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.

Friday, 21 January 2022

An Interview with Kamyar Enshayan

Kamyar Enshayan will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on January 27 at the Hearst Center for the Arts. The in-person open mic starts at 7 p.m. Enshayan’s featured reading starts at 7:30. The featured reading can also be streamed live on Zoom. Click HERE for a link. 

Enshayan was born in Iran and came to the U.S. in 1978. He has worked to strengthen Iowa’s local food economy, directs UNI’s Center for Energy & Environmental Education, and has served on the Cedar Falls City Council. That varied experience serves as the backdrop for his latest collection of essays, My Citizenship Papers

 This interview was conducted by Jim O’Loughlin. 

Jim O’Loughlin: The essays, articles and speeches in My Citizenship Papers were written over many years to address a range of immediate concerns. What made you decide to put them all together in a book?
Kamyar Enshayan: I had been thinking about how to celebrate 40 years of living in the U.S., most of it in Iowa. And I wanted to do something to honor these years, the way I have been engaged, what I have learned, people who have been influential in who I have become. So the idea of putting a variety of short pieces together was one way; I also decided to go visit the teacher who taught me English in Hattiesburg, Mississippi 40 years ago. 


JO: This book was a project you did with the Youth Art Team. Can you say a little about their work and how you became involved with the organization?
KE: I have been admiring the work of the Youth Art Team for years. Through engaging the youth in the life and history of the local community in creative ways, the Youth Art Team is helping a generation appreciate and develop affection for the place they are growing up, learn who is who and what has happened here, and shape its future. That's the heart of education, and the heart of citizenship. The theme of Making Iowa Home grew out of collaboration with the Youth Art Team, and the young artists interviewed "new Iowans" in the community and learned about their life lessons. This resulted in two short books, one written and illustrated by the Youth Art Team, and the other a series of short articles by me, illustrated by a friend, also a youth artist. 100% of proceeds from the sale of the books support the work of the Youth Art Team. 

JO: I appreciate the care you use to find the right metaphors and narratives to communicate scientific concepts. Is that something you consciously try to do when writing for a general audience?
KE: Yes, scientists and engineers have a duty to translate what we know about how the world works in plain English, so that ordinary citizens can weigh in and expect that public officials make decisions based on evidence for the public interest. A strong democracy depends on making decisions in the public interest that are based on evidence rather than purchased political friendship. 


JO: While there are many reasons to be concerned about the state of the environment in Iowa and beyond. I’ve always been impressed by your optimistic approach. What gives you the most hope for tackling the challenges we have?
KE: The work of people before us inspires me: people whose sacrifices have brought us our civil rights, our right to vote, laws protecting air and water. My students and my co-workers inspire me; they want to see action, they want to see knowledge acted on, effective and equitable policies implemented. That energizes my work. They say that we already know most of what we need to know to act to solve major problems. I totally agree. Let's get busy.







Monday, 17 January 2022

FTRS Back for 2022


The Final Thursday Reading Series returns for 2022 on Thursday, January 27 with Kamyar Enshayan, an author and activist who currently directs the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa. Come to the Hearst at 7:00 pm for a live open mic preceding the featured reading, which happens both live and online at 7:30.  Click HERE for a Zoom link for Kamyar Enshayan's reading.