Archive for the ‘Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers’ Category

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Don’t Move!

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Yep, it’s time (some would say high time) for associate editor Don Peteroy to lob another Irrelevant Question at an Unsuspecting Writer. Actually, we always clear the question with the writer beforehand. Actually, sometimes the writer doesn’t like the question and asks for another. Actually, sometimes the writer never responds, which is, we guess, another way of indicating he or she didn’t like the question. Which all goes toward saying we never know how a writer is going to respond. That’s the cool part. The recipient of this edition’s Irrelevant Question—Colin Fleming—really delivered. We don’t know about you folks, but here at CR we’ve been longing for a good, rousing disquisition. Something we can stand back and let unfold, and unfold, and then say, simply, “Wow.” A disquisition that tackles a difficult distinction, such as the difference between good writing and writerly writing. (The latter term designating writing that is meant to sound good, often isn’t, but fools people anyway.) Feeling brave? Read on.

Question: It’s about time we have some fresh new literary terms, don’t you agree? Could you please coin some new terms, and define them?

CF: As someone who can’t read a book, no matter what it is, without marking it up and writing in the margins, I’ve come to realize that I’ve done this sort of thing where I’ve blended literary terms into my thinking such that I’ve done away with, you know, terminess. I’ve stopped pausing to label something as some form of device. I want to get beyond that and see something mmetaphorore integrated, so I’m always in the sentence, not in the label. If you see a metaphor as more than metaphor, you’re never leaving the sentence, and the author is doing a bang-up job by keeping you there.

And since I wonder, too, who really knows more than a few literary terms these days, it seems we could use a few that go beyond academic speak. I like the stuff that registers with the people across the hall, and that’s what tends to register most with me.

I read so much material full of what I call moves. Term the first! I hate moves. A move is when a writer is doing one of these “Look at me, Ma, I’m really writing!” deals. A lot of literary magazines love moves. They like stories written in the monotone third person, with sentences that remind me of someone slamming back a typewriter carriage at the end of a line and starting again. The perpetual da-dat-da-dat-da-dat (repeat, repeat, repeat) sentence structure of so much contemporary fiction. Moves are viewed as literary, as not how the “rabble” would ever express anything, thus conferring an imagined superiority on the writer. Pens are not waved through the air. They are wanded. Move. I looked at this one book where a line went something like “The sun gentles the wall of the building across the street.” It gentles it? It fucking gentles it? Move Central. Don’t do moves. You know when you’re doing a move. Moves are for your insecurity, and if someone is doing them past their juvenilia period, there ain’t a lot of talent there. Which can be confusing, because there is a system in place to reward moves.

Move-buffs also tend to be what I think of as sandboxers. As in, playing in the sandbox with the cronies. A sandboxer is someone who writes and hopes rather than writes and knows: labors over some 300 word short-short for an age, and then requires a fellow sandboxer to praise it, and then a dozen others, so that it can be thought of as good. The original sandboxer is subsequently pressed to return this service for his confederates, perpetuating a cycle of codependency and enabling, which allows the sandboxer to replace actual reality with an invented one. Sandboxers spend huge amounts of time on social media, posting dozens of items a day that read like especially bromidic dross from literary fortune cookies. One will encounter things like “If I could be trapped in a bookstore 24/7, I’d happily be an agoraphobic #snuggles.”

Colin-FlemingA more cheery term, the one that matters most to me and that is crucial to writing—certainly writing that lasts—is a simple one: life. You know when you see life in something you read, because you feel it, and you exclaim, in a way, your way, “There it is!” I’d argue that the more life in something, the harder it is to get it into most journals, but that’s another matter. You can’t fake life—that moment that fifty different people encounter and connect with in a personal way, disparate though these people and their experiences are. The life moment is the “push away from the desk moment,” the “I think I’m going to go for a walk around the block or down by the harbor” moment, the great unshakable that comes back to you at different points, and differently each time. I find myself denoting this, of late, with “That is the stuff,” in the margins of what I’m reading. Life is a long way from the box. Which sounds like a double entendre, but isn’t. See? Old school lit term there amidst the new. Like a sponsor!

Colin Fleming is the author of the forthcoming book The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories From the Abyss. He has written for Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, and Vanity Fair, and is a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: In Which We All DIE Edition

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Associate Editor Don Peteroy is back with another of the irrelevant questions that one might, if one were science-fictionally inclined, liken to little spaceships zooming madly around in his head, shooting out tractor beams in the hope of sucking up writers he admires. This week’s abduction: one Ron Currie Jr. Now to the alien examination room!

BOD-1Question: Members of an unnamed alien civilization from antimatter Galaxy NGC 9221are currently coming to Earth. They plan to blow us up, for the hell of it. Their engines are powered by an energy force called Ron Currie Jr. Likes to Read. Worry not. I’ve done the calculations. You’ve got three books to go before they enter our solar system, four before they’re within firing range. If you want to thwart their attack, you can stop reading books right now; if you want to press your luck, you can go ahead and read three more. What would the last three books you’d read be? And you wish to read a fourth, what world-destroying book would you choose?

Since very little I do seems to have any measurable effect on the world, I like the idea of something as simple and seemingly innocuous as reading a book bringing about the end of human life. That in mind, I’m going all the way. Wait, so do I get to finish them all? Does the attack commence the moment I turn the last page of the fourth book? I’m going to assume so. Okay. This scenario reminds me of another circumstance I face fairly often, one with similar stakes: I’m at a restaurant, and I’m starving—I mean don’t-put-any-part-of-your-anatomy-near-my-mouth hungry—and I’m trying to decide what to order, which of course is made more complicated and difficult by the fact that I’m too hungry to think. Chances are I’ve eaten at this place before, and I have my one or two favorite items on the menu. I’d say 25 percent of the time I’m foolish enough to try something new, and when I do, I almost always end up disappointed, which when I’m really hungry makes me angry as shit, and then my whole evening (and, chances are, that of anyone in my company) is ruined. Okay. So wait, what was the analogy? Oh yeah. This is like that, except it’s not just that I’m really hungry, it’s that this will be my last meal ever. So will I be foolish enough to risk squandering the experience on a book I haven’t read, no matter how good everyone says it is? I will not. Instead, I will reread books I know are excellent, and that way I can guarantee I won’t be disappointed. And you know what, just for shits and giggles let’s go with exclusively story collections. Probably will start with The Things They Carried. You know, I haven’t read Malamud’s Collected Stories in a while, and it’s hefty enough that we’ll all live a little longer. Here’s something interesting—I already know what the fourth book will be, and it’s also written by a straight cisgendered white guy, so I’m sitting here debating internally over throwing in a collection by a woman, or a black dude, or a wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatist. Or maybe just Drown by Junot Diaz, because it’s excellent. But you know what? The world’s coming to an end, so demographic quotas, I’m afraid, can no longer save us. Hence, book #3 will be What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. And finally, the only story collection with the power to actually bring the world to an end: Jesus’ Son.

Ron Currie, Jr. is the author of Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, Everything Matters! and God Is Dead, winner of the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Often compared to Kurt Vonnegut, he was recently presented the Addison M. Metcalf Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Whale Woes

Monday, October 26th, 2015

It’s our pleasure to present another edition of Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers, a blog feature in which Associate Editor Don Peteroy lobs a bit (or a lot) of ludicrousness, like a great white written spitball, at an author he admires, and the author bobs and weaves to avoid taking the sodden mass in the eye. This episode’s delightfully game target is Anne Valente. Coming at you, Anne! Cweappppppptttthhhhh [sound of written-spitball release].

moby_dick_11Question: You’re teaching an undergraduate novel-writing class. The first two students up for workshop hand in phonebook-sized manuscripts. At home, you begin to read the first one, and it’s not long before you realize the student has turned in an exact copy of Moby-Dick, word for word. You open the next manuscript, and the first line reads, “Call me Ishmael.” It’s another Moby-Dick. In class, you yell at the students, but they don’t know what you’re talking about. In Survey of British Lit, 1580-1700, you’d assigned The Taming of the Shrew. When you initiate conversation, the students start talking about homoeroticism as it pertains to Queequeg and Ishmael. You glance inside your copy of the Shakespeare play, and—it goes without saying—the entire text has been replaced by Moby-Dick. You then look in every book in your office. Kafka’s The Trial is about Ahab’s search for the whale. On the Road? A tale about whale hunting. Even Joyce Carol Oates’s entire oeuvre has become Melville-infected. And then you look in your own book, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. “Call me Ishmael,” it reads. Your publisher phones to discuss a new novel you’re working on. She says, “Look, Anne, I’ll be frank. I don’t know what the hell you’re trying to do. Let’s try something new, something inventive. I’ve had this idea floating around in my head, and you can take it and expand upon it if you wish. Okay, so this guy, Ishmael, ends up on this whaling boat with this crazy captain named Ahab. . . .” As she explains, you open your inbox. You’ve received a rejection from a literary magazine. The email reads: “We’re sorry, but your work does not suit our needs at the moment. We’re currently looking for fresh stories about a captain in search of a white whale…” In brief, describe the next twenty-four hours of your life.


Valente1AV: First, I pull from beneath my bed the Ouija board that’s been gathering dust since junior high. I dim the lamps, light some candles and incense. Even though Witchboard and The Exorcist and even the Hasbro instructions have all warned me not to play alone, I place my hands on the planchette and ask the ether of the living room, “Herman Melville, is that you?” The wind blows against the panes. The candlelight flickers. The spade-shaped indicator creeps slowly around the board, not toward the YES or NO at the top corners but instead around the letters until it spells a full sentence: IT IS I. My hands flinch away from the board. Herman Melville is in the room! I gather my thoughts and wonder what I can possibly ask him. I think of my students, the whale-filled manuscripts, the call from my publisher, the literary magazine rejection. My hands find the board. “What do you want from me?” I say to the room.

The planchette flies quickly around, spells out the longest sentence I’ve seen since the board told me in junior high NO YOU WILL NEVER MEET TORI AMOS SORRY. I memorize the letters Melville gives me, decode them in my head. WHEN YOU READ MOBY DICK A FEW YEARS AGO YOU SKIMMED THE WHALING CHAPTERS AND I WANT YOU TO KNOW MORE ABOUT WHALE TAXONOMY AND BALEEN AND HARPOON ROPES.

Then the board goes silent. The wind stops blowing and the incense burns out. I set the board quietly inside its box, slide it back under the bed, and pull Moby-Dick off the shelf. It takes twenty-four hours to read all 663 pages, but by the following night, my eyes bloodshot with a lack of sleep, I know everything there is to know about the history of whaling and uses for whale oil and the difference between a humpback and a minke.

The next morning, my students submit manuscripts that don’t begin Call me Ishmael. We discuss The Taming of the Shrew. I receive a follow-up email from the lit mag saying submissions are closed for their whale-theme issue. I wonder for a few days if using the Ouija board alone will cause me to writing only of white whales, but Herman Melville never contacts me again.

Anne Valente’s first short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, won the Dzanc Books Short Story Prize and was released in September 2014. Her debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, is forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins in 2016. She is also the author of the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics. Originally from St. Louis, she is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Smell the Page

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Donny Boy P. is back on our blog with an olfactory edition of Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions—a whenever-he’s-not-swamped-and-can-actually-get-writers-he-admires-to-respond-to-his-crazy-questions series, this time with John Henry Fleming, who, obviously, responded.

John Henry Fleming’s story collection, Songs for the Deaf, has just been released from Burrow Press. He’s also the author of The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, a novel, Fearsome Creatures of Florida, a literary bestiary, and The Book I Will Write, a novel-in-emails originally published serially at the Atticus Books website. His short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, North American Review, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, Kugelmass, Better: Culture and Lit, and Carve, among others. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida, where he is advisory editor of Saw Palm. Visit his website at

Question: You have many devoted readers. Ideally, what would you like your readers to smell like when they read your fiction, and why?

JHF: Ideally, the reading experience of any good book changes the scent of the reader. Can you not tell, stepping into a coffee shop, which patron is reading Flaubert and which Tennyson? It is written on the breeze. Well-crafted language transforms; one has only to open one’s receptors and activate one’s glands. Pheromones are released, poisons get sweated. A once-secret self broadcasts like the charged air before a storm. Are there words for it? No, if the scent could be contained in words it would not be itself. It is you but not you. It is you on books, on this particular book, this story, this poem, this line. It’s good, you say, looking up at the sound of my deep inhale. Have you read it? No, but I’ve read you reading it, and sometimes that’s enough. I know you better now. I love you, reader of books. I love the scent of you, the multitudes your book-scent contains, worlds so light as to drift on the breeze, settling now onto steamed milk like dustings of cinnamon. But don’t let me interrupt your reading. Cinnamon is fine, too. I can absolutely accept cinnamon if that’s how my readers smell. Warm crayons are also good. Either way, thank you for smelling.

100 Essential Sites for Voracious Readers

Friday, March 1st, 2013

The Cincinnati Review was named one of the 100 Essential Sites for Voracious Readers by We are number nine and proud of it. They list as a must read our blog entry: Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Solipsistic Collapse Edition. If you’re considering a master’s degree or you’re an educator looking for a resource, check out this tidy site, which “cater[s] to English majors, or those who are considering taking their education in English literature and composition a step further.”

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Greenpeace Edition

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Like a human harpoon, Don Peteroy drives into the capacious, frenzied, sophistical, groping, transient, contentious,  flameproof, satiate, igneous, whale-loving heart of Michael Czyzniejewski with this latest edition of Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions.

Michael Czyzniejewski is the author of the story collections Elephants in Our Bedroom (Dzanc Books, 2009) and Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions (Curbside Splendor, 2012), as well as a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He teaches at Missouri State University, where he serves as Editor of Moon City Review.

Question: You, Michael, are not an adverb and adjective addict. I’ve read your two collections, and not once did I write in the margins, “For the love of God, Michael, ditch the modifiers!” You use them sparingly because, I assume, 1) you understand that simple nous and verbs should do the job, 2) you trust your reader’s imagination, and 3) you don’t want to be considered an inept writer.

I have bad news for you. For now on, whenever you decline to use a modifier, another whale dies. How will you conduct your career as a writer, knowing this? Be careful of your response. It could massacre many whales.

MC: What I’d do is this: I’d rampage for a while, staying away from writing, you know, back-alley cockfights, some underground Russian roulette matches, a few androgynous prostitute weekends, a gun/military memorabilia show or two. That sort of thing. Refreshed, I’d then make up a character who has a magically real speaking disorder that invokes a string of adjectives before each noun. For instance, he’d greet his mother for morning porridge by saying, “Top of the fantastic, invidious, bright, officinal, clear, iatric, monosyllabic, hairy, hypnagogic, disingenuous, clavate, pregnant, invasive, Zeitgeist, phony, bibulous, polyamorous, gooey, volant, shameful, malodorous, sullen, acephalous, yellow, meretricious, common day, divaricate, Kafkaesque, redundant, trabeated, cheery, saliferous, divergent morning to you, Mumsy!” At that she would smile and give him his porridge.

At that point, I would feel as if I’d saved enough whales for me to sleep at night, enough adjectives in the bank. If I had to use adverbs, however, I’d just let the whales die: Krill would love me, Ahabs would want to be me.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: Solipsistic Collapse Edition

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Don Peteroy is at it again, asking relevant writers irrelevant questions. But could this be the last Irrelevant Question he irrelevantly asks? Writer Andrew Farkas imagines this grim future, and provides an answer that Peteroy didn’t want to hear. At this posting, Peteroy is still recovering from his psychic break.

Andrew Farkas is a fiction writer from Akron, Ohio. He is the author of Self-Titled Debut, which won the 2008 Subito Press Prize for Experimental Fiction, and has published fiction in Northwest Review, New Orleans Review, Whiskey Island, Emprise Review and The Brooklyn Rail, among others. He currently lives in Chicago, Illinois, where he helps run a letters racket on the Near West Side. We published his short story “Sky Party” in Cincinnati Review 6.1.

Question: What’s my next question going to be?

AF: Don, you’re a good guy, so I hate to be the one to tell you this, but your next question is going to be “What’s my next question going to be?” It’s also going to be the question after that. And the one after that. Don, have you ever read one of those old horror stories where someone gets caught in a loop and consequently they’re doomed to repeat the same actions over and over again forever? Have you, Don?

When we read those stories, I think the reason we think they’re so creepy is because in our world, things don’t keep repeating themselves in exactly the same way. By reading one of those stories, we’re forced to look at a world that is completely foreign to ours and wonder what it’d be like if that sort of repetition existed here. You can never step in the same river twice, you can never go home again, that’s the world we live in, but not you, Don.

Oh, at first it’ll be funny. You’ve asked me this question, then without really even thinking about it, well maybe you’ll ask Michael Martone or Lydia Millet or anyone, really, and you won’t worry about it. For a little while this question will be your schtick. But then you’ll say, “I’m done with this question,” only to your consternation, you’ll find that, once again, you’ve asked that very same question. And then again. And again. I hate to be the one to tell you this, Don, but soon CR will suspend your portion of the blog. They won’t fire you or anything. They’ll just say you need some time off. Of course you’ll want to ask why, but when you try to ask you’ll say, “What’s my next question going to be?”

It hurts me to do this, but someone has to, so I’m going to fast forward now, fast forward to the future, where you’ve stopped talking, terrified of what you might say. You’ve gone on a search to find how you might move beyond your one and only inquiry. Alas, this search has been in vain. You can’t get to the heart of your problem without asking some other question, though for you there is only the one. Perhaps you’re on a mountain top there in the future, or in a desert, desperately wondering if you will ever be delivered from this sad fate ripped right from an old horror story. But just like in those old horror stories, and I hate to do this to you, Don, we have to leave you there, because I can’t see anymore of the future than this. But I thank you, Don, for letting me take part in this interview. Let me know if you have any other questions.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: The Curses Edition

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

When Cincinnati Review staff member Don Peteroy isn’t busy reading for class, writing 200-page translations (via Google Translate) of 16th-century German adaptations of Hamlet, or playing in his band, he likes to ask writers he admires irrelevant questions. We’re honored to have two replies to share with you, from Lauren Groff and David Yost.

Lauren Groff is the author, most recently, of the novel Arcadia (Voice, 2012), as well as of The Monsters of Templeton (Voice, 2008) and the story collection Delicate Edible Birds (Voice, 2009). Her short stories have appeared in many journals, including the The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, and Glimmer Train, as well as in the Best American Short Stories in 2007 and 2010. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.

Question: Where are your shoes? I’m not talking about your literal shoes, but your metaphorical ones.

LG: To understand where exactly my shoes are—which is a very good question for me, in truth, because I prefer to go barefoot at all times, splinters be damned—I need to first understand what my shoes are. Is it strange that I thought at first of the less-common genre of shoe? Not the kind that lovingly cups tender toes and protects those sad and fallen arches from shattered glass; not my authentic cowboy boots, bought in a flush of glee when I found out I’d won a fellowship I was longing for; not the soccer cleats, a whole size too small, to which I’d sacrificed many blackened toenails, but which were the only shoes ever to allow me to score. No; I thought of a rusted horseshoe above a barn door at a farm in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, where my family lived for a few years before returning to Cooperstown for good. The horseshoe door led to the paddock, where our tiny pony, Imp, lived. Imp was a nasty bastard. Once, when I was five years old, I was contentedly riding on Imp’s back when the jerk tore out of my father’s grasp, rushing me headlong toward a fence, an oak, an apple orchard; I narrowly escaped brain damage by clinging to his mane with my fists and teeth like a flapping human limpet. His horseshoe had been nailed up above the door—for good luck, I was told. On the day I noticed that one nail had come loose, canting the horseshoe down and spilling some of its luck, I found our poor white cat, Marshmallow, in a trough inside the barn. He was stiff and, it finally dawned on me, dead. For a long time afterward, I stood in the doorway, under the horseshoe, unable to go in or out. Inside, all was dark, humid, stinking, a trash-bin full of dog food crawling with maggots, the beloved cat who wouldn’t stir. Outside was an angry pony, ready to spill my brains. Inside, safety but obscurity; outside, risk and sun. We are born with a certain amount of luck, and the rest we have to make for ourselves. I took a step, choosing the light, the flight in the face of the demonic. That’s where my horseshoe still swings, half full of luck, half ready to be filled.

A former Peace Corps Volunteer, David Yost has served on development projects in the United States, Mali, and Thailand. His fiction has appeared in more than twenty publications, including Southern Review, Witness, Pleiades, Asia Literary Review, and The Sun. His anthology Dispatches from the Classroom: Graduate Students on Creative Writing Pedagogy is forthcoming in November 2011 from Continuum, and his story “The Carousel Thief” will appear in our next issue, due out in May. An appreciation of that story—written by Luke Geddes—appeared on our blog earlier this week.

Question: Let’s say that an angry God has put a curse on you. The God says, “Every time you write a new story, poem, play, or essay, a Shakespeare play will vanish from both history and collective memory.” Would you continue to write stories?

DY: Do I get to pick? A world in which nobody reads Pericles, King John, Cymbeline, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII, and the three plays of Henry VI would be basically the same as ours, so that buys me eight more stories at least. I imagine I’d draw the line at Coriolanus and The Merry Wives of Windsor and then try to break into television.

Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Yes, blog readers, it’s yet another installment of the peculiar probings of Don Peteroy—a CR-hosted series in which the ever-provocative DP pitches profoundly preposterous questions at hand-picked prosists. This week’s featured writer is one of our own—Margaret Luongo—who has made three appearances in our pages, and who was last seen wearing a blaze-yellow babydoll tee printed with the words DEAD INSIDE.

Margaret Luongo is the author of the story collection If the Heart is Lean (LSU Press, 2008). Her stories have appeared in Tin House, Jane, Fence, Granta on-line, The Cincinnati Review, The Pushcart Prize anthology, and other venues. She teaches creative writing at Miami of Ohio. One of her best friends teaches Shakespeare and wears combat boots.

Question: If you had to eliminate one author from the canon in exchange for three months of world peace, who would it be? Explain your answer.

ML: I’m sure many contemporary authors, if they were so privileged to be in the canon, would take themselves out of it for three months of world peace. Then there’s the problem of the existence of a canon; haven’t we been trying to alter it or get rid of it? But let’s say there is one and we all know who’s in it.

My husband and I talked about this. Shakespeare’s name came up. Eliminating Shakespeare from the canon would really screw the economy. Think of all the professors and actors who would be out of work. On the other hand, ejecting Shakespeare might cause a backlash and increase the popularity of his work: protests by the 20% (People Who Make a Living Off Shakespeare) might ensue. Actually, I think it would be very good for Early Modern scholars to be cast aside this way; they would become defiant and achieve punk status. Films could be made about their dying art. When the Chinese government banned the Chinese opera, a moribund form became suddenly wildly popular. While interest in Shakespeare’s work hasn’t diminished, maybe this exile from the canon would spark interest among populations previously alienated. It’s tiresome and obvious, but maybe Shakespeare is the answer? I am already more interested. Can’t you imagine publicists for dead or aging authors fighting for the right to be cast away? “This three months’ peace sponsored by the Melville Estate.” Cormac McCarthy could consider giving back; we’ve been tormented by his apocalyptic vision in prose; now he could give us the gift of peace—and probably increase his sales.

Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: It Lives

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Our regular blog-readers (whom we casually yet affectionately refer to as bloggulers) are already familiar with Don Peteroy’s recurring feature, in which our volunteer-cum-inquisitor poses a single, and singular, question to a hapless group of innocent wordsmiths of his choosing. (He likes them—a lot—though sometimes it’s hard to tell.) Don is also a musician, a fictionist, and he takes a whole lot of vitamin E for reasons unknown to the rest of us (probably to give people the impression that he’s healthy when, actually, his diet consists of blue Jello sprinkled with either Corn Nuts or black olives—depending on his mood). Anyway, this time around, Don takes his questions—and his choice of “writers”—to a cosmic level. We casually yet affectionately refer to it as the “Whoa, dude” level. As for Don, we refer to him as Jasper. (We like to keep him guessing.)

Adrian Matejka is the author of The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books, 2003), Mixology (Penguin USA, 2009), and The Big Smoke (Penguin USA, forthcoming 2013). He teaches at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville, where he serves as Poetry Editor for Sou’wester and as Co-Director of the River Styx at Duff’s Reading Series. You can find him at or on Twitter: @adrian_matejka.

Question: At a reading you gave in Louisville, you mentioned that at one time, you were a huge R.E.M. fan. I was too. Like many long-term R.E.M fans, I’ve often wished that they’d return to their old sound, the beautiful music they made between 1982 and 1989. Let’s imagine that we can alter history. Let’s say that a new old REM album could suddenly appear. Let’s put it between Life’s Rich Pageant and Document. It’d be full of great songs. There’s a cost, however. You will have to give up your favorite poem; that is, erase it from existence. Would you be willing to do this, and why/why not? Screw it, let’s keep this going. I know you like funkadelic. How about we add another twenty minutes to Hazel’s solo in “Maggot Brain” for your next five poems? How about we give Public Enemy another album, between It Takes a Nation . . . and Fear of a Black Planet at the cost of every poem you’ve written in the last two years.

AM:It’s great that you asked about R.E.M. because I was just reading an interview with Michael Stipe this past weekend. In response to a question related to what he would miss about performing live, Stipe said: “I have to give everything I have for every song or I’m just that sad guy that’s in his 40s and holding onto some teenage dream. We didn’t move through the last decade with that feeling at all. I gave everything I had.”

I think there is a direct connection between my drive to write poems and my own “youthful dream” of leading the Africa 70 or spitting rhymes over a 9th Wonder beat. The drive could just be a function of having failed as a musician, but I’d like to think it’s also part of the mechanism we employ as writers of poetry. As Ezra Pound wrote, “Poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.”

Or maybe the “teenage dream” is really about audience or artistic relevance or social impact. I mean, music is the universal and can made with an ear toward a community of listeners that has the potential to be very large. It is a social construct as well as an artistic one. Especially now, with so many avenues for musical networking and the shift in the ways music is distributed.

The thing is, poetry doesn’t have the same kind of social permission or potential universality as music. Partially because of its self-referential nature, poetry is written with an ear toward an already-established (and very small) audience. But even with that limited audience, poetry is the closest thing to music we can make with our words, and it can alter the way a listener/reader interacts with the world.

I’m thinking of how Pablo Neruda’s Love Poems reify our perception of what “love” is. Or the way Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art” cause us to reevaluate the intersections of poetry and politics. Or how Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem  “the mother” works in a space that was so ahead of its time that the always-incendiary Richard Wright suggested she take the poem out of A Street in Bronzeville.

I doubt anyone has this kind of life-altering experience reading or hearing my poems, but I know people have been changed by R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe.” So no question, I’d go for the transformative and trade poems for another R.E.M. album. Not only that, but I’d feel like the Yankees swapping cash for Babe Ruth when I did it. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’d like to see somebody write a book of poems that’s the equivalent of this lost R.E.M. album. I don’t have the chops to do it, but I bet someone else could.

Greg Benjamin lives in Ohio with his wife and children. He has written a critical line of business software for the medical, financial and public industries. He’s written seven novellas in invisible ink. He is writing next-generation mobile applications software for his start-up, Fourth Landing. He ‘s always available for lease and can often be found maundering near local airports and museums.

*Interviewer’s note: You might be scratching your head right now, wondering what, exactly, Mr. Benjamin has published. The fact is, Mr. Benjamin hasn’t published a thing, and he has no interest in writing fiction or poetry. He writes code. He’s proficient in many computer languages. Does that qualify him as “a writer”? I’m inclined to say yes.

In 1997, when I wanted to be a poet, a friend loaned me a poetry collection by Jackson Mac Low. Mac Low used “non-intentional” composition methods to construct him poems: random number generators, computers, algorithms, and so on. The poems were beautiful. Check him out:

Here’s the question: Can something be considered “art” if it’s essentially machine gibberish? Better yet, does something cease to be “art” when it serves a practical purpose (like Mr. Benjamin’s computer code compositions)?

My answer: code is art.

Question: Why do you eat things?

GB: I have no idea what the hell that means. Right now, as I sit here in front of an LED screen, debating the effect of crossing parallel polarizers—which, of course, are oxyrepublican lunch boxes of ionic compounds and double refraction properties—it occurs to me that the sitcom pilot always crashes and burns upon departure.

I could get into a fist fight at a local bar, have my face bashed in, my lungs collapsed, and my spinal cord contorted just enough so that I can be intravenously fed the delectable goodness of the finest university hospital. But I’ll do nothing of the sort. Speaking of sorting, there’s a certain melancholic sway that comes with each beating compression of a keyboard. I liken it to the comfortable uneasiness you get when returning to your desk after your car stalls in the ladies restroom and you tap out your pass phrase only to realize a second too late that you did not scrub your paws with the office hand sanitizer and your fingerprints recede into seclusion and your skin takes on the grainy white reflection of southern Kentucky mash, and right there you have it: without eating things, I’d have nothing in my stomach. I write 479,133 lines of zero’s and one’s when 11 lines will do the trick. I’m saving the world, one keystroke at a time.