An Interview with Dan Darling

Joe Byrne, a graduate reader for BMR, sits down with Dan Darling, an alumnus of UNM’s MFA program and a former Production Editor at Blue Mesa Review. to discuss New Mexico, his process, and the challenges aspiring writers contend with as they navigate the literary world.

Book Cover of Archaeopteryx

BMR: Can you give us a little bit of background on yourself? In particular, what drew you to the vocation of the writer?

DD: I’m from New Mexico. I grew up reading and also spending a lot of time out in the New Mexico landscape, and I think that words and land oftentimes come together in a way that make us want to express ourselves, so I feel like the connection between the landscape and the weather and the sun and the clouds in New Mexico is much of what drove me to want to express the beauty I saw out there. Also, I did a lot of wandering. I went through high school—I spent a year in Sweden, I spent two years at an international school, and then took a year off to become a juggler, and then I went to college and got my English degree. And then I just sort of wandered around for a while; I managed some cafes, I worked as a bartender, I travelled to like 25 countries, and all that wandering really just—the whole time I was journaling and writing a lot and eventually I realized that this is how I make meaning of all these life experiences. So it came to me late in life; I don’t think I decided I wanted to be a writer until I was 28 or 30. But by that time it really hit me hard, and I think it’s because I had so many loose life experiences that I wanted to use writing as a way to make sense of everything.

BMR: Can you talk a little bit about your process, especially with regard to Archaeopteryx?

DD: Yeah, well, that’s a great question. One time I was helping a friend work on something for her dissertation, and I wrote up a little piece of paper for her, a little few hundred words, and she was like, “Dan, you’re a real drafter, aren’t you?” implying that my first draft was terrible (laughs). I wrote my dissertation for my MFA at the University of New Mexico, it was a novel…a western heist narrative, and at the end of it I thought it was sort of stupid (laughs). But I really liked the characters that I’d come up with. So that story sort of forged the characters that I thought had depth and richness, and I thought, “Ok, now that I know these people, I know what story I actually want to tell.” You know, I rewrote every word of the dissertation to come to the first novel, Archaeopteryx, and I think it was because it took me that long to get to know the characters and once I did I realized I wanted to tell a very different story. So, in terms of my process, it’s very revision heavy.

BMR: I wanted to talk a little bit about representation, representation being a topical and important issue, not only in literature but across fictive media. Considering that the protagonist of your novel comes from a different ethnic and cultural background than you do, what are your thoughts on the issue of representation? Are there ethical concerns that fiction writers should grapple with if they choose to write from the POV of characters of other ethnicities or cultural backgrounds?

DD: Yes (laughs). Yes, yes, yes. I think that, you know, you could talk to smarter people than me about this issue, but at the time, when I started writing about John Stick, who is half-Chicano, half-Caucasian—I’m a person who really believes in equity across racial and cultural boundaries, and so I’ve always been drawn to the plight of non-Caucasian people in our country, especially in a colonized and recolonized land like New Mexico. So, when I came up with Stick’s identity, I was sort of, like, wanting to chase after this hybridity that is bred in the borderlands, and…even though I myself am Caucasian, I oftentimes feel, as a person, you know, sort of drawn to different polarities. So, I sort of wrote him—I’m not sure if I should have? I don’t think I will ever try to write a person of another ethnicity again, just because there’s a lot more resistance to that now, I think, rightly so. It’s a form of appropriation, no matter how good your intentions are or how well-informed you are, and we can have arguments about Tony Hillerman all day long if we want to (laughs). But these days, I think we need to err on the side of caution, so I wouldn’t go that route again, even though I really want to imagine myself in the world of another person, especially another person very different from me. I just don’t think in today’s literary landscape that’s a responsible move.

BMR: Going back to the idea of Albuquerque and its influence on you as a writer: you grew up here and have said that you’re “obsessed with the desert” and its “sacred, dry places.” In your mind, what role does setting play in fiction, kind of generally speaking, and more specifically, what role does it play in the literature of New Mexico?

DD: I think setting informs everything about a work of fiction, because people are born in a place and that place transforms them or grows them into who they are, and so John Stick would not be the person he is unless he lives in Albuquerque, and I wouldn’t be the person I am unless I was born in Albuquerque, so in a way, the realization of the setting is like the soil for everything else to grow out of: the conflicts, the characters, the themes, the language. I think it’s where you start, whether you really realize it or not, but I think some of the greatest fiction is really grown from the earth, from the setting itself.

BMR: Could you maybe give some advice to aspiring writers, especially in terms of getting their work out there—“marketing” and “branding”—terms I hesitate to use, but which are probably germane to that discussion? Should you find an agent, or self-publish? What are your thoughts on that?

DD: You know, it’s becoming much more and more incumbent on a writer to have a brand, to be a self-promoter and to be a networker, and to have all those skills. I think in many ways, those skills are as valuable as your writing chops. So, I think that developing those, and implementing those, is key. I…published my first book a few years ago, and since then, my publisher went under pretty quick…it wasn’t ’cause of me! (laughs) They were on their way out. I didn’t know that when I signed up with them. When I signed up with them, I thought they were awesome; all the authors there were happy, and then as soon as I signed the contract, things started going downhill. Any-ways…I’ve been looking for a new publisher since then, and if you’re going to go for one of these, you know, big house publishers, they expect you to do a lot, and to really have your own sort of machine of social media, and branding and marketing and networking, and it really helps to do that. It helps to make contacts in New York and other places where you can start getting to know agents and stuff…having those skills is awesomely helpful. I would say, as far as self-publishing versus getting traditionally published, and this might be in flux, but [in terms of] self-publishing…you’re going to spend a lot of money, and very few people are going to actually read the book. And so I think that, unless you have a super large following of people who are going to read your book, because they know you—like if you’re a YouTube star or something—then you want to get that link with a publishing house, because they can get it out there. You know, when my book came out, it was through an indy press called Curiosity Quills, which is now defunct, essentially, but at the time, they had a good marketing team, but it sort of disintegrated, and so we were left to do a lot of the marketing on our own, which involved trying to get books into bookstores, etc. And we worked really hard on that and got my book into a handful of bookstores, and it took a ton of work, and it wasn’t, in the end, commercially worth it, financially worth it. You know, it’s a tough world out there for writers. There’s tons of competition now—everybody has a book—so I think going the traditional route is preferable because you get more help, and they have these fingers out into all these bookstores and different avenues to sell your stuff.

BMR: Similarly, what advice could you give on processing or coping with rejection letters and negative reviews and all that sort of stuff that you have to contend with?

DD: This goes back to—[your] question about agents—probably, if you’re a fiction writer, you write a novel and you want to get it out there, you’ll need an agent, a literary agent, because most presses don’t take unsolicited manuscripts. So you want to get a literary agent. Part of soliciting an agent is sending out tons and tons and tons of queries—these letters where you’re like “Please be my agent, here’s why my story is great, here’s why I’m special.” It’s so time consuming, and so morally degrading, but—yeah, you’re going to have to get used to rejection. I feel like, as a writer, you shouldn’t even think of it as rejection, you know? You’re sending a bunch of short stories out there to literary magazines, for example. That’s what we should all be doing in graduate school and beyond, if we write short stories, is just try to get them out there to literary magazines, because you’re going to get picked up and published, there’s no doubt about it. But when you get a “rejection,” you shouldn’t even see it as a rejection. You should think of it as, like, they preferred something else for the moment. It’s not like they’re telling you “You’re no good”; they’re saying, “Oh, we picked something else for now.” And we just have to get used to that…That’s nothing about your story, that’s about [them]. And that’s how we have to view it when we’re sending queries out to agents or short stories to literary magazines. It’s not about our story or our novel, or ourselves, it’s about them, and they might just not prefer what we’re doing.

BMR: What to you are the most crucial elements of good writing?

DD: As a reader, I want interesting language, and interesting, grabbing visuals and images, right away in story, and I also want immediate— a sense of dramatic conflict that’s going to pry open this chasm that forces itself through us the way of the story or novel. So that’s what I look for. I’m one of those people who, when I walk through a book store, and I pick a book off the shelf and I read the first sentence, and if the first sentence sucks, I won’t read the book. (laughs) If it’s awesome, then I’m likely to read the book. I think, though, I think about my students and what they’re interested in, and a lot of my colleagues are very critical of this word, but it’s a word that I hear from my students over and over: that the book is relatable, or that the story is relatable. They want to feel like they can see themselves in this character’s thoughts and plight and problems and joys, and so I think if we’re talking about appealing to young readers, then we want to think about the idea of relatability.

Darling’s debut novel, Archaeopteryx, was published by Curiosity Quills press in 2017. Blending magical realism with noir, it tells the tale of John Stick, a zookeeper at the Albuquerque Biopark, who finds himself at the center of a plot involving chupacabras, a racist militia, and his own identity as an outcast. 

To learn more about Dan and his work, visit him at dandarling.net

Joe Byrne is a first year MFA candidate in fiction at UNM. He holds degrees in English and Literature from the Universities of New Mexico and Colorado, respectively. As a reader and a writer, he tends to be drawn to material that deals with the American West and its beauty, history, and contradictions.

The Holidays We Make

Graduate reader, Vera Clyne, reflects on lesser celebrated holidays and taking her time. 

As the semester comes to an end and the holidays come into focus, we are all likely looking forward to a rest. Holiday traditionally means “a day of festivity or recreation when no work is done.” A special day. A day off. However, if you’ve ever hosted a holiday get-together, you’ll certainly be doing a lot of work! It takes a lot of energy to decorate, bake, clean, hunt down trees, make costumes, carve pumpkins, color eggs, cut out paper hearts, or otherwise perform nostalgic rituals. But I love the feeling of a special day, a time outside of time, a day that belongs to a seasonal calendar and not a daily planner.

Of the traditional holidays, I have a special love for Easter because it’s not celebrated on the same day every year. It falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. That’s some kind of magical sorcery! There are so many annual firsts – the first snow, the first swim in the river – that don’t happen on the same day every year and yet they mark the essential edges of our lives moving from one season to the next. More and more, I find myself looking forward to these cyclical events with great anticipation. They measure the movement of nature, the thrumming rhythm of life itself, and they keep a different sort of time. Most wonderfully, they are true holidays – they require no effort, there are no preparations. There is nothing to do but watch and wait. Here are a few of my personal favorites.

First Egg Day: Chickens don’t naturally lay eggs in the winter. As the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, they move into a natural rest cycle and abandon their nesting boxes. I clean out the ones in my front-yard coop and fill them with fresh straw and pine shavings, setting a few wooden eggs on the top. The chickens ignore them all winter, playing in the fluffy straw and generally making a mess of things. But one February day, I will open the lid of the nesting boxes and the straw will be swirled into a tidy little nest, wooden eggs bundled into the center. And soon after that, the first fresh egg will appear.

The Day the Leaves Fall: Mulberry trees are all over Albuquerque. There’s one in my front yard, several in my neighbors’ yards all up and down the street. Their large green leaves are shaped like hands, and they turn a bright, clear yellow in autumn. The trees are sensitive to the first hard frost – on that day all the leaves, whether yellow or still green, will fall. They don’t come down at night, no, they need the warmth of the morning sun and it’s going to take some time. One year I set up a tripod in the yard and filmed it – for several hours, single leaves fell in slow succession like rain, the morning light slanting through the golden leaves, glowing, translucent, an undulating blanket covering the ground. My cat never remembers, every year stretching a cautious paw into the pile, reluctant to step into the yard, forgetting that last year she was just as hesitant and that nothing bad happened.

And my personal favorite: The Day the Clocks Go Back. Daylight Savings Time didn’t used to bother me. I’d spend a day or two adjusting and go on with life. But I’m older now, and I resent clocks on principle. Shifting things by an hour is no longer an easy adjustment. The Spring Forward is anxiety-producing – I’m late! I’m always late! And I never seem to catch up. If I had my druthers, I’d live by this simple philosophy: Things take the time they take. My daily schedule would take its direction from the sun, the beings I live with, and the increasingly particular needs of my aging body. Bereft of this hour, I navigate the months in a spirit of resentful compliance until the Sunday after Halloween. When the collective consensus begrudgingly gives me back that stolen hour, it feels like a gift of time, a chance to catch my breath, a deep and calming sigh. I’m no longer late – there is still time. Time to finish eating, time to feed the cats, time to water the plants.

So, my wishes for you this holiday season are personal: may you and yours find great delight in the secret, cyclical moments that connect you with the ever-turning world. May you find your place.

Vera Clyne is in her second year of the UNM MFA program, and she is the current UNM Rudolfo Anaya fellow. She writes Creative Nonfiction and dabbles in poetry. Her recent work appears in Passengers Journal. She looks forward to spending a lot of time gardening, dancing, and taking long walks down by the river.

Five Novels about Writers Writing

Graduate reader, Gwyneth Henke takes us through five novels that have helped her when she’s struggling with writerly doubt.

Every now and then, when I’m feeling absolutely bleak about my writing (Is any of this remotely good? Do I have anything worth saying? Why do I think I deserve to have a voice at all?), the only thing that can cheer me up is reading a good novel about other writers feeling the exact same way. Call it reverse-escapism, solidarity, or camaraderie—whatever it is, it’s my go-to self-soothing method in the desolate nights of the writing life. So, this post goes out to all the writers, who, like me, are currently tying themselves in knots over sentences and stanzas, desperately wondering if they made the wrong life decision. Maybe you’ll find some consolation here—maybe, even, inspiration.

Writers and Lovers by Lily King (March 2020)

Casey Peabody is thirty-one years old, saddled with debt, and stubbornly, desperately, impossibly trying to finish her first novel. In Writers and Lovers, King follows Casey from a writing residency (which she mostly spends, to her own horror, caught up in a dead-end romance with a fellow resident) back to her cramped rented room in Boston, where she spends her days writing in the morning before rushing to a waitressing job at a high-end restaurant. Casey is caught between the friends who abandoned writing and, now making good money in corporate positions, are furious that she won’t shell out hundreds of dollars to come to their destination weddings, and those who stayed in the game, some of whom are, like her, clawing away at their first novels, others who have, against all odds, made it big, to everyone else’s envy. Casey navigates budding romances and grief over her mother’s recent passing, but the most compelling part of the novel is her battle with the unwieldy manuscript that has become the center of her world. Filled with hilarious and moving observations on the torment and ecstasy of the writing life, Writers and Lovers is comforting, inspiring, and instructional for any writer.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011-2014)photo of book cover

Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s world-renowned Neapolitan Quartet recounts the friendship of its narrator, Lena, with her childhood best friend, Lila. Both women are painfully intelligent, but while Lena has escaped the poverty of their upbringing through an elite (and alienating) education, Lila remains mired in the violent world of their childhood. Both women, however, write, though we see more of Lena’s writing life throughout the series. After dashing off her first novel—a deeply autobiographical coming-of-age story inspired by her own experiences as a teenager in Ischia—Lena goes on to plod through countless other novels, eventually making a career out of her literary talents. The heart of the series lies in Lena and Lila’s continued friendship as they navigate romance, heartbreak, pregnancies, abuse, and loss, but hidden throughout the novels are a beautiful portrayal of the writing life as Lena struggles to maintain and rediscover her voice while surviving the elitist publishing world.

 

Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez (April 2020)

Paul Mendez’s debut novel is a gorgeous, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story following Jesse, a 19-year-old Jamaican-British man after he is outed by his conservative Jehovah’s Witness community and thrown out of his abusive family’s household. Jesse moves to London, where he becomes a sex worker and grapples with constant racist and xenophobic assaults from clients and strangers alike, all the while struggling to heal his own internalized glorification of whiteness and the trauma of his childhood. Woven throughout the book is a fascinating account of Jesse’s relationship with music—particularly 90s R&B—as well as his burgeoning love of literature, starting with James Baldwin and other revolutionary Black writers. As the novel progresses, Jesse begins (like Mendez), to write about his experiences, and the novel ends with Jesse poised to publish a book of his own.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1951)

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who—when he has been seriously noted at all—has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?”

So begins Graham Greene’s stunning novel, The End of the Affair, in which Maurice Bendrix, a professional novelist, recounts his relationship with a wealthy married Englishwoman, Sarah Miles. In condensed and extraordinary prose, Greene charts a staggering journey of sexual desire, romantic attraction, spiritual conversion, jealousy, shame, loss, and grief. Scattered throughout the pages are Bendrix’s reflections on the agony and impossibility of writing as he struggles to make a living on novels and commissioned biographies. Sarah, meanwhile, proves to be a beautiful diarist, with the whole middle part of the novel consisting of stolen passages from her journal. Both perspectives—that of a professional writer and a private diarist—offer poignant, wrenching insights into the purpose and painfulness of writing.

A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo (October 2020)

Lastly, we have A Lover’s Discourse, in which Xiaolu Guo beautifully depicts the writing life of an academic, even as she explores xenophobia, racism, loneliness, memory, cultural difference, and homesickness. Her narrator, a Chinese PhD student completing her dissertation in England, falls in love with a German architect, and the two tentatively embark upon a relationship that spans cultures, languages, and (often the most fraught of all) academic disciplines. Each chapter opens with a scrap of dialogue, usually between the two of them, that will take place later in the chapter. The entire book is a poignant, gorgeous meditation on love and romance, belonging, immigration, and expatriation, but the narrator’s doubts over her dissertation, her anxiety about expressing herself correctly through language, and her paralysis around writing make for some of the novel’s most compelling passages.

 

Gwyneth Henke is a first-year student in UNM’s MFA program, specializing in fiction. Her work explores religion, hunger, conversion, doubt, and desire and has been published in Stirring: A Literary Collection. She is from, and loves, St. Louis.

In Defense of Pulp

One of BMR’s undergraduate readers, Danica Lee, examines elitist attitudes toward pulp fiction. 

Imagine you are in an airport, and you buy a book to read while you wait for your flight. You like the author and the cover seems interesting. Yet, when you go to sit down, the person across from you is reading Pride and Prejudice, while you’re reading yet another one of James Patterson’s books. You try to hide the cover of your book, because even if the other person hasn’t noticed, you don’t want to admit you’ve chosen pulpy genre over literature.

Publishing firms such as Pocket Books and Penguin Books sold the first “pulp” fiction at bargain prices in train stations, newspaper stands, drugstores, and dining establishments. While many of the novels were stereotypically tawdry, they also published pieces like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and George Orwell’s 1984 (1) . These two pieces are now considered literature, which Sean Glatch considers “uncategorizable”. On the other hand, genre is a “marketing tool” that “follows certain formulas and tropes” (2) . However, tropes are “important building blocks of storytelling…because they help set and/or fulfill expectations readers have” (3). Setting up expectations is a ubiquitous need across all of writing, regardless of the type. Being upset that genre books use “gimmicks, plot devices, and Big Climaxes” is like looking for a kitchen knife to make dinner (4).

Some may say the issue with pulp genre is not with its execution, but its content. People dislike that “there are a hundred poorly written and better selling novels about sexy Werewolf hunters, Illuminati-chasing professors, or lawyers being chased by the Mafia”(4) . Yet, werewolves can also be a symbol for a beautiful, painful change; the Illuminati can explore how humans fear the unknown; the Mafia can be a metaphor for a past that won’t let go; “ghosts and vampires are never only about ghosts and vampires”(5) . If finding a supernatural element in a book immediately diminishes its power, then we should never read Hamlet. Even Glatch admits that “literary fiction can…be unrealistic, trope-y, and plot-heavy”, disregarding the denotative difference between literature and genre. The line between literature and pulpy genre is arbitrary and often an elitist marker of value.

Let us consider Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is a literary master who was writing about the macabre when those discussions were taboo. Poe even created the first archetypal detective story through pieces like “The Murder in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”… and they’re actually ridiculous to read. “The Murder in the Rue Morgue” revealed the murderer to be a kidnapped orangutan and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” has an agonizing twenty pages of Poe refuting various theories about the real-life murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers. Yet, despite their lack of verisimilitude, they are now considered literature. It’s hard to remember that what we think of as literary masterpieces were once just pulp. Contemporary genre pieces of today may earn literary status through perseverance and audience engagement, both things we still see today, even if not always with “literature”.

The Hunger Games is the pulp to 1984’s literature. The only thing they seem to have in common is its genre. Yet, the internet abounds with articles analyzing The Hunger Games in terms of human rights, corruption, war, love, the modern celebrity complex, privilege, rebellion, revolution, and so on. We feel devastated at Rue and Primrose’s deaths just as much so as when Winston is tortured in Room 101. What determines a piece’s merit isn’t based on how literature is defined, but how it resonates with an audience. 1984 resonated with people in the 20th century, with the birth of fascism after buckling under the pressure of two world wars and a global economic disaster. Likewise, The Hunger Games resonated with a 21st century audience due to the prevalence of reality television, rampant corporate and governmental violations of privacy, and increasing income disparity. Good stories have teeth, but we find teeth where we look for them.

And we see those teeth marks everywhere. My name comes from a Dungeons and Dragons in-fiction serialization because my parents believed one of the characters was a good role model for me. I have had many conversations fit for an advanced English class, inspired by Warhammer 40k in-fiction novelizations where comic writer Dan Abnett has a horrifyingly poignant description of how war destroys the human spirit, immediately followed by a Shakespearean-level dick joke. I make a pastime of going to bookstores and browsing through parts of their catalog with bad photoshop covers and laughable summaries. Even here, I find revolution. I find a book about two Asian men falling in love and running a business empire together, or a sapphic romance novel with time travel, or a well-illustrated graphic autobiography about being neurodivergent, lost in the shelves with the other dime novels.

Pulp is not a denotation of quality; it’s a denotation of accessibility. From the day Penguin Books was born, it has never been about making good or bad novels, but about ensuring people can hold them in their hands. If you use academic or marketing standards to denote value, then you may miss out on the greatest books of your life. When you take your James Patterson book onto your flight, do it knowing that you chose what resonated with you, not the newest ‘uncategorizable’ piece academia is currently lauding. You don’t have to read 1984, you just have to read what counts as significant as 1984 for you.

Danica Lee is an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico with aspirations of entering the publishing industry with her degree. She grew up in Albuquerque, and works at UNM’s Center for Teaching and Learning. She was an honorable mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest.

Notes:

1. Menaud, Louis. “The Birth of Pulp: Pulp’s Big Moment.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, January 5, 2015. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/05/pulps-big-moment.

2. Glatch, Sean. “Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction.” Writers.com, Writers.com, August 31, 2021. https://writers.com/literary-fiction-vs-genre-fiction. 3. Brewer, Robert Lee. “What Are Tropes in Writing?” Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Online Workshop, April 16, 2022. https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/what-are-tropes-in-writing.

4. Kelly, Tod. “The Real Issue with Genre Fiction.” Ordinary Times, Ordinary Times, June 22, 2022. https://ordinary-times.com/2012/06/22/the-real-problem-with-genre-fiction/.

5. Foster, Thomas C. How To Read Literature Like a Professor. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014.

Rebecca Aronson: an Interview

Blue Mesa Review undergraduate reader Benjamin W. Fowler speaks with poet Rebecca Aronson about her poetry collection Anchor published by Orison Books on October 6th, 2022. The interview was conducted just before the release of Anchor.Image preview

Rebecca Aronson is the author of three books of poetry: Anchor; Ghost Child of the Atalanta Bloom, winner of the 2016 Orison Books poetry prize and winner of the 2019 Margaret Randall Book Award from the Albuquerque Museum Foundation; and Creature, Creature, winner of the Main-Traveled Roads Poetry Prize. She has been a recipient of a Prairie Schooner Strousse Award, the Loft’s Speakeasy Poetry Prize, and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to Sewanee. She is co-founder and host of Bad Mouth, a series of words and music. She lives in Albuquerque with her husband, teenage son, and a very demanding cat, and she teaches writing at Central New Mexico Community College.

When did you know when you wanted to be a poet?

I always was writing as a kid. As a young teenager, I took classes at The Loft in Minneapolis, a community writing center. I majored in English in college. We had a neighbor who was a well known poet, so I always knew that poetry was a possible thing that people do. It wasn’t until after I finished my Bachelor’s degree and worked for a few years, that someone told me to apply for an MFA program. I didn’t know what that was. I was never someone who was career driven and knew what they want to do with their lives right away. My path was more meandering.

Tell us about your latest book, Anchor. Does it cover themes you haven’t touched on in the past?

Anchor was started when my father was starting to fall a lot, before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. All his adult life he was active and a runner. All of a sudden he started not to be able to stand up and we didn’t know why. He was in Minnesota. I was here in Albuquerque and I’d get calls from my sister and my mom that he was in the hospital. His falling got me started thinking about gravity. I read some extremely light physics to try to understand the force that pulls us to the ground. I spent a lot of time traveling to Minnesota, hanging out in hospital rooms, and at their apartment, trying to help my parents. I began writing letters to gravity as if gravity were a capricious god. The core of the book is ten poems titled “Dear Gravity,” which make up the spine of the book.

So Anchor concerns an adult daughter concerned for her father. You’re also a parent. How has parenthood influenced your writing?

In a few ways. Not just about writing. It’s given me a sense of urgency about my life in general, and a stronger sense of awareness of danger. Observing my son and parenting him has made my poetry more peopled. My first book Creature, Creature has animals, and there were some people, but not as many as in Ghost Child of the Atalanta Bloom and Anchor, which are much more peopled.

I know that in the poem “Make No Little Plans” from Ghost Child you want to be adventurous and ride the Ferris wheel with your son.

For my son to be brave, I had to model that bravery, even though we were both afraid of heights. Parenting is pushing yourself out of your comfort zone again and again. Parenthood has also pushed me towards thinking about subject matter differently than I would have thought about it before, like what the future holds. I didn’t think much about my own mortality before I had a child. Once I had him, my mortality mattered because I knew I had to be there for him. I wanted to keep him safe and I worried about the tenuousness of my own existence and what it would mean to not be there for him.

Do your poems ever have more than one point of view?

Many of the narrators are persona versions of me, but none of them are exactly me, but I don’t think the point of view switches around much within individual poems.

In “Road Runner” from Ghost Child of the Atalanta Bloom, do you step outside of human perspective? I like this poem because you ponder the Road Runner’s life and then you posit the idea that it created itself, that all creation comes from the same source.

I do sometimes watch animals intently and imagine their intelligence, their way of seeing.

What other roles does nature play in your poetry?

I’m attentive to the environment, and concerned for it, and I tend to be attuned to whatever my environment is. I spend an inordinate amount of time staring out my window and walking around my yard. Place is important to me. You can tell from my poems what is growing in my yard and where I’ve been hiking.

Are metaphor and figurative language more common in poetry than in other genres? How do you define those craft features?

All genres use these craft features. I think of metaphor as a comparison or analogy that is surprising, but at the same time familiar. A good metaphor is when the reader sees that two things have an unexpected thread in common. If the connection isn’t there, the metaphor can fall flat.

When you write do you pay special attention to words with multiple meanings?

I’m delighted when I write a poem in which specific words have layers of meanings, but I don’t particularly try to choose words with multiple meanings, unless I’m writing sestinas, for example.

What is your favorite craft feature and why?

There isn’t one craft feature that I favor, but I’m a sound driven poet. I’m interested in sound echoes, slant rhymes, internal rhymes, patterns formed by the repetition of sounds. I like that a lot.

What is your default universal setting that anyone can access? Along those same lines is there a universal voice in your poetry or is it you talking to the page and the reader?

I never want the reader to feel like there is a private language going on that they can’t access. There is a purpose to poetry that is working through thoughts that are private, but this approach doesn’t serve the reader. I am trying to pull the reader in always with imagery and language that does not exclude them. I think I’ve gotten better at this over time. But I’m not thinking about audience when I write. I’m thinking about imagery, language, and idea. During revision, I think of how a reference could communicate to another human. I have extraordinary first readers (friends who are great at analyzing and responding to writing) who are willing to read even my shabbiest rough drafts. I’m not always sure when a poem draft is accessible to someone else, but my readers help me know if I am succeeding at translating the world in my head to the outside world.

What struggles do many fledgling poets have? Is poetry an innate or universal art form?

Many people are driven to write poems, songs, or journal entries. It is innate in that way. There are craft features and poetic skills that can be taught, but not everyone has the pull. If you have the pull or the interest, you can be taught.

How Alive are You? – a Book Review

BMR’s graduate reader, Emily Graves, reviews the rope: two poems by John Colburn.

John Colburn is the kind of soft-spoken activist poet, teacher and publisher who makes community seemingly effortlessly, quietly creating opportunity and advocating for the work of the people around him. He is a recognizable figure on the Minnesota writing scene precisely because he has made a life of seeking out, listening to and highlighting the voices of writers who might not have been heard otherwise—the young, the weird, the marginalized–helping teach, publish and give us a place in readings, spoken word events and performances over the last 30 years. Like so much of the Twin Cities writing community (of which I used to be a part) I have benefited from the connection with Colburn and the small press which he helped found, Spout Press, and John’s is work I always want to seek out and read. He’s the kind of poet that always reveals to us something of ourselves–often the part we’re most reluctant to see. Believe me, when I tell you: he does it because he cares.  

Coburn’s latest book of poetry, the rope, chronicles the dystopia we’re living in now. Maybe you’ll want to read the two long poems that make up the book and skip on, get to the part where you don’t have to think. He’s not going to let you. In this collection of letters, messages and cries out to our future selves, Colburn documents for our descendants the ways we hurt each other–of what we did and to whom. In this place you wish were post-apocalyptic, but recognize all too well as our present world, food, touch, even death and the ability to be present for just a moment are codified transactions.  

It’s easy to think Colburn is being cynical, but as the beats of these poems ring out, steadily reflecting back at us our time, our country, we can’t deny where he’s right: that even as we were “circulating recipes for marvelous pastries” we were incarcerating, caging, gunning down the most vulnerable among us. He lets our futures selves know: we allowed poisons to proliferate in the water and air, the temperature to rise while “souls fled the equator.” In the first long poem but they were capitalists, even the ghost-characters “who live in a lost dimension/without money/we will send them a bill.” And when almost everything–even beauty, water and light are up for sale–how alive are you 

John Colburn wants to know. 

In the book’s second long poem inside the rope Colburn incriminates us all as he states the own recognition of his role in this time: “For a long time I did what was done to me…For awhile, I called it a blind spot.” As he beats a steady list into us of names, people, places who have suffered as a results of our collective crimes, he is reminiscent of other writers and declaimers–MLK, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan–the truth keepers, the speakers of our moral responsibility to remember those whom we’ve wronged. The steady repetition throughout the book, each poem housing 13-16 smaller poems, or numbered stanzas, implicates us all–in the cycle of forgetting, the cycle of systemic dehumanization, our participation in toxic patterns of capitalization and violence; our general lack of care for each other. 

Is the rope completely without hope? No–Colburn pulls us back into acknowledgment of the possibility of healing and connection on what is recognizable as the poor, broken streets of Minneapolis, 2020. He writes us into at least the possibility of connection, as people dance, move, pray, try to make sound that is sacred together, even as on the other side of the rope, “police cars sat nearby lights spinning.”  

He ultimately shows us that maybe we have a chance to expunge the hungry ghosts that roam restless alongside us, to instead find the ancestors–despite, or perhaps, even with, the presence of those forces that gain from our dissociation, disempowerment, debt and pain. He concedes to us a moment in time we might not call redemption, but that is, at its least, a community attempting, however fleeting, to move into wholeness.  

Perhaps more books like Colburn’s the rope will show us how worth the effort it is to live more often settled into the present, in our bodies, with each other, without touching our phones or our wallets. Until the next call for help comes. And maybe that’s when and how we’ll have the presence to do what it takes to answer. 

Bio: Emily Graves is a writer, teacher and healer. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and is currently working on an M.F.A. in Fiction at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Her single-authored book of poetry, Ballad of the Breathless, was published by Spout Press in 2008. She has also published poetry, essays and short fiction in several anthologies, magazines and small journals. 

Celebrations

Our Creative Non Fiction Editor, Kyndall Benning, on what she’s looking for.

I’m sitting in my studio apartment with my grey cat, Feathers. He sits quietly across my lap as I type, glancing nervously around each time the fireworks boom outside. I wasted all weekend trying to articulate what I’m looking for as BMR’s new creative nonfiction (CNF) editor, yet I haven’t found much luck. The noise of the fireworks breaks the silence, breaks my focus. The bursts of celebration begin to sound like taunts.

Earlier, I tried to catch a glimpse of the sparkling sky, but it was empty. Still, I can guess at the shapes from the sounds. The screeching one’s swirl upwards in spirals and burst as they scream. The big pops make immediate masterpieces, throw exploding pompoms into the air. My favorites sound like dazzling jazz; the sparks spread and multiply into crackling flashes of color.

Between the blasts, I look towards my favorite authors to label their best qualities. In James Baldwin, I admire caution; I slip into his consciousness as he carefully describes himself, memories, thoughts, images, and loved ones. He writes with a delicate, intimate knowledge of each detail. In Jo Ann Beard, I envy her ability to transform mundane scenes into magic – dying dogs and potty pads become beautiful through her use of language. She transforms a bleak evening into a plasma-streaked sky, one quieter and less colorful than mine. Maxine Hong Kingston writes her way into silence. She declares her determination to “name the unspeakable.” This phenomenon is a driving force in my own work…and probably yours, too. Writing is resistance to the narrative. It’s an interrogation of hidden truths, a refusal to bury the past. All my favorite CNF writers are experts in unveiling their own histories.

While I like work that might remind me of my favorite authors, I also enjoy fresh perspectives. I wouldn’t want any person to try and imitate someone else; it’s important for writers to be honest to their own aesthetics and viewpoints. Otherwise, the artist appears like a poorly disguised criminal inventing an alibi. Rather than launch investigations against such authors, I prefer writers who sound immediately like themselves.

A strong voice also stands out – but not in an awkward way. Instead, it should feel smart and deeply personal. It’s less that the essay has to be a genius reinvention of literature itself than that it must simply contain skillful language and authentic expression. A good author knows their subject and themselves intimately, and they can artfully render both through their unique telling of the material. In terms of material, I’m pretty open-minded, though I am a bit worn on war stories. I’d love to publish more work from the Southwest, as well as more BIPOC, women, disabled, and queer artists.

We’re always in big trouble if the dialogue isn’t believable. Also, essays that rely too heavily on dialogue to move the piece forward lack the depth and loveliness that reflection and description add…though some works can be too flowery, too. Generally, I love figurative language – metaphors and imagery and the like are wonderful – but I don’t want to be overrun by it and lose the plot.

I like softness within a rough world, delicate sentences tied together like ribbon on a ballerina’s slippers, their hurts like hidden warts. I want tight, close, personal snapshots of memory – I like a wrinkled fist gripping and spinning a reel on a fishing pole, spiraling black smoke from a burning schoolhouse, tall lovers leaned together over kitchen counters. I imagine fireworks lit by fingers that fumble between fuses, which sounds like clumsy runs across piano keys. If the author has not conceived it in specific detail, I have nothing to imagine.

Also, I like when writers play with form and genre, but I don’t mind traditional narrative design, either. Recently, I’ve read a lot of untraditional works, so I’ve actually been missing it. Time is cool to manipulate, too, but the movement through moments should feel seamless, not distracting. I don’t want to feel like I’m playing backwards hopscotch when reading an essay. Again, above all else, the writing needs to be purposeful and true. It should leave me a little scattered, unable to move back into real life. Instead, I want to linger in that author’s world, decipher what was said and why and how it relates to my own understanding of life. I want to publish work that is probing and impactful.

Finally, the noises of the fireworks have abated into the night, out of my head. Finally, my words have found their way onto the page.

The Darkness Around Us is Deep

Our new Poetry Editor, Tyler Mortensen-Hayes, on awe, empathy, and change – elements of the poetry he’d like to publish in BMR. 

I am in awe. Every day I wake, it doesn’t take long to notice the light growing behind the shadows of the Sandias. The way that light, through the early hours, covers the spectrum of star-pierced darkness to navy, violet, pink, green, yellow, and then settles into its day-long blue. And if there are clouds, they absorb every color like a painter’s sponge, blotting their shapes on the canvas of the sky. 

But it isn’t just the immense natural wonders that bring me awe. There is also the perfect roundness of the spoon that holds the sugar I slip into the coffee. The smell as the silent coffee maker keeps the rest warm for my partner, who is still asleep, and whose breath as she dreams fills me with deep wonder. And the basil plants on the patio as I step out to water them, and which I’ve watched grow all spring and summer, from dense little seeds into these plumes of deep green… All such undeniable sources of amazement! 

But there’s another kind of awe, too. One that is not pleasant, not pretty—a kind which, so often, is born of anger. Don’t we all know this kind of awe, and too well? Violence, hatred, the refusal to recognize the humanity of marginalized peoples, and the life of the earth itself… I am flabbergasted, in awe of the continual destruction of the environment, the steady tearing down of rights, the incessant refusal to curb the senseless killing of people—of children!—with guns. I am in bewildered awe of how deep human cruelty and greed can go, always seeming to plumb to further and further depths of unspeakableness.  

This kind of awe, thankfully, is not useless—it doesn’t have to render one helpless. It makes us move. It galvanizes us to do something, everything we can, to better things. The justifiable anger that results from injustice might be what the Buddhists call “righteous anger”—not because the one who is angry is thereby saintly, but because their anger is right, warranted, and is rooted in compassion. 

Here, I want to offer a formula: 

Attention Awe Empathy Change 

I believe that when we pay attention to the world in all its hideousness and beauty, we come naturally to awe. In awe of the world and its expressions of life—and death—we develop empathy. And, in empathy, we are encouraged to do something, anything, to make change for the better.  

But, when it comes to poetry, there’s another, crucial element: 

the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe— 

should be clear: the darkness around us is deep. 

-William Stafford 

Our signals should be clear. I’m reminded, here, of Mary Oliver’s declaration that poetry “mustn’t be fancy”; that some poets tend to “tap dance” around their subjects instead of presenting them lucidly and usefully. I don’t think many poets intentionally try to confuse their reader, but some may do so simply by avoiding or eschewing clarity as unsophisticated, too simple. But clarity, of course, does not mean overly simple. I think a poem that makes a sincere effort to reach the reader, to extend to her an open hand, while still utilizing the skillful elements of metaphor and music, freshness and experimentation, is an embodiment of compassion. 

 The darkness around us is deep. Let us work to create clear pathways, clear and strong bridges, to connection. Let us pay close attention to the astoundments that surround us moment by moment, the things that make our lives worth living. Let us, at the same time, stay open to the hard and terrible truths, the things we want to see change. In awe of every aspect of the world, how can we not wish to honor it, to preserve and protect its many, equally worthy expressions of life? The darkness around us is deep, but so is the light that, with the hours, is growing wider. 

As this year’s Poetry Editor for BMR, I am interested in work that explores these ideas. Where do you place your attention, day by day? And what sources of awe does attention bring you to? In awe, what do you find matters most—who and what do you wish to honor and protect? 

None of this means that I’m looking for overtly political poems, necessarily (though I’m not against them), or poems that are overly didactic. Rather, I want poems that refuse to believe that, as Auden somewhat sarcastically put it, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Of course poems make things happen. Maybe poems won’t change the whole world, but they can, and do, change the worlds of their readers. And isn’t that where change begins—with us, as individuals? What else can we offer, as poets, as artists? Or, I should say, what else can we offer that could possibly be more worthwhile? 

Follow Your Intuition

Our new Fiction Editor, Anthony Yarbrough, on what kind of writing he’s looking to publish.

What makes good writing is, ironically, incredibly difficult to articulate. “You know it when you see it” only gets you so far, considering that what I might enjoy isn’t necessarily what you might enjoy. As a writer, I’m sympathetic to the struggle of measuring your own work – the product of much private toil and scarce feedback – against published work that lives intimidatingly, monolithically out there, in the world. Published writing can seem effortless, as though it were conceived whole and complete. The seams that indicate the labor and frustration and uncertainty of creative endeavor have been expertly disguised, or artfully exposed. As creators, how are we to measure the efficacy of our labor? How can we know whether our own material is ready to be published?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a succinct answer to that. I have many half-finished thoughts in my notebook to prove it. As Blue Mesa Review’s incoming fiction editor, however, I can try to describe what kinds of stories catch my eye for publication, as well as identify certain features of work that I don’t feel is right for us right now.

I’m someone who enjoys a balanced diet of literary fiction and nonfiction, in addition to genre work. My own work could slot variously into any of those categories, or somewhere between them. I say that not as a preamble to a plug for my own projects, but as a way of qualifying the following statement: while genre fiction is, as an art from, just as viable as literary fiction, I’m not as interested in publishing genre fiction in Blue Mesa Review. That being said, if your genre story explores the southwest’s unique social, cultural, regional and historical features, then please send it our way. I’m also interested in pieces that probe the boundaries between genres, so long as they’re written from an authentic and personal point of view. Otherwise, before you pay our submission fee, I strongly encourage you to consider searching out publications that specialize in publishing genre works.

Before I mention authors I love and am currently reading, I have to admit I’m not sure whether this exercise will help anyone understand what I’m after. I look at my stack of recently read books – Michel Houellebecq, Peter Nadas, Kate Braverman and Marilynne Robinson – and don’t see an obvious connective tissue between their works. I’m in awe of Braverman’s sheer linguistic power, and am humbled by Robinson’s empathy. I admire Houellebecq’s satires of contemporary society, and wish I could emulate Nadas’s intense and meticulous rendering of interiority. But the throughline among them remains elusive.

Now, if I lean over that stack and survey the numerous stacks of books against my living room wall, I see a record of personal interests I explored throughout my twenties. I’ve sought out impenetrably literate modernist and postmodernist works (you know the ones), and read them with the pleasure of someone wanting to be edified but not pandered to. These works share space with comics anthologies and intricately designed graphic novels, hard sci-fi and classic horror, bleak noir and gushing romance. About half of my collection was written by American authors, and the other half was written by writers from every major continent. (I can see this with just a glance since I recently sorted everything according to region and author, and in the process distressed my cats by throwing our living room into sudden disarray.) I suppose this is all to say that I try to read with an open mind and little expectation other than to be entertained, educated, or enlightened by other perspectives.

Therefore, it’s only appropriate to conclude with a few words on perspectives I am looking for. I’m interested particularly in publishing marginalized voices, especially those from BIPOC and queer communities. I’m looking for writing that speaks to authentic, lived experience, especially when those experiences expose the fissures and contradictions of our deeply frightening world’s status quo. Ultimately, however, I believe in the wisdom of the writer to follow their own intuition. In that spirit, I encourage you to submit to Blue Mesa Review the language inside you that generates its own rhythm, language that is beholden only to itself.

On Form: A Roundtable Interview with Three Blue Mesa Review Writers

In this interview, writers Tess Fahlgren, Ari Laurel, and B. Tyler Lee discuss their writing process, their audience, borrowed forms, and the boundaries between genres.

Read Ari Laurel’s story “Farewell to the Last Mango in the Pacific Northwest” in Issue 44

Read B. Tyler Lee’s poems “Recipe: Rhubarb, Chili, & Ginger Jam” and “Recipe: Snowplow” in Issue 43

Read Tess Fahlgren’s essay “feast day: a lyric” in Issue 42