Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story
(on a postcard)

Blake Butler Asked Me to Guest Edit Lamination Colony and I Said Yes

I guest edited Blake Butler’s Lamination Colony and the issue looks amazing. Blake asked me what I wanted it to look like and then he made it look like that. It’s all different-colored boxes that you have to scroll over until a name pops up and then you click on that some-colored box and there is something for you to love there. There are 100 boxes and 38 writers and over 60 pieces.

Shaindel Beers: On the Hood of a Cutlass Supreme Tour

I met Shaindel Beers through my life story project. She was one of the first people to step up and I have admired her fearlessness ever since. So I was happy to participate in her blog tour, On the Hood of a Cutlass Supreme Tour.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME is Shaindel Beers’ first collection of poetry. It is at once an exploration of what it is to grow up in rural America and a treatise for social justice. These poems, many of them award-winning, span a wide range of styles—from plainsong free verse to sestinas to nearly epic works.

Michael Kimball: When you signed up with Salt Publishing, it was a two-book deal. Could you talk a little about that and a little about how you decided which poems would go into A Brief History of Time and which poems would go in the second book?

Shaindel Beers: Sure. I think what I’m learning more and more as a writer is just to go with those crazy ideas that you’re not sure of because they seem too crazy. After all, my two-book deal came out of a crazy idea. Basically, A Brief History of Time is made up of poems I wrote and crafted during graduate school (my MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts—I also have a Master’s degree in Humanities split between British literature and Philosophy from the University of Chicago, but that’s sort of a different world), and a few poems written since then. It’s a collection I was sending out in minorly different variations since 2005 or so. And it’s definitely a separate body of work from my second collection I’m working on.

My second collection, The Children’s War, came to me as an idea when Slate.com did a story on children’s drawings in Darfur illustrating the atrocities there. I became obsessed with the drawings and started writing a poem on each one. Then, I learned that child psychologists have been using art therapy in war-torn areas since the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, so I started looking at those drawings and drawings done by children living through nearly every war since then. This was an obsession during summer break last year, where I hardly left the couch for a week once I got the idea; I was just poring over children’s drawings and writing. I got a little worried about myself, so I asked Lee (my husband) if he thought it was a good idea and showed him what I was working on and sent a few of the poems to friends. I read a few of them on a radio interview I did, and when I was sending my manuscript to Salt, I was a bit short of their page requirement for a manuscript, so I sent the seven or eight Children’s War poems I had at the time. I was really honest that they didn’t feel like they belonged in the same book, but that I knew they were something and that I was trying to meet their page requirement for a full book. I couldn’t believe it when Chris Hamilton-Emery from Salt called and offered me a two-book deal for A Brief History of Time, my completed manuscript, and for The Children’s War, if I thought I could come up with enough poems on children’s war drawings. I was elated.

Kimball: Publishing can be so difficult, so I love to hear stories like that. I want to ask you more about The Children’s War, but I’ll save that for next time. There’s a poem early in A Brief History of Time that’s titled “Elegy for a Past Life” and that title, that idea, animates a lot of the poems in the collection.

Beers: I guess I’m a big believer in the notion that “you can’t go home again.” Either home will have changed since you left it or you will have changed since you’ve been there, and you’ll see it differently. There was something really idyllic about growing up somewhere so rural that if you didn’t want to see anybody all day, you didn’t have to. I could just get on my bike or take off walking and be in my own head for as long as I needed to be, and I think it helped me to grow up, being alone with my thoughts like that. I hate to sound biased, but I almost feel like it made some of the people in my little town some of the deepest thinkers I’ve ever met. My high school friends and I would just walk (or ride bikes or horses) for miles outside of town and talk about any topic you could imagine. My high school boyfriend who “Elegy for a Past Life” is about got a word processor when we were together (yes, this was before computers), and we would write stories together, taking turns sentence by sentence, for hours.

I never realized how different a lot of the outside world was until I was somewhere else. I went to college in Montgomery, Alabama, which was a different universe in a lot of ways than Indiana. I think the biggest culture shock was the amount of money everyone seemed to have. It’s not fair to say “everyone” because there were other students at my college on scholarship, but it seemed like almost everyone had been living in an entirely different world than the one I grew up in. I still remember things I said during some college classes, and, looking back, I think, “Wow…I must have sounded like such a hick.”

I even did have a boyfriend later in college who re-taught me how to say certain words. It was very My Fair Lady. I used to say cement as “See-Ment” and vehicle as “vee-hick-al” and a bunch of other things that would have been embarrassing to have kept saying my entire life. On the one hand, it’s very sad and classist and patriarchal that he did that, but on the other hand, I’m sure it’s helped in the very real, prejudiced world in which we live.

I think of stories that some of my friends who grew up in really different lifestyles have told me, and when I was younger, I might have envied them, but I don’t now. It doesn’t sound interesting to have gone to concerts or movies every weekend or to have had crazy parties at someone’s house where there were more people at the party than in my entire high school. I think the quiet life I grew up with was training me to be a writer all along.

Kimball: I grew up in an ungrammatical family and I often think that that way of talking made me into the kind of fiction writer I am today. Are there other parts of your biography that were formative for you as a poet?

Beers: I’ve tried and tried to come up with a different answer than what I’m going to write, but I can’t. I think growing up around a lot of chaos made me realize that anything could happen. By chaos, I think I mean “mental illness,” but that sounds a lot sadder and less poetic than I wanted to sound. You’ve already written about my kidnapping when I was four on life story blog, and I talk about it in my poem, “Flashback.” Basically, one day, my mom just told my little sister and me to put our favorite toys in a laundry basket, and she put us in the car, and we drove from Indiana to Texas. I think I learned early on that life is unpredictable. I don’t know if my mom had a plan at all, but we stayed with the most amazing array of people. We stayed with her friend Vangie (short for Evangelina). One of my memories of that is that Vangie’s family would speak Spanish when it was just them together, and I woke up and heard a lot of Spanish, then the word “burritos,” which I recognized. I woke my mother up, “They’re having burritos!” She tried to tell me I was dreaming and to go back to sleep, but when we got up, there were breakfast burritos.

We also stayed with a friend of my mother’s named Nancy. She was blind and had a little Pomeranian I was obsessed with, but the dog did not like children and always snapped at me. I was still always crawling under the kitchen table to try to pet him. I remember loving to touch Nancy’s Braille newspapers and being fascinated that she could read that way, when I couldn’t read at all yet.

Another person we stayed with was Mrs. Thompson. I remember that she was a complete stranger, just an old lady sitting on the porch with a border collie, and my mom stopped the car, told Mrs. Thompson her story, and asked if we could stay there.
We stayed with a lot of other people, but this is just the abbreviated version. And this was all when I was four.

My dad also had great stories about his brother (my Uncle Jack) who had been Bobby Fischer’s best friend and was mentioned on the first page of Brad Darrach’s Bobby Fischer vs. the Rest of the World. I only met Jack once. He came to visit when I was in, maybe, eighth or ninth grade, and he had a paranoid delusion that we had had him injected with the AIDS virus (he had gotten a booster shot while he visited us since he hadn’t been to a doctor in forever) and that our whole town was in on it. When he got back to New York, he would call my dad crying, begging him for the antidote and asking why we would do that to him. I don’t know how long that went on, but I’m sure it was at least a year.

There are many, many other family stories like this, but it made me realize that life is unpredictable. Sometimes my students will write works (fiction and poetry), which aren’t at all surprising, and I think, “Wow. They must have had boring lives if they think this is exciting.” Growing up with a lot of mental illness around meant that anything could happen, or at least people could believe that anything could happen. I had a cousin take her kids and her brother’s kids out into a field with a jar full of change to wait for Jesus, and it was so cold they all could have frozen to death; a relative from my grandmother’s generation shot all of her kids, and it was the truancy officer who discovered the crime scene when he came to see why the kids hadn’t come to school. Anything can happen, and that’s, perhaps, the most important ingredient in creative writing.
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Blake Butler Asked Me to Guest Edit Lamination Colony and I Said Yes

I guest edited Blake Butler’s Lamination Colony and the issue looks amazing. Blake asked me what I wanted it to look like and then he made it look like that. It’s all different-colored boxes that you have to scroll over until a name pops up and then you click on that some-colored box and there is something for you to love there.

There are 100 boxes and 38 writers and over 60 pieces. There is Kim Chinquee, Adam Robinson, Ben Mirov, DS White, Matthew Salesses, Blaster Al Ackerman, M.T. Fallon, Adam Good, Stephanie Barber, J.A. Tyler, Catherine Moran, Cooper Renner, Luca Dipierro, Amanda Raczkowski, Rupert Wondolowski, Whitney Woolf, Lauren Becker, Michael Bible, Robert Swartwood, Darcelle Bleau, Robert Bradley, Jamie Gaughran-Perez, Aimee Lynn-Hirschowitz, Shane Jones, Conor Madigan, Krammer Abrahams, Shatera Davenport, Jordan Sanderson, Stacie Leatherman, Josh Maday, Joseph Young, Jason Jones, Gena Mohwish, Jen Michalski, Aby Kaupang, Jac Jemc, Karen Lillis, and Justin Sirois.
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#59 Shaindel Beers and Her Writing Behavior

When Shaindel Beers was 4 years old, her mother kidnapped her and they fled cross-country. For a year, they lived with strangers. Because of this, in part, Shaindel has never been afraid of anybody or anything. During this time, and before she could write, Shaindel told her mother stories, which her mother wrote down with crayons. This storytelling instinct and the fact that she observed adults often writing things led her to believe that this is what adults did, a behavior that she would later emulate as an English professor and a writer of poems (when she starts with a feeling) and fiction (when she starts with a character). Eventually, Shaindel and her mother drove back to her father, but the family was still dysfunctional—in part because of her mother’s OCD, which manifested itself, partly, as a hoarding instinct. In fact, growing up, Shaindel always thought of her friends’ houses as strangely neat, oddly empty. Her mother’s hoarding led to the family house being condemned and her mother going to jail for pulling a gun on two people who were trying to clean out the house. This might not have happened, but Shaindel’s father was at Subway getting a sandwich. Another thing that almost didn’t happen was Shaindel meeting her husband, Lee. Two hippies who live in a trailer on a reservation had fixed them up on a blind date—because they both read all the time and they both are hermits—but the hippies told them each a different meeting time. When Shaindel got there, Lee had left. Shaindel found out where Lee lived and went to his house. He answered the door in a wife beater that showed off his skull tattoos, but Shaindel was not afraid. They got married, and—oh, wait, did I tell you that Shaindel means pretty in Yiddish? It does. She is. Ask Lee. He’ll tell you.

Shaindel Beers' Blog Tour started a couple of weeks ago--in support of A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, which is just out. She will be stopping by here tomorrow for an interview about her life and her books.

60 WRITERS/60 PLACES, Trailer #2

60 Writers/60 Places is a film by Luca Dipierro and Michael Kimball that is about writers and writing occupying untraditional spaces, everyday life, everywhere. Here is Giancarlo Di Trapano reading some of his writing in front of a church.

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I WILL SMASH YOU: Trailer #3

This is my segment from I WILL SMASH YOU. I was smashing an office, and I had no idea what I would look like on camera with a sledgehammer, but I love this. It feels like a relief all over again just watching it.

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#155 Jason Stumpf Loves It All

Jason Stumpf was born in Cookeville, Tennessee. When Jason was 6, his father died, which was as hard as one might think and it shaped, consciously and unconsciously, all of his relationships and his sense of who he is. Jason’s mother did a wonderful job raising his sister and him. She tried to make sure that whatever limitations she faced did not keep Jason from being himself and pursuing his interests. The family house was not a sad place. It was very ordinary, which was all due to his mother. At 10, he began studying music—classical guitar and renaissance lute. Music seemed like a kind of magic, a secret language with its own form of writing. For high school, Jason went to McCallie, a boarding school on a scholarship, an all-male school that offered Jason incredible academic opportunities. He’s really grateful for that. It was a very different social atmosphere than what Jason came from. Kids were socially and politically very conservative and they had a lot of money. Within this environment, Jason had to figure out who he was. Being at McCallie forced him to grow up some. Jason started writing in high school and was immediately taken by the idea of writing as a process. In college, he realized that he was better suited to writing than music (writing is a creative process; musical performance doesn’t offer the same opportunities for revision). After college, Jason worked a variety of jobs: graveyard-shift employee at a Russell Stover’s factory (2 days), library assistant in a music library (1 year), library assistant in a rare book and manuscript collection (a little more than 1 year), graduate student at an MFA program (2 years), and adjunct professor of English at Providence College (4 years). In 2001, while Jason was working in the rare books collection, the library put on an exhibition to celebrate the release of James Merrill’s collected poems. Graduate students wrote catalogue articles for the exhibition and Margaret Avery Funkhouser co-wrote a piece on some wallpaper that Merrill had designed. Very soon after, Jason and Margaret both realized that they might be in love. One day, Jason kissed Margaret and they have been together ever since. Margaret is an incredibly serious person, but also goofy, creative, caring, talented, quiet, and spirited. Jason loves that Margaret is so many things. Being around her, he has fun. He learns a lot. Now Jason teaches English at the Walnut Hill School, an arts high school outside of Boston that is almost nothing like the boarding school he attended growing up. He feels fortunate to be teaching there. He feels fortunate to be the father of his one-year-old son, Jonas (an anagram of Jason). Everything about being a father is really tough, but Jason loves it all, even how hard it is.
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Blake Butler, That's the Worm; Or, Another Book Trailer for My Friend, Adam

Here is another short video with Adam Robinson and Blake Butler in the foreground, Shane Jones and Molly Gaudry and me as voices.

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#154 Margaret Funkhouser Doesn't Have to Curate Herself

Margaret Funkhouser grew up year-round on Cape Cod. For fun, Margaret and her friends would climb on the roofs of giant summer houses. Sometimes, a window would be left open and they would spend hours inside someone else’s vacant home. Sometimes, it was dark outside. Margaret’s older brothers had left for college by the time she was in 6th grade, so she wore a lot of oversized, baggy shirts that they left behind and she read a lot of their old National Lampoon and Heavy Metal magazines, which were both scandalous and habit-forming. Around age 12, Margaret started doing a lot of community theater with a lot of Alcoholics Anonymous members (when she thinks of My Fair Lady, she thinks of coffee and cigarettes). In high school, Margaret wrote poetry and she took one poetry workshop in college (eventually, receiving an MFA in poetry from Washington University in 2002). By the age of 23, Margaret felt quite old (much older than she does now at 35). At the time, she was living and teaching at an all-girls private boarding school in rural Connecticut. Right before she was supposed to start her second year, she quit and moved to San Francisco so that she could know what it felt like to be young again. It worked, at least for a while. Three years later, Margaret moved back to Cape Cod for a while, which was the last time she did community theater. It was a kind of sanctuary hiding out in her hometown for a year. At some point, Margaret met Jason Stumpf on the fire escape at a party. She got to know him while writing an essay on the poet James Merrill for the rare books library where Jason worked. She fell in love with him because she doesn’t have to curate herself inwardly or outwardly when she is around him. Now, Margaret once again lives on the campus of a boarding school. She writes poems, studies vintage cookbooks, and raises her 1-year-old son—Jonas Funkhouser Stumpf—and takes care of her 10-year-old cat, Dashiell Hammett. She often jokes that when she pictures her son in the 1st grade, she pictures herself sitting in a desk right next to him. One day, Margaret would like wake up in the morning and feel well-rested. And at 60, she would like to be able to do a cartwheel, a good one.

[Note: This postcard life story is part of a series of postcard life stories that will appear in Keyhole #6 (guest edited by William Walsh), where all the contributor bios will be postcard life stories--the idea being to make every possible aspect of the magazine literature.]
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Questioning William Walsh About Questionstruck

I interviewed William Walsh about his new book Questionstruck, which is made up entirely of questions, which is why I asked Bill to answer my interview questions with more questions, the result of which is this interview at Word Riot.

#152 Gérard Rudolf Is Not as Dark and Moody as People Think

Gérard Rudolf was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1966, but Rudolf is not his real surname (which was dropped, mostly for professional reasons). Gérard spent most of his childhood in Cape Town and it was dreamy, secure. When he was a kid, he was utterly convinced the world had been monochrome before he was born—all the photographs in the family albums, the old movies on TV, all of it black and white. He spent hours trying to figure out how and when the world changed to color. He roamed over the neighborhood with friends creating strange worlds in empty lots—all cowboys and Indians, and Star Wars, also some Huck Finn. Gérard studied the usual subjects, but school bored him. He stared out the windows. His head was never where his body was. It still isn’t. Gérard’s teenage years were in Johannesburg, and he played rugby to please his father, but never had any great interest in sports. At 15, he faked a neck injury to get out of playing rugby and that might be considered the beginning of his acting career. After school, Gérard joined the army for 2 years because it was compulsory and his family didn’t have enough money to send him into exile. When he was 18, he did a tour of duty in the Angolan War, and, one night, came under heavy fire. Everybody else scrambled for cover and returned fire, but Gérard just lay on his back looking at the stars. A warm feeling of tranquility washed over him. He had no interest in shooting at strangers. After that, Gérard resolved never to wear a uniform or take up arms again. He studied acting and became a successful actor in South Africa. He loved the collaborative nature of acting, all the oddballs and geniuses, and that no two days were the same. In 1993, his older brother died suddenly and that shocked Gérard into the realization that we only have right now. In 1998, Gérard founded a professional acting school in Cape Town—he wanted to give something back to the industry that had saved him from the 9-5. But in 2002, Gérard found himself burnt out and having a nervous breakdown. He thought Cape Town had fallen out of love with him. He walked around talking to himself, unable to understand his life was burning down around his ears. He felt as if he were sitting in a deck chair with a cold beer watching everything go up in smoke. Gérard quit acting, got divorced, and moved to the UK 2 days later. He is still trying to piece it all together. Gérard started writing to orient himself on the map and now he writes fulltime—his first book, Orphaned Latitudes (2009). He met his current wife, Hermarette (“H”), a psychiatrist, at his ex-wife’s art gallery in Cape Town. They were friends for a long time before things got so complicated years ago and his entire life imploded. He loves her heart and her kindness, her generosity and her intelligence, her dignity and her sexiness—also, her cooking and that she doesn’t take his crap. In 2006, his father died and Gérard became even more aware of his mortality. But Gérard is not as dark and moody as people think. He blames his face for this misconception.

Gérard on Facebook and on MySpace.

The Trailer for DEAR EVERYBODY

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