Monday, 6 March 2023

An Interview with Don McLeese

Don McLeese is the author of Slippery Steps: Rolling and Tumbling Toward Sobriety (Ice Cube Press), which Kirkus Reviews called “A raw, painfully honest memoir rendered in assured prose.” His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post. He is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. 

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

Interview conducted by Sierra Nemmers. 

Sierra Nemmers: You've had a career as a journalist and journalism professor. What made you decide to write about your personal involvement with alcohol and sobriety?
Don McLeese: I thought it would make a good story that would connect with readers and might help some of them. On a professional level, continuing to write as a productive journalist is part of my job. On a personal level, I thought it would help me connect some dots and fill in some blanks, to figure out for myself how I got to where I am now. 

SN: Since your book revolves around a heavy topic, especially one that is personal to you, did you find any of the writing process difficult despite your background in writing and journalism? Did you have to do anything to prepare for the heaviness that would come with reliving this part of your life?
DM: I've never written anything so intensely personal, but I've long drawn from personal experience in my journalism. In some ways, I approached it as I would any journalistic challenge—focusing and framing, trying to write a story that was as true, clear and compelling as I could make it. 

SN: Did you anticipate a certain reaction to the book? Did anyone’s response to your journey surprise you?
DM: When I was writing it, it was almost as if I had to act as if I were writing it for me, to figure out myself for myself, and to pretend that no one else would ever read it. So there was definitely an adjustment when others started reading and responding. I've been gratified by how positive and supportive most of the response has been. I've had plenty of readers tell me how powerful they found the book and how much it helped them.

Wednesday, 15 February 2023

An Interview with Seth Thill

Seth Thill is the author of Cover, Recover, a chapbook that combines poetry and printmaking, and which draws from his recent work as artist-in-residence at the Hartman Nature Reserve in Cedar Falls. He is also an assistant editor at the North American Review

Thill will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on February 23 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The in-person open mic takes place at 7:00 p.m. and Seth Thill takes the stage at 7:30. Thill’s reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a Zoom link.

Interview conducted by Hannah McConkey.

HANNAH MCCONKEY: I know you’ve worked at Hartman Reserve as their Visiting Artist recently. What kind of work did you do there and how do you think it affected your writing?
SETH THILL: What I loved about my time at Hartman is that it really gave me my chance to kind of do my best impression of the American Romantics (without all the self-reliance stuff) in a way that I hadn’t had the chance to previously. The whole lakeside poet solemnly meditating on the sound of birdsongs and the rustling of fauna and all that good stuff—that schtick, a la Thoreau or Emerson. Having the funding through Hartman afforded me the privilege to connect with my writing and with nature in a very raw, but quiet, calm, and open way, and that’s not something I’ve had the chance to do really since I was a kid. I wanted to seize that opportunity by taking a very observational approach to my writing. By passively taking in what I see and sense out in the Reserve and by interpreting and reinterpreting the various happenings in the plainest terms I can. 

But, of course, I am not Thoreau or Emerson, and we are not in the 1800s (all things I am glad for, to be clear). So while I was afforded this tremendous privilege, the one thing that could never be possible was total disconnection. The Romantic ideal of going completely off the grid with nothing but my finest quill, or whatever those guys had going on, could never be what I aspire to. While I was writing these poems, I was trying to focus on the natural world around me, but I still work full time, I still have bills, horrible things are still happening in the world, and I still walk around with a computer in my pocket. So I can’t write the poem about hummingbirds that isn’t also about a dead friend or the poem about the river that isn’t also about my bank statement. The chapbook I wrote in my time at Hartman, Cover, Recover, is twenty or so poems where all of those things collide with each other at various intersections. And the great thing about not going full Self-Reliance mode, is that I got to share my work with so many wonderful people through the events and workshops run through my tenure as Visiting Artist. It allowed me connection, and to me, that is much more interesting than disconnection. 

I am a first-generation college graduate from a working-class household, and no one I grew up with gives a shit about poetry. And I think that is partially because poetry gets this rap as some mystic endeavor led by the muse, a misconception no doubt fueled by often all-or-nothing veneration of figures like those Romantic Poets. But those were just some guys. I don’t write poetry because some magic force compels me to. I’m just some dumb guy who spends a lot of time thinking about Alf. My time at Hartman and the programs we put on during it gave me my proverbial rooftops to scream all my demystification talk from. And that demystification became kind of a secondary mission of the project as a whole, and had and continues to have a real impact on my writing. I never want to feel like I am writing for lit mag editors but not for people who just need to feel something on their lunch break to keep them sane. 

HM: You have a very unique form of medium when it comes to your writing by working with prints. When did you first start to discover this was the way you wanted to present your writing and how did you get into it?
ST: Thank you! Visuals have always been really important to me in my writing. I have always focused very intently on the imagery in my poetry. Images (and other sensory experiences) give the reader something to latch onto, and so that something to latch onto should be interesting. To me, poetry is just throwing a bunch of images at each other on the page and letting someone look at ’em and go “huh, that makes me feel something,” and then the person can do whatever they want with that feeling. And even beyond the written representations of imagery, the actual, literal look of a poem on a page has always been important to me, I have done some work on and have published some experimental, visual based poetry in the past, so the idea of actually representing my poetry through visual art, and specifically through printmaking was really exciting to me, and I am super grateful to everyone at Hartman for giving me the chance to explore more on that end. 

To extend the metaphor of poetry as images dumped on a page in some sort of Rorschach configuration, the visual art is simply something else to dump on the page. I have long worked in multiple mediums, and quite frankly, I just think the more mediums you can cram together, the better! I love the fullness of experience someone can get from reading a poem, but also seeing what I think that poem looks like. Or for instance, I made a playlist of songs that I was listening to when I wrote Cover, Recover, because it is fun to me to read the poems and think about how the songs might have seeped in. So, essentially the idea of mixing visual art and poetry has just been something I’ve always done, but doing so with linocut printmaking was a recent decision that simply happened because that was the medium I was interested in at the time. There’s something really compelling to me about how with linocut, every decision you make is, to some extent, final, but even when you have the piece done and carved and exactly how it will always be, there are a million chances to invent and reinvent that carved block. That theme—of reimagining the cards we are dealt, of having the generosity to embrace what can’t be changed, of making the remains beautiful—became really huge in the writing process as well. 

HM: A lot of your recent work is connected to nature, but that hasn’t always been true of your writing. What led to this development?
ST: Yeah, absolutely, so before this past summer, I had never really considered myself a nature poet at all. I think a lot of what we learn, or at least what I learned, about poetry growing up is predicated on the idea that nature and poetry are connected in some way. Haiku for example, is one of the more accessible and taught poem types and more often than not happen to be nature poems. Those Romantic Poets like Whitman or Thoreau are often touted as “real poets,” the implication being that their connection with the literal world around them gave them some nebulous authenticity. I kind of indiscriminately rebelled against that then, in my own writing for a lot of my earlier years. I refused to reach for that archetype by instead focusing on things that maybe aren’t what people generally think of poetry to be about. I wanted to be authentic to my experience, and while I always have had a valued relationship with nature, I steered away from it. I pretty foolishly adopted the idea that authentic writing had to be about exactly what your life is like on a day-to-day basis. The crappy work days and emotional swings and the movies you’re watching. Particularly, I wrote a lot about pop-culture in grad school, because that’s something that’s always been important to me, and I think it’s not always understood that those are things you can write poetry about. It felt like a tiny little way to rebel against Poetry’s stuffy preconceptions, or if nothing else, a niche. But I think eventually, I realized that now I was just arbitrarily deciding what is “Real Poetry” or not. Poetry can and should be about everything. From the big feelings you get staring out into the ocean to the buzz in the car with friends on the way home from a concert to that ear infection that’s like, mostly gone, but it still is throwing you just kind of a little off. All of it. And so, allowing myself to venture fully into the world of nature poetry not only allowed me to explore these wells of inspiration I had never paid attention to, but to have the sense to bring all that other stuff with me. 

HM: Coming back to the art of printmaking, what made you decide to use that type of media for your writing rather than another such as digital art or drawing?
ST: I have a weird and long, yet collectively brief relationship with printmaking. First time I learned about it was in middle school art class, where I did some linocut of, like, Axl Rose, or something and it got chosen to be in some art show or something. But I didn’t do anything with the medium for a long time after that, just went to the gallery, had approximately one free soda, and went on my merry way. Then in college, my roommate/best friend was an art major and he was doing a linocut project and I thought, “hmm, I remember liking that. I should try it again sometime!” Alas, I did not follow up on that thought for about 6 or 7 years. Last year, I saw an ad online for a starter kit and went “well, I’m bored and have 20 dollars.” So I got it, and as it turns out, I like doing it! I mentioned this idea a bit earlier, but I like that it is both unforgiving and forgiving. If you make a mistake, you can’t undo it, but you can almost always make it look cool. It feels like a medium that rewards imperfection, and I am very imperfect. I make a lot of mistakes, both in my sports betting (I really thought the Lakers would be having a better year!) and in my art. I like drawing and painting, but I have never had a super steady hand. Printmaking helps me kind of cover those mistakes. It cannot, however, get Russell Westbrook enough assists to cover the spread. (I only hypothetically bet on sports with friends, so I hope I used “the spread” right). 

One last thing: you can find me (and my book) at! Thank you so much for your time and for your thoughtful questions.

Tuesday, 10 January 2023

An Interview with Joyce Milambiling

Joyce Milambiling is the author of the forthcoming book, The Skyscraper Settlement: The Many Lives of Christodora House (New Village Press), which tells the story of the Christodora Settlement House in New York City’s East Village. She is a Professor Emeritus of TESOL at the University of Northern Iowa and was in residence this past summer at The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. 

Milambiling will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on January 26 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The in-person open mic takes place at 7:00 p.m. and Joyce Milambiling takes the stage at 7:30. Milambiling’s reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a Zoom link. 

Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin 

JIM O’LOUGHLIN: Can you explain what the Christodora House is and how you first came across it?
JOYCE MILAMBILING: About seven years ago I found a collection of letters that were housed at the New York Historical Society and which were written in 1918 by Helen Schechter, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, to her English teacher. The lessons, what would now be called English as a Second Language classes, took place at Christodora House, one of several settlement houses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Settlement houses were privately funded organizations where children and adults could take classes, join clubs, visit health clinics, and form bonds not only with local residents but also with the “settlers” who lived in the building. Many of the settlers were middle-class women who had recently graduated from college and were intent on volunteering their time and talents in crowded urban neighborhoods during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Christodora House has not received as much attention in the historical literature and in textbooks compared with such settlement houses as Henry Street Settlement in New York and Hull-House in Chicago, but Christodora was nonetheless a vital organization that changed lives and was an integral part of its neighborhood. 

JO: Settlement houses have both been celebrated for improving peoples’ lives and criticized for trying to convert immigrants to Christianity and/or enforce cultural assimilation. Where does your work come down on this ongoing debate?
JM: The settlement houses did help with helping immigrants acculturate to U.S. society, but the newcomers were also encouraged by many of the settlement houses to retain and cherish their own customs and religions. The settlement house provided a valuable stepping stone for many immigrant children and adults in their education and careers and resulted in lasting friendships that bridged the fault lines of class and ethnicity. 

JO: How did you decide that this was a subject you wanted to write a book about?
JM: I was fascinated by the relationship between teacher and student that was revealed in the letters as well as the time period in which they lived. This led me to conduct research on the settlement house movement, the history of immigration on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and how an organization like Christodora, which lives on as a non-profit foundation, has stood the test of time. The 16-story building at 143 Avenue B, still called Christodora House, has had a tumultuous history and was in recent years named a national and state historical landmark. My research brought me in contact with individuals in the non-profit sector, one of whom, the East Village Community Coalition, has an office on the first floor of that building. Today, Christodora House consists mostly of privately owned condominiums and was a controversial symbol of neighborhood gentrification in the 1980s. This connection between the past and present convinced me that this was a subject in which I could immerse myself and that would potentially be of interest to a wide audience. 

JO: How has this kind of writing both built on and departed from the kind of research you did during your career in TESOL at UNI?
JM: During my time at UNI my research centered on sociolinguistics, language teaching, and bilingualism. One of the areas in which I presented at conferences and published was language policy, and this often involved doing research on the history of national and international policies, including the Universal Declaration of Language Rights. Even though I am not a historian by training, I have had years of experience reading and analyzing texts written by others from the perspective of a linguist and educator and this helped tremendously during the research, writing, and editing phases of the book on Christodora House. Conducting archival research was new to me seven years ago, but I was comfortable with navigating electronic library databases both at UNI and elsewhere and applied those skills to working with original documents and other artifacts as well as other institutions’ library databases. 

JO: Can you talk about your experience at the Writers’ Colony in Eureka Springs, Arkansas?
JM: While teaching at UNI, I applied and was accepted as a resident writer at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow (WCDH) in Eureka Springs and then returned twice as an alumna, most recently in 2022, the year after I retired. The colony is housed in two buildings and each resident is supplied with comfortable and quiet accommodations, including a dedicated writing room. The Eureka Springs Carnegie Library is within walking distance of the residence and all WCDH resident writers have borrowing privileges during their stay. On my last visit I was able to finish the final chapters of the book on Christodora House and interview several contacts by phone. The peacefulness of the location and the opportunity to meet and have dinner nightly with the other writers in residence both enriched the experience for me.

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