Showcased Writer: Victoria Kelly

victoria_kelly_photographInterviewed by: Bre Hall

“The Departure” from Issue 11

Victoria Kelly received her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, her B.A. Summa Cum Laude from Harvard University, and her M.Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin, where she was a U.S. Mitchell Scholar. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013 (Scribner) as well as Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, North American Review, Nimrod, and Hopkins Review, among others. Her chapbook, Prayers of an American Wife, was published by Autumn House Press in 2013. Her first full-length poetry collection, When the Men Go Off to War, will be published by the Naval Institute Press in 2015, as the first poetry collection in the Press’s 100-year history. Her debut novel will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2016.

How and when did you come to writing?

I have been stories and poetry for as long as I can remember, but it was while I was an undergraduate at Harvard that I began to think it was something I could pursue seriously. I was fortunate enough to take classes with wonderful writers there, including the poet Peter Richards and the novelist Katherine Vaz.

What was the inspiration by your prose poem, “The Departure”?

This poem is actually a true story. My father is a very intuitive person, and not long before my grandmother died, unexpectedly, he had a dream that my grandfather, who had died a few years earlier, came to get her. They had been married for over fifty years when he died.

Why did you choose to write the “The Departure” as prose poetry? Did you know it would be a prose poem from the beginning?

I set out with the intention of making it a prose poem from the start. I knew I wanted to compile a collection, and I wanted to experiment with different styles of poetry. I had been writing a lot of verse before that, and I wanted to do something different.

What genre of writing do you prefer? Is your other work similar to “The Departure” or different? How?

I also write fiction and earned my MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Fiction. My debut novel is coming out with Simon & Schuster in 2016, and my debut story collection will be published with Queen’s Ferry Press that year also. The Naval Institute Press will be publishing my first poetry collection, When the Men Go Off to War, in Fall 2015.

How have you grown because of writing?

I cannot imagine doing anything else. Writing allows me to feel like my “work” is something I am actually passionate about, something worthwhile. I also have a one-year-old daughter, and another on the way, and it is something I can do while also being a mom.

Showcased Writer: Barbara Tomash

barbara_tomash_photoInterviewed by: Bre Hall

“Canopy,” “After Woods,” “Sentences Split Open Like Seeds,” She Is Justified Against the Margin,” and “Flight” in Issue 11

Barbara Tomash is the author of three books of poetry, Arboreal from Apogee Press (2014), Flying in Water which won the 2005 Winnow First Poetry Award, and The Secret of White from Spuyten Duyvil (2009). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, New American Writing, VOLT, Bateau Press, Verse, Jacket, OmniVerse, ZYZZYVA, Parthenon West Review, Third Coast, Five Fingers Review, Witness and numerous other journals. She lives in Berkeley, California and teaches in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

It was not so much a decision as a circuitous and surprising path.  As a young woman, I worked as an artist, painting, and doing multi-media video installations. I started working on films in my mid-thirties, which was really like beginning again. As an artist, I seemed to make it a habit to be a beginner. Which was often painful—never having full expertise—but, I was looking for something. After laboring on a couple of really bad films, I understood something funny and sad—it was harder to make a bad film than a good one; no matter how much “production value” you brought to it, without a good script, there was no hope. So, as a practical thing, I thought I’d try to write a screenplay. But, it turned out that what I wanted to write was all the narration, the descriptive details, the inner thoughts of the characters, all the stuff you are not supposed to put in a film script. It was then that I wrote my first couple of short stories and enrolled in graduate school to study short story writing—once again, I was really a raw beginner—what a demanding and beautiful form the short story is! Out of curiosity, I took a poetry class—I had never written a poem—and I fell for poetry hard, even obsessively. I remember the tactile sense I had with the very first poem I attempted, transfixed by the endless options and permutations possible in “breaking” lines. That sharp focus and concentration on form was a continuation of what I had been doing as a visual artist—the experimentation, the sense that a poem was an object, made out of language patterns and play, yet full of ideas, of thinking on the page that wasn’t necessarily struggling to tell anything.  I hadn’t felt that thrill of the malleability and physicality of language when I was writing short stories.

Do other genres interest you or do you mainly write poetry?

The other genres interest me enormously—especially the novel and the short story, but I love writing poetry, so that is what I do. For another thing, I’ll quote Fanny Howe: “Poets tend to hover over words in this troubled state of mind. What holds them poised in this position is the occasional eruption of happiness.”

The five poems of yours published in Silk Road take on different forms. Some are prose poems, while others are broken with lines and stanzas. How do you choose what form to use for your poetry? Do you choose the form first? Does the poem lead you to the form?

Such an interesting question.  And one that preoccupies me as I work on my latest project, a book-length series of poems, each one spinning out from dictionary definitions for words beginning with a particular prefix. All the language is found—but, fractured and juxtaposed with a free-hand, freewheeling approach. Although the poems are created by a consistent process using the same source material, they are arriving in a variety of forms. At this point, poem by poem, form is intuitive and highly experimental—I try out things. But, as I put the poems together as a book, I will become more intentional about formal choices and do a lot of further revision. The poems published in Silk Road are all from my most recent book, Arboreal (Apogee Press 2014). For the poems in Arboreal I was looking out the window, and I was listening. I was inspired by how small changes appear to us, what a particular instant of transition looks like, feels like. Often, I was writing at my window just as day turned into evening and then became night. I was arrested in movement—a paradox—the motion of my thinking contained in the view out the window. Light and thought began to feel similar, and I think it was that movement which inspired the poems forms.

Where did the inspiration for your poem, “Flight”, come from?

Thanks for asking about this particular poem, which is the final poem in Arboreal.  It is also one of the first poems I wrote for the book, and so it led the way—though it was a way I eventually had to lose in order to find the book. Which brings me to the idea of navigation and the inspiration for “Flight.” The poem was started one evening when I was writing in a noisy café with some fellow writers I work with regularly. We give each other prompts, usually from books we happen to be reading, and then we free write together. One of us read something aloud—it may have been from a scientific study—I could barely hear her in the din of the café. But a small and moving fact came across—migratory birds flying over thousands of miles of oceans, mountains, and rivers sense shifts in the earth’s magnetic field by relying on tiny iron particles in their beaks—almost undetectable, the infallible compass by which they navigate home. But how do we humans find our way—dizzy, reeling—with body our imperfect compass?

Showcased Writer: Julian Hoffman

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInterviewed by: Katelyn Gomes

“Trinkets” Published in Silk Road No. 11


Julian Hoffman was born in England and grew up in Canada. Since 2000, he and his wife have lived in a mountain village beside the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece. His book, The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World, was chosen by Terry Tempest Williams as the winner of the 2012 AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction. His short stories and essays have recently appeared in EarthLines, Southern Humanities Review, Kyoto Journal, and The Briar Cliff Review. He is currently working on a collection of short stories entitled All the Places We Never Went. You can find out more about Julian at his blog, Notes from Near and Far.

What originally inspired you to write a story that incorporated parts of Yugoslavian history?

A couple of things sparked this story. The first was having a Slovenian friend visit us in northern Greece where my wife and I live. The lake we live beside is shared by three countries – Greece, Albania, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYR of Macedonia) – and one afternoon the three of us went down for a swim. There in the water, our friend, who lived some 1,200 kilometres north of us, looked over at the first village that you can see in FYR of Macedonia, just the other side of the invisible border that runs through the lake, and said: “Wow. That was my country at one time.”

Returning home, our friend would travel back through a number of different, independent states that only a few years earlier had all been one. In the 1990s, Yugoslavia – which simply means South Slavs – became a byword for atrocities and ethnic strife, yet for many decades it was an extraordinary (for right or wrong) project of nation-building that brought together Croats, Serbs, Slovenians, Bosnians, Kosovars, Montenegrins and Macedonians into one country. My friend’s comment reminded me that for a lot of people the splintering of Yugoslavia dismantled their sense of place, allegiance and identity.

The second spark for the story was travelling to Skopje, the capital of FYR of Macedonia, and seeing its old railway station, parts of which had somehow survived the awful 1963 earthquake that destroyed so much of the city, killed over a thousand people, and left 200,000 homeless. The railway clock still marks the terrible moment of loss and destruction – 5:17AM – having never moved forward a single second since that day. When I saw the hour and minute hands suspended in time like that, I knew it needed to be a part of the story.

How did you decide to write a character whose life and desires are so based in preserving the past?

I began exploring Skopje a little bit more with each visit, delving into the old bazaar and seeking out of the artefacts of its past while walking around the modern city built from the ruins of the old after the earthquake. One day I passed a small office in one of the city streets. Through the large glass windows I could see two middle-aged men sitting in a room surrounded by photos of Marshal Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia, alongside books by him and other Communist politicians and thinkers. I was fascinated by this place and the small Yugoslavian Communist flags that were flown from a table outside that signaled another, now non-existent, country and era. I kept asking myself: Who were these men? How did they go about their lives in this new country? Who were these citizens who believed so deeply in the old system? Through the character of Vlado, I wanted to explore these questions. Much has been said about the violence of the Yugoslavian wars, but I wanted to write about a different kind of conflict, the inner struggle between old and new, between two differing political philosophies.

Which side are you on when it comes to preserving the past or embracing the future?

For me it’s not a question of one or the other, but rather to ask what kind of a future we’re embracing and what kind of a past we’re preserving. I look ahead and see a future of climate change and species extinction because of the way we live our lives, yet at the same time I see a greater degree of social justice and equality than we’ve experienced in the past, including beneficial advances in science and medicine. There’s value in preserving aspects of the past, but other parts of it we’ve thankfully left behind. I don’t think past and future are mutually exclusive ideas.  They are simply the brackets around the choices we make today.

What was your approach to writing a story about the juxtaposition between the past and future?

Before I could write about the past I had to begin learning the city’s history. I didn’t know anything at all about Skopje before I moved to the region. While reading about the place, I discovered that the city had been the focus of much of the world’s attention at the time of the earthquake. John-Paul Sartre spoke out, saying “Skopje is not a film, not a thriller where we guess the chief event. It is a concentration of man’s struggle for freedom, with a result which inspires further struggles and no acceptance of defeat.” John F. Kennedy authorized the U.S. Department of Defense to send members of the 8th Army there to provide assistance to the injured and homeless. The Italian novelist Alberto Moravia famously said that “Skopje is the responsibility of all of us,” that one day we might all “become Skopjians.” Artists including Pablo Picasso donated paintings in the aftermath when the city was in the process of restoring its museums and other cultural sites, and countries such as Romania, Mexico and the UK gave considerable aid in the vast job of reconstruction. And yet, within years, the city had slipped from the world’s view again, like so many places around us. Despite today’s headlines, will we remember the Kurdish Syrian city of Kobani in a few years’ time? Julia Whitty writes that, “For all the stories we come to know, however obliquely, thousands more are lost forever.” As a writer, there are deep layers of history – personal, public and political – to excavate and sift through in any place we choose, whether it’s somewhere famous and far away, or nearby and nearly forgotten. There’s much in the world that needs remembering.

What do you draw upon for inspiration when you’re writing?

The infinite possibilities of place. That, together with the natural world, is my sustaining inspiration. As Alix Kates writes: “Within walking distance of any spot on Earth there’s probably more than enough mystery to investigate in a lifetime.”