Books


I was lucky enough to meet poet Grant Clauser at the Push to Publish event this past October. I grabbed his book, The Trouble With Rivers, and knew I had to interview him.

Below is the interview:

WITTLE: What books are you reading right now?

CLAUSER: The most recent poetry books would be Richard Carr’s Lucifer (sort of a novel in poetry form—he tells the story of a drug-addled guy who’s stuck with Lucifer hanging on his shoulder all the time); Mary Biddinger’s O Holy Insurgency (I just started this one last night); Brian Russell’s The Year of What Now (awesome—you must get this book); and James Galvin’s Resurrection Update (this is a collected poems from 1998 I think. He’s a very outdoorsy writer, which is something l like a lot).

WITTLE: Who has influenced your current writing style the most and how?

CLAUSER: Influencing my writing and influencing my writing style are two different things, I think. I hope I have my own writing style, but wouldn’t be insulted in anyone compared my poems to my favorite writers like Richard Hugo, Jack Gilbert and Harry Humes (a fellow Pennsylvanian). There are scads of poets I study to figure out how they do the things they do (or did): Jane Kenyon, Robert Lowell, Stanley Plumly, Jane Hirshfield… this could be a very long list.

Aside from the who, there’s the what. I’m deeply suspicious of poets who intentionally hide behind obscurity. A poem is a bridge between the reader and the writer, and if that bridge is half hidden in mist, then the reader is going to slip through the broken slats and die on the way to the other side. I believe the relationship between writer and reader, like any important relationship, should be based on trust, and if the poem isn’t trustworthy—if its intentions are veiled and secretive—then I tend to think the writer is interested more in playing tricks than communicating.

WITTLE: What appeals to you the most about writing in the genre of poetry?

CLAUSER: I’m not particularly good at story-telling, at least not in the traditional way. I like novels and short fiction, but know nothing about creating them. Plus, I have a very short attention span. That’s why most of my poems are short. I rarely go over one page. Thirty lines is a long poem for me. I also like the careful attention to words—how in a shorter poem there can be no room for waste. I’m attracted to repeated sounds, rhythms and odd rhymes. It all started in middle school when I memorized Poe’s The Raven, and I’ve been hooked since.

WITTLE: In your book, Trouble With Rivers, the poem, “Wishes for My Daughters” the narrator discusses the grief he feels for the fact his daughters will lose the magic of myths. How did this idea of lost myths influence your current book, Necessary Myths?

CLAUSER: I’m glad you made that connection between the two books. Most of the first section of the new book, and some of the poems from second section, are connected to the idea of myths in life, both personal and societal. In the new book I share a lot of stories (mostly other people’s stories, though sometimes I put them in the first person for effect). I play with the idea of how we convince ourselves of our own stories or myths in order to cope. Most of the trouble with life is just about coping with it anyway. A person’s life is the myth they tell themselves. Sometimes those myths are close to the truth, but often they’re not; either way they’re necessary, for a sense of identity or to just keep moving forward.

WITTLE: Why are myths important for people to hold onto?

CLAUSER: Myths give people structure, a sense of rightness in their world. They can give people a reason to persevere through hard times/difficult decisions (as in the poems “Putting the Dog to Sleep” and “The Man Who Works at the Swiss Hand Grenade Factory”) or to justify horrible acts (as in “Necessary Myths,” “ Remains of Two Infants” and “The Rapturist”).

People create their own personal myths or narratives about their lives, their families, etc. and then buy into large myths, such as organized religions, because those stories help them face things they don’t understand, and most of life is pretty much hard to understand.

WITTLE: Nature is a strong theme in your poetry. In your opinion, how are nature and myths connected?

CLAUSER: You’ll find a lot of nature or wilderness (even if it’s not very wild, such as in a vegetable garden) in my poems mostly because those are place I prefer to be, and when I’m writing from the imagination, that’s where my mind goes. I love camping, hiking, and fishing—basically being away from crowds.

Nature as subject matter also works a lot for me because I find wonderful metaphors there. You can look at a group of trees bending in a storm and immediately begin to form a metaphor around that vision for something internal. As for myths—everything we do or say is part of our personal mythmaking process. We believe our own myths about ourselves, and if our own personal story involves nature, then it’s part of our myth. I know it’s part of mine.

WITTLE: In the poem, “To A Miscarried Brother” the narrator discusses the importance of the brother lost to him. The last lines, “should have lived” is powerful in its simple complexity. How important is it to end a poem with a lasting line and why?

CLAUSER: That poem describes an interesting situation from my youth. My mother became pregnant, which was a surprise to the family, and then shortly after that news, she had a miscarriage, which revealed to the doctors that she had cancer. If it wasn’t for that pregnancy (and subsequent miscarriage) she may have died. So yes, the fetus (no one ever really knew what gender it was) should have lived, but of course we’re all very glad it didn’t because of the sacrifice it made for my mother.

But more to your question about last lines—I really like a poem to end with a bang. I know I don’t often achieve it, but it’s something I appreciate. Sometimes in workshops I describe how all (or most) poems are triangle shaped (not in words, but in ideas or focus). They either start wide and end narrow, or start narrow and widen at the end. I particularly like a poem to end like a funnel, where all the things you were pouring into the top come out at the narrow hole at the bottom. Think of a jar of muddy water scooped from a stream. When you let it settle, all the good stuff, the sediments, is at the bottom. That’s where the mind and the attention goes.

WITTLE: In the poem, “Ouija” the narrator plays with the idea the sensation of touch alone cannot be trusted. How do you see that idea relating to myths? What about a myth should not be trusted?

CLAUSER: Myths are nice guides, sometimes, but they get us into trouble when we trust them too much. Religions are the most obvious example. Societies have used the myths of their religions to justify hatred and violence throughout history. On a smaller scale, it’s best not to believe in your own bullshit too much.

WITTLE: The poem, “The Details” finds its power for me in the first line. The narrator chews on the idea a list can tell a person what to do but not help the person remember what was done. Do you feel this is something as a society we do with myths? As if we recite the myth so much we forget what the words mean?

CLAUSER: Similar to the last question, yes, taking our myths too seriously can get people, or groups into trouble. It’s like the cliché that you can’t see the forest for the trees. The details are a whole. But it works both ways. I’m the kind of person who will ignore all the warning lights on my car until the engine falls out the bottom.
In the title poem, Necessary Myths, the man kills his brother, and we’re left wondering if it was a kindness or a crime. That depends on how much of the brother’s myths you buy into, and to make matters more complicated, the poem references the Romulus and Remus myth about another fratricide.
“The Details” isn’t nearly that grim. In that poem I’m just playing with old memories of how my wife and I met 20-some years ago.

WITTLE: The poem, “What We Spent It On” has a narrator poking around in his memory as fall turns into winter. The last lines make a reader feel almost like a caught voyeur. In your opinion, describe the relationship a writer has with his or her reader.

CLAUSER: I said something about this earlier, but again, it’s a relationship of trust. I’ve actually taught a seminar called Writing Trustworthy Poems at a couple of writing conferences.

While a poem is a creative object, it’s also an act of communication. Communication requires a relationship, or at least the desire for a relationship (you can knowingly talk to a rock, but you’re not actually expecting to communicate with it, since no relationship with the rock is implied so it doesn’t really matter what you say).

Since the reader can’t talk back to the poet or ask questions all the responsibility is in the writer. When I hear writers say that a reader can get anything out of the poem they (the reader) wants, I think that’s being dishonest to the reader, and a bit lazy. As a writer it’s your job to take the reins and tell the horse where to go.
There are lots of ways to earn readers’ trust, but the easiest way is to not play games with them—the same way you wouldn’t play mind games with a friend or intentionally mislead a friend. Don’t do that with your poems. Too many contemporary poets seem to be more in conversation with themselves than conversations with their readers. It’s kind of an avant-garde trend I don’t participate in, at least I hope not. Of course a writer is allowed to expect a certain kind or reader if he or she wants, but that comes back to knowing your audience and what you can essentially get away with them. I want my readers to be at a level of trust with me, to believe that I’m not just twisting words to confuse or impress them, but to share something with them.

Bio:
Grant Clauser is a frustrated gardener and hack fly fisherman. His books include Necessary Myths (winner of the 2013 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize) and The Trouble with Rivers. He teaches poetry writing at conferences and at Philadelphia’s Musehouse and runs the blog http://www.unIambic.com.

Necessary Myths can be purchased at http://www.thebroadkillriverpress.com

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I have been a great admirer of Curtis Smith’s writing style. Smith has a great Hemingway-ish sentence structure and Smith’s word choice always hits the right note leaving the reader chewing on the layers of details woven into his sentences.

In Smith’s latest flash fiction collection, Beasts & Men (published by Press 53 http://www.press53.com/biocurtissmith.html), readers are again treated to Smith’s ability to find the right word to set in motion a complete story told in under 1,000 words.

A good example of Smith’s layering technique is in the story, “The Twins” (first published by Wigleaf).  In this story, the first line tells the reader how the boy’s umbilical cord was wrapped around his sister. The third paragraph, a rope is mentioned in the story. Then, from the fifth paragraph to the end of the story, the rope is present. The last line ties the story again, but this time, the rope is the invisible bond these twins will have their whole lives. This detail of the rope never pulls the reader out of the piece and it continues to flow naturally within the story. It is only after the reader steps away from the story does the genius of the detail sink in.

“The Wolf” (appeared in The Florida Review) pulls off the ever difficult second person narration. In the hands of some writers, this point of view can come off as too soap boxy and too opinionated. However, in Smith’s hands, the point of view succeeds in telling the reader a story about a father taking his son to the family cabin on vacation. Smith creates a great sense of longing and respect within his narrator by pointing out the subtle things the narrator noticed as a child and what the narrator sees now as he watches his son take his place at the cabin.

The story, “The Hunter” appeals to me for many reasons. The story opens as a little boy is reading a book purchased at the library book sale under the covers with a flashlight. I remember many times in my life hiding under a blanket with a library book reading just one more chapter before going to bed. The boy and his father shared hunting; however, with the recent death of his father, the boy needs to hunt alone. There are two things that really pulled this story into my heart. The first is again, Smith’s cleverness. Smith starts and ends the story with the boy drawing on a sketch pad. The second is this idea that when a parent dies prematurely, a child may feel obligated to take on the career or hobby of the deceased parent. This is what happens in the story, but the twist comes when the boy takes the hobby to the next level.

I truly appreciate Curtis Smith and his writing. I feel his newest collection, Beasts & Men, is for all audiences. In Smith’s stories there is something every person can relate to and take away from. For those just starting to explore flash fiction, Smith will be a great teacher of story craft. For those who are a master at writing, Smith will still give you new insight to telling a great story.

Below is my Interview with Nicole Monaghan. We discuss her new book, “Want, Wound”, talk craft and discuss how being an editor plays into being a writer.

WITTLE How do you approach writing a flash fiction piece? Do you think of a character or a situation or a theme? Or all of the above?

MONAGHAN Most often a phrase or sentence pops into my head, or I overhear one, and I feel compelled to build a story around it. Occasionally I will create a story around a situation or theme that I feel the need to write about.

WITTLE When it came time to select the stories for your collection, how did you go about that process?

MONAGHAN When I looked at the body of work I’d published, two major themes emerged, the ones where stories center around a character’s desires and the ones where the central character has suffered an emotional wound. Hence, “Want, Wound.” The ones I felt didn’t quite fit into those two categories were excluded.

WITTLE I’ve heard some think the last story in the collection of books is the way in which an author puts the stories in order. How did you pick the order for your collection and what would be the final message of your final story?

MONAGHAN I think I tended toward putting the ones I felt were strongest at the beginnings and ends of the two sections. The beginning to hook the reader and keep them reading, and the end to leave off with a bang. Interesting about the last story theory. I’ve never heard that.

The final story, “It Hits Me” is about a mother realizing that her young son’s antics are something she should enjoy rather than fret over, as she remembers the pain of a mother who lost her son and who’d give anything to have him back and experience anything with him again at all. I think the message there is just to learn from wounds, whether they be yours or someone else’s.

WITTLE In your literary magazine, Nailpolish Stories, the main hook is using a nail polish color title to inspire a story. What other ways or objects do you feel inspire your stories?

MONAGHAN I think it’s possible for any object to inspire a story because any object has the potential to hold significance for a character. Often that unusual thing, given meaning by a character’s experience of it, can be the crux of a story.

WITTLE In the collection the section on Want comes before Wound. Do you feel in life our wants can lead to our wounds?

MONAGHAN Yes! I think in most cases, our desires are what lead us to become wounded. We want something, and we either get it (eventually) or we don’t. Usually, either way, we experience pain.

WITTLE In the story, “One Could Do Worse” you explore the want of the narrator to have a passionate first kiss with a girl. The story ends with things not going as planned. Could you explain the many ways the title reflects the story besides the obvious one about the kiss?

MONAGHAN The title was a given writing prompt! I also wanted to write a story from a teenage boy’s perspective and to figure out what it would be like for him to finally have that kiss with the girl he’d lusted after throughout high school just as that chapter of his life was ending. He was feeling the pressures of college upon him and dealing with bigot parents. I wrote the story around imagining what he might respond to his parents if they asked him why he’d want to be with a girl who they’d think was below him.

WITTLE In the story, “Spell” the reader meets a spelling bee champ who uses words to drown out the world around her. Could you briefly discuss how this story came to form in your mind?

MONAGHAN The kids were watching a movie about a girl in a spelling bee, and immediately I used that as a setting to flesh out this young girl who always won, was always successful and yet never felt celebrated by her parents.

WITTLE If you had to pick your favorite story from the collection, which one would it be and why?

MONAGHAN I really like “What Madison Sees,” the first one, as I think the fact that it’s “an outsider’s” piece makes it relatable. I also really like “These Babies I’m Not Having.” This one happens to be mostly autobiographical, and I think it’s one of my better written pieces in terms of the simplicity of the language. I love simple language.

WITTLE How does being an editor play into your own writing process?

MONAGHAN It makes me remember why I love writing. Reading submissions from people all over the world and from all walks of life refreshes my memory about how writing can connect people who are different. Everyone understands longing, love, and loss.

WITTLE What are you working on next?

MONAGHAN I haven’t written any new fiction in a long time. My most recent writing has been nonfiction, which I always post at my blog, http://www.writenic.wordpress.com. I recently wrote about watching my son play sports. Some day, I’d like to publish a collection of nonfiction pieces.

I’d like to thank Nicole Monaghan for taking time out to answer my questions. To get your copy of “Want, Wound” please go to http://burningriver.info/?page_id=1879.

Sometimes life can be boiled down to the things we want and the things that wound us. In Nicole Monaghan’s new collection, Want, Wound, published by Burning River Press(http://burningriver.info/?page_id=1879), Monaghan uses the flash and micro flash form of storytelling to cut deep into the heart of the things people want in life and the things that can deeply wound a person’s soul.

In the section, Want, the first micro flash piece, “Blanc” sets the stage for the one thing we all wish we could have –a clean slate. However, Monaghan does not allow her character to be washed clean and unblemished. The last line ends with a comma and says, “scars like colors”(Monaghan 9). For a lot of artists, this idea of looking at the human body and regarding the scars as precious commodities is not new. However, in Monaghan’s hands, these scars become shades of colors instead of deep rooted lessons. It is like Monaghan is allowing her character to create a new canvas and start over with different paint, yet the character cannot gloss over or forget the scars that made the character who she is in the piece.

Also in Want, the story, “My Life as a Rose” introduces the reader to a rose as the story’s narrator. The rose looks at the age old Shakespearian questions, is it better to have loved and lost than never to have been loved at all? The rose sides with being loved for a small time instead of withering away in a garden. The rose, like all of us, wants to be loved and appreciated for what we are rather than being admired from a distance.

The shift in the book comes in with the section called, Wound. In this section, there is a lot of talk of miscarriages. In the story, “New Age” the mother looks at her pregnant 16 year old daughter’s face as the daughter gets up in the morning. One moment the mother sees the child her daughter was and in the next instant the daughter turns into “a woman with old wounds” (43). When the story unfolds, the reader finds out the old wound is her daughter losing her baby.

In the flash sequence, “Give Me License” Monaghan takes the reader through a whole relationship from start, miscarriage, fear, and lastly, break up. What is interesting about this sequence is the titles of the pieces are glamor license plates.

Another wonderful flash piece called, “I’m Writing My Own Eulogy” looks at the fall of a once honored chef. The brilliance of this piece comes in the lines, “those of you holding tissues on your black pants, here’s the thing-knock the act” (38). With so few words, Monaghan’s character punches all the mourners in the face for pretending to care now that the character is gone.

Nicole Monaghan’s (http://writenic.wordpress.com/) small book, “Want, Wound” is much like the story, “I’m Writing My Own Eulogy” because it is small but packs a powerful punch. It is a book readers will read and reread and each time something new and wonderful will be revealed.

Don’t let the name fool you, the stories in Carla Sarett’s collection called, Nine Romantic Stories are not so much the ripping bodice off by Fabio love stories, but more of a look at what really constitutes a romantic story.

In the first story, “A String Theory Valentine” can remind a reader of the last act of the play “Rabbit Hole” in which the boy who killed the couple’s son discusses how there are a bunch of different universes happening all at once. For Sarett’s story, a third person narrator looks at the relationship of Anna and Jonah who meet and date when they are in high school. As the couple gets older, they break up and move on to other relationships. Anna spends the last paragraph envisioning a universe in which she and Jonah are back in their teen relationship with each other. This story is very relatable because every reader can recall his or her first love and some may even want to visit the other universe where the relationship never died.

As the collection continues, readers are treated to the story “Mandolinata.” In this first person narration, the story unfolds as a new twist on the Catfish epidemic. Lucia has developed an on-line relationship with Henry Oliver. He calls it quits right before the couple is about to take their relationship off-line. Instead of licking her wounds and always wondering what she did wrong, Lucia creates another profile online looking to rehook Henry. It succeeds and Lucia gets to do what most people wish they could do when a relationship disappears for no known reason.

“Victor’s Proposal” can remind some readers of a person with a very practical mind trying to propose marriage to a woman. While the ending is ambiguous, watching the characters try to enjoy their dinner as this man bares what he thinks is his soul is very funny and also a bit sad.

In the last story, “In Rittenhouse Square” Sarett does a great job capturing the small world surrounding the park. The characters put the reader in the mood of sitting on a park bench in the park and watching life unfold around them.

In the collection, Nine Romantic Stories, Carla Sarett looks at what really makes a story romantic. This small collection moves fast but stays with a reader long after the last sentence is read.

To purchase this collection, please go to: http://www.amazon.com/Nine-Romantic-Stories-ebook/dp/B00ANQT2LO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1361333511&sr=8-1&keywords=carla+sarett

After reading Michelle Hartman’s new poetry collection, readers will not feel disenchanted or disgruntled. The poetry collection, split in three sections, takes a reader on a journey through an education of storytelling starting with “Fairytales” moving on to “Myths” and ending with, “Reality.” Hartman’s ability see and write things the reader either refuses to see or has glossed over gives her poetry a one-two punch which makes her poetry stay with the reader.

 
In the first section, “Fairytales,” Hartman seems to channel Anne Sexton’s collection of reimagined fairytales called, “Transformations.” Hartman looks at the underside of fairytales. At times, Hartman looks at the secondary character most readers may not remember from their childhood. In the poem, “Grandmother got game”(p13) the reader meets the grandmother from the Red Riding Hood tale. In Hartman’s vision, this grandmother gets plastic surgery and gets rid of her, “…flour-sack dress”(line 2, p13). In the poem, “By the way” readers are once again treated to a visit from the wolf. It seems Grandmother could not resist the seduction of the wolf. Another poem, “The fallout of fairytales” looks at what happens to the dwarfs after they fed, clothed, and cared for Snow White and she runs away with someone else.

The second section, “Myths,” the reader is introduced to Hartman’s interpretation of what makes myths. The poem, “Used People” (p.40) is a glimpse into the world of the used bookstore shopper. When the shopper picks up a photograph found inside a book on the self, the narrator tries to invent lives of the people in the photo. The shopper walks out of the store with no books, but a photo. In the poem, “She prays for road kill” (p.64) the narrator prays for the soul of the dead animal found on the road and mixes religions, “just in case” (line 13 p. 64).

The last section, “Reality” is a brutal look at what most people do not want to see. The poems on writing are very appealing because this is a world many take for granted and writers only understand what takes place in this world. The poem, “Workshop” (p. 74) takes the reader into the world of a person work shopping his or her poem. All the typical work shop attendants are there and they all rip the poem apart until two lines of the original piece remain. On page 115, readers meet the poem, “Some Assembly Required” which promises the buyer a “guaranteed poet laureate/in every box”(lines 7-8).

Michelle Hartman’s new collection, “Disenchanted and Disgruntled” is a great mix of the familiar and the outrageous. Hartman’s poems punch a reader in a gut and a few days later, the reader will still feel the aftershock of her vision of the world a poet lives in.

To purchase Michelle Hartman’s book, please visit: http://www.amazon.com/Disenchanted-Disgruntled-Michelle-Hartman/dp/0985255250/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1361207156&sr=8-1&keywords=michelle+hartman+poetry or http://www.lamaruniversitypress.org/

I didn’t want to know where the ducks went in the winter time. I wanted to know why Holden Caulfield was so obsessed with finding out where they went. I taught The Catcher in the Rye about seven or eight times, and each reading of the book gave me no answers. I even tired to Google it and apparently no one cared enough about Holden’s quest for an answer about the ducks enough to write about it.

Well, I am happy to report I finally have an answer. It was a combined effort really. I won’t take credit for the complete interpretation. The funny thing about this is it took a two second conversation I should have had years ago with this person to come up with the answer. I don’t blame this person; they were going through things and it kept them from being grounded. However, I would rather have the answer late than never.

So here is the combined effort interpretation of why Holden Caulfield is so obsessed with what happens to the ducks in the winter time.

Holden wants to save people from the world. More specifically, Holden wants to save children from the world. This is evident when he is walking to get Phoebe at school and he sees the curse words on the school steps. Holden get so angry the words are there because he doesn’t think kids should have to look at those words, let alone understand what those words mean. He doesn’t want kids growing up and having to deal with death and lost love. These are things Holden wrestles with and he wants to ensure kids don’t have to deal with stuff like that yet.

More evidence to support the claim that Holden wants to save the children comes from the poem by Robert Burns. Holden thinks the lines go, “’If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’”(Salinger 224). Yet it is Phoebe who tells him the lines are actually, “’ If a body meet a body coming through the rye’” (224). Holden wants to be the person catching the bodies coming through the rye. Holden wants to be the one to save the kids from falling off the earth. But the truth is he can’t be because no one can save the kids. He can’t even save Phoebe from the adult content in the poem because she already knows it.

Holden couldn’t save Allie from dying. Holden can’t save Phoebe from the curse words on the steps of her school. He can’t save her from their parents and growing up. When Holden watches Phoebe circle round and round on the carousel, he cries because he knows he can’t save her. He hasn’t even bothered to save himself.

His obsession with ducks comes because here is another thing he can’t save. The ducks are part of the background noise of life. If you are lucky enough to sit down and watch them, the ducks can entertain you and relax you. In a sense, children are the same way. For the most part, children are background noise. As you are running off to your next appointment in your busy adult life, you may pass a park and pick up some of the giggles from children. You hear them but you don’t process them. However, if you just sat down and watched them for a bit, the children could make you laugh along with them.

Holden keeps asking everyone about the ducks because he can’t understand why no one else is interested in what happens to them in the winter. Just like most adults don’t really care about what happens to children. Adults will care about their own child; but an adult normally isn’t as invested in a child that doesn’t in some way belong to them.

In a way, I think if Holden could just figure out where the ducks go, he could then figure out himself. If he could understand why Allie died, he could understand himself and forgive himself. If Holden could stop the hurtful world from getting to Phoebe, he could stop the world from hurting him.

Holden wants to save all the things no one cares about. He feels like he is one of those things that no one cares about. So, in a very predictable manic-depressive way, if he can save all these other things, then he is worth something to someone and he will be worth saving.

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