Browsing Category



Punctuate in Conversation with Elizabeth Kadetsky

March 10, 2020

Punctuate editor, Re’Lynn Hansen, engaged in email conversation with Elizabeth Kadetsky, winner of the 2019 Juniper Prize in Creative Nonfiction. Kadetsky is the author of The Memory Eaters, a lyric memoir, published by U. Mass Press this month. Her three previous books include On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World,  a story collection The Poison that Purifies You, and a researched memoir set in India First There Is a Mountain.

As a journalist covering Latin America, immigration, and gender in the 1990s, Elizabeth published immersive journalism in Ms. magazine, SelfGlamourThe Nation, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. Her work included coverage of the underground adoption trade in Guatemala for the Village Voice and the war in Chiapas, Mexico, for The Nation.

She is the recipient of two Fulbright fellowships to India. Her short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best American Short Stories notable stories, and her personal essays have appeared in the New York TimesGuernicaSanta Monica ReviewAntioch ReviewPost RoadAgni, and elsewhere. She is currently associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State and a nonfiction editor at New England Review

The Memory Eaters is told in the context of 1970s and 1980s New York City. The memoir moves from her parents’ divorce to her mother’s career as a Seventh Avenue fashion model and from her sister’s addiction and homelessness to her own experiences with therapy for post- traumatic stress disorder. The Memory Eaters is about  consciousness fractured by addiction and dementia, and a compulsion for the past salved by nostalgia. More can be found at


Punctuate: In your opening chapters of your memoir you celebrate your mother as a great watcher: “We watched people. My mother was fascinated by the common place. That what you saw in Vogue happened first on the streets of New York.”  You connect watching with a learning style, stating how you and your mother deconstructed the “why” of the look. You write so well of these moments of watching. Can you speak to the connection of watching to memoir writing?

Elizabeth Kadetsky: Coming of age in the 1970s, I was exposed, through my mother, to a lot of what you might call groovy spirituality that enshrined this idea that you would find truth if you just relaxed your brain enough to let it come to you. This was the thinking behind the versions of so many of the trendy ideologies that we adopted: I Ching, astrology, Ouija Board, palm reading. I don’t think that we believed in the magic of any of these systems in the least. The idea was that these were all tools that helped you get more in tune with your subconscious. So, my mother’s ideas about “watching” definitely came out of that, that there was a sort of divine intelligence that you could tap into through paying close attention in both dream and waking life. It’s funny because when I think about it now I see the pitfalls of this mindset, especially for the writer.

Sometimes I’m struck by a certain writer’s paradox, that there is a sweet spot between two strains of advice. The first is the advice that springs from these 1970s ideologies—for instance that if you “free write,” you will come upon something true and wise— or that you should “turn off the critical, self-editing” mind in order to write well. But this advice butts up against Flannery O’Connor’s admonition: “Just because you can write doesn’t mean you can write any damned thing.” O’Connor wrote fiction, but in some ways her warning is most apt for the memoirist. Perhaps it’s another version of “Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s important.” So, there’s a danger in thinking that if you watch long enough or quietly enough you will come up with something worth saying about your subject matter. Well, and now that I’m rolling out the maxims, there’s also that idea of preparation meeting opportunity from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. So, maybe that’s the sweet spot that I mentioned above. For the writer, preparation is developing a certain scholarly worldview or erudition, while opportunity is intuition and watching. Can you have enough learning so that you can match your subject to an idea, and can you make sure that that idea is complex, and not prosaic or cliché, and something that hasn’t been said about your subject before. In other words, sure you can watch, but can you also have some fresh new thought about what you are watching. That, more or less, is the lifelong argument that I had with my mother. She, I think, believed that intuition was enough. Well, this is to say that the job of the memoir writer is very hard, mixing intuition and smarts.


P: The chapter on MacGraw was a powerful sketch. You evoke his complexity from the many details—the overcoats, the tai chi slippers made of black canvas, and the I Ching book he brought which was wrapped in a square of silk. From a writer’s point of view, how did you assemble the sketch of MacGraw?

EK: “Assemble” is a great word for this question, because that is definitely what I did. This is the very earliest piece of the book. In fact, embarrassingly enough, I first wrote it as a personal essay in a class at Columbia Journalism school thirty years ago—while the events were still taking place. This version ended on the line “Look at the moon”—in the scene, still in the chapter, I’ve bumped into MacGraw on Broadway after a classmate has identified him as a “homeless man” (which he was not). It’s just starting to snow, and MacGraw is telling me to go to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ monument when it gets dark to see the full moon in the snow. That version was written probably on the same day that it happened, but it got lost. I actually recreated the essay from memory several years later when I was getting my MFA, and submitted it for a workshop.

This got lost too! Then I started fresh again when writing the chapter for the book. The anecdote and details, probably because I’d written them down so many times, were still in my memory. But clearly the essay needed more to make it successful—it had been in the works so long. In the new version I interspersed the memories with a present-day scene with my mother when she is far along into Alzheimer’s dementia and trying to remember MacGraw—I think that added the “so what” to the story. Around this time I saw an article in Vanity Fair by Sheila Weller about Ali MacGraw, who was, as it had been hinted when I was growing up, MacGraw’s sister. Ali described her troubled brother, who, she said, had been abused by their father as a child. Sheila helped me get in touch with Ali. Our correspondence was very touching and sad, and definitely brought the details to life for me again. After communicating with Ali, I wanted to bring across a feeling that I took from my encounter with her, about wanting to see a healed version of a troubled person from the past.


P: In the final chapter, you speak of nostalgia as a longing for a sense of intimacy,  a reconciling with what is lost. How is nostalgia connected to the idea of watching?

EK: A lot of writers have associated nostalgia with a kind of atemporality. I like Andre Aciman’s version the best, that the nostalgiac (or the “temporizer”) lives in both the future and the past, trying to connect up a fantasy or desire (suggesting the future) with a time or a place from the past. Wouldn’t it be great, in other words, if we could enjoy all the wonders of childhood, but as an adult! It’s such a funny idea, since that first snow is in fact no different from that millionth snow. Perhaps we just seek that sense of wonder, and can only find it through associations with past experiences. In any case New York City is such a homeland for the nostalgiac, having gone through such dramatic change so quickly. One can easily juxtapose old and new versions of any number of landmarks—for instance Union Square Park, to take just one. Watching closely, one sees the past start to seep through, physical remnants such as a park bench that never got replaced. Also, one can see the many different New Yorks in film. I went through a period where I watched almost every major movie filmed in New York City in the 1970s, while I was living alone in the East Village. I would wander out afterwards and find the setting for the film I’d just watched and experience this wonderful otherworldly, lonely, sense of dislocation. Whatever mindstate that created felt very rich and weighty and conducive to writing, like going to a museum and being in the presence of great art.


P: What role does nostalgia play in your opening chapters regarding epigenetics?

EK: That’s such a great question. This was another essay that was written through several iterations and over time, starting when some of the experiences described take place. It started while I was getting my MFA and received a grant to research my Franco American family’s roots in New England and Quebec during the summer of 1997. It started as a sort of cataloguing type investigation into family history. I didn’t have a real question, just wanted to gather oral histories and genealogy records. The genealogy research put me on the wrong course, but was seductive, as it is to so many. It took me a long time to understand that, for my project at least, genealogy was a canard (to use a French expression). But in wrestling with the research, I had to examine why genealogy is so seductive in general, and that, I think, is because of nostalgia. Nostalgia explains why everyone’s ancestor was a noble person. Isn’t it nice to imagine a rosy past for ourselves that will somehow prognosticate for a rosy future in which we are restored to our noble roots! In fact, if you go back 12 generations in anyone’s family, there are hundreds of usual suspects. There’s not a slim chance at least one will have been noble. Epigenetics is, in a sense, the anti-genealogy narrative. It chooses one ancestor and not the hundreds, and it looks at one trauma to see how the ripple effect lives on today. Perhaps this essay, then, is questioning and trying to undercut nostalgia as a lens, since nostalgia, certainly, is not the only or correct way to see the past.


P: You speak of the “swerves” in life that you experienced when caring for your mother with Alzheimer’s and your sister with addictions. As the daughter of a mother who had Alzheimers, I experienced the “swervings”—the real-unreal moments of which you write so smartly and eloquently. Once you had to climb a mountain in Upstate New York to get cell phone reception so that you could speak to the emergency room doctor who had treated your mother. It reminded me of a time when I had to pull my car into a tractor circle in a cornfield to maintain cell reception while I talked with a doctor treating my mother. In the writing, the swerve reveals a paradox where there had been confluence. Can you talk about “swervings” in relation to the memoir form?

EK:  That is such a wonderful image, Re’Lynn, with the tractor moving from a swerve to a “tractor circle.” I imagine that action almost as an involution. Seeing things in terms of patterns and natural forms is such a wonderful way to break out of traditional linear structure without ceding to complete chaos. The tractor circle makes me think of a whorl, while I certainly wrote a lot about things happening in a swerve pattern.

The swerve was an idea that I borrowed from a conversation that we had about Chekhov’s short stories when I was in graduate school—his stories tend to move in a linear manner following one conflict, but then, at the end, swerve off elsewhere in such a way that the reader realizes that the real problem had been something else all along. Some of Joyce’s stories in the Dubliners do this as well. While Chekhov and Joyce are certainly “traditional” authors, I think there is something revolutionary in those nonlinear patterns that they chose.


P: You have included stunning research on survivorship and PTSD and how the category of survivorship has been viewed in terms of surviving mass catastrophe. Along with researcher/memoirist Cathy Winkler, you question how/why violence against women does not fall into the category of mass trauma. Can you talk about the space that you created for PTSD in this memoir and its influence on the writing?

EK: My interest in creating a PTSD narrative using nonlinear structure came out of an honors creative writing class about trauma narratives that I taught in 2014. This was before Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score,” about trauma, now a best seller, —this, I think, has opened up a lot of space for finding non-traditional ways to tell a traumatic narrative that mimic the workings of traumatic memory. In the course, we looked at work by Sophie Calle, Deborah Tall, D.J. Waldie, and others. These authors found intuitive ways to break up storyline and honor the insistent ways that memories and family mysteries can impose themselves when there is trauma involved. So, I appreciate your seeing this book as opening up space for PTSD narratives, as that was definitely my intention!


* * * * *

Look for a review of The Memory Eaters by Elizabeth Kadetsky in the next issue of Punctuate.


Re’Lynn Hansen is the author of To Some Women I Have Known. Her essays and memoir work have been published in Prism, New South, Florida Review, and Hypertext,  and online at Contrary, and Slag Glass City. She has been awarded the New South Prose Prize, the Prism Creative Nonfiction Prize, and The Florida Review Meek Award. Her chapbook, 25 Sightings of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, is about the personal nature of bird sightings.   She is an editor of Punctuate. A Nonfiction Magazine. She has researched early cancer vaccines at Yale’s archives for a memoir about living with cancer and she is among the first to receive a cancer vaccine in trials. Her website is at


Punctuate in Conversation with Ames Hawkins, Author of These are Love(d) Letters

December 4, 2019

Ames Hawkins is a transgenre writer and the author of These are Love(d) Letters, a genre-bending visual memoir and a work of literary nonfiction that explores the questions: What inspires a person to write a love letter? What inspires a person to save a love letter even when the love has shifted or left? And what does it mean when a person uses someone else’s love letters as a place from which to create their own sense of self?

Assistant Editors of Punctuate sat down with Ames in late October for a conversation about her nonfiction treatise which combines the interdisciplinary aspects in which love letters can be viewed.  Her recent book, These are Love(d) Letters, is built similarly to a travelogue.  It combines the reproductions of her father’s love letters with a theoretical critique of the letters and the epistolary form, along with the narrator’s first-person account of her father as lover, creative/artist, queer/gay man, father, husband, and person living with AIDS.


Punctuate:  We were wondering if you could talk about the different projects/forms you incorporated in These are Love(d) Letters and how you organized the book as an entirety.

Ames Hawkins: That’s a long story. But that’s a good place to start because I get really excited talking about these projects. The very first iteration of some of the pieces in here started as blog posts. They were very simple, and really just about my dad; I wrote some of them in 2006. Then, I wrote a version of a memoir—or what I thought would be a memoir—it would be this longer AIDS memoir, but that didn’t really work because I also identify as a creative-critical scholar.

Then, I just decided to write about these letters in every possible form I could think of that was comfortable for me. I would keep showing it to people and keep showing it to people and I would get bits and pieces of advice. I wanted people to be really thinking about the spaces between those pieces of writing. You think about the gap between the two entries, not just “Oh I read this entry then I read this entry,” but how do you really call attention to those spaces between.

Finally, over the years, I used the letters themselves as a framing device. Twenty letters, twenty chapters. There were probably forty thousand words I didn’t use, and this book is about fifty thousand words long. There are passages where I am crafting theory, where I’m working at being a theorist. And then there are passages which are more lyric and working in a poetic form. And I could have kept writing. I could’ve kept doing more and more and more but then it would have become a different project. You have to figure out what that project is and create constraints in order to know when it is done.


P:  Could you elaborate on the whole idea of distancing yourself? Because near the beginning of this book you talk about how you saw yourself within the pages of these love letters. How do you distance yourself from something that is so personal to you?

AH:That’s the same question from a different angle. The first part is, I distance myself in order to write, in order to become closer to the subject or to the writing because I wanted to be in such a relationship with the writing.  The other question is—when does the distancing come from the object itself?

So creative nonfiction is . . . what? A mental journey. This book is a recording of my mental journey working through these letters. We who are creative nonfiction writers usually like to read mental journeys. That’s sort of a cheesy thing to say when you say you write for sort of therapeutic reasons. But there’s a lot of that, that’s kind of what it is. The figuring it out, right?


P:  What was your involvement with the graphic design? Was it strictly just the artifacts/the reprinted letters, or more?

AH:It was a true collaboration.  What I told the designer, Jessica Jacobs, is that I wanted the book to communicate “letter-ness” not epistolary. What I mean by that is that it’s not an epistolary piece. There are some epistles in it, but it’s not epistolary nonfiction. I wanted to communicate the sensation of what it means to hold a letter in your hand, to be with the object and experience the sensation and intimacy of reading a letter that is actually a book and not just a book about letters.


P:You mentioned something about the “physical sense of holding a letter” so can you elaborate more on how getting in touch with those physical senses of holding, reading, and writing letters helped you write this book?

AH:Sure. It has been my practice to remove myself and physically travel—go somewhere else to write. I would always take the letters with me. Once I figured out what the pattern was, I would reread and rewrite the letters with my own hands, carry the letters around, read them multiple times every day, until I figured out what was going on. I would ask myself, “What am I going to do with this?” When I was out of creative ideas, I would pull the scholar back to the surface and think about things from that angle again. It was recursive. It was fun. Stressful, but fun.


P: What was your emotional experience writing the book?

AH:When I knew that something was really good, I would cry. If it made me cry, I knew the writing was honest. I always talk to my students about the difference between fact, truth, and honesty. Facts can be used for multiple different truths. So, this is my truth, these are facts; my mother agrees to all the facts, but they comprise of a completely different truth for me because this is my story. The honesty is introduced with how it feels to the reader. When you discuss motivation, impact. Whether that rings true. But that’s not necessarily the truth. Truth comes from the narrator’s honesty. When I felt like I was letting myself be completely honest, it was emotionally moving.


P: The letters themselves go through liminal space just by the process of mailing them, of moving through time and space as they go from writer to receiver. We are wondering if you considered liminal space nonexistent in internet communications.

AH:So,is there liminal space in email exchange? Yes. It’s just quicker. There’s no authority that has stamped it. There’s some classic difference between a letter and an email letter, even though there’s some similarity. They can still be intimate, do a lot of the same work, but it’s fast. It’s not been sent to another government structure that literally verifies its existence. It’s not physical. I don’t have to physically open an email and there’s no clarity about ownership after it’s read. When I send you that email, I could resend it by forwarding it to a recipient who can then forward it again. Whose email is it then? Mine or yours? So that’s what screws things up for email for me, the liminal space of ownership. It’s fascinating.


P:In our country, we don’t trust many government institutions and their employees, but we do trust the post office. In other countries, the post office also handles banking.  How might that (trust in a postal institution) change how we feel about the ownership of the letter?

AH:What I think about immediately is—to what degree is a letter currency? Your question makes me think about the notion of value and how we view value of particular objects based on the connection that pervades from an institution.


P:Why did you wait so long to open the letters and read them?

AH:It was too emotional. It was just too much. To think that there was that thing there the whole time you didn’t know about . . . that actually made my parents make more sense than they ever did to me, actually. It took a long time to get to a point that I felt ready to learn more about that part of their past.


P:Getting a little bit back to the idea of email and online messages in general—you can always revise them. You can’t exactly do the same with letters. Most of the letters in your book are entirely in pen and nothing is crossed out. Do you think anything is lost in being able to revise something you said?

AH:That’s a philosophical question. Yes, something’s always lost, and something’s always gained. If my first draft was in a journal, maybe you could find it in my journal. Then maybe there was this scrap of paper I had while I was driving that had a couple of ideas on it. Unless you were really fastidious, you would have not kept those either. So yes and no. Yes, something is lost. Something is gained, too. You can write faster. You can edit faster. Speed is its own affordance.

Then there are other advantages like spellcheck and thesaurus. I love thesaurus in Microsoft Word. Thesaurus is your friend. I love playing with alliteration. I think about words as raw materials. So how many raw materials do I feel are facile and able? How do I keep adding words to my toolbox, like paints? This phrase, that phrase, this way to look at it, that way to look at it. I like the way digital tools enable me to play in and around, and through words.


P:Following up on adding words to the toolbox, you created a word via hyphen that you repeated at least three times: “always-only”. It doesn’t roll off the tongue too easily if you’re not prepared for it. Can you describe the process of creating that word and why you needed it for the piece?

AH:There is a lyrical quality at some points in the writing. A lot of those words are trying to capture notions of liminality. At times, I would drop into that way of writing and couldn’t pull out. It gets a little too sing-songy and I would think oh my god stop, stop, I can’t keep writing like this. I would drop into it because it would become play—playing in and around language. Sometimes I would think I have to go read a manual or something basic so I can get back to plain prose ’cause sometimes plain prose is all you need. But words like “always-only” are words to get at the thing—a sensation and way of knowing that exists beyond words. If that’s even possible.


P:Related to that, when you were talking about raw materials when we are handwriting we have way more raw materials and I think that comes up when you talk about your father’s use of dashes in the letters and how it’s a symbol of time passing. Did you handwrite parts of this book?

AH:Oh, sure. Was most of your schooling done with handwriting?


P:Yes. Cursive.

AH:I think the real affordance of handwriting is that it is embodied in a different way, like you’re literally physically feeling the paper and you are moving your hand in a way that there is a direct connection to the creation of the symbols that are letters,that become the words that are different than tapping things out on a keyboard. That is just a different movement. It’s not that typing is not embodied, but the movements are different. There is also a very different thing that happens in how you process and how you read on a screen than how you read on paper. I just think it’s more in your body to write on paper, read physical texts. The tactile sensations do something with and to our thinking, and to our thought.

How many of us are good at memorizing now? We’re just not good at it anymore. But go back hundreds of years, and that’s how language developed. Through repetition. You’d have a relationship with reciting a text out loud and that would lead to the production of texts in ways that we are not as able to access today because memorization as a part of our literacy is not so much a part of our practice anymore.


P:Was it important to find a centering concept for this book?

AH: Yes, even  though Gertrude Stein said we have no use in a center! Once I figured out the constraints and form of the book—an idea that returns us now to where we began with this interview—I realized that if there is to be no center, each passage has to be its own center.


Interview by Punctuate’s Assistant Editors: Elijah Abarbanel, Rachel Martin, Rachel McCumber, Riley McFarlane, Brigitte Riordan, Lejla Subasic, Tracie Taylor, Katie Turner, and Vlora Xhaferi.



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.