Mark Nepo is a poet who has taught in the fields of poetry and spirituality for over 30 years. Nepo is best known for his New York Times #1 bestseller, “The Book of Awakening”. He has published 12 books and recorded six audio projects. He is also an Alumni at the University at Albany whom has taught at the University previously.Read More
Ben Nadler is the author of The Sea Beach Line, Ph.D. student at University at Albany , and co-editor of Barzakh - a literary magazine based at UAlbany. I sat down with him and discussed his views on being a writer, pursuing a career in lit, and some of the rewards that come from it.Read More
By Karlie Flood
Edited by Courtney Galligan
Paul Grondahl, an award-winning journalist, biographer, and now director of the University at Albany’s New York State Writers Institute (NYSWI), and I had a conversation about how he got involved with the NYSWI, his own favorite stories, how he wrote a presidential biography, and why he loves Albany, NY.
Karlie Flood: How did you get involved with the NYSWI?
Paul Grondahl: I came here for graduate school in 1981, in the English department, and then I started writing for Albany Times Union as a reporter. For 33 years, I came to events, and I interviewed dozens and dozens of authors. I always knew about the NYSWI because I was one of their most loyal attendees and I liked to write and interview the authors. When this job became available less than 2 years ago, I applied for it.
KF: And the NYSWI was founded by William Kennedy…?
PG: William Kennedy started it in 1983. He had won the McArthur Fellowship and took some of that money and seeded this. And then he got the president at the time Vincent O’Leary to match him. So, he donated $15,000 a year and he got the president to kick in $15,000 a year, and they started with $30,000 a year.
KF: That’s awesome! What was the original goal?
PG: The goal was to bring some of the great writers around the world to the University. Kennedy was an adjunct professor and he knew some well-known, well-published, prominent authors. He tried to get Robert Coober to come here and he wanted $150 and the English Department said it didn’t have any money. He said “This is outrageous. We need to be able to come up with a little bit of money to bring in great writers.” And so he created this. We’ve had probably 2,000 writers in 35 years.
KF: How do you select the writers?
PG: It’s a long process.
KF: I figured.
PG. Our staff, William Kennedy, we have an advisory group, and a friends of writing group that all contribute. A lot of people with great ideas the challenge is getting people in on certain dates. We work on the academic calendar and we also don’t want to get someone we’ve already had. We’re interested in diversity, all voices, of all forms, and writers from other parts of the world. Sometimes, it’s cost-prohibited, if their fee is too expensive, we might not be able to get them, but we try our best to bring in as many as we can at a very low fee and keep everything free and open to the public.
KF: You write a lot about Albany. What about the city is special to you?
PG: Well, it’s an old city. It was founded over 350 years ago, settled by the Dutch. Albany was important for trade: the Europeans, Dutch, and Native-Americans traded beaver pelts at the time. It’s also the state capital, which makes it important politically. And I think it has a real authentic, not full-of-itself, working class feel to it that I like.
KF: You wrote a presidential biography, right? About Theodore Roosevelt?
PG: Yes. [The novel is titledI Rose Like a Rocket. Grondahl’s books can be found here.]
KF: What goes into that? How do you even start?
PG: It’s a lot of research. I tried to find a niche that hadn’t been completely exploited because there’s been hundreds and hundreds of books written on him, he’s one of our greatest presidents of all time, so I took his early apprenticeship in Albany. He came here as a young man, a couple of years out of Harvard, he was a state assembly member, went on to do a lot of other things, came back as Governor, and then became the president when McKinley was shot and died, and that is when my book ends, when he becomes president. Most of his formative political moments took place right here in Albany, you can walk the streets and go in the same buildings and see the same landscape that he saw.
KF: Did you read other biographies written about him as preparation?
PG: I didn’t. I only wanted to take the early parts—I did read a lot of the standard biographies – but I was only taking him up to the presidency. Edmond Morris, the most famous Theodore Roosevelt biographer, took three books to do his whole career: up to the presidency, the presidency, and then post-presidency. I just took a small slice and focused on his Albany years.
KF: Did you know you wanted to be a reporter coming into college?
PG: Not really…I was an English major. I always liked to read books and write about books and I loved literature. I never took a journalism class. I was an English Literature major—as an undergraduate and graduate student. I liked to write. I wrote for my school paper as an undergraduate at the University of Pugut Sound in Washington. I continued to write, and I got this opportunity to go to graduate school, which was great. I came from the Pacific Northwest and I liked it here. I applied to newspapers and I finally got hired at the Albany Times Union. I started at the bottom, covering shootings, fatalities, crashes, and fires—it was very good training though.
KF: So where did you grow up?
PG: I was born in Seattle Washington and then moved to Tacoma, Washington.
KF: What was it like covering shootings and fatalities? That’s hard to do.
PG: It is. It taught me to be empathic, taught me humanity—there’s nothing worse than seeing a parent and their child dead on the ground or a whole family lose everything in a fire. You learn that life throws you a lot of tough things, and you have to pick yourself back up. Teddy Roosevelt taught me that too—he had a lot of setbacks and he carried on. I think working with the night police I got a lot of empathy for the human condition.
KF: If you didn’t take any journalism classes, did you just learn on the spot?
PG: I did. I learned by watching great reporters and observing and learning from mistakes and working my way up from the night police beat to doing major projects.
KF: It’s different writing in that objective, journalist form than crafting argument in English Literature.
PG: Right. All good writing is storytelling, and research, and getting your facts right, and quoting people correctly. There’s no margin for error—it’s black and white—but everything else is how you craft a story and how you develop it.
KF: And there’s still the same common theme that people have to care about it and be interested.
PG: Yeah. You have to make them sit up and give you five or ten or fifteen minutes of their precious time.
KF: So, how has William Kennedy inspired you as a writer? I know you’ve said a couple times that he’s one of your mentors.
PG: He’s the very first person I met on this campus in 1981, and he sits in that chair right there when he comes in. I just got back from Dublin with him and his family, he got a major award from the President of Ireland. It was amazing. He taught me work ethic. He’s still working. He was working on the plane coming back. I was tired, I was sleeping, and he’s almost 91. He’s dedicated to the craft of writing and that’s why we have this great writer’s institute, because he thought it was important to learn from great writers.
KF: You said he was a professor, right? That’s how you met him?
DG: That’s how I met him.
KF: Did he write for a newspaper too?
PG: He wrote for the Times Union, too. In fact, I’m doing a great event on December 17 at the Times Union with two of my mentors, Bill Kennedy and Harry Rosenfeld—he’s the editor of the TU, he hired me—and Rex smith. We’re going to have a discussion between the three of us: Times Union alumni, who went on to write books. I learned a lot from both Bill Kennedy and Harry Rosenfeld and other great professors I’ve had. I always tell my students to find a mentor. Bill Kennedy was my mentor. He wrote the introduction to my first book. He was always encouraging if I sent him any of my writing, and he would invite me to have a drink after all these writer’s institute events. I got to know him and his family, very well.
KF: That’s important to have someone like that. Who’s the other guy you mentioned?
PG: Harry Rosenfeld, he’s the editor of the Times Union. He was the editor of Woodward and Bernstein at Washington Post. [You can see him in All the President’s Men, played by Jack Warden.]
KF: What has been your favorite article to write or something that has stood out to you?
PG: I got a lot of response on this long series of articles I did on Poppy—that was his nickname—his name was Samuel Baez. He was homeless, addicted to drugs, mentally ill, but there was a lot of intelligence and goodness and resilience in him. I sort of followed him around and wrote many stories over the course of several years. He had a whole family out in Arizona, and he had moments of sobriety, but he never quite got his life together. He ended up dying. I wrote his obituary, but I got to know him. He was emblematic of a lot of people you see on the streets. I did a lot of prison coverage, prisoners in solitary confinement. I try to write about people on the margins, who don’t have a voice.
KF: Did you come up with that idea, about Samuel Baez?
PG: I met him when my daughter was in middle school. I took her and her friend—they had to volunteer at a soup kitchen – and I served him lunch and got to know him. I finally went to find him, and I had this long relationship with him. It usually wasn’t good—he would get beat up or thrown in jail, he’d end up in a homeless shelter, and then he’d get his life together and have an apartment and have a job for a little while, and then his demons would catch up to him. It was about 20 stories. Homeless people are kind of invisible sometimes. People tend to look past them. It’s a very difficult problem.
KF: What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned in your career so far?
PG: To keep going. Not every story is perfect, there’s no such thing as the perfect book or the perfect article so you kind of have to do your best with your deadline and move on. Accept that you’re always growing and hopefully you get better with each article, each book, each year.
KF: Do you prefer one sort of writing over the other—like books or articles?
PG: I think it’s all somewhat the same. I try to throw myself in and do my best, no matter what the subject is, whether it’s a small story or a larger story. A lot of it is being curious, being interested. I’m a people person; I like meeting people and hearing their stories and then sharing their stories. Most people can’t tell their own stories. They lack either the writing skills or time, so it’s a privilege to be able to tell someone’s story. I write lot of obituaries and the families are so thankful. It’s kind of the last word on somebody’s life. Sometimes a long, accomplished life and sometimes a short, tragic life. I did a long a series on opioid and heroin addiction, and those were a lot of sad stories about young people who died of overdoses. To be able to tell a person’s story and capture life in one article is something that families are often thankful for.
KF: How do you do that—tell someone else’s story?
PG: You talk to a lot of people. The best writing has the best reporting. A lot of young writers think, “Oh, I’ll talk to one person.” If you can get 10 people that know this person, coming from every angle and facet of their life, it makes for a much better story.
KF: This is my last question. Do you have any advice for young writers?
PG: Start writing and get published and let people see your work and comment on your work. Find a community of writers that are interested in the same things you’re interested in and bounce ideas off each other. The great thing about a newspaper is that it’s collaborative. Every day, everybody has to do their job to get the paper out. There’s a lot of interesting and smart people, and it’s a lot of fun to be around where sparks are created, and connections are made. It’s the same thing with writing; find your tribe.
Visit https://www.nyswritersinstitute.org for the incredible Spring 2019 that Paul and his team have compiled for Albany and the surrounding communities.
Interview and Transcription by Karlie Flood - Intern
Edited for clarity by Courtney Galligan - Managing Editor
Nancy Klepsch is a published poet, an alum of the University at Albany and Saint Rose, co-host of 2nd Sunday @ 2 open mic, a literary figure that understands the importance community and lives in Troy, NY. Just one hour before her monthly open mic at the Arts Center of the Capital Region Klepsch openly admires her home city that has so much to offer to writers.
Nancy Klepsch: To live in Troy really does mean that you live a creative life; it can be in a public way or a mellow way. I would take all my poems and put them all around the telephone poles for four or five blocks to see if anyone paid attention to them. For a long time, I did a lot of installations here. I got funding from the city of Troy and the Albany Airport. Now, I do the 2nd Sunday open mic. Dan Wilcox and I started this about nine years ago. An executive director at the Arts Center in Troy, who was very visionary, noticed that there wasn’t any poetry—this was before Poetic Vibe. Dan and I noticed that there were two things missing: something for people who didn’t want to go to a bar at 8 pm or couldn’t. And two, there was no open mic for poetry and prose. We were the first ones to establish the first open mic for both, and that kind of made a difference in terms of who came, and I think what we contributed to the community was an opportunity for people to experiment or explore without the pressure of being a feature.
Karlie Flood: Does the 2nd Sunday host any featured poets?
NK: No. It’s always an open mic, always supportive, you read two poems or five minutes of prose. We always clap at the end. We have some really experienced writers, and almost every open mic we’ll have someone who has never read. I think that’s really important because who am I? If I had to say something, I am definitely the daughter—so to speak mythically—of Tom Natell, who’s one of our deans here.
KF: We’re actually working on a feature about him. Did you know him well?
NK: I feel like I did. I did something really important with Tom. In the 80s, Tom worked for the Health Department. My best friend had been diagnosed with AIDS, and this was at a time when there was no cure and there was no hope. And I was young—I was in my 30s—and Tom really taught me the importance of social justice and poetry. We were fighting like hell for the living and mourning the dead. Tom was a crusader. Tom taught me that when the worst thing is happening in your life that you can make art out of it. I see myself as one of Tom’s mentees, and he taught me an enormous amount about the poetry community, and a lot about who I am. The best poem doesn’t always get published. You don’t become a poet to become famous. It’s about your personal best, and I also think it’s about making sense of the world through poetry. Taking your unique voice and your unique ideas and sharing them with other people and saying: I have a story to tell, do you feel this way too?
That’s why there is no feature, because of Tom. It’s a lot of what Troy is about. (references Little Pecks, the outdoor café we are sitting in). They made beauty from all the scraps and different found things and all the different dreams and hopes and desires that were left behind and I think that’s really important—I don’t know. I write about place a lot. The activity of place is important.
KF: Do you write about Troy a lot?
NK: Oh yeah. I’ve written a lot about Troy. I’ve gotten grants to write here. I feel blessed here. I just did a program with Danielle Colin through Troy Architecture Program, Poetry in Motion, where we got to do a scattered site poetry reading about motion, so we curated a bunch of poets and had that on one Farmer’s Market day. I once did a scattered site reading called Poems about Building, here, where I emulated the activity of advertising and made 12, 2-by 3-foot banners with a line, each of one of my poems. But because its Troy I got the Department of Pubic Works to work with me and let me have it 40 feet high on a building. What was really transformative for me in this process, I’ve done a lot of community work, like Tom taught me to, but I had a lifechanging event about 5 or 7 years ago—got sick and then got better—and when I was sick, I was thinking, “wow, what’s one of the things I didn’t do, that I would be really sad if I don’t get to do.” And that was the answer to the question when I did readings, do I have a book, and the answer was no. So, I started thinking about what that would be like.
KF: A book?
NK: A book. A book of my poetry. I took some workshops with Bernadette Mayor, which was getting a lot of notoriety around here, and that helped me to stretch my writing process. Because what happens to an angry, lesbian, poet when you’re not angry anymore and you want more content to write about? You take a class with the consummate teacher of writing prompts. You take a class with writing prompts, Bernadette is amazing with writing prompts, Bernadette is her own genre.
What was really transformative to me was that I was exploring the activity of ritual in poetry. And I discovered a poet who did that too. And I took 30 days to write a book based on rituals.
KF: What do you mean by ritual?
NK: Like making up practices in terms of spirituality and things like that, and then using that and getting into the zone and meditating. That’s a big part of how I’ve been writing these days, doing a ritual. Maybe its collecting or doing some origin or giving thanks to the river or a private ritual. The class I took was with C.A. Conrad, with who I’m really enamored, he wrote some rituals for us. He does some amazing ones. One of my favorites is that he walks around the community with a picture of himself and he says, “Do you know who this guy is?” and he writes down the answers and makes them into poems. A lot of them are very healing based, though. One of the rituals that I like is that I make moon water, and if there’s a full moon, I’ll put a jar water out there and close it and use it as a blessing and then meditate and write poems. Or when there is an eclipse. I started doing it before I wrote my book, god must be a boogie man. It comes from Joni Mitchel and Charles Mingus song called “God must be a Boogie Man.” That’s the book I wrote through the activity of taking C.A.’s course while digging deep with a group of 20 online writers. The course was designed to break obstacles. I sent it out and I really wanted to get published. That was my dream. And a very small micropublisher in Troy, NY called Recto y Verso published me. Christian Ortega liked my book—he publishes experimental books. Now I need to set other goals and go do some readings.
I have a website now. That was something that Christian taught me right away, the minute he decided to publish my book, he came over very nervously and asked do you own your name? and I was like what are you talking about? And he asked again. What are you talking about? And he said, this may be a problem, and I said there’s only two Klepsch’s in the world. That was the first thing he taught me to do, so I own my name. I’m excited about that. And then he started showing me if you have a Smith or jones name—if your name is Vonnegut—it’s a problem.
(At this point Nancy shows me a quote from Jil Hanifan, located on the back cover of her book.)
Read these poems when you’re hungry, starving, famished – Nancy Klepsch’s kitchen is always warm and noisy, always full of fresh basil, pita, sweet potatoes, and spices. Read these poems when you think all might be lost, or you might be going crazy – these poems are full of tender rage and wild sanity. Shaman, musician, passionate warrior, “a brave hard mount/in a hard brave world,” the voice in this collection of poems will not be contained, speaks in chants and charts and recipes, documents the history of her city and our times, and the depth and urgency of these revelations, their searing humor and bite, are matters of survival and healing. Bending conventions and wielding typography like a dangerous paring knife, god must be a boogie man will feed you, heal you, and fight for your life. “Tell me a story,” Klepsch begs us, “Talk Forever.” – Jil Hanifan
“That kind of sums up who I am.”
KF: That’s beautiful.
NK: Jil also taught me to believe in myself as a writer, when I get stuck, when I just want to hang out with my friend, I call Jil. When I think my work is sucky and I need an honest opinion, when I need suggestions, when I need a kind voice, when I need to commemorate someone—one of the things that hard about older white woman lesbian—you become invisible. It’s a challenge. Another person that was important to my career—I used to read her books. Do you know Moseman? Laurie writes really experimental work, and she also influenced me. When I met Laurie and Jil, they were PhD students and I was just an undergraduate so to have them say, “Wow, we really like your work—” it really made me believe in myself.
(The following is the praise written by Moseman for Nancy’s book.)
“Gratitude, gut gratitude. Poet Nancy Klepsch know it because grief still scrapes the/soft palate [her] mouth/sews raw skin onto [her] teeth.From injury arises a poetic voice full of zing and verve. Klepsch’s rants are a rush of generosity: I am stir-frying joy/How much pleasure can mouth/bring to someone ordinary as a dinner.Her humor pokes fun at personal pronouns and big data: I am still incomplete a recovery agent’s small scale discovery that this machine my poor body is a prototype a meme more beautiful and alive that I ever was. But her gut is just. Her blues damn racial violence; her musicality offers an equality: all of us can stretch arc/kowtow to the catechism/of this river-scape/bob in its tidal/name waves/call the clouds cousin/round light snatch sunset. In a Collar City within the Rust Belt of this Queer Nation, Klepsch creates bright glimpses of how We fight for everyone. Experimental page-poets and spoken word bards will agree: god must be a boogie man is an invigorating read that demands a stage.” – Lori Anderson Moseman
NK: I like to dig deep into what I call the good, the stupid and the ugly of tech because one of the challenges is that no matter what you do with technology, there’s this great, great, great, great, great thing that it does and then it does this really bad thing. I have a poem called “my cells,” where I’m being chased, and I turn into a cyborg and I’m freaking out because how many times do you go to a place and they already know what you want. Or you go to Amazon and it says you bought these books, you may like this! No. I might’ve wanted that before but because operator system wanted me to want that, now I don’t want that. Even though it’s in my color and my size. There’s all this bad stuff, and it’s interesting how we manage that good, bad, and ugly. What I’ve been doing is technology to read more to access and then exploring this strange thing that I don’t know if I’m good at, but I see it in the work of Shira Dentz—the use of information in poetry.
KF: This is my last question. When did you know you were a poet?
NK: So, I was a little kid, I was in eighth grade, and I followed around Miss Fagen for 5 years, because you couldn’t take the poetry class until 12th grade. So, from 8th grade until 12th grade, this teacher tolerated me, but said that I have to wait until 12th grade. And finally, the day came: I was in Miss Fagen’s poetry class. I did my assignment and handed it in and I stayed after school because I couldn’t wait, and she said, “Why Nancy, I don’t think I have anything to teach you. You are already a poet.” We stayed friends for 35 years. She read all my poems. She was one of those really formative people, so that’s how I knew I was a poet. Because if Fagen said so had to be true.
A Note from the Editor: I had the pleasure of attending 2nd Sunday @ 2 for the first time on the same day that this interview took place. Nancy was a warm and welcoming co-host; after hearing her poetry and reading this interview I have found her to be an inspiration and hope to work with her in the future. Thank you for your time Nancy Klepsch!
You can find more information about this author at https://www.nancyklepsch.com/ and can purchase her book at https://www.amazon.com/God-Must-Be-Boogie-Man/dp/069299632X
By Karlie Flood
On November 13th, I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing a central figure in Albany’s poetry scene, Mary Panza, the Vice President of Albany Poets and an Editor of Up the River Magazine. Albany Poets seeks to“increase awareness and activity of the art of poetry and spoken word in the Albany, NY area.” Panza has worked tirelessly to ensure all poets and writers have a place in Albany. She has been attending open mics here since 1988 and hosts an open mic on the last Monday of each month at McGeary’s in downtown Albany. Her blog, Housewife Tuesday, is published by Albany Poets when she has something to say (can range from bi-weekly to monthly).
KF: Tell me about Albany Poets and your goal for the organization.
MP: I came to work with Albany Poets in 2004 to bring more shows and open mics to the area; to put poetry out there a little more.
MP: I started out in 1988 with the local poetry scene, so I already knew some folks. It wasn’t that hard to find venues with owners who were very pro-artist to get stuff going.
KF: Have you always lived in Albany?
MP: I’m from South Troy.
KF: What made you focus on Albany versus Troy?
MP: There wasn’t anything really going on in 1988. And QE2, which was the punk-club at the time, was doing an open mic at the end of each month, so I just came here.
KF: What has been your favorite part of working with the community, or what has been the most rewarding?
MP: New poets. Another one of my favorite things is giving new artists their first feature, which I do at my open mic at McGeary’s.
KF: Is the open mic at McGeary’s strictly poetry?
MP: We’ve had some different things over the years, but it’s mostly poetry and short prose. We have a lot of regulars, but we also have a lot of newcomers. Some people come on their vacations, or during the summer or winter only. It’s diverse.
KF: How long have you been doing that for?
MP: 13 years. 14 years in January.
KF: And you are a poet, right?
MP: I am.
KF: When did you know that you were a poet?
MP: I still don’t know.
KF: When did you start writing?
MP: When I was a child, I would write soap operas, because that’s what I knew. I would sit with my Nana Panza, and she would watch the Edge of Night. I’ve always watched soap operas my whole life. I still do. But that was kind of the first stuff I wrote, and I would draw little pictures.
KF: That’s so cute!
MP: It was dopey, but that’s what I did as a kid because Nana liked them, and I wanted something in common with Nana.
KF: Have you written a soap opera since?
MP: No. I have lived enough soap operas in my life.
KF: Do you write anything besides poetry?
MP: I write the Housewife Tuesday blog. It’s supposed to be every other week, but if I don’t have anything to say—if I’m not interested, how am I going to make anyone else interested? So, I’ve been taking longer breaks. Plus, I have a 12-year-old. Kids are a time-suck.
KF: Especially at 12.
MP: Yeah. She keeps me busy.
KF: What’s your favorite thing about Albany?
MP: My house. Being inside of my house.
KF: Do you enjoy working for the community?
MP: I do. That’s the best part. My friend, Thom (President of Albany Poets), we always say it’s the best full-time job that we never get paid for. The first few years of Albany Poets, Thom and I were out every single night in the community, either brainstorming, or at events. We went to everything. We did everything. And I think that’s what you have to do. Before I had my daughter—I didn’t have my daughter until I was 37—so from the time I was 18 until the time I gave birth, basically, I would go to everything. There was very little that I didn’t go to. It’s where my friends were. And I wasn’t very nice. I only started being nice since menopause, and that was about three or four years ago—that’s a hormonal thing—and because I’m not competitive anymore. When you’re young and someone prettier comes in the room, or someone writes a better poem than you do—which happens a lot—there’s always someone else writing the poem you want. Before I was very competitive and nasty, and now I’m like “Oh my God, that’s great, somebody said what I was thinking.” And I think if you start with that attitude, you’ll go far.
KF: So, do you think it’s just age?
MP: I think you mellow with age. The sooner you get over yourself, the better you are. The sooner you stop being the poetry cliché, the better off you are.
KF: That’s one of those things that seem easy to do on paper but isn’t at all.
MP: To get over one’s ego? It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. I would’ve still been that asshole had I not had my daughter. I’ve only had a girl, so I can’t compare it to having a little boy, but they tell you the truth almost constantly: that you’re uncool, and that will come back and bite you in the ass.
KF: That will really bring you back down to Earth.
MP: It will really take the wind out of your sails. Especially with the internet! It’s a bigger world, in a lot of ways, because you’re uncool now on so many levels. I’m uncool because I have a Facebook and that’s for old people. I’m uncool because I don’t really do much on Instagram. I’ll say to my daughter; “How do you get that puppy face?” And she’ll say, “it’s Snapchat and you’re not getting it,” with an eyeroll. My daughter started rolling her eyes at me at age two. Keep karma in mind when you’re nasty to somebody. Karma is real. But now I enjoy poetry more. I enjoyed it before but now it’s different.
KF: Why do you think that is?
MP: Because I was a jerk. And now I’m a jerk, but maybe I’m a jerk for the right reasons. I wouldn’t go as far as to saint myself because I’m far from that, but I can enjoy it because I’m never going to be famous. I’m never going to be rich. I don’t have a degree, I have an associates. I’m not an academic. And I don’t really care if I ever get published again. I’m kind of a publishing pariah: nobody will publish me. But it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. All that matters is that you keep writing, and that’s my goal. I don’t care what anyone says, I’m too fucking old. As long as I’m not hurting anyone, which I’m not. For years, people said [publishing] was what I needed to do. I don’t need to do anything, and that freedom? To just create? It’s beautiful. To create without a purpose, and if it goes somewhere, great. And if it doesn’t, that’s great too. You gotta roll with things. I think I’m a little bit better with rolling with things. People would argue that point. If you ask Thom, about me rolling with things, I don’t think he would say yes—I think he would say I’m a little bit more flexible.
KF: And you guys are good friends?
MP: The best. I’m best friends with his wife, he’s best friends with my boyfriend, and it’s become our family. These bonds that I have with Dan Wilcox, and Don Levy, and Shannon Shoemaker and all these other people…. we’ve been in this for a really long time. It becomes more. And that’s what I feel like a community is, and who am I to not welcome people into that? I don’t want to keep that feeling from anybody—that you belong here. And we’re going to listen to you, and value your time in front of the microphone. I can’t control the crowd. But I can at least make sure somebody is going to hear you. After that, you’re on your own. If someone doesn’t like what you have to say—I’m not your mother, I can’t fight your battles, but I can give you a forum. And that’s what Albany Poets is really about: to give you a forum, and information, and a calendar. We’ve got Rebecca Shameda, who’s one of the best poets going, does book reviews. R.M [Engleheart], another person in my poet family, his blog. Don Levy, who’s an avid reader, he does book reviews. I talk about making sauce. But there’s a little bit of something for everybody. It’s okay to not write for a purpose. And it’s okay to write for a purpose.
KF: It’s all writing.
MP: And it’s all valid. We have to use these rights while we still have them, quite frankly. We need to say what we have to say. It’s unorganized, but it’s organized. It’s a lot more freeing, and I’m a lot happier than I’ve been in years with what’s going on [in Albany], because for a long time—I’m not a slam person, I was too old. I have aged out of certain things, in my own opinion.
KF: Like aged out of what?
MP: I’ve aged out of a path. I just want everyone to say, “Say what you have to say. You’re safe here, you’re safe on the mic, and we can give you the mic.” I can’t tell you what to say. I would never tell you what to say. If you’re going to go somewhere and do an open mic and be provocative, you should be prepared for that. We don’t coddle, but we provide.
KF: Which is important.
MP: I think it’s important. Because you can’t have an open mic and say, “these topics are off limits.” That’s the beauty of an open mic.
KF: And poetry.
MP: And poetry itself. Those are the risks you take—you take the risk of people not liking what you have to say. People will either not like it, love it, or not care. You learn more when people don’t care, and when people hate it versus when people feed your ego. You learn more with failure.
KF: I agree. If you could tell your younger writing-self anything, what would it be?
MP: Stop talking about your vagina. Move on. Stop thinking you’re cooler than everyone else, you’re not. Nobody cares. All of that, I would tell myself all of that.
KF: Do you care if I put this in the article?
MP: Nothing would please me more.
By Jeff Doherty
When I saw a hooded ghoul commanding the microphone on Halloween night at an event hosted by The Troy Poetry Mission I had no idea who he was. Now I know that ghoul was James H Duncan, a long-time writer of fiction and Managing Editor of Hobo Camp Review. I recently spoke to him about his craft and learned about the man himself. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Jeffery Doherty: I think a pretty good place to start off is, when did you start writing?
James Duncan: I started writing really young; when I was a kid. Little stories for myself and my grandfather had a typewriter that he gave me, and I’d spend way too much time alone. I would write stories about stuff I saw during the day. I’d write my own comics, but I never took it seriously until college. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I thought about acting, I was a theater major for a while, and then I realized I can’t act; I can’t memorize things. I thought about playwriting and that didn’t quite work out and I got into journalism, then fiction.
Jeff D: You have told me about the fact that you write novels, poetry, and sort of flash fiction. Which one do you do most?
James D: I mostly work on novels. I like having a long-term project going in the background of everything else I do. Any given week, I might write three or four poems, in a month I might write just a couple stories really quick. In the last fourteen years, I’ve written about six novels. You’re always revising it. You finish one, you go back and revise another. You do a first draft of another, and you revise the one you wrote two years ago. There’s a continual improvement. I’ve really focused a lot of time on writing novels, even though I haven’t technically published any yet.
Jeff D: Where do you draw the source, the canon for your poetry, and your writing?
James D: Stuff I’ve written in the past came from a lot of strange places, like a ‘what if.’ Lately especially the last few years, I’ve been writing flash fiction, and a lot of poetry. I’ve really been trying to mine my personal experiences with other people, and how relationships begin and how they end. I think those are the most fascinating points in time in our relationships with people. ‘How did it start? How did it fall apart, and why?’ I just released a flash fiction collection with fifty stories in it called Nights Without Rain, and all the stories in there kind of examine that. They’re all about relationships, and I try to pull all these little moments of, you know, how you said, ‘how things fell apart with this one person,’ or that one night when you had to have that talk, the last time you saw somebody, what happened.
Jeff D: How has the change of time, and the change of technology made your writing different or maybe made it evolve?
James D: I used to carry a notebook with me everywhere. I still have the old notebooks and I can’t read my handwriting at all. Just being able to whip out my phone, jotting down a quick three or four words—in that regard it’s almost poetry in and of itself. Something happens, and you can’t just stand there and type out a paragraph or a sentence, you write three or four quick words. Then you see that later on your phone. Sometimes you’re like ‘what the hell did that mean?’ Other times it can really spawn something. Car crash—red jacket, then you go ‘Oh yeah, that thing that whole time,’ and it all comes flooding back. Being able to do that really quickly without looking for your pen— sometimes I just snap a picture of something, and I’ll go through my phone to look at old pictures, and I’ll go ‘Oh geez, yeah that whole day,’ just that one image can really take you back.
Jeff D: I know you do write sometimes for the joy of it, but do you sometimes write to sort of explore, like another place in the world?
James D: Yeah definitely. I write so much poetry, really the flash fiction is kind of an exploration of my past, who I am, how I see the world, what’s happening in the world. It’s nice to step away from that and really try to put yourself in a different place, in a different mindset. Whether it’s a more innocent time, a more dangerous time. Like I said when we were talking earlier about crossing that line from reality to surreal, occultish— other weird stuff, it’s fun to go there and just be somewhere else. Put yourself in a different place and challenge yourself to make it real, to make it realistic; even though I wasn’t alive in the forties, I wouldn’t know what it was like. But if you can write something of that time and someone reads it, and it feels authentic, then you’ve achieved something.
This is James H. Duncan, the writer devoted to improving his craft, changing the stories he does tell with the passing of time. As his work has delved in and out of reality, his pieces strive to tell complex stories about people through their connections to one another. Whatever Duncan writes, he takes his long-held passion of writing along for the ride, regardless of the new adventure. To learn more about James and his work visit http://www.jameshduncan.com
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To request an interview contact our Managing Editor Courtney Galligan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Octavia Findley
Octavia Findley: Can you describe your craft for me?
John Teevan III: “Well, I love to write. I’ve always been a writer, since I’ve been old enough to hold a pen. I do creative writing, fiction, and dabble in spy fiction, travel writing, romance, historical fiction. Mostly I write short stories, and I’ve published a couple collections of short stories. I’ve self-published A Serious Evening in Vienna, The Love Letter with a Bullet Hole,and The Traveler’s Sketchbook. The last one dips into another creative outlet that I have which is drawing.
OF: [Regarding a hand drawn portrait of a pyramid] Is that the one at New Paltz?
JT: No, that’s at the Louvre.
OF: More places that I want to go to…
JT: Yeah, Paris is beautiful. It’s from when I studied abroad at Sorbonne University, and I did a lot of drawing. Well, the cover of my book, is the Louvre, with the glass pyramid and the beautiful historic palace. The back cover is the dormitory where I stayed, which was a palace in and of itself. I was walking by it every day to get to the subway to go to class, and I wanted to remember it. So rather than take a picture, y’know, press a button for two seconds on your phone and then forget about it, I remember every detail by drawing the things that I see. And that’s how I bring back the memories that I really want to remember.
OF: [Flipping through the The Traveler’s Sketchbook] I’m looking at it, it’s gorgeous, I haven’t gotten quite past stick figures yet.
OF: I wish I could draw like this, I’ve not the time or patience for more than one way to use a pencil. …you went to D.C.?
JT: Yeah, so that one is from D.C. I went to the capital. I travel a lot, to different countries and cities outside of the U.S. I love to write. I love to write. But, writing is my second favorite hobby. My favorite hobby is traveling. I love to travel at every opportunity I get.
OF: As a hobby? Is that Notre Dame?
JT: Yeah, that’s Notre Dame Basilica.
OF: Wow, I’m sorry, I’ve having too much fun with your sketchbook-
OF –I’m supposed to be asking you questions.
JT: But, writing and visual arts, creative arts all go hand in hand. The visual expression and the written expression. They’re all one in the same.
OF: OKAY. [Puts down book] We’ll be here all day, with me admiring it. What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
JT: “Writing’s a very introverted task. You’re in a room by yourself, writing. So there’s that aspect. My favorite part is when you bring it to life. When you bring that concept and share it at a book launch. It’s so exciting to gets readers that come up to you and go, ‘Oh I’m such a fan of your book! I loved how you wrote this. Did you mean this? How did you interpret this? Where’d you come up with this idea?’ So, it’s really fun to bring it to life. Your book is like your baby. And you’re bringing it to life, in the world, and it outlives you. And it’s such an amazing experience.
OF: So after the book is done, and you’re sharing it?
JT: Yeah, sharing it in the sense of bringing it to life. You have the solitary idea that you came up with, writing all alone, and then you bring it into society. And everybody enjoys it. And you have readers on five continents that want to read your books and are asking you questions. Interacting with the fans. Your baby has come to life.
OF: Aww. I’m too busy to have my own paper children.
JT: [Laughs] Paper children, that’s exactly what it’s like.
OF: Who’s your greatest influence as an author?
JT: “I really like Victor Hugo. My background’s in History and French Studies, and Hugo’s a historian, obviously he was French. I love The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s one of my favorite books of all time. I love Les Mis, Les Misérables…Yes, yes. It’s a good musical, it’s so dramatic, it captures the essence of the human spirit. I find a lot of inspiration in Hugo’s historical style. A lot of my stories have historical references, I chose to use footnotes instead of MLA, Chicago’s what historians use. So, Hugo is a huge inspiration. I admire him I also really like J.K. Rowling. The inspirational story of the writer who is living in poverty and comes up with this brilliant idea and changes the world. Now Harry Potter’s everywhere.
OF: And it will definitelyoutlive her. It’s a pop culture phenomenon in and of itself. I’m Hufflepuff and I’ve never cracked open a Harry Potter book in my life!
JT: [Laughs] I’m a Ravenclaw. Everyone identifies with the writing, and it really became this baby that came into the world and everyone can enjoy.
OF: Well the baby is now old enough to have babies.
OF:AND IT DOES. It’s called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.So, off you go! What’s your favorite genre for leisure reading?
JT: Y’know I don’t actually read a lot. A lot of writers, when I was first interested in self-publishing, I contacted a few published authors that I knew, and I asked them, ‘Is it possible to be a successful writer without being a heavy reader? Can you write well without reading a lot?” And every single one of them said no. You have to know what good writing looks like, you have to read everything out there. You have to interact with the literary community. You have to read people’s stuff so you can write back and they’ll read your stuff. But I’m not a big reader, I’m more into the expression, the writing, rather than the opposite of that. The intake, the reading. I’ve never taken a writing class, I’ve never taken an English class, I’ve never taken a drawing class. I’m self-taught for the writing and the drawing. It’s just an expressive, creative outlet. I like writing, but I’m not a big reader.
OF: Would you like your work to be made into a film?
JT: “That would be amazing. I can see what they would look like.
OF: I mean, the sketchbook would be interesting. You would have to find some guy that looks as well as you do, that could get your mannerisms and all…
JT: [Laughs] Well, the sketchbook would be a documentary, a biography of the artist. But the short stories, those, they’re very easy to make into movies. You’ve got very definite characters. They have, you can just see the look in Sam and Louise’s eyes. You can just feel the passion of the [unintelligible] as they’re fighting persecution. So many of these stories, they have such vivid imagery, they’ll go very well into a movie. Someday, who knows? But, y’know, the spy’s white dress in this Latin American country, on the verge of revolution. It actually came to me while I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The first thing I thought was, ‘Wow. I’m going to write this story, and hope some movie be made of it.” San Juan is so historical. Beautiful. It’s got a vibrant culture. I did some drawing, took some pictures. But most of all I wrote. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. I came back to my writing group, and I was inspired to write this story. I’m currently working on a book-length sequel to that short story.
OF: Good Luck!
JT: It’s already written too! That one, I can see it so vivid. The imagery is so beautiful. But we’ll see! Maybe someday they will!
OF: Do you have any advice for beginning authors?
JT Well, for me, the writing is the easy part. The sharing is the hard part. A lot of writers are introverts, a lot of them are very shy. So, it’s always easy to be writing and creating these ideas, but to actually self-publish and to put them out for the world to see, these books will be tied to my name on the internet for all eternity. I can’t take them back. A lot of writers sabotage themselves. They’re so shy and timid that they don’t go ahead and share their writing, they just create it and then they leave it there. I always think that writing a book takes more courage than creativity. A lot of people have the creativity, a lot of people write, but to actually go out there, go on the internet, share it, publish it. You can’t take it back. … My advice would be once you think you have a really good piece, share it! Go to an open mic. I did my first open mic, it was in Montreal, it was all in French, which was really exciting. But you can go to an open mic, it was not high stakes, it’s not going to be published. You just say it and people clap and praise you. You can also self-publish, which is a lot easier than traditional publishing. Or submit to a literary journal. But there are many outlets where people can put their name on the record. A lot of people are too shy to go forward and share it. But once I took the step, I stopped writing and started sharing, it made a huge impact on my life. Now I have fans on five continents. It’s so rewarding to meet the readers and have your family say, “I didn’t know you did that!” If I didn’t share and publish it, then nobody would know I was a writer. Now that I’m published, people from work, from family, from friends, they’re all coming up to me and going, “I didn’t know you had this talent!” So my advice to prospective writers would be to share it. Take the leap. Because you ever know what will happen.
As I published my first book, I was on the fence, I had my mouse, my finger on the mouse, on September 3rd, for a very long time. If I clicked publish, bam, it goes on Amazon worldwide, everyone can see it. So I’m sitting there with my mouse, I’ve already edited to date. The draft was fine, but I wanted to read it the day of, to make sure nothing had changed. I’m just sitting there, thinking, ‘Is this what I really want to do?’ I hit publish. Six days later, I google the title to see social media coverage. I find out, it’s number two on Amazon’s best-selling new releases in its genre. It was Amazon’s hot new releases. If I didn’t click submit, if I didn’t click publish, it wouldn’t have become a bestseller. But because I clicked submit, I stopped writing and started sharing, I’m a bestselling author…
One other piece of advice that I do want to share is that I make my own covers. It’s very expensive to hire a graphic designer to create a cover. People do judge a book by its cover. You own the copyright to any photo if you take it yourself, but you just can’t google images and make that your cover because of copyright infringement. Don’t delete any photos. … There was this one time, I needed space on a computer, so I went and deleted photos. Eight years later, I’m publishing this book and I’m looking for pictures of San Juan, Puerto Rico and I’ve deleted sixty percent of them. One of them could have been a beautiful cover picture. … I wish I hadn’t deleted the photos; I’m not going to fly back to Paris to take the photo.
Transcribed by Jeff Doherty - Intern
Edited for length by Courtney Galligan - Managing Editor
Ed Schwarzchild: I want to start by thanking the NYS Writers Institute for making this event possible. What an incredible semester they’ve put together so far. Thanks to Paul Grondahl and his incredible team. They give a gift to— anyone who finds inspiration in the essential acts of reading and writing. So, thank you to the Institute for bringing Nana back to campus. It’s just an incredible pleasure to have him back here. As most of you know, Nana is a UAlbany alum. He was an English major here; he wrote his honors thesis here. After he graduated, he went on to Syracuse University where he had been awarded a full scholarship to study in their illustrious MFA program. Now what brings him back is he’s on tour for his first book, a collection of stories called Friday Black. Friday Blackis no ordinary first book. It is a literary sensation. Many people are calling it the fiction debut of the year, and that’s not a former professor talking, that’s not another proud Great Dane engaging in some type of hyperbolic speech, it’s just the way it is. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to take a look at what they’re saying about Friday Blackin newspapers and magazines all around the country. I’m going to read out the first paragraph of Tommy Orange’s review of Nana’s book that was just published a week ago today in the New York Times.
Here’s that paragraph:This year has been exhausting in so many ways, asking us to accept more than it seems we can, more than it seems should be possible. But really, in the end, today’s harsh realities are not all that surprising for some of us — for people of color, or for people from marginalized communities — who have long since given up on being shocked or dismayed by the news, by what this or that administration will allow, what this or that police department will excuse, who will be exonerated, what this or that fellow American is willing to let be, either by contribution or complicity. All this is done in the name of white supremacy under the guise of patriotism and conservatism, to keep things as they are, favoring white people over every other citizen, because where’s the incentive to give up privilege if you have it? Now more than ever I believe fiction can change minds, build empathy by asking readers to walk in others’ shoes, and thereby contribute to real change. In “Friday Black,” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has written a powerful and important and strange and beautiful collection of stories meant to be read right now, at the end of this year, as we inch ever closer to what feels like an inevitable phenomenal catastrophe or some other kind of radical change, for better or for worse. And when you can’t believe what’s happening in reality, there is no better time to suspend your disbelief and read and trust in a work of fiction — in what it can do.
Just a marvelous piece of work about a marvelous piece of work. I want to take advantage of this time to have this conversation with Nana. Please join me in welcoming Nana back to UAlbany. (To Nana) I don’t know if you’ve hung out on this stage before, but what it’s like to be back at UAlbany?
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: First, thank you for all that. It’s very kind and thank you guys for coming out here. I’m excited that you’re here. It’s crazy to be back. I’m kind of trippin’ sitting here right now to be honest. I remember the Black Playwright’s group would have their events here, and I remember sitting out there watching my friends perform. And to be here right now it’s wild. It feels great. I feel mostly – besides this wild and sort of scatterbrained— I feel overwhelming gratitude for people like you who were one of the first people who were able to see me wanting to do something, take it seriously, and just make me feel like it was possible. So, thank ya’ll, I appreciate it.
ES: Nana’s being nice. He’s already written incredible things in my mind. He was already reading all the time which is the sign of someone who is going to become an incredible writer, there was no doubt. We started earlier in the afternoon speaking of gratitude, we talked about the role of your mother a bit in terms of becoming a writer. If you turn to the epigraph of the book – for my mom, who said, “how can you be bored? How many books have you written?”
NKAB: People, understand. My mother is a Ghanaian immigrant, it was said like an admonishment. I wasn’t happy when she said that. “How many books have you written?” I’ve been telling people I’ve figured out how to get your immigrant parents to sort of be a-hundred percent behind your artistic pursuits. All I needed to do was get a profile in the New York Times; I was like, “Oh, so obvious. Why didn’t I think of this earlier?” African parents, I think they hate their kids being idle more than anything else. She was just sort of saying that, but it did stick with me though. She’s responsible for me being here literally and figuratively. When I did give her the book, she went straight to the dedication to make sure. I’m glad you know, I would have gotten in trouble.
ES: Before we open it up to questions; is there a particular Albany story that you can remember the scene of it here at UAlbany?
NKAB: Yeah. Both the stories “Lark Street” and “In Retail” came around when I was here. I started realizing I could mine the malls; I worked at Crossgates while I was here. I remember taking the twelve bus down and back, and you know it wasn’t fun for me, but I had to do it to get my little money to pay whatever. Because I didn’t like it, I made it this space that I would use to sort of glean writerly information, writerly potential details. And so, absolutely back then when I was working, those sort of longer shifts especially, I was thinking about stories.
ES: [to audience] You must have questions for Nana that we can start with.
Question # 1: The first story in the collection has a lot of violence in it, which is something that is incredibly hard to write. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the process of drafting that violence but also drafting within a satirical space.
NKAB: The first story “The Finkelstein Five”, it’s very purposely the first story in the book, because if people read one thing of mine and nothing else, I want it to be that. I think it’s also like, “If you can handle this, you can ride this ride,” because it is pretty intense. I tried to be very conscious about the important violence in my work, and a lot of my stories are pretty violent, and there’s a lot of different ways to negotiate that. Story by story I try to consider how to do it. I mention this a lot, Roger Reeves has a talk about “The Work of Art in the Age of Charleston, Baltimore, and Ferguson”, and how you can use violence to dismantle violent systems as opposed to it being pornographic. There’s different ways I try to do that. For that particular story, we have a white man who kills five black children via chainsaw. On some level that chainsaw as opposed to being a gun could be more violent, right? But again, I like to think of it more as a reader though, using the chainsaw is my way of looking at the reader, “I’m doing something here.” Again, it’s getting pushed to something like satire, something like hyperbole, maybe. I think it trains the reader’s eye a bit. “Okay let me see what you do with this.” But it’s also, you can’t ignore a chainsaw the way that maybe unfortunately now we’re trained not to blink at a gun. And I’ve said before but that’s an interesting effect because whether if someone dies by gun, or chainsaw it just says I’m dead either way. A gun kills people. That’s one of the things I consider, “Why a chainsaw for that reason?” I want people to not be able to ignore it, but also to be aware of the conceit within a story, a fictional realm as opposed to just having him shoot down five kids. Which is, sadly, why I wrote this book, a sort of familiar story. And then I try to think about just how I’m gonna actually use, or show violence, and again in that story for example the actual murder of the kids is unseen, it’s sort of a remembered thing that’s reported on. There is violence that is seen as well, and again it’s just being really picky and choosy about how to use violence, why use violence? If there is going to be violence on the page, I have to be able to justify it very specifically. Often satire and surrealism are a way for me to have just as much control over that justification as I can.
Question # 2: How much would you say that living and studying in Albany influenced or shaped your creative process?
NKAB: The ways are probably innumerable. For one I had mentors and professors, like Ed and Lynne Tillman really made me feel seen as a writer. That’s number one. Lynne Tillman was especially big on the editorial level making me comfortable getting my manuscript sort of obliterated, getting a lot of error marks, but because of how she treated me, I learned to see that as like love, kind of. As opposed to being mad about it, or thinking she was hating on my story or something, I learned to appreciate that, which is essential if you’re gonna be a writer. I had a really cool group of friends who supported me very early on. I have a bunch of people who bonded with me and supported me. A lot of writers I feel like don’t necessarily feel supported. That’s why they don’t necessarily feel like they have a community that is invested in their art or their work, and I’ve never felt that. It started actually in Albany for me, because Albany is where I started basically admitting I was a writer.
Question # 3: Could you talk a little bit more about the shape of the book, and when did you know that you had to write it as a book, and what did that mean as a collection with that particular shape?
NKAB: I was at Syracuse University for grad school, and I spent a lot of time feeling like I don’t have direction; I’m not this type of author, I’m not that type of author. When I was doing my thesis, I was working with George Saunders, and I was trying to get him to tell me who to be as an artist. I said, “I’ve got these realistic stories… stories with ghosts and undead babies and stuff.” I felt like they couldn’t both exist. “Should I be this, or should I be that?” George was like, “Yes.” And I’m so, so thankful for that, because the way I looked at it, I would have done anything he said. I realized both is my power, or at least the power of this book. If you can work with this form and you feel like it’s powerful, do it. If you can work in that form and you feel like it’s powerful, do it. So that first story I wanted it to be there because I think it could be potentially very powerful, I knew it was pretty visceral, but it was purposeful. The second story is a brief interlude where I’m basically saying to my mom, I love you, and that story ends “I hope you can be proud of me”, that’s the end of the second story. The third story it starts, “Suckawamenah,” a funny transitional moving through, and back to the regularly scheduled program almost. I care a lot about the sort of sequencing, like an album almost.
Question # 4: For a person who writes with such powerful words, you seem like a pretty chill dude. How do you deal with writer’s block? How do you keep your writing consistent to the point where I can read the book and never be bored of it?
NKAB: Well thank you, I appreciate that. Chill dude is a high compliment to me, I’m not joking. I try very hard to be even keel about stuff. I like stories where things happen. It’s funny because in the light of “literary fiction,” it’s almost like how boring can you be but still be good? I like stories where things happen, and I don’t think that’s bad. I think it’s okay to tell stories that are interesting and tell them well, so I try my best to do that and that’s important to me. A lot of these books that are in the canon are not only about characters that don’t look like so many of us, or don’t think like so many of us, or don’t represent so many of us, they also don’t do anything. It’s like a double whammy, of bad, that makes kids think they don’t like reading. It’s not that you don’t like reading, you don’t like hearing about a seventeenth century divorce. Maybe that was mean… I mean you also asked about writer’s block. For me I try to reject writer’s block as a concept, I try to say that’s not really a thing because I feel that often I tell my students and myself to lean into that feeling of “it’s not going well.” It’s gonna find itself anyway, so be very comfortable writing bad stuff. I think that when you feel like you’re blocked as a writer, your editorial self has become louder than your creative self. Sometimes you can tell the editorial side to, “Shut up for a second, let me get these lines out, good, bad, ugly, whatever. Let me get something out.” Because you can always work from something. I don’t think writer’s block is a thing because I’m never not blocked as a writer. I have trained myself to be like, “What would you write today? This is the thing that’s gonna happen no matter what I’m feeling.” And then also feeling comfortable in the fact that it’s only gonna be good after I’ve looked at it a thousand times, so I’m gonna try that way, yeah.
Question #5: Your book ended by stories of violence, to begin and end, and reading about how Kendrick Lamar’s album, most recently, the first and last song are about somebody getting shot, and everything in between, which is a similar thing I find in yours. Was that something that you feel as being a black person that everything in your life that’s happening will either end or begin in violence?
NKAB: That’s a great question. There’s violence all throughout, but especially violence front and back of it. This worry about being a black creator is that violence is kind of always the story, and it is something I worry about a hundred percent. For me, it’s connected to the first question, that’s why it’s very important to me that I sort of situate that violence in a dismantling of a system that I think is violent. It’s really important to employ that violence to do work for me. And I try my best to sort of have a tender hope alongside that violence if I can. It’s not always super easy, because in my regular lived life sometimes I don’t know how hopeful I am. But I think my best self is pretty hopeful. My best self does kind of feel that, in the middle of all this sort of hatred, insanity, and darkness, our best selves are pretty good. I try to find ways of appealing to that, but I try to do it through the muck if you will, because I have to be honest, it’s pretty dark too. It is something I worry about, and it is something I think about, and I look forward to the day when I don’t have to have so much violence in the stories. I look forward to that. I don’t know if I’ll see it, but I’m hopeful, I’m hopeful.
Question #6: In reading the first story, I was gasping, “Ah, can that be?” I was gasping because the story seemed so realistic that I actually went online, and googled ‘did this really happen’— I think it sparks the conversation that we need to have because for it to seem so realistic when you actually read the story, and say, “Let’s find out did it really happen in South Carolina?” I feel like that was a great seed to plant, especially to open up your book. My question has nothing to do with that. My question is about the art for the cover. Me being Ghanaian as well, I went to school here as well, I’ve seen Anansi stories, immediately seeing the spider on the front, does that have any relation for you?
NKAB: Yeah, it did. Absolutely. First thank you to your comment, I really appreciate that. I do like to operate in that space of, “Is this real? Is it hyperbole? Or is it not?” I really like operating around that space because it makes us sort of see how bad things are. The cover, there is the image of a lion, there is the image of a spider, it’s a hundred percent a call to Anansi, my father also a Ghanaian immigrant, told us Anansi stories growing up. I got lucky. I was really expecting a cover that I would hate to be honest. I got really lucky. He used that story, “The Lion and The Spider”, as his inspiration, and it is speaking to Anansi. You’re right on with that and I felt very lucky to have it there.
Question #7: Do you draw inspiration from real life, like the details?
NKAB: Yes, very often I do. Even in the stories that feel the most surreal I pull from real life the most if that makes sense. I don’t very often plot something that happened to me one to one in a story. I can’t say which stories. But for me, even the stories that are pretty far out in terms of their trajectory, they are tethered to some kind of dreams that I’ve had.
ES: Not to make you answer something that’s uncomfortable, but is there something more surprising that you’d want to share, that you wouldn’t think was connected but actually when you put pressure on it you see the connection?
NKAB: I think people wouldn’t probably think the story called “Hospital” is where it was connected. But I think for me it’s maybe the closest connected. It includes a 12-ton god character who is— it’s a weird story in which to make it as a writer he has to make a weird ceremony. Cut this tongue off, give it to this news character, receive the tongue that kind of stuff. To me that’s the closest I could present to explain what my relationship to writing used to be. It’s a pretty magical story, but to me it may be the most real, the most closely related to my life story—
ES: That’s amazing. And it’s a story of a father who takes his son to the hospital. But what you were saying that’s not the realistic part, the realistic part is the 12-ton god…
NKAB: I mean that part is connected too. I remember details of my father taking me to the hospital, this and that, but to me when I’m reading them it rings truer than other parts.
Question #8: Do you create a structure and then play with these images, or you get some topic, something interesting, and think, “I will use some of that,” and then you just follow your imagination?
NKAB: I don’t usually work from a plotted out structure even though on some level I’ve maintained something like a structure in my head for some of the more world building stories. I try not to do that too much. I don’t even necessarily choose the topic either, usually what I’ll do is I’ll have a small thing like a voice or a two-line exchange in my head, or maybe I’ll have a conceit like the blackness scale for the first story, and I see where I go from there. Usually I don’t have too much in advance when I make up these stories, that’s what I like about short stories. I can make up a lot as I go. Then also again through revision— some of what I’m saying is false because the story can change completely, because I have a whole story done and I go back changing stuff. Not only do I have a super structure, I have a whole blueprint that gets rearranged. But I try for the first draft, I try not to be tethered to too much when I go into it. Sometimes it might be just an idea, what if— Black Friday’s so crazy that people were killing each other like zombies? And then go from there.
Question #9: As a writer how do you correlate what you want, how you feel, what needs to be told?
NKAB: I think as a writer what you think needs to be told, needs to be told. I think telling it honestly, unapologetically, is important. I think the world needs that. I think just existing honestly, completely, fully is an important thing for a writer to do. It might not be exactly what the world needs; actually, exactly that so… Yes. (chuckles)
Question #10: Ed mentioned that you read early on. What early books were you captivated by? What books are you reading right now?
NKAB: Ed introduced me to a lot of people in the world who were pretty important, ones that jump into my mind right now— I remember we had Norse Mythology with Z. Z. Packer, I remember Z. Z. Packer ended up being one of my favorite writers, she chose me for the first contest I won. Drinking Coffee Elsewherewas important, alsoBlack woman writing short stories that was huge for me. During college is when I got introduced to George Saunders, it was actually the first time I read Baldwin. It was the first time I read a lot of things. Hemingway, first time— I had read some Toni Morrison before then— when I read Dennis Johnson was what really blew my head up. Jesus’s Son, that book. A lot of important stuff right there. Now I’m reading a great book by a woman named Leni Zumas called Red Clocks it’s a beautiful book. I highly recommend it. Nafissa Thompson Spires wrote a book called Heads of the Colored People, I think that’s an incredible book people should check out. I just got into There Thereby Tommy Orange, I’m not just saying that because he wrote my review, but I do feel a bit obligated though, that’s in my bag right now. What else am I trying to read right now? Katy Kiamara’s A Separation, and I’m gonna read Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Manas well.
Question# 11: You’re obviously a great writer, but also a really great speaker, it seems to come really naturally to you. I always struggle with that. I mangle my words. I can write but when I say it aloud; I can’t articulate it the way I want to. Do you have any tips for that, or did it just come naturally to you?
NKAB: Are you a student right now?
Question #11: Yes.
NKAB: I think it will come. The speaking thing it can be hard. Don’t even worry about it, first. The writing thing is way, way, way more important. Let’s do that first. You’re doing what you need to do. The talking, speaking, trying to convey— it’s a separate air. This isn’t really my story. This is cool because I can do this, this is a casual conversation. I don’t have any expert techniques. I don’t imagine everybody naked or anything. I’m not doing that. I used to get super crazy nervous before I’d speak, every time I’d just die. I remember I had to go to New York for some big thing, the Times was there, Nylon Magazine, and all these peoples with an office in Park Avenue…
ES: It’s nerve wracking just hearing about it.
NKAB: Yeah. It was breakfast and stuff, and I was like, “I can’t eat now. I’m at the bottom of this table.” My agent’s like, “Drink some juice at least.” But I did it. I will sometimes prep crazy, write a bunch of stuff down and not even say it, but it makes me feel a little bit better. I also, for my meditation stuff, I don’t resist the nervousness. I guess that’s a practical thing for me. I just sort of let it come, I mean worst case scenario I faint, and I wake up in an ambulance. Hopefully I’ll be alright. I’ve had bad meetings, I’ve had bad public engagements for sure. But it is something I’m working on, and I have struggled with. It’s really nice to say that because it makes me feel like I’m not a complete failure so thank you.
Question #11: How do you cooperate with your personalities? Because you decide to kill that person, or not, and their family, and their relatives. Do you have a guilty feeling deciding to kill that person? The people who love this person, how do you come to terms with that?
NKAB: It’s hard. For me the revision process is really learning to know your characters and hopefully really love them. I do feel guilty about it, but I try to get out of the story’s way as much as possible. It’s rough though, it really is rough. The guy in Arctic Flowers, I’m wearing his hat, he says, “If the work doesn’t cost you emotionally, it’s not worth doing it.” It’s not my favorite part of it, I try to make it as purposeful as I can, as necessary as I can.
Question #12: Did you have any concerns when you were going to publish your book? Anything that made you almost not want to do it? What others would think of it. How it would take you in a different career direction? If so, what changed your mind about it?
NKAB: I was so crazy focused on it for so long, that it wasn’t until right at the end, when it was about to happen that I was like, “Oh wait.” People are going to have bad feelings about it that are totally wrong, and I’m gonna just have to be okay with that. It’s scary. I’m committed at this point for this week, but maybe next week I’ll say, “I changed my mind, I hate it!” Right now, it is what it is. I’m super blessed to have really nice reviews. I think if you move through the world a certain way, honestly and kindly, people will sort of know. I never want to pull back because I’ve worked so hard for so long. I thought it was gonna come out when I was nineteen. When I was in Albany, I wrote a YA book, I’m about to be, “Aw yeah, we did it. I’m about to be Oprah.” That didn’t happen obviously. But I did have some general anxiety about it, and I still do. Here it’s cool because I really do feel at home. I went to SUNY Albany, I was in the Class of 2013. I feel at home here.
Question #13: If there’s a cost to these violent stories, is there a higher emotional cost to your daily life? Is the pain five-times as strong because you’ve killed five kids by chainsaw?
NKAB: Usually not because I’ve been writing stories for years, so I hope that doesn’t become the case. It’s like this double weight. This is art, there’s this story you’re creating but it’s so close to your heart— you’ve gotta just find a balance to that, have different things to ground you. For me I know my intentionality, I know I’m never trying to hurt anything for the sake of art, or anything.
Question #14: How often do you find yourself looking towards other forms of media, film or music for inspiration? Do they come into the forefront when you’re writing stories, or do they kind of set a mood for you in the background?
NKAB: I don’t write to music or have anything in the background, but do this kind of crazy thing where I have a song on repeat for sometimes way too long. An OCD kind of way. I kind of pace around, I’m like this close to having issues with it. I suck the juice out of the song, and sometimes I just write right after that. Moreover though, what was that magazine… Pulitzer Writers Recommend, and mine was actually about, “I think if you’re a writer, it’s very helpful to have another medium to create stuff in.” Especially for me, ideally a medium I don’t ever get judged on, or have to submit or ever get critiqued on. Writing is fun too. It isn’t just death, and doom, and gloom. I think you can have some joy in it. Some writers don’t. Ironically Joy Williams and I met, and she said she has no joy for writing. She said it brings her no joy. Back to what you were saying, I have a beat machine now, I have a new PC. I make beats now. I’m not good good. I’m this close to being the dude who is asking, “Do you wanna hear my mixtape in the car?” I’m almost that person. After a couple of those wine and paint things, I got a canvas. I paint from Youtube videos. I find it very therapeutic. I’m not great but I can do it. No one’s judging it, I created something. Not only is it inspiring you, reminding you, “I can make stuff just for me.” I think especially as you’re a writer, writing becomes more and more professional. You can lose the magic in that part of it. Once that which what was your passion becomes your livelihood, now all of a sudden it gets funny and weird.
Question #15: Did you like working with your publication agent? And did you have all of your short stories done when you started working with them?
NKAB: Yes, I did, they were all done. Working with an editor? It’s interesting. It’s kind of like an arranged marriage. All of a sudden you work with this person you’ve never seen before, with your life’s work. They have the power to not allow it to come out, and that’s scary. I got lucky because my editor was pretty cool. In the beginning I tried to pretend like, “I’m super cool, I’m cool with getting edits.” I am, but in the beginning I’m always weird too. I think in the beginning I would get something and be like ehh, I’m gonna close this file, and not look at it again for a month. I was pretty sensitive because I didn’t know her, and now I have a great sense of trust with my editor. That’s something that comes over time. We did it just like some teachers do, comments in Word, changes in Word. You change some of this, and I change it back. I like it this other way I did before. And then sometimes it’ll be, “yes, that should get cut”. I’m pretty good at accepting cuts. I like cutting stuff. I don’t like people adding anything. My editor does a good job, she doesn’t add anything, which is great because I don’t like that.
ES: I know we have one more question over here.
Question #16: I was wondering if you could talk about the lack of black satire across the medium. And whether you plan to stay in that lane.
NKAB: I am definitely open to staying in that lane, I don’t necessarily think of myself as a satirist, but I guess I am. I wish there was more black everything. I wish there was more black every single thing. I wrote my book before Get Out came out, but I saw Get Out, and I told my agent, “We’re on now.” “This is allowed now,” because it wasn’t. What’s funny is since then both Hollywood and book-world are responding, it’s about to be allowed more. I hope that people do it earnestly, and work in that form because they want to, not because it’s hot right now. I think that it’s very powerful, I think that black satire and black art in general— because of the overwhelming homogenous nature of everything has made us tell the same stories so many times, the same way so many times. There is power in allowing yourself to do satire, and to do surrealism, and also do sci-fi, and also do whatever. There’s so much power in allowing yourself to work in other forms. We’ve done this twelve years of slavery story so many times, over and over and over again— not to be dispiriting to that but it can be harmful because, for some people they think it’s like racism only exists with someone has a whip. Also, a white guy comes in and stops people beating you. That’s how they think it is as opposed to every day what we see everywhere. I’m glad to be sort of in that tradition. I’m happy to be in whatever tradition. I don’t want to be down at all, but I do hope that I’m not the only one. I can’t imagine anything happier than somebody else reading my novel, working in that form, and make somebody else see in that form. I’m actually gonna try my best to make that possible. I think there’s of potential for a lot of black creators in many different ways. And I hope I can be instrumental in helping somebody else. And I hope I can continue doing what needs to be done.
ES: That was a great place to end. Let’s thank Nana again.
By Octavia Findley
Martin Nakell is both a scholar and a creative writer. He currently teaches at Chapman University in CA and has received his Doctorate of Arts from the University at Albany in 1980. He also, attended Columbia where he served as Assistant Editor on Unmuzzled Ox.
OF: Can you describe your craft for me?
MN: “I’m involved in something called the Chaos Movement of Literary Composition, which derives its way through the scientific chaos theory. Meaning that as we write some turbulence has to occur, which interrupts the normal writing pattern to create new patterns, new forms. I believe that all art is a communication of energy from person to person. That energy is achieved by that turbulence, which creates pictures beneath the ordinary syntax of a word. The theory is a description that comes out of my writing. I don’t write following my theory, but I look at my work and other people’s work that I admire and see that’s how it gets created. It’s observed while I’m writing.”
OF: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
MN: “My favorite part would have to be conceiving. I personally enjoy every part. I enjoy writing, being challenged by problems, solving those problems, editing, publishing, and reading. So, really, all those aspects I enjoy very, very much. But if you were to ask my favorite part, it would be dreaming of it, conceiving of it. The images to come to mind, the ideas, the words. And the surprises that come also, of course.”
OF: Who’s your greatest influence as an author?
MN: “The Bible. The Hebrew Bible. Because it has everything literary in it.”
OF: What’s your favorite genre for leisure reading?
MN: Poetry. I’ve just reviewed Eugene Gerber, it’s a very good book. Steve Katz, Rebecca Goodman. A novelist named A.B. Yehoshua. I’ve been reading him lately. I suppose that’s just a few names of the people I’ve been reading. Let me add two more then, Tom Large, Wendy Walker, both from New York.
OF: Would you like your work to made into a film in the future?
MN: “I have two screenplays written of my work, but in general, I think my works are screenplay proof. That is to say, I think that writing is better at language and screenplays are better at images, and they’re very different forms. The French novelist that did it had a talk about it, he had his set opinion and we talked about it at some length. Nonetheless, somebody has made a very poetic screenplay of two of my short stories. And she’s a dancer, a theatre person. And I like her vision a lot, so I gave her permission to do that. She couldn’t wait. Although, I am a film buff and I love watching movies. One of my favorite contemporary film makers is Julia Loktop. She’s very special.”
OF: Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
MN: “No. If you’re a beginning author, you know what to do. Just write. And hang out with writers. If you have that energy to become a writer, then I don’t think there’s any advice that I can offer you.”
Nakell’s books include The Myth of Creation (1993), The Library of Thomas Rivka (1997), Two Fields that Face and Mirror Each Other (2001), Form (2005), and Settlement (2007). If you’ve never had a chance to meet this inspiring author, don’t fret! He comes to NY quite often, most recently to give a master class at the NYS Writers Institute Book Fair in September of this year.
By Octavia Findley
On Monday, November 19, I met with Ed Schwarzschild for an interview. Schwarzschild is the Director of Creative Writing and an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University at Albany. He’s also a Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute. He specializes in Fiction Writing and Contemporary Literature. He received his Ph.D. in American Literature from Washington University in St. Louis and his MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He was also a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program.
Octavia Findley: Can you describe your craft for me?
Schwarzschild: I’m a fiction writer. I write novels and short stories. I also write non-fiction. Most of the time, I think of myself as someone writing literary fiction. My first novel’s central character is a con man, so that book has a bit of a crime element to it. The novel I’ve just finished takes place in an airport, so there’s a thriller element to it. Still, I continue to think of my main work as literary fiction. I want to write stories, novels, and essays that people want to read and want to keep reading. I hope there is excitement and tension of some kind in everything I write.
OF: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
ES: I love it when it’s going well; that’s the best part. When you’re completely immersed in the project, you’re thinking about it even when you’re not at your desk. You’re getting ideas and writing down notes. You can feel how alive what you’re working on is. I also like the revision process. I love revising. There’s something really rewarding about having a draft that’s complete and that you can polish and hone, making it better and better. But I think the key is to find a way to enjoy every part of the process, even the hard parts. To find the difficult parts familiar, to find what’s pleasurable about the parts that drive you crazy. If you can find a way to enjoy the whole process – and that’s something that I still struggle with – then you’re in very good shape. I think I’m doing that more – being grateful that I get to do this kind of work. It’s good to remember how fortunate we are to be able to write. To be able to sit, think, build a world and try to make other people interested in it.
OF: What’s your greatest influence as an author?
ES: That’s one of those impossible questions; on some level, the answer changes week to week. I’ve been reading for a long time and I’m always influenced by the work I like, and sometimes by the work I don’t like. I’ve been fortunate to have great teachers over the years and I’ve been fortunate to be in the room with great writers over the years. Some of the writers who have been crucial for me include Tobias Wolff, who was someone that I read for a long time, and then he was my teacher at Stanford for a couple of years. Reading Grace Paley and Phillips Roth was transformational for me. Roth’s voice and Paley’s voice really got me excited about the possibilities of what writing could do. The writers that I’ve been in workshop with over the years have probably been more influential than anyone, people like Adam Johnson, Julie Orringer, Chris Castellani, and others. And then, earlier this semester, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah was here at UAlbany – he was an undergrad here. He studied with me a few years ago and now he’s someone who influences me. His first book, Friday Black,is absolutely fantastic, and it was inspiring to be in his presence and spend time talking with him. I’m inspired by my students, all the time, even the ones that don’t wind up with books reviewed in the New York Times.
OF: What’s your favorite genre for leisure reading?
ES: Lately, I’ve been working on a novel that has a connection to World War I, so histories of World War I feel like my favorite genre these days. But I’ve also been reading some multi-volume novels the last few months. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, for instance. And I’m almost done with Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. St. Aubyn’s an incredible stylist, inspiring sentence after sentence. And there’s a stack of books I want to read next. If I look at that stack, it’s hard to say what my favorite genre is. There are all kinds of books in that stack.
OF: Would you like your novels to be made into a film?
ES: Who wouldn’t like their work to be made into a film, big or small? I think all writers would be excited to see how their work gets adapted in any way, whether it’s translated into another language, adapted for the stage, or made into a film. I think it’s really exciting for any writer to see another artist moved by the work and inspired to make something based on that work. It doesn’t have to be a big Hollywood movie with giant stars. It’s exciting anytime you see someone connect with your book. When someone reads the book and loves it, that’s a big win. When someone reads the book and loves it and wants to make something out of it, it’s super exciting. But it doesn’t happen that often. I don’t think you can sit down at your desk thinking, ‘I’m going to write a book that’s going to become a movie.’ That’s a long road of frustration, probably. Still, if any film people are reading this, I’d like to point out that my books are very cinematic.
OF: Do you have any advice for beginning authors?
ES: I have the advice that every writer has, but it’s true: ‘You have to read all the time.’ When I was writing about the con man in my first novel, I was reading about salesman culture and the motto I frequently came across was, ‘Always be closing.’ That’s a line that you’ll hear a lot when you’re in sales. Maybe for writers, it’s, ‘Always be reading.’ I remember Junot Díaz visited the New York State Writers Institute here on campus a few years back and one of the students asked him about endings. “Endings are so hard to write,” the student said. “How do you learn how to write good endings?” “To answer that question,” Díaz said, “you read four thousand endings. And then you’ll have a lot of ideas about how to write good endings.” I think the same advice holds true for beginnings and middles and endings. You have to be a student of literature; you have to be reading all the time. Or, to paraphrase Henry James: “To be a writer is to be someone upon whom nothing is lost.” When they’re not busy reading, writers can get a lot from paying attention to the world around them, finding inspiration and material in what happens everyday. There’s material around us all the time. We don’t pause often enough to pay attention to it. That’s something that writers need to do and something young writers need to learn how to do, whether it’s by keeping a journal or writing notes on scraps of paper or dictating voice memos into your phone. Getting away from screens is better than getting immersed in screens, but that’s my own bias. No matter how you do it, paying attention to the world around you is a great tool for any young writer.
Despite this author’s claim that he has the same advice as every other writer he presented it to me in a way that I had not heard before and was interesting and unique. I am honored that I got the opportunity to interview this author and educator. Among his publications are Responsible Men, a novel, and The Family Diamond, a collection of stories.More information about his work can be found here:http://www.edwardschwarzschild.com/index.html
Laurin DeChae is a poet that has been published in Rigorous, Rust + Moth, Really System, and Lines + Stars. She is a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the English Department at the University at Albany in New York.Read More
I first met Dennis Mahoney at the Albany Book Festival where he presented with a display of pictures akin to encounters of the third kind. I didn’t know much about the ethereal man, and I wanted to learn more. I got to talk to Mahoney about his work, and learn more about the man behind the otherworldly poster board.Read More
The first time I met Jason Dalaba was when he read aloud poems of conjuration and esoteric musings at the Quoth the Raven event on Halloween. I got to talk to him after the event, and learn about the man who stood behind the mask of Hex’m Jai that mysterious night.Read More
“I’ve been writing since I was probably fifteen years old… roughly thirty-five years,” R.m. Engelhardt said. He has walked the streets of the Capital Region poetry scene for decades, participating in the literary community in many ways: starting organizations, funds, events, and providing a solid example for new writers by continuously contributing his own work.Read More
By Octavia Findley
If the clouded sky did not bring an air of remembrance to the Book House, then the people did, holding thinly bound, sunset toned books in hand, milling around the store, waiting for the author of God Needed a Puppy. I somehow expected a much thicker volume but it was a heartwarming tale of a child that just lost his dog. In short order, I was taken aback by a room of adults and children, telling stories of pets passing suddenly, being put to sleep, and being hit by cars. The fond memories were more telling of their love for their fur babies than their accounts of their deaths. John Gray walked in a bit later, accompanied by his own family and a white Australian Shepard named Keller. The line for signatures was there in a flash with children held close to the waist of their caregivers. I waited until the crowd had dissipated before taking an interview, in the few minutes I took, the line had returned in earnest:
Octavia Findley: Why did you choose a children’s book for such a universal experience?
John Gray: It is the story that came out of me. I didn’t really make a choice; I just sat down to write, first for myself. Then I realized it was a story for children.
OF: How long did it take you to write?
JG: I started it on a Sunday and was finished on a Thursday.
OF: Wasn’t it intense?
JG: It was. The first draft was for myself. The second draft, I had realized I did not want to be about me, it was something for kids. The final draft was just fine-tuning the ending…It came from a place of love; if you write from a place of love, it comes easier. If you told me to write a book on how to run a store in a shopping plaza it would have taken me three months and it would have been a lot harder.
OF: Has the penning of this title helped you in your grieving process?
JG: It has. It helped me when I wrote it; it made me feel a bit better when I wrote the story. Seeing how many people that it helped, it made me feel that losing this puppy had a purpose that I didn’t understand as I lost him. It helped me understand that this was his purpose.
OF: Were you an author previously?
JG: I’ve written previously for newspapers, but nothing like this. No books, no children’s stuff, always columns and articles. It was all journalism.
OF: Would you be willing to continue this as a secondary career?
JG: Yes, I’ve written a second book which is coming out in February, another children’s book about a different topic: a dog with disabilities who struggles to fit with a child that has disabilities and they find each other. They help each other. It’s based on a dog I have, named Keller. He has his own book now.
OF: Do you have any advice for your readership in this shared experience?
JG: My advice would be to listen to your heart. You’ll never really go wrong.
OF: As a new author, do you have any advice for people just starting out in marketing and publishing?
JG: Yes, it’s as hard as you think it’s going to be. You’ll hear “No,” a lot more than you’ll ever hear “Yes.” Just keeping trying. Keep knocking on doors. Eventually one will open for you.
Richard Hartshorn teaches English 101 and 102, as well as a public speaking class at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York. He is the recipient of the 2011 Bausch Short Story Prize, and advisor of the theater club.Read More
by Jesse Seidel
This Thursday, I had the honor of interviewing prestigious Writers Institute’s Assistant Director Mark Koplik, below is the interview in its entirety for ones reading pleasure.
JESSE: I suppose we should start out with…why did you choose to work with the Writers Institute?
Mark: Well, I came here in to Albany in 1993 to join the Ph.D program here. And then in 1995 I got a Graduate Assistantship, the second Grad Student to get one, it was a new program, and I liked it a lot, I was more interested in what was going on here than what was going on in the English Department, I… the English Department at the time was very theory focused and I wasn’t very interested in theory, I was more interested in Literature and there was just such a variety of literature being presented and celebrated here, I really felt… I found a place where I wanted to be. My graduate assistantship ran out I was asked to come back as a part time employee that evolved, ultimately, into a full-time job and now I’m Assistant Director of the Writers Institute.
J: You said you wanted to be here due to your interest in literature do you recommend any books or authors to people?
M: Oh, I’d recommend them ALL, what we do here is we try to present the widest possible diversity of genre, of cultures, and its really a feast of many different kinds of literature. Even from the current season, stuff I’ve been immersed in, I really recommend Roscoe by William Kennedy, I mean I recommend all of his books, but Roscoe is wonderful book about politics and political corruption in Albany.
J: I believe I heard an excerpt of that from his speech at his birthday celebration a few weeks ago.
M: Right, right, you were at city hall?
M: Yeah, that’s right, yeah that was a performance of just a very short passage of that book. So that’s a great book. I really recommend ‘The Girl at the Baggage Claim’ its about how different cultures, particularly Eastern and Western cultures view the world so she would actually analyze a painting from China or a picture of a lion on a savannah, and talk about how the kinds of perspectives that different cultures, East versus West, might bring to viewing these cultural artifacts and its just fascinating. (The author has) Been here before. I saw her when she came, like, twenty years ago and I really enjoy her work. It’s really very much about the Chinese-American experience in multicultural America.
J: Yes, it’s certainly a relatable experience for many people out there, not myself personally. [chuckles]
M: Right, right, of course. And then…I mean, you know, right now I am reading Midnight’s Children, the recipient of one of the most prestigious awards of all of contemporary literature. Not just the booker, but the Booker of Bookers. And it’s about the birth of the modern nation of India with all of its internal diversity and its Muslim and Hindu and different castes within India and its relation to its British-Colonial heritage and it’s a really interesting book. And, what else have I been looking at lately…
J: Anything apart from the Writers Institute.
M: Oh, just for my own personal pleasure?
M: Absolutely, I just finished a novel called ‘Victoria’ written by an Iraqi Jew living in Israel. He’s a communist and its really one of the great works of Israeli literature but it is almost unknown in this country and I interviewed him once in Israel. I was sent by WMHT to interview Israeli authors.
JESSE: What was his name?
MARK: Sami, S-A-M-I is his first name. And his last name is Michael, spelled M-I-C-H-A-E-L.
JESSE: Right, right, Michael with the Hebraic pronunciation.
M: Yep, Mhm.. It’s this sweeping family saga, very dysfunctional family, lots of abuse, very kind of candid presentation of the treatment of women. But really, really, really interesting book.
M: Also, what else, most recently…a Book called the ‘Oregon Trail’ by a journalist who retraced the Oregon Trail in an authentic covered wagon he built with his brother. They got some mules and it’s the contemporary landscape of the Great Plains and the American West. Families struggling with issues like drug abuse and internet addiction, but also the deep history of the Oregon Trail, the cholera epidemics, the relationship with Native Americans, and all kinds of things.
J: That one actually sounds really interesting.
M: Yeah, it’s really interesting.
M: I’m trying to think what else, I’ve read some other stuff…trying to remember what it was. Certainly, I’ve been thinking about the poetry of Tyehimba Jess, I don’t know if you were here for any of those events.
J: I don’t think so.
M: He’s a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner and he visited here last semester and he writes poems about the African American experience that can be read in multiple directions. So, on the page you’ll have pieces of poetry, and you can navigate, you can create your own poem by navigating through the-
J: A choose your own adventure poetic experience.
M: Exactly. It is like that, a choose your own adventure experience.
J: I, personally, when not busy with school have been going through the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
M: Tell me the name of that last one again?
J: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series?
M: And that’s Science Fiction or…?
J: It’s Fantasy. Like, if you are a fan of Fantasy and you know, like, fantasy literature from like, 80’s onwards, I’d highly recommend it.
M: Right, okay, yeah, I’d be interested in reading it. As you might imagine, with all that I need to read for work, I don’t have a lot of free time. However, one thing that we’re doing, that we’re making it our business to do is to bring more attention to genres that we haven’t really focused on in the past, like graphic novels, like young adult literature, and certainly even Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I’m not in a position to tell you who they are, but we have something set with a graphic novelist and comic book artist for the Fall and I’ve been working today on bringing a particular science fiction author, but we tend not to share.
J: Right, of course. I believe I heard last semester from someone at the Writers Institute that you’ve been trying to get Neil Gaiman here for a while?
M: Definitely, he’s so in demand that we really can’t afford him.
J: I heard he needs a lot money.
M: Yeah, he needs a LOT of money, and he’s represented by a literary agent who is very good at getting very high fees.
M: If you have any you’d like to recommend, we are certainly interested in what’s out there and you’re aware that we’re bringing Mark Guggenheim.
J: I’m particularly excited for the Patti LuPone one in April.
M: Great, cool.
M: What is the name of the new website?
J: It is the New York Writer’s Compendium.
M: And it’s live already?
J: It will be within the week, and until then we have our Facebook page which is just, you can probably find it by just typing ‘Compendium’ with uh, two periods between the ‘pen’ syllable.
J: Because it’s the Com.pen.dium.
M: I got it.
J: I guess my next question is, without divulging too much, of course, if you could personally bring somebody on for the Writer’s Institute to present who would it be?
J: Assuming its not already somebody coming in the Fall that you can’t say.
M: Right, there’s certainly a lot of authors I’d love to bring here who haven’t been here. Michael Chabon and Phillip Roth, definitely. And…Toni Morrison I would bring. She had a fellowship here before my time, like thirty years ago. She was in the office of the Writer’s Institute when it was being founded. And we’ve long wanted to bring her back. Is that enough?
J: I had a few more questions but not too many…are you yourself a writer?
M: I mess around, but I am not published.
J: What do you prefer to write? Poetry or short stories?
M: No, I prefer fiction.
J: What kind of fiction if I may be so bold?
M: Oh, what kind of fiction? I guess I’m interested in Historical Fiction.
J: What time period?
M: I’m interested in ancient and medieval time periods.
J: That’s fair, those are both interesting times. Like, what, Roman to Medieval?
M: Yeah, Roman, Medieval-
J: Or more like Mesopotamian?
M: I’m interested in Mesopotamian, I’m interested in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.
J: I feel like there’s not a lot of fiction for stuff predating the Roman Empire, but I’m not really well versed enough in the genre to say for sure.
M: Right, yeah, I don’t- I have to confess that although I play around with it, I’ve read more history than I have historical fiction from those time periods. So, I’m not certain just how much there is.
J: Do you have any advice to the English Majors or Humanities fields? And I’m thinking this will be like, one of the last questions.
M: Sure. I would say that creative writing and creative thinking have a very wide application, it’s a very useful skill to have in life. We’re not in any way an academic department and in some ways we’re certainly an arts organization but in some ways we’re an entrepreneurial enterprise. We’re always trying to invent some very interesting new programming, and I can imagine the kind of skill I learned from fiction I’m applying to that sort of day to day creativity in this office, and I’d say that the skills from reading and writing can be applied to any creative endeavor be it social, or political, or business, or solving the planet’s problems.
J: I believe that is enough. Do you have any questions for me?
M: So, you’re an English Major?
J: Yes, I’m an English Major with a Minor in Creative Writing.
M: How is the Creative Writing Minor going? Are you enjoying that program?
J: I am, I recently, last semester took Professor Kaul’s class, his first one actually and it was really interesting, especially towards the end when we had Nic Stone thanks to the Writer’s Institute. And since that was specifically a Fiction Workshop, which I want to specialize in, I think it really helped me with the sort of ‘stamina’ as it were to write longer short stories.
M: Yeah, part of the purpose of our Program is to create opportunities for aspiring writers, to meet writers who have already achieved some success, and show them what it’s like to practice the craft, and get up in the morning and sell your work, and those human connections humanize literature, making it less abstract, to imagine yourself in that role.
M: Alright! Well it was nice meeting you!
J: It was nice to meet you, sorry if this interview was lacking in any way.
M: No, it was great, and if you have any other questions. I’d be happy to answer some questions.
J: It was a pleasure to interview you, and this should be live on our website within the week.
By Jesse Siedel
Friday, March 23, I had the privilege of meeting Spoken Word Artist D. Colin and even managed to sit her down for a short interview. The interview in its entirety is transcripted below for ones reading pleasure.
JESSE: Recording, there we go! Okay, this is going to be relatively quick and this is going to be more, um, informal than anything because I’m still new at this.
D. COLIN: Okay.
JESSE: First off, I’m sure this is a question you’ve heard many times but what was it that made you go into poetry and writing and all that?
D. COLIN: I was introduced to poetry in school. I wrote my first poem in school, when I was eleven, and it just kinda stuck? [Chuckles] Originally it was something to help me express myself, then it turned into something I realized could help other people, especially when I perform.
JESSE: Right, interesting, next question…um, are there any books or authors you would recommend, poetry or in literature in general?
D. COLIN: Ooh, there’s so many, um, I love June Jordan, she’s amazing she also writes essays and other things. Also, Audrey Lord who again is more than a poet who has written a bunch of different things, Nicki Giovanni, Saul Williams, I really like Emily Dickinson (J: Right) very short poems that capture a lot even in their short length. Yeah that’s my short list.
Jesse: Would those also be the ones that inspired you and influenced your writing style?
D. Colin: Yes. I read a lot William Wordsworth too. I listen to a lot of spoken word artists because I’m a spoken word artist, so that list is long.
JESSE: Is there any sort of advice you’d like to give to future Spoken Word Artists or Poets or what have you?
D. COLIN: Advice I’ve given is…while you’re performing, perform the same whether its five or five thousand. That is advice I was given by another poet and its really helped me in really focusing on the poem itself and the craft and not just on the size of the audience.
JESSE: So just ignore the crowd no matter what?
D. COLIN: Yeah and always stay to true to why you wrote the piece in the first place a lot of spoken word artists go into competitive poetry and they go into slam and sometimes when theyre competing sometimes they lose sight of why they wrote the poem and the meaning or how it can affect the audience, and they’re more focused on the points rather than that. So it’s always important to stay to why I wrote it, because you can stay in touch on how you perform the poem every time. So I find that to be important, especially when I find my self performing the same piece, over and over again.
JESSE: Right, trying to go into that sort of groove?
D. COLIN: Yeah and you gotta remember why you wrote it. Those are my two biggest pieces of advice. Also write. Write all the time. You can’t really call yourself a writer without writing. [Laughs] Or trying to perfect your craft and improve what you’re doing already. So writing continually is a big deal.
JESSE: How do you usually deal with moments where you can’t really write, when those creative juices just won’t flow?
D. COLIN: I find if you journal every day or if you just free-write. Some ideas will come to you that you hadn’t thought about before, just because you’re not putting the pressure on creating something um, so whenever I feel like I’m stuck, I always just go back to stuff that I wrote when I wasn’t thinking about writing. And usually there are ideas in there, also if I am already free writing there may be something that comes to mind I hadn’t thought about. I don’t think there’s any such thing as Writer’s Block, we just have to find new ways to dig for what it is we’re looking for..
JESSE: Have you personally ever tried branching out, not to put down spoken word, but have you ever tried branching out to other realms of literature like narrative or plays?
D. COLIN: I’m actually writing a play right now.
JESSE: Really? What is it about?
D. COLIN: It’s a spin on Beauty and the Beast for a youth production that’s happening this summer. I’ve also written monologues, and I’ve done reenactments of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, so I’ve had to write the script for that. And in college I did some non-fiction, creative non-fiction work. I haven’t explored it much more than that butits something I might return to, and personal essays, of course.
JESSE: Alright, that is basically it, it was a pleasure speaking with you, sorry it was so short.
D. COLIN: Oh it’s not a problem at all.
JESSE: Do you have any questions for me about anything, such as the Com.PEN.dium or the University at large?
D. COLIN: What exactly is it?
JESSE: Well, The Writer’s Com.PEN.Dium basically wants to link all the- basically everything up from the Writer’s Institute down to the smallest open-mic night at your local coffee house and they have this Compendium, as it were, for people who are curious to meet other writers or just be exposed to a more literary world. It just started a few weeks ago.
D. COLIN: Oh, so its recent, that’s very interesting.
This week I had the privilege to interview a prominent local literary figure, Dan Wilcox. Over a cup of coffee he graciously answered a few of my questions. Enjoy getting to know more about him and be sure to check out the Open Mic he hosts every third Thursday of the Month at the Social Justice Building in Albany!Read More