The Pursuit for Mercy: Two Questions with Donald Quist

Leone Brander for AGNI: Much of your nonfiction work, both essays and your book, Harbors, contain social-political themes. Are you consciously using literature as a political tool, and if so, where and how do politics and storytelling intersect for you?

Donald Quist: I’m going to go on a bit of a tangent to answer your question. I’m sorry. One of my favorite TV shows is the short-lived American adaptation of a British series called Getting On. It follows a group of highly flawed individuals serving a fledgling hospital’s elder care unit. In the final moments of the series, Laurie Metcalf’s character says, “There is no justice; but there is mercy, because that is what we can give each other.” The first time I heard her monologue, I squealed. That’s it! Anything I write starts from a desire to offer empathy, understanding, grace and mercy.

This pursuit for mercy—the attempt to remind others and myself that all human lives have value—inherently leads to an exploration of the nuances among governing systems and ruling social constructs. One’s race, gender, or sexual identity can make their experience political. Because of where I’m from, looking the way I do, because of how I was raised and because of who I am, my existence in the United States is politicized. Since the 1800’s the rights of those with my complexion, our role in this society, have been public affairs issues open to debate—”The Negro Problem.” So, although I don’t intend to write overtly political pieces, I accept that the stories I find worth telling will be social-political. I know when I write about shoplifting as a latchkey kid with my poor white friend it’s not such a simple anecdote. There are layers. I hope the stories I tell encourage more constructive discourse about some of the exigencies of life in North America.

LB/AGNI: What you said about “layers” is interesting. As an author who writes both fiction and nonfiction, do you find that the nuance and layers can change from genre to genre? Are there certain considerations you have when writing in fiction that you don’t have for nonfiction, or vice versa?

DQ: Yes—I think the way these nuances and layers are portrayed vary between genres. Fiction has a set of expectations. Readers demand authenticity, that the characters of an imagined universe move within the parameters or conceits introduced by the author. For me, fiction lends itself to the exploration of hypotheticals, the imagined limits of divisions we create in reality. When I write nonfiction, I have greater consideration for the existing disparities which frame the narrative I wish to tell. It’s a matter of varying responsibility. With fiction, I must convey a sense of truth and believability. In nonfiction, I must provide truthful examples demonstrative of a shared experience while recognizing that these examples are invariably shaded by my own perception. Nonfiction requires me to acknowledge the limits of my perspective.

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Processed with VSCO with m3 presetDonald Quist is the author of the nonfiction collection Harbors. His work has appeared in North American Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, J Journal, and elsewhere. He was a finalist in the 2017 International Book Awards and runner-up for the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize. He is creator of the web project Past Ten and co-host of the podcast Poet in Bangkok. See what he’s published in AGNI here.




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In addition to being an intern at AGNI, Leone Brander is a Canadian author and illustrator. Her work has appeared in Canadian Notes and Queries, Bacopa Literary Review, and the Bellingham Review. She earned her BFA in creative writing at the University of Victoria and is currently an MFA student at Boston University.


On Food, Memory, and Writing: Three Questions with Jung Hae Chae

Grace Yun for AGNI: “It was forgetting at the heart of drinking, forgiving at the heart of communal eating” (from “The Great Meal,” AGNI 86). What is at the heart of cooking for you?  

This morning, my seven-year old daughter, Audrey, looks up from her breakfast table, and tells me excitedly (again) about her life ambitions, one of which is to become a world-class chef or “cooker” as she sometimes calls the profession. Lately I’ve given over to her demands of helping me cook, so I let her slice, dice, chop, julienne carrots, potatoes, celeries, even onions. She stirs soups and stews, stir-fries veggies and fish patties. With a quick swish of her wrist, she sprinkles salt and garlic powder (sometimes too much) on everything. She does so, not for content but for form. (She’s all about the form!) Don’t forget the garnish, she says, as she reaches for spring onions.

Form is to ritual as cooking is to remembering. And it’s true that everything worth remembering happened in the first seven years of my life. So, I cook and I remember. The smell of the wood burning inside that dark, bunker-like kitchen of my grandmother’s house, the warmth of the fires from her wok, its afterglow on my cheeks in winter evenings. I remember the early-morning screeches of the roosters behind our house, the smell of the fresh raw pig liver that I fetched for my grandmother on Saturday mornings to help with her eyes. My grandmother, the Man in the house for all of us three generations of women. I cook and I remember the lights of the night market igniting the small dreams of the 1970’s post-war South Korea and its people. I remember because I loved the complex smells of the dirty streets, the cacophony of the black market vendors haggling or cussing or whatever, even the dirty looks of the old men glaring at my wee-year-old self as I ran away from them. I remember the layers of pains associated with a childhood lost to lost dreams, in between the layers of myths held untouched by a child somehow. I remember my dead grandmother and my mother. I cook and I remember.

GY/AGNI: Do you think writing is also communal?

Most definitely. Writing is an act borne out of community. I often hear many “voices” speaking to me, as I try to form the language to express “them” and “their” experiences. Quite literally, in writing, the speaker is not I, but a conglomerate of experiences of the people I am interested in giving voice (power) to. I have been preoccupied with the voices of women in my life, and my “ancestors” in a broad sense of that term. For me, these are the people who haunt me the most.

GY/AGNI: Finally, does the process of writing involve some level of forgetting and forgiving for you?

I think so. I find writing to be a humane act, not far from an epiphany. I read in some self-help book that to forgive is to remove the illusion that the past could have been any different than it was. To do so requires a brutal truth-facing—or, at the very least, an exploration into the (often uncomfortable) unknown, requiring a reckoning of some sort. I think good writing, like any religious experience, happens when one is pushed to the limits and awakened to the truth-seeking soul, when clarity of the imagination meets some Scary Truth via language authentic to lived experience. In recalling a primal memory, and rendering a sober take on the human experience from an imagined viewpoint, you forget who you are, and forgive the illusory gravity-bound existence. That is to say, I forget and forgive the unreflected self, in favor of the ever-searching one.

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JHCJung Hae Chae’s work has appeared in CALYX, Crab Orchard Review, AGNI, MiPOesias, Third Coast, and elsewhere. See what she’s published in AGNI here.




GYGrace Yun, an intern at AGNI, is from Los Angeles. She is in the BU fiction program. Her grandmother is her muse.

Hearing Voices: Two Questions with Patrick Dacey

Leone Brander for AGNI: Your story “Once More Before It’s Too Late” (AGNI 86) has such a compelling and unique first-person speaker and I really admired how his language captured his character. Specifically, I wanted to ask you: What goes into creating such a strong first-person voice? Do you have a specific person(s) you are trying to emulate, or are you more focused on language?

I start first with voice. For me, that’s the most important part of writing a story, and the most difficult. Writers, like a lot of crazy people, hear voices. And you have to pick which ones are the loudest to get at a story you find worth telling. With this story, I started with the line, “So maybe I am uneven,” and went from there. From the voice comes the character. To me, he sounded defensive, and so this story took on the shape of a defense for the reckless actions he takes to try and prove he’s a better father than we initially perceive him to be. I think here and in most of my recent work, the impact of what I’m seeing in our country and around the world is very present. The characters I’m hearing want to be better people; know they can be better; and struggle to figure out how.

LB/AGNI:  It’s interesting to me that the whole story began with a single line of voice. How much did voice dictate the plot in this piece? Is this a common way that you formulate your stories?

Voice can carry a story, really, because that voice is responsible for the other characters’ actions, words, and reactions, all of which are perceived in a specific way by this one narrator. That’s why I don’t believe an unreliable narrator exists. Most people think they’re pretty reliable, and they wouldn’t tell you a story about how tragically unreliable they are, would they? Maybe on their death beds. Maybe that’s why there are so many terrible death bed novels.

Once you realize how reliably unreliable narrators actually are, then you can fool around with how this narrator would tell the story to a specific person–so the story changes if he’s telling it to his friend, mother, co-worker, etc—and it becomes multiple versions of the same story.

I think about all this as I start out, but there are images that appear, too, as in this story, like the image of the insides of the old courthouses on Cape Cod, the beauty, yet rigidity of those colonial buildings. These images are of a place, really. So if I have this voice in a specific place, I can start to feel the story this character needs to tell.

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AGNI PD Patrick Dacey is the author of the story collection We’ve Already Gone this Far and the novel The Outer Cape. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Zoetrope All Story, AGNI, Guernica, Bomb, and elsewhere. He has worked as a reporter, landscaper, door-to-door salesman, and on the overnight staff at a homeless shelter and detox center, and now teaches creative writing at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


Processed with VSCO with k3 presetIn addition to being an intern at AGNI, Leone Brander is a Canadian author and illustrator. Her work has appeared in Canadian Notes and Queries, Bacopa Literary Review, and the Bellingham Review. She earned her BFA in creative writing at the University of Victoria and is currently an MFA student at Boston University.

The ‘Alienating’ Art of the Camera: Questions with Karl Kirchwey

Lauren Peat for AGNI: “Speedlooker” (AGNI 86) is written from the first-person perspective of Ottomar Anschütz, developer of the focal-plane shutter. As the poem’s speaker, Anschütz suggests that his invention has “caused our first fall into alienation” (a reference to Susan Sontag’s On Photography). Where did the idea to assume the perspective of an earlier technological pioneer come about?

Karl Kirchwey: The long poem MUTABOR [of which “Speedlooker” is a part]…was the result of a trip I took in 2007 or so to the Italian-, French-, and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, with all three of which I have family/autobiographical ties. Upon my return to the United States, I began to contemplate a poem that would somehow explore the geography and both natural and human history of these three areas. Again for autobiographical reasons (the uncle for whom I was named was a pilot killed in the Pacific in WWII; my father flew on heavy bombers out of England in 1944-5), the history of aviation has been a recurrent theme in my work. It appears that Anschütz’s photos of storks taking off and landing provided a German engineer, Otto Lilienthal, with the idea for the first airfoil (wing), later used by the Wright brothers. So aviation and photography are linked. Then I became interested in the effect of photography and film on our own experience of the world; crucial in this was my rereading Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which posits a shift in the nature of the human experience of the work of art, and the loss of the “aura” of that work with mechanical reproduction (cinema and film, for instance).

The poem has grown over these ten years to now comprise twenty sections and some 300 rhymed quatrain stanzas (about 1200 lines). The open-endedness of this project appeals to me strongly; I may write on any subject and discover that it has a place in the long poem, which at its most fundamental level addresses our human experience of change (mutability) and our desire to stop or transcend it (our knowledge that we are mortal)…. As someone who has always tried to get my facts straight and pay attention to sources, I also wanted MUTABOR to be a kind of dialogue between the poem text and a marginal text, which is part autobiographical commentary, part criticism, and part bibliography, acknowledging the poem’s sources.

LP/AGNI: Readers of “Speedlooker” will likely be reminded and/or led to reconsider modern technological advancements; I think of social media, for example, and the idea that although we may believe that such platforms “bring things closer,” they perhaps only make us “absentminded and distract[ed] / …part of a collective” in which the “self is only dispossessed, / never transcended.” While the poem suggests that these technologies have “murdered” the “aura” of something formerly holy, it also gestures toward the intoxicating quality of these technologies: the machine is described as having “seduced the unarmed eye.” Has the imaginative exercise of adopting Anschütz’s perspective caused you to rethink your own relationship to technology, and if so, how? Do you struggle with this double thrust (between disillusionment and attraction) personally?

Karl Kirchwey: Mine may be the last generation that can remember not being computer-literate. And even now I am, by choice, only barely computer-literate. Which is to say that I regard the internet as a great resource but e-mail as a kind of tyranny over my attention and energy; I take every opportunity I can to be off-line and (for example) reading the cold print of a book in the quiet space of my own mind. I do not use Facebook, Twitter, etc. But then, my social needs were conditioned by the ancient practices of talking to people and writing letters to people. Along with everyone else, I marvel at how easy communication has become (though tricky, too, as the difficulty of reading the tone of an e-mail makes clear), and I acknowledge that my two young adult children are encountering the world now, including the social world, in ways that are different from those I have chosen.

I think the long poem…is indeed addressing the “seduction” of the “unarmed eye” (that last phrase is Benjamin’s) with particular regard to the voyeuristic appetite we have for watching extreme on-screen violence, for example. I think we all struggle with what you call the “double thrust” between disillusionment, with the new technologies and their virtual reality, and attraction, even to looking at what some moral sense in us tells us is “forbidden.” Of course, “mechanical reproduction” does have redemptive or recuperative qualities, too; the MUTABOR section entitled “Palmyra”—available in the current issue of the BU journal ARION—explores these effects, whereby digital image archives have allowed us to reconstruct monuments destroyed by human barbarism. (This was the case of the destruction of the Roman Arch at Palmyra by ISIS, for instance, and its reconstruction by the Institute for Digital Archaeology.)

Again, with regards to my own relationship to technology, you already mentioned Sontag’s book On Photography, which I read as a meditation on our (lapsarian, Edenic, Satanic) seduction by looking. The background reading for the poem has led me to Barthes, Baudrillard and other thinkers as well; indeed, this is the first time that a poem of mine has been informed by a set of conscious philosophical propositions. Thus I suppose you could say that I have had to rethink my relationship to technology, but less with regard to gadgets than with regard to what a poet might spend his life exploring in poetry, which is beauty and its representation in art. And the religion of beauty (for all the hazards of a nineteenth-century Aestheticism attached to that term) is part of what my new book Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems is all about.

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BillPattersonKKportrait(8.16)Karl Kirchwey has received the Rome Prize as well as NEA, Guggenheim, and Ingram Merrill grants and the Cato Prize for Poetry. His seventh book Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems was published in October 2017, and his anthology Poems of Rome is forthcoming from Everyman’s Library in April 2018. He translated Paul Verlaine’s first book as Poems Under Saturn (2011) and has also translated work by Italian poets Giorgio Vigolo and Giovanni Giudici. His long poem-in-progress Mutabor (of which “Speedlooker” is a part) has been appearing in periodicals for the past ten years or so. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Boston University, where he is serving as Interim Associate Dean for the Humanities in 2017-18. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


Peat PhotoNative to the rolling British midlands and the great metropolis of Toronto, Lauren Peat is a current poetry MFA candidate at Boston University and an intern at AGNI. Her work has appeared in Acta Victoriana and the UC Review.

Love and Androids: Questions for Julianna Baggott

in response to Baggott’s story “The Velveteen Lover, or How Androids Become Real” (AGNI 86)

Grace Yun for AGNI: How do you think technology changes aspects of writing about love? What is your take on dating apps or movies like Marjorie Prime or Her?

If you put the amount of words that my 17-year-old writes to his girlfriend on a given day via text and put it alongside a Victorian courtship, those two groups would have similar word counts. Whereas my generation in courting had very few written words. We talked. So, texting in particular feels old school and writerly. The kind of language has shifted. Emojis are efficient. And I’m definitely not walking around assuming my son’s texts read like a Victorian courtship. Neither did my corded landline phone calls. Still and all, love is love. I don’t know that it changes very drastically. It might not even change much with an AI. It didn’t in HER.

GY/AGNI: What was so striking about your Velveteen lover character was his very human desire to become real. What was the process of creating these toy-characters like, especially the Velveteen lover? Was there any anxiety in creating him?

As this story is a re-envisioning of The Velveteen Rabbit, much of what was given to me by the formal constraints of trying to stay as close as possible to the original informed the characterization.

Of course, a velveteen rabbit and a velveteen AI sex toy don’t seem to have very much in common on the surface. But the more tightly I forced myself to adhere to the original work, the more interesting the characters became. The slightly antiquated language and unusual descriptions created a strange and strained world. The formal choice at the start was a serious bit of world building. There was no anxiety in that, only collaborative playfulness. I’ll likely never have another writing process like it ever again.

GY/AGNI: What is a toy you truly cherished and loved?

There was this field goal kicker who wore a helmet that you could smash and he’d kick. I loved him because I’d desperately wanted the gift as seen on TV and because he was immediately taken over by my father and brother who smashed his head too hard and broke him on Christmas morning. So, I never got to play with the toy.

This admission now makes me wonder if my entire story is a masked tale of my unrequited love. I am uncomfortable.

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AGNI JBJulianna Baggott is the author of over twenty books, including two New York Times Notable Books of the Year, Pure and Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders. Her latest is a collection of poems called Instructions, Abject & Fuming. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, AGNI, The Best American Poetry, and elsewhere, and read on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. She is a professor of screenwriting at Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts and faculty director at Vermont College of Fine Arts. See what she’s published in AGNI here.


GYGrace Yun, an intern at AGNI, is from Los Angeles. She is in the BU fiction program. Her grandmother is her muse.

Reflections on Beauty and Writing: Two Questions with Chad Davidson

Bart Kuipers for AGNI: I liked the way you reflect on beauty in your piece “Mutatis Mutandis” (AGNI 86), and especially the idea that imperfection and transience are key elements in appreciating it—as you quote Stevens, “Death is the mother of all beauty.” Reading your poem “Cockroaches” made me wonder: How do these notions of beauty influence your poetry? Are you aware of them when you write?

The essay on Spoleto started with a rather simple anecdote. As the piece makes clear, I run a study abroad program in Italy for my university. Each year, students are simply stunned by the place, and will almost inevitably say to nobody in particular (kind of to themselves or to the air itself), “This is so beautiful.” Writers constantly want to challenge the easy adjective, though, and hunt instead for linguistic precision. What precisely is beautiful about Spoleto? Could I inventory it, pay homage to that impulse we have (especially we Americans) to call Italy beautiful? Beauty can be a complex synthesis. It can also be quite simple. The essay tries to shed light on some of the ways I tried to answer that question: what specifically about Spoleto (and about Italy more generally) is beautiful?

As for how that relates to or influences my poetry, I am sure it does. Poetry (any imaginative writing, really) is concerned with aesthetics, even (and perhaps especially) when the object under inspection is not often categorized as beautiful. I suppose the Cockroach poem you reference and this Spoleto essay attempt to answer the same question but have arrived there from opposing poles.

BK/AGNI: You ask the question “Where doesn’t history transform a place, yes, but also warp the air around it, the way a desert highway trembles in heat?” and make the observation that “Time, […] forms a storage place just large enough for nostalgia.” I’m wondering: Do you feel history transforms the perception of a poem over time in that sense?

Most definitely. My appreciation of certain poems changes, expands (in some cases contracts) over time, just as my appreciation of any artwork or city or food will change. The specific issue in the part of the essay you cite, however, is how time itself provides for our nostalgia. History writ large—and not that particular building or monument or window box of geraniums—is often what we desire most of Italy (even if we are not conscious of it). The question, I think, is this: when we see the old cobbler, off a cobblestoned street of a medieval city center, do we see the cobbler or just a complex we might identify as “old-world charm”? I was interested in that noise, that disturbance, that double vision.

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AGNI CDChad Davidson’s most recent collection of poems is From the Fire Hills (Southern Illinois UP, 2014). Recent essays and poems appear or are forthcoming in Five Points, Gettysburg Review, Yale Review, Kenyon Review, and others. He serves as professor of literature and creative writing at the University of West Georgia near Atlanta and co-directs Convivio, a summer writing conference in Postignano, Italy. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

AGNI bk.pngBart Kuipers writes short stories and screenplays in Dutch and English. He graduated from the Amsterdam Film Academy and since then published short stories in Dutch magazines and Writer’s Digest. In addition to being an intern at AGNI, he’s currently a student in the creative writing MFA program at Boston University on a Fulbright scholarship.

Revisitations: Two Questions with Dilruba Ahmed

AGNI: You use repetition to great effect in your poem “Choke” (AGNI 85). How do you know what bears repeating in your work, and how does the repeated word or phrase change (for you, hopefully for a reader) as you bring it back again? In other words, what do you expect repetition to do?

Ahmed: First, thanks for your kind words about my poem, David! My poem “Choke” is sort of a retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” in two voices: an unidentified interviewer, and a rural Indian farmer. I can’t say I really know what bears repeating in my poems, but in this case, the voice of the interviewer seemed loud and insistent as I wrote, as though the urge to repeat the questions arose from the interviewer’s dissatisfaction with the initial response. So maybe the interviewer’s repetition stems from a desire to both clarify and undermine the farmer’s replies. At the same time, by giving the farmer a chance to reply more than once to the same question, I think I hoped to create a sense of accumulation, with a larger story emerging bit by bit from snippets. I also hoped to convey a kind of layering and revision that would compel the reader to question both the interviewer and the respondent, with the farmer at times responding to the inquiry with a kind of counter-inquiry. In addition to repeating some of the interviewer’s questions and part of the farmer’s replies, I tried playing around with the repetition of the word “choke.” I was interested in thinking about the various connotations and uses of the word, both the physical act of choking or being choked, as well as the more abstract uses of the term in “choke off” or “chokehold.”

AGNI: One of the things that stands out in your poem “The Feast”(also AGNI 85) is your use of camerawork; you use description to move the reader’s attention from the speaker’s father to the food, from the food to the river, and then on to the children, and so on. How conscious were you of this camerawork in the writing process? How did you know what needed attention, and when?

I wrote “The Feast” about a year and a half after my father died of multiple myeloma. I was visiting a new river park with my kids, the kind of picnic spot my parents visited frequently when I was a child. For a long moment, I felt as though I had somehow stepped outside of time as we conceptualize it, as though the past and present had collapsed. While I did not actually “see” him, I felt my father’s presence very deeply in that park. I suddenly became hyper-aware of all of the seemingly concrete, physical details of the setting: the grass, the trees, the moss, the water. But all the while, I was aware of something else happening. The experience was strange but somehow comforting, as though I’d been given a chance to revisit a familiar dream that was meant to represent real life. So I think that, as I wrote the poem, I was compelled to convey the sensory details of the land and water, perhaps as a counterweight to the strange alteration of time that I had felt.

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Photo credit: Mike Drzal

Dilruba Ahmed’s debut book, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf Press, 2011), won the Bakeless Prize. Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, New England Review, and Poetry. New work is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Copper Nickel, 32 Poems, Ploughshares, and Aquifer. Her poems have been anthologized in Literature: The Human Experience (Bedford/St. Martin’s), Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas), and elsewhere. Ahmed is the recipient of The Florida Review’s Editors’ Award, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Prize, and a Katharine Bakeless Nason Fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.