Between Alaska and Here: A Micro-Interview with Carlie Hoffman

By Claire Torregiano

Carlie Hoffman is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection, This Alaska (Four Way Books, 2021). Hoffman earned her MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she was the recipient of a creative writing teaching fellowship, a Philip Guston Endowed Writing Fellowship, and was a poetry editor of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. Currently, she is a lecturer in creative writing at Purchase College, SUNY. Hoffman is also the founding editor and editor-in-chief of Small Orange, a poetry journal. She lives in Brooklyn. As her former student, I was delighted to speak with her about her creative work and process. We spoke over a video conference call in September 2020 and discussed the processes of drafting, revising, and arranging this collection.

CT: When did you decide you were going to write a book of poetry?

CH: I didn’t really realize I was writing a book. With poetry, you have a bunch of poems already and then you have to figure out how they’re in conversation with each other. I never felt like I was finished with the draft, actually. I still don’t feel like I’m finished. It’s a strange experience. I started writing the book in grad school, where I workshopped the poems. At the time it was a thesis that I eventually revised into this book. When I submitted it, my advisor said, this is a book. They gave me suggestions on what was missing and what needed to be revised. When This Alaska was accepted for publication, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to put it away now.’ I had started working on a second collection, and I just put it away.

CT: What was the biggest change from the first draft to the final publication?

CH: I’m in the process of talking to one of my editors about making it into the final draft for publication. And the thing that I’ve realized through this process is that I’m so obsessed with word choice, and I’m really excited about that because I feel like I have a stronger grasp on language and the connotations of words. Words can really alter what it is you’re trying to say, and you have to think about line-by-line and word-by-word what it is you’re communicating.

CT: Is there anything you didnt want to change from your first draft?

CH: I’ll take a poem out if I need to. I’m happy to cut things out and make edits. But there was a conversation about the title: This Alaska. The tangible setting of the collection does not actually take place in Alaska; it’s more about the imagination’s reaction to trauma. The speaker moves between real, tangible spaces and this imagined Alaska-world, and these shifts are woven throughout the collection. I had two readers who had opposing critiques about the movement of these two different spaces. One of them said the collection required more poems set in the real spaces, while the poems in the imagined spaces in Alaska belonged somewhere else. The other reader said that the imagined spaces had to stay in the collection. Having those opposing viewpoints compelled me to think about what I was trying to accomplish in the book, and this conversation led me to put the collection back into sections. I had previously taken the book out of its sections at some point during the revising process, but after the conversation with my readers, I realized the collection had to be in sections in order for the movement between spaces to work. The one thing I was hell-bent on was making the imagined Alaska-world work with the real space.

Replacing the Zombies: A Micro-Interview with Donika Kelly

By Claire Torregiano

Dr. Donika Kelly is the author of the award-winning poetry collection, Bestiary (Graywolf Press, 2016), which won the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the 2017 Hurston/Wright Award for poetry, and the 2018 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. As a former student of Dr. Kelly, I conducted this interview through email in September 2020. We discussed her drafting process and advice for students who are looking to publish collections of their own.

CT: What was your drafting process like for Bestiary?

DK: I went through several drafts of Bestiary over the course of four years or so (the timing is a bit murky in my head). In the penultimate draft, I had a sequence of zombie love poems at the center of the book, which worked, but more as a turning away instead of a turning toward the thematic concerns of the book. The poet Mark Jarman offered to take a look at the manuscript, and his main feedback, as I recall it, was to take those poems out. While I disagreed with his particular reasons, I knew he was correct, and I replaced the zombies with “How to be Alone.”

CT: How did you decide on the structure of the collection, in terms of how the poems are in conversation with each other?

DK: The task then became how to get from “Out West” to “How to be Alone,” and then how to transition out of that sequence toward “Back East.” Those three poems functioned as a kind of scaffold for the book. I printed out all the poems I thought belonged in the book and spread them out on the floor. I tried to listen to how poems were speaking to one another, [both] imagistically and thematically. Some poems fell away; others came into the rotation, and eventually I had a draft I felt good about. Finally, my editor suggested some sequencing edits after the book was accepted for publication, and I did move a few poems around. 

CT: Do you have any advice for students who are looking to publish a collection or chapbook, in in terms of the drafting process? 

DK: My big take-aways in that process were several-fold. First, having a vision for a project is great, but it helps to be open to feedback from mentors and friends. Second, printing out the poems and putting them next to each other is so helpful. Looking at a Word doc can’t approximate the tangible experience of moving the poems around. Finally, figuring out the first poem in sequence—whether that’s a chapbook, a full-length collection, or a short series of poems—is clutch. But! It’s also helpful to figure out the poems that can function as transitions, poems that can bear the weight of a significant turn in the collection.

The Arbitrary Boundaries of Literature

By Skylar Gikas

In high school, I read a lot of manga, often several volumes a day. In an ideal world, the titles and volume numbers would be what I put on my mandatory logs that tracked how much I read outside the curriculum that week. However, no matter how many volumes I read of D-Grayman—an action/fantasy series about exorcistsand demons in the early 19th century—I’d get no credit for reading that week. This was not a problem of content; I got away with reusing the Percy Jackson series multiple times, and those are fantasy books for children. It’s a problem of medium. Manga, and all graphic novels by extension, are not ‘real literature,’ according to the people who taught me. One might find a few think-pieces entertaining the question through Google, but if you take a college class, don’t expect to see Anya’s Ghost on it. And this doesn’t even begin to touch related mediums, like light novels (serialized fiction interspersed with artwork), or visual novels (a cross between a novel, anime aesthetics, and with the decision-making choices of a video game), which have gotten me quizzical stares for even mentioning them. Even at Purchase, I’ve had the ironic privilege of being part of this discussion in my literature or creative writing classes, while the reading lists for said classes remained strictly traditional prose. It’s an idea that’s starting to be entertained, but not fully committed to. 

But why not? Do comics not also have characters? Do they not have themes, or symbols, or metaphor, the same you’d find in normal prose? Fan communities for years have been analyzing the blood-stained smiley that symbolizes Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and yet even with all its critical acclaim, there are still published authors like S.E Hinton who sees graphic novels as merely idle pages to turn. Works like Higurashi: When They Cry, a visual novel and later manga employs storytelling so ingenious that its appeal and influence spread across an entire industry, and yet, whenever I’ve brought it up with professors, teachers, or writers, they don’t know what I’m talking about. They don’t know about narrators so unreliable, so lost in their headspace, that for six entries in the series, the sentence “Did you go out for lunch today” genuinely translates as a threat. They don’t know how it starts as a psychological horror, and ends as a heartwarming coming of age story with all the seeds of this inevitable transition planted so well that the shift is seamless.

Last semester, I took a class on literature of war. As in all literature classes, we talked about the themes of works like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-5, how the dialogue furthers the characters, what the characters say about the themes, about the use of symbols and metaphor. These are the qualities that make up literature. In Re:Zero (a light novel and manga), the main character’s dying and returning to the same checkpoint, until he gets it right, is a comment on how if we become complacent with our own inadequacies, we will never meaningfully move forward. I think that’s literary, but I know it’s not taught.

There are throwaway classes about studying graphic novels as a medium, as if a few months could adequately cover a medium with a range of subjects. More could be gotten out of these works if they weren’t consigned to dedicated niche classes, but instead, included with the likes of Hemingway. Art Spiegelman’s Maus displays the horror of the holocaust, and can be as visceral and devastating as Elie Wiesel’s Night or Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, but it was not in my war literature class. 

There are students like me, those who enjoy manga, or graphic novels, or light novels, or visual novels—students like me who wish to write in those mediums. To pursue what is already there but left untouched by our educators. I’ve been told by professors they are unsure if they can help me, because my senior project is tied to a visual novel I’m also working on. They are unfamiliar with my medium of choice, but I know if they read even one, they would find it more familiar than not. And as I sit there, explaining, and reexplaining, and explaining yet again, I’m struck with the feeling that the boundaries between mediums are arbitrary, superficial barriers that make mountains out of the few differences, but ignore all there is that is the same.

Survivors to Superheroes: Reclaiming Your Story and Voice After Sexual Violence

By Julia Tortorello-Allen

As a teenager, I lived through multiple violent sexual assaults. Afterwards, there was a long period of time where I was unable to cope with the trauma and grief. Exploring my emotions, my needs, and letting others in was an impossibility. Over time, I sought help from my parents and realized that sharing my story was immensely important for my healing. My mother and I looked for what to do next, and quickly realized that there were virtually no resources or information geared towards young people. Websites we found were primarily geared towards adults, or the diction was complex with definitions and explanations of laws that were too difficult for a typical teenager to understand. I was lost, confused and needed help that was non-existent. Being a young survivor is a lonely experience, and the lack of accessible resources made it more so.

This frustration led me to establish Survivors to Superheroes (S2S), an organization in the process of establishing nonprofit status that supports young survivors and their loved ones. Our mission is to empower those who’ve suffered from sexual violence by providing original educational resources and content about sexual violence, and platforms in which survivors can share their stories so that they can move away from being victims and towards being survivors. This transformation can be overwhelming and challenging; however, becoming a survivor instead of a victim is an important part of recovery. Reclaiming your power, story, and voice allows you to continue on with your life so that you’re not forever stuck in a moment of violence. 

 S2S started out as a small team, just my mother, me, and two of my best friends. We worked hard and built the foundation on which the whole organization now sits. Over time, we added more people to the team and expanded across the United States and Canada. Now, I am honored to say that I am the president of Survivors to Superheroes, working with over 20 other people on the fight against sexual violence! There are many projects that we are working on building and running, including a fellowship program for high schoolers, the writing and publishing of original articles and web content, and creating workshops for college students about consent, sexual violence, and recovery after trauma.

 We also have a fully functioning team working towards launching our first edition of Songs of Survival, a mission driven lit journal, accepting submissions primarily from survivors and their loved ones to provide a safe space to share work that in some way has to do with survival (whatever that means to them). I want others to feel the same strength and empowerment that I felt which comes from sharing stories through writing, because everyone deserves to have their stories and voices heard. If you think that Survivors to Superheroes might be a safe and good place for you to share your story, please consider submitting to Songs of Survival.

You Don’t Know My Name: Assessing the Authenticity of My Identity

By Sally Camara

No one knows who you are or will ever know who you are until you decide to peel back your skin layer by layer exposing the true inner core. Usually this moment of first revealing oneself begins with a name and progresses until the parties involved decide to form a connection, whether it be as miniscule as acquaintances or intimate as a romantic relationship. Regardless of the status, there comes a time when sharing information about yourself seems senseless because you do not relate to everything you’ve known about yourself, thereby igniting an exploration into self-identity, how much access people have to it, and how authentic it is to your current self.

When I was younger, I had two names which granted me two identities: my birth and family name. One, I share with friends and strangers, the other is exclusively for family. With one, I can freely live by my own standards, and with the other I am more reserved and sheltered. Usually, this is a popular thing among Ivorians, so I’ve always been used to it. I like to think of Sally as the American version of myself and Adja as the Ivorian. I have always felt a connection to both names but recently, in light of deep self-reflection, it seems like those names do not belong to me anymore. A name comes with memories and qualities associated with it- for example, times I remember being with my family I’ve been Adja, and times at school I’ve been Sally. For the most part they’ve been separate. Lately, however, it seems like they’re crashing into one another and to say the least- it’s been overwhelming. Adja is expected to maintain a 4.0 GPA, get into an Ivy League, and become a biologist or doctor, while Sally wants to graduate college, work in a writer’s room, own a dog and cat named Loc and Bantu respectively, and travel the world. However, with Sally struggling to obtain opportunities in her majors that could finally propel her to freedom, she’s seeming more like a failure- and that’s not a trait I identify with at all. Being left with no other option, I’m forced to connect back with Adja- the identity made outside my will. But where does that leave room to be one’s authentic self? The freedom to create oneself and feel it’s honest?

Personally, negative traits aren’t made for me. I don’t identify with failure, so Sally isn’t a mask I feel comfortable putting on. And the passions of Adja are not my own, therefore that hat doesn’t fit either, forcing me to position myself with two identities that have now become unfamiliar. Now, when I share how I feel or some other personal information it feels like reciting lines from a script. Are those really my words? Is this who I am? Do I identify with her? In tandem with her interests,I created this Sally character who is a people-pleaser, comedian, activist, and martyr. I created a persona and wore it so often that it became skin, eventually letting others believe it was my DNA too. Imposter syndrome. The only way to cope with pressure is to form a completely new identity- cutting off people’s access to the real one: the one that does make mistakes, that does fail, and has imperfections. I’ll start off with a blank slate, where the only thing written is the character of my higher-conscious self. Sally seemed too raw, it was no longer fun being her- and I did not want anybody to see her anyway. So, why not introduce a fake name to strangers and people who may not know the real me? This new identity will be associated with the version of myself I have always fantasized about. Then, once comfortability is established, I’ll share my real name and get back to peeling those layers. It seemed like the perfect plan. I was going to rename myself Crystal. I didn’t go through with it, but I thought it was ingenious.

You might think you see in this story someone who’s protecting their true identity with a false one, or being shameful about who they are but what’s resting in the clouds is the capability and capacity to reimagine ourselves into being and the opportunity to write our own origin story. It is a chance to break free from the shameful past that gets muddled with the present, or simply set a future in stone. It is the choice to create an identity- one you feel is truly authentic to your core being, and with it be selective on who gets to experience it.

Our character is important to how we live, and it’s important to know the former if we are set to do anything of importance. As people figuring out the rest of their lives together in college, we are exposed to different personalities and interests, our relationships to family and friends change, and it’s the ultimate time in our lives when we are left on our own. This newfound independence gives us a choice to forge our own path or follow the ones pre-determined by family. It is the time when we have to figure out what we stand for, who we want to be, but most importantly- who we are. This is a proclamation to say, it is okay to not identify with the person your family wants you to be, or the one you had thought you were. It is okay to be someone new if you do not subscribe to who you were. It is okay to keep your name but decide to shed the old identity. This is a proclamation for you to decide who you want to be in life, ensure it is authentic to your whole being, and to protect it.

Photo courtesy of stephanie.alifano_art on Instagram.

Writing and Dance: The Inherent Resemblance

By Rissa Medlenka

My experience with dance and writing has brought me to the conclusion that they are more alike than meets the eye, although my personal journey with each could not be more different. I have been training in dance since I was three years old and am still pursuing it in my third year in college. Writing wasn’t something I took seriously until my senior year of high school, a couple of weeks before college applications were due. I grew up with a mother that loved reading and language, and who also supported my love for the arts. This sudden appearance of an opportunity to study creative writing never felt abrupt, but rather a long time coming. Once in college, I was completely immersed into both of these art forms. 

Though dance itself seems like a completely different form of art than writing, the vocabulary and ideas logically align. Just as tone, structure, and word choice can either inhibit or enhance a written work, these elements, with the exchange of word choice for movement choice, have a similar effect on dance. It is not just one of these devices that produce a piece, but the ability to intertwine each within another, in writing and dance, to create something visceral and vulnerable.

With all styles of dance, from ballet to modern to hip hop, regardless of the number of dancers in the piece, dynamics (the term typically used for textures within dance) are combined with movement choice. This combination in dance is what I view as tone, which is not unlike the tone of a creative text. The tone of both dance and writing influence the audience’s perception and ability to comprehend what story is being told. The dynamics of a dance are like the raw material; a dancer performing harsh, frantic movements communicates a sense of panic or frustration. Soft, light movements perhaps convey longing or sadness. Happiness or joy is expressed through energetic and spritely movements. These basic examples contribute to how a movement is perceived. It can become more complex and layered, yet easily decipherable. This would be similar to if a character complimented another character’s clothes in a work of fiction. This can be interpreted as either genuine, perhaps if the compliment is accompanied by a shriek of appreciation, or as passive aggressive, if a snicker seems to punctuate the end of the sentence.

Prior to playing with dynamics, movement must be chosen. Movement choice calls for precision and accuracy in the way word choice does. Frequently in dance composition classes I’ve taken, we work with creating base movement and then adding movement in another part of the body or traveling the step through space. Through this process, the layering of limbs and traveling become the adverbs and adjectives of the body.

The arrangement of movements in dance is comparable to a written piece’s structure—the balance between scene and exposition in fiction or the length of lines and stanzas in a poem. Through structure, the audience’s experience is being very carefully modulated. Similarly, a dance composition also focuses on more detailed structures within the larger structure of the work. Refining angles, eye focus, and any other physical detail are the choreographer’s way of tightening up the work – identical to an author’s utilization of diction and syntax to make a sentence its most efficient version of itself. The order of events, placement of movement (words) on the stage (page), and interaction of characters add to the richness and depth.

Stepping away from the technical parallels of these two forms, I find that my creativity in each field is where the most overlap happens. Rather than a huge epiphany while writing completely changing the way I approach dance or vice versa, I see more nuanced correlations. A creative correction from a dance teacher in class inspired a fictional world in which I am currently exploring through multiple short stories. The discipline and patience of each practice challenges me to stay diligent in both. Through the technical base of each form, creativity reigns and fuels itself. Overall, my knowledge of dance and writing do inform one another intuitively. Both tell a larger story. The medium is the only thing that changes.

The Quick Knowledge Appeal of Video Essays

By Mason Martinez

As a high school senior, I was desperate. The graduation clock was ticking down and after three attempts, I still hadn’t passed my Global Regents, a standardized exam required to graduate in New York State. I struggled to retain dull information from dusty textbooks. Large blocks of text made it difficult to identify and prioritize the most important pieces of information. It wasn’t until my teacher played us an 11-minute video by Youtuber and author John Green, that history finally started to make sense. I was introduced to Green’s Crash Course series, which taught lessons from the fall of the Roman empire to the Mongols to Imperialism. By watching a number of these lively, occasionally funny, and animated video essays, I was able to retain the information that I had previously struggled with. After five months of prepping this way, I turned my score of 44 into an 84.

The popularity of the video essay is undeniable.Youtubers like Wisecrack’s Thug Notes, Khan Academy, Numerphile, or John Green get millions of views. Part of their success has to do with the amount of time it takes to consume the selected media. While viewers don’t get to engage in the same atmosphere that comes with in-person learning, video essays provide a needed framework to make what we read digestible.

Video essays’ presentation and the limited time that people have work hand-in-hand in delivering an attractive option. One of my biggest struggles with remembering global history was that there was too much to recall and no way to remember it all. The idea that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ helps fuel the demand for video essays. The more visuals we receive in the knowledge we consume, the quicker we are able to comprehend it. Video essays allowed me to draw on main ideas by listening to the lecture while simultaneously helping me remember specific movements or historical icons that were depicted on screen. Youtube channels such as Khan Academy or Thug Notes show that, when framed correctly, there is a large market for educational content.

Video essays are not the end all be all when it comes to learning. In a high school or college setting, assigned reading is the primary method of gaining new information. But I do think video essays should supplement traditional ways of learning. Digital Natives, starting with Gen-Z, are accustomed to digitalized worlds. There is still great value in reading, but we require a different way of learning and retaining that information.

However, teachers can’t verify the credibility of videos the way they can with textbooks. They may also worry that these videos might be used as a replacement for reading the primary text. But as I see it, this is no different from Sparknotes; teachers adjusted to that trend by designing assessments that tested for careful reading and comprehension. If publishers put out educational content that is cited and curriculum-oriented with the same kind of relatability of popular Youtube channels, they would do well. Now is the time.

At Scattered Books, a local bookstore, the owner and staff understand the importance of resources like these, especially for middle school and high school students. They are currently trying to implement their own online library where they can take popular literature, summarize and analyze the plot into something tangible for younger audiences in under 5 minutes. In addition, they plan on offering topics for academic papers, so viewers are able to conceptualize different themes in the books.

More often than not, independent creators are producing higher quality videos compared to larger corporations like Sparknotes, whose video animations are dated and their narrator monotone. By establishing an atmosphere that is fast and engaging, this form of independent content attracts a larger audience. The more creators come together to reinvent the way people consume and retain knowledge, the more accessible information becomes.

Photo courtesy of the School Nutrition Association of Arizona.

The Fashion Statement: Fresh or Faux Pas?

By Elizabeth Abrams

Visualize one of your characters. What are they wearing? What aspects of their wardrobe stand out the most?

Considering fashion isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s an underused method of characterization. Style reveals details about setting, as well as personality and background. Someone prim and proper might dress neatly—or they might subvert expectations by neglecting their appearance. This process, in my experience, is best begun in the early stages of developing a character, but details can be added or changed as your work develops.

You don’t need to become a fashion expert, but having the vocabulary is half the battle. To get the ball rolling:

1)    Choose a style. For inspiration, consult this list of fashion movements and their basic aesthetics. Historical accounts are more complicated, but this brief timeline, this database, and the FIDM website are good starting points.

2)    Research terminology: balance the specificity of your writing with what the narrator knows and how much attention they pay to clothes.

3)    Check a material list to inform in-depth descriptions.

Next, consider where it makes sense to describe clothes, and how to integrate it into prose. Here’s a poor description:

        Lana wore her track uniform, a varsity jacket, blue running shoes, and a backpack. Her hair was in a short ponytail, which was dyed all the colors of the rainbow. She had on striped socks and carried a pair of black cleats.

It’s annoying to read. Some advice: avoid lists. They trick you into giving irrelevant details. Also, pay attention to context-appropriate clothes; does your character break convention? Why? What are the repercussions of doing so?

Here’s a revision:

        Lana jammed her running shoes over her striped socks. Usually she liked looking at the cool blue of her sneakers, but today they reminded her too much of Katherines stupid sweater; itd be shabby and shapeless on Lana, but on Katherine it managed to look stylish instead of sloppy. She was too irritating to be so attractive in something that old and stained, but Katherine was, and it pissed Lana off.

        With her backpack in one hand and her running spikes in the other, she moved to stand within the sea of uniforms waiting on the infield. She yanked her cheerfully dyed hair into a scruffy ponytail, decidedly uncheerful. Her teammates seemed to pick up on her bad mood, but no one commented on how roughly she shrugged out of her varsity jacket or the excess force with which she threw down her spikes.

Here the details are woven into the prose instead of clustered together, with better pacing. A rule of thumb: intersperse with emotion and action; introduce through interaction.

The shoe color contextualizes Lana’s emotional state. Lana’s interactions with her wardrobe establishes tone and capitalizes on her irritation. Her socks give her individuality in a group of people dressed identically.

Clothes make the man, but they can also make or break your story. Fashion statements are a tool. Use them to the best of your ability.

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Széchényi, Flickr.