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Tucker Leighty-Phillips interviews Joseph Scapellato

Joseph Scapellato was born in the suburbs of Chicago and earned his MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University.  His fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review OnlineGulf Coast, Post Road, PANK, Unsaid, and other literary magazines, and has been anthologized in Harper Perennial's Forty Stories, Gigantic Books' Gigantic Worlds: An Anthology of Science Flash Fiction, and &NOW's The Best Innovative Writing. He is the author of The Made-Up Man, which was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2019, and Big Lonesome (2017). He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Bucknell University.

He and Managing Editor Tucker Leighty-Phillips caught up about his new novel, The Made-Up Man, in July.


Tucker Leighty-Phillips: There are a number of very clear forms of performance from each character in this book; T as an actor, Lech as a performance artist, Torrentelli in her prior performance of maleness, and Stanley, who is concerned about who he is or isn’t performing as himself. What is the role of performance in your book? (Without getting too meta-fiction, I also want to ask about how you made each character perform their sense of performance in a way that benefitted you in writing the novel and having the story come together cohesively).

Joseph Scapellato: I don’t remember exactly when this happened, but at a certain point in the writing process, I realized that The Made-Up Man wanted to be about the performance of the self.  It kept drifting, in action and in theme, to the issue of how we consciously and unconsciously perform our many selves—the self that we think we’re projecting, the self that we’re actually projecting, the self that adapts to what we think our audience wants, requires, or deserves.  

 As soon as I realized this, I tried to use characters and actions and relationships and developments—whenever it felt organic to do so—to enact questions about the performance of the self.  Uncle Lech’s art projects provided a lot of opportunities for this exploration, as you might imagine, what with the many reenactments from moments in Stanley’s life. And as a composition/revision technique, the pursuit of questions related to the self was also a way to add thematic layers to just about any scene, through individual issues that are important to other characters—for instance, when Stanley and Torrentelli are hanging out for the first time after Torentelli’s transition and they talk about the performance of gender.

But for the most part, at least for me, this question was grounded in Stanley.  In some ways, I hope, he’s a recognizable figure—the just-about-to-turn-30 white man who doesn’t know himself/his self, who repeatedly jams himself into the hard mold of what (again, to me) is a very Midwestern brand of hypermasculinity.  In my understanding of Stanley, he’s accepted some very toxic tenants—a real man keeps his feelings to himself, a real man represses himself.  He knows that he should talk to family and friends about the bad decisions that he’s making, but he doesn’t.  He keeps his problems to himself because a.) he’s perhaps not brave enough to share them, and/or b.) he’s perhaps convinced himself that keeping them to himself is, in fact, brave.

All of this is a self that Stanley performs. On some level, he knows this.  How much of this performed self is his actual self?

What I’m saying, I think, is that I know a lot of people like Stanley.  Men who choke themselves into silence.  Men who choke others into silence.  Men who will never, ever go to therapy.  Men who, because of this repression, will damage themselves and others, all in the name of a performance.

 

Leighty-Phillips: There is a point in the novel where Lech’s artistic theme is explicitly referred to as “exploitation.” While reading The Made-Up Man, I couldn’t help but feel the sort of cat-and-mouse relationship that exists between horror movie villains and victims in Lech’s relationship to Stanley, where a shift in tone could dramatically change how the book could be read. Did you feel at times that the subject matter/relationship might have been much more ominous than the book was letting on?

Scapellato: I love the idea of a “horror movie read”—Uncle Lech has a villainous obsession with Stanley, or if not that, then a villainous obsession with launching a project in which he is required to have a villainous obsession with Stanley.  That said, to me, Uncle Lech is genuinely trying to help Stanley (in his own extremely unacceptable way), just like Stanley’s brother, Stanley’s father, Stanley’s mother, and T are trying to help him (in much more acceptable ways).  (This was something that the great Victor LaValle advised me to keep in mind—that it would make the relationship much richer if Uncle Lech honest-to-god felt that he was doing the right thing.  I’m deeply grateful to Victor for this wisdom.)

In my reading of the book, the book signals that the Stanley-Lech relationship is dangerous.  When Stanley first arrives in Prague, dread and fear and panic hit him, and he experiences a kind of disassociation of the self—to a certain extent, he knows that what he’s getting into will very likely destroy his relationships with everyone he cares about.  

At the same time, I tried to write a novel that permits the collision of the comedic and the tragic.  My hope is that these two modes overlap—that the novel contains moments that some readers will find humorous, that some readers will find disturbing, and that some readers will find to be both.

 

Leighty-Phillips: The relationship between Stanley’s narration and the chapter-head narration was sometimes at odds — how did the chapterheads function for you both as a character/narrator in the story but also potentially as an outlining tool in the process of writing the book?

Scapellato: Initially, I included the chapter titles simply because I’ve always liked the old-timey convention of them.  Chapter titles/summaries remind me of playful novels from previous centuries that I read as a kid.  (If you’ve ever read an old adventure novel, you’re probably familiar with the formal convention of including chapter summaries right beneath the chapter titles, summaries that say things like, IN WHICH OUR HERO FALLS INTO A WELL, or TROUBLE AT TINA’S LAUNDROMAT.)  

Above all, I appreciate the challenge that this convention sets for a writer—if you tell the reader what’s about to happen, can you still make it interesting and surprising?

The more that I wrote, the more that the chapter titles entered into a conversation with the book’s themes.  For example, I was excited by the tension that they created when they contradicted Stanley—the chapter titles are in 3rdperson, and the chapters themselves are in 1stperson (Stanley’s voice)—I found that the chapter titles occasionally wanted to correct Stanley’s claims.  It also became clear to me, at some point, that the chapter titles function as “labels” to the individual “exhibits” in Stanley’s life—that they echo the set-up of Uncle Lech’s art installations. 

With all of that said, I never really thought of the chapter titles as being a character or a narrator, though I think that’s a great interpretation.  Although I didn’t use them to outline the book, they came in handy at a critical stage of revision, when I needed to add layers of family/friend backstory—they gave me permission to leap back to Chicago, from just about anywhere in Prague.

 

Leighty-Phillips: I’ve been really interested in atmospheres of art lately — if the atmosphere of your book had a family tree, what would it exist alongside?

Scapellato: I love this question! The Atmospheric Family Tree of Art of The Made-Up Man would include TheIsle of Youth by Laura van den Berg, Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek, The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector, The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, a number of Lydia Davis stories, Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz by Russell Hoban, countless old-time radio detective shows, ChinatownPolice Squad!this piece of performance art by VOINA, “FEEL.,” by Kendrick Lamar, a few Marilyn Manson songs, “Hejnal mariacki,” and an assortment of Jean Dubuffet’s paintings, particularly his portraits and his series of women. 

Leighty-Phillips: You mention chapterheads giving you “permission” to leap back to Chicago—one of the two primary settings in this book (the other being Prague). From a craft perspective, did it feel different to write in one setting versus the other? Did elements of characters shift based on place or did anything come more naturally in one environment than it did the other? Did you find yourself more comfortable writing in one of the two settings? 

Scapellato: Sadly, it wasn’t any easier to write the Chicago sections than the Prague sections.  (I wish it had been!)  However, the decision to set so much of the book in Chicago brought its own set of special pleasures—to get to write about my favorite city, the city I’ve moved into and out of for most of my adult life, the city I wished I lived in right now.  It felt great to get to stuff the novel with some favorite Chicago places (Huettenbar, Moody’s, Big Star, Half Acre, The Den, Sox Park, the late Chicago Brauhaus), some favorite neighborhoods (Lincoln Square, Rogers Park, Pilsen), and a favorite theatre company (The Hypocrites), as well as with attitudes and interactions that I fondly associate with the city’s vigorously unpretentious people.

Leighty-Phillips: I can certainly see the connection between Stanley and the style of stoic masculinity that is often imprinted on men from an early age, and your book seems to confront that style of masculinity, but in a way that prods more questions rather than providing confident answers. This book seems like one that may have taught you lessons in the process of writing it rather than aiming to reach for some grand, overarching message. Do you feel that this book taught you anything in the process of its creation (about writing, masculinity, something else)?

Scapellato: This is a great question—thanks for asking it.  I think that everything that a writer completes teaches the writer something. Most of what it teaches you, at least in my experience, is how to finish that one thing.  (Unfortunately!)  But it does teach you, at the very least, that you are capable of finishing what you started, which is something that a writer needs to keep teaching themselves over and over and over again.

In a limited way, the process of writing The Made-Up Man taught me how to stay with a first-person voice for a long time—how to trust my patience with that voice—how to believe that, with the help of writerly discipline, a voice could continue to surprise me, could continue to wind itself into and through and out of new fields of mystery.

If you don’t mind me asking—I’m curious to know what you see in the book that makes you feel that it taught me something?  

 

Leighty-Phillips: Forgive me if I’m being too bold, or projecting onto the book too much, but the relationship between Stanley and Uncle Lech feels like a very interrogative one (both in narrative and in craft), one ripe with possibility and questioning. Lech’s placement in the power dynamic feels almost parabolic at times, and writing that relationship feels like it could be a very exploratory one. I think that’s where my initial feelings came from, trying to write the relationship between performer-artist, uncle-nephew, tenant-traveler, and the others ways in which their relationship manifests. Does that make sense?   

Scapellato: The works that I enjoy the most, across genres, are the ones that enact questions—seriously but playfully, playfully but seriously—from surprising starting points.  Lech’s position as an experimental artist means that our tastes meet on this issue.  He’s not interested in delivering straight answers because he doesn’t believe in straightness or in answers.  And neither does Stanley.  Though I think he’d like to.

For all of the joy that writing The Made-Up Man brought me, Stanley’s voice wasn’t always the most pleasant one to sit with.  Sometimes it pointed down the street, out of the book, in the general direction of some of my own sources of anger, repression, and self-deception. My life, like lots of other people’s lives, has been a slow progression towards being more and more honest with myself about myself.  It’s possible that spending so much time in this novel made me more aware of some of the ways in which I am like Stanley, but it’s hard to say, truly, and on top of that, knowing those sorts of things isn’t very helpful.  Writing may be therapeutic, but it’s not therapy.  Just because you’ve put something that you live with in a book doesn’t mean you’ve kicked it out of the house.

 

Leighty-Phillips: What’s next for you?

Scapellato: I’m working on a novel about early American presidents.  I wouldn’t describe myself as a history buff, but I’ve always loved reading history, and this project gives me a chance to follow the joy of that interest.  It’s been challenging, not for any reason related directly to the project (that I’m aware of!), but because I’m so used to being near the end of a novel.  It’s like I’ve just come from installing cozy furniture and hanging cozy paintings in a big cozy hall—the fireplace is going, there’s a table with hot food and drink, good friends keep dropping by—to the hard dirt of a new construction site. I’m the only one there.  It’s raining.  I’m holding an old shovel.  And what I need to find, and keep finding, is a way to love to dig.


Tucker Leighty-Phillips is the Managing Editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review and second-year MFA candidate in Fiction at Arizona State University. His work has been featured in or forthcoming at Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, Whiskeypaper, West Branch Wired, and elsewhere. He can be found on social media at @TheNurtureBoy.

Haydens Ferry
Tucker Leighty-Phillips interviews Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has been published in Muzzle, Vinyl, PEN American, and various other journals. His essays and music criticism have been published in The FADER, PitchforkThe New Yorker, and The New York Times. His first full length poetry collection, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, was released in June 2016 from Button Poetry. It was named a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize, and was nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection of essays, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was released in winter 2017 by Two Dollar Radio and was named a book of the year by Buzzfeed, Esquire, NPR, Oprah Magazine, Paste, CBC, The Los Angeles Review, Pitchfork, and The Chicago Tribune, among others. 

His latest book of nonfiction, Go Ahead In The Rain, a biography of A Tribe Called Quest published by University of Texas Press, was a New York Times Best Seller, a February Indie Next Pick, and was named a Most Anticipated Book of 2019 by BuzzfeedNylonThe A. V. Club, CBC Books, and The Rumpus and a Winter's Most Anticipated Book by Vanity Fair and The Week. His next nonfiction title, They Don't Dance No' Mo', is due out in 2020 by Random House.

In February, he visited Phoenix to serve as a faculty member of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars Conference and was interviewed by HFR Managing Editor Tucker Leighty-Phillips.


Tucker Leighty-Phillips:I want to say that I think many of your pieces avoid categorization, that there are essays that read like poems, poems that read like essays, and your body of work as a whole seems to avoid blatant categorization. Of course, they have to be compartmentalized for marketing purposes… So The Crown [Ain’t Worth Much] becomes a book of poems;They Can’t Kill Us [Until They Kill Us] becomes a book of essays. But—I was wondering about the fluidity between these genres. Are there things that you have started with one thing in mind that have become something else?

Hanif Abdurraqib: When I sit down to write, I’m governed less by genre and more by whatever my curiosities are arcing towards. And so what happens more often is that I sit down and begin to write what I imagine as a poem and then it becomes an essay—or something more flourishing. Or I set the poem aside to explore what it has taught me about what an essay can be. In a rare case, an essay gets pared down into a poem, but as a writer, I’m way more invested in getting the short version down and then seeing where I can push the scenes out further and further. I’m far less interested in writing long and dividing things up into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces so they can fit into a box. You know, the way my brain works is that I begin short and then take a step back and see the many places the writing can go. So I don’t sit down to write starting with genre. But what usually happens is I’m drawn to the poem first. I’m romanced by the idea of a poem first, then after that I see every other possibility for the work.

Leighty-Phillips: One of the things I’ve been trying to teach my English composition and rhetoric classes is that they’re allowed to write about their interests. I’ve been using some of your work as examples in my classes—they’re reading your Prince Super Bowl essay and what-not—but one of the things that I’m trying to get them to understand is that they don’t have to limit themselves to what they think it means to be academic. So, when I give them the option of writing about a documentary or something it doesn’t have to be on topics they perceive as academic. I think that you bring a lot of interests outside of the typical poetic canon to your writing and I wanted to know, how do we encourage young poets or young writers to bring that same energy to the page and say, “Hey, here’s what I can contribute to a continuously fluid canon”? 

Abdurraqib: Well, I think any contribution to the canon relies on a cohort, or several cohorts, of writers understanding that nothing they love in the world is small. I write about my interests, despite living a life that suggests many of my interests are small. A big narrative that writers, or thinkers, or anyone alive now runs into is this idea that the world is what it is and it’s so large, how can you care about this other thing? But that other thing is a part of that large and ever-moving world, and I refuse to diminish the things that make me feel anything. I think it’s a real encouragement for writers, particularly young writers, to understand that their interests are not small. I read a lot about fandom, and I know that on the internet, music fandom can manifest itself in ways that are less than desirable, but I’m so invested and interested in the young music fan, who has built an entire world around their particular bit of fandom, and has intimate knowledge, and has imagined a space where they and the artist that they’re a fan of are breathing the same air the same way at the same time—that is not a small thing. Sure, we can all do without the vicious internet attacks or whatever, but at the core, all fandom is the boldness to imagine a world in which you and the things you love are at the center. To understand that is not an isolated feeling is important. I think I became a better writer when I stopped imagining that I was the only one who had the passions I had. Because this might be small to someone but it’s surely not small to everyone.

Leighty-Phillips: To get specific to Desert Nights, Rising Stars, I attended your “Poet as Bandleader” talk yesterday and you spoke a lot about the sonic elements of poetry. I was thinking about that in conjunction with your performance with Julien Baker—which I just found this week on Youtube and completely immersed myself in. I was super interested in your discussion of the merits of poetry that stands on its own musically, but I was also wondering how it felt to perform your work with instrumentation behind it and if you could speak a little bit about how that came together, how that experience was, and how it differed from typical readings?

Abdurraqib: Julien and I have kind of been pals for a couple of years. We met at a festival in Michigan that we did together. I think, specifically, Julien and I are interested in the same emotional corner of the human condition. This idea that there are many things that might have killed us and yet we’ve survived so what do we do now? Kind of thrashing about. We were booked to be at this festival called Eaux Claires this past summer. As part of that festival, performers arrive a few days early and are supposed to build some collaborative ideas with each other, and Julien was like, how great would it be if we did something? and then we just ended up talking in a room and catching up for a while and it was like, “Oh shit, we actually didn’t plan anything.” And you know, so often when poetry and music are blended together it’s not done very well, so we came to this agreement that it would resonate more if we did not have Julien freestyle some kind of instrumentation behind the poem but if we folded the poem into a song, if we folded the poem into an already existing landscape that Julien had preset and built a shared space for both of us to have room in. That to me felt really beautiful and honed in on the communal aspects of the work. At Eaux Claires I did other stuff where people just freestyled instruments behind me and that was fine too, but I loved the intentional nature of one artist saying, “I’m going to make room for you on this song I have.” And a poet saying, “I’m going to make room for these words in your creation.” I think that is the best way that music and poems can kind of play off of each other.

Leighty-Phillips: It came through; I just saw it secondhand but it was great.

Abdurraqib: It was a lot of fun.

Leighty-Phillips: What was that first fest, where you met, in Michigan?

Abdurraqib: It was like this festival of faith and music that I was at in early-2017. I was like, “I don’t know why I’m here, maybe I’m not the best pick.” But Julien had come to one of my readings. I didn’t know—she’d apparently read my book and liked my book—but she came to one of my readings and we kind of hit it off.

Leighty-Phillips: Maybe tangentially related question: when reading your work, I feel like religion really permeates in the work.

Abdurraqib: Someone said that last night, I thought that was fascinating. 

Leighty-Phillips: Really? I think it’s not necessarily in the traditional sense—I don’t feel like you’re preaching to a congregation or anything like that. You made a joke like that in your talk yesterday: the hip youth pastor. But, I feel like there are ways in which some sort of church is constructed in your poems. Let me know if I’m off base, but—I was wondering if you could speak to the role of religion or spirituality or of church in your work, if you could say a little bit about that, in any way you choose to interpret it? Either as a concept or a community or something beyond that. 

Abdurraqib: I think that’s interesting because I was raised Muslim, and so my relationship with the construct of the American church is purely aesthetic in that I would occasionally pop into black churches when I was young, or I would be in churches for funerals when I was young. So, my ideas around the construct of church are all about its communal and incantatory nature. Or about the ways that music can jump into the body and force it into some unexpected movement or leap of pleasure. I think that so much of my work is perhaps trying to channel that particular aesthetic. The communal aesthetic of the American church that is somewhat rooted in the stereotypical—but is also rooted in the history of how church has moved among black folks in America. How church has saved, or restructured, or given a beacon to people who didn’t have it otherwise. There are some poetic aesthetics around the incantatory nature of language, or around the direct address, that can be present in a church. I think there’s no greater trick in my writing than the direct address to make sure a reader is still with me. The same way that a preacher might break a fourth wall or something to make sure that the congregation is still paying attention on a Sunday morning. I think I see that more now than I used to. But it’s almost unintentional, it’s not like I’m thinking toward these things. But I do think that, because I didn’t grow up in the church, it’s easier for me to romanticize.  

Leighty-Phillips: I think about that in my own work because I was raised Southern Baptist. One step-parent was really pro and the other parent was really anti—and it’s just a part of the community whether you’re a part of the church or not. It’s hegemonic; it’s just steeped into the south. So, it resonates in my own work as well just because I don’t know any other way. Do you mind if I ask you a question about anxiety? 

Abdurraqib: No. 

Leighty-Phillips: Cool, I’m an anxious person, so I’m like I’ve just gotta make sure. It feels like there’s an underlying thread of anxiety in a lot of your work. Both formally, with long winding sections without breaks that sometimes create a very fast pace, and with the subject matter—a lot of pieces about youth, finding oneself and one’s place in the world, and all the ways we experiment and discover those things. I read an old essay of yours where you talk about the volume knob of anxiety and I was wondering if there are other ways in which these volumes of anxiety manifest themselves in your work?

Abdurraqib: That’s also not intentional, but I think I’m much more aware of the ways [the different volumes of anxiety manifest themselves in my work] than I am the church thing. For a long-time I’ve lived with anxiety. I was diagnosed properly, quote unquote, with two anxiety disorders in my late teens/early twenties, but I lived with anxiety before I knew what anxiety was. The thing about living with constant anxiety is that it’s kind of a little hum that you just get used to. I’m anxious all the time, and it’s hard to articulate that to people who experience anxiety perhaps in bursts—because I think all people experience anxiety in some fashion. But it’s a little bit harder to explain to the people who experience it in small bursts. Because I don’t feel a burst of anxiety all the time, but I am awareof my anxieties all the time. I think to write about and be aware of your anxieties, for me at least, manifests itself as constantly looking for an escape on the page. I think that’s why sometimes my work is winding and breathless and other times it’s harshly punctuated. Racing to a stopping point provides me a small bit of freedom—it just depends on how I’m willing to race that particular day. I also think, my anxiety showing up so much in my work is perhaps a thankful thing. Since I’ve noticed it showing up much more in my work formally, just like you said, and content wise, it shows up a bit less in my actual life. It still very much shows up in my life, but I think it shows up less in my life now that it shows up so much in my work. That’s perhaps a happy thing, I don’t know.

 Leighty-Phillips: So you think being able to name it makes it…

Abdurraqib: Yeah, yeah… Being able to point to it in my work and understand what’s happening has made it a bit better.

Leighty-Phillips: It’s the incantatory! Which—actually I think is a good segue for another question. One of the ways that I prepped for this interview, as goofy as it sounds, is by going back and listening, revisiting old Wonder Years albums. That was a big part of my life! I’m in my late twenties and I was a young white kid in a small town who wanted to be out. And I remember when The Upsides came out and the thematics in that album and then when they released their next album, Suburbia, it feels like they’re looking back and going, “Wait, things are pretty good now, how do we revisit the things we’ve done now that things are picking up? Now that we’ve found our foundation?” And I was thinking about that in relation to your books of poems because I know that you’re currently in the process of writing or finishing—

Abdurraqib: It’s done! We’re in the cover art stage which is great.

Leighty-Phillips: It’s done—hell yeah! That’s awesome. Congratulations.  

Abdurraqib: Thanks!

Leighty-Phillips: So what I was wondering, is now that you’re, I think, three years removed from The Crown

Abdurraqib: Yeah, approaching three years which is wild.

Leighty-Phillips: Thinking about what you said about anxiety, how being able to name it on the page makes it a little less intrusive in your life, looking back on that collection, how do you view it with some distance from it?

Abdurraqib: Yeah, you know I was talking to a poet, a young poet, who told me, “I’m so ashamed of my old work.” And I said, “Well, that breaks my heart a bit.” I always think about Crown or any of my old poems, and I tell myself, “Well, I wrote the best possible thing I could write at the time with the tools I had.” That in and of itself brings me pride. But I also feel pride with the understanding that every time I sit down to write, or every time I live a life that requires me to go out into the world and witness—intentional witnessing, or intentional feeling—I’m acquiring new tools with which to write. So I am hopefully evolving as a writer every time I sit down in pursuit of writing. Which by nature means that I could not write Crown again. I don’t have the interest in it. It would be a different book with different methods. Crown is a book I wrote during a really tenuous time, both in America and for myself. I wrote some of Crown during Ferguson summer, I wrote some of Crown on a plane descending into Ferguson during the protests, I wrote some of Crown during the Baltimore uprisings, watching protests on Livestreams at 1 AM. And my mission was to present a narrative around Midwestern blackness and all that encompassed for me personally, a singular story that did not attempt to speak for the whole of the black Midwest. I don’t have an interest in writing that book anymore, you know. I didn’t want to write about people dying, I didn’t want to write about the fear or the anxieties that I always feel. I wanted to unravel something else, I wanted to pursue the unraveling of some otherdifficult emotion. I wanted to have another emotional landscape, one that did not present stories of black people dying to our country. Which doesn’t mean I’m not proud of Crown; I am. I think at the time I wrote the book I was called to write, the book that I felt was important to write. I don’t really read from it much anymore, but I’m still very proud of it. It’s shocking to me that we’re on three years—what’s most shocking is that when I finished that book, when it came out, I thought that was going to be the only book that I’d write. I didn’t have much of an interest in writing books. It was amazing to me—I came to poetry so late, I started writing poems in like 2012—and so it was just amazing to me that I’d gotten to the point that I could put out a poetry book. But as time went on I felt like I owed it to myself to continue creating a body of work that fairly traversed all modes of the human condition that Iwas being immersed in. 

Leighty-Phillips: That’s awesome. And do you feel like your upcoming book… how are the two in conversation?

Abdurraqib: They’re not. 

Leighty-Phillips: They’re not at all?  

Abdurraqib: I’ve thought about this a lot because I figured I would start getting asked about it as we got closer to the book coming out, but they’re not. And I think it’s fair to say that they’re not. The new book is a lot about managing distance, heartbreak, and recovery. Not recovery from addiction, but emotional recovery. This idea… Dan, you know, Dan Campbell from the Wonder Years, said this thing once—I went to go see his side project, Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties—and he said this thing to me before going on: “I kinda hate that, you know young dudes come to the show and think it’s all about…” Have you heard that side project?

Leighty-Phillips: I haven’t heard it, but I know about it.

Abdurraqib: Yeah, yeah. He’s like, “I hate that young dudes come to the show and they like think it’s all about like hating this woman who broke my heart.” And he’s like, “The thing is, a whole part of the project is understanding that no one is required to love you.” There’s no requirement for anyone to love you. I think that is what the book is kind of wrestling with. It’s charting a really immense heartbreak—and I thought I was gonna write this book traversing that really intense heartbreak—but then in the process of working on the book, I fell in love again. And I thought about how unfair but righteous it is for humans to have to restructure the architecture of the heart again and again and again and again. Much like the toolbox changes as we write, our identities around love should change every time we are fortunate enough to fall in love with anyone—not just romantic love but new friendships and platonic love too, right. Every love should restructure the architecture of our heart, but there’s risk in that. And how beautiful and how unfair it is to manage that risk, to have to weigh that risk-reward. So that’s kind of what this book is about. And so, I don’t see it in conversation with Crown. Speaking of anxieties, my big anxiety is that this book will come out and no one will really like it because it’s so different.

Leighty-Phillips: That’s awesome. I’m glad that I wasn’t totally off-base with making a Wonder Years comparison. Okay, we’ll do one more because I know you have to… Hayden’s Ferry Review, we’re currently hard at work on a magic-themed issue. 

Abdurraqib: That’s dope.

Leighty-Phillips: Yeah, I’m excited about it. 

Abdurraqib: My new book has a lot of magic themes in it.

Leighty-Phillips: Yeah! So that’s one of the things I wanted to ask—especially to bring in the new book: I was compelled by the quote from the beginning Go Ahead in the Rain, where you discuss jazz as often being viewed as a story about what can urgently be passed down to someone else before a person expires. And that jazz has historically been created by people obsessed with survival at a time that did not want them to survive and is, therefore, a genre of myths, fantasy, and dreaming. And I wanted to know, does this still hold true for the genre or has that torch been passed somewhere else? What is the space that people—again this is something where if I’m off base—has that been passed to something new? Is there a new space where people are saying, “We have to make as much as possible before…”?

Abdurraqib: Maybe. I don’t know if it’s been passed to something new, but I still think jazz holds that space. I think because America commodifies black creation so quickly, right, I think what we’re starting to see, or what I’m starting to see that I like, is black creators getting ahead of the curve and creating, or attempting to create, kind of untouchable mythologies. Why I like the show Atlanta so much is that it is deeply magical and surreal in a way that is difficult to articulate and therefore difficult to commodify. And I think, what I’m kind of loving is seeing capital B, capital A, Black Art circling its way back around to a type of magical realism. A type of myth-making that might be touchable but not always take-able. I think to separate those two is really important. So I like seeing it show up in television and film, not just in music anymore. That’s really valuable.


Tucker Leighty-Phillips is the Managing Editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review and second-year MFA candidate in Fiction at Arizona State University. His work has been featured in or forthcoming at Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, Whiskeypaper, West Branch Wired, and elsewhere. He can be found on social media at @TheNurtureBoy.

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Erin Noehre reviews Dorothy Chan's Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold

Dorothy Chan’s new book, Revenge of the Asian Woman, comes out on March 27th. To celebrate the former HFR Poetry Editor’s second full-length collection, Associate Poetry Editor Erin Noehre reviews Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, Chan’s debut book of poetry. You can order Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold from Spork Press and can preorder Revenge of the Asian Woman from Diode Editions.


In her striking debut collection Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, Dorothy Chan showcases an ability to seamlessly negotiate the cloying conventions of femininity and a sardonic questioning of those same ideals with agility and depth. The titular “Centerfold” looms over the reader as Chan explores the rich material of food, heritage, displacement, familial roles, and hunger. The reader becomes absorbed by the always hungry, always whip-smart voice behind the poems, as it tends to its wide grouping of subjects and the histories that lives within them. It’s in this voice that Chan asks us to consistently bother the status-quo while simultaneously reckoning with how we were indoctrinated with it in the first place. 

In the first section, the poem “Ode to Sexpots and My Mother’s Red Stockings” captures Chan’s ability to fly across subjects like femininity, hunger, desire, and familial histories. The poem orbits a pair of red stockings given to her by her mother, which blend together generations of female hunger, doubling it with Chan’s own. The poem opens,

 All my mother ever wanted as a little girl was a pair 

of red stockings, her childish version of elegance,

the way scarlet would pop against her clothes,

and I think about this when she sends me a package

 

of fishnets, because I like things a little sexpot,

a little oh honey, it’s not what I did, but what

 

I can do to you tonight, and how my mother wanted red 

so bad it gave her a fever.

Chan’s language poses female desire as a driving source of power. It’s a power that grows and builds throughout the collection until there is no question that the femme figure in these poems is here to consume, and you would do best to submit. Chan challenges her audience, (a world dominated by hetero-patriarchal ideals) to experience the undaunted pleasure of a femme body reclaiming both sexuality and hunger, leaving the reader covered in an awe-struck chill. Chan crafts a world that pays homage to the beauty of this aggressive femme, whatever she may be stomping through. 

The second section leads us into a skillfully crafted quadruple crown of sonnets. Chan’s sonnets are impressive and playful as she opens up the raw subjects of identity, place, and family. By using this condensed form, she creates decisive vignettes often depicting moments of displacement within generations of her family. The quick-witted voice observes how many ways life has failed to provide an exact home for everyone closest to her. Instead we follow as the people depicted in her poems find small pockets of home within food, Chinatown locations, TV shows, and more. The section ends with “XXVII. On Father’s Day” and its heavy final line: “This is my Chinatown, technicolor and gone.”

This loss of home is entangled with Chan’s appreciation of its beauty and rarity. Then, just as the reader is softened by this moment of memory and ache, the final section emerges with the poem “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold with the Killer Legs” to topple you over:

Attack of the Centerfold in technicolor

and again in 3D, my long legs challenging you 

boulevard by boulevard, smashing everything,

then eating a doughnut shop, 

guzzling it all down with carrot juice,

then tequila muddled with blackberries,

because this is LA, and women will have it all

In one swoop Chan has swallowed every piece of history and echo of pain, and set loose her Centerfold. The spotlight clicks on and the reader can see the grandiosity and inescapability of this grotesque, glamorous femme. Now, we can proclaim as deeply as Chan has: it is she who rules all. The technicolor of the past has turned watery and elusive but within a few lines Chan has brought it back to life in the form of an all-too-familiar body standing over us. 50-foot and roiling, unconquered and insatiable, hungrier than ever, our Centerfold is ready to do her worst. 


Erin Noehre is a Midwestern-born poet currently living and writing in Tempe, Arizona where she is an MFA candidate at Arizona State University and an Associate Editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review. She is the recipient of an Interdisciplinary Enrichment Fellowship from the Graduate College at Arizona State University as well as the Dr. Russell Brock Memorial Scholarship for Non-Technical Writing. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming from The Poetry Spot in AZCentral, Northern Lights (2016 award for best poetry), and Sonora Review.

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Maritza Estrada interviews Carolina Ebeid

Carolina Ebeid is the author of You Ask Me To Talk About The Interior, selected by Poets & Writers as one of the ten best debut collections of 2016. She has won awards and fellowships from the Stadler Center for Poetry, CantoMundo, The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Academy of American Poets. She was awarded an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry for 2015. She holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers and is a PhD candidate in the University of Denver's creative writing program, where she serves as Associate Editor of the Denver Quarterly.

In September, she visited Phoenix to participate in the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing’s Piper Writer’s Studio and was interviewed by HFR Associate Editor Maritza Estrada and photographed by Piper Center Education Programs Manager Felicia Zamora.


Maritza Estrada: First, I just want to start off and say congrats on your book, You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior,for existing out in public for two years. That’s such a cool accomplishment. And congrats on your latest poem, “Annotations for a Memorial,” published in PoetryMagazine. When books have been published and have existed out in public for a few years, I think it’s important to pause and reflect because with publishing and the poetry world, etc., it feels like everything is going forward so fast.  

When I was reading your poems, I often paused because it felt like there were a lot of layers involved with them. In some ways, I’d become a surgeon dissecting these poems, which was good because some books feel like they just pass over our heads, but with your language it almost felt like a gentle command. For example, in the poem, “Waiting Room,” I noticed there is an interesting exploration of the crisis the speaker’s father experiences in the waiting room. The themes of inherited languages, diseases, and what the uncertain future holds for the body really struck me, especially with the section where it says:  

You may hold an idea of the body

as a junky steel contraption that can

be fixed. A figment of propellers here & at the center

an heirloom engine, oiled & intricate. 

Even that, the word play or the word choice, and the gentle command, made me pause. There was an urgency in that and a pace involved. What was your process composing the order of the book, as it was done quite intricately and precisely?

Carolina Ebeid: Some of the poems in that book are very, very old. I composed maybe two versions of the poems in my early twenties. It was strange putting [You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior] together, as opposed to this book that I’m writing right now in which the poems will have been written in a five-year span. I can see better, in this book, what might need to go first. I can see an arc better. With [You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior] I had a harder time seeing an arc, but I just trusted that poetry itself and the right reader will make connections where I don’t necessarily see them. The right reader will see these repeating images, which I knew were there. In some ways also, the “Punctum”poems—those prose poems which come out of an essay that I had to write for my MFA thesis—those, I pulled apart and I put them throughout the book so that I could see a kind of structure, some kind of line interrupted but running through. 

Estrada: This makes me think of place because when you wrote these poems, you were “in it” in your early twenties. Years after when you reflect on your experience it’s so much easier to see “Oh ok, maybe it wasn’t as clear then, but I knew.” One of my professors recently, in class, said, with place, sometimes when you write about home it’s so much easier to do it when you are not in your home anymore. 

Ebeid: And I would say that most of the poems were written during the MFA. So, there was certainly the momentum to make thesis deadlines. You are just expected to produce. I thrived in that environment.  

Estrada: You got your MFA at the Michener Center for Writers. How was your experience with the MFA program?

Ebeid: I loved it. That’s not to say that the program itself is going to be a great fit for everyone. When I went, Dean Young was the only permanent poetry faculty there. He was great for my imagination. He really taught me how to read and evaluate work that is in progress. He gave me a confidence in the critical apparatus that I didn’t have before the MFA. As students we relied on visiting faculty. I got to work with Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who was wonderful. She came twice, and she was important to my experience.

Estrada: I’d love to go back to the overarching theme of [You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior]. For me, as a reader, it was evident from the first read and then again on the second read. I saw myself underlining words and noticing, “Ok, these words are repeating, this is the canon of the book,” like the horses, the larynx, and the boy. There are so many words that you repeat. 

And in the section breaks in the “Veronicas of a Matador,” it is cool to see them as glimpses into, in one section, for instance, medical terminology, in another, a window opening to the son or family, and so my next question is: There appears to be a distance in the second section of the book compared to the first section—the language becomes sort of a ghost-like dance. Particularly, in the poem, “Veronicas of a Matador,” in the section what are years?, you refer to a boy as theboy, almost as if the speaker cannot find the right words to connect with the boy. I think there are two previous poems that talk about the word, “echolalia”, which sounds more like a concert lute but means the compulsive repetition of meaningless phrases. I kept going back to those same poems that spoke to each other. My question is: Why theboy, not aboy? 

Ebeid: That’s a great question. And I guess I have the same question. Why theboy and not aboy? I suppose that I made a conscious decision not to say “my son,” and there are various reasons. One might be a kind of social pressure to demure writing about motherhood (a pressure that I was not very conscious of, I must say). But I also chose that wording because of my own aesthetic preference for “the boy” as opposed to “my son.” “My son” becomes too local and singular. I need some kind of cognitive distance to write about family. At the same time, theboy does locate it in a time or space more precisely than aboy. I couldn’t name the boy Patrick though that ishis name, and I couldn’t say “my son,” because I didn’t want it to be as confessional as that. But I’m not sure that I answered your question, because you said so many interesting things about ghostly distance. 

Estrada: Throughout the book it’s sort of like you take one step forward, one step back using the language and the many voices and subjects that are being explored. As a reader I’m like, “Ok, I’ll go with it. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’ll go with it.” With each section break it’s like, “Ok, I’ll open this window and then this one,” and I don’t know what to expect. 

Ebeid: I like the idea that stanza, at its root, is Italian for “room.” It is such a good metaphor for part of a poem to be like a room. I think a window serves as a good metaphor, like a room does—in each stanza you’re encountering a new room, and this room has a different feeling from thatroom, right? When you’re in one stanza, it could feel bigger, another might feel slightly colder, the shades are down so it’s darker. And I think that happens in a poem, that there can be that kind of contrast from room to room, and that’s what the reader does, walks through the poem.  

Estrada: Yeah—everythingislike a poem. What’s also interesting is how you described the setting of this interview, the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing: we’re here but there is no one here…. There are these empty seats…. We have this ghost-like audience. 

Ebeid: It is, right!? They are facing us. Yeah, maybe there are people in here. 

Estrada: In “Punctum/The Transom” you say: “There is a quality about the rectangular shape of a stanza that is suggestive of a window pane, a sheet of glass through which we can see into another place.” Now, I’m in an altogether other room, this one filled with daylight. I like how it’s bringing us full circle to that stanza again, with the windows, and rooms. 

Ebeid: The rectangular shape is so important to so much of our lives. And so much of art, I would say. So much representational art has a frame. Paintings and photographs are rectangular. And then books of course—they’re the most important rectangle in my psyche. Books have really always been rectangular. It is lovely to encounter something that isn’t, that’s a circle or an oval. So it has to be something that we contend with—the television, our phones. We are constantly looking through and at the things happening at the center of these corners.

Estrada: It’s interesting to wonder what might be on the other side. We are always looking at something like a screen, but what’s behind that screen? Maybe this poem is in between that, kind of pushing and going back and forth.

Ebeid: I would say so. And I think that that’s, first of all, really wise. I always think that the poem—as well as the reader receiving it—is smarter than the poet who has written it. That’s the magic of poetry, that it communicates in ways that I as the writer never could anticipate fully.  

The punctum, the actual piercing of something, the kind of tear or wound it makes on the skin, let’s say, is not symmetrical in that way. It’s not a circle, or a rectangle, or something with angles. But with the wound, there is an interior and exterior, there is a going in and out. 

Estrada: With regard to the MFA experience, I want to go back there a little bit, just because it sounds like it’s a frequent question: Is it worth it or not worth it? Should I apply or not apply? 

Ebeid: Yes, apply! An ideal MFA program will be an environment that surround you with books and vibrant ideas, and you will work alongside people who are themselves writing and reading in a concentrated time. There is a palpable energy to entering a space where people are creating; it’s like feeling the bass from large speakers moving through your body. The best MFA environments teach you to fail, and try, and try, and write again. To keep writing and reading. 

Estrada: Are you currently a Ph.D. candidate in University of Denver, the creative writing program? What’s happening now in the Ph.D. program?

Ebeid: I’ve finished all my classes. I passed my comprehensive exams. And now, I’m going to be defending my dissertation sometime this Spring. My manuscript isn’t finished, but I will finish it very soon. And I have to finish the essay that I’m writing. We do write a creative dissertation, a creative piece depending on your genre, and then accompany the creative portion with a critical essay that can serve as a foreword or afterword—something to contextualize the work. I’m writing about the poetics of whispering. There is a film called El espíritu de la colmena. It’s from Spain, made in the 70s, and there is a lot of whispering in it. I’m looking at Chilean poets—Cecilia Vicuña—making a little constellation of whispering.

Estrada: Raúl Zurita?

Ebeid: I love Raúl Zurita. He actually came to DU and I was charged with picking him up from the airport. I don’t drive, but my husband does so we picked him up. It was magical. 

Estrada: I recently watched a video of him online reading poems, and I was just like, it’s so soothing… each word that escapes his mouth. 

Ebeid: And he is so important to Chilean literature. Really, to literature from all over Central and South America. He sells out—stadiums of people come out to see him. It’s remarkable.

Estrada: What you’re doing with the whispering is awesome. That is such a cool dissertation. 

Ebeid: I finally understand a way to talk about my work and talk about the work I love. There are so many discourses about silence in poetry. There is white space as being silent, and that has never appealed to me. Now I have this idea of whispering, which is so different from silence even though they share similarities.

Estrada: Me too. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for that. I hear that you are currently working on a project titled Hide. Is that what your manuscript is? 

Ebeid: Mhmm.

Estrada: Ok, cool. And you said it’s nearly done?  

Ebeid: It’s so hard to say. There seem to be many stages of doneness. So many curtains to walk through. Do you want me to talk about that? 

Estrada: Yeah, with Hide, when I first read that I was like, I know that I need to google the many definitions of hide, because we’ve been talking about canon and lexicons, etc. I’m sure you’ve done this too. There are many definitions of the verb. 1a: to put out of sight: secrete; 1b: to conceal for shelter or protection: shield. 2: to keep secret. 3: to screen from or as if from view: obscure. 4: to turn (the eyes or face) away in shame or anger. The noun: 1. the skin of an animal whether raw or prepared for use—used especially of large heavy skins, and then 2. the life or physical well-being of a person (Merriam-Webster). So, I was just wondering if you could unpack what hide might mean. 

Ebeid: It’s great, isn’t it? Clearly, we are cut from the same cloth, you and I. I live in the OED, the Oxford English Dictionary. Do you have access to that? You must have access to that. And I just need to take a second to talk about how wonderful the OED is online. There is the book version of it which is hard to get into, but online, it’s wonderful because not only do you get all the variations of a word like that, but you get the first time that words appear in writing, in English. I like to see the lineages of words, as they trace them, the histories imprinted in each word. Does it come from the Old English? Germanic? Does it come from French? Is it Spanish? Latin? 

For me, the two primary definitions of hide are what I find attractive and what helps me write. To hide, to conceal, and all that that means, to keep secret. There is the playful hide; hide and seek. But there are also the very violent and dangerous connotations to hide, that which must be kept safe. One might need to hide from a shooter! One may need to conceal part of their identity because of some inherent threat. There is also the hide of an animal, which also seems fraught with danger and violence. 

I’m also really attracted to the idea of early manuscript writing happening on vellum. Vellum is made from the skins of animals and treated so that one can have a very thin and almost translucent surface upon which to write. Usually, the most prized vellum was taken from calves really early, just in utero. Somebody would literally reach in and pull out, in utero, this unborn calf. And that was really good, because it didn’t have a lot of hair, and it was kind of translucent in and of itself.

Vellum often had the quality of the palimpsest. Do you know what the palimpsest is? This is something that you are going to hear in the next few years in your MFA, because writers/scholars  use it as a metaphor very often. So, imagine a piece of vellum, very prized, expensive, unlike paper which is ubiquitous. Such surfaces often had to be reused, so the writing would have to be scraped away. But that scratching away doesn’t really get rid of everything. The new writing would still show through some of the previous writing like a ghost of it. That’s the idea of the palimpsest, which is really provocative when you think of how we are writing against ancestors, or how, in our writing, we can see what came before. I see a kind of whispering there.

Estrada: Thank you so much, Carolina. 


Maritza N. Estrada is an MFA candidate in poetry at Arizona State University, an associate editor at Hayden's Ferry Review, and holds a BFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is the recipient of the 2019 Virginia G. Piper Creative Research Fellowship, winner of the Mabelle A. Lyon Poetry Award, and alumna in Winter Tangerine's workshop at Poets House. Her work can be found in Río Grande ReviewThe Flat Waters Stirs: An Anthology of Emerging Nebraska Poets, Misbehaving Nebraskans Anthology, and 13th Floor Magazine. Estrada was born in Washington, raised in Nebraska, and is marking residencia in Arizona. 

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