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November 27, 2007

An Audience with the Don: Lee Gutkind

by Holly Vanderhaar

In 1997, Vanity Fair's James Wolcott pejoratively referred to Lee Gutkind as "the Godfather behind creative nonfiction." Though it wasn't Wolcott's intention, his dismissive remark brought Gutkind and the genre to the awareness of countless Vanity Fair readers, and as we all know, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Gutkind started America's first MFA program in creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh, and is the founder and editor of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction. He has written or edited twelve books, most recently Almost Human: Making Robots Think (2007).

I had the opportunity to work with him last spring at Arizona State University, where he was the Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. Thanks to Lee, I came away with a new awareness of the importance of structure, and a new mantra: "The building blocks of creative nonfiction are scenes." I recently chatted with him about immersion journalism, MFA programs, and the role of the internet in the genre of creative nonfiction.

When you're coming up with an idea for an immersion piece, is it something that you're actively looking for, or is it triggered by an article you might read, or is it a combination of both?

It's a combination, but I like to keep doing this kind of work. I don't think I serve myself well by only editing and teaching, or only writing personal memoir. I think that it's really good for me to keep my hand in this immersion aspect. And I decided that I'm not crazy about doing short pieces of immersion. So I'm always looking for opportunities to do longer immersion pieces.

It must be a huge commitment; didn't you research Almost Human for six years?

I researched Almost Human for six years off and on, so it's a big commitment, but some of these projects can be off and on projects, so I might have devoted a month or two to robots, and then I might have left for a month or two, and come back to it. You like to do the long story, so the reason it's six years for me is it really did take the roboticists six years to create and design a robot that I wanted to see happen. So you pick a narrative project that will allow you to move in and out and tell an elongated story.

So at the moment you have your antennae up looking for a new immersion project?

I've been spending some time looking into the future of medicine. I may go in that direction. Personalized medicine or diagnostic medicine, whatever you want to call it, that starts with a person's genome and gets doctors to look at a person's body individually, rather than the way they do medicine today, one drug for lots of folks who have lung cancer. That, and I'm also looking into the state of marriage in America.

Did the interest in medicine arise out of the organ transplant book that you did [Many Sleepless Nights] or is it something you've always been interested in?

The most memorable experience I ever had as a writer was doing that organ transplant book. To me it was much more important and much more engaging than writing about baseball, or writing about motorcycles, or writing about robots, for that matter. Life and death stories are always the best in a high-tension atmosphere that allows you to walk in and out of a series of dramatic moments.

Definitely a high-stakes subject.

Absolutely. And when you're at such high stakes with people, with their backs to the wall, they are much more likely, if they trust you, to talk to you about stuff that really matters.

You set up the first MFA program in creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh. What are MFA programs doing right, and what are they doing wrong?

Every MFA program's a little different, but the good part about it is that people come to MFA programs, initially anyway, in order to get advanced help writing. As long as we continue to help writers who are more advanced than undergraduates, and who also have more life experience and professional experience doing this kind of work, that's what MFA programs were first established for, and that's the thing I think many programs are doing right.

What we're doing wrong is that now the degree has become much more important in many respects than the writing itself. That's a problem; at least, it is to me. As I look at the job listings, say, in the AWP job list, so many people have MFA requirements; you know, you have to have an MFA to get a job. An MFA doesn't necessarily mean that you're a good teacher, and it certainly doesn't necessarily mean that you're even a good writer.

I would much rather see people wanting a writer who has published a book or two or three, not caring one way the another about the MFA. Hemingway didn't have an MFA. Fitzgerald didn't have an MFA. Gay Talese doesn't have an MFA, and I don't have an MFA, so the degree is not nearly as important as the writing itself, and I see students hunger for this degree. That disturbs me. And I'm very disturbed by the fact that the standards are so different at different institutions.

What issues do you think are going to prove central to the genre going forward? Obviously the James Frey [A Million Little Pieces] issue has people talking and thinking about the nature of truth in memoir and emotional truth versus factual truth. Do you think that will remain a central issue?

I think we're going to keep talking about it, and I think we're not going to come to any conclusion about how memoir ought to be written, and what truth really is, and the validity and accuracy of memory. It's going to just go on and on, and I think that's good that people are talking about it, and I think it's really good that we have different opinions and that we share opinions.

The more we share opinions and the more we see that nobody really knows, that there's no law, no rule, no guideline except for the fact that you're not supposed to knowingly make anything up, then I think that it will make people more aware of being careful, and trying to remain as close to the essence of the story that they're telling as they can. I think that's good. I do think that publishers and writers need to be much more careful about the other kind of truth, the truth in the facts that they use. I think that we have to be really careful to fact-check ourselves or to force a publisher [to fact-check], and I think that we also need to be much more careful about the innocent victims in our narratives.

Wasn't it Annie Dillard who said, "Memoir is an art, but it's not a martial art"?

Yes indeed.

Let's talk about the internet and the role you see that playing in the future of creative nonfiction. In the recent anthology The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I, you included some blogs.

I think blogs are rather interesting. I think it gives us—all of us—the opportunity to exercise our writing abilities and also to say what we think and not feel so frustrated. For so many years, writers wrote in the dark. They're all alone and they're writing draft after draft of essay or story or novel, and if the writing wasn't particularly good or the subject didn't appeal to publishers or editors, then they were sitting in the dark all by themselves, isolated and alone. So blogs give writers the opportunity to find an audience, and reach out and touch other people. So in that respect, I really like that, and I appreciate the freedom that writers are getting, and the riches and rewards that readers are getting by the efforts made in blogs.

On the other hand, so often, blogs are done by people who are not yet ready for prime time as writers, and so you read a lot of pretty bad blogs. A lot of people who are not particularly schooled in the craft of writing, nor are willing to revise and work real hard like the working writer really does to write the best thing they can, so you get a lot of instantaneous stories that aren't particularly good.

So there's the good and the bad, but I chose to include blogs in The Best of Creative Nonfiction, and I'm hoping that I chose very good blogs, because it reflects what's happening, especially in the world of nonfiction today. When you're blogging, your work is available all across the world, to all kinds of different people, and I think it's really a fascinating thing that's happening, in allowing us to sit in our house and communicate with other cultures instantaneously in a universal way.

The hard part in finding good blogs is that they're not organized. So you literally have to surf and run into good pieces of narrative, and it's hard to find. In this particular case we found six blogs, and two of the six that we published had been noticed by major publishers and two of the bloggers were already the recipients of book contracts.

Is that how you found these pieces for the anthology, then? Just by surfing the web?


That's a daunting task.

Yeah. A couple of them were absolutely accidental. Only in one case was a blog site recommended.

Final question: Do the Godfather jokes ever get old?

No, they're fine. And they're fun. The Godfather label and the Godfather jokes kind of helped elevate the dialogue about creative nonfiction. And so I really appreciate it. When I first saw what James Wolcott did, I was annoyed and embarrassed. But immediately, instead of a few people talking about creative nonfiction, he attracted the attention of his four million readers. It was a port of entry into a discussion about the form. It delighted me in the end, and I don't think he meant to make it such a productive experience, but it certainly was. He made fun, but the readers didn't.

November 20, 2007

Tug McGraw's Leap: Baseball and the Literary Arts

(or, "How Long Until Pitchers and Catchers Report?")

by Kevin O'Rourke

Timing is everything. Just when I couldn't have been more distraught over the end of the 2007 baseball season, and moreover the manner in which it concluded (another sweep?!), my mother gave me a book. Namely Michael Chabon's highly entertaining and evocative Summerland (Miramax, 2002). His tale of children & baseball & a fantasy world which exists in tandem with our own certainly did its very best to raise my spirits. So what if the book is supposed to be for kids? So was a certain other series about a boy wizard and his adventures. I enjoyed that one too, even if it meant removing the books' dust jackets whenever reading them on the subway.

But I digress. Full disclosure: I am a huge baseball fan, I participate in a fantasy baseball league, and my idea of a good time tends to involve watching a game and jawing about, say, Rickey Henderson's lifetime stats. I mean, the man stole 1,406 bases! Number two on the all-time list, Lou Brock, stole 938. Look at it this way: Henderson had 10,961 at-bats during his career, and his OBP (on-base percentage) was .401. That means he got on base about 4,395 times. Which means he stole a base approximately 32% of the time he was on base. This is completely ridiculous.

Again with the digressions. Suffice it to say that I'm a huge baseball fan. But I'm also a writer. And am therefore--now just hold on--something of an anomaly among other artists and writers. On the flipside, I am an unabashed sports fan who reads John Ashbery for fun. So you might say I stick out. I fully realize that I'm not the only exception to the rule, but for the most part the supposed division between bookish types and sportish types seems to be a very real thing. Nor am I sure why, but it's not the purpose of this essay to examine that split, really; I suspect it has something to do with wedgies. That being said, why more writers don't absolutely adore a sport currently played by the likes of Milton Bradley, Coco Crisp, Larry Broadway, and Jhonny Peralta (he and Dwyane Wade should talk) is beyond me. Not to mention the gobs of wonderful baseball stories from years past--the aforementioned Henderson's tendency to refer to himself in the third person, Dock Ellis throwing a no-hitter while on acid, and of course Ruth's "called shot."

A quick Google search for "baseball poetry" yields 23,000 results, and that doesn't even take into account works of fiction like Summerland. Donald Hall wrote extensively about Our National Pastime. maintains a page covering poetry and songs about the sport. There is a Wikipedia entry solely devoted to English language idioms derived from baseball. Let's not even get into the fuzzy territory where baseball jargon and truly "poetic" poetry meet. Nor should we touch on the blogosphere much, save for the requisite Deadspin shoutout. And then there's Elysian Fields...the list could go on and on.

So I suppose my point is this: literary fiction and poetry about and inspired by sports, and baseball in particular, not only has a lively history but is also still being written. Moreover, everyone should read Summerland because it's really, really great (hell, it taught my mother what a slider is). Moreover, what American childhood would be complete without "Casey at the Bat"?

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville--mighty Casey has struck out.

November 8, 2007

Interview: Kristy Bowen

by Ryo Yamaguchi

feign.jpgAll the poets and I here at dislocate are huge huge fans of Kristy Bowen's latest chapbook, feign, out from New Michigan Press last year, 2006. Okay, I have been trying to find a deft, definitive reason for why I am so enamored of this book, and short of solving any of my own life problems (inability to sleep, lack of rhythm, that reoccurring smell of copper), I have come upon a conclusion: I love these poems for the way they bring an otherwise associative sensibility into a strong sense of scene: how Bowen discovers within and at the corners of her stagings these shadow worlds: or a jar lifted to open the air over the curio: so everything has a pitch toward a silent figure: even has her mind leaps, it finds an accumulating logic.

Or maybe, just have a look at a few of these lines, from one of my favorites, "Girls Reading Novels:"

Violet is named for lavender equations, the glitter at the end of your spine. Avenues grow contradictory, the length of the chain-link divided by the water's murky circle. Kitchen floors tilt at a seventy degree angle while intricate societies are discovered among the broken dishes. My limbs are symmetrical, polite.

Oh, oh that exquisite tone, the abeyance, until we get the ending:

Some terrible violence in the way I say open.

These are careful poems, even as wild as they are. A measured mental conflagration, hoorah! So, so, the real bit here: this has prompted us to invite Kristy Bowen to kick off our series of:

Awesome Interviews with Awesome Writers

Okay, but first, the links:

Please read

What are you working on these days? Any work coming out in the near or semi-near future?

I'm in the midst of a couple of projects, one a collection of love and anti-love poems called the kissing disease, as well as a novel-in-verse type thing about two sisters in 1970's Wisconsin . I'm also plotting another book arts project with Lauren Levato, who I collaborated with on at the hotel andromeda. My second full-length collection, in the bird museum, should be out from Dusie Press in December or January, and another, girl show, is due out in 2009 from Ghost Road

What sorts of things have you been reading?

Lately, I've mostly been indulging my perennial craving for local ghost stories. I spend a lot of time commuting, so it's perfect for reading . Weirdly, I can only read poems in the privacy of my own home, however, since I occasionally like to read them aloud. I just finished Laurel Snyder's Myth of Simple Machines last night. Before that, Larissa Szporluk's Embryos and Idiots. I also tend to read a lot of stuff online. I work in a library, so I'm constantly picking things up, then getting distracted by the next thing, so I start far many more books than I actually finish.

Regarding your own work, do you have a favorite and/or most-representative piece?

fever.jpgI'm still much enamored of at the hotel andromeda, the homage to Joseph Cornell, not just for the poems inside, but the project as a whole. It was very hands on in conception and execution, and probably the thing I'm most proud of as both a poet and a visual artist.

Which writer would you say has had the biggest influence on your writing style?

As perhaps untrendy as it is to say, I'm all about Plath and Sexton. I also tend to read a lot of younger, contemporary female poets, and I'd have to say what I read definitely has a cumulative effect on my writing. Some of them are poets I know (either in real life or internet life) like Simone Muench, Arielle Greenberg, Rebecca Loudon, as well as other poets like Christine Hume, Larissa Szporluk, Mary Ann Samyn, Sabrina Orah Mark, Daphne Gottlieb, and Olena Kalytiak Davis. Also, I'm a big CD Wright fan . Years ago, I think I was reading TS Eliot when I finally "got it" as a poet about eight years ago (I'd been flailing before that). I'm also influenced by a lot of fiction writers--historically the Brontes, Henry James, William Faulkner, and a lot of contemporary writers--Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson.

How important is the specificity of place in your work?

I would consider myself a much more rural-based writer than I would ever consider myself an urban one. While I grew up not too far outside of Rockford, the second biggest city in Illinois, there was a certain element of isolation out where we were. I'm intrigued by that idea of Midwestern gothic, particularly, inspired by all those lonely dark roads, open spaces, that silence that I never get here in the city, that lonely dark-windowed farmhouse that seems to emerge almost from the flat land around it. It's probably why my work is so filled with floods and fires, and car accidents. I've lived in Chicago for the last ten years, and it took awhile for the city really to creep into my work, but it does on occasion. Of course, what I would consider my only Chicago-focused work was a series of poems , Archer Avenue, which was about the city's famous, vanishing hitchhiker legend, which isn't exactly urban in its nature...

If you were a character from Shakespeare, which one would you be?

My favorite Shakespeare play is Titus Andronicus (bloody and violent and wonderful), so I'm not sure I would want to be any of those characters. Seriously.

Are there any "words of wisdom" that linger in your head when you're writing? Any advice that has stayed with you?

I have this great rebelliousness when it comes to people telling me I can't do this or can't do that. Don't use too many adjectives. Don't use the word "dark" in a poem. Of course my reaction is to do exactly that. I once had a fiction workshop leader as an undergrad who said breaking the rules was fine as long as you knew what the rules were.

How would you describe your time/experiences as an MFA/Phd. student?

I enrolled in the MFA program at Columbia College, largely because 1.) I was already working for the school, 2. ) I got to take classes for half price, and 3.) it was a brand spanking new program that seemed promising. I also always worry that I'll regret at some point NOT doing things, so I decided to go for it, figuring it could only make me a stronger writer. I'd already been publishing work for awhile, doing readings, making inroads into some sort of publishing career, so I felt a little conspicuous amongst writers more at the start of their writing "careers" as someone who was, I guess, already in the midst of it. I think I was also a little suspicious of it all. In the end though, I'm certain it made me a tighter poet and fostered a lot of reading and projects I might not have done otherwise.

You meet someone for the first time and they ask you the proverbial, "So, Chief, what is it that you do?" What do you tell them?

I've only recently gotten comfortable with telling them I'm a poet. I feel a little more comfortable with my MFA and a published book backing me up (though obviously those are silly and arbitrary markers of success.) I'm actually more comfortable with "poet' than I am with terming myself an "artist," even though I do a lot of visual art, especially since I'm mostly self-taught in the latter. I also usually mumble something about working in a library and editing when they ask about how I actually make a living.

Favorite poetic form?

I like litanies, and litany-like constructions in the midst of non-litany poems. I also just like the word "litany."

Favorite landscape?

You would think it would be that flat, Midwestern view, but actually I'm an ocean girl. I initially went to college to study Marine Biology in Wilmington, North Carolina, but I'm a poor scientist and bad at math, and ultimately decided I could be an English Major anywhere. If I had my way, I'd be living in a beach front cottage somewhere on a coastline. I guess I'm willing to settle for living a block away from Lake Michigan, which sometimes looks like an ocean.

Bananas or Mittens?

I hate mittens. Especiallly wet wool mittens. So bananas, I guess.

If you were stuck in a room forever, would you rather have limitless writing utensils or a window?

Definitely a window.

Marsupials or Clairvoyance?

Clairvoyance..also a favorite word.

Do you prefer the word "bubbly" or "chipper"?

Yech ... neither.

Do you write by time or by page? Or some other order?

I tend to, over a couple of days, collect notes, thoughts, random bits of things, then sit down to forge them into poem. It usually takes a couple hours, then I'm tweaking it for about a week...

What time of day do you find yourself writing?

Since I work evenings most of the time, until 10pm, I get most things done after that, the middle of the night.

What is the best way to run a writing workshop?

My ideal workshop would be where the participants look at the work in question not as other writers, but as readers. Not so much "If this were my poem, I would x,y, or z." But more like "I'm not getting this as an audience, how can the writer make the piece work toward that end?"

What do you strive for most in your work? Image, meaning, logic, sound, etc? Why?

I'd say image first. Then sound. Meaning maybe. Logic...not so much. I think image and sound are what distinguishes poetry from prose. Not that prose can't be both image and sound driven, but to me, poetry HAS to be.

Kristy Bowen maintains a blog. Her first collection is called the fever almanac.

November 6, 2007

dislocate Poetry Contest

dislocate, a literary journal at the University of Minnesota, announces its first dislocated Poetry Contest: Poems on the theme of Dislocation.

The Winner will receive $500 and publication in the 4th print issue of dislocate.

All entrants will receive a copy of dislocate and be considered for publication.

Entry fee: $10
Page Limit: 5 pages
Deadline: January 31, 2008

We welcome both experimental and traditional forms which stretch the boundaries of poetry.

Each contest submission must include an entry fee. Submissions must also include a self-addressed stamped envelope and cover letter with your name, address, phone number, e-mail, and entry title. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities English department students and faculty are ineligible for this contest.

Simultaneous submissions are accepted; previously published work or e-submissions are not.

Manuscripts will not be returned without a SASE and correct postage. Make entry checks payable to dislocate Magazine.

Send all entries to:

dislocate—Attn: dislocated Poetry Contest
Department of English
222 Lind Hall
207 Church Street SE
Minneapolis, MN 55455-0134

*Please note that non-contest submissions for poetry, fiction, and non-fiction do not require an entry fee and are welcome from September 15 - December 15 every year.

Contact us at with questions. To view previous issues, visit our website at