The Iowa Review’s Annual Prairie Lights Reading
With Jennifer Colville, Amy Margolis, and Margaret Reges
Thursday, September 1 at 7:00 p.m. at Prairie Lights Books & Café
With reception to follow
The Fall 2016 issue of The Iowa Review is reaching into unexplored spaces of literature and emotion, digging up our deepest fears and surreal states to present a collection of exciting works that unsettle and induce awe. To celebrate Volume Forty-Six, Issue Two, three Iowa City writers featured in the current and forthcoming issues—Jennifer Colville, Amy Margolis, and Margaret Reges—spoke with TIR about their writing and what inspires it. From Margolis’s heavily atmospheric and uneasy tale of a medical operation made into a spectacle, to Colville’s trial-and-error realities of a brother and sister negotiating the framework of their relationship, to Reges’s reflections on the jagged marriage of industry and nature, these writers are here to displace the self, critique the comfortable and familiar spaces we’ve made for ourselves, and show us the new—and, maybe, more honest—reality of our state.
The italicized prose in “Center” provides a different reality throughout the story: sometimes more romantic, sometimes more brutal, sometimes more honest than even the narrator wishes. What is this voice? The inner writer of the narrator, the various biases we each hold within ourselves, or something else?
Jennifer Colville: I like that you call the italicized portions “a different reality.” Some might call them flashbacks, but “a different reality” is more apt. I think of them, rather inelegantly, as “thought bubbles”—the narrator sometimes floats around inside theses spaces as if in a different world.
I also like to think of these spaces as round and associative. They are actually often anchored by round images—lenses, eyes, wombs. As for wombs, there is the real belly of the narrator’s mother, the image of reading under blankets with a flashlight, and the makeshift womb of dress-tucked-into-underwear-with-doll-inside.
Gradually, hopefully, a reader might sense that these thought bubbles are themselves a kind of womb or shelter, and that like dream spaces, they both reveal and conceal. Sometimes they offer insight, but other times they are indeed romantic or wish fulfillments.
Ultimately, the italicized portions are about this process of renegotiating how we experience reality—rethinking past events from new perspectives. The eye images—the severed cow eyeballs, the Man Ray eye—these kind of dead or artificial eyes open up the line of thinking, I hope. Ultimately, the story is about how our angles of vision, our very reality gets stuck, keeps us mired in circular narratives, and how very healthy, yet how very hard it is to keep our realities open and flexible.
In “Center,” there is a direct tension between the superficiality and pretention of the new and trendy versus the honesty and sentimentality of the older (and sometimes uglier) parts of our lives. Do you think that there is a “center” harmony to be found—one where we can respect our past while embracing the contemporary?
JC: This narrator is a perseverator and a storyteller. She compulsively builds, deconstructs, and rebuilds narratives in her head. So, I think that although she imagines she has special access to the truth, or to some kind of authenticity—for example the truth of who her brother is or of who her mother is—she gradually has to let go of that notion. She has to be open and responsive to her brother in the present. She has to build something new with him, and not, as you say, dismiss his newness as “superficiality” or “pretention.”
I’m going to geek out here and bring up what Nietzsche wrote about the danger of narrative. He uses the metaphor of an explosive noise to represent the shock of the new. He points out how, in order to feel safe, we immediately assign a cause to the noise—“oh, that was just a car backfiring”—we build a narrative, which, in turn, immediately shuts down possibility. Maybe the explosion was something beautiful, like a firecracker? Similarly, the narrator in “Center” experiences the jolt of seeing the brother as an adult and a full-fledged artist. This threatens her, and she retreats back to the comfort of her old stories.
There is a sense of unsettling discomfort and nervousness about your story “Don’t Look Up” that is so powerful and pervasive it becomes cinematic, calling to mind works like John Frankenheimer’s film Seconds (1966), which also creates paranoia about medical possibilities. What fueled this deep unease that leaps from the page?
Amy Margolis: The story originated very simply with the hyper-alertness the narrator enters into in a moment of profound physical vulnerability. She’s in an utterly alien place—an abortion clinic—that has its own etiquette and norms, its own form of trade, practically its own physics. She’s a stranger here. The sense of displacement or unease you describe is already present in the circumstances of the story.
What the narrator has come to the clinic to do is disquieting, of course, but for me the tension is around the relationship she’s pulled into with her “personal advocate,” the woman who shepherds her through her experience. The personal advocate is neither a medical professional nor a social worker nor a part of the organizational structure of the clinic. She’s basically a human for hire who exists to witness calamity—this narrator’s in particular. The fact of her follows the narrator beyond the clinic’s walls and into the narrator’s life and upsets its very tenuous balance. She’s a menace. That’s what I was interested in—the helper as menace.
You’ve been the director of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival for fifteen years now, which has just concluded its thirtieth session. How has this annual event enriched your perception of writers and writing? And with “Don’t Look Up” as your first story ever published, has the festival played a role in your own writing?
AM: I’ve worked with the festival since I came to Iowa City as a graduate student in 1990. Being a part of this incredibly rich, diverse community for twenty-six years has shown me just how many writing lives are possible. The people who come to the Festival are in the world making an impact every which way. They bring an ample sense of enterprise to their work as writers, and they show exemplary patience in their practice. These are my people now, and I would feel lonely and adrift without their company.
“Don’t Look Up” is my first publication, yes. Nobody accuses me of being in a hurry. It’s a big deal for me to put something into the world. I’ve mentioned to old friends that I have a story coming out, and sometimes the response is, “You’re writing again! Good for you!” It’s a very nice thing to say but betrays the assumption that if we’re not sending out work, it must mean we’re not working. I don’t recall that I ever stopped writing. Certainly I never stopped being vexed by it. I slowed to a snail’s pace, but to be honest, a snail’s pace is my natural pace. Also, it takes me a very long time (obviously) to feel like something is finished, and I would send a half-finished story into the world like I would wear a half-finished sweater I’m knitting. Of course, you’d have to be off your nut to choose my way, but I’m not convinced we choose.
You have travelled to some very gorgeous and interesting places—India, Chile, Singapore—and seem to carry pieces of those landscapes with you in your poems, like in this line from “Diver:” “Water in metal sheets across the cement blocks of the pier, the waves kicked into foam, leaping along the ribbed sides of the pier, and waves dashed into blistering droplets.” What do these experiences do to help rejuvenate you, and what do you take with you that carries over into your writing? Where do you hope to go next?
Margaret Reges: Although the images in the lines you’ve quoted might seem exotic, they actually stem from a childhood and adolescence spent on the shore of Lake Michigan, which is actually a gorgeous and interesting place, I think, on par with many places I’ve traveled, though West Michigan might not initially seem that way. (I think I started writing this poem in 2009, years before I set foot in any of the places you mentioned!)
“Diver” attempts to capture the image of the teenagers who dive off the Grand Haven, Michigan, pier in the summer—an act that has always struck me as both thrilling and suicidal. And I really mean suicidal, as in that poem by James Wright (“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”) in which the football players “grow suicidally beautiful / At the beginning of October, / And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.” There was this kid my brothers and I went to high school with—he performed a spinning cannonball off the pier and was paralyzed mid-plunge, the back of his neck clipping a cement pylon. Another kid, a friend of my brother’s, was swept off the pier by a massive wave—his body was found washed up, tangled in ropes, weeks later. Horrible things have happened; these incidents have informed the poem.
To address the questions about the places I’ve traveled, about whether they rejuvenate me, and what I might take from them that carries over into my writing: every trip is an altered state, and I return feeling alienated from my normal life, in a good way. I end up wanting to write more because of this feeling of alienation. I think travel has also helped me to continue to cultivate empathy, and I hope this empathy comes through in my writing.
I don’t have a target destination in mind at the moment. I just like being on the road. I like to be reminded of my utter failure to completely imagine all of the things that are happening on the planet in a single moment.
The fluid movements of the body—both human and animal—blend seamlessly into the urban and organic surroundings in your poem “Diver.” Is this unity something you find everywhere, or are there times when this balance is disturbed, for better or worse?
MR: I guess I don’t know! For me, the poem is a means of exploration, or maybe even just reportage. I’m not sure I can come to any hard-and-fast conclusions about the world, other than the fact that I often feel overwhelmed by it. I think in a lot of my poems, and especially in “Diver,” I’m just trying to investigate something that overwhelms me.
In the Rust Belt, the landscape (to my mind) is an amalgam of crumbling, industrial ruin and natural beauty, so of course there’s this interplay between the human world and the natural world in the poem. But I’m not sure I’ve personally come to any conclusion that there’s balance or unity there. I know I find it all really disturbing—even the beautiful stuff—and that’s the impetus. I think the takeaway here is that I find everything in “Diver” to be deeply disturbing.