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Pas de Deux: Lessley & Nuernberger

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

We’re back with an early Mother’s Day installment of Pas de Deux in which Shara Lessley interviews fellow poet and mother Kathryn Nuernberger about her poem “Toad” from issue 10.1. Read on to discover how Lessley and Nuernberger confront some of the painful/joyful moral ambiguities of motherhood in the twenty-first century, and to finally figure out how Toad, beloved cartoon character from the Frog and Toad easy-reader series, cures his amphibian melancholia.

Shara Lessley: Poems about parenthood frequently figure the child as static or godlike, enigmatic or revered. What I love about “Toad” is its refusal to idealize mother or daughter. What roles do kids (or mothers) typically play in poetry, and how does “Toad” defy such conventions?

Kathryn Nuernberger: There’s a disconnect between our idealized expectations of mothers and the lived experience, which, if you’ve internalized the impossible standards of the romantic ideal, can only result in falling short. Motherhood is composed of many spots of time, while lyric poetry has tended to the put the spotlight on just one kind of moment. Robert Hass has this really insightful, humane line in “Dragonflies Mating.” He writes:

When we say “mother” in poems,
we usually mean some woman in her late twenties
or early thirties trying to raise a child.

We use this particular noun
to secure the pathos of the child’s point of view
and to hold her responsible.

Hass points out we use the word mother as a stand-in for “every need fulfilled,” and that’s not a sustainable endeavor for an actual mother. How many years can a real parent go before the child cries for reasons no mother or father can solve?

I could give you a seven-page treatise on the theme of parenthood in contemporary poetry, but nobody wants to read all that on a blog. So my final words on the subject will have to be: Brigit Pegeen Kelly, K. A. Hays, Douglas Kearney, Matthea Harvey, Rachel Zucker, Jennifer Kronovet, Larissa Szporluck, Corey Marks, et alia.

SL: “Toad” perfectly enacts the daily chaos of parenthood—that contradictory rush of surprise that interrupts routine, our sad (perhaps I should speak only of myself!) efforts to manage, maintain, monitor, make fun! The poem’s sentences are both energizing and exhausting. Can you talk a little about how syntax builds momentum and what it suggests about the speaker’s emotional state?

KN: Toddler frenzy + sleep deprivation = addled. Addled = long sentences + overreliance on conjunctions.

SL: At the beginning of “Toad,” a mother admits to pushing her child to the floor and then spins fifteen or so lines narrating the scene before arriving at the turn: “And I know this should be the poem about how I’m horrified/ at myself,” the speaker confesses, “the poem about what in ourselves we have to live with . . .” I wonder here about the speaker’s expectations—of herself, of motherhood, of poetry’s ability to capture the complex dynamics and unstated tensions that accompany parenthood. When you were drafting “Toad,” did the “but” that follows the aforementioned lines surprise you? Did it feel risky to write? To justify why the speaker pushed her “two-year-old/ against a wall”?

KN: One thing I like about poetry is that when you say something is “not” something it instantly becomes that something, while remaining not it at all. To say “this is not” is to invite the reader to consider what it would be if it were. And so it is a poem about what in ourselves we have to live with.

SL: The poem finally flashes forward to a playful (more idealized) day that involves hide-and-seek, hunting for bugs, and reading Frog and Toad. How does the children’s book connect with the title? Why is reading so significant to “Toad”?

KN: Toad suffers some pretty crushing melancholy in that book. He won’t get out of bed, and Frog tricks him into coming into the sunshine to play; he lives in squalor because he can’t find the will power to wash his clothes or clean the kitchen. We all know part of becoming an adult is realizing your parents are people, and I think the image of the daughter reading this particular book alone points in that direction.

Meet Gabe Ostley, Our New Graphic Play Illustator

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

The long search is over. After over one hundred applications, many from hugely talented and qualified artists, we’ve selected Gabe Ostley to adapt Declan Greene’s play Moth into a graphic novella.

Gabe Ostley is the artist for The Hammer (DC Comics), as well as Hero Action Persons, Snatcher Bodies, and My Date With Medusa, published by Devil’s Due Digital. He was born in Minnesota and graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Sequential Art. After working in illustration and licensed characters in New York City, he moved to Hong Kong to the post of Artist-in-Residence for Yew Chung Education Foundation. His work has expanded to include murals and large scale sculptural works in addition to paintings in galleries around Hong Kong. Recently he has worked in animation for Filmages. He’s also storyboarded, filmed, and edited several documentaries and short films for Yew Chung.

Gabe’s next project? Moth the graphic play, a handsome 6×9-inch perfect-bound book, coming in at about 56 pages, which will be mailed (free of charge!) to our subscribers. So if you haven’t subscribed for our anniversary year, do so here.

More on Moth: Moth is the story of Anime-obsessed Sebastian and emo art-freak Claryssa as they awkwardly navigate the cruel social hierarchy of high school. A horrific event on the school’s athletic field threatens their friendship and sends Sebastian on an apocalyptic mission, whereby fantasy and reality intermingle with dangerous consequences. Written with dark wit that’s ultimately after your heart, Moth is an exploration of friendship, adolescence, loss, and mental illness. It is currently making its American debut at the Studio Theater in Washington, DC. Click here for a preview of the play, and then imagine it expertly illustrated by Gabe Ostley.

Our Reading Period: Pressing Pause

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Citizens of writerdom, our reading period ends tomorrow. That does not mean we stop reading. Nay. We have more than fifteen hundred manuscripts waiting in the Submission Manager wings, which is why we need to close for a wee while. Can’t keep you fine people waiting endlessly for a response from our swamped selves. So tomorrow the portal becomes . . . a lot less portal-like, and we wade into all that swampy goodness with our rubber overalls, as well as nets (for the slippery submissions) and tranq guns (for your wilder offerings) and snorkels (for the deep stuff). Come August 15, we’ll have worked through the backlog and will fling open the doors again. In the meantime, you can submit to our summer contest, which runs in June and July, with winners (one in poetry, one in prose) announced October 1.

On Marriage: Duffy-Comparone, Beasley, Clark, Seaton

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Divorce. The rate in the US, by some estimates, is 50 percent, but it seems like more. I mean, Al Gore and Tipper. Not to mention Deb and Gary, your high school friend’s really cool parents. And Gwyneth Paltrow and that guy from Coldplay? If they can’t make it, who can?  As Louis C. K. says, “Marriage is just a larvae stage for true happiness, which is divorce.” He says that because he is . . . yep . . . divorced. Everyone, it seems, is either divorced or getting married so they can get divorced. So why try? Why tie the knot in the first place?

For one, you crazy kids, it might just work out. And for two, you might get some fantastic poems and stories out of it, like our four contributors in CR 10.2, who find inspiration in this ancient institution. Emma Duffy-Comparone addresses whether there is marriage through our many reincarnated lives, if you have a soul mate as a fish or a birch tree. Bruce Beasley ponders the intersection of marriage and atmospheric disturbance (hint: wind is divorce). Kevin Clark found his poem in the juxtaposition of an Italian Renaissance painting and the story of a marital love life gone stale. And Maureen Seaton looks at her daughter’s marriage for proof that her generation’s idealism has not gone to waste.

Bruce Beasley (on his poem “On Marriage”): During a period of several weddings of couples close to me, set alongside divorces of several other couples at the same time, I started thinking of marriage as a balance of desire and satiation, stability and restlessness for change.  During a windstorm I started mulling the fact that what we call “wind” is nothing but air driven by changing atmospheric conditions into motion. I thought “divorce is to marriage as wind is to air”: an unexpected turbulence that disrupts or destroys.  The inverse, though, also seemed true: marriage as a contained turbulence of desire. In thinking about the weddings and the divorces (and a divorce followed quickly by a marriage) I thought about the word immotive, which means “unmoving, immovable,” but sounds a great deal like emotive, which means “moved.”  Marriage, then, as a mixture of the emotive and the immotive, the moving and the unmoveable.  Marriage as a mixture of stasis and change, the restlessness of desire and the stability of devotion. I went looking for oxymoronic words and phrases—“hold fast” suggesting both stillness and speed; “still” containing both incompletion and change on the one hand (still going on) and motionlessness and stasis on the other (stillbirth) to suggest the paradoxical nature of marriage as a stillness amid the perturbations of change.

Emma Duffy-Comparone (on her story “Crossing the Sagamore”): I watched a Ted Talk once about how mushrooms can save the world: something about how they can clean up our most brutal waste, our oil spills, and our nuclear meltdowns. After learning this I went nuts, cooking with them almost every night. I think the affair lasted about a week, and then I called it off. But then I kept dreaming that I had beautiful gills down my ribs. I think these gills were more like a mushroom than a fish, but that made sense, too: my love for the ocean is so physical I’d have to call it lust, and I’ve always known on some level that I’ve lived in there. I mean, I just know I was a fish. And then, partly related to this issue is the question of whether there is a soul mate, one you keep bumping into whether you’re tuna together or birch trees on the side of the highway or soldiers in the Civil War, etc. I’m not sure if I believe it, but Deirdre and Ted seemed to, and then I sent Ted away. And in the meantime I gave those mushrooms a lot of work to do.

Kevin Clark (on his poem “Watching Kira Learn to Surf”): The poem emerged out of the longest sequence I’ve ever attempted. I’d known a long-married woman decades ago who broke up with her husband because he had no imagination in bed. Year after year, same thing in the same order, no matter what, she said. I’m sure that wasn’t the only problem, but I’d carried the idea of such a circumstance around in the back of my mind until I thought to myself, hey, that could be a dramatic subject for a poem. The effort led to the idea for a verse novel I’m calling Magdalene in Ecstasy, after a Renaissance painting by Sigismondo Coccapani. I want each poem to stand on its own, much in the manner of Andrew Hudgins’s After the Lost War, even though my book is structured differently than his. Marie, the speaker of “Watching Kira Learn to Surf,” is the main character, though two others speak as well: her ex-husband Jesse, a Vietnam vet and surf shop owner suffering silently from PTSD, and a lonely Italian lit professor named Raffaele with whom she’d spent a memorable night in the Baja when they were both twenty. Kira is Marie and Jesse’s only child. The poem describes a key moment in which Marie is with Jesse when she realizes that she must eventually leave him. The three characters have experienced a mix of deeply erotic and spiritual longing on their way to hard-earned, barely certain self-reliance.

Maureen Seaton (on her poem “Skinny Dipping”): “Skinny Dipping” came along as one of those poems that slams into your brain, messes with it, and leaves by the back door. I’ve been trying ever since to figure out if I actually believe what I wrote. I want to. I want a practical idealism, not something my imagination cooked up to keep me in the poppy field. I wrote it at 7,500 feet above sea level in New Mexico, far from the farmland of upstate New York, observing my daughter and her husband as they went about their gentle lives: December 2012. I think it occurred to me that something luminous had indeed survived from those four sodden days, our small and large wars, our bare feet and poppies. That my father had been wrong, after all, and there was Mike’s and my kid and Diane and Morton’s kid to prove it. Look at them, I thought, and the poem crashed into me fiercely, like music at 3 a.m., Woodstock, turn of an epoch.

Pas de Deux: Kirby & Alcalá

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Team Alcalá -Kirby strikes again with this rematch Pas de Deux interview in which David Kirby spars with Rosa Alcalá, administering his questionnaire regarding—appropriately—her poem “Questionnaire” (10.2). Stay tuned to read the incomparable Alcalá’s ruminations on the care-taking of an elderly parent, domestic doppelgängers, and the philosophy of the Q&A.

David Kirby: I’m a sucker for questionnaires—I always answer phone surveys as dinner cools in the other room—so naturally I love your beautiful, provocative poem. You seem to be questioning just one person in the first few stanzas, but then the questions start becoming more cosmic. Can you talk about that change?

Rosa Alcalá: The speaker is watching someone else take on the role of daughter, reaching the realization that her “avatar,” the nurse’s aide who performs the job of taking care of her mother with much more care and sensitivity, is less able, for socio-economic reasons, to refuse that role.  The realization is that the caretaker, in temperament and class station, is closer to the mother than the daughter. In short, the speaker indirectly asks the mother: Who is this woman doing what I should be doing? Which is really the question she’s asking herself. She’s anguished by the presence of her twin, but also by her own absence. The doubling effect is there to suggest that the daughter and the caretaker are not distinct, although there are important differences. Each could have easily taken the place of the other had life’s circumstances been slightly different (or maybe this is just the romantic version she tells herself). The speaker, with her “questionable” agency and power, gets to administer the “scripts,” in the sense of both roles and prescriptions, that keep her and her mother strangers.

DK: As we all know, a great thing to do in a poem is to set up a pattern and then disrupt it just when the reader is starting to get comfortable. When and how did you decide you wanted to answer your own questions? Also, you answer just three questions, not all; how’s that work? For me, one quick test of a poem’s quality is asking whether or not it can be taught, that is, will the poem generate a fruitful conversation among people who know about and love poetry? Now that’s the case here, but all poems (and conversations) must come to an end, and we all know that endings can be tricky. Your question calls for a yes or no answer, but are there other options? Or did you just want to throw out a rhetorical question and leave the reader saying, “Hmm . . .”?

RA: Rosmarie Waldrop, in an essay on translation, quotes Hans-George Gadamer who says that of every statement you can ask, “Why do you say that?” I like that here each question propels the speaker, with mounting insistence, to keep asking until the final question is really the terrifying answer. In fact, all the questions for me are really answers, as they reveal the speaker’s sense of her own identity and estrangement (who, who, who, like an owl on a limb, alone, at midnight). So, following Gadamer, of every question we can ask, “Who is asking and why?” But the final question is certainly not rhetorical. I think it’s the question that implicates the reader in this situation (she must be to blame), but even that realization leads to more questions: Did she create this situation? Or was the situation created and she perpetuates it? This sense of perpetuation, of inevitability, is present in the anaphoric rhythm of the poem.

Pas de Deux: Alcalá & Kirby

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Welcome to our third installment of Pas de Deux in which Rosa Alcalá interviews fellow poet and 10.2 contributor David Kirby about his poem “Is Spot in Heaven?” Scroll down to discover the secrets behind Kirby’s characteristically staggered (and staggering) stanza patterns, to read Kirby’s thoughts on the popular-versus-high-culture debate, and to finally learn whether heaven—or at least doggie heaven—exists.

Rosa Alcalá: Your poem has an interesting form. For the most part, the tercets are enjambed, which allows for continuity in the narrative, but also shifts. Can you talk about your intentions regarding the relationship between form and content?

David Kirby: Oh, gosh, Rosa. When I’m asked about my signature stanzas, as I often am, I think, “How do I explain thee? Let me count the ways.” Probably the baseline explanation is this: I like long, loopy sentences, which means lots of “ands,” and since lines tend to break after nouns and verbs, that means a whole series of lines are going to have “and” as their first word. And, and, and: that’s pretty unsightly, yes? So by staggering my lines this way, I avoid those word stacks. There’s an essay on my work where the writer says I’ll take six or eight bits—a childhood memory, something I read, a piece of overheard conversation, and so on—and create a kind of emotional pendulum so they all swing back and forth together, and the look of a typical poem heightens that effect. But the truest answer to your question is what we say when someone asks us why we do anything, which is that other people seem to like it.

RA: Humans don’t come off as particularly sensitive or kind here: they keep elephants in cages, train bears for their own amusement, and mock a child’s innocence. Yet, the speaker, whom I gather is human, knows he will meet the same end as Spot, and takes comfort in that. Can you tell us how these observations emerged? What issues do you see this poem addressing, and did you know the poem was heading in that direction?

DK: I never know where a poem is heading. As I say above, I gathered a lot of disparate materials that share an emotional core and began to play with them. I certainly don’t mean to say that humans are bad (you are correct in pointing out that I, too, am a member of that species), but I did want to isolate some moments where humans were thoughtless. That’s the way we are, and there’s no cure for it, except in poetry. As with a lot of what I write, here I use my poem to think and feel my way toward a world I’d like to live in, in this case, an Eden of sorts.

RA: I thought the mention of Leonard Woolf was clever (Virginia’s husband, yes?). The only enlightened human here shares his name with an animal. But in citing Woolf you also engage us in different realms of knowledge and world views, from Catholicism to Sam Cooke. Can you talk about your use of high and low culture (or larger philosophical issues and the quotidian)?

DK: Ha, ha! That’s another one you interviewers are always throwing at me. I guess I don’t see the difference. I wrote a poem once about looking at Michelangelo’s statue of Moses in Rome and hearing Aretha Franklin singing “Chain of Fools.” Why not? Both works are pretty colossal, pretty passionate. Another writer once said I was a Kitchen Sink Poet. Hey—guilty, your honor!

RA: I read this poem as saying: we subjugate or suppress because we fear the unknown; we control what we can. The speaker is starting to see the other side of the river, and he’s welcoming it. He wants all things, then, to be free, to have his freedom to love and be loved. What’s your perspective regarding your poem?

DK: That’s it, Rosa. You get the poem; in fact, you get it better than I do, because, as I say, mainly I’m playing here. But, yes, I want more, and I want the world to be better to all its inhabitants. I’m glad you point out that the new and better world hasn’t arrived yet. A lot of my writing (thinking, teaching, talking) deals with these almost-moments. If you lead your reader and yourself up to the edge and let them look over, that’s more moving in a lasting way than it would be if you concluded tidily and put up a little placard that said “The End.” As the filmmakers say about a scene, you should arrive late and leave early.

C. K. Williams at UC

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Don Bogen (pictured above with C. K. Williams): The English Department marked C. K. Williams’s concluding week as the 2014 George Elliston Poet in Residence with a reception at the home of colleagues Jenn Habel and Chris Bachelder. In the course of his visit, Williams taught the graduate poetry workshop and reviewed students’ portfolios, did a knockout reading in the Elliston Room, and gave two public lectures: one on influences and one on his own writing practices, complete with drafts and manuscripts. He also managed to dine with students and faculty at almost every restaurant in town. It’s clear the man is a dynamo, one of the most engaged and engaging visitors we’ve had in years.

Tentacular Redux; or, Call for Peglegs

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Near and dear friends, pull out your calendars and draw a heart in the square for April 5. Make that a heart and an exclamation point. No—a heart and an exclamation point with a smiley face where the dot would be. It’s still our tenth anniversary. Yep. All year. We did it up fancy at AWP, and now we’re bringing the party home. Well, if Covington counts as home—and we say it does. On April 5 eve, hop over the river and meet us at the Leapin’ Lizard Lounge. The fun starts at 7 p.m. and runs till someone spoils it by breakdancing. Funky’s is catering, and Bon Bonerie is providing a cake the size of a private island. We’ll have poetry readings (by Jeff Gundy and Kathleen Winter), musical performances (of CR poems that composers Sarah Hutchings and Steven Weimer wrote scores for), and a dramatic reading (by Ben Dudley and MaryKate Moran) from Declan Greene’s MOTH, which we are in the process of making into a graphic play. Oh—and if you have a great playlist on your iPod, get in touch. We need you. Same if you can drink raw eggs or play bongos with your pegleg.

Pas de Deux: Murvin & Romanosky

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Christa Romanosky and Jennifer Murvin are having a literary party, and you’re invited. Sit down with a glass of wine or beer or ginger ale (just drink something, even if it’s morning) and listen in on the conversation in another edition of Pas de Deux, a two-part exchange between contributors. This time, Romanosky is slinging the questions and Murvin dishing up the answers on the latter’s lyrical essay “How to Put Your Child to Bed,” which appears in CR 10.2. The discussion runs the gamut, from use of the second person, process, warm literary hugs, and unspeakable truth.

Christa Romanosky: Your nonfiction piece “How to Put Your Child to Bed” is poignant, compelling, and carefully crafted. I hear the echoes of a children’s book in the repeating “One night . . .” You also juxtapose fantasies of an artist-lover with the ever-changing imagined appearance of the stripper. How did the idea to create this particular piece begin, and what was your writing process like?

Jennifer Murvin: Mary Gaitskill compares why she writes to why “children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it’s an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world.” The distance of the years between what happened with my husband and the stripper and my discovery of it, the way this distance and the almost comical melodrama of the narrative made it seem like a story instead of fact, compelled me to write if only to affirm its presence in our history—this had happened, to him, to her, to me.

While I was writing, the use of repetition and refrain gave me comfort and structure, much like the real-life act of putting my son to bed. The refrain came to represent the physical routine of motherhood, against which I could meditate on how this discovery had begun to take on a sort of kaleidoscopic significance. Over several months and several revisions, I was able to recognize a connection between what had before seemed disconnected: bedtime, miscarriages, sexuality, age and illness, infidelity, and also literature, its function to make meaning from chaos. The objective restraints allowed me to order and contain wild emotion in a manageable space.

CR: Someone writing in the second-person pov always risks alienating the reader, yet your piece seems to do the opposite. It draws the reader in like an invitation to a private party. (I was thrilled to have been invited, because it was fucking awesome.) Tell me about your decision as a nonfiction writer to craft this piece in second person instead of the more common first person.

JM: We need a lot of wine at this party, ha! I recently heard a craft talk by the wonderful Pam Houston, a master of second person, in which she argued that the second person point of view “creates a thin layer of shame over the narrator and deflects tension from the things he/she is ashamed of. ‘I’ is afraid to say ‘I’ and so says ‘You.’” When Pam said that, I thought, Damn. That is exactly why I had to write “How to Put Your Child to Bed” in second person.

I was certainly ashamed of what had happened and also how I was reacting or not reacting to it. The point of view provided the distance I needed to be honest and vulnerable, to take the emotional risk of fully imagining the stripper, of imagining being her myself. Writing the essay in second person helped me to access myself as a character. This was the first piece of nonfiction I had ever written seriously, toward the goal of publication.

CR: I’m interested in how writing nonfiction affects you. Did you emerge from “How to Put Your Child to Bed” knowing more about yourself, your goals and intentions as a writer, your role as a mother or partner?

JM: I’m interested in how writing nonfiction affects me, too! I am still very new to this genre as a reader and writer. What I do know is that it is deeply satisfying to have something tangible, something “made,” from these difficult moments in my life. I tried to touch on this in the essay itself, this question of how art and life intersect, how readers and writers negotiate that space. I continued to work on this essay as I went through a separation and divorce, and I also changed my MFA emphasis from fiction to nonfiction. I have more questions than answers. Writing a lived experience must change it in the mind; when I think of this time in my life, I often think of the lines I wrote and rewrote in the essay.

CR: What was your timeline in writing this piece? Did you face any unanticipated challenges?

JM: I wrote the first draft in June 2011 and put it away for several months. I picked it up again in the spring of 2012 during the separation and divorce from my husband, and I shared it with a close editor friend that summer and my MFA advisor in November, who was kind enough to let me submit it along with my fiction. The emotional challenge was to keep writing through the changes in my life, and the artistic challenge was to create a cohesive thread between all the disparate elements in the essay. I received a few personal rejections from other magazines before the piece was accepted by Cincinnati Review. The acceptance felt like a warm hug after a very long and lonely journey. A kind of closure not just for the writing of the essay, but for all that had happened, too.

CR: I noticed the speaker in your essay presents alternate versions of the same story, of what is told to different people and what actually happened. For example, when the son asks his mother to tell the story of his birth, he receives a version of this tale. Then the reader receives a more complex explanation of events leading up to the birth. Can you talk about how versions of truth shape the speaker?

JM: This question makes me think of Tim O’Brien and his discussion of story-truth and happening-truth. We tell stories because the real truth is, in a way, unspeakable. It is lived only. Memory is fallible; objective, verifiable fact is often unavailable and/or falls short. Mimesis in this and so many experiences is impossible. Stories or narratives—series of events, sensory details, specifics—access the necessary complexity and contradiction of life’s happenings. For children, stories often perform the opposite function: simplification. The negotiation of these truths—which story best tells what needs telling to the person needing to be told—seems to me the work of being a mother and also a writer.

CR: Which books were on your nightstand while you were writing your essay?

JM: Whenever something emotionally difficult is going on, I turn to Maeve Binchy, whose novels are to me the literary equivalent of hot chocolate and cinnamon toast. If I could go back in time, I’d place by that girl’s bathtub Light Years by James Salter and The Meadow by James Galvin.

Jennifer Murvin’s essays and stories have appeared The Sun, Mid-American Review, Midwestern Gothic, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Baltimore Review and Moon City Review. She is a faculty member at Missouri State University, where she teaches Fiction Writing, the Graphic Novel, and Contemporary American Fiction. Jen is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.

Christa Romanosky earned her MFA in poetry from the University of Virginia. Her poetry has been featured in Cream City Review, North American Review, Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Cincinnati Review, Boston Review, and Crazyhorse. She has also completed two albums of music, All Things Left Unsaid and Talk About the Sky, available on Amazon, Pandora and iTunes.

Pas de Deux: Romanosky & Murvin

Monday, March 17th, 2014

The feast continues with the second course in our feature Pas de Deux, in which Jennifer Murvin turns the tables on fellow 10.2 contributor Christa Romanosky and asks how in the heck she came up with her ironic, biting, and heartbreaking story “Assets.” In what follows, Romanosky reveals her secret recipe: one part biography, eight parts imagination, and two parts kitten experiment, with a dash of Deborah Eisenberg.

Jennifer Murvin: “Assets” is both wickedly funny and deeply moving. The narrator Louise Hayle approaches rather serious conflicts with a sarcastic and clever charm; for example, the word “asset” functions in the narrative as both verbal and situational irony. Tell me about the role of humor in your writing. Did you have any writers or stories in mind as a model while creating the voice of your narrator?

Christa Romanosky: I think the idea for this piece came about when I received a call about my student loans from a debt collector who insisted, out of the blue, that my loans were ninety days overdue, and that if I didn’t pay immediately, the company would seize all of my assets. Panicked, I called my father, who assured me that I had no assets. It ended up being a mistake, but the experience led me to ponder what exactly defined an asset. That’s where it all began. I wanted to write a story about a girl who had nothing, and yet seemed to still be losing things. I had a real-life Marla at the time I was working on “Assets.” Our motto was to laugh at the really hard stuff, since we’d be crying about it later anyway. I try to carry this philosophy with me. I was reading a lot of Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories at the time, which probably helped to sculpt this view.

JM: “Assets” is structured in titled vignettes, some of which contain numbered lists. I absolutely love the choices you’ve made here. How did you come to this structure for the story?

CR: The structure came about as I was making lists to keep track of Louise’s thoughts and feelings. Vignettes helped me to create a sense of movement, a change in topic or time that might otherwise seem too abrupt or jarring. “Assets” was the first successful short story I wrote, and it was a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimentation. I think sometimes it’s a good thing to not know what you’re doing—to color outside the lines because you don’t understand what the lines are—like those poor kittens in the psychology experiment by Blakemore and Cooper that were deprived of vertical lines: dendric field modification for new writers. That should be a class.

JM: The story juggles several plotlines—a terminated pregnancy, a two-timing boyfriend, a flirtatious best friend (everyone needs a Marla!), financial troubles. Tell me about how these different conflicts emerged during your writing process.

CR: I embraced the idea that sometimes bad shit happens to good people. I mean, Louise isn’t perfect. She’s the other woman in a relationship with Paul, and she hasn’t made the best career choices. She’s got low self-esteem, but that’s real life. I’m very interested in gender and sexuality, how it shapes our identities—what women and men deal with on a day-to-day basis, and what we often refuse to talk about despite the fact that it might be a basic biological function most everyone experiences, like sex. Statistics indicate that approximately one in three women has an abortion by the time she reaches forty, yet the topic is so provocative that it’s rarely discussed without the frills of shame and verdict. The multiple conflicts and plotlines emerge in “Assets” as a way to diffuse the idea that unplanned pregnancy (or other crises) happens in a void, or that choices are made without other considerable factors, some helpful, some not. I wanted to write about how people cope.

JM: “Assets” is written largely in conversations between the narrator and Paul, the narrator and Marla, and the narrator and Dan from Advanced Credit Solutions. Can you talk (no pun intended) a little about your approach to writing dialogue?

CR: A former professor of mine stressed the importance of daydreaming about characters and conversations, and I find that I work out dialogue best that way. I start with one phrase or statement, then assemble at least ten different ways that conversation could develop, depending on what is said to whom, how s/he interprets it, how the speaker wishes to be interpreted, the mood, etc. I sometimes do this in my own life, while conversing with strangers or acquaintances. When I’m asked a question I imagine entire branches of dialogue that could transpire, weigh each potential response, insert sarcasm or wit I’d heard somewhere, envision future interactions that might go poorly because I misrepresented myself, panic about our incompatibility, wish I’d done things differently, and return to reality to finally reply “yes” or “no.” It’s a hard-knock life for an introvert.

JM: I admire the specificity in which you write your characters. Paul doesn’t just have a girlfriend who lives far away; he has Judy, who lives in Phoenix and writes poetry. Louise doesn’t just receive calls about her outstanding loans; she receives calls from Dan of Advanced Credit Solutions. Tell me about how you arrive at this level of detail in your characterization.

CR: I wanted the reader to feel as though she stumbled upon lives already in motion, dynamic lives. While I was writing “Assets,” I daydreamed about these characters in great detail: internal struggles, attachment styles, former relationships, emotional capacities, even the types of foods they would eat. I spent a lot of time at coffee shops, pondering.

JM: I may be reading too much into this, but there is something lovely and almost metafictional about the dialogue in the last scene when the narrator says, “This is as good a place as any to end it.” How did you know you’d reached the end of the story?

CR: I like looking at fractals, at repeating patterns, not just in nature, but in relationships and in what shapes us. The ultrasound image of Louise’s pregnancy, in her mind, looks a lot like female anatomy, the one part of her that Paul clearly wants. I knew that Paul and Louise must ultimately part ways if Louise was to ever have a shot at growth and happiness, but that she needed to build agency before she could break away. When Louise imagines announcing to Paul, “You’ve been sleeping with a potato. . . . Don’t you feel stupid,” it is her way of beginning to put Paul in his place, using what small amount of power she has. It took a total of about two years to finish this story. It was on again, off again, like a very unstable, ahem, relationship. But I finally ended it.

Jennifer Murvin’s essays and stories have appeared The Sun, Mid-American Review, Midwestern Gothic, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Baltimore Review and Moon City Review. She is a faculty member at Missouri State University, where she teaches Fiction Writing, the Graphic Novel, and Contemporary American Fiction. Jen is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.

Christa Romanosky earned an MFA from the University of Virginia in poetry. Her poetry has been featured in Cream City Review, North American Review, Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Cincinnati Review, Boston Review, and Crazyhorse. She has also completed two albums of music, All Things Left Unsaid and Talk about the Sky, available on Amazon, Pandora and iTunes.