Friday, 11 November 2022

An Interview with Anesa Kajtazovic


Anesa Kajtazovic is the author of a forthcoming illustrated children's book (title TBA) that offers a firsthand account of her experience as a child during the Bosnian War. Kajtazovic is also a former member of the Iowa house of Representatives.

Kajtazovic will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on November 17—ONE WEEK EARLIER THAN USUAL DUE TO THANKSGIVING—at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The in-person open mic takes place at 7:00 p.m., and Anesa Kajtazovic takes the stage at 7:30.  Kajtazovic's reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a Zoom link.

Interview by Jim O'Loughlin.

JIM O’LOUGHLIN: The story you tell in your book is autobiographical. How did you decide on the format of an illustrated children’s book as the way to tell your story?
ANESA KAJTAZOVIC: Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people, including educators, ask me what war was like. Like with most war survivors, it’s something that we didn’t talk much about while growing up in Iowa. It’s a topic I never felt comfortable discussing. A turning point for me was being asked in the spring of 2020 by a third grade teacher to speak to her class about my war and refugee experiences. After declining that first opportunity, I felt guilty. Something in my heart changed. I think any time we have an opportunity to educate others, especially children, we should do it. After all, how else can we expect others to understand our story and those of millions who’ve gone through something as traumatic as war? 

JO: Without giving away what happens in the book, can you say a little bit about its subject?
AK: This will be one of the kinds of children’s books on a subject that is difficult to explain to children. My book will make it relatable and easy for anyone to understand how a normal life can change overnight. 

JO: In putting this project together, did you find you had to do any research or speak with family members about the experience, or were you able to draw primarily from the memories you have of that time?
AK: This project is solely based on my own war experience. However, I’ve had a couple of my Bosnian friends read it, and it resonated with them as well. This is not just my story; this is a story of millions of children around the world who’ve survived war. 

JO: A project like this has to involve a lot of collaboration between author and illustrator. Can you describe how that process worked?
AK: Yes, it was an extensive collaborative process with my illustrator. The most challenging part was that it was all done via writing online. We never spoke or had a meeting. It was a lengthy process, but my illustrator was able to capture my vision well.

Monday, 17 October 2022

An Interview with Gary Eller


Eller is the author of the novel True North (BHC Press), which is set in the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota. He’s also the author of the short story collection, Thin Ice and Other Risks. His writing has appeared in many publications, and he is the winner of the River City Award in Fiction, the Fowler Prize, and the Minnesota Voices Award, among others. 

Eller will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on October 27 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The in-person open mic takes place at 7:00 p.m. and Gary Eller takes the stage at 7:30. Eller’s reading will also be simulcast on Zoom Click HERE to register for a Zoom link.

Interview by Nolan Rochford. 

NOLAN ROCHFORD: You grew up in North Dakota, but have now since moved to Ames, Iowa. How has moving away from your hometown and home region affected the way you write about it?
GARY ELLER: I've heard more than one prominent writer advise that distance from the subject or setting—geographic, psychic, temporal, and so forth are necessary before one can write with conviction. I agree. I think these conditions help us achieve a certain detachment that allows us to reach into ourselves for a clear understanding of what happened and what we are dealing with. Certainly, the projection of an appropriate verisimilitude is vital, but that is something that does not come from within. Consider the work of nonfictionalists. Newspaper stories, no matter the writing skills of the reporter, are bereft of reflection—and necessarily so. Quality magazines and other periodicals such as the New Yorker can offer more background and a deeper look. But it is in the works of biographers such as David McCullough and the studied interpreters of our culture such as Joan Didion that we must look to for anything like a complete accounting of a matter. 


NR: True North visits the perspectives and memories of several different characters. Of them, which is the one you enjoyed writing most, and why? Is there any that you found particularly difficult to write, and why?
GE: I enjoyed Dolores, the six-times married retired prostitute (as did, apparently my readers considering their remarks). The bizarre unlikelihood of such a character making her way late in life coming from a metropolitan area to find (a kind of) contentment in a rural, conservative location is extreme. It is a lucky writer who comes upon this arrangement of circumstances. Beyond this, Dolores offers a quality of levity usually vital in a traditionally rounded story. In the case of True North this is especially so as the novel tends to be fairly grim. One reviewer called it “a beautiful aching book.” That pleased me very much. 

The one that gave me difficulty was Richie Lee Peavey. Maybe since he really didn't know who he was, I didn't either. Like most people he was a mixture of good and bad. It's just that he took equivocation to an extreme. Incapable of introspection, Richie Lee could only react. 

NR: Many of the sections in Truth North discuss family and the boundaries within it. When you were writing the book, was this a conscious theme you wished to explore or was it something that emerged in the writing?
GE: I did not plan it as a conscious theme. It just seemed to grow from its existence and from the nature of the characters involved. James Salter, a former teacher of mine, said that if you set out to create an individual you will have a character, but if you attempt to create a generic character you’ll have nothing. Family is the first unit to which a human being experiences allegiance. When that allegiance is threatened by attraction to a power outside it the result is characterized by inner conflict and painful choices. When Harold Peavey decided to refuse to take the step forward he knew there would be personal repercussions. While he was living alone at the time, he still belonged to a particular unit in the form of friends, employers, and people who were close to him who expected him to behave in a certain way. A more personal factor: I didn’t object to the events of Vietnam while they were ongoing partly because my attention was devoted to a tough curriculum in pharmacy school during the violent later peak of that war. Now I regret it. I lost dear friends including my college roommate and in a way I feel as if I abandoned them. Injecting myself into the character of Harold Peavey scarcely makes up for this, but somehow in revealing what I wish had been my attitude all those years ago makes me feel a little better. Thus I've been a protestor forty or fifty years too late. 


NR: A large part of your novel is dedicated to the discussion of war and the way it interacts between generations, with both characters struggling to come to terms with their draft duties in two different wars. Why did you choose to include these struggles in the writing of True North?
GE: This is also an instance where the personal intrudes with the make believe. Remarkably, discussion of great events was almost never discussed around my family's dinner table. My father was rejected for the military for physical reasons while I managed to run out the clock by staying in school. I can only guess what his attitude was about Vietnam. My guess is that because we lived in a patriotic and fundamentalist community he would have wanted me to serve if for no other reason than to maintain appearances. Though a complicated and compromised pacifist by nature, I see in my vivid memories of the sixties, a reflection of our society today with opposing factions both claiming the moral high ground, and to some extent each doing so with some justification. Historically, we see this has happened often—maybe continually—through the ages. It would not take a cynic to equate the history of humankind with the history of war. 

NR: In the past, you’ve published short stories and your collection, Thin Ice and Other Risks. What are you working on now? Any plans to revisit the Turtle Mountain region in your writing?
GE: I’ve had readers say they'd like to see a sequel to True North. I did leave the precise fates of certain characters open to eventual resolution—Sam Morinville, Vickie Breen, and others. But I'm not actively working on a project like that. (I've had feelers wondering about a film for the book which is keeping my attention on True North.) Evoking the first question of the interview, I'd like to point out that I lived in Alaska for several years and now that I'm entirely separated from that state, I find myself thinking about story lines. Also, I'm a fan of baseball and the game's history. I have ideas for novels and some research roughed out on both these topics for when the time comes.

Monday, 26 September 2022

Jim O'Loughlin at FTRS with new SF novel, The Cord

Thursday 29 September: come in-person for the open mic at 7:00. Stay for the 7:30 featured reading, which will also be live Zoomcast



Tuesday, 30 August 2022

Worth of the Harvest Release Reading

If you didn't get to attend Jeff Sears's release reading for The Worth of the Harvest: James Hearst and His Poetry, you can now stream it online. Click HERE to find out more about the first full-length literary biography of James Hearst. 



Monday, 8 August 2022

Anne Myles on What Woman That Was


Anne Myles is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Northern Iowa and received an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her poems have appeared in On the Seawall, Whale Road Review, Lavender Review, Ekphrastic Review and numerous other journals. She currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. Learn more at annemyles.com. 

Myles’s new chapbook What Woman That Was: Poems for Mary Dyer will launch on August 25 at the first Final Thursday Reading Series event of the season. Join us in the beautiful Hearst Sculpture Garden (rain location: Mae Latta Hall) for an open mic at 7:00 and Anne Myles at 7:30. Myles’s reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a Zoom link. Pre-orders of What Woman That Was are available directly from Final Thursday Press and via Amazon.com. 

Interview by Jim O’Loughlin 

JIM O'LOUGHLIN: Who was Mary Dyer and how did you first become interested in her?
ANNE MYLES: Mary Barrett Dyer, born around 1611, grew up in England and came to Boston with her husband and first surviving child in 1635. Her story has several distinct acts. She was a follower of the lay spiritual teacher Anne Hutchinson, and along with other followers her family was sentenced to banishment from Massachusetts in 1637. In 1638, when Hutchinson was excommunicated from the Boston church, Dyer drew public attention when she followed Hutchinson out of the meetinghouse, and it was revealed that she had had a deformed stillbirth, a so-called “monster,” with Hutchinson as one of her midwives. Around 1651, after living in Newport, Rhode Island for a number of years, Mary Dyer left her husband and six children behind and went to England alone, where she stayed for six years. In 1657 she returned to New England as a Quaker. She was repeatedly imprisoned as she violated the anti-Quaker laws of Massachusetts and other colonies. This ultimately led to her being taken to the scaffold twice – first in 1659, when she was reprieved at the last minute, then in 1660, when she was in fact hanged. She was the only woman among the four Quakers hanged in Massachusetts in 1659-1661, whom Quakers refer to as the New England Martyrs.
     As someone who was active as a Quaker in my early adulthood, and as a scholar of early American dissent, I knew who Mary Dyer was. But somehow it was only around 1999 when the story of her following Anne Hutchinson out of the church really hit me. A woman’s radical act of loyalty to another woman: there is nothing else like it in the records of that time. I saw it as an act of love, and it resonated with my own devotion to an older woman who had been an important guide to me, and whom I lost, as Dyer ultimately lost Hutchinson. From that moment I was driven to write about Dyer, to claim her as someone I intuitively understood. She became my personal doorway into the early American past. 


JO: You’ve published academic articles on Dyer. How was it different to write poetry about her?
AM: I’ve always believed that scholarship encodes deeply personal concerns, at least in terms of what we are drawn to study, and I’d articulated some of the private reasons for my interest in Dyer in my academic writing. But around 2017 I realized that I needed to write truthfully about my life without the distancing of an academic approach – and I saw nearly simultaneously that the way I could start to do this was to interweave my life with Dyer’s much more interesting one. That started out as a hybrid memoir project, which I worked on for about a year. But somehow the singular narrative trajectory – her life moving inevitably towards her death, while mine was moving towards what? – became problematic. When in 2018 I transitioned back to poetry, my original creative form in my earlier life, I realized how freeing it was. I could write multiple poems, multiple truths, multiple perspectives, as I explored Dyer’s life and my feelings about it. (I write directly about my life in poems outside this project.) Beyond providing a fluid way for me to consider Mary Dyer, my poems about her, many of them written during my MFA studies, became a rich field for exploring different lyric styles and strategies of address. 


JO: A number of the poems in this collection are “persona poems,” written from the perspective of Dyer. How did you decide to take that approach? What were the challenges in finding the language to represent her immediate experience?
AM: Persona poetry about real or imagined historical figures is a very popular mode in recent years– book-length collections included. So it seemed an obvious approach to try. But the first attempts were terrifying to me as a scholar! Up to that point I had always carefully written about Dyer from the outside, marking the distance of my own subject position, as academics say, and making clear when I was speculating without textual evidence. To enter into her imaginatively and make stuff up felt really transgressive – I felt like they would revoke my PhD! But of course the transgression felt thrilling and freeing too. Yet even now it makes me a little queasy . . . I think the book most people would have written about Dyer would be all persona poetry. But I couldn’t do that; ultimately I am less drawn to historical fiction as a mode and more drawn to writing about and around what is known about her, while still speaking as myself.
     I never struggled with finding a voice for Mary–that was always fun. I think many years of immersion in seventeenth-century discourse and my love of early Quaker thought and writing made it come naturally to me. I wanted her to speak in terms she would have known, and in a voice that evoked her period without being cloyingly archaic. I feel a resistance to persona poems where the characters “talk in poetry” or think like contemporary subjects. I guess that’s the scholar in me still. 

JO: Some of my favorite poems in the book are the ones that directly address both the connection you feel to Dyer and the historical and ideological distance that separates you. Those poems made me wonder what you feel you learned about Dyer (and maybe about yourself) during the process of writing this book. 
AM: What an interesting question! I had reflected on Dyer and the grounds of my identification with her so long, it’s hard to say what I learned about connection and distance during the actual writing of the poems. What I learned, I think, is how essential it is to me to keep articulating that nexus – that the issues of how we long for the past, how we seek connection to it, how the dead look back at us resistantly when we look at them are all a key part of my material and my distinctive style as a poet interested in history. I’ve now drawn on this perspective writing about other figures as well. A big moment was when I came upon the approach of addressing Dyer directly; I’d say this became my favorite way of writing about her, since it allowed me to put the problems of relationship right up front.
     Yet I suppose I did learn a lot about Dyer’s life, specifically through imagining parts of it that aren’t in the record. The Dyer I’ve created feels very real to me now; I sometimes have to remind myself that she is a product of my own mind! I feel closest to her when I summon her embodied experience. Whatever our ideological differences, I know what a stone ledge felt like against her arms; I know at some point her nose dripped when she leaned forward in her kitchen garden. 

JO: Why do you want other people to know about Dyer? In what ways do you regard her as a significant figure in the present?

AM: The story of Dyer’s life–her courage, her agency, her allegiance to those she chose as her people–is remarkable, inspiring, perhaps confounding in any era. Though she is a venerated figure among Quakers, and known to those who study early New England, I want everyone to hear about her. But she has resonated for me at a new level in the years since 2016. Her persistence in witnessing against injustice seems incredibly relevant. As a high-status woman in her society (note that she was always “Mistress Dyer,” the elite designation, never “Goodwife Dyer”), she found powerful ways to deploy her privilege, to make an impact with it, even if her choices led to her death. I realize too how much the struggles she was involved in speak to border politics in the present: who is allowed into a colony or country? What is the penalty for violating the law? And as I’ve grown older, the fact that Dyer was herself what we would call middle-aged (she was about 49 when she died) has also felt important. Celebrating the older woman as heroine, as someone actively determining the course of her life, is moving and meaningful to me.

Monday, 18 July 2022

An Interview with Jeff Sears

On Sunday August 7 at 1:30 p.m., you are invited to a release reading of The Worth of the Harvest: James Hearst and His Poetry with author Jeff Sears. In honor of what would have been James Hearst's 122nd birthday, the Hearst Center for the Arts and Final Thursday Press are teaming up to celebrate the life and work of James Hearst at his former residence. Come for the reading, stick around afterwards for a slice of birthday cake in honor of James Hearst.
    The Worth of the Harvest is the first book-length literary biography of Iowa’s celebrated farmer-poet, James Hearst (1900-83). Author Jeff Sears has been James Hearst’s biographer since 1977. In this book, he explores Hearst’s life and literary work, interweaving biographical information with insights gleaned from a careful reading of Hearst’s verse. 

Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin of Final Thursday Press 


JIM O’LOUGHLIN: Can you say a little bit about how you first got to know James Hearst?
JEFF SEARS: I grew up in Waterloo, six miles from Hearst’s home in Cedar Falls. But I got to know him in a roundabout way. In 1971 I was in college on the east coast when a classmate asked me, did I know James Hearst? No, I said, who is he? An Iowa farmer-poet who was a friend of Robert Frost’s. My classmate had run across a reference to Hearst in one of Frost’s published letters. Fast forward six years, and I’m an assistant professor of English at Iowa State University. I had learned a lot about James Hearst in the meantime, and I got the idea to interview him and publish some scholarly articles about him. When I approached him, he was very cordial, and a series of interviews with him and his wife Meryl followed. I was also able to interview other Iowa literary figures who knew him, namely Paul Engle and Ferner Nuhn. 

JO: What initially drew you to Hearst’s poetry? Over the years, has that stayed constant or do you now find yourself drawn to different aspects of his work?
JS: What drew me to Hearst was his connection to Robert Frost. Was Hearst an imitator or an original who happened to share the moniker farmer-poet? I found to my delight that Hearst was an original. What most impresses me about Hearst’s poetry is the variety of styles he mastered and made his own. His early work is traditional, and his later work is modern. But it’s always his voice. My admiration of Hearst’s work has remained constant. I’ve tried my hand at poetry too, so I appreciate what he did and how he made it look easy. It’s not! 

JO: Though Hearst wrote autobiographically in My Shadow Below Me and Time Like a Furrow, that work is very different from a literary biography like The Worth of the Harvest. Can you talk about how the approach of your project is not like what a reader would find in a memoir?
JS: My project traces Hearst’s development as a writer and shows how his life experience informed his work. It also shows how something can be learned about his life and emotions through his writing, though he was usually careful to distance himself at least to some degree from the persona who speaks in a poem. He did not discuss his literary career in any depth in his autobiographical writings.
    My Shadow Below Me and Time Like a Furrow were available when I was working on my project. But I decided to rely on the interviews I mentioned, as well as my own research into Hearst’s correspondence that has been collected at several university libraries. To be honest, I don’t think Hearst did his own life story justice. Hearst’s life would be interesting and inspiring even if he had never written anything. I have tried to relate his many challenges and how he responded to them in an immediate and compelling way. 

JO: Part of what is significant about The Worth of the Harvest is that you are able to look at James Hearst’s work with an appreciative yet critical eye, seeing some limitations in Man and His Field but also pointing to Limited View as one of Hearst's best mature works. Is there a part of the book that you feel particularly good about or that you feel highlights an aspect of Hearst’s work that has been undervalued?
JS: Of course, I’m a big fan of James Hearst and his poetry. And I would say that as a whole his poetry has been undervalued in terms of a national reputation. But there’s a reason that he is not regarded as being in the top echelon of American poets. His language can be too prosy and his subject matter stuck in the ordinary. The clearest examples of this are the poems in Man and His Field. On the other hand, the poems in Limited View consistently exceed expectations. I would point to the poem “Truth,” which many feel is his best poem. It is a brilliant rendering of the farmer’s plain-spoken, exasperated, even sarcastic tone as he schools his neighbor in his hard-earned empirical outlook: “the connection with a thing/is the only truth that I know of.”
    One last thing, I want to take the opportunity to thank you and all the others who helped me publish the book. Thanks to Scott Cawelti, Cherie Dargan, Barbara Lounsberry, Heather Skeens and Hannah McConkey.

Tuesday, 19 April 2022

An Interview with Jesse Swan

Jesse Swan has been a professor of English at UNI since 1998, where his research and teaching has focused on Renaissance and early modern English literature and culture. He has recently turned to poetry, and his creative writing has appeared as part of the Telepoem Booth project. He will be the featured reader at the final event of the 2022-23 Final Thursday Reading Series on April 28 at the Hearst Center for the Arts. The night starts at 7:00 p.m. with an open mic. Attendees are welcome to share their best five minutes of poetry, fiction or creative nonfiction. Jesse Swan takes the stage at 7:30. Swan’s featured reading will also be live Zoomcasted. Click HERE for a link to the 7:30 featured reading.

The following interview was conducted by Jim O’Loughlin. 

Jim O’Loughlin: For much of your career you’ve been a literary critic and literary historian. What led to your interest in writing poetry? 
Jesse Swan: I guess I kind of see them as of a piece. Of a piece with reading, which is what I love. There are lots of identities I feel, but “reader” has to be one of the most longstanding and perhaps the keenest.
     About reading and writing poetry. Hmm. I have composed poetry as a practice of reading for almost as long as I’ve been reading. One way I get into an author or work is to compose poetry inspired by the author or work. Sometimes it’s the historical moment I compose a poem about. I have written other forms and genres as a practice of reading, but “poetry” is the main one, perhaps because I love reading poetry so much. Indeed, most works I love I call “poetry,” even if they’re novels, such as Joyce’s Ulysses, or plays, like Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, or essays, like David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable. . . . . [thoughtful pause] . . . 
     A few years ago, and I’m not at all sure why or how, but it was something like a tickling bee in my invisible bonnet, it occurred to me to see about “completing” one of my poems or several of my poems. I had never thought about completing a poem any more than I think of completing a reading, but suddenly I did. I feel that a poem is completed when it is read or heard by someone else. I think this is what has, most immediately, led to my circulating some of my poems. 

JO: Do you find connections between your creative and critical work, or is your poetry from a very different part of your imagination?
JS: Oh, yes, absolutely. I know most people think and feel that a scholarly work of bibliography, for example, and a romantic sonnet are two entirely different and unrelated forms of experience and knowledge and expression, but I see them both as entirely imaginative, contingent, and humane. It was imagining the various facts informing W. W. Greg’s theory of copy-text the way I imagine poetry, notably poetry heavy in imagery and teeming with metonymy, for example, that I came to really understand Greg’s theory and principles of copy-text. Similarly, considering the vast possibilities of a rich poem, such as Paradise Lost, the way I imagine the myriad interpretations of the historiography of Michel Foucault, for example, curiously liberates the “poetry” from the conceptual and experiential confines it is sometimes placed in. In my scholarship, I have hoped to provide reliable facts for others to use in contemplating all the things we consider when reading literature, and in my criticism, I have aimed at providing certain moral and ethical interpretations of authors and works that I feel match the feelings and ideas of the authors. With composing and completing poetry, I hope to inspire people to read and to compose poems and to think, generally, poetically. 


JO: What poets have influenced your creative writing? 
JS: I know you must mean published poets, and I will mention a couple, yet I want to give primary place here to my kindergarten teacher, Sister Dolores Muñoz of the Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Of the many influences she had on me, one was giving me the sense of being a poet. I have always remembered Sister Dolores saying to me, approvingly and with remarkable affection, “why, you are a poet.” I was writing some elementary reading material, and I had no idea that I was being observed, until I heard her gentle exclamation. When I feel that I am no poet, I remember this moment. Since Sister Dolores, many others have influenced me, notably Naomi Shihab Nye, who used to give poetry readings and workshops when I was a kid and young adult, and Alberto Rios, who was a professor of poetry when I was in graduate school. As much as in their poetry and in their advice for writing -- and reading -- poetry, their softly charismatic presence has charmed and inspired me. 

JO: Kudos to Sister Dolores! Do you see your work eventually resulting in a collection, or do you think of your poems as standalone efforts?
JS: I think the poems I select to circulate in order to be completed by readers or auditors are really best read in a collection. A collection might be the sort of reading I’ll be doing for the Final Thursday Reading Series, but mostly, I think, as a chapbook or other sort of group of several poems. That said, mostly people encounter my poems as isolated from others, as in workshops or magazine publication, and this has its own curious effects.