A Writer’s Insight: Kevin Prufer

Kevin Prufer’s poem, “In Small Spaces,” appears in the spring 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Prufer read the poem in our audio gallery here; read more about the inspiration behind the poem and current projects, as well as his favorite type of gin, below.

Kathleen Boland: What inspired “In Small Spaces”?

Kevin Prufer: I was doing the dishes one evening and happened to glance up at the television. On TV was a true-crime program about a voyeur who had crawled from his apartment to his neighbor’s apartment simply by removing the ceiling tiles and squeezing above the walls. I couldn’t get that image out of my mind—both the literal thought of someone doing that to someone else (I think he ended up murdering the woman on the program, though I left that out in my poem) and the metaphorical, the idea of a violent figure moving, unseen, from one realm into another, whose motivations are mysterious. It seemed like a particularly chilling and meaningful way of thinking about the divine.

KB: As a woman, this poem was pretty terrifying to read. The voyeurism depicted is gendered, not just that the victim is a woman, but that details of her are feminized; the man’s obsession with her pink toenails, for instance. What commentary, if any, were you aiming for with these choices?

KP: Yes, I was aware of the creepily gendered subtext. But isn’t that version of God—the God who lives above our ceiling tiles and watches our every move—frequently gendered, too? Personally, I’ve always found the idea of an all-seeing, all-loving, all-knowing God frightening . . . when I thought about it (which I did, a lot, when I was a boy). But it’s important that the news story about the man coming down from the ceiling is, in many ways, buried in the larger narrative involving the speaker in the poem—a guy who begins by watching the TV program, then descends into imagining what might really be happening inside the voyeur’s head, etc. That is, the larger creepiness of the poem is the speaker who can’t help but use the terrifying story he’s watching on TV to try to understand something frightening, sexualized, and invasive about the way we think about the divine.

KB: Halfway through the poem, the narrator’s bottle of gin begins to admonish the speaker: “Don’t think about the man in the rafters, / says my bottle of gin” and then, “Stop it, / says my bottle of gin, you’re inventing things.” How does this bottle of gin speak to the themes of gaze and surveillance in the poem? Of its meditation on God?

KP: Well, I imagined the speaker slowly getting drunk here—the bottle of gin offering him some escape from anxious thoughts, suggesting that oblivion might be an alternative. But, really, there’s no escaping an image—try not thinking about a blue elephant, after all. Or a creepy man hiding in your rafters.

KB: Along with Martha Collins, you edited an anthology of poetry in translation, Into English, forthcoming from Graywolf Press later this year. What is your experience with poetry in translation, especially when translated into English? Did you make any discoveries or realizations of the genre or language while working on this project?

KP: We invited twenty-five very experienced translators to each select a poem that has been translated into English at least three times. We’re reprinting all three translations alongside both the original poem and an essay on what the various versions tell us about the art of translation, poetry, and literary history.

I’ve worked a great deal with translators and have also translated some German poetry into English (and vice versa), but I am by no means the expert that Martha and our contributors are. For me, it was fascinating editing the essays, reading the versions of the poems, and thinking about how encountering different versions at once can lead to a prismatic and far deeper understanding of a poem. Working with these translators certainly deepened my sense of the enormous number of choices translators make—considering poetic music, image, diction, white space, tone, nuance, colloquialism. What does one favor? What does one suppress? How does one translate the experience of a poem?

KB: What are you working on now?

KP: I have a book coming out next year called How He Loved Them, a new collection of poems, quite a few of which appeared in The Southern Review. We’re in the final editing process of that, though I’ve mostly moved on to newer work—a poetry collection I’m tentatively calling The Art of Fiction; “In Small Spaces” will be included in that manuscript.

And I continue to work on the Unsung Masters Series, a book series I curate with Wayne Miller devoted to bringing great, out-of-print, little-known writers to new readers. Each volume includes not just a healthy selection of the writer’s work, but also features essays on the writer, interviews with people who may have known her, photographs, ephemera, reviews, etc. The next volume is on the mid-twentieth-century Colorado poet Belle Turnbull, and the editors will be David Rothman and Jeffrey Villines.

KB: And finally, what’s your favorite brand of gin?

KP: My favorite brand of gin is Cabernet Sauvignon.


Kevin Prufer is the author of six collections of poems, the most recent of which is Churches. With Martha Collins, he is currently editing Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries, which Graywolf Press will publish this year. In 2018, Four Way Books will release his next poetry book, How He Loved Them.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review.

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A Writer’s Insight: Amy Silverberg

Amy Silverberg’s story, “Suburbia!” appears in the spring 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Silverberg read an excerpt of her story in our audio gallery here; read more about her approach to humor in fiction, as well as her thoughts about adulthood and urban planning, below.


Kathleen Boland: “Suburbia!” revolves around the distance between Maria’s suburban hometown and the city of Los Angeles. Though these locations are geographically close, they’re emotionally distant, a truth made all too clear in the bet made by Maria’s father.

Amy Silverberg: I grew up an hour away from Los Angeles, and even though I lived so close, I rarely came to the city unless my parents had a reason to take me. I was under eighteen; I didn’t have my own car. I think a city—even if it’s geographically close—always feels like night and day in comparison. Really, living in a city has always seemed emblematic of adulthood to me, of being able to make one’s own choices, create one’s own life. I suppose I set the story in L.A. because I live here, and it has, for me, a strange and particular identity which I associate with people moving here to “start their lives” and “make their dreams come true.” Those are clichés, of course, but it’s true that so many waitresses are actresses, and comedians, and writers—I’m always sitting in the back of a café listening to people tell each other about the auditions they bombed or nailed. I’m a stand-up comic, and everyone I know is working a day job, trying to juggle their shifts around so they can make it to a show, that kind of thing. It’s a unique kind of striving. And even while I’m in the hustle (though my day job is teaching and not in the service industry), I find it endlessly interesting and stressful and worth writing about.

KB: Why is the mother left out of the bet? Or, what is the significance of having the bet be between the father and daughter, rather than the sister and brother or the mother and daughter?

AS: I’m not sure I have a great answer other than the central force of the story seemed to be coming from the relationship between father and daughter. It made sense to me as I was writing it that the father would try to shield the mother from the bet, or at least, not inform her completely—keep her in the dark. I think parents are rarely on the exact same page regarding how hard or quickly they should push their kid out of the nest. My students volunteer that sort of information all the time: “My mom wants me to call every day; my dad says don’t worry about it. . .” The beginning of adulthood, around age eighteen, seems rife with those decisions, for both parents and kids.

KB: Without giving it away, the story takes a big left turn near the end. Did you know from the outset that you’d be landing in a surreal moment, or was the end as much a surprise for you as it is for the reader?

AS: The ending turned out to be as much of a surprise for me as it is for the reader. In fact, I haven’t written anything I could call “surreal” before or since. I do remember I’d read “The Paperhanger” by William Gay at the time. I was into the ominousness of that story, that you weren’t quite sure where it was going, but the tone of the voice was confident and a little spooky. I thought “Suburbia!” would turn out more like that, too—creepier, not as light. The first few sentences felt ominous as I wrote them, but the story lightened up as I went along.

KB: There’s a lot of indirect humor underscored by punctuation, such as the “When?!” after the laundry confusion, or Maria’s response of “How are Mom and Dad?!?” when James quotes Whitman. Most notably, however, is the exclamation point in the title. In your mind, what’s the difference between stories entitled “Suburbia” and “Suburbia!”? What’s the relationship between punctuation and humor in this story?

AS: I’ve always loved the exclamation point, and I could probably stand to cool it. It’s my favorite punctuation mark! I’m a big fan of Lorrie Moore and the way she uses the exclamation point as a kind of willed, as opposed to felt, excitement. It might be simpler for me: I read everything aloud as I write it, and I’m interested in performance (as a stand-up comic, but also separately, as a fiction writer) and when I feel as though something should be exclaimed, I use the punctuation. It mostly has to do with rhythm, I think, the way it sounds and the way it looks on the page. I wish I could use an exclamation point as deftly as Lorrie Moore, but alas!

KB: Brevity is the soul of wit—and also pretty essential for story writing. What’s the difference in process for creating stories and jokes?

AS: Recently I told a friend about being in a workshop with Aimee Bender at the University of Southern California and she’d written on one of my stories “this is too jokey—there are too many jokes in here” and, of course, she was right. The problem was that the jokes didn’t come organically from the character, but rather, from me. You could see the writer wedging them in, the classic set up/punch lines that could’ve worked anywhere (on Twitter, for instance) and, therefore, didn’t work in the story because they weren’t particular to the narrator. I love joke writing; it’s one of my favorite things. Jokes I tell onstage usually come from a kernel of truth about my life that I then blow out or exaggerate. But I’m not the protagonist in my fiction, and my jokes—jokes that I would tell—rarely belong there.

KB: What’s your definition of adulthood? Is there one?

AS: My definition of adulthood I guess is the same definition I have for the city—being able to make one’s own choices, create one’s own life. But I think that definition points to a state of mind rather than an age. I associate my own adulthood with feeling most myself, living a life only I could have created by doing the things I love day in and day out. This is a very personal definition, I guess.  Maybe every definition is personal?


Amy Silverberg is a writer and comedian based in Los Angeles. She’s currently a doctoral candidate in the Creative Writing & Literature Program at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Collagist, Joyland, and Hobart.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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It’s springtime and poetry is blooming

This past weekend was the New Orleans Poetry Festival, which, in addition to having a book fair, was filled with readings, music, a nonstop open mic, and a literary tour (capped off by a streetcar ride uptown to hear more music). It was good to share a long table at the book fair with writers and publishers who’d driven through the night from Denton, Texas, or flown down from Brooklyn, New York, to participate in such a grassroots endeavor. Everyone took pride in their publications, as they should have, because they were all impressive journals and books. It was nice, too, hearing compliments on The Southern Review, both how beautiful the journal looks and how good the work within is. When asked by visitors flipping through the new issue to point out my favorite poems, I found myself rattling off so many titles that I eventually stopped and said, “It’s a strong issue, all around.”

The spring issue opens with two poems from Mark Irwin. The first, “Toward Where We Are,” is a five-line powerhouse about finding love; it astounds me every time I read, “the fall / is so slow, yet precise, like climbing a ladder of straw.”  The poem ends with the questions, “Is / this what Yes feels like? Making a shore where no water was?” The whole poem feels at once ethereal and tenuous, perfectly capturing the poem’s theme in such a brief space. “Voyage,” the second poem, only slightly longer, is about renewing love, and how that sometimes requires becoming each other’s map again on the journey that you decided to take together, touching the “deserts on each other’s body,” and spending time with one another until “the huge hours and spaces between” grow “smaller and smaller.” Those poems are an auspicious beginning to an issue that continues to impress. Patricia Hooper has three lovely poems—“In the Clearing,” “Lens,” and “From a Park Bench”—addressing mortality, loneliness, and one’s place in the world. Charles Rafferty is back in our pages with two short, vivid poems exploring possibilities: “What We Learned from Our Dead Parrakeet” and “Insomnolence.” And Jeff Hardin has a narrative poem, “Concerning the Shape of Time,” dedicated to Tony Earley, which is about finding his own place in the world.

We also have many timely pieces about immigration and the environment. Iheoma Nwachukwu’s story, “Urban Gorilla,” details the life of a Nigerian who flees the terror of Boko Haram by answering an advertisement to play soccer in Malaysia, even though he is in a wheelchair. The visual art this season is by Ramiro Gomez, whose paintings—some of which are based on David Hockney’s work—highlight the often overlooked Latino workers of Los Angeles. You can view Gomez’s images on our website. In Catherine Pierce’s poem, “Planet,” the speaker admits that “most days I forget this planet,” but then says she is “trying to come down soft today,” trying to see the world even as she is “walking through it.” The changing awareness for the world we inhabit and how we affect it is also discussed in Paul Lindholdt’s ecocritical essay, “The Inflatable Museum,” about Western dams, the Bureau of Reclamation, and Norman Rockwell. Steve Myers’s poems, “Grinding Pestle: East Fork Paint Creek, Jefferson Farm” and “Stream of Consciousness,” set in the Midwest, invoke Pound and Eliot, and, among other things, address the displacement of Native Americans, the rise and loss of mining jobs, and the toll that humans have had on the landscape, where the streams gush a “bright orange red” and the banks and creek bed are stained that same “orange red at the end of Ash Alley.”

The issue closes as it opens, with a poem that has powerful images and water. Cathie Sandstrom’s “Mångata,” which is a Swedish term that roughly means “the path that moonlight lays over water,” might be the saddest poem that we’ve run in a long while. It begins, “The ghost child fastens / his mouth to yours,” and then goes on to detail the harrowing drowning of a son alone in the water. Midway through the poem are the expository lines that seem impossible for the speaker to acknowledge: “What the drowned boy wants forever: / his mother, in time.” But the mother is too late, and she is left to question all the lost children, “When / the moon melts, what / will we do with all that gold?”

You can hear Cathie Sandstrom read her poem in this season’s audio gallery. The audio gallery also includes many other poems as well as excerpts from stories and essays featured in the spring issue.

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Upon Leaving: A Farewell from TSR Business Manager Leslie A. Green

There is a Neil Young song that starts with the line, “There is a town in North Ontario . . .” I used to play guitar and sing this song for my friends and replace “North Ontario” with “South Louisiana.” It doesn’t scan properly, but I made it work. I’ve worked at LSU Press and The Southern Review for over thirteen years and it has also become a home for me, “with dream, comfort, memory to spare,” as Neil wrote.

The opportunity to work with contemporary writers who are the leaders in their respective fields—poetry, fiction, literary criticism, and more—has been a blessing in my life. I read the poetry and essays and stories that we publish in the journal during proofs, after our editors have selected and then edited the work. Our authors all seem very brilliant to me. I suspect that is because my colleagues, Jessica and Emily, are rather brilliant themselves, and have pulled together such a superb cross section of contemporary literature.

Jessica’s passion for poetry and English grammar have had a profound impact on me. It is very intimidating to write an e-mail to her. And yet, she is the one who worries when she is composing e-mails to our authors. I remember many years ago she was editing a poem and asked me if I thought she should bother the writer with a particular question about grammar and intention. I said, “Jessica, you are one of the guardians of the language. It is your job, nay, your duty, to ask these questions.” I was only half joking.

In addition to being a brilliant editor, Emily has a vision for our work that includes taking it out into the world and talking about it. In sentences where I tend to use placeholders, like “stuff” and “doodad,” Emily always comes up with the exact word to focus the meaning. If only I were as articulate and practical as she is, perhaps I’d be president of the United States by now or at least governor of Louisiana.

I don’t really have political ambitions, but part of my job here at the journal and at LSU Press has been to be politic. When you have one foot in the literary world, with all its ideas and passions, and one foot in the world of being essentially a civil servant—well, you tend to run into a bit of cognitive dissonance. People ask me what I do, what is my job. I sometimes answer business manager for The Southern Review; sometimes I give my official title, associate financial operations manager for LSU Press. Neither of these titles accurately reflects what I do and have done. Sometimes my job seems like that of the character The Wolf played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. No, of course, I haven’t had to clean up any murder scenes, but I do regularly make things run more smoothly for everyone else. That has been my job.

My sanity would not have remained intact over these years had it not been for my friend and colleague, Barbara Neely Bourgoyne. She is our fantastic designer, but she is also in my line of work. She has the ability to think creatively and nimbly about the many problems encountered in everything that we do. I suppose some of that can be attributed to her training in art and design, but I think it is mainly due to her sharp mind.

I have focused here on the people who are specifically involved in the work of The Southern Review, but we also are part of LSU Press. Jessica, Emily, and Barbara will readily tell you how incredible it is to be a part of the Press and to have the friendship and support of our colleagues. I also work very closely—in collaboration and office proximity—with our financial operations manager, Becky Brown, who has tolerated the messy stacks of paper in my office just as I’ve tolerated the incessant sound of her adding machine carrying across the hall. Our director, MaryKatherine Callaway, works tirelessly to promote the good work of LSU Press and The Southern Review.

Most people who visit our offices find it to be a very quiet place. We sit silently at our desks very focused, reading and writing. But as a work family, we have experienced together Shakespearean-level comedy and tragedy; marriages and divorces, births and deaths, and even a few tempests.

Speaking of endings, I am leaving my job here to pursue a new career outside of publishing. I will miss attending the annual AWP Conference and seeing all of my writerly friends there. I will miss Becky’s adding machine. I will miss the books. I will miss the quiet. I have spent an important portion of my adult life working with these people in this place. To borrow from Neil Young again, “I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.”

Leslie A. Green

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A Writer’s Insight: Amy Rowland

Amy Roland author portrait © Diana Pappas

Amy Rowland’s short story, “Thirteen Ways of Thinking about Time; or, Time, the Two-Handed Thief” appears in the winter 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Rowland read an excerpt of her story in our audio gallery here; read more about her process of crafting the story, as well as her own thoughts about time in the South, below.


Kathleen Boland: What inspired you to write “Thirteen Ways of Thinking about Time; or, Time, the Two-Handed Thief”?

Amy Rowland: It’s difficult to articulate my intention, never mind my inspiration. I grew up in the South, and though I haven’t lived there in more than twenty years, that’s where my desire to write this story originated. My first novel is set in New York, where I moved in the nineties, and where the literary real estate is as spacious and available as the physical real estate is limited and unattainable. I spent my twenties trying to write a Southern novel, but I couldn’t figure out what that meant, and I buckled under the weight of Southern history and Southern literature. Now I’m trying again, with linked stories that blend fiction and nonfiction. And I feel that the fragmentary form of the Thirteen Ways stories (the one that appears in The Southern Review is the first in a series) is the closest match to my splintered thoughts on a splintered place.

 

KB: Could you explain why you organized the story as you did? Is the modular, nonlinear structure a thematic commentary, a parallel to Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” or something else entirely?

AR: For several years, I’ve struggled with what it means to write fiction (not in a grand way, but for me personally), and with finding a form and structure that I can write within. I found that the modular structure freed me as a writer in a way I had never been free before.

To back up, when I was going through my writing crisis, I read writers who have experimented with autobiography, form, and subjectivity: Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, John Keene, Maggie Nelson, Rachel Cusk. I also fell in love with Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.” Alongside this, I revisited Faulkner and Coetzee and Morrison. Then two things happened. After reading Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country, I wrote a story with numbered fragments. Then I saw Marilynne Robinson speak, and she referenced the Wallace Stevens line I have always loved: “The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind.” This sent me back to Stevens and to his blackbird. The river of time was moving, as the blackbird was flying, and the structure of my story fell into place.

Essentially, I find this structure very suitable for moving between the abstract and the concrete. Maybe I should have just said that.

 

KB: The story opens and closes with the narrator eavesdropping at the movies. What’s the importance, if any, of this bookend? How does eavesdropping and movies dovetail with the other themes of the story?

AR: The experience of time in film has always drawn me to movies. There is an eternal present to films. I liked the movie bookend in the story for many reasons: the metaphor of being in the dark; as a way for the narrator to be in the world and also removed—an observer, though not entirely passive. She sits in the theater and watches time go by.

Eavesdropping is a way the narrator listens for stories. She is a solitary woman who has trouble connecting. But, like Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill, she has become good at “listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute while they talked round her.”

There’s also the relationship between eavesdropping and how Southern history is remembered and related. I’ve found a tendency among some Southerners to take a small historical fact and build an entire story around it, much of which is false. But they are very proud of this idea of Southern history, and very nostalgic for it. Doesn’t James Baldwin say something like: It’s not what they know. It’s what they don’t want to know.

 

KB: There are cultural references throughout the story, mostly literary and cinematic; the title’s Stevens reference, Touch of Evil, the Marilynne Robinson talk, Birth of a Nation, and so on. How are these references ways of thinking about time? Or, what’s the significance of these references to the narrator?

AR: I’ve always been drawn to the way time is represented and experienced in film. Movies are both images in time and images of time. The recurrence of these references in the story makes the point that violence and evil always come around again. The narrator of this story grapples with her idea of time and being; for her, movies are almost a relief and a release, as she sits alone in the dark, keeping time.

 

KB: What’s your favorite verb tense and why? 

AR: I’m available to too many tenses. No, seriously, I think about this a lot, especially in terms of writing about the South. In an essay on temporality in The Sound and the Fury, Sartre says Faulkner is like a man sitting in a buggy facing backward. That Faulkner’s immediate surroundings are only flickering shadows that he cannot see until they pass by, becoming fixed and changeless. I’m trying to find a different seat on that buggy. I’m attracted to Coetzee’s use of the historic present. But it’s difficult to pull off, and if you botch it you sound like a pretentious windbag. So I should just admit I can’t answer this question . . . yet.


Amy Rowland is the author of the novel The Transcriptionist. A native of North Carolina, she lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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