“The Clash” Broadway, NYC, 1981 Photograph by Amy Arbus
I began the Conversation Series because I wanted to learn more about creative folks, their work, and why they’ve chosen to dedicate time to making art. Here are some of my favorite answers from 2013:
Your work is intense, empathetic and full of compassion. These traits are beautifully integrated in the sharp and economic use of details in your sentences. Let’s switch gears now and talk about your short story Distance, which was published in Thrice Fiction No. 7. Distance, is told from the point of view of a Vietnam vet working as a security guard in a large museum (presumably modeled after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City). How did this story come about?
Gessy, I also suspect I’ve lived more than one lifetime. As for my story Distance, it does take place in a large museum like the Met in NYC. I’m a frequent museum-goer. One day, in a large museum, I noticed one guard in particular. He was around late-middle age, dark, and appeared erratic. He must have been having some sort of emotional crisis or nervous breakdown because he started to walk the perimeter of a large room in Modern Art, with his hand trailing the walls. He just kept doing this. I stood there watching him. The idea that he might turn violent crossed my mind. Though my being from NY, well it wasn’t something that terrifying to contemplate. At the height of lunch hour one day, on Madison Avenue at Tourneau Corner, everyone on the street was commanded through bullhorns to ‘hit the ground.’ Then came a shoot-out between the cops and bad guys. Seriously. So, anyway, the museum guard kept doing his wall thing, and if I were alone there, I probably would’ve watched much longer but my husband wanted to move along. That guard stayed in my mind. Somehow I felt he would come to life in a story and one day he did. I had to justify him, flesh him out. I made him into a Vietnam Vet with “issues” which justified a lot of his actions in the story. At least I think it justified them. I got very engrossed in him which is how I work my characters. I can picture them, what they’re doing and how they move along quite clearly. This, to me, is the really fun part of writing. You become the director, actor, producer, set designer, costume and lighting designer– you get to do it all.
Let’s talk about Amores Gitano (gypsy loves), your first chapbook published earlier this year by Červená Barva Press. In these twenty poems we encounter the voice of a male protagonist in lust with a woman, but to a greater extent, these poems explore the paradox of desire. By this I mean, we witness a man acting on his desire for escape then realizing he does not want to commit to the escape. What inspired you to write this series of poems?
I was inspired by that push and pull of desiring. Whether the object of that desire is a woman or the desire to do some thing can be up to the reader. The real tug of war is about art and the madness behind it. How that relationship is like a torrid love affair between the artist and the Muse. Our relationships to painting, writing, sculpting or photography is like being in a relationship. These acts require time, passion and even our lust. There are little clues to that relationship throughout the chapbook. I first put these poems together for an erotica themed poetry reading. They were a hit and so I kept working on them and here we are.
Latest News: Roberto Carlos Garcia’s published works include the chapbook, Amores Gitano (gypsy loves), Červená Barva Press (2013), his poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, 5 AM Magazine, HTMLGiant, Connotation Press- An Online Artifact, Poets/Artists, and others.
You mentioned before the idea of “confined space.” In your story, Going to Visit Mom’s Sister, Two States Over, featured in Cease, Cows Magazine (May 2013), we encounter a family stuck together on a long car ride. We see the parents up front, the brothers in the middle, and the sisters in the back. The women on this trip are in revolt. Can you tell us more about the “confined space” in this story?
I just read that story tonight at a local bookstore reading, here in Santa Fe. Very cool that you brought this piece up.
Yes, the confined space of a car and a large family traveling across country. It definitely lends itself to some kind of hellish scenario, doesn’t it? In Going to Visit Mom’s Sister, Two States Over, there are three different activities going on. In the front, the parents are arguing over the reason for the trip. Velma, the mom’s sister, is in need of an abortion. The father believes she got what she deserved and an abortion is against his religion. He questions his wife’s beliefs: “How can you call yourself a goddamn Christian…” as she does his, making fun of his friends who consider themselves pious and yet give her the “’I’d like to bend you over the pew’ smirk…”
The three sons are playing Yahtzee, oblivious to the tension in front except when their dad turns to make sure that he has an audience to back him when he needs it.
The two daughters are central to the story. The oldest sister, the renegade “has stolen clothes, albums, jewelry, candy, liquor, cigarettes and boyfriends.” She gives her thirteen–year-old sister a cigarette, lights them up when dad does. She is aware of everything that is going on in the car and is ready to take them all on. She is reenacting the subterfuge of the family dynamic, by playing it out in ways that will force the parents to deal with something that they are unable to deal with in their relationship.
This was the ideal location for this story. Packed in a station wagon, unable to escape. And still, the older sister pushes it to the limit by lighting up a joint at the end.
How important is sound in your prose?
Critical. Words convey meaning, and the sound of the words convey something about the writing that’s deeper than meaning, more like the chords of a particular melody. Voice and sound are intertwined for me, and my subliminal steers the writing towards the confluence of the two streams. I’m a huge fan of writing that “speaks” to me through the sound of the words. I’ve always loved the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas, and the way James Joyce puts music in his writing, too. I’m a long way from any of these writers, but the writing I attempt to do has to sound right to the ear when I read it aloud, or else it’s not working for me. I wish I was more aware of this need, and many times I don’t actually focus on making the writing sound the way I want it, and instead let it flow the way it comes out.
Another story of yours that left an impression on me is When Pretty People Disappoint which was published by JMWW. For most of the story, we encounter an “I” that may be male. We find out that the narrator’s father likes poker and has invited the narrator to join him in a game. The story touches on many intriguing facets about men and women, and what’s expected from the traditional gender roles. The story debunks expectations in a charming yet illuminating way at the end. I noticed the endings to most of your stories are “anti” post-modern, what I mean by that is rather than end your stories in uncertainty, you leave us with a defiant truth. Most writers struggle with endings, but yours feel organic. Are you hoping for the defiant truth to appear at the end or do you struggle to get there?
I love that phrasing: defiant truth. Yes, I do hope my characters will glimpse truth, or change in a way that allows the reader to find his/her own truth, but it takes work to get there. My initial intention is pure examination. When I sat down to write When Pretty People Disappoint, for instance, I had only the Dory character in mind. I wanted to make her comically hypocritical and give her extreme views. That was the extent of my catalyst. I wanted to figure her out. As I wrote the first draft, however, the idea that would drive the piece arrived. I knew that a shift of power would have to occur.
This is often how it happens with my writing. As I write, my vague intentions begin to solidify. My endings rarely stay the same as in the first draft, but the same idea or character shift feeds revision. According to my records, for instance, the first draft of this story was titled “Bluffing.” The symbolism of poker/strategy was very heavy-handed, especially at the end, but all the same ideas were there. The general idea of the resolution usually comes in first draft, but it’s buried. My greatest struggle is to not overstate or force-feed the ending, so this is what I focus on in revisions. Endings are delicate.
Latest News: Jen Knox’s story, Lying to Old Men was named a Fulton Prize finalist at The Adirondack Review in Winter 2013.
Pure Slush is, among other things, a collaborative forum where writers from different parts of the world get to riff off each other’s work. I imagine there’s a whole choreography taking place behind each collaborative project Pure Slush publishes. Can you give us examples of a good day and a bad day as an editor slash publisher?
Ha! (again). Choreographer / social director / acting coach / disciplinarian / den mother is what it feels like at times, definitely. And collaborator, yes, that’s all the time.
So … a good day is when people do what I want (!) … or get the joke … or say “yes” … or have a brilliant idea … or understand where I am coming from … or convince me my idea has less merit than their own idea.
A bad day is when a writer vents his / her spleen on Facebook re a decision I have made and spews a lot of falsehoods. (Yet two days later erases it all because he / she sounds completely unhinged in the posts and realises this and well, the world is a small place.)
A good day is when I get a story and it’s done, complete, no edits or other ideas needed: it’s all there on the page. A big kiss to you!
A bad day is when a writer says, hey, I have a novel I’m shopping around but I need some online publishing cred and I heard from _______ you work wonders with stories so here’s my story … and the submitted story is bum.
A good day is when writers involved in Pure Slush projects respond to emails and private Facebook messages. A bad day is when they don’t.
A good day is when a writer realises the reason I’ve sent their story back again is because I value their talent and want it to be just right … otherwise, I’d stop working with them.
A bad day is when a writer doesn’t get what I’m talking about when I respond, ‘use simpler, stronger, more accurate verbs’, and ‘don’t tell the reader what to think, let the reader decide for him or herself’, and ‘your actions are confusing, they’re not in chronological order’, and ‘using words like (insert trendy, fashionable, stupid words here) only makes you look desperate to be seen by the reader as trendy and fashionable and actually, only makes you as a writer look stupid which is precisely what you’re desperately seeking to avoid’, and ‘YES, less really IS more’, and ‘your story actually starts (or ends) halfway through your text’, or ‘physicalise this as an action: you write she hates him, so show us how she hates him by giving her an action that physically shows this – she slaps his face or kicks his shin or spits in his food or crosses his name out of her address book and then rips the page out and feeds it to her dog’, and ‘give him the dialogue! It’s his best line, the crux of your whole story and you’ve thrown it away by using reported / indirect speech’.
Perhaps the best day is when a proof copy arrives and the cover is beautiful and the font works well and the story inside leaps off the page from the opening sentence and there are no typos or spacing difficulties and it can hold its own against previous PS publications. Those moments, Gessy, are gorgeous.
Latest News: Pure Slush launched 2014 – A Year in Stories!
I read somewhere something about Norman Mailer telling John Updike he should get back in the whorehouse and stop worrying about his prose style. I interpret this as stop being pretentious and write from the gut, but where I disagree with Mailer is his assumption that poetic prose is a step away from the whorehouse, from the gut. If anything, it’s the opposite. Sometimes Jimmy is a scumbag, but we also see this other almost poetic Jimmy emerge in the novel. I’m thinking of the scenes with his “beautiful Sarah.” There’s a delicate balance achieved in your writing. There’s Jimmy’s rage and lust, but there’s also tenderness. Jimmy glorifies his wife then turns away from her. It’s a dance he performs throughout the book. How difficult or easy was it for you to write about sex and intimacy?
There’s a lot of sex/obscenity in Tollbooth. There’s a lot of tenderness in the book too. It’s a strange balance. Life is that.
I try to be honest when I write about anything. The more honest I am with what I’m writing, I find I struggle less. So, writing about sex and intimacy, wasn’t necessarily any harder than writing about other things I’ve experienced first hand. Not to say it comes easy or anything.
But, I work heavy construction, and the guys I’m around every day, most of what they seem to wanna talk about is ‘real off color’ to say the least. There’s no censor switch in the trailer where we all sit. So, maybe all the obscene stuff in Tollbooth is second nature at this point for me. It’s a daily discussion. These guys will draw a cock on anything.
Maybe that’s what Mailer is talking about when he says that poetic prose is a step away from the gut maybe he’s saying, ‘write stuff that the guys in Bud Smith’s work trailer would relate to. Maybe Mailer wanted a cock drawn on everything.
I agree with what you say though, to write from the gut, you don’t have to write any certain way. All you have to do, is have 100% conviction in it. Even if its in jest.
See, I live in NYC, and a lot of my friends there are artsy people with academic backgrounds, who hold art to almost a holy standard, so, I kinda understand that other side of the coin too. The love of poetic prose stuff. The flowery wallpaper. But are they more deserving of attention? Should writing be directed to them instead?
My friends would be pretty offended if I took them to work with me. It’s brutal there, I love it.
Maybe those NYC peeps are more in line with Updike. Maybe they’d like to hear a little more about the curtain fluttering ever so slightly in the moonlight. My work buddies don’t care about that, they care about the girl on the bed. But that’s not to say they are simple, or ignorant or any less desiring of art.
What they might lack is a little pretension, that might be the thing. The weird thing that happens with art, is that it can be filthy or it can be squeaky clean and either way it can be the most pretentious thing. It can lack honesty.
I don’t think that writing from the gut has anything to do with language or topic. My hope is that if I write words on the page that are normal for me to speak out loud, it’ll all find its way. My hope is that if I write about life, just straight up- life, the story will find its way to whoever is receptive enough to wanna give the story a shot.
I don’t try to please the ghost of Norman Mailer or John Updike. I know I never could. How could I possibly?
Latest News: Bud Smith’s novel, Tollbooth (Piscataway Press: 2013) is available for purchase at Amazon.
Let’s talk about music. When I think of a microtone, I think of jazz. There’s the lower pitched tone in a good jazz number that makes me want to crawl into a ball like a sleepy cat. I experienced that feeling with some of the pieces in your chapbook, Microtones, but I also experienced the expressive tones. For example, the opening piece, “The Outlaw,” is low and simmering, while the piece that follows it, “Stand Here,” has a fast tempo, bebop quality to it. I gather you worked on these pieces individually, over an extended period, so at what point in the process of collecting these pieces did you become aware of tone and rhythm?
Tone and rhythm are inherent in every single word, and when you place words together, construct, string them together to make a sentence. Of course, in more traditional poetry we have meter, line, (breaks), and stanzas. But from the world of music we have such a vast lyrical pool to draw from: forte, solo, riff, scherzo, blare, and pianissimo. And tempo is a wonderful word (in literature we might call it pacing?) Music has been a force in my life since I was very small. My parents were both lovers of music, revered all forms of it. This is infused in every part of me. My sister and I recently discussed Dad’s incredibly vast jazz vinyl collection, and my mother mastered several instruments- cello, piano and voice (among others). Mom’s college degree was in music! So, this is probably genetic, organic, and I still experiment with this in every single piece I write. Some of the techniques are refined with editing and re-writes, reading the pieces aloud, and looking for your overall desired effect. Sometimes I am willing to lose a concrete sense of “meaning” for a direct experiential translation of a piece. Perhaps two examples in Microtones might be “Upswing of Falling” or “Prayer, Protest, Peace?” A matter of trust, or being with the sounds of a poem (tone and rhythm), versus the meaning, this sense of abstraction, matters equally to me. Like the strange sense of hearing Laurie Anderson or Kraftwerk for the first time. An awakening of sensory depth.
Latest News: Robert Vaughan’s second book, Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits was published by Deadly Chaps Press this winter.
I’ve run into some trouble with flash fiction. I’ve heard complaints that the flash form isn’t elastic and therefore can’t carry the weight of literary merit like the traditional, longer forms. Of course, this is hogwash. Flash fiction readers are sophisticated and can figure out the complexities of character development without extraneous prose. There’s also a rich history of notable writers who have experimented with “condensed” forms of fiction. Writers like Hemingway, Lydia Davis, Faulkner, and William Goyen to name of few. Have you encountered any negative criticism for your shorter works (besides rejections from publishers)? If so, what do you take away from the naysayers? What do you hope to accomplish with your work?
I couldn’t agree more. It’s the whole “iceberg theory” thing. Personally, when I read, I want something that will keep me thinking after the story has ended, a puzzle. I want to be a little confused. I want to work toward understanding. Of course there are times when I just want a good story in the more traditional sense, but to challenge the merits of prose because it isn’t “long” is ridiculous. I haven’t received much of that kind of criticism, but it’s a common complaint, as you know. When I hear it, it’s often coupled with the idea that if an author works in flash, it’s because they’re incapable of working in longer forms. That may be the case with some writers, but to use the argument to eschew an entire form, especially one with a very rich history, practiced by some of the “greats”, it’s maddening. I did have one reader who, when he read my flash, always thought the pieces seemed to be “part of something bigger”, meaning that he felt something was missing. I respect this individual’s opinion quite a bit, and I love any constructive feedback, but this particular criticism was way off the mark. Flash by nature will be cryptic. The best review I ever received was by a publisher who said that he was thinking about my flash stories weeks after reading them. That’s what I want. And that is the power inherent in the form.
And may I add that I love that you used the word “hogwash”. Whenever I read that word, the voice in my head becomes the gravelly baritone of my high school biology teacher; it’s the term he used to describe the Theory of Evolution.
Thank you so much to all these talented writers and poets for taking the time to answer my somewhat awkward but sincere questions. Here’s to more Conversations in 2014!