By Deb A.
Michael Onofrey's short story, Chardonnay, appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Agave Magazine. This year he published his first novel, Bewilderment, a tale of a man returning home to Los Angeles after three decades abroad to care for his dying mother and come to terms with his memories. We took the opportunity to catch up with Michael and find out more about bringing Bewilderment to life.
AGAVE: You’ve written and published over 70 short stories, but this is your first novel. What was the most difficult aspect of moving from short fiction to a longer format, and what prompted you to make the leap?
MICHAEL ONOFREY: Actually, this is my first “published” novel. I wrote two others before Bewilderment, but they, thus far, haven’t been accepted for publication. But, regarding your question, the most difficult aspect in moving from short to long fiction is the investment of time. Bewilderment came off rather quickly, but the first novel I attempted didn’t. I thought it was done and I sent it out. But I understand now that it’s not done, and I want to return to it. Returning to that book represents a chunk of time. Returning to a short story doesn’t represent so much time.
I made the leap to that first novel because an agent had read a story of mine and sent me an email, asking if I had a novel going. A few weeks later a second agent sent me an email asking the same question. That agent, though, had read a different story. So I figured I should start writing a novel. But of course, like most fiction writers, a novel was something I wanted to try at some time. As a footnote, both those agencies turned down the novel (50 pages) that I sent them, which was the first novel I wrote.
One other thing: With short stories you have to keep thinking up new ideas, one after the other, as you move from one story to the next, which can be exhausting after a while. With a novel, once you got the idea you can start chewing on it without having to think up a new idea. In that sense a novel is kind of a relief. It’s not a bad policy to go back and forth between long and short fiction because it breaks up the monotony of one format going on and on and on.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing Bewilderment?
There were two big challenges. In the order that I dealt with them, the first was the handling of tense: past and present tense. Chapter 1 is present tense. Chapter 2 begins with past tense, but then switches to present tense at the story break on page 18. Chapter 3, a short chapter, is all past tense. So why did I go back and forth? The first reason was that it felt right, which is to say that it felt fresh. I thought it worked well, or at least worked well for me. In the first draft, I tried different approaches. I tried, for example, sticking with one tense throughout, present and then past, but in both cases the narration started to drag. Then I tried putting the Los Angeles scenes in present and India/Pakistan in past, but that was too pat, too formalistic, too mathematical. So I went with what felt right, which might appear random, but of course I went over this any number of times, so how could it have been random? At the same time, I liked the suggestion of random because it somehow served to enliven the narration in an organic way. And then, which leads to the second challenge, I thought that the play of tense would help bring memories into the present, kind of like how we have memories bubbling in our minds while we operate in the present.
The second challenge was how to suggest past and present coming close to one another, and in this regard the novel begins with the past (India) and the present (Los Angeles) far apart, but as the novel progresses the past and the present shift back and forth more rapidly, and so the distance between them narrows.
Many of the characters in Bewilderment deal with profound bouts of loneliness. Who do you feel deals best with the situation?
Evelyn. Evelyn is the most grounded, and in the end she is the one who moves beyond loneliness. Ironically, she is the one who has lost the most because she is the one who had the most. In addition, she worked for what she had, and then lost it.
What books did you learn from, and what lessons did you keep in mind while writing Bewilderment?
Like everyone else who writes (or wrote), I learned from a lot of books. But to name a few that I think were (and are) extremely pertinent, I’d single out How Fiction Works by James Wood and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. Along the lines of fictional work, there were (are) Madame Bovary (Lydia Davis translation) and A Sentimental Education (Douglas Parmée translation) by Gustave Flaubert. And the thing that kicked this whole deal off with regards to Bewilderment there was In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (Penguin Classica Deluxe Edition, separate translators for each book, Lydia Davis doing Swann’s Way). Proust got me thinking about writing a novel that involved memory and memories. Another way of looking at it: Flaubert for realism, Proust for modernism.
Lessons I kept in mind? James Wood: narration, particularly free indirect style (moving between character’s eyes [or characters’ eyes] and author’s eyes, but I’m tempted to say narrator’s eyes and character’s eyes [characters’ eyes]), and then the arbitrary quality of memory which can yield the unexpected. Francine Prose: every rule regarding fiction has been broken at one time or another in a great work of fiction. But this doesn’t mean a free-for-all. It means doing what’s appropriate, which might mean breaking accepted rules. Flaubert: author ought to be careful in keeping his or her opinions out of the story. Proust: fiction is wide open; Proust wasn’t even sure if what he was writing was a novel.
Do you plan to write another novel?
I hope to.
Michael Onofrey's Bewilderment was published by Tailwinds Press. It is available in paperback and as an e-book.
By Deb A.
Danielle Gillespie wrote her first story in kindergarten and believes that it may have involved a party with a polar bear and an octopus. Now studying creative writing and literature at the University of Evanville, she's added short stories such as "What's Measured in Miles and Meters", which appears in the most recent issue of Agave Magazine, to her portfolio of novels, poetry, and a few non-fiction pieces. This week we talk to Danielle about discovering the unfamiliar, getting language right, and what comes next.
AGAVE MAGAZINE: Why did you start writing?
DANIELLE GILLESPIE: My parents read to me and my sister when we were children. I became an avid reader (as did my sister) and writing seemed like a natural progression. As silly as it sounds, I started simply because it seemed fun.
In "What's Measured in Miles and Meters" you bring the reader onto the sprinting track, where you spent six years of your own life. How much of your personal experience finds its way into your writing?
I think a good deal of my life finds expression in my writing—though it tends to be less obvious than in “What’s Measured in Miles and Meters”: aspects of a family member’s personality, a place I’ve visited, a feeling I’ve had. I like to use what’s familiar to me to explore what’s unfamiliar. For “What’s Measured in Miles and Meters” I took the experience of running track and dropped it into a family dynamic that was very different than anything I had ever experienced.
What do you think is important for putting a reader, even for a brief moment, into a character's experience?
For me, it’s language. The right words used in the right combination can be so evocative. When I’m editing my own work, I spend hours cutting lines and rearranging sentences and replacing words in the hope that the finished product will allow the emotionality of the moment to come through effectively.
What would you like to write next?
I think I'd like to try tackling something a little bit larger in scope than the short stories I have been writing. A couple of years ago I wrote a short story that I realized was actually the beginning of a novel after I had completed it. I've been really wanting to tackle it, and I think that's my next move.
What are you currently reading?
I am currently reading A Game of Thrones [George R.R. Martin] for my Tolkien class and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman [Mary Wollstonecraft]. A bizarre combination, but enjoyable nonetheless.
By Deb A.
"I stick stuff to other stuff and kid myself about the rest," claims collage artist Cory Peeke. But as his work, including A Higher Education: Suits in the latest issue of Agave Magazine shows, there's a lot more to it than that. Cory's wit and insight are readily recognisable in every piece, whether it's examining masculinity, sexuality or education. And for all those who are tempted to take a pair of scissors to their copy of Agave and do their own recontextualisation, you have Cory's blessing to "make it yours."
AGAVE MAGAZINE: What got you started in collage?
CORY PEEKE: I have been doing collage seriously since I lived in San Francisco in the early '90s. I was a painter, though a very mixed-media oriented one, when I was in undergraduate school in Michigan. However, when I moved to San Francisco it was so expensive just to live that art supplies like oil paint became an unaffordable luxury. I still had the need to be a maker so I began collecting ephemera, stuff I’d find on the street or for cheap in junk shops.
The experience was very freeing. I didn’t have any preconceived notions or expectations for the work so it was a way to experiment and learn a way of working without the constraints of history and material limitations I felt as a painter.
Where do you find the material you use in your collages, and what draws you to the bits and pieces you collect?
I find most of my materials in junk shops or antique stores, but I’m not above scavenging stuff off the street. I also dig office supplies so office supply stores are fun to shop. The white spots in many of my pieces are created using correction fluid.
I hoard materials. I collect things wherever I find them. I have drawers, boxes, flat files and tables piled high with old photographs, scraps of paper, transparencies, etc. Part of the fun of collage is digging through the hoard to find just the right item for the piece I’m working on. Collage is like putting together a puzzle without knowing what the final image is supposed to look like. Searching out the correct pieces for that puzzle is a fun little treasure hunt.
I’m not sure I can exactly pinpoint what exactly draws me to a particular bit of ephemera. I will say though that I’m often attracted to vintage images and papers, something that seems to have an age to it. They’re remnants of another time that I hope to reinvigorate and get people to notice and value again.
Do you first have an idea and then look for pieces to use, or does the material you come across inspire a particular idea for a collage or series?
I used to work with an idea and then search for the material I needed. I don’t think I hold to a strict conceptual agenda anymore, the work is more organic in its creation. There are certainly particular types of imagery and themes of sexuality, masculinity and education that I’m drawn to so they reappear again and again in my work.
I tend to make the work and then go back and look for the common thread/ideas that holds them together as a series.
Your most recent series "explores the duality that is the transient, disposable nature of our culture through the lens of the book and the status of higher education." How did your position as Professor of Art at Eastern Oregon University inform your work?
I’m sure it is no secret that higher education has gone through some big changes and tough times the last several years. I have very different students today than I did just a decade ago.
One of the things that I’ve noticed is a growing reluctance on the part of students to read. They seem to have an aversion to the printed page or at the very least seem to lack any meaningful appreciation for the written word. Libraries are places they only reluctantly go, they hope to find everything on line and in quick easily digested snippets.
These observations have led directly to my reconsideration of the importance of the book and printed matter. I wouldn’t say my work exactly explores these ideas but the observations and the turmoil of higher education have influenced the making of my most recent bodies of work.
You write for Kolaj, a magazine on contemporary collage, and curate as well--what is the power of collage as an art form, and what artists do you think are particularly adept at wielding that power?
I believe people respond to collage differently than they do other mediums. The materials are drawn directly from the world around us which I feel makes them more approachable, perhaps even democratic. One the one hand I think it can be a negative in that collage is often not taken as seriously as other mediums, but on the other hand I think helps make collage less class-oriented and easier for people from all strata to relate.
Writing for Kolaj and being addicted to social media such as Instagram and Tumblr have introduced me to scores of new (to me anyway) collage artists. A list of folks out there right now working that I admire would include Evan Clayton Horback, Anthony Zinonos, Hollie Chastain, Katrien De Blauwer, Flore Kunst, Ross Carron, Eli Craven and John Hundt to name just a few. I could go on and on. This is a great time for collage, lots of good work is being made right now all around the world.
By Deb A.
Yanuary Navarro appreciates the unique allure of gouache and watercolours, noting that "they don't require much more than a cup of water and a brush. The older I get the more I appreciate simplicity." Yet her beautifully vibrant illustrations are part of a fantastical world where fairy tales, science fiction, and a childhood growing up in the Honduras collide--anything but simple. Agave Magazine is proud to feature Yanuary's A Coyote's Dream in our most recent issue, and to speak to her about being an artist, the power of ideas, and her series of invented short stories, 'The World of Wolli'.
What is 'The World of Wolli', and how did it come into being?
The 'World of Wolli' is the title of a series of visual short stories depicted in no chronological order. I have been building the story one painting at a time over the years. The concept began during my last year in college where I had an independent study class where I had the safe space to explore any subject. The narratives that began to naturally demand a voice were autobiographical, illustrating how my family and I immigrated and endured a dangerous journey through Central America. This is something I never really felt comfortable talking to people about and made me feel ashamed.
Over the years the narratives have expanded to include a network of people around me and their life stories and how they inspire me. I exaggerate people into characters and their details because storytelling is more interesting to me when truths are costumed in metaphors and when people are entertained they pay more attention to what is being said.
Where else do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in other forms of art such as film, literature, music etc. and seeing other artists move forward with their ideas despite social disadvantages and failures. Their courage to share their human experience creatively motivates me to not be so afraid of doing the same.
Your work is influenced by fairy tales and science fiction. What are your favourite stories?
My favorite stories list is always changing and growing. Currently, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and Star Wars by George Lucas are some of my favorite fiction stories because they depict relatable human struggles within a fantastical setting that asks the human mind to leave logic and exercise the abstract concept of imagination. I believe that practising this helps us to become more skilled at empathizing with other people in real life and imagining what joys and sorrows they may be experiencing and therefore have a more appropriate response.
When did you realise you wanted to be an artist?
During high school I began to seriously practice my painting. I did not have hopes of becoming an artist or even make a living from it. I did it because being in the flow made the world make sense and brought a sense of inner peace that I could not get anywhere else. I think that the arts have shaped me from a frustrated teen into a peaceful and confident adult.
If you couldn't be an artist, what would you be?
I think I would enjoy being a scientist building machines and gadgets out of my Science Fiction dreams.
To be honest I feel that one cannot just be an artist hiding away from the world in a studio and perhaps that is not the worst fact in the world. Art is the voice of the people, it comes from a place of struggle seeking to be heard and the only way to hear what people's concerns are is to go outside and live life.
By Deb A.
Jason Willome's art is a search for "the place where things start to break down and contradictions emerge." One of the fascinating results of his investigations, Matching Concealed Patterns (The Seam Grows When You're Not Looking), appears on the cover of Agave Magazine Vol. 3, Issue 2. This week we speak with Jason about transience, diegesis, and what can be found on middle ground.
You've created sculptures and sketches but predominantly, you paint. Why?
Painting, as a context, is all about models, references and analogues. It's this weird specificity of sculpture, when you get down to it, that is tied to a history of utilizing materials (paint) and objects (panels, surfaces, screens, substrates, etc.) in a very particular way. Painting has such an immense history that these aspects of it have become an invisible burden, but really it's always been this way of probing the edges of perception. You know, it's very much a mental thing, but it's also about the object of the painting itself, and the space between the object and the viewer. So, it's a really good context for exploring the things I'm interested in. Actually, it could be I'm interested in these things because of painting....
What motivated you to play with flat and three-dimensional spaces in works like Matching Concealed Patterns (The Seam Grows When You're Not Looking)?
Those works were a way of distilling these ideas down into a more precise presentation. Previously, I had made a set of paintings from stills from the Frank Capra movie, It's A Wonderful Life--specifically from this moment in the film where the filmmakers double-exposed the scene with footage of snow falling. I suppose there wasn't enough snow in the original take, but it was always jarring to me to see what basically amounted to these two independent spaces sharing a moment in the time of the film. They work together enough that you can ignore it, and proceed with the narrative, but they also present a moment of revelation in a way, where the artifice of the film becomes visible, and the screen was suddenly there, where previously there had only been space. It was a moment that ever-so-slightly broke with the diegetic space of the film--and this reminded me of the gold leaf you frequently see in Catholic altarpieces: the gold leaf is on the surface, and asserts its difference from the narrative of the illusory space, providing emphasis for the viewer, while simultaneously playing a role in the space of the painting. So I made these snow paintings where the areas of the image that were occupied by snow were built up with this relief of paint material that both asserted the surface, and paradoxically played a role in the image, as an analogue of that moment in the film. The painting you referenced was a way of taking a more focused look at that idea. The atmosphere of objects around the figures in those paintings oscillate between diegetic and non-diegetic, functioning in the space of the image, casting shadows into the illusion, but also asserting the surface for the viewer and calling attention to the illusion. To use another movie as an example, it's like that moment in Say Anything, where the film music begins to warp, and John Cusack's character fixes it by shoving a matchbook into his car's cassette deck. The music reveals the artifice of the film, but also brings the viewer into a deeper involvement with the narrative illusion. The atmosphere of objects around the figures in those paintings are attempting something similar.
What themes are you currently working on, and how are they taking shape?
Right now, I'm trying to use these ideas as a way of framing and adding emphasis to other issues. I'm moving further off of the surface, and thinking more about how to emphasize the space between the image and the object. I'm using more temporal materials like salt and ice, which have their own time and phenomenology, and pairing them with images to emphasize an idea. For example, I have a set of works that appropriate images of the ignition contrails from the old Gemini and Apollo missions, where I have grown salt crystals in the areas of the contrails. It's that Carl Sagan idea of space exploration as self-investigation--we are all made of stardust.
What role does transience play in your work?
Lately, using these more obviously temporal materials is a way of juxtaposing different layers of time. There is the time of the image or the painted image, and then there is the time of the material. The salt contrails, for example, are framed behind glass, which slows the decay of the crystal forms, but allows in enough moisture that they continue to grow. This occurs in contrast to the rest of the static image, but also reflects the time intrinsic to the experience of the viewer. Every time I look at them they are different. It's somewhere in between Dubuffet's notion that his paintings were alive, and having an ant farm.
Having explored the nature of experience and reality in much of your work, where do you believe truth in art lies?
In the middle! Somewhere in between, where the mental and physical rub together. In spite of a photographic experience being a limited one, there is still something there that cannot be discounted, and which would not be available if the situation were otherwise. Images tell us something about the limits of our perception--how we build whole, complex models of the universe based on the little information we understand or have access to. I think that artworks give us a model or analogue to hold onto--art serves as an access point or an interface to an idea about the world. There's truth in that relationship--in the friction between acknowledging these two facets of experience.
By Deb A.
Margaret Morrison traces her love of painting back to a childhood of visiting museums with her family--decades later, she still has vivid memories of standing in front of a Dutch still life and vowing to learn the techniques behind bringing drops of water and luminous reflections to life on canvas. A professor at the University of Georgia, Margaret continues to keep her art and her family life happily intertwined: she and her husband, a fellow UGA professor, teach chemistry through art in a course that they developed together. Agave Magazine is proud to feature her painting, Both Ways: Drive Home in Vol. 3, Issue 2, and thrilled to speak to this overwhelmingly talented artist about her still-lifes, her departures from them, and her incredibly fulfilling artistic journey.
AGAVE MAGAZINE: Your recent works are meditations on the zenlike aspects of driving and that point just beyond the horizon. How much time do you spend in your car, and what ideas do you tend to contemplate while you're behind the wheel?
MARGARET MORRISON: These little meditative paintings were a departure for me, a returning homeward, literally and figuratively. My parents had always been the center of the family solar system, with a gravitational pull so strong that my sisters and I orbited around them. As my parents reached their nineties, their health declined rapidly. It's funny, but we all thought they were immortal. My father passed away in 2013 after a brief illness and not long after, my mother’s health began to fail and she passed away the following year. During those two years, I made the cross-country drive a number of times from Georgia to Utah. I felt compelled to say goodbye to my parents and to spend whatever time they had left with them. Over hundreds of miles, I had the time to meditate and reflect, to rehearse all my memories. I suppose you could call it a melancholy life review. As I traveled, I found a profoundly rich, yet bittersweet closure.
Your series have examined everything from the glistening comfort of sweets to child's play that reflects an adult world to your extensive travels as a child. Have you already had any thoughts about the next theme you'd like to investigate in your work?
Right now, I am almost finished painting an enormous six-foot high, eight-foot wide still life jammed with dozens of sterling silver objects from the famous antique market in Arezzo, Italy. Gorgeous, super shiny silver bowls, pitchers, and candelabras are packed so tightly together that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The reflections are fascinating to paint! Not only are all the objects reflecting each other, but they reflect the cityscape, sky and people too. It’s like working on a five thousand piece jigsaw puzzle and is, quite likely, the most complex and challenging painting that I’ve ever attempted. I’m planning to build my new body of work on more of this subject matter: reflections, transparency, eye-popping highlights tied up in a dense tapestry of “bling.”
Painting realistic reflective and transparent surfaces is a major analytical challenge, and one that you seem to take on with aplomb. What do you enjoy about this aspect of your work?
Oh my goodness, I LOVE painting bling! It’s the greatest logic puzzle I can possibly imagine and I’m absolutely addicted to it. And yes, it is very much an analytical challenge, but so very satisfying when I get my head wrapped around it. I love it when people ask me how in the world I paint glass. “Is there a particular kind of paint you use?” The answer is no, there is no tube of paint out there that says “glass” on it. I explain that I don’t paint the glass, I paint the distortions that I see through the glass and then it materializes on its own… like magic. As I’m working, I’m completely absorbed in creating a lush, juicy surface using plenty of wet oil paint. I work with a sense of immediacy so that I can lay down a particular field of color and then start pumping more paint right onto of the surface of the painting. I’d say that most of the color mixing in my paintings happens on the canvas rather than the palette. I work from general to specific, dark up to light. I think of the highlights as the frosting on the cake.
How long does it take you to complete a painting?
Truth be told, I’m actually a pretty fast painter. I’ve got a lot of pent-up energy and I throw the paint down as quickly as I can before my ideas evaporate. Nothing shuts me down faster than a pristine, white canvas, so I cover the entire canvas with paint right away. It helps me to see if the piece is holding together from the start and establishes a visual language that I can hang the rest of the painting on. For me, starting a painting is much more challenging than finishing a painting. Often I’ll juggle several paintings simultaneously in various stages of completion because, once my ideas are fleshed out, I can set them aside and come back to them later with renewed energy. I’ve found that if I’m working on one painting at a time, I run the risk of getting bored or overworking it. I also prefer to paint while standing up because it allows me the freedom to pace around and to step back to check the “gestalt.” I probably log a few miles a day just pacing up and back as I paint. One painting that I remember coming together faster than any other was Candy Apples. At the time, I had been working hard on a body of paintings for my Larger Than Life exhibition at the Woodward Gallery in NYC. The week before shipping my paintings to the gallery, I decided that I just HAD to paint ONE more for the show. I had so much built up angst that I started and finished that massive painting in three days.
What has been the most valuable thing you've discovered through your art so far?
This whole journey of mine has one of deep satisfaction and joy. I’ve seen all my dreams as an artist and a mother come to fruition. Years ago, as a newly married couple, Richard and I flew to Chicago to see a John Singer Sargent exhibition. One early evening, while strolling through the campus at Northwestern, we chatted about our respective “bucket lists.” We both dared to dream of being old college professors teaching at the same university and laughing at the improbability of it. As we walked, I clearly remember seeing a row of glass front galleries on the next street over. And as the sun went down, and the lights came up, I could see an art opening going on in one of them. People were crowded into that little space with glasses in their hands, deep in conversation with track lights sparkling. I remember a twinge of longing, wondering if someday I might have a opening just like this, filled with people who had come to see my paintings on the wall. Now in hindsight, what I thought was unimaginable all those years ago has come to pass for me. Not only have I seen my dreams become reality, but I’ve been able to include and share them with my husband and children. As a mother, the first time I held a newborn in my arms, I experienced the ultimate expression of the sublime. My work has become my vehicle for channeling and expressing this sublimity.
By Deb A.
Agave Magazine contributor Robin Boyd's poem The Siberian Flamingo represents a departure from the flora and fauna of New Hampshire that often appear in her works, but nevertheless fits seamlessly into her passion for exploring how human beings interact with and find meaning in their surroundings. Here we talk to Robin about the beauty of liminal spaces and her role in illuminating them.
AGAVE MAGAZINE: You have degrees in environmental education and creative writing. Which came first, and why did you then pursue the second?
ROBIN BOYD: My creative writing degree came first some 40 years ago. My environmental ed degree came 15 years later. I attended a field school, the Audubon Expedition Institute, where a learning community of 20 or so people--some students, some teachers--traveled North America for three semesters on a modified school bus studying environmental issues like logging, fishing, mining and farming to understand how these activities impact the environment and find ways to effect change through listening, leadership, problem-solving and finding consensus. It was the hardest thing I ever did and the most rewarding. It changed how I understand the world and how I live in it.
You say that your work "explores the edges where human and nonhuman worlds make contact and inform each other." What can we learn from these liminal spaces?
Edges are where the action is. It's where the I and thou come together in rich profusion. I think of the littoral zone, the place where ocean meets land, and where fish and fowl and mammal all come together to reproduce, interact and nourish each other. For the human and nonhuman worlds, the edge is where we meet and recognize our connections--where we observe, adapt and live in proximity to the other. The edge is where my cat met the coyote and it's where I come to understand that, ultimately, there is no I and thou, only a continuum of relationship.
What poets inspire you?
My favorite working poet is Jane Hirshfield. She's a gifted observer who discovers poetry in the most homely of subjects. I admire the layers of meaning she delivers in few words, an elegant spareness that reflects a lifetime of Buddhist meditation and study. And then, I would say Rilke is my other favorite poet. His poems are mystical yet reveal an uncanny insight into the quantum universe.
Ah, not to be cut off
Not through the slightest partition
Shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner - what is it?
If not intensified sky,
Hurled through with birds and deep
With the winds of homecoming.
(From Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke)
The Siberian Flamingo has a more conversational tone than many of your other poems. Why did you use this particular technique?
I wrote The Siberian Flamingo as a parable for a friend, which is why the language is more conversational than lyrical. My friend was diagnosed with cancer for the second time in her life--the first time forty years ago and then again two years ago. It occurred to me to tell her the story of the Siberian flamingos as a way to remind her (and me) that miraculous things can happen once and sometimes twice in the same place.
What impact do you hope your poetry will have?
Writing is the only thing I know how to do. I'm not handy, or crafty. I'm not particularly social. So when I think about how I can have an impact on what matters--I hope that my poems can help to awaken others to the beauty and vitality of the delicate processes that sustain everything.
By Deb A.
Karen Havelin's Like I'm Indestructible (Agave Magazine Vol. 3, Issue 2) takes on a theme that rarely features prominently in literature: chronic illness. Here we talk to the Norwegian author about her love of Charlotte Brontë, the challenges of speaking honestly about a hidden topic, and why she believes her poetry is better in Norwegian.
AGAVE MAGAZINE: You've been writing since you were a child. What motivates you to write, and how has your writing process changed over the years?
KAREN HAVELIN: I’ve always written when life overwhelms me in one way or another. It became an important way to express myself and handle life in my early teens, which is when I realized I wanted to be a writer. Now, it’s a more complex phenomenon—I notice that life is worse when I don’t do it. It is as if a portion of me exist only inside my writing and when the flow stagnates, it’s bad for my health. It feels like something I have to do. If I put everything I have into this, I can maybe do something no one else can.
It’s taken me a long time to accept how I work. When I was younger, in the typical fashion of new writers, I was convinced I needed to be inspired before I could write, or that I needed to be tortured, or to make my writing process resemble other people’s. Now I have a higher acceptance for myself and a much bigger trust in the process. I have to write a lot before I know where I’m going. But if I show up and keep doing it, something good will eventually come of it.
You studied under some notable professors at Columbia University, including Gary Shteyngart and Donald Antrim. What was the most important thing you learned from them?
The most important thing I learned was to stop relying on charm in my writing, to do my ground work, blocking, dialogue, structure—to put in the work. So much work! I was primarily a poet before Columbia, so I changed both language and form, which was a little nuts, but also liberating. Because of the demands to submit lots of pages, I had to immediately start writing full speed, which was useful in getting past self consciousness and going all in.
The novel which is excerpted in Agave Magazine is written in reverse chronological order. Why did you employ this particular method of storytelling?
The reverse chronology showcases other things than straightforwardly following the character from younger to older. Like, how do people change through the years, and what things stick? How are we influenced by the past, and can we free ourselves? This way, the different time periods in my character’s life sort of exist simultaneously, which feels true to me. Each part works on its own as well. It’s been interesting to see how different the readings of this book are. People have thought it’s everything from uplifting to tragic, torturous to pleasant.
What made you decide to write about chronic illness?
This is one area where I can admit to having personal experience. I work with what I know. But chronic illness is also largely unexplored in literature. I have always longed for good books about illness. Particularly ones where the sick person gets a voice, and doesn’t either die or get cured. Books that show the amount of work that goes into having a challenging body that has to be coaxed along.
It’s a bit of a challenge too, to try to make engaging literature about something that might on the surface seem dull. These are things that influence people’s lives to an immense degree, and that they perhaps don’t ever talk about. You can have crazy experiences that you can’t necessarily share with anyone. There are actually a lot of opportunities for humor. How are people’s lives interesting, even though they maybe can’t have exciting adventures? How are people shaped by lives that are very constricting in certain ways? This is one of the reasons I’m a little bit obsessed with Charlotte Brontë’s characters.
Chronic pain and chronic illness also impact women and men differently and tangle up into money, class, race. Everyone has a body, everything I experience I experience as this body. So for me, it feels obvious to chase that concentration of energy I see there.
Do you prefer to write in Norwegian or English?
This varies—it comes down to one day at a time, one piece of writing at a time, in whichever language feels possible. I’m probably a freer writer in English, and probably also less rigorous. In Norwegian I have a terser voice. My poetry is probably better in Norwegian.
Learn more about Karen and her work at www.karenhavelin.com.
By Deb A.
Sculptor and Agave Magazine contributor S.E. Nash started thinking about fermentation and microbial activity after reading about sourdough baker Chad Robertson, cheese nun Noella Marcellino, and fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz in Michael Pollen's Cooked. After a three-week workshop with Katz, Nash's ideas around merging art and fermentation began to take shape. Nash's sculpture, Collaborative Microbes, is featured in the most recent issue of Agave Magazine; here Nash explains quorum sensing, why technically we're all 'they', and how microbes can teach us about human nature.
AGAVE MAGAZINE: Have you ever been surprised at how one of your sculptures has evolved?
S.E. Nash: When I returned to NYC from summer fermentation camp in 2014, I experimented with many ideas on how to incorporate fermentation and allow it to remain edible in the sculptures. This meant including glass vessels that are covered and separate from the sculptural materials, which are definitely not edible. Crafting the sculptures is a very intuitive and fluid process for me. Planning a sculpture in advance usually leads to changes when working anyway, so I will create initial drawings for sculptures that I know will change as I start working. The feasibility and structural aspects of including jars of fermented foods can be challenging, so the evolution of the sculptures is usually contingent on how the vessel will be incorporated. The fermented foods are fairly predictable as to how they will turn out; even if I do not know exactly how something will taste, I am skilled at creating the right conditions for the food to transform in the proper manner. Now that my work is involving other people, either as collaborators or participants, I am opening up the work to unexpected occurrences in social and community based practice.
At the end of an exhibition, visitors can consume your sculptures. What draw does the impermanence of your work with fermented foods have for you?
I describe microbes as my sculptural collaborators. Their waste products are what we like to eat in the form of sauerkraut, cheese, beer, sourdough, and countless other delicious foods. I was drawn to work with fermented foods due to the role they play in cultural production and community involvement. I believe the taste of fermented foods, their umami, connects us to a magical sense of creation. Describing taste and sensory experience with other people feels very unifying. In describing what we taste together we can share subjective experiences, compare notes, and delight in consuming appreciation for the food and its maker. I think that by including foods that are living and that change over the course of an exhibition I am giving viewers an entry point to consider our complex biological and social relationships with the world. The impermanence is a part of life cycles and our perception of time.
Why is fermentation an effective way of exploring notions of gender?
I like to say: if we know that our bodies have a symbiotic and dependent relationship with microbes and we know that those microbes comprise at least half or over half of our cells then we are at least half microbe. If being human means being at least half microbe, then I would argue that our ideology should take into account this incredible symbiosis we share with microbes (and viruses, as we are coming to learn). What can we understand about microbes that will help us untangle sex, gender, and sexual reproduction? Bacteria do not have a sex or gender and they can reproduce in myriad ways, including transferring DNA to selectively become another species of bacteria! From a theoretical standpoint I would like to say that microbes are queer (without choosing to be so), but that they also queer our bodies regardless. I think our language is typically very limited and constricted to binaries in discussions of gender. Thinking about the ancient microbial world puts this in perspective for me. Can we look at the blip of human history in comparison to the billions of years that microbes have on us and understand that our codified definitions of race and gender are shortsighted? I believe that microbes illuminate the idea of plurality contained in the self. This is why I use the gender pronouns they, them, their, and I argue that everyone is technically a “they”.
Why would a future in which humans learn quorum sensing be a good one?
Good question! I hope I can be pardoned by scientists for using “quorum sensing” as a metaphor. Among bacteria, quorum sensing is communication between individual bacteria and communities of bacteria, and this chemical communication can be sensed across species. It can serve as a decision making process, telling the group whether to grow a biofilm or to produce an antibiotic, for example. Quorum sensing may be a key to understanding symbiogenesis, or the evolution of multicellular life forms out symbiosis with single celled bacteria. The idea of quorum sensing appeals to me as a way to decenter the importance of human evolution and human history on earth. We are part of a biophilic world and our increasing awareness of our relationship with microbes has the potential to empower us to make decisions based on an appreciation for complex ecosystems.
What message would you like to share through your work?
I would like to communicate that the work we do as individuals is interdependent. My work is contingent on communities: viewers, participants, actants, and those who are doing the work that I draw on. In the near future, I am enthusiastic about working with farmers and communities interested in sustainability. I love working with children, too, and plan to include groups of children and their ideas in future projects. I hope to bring people together to discover and delight in the wonders and magic of the microbial world, and to realize our connections with one another through creativity and generosity of spirit.
By Deb A.
Marc Janssen founded the Salem Poetry Project to strengthen the local poetry scene through regular events ("Hey, it's Thursday, and there is poetry happening"). His writing process is anchored in a career in sales, and his poem Used Jacket, which is featured in the latest issue of Agave Magazine, comes from a time when even his strongest pitches and extraordinary talent weren't enough.
AGAVE: You've been writing poetry for most of your life. When and why did you start, and at what point did you begin to take your career as a poet seriously?
MARC JANSSEN: I have always enjoyed writing. I tend to be fairly introverted so for me, though at times imprecise, it is the best way to express myself. In high school and into college I wanted to be a novelist or a screenwriter. I wanted to write the next "Lord of the Rings"; I started a number of novels and completed a few short stories.
My first job out of school was to write ads for the world’s largest tool catalog. In that role of high pressure and short deadlines I found my writing cadence: short blasts of words. I can finish a poem, heck, I can even finish a long poem. The form seems to fit my temperament.
At that time, and probably still today, Ventura CA had a great poetry scene. I remember the first time I delivered a poem at an open mic it was in a little coffee shop in downtown. There was standing room only. The place was packed. They had a beautiful wooden lectern and a little speaker with a mic on the landing of this staircase in one corner. There were people sitting on stairs, inside on the windowsills, outside on the sidewalk, crowding a small balcony and around the door. There was a featured reader and fifteen or twenty people signed up to read at the open mic. I brought a poem about the Sacramento River and signed up after someone who wrote only “Tobias” on the sheet. When they called Tobias’s name he walked up to the lectern and delivered an f-word filled screed about the police. As he was building up to a crescendo he pulled out a revolver from his coat pocket and pointed it against his head shouting “Do you fucking cops want me to blow my fucking brains out! Do you want me to blow my fucking brains out!” Someone from the crowd yelled “Yes!” He yelled “Mother fuckers!” and slammed the gun onto the lectern and ended his poem. There was a big applause. Then they called me… I was hooked. I have been writing poetry ever since.
On your Facebook page you regularly detail your submissions, including your rejections. Why?
That Facebook page is funny; originally I had an idea of keeping a blog or other kind of work in progress place. About two weeks in I decided to change the focus. To be honest that page is more for me than anything else; I should probably spend more time on it.
There is an old sales strategy of knowing how many rejections you will get before you make a sale. For me it is how many “No’s” will I get before I get a “Yes.” Turning submitting poems into a game makes receiving all that well intentioned, yet still concrete, rejection a little easier. So I log all my submissions and rejections on that page. It acts differently than a spreadsheet as there are other things like music and books etc. that I put on there, and I can look back and see what I did when.
For me I can expect to receive 30 or 40 rejections before receiving one acceptance. I send out poems to publications one to three times a week. Part of that page is sending to that first 30 rejections. If I get an acceptance before I reach 30 then it is a party. 2015 was difficult because I had a poem accepted in January and it wasn’t until October that anything else was accepted, close to 60 rejections, then three poems accepted: one a month for the next three months. So you never know and the Facebook page helps to motivate me and keeps me submitting.
What is the 64 Syllable Project?
OK, so I kind of stole the idea for the 64 Syllable Project.
I knew an excellent poet from Oxnard CA named Michel Engelbert. Michel worked on a project he called “tens” where he wrote ten line poems of ten syllables each. I think he wrote a hundred of them.
I’m probably about 80% as good as Michel so I did eight syllables. Each poem is eight lines of eight syllables each totaling 64 syllables; I wrote them in series of eight. So when complete I will have 64 completed poems. My goal was to complete a project where I would have a 64ish-page manuscript.
I tend to write in forms, non-standard made-up forms. Mentally the constriction of the form makes the words just kind of flow into place. I did pretty much nothing but these 64 syllable poems for about four months and I am almost done. As expected, the last few are not being particularly easy.
What led you to write Used Jacket?
When the economy tanked I was working in marketing and sales. I was unemployed for about a year. The entire experience was horrible, isolating, guilt-filled, dehumanizing. It is real hard when you have a great track record of getting responses from advertising and all of the sudden there is no interest. I went for five months without even an interview, without even a call back. I beat the bushes pretty good but there was zero interest in my skills. Even though it felt like it, I was not the only one. In that time I’d occasionally bump into other people, good sales people--successful top earners, people I had worked with or knew socially, whose eyes had turned the color of frozen meat. No one was buying anything and sales people were dropping like flies. I wrote perhaps one poem in that 12-month period. After looking at all my options, I had to start all over again at the bottom of the ladder at the state. Once I was employed again I looked back at that experience and wrote a number of pieces dealing with those issues.
Also in the Pacific Northwest there is a growing homeless problem. I cannot ignore it. My time unemployed has helped me empathize with those who find themselves in similar economic situations. I was never in danger of becoming homeless, but one traffic accident or health issue in that time and I could have been. If I want to be honest, real honest, just about everyone I work with and know right now are in the same boat, one traffic accident or health issue away from devastating financial ruin.
When I was unemployed at Christmas I shopped at Goodwill; it has a unique smell. Even when in a new location it is hard to find a less attractive store. And still under that ugliness, I think lie good intentions.
You seem to be a prolific writer--how and when do you write? Is there a theme toward which you tend to gravitate?
Even though I am no longer a copywriter I still have that high volume mentality. At the tool catalog at one point when there were two writers, between us we wrote one thousand ads in six months. That comes out to about eight ads a day. Though I have not done that kind of work for more than fifteen years I have managed to maintain a part of that discipline.
The last few years I have worked in a job where I have a morning and afternoon break. So I write in the afternoon break: fifteen minutes a day five days a week. Usually when I sit down I am able to just go, most of it is not very good. I first draft by hand, then revise as I enter it into Word, then revise again when I take it to an open mic. For me how it reads in front of people is the test for if this is a poem that I want to continue to work on or not.
I don't necessarily have a standard theme, but I do often shift into a minor key.
For me I have to step back and realize when I am writing poetry and when I am just wallowing in bad feelings. I see some of it, for me, as laziness, it is just easier to go to the dark place. When I revise I tend to push those pieces into the junk pile unless something really interesting is happening.
Used Jacket is the second of Marc's poems to be published in Agave Magazine; Here on the Porch can be found in Volume 2, Issue 1.
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