Reflections on writing, medicine, and more with Nikki Rubin, former LRR Poetry Editor

Interview by Steph Koo

I had the opportunity to speak with Nikki Rubin, LRR alum, survivor of UCONN medical school, newly-minted doctor extraordinaire, over video chat this past weekend. Our talk ranged from writing experiences, to her decision to choose OB/GYN as her specialty, to my own anxieties over choosing the pre-medical path. Here are a few things that we talked about, and that I am happy to share with our literary magazine community! Whether you are interested in pursuing medicine as a career or not, everyone is impacted by the decisions of our doctors, and realize that there are more literary doctors than may be stereotypically expected!

On her undergraduate experience:

As an undergraduate, Nikki stayed away from the pre-med group and became involved in her other interests. Nikki’s focus has always been on the people she serves, and she double majored as an individualized major in Human Rights and biology. She has always wanted to be a doctor: “I would watch the show ER as a kid, and my parents would say, ‘Don’t tell your preschool teachers I let you stay up until 10pm!’”

On the lit mag scene:

The writing bug bit her in her middle school years, her first experience with literary magazines. Back then, it was “a typewriter, a copier, and a bunch of staples” holding their work all together. She continued writing throughout high school, and came to UConn, looking for a writing community. After friends and winning a couple of the Creative Writing Department’s contests brought her into the Creative Writing community at UConn, she became involved with the Long River Review. Nikki spent her sophomore year on the poetry panel, and her senior year as poetry editor — Long River Review 2010 and 2012. Her prize-winning poetry can be found on our website in LRR 2013, 2011, 2010, and 2009.

When she entered UConn Medical School, she found that she was not the only one in her class with a creative flair. “The medical community is far more creative than the stereotype of a medical professional lets on,” she said, accounting for the musicians, writers, and artists she met in the next four years of her life.

She was a part of the founding of UConn Health’s literary magazine, Anastomoses*, meaning the reconnection of two previously connected branching structures, like blood vessels (link: Anastomoses is an online-only literary magazine for the UConn Health community. She describes Anastomoses as “a different experience from Long River Review. We were a smaller magazine and were less selective.”

On writing:

I asked about her own writing. Among working, studying, research, and extracurriculars, Nikki describes herself as “not the best model for regimental writing,” but she has found that writing has always come across accidentally. She notes that as a medical provider, “it’s a lot harder to write poetry when you’re used to writing medical writing, which is often restrictive.” She recounted looking forward to journaling for a class during her first year in medical school, which allowed medical students to reflect some things they may not have been ready to process. Narrative medicine often helps with processing and contemplating upon the experiences that people experience within medical situations, from seeing a cadaver to watching a suffering patient or having your first patient pass away.

On Medicine:

I was interested about picking a specialty, and Nikki gave me an overview of her decision making process. “I came into medical school thinking about pediatrics, but being able to choose

The stimulation of the OR (operating room) was something that peaked her interest before deciding on the OB/GYN path. “As a woman with an interest in surgery, I felt as if I had an obligation to pursue my interest,” she said, but ultimately, “my interest in human rights, and the interactions I had with my patients, were more important to me.”

Nikki said that if she wasn’t a doctor, she would maybe be a teacher, do social or nonprofit work, or work within public health. We also discussed that if she could change anything about th emedical system, she would remove barriers patients and doctors have to healthcare, such as the large influence by money-driven insurance companies. “There’s always a third party in the room, and they’re not as invested in patients as you are. They are driven by the numbers.” This effects how a doctor can interact with their patient, from the types of healthcare practices that can be implemented to the amount of time a doctor can see a patient.

For a student who wants to become a doctor like myself, this may be the most comforting piece of advice: Do what you want to do, not something that you think you’re supposed to do. Your passion and your interests will carry you through.

“You have a rapid shift in identity in medical school,” Nikki said. “You’re in this really weird world where you’re not a layperson or a doctor.”

Steph Koo is a third year student majoring in English and Biology. She is the editor of the Fiction panel of Long River Review.

An Interview with Dr. William Jelani Cobb

This is the unedited transcript of Dr. Cobb’s interview. The edited version is printed in the Long River Review’s physical copy.

Dr. William Jelani Cobb is a nationally-known intellectual who has written books, essays, and anthologies on everything from the history of hip-hop to the Cold War to racism and to current events, who has been outspoken on TV and radio, and who is a professor at UConn as well as the Head of the Africana Studies department at the university. This lowly Long River Review interviewer managed to extricate an hour of the Howard graduate’s time to hear his thoughts on history’s place in his writing, racism, hip-hop, and a host of other topics that basically amounted to his general philosophy. We met in the conference room of the Africana Studies Department across from Cobb’s office. Posters adorned the walls – I remember one of the Apollo Theater – and a long, regal wooden table sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by chairs. Cobb strode in with blue jeans and an imposing frame after briefly talking to his assistant, whereupon his boxer-glove-hands, the large size of which he has occasionally referenced in his writing, enveloped mine. He wore a dark green business jacket, under which was a green, V-neck sweater. While I was, admittedly, intimidated, it was not because of his appearance, or his bass-heavy voice. Rather, it was his mind, that practically sprung from his bald head and salt and pepper beard, that was daunting. A mind that during our conversation, like in his writing, could jump from the current state of hip-hop to American affronts to black people to his personal life, writing, and influences, then to the history of Islam. A mind that introduced extemporaneous metaphors, idioms, and historical allusions as easy as if he were preparing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was a memorable hour.

Sten Spinella: I read that you added Jelani to your full name back in college in order to connect with a more African tradition. Would you mind elaborating on that?

William Jelani Cobb: I was named after Saint Anthony, and I no longer was Catholic, so it wasn’t that I had to reject that name, but it didn’t have as much affinity to me anymore. And then when I was like, ‘Oh, I think I want a different middle name, I think I’d like something that was directly from Africa.’ It’s interesting because at that point, it wound up having a long, huge impact, but I was 20, so I didn’t give it that much thought, I just said ‘I’m gonna change my middle name, and I want to have something that connects me to my African ancestry,’ and I picked this name. It’s funny because, when people ask me about it now, I kind of want to say it was some profound, well-thought out thing, but it was just something I did one day.

SS: So do you think it’s been reflected in your writing?

WJC: What I’m interested in has been kind of these questions of diaspora and the relationship of people to each other throughout this diaspora, and the way that race is factored into it. So being a black American, what do you have in common experience with a black Jamaican, or a black Brazillian, or a black person in the UK. How has race differentiated and how has it been consistent in all of those places. And I wouldn’t have articulated it that way, at that point, but it was something that was intriguing to me, and I wanted to understand it. Also I grew up in New York, so in my community there were Haitians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, you know, some Africans, and then a good number of black people who had migrated from the South, you know, black American migrants, and they were all interacting in this community. My sense of the world and what it meant to be African-American was more complicated than maybe if I had grown up in a small Midwestern town where everyone had kind of similar stories.

SS: Yeah, I liked that essay, you said your family kind of tried to recreate a Southern community in Queens.

WJC: Yeah, that’s also a common thing, if you read The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabelle Wilkerson’s book, she talks about that. Like most migrants, or immigrants, they tend to seek each other in the new location, and they tend to replicate, at least some, of the things they left behind there. In my community, as a young person, it was normal to me that like, all the adults had southern accents, even though I grew up in New York, and later on I noticed that this was actually a notable thing. It was because they had all been Southerners, and they kind of kept the same traditions and we ate fish and grits and we went to churches that were heavily Southern-influenced, even though I was raised Catholic we sometimes went to like Baptist revival churches. Those kinds of things that people do, of course that story is replicated lots of times, there’s a Chinatown, there’s a reason that people have come together to create that, or a little Italy, that kind of story. But I don’t think I understood it that way at the time.

SS: I want to address your career, which I find fascinating because, you started writing for One, that little periodical, next was the Washington City Paper and YSB, so I was wondering, how has your writing changed from when you were writing for these kind of small publications compared to your novels and The New Yorker now?

WJC: Not changed.

SS: Not at all?

WJC: It’s just evolved. So here’s like, one of the things, there’s the old I guess sports principle, where when you get to the playoffs, or you get to the World Series, you do the same thing that you’ve been doing. You know? What got you there is the thing that helped you succeed. And so, when I change in different venues, I learn things along the way, but everything that I did at The New Yorker were things I was being taught at One and the City Paper. I found that to be the case throughout, that I learned things in various places in the world and in my life that turned out to be applicable to other kinds of experiences. I always tell young people that the crappiest jobs tend to be the most educational, and certainly the most interesting. You meet generally more interesting people in crappy jobs. Not that those were crappy jobs! I should not say that. Those kind of introductory places where I learned, I met really different people, people who I would not have met otherwise, and I learned things that are useful to me now.

SS: Great. So I kind of want to switch tack a little bit. I definitely want to talk to you about your creative nonfiction writing, a little bit about hip-hop and history’s influence on your writing, but I also want to ask you some questions about race. First thing I was wondering is, when you write about race for something like The New Yorker, do you have an audience in mind? Like a white liberal, black America, a racist, or do you just write, because.

WJC: No. I try not to have any audience in mind, even though I know the audience of The New Yorker is different from One or the City Paper, but you also have to have a faith in the kind of basic intelligence of the people that you’re writing for, that if they agree with you fine and if they don’t agree with you, they at least respect the thought that you’ve put into drawing the conclusion that you’ve drawn. Sometimes you’ll think about the voice of the publication, so there’s a very distinct New Yorker prose, is not the same thing as Esquire prose, which is probably not the same thing as Vanity Fair prose, you may think about that a little bit, but for me, I don’t think about the audience. Most of the people I know, most of the writers I know, tend to put the audience out of their heads. Because, one of the things is, it can turn you into a trained seal, where you’re doing things for applause.

SS: Does it maybe corrupt your writing?

WJC: Right. The trained seal does a trick and you give it a treat and people applaud. You don’t want to be that person. You want to be a person who’s independent, who’s kind of speaking their mind and saying the way they understand the world, and that has to fall on the side of if people love it, great, if they hate it, too bad, and if they think about it – the goal is not for people to love it or hate it, but to really think about it.

SS: I mean, that’s something I’ve found interesting about your career. You’ve always been an independent writer, whether it’s a novel or you’re just writing for different publications. I guess I should ask a question about that, because the dream is to be a freelance writer, right, when you start out? So how were you able to maintain that?

WJC: Because I did other things. I start out, going all the way backward, when I was undergrad, I was a double major in history and English. I didn’t know which of those things I wanted to pursue, if I wanted to be an historian or if I wanted to be a writer. Then I decided that at some point those two things didn’t have to compete with each other, that I could do both of those things, and while I pursued the academic track, I wound up writing on the side, and in the summers and so on, and that was more amenable to doing freelance stuff. Then in graduate school it was very simple because I was poor. Graduate students don’t have any money, so I just wrote on the side so that I could eat. I got in the habit of eating. So that was how that came about. I thought about those two things as very separate, I had two very different lives even though I was writing under one name for both of them.

SS: I definitely want to get back to that later, because I’ve loved the historical allusions throughout your writing. Something that you addressed directly in things that you’ve written, and has kind of been, whenever I read black writers, percolating in their minds, do you feel as a black writer, pressure, or a burden, to write about race?

WJC: Sometimes. Sometimes. I think, I’m interested in other things. I wrote a thing about drones. I’m into drones now. I have a drone in my car, quad copter.

SS: Really?

WJC: Yeah.

SS: You doing research like that?

WJC: No, I just like flying them. That’s an interest of mine, and the politics of the Cold War is an interest of mine.

SS: Your foreign policy writing…

WJC: Yeah, the other stuff, there’s lots of stuff, but there’s an urgency I’ve found with race that hasn’t relented. If you had asked me when I started at The New Yorker if I would have written about Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Charleston, Ferguson, Baltimore, Eric Garner, I think I’ve wrote about all of those things that were happening. I didn’t set out to do that. But at the same time those were things that had to be discussed.

SS: Absolutely.

WJC: I did have a facility in discussing them. I understood the dynamics there, and there were things that I had written about previously, in previous outlets, when you look at the span of the stuff in The Devil and Dave Chappelle. Most of that stuff is about race. Some of it is about family, and those things are maybe inflected about that experience of race, but yeah, there’s sometimes an urgency when you feel like you have to respond to things, even though, probably the next thing that I write, may be about just straight American history, and Donald Trump and where he comes from in American history, and where that relationship is to men with similar outlooks, that have come before.

SS: That urgency you mentioned, this is kind of a selfish question, I’m asking it for myself in a way, but you talk about this intellectual bunco squad of writers. How can – what’s the place of the ally in anti-racist literature, when it comes to that squad, policing everything that goes on, the urgent matters that need to be discussed.

WJC: You know, I’ve never been really a big fan of the “ally” language because, it seems constraining to me. Like, they’re people of conscience. What you call yourself doesn’t really matter to me. The people of conscience and the people who are invested in trying to have a world where people are treated with equality, dignity, respect and so on. I think that sometimes with the language of “allies” it becomes more about appearances, or agreement, or being 100 percent in line with a particular argument, and I don’t think that that gets anyone anywhere, so there are things that I may disagree with on a particular issue, but I’m still fundamentally sympathetic to the cause of human beings being treated with humanity. I tend to shy away from it. But what kind of things do you write? What kind of things are you interested in writing?

SS: Me, personally?

WJC: Mhm.

SS: I mean, this year, there’s kind of a joke inside the Daily Campus office that I’m the race correspondent.

WJC: (Laughs)

SS: But that’s just because there’s a million things to write about when it comes to that.

WJC: There’s no shortage of it, right. It’s like ‘They keep pulling me back in,’ that line from Die Hard three, ‘Just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in.’

SS: I wanted to ask you about that. Is it frustrating for you, because, when I was reading The Devil and Dave Chappelle, I saw these essays about police brutality in New York in the 90s and stuff like that, then also a lot of Katrina essays about how black people were failed by the government. So does it just frustrate you now to see these things still happening, and Flint, Michigan for example, and the Eric Garners of the world, how do you keep addressing the same topic?

WJC: So that’s what becomes difficult. You brought up the adjectives, like you’re saying, ‘What can I say about this new situation, which is not a new situation?’ that becomes frustrating, yes, definitely. At the same time, when I look at the burden that other people had to deal with – it’s not even comparable. And those people, you did see change, between the point at which they lived, if we’re talking about the middle of the 20th century or the beginning of the 20th century, the middle of the 19th century, you do see change over time, but it’s because people of conscience who put their shoulder to the wheel of history and said that ‘This is the world that we want to live in.’ For me, being tired of writing about the same sort of problems, is not the same thing as being tired because you’ve been a sharecropper. You know? So I can’t. Or you’ve been someone who worked without the benefit of the eight-hour-day, or the minimum wage, or workplace safety standards or any of those things.

SS: That’s a good point.

WJC: Relatively speaking, I have a wind at my back.

SS: I want to talk about your creative nonfiction writing for a little bit. Do you prefer writing – because I was fascinated by your Rio research piece –

WJC: (Laughs)

SS: I was wondering if you preferred writing long-form research-based essays, or something like a personal essay.

WJC: I don’t like personal essays.

SS: Why’s that?

WJC: It’s easy to be analytical, but the first person essays invariably, even if you’re writing first person narrative about travel, the reader is learning about you. If people are learning about your ideas, or your argument, or how you see the world, that’s one thing, but learning about you, specifically, that’s a different kind of thing, even though I’ve written some of those things. It can be kind of intimidating because you don’t know what the world will do with that kind of information. Especially now, because we live in an era in which social media brings out the best and the worst of us. I wrote about being divorced, and someone will say ‘Oh I read about you being divorced!’ or something like that.

SS: Off-handed comments you don’t really want to address.

WJC: Yeah, you really don’t want to go there. But some people are good with that, some people are much better at that. Almost by genre, poets seem to be way better about that than nonfiction and prose writers.

SS: So you feel more comfortable commentating on events rather than looking inward, I guess?

WJC: In print, yeah.

SS: Not necessarily by yourself.

WJC: No, I mean the memoir is a beautiful form. The first person essay is one of my favorite forms to read. The other thing I think is that as you study writing you notice that each one has its own particular quirks. What is good for a first person writer may not be good for a kind of analytical essay, or may not be good for an op-ed kind of structure, and it’s like carpentry, where you develop different sets of tools. This person might be really good at building staircases and this person is really good at building cabinets, those different skillsets. Sometimes one of the good exercises is to push yourself out of your genre and make yourself do something you wouldn’t normally do just as a writing exercise. Try different things. One of the people who – I edited this collection of Harold Cruse’s writing – Cruse was a phenomenal polemicist. He wrote these polemical essays that were just beautiful. I mean, they were horrible in terms of what he was saying about people, but if he was going to make a lacerating argument, there was nobody who could get close to him. I read his fiction, his unpublished fiction, and you realize it was unpublished for a reason.

SS: (Laughs)

WJC: Unreadable. I read his plays, he wrote drama as well, and ehhh, it was better than fiction, but it wasn’t anything you were rushing to see produced on Broadway.

SS: Now why is that, do you think? Is it because the political message came across as clunkier in fiction? I feel like that’s hard to do.

WJC: It takes a lot of discipline to learn different styles. It’s just like tennis where some people are better on clay and some people are better on a court. Asphalt. Is it asphalt?

SS: I don’t watch tennis.

WJC: Or, the better example, there’s some people in baseball who are better at hitting left-handers. It just winds up being, one, what you have a natural inclination for and two, what you work at to cultivate a grasp of.

SS: You mentioned this a bit, I’m an English/political science, but like I do this journalism thing –

WJC: Grass! Clay and grass. Alright. Don’t know what’s wrong with me this afternoon.

SS: I was wondering, did you ever have a feeling that you had to choose in your writing, I know you had a feeling you had to choose between history and English, but did you ever have to choose between journalistic and creative? Because it seems that you’ve been able to combine the two.

WJC: I never did. One of the things is that, I was influenced by a lot of poets, and I saw that the people who were combining poetry and prose, like taking the elements of a line that you might not know offhand if it was a poetic line or a prose line. More than anything else, I think poetry can teach the prose writers that you should have a sense of rhythm. A sentence should have a kind of bounce, or meter, the way that poetry does. When I’m clicking, when I have it together, I can actually do that. I’ll have a short line then a longer line and I’m kind of playing with those things. That may not happen when I’m on a deadline, I’m just trying to get coherence, but I’ve never seen those two things as being in conflict. I think it’s also unfortunate that we don’t teach journalists that. We teach them to get the facts straight, that’s important, but there also is an artistic part of journalism.

SS: It’s a story.

WJC: Yeah, it’s a story. Crafting it, and the structure that you put a story into, dictates how a story flows.

SS: I’m just gonna move to hip-hop. I loved your whole difference between an emcee and a rapper thing. How similar is that to – you mentioned in the intro to Dave Chappelle – that there are these plastic prophets and genius visionaries. Is that the same thing as a rapper and an emcee.

WJC: Kind of. Although I think that distinction has broken down more. I think there are fewer emcees, and rappers are just generically what we see now, for the most part. I think at one point it was easier to make that clean distinction.

SS: Early 2000s?

WJC: Yeah, but now what would you say a Kanye West is? He’s himself. He’s a lot of things. Drake you could say, ‘Oh, Drake is a rapper,’ but he completely annihilated Meek Mill, which is something an emcee would have done.

SS: But, did he write it?

WJC: Oh you know, that’s neither here nor there.

SS: I thought that emcees were supposed to write original material.

WJC: Right, but I say that’s neither here nor there because you’re never gonna know that.

SS: True.

WJC: Then there are people like Jay-Z, who’s super-commercial, but writes all his rhymes in his head, he doesn’t use pen and paper. I think the distinction’s broken down a little bit, it’s not as clean as I once thought that it was.

SS: You did talk a little about rhythm and meter and how that affects your writing. I wanted to know if you think that modern day hip-hop has the same political clout that the genre used to have. Do you think that it’s still something that can shape culture?

WJC: It shapes culture. It is political in particular ways, it may not be self-consciously political in the same way that, I think that people set out to make political statements, and now they wind up making political statements by default. Hip-hop’s sexism is political. Its misogyny has political implications, it’s just that people don’t think of that as political. You have voices, you have people that critique, but by and large, hip-hop is part of the establishment. It’s an industry, it kind of has standard-bearers, it’s part of advertising. At one point it was kind of hip and novel to see someone who was using hip-hop in advertisement. Now? Ehhh. They had a ‘Hotline Bling’ commercial in the Super Bowl and nobody really noticed. You have rappers – I saw this thing about Drake, that he performed at a bar mitzvah for 250,000 dollars – hip-hop is accepted in these kinds of ways. I think one of the things that its lost along the way is this insurgent idea of being the voice of people who were outside the establishment, or people who were outside the comfortable parameters of American discussion. We’re gonna talk about things that nobody wants to talk about. Not as much anymore.

SS: You compared yourself to Chuck D in the beginning of The Devil and Dave Chappelle. I was wondering if that is who you would still compare yourself to as a writer, if you were to compare yourself to a rapper, or an emcee.

WJC: No, it wouldn’t be, but I don’t think that I would compare myself to a rapper anymore. When I first started writing, Chuck D, you’d listen to how he’d approach a record. The second he got on a record, you knew, even the opening lines, you could just have this list of his opening lines, with ‘Welcome to the Terrordome,’ like ‘I got so much trouble on my mind.’ Boom. He’s gonna go from there. I wanted to jump into an essay in that same way, announce myself, and say like ‘These are my sixteen bars,’ which was good for a particular voice at a particular time. I still have the Chuck D voice in my head.

SS: When you need it.

WJC: When I need it. Sometimes you have the Miles Davis voice, when you need that, or you might say I want the Aretha Franklin voice.

SS: I love that voice.

WJC: Yeah, exactly. You’re going for those voices and you have different things, like if you’re writing about Birmingham and what it meant for my family to leave, I can’t use the Chuck D voice for that, but you can use it for different things. I think it goes back to the toolkit, where the old saying – if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. If you have a hammer and a wrench and a screwdriver, and pliers, and all these other things, then you can actually do more complicated and nuanced things. Every so often I’ll be like ‘I need the ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ voice.’

SS: That’s cool. You mentioned the toolkit, your expertise in history I think adds this element to your writing that I don’t usually see in essays in general. How important a tool is history in getting to the truth of modern day events in your writing?

WJC: Indispensable. It’s indispensable, to me. It’s the only way that I know how to understand the world. It was a revelation for me when I was 18 and I started taking my history classes and things started clicking, like pieces started coming together. There are other things that do that, like some people’s literature will do that, and some people find it through religion, but for me it was history. I was like ‘If I think in this way, the world will make sense to me.’ We tend to be an ahistorical society. One, we’re a young country, but also, if we talk about fifty years ago, it’s like ancient history, where some societies you’ll be talking about things that happened in the last millennium, and you have this long sense of who these people are, what there purpose was, like in the Islamic tradition, very often people will be thinking about standard-bearers in the faith that died five or six hundred years ago, and what their impact was. The West? We don’t really think like that.

SS: Why do you think that is?

WJC: One, because America was designed to get away from history. The people who founded this country were trying to make a break with the past. It also became a place where you were not supposed to be trapped in lineage, where Europe was, with ancestry and barons and title-holders and wars and decries and all these things that had kind of created the state of affairs that made people want to leave in the first place. People like that, we kind of worship the idea of novelty here, and the idea of starting anew. We think of ourselves as exceptional, in that regard. What gets lost in that is the capacity to understand yourself in the long term, to see the tragic repetition of things, to see triumphs that people have wrung out of difficult circumstances previously, I don’t think we think about the past very much here.

SS: Is that clearer in any way than that whole, you wrote about that ‘Just get over it, way of thinking, when it comes to bringing up reparations for example.

WJC: Oh, absolutely. I mean there are a few things at play there. For instance, we have this thing called Black History Month, right, which every February someone writes an op-ed saying we should get rid of it, but it’s also the biggest organized confrontation that we have with American history, period. We don’t engage with World War II in a structured fashion, we don’t engage with labor history in a structured fashion. Maybe the History Channel does a whole lot of stuff on World War II, but only a small sliver of the population watches that channel. So people don’t know that February was originally American History Month. The Daughters of the American Revolution declared that February was going to be American History Month, I think in the 1940s, and it went nowhere. People just started ignoring it after awhile. In 1976, this group said that we’re going to make Black History Month in February, and it took off. It became this tremendous thing. To the extent that anywhere on the calendar year, Americans actually grapple with any element of our history in a concentrated, concerted fashion, it’s usually February. Part of the ‘Get over it’ idea, when people say that, it’s that we don’t really know what you’re asking people to get over, we don’t understand that. We’re not even just talking about slavery. We’re talking about the kind of things that are a generation back, like my parents were in Jim Crow and everything that came with being in Jim Crow. So it wasn’t simply that we’re denying you social access to white people, it’s more like we’re denying you tangible, material resources and education and employment.

SS: A slice.

WJC: Right. A slice. We’re denying you a part of this equation, this pie. And to say ‘Just get over it,’ is almost like saying, ‘Okay, I’ve pushed a boulder down a hill and then walked away from it, and because I’ve walked away from it, that boulder is no longer rolling down the hill.’ We’ve just kind of broken with the past. Yeah, that becomes frustrating in lots of ways, and if I wanted to extrapolate beyond that, I’d say yesterday there was a shelter, an immigrant shelter in Germany, that was set on fire. We’ve seen this upsurge of nativist resentment in France, and we’ve seen extremely Anti-Muslim rhetoric in this presidential election. At the same time, we’re looking around and saying ‘Does this not remind us of the way the early 20th century, people associated Jews with Communism, with Bolshevism.’ Internationally people were looking at the Jews and saying ‘They’re all Bolsheviks’ in the same way that people are looking at Muslims and saying ‘They’re all terrorists.’ The ugliest parts of our present have analogues in the past, and we refuse to see that.

SS: I couldn’t agree more. Why are people acting like police just started murdering black people?

WJC: Right. Evidence. I was talking to a police officer over the weekend, a retired police officer about this, and he was like ‘Yeah, these things happened all the time, and I did it too.’ It’s a guy that was a cop in the 70s and 80s, retired in the 90s and he was like ‘Yeah, you know, this sort of thing happened and we – it was just what you did.’ Now of course people have video. He, of course, said he only did it to – like he arrested a child molester once who abused this child horribly and he was like ‘I’m gonna kick this guy’s ass before I put handcuffs on him,’ or another guy that had given heroine to an eleven-year-old, so, I mean people who you would, on the far end of the spectrum of human darkness. At the end of the day, it’s still like, that kind of behavior facilitates lots of other violence. What’s different is the indisputability of video. Richard Pryor had a routine about it in the 70s. He was talking about how black people wind up being brutalized and white people were like ‘Oh, stop resisting arrest.’

SS: Still said.

WJC: Still said. And it’s almost like the common marker of our humanity, like can you see yourself in someone else’s shoes, and can you believe that someone’s behavior, even if it seems to be irrational to you, might have some underlying logic. If you lived in this person’s circumstances, would this action make more sense to you? I think it’s that humility that allows people to really grapple with each other’s humanity. I’ll say this: Stanley Crouch, who is a writer that had a great deal of influence on me, said that the purpose of art was to get us beyond our xenophobic inclinations, that we look at someone and we don’t relate to them whatsoever. When you have a novel, or a film, or a painting, or a poem, or whatever it is, it allows us to grapple with this person’s humanity by proxy. He felt like art was the great civilizing force between us. You could also cite it in religion. In Judaism and Christianity and Islam, there are all these references to how you treat strangers, like you’re supposed to treat strangers with kindness, and you’re supposed to extend yourself, and that’s because deep down we have a dark, nativist, suspicious kind of nature –

SS: That we have to say something like that.

WJC: Right. That we have to push ourselves beyond. If there’s been any one thing that I’ve tried to do in writing, it’s been trying to present a brief for the humanity of people whose humanity has been often overlooked.

Sten Spinella is a junior English & political science major at the University of Connecticut. He is Interviews editor of the Long River Review.

An Interview with Carl Phillips, Poet and Professor

I only had 30 minutes to speak to poet Carl Phillips, which was just enough time to access his worldview, yet a woefully insufficient amount of time to truly get at the thickness of his poetry. It was by far the friendliest interview I have ever conducted. Phillips was flexible with his schedule and would make a joke in the same breath as a philosophical aside. I reserved us an awkward space near the lobby of the Nathan Hale Inn on the University of Connecticut campus where we sat across from each other in armchairs looking over a small table. People continually passed by, but we were relatively alone.

With an impressive catalogue of 12 books of poetry and two books of criticism, as well as being a professor and winning countless awards, Phillips seemed almost as honored to be interviewed as I was honored to interview him. Phillips wore a blue button-down shirt and had a neat crop of facial hair. I couldn’t help imagining him as a quality professor, for he made my questions seem smart when I thought them vague, and he always doubted the adequacy of his answers, as if he wasn’t giving me enough to go on.

Phillips is about as established as an American poet can be, but his manner seemed unchanged by the fact that the Long River Review was interviewing him, not the Kenyon. When we had wrapped up, he thanked and complimented me before being rushed away to speak to a group of high school students an hour removed from UConn.

Sten Spinella: Going through your biography, you’re impeccably educated, as both a teacher and a student. I was wondering, can you contrast how your poetry has been influenced due to your teaching versus you being taught?

Carl Phillips: In terms of being taught, I’ve studied Greek and Latin, so I feel like that’s had a lot to do with what I write about, because I was interested in Greek tragedy, and in the Greek tragedies, people get in a lot of trouble for being innocent. They’re sort of randomly caught in a bind, with the Gods, usually. I was interested in this idea of how come just by being who you are you can suddenly be cursed, or damned. I feel like I’ve been writing about that intersection between how we behave and how we’re told we’re supposed to behave, and how they don’t always connect. Also, I think the way I write sentences is kind of connected with how Greek and Latin work. They’re kind of flipped aroundverbs are at the end and things like that. Is this too…It sounds boring as I’m saying it.

SS: Not at all!

CP: But teaching, I think, has taught me more as a writer, partly because, first I was a high school teacher for a long time, teaching high school Latin, where you really have to know grammar. You can’t just go in and tell students ‘This is a verb’ because they don’t know what a verb is. So I find that teaching has made me really understand things I took for granted so that I could explain them to other people. Poems are, in a sense, doing that; trying to explain something to an audience, but now that I teach in college, what I learn most from the students is things they bring up I’ve never heard about, like things they’re reading that I wouldn’t think to read, or else we’ll read something I’ve read many times like Homer’s Iliad, and some student will have a totally new idea I’ve never had after all these years. I actually think that’s the best kind of teaching; when you’re learning too and not just some big rock of wisdom, beaming wisdom to people. Plus, it makes it exciting. It would be boring if you knew everything. It seems like it’s symbiotic, kind of feeding off the students and vice versa.

SS: Continuing on education, obviously you did go to school for creative writing at a certain point, and you are a creative writing professor. There’s of course this school of thought that writing can’t be taught. Where do you stand on that?

CP: I believe you can’t. The way I always put it is you can teach technique, but you can’t teach vision. You can teach someone the rules of a sonnet and they can write a fourteen-line poem and it can rhyme a certain way, but there’s a reason why Shakespeare is Shakespeare – just because that’s who he was. Or like Emily Dickinson, in a way, was very messed up, weird, but that is what makes her poetry, her poetry. There’s reasons to go to a writing program, you can learn and read a lot of other poems, and learn styles of other people, but it’s hard to tell whether someone will go on to be a poet who has a unique way of seeing the world that people want to hear about. It’s hard to explain that to students because it’s almost like saying ‘Well, it’s just a magical gift. You either have it or you don’t.’ I secretly kind of believe that.

SS: You don’t tell your students that, though?

CP: Well, it seems like they want to believe if you work hard enough, and I’m sure that’s true in some cases, but for the most part it feels like someone has to have some weird…

SS: Story?

CP: Yeah, some strange angle on the world. Most poets are pretty much a mess in some way once you dig deep enough. I think that’s where their weird way of seeing the world comes out on the page. That’s a long sentence, cut it off whenever. That’s what I always  tell my students: ‘Just stop me.’

SS: This is going to sound weird, but, when I was reading your poetry, my favorite color is blue

CP: Good choice.

SS: I noticed there were a lot of references to the color. Of course there’s the poem “Blue” and I noticed it in “Cortege” and “Hymn” that you alluded to the color blue. Does the color have some sort of significance in your writing?

CP: I never thought it did, but, I too have noticed it comes up, and maybe I’m just redundant, but in some ways, in that poem “Blue” it’s like it stands for some kind of space in-between where we can never quite get to, of who we actually are, and I feel like if I think about the color, it’s some kind of abstract thing that we’re aiming towards. To me, being alive is an ongoing wrestling to figure out who we are, and it’s always changing. You never can say, ‘Oh, I got the answer now to who I am, and what love is, and what life is.’ It’s always like this wrestling, but it’s towards this space of blue that would be perfection. But, if we really reached it, there’d be no point in living, so, that’s my latest theory of it. It’s like some ideal that we’re always striving toward even though we can never make it, like a calculus curve, from what I remember of calculus.

SS: On a personal note, just from people’s accounts of you, especially at the event last night

CP: Oh, are they talking already?

SS: (laughs)

CP: I read the article. I mean first of all I appreciate that they did it. One of the things I’m always bothered by about myself is that I want to seem personable, and also, in my nervousness, I say things that I guess are, they do come across as sort of funny, that’s fine, but then I don’t want to seem like I’m not a serious poet, but I don’t want to seem like a pompous

SS: You’re not allowed to have a sense of humor then?

CP: Right, but I hate going to these poetry readings where they just go up like they’re a priest or something, and they just read, and I just feel like a lowly nothing. So, I like it to be more human. But then, when I read the article, I thought like ‘Oh, it just sounds like I spent the evening saying ‘Gee, I’m stupid.’ I know that’s not what the intention waspeople like that at the same time. But you were going to ask something based on accounts.

SS: Who am I to know, really, but it seems that there’s this idea that you’re humble.

CP: If it comes across that way, that’s good.

SS: At this point in your career, how can you still be humble?

CP: I think because I’ve never expected anything to happen. I wasn’t raised to think that I wasI don’t think I was ever told ‘You don’t deserve anything’I just wasn’t privileged. It seems like I was on paper, like going to Harvard and all that. They don’t mention I went to Harvard on a scholarship where I cleaned toilets and dormitories for the first three years, and that really has a way of, if you want to get all cocky about ‘Oh, I’m a Harvard student,’ but then you’re carrying a bucket and a mop across Harvard Yard each day. I was raised very working class, my father was in the Air Force, we moved around, so I’m always sort of grateful. I can’t believe this is happening. It’s kind of weird because I know people get sick of how Taylor Swift acts shocked every time she wins something: get over it girl, you win everything. Or Sally Field when she wins the Oscar and says ‘You guys really like me, I can’t believe it,’ it’s like she’s not acting like a dignified actress. But I feel that way. Like last night I thought, ‘People are actually here.’ I don’t know why I think there should only be three people. Then this woman gives this introduction that’s so smart and everything. To me, I don’t feel like that person. I feel like I just write, but I don’t have any thoughts, or ideas. It could be humbleness, maybe it’s a lack of self-esteem, but maybe that’s healthy sometimes. A lot of times, especially poets beginning out these days, they sometimes seem like, ‘Wow, I’ve got a first book, I’m a superstar.’ That’s hard to call. Even when you have 10 books, it could all end. It’s safer to be grateful, and it’s a privilege for people to come and want to listen to poetry. There are lots of other things you could do that are probably more fun. I host a lot of poetry readings at my school, and after someone is introduced they’ll get up there and they never even say thank you. You shouldn’t take that for granted, anymore than if someone had invited you to dinner – you don’t just eat and leave.

SS: Do you think that when you write you shed that humbleness and lack of self-esteem? Do you have to have a sort of arrogance to write?

CP: I’m glad you used that word, because I tell my students a lot that a writing career involves a combination of arrogance and humility. You do have to have some belief that you have something new to say and people should hear it, but you can’t just think ‘I wrote something, I’m great.’ You have to have enough humility so that if you get rejected or people don’t like the work, that you think ‘Well, I’m not perfect all the time.’ At the same time, if people reject you, you can’t think ‘Oh, I’m a loser, I’ll never write again.’ You just say ‘Well, screw them.’ It’s a mix, but that’s probably true about everything. There are parents who think they’re the perfect parents, and that’s a guaranteed way to screw up. But then if you’re just a slacker who never is doing anything and think, ‘I’ll never be a good parent so I may as well just be high all day,’ that probably isn’t the best model either, but I’m not a parent, so I don’t know.

SS: In reading your interviews, it seems like there’s this obligatory question about the lens of your identity, race, sexual orientation. What are your thoughts on this common question and how are, for example, white, straight writers treated differently in that way?

CP: I was just writing something about this. I feel as if people – well, there seems to be a movement right now, partly because of different events that have been happening like Black Lives Matter and Ferguson and those issues of police shootings. Everyone thinks the only kind of poem there’s room for is a certain kind of political poem. This article I’m writing, it’s about how it can be political just to be yourself in different ways. Not all of us are supposed to – well first of all, if you’re a black person, it doesn’t mean you have to speak about race at all. That kind of thinking doesn’t make room for straight, white writers and readers. Everyone has some political statement to make about who they are, and I think choosing to live how we live is a statement in a way. Some of the stuff that people are thinking is political, like race or sexual orientation, those are just parts of identity. I don’t go through the world each day and think, ‘Here I am shopping, I’m gay and I’m black.’

SS: That would be a huge burden.

CP: It would be! I’m also a shopper, a dog-walker, I’m all these things. It’s more like I don’t think about those things too much until something happens to make me aware of it. Some of those things go away, but they’re just parts of identity, and there are equally valid other parts. There was a straight, white male student at the University of Cincinnati recently who was asking me – he felt like he didn’t have the right to write poems now. I was thinking that we’re all supposed to be recording, in some way, what it’s like to be alive right now, and we need all the voices, because it all counts. In some ways I think it’s especially important to hear straight, white voices because now there’s been this tendency to think – there’s this whole thing of whiteness, which is just as bad as saying ‘This is what all black people are like.’ Poetry is a great way to understand who other people are and how they feel. I think the world includes everyone. People should be able to write the poems they want to write, and knowing what those experiences are informs my understanding of the world. I feel like that sounds very Pollyanna-ish, but I truly believe it. I understand a certain kind of guilt that straight, white men might be feeling, like they’re sort of under attack, but I feel like that doesn’t leave room for the fact that everyone’s an individual. The thing is too, when I get lumped into being black, one of my parents is black and one is white, so I don’t immediately think of white people as the enemy, nor do I think that they all think the same way. If anything, that makes it all the more important for them to keep writing so we can see there’s just as much diversity of voices.

SS: This has been an issue for a long timeI think back to the Harlem Renaissancedo you think that black writers are pigeonholed by political events, and who is doing that pigeonholing?

CP: In the Harlem Renaissance there were white expectations of how black writers should be, writers like Countee Cullen would write based on white models, like a Keats sonnet. Part of his agenda might have been to show that black writers were just as educated and skilled. At the same time, there are writers like Langston Hughes who were saying that black writers should be writing the way black people speak, so he would go into Harlem and try to record that kind of language. I find that even back then, and now too, there’s an expectation on both sides. I’ve often been told that I’m not correctly black. In this article I’m writing I mention that I’m not appropriately black if I’m not writing about black things. Why is it not a black thing to write about love, or sex, or desire? They seem to mean you’re not writing about a black identity experience that we all are supposed to relate to. If that includes a certain inner-city life or living in projects for example, or having been raised in certain ways, I didn’t have that experience, so it wouldn’t be authentic for me to write about it. It happens with gay writers too. You’ll have people who will say ‘You stopped being gay after your second book, because there’s no graphic, gay stuff.’ I didn’t stop being gay, maybe I just had other things to write about besides that.

SS: I want to get back to your writing. I’ve always really liked your titles.

CP: I like them, but sometimes I can’t explain them.

SS: I’m not asking you to necessarily explain them, I just think that they’re very lyrical and I’m wondering how you find your titles and how that relates to your writing process.

CP: The title is always the end, I never have a title until after I’ve written. The problem is – I’ve been traveling around for a couple weeks with this poem that has no title – and I feel it would be like if you had a child and you haven’t named it yet. It’s bad luck, you should name it. Sometimes they just come to me. Truly, I’ll just be walking my dog or something like that. Some line, I don’t even see how it works, but I’ll put it on there. I like titles that aren’t exactly what the poem is gonna be. Say the poem is about walking a dog, I don’t want the poem to be called “The Dog Walk.” A lot of people do that, but I think it’s boring, so I like something where you think ‘What? How does that title fit with the poem?’ I get a lot of titles from song lyrics. One night I was listening to some chorus where this women kept singing ‘Bow down to me,’ and suddenly I thought “Bow Down” is the name of this poem that’s striving for a title.

SS: So they really just come to you, it will just be a feeling.

CP: I know it sounds lame. It’s the hardest part for me.

SS: It is the hardest part of your writing?

CP: Yes. The poem, it seems like it just happens when it’s ready to happen. I always think ‘If it doesn’t have a title you don’t know what it’s about, Carl. If you don’t know what it’s about, what’s the point?’ I think that poems are supposed to surprise us. First we think ‘I don’t really know what this is about,’ and then over time you’re like ‘I see, I was wrestling with this or that.’ Not every poet works that way. Some people decide they’re gonna write a poem about doing a reading last night, and they’ll sit and write about that, but I can’t write toward an assignment like that. I was a bad student in that sense because someone says ‘Write about this’ and I don’t want to do it, so I write about something different.

SS: When I was researching you, which is weird, I was thinking about it while I was walking over, to look someone up on the Internet.

CP: It’s weird to me to think that I’m on the Internet.

SS: I wanted to know about how your skill in translating, criticism, and essay writing – do you compartmentalize those, or do you think that they’re conducive to poetry?

CP: I really hate writing essays. I’ve written two books of them, but mostly they were talks I gave, and then later I was able to turn them into an essay. I can’t do that thing where someone says ‘Write an essay about this.’ They’re not conducive to anything. What I found though is that how I write, I figured out a way to write essays how I write poems. My problem with essays is that I feel like I have to hold an idea and develop it and all that. I can’t do that, and I don’t like reading essays like that. But then I thought, ‘You could just leap from idea to idea like you do in a poem, and maybe the pieces will all start to come together like a kind of collage.’ So that’s often how my essays are now, like a little section and then an asterisk, a little thought here. After a while I think, ‘That makes sense,’ you know, they all came from the same mind. To me an essay becomes an invitation to think about this thing a little bit here and there. It’s like if an essay were a many-faceted diamond, and so each time you turn it, it catches the light in different angles. That would be, to me, a fun essay to read, where I’m invited to tumble through an idea. I feel like freshman comp ruins people. You have to do a thesis statement, and then the body, and then the summary.

SS: Now does that start in high school, or college?

CP: I guess it does start in high school. I hate those papers. I hated writing them. My students think it’s weird because I don’t assign papers. I don’t want to read them! You’re gonna turn in those essays that I hate.

SS: That’s great. That’s all I’ve got. Let me save this.

CP: What if you hadn’t been recording and you didn’t find out until now?

SS: Honestly, it’s a recurring nightmare.

Sten Spinella is a junior English & political science major at the University of Connecticut. He is Interviews editor of the Long River Review.

Make It A Big Deal: An Interview with Matvei Yankelevich

Matvei Yankelevich is the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Ugly Duckling Presse, which he started in the late 1990’s with a group of friends. He designs and edits books for UDP, curates the Eastern European Poets Series (since 2002), and co-edits 6×6 magazine (since 2000). He shares duties as UDP’s Co-Executive Director with Anna Moschovakis. His most recent publication of poetry is Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt (Black Square). His writing has appeared in A Perimeter, ActionYes, BOMB MagazineBoston ReviewThe Brooklyn RailFence, and others. His translations of Daniil Kharms were collected in Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, and his translations have appeared in The New Yorker and other places. His co-translation of Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB) with Eugene Ostashevsky received the National Translation Award in 2014.

Matvei Yankelevich
Matvei Yankelevich reading his poetry in the Co-op Bookstore in Storrs Center at the University of Connecticut (Photo/Asiya Haouchine)

Carleton Whaley: So, a simple—well, I guess it’s a simple question, but it might not end up being one—Why did you start Ugly Duckling Presse?

Matvei Yankelevich: That’s a very good question. Sometimes I wonder the same thing. You know, I don’t know why. I was doing the zine, traveling with it, doing it in different places, collaborating with people, just doing this very small 8 or 16-page thing. I started to think about what kind of writing I liked, how it was hard to find, and what it felt like to present work to other people that they didn’t know about. New work, old work, whatever. I did a book of my own poems when I was in college, and put this Ugly Duckling Presse thing on it, and I didn’t know what it would be. I thought it would just be my own little Xerox thing. But then when I met friends in New York, you know: poets, a theater director, artists; we were all making little one of a kind books for each other, or collaborating on little things that weren’t really meant to be published. On the one hand they were fun, but we were talking a lot about what would it be like to produce more than one copy, or more than ten copies. And the form of the chapbook, which was then not much of a word that people knew, seemed the most accessible and the easiest to produce, so we were sometimes making little chapbook runs and just producing them for each other, and just putting Ugly Duckling Presse on them, even though we didn’t really have a publishing house then. And when we started getting serious about what kind of organization we could become, the name stuck. So when I first started doing something under this name, there was no vision at all. It was just sort of happenstance that it became something. It was mostly the accidental connection I had with other people. But why is a really good question, because I don’t think it was clear to us why, except that we wanted to put work out into the world that wasn’t getting attention. When we started the magazine there were people that I corresponded with that sent me stuff for the zine, and just by accident the zine got sent to other people that did zines, would get listed somewhere, sent back to me. So I would get stuff in the mail that said, “Hey, I heard you do this zine, do you want to publish these poems?” And then again, when we started 6×6 in 2000, I contacted some of those people, so there was some continuity there. Something about publishing work, making literature public, it was really energizing to all of us. To me in particular. I don’t know how to precisely explain that feeling, but I’m sure some of you guys probably have that bug, that “We’re gonna make this happen” bug. You feel like you’re doing something bigger than yourself, you’re participating in the world in a way that is meaningful, and you’re also in some ways drawing the outlines of how you think one should engage with the world.  For Ugly Duckling it was like we wanted to do things in a way that was different from the way literature was presented. We wanted to make it accessible. Which meant cheap, partly, but which also meant not daunting, because we were dealing with a lot of contemporary, experimental poetry, so we wanted people to say “I’ll pick this up, it’s five bucks.” You know, like, “I’ll take a chance.” The first issues were two dollars each, so we were actually running at a loss.  There was a lot of hand labor involved, especially early on with collating and all that, which we don’t for these [6×6], because we do the interiors where we get our books bound. But before we used to have to collate by hand, and before we had a big cutter we’d have to cut these ten at a time, and that’s a lot when you’re doing a thousand. There was something about that engagement, too: putting all this free labor into something that, in the end, was not profitable. Something about the absurdity of that was exciting, in that it suggests the kind of model or thinking around literature that didn’t put monetary value around it. It underscored the fat that literature wasn’t very well-funded here, and it’s also something that most people don’t engage with seriously, especially difficult or contemporary work, and especially poetry. Ask anyone on the street and they’ll say, “I love poetry,” but they’re not necessarily engaged with it in the same way that they are with the movies or with TV. It’s no longer a popular literature, and it’s probably ok to not be sad about it. But at the same time, we wanted it to be accessible, especially to younger people. We thought it would be good to have events for younger people where there was music and poetry, where poetry can remain complicated and experimental and contemporary, and doesn’t have to exist in a cloistered space, its own ivory tower or something. So that the experience of poetry can be like the experience of music: listening to a band that’s somewhat experimental is similar to listening to a poet. We wanted young people to be able to afford these things, so we had some chapbooks that were sold for 25 cents. They were really cool looking too. So yeah, I still have no idea. For me the real excitement around writing is sharing writing that you’re excited about with other people. That’s more interesting to me than just sitting alone at home and going “I love this book.” I want to be out and sharing that with other people. More recently, I think the why changes a lot over time. More and more, I think about—when I started the Eastern European Poets Series I really thought, how do people in the US think about what Eastern European poetry is? Why are the names always sort of the same? Wasn’t there other stuff going on? So I wanted to highlight people who weren’t big prize-winners, who weren’t up for the Nobel or anything. I wanted to bring a sense of the plurality of Eastern European poetry to the American reader. That worked to some degree, actually. A lot of it had to do with remapping history, showing that history wasn’t so black and white, or so uncomplicated. We’re doing a lot of Latin American poets right now, and a lot of Uruguayan poets that have never been published in English.

CW:  Yeah, I actually grabbed the copy of Sor Juana’s Enigmas last night from the pile of UDP books.

MY: Even though that particular Sor Juana work is well-known, we did that book because we wanted to pair it with a chapbook of this contemporary poet who’s kind of based on Sor Juana, or in dialogue with her, in kind of a fun way. So apart from a couple of things where the name is familiar, we’ve done a lot of stuff where the author or poet hasn’t been translated before. We’re trying to reimagine “What is Latin American poetry to us in the states?” It’s an important question. Is it just Octavio Paz, or Sor Juana? What is it and what kind of expressions have we overlooked?

CW: So, that was not a simple question then.


CW: So, can you think of some of the first hurdles you had to go over in starting—well, I guess the zine itself, since you mentioned you started that in college.

MY: There weren’t many hurdles for the zine. It’s sort of a very small version of what happens later, when you start to look for funding from the NEA. Like, we just needed to become a student club and get access to the photocopier. That was pretty much it, so once we did we had a couple hundred dollars, and we printed the magazine and did the whole student club thing. There was hardly any question of funding. So in a way there were many fewer hurdles doing a zine, and when I was traveling around, working in New York, I would just use the office photocopier. The only thing needed was time to do the collages, and hang out with a friend to go through the different submissions. So not many hurdles. It was a game, it was kinda fun. And UDP still has its fun moments, for sure, but the zine was definitely its own thing. Sometimes I would distribute it by hiding it in other journals, or the Village Voice, the college newspaper, the newspaper boxes on the street. You know where you can get a free newspaper? I would just stick them in, and they would just go out into the world. Someone would get it by surprise, and that surprise was always interesting. What happens when you find something like that? What is this doing in my Village Voice? And my college newspaper, what does it mean? I always thought that element of surprise, of mystery, was an important part of the experience of art, because it would take people out of their daily experience. To me it was interesting that you could do that in print, because it worked in multiples. Each book wasn’t a precious work of art, you could give it away, or tie it to a tree and see who found it. But the hurdles certainly happen quickly when you start to produce a thousand copies instead of a hundred. Then you’re like, “How do we distribute this?” So there was a lot of talking to bookstores, and silly little receipts written out by hand, figuring out how to consign different books in bookstores, talking to distributors and getting them to take you seriously. We had to get the Council of the Arts to take us seriously, like “We’re gonna do this Eastern European Poets Series, but all we have to show you right now is this flimsy little magazine.” But somehow, we managed to convince them and other people that we were serious. And it’s still a struggle to convince people, even last night, that guy who asked the question like, “These are just pamphlets, aren’t they cheap to produce?” and I’m just like, “You don’t actually understand anything about what it takes to edit and produce a book of poetry.” It was probably because that guy had not encountered these kind of books before, because they’re not in most bookstores, they’re not in the college bookstores, because those are usually a Barnes and Noble subsidiary, even though people teach our books, so they’ll sometimes be there, but it’s not something that people necessarily know. A small press book, and the history of small press books, isn’t everybody’s bread and butter. So it’s not surprising that that attitude exists out there. And it’s very hard to get people to understand that on one hand there’s letterpress on this cover, but that doesn’t mean we’re a boutique publisher. We actually have distribution, our books are all over North America, and some in Central and South America, Europe and Japan, they’re everywhere, but only in niche spaces where you have to look. It’s not going to be at the biggest book store in Buenos Aires. It’ll be at the little poetry book shop. So, the hurdles have to do with that way that people think that if it’s not Penguin or Random House, what is it? Can books look like this? We’ve always tried to play with that, to push those boundaries, to push against people’s expectations. If the content is going to be different, or announce itself somehow as being different from your mass-market book, then the look of it should tell you something about that difference. We like the idea that people will touch this, that it’s not about the screen, it’s not purely about information, it’s about experience.

CW: From your reading last night, you seemed like a jack-of-all-trades in the literary world. You do translation, you write poetry, you do critical work, you’re an editor, you teach—so basically, do you find that difficult to manage, or does it come naturally?

MY: It is difficult to manage, but it comes naturally to me to say yes to a lot of things. So I become over-obligated often, which is good and bad. At some point I’ll have to take a break, organize this mess that I’ve created for myself, and I don’t know when I’ll get to do that. It is kind of a mad life, but at the same time I’m really happy about it, in the sense that I get to follow all of these interests. I don’t like the idea of “I’m a novelist,” or “I’m a poet.” I don’t feel comfortable just staying in one place. But once you’re working in literature, I think it’s weird that—well, when you think about Kafka, or Dostoevsky who’s also writing very journalistic work as well as novels, and doing a lot of polemical work—literary production has never been that separated into disciplines. And I think that’s partly the university system. More and more in the US university system, instead of making things interdisciplinary, it’s about creating these separate disciplines. There are programs that are interdisciplinary, but they run into problems. It’s easier when you can define everything, when the university can say “this is that kind of thing.” Where I teach at Columbia for their MFA, and I understand their limited resources, if you’re a poet it’s very hard for you to get into a fiction workshop. And likewise if you’re a fiction writer it’s very hard to get into a poetry workshop, or nonfiction. So it’s like “Wait a minute, shouldn’t we as writers be familiar with all of these ways of working?” Some of my favorite novels are written by poets. The same goes for novelists who also have polemical work, or translation, which some of them have done either to supplement their income, because that is actually one of the ways that writers who may be doing work that’s not easily sellable can actually make somewhat of a living. In America it’s harder, but translating in other languages is a way to get published and get a job. My most visible publications are my translations, more so than my own work. And I don’t feel weird about that, because these were writers whom I admire, who were formative for me, who were historical. I know they already have a place in history, as writers, whereas my work, if people like it that’s great, but I’m not expecting it to be in history books or something. As far as criticism, it’s interesting to engage in all those different ways. I don’t really write book reviews anymore because I feel weird about it. I publish books, and I don’t want to review the books of other small presses. It just feels uncomfortable. I’ve been writing longer critical pieces about more general things in poetry, or sometimes about specific writers. Writing critical work is so hard, just trying to make everything clear, to clear you own head and clarify your writing so that you really believe in it. You’re no longer in the fictional world of poetry where you can write outrageous things and not really believe in it. All these different ways of interacting with the written word, with the literary world, seem so complementary to me, seem so tied up in one another that it would be hard for me to sort them out. Teaching, for me, is really great in that context. I get to talk to younger writers who are just starting, and I get a lot of energy from that. I feel really lucky, but it is a lot of juggling and a lot of different work all at the same time. Even the correspondence, which is luckily, or I guess not luckily, my email—it’s worse because it’s email and people can write back really fast. Correspondence is a really important part of the writer’s life, and of course the editing life. All of these things merge, and it’s hard for me to imagine just writing poetry.  Especially because it doesn’t pay.

CW: There is that. One last quick question—or not, I should stop saying that—anyway, do you have any advice for people looking to start their own zine or little magazine?

MY: Before I answer that, could you tell me a little bit more about that magazine you guys are doing?

CW: Oh. So, well, ours is—well, we’re on issue—well, here’s the most recent edition, actually.

MY: So a faculty member works with you guys, and this is kind of a longstanding journal, but the people who work on it change every year?

CW: Usually, but sometimes we’ll have the same professor for a few years. Ellen has done it before.

MY: Yeah, and she has experience with Salt.

CW: Yeah, she worked on Salt Hill at Syracuse. And Penelope Pelizzon did it for the last few years, and Sean Forbes is going to be leading it next year. So now they’re getting more into a rotating schedule.

MY: But the students change every year?

CW: Sometimes you’ll have individual students who get in earlier in their college careers and are there for a few years. But most of the time they tend to prefer juniors and seniors.

MY: How long have you been doing it?

CW: This is my first time.

MY: And you’re a junior? Senior?

CW: Senior, yeah.

MY: So first and last time.

CW: Yeah, and it’s been a great experience. I’m the Nonfiction Editor.

MY: Excellent. And can you tell me how much in the journal is actually student work?

CW: We only accept student work, actually. We accept graduate and undergraduate, and there’s really no preference between the two.

MY: This is beautiful! It’s crazy looking—really odd. I love it. So what is your role in the magazine now?

CW: Well, I’m the Creative Nonfiction Editor. I had to lead a panel, and we reviewed all the nonfiction submissions and, as expected, we had the fewest. I think by the end we went through about forty different pieces.

MY: That’s significant, for nonfiction.

CW: Yeah—it was exciting, just kind of managing everyone’s tastes, trying to figure out what an essay is supposed to do. I’m really lucky in that in my first class with Ellen, we went over creative nonfiction, and I got a really great exposure to it there. I actually got published in the last issue, so it’s kind of surreal to be working with the same magazine now. I was thinking about this the other day, because I had to send out the acceptance letters along with some rejection ones.

MY: Cool. So you work with the Design Center, and that’s here at the college?

CW: Yeah. I think it’s led right now by Edvin Yager, he’s their faculty member, but they do a lot of really great work.

MY: So your question is more along the terms of actually starting…something.

CW: Yeah, like—anything, really. Myself, I’m interested in starting a zine this summer, but we’ve talked a lot in class about online magazines, which seem to be getting more prevalent.

MY: So in the class are you talking about doing something different from the LRR?

CW: No, the class hasn’t been talking about it, this is more a question for anyone, really. We’ve been looking at online things because Ellen’s trying to get us exposed to the whole world of little magazines, which is daunting. And I’m trying to figure out what I want to do in there, and I’m sure the more people start to learn about these things—well, they get that bug, like you were saying.

MY: Yeah. Well, it was really helpful for me, when I started the zine, to think about how I would distribute it. It was sort of a funky zine—like a really wacky look, it was never the same and it was really messy, which I think was was exactly what it needed to be. So, giving it to people that I didn’t know, I kinda had to think “Oh, that person seems like they might not be offended if I give it to them.” You know, when handing it out to people, we made an event out of it. My friend who helped work on it would yell stuff, like “Get your free copy!” We’d make a bigger deal out of it than it was, and often I think that’s what makes history. People are always making a bigger deal out of things, like, “me and my friends are doing this thing” and as long as you’re really loud about it, it sounds like it’s important. And if you read someone talking about the Dada group, the people in it are always arguing about who started it first, or who thought of it first, all these avant-garde groups, and then you realize that they’re all just hyping themselves up. And in a sense, that’s what makes them important in history. They constantly publicized themselves as being important. It’s kind of silly, but it does work. In these different fields like teaching, I end up teaching some of our books. And they like it, it’s not like I’m pushing stuff that doesn’t have to do with the content of the course, it’s not like it has no bearing and I’m just like, “You’re assigned to read this UDP book.” So I think all the ways that I’m trying to get this work out into the world, that nexus, is really important. It’s similar to starting a zine, you need to talk about it to people, tell them you’re doing this new thing, ask them if they want to trade. When we started the zine, and later when we started 6×6, we started to trade a lot with other magazines. We’d say, “Hey, we’ll give you a subscription if you give us a subscription.” So we also got to see what was coming out in these other magazines. And then going to fairs and conventions, we’d do a lot of trading with other publishers, who might not have the money to buy your stuff. That’s a really great way to get things going. As far as starting something, Cid Corman, who ran a magazine from the sixties through the eighties, who was really important for American poetry, said something like “your magazine is only as good as its submissions.” So widening that, through correspondence, makes for a much greater pool of writers. And once you start corresponding with people, or trading with other magazines, you’re actually finding an aesthetic unity that shares some ideas. And you’re more likely to get submissions that you like that way, from people that you correspond with, or who are fans of those people, or who you might be trading things with. So yeah, I think when you’re starting a new thing, it’s really important to identify what it is, both visually and content wise, that you want people to know about it. In our case, we actually withheld things. These covers don’t say 6×6 on them, and we didn’t include contributor bios. And at first that seemed like a hurdle, you’re like “who are these people, why am I reading it,” but the real point is that it doesn’t matter who these people are, or why you’re reading it. We’re not coercing you into it. Maybe you looked at the work and you liked it, and that’s why you’re reading it. We’re not going to tell you who the contributors are, where they got an MFA or whatever, we’re not going to explain why they’re together in the journal. We’re not even going to tell you the name of the journal until you open the front cover. And I think, for us, that kind of engaged different ideas about how you could engage someone in a book. Because it has some kind of mystery, or this strange shape, or the strange binding, to us that felt like it was fun to do, just wacky, but more importantly it was a way to say “there’s something different here.” And the cheap price is a way for you to take a chance and not regret it. That posed, again, certain problems. We can’t distribute it through a normal distributor the way you could a perfect-bound magazine with a durable cover, a normal binding, a spine that tells you what the magazine is. Things like that are really important, actually, when you get into the commerce of it. So we had to think about the integrity of it, we had to ask, what is it that we want to do? Do we want to make a magazine that is very prestigious? Do we want a magazine that is very work-focused? Part of the reason we did this is so that each author would get more space. Six pages, instead of two or three, and that someone would get a sense of their work. Also this gives them visual space. A blank page before each section might seem like a waste of space, but each author felt really good about that, like “Whoa, that’s my section. I’m a writer, and that’s my space.” There’s also the idea that you could read the whole thing in a subway ride, it doesn’t take long. We were working against the intimidation factor of a big journal, where there’s a hundred names and you don’t know who to read. I found it that way, at least, especially in contemporary American poetry. I found it daunting, I couldn’t make heads or tails of a journal with hundreds of submissions. How do I read it? Do I go straight through, or pick people based on their bio? Anyway, all those minute decisions are really important. Some magazines start out right away and they get somebody famous to be on the cover. That’s one way to get readership. Think of ways to change the rhythm of how a magazine works, rather than just turning pages. How are they different form each other? Where does the art go, is it integrated or kept to its own sections? There are so many decisions to make, and they all seem to me to come back to what the mission of the work is. If one is to start something like a solo zine, there’s that question of whether you just want to do all the writing yourself. Some people do that and are really successful at it. When you think about the beginnings of the graphic novel, even, like the one, what’s her name, the funeral home? Fun Home?

CW: Allison Bechdel.

MY: Right. That kind of thing starts with a zine, often, with the artist writing and drawing about their personal life. And that’s a really interesting form, and sometimes people subscribe just because they’re interested in that one person’s views on things, critical or autobiographical. I’ve found that the easiest way, and one of the most productive, was just to ask people that I was friends with first, and just work with stuff from them, or someone I knew well enough that I could say “Hey, you’re interesting, write something for this journal, or send me a drawing,” or whatever. Just people I liked, and that way everyone was happy. I would give them copies, and nobody felt weird about it, because I didn’t have to reject anyone. We were just like “Oh, let’s cram this poem in somehow.” It started with just asking people to give us work, and then we tried to do something interesting with the way it was presented, so that they were kind of involved. They could tell people, “oh yeah, my poem was in this cool, kinda wacky thing, check it out.” They’d give it to people, and that proliferates. It’s hard to say what the first thing to do is, but it’s some combination of that kind of thinking around what the object is going to be, how it’s going to stand out, or if it needs to stand out. Sometimes the better decision is to not make it stand out. It depends on the kind of avenue you want to take, what kind of ethos you want to project to the reader, and then where are they going to encounter it. But asking people you know is a really nice way to get started, and then having events and bringing people in, and then people that those people know come to hear about the journal or zine, and then you meet the friends of friends, and those people are your readership, and once you publish them, then their friends are your readership, and then it just grows organically from there.

CW: So, a steady world domination.

MY: Until you’ve covered the whole world through this pyramid scheme.

Carleton Whaley is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut, and has the privilege of working with the Long River Review as Creative Nonfiction Editor