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Punctuate in Conversation with Kendra Allen, author of When You Learn the Alphabet

November 5, 2019

When You Learn the Alphabetis Texas native and Columbia College Chicago alum Kendra Allen’s debut essay collection.

I met with Kendra Allen at a coffee shop, near her alma mater in the South Loop. The following exchange was edited for length and clarity. 

Ruby Orozco: Can you talk about the process of writing the essays in this collection?

Kendra Allen: It was not on purpose; most were written during my undergrad at Columbia College Chicago. The collection contains about twenty essays, some poetry, but nineteen of those I wrote here in undergrad. It was just like I’m completing my class assignments because I have to write stuff in order to graduate. (Laughs) I noticed that my entire time at Columbia was like the first time my generation was seeing injustices of people of color thrown in our faces; I was writing about the same things for four years. 

I could not stop writing about race, my dad, my family, and about what happened with Michael Brown. It kind of came together like that. I never thought I was writing a book. I was just doing my writing assignments. 

RO: What are you writing about now? 

KA: I gotta do my [MFA] thesis¾you’re in grad school, right? 

RO: Yeah, I am also going into my thesis year.

KA: My thesis is a passion project I really want to do. It’s about the myth of virginity and how we say that virginity is a broken hymen when that’s not true: you can break your hymen in a lot of different ways and then your hymen has an opening. . . . There are different types of hymens. Some of them have different openings in them. [The broken hymen] is all a myth that controls women and our sexuality. 

RO: It definitely does. I also grew up with those myths about virginity. 

KA: I did a lot of research about virginity myths, so that’s something I really want to write about, but I don’t think I can do it in a year. So, I think I am going to do a poetry collection on the desegregation of swimming pools in Alabama. They wouldn’t let Black kids go into the pool with white kids, but if the white kids were drowning, then they wanted the Black kids to help them. Everything in Alabama is named after the Black Warrior River. The school magazine is Black Warrior Review.So, it’s like everything is named after this river, but no one talks about all the slaves that died in it, how all the frat houses are old plantations, and how many of the trees near campus had people hanging from them. 

RO: Was religion a really big factor in your childhood?

KA:  Yeah, growing up I would go to church four times a week for no reason. My mom got back into church when she had me¾she was almost 30. I grew up in a Baptist church; it was my uncle’s church and everyone knew everybody. I heard things like, “You can’t wear this, and you can’t wear that.” If I came to the church with a skirt on and no stockings, it was always like, “What are you doing?” And I was a kid, you know? Why does it matter? And why are you telling gay people that they are going to go to hell? It’s weird. I grew up in church but I’m not that religious. 

RO: On page seventy-two of your book, you write, “I want to talk about anything other than what we’re comfortable talking about.” Can you talk a little bit about that?

KA: When my family and I get together, I’m known as the radical one, so whenever I say anything, they are always like, “Okay, here she goes.” And I am like, “Can we talk about how all the men in this family are misogynistic and put women down?” 

The women tell other women how they gotta act in order to get men. My family was raised to remain silent about issues, and that’s the problem. I just want us to be very aware, and I am never going to stop talking about these things.

RO: And you shouldn’t stop talking about these topics especially since people of color are always being left out of these conversations.

KA: And that’s the thing about being a writer. There are different subjects that you have to talk about and you have to be willing to talk about them, especially as a woman writer because nobody else will.

RO: Are you exhausted or energized when you write? How do you feel after you write or as you are writing?

KA: I feel the most energized when writing, because I feel like I finished something.  That is the best feeling about writing. I feel like I am done even though I know it’s never done. It’s the hardest thing starting something. I don’t need to know the complete story of what I’m going to write when I start. I just figure it out as I’m writing. 

It’s kind of like the game Tetris¾I’m always trying to put the pieces together and try to make them fit until they do. 

I am not like a long essay writer; I tap out at around twelve pages. 

RO: I’m the same way. I don’t have any more to say past twelve pages. I also write shorter pieces. I admire the way you just say stuff in your writing. It feels like you say what you want without really caring how anyone will respond, and I think that’s really cool.

KA: Oh, thank you, thank you. 

RO: That’s something I really struggle with just because I feel guilt-ridden about what I’m talking about, especially since I talk a lot about my mom and often think to myself, “Oh is it okay to say that? Is it my story to tell? Should I be saying these things?”

KA: Yeah, that’s a real fear. That’s something I struggle with, especially in terms of my dad. Like me and my dad have just gotten into a better relationship in the past two to three years, but in his mind he’s thinking, “Why would she still be mad about this?” 

But accountability, you know? Just because we are cool doesn’t mean this stuff didn’t happen. And he told me I villainized him in the entire book and it went back to us not speaking.

So, I would say that because you write a lot about your mom, you should have a conversation with her and let her know what you’re writing about and ask her questions about what she remembers and feels. But be okay with what you write before you show anybody else because you could be made to change your mind and change the whole perspective. My advice is to keep writing about your mom. 

RO: In many of your pieces you play with form. Two specifically that intrigued me were, Legs on his Shoulders, and Boy is a White Racist Word. Can you talk about the form of those essays?

KA: Yeah, Legs on his Shoulders, was written in Jenny’s [Boully] class. I was inspired by Kanye West and how a lot of people be looking up to this man and will make a lot of excuses for him. Of course, he has a lot of mental health issues and I get that, but I like to keep him accountable. It was inspired by Kanye because I was just like, “Oh my God, is this the man that made the albums Graduationand Late Registration,which I listened to, and how do I feel about listening to it now? I went into that essay thinking I wanted to have a rhythm to it. I also wanted it to have repetition, and I talked to a lot of women about conversations on their boyfriends’ and husbands’ expectations. I love the spacebar. I don’t like how it looks in standard essay form, so I thought about how I can break it up to make it flow and it felt like I was teaching myself poetry. 

ForBoy is a White Racist Word,that didn’t start off as columns. It was only one column and I felt like it was too long with too much white space, and it all came down to “I just really wanted it to look nice more than I am doing this on purpose.”

RO: So, you also write poetry?

 KA: I try (laughs). It’s not that good, but I want to get good. 

RO: Could you talk about the title of your collection?

KA: It’s named after the essay When you Learn the Alphabetand I remember getting the idea for it during poetry class my sophomore year in undergrad. That semester, I had a nonfiction workshop and then I also had a poetry workshop. 

I wrote a draft in, like, two hours and then I went to class and during class I wasn’t paying attention I was just writing and thinking about what I can do for this essay.  I just remember it becoming a metaphor and it became one for the whole book: Lessons I learned throughout different seasons. I was also thinking about how albums usually have a title from one of the songs in the collection.

RO: I think it’s really cool how music has inspired your writing. What do you see next after grad school?

KA: What do yousee next?

RO: Oh, I don’t know either. It’s such a weird question. I came to grad school to seek answers. 

KA: I didn’t come to grad school to seek answers. I came out of fear. After I graduated undergrad I was like, “What am I going to do now?” And I wouldn’t have known you can go to grad school. I thought I ain’t got money to go to school and then I talked to Jenny Boully, and she told me yes there are fully funded programs. 

A lot of people think you need to go to grad school to write and make it as a writer, but my advice is to just write. For me, grad school has been really hard and I am just going to be happy when it’s over (laughs). I don’t even think it’s hard work, it’s just hard being there. I’m kind of over school. In a dream world I could get my thesis published, but it’s all poetry so I won’t make a lot of money. I am just happy that this even happened. [publishing my book] I would really like to be a writer for a living, but it’s really, really hard. People don’t read like that anymore.

RO: Yeah, that’s unfortunate. 

KA: I will probably find non-profit work, just something that will allow me time to write. 

RO: Can you tell me when you found out that writing and language was powerful?

KA: When I changed my major for the third time . . . (laughs). I always knew words were important and I have always been the person listening to music for the lyrics more than the music. I always questioned, “Why do I like the song?” So, I have always studied musical lyrics. Do you know who Jhené Aiko is? 

RO: I love her!

KA: She was a huge influence on me. I was obsessed with her in high school because that’s when her mixtape came out and I was like, “Oh my God, I want to put words together the way she does.” 

I thought I was going to be a music journalist and that’s why I came to Columbia. I didn’t even know what Creative Writing was. When I got into my first writing workshop class, it was during my sophomore year and the professor was telling us about the essay. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to write essays.” But then she introduced us to the personal essay. 

We read How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and that changed my whole life. That made me realize I could speak how I speak, talk like where I am from, and use music the way I want. I didn’t realize people wrote essays like that, and that made me think, “Oh, I can do this. I can write an essay just as well as Jhené writes lyrics, or just as well as Stevie Wonder writes a song.”

RO: Are musicians your biggest inspirations?

KA: For sure! I tell people that all the time about myself. My favorite writers write songs. If I am making a list of my favorite writers, then they are all going to be people who write songs because it’s amazing how they use metaphors. 

I always bring up Lil Wayne, although he is very problematic now, but when I was a kid, he changed my life. I listen to a lot of rap music. I think like a rapper in my head. I ask, “What did Lil Wayne say and how did Nas tell thisstory?” And then I will go from there. 

Interview by Ruby Orozco


Ruby Orozco is a Chicago native and is currently working on her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. This is her first publication. When she is not writing or working, she enjoys time with her friends and family. 


Author photo: Carla Yvette Lee


A. Poythress interviews writer & musician Gilmore Tanmy

July 3, 2019

HAIKU4U is the latest artistic vision from Massachusetts-based writer Gilmore Tamny. I had the privilege of interviewing Tamny herself about the process of writing HAIKU4U, a collection of over 200 haikus from Ohio Edit. 

We spoke via email about nature, method, and vulgarity. This interview is edited.

A. Poythress: What drew you to the haiku form? Is it something you’ve experimented with before? 

Gilmore Tamny: I had written two long, deliberate, describe-y novels and it was a relief to try something short. I like the constraints. It’s kind of a Houdini feeling to escape the rigidity of form, but leaving the thought behind.

AP: What prompted you to write an entire book composed solely of haikus?

GT: I am a big fan of incremental process. It wasn’t an intention at first: they just started to build up and I turned it into a chapbook; and then Ohio Edit worked on it as an actual book. Very exciting that was. 

AP: Were there any haikus that you wanted to expand?

GT: Every single one.

AP: A lot of the haikus feel almost like mini-stanzas of a song. Did you find yourself slipping into the musician side of your writerly self when writing these haikus?

GT: It’s funny you say that as I’m trying to write more haiku-like lyrics (which is to say just less lyrics) with Weather Weapon songs, as I’ve gotten more ambitious on the guitar. I can write just reams of lyrics sometimes, which are hard to remember under the best of circumstances, but particularly so if I’m attempting to noodle about on the guitar. 

I wrote a song in the last year that had a fair amount of lyrics and some difficult guitar work, and I struggled so mightily with syncing up I said after we recorded “what was I thinking?—never again.” But I probably will. Strangely it helped to realize that in and of itself was why. That being said, poetry and lyrics seem pretty different animals to me. Less ocelot/jaguar than ocelot/kinkajou. 

AP: Where did the title “HAIKU4U” come from?

GT: Oh, I probably liked the inanity of it. The unseriousness, a sort of chronic mental state of mind. But it was true, too: it was haiku for you. 

AP: One of my favorite haikus from the book is “shipwrecked sentences/I overcompensate/reckless comma use.” I love that it’s a take on process and form, especially because none of the haikus in the collection actually utilize commas. And because I also overuse the comma in my own work.

GT: May I just say thank you for that. 

AP: Do you have any favorites?

GT: Probably “I look back I see/punk rock ruined lots for me/all necessary” as it is the truest or most personal one—and it rhymes. 

AP: Japanese haikus are traditionally about nature, and nature does feature prominently in the collection. Were you concerned with staying true to that aspect of the form, or does your life just happen to intersect with nature often?

GT: One of the editors pointed out there were a fair amount of haiku about oatmeal and I felt almost guilty there weren’t more nature ones. As really that’s haiku. However, as Jackson Pollock said, “I AM NATURE.” 

AP: I appreciate the vulgarity of the haikus in HAIKU4U. You’re not afraid to tell us about sunsets crapping out darkness or the fucked-up aftertaste of grapefruit soda. Do you think there’s too much restraint in poetry? Too many pretty words, not enough ugliness?

GT: Thank you. And some well-timed judicious use of vulgarity—what is better? Or when done well, a lot of it. I do think the . . . how would you say…vulgarity ceiling has been broken. I see more divides in academic vs. non-academic poetry, both of which can be the finest thing in the world, and both can be pretty swear-y (etc.) although the latter more. I have yet to see very much bathroom-humor poetry in either camp, but I don’t think I’m going to be the one to start the “movement” towards it.

AP: Did you have any specific influences when writing HAIKU4U?

GT: Anybody I ever read or listened to.

AP: Do you think you’ll be returning to this form, or do you think you’ve haiku-ed yourself out?

GT: I have a feeling it’s the latter—but I never say never.

AP: What’s next? What are you working on now?

GT: I’m going on a program to study art crime this summer and I’m really looking forward to doing a sort of old-fashioned chronicle about that. After that, I may swing back to novel writing. We shall see.

Bio: A. Poythress is currently finishing their Master’s thesis at Columbia College Chicago towards an MFA in Fiction. They’ve been published in Thresholds UK, The Lit Pub, Asymmetry Fiction, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Hair Trigger 2.0, among others. They primarily write horror/fantasy focused on women and queer-identified people.


Punctuate in Conversation with Renée K. Nicholson & Erin Murphy, two editors of Bodies of Truth

May 28, 2019
Renée J. Nicholson
Photo by Greg Ellis/WVU
Erin Murphy
Photo by Molly De Prospo

The anthology Bodies of Truth, edited by Dinty W. Moore, Erin Murphy, and Renée K. Nicholson, contains twenty-five nonfiction works that range from flash memoir to meditation, lyric essay and epistolary, that interrogate and explore the writers’ experiences with illness, disability, and medicine in the contemporary healthcare system in the United States. 

The essays in this anthology contribute to the discourse of narrative medicine, a movement in medical education that aims to balance the clinical side of medical practice with the very human aspect of storytelling, bringing the voices of patients and physicians to the forefront of understanding the subjective experiences of illness. As mentioned in the Foreword, by Jacek L. Mostwin, and the Preface, this book serves as an accessible resource for medical professionals as they engage with and learn more about narrative medicine. 

However, this anthology can also serve as a resource for nonfiction writers to expand their own practice on narrative, more broadly. Each piece in the collection, which the editors call “personal narratives,” provides strategies on how to tell a powerful story briefly and how to find language for what feels impossible to describe. 

This interview was conducted with editors Erin Murphy and Renée K. Nicholson by S. Ferdowsi via email and has been edited for length and clarity.

Punctuate.:In your Preface, you mention you all live and work in Appalachia where you engage with rural medical communities and I was wondering how that led to this anthology? 

Erin Murphy:From 2010-12, I led a medical humanities discussion group at what is now UPMC Hospital in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The group was a mix of resident and longtime physicians, and we read texts that were 300-500 pages long. I found that most of the doctors were so busy that they would only have time to read the first few pages. Even so, we could spend an hour talking about a single issue or detail from a book. It occurred to me that there was a need for a collection of short works that could be read in a single sitting, even during a coffee break. So I contacted Renée and Dinty, both of whom had experience and interest in narrative medicine, and asked them to work on this anthology project with me.

Renée K. Nicholson:My first inspiration is my brother, Nate, who is a metastatic cancer patient. I wanted a book to be out there that could help him feel not so alone. As well, I’d been writing with patients with conditions as different as ALS and Cancer, and started working with professionals from West Virginia University’s Health Sciences Center with a variety of projects with patients, students, professors and clinicians. The book allows me to have a resource for this very wide variety of people interested in or connected by illness, disability, and medicine. So, when Erin invited me to work with her and Dinty, it was a natural fit for me. I also think that working with patients in West Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, reminds me how much story is a part of this culture. And that reminds me that story is part of just about all cultures. By creating this anthology, in some way I think we honor our storytelling impulse. 

Punctuate.:Can you describe your experience putting together an anthology? 

RKN:Because I’d never put together an anthology before, I felt that Erin and Dinty really guided me and mentored me through the process. What I learned just from this was that you want co-editors you like, trust, and respect, because you’re all working closely together. If you’re new, like me, try to learn as much as you can while also contributing. 

We solicited essays from people we knew or knew of first, and because together we found the breadth and depth we needed, we didn’t put out a call. We kept good records of what we got in terms of essays, and then we each read and commented. Often, we’d have an email chain of thoughts—not just on the essays themselves, but also on issues like making sure we had diversity in both subjects and authors, looking at the balance of patients, caregivers, clinical professionals, and so on. We wanted diverse voices in terms of race and ethnicity as well. I suppose a good anthology is like a good diet—very balanced. 

Also, not all of our selections were from those who consider themselves professional writers, and we saw this as one of the collection’s strengths. Sometimes, though, we’d have to walk through some edits, and so usually the editor closest to the writer would take the lead there. I think the process built a lot of trust, between the three editors as well as between us as editors and the writers in the anthology. 

Punctuate.:If any of our readers are working on their own anthologies, what advice would you give to them?

EM:This is the third anthology that I’ve edited. What my co-editors and I have done with each book is to put together a dozen or so chapters to send to prospective presses with our proposal. Then once we receive a preliminary contract, we solicit the remaining works. All told, it typically takes about three years from start to finish.

RKN:If you are a first time anthology editor, I would say be prepared to put in the time to do a thorough job. Work with experienced editors if you can. I learned so much from Erin and Dinty as a part of the process of putting this one together. 

Punctuate.:Many of the essays detail heavy subject material—the pain that comes from chronic illness and drug addiction; the stress that comes with expensive medical treatments; witnessing your children or fellow patients living with mental, physical, or intellectual disabilities and feeling unable to help—and I found myself feeling veryemotional as I read the anthology. I’m wondering if you had a similar experience from an editor’s vantage point and if you employed any strategies to make it through this process? How does handling tough subject material look like for an editor?

RKN:Any time you are dealing with serious illness, it can be important to have those things that give you a break or release. At the time I was working on the anthology, I was actively working with patients in clinics at WVU Medicine, and supporting my family as my brother went through treatments for cancer. So, for me, there were layers of things going on at the same time. 

On the one hand, the book and the essays within it helped me feel as if I was not alone—the work itself made for connections and community. Sometimes, however, I would need to clear my mind to allow it to process everything. For me personally, one of the best “breaks” would be to take my golden retriever for a walk. The physical exercise and my dog’s friendly, sweet disposition allowed me those moments of release. I’d say that honoring the stories includes stepping back when you need to clear your mind and let the emotions settle. I will also say that it helps me understand issues in medicine like burnout and compassion fatigue. Health professionals often confront the tough situations, and I can see where they would need, just as I needed, times of calm, comfort, and joy. 

Punctuate.:Despite the heavy subject material, I also noticed that some essays do inspire hope. I’m specifically thinking of “A Measure of Acceptance” that shows the unexpected resourcefulness and creativity Floyd Skloot gains when learning how to live with his neurological illness and “Overtones” where Meredith Davies Hadaway transforms her own grief from losing her husband into supporting others through music therapy. Did you intentionally look for essays with “happy-ish” endings, or did those emerge organically through your search? 

EM:We deliberately sought a range of subject matter and tones, partly because it makes for a richer reading experience and partly because the range reflects the highs and lows of the medical experience. You can be in your darkest hour and sometimes in spite of—or maybe even because of—the stress, you can find yourself laughing at the ridiculousness of a situation. We wanted the book to mirror these peaks and valleys to some extent.

RKN:The range that Erin spoke about is very important. Illness, disability, and medicine includes things like hope, like joy, even humor. Medicine encompasses the whole range of human emotion, and capturing many of them, especially surprising ones, were part of the process of finding and choosing work. 

Punctuate.:I’m very intrigued by how “narrative” works in the anthology. In the Foreword, Jacek L. Mostwin writes that “narrative medicine” is a movement that restores the patient’s and physician’s voices back into medicine, and then links this to the oral tradition of the Ancient Greeks. How do you see “narrative” as a literary device working through and across all the essays?

RKN:Currently, I’m finishing up a Professional Certificate in Narrative Medicine through Columbia University. The program was created by a general internist and PhD in Literature named Dr. Rita Charon, who wrote, “The care of the sick unfolds in stories.” One of the things we explore in the coursework and in the anthology is the idea that the stories that come out of medical situations are often multi-vocal. The anthology emerges from this idea of the multi-voiced experience of illness or disability. Giving voice or narrative structure to experiences within medicine allows us to feel less passive in the process. By reading these accounts, we gain the opportunity to recognize, absorb, interpret and be moved by the stories of others. Perhaps those who read these will be moved to write or express their own narratives. Sure, that can be for publication, but it can also just be for a single person to have a better understanding of him or herself, or to share with others in many ways. I see narrative approaches as a way to enhance the medical encounter, to help the patients feel heard and understood, and help clinicians connect with those they serve. I don’t know that we can teach empathy, but we can give people the opportunity to use the empathy within them, and to practice empathy. Narratives like the ones we’ve collected in the anthology offer those opportunities to use and practice empathetic skills. It gives us the occasion to reflect. 

Punctuate.:At the end of “Two Hearts,” an essay about his son’s heart defect, Brian Doyle writes “this is where our conversation always ends…” and I’m wondering if you see a relationship between a “narrative” and a “conversation.” For example, in the news, people are always talking about having a “conversation” on gun violence, or race, or sexual assault, but then it never feels like we actually go into that conversation. So, I’m wondering what you think a narrative can accomplish that a conversation can’t and vice versa. 

EM:That’s an interesting question. I suspect the media has twisted the meaning of conversation to meet its needs, much as Facebook has co-opted the word “friend.” In one sense, the narrative is a one-sided conversation. We hope, though, that by engaging with each narrative that readers will continue the conversation, either in their own lives, their classrooms, or their practices.

RKN:To echo what Erin says, I believe these stories encourage a continuation of the conversation. Maybe that conversation is with others, and sometimes that’s a conversation with the self. I’ll go back to the idea of reflection. These narratives invite us into someone else’s experiences, and when we read them, we’re implicitly invited to reflect on our own experiences, thoughts, and feelings. In turn, this reflection allows us to better navigate ambiguities. 

Punctuate.:University of Nebraska is gaining a reputation of publishing really innovative, experimental and unconventional collections. How was it like working with a university press? 

EM:We were thrilled that the University of Nebraska Press accepted this anthology because, like you say, they are publishing innovative collections. Some of my favorite books are from their list. They have a terrific team of editors and marketing staff who not only support you in producing a high-quality book but also do their best to promote it once its published. Every time I turn around, there’s an ad for Bodies of Truthin a major publication, a conference program, or a catalog.

RKN:Like Erin, many of my favorite books are from the University of Nebraska Press list. Erin said it well—just a terrific team that provides great support and promotion. 

Punctuate.:How did your own personal backgrounds in poetry, nonfiction, and dance shape your understanding of illness and the process of putting this anthology together? 

EM:I wrote both poetry and creative nonfiction, and I find that there is a lot of overlap between the two. In narrative medicine—as with poetry—you are looking for the precise image or detail to bring a large experience down to a small size for the reader. An author isn’t writing about everyone with cancer—she’s writing about her experience, and maybe even just a single day or moment of that experience. What’s left out is just as important as what’s included, and this applies both to the writing and the editing process. While my creative writing influenced my work on the anthology, I should add that my interest in narrative medicine has also carried over to my creative work. For example, my most recent poetry collection, Assisted Living(Brick Road Poetry Press, 2018), focuses on caregiving and end-of-life issues.

RKN:I trained in classical ballet, and when that career was sidelined by rheumatoid arthritis, I turned to writing. In many ways working on the anthology feels like a natural extension of that. Illness can be a burden, and yet one that can offer opportunities, especially for expression. One of our essays spoke to me because I recognized it as being about rheumatoid arthritis specifically. There was the “I knowthis” feeling reading it. And even though each person experiences illness in his or her own way, there can be a strong feeling of connection. All the pieces invited us into unique experiences and also allowed for touchpoints where we feel connected. 

Punctuate.:Tell me a little bit about your title, Bodies of Truth.I am fascinated by how the essays all come together and demonstrate this tricky thing between the subjective experience of being in a body and this concept of “Truth” that is an absolute. 

RKN:The word “bodies” conjures up many interpretations. There is the somatic sense of the body, this vessel separate from the mind. There is the idea of a body as a group with a common purpose or goal. Body can also be the central part of something, like a text. I love all these interpretive layers of body when thinking of the title Bodies of Truth. In each body of each essay, there’s a truth. In this body of essays about bodies, there are truths. Like many truths, the ones shared in these pieces are hard earned and yet often elusive. And there, hopefully, are new truths found and explored as people read the book. 

Interview by S. Ferdowsi


Bio: S. Ferdowsi is a writer based in Chicago working on her first manuscript. 


Punctuate in Conversation with Piper Daniels, author of Ladies Lazarus

March 17, 2019


Piper J. Daniels, whose work has been published in Hotel Amerika and The Rumpus (among others), spent over a decade working on her debut collection, Ladies Lazarus. Her collection won the 2017 Tarpaulin Sky Press Book Award and was longlisted for the 2018 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for Art of the Essay.

For Daniels, the collection began as a suicide letter and over time morphed into a cataloguing, or rather a series, of works and ideas that gave her reason to stay alive. Infused with lyricism and enlightened with research, Daniels’ essays show her at her most vulnerable as she guides readers through difficult subjects, and she resurrects the haunted girls, women, and poets who no longer have a voice. She invokes the work of Anne Carson, Kafka, Rumi, and even Columbia College Chicago’s own David Trinidad. As readers journey with Daniels on her way to finding herself through essays, they encounter subjects and characters that may make them uncomfortable or sad, but at the end of each piece, more informed and knowledgeable on mental illness and experiencing violence.

I consider this book a must read, for those of us wishing to know more about the world around us and the essay form. It’s rare that we encounter narratives of mental illness or suicide from queer and other marginalized voices, but Daniels spent many years rectifying this. Moreover, Ladies Lazarus deconstructs the typical essay form by hybridizing lyric essay and research essay into one, thereby presenting us with fresher narratives. Each essay is aware of itself, its role, and its place in the collection, and passionately examines the intersections of feminism, queerness, violence, mental illness, and artistry.

Over the phone, Piper J. Daniels talked with Columbia alumni Negesti Kaudo MFA ’18 about the formation of Ladies Lazarus, the influence of Sylvia Plath, and her relationship to the essay.

Can you discuss the process of making the book—which essays came first and last?

The driving force of the book was the first essay “Sirens,” which took me ten years to get right. I began it as a suicide letter. I really wanted to advocate for the reasons people kill themselves—which sounds a bit crazy, but that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to explain so that people would understand why it’s not a selfish thing to do and why I was choosing to do it. As I wrote the book, I sort of talked myself out of killing myself. [“Sirens”] set the tone for the book and was the reason why I thought I had anything I could offer anyone else. And it went from there.

When I submitted the book to Tarpaulin Sky, I had a solid little collection of essays, but they wanted me to make the book a little bit longer, so I returned to some of the things I hadn’t included. The last two essays I worked on were “The Twist” and “The Return of Hunger.” “The Return of Hunger” was fairly easy. It was based on all I had focused on as a feminist.

“The Twist” was really . . . tricky. Because it was a bit more journalistic and there was more research. I was concerned about the validity of the sources. I wasn’t writing about myself. I was writing about the experiences of other people—children and vulnerable populations. I was very concerned about getting it right and not being exploitative. It took me so long, and it was so frustrating. But once it was done, [Ladies Lazarus] did feel like a book.

At one point, you refer to the Sylvia Plath poem, “Lady Lazarus,” which is reflected in the title of your collection and the title essay. How is your book in conversation with Sylvia Plath?

I think with a book-length cohesive manuscript in mind, it’s always really dangerous to hyper-focus on [connection], because you end up ruling out all these strange and interesting things that might have entered the book otherwise. I was very careful about not being too cohesive. One of the most amazing things about literary collage is that everything is related and comes together in surprising ways when you let connections emerge. I’m always fascinated by the way that happens. There are threads throughout the book that tie it together. Sylvia Plath is a huge thread. Sometimes there’s more of an emotional or tonal way, a choice of language or diction, that unites the book.

Obviously, Sylvia Plath is a huge influence to both your life and your writing career. Can you talk about that relationship?

From a very early age, I experienced symptoms of mental illness, though that is not what I called it at the time. I always felt strange and isolated. There was this time in a bookstore—I think I was twelve—and I overheard two women talking about, “Oh, Sylvia Plath was crazy. She put her head in an oven. Why would anyone read her?” And it lit me up inside. I was like, “Stuck her head in an oven?!” I was so intrigued.

I started rooting through her work, and I was a little young to fully grasp the content, but I remember feeling a) that I met someone who was kindred to me and b) what I was feeling was okay and that it would actually be a good thing and give me something to offer.

Sylvia Plath had this ability, despite what she was working with, to excel and become this extremely important person to poetry and to the world, so I think that has been and continues to be a driving force for me. She is this incredible example of a person who had a severe mental illness and also managed to be such a star student and wife and mother—and one might say those are the things that killed her in the end—but she was such an overachiever, so driven and successful, and she managed to do her own work and then type up her husband’s.

Was there a specific thought or feeling you wanted to evoke in your readers?

On the subjects of mental illness and sexual assault, I was interested in having calm, honest conversations with people who might judge someone. Other books about mental illness felt off to me; they were poorly written, very narcissistic, perpetuating this idea of a mentally ill person that I don’t think is useful to anyone, especially people who might be trying to understand a loved one. So, I wanted to bridge the gap because it was important to me that if I was going to write about being mentally ill and I was going to write about suicide, that the person reading it on the other side (who may not have experienced either) would come away with a more compassionate, informed understanding.

I’ve been amazed by the feedback I’ve received from people who are outside of the book’s experiences who have written me to say that they understand now in a different way. I think that’s a really amazing result and I’m so grateful.

I want everything I write to be some kind of lifeline because to me, that’s the point: the human condition, the loneliness we all feel and the doubts we have about ourselves. I wanted to be certain that I was reaching out to people in a sincere way and inviting them to read the book as a person with whom I have a genuinely loving connection.

Do you consider yourself a lyricist?

Absolutely, I would be happy to call myself a lyricist. I think the lyric essay is incredible and I’m really excited going forward because it feels to me that we’re in this new place where finally the right people—queer people, people of color, indigenous people, disabled people—are getting the microphone. Because of that, we don’t have to adhere to norms in terms of narrative or language. We can do our own brand new, beautiful thing.

I was really lucky to have this education as an undergraduate where I had David Lazar, who is incredible. He has the most encyclopedic knowledge of the essay of anyone on the planet. He was able to guide me, and at the same time, I had Jenny Boully, who’s this amazing lyric essayist. Being able to have those teachers at the same time made me the writer I am. Then I went to graduate school and worked with David Shields, who’s a collage writer, and very orchestral about the way he composes. He’s a very conceptually rich writer.

So, I had this triad of the most amazing influences and it made me really interested in being able to take from here, take from there, and leave the rest. I’m really interested in writing lyrically, but I also want to be sure that I’m making bold, educated, and forward-moving formal choices. It can’t just be about form and it can’t just be about content; and it can’t just be about language and lyricism; it has to be this full package in the way those things interact with one another.

Sometimes in the book, you write with an objective voice, especially in “The Twist” and “The Sylvia Plath Effect,” both of which I loved. In these moments, it’s as if you’re presenting a dissertation on mental illness, girl/womanhood and art/work ethic. Did you feel there were some topics you needed to approach objectively?

I think emotional distance is one hundred percent required in the essay. Even if I’m writing about something that has nothing to do with me, I tend to connect with it emotionally, so I always try to be very careful. I think there are people (like Anne Carson) who have that down so perfectly. I’m still learning.

I had a daily schedule in order to finish Ladies Lazarus and there were days I would cry at my desk because it was emotionally draining to write. I wanted to be certain I was bringing in things that were interesting, that were historically, intellectually, or psychologically removed from my experience, so I had to balance my emotional response with my impulse to go into this traditional essayist mode. But I mean, there’s not a lot of lightheartedness in the book. It’s not a poolside read for everybody.

In the essay “The Moon, from the Bitter Cold of Outer Space, Croons to the Griddle of the desert,” you quote Jericho Parms’ definition of pilgrimage: “. . . as an act that asks the body to journey for the soul.” I found, while reading this collection as a whole, that it moves like a pilgrimage, with you and the reader coming to understand the intersection of womanhood, mental illness, violence, and more. Do you consider Ladies Lazarus to be a pilgrimage?

Absolutely. In so many ways, desperately, yes. I did a lot of traveling and moving and trying to figure out who the fuck I was and who I was supposed to be, and I still don’t know. It’s all a pilgrimage. If we’re lucky, we grow and improve incrementally. Sometimes when we look back, we’re surprised that we’re still around and still moving ahead. As a human being, writer, partner, friend, and person trying to figure out my political and religious beliefs, it was a very long journey. This book is about surviving and finding my way—essay by essay, paragraph by paragraph sometimes—to convince myself that I was a writer, that I was worthy of being here, that I still had things to contribute. I think I really struggled, but I know so many people who are going through it bravely and fiercely and beautifully, and I really admire that.


Interview by Negesti Kaudo

Negesti Kaudo is an essayist based in the Midwest. She earned her MFA at Columbia College Chicago in 2018 and her work has been published in Seneca Review, Wear Your Voice Magazine, IDK Magazine, NewCity, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere.


Punctuate in Conversation with Elizabeth Kadetsky

March 17, 2019


Elizabeth Kadetsky is not afraid of venturing into the varied ways of storytelling or to different parts of the world. She is the author of a memoir First There Is a Mountain (2004), a story collection The Poison that Purifies You (2014), and a novella On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World (2015). An associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State, Kadetsky is publishing her first graphic essay in Punctuate. In this interview, she shares her thoughts and experiences about writing in diverse genres; traveling; and yoga.


Juliana Ravelli: Your work in this month’s issue of Punctuate. is your first published comic, right? When did you start writing and designing comic and graphic essays? How and when did you start working on this form?


Elizabeth Kadetsky: A few years back, I wanted to get back into drawing, and I had a crazy idea to revisit and write about this place where I’d studied art in Greenwich Village as a teenager with my mother. Well, that idea didn’t take off because I realized that it would be much cheaper to audit a drawing class [where I teach] at my university, Penn State, instead. My teacher turned out to be a wonderful artist and graduate student from China who drew Manga. I showed her some sketches that I’d been doing from photographs, images of family members with text scrawled in the white spaces, and she suggested that I work on a comic. I had an aha! moment: I shouldn’t be writing about drawing, I should be drawing (and writing) that story about Greenwich Village and my mother. I’ve been working on that graphic memoir ever since—I had no idea the difficulty of the task I’d set for myself.

The other thing I’d recently dove into without ever accepting its difficulty was motherhood. Suddenly I had long stretches of time with my baby during which I didn’t have the presence of mind to practice my usual craft, writing. I was suffering sleep deprivation and could barely string together sentences—I think it was a fairly normal postpartum, a-verbal, semi-psychosis. It was as if language had left me. But I was able to draw and paint. I painted birds over and over, and number cards to photograph with my baby to mark the monthly anniversaries of his birth, which was four and a half years ago.

Living with a young child makes your world more visual. Language becomes more elemental—you see the world through the eyes of someone glimpsing it for the first time. As my son grew older, I encountered the rich text/image world of children’s literature and wonderful artist-writers such as Oliver Jeffers and Molly Bang. Now my son and I are reading Tintin and the original Batman’s.

I love existing in the space and flow of visual art. The mind attuned to visual art is so different from the one that writes—it is less linear; it requires long pauses; it doesn’t require one to formulate a literal idea and keep it in the head over a long stretch. I’d always loved the idea of a non-verbal mind space, and over the years, I had used drawing and drawing classes as a kind of meditation and escape from regular life. As a teen, drawing had been my first love, but I’d shied from art school. Today it’s back in style thanks to comics.


JR: Could you tell us about how you came up with the idea for your piece in Punctuate.?


EK: I was participating in a panel on text/image memoir at the NonFictioNOW conference, and I started “graphic note-taking” at the other panels and talks. I’d seen people doing this earlier in the year when I attended the Comics and Medicine Conference at the Comics Studies Society in White River Junction, Vermont. There, the organizers set aside seats at each panel for “graphic note-takers,” and there was a hashtag for their uploads. The conference also had an official graphic note-taker. When I looked over my notes from NonFictioNOW, I realized I should publish some, especially since it would give me a break from my longer project–not to mention feel good to finish something.


JR: What are the challenges of a comic/graphic essay? How, for instance, do you play with conciseness, drawings, text, and the arrangement of these elements on the page?


EK: It’s its own form, that’s for sure. There’s always so much less room for text than I expect there to be; the prose writer has to condense beyond comfort. Of course, if I don’t want to condense, I can always add another page and spread out. The give-and-take between writing and drawing is fun and dynamic. Adding another page because there’s not enough room for the text must be the craft equivalent of writing oneself into a corner and then drawing oneself out of it. Shifting brain-modes from writing to drawing and then back again provides a healthy mental calisthenics.


JR: You worked as a journalist, and you write fiction, personal essays, and comic/graphic essays. What motivates you to venture into all these different genres?


EK: It’s been intuitive, but I do really admire other artists who constantly shift modes, and are open to the modes that are getting the most attention at whatever moment. If you have a story to tell, the goal is to find an audience for that story. The mainstream publishing industry has gone bankrupt a dozen times and in a dozen different ways since I started publishing my writing. It’s terrible to feel trapped in the idea that there is only one outlet for one’s creativity. Writers have historically been at the mercy of publishing and production trends.

So, I admire writer friends who have gone into film or even TV. If TV is experiencing a renaissance, why not apply your craft in that field, where you’ll encounter other inspiring artists and gain support for your most creative output? Not that I’m going into TV. But in a weird way comics feel very vital right now—I have no qualms about trying to hop on that train.


JR: How do the different experiences that you have in writing influence one another?


EK: Journalism teaches pragmatism—the clear sentence, the chronological storyline, economy of prose, writing on deadline, overcoming perfectionism, developing a thick skin for feedback. It’s a great training for any writer.

Working visually teaches metaphor. In a comic, when you want to depict your character as birdlike, you draw her as a bird. It’s kind of obvious, but getting your writer brain to think of metaphor as real pushes your imagination. Even in nonfiction, one can probably take greater creative liberties than one thinks. The blank canvas is unencumbered—one has to think in several dimensions, and directions, at once—not just left to right, up and down, and within a palette of just 26 letters. If I think of my character as a bird, and I mean in text, why shouldn’t I get her squawking on the page?


JR: Traveling is a huge part of your life, right? In which moment did you find out that you wanted to know the world? And what are your memories about your first trip abroad? When did it happen?


EK: That is such a great question! It happened when I was nineteen and I was majoring in Latin American Studies. I got it in my head that I wanted to go to Cuba because of some of the films and writing in my classes. I found a program to send me there for free—it was sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization—and I was chosen as one of a team of two Canadians and two US citizens to act as mediators between Marxists and Christians out in the fields, planting yucca trees.

Someday I will go back and rewrite (or draw) the diary I kept from that one-month trip. It was a life-altering, coming-of-age journey, in part because Communism had so completely shaped the culture of that place that there was hardly any common ground between my hosts and me. At the time, the US embargo on Cuba was total and included a news blackout going both ways. As it turned out, I knew nothing about the lives of the people there, and they knew nothing about mine—there had been a misinformation campaign on both ends. And yet, there was music, dancing, and singing bringing us together, things that transcended politics.

I remember coming home and having to break up with my boyfriend at the time because I’d changed so much as a person. Then, for several months, I was very depressed, wanting to get back to that feeling of living life so fully moment to moment, having heated discussions about every little thing, questioning and debating everything down to one’s most minute daily habits.


JR: Many of your trips are connected to your work, your writing. What is the difference between traveling for writing and traveling as a tourist? Is there a place that you have been to but haven’t used in your writing?


EK: I love this question, too, because it forces me to take stock. As a writer, one must always be working, but, in life, sometimes the imagination and the urge to document shuts down—from exhaustion, or overload. I can’t remember ever taking a trip and not feeling that I had to come away with something to say and write from it, but in reality, many of my work and vacation trips have yielded nothing aside from greater wisdom (one hopes).

I can’t even say I gained relaxation because it’s so stressful to feel one should be writing or interviewing instead of sitting on that beach. I think back on trips I took to Egypt, Morocco, Israel, and Spain as not having been particularly fruitful even though they were meant to be.

The work of the writer who travels, really, is to shake things up in one’s mind. Obviously, the outsider is not going to be the last word on any place she or he encounters. I remember reading Thomas Pynchon’s V, set in Malta, one time when I was feeling very stuck while spending the summer in Nicaragua working and presumably writing my senior thesis for college.

Later, I published a novella set in Malta, so perhaps it wasn’t a waste. Recently I recovered an old photo of myself reading The Brothers Karamazov in a hotel in Spain during a trip where I felt completely aimless, but Dostoyevsky taught me so much as a writer, and when else would I have had time to read him? I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in France, and that book was life changing for me.


JR: Aside from the stories themselves (characters, settings, etc.), in what other ways does traveling influence your craft?


EK: Traveling ratchets up the desperation impulse, at least for me. The finances of it all can be terrifying. Most of my international trips have been seat-of-the-pants—funding the plane fare by subletting my apartment, living on the largesse of a boyfriend’s language-study grant, stringing together freelance magazine assignments and arts residency fellowships. Even when I had the Fulbright grant to India to study and write about yoga, I had no home, job, or bank account to soften the landing when I came home.

That feeling of living on the edge can either make things feel exaggerated with meaning and importance, or simply crushing. Luckily the former describes most of my trips. I would say that each piece of successful writing that I’ve come away with from abroad bestows upon its protagonist either that desperation (in fiction), or an all-consuming and worry-obliterating single-mindedness and focus on a topic (in nonfiction).


JR: You lived a year in India working with Yogi BKS Iyengar and from this experience you wrote First There is a Mountain. In which ways do you apply yoga to your craft?


EK: Studying and researching yoga in India taught me to think of yoga as a kind of hygiene, a practical approach to living. A man I met at the Krishnamurthi Foundation in Chennai put it this way: “Yoga is like brushing your teeth. You do it every day. If you don’t do it one day, then you don’t eat that day.” Lately I do the yoga poses less than before because of injuries, but I exercise and meditate pretty much daily.

What I learned about focus and concentration from yoga applies to writing. And let’s face it, yoga, as we know it, even the Indian version, is an amalgam of dozens of Eastern and Western philosophies and ancient and modern practices, including psychotherapy and Jack Lalanne fitness. It’s all really a mash-up. So, yoga, mindfulness, techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy—call them what you like, on a good day, they completely shape how I live and write and work. Concretely, they help me attain the cognitive sharpness and flexibility to be creative—to make mental leaps, to silence the self-editor within, to take risks.


JR: What are your next literary and travel adventures?


EK: Funny you should ask! I recently found out that I was awarded my second Fulbright research grant to India for the 2019–2020 school year. The award is to research a novel dealing with the politics of cultural patrimony surrounding antiquities ownership and preservation. I don’t think anyone would mind if I came away with comics reporting on the topic. Whoops! Don’t tell anyone I said that. I’m definitely bringing my drawing pads, pencils, erasers, India ink, and brushes—and Photoshop. I hope I can find a scanner.




Juliana Ravelli is the Assistant Managing Editor for Punctuate. A Nonfiction Magazine.





Elizabeth Kadetsky is the author of a memoir (First There Is a Mountain, Little Brown), a story collection (The Poison that Purifies You, C&R Press) and a novella (On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World, Nouvella). Her fiction has been included in the Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and in Love Stories For Turbulent Times — a best of the previous 25 years of the Pushcart Prize, and her personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, Antioch Review, and many other venues. She is nonfiction editor at New England Review and associate professor of creative writing at Penn State University. This is her first published comic. 



Punctuate in Conversation with Ken Krimstein, Author and Illustrator of The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth

September 18, 2018

Ken Krimstein has published cartoons in the New Yorker, Punch, the Wall Street Journal, and more. He has written for New York Observer’s “New Yorker’s Diary” and has published pieces on websites including McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Yankee Pot Roast, and Mr Beller’s Neighborhood. He is the author of Kvetch as Kvetch Can and teaches at De Paul University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

In a lively email exchange, Ken Krimstein communicated with Punctuate Managing Editor Ian Morris recently about his new book The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth, a graphic memoir of Hannah Arendt and the philosophy and history of her age.

Punctuate; Fans of your New Yorker cartoons will likely be surprised that The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt is a graphic history of twentieth-century European philosophy. What inspired you to undertake this project?

Krimstein: In addition to loving what we in the cartooning business refer to as “gag” cartoons, single panel “jokes,” with or without words (think Charles Addams, S. Gross, George Booth), I’ve always loved longer form comics. Sure, it started with Superman and Batman when I was a kid, but I also inherited from my great uncle many comics in a series entitled Classics Illustrated. You can imagine what they were—definitely not comics about men in tights. Comics of Moby Dick to The History of World War I. I loved them all. As I got older, I discovered the wonders of R. Crumb, and of course Maus, Persepolis, and on and on. In addition, I’ve always been a huge fan of both biographies and of philosophy.

One question has always intrigued me—how does a person’s life affect their art or thinking?

Now, add Hannah Arendt to the equation. She was always on my radar. I think I first tried reading The Origins of Totalitarianism when I was in middle school. And her later idea of “the banality of evil” seemed fresh and unexpected and important. I wanted to wrestle with it.

While working on my weekly New Yorker submissions, my agent said a publisher was interested in seeing “anything,” from me, whatever I wanted to do. I thought, “Aha! I’ll do that long-form comic treatment of the enigmatic Hannah Arendt.” And when I actually opened the biographies, I found at every turn the events of her life were completely compelling. Her character and her thinking always impacted me in a powerful way— I felt like I knew her. I couldn’t not do it.

Punctuate: You describe Arendt as “arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.” Did you see it as a personal mission to call more attention to her life and her work?

 Krimstein: I really believe her thinking is profound. Now, understand, I am not a licensed professional philosopher, though some of my best friends . . .

In any case, as I dug deep into her work I saw how she took ideas in Continental Philosophy— phenomenology, existentialism, the inspired mélange of thinking that poured out of her great friend Walter Benjamin—and gave them a totally unique interpretation. In the place of living “unto death,” which was fairly widespread, she saw much of life’s meaning as arising “from birth—births.” She celebrated the creative force. What’s more, she questioned the contemplative life of the philosopher, and energized, if you will, the thinking I’d read from the likes of Sartre (and even Camus), and made it all very present, action oriented. These bold turns did completely new things with thinking. So much of what she lived and thought has been understood in headlines, often headlines people don’t really understand (truth be told, I’m not sure I understand all their nuances either, but what I get is powerful). I wanted to get beyond the headlines and follow her thinking wherever it led. And it led to some very thrilling places.

So, yes, in my opinion, she needs to be read and discussed and learned. A lot. Continue Reading


Amy Fusselman in Conversation with Punctuate

August 22, 2018

In Idiophone, Amy Fusselman’s fourth book of nonfiction, performances of The Nutcracker morph into magicians performing magic tricks which transform into the performative acts of being a mother and being mothered. It’s a slim book comprised of one book-length essay and yet it’s jam-packed with research and poetry; analysis and anecdotes; memory, critique, queer theory, and motif. Fusselman’s previous books include Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space and Risk for Americans Who are Nervous, Distracted and Afraid to Die; The Pharmacist’s Mate; and 8.

Fusselman is currently touring and Idiophone can be purchased here. The interview was conducted by S. Ferdowsi via email and was edited for length and clarity.

Photo Credit: Frank Snider

Punctuate: An “idiophone” is defined as an instrument that is struck or shaken, such as a triangle or a cowbell. What attracted you to the idiophone—in particular the Slit Gong at the Met?

Amy Fusselman: The rhythmic, staccato sound of the piece immediately announced itself as a major factor, and the idiophone of the title, the artwork at the Met, came to mind as an instrument that would make that sound.

P: How would you describe the form? When was it born?

AF: It’s an essay, a poem-ish essay. It had a long gestation period. It’s hard for me to say when it was born because it was brewing for so long

P: The book uses a lot of these quick, quick phrases that play with repetition, but it’s also infused with tons of research especially on The Nutcracker. What did your research process entail?

AF: I have been thinking about The Nutcracker for years. It was a pretty organic process of following my interests and going down little rabbit holes of information. I was also very grateful to find Jennifer Fisher’s book Nutcracker Nation, which is a very engaging history of the ballet and which I highly recommend.

P: How did you balance the brevity of the form with all the exhaustive data about the ballet’s history? How did you keep track of all the threads?

AF: I didn’t try to tell the entire story of the ballet or to offer the essay as a piece of scholarship. A lot of it was discerning what was relevant to the piece. In terms of keeping track of the threads, I didn’t write the book by thinking it. I wrote it by letting go of thinking, and that was very freeing.

P: I love that! I find it’s really hard to turn off the compulsion to always be thinking while I’m writing. How were you able to let that go and access this freeing space? Did you have any rituals?

AF: I probably could have used some rituals. I didn’t have any except for the enthusiasm about the material as it was unfolding.

P: Was the revision process similar? Did you revise after writing?

AF: Yes, many revisions. But they were mostly micro revisions.

P: Along with The Nutcracker, the concepts and lived experiences of gender, sexuality, and queerness are also investigated, and your overall body of work also seems interested in exploring these themes as well. Do your ideas on gender, sexuality, and/or feminism change after each writing project? If so, how?

AF: I have a few subjects that are so far always interesting to me: creativity, womanhood, children, motherhood, art-making, process, consciousness and sex. Maybe there will come a time when I’m no longer interested in one or all of these but I’m not there yet.

P: Do you remember when you first became interested in gender and womanhood? For me, it was when I was in middle school and addicted to this Young Adult series about a young woman going to boarding school in Victorian England. It’s silly, but it was the first time I had opened my eyes to see how patriarchy operates.

 AF: I don’t think that’s silly at all. And I’m struck that you were alone in that discovery. I would love to see parents take that on. Maybe we can reframe “The Talk” to mean the discussion you have with your children about the patriarchy. Although the patriarchy talk would surely have to come earlier than the sex talk. For myself, those interests are rooted in the childhood experience of being raped and then discovering later that my mother had also been raped.

P:  This reminds me of your McSweeney’s piece “How to Make Rape Lemonade.” I was struck by how the essay’s dual modes of being light-hearted and tackling heavy subject matter really cracked open another way of dealing with trauma for me. Did the discovery of your mother’s experience alongside your own lead to this essay?

AF: That piece actually grew out of my trying to write a rape joke. I think the primary thing it does well is not dramatize rape, and not apologize for not dramatizing it. I think the drama can be a way of other-ing it, and I wanted to push back at that.

P:  I like your take on the death of the Mouse King: “He is no longer dead, he is “dead,” and in this meta move, he reminds the audience that he is alive and that this is a performance. In the same vein, I feel that the queerness in your book serves as a reminder that heteronormativity is performative.

AF: Absolutely, yes. I was also interested to discover that Tchaikovsky himself may have been struggling with revealing his sexual identity. The Nutcracker as well as its sibling piece, the opera Iolanta, are so much about the longing to fully see and be seen.  

 P: Do you think the relationship between writer and reader operates in a similar way? Does a writer long to fully see and be seen?

 AF: I think it depends on the type of writer. All humans feel the need to be mirrored and understood. But I find that a lot of writing operates, in a way, like advertising. It aims to get your attention and hold your attention and sell itself. I like a good ad as much as anyone but I want to make art that resists that as a mode of construction. I believe in the reader; I think the reader is brilliant. I want to give them more.

P: You mentioned art-making earlier and, in Idiophone, you included an interview with Annie-B Parson about the art of dance. Do you think there are parallels between writing and dancing?

AF: Certainly in this piece. Dance isn’t usually associated with writing because it’s nonverbal but I feel a lot of kinship with what dance is doing. And I loved Annie-B’s quote about dance’s relationship to “the word,” and how dance, as a province of women and of bodies, has been relegated to a lesser status in theater. I felt that had a connection with what I was thinking about in relation to writing as a handcraft, and to “women’s work.”

P: Motherhood is also a major topic in Idiophone and you include some really cool anecdotes with your children, like taking a boxing class together—do you tell them whenever they’ve made a cameo?

AF: I tell my kids about their appearances in any work before it’s published, and I do ask for their approval but it’s tricky because they aren’t old enough yet to really be capable of consent. My daughter and one of my sons—my sketches of them—appear briefly in Idiophone. My kids are aware of my renderings and they’re OK with them but we’ll see what happens. Parenting is a long game. Like writing is.

P: Can you elaborate on that?

AF: It’s hard to tell if something is going to be successful in the short term. That’s true for human beings and it’s true, I think, for art. It also depends on what your definition of “success” is. I think children are here to complicate matters for parents, not to make things easier. Children are here to challenge us and survive us. And I think good art—or at least the art I like—does that, too. And that type of art doesn’t always get a warm reception immediately.

P: I think we’re living in a broader cultural moment that is bogged down by information and misinformation. And as a result, media outlets and online sources tend to explain major ideas in simple terms, or in lists, or even as memes. But in your book, readers really have to do the work themselves of seeing the connections and seeing how their meanings emerge and evolve as the book progresses. I loved that. I found it really challenging but also delightful. Do you think your book can be considered as a resistance to our current information-heavy moment?

AF: I didn’t think of that but I like it. And I’m glad you found that aspect rewarding. I generally don’t like art that explains itself too much. I like it when I feel like a piece of art has just appeared like it’s from outer space: somehow it got here, and it’s a miracle, and you’re just standing there with your mouth open, like what the fuck. “What the fuck?!” is actually my favorite response to have to a work of art. I am always so grateful to the artist when I see a piece like that.

P: Finally, the book-length essay seems to be gaining more popularity. I’m thinking about Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, and Etel Adnan’s Paris, When It’s Naked. These books are all written by authors who identify as women; do you think there is something there that connects women to book-length essays in particular or it’s just a coincidence?

AF: That’s an interesting observation. I think women, already operating at a disadvantage, have less to lose by trying new forms, whereas men have to think about the 300-page-novel father. And killing him.

S. Ferdowsi is Punctuate‘s reviews editor. She is also a contributor to New City and Rumpus.