A Writer’s Insight: Mairead Small Staid

photo by Chris McCormick

Mairead Small Staid’s essay, “Second Person,” appears in the summer 2017 issue of The Southern Review, and was featured on Lit Hub in July. Read about how Staid researched and organized the essay, as well as her thoughts on parenthetical asides and finding inspiration in bars, below.


Kathleen Boland: The essay includes multiple quotations from other writers—Henry James, Eileen Myles, and Eula Biss, to name a few—why include these? And how’d you come across and decide on these particular writers and quotes?

Mairead Small Staid: I’ve kept notebooks for almost a decade now, and the contents of each tend to be about 50 percent my own writing and 50 percent facts and quotes from whatever I’m reading. So all the quotations in “Second Person” were scavenged from these notebooks, though they often got there through indirect means: I first read the Myles line in Maggie Nelson’s Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions, for example, and I didn’t remember where the James came from until fact-checking time.

In an essay about voice and the often fractured nature of identity, I wanted to present many voices, a kind of fracturing through addition. To be honest, I feel a little shameful, sometimes, about how readily I quote from other writers in my essays—but maybe (I tell myself) that’s not such a terrible thing? I do like the idea of shoving all these voices into conversation with each other and seeing how they get along. And as a reader, I like writing that’s omnivorous, able to devour and digest just about anything and get away with it.

KB: Along with quotation, there is frequent use of parentheses in the essay. Do you believe there’s a connection between parenthetical asides and second person narration?

MSS: That’s lovely; I hadn’t thought of that. I like parentheticals—and em dashes—because I like tangents and amendments—my love of the omnivorous rising again. But those particular punctuation marks also imply a certain amount of doubt, I think, and doubt is something I find necessary and productive and exciting in an essay. (There’s that Montaigne quote: “If I knew my own mind, I would not make essays. I would make decisions.” Or, John Jeremiah Sullivan: “One has doubts about one’s doubts.”) My mind is full of contradictions, constantly poking holes in its own arguments, and I want my sentences and paragraphs to hold both those arguments and those holes, all at once.

The second person point of view, as I’m thinking about it in this essay, is one that permits many (often conflicting) voices: the English “you” can be singular or plural, after all, and can be used to generalize or empathize or condemn. The essay is a reckoning with these many voices, an attempt to pin them to the page, but they’re slippery things. In my mind, honestly, the parentheses are endless. On the page, I’ve tried to contain myself.

KB: At one point the narrator argues: “Never the third person; that would be a lie. You are far too close for that, far too intimately acquainted.” Can you explain what the “lie” of third person is? How does intimacy make second person more honest, at least in your essay?

MSS: What I meant by that sentence was that I never think of myself as “she.” But it’s funny: for a recent project I’ve had to reread some old notebooks from when I was nineteen and twenty. (The horror! So embarrassing.) And there are little third person vignettes in there, scraps of scenes and thoughts rendered from the outside. They were ostensibly fiction—which I have since realized, luckily for all of us, that I’m terrible at—but about an obvious and thinly veiled me. So maybe not thinking of myself in the third person is a recent development, something I’ve grown into? Maybe I’ve gotten so used to myself that I don’t, or can’t, see myself from the outside anymore?

It might be as simple as that. But I’ve been reading John Berger lately, and in his essay on women in art, he says: “She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.” This section just knocked me out, so acutely does it describe how I felt at times, as a teenager and younger woman, the near-constant hyper-self-consciousness, the anxiety-inducing awareness of my body and how it might appear to others. I’m really glad that I’ve managed to shake that feeling, for the most part.

More simply, though, in the construct of the essay, my self and my self (and my self and my self and so on) are in the same room, i.e., my mind. It would be rude to speak about them (me?) as if they (I?) weren’t there.

KB: In the essay, writing in the bar is such a natural ritual, so regular and, almost, easy. I was jealous (and I imagine plenty of other writers may feel the same)! In real life, do you actually write this way, and with what frequency? Does your practice match the description in the essay, and if so, what do you do after these free-write first drafts? Do they grow into stories and essays, switch points of view, or end up in the scrap heap?

MSS: Ha! It’s the dream, I’ll admit. I do write at the bar semiregularly, though it’s a secondary practice to my coffee-fueled, first-thing-in-the-morning habit at home. (Unlike just about everyone else on the planet, I can’t write at coffee shops. I don’t know why! Too many people, maybe. I get itchy just thinking about it.) But I love the white noise and warm tones of just about any bar on a slow afternoon, getting away from my computer and back to notebooks, and the very, very slight pressure of it. I’m less critical, writing longhand (and after a beer or two), and sometimes letting myself go off on some long, slightly messy, possibly sappy tangent helps me figure something out in an otherwise stalled piece. I can then edit (most of) the sap out, and keep the revelation. And yes, the point of view usually gets put back in its proper, first person place—except in the case of this particular essay, of course.

KB: Finally, what’s your favorite bar in the world to write in? Or, if you can’t write in a bar, what’s your second-best option?

MSS: I don’t know if I should give away my favorite bar—what if it gets swarmed with writers and I can’t find a seat?! The emptiness is a big part of its charm, you know. But I can say that I would probably, very grudgingly, trade my decidedly uncool Midwestern sports bar for—oh, I don’t know—anywhere in Florence? On a Greek island? In Iceland in the summer, when it’s light all night? I mean, if I had to. And the second-best spot is my apartment’s balcony, spring or fall, when it’s cool enough that I need socks and hot coffee, and the little birds are going bonkers in the trees nearby.


Mairead Small Staid received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won the Hopwood Award in both nonfiction and poetry. Her work has been published in AGNI, The Believer, and Narrative.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review.

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A Writer’s Insight: Miho Nonaka

Miho Nonaka’s poems, “Rupture” and “Contained Things,” appear in the summer 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Nonaka read the poems in our audio gallery here; read more about the inspiration behind the poems, as well as Nonaka’s bilingualism and current projects, below.


Kathleen Boland: What was the initial catalyst for “Rupture” and “Contained Things”?

Miho Nonaka: “Rupture” is based on what I used to do when I was in junior high school in Japan. I was watching TV one night and I saw a woman turn cheap marbles into something gemlike by heating them up and then shocking them in ice water. It was exactly the kind of magic I would (and still will) fall for. That was one thing I could “cook.” I was a terrible cook then. My mother didn’t even want me in the kitchen. My sister nearly threw up when she tried one of the madeleines I’d managed not to burn.

I started “Contained Things” as a list of things that share the quality close to my heart: the tension between transparency (vulnerability) and enclosedness (containment). It is possible that I had Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book in the back of my mind. I was also thinking of a phrase from one of Kōbō Abe’s stories: Watching small things makes me think perhaps it’s okay for me to live, like raindrops . . .

KB: Both of the poems in this issue are prose poems. How did you decide to use the prose poem form for these works? 

MN: I wrote the first draft of “Rupture” two decades ago. It came quickly; I was simply putting down all the steps to “cook” marbles. I put the poem in quatrains.  Each line was about the same length. The poem on the whole looked and sounded like a set of instructions.

It took me a very long time to realize that I could use a less stable, more expansive form.  Reality is messy. The central action of the poem doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I had to add the character of Father and set the poem in a specific time in history. In one sense, the poem is about compulsion in the guise of a ritual. I needed more contextual details to suggest what triggers an occasion of self-contained violence.

The two poems are closely connected. I wrote “Contained Things” right after I finished revising “Rupture,” and still felt high on the relative freedom and chattiness of the form.  Not every poem has to be distilled and lean with lines like oracular bones, though I like that kind of poem, too.

KB: In “Rupture,” the speaker says: “No one taught us how to love foreign words, nor the logic behind their syntax.” You’re a bilingual poet. How does bilingualism impact and influence your writing, especially in regard to these poems?

MN: I didn’t start learning English until I was in junior high. I got one of the lowest scores in my class, and my parents put me in a cram school. I don’t know what possessed me, but I believed that English had a set of logical rules that, once you figured them out, would enable you to spell any word and compose any sentence at will. That was a beautiful delusion.

I still remember vividly, physically, what I felt—the shock, humiliation, and, of course, attraction—when I first tried to internalize English. In my mind I could never be a “real” bilingual. I lacked the ease and fluency I associated with that phrase. These poems are informed by some of those ambiguous feelings.

Another thing I find in these poems is the dominance of imagery. I tend to trust it, because, as Pound posits, it’s the one thing that translates. On the other hand, it used to be difficult for me to lose myself in the music of the English language; my self-consciousness kept me too sober to bank on it. Something in me would insist that these words were foreign, distinct, and object-like, instead of being the organic flow of music. I wanted and needed to be free from my own sense of distance from English.

KB: “Contained Things” moves across geographic locations, from Chinatown to Cornell to France, all while focusing on the unspeakable of specific moments (the “invisible bees” between lovers; the “flaming tongue” of the girl). Meanwhile, the girl remarks on the “land of egg whites” while she’s with the English and French couple. What is the purpose of the global perspective in the poem? 

MN: What’s important is not the coverage of various cultures and countries, but how each encounter with the unfamiliar in whatever form (be it people, a landscape, a piece of art, sound, or food!) could change you and allow you to discover another side of yourself and different possibilities of connecting to the world. It is impossible to remain being purely one thing. There is a certain commitment you make in each context, and you leave part of yourself with it. I tend to think that every life is shattered in some ways, each fragment authentic, and a portrait of a person is a collage.

KB: Both poems revolve around the inherent potentiality of objects: the marbles, the paperweights and Super Balls. The father in “Rupture” builds a radio on “the cusp of two Japanese eras”; while the fish in “Contained Things” swims in an enclosed bowl. Can you speak further about these poems’ theme of the potential of in-betweenness?

MN: I have a soft spot for clear objects, even kitschy ones, that hint at the presence of another world, a different mode of being. The doors that stay ajar in surrealist paintings.  Alice facing the impossibly small door that leads to a beautiful garden (though it brings her face-to-face with the Queen who wants to cut off her head). I guess you could say that is one kind of in-betweenness.

On a more everyday level, it requires patience. It takes me about ten days to start dreaming in English again after I return from Japan. When I am exhausted, I forget basic English words like toe (I called it “foot finger” one night, which disturbed my husband, God bless him). My knowledge of kanji characters is diminishing. My face changes when I switch to speaking English; it becomes more guarded, and it is prone to developing more wrinkles (or so I was told).

At “the cusp of two Japanese eras” I desperately wanted to grieve with my father, but he wouldn’t share who or what he was grieving. I don’t think he even knew how. Within a year, I would find myself in America. When you are learning a new language, you are bound to sound childish. In a foreign context, at least for a time, you must accept the conditions in which you perceive more than you can express. This is torturous for someone with artistic impulses and great need for expression. But it is also a space rich with possibilities. You find yourself juxtaposed against a background you can’t merge in, like a polar bear in a desert. You become ridiculous and interesting. In-betweenness is not about the glorification of the self, and, in some cases, you don’t even have the luxury of other options. But it can be an opportunity for losing the self and witnessing what emerges through unexpected connections. Each moment of becoming requires suspension of judgment; it keeps you from indulging in nostalgia, the heavily idealized version of who you were, of what you sounded like, and of your home country itself.

KB: What are you working on now?

MN: At a snail’s pace, I am working on an article on Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 with a wonderful scholar Wendy Faris, which will appear in Magical Realism and Literature, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. For now, I am researching and translating relevant Japanese texts. I finally mustered enough courage to face my old poetry manuscript and revised it extensively this spring. It has a different title now, and I am circulating it while trying to write new poems. And I have an assignment to write a poem about Pentecost, but I’ve been procrastinating for more than a year and a half!


Miho Nonaka is a bilingual poet from Tokyo. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Tin House, and American Odysseys: Writings by New Americans. She teaches creative writing at Wheaton College.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review.

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A Writer’s Insight: Danielle Lazarin

Danielle Lazarin’s story, “Floor Plans,” appears in the summer 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Read more about Lazarin’s forthcoming debut collection, Back Talk, and her approach to writing “New York stories,” below.

Kathleen Boland: What was the inspiration for “Floor Plans”?

Danielle Lazarin: A few years ago I noticed that one of my neighbors down the hall was moving boxes out of his apartment, but not, I understood, enough of them to be moving out. I never asked, but I did guess and confirm that it was a couple going through a divorce—the boxes belonged to the wife and daughter. I thought about both of my instincts: sadness at the fact of their marriage ending, and also wondering if they’d sell the apartment (they did, about a year later), what it looked like, how much they’d get for it. I am, after all, a native New Yorker, and shameless real estate curiosity is in my blood.

I began to imagine what it would be like to be on the inside of that story, to see opportunity in loss and also maintain empathy throughout it. At the time, there was a rash of divorces among my peers, and I knew, even under the least dramatic of circumstances, it is a wrenching process, with its own grief and expectations and pain, and I wanted to explore the aftershocks of that experience.

KB: The story opens with the image of a piano delivery via window; a bit later we meet Juliet, who wants to combine neighboring apartments. In my mind, both of these things are particularly New York City experiences. How else is this story a New York story? Or, how does the setting of New York interact this unraveling marriage and burgeoning friendship?

DL: I think New York is particularly suited to the sudden and brief sort of intimacy that Robin and Juliet share during this transitional time in their lives. The ratio of space to population in this city means that other people are inescapable; we share elevators and subway cars and washing machines; we hear each other fighting and vacuuming and crying. There’s a loss of privacy to this, of course, but I also see that New Yorkers are exceptionally respectful of this public/private boundary, sensitive to how difficult it can be to be so exposed. What Robin and Juliet do for each other, as many New Yorkers do, is bear witness to what’s difficult without interfering; I like to think this lessens the loneliness they are both feeling. Of course, they also both take advantage of these changes in each other’s circumstances (divorce, pregnancy) without apology. It’s undoubtedly part of the culture of New York to be curious, to cross boundaries in order to claim what space we can.

KB: I appreciated how much “Floor Plans” discussed the financial lives of its characters, especially the socioeconomics of real estate. Why did you choose to include these details in the story?

DL: Part of it was quite personal—there is nearly no one I know in NYC who has purchased real estate without great privilege, whether that’s a literal down payment from family or a lifetime of safety nets that account for being stable enough to save, yet this myth of luck and hard work over privilege persists, and it makes me crazy.

On a character level, it’s key to what Robin is asking herself as she makes her choices: Is this life of the woman next door built on smarter choices, more stable ground? I think we often look at someone else’s life and think it’s better than ours when we are just looking at their things or trappings without any idea of what they cost on an emotional level. What are the limits you impose on your life when you have kids? Get a mortgage? Be in a marriage? Accept money from family? Choose a certain career? We all want a life that isn’t really tied to things or relationship status, but sometimes we trick ourselves into believing we do. Everything costs. Ultimately, the choice Robin makes comes at a literal cost to her; it changes her future, and she does it for a more-or-less stranger. Robin sees that money won’t fix things she or Juliet want fixed.

KB: At one point, Robin remarks how Juliet has an “in-between of her world face and her home face.” The story revolves around in-betweenness: the divorce, the sale, the pregnancy. How does this theme speak to the tone of the story, as well as the setting of New York?

DL: A wise early reader of mine described this story as existing in “the liminal space” and that was a guiding principle when I revised it, so I’m really pleased that you picked up on that as the space of the story. Both women’s situations and choices couldn’t be farther apart, yet they need a lot of the same things: company, distraction, an illusion that they will be OK on the other side of something quite unpredictable. They need to do this out of the eye of others who know them. They find each other in that space, and once these transactions are over, so is their connection. I think, for better or worse, this is an oddly normal New York relationship: temporary, need-based, and intense, but no less real.

The city, too, leads many people to believe it’s all temporary: that you can start over again and again, that there are so many lives you can live, and that you’re always on your way to the next, better one. This can be great if you are the one who is changing or leaving—as Lev is, on to bigger and better, he believes—but it can be painful if you just want things to stay the way they are. New York will change over and over again without asking you if you want something more permanent. My favorite essay about New York, Colson Whitehead’s “Lost and Found,” speaks to this coexisting sense of loss and renewal that makes New York hum.

KB: “Floor Plans” will be in your forthcoming debut collection, Back Talk, out next year. Can you speak about your experience publishing a debut collection? What was the most surprising aspect of putting Back Talk together? The most satisfying?

DL: The publishing part has been, all things considered, fairly fast: I snagged my amazing agent, Julie Barer, in January 2016, and the book sold later that year (to the equally amazing Sarah Stein at Penguin Books). But it’s been a long road; I wrote about half the stories in the years before and during graduate school, which I finished in 2007. The rest, including “Floor Plans,” were written after moving back to New York in 2009, when I was theoretically working on a novel. So the book itself represents a lot of invested time. I think story collections at their best are representations of the risks writers have taken with their work, in craft and content. So in a really simple way, after all those years of playing around with what my stories can and cannot do, it’s been satisfying to be able to gather them, to see my own themes and limitations and ways I’ve tried to push past those.

It has been surprising to see early readers picking favorites, which are often not my favorites. And that separation of my feelings for certain stories from the readers’ feelings for them is actually delightful. It gives me hope that the stories can live beyond my feelings about them, that they might go out into the world and belong to others.

KB: And finally, what’s the strangest encounter you’ve had with a neighbor? 

DL: I really wish I had a better to answer to this, but most of my neighbor interactions are fairly normal; my NYC neighbors are great—many of them have said they think it’s adorable that the dog howls when the kids cry (which is likely because I’m yelling at my kids). They deserve cookies and booze for living around us.

There was that one time our neighbor in Michigan, who had a great sense of humor, knocked on our door to ask if we had put an opossum in the trash can. That was also the time we learned what it means to “play possum.”


Danielle Lazarin’s debut collection, Back Talk, is forthcoming from Penguin Books in 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Glimmer Train, and Boston Review. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on a novel.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review.

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When the days are longer

This morning my nine-year-old daughter came into the kitchen while I was preparing her lunch for day camp to announce that she found it “ridiculous” that Minecraft does not make seasonal adjustments for time: morning and night arrive at the same time year round. “Doesn’t Minecraft know it’s summer?!” she exhaled with her hands in the air, eyes rolled. That it was 8:00 am and we weren’t already in the car frantically en route to school was, in itself, an adjustment for summer. Another is that there are a few extra minutes in the day not dedicated to the rigorous drill of homework, dinner, bath, story, and lights-out by 8:45 pm that can, instead, be used for catching up on reading. The joys of summer.

The summer 2017 issue of The Southern Review is out, and I’ve already fielded numerous compliments, starting right with the cover. A live oak canopy opening up to blue sky, the cover painting, by New Orleans–based artist Elise Toups, is quintessential Louisiana and gives the issue an immediate sense of place. You can view a gallery of Toups’s images here. A strong sense of place as subject is reinforced with the first three poets. Alison Pelegrin’s “Our Lady of the Flood,” about the devastating floods in South Louisiana last summer, opens the issue with a woman surrounded by a “citronella halo” and carrying a “laundry basket of kittens in one arm.” In her “shrimp boots and rubber gloves,” she walks on water, leading her people “to the safety of each other.” It’s a powerful opening to strong issue of texts.

Jill Osier follows with three poems, “Elegy,” “Siberian,” and “Star Field,” set in Alaska, where the speaker regularly visits the local library to read by a window that overlooks a ridge. It’s the same region where the last caribou was killed and a meadow of tiny flowers sits high above the town. She reads her poems in our audio gallery this season along with several other writers, including Erika Meitner, who provides a long four-part poem.

Meitner’s “Another Ohio Road Trip” weaves its way through several states, touching on the subjects of death, infertility, a Super Bowl party, the movie Free Willy, and the speaker’s intersection with the Catholic Church. Having grown up taking road trips every summer with my family—often to Pennsylvania and Ohio, where my mother’s family still lives—the landscapes in Meitner’s poem felt familiar, and they immediately transported me to our own station wagon loaded up with six or seven kids who were counting trains and factories, reading billboards, and searching for a Stuckey’s.

At the other end of the journal, closing the summer issue, is Bob Hicok’s “Poem ending with a murder/suicide.” While the issue opens with poems that present specific corners of the United States, it closes with a piece that addresses the whole of America. Hicok’s poem begins, “It’s interesting to me there’s a minimum / but no maximum wage,” and then muses about work and fairness and quality of life, among other things.

In between are numerous works that talk about place, including Jeff Hardin’s poem “One Moment Touching All the Others,” about finding one’s place in the world—in other words, finding home. Edward McPherson’s “Sky-Stormers of the Llano Estacado,” set outside of Midland, Texas, presents the story of nineteenth-century “weathermakers” who use explosives in an attempt to make it rain. And Danielle Lazarin’s “Floor Plans” is a story that takes place in a New York City apartment building, where two women, neighbors who are both experiencing great personal changes, seize an opportunity to form a fast but fleeting friendship.

Fast and fleeting is what summer always seems to be. So enjoy the season that, if you’re fortunate, provides the gift of a little time and opportunity for reading.

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NEWSLETTER: The Southern Review gears up for summer – and Father’s Day

Read our latest newsletter here: The Southern Review gears up for summer – and Father’s Day

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