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Interviews

Online Survey for the Editor of an Anthology of Borrowed Form Essays

April 25, 2018

This survey was sent by Jenna McGuiggan to Kim Adrian, editor of The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Except for the book’s foreword, by Brenda Miller, and the source acknowledgements, everything in this anthology has been written using borrowed forms, including Adrian’s introduction, all of the essays, and the postscript by Cheyenne Nimes. There’s even an essay hiding in the list of contributors.

SURVEY:

Your answers to the following questions will help us to understand how this anthology of work by 30 writers came together. Your feedback on these topics is invaluable. Thank you for taking the time to complete this survey.

1) Which of these factors was most important to you when deciding to create an anthology of borrowed form essays?

A. The fame and fortune that only essay anthologies can offer
B. A postmodern distrust of traditional literary forms
C. A lifelong passion for crustaceans
D. Other (please specify)

Finding the right form for a given piece of writing is a huge but normally hidden part of the writing process. One reason I like to read and write essays that borrow their forms from elsewhere is that they put that aspect of the writing process front and center. To me, this anthology is ultimately less about this very narrow sub-genre, the so-called “hermit crab essay,” and more about looking very closely at the relationship of form to content.

2) In her foreword to The Shell Game, Brenda Miller explains how she came up with the term “hermit crab essay” in 2001 to describe lyric essays that take on the form (or “shell”) of another kind of writing. If the term hermit crab essay should fall out of favor, what other trickster of the animal kingdom has the necessary qualities to fill this role? Please consider the potential threats and predators that such a specimen would have to overcome.

A. Honey badger (“don’t care!”)
B. Ostrich (head in sand)
C. Possum (playing dead)
D.Chameleon (changing colors)
E. Octopus (master of camouflage)
F. Other (please specify)

I think the honey badger makes a great mascot for all serious writing. It’s tenacious, a little insane, it gets the job done, even if it almost dies trying. But most of all, it “don’t care.” That’s so key to writing well—outrunning your own demons. Finding a way out of their grip. Getting back up if you get knocked down, again and again. Continue Reading

Interviews

Dan Chaon in Conversation with Timothy Parfitt

March 22, 2018

Dan Chaon is the author of three short story collections, including Among the Missing, which was nominated for a National Book Award, and three novels. He lives in Cleveland and teaches at Oberlin College. His latest novel Ill Will, a New York Times bestseller, was just published in paperback.

When in town for the Columbia College Chicago Reading Series, he sat down with former student, and current nonfiction MFA candidate, Timothy Parfitt. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

 Punctuate: Ill Will builds off of factual events like the Satanism hysteria in the 80s and the conspiracy theories around the Smiley FaceKiller. When you’re building out your imaginative worlds, how do decide when to let your imagination run free and when to stick to fact?

Dan Chaon: I think of everything as fiction. There are images that come from real life, but I don’t think I used any of the details of the factual cases. They become more of a conglomerate or collage of real stuff and made up stuff. So I didn’t feel tied to either of those events. There were several “Satanic Panic” cases that I used as touchstones, like the famous West Memphis Three one. And with the Smiley Face stuff, that’s so nebulous. I think there was one image I used that is pretty close to the real image which was the kid in the Native American outfit. But generally, I reset it in Ohio, there haven’t been any Smiley Face killings in Ohio, and I just used the template of the “killing method” as my jumping-off point. Continue Reading

Interviews

An Interview with Camille T. Dungy

December 20, 2017

Photo courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

Camille T. Dungy is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade. She has also edited a number of anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. She is a professor at Colorado State University. Her latest is the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History.

When Camille T. Dungy visited Columbia College Chicago for a reading this fall, she sat down with Punctuate assistant editors Ishah Houston and Taylor Mel. The interview was edited by Mariel Tishma.

Punctuate: Given the fact that history is a constant force within your work, do you feel yourself trying to understand those who are gone, but whose echo seems to heavily influence your work?

Camille T. Dungy: I think writing offers me a kind of experience and time travel, where I get to be in lots of different moments simultaneously. I don’t know that we have yet invented a mechanical object to allow us to do that, but writing does it. So I can be right here, but I can’t walk around Michigan Avenue in Chicago without remembering myself as seven years old. I was here every summer. I’m right here, but I’m also back there at the same time. The moment I do that, I think back to my grandparents’ past and their history and what brought them to Chicago. What they left to come to Chicago. I’m in that. I am in all those places and with you. Here and now but also in some other times, and those people who’ve lived in other times are always with me. You might think of them as ghosts, but I’d like to think of them as guides. Continue Reading

Interviews

Paula Carter in Conversation with Sadaf Ferdowsi

November 28, 2017

Paula Carter is the author of No Relation, a collection of flash essays that details her experiences helping to care for, and then leaving, two boys from her partner’s previous marriage. Incorporating prose poems, fairy tales, metaphors, and vignettes, Carter creates a mosaic of love and loss, longing and belonging, as she searches for the true meaning of family.

While No Relation is Carter’s first book, she also has essays published in The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. She is also a company member with 2nd Story, one of Chicago’s most prominent live lit events.

The interview with Carter was conducted over cups of coffee in her charming apartment in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood on an August afternoon.

SF: Nonfiction is a genre that is not so easily defined—especially when we consider the multiple subgenres that challenge its boundaries. Because No Relation is characterized as a collection of flash essays, I was wondering how you would define a “flash essay” in your own words?

PC: I think for me a flash essay is something that walks the line between prose and poetry in a way where the writer takes one significant moment—no matter how small it may be—and uses it to make larger connections to more universal themes. In this way, a certain theme is explored within a very short space and the subject matter becomes more immediate and crystallized for the reader.

SF: I really like that you used the term “crystallize” because it evokes the experience of how I read your emotions. In the book, you don’t overtly describe your emotions; instead, we catch these “glints” of an underlying emotional depth growing beneath the pressure of your prose. How did you write these crystallizing moments despite the extremely personal and emotional nature of the subject matter?

PC: When I began writing the book, I had written some standalone flash essays so I felt that I understood the tools of the form or, rather, the parts of the form. I had also read Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas which is written in these flash nonfiction moments and is also an amazing, beautiful piece of writing. I had all these feelings I wanted to express and when I read her book, I thought “This is the way I can do this,” because it allows me to share moments and construct scenes without a lot of explaining or exposition, which are great things in a regular essay, but, with this form, readers are asked to make certain connections themselves. I feel it leaves more space for reflection and interrogation. Also, without having too much exposition, I was also able to explore the power within my different relationships—with my ex-partner and with his two sons—in a more discrete way.

SF: What motivated you to take this dual experience of falling in and out of love with a romantic partner while also parenting his two children and turning it into a book of essays?

PC: The first impetus was that I had so many thoughts and feelings I wanted to express. I was so deeply affected by building my relationship with the boys and then having to leave them after my partner and I broke up. However, the second impetus was that I noticed there were not many books written from the perspective of a non-biological parent, or from someone who was in my position. When I was grieving the end of my relationship with my partner and his two sons, I was looking for books to help me cope and all I could really find were books in the self-help genre or books on how to create a successful blended family. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find many things written in a more creative genre or from the step-parent’s point of view, which led me to write my own essays about the experience.

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Interviews

 Punctuate Interviews Shawn Shiflett

November 28, 2017

Shawn Shiflett is a Professor in the English—Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of the novels Hidden Place and, most recently, Hey, Liberal! He was recuperating from a knee injury and slid gingerly into a chair in the Punctuate offices on a fall afternoon to talk about the sixties, his professional influences, and the lines between fiction and nonfiction.

Punctuate: Simon Fleming, the main character of Hey, Liberal!, is a white thirteen-year-old attending a mostly black high school in Chicago shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King. He’s placed there out of idealism by his socially motivated parents. Given the way the events of the novel unfold, are the readers to think Simon’s parents are naïve, delusional, or both?

Shiflett: That’s a question that comes up a lot.  When does naïve enter into delusional? My parents have both apologized to me, though I don’t think they have anything to apologize about. I would not trade my experience of attending Waller High School for anything. You know, maybe it’s the whole country that’s delusional and not my parents. I mean, how are we supposed to rectify things if we aren’t even willing to get out of our segregated boxes? So in terms of parenting, sure, they were naïve, but in terms of American citizens, they were ahead of their time. I don’t have any anger towards them. I think it’s one-sided, and doesn’t see the complexity of how the legacy of genocide got us to where we are today to simply dismiss my parents as delusional. The paradox is that I wouldn’t put my son or daughter through a similar experience as the one I went through at Waller High. That’s the contradictory dichotomy within me now, and I don’t have a problem admitting it.

Punctuate: So you would answer neither?

Shiflett: I would say that my parents were naïve as far as parenting goes, but not naïve politically or in the grand scheme of things.

Punctuate: The novel is set almost fifty years ago, an era you experienced as a young person. What did you learn looking back on those days that you were unprepared for? Continue Reading

Interviews

Punctuate Talks to Patricia Ann McNair

September 22, 2017

On an afternoon late last summer, Punctuate sat down with fiction writer Patricia Ann McNair to talk to her about her new collection of essays, And These Are the Good Times (Side Street Press) and to talk about fiction, nonfiction, and their respective realities.

Punctuate: Your title, And These are the Good Times, is a kind of leitmotif that pops up from time to time in the book. How would you like readers to read that clause?

McNair: Well that’s an interesting question. I think I mean, “and these are the good times.” That there’s a lot of good times in a life. But there are also other layers to the meaning of the title. Some of these times, when you read them you might think, “okay so she’s talking about when her brother died . . . That’s not such a good time.” But at the same time, to me, those are part of the good times of my life. Even those moments where things were uncomfortable, things were unhappy. They created some sort of an emotional response that’s good to have; whether or not it feels good. So I want people to be lured in; I want them to feel that all of this will be fun and a good time! But to also know that I mean “good time,” in a much broader way.

Punctuate: The essay “I’m Not Afraid” is a kind of occasional piece written after the presidential election of 2016. Can you describe your impulse, and the experience of writing that piece, and the emotions of the moment?

McNair: Sure. I actually wrote the original version of this before the election, when I was sure we were going to end up with Hilary Clinton as the president. So the last line wasn’t the last line as it stands now. It was something like, “I’m not afraid. And I vote.” But by the time this went into publication, it was clear my vote didn’t matter in the way that I hoped it would. The original emotional response was to write this immediately after all of the “Billy-Bushy” stuff. And we already knew that this presidential candidate was a sexist pig, but then we were once again taken into this dark, dark place of his. You know, total disrespect. All of it. And I started to see a bunch of things coming up online about people being afraid of his coming to office. That they were even afraid to walk down the street if he were to be there. And I think, “How horrible would that be to live your life afraid to walk down the street simply because you’re a woman, or a transgender person, or a person of color?” And even though I have some of these things that I carry with me, I mean, I’m a woman, and I might put myself in situations that are not necessarily safe, I cannot live afraid. I can’t be that person. I can’t live like that. So when I say “I’m not afraid,” I really mean it. Yet there are still things to be afraid of.

Around the time of the “Billy-Bushy” tape, I told my husband one of my stories. I think I told him the story about when I was working in the bars on Division Street and I was being groped. I told him that one and he asked, “Well have you ever had these situations? Another ‘grab you by the pussy’?” And I said, “Oh you mean this time?” And then I started to think about it. “Or did you mean this time? Or do you mean this time? Or do you mean this time when I was nine?” And it really started to kind of rack up. Things I haven’t really thought about over the years. But they make me who I am, right? They hadn’t paralyzed me, but, I think they’re important to acknowledge that they actually happened. And maybe for a time, I wasn’t acknowledging that they happened. But being put in this place in our life now, and the place of the world, I think we have to acknowledge that these things happen. We survive them, and that’s great. But they still happen, and that’s not great.         

Punctuate: So was this a personal affirmation, or was it a message telling your audience not to be afraid? How would you characterize it?

McNair: Yes, and yes! I would say it’s a personal affirmation. You guys have tried to make me afraid, but I am not. I am a warrior. But also we can’t be afraid all the time. You know? You shouldn’t be stupid, but you can’t be afraid all the time. They—these sexist situations—may feel like they happen all the time, but they can’t be the only things that shape us. Let’s acknowledge that it happens. And perhaps acknowledging that it happens will help us move to change. But we can’t let it stop us from being who we are.

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Interviews

Toni Nealie and Andrew Gregory Krzak

February 15, 2017

A Conversation with Toni Nealie

Toni Nealie is the author of The Miles Between Me, an essay collection about homeland, dispersal, heritage and family, published by Curbside Splendor. Recent essays have appeared in Guernica, The Prague Review, The Offing, and The Rumpus. Her essay “The Displeasure of the Table” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from New Zealand, she holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. She teaches and writes in Chicago, where she is literary editor of New City.

Toni was interviewed on the afternoon of October 10, 2016, in a conference room at Columbia College Chicago. She had just finished teaching back to back Writing and Rhetoric courses and took a few minutes to decompress before we started talking. During this time, Toni told me a story about her ongoing fight with a tree-removal service that had promised to take care of a tree on Toni’s property that had been badly damaged by a storm. The anecdote was amusing but also showed that Toni, though diminutive in stature, is herself a force of nature not to be taken lightly.

Andrew Gregory Krzak: What was the length of the process from when you finished The Miles Between Me and when it was published?

Toni Nealie: I finished writing it in 2014, and then it got accepted in 2015. Editing took place summer of 2015, and it was published in April of 2016. So, you could do the math on that. I was at Printers Row listening to Roger Reeves’s conversation with Tracy Smith, the poet, talking about how it takes forever to write and publish your first book and then the minute it comes out people are asking, “What is your next thing? What’s your next book?” But it does take a long time to publish the first one.

AGK: So, when you have the first one, I mean how is that pressure to do the second one? Do you personally think that you had this cadre of unused stuff or new ideas that you can quickly follow up with or was it enormous pressure like, “Hey! Everybody back off. Let me enjoy this one for a minute?”

TN: Hmm, I have been busy doing stuff with this one. So, it’s been six months since publication, and I have probably done more than twenty readings and quite a lot of interviews. So, I have been kind of fully immersed in the process of this book, the promotion of this book, thinking about book I am kind of done with it. I think I have got two more readings coming up and then I just want to put it to one side. Although, it’s open the door for other opportunities, so now I have been asked to write other things, like for publication. So, I am coming to the time where I want to put some of that stuff aside and carve out time to do new writing. I am quite a slow writer. It takes a while to get to whatever I want to say and how I am saying it. Although, some of the later essays in that book that were done after the initial manuscript, they took a lot less time. So, hopefully the next book will go faster. I’m not working on anything right now. Continue Reading