“What’s Below the Surface”: An Interview with Matt Sadler

Matt Sadler is the author of The Much Love Sad Dawg Trio (March Street) and Tiny Tsunami (Flying Guillotine). He is a poetry editor at Versal and lives in the suburbs of Detroit with his wife and kids.

His poem, "Jaws," appeared in Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist. 

Here, he speaks with interviewer Angela Redmond-Theodore about movies, philosophy, and his multi-faceted writing life.

The descriptions you present in “Jaws” are so detailed and precise. At the same time, each stanza offers the poem a layer of mystery, similar to the passes made by the great white shark in the movie Jaws. How did this poem come about?

I was writing a series of poems trying to pull themes out of classic and contemporary film and examine the themes in the bare light of day, but explore them using imagery specific to the film. I had a lot of fun watching movies each night for a couple months and writing as I watched.  The resulting manuscript produced quite a few published poems, and I’m glad the Collagist took this one!

I’m intrigued by the widening shifts in perspective between the personal characterizations—you, we, and the living—that lead the reader through the poem. This creative move is as philosophical as it is literary. Would you speak to the place of philosophy in your work and in the work of poets and poetry, generally speaking?

To me, philosophy is central to poetry. I’m always looking for the perspectives and ideals present underneath the poems I’m reading, beyond the initial sonic and emotional experience of reading the poem (perhaps this is a symptom of teaching English and philosophy in a high school?).  When I write, I sometimes start with the philosophical ideal, but just as often I let it develop organically as I write, then hone it in revision

Parables are instructions passed on by means of story, leading the hearer/reader from a starting point to a surprise destination. The structure of “Jaws” is parabolic: we begin in the sun and end up in the dark. What lesson(s) has this poem taught you?

For this poem, I was fascinated by the idea that we literally travel to the places we fear and drop fishing lines into the depths, that we’re dependent on those very depths that haunt us in both imagination and reality, that our “light” exists side by side with our “darkness”.  This happens in the movie on the fishing boats and beaches, and it exists with every institution humans manage to create. And I tried to leave this poem vague as to whether the end is going to be happy, so we just have to accept that we exist in that space. 

What is your guilty pleasure reading? Does it have any influence on how or what you write?

I don’t feel guilty about anything I read!  At least that I’m willing to admit to you!  I guess to answer this question, I’ve recently begun to seek out YA and Middle Grade fiction for its brevity, clarity, and frankness. And it did influence my writing!  I just finished my first Middle Grade novel(la).  I like the general idea to simplify and clarify more and more the older I get. 

Please tell us what you’re working on these days.

As I mentioned, the middle grade novel is in final draft editing stage. The poetry manuscript I mentioned above was scrapped, and some if its pieces were incorporated into a new manuscript that I just finished and started circulating (including Jaws). I’m working on an ongoing collaborative project, writing a whole season of a television show with some friends. And I’m at square one for my next manuscript project, trying to figure out what book to write next.  It’s exciting

“Children, It is Always Children”: An Interview with Holly Iglesias

Holly Iglesias’s works include Sleeping Things, Angles of Approach, Souvenirs of a Shrunken World, and Boxing Inside the Box: Women’s Prose Poetry. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Edward Albee Foundation. She teaches at the University of Miami in the Creative Writing MFA Program, focusing on documentary and archival poetry.

Her poem, "Epic of the Material World," appeared in Issue Eighty-One of The Collagist. 

Here, she speaks with interviewer Angela Redmond-Theodore about the faith of children, working with history, and her mother’s friendships.

You use the third person in “Epic of the Material World,” but the poem is strikingly personal in tone. Please tell us what led you to write it?

For me as a child, being in a church was a flood sensual experience. In order to access memories of that time of my life, all I need is the slightest trigger—a flickering flame, whiff of myrrh, rattle of beads. So this poem is looking at myself (the personal) from a distance of many decades and much knowledge of the context of the Cold War (the epic) as it played out in Catholic school in the 50s and 60s. I’m always striving to find the sweeping historical story in the little, intimate story.

While appreciating the stretching of the text across the page in the form of a prose poem, epic is a surprising title choice, given that the poem is only a few lines long. Can you tell us what led you to use this word, and not story, say, or narrative?

 I chose epic because it’s a highfalutin and heavily freighted word that provides a contrast to the condition of children, who are usually considered powerless and less than full citizens of the “real world.” Also, children encounter nearly everything as huge and enthralling and ponderous. Besides, the word narrative evokes literary theory and rhetoric, and I was going for the opposite effect—up close and physical, not distant and abstract. (Just as a side note, all of my poems are prose poems.)

Bracketed by the image of the Infant of Prague at the beginning of the poem and “children…always children” at the end, this poem offers crash course in Catholicism—images, litanies, jargon. Can you talk a little about your choice to place the lens of criticism in the “dark eyes” of children? 

In Catholic school during the Cold War we were told tales of pious children (always peasants, always in Europe, well sometimes in Latin America) to whom the Virgin Mary appeared, offering hope to an embattled world if only we would pray the rosary. But there was also, in the news, a constant stream of stories about imperiled children persecuted for their faith behind the Iron Curtain, children for whom we were to pray without ceasing to help bring about an end to their suffering and torment. I was shaped by Catholicism not through the study of arcane doctrine but through legends of saints and martyrs, exemplars of faith past and present, and through the annual cycle of rites and spiritual practices. All of this formation endowed me with a vision of the world in which heaven and earth were reconciled, not alienated, and where all realms and roles were sacred.

Is there a work of literature that you turn to for inspiration, or out of necessity, from time to time? What are you reading these days?

I read Joan Didion and W.B. Yeats again and again, Didion for her steely eye and clean, razor-edged sentences, Yeats for his thundering lyricism and acute yearning. Right now I’m reading Elisabeth Asbrink’s 1947: Where Now Begins (for research on a collection of letters my mother wrote that year) and (re)reading C.D. Wright’s One Big Self (for her mighty mind and huge heart).

In your approach to writing, do you have a particular project in mind, or do you build up a body of poems before determining what form they will take? What are you currently working on? 

I’m a historian at heart and am always researching, so most of my work is sparked by a project. My first book was about the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, my home place, and the third looks at a childhood in the Midwest and at the Cuban exile community in Miami in the 70s. Right now I’m working with a collection of letters written in 1947 and 1948 by my mother and eight friends who worked with her at a defense plant during World War II. She initiated the correspondence out of a desire to maintain their connection as their post-war lives began to change quite radically—getting married to G.I.’s seeking jobs and education, dealing with the housing shortage, fearful and optimistic about the economy and politics of a post-war world. These women did in fact remain very close for the rest of their lives. Their letters show us young women responding to the challenges of rapidly changing world and determined to maintain their friendship through it all.

"By Years and Circumstance": An Interview with Kate Petersen

Kate Petersen lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Zyzzyva, Epoch, Paris Review Daily, LitHub, and elsewhere. A former recipient of a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford and a Pushcart Prize, she currently serves as coordinator for the Center of Ecosystem Science and Society at Northern Arizona University.

Her story, "Homework 3 (Spring 2016)," appeared in Issue Eighty-Four of The Collagist. 

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about finding narrative in surprising places, how our writing changes over time, and landscape.

I love how the form frames the narrative in “Homework 3 (Spring 2016).” How did writing this as a homework assignment change the way you approached the story?

Samuel Beckett said of Joyce, “form is content, content is form.” And Walter Benjamin put it this way: “the veil and what is veiled [the wrap and what is wrapped], are the same.” There are a million great formulations of this argument, and though wary of drumming up undue grandeur or pretense via fancy quotation, perhaps I can lean lightly on the syllogism they propose: this wasn’t even a story until I understood it as a problem set.

I need to give credit to my terrific intro to fiction students at Stanford. The spring that I was writing this, they were doing p-sets every minute they weren’t writing and revising their stories—in electrical engineering, chemical engineering, computer engineering. I realized they were eating, breathing, sleeping this form I had never really lived myself (non-engineer that I was). So I asked them to bring some in, just so I could see what a p-set was. And what I discovered—what we discovered—were these totally rich, torqued narratives made of very specific, poetic lexicons that we could repurpose and bend to our own extracurricular aims.

As I familiarized myself with these strange language systems—in which naïve estimator or coupling parameter doesn’t mean naïve or coupling as I’d ever understood those words, systems in which one must follow a very logical but byzantine path toward a correct answer—I realized I’d found a sound receptacle for this overspill of feeling I wanted to write about. The inherent doubleness and constraints were welcome, and necessary.

The Collagist published “Homework 3 (Spring 2016)” in July 2016. Has your writing changed since then? If so, how?

Oh god. Well, I have a puppy, and I know she’s getting taller, but I can’t really see it because I’m with her every day. I think it might be the same with my writing: I hope it’s changed, by which I mean I hope it bears the mark of more time spent with the world, but I’m too close to know. One’s compulsions change over time and with them, perhaps, goes style. But I’ve also aged and been aged since 2016, by years and circumstance, and so I suspect my writing is a little closer to death. Though, if the poets are any indication, maybe that’s a net gain.

This story has a strong sense of place. Is the desert a familiar setting for you? Why was it important this story take place where it does?

Yes, I grew up in the Sonoran Desert and have deep affection for it. But here I was interested in the way that a stranger or beloved defamiliarizes a landscape. This desert is not a place the narrator knows, with this man beside her. Even so, the mutual recognition comes quick, so that by morning the mountains know her well enough to chide her, and she knows them well enough to reply.

What is something you are loving right now? It could be a book, a game, a TV show, a food, etc.

Loving poetry and journalism: Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem. Joanna Klink’s Circadian. Amy Gerstler’s Crown of Weeds. And High Country News. Please read and subscribe to their great work on climate change and the American West. Important, place-based journalism.

What are three words that describe one of your WIPs?

Twentieth-century science. I’m finishing a project on science during the cold war, though not the science of weaponry that’s been popularized in film and elsewhere. Even quieter science had a real claim to progress then, and though still political and politicized, it tracked with a public hope—hope that was sometimes misguided or mislaid, but was abundant. Founded.

We’re doing science in such a different paradigm now; I think there’s a good chance American science from these years will be marked only by its ability to pull us back from the brink of a warming climate, or not, and the unequal distribution of its benefits through a profit-based health care system.

"To Raise Dead Things": An Interview with Jared Daniel Fagen

Jared Daniel Fagen is a writer living in Brooklyn and Arkville, NY. His prose and essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, PLINTH, Numéro Cinq, Entropy, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, 3:AM Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation, Hyperion, and elsewhere. He is the editor of Black Sun Lit and a PhD student in Comparative Literature at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

His story, "Delight/Equal Dread," appeared in Issue Eighty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about winter, giving up, and letting infringements into our writing.

What sparked your story, “Delight/Equal Dread”? Where did this story begin for you?

I suppose D/ED had begun from something dim instead. I actually remember this period of my writing fondly and distinctly. No, not distinctly, I remember it vividly, that is, then was about uncertain images. Perhaps it began from a kind of exhaustion, on a bench, at the burning end of a cigarette. Or rather from rest. I had just been walking or not yet able to set about. In any case I was not any more than a quarter mile away from my home in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn (hi DN-S), knowing I would have to start again somehow. All my favorite writers were walkers. I was bearing new discomforts in my body and in many ways recently done with “stories.” The writing of D/ED came from a freedom or easiness that follows forfeit. It was a December-January. A bench loses its charm in low temperatures. A bench can be strangely comforting in the cold. I walk out of some insensate habit frenzied, methodical, with my eyes pointed downward, nowhere to go and to go next. My prose had been up to that time traffic. Traffic is only bothersome when there is somewhere you’re expected to be or a destination ahead you desire to reach, passing the familiar landmarks. What I wanted was an end, yes, but one which would come at the eradication of mapped routes. Not too long ago I saw a friend post a photo that made me think of Valéry, who said prose was like walking and poetry like dancing. But I was becoming more interested in the meander in winter at weekday noontide when the sky is overcast and everything is hued gray by the residue of salts used to melt snow. You know, when everything looks scorched. So rest in the sense of unencumbered movement, as well as in what remains. They say life flashes before your eyes when you meet the end. I wanted to write the disorientation, the distortion, the memories that would flood and weren’t premeditated, forced, or fixed but isolated until instinctively (or neglectfully)—in their conjuring by means of the narrative performance of the writing—moved on from when I needed them most. Now I’m remembering a line I believe I have written. I’m looking back now. “Endings were satisfied quicker by surrender, by silence.” Oddly enough, this is from a story I had written not long before this one. To end is the possibility to recommence. So I suppose D/ED rose out of me from a wake.

This story has a very distinct voice. Is the voice in this piece similar to or different from the stories you typically write? How so?

D/ED was one (fragmented) text of several that I had composed during this time (c. 2015–16?) of relinquishment, stasis, and debility, in the faint winter of my writing. I don’t recall where it fits amongst the others in the series (I think five in total), but my guess is it was one of those texts written earlier on. There is a kind of exhilaration in D/ED, demonstrated by its paratactic restlessness, which is not as urgent in some of the other fragments. Most of my prose up to this point, in retrospect, had been too conscious of itself, that is, too tied to and labored by arrivals, keeping things, no matter how derelict or desperate I liked them to be, too aggressively intact, in the proper places I had in advance governed for them with agonizing effort. The voice in this work, I think, had been too controlled, commanding, deliberate, maybe more manipulative than suggestive. Yet nothing was really grounded, in the Heideggerian sense. The writing was already of ruinous things. While the nature of my writing as a whole—the impetus, the stirrings, the weariness where it comes from—has always been (and is) the same, D/ED and the aforementioned rest represent a narrative voice more interested in its process, in building and deprivation, in dwelling poetically, rather than combing or dredging an expressive textual site of recovery organized by literary tropes. The voice at the end of “stories” had to be equally as collapsing. It had to make visible not just the wreckage of a memory or image strewn about the page, but also the operation of their atrophy. It had to raise dead things at the meager end of their life. Life at the threshold of annihilation is both trepidatious and tranquil, the event of extreme limits. Things are more precious then, at their detriment. The voice became a thread and threadbare.

The Collagist published “Delight/Equal Dread” in June 2016. How has your writing or the focus of your writing changed since then?

D/ED marked a significant turning point in my writing. There is less interference from passersby, from pomeranians (hi M), from reality. Everything since then is just as feverish, which is to say as natural. The writing grows, it spirals, it sieves, and I’ve become meagerly its vessel, a colander. I am practicing temper turbulently. Many learn to inhabit writing, maybe for healing. But writing still inhabits me, maybe it’s my mania, the obsessions just as intense. I still begin the work when I find myself fraught with words, when a certain phrase pummels me. The unpublished work following D/ED and its counterparts is more tidal, does more violence to language. Perhaps now there is more stuttering, corruption, cosmic sorrow, a harder time letting go. I find myself concentrating more on committing offences, creating disagreements between parts of speech, and letting these infringements propel the narrative motion, rather than plot. The writing’s become mostly about rhythm, departure, spontaneity, association, correspondence, using language to erase myself, to complicate the determination of the voice. I’m writing further inflictions, last sips of air.

What is the latest story you read and loved? 

“Finished Being” by Diane Williams, in New York Tyrant. Read it, it’s short. The story tells of a woman who “looked with respect” at a square of cement and “asked herself why she had to do that.” It’s only a sentence. Fiction can be so small, inconsequential, incipient. “Inconsequential” is an abundant modifier: it can mean unimportant, with little or no consequence (or aftermath), or, my favorite, neither here nor there. But back to the “story,” which, despite being only 30 words, is in all attributes still a story: it is an account of a character (she who looked) and event (the square of cement being looked at), real or imaginary, that is interrelated and sequential (the character looked, her eyes fell on the square of “cement-hued cement,” she noticed “a narrow frame of black tar” surrounding the square of cement, she reflected). It’s in the past. The adjectives “tar” and “cement-hued” are superfluous, almost comical, but they are there, serving no other function than appearance. What is the “story” about? Who is she? What kind of cement? Is it concrete? The kind used to make roads? Or prisons? What is “finished?” The story is simple, maybe: it’s about a way of seeing (hi André) “with respect.” Back again to words. The preposition “with” is used here in relation to something, defined as: “affected by (a particular fact or condition),” “indicating the cause of an action or condition,” and “because of (something) and as it happens.” Now “respect,” as in “a particular aspect, point, or detail,” due regard, or admiration. I think Williams is showing us that the best art, or the most meaningful—in the sense of what is indirectly expressed—is that which is stumbled upon, encountered by accident. Art is an imprint, hardening under the sun. It instills. It colors itself, exists only for itself. Art is an impurity. Art demands to be finished by its witness. But what is Williams actually describing? She isn’t. Words are insufficient instruments for essences, when they are merely glossed over for the benefit of fiction. Art has no reason or utility. Art invites. Like tar and cement, it preserves and perseveres. It is both monumental and elemental, a labor and an impartial luxury, a testament. To what? I don’t know. There’s a strange warmth in not knowing, in unknowing. Is the character who was looking at the block of cement the one who framed it with tar? Was she responsible for her own… remorse? Yes and no, I think. The indefinite article in “a solid square” and “a narrow frame” instead of the determiner certainly complicates things. Art is the experience of to be separated from and to submit to. For me, really, the question is, Can things just be? More importantly, What is being?

What is something you are working on now (writing or otherwise) that you are excited about? 

For a little over a year now I’ve been at work on a novel, for lack of better words, which I endearingly refer to as “the thing” and have tentatively titled Nevertheless. It’s an exercise in hunger, love, and language, about treadmills and grammar and being orphaned. Writing itself. I see no end in sight, that is, it seems to still have a little life left in it. As a rule I write painfully slow. I didn’t know I would be writing a book. Usually I write without knowing I’m writing, and once realized until I become famished. With “the thing” words have a habit of returning out of nothing long since I’ve believed them perished. There is what’s written and yet what to write. I know where I want to go with it—or, there are images and memories still left to forsake, words still left to mutilate—but not where it’ll end up, and that’s all well and good. If anything the longevity’s been a new writing experience, though I think “the thing” is maybe more faithful to the torrent of D/ED than some of the others that have come after. I’ve collected some of the work from around and since the D/ED sequences into a chapbook, which to my mind sounds nice, but at the moment I’m not so concerned with sending work out. What a relief! Demoralizing myself in the writing is more productive. I’d like to get back to capturing the cursory impulses again, though, to hastier suffocations, after the long thing has ceased in me.