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.

Tuesday, 22 March 2022

An Interview with Kathy Fish


Kathy Fish is the author of several collections of fiction including Together We Can Bury It and Wild Life: Collected Works 2003-2018. A UNI alumna and Waterloo native, Fish’s work has appeared in the annual volumes The Best Small Fictions and The Best American Non-required Reading. She also edits the free newsletter, The Art of Flash Fiction and teaches in the MFA program at Regis University.

This month’s Final Thursday Reading Series takes place on March 31 at the Hearst Center for the Arts. The in-person open mic starts at 7 p.m. Fish’s featured reading starts at 7:30. The featured reading can also be streamed live on Zoom. Click HERE for a link.

This interview was conducted by Hannah McConkey.
 

HANNAH MCCONKEY: You were an undergraduate Psychology major at UNI. What was your path to becoming a fiction writer, and did anything in your UNI experience help you toward that?
KATHY FISH:
I had always enjoyed writing stories even as a young child. My teachers always encouraged my writing in English classes both in high school and at UNI. I just never considered myself a “writer” or thought of fiction writing as a career. I was fascinated with psychology so it was a natural fit for me as an undergraduate. And it’s definitely a “writer thing” to be interested in the workings of the human heart and mind. I loved the psychology classes I took at UNI. I do think they contributed to my ability to create characters facing a variety of personal and interpersonal conflicts in fictional worlds. After graduating, I worked in several jobs related to the field of psychology. Then I got married and we spent a few years living in Australia. It was there, after the birth of my youngest child, that I signed up for my first creative writing class. That’s when I truly discovered “my tribe” and became passionate about writing stories. I knew I wanted to pursue writing seriously. 

HM: How did you come to develop a specialization in flash fiction?
KF: So as I said, I only started writing with serious intent after the birth of my youngest (fourth) child. I was a very busy mom and my husband traveled a great deal. My writing time was stolen moments at my older son’s cricket practice or in the car waiting to pick the kids up from school or while the younger children were napping. I wanted to finish things so my stories naturally were very short. At some point, I discovered there was actually a thing called “flash fiction” and that I’d been writing it all along! 


HM: You regularly offer workshops on flash fiction. What are those like and how did you come to develop them?
KF
: I’d begun using the blog on my website to post flash stories and analyze them and offer writing prompts. A couple of my blog followers urged me to teach classes, so I offered the first one back in 2015. I figured out a way to use a Wordpress site to present materials asynchronously and for writers to post their work and give each other feedback. The classes are generative and positive feedback only. Anyway, they became very popular very quickly and now I have to offer registrations via a lottery system! I thoroughly enjoy teaching both online and in person. 

HM: Several of your stories have surprise endings, such as "The Children Called Him Yuck-Yuck.” Do you intentionally try to write stories that will have twists or is that something that develops as you are drafting them?
KF:
I almost never write to create a twist ending, but sometimes in the process, something unexpected or twisty presents itself and I run with it. Sometimes the twist endings come across as forced or unnatural and readers are pretty good at picking up on that. I like an ending that somehow resonates or casts new light or meaning on the story in a way that lingers in the reader’s mind. 

HM: A number of your stories focus on people who are just trying to go about their lives while dealing with stressful, and oftentimes, devastating situations. Is that kind of writing difficult or cathartic?
KF:
It’s absolutely both difficult and cathartic! But for me, it’s so compelling as a storyteller to show characters as they struggle with challenging, heartbreaking, life-changing situations. Author Kazuo Ishiguro said, “But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels for me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel that way for you?” It’s how we connect with readers on a visceral level. I love how beautifully this poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty speaks to this idea: 

Why Bother? 

Because right now, there is       someone

Out there with 

a wound                               in the exact shape                           

                                                      of your words. 


HM: What current project are you working on?
KF:
I’m very busy these days working on a novella-in-flash and I’m also writing a flash fiction craft book based on my Fast Flash workshops. Some of what’s in the craft book can be found in my monthly newsletter. Those who are interested can subscribe for free here: The Art of Flash Fiction.

Thursday, 10 March 2022

Listen for free: Best of Eddie Bowles


Eddie Bowles (1884-1984) learned to play guitar in New Orleans alongside Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory, and he lived most of his life in Cedar Falls, Iowa. All recordings on this album were made when Eddie Bowles was in his 90s, and many have not been heard since. You can listen to the album online for free (click HERE or on the album cover). It is also available on all major music platforms and streaming services. Click HERE to check out the full album liner notes. If you are in the Cedar Falls area, make sure to check out the Eddie Bowles's Blues exhibit at the Hearst Center for the Arts, which runs through March 27.


Friday, 18 February 2022

An Interview with Larry Baker


Larry Baker returns to the Final Thursday Reading Series as the February featured reader. Baker is the author of seven novels, including his latest, Wyman and the Florida Knights (Ice Cube Press). A former member of the Iowa City Council, he is also an honoree on the Iowa Literary Walk of Fame in Iowa City.

This month’s Final Thursday Reading Series takes place on February 24 at the Hearst Center for the Arts. The in-person open mic starts at 7 p.m. Baker’s featured reading starts at 7:30. The featured reading can also be streamed live on Zoom. Click HERE for a link.

This interview was conducted by Hannah McConkey.

Hannah McConkey: A number of your books—A Good Man, The Flamingo Rising, Love and Other Delusions, and now Wyman and the Florida Knights—are set in Florida. Aside from it being a good place to visit during long Iowa winters, what draws you back to writing about that state?
Larry Baker: I lived in Florida for three years, enough time to accumulate a ton of material for fiction. It’s a unique state. In the early 1800’s it was the least “American” of all the other states. Part of that was its Spanish background, but the single most important distinction was its natural environment. No other state in the Union was comparable. Today, science and capitalism have destroyed that original environment. Today, Florida might be the “most American” state, a hot mess, the worst of what America is becoming. In the first few pages of Wyman, Thomas Knight goes to Florida in 1866 to establish his New Church of God. Taken into the interior, led by a black Egyptian guide named Pythagoras Jones, Knight confronts foliage and animals totally alien to his northern experience. Knight thinks in Biblical terms, comparing the land around him to a garden. Jones corrects him. Florida, he says, is not a garden. It is a jungle. Confusing the two can be fatal. And that was the core of my story: human vanity thinking it can cultivate a Edenic garden when in reality it is in a hostile jungle. The beasts in that jungle, literal and metaphorical, are not subservient to men like Knight. They were there first and will not relinquish their own dominion. A hundred and fifty years after Thomas Knight went to Florida, his descendant Norton Knight is a dying man with dark secrets. He asks the artist Peter Wyman to paint his portrait. The result is a portrait that puts Knight back into the jungle that his ancestors first encountered. With the “jungle” as a literal and psychological theme (thanks to Henry James for some influence here too), the Florida of 2016 is the perfect setting. Politics, family dynamics, law and order…all are a jungle. You either adapt and survive, or you die.


HM: Setting is a huge part of Wyman and the Florida Knights. Why did you place so much importance on it, and why did you choose this town in Florida specifically?
LB: Answer above might cover most of this, but the important thing to remember is that I did not “choose” the town. I created it. You might also go back and consider two other fictional towns in American culture—the towns of Sheriff Andy Taylor and lawyer Atticus Finch: two versions of mythical rural America. Knightville is neither, but each shapes a character’s perceptions in Wyman.

HM: With each new character you introduce, you discuss their morality and belief systems. This was an interesting approach. Why did you choose to focus so much on this element of your characters?
LB: If I can say that I have any strength as a writer, it would be shown in the characters I create. As in Wyman, all people are individuals with their own histories and baggage, but a “story,” just like life itself, requires that individuals interact with other individuals…morals and beliefs meshing or clashing—that is the narrative plot—an old Greek truism—“Character is Fate”—each of these character's internal “character” determines their actions—and actions have consequences—In the end, who comes through that final door (last page of Wyman) of your life is a consequence of your character.


HM: Throughout the book, you comment on topics such as racial relations, sexuality, and violence towards women. Did you discuss these topics in order to get more into the different characters’ moralities and mindsets, or was there another reason for this?
LB: Race and sex have always been elements/themes in my novels. Wyman is just much more overt in how I illustrate them. And those are not issues external to, or separate from, a character or a real person. They shape us, black and white, male and female. Unless those issues are embodied in the life of a person, they do not exist. They are merely textbook subjects. The issue of “violence toward women” is much more complicated in Wyman. A husband murders his wife. The wife killed her sister. A man slaps his wife, but then slaps another woman who makes it clear that if he does it again he will be a dead man. Indeed, for me, the two most interesting characters in the story are two very different women, each equally strong and independent in her own way. And, remember, any violence against a woman in the story is eventually punished.

HM: Wyman and the Florida Knights is your seventh novel, which is an impressive achievement. What are you working on now?
LB: A ghost story, seriously. An old taxi driver is lured into a haunted theatre and meets the ghosts of whomever performed on that stage in the past. They are all trapped there in some sort of entertainment limbo/purgatory. He doesn’t know it, but he himself might be the key they need to be finally set free. The ghosts also offer him the only chance to be re-united with the lost great love of his life. So, imagine Marilyn Monroe, Will Rogers, Harry Houdini, Patsy Cline, Mark Twain, et al, being major characters.