Wednesday 15 November 2023

An Interview with Monica Leo

November’s featured reader for the Final Thursday Reading Series is Monica Leo, author of Hand, Shadow, Rod: The Story of Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre (Ice Cube Press). She is the founder of Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre, which is based in West Liberty, Iowa and whose members have performed throughout the country and globe. Next year marks fifty years of Eulenspiegel, which was founded in 1974. Hand, Shadow, Rod chronicles Leo’s journey from a young girl born to first-generation German immigrants, to a woman finding herself in the world of art and self-expression, to a seasoned performer and the head puppeteer of a well-established puppet troupe. 

The Final Thursdays Reading Series takes place on November 30 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. There will be an open mic at 7:00 p.m. (bring your best five minutes of original creative writing). Monica Leo will begin her reading at 7:30. The featured reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a link. 

Interview by Bennett Birkner. 

Bennett Birkner: What inspired you to write Hand, Shadow, Rod?
Monica Leo: Two things came together, and that’s that the pandemic came along, and so we all had a little more time on our hands, and Mary Swander decided to teach a Zoom class on writing a memoir and she’s one of my oldest friends and I thought, “sure, I’ll take that class, why not?” I had a lot of fun writing it but I had never thought of publishing particularly until I got to the point where Mary said “I think you’re ready to submit this for publication!” I probably wouldn’t have done it without the pandemic, honestly. A lot of good things came out of it, a lot of interesting things. 

BB: What made you decide to arrange your book in a non-linear way?
ML: I never made that conscious decision, it just kind of happened that way, because I would start writing about something and that would make me think of something else or something else that might have happened later or earlier. So, I ended up being organized more by subject matter than by a linear approach. But it wasn’t something that I started out with the intention of doing; it just happened. 

BB: Beyond giving you your first set of Kasperle hand puppets, how did your parents support and inspire you as you began making puppets of your own?
ML: My mother was a freelance artist and my grandmother on my father’s side was an artist; there have been artists in every generation of my family, so it was natural for them to support whatever I wanted to do artistically. And, you know, the puppets were something I enjoyed playing with, I had a lot of fun with them. I needed another character, so I decided to just make it. 

BB: Did you start doing that (puppets) as a kid or was that more in adulthood?
ML: I was probably about 11 or 12 when I made my first puppet. I was a girl scout all through high school and our girl scout troop decided to cater birthday parties to make some money, and the birthday party I was involved in was the one with a puppet show so I did the puppet show, of course. I knew I wanted to study art and that I wanted to do some kind of art, but I didn’t really focus in on puppets until, you know, it really came down to it and I thought, “what am I actually going to do to support myself?” My mother, who was a freelance metal sculptor said, “if you are going to be a freelance artist, you have to find something that you enjoy doing that other people enjoy paying money for.” I’d always played with dolls and puppets a lot, so I started making puppets and dolls and selling them. And gradually, you know, started performing with them. The puppet theater turns 50 next year! 

BB: What is the oldest puppet you have? Do you have any puppets from way back?
ML: Well, you know, most of the ones I made when I started out I sold. I do have one, come to think of it. When my mother died, we were cleaning out her house and I took it with me, and it was actually a self-portrait that I made of myself making a puppet, painting a puppet head. And that predates the puppet troupe, I made that before we were ever performing with them; I’m not exactly sure how old it is but it’s over fifty years old now! Of the performing puppets, Schulz is the oldest one of the performing puppets 

BB: How did you develop the personality of Schulz?
ML: I didn’t, he did. And that happens with puppets, that really happens with puppets. You make a puppet, sometimes you have a completely different intention for it than it ends up being, but you make the puppet and you put it on and start playing with it, and it just kinda develops its own personality. I’m not the only one that will tell you that. I mean, puppeteers often have that experience. It has something to do with you because you’re the one that’s manipulating it, but it goes way beyond that; it’s not that simple. The definition of a puppet is any inanimate object that’s brought to life by a manipulator. And really it covers dolls, obviously, if you work them that way, if that’s how you play with them, but it can also cover a kitchen whisk if you use it as a character. 

BB: What puppet are you most proud of creating and why?
ML: What I’d like to say instead is what are the shows I’m most proud of. The first one is one that I actually have had for quite awhile that I made in the early 2000s; it’s called Finding Home, and it’s a trilogy about my parents’ immigration experience. So it’s a memoir, a puppet show memoir. And the reason that I’m proud of that is that I ended up really developing techniques that I had never worked with before and that I’d never really thought of working with before; it broke new ground for me. So that’s one of them, and the other one I’m really proud of is the drive-in show that we developed during the pandemic, it’s called Shenanigans: Animals In Charge. And we knew, you know we were really tired of not being able to perform live, we’d done some live outdoor shows, but everything else had been canceled, everything we had scheduled to do was canceled. And so, some puppeteer friends in Arizona were doing some drive-in shows, and I thought we could do that. Then the next day, Stephanie, my co-puppeteer, thought it was a great idea too. She said “what’s our subject?” and the next day I was listening to public radio, and they were talking about an alligator that was cruising around a deserted shopping mall in Myrtle Beach! And I thought oh that has puppet show written all over it. So Stephanie and I started checking the internet and researching as many things as we could find about what animals were up to during the pandemic. There were some amazing stories, you know, like penguins roaming the art museum, and city monkeys and temple monkeys that both left the places that they usually were and traveled to the other place because they thought they might find more tourists there and the tourists always fed them, and they got into a brawl on the street over a yogurt cup, you know, and goats all over the place that were stampeding city streets; there were so many stories of different things animals were doing that they were doing specifically because there weren’t any humans out and about. 

I feel really happy about the way we developed the story around that and the way it kept us going during the pandemic. It’s actually kind of a history show, in a way; there’s obviously a whole lot of fantasy wrapped in, for instance the penguins in our story ride a bus. And the goat and the monkeys, the temple monkey and the city monkey, have a bake-off in Las Vegas. And those things of course are all just fantasy, but everything in it is based on something that really happened during the pandemic. And then we went around, we performed that in 15 different locations in Iowa during the fall of 2020, and we would have done more except it got too cold. We got a transmitter so that people could listen to it over their car radios. People loved it, they were so excited about having live theater to attend, and so I feel pretty proud of that, too, not only of how we developed the story but also how we adapted to the pandemic.

Tuesday 10 October 2023

An Interview with Cherie Dargan

This month's FTRS featured reader is Cherie Dargan, the author of The Gift, a novel from the Grandmother’s Treasures series. The Gift, set both during WWII and the contemporary period, tells the story of three sisters who leave Iowa to work in California during WWII and the lasting impact of those years on their family. Dargan is a retired instructor of English at Hawkeye Community College, and you can follow her on Substack

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

Interview by Patrick Markovich.

Patrick Markovich: How did you manage the voice of each person you write about?
Cherie Dargan: While I based characters on my mother, Charlotte, and my aunt Jeanne, I didn’t tell their life stories. I created a fictional family, a family tree, and a cast of characters for the 2012 story and the one set during WWII. However, I read through my mother’s big notebook about WWII. She wrote a chapter about each year from 1939 through 1946. She wrote about teaching in a one-room schoolhouse for two years, teaching her small town about food rationing, and wiring up the schoolhouse and farm. So those things are true to life. My mother died 25 years ago, but her hard work documenting her life helped me write the book. Aunt Jeanne was 96 in 2020 and read the first draft and loved it. I put the published book in her hands a week before she died at age 98 and told her that Aunt Violet lives on in three more books! 

PM: Where did you get the idea for the series?
I inherited a dozen antique quilts stored in a big antique chest built by my grandfather. In addition, Mom left notebooks filled with family genealogy. I got the idea for Gracie’s grandmother to say, “Every quilt has a story.” So, I took little bits and pieces of family history and created a series of novels that each included a mystery or puzzle about an old quilt. Quilts and making quilts were more than something to keep warm. They represented women gathered at churches or in people’s living rooms around a large quilting frame. Friends, family, and neighbors worked side by side and as they did, they told stories, shared gossip, and listened to their friends and loved ones. 

PM: How did you go about approaching the symbol of the quilt? I like to think it’s a really significant part of the story since it’s related to documenting family history and preserving it.
Thank you! Yes, I was trying to create a story with a quilt at the heart of it, but the quilt was only a symbol of the problem. It was a concrete reminder of what had happened in California. The mother and aunts thought they could reconcile the two sisters if they sat down to quilt together. But that effort failed and made things worse because they didn’t confront what had happened. Worse still, no one in the younger generation knew what had happened in California, so it was a big mystery. Gracie asks her mother why the quilt is called the California quilt, and her mother does not know. The grandmother hid the quilt away in a closet and didn’t want to talk about it. So, as parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles died, only the twins and their big sister, Grandma Grace, knew what had happened in California. She told the story through the tapes and trusted her granddaughter to take the next step. I have several faded old quilts that could be the California quilt. I pondered what it would take to betray a twin sister and create chaos and heartbreak throughout the family. And then I found my story. 

PM: Was it always intended to be a dual timeline story?
Yes, I’m fascinated with the idea of the dual timeline/dual narrator novel where the reader is getting two perspectives, and the storylines weave together. Since the main character, Gracie, works at a county museum, has deep roots in Jubilee Junction, and has two elderly aunts on her mother’s side and three on her father’s, there are all kinds of possibilities for discovering an old quilt, photo, diary, telegram, or other artifact. I used a series of cassette tapes instead of letters in The Gift. I wanted to introduce the concept of oral history as part of the novel. Gracie realizes the power of hearing her grandmother’s voice and incorporates that into her exhibits. In my family, cassette tapes were a big deal in the 1970s and 80s. I went off to college in 1972 and my grandma would send me a cassette tape instead of a letter. So, I’d sit on my bed or at my desk and hit “play.” My grandma Nellie would walk around the farm and carry the little tape recorder with her. She was around 4’ 11” and 100 pounds, walking around the farm or sitting in her swing from the willow tree, talking to me in her soft little voice. “Well, Art’s going to take me into Garwin, and we’re going to get some groceries after I get my hair done.” All the while, I hear the birds, chickens, cows, pigs, horses, Shep the farm dog, and my Grandpa Art. And she doesn’t mean to be funny, but she is, somehow. My hallmates looked into the doorway of my room as if they expected to see farm animals. 

PM: You’ve said that The Gift is part of a projected series. Without giving away any spoilers, can you say anything about where the series is headed?

The series sees Gracie make some important relationship decisions in the first book. She also makes a new friend of David MacNeill, the new history teacher at Jubilee Junction Community College. As each book reveals a new quilt—coming from a different grandmother—she gains confidence in her abilities to find answers, and we get to know her family and friends. And her relationship with David turns romantic. I hope to get at least Books Three and Four out next year, and perhaps Book Five. Then, I have ideas for three more books at least.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

An Interview with Darcie Little Badger

Darcie Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer with a PhD in oceanography. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Elatsoe, was featured in Time Magazine as one of the best 100 fantasy books of all time. Elatsoe also won the Locus award for Best First Novel and is a Nebula, Ignyte, and Lodestar finalist. Her second fantasy novel, A Snake Falls to Earth, received a Nebula Award, an Ignyte Award, and a Newbery Honor and is on the National Book Awards longlist. She is married to a veterinarian named Taran. 

Little Badger will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on September 28 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The open mic takes place at 7:00 p.m. and Darcie Little Badger takes the stage at 7:30. This in-person only event is made possible by the Ila M. Hemm Visiting Author Program. 

Interview conducted by Sheila Benson. 

SHEILA BENSON: Can you describe your Iowa connections?
I was four years old when my family moved to Coralville, so named for its abundance of marine fossils, gorgeous and enigmatic remnants from a prehistoric ocean. Mom and Dad were students at the University of Iowa, and I attended Coralville Central Elementary School kindergarten through fifth grade. So during very formative years, I grew up among corn, yeah, but also among fossilized crinoids, coral, and brachiopods, alien wonders underfoot, everywhere. I remember visiting the natural history museum at U of I, seeing the Dunkleosteus exhibit and imagining life in the Devonian ocean, which was older than the dinosaurs. I was in awe. 

Needless to say, my time in Iowa sparked my curiosity about the world. And the Dunkleosteus exhibit might’ve influenced my decision to become an oceanographer. I wonder if it’s still there. [Ed.: yes, it is!

SB: Who would you say are major influences on your writing—style, subject matter, or both? Or maybe "influences" isn't the right word; are there particular authors or styles that you are responding to in your work?
DLB: This is a good question, one I revisit often. As we grow as artists, our craft evolves, and sometimes our predominant influences shift. But when I first developed my voice, took those all-important first steps of the writing journey, I was just a kid. Therefore, I give a lot of credit to the science fiction, fantasy, and horror books I read during elementary and middle school. Things like Goosebumps, Animorphs, the Redwall series, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Those series were a joy to read; I was on tenterhooks for every new release. During this time, I developed a deep appreciation for “genre” fiction and decided that I wanted to write fantasy, sci-fi, and horror books, too. 

SB: Can you describe a typical writing day for you (a productive one, perhaps a less productive one, maybe a little of both—your choice)?
In 2020, after the publication of Elatsoe, I became a full-time writer, which is a privilege and dream; many writers work multiple jobs, and I’m beyond fortunate to now have extra time to focus on my art. 

Typically, I wake up at 11 AM, exercise for an hour, clean up, and then write/do other work (including emails) for about 4 hours at a nearby cafĂ© or bookstore. My drink of choice is an iced Americano, and I’ll sip it as I work. Afterwards, I return home, make supper, and goof around until my spouse comes home (I’ve started streaming games and writing sprints on Twitch–it’s fun). If I have a looming deadline, I’ll work in the evening through night and early morning, sometimes finishing at 3 a.m. (bedtime). That’s usually not the case, though. 

I once tried to write eight hours a day, on a 9-to-5 schedule, but it didn’t work out. My creative process is more chaotic, I guess. 

SB: Why speculative fiction? What's the draw? What are some of your challenges in writing speculative fiction, and how do you work through those challenges?
I love the freedom of spec fic, the ability to create worlds that vary from ours (in big or small ways). That said, there are challenges to writing fantasy. Just because a world has magic doesn’t mean it lacks rules, and writers have to decide what those limits are. How does the fantastic affect our characters? What are the physics of our imaginary concepts? And so on. For me, the editing process is very important because it gives me the chance to review the book and ensure that its speculative elements (and non spec elements) are consistent. 

SB: Finally, a fun question: Elatsoe is filled with dogs and their joy. Can you tell us a little about your love of dogs? Do you have dogs in your life right now? Any details about them that you'd like to share?
I’m married to a veterinarian, so we get a stream of animals moving through our house, mostly foster cases that need a little extra care before they go to their forever home. Bunnies, hamsters, guinea pigs, mice, kittens. I’m very fond of animals, as a rule. But dogs definitely have a special place in my heart. 

My family’s first dog was an English Springer Spaniel, a shelter dog with sweet brown eyes. My brother and I named him Kirby, after the round, pink video game character who can eat anything (it turned out to be a prophetic name, considering Dog Kirby’s appetite; he once grabbed a birthday cheesecake off the kitchen counter and dragged it under the bed to devour it alone). Overall, Kirby was an intelligent, calm, and gentle dog, and I loved teaching him tricks like “be a seal” (he’d sit on his hind legs and put his front paws in the air) and rewarding him with training treats. 

The ghost dog in Elatsoe, Kirby, is absolutely based on the real Kirby. He was a good boy <3

These days, I have a chihuahua mix named Rosie and a German shepherd named Valeria; every dog I’ve known and loved has been a unique and special soul.

Thursday 3 August 2023

Fall 2023 FTRS Slate

The Final Thursday Reading Series returns for its 23rd season with another eclectic slate of authors on the last Thursday of the month at the Hearst Center for the Arts. As always, you can share your own creative writing at the open mic at 7:00 p.m. before the featured reading at 7:30.  If you are unable to attend in person, you can stream three of the four featured readings on Zoom. Sign up once for the semester to stream. 

August 31: DJ Savarese, author of the poetry collection Swoon and co-producer of the Emmy-nominated documentary Deej: Inclusion Shouldn’t be a Lottery. **Deej will be screened at the Hearst Center on Tuesday, August 29 at 7 p.m.

September 28: Darcie Little Badger, author of the novels A Snake Falls to Earth and Elatsoe (a Time magazine best 100 fantasy books of all time selection).  **This event, made possible by the Ila M. Hemm Visiting Author Program, will be in-person only.

October 26: Cherie Dargan, author of the novel The Gift and the forthcoming sequel, The Legacy.

November 30: Monica Leo, author of Hand, Shadow, Rod: the Story of Eulenspiegal Puppet Theatre. Since 1975, she has been creating and performing as founder and principal puppeteer of Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre.

Thursday 20 April 2023

An Interview with Andrew Farkas

Andrew Farkas is the author of the collection, The Great Indoorsman: Essays (University of Nebraska Press), of which Kathleen Rooney writes, “with searching rumination and exquisite comic timing, Andrew Farkas takes readers on a sublime tour through dive bars and coffee houses, video shops and casinos, pool halls and motels room, dilapidated movie theaters and dying malls.” Farkas is also the author of several works of fiction including The Big Red Herring, Sunsphere, and Self-Titled Debut. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Washburn University. 

Farkas will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on April 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 Andrew Farkas takes the stage at 7:30. Farkas’s reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a Zoom link. 

Interview by Jim O’Loughlin 

JIM O’LOUGHLIN: You were initially scheduled to visit Cedar Falls in March 2020 before the pandemic upended all of our lives. I appreciate that you helped the Final Thursday Reading Series pivot to digital with an online reading, and I’m glad we’ll be able to have a new ending for that narrative when you actually appear in person. But I’m wondering how the pandemic impacted you as a writer in either your subjects or habits.
ANDREW FARKAS: I was very lucky that, when the pandemic started, I was already fully immersed in a project, that being my book The Great Indoorsman: Essays. Quite a few people think the book is about the lockdown time period, but it isn't. Instead, it's about (or one of the things it's about) is my love of indoors spaces. Since I couldn't go anywhere, thanks to Covid, I was able to visit all of the places I missed in my mind by writing about them. Once I finished The Great Indoorsman, I realized I had another book that was partially done: Movies Are Fine for a Bright Boy Like You: Stories. I admit, however, by this point I was feeling worn down and wasn't able to progress through that book quite as efficiently, seeing as how I just finished it recently (I think). I did try, briefly, to start a brand new project, but found I just wasn't able to get it off the ground because of the general malaise. No matter what, I kept working at writing. But the most successful period was early on when I was working on The Great Indoorsman. I guess, in a way, it felt like I was in the pre-pandemic period because I'd started that book beforehand. 

JO: I had a similar experience in that the pandemic gave me time to finish up some projects I had started but made it impossible to tackle something brand new. I read a recent interview with you in the Brooklyn Rail (which, to continue the theme, was a cultural lifeline for me during the pandemic with their daily Zoomcast events), and you said you had a “laid-back way with everything, which stems from my absurdist worldview.” Can you talk about how absurdism helps you approach the world around you?
AF: If you accept that there's no inherent meaning in life (or, anyway, that none of us will ever be able to discern the meaning), then, as I see it, our lives and the things that happen to us don't necessarily have to make sense narratively. I therefore find that I'm especially open to the moments in life that are odd because of my absurdist approach. For instance, in The Great Indoorsman I relate a time when, out of nowhere, I heard a guy playing poker say: "Our son died. And the guy we replaced him with was eaten by a bear. He just got in the cage with the bear, and the bear ate him." Later on, other folks would say to me, "I just would've ignored that guy." But I didn't. In fact, long after his story, I kept asking people if they remembered what that guy said. But because it didn't fit into a sleek narrative, because it didn't make sense, they'd all forgotten or thought nothing of it. I guess I'm constantly calling into question the belief that the big things, the things that fit easily into a straightforward narrative are important. That's probably also why the places I focus on in The Great Indoorsman aren't the normally celebrated, beautiful places. Sure, I like those too, but I can find the beautiful and the sublime in a bowling alley just as well as a palace. 

JO: What else should readers know about The Great Indoorsman?
AF: Although there is a proud history of outdoorsy literature (Romanticism, the Transcendentalists, etc.), this is the first installment of what I hope will become indoorsy literature. After all, since the book came out, a number of people have approached me and said furtively (always furtively), "I'm, I'm an indoorsperson too." So if you've found yourself hiding (inside, of course), so no one knew your secret, you can come out (but not all the way to the out-of-doors for goodness sakes) and you can declare yourself an indoorsperson and you can read The Great Indoorsman and then, then, you can proclaim, in no uncertain terms, "This isn't how to go about expressing my love for the In-of-Doors at all," because, like, outdoors people probably don't grab the first book ever written about camping to learn about camping since the person who wrote it was likely eaten by a bear, so the reason you go to The Great Indoorsman is to say, "Now I know what not to do," and then you can boldly move forward and provide the world with the next installment of indoorsy literature. So what readers should know about The Great Indoorsman is that it's the first indoorsy book, but hopefully not the last. 

JO: Since you've always worked with fiction in the past, what was it like writing creative nonfiction?

Seeing as how a lot of my fiction is metafiction, I thought it was going to be easy (since even when I'm making things up, I'm telling the reader I'm making things up). But I did have to struggle with the constant problem all creative nonfiction writers who aren't famous have to struggle with: why would anyone want to read about me? One way I hope I solve that is by filling my essays with humor. So, if for no other reason, people might want to read about me to laugh at me (and also with me). I also use lots of different kinds of references, meaning I include a great deal beyond myself that readers might be interested in (various films, urban legends, physics, pop culture, etc.). Furthermore, our interior lives are part of reality also. So when I really felt that I needed to invent something to bring an essay together, I used lines like "I think" or "I imagine" and even though what happens next didn't necessarily happen in the physical world, the reader understands it happened in my mind and is now happening in their minds. Since I also knew that I could play with the structure of each essay, I ended up learning that the creative nonfiction genre is very plastic, not rigid the way so many people believe.      

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.