Jennifer Givhan

Jennifer Givhan, a Mexican-American poet and novelist, has earned an NEA and a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellowship. Her books include Landscape with Headless Mama (2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize), Protection Spell (2016 Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series), Girl with Death Mask (2017 Blue Light Books Prize), Rosa’s Einstein (2019 Camino Del Sol Poetry Series), and two novels, Trinity Sight and Jubilee (Blackstone Publishing). Her honors include the Frost Place Latinx Scholarship, a National Latinx Writers’ Conference Scholarship, the Lascaux Review Poetry Prize, Phoebe Journal’s Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, The Pinch Poetry Prize, the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize 2nd place, and fifteen Pushcart nominations. Her work has appeared in Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Ploughshares, POETRY, TriQuarterly, Boston Review, AGNI, Crazyhorse, Witness, Southern Humanities Review, Missouri Review, and The Kenyon Review. She lives near the Sleeping Sister volcanoes in New Mexico with her family, and can be found discussing feminist motherhood at jennifergivhan.com, Facebook, & Twitter @JennGivhan.  We recently sat down with her to discuss her writing habits:

 

 Is there a topic that you would like to write more about, or that you would like to see be written about more?  Why are you interested in said topic?

More than anything, I often need to give myself permission to (re)write my obsessions, those topics I’ve already written again & again—like Emily Dickinson’s flood subject of death, my own deep wells, what Tony Hoagland calls our “mythic wounds”—those topics that haunt us, dig deep, & won’t let us go. So I find myself writing poem after poem & book after book of mothering through depression, for instance, but I need to remind myself that the topic hasn’t let me go because I haven’t yet written & lived my way completely through; there are still tunnels to navigate & while I’m deep in the trenches, surviving it, I need to respect my Muse’s need to write it.

 

 In your mind, what sets a really good poem apart from the rest? Are there a number of factors, or is it more of an indiscernible quality?

A gut-punching poem for me weaves together a few important ingredients, the most potent of which for me are when the following five jibe: 1. Voice (whoever speaks does so compellingly, makes me want to pull up a chair, & listen); 2. Surprise (take me somewhere strange, unexpected, show me how poetic logic leaps & launches & maybe never looks back); 3. Sound (sing it strong, carry me away on rhythm); 4. Specificity (image, image, image—worldbuilding & sense, grow me a place I don’t want to leave); & 5. Symbol (wed that image to some deeper meaning, the poem’s raison d'être, the speaker’s heart truth, & you’ve hooked me 4-eva).

 

For you, how important is it to read contemporary and/or canonical poetry?

I grew up reading all the cis white dead dudes & since I have a poet’s heart beating in my chest, yes, yes, I loved them anyway. But dang I would’ve loved to know women of color like me were writing & publishing & powerful wielders of magic too. Now, I primarily read contemporary women & especially woc because I’m making up for a whole systematic education of lost (misappropriated) time & I’m teaching my children what possibilities exist for them. Plus, #SupportWomenWriters

 

How do you balance writing time with your “day job,” family responsibilities, etc.?

Oh, there’s no balancing. It’s all juggling all the time in this three-ring circus. Shortest answer, I have very little social life. #MamaWriter

 

What advice would you give to writers submitting entries to the Pinch contest?

So often we’re afraid to submit to contests because we’re not sure our work is good enough to “win” but I’ve also learned there’s just so much we can’t control in the subjectivity of responses to our poetry; what we can control is our craft (getting our best words onto the page in our best order) & pressing that submit button. You’ll never win if you don’t show up, so my motto has been just that—show up, every time. I’ve earned my stripes in rejections. But I’ve also struck lightning again & again because I’ve kept challenging myself, honing my craft, & tucking my fear away to show up, my whole heart on my sleeve each & every time. Good luck, you wonders! Shine those poems, remember my fab five potent ingredients, go watch Isabel Allende on Jane the Virgin, & then submit your poems!

 

Kate Gaskin

Good Poetry as “A Gut Punch”: A Conversation with Kate Gaskin

Kate Gaskin is the author of Forever War (YesYes Books 2020), which won the Pamet River Prize. Her poems have appeared in Guernica, Pleiades, Passages North, 32 Poems, Cherry Tree, and Blackbird, among others. She is a recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, as well as the winner of The Pinch’s 2017 Literary Award in Poetry. She grew up in a small town in central Alabama and currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

Staff member Matt Hawk sat down with her recently to discuss her writing philosophy, in addition to her childhood memories and favorite current TV shows:

Do you have a favorite childhood memory, or one you remember most vividly?

This is a dead giveaway for my age, but one of my most vivid memories is being obsessed with Disney's Robin Hood. The fox version of Robin Hood is canonically the only version, and I was in LOVE with him. I used to pretend to be Maid Marian by draping a (clean) cloth diaper over my head.

In your mind, what sets a really good poem apart from the rest? Are there a number of factors, or is it more of an indiscernible quality?

I always experience a good poem as a gut punch. There's definitely an indiscernible quality to what makes many good poems good, but my poetic tastes also obviously influence me. I love unique and fresh imagery, tight language, lyricism, rhythm, and sound-play. A poem that manages to utilize all these elements while also showing that there's something vital at stake will probably knock me out.

Is there a series or show you are watching right now, or one you have watched previously and loved, that you would recommend?

Russian Doll is gorgeously, cleverly written, shot, acted, and edited. I'm also really enjoying Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which explores mental illness with empathy and good humor.

For you, how important is it to read contemporary and/or canonical poetry?

So important! I feel like I have my bases covered regarding a lot of contemporary poetry, so I'm currently trying to fill in some canonical gaps in my knowledge. But I'm also trying to rethink what is considered canon so that I'm reading more than just straight white men.

What advice would you give to writers submitting poems to the Pinch Literary Awards?

The poems you enter in any contest, including to The Pinch, should be able to stand on their own emotionally, narratively, and lyrically. And they should leave everything out on the field. They should pull no punches. There should be no holds barred. I'm just now realizing that a lot of sports metaphors also work for poetry.

Marina Petrova

Marina Petrova’s stories have appeared in The Conium Review, Catapult, and the Empty Mirror. Her writing also has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, LARB, the Late Night Library, and Sugared Water. She holds an MFA from The New School and received fellowship from The MacDowell Colony and from The Mineral School. Although she did not place in the 2018 Pinch Literary Awards, her fiction story “Monkey” was still selected for publication in issue 38.2 of The Pinch due to the quality of the piece.

Did your publication in The Pinch affect your perspective on literary competitions?

I was thrilled to find out that The Pinch was interested in publishing my story even though I didn’t win the competition. I worked on this story, on and off, for about three years, putting it aside, then going back to it. My publication in The Pinch reinforced my, at times faltering, belief that it pays off to keep revising and submitting, to literary competitions and in general.

Who are you reading right now?

I’m reading Ties by Domenico Starnone. I’ve read that this book is a response to Elena Ferrante’s novel Days of Abandonment or that Starnone could actually be Ferrante. I don’t know if I believe the latter. But the two novels do seem to be closely connected, telling the same devastating story of a marriage from different points of view. It was impossible for me to read Starnone and not think that the characters in Ties were the same characters I read about in Days of Abandonment. The translation by Jhumpa Lahiri is stunning, the language is vivid and economical, no word is wasted and every word is in its right place.

Tell us about something pinchy (weird / cool) that's happened recently in your life!

This past September, I was lucky to spend three weeks at the MacDowell Colony. It was cool because I had whole days, uninterrupted, to focus on my writing. I met many talented, generous, and fun people I still keep in touch with. And I could sit, for hours, in a library in the woods with large glass windows, looking into the forest watching the weather change. In our regular lives, when do we have time to watch the weather change? It was weird to be away from all my daily responsibilities. It was like I was at a summer camp for grownups, where all my needs were taken care of, and I was given physical and mental space to write, read, think, and learn.

What advice would you give a first time contest submitter?

My advice would not be very original: edit and proofread. Read the work out loud to yourself -- it often helps me catch typos or sentences that sound off key. It also helps me tremendously to have other writer friends read my work. I may not always agree with their suggestions on how to fix parts where they see issues. But I find that the parts they point to consistently tend to be the parts where issues exist. When in doubt whether to keep something or cut, generally, go with cut.

What are you writing about these days?

I’m currently working on a few other stories, with a fair amount of weirdness, hoping one day to turn them into a collection.

Lela Tredwell

Contest participants can be selected for publication even if they don’t win the contest. Check out this interview with Lela Tredwell to learn how this contest participant caught the attention of editors and got her piece published! “My Eye Eye” was published in issue 38.2 of The Pinch, which is available for order.

Did your publication in The Pinch affect your perspective on literary competitions?

I was thrilled by the enthusiasm The Pinch showed towards publishing “My Eye Eye” regardless of it not grabbing the top slot in the competition. It gave me a renewed vigor for the process.

Who are you reading right now?

Currently I am rehearsing for an improvised performance inspired by the work of Charles Dickens so I’m reading the writing of the man himself. My fiction writing is often set in the present or future but I still find it informative to take a leap backwards with my reading. I’m always fascinated by how often the past informs fresh ways of seeing our current world. I’ve even found myself getting quite envious of some of the courtship rituals of the 19th Century!

Tell us about something pinchy (weird / cool) that's happened recently in your life!

As a writer of the literary fantastic/surreal and an improvised performer, my life is often rather pinchy but one incident that happened recently was being held up on a train by a swan. It was sitting on the line and though the driver tried to nudge it by edging the train forward and honking the horn, the swan would not be moved. In England all swans belong to the Queen so killing a swan is outlawed! Desperately the driver’s voice sounded over the speakers to ask if there was anyone on the train who had experience with wild animals. Eventually the driver picked up the swan off the line and gave the beast a lift to the next station. I saw the creature being carried down the platform looking quite confused… probably that he hadn’t had to buy a ticket.

What advice would you give a first time contest submitter?

Get on and do it! My motive on entering had been that Carmen Maria Machado might, just possibly, even for a brief second, cast her eye over my writing… so I was ecstatic with the story’s success. “My Eye Eye” was a tale that I worried might not find a home because of its surreal and visceral content but even if you have a story like that it’s worth continuing your efforts to get it out into the world. Don’t give up!

What are you writing about these days?

I’m working on a heritage project at the moment so I’ve been researching and writing non-fiction about the poverty in North East London during the 1800’s. I’ve also been editing my collection of short stories. Most are in the genre of the literary fantastic but not many are as pinchy as “My Eye Eye.”

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Amy Bonnaffons


Amy Bonnaffons is the judge of the 2019 Pinch Literary Award for Fiction. Her debut story collection The Wrong Heaven was published in July 2018 by Little, Brown. It will be followed in early 2020 by The Regrets, a novel about the afterlife. Amy is a founding editor of 7x7.la, a literary journal devoted to collaborations between writers and visual artists. Born in New York City, she now lives in Athens, GA, where she is working on a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia.

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Your short story collection The Wrong Heaven plays with the idea of possibility. The characters are grounded by their everyday desires, but their worlds are full of strange magic. How do you balance the two sides, the possible and impossible, within a single story?

During the drafting process, I try to keep all possibilities open—my best work has come when I’ve felt the what if…? itch and followed it, without skepticism or self-censorship. What if that Jesus statue came to life? What if a woman could turn herself into a horse? What if the Angel of Death is a stone cold hunk? The real engine of the story is character—but I try not to limit myself when imagining how that character might express her desires and inner conflicts, or what outer possibilities she might encounter.

During the revision and editing processes, I try to make sure that I’ve laid the groundwork so that a reader will follow my imaginative leaps. But this is less about justifying anything rationally than about the confidence of the story’s voice. When a narrator has a strong voice, we believe—or, more accurately, want to believe—anything they tell us.

What was one early experience where you learned that language had power?

What a great question. Maybe this isn’t about language so much as narrative, but I remember when I was about 5 or 6, my mom was reading me one of the “Little House” books—a long passage in which we hear about Laura’s daily life—and I asked her, “Why don’t they ever tell us about Laura going to the bathroom?” My mom explained that there wasn’t room in a story to recount every tiny event, so the author had to decide what to include. This early lesson in narrative theory blew my mind—the idea that there was a person making those decisions.

As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?

A psychic sitting on a picnic blanket in Union Square Park once told me that I had a spirit guide, a jolly fat man named Makradoona, who was here to cheer on my work. So: Makradoona!

Whose work have you been reading lately?

I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels. Most recently I loved Mark Russell & Mark Feehan’s The Snagglepuss Chronicles (in which a Tennessee Williams-esque gay Southern playwright, who also happens to be a giant pink cat, squares off against the House Un-American Activities Committee). I also recently finished Rachel Cusk’s intimidatingly smart Outline and started Kiese Laymon’s gorgeous memoir Heavy.

What do you look for in a good piece of fiction?

That it has confidence in itself and a powerful concentration of energy in its language. I enjoy a really wide range of fiction—there’s no set style I prefer, as long as it feels dense and alive.

What are some common traps for aspiring writers, and do you have any advice for how contest entrants might avoid them?

I can only speak from my own experience as an aspiring writer; for a time I had an idea that there was a “correct” way to write fiction, and I was careful to hit all the marks, cautious about making mistakes. I tried to hit the proper balance of scene and narration (or “showing” and “telling”); I tried to avoid exposition; I tried to structure my stories so that they had a clear yet sufficiently subtle climax and resolution. Now I see that in my anxiety to do all those things, I was stifling my weirdness—the weirdness that would eventually drive my best stories. I also see now that those guidelines were someone else’s, not my own, and that they came from a particular aesthetic that reigned at the time, especially in MFA programs—an aesthetic inflected by class and race and particular institutional pressures. So I’d say: don’t be afraid to be weird, to take risks and break rules. See yourself as working in service of the story that wants to come through you, and listen closely to what it tells you about itself. Be unwavering in your commitment to the story—don’t back off or try to water it down. A corollary to this: if an aspect of the story isn’t working, let it go. Don’t try to force it. You’re not really in charge here—the story is. Once you relax your idea of what the story should look like, it’ll tell you what it needs.

Sarah Viren

After last week’s conversation with current Pinch Literary Awards nonfiction judge Elissa Washuta, The Pinch staff decided to reach out to past contestant Sarah Viren. Sarah was the nonfiction winner of The 2014 Pinch Literary Awards with her Nonfiction essay “My Murderer’s Futon” which was featured in The Pinch 35.1

A year has passed since she released her first book, a collection of essays about ownership aptly titled Mine. The book was named one of Lithub's favorite books of 2018 and was long-listed for the 2019 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.

We here at The Pinch are excited about Mine, the first segment of which is “My Murderer’s Futon.” Can you describe the process you took in recalling that time in your life?

I will forever be grateful to The Pinch for giving that essay a home in the first place. As for the essay itself, most of the writing process involved trying to figure out which were the best moments to use, and by best, I mean which were the most charged, emotionally and intellectually, and therefore which would help open up the essay rather than shutting it down. I’m a firm believer in writing more than you will ever use, and so often I identify dozens of memories from a certain time period—in part by looking at my journals to see which moments I thought were important at the time—and then I let myself relive them on the page until I figure out which moments create the most narrative and intellectual friction. In the case of “My Murderer’s Futon,” I eventually realized that two scenes were key: the one with the police chief and the scene at the end when I discover the strange stains in Durst’s kitchen table. The other scenes in the essay are important for narrative reasons, but those two scenes felt necessary because they were moments in which I could identify movement in the central question driving the essay, which for me was: What relationship do I have to this man whose furniture is now mine?

Your book won the River Teeth Journal’s Literary Nonfiction Book Contest, when you submitted your work did you have a finished collection of essays ready to go?

I submitted the final manuscript, yes, but after Mine won the prize, the publisher gave me three months to make any changes I wanted, and so I dedicated myself in that interim to making it the best book possible. I made a few substantial changes, including removing one essay, rewriting another essay, and adding a coda, and also smaller changes, like adding an epigraph from a poem called “A Guide to Usage: Mine” by Monica Youn, which was published after I had submitted the essay collection to the book prize, but which very much feels in conversation with my book. 

Mine is described as a book about ownership, could you give us your sense of that in a few words?

Sure. In some ways, it’s more a book about the impossibility of ownership, how everything we think we own already is or one day will be lost, which sounds horrible and tragic, but I also think can be freeing. We focus so often on what is ours (and I should know: I have two children under 5 years old) that we end up limiting our ability to see the connections between our lives and the lives of others, my things and your things, etc. And so, for me, the book was a way of exploring that contradiction, and each essay considers a different element of ownership, or the illusion of ownership. Specifically, I wrote about my name, my hands, my wife, my story, my children, and then some random things like my possum (a dead opossum I once found) and my catch (a fish I caught). 

You do a lot of travelling; do you have a favorite place and dish you like to recommend?

Well my wife is from Spain, and she makes what is hands down my favorite meal ever: albondigas (Spanish meatballs) with French fries. She makes her own tomato sauce for the meatballs, and I sometimes joke that the reason I married her is for that sauce. It’s delicious. So, I recommend albondigas y patatas fritas if you go to Spain, but if you do, you should know that they probably won’t be as good as Marta’s. 

Do you have two or three tips you’d like to share about writing Creative Nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction is such a unique genre because it is judged by both ethical and aesthetic standards, which means that as writers we’re asked to think ethically as well as aesthetically, which can be a challenge. So the main advice I have for new writers is to figure out your position on the major ethical issues in creative nonfiction writing, and to do that you will need to read what others have written about those issues, read the myriad of approaches other writers have taken, and then decide for yourself what is right for your work. After that, focus on aesthetics, which is really the heart of what we do, and where most of the important work takes place. Besides that, I recommend keeping a journal and writing up notes immediately after an experience. And in life, pay attention to what Joan Didion calls the “images that shimmer around the edges.” When writing, take Joy William’s advice and create something that will “enchant while it explodes in the reader's face.”

Elissa Washuta

Elissa Washuta is the judge of the 2019 Pinch Literary Award for Poetry. She is the author of two books, Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the anthology Exquisite Vessel: Shapes of Native Nonfiction, forthcoming from University of Washington Press.

Is there a topic that you would like to write more about, or that you would like to see be written about more?

I would like to write so much more about magicians. I’ve written just a little bit about magic (the illusion kind) in my book White Magic that I’m finishing drafting—the book is mostly about the occult kind of magic—but the more I learn about magic as an art form, the more potential I see for essays about it. If anyone wants to get me an invitation to The Magic Castle, let me know.

Do you have a favorite childhood memory, or one you remember most vividly?

The most vivid ones are not my favorites—in the most vivid ones, I am beginning to see the gap between what I want the world to be and what it is, like the time I was in preschool and had to adhere to a schedule imposed by someone else (it was NAPTIME) and had a meltdown. My favorite memories take place at home, in the yard, in the summer, wandering into the woods without any sense of what time it was or what I was going to do.

In your mind, what sets a really good nonfiction essay apart from the rest? Are there a number of factors, or is it more of an indiscernible quality?

I don’t think an essay can be really good unless it’s apparent that the writer absolutely loves sentences and is making deliberate stylistic decisions about their construction. Personally, I love essays that are at least a little strange in some way (not so much in the subject matter as in the way the writer sees the world and conveys it in prose), but I could be convinced that non-strange essays can be really good. An essay definitely can’t be good if the writer didn’t come to it with some desire.

Is there a series or show you are watching right now, or one you have watched previously and loved, that you would recommend?

I’m not really a big watcher of anything anymore. I’m playing Red Dead Redemption 2 a lot, which feels like playing inside a movie. I love that it can hold both narrative and anti-narrative modes: there’s a plot, but there’s also a lot to do beyond the plot, like pick flowers and buy outfits. Some of the writing is just so good! And eventually the plot takes a very Dances with Wolves turn, right down to the inclusion of Graham Greene. It’s a game about many things that have been on my mind for a long time. (I’m writing about it.)

For you, how is the reading process different for a highly personal essay versus a more objective, distanced one?

This is a tough one, because for me, differences in my reading process mostly have to do with what’s expected of me: am I giving feedback? Am I just reading this because I want to? Will I be expected to know what’s in this essay and talk about it with somebody? Am I reading this to find something specific for my own research? I recently read a batch of essays that would be workshopped, some of which were personal, some researched and less personal, and I found that my approach was pretty much the same across the board: something needs to be at stake for somebody, the pacing needs to be appropriate, and the sentences need to be well-styled.

Erin Hoover

Pinch contributor Erin Hoover (35.2) has a book releasing today, October 01, 2018. We were able to catch up with her and get some insights on the life of a very busy poet.

How has life been since you were published in The Pinch?

In 2016 Edward Hirsch selected my poem “Girls,” originally published by Crab Orchard Review, for The Best American Poetry. It was life changing for me because I didn’t have many poetry publications at that point—The Pinch had been one of my first “bigger” publications. About three years ago I began to assemble all of my poems into the manuscript that became Barnburner. I went through at least six full revisions (in many cases revising every poem) before I received a phone call from Dana Curtis at Elixir Press, and then I revised it again. 

 The title of your book is Barnburner, what are some of the things that inspired or influenced you in writing these poems?

I like to write poems by drawing connections between events or concepts that seem unrelated. For instance, in the poem published by The Pinch, “Reading Sappho’s Fragments,” I write about speech and the absence of speech, words as they are used rhetorically and words as they can be used intimately, either between two people in a relationship, or between writer and reader.  In addition to Sappho, Joan of Arc, quilting, Eric Garner, and a meat freezer appear in the poem.  Similarly, I wanted to make a book that would cohere despite having a variety of subjects. In many ways, Barnburner is concerned with what it means to be human when so much about how American culture is built denies our humanity. For instance, I come from the Appalachian part of Pennsylvania, and I’ve done some thinking about how class and environmental concerns have historically intersected there.Barnburner also includes feminist poems, poems about addiction and drug economies, poems about digital and physical communities, and poems that try to address whiteness.

 There is no literal “barnburner” in the book, but the epigraph points to tonal similarity between the poems: “According to an old story, there was once a Dutchman who was so bothered by the rats in his barn that he burned down the barn to get rid of them. Thus a ‘barn burner’ became one who destroyed all in order to get rid of a nuisance.”

 Could you give us a quick glimpse of your writing process? 

I’m a slow writer and a perfectionist. I almost never give up on my ideas, and I’ll keep working on a poem for as long it takes, which in one poem’s case was more than a decade. Because I mostly write narrative poems, I have to captivate the reader with story and offer lyric surprise, and it’s unusual to get that right quickly.

 Do you have any hobbies that help refill your creative well?

I have a toddler and I work full time, so I don’t have any hobbies. But my current profession, teaching, gives me the opportunity to think and talk about ideas with students. And I consider myself a full participant in my own life—I want the daily interactions I have with other people and with my environment to provoke questions.

What are you reading now?

I’m rereading Lynn Melnick’s Landscape with Sex and Violence. Melnick and I have both written about sexual assault, and we both draw connections between psychic and physical terrain. I’m also studying the way her poems construct a multifaceted and rhetorically interesting first-person speaker.

Martin Ott

Former contributor Martin Ott (32.1) has a new book of poetry coming out this week. In our latest interview, we talked with him about the collection's inspiration, his other new projects, and what's next on his writing journey.

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Besides your upcoming book, what are some projects you’ve been up to since publishing with The Pinch?

Since 2012, I’ve had the good fortune to publish a collaborative book of poetry on TV-based poems with John F. Buckley called Yankee Broadcast Network, Brooklyn Arts Press, a book of poetry Underdays, which won the Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press, a book of short Stories Interrogations, Fomite Press, and a speculative novel Spectrum, C&R Press. I’ve also been working with Paradigm and a producer in developing a TV pilot and pitch to studios for my first novel The Interrogator’s Notebook

Your new collection is titled Lessons in Camouflage. Can you tell us about the book’s inspiration (and maybe some of the lessons within it)?

The definition of “truth” is the engine behind Lessons in Camouflage. We hide so much of ourselves in the courses of our lives. In Lessons in Camouflage I explore these personas: the patriotic ex-soldier, the happy-go-lucky friend, the unflappable workplace alter ego, the patient parent and spouse, the writer passionate about social issues. Meanwhile, the world itself attempts to gaslight us in an overwhelming 24-hour news cycle. Lessons in Camouflage is my attempt to make sense of it all and the lessons are for me as much as for readers. 

You’ve written several collections. Have you noticed any changes in your writing style/focus since the first two? Similarly, is there anything you try to keep consistent throughout your poems?

My first three books of poetry Captive, Underdays, and Lessons in Camouflage I’ve come to realize are a trilogy. All of them struggle with the definition of “truth” and stylistically are very similar. My work has become less straightforward over the years, perhaps, as I’ve grown to enjoy letting a poem dictate what it wants to be versus moving in a linear direction. While all of these books incorporate formal style and free verse, I also begin to weave multiple narratives in poems in my later books, in a dialogue between myself and the world. My most recent poetry manuscripts Fake News Poems – 52 Weeks, 52 Headlines, 52 Poems and Prison in the Middle of Nowhere, prose poems disassembled into verse, are less personal with a lens on the world more than on my own life. 

What’s next in your writing adventure?

A novel Dream State (I’m halfway through a draft), a book of LA-based short stories, and a new thematic poetry project.

What is your favorite a) music genre b) book, and c) midnight snack?

  1. Indie rock (which the older I get the more I hear on classic rock stations)
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird – it works on all levels (heart, mind, spirit)
  3. Life cereal – my “go-to” childhood favorite breakfast food is in rotation late at night.

Caroline Sutton

We talked to Caroline Sutton, whose new book, Don’t Mind Me, I Just Died: On Time, Tennis, and Unforgiving Motherswas published in December of 2017. 

What was your process for compiling your essay collection? How did you choose which order to put the essays in? 

I wrote the essays that appear in Don’t Mind Me, I Just Died over a period of about fifteen years.  During that time I wrote a number of pieces related to travels in Vietnam,  China, and elsewhere, which I originally intended to include in my first collection.  My earliest vision of the book projected a here and there dichotomy—narratives about family and relationships, followed by narratives about places far afield. At the suggestion of my editor, Ed Myers, we decided to focus the collection on the former for a more cohesive whole. I kept “To Arrest the Phases of the Moon” because although about wildlife in South Africa, it touches on themes of motherhood, which are central to the book.

Clearly it would have been logical to clump all the pieces about my mother’s decline and death together and to sequence them chronologically. But that organization didn’t reflect the quality either of my experience or my attempts to recall it. I decided to frame the book with my mother, starting with her death and the history of her family coming to this country when she was three, interspersing my struggles with her over the years, and ending with my final connection to her--her dog that I inherited and came to love. In between, stories weave back and forth in time, as memory does, deal with a range of subject matter, and fall into four sections loosely organized around themes of marriage, imagination, time, and loss. My hope is that when reading the essays, a reader feels a sort of organic rhythm and patterning similar to ways we experience things and perhaps years later take another look at them. (“Recovering Time” concretizes this idea pretty explicitly through the portrayal of parallel experiences over generations.)  What I didn’t foresee as I wrote the individual stories is the possibility for a collection to be more than the sum of its parts, (just as an album can be more than a group of songs) and that can occur through inner reflectivity of themes and motifs, which is ultimately expansive.  

Do you have any new writing projects in the works?

Yes, I’ve completed a full-length memoir about growing up on Philadelphia’s WASPy Main Line and my not entirely successful attempts to escape it. I hope to publish the book this year or next.  I’m currently working on a new collection of nature-based essays. I’m having fun researching such incredible creatures as horseshoe crabs and flying squirrels, but each essay takes a journey to the human, be analogous behaviors, implications of our treatment of or interaction with the natural world, effects on our perception, and so on.

What is your typical writing process? Do you write every day, or more sporadically?

Once I’ve started a piece, the computer is a magnet. I can’t stay away.  But since there is lag time between ideas, you could say I write sporadically.  I also teach high school, and grading papers makes me use an analytical side of my brain, which usually isn’t conducive to starting a new narrative, but shouldn’t be an excuse. Over the past two summers when I wrote the memoir, I wrote every day, starting first thing in the morning--my preferred time when coffee is kicking in, energy highest, mind not yet cluttered.

As for process, it varies. At times I start with an idea that almost propels itself.  If I start with an image or situation I may not be sure what the theme is, or even if I’ll find one. Those stories can be frustrating, enlightening, or both, depending on how the journey goes and if I find a thread.  Each time I sit down to write, I read from the beginning to get back into my own voice; I’m what you might call an aural writer in that I hear the rhythm of sentences as they go down.

What advice do you have for other writers now that you have a book out?

My advice to other writers: persist.  Keep writing and divorce yourself from the publishing process.  To gain credibility for possible book publication, I sent my essays out to a huge range of journals.  The process was laborious (especially before one could do this digitally), response time was aggravating, selection process a mystery, close calls frustrating.  You need to numb yourself to rejection, as if you were marketing someone else’s work. Eventually, I established a working relationship with a few editors at these journals, but it took time, and first I had to navigate the anonymous labyrinth of Submittable and the like. I teach creative nonfiction to high school seniors, but I discourage them from starting this process since it can be defeating, especially to young writers.

Thanks for the interview, Caroline, and congratulations on the new book!

Carrie Green

We chatted with poet Carrie Green, who won our contest in poetry in 2013!

What are you reading right now?

I'm currently reading Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday and listening to The Giver on audio.

What is the most "pinchy"  (kinda weird and cool) thing to happen to you recently?

The coolest thing I've done lately is visit the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden in Bishopville, SC. I highly recommend it if you're down that way. I've wanted to go ever since I saw the documentary A Man Named Pearl.

Anything you're working on now that you want to hype?

"Abandoned" appears in the poetry manuscript I'm just starting to send out. Recent poems from the manuscript have appeared in Terrain.org, Poetry Northwest, and Beloit Poetry Journal.

Why should people enter The Pinch's contest?

Because you can be assured, win or not, that your poems will be in fine company.

We agree with that, Carrie! And not only your poems, but your fiction and nonfiction, too! Make sure to submit. The deadline is March 15th!

Molly Beer

We talked to Molly Beer, winner of the 2013 Pinch Literary Awards in creative nonfiction.

What are you reading right now?

I am at work on a historical character piece, so I am re-reading (but not really reading-reading) JCO’s Blonde, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. (Yes, I am a nonfiction writer who uses fiction for models.)

What is the most "pinchy"  (kinda weird and cool) thing to happen to you recently?

The other day, on my way to work (think Michigan, pre-dawn winter morning), I passed a panhandler hollering “Go Blue or go home!” outside the Espresso Royale. I went inside and bought him a coffee (he wanted a mocha with whip, naturally). When I left campus (think mid-afternoon dusk), he was still out hollering. I fell in behind him as he wandered, hoping we wouldn’t intersect again, and I was in luck: just as I was about to have to pass him if I was going to make my bus, we passed another panhandler, this one standing in the gray snow, holding one of those white seeing sticks. Mocha-with-Whip veered over to the blind man and dropped a loud fistful of change in his cup.

I don’t know what it meant, but it was clarifying anyway. Anything you're working on now that you want to hype?

My prize-winning piece in The Pinch was about carrying a newborn into the mountains of Mexico to see some butterflies and then thinking about migration. I’ve had another baby since, this one in Canada, where I expected to feel all safe but ended up witnessing more tragedy than I had during Mexico’s worst year of war. So I am still writing about birth and place, politics and place, displacement, and so forth, but it’s not yet hype-ready.  

Why should people enter The Pinch's contest?

Journals select (and reject) work for reasons that usually remain opaque to the writers who submit to them. Contests are more neutral. Author celebrity doesn’t play in. Nor do the needs of the overall volume (but we already have two Mexico stories!). If you want your work to be appraised all on its own, independent of what you have or have not accomplished previously, submitting to journal contests such as The Pinch’s is a good way to go.

Thanks for the chat, Molly! 

Readers, don't forget to submit to our contest! The deadline is March 15th! Enter in creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry!

Kate Gaskin

We talked to Kate Gaskin, winner of the Pinch Literary Awards in poetry in 2017 with her poem "What the War Was Not." 

What are you reading right now?

Right now I'm reading a million things at once, which is what I always do. Here's a selection: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, The Evil Hours--A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by David J. Morris, and Ursula K. Le Guin's book of essays The Wave in the Mind. To my 6-year-old, I'm reading Curious George most nights.

What is the most "pinchy"  (kinda weird and cool) thing to happen to you recently?

The most Pinchy thing that happened to me recently is that I marched in a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans as a baton-twirling Princess Leia! My friend is overlord of the science-fiction-themed Krewe of Chewbacchus and a cofounder of the Leijorettes, a sub-krewe of marching Leias. She invited me to twirl with them in the parade, something I had not done since high school. I did so many high kicks my boots fell apart!

Anything you're working on now that you want to hype?

Right now I'm sending out my first full-length poetry manuscript. It's not terrifying at all. Haha. Hahahahaha.

Why should people enter The Pinch's contest?

You should enter The Pinch's contest because it's an easy way to support an excellent literary journal. Also, you don't have to have an already-long list of publications or accomplishments to win. (I didn't.)

Thanks for chatting with us, Kate! 

Don't forget to submit to our contest! The categories are fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, and the deadline is March 15th!

Joseph Rein

 

Joseph Rein, contributor in issue 33.2 of The Pinch, has some exciting news this March. Not only is his first feature-length film being released, but so is his first short story collection Roads Without Houses. We spoke to him about his upcoming works, his writing background, and which fictional world he'd choose to live in.

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How has everything been going since you published with The Pinch? 

Great, and mostly hectic. In the last four years I’ve gotten tenure, had three (of my four) children, taken up biking, published a good amount, and cut back on spicy foods. I’ve also started writing screenplays; my first feature-length film, Stillwater, will be released March 13. I’ve also attended quite a few Daddy-Daughter dances, gymnastics classes, county fairs, and Halloween costume parades. I’m sure, somewhere in that timespan, I’ve had time to relax. I just don’t remember when that was. 

How does it feel to be publishing your first short story collection? And how does the title Roads without Houses reflect what readers will find inside? 

Publishing the book is in some senses indescribable (which is a terrible evasion for a writer!). Having my own book of fiction has been a major life goal since I was young, so there’s definitely a lightness that comes with accomplishment, a fullness, an out-of-body feeling that sneaks up on me at odd moments and says, This is real. But then there’s the side that says, Okay, nice job and all, but what next? The creative appetite is insatiable. Every piece is new and frightening and exciting and challenging and terrifically frustrating. And it always feels like it will be the best, because if not, why write it? 

The title Roads without Houses comes from one of the stories (actually one of the shortest in the collection). The idea behind the title stems from a road’s basic purpose as a straightforward path for one person to get to another. It’s about connection. So when roads have no houses, they in some senses lose that essential function—they become aimless, purposeless. That is a thread my characters share. They’re on the wrong road, but they don’t always know how or why they got there. 

How and when did you first realize you were a writer? 

I have a story similar to many others: I was praised for my writing at a young age. A fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Boelter, enjoyed a story I wrote about a gazelle escaping a cheetah attack. In ninth grade, Mrs. Goffard encouraged me to submit a story to a local magazine, and it won a prize. I was good at other things, but writing gripped me more. I read stories that impacted me and thought, Wow, I want to impact someone the same way. And my teachers—and especially my parents—were wholeheartedly supportive. 

How often do you write? Take us through your ideal writing workday. 

I would love to say every day. For three-plus hours after morning coffee. But unfortunately my life doesn’t allow such freedoms. I have a large and growing family, who get first dibs on my time and attention. And then the professorial job, which is omnipresent during the semesters. Thankfully, during winter and summer breaks, my wife understands my need to write and generously makes time. While working on Roads, for example, I wrote for eight-hour days, something I didn’t know I was capable of. But then this past week, I barely got in a few hours here and there. I think many of us need to make such concessions; we need to forgive ourselves when life takes precedent, as it so often does. Overall though, I still feel better on days I can write than on those I cannot. It’s an itch that intensifies until scratched. 

If you could live inside the fictional world of any book, which would you choose and why? What would you do first? 

Every answer that comes to mind places my life in immediate danger. And so since I’m going there, I would have to say Italy with the characters of Catch-22. The hypocrisy, the absurdity, the nonsense-as-sense atmosphere. There’s never a dull second there. Though at the first sign of danger, I’d likely follow Yossarian right into the hospital. At some point though, I would find a good way to goad Colonel Cathcart into a reaction. I hope he would chew me out.

Eliza Smith

We're well into the 2018 Pinch Literary Awards! We spoke to Eliza Smith about her experience entering the contest in 2017. Eliza's piece, "All These Apocalypses," won our contest in creative nonfiction last year! 

 

What are you reading right now?

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos and This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins—both as incredible as you've heard. 

What is the most "pinchy" (kinda weird and cool) thing to happen to you recently?

On my way to Ireland in December, I was mistakenly detained in Toronto and made to get an emergency passport (that I didn't end up needing). But Toronto was great, especially the Rex Jazz & Blues Bar, where I got a room and fell asleep listening to live jazz. I look forward to going back on purpose sometime. 

Anything you're working on now that you want to hype?

I'm working on an essay collection about womanhood and loss and all those lives we never lived but are still ours. It won't see the light of day for some time, but I'm hyped to keep working on it. 

Why should people enter The Pinch's contest?

A chance to work with a wonderful staff, have their work read by incredible judges and potentially featured alongside talented writers. I entered on a whim, and am so glad I did. 

 

Thanks for the interview, Eliza! Don't forget to submit to the contest. The deadline is March 15th. You can submit in fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. 

Janet Buttenwieser

Former contributor Janet Buttenwieser has just released a new memoir, GUTS, available for purchase from Vine Leaves Press. The memoir hits upon chronic illnesses, loss, and resilience; we spoke with Janet about the process of writing such difficult subjects, as well as her go-to journals, and what's next for her writing. 

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Your memoir reveals a very personal experience of a rare intestinal illness. This is an intimate subject that not many people talk about, specifically when it deals with their own illnesses. Why did you choose to write about your experience with this illness?

In part I wanted to write about this illness because I wanted to make it less uncomfortable for people to talk about. The more we can talk to each other about “taboo" topics, the less taboo they become. I think the more honest you can be in a memoir, the more relatable the story. Many, many people have some kind of chronic intestinal illness. And everyone has experienced intestinal distress at least once in their lives. It really shouldn’t be so embarrassing to talk about. Writing GUTS was also an act of solidarity with the millions of people with invisible illnesses. Educating those around you about your illness can get exhausting. Perhaps my readers with chronic illness can give GUTS to their friends and family and say “read this, and then you will understand my experience a little better."

As all writers know, the blank page is daunting and more often than not, mocking us writers. For some, staring at the blank page is the hardest part of writing. What are you writing routines that help you get your writing down on the page?

I’m a big believer in Anne Lamott’s “short assignments,” and focusing on the one-inch picture frame as she discusses in her wonderful craft book, BIRD BY BIRD. When I am working on a longer project and I get stuck, I give myself a short assignment. I’ll find a prompt online or make up one based on something I’m reading and write a short piece. While I was working on GUTS I did this often, and the short pieces were great “palate cleansers” between segments of the book-length memoir. I often tricked myself into thinking I was writing about a totally different subject, only to have those short essays morph into chapters of the memoir. Any lyricism that exists in GUTS is due to those short pieces I wrote while I “wasn’t working on the memoir."

You were published with The Pinch Journal Online in 2014 and with other well-known journals. What are your go-to journals and literary magazines where you submit your work? 

I’ve only been writing and publishing in journals for a few years, so I don’t have a go-to list per se, but I can speak to how I decide where to submit. Any magazine that has sent a personalized reaction is the first place I submit new work, and nearly everywhere I’ve been published is a place that rejected me before they published me, including The Pinch. I look in the back of Best American Essays and Facebook writers' groups where I have membership and see where writers I admire are placing work. I always aim high to begin with, and only submit to publications that I would be proud to list on my bio.

You are a published author! You have a book published! What advice would you give to us hopeful writers trying to do what you have accomplished?

Persistence pays off. It’s what everyone says, but it’s really true. Write the story you want to write and make it the best that you can. And then make it even better by putting it aside and by getting lots of feedback. Publish short pieces, whether they are excerpts from the longer work or not. When the manuscript is super-duper polished, send it out, and be patient. Remember that agents and editors are inundated with queries, and that, just as with publishing in a journal, it’s a matter of fit with a particular agent/editor/press. Someone out there is going to fall in love with your book. It will happen.  

In your opinion, what does literary success look like to you?

When a reader I’ve never met before contacts me to say they were moved by something I wrote.

We have to know, what is your favorite book of all time, and why?

That’s impossible to answer! Instead I’ll say the best memoir I’ve read in the past 10 years: THE TENDER LAND by Kathleen Finneran. The subtitle is “a family love story,” and it is indeed, a love letter to her family and her brother Sean whose suicide at the age of 15 is the main (but not the only) subject of the book. It’s a perfectly sculpted work of art. Every sentence is gorgeous. Finneran weaves together past and present masterfully. I’ve read it at least 10 times, and I learn something new each time.

Editing is a huge part of writing. Were there any sections of your memoir that you regret having to completely cut or change? Was it difficult to edit your work since it is your life story?

It took me 9 years to write and publish GUTS, and in that time I had several excerpts published as essays. Some pieces of those essays did get cut from the book, but since they’ve had a life in journals, it wasn’t hard to let those sections go from the final manuscript. I think it’s difficult to edit one’s own work, memoir or not. One of the main subjects of GUTS is my friend Beth, who died when we were both 38. I started writing GUTS in the immediate aftermath of her death, and those parts were hard to edit at that time. But one of the advantages of the re-writing and submission process taking place over several years is that I did eventually have emotional and temporal distance from the events surrounding her death, so eventually they were easier to edit.

What was the hardest part of publishing GUTS?

It was hard to be patient through the years of submitting and rejections, and hard to realize I needed to dig back into the work after a lot of revisions. But that work paid off — the manuscript that Vine Leaves accepted was “nearly print-ready” according to their acquisitions editor, and indeed the editing process was smooth and pretty painless.

So, what's on your horizon next?

I’m focusing on shorter projects for awhile, and trying my hand at fiction. After years of writing about the same few people and settings, it’s tons of fun to make stuff up.

 

Sarah Viren

The Pinch is in full swing with The 2018 Pinch Literary Awards, and so is the talented Sarah Viren as she prepares for the release of her book Mine. Sarah was a winner in The 2014 Pinch Literary Awards with her Nonfiction essay “My Murderer’s Futon” which was featured in The Pinch 35.1

We spoke with Sarah about her upcoming book, a tasty dish to try, and some tips on writing Creative Nonfiction. 

We here at The Pinch are excited about your upcoming book Mine. The first segment is going to be “My Murderer’s Futon”, can you describe the process you took in recalling that time in your life?

Thanks. I’m excited for the book’s release, too, and I will forever be grateful to The Pinch for giving that essay a home in the first place. As for the essay itself, most of the writing process involved trying to figure out which were the best moments to use, and by best, I mean which were the most charged, emotionally and intellectually, and therefore which would help open up the essay rather than shutting it down. I’m a firm believer in writing more than you will ever use, and so often I identify dozens of memories from a certain time period—in part by looking at my journals to see which moments I thought were important at the time—and then I let myself relive them on the page until I figure out which moments create the most narrative and intellectual friction. In the case of “My Murderer’s Futon,” I eventually realized that two scenes were key: the one with the police chief and the scene at the end when I discover the strange stains in Durst’s kitchen table. The other scenes in the essay are important for narrative reasons, but those two scenes felt necessary because they were moments in which I could identify movement in the central question driving the essay, which for me was: What relationship do I have to this man whose furniture is now mine?

Your book won the River Teeth Journal’s Literary Nonfiction Book Contest, when you submitted your work did you have a finished collection of essays ready to go?

I submitted the final manuscript, yes, but after Mine won the prize, the publisher gave me three months to make any changes I wanted, and so I dedicated myself in that interim to making it the best book possible. I made a few substantial changes, including removing one essay, rewriting another essay, and adding a coda, and also smaller changes, like adding an epigraph from a poem called “A Guide to Usage: Mine” by Monica Youn, which was published after I had submitted the essay collection to the book prize, but which very much feels in conversation with my book. 

Mine is described as a book about ownership, could you give us your sense of that in a few words?

Sure. In some ways, it’s more a book about the impossibility of ownership, how everything we think we own already is or one day will be lost, which sounds horrible and tragic, but I also think can be freeing. We focus so often on what is ours (and I should know: I have two children under 5 years old) that we end up limiting our ability to see the connections between our lives and the lives of others, my things and your things, etc. And so, for me, the book was a way of exploring that contradiction, and each essay considers a different element of ownership, or the illusion of ownership. Specifically, I wrote about my name, my hands, my wife, my story, my children, and then some random things like my possum (a dead opossum I once found) and my catch (a fish I caught). 

You do a lot of travelling; do you have a favorite place and dish you like to recommend?

Well my wife is from Spain, and she makes what is hands down my favorite meal ever: albondigas (Spanish meatballs) with French fries. She makes her own tomato sauce for the meatballs, and I sometimes joke that the reason I married her is for that sauce. It’s delicious. So, I recommend albondigas y patatas fritas if you go to Spain, but if you do, you should know that they probably won’t be as good as Marta’s. 

Do you have two or three tips you’d like to share about writing Creative Nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction is such a unique genre because it is judged by both ethical and aesthetic standards, which means that as writers we’re asked to think ethically as well as aesthetically, which can be a challenge. So the main advice I have for new writers is to figure out your position on the major ethical issues in creative nonfiction writing, and to do that you will need to read what others have written about those issues, read the myriad of approaches other writers have taken, and then decide for yourself what is right for your work. After that, focus on aesthetics, which is really the heart of what we do, and where most of the important work takes place. Besides that, I recommend keeping a journal and writing up notes immediately after an experience. And in life, pay attention to what Joan Didion calls the “images that shimmer around the edges.” When writing, take Joy William’s advice and create something that will “enchant while it explodes in the reader's face.”

Emily Rose Cole

We recently talked to Emily Rose Cole. She just released her new chapbook composed of persona poems, Love & a Loaded Gun, from Minerva Rising Press. One of the poems from the book, "Persephone Returns," was first published in The Pinch 37.1 (as "Self-Portrait of Persephone Returning").

Keep reading for Emily's fascinating discussion of persona poems, the publishing process, and her own personal connection to Judy Garland.

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This book is made up entirely of persona poems. Why did you choose this form? 

Working in persona was the key to “finding my voice” in poetry. Ironically, my voice is clearest when spoken from the mouths of other people, and as soon as I learned to lean into that tendency, the whole world opened up. I love persona because it allows me to reflect on my own trials and tribulations from the perspective of another person. A question I used to ask myself in choosing a persona was “how is this other person like me” but more recently I’ve inverted that question to “how am I like them?” Empathy is the most important tool for my writing, and I’ve found no more effective way to explore the connections between myself and other people than to inhabit someone else’s voice.

All the voices in the collection are female-identifying people, and writing these poems challenged me (and, I hope, my readers) to re-think women’s roles in the familiar narratives that most people know. Often, even the most famous women are passive agents in their own stories: Leda is raped, Persephone is kidnapped, Rapunzel is rescued, and on and on. I wanted this collection to re-center these women’s agency and give them a chance to reclaim their narratives, and that meant letting them speak in their own, proud voices. 

What was the process like in publishing a chapbook?

I didn’t originally set out to write an all-female collection, I just happen to find women’s stories compelling and, in the larger context of literature, such stories are woefully underrepresented. Because persona poems generally seek to show us sides of characters who are often misunderstood, female voices from myth and popular culture were a natural fit for the form. So I wrote poem after poem and, after a few years, I discovered that there were enough female-centered poems to make up a chapbook. I actually defended a version of the manuscript as part of the thesis for my MFA at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and got a lot of helpful feedback on it from my peers and advisors there.

After I had about 20 pages of poems (20 pages in MS word, that is! The little tiny chapbook 32 pages), I did some research about chapbook presses and curated a list of contests to send to. After many rejections (and one finalist nod!), I was thrilled to win Minerva Rising’s chapbook contest 2016. They did such a beautiful job with the book!

My long-term goal is to repurpose many of the poems that appear in the chapbook into a full-length persona manuscript (one which will include both men’s and women’s voices), but that goal is still far on the horizon. The potential full-length manuscript is more a side project right now.

“Persephone Returns” functions as both a self-portrait and a persona poem. What do you see as the difference between the two? How do you choose when to use which form?

“Persephone Returns” was actually written as a self-portrait (in The Pinch, the poem appears under the title “Self-Portrait as Persephone Returning,” which was its original title). The line between persona and self-portrait is thin, but important. The poet Lisa Russ Spaar has a great essay called “Thoughts on Poetic Self-Portraiture” in which she informs us that self- portrait poems as a “self-conscious literary entity” weren’t really popularized until after 1975, when John Ashbery published Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, after which their popularity exploded. But artists have been invoking self-portrait for centuries, and poets are no exception, even if we don’t often admit it as openly as sculptors and painters.

There is almost always an element of self-portrait in poems, especially poems in the lyric mode, and that’s why I think both persona an self-portrait poems are so crucial: to write a persona poem is to consciously inform your audience that you are about to don a mask (fittingly, the word “persona” itself is derived from the Latin for “mask”), but when you write a self-portrait poem, you only partially invoke the persona. The poet holds the mask in her hand but chooses to keep it lifted partway off her face, telling the reader explicitly “I see myself in this person.”

For me, persona and self-portrait are both useful tools for exploring someone else’s perspective, but self-portrait poems are investigations of the self first, and the persona second, whereas persona poems are investigations of the persona first and the self second.

Speaking of that connection between persona and self-portrait, is there a historical or pop culture figure from these poems that you connect to the most? Why? 

Oh, that’s such a hard question! I connect to all the women in this book on one level or another, though some of their poetic voices were louder than others. But I think the truest answer is that I relate to Judy Garland the most. I am also a singer, and I was drawn to her since I was a child. In my mind, Judy Garland is also inexorably connected to Dorothy Gale and The Wizard of Oz (as the poem’s references show), but the Judy Garland poem was actually far easier for me to write than its counterpart in Dorothy’s voice.

Singing has always been a very important part of my life (and my poetry, for that matter!) and I have always been fascinated by the ways that singers use their voices to assert their power. Though, historically, her story is ultimately a tragic one, it was important to me to present a narrative in which she could reclaim some of the power I always found so magical about her. That’s why the central image of this poem, the bluebird, functions as a way for Judy to find her voice, despite the initial, unasked-for trauma of having the bird sewn into her throat. In a way, that poem is a statement of purpose for the book.

What are you currently working on writing-wise?

So many things! I’m one of those writers that likes to have a lot of work simmering at once, and I sort of flit from project to project like a distractible hummingbird. I just finished the manuscript for my first poetry collection, which includes self-portrait versions of several of the poems from Love & a Loaded Gun. That narrative arc of that collection focuses on my relationship with my mother before, during, and after a long illness. 

My most current project is an investigation of the landscape of northwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up, and its devastation due to hydraulic fracturing. Concurrent to that project, though, I’m still working on more persona poems (most recently a crown of sonnets in the voice of the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz) and one day I hope to have enough work to fill a whole full-length collection of persona work.

Erin Adair-Hodges

Past contributor Erin Adair-Hodges has a new book out from Pitt Poetry Series. Let's All Die Happy was the winner of the 2016 Agnes Lynch Starrett prize. Two of the poems from the new book, "I Would Have Listened to Rush" and "Ode to my Dishwasher," first appeared in issue 35.2 of The Pinch. 

We spoke with Erin about what she's been up to lately, her inspiration for the book, and her writerly impulses. 

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What have you been up to since publishing with The Pinch?

First, The Pinch was among the first places to publish my poems and the first to ever solicit me for work, so I will always be grateful for that.

Since the spring of 2015, I’ve been fortunate enough to publish a lot of work and in 2016, my first book Let’s All Die Happy won the Agnes Lynch Starrett prize from the Pitt Poetry Series—it was just published at the end of October. I’ve also moved to Ohio to take a position as a visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Toledo. So in other words, a lot.

Can you tell us about your book Let’s All Die Happy and the inspiration behind it?

The book wasn’t something I envisioned before its creation. I respect and even envy “project” books, but I consider mine a collection of poems that weave together an examination of disappointment and yearning. It takes what are presented to women as life-defining events (motherhood, marriage, daughterness, sex) and asks about what happens when we do what we’ve been told will fulfill us and yet feel hollowed a bit by this. Yes, motherhood is awe-inspiring, but postpartum depression is annihilating. Marriage is a great source of support, but it can also be stultifying. I’m interested in flipping over the thing we think we know to complicate our understanding of these roles and relationships.

How did it feel to win last year’s Agnes Lynch Starrett prize, and what did it mean to you?

I was told the news on an early Monday morning, and almost immediately I had to go teach a class of freshman comp. I think this sums up a lot about my experience—it’s tremendously affirming, but then I just have to keep getting work done.

That’s not meant to sound ungrateful; I am, on an almost daily basis, fairly floored by my good fortune to have won this prize. The significance of it will seep in and surprise me. I’d accepted a while ago that my life wasn’t going to look the way I thought it would and that I’d have to find happiness in what I had the opportunities for instead of what I really wanted. At some point, I decided that wasn’t enough. I wanted a life as a poet and I made it. Winning this prize has been affirming in a way that’s hard to overstate.

The business of poetry (separate from the art of poetry) celebrates youth in a way that can make it seem if you didn’t hit it when you were young, there’s no space for you. I’m concerned with supporting those voices, mostly of women, who for varied reasons had to sublimate their artistry and ambitions. I hope to be able to give support and community to those who may not see a way in for themselves.

Where does your general impulse to write come from? And what does a typical day of writing look like for you?

My impulse comes largely from reading. Those days I can write, I begin by reading at least a few poems to become inspired—images, line breaks, surprising language—any and all of it can trigger a desire to get onto the page and do it myself.

I don’t have a typical writing day. I teach a heavy load and have many other responsibilities, so I don’t view writing as a daily practice, otherwise I’d be constantly anxious because of my failure to write during busy times. Instead, I try to listen to my impulses. The past few weeks, my commitment to writing poems as part of the Plath Poetry Project has led to a kind of epic tear, but before that it had been nearly three weeks before I could write. I personally can’t follow the advice that you should write every day, but I also don’t wait for inspiration to strike. If I have time, I sit down and try; if I don’t, I go through the world with a lens open to experience that will find its way to my work.

What is the last a) TV show you watched, b) book you read, c) drink you drank, and d) song you listened to.

a.    Show: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”

b.    Book: Ordinary Misfortunes by Emily Jungmin Yoon

c.    Drink: Pinot Grigio

d.    “Blue Magic” by Son Little

 

 

Hunter Choate

Hunter Choate's story "Mirror Box" was recently listed as a Distinguished Story in The Best American Short Stories 2017. The story first appeared in issue 36.1 of The Pinch, and it captivated our staff with its flawless writing and powerful storytelling. Recently, we spoke with Hunter about how it felt to receive this distinction, as well as what inspires his stories, and where his writing's headed next.

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Q: What have you been up to since publishing with The Pinch?

I've been working on short stories. I'd like to have enough for a collection soon. Beyond that, I was an opening reader for Lauren Groff at a Functionally Literate event here in Orlando. That was a huge treat. And, of course, there's a novel on the distant horizon. There's always a novel on the horizon, right? I'm a big believer in momentum, so I'm trying to buckle down and make it all happen.

Q: Can you tell us about the process that went into writing "Mirror Box"?

The story originated with the idea of a one-armed kid who wanted to impress girls by making the preposterous claim he was the drummer for Def Leppard. On its own that's little more than an absurdist joke and, while I enjoy humor, I aim to use it in service of illustrating the hard business of being human. So, as is often the case in my writing, the process was accretive. Years ago I'd learned about the use of mirror boxes to treat phantom limb pain, and once that information dislodged itself from the recesses of my brain and made its way into the story, I had the room for added depth. The third person narrator also unveiled himself in the writing process. His role in the story was a surprise to me and hopefully that translates to the reader's experience.

Q: What does it mean to you to have "Mirror Box" selected as a Distinguished Story in The Best American Short Stories 2017?

It's such an honor to have work mentioned alongside stories by so many authors whose work I admire. Writing is a lonely endeavor and it's brimming with rejection—my personal record is five rejections in the span of 24 hours—so there's a certain validation to the Distinguished Story nod that I'm sure will help fuel the writing for a good long while.

Q: Where do you look for inspiration? On a typical day, how long do you spend writing?

Inspiration is everywhere. The key is being attuned to it. I like the David Lynch example of paying close attention as random pieces to your creative puzzle are being flicked to you beneath a door. That said, a few things I look for include ways to balance the oddness and humor of life with its beauty and sorrow, and I’m a sucker for a striking image. I often think in terms of visual mnemonics. In the same way someone trying to memorize a deck of cards will assign visual cues to each card, at key points in my work I look to include images that have the power to linger.

As for the sausage making of getting the actual writing done, I try to wake up early and get in an hour or so before heading to the office. Unfortunately, I’m not a morning person and it takes me a while to get into the writing flow, so most of my progress is made on the weekends when I can steal a couple hours in succession to focus on the work.

Q: Just for fun, which do you prefer: dogs or cats, coffee or tea, rain or sunshine? 

You couch this as being the fun question, but I’m already envisioning sternly worded letters from the militant wing of the American Kennel Club, the Peaceful Tea Ceremonies or Death gang and drought sufferers everywhere. I think I ought not answer. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.

For more on Hunter and his writing, visit his website. To read his story, "Mirror Box," check out our limited edition PDF of 36.1, and for news about our upcoming publications and interviews, take a look at our new blog, The Spark