ČERVENÁ BARVA PRESS NEWSLETTER
Gloria Mindock, Editor Issue No. 44 April, 2009
Happy National Poetry Month!
Cervena Barva Press celebrates 4 years this month! I cannot believe so much time has gone by.
It is so exciting! On Wednesday, April 15th, at the Pierre Menard Gallery, we will be celebrating our anniversary at 7:00PM.
The writing community in the area has been so good to the press.
Many local writers will be reading. See the list below for the names. I didn't ask any writers from out of town to read for
the anniversary. Each poet will only be reading one poem and it would be too expensive for them to come in for that.
There are so many people to thank for helping the press become so successful in such a short amount of time. I will thank
them privately otherwise you would be reading a book instead of a newsletter!
April is our fund raising month. Please help us out by buying a book or donating something.
With the economy in such bad shape, we need all the help we can get.
We have published so many chapbooks, books, and e-books since we started. We want to continue to be able to keep bringing you the
high quality of work that we publish.
Think of all the hours Bill and I spend on the press. Why? Because we love it. There are so many writers from all over the
world that need to be read. Donate!!!!!
Cervena Barva Press Celebrates 4 Years
Wednesday, April 15th, 7:00PM, Free
Reception will follow
Pierre Menard Gallery (Harvard Square)
10 Arrow St.
|Tam Lin Neville
|Robert K. Johnson
|Molly Lynn Watt
and more to come. Yes, I still have more writers to ask!
I hope you will join us for this special celebration.
On May 20th, at the gallery, Nancy Mitchell and CL Bledsoe will be reading
from their new books by Cervena Barva Press with
the Poet Laureate of Boston, Sam Cornish.
New from Cervena Barva Press: Grief Hut by Nancy Mitchell
ISBN: 978-0-615-25797-6 | 66 pages | $15.00
Nancy Mitchell is the author of The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002) and her
poems have appeared in Agni, Poetry Daily, Salt Hill Journal, Great River Review, and are
anthologized in Last Call by Sarabande Books. She has received an Artist in the Schools grant
for Virginia, and residency fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst,
Virginia and in Auvillar, France. Mitchell teaches in the English Department at Salisbury University,
Maryland, and has taught in the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine. She resides in Salisbury, on the
Eastern Shore of Maryland, with her husband John Ebert, a filmmaker.
The Grief Hut stands on an imaginary beach, where women help each other to give
birth to their griefs: the birth of sorrows here is given words with a growing power,
intensity, and wisdom, a wisdom still wired to its human love and memory.
Mitchell is blessed with a vivid--and haunting--memory--of particulars, the things
of our past, and of the more complex feelings the things generate. She refuses
nothing, she is deadly accurate, yet she sings. We should read her.
The poems in Nancy Mitchell's book Grief Hut are so lucidly and deeply
felt that they cut directly to the bone of the experiences they are
recounting. This is a true and an incredibly beautiful book.
Her descriptions of people, the details and detritus of their lives are studied and
stunning. May we hear more from this talented poet.
-Doug Holder/Ibbetson Street Press
They walk to dinner
giddy with relief: fire
not brushing the hills, so
far, no snake noir
tongue lapping the pool.
She takes his hand
blots her lipstick,
and into his heart
line whispers Mistook my own
sniffles for a peeping Tom's
and clamping her mouth
he replies: All morning long
what I thought was fog
was plastic tacked
to the bedroom window.
All over his hand, red.
The poetry and fiction chapbook contest winners have been chosen. I will be calling the winners on Sunday and everyone
else will be getting letters mailed out to them next week. It took me longer than expected because of the fiction manuscripts.
I spent time on every manuscript and gave them all my close attention. I am very impressed with the quality of work sent to me.
Wow! It was a very tough decision. I am very happy with what I chose. Thank you so much to everyone who sent
manuscripts to the press.
In 2010, Cervena Barva Press will present a conference for writers in the Somerville/Cambridge area.
This conference will be affordable for writers. I get tired of seeing conferences cost so much.
So far, I have quite a line up but have more to ask to be a part of this. This is quite an undertaking but I look so
forward to it. I'll keep you informed of its progress as time goes on.
Cervena Barva is pleased to announce that Cervená author, Catherine Sasanov, has won the 2009 Sentence Book Award.
Her manuscript, Had Slaves, will be published this fall by Firewheel Editions. The Sentence Book Award is given
annually to a full-length poetry collection incorporating prose poetics as a whole or in-part.
Other News from Cervena Barva Press Friends
Kyke Flak won the 2008 New Sins Editors' Prize. Currently, an instructor at UMass/Amherst, he is a poet who manages to
balance aesthetics, surrealism and lyricism in his works to sublime effect! His book is titled Harmonica Days. New Sins
is anxious to publish this ms. and wishes him many readings in the Mass. area, many kudos and many awards!
In case you missed The Judy Joy Jones live show with Dr. Maya Angelou; please enjoy the archives free of charge below.
Also Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi; Spiritual leader of India, was a recent guest as well so do listen to it
in the archives. Two great leaders of our time will help inspire you with noble and lofty goals!
Dr. Maya Angelou; Beloved poet & Best-Selling Author!
Indian Bay Press has their April Newsletter online. Go to the Poesia Forum at:
I want to thank Bill Mayo for all his support. Their new issue of Poesia is available now.
Now in their seventh year of publication. Please support Indian Bay Press and order a copy. In the new issue,
writers include: CL Bledsoe, Carrie Acguire, Miranda Coimbra,
Mary Himmelweit, J. B. Hogan and more…
Check out ordering information at: http://www.indianbaypress.com/about_us.html
THE SLOW VANISHING by Maureen Sherbondy
Main Street Rag Publishing Company
THE SLOW VANISHING (ISBN 13: 978-1-59948-186-9) contains both flash fiction and longer stories. Some of the stories first
appeared in literary journals, such as Stone Canoe, the North Carolina Literary Review, the Knoxville Writers' Guild Anthology,
Low Explosions: Writings on the Body, and the Sierra Nevada College Review.
To receive an advance order discount ($9.00), please order the book now online at the publisher's website:
Off-beat stories with unexpected endings. Life's ordinary problems intruded on by the bizarre.
The Slow Vanishing has a mesmerizing, magical effect.
- Joanna Catherine Scott, author of The Road from Chapel Hill
What a wonderful collection this is. Maureen Sherbondy's The Slow Vanishing is remarkable for its abundance, its variety,
its range, and its sheer imagination. There are long, serious stories… There are comic stories, very short stories
(flash fictions), and in all of them Sherbondy's gift for vivid, sharp imagery and telling detail shines forth.
Everything seems to vanish-children, mothers, houses, comedians, body parts, husbands, even punctuation-and all
this vanishing asks us to think about life without that which has vanished. And we do think. We laugh, we worry,
we think, and we read on, because we want more."
- Anthony S. Abbott, author of The Three Great Secret Things
From the Paris of New England: Interviews with Poets and Writers
Ibbetson Street Press, 2009
A series of interviews with poets and writers that took place in the "Paris of New England," (Somerville, MA.)
Doug Holder the founder of the small literary press "Ibbetson Street" conducted interviews on his Somerville Community Access TV
Show "Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer," as well as for his literary column in The Somerville News, and at the Wilderness House
Literary Retreat, founded by his friend Steve Glines. Poets and writers included in this volume are: Eva Salzman, Mike Basinski,
Errol Uys, Lan Samantha Chang, Louisa Solano, Miriam Levine, Mark Doty, Claire Messud, Lisa Beatman, Martha Collins, Dick Lourie,
Robert Creeley, Afaa Michael Weaver, Jack Powers, Ed Sanders, Tom Perrotta, Diana Der-Hovanessian, Luke Salisbury, Sarah Hannah,
Hugh Fox, Lo galluccio, Timothy Gager, Gloria Mindock, March Widershien, Deborah M. Priestly, Steve Almond, Harris Gardner,
Robert K. Johnson, Pagan Kennedy.
The Woods Have Words by Mignon Ariel King, 2009
Ibbetson Street Press
"Mignon Ariel King's first remarkable collection of poems, The Woods Have Words, is accomplished, joyful and a virtual
voice-romp through the new Boston--an inner travelogue of urban sights and people. Readers looking for a new book of poems
will be pleased--her poems are openminded and clear…"
-Sam Cornish, Boston Poet Laureate
To order: http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-woods-have-words/5979051
READING PERIOD/DEADLINE: March 1 through May 1, 2009.
(No mss. will be read outside the reading period!)
SASE: All manuscripts will be recycled. SASE for contest results only.
ENTRY FEE: Free (must follow guidelines)!
MANUSCRIPT: Manuscripts need NOT be anonymous. Two copies of manuscript--each copy of the manuscript must be sent to a different
address (listed below). Single spaced, no staples, bound with clip or manila folder, no photos or images with manuscript.
No email or electronic submissions accepted. Page limits: 50-60 pages with acknowledgments, title page, etc.
(final book subject to editing). Once submitted, manuscripts cannot be altered until final decision; the winning
manuscript must be sent on a disk/CD. Simultaneous submissions are accepted, and you may submit more than one
manuscript; please inform us if a manuscript is accepted elsewhere. New and established writers are both welcomed
to this contest. Press isn't invested in religious or form poetry. We are open to new and challenging ideas with
emphases on inclusivity and craft. Books with sections previously published or pending in chapbook format are
Previously published NEW SINS authors include:
James Penha (2006-07 Winner)
Kyle Flak (2008 Winner)
Barbara Hamby, Richard Collins, Exia, Amy Yanity, Julie Parson-Nesbitt, Diane Williams, Thomas Vaultonberg, etc.
JUDGES: New Sins publishers and editorial board.
DECISION TIME: Winner will be notified 3-6 months after deadline.
MAIL MS. COPY #1 TO: New Sins Press, Attn: Arroyo/Sheldon, 3925 Watson Avenue, Toledo, OH 43612.
MAIL MS. COPY #2 TO: Dan Nowak, Editor, 1615 South 20th Street Apt. D, Lincoln, NE 68502.
REMEMBER: Typed, single-spaced manuscript, SASE (to address #1 only!) for results, manuscript need NOT be
anonymous, no entry fee, two copies of manuscript--each copy of the manuscript sent to a different address
DEADLINE: May 1, 2009.
Gian Lombardo, who is a friend of Cervena Barva Press, sent this to us for the newsletter.
Though I usually don't print course descriptions in my newsletter but will mention them on the readings/events page, I added this for you to read.
Gian is very supportive and was so helpful when I first started the press.
Certificate in Literary Publishing
Have you been thinking or dreaming about starting your own literary magazine, or founding a press to publish books? Do you
have a vision of what works you would like to bring to life? Or would you like to work for a literary magazine or small press?
The Department of Professional Studies and Special Programs at Emerson College offers the Literary Publishing Program, which is
open to poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, and individuals who would like to learn the publishing skills
needed to start and run their own literary magazines or their own book publishing ventures, or work for a larger literary
The program in Literary Publishing is held as a two-week intensive during Emerson College's May intersession (5/11-5/22).
Outside of classroom instruction, participants will work on a business plan on their press or magazine. Participants who
complete the intensive and submit a rough business plan for their literary magazine or press will earn the Literary
Publishing Certificate. This program is non-credit.
This non-credit program provides five two-day modules and a half-day panel designed to give the basics in starting and
running a literary magazine or small press, giving those enrolled a way to avoid common, and costly, mistakes. The five
modules and panel are:
Literary Publishing Overview
May 11 & 12 - 9:00 am to noon & 1:00 to 4:00 pm
Instructor: Gian Lombardo
Participants will discuss the particular concerns of small press publishers and how best to find and mine a niche market. Key
to achieving this goal is establishing the mission and vision of the press or literary magazine. Individuals will also examine
the history of small press/literary publishing and understand its current context within the publishing industry, as well as the
issues facing literary publishers today. Gian Lombardo is Publisher-in-Residence in the Writing, Literature & Publishing
Department at Emerson College, where he teaches courses on book and magazine publishing. Gian also directs Quale Press,
which publishes literary works. He is the author of five collections of poetry-the latest being Aid & A_Bet
(BlazeVOX [Books], 2008). He also serves as contributing editor for Sentence, a literary journal, and slope.org, an
online literary journal.
Literary Acquisitions & Editing
May 13 & 14 - 9:00 am to noon & 1:00 to 4:00 pm
Instructor: Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti
Participants gain basic information on contracts (and negotiations), acquiring manuscripts, and reading manuscripts.
They will learn to deal with authors in revising work and determining what needs revision. Copy editing and proofing
procedures will be outlined. Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti is an editor and writer for both print and online publications and
books. She has worked at Conde-Nast Publications, The Atlantic Monthly, David R. Godine, and founded Lumen Editions, a
literary publishing house that published new voices and works in translation. Ranson is currently beginning a new trade
press under the aegis of Twilight Times Books that will be called Fibonacci Editions.
Design & Production for Literary Publishing
May 15 & 18 - 9:00 am to noon & 1:00 to 4:00 pm
Instructors: Christopher Mattison & Michael Russem
Participants will receive information covering the fundamentals of graphic design, typography, and production methods.
What designs work and which don't? How are books and magazines manufactured? What print and digital production and
manufacturing options are available for the small publisher (including online and print-on-demand)? Christopher Mattison
is a senior editor at Zephyr Press, co-director of the series Adventures in Poetry and translation editor for the Zoland
Poetry annuals. In 2000, Mattison instigated the freelance design firm typeslowly-which has done design work for a number
of independent presses and galleries. Michael Russem has designed, printed or overseen production since 1996 of limited
editions, trade books and exhibition catalogues from Shambhala, Tuttle Books, Smith College, The Limited Editions Club,
The Grolier Club and 21st Editions.
Marketing, Promotion & Distribution for Literary Works
May 19 & 20 - 9:00 am to noon & 1:00 to 4:00 pm
Instructor: April Ossmann
How can small presses best develop and reach their audiences? What are the best ways for literary publishers to promote
their wares? How can publishers get their magazines and books into the marketplace and into the hands of buyers? April
Ossmann has over twelve years of experience in book publishing as an editor and publisher. In January 2009, she launched
April Ossmann Consulting, a publishing services business. She is the recent former executive director of Alice James Books
and a former editor at University Press of New England. She is also author of Anxious Music (Four Way Books, 2007).
Finance, Management & Legal Issues for Literary Publishing.
May 21 - 9:00 am to noon & 1:00 to 4:00 pm & May 22 - 9:00 am to noon
Instructor: Thomas Radko
Participants receive an introduction to copyright and libel law. Different models to found, organize, and fund presses will
be presented. Participants will gain familiarity with financial management issues and tools, and how to manage personnel and
keep their presses solvent financially. Thomas Radko has worked in the book publishing industry for over 30 years at a
variety of scholarly presses (Chicago, Rutgers, Oklahoma, Nevada and Wesleyan) and commercial houses (Humanities, Alyson).
He also serves as editor of The Journal of Scholarly Publishing and series editor for Transaction Publisher's series on
Keeping Afloat in Literary Publishing
May 22 - 1:00 to 4:00 pm
Panelists: Jan Freeman, Gavin Grant, William Pierce, Thomas Radko & Ladette Randolph
Moderator: Gian Lombardo
A panel of literary periodical and book publishers will present information on their presses and magazines, outline their
key concerns, and be available for questions from participants. Jan Freeman is founder and director of Paris Press.
Gavin Grant is publisher of Small Beer Press. William Pierce is senior editor of Agni and contributes a series of essays
there called "Crucibles." Ladette Randolph is director/editor-in-chief of Ploughshares. Before that she was an editor at
the University of Nebraska Press, and was managing editor of Prairie Schooner.
for an application form.
Deadline is May 8.
Cost for this non-credit program is $2,350.
Information on housing near Emerson College can be found at
for B&B's and hostels at www.hostelworld.com
Photo: Nicole Terez Dutton
Tom Daley was a machinist for many years and now teaches poetry writing at the Boston Center for Adult Education in
Boston, Massachusetts (http://www.bcae.org/) and poetry and memoir writing at Lexington (MA)
Community Education (http://lexingtoncommunityed.org/). He is a member of the
faculty of the Online School of
Poetry (http://onlineschoolofpoetry.org/faculty.html) and serves on
the tutorial faculty of
Walnut Hill School for the Arts. He has lectured on ekphrastic poetry at Brown University and on performance poetry
at Stonehill College and SUNY Cobleskill. He conducted the poetry workshop at Writers in the Round's annual retreat
for poets and songwriters on Star Island, NH in 2006.
Tom's poetry has been published or is forthcoming in numerous journals, including Harvard Review, Prairie Schooner,
Barrow Street, Del Sol Review, Diagram, Poetry Ireland Review, 32 Poems, Salamander, Perihelion, Archipelago,
Hacks: The Grub Street Anthology, and The Bagel Bards Anthology (Numbers 1 and 2). His manuscript, Shim, was a
finalist for the Emily Dickinson First Book Prize and the Brittingham and Pollak Poetry Prizes His poetry was
nominated for inclusion in the anthology, The Best New Poets 2007. He graduated with highest honors in
Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina, where he won the Charles and Fanny Fay Wood Academy of
American Poets Prize.
Tom produced and performed in several gala evenings of poetry performance with musical accompaniment, including
"The Musician and the Muse" in 2004 (featuring Regie Gibson, Kent Foreman, Nicole Terez Dutton, Iyeoka Ivie Okoawo,
J*me, and L'Merchie Frazier) and "The Poetry Vaudeville Show" in 2008 (featuring Regie Gibson, Nicole Terez Dutton,
and Lilli Lewis).
Where I write
I usually write in the dining room of my third floor apartment, which does triple service as my study, the place where
I lead my Monday night workshops, and the place where I keep most of my poetry books. There's something comforting about
all those astonishing words committed to ink and paper just an arm's length or two away. Some mornings I sit near the bay
windows at one end of the rock maple dining room table and wait for the light to come in, Rapidograph pen at the ready.
Sometimes I compose at the computer, surrounded by disorderly files, rubber stamps, a jar full of fountain pens, and an
alto recorder I pick up sometimes and play when I am mulling something over. There's a stack of books at the end of a long
desk-mostly the library books I've checked out recently or books I've bought that I aim to peruse. Right now the stack
includes A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson, Paddy and the Republic, Erin's Daughters in America,
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Open Letters (Carolyn Gregory) and How to Develop A Super Power Memory, a book I
studied several years ago-I've forgotten almost everything in it.
In the cabinets above the desk, books and notebooks and cassette tapes try to keep an uneasy order with each other.
I have wedged into the molding of the cabinet doors laminated snapshots by Katherine Adams, a participant in my
poetry workshops. She has a keen eye for the quirky detail-something I admire tremendously in both poetry and
graphic arts. A series of pen and ink sketches by Emily Dusser de Barenne (mother of Marion Kilson, another writing
workshop participant) graces a small calendar which hangs over the printer on a small white string and sometimes spins,
as if months were some kind of mobile, in the air currents. The walls are painted Turkey red, the trim a semi-gloss
off-white. There's the comforting buzz of my eleven year old Apple G-4, the occasional airplane overhead, trucks rumbling
over potholes on the street, the lingering whiff of tea bags from last night waiting to be transferred to my compost pile.
My favorite thing to look at it in the room is an unfinished portrait of my partner's mother at age twelve playing a
violin, her face steady and wistful as she poses with the bow poised over a tan outline of the instrument.
The room is lit by an electrified replica of a Shaker chandelier, the crimped faux wax receptacles looking for all the
world like wide and shallow cupcake paper. At my desk, I use a pedestal lamp which we bought years ago from a saleswoman
who shared my late stepmother's droll sense of humor. (I hope she doesn't share her sloppiness and vitriol when inebriated).
I sit in a sturdy ladder back chair and which helps to remind me to not let my back slump too badly when I have been at the
computer for six or seven hours.
You currently teach poetry workshops, including online. What has this experience been like for you?
A great joy. I am constantly astonished at the richness and diversity of the voices of writers who enroll in my workshops.
Their skill, their vulnerability, their insights, their doggedness, and their enthusiasm teach me much about the craft of
writing (I offer workshops in memoir writing as well as in poetry).
The workshops are all characterized by lively and intelligent discussion among the participants. While we sometimes reach a
consensus about the strengths and shortcomings of a particular work, more often than not, we agree to disagree. Each participant
then comes away with a range of suggestions for improving the piece. The most successful revisions that are brought to the
workshop are informed by the spirit of some of the suggestions, and not the letter.
I ask that each participant bring a poem by someone whose work they admire (not themselves!) to read at the beginning of
each meeting of the poetry workshops. This is one of the most exciting parts of the workshop to hear new (and almost always)
compelling poems and to get a sense of the aesthetic of the participant.
Every week, I give each participant a poem by another author which reminds me in some way of the poem they brought in the
previous week. I also offer optional exercises which focus on particular subjects or the work of particular poets. In my
current Lexington Community Education poetry workshop, I am offering exercises in how poets can learn from songwriters. In
other workshops, the current set of exercises involves writing about work. I have also used the letters and poems of
Emily Dickinson as a model. Dickinson is a fine, if sometimes elusive, model for writing the epistolary poem, writing about
transformations, using aphorisms, and using the common (or hymn or ballad) meter, and employing rhyme in unusual ways.
My online workshop at the Online School of Poetry
is a somewhat more intensive experience. The exercises that are optional in other workshops are assignments in the online
workshop. Each participant writes at least two thoroughgoing critiques of another participant's work every week. I also
offer advice to participants on publishing in the online workshop
What level are your students at with their writing skills? Name a few things that you try to teach them.
I teach writers at all different levels, from the person just trying her or his hand for the first time at poetry or memoir to
writers who have had books published. I have led workshops in which one participant's last poetry teacher was Elizabeth Bishop
and another participant's work seemed more informed by the aesthetic of the greeting card. The two actually learned something
from each other!
Although most of my workshops are open to all levels of skill, I do have a joint workshop for poets and prose memoir writers that
meets on Monday nights at my house in which the general level of craft is quite high. Some of the participants are working on book
manuscripts and are publishing poems in respected journals. I also select more experienced and skilled writers for my advanced
online workshop. In the memoir workshops, some participants enroll who are breaking away from the academic and technical writing
that was their bread and butter to forge memoir pieces with a more robustly personal style. Others write in a fascinating hybrid
of street patois and Hemingwayesque elegance.
I think the most important lesson a writer finding her or his way can learn is the value of one's own experience of the world as one
is framing poems and prose pieces. Many writers come to the first couple of workshops with work that marches in the heavy boots of
abstraction and generalization. I always hear some wrongheaded phantom whispering over their shoulder "No one would be interested in
your story or your observation. You need to be universal to be understood." I suggest that that they consider the old Russian proverb,
"Taste mouthfuls--taste the ocean." Or the adage (I think it is Paul Valery's) "It is a thousand times easier to be profound than it is
to be precise." Precision comes from an acuity of perception, from giving expression to the individual genius that inhabits all mentally
competent human beings, from mining the rich lodes of our unique experience in the world. This is the first and sometimes most difficult
lesson to teach, because it involves not just a shift in aesthetic orientation,
but also an acute shift in awareness.
Whether in poetry or prose, I try to help writers develop a sense of the almost magical properties of well-tuned language.
For poetry especially, a sense of "heightened attention to language" (to use Coleridge's formula) is critical to my sense of
a successful poem. So many poems these days ignore this important requirement, focusing on narrative or precept without any
attention to the lyrical (i.e. musical) impulse that was poetry's hallmark for most of its long history. I encourage explorations
with rhyme and meter and writing in forms. I am constantly battling the silly prejudice against rhyme fostered by many poetry
teachers in the Modernist and post-Modernist tradition, a prejudice I had to unlearn myself.
Talk about your chapbook, Canticles and Inventories (Wyngaerts Hoeck Press, 2005).
The chapbook is a pastiche of ekphrastic poems (poems written in response to paintings, photographs, and other works of art),
poems about my experience as a machinist, meditations on the bizarre world of the nuclear family, and elegiac tributes to my
brother, father, and a past that always hovers in the sinews of my hands, waiting to break into some kind of song or sojourn.
I tried to make the chapbook as aesthetically pleasing as I could, using a typeface called Adobe Garamond and having it printed
(by union labor) at a press in Newburyport that has state of the art offset presses.
What writers influence you?
That would be a list too long to do your question justice without overwhelming your readers! If my writing has any life to it,
it derives from a cross-pollination of many different sources. The most influential poets are Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath,
Dylan Thomas, Charles Olson, Robert Browning, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Gwendolyn Brooks,
Pablo Neruda and John Berryman. Recent engagements with the work of poets Aime Cesaire and Thomas McGrath have also been very
influential. There are literally hundreds of other poets whose work I admire and from whom I learn. There are many prose
writers whose work is often more poetic than that of some of the "leading lights" of American poetry today, and I have
studied their work with an ear to gleaning lessons about poetry from their prose as much as the plot or message of their
work. These include Toni Morrison, William Faulkner and Thomas Hardy. Garbiel Garcia Marquez wrote the novel I love above
all others, Love in the Time of Cholera. Leon Trotsky is the best polemicist I know, the King James Version of the Bible
the most beautiful collection of religious propaganda. Beck, Elliott Smith and Sam Beam (of Iron and Wine) write some of
the smartest songs I've been listening to in the last few years. Emerson is the headiest aphorist, Heather McHugh the most
strikingly original critic, Camille Paglia the greatest shoot-from the-hipster. Besides the misnamed Norton Anthology of
Poetry (it's rather presumptuous to have an anthology "of Poetry" which only includes poems in English), two anthologies
have received a lot of attention from my eye, ear, and brain: A Celtic Miscellany (translated and edited by Kenneth
Hurlstone Jackson) and Technicians of the Sacred (edited by Jerome Rothenberg).
What are you working on now?
Mostly revamping the Emily Dickinson play (see below). Under the leadership of my friend (and the very fine writer) Nicole Terez Dutton,
I participated in a project of writing a poem a day for thirty days last October--every one of which was (allegedly) in the
voice of my mother. I would like to extend and deepen that collection. A small press publisher asked me to put together a
book of homages I have written to poets and other performers and send it to them for their consideration, so I will be working
on that post April 4.
As you know, I have an extensive theatre background. I am intrigued with a play you wrote and produced called,
Every Broom and Bridget, which is a play about Emily Dickinson and Her Servants. How long did it take you to write this?
I have been working on a play (or dramatic presentation) based on Emily Dickinson's poems and letters for about a year, but the
play really came into focus in January when I decided to concentrate on material about her servants (I am indebted to the work of
Jay Leyda, who wrote a long paper on the subject of her servants called "Miss Emily's Maggie" in the nineteen fifties and the work
of Aife Murray, who has a book coming out this spring called Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson's Life and Language,
and of course to Emily Dickinson's surviving letters and poems, which is where I gleaned much of the material for the play.
Give a brief synposis of the play. Who is directing this? Why did you decide to write about Emily Dickinson?
(This production will be presented on April 4th at 7:30 PM at the Cambridge YMCA/Central Square, in Cambridge, MA.,
Please see Cervena's readings page for more details).
The play takes place on the day of Emily Dickinson's funeral and burial. Dickinson, whose parents inhabited the upper
tiers of Protestant Yankee society in Amherst, Massachusetts, had an ambivalent attitude towards the Irish immigrants
and other working class people who were employed by her family. She could be affectionate, condescending, and hostile.
Her appointment of six of her father's Irish Catholic groundskeepers and helpers to be her pallbearers was controversial
at a time when Irish were considered a sub-species by many well-to-do Yankees.
In one letter, she speaks with great affection about one of these pallbearers, Tom Kelley, who was the brother-in-law of
her housekeeper of thirty years, Maggie Maher. I have made these two central characters in the play, and their reciprocal
affection towards Dickinson is counterpointed by the ambivalent hostility of another pallbearer, who seduces the housekeeper
so he can get a hold of Dickinson's papers for the purposes of blackmailing her family. In the process, the malevolent
pallbearer becomes enchanted with her poems. There is a back and forth between these three and other pallbearers. Other
working class citizens of Amherst emerge as characters, including Henry Jackson and Angeline Palmer and a Jewish worker at
the hat factory across from the Dickinson manse. (Jackson, a African American entrenpeneur who is to be played by the
internationally acclaimed performance poet, Regie Gibson, was defended by Emily Dickinson's father, Edward, when Jackson
was tried for abduction. Jackson had whisked the young black servant Angeline Palmer away when a Yankee mistress was
threatening to sell her into slavery on an upcoming trip to South Carolina).
Emily Dickinson appears in several manifestations in the play, including as a wraith reading her own poems as events unfold
after her burial, and in several flashback scenes. There are a number of musical and dance numbers in the play, including the
performance of an aria from Gian Carlo Menotti's opera The Old Maid and the Thief; a song first popularized by Aretha Franklin,
and a song by Sam Beam.
The play is being directed by Peter Berkrot, an acting coach and instructor with a lot of experience in community theater and
staged readings, which is how this play is being produced. Peter has acted in many movies and directed his own theater company
on the North Shore.
I find Dickinson fascinating. Once you peel away the "Queen Recluse" stereotype, a woman of great charm, humor, spiritual
intensity, and genius emerges. I find that the more I study her poetry, the more astonished I am at the breadth of her vision
and the daring of her project. When the literary critic Harold Bloom said hers was the most original mind in Western letters
since Shakespeare, it wasn't a casual aside.
HERE IN THE ROOM
"you could be anywhere. but you're here in the room. don't turn your back. wait. there are possibilities still with us."
from "Mortality", the opening poem in Judy's recent collection, When Performers Swim, the Dice Are Cast.
When did you begin writing poetry? Can you identify what motivated you?
As a child I was surrounded by loving, dynamic, creative individuals. My mother loved to read, and I believe I was
inspired by her to become a writer. I began writing in an elementary school class with a Mrs. Lingren who wrote
children's books, and I met the writer Ilo Orleans in her class. So I began writing in elementary school and remember
doing a lot of drawing, flute-playing, and running and swinging on vines. I was a very active as a child in the
landscape of an intensely creative family: my grandmother for instance played classical and stride piano at all our
family gatherings; and my brother, cousins and I always performed; my father was a very sensitive man with a great
sense of humor and a flair for art. Both parents had stunning, vibrant, theatrical personalities. My father was a
map-maker during WWII. My brother Paul played piano starting at age four, and we would sometimes play music together.
My brother Larry is an athlete and inspires with his grace. So the music and family life around and inside of me
inspired my poetry even at an early age.
How do you integrate writing into a daily life filled with other demands?
I am an extremely determined person. I swing between being emotionally supportive of family members, doing household chores,
being an office support for my husband's acupuncture business, and taking care of other family obligations, and creating poetry
and music. I attempt to do this with fluidity which has been enhanced by meditation and tai chi. I will attend to a chore
or emotional situation, then return to a deeper mode of writing poetry with great intensity. I do not let anything stop me
and have written under some very trying circumstances.
You've talked about studying with Denise Levertov. How did she influence your work? What was her style of teaching?
Denise was a great force and river of influence in my writing life. I know her work extremely well, and have read and reread her
collected poems, books such as The Freeing Of the Dust, Tesserae, Life in the Forest, and The Sorrow Dance, over and over again.
She emphasized an organic approach to writing poetry, with the poem growing out of an intense impulse to create, rather than an
academic exercise. Although, I have often favored the prose poem due to my study of French in college, she emphasized an organic
line. She also had spiritual gifts, and would often use an I/thou approach, gleaned from the philosophy of Martin Buber, in her
poetry and in working with people. She had a beautiful, spiritual gaze. As a teacher, Denise emphasized friendship and community,
and especially at the time I studied with her was involved in protesting the war in Vietnam. She at that time freely gave me books
to read, such as the works of Jules Supervielle, and paintings by Zen masters preserved in books, and once cooked me a currant pie.
She had her poet friends over for dinner and favored a spontaneous form of teaching, with great honesty and musicality placed in high
regard in the poem. "A Tree Telling of Orpheus" is one poem of hers which celebrates musicality in poetry.
What other poets have impacted your writing significantly?
As a poet, I have a great variety of influences, and look for startling images, clear and simple language, and intense emotional
force, in the writings of other poets. Therefore, I have loved the work of Neruda, Lorca, Levertov, her friend Muriel Rukeyser,
too, the Zen poet Ryokan, Blake, Vasko Popa, Paul Celan, Rodnoti, Yannis Ritsos, Rilke., Georg Trakl, and I have to say that jazz
has been "A Love Supreme" (to quote John Coltrane) and formative for my poetry.
I also like mystical poems of Tagore, the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and the Tales of the Chassidim by Martin Buber.
How did growing up in New Jersey play a role in your work? Are there other themes growing out of your family, your beliefs,
your personal struggles, that you identify as important?
My father was an insurance agent in New Jersey. I saw him struggle with his career, and knew I wanted to build on his struggles
and open my life to the world of art. He was a creative man caught in a hard business. Though my family wasn't very religious,
I always have had mystical leanings which I associate with my early childhood in New Jersey. The landscape of forsythia in spring,
for example, brought on a formative mystical experience at age four. William Carlos Williams, also from New Jersey, in the
books Paterson and Kora from Hell, also inspires a love of place, in this case New Jersey, in my work.
I actually have always struggled with my health to some degree since age twelve when I was diagnosed with an auto-immune
disease of the thyroid gland. This awareness that life ís precious has made me very wary of using my time in any way that
is not creative and positive. I have other health issues, too, and have had to work hard to maintain my energy to be a
positive influence on our son and in my marriage, and believe also in the development of profound friendships as part of
a writer's life.
How do you approach publishing your work?
Denise Levertov supported funding for my first chapbook, The Umpire, and Other Masks. Firefly Press published two chapbooks,
Carpenter and Tending. I self published Speaking With Deaf-Blind Children and it was very successful. I had a grant which
helped to support the funding for my first full-length collection, When the Arms of Our Dreams Embrace. This a was
collaborative venture in nature, and I helped to distribute the books for that one, and also for my recent collection
Ocarina. The publisher also distributed and publicized the books. My newest chapbook, When Performers Swim, the
Dice Are Cast with Ahadada books, is also collaborative in nature, meaning that the publisher helps to distribute the
books and provides some funding, or subscribers volunteer funding. In these times, I have been very fortunate to be able
to continue to publish my work via the small press, internet, and magazines such as Salamander, The Sun, The Bitter Oleander,
and Origin 2008. My friend and publisher Drew Stroud (Saru Press) who had a stroke about a year and a half ago, tragically,
was instrumental in publishing Ocarina and When the Arms of Our Dreams Embrace, and I am indebted to him for his guidance.
Do you experience writer's block? If so, what do you do to move away from it?
I actually do not experience writer's block. If I have trouble, I play music, the blues or a simple jazz piece, then return
to writing. I play jazz flute almost daily, and it inspires deep moods. I am very disciplined, and try to get something
down on paper every day.
What advice would you offer writers who are at the beginning of their writing lives?
I think any aspiring writer should first acknowledge to herself/himself that she/he has something special and unique to
contribute as a writer. Roots are important, as Isaac Singer emphasized at a conference I once attended. Also, read
voraciously. Discipline is a hidden must, and mystery.
Holly Guran, author of River Tracks, and Judy Katz-Levine have worked together for many years and have collaborated on a
series of pantoums. They know each other's work well.
"This interview originally appeared in the Ukrainian Weekly in February 2009."
December 10, 2008
A resident of New York City, Alexander J. Motyl is a writer, painter, and
professor. His novels include Whiskey Priest and Who Killed Andrei Warhol
(which was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2008); his art is
represented by The Tori Collection (www.toricollection.com); and his
scholarly writing includes six authored books and over ten edited volumes.
He's currently a professor at Rutgers University-Newark.
Dzvinia Orlowsky is the author of four poetry collections published by Carnegie Mellon University Press and currently
teaches at the Solstice Low-Residency MFA Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College in Boston.
Once, after giving a reading, when asked when you wrote, you responded that you wrote when you were bored.
It reminds me of poet Frank O'Hara's reply when asked how he knew a poem is finished: "When the phone rings."
I can't help but feel both you and O'Hara were winking at us with your answers.
If I'm right, what's behind the wink?
Winking aside, tedium is a good reason for doing anything, isn't it? For instance, I know when a work is finished,
whether non-fiction or fiction, when I get bored editing it. I usually go through some 20-30 edits, and most of them
are either exasperating or exhilarating, but when they get tedious, I know it's time to move on. By the same token,
part of the reason I took to writing fiction was that academic writing had stopped being a challenge. Once you know
what your argument will be, the rest pretty much follows. In contrast, fiction was a whole new universe for me. You
think it's easy: after all, it's all made up, right? But making it all up turned out to be incredibly difficult. And
making it all up for some 200 pages or more was terrifying - but also exhilarating. You finish the draft, whether
first or last, and you wonder, "Where did that come from?" In that sense, fiction is like painting: I always look at
the finished painting with a sense of awe and mystery: "Did I do that?" On the other hand, it's true that I'm always
winking, that I can never take anything too seriously - especially my own work. The universe is so big, history is so
big, God is so big - and we're so ridiculously small. How can you not wink?
As a professor of political science, how did you become interested in writing fiction?
A bunch of things happened in the 1990s that led me to fiction. The Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine became independent,
and the struggle - and I had been involved in the anti-Soviet struggle since the early 1970s - was suddenly over. At the
same time, my own academic writing had become increasingly theoretical and meta-theoretical and meta-meta-theoretical, and
at some point I began wondering what the point of so much unremitting self-refection and navel-gazing was. Searching for
more concrete alternatives, I returned to painting after a hiatus of about 15 years and began reading novels with a vengeance.
And then I had my first epiphany. I still recall the day I visited the galleries in Soho and thought, "Heck, my work is at
least as bad as most of this." And if they could exhibit, why couldn't I? Something similar happened with fiction writing.
The more I read, the more I thought: "Heck, I can do no worse than this." Fiction then became a new challenge, and it's
remained that since.
What was your first literary publication?
That was actually a short story that appeared at the very end of my high-school senior yearbook. I had always struggled
with English class, probably because I believed that writing had to "mean" something deep and important. Then, in my senior
year, I accidentally stumbled into a creative writing class and, much to my surprise, did extremely well - mostly, I suspect,
because I just threw all that meaning stuff out the window and let my imagination guide my hand. The teacher of that class
asked me to write some appropriately serious conclusion for the yearbook; instead, I produced a silly story and he liked it.
But that was an anomaly. It took me many, many years to feel confident about my creative writing and to get rid of that
meaning albatross and to realize that writing is, first and foremost, about writing - just as painting is about painting.
All that interpretation and meaning stuff is at best a bit of icing, at worst too much confectioner's sugar.
Do you have a favorite anecdote to share about your days as an emerging or just-published author?
That happened several years ago, when I was trying to find an agent for Whiskey Priest. I sent out hundreds of jazzy
cover letters, with a neat synopsis and a brief cv outlining all my very many academic publications, prizes, etc. One agent
sent back my letter, with a scribble at the bottom: "Interesting, but we don't represent unknown authors." Ouch.
Have you ever tried your hand at writing creative non-fiction or flash fiction? Any desires pulling toward poetry?
(I'd be a first interested reader!)
Back in the mid-1990s, I did try to write a kind of creative memoir, but that turned out awfully soppy and downright embarrassing.
And once in a while, the poetry muse takes a wrong turn and inspires me to do some verse. The only really sustained poetry writing I
did was quite spontaneous. Just after my father passed away in late May 2007, I wrote four short poems about his illness and death.
Poetry felt like the only medium for the grief I felt. In general, though, I'm not sure I "get" poetry. I'm in awe of poets, as much
as I'm in awe of musicians and composers. I'm still the high-school freshman who believes that all poetry must be about something
incomprehensibly profound and is terribly intimidated by the very thought of composing verse. Who, me? No way!
Professor and writer Vasyl Makhno has remarked that you belong to a unique generation of Ukrainian writers who were born in
the 1950s outside Ukraine and who write on Ukrainian topics in English. Who are some of the other writers of this generation and
have they influenced your work in any way?
That's an easy question. Irene Zabytko has shown that a writer can tell great stories and still have a Ukrainian point of
view. Askold Melnyczuk has shown that a Ukrainian writer can be concerned with questions of morality and identity without
falling into Ukrainian clichés. And Marina Lewycka has shown that it's possible to be Ukrainian and still retain a sense of
humor, as you have through your poetry. I only wish that Ukraine's writers would stop writing about their sexual awakening and
personal Angst and turn to some of the themes and styles employed by Zabytko, Melnyczuk, and Lewycka.
I understand that as a political scientist you are also interested in the Soviet KGB as well as the Ukrainian nationalist
Security Service. Tell us how the plot for your first spy-novel, Whisky Priest, evolved.
I've always been fascinated by spies. I'm not sure exactly why, though I suspect that it has something to do with the moral
ambiguity of their world. My first exposure to fictional spies was in the sixth grade, when I got two paperbacks by Eric Ambler
(who, by the way, is a terrific writer) from a friend for Christmas: Judgment on Deltchev and Cause for Alarm. That started the
addiction. It was compounded by my own interest in the Ukrainian nationalist movement and my experiences with the KGB, which made
several attempts to recruit me - and they in turn led to attempts by the FBI to recruit me. That sounds hilarious now, but then,
back in the late 1970s, it was an extremely unpleasant experience, especially as it wasn't clear which side was more heavy-handed.
Believe me, John le Carre's Smiley's People is an uncannily accurate depiction of the world of anti-Soviet émigrés and could have
been written about Ukrainians.
The idea for Whiskey Priest began with a hunch about the ending. It occurred to me one day back in the summer of 2001 - and I
have no idea why - that having a secret agent first save someone and then betray him would be an interesting twist with all sorts
of morally ambiguous implications. I even imagined the last line, in which the agent says, "You can have him," to the killers closing
in on their prey and just walks away. The next step was to write everything leading up to the last line. As I did so, my own
experiences with the world of espionage began intruding and structuring the characters, the dialogues, and of course the plot.
How long did it take you to write it? Do you set for yourself a daily or weekly page requirement of writing?
At the end of a single day of writing, what makes you feel like you've had a successful day's worth? I know for me
it can sometimes be capturing a single, resonant image.
I wrote the first draft of Whiskey Priest in about three-four months. I get somewhat obsessive while I'm writing and can
spend anywhere from two to six hours a day, every day, writing whatever comes to my mind. That's generally how long it takes
me to write any book-length manuscript, whether fiction or non-fiction. But that's the easy part. I then spend another year
or more rewriting, editing, and reediting - until that feeling of tedium comes over me and I know I'm done. My first drafts
are usually pretty awful, but once they exist - once there's a real live text - that first hurdle is overcome and the real
fun - the rewriting and editing - can begin.
Graham Greene has also been an influence on your work. Can you elaborate?
I love Greene. I love his crisp, compact writing; I love his concern with ethical-political issues and moral ambiguity;
I love his interest in spies; and I love his story-telling. Greene makes writing look easy. But of course all good writers do.
He also proves that a writer can be deep and complex and meaningful without having to resort to self-consciously deep and complex
and meaningful prose. That's the trick - to say important things without seeming to say important things. Shevchenko was able to
pull that off. As did Beckett, whose first line in Murphy - "The sun shone having no alternative on the nothing new" - has got to
be one of the best in literature. That's why I love Morandi's simple bottles, Modigliani's portraits, and Matisse's still lives
and detest the pretentiousness of painters like Dali, Damien Hirst, and Julian Schnabel. That's also why I love writers such as
Arthur Schnitzler, James Agee, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, Albert Camus, and Peter Schneider - and hate Dostoevsky. Or
why I'm completely blown away by Antonioni's L'Eclisse and L'Avventura (of course, I'm also madly in love with Monica Vitti) and
think he then went off the deep end. That's also why I think your poetry is so compelling.
Thank you, Alex! I sincerely appreciate that. But getting back to your work, your second novel, Who Killed Andrei Warhol,
has received well-deserved critical acclaim and continues to do well. Did you have a strong interest in the New York City Sixties Warhol
scene prior to writing the novel, or did it develop as you researched Warhol's life and circle of artist friends?
Well, don't forget that I was born and raised in New York, in the Ukrainian Lower East Side, which is just a few blocks away
from Warhol's Factory on Union Square. But I was too young, and too strait-laced, to have experienced the Sixties in New York.
I do remember, very, very unclearly, walking along St. Mark's Place and seeing posters for some of Warhol's musical events. I also
remember that Chelsea Girls played at the St. Mark's Theatre and that it was rated Adults Only. I vaguely recall seeing articles in
Time or Life about Warhol's scene, and I do remember when he was shot in 1968. But none of that meant much to me. It was all taking
place in the larger "American" world, and I, like many of my Ukrainian friends, was much more interested in rebelling against the
Ukrainian establishment. Besides, I was a complete square. I resisted wearing bell bottoms until straight-leg pants went out of style,
and I thought that Woodstock was just a big hoo-ha.
If I may interrupt -- I recall attending Ukrainian summer courses at Soyusivka with my sister and two friends, Chris and
Nutia, and hearing about Woodstock which was in full swing not too far away. There was some effort on the part of management to
organize a "field trip" to the "music festival." But rumor had it "there might be some hippies there" and the trip was cancelled.
I was a flower child - denied. To this day I love imagining a small busload of us Ukrainian students arriving at the scene…
Maybe in our next lives (sigh)… In the meantime, please, do continue…
My specific interest in Warhol began with seeing, back in 2001 or so, a documentary about his relatives in eastern Slovakia,
Absolut Warhola. I was struck by how familiar they seemed, especially as I have Ukrainian relatives not far from his parents' home
town. I suddenly realized what I had sort of known all the time - that Warhol was a Slav and that he grew up in an immigrant
neighborhood, went to church every Sunday, celebrated Christmas on January 7, and then eventually broke out of the ghetto and
came to the big city. His story was my story - well, sort of - and that piqued my interest in his life and career and work.
Writers, particularly those who write from a researched subject, are often faced with the challenge of finding the right
balance between presenting too much back ground information or too little. Do you have a specific reader in mind when you write?
How do you establish authority on your subject?
I assume that my readers will know a thing or two about literature and life, but I don't assume - or insist - that they know
what I know or as much (or as little) as I do. I firmly believe that every artwork can be enjoyed - and must be enjoyed - on
several levels. The most obvious level is the "surface" story or image. I firmly believe that has to be there, and it has to be
persuasive to the reader or viewer. The surface level is arguably the most important. It's the structure, it's the meat and potatoes,
it's the foundation - use whichever metaphor you like. And then there are other, supposedly "deeper" levels, where metaphors, jokes,
inter-textual references, meanings, symbols, portentous implications, and all sorts of supposedly profound stuff come into play.
A work that consists only of these deep levels is never persuasive; it's often just second-rate philosophy masquerading as art. A
work that consists only of the surface may never be great, but, like Mickey Spillane's bone-crunching prose, it is what it is, and
that's often enough. Then again, what the heck do I know?
E.L Doctorow said writing a novel is like driving across country at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you
can make the whole journey that way. Tell us something about your writing process. Do you work from an outline?
I start with hunches or insights - never, ever from an outline. Whiskey Priest started with the notion that it would be
interesting to explore just why a spy who saves someone would then turn on him. Who Killed Andrei Warhol was born when, while
reading about Warhol's life, I came upon a reference to the fact that his Factory was located in the same building as the
Communist Party USA. That coincidence struck me as surreal and tailor-made for an absurdist novel. My latest novel, The Jew Who Was Ukrainian,
started in the most unlikely fashion. I was reading some German-language novel a few years ago and came upon the word, Frauenzimmer,
an antiquated version of Frau, or woman. For some reason, I started rhyming Frauenzimmer with Volodymyr and was amused by the flow and
silliness of the name. And then I knew I had a hero for my next novel: Volodymyr Frauenzimmer, a man who has a Ukrainian mother who
hates Jews and a Jewish father who hates Ukrainians. And once I had the name, I was able to construct something like a story around
To continue with interesting observations made by well-established authors, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone author, Dennis Lehane,
once said that given complex characters, the plot will find itself. Do you agree?
Absolutely. The one thing I've learned about writing fiction is that, somewhere along the way, you lose control, and the
characters take over. I had read about that, but never quite believed it, but it's quite true. You start a scene between X and Y
and you think you know what they're going to say and how the scene will end, but more often than not, they just start blabbering
and, before you know it, the characters have mutinied and taken hold of the ship. At best, you then try to keep the ship on course,
although that sometimes doesn't work and then you have no choice but to change direction. You can't beat the characters. They
always win - or should win.
Which of the three novels proved more challenging to write, and why?
They've all been hard, but The Jew Who Was Ukrainian was by far the hardest. Whiskey Priest is, after all, a story.
There are flashbacks and internal monologues, but it is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. So, too, is Who Killed Andrei Warhol,
though there the challenge was twofold: to make the encounter between the Soviet Ukrainian journalist and Andy seem natural, and not
contrived, and to turn a curious encounter into something with dramatic tension, a story. But The Jew Who Was Ukrainian takes the cake.
It doesn't really have a plot; it doesn't really have a beginning, middle, and end; and it incorporates third-person narrative,
first-person reflections, two-person, three-person, and five-person interrogations, and actual texts from published sources.
Stitching all that together into something that flows (I hope) and is tight (I pray) was extremely challenging.
By the way, congratulations again, on your Pushcart Prize nomination for Who Killed Andrei Warhol.
My feeling is this won't be the only time your work is nominated for the prize.
As a great fan of your work, I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.
I'm keeping my toes crossed.
Tell us something about your revision process. Do you have writers with whom you share early drafts of your work?
How deep into a work do you feel you need to be before exposing it for feedback?
For me, writing is editing. The first draft is, as I've already said, pretty lousy, but that doesn't matter, because
the real writing takes place only after that first draft is in place. So I never share first drafts with others; that
would be an insult to their intelligence. But I tend to share works about two-thirds of the way through the editing process.
By then, I usually feel fairly comfortable with the text and, although I know it's not quite there yet, it's no longer
By the way, I do my academic writing in exactly the same way. I also paint that way. You start with some smears,
vague outlines, hints of something or other. And then you refine the whole picture by continually adjusting something
here in light of the whole or the whole in light of something there. I suppose you could say I'm obsessed with composition - with
the relationship of the words to words, with the relationship of lines and colors and forms to lines and colors and forms.
As far as I'm concerned, the artwork is inside the artwork - not outside. I'm with Susan Sontag in being, as she put it in
her famous essay, "Against Interpretation." The New York art critic Clement Greenberg also had it right. When he first looked
at a painting, he'd stand with his back to it and then suddenly pivot to view it, thereby hoping to acquire as direct, and
meaning-less, a relationship with the artwork as possible.
Poet Melanie Drane and I were just discussing this morning over the phone the need to share early drafts of (in our case)
a particular poem with another poet. She made the wonderful analogy of putting a meal out on a dinner table with the hope
of someone tasting it - letting you know if it's too heavily or not carefully seasoned enough - before it's gotten cold.
The flipside, however, is that too many cooks spoil the soup.
There's the rub. Ideally, just the right person or persons will provide just the right commentary at just the right time.
So the meal should be ready enough to be served, and the taster should be discerning enough - and gentle enough - to tell
you exactly what ingredients are missing or should be missing, without gagging too visibly in the process. But what do you
do when trustworthy and discerning people respond differently to the same text? That's why I let others view the work-in-progress
only after I feel more or less confident that it's at least good enough. That way, if the criticism is negative, one can always
dismiss it. And if the criticism is targeted and useful, one can always say, "But of course!"
No one will deny the solitary act of writing. Building a community of writers, however, is of critical importance, and it's
just plain fun. You and Irene Zabytko co-run the popular "Ukrainian Literary Night" series, first at the Bowery Club, and more
recently at Cornelia Street Café. Can you tell us more about how that series evolved?
That was all Irene's inspiration and work. It would never have occurred to me that one could just contact the Cornelia people
and suggest a Ukrainian literary anything. Irene said, "Why not?" She sent them an email - not even a formal letter or anything
like that - and they said, sure, you're in. And that was that. I was totally floored by how simple and obvious the whole process
was. Of course, Irene is fearless and smart and experienced and she knows how to get things done. I'm just a neophyte.
Alex, you are also an accomplished painter with work represented by The Tori Collection specializing in international
contemporary fine art. Does one activity resonate with the other, or do you keep the two muses separate?
I do paint and write at the same time, all the time, but I'm not sure I see any cross-fertilization, certainly not
thematically. My fiction is very much "Ukrainian", while my paintings have, as far as I can tell, nothing Ukrainian or
Slavic or East European about them. But the two activities do overlap and, I'm tempted to say, are identical in one way.
Being obsessed with composition, I want my texts and artworks to "hang together." And that means that, ideally at least,
no word and no brushstroke should ever be extraneous. Of course, that's an impossible goal, but it is possible, I think,
to prevent texts and artworks and films from "sagging" - from feeling like wet blankets. I wouldn't remove a single word
from Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, Kurban Said's Ali and Nino, or Volodymyr Vynnychenko's Na toy bik, or a single drip from
a Pollock, or a single scene from Dovzhenko's Zemlya. Most of Fellini's later films, on the other hand, could easily be cut
by half - any half - and you'd never know the difference. Since editing a text is like "editing" a painting, I suppose there's
some sort of resonance going on between these two activities.
Warhol states everyone is entitled to fifteen minutes of fame. How will you know when you've achieved yours? Or, perhaps
you already have?
You know, he never said that it was supposed to be fifteen consecutive minutes. And since fifteen minutes make for 900
seconds, I suspect I've had just about that many moments of extremely transitory fame. But my major claim to fame took place
back in late 1993, when I was on Charlie Rose together with David Remnick and some Russian journalist. I couldn't figure out
just why I had been invited, until, at one point, Rose turned to me and said, "Now you're from the Ukraine, Mr. Motyl, aren't
you?" I'm usually at a loss for repartees, but this time I managed to blurt, "No, I'm just a New York boy," and watch his jaw
drop as he realized that I wasn't the Ukrainian complement to the American and Russian. I haven't been invited back.
I understand you are currently working on a play with one of the Warhol's Factory Superstars, Ultra Violet.
Can you tell us more about that?
I met her at one of my readings about two years ago, at the Ukrainian Institute of America. We exchanged cards, she
said to call her - and, naturally, I didn't. And then, last spring, I received several telephone calls and emails from
her in one day. She invited me to lunch, I came - having no idea just why and feeling completely intimidated - but she
turned out to be one of the sweetest and warmest and funniest people I know, and we hit it off immediately. She then
showed me a text - featuring a dialogue between Warhol and Hitler - and, after a few more meetings and some to-ing and
fro-ing, we agreed that I'd help her make a play of it. It's called Wintertime for Warhol. Meeting her has been quite an
experience, especially for a Ukrainian boy from the Lower East Side. She's an excellent artist in her own right and she's
very religious. She's a Mormon, and I even accompanied her one Sunday morning to the Mormon Church on East 87th Street in
Speaking of fifteen-plus moments of fame, should we announce our next Ukrainian Literary Night at the Cornelia Cafe?
It promises to be a particularly good one…
It'll be on April 25th, 2009 - but this time there'll only be one session, from 6pm to 8pm. And with you,
Askold Melnyczuk, and Irene Zabytko in the spotlight, I think we'll have a super-duper show and a standing-room
Thank you, Alex, for sharing your work and thoughts with us.
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