An Interview with Michael Schiavo (2013)

Michael Schiavo founded Long Review Review during his senior year at UConn in 1998. He is the author of The Mad Song (2012) and several poetry chapbooks. You can read his blog at The Unruly Servant. This year’s LRR staff caught up with him to discuss the past of Long River Review, poetry, and other literary concerns.

LRR: You founded the Long River Review in 1998. What was that experience like? What sparked it? How would you describe the first issue?

MS: When I was chosen as one of the editors of Writing UConn, I wanted to get course credit for the work I’d be putting in. I also saw UConn’s undergraduate literary journal transforming itself from a saddle-stitched, Xeroxed publication into a perfect-bound journal, one with potentially national reach, akin to Ploughshares or Agni: a journal housed at a university that would publish work from writers at all levels of experience. I’d edited and designed my high school literary journal for several years and also made chapbooks of my own work. Joan Joffe-Hall, who helped create Writing UConn, gave her blessing and I got encouragement from the Individualized Major program and the English department to propose a revised format. Wally Lamb was a huge help. He was teaching at UConn at the time and had just been chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. After hearing my appeal, he agreed to back the printing of the first issue. When the English department saw the final product, they gave permanent funding for the journal and gave course credit to all students who held the position of Editor.

I hope that the first issue was a good blueprint for the subsequent installments. All the issues that have followed have taken on their own character and it’s great to see Long River Review evolving to this day. It’s necessary for each editor to put their own stamp on their issue, while giving space to the great work done by UConn students.

LRR: How old were you when you first started writing? Was there a particular catalyst?

MS: A fifth-grade project in poetry is the earliest concrete point I can reach to find the spark’s moment, but I really got going in eighth grade writing short stories. Poetry came about a year later when I was a freshman in high school. I was just playing with words. I still am.

LRR: Who are your biggest influences as a poet?

MS: I agree with Emerson’s stance that “it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem, — a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” I’m influenced by any poet that takes this approach in their own way, that sees language as Nature, and a small sample of those writers would include Emerson himself, Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Harryette Mullen, Clark Coolidge, Doug Crase, Charles North, Paul Violi, Bernadette Mayer, lots of Johns (Ashbery, Berryman, Cage) and contemporaries like Samuel Amadon and Morgan Lucas Schuldt.

LRR: Do you write on a steady basis or do you wait until you’re inspired? Do you have any writing rituals?

MS: A little of both. Sometimes the words can’t be stopped. Sometimes it’s fun to help them out a little, but usually never necessary. The writing tends to come in bursts and I just follow the wave. If I’m not in the mood, I’ve found that I shouldn’t really force anything. It’s best for a poet to go and live a little so he can come back to the page with new sounds. I had the form for my first book, The Mad Song, in my head for years: 13 chapters consisting of five paragraphs, one per page. Each paragraph would have a certain sentence count — three of them would be 13 sentences and the remaining two would be either 6 or 7 sentences. When I’d meditated on the form for long enough, I tried it on the page. Tried long, Jamesian sentences/paragraphs at first. Didn’t work. Then, in 2006, when I started working at the Vermont Studio Center, everything aligned and the entire poem poured out of me in 10 days. It was dictated to me from somewhere else. I didn’t ask where or who, I just followed it through to the end, knowing I had a certain form to fill, and with the suspicion that if I asked what was going on, where this was coming from, it would stop. The only ritual I have is to have no ritual.

LRR: Are you currently working on anything?

MS: I have six manuscripts that are complete, or nearly complete, waiting for an editor to take a look at: Green Mountains, containing poems I’ve come to call “ranges”; Buds, dub versions of Shakespeare’s sonnets; Roses, a series of sketches of said flower; Adventure Sonnets, inspired/based on the Choose Your Own Adventure book series; a translation of Virgil’s Eclogues; a translation of the Dao De Jing. I started to translate the Inferno, but got distracted. I’ve also been making notes on spheric meter, a new way of approaching scansion. I’m considering doing another series of The Equalizer, and I’ve recently launched a print poetry ‘zine called Gondola. Issue 1 has early work from Paul Violi. Issue 2 features poetry from Ray DeJesús, Buck Downs, Matt Hart, Curtis Jensen, Catherine Meng, and Sandra Simonds. I plan to publish another three issues in 2013 featuring work from Aaron Belz, Brooklyn Copeland, Dora Malech, K. Silem Mohammad, Morgan Lucas Schuldt, and others. It’ll be a limited run series. I have a blog, The Unruly Servant, that I sometimes update. You can always find out more there.

LRR: If you could go back to your experience at UConn and change one thing, what would you change?

MS: I should’ve listened more to Sam Pickering! He was one of my advisors, and while I did take a good portion of his advice, he always encouraged me to take courses like Children’s Literature or Shakespeare. Unfortunately, those classes often met at 8:00 a.m., and, feeling that I had plenty of other options for English/Literature courses, often found alternatives at later times. Point being: take advantage of all the great resources at your disposal while studying at UConn, in the English department specifically, but around campus as a whole. The Dodd Research Center contains Charles Olson’s papers as well as some of Frank O’Hara’s. That’s a good place to start.

LRR: Do you have any particular styles or genres that you gravitate towards in other people’s writing? What do you think makes a ‘successful’ journal: variety, style, cohesion, something else?

MS: I like a meter-making argument, doesn’t matter genre or style. “Voice is all,” as Kerouac said, & insofar as it keeps your attention: that is, it should be a voice worth spending time with. Interesting writing will pull you along if the writer knows what she’s doing. If you allow yourself, it will teach you how to read it, even if you’ve never encountered its kind before.

For me, a successful journal will contain various voices and styles in conversation with one another. When the tone or subject matter of every piece is too similar, or the work all comes from one perspective, you start to narrow your audience, and they’ll eventually get bored. Complimentary, antagonistic: a good editor will know how the pieces fit, &, like a good writer, should constantly push herself to take a fresh look at what she’s doing and always experiment with the new.

LRR: There is a growing necessity for literary journals to have an online presence or to be totally available online. Similarly, e-books are gaining in popularity, and there has been a lot of backlash about the computerization of reading. What are your thoughts on this? Is it a necessary evil or is it beneficial?

MS: It can run both ways. This past decade of digital publishing has been a boon to poets who can now get their work out to the public faster; or just get it out to a public that wouldn’t be able to find it if it was in a tiny, DIY journal. There are journals like Shampoo orH_NGM_N that are totally online. H_NGM_N started a press a few years ago because of the following they built via the Internet. So did Coconut, which recently resumed all-around publication after a personal hiatus by editor Bruce Covey. Forklift, Ohio is a great print journal that’s been published for almost 20 years now. Matt Hart and Eric Appleby take pride in constructing a unique design for each issue, but they also have a web presence. Know how each medium works in the present day and use both, but above all, make sure you’re publishing interesting writing. Good writing transcends all media.

Writers need to advocate more for the preservation of print, not just for the classics or would-be classics, but for everything, the important work and the disposable. We can argue the aesthetics of page v. screen, we can argue margin and cost savings — or control of the market — but what’s of utmost importance to me is the civic purpose of having print publications. Amazon has already shown its willingness to delete books from people’s Kindles (1984 of all books!) and while they say they’d only do it to enforce the law, I’m not willing to take their word. It immediately puts Amazon in the position of being the anti-Abbie Hoffman: they’ll steal your book! No, sorry, I want a book that, once I purchase it, someone has to physically come and take from me if they don’t want me to read it. I also don’t want newspaper or magazine or journal articles that can be retroactively wiped of “errors” or “corrected.”

LRR: Do you have any words of wisdom for college students who want to continue writing and working in literary spaces after college? Any tips for this year’s Long River staff? 

MS: The publishing world is changing every day but what will never change is the desire to read good writing, in every possible form, on every subject. Between crowdfunding and explosion of MFA programs, it’s a unique time for students to find new forms of publication, to start a literary journal, an independent press, a newspaper, even a bookstore. We need more websites like Coldfront and Vouched devoted to literary culture across the nation, not just focused on the urban epicenters and MFA programs. Liam Rector used to say (quoting his friend Rudd Fleming): “Find those with whom you have rapport and proceed. And never proceed with those with whom you do not have rapport.” You find allies for your work in the unlikeliest of places. Take any job that pays the bills because any job will inform your writing. A good writer can mine any experience for words.

To this year’s Long River staff: have fun, enjoy the experience, listen to one another, and be open to pieces you normally wouldn’t. Make sure there’s a broad range of styles and perspectives, but, above all, make sure you publish the best writing from the UConn community. You wouldn’t want to break the streak, would you?

 

Quick hit questions—

What was the last great book you read?

Always Materialized by Buck Downs

Do you have an all-time favorite literary magazine?

Allow me a very incomplete list: canwehaveourballback?CUEForklift, OhioH_NGM_NLa Petite ZineNo Tell MotelSixth FinchTightUnpleasant Event Schedule

Favorite word?

Ah

Favorite quote?

“Mu” – Zhàozhōu

 

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