Writer Round-Up: A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft
Four Way Books Authors : Kevin Prufer, Victoria Redel, Kamilah Aisha Moon, & C. Dale Young
Interview by Cynthia Reeser
For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013
In this issue, the publisher spotlight is on Four Way Books. Some of their authors answer a handful of questions.
Tell us about your publication with Four Way Books, and what it is that makes this book stand apart from your other publications.
Kevin Prufer: I’ve become interested in narrative—the way the stories we tell reflect our sense of who we are. More than this, I’m fascinated by the way the narrative form can contain intricacies of perception, position, and mind. My new poems often braid narratives, shifting (for instance) from the perceptions of a child afloat on a life raft to those of his mother, far away, to those of God, who comments on the scene from above. I’m interested in the way perspective, voice, and time can be manipulated in the expression of truths. My new book is called Churches and it is in some ways about theology and the (possible absence) of God. But I’ve always had those subjects. The book stands apart from my others in its interest in telling stories.
Kamilah Aisha Moon: Here’s the official description of the collection: With unrelenting yet tender honesty, She Has a Name tells the story of a young woman with autism from multiple points of view. A biomythography, the speakers in these poems—sisters, mother, father, teacher—seek to answer questions science can’t yet answer, seek to protect the young woman, and seek to understand what autism means to their own lives as well. I would add to this description that the poems seek to explore the rawness and reward of various intimacies, to honor struggle and banish shame. This is my debut collection of poetry, and revolves mainly around interpersonal relationships. I also look forward to publishing collections including poems that focus on the world with many and varied lenses. I’m honored that the cover art is a painting by my sister, Lakie A. Moon. Martha Rhodes and Four Way Books have been wonderful each step of the way.
Victoria Redel: I’ve published two books with Four Way Books. In 2012 they published Woman Without Umbrella, a collection of poems, and this fall they published Make Me Do Things, a collection of short fiction. They’ve been a wonderful, smart, very hands-on press and I’ve been grateful for the attention they’ve given each book.
C. Dale Young: I have published two books of poetry with Four Way Books [Torn (2011) and The Second Person: Poems (2007)], and I have another collection of poetry forthcoming with them in early 2016 [The Halo]. As such, Four Way Books really is my publisher and not just a place publishing one of my books. What sets Four Way Books apart for me is the fact that they are what one expects of a publisher as opposed to a printer. Some presses do little more than print books. Four Way helps you edit your manuscript, helps you find the right cover art, designs the book, typesets it, proofs it with you in a rigorous way, distributes it, promotes it, and publicizes it. Four Way Books considers the printing of the book to be just one small part of publishing a book.
What is most challenging to you as a writer?
KP: Honestly, it is finding new things to say. This becomes an ever-greater challenge the more I write. That is, the more things I write about, the fewer things, it seems, there are left to talk about! How can I keep changing the subject? Have I already said this better in a previous book? If I have, what’s the point of writing? I know this is an illusion. There are, of course, infinite subjects, ideas, perceptions, thoughts. But the illusion persists, and getting past it is my greatest challenge.
KAM: Lately, securing uninterrupted time and a certain mental/spiritual stillness to create: successfully cordoning off other obligations, the stimulation and din of social media and the internet that can be distracting. To let yesterday’s and tomorrow’s concerns inform, but not drown out the current moment. To write with a sense of play as well as urgency, and to be more conduit than conductor on the page.
VR: That’s an interesting question because it’s actually a quite layered question for me. Maybe most of all I want to say courage and permission—which comes from within. Do I have the courage to see into moments and situations in an unmuddled, unreceived way—or will I yield to the normative perspectives? That’s a moral question. But there’s also the practical question of time. Will I get myself seated at my desk and actually be there without the regular invasions of “what else needs getting done” to keep me from actually putting down sentences that have integrity? I try to lead a pretty structured existence so that I manage the challenges.
CDY: The biggest challenge I have is making the time to write, which I suspect may be a common challenge for most writers. I work full-time as a physician, so that takes most of my time. So, to keep writing, I have to write/revise in little pockets of time. In this way, I am slow. But it is the only way I have.
What writers have had the most influence on your work?
KP: T. S. Eliot has had an enormous influence on me—though I feel this now mostly in the music of his poetry, his careful, unpredictable rhythms and surprising rhymes—and his interest in multiplicity of perspective and dramatic changes of tone, subject, and speaker within poems. And Emily Dickinson. I love the notion that much great poetry enacts an ambivalent mind at work on unsolvable problems—the mind entertaining conflicting responses, and multiple, mutually exclusive answers. The delight of Dickinson’s poetry comes not with the answers she provides to our largest questions—what is death? is there a god? what does it mean to perceive?—because there are no single answers to these questions. Her poems delight because we get to experience a mind far greater than our own as it works on these problems, discovering their many intricacies and nuances and contradictions. Her enactment of ambivalence has been influential for me.
KAM: This is always a tough question. Writers from so many eras, aesthetics, and geographies inspire me. So many names I could list here. The elegance, vigor, and musicality of Yusef Komunyakaa’s lyricism is certainly high on the list. The profound, precise wisdom of Lucille Clifton’s work is a well I return to often. Stanley Kunitz, Naomi Shihab Nye, and the Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz come to mind. Toni Morrison’s novels, the essays of James Baldwin and Muriel Rukeyser. On and on and on…
VR: Oh my gosh, I can’t begin to cover all the writers that influence me. I have been encouraged, challenged, enabled, provoked by the remarkable work of so many writers dead and alive. Every list is going to be so partial that I’m already cringing with shame at having left out writers/writing whose work has changed my life and, by extension, my own work. As a kid I wanted to become a writer because of books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Heidi. I must have read each of those novels six times. I wanted to write poems because I fell in love with the ballads that have been collected as the Child Ballads—I loved the strange, dark narratives and the inventions of language in the ballads. I’ve been hugely enlarged by the poems of Phil Levine, Adrienne Rich, Gerald Stern, William Bronk, C.K. Williams, Hopkins, Kunitz, Marie Howe, Honor Moore. The fiction of Grace Paley, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Ondaatje, William Maxwell, Gordon Lish, Harold Brodkey, Christine Schutt. John Edgar Wideman, Richard McCann, Mark Slouka, Noy Holland, Dawn Raffel, Douglas Glover. Oh, and Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. And I better just stop because the more names I write the more I’m aware of leaving out. And I’m not even discussing a single writer who is not writing in English.
CDY: A great many writers have had influence on my work, so many it seems difficult to list but a few. And even the designation of the “most influence” doesn’t help narrow it down. I fear that the answer would be different on an almost daily basis.
Can you recommend any authors that you feel are underrepresented in the current literary climate?
KP: Oh, yes. I co-edit a book series on this subject called The Unsung Masters Series. Naming and reading underrepresented authors has been an important part of my own growth as a writer. Right now, I’d suggest Russell Atkins, an African-American Cleveland-based experimental poet most active in the 1950s-1970s. He was trained partly as a music theorist, though he never completed a degree in that (or any) area. And he published—often in small chapbooks or at his own little press—some of the most exquisite, witty, musically astonishing poems I have ever read. His original books are nearly impossible to find, but he’s the subject of the most recent Unsung Masters volume: Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master, edited by Michael Dumanis and myself. That volume contains a large selection of his poetry. (He’s also a remarkable, strange character—nearing 90 and living in a nursing facility in Cleveland.) I’d also suggest Karl Shapiro, Stevie Smith, Laura Jensen, and Eleanor Ross Taylor.
KAM: Fortunately, I am very heartened by the broadening of the literary landscape that is happening. The plurality of voices and perspectives gaining a different kind of prominence is so necessary. I am anticipating financial hardship as I attempt to buy all of the new titles I’m excited about coming in 2014! Laura Swearingen-Steadwell recently completed a series of profiles about thirty poets in their thirties for Muzzle Magazine that includes emerging authors making quite an impact. I think we are experiencing unprecedented access to a surplus of noteworthy writers due to several factors, among them the proliferation of writing programs and communities, and technology.
VR: I think there are writers whose work is original, stunning, and initially difficult to categorize because they are not doing something that feels obviously and quickly familiar. Dawn Raffel is a remarkable writer. I often have my poetry students read her short stories because the music inside of each sentence is bogglingly beautiful. I love her work. Each of the writers I spoke of in the last question are underrepresented in the sense that everyone’s life would be the better, I believe, if they slowed down enough to spend time every day reading these writers.
CDY: An amazing author whose work doesn’t seem read much now is John Steinbeck. His novels are truly amazing works. Another author who isn’t read as much now, though read more than Steinbeck thanks to Merchant Ivory Films transforming a few of his novels into film, is E.M. Forster. I haven’t read a novel by Forster I didn’t love.
Kevin Prufer’s sixth book, Churches, will be published by Four Way Books in 2014. His other recent Four Way Books collections include In a Beautiful Country (a finalist for the Rilke Prize and the Poets’ Prize in 2011) and National Anthem (named one of the five best poetry books of 2008 by Publishers Weekly). Editor of several books, including New European Poets (Graywolf) and New Young American Poets (Southern Illinois UP), he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston and the Lesley University Low-Residency MFA Program.
A recipient of fellowships to the Prague Summer Writing Institute, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, Cave Canem and the Vermont Studio Center, Kamilah Aisha Moon’s work has been featured in several journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, jubilat, Sou’wester, Oxford American, Lumina, Callaloo, Gathering Ground, and Villanelles. Her poetry and prose have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. A native of Nashville, TN, she currently lives and teaches in Brooklyn, NY. Moon holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and is the author of She Has a Name (Four Way Books).
Victoria Redel is the author of four books of fiction and three books of poetry, most recently Woman Without Umbrella. Of her new story collection, Make Me Do Things, Sam Lipsyte has said, “These stories remind us of what fiction can do in the hands of the fearless.” Her novel, The Border of Truth (Counterpoint 2007) weaves the situation of refugees and a daughter’s awakening to the history and secrets of her father’s survival and loss. Loverboy (2001, Graywolf /2002, Harcourt), was awarded the 2001 S. Mariella Gable Novel Award and the 2002 Forward Silver Literary Fiction Prize and was chosen in 2001 as a Los Angeles Times Best Book. Loverboy was adapted for a feature film directed by Kevin Bacon. Swoon (2003, University of Chicago Press), was a finalist for the James Laughlin Award. Her work has been widely anthologized and translated into six languages. Redel’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Granta.com, Harvard Review, The Quarterly, The Literarian, The New York Times, The L.A. Times, Salmagundi, O the Oprah magazine, Elle, Bomb, and NOON. Redel is on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught in the Graduate Writing Programs of Columbia University and Vermont College, and was the 2013 McGee Professor at Davidson College. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center.
The author of three collections of poetry, C. Dale Young practices medicine full-time, edits poetry for the New England Review, and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, his fourth book of poetry, The Halo, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in early 2016. He lives in San Francisco.