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Q&A with Divinia Shorter

November 30, 2018

Divinia Shorter is a Towson University graduate with a B.A. in Theatre Studies and minor in Creative Writing. Published in Grub Street, her poem “Mixed Sestina” won first place in the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s national competition for closed (traditional) form poetry. A writer of many forms, Shorter spent much of her time working in and with Towson Theatre Lab as a dramaturg and Managing Director and is now the Literary Fellow at Playwrights Horizons. She is currently working on a collection of sestinas, a romance novel, and a full-length play. While she hopes to continue her writing career with even more projects, her primary goal is to work in the D.C. or Baltimore area as a literary manager–and occasional director—and help new voices and stories make their way into the theatre. Our blog editors, Tricia Nichols and Nicoletta Minutella, interviewed Shorter about the creative life.

What does literary success look like to you?

DS: I think it really depends on the phase of life and my writing that I’m in. Overall, I think literary success is defined by getting your work out there, being published, winning awards, etc., but that has so many steps in front of it that I have to think smaller so it feels attainable with where I am in the world. Right now, working full time and settling into post-graduation life, my version of literary success is just getting anything written at all. A snippet, an idea, a character profile, anything where I can say I made a form of progress, no matter how small.

What is your favorite place to write?

DS: I’ll write just about anywhere, especially now that I’m trying to find any moment I can for it, so I’ve never had a favorite place. I’ve learned to just keep writing materials on hand no matter where I’m going. That being said, I definitely find my best flow happens at home. I’m already more of a homebody as a person, plus it’s nice to not worry about my surroundings like I do if I’m out writing. If it’s going well, I lose a lot of awareness of the rest of the world, which isn’t always practical –I’ve missed train stops, not noticed people speaking to me— and I can get loud with my frustrations or breakthroughs, so sometimes it’s easier to have those at home.

How long have you been writing?

DS: Definitely not my whole life, but at this point most of it. Maybe ten years now? I was very anti-reading and writing as a kid, but I got deep into the vampire book craze happening around my middle school years and suddenly had all of my own ideas that I had to do something with them or else I’d go crazy. I got into poetry not long after that, which helped me make sense of playwriting when I got to college, and now I jump between the three.

What inspires you?

DS: I know this is the typical answer, but it can be anything. My brain latches onto random moments, so it’s whatever stands out enough for me to catch it. Song lyrics, a location, my emotions. I daydream all the time, so when I zone out, thinking about a scene or poem, I end up subconsciously pulling from what’s around me. Writing has also always been very personal for me, and my life really influences what and how I’m writing, which is good since I can always pull from that, but it can also limit my perspective, so I try to be careful with that.

What projects are you currently working on?

DS: I’m working on a few things, which is great and terrible at the same time. I fell hard for sestinas as a form so I’m working on a themed collection of them. I have a full length play in its very early, baby stages of writing. I’m still negotiating what I want it to be and how to write it, so it’s in the back of my mind while I sort that out. My main project is a novel that I’ve actually been working on for a long time, but it’s just now taking the shape I want it to. I spent a lot of time trying to edit it into what I wanted, but I finally gave in and started a whole new draft. It’s made a huge difference and given me a freedom I didn’t realize I was missing, so I’m really excited about it.

How did your time at Towson prepare you for “adulthood”?

DS: Being at Towson was a big step forward, since I got to figure out what I wanted my life to look like for me. Knowing all of the small day to day management, like how to not eat out all of the time, keep a budget, have a cleaning schedule, do meal prep, made transitioning out easier because I knew how to use my free time to get things done. It also taught me the type of person that I am and the type space that I need to be happy and productive, which sounds simple but goes a long way in ensuring your peace. I also can’t thank my mentors enough, especially in the theatre department. I left knowing my career options as well as how to network and reach them, and that’s been invaluable.

Do you have any favorite literary magazines? If so, what are they?

DS: I don’t have a favorite, and that’s mainly because when I read one, I skip around, reading what catches my eye rather than reading the entire thing. I know that’s not the idea of them, and I do love reading the full collection and seeing how those pieces connect, but I always end up speeding through to find the works that I’m excited about, so sometimes I just skip ahead all together and pay more attention to the individual work than the magazine. That is something I want to be better about, and it’s a good exercise in learning more than just what interests me, which can feel tedious, but serves me and my writing in the long run, and that’s always what I’m focused on.

Blog Interviews

Interview with Poet Matthew Thorburn

November 27, 2018

In his sixth poetry collection, Dear Almost, Matthew Thorburn tries to answer the question, “How do you grieve for someone you never knew?” If you were to compare the force of his words to nature, they would be a stream instead of a river. Using soft-spoken language and a controlled, syllabic free verse, Thorburn takes us with him over the course of the four seasons, telling us the story of his wife’s “almost child.” From recounting hospital visits, to imagining what his almost child would look like, Thorburn explores memories and daily life alike to reach out for the void that his child left behind. Thorburn isn’t just writing to understand, he is writing because it is the only thing that he can do to understand. “What else can I do?” he writes. “I’m not a painter/ or potter, not a sculptor/ but someone who/ works with words, re-/ordering them here/ on the back of an old calendar/page.” At first glance, Dear Almost appears to be a poem about death and loss. While it certainly discusses those things, what you end up finding by the end is a poem about rest.

– James Hancock, online nonfiction editor

JH: The poem takes place over the course of a year. Why did you choose to split the narrative into the four seasons?

MT: On a practical level, breaking the narrative of Dear Almost into the four seasons gave me an organizing structure. It made the daunting task of writing a book-length poem—of trying to write one, since I’d never done it before—feel do-able.

I tend to write in a collage-like way, getting phrases and images down in my notebook, drafting a line or two at a time, then going back to see how they can fit together into a poem. That works fine for shorter poems, but in this case, I had pages and pages—a whole notebook full of stuff—and I was struggling with how to shape it into a poem. A lot of what I’d written had something to say about the landscape or the weather, so there were certain seasonal cues that made it natural to go back through these pieces in my notebook and think, Well, okay, that’s a spring image or That’s really a winter line, isn’t it? And again, this just made a big undertaking feel a little smaller and more manageable.

One some deeper level, I realized that following the seasons is also a natural way of charting the grieving process—the way the seasons keep circling along, and how that echoes the way your thoughts and feelings circle back again and again as you try to make peace with a loss.

JH: Dear Almost serves as a letter to your own almost child. Your grief is almost always indirectly discussed, either through metaphor or during certain moments, like where you try to imagine what your child would have looked like when she was older. What inspired that approach?

MT: Well, one of the things I admire about classical Chinese poetry is the way that a poet like Wang Wei or Meng Hao Jan would write about the seasons or the landscape as a way of describing his own inner weather. Adopting a variation on that approach appealed to me, and offered a sense of shelter, as I tried to find words for this feeling of loss. I didn’t imagine I could write directly about our almost girl for more than a few stanzas at a time without the poem becoming maudlin and unbearable, for me and for the reader. I don’t think I realized it fully at the time, but after the book was finished I could see how that approach might also make the moments of direct focus and address more powerful.

JH: You brought up classical Chinese poetry as an influence for Dear Almost. In the poem, you also talk about a visit to China, as well as the Chinese heritage on your wife’s side. Has the presence of Chinese culture and East Asian poetry influenced your previous works before?

MT: Oh, absolutely. I’ve been an avid reader of Chinese and Japanese poetry in translation for a long time. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve tried to learn from these amazing poems and model certain aspects of them in my own writing. Two of the books that mean the most to me as a writer and a reader are David Hinton’s anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry, and the Essential Haiku, a wonderful gathering of translations of Basho, Buson, and Issa, edited by Robert Hass.

Of course, my experiences in a cross-cultural family as well as the opportunities we’ve had to travel to China and Japan have influenced my writing too—in terms of what I write about, but also more broadly in the way I look at the world through my poems. Many of the poems in my previous book, This Time Tomorrow, also take place in China and Japan.

My mother-in-law, Mrs. Fong Koo, makes several appearances in Dear Almost, including during a car trip to the Chuan Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York. A section of the poem also takes place in her neighborhood in New Jersey, where all the streets are named for poets. She passed away recently, and some of my fondest memories of her involve our conversations about poetry. A lifelong reader of poetry, she would share with me poems clipped from her Chinese-language newspaper, which publishes a poem in each issue. We would also sometimes look at two translations of the same poem and she’d ask me which English version I thought was a better poem in English, and why. We both owned copies of Poems of the Masters, Red Pine’s translation of a classic Tang and Sung dynasty anthology and compared notes on favorites. For us poems were a common ground on which we could talk—across generations, languages, cultures and geographies. I miss her. I know as I continue to read poems in translation I’ll always wonder what she would think of them.

JH: You’re an established poet, but unlike most writers who happen to be professors or editors, you work in corporate communications. Despite the vast differences between the two, are there any similarities? Has your work in communications ever influenced your work as a poet, and vice versa?

MT: It’s funny to think of myself as established. Mostly I just feel old. When I was looking at MFA programs 20 years ago, I had thought I would go into teaching—it seemed like that’s what everyone did after getting an MFA. But I had been working in corporate communications for several years already, and so when the MFA program I attended turned out not to have any real opportunities for us to teach, I just kept doing the kind of work I’d been doing all along. And in many ways, it’s turned out to be a day job that complements my poem writing.

There do seem to be some similarities between corporate comms and teaching. For example, I give my colleagues writing advice and sometimes edit their press releases. People tend to come to me with grammar or punctuation questions. Saying more with fewer words, seeking clarity, and coming up with memorable phrases are important in both modes of writing.

Probably the most direct influence of my corporate work on my poem-writing occurred years ago when I was working for a PR and marketing agency in Detroit and wrote a poem about a break-of-day photo shoot I helped with for a taxi cab brochure.

JH: Dear Almost is an incredibly personal poem, much more so than your previous work. Was it purely circumstantial, or was this already a natural progression for your writing?

MT: For me it was a case of writing what I needed to write. I can’t remember when I started to write about this loss or decided that I would write about it—I just remember being already in it: writing about her, to her, trying to find words for this loss I’d never imagined. And you’re right; it was intensely, painfully personal. It’s still hard for me to read from this book.

I don’t know if there’s a progression. Probably any writer is the wrong person to answer that question about their own work. But for over a year now I’ve been writing poems for a new book, a sequence about a teenage boy’s experiences in a time of war and just after, in which he loses most of his family. The very first spark for this came from reading Jean Follain’s poems. I was blown away, wanted to write my way into a landscape like I’d seen in his poems, and just started dreaming this up. Maybe because of that I felt sure for a time that this would be purely a work of imagination, disconnected from my own life—which would be a relief after working on Dear Almost for so long. But of course, that’s never true. As I’ve written deeper into this boy’s story, I find myself writing about fathers and sons, what it means to be a parent, how it feels to lose people you love… themes that of course draw directly on my own experiences and emotions. You can’t ever really escape these things, can you?

JH: We’ve discussed the personal nature of your poem, but I feel that there’s also a universal experience that can be found within your grief. Do you expect parents who have experienced similar events will be able to look to Dear Almost and feel like they aren’t alone in their struggles? Was that ever one of your intentions while working on the poem?

MT: I’ve heard from a few people who read the book and felt a sense of recognition, found some comfort in it, and shared their stories with me. I’m humbled by that. I’m gratified to think I’ve been able to express thoughts and emotions they recognize and feel too—that, like you say, none of us are alone in this. It does seem like miscarriage is something that just doesn’t get talked about much—or that it’s sometimes seen as something to just get over and not dwell on.

So, I wanted to describe my experience as a would-be father. I wanted to find the words for what I was feeling—for this loss—because it felt as if no one had written something I could relate to. I was writing for myself, first, but also with the hope that when other people read the book someday they’d find meaning in it too. Of course, that’s always my hope.

 

Matthew Thorburn’s book, Dear Almost, has recently received the Lascaux prize. In addition to Dear Almost, Matthew Thorburn has also published several other poetry collections, such as This Time Tomorrow, Every Possible Blue, and Subject to Change. He is also due to have his upcoming book, The Grace of Distance, published by next fall. His poems have appeared in journals such as The Paris Review, Poetry, and The American Poetry Review. He has received the Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, and the BRIO Fellowship from the Bronx Council on the Arts.

 

 

Blog Interviews

An Interview with Paula Whyman

October 18, 2018

Photo by Curt Richter

Interview by James Hancock, 2018-19 Online Nonfiction Editor

Paula Whyman’s story collection, You May See a Stranger, explores the life of Miranda Weber. Quick-witted and hyper-observant, Miranda is, as the jacket copy describes, “a hot mess.” In one story, for example, she has a sexual awakening in the display tent of a sporting goods section. Whyman has skillfully crafted a collection of self-contained stories that also speak with one another. We’re with Miranda from her late teens through her late forties. We watch her date deeply flawed men, struggle with the fate of her sister who’s developmentally disabled, and witness the crack cocaine epidemic in her hometown of Washington, D.C. No matter the situation, Miranda is always searching, always looking for the fine details in others’ personalities, making acute guesses about their thoughts and actions, never afraid to crack a joke no matter how tense things become. In every story she’s a little older, but also a little wiser. By the end, You May See a Stranger becomes an impressive example of a collection of stories that manages to continuously build on itself, with Miranda becoming a character who has gone through not just one, but multiple arcs in a natural progression through the course of her life.

Paula Whyman has published stories in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other literary journals. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony, and is also the founding editor of Scoundrel TimeShe recently received the Towson Prize for Literature and read on Towson’s campus. After her visit, she and I corresponded by email to discuss her writing process.


JH: At one of your readings, you said that you knew from the beginning that Miranda’s story would be told through connected short stories. Why is that?

PW: I wanted to touch down at certain points in the protagonist’s life and examine them closely. I was interested, especially, in the obscure moments that stay with you for reasons you might not always understand, and how they eventually fit into the larger picture. Why do you recall one situation or moment or experience and not another that may seem to an outsider to be more significant? Sometimes we don’t figure out the meaning of things like that until well after they’ve occurred; sometimes we never do.

I always imagined a nontraditional structure for this book; I wanted to leave some open spaces in time. Between the events that take place in the stories, time passes. Events occur that are not on the page, and, as far as I can tell, they don’t need to be on the page for the reader to get a sense of Miranda’s lived experience. The reader fills in what might have happened, what seems to have happened. The gaps are part of Miranda’s story.

I see the narrative of a person’s life as a series of linked stories; stories we tell about ourselves and stories we tell ourselves.

JH: Miranda’s life isn’t run by men, but most of her experiences are greatly influenced by the relationships she’s in at the time, along with the choices she makes in relation to them. Why did you choose to highlight those moments in Miranda’s life?

PW: This may sound simplistic, but our lives are influenced by our relationships, and we come to an understanding about ourselves in part by examining our behavior through that lens—the relationships we choose, and those we’re born into. Miranda’s intimate relationships illuminate character and show evolution (or lack thereof) and, especially, track the theme of “judgment” that’s introduced in the first story by the teacher in her driver’s ed class. Will she develop good judgment, as the teacher suggests is important for driving a car—but also, no surprise, when it comes to driving one’s life decisions? Also, it was fun writing the sex scenes.

But Miranda’s most important relationship in the book is with her sister. I see Miranda as someone who needs to define herself as different from her sister and someone who, at least some of the time, feels guilty about her sister, so to some extent she punishes herself by getting involved with men who don’t treat her well. On the other hand, good relationships make for dull fiction. As others have explained more famously and pithily.

JH: You just brought up that Miranda’s relationship with her sister is the most important one. What went into creating her character and developing their relationship throughout the writing process?

PW: The way I develop any character is by writing about her, writing a lot of stuff I don’t end up including in a story but that is indispensable for my own understanding. I wanted to make sure I got Donna “right.” I didn’t want her to be pathetic or angelic or unrealistically wise or any other stereotype, the way some developmentally disabled characters are portrayed in fiction. The story “Drosophila” shows Miranda as a teenager watching out for Donna, while it also flashes back to when Miranda and Donna are kids together and demonstrates the cruelty Miranda is capable of. I was curious about the way both of those strands exist in sibling relationships, and writing that helped me understand Donna’s character, and Miranda’s, in a more fine-grained way. I also think that having a sister, especially a disabled sister, makes Miranda seem a little less self-involved. Like, she has a reason for being the way she is at times, for building a wall around her heart.

JH: Most of the short stories in your book are told in a similar style and structure. What made you decide to change the narrative to third-person perspective in the last two stories?

PW: There are two stories in the second half of the book that are written in third-person point-of-view. (The final story returns to the first-person point-of-view that characterizes the rest of the book.) Although the book is arranged chronologically, I wrote the stories out of order. Those two third-person stories were the first ones I wrote knowing that I was planning to write a whole book of linked stories focused on a specific protagonist, the person who turned out to be Miranda (though at that point I hadn’t named her). I decided to start working on this project during a stay at Yaddo. I drafted those two stories one after the other, each in less than ten days, which at the time was perhaps the fastest I’d ever written a story that ended up working.

I wrote the story set in Mexico first (“Threat Potential”). I remember talking with my housemate at Yaddo about it, saying, I know they’re going to a ruin like Coba, but I don’t know what will happen there. I assumed it would be something bad. So, I wrote that draft (it eventually went through many more drafts), and then I came down with a terrible stomach bug. This illness happened on the day my housemate left the colony, and before a new artist moved in. I was completely alone in a house that seemed haunted (everywhere at Yaddo is haunted). I spent most of the night lying on the floor in the bathroom. Once I could claw my way off the bathroom floor and look at solid food again, I drafted the story about Miranda and the psychologist.

In both of those stories, the protagonist is called “the mother.” Because that’s where she is in her life. Her kids are at an age where that’s her primary identity, and she’s completely focused on them—over-focused, especially in the Mexico story. She’s distanced from herself. So, the third person seemed appropriate. In the doctor story, she’s too busy dwelling on her own past to focus on the problem at hand, what’s happening with her daughter, and she seems self-absorbed. She is transitioning away from the extreme focus on her kids, that distanced self. Not necessarily at the right time for her daughter, though.

When it came time to publish the book, Mike Levine (my editor), Dan Menaker (my agent), and I discussed whether those two stories should be revised to first person. In fact, I’d tried them in first person myself, much earlier, once I realized the other stories would be in first. But to me they work better in third; they do what they’re supposed to do. Mike and Dan agreed. It was a short discussion.

JH: In addition to writing, you also run the online literary journal Scoundrel Time. How has working as an editor influenced or inspired your own writing?

PW: I worked as an editor in various capacities at magazines and in scholarly book publishing for eight years before I went to MFA school. I can’t overemphasize how much I learned from those editorial positions. I think that background has made me more attentive to certain details, attentive to consistency and structure, to trying to tease out and develop ideas, themes. To me, it’s fun–I love editing the work of other writers; probably there’s something seriously wrong with me. I see an essay or a story as a puzzle that has many possible solutions, and I like the challenge of helping an author reach the best possible solution that is true to that person’s vision.

In college, other students paid me to edit their papers. I enjoyed it so much that I remember staying up late working on these other papers rather than working on my own. Plus, beer money.

Still, it took time for me to develop editorial judgment about my own writing. The MFA program helped a great deal toward that goal.

The downside–fiction writers often talk about having to block out the “editor” voice when writing a draft, and that’s true for me. I must let go of any ideas of perfection that the editor in me tends to reach for, or I’d never be able to start…or finish.

JH: You mentioned seeing stories as “puzzles with many different solutions.” What were some other “solutions,” or directions you could have taken Miranda and the other characters, that popped up while you were working on You May See a Stranger?

PW: The linked collection itself, what should go into it and how to structure it—that was a puzzle with many possible solutions. My concept of the book evolved over time. When I started planning it, I didn’t realize the sister would be as important as she turned out to be. And for a long time, I thought the stories would be told by different people in Miranda’s life—a parent, an ex, one of her kids, and so on. I started to write a few of those stories and then realized that the book was really Miranda’s—that it belonged in her voice. Giving myself permission to stay with Miranda’s perspective was a big deal. Then, I spent time wondering whether the stories should appear in a different order. They’re chronological, but within each story, the narrative jumps around in time, so in a way it would be okay to mix them up. You might get a different perspective on Miranda if you read the stories out of order. After all, I wrote them out of order.

When I’m writing a story, I have a few pieces of the puzzle to start but I don’t know how they fit together. Like in the story “Transfigured Night,” I knew Miranda and Devin were planning to go to a concert, but I wasn’t sure they’d ever actually get there. They might just keep arguing about having kids and miss the concert completely. Then I wasn’t sure what piece they’d listen to at the symphony, until I heard the Schoenberg myself, and right away I knew. Then I had the idea that something bad had to happen, because there was a feeling of foreboding that needed to be fulfilled, but I didn’t know what would happen to them or how bad it would be. For that story, I wrote a lot of material that I didn’t use to find the pieces that fit. 

JH: With this being your first book, where do you see yourself going with your writing from here? Are you interested in doing another collection of short stories, or do you see yourself writing a novel?

PW: I am writing a novel. It’s dark humor, set in the approximate present. It’s called Head Games. I’m also writing a memoir called A Hole in the Heart.

Several years ago, I was writing a different novel. I kept getting ideas for stories, and these ideas kept gnawing at me, so I’d set aside the novel and write a story instead. I wrote a lot of stories that way. Still, I kept sending myself back to the novel I was working on. I had this idea that my first book “had” to be a novel. But once I drafted those two stories at Yaddo, I decided to give the linked collection a chance; I gave myself permission to write the stories I felt like writing. That was a good decision.

Right now, I have no desire to write a short story. It’s an odd feeling; I’ve been writing short stories since I was nine years old. I’m sure I’ll write more stories later on, but right now, I’m driven to write the novel and the memoir. I’m torturing myself a little, but I’m also having fun with it. Which, if you don’t have fun, what’s the point?