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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.




Nadine Kenney Johnstone in Conversation with Punctuate

May 24, 2018

The Chicago Writers’ Association Book of the Year for 2018 was awarded to Nadine Kenney Johnstone for her book Of This Much I’m Sure. In this memoir, Kenney Johnstone reflects on her Chicago upbringing, the first years of her marriage, and the challenges she faced while undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Her other work has been featured in The Moth, PANK, The Magic of Memoir, among others.

Kenney Johnstone earned her MFA from Columbia College Chicago and currently teaches at Loyola University. She also serves as a writing coach and can be emailed at for more information.

The interview was conducted with Sadaf Ferdowsi for the one-year anniversary of the memoir’s publication. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Punctuate: When was the moment you decided your first book would be a memoir recounting your experiences undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF)?

Nadine Kenney Johnstone: Back in 2012, I went to a writing retreat in Guatemala, and the instructor encouraged me to write about my nine frozen embryos. This inspired my essay “Nine Babies on Ice,” which got published in the parenting issue of PANK that year. Writing it felt so scary and freeing that I knew I had a lot more to say on the topic.

Punctuate: While it is very much about the journey of pregnancy and birth, Of This Much I’m Sure is also driven by the relationships between you and your mother, you and your sister, and you and your husband. What challenges existed to incorporate these (sometimes-complicated) relationships into your narrative and how did you overcome them?

Kenney Johnstone: When I started writing about our journey to conceive, I realized that it affected all of my important relationships. I also realized that when I moved to Massachusetts to be with Jamie, I neglected the people who were most important to me back in Chicago. I had to write about it all because it was so intertwined. And in order to do that, I had to write like no one would ever read the manuscript, otherwise, I’d have censored myself based on what I thought everyone’s responses would be.

Secondly, I thought of this as the opportunity to really expose all of the roles I had played in the demolition and rebuilding of the most important relationships in my life. Any time I wrote about a tension I had with someone, I asked myself how I had contributed to it, and that helped me write what I hope is a fair depiction of those experiences. My mom, sister, and husband all read the final manuscript before it was published and we had some really deep, connecting conversations about the struggles we had been through. Continue Reading


20 Questions for Peter K. Steinberg

May 24, 2018

Asked by David Trinidad

What is your first memory?

Out my childhood bedroom window, winter 1998.

I have some co-first memories. I don’t know how real they are. But first is being dropped; falling. My mother was carrying me from the living room into our “play room.” There is a step down. A toy left out and she stepped on it and dropped me. She caught me, but the first memory is of falling. I was told, too, that once I fell down the basement stairs. I guess I know what’s wrong with me! Another early one is being at Virginia Beach and getting absolutely wiped out by a wave. I was wearing a white T-shirt with the outline of George Washington’s face in electrically bright colors of orange and green.

You’ve written a biography of Sylvia Plath, co-written a book (with Gail Crowther) about working in the Plath archives, and co-edited (with Karen V. Kukil) two volumes of Plath’s letters. What drew you to Sylvia Plath?

Entering my junior year of college last century, I was dumped by my first love. I decided to take an introduction to poetry course as I had been writing poems and lyrics. All bad. In the course we started with Anonymous and ended after the Confessionals. It was in reading “Lady Lazarus” that I felt, for the first time in weeks, that I’d get over losing the girl. When I asked my professor for more information about Plath, he tried to dissuade me from it, which I felt was an odd thing. Luckily, a friend knew about Plath and helped me find her books in the library. Another professor was very supportive and helpful, but she said Plath would be a phase. Twenty-four years later . . . Continue Reading


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.


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