Jack Christian is author of the MHP chapbook release, Let’s Collaborate, and the 2012 Winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry, Family System. Chasing him after that release and while he’s out doing some readings, here we are, stoked to present a little chat with the man. Keep going, for some insight on those two books, his view on whiskey, and what he’s working on now.
1. You published Let’s Collaborate, a chapbook of poems, with us in April 2009 (and again in April 2010, though both print runs have sold out!). Four years past that collection, how do you view those poems now?
I still really love those poems. They came from a particular time when I was starting to think of poetry differently and more seriously as a life endeavor, and so I was really pushing myself to learn more and read more and write better and differently. Those poems were totally tied to coming up to Massachusetts and meeting Mike Young, and Rachel Glaser, Noah Gershman, Chris Cheney and a bunch of other people who were my friends and who were doing fantastic stuff and were up for big adventures, like pointless and long walks from Noho to Amherst late at night.
2. Your debut full-length collection, Family System, was recently chosen as the 2012 Winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry. Major congrats on that, buddy. How do you see those poems standing next to the ones from Let’s Collaborate? What can/should readers expect from Family System?
The poems of Let’s Collaborate are kind of the heart of the Family System book in a lot of ways, both for what they are and for how I think they gird the other poems in the collection. Family System works in a few more different registers and forms whereas the Let’s Collaborate poems are more of a piece. The Family System poems move more into the faith quest and get maybe a little more clear eyed about our interactions with landscape and the natural world. A few more feelings, a few more ideas.
3. What was the process of getting Family System published like? Where else did you send it? How did it end up where it did?
The best advice I got was to plan to send the manuscript to at least 20 places a year for three years. So, I suppose I got up to about forty five (sorry, my “five” key is broken) over the course of a little over two years. In the meantime, with friends and other writers and my own research, I culled a list of places I’d like to publish it and started sending it, and the Colorado Prize was on that list. A lot of poets I admire have received that prize, so I was honored and humbled to be in their company. And, I greatly admire the contest judge Elizabeth Willis. But, also, that Family System came out where it did (and that it came out at all) involved a good amount of happenstance. I was just a hitter hoping the pitcher would give me something to hit.
4. How do you know when a poem is ready (maybe I mean “to be written” or “to be sent out” or “to be done with by you,” this you can decide)? What is a Jack Christian poem?
I guess I experience a sort of pleasant brain buzz in the minutes or days before hacking out a draft of a poem, or at least I remember this in hindsight. And, of course, this won’t happen at all usually if I don’t intentionally carve out a space for it. So, in some ways I’d define one of my poems as the document of that process. What my poems are, whatever they are, is changing year to year and project to project. For the poems in Let’s Collaborate and Family System, I was really in to boiling down and condensing (except for a few notable times when I wasn’t). Lately, I’ve been trying to let things breathe more. Trying to build more fragile castles. IDK. I’m never sure when one’s ready to send out. I just sort of pull together a submission, make some final edits take a deep breath and start firing.
5. The other night, you read at Mellow Pages Library, a brilliant little space in Brooklyn, alongside Gabe Durham and others. What did you think of MPL? How was the reading? (Secret question inside this question is always: do you like readings?)
Loved Mellow Pages! Someone gave me a flask of whiskey that I nervously sipped in the run up to the reading (sipped it as if it was a High Life), and so I nearly loved it too much :) But, the reading was great, the space was great. I enjoyed talking with Jacob and his buddies who were there and I saw a bunch of old friends.
The short answer to yr secret question is I love readings. The long answer is that it’s a complicated love. (As in, you do anything enough and it gets complicated.) I always love the energy and camaraderie. I love what our brains while we listen to do people read, and I love readings best when people calmly, confidently stand up with their poems and Bring It.
6. You’re a whiskey fella? What’s your whiskey of choice, if chosen, if not passed to you in a flask? (Or if not really a whiskey guy, what’s your drink of choice? As in, if you could have any ONE—okay okay two drinks—before a reading, what would they be?)
Racer Five. Not too cold. I try to stay away from whiskey as much as possible. Occasionally, some of my friends give me the good stuff, and I appreciate it, but I never know what it’s called. So, whiskey for me is like a really awesome band I’m putting off getting way into.
7. What are you working on now? What are you currently reading?
For new projects, I’ve got a prose manuscript about getting engaged to be married called The Apartment on Market Street that I’ve just started to send out, and I’m (optimistically speaking) two thirds of the way toward having a second full length poetry book, tentatively called If You Love It So Much Why Won’t You Fuck It Up?
Readingwise, I’ve been on a fiction bender for for the last two years. An eclectic mix of Amy Hempel, Nicholson Baker, Donald Antrim and Richard Ford in particular. As for poetry, John Ashbery’s Quick Question has had me riveted, as has Peter Gizzi’s Threshold Songs. Also, most recently, I read Dan Mager’s Partyknife cover to cover, telling myself I’d stop when I got distracted, but never approaching anything like distraction.
Here’s to hoping the dads out there are happy and enjoying some pork chops and sunshine.
Here are some free snippets of literature from the MHP catalog that your dad might like:
I’m at a party and a fight breaks out
between the Sharks and the Jets. What to do!
I grab the first item of defense I can find: a bouquet of roses.
Freak, and tonight I was to propose marriage to my girlfriend!
A Shark disembowels a Jet
a mere four feet away from the shrimp cocktail
which is a mere two feet away from me!
Ahh!, what great doubling lungfilling dryness in the dusk of the hotblue haze of evening with laptop-light silvering spilled shards of sand where tentflaps fixate imperfectly breezing wider wider and flacking shut so the beam dims and swells, dims and swells, and we sit halfdark deep in the folding chair Corona armrest of workaday done and watch the skybelly paste orange in disorder of a farlight reflecting oilfires Olympian eternal some twenty-K distant, watch motorpool dust kick and swirl from invisible passing osmosis of trucks and nontacticals and all around like crickets blending into mindbackground nothought the rummy heaving hulk of generators.
Several of us.
Not Joe, though. He is nowhere tonight.
Or somewhere else.
We’re not sure.
“The Power is Out, Sing” by Jordaan Mason at The Scrambler from his book The Skin Team.
We spent the Sabbath in bathtubs trying to get clean and not spending any money. I decorated the walls of my bedroom with leftover tinfoil from lunches and when I walked to school I could hear change moving in my pocket against my thigh. I gave him thunder from under my shirt. He kept it, then, under his.
By diffusing the light bulbs in the attic we were able to forget our age, all of our identification lost in smells. The light from the window, the energy creeping in through the floorboards. And when we sat and looked through those boxes of who we used to be we were there again. And it was impossible to forget who we were before fucking, before reels of tape on the kitchen counter, hidden in the attic walls. Before all of the blood on the mattresses, tracing trails through the forests for me to find him with other men. In the house during the winter I could imagine different shadows against the wood, paint peeling from around the bathroom sink, all the rust in our mouths. The texture of her sandals falling away from her toes. By putting my tongue against it, I memorized the grain of phrases, the knots in the bark wrapped around our ankles. I sweat through the night thinking about the garden, all of the weeds pulled out with the daffodils, the hose left running into the grass. I kept these things inside of myself. I did not have a hiding place anywhere else. I knew everything with my sore stomach and that was enough for me.
And if you have some extra cash to drop on dad, check out these authors’ books (along with other MHP releases) here.
Mary Miller’s Less Shiny was Magic Helicopter Press’s first release, back in 2008. Check out excerpts from the collection in elimae and SmokeLong Quarterly. Our next author catchup interview hears Mary chatting about those stories, what she’s currently working on, and her take on readings.
1. You published Less Shiny, your first chapbook collection of stories and Magic Helicopter Press’s first release, in late 2008. These stories have been praised for their controlled grittiness and portrayal of tumbled and tumbling relationships. Nearly 5 years past that collection, how do you view those stories now?
The stories that make up Less Shiny represent the best of my early flash fiction, and they’re special to me in ways that the stories I’m currently writing could never be. After five years, I’m still hounding Mike for copies so I can give them away to people. I also really love chapbooks—how easy to carry they are, how readable. I met Jennifer Davis not long ago here in Austin and gave her a copy (Davis did the cover art for Less Shiny). She hadn’t read it and seemed excited to receive it. It also makes me happy to have been Magic Helicopter’s first, to see how far the press has come.
2. In 2009, you published a full-length collection of stories, Big World, with short flight/long drive books. And since that time, you’ve been in graduate school, most recently as a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas-Austin. How has your writing changed since writing Less Shiny? How do the stories sit with the rest of the stuff you’ve done in Big World and since?
I think the stories in Less Shiny are smaller versions of the stories in Big World. The writing style is similar and the narrators and situations are similar. They’re stories about a young woman’s struggles with herself and her place in the world, as clichéd as that sounds. Over the last few years, my writing has changed. My range has grown; I’m doing a lot more research. I’m actually writing an essay about how I’m unable to write about myself in the way that I once was. The narrators in Less Shiny and Big World were versions of me; they shared my fears, doubts, and struggles. The older I get, though, the less interested I am in writing about myself, or the less I’m able to capture myself on the page. I’m not quite sure which it is.
3. Your stories have always had a memoir-like tone and feel to them. And I’m curious to hear that you’re currently writing (at least one) essay(s). How does your approach differ when writing a prose piece that is strictly nonfiction from an autobiographically-charged fiction story?
Yes, I just finished an essay; I wrote it over the weekend while avoiding my novel and wondering why I hadn’t gone to the Hill Country with my friends. What happened was this: I started thinking about how my stories have changed over the years, how I’m unable to write about my life in the way that I once was, and wanted to try and figure out why. I’ve written very few essays over the years. I feel like essays should have a “point,” and I’m only able to raise questions. I didn’t figure anything out, but it was a nice exercise. I may try to strong arm a friend into putting it up online.
4. The stories in Less Shiny certainly rely on the struggling and disheartened point of view of women in flailing/failing relationships. In a story from the collection, originally published at NOÖ, “This Boy I Loved A Rock,” the gender roles and the characters’ struggles within those are the big hum created by this instrument you’ve created: the man provides the food (although it’s not what the woman wants/needs), the woman is working to keep herself and the house neat and clean (although obsessively and destructively so), etc. What do you see as fiction’s capabilities and perhaps obligation to shed light upon and discuss these types of gender relation issues in our society which currently struggles greatly with such roles?
I never think in terms of fiction’s capabilities, shedding light. I think this is probably why I’d never be much of an essayist. When I was writing “This Boy I Loved a Rock,” I was just writing a story. I didn’t think about where the food came from or the girl grooming herself as having anything to do with gender roles.
I don’t think a writer should be too self-aware, at least not while in the process of writing. I used to hate plays because I felt like so many of them started with an idea instead of a character. I like plays pretty well now, after reading so many of them, but I’m still turned off by a writer trying to insert an agenda into his/her work. I would hope that no one would ever describe a story of mine by saying “it’s about stereotypical gender roles.”
5. Last summer, I saw you in Atlanta at the solar anus reading series with the Southern Summer Comfort Tour, alongside Elizabeth Ellen, Brandi Wells, and others. People often huff and puff about readings, but I (usually) get really stoked for and at them. That reading was a great example of why I dig small press readings—lots of people crammed into a hot, hot art gallery, readers with energetic pieces, and the whole thing hosted by a solid literary community with everyone going out and hanging afterwards. What was that experience on that tour like for you? How do you feel about readings?
I had a really great time on the tour. Elizabeth is one of my closest friends and it’s always so good to see her. We’re kind of like sisters, i.e. we fight sometimes but always make up quickly. Those readings were particularly great because we invited writers in each city to join us, and became a part of their community for a night. And every place we went, we got to hang out with amazing people, like Ryan Call and Gene Morgan in Houston. I had been weirdly scared of Gene Morgan before that night, but he’s such a sweetheart (and has the coolest wife and an amazing boutique clothing store).
In general, I usually don’t love readings, though I’ve been to some amazing ones here in Austin. Nick Flynn blew my mind. And Denis Johnson was, well, Denis Johnson. This sounds obvious, but I think readings are best if you like the writer. A lot of people will just go to any ole reading to watch any ole person stand up on a stage and look at a piece of paper. I’m doing less and less of that, particularly now that I’m not editing a magazine. Sometimes poetry readings make me want to die.
6. What are you currently working on? What are you currently reading?
I’ve recently finished the final (final!) edits on my novel, The Last Days of California, which will be out in late winter/early spring of next year. I can’t wait to see an advanced reading copy, hold it in my hands. Now I’m working on a new project, another novel, which is inspired by the story of Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary. I have no idea what I’m doing, but it’s going okay so far. I would like to reiterate that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.
I’m reading a bit of everything, but most of my reading is about Mary Mallon, infectious disease, and islands. Here are of a few of the books next to me now: Fever by Mary Beth Keane; Lord of the Flies by William Golding; Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls by Edward E. Leslie; The Island by Victoria Hislop, and a number of story collections by Jean Thompson. I love Thompson so, so much. She’s been my best find this year.
You only have until Saturday to pre-order Jordaan Mason’s amazing SKIN TEAM! $2 off the cover price! Saturday June 15th will be the official launch in Toronto at Glad Day Bookshop. Pre-orders will get a cloth bookmark made from the same material the spine design was sewn out of and a copy of Jordaan’s chapbook PULLING THE WOOL.
Coming soon: an interview with Jordaan at The Lit Pub, an excerpt of the book at The Collagist, a playlist at Largehearted Boy, and who knows what else!
Over at Heavy Feather Review, Jeremy Behreandt wrote an interesting early engagement with THE SKIN TEAM.
Though there are parts of Behreandt’s review I disagree with—its sigh at the book’s lyricism, its yearning for the supposedly humanistic clarity of heretonormative non-boning, and its charge that Sarah is treated unsympathetically (tho JB does admit he missed the section Sarah narrates)—it’s nevertheless an intelligent and generous wrestle with the novel from an honest perspective. And it does ultimately give you not a bad idea of what being in THE SKIN TEAM is like and whether that is the team for you.
Plus it gave us the idea that the book should have a Wiki: “It’s like I’m reading The Silmarillion in 238 pages.” And it gave us this sentence to argue about in Wikipedia’s definition of a novel: “It suggests that Mason could not decide whether to write a novel with a clear major conceit or a collection of poems with several.”
Thanks HFR and JB!
My mixtape for June.
Check it out: our rad pal Jordan Stempleman has made us all a mixtape!
Jack Christian reading from FAMILY SYSTEM http://bit.ly/1biquQ1
Then, check out that full-length, which won the 2012 Colorado Prize for Poetry!