The (not-so-soft) touch of Nick Garnett

Last year, Sliver of Stone Magazine welcomed Nicholas Garnett as its Nonfiction Editor.

Now we get to pick his brain…

Nicholas Garnett received his MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University, where he teaches creative writing. He’s also a frequent instructor for the Center for Literature and Theatre at Miami Dade College, and nonfiction editor of the literary journal Sliver of Stone. Nicholas is a recipient of residencies from the Vermont Studio Center and the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, and a scholarship to the Norman Mailer Writing Colony. His writing has appeared in Salon, Sliver of Stone, R-KV-RY Quarterly, and The Florida Book Review. His work has been anthologized in Sundress Publications’ “Best of the Net” and Cleis Press’ Best Sex Writing of 2013.

Garnett headshot

2013© Carl Juste/Iris

And now, ladies and gentlemen, meet Nicholas Garnett:

M.J. Fievre: Your nonfiction voice is gripping—straightforward, but laced with just the right dose of humor. I’ll go on any ride with you.  When did you first realize you wanted to give a special place to writing in your life?

Nicholas Garnett: I’m not one of those people who started writing early.  I wasn’t scrawling stories on the back of my Capt. Crunch.  But I grew up in a household that valued stories and storytelling.  Stories were the vehicle for transmitting family history, for entertainment, for connection.  I read a lot, but I was well in my 40s, following a divorce and relocation, that I devoted myself to telling stories on the page.

MJ: You have a talent for characterization. In All That Glitters, Billie Dennis, the “mercurial gay man” with a toupee, becomes alive on the page. That makes me want to ask you about your craft. What can you tell me about your writing process?

NG: If you’re very lucky, someone like a Billie Dennis—larger than life, complex, contradictory, and damaged—will fall into your lap (so to speak).  For a writer, people like that are golden. If you’re writing nonfiction, all you have to do is choose the right elements to put on the page.  I don’t mean to minimize that process—it can be difficult to know what to portray and what to leave out.  But the character is there, fully formed.  And in fiction, you can use those real-life characters as the “starter kits” for interesting fictional characters.

MJ: After publishing All That Glitters, you joined the staff of Sliver of Stone Magazine. Tell us about your experience there.

NG:  When I began editing for SofS, I’d just finished my MFA.  The experience has allowed me to put into practice a lot of what I learned in that program.  In most aspects of my life, I’m a soft touch.  But, for some reason, I’m a pretty tough editor.  I’ve been able to say “no” to some talented writers and critique the writing of folks who are far more accomplished and experienced than I am.  The payoff is that I’ve worked with writers to bring stories that I’m proud of to the magazine.  I’ve gotten a lot of nice feedback from the contributors I’ve edited.  That’s tremendously satisfying.

MJ: In All That Glitters, referring to your job at the dining hall of the George Meaney Center for Labor Studies, Billie Dennis advised, “Don’t get caught up in something like this. […] You can do better.” So what did you get caught up in, after college?

NG: Like many writers, I did a million things.  Mostly, I tried to shove myself into “respectable” jobs that made me feel horrible about myself. Writing is the first thing that has made me feel as though I have a rightful place in the world.

MJ: As far as writing goes, what are you working on?

NG: I’m in the process of fictionalizing a memoir, which had—practically and creatively—hit a dead end.  I thought that fictionalizing the story would feel more like another rewrite.   Instead, I’m writing a story that is 95% new. It’s been a revelation.  By not having to stick to the facts I can actually get closer to the truth.  Who knew?

Nicholas Garnett will be reading at the next Lip Service, on September 21, at the Miracle Theater, in Coral Gables, FL.

Steve Perrault: Expansion and Containment

Steve Perrault’s background in art, philosophy, theology and clinical psychology (B.A. and three graduate degrees) creates a mysterious connection and deep appreciation of the incongruent aspects of life. Born and raised in Minneapolis, Perrault entered Catholic seminary at age seventeen. For thirteen years he lived in the context of seminary and monastic life, working in ministerial settings in five states, including three years as chaplain of a New York jail. This was followed by ten years in clinical work as a psychotherapist in Chicago. These experiences provided the artist with the opportunity to experience exterior (environmental/architectural) and interior (psychological/emotional) light and darkness, containment and expansion. He has been a full-time painter since 1998.

His work resides in important collections around the world, including the Smithsonian, the Environmental Protection Agency National Headquarters, Academy Award-winning film director William Friedkin (The French Connection; The Exorcist) and Paramount Pictures Chairman Emeritus, Sherry Lansing. He has been featured in over fourty publications including The New York Times Magazine, ARTnews, and American Art Collector. He is represented by galleries in London, New York, Houston and San Francisco.

Perrault’s paintings are instantly recognizable, each with its architectural space opening to the natural landscape, and its iconic red bench. Every picture stands alone, and draws the viewer in with its beauty and its powerful serenity. But the real power of Perrault’s artistry is evident in the whole body of his work. From canvas to canvas, the color and direction of the light changes, the interior architectural shapes are altered, the landscape is challenging or benign, and the red bench morphs from square to elongated, taking positions of varying safety and exposure in the composition. Every image carries its own meaning and its own mood, and it is clear that Perrault’s meditative journey is rich and authentic and alive.

Visit him online at

M. Evelina Galang: Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery

The day my father disappeared he gave me one thousand pesos. “I’ll be home in three days,” Papang said, counting the money. “But just in case. Take care of your ináy, Angel.”

It’s been two weeks. My mother is out of her mind.

This morning, St. Magdalena’s school bus pulls up to our house. The roosters crow and traffic gathers beyond Mabini Street, everyone fighting for space. Drivers honk horns, long bellows sing from diesel trucks. An old vendor rolls his heavy cart up the hill and caws, “Mais! Mais!” The lamps along Mabini shut down one by one.

We climb aboard the empty bus – my grandmother Lola Ani, my little sister Lila and our ináy. I lift two plastic supot of chicken and rice and put them on an empty seat. The driver loads our maletas into the back of the bus. We’re not sure how long we’ll be gone. A day, a week, maybe a month. The bus is so big and white and we are tiny in its space, sitting seats away from one another, each gazing out a different window.

As the bus eases onto Mabini. Lola Ani makes the sign of the cross. We pray for safe travel. We pray for good health. We pray for Papang. We bless ourselves and our family and we bless the drivers who will be traveling on these roads. My family’s voice comes together. It is the only sound I hear beyond the chugging engine.

“Angel,” my mother says. “Text your papang again. Tell him we’re coming na.”

“But Ináy –”

“Don’t answer back. Just text him, ha?”

I look to Lola Ani. She turns away from me, arranging herself in her seat. “Opo,” I answer, pulling out my phone.

“Good girl,” Ináy says. “Tell him aalis na tayo.”

The bus idles at a stoplight like it’s waiting for me to text my father. My thumbs tap the keys, swift like drumsticks on a snare. All the while I stare at the back of Ináy’s head, the way it bobs like a blossom on a vine, gingerly holding on, as if the wind will blow her petals out the bus window. I feel the blood spinning in my belly, threatening to spoil my breakfast. Two thumbs hit send, a beep sounds. Ináy sighs. “That’s my good girl.”

When the light goes green, we shoot down narrow streets, weaving our way to the superhighway. Though it’s early, before long we’re stuck in traffic, idling behind a carabao driven cart. A mountain of hemp baskets, bags, hats and mats piled onto the cart obstruct our view. A vendor perched on top waves the heat away. His cart is surrounded by odd plated vehicles, by the smog of diesel fuel. Slowly, the sun tries to burn the vast Manila haze hovering over us.

If Papang were here we’d be riding in his van. He knows how to drive on seven thousand islands, knows all the long and short cuts. He goes ikot-ikot in the traffic like he and the car are dancing partners. He says even if it takes him longer to get there, it’s better to keep the car moving. It makes the customers think they’re getting somewhere rather than sitting still in traffic. His clients come from all over the world. Americans are loudest, he says. They talk nonstop about nothing. He pretends he can’t speak English sometimes, so they won’t talk to him. But then they just talk louder, like yelling will give meaning to their noise. Papang pretends to care how he nods his head and gets them places without a fuss, but really he’s just driving.

Driving is what Papang does for a living, but really he’s a musician. He plays rhythm and blues through the night, till the sun burns through smog.  He smokes cigarettes, drinks whiskey, and is known all over Makati as the Beat Man. “A heart that won’t quit,” she once said. “That’s what drew me to your father.”

When I was still too young for school, I’d sit in the front seat while Papang drove his clients from one end of Manila to another. He took them to business meetings and to restaurants in Makati. Sometimes he took them to resorts in the provinces. He’d drop them off and Papang and I would listen to the blues and he’d teach me how to hold his sticks and how to beat the drum. “The trick, Angel, is not to think. Just feel it. Listen to the way the tires roll, or the way the wind blows. Listen to the engine when it’s idling. You can hear the traffic breathing if you are very still. It has a heartbeat.” And then he’d thump his chest and chant, “Pintig. Toom-toom. Pintig. Toom-toom. Pintig.” I’d join him, eyes closed, hand on my heart, beating to the count, my whole body vibrating with each syllable – pintig, pintig, pintig.

*   *   *

I prop the window open and dust from the road drifts in along with traffic horns and motors rumbling. Beyond the glass the palengke sprawls with bright bushels of kang kong, green leafy spinach, and bok choy. I see mangoes and bundles of lychee, red as rubies. Before St. Magdalena’s, we used to walk through the palengke to get to class. Holding Lila’s hand, I’d guide her past the hot reds and greens of the vegetables and past the fish packed in ice. We knew everyone in the stands. Sometimes we’d get treats on our way to school. The year Papang made lots of money driving foreign clients around Manila, we stopped going to public school. We stopped sitting in crowded classrooms with boring teachers. We stopped working after school. We stopped walking all over Manila. Instead, we attended St. Magdalena’s School of Holy Angels, where the nuns take their girls to the Cordillera Mountains on field trips to get closer to God. Papang drove us to school. We ate our lunches in the courtyard gardens. Afterwards we’d stroll arm in arm with our batchmates, exchanging stories of aswangs, fairies, and other spirits.

The bus races down a boulevard, the sky lightens to gray. Behind the cityscape an orange red fights its way past the oppressive haze, colors the sky. At a stop light, a series of jeepneys with brilliant purple and orange banners rippling from the back of buses, zoom past, honking and chanting in one miraculous voice.

“Naku!” I shout.

“What is it?” Lila asks. “What’s the matter, Ate Angel?”

I say, “Didn’t you see that?” and when she says “What?” I tell her, “It was nothing.” Not a flash of white, not a van going so fast it blurred before you, not our Papang zipping through the streets of Manila, his silver blue van buried deep in the pack of jeepneys, heading off to some protest.

I see Papang’s van rushing through every stoplight, rushing past us even when traffic is still.

“Ano, Angel,” Ináy calls, “Wala pa bang sagot ang papang mo?”

Of course there is no answer. What does she think? I close my eyes, hold my breath, listen to the traffic’s beating heart. Were Papang here, he’d flip that radio on and the van would pulse with the bass of pop radio. He’d nod his head and drum the steering wheel with his fingers and reach out and tap Ináy like she was the snare on his drums. She’d roll her eyes, but secretly she’d love it and in the end the four of us would be stuck there in traffic, dancing in our seats, being our own rock band.

But not today. Today the ride is so quiet I can hear Ináy shiver when she sighs, I feel her sadness and think about ways I want to go to her, but I cannot. I look over at her, the way her body has wilted. She has thrown her legs on the back of the seat before her and her arms sprawl on either side of her, sighing like a teenager. I motion for Lila to sit with Ináy, but Lila says, “No Ate Angel, she wants you. You sit with her.”

I shift my way down the bus aisle, walking my hands across the railing overhead. Under my feet, the bus rumbles, hitting every stone and dip in the road. I fall into the seat behind her and I lay my head on her shoulder. “Ináy,” I say. “What if Papang was in that accident?”

 “Maybe he has no load. Maybe the battery has died.”

“But Ináy, it’s been two weeks.”

“Siguro,” she tells me, “those clients from Hollywood are working him too hard. Baka when he comes back he’ll have earned our passage to America.”

I shake my head and feel the tears rising, threatening to come out of me. “Pero Ináy, remember how two weeks ago, you said he was with us. You said he was there in your room. What did you mean?”

“That was a dream. But this is the truth, anak, you’ll see. He’s coming home and when he does, we’ll be that much closer to America.”

“But we’re not going to America. Papang is missing, Ináy.”

*   *   *

And that’s when she screams at me as if I am responsible for losing him. Her arms fly up, her face grows red and Lola Ani has to run to the back of the bus to hold onto her, to calm her. She fights my grandmother, pushes her and Lola Ani almost hits her head on the corner of a seat.

I pinch my arm. Wake up, I think, wake up. It’s as if I’ve gone to sleep and someone has kidnapped every single person in my family and replaced them with some stranger. Some alien being that looks like my relative, sounds like my relative, but is not my relative. My nails dig into my skin, but when I open my eyes, I am still there, sitting alone in the middle of the bus, my family scattered about like fallen fruit, my papang not among them. Wake up, I say out loud. Gumising ka na. Tama na ito.

Excerpt from Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, forthcoming Coffee House Press, Fall 2013


Named one of the most influential Filipinas in the United States by Filipina Women’s Network, M. Evelina Galang is the author of the novel, One Tribe (New Issues Press), the story collection, Her Wild American Self (Coffee House Press) and the editor of the anthology Screaming Monkeys (Coffee House Press).  The recipient of numerous awards, including the 2004 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Awards Advancing Human Rights and the 2004 AWP Prize in the Novel, she has worked as an advocate of surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII since 1998. Galang directs the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Miami.  Her second novel, Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, is forthcoming with Coffee House Press in the fall of 2013.

Elmaz Abinader: Looking Inward

Elmaz Abinader’s books, Children of the Roojme, a Family’s Journey from Lebanon, and In the Country of my Dreams, as well as her play, Country of Origin, all illustrate personal lives negotiating hostile terrain.  

Elmaz recently performed Country of Origin at the Kennedy Center; Oregon Drama Critics cited Country of Origin for its excellence by awarding two Drammies to the play and to the composer of the music, Tony Khalife. Other awards include a PEN Award for In the Country of My Dreams and a Goldies Award for Literature. Elmaz has also been a Fulbright Senior Fellow to Egypt and a winner of several residencies.

Now a professor at Mills College, Elmaz’s primary concern is giving voice to other writers of color. Her participation in VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) allows her the opportunity to make a difference in the growth of the cannon of literature of color.

Her upcoming work, The Water Cycle, is at memoir that draws from the author’s childhood experiences growing up in a all-white Appalachian coal mining community and her subsequent journeys around the world. Each story describes an encounter with the shaky concept of identity and cultural relationship.

In addition, Elmaz is a fitness instructor at the YMCA in Oakland CA where she lives with her husband Anthony Byers.

The author was interviewed by M.J. Fievre for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

MJ: Elmaz, you write in every genre. Your first book was a memoir—Children of the Roojme—and you later published a collection of poems—The Country of my Dreams—and several plays. When did you know you had stories you wanted to tell and when did you get up the courage to tell them?

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

EA: Like many writers of color, as I was coming up, I scavenged books for an experience that matched mine. I wasn’t the typical young American girl that showed up in YA novels, or the boy learning about the world in James Joyce or Faulkner. My experience was not represented: a life of merging cultures, an identity that resisted assimilation but had to find a way to co-exist with the dominant culture. These disparities had no place in American literature yet and that absence fermented a loneliness that many can relate to. Poetry was the way I responded to this. Poetry allows the story and the emotion equal presence inside of it—I could fill a poem with the picture, pull the thread of culture and honor through it.

When I allowed myself to look inward, I recognized how I was the product of these two cultures which formed a third one that aligned me with other members of a Diaspora. The story of my life begins with the travels of my parents and when I listened to them, the history of my family–the encounters with unrest, famine, loss, civil war, and ultimately immigration–impressed me as something heroic. I realized that many people around me had similar stories—the other immigrant shopkeepers, the field workers, cab drivers—the fabric of our culture is woven with these stories. Arab-Americans had no representation in the genre in a big way.  I wanted to share the stories much like Maxine Hong Kingston did.

MJ: For the past few years, you have hosted summer writing workshops on memoir and creative non-fiction at the University of San Francisco’s Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA). The foundation is dedicated to nurturing writers of color and, when I attended the first VONA residency in Miami, my fellow residents and I discussed the struggle with being an ethnic writer—one from a distinctive culture, language, or religion—and we examined the pressure that comes from representing a specific group. Is this a struggle for you?

EA: Our people pin our hopes on the one writer or actor or artist who gets attention to be the one to tell their story. Because we are all complex and individual, we can’t possible represent the race; we can only open the door on it. The pressure is not on me to represent, it’s on me to help other Arab-American stories and the voices of other writers-of-color be present—not just one Junot Diaz or one David Mura, but the many Junots and Davids. The frustration is the industry’s satisfaction of having a small collection or a single author from an identity is enough. This was the impulse behind VONA/Voices—to push our work so hard, develop our voices so elegantly, they cannot be ignored and we can populate the shelves.

MJ: Some of my stories have been accused of not being “ethnic” enough. Evidently, it didn’t suffice that the core of my writing was about the human experiences of family, love, longing and disappointment, and individuals negotiating a life amidst the pressure of society. I felt that readers wanted me to write about specifically identifiable ethnic experiences. As far as publishing goes, do you think that a writer of color who sets himself apart from the easily recognizable cultural typecasting may find his or her work rejected or ignored because it is “not ethnic enough”?

EA: Here’s my response to this and to other worries about industry or audience: write first, write true, write with commitment and write with conscious. Don’t write to or for anyone, to be or appear to be anyone—put those thoughts away. Know that people, publishers, industry all are loaded with their own assumptions and need to the familiar. That’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to grow that image, not engender it.

MJ: You are a professor at Mills College. Do you think it is possible for creative writing pedagogy to take a colorblind approach?

EA: I don’t think pedagogy should be colorblind. When we interact with writing and the writer, all that is part of the work is present.  What really needs to happen is pedagogues need to learn to read and teach everyone in their room—not neutralize the responses. This means that your book would have the same elements as a mainstream book , but that’s impossible. Your education wasn’t the only contribution to your literary talent, so  were your songs, your food, your family culture, your spirituality, your languages, your relationships, your body’s geography—

MJ: As a writer of color, how do you fight the racialized assumptions, such as: writers of color are political and white writers focus on artistic quality; race exists only as political correctness; a writer’s ethnicity defines that writer’s audience.

EA: As a writer of color, I ignore ignorance and write as honestly as possible.

MJ: Growing up in Pennsylvania, your home life was very much rooted in Lebanese tradition. Can you talk about popular depictions of Lebanese women and girls, and where they fit in our popular imaginations, and if or how you see your work as a response to that?

EA: The connection between my work and identity as an Arab-American has less to do with Lebanese (in Lebanon) than it does with other writers of color. The Lebanese women are in a homogenous culture that has its own set of complexities which are quite different than the merged identities of immigrants, African Americans and American Indians and other native peoples. Lebanese women (Christian, mostly) are beauty icons of the Middle East.

In the US, most women of color who are in the public realm do have to respond to particular stereotypes and expectations about their behavior. I don’t find it a struggle; I find it boring and had hoped by now the exoticization might have dissipated. When Rima Fakih became Miss America in 2010, the anti-Muslim factions in the US did their usual smear campaigns. Simultaneously some Islamic communities took issue with her being in the pageant at all.

We are all in the unfortunate process of growing the perspective about our people through our work.

MJ: What are some writers who have influenced you?

EA: I am often tempted not to answer this question because I honor most of the writers I read by learning something from them. All the VONA/Voices faculty have been great influences, as are the program’s participants.  When I was young, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende, Louise Erdrich, James Baldwin,  signed their names to the permission slip that encouraged me. I am moved by poets, magic realists, modern American short story, and true stories. I write to jazz, Omar Sosa, Miles Davis, Marcus Miller, Roy Hargrove, Regina Carter, Simon Shaheen and Marcel Khalife.  I love movies. I am influenced by silence and stillness too.

MJ: Tell us a little bit about your upcoming work The Water Cycle.

EA: The Water Cycle is a collection of memoir stories that take place in my two hometowns in Pennsylvania and in various countries in the Middle East.

Dorianne Laux: Poet of Compassion

Dorianne Laux’s most recent collections are The Book of Men and Facts about the Moon.
A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Oregon Book Award and The Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry, Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, and Smoke from BOA Editions. She teaches poetry in the MFA Program at North Carolina State University and is founding faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program.

Dorianne Laux was interviewed by Marina Pruna for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Marina Pruna: I believe that whether attached to age or not, there comes a time when we see who we are and come to embrace this self.  I think that this is true for poets too.   I’m a poet who is trying to “figure out” the world.  I might become a different poet at some point in my life, but today, I have to accept that I am this kind of poet.

Have you had a similar experience in that your poetry has shown you something about yourself as a person or artist or woman that you just can’t deny?  How has your poetry defined you?

Dorianne Laux: I guess I’ve been defined by the fact that I’ve chosen to write in the narrative mode, which many see as easy or self- involved or passé.  And I’ve chosen to write as a woman, which can have its downside as well.  Men are the dominant voice in every field: art, history, politics, literature.  One’s tendency might be to lean in that direction, to develop a sort of genderless poetic landscape and voice, non-domestic, unspecific, one that could easily be mistaken for male. I guess I’ve chosen not to do that.  I could have also chosen to be more ironic, a bit tougher, darker, critical, cynical and less hopeful.   But maybe that hasn’t been a choice.  It’s just not who I am.

MP: I’m always surprised and impressed by your selection of occasion in a poem.  For example, in Facts About the Moon, the poem “Superglue” is as much about the speaker gluing her fingers together as it is a realization that she is alive in this world and in love in this world.  There’s a real sense of fear and awe in the poem.  I find that your poems often do this: talk about something huge like consciousness or love through a very tangible vehicle like superglue or elk crossing the road.  Can you speak to how you make those decisions of occasion when writing?

DL: It seems to me it’s the other way around; the occasion of the poem brings up issues deeply embedded in the subconscious, fear and awe being two overwhelming emotions that if we were to feel them all the time would crush us.  So, they make subtle appearances to give us a portal into that subliminal world.  I’m fairly unaware of the implications of a specific occasion when I choose to write about it.  The experience occurs, I have a human response in the sense that it might seem strange or funny, memorable or striking in some way, and then [I] sit down to reexamine it in a poem.  Both the poems you refer to are humorous situations, and as far as I knew, I merely wanted to capture that humor in image and language.  What arose as I wrote was metaphor, and the truer aspects of awe and fear that were hidden behind the humor, or beneath it.  It seems as we move through life, life also moves through us.  A poem is an attempt to capture and arrest those two movements in time and space, or rather allow them to collide and interpenetrate each other. 

MP: I find that image making has a lot to do with observation.  The keener the observer, the more insightful the image, it seems to me.  I’d like to go back to your first book.  In Awake, you have many poems that have a powerful image followed by an admission or realization from the speaker.  In “Quarter to Six,” for example, there’s the jump from bread to a scar: “Tearing open my bread, I see / the scar, stitches laced up the root of your arm, the flesh messy / where you grabbed at it with the broken glass of an ashtray” (17).  Or in “Bird,” the three lines at the end: “I’m alone with dead roses in a jam jar. / What do I have that she could want enough / to risk such failure, again and again?” (34).  Aside from using images to concretize a moment for the reader, how do you decide to opt for an image, instead of narration, let’s say?  What do you gain and what do you lose by making this choice?

DL: I would most often prefer to opt for an image instead of narration. It’s so clear that the image is the more powerful of the two.  On the other hand, images alone cannot tell the story, and I am nothing if not a teller of stories.  But I’m not sure I consciously “opt” for one over another as I write.  The story itself, as I mentioned earlier, often engenders metaphor quite organically and I simply follow the poem’s lead in that respect.  In revision though, if I see a lax line, I might try to make that line into an image.  This is especially true of last lines in a poem.  I’ll have the urge to sum things up in a statement which is almost always less powerful than the image that often precedes it.  I’m a great fan of lopping off the endings of poems and leaving the reader with an image, trusting it to do the work.  I guess I would say that for me, the success of a narrative poem is in the right balance of narration to image.  What that balance is varies from poem to poem.  I also don’t see the narration as merely a way of getting from one place to another.  An image can do that as well, or a cascade of images.  For me, narration is a complex web that should hold everything in a poem together with an almost invisible and tensile strength. I think of a narrative master such as Larry Levis.  Look at the opening of his poem ADOLESCENCE.

The narration begins simply enough in the first line, a narrator, a character, a setting, but by the second line, we find ourselves contemplating the inner realms of the human mystery. The third line is, again, a simple setting: character, action and place, but by the fourth, we are taken into the past, into death, mystery.  And then the trees appear, as they will in various forms throughout this poem, and we watch them become intermediary or liaison, uniting the past with the present, the heavens with the earth.  So that, when Levis leaps backwards in the next stanza to the age of fifteen, speaking of death in the same breath as the event of a carnival and its silly games of chance, of Laredo, Texas and a stranger, of the girl’s gambler father weeping as the narrator looks off into the trees and makes that absurd and unbearably tender statement, we don’t feel battered around in time and space.  Rather we feel events are “unfolding” as they should, even though we have been wrenched from one set of characters to another, one time and place to another, one way of thinking and feeling to another, and all at lightning speed.  And because of the authority of voice, the meandering style, the slow, thoughtful, intimate tone, we believe that all these oddly disparate details and images will be held together in the shimmering web of the narrative.  This is what I think all poetic narratives seek to do, create stories within stories, layer upon layer of feeling and meaning, spinning it out like a spider, weaving this delicate net that holds time and space, image and language, clarity and mystery.  

MP: I’ve been a fan of your poetry for a very long time, and in preparing for this interview, I reread all of your books in chronological order.  I found that, with your first book, your eye was mostly pointed inward toward self (like creating a personal tapestry), and with each subsequent book, the eye did a couple of things.  First, thematically, the eye seems to have shifted to point more outwardly.  But, also, when looking in, the eye seems to look further in.  In essence, I found that the voice in your work from book to book has expanded both inwardly and outwardly.  How do you sit down to a poem now?  Or does the poem come to you?  (a line? an image?)  Has this act of coming to a poem changed for you fundamentally since you started writing?

DL: I think the fundamental change for me has been in my awareness of myself as a writer, a poet.  When I first began, I was a child who understood very little of the world around me or inside of me.  That was the whole point of writing it down, so I could see it again, study it, contemplate it.  As I grew in experience and knowledge, I came to the page with more formed and formal questions, while at the same time, allowing myself much more freedom of exploration.  Also, the more I read and admired the writing of masters, the more I felt compelled to consciously imitate and experiment.  Even so, the inspired poems come to me on the wings of yes, an image, a line, a snippet of conversation, a look or gesture, a feeling.  There are so many ways into a poem and each poem has its own unique genesis.  I also think what you describe in the arc of my writing is not unique to me. All writers begin with an investigation of the self and move to an examination of the other.  Again, this could be a definition of the act of writing which is first and foremost an exploration, moving from the inner world to the outer world, and back again, each time moving deeper, reaching higher, including more, stripping it down, searching out essence and eternity, the smallest detail that can illuminate, dipping into the darkness.

MP: You did an interview a while back with Willow Springs where, in talking about authors you read habitually and who inspire you, you said, “I love poetry that feels as it thinks.”  What did you mean by that?

DL: In some ways, this is what we’ve been talking about all along, the image that says something more powerful than words, the one word that can join every image.  When that happens, feeling engenders thinking, or thinking links up with feeling, and produces something we don’t know with the mind or heart alone. 

MP: I read in several different interviews with you that your husband, Joseph Millar, is an early reader of your work.  In those same interviews, I remember reading that you have a kind of community of readers, close friends and colleagues, that also have a chance to look at and comment on your work (editing, revision, ordering) before it heads out to a publisher.  This made me wonder how you view community with respect to your writing.  What do these readers point out that you can’t see?  Of what they say, what do you listen to?  Can you write without them at the finish line?

DL: I love and cherish my readers.  They see what I might be too caught up to see.  When one writes with passion and abandon, one can say some fairly silly things or make some pretty ridiculous comparisons.  Of course I could finish a poem without them, but it might take longer.  They save me time, as I hope I save them time.  And more importantly, they ask questions I might not have asked myself, or again, that might have taken me more time to come to. I listen to everything, with gratitude.  Whatever makes sense or feels right, I use.   

MP: During revision and editing, when “tightening up” a poem, what do you do?  What do you ask yourself?  What do you ask the poem?

DL: There’s a great list by Jane Hirshfield, in The Poet’s Companion, of questions to ask of a poem in revision.  A few of my favorites are:  “Is there joy, depth, muscle in the music of its saying?”, “Does it follow its own deepest impulses, not necessarily the initial idea?”, “Does it know more than you did when you started it?”, “Is it self-satisfied, predictable?”, “Does it allow strangeness?”.  Hirshfield asks more practical questions as well, but these are, I think, some of the more important and enduring questions.  But mostly I ask the poem what it wants.  Do you really want to go down that road, I ask.  Yes, it says.  I know that road makes you uncomfortable, and it will be a bumpy ride with few stops along he way, and maybe a wrong turn or two, but yes, I want to take that road.  The poem always knows better and more than I do.

MP: Your latest book is The Book of Men.  In rereading this last book side by side with your previous work, I was particularly taken with the confidence in the writing.  Where the confidence of Awake and What We Carry seems an undercurrent with courage as the star, in this book, as well as in Facts About the Moon, I feel like you are in a groove, writing with the ease of an artist who knows her toolbox well and can just sit back and enjoy the process.  Is this observation accurate?  Are you able to sit back and let the poetry come freely and through you?  Or are there still pockets of unexpressed emotion that keep you up at night?  Or, do you do both?

DL: Writing poems is easy.  Writing good poems is difficult.  Writing a great poem is almost impossible.  This is why I try not to think about it.  If I contemplated how many actual great poems there are in the world, and how hard it is to write one, I would give up.  I just go, as Frank O’Hara says, on my nerve.   I think poets, and artists in general, have to have this combination of audacity and humbleness.  On the one hand, you have to have this grand and supreme faith in yourself that what you see, hear, touch, taste, think and feel, has importance, and will be meaningful to another human being.  On the other hand, you have to know deep down that what you are trying to do is impossible, unattainable, unfeasible, impractical, out of the question, and completely hopeless.  And then you try anyway. 

MP: In an interview with Benjamin Alire Saenz for Birds on a Wire, you said that it was your husband who, in backing up and organizing your computer, ordered and sectioned poems that became The Book of Men.  How did his vision affect the way you saw those poems?

DL: Oh, it affected me completely!  I had no real idea I had written that many poems about men, or that I was so obsessed with my various visions of men.  I would have thought, if you’d asked me, that I was writing more poems about women and family, about myself.  But when Joe brought me the manuscript as he saw it, it rearranged my idea of what I had been doing quite unconsciously.  And I was delighted!  Maybe it took a man to see that I was writing about men.  I also liked the way he put the book in two sections, with the women in the second section playing off the men in the first.  It was truly brilliant.  I’m a lucky woman.

MP: I found out that your new book was out at roughly the same time that I was given an eReader as a gift.  So, I decided to purchase The Book of Men on my eReader to see how the experience of reading poetry there differed.  With the ability to adjust font size, see only one page at a time, and make “marginal” notes as inserts, I quickly found myself really missing the paper-glue artifact and a pen.  How do you feel about poetry on eReaders?  Do they impact your writing?

DL: I love my Kindle and iPad, mostly for travel and for novels or memoir, prose.  The fact that you can choose from thousands of novels on a plane trip without having to haul them all with you is a relief, and the backlighting of the iPad is also great when you want to read and your mate is asleep.   But yes, for poetry, I prefer the paper and glue.  Poetry books are relatively cheap and easy to carry with you in almost any circumstance.   And they’ve become such beautiful works of art.  There’s absolutely no excuse these days for a poetry book cover that isn’t downright gorgeous, or for a font that isn’t exquisite, or paper that isn’t luscious.  It also goes without saying that the intimacy of poetry seems to ask for the slim delicacy of the hand held book.

MP: Of your books, do you have a favorite?  A least favorite?  Why?

DL: Not really.  After five books I have actually begun to forget poems I’ve written- not in a did-I-write-that way, but in a long ago, far away way, as in how-many-eons-have-passed-since-that-poem.

MP: Who are you reading these days that really turns on and stretches your mind?

DL: I remember really liking the unbridled energy of Richard Siken’s Crush when it came out. I always love Lucia Perillo.  Luck is Luck is a good book. But all her books are good.  She is so damn strange.  I just can’t get enough of her skewed visions and quirky way of saying a thing.   Eleanor Lerman’s Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds.  Catie Rosemurgy’s My Favorite Apocalypse.

MP: In today’s world where we’re at once over-stimulated and never fully engaged in one thing at a time, poetry asks us to stop for a minute and just breathe . . .  with our eyes, our fingers, our tongues, our ears and our emotional lungs.  Dorianne Laux, what is your job as a poet?

DL: To keep breathing as long as I can! And to keep writing.

Paul Lisicky: Mask

(an excerpt from the memoir THE NARROW DOOR)

It’s just me and Denise in her room at the hospice.  Her family has just stepped out to the waiting room down the hall, and they’ve given me some minutes to be alone with her.  I look at her sleeping face, grab her big warm toe poking out from beneath the sheet: monkey feet, she called them.  It’s not even Denise’s face anymore: it’s impersonal, a mask.  So hard to believe she was literally on her feet, out at a restaurant twenty days ago.  Just yesterday, according to Nancy, her sister-in-law, she smiled when she heard I was coming.  She said, “Paul?” And her eyes opened wider, if my coming on short notice would be the most surprising thing of all.  Why would she think that, after all this time?  Denise.

But I have come too late.  She’s not even the person I know anymore.  She’s breathing of course, head turned turned to the left, but her eyes are closed for good now.  She’s moving–I can feel it in my cells.  As awkward as it is to admit it, a part of me is relieved that we don’t have to say those final things.  Too much pressure, and how could human language ever carry us to whatever is coming next–even if it’s a blankness, a null set?  Better to hold onto her toe.  Better to think of peace.  Better simply to wish her out and away.  Her mind and body are already wanting two different things, and the fight isn’t going to be pretty.

I tell her I’ve been rereading her work all week.  I tell her I’ve gone back to Good Deeds, her first novel, I tell her I’ve read her essays.  I tell her she’s beautiful writer.  I want every single word to matter, but my words don’t ring so true without other people in the room.  Three months ago, at my mother’s hospice bed, my brothers and my father started naming family memories, not even the contents of the stories, just the headlines.  The time the boat ran out of gas at Anchorage Point and Mr. Forte came by to save us.  The time we couldn’t find a place to stay in Tennessee, and we all came close to sleeping in the car.  “Just give me some peanut butter crackers and I’ll sleep in the car all night,” my mother cried, and we all made fun of that line for years, as if that were the funniest thing.  My mother’s eyelids started moving.  So many stories, the loosest threads keeping them together: a family’s life in time.  How could she not have been happy to be among us, the head of us?   But I can’t do that with Denise, maybe because that kind of ritual needs other people in it.  This feels lonely.  We know there’s a script, and even though we don’t want the script, we feel like the script is required of us.

I go back out to the waiting room and sit in the sofa with Denise’s family.   Lights are too bright for my eyes.  We look out at the view of Center City: the modernist PSFS building, the statue of William Penn, the blocky squat Liberty Center, which looks today the beginning of some downfall: the end of tradition, dignity, grace.  There’s a huge space between where we are and those buildings.  The sky goes grayer, as if it wants to storm.  We drink shitty coffee.  We look toward the program on the Food Channel with more absorption than the show deserves.  An elaborate yellow cake is being pulled from the oven, to be iced with chocolate frosting and jelly between the layers, and one of us says, I’m just gaining pounds looking at the thing, and everyone laughs gently, as they’re supposed to laugh, but we know that the laughing has nothing to do with cake, or even the joke.

Just before six, the nurse calls us down the hall.  Now we have a job to do; now we’re helping to write the old story: she died surrounded by family and friends.  The dozen of us move one by one through the doorway, and settle on our places around the bed.  Austen closest to her mother’s head, Denise’s mother opposite.  Her ex-husband nearby, me by her feet.  All the lights and lamps are off.  Flames shudder in votives.  Joni sings from her brother Joey’s laptop, the bare-bones demo of “Good Friends.” from one of the CDs I made for her many months back.  No one knows that Denise once called it our song when it first came out in 1985, and I like knowing that it’s coming on now, as if we’re passing a secret back and forth. That’s followed by “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which would really make her guffaw if she were writing this story.  Irreverent Denise.  No narratives of grace and comfort for her.  Her favorite writer of her final months?  A.M. Homes, where the parents smoke crack, and the children have sex with their dolls, and no one is rewarded for any good deed.

We’re watching her face.  We’re waiting for something to happen.  It’s a little like waiting for a scary but holy movie to start, and it’s unbearable, this watching, this waiting.  No group of human beings could ever be in practice for such a thing.  And we probably realize this, in our own separate ways, at about the same time.  Along with the shock that we wish the movie would get to the heartbreaking part.  Frankly, it’s not so easy to be in a position where we can’t go out to pee, or reach for our phones or eat some of that disgusting cake we saw on the TV.   Ironically, this is time without boundaries.  Time without boundaries is a little like being–we’re in a boat, little rocking boat, a hundred miles out, no trees or shorelines in sight.  But we don’t want to hurry this on.  We want Denise to feel us in her bones, her blood.  That’s why we’re here.  A part of us is going with her, and we don’t know what to do.

A nurse asks if we need anything.  The nurses.  The calming presence of the nurses.  Their human neutrality, never too concerned, never not nearby.  I can’t imagine what it might be like to be them, to live inside of such intensity day after day.   Perhaps they walk through the everyday like clear glass houses.  Or else they shut all their doors and windows down once they’re off duty.  I don’t know how else they could buy food, pay bills, wait in line at the DMV, without thinking of the ways, all the ludicrous ways, we go about distracting ourselves from the fact that we’re dying.  But maybe they’re simply in better practice than we are.  Maybe it isn’t too hard to get where they are, and it feels damn good to live with that truth.  You get a jury duty summons on the day of your best friend’s graduation: so what.  You think of that beautiful writer down the hall, the one who made you laugh every time you edged a needle inside her vein, and you think, well, if she could do that.

We’re waiting.  I wonder if Denise is aware of our waiting.  It must be hard enough to die, to squeak from the coat of your body, without worrying about the people you’re leaving behind.  There is a story of a man out on Long Island, a former neighbor, who made his exit on his own terms.  He found a good woods, mashed down the weeds like a deer, then lay down and went to sleep on the ground.  Word had it he covered himself with leaves.   The story is passed around as neighborhood legend: the saddest story in the world.  Such a gentle man.  Meticulous gardener, good friend, frozen in snow for days on end, and this is how Creation watches out for him.  Yet it doesn’t sound that bad to me.  Would we want so many faces, even if they are benevolent faces, trained on us when it’s our time to go?  No, not me.

I hold onto her toe for a little while longer.  An hour goes by; then, two.  The thunderstorm outside the window has passed.  Then, one by one, we’ve decided we’ve had enough.  Some of us wander to the waiting room; some of us wander off toward the elevator, heads down, as if we’ve disappointed someone, though we don’t exactly know who that someone is.

The elevator is falling.  I’m remembering my friend.  It would make sense that someone so attached to her writing–with the allure of perfect shape–would want to mess things up a little at the end.


The titles of Paul Lisicky’s books reveal a writer concerned with the process of building and demolition—of the self.  Whether he’s writing fiction, memoir, poetry, or, more recently, blurring the lines between those genres, Lisicky explores the process and power of identity.  He and his characters struggle to create the narratives which help them define and understand their world, only to see the wrecking ball of chaos lay them bare.  Robert Olen Butler said of Lisicky, “(he is) one of the select writers who continues to teach me about the complexities of the human heart.”  Lisicky is the author of the novels Lawnboy (1999) and The Burning House (2011); the memoir, Famous Builder (2002); and the forthcoming collection of prose pieces, Unbuilt Projects; and the memoir, The Narrow Door.

His work has appeared in Tin House, Fence, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Story Quarterly, and in many other anthologies and magazines. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he’s the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Henfield Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a fellow. Lisicky has taught in the writing programs at Cornell University, New York University, Rutgers-Newark, and Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently the New Voices Professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers-Camden.

Paul Lisicky’s Stories Are Built to Last

The titles of Paul Lisicky’s books reveal a writer concerned with the process of building and demolition—of the self. Whether he’s writing fiction, memoir, poetry, or, more recently, blurring the lines between all those genres, Lisicky explores the process and power of identity. He and his characters struggle to erect and maintain the narratives which help them define and understand their world, only to see the wrecking ball of desire and chaos bring them down. Robert Olen Butler said of Lisicky, “(he is) one of the select writers who continues to teach me about the complexities of the human heart.” Lisicky is the author of the novels Lawnboy (1999) and The Burning House (2011); the memoir, Famous Builder (2002); and the forthcoming collection of prose pieces, Unbuilt Projects; and the memoir, The Narrow Door.

His work has appeared in Tin House, Fence, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Story Quarterly, and in many other anthologies and magazines. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he’s the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Henfield Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a fellow. Lisicky has taught in the writing programs at Cornell University, New York University, Rutgers-Newark, and Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently the New Voices Professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers-Camden.

Paul was interviewed by Nicholas Garnett for Sliver of Stone.

NG: One theme that runs strongly through your work is the mutability of identity and the ability to redefine ourselves. Reinvention seems so closely linked to the American experience and the American Dream, where upward mobility and success meant one could wipe the slate clean, often at the expense of heritage and tradition. In your memoir, Famous Builder, you describe your family’s relocation to a new suburban housing development in the 60s, and the way that new house helped define your family’s sense of identity. How do you think that reinvention and the search for identity have shaped you and your writing?

PL: I grew up with the sense that you could make up your life. If you wanted to be, say, a trumpet player, you could do it if you had some talent, but you had to want it, and terribly. A lot of the kids I grew up with ended up doing extraordinary things in the arts when they were still young. We didn’t think there was anything unusual about that. But we also knew that aspirations could be dangerous. How would we support ourselves? In that way we were different from kids who came from money, who took their privilege for granted, who had something to fall back on, as they say. They were more sophisticated than we were. They were more likely to know the limits of what they could do. So–a long way of saying that our naiveté had some use. A certain kind of naiveté about your potential isn’t always a bad thing. I don’t know if you could be good at any art without believing, at some unspoken level, that you had the capacity to do something amazing.

NG: Since Famous Builder was published back in 2002, the foundations of the American Dream have taken a hit: First, the attacks of 9/11, the targets of which were iconic structures. Then, the great recession and subsequent housing market crash, which ruined the value of people’s homes and the identity they had placed in them. These days, the world seems a far less optimistic place than the one in which you dreamed to be, literally, a famous builder. That book explored the power of reinvention in an essentially positive way—the building of self. In your forthcoming memoir, The Narrow Door, you portray a slow dismantling of self: Your friend’s death from cancer. Your mother’s dementia. How do you think your more recent writing has been shaped by changes to the American psyche?

PL: I actually think Famous Builder has a really dark current inside all its brightness. The speaker’s role models fail as much as they win. The father is hunted by the possibility of being poor again; the stylish next door neighbor thinks about suicide; Bill Levitt goes broke, loses his mansion and yacht, and on and on. I’m not sure the speaker is able to make links between these situations; he sort of assumes that their struggles are character-based, rather than about something larger. He gets it, finally, after that embarrassment in the recording studio. Achievement and failure are interdependent. Is there something American about that? Maybe.

You’re right that the world is a much less optimistic place than it was when I started that book. When was that–the late 90′s? As I was writing, I did have this gut feeling that the book was becoming an elegy for a world that was about to pass on. You could just feel it in the atmosphere: the sense of a world about to change hugely. As for my more recent work? There’s no question that a lot of it’s darker than it was. Part of that is the state of things, the state of the world. Part of that is going through life stuff–the kind of life stuff we all go through at some point. I couldn’t possibly write another Famous Builder now. Even if I were to write about the same situations, I’m sure the focus wouldn’t be self-reinvention.

All that said, I think it would be cheap and false to say that darkness is something that necessarily comes with getting older. I feel as optimistic as I feel desolate, and I feel both of those states simultaneously, all the time. I hope that that simultaneous-ness is on every page of my work.

NG: Your stories often explore the power of labels and the naming of things, yet your recent work obliterates the traditional notions of genre. Stories from the forthcoming Unbuilt Projects have been published as poetry, fiction, and memoir. Are you making a conscious effort to subvert genre?

PL: I love lists and labels in general, while I’m also really, really wary of the power of classifications. I know how they limit us, keep us in our space. An artist needs to roam, and I think my mind feels most at home when it’s in some in-between place. There’s something fertile about the edges. They’re not so tramped on. The edges haven’t already been interpreted. I get excited by the compression of poetry, the questioning that moves an essay along, the attempt to represent the inner life, which I associate with the project of fiction. I want to make something that borrows from the three worlds. I’m certainly not the first one to do that–think of Amy Hempel, who’s been doing that for years, longer than anyone was able to see it. But I do think I might be getting bolder as a hybridist.

NG: In stories such as “The Boy and His Mother Are Stuck!” you defy traditional storytelling by making us conscious of it, undermining the “vivid, continuous dream”—the fantasy world many of us are taught to create and maintain by writing teachers. Are you getting even with your instructors, or trying to make a larger point regarding the artifice of story?

PL: I think a story like that is really conscious of writing against the reader’s expectations. By that I mean, credibility, sympathy, linearity, coherence–all the characteristics we often assume make a story. I wasn’t so much getting back at my teachers or students or workshops in general (I teach workshops) but felt the need to lampoon the need for narrative. The story incorporates the ghost of a workshop experience, as if the speaker is imagining the workshopping of the story as he’s telling it. “The Boy and His Mother Are Stuck” was written at a time when I felt absolutely changed by my mother’s dementia all the way down to my cells. Linear storytelling seemed artificial to me then. Language was breaking down. Communication was gap, disjunction. Cause and effect? Meaningless. I was just trying to find a container for all that confusion, which is how Unbuilt Projects came to be.

The irony is that I’m now writing a series of mostly linear short shorts, often in the form of fables, parables, and little myths. The mind must be impatient for some kind of order again. Or at least a one-foot-in-front-of-the-next kind of order in which plot is predominant.

NG: Your writing is beautifully lyrical. It is also characterized by exactness in the language and a powerful, almost sermon-like quality to the prose. Perhaps that’s not so surprising, given two of your earliest passions were diagramming entire housing developments (right down to the street names) and singing and composing liturgical music, both of which require precision and great attention to detail. I imagine your house is spotless and meticulously organized! Seriously, is your writing process similarly structured and ordered?

PL: You’re making me laugh, because I just realized I won’t leave my apartment until everything is straightened up. I don’t like coming back to a mess. Evan in Lawnboy cleans motel rooms; Isidore in The Burning House cleans houses. I’ve been revealed, my God!

Seriously, I think I have to subvert my inclination toward neatness when I write. I used to be one of those people who sat at his desk, in his study, for a set number of hours a day. That’s not true anymore. Here’s an example. I was trying to write a few days ago; nothing was happening. I was feeling weighted so I started distracting myself with Twitter. I decided I’d feel a little less pressure if I went out to get something to eat. I went out to get something to eat. I don’t know what it was that made me take out my phone at the restaurant. I wasn’t trying to write. People were chatting to my left and right, there was music on, someone knocking into the leaves of the plant in the corner, and within a minute I was thumbing sentences into the notebook on my phone. The commas seemed to be coming at all the right places; the meaning was in sync with the sound. I did as much as I could until I could feel myself about to force the next sentence, a kind of closure to the paragraph. I stopped. I emailed the paragraph to myself. When I got home, I looked at the paragraph, copied it into an email, changed the font to 18-point so that every word mattered more than it would in another format. That night I went back to the story again. By writing it in an email, I was tricking myself into thinking I wasn’t actually working. I was having fun, playing, or hoping to. By the time the story got further along, I started working on it in the usual way, in a document on my laptop. But as you can see my way into all that was pretty sneaky. And far from orderly.

NG: Many writers struggle with how to reveal character, especially through detail and description. You have mastered that technique. In your novel, The Burning House, your narrator describes his wife’s younger sister, with whom he is falling in love: “Same sweet crooked mouth, same moist hair falling down her back, same tendency to keep her shoulders raised, as if she had to correct what her posture really wanted to do.” And, on the next page: “The corners of her mouth turned up as if she were about to smile, the kind of half-smile you learn to make when you’re used to getting news you’re not exactly able to hear.”

These descriptions are so specific and telling. How do you come up with them? Do they come naturally to you, or is this an element of craft you’ve consciously had to develop?

PL: I’m sure I learned that from studying other writers. When I was working on The Burning House, I was teaching the stories of Mary Gaitskill, Alice Munro, and Lorrie Moore, who are all masters when it comes to getting their characters’ physicality on the page. They’re interested in bodies, facial reactions, gestures, and how these might reveal their characters’ inner lives. In other words, what they withhold, what they might not be able to disguise, what they might not even know about themselves. In those two quotes, it seems clear that the narrator is seeing his sister-in-law’s attempts to hold herself together in the face of disappointment. I’m always compelled by the tension between the spoken and the unspoken. Not a small percentage of our daily exchanges are dedicated to maintaining agreeableness, a kind of social equilibrium. We’re terrified of awkwardness, at least overtly. I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing. What kind of world would it be if no one had a filter, if everyone spoke exactly how they felt at any given moment? As much as we might prize honesty, it would be unbearable. We wouldn’t be able to stand it! So there’s always another layer of communication that’s revealed by the body. And I try to do my best to make use of all that.

Dorianne Laux: The Book of Men

Mine Own Phil Levine

after W.S. Merwin

What he told me, I will tell you
There was a war on
It seemed we had lived through
Too many to name, to number

There was no arrogance about him
No vanity, only the strong backs
Of his words pressed against
The tonnage of a page

His suggestion to me was that hard work
Was the order of each day
When I asked again, he said it again,
pointing it out twice

His Muse, if he had one, was a window
Filled with a brick wall, the left hand corner
Of his mind, a hand lined with grease
And sweat: literal things

Before I knew him, I was unknown
I drank deeply from his knowledge
A cup he gave me again and again
Filled with water, clear river water

He was never old, and never grew older
Though the days passed and the poems
Marched forth and they were his words
Only, no other words were needed

He advised me to wait, to hold true
To my vision, to speak in my own voice
To say the thing straight out
There was the whole day about him

The greatest thing, he said, was presence
To be yourself in your own time, to stand up
That poetry was precision, raw precision
Truth and compassion: genius

I had hardly begun. I asked, How did you begin
He said, I began in a tree, in Lucerne
In a machine shop, in an open field
Start anywhere

He said If you don’t write, it won’t
Get written. No tricks. No magic
About it. He gave me his gold pen
He said What’s mine is yours.

*   *   *


make out with him a bit, this
is what my friend would like to do
oh these too many dead summers later,
and as much as I want to stroll with her
into the poet’s hazy fancy
all I can see is O’Hara’s long gone lips
fallen free of the bone, those two damp slugs
slumbering beneath the grainy soil.
I can hear Frank’s dry voice
combing the air for song, but what I see
is his skeleton entombed in dust, wrapped
in his dapper suit, his razzle-dazzle sunglasses.
She sees him alive, ambling
down a sidewalk, all of New York
clambering into the sky behind him,
cuff links winking, his dear friends waving,
calling him by name like they do in the city:
800,000 people and you step outside for a smoke
and see someone you know.
That’s how it is with death.
Those you love come at you like lightening,
crackle for an instant—so kissable—
and then lips and all, they’re gone.

*   *   *


Heels of the shoes worn down, each
in its own way, sending signals to the spine.

The back of the knee as it folds and unfolds.
In winter the creases of American-made jeans:
blue denim ridged, worried-to-white thread.

And in summer, in spring, beneath the hems
of skirts, Bermudas, old bathing suit elastic,
the pleating and un-pleating of parchment skin.

And the dear, dear rears. Such variety! Such
choice in how to cover or reveal: belts looped high
or slung so low you can’t help but think of plumbers.

And the small of the back: dimpled or taut, spiny or not,
tattooed, butterflied, rosed, winged, whorled. Maybe
still pink from the needle and ink. And shoulders,

broad or rolled, poking through braids, dreads, frothy
waterfalls of uncut hair, exposed to rain, snow, white
stars of dandruff, unbrushed flecks on a blue-black coat.

And the spiral near the top of the back of the head—
peek of scalp, exquisite galaxy– as if the first breach
had swirled each filament away from that startled center.

Ah, but the best are the bald or neatly shorn, revealing
the flanged, sun-flared, flamboyant backs of ears: secret
as the undersides of leaves, the flipside of flower petals.

And oh, the oh my nape of the neck. The up-swept oh my
nape of the neck. I could walk behind anyone and fall in love.

Don’t stop. Don’t turn around.

*   *   *


What are the chances a raindrop
from last night’s storm caught
in the upturned cup of an autumn leaf
will fall from this tree I pass under
and land on the tip of my lit cigarette,
snuffing it out? What are the chances
my niece will hit bottom before Christmas,
a drop we all long for, and quit heroin?
What are the chances of being hit
by a bus, a truck, a hell-bound train
or inheriting the gene for cancer,
addiction? What good are statistics
on a morning like this? What good
is my niece to anyone but herself?
What are the chances any of you
are reading this poem?
Dear men,
whom I have not met,
when you meet her on the street
wearing the wounds that won’t heal
and she offers you the only thing
she has left, what are the chances
you’ll take pity on her fallen body?


Dorianne Laux’s most recent collections are The Book of Men and Facts about the Moon.
A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Oregon Book Award and The Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry, Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, and Smoke from BOA Editions. She teaches poetry in the MFA Program at North Carolina State University and is founding faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program.

Chris Hannan, Louisiana Poet

Born and raised in New Orleans, Chris Hannan is a 2004 graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts where he received a bachelor of arts in the Classics, and a 2008 graduate of the the Loyola University, New Orleans, College of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Loyola Law Review.  His poetry has appeared in the Magnolia Quarterly, The Classical Outlook, Towncreek Poetry, The Southern Poetry Anthology, and is forthcoming in The Texas Review and The Connecticut Review.  He was awarded First Prize in the 2004 Gulf Coast Writers’ Association’s annual Let’s Write contest for his poem “Pointing to the Brain,” and was the runner-up in the 2010 Faulkner-Wisdom Poetry Competition for his poem “Epithalamion.”   Most recently, Chris won the Grand Prize in the 2012 Tennessee Williams Festival Poetry Contest for his cycle of poems entitled “The Nephilim.”

Chris is currently an attorney in the New Orleans offices of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz.  He and his wife Emily live in Mid-City, New Orleans, with their son Jack William and two cats.

Chris was interviewed by Laura Richardson for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Laura Richardson: One of your poems, “Leadbelly,” that we published in this issue is a surprising mix of American song form and Greek mythology. What inspired this poem?

Chris Hannan: Growing up in New Orleans with music loving parents, I was constantly surrounded by the rich musical heritage of the city and the region. A part of this musical culture that always intrigued me, even as a child, was the immense mythology of Louisiana music, peopled by characters such as John Henry, Stag O’Lee, and countless others. These mythic personalities stuck with me throughout my youth and into my college days when I majored in the Classics. At some point, I realized that the music I had grown up with and still listened to was the mythology of America, or at least the Deep South. All the characters whose stories were told over and over again by Leadbelly, Professor Longhair, and a myriad of other local musicians were simply reincarnations of the archetypes sung of by Homer, Pindar, and Hesiod. With this realization of the motific importance of the familiar songs of my youth, I started working on a series of poems that connect the mythic characters of Louisiana’s musical heritage with the myths of ancient Greece.

The point of connecting the ancient myths with the modern is to emphasize that, while the characters have changed their faces and names, the underlying meaning of their stories is the same. Or, if not the same, still  relevant in new and potentially unexpected ways in our modern times.

In terms of form, the poems approximate the basic meters and rhyme schemes of the original songs on which they are based. This use of song forms is meant to mimic the ancient tradition, best exemplified in the odes of Pindar, of adhering to established forms while simultaneously reinterpreting well-known myths.

LR: How do you decide on your character pairings, for example, in this poem, Leadbelly and Tanatalus? What are some of your other pairings?

CH: I try to match the songs with myths that involve similar symbols, themes, or plot elements.  For example, the song “Midnight Special” (the basis for my poem “Leadbelly”) talks in the beginning about the monotony of prison food; this evoked for me the myth of Tantalus, who was condemned in Tartarus to eternal hunger and thirst – with food and water just beyond his reach – after he tricked the gods into eating the flesh of his own son.  As another example, my poem “Junco Partner” – after the Professor Longhair song about a sort of anti-hero drunkard – incorporates aspects of the myths of Dionysus, the god of wine.  Other pairings include the myth of Jason and Medea with the song “Frankie and Johnie,” the myth of Prometheus with the song “John Henry,” and the myth of Penelope and Odysses with the song “Little Liza Jane.”

LR: You recently won the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival 2012 poetry contest. Would you talk a little about that work?

CH: I was very humbled to be selected as the grand prize winner in the Tennessee Williams contest – in particular because of the nature of the poems that won.  The winning five-poem cycle is entitled “The Nephilim” and it tells the story of the gutting of my grandmother’s house in Chalmette, Louisiana (just south and east of New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish) after Hurricane Katrina, and our search for her wedding ring that she had left behind when she evacuated.  The best part of the whole experience was that my grandmother was able to attend the reading that I gave as part of the festival.  The poems are published in the current issue of Louisiana Cultural Vistas (the journal of the Louisiana endowment for the humanities), which is available in print and online at

Levni Yilmaz


Lev Yilmaz started the ultra-low tech “Tales Of Mere Existence” film series in 2003, based on gleefully embarrassing thoughts and stories from his own life. Films from the series have shown on Comedy Central, Independent Film Channel, and innumerable shows and festivals since then. Lev has gathered a substantial cult audience on the internet, as the “Tales” series YouTube views have recently passed 27,000,000. Lev continued the series with the book “Sunny Side Down” a collection of “Tales” comics, published by Simon & Schuster in 2009. The Book/DVD is available at Lev’s website,