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Contributor Conversations: Hillary Leftwich interviews Jan LaPerle

Hillary Leftwich interviews The Conium Review contributor Jan LaPerle. Her work appeared in Vol. 3 and on our Online Compendium.


[Hillary Leftwich]: Your flash story “Murmuration” appears on our online website and “Laden” was just published in the print version of Volume 3 Collector’s Edition. I found both flash stories to have a similar theme about the relationships between mother and child as well as life and death, but in dramatically different ways. Was this similar theme intentional? Which story do you feel has the strongest portrayal of this theme?

Jan LaPerle[Jan LaPerle]: A few minutes ago I was reading over an Artist Statement I wrote last year.  I wrote, “When I write, I write of fear.  Fear like ivy climbing the trunk of the pecan tree that shades our house; it has wrapped itself around me.  Every day I fear losing this little girl – every day when I send her off to school with her backpack and little pink shoes, I feel it; every night when I tuck her in bed I fear she may not wake in the morning.”  The thread that runs between my characters and myself is fear: fear of losing my child, fear of losing my freedom, my life, my control (so many fears and too many to list).  Instead of intentional, I’d say it’s a theme in all my work – something I just try to get at and something I look at from every angle and every distance.

There’s something simpler, cleaner about the fear in “Murmuration.”  The fear of not being able to fulfill a desire, in the story, for both characters is tragic, and most tragic in the living than the dying.  In “Laden,” there are so many complicated fears – fear of becoming a parent, fear of losing a loved one, the fears of the neighbors recognizing their own fears, and the fear of an adult looking at a fearless child.  I believe “Murmuration” travels deeper into one fear and “Laden” is a somewhat messy look at a lot of fears coming together in an image – that strange image at the end of the family frozen in the ice.  So, perhaps the strength here is in the potency, the deeper look, the murmurations.  Though I’m not exactly sure.

[HL]: It has been said that poetry lends itself to flash fiction. As a poet and a fiction writer, do you find this to be true? Are you drawn more towards one or the other in your own writing?

[JLP]: I wrote poetry first.  I completed my MFA in poetry and never once wrote fiction, but when I moved to Oklahoma and began a PhD, I took several classes in fiction.  I felt drawn to write stories, but I was never very good or very drawn to the short story.  In my last fiction class, we all ended with a 5-minute reading (we were to read a short segment of a longer piece).  But, for the reading, I decided to write a complete piece to be read under 5 minutes, and that is when I, rather organically, wrote my first flash fiction piece.  I fell in love with the form.

The crafting of a flash fiction piece is much like crafting a poem, but what I love about writing fiction is the characters, the magic between characters in setting, etc.  Sometimes writing a poem seems a little self-indulgent, and not because poetry is necessarily, but mine is.  I know I need to push my poetry, to find a way to write a new type of poem.  I’ve tried all sorts of things but maybe not hard enough.  I feel right writing flash fiction in a way I haven’t with poetry in a long time.

[HL]: In your flash story “Laden” there is a description that gives me goose bumps: “And then the trees pulled, a response to the pain they found there.  The frozen pond stood suspended in the air, held by the surrounding branches.  The slowing winds rocked the pond like a cradle.”  What is one story or poem you have read where a line or paragraph has stayed with you over the years?

[JLP]: My first love as a writer was Plath, and this line from “Tulips” has never left me: “The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble/ They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps/ Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another/ So it is impossible to tell how many there are.”

Even in that poem, there are better lines, but the image here is frightening and I’ve thought of it often for many years.

[HL]: There is a saying, “If a writer falls in love with you, you will never die.” Have any of the stories or poems you have written held true to this saying? If someone did make it into one of your writings, why did you choose them, even if it was inadvertently?

[JLP]: It is often the faces of strangers that are most haunting to me – they are the ones I write about (though there are pieces of me and the ones I love floating on their surfaces).  For example, when we were living in this little town, Bluff City, I was driving to work early one morning and I met a couple driving in a car – both of them were very tall, skinny, and very pale.  The car windows were large and I could see them well.  I imagined they had been working all night and were on their way home.  They seemed very sad to me, though I knew it wasn’t fair of me to think so.  Or, maybe, there was something about them that reflected my own sadness.  I wrote then a story about them, “Swing Shift,” and in it they find happiness and light.  If I hadn’t written their story, I wouldn’t have remembered their faces, but it’s been years since I saw them on the road, and I can see them as clearly as the tree outside my window.

[HL]: Your poem, “She Rings Like a Bell in the Night” was published in Rattle and also nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The title is also taken from the Stevie Nick’s song “Rhiannon.” If you could pick one song to describe your writing overall, what would be your theme song be?

[JLP]: “After the Storm,” Shovels & Rope.

Contributor Conversations: Chelsea Werner-Jatzke interviews Jack Granath

Chelsea Werner-Jatzke interviews The Conium Review contributor Jack Granath.  His work has appeared in Vol. 1, No. 1, Vol. 1, No. 2, and on our Online Compendium.


[Chelsea Werner-Jatzke]: The title of “For Bandit and Teddy and the Rest” does a lot of work. Do you feel that a title carries more heft in flash fiction than in longer fiction?

[Jack Granath]: As a reader, I’m sometimes mystified by a poem until I glance back at the title and realize it makes perfect sense. (That can be a good thing or a bad thing.) Maybe this is a common role of the title for short pieces in general, including flash fiction. They can situate, contextualize, point. Other titles will complicate, give texture—point again, but in a direction you wouldn’t expect. I’m not sure what Bandit and Teddy do here.

What I would like to avoid is the title that does nothing the poem or story isn’t already doing, like a voice-over describing the action or the emotions that you’re sitting there watching at the movies. When I notice I’ve used one of those, it’s usually for a piece that shouldn’t have had any title at all.

[CWJ]: In crafting “Year of the Monsters” for Gabriel Garcia Marquez, dying, was there a particular work you were referencing while writing this?

[JG]: That story is easily one of the strangest writing experiences of my life. I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, got a García Márquez sound going in my head, put down the book, and picked up a pen. I wrote a story about the death of an old man and dedicated it, “For Gabriel García Márquez, dying.” That was at the end of February and he died in April. So I think the focus there was mainly on his ghost. Or at least on the premature shenanigans of his ghost.

[CWJ]: I’m interested in your progress from poetry to fiction. At what point in the writing process do you decide something is distinctly prose and follow that, rather than writing a poem? For instance, what makes “After the Japanese,” originally published in Rattle, a poem and not a story? Time passes, action takes place, character develops, a moral emerges.

[JG]: That’s a big, interesting question. I’m not sure I would use the word “progress” to describe anything I do. “Small, circular wayfaring” gets closer to it.

In his essay, “The Prose Poem in America,” Russell Edson says, “Time flows through prose and around poetry. Poetry is the sense of the permanent, of time held. Prose is the sense of normal time, time flowing.” It’s a great essay, going on to talk about how the length of a work plays a role in this too.

That last consideration makes me think of Suzanne Bernard’s great book about prose poems. For her, brevity (and a special power derived from it) is one of the three defining qualities of the poem in prose (the others are unity and freedom). She quotes Edgar Allan Poe, “I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, ‘a long poem,’ is simply a flat contradiction in terms.”

But as a guy who loves lots of long poems, I have to say it’s more a question of concentration than brevity. I don’t think action, character development, and a moral (does that poem really have a moral? What have I done!) matter much in terms of the way we classify fiction and poetry.

Just as some poems need to be sonnets and some need to be free verse, others need to be prose. The point at which that decision is made can happen disastrously late or disastrously early, but usually it’s another thing that, like the title, turns up on its own.

[CWJ]: I was impressed with the way that “Very Important to Them,” published on Opium in 2008, seemed to grow through the comments left on the website. The evaluation forms you used for writing the piece spill over into your piece because it was published electronically. Do you have pieces that you feel belong in print vs. pieces that belong on the Internet? 

[JG]: The Internet as a publishing platform is a contradiction. A piece on the Internet is so easily accessible that lots of people will see it, but many of us still labor to squeeze our stuff into print publications that hardly anyone will read. We do that because what we publish on the Internet disappears so soon, so effortlessly, and so completely.

So time again: poetry with time flowing around it. There’s nothing sadder than a monument squatting there in its ignorance of geological time, but a poem isn’t that exactly. It’s more like a handful of mud shaped into something and left out in the garden. In some cases that garden is called the Uffizi. In others it’s just a patch of shrubs in a Kansas suburb. Either way, Renaissance statue or garden gnome, the thing is waving goodbye to the tourist or the mailman through every minute of its existence.

I agree that the small act of accretion that went on among those dangling reader comments adds a layer to that piece, extends it with a bit of unintentional irony, I think. Print, electronic, wherever it winds up, pretty much anything can happen to a poem.

Jack Granath photo