Evan Dahm

Evan Dahm tackles the political dynamics of a fantasy world in Vatt


Interview by Lily Reeves

Evan Dahm is a prolific comics creator from North Carolina. He has been self-publishing fantasy comics online since 2006, and his work is commonly known as a game-changer in webcomics, bringing complex worlds, themes, and art to the medium. Since then, many of his comics have been physically published. His currently running, award-winning webcomic, Vattu, has two physically published volumes, and the third was successfully Kickstarted in November.

As a comic artist myself, Dahm’s comics have been hugely inspirational to me. I first started reading his comic Rice Boy in middle school, shortly after it ended. At the time, his work mystified and fascinated me. Having since become an adult, I can say that’s still the case, but I can also appreciate the masterful story-telling, and relevant sociopolitical themes. Vattu, in particular, is a gut-wrenching story about the machinations of the powerful, and about the little people dealing with the fallout.


How did you get started in comics? What got you interested?

 I’ve been drawing forever, and drawing comics for a long, long time, but I only started to take them seriously as a medium to work in when I started Rice Boy in 2006. It’s a medium for visual narrative that one person can create entirely by themself in whatever idiosyncratic way they like—that is the main thing that still draws me to it.


How would you describe Vattu to someone who’s never heard of it?

I still have trouble with this. It is an expansive, meandering fantasy-adventure comic, a kind of biography, and an exploration of the capital of a preindustrial empire and the social dynamics and revolutionary energies within it. It’s about political power and the development of identity within and against it. It’s set in a world full of weird creatures.


What are your biggest influences for Vattu, or for your comic work in general?

I don’t know what to point to exactly. An interest in actual history and what the experience of first-contact culture shock must feel like was a motivating thing for Vattu. Invented-setting genre fiction with a social and political focus has been hugely important to me: Ursula K. Le Guin, Angélica Gorodischer, China Miéville….


The world of Vattu is colorful and complicated, and entirely imagined. How do you approach world-building? What do you prioritize in order to make it feel real, without getting bogged down in all the details?

I am very interested in the experience of reading and believing a fictional setting –in how “immersion” works in fantastic stories. I really try to prioritize the mechanics of exposition in any sort of invented-setting story; I think how the setting is conveyed through the story is as important as the material of the setting that the writer develops external to the story. In the material of the setting itself, I start with broad atmospheric and thematic ideas and build in detail to support that. Starting from a premise that detail is quality, and that a fictional world has to be as richly and arbitrarily detailed as the real one can be destructive to the goals of a narrative, I think!


Vattu contains a lot of symbolism and specific cultural practices, such as the Fluters’ name marks, and the Tarrus cult. Is any of it based on real world cultures? Any particular stories behind any of these ideas?

I don’t think any of it is specifically based on real cultural practices! The Fluter marks in particular started for the sake of visual interest, and keeping the characters distinct, but as the comic went on I got really focused on the idea of identity and selfrepresentation, and it became valuable as a way of talking about that. A lot of the cultural detail is stuff I’ve built in to support the thematic content of the story. That’s a little backwards maybe!


Much of your work is centered on nonhuman characters with features very different from our own. In a visual medium it can be difficult to portray the alien as relatable. What’s your interest in these kinds of characters? Do you have any special methods for making them relatable to your readers?

 I’ve been doing comics mostly about nonhuman creatures for a long time, and I’m stuck on it now! It feels kind of like a waste to make stories in a totally visual medium and not take advantage of it in that particular way—I want to invent as much as possible of the visual context, and use comics to present it fairly literalistically or without much overt “style.” I guess it is difficult sometimes to communicate with non-human characters, but I think all readers are generally eager to meet you halfway, and to anthropomorphize whatever is presented. I don’t have any special methods other than to try to take body language seriously!


How do you plan out your comics’ plots? Do you have an entire script that you follow, or a loose guideline? Over the years, have you changed the course of Vattu’s story?

 I’ve approached plotting in very different ways for everything I’ve done! Vattu started with a big broad outline, and it’s tightened up and shifted in the details as I’ve moved through it. The main structure hasn’t changed fundamentally, but the comic has started to mean different things to me than it did eight years ago, so I think it’s different now than I would have thought back then. I am writing and rewriting pretty frequently.


Historically, comic books have been widely dismissed as cheap, disposable entertainment. However, they’ve been gaining traction as a vehicle for more serious and more personal stories over the past few decades, especially in independent publishing and web comics. What do you think this medium brings to the table that distinguishes itself from others?

 I think the facts that comics are a visual medium that can be made by an individual or small team and distributed very cheaply or for free open a lot of space for idiosyncratic work. It feels like a pop cultural frontier sometimes because it’s so low-risk. This makes me want independent comics and my own comics to be weirder and more personal and more critical.


Any advice you would give to someone trying to write their first long-form comic?

Keep all your art at 600 dpi. You can plan too much; be aware that any long-term project that you move through from front to back might be more like exploring a space you’re building than it will be like executing a plan you’ve made beforehand. The most valuable thing starting out is making your work visible and easy to find!

Vattu © Evan Dahm

Tags: Evan Dahm, Vattu, Rice Boy, interview, comic, webcomic, graphic novel, fantasy, world-building


Garnett Kilberg Cohen

Author Garnett Kilberg Cohen talks about the process of writing her short stories, the influences behind them, and magazine editing.


Interview by Mulan Matthayasack

Garnett Kilberg-Cohen was one of my Fiction Workshop teachers here at Columbia College. Aside from being a wonderful professor who pushed us to create our best work and introduced us to amazing writers, such as Emma Donoghue and Roxane Gay, I discovered she is also one of the co-editors in the department’s nonfiction magazine, Punctuate, and has published her short stories and essays in many magazines such as The Literary Review and American Fiction. I decided to interview her to get to know her more as a writer, as opposed to a professor.

Your most recent piece, “My Life in Smoke,” published in The New Yorker, is very intriguing and reflective. What compelled you to share your journey with this topic (smoking) in particular?

The object of the urn in the first paragraph of the essay was a stimulus. Since it sits in a room of my house, I look at it and think about it fairly frequently. I think important objects from our pasts are often imbued with meaning or can spark memories. Also, a few moments and images of my smoking have reoccurred to me over the years. Since they were important enough to me to reappear in my consciousness over the years, I decided to write them down. Once I started writing them, other memories came back, so I wrote them as well. I worked for a few days shaping them into an essay. A month later, I went to Scotland, so I added that information into the essay. I like to manipulate time—move backwards and forwards—in both fiction and nonfiction, but in this piece, it seemed important to the logic to have the events appear in somewhat chronological order.

In that same piece, you claim you moved around a lot. I notice this is a common occurrence in some of your other works. Does your environment—or perhaps, the lack of it, or even the search for it—dictate or influence a majority of what you write?

I find that new places often inspire ideas. Also, when I move away from a place, the place can accrue more power and its most poignant qualities rise to the surface of my mind, giving the place almost a mythical significance.

I read your other piece, “Space and Time, the Four Dimensions,” that was published in the Tupelo Quarterly. The content itself is extremely touching, and I love how it makes you think about certain people, yourself, and the idea of fate—also, the way you organized the piece is interesting: you have an instance for each “dimension.” Was that originally how you planned to structure the story, or did the story naturally form on its own?

I can’t remember the impetus for the piece—probably seeing the reunion of the band on Facebook—but I do remember playing with the concept of four dimensions. Forcing the story into four compartments encouraged me to think about the story in new ways and from various perspectives, and to distill it. I say in the essay that time moves only in one direction, but a part of me doesn’t believe that. At least in a metaphorical sense, my past is always running alongside my present. And the future haunts and terrifies me.

You’ve dabbled in pretty much everything: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays. . . . Is there a particular genre that you like writing the most? The least? What’s the hardest part of that?

Though I started out as a journalist and a copywriter, most of my writing life has been spent writing fiction, but over time I took more detours into writing poetry or nonfiction, usually because the material I wanted to write did not fit into a fictional form or because it was primarily nonfiction. Some of my fiction is partially biographical, but if it doesn’t have a strong imaginative component, I don’t want to call it fiction. Different material requires different forms. In the last ten years, I have spent more time on nonfiction—maybe because as one gets older, more real life has built up and calls for exploration and documentation. Plus, nonfiction more easily lends itself to non-narrative subgenres such as meditations on events or objects. My most recent published fiction is probably my least biographical; “Wheels” (in Hypertext) and “Maternal Instinct” (in Fiction Southeast) have fewer biographical components than anything I’ve published. In fact, they are both from male points of view. It has been years since I have written any poetry but I imagine that if I do it again, it will be in a flurry of connected poems rather than just a poem here or there—as that was how I composed poems in the past.

I notice a lot of your work is “short-story” or “memoir” based. . . . Have you ever considered writing a longer piece such as a novel?

I have considered it and I have tried—and will probably try again—to write a novel or a longer memoir. But I find shorter pieces, something that needs to be read in one sitting—meaning about one to 50 pages—generally have more intensity. I don’t think lives or even major events generally follow the arc of a novel. That is not to say that I don’t read novels and love them, but unlike a short story or essay, I can put them down for a few days, come back to them, and then put them down again. A good short story or essay keeps one captive and delivers immediate impact. Probably my favorite form of fiction is the linked story, like Munro’s The Beggar Maid or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, where the most important moments of a character’s life add up to give a multi-dimensional view of the characters and their lives. Linked collections often feel more authentic than novels.

Where do you usually get your inspiration from?

Multiple places. An image. A reoccurring memory. Something I’ve read or observed. Over hearing a conversation. Or just forcing myself to sit down and write.

Some artists say most of their ideas come at night; others say they work better in the early morning after grabbing a cup of coffee and sitting somewhere quiet. What’s your process like when it comes to writing?

I love to have a window—looking out on trees or water or a busy place. But truly, I do not require a specific space or time. Once the urge has taken over and I am writing, I am not looking out that window much.

How do you handle writer’s block?

I haven’t experienced it much. That said, I have experienced not being able to write the way I want to write (I guess maybe that is a form of writer’s block), when a story or essay feels flat or not to be progressively well. I have not figured out a cure for that except to push through and if it doesn’t work, try to write something else.

Who are your favorite authors? Which writers would you consider your style is most similar to?

The list is long and changes. But a few who have remained constant for a while are Joan Didion and Alice Munro.

Does being a co-editor in your magazine, Punctuate, help your writing? If so, how?

All reading and thinking about writing—which is a big aspect of editing—helps my writing.

How do you manage to balance teaching, writing, and editing all at the same time?

It is very difficult and at this point in the semester feels close to impossible, but knowing I have to structure my time well helps.

What are some of your favorite literary magazines?

As with books and authors, that changes a lot. I think Black Warrior Review and Crazyhorse are both lovely. Michigan Quarterly is a good one too. Gettysburg Review, Brevity—fortunately for us writers, the list is long!

How do you go about choosing which magazines and journals to submit a piece to?

With my best pieces, I usually start with the best magazines, meaning ones that have won awards or published pieces that later appear in Best American Short Stories or Best American Essays or have been around for a long time, proving their sustainability. I like journals that are physically attractive, like Black Warrior Review, and include some visual art. But sometimes I choose a magazine because it seems particularly suitable for the particular form or content I’m working with. I also like to expand the places I’ve published, so I have rarely published in a place more than twice. But these are not hard and fast rules. Sometimes I will simply see a journal name that I like. I subscribe to many literary magazines so I have a good sense of a lot of them.

What advice would you have for dealing with rejection letters?

Since most writers get far more rejections than acceptances, it is important not to allow rejections to have too great an impact. I would tell beginning writers that if they are confident about a piece to simply keep submitting it and to be sure to do simultaneous submissions; if you get a rejection from one place but know it is out at three other magazines, it softens the blow. Also, I can say I have been rejected by what I consider a lesser magazine only to revise it a little and have it accepted by a better one. Not all editors share your aesthetics or understand what you’re trying to do. But if you get a rejection with some advice, at least consider what the editor has advised.


Anne Valente

Anne Valente Speaks about her Writing Process, and the use of Childhood and Research for Inspiration.


Interview by Gabriela V. Everett

I discovered Anne Valente’s work upon attending a reading for her first novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, which follows high school students healing in the wake of a school shooting. Grief and healing are major themes in her work, as she believes in exploring the aftermath of tragedy and how people continue on.

 Anne Valente’s sophmore novel, The Desert Sky Before Us, explores the complicated relationship between family and catharsis. True to the journey of healing, the books unfolds over a slow-burn of mystery as the characters work to understand and connect to their mother’s past, all while being confronted by their personal phantoms. As a writer who loves characters with unique, researched backgrounds, the dynamics of Anne’s characters are revealed through our own exploration of various “documents” poised between each chapter, providing a whispered awareness.

I’d like to start by asking about how you harness your creative power. What inspires you to write? When an idea for a story takes root, do you let it simmer or take it up immediately?

I think curiosity has always driven my need to write. There’s so much I don’t know, and so many corners of this world to explore. Coupled with curiosity is the need to pay attention, always, to what is happening all around me; I think attention to the planet and to the human experience provides an endless capacity for stories, and for the empathy needed to write the characters and landscapes within them. My writing pace tends to hinge on what the idea is – I’ve had stories that I needed to sit down and write immediately because an image wouldn’t leave me alone, and I’ve had stories take months to simmer before I write a single word because I’m not quite sure yet why an image or idea is haunting me. Once I figure out why it might be – and sometimes this even happens after I’ve written a draft – then I start to write, or else revise.


Who are some of your favorite authors? What do you enjoy about their work and how does it impact you as a writer?

I’m always trying to discover new writers, from fiction to poetry to non-fiction, and am currently reading widely to keep exposing myself to new ideas and approaches to writing. But the three writers who made me want to write in the first place are Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore and Haruki Murakami. Morrison’s Belovedblew me away when I was a teenager and continues to keep doing so into my adulthood. I was deeply influenced by her use of the ghost story to address buried history and trauma. I love Lorrie Moore’s perfect mix of humor and pathos, in addition to her wizardry with language and verbiage. And Haruki Murakami’s imagination is unparalleled: I’ve always loved seeing what he can do with each book, which all tend to begin with a seemingly simple premise – such as a man making spaghetti at the beginning of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle– that unfurls into a magical landscape beneath the mundane. 


What do you do when writer’s block occurs?

 I’ve been fortunate to not really have ever experienced writer’s block in the traditional sense; I seem to have the opposite problem that there are always so many ideas and places that my curiosity takes me that it’s difficult to determine which of them might be explorable in a story. I will say, however, that I’ve learned to value periods of rest, which may be another term for writer’s block. I used to think that I needed to be productive all of the time, i.e. writing every single day, and while I still do write regularly, I think the periods of contemplation are important too to recharge, and to really determine what it is that I want to say in the next creative project. 


You’ve written a collection of short stories as well as two novels; what is your process for writing? Does it differ when working on short stories versus a novel? Is there a specific kind of environment or time of day where you like to write?

 The process of writing stories does differ from the novel for me; with my first collection, as well as a new one I’ve recently completed, I wrote the stories across a number of years and then figured out which ones were speaking to each other to pull together into a collection. By contrast, I wrote both novels in the span of a single calendar year with a very intense writing schedule. This wasn’t an exercise in self-discipline so much as a need to really focus on the world of each narrative in a concentrated way. When I’m working on a novel, I do generally write every day, usually in the morning in my home office before everything else. I tend to write stories either at home or in coffee shops, in shorter spurts of daily writing for a period of days. But I’m not too precious about when and where I write. So long as I get the words down!

GE-Desert Sky-Cover1.jpgGE-Desert Sky-Cover1.jpg


From your perspective, how have you grown as a writer since your debut short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, to The Desert Sky Before Us? Has your journey from debut to present informed your writing in any way?

 I think I’m still interested in the same things I’ve always been interested in – ghosts, magic, geography, attention to language and sentences – but my understanding of those interests and why I have them has expanded. I’ve always loved ghost stories since childhood, but I’ve also recognized in recent years that ghost stories are also a way of exploring trauma and grief in a collective sense, both in terms of history and buried, marginalized narratives that need to be told – much like what Morrison does in Beloved. For similar reasons, I’ve also become much more interested in place-based writing and what it means to write from and about a particular landscape. The story that the earth tells, and how our sentences can best relay that story, have become far more essential to me as a writer, particularly in an era of such rapid climate change. 


I’d like to discuss your novels. Both Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down and The Desert Sky Before Us deal with grief and catharsis; what draws you to these themes?

 Though my writing isn’t autobiographical, I think these themes are crucial to me as a writer and human being because I haven’t fully figured out yet how to find catharsis for grief. We are human; every single person we love will die. Sometimes I don’t know how we collectively get through a single day knowing this. But the beauty of our human lives is perhaps in the many individualized ways that we persist regardless. In general, however, I’m deeply interested in grief for the aforementioned reason of buried narratives. With Our Hearts, for instance, I saw again and again how our news coverage focused on the perpetrator in mass shootings but very rarely centered the lives lost, nor bothered to check back in on those families and communities and how they move on or don’t move on at all. We seem to remember the names of shooters, but never the many names of the people whose lives they took. The week Our Hearts was published, I visited the Columbine memorial in Colorado and the stories of each teenager’s life were overwhelming. These stories, the ones that we’re more reluctant to hold space for because they are so much more overwhelming than motive or cause, interest me the most.     


The Desert Sky Before Usfollows two sisters, Rhiannon and Billie, on a cross-country road trip following the passing of their mother. What inspired you to write a setting that traverses the country? 

 Because my first novel was situated so firmly in the singular location of St. Louis, I was structurally interested in writing a novel that refused to stay in one place. It was a fun challenge to take on, and I also had the added benefit of moving across the country myself while writing the book, from Ohio to New Mexico. This helped further envision how these two sisters might spend their time on the road. 


The Desert Sky Before Us was published by Harper Collins; what tips would you offer to writers who aspire to be traditionally published?

 There are many routes to book publication, and I’ve taken a couple of them. My collection was published through my own submission to a book prize, with an independent press that I love. In submitting manuscripts to publishing houses, however, an agent is generally needed. After I published my collection, I signed with an agent to submit my novel to those houses, which an agent is able to do since a writer generally can’t. For writers who wish to publish with a major publishing house, I’d suggest reading the acknowledgements of favorite books to figure out which agents are representing their favorite authors, and which houses are publishing the books they love. This can help cull a list of agents for manuscript submission as soon as their manuscript is ready to submit. 


What’s something you’d like your readers to walk away with after reading your work?

 I hope readers will feel just as curious as I felt while writing the work. Much of my writing is research-based, an opportunity for me to delve for the project’s duration into witches or NASCAR or falconry or crime scene investigation. There is so much to know and learn all around us, and I hope readers feel this way too. I also hope they feel buoyed by the language and the craft of the sentences. 


What advice do you have for young writers who’d like to sustain themselves off writing?

 I’d say nurture the passion for writing in any way that works best. There is no one way to become a writer, which is one of the beauties I find in the profession. You can go to school for writing, or you can do something completely outside of writing and work on your novel during your lunch breaks, or you can use writing to become a mini-expert for a little while on falconry or NASCAR. It’s such a wide open field, and the possibilities are endless. What maybe ties all writers together is just taking the work seriously. I’d say treat your passion with dedication. It isn’t something to do when everything else is done in your day. It isn’t an indulgence. It isn’t selfish. It is necessary and important, and for many of us, a way to speak and to survive. 


The Desert Sky Before Us 
William Marrow Paperback
ISBN-10: 0062749870
ISBN-13: 978-0062749871
448 pages


Eric May

Eric May talks about the origins of his novel, Bedrock Faith, his writing career, and how to stay motivated with writing your first novel.

Interview by Benjamin Peachy

I was a first semester junior when I first read Eric May’s debut novel, Bedrock Faith. I was most intrigued by the character of Stew Pot Reeves, the protagonist of the novel who is an ex-convict and has just returned to his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago with a newfound faith that causes immense tension amongst the people around him.

In my interview with Eric, we talk about his career in writing, his novel, and his thoughts on writing.

Eric May’s novel, Bedrock Faith, was published in February of 2014. It was one of Chicago Readers’s Favorite Books of 2014 along with being named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Novels of 2014. Booklist had this to say, “In May’s vivid, suspenseful, funny, compassionate and epiphanic first novel, the decorous Mrs. Motley, a retired librarian, along with her close-knit, gossipy Chicago South Side community, dreads the return of the notorious Stew Pot Reeves.” It was selected as One of O, The Oprah Magazine’s Ten Books to Pick Up Now in April 2014. May’s fiction and nonfiction has been published in such literary anthologies as Criminal Class Review, Sport Literate, and Angels in My Oven. He has been on the English and Creative Writing Faculty at Columbia College Chicago since 1993. May is also a Certified Story Workshop Director. 



You worked for a time for the Washington Post, what made you want to come back to Chicago to continue your writing career?

I was a part-time instructor in what was then Columbia’s Writing/English Department from Spring 1976 through Summer 1985. Although being a reporter was great, I finally decided that teaching had the stronger hold on me. I returned to Columbia as a full-time instructor in the winter of 1993.


Was your novel, Bedrock Faith, based on a previous short story you had written? If so, what ideas of expansions led you to turning it into a full novel?

It began as a short story, actually. Then it was a long short story, and then at around page 50 I realized that there was enough material there for a novel. However, I what didn’t realize at the time it would take 470-some manuscript pages and ten years to see the project to a satisfactory conclusion, which is probably a good thing.


You have worked in the newspaper industry, published short stories and a novel—what medium do you enjoy the most for writing?

The novel form seems to be my “natural” form, the one that comes most easy to me, although I love the sweet brevity of short stories and journalism articles. I’ve also done nearly a dozen personal essays over the last ten years for various storytelling programs around Chicago.


There is a large, overarching commentary on religion and its effects on people in your novel. Does religion play a role in your life as it does for Stew Pot? (Possibly more of a minor one compared to him?)

I was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and for the first thirteen years of my life I lived in the Morgan Park neighborhood where I had to pass four churches on the four block walk to my grade school. Although those long ago Sunday School lessons at Arnett A.M.E. have not left me completely, I would describe myself these days as more spiritual than religious. I did have to read voluminous parts of the Bible to finish the book.


Are you working on any stories currently? If you are, can you give some information on it?

 Working on another novel. Like BF, much of this story is set in the South Side neighborhood of Parkland. Don’t really want to say too much more about it. In print.  


 What would you say to a writer who hasn’t been able to complete a novel yet, but is still determined to do it?

 I started two novels and put them down unfinished before I got onto Bedrock Faith, which, as I said, didn’t even begin as a novel. Sometimes the novel finds you. Sometimes the reason a novel doesn’t work is that we haven’t found the right point of view from which to tell it, or we get bogged down in drawn-out explanations about the world of the novel and don’t get right to the story. Tony Morrison said she started writing the novels she had always wanted to read but had never found anywhere. That’s not a bad way to go. What are the sorts of things you yourself want from a novel in terms of subject matter, character, plot twists, dialogue? The key thing is to keep writing. I like to tell my students that it’s the people who keep at it that eventually get something like what they want from the writing process. My novel was published a month before my 61st birthday, and no less sweeter for the wait.


 Can you give any insights on your writing process for Bedrock Faith? Did you have a set time each day where you worked on it? Did you find any inspiration for certain characters from your daily life? 

 By the time the novel was up and going, I was too busy with teaching and various administrative duties to have anything like a writing schedule. I did have two sabbaticals in 2002 and 2009, which were a big help. Often times you have to work the writing in and around your work/family obligations. That means grabbing the time when you can, even if it’s while having a sandwich at your desk. The 3-4 hour block of time to write is often a train that either seldom arrives at the station, or never arrives at all. Also, putting off the writing until the home is clean and tidy, and the clothes are washed, and shopping is done, are sure fire ways not to get things finished.

Although I can’t say that any of the characters from Bedrock Faith are based on any particular person, I did draw heavily on the types of people I grew up around on the South Side. My character Mrs. Motley for instance, is kind of a conglomeration, a composite character if you will, of the college educated, church-going, middle class, African American women I knew growing up in the 1950s-60s; women like my mom and her sisters, as well as my grade school teachers and the moms of kids I played with.


Bedrock Faith, Akashic Books
ISBN#: 978-1-61775-196-7
434 pages


Tony Trigilio

Tony Trigilio discusses poetry, talk radio, and the professional pursuit of art.


Interview by Margaret Smith

I first came into contact with Tony Trigilio as one of my professors in the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. It was in one of his classes that he helped my fellow classmates and I discover “hybrid writing,” a concept that, at the time, was a foreign one to me. We read Jennifer Bartlett, Julie Carr, and Gregory Orr, all of whom shaped this fawn-like concept in my head.

Cut to 2019 and I am interviewing Tony about his own poetry and prose hybrid writing, namely the latest and third installment in his series, Ghosts of the Upper Floor: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 3. Tony takes to the task of writing and, frankly, all of his other pursuits with the mind of both a realist and creative. And with that duality he has immersed himself in his passions.

Tony has also recently published: Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 2, BlazeVOX [books], 2016 and Dispatches from the Body Politic: Interviews with Jan Beatty, Meg Day, and Douglas Kearney, Essay Press, 2016, which is a collection of interviews from Radio Free Albion. Another leg to Tony’s creative endeavours is Radio Free Albion, a platform on which he interviews fellow poets on their forthcoming work as well as what it means to be a poet.



How did you first get invested in your creative fields? 

I’ve been immersed in writing and music ever since I can remember. But my investment deepened enormously when I realized that artists and audiences are always in a relationship with each other. I realized artists aren’t just making something that readers and listeners can “consume”; instead, we’re actually trying to forge an intimate connection with our audiences. Whether I’m writing a poem, making music, or producing a podcast episode, I want my audience to feel the same thing I feel as an audience member—that the artist has guided me toward a new angle of vision, a new way of seeing the world, that I hadn’t imagined before connecting with that work of art.


How did talk radio and your writing influence each other?

 My poems are talky. I imagine each poem as a situation in which the speaker sidles up to the audience and just starts chatting away. Kind of like what Frank O’Hara says in his “Personism” manifesto, where he favors the kind of poem that exists “between two persons instead of two pages.” With my interest in the poem as a talking artifact, it’s probably not surprising that I listened to radio talk shows a lot as a child. (By “talk radio,” I don’t mean the right-wing propaganda we’re surrounded by these days. Instead, I mean community talk shows, arts interview shows, sports talk shows, and advice shows, among others.) Listening to talk radio made me feel like I was eavesdropping on adult conversations—like I was learning secrets about the adult world that no one really wanted me to know. Radio talk shows also made me feel less alone. They taught me a lot about the dynamics of tone and pitch in speech, and about narrative pacing. Most important of all, as someone who eventually would become a writer, radio talk shows dramatized the intimacy of spontaneous dialogue—how the intimacy of social intercourse develops organically, taking its conversational cues from whatever is being said in the present moment. My own poems meander conversationally. They often work within a narrative structure, but narrative is rarely linear: I have to be attentive to tangential leaps, free associations, and how these improvised moments of interjection and redirection help us make knowledge and emotional sense out of our discourse with others.


What pushed you to start Radio Free Albion?

 The Radio Free Albion podcast emerged from the frustration I was feeling several years ago that so few venues actually reviewed new books of poetry. Originally, I’d planned to start my own reviews blog to fill this gap. But as I started planning the blog, it became clearer that I could actually give more attention to a greater number of books if I hosted a podcast instead. What I first envisioned as a digital collection of book reviews became a series of real-time radio conversations—spontaneous, collaborative performances—between two poets. 

Essay Press published three of the interviews as an e-chapbook in 2016: Dispatches from the Body Politic: Interviews with Jan Beatty, Meg Day, and Douglas Kearney. Columbia faculty member CM Burroughs wrote the Afterword. The podcast is on hiatus now, but I’ve kept the shows archived at I hope to resurrect it sometime in the near future.

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Did you know Ghosts of the Upper Floor: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) was going to be a series, or did it reveal itself as you kept writing?

 I should probably first give a little background on this book and the larger project. Ghosts of the Upper Floor is a hybrid mix of poetry and prose. It was published this year by BlazeVOX Books, a press that specializes in experimental poetry and fiction. I’m watching all 1,225 episodes of the old daytime gothic soap opera Dark Shadowsfor the project. I compose one sentence in response to each episode and shape each sentence into autobiographical poetry and prose. Ghosts of the Upper Floorcovers 122 episodes.

 I began Ghosts of the Upper Floor as the third installment in The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), but I didn’t know what direction this book was going to take. The shape of the book revealed itself during the writing process. As I drafted and revised the book, I realized that it needed to be in two sections, and that each section should function as a mirror image of the other. The book itself is obsessed with doubling—characters and situations come relentlessly in mirrored twos throughout. The architecture of the book is perhaps the most intricate manifestation of doubling: every prose and verse shape in Section One is repeated (with different content, of course) in Section Two. I had no idea the book would develop this way, with the text shapes in Section One essentially rhyming with those in Section Two. Like a conversation, I started talking, and then I let the discourse tell me where to go.


What was the process like bridging this series across three installations? 

The process is as exciting as it is anxious. Because the soap opera itself triggers the project’s autobiographical material, I never quite know what I’m going to write about from one sentence to the next. Everything begins with this kind of spontaneity, though I revise meticulously. I like to create new formal, challenges for myself, too, so that I don’t become complacent as I write what will become the full 1,225 sentences for the project. Books 1 and 2 were composed in verse couplets, a series of two-line stanzas, but Book 3, Ghosts of the Upper Floor, mixes varied prose and verse shapes, and, at times, forces these shapes into collisions with each other. I’m currently working on Book 4, and it’s also a hybrid mix of poetry and prose.


What endeavors do you find allow your artistic growth?

 I can’t say enough about how important it is for me to pay attention to the work of others: reading great writing inspires me to write, and listening to amazing music inspires me to make music. Long walks help, too, along with daily meditation. Like reading and listening to music, walking and meditating slow me down and teach me to pay attention, to hone my vision.


What do you think young creatives need to be mindful of when trying to find their niches, and potentially turning those into profitable areas?

 Most of all, I think we need to consider the word “profit” as having multiple definitions. On one hand, profit is about making money, and if we have a project that is particularly valuable in the marketplace, then we should go for it, and generate as much revenue as we can. But “profit” can also refer to one’s connection with an audience. When someone tells you how important your writing has been to them, this is the kind of profit that cannot be measured by spreadsheets and bank balances. It’s a kind of love—maybe the most valuable profit of all. 

We need to care about marketplace profit—the purity of one’s art form cancoexist nicely with commerce, I think—but I also think we should not get so invested in the marketplace that our art becomes commodified. If our work is a commodity, it risks becoming just another object to be consumed and digested without the potential to show us new and more thoughtful ways of seeing. We are saturated in marketing language, and this creates a culture that simply wants to identify our needs and then satisfy them. That’s a process of pacification—and that’s what commodities are for, as pacifiers. But my favorite art is that which is profitable enough to be part of the marketplace, but that also surprises me and rattles me. Commodities just satisfy artificial needs. Art, though, teaches me to see.


 Do you think there are pitfalls to investing yourself professionally in the art that you love?   

 Whatever the pitfalls might be—the sting of rejection foremost among them—I think it’s vital that we invest ourselves professionally in what we love. The more we bring heartfelt passion to our professionalized lives, the more we humanize everything that is professional.


 If you weren’t wearing all of these different hats, what would you be doing?

 Great question! I’d probably be sitting in a dark room wearing just one old, worn-out hat. I’d really like that hat, but I also know that I’d be feeling my way along the wall looking for the light switch. My plan would be: turn on the light, find the door, and then get out into the world and look for more hats to wear!


Ghosts of the Upper Floor The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 3, BlazeVOX [books]
ISBN #: 978-1609643379
144 pages

Author photo by Kevin Nance


Re’Lynn Hansen

Re’Lynn Hansen talks Japan, inspiration, and how to balance writing with commuting and life


Interview by Katie Lynn Johnston

I met Re’Lynn Hansen in her Writers’ Portfolio class at Columbia College Chicago in my junior year of school. But, even before I had met her or was entirely positive as to who she was, I had heard many great things about her, her classes and her written work.
Throughout my first years at Columbia, I had seen her walking around the halls on numerous occasions before I took class with her and I remember thinking how zen and laid-back yet still so tough she seemed. I knew only that she had published a great deal of her writing, in books and lit magazines alike, and that she had received several awards for it as well, but knew not much more beyond what I had heard about her. So, as you might be able to guess, I was ecstatic to take her class, and jumped at the chance to interview her on her process, what inspires her, and why she writes.

Re’Lynn Hansen is the author of a book of poem and essays, To Some Women I Have Known, White Pine Press. Her essays, memoir pieces and stories have been published in Hawai’i Review, Prism, Rhino, New Madrid, Water~Stone, New South, Poem Memoir Story, and online at Contrary. She is the recipient of the New South Prose Prize, and the Prism International Creative Nonfiction Prize. Her chapbook, 25 Sightings of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, was published by Firewheel Editions. She is editor of Punctuate, a nonfiction mOn agazine. She has travelled to Kyoto to explore zen approaches to landscape gardening. She has researched the early discoveries of cancer vaccines at Yale Sterling Memorial Library for a book about her experiences with breast cancer and being among the first to receive an experimental cancer vaccine. Her website is at

How did you get started writing? What made you want to write?
I think I have the regular childhood creds for a writer. I was a daydreamer. I grew up looking out the window. A lot. From my bedroom, I could see cornfields, horse corrals, and creeks. I remember watching the harvest at five years of age, knowing it was a metaphor. There was not a book in the house. But my parents were creative beings, creative thinkers. They would not say we were poor, they would say we were broke. My mother listened to jazz. I think music had an influence upon my writing. My father wanted to go into fish farming or hydroponics for a while. Their ideas were large and outside of how others thought. There was no library nearby. Books were expensive and they were broke. But they bought books for me.
Then for a long time I swam around with the idea of what I would not be. I would not be a person who carted a briefcase to work. I would not work 9 to 5. I would not own anything that could not fit in the trunk of a car. I would not be someone who added numbers for a living. I would not keep a checking account. Eventually, there was a path through it. It came by giving myself permission to be an artist and a writer. My work expressed image. I was and am a photographer. Though eventually I knew I would be a person who expresses image in terms of poetic language.

You mentioned in your Writers’ Portfolio class that you had gone to Japan over the summer. Do you have a favorite place there that you have visited? Are there things in Japan which inspire your writing?
I went to Japan to see the moss and bamboo forests created by mists that rise above the seas—I am a meditator so I wanted to see the gardens and temples. Also, they have a long history of in Image and Word work, going back a thousand years and bringing us right to the manga age. The Japanese have always illustrated their poems with paintings and their ink paintings with poems. They were interdisciplinary. Image and word were created together. For the Japanese, manga is hundreds of years old, and this is tied to their spiritual belief, not in one god, but in one idea of god that exists in everything, in every rock and pebble and flower, and every art form is a path to understanding that rock or flower.

You write many different types of literature; nonfiction, fiction, poetry—as is evident from your books, literary publications and awards, but is there one in particular that you most enjoy writing and teaching?
I enjoy memoir the most. At some point, I realized that I was spending more time looking up the lives of authors, than I was reading them. I realized that at fiction readings, I could recall the Q&A afterwards better than I could recall the fiction that had been read. As a child, I was allowed a seat at the kitchen tables, and lounges and bars and living rooms that were the midnight haunts of my parents and grandparents. My task was to keep quiet, which I accomplished because their voices entranced me. Their words danced and I was thrilled that I could touch the minds. When in college, I knew that I wanted to explode with the stories that were actually in my mind, and not the fiction version of them. I am writing an epistolary memoir now. Very satisfying.

Which authors and books would you say have most influenced your writing and style? Do you have a favorite story, book or poem you always find yourself going back to?
My favorite books are the beginning writings of brilliant authors—novels that become an author’s “first breath,” where the language and risk taking are miraculously fresh. For instance, James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Morrison, The Bluest Eye; McCullers,The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms; Cisneros, House on Mango Street; Faulkner, As I Lay Dying.
Right now, in the nonfiction arena, essays have better form than memoir. This is changing quickly with graphic memoirs—for instance, Fun Home and Persepolis—and with segmented and lyric forms of memoirs.

Besides being a writer, all around artist and professor, you also commute from Michigan to Chicago. Do you find it difficult to balance your hobbies, work, writing, commuting and family? What advice would you give to others who also juggle writing with their work and other responsibilities and wants?
Yes, it is impossible to balance it all. I try. I spend time recalibrating. For instance, if I have a hundred things to do, I might take a gap hour and walk the dog instead of attacking that list, just to breathe and let it all settle. As it happens, I have many medical appointments. My writing time is often taken by doctor appointments. Of course, I have written about the doctors and my metastatic breast cancer. I think everyone knows about death and struggle, but having cancer crystalizes that knowledge, and you exist with it in your own little stream of light. It’s important, for me, to write about that. You have to jump the slipstream between life and death and back again, and report back from the brilliant wilderness of illness. It’s the conversation many writers try to have. It’s living within a paradox. It’s the lightening, then nothing, then lightening again. That paradox twists around a bit. The struggle/illness is sometimes the lightening, and there’s the idea that life is nothing without it.
You asked my advice, and that would be to go inward and check-in with yourself regarding what you want to do that day, that week. Who do you want to be with? What do you want to say?


Sam Weller

Sam talks about his writing journey, how to balance your life and writing, and tips for a future writer


I first discovered Sam Weller last semester in my Introduction to Literary Interpretation class here at Columbia College Chicago. I had heard great things about him from a previous professor at my community college, and the class was no disappointment. I was enthralled by his knowledge and experience in literature and his profession, including his past as Ray Bradbury’s personal biographer.

Through his spoken stories to his classes, you can tell just how much he has to teach the upcoming generations, and how much it means to him. His love for literature and teaching is one that is genuine. His work showcases his ability and talent as he delves into real-life topics, all the while adding his hint of science-fiction.

A journalist, fiction writer, and two-time Bram Stoker award-winner, Sam Weller is well known for his biographies of Ray Bradbury. His book The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury was a bestseller and winner of 2005 Society of Midland Authors Award for Best Biography. It was followed by Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews in 2010 and in 2012, Weller co-edited Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury alongside Mort Castle. Sam was a Correspondent for Publishers Weeklymagazine and his own essays have appeared in the Paris Review, Slate magazine, and more. He is a current blogger for the Huffington Post. More recently, Sam’s fiction has been featured in various outlets such as Printer’s Row JournalRosebud, and the Chicago Reader among others. Upcoming, we have a lot to look forward to. Sam Weller is currently working on his debut novel and in 2020 he will be releasing a collection of short stories titled Dark Black.

 *  *  * 


I’d like to start by noting your previous work. You’re well known for your work as Ray Bradbury’s authorized biographer. What are a few of the key things you learned while working with him?

Ray taught me so much. First of all, he was creatively fearless. He was a tremendous creative risk taker. He wrote short stories, novels, essays, poems, screenplays, teleplays, radio dramas… He did whatever he wanted. This is what I try to emulate in my own writing career. I have done a travel book; a biography; a book of interviews; comic books; a graphic novel and, next up, I have a collection of short stories coming out in April. I don’t want to be confined by boundaries as a creator, and Ray taught me this.

Another important lesson is that he taught me to trust my creative intuition. As readers and writers, we are constantly training our subconscious in the art of storytelling. Ray often said, “Your intuition is smarter than you are, so get out of its way.” So, with this in mind, if a story keeps tapping me on the shoulder and saying “write me,” I listen! I don’t question where the story wants to lead me, I try to follow. When a story is really working, it almost starts to write itself, the writer is just the medium to channel the ghost.


Besides Bradbury, what stories and/or authors had a strong influence on you and your writing?

So, so many. I love writers who have an electric energy to their narrative movement. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff is absolutely voltaic. That book was a towering influence on me. Same with Lester Bangs, the greatest rock-music critic ever. James Wolcott, the essayist, critic, and fiction writer has a similar lightning to his wordsmithery. I like to take this energy over to my fiction. Other important influences include Truman Capote, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck for sure, Louise Erdrich, Joan Didion and contemporary writers such as Joe Hill and Charles Yu.


You’ve had short stories published and have written for various magazines in the past – as a journalist and author, where did that journey begin for you? 

As long as I’ve been writing nonfiction, I have been writing fiction. The commonalities between the two genres are far more pronounced than the differences, really. A story is a story. It needs to be told well, using all the senses, with memorable scenes, a sense of play, experimentation, use of narrative forms, dialogue, narrative movement and more. These things cross easily between nonfiction and fiction. And a story must be told in your voice. Like a great guitar player, you really should be able to recognize a writer’s signature very quickly. So, I have been writing fiction for years. My MFA is in fiction. My stories have been published in a number of anthologies, as well as in literary journals. After writing THE BRADBURY CHRONICLES: THE LIFE OF RAY BRADBURY (William Morrow, 2005) I was ready to get away from heavy research and interviews and footnotes and indexes and facts for a while, to just take a break, so I started publishing more and more short stories. This journey has been one of pure joy.


How did your journey lead you to where you are currently?

Well, I’ve been writing and publishing short stories for the last decade or so and it’s led to my first short story collection coming out in 2020. I’m very excited about it, but I’m now ready to get back to a huge nonfiction project that will take me deep into the research mines again! I was at the New York Public Library a few weeks ago in the rare manuscript room and my heartbeat sped up. It felt like Indiana Jones and Hogwarts rolled into one.

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In Spring 2020, you have a collection of short stories being published. It’s a little different than what you’ve published previously. What was the inspiration for these stories? Without giving too much away, is there any more you can tell us about them? 

One of my favorite books by Ray Bradbury is 1955’s, The October Country. It is very dark, very melancholy, deeply poetic and — psychologically — quite creepy. It is one of his finest short story collections. I wish he had written more stories in this tradition. The October Country got me interested in “weird” fiction, and then I went deep into the light-deprived rabbit hole of Gothic literature and haven’t returned. I noticed that most of the short stories I was writing were cut from this sort of dark, velveteen cloth. My subconscious was writing a collection of dark stories long before I saw the thematic connections. My book, Dark Black comes out in June of 2020. It includes twenty short stories. I played with narrative forms in some, one is written as a found transcript of a conversation; another is written as a sort of fictionalized, rock-music magazine feature story. I love playing with contemporary forms in the constructs of fiction. The title story of the book is one of my favorites. It is about an oceanographer who is at the end of his career and sets out to prove the existence of the mythic Kraken, something he is convinced he saw early on in his career. This story is sort of Moby-Dick meets Jaws meets my love of Kaiju monsters. The story is sad. It is very cold and autumnal and, strangely, reflects that I was listening to a lot of John Denver when I wrote it. It caused me to reflect on John Denver’s death in a plane crash, and how he died flying, which was something he loved very much.

Death is the pervasive connection between all of the stories in Dark Black. Death, grief, loss, loneliness, isolation and madness—the hallmarks of Gothic literature. I lost my Mom when I was in my early twenties. I lost Ray Bradbury, who was really like a second father to me, in 2012. I lost my childhood best friend in a car accident and one of the stories in the book (“Conjuring Danny Squires”) is a fictionalization of this tragic experience. I think the only way I could begin to grapple with all of this loss was to allow life to come from it—life in the form of story and art. Creativity is the flower, the miracle, that grows from the drought striken landscape. It’s very gratifying that Charles Yu called the book “haunted and haunting,” as this was my intent with this new book.

The final thing I will say about Dark Black is that it was very important to me to have every story include an illustration. I wanted the illustrations to be as haunting and desolate as the stories themselves. My publisher got this aesthetic immediately. They said, “Go for it!” They didn’t worry about cost. They just said, “Do it.” The art is all done by artist and printmaker Dan Grzeca, who is best known for his work rock bands like the Black Keys, Sharon van Etten and U2. In many ways, his art is the visual twin to my stories.


I’d love to know what your creative process looks like. When you sit down to write, do you have any rituals? What does your environment look like? 

Music has always been absolutely imperative to my writing process. I have always listened to music when writing. Every project I have ever worked on always had an unexpected soundtrack that I listened to as I created—sort of a musical mood that painted a color and vibe. I listened to a lot of punk while writing Dark Black, as well as lot of Johnny Cash and old Irish folk songs. Most of the music was about broken hearts, broken people and redemption.

I would love to be precious about my process, but I really can’t afford to be. I would love to be able to rent a cabin somewhere in the woods to go away and just write. I could get so much done! This is a dream of mine, one day. Or to buy a small farmhouse somewhere. But I have three kids and really can’t do that. At least, not until they are a bit older. My years as a staff writer for alternative, weekly newspapers fostered in me an ability to write anywhere. Journalism is great training this way. Newsrooms are loud and people are constantly talking to you and you just have to stay focused. Edward R. Murrow wrote on battlefields, so I figure I can write in a loud house. I write sometimes on my phone using the memo app. I can write pretty much anywhere. It’s not ideal, but it’s how I get things done.

One thing I do like is to have several hours to get in a groove. I don’t like to only have 15 minutes here or there. I hate writing like a lurching car with a sputtering engine. I want to get on the highway and go for a long road trip. I am also very much a morning writer. I love the energy of the morning, with the promise of the day out before me.


You’re a father, a teacher, and a writer. How do you find the time to write?

Balance is the hardest part of my creative life. I have no answers. I fight for my creative time. That’s all I can say. If I don’t write, I get depressed and feel caged. So that’s good motivation to constantly look for an opportunity to be creative. I’m also a much better teacher when I am engaged with my creative practice. I’m also a better father because I am a happier person. Somehow, someway, I make the time.


Going off my last question, do you have any tips for those struggling to find a balance between their writing and life?

You have to want this career. You have to fight for it. You have no choice. If you are a writer, you must write. And cut it with the procrastination. Don’t do it tomorrow. Do it today. No one is going to facilitate your dream but you.


To end the interview, what would you say to those writers who are struggling to not only find their voice but also their footing in the literary world?

Don’t despair. We all feel these things. We all question our voice, or tire of the sound of our own voice because we are with it 24/7, on every page, in every sentence.

Write about the things that fascinate you. Be curious. Be an active listener. Be an active reader. Write with passion. Write the story you would want to read. Writing like this will never let you down. Ray Bradbury taught me, “Do what you love and love what you do.” So write what you love! If you do this, the story will take care of the rest.


Interview by Alison Brackett

Dark BlackHat & Beard Press
254 pages

The Ray Bradbury Chronicles
Published by HarperCollins Publisher on April 5, 2005
ISBN: 006054581X
383 Pages


Michael Gifford

On writing, his process, and more importantly, how nothing matters because the planet is going to incinerate itself one day


Mike Gifford is a comedic essay writer, performer, and director in Chicago, IL. Mike was the co-writer and director of the 2017 revival of “Steamworks: The Musical,” and is an original ensemble member of “The Shithole” variety show, where you can still see him perform original essays. Mike is proud to say he has made virtually no money off of his artistic pursuits and has no interest in fame or posterity. He still works very hard to make people laugh, grossed out, or disgusted while reading his essays on stage.

Kala Wahl: What attracted you to writing solo material/monologues for the stage?

Mike Gifford: Monologues were a complete accident.

I was asked by a guy to write this essay for a variety show. I’d never performed solo before in my life. I’d done this podcast with another guy, and he wasn’t a bad guy, but we just didn’t see eye-to-eye creatively. This guy running the variety show asked me to do a monologue about my experience in politics. So, that’s when I wrote this very first essay—first one I’d ever written—and performed in front of people at a show. It was about President James Buchanan and his homosexual relationship with William Rufus King, the senator from Alabama. They’d lived together for twenty years in a fairly open homosexual relationship. So, I wrote an essay about that. It went over really well; people laughed. It was wonderful.

I was asked to come back and do it again—that meant I had to write a new one. And then I wrote a new one after that. It was an avalanche. I kept writing; I would write a new five-minute monologue for virtually almost every show I did, which was crazy. I didn’t know any better. But there’s not a lot that’s changed in my process from the beginning. I may be totally wrong with that. I’m not doing anything right, but it’s fun.


KW: What’s the crossover between monologues and essays?

MG: You could get into semantics. I believe an essay, specifically, is determining a length of something. I think that’s if you’re being very technical, but I might be wrong there. The difference really could be—for example, a character monologue would be taking on a different persona. Let’s say for this piece I’m going to be playing Orson Wells eating taffy. [Does voice of Orson Wells eating taffy]. So, I have a very specific voice. That’s a character piece. As just a monologue as me, or reading an essay, that’s simply that. But there always is a sense, for me, that’s it’s never quite me. It’s not really me; it’s me performing. So, performing me is a little bit different than just me bitching.


KW: I noticed a big theme in your writing is queer identity and your experience as a gay male in day-to-day life. What do you want your audience to take away from this kind of material?

MG: These days, everyone has an agenda. I don’t care. I don’t want them to learn anything. I want them to laugh, and then through that, I think it makes everything a little more acceptable.

I’m disgusting. I find all these gross topics interesting, and I talk about it very bluntly. And the funny thing about me is—even though I’m a big prude—while most people don’t want to talk about anything, I’d much rather push the boundary and gross people out. And I’ve really grossed people out before. I once performed a five-minute piece about anal sex. I had one thing in there, it was: “Butt oven of burning delight.” It really grossed people out. And it was really funny, people laughed. But it was gross.

There are rare occasions where I’ve written something specifically to connect with people. I don’t think performing does anything to change anyone’s mind about anything. I don’t necessarily think I’ll change anyone’s mind. I’d rather be as funny and vulgar as possible—that’s my entire objective. I couldn’t care less.

There was a moment where I did care and I wanted to get a little bit of success, and I was getting some, but it made me very unhappy—at least in my case. I’m just sort of rolling with the punches and enjoying doing the little things I get to do. Which is very fortunate. Most people have very miserable lives. So, I’m doing all right.


KW: Your writing is incredibly blunt; it’s super honest and to the point. What are your thoughts surrounding the stylistic choice of writing in your own voice? 

MG: I just never censored myself. Because that’s the way I talk. I’m very matter-of-fact.

People get very offended by certain types of things. I am sort of like George Carlin on the topic of shell shock. Now they call it PTSD or something else. It’s like, no: it’s shell shock. It’s a blast and it’s hurting the brain. They even have studies talking about the brain damage that comes from all these bombs and gunshots and stuff that really fucks up a soldier’s brain. It’s shell shock; it always was shell shock. That’s exactly what it is. Two syllables, done. But we’ve evolved over time and we’ve dehumanized it as much as possible. So, now it’s a very politically correct word that sounds very easy, but it doesn’t describe what it is at all. Which is shell shock. It’s fucking up your brain.

So, I guess for me, I’m just too blunt. I’ve never been a good liar. It’s gotten me into all sorts of trouble, but it’s also made me very funny. People like liars; it’s much more comfortable. But I’m not very good at it.


KW: You sit down to write solo material—what does your process look like? How do you transfer your ideas to the stage?

MG: So, like right now I’m writing a piece. I’m performing a piece before the election. I never write about my experience in politics or anything like that, because it seems to be preachy. And I don’t want to be preachy. So, what I do is try to find an angle that isn’t preachy. I’ve been thinking about pulling something from the Federalist Papers. Or I could say, “This is a lost piece from the Federalist Papers that was written by Alexander Hamilton or James Monroe.” What if I wrote one of the lost Federalist Papers and I performed that? That might be an angle. I thought of that just now. I might do that; that’s a very good idea.

So, anyways, I get with that. Then I do a little research. I may go home and start to read about the Federalist Papers and find some interesting in’s to write about. They could be satirical as to the election that’s going to be happening. And that’s it. And then I’m just funny. The only way you know if something is funny or not is by performing it in front of people. A big part of it is selling it; I’m good at that. But there are all sorts of factors. There can be death by exposition. So, in the course of being funny, the set-up can destroy something organically funny. I’ll write something, often times, with long description in the sentences, and it’ll come across rather preachy. I cut those. And I go right to the funny thing and skip the bullshit. Now that’s antithetical to being descriptive if you’re writing an essay or prose or an article, but for performing, you want to get right to it. You don’t want to get boring. Whereas if someone’s reading and has to interpret it, you want more detail to explain what you’re trying to say. I don’t need all that detail because they know exactly what I’m saying because I’m saying it right in front of them. That’s the balance as far as process goes.

And honestly, whenever it comes to performing the essays I write, it’s messy. A lot of it is counterintuitive to when you’re preparing for an article or a journal or something to be read. It’s a very different mindset. And you have to keep that in mind. Otherwise whenever you’re performing it, it can be very boring.


KW: Why keep writing and performing?

MG: This is wonderful. I finally have a very good answer for this, because I wouldn’t have had in the past. I would have had a bullshit answer that I would have felt very sincere about, but I would have been wrong.

I only do things I find fun. I couldn’t care less about what anyone thinks. Or making money in that way. I just don’t care, because I’ll be dead. It’ll be over. I’ll be dead and done and in the dirt. So, everything that I did doesn’t matter. And one day, whenever the planet burns up, no one will remember what anyone did. To me, that is very reassuring. Because I don’t have to worry about it. It just takes the weight off.

I used to have all this pressure, and knowing that it doesn’t matter gives great meaning to me, actually. Most people look at it entirely wrong. Knowing that it’s all over means that all I have to worry about is making sure that I’m doing the best I can today. As long as I do the best I can today and have fun, I don’t have to worry about anything else. I could drop dead of a heart attack right now and then that’s it. So, I better enjoy every moment now. Who cares? That’s why I keep writing and performing. Because it’s fun. There’s a lot more value to me when I write and perform that way, because I’m not worried like I used to be.


Interview by Kala Wahl


CM Burroughs

On poetry and the many themes that inform her writing


I first met CM in the spring semester of 2018 when I took her class, “Fetish, Sustainability, and The Self.” She began our first day together by reading the opening poem from her book, The Vital System. I knew then it would be a good semester, and that I had to read this collection of poems. Throughout my semester with CM Burroughs, I learned what poetry is. I created some of the work I am most proud of because of her skills and guidance as a professor. I found myself often wondering what more of her work was like. What would it look like if I took a close look at it? 

After that semester, I bought The Vital System and devoured the collection within a matter of days. Each poem had a unique flavored, something I had never tasted before. CM Burroughs creates small worlds within her poems that I could not help but ask questions about. I was delighted when she agreed to speak with me about The Vital System, her process, and her inspirations. 

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CM Burroughs’s debut collection of poetry is The Vital System (Tupelo Press, 2012). She is an assistant professor of poetry at Columbia College Chicago, and she serves as senior editor for TupeloQuarterly and coeditor for Court Green. Burroughs has been awarded fellowships and grants from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cave Canem Foundation, Callaloo Writers Workshop, and the University of Pittsburgh. She has received commissions from the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Warhol Museum to create poetry in response to art installations. A Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the 2009 Gift of Freedom Award, her poetry has appeared in journals including CallaloojubilatPloughsharesVOLTBat City Review, and Volta

When does a poem begin for you? Do you find yourself taking up a routine when it comes to beginning a poem, or is the process different for every poem?

A poem begins with provocation and desire. I tend to fantasize about and mull over poems before I write them as a means of figuring out what they are about. And some poems come out of free-writing and pure chance upon an intersection of language and idea. I generally walk around with subjects in mind, and I work to find the right language to craft the subject into poems. 

In The Vital System,the titles of each poem are found at the top of the page with a border line separating the title from the poem. This made me wonder, what does the title for a poem mean to you? Do your poems always have a title or is this a structure you like to play around with?

The title is the first moment I am able to take my reader by the hand. I look at every part of the poem as a cooperative space between the word and the imagination of the reader. And I have to admit that I prefer to work for the right title—the first thing a reader sees cannot be lazily-made. 

In The Vital System, the structure of each poem is unique. How do you find the structure for your poems? Do you write each piece with an intended physical structure or do you piece it together once you have gotten all the words on the page? 

A poem’s structure should be aesthetically provocative in some way. That is, if the piece is held away from the eye and the language rendered abstract then I prefer there be some desire toward the poem. The content of the poem also informs the structure—if the poem is tense then the structure might be short-lined and narrow. That said, I shift structure throughout my writing and revision process in order to satisfy how the content is changing until the poem is complete. 

As I read this collection, there is continuously a strong sense of the human body in the work. How did the body find its way into these poems? What is it about the human that draws you in and keeps you coming back to write about it?

I was born 3 months premature, which is addressed by the first poem in The Vital System, “Dear Incubator.” The body that I was born into—the initial 1lb 12oz vulnerable thin-shelled gather of organs—that body, and now this healthy athletic body that I use today, informs everything I write. I think from the body; it belongs in my poems because I exist. 

There is also a subtle sensuality within some of your poems, these were some of pieces that resonated with me personally. How did the female body influence this collection? Was it something you found in the poems as you wrote? Or was it a subject you intended to showcase even before beginning the idea of the collection? 

Because I exist, I attempt to explore all expressions of the body, and this includes sensuality, romance, play, etc. Sexuality is one of the uses of the body that I’ve alway been interested in writing—curious about all the ways one may explore herself and another.  

When you began writing the poems of The Vital System, did you know each poem would be a part of something bigger? What was the process of putting a book together like for you? Were there any poems that did not make it into the book? 

The book is a revised version of my Master’s thesis. The intention was to create a full-length collection all along. I have an old photograph, I’ll dig it up for you, in which I am standing before a wall of poems. I used to live in Pittsburgh, PA in a Heinz carriage house with vast apartments throughout. I used one of the walls in my apartment to post all the poems of my book. That’s where I edited and rearranged them. That wall held my first book. 

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What are you currently working on in terms of writing? Do the themes of The Vital System continue to influence you? 

The themes do continue to influence me. My new book Master Suffering (Tupelo Press, 2020) explores the female body through the long illness and death of my younger sister, the impotence of spirituality to appease grief, and the role of pleasure in providing haven from despair. I believe writers chase certain subjects throughout the life of their art, and my obsessions continue to demand poems of me. 

Interview by: Jessica Powers 


Tupelo Press
ISBN: 978-1-936797-15-8
63 pages


David Trinidad

On process, survival, and mysterious poet dreams


I was lucky enough to walk into my beginner level poetry workshop and see David Trinidad sitting, like a captain at the helm, at the front of the class.

I was a sophomore fiction major. I’d written poetry, but nothing serious, and was skeptical about being taught poetry, a subject I didn’t think lent itself to teaching. Fifteen weeks later, I emerged from that class as a poet, and I believe every bit of that is thanks to David.

A year after completing the course, I asked him about his poetry process, inspirations, and the extraordinary life he’s lived. This is what he told me.


David Trinidad is an award-winning poet from California. He has published numerous books, including his latest collection of poems, Swinging on a Star (Turtle Point Press, 2017). Known for his masterful exploration of pop culture in his poetry, Trinidad’s poems speak to very specific American experiences.  His other books include Notes on a Past Life (BlazeVOX [books], 2016), Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera (Turtle Point, 2013), Dear Prudence: New and Selected Poems (Turtle Point, 2011), The Late Show (Turtle Point, 2007), and Plasticville (Turtle Point, 2000). He is also the editor of A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos (Nightboat Books, 2011) and Punk Rock Is Cool for the End of the World: Poems and Notebooks of Ed Smith (Turtle Point, 2019). Trinidad lives in Chicago, where he is a Professor of Creative Writing/Poetry at Columbia College Chicago.


When you set about writing a new book of poetry, what is your process like? Do you compile poems you’ve already written which contain a common thread? Or do you write according to a preset theme in mind?

My first few books were compilations of poems that did not necessarily have a common thread. I just tried to make a bunch of poems, that I’d written over a period of years, fit together and make sense, produce a book that was a good read. I’m sure those poems “spoke to each other,” either formally and/or thematically. But they were written as individual poems, not as a book. At some point my books began to be generated around a central idea: elegiac poems about my mother (The Late Show), a book of haikus based on the soap opera Peyton Place, a book of memoir poems about the years I lived in New York (Notes on a Past Life). I’m currently working on a book of prose poems. At first that was the only guiding principle, that they be in prose. Now I see that there is a unifying theme: retrieval of remnant-like memories.


How often do you pen a new poem? How long does it take you to revise them until they’re as close to perfect as they can be?

I tend to write one or two a month. Every month I meet with my friend Tony Trigilio. We eat Thai food and show each other new poems. That always gets me to write something new, as I’d hate to show up empty-handed. A failure! The revision process varies from poem to poem. Sometimes it’s fairly close to “perfect” on first draft, sometimes I tinker (or obsess) with certain lines or images, sometimes a poem will need to be written over a period of days, months, even years. Different poems have different requirements (or demands).


How has your long career as a Creative Writing professor influenced your writing, if at all?

I came late to academia. I’d already had a career as a poet out in the “real world.” It’s wonderful to have a job that values what you do as an artist. Where what you do—write and publish poems, give readings, etc.—counts for something. I have time to write, time (and resources) to pursue scholarly interests. I’ve researched and written essays about Sylvia Plath, edited the collected poems of Tim Dlugos and Ed Smith. Edited magazines. In general, being a teacher has enabled me to lead a more literary life than I might otherwise have had. I feel I’ve managed to thrive as an artist in academia. And I’m grateful.

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Your latest collection, Swinging on a Star, contains a string of poems about other poets, such as Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Lee Ann Brown. Why write about these poets specifically?

Those are all dreams I had about those poets. I often dream about poets. The dreams are usually mysterious. I suppose I wanted to try to capture that mystery in the poems.


A few of the poems in Swinging on a Star memorialize poets who have tragically died young. Is this a concept you find yourself returning to? 

Yes, very much so. I became acquainted with death at an early age. My friend Rachel Sherwood died in a car accident at twenty-five; I nearly died in that accident as well. Then so many were lost to AIDS. Some of them dear friends. When I wrote my poem “AIDS Series” in 2010, it felt like finally I’d paid my debt to those men. A debt I owed them because I survived. I’ve felt that way about Rachel my whole life. There’s this way in which life itself, after such loss, feels “posthumous.” (I’m quoting Ted Hughes there.) I’m leading up to writing an entire book about Rachel. It’s taken me a long, long time to be able to face her, to pay that debt in full.


I’d like to know a little more about the inspiration behind the poems “The Old Poet” and “The Young Poet.” Were they written together? 

They weren’t, actually. “The Young Poet” was written a few years before “The Old Poet.” Both were written in response to attitudes I’ve noticed in the poetry world. I wish I could say they’re Blakean songs of innocence and experience. But the young poet doesn’t seem particularly innocent, and the old poet hasn’t learned from their experience!


I was recently browsing the collections on the Poetry Foundation’s website, and came across one of your poems (“A Regret”) listed under a “Love Poems” collection. Among the other poets in this collection were Frank O’Hara and Audre Lorde. How does it feel to be included in a collection with these big names? Do you ever feel like comparisons such as these get to your head?

I’m still astonished when I’m grouped with those kinds of poets. It’s more humbling than head-swelling. A true honor to sit next to some of my heroes.


Interview by Jerakah Greene


Turtle Point Press
ISBN: 1933527978
96 pages