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.


Fear, Love, or Both: A Question with Megan Harlan

AGNI: Your essay “Spider Season” (AGNI 85) brings so many wide-ranging things together, all connected to the central element of spiders: danger, superstition, beauty, home, cultural differences, childhood, and parenthood. How did you know, in writing, which connections you wanted to include, and which (if any) you would ultimately decide to exclude?

Harlan: “Spider Season” began when I noticed, one Fall day, just how many spiders were living on my front porch, because I refused to sweep them away, despite my longstanding arachnophobia. Spiders, as I say in the essay, comprise my one true phobia, yet you’d never guess it to see me near a spider now. How had this happened? Had I actually matured out of my fear? Not exactly: I’d instead developed a deep, if admittedly silly superstition surrounding them. My second awareness: This superstition had cropped up when I became a parent—which also coincided with my settling into the first real home in my life. I’d moved around almost constantly growing up, and “home” had always been a tricky, mysterious subject for me. Yet now I had one—and it was often crawling with spiders.

I started reading about spiders, and the more I learned and remembered about them, the more moved I was by their architectural prowess, their relentless and complex home-building. And that led me to consider my own relationship with the family home, with the psychological resonances of architecture. Though I wasn’t sure where I was headed, I wanted to write the essay as a patterning of ideas, memories, and emotions about spiders, using the simple structure of eight sections to both connote my subject and give me the freedom to wander within it.

It’s very true that—at the risk of confusing creatures and metaphors—this was magpie sort of writing: I kept noticing shiny things off in the distance and bringing them back to the nest. I filled the essay with all the spidery associations that occurred to me—whether pulled from mythologies, religions, the natural world, or aesthetics. And there were so many spider-related incidents involving childhood—my own and my son’s.

But each element had to pass what I’ll call the fear/love test: Did it matter enough to me to strike fear, inspire love, or—best of all—both? This was a very helpful measure in culling my material. I jettisoned almost immediately, for example, the time a spider dropped into my eyelashes while I was watching a movie at a theater: While an icky, startling, and somewhat comical experience (at least, I’m imagining, from the other movie-goers’ perspectives), it didn’t touch on much else.

This measure no doubt explains why family became a central subject in the piece. Parenthood can trip off spontaneous memories of our own childhoods, revealing a funny, everyday metaphysics, the time travel involved in our experience of raising children, as former children ourselves. I often find myself thinking, “When I was his age…”—while also trying to spare my son too many of these musings. But these ideas can be so rich to explore, and nowhere better—at least for me—than in the essay. It’s a form elastic enough to depict and structure associative thinking, the intuitions that give shape to our ideas.

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Megan Harlan photoMegan Harlan grew up on four continents and now lives in Berkeley, CA. She is the author of Mapmaking (BkMk Press/New Letters), winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. Her nonfiction and poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, The New York Times, Hotel Amerika, TriQuarterly, Catamaran, The Common, American Poetry Review, and Poetry Daily, among other publications. She holds an MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program and works as a writer and editor. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Trying to Make Sense of an Absence: A Question with Evanthia Bromiley

AGNI: Your story “If the City Falls” (AGNI 85) focuses on characters who are experiencing the same thing—a bombing—while keeping them apart for most of the story. It’s such a striking choice. I think the choice serves the story well, but why did you choose to isolate the characters from one another?

Bromiley: I think it has something to do with the inefficacy of language in times of trauma.

During World War II, my grandmother was interned at a work camp in Germany. Whatever happened in those years—and I know very little about her, can only surmise—drove her crazy. After the war, she had my mother, but she couldn’t care for her; she abandoned her. My mother and her brothers were split up and given to relatives to raise. That’s something my mother has never been able to forgive.

I never met my grandmother, but I remember the day she died; we heard over the phone. I must have been ten, about the same age she left my mom. The phones still had those long, loopy cords, and my mom kept wrapping that cord around her wrist. My grandmother was asking her to come, please come, to her bedside. And my mom couldn’t. She said no; she didn’t say much else. Afterwards my grandmother died, and the day went on as usual. Judaism, traditionally, is matrilineal: every child of a Jewish mother is considered a Jew. Yet in my family, there’s this rift in the maternal line.

So I think something of this absence made its way into the center of “If The City Falls”—invention in place of fact, feeling in place of memory. Your question makes me wonder if rifts like these open in the absence of words. We need words to express these things, with each other, I think. A lost story is dangerous. That’s why so many people tried, at all costs, to preserve testimony. Emanuel Ringelblum, for example, buried sheaves of archives in milk cans, beneath the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto—he knew these events were unprecedented; they must be preserved. It’s possible that if my mother knew my grandmother’s story, she could have forgiven her. It’s also entirely possible she wouldn’t have—but she would have had the chance to try, a choice. Instead we have this impenetrable silence: no one speaks of it. So when people say the Holocaust and the events leading up to it has been written, or can’t be, well, I think that’s not quite true. It’s this strange, human paradox: Words cannot rectify the evil truth of what happened. What might also be true is we have to try, anyway, to find words, to make sense of an absence. That paradox isolates my characters, and is what I’m trying to explore in “If the City Falls.” The characters try to reach each other through the ruin, and even though they’re very close… there’s the inefficacy of words to face up to something like that.

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Evanthia Bromiley Evanthia Bromiley lives, writes and teaches in Durango, Colorado. She is the recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Lisel Mueller scholarship, and the 2017 emerging fiction fellow at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop. Currently she attends Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. “If the City Falls” is her first published story. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

I Use My Demons as Fuel to Write: A Question with Qais Akbar Omar

AGNI: The story you tell in your piece “In the Ring” (AGNI 85) is singularly powerful. The way you tell it, when you were younger, you poured the horror of your wartime experiences into boxing. Now, though, you’re pouring those experiences into writing. How is it different (and how is it the same), turning to writing the way you once turned to boxing?

(Note to the reader: Omar’s answer includes necessarily graphic depictions of violence)

Omar: I feel two types of pain: physical and psychological. I can easily deal with the first kind. I either take a pill, or I bear it and tell myself to tough it out. As for the psychological pain, I have been grappling with it since I was ten. Most of it is related to the memories of the years of civil war and the Taliban, when thousands of rockets and bombs started raining all over the country.

The civil war in Afghanistan started in 1992. I was ten years old when the first rocket landed in our neighborhood and killed my friends who were playing on the street in front of our house. An hour earlier I had been playing with them, shooting marbles and flying kites. All that remained of them were some pieces of flesh clinging from the tree branches and their blood smeared on the road and walls. I wish my parents had stopped me from seeing all those things. But even if they had, how could they prevent what was to come in the next five years?

Human life was cheap. I saw hundreds of dead bodies, body parts, and men being killed in front of me in many ways: being pushed from a ten-story building, bitten by a man who acted like a dog, and shot by a sniper perched on top of tall buildings and mountains. I was also forced to watch women being raped and giving birth in front of me.

In 1996, when the Taliban took over Kabul, I was forced—along with my classmates—to witness the hands and legs of alleged thieves being amputated in the middle of a roundabout near our house. The next week, they forced us to watch how they toppled a wall on a gay man and shot a woman for infidelity.

At the time, when these horrors were happening in front of my eyes, I didn’t think about them twice. I was too busy struggling to survive, pummeling the punching bag for hours every day to get rid of those images in my head. After 9/11, when the Americans intervened and kicked the Taliban out of the picture, we had a few years of peace, and I did not have to worry about my survival every minute of the day. But my past started to catch up with me.

The memories of the years of war haunted me through nightmares, and other times they attacked me at unexpected moments. For instance, I could be having a nice conversation with some friends about movies, gardening, or something completely unrelated to war. Suddenly, a single word would trigger some of those horrible memories and bring them to the surface. I would feel hot and sweaty as though I had run for miles. Then I would get agitated, and my hands and body gestures would no longer be in my control. Immediately afterwards, I would feel a traveling contraction in certain parts of my body. Now it was in my legs, the next minute in my arms, or neck, or temples. Suddenly, I would feel an intense pain in my guts. I had to lie down.

Now let me tell you how I dealt with them. For about ten years I used boxing as a tool to get rid of the memories. Almost every day, I pummeled the punching bag for hours and exhausted my body so that I did not have any energy left for thinking and pondering over the past. Sometimes when I didn’t have the chance to do that, I turned to prayer and meditations. Other times I sat in a corner and pinched my legs or my arms, or I took a nail and poked it into my thighs, arms, and chest. Sometimes I read, or I watched a pleasant movie, or I listened to upbeat music. They all helped, but nothing had a lasting effect.

When I turned twenty-three, I started to write as a form of therapy. At the time, I was living in Kabul with my family, and there was no psychiatrist in Kabul. Even today, there are only a few psychiatrists in Afghanistan. Many people there don’t believe in mental health treatment, though almost everyone needs it.

Writing about the past was not easy at first. I cried writing. Sometimes tears rolled out of my eyes and blurred my vision, but I didn’t stop. After years of boxing, I knew how it felt to win a boxing match in the ring when hundreds of people cheered for me. Every boxer lives for those few minutes of thrill. While I was grappling with those memories and pouring them onto the page, I felt as though I was in a ring, not fighting my opponent but my demons, and the spectators were cheering. However, there were times that despair leaked into my heart and I felt I was losing because the intensity of mental pain was too high. While a boxing match in the ring can last for more or less than an hour, this new fight lasted for months. “How long can I go on fighting with my inner demons?” I have asked myself a hundred times. There were moments that I doubted myself. “Instead of rethinking those memories, I better push them to the far back of my mind,” I have told myself a dozen times. But my will did not let me stop and retreat.

The battle went on for almost three months, during which I lost about forty pounds from a lack of eating and sleeping, but every day I noticed that I was about to win because I could see the pile of papers building in front of me. I stopped when I reached page 750, and nearly half of all the major events from my past were recorded in those pages.

From that day onward, I felt as though my past no longer belonged to me anymore. It was contained in those papers. But my past is my past, and it will always be with me to the day I die. They still haunt me in my sleep, but not as much as they used to.

Years later, I shared those pages with some friends, and they encouraged me to publish them as a book. I did, and I called it A Fort of Nine Towers, which has now been translated into over twenty languages.

An engine needs fuel to run. Now I use my memories as a fuel for writing and telling stories of my countrymen and women. Sometimes they make me run so hard and fast, I crash for a few days or even weeks, and I can’t produce a single word. But over time, I believe, I will learn how to control the demons inside of me.

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IMG_3422 BIO Qais Akbar Omar is the author of A Fort of Nine Towers, which has been published in over twenty languages, and the co-author of A Night in the Emperor’s Garden. Omar has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Sunday Times, The Globe and Mail, and The Southern Review, among other publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University. In 2014-15, he was a Scholars at Risk Fellow at Harvard University. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Shimmering Moments: An Interview with Jayne Benjulian

AGNI: Can you say a little bit about how this collection, Five Sextillion Atoms, came together?

Benjulian: I wrote about half of the poems between 2010 and 2013. Over the next two years, I composed the others, revised everything, and assembled and re-assembled the book. It was clear to me early on that I was working toward a collection because so many of the poems began with visual or aural memories from childhood; some of the less than idyllic experiences of motherhood; the fierce and complicated love between mother and daughter; and, although rarely explicit, the scrim of Eastern European Jewry in the background. With shared myths, overlapping concerns about mother and child, child and mother, and the particular crucible of stepfamily and siblings, all of these poems felt as if they belonged together.

Only in the last two years did I understand the voice of the poems not as that of a child but of a woman panning the experience of childhood for the shimmering moments in which a life changes course.

AGNI: You have a background in theater. Does that influence your work as a poet?

Benjulian: I think about the theater all the time when I’m writing poetry; I imagine moving characters on and off stage—and I use dialogue in the poems to characterize people and suggest action and gesture. As on stage, characters don’t always answer the questions they’re asked or tell the truth. No question, my poems are influenced by my work in theater. Physical space is prominent in my thinking—even if it is not described, I am always writing with a scene in mind: in a bedroom, a tree, a kitchen table, a garden bench. More important, perhaps, is the influence of subtext and silence. What is unsaid is as important as what is expressed. In poems, we achieve silence with white space, skipped lines, endings that close but don’t finish. When I’m in the audience, my least favorite thing to experience is feeling as if I’m ahead of the play. I feel the same about poems. I’m always asking: Where can I leave room for the reader?

AGNI: Speaking of what ends up on stage, in the process of assembling this book, you presumably had to make tough decisions about which poems to include and which to leave out. How did you make those decisions?

Benjulian: On out-takes: Several poems previously published don’t appear because I did not want the collection to be predictable or organized around themes. I sought a more compelling assembly of poems with beginnings and endings that resonate with the poems before and after. For example, I didn’t want to create a section about motherhood, one about having a daughter, one about romantic love. There are poems, some published, that do not appear in the collection: they seemed to cover ground other poems had covered or didn’t seem to fit the universe that defines the book. When I was close to what I considered “finished,” I asked a mentor to list the poems she thought could be cut, and I took out every one. When in doubt, I cut.

AGNI: Family is a recurring theme in this collection. Can you say a bit about why family is, for you, such good fuel for poetry?

Benjulian: Family was the scene of my first drama. Family is the stuff of conflict and opposing wants—in other words: theater, opera. Family teaches you how to love. Intellectually, I’m interested in how events in the same family produce people so unlike each other. Siblings, for example, who grow up with different personalities and experience the same crucial family event at different ages. In a room occupied by three or four people, something small may transpire—a moment, an instant—that changes the life of one individual in that room while the rest go on talking and never notice—like Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus as expressed by Auden: “Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky” while “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” You will not be surprised this is one of my favorite poems—and the fact that it refers to a painting thrills me. I am highly motivated to create when I experience paintings.

A child can remember hearing words no one else in her family remembers, but to her they resound so loudly, nothing afterwards is ever the same. This is the case in “Pistachios.” Actually, that’s interesting because this poem does have wings. To the child, the moment has mythic proportions. But we don’t know if anyone else remembers it.

The poems are also concerned with memory: how we remember first as a child, later how we remember when we filter the child’s experience through the adult’s, and how we choose our focus as poets. To write these poems, I had to see how the child sees. But as I said it is not a child’s voice.

Mind you, there is fiction in these poems. Five Sextillion Atoms is not a documentary. Even so, we can concede, it is a portrait of the artist.

AGNI: It strikes me that Five Sextillion Atoms ultimately wrestles with the knowability of people and things. The title of the collection comes from your poem “The Drop” (in which you reveal that a drop of water contains five sextillion atoms). The effect is profound. On the one hand, this revelation makes physical reality concrete and real because numbers make things countable and therefore determinable. On the other hand, the number is so large that it actually makes counting all but impossible—and that’s just a drop of water. What do you think the limits are to our ability to know others, to know our world?

Benjulian: You are astute! Yes, the number is impossibly large, too large to count. This speaker’s experience is that she cannot know others, even others physically close to her. And certainly not others who disappear suddenly. That is the central mystery for the voice of this collection. She must make it up. She must put the pieces together to make herself up. The portraits here are very much her creation with no pretense to present an objective archeological expedition.

As for me, yes, the poems help the poet create her past and the people in it. I put them to bed like dolls in my doll house.

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Jayne 300 res colorJayne Benjulian is the author of the debut poetry collection Five Sextillion Atoms (Saddle Road Press, June 2016). Benjulian served as chief speechwriter at Apple; Teaching Fellow at Emory; Visiting Professor in the Graduate Theater Program at San Francisco State University; Fulbright Fellow in Lyon, France; and Ossabaw Island Project Fellow. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous literary and performance journals. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

The Epigraph Conversation: A Question With Valerie Duff, Robert Nazarene, and Johan Huybrechts

AGNI: As we write, we often have other texts in our minds—consciously or unconsciously—and our work is in some sense always in conversation with those other works. But when we use epigraphs, as you did in your poems for AGNI Issue 83, that conversation becomes more explicit. What kinds of conversations were you bringing to the surface when you placed these words of others—Camus, Dickinson, Spence—alongside your own?

Valerie Duff:
Poem: “Wild Nights”; Epigraph: “might I but moor,” Emily Dickinson

I didn’t set out to appropriate the Emily Dickinson title as I worked, but the phrase “might I but moor” from her “Wild Nights” was running through my head as I wrote. The idea of “wild nights” captures the feel of love, death, dementia so completely—I only hope what I’ve written can live up to those two words. The epigraph, “might I but moor,” holds both ecstasy and grief, and the quick fluctuation from high to low, back and forth, in that cry. Dickinson’s poem came to me over and over in bits and pieces as I worked through various drafts of my own sprawling poem.

The line captures the tempest and sea of living, and the intense desire to still oneself against beauty and pain. We can’t make ourselves timeless—I don’t think the “she” experiencing loss and dementia here has retained enough memories to feel it as fully as the observer, although the loneliness and feeling of being unlodged—unmoored—is there. Dickinson knew isolation keenly, and was similarly consumed in the ever-shifting nature of corporeal life.

Watching a seemingly still present slip into the past becomes more acute, and makes the immediate more acutely devastating, as we move into old age.

Robert Nazarene:
Poem: “Ghazni”; Epigraph: “The people are the landscape,/The moon with the people is no landscape,/Mars without the mar of men,/Without the scars of men. . . .” Gerry Spence

I am very pleased AGNI asked me to write about the Gerry Spence epigraph above my poem, “Ghazni”—and, in short order, look forward to being equally embarrassed. I have nothing esoteric to say. Why would I? I’ve never stepped foot into a poetry class. I made it out of Georgetown Business School by the skin of my hookah. Epigraph, epigram, what’s the diff? My late sister, Margie, once reminded me: “Bobby, you’re the most deeply superficial person I’ve ever known.” So here it is, I always loved the jacket Spence wore—at every public appearance or on TV—Spence, a lawyer, has never lost a criminal case—not once—as either a prosecutor or defense attorney. One sunny day in Nevada City, California, I spied and purchased an exact copy of “The Coat.” I’ve worn it at every poetry reading I’ve given since. A year or so later, my son gifted me a coffee table book about Spence which contained the quotation I used in the poem. I read the quote and wrote the poem over the next 25 minutes—and revised it 4 or 5 times in the next 30 minutes. This is how I write. It’s only a damn poem.

Johan Huybrechts:
Poem: “At the Grave”; Epigraph: “If I then cast the flower which a clay-covered hand holds out to me, it never misses the grave. My piety is exact, my feelings as they should be, my head suitably inclined. I am admired for finding the right word. But I have no merit in this: I am waiting.” Albert Camus

Sometimes things just happen. ‘At The Grave’ was hanging out to dry, I was reading Camus’ ‘l’Eté’.

Camus. He urges us to remain calm and to keep thinking—this is, to remain lucid and true to ourself and give it our graceful loving and intellectual best in useful action, even, and especially so, under pressure or in the face of death.

This implies a fundamental loneliness which permeates his writings.

In digging him up, I expected just that. A breath of fresh air in this smoghole, a look at the horizon in a crowded city. Help.

When I read the cited passage, however, I was baffled. This was too much of the good stuff. To uphold this stance before the grave, this distance, this detachment? No.

To cast a flower in the grave is an old custom, and is doing what has to be done, but to almost cultivate it as an art? It was asking too much. I am not the Buddha.

It brought out l’homme révolté in me, and in an impulse I had found the catalyzing second line of the poem as well as its starting block.

The rose, of course, is Camus himself. He still has time and will not die just yet and in the meantime symbolically practices the art of dying—he, a man of life, casts a weary eye on the hole in the ground, yet seems calmly ready for it. Whereas I had something else in mind.

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DuffValerie Duff is the author of the collection To The New World (Salmon Poetry, 2010), shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize (Queen’s University, Belfast). Her poems have appeared in The Common, Solstice, AGNI, The Antioch Review, Verse, The Prague Revue, and elsewhere and her reviews in Harvard Review and The Boston Book Review. Former managing editor of AGNI and current poetry editor of Salamander, she has received an individual artist grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and was the 2015 Poetry Fellow at the Writers’ Room of Boston. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

gerry sp jacketRobert Nazarene founded the critically acclaimed MARGIE Review and IntuiT House Poetry Series which published the winning volume for the National Book Critics Circle award in poetry for 2006.  He is the author of two full-length collections of poems: CHURCH (2006) and Empire de la Mort (forthcoming in 2016).  Mr. Nazarene was educated at The McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.  He is founder and editor-in-chief of the online poetry review Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

HuybrechtsJohan Huybrechts’s poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Ambit, Magma and The Moth. He works as a medical doctor, and lives near Ghent, Belgium. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Askold Melnyczuk: an Auto-Interview About SMEDLEY’S Secret Guide to World Literature

SMEDLEY’S Secret Guide to World Literature is so different from your first three novels.

I see each book as an experiment. It begins in a need, an impulse, an itch that’s more physical than mental—a kind of pressure lodged somewhere in my body which the act of writing alone is able to relieve. Anyway, I never know what voice is going to whisper in my ear, or why, or what it wants. My task, at least initially, when starting a book is to attend, to be present, to record as much as it’s willing to give. Some days it’s generous, others nearly mute. The “bad” days (and they’re not always actually “bad”) are when my conscious mind kicks in and I start thinking about structure, and start the nearly endless process of tinkering with sentences.

Where did the idea for this novel come from?

Jonathan’s voice first arose just as I was entering the heavy-lifting phase of eldercare with my parents. It helped me through many a rough day in the nursing homes, hospitals, and rehab centers which have become such a regular part of my routine.

I remember feeling kind of overwhelmed, sitting in the Cambridge Public Library, flipping through John Aubrey’s Brief Lives. It’s a series of short, gossipy biographical sketches, written in the 17th century, about various acquaintances and contemporaries of Aubrey’s, including people like Milton and the poet Lovelace. While reading, I “heard” a voice making all kinds of wisecracks, prying between the lines of what Aubrey wrote and what he actually meant to communicate. The voice made me laugh, something I really needed at the time.

Once I had tuned into that voice, I kept wanting to know what it might say about X or Y….It was the narrator’s sassiness that appealed to me. His shoot-from-the-hip attitude helped keep up my spirits while surrounded by the responsibilities and inevitable sadnesses associated with the aging of loved ones.

As I was writing, the Occupy Movement was unfolding here, with many echoes around the world. A new generation of young people was beginning to take part in the remaking of our planet—a thing our earth sorely needs. I was thrilled. Jonathan, though far from the front lines, became a spiritual fellow-traveller with his peers worldwide. That’s why the book is dedicated “to the rebel soul in everyone.”

What are some of the challenges that come with writing from the POV of a fifteen year old?

He’s not just any fifteen year old! He’s a scion of privilege, who has grown up in one of the most exclusive and elitist enclaves in the world. His father is a WASP; his mother is a secular Jew. In short, he’s a lot farther from me than many readers will understand. In many ways, he’s farther from me than Mme X, a middle-aged British Jew who lived through the London blitz, whose voice I assumed in my last novel, The House of Widows.

If Jonathan’s world was completely foreign to me, his hometown of Cambridge, where I arrived in 1976, was once a good place in which to be poor. I used to bounce checks regularly at the Evergood Market, which I learned recently is owned by the family of Peter Segal, who does that show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me on the radio. I’d walk in and find my check tacked to a bulletin board next to the cash register for all to see. Yet the owners always let me redeem it, and continued taking checks from me even though—and I’m not exaggerating—for a time, every other one bounced….

So, for me to write in the voice of a child who’d grown up inside all this privilege was in a way my attempt to find out if I had put my prejudices behind me. Could I see the world through his eyes? Could I empathize with him, despite his privileges? Whether or not I’ve succeeded is of course for readers to decide for themselves.

For all that, in a funny way this feels like my most personal book. Aside from my delight at inhabiting the skin of the randy fifteen year old, there were things I felt able to say…or that I heard myself saying, which I’d never imagined getting into. It helps that Jonathan’s a rebel, and not a snob.

When his professor-father tells him to write a history of literature in the age of Twitter, Smedley responds by focusing on a quite unusual list of writers.

I’ve heard that some people have been puzzled by the writers Jonathan picks for his essay. Certainly they’re not the usual suspects. It would have been easy, and tempting, as well as perhaps more commercially savvy, to pick the familiar and the enshrined: Woolf, Borges, Calvino, Sebald, etc. These are the “cool” international writers properly beloved by readers. But they are just part of the story. There are many others equally worthy of our attention.

You might call part of the book’s secret project both an attempt at rethinking our received ideas about the classics, as well as a bit of fun had with the whole notion of a conclusive list of “the great books.” The hierarchies which haunt so many aspects of our contemporary civilization, always expressed in numerical terms—top ten lists, our fifty richest people, our hundred best restaurants, etc.—are rarely, if ever, definitive.

But the list is far from arbitrary—and was, in earlier drafts, a lot longer. In fact, most of the writers Jonathan selects were rebels of one sort or another, from the 17th century courtier Richard Lovelace, who wrote what’s perhaps the greatest prison poem in the language (“Stone walls do not a prison make…”) to Agnes Smedly, born dirt-poor in Osgood, Missouri, to a coal-miner father, who began her career as a school teacher in rural Colorado and wound up as an international correspondent writing for papers in Germany, France, China, India and the US. She fell in love with an Indian spy, taught Mao to dance, lived for years at Yaddo, a writer’s colony in upstate New York, but died broke in London, and is buried in Beijing. I think of her as a kind of early version of Amy Goodman/Terry Gross hybridized with Martha Gellhorn.

Like most kids his age, Jonathan is totally immersed in the virtual world.

Yes, he spends a lot of his time online. But in the last part of the book, he leaves his iPad at home, and then he loses his cell phone. When he finally faces Beyah, who he believes is the object of his desire, he’s essentially naked. It’s just one human being facing another—no texting, no screens.

Though he’s grown up in a world of icons and endless visual stimulation, he gradually discovers the singular power of presence, print, and, even, inwardness.

Despite Jonathan’s protestations, this does indeed seem like a coming of age story.

Yes and no. I kind of agree with Jonathan when he says that no one comes of age anymore. Okay, most people do settle on a self and stick with it. At the same time, we are porous beings and invaders are boring into us from all sides. Despite our privileges and first-world advantages—or because of them—we’re incredibly vulnerable to the temptations of consumerism, among other things.

At the same time, I have high hopes that Jonathan, having felt the consequences of his family’s instability, will move through life a little more aware of the ways in which our actions ripple out and affect others.

Given the liberal atmosphere in which Jonathan was raised, I was taken aback by the “racial” aspect of his “crime.”

I was too. The incident “happened” without my planning it, and when it did, I was sufficiently disturbed to want to change the “victim” from Astro to Klyt but in the end I let it stand because I wanted to suggest that even among the most enlightened and privileged there are moments and areas of moral blindness. And while most of the conversation these days is about Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I remind myself that the first high-profile incident highlighting our embedded racism took place right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when a policeman arrested the great African American scholar Henry Louis Gates for entering his own home—which happens to be in a tony and otherwise largely homogeneous neighborhood.

You’ve taught Creative Writing for a long time. What’s the relationship between your teaching and your creative work? Does it hurt, or in any way affect, your work as a writer?

Everyone needs a day job. Even monks; even the rich, who are, after all, just poor people with money. From any day job you can extrapolate a lot about what it means to work in America.

Teaching can be profoundly creative, and important. According to Buddha, teaching was a lot more valuable than the performing of miracles. Effective teaching, thanks to which another being is able to move forward in her life, is itself transformative and therefore miraculous (because all miracles are essentially transformations). I thank my high school English teacher, Barbara Buettner, daily for putting me on the path….

On the other hand, I never wanted or expected to teach. That I’ve done so, for over thirty years, and that I still love it, still surprises me.

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AM for LARBAskold Melnyczuk, who is a recipient of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature, founded AGNI Magazine in 1972. His novels include What is Told (NY Times Notable Book); Ambassador of the Dead (LA Times Best Books of the Year); and The House of Widows (Booklist Editor’s Choice). He received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction in 1997. In addition to the McGinnis Award in Fiction, Melnyczuk has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Melnyczuk currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston and at the Bennington College MFA Program. He previously taught at Harvard University and Boston University. He also edits Arrowsmith Press.