Posts Categorized: Interview

INTERVIEW WITH 2020 CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE JUDGE, BASSEY IKPI

Indiana Review is accepting submissions for the Creative Nonfiction Prize until October 31st, 2020! In this interview with 2020 judge Bassey Ikpi, Nonfiction Editor El Williams invites her to talk about literary techniques and influences in her essay collection, I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, and what excites her about creative nonfiction.

New York Times Best Selling author Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian-American, ex-poet, current writer, constant mental health advocate, underachieving overachiever and memoir procrastinator. She lives in Maryland and is working on various creative projects.

In your book, I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, the POV switches from essay to essay, oftentimes changing from first to second person perspective in a single piece: What power do you feel shifting POV has on a reader’s imagination or emotional response?

I think it does a few things depending on the story being told and why: some of the stories needed to feel immersive. I wanted the audience to live in the experience with me. I also wanted them to be able to activate empathy by placing them as close to the experience as I could. There are essays where I’ve been told that the reader was exhausted after a certain point and, yes, I too was exhausted living it. I want you to know what it feels like for people who live lives with this longer than just between the pages of a book.  It also gives me the opportunity to tell a full story based on how I see it. For instance, I needed to tell the story as completely as I could. In the writing, I found myself telling myself the same lies and half-truths I’d always told myself, so giving myself permission to distance helped tell a fuller story. There were times when in the middle of the writing, a part of me would say, “You forgot to mention how…” and rather than editing those out or rewriting them once they were written, I kept them.  I would love to say that it was more deliberate than that but it wasn’t. Many of those essays were born out of free writes in the moment; me needing to find some grounding and centering as I was experiencing anxiety or insomnia or what have you. But once I saw how effective it was, I gave myself permission to write as it came instead of worry about making it standard. The plan was always to go back and change the tense and clean up the pronouns and make it look “normal,” but I tried to do that and it changed everything about what I wanted. It just didn’t work and it would have been a lesser book had I done that. 

Which writers inspire you and what does their work teach you?

A lot of writers inspire me, for this book: 

Lorrie Moore taught me how to tell a short story. 

Melissa Febos taught me that poetry can live in prose. She taught me that the truth can be told both unvarnished and beautifully carved. She taught me to tell the truth but edit with kindness. Melissa taught me about freedom in writing.

Megan Stielstra taught me that the “ending” of a sentence or a paragraph or a book didn’t need to be smooth. That a thought, or an emotion, can hang and sit with the reader while the writing has moved on. It was because of her book that I didn’t feel the need to write the “last essay.” I left when I was done and with the idea that there is more to the story than fits in the pages.

J. California Cooper taught me about beauty in brevity. She taught me that some of the most impactful moments can be contained in just a few short sentences.

Ntozake Shange taught me that my two loves, writing and dance, were lovers and I could have them both.

Toni Morrison taught me to write for myself and for my people. No matter who those people are.

Nana-Ama Danquah taught me about telling the truth despite the fear. Telling your story for the sake of the story and nothing else.

Kiese Laymon taught me to be fearless. He gave me permission to write the story ugly.

Many people taught me many things. I’ve learned a lot from a lot of people but these are what came to my mind when I read this question. I’m sure I’ll think of about 95 other people tomorrow and want to edit this. 

While reading creative nonfiction, what excites you the most and why?

Beautifully crafted sentences and brilliant, or clever, turns of phrases that take a moment I’ve experienced many times and turn it on it’s side, exposing something I’ve never seen. Or when I read something and say, “I didn’t know how to say that. I didn’t know what that was until I read it.” I love feeling like the author is showing me something that I forgot to look at. I love having my breath catch or escape with worry or compassion or anger or frustration. I want to live in it with the writer. I want to read something beautiful and ugly and authentic and lived in. 

I know your collection of essays was published last year and is still fresh, but what’s next for you or what are you most excited for that is happening in the near future?

I’ll be honest, I didn’t enjoy the publishing process or anything that came after it. It made me very tense so I’m not in any rush or hurry to write another book. I think this was the book I was meant to write and I don’t have much else to say. I couldn’t be happier with what I wrote and I think it’s okay to let it live.

I did enjoy recording the audiobook so I’m going to be doing some more around that later.

I can’t say too much about some of the other things but I’m excited to see what other shape this book can take. 

INTERVIEW WITH 2021 BLUE LIGHT BOOKS PRIZE JUDGE, NANDI COMER

The 2021 Blue Light Books Prize is open for submissions until October 31st! In this email interview with 2021 judge Nandi Comer, IR invites her to talk about her new book, Tapping Out, her literary influences and writerly obsessions, and the process of developing ourselves through writing.

NANDI COMER is the author of the American Family: A Syndrome (Finishing Line Press) and Tapping Out (Northwestern University Press). She is a Cave Canem Fellow, a Callaloo Fellow, and a Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellow.   Her poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Muzzle, The Offing, and Southern Indiana Review. She currently serves as an assistant poetry editor for Four Way Review and as a poetry editor for Obsidian Literature and Arts in the African Diaspora.

Tapping Out features illustrations and definitions of different moves and luchadores, which also serve to delineate the different sections of the book. How do you conceive of these expressions working together?

The book is about Lucha Libre—sort of. It’s about home, love, travel, and identity. It also is a deep dive into language, how one acquires new vocabulary, and how we don’t always have the language to say what we mean. The definitions serve as an intro to the themes of the poems, but they also demand the reader to participate in the quest for meaning that is so important in writing and language acquisition. 

I am always working with a dictionary nearby. I don’t think too many days go by without paging through to search for the meaning of a word or opening the dictionary app on my phone or computer. I love the way different dictionaries serve specific roles in my life. A dictionary of literary terms, a Spanish-English dictionary, the urban dictionary—they are about gaining access to a language and meaning.

When I started writing poems about Lucha Libre, I was using the definitions as epigraphs for individual poems because I was aiming to explain to a reader unfamiliar with wrestling. Once I began assembling the collection, I didn’t like how the terms were restricted to single poems. I did what most writers do—I played around with assembly and reassembly. There was even a version where all of the poems that were introduced with definitions were in an individual section. When I decided to pull the wrestling terms out and use the definitions as section headers the mystery of sequencing shifted. The meaning of the poems became more expansive. The definitions gave the group a framework to be in conversation with each other. 

You introduce different types of luchadores throughout your book. Do you identify with one more than others?

 Let’s see, there are so many divisions of “types” of wrestlers. The exóticos, the minis, the superheroes, the families, and then women! –who I feel like they should have their own category for how incredible they take to the ring. The técnicos (faces) and rudos (heels) are the two dominant groups. Sometimes I identify with técnicos. They are the heroes. They don’t want to cheat. Through brilliant strategy, they prioritize taking down their opponent within the confines of the rules. Writing can be a struggle and I like to think that within the structure, I hold down the body of the poem and shape it into what I want. Writing within the structure of rules can open extraordinary possibilities. On the other hand, I am naturally rebellious like the rudos. They are the rule-breakers. There is a satisfaction in knowing the rules and throwing them out. What might be expected of me is not always what I want to give. Maybe I am a técnico with rudo tendencies. Either way, when I go to matches, I find myself rooting for técnicos. 

What do you consider the makings of a good book of poetry? Do you gravitate toward literature that appeals to your own “writerly obsessions,” your oft-revisited themes and ideas?

My writerly obsession might not be as obvious. I am most drawn in by voice and lyric work. I love it when a collection takes me in and then surprises me. I can be taken up by almost any collection that has an original approach to language and/or its subject matter. The poetry that I think is most engaging is the kind that serves as a container for multiple acts. If I do a close reading of the work will I find more? Is there close attention to craft in the syntax or structure? While I find myself drawn to new or historically marginalized perspectives, I am excited by original representations of familiar stories. I want to fall in love with the mystery of a writer’s invention.

You adapt a line from Federico García Lorca’s “Ghazal of the Terrifying Presence” in your poem “Tamed.” What other artists influenced this collection? Who do you draw upon for inspiration?

There are so many influences on the poems in Tapping Out—some more obvious than others. I see this collection as a contribution to the rich tradition of African American travel narrative and so I spent a lot of time studying the first ideations of black travel in the slave narratives. If I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams, I set out to create a document that extends the conversations found in Phillis Wheatly’s view of her country or Olaudah Equiano’s global voyages or Fredrick Douglas’ escape to freedom. I also turned to contemporary poets working through themes of displacement and travel abroad like Tracy K Smith and Collen J. McElroy. The memoirs of Langston Hughes and the essays James Baldwin were texts I kept returning to.

My life was changed when I decided to do close readings of writers taking on personas in their writing. I am always returning to the poetry of Ai, Wisława Szymborska, and Patricia Smith. Reading them taught me a lot more than just stepping out of my perspective. I borrowed strategies for sequencing and their use of historical research for my poems. I could live a complete life returning to their books.

Your poems, like “Negrita,” “Kathmandu,” and “Guadalajara in the Form of Litany,” work a lot with questions of identity and place. Do you have any advice for writers working to excavate their own histories or develop their own voices?

Place. Home. These are very difficult things for me to write about especially because I struggle over what it means to be from a place like Detroit. When I was growing up during the economic decline of the 1980s, my generation was taught that success was equated to leaving, that we needed to find the life of wealth in the suburbs or a safe college town. When I left for college, I thought I’d never move back. Then a family emergency brought me home indefinitely. I returned to a community struggling with a new recession, numerous foreclosures, and a city battling bankruptcy. But I also came home and connected with poets, grassroots organizers, community gardeners, and artists all building the community they wanted to see without the dominant cultural definitions of wealth and prosperity. Through community, I fell in love with my complicated home. 

So advice? The work of unearthing is dirty. Drop to your knees and dig. Allow yourself to feel the rich soil, worms, and roots of the stories that connect you to place. Everything you find may not seem like good stuff at first and the process might feel a little dangerous. You might find a stone or discarded bottle. But that’s important too. Even the weeds are useful. And too, leave your subject alone. Write about something else. When I am not writing about Detroit, Detroit, like a squirrel, will creep up behind me and sit in my poems. It likes to bury little gifts for me that I will have to dig up later. 

Interview with 2020 1/2 K Prize Judge, Tiana Clark

The 2020 1/2 K Prize is open for submissions until August 15th! In this interview with IR, 2020 judge Tiana Clark talks about concision, her favorite poets, and what makes a great flash piece.

Photo of Tiana Clark by Daniel Meigs from the Nashville Scene

Tiana Clark is the author of the poetry collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Clark is a winner for the 2020 Kate Tufts Discovery Award (Claremont Graduate University), a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow, a recipient of a 2019 Pushcart Prize, a winner of the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She was the 2017-2018 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing. Clark is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt University (M.F.A) and Tennessee State University (B.A.) where she studied Africana and Women’s studies. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, The Washington Post, VQR, Tin House Online, Kenyon Review, BuzzFeed News, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Oxford American, Best New Poets 2015, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. More about her can be found at tianaclark.com.

Your book, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood​, includes one- to two-page poems, as well as some poems of medium or longer length, like “The Rime of Nina Simone.” Thinking about your own process, what do you find most exciting and challenging about writing shorter poems in comparison to writing something longer, that stretches into four, five, or more pages? 

Concision is hard for me, which is funny, since I’m a poet, ha! Short poems are actually extremely difficult and rare for me to write. I tend to chase my poems to a point of breathlessness, which often means my poems are discursively long and wild and bombastic. I envy and marvel at Jack Gilbert and Kobayashi Issa’s short poems that nail the precision of feeling in so few lines. Oh, that singing cricket!

It’s another time, pre-COVID, and you and three authors of your choosing get to go out to a restaurant and talk writing! Who will you invite, and where would you go?  

Oh wow! I LOVE this question. I call pre-covid time “BC” for before coronavirus. I would select: Ross Gay, Ada Limón, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi. 1) Because they all have the same poetry agent, so I think it would be easy to book, lol! 2) They are some of my three favorite poets ever, and also some of the most generous humans on and off the page. 3. I think they all nail and encompass what Mary Ruefle calls in Madness, Rack, and Honey the “emergency of feeling” when I encounter their work. 4. I would want to go to Ross Gay’s house (if he would have us), and have us all cook things up from his amazing garden! I’m inviting myself over in my imagination! 

Across genre, whether for a micro-essay, flash fiction, or a short poem, do you see any commonalities in great flash pieces (however you define them)? 

I think no matter the genre you have to trust and chase your own imagination. I think all great writing takes some kind of risk in its execution. A great flash piece revels in its rebellious origin story and liminality. What’s great about flash is that it doesn’t have to be just one thing, but it needs to try do all the things well: the lyricism, the narrative (or is it trying to actively push away from linearity?), the syntax, the sentences, the heart, the duende, the secret, the stake, the surprise, the tension, all of it. All of it has to morph and shine and sway together. Or, it has to subvert all of those expectations in a fascinating way, which leads me back to my original thought about risking a new entry point into language and feeling. In all writing, I’m looking for something dangerous and desirous that pierces my attention, makes my want to dog-ear the page.   

What’s next for you? What are you most excited for this year?​ 

Ah! Right now, I’m focusing on my breath. Besides that, I’m working on my next poetry collection and a non-fiction book (which is all about some hybridity, baby!). I’m most excited about traveling (when it’s allowed again). I really want to marinate by a large body of water. I’ve been craving the ocean: the salt-smell, the sand, the metronomic waves.  Hopefully, I’ll get there somehow by the end of the year. I’m excited about taking a new risk with non-fiction by embracing failure and all the uncertainty ahead!

Interview With 2020 Don Belton Prize Judge Charles Yu

The Don Belton Prize is open until June 30th! In this interview, IR talks with prize judge Charles Yu about his writing influences, humor, and what makes a great novel.

CHARLES YU is the author of four books, including the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. He received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award and was nominated for two WGA awards for his work on the HBO series, Westworld. He has also written for upcoming shows on AMC and HBO. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a number of publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate, and Wired. His latest book, Interior Chinatown, will be published by Pantheon in January 2020. Check it out here.

Lots of us have “writerly obsessions.” How do you think about returning to subjects & themes in your work?

My thinking on this has changed over time. At first, I didn’t even know I had obsessions. Then after I’d written a couple dozen things, I started to see patterns. It was: hmm, what’s going on here? A little bit like every morning I would set off on a walk, and then realize I always ended up at the same park. The obsessions didn’t go away. I started to worry. For a while, I tried to get away from my usual topics, thinking they were limitations or that I would burn out my readers and myself if I kept navigating the same territory. Then, more recently, I hit a new phase. I became comfortable with my obsessions. It’s not that I don’t want to continue to break new ground or try things. I definitely do. But my obsessions have been with me for so long now. I’ve invested in them, and they’ve invested in me. Writing is hard enough, and I think most writers are very lucky to get even a little bit of territory to which they can lay any kind of claim. My topics are my topics; they define me, and I’m grateful for them. And as I age, maybe I’ll even gain a new obsession or two, or a new perspective on the ones I have.

You’ve written short stories, TV episodes, novels, and more. Can you tell us how you think about genre & medium when you write?

The thing all of those genres and media have in common is they depend on character and story. So that comes first. Viable ideas don’t present themselves that often. So when one does peek its little head out of the dirt, I try not to scare it away with the tagging gun. I’ve got to coax it out of the ground, get it to emerge fully and show itself. Once I’ve got the idea firmly in grasp (although sometimes they still get away), I can try to think about what kind of story is this? What genre or form feels right to cage it? Have I taken this analogy too far? Maybe. 

As for TV vs. prose, I was and am a fiction writer first, so words are the material I am most comfortable with. Television is a visual medium, so I have to think in images. 

Many of us are struggling to do creative work right now. What’s been helping you think creatively lately, even if it doesn’t manifest as writing?

Walks. Reading. Finding ways to have less noise and more perspective. Not easy, though—at the time I’m writing these responses, I’m 94 days into lockdown. Somewhere around day 70, I started to feel a bit foggy. It’s been a struggle. I’m thankful to have had assignments in this time—nothing like the pressure of a deadline to focus the mind.

What do you look for in a good novel?

Voice. Which for me can come from one or many places: choices with diction or grammar or syntax that perturb and excite. A liminal space—feeling like I’m in an envelope of consciousness, a permeable barrier between my thoughts and the text. That might sound a bit obscure or elliptical. What I mean is I love novels where my mind melts into the minds of the characters, and vice versa. 

Any advice for aspiring satire writers out there?

Ha! No.

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Interview with 1/2 K Prize Judge Megan Giddings

Indiana Review will be accepting submissions to the 1/2 K Prize from July 1 to August 15, 2019. Final judge Megan Giddings will select a winner to receive $1000 publication. In an email interview, Indiana Review invites Megan to open up about flash fiction, her novel, and gibraltar. Discover more of Megan here: www.megangiddings.com.

Indiana Review: What does flash mean to you? What’s special about the genre?

Megan Giddings: I think flash is special because when done well it teaches, or at least reminds a writer and reader, how to distill a story into its most memorable parts. The language has to be well-chosen. You can’t get lost or meander; everything has to feel purposeful. Anything that’s not contributing can lose a reader.On a personal level, I don’t think I learned how to write remotely well, until I started writing flash. Before having a word limit, I had what I call a real case of the hi-hellos-what’s ups, my lines would be really repetitive. It would take me 15 pages to tell a 7 page story. Writing flash gave me the most important skill I think an aspiring writer can have: learn how to be your own relentless editor. 

IR: What’s the most refreshing image you’ve encountered lately?

MG: I’m currently working on a bigger project and for research, I’ve been reading different folk tales. One I keep coming back to is all the different variations of “Witch Hare” (I’m using this title but there are several variations). The element that stays the same is there is an old witch who can turn herself into a rabbit. Sometimes, she just dies. Sometimes, she pulls a lot of stunts that makes villagers mad. Sometimes in addition to those stunts, she gets in trouble for cursing a younger woman to spit pins. The last version I’ve been fixated on and is a plot point for the book I’m currently writing.Reading this response over,I don’t think I would call it refreshing, but it’s one my brain can’t let go of, it keeps opening more and more creative doors for me.

IR: What’s next for you? What’re you most excited for this year?

MG: Writing life, I’m working on my second novel. But what I’m actually most excited about this year is I’m becoming an aunt for the first time. I feel like one of my ideal adult forms is aunt who buys their nieces and nephews a lot of books and when they’re older gives them sage life advice while drinking a glass of red wine.

IR: You’re throwing a dinner party! Which artists, dead or alive, are you inviting?

MG: Prince, Octavia Butler, and my 90 year old Grandma.

IR: If your literary aesthetic was a food, what would it be?

MG: Do Drinks count? It would probably be a gibraltar (on the east coast, you generally call it a cortado, but I’m using gibraltar here because there are so many variations on cortados and my response might confuse someone based on that) where the barista makes like a heart or a leaf in the foam on top. It appears outwardly very cute, but beneath the soft sweetness is intense espresso. Through the magic of the right proportions of milk and foam, the gibraltar doesn’t stray into feeling overwhelming or into uncomfortable acidity. It’s balanced and complex.

Megan Giddings is a fiction editor at The Offing and a features editor at The Rumpus. Her flash fiction has been featured in Best of the Net 2018, Best Small Fictions 2016, Black Warrior Review, and Passages North among many other places. Megan’s debut novel, Lakewood, will be published by Amistad in 2020. More about her can be found at www.megangiddings.com