Friday, October 29, 2010

5 (or so) questions with Anna Carson DeWitt

Here's another Halloween treat for you: 5 (or so) questions with Anna Carson DeWitt. Former 9L staffer, Dana Burchfield, spoke to Anna Carson DeWitt about her poems that appear in the current issue of Ninth Letter as well as the role of intuition in the creative process, sincerity, and how to deal with cliches. Without further delay, here is their conversation.

9L: In both "Triptych in Salt Water" and "Walk Down the Mine," there are provocative intersections between place (geography, environment) and the body. In terms of process, were these intersections a surprise to you?

Anna Carson DeWitt: I'm not much of a planner, so almost everything about my poems is a surprise to me at first. But in retrospect, those intersections make sense. At the time that I wrote those poems, I was -- for the first time in my life -- totally fascinated by the physical geography of a place. It was this collision of familiar and strange that really took me in. On the one hand, the topography of Honduras has some things in common with my native North Carolina: small grey mountains, orange soil, the ocean nearby. But the plant life was entirely new to me, and I never got over it. There are these red trees with skin-like bark unfurling down the trunk, and jacarandas and bougainvilleas in every shade of peach and purple, and these huge, waxy thistle-type flowers as big as a baby's head. There are these ferns that retract when you touch them, as though they have muscles. On the other side of things, I was working both in the US and in Honduras as a beginner doula (labor and birth assistant), and I was consumed with seeing the female human body, this very common thing (I have one myself!) perform feats that were both very commonplace and really astonishing. One body, then two bodies. Like a plant sending out shoots, but right before my eyes. So I guess it kind of makes sense that these two prominent sources of wonder collided in my poetry.

9L: It sounds like intuition plays a big part in inspiring your creative process. I wonder what else comprises your process/practice? Is there a certain place or time where/when you write? Do you have mountains of drafts? Etc. etc.

ACD: Whenever I have a fully formed idea, I rarely write a successful poem. It's when I get a word or a phrase stuck in my head, or an image, or when I visualize a moment that feels unforgettable -- then I write poetry that I think is good. I become a little obsessed by the snippet, and if I'm smart, I start writing immediately. I write quite intensively for maybe an hour, rarely longer, and then I leave the finished first draft alone. I let a few hours or a day pass, and then I copy it over by hand to see what I've got. Then I start toying with it. Sometimes I draft more. I do this until I can't stand it anymore. Then I send it off to a trusted reader.

9L: Both of these poems wrestle with similar subject matter: motherhood, birth, life, death. All are dangerous subjects, maybe, in terms of cliche. How do you avoid the overly familiar in your work?

ACD: I suppose I don't. I still feel young and immature as a writer, and I think a big part of that is how little control I seem to have over my own writing process, especially the particular things that I write about. If I feel I am writing reasonably well, but the themes or things that appear in the poem happen to be commonplace or overdone, I tend to shrug and keep writing, because I don't know when that spark of writing well will flare up again. I'm lucky though, because I know many, many words, and I like to use them in every way that I can. I love the feel of my native language, the textures and contrasts that it accommodates. There I can delve into the unknown. So, I suppose, at this time in my youth I don't really try to avoid the overly familiar. I'm too fickle a writer to afford it, at my age and stage. Instead, in what I see as my better poems, I use language as a sort of stopgap against "same-old, same-old" syndrome. I try to make old things new with new words.

9L: I'm really interested in the fact that you practice writing outside of academia. Especially now, it seems the university is the primary setting in which most American poets are working. Do you have plans to go back eventually? PhD programs? Teaching?

ACD: I am actually teaching right now (for the first time) at a college -- community college to be exact. I'm teaching composition, not creative writing, but it is such interesting work and very rewarding so far. It also seems pretty compatible with my own writing life. I find myself making time to edit or draft every few days. I was fully prepared not to write until December when I started this job, so I am relieved. It wouldn't have been the end of the world, though. I'm kind of a camel when it comes to writing. I'll write ten or so poems in a week, and then nothing for six weeks.

9L: I think I can safely speak on behalf of the poetry editorial staff when I say we were each moved or affected in some way by the poems you submitted to Ninth Letter -- not least of all because of the incredible sense of sincerity and genuine feeling we felt as readers in response to your writing. To what extent do you see this element of sincerity operating in your own work, and what role does or should it play in contemporary poetry?

ACD: That is tremendously flattering because I've been thinking a lot about sincerity lately, exactly that word. My own taste in poetry is very skewed towards poems and poets that feel sincere to me -- Paul Celan, David Keplinger, and Michael Dickman spring to mind. In my own work, I have been struggling in particular with the difference between sincerity and truth-fullness. I make up a lot in my poems, and sometimes I worry. When someone claims, as I do, to write poems "about people," how can their observations about people be trusted if the ways of the people that they write about -- or even the people themselves -- are fabricated? Still, I feel sure that I am doing the right thing when I make up people and actions -- even when I represent in a poem the very opposite of what I have seen played out before my eyes -- because I feel very sincere about the force that propels the poem as a whole. I feel that every poem is still true, even if its constituent parts are not.

What I hadn't thought about until now is the fact that sincerity can run the other way -- in terms of the sincerity and genuine response the Ninth Letter staff felt and had as readers. The idea that the reader's sincerity of response, as you suggested, can be at the forefront of the poem (as opposed to just the sincerity that the poem itself might hope to have) is really cool for me. It's going to comfort me the next time I call myself into question.

9L: I'm intrigued by what you say with regards to sincerity and "writing about people" in poetry -- which as a genre maybe does give more room for privileging the sincerity or truthfulness of perception or feeling over literal fact. In the current issue of Ninth Letter, genre is certainly something we're hoping to pry into a bit. So, is poetry the only genre you work in? Or do you not define your work in terms of genre?

ACD: You know, I took some nonfiction workshops in graduate school, and I think that the most useful outcome for me was realizing that some ideas and/or subject matter don't fit in poetry. Sometimes I'll have the impulse to write about something, and I'll give it a shot, and it won't be successful. If I'm smart, I'll eventually lay down the struggle and acknowledge that the subject matter is not for poetry! If I'm feeling daring, then I'll give it a shot in prose. But to be honest that doesn't happen too often. I wish it did.

Thanks very much to Anna Carson DeWitt and Dana Burchfield for such a fantastic discussion. To read Anna Carson DeWitt's poems and the rest of the awesome poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in vol. 7, no. 1, pick up a copy in our webstore. Also don't forget about our Halloween special (a 2-year subscription for the price of 1!) Subscriptions start with vol. 7, no. 1.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Excerpt: Credo in Blue

Today, we offer another glimpse at the current issue (vol. 7, no. 1) with an excerpt from Carolyne Wright's "Credo in Blue."

First day of the hurricane season,
lover, our year of precarious living,
so please watch your step. Don't swallow

that bayou stoopdown, or prowl like your own
best fool through Creole colonial archways
around Jackson Square. Your scared bravado's

up for grabs, don't let anyone catch you
drowning your troubles on the levee
where the self-congratulators gather like dust

off brewhouse barrels at the Jax plant
for some stud-bucket's hop-light
mimicry. Where it's all about gimmickry

of gimcrack and fanny-whack,
blackslap bluster and manic calm-
dissolving metaphors for market share.

To read the rest of "Credo in Blue" pick up a copy of vol. 7, no. 1 in our webstore. Also don't forget about our Halloween special where you get a 2-year subscription for the price of 1. Subscriptions start with vol. 7, no. 1.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Contributor Round-Up

It's time to look around the web and see what our contributors are up to these days:

This Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2010 includes "Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre" by 9L contributor Seth Fried (vol. 6, no. 1 & vol. 3, no. 2). The story originally appeared in One Story.

9L triple threat, Robin Hemley (vol. 6, no. 1, vol. 3, no. 1 & vol. 1, no. 1) has started a new online literary magazine, Defunct. Check it out!

Over at The Walrus, you can read a new interactive novel called Lucy Hardin's Missing Period from Stephen Marche (vol. 7, no. 1).

Essay Daily takes a look at Joshua Schriftman's essay "On Silence" from vol. 7, no. 1.

WORD Brooklyn talks with vol. 4, no. 1 contributor Kim Dana Kupperman about her new book of essays, I Just Started Buying Wings Recently.

Thalia Field reviews Ander Monson's "Decidousness: The Mechanism" (vol. 6, no. 2) over at CutBank Reviews.

Adam Levin (vol. 1, no. 1), author of the recently released The Instructions discusses the novel with Riverfront Times.

The Pushcart Prize 2011 will be available soon, so congratulations again to Sarah Einstein for her essay "Mot" (vol. 6, no. 2) being awarded a Pushcart. Also congratulations to Bryan Furuness ("Man of Steel") and Kim Adrian ("Five Photographs) for receiving special mention for their work that appeared in vol. 6, no. 1.

If other 9L contributors out there have good news related to their creative lives (e.g. new books, readings dates, etc.) please let us know, so we can pass it on.

And don't forget our Halloween Special (you can get a 2-year subscription for the price of 1!) continues until Nov. 1. Details here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Trick or Treat!

Around here, meaning the 9L office, we love Halloween and we want to celebrate it this year by offering our readers a "trick or treat" special: 2 years of Ninth Letter for the price of 1. Yes, that's right, from now until November 1 you can get a two-year subscription (regularly $37.95) for the price of one ($21.95)!

All you have to do is head on over to our webstore, purchase a one-year subscription (subscriptions will begin with the current issue, vol. 7, no. 1), and type 2YEARSPECIAL in the special instructions box. It's simple as that to get two years (one of them free!) of fantastic fiction, poetry, and nonfiction delivered to your door.

Wearing your Halloween costume while ordering is encouraged, but not required.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

G.C. Waldrep Reading

The Carr Reading Series kicks off today at 4:30pm with G.C. Waldrep. He has achieved the rare distinction of being a contributor we've published in each genre. The current issue features both poetry and nonfiction from Waldrep. In fact, his submissions caused us to (re)consider genre distinctions, which led to the current issue having an unofficial genre bending theme. Waldrep's first 9L publication was for fiction in this month's featured issue, vol. 4, no. 2. In honor of his reading, here are excerpts from the two short pieces in that issue, "My Dusty Abattoir" and "Satellite Recovery."

"My Dusty Abattoir"

I brought a dusty abattoir back from Mexico. I had difficulty at customs but in the end prevailed by convincing a bored-looking official that it was a family heirloom. When I got home I placed it in the kitchen, next to my father's dusty abattoir and my sister's dusty abattoir. My mother, alas, did not have a dusty abattoir, or any abattoir at all. My mother spent all day, every day, in the yard, among the gardenias. Once, long before, she had brought gardenia blossoms into the house, placing one inside my father's dusty abattoir and another in my sister's. The gardenias picked up the dust, became oblique, matte, rancid, almost furry, something else entirely. Not having an abattoir of my own at that time I was forced to ingest my gardenia, the way they do in Mexico, my mother told me. Not having yet been to Mexico I took her word for it.

"Satellite Recovery"

I was gardening out back when the postman brought the letter informing me I'd been accepted into the Satellite Recovery Team. I hadn't recalled applying, but I was otherwise at loose ends and so reported to work in the hangar the following morning. There were seven of us, all new except for the crew leader. He was forty-ish, with a crewcut and badly hunched shoulders, as if he'd spent the years before this job working on an assembly line six inches too short for his reach. His name was Rick. "See," Rick told us, "there's millions of square miles of America out there, and every now and then a satellite falls back to Earth. Our job is to find them and, well, recover them."

To read the rest of "My Dusty Abattoir" and "Satellite Recovery" and to check out all the awesome fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, pick up a copy of vol. 4, no. 2 in our webstore. To get it for $5.95, choose, "sample copy, editor's choice" and enter "fall back sale" in the special instructions box.

G.C Waldrep will read today at 4:30pm in the Author's Corner on the 2nd floor of the Illini Union Bookstore. The event is free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ninth Letter Submissions Update

Our submissions manager is back up and running--go here to submit, and thanks for your patience.

I Hope You're Happy: A Novel

This month we're featuring vol. 4, no. 2 as part of our Fall Back Sale event. Today the spotlight is on Molly Brodak's poem, "I Hope You're Happy: A Novel." Here is an excerpt.


But when I said this is a rare girl
I meant like raw. It's not a dream.


Dear son,
I waited on the hill between an S of white mares
and a hot green Mountain Dew bottle, hard grass stubble
against my legs, reading, waiting, and you brought me her
only photo and she was making dirty eyes


The history of our last night:

You don't know my eyes are open.
Sixteen minutes later I am in a weird court,

my calf is against your shin as we sleep.
What if I have a bat for a heart?

So I grew pines there and haunted them
with owls. That was me 136 years ago.

At seven we are asleep while downstairs
someone complains of person-shaped lights.

Outside, horses.
There is no new night.

To read the rest of "I Hope You're Happy: A Novel" and to check out all the awesome fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, pick up a copy of vol. 4, no. 2 in our webstore. To get it for $5.95, choose, "sample copy, editor's choice" and enter "fall back sale" in the special instructions box.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Ninth Letter Submissions

Anyone having trouble logging into our Submission Manager? Yep, it's acting funky--but we're on it. We hope to have it fixed ASAP and will post an update as soon as we have one.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

5 (or so) questions with Whit Coppedge

We're back with the newest installment of 5 (or so) questions. I had the chance to talk with Whit Coppedge, author of "Paint" via email about, among other things, his influences, the problems of 2D meeting 3D, and the beauty of cooling towers.

9L: Descriptions of Paint's thinness walk a very cool line where they could be interpreted as metaphor or as magic realism. The story opens with him being told he'll blow away. At one point he hides behind a tree and "he turns sideways to be as invisible as he thinks possible," which actually seems to work. I loved that the story makes both options viable. What inspired that choice?

Whit Coppedge: Laziness, maybe. It may not be inspired so much as just what I could keep consistent in the story. I started out trying to write a story about a truly two-dimensional boy, but I found it difficult to follow that idea strictly as I went along. Punching him might produce paper cuts but I couldn't decide if he was like a walking paper doll or if his feet were perpendicular to the rest of him so he could stand. Same problems deciding how sex would work, 2-D meets 3-D. And then I thought I'd have to deal with his visibility too much. So he's just "thin" and I'm fortunate that I could keep that up in the story and stay a little mysterious in a consistent way. I definitely avoided words like "skinny" or "bony," since they'd produce a specific image.

I think there's some Southern-ness involved, too. I was really skinny when I was a kid, like "Cliff" in Sixteen Candles, so I'm playing with the things I always heard then, like "You'll blow away." But the word "sail" takes it a little beyond that.

9L: How much does your own history factor into your work? Do you set out to include some of the Southern-ness or does it seep in as your writing?

WC: Specific life events haven't yet shown up in my work, at least not in anything that's readable, but my history is definitely a factor. If my work were autobiographical, it would end up being really dull, so I try to take the parts I think are interesting and go from there. I'm enjoying how your current issue is so interested in fudged boundaries between genres, but I'm afraid I don't fudge the fiction line much. As far as "Paint" goes, I was a skinny kid and hunted crawdads in a creek in our backyard but I wasn't bullied by other kids or seduced by a neighbor. I had a short story called "Drought" in The Tusculum Review (2007) that was seeded by my house's foundation problems but I've never been involved with a married woman -- the affair just made it a story. I work on data networks and, consequently, tech-y stuff sometimes ends up in my stories, but the results have been mixed.

A lot of what I put down on paper ends up involving humiliation and nuclear reactors, often at the same time. My first jobs out of engineering school were in nuclear reactor construction for the TVA and then in data networks for a Department of Energy contractor ( "as seen on 60 minutes"). Those aren't jobs I'd want to go back to, but the sites themselves still fascinate me. I find cooling towers and fuel pools beautiful and the sites have such mystery and menace for the general public. They fit right in with the kind of grotesque I'm drawn to. Or maybe they started it. I once saw a Terry Gilliam interview where he said cooling towers were the most religious structures in the world and I can't put it any better than that. If you ever get the chance to stand inside one and yell, take it.

One thing that concerns me in regards to the nukes is that they are so prominently obvious subjects for me that I may have tried to tackle them before I could do them justice. We'll just have to see how that ends up.

My history affects more than just content. My engineering career seems to baffle a lot of people when they hear I also write. The conventional thinking is that the two activities are diametrically opposed but I think they dovetail in a great way. There may not be a lot of engineering grads that are interested in anything creative beyond a Rush concert, but I think all art and science and engineering with any staying power comes from someone playing around, asking "What happens if I do this?" I see stories as little widgets -- a story "works" more literally with me than I think it does for other writers. That might sound cold and calculating but I don't mean it to be. And, at the risk of sounding like Tom Peters, I've found the MFA/writing experience to be helpful on the tech side -- it's easier to hold conflicting ideas, mistakes are seen to have real value and addressing them is less personal, and problems don't have only one answer.

The Southern-ness is inescapable. I don't think I write what's generally thought of as archetypal Southern Fiction, but the speech and metaphor and just story-telling in general comes from my being Southern, and I'd argue it's pretty much the same for everyone else down here whether there's any kudzu or biscuits and gravy or dead mules in the stories or not. It may not always be overt, but I think there's a shared experience that Southerners sense and identify with in others' work. If someone thought that "Paint" was a ripoff of Mark Richard or "Jolo" by Ann Pancake, I wouldn't argue.

9L: So do you think of yourself more as an engineer who writes or a writer who works as an engineer?

WC: I don't know -- I guess it depends on how you look at it. I see them more as complementary equals. Vermont/New Hampshire. I've been an engineer longer and it's how I make a living. The idea of relying on writing for money scares the shit out of me although I could see where that kind of terror could be valuable. So many friends rely on teaching, and they often have an evangelical love for it, but I don't know how I'd fare as a teacher. As much as I talk about engineering and writing dovetailing, each can be a nice break from the other. Part of me thinks I would have a hard time writing for myself after a day of dealing with students or working as a journalist or editor, chasing down grants and such, but another part sees the value in not having to switch gears so often and waste a lot of time building up a head of word steam. I feel lucky that I've scrapped my way into a paying job that I enjoy and for which I seem to have an aptitude -- I don't know whether engineer/writers like Stewart O'Nan or George Saunders hated engineering, but I get the impression from interviews and other pieces that they were happy to leave those jobs for a more writing-immersed life. I write despite not making a living from it (like I imagine all writers I read would) and I don't know that I would be an engineer the same way if things were flipped. I might bug and hover over repairmen and techs a lot, but that's not quite the same. So, it depends. I don't think there's a wrong answer.

9L: Absolutely. I agree, no wrong answer there. Let me back up a minute. You mentioned Mark Richard as an influence on "Paint." Who/what else would you count as an influence on "Paint" and/or just your work in general?

WC: I've always enjoyed stories that had dreamy but simple language and incorporated the fantastic but I haven't been able to pull it off myself too often. I always loved Judy Budnitz's work, stories like "Hershel" -- her fascination with babies and how she gives them a mythical, fairy tale standing without getting sentimental. She and David Foster Wallace got a lot of my attention when I was first trying to write. That was the nineties, and I remember me and everyone else reciting pieces from Jesus' Son. The whole world of Elevator Theory that Colson Whitehead produced in The Intuitionist still amazes me. Jonathan Swift. I bet Edisto by Padgett Powell has some influence on "Paint." In general, Amy Hempel has been a tremendous influence on me, both as a teacher and writer, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the first to proclaim that. I'm going to miss Barry Hannah a great deal. I remember reading George Saunders' "The 400lb CEO" in Harper's and that story's probably as responsible as any for getting me to write. And, in homage to your current genre-bending issue, I'd love to point our how much I love "The Unknown Solider" by Luc Sante -- to me, it's not fully prose poem or conventional story, but it has a narrative, and I think it's just gorgeous and remarkable.

9L: Last question. What are you working on now? Any chance there are/will be more stories featuring Paint?

WC: I don't think there'll be more Paint, although I think my characters are likely to end up drinking together or starting some kind of support group. Right now I'm trying to finish a longer DOE-related novel-ish thing that I've been working on, on and off, for a while. I spent too much time polishing what I had and made no progress so now I've got to finish it. It could end up being a practice novel but that's all the more reason. Either fix it or get it out of the way of the other stuff.

Thanks to Whit Coppedge for taking the time to speak to me! To read "Paint," pick up a copy of Ninth Letter (vol. 7, no. 1) in our webstore.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

New Books

Here are some new books from our contributors:

Jo Scott-Coe's new memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank has just been released from Aunt Lute Books. The essay, "In/Out," which appears in the book was featured in vol. 3, no. 2. Here are some of Jo Scott-Coe's tour dates in support of the memoir:

San Francisco, Books, Inc. The Castro: October 21, 7:30pm
Riverside, California: Central Library for Arts Walk: November 4, 6:30pm
Seattle, Washington: Elliot Bay Book Company, November 19, 4:00pm
Seattle, Washington: Parkplace Books, November 20, 2:00pm

Vol. 4, no. 1 contributor, Brock Clarke's new novel, Exley, is now out in the world. He'll be reading as part of the Happy Ending Reading Series in NYC tomorrow, 10/6. For more tour dates, check his website. Brock Clarke also contributes to the special feature "The National Book Award 1960, Revisited" in the current issue.

How Should a Person Be?, the new book from Shelia Heti (vol. 4, no. 2), is now available and can be ordered through the book's website.

Adam Levin's (vol. 1, no. 1) book, The Instructions, is on sale and featured as the deal of the day at The McSweeney's Store.

The Wilding by Benjamin Percy (vol. 6, no. 2) is now available. Head on over to his website for tour dates.

Gary L. McDowell (vol. 4, no. 1) has a new poetry collection out, American Amen.

Matt Bell (forthcoming in vol. 7, no. 2) has a new fiction collection, How They Were Found, from Keyhole Press.

Also available from Keyhole Press is 9L staffer Aaron Burch's new book, How to Predict the Weather.

And finally, former 9L staffer Andrew Ervin's book, Extraordinary Renditions, was recently published by Coffee House Press.

Congratulations everyone!