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Lisa Laughlin is Sweet‘s 2017 Flash Nonfiction Contest Winner. Her chapbook Kindling includes three essays, focused on nature and various ways humans interact and connect to it. Below she answers questions on how she decides what she wants to share in her writing, the nature essay’s role modern-day society, the hardest part of the writing process, and more! Be sure to pick up a copy of her chapbook while they’re still available!
In “A Sort of Trespass” you recount the memory of your brother finding an arrowhead and your father urging you to not tell “those people” it was found on the land because it would risk attracting more visitors. You also confess your hesitation to write about this peaceful piece of land. What changed your mind and as a writer how do you decide on what to share in your writing and what to keep secret?
I think a lot about ownership, memory, and land. I think about how my homesteading great-grandfather put a claim on a certain number of acres, and, in many definitions, made it his own: he worked the soil, struggled against the environment, and carved out a living for himself. When things like arrowheads surface after erosion, it’s a natural reminder of all the people who inhabited the land before the farmers. I felt compelled to make a gesture toward that complication in my writing.
In modern days, we create fences and boundaries and property lines, but what do those really mean for the land? I like exploring the balance of respecting a place we “own” by remembering that our claim on it is temporary. The thought of claiming land, even if it’s something like claiming familiarity through hiking, seems to bring up ideas of exploitation for me. I can’t stand people who visit beautiful places just to get a good Instagram picture; that being said, I take pictures of beautiful places and Instagram them.
I write at the end of “A Sort of Trespass” that I know who “those people” are as self-implication: I am one of those people. I’m someone who takes from nature, whether it’s a memory, a resource, or a physical object like an arrowhead. Writing about taking those things was complicated—it risked exploitation if I romanticized the taking. On the other hand, I wanted to romanticize it, to pay tribute to a place of such harsh and arid beauty that grounded me.
It’s not like there was an actual secret I felt I had to keep after the experience of finding the arrowhead. The place just seemed so complicated I was afraid words would fail me. The land doesn’t have a voice to say whether you’ve accurately defined it. At the end of the day, if it’s something that tugs and buzzes at the back of my mind, I write about it.
“Ordinary Claims” explores the idea of taking jasper and gold from the land. What’s your favorite thing you’ve claimed from nature? And why?
I struggle with the idea of “claiming” things from nature because so much of what I write explores the idea of ownership and land. Joan Didion writes that “a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” And I think there’s a lot of truth in that. The favorite things I’ve taken from nature are intangible—memories, experiences or smells that I cling to and reshape to make meaning of my life moving forward.
That being said, I still have the impulse to collect rocks, shells, and other bits from nature that I can physically carry with me to different times and places. I treasure a jade plant that was snipped from a bigger plant that was once my great-aunt’s, the iris bulbs I took from my parent’s backyard, and a bundle of dried wheat from my last day working wheat harvest. It comes down to collecting things from nature that I’ve anchored personal stories too.
A lot of your writing focuses on “human connection to the land and nature.” I’m curious about your thoughts on the role of the nature essay in modern day society where it seems people are more inclined to stay indoors.
The nature essay still gets a bad rap. Some people assume a nature essay will be boring, or won’t relate to them, or will be less dynamic than an essay based on people or ideas. A good nature essay makes whatever topic it’s exploring relevant to any person, even one who prefers to stay indoors. I think the basic and most important function of a nature essay is to inspire people to pay attention to the world around them. It can inspire good stewardship of the environment or empathy for people who deal with natural disasters, but those things should come naturally when someone starts to pay attention to whatever slice of the natural world they inhabit.
Essays that inspire me to pay attention to place are pieces like Mary Oliver’s “Waste Land: An Elegy,” E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” Gretel Ehrlich’s “The Solace of Open Spaces,” or Jo Ann Beard’s “Coyotes.” I’m most interested in nature essays that explore the relationship between humans and the land, the constant tug-of-war, but other nature essays like “Once More to the Lake” use a close examination of a place as a springboard to talk about mortality. A good writer can always make the mundane meaningful. If someone sees nature as mundane, a nature essay should inspire them to reflect on the rest of the world.
In “Kindling” you write about the forest fires in a very apocalyptic manner. If an apocalypse were to occur in the future do you think it’ll start with a natural disaster, Mother Nature revolting, human hubris, or a mix of everything?
I really have no idea. I kind of live expecting an apocalypse every day, and I think that feeling is impossible to avoid if you’re paying attention to the world. When I see simple things like trash on a hiking trail I often feel an overwhelming snowball effect. I think about islands of trash in the Pacific Ocean and all the harm that humans are doing to our environment. I think about Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. There are already intense natural disasters—the wildfires sweeping the West each summer, the hurricanes hitting one after another on the East coast. I went to a talk recently where an astronaut shared photos of deforestation in Brazil and smog over China, both of which can be seen from space. The last Northern White Rhino male just died, so that feels damn depressing too. All of this is news and not news. Terrible and good things going on every day. I guess this is a long way of saying that it’s all connected—natural and man-made disasters—and it seems inevitable that we’ll spiral out of control. The scariest thing is that the apocalypse will happen slowly.
In “Kindling,” what was the hardest part of the writing process for you?
The essay “Kindling” was initially inspired by Joan Didion’s essay “Miami.” I love how she establishes a sense of place through an account of details. She uses specifics to pin down an intangible feeling. Sometimes, the truest definition of a place or time is the most impossible to describe. I felt that way about the summer I spent in Ephrata when everything seemed to be on fire. I was witness to incredible loss that I found difficult to define. Reporting on specifics helped me approach it, and it was interesting to dig into the details of that summer via research—all of the water-related deaths in contrast with the extreme heat of that summer, the specific names of the fires that year, etc. It was a time when I felt disoriented, so when I went to write about it I chose details that were naturally contradictory. What was challenging about this piece was pushing it to mean something universally. I took a draft to my mentor that was essentially the first half of the essay (which I considered to be a collage, and nearly finished) and she said, “So what’s next? This is only the beginning.” After I picked my writer ego up from the floor, I dug into the essay in a way I wouldn’t have if someone hadn’t said, “So what?”
Sometimes we need to hear those things. The hardest part was working toward the turn in the essay that goes from a wide lens to the personal: So there were many instances of loss and death and fire that summer—So what? What did witnessing that loss mean to me? How did it affect my perception of the most important thing in life, in the inevitability of losing the ones I love? It was hard to go there as a writer, but once I did I knew it’s where the essay needed to go.
Who or what is inspiring you right now? This could be anything!
Right now, I’m inspired by The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, and by gardening. After growing up on a wheat farm I lived in apartments for eight years, and I recently moved to a place where I have a yard. For me, it’s been more than just getting a yard because it’s a move to put down serious roots in a place that’s very different from the land I grew up in. I’m learning about the plants in Spokane—what comes naturally in the damp, sandy soil of my backyard scattered with pine trees rather than the arid soil of my sagebrush hometown. It feels like pioneering a new terrain on the micro level; I have snails here! I have no idea what to do with snails. And I know someday that everything about my new terrain will feel old, but for now, it feels nuanced and ripe with inspiration. It’s gotten me thinking about how I interact with land in a suburb, about boundaries, and about how we develop intimacy by learning the names of the natural flora.
As for the book, it’s one of my all-time favs—it’s the one I go back to when I lack inspiration. With Rebanks’ words, I’m transported back to the feeling of being on a farm, of having my day-to-day life governed by the seasons, and to the struggle of carrying on family knowledge in a modern world. I’ve never been to England, I’ve never met a shepherd, and the only sheep I’ve ever petted was at the County Fair—somehow, I still feel a deep connection with the book. It’s fantastic stuff.
Not going to a lie, I spent almost forty-five minutes trying to find parking for this conference. Downtown Tampa’s roads were a crisscross of cement that intersected with my driving anxiety and my last ounce of patience. When I finally found the right turn, I passed it because I hesitated a second too long and the car behind impatiently pressured me by honking their horn. But, once I finally made it into the parking garage my journey was just getting started.
Tampa Convention Center reminded me of an airport in its’ summer vacation season: beautiful lighting, wonderfully high ceilings, and a constant hum of people on a mission. People walked in groups, pairs of twos and threes or on their own – like myself. We were all carrying some kind of tote, either the official AWP 2018 one of our own. I slung both over my shoulder, dedicating the AWP one to merchandise and my own to my wallet and packed snacks.
Overwhelming feels like an understatement for what I experienced walking into the book fair. There was table after table of information I didn’t even realize I was curious about until someone sitting there offered me a smile and flyer. I lingered at the Cave Canem booth, willingly getting lost in the wide display of poetry. The founder of Well-Read Black Girl openly shared her experience with me on how to successfully start up a literary business with the aid of social media. And I ran into writer, after writer, all with the same type of hopes and fears I had when it came to taking advantage of this rare opportunity of being in the presence of so many other writers. Because as we all know writing takes up time that would otherwise be used for socializing.
Being in the presence of so many storytellers and readers reminded me of how large the literary community truly is. Sure, the numbers of people involved and interested in the art of literature are undeniably high online. But, after a while, I forget how to visually translate tweets and Instagram likes to actual individuals. AWP reminded me there is always someone out there that’s just as excited as I am about the future of stories. And not only excited but willing to share their excitement and experiences with others, generously and unabashedly.
I’m going to be honest; I wasn’t aware of what the AWP conference was a few months ago. The first goal of my research was figuring out the acronym. AWP: Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Simple enough. For a newbie to this whole writer’s conference experience, here’s what I’ve been able to gather during my research that I hope will help me get the most out of my first conference:
- Prepare as much as possible. The AWP app has been an amazing tool in organizing the panels I’m interested in attending. It’s also helped me find the booths of publishers I’m excited to talk to.
- Bring a portable charger. I can see it now: I’ll be right in the middle of Putting Her Back in the Narrative: History and Herstory when my phone prompts me to adjust it to low power mode. From there I’ll frantically look for an outlet, and find one if I’m lucky. But, with a portable charger, I’ll be able to maintain a full charge of my phone and continue accessing my schedule on the AWP app.
- Be an active participant. For any beginner, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and sit back, taking everything in. But, being an active participant rather than just an observer will provide opportunities to network and share ideas with like-minded writers.
- Know what you want to take away. Between the bookfair and the numerous panels, AWP is going to be a sensory overload. Before delving in, pick at least three booths you know you want to visit, and some panels which you just have to go to. Keep your goals realistic so you leave getting exactly what you want out of the conference.
Brian Baumgart is the poet behind Rules for Loving Right, a chapbook of poetry that explores topics such as love, technology, masculinity, and cats. In this interview, Baumgart explains his approach to writing, his thoughts on the poetry within a social media landscape, and so much more. Sweet will have three copies of Rules for Loving Right at our AWP booth, 1109, so make sure to stop by if you’re interested in owning a copy! More chapbooks will be available soon.
How does a poem come to you? For instance, how did the poem, “Before the Caterpillar” come about and develop into the poem it became? What made you think that a day you spent at Home Depot would be something you could develop into a poem?
The weighted scene or image in “Before the Caterpillar”—the series of doors like a spiderweb in Home Depot came to me, honestly, in one of the more clichéd ways: I dreamed it. I’d been spending far too much time in big box hardware stores around that time, and I could never tell one from the other, and I’d get lost, searching for whatever tool I needed for the jobs I’d been working on, so, somehow, they meandered into my dreams, and, like so many dreams (at least the ones I have) there was a confounding repetition, an action that could never be completed: door after door after door with no end—and I was trapped, caught in that loop. So I scribbled that description down, along with the spider. But I’d also had a different poem draft with doors and the cocoons, one I, in truth, had kind of hated. It made no sense, even to me. But when I began fiddling with the dream, the doors drew together and the cocoons and caterpillar joined the spider’s web. Those two separate ideas merged together, and thus the poem—at least an early draft—emerged.
But that’s just one poem, really. The primary question, “How does a poem come” to me?, demands a far more complex answer because they come in so many different ways, from the happenstance to the ugly and forced. Usually, though, I’m struck by an image or a phrase, and I write that down, then I write whatever pops next into my mind, and then again, and again. I rarely start writing a poem because of a concept or idea—although recently I’ve drafted a number of socially “big” and political poems that were inspired by ideas but still rooted in images.
Your piece, “What Happened on the Nine O’clock News” provides an interesting look of how technology has built bridges between time and space. How has technology changed the way you share your poetry?
I’m an “I love paper!” sort of reader and writer—if I can get ahold of a hard copy of someone’s work, I do it (including if I can actually afford it; y’all know what I mean)—but when it comes to initial publications, literary magazines and such, the technology of the internet has made reading and sharing each other’s work that much easier and accessible. So instead of simple, “I’m a poet, you should read this book or this journal,” I’m more inclined to use social media as a way of disseminating my poetry, as well as sharing the work of others I respect. For those of you who are connected with me on social media, you know that a good percentage of what I post is “omigod-read-this-poem-right-now-it’s-so-good-I’m-gonna-die” sort of stuff.
And one of the really great things about this is that a majority of folks have smartphones or tablets they bring places, like into waiting rooms and restrooms and restaurants, and if someone is going to take a few moments while they’re sitting on the pot to read a poem they might not otherwise read, I think modern technology has done its job—and if it’s my poem they’re reading, even if it’s a quick read, just long enough to finish what they’re doing in the bathroom or before they get called in for their dentist appointment or while they are ignoring their not-so-wonderful date before the meal comes, I can be happy that I’ve given them something and shared a (distant) moment with them.
What are your thoughts on the future of poetry and the use of technology and social media?
There’s going to continue to be a lot of shitty poetry launched out into the world. But I’m not sure that’s a change, and I’m not sure that’s, inherently, a bad thing. As online social media increases—because I’m sure it will keep growing—I imagine that more and more folks with little awareness of poetry will write poetry and share it on social media, much like amateur—and often terrible—musicians share their songs on Youtube (confession: I used to be in an amateur band that has a video on Youtube), but what that does, even if the poetry is not so great, is increasing interest in poetry and literature; it doesn’t destroy the good poetry. I mean, my band’s music has had a very little effect on the music or career of Eels or Beyoncé, right? So, I guess what I’m saying is that the growth of personal technology and social media should be beneficial to poetry because it subscribes to small moments, too tight, short-form writing.
But, even more-so, I’d like to think that it also makes it more universally accessible. In the past, poetry (and big-L “Literature”) was written by and for the intelligentsia, which, at the time, was usually the financial elites: the rich folk. I’d like to think that—if we can get our Net Neutrality back *hint, hint*–this gives those without financial power to have far greater access to poetry; they can read it on phones, tablets, on computers, at the library, in school, wherever. While I immensely enjoy attending public readings, often time and distance interfere with those, and thus we can have recordings, audio, and video, made readily available—both live and archived. I don’t see the future of poetry eliminating the paper page or eliminating the live, public, interactive readings at coffee shops, schools, and bars; but I see it as complementary, as a way of tying together both local and distant, and thus growing the community.
“It’s Not Cool for a Man to Love Cats” humorously tackles the subject of men and their relationship with expressing masculinity. You’ve also contributed to the website “Good Men Project,” which is described as “a glimpse of what enlightened masculinity might look like in the 21st century.” What’s your own relationship with masculinity like at the moment? And how do you feel it has changed since you were younger?
My relationship with “masculinity” is one that is in continuous flux, and I like it that way. As the whole concept is a social manifestation or construct—as opposed to biological fact—it strikes me as appropriate that we are all constantly redefining what it means. With that said, I was raised in a culture that has/had a relatively rigid view of “what it means to be a man,” although it wasn’t forced upon me as I know it was for others of the same generation and a similar cultural background.
Masculinity, though, can also be a rather touchy subject, especially in light of the far more public awareness of toxic masculinity and the #metoo movement, so it’s also a very conscious thing for me and within my writing—and, to be honest, even more personally since I’m raising both a son and a daughter, who, yes, factor into my poems, as well. When it comes to the conventions of masculinity, I often see it as a cover, one of which I’m guilty of having used more than once, especially as a younger man that I am now. (For those interested in dissecting my poetry, the line in “Upon Hearing that My Grandfather Would Like to See More Tears” that says, “The delirium does all I’ve asked of it: smokescreen,” is touching upon this idea.)
With being a father, I have a fear of unyielding definitions of masculinity, especially ones that isolate sex from sex and gender from gender, but also—and perhaps even more immediately—those definitions that cause irreparable damage to those who don’t fall in line with those definitions handed down from earlier generations, even those who have meant well (see another poem of mine at The Good Men Project, titled, “Blister”: “Through the holes in my hands, I see / my son with all the blood that used to be mine”). (https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/chb-blister/)
In case you’re interested in more, my poem “Upon Being Told by My Four Year Old That Zombies Are Bound to Devour Both Her Brother and Me” also explores my relationship with masculinity and so-called gender norms. (http://www.whaleroadreview.com/baumgart/)
What’s the most important thing you feel you’ve learned about yourself on your journey as a writer?
I’ll stick with what I’ve learned about myself “as a writer” because, my god, I’ve learned so much about myself, personally, it would be overwhelming in this venue. And y’all aren’t paid to be my therapist.
But, as a writer, I’ve learned to both not take myself too seriously (cats, Home Depot, and food poisoning are legit subjects for poems!), but also that less-than-serious subjects can lead to—or from—the biggest questions, because the questioning and searching is, in my opinion, better than knowing the answers up front.
I’ve also learned, both as a writer and teacher of writing, that there are many things that can be poorly done in writing, but very few approaches that are “wrong.” The rules for writing are malleable, not even really rules, but basic conventions, and even when they are ones that drive me up the wall (for example, if a poem is center-justified, I tend to lose my shit), those aren’t absolute rules any more than the rules in my chapbook’s title poem are absolute rules—there are always ways to bend and break and manipulate and turn and twist those conventions, and that’s when we see the most beautiful work. But it takes work—not extravagance for the sake of extravagance or experiment with no purpose.
What’s your advice to young poets?
And that work is probably my biggest advice for young poets (are you saying I’m not young?). Work at actually being a poet, not pretending to be a poet. It doesn’t matter how you dress or what your style is or if you drink trendy coffee or tea or if you like the right poets.
You’ve gotta read. You’ve gotta write.
You’ve gotta share what you’ve written.
You’ve gotta listen to other writers, especially those who’ve been doing it for a long time—formal teachers or otherwise. (No, you don’t have to do everything they say, but listen closely and openly, because they might be right.)
And you’ve gotta be present in the physical world. Use your senses all the time, especially with the small stuff, the things less obvious (don’t just stop and smell the roses; stop and smell the wallpaper, the inside of a winter hat, the bark of a birch tree).
If you had to destroy everything you’ve written except one piece, which would you save and why?
I’m not answering this one.
You’re asking me to save one of my babies and let the others burn.
OK. This answer will change in a few minute, I’m sure, but I’m going to go with the poem “How to Save Me: To the Missionary Who Knocked on My Front Door.” Whenever I read this poem aloud, it feels to me that I’m not just being honest with the audience (whether it’s an audience of one or a hundred), but honestly vulnerable, that I’m not playing games or beating around the bush or asking the audience to alter their perceptions; this is me, in one tiny moment, opening myself up and saying, “Here I am.”
Maybe that’s actually the same reason why I should destroy it.
And, yes, by the time I finished saying that, the piece I’d save has switched. Now, I’m thinking it’s the novel I’m working on. Oh, well…
Sweet will be hosting an offsite reading with Diagram and Saw Palm, featuring Maggie Smith, Dinty W. Moore, Claire Wahmanholm, Chantel Acevedo, and Tim Seibles. The reading will be on Thursday, March 8th from 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM at Oxford Exchange on 420 W. Kennedy Blvd. There will be a cash bar and food. It’s a perfect opportunity to unwind after your first day participating in the AWP conference. We hope to see you there!
Lisa Romeo’s is a journalist and essayist who has contributed to numerous publications, including Sweet’s 2.2 issue which featured her essay, “Cradle and All.” Her latest work Starting with Goodbye is a memoir set to release on May 1st. Starting with Goodbye explores the grief a daughter experiences after her father’s death, and her journey to find meaning and reconciliation with him after he has “influenced everything, from career choice to spouse.”
On Thursday, March 8th at 3 PM, Romeo will be at Sweet and Yellow Jacket Press’s AWP booth, 1109. She’ll be signing and giving away advanced readers copies of Starting with Goodbye. Be sure to stop by to meet the author and pick up a signed ARC!
Sweet will be taking part in the annual AWP conference on March 8th – 10th! The Bookfair will be from 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM. All three days you can find us at the booth we’ll be sharing with Yellow Jacket Press, 1109, which will be near the PBS Stage. Drop by to say ‘hello,’ browse some of our publications, and pick up some bookworm swag. See you there!
Sweet is pleased to announce that copies of our inaugural 2017 Flash Nonfiction Contest winning chapbook will be available for purchase at #AWP18. Continue reading