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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: 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

Chapbook Review: Yellow Fringe Dress

Yellow Fringe Dress
Written by Neila Mezynski
Radioactive Moat Press, 2012

Neila Mezynski’s chapbook, Yellow Fringe Dress, was released January 9th, 2012. It’s the latest electronic chapbook from Radioactive Moat Press.

Aesthetically, Radioactive Moat Press’ electronic treatment of Yellow Fringe Dress is fitting.  The chapbook is well-designed with interesting typography and a gorgeous cover.  It fits the fractured fantasy-esque dreamscape vibe of Mezynski’s poetry, and it showcases the potential of electronic publishing.  While I love print media, electronic publication has its own unique place too, and it can be an art form unto itself (when done properly—and Radioactive Moat Press consistently does it properly).  Though Mezynski’s syntax is experimental, the chapbook’s inviting aesthetic makes it easy to read.  The layout compliments the flow rather than hindering it; I wish more e-books featured this attention to presentational quality.

But enough about the design notes for this digital chap; what about Mezynski’s work?  The text is arranged in a hybrid prose poem state.  There is attention to structure, but many of the passages opt for less overt poetic structure in favor of a hybrid prose poem appearance—her work is one of the few examples of a true prose poem: lyricism embedded into prose.  There seems to be an overabundance of books/chapbooks that call anything short prose piece a “poem”–Yellow Fringe Dress is not one of these.  The collection is well-crafted, and it’s subtle arrangement ads minute layers of meaning to poetry that derives most of its purpose from syntactical variance and interesting word choice.

The chapbook’s plot is a postmodern type of anti-bildungsroman, with several instances of twisting plotlines that test the reader’s perception of what a coming of age story really can be and do.  The chapbook only stumbles moderately in its slow beginning.  If you can push through the first few pages, the latter half of Mezynski’s chapbook will surprise you.  Early on, there feels like a lack of movement, where the same themes are repeated.  Mezynski does this for thematic emphasis, yet it bogs down the reader slightly.  Once Yellow Fringe Dress picks up the pace, it hurtles at breakneck speed with vivid imagery and carefully planted sensory details.

Yellow Fringe DressThe experimental style may be hard for some readers to swallow, but the general storyline of Yellow Fringe Dress is beautifully summed up in the ending section.  The breadth of Mezynski’s piece is distilled in a minimalistic recap that can be transposed over all the preceding sections.  If you get bored or annoyed with the chapbook’s other experiments, just flip to part VIII as a cheat sheet.  You’ll miss all the detailed bridges between these fragmented, wispy little descriptors, but it’ll help you understand the central theme easier.  It’s a nice device that provides framing and closure to Mezynski’s well-told story.

At times, the text is wordy and could use some paring down to the bare poetic essentials.  But overall the piece is well-written, and Mezynski’s Yellow Fringe Dress provides a manageable foray into experimentalist syntax and imagery for audiences who might be new to this type of writing.  It is an accessible piece that gets you ready for more work by Neila Mezynski or similar writers—and after you read Yellow Fringe Dress, you’ll definitely want more.

You can find Yellow Fringe Dress at the following URL for free:
http://issuu.com/radioactivemoat/docs/yellow_fringe_dress

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved