Monday, February 6, 2023

TBR: Drawing Breath: Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss by Gayle Brandeis

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.

  


Give us your elevator pitch: whats your book about in 2-3 sentences?

 

The subtitle of Drawing Breath gives a clear window into what the book holds—Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss. What it doesn’t tell you, however, is that these essays were written over the span of 20+ years, making this collection a retrospective of sorts, a record of the subjects I keep returning to over time, the steady pulses of curiosity/obsession/devotion within my writing life.

 

Which essay did you most enjoy writing? Why? And which essay gave you the most trouble, and why?

 

My 1999 essay, “Spelling” was so much fun to write and makes me so happy every time I read it. It’s about my daughter teaching herself to write as a little girl, and is one of the oldest essays in the book (and I’m realizing I should write about joy more often if I have to look so far back to find my most enjoyable piece! I’ve certainly had fun writing other things since, but this one just felt like pure celebration.) My daughter is in her late 20s now, and is a beautiful writer—I love how that same magic she had as a child continues to sparkle through her. The hardest essay to write in the collection was “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” from 2012 [see link below]. It was the first thing I had written that looked directly at my mom’s suicide, and the process of getting it onto the page was excruciating. The experience of publishing it was terrifying, too, at least at first, but the warm response the piece received gave me courage to keep going to those hard places in my work.

 

 

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your books road to publication.

 

Since I didn’t have a book in mind as I wrote the essays within it—I just wrote them as they came to me, and later pulled them together—the presence of the book feels like a lovely surprise, an icing-on-the-cake book. I feel like I have less ego-attachment to Drawing Breath than I do with books I’ve wrestled with single-mindedly for years (even though perhaps there’s more of me in this book than any other, since it does cover such a broad span of time). When Drawing Breath was on submission, I found rejections stung less than they usually do, and I feel like I can let this book journey into the world without burdening it with expectation, maybe because most of these essays have already been published, so I’ve survived the anxiety of those being read publicly, and have received sweet support for them as individual pieces. This is not to say I don’t feel any anxiety about the book release—of course I do!—but it’s a less consuming anxiety than usual. A big high of this process has been landing at Overcup Press—they’ve been a dream to work with (and I have Liz Prato to thank for this…she had taken over the Overcup Twitter feed—they had published her wonderful essay collection, Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawai’i—and when I saw what they were actively looking for, I realized Drawing Breath could be a good fit. I’m grateful they agreed!)

 

 

Whats your favorite piece of writing advice?

 

I return to Hélène Cixous’ advice all the time: Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.” I used the last two lines of this as an epigraph for my 2002 craft book Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, and I use another Cixous quote for the epigraph of Drawing Breath. “My body experiences, deep down inside, one of its panicky cosmic adventures. I have volcanoes on my lands. But no lava: what wants to flow is breath. And not just any old way. The breath ‘wants’ a form. ‘Write me!’” (That quote isn’t advice, per se, but it resonates with my experience. Clearly, Cixous speaks to me!) I’ve also held Audre Lorde’s sentence “Your silence will not protect you” close to my writerly heart—it’s guided me through some of my most difficult writing.

 

My favorite writing advice is write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

 

I love this advice—surprise is one of my very favorite parts of the writing process. As I noted earlier, the fact that my essays coalesced into a book feels like a cool surprise in itself. In terms of surprise during the writing process, I’m going to harken back to “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” the essay I found the hardest to write. The essay has two parts—the first part is about leaving my first marriage, and the second part is about my mom’s suicide, and I thought the two parts were tied together only by the Belle & Sebastian song I use as the title for this essay, since that song played an important role during both time periods of my life. Then the last sentence of the essay poured out of my fingers and tied the two parts together in a way that surprised the hell out of me and brought me to tears, and I realized “Oh, wow, this is what this essay is about.” My writing is way smarter than I am.

 

How do you approach revision?

 

Revision was a wild process with this collection. I often tell my students to set work aside for a while so you can see it freshly (because that works!), but I usually don’t set work aside for 20 whole years and returning to the older work was quite a trip. I noticed some writerly tics in those older pieces that I needed to smooth out (an over-reliance on the word, “though”, for example), and had to do quite a bit of tightening (including removing the then-standard extra space after each period, which now looks like a big gaping hole to me), but I was glad to see they mostly held up over time. Another revision challenge: I’ll often return to the same stories over the course of several essays, because I still have questions about the experience, or want to approach the story from a new angle, or just can’t shake it from my system, and I had to figure out how to remove repetition of information from one piece to the next so the book wouldn’t become a hall of mirrors.

 

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

 

I adore reading and writing about food, but when I first pondered this question—such a great question!—I couldn’t think of a single dish in the book. Then I combed through the collection and found at least 40 food references (including two discomfiting food “tangles”— “The tangle of shrimp, glistening with butter, looked obscene, like an orgy in the shallow bowl” and “a plate of what they called chow mein looked like a gray tangle of slime.”) I’m not sure how I had forgotten there was so much food in the book, especially since one of the essays is titled “Eating the Food of the Dead” and is about the food my parents and my husband’s mother left behind after they died. Most of the food in Drawing Breath has more emotional resonance than it does any culinary sophistication, but I would be tickled if someone wanted to make my dad’s favorite sandwich: Swiss cheese, mayonnaise, and bread and butter pickles on toasted rye. Buzz sandwiches forever!

 

As far as more complex recipes go, I feel like I should give you one for cookies, since cookies, I was tickled to discover, appear in four different essays in the collection, and two of those feature thumbprint cookies—some made by my former mother in law in one, my dad’s favorite Pepperidge Farm variety in the other. I don’t think I would have noticed there were two different thumbprint cookies in the book if you hadn’t asked this question—thank you for the fun surprise/discovery! It feels apt to share a recipe for this type of cookie because writing is like a thumbprint, isn’t it? So unique to each writer’s own body/voice. I don’t think I’ve ever actually made thumbprint cookies before (other than helping my beloved former mother in law make hers), but I do want to try this recipe, which works with my various dietary restrictions—https://simple-veganista.com/almond-flour-thumbprint-cookies/ . While both varieties of thumbprint cookies in the book are filled with raspberry jam, I’d like to try the recipe writer’s suggestion to use lemon infused olive oil and rosemary in the cookies, plus I’d add pine nuts instead of the recommended almonds, since one of the most memorable batches of cookies I've ever made were pine nut rosemary shortbread ones from a recipe I found in the Los Angeles Times about twenty years ago (appropriate, given the vintage of some of the essays in this collection). I can still smell and taste that shortbread so vividly two decades later, and am excited to attempt this variation of them soon. I’ll probably fill the thumbprints with a dairy free lemon curd, like the one at https://minimalistbaker.com/vegan-lemon-curd/.

 

As apt as these cookies are, I’m realizing now that perhaps the most fitting reference to food in the collection is the potluck dinner in my essay “Ghosts in the Ecotone.” That essay takes place during a weekend writing retreat, where all of us had brought dishes to share at a communal dinner, and the table was heaped with all kinds of deliciousness. Drawing Breath is a smorgasbord of sorts, itself—a smorgasbord of my writing, and also a smorgasbord of voices other than my own, since I quote a large number of other writers throughout Drawing Breath. I wanted to set a generous table with this book, and hope readers leave feeling well-fed.

 

*****

 

READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.gaylebrandeis.com

 

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: https://bookshop.org/p/books/drawing-breath-essays-on-writing-the-body-and-grief-gayle-brandeis/18582442?ean=9798985652710


READ AN ESSAY, “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying”: https://therumpus.net/2012/05/23/get-me-away-from-here-im-dying/

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

TBR: Big Man and the Little Men: A Graphic Novel by Clifford Thompson

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe

 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences
?

 

April Wells, an African American writer, is embedded with the campaign of the presumed Democratic presidential nominee when she is approached by a woman who claims that the candidate once assaulted her. If April doesn’t report on this, she will fail in her duty, but if she does, she will help the racist, misogynist Republican nominee. April’s difficulties only begin there.


 

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why?

 

I most enjoyed creating April, because she is the way I imagine my ideal reader to be and also has aspects of myself. She is intelligent and decent, and she is sometimes sad for reasons she doesn’t fully understand. She has a touch of impostor syndrome. She discovers that the world is even more screwed up than she thought it was, and she tries to call it out, even if she can’t do much more.

 

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

 

The high—and it was constant—was just the opportunity to tell a story visually, to sit at my drafting table with old blues on the stereo and spend time drawing the characters I came to love. There were some production issues that would be as boring to hear about as there were frustrating to experience, but those frustrations were learning experiences, and they were far outweighed by the good moments.

 

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

 

It was spoken by the writer Susan Cheever when we co-taught a writing workshop: “Every ant has to carry a crumb.” In other words, if something is in your essay, story, or poem, it has to perform a job—or be taken out.

 

What surprised you in the writing of this book?

 

Probably the biggest surprise of all is that I got to do it. My first ambition in life was to be a comic book artist and writer; later I turned to prose writing, but the visual-art impulse never left me. About fifteen years ago I started painting, and I joined Blue Mountain Gallery, a New York City–based artists’ collective, in 2020. (My first solo show opens there in late February.) In about 2019 I had the idea to create a graphic novel, and my publisher, Other Press, was on board. So on the cusp of sixty, I have fulfilled the ambition I had when was a teenager. Not everyone gets to say that, and I feel extraordinarily lucky.

 

How did you find the title of your book?

 

Over twenty years ago, I had the idea to call something “Big Man and the Little Men.” It was a title in search of a book—but I was taken with the idea of a charismatic man surrounded by a group of lower-key friends. And there is such a group in my graphic novel: Sam Benjamin is April’s friend from high school and is now the mayor of their hometown. When things get dicey for April, she turns to them for advice.

 

*****

 

READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.cliffordthompson.info

 

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: www.otherpress.com

 

 

 

Monday, January 23, 2023

TBR: I Want To Tell You by Jesse Lee Kercheval

 TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.

 



We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?

 

I write poems that grab you in that elevator and urgently tell you about love, death, and the illusive, ever-shifting meaning of life—while also making you laugh. At least once in a while.

 

2 sentences—though I admit that first one is long. I notice my publisher’s website chose the more economical “Poems That Urgently Remind Us Love Keeps Us Alive.”

 

What boundaries did you break in the writing of this book? Where does that sort of courage come from?

 

Though most of the poems in I Want To Tell You were written before the pandemic, I started putting the book together when I was in lockdown in Montevideo, Uruguay. That made me want a book with an urgent, direct, at times even manic, voice. One that speaks directly to the reader. There are no poems about Covid—but there is an “end times” intensity, I think, I hope, about the book. That decision not to hold back, not to “play nice” was the breakthrough for me. I got that courage, if that’s the right word, from my sense in that any moment that I might die, that my reader might die, and there was no time to lose. And though we all feel less panicked now that is the universal human situation in this world.

 

 

Which poem did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which poem gave you the most trouble, and why?

 

The poem I most enjoyed writing was the title poem, “I Want To Tell You.” It’s the one where I found the direct voice I was looking for:

“I am talking about poetry. / I am talking about breaking out of the neat little box of humorous lines / rising to a     zing / of cosmic meaning at the end.”

 

I felt it put the reader on notice about what kind of book they were about to read.

 

The poem that was the hardest was “Ill Call This Death Chartreuse, Her Favorite Color” which is about my sister-in-law who I loved fiercely dying of lung cancer.

 

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

 

Every book I’ve published has had its own windy path to publication. This one was less complicated than many. I sent the manuscript to Ed Ochester, the long-time editor of the Pitt Poetry Series at the University of Pittsburgh Press. Ed had accepted three previous books from me: my poetry collection Dog Angel and two of my translations of Uruguayan poets, The Invisible Bridge by Circe Maia and Love Poems by Idea Vilariño. And I love being published by Pitt.

 

Then I heard he was retiring and the press was searching for a new series editor. I assumed the press would not be accepting new books during the transition and so put all thought of my manuscript out of my mind.  I was completely surprised when I got an email saying that I Want To Tell You had been accepted by the new interim editor, Terrance Hayes, and editorial team, Nancy Krygowski and Jeffrey McDaniel. I was in a big Zoom meeting when email arrived and everyone got to see me jumping around and waving my hands like a crazy person (luckily my mic was muted).

 

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

 

My former students are always quoting back to me things I told them, advice I often do not remember giving. The advice I give myself most often is as much life advice as writing advice: The work is the reward. It’s to remind myself that the writing is what gives me pleasure. Not publication. To be honest, publication, especially of a book, is a bit stressful or, to be even more honest, painful. I always try to be writing away, doing new work when a book comes out.

 

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

 

The surprise was how the book came together. I pulled together older poems I loved that had not been in a book, then wrote new work that addressed the same central issues and it just clicked. That had never happened before. My books are either poetic snapshots in time, like my first book, World as Dictionary, which I wrote right after my daughter was born and while a dear friend was dying of a brain tumor. Or are “project” books like Cinema Muto, which is poems about silent film and the silent film conference I go to every year in Italy,  I Want To Tell You was built around voice, around the person(a) in the poems speaking to the reader and I was genuinely surprised how well that worked as the spine of a book.

 

What was your experience ordering these poems?

 

I always struggle with that. Often there is a narrative arc in my poetry books that probably has its roots in my other life as a fiction writer. I have a friend, the poet (Amy) Quan Barry who tells her MFA students to just put their poems in book in alphabetical order by title. So I took that advice—but just as a clean start. Then I starting moving poems, thinking, Oh this one has to come after that one. As I did, I realized the structure was more like a personal essay. I was making an emotional and philosophical argument. I think one of the last things I decided to do was put the title poem, “I Want To Tell You” first, rather than last where I would usually place a title poem. The last poem now, “I am telling you” is more consoling. It ends, “Be the tree./ Be the book./ Be the one who loves & is forgiven. / Be.”

 

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

 

There are avocados in “I’ll Call This Death Chartreuse, Your Favorite Color” falling from the tree in my sister-in-law’s yard in Miami. These are the big Florida avocados, not the smaller Haas ones. They have a brighter, greener taste. I grew up on them and prefer their taste which is a bit lighter, less oily. And—plus—they are so big a single avocado makes a big bowl of guacamole.

 

My sister-in-law always used this classic Southern guac recipe which, honestly, is delicious: https://www.readyseteat.com/recipes-RoTel-Rockin-Guacamole-6823

 

 

*****

 

READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.jlkercheval.com

 

READ MORE ABOUT THIS PUBLISHER: www.upittpress.org

 

BUY THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK:

You can order the book directly from the University of Pittsburgh Press through the link below but if you click on BUY on their site, it also gives you the option of ordering it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, Powells, etc.

https://upittpress.org/books/9780822967071/

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

TBR: Like Water in the Palm of My Hand by Lois Roma-Deeley

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.


 


We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?

 

“Roma-Deeley’s poems seek to pitch imagination beyond itself to something more like divination. These are poems that show us ‘how hard it is to be a human being,’ but which also ‘celebrate the moment of possibility.’”Daniel Tobin

 

Which poem/s did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which poem/s gave you the most trouble, and why?

 

Some of the most enjoyable poems came out of collaborations with visual artists which lead me to surprising and completely unexpected places in my work.  More specifically:

 

The poems “Be There No End to the End of this Night” (originally published as “Be There No End to the End of this Day”), “Now That,” “Empty Spaces,” “How to Be Rooted,” “If When,” “The Love Poem (I Can Not Write),” and “If I Were Smarter, I’d Be More Afraid” (reprinted) were part of the exhibition Geology of Spirit: A Photo-Poetic Collaboration, with fine art photographers Patrick O'Brien and Cyd Peroni, and with poet Rosemarie Dombrowski. The poems “I Came Here for Some Answers” and “The Virgin River Speaks of Loneliness” were written in response to the work of visual artist Beth Shadur. The poems “What It Is or How to Get There” and “Why Moon Jellyfish Won’t Speak of Cancer” were written in response to the work of visual artist Cherie Buck-Hutchison.

https://www.geologyofspirit.com/

www.bethshadur.com/the-poetic-dialogue-project

 

 The more difficult poems to write were troubling emotionally. These came out of deeply painful personal experiences. Even though some of those poems garnered national attention, they were difficult to write and difficult to see published.   Several poems in the book came out of my own private experiences with breast cancer.  For example, the New Millennium Writings XLV contest, selected my poem “Why Moon Jellyfish Won’t Speak of Cancer” as a finalist. Such poems dealing with cancer were also include in Vice-Versa’s Illness as a Form of Existence Anthology, which republished “Why Moon Jellyfish Won’t Speak of Cancer” and also included “Absence in Five Parts.”  Similarly, the poem “In My Brother’s Recovery Room” was based on my experience with my older brother’s two week stay in the hospital due to his heart operation. This poem found a home in Italian Americana.

 

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

 

Almost every poem in this collection has been published. The collection, as a whole, has been a finalist and semi-finalist for national contests. I was pleased to know the poems and the collection as a whole resonated with various and varied audiences but it always stings to come close and “still no cigar.” However, I eventually was elated to find Kelsay Books as my new publisher and am so pleased with my experience with them.

 

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

 

My favorite pieces of writing advice are “write line by line,” “write until something surprises you” and “allow everything that wants to come into the poem, come into it.”   All these pieces of advice have one thing in common—they allow for a “give and take” between craft and imagination. For me, the best poems come when I am not clutching onto perfectionism—when I write a line and then allow my imagination to expand.  There is a kind of joy I experience when I write another line and see where that line will take me. At this point, I will remember that craft will help me shape the poem into its ultimate form. In other words, it is more than okay to be messy.

 

What surprised you in the writing of this book?

 

Many voices demanded to be heard in this book. I was surprised by how those voices connected with me and how they lead me on a journey toward a deeper understanding of “how very hard it is to be a human being.”

 

How did you find the title of your book?

 

This collection explores the nature of change and its relationship to time and timelessness which, to my mind, seem to co-exist within each of us. In addition, I am fascinated by the limits and lessons of memory and how memory often serves as a conduit to the past but can also be a bridge to the future.  The present moment is fraught with competing realities which seem to crystalize and then, too soon, disappear, “like water in the palm of my hand.” Are we, as human beings, the sum of our choices? Are we trapped or enlarged by those choices?

 

 

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

 

I am Italian-American and love to create a feast for my family and guests. So I would say this book would go perfectly with my Baked Ziti, stuffed mushrooms, Pinot Noir wine, crusty Italian bread served and Caprese Salad. I don’t use a written down recipe for the Baked Ziti. I just make the dish as my mother taught me. However, I’ll include a recipe for Caprese Salad, which is refreshing—as I hope readers will find of the poems in my book: https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/rachael-ray/caprese-salad-recipe-1939232

 

*****

 

READ MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

https://www.loisroma-deeley.com/

 

READ MORE ABOUT THIS PUBLISHER:

https://kelsaybooks.com/products/like-water-in-the-palm-of-your-hand

 

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK:

https://kelsaybooks.com/collections/all

 

WATCH A VIDEO POEM, “Now That”:

https://youtu.be/5VOgDsSFb_g

 

Work-in-Progress

DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.