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Contributor Conversations: Chelsea Werner-Jatzke interviews Charles Rafferty

Chelsea Werner-Jatzke interviews Charles Rafferty (contributor to The Conium Review: Vol. 2, No. 2). Charles is the author of ten poetry collections, most recently The Unleashable Dog (Steel Toe Books, 2014), and he’s the author of the short story collection, Saturday Night at Magellan’s (Fomite Press, 2013).

[Chelsea Werner-Jatzke]: There’s a sentence in your poem, “The Man in Charge of Darkness”: “He remembered/ when he first wanted the job—after breaking/ his last flashlight in the belly of a cave”. The line, “his last flashlight in the belly of the cave” describes the effect of your flash fiction, to me. The reader only sees what the narrator shed light on. Can you talk about focus in your fiction?

Charles Rafferty Headshot[Charles Rafferty]: My stories tend toward the tiny. I’m drawn to the pivoting moments in my characters’ lives. I like considering the moments that immediately precede or follow a great triumph or disaster. The farther away from that moment I get, the less interested I become.

[CWJ]: Reading Saturday Night at Magellan’s and The Unleashable Dog back to back, I was struck by the number of times you use the word “contrail.” Can you talk about what it is about that word that draws you to it? How that happens with language?

[CR]: How funny! I hadn’t even realized I was using that word repeatedly. It’s a very precise word–it reminds me how fortunate we are to have a word for this particular mark across the sky. It’s not especially beautiful sounding, but it starts off crisp and becomes diffuse. It happens while we’re not paying attention, like the stars and the bees. I do get on “word jags” every now and then for reasons I don’t think are important to try to understand. Just this morning I was alarmed to find four instances of “rafters” in the story I was working on. The story is too tiny to let all of them stay.

[CWJ]: I’d love to know more about how you organized Saturday Night at Magellan’s. A story like “My Yoga Pants, My Executioner” marks a shift from the first two thirds of the collection.

[CR]: Saturday Night at Magellan’s is organized into three large blocks. The first group of stories centers around a mature character, someone often in their forties, someone like me. The second group centers on characters in their teens, someone like I used to be. The third group consists of a bunch of crazy stories that didn’t quite fit into the other two groups. They tend to be wilder or sillier and sometimes surreal.

I began writing stories in 2009, so many of the stories in Magellan’s were me consciously trying on different voices, different approaches. That last section of Magellan’s is where I put all the outliers. I knew I’d never create enough stories similar to “My Yoga Pants, My Executioner,” but I didn’t want that fact to preclude me from collecting it into the book.

When I read a book of poems or stories by someone else, I almost never start with the first piece and read the book in order. I’ll flip through to whatever catches my eye, or I’ll choose something based on how much time I have available. So I tend to have a “good enough” attitude toward organization. As long as it seems logical, I don’t expend too much energy on it.

[CWJ]: I’m hoping you can discuss the point at which you know if something is poetry or prose. This question could also be phrased as: Would you describe your writing as “an armload of bees/ apparently happy to assume the shape/ of whatever box” (“The Man Laments the Bees That Didn’t Sting”)…?

[CR]: In many cases, I don’t see any distinction at all between poetry and fiction. As an example, the story “Rio de Janeiro” was originally written for a 78-word fiction contest Esquire was running (it didn’t win), but I ended up publishing it at The Prose-Poem Project. Then, because it seemed to fit, I included it in my book of short fiction, Saturday Night at Magellan’s.

All this being said, there are certain things that push me toward fiction–the need to change scenes, the presence of dialogue, the presence of more than one character. This last point is probably most important. For a story to work, I feel I have to have characters bump up against each other. The match needs something to strike against.

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

Interview with Ariana D. Den Bleyker, editor of “Emerge Literary Journal”

Ariana D Den Bleyker Headshot

Ariana D Den Bleyker

Ariana is the editor of Emerge Literary Journal and scissors & spackle.  Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals, and she is the author of the chapbooks Forgetting Aesop (Bandini Books, LLC, 2011) and Naked Animal (Flutter Press, 2012), and the poetry collection The Trees are on Fire  (ALL CAPS PUBLISHING, 2012). She lives in a small town in New York with her husband and two children.

[James R. Gapinski]: What prompted you to start a journal that specifically focuses on emerging writers?

[Ariana D. Den Bleyker]: This is the question most people first ask me, and I’m happy to answer it, but please keep in mind it is a very lengthy story that has roots extending back to 2004.

When I was an undergrad studying creative writing, I had attempted to submit to journals now and again as part of putting together my portfolios and for certain course requirements. Back then there were only book listings of poetry markets, and most of the markets that were available for submitting were not geared toward beginning writers. I felt like the whole book was filled with everything but a white circle. For the next five years I wrote quite frequently but was intimidated by the submission process despite encouragement by my former professors that my writing could hold its own.

When I began actively submitting again in 2010, I had received rejection after rejection after rejection. I, of course, as any writer would, was significantly frustrated by the entire process. In fact, it wasn’t until I received one of my last rejections prior to being accepted by The Homestead Review that I finally hit the wall. This particular rejection included a note from the editor that gently told me I should resubmit when I get a couple of publishing credits under my belt. My first thought after reading the scribbled note was how could I possibly get more publishing credits under my belt when I can’t even get the first one?

Three months later I found Doutrope, which at the time was a free writer’s resource. It became my best friend. I was able to research markets more thoroughly and had found several markets that were either geared towards publishing underrepresented voices or voices regardless of pedigree. Enter Stone Highway Review and scissors & spackle. I found tons of encouragement from both editors, particularly Jenny Catlin. She was very encouraging about my writing, and for the first time ever with the encouragement of a kind editor, I began submitting even more.

But, I cannot get a head of myself or forget the most important detail that lead to the founding of the journal. Reading journals. I was doing lots of it since 1999. After all, reading and reading and reading is the key to sharpening your writing. The one thing I noted about the journals I was reading and supporting versus the journals I was beginning to be published in was that most of the bios were extensive. At that time, I felt emerging writers were not being given a solid chance to launch their careers.

One day I was discussing my thoughts with my husband about how hard it is to get published when you’ve never really been published before. He looked at me and simply said, “Then change it.” In that moment, Emerge Literary Journal was born. While my original intent was to limit prior publication credits to less than five, after a few weeks, I found this would be very difficult to do because I would still be limiting a demographic of writers that were still emerging. Always having been a fan of Thoreau, I knew if I had a lot of castles, other beginning writers must too, and I wanted to establish a journal that would be the foundation, perhaps the first credit, that could get a poet (at the time) started in their publishing careers.

[JRG]: You talk about encouragement for new writers and the importance of getting that first publication credit.  But how do you encourage writers that you reject?  Do you send a lot of personalized rejections?

[ADDB]: This is a really great question that forced me to look at my statistics. Since our  inception we have received slightly over 2,100 submissions. According to Submittable we have a 40% acceptance ratio. When I do reject a poem, I tend to emphasize strong points in a piece from a broad perspective. Sometimes, at least based on Duotrope responses, they are perceived as form rejections. However, regardless of what is put into the body, I always offer personal feedback should the writer want it. Now, when it comes to rejections, I have to say it is truly not 60%. When I request the option for a re-write, I do so in a rejection for ease of use of Submittable. I offer a large number of re-write options. I make suggestions for improvement but do not change anything. I invite the writer to revise and resubmit only if the suggestions resonate them. When I see a bio that reflects a very new writer, I am apt to try and make it work. Rejections are hard, but I never limit how many time a writer can submit during a window. There have been many occasions when I didn’t connect with one piece, but three submissions down the line I was blown away by a piece and had to take it. I also try to give very quick determinations to alleviate the nail biting that happens on the other side. The hardest part is knowing I have limited space in an issue. I like to think I’m a very open editor. Many of my contributors will agree.

[JRG]: You also mentioned the importance of reading literary journals.  What some other journals that you read on a regular basis?

[ADDB]: You mean besides the two I currently publish? Well, I’ll start by saying I’m not independently wealthy, so I consume as much material as I can through online journals. Some of the online journals I frequent are THRUSH Poetry Journal, Lunch Ticket, Word Riot, Hot Metal Bridge, Camroc Press Review, Birdfeast, A-Minor Magazine, Utteranderbo.com, Map Literary (can’t forget the alma mater), and a slew of others. As to print, I’m a big fan of The Seneca Review, Ploughshares, Stone Highway Review, A Clean Well-Lighted Place, The Adroit Journal, Tar River Poetry, The Homestead Review, Caketrain, Heavy Feather Review, and anything else I can get my hands on regularly. Bottom line is, I’m all about small/indie presses. While I enjoy an occasion large press bound presentation, I don’t find the kind of eclectic variety I find in small journals. This is one of the reasons why I continuously pursued publishing in scissors & spackle as a writer, and why I am now the Editor-in-Chief of the same journal. What Jenny Catlin started was a work of art, and because it essentially launched my writing career I couldn’t let it go when she stepped down. So, on one hand, I support many emerging writers, and on the other hand, I look for the most eclectic, experimental work I can. I do love what other journals toss away. It’s that old adage that no two editors will take to the same piece in the same way. I’m meant to read some journals and not others. Sure, The Best American Poetry anthology is always worth reading every year, but I find more connection in all the diamonds in the rough.

[JRG]: It’s interesting that you read a lot online, because I saw on your blog that Emerge is now a print-only journal, effective August of this year.  Why did you decide to publish exclusively in print?

[ADDB]: Moving to exclusively print and completely altering my publication schedule from what I had started in the beginning was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make, and when I did, I also had to alter scissors & spackle‘s. Truth be told, when I started the journal I had to take a few years off of working to raise my youngest. In February 2013 I went back to work full-time as an insurance underwriter once again (yuck). In January, I had make the decision to go print with online features to keep the journal alive online because a lot of writers like to Google themselves. In April when I took over scissors & spackle, which was available both online and in print, I could not maintain its website, so I made a decision to turn it into a print magazine with highlights on-line. It’s really been a balancing act. I’ve made no changes without surveying my contributors and readers first. It is easier for me to edit and compile a print issue than it is to maintain all of the HTML code for the website. My life completely altered the publication schedule too. Both scissors & spackle and Emerge Literary Journal have turned into annual journals and the press’ focus has been on chapbooks. My publishing schedule is September 1st to May 1st. It was a concession I made for my husband because he has a side business as well. Fact is, both journals had become important to so many people that it was more important to keep them alive. Again, I had done plenty of surveys and speaking with many of my contributors before making the decision. This change was not made in a vacuum. A lot of the contributors, especially the more emerging writers, felt that if they had to choose, they would choose the print because as a new writer, it was more lasting to them to be in a book for one of their first publishing credits than it was online, especially if I were ever to go defunct. I understood that and weighed it heavily. So, the decision was mostly to balance the journals and my personal life. For many of my readers and contributors it was more important that the journals survived however they could than to where the content is available. Beginning with the Winter 2013 issue, which is being released in two volumes, because I got acceptance happy last spring, I will follow what we’ve done with scissors & spackle and put issue samples up on the website. If anything, but to keep my online ISSN active I should be able to go back to utilizing online material in the future. I would like to note that all of my ISSUU issues are still live as are my weekly features. I do not plan to take any of it down.

Please keep in mind that prior to the start of the chapbooks, I made no royalties from any of my print issues. The reading fees, the royalties on any issue or chapbook roll into the next project. For my contests, I also award 50% of the reading fees to the winner, which is rare for a journal to do. Because I make no money and have chosen to do this for the love of it all, my day job had to take priority because that is what pays my bills, you know. Again, though, I must emphasize, it is because I love what both journals stand for that I will not let them go gently into that goodnight. The chapbooks, which are much easier to edit and publish, have become more of a vehicle to give emerging and experimental writers their first books, especially since I tend to treat the chaps like mini-collections as opposed to the traditional chap

I did leave out that I am also a writer. In order to balance most of my personal life and editing life, I took a year hiatus off from writing, which really hurt me personally. I’m back to writing again, and with the new publication schedule and my new balancing act, it’s easier to take time for myself again (when I can).

I should also mention that when I started the journal, rather than compile online content as an anthology, my first two print issues were compiled from certain material. That is to say what went online did not necessarily go into print. I did start to get a lot of negative feedback from writers when I chose their work for online content as opposed to print and had quite a few withdrawals as a result. It really has not been an easy road. For many people print is dead. For many people online is all they read. Again, it was not an easy decision. I shed a lot of tears over the whole thing.

[JRG]: Lastly, do you have any general advice for new writers?

[ADDB]: Well, to start, the writing life can be a lonely one. Taking some of that loneliness out of it helps you to hang in there. Create a supportive environment that allows you to give it the kind of time it takes. Book clubs, workshops, etcetera. They may not teach you to write, but they can support you and give you time. Also, don’t be jealous of others’ success. Jealousy and envy are the enemy of genuine creativity. Wish others well and hope to join them someday. We can never forget that failure is part of it. You will be rejected dozens and dozens of times. The best way to prepare for it is to have something else in the works by the time the rejection letter arrives. Invest your hope in the next project. Learning to cope with rejection is a good trait to develop. Writing is good for the soul; it’s good for your character—to be observing, interpreting, producing (not just consuming). It’s good to share your work with others. You have to write from your whole self. The only way to last for the long haul it to avoid boredom, and to avoid boredom you need to let your whole self in. Always write first. Worry about getting published later. Write it first. Prove you can do it and then others will listen.

When you’re stuck, those aren’t the worst parts, those are the best parts. They’re your chance to be creative. Embrace subjectivity. No two editors will ever see your work the same way. Only by embracing it, truly, can you take the gloves off and let your take fly. Moreover, if you give yourself the time, you will not only get better as a writer, you’ll develop some correspondences with other writers, perhaps even editors. You’ll have met some in person at bookstores, other writers from your classes will work published here and there—slowly you will develop those elusive connections that seem so necessary to getting published. You’ll know some people. Not many people, but enough to carry a conversation. You’ll have had so-an-so as a teacher. You’ll get how it works. This wisdom just happens. Always tell a story. It grounds the reader in a shared experience. Understand voice. Write the same sentence ten different ways by imitating the writing voices of ten different writers.

Work on your weaknesses. There is nothing wrong with early drafts acting as scaffolding. Don’t be afraid to part with your favorite line that doesn’t work. You might be able to use it in another piece. And, finally, read . . . read everything, cereal boxes, newspapers, toothpaste tubes, journals, anthologies, billboards. See words everywhere until they find their way to your heart and flow through your pen.