12 Winters Blog

Interview with Grant Tracey: Cheap Amusements

Posted in August 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 18, 2016

When I started Twelve Winters Press in 2012, I modeled it, spiritually at least, after the Hogarth Press, the legendary press operated by Leonard and Virginia Woolf (founded in 1917). Hogarth became known as a publisher of groundbreaking work, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1924), for example, and the Standard Edition of the translated works of Sigmund Freud, as well as Virginia Woolf’s own experimental modernist novels.What many people don’t know, however, is that the Woolfs also published detective fiction. (See Diane F. Gillespie’s essay on the subject.)

Hence I considered it not only serendipitous but a downright good omen when I discovered that Grant Tracey had written a detective novel. The Press brought out Grant’s story collection Final Stanzas in 2015, and in the biographical note he sent me he mentioned that he was writing a crime novel set in 1960s Toronto. Mindful of the Woolfs, I was intrigued, so I asked if I could read the manuscript. He promptly sent me Cheap Amusements, featuring Hayden Fuller, an ex-hockey player turned private eye. What a wild ride! I was determined that Twelve Winters would bring out this hardboiled detective novel that manages to pay homage to the classics of the genre while also bringing something fresh and very contemporary to the form.

The book was released in hardcover as well as Kindle and Nook editions on August 11. I sent Grant some interview questions, and here are his unedited responses. Grant’s lively and insightful remarks are almost as much fun to read as the novel itself. Enjoy!

Cheap Amusements Front cover 1000

You’ve had a long love affair with detective stories. Who are some of your favorite writers, and when did you first discover you had a taste for the hardboiled?

My favorite hardboiled writer is Raymond Chandler. I first discovered him in high school. I started with Hammett (The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest), but when I read Chandler I knew something special was happening with the language, a guarded romanticism tinged with sadness. His prose was poignant; his hero, Philip Marlowe, had heart, nobility, and dignity. I liked him. I wanted to be like him. He wasn’t an anti-hero. He was a decent person. And those similes: “He had a face that looked like a dried lung.” Love it. Needless to say my early forays into the hardboiled were somewhat derivative. I think I even wrote a ridiculous overripe description that went something like: “He had a past pluperfect face.” Whatever that means. The PI stories I wrote at seventeen, eighteen and nineteen were all set in Cleveland, of all places. What did I know about Cleveland? And my PI was housed at the Rosevelt Hotel. Yes, spelled with one “o”. I didn’t know anything about American history either, apparently. But those stories were a start and I had to begin somewhere.

Grant 5

Can you point to any particular authors whose influence you can see in your own writing? Have you consciously adopted any technique from a beloved author or book?

Definitely Chandler in terms of plotting, and my own sense of hopeful optimism. Richard Stark in terms of lean prose and toughness. Donald Westlake for comedy and a lighter tone. Mickey Spillane for pure emotional violence. I love the energy of Spillane. In terms of appearance I see Hayden, in his 1950s crewcut, looking a bit like a Jewish Mickey Spillane. In terms of literary writers, who isn’t influenced by Hemingway? His style lends itself to the hardboiled. But two bigger influences on my voice are Steven Schwartz, especially his emphasis on interiority, narrative telling, and the inner story, and Bernard Malamud, my all-time favorite writer, with his emphasis on suffering, mourning, and the struggle to do the right thing. Like Malamud’s family, my mom’s family ran a corner Variety store and lived above it. At the risk of sounding preachy, I think of myself as a moral writer. Schwartz is a moral writer. So’s Malamud. I was born in 1960 and grew up on American television: The Defenders, Naked City, Combat, Star Trek, and The Loner. These stories presented weekly morality plays, and what I gleaned from their writers is an underlying feeling of optimism. If you treat people with respect and dignity and equality, then those people in turn will accord the same respect to others and have a stake in and contribute to society. I still have that feeling of hopeful optimism about what this country is and where it can go. I’m not big on dystopic narratives, even though most detective stories, in the American tradition are pyrrhic, the detective dies a little under the weight of the case and violent crimes he’s enmeshed in. Hayden Fuller is a fallen figure, but he empathizes with others, has a big heart, and tries to do right. He doesn’t always succeed, but who does?

Anyway, three other influences. Film Noir. I love the look and feel of the 1940s and 1950s and my PI’s name crosses tough guy actor Sterling Hayden with ultra-cool director Samuel Fuller. A lot of my painterly images are inspired by jazz album covers, the fashion of TV shows like The Green Hornet and Honey West, and the look and vibe of such masters of painting with light as directors of photography John Alton (check out The Big Combo) and Joe MacDonald (Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is essential viewing). The whole idea of the “third face” in Cheap Amusements came from Samuel Fuller, a former corporal in The Big Red One. Jazz. The novel was composed listening exclusively to hard-bop jazz of the 50s and 60s: Hank Mobley, Sonny Clark, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the greatest drummer of them all, Art Blakey. I love that music. It resonates urban angst and urgency and when I feel jazz I see images. I don’t think about words, lyrics, or the words I’m trying to write. Instead, the sounds give me an improvisational feel and I trust my instincts. I don’t worry about plot or my plot outline; I just follow the flow and go wherever the character and the mood dictates. Like jazz musicians leaving the core of the chart for tangential free floats, I float and float in random images, and then return. Hockey. I’m a Canadian, a Toronto city kid, and hockey’s in my blood. It was the way my immigrant grandparents became Canadian and they and my parents, in turn, passed down a love of the game to me. I’m also an avid historian of the Original Six: the NHL from 1942–1967, so all of the hockey details come from imagined probabilities and stories that have been passed on from my father and mother. Recently, T. T. Monday has published two noir mysteries involving a relief pitcher, and I figured let’s have a PI who’s an ex-NHL’er. Ross Macdonald was one of the first hardboiled writers to have his hero (Lew Archer) feel fallen for being a “divorce” detective and slinking about in the dirty skinny of “cheaters.” So I gave Hayden a similar backstory, one that got him ousted from the good old, secret-handshake society of the Original Six NHL.

Obviously the mystery or detective story has a long history–many attribute the modern detective story to Edgar Allan Poe in the mid nineteenth century–so how have you tried to put your own spin on the genre in Cheap Amusements?

I guess my spin is to combine the old with the new. I want to return to those writers I love: Chandler, Spillane, Stark, Jim Thompson, but with a literary emphasis. Literary writing is all about character-to-character interaction. What do these counter points, opposites, draw out from each other? It’s not about following a plot. Detectives follow the plot string, yes, but to get the answers they need they read people and this is what most literary writers do (character over plot). Moreover, I wanted to have heightened lyrical moments, to allow the language of the story to take me places. There are a couple of such moments in Cheap Amusements. In one, Hayden slips into “pockets of silence,” zones of stillness, where he’s transported into being a kid at a fair; in another moment he slips into the transcendent contemplations that ice skating can bring.

I also, again at the risk of sounding preachy, want to distance myself from the somewhat sordid tradition of salacious sex and sexism that abounds in the hardboiled tradition. I travel in those areas (the femme fatale, pornography, sexual exploitation), but I try to place the emphasis on bad male behavior, men exploiting women, as opposed to Eve-like women asking us to join her in eating the apple. I try not to be too titillating about the sex. I try to right some of the past wrongs of the hardboiled tradition, but like Hayden I don’t always succeed.

We are billing Cheap Amusements as a literary detective novel. In your mind, what does that adjective mean in this case (ha), and how does it make your book different from, say, a more run-of-the-mill detective story?

Detective stories are often restricted to first-person or limited third point-of-views and I have both. I begin the novel with a brief, surreal limited third point of view because I wanted the past event that haunts Hayden to almost feel unreal, as if it’s not being remembered correctly. But the rest first-person, pretty traditional. However, as I said earlier, the emphasis on detective fiction needs to be on character and character-to-character interactions, what the detective observes and surmises. That’s literary. Moreover. Language. I hate invisible flat prose, the kind that abounds in bad genre writing. I want to engage readers with my language, characterizations, and plotting. I want to keep giving them the unexpected within the expected, the defamiliar within the familiar. I want the plot to take them on a journey where the answer to the central question makes sense but still surprises in some way. There’s also a lot of comedy in Cheap Amusements from the dialogue zingers to some of the situations. At least I kept cracking myself up while writing it. And I see that as investing in the absurdist, literary tradition.

Some early readers of the book have noted the main character’s similarities to you. How much of Hayden Fuller is you? How is he different from his creator?

Hayden is a 1950s cat in a 1960s world and I feel the same way. I’m a retro guy in the new millennium. My glasses, a kind of mask, are Malcolm X or Vince Lombardi inspired. I wear white socks. With everything! I just finally got a smart phone! Hayden sports a porkpie because I like them and I wear them too. Like me, he cares deeply about people, has a passion for hockey, is sexually shy, and is somewhat of a wise-ass (very confident in his comic touches that he likes to drop in any moment). He’s not me in the sense that he’s tough. I run, I mean a ten-second 100 meter dash, from conflict. And Hayden can skate! I was hopeless on skates, my weak ankles always nicking up the ice’s surface. I played two years of house league, was a defenseman, and my coach always had me playing one zone back. So let’s say the puck is in the other team’s end. My D-partner was parked at their blue line and I was parked at the checkered center line! However, I was a great road hockey player or ball hockey as we later called it. Played forward and goalie. But me and Hayden, we both believe in the goodness of people. We both aspire to be professionals and do our jobs the best we can. We want other people to succeed.

You’ve published more than fifty short stories and four collections. When did you decide to try your hand at a detective novel? Did the character of Hayden Fuller come to you fairly early in the creative process, or did it take awhile to develop him?

As I said previously, crime novels were my first love. When I sent my sister the Twelve Winters trailer for Cheap Amusements she said, “Broheem, this is what you’ve always wanted. I remember all those detective stories you wrote in high school and college. Film Noir, hot cars, and PIs.”

After getting my MA from K-State in English with a creative writing emphasis, I became totally committed to literary fiction, for years, publishing stories in small magazines, but I was always reading crime books. Noir, or mystery tropes figure in some of my literary stories: “Faraway Girl” and “Used and Abused” from Final Stanzas are indebted to those sensibilities. Anyway, a few years back I got hooked on the Hard Case Crime series edited by Charles Ardai and I enjoyed his mixing up of reprints with new arrivals, his retro blend of the old and new, and I thought what the fuck, I can do this, there’s a market for non-CSI crime stories. And between October–November 0f 2014, in 40 days, listening to jazz, I wrote the first draft of Cheap Amusements.

Hayden Fuller emerged very quickly. I didn’t have to think about him at all or create him. He was just there. It was so strange. The porkpie, the attitude, the passion for hockey. I could totally see him and be him. It was a perfect fit. And the voice was there. Right from day one. It was magical. Only about a quarter of all the stories I’ve written did plotting or characterization flow as easily. Usually, I have to do substantial rewrites or tweaks. With Cheap Amusements and Hayden it was a smooth ride, like I was behind the wheel of a ’63 Ford Galaxie. It was as if all the other detective stories I’d written as a kid were a warm-up for the novel I was always meant to write.

You’ve created some strong and independent female characters, which tends to run contrary to the classic detective noir. I know this was a conscious choice on your part. Why so?

Like I said before, I want to be a part of and apart from the earlier hardboiled tradition of salacious sex and sexist portrayals of women. I have three daughters. I believe in Title IX and the rights of women. Future Hayden Fuller stories will feature even stronger female characters.

Your daughter Effy is one of your closest readers, and biggest fans. How important to your process is her reading your work? Does anyone else influence your work in progress?

Effy’s writing is very bright. By that I mean her stories, characters, burn with passionate energy. They speak boldly, take risks, allow themselves to be vulnerable. They are always interesting. Her YA novels are amazing because Effy is totally committed to her story world and her characters. She cares so deeply about all of them. And I want to make sure that I’m equally committed, equally vulnerable, so I seek her guidance in making sure I’m being honest and fair. There’s a scene in the novel where Hayden cries. Is that part of the hardboiled tradition? I don’t care. It felt right and the honesty in Effy’s work encouraged me to pursue the same honesty in my own. She loved that moment, by the way. Effy also raises great plot questions and doesn’t let me skate by with nonsense. Hopefully she’ll soon find an agent for her work. It needs to be out there in the world. It’s that good. And if any agents are reading this, her name’s Effy Traicheff and she’s the real deal.

Mitchell D. Strauss, my all-around best buddy, is an avid crime noir reader (big fan of Harry Bosch) and after reading my first draft he told me I needed to toughen Hayden up a little bit. Take a little of the Grant Tracey out of Hayden Fuller. He also helped me create greater urgency in the overall narrative arc and pushed me to come up with a “splash” opening to draw readers in. Caitlin, my oldest daughter, reads all the time (fifty books this summer), and she loves all kinds of crime stories from Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels to Cheap Amusements. She helped with rewrites and replotting and honing in on Hayden’s sensibilities.

You’re frequently drawn to historical periods in your fiction, and Cheap Amusements is set in 1965. What’s the attraction of historical settings, and why the Sixties for this book?

I love the Sixties. So much optimism and a time of societal change: the Civil Rights Act, and the overall questioning of authority and patriarchal privilege. The era brought about the fight for gay rights, women rights, and war protest movements. I also just love the fashions, the look, the music (Dylan, Cash, the Stones), the TV shows.

Hockey is obviously a great love of yours. How does your passion for the game fuel your fiction?

In some ways the scaffolding for Cheap Amusements places elements of hockey into Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. My Marlowe is an ex-NHL’er. The Sterwnood sisters are the Stabulas girls, hockey fans, and Eddie Mars, the gambler, is now Babe Migano, a crime kingpin with links, gambling and otherwise, to Maple Leaf Gardens. My story takes us into a demimonde of gangsters and sports, centering around Canada’s obsessions with hockey, and how such obsessions encourage reporters to look the other way, rather than at the institution’s flaws. Some hockey players did beat up their wives in the 1960s and the media didn’t address it.

I also loved writing all the hockey stuff, the inside info about the game’s history and sensibilities, and the novel does end with a hockey metaphor.

I know you’re thinking of the next Hayden Fuller mystery. Any hints about what that story may be about?

I’ve already started working on a sequel, “A Fourth Face.” Bobby Ehle, ex Leaf rear-guard, is accused of killing his ex-wife (she was stalked by him and beaten badly, but did he kill her?). He asks Hayden to find the real killer while Bobby contemplates fleeing to Cuba. Hayden’s journey leads him to a confrontation with Lennie Cassel, a Detroit mobster, Cliff Airedale, a plastic surgeon, and a host of other mobsters and corrupt businessmen and hockey scouts. Cheap Amusements supporting characters Babe Migano, Dawn Stoukas, and Sal Lambertino make their presence felt in this new two-fisted tale.

Readers have described the cinematic quality of your writing. How does your love of film and your passion for teaching film affect your narrative style? Who are some directors and/or screenwriters that you think have influenced your storytelling techniques?

In terms of straight-ahead literary writing, John Cassavetes and many of his films: Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), and Husbands (1970) is a prime influence on my work. I like his emphasis on characterization and the shifting tonalities that occur in his scene work as conversations move from one mood to another, directing the story. He always places characters first. And in my own writing I want the dialogue to move like a Cassavetes film. In terms of Cheap Amusements, my influences are painterly: hard-bop jazz records, 1960s muscle cars, and noir visuals, the Nighthawks-like nightscapes of Alton and Macdonald and the irrational chaos of Samuel Fuller, and how you can’t trust what you see. The world is a swirl of confusion. I want my visuals to create a mood of urgency and, at times, alienation. In terms of my liberal leanings and sense of hope I’ve got to go with the TV writers: Paddy Chayefsky, Gene Roddenberry, Reginald Rose, and Rod Serling.


Grant Tracey, thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has published more than fifty short stories and four collections of his fiction, including Final Stanzas (released by Twelve Winters Press is 2015). He teaches courses in creative writing and film at the University of Northern Iowa, where he also serves as fiction editor of the prestigious North American Review. In addition to his writing, teaching and editing, Grant has performed in over twenty community theater productions. Visit Grant’s Amazon page. (Author photo by Mitchell D. Strauss.)

Danielson Framework criticized by Charlotte Danielson

Posted in April 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 27, 2016

I’ve been writing about the Danielson Framework for Teacher Evaluation for a couple of years, and in fact my “Fatal Flaws of the Danielson Framework” has been my most read and most commented on post, with over 5,000 hits to date. I’ve also been outspoken about how administrators have been misusing the Framework, resulting in demoralized teachers and unimproved (if not diminished) performance in the classroom. (See in particular “Principals unwitting soldiers in Campbell Brown’s army” and “Lowered teacher evaluations require special training.”) At present, teachers are preparing — at great time and expense — to embark on the final leg of the revamped teacher evaluation method with the addition of student performance into the mix (see ISBE’s “Implementing the Student Growth Component in Teacher and Principal Evaluation”). I’ve also written about this wrongheaded development: “The fallacy of testing in education.”

Imagine my surprise when I discovered an unlikely ally in my criticism of Charlotte Danielson’s much lauded approach: Charlotte Danielson herself. The founder of the Danielson Framework published an article in Education Week (April 18 online) that called for the “Rethinking of Teacher Evaluation,” and I found myself agreeing with almost all of it — or, more accurately and more egocentrically, I found Charlotte Danielson agreeing with me, for she is the one who has changed her tune.

My sense is that Ms. Danielson is reacting to widespread dissatisfaction among teachers and principals with the evaluation process that has been put in place which is based on her Danielson Framework. Her article appeared concurrently with a report from The Network for Public Education based on a survey of nearly 3,000 educators in 48 states which is highly critical of changes in teacher evaluation and cites said changes as a primary reason for teachers exiting the profession in droves and for young people choosing not to go into education in the first place. For example, the report states, “Evaluations based on frameworks and rubrics, such as those created by Danielson and Marzano, have resulted in wasting far too much time. This is damaging the very work that evaluation is supposed to improve . . .” (p. 2).

Ms. Danielson does not, however, place blame in her Framework, at least not directly. She does state what practically all experienced teachers have known all along when she writes, “I’m deeply troubled by the transformation of teaching from a complex profession requiring nuanced judgment to the performance of certain behaviors that can be ticked off a checklist.” Her opinion is a change from earlier comments when she said that good teaching could be easily defined and identified.  In a 2012 interview, Ms. Danielson said that her assessment techniques are “not like rocket science,” whereas “[t]eaching is rocket science. Teaching is really hard work. But doing that [describing what teaching “looks like in words”] isn’t that big a deal. Honestly, it’s not. But nobody had done it.”

Instead of her Framework, then, Ms. Danielson places the lion’s share of the blame with state legislators who oversimplified her techniques via their adoptions, and — especially — with administrators who are not capable of using the Framework as it was intended. She writes, “[F]ew jurisdictions require their evaluators to actually demonstrate skill in making accurate judgments. But since evaluators must assign a score, teaching is distilled to numbers, ratings, and rankings, conveying a reductive nature to educators’ worth and undermining their overall confidence in the system.”

Amen, Sister Charlotte! Testify, girlfriend!

Danielson quote 1

Ms. Danielson’s critique of administrators is a valid one, especially considering that evaluators were programmed, during their Danielson training, to view virtually every teacher as less than excellent, which put even the best-intentioned evaluators in a nitpicking mode, looking for any reason, no matter how immaterial to effective teaching, to find a teacher lacking and score them “proficient” instead of “excellent.” In her criticism of administrators Ms. Danielson has touched upon what is, in fact, a major shortcoming of our education system: The road to becoming an administrator is not an especially rigorous one — especially when it comes to academic rigor — and once someone has achieved administrative status, there tends to be no apparatus in place to evaluate their performance, including (as Ms. Danielson points out) their performance in evaluating their teachers.

Provided that administrators can keep their immediate superior (if any) content, as well as the seven members of the school board (who are almost never educators themselves), they can appear to be effective. That is, as long as administrators do not violate the terms of the contract, and as long as they are not engaging in some form of obvious harassment, teachers have no way of lodging a complaint or even offering constructive criticism. Therefore, if administrators are using the Danielson Framework as a way of punishing teachers — giving them undeservedly reduced evaluations and thus exposing them to the harms that can befall them, including losing their job regardless of seniority —  there is no way for teachers to protect themselves. They cannot appeal an evaluation. They can write a letter to be placed alongside the evaluation explaining why the evaluation is unfair or invalid, but their complaint does not trigger a review of the evaluation. The evaluator’s word is final.

Danielson quote 2

According to the law of averages, not all administrators are excellent; and not all administrators use the evaluation instrument (Danielson or otherwise) excellently. Some administrators are average; some are poor. Some use the evaluation instrument in a mediocre way; some use it poorly. Hence you can quite easily have an entire staff of teachers whose value to the profession is completely distorted by a principal who is, to put it bluntly, bad at evaluating. And there’s not a thing anyone can do about it.

Another crucial point that Charlotte Danielson makes in her Education Week article is that experienced teachers should not be evaluated via the same method as teachers new to the field: “An evaluation policy must be differentiated according to whether teachers are new to the profession or the district, or teach under a continuing contract. . . . Once teachers acquire this status [i.e. tenure], they are full members of the professional community, and their principal professional work consists of ongoing professional learning.” In other words, experienced teachers, with advanced degrees in their content area and a long list of professional accomplishments, shouldn’t be subjected to the same evaluation procedure as someone who is only beginning their career and has much to learn.

In fact, using the same evaluation procedure creates a very odd dynamic: You oftentimes have an administrator who has had only a limited amount of classroom experience (frequently fewer than ten years, and perhaps only two or three) and whose only advanced degree is the one that allows them to be an administrator (whereby they mainly study things like school law and school finance), sitting in judgment of a teacher who has spent twenty or thirty years honing their teaching skills and who has an advanced degree in their subject area. What can the evaluator possibly say in their critique that is meaningful and appropriate? It is commonplace to find this sort of situation: A principal who was a physical education or drivers education teacher, for perhaps five years, is now sitting in an Advanced Placement Chemistry classroom evaluating a twenty-year veteran with a masters degree or perhaps even a Ph.D. in chemistry. The principal feels compelled to find something critical to say, so all they can do is nitpick. They can’t speak to anything of substance.

Danielson quote 3

What merit can there be in a system that makes evaluators omnipotent judges of teachers in subject areas that the evaluators themselves literally are not qualified to teach? It isn’t that veteran teachers don’t have anything to learn. Far from it. Teaching is a highly dynamic, highly challenging occupation; and the successful teacher is constantly learning, growing, self-reflecting, and networking with professional peers. The successful principal makes space for the teacher to teach and for the student to learn, and they protect that space from encroachment by anyone whose design is to impede that critical exchange.

Ms. Danielson offers this alternative to the current approach to evaluation: “An essential step in the system should be the movement from probationary to continuing status. This is the most important contribution of evaluation to the quality of teaching. Beyond that, the emphasis should be on professional learning, within a culture of trust and inquiry. . . . Experienced teachers in good standing should be eligible to apply for teacher-leadership positions, such as mentor, instructional coach, or team leader.”

Ironically, what Ms. Danielson is advocating is a return to evaluation as most teachers knew it prior to adoption of the Danielson Framework.

(Grammar alert: I have opted to use the gender-neutral pronouns they and their etc. even when they don’t agree in number with their antecedents.)

 

 

Interview with Theo Landsverk: The Madman’s Rhyme

Posted in March 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on March 25, 2016

Shining Hall, an imprint of Twelve Winters Press, has recently released the book of children’s poetry, The Madman’s Rhyme, written and illustrated by Theo Landsverk. All of my press’s releases are special, but this one is especially so because The Madman’s Rhyme began as a class project by one of my students, and I approached Theo about transforming the project into a publishable book. He was interested, but we had to wait for him to be old enough to sign the publishing agreement. Also, the manuscript wasn’t quite long enough to be a book, so he took some time to add more material, and also to tidy up some of the illustrations via Photoshop.

Everything came together by end of 2015, so we went to work on producing the book, which was released in hardcover and Kindle editions in February. It’s become a tradition for me to interview the press’s authors when their work is released, so I sent Theo some questions and what follows are his responses.

cover-image

How would you describe the process you used to create “The Madman’s Rhyme”? Did the poetry tend to come first, and then you illustrated the poems? Or did the art come first and the words followed?

I would describe the process to be like the growth of a plant. First comes the seed, an idea. Then roots come next, which would be a line of poetry. More lines of poetry trickle after each other until a stem of poetry is produced. Once the poem was completely grown the illustrations would blossom around it.

Which did you find more challenging, writing the poems or creating the artwork? Why?

I found both of them to have their challenges, but by far the poetry itself was the toughest part. Fragments of poetry would pop in my head without trying but the hard part was completing the poem. Some days I had more poetic creativity and inspiration than others so that also caused some trouble when I was on a deadline.

The Madman’s Rhyme is considered children’s literature; however, some may consider the themes of some of the poems as being more adult. What are your thoughts on the “appropriate age” of your book?

It is hard to judge a true “appropriate age” for poetry because any age group can enjoy it thoroughly. I myself can enjoy a Dr.Seuss at the age of 18, so if the concern is that older audiences may feel too aged for such childish literature I would say that is nothing to worry about. A lot of my poems tend to have insight on deeper things and darker subjects making some question if this book is suitable for younger children. I can’t really judge that myself because at the age of 8 I was reading Poe’s poetry and stories. To say it shortly, age is irrelevant when reading poetry.

I have compared your work to the Brothers Grimm and even Edgar Allan Poe. Do those comparisons work for you? Did you read the Grimms as well as Poe growing up?

I feel rather honored to be compared to those works because those are what I indeed read growing up. When I was young I was very fond of fairytales and Disney movies, but I was more in love with the rustic and crude Brothers Grimm stories. They were like the unedited Disney for me. I also read a lot of Poe’s works. I admit it was a lot for an 8-year-old to even try to comprehend deeply, but I still enjoyed it and kept reading his works. It was Poe who inspired me to write poems to begin with.

Did you enjoy reading children’s books of poetry when you were very young? What were some of your favorite children’s books or children’s authors?

I loved reading children’s poetry books growing up. Shel Silverstein’s books had me in awe and held my attention span for so long with his witty words and pen illustrations. I would say his works are right in line with Poe’s when it comes to those who inspired me the most. I also really enjoyed Dr. Seuss, but who didn’t?

I know you’re interested in animation. What do you find so attractive about animation compared to “still” art? What are you goals as far as being an animator?

Animation is visual storytelling. It is bringing life to artwork. The possibilities are endless with animation and those are the reasons it fascinates me. My goal in animation is to work for a big-name company and make children’s movies.

Are there any poems or pictures in The Madman’s Rhyme that you’re especially proud of? Why?

It is really hard to choose because I am proud of them all, but I must say my favorite poems are “Feed Me,””Sip the Sorrow,” and “Wallpaper.” I am not too sure the reason why but those are the ones I treasure most. When it comes to illustrations, those for “Wallpaper,””In the Trenches,” and “Feed Me” are my favorites.

You did some of the illustrations free hand, and for others you used Photoshop . Do you prefer one approach to the other?

I prefer traditional. It feels more personal and almost mystical to illustrate traditionally. The physical process is more rewarding to me and the product is visually unique.

This is your first book, but you’ve won other awards and accolades – for example?

I have won numerous awards in the regional Scholastic Art competitions and New Berlin art competition throughout my high school career. I have also won a poster competition for drug and alcohol abuse awareness.

Do you have some other projects you’re working on, or what are your plans for school, etc.?

As of right now I do not have any major projects I am working on, just small ones to experiment with mediums. My plan for school is to go to the DAVE School (Digital Animation and Visual Effects school) in Florida.

Theo at Hoogland reading

Theo Landsverk reads from The Madman’s Rhyme at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield, Illinois, March 17, 2016.

Interview with Pauline Uchmanowicz: Starfish

Posted in February 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 28, 2016

Since founding Twelve Winters Press in 2012 and beginning to publish in 2013, oftentimes I’ve had to do a fair amount of detective work to find the projects I wanted to bring out. For example, I might read a writer’s work that I like very much in a journal , and their contributor’s note says they have a novel, or story collection, or poetry collection that’s looking for a home–then I go about tracking down the author and trying to get a look at their manuscript. In other instances, wonderful manuscripts have come to me out of the blue, as if handed down by the literary divinities. Such was the case with Starfish, a collection of poems by Pauline Uchmanowicz.

Last June my wife Melissa and I attended the North American Review Bicentennial Conference in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and we had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of Stephen Haven, the director of The Ashland Poetry Press. After the conference, Stephen and I stayed in touch about this or that poetry- or publishing-related issue. In the fall, an email arrived from Stephen with a manuscript attached to it: a collection of poetry by Pauline Uchmanowicz. Stephen admired the collection, but it wasn’t going to fit into Ashland’s publishing schedule, so he was wondering if Twelve Winters may be interested in it.

I, too, was much impressed by the work, and downright moved by many of the poems. I contacted the poet, who directs the undergraduate creative writing program at SUNY New Paltz. It turns out she was at the NAR Conference also, and she had visited Twelve Winters’ table, and picked up The Waxen Poor, a poetry collection by J. D. Schraffenberger, so she was familiar with the Press and with the quality of the work we were producing. Soon we came to an agreement to release her spellbinding collection in print and digital editions.

I asked Twelve Winters’ contributing editor John McCarthy to work with Pauline to finalize the manuscript for publication, and I’m happy to report that Starfish was released last week, available in print, Kindle and Nook editions. It’s become a tradition that I interview our authors about their books, and so what follows are Pauline’s unedited responses to a series of questions I sent her.

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You’ve been published widely, including two chapbooks of poetry, but Starfish is your first full-length collection. Would you discuss the evolution of this project, and its path to publication?

Bill Knott, with whom I studied in the 1980s, liked to boast that Stéphane Mallarmé wrote few poems in his lifetime, and “nearly all of them perfect.” Also during the 80s, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (to paraphrase remarks he made at a public reading) said it surprised him when poets proclaimed to be working on a book: “You don’t hear a painter say, ‘I’m working on a museum installation.’ A painter works on a painting; a poet works on a poem.” (The present-day art and publishing worlds might contest this dictum.) Meanwhile, Virginia Hamilton Adair—though her work appeared widely in top literary journals—published her first volume of poems, Ants on the Mellon, at the age of eighty-four.

So, for the past thirty years, always “working on a poem” until as realized as possible, I was never in a hurry to publish a full-length volume until the time to do so felt right. Now is the time.

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Stephen Haven, director of The Ashland Poetry Press, shared your manuscript with me because he was impressed by it, but budget issues were impacting his wherewithal to bring out new titles. Obviously it’s been challenging for poets to place their work with presses for a long time (forever?), but is your sense that it’s becoming more and more challenging?

Thank you for mentioning Stephen Haven, a wonderful poet to whom I owe sincere gratitude. The fact that he passed my manuscript on to you in part illustrates what follows.

In some ways, because of independent, small-press, online, and self-publishing, it’s easier than ever for poets to place their work—but in many ways much, much harder, due in large part to the proliferation of MFA programs and professionalization of Creative Writing as an academic discipline. Moreover, these days there is so much competition—and among very good writers. At the same time, the poetry world has always been somewhat insular, with established writers helping younger ones break into publishing. Poets continue to need support from the literary community and also must make themselves known within it—whether small-scale or large. For better or for worse, writers today who “network” increase their chances for publication. Of course, many talented writers (and editors) rightly promote others like themselves.

Crucially, the current wave of small presses—perhaps the lifeblood of “print” today—remains vital to keeping publishing possibilities alive, often through contests and awards with submission fees to defray costs. Also, due to the sheer volume of books that come out each year, poets have to do much more of the marketing and promotion than ever before, even if working with national or university presses.

All that said, working closely with Twelve Winters Press has been a privilege, my own input valued throughout the publishing process.

Starfish is divided into three parts. What was your thinking in terms of its structure, and the arrangement of the poems? Were there any agonizing choices, or once you figured out your modus operandi did the structure come together fairly easily?

In addition to book design (and TWP does a great job), the ordering of poems remains essential among elements in any poetry volume. While I’d like to claim a grand scheme for organizing Starfish into three sections—a trinity of mind, body, soul, for example—instead my decision was based on how poems might meaningfully unfold consecutively as well as side-by-side (verso and recto). Specific themes, motifs, and catalogs became apparent, such as a suite of poems that questions what to relinquish, what to retain, proceeding from the final lines of “Beachside Burial”: “why no one returns / for what was left / behind?” But broad categories do emerge. For example, the middle section has several seaside poems, while in contrast the final one is announced by the poem “Landlocked.” Also, after working for so many years on the manuscript, I had a fairly good idea of where to place each selection.

The poems in the collection tend to be brief, often a single stanza. Has this brevity been typical of your poetry throughout your career, or is Starfish a departure in this regard?

My preference as a reader has always been for small, well-made poems featuring suppressed subjectivity (as in the absence of “I”) and universal emblems—poems that likely will endure in terms of structural integrity and subject matter—fifty or a hundred years from now. The poetry of Ted Kooser, mid-career Louise Glück, and Jean Follain, respectively, comes to mind. So yes, “miniatures” have been a staple of my work all along. Sometimes I do aim to write beyond a page or two, but the process can feel forced (for me), so that I end up editing a poem down to its imagistic essences. With small poems, one can hone in on manifold parts, such as verb choices and rhetorical figures that underscore meaning overall.

I recently attended a program by Juan Felipe Herrera, the U.S. Poet Laureate (and a former creative writing teacher of mine); and one of the issues he discussed was the difficulty associated with writing a long poem and maintaining the intensity of the emotion from beginning to end. Would you agree that longer poems (however one may define “long”) can be challenging for a poet, especially in terms of sustaining the poem’s energy and emotional impact?

Associated with poetry writing today is the buzzword “elliptical,” meaning that beyond sustaining long form and retaining within it a unified vision a poem ought to take surprising, unexpected leaps relative to imagery, as Billy Collins’s work notably does. Such a poem might arrive at an epiphany or apocalyptic closure, circling back to early moments in its body. But I agree that it can be difficult to sustain vision overall in long form, which some poets resolve through use of numbered or titled section breaks. Also, I do see many poems published today that are long-lined and long form, confessional in tone and at times adopting diffused autobiography for “emotional impact.”

Your question also reminds me of a former newspaper editor I worked with who, on the subject of “length” and wordiness, once quipped by way of analogy, “I would have written you a short letter—if I had time.” The challenge of poetry writing in general, I believe, is to use the least amount of words possible to achieve what critic Paul Fussell calls “absolute density.”

Juan Felipe also said that for him, in revision, he often cuts the opening and ending lines of a poem, finding that its core is where the “heat” resides—and by cutting the beginning and ending lines, he can intensify the poem’s emotional impact. As a poet and as a teacher of creative writing, does his process strike a familiar chord with you? How would you describe your writing and revising process?

Juan Felipe’s revision process has resulted in good poetry for him, and in some ways resembles how I work. Like for many poets, a piece of my own may start with a line or an image that places pressure on what follows; I don’t usually cut first lines. Other times, I know where a poem will end, so the challenge becomes building to those final lines. This was the case with the allegorical poem “Death,” which ends with the eponymous figure speaking to a recently departed soul.

But I do find myself cutting not just last lines but whole stanzas. And in teaching creative writing, I sometimes do recommend that student poets cut a final line or couplet, which could serve as the opening of a “new” poem. I’m also big on recommending transpositions, so that the placement of engaging or charged material resonates at well placed moments within a poem.

Speaking of teaching . . . many writers/poets who teach find teaching rewarding but also draining, especially their creative energies. How do you balance teaching with your creative output? Do you find that teaching in some ways encourages and informs your writing and publishing?

The fresh and surprising output of young writers is always delightful to me, making it easy to devote energy to their creative endeavors over my own. Whether teaching writing or literature, I aim to be “fresh” myself in terms of readings, written assignments, and pedagogical approaches. One can spend hours reading and commenting on student work, or on preparing lecture notes and assignments. And in addition to a heavy teaching load, during any given semester I’m directing an independent study, Honors Program thesis, or editorial internship—sometimes all three at once.

Since I direct an undergraduate Creative Writing program, a huge block of my time and energy goes into programming—over a dozen events an academic year with demanding details involved, from booking writers to securing funding. We also put out an expansive student literary magazine, which I edit.

I believe all of these endeavors “encourage” my writing. But the way it gets completed is the same for how teaching and administrative tasks do: I compartmentalize. I’ve always admired writers who work every day—say by rising at 5 a.m. to squeeze in an hour before going to a job. That’s not me, though my writing notebook is always within reach beside the morning cereal bowl and coffee cup.

Which poems in Starfish were the most difficult to write? Were there any technical issues with the poems that presented particular challenges? Are there poems that you’re especially proud of?

Almost every poem in Starfish was difficult to write, some requiring a ridiculous number of drafts (Bill Knott sitting on one’s shoulder, as it were). The same technical issues attend to every selection in the book: the aim of achieving “absolute density” mentioned above. But every once in a while, a poem just “happened.” For example, flipping through a notebook one day, I came upon “Postmark” (untitled at the time), which I barely remembered even writing. So the challenge was to find the emotional center of the poem then to tinker with a few words, and also find an expressive title. A recurring technical puzzle for me in general involves line breaks. I tend to end-stop (rhythmically) lines and always want to find alternate ways of phrasing or incorporating enjambment instead.

At one point, I was proud of the meta-poem Explication de texte, which actually did come about when I was teaching a graduate seminar with close reading at its core. The poem is a single sentence, with every line commenting on itself by using the language of prosody. Usually though, the “current” poem I’m working on most enchants me.

You do other sorts of writing besides poetry (reviews, for example). For lack of a better way of asking this question—do you feel that all your writing, regardless of form or genre, comes from the same place? Or do you have to tap into different parts of your … brain … soul … psyche … to write, say, verse, as opposed to an essay or review?

No matter what one writes, there’s always a rhetorical performance involved, and many of the devices and techniques used to craft poetry influence my writing in prose, from sharpening and tightening for readability and clarity to aiming for lyricism or metaphors that suggest the subject at hand.

Does writing a book review or author profile derive from a different aspect of consciousness than writing a poem? Sure, absolutely, because one’s energy is on representing and championing other people. What does come from the “same place” though is the desire to write as exactingly or as beautifully as possible.

How important do you believe it is for younger poets to be well studied in the history and traditions of poetry? Do you believe it’s crucial to become at least proficient in fixed forms (like the sonnet or sestina) before working with less formally structured poems?

Not to lapse into clichés here, but we all know too many young people who become turned off to poetry before they even engage it fully because canonical works are not familiar to them in terms of imagery or cadences. So I tend to start with free-verse short forms (readings as well as writing assignments)—to focus on what a line is and how it operates—then introduce basic poetic units. But I do believe it’s vital and necessary for younger poets to study and understand historical traditions and also to experiment in fixed forms and accentual-syllabic meter. My tendency though is to always insert the qualifier that a poem crafted in response to an assignment (write a sonnet, write a poem in terza rima) may “modify” a fixed or traditional form.

Overall in teaching poetry writing, I take a page from Martín Espada’s pedagogy: the goal is for each person to develop a unique poetic identity in terms of language and subject matter, with focus on the image (Espada). Thus, learning to read and write poetry means understanding and appreciating poetic images.

Recently I was reading Paul Valéry’s thoughts on writing poetry, and I was particularly struck by his belief that too many young poets, of his day, put too much faith in inspiration, and therefore not enough effort into the hard work of writing and revising a poem. What role do you think inspiration plays in the process, and would you tend to agree with Valéry (as I’ve represented him here)?

I can’t speak to young poets as a whole, but while some known to me reject revision, believing “inspiration” to be an article of faith, most come to the realization that drafting, revising, and polishing are important aspects of “writing” poetry.

On this subject, when interviewing Charles Simic for a profile in Chronogram magazine, and mentioning that his sparse, elegant poems appear divinely made, I was reassured when he stated, unequivocally: “There’s no muse. I don’t take dictation. It’s really a slow process of making the poem—of endless tinkering and revising to make it sound inspired.” So, a goal is for a poem to appear inspired—as if just written down in a single sitting—even if its genesis was far different than that.

Nearly every poet I know enjoys public recitation of their work, and many seem to feel that public performance is the truest way for an audience to receive their work. What are your feelings? Do you enjoy sharing your work via your voice, and do you feel you’re able to represent your poetry more completely than when it is merely read on the page?

Nationally and internationally celebrated poets I’ve heard speak on page-versus-stage poetry have maintained that a poem should read easily on the page and also be easily comprehended—for its lyricism as well as its meaning—when read aloud. I believe if a poem has integrity it will be well received in print or performance. As far as reading one’s work aloud, for me, that takes practice as well. I’m especially struck by what Richard Blanco says on this subject in his brief memoir, For All of Us, One Today, about how he prepared to read his occasional poem for President Obama’s second inaugural. If you watch the video of Blanco’s performance it appears seamless and effortless—but hours and hours of rehearsal went into his four minutes or so on the podium.

Who are some poets, past and present, that you especially admire, and why? Would you point to any poet or two who have been particularly instructive or inspiring?

My list is long and lengthy. I like all kinds of poets and poems from various eras, mainly beginning with the British Romantics (John Keats and William Blake, especially) and moving forward. I like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman from the nineteenth-century American canon. Poets I read over and over again in translation include Jean Follain and Wisława Szymborska. I like dozens and dozens of American poets (some already named but worth repeating here): Lucille Clifton, Ted Kooser, Kay Ryan, Martin Espada, Linda Gregg, Carl Dennis, and often whomever I happen to be reading or teaching at the moment. I also seek out books by poets whose works I’ve enjoyed reading in literary journals, or who may have won a distinguished prize, like Ansel Elkins for Blue Yodel (Yale Younger Poets Award, 2014). It’s always good to check out what young writers are up to today.

What new projects are currently underway?

I’m “working on a poem” (and another, and another). My notebook is stuffed with nonfiction essays in progress and I’ve recently written a number of short fiction pieces. My next deadline (about one week from now) is for four book reviews.


 

Pauline Uchmanowicz is the author of two poetry chapbooks and has received residency grants at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. A freelance writer in the Hudson Valley, her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in Crazyhorse, Ohio Review, Ploughshares, Provincetown Arts Journal, Radcliffe Quarterly, Woodstock Times, Z Magazine, and elsewhere. She is associate professor of English and director of Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz. (Author photo by Franco Vogt)

Accidental Poets: Paul Valéry’s influence on William Gass

Posted in February 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 18, 2016

The following paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, held at the University of Louisville February 18-20. Others papers presented were “The Poet Philosopher and the Young Modernist: Fredrich Nietzshe’s Influence on T.S. Eliot’s Early Poetry” by Elysia C. Balavage, and “Selections from ‘The Poetic Experiments of Shuzo Takiguchi 1927-1937’” by Yuki Tanaka. Other papers on William H. Gass are available at this blog site; search “Gass.”


In William H. Gass’s “Art of Fiction” interview, in 1976, he declared two writers to be his guiding lights—the “two horses” he was now “try[ing] to manage”:  Ranier Maria Rilke and Paul Valéry. He added, “Intellectually, Valéry is still the person I admire most among artists I admire most; but when it comes to the fashioning of my own work now, I am aiming at a Rilkean kind of celebrational object, thing, Dinge” (LeClair 18). That interview for The Paris Review was exactly forty years ago, and viewing Gass’s writing career from the vantage point of 2016, I am here to suggest that, yes, Rilke has been a major influence, but Valéry’s has been far greater than what Gass anticipated; and in fact may have been even greater than Rilke’s in the final analysis. Assessing influence, however, is complicated in this case, I believe, because a large part of Gass’s attraction to Valéry’s work in the first place was due to his finding the Frenchman to be a kindred spirit. Hence it is difficult to say how much of Gass is like Valéry because of Valéry’s influence and how much is because of their inherent like-mindedness.

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A quick survey of Gass’s work since 1976—which includes two novels, a collection of novellas, a collection of novellas and stories, and eight books of nonfiction—may imply that Rilke has been the greater influence, as Gass intended. After all, Gass’s magnum opus, The Tunnel (1995), for which he won the American Book Award, centers on a history professor of German ancestry who specializes in Nazi Germany (Rilke allusions abound); and his other post-1976 novel, Middle C (2013), for which he won the William Dean Howells Medal, centers on a music professor born in Vienna whose special interest is Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg; and, glaringly, there is Gass’s Reading Rilke (1999), his book-length study of the problems associated with translating Rilke into English. However, a more in-depth look at Gass’s work over these past four decades reveals numerous correspondences with Valéry, some of which I will touch upon in this paper. The correspondence that I will pay particular attention to, though, is that between the title character of Valéry’s experimental novella The Evening with Monsieur Teste (1896) and the protagonist of Gass’s Middle C, Joseph Skizzen.

Before I go further, a brief biographical sketch of Paul Valéry: He was born in 1871, and published two notable works in his twenties, the essay “Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci” and Monsieur Teste; then he stopped publishing altogether for nearly twenty years—emerging from his “great silence” with the long poem “The Young Fate” in 1917 at the age of forty-six. During his “silence,” while he didn’t write for publication, he did write, practically every day, filling his notebooks. Once his silence was over, he was catapulted into the literary limelight, publishing poems, essays, and dramas, becoming perhaps the most celebrated man of letters in France. By the end of his life in 1945 he’d been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature a dozen times.

The title for this paper comes from Gass himself. In his 1972 review of Valéry’s collected works, in the New York Times Book Review, he wrote that Valéry “invariably . . . [pretended] he wasn’t a poet; that he came to poetry by accident” (The World Within the Word 162). By the same token, Gass has insisted in numerous interviews (and he’s given many, many interviews) that he’s not a poet, that the best he can achieve is an amusing limerick. Others, however, have asserted that Gass’s fiction is more akin to poetry than prose, that his novellas and novels are in essence extremely long prose poems; and in spite of his insistence on his not being a poet, he would seem to agree with this view of his work. In a 1998 interview, for instance, Gass said, “I tend to employ a lot of devices associated with poetry. Not only metrical, but also rhyme, alliteration, all kinds of sound patterning” (Abowitz 144). Moreover, about a decade earlier he said that “all the really fine poets now are writing fiction. I would stack up paragraphs of Hawkes, Coover, Elkin, or Gaddis against the better poets writing now. Just from the power of the poetic impulse itself, the ‘poets’ wouldn’t stand a chance” (Saltzman 91). Critics have tended to include Gass in the group of writers whom Gass described as poet-novelists.

For your consideration, from The Tunnel:

A smile, then, like the glassine window in a yellow envelope. I smiled. In that selfsame instant, too, I thought of the brown, redly stenciled paper bag we had the grocer refill with our breakfast oranges during the splendid summer of sex and sleep just past—of sweetly sweating together, I would have dared to describe it then, for we were wonderfully foolish and full of ourselves, and nothing existed but your parted knees, my sighs, the torpid air. It was a bag—that bag—we’d become sentimental about because (its neck still twisted where we held it) you said it was wrinkled and brown as my balls, and resembled an old cocoon, too, out of which we would both emerge as juicy and new as the oranges, like “Monarchs of Melody,” and so on, and I said to you simply, Dance the orange (a quotation from Rilke), and you said, What? There was a pause full of café clatter. (160-61)

And beyond Gass’s poetic prose, he has written actual poems, besides the off-color limericks that populate The Tunnel. In Middle C, for example, there is a longish, single-stanza poem written via the persona of the protagonist, Joseph Skizzen. It begins, “The Catacombs contain so many hollow heads: / thighbones armbones backbones piled like wood, / some bones bleached, some a bit liverish instead: / bones which once confidently stood / on the floor of the world” (337). And, perhaps more significantly, there are the translated poems in Reading Rilke. There was a celebration held at Washington University in St. Louis in honor of Gass’s ninetieth birthday, Passages of Time, and he read from each of his works in chronological order, except he broke chronology to end with his translation of Rilke’s “The Death of the Poet,” which concludes,

Oh, his face embraced this vast expanse,
which seeks him still and woos him yet;
now his last mask squeamishly dying there,
tender and open, has no more resistance,
than a fruit’s flesh spoiling in the air. (187)

It was a dramatic finale, especially since the event was supposed to be in July, near Gass’s birthday, but he was too ill to read then; so it was rescheduled for October, and the author had to arrive via wheelchair, and deliver the reading while seated. Happily, he was able to give another reading, a year later, when his new book, Eyes, came out. (I wasn’t able to attend the Eyes reading, so I’m not sure how he appeared, healthwise, compared to the Wash U. reading.)

My point is that, like Valéry, Gass has downplayed his abilities as a poet, yet his literary record begs to differ. The fact that he broke the chronology of his birthday celebration reading to conclude with a poem—and he had to consider that it may be his final public reading, held on the campus where he’d spent the lion’s share of his academic life—suggests, perhaps, the importance he has placed on his work as a poet, and also, of course, it may have been a final homage to one of his heroes. In spite of Gass’s frailness, his wit was as lively as ever. When he finished reading “The Death of the Poet,” and thus the reading, he received an enthusiastic standing ovation. Once the crowd settled, he said, “Rilke is good.”

Evidence of the earliness of Valéry’s influence or at least recognized kinship is the preface to Gass’s iconic essay collection Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), which Gass devotes almost entirely to the connection between the collection’s contents and the way that Valéry had assembled his oeuvre. Gass writes, “It is embarrassing to recall that most of Paul Valéry’s prose pieces were replies to requests and invitations. . . . [H]e turned the occasions completely to his account, and made from them some of his profoundest and most beautiful performances” (xi). Gass continues, “The recollection is embarrassing because the reviews and essays gathered here are responses too—ideas ordered up as, in emergency, militias are”; and then he describes his book as a “strange spectacle” in which he tries “to be both philosopher and critic by striving to be neither” (xii). So, Gass recognizes the parallel between the forces at work in Valéry’s literary life and his own. Gass has readily acknowledged the slowness with which his fiction has appeared (notably, it took him some twenty-six years to write The Tunnel), citing two reasons: the slowness with which he writes, and rewrites, and rewrites; but also the fact that he regularly received opportunities to contribute nonfiction pieces to magazines and anthologies, and to give guest lectures, and they tended to pay real money, unlike his fiction, which garnered much praise but little cash over his career.

This parallel between the circumstances of their output is interesting; however, the correspondences between Valéry’s creative process and his primary artistic focus, and Gass’s, is what is truly significant. In his creative work, Valéry was almost exclusively interested in describing the workings of the mind, of consciousness; and developing complex artistic structures to reflect those workings. T. S. Eliot noted Valéry’s dismissiveness of the idea of inspiration as the font of poetic creation. In Eliot’s introduction to Valéry’s collection The Art of Poetry, he writes, “The insistence, in Valéry’s poetics, upon the small part played [by ‘inspiration’ . . .] and upon the subsequent process of deliberate, conscious, arduous labor, is a most wholesome reminder to the young poet” (xii). Eliot goes on to compare Valéry’s technique and the resulting work to that done by artists in other media, most notably music composers: “[Valéry] always maintained that assimilation Poetry to Music which was a Symbolist tenet” (xiv). James R. Lawler echoes Eliot when he writes that Valéry “makes much of the comparison of poetry to the sexual act, the organicity of the tree, the freedom of the dance, and the richness of music—especially that of Wagner” (x).

The wellspring of music composition as a source of structural principles for poetry (or highly poetic prose) is arguably the greatest correspondence between Valéry as artist and Gass as artist. Examples abound, but The Tunnel and Middle C offer the most radiant ones. For the The Tunnel Gass developed a highly synthetic structure based on Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School’s musical theory of a twelve-tone system. Consequently there are twelve sections or chapters, and in each Gass develops twelve primary themes or images. He said, “[T]hat is how I began working out the way the various themes come in and out. It’s layered that way too. . . .” (Kaposi 135). In The Tunnel, Gass’s methodology is difficult to discern because Gass gave it a “chaotic and wild” look while in fact it is, he said, “as tightly bound as a body in a corset” (134). He achieved the appearance of chaos by “deliberately dishevel[ing]” the narrative with “all kinds of other things like repetitions [and] contradictions.” He said, “[T]he larger structure must mimic human memory, human consciousness. It lies, it forgets and contradicts. It’s fragmentary, it doesn’t explain everything, doesn’t even know everything” (134). For Middle C, the use of the Schoenberg system is much more overt, with Skizzen, its protagonist, being a music professor whose specialty is Schoenberg and Skizzen’s obsession with getting a statement about humans’ unworthiness to survive just right. Skizzen believes he is on the right track when he writes the sentence in twelve beats, and near the end of the novel he feels he has the sentence perfect:

First    Skizzen           felt                   mankind         must                perish

then     he                    feared             it                      might              survive

The Professor sums up his perfect creation: “Twelve tones, twelve words, twelve hours from twilight to dawn” (352). Gass, through his narrator, does not discuss the sentence’s direct correlation to the Second Viennese School’s twelve-tone system, but it does match it exactly.

Let me return to another Valéry-Gass correspondence which I touched on earlier: their concern with the workings of the mind or, said differently, consciousness. Jackson Mathews, arguably the most herculean of Valéry’s translators into English, begins his introduction to Monsieur Teste with the statement that “Valéry saw everything from the point of view of the intellect. The mind has been said to be his only subject. His preoccupation was the pursuit of consciousness, and no one knew better than he that this pursuit led through man into the world” (vii). Valéry’s interest in the mind was present in his earliest published work, the essay on Leonardo’s method and, even more obviously, Monsieur Teste, that is, “Mr. Head” or “Mr. Brain as Organ of Observation” or something to that effect. However, it was during Valéry’s twenty-year “silence” that he delved into the phenomenon of consciousness most critically. Gass writes, “Valéry began keeping notebooks in earnest, rising at dawn every day like a priest at his observances to record the onset of consciousness, and devoting several hours then to the minutest study of his own mind” (“Paul Valéry” 163). As noted earlier, Gass fashioned The Tunnel, all 800 or so pages of it, to mimic the human mind in its intricate workings. In Middle C, Gass pays much attention to Skizzen’s thought processes, especially his copious writing, revising, critique of, and further revising of his statement about humans’ unworthiness for survival. Such concerns are everywhere in Gass’s work, including his most recently published, the collection of novellas and stories, Eyes. I would point in particular to the novella Charity, a challenging stream-of-consciousness narrative, all a single paragraph, that mercilessly bounces between the main character’s childhood and his present, and, chaotically, various times in between, all the while sorting through his feelings about the act of charity and how he came to feel about it as he does in the now of the story.

In the limited time remaining, I’ll turn to the correspondence between Valéry’s character Monsieur Teste and Gass’s Joseph Skizzen (though I think William Kohler, the narrator of The Tunnel, has significant Teste-esque qualities as well). The convention of The Evening with Monsieur Teste is that the narrator is a friend of Edmond Teste’s, and he goes about attempting to describe his friend’s character. There is very little action per se, and as such almost nothing in the way of plot, in a conventional sense at least (very Gassian in that regard). He tells us that he came to “believe that Monsieur Teste had managed to discover laws of the mind we know nothing of. Certainly he must have devoted years to his research” (11). In Middle C, Joseph Skizzen is obsessed with what he calls his Inhumanity Museum, essentially a record, largely in the form of newspaper clippings and personal notes, of humans’ ceaseless cruelty to one another. The collection is associated with his ongoing struggle to word just so his statement about humans’ unworthiness to survive. Monsieur Teste becomes almost a recluse, desiring little contact with other people. He is married, but the narrator suggests that Monsieur and Madam Teste’s relationship is more platonic than passionate, due to Edmond’s preference for the intellectual over the emotional. Similarly, Skizzen never marries in Middle C, and in fact never has sex—he flees as if terrified at the two attempts to seduce him, both by older women, in the novel. Ultimately he ends up living with his mother in a house on the campus where he teaches music history and theory, his few “pleasures” consisting of listening to Schoenberg, assembling his Inhumanity Museum, and revising his pet statement. What is more, Teste’s friend describe Edmond’s understanding of “the importance of what might be called human plasticity. He had investigated its mechanics and its limits. How deeply he must have reflected on his own malleability!” (11-12). Skizzen’s malleability is central to his persona in Middle C. He goes through several name changes, moving from Austria to England to America, and eventually fabricates a false identity, one which includes that he has an advanced degree in musical composition, when in fact his knowledge of music is wholly self-taught. One of the reasons he gravitates toward Schoenberg as his special interest is because of the composer’s obscurity and therefore the decreased likelihood that another Schoenberg scholar would be able to question Skizzen’s understanding of the Austrian’s theories. But over time Skizzen molds himself into a genuine expert on Schoenberg and a respected teacher at the college—though his fear of being found out as a fraud haunts him throughout the novel.

To utter the cliché that I have only scratched the surface of this topic would be a generous overstatement. Perhaps I have eyed the spot where one may strike the first blow. Yet I hope that I have demonstrated the Valéry-Gass scholarly vein to be a rich one, and that an even richer one is the Valéry-Rilke-Gass vein. A couple of years ago I hoped to edit a series of critical studies on Gass, and I put out the call for abstracts far and wide; however, I had to abandon the project as I only received one email of inquiry about the project, and then not even an abstract followed. Nevertheless, I will continue my campaign to bring attention to Gass’s work in hopes that others will follow me up the hill, or, better still, down the tunnel. Meanwhile, if interested, you can find several papers on Gass’s work at my blog.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” 1998. Ammon 142-48.

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Eliot, T. S. Introduction. The Art of Poetry. By Paul Valéry. Trans. Denise Folliot. New York: Pantheon, 1958. vii-xxiv. Print.

Gass, William H. Charity. Eyes: Novellas and Short Stories. New York: Knopf, 2015. 77-149.  Print.

—. Preface. Fiction and the Figures of Life. 1970. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. xi-xiii. Print.

—. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. 1999. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

—. The Tunnel. 1995. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2007. Print.

—. The World Within the Word. 1978. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Print.

Kaposi, Idiko. “A Talk with William H. Gass.” 1995. Ammon 120-37.

Lawler, James R. Introduction. Paul Valéry: An Anthology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977. vii-xxiii. Print.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” 1976. Ammon 46-55. [online]

Mathews, Jackson. Introduction. Monsieur Teste. By Valéry. Trans. Jackson Mathews. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989. vii-ix. Print.

Valéry, Paul. Monsieur Teste. 1896. Trans. Jackson Mathew. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989. Print.

Notes on images: The photo of Paul Valéry was found at amoeba.com via Google image. The photo of William H. Gass was found at 3ammagazine.com via Google image.

 

The fallacy of testing in education

Posted in October 2015 by Ted Morrissey on October 18, 2015

For the last several years education reformers have been preaching the religion of testing as the lynchpin to improving education (meanwhile offering no meaningful evidence that education is failing in the first place). Last year, the PARCC test (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) made its maiden voyage in Illinois. Now teachers and school districts are scrambling to implement phase II of the overhaul of the teacher evaluation system begun two years before by incorporating student testing results into the assessment of teachers’ effectiveness (see the Guidebook on Student Learning Objectives for Type III Assessments). Essentially, school districts have to develop tests, kindergarten through twelfth grade, that will provide data which will be used as a significant part of a teacher’s evaluation (possibly constituting up to 50 percent of the overall rating).

To the public at large — that is, to non-educators — this emphasis on results may seem reasonable. Teachers are paid to teach kids, so what’s wrong with seeing if taxpayers are getting their money’s worth by administering a series of tests at every grade level? Moreover, if these tests reveal that a teacher isn’t teaching effectively, then what’s wrong with using recently weakened tenure and seniority laws to remove “bad teachers” from the classroom?

Again, on the surface, it all sounds reasonable.

But here’s the rub: The data generated by PARCC — and every other assessment — is all but pointless. To begin with, the public at large makes certain tacit assumptions: (1) The tests are valid assessments of the skills and knowledge they claim to measure; (2) the testing circumstances are ideal; and (3) students always take the tests seriously and try to do their best.

assessment blog quote 1

But none of these assumptions are true most of the time — and I would go so far as to say that all of them being true for every student, for every test practically never happens. In other words, when an assessment is given either the assessment itself is invalid, and/or the testing circumstances are less than ideal, and/or nothing is at stake for students so they don’t try their best (in fact, it’s not unusual for students to deliberately sabotage their results).

For simplicity’s sake, let’s look at the PARCC test (primarily) in terms of these three assumptions; and let’s restrict our discussion to validity (mainly). There have been numerous critiques of the test itself that point out its many flaws (see, for example here; or here; or here). But let’s just assume PARCC is beautifully designed and actually measures the things it claims to measure. There are still major problems with its data’s validity. Chief among the problems is the fact that there are too many factors beyond a district’s and — especially — a classroom teacher’s control to render the data meaningful.

For the results of a test — any test — to be meaningful, the test’s administrator must be able to control the testing circumstances to eliminate (or at least greatly reduce) factors which could influence and hence skew the results. Think about when you need to have your blood or urine tested — to check things like blood sugar or cholesterol levels — and you’re required to fast for several hours beforehand to help insure accurate results. Even a cup of tea or a glass of orange juice could throw off the process.

That’s an example that most people can relate to. If you’ve had any experience with scientific testing, you know what lengths have to be gone to in hopes of garnering unsullied results, including establishing a control group — that is, a group that isn’t subjected to whatever is being studied, to see how it fares in comparison to the group receiving whatever is being studied. In drug trials, for instance, one group will receive the drug being tested, while the control group receives a placebo.

Educational tests rarely have control groups — a group of children from whom instruction or a type of instruction is withheld to see how they do compared to a group that’s received the instructional practices intended to improve their knowledge and skills. But the lack of a control group is only the beginning of testing’s problems. School is a wild and woolly place filled with human beings who have complicated lives, and countless needs and desires. Stuff happens every day, all the time, that affects learning. Class size affects learning, class make-up (who’s in the class) affects learning, the caprices of technology affect learning, the physical health of the student affects learning, the mental health of the student affects learning, the health of the teacher affects learning (and in upper grades, each child has several teachers), the health and circumstances of the student’s parents and siblings affect learning, weather affects learning (think “snow days” and natural disasters); sports affects learning (athletes can miss a lot of school, and try teaching when the school’s football or basketball team is advancing toward the state championship); ____________ affects learning (feel free to fill in the blank because this is only a very partial list).

assessment blog quote 2

And let me say what no one ever seems to want to say: Some kids are just plain brighter than other kids. We would never assume a child whose DNA renders them five-foot-two could be taught to play in the NBA; or one whose DNA makes them six-foot-five and 300 pounds could learn to jockey a horse to the Triple Crown. Those statements are, well, no-brainers. Yet society seems to believe that every child can be taught to write a beautifully crafted research paper, or solve calculus problems, or comprehend the principles of physics, or grasp the metaphors of Shakespeare. And if a child can’t, then it must be the lazy teacher’s fault.

What is more, let’s look at that previous sentence: the lazy teacher’s fault. Therein lies another problem with the reformers’ argument for reform. The idea is that if a student underachieves on an exam, it must be the fault of the one teacher who was teaching that subject matter most recently (i.e., that school year). But learning is a synergistic effect. Every teacher who has taught that child previously has contributed to their learning, as have their parents, presumably, and the other people in their lives, and the media, and on and on. But let’s just stay within the framework of school. What if a teacher receives a crop of students who’d been taught the previous year by a first-year teacher (or a student teacher, or a substitute teacher who was standing in for someone on maternity or extended-illness leave), versus a crop of students who were taught by a master teacher with an advanced degree in their subject area?

Surely — if we accept that teaching experience and education contribute to teacher effectiveness — we would expect the students taught by a master teacher to have a leg up on the students who happened to get a newer, less seasoned, less educated teacher. So, from the teacher’s perspective, students are entering their class more or less adept in the subject depending on the teacher(s) they’ve had before. When I taught in southern Illinois, I was in a high school that received students from thirteen separate, curricularly disconnected districts, some small and rural, some larger and more urban — so the freshman teachers, especially, had an extremely diverse group, in terms of past educational experiences, on their hands.

For several years I’ve been an adjunct lecturer at University of Illinois Springfield, teaching in the first-year writing program. UIS attracts students from all over the state, including from places like Chicago and Peoria, in addition to students from nearby rural schools, and everything in between (plus a significant number of international students, especially from India and China). In the first class session I have students write a little about themselves — just answer a few questions on an index card. Leafing through those cards I can quickly get a sense of the quality of their educational backgrounds. Some students are coming from schools with smaller classes and more rigorous writing instruction, some from schools with larger classes and perhaps no writing instruction. The differences are obvious. Yet the expectation is that I will guide them all to be competent college-level writers by the end of the semester.

The point here, of course, is that when one administers a test, the results can provide a snapshot of the student’s abilities — but it’s providing a snapshot of abilities that were cured by uncountable and largely uncontrollable factors. How, then, does it make sense (or, how, then, is it fair) to hang the results around an individual teacher’s neck — either Olympic-medal like or albatross like, depending?

As I mentioned earlier, validity is only one issue. Others include the circumstances of the test, and the student’s motivation to do well (or their motivation to do poorly, which is sometimes the case). I don’t want to turn this into the War and Peace of blog posts, but I think one can see how the setting of the exam (the time of day, the physical space, the comfort level of the room, the noise around the test-taker, the performance of the technology [if it’s a computer-based exam like the PARCC is supposed to be]) can impact the results. Then toss in the fact that most of the many exams kids are (now) subjected to have no bearing on their lives — and you have a recipe for data that has little to do with how effectively students have been taught.

So, are all assessments completely worthless? Of course not — but their results have to be examined within the complex context they were produced. I give my students assessments all the time (papers, projects, tests, quizzes), but I know how I’ve taught them, and how the assessment was intended to work, and what the circumstances were during the assessment, and to some degree what’s been going on in the lives of the test-takers. I can look at their results within this web of complexities, and draw some working hypotheses about what’s going on in their brains — then adjust my teaching accordingly, from day to day, or semester to semester, or year to year. Some adjustments seem to work fairly well for most students, some not — but everything is within a context. I know to take some results seriously, and I know to disregard some altogether.

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Mass testing doesn’t take into account these contexts. Even tests like the ACT and SAT, which have been administered for decades, are only considered as a piece of the whole picture when colleges are evaluating a student’s possible acceptance. Other factors are weighed too, like GPA, class rank, teacher recommendations, portfolios, interviews, and so on.

What does all this mean? One of things that it means is that teachers and administrators are frustrated with having to spend more and more time testing, and more and more time prepping their students for the tests — and less and less time actually teaching. It’s no exaggeration to say that several weeks per year, depending on the grade level and an individual school’s zeal for results, are devoted to assessment.

The goal of assessment is purported to be to improve education, but the true goals are to make school reform big business for exploitative companies like Pearson, and for the consultants who latch onto the movement remora-like, for example, Charlotte Danielson and the Danielson Group; and to implement the self-fulfilling prophecy of school and teacher failure.

(Note that I have sacrificed grammatical correctness in favor of non-gendered pronouns.)

Interview with E. S. Holland: City of Broad Shoulders

Posted in September 2015 by Ted Morrissey on September 26, 2015

My wife Melissa and I went to the Chicago Book Expo last December, held at Columbia College, and it turned out to be a great networking opportunity–in fact, greater than we realized at the time. Little did we know that one of the many folks who stopped by our Twelve Winters Press table was scouting publishers for a friend. About a month after the Expo, in early January 2015, I received an email from a woman who had a book she was shopping. It didn’t seem quite right for Twelve Winters Press, but I found her email engaging–for one thing, she was a fan of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, as am I–so I asked her to send me the manuscript. I really enjoyed reading it, but it definitely was beyond the scope that I’d always envisioned for Twelve Winters.

However, Melissa and I were already planning to expand the Press’s mission by establishing a children’s literature imprint, Shining Hall (we published Shawna’s Sparkle in July), so we thought maybe we could expand in another direction as well. After several email conversations with the woman who’d written the entertaining little book, I accepted it for publication, and in the summer we established Maidenhead Hall, a publisher of smart erotica, to bring out the book. At the end of September we proudly released City of Broad Shoulders: An Esmée Anderson Experience (No. 1), by E. S. Holland. The book is available in printKindle and Nook editions.

author image - cropped

I like to publish an interview with my authors upon the release of their books. Normally it’s just a matter of trading emails, but with Ms. Holland’s globetrotting, it proved to be a bit more challenging. What follows is the interview, which has been edited together from emails, Facebook Messenger exchanges, and a phone call (I had to get up a 2 a.m. to catch her, but at least it was in the summer and I was back in bed by 3).

City of Broad Shoulders Front Cover

You’d written and published other kinds of writing, but City of Broad Shoulders is your first piece of erotica, if I’m not mistaken. What motivated you to work in this genre, and what was your inspiration for this particular story?

I’ve always been a writer, and I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t making up stories in my head and jotting them down. But, yes, before Broad Shoulders it’d mainly been poetry and travel writing, with occasional French-to-English or English-to-French translations, mainly of poetry. There were a lot of reasons I wanted to try my hand at adult material—at literary erotica—and not the least of which is the challenge of it. I’ve taken a few writing workshops, and I’ve read a lot of articles and interviews about writing; and it seems universally recognized that writing “sex scenes” is especially tricky. So, on the one hand, I was attracted to the challenge of it. In grad school I went through a Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin phase, and I admired how they had mastered all kinds of narrative, including erotica.

But, quite honestly, I’d have to credit the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon for giving me that final push into the “adult” genre. The books are so bad, so poorly written and so degrading to women (and men too I think), and yet so incredibly popular—I thought there must be a type of reader who is aching for intimate writing, and, if so, they’re surely craving intimate writing that is better than Fifty Shades. I hope they’ll find Broad Shoulders better than Fifty Shades, in many ways.

So, in a sense, City of Broad Shoulders is kind of an anti-Fifty Shades?

Not that I was sitting around writing, sneering at a picture of E. L. James for inspiration, or anything like that. But I know the book had an effect. My friends and I, and especially my writers’ group, talked a lot about the books and then eventually the movie, aghast at how terrible the writing is, and how terrible the messages are that the series broadcasts to both women and men. Because of my profession, I travel a lot, a lot, and for months it seemed that no matter where in the world I was, all these young women were walking around with copies of the books. I’d go into a coffeehouse, it didn’t matter where—New York, LA, London, Paris, Milan—and there would be at least someone reading one of the books. Usually a young woman, often an adolescent, and I had to wonder what lessons they were taking away from the books.

One of my degrees is in psychology, so I couldn’t help thinking what a number the books were doing on the girls’ sense of self, and how it was impacting their budding sexual identities. For many, I’m sure they’d had no real sexual encounters, and probably hadn’t read anything so explicit before—so their introduction (at least their print introduction) to male-female intimacy involved violence, degradation, obsessions, fetishes, and all the unhealthy behaviors were o.k., were forgivable, because the perpetrator was rich and good-looking. And because the young woman thought so little of herself, had such low self-esteem, she mistook his exploitation of her for love.

You shouldn’t have got me started . . .

But I know from other conversations we’ve had that you don’t see your book as being political, as being some sort of polemic against Fifty Shades.

Yes, absolutely. I’m sure Christian and Ana and their fucked-up relationship are lurking somewhere in the background, but really Broad Shoulders is intended to be a fun and funny book. I think the fact that the first-person narrator, Esmée, is a smart, independent, take-charge woman who enjoys consensual, mutually respectful sex is what makes it fun and funny—or at least I hope that’s how readers react to it. That’s how my writer friends reacted to it.

Your writers’ group, who meet at the café, you begin your acknowledgments by recognizing their friendship, and the contribution of sharing the details of their “escapades.” How crucial were they to writing Broad Shoulders?

I can’t overstate how crucial they were. Normally I’d share pretty serious stuff—poetry, and my dabbling at translations, that sort of thing—but one afternoon I showed up with this thing I’d been writing in the voice of this smart-alecky chick, this American with a French name, Esmée. I just had two or three pages, but pretty soon we were laughing and swapping stories (even more than usual). I didn’t quite know what I had on my hands, but over the next several weeks I figured out who Esmée is and what sort of story she wanted to tell. So I let her.

Who is Esmée Anderson? You share the same occupation, which might lead one to conclude she’s you.

She’s a little me, of course, or I’m a little her—and she’s definitely bits and pieces of my writers’ group. After all, she’s pretty experienced for a young woman. She’s done a lot of living (and a lot of loving) for one person. A writer gets to exercise some artistic license.

City of Broad Shoulders is “An Esmée Anderson Experience” number-one, so obviously others are planned. Talk about that if you would.

As you know, I’m planning to write other “Experiences”—there are a lot of stories to tell, and I enjoyed writing the first one. Once I got my sea legs with Esmée, it came together fairly easily, all things considered. Hopefully they’ll find an audience, and hopefully you’ll want to continue to publish them. I like that Maidenhead [Hall] is bringing them out in print as well as Kindle and Nook. My sense is those are different markets. I prefer print, but as much as I travel, my e-books are essential.

Speaking of your traveling, I have to ask, what exactly is “the exotic travel industry”?

It’s basically guiding people off the beaten path—and guiding them back safe and sound. We do all manner of experiences, and it’s never boring; that’s for sure.

Like what, for example? I’ve barely been out of the Midwest.

Let’s see, in just the last year, I’ve arranged two photo safaris in Africa, a diving-with-sharks experience in Australia, a birdwatching hike in the Andes, a pilgrimage to a remote shrine in Tibet—things like that.

Things like that. So how far does your guiding go? Did you dive with sharks?

Like I said, guides have to get clients there, wherever there is, and get them back safe and sound, which means we often can’t fully immerse ourselves in the experience. So, no, I didn’t actually try to pet a Great White or anything—which was o.k. with me. I’m oddly unadventurous for someone who makes her living setting up adventures for others.

E. S. Holland holds degrees in psychology, kinesiology, and comparative literature. She has been an au pair, a university research assistant, and a personal yoga instructor. Since 2012 she has worked in the exotic travel industry. The daughter of parents with careers in foreign service, she has lived all over the world and calls no place in particular home. Under a different name, she has published poetry, travel writing, and translations in small journals, mainly in Europe. City of Broad Shoulders is her first book. (Photos by John Peri)

Chaos and Despair: Denis Johnson’s “The Laughing Monsters”

Posted in September 2015 by Ted Morrissey on September 21, 2015

Denis Johnson has called his novel The Laughing Monsters a “literary thriller,” as it chronicles the chaotic odyssey of a pair of rogue intelligence operatives from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to the ambiguous border area of Uganda and the DR Congo. After a couple of careful readings, I half-agree with the author. I don’t find the book the page-turning ride that thriller suggests, but my appreciation of the book and what Johnson has achieved in its writing definitely waxed as I re-read it in preparation for this review—and that, I believe, is the acid-test definition of literary.

The Laughing Monsters: A Novel, by Denis Johnson. FSG, 2014, 228 pages.

The Laughing Monsters: A Novel, by Denis Johnson. FSG, 2014, 228 pages.

A story sometimes spends years incubating in Johnson’s imagination before he starts writing it, he says, and my suspicion is that The Laughing Monsters had an especially long incubation. For one, in its characters and plot he returns to familiar territory, even familial territory. The first-person narrator Roland Nair, a captain in the Danish military, works for NATO intelligence, mainly as a tech/communications expert, and he’s traveled to Sierra Leone to meet his long-time friend Michael Adriko, a Congolese who has been trained as a professional soldier and has served in various armies, including as an instructor to the American Green Berets. The world of intelligence gathering and covert operations is reminiscent of Johnson’s 2007 novel Tree of Smoke, which won the National Book Award. For both, he drew from his childhood experiences growing up the son of a father in the U.S. State Department who regularly mixed with diplomats, military personnel, and agents of the CIA and FBI.

But the literary influences on Johnson’s writing of The Laughing Monsters are perhaps even more significant, and in particular one can see shades of Malcolm Lowry’s classic Under the Volcano (1947), which Johnson cited as being especially influential on his writing in a Bookworm radio interview in 1992. In terms of their similarities, one is that Volcano’s central character, Geoffrey Firmin, spends the entire novel in an alcohol-induced fog, while Johnson’s Nair forces brief periods of sobreity on himself but otherwise is ingesting whatever sort of alcohol he can get his hands on, from vodka shots in plastic pouches to the homebrew of Congolese herdsmen. What is more, Under the Volcano focuses on a love triangle between Firman, his estranged wife Yvonne, and his half-brother Hugh; and Johnson introduces into his narrative mix the beautiful and bright Davidia St. Claire, an American graduate student who is Adriko’s fiancée and also the daughter of Colonel Marcus St. Claire, the garrison commander at Fort Carson and Adriko’s commanding officer—to which news Nair is left speechless other than to repeat “Oh my lord” three times.

Lowry’s title refers to the volcanoes Popocatepeti and Iztaccihuatl that overshadow the small Mexican town where Firmin’s drama unfolds, and they seem to symbolize the doom that hangs over the characters, the futility of their trying to set their lives aright. The Laughing Monsters, meanwhile, is the nickname of the mountains where Michael Adriko’s clan lives—or at least where they lived when he was a boy, before being dislocated—and they serve as a sort of Ithacan objective in that he wants his marriage to Davidia to take place there, with Nair acting as witness and best man. The Laughing Monsters are central to the symbolic structure of Johnson’s novel. Akin to Lowry’s volcanoes, the mountains represent the futility of trying to Westernize Africa. Nair informs us that Adriko calls “the hills of his childhood, the Happy Mountains,” but the Christian missionary James Harrington (executed by King Mwanga II of Buganda by being speared to death in 1885) called them “the Laughing Monsters” in “frustration and disgust.”

Adriko, a trained killer, is also a laughing monster of a kind. Early in the novel, Nair describes his friend as “[a]lways laughing, never finished talking. A hefty, muscular frame, but with angular grace. You know what I mean: not a thug. Still—lethal.” And like so much in the novel, Nair’s relationship with Adriko is constantly shifting between opposite poles. At times Nair is dependent on him for protection in the dangerous world they’re navigating, and at other times he’s cautious of him as just another dangerous element.

And here is where the beauty of Johnson’s novel lies. He has meticulously constructed a narrative of dualities where nothing is at it seems for long, and the only fact that one can count on is that each fact will soon wear a different color. These shifting uncertainties are everywhere in the book and perhaps best represented by Nair and Adriko’s discussion as to Michael’s current military status. Adriko says, “Officially I’ve deserted, but in truth I’m returning to the loyalty I ran away from. What is desertion? Desertion is a coin. You turn it over, and it’s loyalty”—a concept whose truth Nair easily accepts.

Michael’s plan to marry Davidia (and Nair’s plan to steal her for his own before the wedding) drives the plot forward, as do Nair’s and Adriko’s schemes for getting rich in Africa—a “land of chaos, despair,” as Nair calls it. The friends mainly keep each other in the dark, however, while somehow also attempting to work together to their mutual benefit. To try to convince Nair that he should support his scheme, which involves purloined uranium, Adriko paints a ravaged-Africa version of the American Dream: “You’ll live like a king. A compound by the beach. Fifty men with AKs to guard you. The villagers will come to you for everything. They bring their daughters, twelve years old—virgins, Nair, no AIDS from these girls. You’ll have a new one every night. Five hundred men in your militia. You know you want it.”

Johnson stylizes Adriko as a Mephistophelean magician who tempts what should be a Faustian Nair—but the book’s ultimate laugh is that Nair is a cog in a machine which has already conjured its own version of hell that is far darker than any that mere mythology can construct.

Interview with Grant Tracey: Final Stanzas

Posted in September 2015 by Ted Morrissey on September 1, 2015

I’d known of Grant Tracey and his writing for years, because of his editing of the North American Review, but I had never met Grant before this past June. A few weeks previous to our meeting, in late April, my wife Melissa and I were visiting Cedar Falls, Iowa, the home of the University of Northern Iowa, where Grant teaches; and I was sitting in on a creative writing class being taught by my friend and Twelve Winters Press author Jeremy (J.D.) Schraffenberger, when Jeremy mentioned that his colleague, Grant Tracey, had a short story collection that he was interested in publishing, but he was disenchanted with the process of looking for a small-press publisher. In fact, even though Grant had published three previous collections of fiction, he was considering self-publishing this new book.

Final Stanzas - front cover

I realized immediately that a great opportunity for my press, Twelve Winters, had presented itself, out of the blue as it were. I told Jeremy that I was very much interested in looking at Grant’s collection, and he put us in touch via email. Grant graciously sent me a collection to read through, in a couple of installments, both published and unpublished stories (seventeen pieces all together, I believe). Then in June Melissa and I attended the North American Review Bicentennial Conference in Cedar Falls, and we arranged to meet Grant for coffee on our first morning there. By that time I’d read Grant’s terrific stories and very much wanted to bring out some sort of collection. So when we got together at Cup of Joe, it was just a matter of going over the contract details and possibilities for bringing out the book in print, digital and audio.

Grant decided on eleven stories for the collection, ten previously published and one new story. I asked the Press’s faithful and talented editors Pamm Collebrusco and Adam Nicholson to read the collection, which was still untitled. As luck would have it, the Press’s publishing schedule opened up for the fall, and we could bring out the collection quite quickly, especially in the world of publishing, where it may take years for an accepted book to see the light of day. By early August, Pamm and Adam had sent their editorial notes to Grant. We were getting close to having a finished manuscript, but the collection still didn’t have a title. Grant didn’t want to use one of the stories’ titles for the collection’s title, but rather he wanted some phrase or image in the stories to suggest the title. I thought the phrase “final stanzas” from the story “Turnstiles” would be perfect–and Grant also liked it.

On August 24, Final Stanzas was released.

It’s become a Press tradition that I interview the authors upon the release of their books, so I sent Grant some interview questions, and what follows are his unedited responses. I think you’ll enjoy the interview almost as much as the delightful collection itself.

Grant Tracey 1

What’s the time span of the writing of these eleven stories? In other words, how old is the oldest story, and how recent is the most recently written?

The oldest story in here is “Dead Flowers.” I wrote that in 2009 right around the time my last collection Lovers and Strangers was coming out with Pocol. It was a story inspired by my troubled relationship with my father and a lot of things that went down during my childhood. I thought I had moved past them, but writing the story proved to me that I hadn’t. Anyway, that’s the oldest. The newest in terms of publication date is “Ossining, 1918.” Aethlon printed that just last June. However, I had been shopping that story around for three to four years.

The newest in terms of composition is “Written on the Sky” (I wrote it about a year and a half ago and it appeared in Green Hills Literary Lantern) and “Still the Bomber,” which I revised yet again, just weeks before sending it to you. “Ossining” was an important story because it was the first one where I really felt like I was playing with time. I was free to move into the past and flash-forward into the future whenever I wanted because the narrative sensibilities were that of an artist, James Cagney. “Written” was a voice-driven piece. I’m not as comfortable in first-person—I like the control of limited third—but this was a very autobiographical story, and I felt the voice was real and honest.

It’s funny that you mentioned autobiography a couple of times. At least in one of your stories you refer to a real-life colleague at UNI (Dr. Julie Husband). I trust she’s all right with being a character in your fiction. Usually novelists and short-story writers cast at least a thin veil over themselves and friends and family. Why did you decide to dispense with the veil altogether in this case, and is this a technique you’ve used with some regularity in your fiction?

Two reasons why I dispensed with the veil: one, I respect and admire Dr. Husband so I wanted to give her a shout-out; and two, all that stuff about Philip Roth in the story I got from reading an article of hers on the writer, so I wanted to, in a sly way, acknowledge that. And yes, I asked her permission. She was amused. Anyway, many of the stories are artistic creations, imagined probabilities, not biographies, but two or three come pretty close to my life or people I know. The second story in the collection, “Seeing Red, Feeling Blue,” was inspired by the relationship between my sister and mother. The event never happened but some of the sensibilities in that story derive from the complex dynamics of their love for each other. In “Written on the Sky” the mother takes the son out of school to see Woody Allen movies. My mother did that. She somehow always knew when I was struggling and needed to get away from all the crap that goes on in junior high. But the rest of that story is a leap of the creative imagination. Yes, I had a neighbor who I had a crush on. And yes she liked to sun bathe, but we never hung out and discussed theatre. She did say I looked like Johnny Cash, however. Oh, and the scene with all the Playboy playmates fastened to the wall? That did happen. My father took me to a bachelor pad where I couldn’t tell you what the paint color a certain wall was. But all kidding aside, if there are any connections to real people in these stories, they are for the most part accidents or composites.

The actor James Cagney seems to be a hero, or at least a person of particular interest to you. You’ve published critical work on him and chose a quote from one of his movie roles for the book’s epigraph, as well as his being the main character in two of the stories (plus in a third, a character has named his dog Cagney). What about James Cagney do you find so fascinating or perhaps even inspiring?

I think he’s one of the most authentic actors of all time. Cagney had a simple approach to acting: plant your feet, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth. And that’s him. I also love his energy, the way he moves. He talks fast, has a territorial lean, raises an eyebrow with all-knowing awareness, and plays things big. So many actors, especially working today, go for the less-is-more, naturalism style of acting. Underplay, underplay, underplay—Steve McQueen style. That’s cool. But Cagney was like Orson Welles once said, “a thousand firecrackers going off all at once.” I also found the contradiction between his tough-guy persona and the quiet, shy person he was off screen fascinating. Cagney tired of playing the tough guy and wanted to branch out, but it was difficult. Audiences loved the tough-talking wise guy, but I’m attracted to the man who wanted more from his art. Earlier, I called him an artist and he was. He took the craft of acting seriously, read Nobel Prize-winning authors, danced, painted, and saw art as essential to living a better, richer life.

Besides the two included in Final Stanzas, are there other James Cagney stories that you’ve written? Are these stories fictionalized biographies, or wholly made up tales based on your perception of Cagney as a person?

I haven’t written any other Cagney stories, not yet, but I plan to. The two stories here are tales based on my perception of Cagney as a person. Tony Kushner, when I met him at [University of Northern Iowa], said about Abraham Lincoln (whom he’d just written a screenplay about) or Jackie Gleason (whom I was writing some stories about) that it’s okay to take imaginative leaps from the historical record as long as you don’t alter the personality or reality of the person. Stay true to the character. I like that way of thinking about it.

Both of the Cagney stories featured in Final Stanzas were grounded in some reality. Cagney was a catcher on a local baseball team that did travel and played at Sing-Sing. I took that reality and blended it with an event that happed to me. In the late 1970s, my parents ran a group home, and the social worker overseeing things arranged a softball game at a local prison. Our team consisted of a bunch of group home parents and their kids, and I played catcher against a prison team. My dad was on the field that day with us and during the game kept looking up at the turrets and guards and machine guns and shook his head, mumbling, “I hope we get out of here. Alive that is.” He was joking and not joking at the same time. I think he was feeling mighty claustrophobic.

Anyway, I took two realities and blended them into fiction. Cagney’s father in that story is, in a way, modeled on my father. Both were alcoholics, both loved their sons deeply. For “Faraway Girl” I wanted to write a kind of weird love story that was also a detective yarn of sorts. In 1932, to protest the roles Warners was giving him, Cagney walked off the studio lot and went back home to New York. What follows is my imagined probabilities of what he might have done during his “vacation.” The story and the characterization of Melissa Coors is also inspired by Shirley MacLaine’s dynamic performance in Some Came Running and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (the list stuff that Missy is told to follow versus Jimmy Gatz’s lists and desires to re-imagine himself).

When we first started talking about the Press bringing out this collection, I believe the manuscript you shared with me consisted of twelve previously published stories; then a day or two later you emailed me five newer, unpublished stories to consider as well. Ultimately you decided on ten published stories, plus “Still the Bomber.” Can you describe your thought process as to how you arrived at Final Stanzas in its final form?

Yes. There are six previously published stories that aren’t in the collection, including one, “Bright Lights,” that I’m quite proud of, but I didn’t think it fit in with the arc of what Final Stanzas became. I realized as I was putting the order of the stories together that much of this collection is, not to sound too theoretical, about the interface of life and art, how one informs the other. It’s a circle, a perpetual feedback system: we get meaning from and impose meaning on art. And all of the stories are, in some way, about seeking out an authentic existence: whether it’s a college student trying to create a student film and live life his way (“The Hermit Finds Solace”) or an actor fighting for better scripts and trying to rectify things with his teenage daughter (“Still the Bomber”). For all of the characters in these stories living in a world of art matters because it’s what sustains us.

You teach film studies in addition to creative writing at UNI. How has your love of and critical analysis of film informed your story writing? What cinema-informed lessons have you brought to your teaching of creative writing?

My experience in community theatre has improved my writing. I’ve acted in over twenty plays, most recently taking on the role of Peter in Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. What I love about acting is making the hot choice, the risky choice, and that’s what I try to do in my writing, flip the moment, find a contrary impulse, and never let the characters on the page be defined around one truth. Humans are way too complex for that. Secondly, from acting I get the central question to all art: “Where’s the love?” Stories to me are about love, how we respond to and live with or without it. Right now I’m working on a craft essay entitled, “On Method Writing,” in which I look at how to write more meaningful dialogue in fiction. Writer Ron Carlson has argued that in dialogue characters speak from their own space, freed up from the controlling voice and narrative point-of-view of the writer. Yes! But how do we create real meaning within that space?

Looking at the films of John Cassavetes, the writing of Julie Orringer and Clifford Odets, I explore how well-written dialogue creates trigger words, key bits, that characters respond to. This leads to beat changes, shifts in a scene, escalating or ameliorating the tension. As an actor, when I learn lines, I don’t necessarily focus on the last few words or “cue” of the other actor’s utterance. Instead, I ask what’s the intent behind his or her words that force a response from me. What do I want? What’s emerging here? I circle the word the other actor speaks that elicits a response or new tactic from me. That word is my trigger. For example: character A says, “You never do the dishes. I came home and this place was a mess.” Character B, me: “I didn’t know you wanted me to do the dishes.” Character A: “What do you think I wanted? I can’t write when the place looks like this.” Anyway, the trigger words here: “dishes,” “wanted” and “write.” This is a simple example, but Sidney Lumet said that acting is a verb, and I think each time we write a line of dialogue we should asks what verb best describes this utterance. Am I shaming, chastising, praising, cajoling the other person? If we look at the small sample of dialogue above us, Character A first scolds. Character B attempts to placate. Character A responds to that choice with greater anger, shaming.

If your dialogue in a scene isn’t working, change a verb, an intention. Choose a different one and re-write the line of dialogue accordingly.

You turned the story “According to Chelsea” into a stage play, which you directed in what you called a “guerilla theater” production in 2014. Talk about that experience, including the process of transforming a short story into a dramatic script.

It was amazing. There’s nothing like hearing words you wrote performed by an actor, because that actor infuses the words with life and makes them his or her own. It’s a truly collaborative experience and suddenly you realize that the art really is bigger than you. As a writer you surrender what you wrote over to the actors and engage with the choices they make and what they bring to the project. Of course to write the play I had to really expand upon a rather short short story, writing extensive dialogue scenes and developing a subplot involving Wally Bober’s brother Manny and their Zeyda. In Paddy Chayefsky’s teleplays there are always two main plot lines. Take a look at Marty. There’s the love plot: Marty and Clara. And then there’s the subplot: the in-laws needing their own space, struggling with Marty’s aunt, and asking Marty and his mother to take her in. From this subplot, emerges the desire of Marty’s mother to discourage her son’s love for Clara. I often like to have two narrative strands, like Chayefsky, going on in my stories, but for the play I really developed those two plot lines.

If a century from now the world only knows Grant Tracey, short-story writer by one story from this collection, which story would you want it to be, and why that one?

That’s a tough one. I’m fond of “Ossining, 1918” because, like I said earlier, it was a real breakthrough in terms of the art of time in fiction. I also love “Still the Bomber” because I struggled with that story for five years and found a way to tell a story with a lot of half-scenes: nine or so. “Written on the Sky” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize so I guess I should pick that one, but I’m not going to. I do like the ease with which I slipped into a first-person voice there, but my favorite of all in the collection would be the lead story and the one the book’s title comes from, “Turnstiles.” The story is personal, in the sense that it’s set in a part of Toronto my mother grew up in (and she was raised above a mom and pop Variety store). I am of Macedonian-Roma origins, and those are my grandparents in that story. “Turnstiles” also comes closest to Bernard Malamud in terms of its narrative telling voice (and Malamud is my favorite short-story writer, and I’ve always wanted to write a Malamud–type story. I was thinking of the Assistant and an early story by John Cheever the whole time I was composing this). “Turnstiles” wrote itself quickly. It was one of those rare gifts for a writer where it was just there. Yes, I revised for language but the narrative arc emerged fully upon the first draft. It has hockey in it (my favorite sport) and ends with an image that is original and kind of cool. I just really, really like it. I realize this is a personal response, but hey, that’s how I roll. It’s the one I want to be remembered by.

You’ve acted in several community-theater productions, and in fact this past summer you were on the stage again. Therefore, you were keenly interested when I talked about the potential of creating an audiobook edition of Final Stanzas for the Press. What do you have in mind for the audiobook?

I think I’d like to have members of the local theatre community read some of the stories. I’d read 3–4 of them and surrender the bulk of the project to other voices, getting actor pals to read. The variety of voices I think might enhance the work and make the audio experience a rich one for our listeners. I’ve already got the green light from five community actors. They’re ready.

It was in essence dumb luck that the Press got the opportunity to bring out this terrific book. Our mutual friend Jeremy (J.D.) Schraffenberger mentioned to me offhandedly that you had a collection you’d like to publish, but you were considering doing it as a self-published project because you didn’t want to go through the hassle of finding a publisher for it. Is that more or less where you were with this book when my ears perked up, and I asked Jeremy to put us in touch? If so, why did the process of finding a publisher seem so unappealing to you? Or, if not unappealing, how would you describe your feelings of looking for a publisher?

Honestly, I was burned out. At AWP, one of the panels I went to said if you want to find an agent or a small-press publisher you must have a web presence. Well, I don’t Facebook, tweet tweet, or blog. I have no web presence. I’d rather be writing fiction than documenting my life for others to read. Platform was the word they kept saying, platform. Well, I do have a platform, I’m Fiction Editor at the North American Review, but I don’t have a presence or platform online. So I was discouraged. I wasn’t willing to change. I’m not comfortable talking about myself. My work, yes. I tried entering contests, was a finalist at Snake Nation, but that was about it. I wasn’t getting a nibble. So I was thinking I’ll just self-publish. I’m a full professor. It’s not like I’m fighting for a promotion. And most of the stories had already been accepted in small magazines. But I’m glad I waited and Jeremy put us on touch. I was extremely happy that when I met you and we drank coffee together, you said I didn’t have to have a big web presence. You allowed me to be myself and I appreciate that. What I wanted more than anything was to work with an editor in producing a product that enhances the stories. I’m an old-fashioned, retro writer. I admire stories that have a strong narrative arc, explore the human heart and questions of love, and seek out authenticity. And working with Twelve Winters and you has really brought the stories to life. I’m proud of the look and feel to Final Stanzas and all that you’ve done to make it such a rewarding experience. The cover art; the inside font; the headers: wow. And I’ve never had my work copyedited the way Adam and Pamm did. It was awesome and a little embarrassing. I couldn’t believe all the errors they caught and I’m grateful that they did. A big shout-out to them!!

Finally, tell us about your current writing project, which you describe as a crime novel set in 1965 Toronto?

I’m a big fan of detective stories. But as you probably guessed I like 1950s and 60s crime noir, stuff that’s edgy and doesn’t rely on CSI to solve its murders. But as much I love the genre I’m troubled by all the misogyny that abounds. So I wanted to write something that was a nod to the retro crime noir antecedents, without necessarily subscribing to the darker elements of sexism. Moreover, I wanted to find a voice that was unique: literary but also hard-boiled. What I admire most about Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Richard Stark is that you can tell their prose style apart from all the rest. Chandler is a romantic coated with loneliness. Similes abound. Spillane, especially in the early years, revs up the anger, aggression, and male hysteria. And Stark. He’s bare and spare, full of a professional’s restraint, but every now and then he gives you a mouthful of glass.

The plot to my novel: Former Toronto Maple Leafs left-winger and now private-eye, Hayden Fuller, didn’t expect to be back in Maple Leaf Gardens, let alone mixing it up with a consortium of corrupt NHL owners and ruthless gangsters in the burgeoning permissive society of Toronto, 1965. When Cathy Stabulas goes missing, Hayden’s on the case, confronting his past while moving forward in a much different game, one involving murder. Cheap Amusements is a 65,000-word crime novel with a skate in the world of hockey (sports figures are conspicuously absent from two-fisted tales) and another in the violent undertow of the American hardboiled. The narrative is full of double crosses, liars and lies, and deadly deceptions (double twists abound). Hayden, like a pinball cushioning off bumpers, bounces from one encounter to another. Sure he’s a smart-ass, but he’s caught up in a whirl of irrational chaos and hopes—like that thudding pinball—to stay in the game. Oh, and his name? A composite of two of my favorite noir icons: actor Sterling Hayden and director Samuel Fuller.

Grant Tracey is the fiction editor of the North American Review and a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches film studies and creative writing. He has published nearly fifty short stories, as well as three previous collections of fiction. He has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. (Author photo by Mitchell D. Strauss)

Interview with Melissa Morrissey: Shawna’s Sparkle

Posted in August 2015, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 23, 2015

When I founded Twelve Winters Press in 2012, I didn’t anticipate establishing an imprint for children’s literature — nor did I anticipate meeting my (now) wife, Melissa. Besides our both being educators, Melissa and I are bibliophiles (if not -maniacs). She’d always written and had in mind that she’d like to publish books (like her father, Larry D. Underwood, who wrote and published several history books and even an historical novel). In particular, she had some ideas for children’s books, but she wasn’t sure how to go about getting them published. I told her I’d be happy to show her the ropes — how to look for an agent … and wait and wait and wait … or submit directly to a publisher … and wait and wait and wait … Or, instead, we could direct our time and creative energies to establishing our own children’s literature imprint, and bring out her books ourselves.

Shawna's Sparkle - front cover 1000

So that’s what we’ve done. This past year we established Shining Hall, and our first project was to publish Melissa’s book Shawna’s Sparkle. As Melissa was writing the book, she had characters in mind in the style of one of our favorite local artists, Felicia Olin. When the story was completed, we crossed our fingers and contacted Felicia about possibly doing the illustrations. She agreed, in spite of her busy schedule getting her paintings ready for upcoming exhibits and various art shows. Earlier in the summer of 2015, Felicia sent us the illustrations that she’d created. We were blown away. We’d only had a brief meeting with Felicia over coffee at Wm. Van’s in Springfield, and gave her very little in the way of direction, trusting her artistic instincts — and our trust was well placed.

I went to work designing the book (my first children’s book), and on July 10 Shawna’s Sparkle was released in hardcover, paperback and Kindle editions. So far response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, to both the story itself and to Felicia’s wonderful illustrations. It’s become something of a tradition that I interview the authors I’m publishing about their books, and even though I of course already know a lot about Melissa’s book, I didn’t see any reason to suspend the tradition on account of our being married. I gave Melissa some questions about the book and her writing of it, and what follows are her unedited responses. We have other books by Melissa in the works, and Shining Hall will begin publishing books by other children’s authors in the near future. We’re also planning a children’s book contest for early 2016.

Melissa 1

What made you want to write a book for children?

I am a teacher, so I feel I can easily relate to children. They are so open. They love to read and people love to read to them.

For most authors, their characters are composites of different people they’ve known, maybe mixed with a healthy dose of self. Who is Shawna, would you say?

She is a part of me, of course. Anytime you write, a part of you comes out. I have changed some details, such as only having a brother. However, as a child, I felt very much like Shawna and sometimes still do.

You’ve said that you want the book to teach children to love themselves and appreciate their special gifts. Why do you think that’s so important for kids?

Children are born with a connection and lots of sparkle. Put a child in a room and every eye in the room is transfixed. They have such light. Life, and unfortunately sometimes school and adults, makes their sparkle dim. They can forget that connection. Kids that struggle in school have it especially hard because they have to go to school all day and practice things they are not good at or comfortable doing. What torture! As adults, we mostly do things to reinforce talents. School doesn’t always work that way. We all have gifts, however, and capitalizing on them makes us sparkle in all areas of our life. Any child who learns this early, has a leg up on life so to speak.

In what ways does Shawna’s Sparkle reflect your interests in meditation and mindfulness?

My interests in meditation and mindfulness come out in Shawna’s dream, especially. The book is simplistic in that a simple dream changes everything; however, it can be that easy. One moment can change your whole life. Reconnecting with your “sparkle” occurs naturally when you meditate or become more mindful of your gifts. I am passionate about people becoming more mindful because as we all increase our sparkle, the whole world is filled with more light. There are a lot of children hurting right now. I believe learning mindfulness would equip them with tools that would serve them their entire lives.

Shawna seems to be something of a throw-back to an earlier time in that she loves books and reading, and there’s no mention in your book of modern technology — no iPad, not even any TV. Why do you think reading, and maybe especially reading old-fashioned books, is so important for children?

There is so much to be learned about life, humans, and empathy through the characters in literature. There is currently a push to read more nonfiction, and indeed nonfiction has its place in education, but purely reading nonfiction makes your brain lazy. I think that is why struggling readers and kids on the spectrum can be drawn to nonfiction. When you read literature there are all kinds of characters and emotions to keep straight in your brain. It is a real workout but so rewarding! We can see through a character’s eyes and experience a side of life and a point of view that we may not have otherwise considered. I like to think that if we knew how others were feeling we would all be gentler and kinder.

What about artist Felicia Olin’s work made you think she’d be the perfect illustrator for Shawna’s Sparkle? How did you feel about the illustrations she created?

When writing Shawna’s Sparkle, I pictured the characters as if created by Felicia. I actually mentioned the book to one person who suggested I contact her. He was amazed when I told him I already had her in mind. People that know me know I don’t believe in coincidences. I was very thankful that she agreed to do this project. Felicia brought the book to life in a way I certainly could never have done. I am eternally grateful and continually wowed by her work.

How much do you think your father’s example of being an author impacted your desire to write and publish?

My earliest childhood memories were of sitting on my father, author Larry D. Underwood’s, lap and stating that “when I grow up I’m going to be a teacher and a writer just like you!” He inspired me to challenge myself in both my reading and writing. I wrote a teen novel for a contest in high school. It wasn’t chosen, so I stuck it in a drawer. However, I continued writing various articles and editorials including one in Springhouse magazine. I always planned to get back to writing more seriously. Since my dad has been “in spirit” I feel the urge to write more strongly, which can no longer be ignored.

You spent two decades teaching special education students. How did that experience influence your writing of the book?

My father encouraged me to go into special education and the career has served me well.  I am perfectly suited to smaller groups and children who respond to love, attention, and my gentle nature. My administrators and supervisors always commented that I had a calming effect on students. I was grateful that they recognized and appreciated that in me because I do not believe in yelling at children to motivate them. I am now in special education administration and miss that classroom connection immensely. This book, I feel, is allowing me to reach a larger audience than my single classroom, including all the people I never had the honor to teach.

Why is it important to you that your book was published in Dyslexie font, which is designed to be easier to read for learners with dyslexia?

I was always bothered by my inability to “fix” dyslexia, which was really the wrong way to approach it because students with dyslexia have so many other gifts, like their ability to see the world in a different way. However, I feel that the font will help students access print more readily. I also intend to release the book in an audio format soon.

What other writing projects are you working on?

I am working on a teacher’s guide for Shawna’s Sparkle that will align with Common Core.  I have other books written that teach social emotional skills. We are working on getting illustrators for them. Also, I am working on a new series of books that center around our rescue dog, Einstein, and will help teach the Next Generation Science Standards. We are hoping to release the first one soon, if we get an illustrator on board.

Melissa Morrissey, an Illinois Teacher of the Year Finalist, has been a special education teacher and administrator for over twenty years. She holds degrees from Eastern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and University of Illinois Springfield. Shawna’s Sparkle is her first book. (Author photo by Polly Parsons)