author photo 2015, chair, b&wThe blurbs say your book is funny, and yet it explores that era just after the feminist movement. Feminism is serious, necessary. How did this turn out to be funny?

It’s not a slapstick book, no. But the gap between what you expect and what you get instead—the ludicrously unexpected—is the definition of a punchline. If readers find the book funny, that’s probably because it’s about a life in which incompatible values coincide. I straddled social classes. I straddled opposed definitions of womanhood. This made for predicaments: the wrong words and behaviors in the right setting; the right words and behaviors in the wrong setting. And I prefer being amused, not stricken.

seattle-awp-starbucks-logoThis week in Seattle (Feb. 26 to March 1), at the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 writers will congregate in what has become the largest such literary gathering in America. There will be more than 450 panels on every aspect of professional advancement, and a bookfair hosting more than 650 exhibitors, each of whom will pay a hefty fee to be seen among fellow indie presses. A parallel conference of countless off-site events will occur simultaneously, so that anyone with any gumption will have an opportunity to read and promote themselves.

15,000, you say? Does that boggle the mind? Do the colossal numbers to which this professional guild has grown signify the health or sickness of writing?

 

BP:  This interview is somewhat unique, since you’re not necessarily out promoting a book or another specific project. You’re not on a junket. You’re a student from Minnesota who is currently living in Norway (more on that later), and I decided to chat you up after I saw UMN’s English Department website bragging about you because you’re the reigning Best Individual Poet according to the 2011 national College Unions Poetry Slam.

As a writer with a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing, I make most of my living teaching composition, argument and rhetoric to college students. This means I have the often-unenviable job of pointing out to students when their thinking is flawed, which in this era of anti-intellectualism is a dangerous and radical idea.

We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.

 

No one hates higher education more than I do.

Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh combined have fewer nasty things to say about the academic establishment, academic elitism, and academics.

The poem featured here is from your collection Theology of the Body, which was recently released by Gold Wake Press. Care to talk about it?

As part of a teaching position I once held, I was forced to attend a lecture by Christopher West, who’s considered an authority on Pope John Paul II’s teachings on adultery, contraception, marriage, virginity, and other matters of the body. At one point he said, “Ladies, your bodies don’t make much sense on their own, do they?” I knew I had to respond to that question in some capacity. As such, Theology of the Body contains quotes from the Pope and West along with other religious figures juxtaposed against poems that are unorthodox in nature. It’s my way of saying to those men, Look, what you’re forcing upon people just doesn’t function in reality, especially where women are concerned.


What are you working on now?

I’d like to read from Theology of the Body anywhere, so interested parties should contact me. I promise to wear something nice. I’m completing a poetry manuscript entitled Extraordinary Question and a collaboration with Sean Kilpatrick entitled who else is here and why. I’m coordinating a feminist poetry press with Molly Gaudry and drafting memoir notes about the aforementioned teaching position. Finally, as part of my PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, I’m researching for what I hope will be my dissertation.


Dissertation? I thought that was only for smart people.

Yes, but I’m trying. I was originally going to write my dissertation on aphasic text, fragmentation, and the (in)accessibility of memory after assisting an Alzheimer’s-afflicted individual with piecing together his memoir. However, I’ve been focusing more on movement in my work, especially contemporary dance. I recently discovered Billy Bell, who moves in a way that’s almost inhuman (he’s the child character in the Mia Michaels-choreographed group piece, and he choreographed the solo piece on his own) and concluded that such movement is profoundly poetic. I’m attempting to exemplify a similar freedom of movement in the language of the manuscripts I’m finishing.

My research emphasizes the intersection of writing with other art forms and the conviction that writers can glean as much if not more material from observing and practicing dance (specifically contemporary, which breaks genre boundaries) as they can from reading. After all, what does strong writing do but have a sense of musicality and rhythm? I’ve also noticed a distinct sense of revision across various dance pieces.


Do you have anything else to say regarding academia?

Transitioning from completing my MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Poetry into a PhD that’s critical in scope has been troubling for me at times. If there’s someone reading this in similar circumstances and perhaps you’ve published a book and none of your classmates know what it is and you believe you’ve been labeled the “crazy artist” or the “dumb blonde” (even though my hair’s now blue / black) and all you can do is scowl and scribble while your colleagues speak with conviction and skill, come to Detroit and I’ll buy you a whiskey sour and there will be smoke and a jukebox and we’ll sway in unison.


Well then. What else?

Cleaning the house, dancing, learning to cut my own bangs and dye my hair with some success, reading Avital Ronell’s body of work, and running.


What’s on the nightstand?

Anne Carson’s Nox, black lacquer, a Civil War-era glass eye, a sickly vintage-looking lamp, and Sephora cosmetics such as NARS blush in Orgasm.



In academe, publishing a book is certainly grounds for congratulations—it’s a boon to any teaching career, a big step toward the goal of all of us adjuncts: to land a full-time professorship, and the time it affords to create our own work. My writing and teaching careers have so far gone according to plan: graduate school, adjuncting, publishing a book, and now pursuing the full-time gig in earnest. Only my original plan didn’t include publishing a book about the most personal and shocking experiences of my life.

Few books in recent memory have caused as much of a stir as Reality Hunger, the 219-page “manifesto” by David Shields.

It’s a book that defies easy classification.

An argument.  A clarion call.  An affront.  A life story.

An unapologetic assault on the literary status quo.

An essay-memoir-pointillistic-literary-collage-and-exercise-in-appropriation-art, one which argues that a new artistic movement is forming, a movement which prizes as its virtues things like randomness, self-reflexivity, reader/viewer participation, and the total obliteration of the line between fiction and nonfiction.

The book has been greeted as a revelation.  A game-changer.  A thunderous ars poetica.

The book has been greeted as reprehensible.  Tired.  An irresponsible attempt to subvert existing copyright law, all while generating a massive wave of cheap publicity.

Writers in particular have reacted strongly to the book.  Some with venemous anger; others, a fit of nervousness; others still with unbridled enthusiasm.

“To call something a manifesto is a brave step,” writes Luc Sante in the New York Times.  “It signals that you are hoisting a flag and are prepared to go down with the ship.”

Shields—as far as I can tell—is still afloat, and he was kind enough to speak with me recently about his life, his work, and his assessment of the cultural moment.