An Interview with Barry Graham and Howie Good

An Interview with Barry Graham and Howie Good

March 2009
Interview by Cynthia Reeser, for Prick of the Spindle

Every time it rained Mrs. Salt made us stay inside at recess and play Thumbs-Up- Seven-Up and I was the only one who would touch Karly’s thumb, sitting there all alone on top of the desk like the flag Neil Armstrong stuck inside the moon. Every 4th of July her uncle curled her thumb up like a rocket launcher and lit the wicks of no less than one hundred bottle rockets. He kept her sitting in the sun so long her bones hurt. Every July 5th me and Karly sat side by side on the floor of her garage under an itchy yellow blanket and scraped away the sun burn blisters on the back of our necks, me with my favorite Barry Bonds baseball card, her with her patriotic thumb. We grew up to be astronauts.

—Excerpt from “We Grew up to Be Astronauts”
Barry Graham, not a speck of light is showing

Lament the heaviness of hard covers, envy those in the next chapter, collect adverbs like superstitions, toss a mini-football back and forth on the white beach of the margin, avoid looking at the page number, know, if only for an instant when recalling the cold breath of hands on their skin, how it will end.

—“What Characters Do When We’re Away”
Howie Good, Tomorrowland

Howie Good, journalism professor and poet extraordinaire, is the author of eight poetry chapbooks. His newest chapbook, Ghosts of Breath, is due out this summer from Bedouin Books, and Press Americana will be publishing a full-length collection of his poetry titled Lovesick. He has the additional honor of being an author in Barry Graham’s Achilles Chapbook Series. Graham, editor of DOGZPLOT literary magazine, is the founder of the Achilles Chapbook Series and author of such recent publications as The National Virginity Pledge (another sky press, 2009) and not a speck of light is showing (Achilles, 2008). Graham has been busy planning upcoming material for the Achilles Chapbook Series—a chapbook collective featuring Elizabeth Ellen, Suzanne Burns, Brandi Wells, Andrea Kneeland, and Lydia Copeland, as well as a short story collection from Ben Tanzer. In a recent interview, Good and Graham discussed the Achilles Series and humored me with several questions on reading, writing and publishing.

Cynthia Reeser: I’m interested in the new Achilles Chapbook Series, and how and why it extends from DOGZPLOT.

Barry Graham: The Achilles Chapbook Series is an extension of DOGZPLOT because they share the same aesthetic. In both venues we are looking for very very short flash fictions, prose poems, things that defy classification or convention, as long as they are short. We want erratic, playful, honest, original, disgraceful, hopelessly optimistic, dirty, beautiful, ugly, over the top writing. We like description. We like voice. We are more interested in good storytelling than precision, than fancy words and metaphors and concepts that sound real pretty but don’t necessarily inform the reader. We like subtle, seemingly simplistic writing that blows your head apart when you take the time to excavate below the surface. We like to dig in and get dirty. Both DOGZPLOT and Achilles share these virtues.

CR: How long will it continue?

BG: Achilles is immortal.

CR: Your plans for the future of the series?

BG: Right now we have a few more chapbooks in the works and we will continue to keep our eyes and ears open for writers that share our obsession with living and dying and outrunning the space time continuum. DOGZPLOT is also extending itself further—into full length book publishing. Our first release will be Sam Pink’s I am Going to Clone Myself then Kill the Clone and Eat It. There are so few books in each respective generation that force people to redefine their definition of “literature,” and this is one of those books. Sam Pink shares our desire never to be forgotten.

CR: Howie, can you comment on your experience as an Achilles series author?

Howie Good: I’m not sure Barry is going to appreciate my sharing this, but he initially rejected Tomorrowland. And when I say he rejected it, I mean he really rejected it. I can’t remember the exact words of his rejection, but I do know he didn’t try to soften the blow.

But then a weird thing happened, maybe the weirdest in my whole long writing life. Barry rescinded the rejection. For some reason, he reread the manuscript he’d just said he abhorred, discovered he didn’t really abhor it, and shot me a frantically apologetic e-mail accepting it. Maybe this is something Barry does with all his authors to keep them humble and grateful. I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him.

Given this introduction to Barry and his methods I expected what followed to be psychologically crippling at best and publicly humiliating at worst. It wasn’t. My experience as an Achilles series author was surprisingly uneventful, even pleasant. I appreciate the care that Barry put into the design and printing of the chapbook. But what has impressed me most is the way he supported the chapbook once it was published. Tomorrowland has been widely–and, I’m happy to add, enthusiastically– reviewed, and the credit for getting the book into the hands of so many reviewers and readers belongs entirely to Barry. No other book I’ve ever published–including my books with corporate publishers like Rowman & Littlefield and Praeger–has ever been as heartily supported. (And it’s not true that I’m saying this just because I’d like Barry to publish another chapbook of mine somewhere down the road.)

BG: I don’t mind Howie making those comments at all. When it comes to those matters, I guess I’m from the school of hard knocks. 98 percent of all submissions get rejected by publishers, so if you’re skin is soft, if you can’t stand being rejected 98 percent of your life, then stop submitting manuscripts.

But speaking of Tomorrowland specifically. I just didn’t give it enough reads, which is something I am not proud of. I read all fiction submissions three times through and then make a decision. If I am still on the fence after three reads I put my headphones on and let Biggie or Mobb Deep or Pac or old school Too Short and Ice Cube bump around in my head a little bit and they help me come to a reasonable conclusion.

Howie submitted it in two separate sections and when I got through the first section I thought the writing was solid, the flashes were great, but I get plenty of great submissions I don’t have the means to publish because of a limited budget. So I was guilty of rejecting it without having read the second half. But I opened it back up the next day and I reread it, then I read the second half and I couldn’t believe I almost turned this chapbook away. The second half took my head off. Both sections complement each other to tell a full tale. The combined stories were devastating, so I sent him an email right away apologizing and asking if the chapbook was still available. Then we reworked the format and that’s that.

And I appreciate all the other kind words Howie said about his experience working with me through Achilles. It has been a pleasure and an honor working with him as well.

CR: I think all writers, or at least all serious writers, share that desire to publish and therefore to be remembered and immortalized through their language and ideas and what others can make of it. On that note, can you tell me about where you come from as a writer and as an editor; where you’ve been and where you’re going and hope to end up.

HG: Call me short-sighted, but I’d rather be published and read now when I’m alive than remembered and immortalized later when I’m dead. What difference will it make to me when I’m dead whether I’m remembered or not? I’m guessing not much. But it makes a big difference to me now to be able to create poems and flashes and have outlets for them.

I’ve always thought Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write,” offered a pretty comprehensive index of the motives most of us have for writing. He mentions five or six, including the desire to achieve recognition, the desire to get your own back against people who mistreated or underestimated you growing up, the desire to share or preserve a meaningful experience, and the desire to move the world forward politically. Which of these motives is most significant at any given time depends, I think, on where you are in your life–your age, your family situation, your career path. The first two motives–fame and revenge or vindication–were far more significant to me once than they are now. While I wouldn’t spurn or regret literary acclaim, it isn’t something I seek or ever expect. I write because I have to write. If I didn’t write, I’d cease to be me. I’m a writer. Writers write. They write to breathe. And when they write well, they help others breathe, too.

BG: Real quick about what Howie said. I didn’t necessarily mean fame or acclaim, just the desire to live forever. I think all people crave it, why else would so many people go to church if not for the promise of eternal life, the ability to live forever, and since the pearly gates and fire and brimstone doctrine really isn’t my thing, I guess on some level, this Is my attempt to ensure an afterlife, one that can actually be beneficial or inspirational to someone else later on. Perhaps I am naïve or foolish, which is quite possible.

Likewise, it was never my intention to write or “be a writer.” I wanted to be a juvenile advocate either as a social worker or a lawyer and everyday I regret more and more my decision to be an English major as opposed to going to law school. I started writing in high school. I had this girlfriend that was obsessed with Charles Manson and at the bottom of our letters back and forth she always ended with a Manson quote. So I started writing responses to them, little “philosophies” in response to his. She let her friends read them and they convinced me I was “deep” so I started reading lots of philosophy; Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Lao Tzu, Malcolm X, Gandhi, etc. My written responses got longer and there you have it. I eventually tried my hand at poetry (that’s a different ridiculous story entirely), then fiction. I think the more interesting question, one which I won’t answer because it could easily end up a book length paragraph, is how people develop as readers, not writers. I think finding out someone’s reading history is fun and amazing and extremely worthwhile. I started with Cookie Monster and the Cookie Tree, and three decades later, just finished a Phillip Roth novel.

I know exactly where I want to end up. After my novel is finished and has found a publisher, I never plan to write another word. I want to settle down on the Jersey shore in Atlantic City, selling chapbooks for nickels and playing poker when I’ve earned enough to satisfy the table minimums.

CR: So where do you want to end up as a reader? And this is a question for both of you, but is there something that you aspire to read but haven’t yet, or a point at which you hope to arrive as someone responding to another person’s writing? Howie, as a journalism professor, this question may have a unique spin for you.

HG: You hear novelists say all the time that they wrote a particular book because they wanted to read it. I’ve written academic books to fill gaps in scholarship, and I’ve written books of personal essays to make a social critique or a political argument, but I’ve never written a book because I wanted to read it. Quite the opposite. I wrote it because I wanted other people to read it.

Reading is essential to writing. Words are the water we writers swim in. If I didn’t read a lot, I’d soon be flapping around gasping for air. I try to impress this on my writing students. There’s nothing more futile than an aspiring young writer who hasn’t read much and doesn’t plan to.

It’s true I’m a journalism professor (and the fact that I’m also a poet confuses the hell out of my colleagues). I even worked on three daily newspapers before entering academics. But I’m not all in a panic that newspapers are passé or that print is dead. Journalism is moving, not vanishing. Its new address is Web 2.0.

Ironically, the Internet may have done more to encourage reading and writing than any invention since the development of papyrus. Look at the proliferation of online journals and publishers, and the increased opportunities they offer readers and writers to do their stuff. It’s like the Gold Rush out there, with tent cities springing up overnight, and prospectors roaming the hills, and deep, rich veins of ore just waiting to be discovered.

BG: I want to read every book Dr. Seuss has ever written and write some sort of definitive reference encyclopedia guide for them. The owner of the copyright has those things on locks right now, but soon they should let up. I also want to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I just plowed through Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, so I feel pretty good. As far as responding to other people’s writing, I’ll leave that up to each individual responder, each reader, all I know is how I feel about things, my perception.

Barry Graham is a four-time National Tic-Tac-Toe Association (NTTTA) champion (1988, 1994, 2004, 2006). He graduated from Eastern Michigan University with an MA in Creative Writing. Barry currently teaches writing at Adrian College and spends the off-season in the poker room at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. He also teaches creative writing workshops as a Writer in Residence through Dzanc. His writing has appeared in Storyglossia, Hobart, Pindeldyboz, Frigg, Wheelhouse, Prick of the Spindle, Elimae, Wigleaf, Monkeybicycle, Smokelong Quarterly, Cella’s Round Trip, and others. His debut short-story collection, The National Virginity Pledge (Another Sky Press) was released in February 2009. Barry Graham is the recipient of the Jumpmettle Award for excellence in fiction and was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Howie Good, a journalism professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, is the author of eight poetry chapbooks, including Tomorrowland (2008) from Achilles Chapbooks and Love Is a UFO (2009) from Pudding House. He has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for the Best of the Net anthology.

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