Writer Round-Up: A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft
NYQ Books Authors : Anis Shivani, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Michael Montlack, & Amanda J. Bradley
Interview by Cynthia Reeser
For Prick of Spindle, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014
In this issue, the publisher spotlight is on NYQ Books. Some of their authors answer a handful of questions.
Tell us about your recent publication with NYQ Books, and what it is that makes this book stand apart from your other work.
Anis Shivani: My Tranquil War and Other Poems, published in 2012 by NYQ Books, represents the distillation of the kind of poetry I was writing throughout the decade-plus preceding it. My poetry in that early period went through many phases—sometimes more formalist than at other times—but retained a certain basic consistency of style and attitude. That phase is now over for me. In the last few years (the period represented by My Tranquil War came to an end around the close of the last decade) I wrote new kinds of poems that cohered differently, in a collection, not yet published, called Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: more personal, lyrical, intimate, surreal poems driven consistently by fears and pleasures rooted deep in the unconscious. And after that I wrote yet another book in a totally different vein, a book that sets the stage for my future poetic work, a book of 100 baroque sonnets inspired by Berryman, Berrigan, and others who have tried to manipulate the sonnet to fit late modernist and postmodernist styles of love and intimacy. Soraya is lush with the love of language, mad with the deluge of verbosity connected by slim rafts of delirious perception. It is a book of celebration and frantic joy. My Tranquil War is distinct—and unrepeatable for me—because it is an overtly political book for the most part, taking on the icons of classical and contemporary culture in a search to make meaning of the political turmoil that took hold around the turn of the millennium. It takes on the disorder—often by way of interpreting art and film and writing—in a language that seeks to completely identify the personal with the political and vice versa. There is no separation between you and me when we are all implicated in torture or war or terrorizing, there are no residual distinctions in humanity worth noting. I am done with that kind of writing; I will surely take this stuff on, as in a new poetry book called Empire, in different ways, but never again in that unmediated, vulnerable, subjecting-myself-to-pain sort of way. It was a once-in-a-lifetime book for me.
Amanda J. Bradley: Put simply, my most recent NYQ book, Oz at Night (2011), is more philosophical and comical than my earlier work. Oz at Night is divided into three parts, and the first section most resembles my earlier work in that the poems explore inner emotional landscapes—the odd thoughts we have late at night, depression to the point of suicidal fantasy. But the second two-thirds of Oz at Night took me in new directions. The Interludes section is playful and fun, and the final section attempts to probe what matters in life more profoundly than my younger attempts did.
Michael Montlack: NYQ Books published my first full-length book of poems, Cool Limbo. Before that I had three chapbooks: Cover Charge (Winner of the Gertrude Press Chapbook Competition), Girls, Girls, Girls (Pudding House), and The Slip (Poets Wear Prada). Cool Limbo was divided into two sections: Girls, Girls, Girls (many but not all of those poems coming from my second chapbook) and Boys, Boys, Boys. That was a fun way to organize the book, as it deals a lot with gender and sexuality, but also because I have a twin sister who is often my muse. The book deals with family and romantic relationships (and break-ups) but often features pop culture and literary icons—even in its personal narratives—such as Hello Kitty, Liz Taylor, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, Cinderella, Pippi Longstocking, Venus, Lilith, even gay porn stars (like Peter Berlin). In the last few years, I also edited two anthologies: the Lambda Finalist essay anthology, My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them (University of Wisconsin Press), and its poetry sister, Divining Divas. Those projects not only gave so many female figures (whether musicians, actresses, comics, writers, athletes, or politicians) their deserved praise but allowed me to work with so many writers whom I greatly admire. Being an editor meant becoming a project manager of sorts (so much detail work!) as well as a mediator between publisher and contributors. It was a challenge, yes, but one that was, overall, joyful and satisfying, one that let me grow. Cool Limbo, on the other hand, gave me the opportunity to work with the great editors at NYQ Books. It was interesting and eye-opening to be on both sides of that fence. I’m grateful for both experiences.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan: My latest publication with NYQ books is The Silence in the Empty House. A couple of years ago, they published The Place I Call Home, and that was much more of a book about growing up and about my mother and daughter. Silence takes a different direction for me, since it deals with my husband and I as young marrieds and traces our relationship through his long illness with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease and his death. It’s a book about my grief over his death, combined with my grief over what we’ve done to destroy the environment.
Do you have a philosophy about writing, and if so, could you share it?
AS: My philosophy, as in what is writing all about, why does one write, for whom, etc., is that one does not have a philosophy of writing, in the sense of arriving at it beforehand; one always tries to keep pace with the changing philosophy, always escaping just ahead of you, disappearing beyond the horizon: one’s philosophy of writing is the sum of one’s life refracted through one’s writing—that is to say, one justifies ex post facto, one rationalizes and integrates, in a way that can make sense of nonsense and disorder. One’s philosophy of writing is quantum mechanics of a sort; you can’t both observe and locate it at the same time. With this caveat, let me say that my philosophy of writing is that writing is the only way to counter death. We are dying every moment yet writing holds the (false) promise, as does all art, of immortality. This proposition is false on so many fronts that it is not even worth laughter; yet it is the only viable philosophy we have. One who is not soaked in perpetual and dominant preoccupation with death is incapable of creating great art; the deeper the immersion, the greater the art. One writes not for fellow writers or readers, real or imagined, but to death itself and death alone, as in a shell game on an infernal sidewalk, moving things around to cheat the other, knowing the game is ridiculous to begin with and the pennies of reward not worth it. The only point of writing is to prohibit time, and in fact, the greatest writing—prose and poetry—accomplishes precisely this: time either slows down, or, in magical moments, even starts flowing backward, as one becomes youthful and innocent all over again (beating death). There is no other point to writing—certainly not changing attitudes or reforming injustice or anything as pedestrian as that. Recently, reading Henry James gives me this distinct sensation of time having come to a stop; it’s true also of Oscar Wilde’s plays. It is the only point of writing, and how futile! Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky plays a very dangerous game, he raises the stakes vis-à-vis pervasive death, then has to elevate his writing to the level where he can beat death at its own game—a terrifying performance, as is Fellini’s 8 1/2, with the same ethical note.
AJB: It’s almost a cliché for a writer to stress the importance of reading a lot as a philosophy of writing, so I want to explain why I think it’s important beyond the obvious reality that good readers make good writers. Snappy sentences and vivid imagery get in your blood if you read. But there are other reasons. For example, in life, we all have to live with the awareness that we could be hit by the proverbial Mack truck one random afternoon and die. It’s nevertheless important for future generations that we also take a long view and keep ourselves in check as humans (our planet, our ethics, our emotional and intellectual integrity, and so on). Similarly, as we try to tell a damn fine story or capture the subtleties of a particular emotion, we also should keep a rigorous vigilance of the ramifications of what we say as writers in an historical sense. That’s not to say Dostoyevsky or Camus should not have written murderous characters, that Beckett’s absurdity or Baudelaire’s diabolical has no place in literature, but you can’t have self-awareness as a writer without an historical awareness of the literary tradition in which you write.
MM: Stevie Nicks (my favorite singer/songwriter) said her granddaddy told her to “sing like you mean it” when she performed for him as a child. I suppose my philosophy about writing is just that: Sing like you mean it. Stevie has a beautifully worn voice that is uniquely hers and a songwriting style that reflects who she is, not what is in or out of style at any given time. She is authentic and consistent, not trendy. She’s also not afraid to be vulnerable or emotional, even angry, in her work. Before I was old enough to discover (or be taught) classic literature, I had her music and lyrics and appreciated her imagery and ability to express herself genuinely, even when she was being mysterious. Her songs can be poignant, dark, sometimes quirky. I like that range and aim for those things in my poetry, hopefully achieving a balance in my own voice. In terms of work habits, I don’t have a particular strategy or schedule. It’s wonderful when I’m so inspired that I must jot something down, wherever/whenever. But the past few years, I find that, when teaching, it is easier to edit than to generate new drafts, so I try hard to create windows, taking a few weeks (or months when I can) to go somewhere to write and only write, whether that be a residency (if I am lucky enough to be awarded one) or just a self-made retreat (meaning, renting a cheap studio somewhere far away from my distractions). That’s how I’ve been getting things done lately. But it seems each project has its own needs and path.
MMG: My writing philosophy concerns creating writing that creates a bridge between people. I think it’s important to be clear, direct, specific, and to deal with everything that makes us human. I don’t like literature that is written for an audience of five people. I think literature should make you laugh or cry, or make the hair on your arms stand up. It is rooted in the body, and you should react to it with your body.
What are you working on now?
AS: As I suggested, my writing has left the ramparts of strict realism far behind and I have no intention of ever going back. I just finished a short novel called A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less, a curious hybrid form, a 40,000 word novel that feels dense beyond its actual length, a rendition of the human-cat relationship seen through the eyes of the cat at major turning points in our joint destiny, from ancient Mesopotamia to Egypt to Rome, to medieval Germany and Victorian London and interwar Paris, to a date in the future some 500 years from now. It is the most enjoyable and liberating thing I’ve written aside from Soraya. With this, my beloved cat Fu has immortalized me (at least until we both die). I’m now writing a novel called Abruzzi, 1936, which I plan to finish this fall: it is my exploration of fascism in Italy at its peak, why it took hold of a generally liberal and tolerant people at that moment in time, and why fascism is a tendency ever to be vigilant against, not just a historical phenomenon of archival interest. It is about four of Mussolini’s political prisoners—a filmmaker, a physician, a football coach, and a professor—internally confined to a village in the remote region of Abruzzi, and what happens when a girl whom each of them have reason to both like and dislike is found murdered. The novel is in a style I hope is unique to it, surreal and allusive and trans-historical and dreamlike, a far cry from the harsh realism that is usually brought to bear on a subject like this. My next novel will be called An Idiot’s Guide to America, and it is about how the plutocracy conspired over the last forty years to put an end to a decent democracy and turn us into heartless obedient boring morons inhabiting a fierce and unforgiving land: my technical goal here is to adopt the picaresque form for the purposes of the new unreality. And along with that, next year, I will also continue working on the poetry book I mentioned before, Empire, which seeks correspondences between the logic and running of several of the most important empires across time and space. That’s it; that’s all I’m trying to do to keep death at bay.
AJB: This summer I tackled poeticizing my prose. I’m writing short stories right now. I started as a journalist and so learned brevity, concision, and straightforward explanation as valuable in prose, so now I am focused on finding the right images and musical language to enliven the emotional response of the reader to my fiction. My hope is to apply the principles of Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” to my prose so that the fiction becomes more “palpable,” “wordless,” as MacLeish says, “as the flight of birds.”
MM: I am currently finishing my second book-length poetry manuscript, called The Outskirts of Happiness, which explores the idea of place; more specifically, what home means and why we often search for an ideal elsewhere by traveling—the poems covering destinations such as China, Brazil, Iceland, Australia, Morocco, etc. Other poems focus on the investigation of my biological origins and ethnic roots, as well as the loss of the parents who adopted me (and my twin sister). Recently, I also finished the edits on a young adult novel: Our Lips Are Sealed, which centers on the story of four misfit teens: two obese girls who enter a pact to break each other’s bones in order to escape the humiliations of gym class; a closeted gay boy with an obsession for the 80s, specifically the GoGos; and his punk-rocker pal, Yvie.
MMG: I’m working on another book of poems and I am working on more paintings. I just had a book of my art and poems published by Cat in the Sun Books, called The Women in the Chartreuse Jackets. I also want to add that NYQ Books has done a spectacular job of producing beautiful books, and I am proud to be published by them.
Amanda J. Bradley’s first book of poems, Hints and Allegations, was released in 2009 from NYQ Books. Her second NYQ book, Oz at Night, came out in 2011. She has published poetry in many journals, including The Paterson Literary Review, Gargoyle, Pirene’s Fountain, Lips, Rattle, The New York Quarterly, and Poetry Bay. Amanda is a graduate of the MFA program at The New School, and she holds a PhD in English and American Literature from Washington University in St. Louis. She is an Assistant Professor at Keystone College in Pennsylvania.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan is a recipient of the 2014 George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from AWP, the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, and the 2008 American Book Award for her book, All That Lies Between Us (Guernica Editions). She is the founder/executive director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ, and editor of the Paterson Literary Review. She is also director of the Binghamton Center for Writers and the creative writing program, and professor of English at Binghamton University -SUNY. She has published twenty books, including The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets (Cat in the Sun Books, 2014), Ancestors’ Song (Bordighera Press, 2013), The Silence in an Empty House (NYQ Books, 2013), Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories (MiroLand, Guernica Editions, 2013), The Place I Call Home (NYQ Books, 2012), and What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009 (Guernica Editions, 2010). With her daughter Jennifer, she is co-editor of four anthologies. Visit her website at www.mariagillan.com.
Michael Montlack is the author of the poetry book, Cool Limbo (NYQ Books) and editor of the essay anthology, My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them (University of Wisconsin Press), which was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. In 2013, he was granted residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Oberpfalzer Kunstlerhaus (in Germany) and one of his poems won the Gival Press Oscar Wilde Award. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, Cimarron Review, Bloom, Cortland Review, Huffington Post, Court Green, and other journals. He lives in New York City and teaches at Berkeley College.
Anis Shivani’s books include Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), Against the Workshop (2011), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), My Tranquil War and Other Poems (2012), Karachi Raj: A Novel (forthcoming, 2014), and Soraya: Sonnets (forthcoming, 2015). Recently finished books include Literature in an Age of Globalization and A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less. A selection of his political writings over the last decade is also forthcoming next year. Recent work appears in the Yale Review, Georgia Review, Boston Review, Iowa Review, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, Epoch, AGNI, Fence, Boulevard, and elsewhere. Anis is a Pushcart Prize winner, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and a frequent reviewer and critic for newspapers and magazines.