid hit through around July. It’s weird to think back to early 2020. Seems almost unreal to me now.

I had something similar where I was writing a longish thing during the pandemic. My girlfriend and I had just moved in to our first apartment together at the end of February. So while I was still asking the leasing office for a working fridge shelf, COVID hit. I thought that was a good/funny start. But I abandoned it once things got worse, seemed impossible to write about it. Anyway your book made me think of this, so I am asking if you think we’ll ever get a good Covid novel? 

BM: Yeah, probably. I don’t think I would want to read a Covid novel for a long time though. Would read a book that takes place during Covid for sure, but not one that is totally centered around it. Would have to be really good for me to want to think about that time period again. Does that make sense?

Perfect sense. I’m most interested in stories of people being people. And it depresses me when I see movies/books that are just about a marketable thing, and the main character is just a device, like morally superior, something the audience can project themselves onto. Which brings me to the thing you said about writing for normal people, even though normal people don’t really read books. Do you think that’s dying, with most readers (of indie books) also being writers? Or is it the same as it was ten years ago. Just putting something out all for the slim chance a depressed kid somewhere stumbles into it? 

BM: I feel you on that one. I think sometimes portrayals of life get so far away from what life is actually like, what it actually feels like to be a person just trying to navigate existence. I like books where I feel like the author just paid attention to their life and then wrote about it, instead of following some narrative template or whatever to try to appeal to some imaginary group of people so that they can make one million dollars. But instead of getting depressed thinking about things I don’t like, I just ignore them, and focus on the stuff I do like instead. 

I think, for me, it helps to take more of a long-view, to stay focused and keep writing regardless of what happens with it. Because even if nothing happens immediately, the books will still exist, maybe they will get noticed eventually and I will make a million dollars and quit my job. But I’m also okay with nothing happening (more likely). I write because I enjoy it. Writing enhances my life and my experience in the world. And if other people enjoy what I write, then that’s good. I haven’t had any real success, as far as book sales go. But writing has improved my life/made it more interesting in ways I couldn’t have even imagined when I was just starting out. I think it’s better just to focus on becoming a better writer as opposed to thinking too much about the unpredictable, uncontrollable things that could happen with the writing once it’s out in the world. 

Another thing that I love is getting offline and venturing out into the real world to travel and to do readings. I don’t really promote my stuff online much. I don’t think anyone is really paying attention. It feels much more normal, fulfilling, life-affirming to get out there and read in front of and talk with people. It feels more real, and it’s a lot more fun. I would rather some depressed kid come to a reading and get drunk and have fun as opposed to finding one of my books on the internet. Oh and also, fuck you.

Point—Middleton. Alright. What do you think about a lightning round now? Phase three. Higher stakes. Even more intimate.

BM: Hell yeah, let’s do it.


Phase Three: Lightning Round


What book do you pick up most, when you feel anxious or shitty?

BM: The Collected Works of Alberto Caeiro by Fernando Pessoa.

Jackie Chan or Arnie Schwarzenegger? And why?

BM: Jackie Chan. Out of all the movies they've been in I think I've only seen Rush Hour and Twins. So I don't have strong feelings about either. Feel like I would rather hang out with Jackie Chan. Seems more chill/isn't a politician. But I don’t know though. This was a bad question.

From what you’ve said about both your books, I get the impression you write and write and write and write, then cut away at huge chunks afterward. Am I correct in this assumption?

BM: For sure. I ended up cutting about 80% of the words from College Novel, and about the same for this one. I like having a lot to work with.

Do you have a favorite memory from your readings?

BM: The first couple times I did readings I didn’t enjoy them. Was nervous and my voice was shaky. The third time I felt comfortable and was even having fun, felt in the moment and good, was a little drunk and surrounded by friends. Afterwards we had a little dance party at my friend’s neighbor's house. Or maybe that was after another reading. Either way, I cherish that memory/both of those memories a lot. Was the start of something nice. People always say this, but it's good to do things that make you nervous.

If it doesn’t put you in any danger, could you talk a little about your alter-ego Dough Mahoney?

BM: Went over to a friend's apartment and was drinking out of a glass that had ‘Dough Mahoney’ written on it in sharpie. I asked him why his beer mug had ‘Dough Mahoney’ written on it and he said it was his pen name. I thought that was stupid and funny and used that bit in College Novel. One day I wanted to publish something on the internet under a different name and Dough Mahoney was the first one that came to mind. Felt kind of good. A little freeing. I started feeling like a Dough Mahoney. I ate some potato salad after the Dough Mahoney story came out, and eating potato felt like something a Dough Mahoney would do. I thought maybe I really am Dough Mahoney. I changed my twitter handle to Dough Mahoney. It felt right. So I legally changed my name to Dough Mahoney. I bought a little name plate for my desk that said Dough Mahoney because that was my name. I submitted An Actual Person... to Clash and they said they’d publish it. But Leza did not like the name Dough Mahoney. I changed my twitter name and legal name back to Blake Middleton, but kept the desk plate.

‘An actual person…’ has a calm rhythm to it even when describing the most absurd images. Is there an album you feel ‘pairs well’ with it—or did you listen to a certain type of music while writing it?


BM: I listen to a lot of Destroyer when trying to write. I don’t sit down at a computer anymore. I ride my bike or sit by the river or go for a walk. I need to be out moving through the world. I need to feel different than I normally do. I don't know how to describe the state I get in but when you're there you just know. I think on average I probably wrote one or two lines a day. But Dan Bejar can get me in that state sometimes. I like his song writing because it’s calm, detached, world-weary, deadpan, dream-like, not hysterical or overwrought. Eerily good. Like it shouldn’t exist on this earth.  Even when he’s singing about the apocalypse it’s beautiful. You can tell he has so much love for life and that he’s also completely horrified/disgusted by the world. There’s nothing better. “Sing the least poetic thing you can think of, and try to make it sound beautiful.” It feels pointless to write poetry while listening to Destroyer and I like that for some reason.

Love Destroyer. Nice. Very nice. So, what kind of vaping rig you working with?

BM: (demands we strike question from the record, citing: “you’re an idiot”) 

Fuck you.


Round Four: The Last Question


There are some philosophical lines in your book. life should reveal itself as an increasingly moving series of recognitions. But are followed with one-liners or blunt statements of confusion. i know that i know things, but it feels like i don’t know anything. Which for me, gives it this endless looping feeling of introspection. Were you inspired/influenced by any philosophers/big-brain thinkers? Or was there any specific reading experience that sparked the idea for this book?

BM: Reading $50,000 by Andrew Weatherhead definitely sparked it. I loved the tone of that poem. The space between lines. It’s really funny and direct in a way that most poetry isn’t. Then I read The Rejection of Closure, an essay by Lyn Hejinian, which I won’t go into here because I did that in the interview I did with Zac and ended up rambling way too much. The combination of those two back to back really jolted me away from linear narratives and I felt much more excited by nonlinear, fragmented, aphoristic, non sequitur type stuff. Right after reading those I started writing An Actual Person...without really even thinking about it. It just felt natural and good, which is rare for me, so I kept adding lines. 

As far as big-brain stuff goes, when I was like 22-25 I read a lot of Sartre, Heidegger, Schopenhauer, Nietzche. Sartre was the big one for me. I remember coming across his essay Existentialism is a Humanism in college, feeling failed by public education for never having been forced to read it, then getting into all his other books. Lol. I almost don’t even want to think about it because I almost went insane reading all of that shit. I read so much of it that I’m sure there’s some influence there, but I don’t think I can pin-point anything. I don’t know why I stuck with it for so long. I thought I would find something that would make sense of things I guess. But nothing ever really did that for me. Lately I’ve just been really into E.M. Cioran. He’s an extremely emotional and unintentionally funny philosopher. He writes in aphorisms which I always enjoy. Like, I think this kind of shit is hilarious: “In the days when I set off on month-long bicycle trips across France, my greatest pleasure was to stop in country cemeteries, to stretch out between two graves, and to smoke for hours on end. I think of those days as the most active period of my life.” I keep talking about this excerpt from The Trouble With Being Born by Cioran in all the interviews I’ve done for this book so far because I think it kind of changed how I viewed things, almost put me at ease or something: “We cannot elude existence by explanations, we can only endure it, love or hate it, adore or dread it…” It seems so obvious and I’m sure I’ve read similar iterations of that same sentiment, but it really hit me. I think after reading that I felt kind of freed from trying to get at anything, and my writing got more playful. There’s really nothing to say. Or I’m just comfortable not really saying anything. I’m happy to just paint a little picture of the world/reveal things about the world and being a person on it that I think are funny or confusing or exciting. I don’t care to sound smart or like I know what I’m talking about. But I can look at things and describe them, articulate how I’m feeling, write about stuff I think sucks and stuff I think is good and hopefully do it in a way that feels new and hopefully say some things that other people also think but haven’t articulated. I’m still figuring things out. Or maybe I’m realizing that there isn’t all too much to figure out. 

And that’s match, Middleton. Well done. Anything else you want to add?

I’ll be reading in NYC at KGB bar with GG Roland, Shy Watson, Graham Irvin, Peter BD, Theo Thimo, and Alex Otte on July 22 if anyone wants to come hang. Also doing a reading with GG and other Clash Books people at the NYC Poetry Fest on Governors Island July 25th if that sounds like fun to anyone. *gif of that Miami beach dude in joker face-paint waving an American flag around while standing on a cop car*

Read More »


Troy James Weaver is the author of Wichita StoriesVisionsMarigoldTemporal, and Selected Stories. His work often centers around young and vulnerable characters from rural areas struggling to fit into the world. He writes with an unparalleled rawness in quick, powerful bursts. A Troy James Weaver novel is quick and slim, but will change the way you think about writing and people both.In a blurb for Temporal, Scott McClanahan wrote, "[Troy] is our Witold Gombrowicz." For Marigold, Michael Bible wrote, "[he] is the poet-laureate of Midwestern absurdity with a heart a mile wide." Dennis Cooper wrote, as a blurb for Selected Stories, Troy's collection out with Apocalypse Party, "There is something weirdly perfect about Troy James Weaver's stories. Perfect because they are, down to their syllables. Weird because what they do feels so broken it hurts."These statements drew me to Troy's work years ago when I first began wading into the indie lit waters. Last fall, through a groupchat of writers named the $illyBoy$, I became close friends with the man himself. Troy is an amazing writer and an honest, loving person. I am lucky to know him through his words and kindness.
Visions, Troy's first novel, was reprinted by Apocalypse Party in March of this year. We recently got drunk over Zoom and talked about the book. Below is the transcript:

G: In that scene in Visions when the narrator is at the graveyard with Jessup, trying to contact the dead, Jessup says, “He died by suicide,” but it’s a one-year-old baby. That seems to nullify the idea of ghosts or spirituality or whatever, but it’s working on these different levels. It’s an incredibly spooky situation, it’s insanely haunted that they’re doing this, that this person is trying to push energies onto the other person, that they’re in the graveyard, that they’re drinking, the age difference in general. That Jessup is trying to convince the narrator of something and the narrator is aware, and critical, of Jessup’s attempts, but also wants Jessup to like him. The narrator is aware of what Jessup wants to convey with his attempt at tricking him about the Ouija board, and lets him believe he is successful. It is a scene with a lot of spiritual energy and spiritual vibes, but it ends with a slapstick image of a baby hanging itself. T: I’m glad you found that. No one has ever asked me about that part. They gloss over it. I think it’s the funniest part and also it kind of has the entire thesis of the book all in that moment. Power trying to grab power, or understand power, or manipulate power. It’s a book almost entirely about manipulation, or grooming. From all angles of life. That’s why the bible and masturbating are almost inextricably combined. They’re symbols of two different things, but also the same thing, but also completely the opposite. You can get pleasure from both, and great dissatisfaction. You can be controlled by it. G: Like asceticism. Punishing yourself because of inherent sin. The gold chain wrapped around the narrator’s penis is a really interesting thing because when that comes up in the book I think of Wise Blood, the dude with the shoes filled with glass, but it’s only in the first instance when you describe the gold chain digging into the skin that you use negative language. Afterward it becomes pleasure. It made me question the purpose of the image, because it seemed like asceticism at first, but it’s about finding pleasure in pain, how close they’re tied. T: Yea, there is a lot with that symbol of that chain, unintentionally. Mostly, I was going for what we were talking about: pain and then pleasure out of the pain. But then when I started thinking about it more after Visions was published, reviews pointed things out, or had ideas about the meaning behind the images, which is awesome. A lot of times I’m like, “I didn’t intend that, but I think it’s great that it’s there.” The chain was Marilyn’s mom’s gift to her and then her mom died in a car wreck. He finds spirituality in it, but it’s also a desecration of a sacred object from someone he loves. There’s a duality throughout the whole thing with, I think, all the characters. Like Jessup is this horrible dude, really horrible, and you sympathize with the narrator when he experiences the horribleness. But by the end Jessup is almost sorry about what he’s done. Each character arc kind of inverts and crosses others. The arcs are making an X throughout the whole story. The whole story almost negates itself because it’s about a horrible person who realizes how horrible he’s been, kind of, toward the end, and the main character going down and becoming drawn to evil behavior. I don’t think any of it’s evil. I think it’s these conditions that are set for people. They do evil things. Or they choose not to anymore. That was my goal. I’m kind of bummed it’s tagged as a book about a David Koresh-like childhood because he was part of my research but I think he was murdered unjustly and those people were too. Honestly. I think he had bad intent, but I think there’s a better way of going about handling that than burning down a compound with seventy people in it. I had a lot of thoughts on that. I wanted to build around that. But it’s all fiction. It’s not based on his life at all. That shit didn’t happen. I was leery of the tag. But whatever.  G: It’s a coming-of-age story. In those intersecting arcs, the narrator becomes less innocent and knows his power. And it ends with him wanting a break. He understands he has a power, but he isn’t ready to use it yet. So, it still ends in this moment of hope. It doesn’t seem like things are going to be going well for anybody. Marilyn is going to be killed or have her baby killed or be a single mother. She’s fucked. She’s got this relationship with her uncle. That’s fucked. It ends on this moment of conflicting hope, but it is hopeful because the narrator realizes his ability to control energies and he doesn’t jump into it yet. When I think about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, I don’t think about it ever in a hopeful way. That might be my problem with the tag. David Koresh as a name is such an end stop and this book is not an end stop. Leaving it where you ended it allows the reader to have hope or maybe rewrites the guy’s history. Things didn’t have to go that way. They could have gone differently. Just because someone has this ability doesn’t mean they’re going to use it for bad behavior. T: When I wrote it, I thought the visions were products of mental illness from being neglected and abused. That’s how I saw it. But when the narrator realizes his power is when he sees other people being neglected and abused and that’s where the power lies. Like, “this happens to all of us.” And he says, “I can do this too.” But he doesn’t understand. It’s not really a cycle of abuse story. That’s not what I mean. I was trying to comment on religion. I feel like there is good in religion, but at the time I wrote it I felt like when you’re taught this shit from birth you don’t have an option in what you believe. A lot of these people are trapped in religion. They can’t think outside of it because it’s what they’ve known since birth. So, if you did the same thing with abuse, the abused person would think it’s normal too. And accept it. Not to make it too simplistic or too general. I think certain people can love their nonfreedom. They can love being told what to do. And certain people have to break away from it, in whatever way that is. But some people accept religion and abuse as a part of their life because they don’t want to hurt the people they love. G: Related to cycles of abuse, maybe outside of the story, I had a thought. If you experience something when growing up, that becomes an option for experience. Even if it’s the most horrible thing in the world, it becomes an option for experience. So, to continue living you have to make an excuse for it. You had to have it happen, no matter how young you were, then continue onto the next moment until you got to a point where you were in a position to do it to someone else. You don’t think, “that person doesn’t have that experience, I shouldn’t give them that experience,” you just think, “that’s an option for an experience.” So, it’s easier to act that way because you might not have the empathy to know everyone is a blank slate and it’s best to not have that experience. The person, possibly, thinks the experience exists as an option. I experienced it, who’s to say it’s bad, I dealt with it, why can’t someone else?T: What I’m saying in the book is everything is a choice. And, at the end, I think you’re right. The reason why the last part is written in italics is because it doesn’t really happen. It’s hopeful because he walks out into the desert to contemplate everything that came before and sees this vision of the house on fire. I think he’s trying to fight it off. And I think he does do that at the end. I think you’re right. I think there is kind of a hope at the end. It’s also pretty fucked up. A lot of people were like, “This is a very uncomfortable, dark book.” I’ve never seen it as uncomfortable and dark, but that’s because I wrote it. It came from my mind. G: I don’t think it’s dark. I think there is hope and I think the narrator is a good person. T: Yea, I do too. That was the point, really. I think as it goes on, he gets ideas of control, but he also rejects it. Peggy tries to get him to preach and do his sermon and he says, “I’m not ready; I don’t want to do this.” G: He says, “I know this is my destiny, but at this moment I would like to not do it yet.” T: That was really important to be in there. I rewrote that last section the most. Everything else came pretty quick. At one point it was bad in the middle section. I rewrote that a couple times. Like where the narrator killed Ray. Then I took that out and rewrote it where Ray fell and hit something because he was drunk, and he was just dead. I thought that was really important because I didn’t want the character to seem like he was lashing out but, he was definitely fucked up. G: Covering up Ray’s death is an ethically grey area, but you build a world where he could be tied indefinitely to that moment, legally speaking, or he could be free from that moment. He alone could make that choice. He had the vision to see the two options. Even if Jessup wouldn’t have seen that, or no one else would have seen it, he—I think—understood that. I wanna get to a thought I had. I think it is difficult to talk about meaning and symbols in books. You go into it; you have your certain things, but they just give you the energy to continue the story. You don’t chart symbols and their meaning. Most people don’t write that way. Overall, what I take from the book, is this person is in a really fucked up place, but they’re able to find good in the world. I think the narrator and Marilyn are good. Their relationship is good. I think it’s beautiful that in such a small book the narrator calls her, “Mare.” Also, I think there is something about the narrator’s loyalty that is important. Even though Marilyn kind of loses interest in him and is drawn to Jessup. Almost by destiny. Jessup is going to be her destiny. Jessup is a fucked up dude and the narrator knows it and tells it to his face and still has the power to say, “I’m not going to give you what you need to feel better” but he doesn’t tell him to fuck off. T: It’s also how the narrator manipulated Jessup into moving the body. G: Oh yea, he knew he had done fucked up stuff. Maybe I’m a dumb ass for trying to find the good in this character. Hmm, why bring Jessup? I guess he has the car. You need the car. You see Jessup rape Marilyn and you still bring them together on this journey that is just for you. T: That is the complexity of my feelings about people. How you can love and understand them and know that they’ve done horrible things. And use that to understand yourself better. It’s complicated. I agree that there is good here. Not in the actions of the characters, but there’s hope, there’s delight in the darkness. It’s like the absence of light in some of those moments. And a voice comes through and gives them hope. I found it completely absurd, but understand it more now, when I asked Juliet Escoria and Brandon Hobson and Brian Allan Ellis to blurb it, they said it was beautiful. It kind of blew my mind. I was like, “Really?” Because it’s a fucked up and kind of strange and weird book. But really beyond religion and the abuse stuff, I was talking about a kid feeling how someone might feel in response to less dramatic things. Like when you’re bullied in school, or whatever. That feels way bigger in the moment than a couple years later. Those experiences stop mattering later. I was talking about bigger things, but those things are involved in the themes. It’s the only book I’ve ever written where I was really heavy on symbolism. I don’t know if it’s heavy, but it’s there. Like the fish, the Jesus symbol, and relating it to a cock molesting you. Trying to reconcile those two things. I don’t want to sound like I’m anti-religions. I’m not. My wife’s a Catholic school teacher. I don’t believe it myself, but I don’t discourage people from believing it. I have my own brain and it works a certain way and I grew up in a very oppressive religion. That’s probably where my aversion to being attached to a religion comes from, but mostly I want people to be happy. That’s really it. I don’t see my books as downers. I think they’re hopeful. There’s a lot of complexity in being human and I think a lot of people find that depressing. G: I think it would take a very cynical mind to say this book is a 100% negative view of religion. That would be a bitter, resentful, reading of this. I think as hard as this character’s life is, as dark as this book can be, a lot of hope does come from seeking something bigger. The bible is more of a representation of something larger than the self in the book. To go back to the graveyard scene, the Ouija board scene. That scene made me feel the way I feel when I have a shitty interaction. Even now, like when I text you about having to hang out with someone and it being bad. Later on, when I’m able to break down how they said something or did something shitty, I feel better. I can say, “it was weird they ate the pizza we ordered and didn’t offer to pay,” or “it was weird they made gin cocktails for themselves but didn’t offer Kaitlin or I any.” That moment in the graveyard in Visions feels like that. Because the narrator is thinking, “He’s trying to fucking trick me. He’s trying to do this to push a certain emotion on me, to make me endeared to his ideas. I’m immediately sensing it, and it doesn’t mean he’s evil, it just means that is how he is trying to endear me. I’m endeared to him for wanting to endear me, but I’m not tricked by the Ouija board.” I still want people to like me, I still want to be friends with these people even though bullshit happens. I’m not trying to compare my life to your book, I’m just saying that scene felt so real. T: I think those feelings in day-to-day life are what I write about. I just made it more fucked up in that book. But I don’t think it’s that fucked up to compare puberty and sexual awakening to coming up in religion. The character was interested in becoming religious because his dad was dead. He was just looking for something and what he found was a friend who basically molests him, convinces him to jerk him off because he says it’s in the bible, but the dude’s never read the bible. So, I compared the dick to the fish later on. I’m glad you picked up on the Mare pet name. A mare is a horse. It carries people. I thought that was a good choice of a nickname because the narrator is following her. At first, it seems like she’s following him, but it’s always been her dragging him. When they walk by Joe and his girlfriend perched in the tree like stooling owls, Marilyn says, “Do you think we’re like them?” Later they’re up in the tree doing the same thing. G: I think when Marilyn asks that, the narrator says, “No,” then later says, “Yea, probably.” We haven’t talked about Peggy at all. Peggy’s very interesting. T: Yea, I named her after the King of the Hill character. All the names are funny. Jessup’s named after the grip tape company. Ray is named after the book Ray by Barry Hannah. I kind of imagined him pre-narrator of Ray. But, he was kind of doing that same shit in Ray too. And Marilyn is named after Marilyn Monroe. That was an easy one. G: The mom is just Mom. She didn’t have a name. T: Yea, I didn’t give Mom a name. G: I think Peggy is great. She’s such an interesting character. She comes in late, but that works with the intersecting arcs of the story. T: At the start of the book, these horrible things happen to the main character, and you think it’s going to be this slope toward redemption, but what he starts doing, as a defense, is using the things he learned to help himself. In the opposite direction, Jessup, who had probably learned the same things, before you meet him in the book, is doing these horrible things. By the end of the book, he’s like, “I can’t bury a body.” He tells Marilyn to be proper in front of Peggy. He’s starting to gain a conscience. I don’t think the main character’s conscience is degrading over time, but where he was used and vulnerable at first, he’s not anymore. He’s learned from that shit. Sometimes it gets ugly, but he questions those things too. What’s interesting about Peggy is she’s the only person the kid had known who showed him love, but she’s abusing him too. He’s about it, though because she’s showing genuine care. He’s willing to accept it because there’s this element of actual belonging.G: She has more power than Marilyn. She might be offering something that looks like what Marilyn could offer, but she has more power. She understands that what she is offering means more, therefore it means more. Marilyn is just trying to fill a space for the narrator; Peggy knows what she’s giving him. T: What I realized happened is Peggy is giving him love. She’s still abusing him but she’s showing him love. So, there’s a divergence when they get to Peggy’s house because Marilyn’s drifting toward Jessup, who’s manipulating her, and the main character is drifting toward Peggy, who’s manipulating him. They’re both showing love in the ways the others couldn’t. At the very end, when Jessup leaves, that allows the main character to bring Marilyn into the fold. He invites her into Peggy’s bedroom. He shows them their family. G: That moment is so wild. It makes sense as a symbolic gesture, and it also makes sense for the narrator’s journey in learning how to bring people together. Also, it makes sense because he is an intensely loyal character and never gives up on anybody. Him recognizing that Marilyn and Jessup have a relationship and he’s not judging them. He’s not jealous. The moments they have together when he knows she’s pregnant and he knows it’s not his baby, it’s her uncle’s baby, are intense moments that make a lot of sense. I feel like you could pitch that scene in a way that is very slapstick. “There’s a threesome between a geriatric woman, a pregnant 13-year-old girl, and a 14-year-old boy. This book’s crazy. You have to check this shit out. It’s so cool!”T: The holy trinity, dude. G: Exactly. But it makes sense, and is a loving moment, while also being a moment of manipulation that shows he has an agency he hasn’t used before. T: I really wanted this fucked up ending where religion was intertwined with all of it. Marilyn trusts the narrator and he trusts Peggy because they’re the only people who have shown each other warmth and love. They’re the only ones who have cared for each other, but they also are fucked up and manipulate and abuse each other. That’s what I was going for with the ending. I wanted it to be three people and I wanted it to symbolize religion. Because it fucks people up. The amount of guilt people carry due to what they were taught when they were young is unbearable. I’ve witnessed too much of it. Nobody should be taught shame and guilt for doing next to nothing when they’re kids. You don’t teach morality; morality exists inherently in the world. All the friends I had who grew up with atheist parents, they were the most moral, forward-thinking, awesome people I’ve ever met. I can’t say that about atheists who became atheist when they were 30. They become moralistic and weird. When it becomes a doctrine that’s when I turn off. G: I think that’s why it’s such a hard thing to write about religion in a way that doesn’t paint it good or bad. There are obviously problems with religion, and it’s painted into this book, but it also seems like the bible for this character means a lot. It brings him pleasure in ways that is valuable. T: I didn’t want to condemn either side. That was the whole point. If you’re a human, you’re looking for something that gives you comfort whether it’s good for you or bad for you. Then you latch onto those things. I don’t think that’s bad. But, yea, It’s complicated for me. I know what I was thinking at the time, but I also don’t know exactly what it all means. G: When I first got your books, Visions and Marigold, but I read Visions and I thought you were doing something with fiction that I didn’t expect from a writer in the indie world. Then I read Marigold and even though I didn’t know you, I felt that Marigold came from a lived experience. And Wichita Stories is very lived, real experience. Visions seems, to me, a tone poem for the stuff that you’re interested in. It is autobiographical in another way. The way you lean toward symbols, the way you lean toward ideas in philosophy. There’s obviously philosophy in Wichita Stories but it feels like a collection of things you would talk about when you talk about where you’re from, whereas Visions is about your ideas on moods, tones, religion, good vs. bad. T: I think they’re complimentary. Wichita Stories is the surface stories, the emotion, and Visions is the brain component. I was filtering the traumas in my own life through other people. Visions is 100% fiction, at least I hope so for anyone in this world, but that’s how my brain was processing how I was writing about my own life in another book, because I was writing them at the same time. I think I even used the same line about my little friend with the rattail getting fucked up in a trailer park. G: The dirty shredded ribbon. T: I used that line in both books. It wasn’t because I was cannibalizing the writing, I was just writing both books at the same time. I do that in all my books. I look back on Visions and Marigold and everything and think I could have fixed certain parts, but I stand behind the work. They’re not all perfect sentences, but I think I’m getting better at that. Some of the best shit I think I’ve written is in Selected Stories that Ben DeVos put out. I think I come at the same things from different angles. Or try to. Sometimes I’m super annoyed with myself because I’m rewriting the same thing I wrote and published six years ago, but it’s different. G: I think that you write about similar things is good. Especially because I know you as a friend. The writing is information about your mind, a complex and interesting mind, capable of telling these different stories, and I am extremely privileged and happy to have read these things and know you and everything. T: Thank you, dude. G: I love you, man. T: Love you too, brother. 

Find Visions by Troy James Weaver here.

Read More »

DYLAN KRIEGER in conversation with VI KHI NAO

VI KHI NAO: Your bios over the years read like a poem: “Dylan Krieger is a transistor radio, a poet, a performer, a repository of high hopes from hell, a pile of false eyelashes growing algae in South Louisiana, an automatic meaning generator writing the apocalypse in real time, a divining rod of ungodly proportions.” Where and when in your life are you not a poet?DYLAN KRIEGER: Over the course of my life, poetry has slowly permeated more and more of my speech, my encounters, my rituals. There are fewer and fewer places where I am not a poet, places poetry doesn’t touch. I increasingly communicate in poems to the people closest to me. I used to think editing required a different mindset than writing, but I’m not so sure now. My inner editor is pretty wild sometimes, and I often make myself write when I’m not feeling particularly “inspired,” so my experience doesn’t always fit the stereotype of cautious editor vs. reckless inspiration. It’s difficult to draw a hard line. I have trouble telling poetry, “No, you can’t access this part of me.” I have very few boundaries with poetry.VKN: Why is that? Why do you have few boundaries?DK: I feel that, if I were to give poetry a hard boundary, I might be limiting myself as an artist. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t topics I just find dull or unappealing to write about, but when it comes to exposing my life to poetry (and vice versa) in new wayswhen it feels scary, like exposureI find it helps me grow creatively and try new things I otherwise wouldn’t have.VKN: What is dull and unappealing to you?DK: I usually find descriptions of physical places boring, though they’re so obligatory in novels. I also find cliches boring, but I often try to work with them anyway, to change them slightly and make them new.VKN: What is your favorite cliché? Or bad pick up lines?DK: It’s hard to pick just one, but I think my favorites are the ones we accept as normal in the day-to-day, but when we look more closely, they’re so much stranger than we realized. When I wrote my first book, Giving Godhead (Delete, 2017), I was obsessed with challenging Christian cliches I found disturbing but also sort of kinky, like being “used” by God, asking him to “come into” you, etc. I wanted to play up the creep factor by taking them out of the touchy-feely sermon setting and altering the spelling of words like “come” so I could showcase these phrases as I’ve come to know them: an extremely suspect tool of psychological “seduction.”VKN: So would you say that making them new—clichés that is—say a full pitcher of water sits next to an empty glass of water and turns its nose and says to the glass, “where have you been all my life?”—Is that how you make them new? Or do you have something else in mind? When you say “make them new”?DK: In Soft-Focus Slaughterhouse, for example, there’s this jokey title, “what doesn’t kill you...will eventually.” It’s sort of a deflation of the hopeful cliche a reader might anticipate from hearing the original phrase before. And it usually gets a laugh at readings, but it’s also very sad, almost defeatist. I think Soft-Focus rides that line between comedy and tragedy, perhaps a little more vulnerably than my other books.VKN: In your Kenyon Review interview, you declared that The Mother Wart is “by far the most autobiographical book” you’ve ever released. Is Soft-Focus Slaughterhouse now the most autobiographical? Why is it more vulnerable?DK: The Mother Wart and Soft-Focus do both have deeply personal (autobiographical) themes. In The Mother Wart, I went “edgy” by sharing those personal experiences through the framing of the controversial Church of Euthanasia. But with Soft-Focus, I felt so internally exposed that my primary concern was avoiding a tone of solipsistic wallowing in self-pity about chronic pain. I wanted to pay attention to relationships, not only because the interpersonal challenges of being in pain all the time can be heartbreaking, but also because staying by someone’s side and honoring their needs is often all we can do for their suffering. Pain is naturally isolating, so I strive not to forget “those who take care.” VKN: A lot of your titles from this collection exist as two word combos: “nymphone home,” “blushing biopsies,” “basal burn,” “dylan downer,” “meat/maker,” “dentist’s diagnosis,” “sisyphean surgery,” “tension tending.” Did you also want the words not to feel isolated? To see their “coupling” through? Was it done intentionally—like a gym buddy, but for words and language? Do words help each other through the pain of existence?DK: I really like that interpretation; I find two-word or longer titles’ dynamism and capacity for “play” more interesting than one-word titles. On the other hand, I heard a writer once point out that if a title is longer than two words, it’s usually reduced or shortened to two words in common speech. I’ve found that to be true with my own book titles, so two words is a sweet spot. But lately I’ve been experimenting with really rambling, long lines you wouldn’t expect to see as a title. I get restless and can’t help but mix and match the loneliest words to see what they do to each other in close quarters.VKN: Could you give us an example of such rambling?DK: I just revisited one such poem called “autopsy reveals lasting marriages mostly composed of sharp metal in a theoretical vacuum.” The longer form opens up possibilities for parodying news headlines and other kinds of writing, but also for setting the tone for the rest of the poem. It’s a bolder kind of trumpeting for what’s to come than most titles, which I like. VKN: I accidentally misread your poem’s title as “autopsy reveals lasting marriages mostly composed of sharp objects in a thoracic vacuum.”DK: I think that also works! It could almost be a prompt: “Write what you think lasting marriages are composed of.” Anyone could give it a try. VKN: Going back to The Mother Wart, that book is about taking deliberate steps not to give birth. But with six books released into the world within three or four years, you are chronically gravid with books and language. To reference Russo and the de-motherhood in its repulsion and attraction, when you give birth to books, do those philosophical and political impulses also enact such binary for you? Or is it different?DK: I imagine physical birth as a culmination of anticipated intimacy, but sometimes releasing a book doesn’t feel that way (and I assume physically giving birth sometimes doesn’t either). I often feel very distanced from the poems in a book by the time it comes out, like looking at old pictures, a different version of myself, with all the varying degrees of affection and embarrassment. So the binary of repulsion and attraction is there, but there’s a sense of remoteness from the original environment and from the feelings that originally gave rise to the work. VKN: Which child is your favorite of your five children (if you had to be a partial mother)? DK: I’m a fickle mother. My youngest is always my favorite. I’m constantly trying to overcome that layer of distance (from writing to publication) by unleashing new work into the world while I’m still saturated in it. I think that’s why I send poems to my closest friends now, sometimes right after writing them. VKN: Is that what you are currently working on? Or are you referring to Soft-Focus?DK: Of my first five books, Metamortuary would be my favorite. But I think Soft-Focus is more focused (ha), and it has less of that “old photo” distance, since I wrote it more recently. The title of Soft-Focus, like the poem you mentioned (“blushing biopsies”), is something of an oxymoron, or at least an unexpected pairingone element being pretty and dreamy and the other being brutal. I’m very excited about this book, but I am even more excited about my works in progress, which is encouraging—hopefully I’m still improving. VKN: Is that the child that is divided into four parts?DK: Yes, Metamortuary and The Mother Wart are each divided into four parts. I wrote them back when I was neatly outlining manuscripts before starting them. I would write all the titles before writing a single poem, almost like a list of prompts that I could return to if I ever got stuck. It really helped me at the time, but I’ve used that strategy less and less since writing Soft-Focus.VKN: Why are you using that strategy less and less? Speaking of pairing, since your work is both mythological and biblical, which two biblical figures do you think should date each other? And why?DK: Hmm, wow. I love this question. I’m gonna go real satanic and say Eve and the snake should date. Adam seems boring. Adam gets friend zoned. VKN: He is boring? What is your definition of boring? And, why Eve and the snake? Aren’t they already dating?DK: I thought their relationship was never official like that, but maybe that’s open to interpretation. I just think Satan gets a bad rap in the Bible and I’d like to see him get laid in paradise. Sounds like a good plot twist.VKN: What is sexual pleasure for a snake? Giving Godhead is pleasure for god, but what is the equivalent for a snake? DK: I think that’s what is so enthralling about religious texts. God is sort of this amorphous cloud of power, but he also appears as a man. There are angels that are just wheels of eyes, and then angels that look like men. Sometimes Satan is a snake, but maybe he’d be an angel of light in bed. One can dream. Ha. VKN: Of course. Your work does not shy away from sex, from the profane, from the grotesque, from the sacred. What is sacred for you, Dylan? Something that has not been tarnished by fundamentalist Christianity?DK: For a long timewhen I wrote Giving Godhead, for exampleI would have said I didn’t hold anything sacred. And I still believe it’s good for our sanity to question what we hold sacred and whether it’s actually helping us or anyone else. But now, I can look back and say that a lot of my anger toward religion was rooted in the fact that it wasn’t holding the same things sacred as I do. It treated relationships and even people as expendable, if they didn’t believe or conform to its behavioral standards. So, now I’ll admit it: I do hold non-hierarchical, mutually respectful, intimate bonds sacred, and I think major religions often undermine those relationships to uphold their hierarchies. VKN: When I read up on you for this interview, I found a Dylan Krieger who plays men’s basketball as a forward.DK: Did you see the Quarter Life stuff? It’s this short-lived TV show where the main character was a writer named Dylan Krieger. I never saw it, but reading about it made me feel...watched.VKN: I haven’t seen it, but I am glad you are the main character in Quarter Life, that your name could live elsewhere. I think poets who write poetry and play basketball can be an exciting, contagious theme (Natalie Diaz). Are you athletic at all? Do you play any sports? I have never met you in person before, but based on your poetry and your poetry readings, I think you would make an excellent hockey player! Puck and punk!  DK: I don’t think anyone in my life would assume I was athletic, but I actually did love to play softball and soccer as a kid. I had fewer opportunities to play organized sports because I was home-schooled, but I had a pretty steady “backyard baseball” ritual with my dadat least until I got old enough to pick his brain about philosophy and music history instead. If I had been raised even 50 miles north of South Bend, I would have been in Michiganclose enough to Canada that hockey probably would have been a part of my childhood.VKN: Your work deals with the mother theme a lot, and your father theme might be God, but have you thought about devoting an entire collection to the father theme? What is your relationship with your father like? Based on some of the interviews I read, I was under the impression that your parents don’t read your work. Would you ever write a collection just for them, with your parents being your ideal readers?DK: I actually started writing a novel last year that I wound up abandoning for a poetry project once the pandemic hit. So far, the novel is basically a mix of auto-fiction and speculative fiction, and my dad and I are the main characters. Since it’s prose, I think there’s a better chance he’d read it and enjoy it. In many ways, I’m thankful that they usually don’t read my poetry, because it gives me more room to talk about my childhood without it feeling like a confrontation or personal attack. VKN: I can understand thatthe desire for freedom and anonymity from parents. Why did you abandon the project? Is the novel form too verbose? If your work had to be censored, which institution or structure would you desire that censorship from?DK: My problem with the novel form is the planning it requires, paired with my limited attention span. Poems are usually the perfect length and intensity to grab and hold my attention. It’s difficult to sustain that intensity for an entire novel, and I’m not sure if you’d want to, but I always end up sounding like a poet anyway, even when I write prose. When it comes to censorship, we actually tried to get some negative press for The Mother Wart by emailing major televangelists, warning them that the book was pro-abortion satanist trash that they should condemn on their programs. We were aiming for getting that “(no such thing as) bad press.” I wouldn’t mind being censored or condemned by the/a church. But I’m just one little poet, and they’re age-old institutions, so I don’t think I am considered a threat. 🙂VKN: I am sorry you haven’t been censored properly! It would have been an amazing publicity stunt. You have been published by a variety of presses (never one twice). How do you find homes for your work? And how did you find 11:11 for Soft-Focus?DK: It’s really been different every time. With some of my presses, I had gotten an introduction and an invitation to submit. With others, like Delete and 11:11, it was pretty much a cold submission. But with 11:11, I do remember Andrew reaching out to me over social media with very heartfelt condolences when one of my friends died, and I remember thinking, “This press seems like good people.” They also make impressively detail-oriented, visually striking art. But the “good people” part is more and more important to me these days. I want to work with people I trust who also share my vision.VKN: Andrew is very lovely and awesome, isn’t he? I love his intensity. Why is the “good people” part more and more important to you these days?DK: It only takes one bad experience with publishing to make you think of it differently. When I was younger, I was so desperate to get my work out there, I truly would have signed a contract with anyone. It’s good to become more selective than thatto really think about what you want to say and how you want your work to look and exist in the world. Finding a press you can trust is so instrumental to that process, because it’s a collaborationand a far more involved one than just passing a notebook back and forth. I rely on other creative people so much to bring my poems to life, and I try to stay very aware of how much trust is involved in that kind of collaboration.VKN: That is wise, Dylan. I really love the cover and table of contents in Soft-Focus Slaughterhouse. (I wish more tables of contents were this exciting!) I know Mike Corrao, 11:11’s in-house designer, designed the book. Can you talk about the design component of it, and is there a favorite poem of yours from this collection? One that you return to again and again for comfort or peace of mind or momentum of creativity? DK: Thank you about the design! I love what Mike did, tooespecially with the table of contents. The overall medical theme was his creation, but I selected the jaw bone as the cover image, since that’s the nexus of my pain condition, and I thought it was a haunting image all by itself like that, centered and enshrined. As far as a favorite poem goes, I like returning to “love is wanting to die together” and “spectrum sensitive.” They’re both poems with a glimmer of hope, whether that hope resides in finding the ultimate romance or simply feeling sensory pleasure so intense it might balance out the pain. I’m glad this kind of nuance made it into the book, alongside and in contrast to the sense of defeat pain brings. VKN: So, for the readersif they were to chew on something while reading your jaw book, what should they eat? I get the impression that you love breakfast/diner food, but what would be a good meal to go along with your book? As they are consuming your work that deals with chronic pain, what is something they could chronically consume as well—to be in conversation with you and your poetry?DK: Maybe this is too literal an interpretation, but I’ve gotten a lot of responses to the poems like, “Wow, I have TMJ, too,” so if you’re one of those people, go with a softer breakfast food like shrimp and grits. I think bruxism and TMJ symptoms are more common than we realize; I just happen to have a very bad case. My official diagnosis is “anterior jaw dislocation with reduction.” I can actually swing my jaw out of joint, and I have nerve damage in my scalp and extremities that makes touch unpleasant sometimes, but I luckily don’t have limited mobility (yet). The condition can be aggravated by tough foods like crusty breads, though, so stay away from thoseif you share these issues, that is.VKN: Do you edit your work heavily, Dylan? DK: I self-edit pretty heavily, but I don’t have a trusty sidekick editor like some of my writer friends have. Maybe that’s a level of trust I haven’t reached yet.VKN: Would you like one? If there is someone from history that you could always have access to, editing-wise, whom would you choose? DK: If we’re going for a dead poet, I might say Mina Loy. She would give me the weird word, the unexpected word. It would lift me out of predictability—that’s how I imagine the power of her influence. VKN: You can accidentally write limericks or metered poems. Are their other accidental talents of yours we should know about?DK: It’s true; I think I have an almost compulsive proclivity for ending poems in song. Even if they’re not otherwise in meter, something tells me to end that way. I’m not sure if my other talents are as unconscious/accidental, but I did grow up singing, harmonizing, and sight-reading music a lot. As a friend once said, a “musical demon” lives inside me and comes out in my poems to make music out of words. VKN: Do you think it’s a result of being home-schooled and raised by musical parents?DK: Yes, I’m sure I would have still loved music even if my life had been different, but the way it turned out, music became a sort of bonding ritual. Sometimes we fought over it (I was always too loud and my sister was always flat, according to my mom) but music made intuitive sense to me, more than math or science or history or even language at that point. Making language into music eventually seemed like the natural evolution of that intuition. VKN: I want to end this interview by asking about this poem: “love is wanting to die together.” Where and when did you write it? Where were you in life? What provoked it? And, what do you think about love poems? Should we all become “proverbial flowers” to be pressed by two pages of a book? I love how its opening“eyelash to eyelash”evokes intimacy before “unembarrassed” reverberates it.DK: I was actually extremely single when I wrote this book—which might be surprising, given the number of love poems in it. Chronic pain is one of many particular predicaments that can make us feel “hard to love,” so the prospect of deep personal or romantic intimacy is related to my self-perception as a “spoonie.” In the context of chronic pain or illness, love might look more like a physical therapy session than like an epic romantic adventure. I’ve always thought choosing a partner is kind of like choosing a family memberit’s that day-to-day, mundane level of closenessand there’s something so bittersweet about the notion that the best possible ending is dying together. Love poems might seem overdone historically, but it’s just one of those topics, like death, like sickness, like pain. It never goes out of style, because it still haunts us.
Read More »


Joshua Dalton’s debut collection I Hate You, Please Read Me (House of Vlad Press, Feb 2021) can also be read as a novel in fragments: It uses tweets, direct messages, flash-length stories, and a much-anticipated closing screenplay to communicate a pitiful, media-saturated existence. 

While never explicit, it seems clear that the stories and interactions all exist in dare-we-say anti-hero Marshall Crawford’s world in varying degrees of intimacy, to paint a character portrait of self-pity, self-awareness, and self-abuse. Even stories about other characters appear as representations of his own self-image, merely presented from an angle, using TV tropes and dripping with other symptoms of a media-poisoned lifetime. After all, this book is highly informed by internet culture, with its periodic collections of tweet-like fragments that simulate the very experience of consuming online content. Read a few articles, scroll through your Twitter feed, send a few messages, repeat.

The book’s fragments also work to simulate borderline personality disorder, a highly misunderstood condition marked by unstable relationships and the rapid cycling of extreme emotions. Dalton identifies himself as a “borderline writer” in his author’s bio, and Marshall refers to the disorder both directly and indirectly throughout the book. He experiences the higher senses of grandeur and extreme worthiness (in his lack of care for those around him, as well as his implied self-comparison to Batman) as well as the degrading and self-abasing lows that come from his unstable relationships and inability to create meaning from anything in his life. It is a circular problem, as his attitude informs his life, and the poor conditions that this creates informs his attitude. A difficult cycle to break.

Dalton treats his readers as Marshall treats those around him: We are simultaneously invited into Marshall’s existence and then pushed out just as quickly. Sometimes we are kept at arm's length, with surreal shorts such as “Regression” and “The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Trauma,” both appearing in succession early on in the book. Other times, we are dragged down into the mud of these emotions, asked to stand witness to Marshall’s most intimate moments, both including the small admissions that he knows what he has done wrong and the equally off-putting depiction of anal douching before a “date,” in full explicit detail. It should not surprise you by now that making himself vulnerable in the latter form seems easier for him than the former.

In “Regression,” we see immediately that our protagonist is not interested in painting an empathetic portrait of himself. He is visiting a therapist who is visibly ill, and not mildly; he blows his nose at one point to find blood in the tissue. Many would become alarmed at this sight, but the narrator of this story does not break from his self-absorption to ask about it.

Yuck, I thought. But I pressed on,” is how he responds to this moment, continuing on a diatribe about how difficult and unpleasant communicating with others is for him.

“The Apple” reads more like a nightmare, as it’s even further disconnected from any kind of reality (either ours or Marshall’s), painting the world as an almost comically horrifying place of despair and hopelessness. Through his bleak and tragic depiction of child suicide, which only keeps occurring at younger and younger ages, followed by more and more sudden births to replace them, one can understand the futility and nihilism Marshall feels, ironically more intimately than when Marshall tells us himself. 

But more realistic depictions of Marshall’s life are also mediated through indirect communication: In the opening story “Showrunner,” we are immediately introduced to the notion that he views his life as a film or television show, a motif that repeats throughout the book. His character Max Collins is a thinly veiled version of himself, and the longest story of the book is the final screenplay that shows him stalking an ex, stealing from his mother to pay for a male prostitute, and using his homosexuality as a deflection away from the more despicable act of transgression: the theft, which he would actually have to take responsibility for, unlike his queerness which could reasonably be chalked up to “I was born that way, Mom.”

But it’s not enough to depict these events alone. Dalton/Marshall, through his screenwriting direction, wants us to know that he is aware of the nuance here. He knows what is really wrong with the situation, he just can’t help himself. Or so he wants us to believe.

It’s this kind of emotional spiraling that can make borderline personality disorder so devastating to experience, either personally or in a loved one. Dalton replicates the experience with empathy and ultimately, a kind of frankness that will ring true to anyone who has experienced such swells of complicated emotions.  I Hate You, Please Read Me shows a deep understanding of how humans communicate their emotions (or utterly fail to), and most importantly, how self-awareness is not the same thing as self-acceptance.

Find I Hate You, Please Read Me here.

Read More »


The first time I met poet and writer Shy Watson was after a reading in Brooklyn I’d organized in the summer of 2019. I’d heard of Shy for years, admiring what seemed to me to be a prolific amount of published work; within three years she had published dozens of poems, reviews, interviews, four chapbooks and a poetry collection. She was somehow involved in all the independent presses and magazines I admired: Metatron, Wonder, Bottlecap Press, Ghost City Press, Peach Mag, and Hobart as well as running and editing her own press: Blush Lit. And her work was deserving of attention. It’s present, it’s wanting, it has a quality about it like a compelling detachment, it shows the reader a world enfolding like a tour guide, a world morally ambiguous with sudden bursts of love, romance, nostalgia, and violence. A world fully her own. It’s hard to take your eyes away.

I’ve been lucky enough since then to come in and out of New York, to hear Shy read and share her work, to share dinner and wine together with mutual friends. And isn’t that a big reason we publish poetry? To share work and have fun with other poets? To talk with other poets? So when I heard Shy’s new book Horror Vacui (House of Vlad) was coming out I was eager to read it, to talk to her about her work. Horror Vacui is written in three parts. The first section, the longest, is made up of the Horror Vacui poems. The second, Waking Dreams, is a series of prose poems in which the world shifts and turns without warning. The third, Quarantine Diaries, is a down-to-earth accounting of personal daily events in New York within six weeks near the beginning of quarantine. Through the entire book is a desire for experience, a deep dive into the inner world, and an attempt to catalog a world outside the self that refuses understanding.

Below is the interview we conducted a few days before Christmas, 2020, as Shy got home from taking a COVID test. 


Brad Casey: Hey! How are you? Where are you right now?

Shy Watson: I'm good! I'm back in Brooklyn but begrudgingly going to Missouri tomorrow (hence COVID test).

BC: How did the COVID test go? And how has Brooklyn been feeling?

SW: The COVID test was fine. I got it done at one of the walk-in clinics here in Brooklyn. People here either go to ModernMD or CityMD, and the two are across the street from one another which creates a kind of rival business effect, like Pat's vs Gino's. The line took three hours, but they brought out hand warmers. They said they'd call within an hour if the test was positive, so it looks like I'm in the clear. Usually, they email results regardless of what they are within 15 minutes but they said the computers are down. Brooklyn has been good, all things considered. I've basically just been spending time with my new boyfriend and working on novel edits! I'm very fortunate to live with roommates who I love during this time.

BC: So I loved reading Horror Vacui. I'm wondering what were the conditions under which you wrote it. When and where did you write it? Was it all in Brooklyn? Was it all written this year?

SW: It was mostly in Brooklyn, yes. But the first twenty poems or so were written between Cheap Yellow's publication (February 2018) and one year ago. The majority of it was written in the past year, though. A few of them were written in Mexico, where I stayed for a month to work on a draft of my novel manuscript last January. 

BC: I wonder if you find a difference in tone between the poems written in those spaces? Like what was written in Brooklyn before / after the pandemic started and also the poems from Mexico.

SW: I think so! I mean, I like the newer ones better, but it always goes like that for me. The end is a lot more prose-heavy, with the Waking Dreams & Quarantine Diaries, which was influenced by the fiction workshops I have been taking during the past year. 

BC: Why did you decide to structure the book this way? With the Horror Vacui poems to start, followed by the (if you'd describe them this way) prose poems from Waking Dreams and then ending with the Quarantine Diaries? They all shared a tonal similarity I enjoyed, it made sense, but I'm wondering about that decision on your part.

SW: I feel like the poems serve as kind of appetizers for the prose. Like, they're short and fun and kind of ease the reader in. Or maybe I did it simply out of habit because the prose in Cheap Yellow was in the back. I wondered if I should try to lure people in with the best stuff first, but instead, I kept it pretty chronological.

BC: Oh interesting! Because the whole thing is strong but I felt really pulled in by the poems. Like for me, the poems felt like the main feature of the book. I especially felt pulled in by the desire for experience that was being communicated through them. It didn't matter what kind of experience the speaker was going for, there was just a desire for anything, anything exciting to happen good or bad. You know what I mean?

SW: Yeah definitely! Wow, how cruel of me to release it during quarantine... Horror Vacui: The FOMO Book.

BC: Not at all! I think that want for experience is so strong right now, it's great to see it reflected. Like these lines stuck out to me: “thinking about how if i / threw my fist into a Picasso painting / something exciting would happen.” I think we all want to throw our fist through a Picasso painting right now. 

SW: Haha, truuuue. Especially after this new COVID relief deal.

BC: Do you find liberation in experience? And do you find yourself gravitating toward experience regardless of whether you think it will end well or badly? 

SW: Yes! And, I do. I was actually talking about this with a friend the other day, how I don't mind bad (though not traumatic) experiences, so long as they're interesting. Sometimes bad experiences end up being really funny later, or they teach you something about people or your relative place in society. But good experiences are always nice, too! Honestly, I want it all. 

BC: I feel similarly. And I think for me that comes in part from growing up in a small town very far away from any city then moving to a city as an adult. Which, you live in New York but grew up in Rogersville, Missouri and I looked it up and it's even smaller than my hometown. Do you think there's a connection there? Between experiencing a city as an adult who grew up in a small town, how you're more open to experience because it's still relatively fresh?

SW: That's an interesting theory! I remember my first time in New York, being on the subway and a Mariachi band got on board in full costume, the whole shebang, and everyone on the train was just staring at the ground or scrolling through their phones while I was giggling, taking pictures, and giving them money. Maybe there is something to the rural upbringing to urban living pipeline. My high school boyfriend calls me "the goth Kimmy Schmidt." 

BC: I guess this touches on something else I wanted to ask you about: I feel like the speaker of the poems is more concerned with contextualizing the outside world within rather than projecting an inside world out. Especially with the lines, “i made a point to look / at the leaves by your gate / and to remember them / exactly as they were / and not as I hoped / they would be” There’s no pretension of projecting feelings onto the situation but the other way around, taking what is outside and making it into feelings inside. 

SW: I think that's a goal of mine. I have a tendency to romanticize people, especially romantic partners, to idealize them and put them on pedestals. I think that poem in particular speaks a little to my awareness of that tendency, though. Like, it acknowledges the desire to romanticize me being dumped for the first time while in Brooklyn, sitting on a stoop, but the reality is that the leaves were ugly and kind of haphazardly stuffed in the chainlink. It was gross. And being dumped was gross. And the idiot I briefly dated was gross. Sometimes things aren't beautiful, which is a hard reality for me to accept, but I'm working to get there.

BC: One thing that popped up a couple times in the poems that, each time, had a definite feeling of inarguable beauty and romance was LA, like it felt like a fantasy ideal. What is it about LA that appeals to you to write about it in this way?

SW: I knew a boy at the time who wanted to move to LA, and his fantasy of it is very interesting to me. Though none of these poems are about Ben Fama, just look to his book, Fantasy, which has almost everything to do with LA! It's a phenomenon! And I love LA. My favorite place in the world is Jumbo's Clown Room. The backyards are loaded with fruit-bearing trees, and everyone looks like a movie star. Pomegranates just straight-up grow there! And the beach! And I love driving. Here I am now, just like that boy, going off about LA. 

BC: I hear you! The little amount of time I spent there, everything was like spiritually warmer and bigger? And I kind of liked the superficiality of it. But I wanted to ask you about the violence in the poems as well. One of the blurbs for the book is by Eileen Myles who calls your poems, among other things, “a little violent.” I really liked the lines “i wear happily / my little bruises / like joyous moths,” especially in relation to the little violence of your work, how it’s not always destructive. In fact, it often feels liberating. How do you approach commonly perceived negative emotions like anger and violence and how it relates to your writing and your life?

SW: I've been reading Bataille lately, so it's hard for me not to think of violence as a thrill because of transgression, or its approach toward the edge. But I think that, in terms of my poems, the violence is directed inward. I tend to be self-destructive, which I do find liberating. It's like, "Fuck it, today sucks, I'm going to smoke a cigarette and order a dozen cookies from Insomnia." When I feel angry, I want to listen to angry music, not anything that will cheer me up. For me, it feels good to fully revel in whatever feelings I have, even if they are angry or violent. In a way it's anti-combative to give into "negative" emotions, rather than to fight or control them. It's a kind of emotional submission. If I'm feeling something dark, I feel entitled to it and I'm going to let it course through me until it's done.

BC: That said, when I read “Doomsday” (a tamale / turned fragile / in the cruel passage / of time) I wondered: Are you getting softer with age? Are you the tamale?

SW: You caught me! I think I am in ways. After my mom gave birth to me, my dad started crying to insurance commercials. I think I'm going through something similar. It takes a lot to make me angry. And for the first time in my life, I'm considering marriage.

BC: Whoa! That's a big step! What does marriage look like when you consider it?

SW: It looks... nice. Quarantine has caused me to get comfortable with a quieter lifestyle. I honestly love being in a secure, healthy relationship and I never want it to end. I just keep listening to 90's indie rock and daydreaming about moving to a small town for an MFA program. I loved partying in New York, but COVID's got me appreciating and desiring stability in a way that I never have before. 

BC: I've been seeing that a lot, people in relationships that might have become vague in time are all moving in together and getting married. I think it's a big part of what we're going through.

SW: Maybe it's my Saturn return.

BC: On that note: I want to talk a bit about the Quarantine Diaries. It feels like making art in quarantine is extremely difficult because we still don't know how to contextualize this experience. You do a good job of it in the diary format here because the diary format, I think, doesn't necessitate making context of anything but the events of day. How do you feel about this section of the book? Is it a good representation of the month and a half in which you write? How do you feel about making art during the pandemic generally?

SW: I love the Quarantine Diaries because they speak to noticing beauty in the quotidian, which is all we really have right now. It was a good representation of that month and a half! I remembered what seemed important, and that's what I included. I feel like the pandemic is different for everyone creatively. Though I am not doing well financially, I have a lot of free time and a lot of emotional support from my roommates, my boyfriend, and my friends. I'm not immunocompromised or at risk of losing housing. Some people are though! Some people have kids who they have to get through online schooling. I don't know how they're doing it. But for me, I've been able to be productive. There's been ample time to work on creative projects, and there isn't much else for me to do if I'm staying inside.

BC: I heard someone say recently that they're not surprised that government has been so cruel and neglectful and monstrous! as they've been through this but to actually be here living through it, to see that monstrousness, it's amazingly fucked to experience it. Do you feel your work is political? You have one poem that overtly alludes to politics in "There is No Ethical Relationship Under Capitalism (after RRW)" but how do you feel your political beliefs play into your writing?

SW: I'm careful about politics because I don't want to speak to experiences that aren't my own. But as second-wave feminists would say: The personal is political. I can talk about my own conflicts with authority and the way that political structures impact my life, but I am scared to ever speculate about someone else's experiences or to write about them as if they're my own. I'd rather just listen and think through the roles that I play.

BC: These lines stuck out to me, regarding quarantine: “it’s a cold world that’s warming / where people stay inside / & confront their ghosts.” Has this been your experience in quarantine? Do you think, for those of us who are able to walk out relatively unscathed by COVID, this time will have a positive effect on us?

SW: Yes. I've learned a lot about myself, and have grown in many ways. I would of course prefer a world where millions of people weren't dying from a horrible disease, but I hope that those of us who are able to come out on the other side stronger do.

Read More »


Simon Han, an Asian-American writer whose critically acclaimed debut novel, Nights When Nothing Happened, comes out on November 17th, took the time to speak to me about growing up as an immigrant in Plano—a suburb of Dallas, Texas—the racism of the American Dream, his craft decisions, and more. 


Taylor Hickney: To me this novel is about loneliness, families, the immigrant experience in America and the racism that goes along with it, the facades of the suburbs, and more. Where did the kernel of this story come from? How long did it take you to nurture it until it became what it is today?

Simon Han: Loneliness definitely sparked the novel. I had an image in my head of this child in a crowded room, somehow still alone. From that idea came the characters, the setting, etc. I started it in 2014, so, from beginning to end, it took about six years. I grew a lot during that time and am a different person than I was. I used to think about the characters in a more simplistic or nostalgic way; feeling constrained by the limited fiction that was out there, I didn't think about all the possibilities available to fiction about a Chinese immigrant family. 


Taylor Hickney: Do you think you learned through writing it, as well? 

Simon Han: Absolutely. When I write, I poke at the situation and ask, "Why are they doing this?" Why are Liang and Jack not talking to each other as much as, say, Jack and Annabel? Where are the cracks and fissures in the family? Through this process, I was able to deepen the characters, find more of their history as well as create more contradictions among them. It's actually through the drafting that I found the story getting messier, which, I think, was a good sign.

Taylor Hickney: What balance were you trying to strike between mystery and literary fiction?

Simon Han:  I’m interested in building tension and in creating this unsettling atmosphere, but not so much in, say, delivering answers to a mystery. If anything, I want to create more mystery, more questions; and I think that may be a little uncomfortable for some readers, which I understand. If I finish reading a book and feel like it's just solved everything for me, then I stop thinking about it; but I wanted this book to linger. At first, I withheld too much information for the sake of building suspense to drop bombs on the reader, but there was something very artificial about that. In later drafts, I learned to trust the story could stand on its own.


Taylor Hickney: What did you do to make sure all of your POVs felt inhabited, especially with the children?

Simon Han: To me, it’s important to be specific about them, to not make the child a stand in for any child, but to give them their unique fears and longings. 


Taylor Hickney: How much of Nights was based in your real feelings about Plano, and why do you think it has a particular reputation of insincerity and materialism?

Simon Han: For me, it was about leaning into those contradictions. For example, the suburbs in general exist in the popular imagination as these white picket fence places, but like any one who has spent time in Plano, I know that’s not what it looks like. There's a huge immigrant population, and I didn’t realize as a kid how unique that is, how many stories are there. It's got its unique darknesses, too. There's a collective amnesia that happens. My theory: this is a city that's exploding in population every year, so all these newcomers are changing the narrative and history of the city in good ways, but also in ways can overlook what came before. I'm really interested in what makes Plano a specific place. That's why it was important to me to ultimately set it there, rather than make up any suburb that could be a stand-in for all suburbs. The reality is that like no suburb is truly alike. 


Taylor Hickney: In my experience, the West Plano community was the most materialistic, most racist, and the wealthiest; but that is not what Plano represents. Through a job, I met a very diverse group of kids, who went to different district high schools, and learned how limited that one view of Plano is. 

Simon Han: That diversity is complicated to me, too, because of the limitations. Yes, there are, for example, a lot of Asian-Americans in Plano, but many Asian-Americans of a certain socio-economic status. I'm always interested in who's being left behind in these kinds of narratives that hold the most weight in the popular imagination.

Taylor Hickney: Part of what makes this novel special is that it is about the immigrant story. Did you long for Tianjin when you were Jack’s age? 

Simon Han: I think that’s something a lot of immigrants go through, especially children, because it’s when they’re figuring out who they are. I forget my parents had lives before me, you know? They were probably very different people when they were in their 20s, and I think that the family in the novel are sort of coming to terms with the fact that at the end of the day they can't completely know one another, that that's a condition of life.

Taylor Hickney: In what ways do you think the American Dream is harmful and/or racist? Was this in your mind while writing?

Simon Han: It's like a trap. Many people have to have, whether they believe in it or not, some kind of relationship to the American Dream, because that’s the national consciousness. Someone like Liang, the father in the novel, can't locate himself in that idealist story. What happens then? He’s caught in a trap of feeling inferior, comparing himself to others who seem to have figured it out. It’s all tied to racist and toxic capitalist thinking.


Taylor Hickney: How do you view writing as a form of protest?

Simon Han: There's a lot of power in a lot of different kinds of writing. With fiction, I'm trying to protest and be political in a way that's not direct but comes through immersion, through sitting with complicated feelings. 

Read More »

“FIND THE PATTERNS”: A Review of Chloe N. Clark’s Collective Gravities by James McAdams

To lift one particularly apposite description of a character in “Like the Desert Dark,” Chloe N. Clark “likes thinking about 'ifs.’” Collective Gravities, her third collection (The Science of Unvanishing Objects, Finishing Line Press; Your Strange Fortune, Vegetarian Alcoholic Press), posits a world replete with paranormality. Like a symphony, these stories repeatedly touch upon the same subjects, explored, revealed, and experienced from a diverse variety of narrative perspectives. We can represent the frequency and range of this symphonic collection numerically.                    

Subjects (admittedly subjective):

# Stories these subjects occur in:

astronauts/paranormal investigation


undiagnosed illness/epidemics


near-death/no-death phenomena


mental illness




magic/card tricks


jumping off bridges




ecological disaster


The horrors of online dating

1 (!)


There’s something oddly soothing about this thematic accretion. As you read further into the collection, you continually confront these motifs, creating a limpid “repetition with a difference” feeling. It’s subtle, but it works. It’s like wading into a pool, stepping slowly, freezing at first, and then once you're immersed in it, the swimming is captivating and you forget for a second what it was like to be back on the shore, dry.

For example, the collection is bookended by two pieces about astronauts convening at a memorial for a deceased member of their operation team (“Balancing Beams,” and “Between the Axis and the Stars,” respectively). Both memorials stress the significance of remembering and storytelling as a way to deal with death. The second story foregoes an actual traditional memorial, instead placing the characters in a room with the grieving Mom of their friend, where they simply tell stories about the deceased. “Between the Axis and the Stars” (and the collection as a whole) ends here, in a country field in Iowa:

“After, I walked outside to find Peter. He was sitting in the grass, staring up at the night sky.

'We don’t have stars like this in Boston.'

I sat down beside him, laughing. 'You’ve literally been to the stars, why do you need to see them from so far away?'

'I can see them all at once like this. Find the patterns.'”

My two favorite stories, both concerning the power of referentless words, are quiet pieces of flash, published initially in Noble/Glass Quarterly and Bartleby Snopes (R.I.P.!!). In “This is the Color of Your Eyes in the Dark,” the narrator, informed of the sudden death of a girl she was briefly friends with in middle school, remembers:

“When we went to Mindy’s house, we always took long walks in the trees behind her house instead of going inside. She’d tell me the names of each tree. Not like the scientific names, but the names she’d given them. I asked her why she named them and she answered me, as if it was the silliest question in the world, ‘don’t you like to say the names of your friends’? Her favorite was a pine that had been struck by lightning. An arc of scarring went down one side of it. She would put her hand against the mark and just hold it there, eyes closed, as if she was trying to heal it.” 

Meanwhile, in “Topographical Cartography,” a woman’s boyfriend begins to suffer from a vague, ill-defined disease (see above) whose symptoms are the appearance of an X-axis along his back, and then the appearance along the axis of “words and symbols. Under each dash: ‘sugar,’ ‘Oak,’ ‘fine,’ a picture of an eclipse, more and more words without context.” Then, after he dies, the narrator awakens to find a similar pattern of words and symbols on her back, only this time as a Y-axis. This is a numinous description of love. I mean if I know anything about love from watching TV: one person’s X fitting into another person’s Y.

Paranormality probably isn’t a good description of Collective Gravities, since it sounds like X-Files fanfiction. Magical realism doesn’t work, because the stories here are too realistic, too detailed (in a good way); neither does surrealism work, since the plots and narratives are tightly controlled and cogent. If we wanted to coin a term for the “slanted truth” nature of this collection, that term could be pulled from the collection’s first story. The narrator describes a painting hanging on the wall. “The colors were slightly off,” she writes, “leaves a blue-green and bark a red-brown that wouldn’t exist in nature.” The characters discuss what’s wrong with the painter, suggesting she’s color blind among other things. Ultimately, they determine the word for it, and for Collective Gravities, is “Almreal...almost real, not quite, not surreal.”

Furthermore, it works organically, meaning it doesn’t feel like marketing agenda or strategic little phrased inserted in pre-publication to make the collection seem “whole” or “novel-like,” like those collections marketed as “inter-linked short stories” with the same character(s) or place. Those are mostly bullshit excuses to make something look like a novel.

Possibly Irrelevant Addendum I Couldn’t Fit Into the Review: Two cool facts I learned while researching Chloe Clark and word west press. 1) Chloe, part of the editorial triumvirate of Cotton Xenomorph with Tea and Hanna, has designed a class on the literature of space. Enrollment is open, check it out here. 2) word west press, in recognition of Chloe’s affection for space, actually bought her a star. That’s awesome. Great work Chloe and word west press!

Pick up a copy of Chloe Clark's Collective Gravities here!



Read More »


James McAdamss Ambushing the Void is released this month by Frayed Edge Press. I caught up with him for a chat about his book, his writing process, and his inspirations.

JV: Ambushing the Void is a collection of stories drawn together by themes such as relationships, loss, and nostalgia, and told through truly memorable characters. Professor Pankova and Teo are two of many that will stay with me. Did you draw from real life counterparts for these and other characters?

JM: Its pretty easy for me to look at a person, or read/hear about a person on a podcast or Tweet, and then imagine them into some weird scenario combined with my experience of the world. I guess thats true for all writers. Teo, however, I have no idea where he came from. I think I had the idea to write about this immigrant character from the 1980s, but I do think some of his determining characteristics (being a young baseball player) was probably taken from a documentary of Yankees players from the Hispanic world, maybe? Professor Pankova is modeled after a Russian literature professor from the Czech Republic I had at the University of Pittsburgh. I was fascinated by how enthusiastic she was to share her heritage with the students (cooking for us, showing us pictures of her hometown, dressing in weird post-Soviet almost-gypsy garb) combined with the utter indifference of most of the class, who were busy sleeping or texting or laughing behind her back. It was sad I guess, everythings sad, but it seemed like something more. I think adding to her character a sense or recognition that her students didnt care makes the character work. I hope this is the case. Other characters: Joe the Plumber (My Friend Joe) is based on the Joe the Plumbercharacter from some of the idiotic Sarah Palin rallies in 2008 and beyond. The most literal kidnapping of a public person for my purposes comes in Somewhere in FL, an Angel Appeared,which Ill get to.

JV: The use of technology is a recurring theme in these stories. How do you feel about modern relationships’ reliance on technology, and is there a wistfulness for a time when social media and the Internet weren’t integral to our lives?

JM: Im 40, I think around the same age as you. I feel like I straddle the world of my students, who are like, Why wouldnt our entire lives be mediated?, and the world of, say, my older siblings in their later 40s/50s, who really dont care about this. So Im in between and have both thoughts in my head all the time: I hate this but Im on it 3 hrs a day. Ultimately, Ill just be old and say 1) there are dopamine functions that the software and hardware and application developers are manipulating and exploiting and there will probably a class-action lawsuit in a decade or so, just like what happened to Pharma and Big Banking;  2) the old Pascal quote, viz. something like the most important skill for a human being is to be alone in a room: I cant do this anymore. Can you? I need to be Mr. Promotion Machine on social media for the next few months but Im pretty sure Ill be off everything by the end of 2020. I would like to go off the grid and hike to Alaska or something but I have literally zero abilities to take care of myself without things like microwaves and YouTube recipes and WikiHow instructions off-the-grid for me unfortunately.

JV: Drug use and addiction are peppered throughout the collection; what inspires you to explore them through your writing?

JM: Quick answer, which is true: Im writing a novel set in a rehab so a lot of the later stories in here (Delray,” “Red Tide,” “Somewhere in FL…”) are from that. Longer answer, which Im not sure is true: I think drug addiction is another side of love. So I think you can have love (for a person, or a higher ideal maybe) or love for a drug, or even a phone or app (as I said above), or whatever pings your dopamine. And as youve noticed theres like zero romantic love in this collection, because love is boring to write about IMO, so to fill that vacuum I went with drug addiction, which is just another, less culturally-sanctioned, form of love. Im not sure this is true as a sociological insight. Do you buy any of it?

JV: It makes sense, having read your book! Talking of, tell us a little about the inspiration behind the story, "Somewhere in Florida, An Angel Appeared." It’s a beautiful piece, quietly moving, and one that leaves an impression, possibly asking more questions than it answers…

JM: Im happy to! The piece was initially dedicated to Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, but we removed it because I have a big heart and was dedicating every piece to thousands of people until it annoyed my poor editor, despite her patience...Anyway, Amanda has one of the more famous TED Talks called The Art of Asking,which she later expanded into a book. It pretty much explains the rationale for the move around 2005-2010 to artists just giving away their work for free online as a reaction to piracy. Anyway, she tells a story about touring with the Dresden Dolls in her 20s and crashing on fanscouches. In one story, she talks about her band (so we imagine a bunch of loud young brash punks) staying over at a small little hut in a Hispanic enclave in Florida. In the morning, she recounts being woken up by the Colombian grandmother and some other elders, who, while teaching her how to make authentic breakfast burritos (or whatever), thank her repeatedly for saving the life of their little girl who loves her music so much. Its around the 3/4th part of the video, I highly recommend it.

JV: What attracts you to the form of short and flash fiction?

JM: The earlier works in this collection average 4,000 words, the more recent fewer than 1,000, which is the consensus cap for flash fiction. While this wasnt a formal decision I made, it makes sense for a number of reasons, some practical, some neurotic: My attention span, because of THE OBVIOUS, doesnt work anymore. I base my TV shows on those I can watch with 33% of my brain, so I can read with 33% of my brain and listen to music with 33% of my brain. Online, I dont read anything longer than 2,000 words. I am not proud of this, but I cant be alone. Even most podcasts nowadays are moving towards 15-minutes

I think Rick Moody wrote this once, but the cool think about flash is that you can do any weird experiment and if it doesnt work, then who cares. For example, I just published a piece about a M2F Trans worker who creates fake profiles on online dating profiles in the form of a Reddit AMA. I wouldnt build a 300-page on this foundation, but for a 500-word micro its okay if it sucks. Small achievements, weekly. Its sort of a psychological trick, but Im writing a novel now cut into discrete, 500-1,000 word chapters. This way, at the end of each week, I have chapters done, chapters I can publish, that make it easier to concentrate on writing a novel for 3 years.

JV: Who influences your work as a writer?

JM: This will seem crazy after what I just wrote about flash, but I love the big old Russian-Soviet books: Gogol, Tolstoy, Goncharov, Dostoevsky, Bely, Nabokov, well as the poets like Akhmatova, Mayavosky, Tsvetaeva. James Agees Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has been my muse for the past two years; His A Death in the Family is pretty good too. Also, Karl Ove Knausgårds My Struggle trilogy is an amazing experiment about opening your brain 100% to readers.

Its sort of like what Howard Stern does on the radio since 1980 in terms of pure confessional mindfulness that makes even the most banal quotidian events (10% of My Struggle is Karl feeding his little kids) seem numinous and holy. As for more contemporary authors, DFW (I realize I just lost 40% of sales because people will think Im a DFW-fanboyno footnotes in this collection, I promise), Lydia Millet, Colson Whitehead (he of the repeat Pulitzers), George Saunders, J.M. Coetzee, Denis Johnson, Samuel Delany, Kathy Acker, William Vollmann, now Im just looking at bookcasesand thinking, I need more non-white males,so lets stop here.

Except to say: Im lucky to be Flash Fiction editor at Barren Magazine, so I get to read real-time Indie authors like Marisa Crane, Chelsea Laine Wells, and Cathy Ulrich, who you probably know about it. Wish more people did!

JV: Cathy Ulrich is a hero of mine! Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you allocate time to your writing every day? How much of your writing time is rewriting and editing?

JM: Im horribly lazy and have no self-discipline about the writing grind. Most of this collection was written between 2-5 a.m. when I couldnt sleep and wasnt watching The Sopranos reruns for the 25th time. I tend to write super fast and dont revise all that well. I will say, 99% of my editing goes into dialogue. I slash and slash and slash at dialogue until I find something that sounds true but unique. I have a rule where if I can tell what the next line is (Hello, how are you, Sally?/“Im fine, Reginald, how about you?), then it gets deleted automatically. I stole a lot of dialogue techniques from William Gaddis and Don DeLillo. As an editor, if I dont buy the dialogue thats something I really have trouble getting over.

JV: Finally, what are you working on now? Has the lockdown has afforded you time to write much more than usual?

JM: I’m writing a novel-in-flash about The Florida Shuffle Rehab facilities have sprouted everywhere, many of them nefarious, profiting from insurance scams and general duplicity, referred to as “The Florida Shuffle.” "Delray” and “Red Tide” from the collection are in this.

"Ambushing the Void explores the margins of 21st century America, with characters confronting new worlds, new technologies, and new social structures while attempting to retain their identities & worldviews. These quirky, off-beat stories (with a tinge of the weird and disturbing) are thought-provoking takes on the post-modern search for meaning."
Read More »