Literature on Lockdown: Wally Lamb
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at email@example.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
We’re pleased to present our interview with Wally Lamb. You might know him as the author of novels such as Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Hour I First Believed, I Know This Much is True, and She’s Come Undone (the last two were Oprah’s Book Club picks.) His next novel, We Are Water, comes out later this month. Today, though, we will be speaking to Lamb about the two nonfiction essay volumes he edited, Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away. The collections feature essays from his writing workshop students at the York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Connecticut. Lamb has been volunteer facilitator at the prison for the past fourteen years. He generously spoke to our own Alison Balaskovits about what it’s like to teach the “incarcerated wounded,” lawsuits, and how these experiences have influenced his own work.
It’s been ten years since the publication of Couldn’t Keep it to Myself and six years since I’ll Fly Away was released. Has the attention garnered by the books changed the way that you approach the workshop?
No, not really. The women are primarily writing for themselves, and publication comes down the line if they work hard at it. But for many of them that is not their goal. For some of them it is. We have had some award winners in the Pen Prison Writers Program. I think four or five women have distinguished themselves in that way. Several of our women have been published in the Sun Magazine’s reader’s rights section, where they have the theme of the month and they write in. And there have been other publications as well. It’s not my goal for them, necessarily, unless that is what they want.
In the introduction to Couldn’t Keep it to Myself, you mention this concept of the walking wounded, an observation of the handful of students from your first year of teaching high school. Yet this seems to the theme of the two collections, our incarcerated wounded. You make the point that this begins not at the moment of the incarceration, but their entire lives have led up to this point.
Many of the women I’ve worked with, certainly the majority, have had wounded childhoods. In many cases that means sexual abuse, lots of times by somebody in the family or a neighbor or someone like that. Along with that, or subsequent to that, there is a secret-keeping they are threatened with. Many of them enter into a collusion with the perpetrators of the crime. They carry that within them. I think because they are female – certainly this is not across the board – more often than not females are more apt to implode than explode. A guy who has been sexually abused can go to a bar and, for better or worse, pop the guy on the stool next to him. I think women to be more self-destructive as they try to keep those secrets. I deal with a lot of women who tried to keep those horrible things inside and take care of everyone else. And then one horrible day they snapped and in many cases took a life or hurt someone in a very serious way. Not all, but a lot of them.
Was it difficult for these women to publish such personal narratives knowing that their private lives would be made public?
Many women chose not to take that road. One of the things that happens when these secrets that they have been carrying inside of them come out on the page, there is a kind of lightning, and it’s like the defusing of a bomb in some ways. When they take that next more important step of reading it to the class and hearing not only feedback on how to make a stronger draft but they also hear comfort and solidarity because similar things have happened to many of them. This burden that they’ve been carrying inside, suddenly there are twelve to fifteen people helping to carry it with them. I find that a lot of them who wanted to be assured that this was going to private or only I would read it or it would not go outside of the writing group, little by little, by stages, many of them let go of the terrible secrets and then want it to go public. I only know of only about three instances where a woman wanted to continue to protect the person who had injured her. Some of these perpetrators have died at this point. But sometimes other members of the family knew about it and bear some guilt. But by and large, once those secrets are out and have been made public to the group, there doesn’t seem to be that big of an issue to making it public in a larger circle.
It is really, when you think of it, pretty brave.
Have the women shared with how much these classes and the writing have gone towards healing these wounds?
We talk about that quite a bit.
First of all, I would have to say that we have qualifications to get into this writing group. The most important one is that they have to be discipline free for a period of six months before they enter the program. And if they are disciplined for something they did outside of the program then they are suspended, sort of like a high school thing, for a month or two months or so. So that means we tend to get self-motivated women who are interested in rehabilitation. I only see a percentage of the women who are on the compound. And these are largely the same women who will take advantage of other rehabilitative programs. Not that there’s too much, but the same woman in our program might also be in the dance program. We just recently added classes taught by professors from Wesleyan University. And that was after a lot of road blocks that the prison system put in. But the women are very excited about getting college credit for those classes too.
To get back to your question, yes. I have seen some really dramatic healing going on. I’ve seen women who were so bowled over in pain and embarrassment for what had happened or what they had done that they could not have direct eye contact with people. They were crying. A lot of the women, at first, cannot read their own work and so they pass it to someone who is a friend of theirs in the class or they pass it to me and one of us will read it. And little by little, I’ve seen this over and over again, a woman who is in the process of finding her voice will then allow that voice to get stronger and clearer. Then there’s no stopping her. I’ve seen woman who were almost frightened to be in the program become the leaders. When you’re there for fourteen years you see this development over cool. For someone who has been an educator their entire life, it’s really cool. Or as we say in New England, it’s wicked cool.
What do you do in preparation for these classes?
My primary preparation is going through the writing that has come in. I’m there once every two weeks. I collect the work, either an assignment or something that they have self-assigned. I give them feedback in writing and I will shape a class around some of the women’s work. I might do a little grammar lesson to begin, point of view or subject verb problems. We don’t spend a whole lot of time on mechanics, but we might do a little of that as a warm up.
Sometimes I give them outside assignment assignments. We have used the Pushcart Prizes, those annual volumes that the Missouri Review is often well represented in. We have classroom sets of that, so I will assign a short story in there, or an essay. We get a global reaction and then pick it apart in a more technical way.
I have three people who are my co-facilitators. Once upon a time I was a high school teacher and the woman in the classroom across the hall retired and I knew she would work well with these woman, so I snagged her. Another woman’s field is in alcohol recovery, Susan, is an editorial writer, and a good one. So she coaches that aspect. More recently we have a guy named Doug who runs the stroke program for a community hospital and gets people back and running after they have had a stroke. He is also a very well published writer.
I don’t tell the women they must write this genre or that, but we have the bases covered as far as who is writing what.
What are some of the readings that you typically share in these workshops?
The most recent one that comes immediately to mind is a short story by Donald Hall, who I believe was the poet laureate of the U.S. not too long ago. He’s primarily a poet, but he has this beautiful story called “The Ideal Bakery”. It’s one of the stories that I have gone back to over and over again as a model. And it’s short enough to hold their attention.
I make sure that the women have paper and pencils in front of them and I’ll start reading the story aloud. At the halfway point I will stop and say, “Now I want you to write anything you want for ten minutes”, whether they have questions, observations, or if this reminds them of something from their life or something they’ve read. We reconvene after those ten minutes and we share what their reaction is. It almost becomes a pot-luck kind of thing and everyone brings a little something and we have this feast of reaction. I’ll continue the story, and when the story ends we have another ten minute writing time and we do the wrap-up. At that point we talk in terms of craft. They have to get the plot down first and then we’ll make observations. They really make astute observations. They have become amazingly good at literary criticism, not only the professionals but of one another. Regularly we have observers come in and their mouths drop open because they have certain assumptions about what women in prison can or cannot accomplish, and those assumptions are debunked so rapidly when they see the level of sophistication of those critical remarks.
Is there anything that the women not allowed to write about or you are not allowed to comment on?
It’s probably a self-protective thing for them to not go into details about their crime if their trial has not happened yet. Lots of times they are waiting for a couple of years if it is a serious or high-profile case. They don’t get before the judge and jury for a while. We steer them away if they are writing about that kind of thing.
There has been a lot of gang violence and gang members who are brought to prison. When you enter the prison you have to repudiate all of the gang signals and rituals and so on. A woman who was in both of the books, Brenda Medina – she’s out now, thank goodness – but when she was in prison she had been a gang sister. She was afraid to write about her gang involvement, but it was important for her to do so because she was trying to figure out how she fell into that trap. We sought permission from the then-Warden, who thank goodness was a reasonable woman, and she gave permission for her to write about it. Had that not happened, the guards have a lot of power there, and for no stated purpose they can go into the cells and confiscate whatever they want. Had Brenda been writing about gang stuff without special permission to do so she may have gotten into serious trouble.
If the women want to criticize the prison system or the day to day stuff that’s going on, I ask that they give the guards or whoever they are writing negatively about a pseudonym. We don’t want to put anyone on trial unfairly. But they will get to the bottom of some of the behavior that is unethical.
Was Couldn’t Keep it to myself an idea that you pitched to your publisher or did they approach you and ask about your work at the prison?
It came quite by accident. I live in Connecticut and I was going down to New York. I hopped a train in New Haven and was off to see my then-editor Judith Regan. I was bringing my schoolwork, the things the women had handed in and I was writing comments. The meeting was to talk about the novel I was working on and was about to come out. And Judith said, “So, what else is new?” and I started talking about this class that I had been teaching at that point for about five years and I went on about how I couldn’t believe how good this writing was. She said, I think to be polite, “Oh, you’ll have to show me sometime”.
“Well as a matter of fact!” I reached into my briefcase and pulled out a piece by a writer named Nancy Whiteley, who writes very humorously but also pretty poignantly. It was about three hand-written pages or so. I looked up at Judith when I finished and she had tears. She’s a hard-boiled New York women and I had never seen tears before. She said, “Wally, this is better than 75% of the professional stuff that I see. Would you like to do a book?”
It wasn’t something I had considered, so I said I would have to go back and see how the women feel about it. I went back to the prison services and I said there was a possibility of a book, would you please guide me in terms of safety and security? And therein lies another tale. I don’t know if you know how we ended up on Sixty Minutes?
Oh, yes. The women were being sued for their writing?
They were suing them because of their writing. What they were suing them for was the cost of their imprisonment.
That’s so bizarre. It’s not as if they chose to be there.
Correct. But they overplayed their hand. I had just come from two very successful books that Oprah Winfrey had endorsed for her book club. The prison culture is one of fear. Everybody is afraid, particularly, of public criticism. I think they were so afraid that Oprah might pick this and make a bestseller out of it and the resulting outcry would be how dare these women profit from this?
Just the math of it: the book sold for about $75,000 and there were thirteen contributors. The women wanted to make a battered women’s shelter the fourteenth partner, because many of them had been battered women in these shelters. I edited the book but I didn’t take any money for it. That divided up into about $6,000 apiece per woman that she would be able to get once she was released. In other words, it would be held for her by the publisher.
The prison system was not after that money, that $6,000, they went after $117 per day times the number of days of their sentence. One woman, Bonnie Foreshaw, had three bucks in her account to buy overpriced toilet paper at the commissary, and suddenly she owed the state of Connecticut $917,000. It demoralized the women. I’m not a rabble-rouser and I’m not particularly an activist, but I got so pissed off that they were trying to shut down those voices just when they had acquired them. I went to battle against the State of Connecticut, and eventually it got flipped around.
I talk about this in the introduction to I’ll Fly Away, but what happened was the lawsuit languished for a year and a half. I got a call from the PEN American Center. The lawsuit had gotten some publicity and someone remembered that and called my office and said, “At PEN we give a first amendment prize for someone whose freedom of speech is under attack. Could you nominate somebody from your group?”
I asked if I could nominate them as a group. They said no, it has to be an individual.
I nominated the hardest worker, one of the women who had the most amazing transformation because of her writing. And she won the award. It was funded by Paul Newman’s company, Newman’s Own, and carried a $25,000 prize. If you’ll excuse my language, that’s when the shit really hit the fan.
I was told I was no longer welcome at the prison. They said were investigating me and investigating the program. While this investigation was going on, they forbade the women to write anything for the program and they confiscated their floppy disks. We’re talking about ancient computer material. But the cruelest thing of all that they did was they wiped out the hard drives of all the women’s writing. We had these old Apple 2E computers and suddenly all their writing was deleted.
I got ahold of the PEN American Center and told them what was going on and PEN got ahold of 60 Minutes. 60 Minutes investigated and found out that I was telling the truth about what was going on and that the prison system was lying. Once they shined their TV cameras and lights on what was going on, suddenly the Attorney General did a back-flip: This is a wonderful program and we’re going to settle this lawsuit. It all ended okay, but before that it was a year and half of something very Kafkaesque. They were telling lies about me. I would pick up the newspaper and see these fictions they were writing– this program is sneaky, they didn’t know anything about it, and all of that was bogus.
Did they assume that you just walked in randomly and started teaching?
I don’t know what they were thinking. The spokesman for the Department of Correction was feeding lies to the Hartford Current, which is the big newspaper in the state. For instance, they said that they didn’t know anything about the book and that I had snuck book contracts in through the mail and they had confiscated them.
Now, that’s what I read in the newspaper. The real story was that I had submitted the manuscript for their approval and they never got back to me. I submitted copies of the contracts and they never got back on those. Nor would they answer calls from the lawyers at Harper Collins. They said that they had confiscated them from the mail? They were never mailed. I had passed them out in class one day assuming that they never said anything about the sample it was okay. It was bizarre and very scary, particularly for the women.
Are you considering doing a third book in this series?
I’ve got a couple of projects that are going to keep my busy for a while, but I am stockpiling the very fine writing that has accrued in the past five years or so. I may or may not do a book. I was thinking – although there are no immediate plans nor do I know how to do this – that this might be really interesting as a stage play, where the women’s writing becomes dramatic monologues and there might be five of them on the stage. Little by little they can tell their stories, both the tragic and the victorious. But this is a vague plan.
How have these experiences and these women telling their stories to you influenced your own art?
It has. With my fiction, I’ve never been afraid to go to the dark places, but I think the women have made me more daring. For instance, with my new book, We Are Water, because I have read so many stories of pedophiles that victimized a lot of these women, there is a pedophile in my story and I take the gag off of him and he tells his story. It was scary to write as this guy. I don’t think I would have had the nerve if they had not given me an education. I guess I would call myself a feminist in terms of what they have taught me about the inequality of women and men and the power structure between women and men and how some men are extremely abusive of that power. And some women too. There’s been a give and take, a flow back and forth between who is teaching what to whom. They’ve taught me a lot about life and I’ve taught them a few things about writing. It’s symbiotic, and I feel so lucky and so blessed to have them in my life and have this class to go to. It takes me about forty-five, fifty minutes to get down there by car. I get my homework done and I pack my stuff in the car and I am frustrated, I can’t believe I’m going to do this, I have my own stuff to do and I’m whining the all the way down there. Three or four hours go by and I’m driving off the compound and I’ve got a smile on my face. I’m just so glad that I went. They’ve become really important to me personally, and really important to me writer to writer.
Wally Lamb is the author of four New York Times bestselling novels: Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Hour I First Believed, I Know This Much is True, and She’s Come Undone. His fifth, We Are Water, is due out in October 2013. Lamb also edited Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away, two volumes of essays from students in his writing workshop at York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Connecticut, where he has been a volunteer facilitator for the past fourteen years. He is a 1972 graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Education. He also holds a Master of Arts degree in Education from UConn and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Vermont College.
Working Writers Series: Paul Arrand Rodgers
Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRworkingwritersseries@gmail.com.
Today’s Interview is with Paul Arrand Rodgers
Tell us a little about yourself, Paul.
I’m a writer, blogger, and professional wrestling play-by-play announcer living in Metro Detroit. I received an MFA in poetry in 2012 and have been writing in one way or another for most of my life, though I didn’t know it was something you could get a degree in until my senior year of college. While the MFA is often looked at as a kind of formalization process—academically minded authors writing high-minded literature for a similarly educated audience—I was encouraged by my mentors and peers to go in a different direction, so the vast majority of my work is about film or wrestling, which, considering my undergraduate love affair with Virginia Woolf, is a world of difference to my formal training. I’ve been living my childhood dream of being involved in wrestling through a company in Cleveland called Absolute Intense Wrestling for over a year now, and have been writing film criticism on a number of blogs for the past five. I’ve recently had poetry accepted or published by Heavy Feather Review, JMWW and 491 Magazine, fiction in Monkeybicycle, and my criticism recognized by Roger Ebert. It’s been a fun start to the year.
Poetry and wrestling seem so very far distanced from one another, but I’ve been noticing a string of poetry and fiction and non-fiction about the art form lately. What’s your take on it?
Fans of wrestling, and this isn’t just fans of wrestling who also happen to write literature, have recently taken up the argument that wrestling is an elaborate form of performance art. It’s an instance where fans of a perceived low culture (video games and comic books, for example) have started fighting for the wider recognition of something they’re passionate about. And why not? One of the most popular podcasts in the world is pro-wrestler Colt Cabana’s “The Art of Wrestling,” Japanese and British wrestling has an undeniable artistry to it that’s more accessible than ever thanks to YouTube, and it’s been part of the American cultural lexicon longer than television or film. Regarding wrestling as art isn’t anything new—Barthes wrote an essay about its symbols, and 2013 WWE Hall of Fame inductee Mick Foley is a gifted and bestselling author—but I think it’s becoming a larger presence in literature now because writers who were fans of it growing up have matured and seen the art shed a lot of its hick theater nature. Its theatrics are broad, but wrestling is one of the most popular forms of collaborative art in the world, the sort of spectacle that draws a talented pen or two.
Do you think blogging operates the same way, that is, a low-culture form of performance art, but that has the potential, if not has reached the potential, of being a poetic form?
I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of blogging as an art form before. I’m sure that has a lot to do with how quickly that culture has grown. Ten years ago, nobody knew what a blog was. Now a popular one, like the Huffington Post, can be sold to AOL for millions of dollars. To me, blogging is a buzzword that became real through sheer force of will. I don’t think just having a blog makes you an artist, but there are so many genres within this vast, relatively new realm that the possibilities of art are endless. The blog has enabled and encouraged new voices in journalism, memoir, cartooning, and criticism—Kate Beaton’s Hark, A Vagrant! came from the internet, and Roger Ebert’s recent memoir has its roots in the often profound meditations on life and illness that he posts on his blog. I think the “low culture” rap comes from an odd place. Anybody can have one, so when a blog is profound, it often goes ignored. The amount of content is overwhelming, but things are changing rather quickly, to the point that old media is rushing to awkwardly embrace blog culture, pinning its arms to its sides in case the new, dangerous looking kid in town is bearing a knife.
You write manage and write a large amount of the content for your own pop-culture blog, Fear of a Ghost Planet. How does your writing differ between doing traditional creative work and the reviews and analysis you write for the blog?
Honestly, I’m not sure that it’s all that different. There’s a difference in personae, depending on what I’m writing for Fear of a Ghost Planet and what I’m writing about for traditional creative outlets, but the walls that stood between criticism and art were largely imaginary. I don’t think you’ll find Quentin Tarantino starting a film blog any time soon, but Roger Ebert wrote screenplays for Russ Meyer early in his career, and there are an endless number of writers who also functioned as critics. You adopt a more authoritarian tone of voice when examining somebody else’s work, but even that has been tempered by the likes of Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs, whose reviews had a level of artistry to them that often rose above their subject. In both instances—traditional creative writing and the work I produce on Fear of a Ghost Planet—I am offering up a conscious self-reflection for public scrutiny. It’s the stakes that are different. If you leave a comment on my blog to tell me that I’m an idiot for liking Prometheus, I won’t care: my only connection to the movie is that I saw it, and you’re the idiot for not agreeing with me. If you read a poem that I write and send me an e-mail telling me that I’m a sad man for experiencing genuine human connection in a barber’s chair, then you’ve cut a little deeper. Even if the poem or the short story is a mask, the connection is deeper because it’s something I’ve created—you’re attacking me, not my opinion.
(Interviewers Note: Prometheus was not a good movie).
How did you get into announcing for wrestling shows?
Well, the first thing you need to know about wrestling is that, unless you know somebody who can help get your foot in the door, it’s a scam. My try out was a $75 Kickstarter reward, and the promoters were nice enough to let me pick which match I wanted to call. Being an idiot, I chose the main event of a show called Girls Night Out 5, because one of my favorite wrestlers—Sara Del Rey, who is now a WWE trainer—was involved. They had a third announcer waiting in the wings in case I screwed up or went silent, but unlike practically 100% of fans who get a shot at announcing, I did my research and had things to talk about. They invited me back as their resident expert on women’s wrestling, and I quickly developed good chemistry with Aaron Bauer, my regular partner at the booth. Every show you’re asked to prove yourself again—wrestlers and announcers alike are one particularly bad review away from not being booked again—but that’s nothing new after two years of teaching basic composition to a room full of freshmen who sometimes openly question the purpose of the classes they’re enrolled in.
Since graduating the MFA, how has your output for creative work changed? What are challenges you’re facing once you’re out of the academy?
I’ve been out of the MFA for six months now, and I spent four of them mostly unemployed. Though you’d think the surplus of time would’ve been a boon to my post-graduate writing momentum, all you can think about when you don’t have any money is work. I was so desperate for cash that I almost became a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman, blind to the realities of my hoax interview and my hoax interviewer’s taste in Affliction sportcoats because he promised me a paycheck over the phone. So I didn’t write much beyond what I wrote for the blog, which often felt more like something I did out of obligation and not passion. So depression was my biggest challenge. With a job, obviously, I’m committing a lot of my time to something I’d rather not be doing, but that commitment is only an issue if I let it be one. The worst thing about my job is that I come home after ten hours of staring at a computer screen wanting nothing to do with my word processing program, but there are ways around that, too. Practically everything I write anymore starts out on a pad of paper, and I’m slowly rediscovering the Palmer method of cursive handwriting. The process has slowed, but that’s fine.
Where do you see yourself going, creatively, professionally, etc? What do you want to pursue?
Coming out of the MFA, my immediate thought was to keep going to school, to get a PhD and start teaching. In retrospect, that wasn’t a completely realistic career arc, and the six months I’ve been away from school have been incredibly valuable. I was in school from ages four to twenty-four, and, until this year, my only experience of a workplace not typically associated with student jobs were the times I visited to my mother’s factory. I lived an incredibly sheltered life, especially for somebody of working class origins, and working in Detroit has really put that into perspective. My ambitions are the same as they were this time last year: I want to be published, I want to teach, I want to be in school, I want a PhD. The work I put in at the office is ultimately secondary to those goals, but it has made me value the time I was given as an MFA to write, as well as the time that I find now. For her birthday, I took my sister to Nick Offerman’s American Ham stand-up show, which he presented as a series of tips on how to engage in a meaningful, happy life. One of his tips was to keep a hobby, by which he meant to practice a craft. Nick Offerman, being a man’s man, is something of a master woodcarver. Though I have a degree stating otherwise, I’m not a master of anything, and have, perhaps foolishly, chosen something that’s impossible to master as my craft. It is my hope that I will continue to grow and mature from this point forward. That will take patience and dedication. Our society tends not to value those two things, but I sit in front of a computer for ten hours a day, so at least I have time.
You can follow Paul Arrand Rodgers on twitter at @gh0stplanet or on his website, fearofaghostplanet.com
Interview with Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey (excerpt)
We at TMR are thrilled that Natasha Trethewey has been appointed the new Poet Laureate of the United States. In three innovative books of poems, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard, Trethewey has been a forerunner in what we might call the new-historicist formalism of the 2000s. Grounded in archival research, her poems exhibit a historian’s care for fact, balanced by a personal, living warmth. And in some of her most exciting poems, like Robert Lowell forty years before her (only this go-round inverting the hierarchy), she renders the life study out of and through her own life and family. Her work, like that of a good historian, is recovery, restoration. Lost or “erased” lives and voices are given lasting form by her manipulation of traditional form: a conventionalism that feels effortless and adept, but also edifying, and troubling.
A few years back, in our Summer 2010 issue, poetry editor Marc McKee interviewed Trethewey. In the selection below, they discuss Trethewey’s evolving treatment of history, voice, linearity, and the construction of books of poems.
…All my poems tend to begin in inquiry. There’s always some question I’m asking myself. I want to know why this is a thing in history or what this has meant across time and space.
Is that something that’s remained constant over the arc of the three books that you’ve written–or has it undergone slight change from book to book?
It must change. When I think about a lot of the poems I was writing in Domestic Work, mainly the sequence of poems in the “Domestic Work” section, those poems seemed to arise out of a memory of a particular instance, an image of something that was just stuck in my head-seeing a room a certain way and the people in it, and all of the other images of smell or touch that go along with it. And I wanted to describe that moment and expand it, go out from there to figure out what it means or why it has remained so long in my memory. I don’t think I have proceeded exactly the same way throughout my other two collections, though that does continue to happen. The more I’ve gotten interested in writing about history and making sense of myself within the continuum of history, the more I’ve turned to paintings, to art. I look to the imagery of art to help me understand something about my own place in the world. By just beginning to contemplate a work of art, I find myself led toward some other understanding.
All your books share a very scrupulous, fastidious attention to the way they’re made. I’m thinking about what can sometimes be the chaos of the process of making the poem: How do you feel about going from a draft? What is a draft for you, and what does it take for you to get from a draft to a poem? What to go from a poem or a sequence of poems to a book?
Now, that certainly feels different every time. Writing Native Guard, I didn’t know I was working on a single book. I began writing that book because I was interested in the lesser-known history of these black soldiers stationed off the coast of my hometown. It was stunning to me that I hadn’t known about this growing up, so I started doing research about black soldiers in the Civil War, trying to imagine the voice of this one soldier who might have things to say about then as well as now. But at the same time, I had begun writing elegies for my mother, and I was approaching the twentieth anniversary of her death. Those poems didn’t seem to have anything to do with my interest in the buried history of these Civil War soldiers to whom no monuments had been erected. It was later on that I wrote a poem which hit me and made me realize these things belonged together. Once I knew they belonged together, I could begin fashioning an entire book from these sets of poems.
With Bellocq’s Ophelia it was different because it was even more of a project than Native Guard. Native Guard-part of it-was a project. That was the Civil War part, but the rest of it wasn’t. The entirety of Bellocq’s Ophelia was a project, and I was interested in doing research and looking at photographs and writing about them, imagining this woman Ophelia and what her life was like and the kinds of things she thought about. I began just by writing about the individual photographs to see how they gave way to a story of her life or emotional geography. There was a point where I could look at what I had and decide where there were gaps. And so I would begin to try to think of how I might write a poem that helped fill in some gap in her experience or her evolution as a self. At first, because I was at once writing the letters and writing her diary, I didn’t know that they were going to be separate. I thought they were going to be interspersed because I was very interested in the difference between the public self we present to an audience, like the person to whom you’re writing letters, and the private self who exists in a diary and the way the same information can be skewed so differently. I thought going back and forth would be an interesting way to see that. Then I realized that in terms of the shape the book would take, it might be interesting to show-to tell-the same story or at least the same time period for her year and a half in the brothel, side by side: the diary intact and the letters intact, so you could see the contradictions between the two stories.
I know that my tendency is to be linear, and I’m trying to find ways to subvert that. And so in Bellocq’s Ophelia my device for subverting it was to tell the story and then to tell it again; it always circles back to this one moment, and it’s not linear, but it’s round in that way, and much of Native Guard is like that. So many of the formal decisions I made are about circling back, so the narrative circles back in on itself and can’t simply proceed in a linear fashion.
Since you do so often play with the voices, with inhabiting the voices of the other speakers, how do you feel about a reader’s tendency to either see you in those other voices or to not see, perhaps to miss you in those other voices?
You know, I think I would be completely happy if readers did not find me in those voices, if they found instead this probable or possible character, this human being who might have existed in a certain time and place, who might have thought and felt the things the poems reveal. At the same time, I’m not annoyed if a reader or someone in an audience I’ve just read to asks me questions about the links between the persona in my poems and my own experience. I’ve learned that my poems give way to those kinds of questions, so if it’s a burden, I’ll take it on. But I also think it’s important to talk about how we make poems, how we create a persona from tidbits of our own experience, our own interior life. I don’t think I could create them if I did not give to them aspects of my own interior life. I remember reading Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. There’s a part where I think he talks about how all his characters are sort of unrealized parts of himself-they get to be acted out in the language of his fiction. And so I give to my characters-I gave to Ophelia parts of my own interior life, the feelings I had about certain things-things I thought about-but I also gave her certain physical details of my life…
Sitting down with our literary crush, The Millions
We were lucky enough to speak with C. Max Magee, editor in chief of literary super-blog The Millions, and he was kind enough to answer some of our questions. Check out the interview, then check out our website as well.
We were lucky enough to speak with C. Max Magee, editor in chief of literary super-blog The Millions, and he was kind enough to answer some of our questions. Check out the interview, then check out our website as well.
1. The Millions has been around for very nearly a decade now. What was the
impetus to start The Millions (beyond thinking a blog was a good idea)? How
did the website start? How has it grown in the intervening years?
The Millions was founded in 2003 as my personal blog but grew over the
years into an online magazine focusing on books, arts, and culture. At
any given time we have about 15 part-time writers, editors, and
interns on staff and we have published over 500 different writers,
including Jeffrey Eugenides, Margaret Atwood, and John Banville. I
started the site because I was looking for something that would
motivate me to write more, and the site rather quickly began to focus
on books because I was working in an independent bookstore in Los
Angeles and spending a lot of time immersed in the world of books. As
the site started to attract a few readers, other writers and book
lovers that I knew became interested in the project, and it basically
grew from there.
2. While The Millions is primarily a literary site, it also functions as a
overarching cultural critic, encompassing a wide range of topics,
approaches, and issues. Given that, how does content get chosen, picked, or
edited? In other words, what is The Millions’ process for choosing content?
There is no editorial board and I’m the point of contact for almost
all of what we publish. Anyone can email pieces or pitches my way, and
if it catches my eye and it is up to the standards we’ve established,
we’ll use it. While we occasionally assign pieces to staffers, 90% of
what we publish comes in over the transom. This is why we might
publish a review of a new book one day and a family memoir the next. I
think the web is very well suited to that open flow. The web has
trained us to expect randomness. Google reader is a long stream of
random content. We listen to 10,000 songs on shuffle on our ipods. The
Millions is like that too, curated for form and quality, less so for
3. We’ve been spending a lot of time recently reblogging your Tumblr posts.
How do you think the explosion of social networking in the Web 2.0 age has
changed the landscape for websites? How are the various outlets–website,
blog, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Pinterest–harnessed together to present an
integrated experience for the website user? Also, excuse that last sentence
for sounding a little pretentious-y.
Social media has changed everything. It used to be that the bread and
butter of attracting new readers was hoping for mentions from other,
bigger sites, now it’s possible to build and devolop an audience on
those social platforms, and your followers on those platforms become
great advocates for your content. We have over 100,000 Twitter
followers (https://twitter.com/#!/The_Millions) and the bulk of our
new traffic now comes from Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Reddit. I
think this is by far the biggest change for us in the last few years.
4. Which brings us to our next question: What is The Millions’ USP? Given
how many literary websites there are, why do you think The Millions has
managed to carve out such a large niche for itself? What do you attribute
that to? Are there specific editorial decisions that are geared towards
maintaining that USP as regards content?
I think part of it is that we’ve been around so long and are so
reliable. We have published one or two quality long-form pieces every
single weekday for years now. There aren’t a lot of sites out there
that can even pass that hurdle. Being bigger allows us to attract more
talented writers, and having more talented writers allows us to
attract more readers. There’s something of a snowball effect there.
Looking at content specifically, we try to be timely but we don’t
chime in on every little scandal and rumor. We don’t waste readers’
time with slideshows or repurposed pieces from other sites. We try to
be unpredictable and surprise readers; I think it’s great that you can
fire up The Millions each day and have no idea what to expect. We also
have a team of great curators who make our Curiosities link blog
another draw on the site.
5. You recently edited (along with Jeff Martin) a book called “The Late
American Novel” in which various authors talked about the future of books.
What are your own views on it? How do you see the publishing market in, say,
I’m pro-reading and I’m platform agnostic. I think this is a great
time to be a reader. I don’t think it makes sense to make predictions,
but the current trends point to further disruption in the industry and
a further blossoming of choices and access for readers. The internet
has allowed readers to find each other and sites and communities
catering to those readers to flourish. Not only is it now suddenly
possible to get your hands on almost any book you could ever want,
it’s possible to find people to talk to about that book. It’s possible
to write about that book for The Millions and be read by tens of
thousands of people.
6. As a literary website that is not attached to any academic institutions,
how do you feel the presence of so many writing programs has affected the
literary landscape? There’s a constant debate between the “McStory” theory
aficionados and the “Time to Write” theory adherent, and as an impartial
observer, your opinions/views would be most welcome to inject some fresh
life into a tired debate.
I don’t have a lot to say about it, since I have never been a part of
that world, and, as a reader, it’s something I don’t think about much.
(I think this is true of most readers, unless those readers are MFA
grads.) I subscribe to the view that having an MFA isn’t a determiner
of quality one way or the other, something that was nicely summed up
by our staffer (and MFA grad) Edan Lepucki in a recent column.
7. Any advice/ suggestions/ morsels of hope to those attempting to be a part
of the publishing, writing, blogging about literature world?
If you want to be a writer, get out there and write! Pursue your work
aggressively, which isn’t the same thing as being an aggressive
networker. I’m interested in writers who are full of ideas and who are
writing regularly whether they are getting published or not. I want
writers who are looking to establish themselves through their work,
not through networking and trying to know the right people.
In our next issue – an interview with David Milch
Our next issue features an interview with David Milch (creator of Deadwood, NYPD Blue, Luck and others) by Michael Piafsky. Michael sent us the following, on the experience of interviewing Milch.
The danger with interviewing David Milch is that his life story is so interesting, and so bizarre that it threatens to overshadow his creative output. Indeed, it did so for a New Yorker profile in February of 2005, which spent as much time on Milch’s exploits as a drug mule in Mexico and general ne’er-do-well as it did on his writing for Deadwood. But to dismiss Milch as nothing more than a good backstory is a terrible injustice as he’s been pretty much the best television writer in the world since the very first script he ever wrote for Hill Street Blues (which won pretty much every award a script can win.) So the first trick to trying to capture Milch in an interview is not to get sidetracked by the lure of his bio. Making this harder, Milch himself used to participate actively in this mythmaking. It was he who sent me the New Yorker piece, which I took to be a prompt for future inquiry but might instead have been a means of moving past that into more substantial discussion of his work. His website is sort of equal parts craft talk and the craziest Hunter S. Thompson roadtrip you’ve ever heard, and frankly as good a use of your time as the interview you’re about to read.
The second trick to Milch is to get him to talk extemporaneously. One of the pleasures of working as a college professor is that you spend your life surrounded by smart people, experts in their fields. I eat lunch with chemists and physicists and theologians and Milch makes all of us look stupid. He’s working on a higher plane, and if the interview did him justice that will be as apparent to you as it was to me. The piece worked best, I think, when I (through my obstinance, my confusion or a legitimate and valid query) got him to offer responses beyond what he had in the can. Since these sometimes necessitated moving beyond the obvious questions, the interview is somewhat formless, but I hope it was worth it.
The third trick to Milch is getting him wound up. And although I did this, as you’ll see, I’ve come to regret it. Partly that might be because it might make me look stupid (which may be inaccurate) or at least stupid in relation to Milch (which is certainly accurate, but not particularly flattering). Partly that might be because it makes Milch look a bit grumpy, or intolerant, or impatient. But even if we didn’t have the massive record of his generosity—to former teachers and colleagues and even new writers whom he allows to sit in on his productions as a sort of master’s class, this interview itself would be testimony to his generosity. Our readership doesn’t represent a PR bonanza for Milch, and won’t skew viewership to his new show. He gave up his time willingly and if the interview makes him look grudging or angry that’s something I regret.
But most importantly, leading Milch to low-grade rage, while making for a dramatic and energetic interview (and I hope one well worth reading) also pulled the interview’s focus away from Milch’s work, just as a profile of his crazy past would have. The New Yorker didn’t care about the nuts and bolts of Milch’s creative process, and neither does Entertainment Weekly. The Missouri Review’s readers might have, and we all would have been the better for a tempered interviewer most interested in exploring Milch’s craft. The interview does have some of that, but it also has philosophical tangents, scientific inquiry, linguistic arguments and threats of violence. In the end, Milch was impossible for me to capture so what you have before you is nothing more than my best effort to translate some fraction of him to paper.
To read the interview, consider a print or electronic subscription to The Missouri Review.