A Writer’s Insight: Evan Lavender-Smith

Evan Lavender-Smith’s “The Itch and the Touch” appears in the autumn 2017 issue of The Southern Review, and is reprinted on Longreads. Read Lavender-Smith’s insights about craft, doing justice to real-life characters in narrative nonfiction, and using humor as a tool for provoking an emotional response in readers that goes far beyond laughter.

Garrett Hazelwood: Grandpa John is an incredibly fascinating and charming character in this essay. He is also, of course, a brilliant storyteller. Have you written about him before? And whether this was your first attempt or fiftieth, how do you develop such a dynamic character on the page?

Evan Lavender-Smith: This was my first serious attempt. His depiction in the essay was largely guided by my feelings of love and admiration toward him, as well as the recent renewal of those feelings as I watched my children come to love and admire him themselves. Since he’s always had this larger-than-life presence for me, I have a deep well of memories to draw from; more than anything it was simply a matter of picking out some of the best. As with developing any character in a work of nonfiction, it can be tricky business navigating the character’s representation of a real-life human alongside the coloring of that real-world human’s personality that inevitably happens in the context of a deliberately structured piece of writing. But in this case it was probably a bit easier than usual: Grandpa John was always such a character in real life, so it never felt like a huge stretch to make that happen on the page.

GH: So much of your writing is deeply funny, even as it deals with weighty topics. In “The Itch and the Touch,” there is a constant push and pull between the playful and the poignant. Can you talk a bit about the different ways you use humor as a tool in your work?  

ELS: The humorous potential of a voice or form is often what guides me initially and keeps me interested. Sometimes things don’t progress any farther than that—it’s simply a playful piece of writing. But in other cases, like “The Itch and the Touch,” the humor eventually gives way to the possibility of something else, something more deeply felt. It may be that I use humor as something like a lure to keep the reader engaged for the length of time required for a deeper or more dynamic emotional response to become possible. I think that’s when I’m happiest about my writing, when I’ve figured out a way to get some good friction going between humor and pathos.

GH: Like so much of your writing, this essay is consistently surprising in its structure. What’s your approach to developing form? Do you make a conscious effort to create work that looks different on the page than what you’ve done before, or does the structure tend to arise organically from your subject matter?

ELS: Sometimes things magically begin with an ideal form, but more often than not I find myself writing toward the discovery of an appropriate form, trying to pay close attention to what the writing wants for itself (as opposed to what I might want for the writing). My process usually includes a series of missteps—trying to fit square pegs into round holes over and over again—until I start to see a pattern in the nature of the mistakes I’m making, and at last I’m able to say to myself, “You’re making the same mistake over and over again. Maybe it’s time to try something different?” In writing and life alike, my good decisions tend to come about through a process of exhausting my capacity for making bad ones. But I always try to keep my faith in a process of obsessively tinkering, knowing that if I don’t give up, the path forward will eventually reveal itself.

GH: In what is definitely one of the most heartwarming scenes of the essay, you describe bribing and threatening your children to give up Grandpa John’s war stories, motivated (at least in part) by the desire to somehow extend his life by sharing those narratives. It strikes me that this scene gets at an awkward situation many writers of nonfiction are forced to navigate. On the one hand, there is the feeling of perhaps stealing a story that isn’t yours. On the other, there’s the desire to celebrate the people in your life by sharing their stories with a wider audience. How do you negotiate that tension?

ELS: For me, the impulse to use other people’s stories in my writing needs to issue from a place of genuine compassion, otherwise it risks coming off as unfairly appropriative. And it can’t be a facile compassion—it has to be a compassion that’s undergone some reflection and interrogation, because often what one person considers compassion another will consider trespass. I commit what might be considered small acts of trespass on my kids’ lives all the time, for example, by regularly describing in my writing their struggles, their dreams, their fears, but I’m hopeful that it’s finally OK if only because I’m thinking about it so much, because I’m worrying about it so much. My anxiety about using real people in my writing ends up influencing their depiction, I think, or there exists about instances of potential trespass a sense of self-consciousness or self-doubt (or, in the case of “The Itch and the Touch,” of ironic self-confidence).

GH: You have a remarkable ability to weave tangents and recollections seamlessly into the main narrative that frames this story, maintaining the reader’s sense of always moving forward, even as we fracture off into other memories. In putting together an essay like this, how do you knit together all the pieces? Can you tell us a bit about your process?

ELS: With “The Itch and the Touch” it was initially a matter of deciding on the relatively limited scope of the present action—the drive with the kids over to Grandpa John’s place at Good Sam’s, etc.—and working on that part of the essay before finally growing bored with it and feeling I needed to loosen up the form if I was going to maintain the interest necessary to finish. So that’s when I started writing the stories that Grandpa John tells, and later the sequences that take place both in the recent past, like the episode about smuggling our puppy into Good Sam’s, and in the more distant past, like the description of having lived with my grandparents back in high school. I think that the trick to the knitting process you mention was, in this case, an attempt to enact through form a quality that would be somehow analogous to the narrator’s search for a way to wrap his head around the fact that Grandpa John is dying. The essay is a series of false starts, in a way, which is how I generally tend to approach the problem of death: I’ve made some valiant attempts but still haven’t figured out the right way to begin thinking extensively about the problem.

GH: What are you working on now? Any upcoming publications we should keep an eye out for?

ELS: I’m working on one of the last pieces in the essay collection that contains “The Itch and the Touch,” a long essay documenting my unlikely attendance at the Burning Man arts festival in Nevada last year. From the same collection, another essay, “Post-Its”—about trying and failing to encourage in my son an enthusiasm for reading literature—is coming out soon in New England Review. I also have some of the final stories from my unpublished story collection, The Family in Question, forthcoming in a couple of places: “Real Talk (III)”—a series of dialogues between a father and son talking about their faltering allegiance to vegetarianism—in Hotel Amerika; and “Two Unknowns”—a quick and dirty summary of the history of the evolution of the universe, life on Earth, and a writer’s drafting process—in the first issue of a new UK journal called Egress.

Evan Lavender-Smith is the author of From Old Notebooks. His writing has recently been published by BOMB, The White Review, and Hobart. He is the founding editor of Noemi Press and an assistant professor in the MFA program at Virginia Tech.

Garrett Hazelwood is the editorial assistant at The Southern Review. He was the 2017 recipient of the Kent Gramm MFA Award for Literary Nonfiction and his work was recently anthologized in Eclectica Magazine’s twentieth anniversary anthology of speculative fiction. He’s currently writing a novel and at work on a book-length essay about his travels.

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Autumn: Time for Festivals, Halloween, and the New Issue of The Southern Review

It’s the end of October and we finally have a bit of cool weather here that reflects the calendar. Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays, maybe because I grew up in a Catholic city where schools were closed the day after for All Saints’ Day, which also happens to be my birthday. My sister and I would dress up in the store-bought costumes that everyone wore in the ’70s—the ones that were made out of cheap paper and had those terrible, suffocating plastic masks with the flimsiest of elastic headbands. About four blocks into trick-or-treating, either the paper would tear or the headband would pop, and my mother would have to try repairing our outfits on the fly, never with much success.

My daughter loves Halloween, too, and chooses her costume with great thought. Every year her father, a gifted artist, builds her costume out of cardboard, fabric, twigs, bread wrappers, and so forth; and she’s grown used to compliments of “Best costume we’ve seen tonight!” and “How did you make that?” This year she’s going as a Liturgusa krattorum, a type of praying mantis named for the Kratt brothers of PBS Kids fame. I will note here that she hates bugs and is terrified of them (which is tough considering the prevalence of huge cockroaches in South Louisiana), but she has decided that this may help her overcome her fear of them. The three of us always dress as a themed unit, and she has suggested I go as a tall tree, which is where Liturgusa krattorum live. It’s a sweet sentiment: being her home. I will also note here that I am five-one, so this may take some work.

I like that where I live celebrates as much as possible, year-round, and especially on Halloween. This weekend is chock-full of annual events, such as Voodoo Festival in New Orleans, Blackpot Festival and Cookoff in Lafayette, and, of course, the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge http://www.louisianabookfestival.org, where I’ll be, along with Emily Nemens, Jenny Keegan, and Garrett Hazelwood from The Southern Review. We’ll have a booth in Exhibition Tent A, promoting the autumn issue of the journal as well as selling subscriptions and an assortment of back issues. When not staffing the table, I’m planning to attend readings and panels, too. Recent The Southern Review contributors Alison Pelegrin, Peter Cooley, Nicole Cooley, Olivia Clare, Beth Ann Fennelly, Michael Knight, and M. O. Walsh will all be there, many promoting new books that include pieces first featured in the journal.

The autumn issue feels perfect for the season, starting with its cover and interior images, which are dense, intriguing paper-collage paintings by New York–based artist Jesse McCloskey. You can view McCloskey’s work that appears in the journal here. His darkly lit still lifes and studio portraits contain a range of eerie things, including a skeleton, a glowing candelabra, a phoenix, and a lone boot, that seem just right for this time of year.

As always, there’s plenty of strong prose in our pages, with fiction from Ron Rash, Saral Waldorf, Michael Griffith, Brooke Bullman, and James Whorton Jr. Stories from Michael Hawley and Farah Ali, who are new to our pages, are also featured on SoundCloud this season, and Evan Lavender-Smith’s long essay presents a portrait of his multigenerational family, focusing on his dying grandfather, a WWII veteran with a sense of humor, in “The Itch and the Touch.”

Biting humor is found in the issue opener, Lola Haskins’s poem “Glowworm’s Dinner,” which is all about love and sets a tone with “A few more kisses liquefy / the flesh whose sweet / juice he sucks.” It’s about the end of love, or what should be the end of love: the coming to a close in one cycle before another begins. Also writing about cycles, albeit not love, is Bonnie Jo Campbell, who has an homage to the cycle of nature and the habits of neighbors in her poem, “The Same Old Story, with Leaf Blower.” While the neighbor futilely chases a leaf with a blower, a hungry dog that is tied to a tree barks. The leaf will eventually decay on its own, so why the bother? And, finally, because it’s bow-hunting season in South Louisiana, Chard deNiord’s “Stag’s Reprieve” seems the right poem to close the issue. In it, the hunter is persuaded not to shoot the stag now but to go home and love, to return in December when the stag will then be able to feed the fruits of the hunter’s love. It’s a good trick on the stag’s part, to help himself live another day, and shows a different way of feeding (on) love.

I’m going to close this blog with a bit of sad news. Ron De Maris, one of our longtime and frequent contributors, died last week. His work first ran in the journal well before I came to work here, and he had poems featured every year once I began my tenure as poetry editor. He was always kind and easy to work with, which is no small thing. I’m certain he’ll be missed by many editors and readers.

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A Writer’s Insight: The Editorial Assistant Exit/Intro Interview

In a twist on the typical A Writer’s Insight feature, The Southern Review’s last editorial assistant, Kathleen Boland, interviews incoming assistant Garrett Hazelwood. Read about what it means to be an editorial assistant, Garrett’s reading preferences, Kathleen’s move to Oregon, the literary journals they mutually admire, and more. 

Kathleen Boland: What are you most excited about in terms of working for The Southern Review?

Garrett Hazelwood: There is so much to be excited about! I’ve been impressed by the quality of the submissions, humbled to see just how much care Emily and Jessica put into every word we publish, and proud to be part of a journal that is engaging on this level with such a wide national and international readership. But I think I have to say I’m most excited to be in communication with so many of the unbelievably talented authors we publish and to be involved with their work as it moves along the path to publication. As someone who is taking his first steps into the world of publishing, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to learn from the work of such brilliant writers and from the mentorship of two astoundingly generous, meticulous, and skillful editors.

KB: You’ve traveled all over the world, most recently working on a fishing boat in Alaska. How do you think these experiences impact you as a reader and as an editor?

GH: One of the reasons I’ve found travel so valuable and rewarding is that it often forces me into situations where my biases get challenged, where I’m confronted with the unfamiliar in ways that require me to break out of my typical habits of thought. So my hope is that traveling has made me more open to new experiences, slower to make judgments against that which I perceive as strange, and more willing to be uncomfortable­—because it seems I always learn the most when I feel the most out of my depth. Of course, much of the best writing requires something similar from its readers: a willingness to be uncomfortable sometimes, an openness to new ways of seeing, and a kind of thirst for the unfamiliar. I think it’s inevitable that we become biased toward narratives that are similar to the ones we’ve enjoyed already, but it’s also incredibly important for us as literary gatekeepers to seek out and celebrate writing that manages to break new ground.

KB: When reading the slush, what’s one of the things you look for? At what point do you know you have to recommend the piece to the coeditors?

GH: In these past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time reading back issues and getting a feel for the aesthetic Emily and Jessica have cultivated in the journal. So as I’m reading, I’m first and foremost looking for stories that resonate with the sensibility and artistic values that drive The Southern Review, and I’m daily comparing notes with Emily to better understand the kinds of writing we want to champion. Fortunately, I’m finding that the aesthetics here are very much in rhythm with my own, particularly insofar as I’m drawn to character-driven stories with people acting in morally ambiguous ways. The work that lingers with me the longest often involves characters experiencing conflicting motivations and emotions or manages to juxtapose sadness and humor in a way that rings true to life.

I’m also a sucker for a strong ending. Even when the writing has some flaws, if the last line sends a chill down my spine, I’m sold. I’ve tried to study the stories that give me that feeling, and it seems like momentum might be the most important factor in producing the kind of ending that grabs me by the collar and shakes me. Especially when a story accelerates before a hard stop. Or accelerates off a cliff that leaves you grasping for another sentence. But really, just so long as the author has complete control of the momentum leading up to that final line.

I feel like this list could go on and on, but I should also say that when an author can write gorgeous sentences, I’m willing to forgive a lot. If I’m bowled over by the sentence-level writing, it becomes very easy to fall in love with a story.

KB: What do you think is the hardest part of being an editorial assistant? The easiest?

GH: So far the hardest part—or I guess I should say the most tedious­­—has been editing the contributor bios. They’re a part of the journal I’d hardly given any thought to, but we go through them with a fine-tooth comb, verifying the exact name of every award, the publication date of every book, the precise spelling of every name, and fact-checking all the honorifics. It’s been eye-opening, though, in terms of understanding how much attention and care go into each issue, and it has also been a great way to expand my knowledge of all the grants, fellowships, and residencies I ought to be applying for.

As for the easiest part, I definitely have the most fun reading and evaluating submissions. Most days, I sit at my desk feeling like a kid who has been given keys to the candy shop. It’s my job to read stories all day? Clearly, I must be doing something right!

KB: Aside from The Southern Review, what would be your dream journal to edit? Why?

GH: I’m glad you asked! This is actually something that has been on my mind a lot lately as the specter of graduation looms on the horizon and I plot my next move. So I’m going to name four, actually: Granta, Gulf Coast, Virginia Quarterly Review, and ZYZZYVA, all of which I admire for different reasons. I see Granta as a unique hub for an international literary community, and can’t really think of another journal that spans such a wide geography or engages in a dialogue that encompasses so much in terms of global culture and politics. VQR is doing something similar, and I’m constantly impressed with the quality of the essays they publish and the level at which they engage with contemporary issues. It’s rare to find journals that publish great fiction, have a gorgeous aesthetic, and are also able to participate in a broader political conversation. Speaking of aesthetics, though, Gulf Coast might be the most beautiful journal out there. Unfortunately for me, they’re a grad journal, and I’m not planning to get another MFA or start a PhD anytime soon, so this particular dream job is a bit unrealistic. But I’m consistently bowled over by their design, by the gorgeous weirdness of the work they publish, and by the emotional resonance of the writing I’ve encountered in their pages. As for ZYZZYVA, at the end of the day my heart is always in California, and their emphasis on publishing from a San Francisco perspective really hits home for me. It’s certainly a dream of mine to move back and join the editorial team there.

But if I can turn this one back around on you, what publications are at top of your dream-job list? Where are you now, and what professional goals do you have your sights set on?

KB: Your list is pretty similar to mine! Along with those publications, I’d include The Sun, A Public Space, The Offing, and Oxford American. All do incredible things with design, awareness, and community outreach. I’d echo your statement about political engagement, and agree that I admire journals that make institutional and editorial commitments to these larger conversations. Plus, I’m always a sucker for excellent aesthetics—I blame Emily and Jessica’s influence, they have such great taste and have always been committed to championing local, emerging artists. Regionally, I’m so excited and impressed by the relaunches of The Arkansas International and The Sewanee Review, and I continually reference Hobart, Recommended Reading, Joyland, and Paper Darts for forward-looking writing online.

 I recently moved to Portland, Oregon, which, compared to Baton Rouge, is a real culture shock of composting, veganism, and sub-seventy-degree weather. Though I miss Louisiana all the time, so far I love life in the Northwest (no cockroaches!). I’m about to start a part-time marketing position with Counterpoint Press and Catapult Books. They publish amazing books and I’m so thrilled to be involved. Long term, I hope to continue to discover and promote writers I admire, though I’m still uncertain what form that will take professionally.

Moving on, name five stories you’ve read in the past year that have had the most impact on you as a reader and/or as a writer.

GH:     “Going North” by Andrew Mitchell (Gulf Coast)

“L. Debard and Aliette” by Lauren Groff (The Atlantic)

“How Soon is Now?” by Alicia D. Ortega (The Arkansas International)

“The Itch and the Touch” by Evan Lavender-Smith (The Southern Review)

“Brownies” by ZZ Packer (Drinking Coffee Elsewhere)

KB: And finally, what are you working on right now?

GH: For my thesis, I’m at work on a novel about a performance artist who gets maimed by his audience during one of his shows, and then becomes a cult leader while in a vegetative state. I’m hoping it will be funny, but the jury is still out on that one. And then, because one book apparently isn’t life-consuming enough, I’m also writing a book-length essay about the usefulness of pain. The nonfiction project is still coming together, but I’m imagining it will eventually be roughly one part travel writing, one part nature writing, and one part memoir.

What about you? Have you been shopping around your novel? Is there a new one in the works?

KB: I can’t wait to read both of those books! They sound equally fascinating, and hats off to you for having both fiction and nonfiction projects in progress. I’m still working on my novel about Utah, hedge funds, and the Southwestern water crisis. When I graduated this May, I thought I was nearly done, but then I went to the Tin House Summer Workshop and worked with Mat Johnson and realized, thankfully, how much I still needed to do. (If you want a recommendation, apply to this conference! It was an amazing, formative experience. Also, Mat is a comedic literary genius.) I’m hoping to tie up the manuscript’s loose ends by the beginning of next year, but we’ll see. Aside from submitting stories, I’m developing an idea for my next book. It involves college athletics recruitment, Louisiana, and a pair of sisters; so far it’s just character sketches, but it’s enough that I’m eager to finish my first manuscript so I can move on to this one.

Garrett Hazelwood is the editorial assistant at The Southern Review. He was the 2017 recipient of the Kent Gramm MFA Award for Literary Nonfiction and his work was recently anthologized in Eclectica Magazine’s twentieth anniversary anthology of speculative fiction. He’s currently writing a novel and at work on a book-length essay about his travels.

Kathleen Boland is a recent graduate of LSU’s MFA program, where she served as the 2016­–2017 editorial assistant of The Southern Review and received the 2017 Robert Penn Warren Thesis Award. Her work has appeared in Paper Darts, Vol.1 Brooklyn, and Tin House Online.

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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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