Archive for September, 2010


Interview: William Wright, editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology

September 26, 2010

I’m pleased to welcome occasional contributor Brandon Wicks back to Art & Literature once more. This week, Wicks interviews William Wright, an award-winning poet now working on what’s shaping up to be one of the most ambitious projects in contemporary Southern letters. Wicks handles the official introduction and takes the post from here.

William Wright is the series editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology, a multi-volume collection of contemporary southern poetry. Volumes I and II, South Carolina and Mississippi, were co-edited with the late Stephen Gardner. The third, Contemporary Appalachia, co-edited with Jesse Graves and Paul Ruffin, is forthcoming in Spring 2011. Wright is the author of a chapbook, The Ghost Narratives, and a full-length poetry collection, Dark Orchard, which was the 2005 winner of the Texas Review Breakthrough Poetry Prize.

Brandon Wicks: You’re now at work finishing up the third volume of the Southern Poetry Anthology. It would seem a daunting process for any writer to transition into editing such an ambitious project. How did this idea take shape? How did it gain traction?

To be frank, the idea for The Southern Poetry Anthology took shape due to supreme naïveté on my part, and it was sheer luck that the idea was acted upon. I own only a few anthologies dedicated specifically to poetry of the American South, because only a few exist—Leon Stokesbury’s The Made Thing, the beautiful second edition that came out of the University of Arkansas in 1999; 45/96: The Ninety-Six Sampler of South Carolina Poetry (Ninety-Six Press), edited by Gilbert Allen; The Yellow Shoe Poets, 1964-1999: Selected Poems (LSU Press), edited by George Garrett; Locales (LSU Press), a collection edited by Fred Chappell; and Invited Guest: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Southern Poetry (University Press of Virginia), edited by David Rigsbee and Steven Ford Brown. (There are certainly more regional anthologies, but I haven’t gotten a hold of them yet.) I found all of these anthologies to be wonderful for me—formative influences for my own work that lead me to discover these voices more deeply in the author-specific Selected Poems and Collected Poems editions, not to mention stand-alone books. But these works never seemed to dig deeply enough. I knew—thanks mostly to Stephen Gardner and a few other mentors—that lots of great poetry being written in the southern states was relatively unsung, visible only in a few journals here or there, perhaps in a chapbook or two.

In 2003, I first started thinking this way, and so, inconveniently—among teaching, term papers, presentations, and my own writing—The Question arose: Why don’t I edit a series of books—state-by-state with a few regions considered, too, and take a contemporary snapshot of poetry in the American South as it is in the present moment? How presumptuous!

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Interview: Jay Varner, author of Nothing Left To Burn

September 20, 2010

I’m happy to host today another interview by Tara Laskowski, chatting this time with Jay Varner, a former classmate of hers at Susquehanna University and a graduate of the MFA program at UNC-Wilmington whose debut book is being released this week. Tara introduces the interview and the new memoir here:

Jay Varner‘s memoir Nothing Left To Burn, released this week by Algonquin Books, is a story about family, a story about fires, firestarters and firefighters, and a story about coming to terms with who you were and who you are. Jay explores the lives of his father, a local small town firefighter, and his grandfather, a serial arsonist, and how each man’s obsessions reflected on and was driven by the other’s.

Jay and I first met in undergrad at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, and I’ve been looking forward to this book for several years now. Maybe because we share an alma mater, or because we’re both from small towns in Pennsylvania, both loved visiting Hershey Park as kids and both worked at small town newspapers after graduation—in short, shared similar pasts and paths—I felt very attuned to the story here. However, whether you’re best friends with Jay or you wouldn’t know him if he bumped into you at the airport, the story he tells in this memoir—his first book—has universal themes that anyone will be touched by.

Father and son relationships; guilt, redemption, family illness and death; growing up poor; rites of passage—it’s all here in this story about a son, his father and his grandfather and how their choices change and affect their family and their futures.

I had a chance to talk with Jay recently about the book, his process of writing it and future projects.

Tara Laskowski: You talk in the book about how you originally envisioned this story as a novel, but then ended up writing a memoir. Can you talk a little about both the process of transitioning your writing to a different form, and also about writing a memoir itself? Just how difficult is it to write about your life and your family, especially when they don’t want you to?

Jay Varner: At the time I started writing this as a novel, it was the fall of 2001. I was trying to write about my father and some painful things in my past. And of course on television were images of the World Trade Center and the hundreds of firemen who not only searched for survivors, but also the ones who lost their lives. If my father were alive then, he’d have been in his truck driving on I-95 to help out. Perhaps that’s what really caused the novel to not work—I think for my own health, I needed to have distance. Not just by writing the story as fiction, but also jumping from different narrators and not focusing on myself.

Now, I had a professor who loved the story to the novel and asked how I ever came up with such a thing. I shrugged and said that it was true. Until then, I never told anyone at my college about my past—I’d been told to keep quiet, that my family’s history with fire was something to be ashamed about. But my professor’s eyes lit up and he politely mentioned this genre called nonfiction and memoir.

It took me a few years to really get to a place where I felt comfortable writing about this. A lot of that came from working the police and fire beat for my hometown paper—and going to many fire and accident scenes. There was a lot to work through on my own, especially how I felt about my father and the amount of time he invested in the firehouse, thus keeping him away from me. But once I started, I hadn’t thought of that novel in some time, and I just tried to remember as much as I could that was true.

By then, I knew that this wasn’t something to be ashamed about. Though I wish my father had spent more time away from the fire company, I started to truly understand what it meant to be a fire chief. And I didn’t resent the reasons he became a fireman. If anything, I understood this complex, flawed, heroic, and loving man even more. And even though my family probably wishes this weren’t on the shelves, I hope that in some way it does honor the sacrifice that both my parents made.

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Interview: Andrew Wingfield, author of Right of Way

September 12, 2010

Andrew Wingfield is the author of the novel Hear Him Roar and of the new short story collection Right of Way, winner of the 2010 fiction prize from the Washington Writers Publishing House. Right of Way focuses on the community of Cleave Springs, a fictional world which drew its inspiration from Wingfield’s own Alexandria neighborhood. The stories reflect the complex challenges of quickly changing communities in today’s urban and suburban communities but with always with focus on individual people and specific personal dramas.  In “Lily Pad,” for example, the stories of a young musician and a waitress at the local hangout parallel, intersect, and inform one another — stories of love, loss, longing and redemption (or at least the potential for redemption). Wingfield, an associate professor in George Mason University’s New Century College, will read from and discuss his new book as part of the upcoming Fall for the Book Festival; his talk takes place on Thursday, September 23, at 10:30 a.m. in Dewberry Hall in the Johnson Center on Mason’s Fairfax, VA Campus. In advance of that appearance, Wingfield answered a few questions about the inspirations for the novel — both literary inspirations and lessons from the real world.

Art Taylor: The linked stories in Right of Way are centered on Cleave Springs, a neighborhood similar to the one in which you live now. What was it that inspired you to give this place the Winesburg, Ohio treatment?

Andrew Wingfield: Place has always interested me, as a reader, a writer, and a human being. It was natural for me to tune into what was happening in my neighborhood and maybe it was inevitable that I’d get intrigued and want to write about it. But this project snuck up on me. My wife gave birth to our fist son about six months after we moved in to our place, and I started teaching full-time a few months after that. I became a busy man, a writer whose writing time was very fragmented. I had written one novel and had a couple of ideas for new novels that would require a lot of reading and research. But I had no time for reading and research. As soon as he could walk, my son would stand at the top of the stairs in the morning and holler until someone took him outside. I walked all over the neighborhood with him in the stroller or on my shoulders; and I spent many, many hours with him at the playground down the street. As I pushed him on the swing, I’d watch the action on the slab of pavement nearby, where the mostly black, mostly poor children of our neighborhood’s longtime residents biked and skated and scootered among the helmeted children of the mostly white, mostly well-educated, mostly middle class new arrivals. I might see the tall, handsome chauffer with the three pet whippets walk past. I might be harangued by the old Polish immigrant who was eager to start dropping bombs on Iraq. I might eavesdrop on the construction crew that was working on the house next to the park, renovating yet another of the neighborhood’s dilapidated homes in hopes of a quick and profitable flip. One day it struck me: I’m surrounded by stories here. Thiswhat I’m doing right now— is my research!

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Review: William Gibson’s Zero History

September 11, 2010

On the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, The Washington Post has published my review of Zero History by William Gibson, an author whose latest trio of books (including the current one) have made much of the short history and long shadow of that fateful day. Zero History seems a fair bit lighter than the preceding books — and heavier on the romance, a point I didn’t mention in The Post — but there’s still much to admire and enjoy. Here’s a quick excerpt from my review:

In many ways, Zero History serves as a sequel to Spook Country by reuniting most of that book’s leading characters and hewing closely to its caper structure — individual missions crossing and complicating one another, ultimately leading toward a showdown with much higher (if somewhat nebulous) stakes.

In Spook Country, what’s at stake is the fate of misappropriated funds from the Federal Reserve, the balance of international economic structures and the truth about U.S. rebuilding efforts in Iraq. In Zero History, it seems to be . . . casual menswear?

Really? Well to get the answer to that last little question, read the full article here.


KQED, the PBS affiliate in San Francisco, hosted a reading by Gibson from the new book. Check it out here.

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Interview: Kathryn Johnson, author of The Gentleman Poet

September 6, 2010

Kathryn Johnson’s new novel, The Gentleman Poet: A Novel of Love, Danger, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, starts from an intriguing premise: Scholars have long cited a real-life shipwreck saga as one of the inspirations for the Bard’s late great play, but what if instead of simply reading about it, Shakespeare had himself been a passenger on the ill-fated voyage of the Sea Venture? The ship, en route from England to the Jamestown in the New World, encountered a strong storm and was ultimately steered into the reefs of Bermuda, where 150 passengers (including John Rolfe, who would later wed Pocahantas) disembarked and tried to make a home for nine months until two ships could be built for the survivors to continue the journey. Dramatizing this already suspenseful tale — and injecting the possibility that Shakespeare might have been on board —  Johnson’s novel works on a number of levels: as minutely researched historical drama, as speculative fiction, as literary homage and gamesmanship, and even as romance, since the book’s focus is as much on a young servant girl named Elizabeth Person and her budding relationship with the ship’s cook as it is on that distinguished title character.

The Gentleman Poet hits bookstores on Tuesday, September 7, and Johnson has a full schedule of events ahead, including an appearance at George Mason University’s Fairfax, VA Campus as part of the upcoming Fall for the Book Festival; she’ll be speaking there on Monday, September 20, at 1:30 p.m. in the Sandy Springs Bank Tent, just outside the Johnson Center.

In advance of her tour, Johnson indulged a few questions about the new novel, and I’m glad to share our chat here.

Art Taylor: A simple question to begin with: What inspired you to write a novel about Shakespeare? Are you a longtime fan of the Bard’s work? Of The Tempest in particular?

Kathryn Johnson

Kathryn Johnson: Actually, my interest in writing The Gentleman Poet began in just the opposite way. I felt that I’d read far too few of Shakespeare’s plays in college. I wanted to learn more about him and what has made his poetry and plays so enduring. But as a working writer it’s very hard to find time for exhaustive reading and study unless it’s devoted to producing something. I think that’s why I so appreciate Bill Bryson and his books. He finds something that interests him, like hiking the Appalachian Trail or sampling historical high points (A Short History of Nearly Everything), and feeds his curiosity by going off to research until he has enough for a book. Before I could write anything, I needed to read not just from the plays but also some of the excellent nonfiction works that have recently been written, like Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All, Ron Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars, and Stephen Greenblatt’s wonderful, Will in the World. At first, just writing a story with Shakespeare somehow involved, something like the film, Shakespeare in Love, that was all I had in mind. Focusing on The Tempest came later.

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