Alum Matt Young Interview

On Thursday, February 16th, 2017, Miami University Master’s in Creative Writing graduate Matt Young sat down with students in TaraShea Nesbit’s Intermediate Nonfiction Writing course (ENG 323), to talk about his forthcoming memoir, Eat the Apple (Bloomsbury, 2018). The memoir explores the time in his life when he made a rash decision to join the military and the subsequent events that befell him. In this interview, Young discusses how he wrote the memoir, his use of unexpected point of views and images in the memoir, the ethics of writing about living people and real events, and the publishing process from query letters to working with a publisher. This interview was edited for cohesion and conciseness.

 

Q: (TaraShea) When we first met, you were writing fiction and resistant to writing about your time in the military. How did you overcome that?

A: (Young) There was a lot of resistance, mostly because I didn’t want to be a cliché. I didn’t want to be the type of person that experienced something traumatic and then writes to capitalize on that traumatic experience and doesn’t do it in a thoughtful way. I was super-worried about it because I started writing about it as an undergrad at Oregon State and the stories I wrote were just bad. The fiction I tried to write was bad, the nonfiction I tried to write was worse. I put it aside for a while, and then I got into Miami as a grad student in fiction. I was going to write speculative fiction stories about the Midwest because I grew up in Indiana and I thought alright, I can make the Midwest weird—that can be my gimmick, that can be cool.

Then, halfway through the year Oxford Student Magazine had a grad student reading, and the people in charge at that time asked me to do a reading like all the other grad students. I wanted to do something different than what I had already written because all of the fiction I’d already written was crap. I wrote a couple nonfiction pieces. I sat down over the course of a day and a half—I gave myself a super short timeframe—I had a super short time constraint, so I pumped them out. It ended up being okay, I got a good response, people laughed. People thought they were funny and sad, and people were quiet—concerned about me, and then I put them aside again because I said that’s not a thing, I’m here to write fiction, that’s what I came here to do. And then over the summer, I locked myself in my office. I realized that this was the time I had to write this thesis because it’s due at the end of next year, and I’m not going to have time to write it next year because of coursework and all this other stuff, and so I had to get the bulk of it done over the summer, so I sat down and tried to write fiction, but it didn’t come.

And then these stories just started pouring forth, which were bar stories that I used to tell people to get a laugh a lot of the time, and then I moved them into a space that wasn’t just bar stories. These were things I would do to just entertain people. That turned into well what’s the actual story, why did I use them to entertain people? Is it really a funny story? Can it maintain humor and also keep the seriousness and keep a conversation about any one of the other things I write about with trauma, or love, or sexuality—can I do something with that? Then they just started pouring forth—I wrote 75 to 100 pages over the summer, which felt good to me at that time. And then I just kept going and writing from there.

Q: (TaraShea) I was just listening to a podcast this morning, of an interview with George Saunders from about 10 years ago and he was similarly talking about how he feels that people reject the thing that is actually most clear, the closest to them. He kept trying to get rid of his funny, and that was his real voice so when he stopped trying to do that, it was more natural. The writing was better.

A: (Young) Absolutely, it’s like, this is my personality, I’m sick of writing about it. Why would I write about myself if I’m sick of myself? I realized that I had to take a different approach in how to apply that, or how to apply that part of me to something that is different. It’s kind of where the weird genre switching came from.

Q: (John) When writing in nonfiction, do you find that there are things you just cannot talk about?

A: (Young) Yeah, if you’re writing nonfiction it’s important to find that line that you’re not willing to cross, because if you write nonfiction about yourself, then people are going to know it’s about you, and if you’re not comfortable with people knowing that about you, then you shouldn’t write about it. 

Q: (TaraShea) It also seems like one strategy you use it to anonymize the speaker—

A: (Young) Absolutely—

Q: (TaraShea) The story gets to happen but it’s “one of us did this,” or it’s blurry. Many people in the class talked about the way things get blurry at times which feels like a strategy of telling and not telling.

A: (Young) It was a strategy of me being a complete coward.

Alum Matt Young reads during the “War Stories” event in Williams Hall

Q: (David) What was the purpose of the POV shifts between sections?

A: (Young) In the military if you use the first person, you are punished. The purpose was to think about the whole. In the sections that use the second person and third person, this was to emphasize the collective thought and also the idea of family. The shift between the first and third person in the last section of the book was done to demonstrate the process of returning to individual life. Returning to “I” was frightening.

Q: (Paige) At times, the tone sounds angry. Is that something you’re trying to portray and if so, is that anger more directed at yourself or at the military?

A: (Young) I’m angry at a lot of things; I was angry at everything. I’m less angry now. But, I think that I was angry a lot at myself. When I got the edits from my editor, his biggest criticisms were in the sections where I talk to my past self. In this one section I just berate my 18-year-old self which is like, who yells at an 18 year old? It’s like the jerkiest thing to do in the world. He was like you gotta back off yourself a little bit because you’re being kind of a jerk. And I was like yeah, that’s the point. I was an idiot. And he’s like, yeah, but you didn’t know that, and also you’re fine now, relatively speaking…. He said you gotta let people know that you’re okay, and you have to let yourself know that you’re going to be okay, because if you don’t show empathy to your characters you’re just gonna sound angry and ‘yelly’.

Hopefully at some points in the book that empathy comes out. You have to tell yourself ‘Alright, this happened, but you’re gonna be alright, and you’re going to move past it.’ But yes, anger was a driving force.

Q: As far as the point of view, we were on that earlier, I noticed that you split up sections of these diagrams of the body, could you explain your choice in putting them where they were and why you chose to demonstrate the physical body instead of your disembodied voice?

A: (Young) Yeah, so, the body diagrams… well, one of them is an accurate recounting of my medical record– like the “Ouch” section is from my medical record. In one of the iterations of the book they were a complete story. There were 7 of them and I was like, this is too much, it’s too busy. And so I was thinking a lot about how to separate the book. I was gonna write this book in seven sections–like basic training, deployment one, home, deployment two, home, deployment three…it was too many, it was too busy. So I had to think about how I could separate it by time, and think about how my mindset changed. Those changes in the body are representative of how my mindset was changing a lot of the time–as with the phantom knee pain one. That’s not real, but it was representative of an emotion.

Q: (Sam) We talked about the more corporate idea of target audience. We stereotyped the sort of people who would read military memoirs as more conservative and we stereotyped military memoirs as very mass-market, very American Sniper, and then we stereotyped the kind of people who would read a book of creative nonfiction essays as very liberal, Brooklyn-hipster. This book has a lot of both, so did you think about that at all and if you did, how do you reconcile these two ideas?

A: (Young) My biggest fear is being put in a niche where the only people who they send my book out to are white military men. God, the world has too many voices there. I tried to background the war. I tried to overlay these kind of human experiences on top of that thing, so the war works to move the narrative forward while I’m talking about a love story. I have these ideas about masculinity, and these ideas about sexuality, and these ideas about race that kind of criss-cross throughout that narrative and kind of ride it like a wave. I’m hoping those take the forefront. Hopefully military dudes pick up the novel and maybe that can help them.

I’m hoping that people can use it to form empathy with people they don’t know about. I have a meeting with my marketing and publicity folks next week, and I’m like, what am I going to say to them? Because that’s who they’re going to send that to. They’re going to send it to [military writers] which is fine. They’re doing great work, but I don’t want to have a ‘hot take’ about what’s happening socio-politically in the Middle East, because I’m not super smart, and I don’t have a ‘hot take’ on it. So I think that it’s a hard space to navigate and I hope that maybe that has to do with the cover. Maybe the cover art will be some part of that conversation and that maybe–trying to go after and get authors of color and women to read it who have non-military backgrounds, that would be awesome.

 

Q: (Chaze) What went into creating your query letter? What relationship do you have with your editor? What influence, if any, did you have on the physical format of the book?

A: (Young) The query letter was a page long word document, single spaced. It was a really uncomfortable space for me to be in because you have to sell yourself, which is super weird if you’re not comfortable with it. For me, because I have a self-deprecating sense of humor–I’m super-self conscious–[Being here] this is kind of my nightmare. But I gave it to a couple of people for edits, and it got to the point where I said, “Screw it I’m going to send it out to 10 agents and I’m going to see what happens.” A friend said, “send it to Bill Clegg, of the Clegg Agency.” She sent me a new edit, which was a better than what I wrote because it sells me more. She managed to hit my voice better than I hit my voice somehow. To have someone who knows you–knows your voice, your writing–tell you, “This is how to be natural,” I looked back on it thinking, “Would I have been more successful if I had talked to her first?”

As far as my editor relationship, we have very little contact. He is this ethereal creature that does his thing and sends me stuff when he needs to. I have more contact with my agent [Chris Clemans], and he is fantastic because he treats me very nicely, like a delicate flower. I can’t take criticism, and he knows I can’t take criticism, so he treads very lightly. He has this “how do you feel about this” approach. He went through the manuscript page by page with me. It was an eight-hour phone conversation over two days. He really sat down and told me, “This is the stuff you need to keep, take out, talk more about this experience.” There was a poem in it at one point in time and he told me, “You can’t do that.” I had to ask myself, “Is this adding to what I’m doing? How is it adding to it?” I asked myself that a lot.

As far as the physical aspect, they gave me a questionnaire, which is very strange, which was like “Describe your book in five sentences, who are six authors you’d like us to send the book to,” so I gave them 15 authors. They asked me what I like in terms of jacket covers, what I don’t like, what’s an image I think that would work on it. I’m like “I like abstract art covers,” which they’re thinking, “That’s probably not gonna work on a war memori…” But my fear is that they come back with an M-16 or something, or date palms, or an M-16 planted with date palms. Those were all horrifying moments of my life.

Q: (Paige) Were the other people you mentioned in your memoir, specifically your ex, included in the process and were you worried about their reactions when the book gets published?

A: (Young) Yeah, pretty constantly. I kind of have a hypocritical relationship with that because at one point in time I do care, but mostly I don’t think a lot about audience at all when I’m writing.  If you try to write for everybody, you end up writing for nobody, as cliche as that sounds.  The ex–she doesn’t know the book is coming out. In my defense, I have tried to contact her and she wants nothing to do with me.  In her defense, fair. She isn’t mentioned by name, but she is still definitely recognizable, especially to herself and her family. If I could get ahold of her and let her know it’s happening, I would love to. As far as the Marines that are mentioned, there are four or five that don’t have their names changed: Charlie, Adam, John, Keene. The three dead don’t have their names changed.  The rest of the names are changed.  Some of them asked me to and some of them I couldn’t get ahold of.

Q: (Sam) If you don’t mind sharing, what five authors did you send your book to?

A: (Young) I gave them six war writers — Matt Gallagher, Phil Klay, Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, and Elliot Ackerman. And then for my goal writers, it was Claire Vaye Watkins, Roxane Gay, and I don’t remember the rest of them. The other ones were women and writers of color because I was all like ‘no white men.’

Q: (TaraShea) When is the book coming out? When can we look for it?

A: (Young) Next year, and you all will have totally forgotten me by the time this comes out. March or February of 2018. Bloomsbury, Eat the Apple.

Q: (TaraShea) Are you working on something else or are you working on revisions?

A: (Young) I’m done with revisions, the edits are accepted. I am having so much trouble writing. So, I’ve been weirdly writing twitter assemblage poems. I’ve found myself completely inundated by the news, and I get my news from pundits that I follow on Twitter. I’m using that thing I’m addicted to and can’t put down into writing, taking those things, combining them, and I’m thinking of turning them into a chapbook. We’ll see where that goes.

Q: (TaraShea) Are you back in the West now?

A: (Young) Yeah, Olympia, Washington. I’m living that Pacific Northwest life, amongst the cougars and pine trees.

(TaraShea) Well thank you so much for coming.

(Young) Thank you so much, you guys were awesome!

Interview conducted and/or edited by: Paige Burcheit, Chaze Copeland, John Meade, Angela Day, Scout Ellam, Audrey Fanshaw, David Farley, Charlie Fordon, Jake Grace, Megan Haase, James Harris, Sam Hunter, Jenni Jenkins, Tori Levy, Ashley Losher, Kelly Murray, Maddie Passarella, Jake Pickard, Caitlin Roth, Zach Sharb, Tori Taylor, Blake Wysocki, and TaraShea Nesbit.

Janice Lowe performing “Boy Flower Tamir”

Miami University Press poet/musician Janice Lowe and musician Yohann Potico performed Lowe’s poem “Boy Flower Tamir” for us during the Two Poets and a Bassist event described in our previous blog post by English Department Ambassador Tim Thomas. A videorecording of the performance as well as the poem itself are on our Facebook page here.

The poem, on Tamir Rice, is from her book Leaving Cle: poems of nomadic dispersal (Miami University Press, 2016). More on Lowe in Miami University Press Intern and English Department Ambassador Alison Block’s transcription of the panel prefacing the performance,

Two Poets and a Bassist

On Nov. 15, the Creative Writing Program at Miami University hosted Two Poets and A Bassist, featuring Janice Lowe, Yohann Potico, and Tyehimba Jess. This performance follows the previous day’s panel, Collaborating Across the Arts: A Discussion.

Professor Keith Tuma kicked off the event recalling his time with Lowe’s Leaving CLE: Poems of Nomadic Dispersal, which was published this year by the Miami University Press.

Lowe, a composer who has worked on multiple musicals, performed these poems from behind her keyboard while Potico set up to the right with his accompanying bass.

“I neglect the sight reading. Everything is timed and cued, so when she says that word, I hit that note,” replied Potico when asked about performing with Lowe. “Accuracy is the challenge.”

With a focus on the migration and reverse migration of her family before her birth, Lowe preluded many of the pieces with the anecdotes that brought her relatives to the space each poem was concerned with. Her readings were punctuated with a repetition and questions developing a powerful interior voice whose tone was further amplified by the melodies.

“I hear in musical phrases,” she said, explaining how she developed her poetry into song. “I hear it in myself, where the meanings change with volumes and with tempo.”

The second half of the two-hour event was opened by the Director of the Creative Writing program, Cathy Wagner, who called Jess’ poems, “brilliant instances of resistance.”

“Okay, so I have to follow music, and that is always a hard task,” said Jess, an associate professor at the College of Staten Island. Reading from his new book Olio, Jess addressed the audience before each poem to present the stories and styles that informed each piece.

Jess explained the importance of opening up to the audience after the performance saying, “The objective is to introduce these folks [the historical figures in the poems] to audiences in a new, engaging ways. To talk to the audience. To engage with the people.”

Throughout the evening, both poets addressed how art can serve as the opening for important discussion about recent events in the country. Jess concluded the night with a poem whose goal was to memorialize Black churches that have been burned and the shooting last year at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

“I think this reading was an important and timely event; the poets’ focus on social issues in their work reinforced the power that art can have to capture attention, to evoke emotion, to delve into the nuances of social institutions and events, and to fight for change”, said Kinsey Cantrell, a senior Creative Writing and Literature double major. “I walked away from the reading with an expanded tool set from the unique forms the poets used and a renewed determination to use my art critically and responsibly.”

Tim Thomas
English Department Ambassador
Creative Writing & Literature ’17

Poets and Musicians Discuss Collaboration, Creation

 

On Monday, November 14, the Humanities Center, Creative Writing Program, and Miami University Press sponsored the panel “Collaborating Across the Arts: A Conversation” featuring Miami University Press poet and musician Janice Lowe, acclaimed poet Tyehimba Jess, and musician Yohann Potico. They spoke about the importance of respect in collaboration, their creative processes, and their current projects to a rapt audience.

Lowe, author of Leaving CLE: Poems of Nomadic Dispersal, is a poet, composer, and performer. Her poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Callalloo, and other journals. She has composed music for numerous plays and musicals, and is currently working on an album while also collaborating with both Jess and Potico to set some of the text of Jess’s 2016 collection Olio to music.

Jess, newly announced winner of the prestigious Lannan Foundation Award in Poetry for Olio, is an associate professor at the College of Staten Island. His first collection, leadbelly, won the 2004 National Poetry Series and was named one of the Best Poetry Books of 2005 by both The Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review. Many anthologies and journals have featured his poetry.

Yohann Potico, a multifaceted musician, composes, plays, and produces music. A talented bassist, he has been active in the New York City music scene for the past eleven years. He has recorded with an impressive list of artists and ensembles, and for the past four years has worked closely with Lowe, a collaborative relationship which has allowed him to explore unusual sounds and musical textures.

The panel was moderated by poet and Miami professor cris cheek, described by presenter Dr. Keith Tuma as “a distinguished serial collaborator, musician, visual artist, performance writer, and poetic collaborator.”

cheek: I would be curious to start off hearing Yohann talk a bit before we come to the interdisciplinarity, about how musicians even work together. How do you start playing together?

Potico: For me, for example, being in an indie rock band for years—someone comes up with a simple idea, like for instance a drumbeat. We mostly jam, just playing around, and the song forms by itself. ‘The band’ becomes the fourth character. We all bring an element to the table but in the end, what we create is bigger and so much different than what we are individually. Sometimes you listen back to the recording and don’t even recognize yourself. Like if I’d tried at home and recorded it by myself, I would have come up with something completely different. But the energy that’s in the room triggers something in me that I didn’t even know [I had]. It’s very interesting to discover yourself musically, artistically speaking. It’s interesting collaborating when the others get something out of you that you didn’t even know existed.

cheek: What kind of collaborations have you done, Tyehimba?

Jess: I’m not a serial collaborator. [Audience laughs.] I think the first time I did collaborations was back in the ’90s, I did this [performance ensemble] called Drapetomania, which was a disease slave owners said slaves have when they’re trying to get free. I’d be on harmonica, and Glinda Baker would be in singing, and it was like we would compose these poems, and develop a flow around them. With Janice, that collaboration was more like constructing an object then saying, to a certain degree, run with it. Going over the various permutations of the object, it’s like an act of release. And participation and consultation, a conversation back and forth, and then standing back in awe of what’s been created.

cheek: So giving some parameters, but not being too [structured]?

Lowe: I really like to compose and get my compositional ideas out there. When I start hearing things, I start notating them, or recording them somehow. Sometimes I work words first, sometimes music first. I’ll compose something, and that definitely doesn’t have to stay, because in the true spirit of collaboration, you know, collaborators have to work together and think about it and how it should grow. When Tyehimba came to me and asked me about considering setting some of this text to music, I felt like I had no time to do this, but I’m literally doing this to save my creative life, to remind myself that yes, I love collaboration. Maybe I should be focusing more on ‘me, me, me,’ or ‘book, book, book,’ or ‘Leaving CLE, Leaving CLE, Leaving CLE,’ but I love so much to collaborate, so that’s how we [started].

cheek: So how are you and Yohann working together?

Lowe: I really love and respect working with Yohann because he looks at my compositional ideas and will play them as written and lift off of them, when I want the music to open up. Creatively, it’s really exciting. When we’re talking it’s artist to artist, it blurs the boundaries of what kind of artists we are. We’re both musicians—I write as well—but I like being able to go back and forth. We talk in images. As instrumentalists we discuss and experiment with how sound effects are made.

cheek: So there’s a kind of language that develops to talk about what’s working?

Potico: You kind of have to. Collaborating with a musician is one thing; with writers, something different. Poetry—that form of writing seems more technical than others, and I think there’s some kind of inherent melody and rhythm that other forms of writing don’t have, so it can be easier for me to rely on that. It’s also difficult at times, the concepts she wants to hear; she’ll say, “I want to hear water,” but I’ll say, “Okay, I’m playing bass, I don’t know how I’m going to do that.” So it’s not easy, but it was great practice and she’s an amazing writer. It’s a fine line, respecting her work—it’s really personal—but to bring in my vision and my understanding to it.

 

The discussion moved on to explore Lowe’s current project, which is setting pieces from Jess’s collection Olio to music. Lowe played an early version of a song, calling it “the beginning of a compositional idea” of her interpretation of Jess’s poem “Millie and Christine McKoy.” Born into slavery in 1851, the McKoy sisters were pygopagus twins, meaning they were conjoined from the bottom of the ribcage to the top of the pelvis. Jess wrote the poem in three voices: Millie’s, Christine’s, and the two combined. It is a multidirectional, syncopated sonnet—the reader can choose to read the poem starting at the top or bottom; on the left side (Millie’s voice), right side (Christine’s voice), or  in the middle (their combined voice); and can read straight through or diagonally.

 

cheek: What do you think when you hear Janice singing your words?

Jess: First off, I think it’s like seeing your characters finally breathe for a minute. I imagine them in my own head for so long, but then to hear them liberated through Janice’s voice… One was contralto and one was soprano; that kind of mastery is astounding to me. In hearing her interpretation, it makes me think about that kind of syncopation between the piano parts and the voice and how it matches what’s going on in the poem. It makes me feel like it got lifted to another dimension.

Lowe: I can’t wait until we have… more people, more collaboration. I’m talking about the instrumentation, stretching it, growing it, continuing to add. It’s going to be wild—the sounds of their organs basically. These are nineteenth century people, maybe bringing some guitar shredding into the nineteenth-century-ness of it… Part of the music could be what they heard inside themselves. We can’t stop until we hear all kinds of sounds.

cheek: How did you write this poem?

Jess: A pencil, a blank piece of paper, and a bottle of bourbon. [Audience laughs]. This one was the first one of its kind. This was first line, second line, third, fourth, etc., going straight down. Others were composed straight down and then they were flipped. It’s about thinking about their story, thinking about trying to maintain that rhyme structure (abab cdcd efef gg—that’s the Shakespearean sonnet), and also thinking about the integrity of the poem in every direction. The first two lines are the easiest and then it starts to get steadily more and more difficult as you go down.

cheek: Tyehimba, obviously you are doing the layout of these pieces as you’re working on them. But there is this other aspect of collaboration, collaboration with the publishers, the designers… Is there something that you can share about that? Especially with [Olio]?

Jess: That book has four foldouts in it, and all four of them are perforated to tear out of the book, which is highly unusual for a publisher—to want to engage in that kind of bookmaking. I happen to be with a press that is more vested than most presses in the idea of the book as an object unto itself, as a piece of art, or as a tool that can have multiple dimensions. Very few presses have the skill and the desire to do that, and Wave is one of them. They had a really good idea of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it; there was a lot of back and forth. They got [the book] a little better than I thought it was going to be. That’s very rare. You hear a lot of bad stories about publishers, and their relationship with their authors, and this is definitely not one of them.

Jess: [I have] a question for Janice about playing an instrument and its effect on your writing, your poems. Do you see a link between your music—I mean obviously, there is—but how does music affect your view of poetry?

Lowe: Everybody who performs works with tempo, and there’s a person’s natural tempo—like I
have a very calm exterior, but it’s very fake, I’m very jumpy—so when I get to play or sing really, really slowly, that is something that takes a lot of effort. Every tempo is a world; every tempo is a character. The bulk of what I’ve been doing is setting the work of other writers [to music] and almost working in two different head spaces. Something that’s new is actually working with my own text as a musician and going, “Oh, I hear music in that, too! What am I going to do with that?” I’m blurring those lines in myself and you’ll see some of that tomorrow.

 

Prompted by cheek, Lowe treated the audience to a preview of the following night’s performance, playing a recording of herself and Potico performing her poem “Resistance Girl T.” It began with Potico on bass, perhaps improvising, staccato and meditative, before becoming lighter as Lowe joined in, her voice mixing with her keyboard playing in a way that was imploring and disorderly, building urgency throughout the song.

 

Cheek: There are many, many voices inside that piece. How do you see that in relation to the spatiality of the text? There’s a kind of Sprechstimme, a kind of speaking-talking-singing happening inside that piece which I really like, that feels as if it’s trying to discuss the interrelationship between poetry and music.

Lowe: Yes, there are a lot of voices in Resistance Girl T – speaking, singing and speak-singing and a lot of experimentation. So Yohann and I talked about the feel, and experimented on that… Now I’m performing the book with three other musicians besides myself and look forward to adding more musicians into the mix. It’s different every time. Though composed and notated, this is one of the more improvisational pieces that I’ve ever done, specifically in the stacked up layers of vocals in the end of the piece. Those weren’t planned.

 

In answering questions from the audience, Jess acknowledged the “fundamental importance” of speaking a poem out loud during its creation: “You hear things that you don’t ordinarily hear when you read it out loud. That’s just generally true, and you’re getting closer to the voice other people will have in their heads when they read it.” Lowe further presented another benefit of collaboration, a benefit that is also perhaps one of the most important processes a writer: “Collaboration forces me to engage in a dialogue, and forces me to interrogate the choices I have made on the page.”

Alison Block
MU Press Intern
English Department Ambassador
Professional Writing ’17

Inventive Translation: Poet Trevor Joyce Returns to Miami

On Wednesday, October 12, poet Trevor Joyce drew an impressive crowd for a reading in Irvin Hall. Joyce has published fifteen volumes of poetry to date, including poetry he translated from Chinese, Finno-Urgic, Hungarian, and Old Irish. Currently, Joyce is working on an English-English translation of the Mutabilitie Cantos from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, and though he did not share any parts of that upcoming work, he kept the audience engaged with readings of his work spanning many themes.

In introducing Trevor Joyce, Dr. Keith Tuma of the Department of English praised him, calling DSC_2776him a “friend of the program.” This is Joyce’s third visit to Miami over the past fifteen years, and that familiarity shone through his comfortable presence addressing the audience and in Dr. Tuma’s brief account of Joyce’s history: “Trevor’s career is kind of odd… and just plain odd biographically. He started in the 1960s…and began a magazine that promoted modernism.” For about twenty years, Joyce did not publish any poetry, and then “came back in a big way” with stone floods, which Tuma called “fascinating” and “unprecedented.”

Joyce began with a lyrical poem in translation titled “Capital Accounts.” The original 1200-year-old Chinese poem from the Tang dynasty gives an “extraordinarily urban” account of the capital city Luoyang. Joyce read his “fairly literal” translation deliberately, occasionally puncturing the lines of the poem with a snap of his fingers. Hearing the poem aloud was an interesting collision of cultures: the English words of the poem brought to life the ancient Chinese city, articulated through Joyce’s Irish accent.

Joyce also read 36-word poems. “[These are from] The Immediate Future, which is now the recent past,” he quipped. “The strains [in these poems] are a combination of financial speculation written in the years following the ’08 crisis and Chinese divination.” The futility of trying to divine the future was thematic in the set, and Joyce followed with a sorrowful topic: a translation of a poem that records the lamentations of Irish queen Gormlaith after her husband Niall Blackknee dies in battle. “Love Songs from a Dead Tongue,” as the poem is called, is “a wonderful creation; the closing phrase [of a verse] echoes the opening,” explained Joyce—so each verse ends and begins with the same word or phrase. “[The original] is in delicate condition, so some text is missing and I try to preserve that, but they know the last word of the poem.”

Joyce also read from his most recent publication, Rome’s Wreck, which is an English to English “translation” of Edmund Spenser’s work The Ruins of Rome, which itself was a translation of French poet Joachim du Bellay’s Antiquités de Rome. Joyce gave a brief history of Spenser’s violent past, explaining how Spenser shared the responsibility in the massacre of Irish rebels in the Battle of Smerwick during the Second Desmond Rebellion. “They were given the opportunity to convert, and those that didn’t, which was the majority, were hanged. I thought it was a little ironic to give [his poem] back, transfigured,” explained Joyce, who transformed Spenser’s overtly elaborate version into monosyllabic words.

Joyce finished off the night with an enlightening question and answer period with the crowd. Dr. Cathy Wagner, Professor and Director of the Creative Writing Program, asked Joyce, “You said you like things that are planned from the beginning. Can you say why you like them?” regarding “Love Songs from a Dead Tongue.” Joyce responded, “The spontaneous element is evident, but [the end is known from the beginning]. I love that, I like the way the even the most artificial of poetry is always reliant on some level on the transaction of ordinary speech and ordinary human materials.”

When asked about how he became interested in translation, Joyce responded with a story. “When I was too young to know better, around eighteen or nineteen or something like that, this guy who was older than me, Mike Smith, he gave me a dual language text of the DSC_2775famous Middle Irish text, Buile Shuibhne, or The Madness of Sweeny… He just said, you know, ‘You need to read more, you need to try a little harder in this poetry you’re writing.’ So he made me work at it you know, ‘Try translating it, just try.’” Eventually, Joyce’s translation was published. “That showed it was possible that I could, even without a very extensive knowledge of languages, do [translation]… and everything is translation. You’re in conversation with somebody, you’re translating in your head, you’re explaining what they said to somebody else… It’s part of what we do. There are various degrees, there are various degrees of our faithfulness, but I like inventive translation.”

An audience member who noticed that Joyce is now working on his second translation of Edmund Spenser asked, simply, “Why Spenser?” Joyce responded, “Spenser wrote most of The Faerie Queene in Ireland… and my father’s people came from just on the other side of [Spenser’s castle] back around 200 years ago. My great grand uncle was the first person to locate Spenser’s landscape in The Faerie Queene as being actually the landscape of Munster and southern parts of Ireland, so that gives me a connection with him… But also that he was writing this great English poem… in Ireland, so I thought it was worth responding to.”

Joyce’s translation of the Mutabilitie Cantos from The Faerie Queene is forthcoming from the Miami University Press. His reading was sponsored by the Creative Writing Program and Miami University Press.

Alison Block
MU Press Intern
English Department Ambassador
Professional Writing ’17

 

Spotlight on erica lewis

Lewis

I stopped erica lewis (author of multiple books, curator of the John Oates House reading series, and a fine arts publicist who will visit Miami this Wednesday) with some questions about her process, recommendations, and life soundtrack. (Read Lewis’s daryl hall is my boyfriend (2015), murmur in the inventory (2013), and new poems from the forthcoming mary wants to be a superwoman.)

  1. What’s your process like?

It’s very organic. It’s structured, but only in the sense that once I think about doing a project, once I work the logistics out in my head, realize how the poems need to move from point a to b to c, then I can start writing them. They are structured before they are even written. When I write the pieces, I write them in order, so I basically write a poetry book straight through from beginning to end; it’s not a poem here and a poem there and then piece things together. It helps to keep the individual poems working with each other and advancing the story I want to tell. It keeps the whole book moving.  I used to be more rigid and create all sorts of rules for projects, constraints that didn’t let me really deviate from what I was doing or explore other things I wanted to do in the work. Those books were very very different than what I’m doing now with the box set trilogy.

 

  1. What are some influences on your work, and how have they manifested in your writing?

Visual art, music, history – they all influence my work in both content and style. If you read through the box set trilogy books, you’ll find references. If you look beyond the literal influences, you can see it in the language and visual formatting of a page, or the way a poem flows, how the language works with the visual and the lyrical. It’s all interwoven. And then, of course, you have to know your lineage in order to put it all together. The writers who came before you, you have to learn the craft of what they were doing before you can mess around with it and flip it and make it your own and create something new.

 

  1. What would you tell your undergrad self about the literary world that you know now?

The people that love your writing and get your work and champion and support you are not necessarily the people in your immediate surroundings. Sometimes you have to find your people. You have to go outside of your immediate community to be accepted and supported. If you stay within the confines of what one writing community is doing or offering you then you are limiting the potential of your work. Find your people.

 

  1. Do you have any literature or poetry recommendations?

Read everything.

 

  1. If your life had a soundtrack, which song would you pick for it?

Ha ha, my life does have a soundtrack. The “box set” trilogy uses the music of Hall and Oates, Stevie wonder, and Diana Ross. It takes the concept of sound tracking your life and explores songs as memories and triggers. Now, if I had to pick one artist right now, I couldn’t. One song, I couldn’t. And that says something about all of the music that makes up our lives, all of the people, energy, influences, art that makes us whole beings. That soundtrack should never stop.

Brie Moore
Editor-in-Chief of the Creative Writing Department Blog and English Department Ambassador
Creative Writing and Biology ’18

Get It In Your Body: Alumni Open Up at Leonard Theater Talk

Three graduates of Miami’s Poetry MA program—alumni Darren Demaree, Daisy Levy, and Chris Michel—visited the Leonard Theater in Peabody Hall on Tuesday to participate in a roundtable discussion. Each took radically different paths after their MA program, leading to a richly diverse conversation connected by the transference of that passion. They explained how their experience here influenced their present literary identity, with special relation to the talk’s subjects: poetry, translation, journalism, and rhetoric.

Darren Demaree is a widely-published poet with 5 collections and is the managing director of the Best of the New Anthology web magazine. Chris Michel is a personal essayist and editor for RunnersWorld.com and a former Fulbright scholar to Georgia. Together, Darren and Chris founded Ovenbird, an online poetry magazine.

Daisy Levy, a PhD in Rhetoric, is Associate Professor and Composition Coordinator at Southern Vermont College. Her studies focus mostly on dance and embodied rhetorics.

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The three were brought on stage by Western Program coordinator Zackary Hill, who prefaced their discussions with an introduction that set the tone for the evening: “After they left here, each of them found ways to make language an important part of their lives, and they pursue life with such passion.”

Though their fields and interests vary widely, their conversation converged on the topics of bodies and myths.  “There is the mythology of poetry and the practice of poetry, and they are often in conflict with each other.” Daisy said. “The mythology of poetry is that the mess is absent”.

The panelists shared their true “practice” of poetry, without romanticizing or leaving out that mess. Chris noted that before his time at Miami, his “practice used to be monastic. I thought that you secluded yourself you sweated blood if you needed to and you came out with something pure, but what I really wanted to do was tell stories.”

“Coming here did a lot to open up my understanding of what poetry was,” he added.

Darren described his practice as “obsessive. In school I had all of the energy directed into poetry and no language. I was fueled by hormones and substances and I had to learn to incorporate my process into it all.”

 

Daisy, wearing two pairs of layered glasses to substitute for bifocals, expressed a discomfort with the capital “P” serious poetry that she was always “trying to fit into.”

“The idea of it ever being a safe space is a fantasy,” she said. “I was intimidated by the capital letter Serious Poetry, and I continue to struggle to fit my body into that story.”unnamed-1

Most of the time, said Chris, he’d worked on fitting story-telling into his poetry, but his practice opened up when he found himself working for months on translating a piece of Georgian poetry into English.

“I had been so focused on narrative. All of a sudden I was working in a language that was all about emotion in sound,” he recalled. “I read it out loud, I read it quietly. I sang it. I paced back and forth.”

“You got it into your body,” Daisy commented. They all agreed.

 

The panelists mulled over the relationship between physicality and poetry, trying to reconcile themselves with the realities of their own practices. Their stories were not neat, they were not solely triumphant, and they didn’t present poetry as beautiful so much as they discussed its centrality in their lives.

“Poetry is a daily thing for me,” Darren said. “Nothing keeps me going more than that I get to go home and write some more Thursday.”

Deanna Krokos
English Department Ambassador
Political Science, Rhetoric, Ethics ’16

Spotlight on Alumni Darren Demaree, Daisy Levy, and Chris Michel

Three Miami alumni will be giving a talk this coming Tuesday English Department Ambassador Deanna Krokos had some questions for the three former Redhawks.

  1. What would you tell your undergrad self about the literary world that you know now?

Christopher- Oh I don’t know that my undergrad self would have listened to me anyway. He was pretty headstrong in his ideas about the literary world. I think I’d just leave him to figure it

out on his own terms–which is what I’m doing.

Darren– I would tell my undergrad self that it’s okay to read constantly, write constantly, and ignore anyone that fusses with the tether you hold on your artistic pursuit.

Daisy– I would say “Hey. You have time to read stuff. Slow down a little bit, and pay closer attention. Don’t worry about what other people think about what you’re reading.”

 

  1. What are the top two influences on your work (literary or nonliterary), and how have they manifested in your writing?

Christopher- Two is such a stingy number! I’d rather list twenty or none at all. Some of the biggest influences–David Foster Wallace, and George Saunders, have ultimately been dangerous for me, and I’ve had to work to shake them off so I don’t sound like bad imitations (which, in my worst moments, I still do). Some of my favorite influences, like the essayist Tom Bissell aren’t particularly famous–they’re like secret friends. But a lot of them—maybe the most influential of them—are the ones I met at a really early age. So Robert Frost is still one of the most serious poets in my life, and the one I’m always judging poems against. And Roald Dahl’s stories are so fundamental they’re almost beyond conscious inspection. But tomorrow I’d pick a different handful of writers to name.

Darren- Robert Creeley and Aase Berg would be the two poets I appreciate the most.  One is old, one is newer, but both of them challenge me in very important ways.

Daisy- Probably mid-20th c. American Modern Dance and um, if I can only pick one more, I’d say Toni Morrison. The Dance part is connected to what I said above about my connection to thinking about language and movement, but also, many of the choreographers, dancers, and performers of that era were really powerful thinkers too – about what art is, or can be, and why bother with it as a social phenomenon, as well as personally and individually expressive. Morrison? Well, I started reading her novels when I was in college in the late 80s, and her intensity of language just pulled me in. I also got to hear her speak once at that same time, and I was really impressed with the quietness of her voice at the same time that she was unquestionably fierce.

 

  1. What’s your process like and why does it work for you?

Darren– I write constantly.  Writing at much as I do gives me elbow room to experiment, to fail, to write differently than I have in the past about different topics.  It gives me the room to play with language guilt-free.  I write poetry all of the time because I enjoy the challenges that accompany the pursuit of the confluence of ideas, music, and language.  This is a challenge I believe to be unique to poetry.

Christopher- Lately, I’ve been writing articles and essays while at work, and I generally have to squeeze the writing in between more pressing activities. In that way, actually, it’s not that much different than when I was in college. Generally I do the necessary research, and try to have some brief, raw material on the topic in front of me, and then I start writing at what feels like the most interesting place, and keep writing until the idea seems to be worked out. If I need to go back and write an introduction, I’ll do that, but I’ll keep it as short as possible. Then I edit, edit, edit.

I’m always thinking about what’s going to make and keep a reader interested, and I try to gauge that by what keeps me interested.

Daisy- Messy. It involves a lot of doing of things that don’t necessarily look like writing. Sitting quietly, running, walking around my home, knitting, reading, cooking. Talking to other people. A lot of that, both casually, but also interviews, so as much talking as I might be doing, I spend a lot of time listening too. Journaling. Getting frustrated, and then writing as a series of questions. And at some point, I have to push myself to stop asking questions, and try answering them. For a long time I thought this didn’t count as a process, until I realized that writing and language is intimately connected to movement and then I felt a lot better about how I get ideas into written/shareable form.

 

  1. What should we be reading now?

Christopher- You should be reading something surprising and delightful, that’s such fun it’s hard to put down. Especially if it’s literature, books are better at enchanting than edifying. But you want names! If it’s fiction, I’ve liked David Mitchell for a while now, but go back and read Cloud Atlas before his new one, Bone Clocks. If it’s poetry, I think more people should read Jack Gilbert — A Brief for the Defense, to start. If you’re into comics, I’d say Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga is just amazing. It’s really good. If you like magazines and running, I’ll recommend Runner’s World

Darren– Aase Berg, Maggie Smith, Ross Gay, Terrence Hayes, and Claudia Rankine.

Daisy- Things that set you on fire. Things that make you want to do something. Not necessarily “DO” like in the socially minded, civic consciousness way, though that’s not a bad thing either. But read things that make you wanna MOVE.

 

  1. Do you mismatch your socks? Why or why not?

Christopher- Not often anymore–it gets too confusing to keep track of them all. But I let my 5-year-old dress herself, and she mismatches socks all the time, on purpose. She’s a regular Punky Brewster, that one.

Darren- I rarely wear socks at all.  Only if I’m headed to work do I wear socks.  They normally match.

Daisy- I do sometimes mismatch my socks. Though I guess the real question is “what is ‘mismatched’?” Right? I mean, if they don’t look the same, but you intended to put them on at the same time, isn’t that a match? IDK. Similarity is generally overrated. But I’m a rhetorician. I’m more into INTENTION and PURPOSE, when it comes down to it.

 

Come to their Reception in the Bachelor Reading Room 9/26 at 7 pm, and come back to the MU Bookstore Tuesday 9/27 for their talk at 7:30!

Alum Tom Dever Talks Screenplay-writing on a Shoestring in First Event of Year

On Thursday, September 15, nearly every seat of the Bachelor Reading room was eagerly filled to hear the insights of a recent Miami grad. Tom Dever earned his BA in Creative Writing here in Oxford before moving to California in pursuit of his MFA from the University of California and launching a successful career in the film industry. He walked up to the podium with a smile, sharing his excitement to be back on campus.

Dever, whose talk focused mainly on the secrets and tips that he’s discovered in his time as an independent, “microbudget” filmmaker, began by telling a story about his start in Hollywood. Frustrated with a lack of time to pursue his own passions and ideas while working for established production companies, he made the decision to pursue independent work.

“There are a ton of resources for making a film, it’s actually easier now than ever before,” Dever says about the route of independent production. Then, acknowledging the intimidation that deters many from the process: “what is the one thing keeping people from trying to make their own films? Money.”

Money is the biggest intimidation factor. However, if you know the right ways to budget out a film, the independent production route can be extremely rewarding. As Dever attests, making your own film allows you to carry out your vision as a writer to its maximum extent.

The rest of the talk was then devoted to revealing some of the wisdom and tricks that Dever has discovered in his leap down the rabbit hole of producing films on a “shoestring” budget.

The majority of his tips centered around what a screenwriter can do before hiring even a single crew member to reduce the potential costs of production—this includes acts as simple as setting scenes in a limited number of locations or limiting the number of actors who have talking parts. Other advice came from Dever’s personal experience in the field, such as the suggestion to avoid writing too much movement into a scene: the more a character moves, the more cameras and set-up—and thus money—are required to follow their actions around the set.

The biggest statement of the afternoon, capturing the spirit of Dever’s advice, was simple. What costs the big bucks is not the price of hiring a crew or a cast or renting equipment. All of these are in high supply and relatively cheap on a per-day basis. What costs money is retaining these production assets for long amounts of time over the course of a shoot. Dever verified that time is definitely money in the film business.

In the end, he left his audience with a few final pieces of advice.

“Work with people you trust, not necessarily people you like,” he says, earning laughs with his comments about how true this mantra becomes in the foreign land of LA. A film is made by the hard work of people you can tolerate, not the lazy work of your friends.  

The next statement earned a laugh and a few head nods of agreement: “Never underestimate what free food will get you.” Dever swears that there are many very talented actors and crews who will work for free if the food is good enough on set.

Finally, Dever administered the most stirring advice of the afternoon: “Pick which hill to die on.” As a writer, it is easy to become attached to your original vision for your screenplay, but in reality, many little aspects will have to change in order to make the paper script into a filmic reality. It is important to pick only the most essential elements to fight for and to learn to let go of the unnecessary.

Dever ended the hour with a statement that surely struck true for many of the creatively driven attendees in the audience. Yes, all of these tips might help to alleviate some of the fear associated with plunging into the creative yet uncertain industry of film, but fear will persist when there are so many unknowns. Dever’s final words of encouragement resonated as the room applauded: “But what’s the alternative? You’re artists; you’re writers. Would you rather have just a day job?”

 

Anna Jankovsky

English Literature ‘19

English Department Ambassador

 

Summer dreaming: graduate school

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It’s summertime and we’re taking a break from the blog for awhile. Wish all of us luck with our summer writing! But before we skedaddle, one last post. As Director of Creative Writing , I receive a lot of messages over the summer asking about our MA and MFA programs, so I suspect there are many smart, proactive students doing summer research on creative writing graduate programs who land on this blog. If you’re one of them, read on for a thumbnail sketch of Miami’s programs.

Miami offers two graduate degrees in creative writing:

  • A robustly funded Residential MA that offers the chance to teach creative writing every year, summer stipends, a distinctive commitment to mentorship, and a storied tradition of alumni success.
  • A Low-Residency MFA with a diverse group of brilliant mentors such as Porochista Khakpour, Hoa Nguyen, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Peter Orner, who work one-on-one with writers to help them hone their work and sustain their practice.

If admitted to our program, you will join a small and intimate creative writing program at a university that regularly ranks in the top five in the country for commitment to teaching. Our faculty writers are well-published, widely networked, and deeply committed to teaching and individual mentorship. Miami alums include a Pulitzer-nominated playwright (Rajiv Joseph), a Pulitzer winner (Rita Dove), a Director of the Academy of American Poets, and many other literary notables. Students go on to careers in university teaching, public service, editing and publishing. They are regularly awarded fellowships at the most prestigious MFA and PhD programs. Alumni writing has been included in the annual O. Henry Prize Stories collection and other anthologies, received Intro Awards from AWP and Honorable Mention in the Atlantic Monthly Young Writer’s Competition, and been published widely in literary journals. In the past few years, recent graduates have sold first books to Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, Harcourt, and Penguin USA. (Check out our Twitter feed and Facebook community page to find out about recent alumni publications, and follow us if you’d like to see the publishing and other opportunities we post there for students, alumni, and friends.)

Residential MA students enjoy unusual opportunities and support. All our students are

  • awarded substantial teaching assistantships that include a summer stipendteach a creative writing course every year
  • focus on fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction (or a combination of their choice) with award-winning faculty
  • work closely and individually with a distinguished visiting writer during annual Sprint Workshops (this year, sprint visitors included Chris Bachelder, Erin Moure, and Jenny Boully; recent visitors have included Fred Moten, Bernadette Meyer, Tom Raworth, Cary Holladay, Erin McGraw, and Rae Armantrout)
  • benefit from the nationally recognized teaching mentorship provided by our cutting-edge composition and rhetoric program
  • have the opportunity to spend a winter holiday on an internship in China (travel and lodging costs covered)
  • gain editing and publishing experience through Oxmag & Miami University Press
  • attend readings by a score of visiting writers—emerging, famous, and in-between—each year; the 2015–2016 series included Claudia Rankine and Kathryn Davis as well as our annual Symposium on Literary Translation

Low-residency MFA students design their own programs and learn from the best mentors in the business; all are able to

  • work closely and individually with master-writers including Porochista Khakpour, Emily Rapp, Hoa Nguyen, Peter Orner, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Dana Ward, Josip Novakovich and others
  • create individually guided reading projects around themes and craft issues relevant to them
  • participate in on-campus residencies with well-known writers, agents and editors
  • mix with our residential faculty and graduate students over the course of four residencies, becoming part of our community

Miami’s campus is lovely and park-like, with woods and trails on one side and a busy brick-streeted small town on the other. Robert Frost called Miami “the most beautiful campus that ever there was.” Prospective applicants can visit our website, Facebook page and Twitter feed, or write me, Cathy Wagner, at creativewriting@miamioh.edu with questions. Applications must arrive by January 1 for the MA and are accepted on a rolling basis for the MFA.

Till fall,

Cathy Wagner