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Elizabeth Knapp and Nathan Leslie: A Conversation

Nathan: What gravitated you towards poetry initially? Which poets have impacted your work?

Elizabeth: Words and language have been at the center of my life for as long as I can remember, but I started writing what I consider to be real poems in high school. I continued writing and taking poetry workshops throughout college. When I started my MFA in my mid-twenties, I fully committed to poetry, understanding of course that writing poems is a vocation, not a profession, a way of being in and translating the world.

As a young poet, I loved poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost—all dead white male canonical poets. The more I read the more my interest gravitated toward contemporary women poets. Some of my favorites from that period include Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Linda Gregg, and Brigid Pegeen Kelly. As a grad student, I discovered the work of Larry Levis, who’s still somewhere in the top five. Now there are too many to list, but a few poets whose new books I never miss include Frank Bidart, Anne Carson, Terrance Hayes, and Deborah Landau.

Elizabeth: What’s the first book that had great impact on you, and what did it teach you? What’s the last book you read and loved?

Nathan:  When I was 18 years old as an undergraduate at Mary Washington College I took a survey class in the short story with a professor I took the previous semester and we had a short story anthology (I can still picture the cover–I still have the book in my basement somewhere). It blew my mind. At 18 I had never even heard of writers like Malamud or Cortazar or Carver or Borges or Singer or Joyce Carol Oates. I fell in love with the short story at that point, and though I had no concept of how to write yet, I read everything I could get my hands on.

My love for the short story has not waned. I just view it as the perfect literary form–far superior to the plodding, somewhat stodgy novel, for instance. I love novels also, of course, but the short story is so elegant and streamlined–nothing wasted!–but it also contains within its potential entire worlds. I think that is the innate power of the short story–that a good short story could be a novel, but it doesn’t have to be. This involves the reader and engages in a way that the novel can do, but only through accretion (and sometimes artifice). I also view the short story now as the classic American contribution to the history of world literature. It is astounding to me that one thousand paged esoteric novels sell more copies than taut truth-telling short story collections. I know which one I’d rather read. I enjoy an ambitious novel, but why is this the most admired form? I think it has to do with suffering.

For me though I think of story collections as a kind of literary album–I look for motifs and connections. The best story collections are not just a random assemblage–they are unified. But this sounds a bit pretentious–in my view the most interesting books are not just academic. They have “cross-overall” appeal for the average reader. I guess I really just want to write stories that I’d like to read. There is one more side to this issue: readership is one of the implicit downsides of AWP and other writers’ conferences. Do we want our books to only be read by other writers? Is that enough? Do we want a closed circuit? Elizabeth, I’d like to see your book advertised on bus stops and billboards and read by nurses and gardeners and plumbers. But I digress….As for recent books, I enjoyed the two latest Ottessa Moshfegh books I read. They are not perfect books, but they are well crafted and she is fearless and biting—qualities I admire in a writer. 

Nathan: I want to ask you about how you view your work in context. We live in such an overheated environment politically. How do you manage to grapple with verse these days in this milieu?

Elizabeth: Well, obviously the political poetry market is booming right now, as well it should be. Poets bear witness and speak truth to power. That’s what we’ve always done and will always do. I personally felt compelled to write about what’s happening in our country after the 2016 election. I needed an outlet for my rage, and it just so happened that I also needed something to write about. As a result, at least a third of Requiem either directly or indirectly deals with our current political state. I imagine there are more poems of this ilk to come in the next book, and I’m seeing more and more poets publish them as well. Decades from now, I think this period of literary history will become known for its theme of resistance.

Elizabeth: What writers or works have influenced you? In what literary tradition would you place your work?

Nathan: I used to answer this question by listing all my favorite writers–of which there are hundreds. However, now I prefer to just say that the influences can probably be seen by the attentive reader. Also, at this point in my career, I am not even sure myself who or what is an influence. As a writer it becomes a situation where I have read and absorbed so much (music and films and art are also huge for me), it’s difficult to really say with any kind of certitude. Also, and more importantly, Hurry Up and Relax–like my other books–is not a book about books or other writers. It’s a book about what is happening around us right now. Isolation. The strange universe of the Internet. Phoniness. For instance, many of the characters in this book have a sketchy moral compass—though they are trying to right the ship. This seems to be symptomatic of our age. At the same time as I was immersed in writing the stories within this book, I was also writing another short story collection (the companion book, really) that I’m currently calling A Fly in the Ointment (I am seeking publication for this collection). Where Hurry Up and Relax attempts to capture this gonzo social media-inflected culture, the stories in A Fly in the Ointment have a different, more somber ambiance. Reality is what most inspires me–I try to capture it, in my own (perhaps weirdo) way. So I guess I’m still pretty much a realist? Is that still a category?

Let me put it this way–though I admire historical fiction and science fiction, I am most attuned to observational fiction about what it is to live and breathe today. I like to write about things I notice in the real world in 2019 (soon to be 2020). I am not a writer to world build. The world is already built (too built!)–I just have to attempt to squeeze it into a bottle in my own way. Sorry, I’m a gnarly contrarian. And by the way, though I just stuck some pins in the novel, I’m writing two of them–maybe someday I will figure out how to write a novel that contains the power of the best short stories. Oh, I should also mention that I had three really good mentors who helped me–Steve Watkins at Mary Washington, Richard Peabody at the Writer’s Center and Reg McKnight at University of Maryland. All three were selfless, giving mentors and I am indebted. I hope to do right by them.

Nathan: Requiem with an Amulet in Its Beak includes a number of poems about Kurt Cobain. As a Nirvana and music fan, I was drawn to them. Can you talk a bit about these poems and what inspired you?

Elizabeth: The idea for the Cobain series began in 2014, when Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Something about watching it, even without Kurt, trigged a wave of nostalgia for my youth, and I set out to write a poem about it. The first attempt was terrible—overly sentimental and forced—so I abandoned it for a year, until one day I wrote one poem, and then another, and another, until I’d written over the course of a week about a dozen prose poems featuring Kurt Cobain. In this series, the speaker refers to herself in the third person and uses the figure of Cobain as a sort of mannequin for her dress up. I don’t know why they’re in prose, but I do know that was the beginning of an entire year in which everything was coming out in sentences instead of lines.

Elizabeth: In what ways does teaching affect your writing? How do you balance the seasonal demands of academia with sustained literary practice?

Nathan: It’s a good life that gives me plenty of times to play. Teaching at NOVA definitely keeps me busy from late August to early May and then I have the summer. I get most of my writing done over the summer, of course. So this creates a nice seasonal ebb and flow to my life. However, I do some revision, tinkering, manuscript submissions and so forth during the school year. I also take a lot of notes for future works. Occasionally I will write something new if I have a window of time. As a writer I need some air. I still really enjoy teaching and bringing new writers into the fold. It always surprises and challenges me and the best part is molding those minds. It’s a way to make a positive impact on the world–a good teacher is hard to find. I try to be one.

Nathan: It seems to me that art and music and other forms of expression may be an influence on some of your work. Is this the case? If so, how does that operate for you within the writing process?

Elizabeth: Art and music are major influences on my life and work and subjects I often turn to for inspiration. I teach a course on ekphrasis, so I’ve read and thought a lot about the intersection of literature and the visual arts. Requiem contains a number of ekphrastic poems, including poems on famous paintings and a series on Hollywood blockbusters. Even “Self-Portrait as Cindy Sherman’s Instagram Account” I consider an ekphrastic poem of sorts.

Requiem contains many poems about famous musicians, mainly because some famous musicians (David Bowie, Prince, George Michael) died during the period in which the poems were written. A certain nostalgia for the 80s and 90s pervades the collection. If Requiem has a soundtrack, that’s its era.

Elizabeth: The first story in Hurry Up and Relax, “The Other Person,” uses the second person to great comic effect. The book as a whole moves through various points of view—from second to first to third-person limited. What is the role of point of view in the book? How do you determine point of view when beginning a story?

Nathan: Great question! I wish I could tell you. In “The Other Person,” I am obviously having a bit of fun at the expense of the second person, as you mention. In my previous book, Three Men, I wrote all three novellas contained within that book in the third person. Many stories in Hurry Up and Relax are in the first person, with a few exceptions. I just found myself gravitating toward the voices in this book. In our current culture individual voices seem to be often lost in the shuffle. In many ways I prefer the first person because it is immediately engaging and I can use the slanted or unreliable narrator for my purposes. I also find it compelling the way the first person connects with things like our “fake news” culture. Everyone has a story to tell but will they tell it straight or tell it slant, so to speak? Or some muddy combination thereof? Point of view is and always has been one of the most intriguing aspects of the short story to me. I can dive into another’s consciousness, stay there awhile, and then leave. I hope the result creates a textured experience for the reader. That’s the goal.

Nathan: I love the surreal dream imagery in your work. Is this something you have always been drawn to or is it something unique to Requiem?

Elizabeth: I think all art is a manifestation of the subconscious, and poetry and dreams are naturally intertwined, in that both operate within the world of metaphor and symbol. The poem is the product of a journey through the dream realm. And yes, this process is something that’s always fascinated me. It’s impossible to try to create or force the state of lucid dreaming that occurs when writing, but when it happens, it’s like flying.

Elizabeth: Hurry Up and Relax contains quite an eclectic cast of characters. How much of what you write is based on people and situations you have personally encountered? How much is autobiographical?

Nathan: Almost nothing is autobiographical in this collection. I’m not usually that kind of writer really–and it is a good thing because my life is pretty tame (just the way I like it). I tend to proceed journalistically as a kind of arm-chair anthropologist as the default mode. Also, in this collection I’m doing a lot of fun-poking and playing with satire in some cases. That said, I am a horrible thief of the anecdotes or insights of others. Beware–if you tell me something interesting, the chances are I will snag it and incorporate it into my fiction somewhere/somehow. In many of the stories within this collection I am also trying out some new voices and the language is a bit different than that of some of my previous books. The characters come from multiple sources–though perhaps a few are initially based on people I know or lived situations. But from there I run with it.