Dark Matter: Review of Rue, by Kathryn Nuernberger

Reviewed by Monica Monk

“God, I found an explanation for why it always seems I have/walked into a library and been handed just the book I needed.” For a beginning poet learning to express authentic voice and emotion, for anyone craving a “real” conversation with a friend about topics such as marriage, imaginary affairs, motherhood, or middle age, the poems in Kathryn Nuernberger’s 2020 collection Rue feel like walking into a library and being handed just the book you have needed. The speaker of “The Threshold of the Unseen World” as in other poems in this collection views the world through a lens of apophenia, the tendency to find patterns in unrelated things. The speaker continues: “With apophenia it’s hard to know where you are supposed to stop./I don’t think you are supposed to stop.” Rue’s poems never stop finding and making patterns. Each quickly gathers forward momentum, pauses for a moment to conclude and then transports the reader to the next poem and the next pattern. The poems feel as though they are meant to be read in one sitting; together, they work as a set of spells against the incoherence of life, aging, and public persona. 

A doctor who shared the same room with me

and the same moment in time said so generously that apophenia

doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going crazy. “Our relentless

detection of patterns is a defense mechanism, instinct. It is a great

challenge, learning to bear incoherence.”

Nuernberger’s poems weave together unrelated things that most definitely become related in the course of the poem. Rue feels like one long pattern recognition experience; long poems blend docupoetics and narrative, images and themes that build coherent emotional, intellectual sculptures from personal, natural, and world histories. 

In “A Lee Bontecou Retrospective,” the speaker reflects on the artist Bontecue’s renderings of the eye, noting that “…A brain must be at least a little disordered not to/ look at a sideways eye careening through the galaxy/ and think of a vagina…”. She continues: 

Sometimes/I worry about massive political systems. Sometimes

I worry about my private relationships. Sometimes,

I feel like I am the eye inside the boat and saying

something will make a difference. Other times

it is clear an eye has no mouth, no hand, no keel.

This poem converses ekphrastically with Bontecue’s art. Lee Bontecue, who passed away recently on November 8, 2022, was known for her sculpture, drawing, and printmaking and, connecting with the ecopoetic poems of Rue, organic sculptures of fish, plants, and flowers. Her work married plastics and other found objects with the natural world. So, too, do Nuernberger’s poems in Rue. The female body, the I/eye navigates the constructed spaces from cultivated earth to coffee shops, sometimes with and sometimes without a voice, agency, or direction.

In the collection, the speaker writes from the isolation of a rural Midwestern farm, a dissolving marriage, and early motherhood. Isolation gives rise to duende and deep imagery in the long stanzas of the poems in Rue. The poems both build on and diverge from her work in The End of Pink and Rag & Bone as they amplify a style that emerged in these two earlier collections, a kind of expansion and contraction of the narrative “eye,” like the eye inside the boat. Using this eye, the poems in Rue navigate dimensions of time and space to make deft turns to duende after beginning with personal narrative, reminiscent of the style of James Wright. “I’m making a little notebook of pressed flowers/with my daughter. We learn their names in Latin/and we learn the names the midwife-witches/would have used,” the speaker begins, inviting the listener into the poem “The Bird of Paradise,” and then in the next stanza travels back to the seventeenth century world of the German naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian. The seeds of the “bird of paradise” flower that Merian studied–“The rich depth of those seeds—crushed/they make the richest black ink in the world” become the vehicle for the metaphor of racism, sexism, and other horrors that Merian journalled from her time in the imperialist Dutch colony in Surinam and back in her home city of Frankfurt. The speaker considers her own ethical positionality in her admiration of the complex character Merian’s work as a female naturalist nearly four centuries ago in contrast with the troubling reading of Merian’s racist accounts of her time in Surinam in her letters back home. 

This kind of interrogation of truth is not limited to historical figures; the speaker also applies it to her own personal narrative in “Poor Crow’s Got Too Much Fight to Live,” in which she recursively interrogates her own memory of an experience of sexual assault by an OB/GYN five years before. In the time of #MeToo, this poem powerfully reflects transgressions against the female body and narratives. Here, as in other poems, the speaker’s emotion eclipses the conditional nature of histories. Feeling transcends action. As the speaker of “When We Dead Awaken” advises: “If you feel like you’re in love, you have either to remember/or forget that a feeling can only last a little while./What you should do with your little while, I can’t say.” 

Enjambment in this poem further highlights the use of the conditional and the notion of translation in Nuernberger’s writing: “We learn their names in Latin/and we learn the names the midwife-witches/would have used.” Nuernberger has already interrogated the place of Latin in a poem about Linnaeus’ arbitrary naming of plants and animals alongside the naturalist’s racism; Latin implies linguistic imperialism, and the act of translation from Latin into the midwife vernacular alongside the use of the conditional modality allows the speaker to shift their place a little in space and time to occupy the resistant space of the midwife-witches. Similarly, the speaker in “You Get What You Get and You Don’t Throw a Fit” uses the conditional to escape imperialist historical narrative: “I wish I could imagine the roving stars of a woman or two,/but this is a story of the sea, not the biography of some girl/who thinks world history (1492-last week) should have had a different x-y axis…If ever there was one like me, she’s plotted nowhere/except on a map of Latitude-What-Was and Longitude-/What-Might-Have-Been.”

Many of the poems focus on direct communication about sexual/personal transgressions and desire and the ways that we confound ourselves when attempting to be authentic and true to ourselves. The speaker contemplates the viability of different strategies for dissuading a town elder from touching her in a coffee shop, going to sleep angry instead of having unsatisfactory sex with her husband, what is “great” or “good enough” in marriage, the falsehood of workplace personas. The membrane between speaker and listener/reader feels very thin, and often, the poems pose important questions without conclusive answers. 

But there is also hope: interspersed are poems about flowers with medicinal purposes that offer us a kind of philosophical healing from the ambiguity of the speaker’s relatable life situations. In “Pennyroyal,” a list poem about the many guises and uses of this flowering species in the mint family, the speaker concludes: “We’re so many versions of ourselves. We try this, we try that./ Sometimes we’re efficacious. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re for.” Here, the speaker gives permission for the metamorphoses that our bodies and social identities undergo in life, like the butterflies that the lone female naturalist Merian, imperiling herself in her misogynist eighteenth-century society, identified as coming from caterpillars rather than being “transfigurated witches doing the devil’s work.” And Rue’s first poem begins with a quote from photographer Diane Arbus: “Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.” The speaker of Nuernberger’s Rue begins to dismantle the performances of young adulthood and middle age and gives the reader permission to let go a little and consider what darker parts of ourselves we might dive into, as with the pennyroyal plant or in Maya’s lake of “When We Dead Awaken,” where the speaker reassures us that “…When you jump in—and you have to jump in—the cold/stops your heart for a second and then it comes back/in a seizure of beating that makes your vision blur./That is also a feeling that can only last so long.” In their expanding radius of action, the bodily turns to duende in Rue remind us that these joyous and sinister transformations, like the majority of our universe, are dark matter, and like dark matter, their—and our own– energy density remains the same even as the universe and our selves expand.

About the Reviewer: Monica Monk teaches college English in the Pacific Northwest. She holds Master of Arts degrees in both Germanics and also Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). In 2022, she was awarded a year’s sabbatical to pursue a Master of Arts in Professional and Creative Writing at Central Washington University. She spent her college years in Northfield, Minnesota and three years studying and teaching in Germany; otherwise, she has lived all of her life in Washington State.

An Interview with John Kropf

By Megan Neary

John Kropf’s Color Capital of the WorldGrowing Up with the Legacy of a Crayon Company is a feat of in-depth history blended with personal and family memoir. He tells the story of the rise and fall of the American Crayon company, which was founded by his relatives shortly after the civil war. This story of one innovative company offers insight into the early, exciting days of the city of Sandusky, Ohio, as well as a picture of how and why the factory closed down and Sandusky became a member of the so-called rust belt. Paired with the history of this company and Kropf’s family are stories of Kropf’s own life- from the joy he felt at sticking his head into a bin of crayons and breathing in their unique scent, to his later return visits to the city as an adult. Each chapter is named for a color- a color that can be found in a box of crayons and a color that stood out to Kropf as he recalled and wrote each story. The book is educational, entertaining, and colorful, much like the crayons that play such an important role in it. 

Kropf is an attorney by trade, but a writer at heart. He said, “I always thought, you know, being an attorney there’d be more security and it would be kind of a safe route to take and I’ve really enjoyed the career I’ve had, but I’ve always nursed this sort of inner artist, you know, there’s this secret life I feel like I’ve lived. Some people paint, some people are musicians, and I feel like I have this Walter Mitty fantasy that perhaps I could be a writer.” He’s kept a journal since he was eighteen and published various short pieces, including one on this site, called Hard Hat in an Information Age. He’s also the author of Unknown Sands, a travel book inspired by his time living in Turkmenistan. 

He said he was inspired to write this book when  “I was reading about how in Sandusky they were demolishing [the American Crayon factory] and I thought that was really marking the end of an era for me and then at the same time I had both my mother died and my sister died and they were sort of the last family connections to that company and I just thought I had all these stories that I wanted to share with somebody. I thought they’d be interesting, at least, everyone seems to like crayons, so I wanted to tell those stories.”

“I had put together sort of family stories that were pretty broad in their scope… then during Covid I had a lot more time at home to really narrow it down and when I finally found a publisher through the University of Akron Press they really helped me a lot to kind of narrow the focus and they said let’s just focus, you know, on  the crayon stories and the crayon company.”

“I added the color chapters, I don’t know, fairly early on. I was worried it would sound hokey but I thought the stories really cried out to have a chapter named after a color sort of associated with something in that story.”

“For me I was fortunate I had a lot of papers and correspondence that was handed down through my family that I got to look through that helped me to understand what was going on in the company at the time.” 

“In Ohio all kinds of intellectual, industrial forment was going on. You had the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison’s from Ohio, you had all kinds of automobile start up companies…

 You had the railroads were first sort of started in Northern Ohio. The start of this company was part of that innovative spirit. It was basically members of my family experimenting in the kitchen to try to come up with a new formula for chalk which then led to the crayons. We often think of Silicon Valley, you know, in the late seventies, early eighties as people being innovative in their garages, you know, Steve jobs and so on creating PCs, but there was quite a bit of this spirit going on in the late 1800s.”

“As I was thinking about these stories I guess I have a tendency to kind of sympathize with or understand, you know, in certain eastern cultures there’s this tendency for ancestor worship and I kind of understood that because i had all of these, I was very very fortunate I had all of these artifacts from the family that had been preserved and handed down and having them all around me they were all talking to me in a way, they were all telling me stories in a way and I think the longer i was away from my hometown… I thought I don’t want these, what I consider really interesting stories, to be lost, I want to be able to tell them to a wider audience.”

Once he had written the book, Kropf turned his attention to getting it published. He had experience with this process, having published the book Unknown Sands, a travel book about living in Turkmenistan. He said,  “I really zeroed in on small independent presses or university presses that I knew might be interested and were in that region and I was not with an agent so that made it a pretty clean relationship there. And university of Akron, it just so happened that they’re doing a series on Ohio history and culture and this fit into that series and I was just really fortunate that it worked out well and it’s probably not your traditional book from an academic press…because it blends personal memoir with history so it might be a little bit of a hybrid so I’m just really thrilled that they took it on.

When it comes to getting a book out in the world Kropf said “part one is writing the book which is a really consuming process and then the second is finding a publisher and then the third, which I’m in right now, is really trying to get your book noticed, you know, get it marketed and get people to pay attention to it. It sort of feels, you know, like you have this child you’ve raised and you send this child on out into the world and you want everyone to like your child and take notice and that’s sort of where I am now.”

When it comes to future publications, he said “I have some other family stories I think might have some literary value on my father’s side of the family. I have my grandfather who was in World War 1 and he was in something called the balloon observed corp and he was actually, they had a small group of soldiers that went up in these balloons four, five thousand feet up in the air and they looked down, you know, in France they’d look down at the lines of the Germans and report back what they would see and it was a highly dangerous specialty to be in in the army because these balloons were frequently shot down and the parachutes that they had were very primitive, early parachutes and they didn’t always work and I had his diary from that time. I’ve donated it to the Smithsonian but I’ve kept a copy and I’ve thought there might be a book in there somewhere.”

About the Author: Megan Neary is a Co-founding editor of Flyover Country, a teacher, and a widely published writer of fiction and criticism.

An Interview with Donna and William Burtch

By Megan Neary

Ohio-based siblings William and Donna Burtch have written a captivating biography of their ancestor, William Gould “W.G.” Raymond. The book’s cover gives a glimpse into the complexity of Raymond’s life, reading “W.G. The opium-addicted, pistol toting preacher who raised the first Federal African American troops.” The Burtches do a superb job of examining this man’s complexity, his flaws and his virtues, to give the reader a three-dimensional view of Raymond. Raymond’s story and that of his troops have largely fallen through the cracks of history, making it particularly encouraging to see new light shone on these individuals’ contributions to the union. 

I had the opportunity to sit down with the Burtches and discuss their work with them. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Megan Neary (MN): How did you learn about this story to begin with?

Donna Burtch (DB): I’ll tell you the real genesis for it was family conversations in Pennsylvania years ago. Our mother and her sister were really close and my aunt, our aunt, had this manuscript of W.G.’s that he wrote in 1892. So we had heard the stories in the conversations with our relatives and in, probably, 1986 we got a copy of the manuscript…. We all read it and thought there’s so much unique stuff around this guy’s life and we would like to know more. Well, you know, life gets in the way, we had careers, I had children, we went through the whole lifespan of what you can do and it takes you off track of writing…. I started doing genealogy, too, maybe ten years ago and [W.G.] was in part of the family tree. So, of course I got some more scoop on him through my ancestry research. … And so, every once in a while, we’d talk about him. Well then, it was right around Thanksgiving we started having conversations…. Our original plan was to try and create a documentary. … The most exciting thing was we were able to see pretty quickly that everything we researched that [W.G.] had talked about in his own notes was true. You know, we were able to pretty early on corroborate this stuff, so that gave us a lot of encouragement to keep going. 

William Burtch (WB): We both said one of the best life experiences we’ve had is researching this book and writing it and corroborating it. W.G. Raymond widely fell through the cracks of history … so it’s gratifying that we can bring this man’s story out 160 years later and find a receptive audience for it and we have. It’s remarkable and just makes us feel so glad that we took the time to do it. And it was just an interesting story that kept unfolding for us and amazingly the writing just worked out well. We just divided it up by life stage and then we’d share each other’s writing and by editing between us it became just sort of our voice. Because the risk you run obviously when you co-write something is just that, that you’re going to get two very different voices and it won’t jive, and by doing that we were able to make it essentially one voice. … So, it’s been just a remarkable ride for us. 

MN: What was the process like to get it published?

WB: Yeah, it was interesting. We’ve learned a lot. It’s been a real crash course in the publishing industry, which, as you know, has gone through a remarkable, really, sea change over the last few years due to technology and so forth. We wanted to go the traditional publisher route for a variety of reasons, but mostly just for access to a certain distribution. Our motive all along has been to get W.G. Raymond’s story told… so we wanted to go traditional if possible. … So, we knew we’d have to reach out to agents, but, that being said, we knew there were also a small number of publishers that will still look at a manuscript and they tend to be university presses, smaller independent publishers. So, what we did is we covered our bases. We were reaching out to agents, and we were reaching out to those publishers that still accepted manuscripts concurrently and we got encouraging feedback from all those channels. We got some interaction with agents that wanted to read the full manuscript and we responded to those and we had different questions back and forth but there wasn’t anything really concrete happening. We were hopeful, and, at the same time, we got some feedback from traditional publishers, including Kent State University press, that were interested. … Sunbury press,  who is a small independent press in Pennsylvania, they specialize in history. Notably, it was baseball history in the beginning. That was their niche. But then they expanded into regular history and biographies and autobiographies and that’s why we had targeted them. And I’ll step back a minute and say that we were very targeted in our approach… we didn’t just shotgun to anybody, and we think that helped us and it was time well-spent. … Our main goal, we always felt like it’s less important how big or how well known the particular publisher, than it is just to get us to have the book in our hands because we knew that we would do a lot of outreach. So, we were excited, and Sunbury, as it turns out, really appreciated the manuscript and that meant a lot to us. We felt that it was important to them and that meant a lot to us. …. We’ve also learned that publicity, as publishers are doing less and less of it, they’re pushing more of it on to the authors, for budget reasons. It’s so competitive, so we’ve had to learn a lot about publicity and outreach and so forth, but it’s been a wonderful experience. We’ve learned a lot and we’re just so happy that we had the opportunity to do this.

MN: It seems like it went pretty quickly.

WB: It was an unusual time. You know, it was covid, we were all trapped at home. Research on the internet is so much easier now; everything fell together. I had lost my wife three years ago in November and it was, this was somewhat of a salvation too, because being alone all the sudden… it just helped me fill the time in a creative way and an engrossing way. And that helped so much with the mourning process as well. It’s just strange everything fell together with the timing so we were able to write it quickly. It’s not a real long book; it’s barely over a  hundred pages, but his story, he’s a very interesting man and we didn’t want to fill it with minutia. We wanted the bigger headlines because we had some– he had some pretty big moments and we really wanted to focus on those and let his autobiography, even though it’s 160 years old, speak for itself. …We wanted to focus on the things that fell through the history, that fell through the gaps, so that’s why it’s only one hundred some pages. But we feel like it’s a hundred, hopefully, impactful pages. 

DB: The weirdest part of it—I think it’s true for both of us—but in going back 160 years and looking at the dynamics of what Washington D.C. was like and then what the president was like and what these major players were like and then you fast forward 160 years and you realize things haven’t changed very much. Like, the opioid addiction, you know, and WG himself had a ten-year battle with full-blown addition. Race relations … divided country … that was one of our takeaways. It was strange that the story, in many ways, though the backdrop was different, the storylines could be from today’s time.

WB: The risk of a lot of, any history book, really, is is it relevant to today’s reader. Is it providing something new and is it relevant? Can they relate to it? And… it’s just remarkable how the headlines could literally come from today with the challenges we’re facing as a country. …This is very relevant to today and it’s important that people understand, you know, it’s easy to look at any given time and think, wow, things have never been this bad. I mean, the world’s falling apart and that’s why the study of history is so important because it gives perspective and you learn 160 years ago—guess what? We had racial tensions; we had drug addiction; we had an incredibly divided country with people shooting at each other. … You go back, and you say, what lessons can we learn, having dealt with this 160 years ago? How are we dealing with this today? And so, hopefully, that’s resonating with different readers and the feedback we’re getting seems to say that it is. And that makes us feel really good. 

DB: There were so many times in WG’s life when things happened, as they do in any of our lives, and it was largely a story of kind of rebuilding and forging on. In some ways, of kind of redemption. So, that was another element that drew me, was his personal challenges 

WB: It’s a wonderful thing at this stage of life and there’s a message for your audience, or your readers. I mean, clearly, we’re living proof that’s it’s never too late if the stuff’s in you. It’s just a matter of accessing it and getting it out and that’s the joy of it—it’s discovery every day.

MN: Is there anything else you want to add?

WB: A good part of our story has to do with African Americans enlisting heroically on the streets of Washington D.C., which, at that time, was a wild place. … It was right on the cusp of the north and the south. … It was a very wild town and, as you know, there’s a lot of talk of the 54th, as there should be. The 54th of Massachusetts regiment, which was founded and authorized by the governor of Mass. And the movie, Glory, was made in the late 80s. … That was always my take on African Americans fighting in the civil war, what I sort of saw in the movie, Glory. But, in doing this book, we saw that there’s so much more, so many more stories that, as we said, fell through the cracks. … Importantly, though, were the troops that he [WG] raised in Washington. He got authorization directly from Lincoln to do this (WG did), and he set about raising these troops and recruiting and hundreds came forth. And these had been escaped slaves, freed men, different backgrounds. And they came forth to fight. And they trained on the streets of Washington. And they took terrible jeers and, you know, horrible abuse from the crowd. There were supporters of course, too. But, you know, it was tough. And WG himself almost got shot in the head in a recruiting meeting because people were so opposed to this. And that story is important in a lot of ways because it didn’t obviously have the benefit of dramatic productions and so forth, but it was very real. And these people were very real, and they were signing up, and it was before they had real sponsorship or support from anyone. So, probably, the most rewarding thing for us from this journey is to get their story out there, and to make sure that people are at least aware. As important and heroic as the 54th of Massachusetts were, there are others as well that had heroic stories that just were lost. … If nothing else comes out of this whole thing, you know, we take great comfort in knowing at least we’re getting that part of the story somewhat told.

About the Interviewer: Megan Neary is the co-editor-in-chief of Flyover Country. She is a teacher, writer, and editor living in Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals and newspapers.

Rust Belt Femme: A Conversation with Raechel Anne Jolie

Interview Conducted by Brianna Di Monda

Raechel Anne Jolie grew up in northeast Ohio with her mom before receiving her PhD from the University of Minnesota and going on to publish her memoir, Rust Belt Femme. The book was a winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award in LGBTQ Nonfiction and an NPR Favorite Book of 2020. Her story covers her experience growing up in poverty with her single mother after her father is hit by a car. She navigates permanently altered relationships with her parents, grandparents, friend, and boyfriends, and finally finds a home in queer pop culture and the local punk scene. Jolie kindly agreed to an interview about her memoir, and together we discussed witchcraft, male care, code-switching, and common perceptions of so-called “white trash.”

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brianna Di Monda: You wrote your memoir after getting your PhD from the University of Minnesota. Why the pivot? What drew you to writing a memoir after working in academia for so long? Had you written personal essays or creative nonfiction—or just journaled—before?

Raechel Anne Jolie: Why the pivot: One reason is that many people with PhDs were pushed out of academia in any sustainable way. I had short-term contract positions and never landed that secure, full-time position, which is increasingly rare in academia. So part of it was not having a stable job. Although I continued to adjunct, part of the deal in academia is that everything you write is academic research. It dawned on me that I wasn’t getting paid to research in the way that, in theory, professors have a salary and research is part of that. So I thought, “Why am I wasting time?”

I was a creative writer since I was a kid. This actually didn’t make it in the book, but I used to have a notebook that I would write stories in. My creative nonfiction really developed through LiveJournal and online blogging. I realized that I enjoyed writing about myself by bringing in theory. When I decided not to keep doing academic writing that I don’t enjoy, I just let myself start writing this book instead.

BD: Did you have journals and old writing that you pulled from and compiled into the book?

RAJ: I had tons of journals. My mom, as you read, moved around a lot, so I think my personal journals probably exist in a storage facility somewhere or a friend’s basement, but I didn’t have a ton of access to those. I do have photographic memories of some of those journal pages, so I definitely drew on very concrete memories of pages. But as I write at the beginning of the book, the memoir is my version of my memory.

BD: That’s an incredible testament to your memory. I also read in your interview with Hippocampus that you cast a spell to get your book accepted by Belt Publishing. And I noticed aspects of witchcraft in your memoir. You say the lightning bugs on Tinkers Creek were your “first foray into witchcraft” (when you were five) and that they were “sacrificed in rituals some nights.” I was wondering: What was your practice as a kid? When did you develop it? If I may ask, what is your practice now? And how has witchcraft shaped your writing?

RAJ: I definitely wouldn’t have identified it as witchcraft as a small child. That was a retrospective label. But so much of my early relationship to magic was my relationship to nature. And that’s something I’ve been able to make the connection to much more clearly in my adult life, especially when I actually learned the elements of Paganism. I lived with the seasons in these material, worshipful ways. So much of that was just being a rural kid who felt spirits in trees and pretended mixing bowls were cauldrons.

My mom was also a horror buff, so I grew up on scary movies and had witches and magic and fantasy in my life. And then being lucky enough to be a teenager in the 90s, witchiness blended with dark lipstick and combat boots, like in The Craft. So 90s pop culture allowed me to have elements of witchcraft even though I didn’t identify as a witch. It was only much later in my life—my late 20s, early 30s—that I really opened up more to spirituality.

After getting involved with activism work, I didn’t think I had a need for spirituality, because the activism I was involved in was very secular. But then I felt pulled to spirituality, partly because I was half-developing a yoga practice and I was like, “Well, I really like the spiritual elements of this, but it’s not my culture, so I should look into my ancestral roots.” And there was Paganism. And it felt super intuitive. 

My practice now is everything from honoring moon cycles and setting intentions to casting very specific spells. (The spell I set to get my book published by Belt had a jar of honey with mantras written on a piece of paper inside and a particular crystal on top.) I also continue to be in tune with nature and celebrate certain Pagan holidays. Or I light a particular candle before I start writing. I don’t do that on normal workdays. Bringing that intention helps with the magic and writing.

BD: Absolutely. I ask because I’ve similarly gotten into witchcraft and am realizing how this attunement with nature I had as a kid and this interest in astrology and candles and stones has been a throughline in my life. My mom kept this stone collection I had as a kid and I found them recently and recognized them as stones used in witchcraft.

You say your mom got sober “seemingly overnight” after your dad was hit by a car. That she did it because, quite simply, she “knew she had to raise [you].” It seems like your mom put a lot into raising you as a single parent, even if you also acknowledge that she wasn’t always perfect. I’m wondering: How did her strength (or maybe even her mistakes) influence your understanding of womanhood or motherhood?

RAJ: In so many ways. I’m not a mother, and this is actually shifted from the book, but although I still very much identify as femme, I have less identification with the word “woman.” I added “they” to my pronouns. (I’m feeling grateful for young people for their more expansive categories.) So I’ll respond to the question with both not being a mom and not identifying with capital “W” “Womanhood.”  That said, I think my mother helped me understand femininity in a way that was much more expansive and obviously defied any sort of traditional, normative stereotype that women are docile or weak. I got the opposite example of that. 

I will also say, and I kind of hesitate because my sweet, dear mom still hasn’t read the book. I say this with all the love in the world, but she sacrificed a lot for me. Almost her whole self. And I do think that was not healthy for her. I got a lot of love. What I didn’t get was examples of how to set boundaries. I expected a lot from relationships as a demonstration of love. I expected selflessness, which isn’t fair. I am grateful that I was loved so fully and she gave so much to me, but I feel regret for her because it was a sacrificial kind of love.

BD: Yeah, in putting so much care into making sure you were okay and you got the attention you needed after the accident, it almost went too far for her sake. I understand that. In contrast to my last question, you call the “men who took care of things” during the first four years of your life the “heroes.” You acknowledge, “I’m not supposed to say this, but this was what I needed and this was what I lost.” Why do you say you’re not supposed to say this? What framework are you confronting by acknowledging the need for men (or maybe masculinity)—in addition to women (or femininity)—to support you?

RAJ: The reason I’m not supposed to say it is because I’m a feminist studies professor and a queer person. It’s the recognition of the role that men played in my life, as well as my attraction to butch and men-identified people. My attraction to a particular kind of masculinity. I love this question and it’s a hard question. I am looking forward to the day when masculinity and femininity can express themselves, regardless of what you were assigned at birth. But I also think we can find value in what we would traditionally assign as masculine energy and feminine energy, even if those categories are still problematic regardless of somebody’s “sex.”Given my upbringing, I’m okay with the fact that I would like a partner who knows cars because I don’t know cars. That’s a traditionally masculine thing that, to me, is not problematic because we’re not all good at everything. That’s not to say that a masculine person needs to like cars, or that they can’t cook, or whatever. I’m not trying to put people into boxes. But I do think there’s a version of caretaking that appeals to me in ways that some people would say is problematic, but that’s just how my femme shows. I’m curious what you think about that. What comes up for you with that sort of theme?

BD: I think it balances your narrative of not wanting your partner to be selflessly devoted to you—that doesn’t mean you don’t want care. You lost your dad. And that made you realize how much his support meant something. And there is a lack when he’s not there. For you to say you don’t need these men in your life is to say, maybe, that nothing changed when your dad left, which wouldn’t be true and wouldn’t be honoring his memory.

RAJ: That’s beautiful. That’s true though. And I believe that patriarchy harms men just as much as it does all the other genders. Because men aren’t allowed to be vulnerable and emotional. But that doesn’t mean that we have to throw what we consider masculine under the bus. I think there are some beautiful traits in masculinity. Butch women are such a beautiful example of a community that’s demonstrated how chivalry and toughness can be gentle and loving.

BD: I think this also segues well into the next question I have, which asks about this tension between male care and toxic masculinity in your book. There’s a devastating moment where Jack (your boyfriend at the time) meets your abuser and says he wants to kill him. The two of you cry together and you realize you’d been wanting that feeling: “that a man made [you] feel like he wanted to protect [you].” You say you unpack this want in “therapy, in journals, with tarot decks.” You say you come to terms with this want. Why is it okay to want male care? And what did you learn in unpacking? With all these questions about masculinity, I ask because I feel like it’s such a common dynamic people seek in their relationships without ever confronting what it means.

RAJ: It’s obviously a privilege, first of all, to go to therapy. But I think everybody, regardless of class or race or anything else, is in their heads about themselves navel-gazing. It’s just that the memoirists put that on display. And I think it’s important to bring awareness and attention to our choices in relationships—and that doesn’t have to just be in romantic relationships. As much as, for example, Instagram pop psychology is problematic sometimes, I’m glad that it’s a space for people to talk about trauma and feelings. It’s good for us to be mindful in relationships because we are all bringing a lot of shit to them. In a world of sexual violence and emotional abuse, and just all of these horrible relationship dynamics that exist, for me to say that I like being loved by masculine energy feels not bad.

BD: I think that all makes sense. I think you’re making this clear distinction between toxic masculinity and male care. And where you find a home is in acknowledging the importance of male care and not ignoring a kind of masculine care that anyone can emit.

Then, when your first boyfriend breaks up with you and cries in the car, you say you’re “grateful to know the tenderness that existed in this sixteen-year-old boy. That the root of these boys is not toxic masculinity, but rather a limited number of places where they can be free—to feel, to be vulnerable, to say this hurts and I’m sorry.” This is a big theme in the book: redeeming people who have inflicted pain (you sympathize with his tears even as he breaks up with you). You seem profoundly capable of recognizing the multiplicity in people and forgiving them for their worst deeds. Would you say that’s accurate? Is this book, in a way, a redemption story for your exes and your family, your mom, and maybe even yourself?

RAJ: That’s such a sweet question. I do think I am extremely forgiving, sometimes to a fault. I think that has been the case my whole life. I’ve never had a revenge streak. My forgiveness or compassion, with an understanding of the other person’s pain or the root cause of the situation, is intentional. First of all as a prison abolitionist, for example, but also as a person who identifies as an anarchist and a radical. The definition of radical is “the root” of something. So looking at the root cause of harm, to me, reveals that the people who cause harm are victims almost all the time of another situation themselves. That articulation comes through an explicitly intentional political lens.

To bring witchy stuff back into it, I actually have a friend who is a beautiful astrologer and tarot reader who says that people with a lot of Pisces in their chart have this particular trait of being extremely compassionate and nonjudgmental and understanding and forgiving. And I have a lot of Pisces in my chart. I think that’s also part of it. It never crossed my mind to not write about people compassionately. That just felt intuitive. I don’t know that I realized it, but of course I wanted to say that there are reasons for everybody’s choices. I hope that I gave that context.

BD: I loved your description of grieving after your first break up, of playing Fiona Apple on repeat, journaling, crying in your room. You acknowledge a self-awareness in these actions: You relished your “ability to understand what Fiona [was] singing . . . dreaming of how many more loves [you] will have and how terrible and perfect it will be to lose them too.” I loved this description because I think a lot of people share this melodramatic experience growing up. Do you think these actions—mourning over a lost love with delicious self-indulgence—are part of the teenage initiation into adulthood? Why was this important to include in your memoir?

RAJ: I recently went through a breakup with the person who, in my book, I refer to as my present tense partner. We separated after eight years. So a very long, difficult, grown-up breakup, much more shattering than this teenage one. But I thought about that line about how I loved pain. And I really love that less as an adult. The stakes are a lot higher in a separation that happens when you’re in your 30s. 

Sharing your life with somebody is huge, and there is something beautiful in that. Thankfully the separation was mutual. I mean, it was devastating, but not ugly in any way. To answer the question: I guess it’s a teenage thing, but I don’t know. I’ve had really earth-shattering breakups in my 20s as well. And then the most recent one. And of course, the “’I’ll never find anybody again” feeling when you’re 15 is hilarious. But there’s something in me that wants to answer this question by saying it’s the same. It is a teenage thing, but it’s also an adult thing. But yeah, I do think like a first breakup is a life experience that pushes you further into adulthood.

BD: Yeah, it’s a coming of age moment, but maybe we never get over it. I guess what sounded so unique to teenagehood was how you specifically talked about how you relished your ability to understand heartbreak. Maybe there’s like an ego to heartbreak as a teenager.

In the memoir, you say “white trash” is the term we use in the U.S. for “failed” white people, and that our common understanding is “white trash” tends to vote red. You complicate this narrative by showing that queer people can be supported in this community and that there are left-leaning people in the Rust Belt. Was giving a voice to this side of whiteness intentional when you set out to write the memoir?

RAJ: It was definitely intentional. I started writing the memoir the summer before Trump got elected, so that discourse about Trump voters was already in the media. Something that’s important for me to clarify is that the intention wasn’t to say that not all white people are bad. I still identify as an activist. I’m certainly thinking about how to make the world better. I hope my writing gives people this “aha” moment—especially well-intentioned liberals who should talk to “white trash” Trump voters—to not be so snobby about people who are marginalized by the things that I claim to care about. 

My goal was really to illuminate the commonality of oppression. I’m certainly not saying that poor white folks and poor people of color, or people of color in general, are the same, but just that the economically disenfranchised includes people of all races. And there can be space for solidarity, whether that’s for white folks, queer people, people of color, or whatever the case may be. There is room for that. And I want to tell those stories because I think we would have a much more robust movement against repression if more people realized how much we all have in common.

BD: You’ve said in an interview with Autostraddle that you code switch no matter where you are. At what point did this begin, and why? Was it only once you went to college, or did you find yourself code-switching between the Cleveland subculture with Ben (another ex-boyfriend) and home even in your teens?

RAJ: I love that specific question at the end because the answer is yes. Code-switching is something that I’ve really done my whole life. I’ve always been in punk and activist spaces, and then also have very normie friends So there’s a lot of managing what I would or wouldn’t say in certain spaces. I think I’m over the fact that in normie spaces I’m often the only person with tattoos or not married with children (which brings in the queerness aspect). 

I don’t really talk to my super radical friends about the pop culture I consume. It’s very low stakes, but code-switching is something I very much have existed between my normie and queer friends. And then the class thing. At this point, it feels pretty easy because I’ve been navigating it so much. I think I’m not ever in super-rich spaces, but I behave a little differently in family space. I think I’m a little more self-conscious about how I look, especially around my partner’s parents. I’m suddenly embarrassed by my cheap acrylic nails and tattoos, but not enough to do anything about it. 

BD: It doesn’t mean you’re changing who you are, but you are aware of how you look and come across.

RAJ: Yeah. And code-switching is definitely a term that’s been most utilized by people of color who have to navigate much more high-stakes environments than I ever have. Whether it’s code-switching or microaggressions, there’s extra mental energy and labor that people have to do when they’re not taken as “normal” in particular spaces. I don’t want to complain about it too much because I feel like I have it pretty easy, but it is something that exists in my life.

BD: Ok, my final question: You talk about media you consumed before you went on to realize you were queer. You citeBroken Hearts Club, Jeffrey, Kissing Jessica Stein, and But I’m a Cheerleader as some of the movies you watched with your mom growing upDo you have any other recommendations for young queers today discovering their identity, that maybe weren’t around when you were growing up in the 90s, or that you happened to discover later in life?

RAJ: I love this question because I love pop culture. There’s one movie I always gush about when I have the opportunity. It’s called Appropriate Behavior. Desiree Akhavan is the writer and director. She’s an Iranian-American bisexual woman who made this beautiful indie movie about a queer woman in New York City. You see her through one long relationship and a couple of shorter relationships, and it’s just so evident that a queer person made the movie. It’s like, this person knows what it’s like to go to the dive lesbian bar after pride, and not the big tourist gay bar or whatever. She’s just so in the know. I love that movie and I think it’s not super well known because it’s an indie movie. 

Another is To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! – Julie Newmar. It’s one of the best gay movies of all time, and I think underappreciated by younger generations. It’s technically about drag queens, but they would really be read today as trans women.

I also want to say that growing up, the AIDS crisis was still, I mean, a crisis. One of my best friends in college was diagnosed with HIV at the time and it felt like a death sentence. He’s alive and thriving today, thankfully. It was pretty pressing, but I certainly didn’t grow up in the gay mens’ community in New York, where, for example, there were funerals every week. That was not my culture. But so much of queer culture today owes so much to that period of time. There’s a documentary called United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. It’s some of the most important queer histories out there. It offers a lot for us to think about, especially with COVID, and how we take care of each other in a health crisis. It’s about movement building and love and sex and desire in our politics. So that’s my elder queer homework.

About the Interviewer and Interviewee:

Raechel Anne Jolie (she/they) is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Rust Belt Femme, which was the winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award in LGBTQ Nonfiction, an NPR Favorite Book of 2020, and a runner-up for the Heartland Bookseller’s Award.

Brianna Di Monda (she/her) is a contributing editor for Cleveland Review of Books. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Chicago Review of Books, and Worms Magazine.

An Interview with Daren Dean

Interview Conducted by Shaun McMichael

Grit lit Novelist, Daren Dean, opens up about his new novel This Vale of Tears (Cowboy Jamboree (CJ) Press; October, 2021), a torrential tragicomedy of manners, miracles, and mortal wounds.

Cuckolded scofflaw Troy Scofield kicks off This Vale of Tears’s torrential tragicomedy when he kills old Bobby Lee Phelps, the lover of his wild-thing wife, Alisha. Troy’s prison release seven years later rekindles the brooding enmity between the pugnacious Scofield and Phelps families who because of their similarities are destined to conflict. Both rural Missouri clans mirror each other’s dire money trouble, generational curses, and cults of patriarchy alive and well in the novel’s 1970 epoch. “Old wounds ran deep. A shared genealogy spooled behind them but was powerless to heal the rift. The men…liked to think of themselves as figures of some grand tragedy and knowing all along that their own flaws of character would eventually bring them low” (60). The liquor-pickled men carouse and pick fights while their women leave, cling, or manipulate in ways that unintentionally double their misery. For example, young Raelyn Phelps flees her family’s abusive confines just to run into Troy. The two entangle in a star-crossed love affair further enflaming already combustible Phelps and Scofield patriarchs. I spoke with Daren Dean about his process writing This Vale…

Shaun Anthony McMichael (SAM): What was your entry point into this novel?

Daren Dean (DD): I wrote This Vale… a while ago and over a long stretch of time. I would have loved to start publishing this stuff when I was thirty-five instead of in my forties and fifties, but it wasn’t ready. But what I remember is that for “This Vale…” I wanted strong-structured sentences that flowed like Cormac McCarthy and William Gay’s style of writing. 

In terms of the story, I had this idea of writing about a deeply troubled character like Troy Scofield meeting a much younger character like Raelyn Phelps and about how she affects him. Then I wrote the first chapter, which operates as a kind of prologue. I didn’t call it a prologue though because of the immediacy and impact it possesses. After I wrote it, I wondered how I was going to keep up with that intensity and pace. The way I tried to achieve that relentless pacing was to cut out all the boring parts, which has always been a goal of mine. At the same time, I didn’t want to overwhelm a reader. As the chapters go along, some of them are more languid as certain dynamics take more time to develop.

SM: Let’s talk some more about Troy: “Everyone knew or had heard of Troy Scofield, he wasn’t a real person anymore in their minds, he was an evil spirit haunting the backroads of the past. An evil man who belonged in a tomb” (255). 

Troy is a rage-filled, entitled mess, yet a reader can’t take their eyes off him. We’re compelled to him the way women are. At outset, Troy appears as a bad seed. But as the narrative unfolds, we see he’s a seed trying to grow in a shallow cowpie. This brings me to the topic of likability. Tell me about what draws you to depicting characters whose unlikeable qualities may turn the average reader away.

DD: I knew I was never going to be the kind of writer who writes to a market. That’s just not who my role models were. Let’s take Flannery O’Connor. You would be hard pressed to think of a single likable character in her prose, yet you still want to read about them. The matter of likability just isn’t something I think about. I wanted Troy to read like a real person whose life is fucked up from the beginning. I wanted to show his progression. 

I grew up around people like Troy—people with good qualities and bad. Let’s take my step-father, a truck driver and a local charmer. Though he and my mom weren’t married that long, I loved the guy. He was great with kids. He was always carrying around a Reader’s Digest to improve his vocabulary. Occasionally, he’d throw out new words at you, only he’d use them in a way that wouldn’t make total sense. Like when we were bickering, he’d argue, “well, that’s immaterial!” And I would scratch my head wondering what he meant. So in my first published novel, Beyond the Pale (2015; Fiction Southeast Press), I give that quirk to my main antagonist, Vaughn so he’s not just a relentless evil.

Or let’s take one of my great aunts who passed away a few years ago. She was always exasperated, saying “Oh my god, all you kids do is mess around!” Whenever I would see her, she would look at me and say “Haven’t seen you for a while. Don’t you love me anymore?!?” When I first brought my wife by her house, I said it to my aunt first, trying to get her goat. “Auntie, haven’t seen you for a while. Don’t you love me anymore?!?” But then she said, “Oh, shoot. I’m the old lady. You come see me!”

I like using little details like these in my fiction, giving mixed qualities to my characters.

To go back to Troy, he isn’t Hitler, but he’s never going to join the Chamber of Commerce. I wouldn’t even say he’s in the middle. He’s just a regular person. And when you get right down to it, we’re all just regular people.

SAM: Troy makes the most sense in the context of his environment: Fairmount, a town in Kingdom County, Missouri. Tell me more about the setting.

DD: Fairmont is fictional, though based somewhat on Fulton and a few other small towns that I grew up around and where my mom and dad still live, separately. These towns were established by Southerners, which is funny because I don’t consider myself Southern exactly.  My fictional county “Kingdom County” comes from The Kingdom of Callaway County. Around the Civil War, citizens of this county tried to remain neutral and succeeded officially from the United States. But as with a lot of places that tried to remain neutral during the Civil War, the towns in The Kingdom of Callaway got taken advantage of; both sides hated them. I write about that in The Black Harvest (2020; CJ Press).

Like a lot of writers who write about their hometowns, I write about these places to gleefully expose their underbellies. Though I’m aware that people from the place may get mad because my novels aren’t PR pieces about how wonderful the towns are and how great the Soybean Festival is, etc.….

SAM: While plot convention necessitates foreboding tones to some degree, I felt a profound sense of ominousness throughout this novel. Even after the climax’s catastrophe, in the denouement, a reader feels that the real storm has yet to break. To what extent did the disturbing nature of our contemporary times fuel this sense of foreboding that floods the novel?

DD: Not so much. The story takes place in the ’60s and ’70s. I grew up in those times and it wasn’t hard to write about those feelings from back then. As a kid, I remember not understanding exactly what was going on or why people were saying what they said. I didn’t know what my future was going to be. So it seemed natural to try to capture that experience. 

SAM: This is a language driven work as much as it is character driven. For these characters, bottle openers are “church keys”; to be armed to the teeth is to be “loaded for bear”. You’re a college professor. Tell me how you keep your ear low enough to the ground to maintain authenticity?

DD: You pay attention to the language, the cadence, and the diction of the people around you. Of course, many of the people who were adults in the ’60s and ’70s don’t speak in the same way anymore; they’ve been exposed to more things and have become more ‘sophisticated’. But in writing this novel, I wanted to remember how people spoke back then. So again, I turned to memories of my great aunt. She still spoke the way she had when she was young. We were out driving down a gravel road to visit some of my cousins and she said, “When I drive through here of a night, I have to watch out for deer and the like.” And, like an idiot, I said how interesting I thought that was, “of a night”. But she just thought I was making fun of her. I love to capture things like that and put them in my fiction. When someone says something in a natural way from the heart, I pay attention. 

SAM: The intertextuality with music is enjoyable in This Vale…. Thank you for sharing your soundtrack for the novel on Spotify (https://open.spotify.com/playlist/58qZpSttC27ZEbF7rD4oSA#login), which makes a wonderful companion for the novel. In addition to musical artists, I hear the following literary artists’ voices in This Vale…: O’Connor, Faulkner, and McCarthy. Who were you listening to when you wrote it?

DD: Two early influences come to mind. Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) was a book that felt really close to my life. I could really understand it in a tangential sort of way. 

In the ’90s, I read Flannery O’Conner for the first time. She’s not a writer they introduce you to in high school because she’s so subversive. I remembered thinking, who has been hiding Flannery O’Connor from me? And I read everything she wrote. Wise Blood (1952) had a particular impact on me. I had a strange childhood—four or five childhoods really. Part of my growing up was with my aunt and uncle. My uncle was a holy-roller, lay-preacher who spoke in tongues and did the laying-on of hands. When I was about eight years old, they asked me what I was going to be when I grew up. At the time, I had this weird obsession with Elvis, so I said I was going to be a singer. They were very irate. “No,” they said. “You’re going to be a preacher and serve God!” We didn’t just read the Bible. Biblical language was your whole life. You memorized it. You had to do citations of it. I went to this little Christian school where you had to recite whole chapters. I memorized 2 Corinthians 13, the love chapter, in the King James, of course, because as they’d say, “if the King James was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you!”

So when I read Wise Blood and Hazel Motes came along with his Church of Christ without Christ… It hit me hard. After I finished it, I knew I had to start writing again, that it was my true calling.

Everybody said it was crazy and that I couldn’t do it. It’s funny. Now that I have these degrees and am a professor, suddenly everyone comments on how I’m so intelligent. But I don’t remember anyone saying that when I started. They told me to pull my head out of my ass.

A few years after reading O’Connor, I came across Mississippi writer Larry Brown, who became another big influence. I’m nothing like Larry Brown, but his characters really spoke to me. I could really understand them. And I thought I could work in that school of writing.

There are writers I read now just for language. Let’s take Barry Hannah, a master of the non-sequitur. He has this great short story called “Ride Fly, Penetrate Loiter” (1983) about these guys hanging around a gas station. They see this beautiful, well-dressed woman and the guys start speaking Shakespearean. With a turn of phrase, Barry Hannah can pivot genres. He’s a genius with language. Reading Barry Hannah or others like him, I get emotional and have to share it with somebody or exclaim “can you believe they wrote that?” When I was younger, I used to read everything, but now, if a writer doesn’t move me that way, I don’t want to read them.

SAM: A reader can’t help but be dazzled by well-limned scenes in your work rendered with fugue-like detail. How do you go about composing a scene?

DD: The secret I’ve learned to writing isn’t much of a secret. It just takes a long time to develop, and you can only progress so far beyond a certain point unless you grasp it. Madison Smartt Bell writes about it in his Narrative Design(Norton, 2000); Robert Olen Butler devotes his book From Where You Dream (Grove, 2006) to it. What the secret is, is what they’re talking about: writing from your subconscious.

Some writing teachers say you brainstorm, then outline. But when I try to write an outline, as soon as I really get into a scene, the outline is no good anymore. If you’re writing well, you’re writing from the unconscious mind, from where you dream, as Butler says.

Since we were kids, we’ve been getting in trouble for daydreaming. “You’ve got to work harder,” they’ve said. “You’ve got to diagram some sentences. That will be good for you.” But as a writer, none of that will help you unless you have great ideas. How many ways can you polish a turd? It might be grammatically correct, and your sixth-grade teacher would love it, but it could still suck.

So how do you write from the subconscious? You get distracted a lot by everyday life: taking out the garbage; telling your kids to do their homework; helping your wife with something; dealing with a student plagiarizing… All those things detract from being able to  get your head in the right place. You have to do those things, but they do detract from being able to dream your stories. Of course, those daily happenings can also enhance your stories. I find that inspiration usually doesn’t happen when you sit down and say “Okay, now I’m going to write.” You might be in the shower and suddenly, a scene starts happening and you’ve got to get out of the shower and write it down or it will be gone forever. So when you’re washing dishes and inspiration happens, if you can maintain that state of mind, that’s where you can start. 

SAM: I found that the most gut-wrenching scenes in This Vale… were those in which an adult tries to fill up a child’s need for love with good manners. Yet one of your epigraphs is a quote from William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932): “Perhaps they were right in putting love into books,” he thought quietly. “Perhaps it could not live anywhere else”. Tell me about the love you put in this book? To phrase the question another way, how/why is it loving to write a book depicting such tragically unloved characters who act out in unlovable ways? 

DD: To me, what fiction is all about is expressing the things that go unexpressed. Even if we love people and they love us, the words ‘I love you’ are inadequate most of the time and we hurt each other. Even with the best intentions, we don’t communicate well. I don’t propose how to fix this in my fiction. I’m trying to capture it. My aesthetic is not to teach moral lessons. That’s what I admire about Cormac McCarthy. He states what happens and you see the story unfold. But he doesn’t tell you how you should feel about it. It’s frustrating because you sometimes want him to. But for me, it goes back to the Bible. If you read the stories in Genesis, there’s very little ethical commentary on what happens. Much like literary fiction, it happens, and you’re left to ponder what it means. Life tends to be that way. I don’t want to give a sermon and tell people what to think. Not to argue with John Gardener too much; there’s a responsibility you have as a writer. But it’s not to tell the reader what to think or how to live.

SAM: There’s a Romeo and Juliet comparison with Troy and Raelyn’s relationship. Indeed, the Phelps vs. Scofield dynamic alludes to the Capulets-vs-Montague tension. Was that in your mind at all when constructing the narrative?

DD: It wasn’t really in my mind when I was writing it. But I was talking to a reporter who did a review of the book and in trying to think of a way to explain the novel to an average person I remarked that it was a hillbilly Romeo and Juliet story. 

SAM: The strongest thematic tie for me between your work and the Shakespeare play is actually in how ineffectual the older generations are in helping the younger generation. Take this quote for example: 

“Walker Scofield (Troy’s grandfather) was crazy and the inheritance he had passed on to his kids and heirs was that each had their own brand of peculiar to contend with” (295). Along with generational curses, This Vale… depicts vicious cycles: sexually-charged relationships imploding and rebirthing anew; the toxic relationship between alcohol and masculinity; neglected children who beget children they then neglect. What inspired these vicious cycles? 

DD: It’s been observation and thinking through what I’ve seen in my family and other people’s families.

Parents now want to help their kids and they try so hard to cocoon and protect them from all the negative experiences that it also can hinder your growth as a person. I’ve been guilty of that as much as anyone. I’ve tried so hard to protect my kids, I worry if they’ll have the necessary grit to make it through truly bad times when mom and dad aren’t there. I’m sure they will, but I can remember growing up and seeing the complete opposite.

During the time that This Vale… is set, it was a different generation. When I was a kid, adults had more of a WC Fields approach to parenting, like “go away, kid. Ya bothering me!” kind of thing. A parent’s attitude back then was, “I’m doing my thing here, you go do your thing over there”. My parents’ generation was all about doing your own thing and making yourself happy. My mom was married five times. My dad was married three times. People were trying to find themselves. That’s what you used to hear all the time. 

And they had it tough. My dad told me a story about how his mom got remarried to this really big jerk. The guy was huge, but he also horded food from the kids. The ice man would come once a week and stick a brick of ice in the icebox. The Iceman Cometh, right? Well this guy would stash food in the icebox and not share any of it with my dad or his brother. And they were hungry. So one day they made a plan to wake up early and gorge themselves on the food and attack their stepfather when he came down after them. And that’s what they did. They attacked their stepfather and felled him to the ground. His mom screamed “you’re killing him”. My dad said, “Well, he’s been trying to kill me for years!” He realized after that that he couldn’t stay there anymore and ran out of the house. He was twelve years old. He moved around with different family members until he joined the army because he could get paid and get his three-square meals without having to asking somebody if he could sleep in the backseat of their car. 

As for my mom, she was only seven years old when her mom died in childbirth.

These are the situations I want to capture in my stories set back in time.

SAM: Though the novel ends in tragedy for some of the characters, one of your middle-aged characters has a somewhat surprising repentant turn around by the end of this novel. If there’s a glimmer of hope in the ending, it’s for this middle-aged character. How did you decide to have this shift happen?

DD: I wanted to show that he had changed over time too. He’s not a perfect character. But I wanted to show this man in the position of acknowledging his own failings as a father while preserving what there is left to preserve. I see this play out a lot with parents who had it hard and were really stern with their kids. But then, when they have grandchildren, they spoil them. I didn’t want the story to just end in death. Sure, you’re the main character in your story, but when you’re gone, life goes on. And that’s the rebirth. 

Daren Dean’s next novel Roads is forthcoming from Cowboy Jamboree (CJ) Press in 2023.

About the Interviewer: Shaun Anthony McMichael is the editor of two collections of poetry by youth affected by trauma, mental illness, and instability: The Shadow Beside Me (2020) and The Story of My Heart (June 2021). Over 40 of his short stories and essays have appeared in literary magazines, online and in print, such as The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row, Carrier Pigeon, Litro, Existere, Nude Bruce, and others. Shaun’s book reviews and author interviews can be found on PopMatters, an online arts and culture magazine.

On Rust Belt Shame

By Richey Piiparinen

This essay is from a working manuscript entitled “Hunting Octopus: Collected Essays”.

In a June 15th, 1981 Time magazine puff piece called “Nothing Rotten about the Big Plum”, the author describes how then-Mayor of Cleveland, George Voinovich, sauntered onto the mound at Municipal Stadium wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Cleveland’s new marketing campaign, “New York’s the Big Apple, But Cleveland’s a Plum.” Predictably, Voinovich then proceeded to throw out the “first plum”, a play off the ceremonial first pitch. Unlike a baseball, however, a plum splats. Which it did in this case. In the catcher’s mitt. The Yakety sax-like scene illustrates the lengths cities will go to project an image as far away from reality as possible. These city branding campaigns usually end poorly. 

Figure 17: Mayor Voinovich throws out of the first plum. Source: David I. Andersen

Meanwhile, In Pittsburgh the city’s marketing elite leaned in with a character called Border guard Bob. Dan Fitzpatrick, a reporter Post-Gazetteexplained that Border Guard Bob was a fictional Barney Fife-type persona who was to star in a television ad and be put on billboards. “The idea was for Border Guard Bob to wear a uniform and stop young people at Western Pennsylvania’s borders, he wrote, “before they had a chance to leave for other cities. If he was unable to persuade people to stay, Border Guard Bob would have hitched a bungee cord to the car’s back bumper and, looking into the camera, say: “’He’ll be back.’” 


Where does the will, or lack of will, come from that incites these once-powerhouse cities to so pitifully delude themselves into thinking that this is how to put yourself out there? How does a collective devolve to be so vulnerably self-unaware?

Though my career is in the field of city building, particularly urban theory and policy, my initial graduate training—my first love, really—was in clinical psychology. My thesis was on secondhand, or vicarious, trauma related to the September 11th attacks, which turned into a few published studies with titles like “stress symptoms of two groups before and after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01” inplaces like Perceptual and Motor Skills. The broader ramifications of the findings are that groups, such as nations, cities, or neighborhoods, are impacted by experiences on an aggregate level just as individuals are on a personal level. Collectively, the perceptual “catch” of these experiences—be they traumatically and instantaneously profound like 9/11, or slower-moving and distress-inducing like deindustrialization and the job and income losses and communal, familial, and personal conflicts that inevitably follow—become absorbed as memories of what was, what is, and what may never be. These memories, however, often remain below the level of conscious awareness. They are thus not processed but left “undigested”, not unlike a brick of food in the belly that echoes forward in the tainting of future experience via the prism of emotional distress, else emotionlessness. In other words, loss unfelt is loss everlasting.

“Only echoes answer me,” writes the playwright Anton Chekhov in Swan Song, the quote referencing the extent of how things can unravel like a fountain of bits and pieces, the manifestation of which is breakage flowing into breakage. Or as Yeats put it in his poem “The Second Coming”: “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”. The issue, then, for people, and groups of people i.e., cities, isn’t about whether things fall apart—things will fall apart—but what’s to be done with the remains. Will they be ignored while yet another undoing is in the making? (This seems the approach humanity is taking toward climate change and late capitalism.) Or will they be leveled with and carried forward?

Arguably, the Rockstar of the notion that collectives have thoughts and feelings is sociologist Emile Durkheim, who formulated the idea of a “collective conscience”, a concept described in his 1893 book The Division of Labor in Society as the “totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society.” The focus in this essay is on the specific beliefs and sentiments about the geography of the Rust Belt that arrive as projected judgement from the outside in yet are preserved by a peculiar regional flare for the self-own that operates from the inside out, the latter of which I’ve come to call “Rust Belt Shame”. 

It’s important, here, to delineate shame from other negative affect, particularly guilt. Guilt is about an act done and the consequences of one’s conscience. “I feel bad. I have done wrong.” These are the types of words we hear in our head when feeling guilty, and it’s is an Adam- and Eve-like self-discourse arising from the backlash that is a moral authority. “Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ And the woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate’.”

Shame is different. If guilt is the internal feeling Adam and Eve felt as they left the Garden of Eden, then shame is the feeling they felt from the hisses of the onlookers that watched from the balcony of biblical context. In modern-day parlance, shame is the gas that gets you cancelled. It’s the societal norming that acts as guardrails to where culture can and can’t go. But hive-minded morality chutes can lead society astray, especially if they are constructed from a collective conscience that is more repressed than processed. Or more virtue signaling than virtuous. As a guiding, resolving, feeling shame carries with it a lot baggage. “Shame is a soul eating emotion,” explains psychoanalyst C.G. Jung, referencing shame’s groupthink tendency to try and erode what’s wrong instead of grow what’s right. And it’s an emotional self-tunneling that can lead to a house of mirrors as far as not knowing where progress proceeds from, a reality eloquated supremely in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s, The Little Prince. “Why are you drinking? demanded the little prince. So that I may forget,” replied the tippler. Forget what? inquired the little prince, who was already sorry for him. Forget that I am ashamed, the tippler confessed, hanging his head. Ashamed of what? insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him. Ashamed of drinking!” Or in this case: “Why are you ashamed, Cleveland? Because I am a plum. Why are you marketing yourself as a plum? Because I am ashamed.” 

That shame is a particularly important sentiment which clots in the Rust Belt consciousness, and it’s the tributary so many Rust Belters flow into and out of in this stream of living that’s been labeled “flyover country”, what’s the source emotion, or the experiential watershed, that gives Rust Belt Shame its materiality? It’s most basic element, its ground truth, is loss, chiefly the loss of status. Here, Lao Tzu put it best: “Pride attaches undue importance to the superiority of one’s status in the eyes of others And shame is fear of humiliation at one’s inferior status in the estimation of others.” Legendary sociologist Charles Cooley theorized in 1922 that there were essentially only two social emotions, pride and shame “The thing that moves us to pride or shame,” Cooley wrote, “is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind.” 

The Rust Belt, of course, is not alone here. Cities the world over are afflicted with the hangovers of history. “Nearly every historic city has its brand of melancholy indelibly associated with it,” begins the author of the essay “From the “Geography of Melancholy” in the American Reader, “each variety linked to the scars the city bears. Lisbon has its saudade: a feeling of aimless loss tied to the city’s legacy of vanishing seafarers, explorers shipwrecked in search of Western horizons. Istanbul has huzun: a religiously-tinged brand of melancholy rooted in the city’s nostalgia for its glorious past.” But the Rust Belt’s version seems to go beyond the romantic notion of nostalgic longing for better times, and into the Japanese art of self-impaling, or Seppuku, known as “hari-kari” in the West. If not for a strange, if subconscious, tendency for the self-dig, how else would you explain selling Barney Fife as a prison guard as the star of an attraction campaign to retain the city’s younger, creative types? The whole concept is perverse. Like selling sand to the thirsty. 

A few years back, I got contacted by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, a writer for the New Yorker, about a piece I wrote that discussed the self-flagellating tendencies found in Cleveland and the rest of the Rust Belt. “Shit happened,” I wrote. “Shit is still happening.” My point was that a fall from grace had occurred. Deindustrialization and urban core abandonment were real and long-shadowed. Cleveland shrank. It shriveled. As did Pittsburgh and Detroit. Socioeconomic effects ensued. A colossal housing market collapsed. A new settlement pattern was categorized called the “shrinking city” and a novel urban aesthetic was even birthed: “ruin porn”, referring to the predilection of vacancy gawkers to play on the untaken cathedrals of the Industrial Revolution. And the fact that it all did—the leaving, the shrinking, the decay, the return to earth, in fact all those features of mortality—it triggered a projection in America’s mind’s eye that something was wrong with “them” but not necessarily with “us”. 

That’s because it’s soothing for a collective to compartmentalize its failing parts. To jersey-barrier the appendages vanishing on the vine. And for good reason, because while swaths of the inland were failing, the Sun Belt was growing. The Coasts prospered. New York was New York, never sleeping. Las Vegas was shiningly gluttonous, albeit literally and figuratively built on a house of cards. Matter of fact, it can be argued that the Rust Belt was the first geography in modern America to “die”; that is, not grow. There was the Old West and its ghost towns, but the Old West never held such a prominent position in the American hierarchy as did the Arsenal of Democracy—home to the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, and Ford. And given America is a manifest-destined country whose soul was conceived on the crossroads of unbridled consumption and growth, the side-eyed glances, the head shakes, the laughs at that kept coming from late night talk shows at a region that was named after a loss of gloss, well, it was not unexpected. American exceptionalism wasn’t conceived to expire. So, mock the loss and tend to growth. Mock reality and make myth. Drink a boat drink and play roulette. It’s all uphill from here…

Still, the projections, the Cleveland jokes, they are one thing. That’s punches taken. But why do we as a people accept it, let alone curate it? “I have, in fact, never lived in a place whose proud residents so consistently and gleefully disrespect their hometown as Cleveland,” notes well-known Jeopardy champ Arthur Cho in his Daily Beast piece “Cleveland Comes Crawling Back to LeBron: The Masochism of Rust Belt Chic.” Cho, a Cleveland transplant, goes on to write that though he hates to “engage in victim-blaming,” the reason “everyone dogs on Cleveland is that we ask for it.” Why? Cho concludes: “If we weren’t suffering, we wouldn’t be Cleveland anymore.”

Beyond shared identity, there’s an adaptive reason for Rust Belt Shame. It’s not just a collective phenomenon. It’s not simply about losing out on some kind of civic pride arms race measured in skyscrapers, population growth, and Fortune 500’s. No, losing one’s livelihood and one’s ability to make meaning is deeply personal. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” explained a GM Lordstown plant worker in a 2018 Guardian piece “A ‘kick in the stomach’: massive GM layoffs leave workers distraught”, “This is my third GM plant. I’d like to be able to plant my roots somewhere. I feel like a gypsy.” “This is devastating. This is our livelihood,” echoed a co-worker. These public-but-private happenings, then, get stitched into a shared experience that becomes cultural, or part of the menu of sentiments defining a Rust Belt daily life. This response, however, is often adaptive. It’s not moaning. “[T]he very fact that shame is an isolating experience also means that if one can find ways of sharing and communicating it this communication can bring about particular closeness with other persons.” so notes the author of “Shame and the Social Bond.” Hence, the collective character armor that is Rust Belt Shame. 

Yet this doesn’t mean such a group identity can’t tip from adaptive to maladaptive. Or from digested and transcended to imputed, identity-defining, and concretizing. 

Which brings us back to the New Yorker reporter I noted earlier. A few days after we talked he wrote a piece entitled “Donald Trump and the Idea of the Rust Belt”. From our discussion, the reporter, Wallace-Wells, correctly latched onto the notion that in the national discourse of the Rust Belt there was—beyond macroeconomic explanations for deindustrialization and the ideological and voting proclivities of alienated Reagan Democrats—a depth of the narrative that wasn’t exposed and rarely discussed. I called this hidden reality “the idea of the Rust Belt”, or a worm at the core in the national psyche that’s carried around like a shadow, i.e., barely noticed but constantly cast. Wallace-Wells explained that the “idea of the Rust Belt” is a projected upon reality that “…everyone is vulnerable. The story that is told is about the certainty of loss.” 

Yet he also lamented the fact that in that process of existential displacement onto the region, a parallel sentiment has been left out. “It’s a little strange to remember the ideas of the Midwest that the Rust Belt has crowded out,” he writes. “The conviction that the heartland provided a moral counterweight to coastal excess and cynicism.” He’d go on to reference a Jonathan Franzen interview wherein the author remarked: “There is a prolongation of innocence there, a prolongation of childhood, that has to do with the Midwest being just a little bit farther from the rest of the world.” “There is what would strike many Americans as a bizarre absence of cynicism in the room,” echoed the writer David Foster Wallace. 

As for the future of the Rust Belt, there are really only two directions for the region to proceed from, not only from a collective conscience standpoint but also the associated response that is city leadership, policy, and, of course, city branding. There’s the direction that is away from loss. And there’s the direction that is through loss. The former gets you a bungee cord hooked up to your belt loop in which you are snatched from the horizon and slung back to your baseline. That Sisyphean existence.  The latter gets you room to know who you are versus what you are told you are, or what you wrongly tell yourself. 

Like you’re a plum.

About the Author: Richey Piiparinen is Director of Urban Theory & Analytics at Cleveland State University. He resides in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, OH with his wife, no dog, and three kids. He believes the term “Rust Belt ” is not a pejorative.

An Interview with Greg Gerke

Interview conducted by Megan Neary

Greg Gerke is the author of the essay collection See What I See, the book of short stories Only the Bad Things, and many stories and essays that can be found in various publications, including Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and 3AM Magazine. He is also the editor of the new literary journal Socrates on the Beach. 

 Gerke said he created Socrates on the Beach because “he wanted to make a place that was more open to long form work,” adding, “I’d been thinking a lot, just ‘cause of my own writing, with mostly submitting longer essays, people don’t typically take them.” So far, there have been two issues of the magazine. He said his “favorite thing has been being introduced to writers I did not know…I’m really excited to find those new writers and I hope publishing them can help on their writing path.” According to Gerke, Socrates on the Beach “is about literature. It’s not really about politics. I wanted to kind of get away from that.”

One of the writers who has appeared in Socrates on the Beach is Joseph McElroy, whom Gerke counts among his favorite living writers. McElroy has published nine novels, including Plus and Women and Men. Gerke said McElroy “writes in a very special way, kind of maybe as special as a Faulkner or a Henry James… there’s probably nothing like it in American literature.” Gerke plans to write a long essay on McElroy this year. 

 In addition to writing essays, Gerke is working on revising a novel called In the Suavity of the Rock. About the novel he said, “people will say it’s autofiction, but I’ve tried to almost detonate a bomb in autofiction because there are certain correspondences in my life, but then I make up other things.” He is also “faintly planning another essay book” that will focus on art, literature, and film. Gerke has also written another novel that he described as “a New York novel with three main characters.” The characters are a film critic, a scholar, and a homeless outreach worker—three roles that Gerke has played in his own life. He said, “it’s kind of a Seinfeld thing, but serious too, and funny, hopefully.” The novel clocks in at 700 pages, which Gerke feels may be too long to attract interest, but he hopes “it’ll see the light of day sometime.” 

One of the authors who has most influenced Gerke is William Gass, who wrote essays, short stories, and novels, including Omensetter’s Luck. Gerke said, “when I read him… it really touched something and luckily he was still alive and I went to interview him and that was really important—to experience him after experiencing all of the work…just to see him how he lived, it was just, it was…very influential.” One aspect of Gass’ writing that Gerke seeks to emulate in his own is the “exuberance” with which he wrote.

Gerke also sees a connection between the writing he does and the films he loves, saying, “there seems to be a rythm in sentences… related to cutting in film and editing in narrative film and, you know, the words you use are kind of camera positions—if it moves or not, what’s in the frame.” “There is kind of a connection in a way, I think it’s hard to replicate…great directors in words, but I mean, I can read an essay by Emerson, take one of his older essays, like Fate or Power, and I can see images from Terrence Malick films.” He added, “In the vaunted shot of the camera coming at ground-level toward the mother on the salt flats, I hear the adamantine language of Emerson—the same sublime.”

 Gerke’s advice to writers is to “read everything, read widely: poetry, philosophy, Shakespeare, Dante, all the people you would think to read, that would be the people to read.” Adding, “it’s good to read things that are alien and strange—they challenge you.” But, he says, “I wouldn’t read anything just because it’s difficult, it has to be beautiful too.” He gives Shakespeare as an example “it’s amazing every time, that he wrote this thing and there’s so much beauty in it that you just go running, leaping with joy.”

About the Interviewer: Megan Neary is a co-founding editor of Flyover Country, and a writer and fifth grade teacher in Columbus, Ohio. Her recent work can be found in The Cleveland Review of Books, The Schuykill Valley Journal, and The Amethyst Review.

Interview with Matt Miller of Milk Carton Press

Interview conducted by Megan Neary and Joe Neary

We were fortunate enough to speak with Matt Miller, a poet and co-founder of the new independent publisher, Milk Carton Press ( https://milkcartonpress.com) Below is a condensed transcript of the wide-ranging conversation we held, which focused on such topics as the Beat poets, the MFA experience, the need for independent literary presses, and the burning passion to write. 

Flyover Editors: Matt, to start off, could you give us a rundown of Milk Carton. When did you and your two co-founders meet, how did you choose to start the press, and what works are you looking to publish?

Matt Miller: Well, it’s really been a lot of fun. So, the three of us, Sean, Garrett, and myself, we’ve been really good friends, but we’ve also been contemporaries in the Sioux Falls arts scene, and we’ve all been self-publishing, been coming out with our own books, hosting our own readings, trying to build a community, and to live our own art. We’ve been trying to do this as hard as we can. And the three of us, we met through Sean’s book bar, a book and conversation bar, called Full Circle book Co-op. We also had a community open mic where we would meet once a month, as well as a writer’s happy hour. Eventually, Sean and his business partner, Jason, opened the Co-op, after raising money through a Kickstarter. And they were able to stay open through COVID. It’s kind of hard to talk about Milk Carton without talking about Full Circle, because it’s been such a community generator. In fact, Full Circle is where our physical address is for Milk Carton. Our dream is to one day have a Milk Carton office in the basement of Full Circle, almost a city lights kind of thing. …

The three of us have a shared aesthetic and values, similar enough that we agree on what stuff has value. So, from this and very long conversations, and helping each other edit books, it was really kind of inevitable that we should do this. And my experience at BGSU working at Mid-American Review, and just seeing like this is how you run a publishing house, that really helped to kick things off. We’ve been going now since February 2021, both been sprinting and going slow on this thing. We are about to release our third book. Each of use three co-founders is releasing a book because this just seemed like the right thing to do. I released a book, Here and There, which during my MFA, I wrote two books, The Silly Knife and Here and There, which I decided to release through Milk Carton. Garrett has released Shotgun Vernacular, which was the kickoff for our experimental chapbook series. We are trying to release both traditional books of poetry and also experimental chapbooks. Crazy, off-the-walls stuff, stuff no one has seen before, but stuff that has value and gets people talking and thinking. Sean is coming out with his book in November. And then, Tim’s book, Self-Titled by Alien, we are releasing their full-length collection in the spring of 2022. We currently have open submissions for both the full-length books and chap books. We are also doing an online magazine, more of an online art thing. We are trying to include not only poetry and literature, but also things like short film, hybrid work, gifs, and really releasing this as an eBook format. We are taking open submissions for this as well. Oh, and we have a blog, which is pretty much for anything. If you send us something we think is cool: essays poetry, art, we will publish it there. Also, we are leaning really hard into the whole milk thing. If you send us a poem about milk, pretty much anything, if you just write something about milk, we will publish it. We have gotten some really cool stuff.

Flyover Editors: So, Matt, that was an awesome overview. It sounds like you are doing some very cool stuff at Milk Carton, but we need to know: where does the name Milk Carton come from?

Matt Miller: Oh, yeah, so it kind of started with a half idea. Then it kind of bloomed from there. So, the three of us are very inspired by Beat poetry. Like, the Beats are what inspired the three of us to get into writing. They keep us going, and we always come back to them. And the thing that draws us to them the most is this idea of seeking, of not being complete. This idea that something is missing. We’re sitting off-kilter and we need to find it. Also, this idea of nostalgia for things we’ve never had, like hopping trains, or their whole hitchhiker lifestyle. You can’t feasibly do these things anymore. The world that we live in is fundamentally different than the one the Beats lived in. Yet, we still feel the same way. We know that there is more to this than what we see and what we hear. And the three of us have deep, personal issues that make us write and keep us going. And so, this idea of Milk Carton. At one time, missing kids were on milk cartons. And it’s not a perfect metaphor, but this idea of something being missing. And yet, at the same time, it’s fundamentally not even there anymore. If you were to find a milk carton with a missing kid on it, you could keep seeking, but like they don’t even make milk cartons like that anymore. It’s double lost, so completely lost. And we feel like that is how we are right now. They call the Beats the lost generation, but they were lost in a world that could fundamentally still work with them. And we feel like we are double: unaware, and too aware of everything at the same time. And there is nothing we can do, so we just write poems about it.

Flyover Editors: Talk about your experience living in Ohio and attending Bowling Green State University’s MFA program a bit. Did this experience change how you approach writing?

Matt Miller: It’s kind of funny. You know, I grew up on a farm, like so many people in South Dakota have. I find myself writing about the city so often. You know, I’ve written several poems about the concept of the city itself, and just my experience living in them. I find city life really exciting, and love seeing different types of people, or hearing different languages. And I did not get that on the farm. Yet, at the same time, it was really interesting living in Ohio. When I moved to BG, I had an idea of what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about my time as an EMS. I used to be a paramedic. So much of my identity was wrapped up in that, but then I found out I have terrible back issues, and I don’t have a future lifting heavy things. So, I couldn’t do the job anymore and it ruined me. And I knew, coming into an MFA program, that I wanted to unpack that. The more I wrote about that, the more I ended up writing about childhood. It was funny, but, going to Ohio, I really started writing about the farm. All of my writing up until that point was focused on the city. Though I think that was less about Ohio itself, rather than being able to focus on one big project, to chase it to its core. But Bowling Green was awesome. The town was very nice; it had character, and the campus did too. The thing I like most, other than Flatlands, was probably just the people I met. Once you get into academia, everyone is from all over. 

Flyover Editors: Thanks for that. It’s very interesting hearing that you almost had to leave something behind, to have enough distance from your personal story and upbringing, in order to write about it. That seems to be a thing with many writers, a common theme of sorts. So, Matt, going back to your comment earlier on our generation being an even more extreme version of a lost generation than the Beats were, the idea that there is even more of a disconnect within our experiences. Do you think art can help to fill in what is missing? Is this a part of what Milk Carton aims to do, in the sense that you still believe in the transcendent power of poetry?

Matt Miller: Yeah, definitely. And even if art can’t do it, we can’t not make it. For me, I can’t not write or create something. You know, I get sick if I don’t. And maybe where this illness is coming from, is that we all know that there is more than what people are telling us. The people on the screens are leaving something out…. The world isn’t black and white, but they try to say it is. And this is a problem because life isn’t like that. Everything is complicated….

Flyover Editors: Could you talk a bit more about the types of creative works you are open to. Are you interested in publishing any short stories or novels, along with poetry?

Matt Miller: Right now, we’re focusing on poetry, but who knows about the future. With the blog and the magazine, anything goes. You know, fiction, hybrid, essay, anything. We’re drawn to poetry, the three of us. We read fiction and nonfiction as well; I’m also an essayist and Garrett worked as a journalist, but, for us, it’s almost a waste of time to read anything that’s not poetry. When we keep asking why and we keep focusing, it always comes down to that. I guess our factory default settings are all set to poetry….

About the Interviewers:

Megan Neary is a writer and fifth grade teacher in Columbus, Ohio. Her recent work can be found in The Cleveland Review of Books, The Schuykill Valley Journal, and The Amethyst Review.

Joe Neary is a PhD student in English Literature at The University of Kentucky. His recent work can be found in the quint: an interdisciplinary quarterly from the north, and Olney Magazine.

Book Review: So Marvelously Far, by Nick Gardner

Gardner, Nick. So Marvelously Far. Crisis Chronicles Press, 2019. $10. 64 Pages.


Review by Joe Neary

Nick Gardner’s book of poetry, So Marvelously Far, details his experience with opioid addiction. Rather than focusing solely on the details of the life of an addict, Gardner’s book traces the process of recovery. At the same time, this process is framed within the trajectory of his hometown of Mansfield, OH, which, in many ways, perfectly encapsulates the image of a midwestern rustbelt city that has been reshaped by deindustrialization.

In an interview with Richland Source, Gardner describes the experience of writing this book upon his return to Mansfield after rehab, “”I saw the revitalization of the city—a new bookstore, a new brewery, and realized in a way, I too was revitalizing myself: becoming a new life form in a way” (Jones).  The process of this realization is evident in the structure of Gardner’s book, which opens with poems centered on the experience of addiction, before progressing into what he terms “urban exploration” poems where he turns his focus to the landscape and cityscape around him, offering what he describes as “a deep look at the importance of place and the connections I feel with my hometown” (BGSU). The book then progresses into, and ends with, details on post-addiction life.

By framing both his addiction and his process of recovery within the landscape of his hometown, Gardner perfectly captures the dialectic relationship between personal subjectivity and the social and physical spaces one dwells within—a relationship that, ultimately, serves to configure one’s sense of self. This relationship is often overlooked in discussions of rustbelt life. By filling in this gap, Gardner offers a powerful new contribution to artistic representations of the post-industrial Midwest, as well as a profound look into the life of addiction that so often takes hold within this geographic area. Gardner’s unique vision shows how these towns and their ways of life, rather than needing to be left behind, must, instead, be fully embraced in all of their messiness and flaws, just like one’s past as an addict, if a brighter future is to be imagined and realized.

The book consists of 49 total poems, all of which initially began as sonnets. In an interview with Bowling Green State University (from which Gardner recently graduated with an MFA degree in creative writing), Gardner discusses his reasoning behind the decision to follow this format, saying, “I picked the sonnet form because it is short, but also constrictive. The form challenges how I express myself and I liked the idea of kind of a battle between what I want to say and how I can say it. Of course, I broke the form quite a bit, especially in revision. Sometimes there were things that needed to be said that broke down the walls of the form completely” (4).

The benefits of this decision to focus on form are evident from the very first pages of the book. In “Finding Faces in the Moon,” Gardner writes, “I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone in the moon/ Ever. Saw, once, a glimmer of eye or/something like the beginnings of a smile/ the very start of his tiptoe out of gloom” (4). This spare, reserved language leads the reader to a sense of submersion—bringing them into the difficult experience of confronting one’s own addiction (a process that often amounts to confronting one’s way of thinking). This sensation is further heightened when Gardner writes, later in the poem, “But some nights, I look into the moon and see/ the red veins of a burned-out eye blazoned/ on a backdrop of that soft wax-yellow-skin” (4). Throughout the first section of the book, one can feel this continual sense of submersion into the mind of an addict hoping to change, but seeing his own sense of entrapment all around him. At the same time, the formal approach that Gardner takes keeps these desires and fears bottled up, placing them at arm’s length from his reader—something that highlights both the distance addicts often have from their own thought processes, as well as the somewhat unbridgeable gap between the mind of an addict and those around them.

 As the book progresses, Gardner’s growing ability, once in recovery, to own his past and to embrace the future becomes more evident. In, “Urban Exploration #5,” he writes, “We all came from something bare/ naked and scrambling to hide itself … Turning on the light for the first time/ in twenty years, we see the ballroom filled/ with pigeons and empty beer cans. We see/ newspapers from nineteen sixty-two. We/ see painted windows covering broken glass/ You cannot remove the past, only change it” (27). Evidenced, once again, is Gardner’s emphasis on the ways in which one crafts meaning through an interaction with the spaces around them. In this example, it is a recognition of the present’s infusion with the past that is reflected back to him by his hometown of Mansfield. By embracing Mansfield’s changes and the messiness of the very notion of change itself, including the ways in which change always brings remnants of the past along with it, Gardner offers a positive vision beyond personal addiction and collapsing cityscapes.

At the end of So Marvelously Far, Gardner writes, in the poem, “Looking at Ohio From the Other side of Lake Erie: Erieau, Ontario, Canada,” “I can think about/ myself: a nostalgic worrier, a/ tossing dreamer. I think on how to keep/ my world within my grasp like hugging a shy/ child who keeps wanting to run into train/ tracks. I have come so marvelously far” (61). The optimistic note here is paired with the recognition that recovery is an ongoing process—one that requires an ever-shifting relationship to oneself and the outer world. As Gardner’s book demonstrates, literature has a valuable role to play in this process, as it can serve as a powerful tool for relating to oneself and imagining a new future.

About the Author: Joe Neary is a recent graduate of Bowling Green State University’s MA program in Literary & Textual Studies and a contributing editor at Flyover Country.

Works Cited

Jones, Noah. “Mansfield poet publishes book about his and the city’s recovery.” Richland Source, 10 December 2019.

“MFA Student Nick Gardner Releases First Volume of Poetry.” Bowling Green State University, https://www.bgsu.edu/arts-and-sciences/english/news/mfa-student-nick-gardner-releases-first-volume-of-poetry.html. Accessed 6 July 2021.

Book Review: Lost in the Furrows, by William R. Soldan

Soldan, William R. Lost in the Furrows. Cowboy Jamboree Press, 2020. $13.99. 113 pages.


Review by Nick Gardner

William R. Soldan’s Lost in the Furrows, is a collection of short and flash stories about the seamier types that exist in this fictionalized, rural Rust Belt town. While often these characters are seen as insular, caught up in the reiterations of addiction and violence common to the growing trend of “Grit Lit,” or “Gritty Realism,” Soldan imposes outside forces upon his characters, pressing them to question their limited, often patriarchal worldviews. Such questioning occurs in the first story, “Training,” when the protagonist squares up against his brother wondering if there’s “A chance for something else?” something beyond the fight and violence.

Though the characters in Lost in the Furrows rarely find a solution to violence, through them Soldan illuminates the misunderstandings that often exist between townies and impinging outsiders who attempt to overthrow or at least ignore the townie hierarchies. This is most evident when the fracking employees, a “‘Buncha loudmouths,’” invade the drug dealer, Elvis’ turf in “King of the Blue Rose.”  As the frackers colonize Elvis’ pool game and jukebox picks, Elvis is forced to protect his gospel music from the rabble rousers the only way he knows how, by starting a brawl. Of course, though it is uncertain whether Elvis, a pill dealer in the midst of the opioid epidemic, actually learns from or even questions his criminality and violence, his story captures a moment of change, of leaving his past behind him. Elvis had, “always planned to go places, and though he’d never given much thought to where, he knew his time had come.” His violence in The Blue Rose serves as a catharsis, a cleansing of his past life in a move toward freedom, from his violent life of crime.

There are many other examples of characters hoping to escape their murky and troubled pasts, and in a way the entire book explores this move from backwards to forwards, from destruction to success. In “Stairmaster” the protagonist works his way up from addiction, pondering “Without drugs, what other comfort can a person find in this world?” His story is a question of a future, a hope turned to faith that the future will be better. Similarly in “Across State Lines” the teenage protagonist rides shotgun with his alcoholic father and recalls his mother’s urging to “be better.

However, growth and a move toward more positive futures is not always possible for Soldan’s characters. Set against a small-town Ohio landscape, Lost in the Furrows gives a voice to the lonely and the desperate, to those struggling in recovery, and to the victims of the opioid epidemic–not just the “suburban white kids.” In a sociopolitical climate that often others such outsiders, relegates them to an anti-intellectual crop of industrial fodder and conservative votes, Soldan’s book complicates these characters. It shows the way this hate and violence is systemic, ingrained bone-deep. He also tells us that at least some of these people want more. They just don’t want it forced upon them, only a bit of grace while they figure it out.

About the Author: Nick Gardner is in recovery from opioids and is a recent graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at Bowling Green State University where he was an assistant editor at Mid-American Review. His poetry and fiction has appeared in Ocean State Review, Fictive Dream, Flash Fiction Magazine, Main Street Rag, and other journals. His book of poetry, So Marvelously Far, was published in 2019 through Crisis Chronicles Press. He lives in Ohio.