Interview with Wah Ming Chang

Wah-Ming Chang has received grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Urban Artist Initiative, the Bronx Writers’ Center, and the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Her fiction has appeared in Mississippi ReviewArts & Letters Journal of Contemporary Culture, and Kartika Review; her nonfiction in Words without Borders and Open City, an online magazine published by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop; and her photography in Open City and Drunken Boat. She lives and works in Brooklyn.

Ian Sanquist: What inspired this story?

Wah-Ming Chang: In 2009, I went to China for the first time to meet my father’s family, and in the middle of the trip, which happened to fall on my birthday, I decided at the last minute to sail the Yangtze to see the Three Gorges Dam, which is the subject of another project, another folly. The details in this story’s first paragraph are more or less what I experienced—the Sichuanese dialect a whirl of aggressive singsong around me—but everything after that paragraph is fantasy. I do own a copy of Rewi Alley’s translations of Li Po, though, a gift from a friend named J., not K.

How are ancestry and tradition important to your writing?

Some years ago I revisited Borges’s labyrinths and Kafka’s Great Wall while at the same time reading up on Chinese historiography, and began writing narratives about a perceived ancestry and tradition. I have a tendency towards sentimentality and nostalgia, and prefer to keep these aspects of myself out of my writing (though not necessarily with success); but with this revised perspective I was able to approach both ancestry and tradition—family lore, history—with a clarity I hadn’t be able to access before then. So the personal story, a porous inwardness, can’t help but emerge whenever my narrator starts a journey, whether inside a cultural labyrinth, along a historical wall, or down a fabricated river. None of which belong to her, but none entirely independent from her either.

This piece is from a longer work. Can you tell us about that?

I’m working on a series of biographical sketches called This, Too, Is Life. My narrator, traveling her way through a yearlong sabbatical, meets various figures, alive or dead, who have influenced her in some fashion. These are encounters with ghosts—the ghosts inside her mind, the ghosts haunting her surroundings. What is the point of travel if one doesn’t meet such characters? This question is not one she poses, though, but is my own.

There is an encounter inspired by the actor Leslie Cheung, in “Heartbreak,” which Kartika Review published earlier this year; there is one featuring W. G. Sebald during a lull at a dinner party; one in which the descendant of the founder of Shaolin Temple seduces the narrator with his music; one in which Lolita and her mother show up on a tour bus in Oaxaca; one in which Mao the swimmer, before he became Mao the chairman, disappears during a race across the Yangtze River; one in which Anna May Wong, traveling through China for the first time, suffers through a night of second-rate Peking opera; one in which Lu Xun, on the eve of his death, is having trouble finishing his final essay, called “This, Too, Is Life.” There’s an encounter with my grandmother, who died in the early 1990s, and another with my father, who, healthy at the age of eighty-four, of course will never die. These are biographical sketches, as I say; these are also dreams about and deep desires for communication and travel, but mainly about ghosts.

In this story there is a somewhat mysterious figure named “K.” Who is this? Is it a reference to Kafka?

In the story “Heartbreak,” my narrator meets a stranger who shares a love for the actor Leslie Cheung. I hadn’t given this stranger a name, but when I submitted “Moonbeams” to Swarm, I decided that he would trail the narrator throughout her travels as her guardian angel, and so would be named K., because we must think of Kafka and his precursors wherever we go, always.

Conversations with Kafka, a memoir in which Gustav Janouch recounts urgent conversations and leisurely strolls with his mentor, Franz Kafka, and recently reissued by New Directions, with an enthusiastic introduction by Francine Prose, is the first book in my library to inspire this. The second is John Berger’s Here Is Where We Meet. The third is César Aira’s Ghosts. The fourth is &c., &c.

Interview with Amorak Huey

Amorak Huey is a former newspaper journalist who teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems can be found in The Best American Poetry 2012, The Southern Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Collagist, Linebreak, Rattle, and other print and online journals. Follow him on Twitter: @amorak.

Dillon Welch: In your poem “The Lion Tamer Resolves to Start Telling the Truth,” you hit on some pretty powerful details about an unfortunate career and how it affects both the speaker and those around him. Obviously a lion tamer is a fairly unusual example of a job that would have a whole host of social repercussions. Do you feel that this poem rings true for other, more conventional careers as well?

Amorak Huey: In this poem, I was thinking about public faces and private fears. About performance. How we have to go out in the world and put on a show no matter what’s going on inside. This is true for all of us but would be exacerbated, seems to me, in any show-biz kind of career, including the circus. Is this a kind of dishonesty? What happens if we stop lying to people around us? If we stop lying to ourselves? Is this even possible? I’m guessing probably not. Anyway, those are things I was thinking about when I was writing this one.


Before you sent “The Lion Tamer Resolves to Start Telling the Truth” to Swarm, I read another one of your poems in Bluestem, titled “The Tight Rope Walker Gets High.” Do you intend on coming out with a circus-themed collection at some point? If so, is there a tentative title you had in mind?

In fact, Hyacinth Girl Press recently accepted my chapbook The Insomniac Circus, which includes “Lion Tamer” and “Tight Rope Walker” and a bunch of other circus-performer poems with punny titles. It will be out sometime in 2014.


You’ve mentioned previously that you had a 15-year stint working for a newspaper. What was it that made you decide to leave?

I was lucky enough to leave on my own terms because I was in the right place at the right time to be offered a teaching job. I pretty much feel like newspaper business left me before I left it, though. The job was changing so much, and the things I loved about the work were vanishing, the decisions increasingly being taken out of the hands of local editors and writers and given to SEO consultants hired by the corporations.


Do you think your time with the newspaper gave you a perspective that other writers may not possess?

Plenty of writers bring a clear-eyed perspective on the world to their work, so I don’t claim anything particular that others don’t have. I think and hope I have a journalist’s sense of connection and story, but how that manifests itself in my poetry is probably for others to judge. I think all those years working for newspapers did give me a deeply felt sense of compression, clarity and communication. They also made me view the Oxford comma as an unnecessary extravagance.


If I dig hard enough, will I find an old article or two written by a younger Mr. Huey?

They’re out there. In Tallahassee, I covered a handful of random sports events: Florida State baseball, the MEAC basketball tournament, a Nike Tour golf event. In Kentucky, I covered health care and county government as a beat writer for the newspaper in Elizabethtown. After that, I worked mostly as an editor, with fewer bylines beyond smaller pieces and a column here or there. A good Lexis-Nexis search will get you to some of those articles, I’m sure, though I’m not sure the reward would be worth the effort.


Amorak’s poem, ““The Lion Tamer Resolves to Start Telling the Truth”,” appeared in Swarm’s Spring 2013 issue.

Interview with Mary Lou Buschi

Mary Lou Buschi’s chapbook, “The Spell of Coming (or Going),” was selected as the winner of The NYC Siren Series and was published by Patasola Press (2013). Her poems have appeared or are appearing in Willow Springs, Cream City Review, RHINO, Tar River Poetry, The Laurel Review, and Indiana Review, among others. She is a special education teacher in the Bronx.

Brandon Amico: What was the germ that brought “Scouts” on, the little thing that set the writing of this poem in motion? And is the final product a combination of memory and imagination, or does it sit solely in one of those camps (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun)?

Mary Lou Buschi: In truth, I was never a Girl Scout.  I only made it as far as the Brownies. The girls were mean and I hate uniforms and groups that follow rules or recite pledges or prayers, so even as a little kid I knew it wasn’t for me.  The penultimate moment, when Helen puts the corsage in her mouth, was a moment of absolute disgust told to me by a friend who did make it into the Girl Scouts.  I found her disgust really interesting so I followed the instinct to write the poem.  I also felt that her fear/disgust was closely linked to the speaker of “In the Waiting Room” by Elizabeth Bishop.  Although the speaker in “Scouts” denies any likeness to Helen, she remains “other,” safe in her 8 year old self.  So, to answer your question the poem is imagined.


Interesting. I don’t get the sense of “absolute disgust” in the speaker’s tone when it comes to Helen, though. I feel more of…a disconnect, a confusion at Helen when her task isn’t tidily completed the way she expected it to be. Though, the opening images definitely carry traces of disgust, albeit at the distance of a child’s imagination.  What was it about your friend’s disgust when telling the story that interested you enough to spark this poem?  

I found her disgust humorous.  Maybe it was her facial expression, but I thought of Bishop immediately; that awakening into the inevitable decline our bodies.  I suppose that is where the images at the beginning of the poem came from.  The poem has been edited quite a bit from the initial impulse.  There was more of the child’s imagination at play in the first few drafts but the images were not serving the poem.


I like the parallel you drew to the speaker in Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” It’s intriguing to me that in both your poem and Bishop’s, the events are presented as memory: the adult consciously looking back and relating what they felt as a child. I’m interested in your thoughts about writing, as an adult, from the viewpoint of a child. Is it fun or challenging? Is the knowledge of everything that happens after the events of the poem a help or a hindrance? The desire to wink at events and issues of the present when writing from the past is tempting, but you seem to have resisted that well.

Obviously, writing in the past tense offers the gift of reflection.  However, I usually have no idea where I am going when I write.  I let the poem find its way.  It’s atypical that I know an ending before I begin.  This was one of those rare times when I knew that the old woman would eat the corsage and the speaker would dig her heels in and “get back to herself.”  In that way, this poem was a bit scary for me to write because it’s not my usual process or style.  It’s a narrative poem and I have a difficult time with narrative poems because my tendency is to leap from image to image rather than recount from memory.


Switching gears here: you did a reading at AWP this past March that centered on what is called “magical realism” and “slipstream” writing. What do you think those modes have to offer in the crafting and reading—the experience—of a poem?

The reading and panel discussion was for A Cappella Zoo, a literary magazine, as described by the editor, as one that focuses on “overlapping styles, including absurdist, uncanny, fabulist, cross-genre… For [their] purposes, the combined terms MAGIC REALISM & SLIPSTREAM illustrate the range.”  I believe I was invited as an example of “slipstream.”  My poem “Beauty School” was awarded most notable contribution for their Spring 2012 issue.  The speaker in the poem is experiencing a heightened consciousness about hairdressing. Each act becomes more and more dangerous ending with the speaker handling an extremely sharp instrument.

After the reading an audience member asked the panel the very same question you are asking.  I’m afraid I still don’t have a great answer other than “Fantastic” or Magically Real/Slipstream is how my mind works.  I don’t set out to write in any certain style.

As David Young points out in his Magical Realist Anthology, MR is the collision of 2 different realities that are left unresolved in terms of a logical explanation.  For example, Marquez (I can’t talk about Magic Realism and not mention Gabriel Garcia Marquez) in his story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” an entire village is experiencing the same “hallucination.”  If so, than what they are seeing is real.  Or when Gregor Samsa wakes up from a night of anxious dreams to find that he is a gigantic bug and he states, “It was no dream.”  The fantastic and the real are coexisting.  I won’t go into the political or religious reasons why writers may employ these styles.  That is for a different discussion.

I must say, as a reader, I am drawn to this genre so I am sure that my fascination informs the writing in some unconscious way.  I also think that many poets who employ or depend on leaps of imagination through imagery may find themselves labeled as someone who writes in said styles.  I’ve never put myself in any one camp or style.  I find it interesting when editors align me with a certain way of writing.  But I do think that allowing the absence of logic makes for a more interesting writing experience.


“Scouts” does not appear to be a poem of magical realism or the fantastic; it does seem quite grounded in reality, or at least the possible. But there are touches that largely remind me of magical realism, moments where something happens that is unexpected—like Helen taking the flowers into her mouth (though now I know that this is actually true)—that are represented matter-of-factly, a hallmark of magical realism poems and stories. Do you use this approach in your, let’s say, more “realistic” poems consciously, or is this measured, level-headed way of presenting the poems’ more “fantastic” moments just something that happens on its own?

I hadn’t thought about the moment where Helen puts the corsage in her mouth as magical or fantastic, but now that you mention it I probably would never have written the poem if I wasn’t drawn to that image for that very reason.  And the way that the image lands is unresolved, which again works with the collision of two realities.  I hadn’t thought about that.


What’s next for your writing? Any projects you’re working on or big news to share with us?

I have a full length manuscript making the rounds (which may have some good news soon) and a new chapbook that I am working on.  I am just starting to hear the voices of the new speakers.  They’re interesting in that they are naive yet persistent.  I have to spend more time with them.


Lightning round: Murakami or Marquez?

AHHH, such a hard choice.  If I were being shipped off to an island and I had to choose just one I would choose Marquez.


What’s the creature you’d least like to wake up and find yourself metamorphosed into?

A snake.  The thought of not having any arms or legs terrifies me.


Who is the first poet you can remember reading whose work struck some chord in you and gave you that feeling that you wanted to write poetry too?   

The first poet that really struck a chord with me was Rimbaud and Andre Breton was a close second.  Specifically these two lines from Rimbaud made me choose to write: “The green faded dresses of girls / make willows, out of which hop unbridled birds.”  I think it is the way the image unfolds so slowly through the syntax that grips me even now.  I wanted to make these magical images.


Mary Lou’s poem, “Scouts,” appeared in Swarm’s Spring 2013 issue.

Interview with Michael Reilly

Michael Reilly’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly ReviewConfrontationStorychordA Twist of Noir, and The Glens Falls Review. He currently makes his living as a freelance writer and lives in northwestern Connecticut.

Where did you find the idea for this story?

When I was a grad student, many of my colleagues had been working on their dissertations for years. One day I was sitting with a group of people and one of them observed that all the grad students he knew were bitter because of the way their dissertations seemed to keep their lives on hold. The lament rings true for all problems of our own making.

Did you know, starting out, the piece’s full trajectory, or did you more come upon the ending as you wrote?

The story went through many drafts. The characters stuck, but the story line was by no means a straight line. I always knew I wanted Angela to get her way, but the idea for how she would do it didn’t occur to me until very late. The final image in the last line hit me as I wrote it.

Is any part of this story true?

Yes. I once did live in a dreary, furnished basement apartment with a wall panel that came loose when I threw a coffee cup at it. Also, I haven’t been in grad school for 25 years, but my unfinished dissertation still dogs me.

What are you currently working on—any projects you’d like to promote?

I’m working on a story about a woman who names all of her sweaters after her father’s sheep, whose wool the yarn is made of. Additionally, I am putting together a collection of stories. I’m pleased to see that the short-story form is enjoying renewed popularity. There are a number of new collections hitting right now. I’m hoping to contribute to that.

Swarm’s second issue is upon us

Run for your lives! The new issue of Swarm is here! Egad!

This also means that submissions are open again, so send us your best work. We’ll be reading until July 31st.

We’re very excited about our second issue, and we hope you enjoy it. As always, thanks for stopping by!

Brandon, Dillon, Ian and Peter

Swarm’s First Issue Has Arrived

We’re proud to present to you the Winter 2013 Inaugural issue of Swarm. Click “Current Issue” in the ribbon of insects above to see the table of contents.

We are open for submissions until April 30th, so after seeing what we like in the current issue, please do send your best work our way!

Enjoy the issue!

Brandon, Dillon, Ian and Peter

Interview with Vincent Scarpa

Vincent Scarpa has a BFA in fiction writing from Emerson College. His fiction has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Baltimore Review, and Plain China: Best of Undergraduate Writing 2011. He is the 2012 recipient of the Norman Mailer College Fiction Award.

Ian Sanquist: What do you feel is your responsibility as a writer of fiction?

Vincent Scarpa: Well I see you’re easing into the hard questions. If I have a responsibility—and I’m not totally convinced that I do—I think it has everything to do with telling the truth. Which is a pretty vague charge. But I do think that can be considered the primary duty of fiction writers: to tell unequivocal truths about the way we are and the things we want and don’t want.

Ian: How do you go about uncovering those truths?

Vincent: Pam Painter, whose class I was lucky to take at Emerson, called it “stalking life.” (She may have appropriated that from someone else, of course, but I attribute it to her.) Just keeping your eyes peeled. I think I go through periods of data gathering where my internal antenna is up and I’m listening and watching and thinking and then when I feel like I have enough, I just shut it down.

Ian: Tell me about your methods of gathering data.

Vincent: Well, there’s a lot of eavesdropping, but it also comes organically in meeting new people, meeting strangers. I was on a flight to Boston earlier this year, and gave a cigarette to a woman outside the airport that ended up being seated right next to me. I’d overheard her yelling on her cell phone outside, presumably to a husband/boyfriend/significant other, and she was just totally fucking frazzled by the time we boarded. I mean, crying, mascara down her face. She was having a shit day. After takeoff, she turns to me, totally out of the blue, and says, “My boyfriend—he couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if there were instructions on the heel. What he knows about women couldn’t fill a thimble.” And, because I listened to her story for the entire three hour flight, even though Country Strong was the in-flight movie, I felt like I could probably borrow some of her life for a story. So I ended up modeling a character in one of my stories after her. The story takes place in airport. And I lifted that pour-piss-out-of-a-boot line, because it was golden.

Ian: Do you take notes while you’re out? How do your stories develop?

Vincent: The only notes I take when I’m away from a computer are for stories I’m already working on or at least thinking about. I usually enter them in a note on my iPhone. A lot of first sentences in there, or just some concepts to play around with. “Daughter goes to bereavement camp; breaks arms.” Stuff like that. As far as how they develop, I’m not really sure. In pieces, certainly. I’ll think about them in the car. Talk some things out to myself. The thing I have a lot of difficulty with—which, if I can overcome it, means I’ll write and finish the story—is figuring out motivation. I can think of some pretty clever concept that certainly could warrant a story, but it’s the figuring out why that takes some time. But once I understand why a character would want to do this strange or cruel or beautiful or terrible thing that I’ve come up with, that’s when I really feel like I can get to work.

Ian: So what came first when you were writing the story “I Hope You’re Wrong About Scottsdale”? [read Vincent’s Norman Mailer Four-Year College Fiction Writing Award-winning short story here]

Vincent: The first line. I can’t remember where or why I thought it, but I wrote it down and worked from there. And, for the most part, the rest followed pretty easily.

Ian: How long did that story take you to complete?

Vincent: About a week or so. It was for a workshop deadline, which will light a fire under your ass.

Ian: Did you put it through much revision?

Vincent: None, except for a singular word choice. I used the word “palimpsest” and the class agreed that, though the narrator was emotionally intelligent, she didn’t seem like the kind of person to use a word like that. So I changed it to “sketch,” which I like better anyway.

Ian: Sketch is a good substitute. More evocative, I think.

Vincent: Definitely. I think I just liked the idea of saying “palimpsest.” I’ll get it in somewhere.

Ian: Use it for hangman.

Vincent: Terrific idea. My guy will live to die another day. What a terrifying game we teach to our children. I mean, how grim is that? It’s saying, Here’s this guy whose life depends on your vocabulary!

Ian: Lives have been ended over lesser miscommunications.

Vincent: So silly. Someone needs to update that for the next generation.

Ian: To what, lethal injection man?

Vincent: I’m starting to think this is an untapped well for the GOP: start ascribing nationalist narratives to children’s games. Make the man being hung an evil terrorist from a place you couldn’t point out on a map. Although doesn’t that incentivize losing?

How interesting that the government would institute a practice that would result in a loss.

Ian: What do they call it, mutually assured destruction? They could call the game MAD Man.

Vincent: Whatever they call it, it isn’t “hot load of bullshit.” It’s not what’s written on the tin.

Ian: So, you won the Norman Mailer College Fiction Award for your story “Scottsdale.” Can you tell us about that?

Vincent: Sure. Well, as I mentioned, I wrote that in my final workshop at Emerson. It was well-received and I thought it was a pretty strong story, so I submitted it to their annual contest. They called to tell me they chose my story in August, which was about four months after I had completely forgotten that I’d entered. So, it was a shock and an honor and lots of other words.

Ian: Had you been planning to submit a story to that contest?

Vincent: No, actually, I hadn’t heard of it until right about that time. Submissions were still open, so I figured, what the hell.

Ian: Smart choice.

Vincent: Yeah, I’m glad. My self-confidence was unusually buoyed for a few weeks there.

Ian: Tell us about how the story, “Dead Reckoning,” which is appearing in the first issue of Swarm, came to be.

Vincent: So, about five years ago, my father’s house actually did burn down, as the protagonist’s house does in the story. And I knew I’d probably end up writing about it eventually, because it’s such a crazy thing to have happen. And the town in the story is very much like the one I grew up in. Lots of gossipy neighbors, city politics. Frank isn’t my father, though, and most of what happens in the story is of my own invention. But the general premise was ripped from my own experience.

Ian: How important is location to you in fiction?

Vincent: Oh, it’s crucial. Dorothy Allison has a great essay called “Place” in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays From Tin House that will explain it far lovelier than I can manage, but place is what grounds your reader. More than character, more than plot. Knowing where we are in a story is instant pathos, and I get really frustrated if I’m reading a story and two, three, four pages in, I still have no sense of where in the world this is taking place.

Ian: Do you ever write stories set in locations you’ve never visited?

Vincent: More often than not, yes. For the first eighteen years of my life, I’d only really been to the tri-state area and Florida. I’ve only been out of the country on cruise excursions. So, it’s necessary. But I do a ton of research about the places—read the local paper, look at Google Maps, look at Yelp reviews of the local bars.

Ian: Do you have a preference in terms of climate for where you set your stories?

Vincent: Not that I’ve noticed, no. I imagine if I was writing something longer, it’d have to be set in a place that experiences four seasons.

Ian: We’ve spoken often about movies. How has film influenced the way you write fiction?

Vincent: Well, you watch a Noah Baumbach movie, or a Nicole Holofcener movie, or a Tarantino movie, and you have a great lesson in dialogue. And they can also be great character studies. Especially if it’s a small cast with a very prominent lead. Sometimes that means two full hours with a character, and that’s powerful.

Ian: I’m curious if there are any lessons from watching movies that you feel you’ve applied especially to your writing.

Vincent: Friends With Money is a film that I really love; it’s this sort of character study of four profoundly unhappy women, all of whom are terribly unlikable. And yet, you love them, you know them, you are all them. I think movies like that—Leaving Las Vegas is another—just gave me permission to write about tremendously flawed people. I never felt like I had to worry about whether or not my character was “likable,” and that’s in large part a response to these movies.

Ian: Right. I’m curious, also, if you were watching these heavy, heady films before reading the authors that have been influential to you?

Vincent: Absolutely. Way before. I watched a lot of movies.

Ian: What are some of the authors that have been influential to you?

Vincent: Let me look at my bookshelf! Amy Hempel. Joy Williams. Ann Beattie. That’s my trifecta. But so many more, like: Joan Didion. Lorrie Moore. Harold Brodkey. Kafka. Richard Yates. Joyce Carol Oates. Grace Paley. Alice Munro. Laura van den Berg.

Ian: Tell me what you like about some of the writers you named.

Vincent: They’re all so different, but they end up on the list because I like what they do with language. That’s a reduction, of course, but it’s true. Specifically, though? I love Hempel’s first sentences. I’m crazy about Joy Williams’s plots. Ann Beattie’s dialogue. Didion’s insight. Moore’s humanity and attention to detail. Brodkey’s young narrators, especially the one in “The State of Grace.”

Ian: And what was your earliest literary influence?

Vincent: Sylvia Plath. Isn’t everyone’s?

Ian: I’m not sure, I’ve managed to avoid reading her thus far.

Vincent: Criminal that you haven’t read Plath. Criminal.

Ian: Do you linger at bus stations for pleasure?

Vincent: There are no bus stations in my town. It’s pretty tiny. Plus, I can drive.

Ian: Some pretty down-and-out people at bus stations. You could probably find some good dirty realist stories there if you went looking.

Vincent: My entire town is down-and-out. I can just go to the mall. Or Wawa.

Ian: If you had a monkey, a wolf, a bear, and a flea, which one would you write a fable about and why?

Vincent: I’d pick the one that’s most often around humans, so my fable could be really heavy-handed. So, flea. It would just be this flea that annotates a marriage.

Ian: Has anyone you know ever recognized his or herself, or perceived his or herself, in one of your stories?

Vincent: Not that I can remember, no. Which means they aren’t reading closely.

Ian: Have you ever given a character that wasn’t at all based on a person that person’s name, then showed them the story?

Vincent: Oh, wait, I have to amend that answer. I just asked, yes, someone has.

Ian: Do tell.

Vincent: Ha! I’m afraid she’ll read this. But she’s right. And in response to your second question, I’ve never done that, no.

Ian: You should try it sometime.

Vincent: I have a friend named Bakara, who is also a writer, and I’d love to use her name.

Ian: Do you think it would be possible to separate this fictitious Bakara that you would create from the actual Bakara that you know? On that note, how important is a character’s name to you?

Vincent: Probably not. I love Bakara, so I’d probably write a story where nothing bad happens to her, and who wants to read that. Names can be very important to me, but that’s usually not the case. I’m not particularly attached to any of my character names. Though, when I workshopped “Dead Reckoning,” the story that’s in Swarm, someone mentioned that Frank is also an adjective meaning open and honest, especially when dealing with unpalatable matters. Which was unintentional, but has a certain resonance, I think.

Ian: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

Vincent: The best book I read this year was NW by Zadie Smith, and the best movie I saw was Beasts of the Southern Wild. You should buy both.

Ian: Thanks for talking with us, Vincent.

Vincent: Sure thing!


Vincent’s story, “Dead Reckoning,” will appear in Swarm’s Winter 2013 inaugural issue.

Interview with Barbara Westwood Diehl

Barbara Westwood Diehl is the founding and managing editor of The Baltimore Review. Her short stories and poems have been accepted for publication in a variety of journals, including Word Riot, Confrontation, Rosebud, Atticus Review, JMWW, Potomac Review (Best of the 50), American Poetry Journal, Measure, Little Patuxent Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Gargoyle, Superstition Review, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Peter: What inspired this story?

Barbara: A “what if.” Unlike some of my stories, this was not prompted by a news article, a writing exercise, an overheard conversation, or anything in particular I can point to and say, “That ignited my story.” This story arose from one of my—let’s call them—“Where the #@!?! did that come from?”—moments. One of those moments when you can be doing something as mundane as loading the dishwasher and wonder something like, “What if the world were unmade in seven days?” But that’s another story.

In this case, my #@!?! moment was the question, “What if a woman found a baby on a hiking trail?”

My “what if” is usually followed by an image; in this case, the memory of a watercolor illustration from the old and unhappy tale of abandoned children, “Babes in the Woods,” and the robins who covered them with strawberry leaves.

In researching a hiking trail for the story, I learned that the Oregon Ridge Nature Center had hosted a program on migrating monarch butterflies. The “what if,” the image, and that bit of research gave me my running start.

I love how the theme of migration functions in this piece. Did you know, starting out, the extent to which that theme would resonate with Maureen, or did you discover this as you wrote?

My characters almost always have to deal with disruption—usually large-scale disruptions—in their lives. After these disruptions, they are not in the same place in their lives. To use the kids’ game analogy, they’ve hit a chute or ladder on the game board; they’re not moving one or two squares ahead after the dice roll. So yes, I knew Maureen would have to land on a chute or ladder, but I didn’t know how large a role those migrating monarch butterflies would play. I had to discover that and let the pieces fall into place. The last thing I want to do is hit the reader over the head with some theme or motif. But I love those echoes in any story, and I enjoy re-reading great stories and discovering them.

What’s your writing process like? Do you have any habits?

Mostly bad ones, but I’m working on that. For one, I started keeping a writer’s journal on January 1. I read a poem or some small piece of writing and write some observations and responses. Then I write an idea or two to spark my own writing later. That’s what I need: daily attention. Not necessarily long, but daily.

In the past, I’ve tended to write under deadline pressures—for a master’s program fiction workshop or for a monthly workshop with fellow writers. Now that I don’t have those structures in place, I’ll have to impose them on myself.

Not a whole of consistency in how I approach each story. Some involve much scribbling on scraps of paper; some involve (too much) Googling; most involve that weird writer’s trance in front of the monitor, simply letting a story unfold.

I think I’m getting better about spending more time on the revision process as I get older. Either that or my first drafts are getting sloppier. I’m trying hard to resist sending stories out too soon. One of those bad habits.

You’re founding editor of The Baltimore Review, a writer, a mother, a candidate at Johns Hopkins University’s M.A. in fiction program. How do you manage all that (and any tips for us?)?

Managing it all boils down to priorities and time management. And probably organizational skills. Nothing new there. And I wish that I had some of these skills. I’d like to say that I do, but I’d be lying. Except for priorities. I know what’s important to me, and I stick to that. Housecleaning is not one of those things, thus my every-other-week cleaning service. So my advice is to figure out what’s important to you. Focus on that. Sounds simple, but there is so much competing for our attention. Like the time-sucking social networking. I’m cutting back on that.

What it took me a long time to learn: Don’t beat yourself up. If you think about everything you have on your plate, it can seem overwhelming, impossible. Then you will eat ten snack-size chocolate bars and watch YouTube videos of babies on snowboards or Roomba vacuum cleaners instead of focusing on even one thing you need to accomplish.

I have a dry erase board on my wall. Underlined at the top: “Stuff Hanging Over My Head.” If I can erase one or two items now and then, that’s a wonderful feeling. OK, sometimes I have to use the spray cleaner because the ink has been on the board so long it’s almost permanent, but still. Shortly, I’ll erase “Interview for Peter Kispert.”

Thank you, Peter.

Barbara’s story, “Migrations,” will appear in Swarm’s Winter 2013 inaugural issue.

Interview with Karen Skolfield

Karen Skolfield’s manuscript, Frost in the Low Areas, won the First Book Award for Poetry from Zone 3 Press and will be published fall 2013. She is a contributing editor at the literary magazine Stirring and her poems have appeared in 2011 Best of the Net Anthology, Cave Wall, Memorious, Rattle, Tar River Poetry, Verse Daily, West Branch, and others. She earned her MFA in writing from the University of Massachusetts in the year (mumble mumble mumble) and remains in Massachusetts with her husband and two small children who would take umbrage at learning she calls them small. When not concocting her next set of New Year’s resolutions, she teaches travel writing and technical writing at UMass Amherst. Visit her online at

One of Karen Skolfield’s 2012 New Year’s resolutions included having four literary guys come up with an idea for a new lit journal, find funding for it, wrangle over the details and design, write mission statements and an “about” page, give it a cool name, commit some unfathomable number of future years to it, lose sleep over it, and then, when the first wave of hard work is done, ask her to be included in their inaugural issue, thus passing a gigantic chunk of the glory on to her. Her other New Year’s resolution was to go to the gym twice a week, every week. Guess which one got done.

Brandon: Are there any unique rituals that accompany your writing process, or conditions in your surroundings that you like to keep a certain way to help you write (I’m thinking an album/artist you listen to ad nauseam, or writing in a certain corner of the house facing a certain direction, maybe wearing a lucky hat)?

Karen: Brandon, you saw me wearing my giant sombrero? Have you been peeking in my window?

Sadly, I’m kidding. There’s no sombrero or chupalla, no pith helmet, no toque (but thank you for prompting me to Google “types of hats”). In fact, there’s little that’s magical or informative about my writing process. I do love writing on the computer, though I sometimes start poems by hand: think little notes crammed onto little dog ears of paper. Once I’m deeper into the writing, I need either absolute quiet – no music, ever – or lots of white noise, like at a café. Preferably a café without music. I’m amazed when I hear that other writers write with earbuds in. They are probably smarter than I am. I need all of my brain cells focused on the words.

When I’m home, I do have a favorite place to write – at my dining room table, with a dog at my feet. Bonus: there’s coffee in the coffee pot.

B: You served seven years in the Army. Not counting subject material, how has your military experience affected the way you write or approach writing?

K: It’s probably worthwhile mentioning that right out of high school I was an Army photojournalist, so this was the first writing with adult meaning and adult power for me. I was sent to a photojournalism school in Fort Benjamin Harrison (DINFOS for all you military folk) where we worked extensively on journalism writing and PR writing. I got to blow things up in basic training. Not your average teenager job, but I really, honestly loved it. I was a good soldier and I loved carving a path that took me away from my family.

I think the Army continues to inform and affect a lot of what I do, even though I’ve been out for almost 20 years (that was hard to write!). I have a disciplined head and disciplined habits. If I’m not writing, I’m pretty good about accepting the responsibility for it, which I think is another trait gifted to me by the military.

B: You’ve said that you “thrive on humor.” I think it would be difficult to refute that humor has an important place in life, but across the literary landscape there appears to be varied levels of enthusiasm as to its prevalence in poetry. In some places it appears celebrated and encouraged while in others it’s conspicuously absent or muted. What do you feel is the role of humor in poetry—yours, or in general?

K: Well, isn’t it great the range of poetry out in the world? I have a list of journals where I will never publish because my work doesn’t fit – I’m not experimental enough, I’m too narrative, my poems are too long, etc. But there’s a much longer list of journals that either have liked or might like my writing, and I try to be aware of the leanings of a journal and whether they’d be receptive to the more humorous pieces or the more serious pieces.

Like so many people, I’ll admit that humor occasionally serves to approach topics that I couldn’t otherwise approach because they’re painful or otherwise emotional – all that messy stuff. Humor in my life and in my writing gives me distance, which sometimes works and sometimes does not. That’s when someone else’s opinion – for me, it’s my writing group – is especially helpful.

B: Family is a common theme or subject in your work.  “Rumors of Her Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated” immediately comes to mind as a very powerful example of family’s importance in your poetry. Certainly moments like that one are focused on the subject from the start when you’re writing, but in other instances do you actively look to tackle moments and experiences of family life in your writing, or do they find their way in when you’re trying to write about other topics?

K: I try not to write about my family constantly, which I realize isn’t obvious when you look at a body of my work. But I’m always thinking who in the world wants to read about my kids, my family life, my… yawn… what were we talking about? They’re not boring to me, but I do try to write about a range of things and hopefully appeal to a wider reading audience. That said, my family is constantly handing me good lines, some of which turn into poems about them and many that do not. Recently my daughter left a plastic, bloodied finger on the counter – a Halloween trinket, filled with bubbles – how weird and wonderful. She’s not in that poem at all, but the finger! The poem would not exist except for my daughter.

Occasionally my husband Dennis or my kids weasel their ways into poems when I’m not expecting it, but rarely. It seems that once a poem has its trajectory, it’s either about my immediate family or not. I’m a pretty linear thinker and writer, so that makes sense.

Dennis and I have an oft-repeated comedy routine. Whenever I get a poem accepted for publication, he says “Send it to me! Am I in it?” If I tell him he’s not in it, he says “Never mind, don’t bother sending it.” He’s kidding. Well, I think he’s kidding. Hold on, let me ask. [Checks] He wants to know if he’s in this interview.

B: On a similar note, when you’re writing (about your family or not), does the thought ever pop into your head about how your husband or your children will view the work in the future? In other words, is there a family-concerned filter in your writing process somewhere, or does what serves the art best win out in the end? (Largely I’m thinking of “Rumors,” but also “Frost in the Low Areas.” Both feel highly intimate, like the reader is being given a very personal glimpse into those moments.) 

K: This is a question every writer has to grapple with, often many times and in many different ways. You’ll find in some of my writing – about my father, for instance – that I am brutally clear about his behavior. It is his shame, not mine. About my husband and kids, though, it’s important that I don’t publish anything that might overly hurt or embarrass them. I have a poem about trying to catch a plane to Hawaii and my husband running on ahead to hold the plane for us, with me lagging with our two small kids – and the tension in that poem is that husbands do sometimes leave, fathers do sometimes abandon their children. He eventually teased me enough about this that I pulled it from the publishing rounds and the manuscript. I mean, I get it, he is über-fabulous and I think that one hurt his über a little. So now, instead of publishing that poem, I get to dissect it in an interview.

You raise a good point that art is not always served with this type of filter, to which I must say, art seems to be doing just fine. These are the three people that matter most to me, and it’s hard to imagine I have some stunning set of poems out there about hard-core subjects on my three that I’m suppressing. There’s so much great writing in the world; it would be the height of ego to think that a few poems that are hurtful to Dennis and my kids could ever add much to the world of writing. On balance, my devotion is to my immediate family.

About poems written before they were around – you know, those old boyfriend/girlfriend poems – well, that’s the past. Adults have histories, and my husband has his own history even if it’s not embodied in poetry.

B: When not occupied with things related to poetry (copious amounts of writing, reading, editing, &c.),  what other interests do you indulge in?

K: Ice skating. And we’re talking hockey style, not some graceful figure skating. I’m not graceful. But I am fast and aggressive on the ice. If only I could find the over-40 women’s hockey league that doesn’t mind that I have no stick skills… well, that would be sweet.

Backpacking, hiking, cooking and canning. Gardening. Cross country skiing (let it snow!). Lots of time with my husband and kids and all of their activities. We’re a fabulous traveling family and try to spend about a month in a tent per year.

B: What are some of the biggest influences on your writing?

K: Last night I woke up thinking: I’m a crow. As a writer I’m interested in the next shiny thing, the bit of tin foil or soda tab, the ripe strawberry or the unripe, the dead squirrel in the road, and I can’t help it, I even enjoy the sound of my own raucous voice. I puzzle over things, I set my beady eye there. I sit in the slenderest of treetops and feel darkly royal.

To wit: the biggest influences are the smallest things that transport me elsewhere. Thus, the homunculus.

B: Quick—The Beatles or The Stones?

K: Hahaha – The Stones, but I have at least one friend who will be horrified at this answer. I’ve tried hard, and I’m just not a Beatles fan. Hey, you’re not putting this on the Internet or anything, are you?

B: Whitman or Frost?

K: Whitman. He’s definitely one of my dead-guy crushes. Now, I hope your next question isn’t about hot chocolate versus apple cider.

B: Hot chocolate or apple cider?

K: What did I just say? *sigh* But since you asked, and I’m a reborn New Englander, I will have to go with apple cider from a local orchard – I’m lucky to be surrounded by great orchards. If you ever come to my house, Brandon, we’re going to offer you the choice of homemade blueberry pie or strawberry rhubarb crisp and watch you squirm. Take that.

Karen’s poem, “Homunculus,” will appear in Swarm’s Winter 2013 inaugural issue.

Submissions are now open!

We’ve decided to open up submissions early for the Spring 2013 issue!

Normally submissions open the same day the prior issue is released and then stay open for two and a half months, but we’re excited to see what you have in store, so we’re opening submissions now instead of waiting for the Winter 2013 issue to launch on February 15th. They will remain open until April 30th.

Keep an eye out the next few weeks for interviews with our inaugural issue contributors, and that first issue’s launch in February. And don’t forget to send us your stunning work! Just click the “Submit” link in the ribbon of insects above.

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