Welcome to The Converse-Station: A dialogue between writers. With the site getting so much traffic (my Facebook page is reaching over 18 million people) I can think of no better way to utilize that traffic than to introduce the readers to writers I love. The dialogues created within this series have stayed with me long after I’ve read them on the page. Enjoy. xo Jen Pastiloff
Turnabout is fair play, or so they tell us. Last November, my friend and colleague Tim Tomlinson interviewed me on the eve of the publication of my 2nd novel, Come Away (Dzanc Books, 2014). And now, I am returning the favor, letting Tim discourse on his amazing and inspiring work. ~ Stephen Policoff
SP: I have read and loved some of your poems and short stories—which, by the way, always seem to be published in cool and interesting magazines. Do you have a preference for one form or the other? Are there certain subjects which evoke one form rather than the other? Do you work in—or plan to work in—other forms as well? Novel? Memoir? Screenplay?
TT: Many thanks, and yes, I’ve been fortunate to have my work appear in some pretty cool venues: Pank, and Heroin Love Songs, and Down and Dirty Word. Not quite the same register as The New Yorker, or The Atlantic. But sometimes the unwashed of today wear tomorrow’s tuxedos (or we know some people who will).
I go back and forth between poems and fiction. If I’m supposed to be doing one, I do the other. This way I get an illicit thrill and simultaneously court disaster—story of my life. All my subjects—from the pleasures and perils of various forms of inebriation, to the pleasures and perils of the coral reef—appear in both forms. Sometimes the poems begin as notes toward something. Blueprints, or maps.
There’s “B.A.R.” the poem (Soundings Review), then “B.A.R.” the story (Blue Lyra Review). I wrote the poem first, it got published second, but both uncoil from the same trigger event. Writing the poem gave me the story. The story opened up the incident, I built backwards. In an old interview, Denis Johnson talks about the stories that became Jesus’ Son—how they grew out of drafts of poems that, he felt, didn’t fully work. The first story in that collection, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” opens with the lines of the poem from which it springs.
Many of my stories are linked—the ones featuring the protagonist Clifford Foote. When I reach “the end,” I’ll call the collection a novel-in-stories, with the title Work Until Failure. At least a dozen of its “chapters” have already been published, and you’ve probably seen one or two.
And in between the poems and the stories, I’ve done something entirely new for me: Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse, will appear in October, 2015 with Finishing Line Press. It’s a collection of accounts I gathered from survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda, then reconfigured into poems. (In November 2013, the islands of Leyte and Samar in the Philippines were devastated by Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda; well over 10,000 died—the official number is lower, but there’s a cynical motivation for that.)
SP: I know that you teach writing about music and assume that music has been a tremendous influence in your life. Could you tell us a little bit about the ways in which music influences/is a presence in your work? Bonus Question: If you could be a piece of music which would you be?
TT: I take heart from music, and from the stories of musicians. Bob Dylan’s Chronicles I opens with his encounter with prize fighter Jack Dempsey. Obviously, the suggestion is that a career in music (or writing, or painting, any of the arts) is analogous to getting in the ring. You will be hit, you will be knocked down, you will lose. But you have to keep fighting. Chronicles I is structured around a series of walls that Dylan hits, and his accounts of how the walls affected him, and then how he got over or around them. As Tom Waits says, any way’s the only way. With writing, you can get hung up on—I do get hung up on—rules and templates and the way things are supposed to be. But often the thing you need to do is the thing you’re not supposed to do, the thing that breaks the rules. Dylan’s work teaches that, over and over again. Blood on the Tracks is a great example—the non-linearity of the narratives, the multiple points of view, and the asynchronous events happening simultaneously.
At the moment, I’m reading interviews with Joni Mitchell. She says that she dipped her toes in the lake of jazz, and then Mingus came along and shoved her in all the way. That’s how I feel with poetry. I always wrote it (despite Philip Levine begging me not to), but I was much more committed to fiction. Teaching—the needs of my students—is what pushed me into poetry’s lake (which I should probably call Innisfree). I couldn’t teach without doing, and I couldn’t do without sending out, and suddenly I was having more success placing poems than placing stories. And I thrive on encouragement.
In reference to music itself: I love how certain music induces moods, and I love to write out of moods. Yearning, melancholy, abstract rumination. One morning while we were living in London, I was listening to Erik Satie’s “Gnossiennes” (Pascal Rogé, piano), and two poems emerged, damn near fully-formed. They were “Broken Things” (http://www.mandala.uga.edu/recon/poet-broken-recon.php) and “Mescaline”(http://saxifragepress.com/tag/tim-tomlinson/).
SP: Bonus Question: If you could be a piece of music which would you be?
TT: “In a Sentimental Mood,” the Sarah Vaughan version, the Nancy Wilson version, and/or the Ellington/Coltrane version, not all at once.
SP: Travel, too, seems to be a huge factor in your life, especially travel through Asia (?). Could you tell us a little about how travel/living and working in other countries has affected your life—and your writing especially?
TT: Even as a kid, I wanted to be the boy who ran away and never went back. (I have a story called “Runaway”; it appears in the current issue of Tomas, the literary journal of the University of Santo Tomas, in Manila.) William O. Steele’s Flaming Arrows and Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain planted the seeds. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn cultivated them. On the Road and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—these led to first, and probably premature, harvests. When I was eighteen, I wound up living on a research vessel in the Bahamas. I say wound up because there was never any plan except to be available for opportunity, the wilder the better. Now I think of my time in the Bahamas as analogous to Percival in the Grail Castle: there I was, in the midst of all that splendor—the islands themselves, the people, the water, the coral reefs. But I was too dazzled to ask the right question. In The Story of the Grail (Chretien’s), Percival flubs his visit to the Grail Castle, and if I remember correctly, he winds up back on his horse staring at drops of blood in the snow. I didn’t have a horse, so I went to college (in some respects, an exchange of one wasteland for another).
Asia came much later. My wife is from the Philippines. We started visiting the Philippines for extended periods pretty much every year since 2003. I started teaching summers in Thailand. Then we had two glorious years in China with NYU Shanghai’s Liberal Studies program—the original NYU program in China. We did a lot of travel in China, and throughout the region—Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and up and down the Philippines. We made our first visit to Tacloban, on Leyte, during that period, and then of course the typhoon struck. That wiped out the place where we’d stayed, and we felt we had to give something back to a place that had made us feel so welcome. Out of that comes Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse.
Flannery O’Connor says that a writer has all the experience she needs by the age of seven. That’s true for some work. But all the time I’ve spent in Asia has opened up new material for me. Raymond Carver divided his life into the Bad Raymond years, and the Good Raymond years. And he often took Bad Raymond behaviors into Good Raymond settings. “Cathedral” is an example. I have Pre-Asia Tim, and Asia Tim. I’m putting the one into the other and having fun with the collisions. Pre-Asia Tim isn’t exactly a bull in a China shop, but he is a worm, and a weasel, and a dog, and a monkey.
SP: What about yoga and your relationship to it and how does that connect to your work (if it does)?…that one is a serious question.
TT: Yoga provides a foundation for my life. Without it, I don’t think I’d be doing the writing. Regular practice results in incremental improvements, and not just in executing the asanas. But because the asanas get better (easier to achieve, to hold, to transition in and out of), a more general sense of well-being occurs. I think it’s a lot like learning an instrument, except it’s the body, and the mind, and the life, that’s the instrument.
When I began a regular practice, thirteen years ago, almost everything beyond the simplest basics seemed way beyond my ability. A lot of what seemed impossible then is a part of my daily practice now. Headstand, for example, or some of the binds. The lessons you learn from the practice translate into your everyday life. And when you encounter a yoga problem—and you always do; as one of my teachers used to say, yogis seek discomfort—you find a solution, eventually, through the breath, which can mean the breath literally, or, more figuratively, daily sustained effort (although yoga teachers tend to scold too much effort).
You can see how all of this applies to writing. You fail, you fail better. You don’t nail the headstand, and you don’t nail the sestina, the first time out. But you come back to the problem and you give it your breath—it is your breath—and you don’t experience it as a failure, you experience it as another day in the practice. Then, one day, you’re in headstand in the middle of the room. And the next day, you have a book. NB: my collection of poems, Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire, will appear late in 2016, with Winter Goose Publishing. To me, a collection seemed much more impossible than a headstand in the center of the room.
SP: Tell us a little about New York Writers Workshop, and your role there. Can you tell us about how The Portable MFA came to be?
TT: New York Writers Workshop is a collective of writers who teach. We’re based primarily in New York City. We formed in 2000, incorporated in 2001. Our first slogan was Think Outside the Yellow Box—Gotham was our local “competition.” Now it’s Coming Soon to a Continent Near You—in July 2015, I bring New York Writers Workshop’s Pitch Conference to Australia. We’ve been in China, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mexico, and in many locations in the US, including Kansas and Alabama.
The Portable MFA in Creative Writing is our craft book. It covers fiction (the chapter I wrote), poetry, drama, and a few different forms of non-fiction. It’s enormously flexible—it’s on high school creative writing syllabi, college syllabi, and grad school/MFA syllabi—and it’s moderately successful—4th printing, over 20,000 copies. We’re very proud of it. I’m a co-founder of the organization, and I’ve been the president since day one, basically because I’m the only one who read Robert’s Rules of Order. Our mission is to help writers, at whatever stage of their game. So we do community outreach in programs for inner city youth in trouble with the law, and we do pitch conferences for writers with manuscripts but without publishers.
We have a phenomenal staff—poets Loren Kleinman, Hermine Meinhard, Mary Stewart Hammond, writers in dramatic forms such as Emma Goldman-Sherman, Ross Klavan, Neal Rowland, novelists Yvonne Cassidy, Sally Koslow, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, graphic novelists Laurence Klavan and Alissa Torres, multi-genre writers like Charles Salzberg who’s got almost as many books as Joyce Carol Oates, and Jacqueline Bishop, who paints, quilts, and photographs in her spare time away from novels, short stories, poems, and oral histories. If you can’t tell, I’m very proud of this group. We’re the little not-for-profit that could. Ah, and I should mention our two other divisions: Greenpoint Press, run by Charles Salzberg, publisher of fine fiction and non-fiction, and recently featured in PW, and Ducts, the literary webzine of New York Writers Workshop, with an archive that’s starting to rival the Paris Review.
*Featured image is author Tim Tomlinson