Paul Lisicky on the Writing Life (Including Practical Suggestions)

Paul Lisicky on the Writing Life (Including Practical Suggestions)

Valerie Fox: In reading your books, I definitely become rather attached to your characters, I care about what happens to them. In The Burning House, your narrator even invites a connection (mentioning “you” and “us”) as if we as readers are confidantes. I felt involved in the story and fascinated by all three of the main characters (narrator, Joan, Laura). When you write, do you think in such terms (of caring, connection)? If so, how does it influence choices you make about them, about how they act, what they do, etc.

Paul Lisicky: Thanks, that’s a fascinating question. I think the relationship to the reader really shifts from book to book depending upon the characters and the situation. Isidore has some charisma, but there’s something disturbing about what he’s unable to acknowledge to himself, this entire-region of fenced-off feelings. At the same time, he’s compelled to let you in on his secret life. My guess is that it’s intimacy that he wants, not his sister-in-law, who’s a kind of placeholder for him anyway. I’m not even sure he’s able to see her outside of the myth he’s beamed onto her. And yet I like him as a character, I’m swayed by him, have a crush on him–it’s confusing!

I guess that’s a long way of saying that the relationship to the reader is organic rather than engineered. It would stand that a guy like Isidore would be afraid of being judged if you were chatting with him in a bar, and he’d probably unconsciously work to be extra charming. The speaker of the more recent book, Unbuilt Projects, is much more guarded. At times, he’s even anticipating the reader’s wariness. Again, I think that has to do with the material: the frequent narrator of the book is in crisis over his mother’s loss of mind. Everything he thought he knew about time, character, cause and effect, and language is up for grabs. Sometimes I think of that Unbuilt Projects speaker as this newly vulnerable guy standing in front of a group of strangers, pretending to fold his arms, even though he’s actually hugging himself. He’s talking because he has to, but he’d never presume to make a connection with those strangers. How could he if he has no idea what people are anymore?

VF: As you become more and more experienced and successful as a writer, are there some parts of the endeavor that change, that perhaps become easier, tougher? (I am reading now Nabokov’s poignant Speak, Memory, and that has me thinking about matters like that.)

PL: Oh, I am sorry to say it all gets tougher–probably! You can feel more like an amateur the more you write. Amateurism can be a good place to write from, just as long as it doesn’t disable you. I think a serious writer is wary of his usual moves, cadences, and solutions, and dismantles his own cliches on a sentence by sentence level. That’s not exactly a recipe for self-confidence, but it may be the only way to make art over the long haul.

What people read, how people read–I think that that’s shifting all the time given the digital transformation. How do you write in a moment in which people are so shaped by social media: clicking links, moving past links, choosing what’s relevant vs. what’s not. I don’t think we experience much in the way of linearity anymore–it’s all chock-o-block. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but how does that shape how we tell stories? Do we write work that wants to mimic the short bursts we land on in a news feed? Or do we give the reader an immersive experience, something long and continuous, that calms him away from that constant need to leap off into some cloud?

VF: What have you been reading lately? What would you recommend?

PL: I keep coming back to Joy Williams’ 99 Stories of God, which came out back in April. It’s a collage of 99 very short stories that ask questions about animal life, God, loneliness, language, relationships. They’re in this weird territory between the horrible and the charming–and some are unexpectedly touching. And always funny. The work doesn’t sound like anyone else, not even early Joy Williams.

Other things I read this summer? I read more than usual and here are a few of the more recent: Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. Plus lots and lots of stuff for school. I’m teaching an undergraduate workshop called The Literature of the Animals this semester. I like everything I picked for the syllabus, but my two favorites are stories I hadn’t known before: “Flounder” from Ted Sanders’ No Animals We Could Name and “What to Do With Henry” from Tania James’ Aerogrammes.

VF: Do you think it is important for new writers to imitate other writers? If so, do you have some particular strategies or exercises that might be useful to the newer writers?

PL: I don’t know how anyone becomes a writer without imitating other writers. A little bit from x, a little bit from y, and so on. I think it would be naive to think you spin yourself out of nothing, or your own genius. I think one of the writer’s jobs is to read widely and deeply, not just when you’re starting out, but throughout your writing life. We write for the reader obviously, but writing is also a conversation with the writers who have preceded us–or those who are writing now. It feels like solitary work, but it’s also a big collaborative act.

If you’re starting out, it’s probably a good idea to imitate widely–I think that can do a lot to lessen those anxieties of stealing. When I say widely, I mean writers who write in a variety of styles, voices. I’ve taught craft classes where I’ve asked people to take a representative paragraph from a writer and to substitute their own noun for the writer’s noun, their own verb for the writer’s verb…. It sounds like Mad Libs, but you can learn so much about syntax, cause and effect, description.

Sometimes the writers who end up influencing us aren’t necessarily our favorite writers–I’ve found that to be true in my own experience. It can be hard to have enough distance from the writers you’re really crazy about in order to see their work on the nuts and bolts level.

VF: Are your approaches to writing in different genres similar, or related? In what ways? Do you consciously choose certain themes/ideas to explore in particular genres? Are there some things you can do in short fiction that you can’t in a novel, or the inverse? What do you try to learn from one that you can apply to the other?

PL: The material always seems to choose its genre. I’m now in the middle of writing a memoir about two mentors to me: my late best friend, and my ex-partner. I can’t imagine writing that story through the lenses of invented characters and situations–at least not right now. It seems to require a kind of closeness to the reader that’s of a piece with truth telling. Maybe I’ll think differently about all this twenty years from now and fictionalize just to see what I wasn’t able to say in a more direct approach.

I do think my memoir work has informed the fiction, which has become much more interior–and essayistic–over the years. It’s interest has been in subjectivity over the stuff of plot and narrative, but that might be coming to an end, who knows? I’ve also been working on a little series of parables and fables which I might read at the reading. If you’re in this long enough, you can’t stop from becoming a new creature over and over and over.

VF: Thanks for taking the time for this and offering your insights!

Heather Thomas on travel, witness poetry, and textscapes

Q: Heather, You’ve gone “on tour” to other countries, a few times, right? And your work has been translated.  How does your connection to poetry communities affect your life as a poet?

HT: I’m a homebody who used to be a journalist, so traveling as a poet brings me out of myself and my comfort zone.  I’ve read in Argentina, Russia, Ireland, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosovo.  Among international poets, it seems to me that language and cultural differences are not barriers but excitements, mysterious and melodic flourishings of human being.  Even as writing a poem can inscribe a self or an identity, the artifact and its voicing connect us with others precisely at our points of difference, creating a communal space which can contain those differences.

I love the liminal experience of this kind of community—the sense of being in between languages and cultures.  There’s an awesome “textscape” installation in the Vienna airport that has constantly shape-shifting and undulating letters and phrases morphing through different languages within a free-standing rectangular form.  Travelers pass by constantly on the move.  The textscape is based on an idea called ZeitRaum, a time-space continuum where borders dissolve.  That’s what happens when poets from different languages gather together; we are moving and speaking our poems in a time and place beyond borders.

Q: How does your international experience affect your work as a poet?  

HT:  I was riding In a car on the way from Prizren, Kosovo, to the capital city Prishtina when we passed through the village of Reçak.  Elvana Zaimi, my Albanian translator, pointed out that Serbs killed many Albanian families in Reçak during a pivotal 1999 wartime massacre.  Our driver, the Albanian poet Rudolf Marku, quickly noted, “Forty-five people—and it prompted western intervention.” Elvana: “They called it ‘ethnic cleansing.’” The village and its cemetery, marked by a sign saying Reçak and Recak—Albanian and Serb versions of the name—passed by before all this could be said.  Every town had two names, often with the Serb painted over.  After some silence, I brought up “witness poetry,” first articulated in the early 1990s by Carolyn Forché.  Forché has more recently described it not as an identity arising from an extreme event, but as “witnessing a state of extremity arising from interiority, a subjectivity as a place, the place the subject rises from.”  Elvana observed that a “witness” poem need not be written by a participant in a situation, but she was adamant that a writer bearing witness must have actually known or experienced an event of terror, injustice, or struggle. I wanted to understand the distinction she was making, so I asked her about a poem of mine that she had translated.  It was written after my 2012 visit to Sarajevo, and with the 20-year anniversary of the siege in mind.  I was apprehensive about her reaction.  She said that she translated the poem because “you put yourself in the others’ shoes.” She talked about honoring the other, not appropriating another’s pain or suffering in order to perpetuate a cliché or one’s own ego.  Finally, she made a interesting distinction: a “witness” work must be a memoir, reportage or eyewitness account; other work may be imaginative, inventive, or empathic, but it does not bear witness.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck writes about how global risks have created a world “which for better or for worse we all share, a world that has no outside, no exit, no other anymore.”  This is where I am as a poet. The direction of my work from Blue Ruby tries to integrate the personal and political with this in mind.  Beck writes that recognizing the plurality of the world opens up “a moral and political space that can give rise to a civil culture of responsibility that transcends borders and conflicts. The traumatic experience that everyone is vulnerable, and the resulting responsibility for others, also for the sake of one’s own survival, are the two sides of a world at risk.” Can his words apply to the possibilities of the poem?

Q: How do you write?  Do you have any favorite writing tips/prompts that you’d like to pass along?

HT:  I like to wake up early, get a cup of coffee, read a little, and then write.  But this is not my usual routine while teaching; I write bits on scraps while running from one thing to another, or while driving.  Usually I rough out a poem by hand in my journal before getting to the computer, so the journal is full of these scraps. A phrase, an itch, an image, something I’ve seen, heard or felt, will get me going. When I began writing poems many years ago, I was trying to hear myself, some buried voice.  Now I’m more interested in the place I inhabit.  As George Oppen wrote, “The self is no mystery, the mystery is / That there is something for us to stand on.”

Writing a poem, I often feel a kind of gnawing.  I come to the page to connect, yet I’m unmoored until I get the words right.  It’s an act of inscription in space-time at the junctures of difference, empathy, word pain-joy—“everything exists  because / something else does.”  Though at play in language, I feel vulnerable, often holding two extreme emotional states and two geographical places in mind at once.  I’d like to get closer to joy in my poems, just for a breath of fresh air.

Q: What are you reading lately that you’d like to recommend?

HT: In poetry, I’ve recently enjoyed Jorie Graham’s Place, Susan Schultz’s Dementia Blog, and C.D. Wright’s One With Others. Prose I’m reading now includes George Saunders’ stories in Tenth of December and Fatima Mernissi’s memoir Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Diane Ackerman’s memoir One Hundred Names for Love is the most memorable book I’ve read in the past year.

Q:  Do you have a particular recent writing project you’d like to share with our readers? 

HT:  I have new poems online in Press 1, About Place, and forthcoming any day in Interim.  I am grateful to the editors and hope readers will check out these lit mags.


Getting to Know Writer Karen Rile

Poetdelphia: How would you describe your fiction and nonfiction projects? What was the subject of your last finished work?

Karen Rile: I’m working on several projects now, including both fiction and nonfiction. One that I’m excited about is a series of nonfiction essays about my accidental odyssey in the world of classical music, tentatively titled Music Lessons. You can read an excerpt here:

Poetdelphia: You’ve written for The Philadelphia Inquirer for a while now. How would you describe the differences or similarities in your approach to writing for a mass audience versus a literary audience?

Karen Rile: Writing for a general audience keeps you honest! No hiding behind complicated prose and self-indulgent literary devices–you need to be clear and engaging. When you write for a mass audience and publish your personal email address, you get a lot of instant feedback. Whether they agree or disagree with what you write, your readers don’t hesitate to let you know what they think. I love that feeling of connection- and I try to answer every email personally, even it it is just to thank them for taking the time to write.

Poetdelphia: What is the origin story and overall aesthetic of Cleaver, the new literary journal you recently started?

Karen Rile: Cleaver ( is an online journal of literary and visual arts. It’s a shared venture with my daughter Lauren Rile Smith, a poet. We’ve had the project on our agenda for a long time, and decided to launch at  the beginning of 2013, now that we have the tools and software skills necessary for the production end of the project. We sent out our first call for submissions a few days after the New Year, and were gratified to receive a strong response, both from the writers we personally solicited and those who sent us material over the transom.

Our mission is to present a mix of work by emerging and established writers and artists in a beautiful, clean, readable format that is free for the reader, and accessible by internet on any device. Our visual art will be accompanied by prose– essays on form or philosophy by the artist or a collaborative writer. Our dramatic writing will allow readers a glimpse into the heart of a play script.

We’ll publish quarterly, but just to give everyone a small taste of what is coming, we recently launched a preview “all flash” issue with micro fiction, short-short essays, tiny poems, and an essay about Instagram photography by the talented young writer/photographer Blake Martin. It’s live on the website as of February 1.

A poet recently asked Lauren what Cleaver is  seeking, and she responded, “We don’t have a specific aesthetic or idea in mind. We always look for strong images, sensory details, wordplay, and implication.” We published five poets  in our mini-edition:  Frances Brent, a  highly established poet with multiple publications and awards; Katherine Fallon, a young MFA grad;  Samuel Thompson, an award-winning concert violinist– his first poetry publication. It’s also a first poetry publication for Anna Strong, a college senior. The fifth, John Grey, a poet with many publication credits, was a submission that came in through our listing in DuoTrope. I encourage Poetdelphia members and readers to take a look and to consider sending us some work though our submissions portal.

I talk about Cleaver in more depth here on my blog:

Poetdelphia: As a teacher, do you find any themes particularly on the minds of student writers these days, and if so, what advice do you give those young writers?

Karen Rile: I have been teaching fiction and creative nonfiction at Penn for a long time; over the years I’ve noticed a trend for students becoming more attuned to the world outside of their immediate sphere. So I am seeing fewer short stories about teenage breakups and roommate trauma, and more about life outside the Penn bubble. I encourage them to really know their characters, both by developing a detailed backstory, and by working on their capacity for empathy. It helps, of course, to know themselves and those around them before they attempt to write about worlds that are yet unknown to them. Students often come to me writing, at least at first, what reads like treatments for plots of TV dramas. It’s all surface and no depth. I try to teach them to strive for authenticity in everything they write.

On a practical level, we work a lot on technique. For example, last week’s homework exercise was to write a descriptive scene from three very different points of view. That is, descriptive language only: no plot, and no reference to the character who is viewing the scene. The point was to experiment with coloring the scene through the emotional state of the 3rd person protagonist. It’s quite a difficult assignment, much more so than it looks to be at first glance. They all came back on Monday kind of worn out, and feeling disappointed by what they had produced. But they learned a lot, both about technique and about empathy, through the exercise, and their efforts will serve them going forward.

I find that most students have not had much exposure to contemporary fiction– even those who are highly interested in literature and writing. They have all read George Elliot, and maybe a little Hemingway, but not much contemporary writing, aside from YA blockbusters like The Hunger Games. So it is with great pleasure that I introduce them to an eclectic mix of contemporary literary short fiction, mostly mid-century to current publications. The best advice I can give them is to open theirs minds and read–and to read like a writer, not a literary critic.

Poetdelphia: Poetdelphia is all about creating community, and we’re always interested in knowing how writers create a supportive community around themselves. Who or what do you turn to when you need that extra help or support?

Karen Rile:  I have many wonderful writer-friends, some circles more loosely organized than others. I suppose my go-to community  at Penn would be Kelly Writers House. KWH has done so much in the past 15 years to grow and nurture the writing community at Penn, and for the Philadelphia region, as a whole. They are inclusive and community-focused, and have been extremely supportive of outreach programs I’ve worked on over the years.  #Pdel

Ingram, Volk Miller, Gontarek! Friday, Dec. 14! 6 pm

Don’t be naughty this holiday season! Come to Poetdelphia! It’s only two days until POETDELPHIA’s next literary reading/salon! Read interviews with Mike Ingram (Barrelhouse editor), Leonard Gontarek (poet extraordinaire) , and Kathleen Volk Miller (Painted Bride Quarterly editor) on our page at See the link for details.


Q and A with Kathleen Volk Miller

Kathleen Volk Miller will be featured, along with Leonard Gontarek and Mike Ingram, in the next Poetdelphia reading (Friday, Dec. 14th). Check out the following interview for some insights about writing, teaching, and good books.

Poetdelphia: What do you find particularly compelling or engaging about writing nonfiction. I’m curious about this because I think your strong sense and use of voice would be quite suitable to other genres; it’d translate well to poetry, for instance. Do you naturally gravitate to CNF, non-fiction, or personal essays? Do subjects seem to choose their forms (if you know what I mean)? What kinds of particular challenges come with this style and genre?

Kathleen Volk Miller: Well, that’s a funny question to start with because for the majority of my life, I thought I was supposed to write fiction. I wrote short stories and was rejected for years and years.

I’m not sure if there was a moment that was some large turning point or anything—I guess I had things to say that weren’t fiction.

I also think I simply got old enough that I got brave enough to not need the “shield” of fiction.

My essays have fared much better than my fiction and now I’m fully comfortable in that genre instead. I do believe it may be easier, at least for me and at least right now. I’m just “talking” on the page without so many of the concerns that come up with fiction.

I’m very much enjoying “playing” with flash CNF.

I enjoy dabbling with poetry. With reading as much as I do, who could I not? I tell my students that reading poetry will help inform their writing—even non-literary writing, and I firmly believe it does.

I’ve written very few poems. I wish I was better at it. A professor in grad school said that my poems sounded like the lyrics to country songs and that—quite seriously—turned me off from attempting poetry for years.

I’m going to read a couple of poems on 12/14 so you can tell me if they sound like country songs instead!

Poetdelphia: Can you recommend one specific new book that you have been reading? What’s great about the book, the author?

Kathleen Volk Miller: Right now I’m reading Paul Lisicky’s “Lawnboy” an older novel of his I’ve always wanted to read. My next purchase will be Lisicky’s “Unbuilt Projects” for two reasons—1) I am really enjoying “Lawnboy” and 2) I just heard him read something from Unbuilt Projects that I must read again and teach and share every way I can. Mind blowing.

I am a huge Steve Almond fan. Totally in love with his work right now. What I admire most is how he gets away with really, really romantic language because he uses so little of it, interspersed with visceral, stripped down language.

Poetdelphia: Can you share a writing tip or prompt? (If you don’t approach your work in this way, or don’t use prompts/exercises that much, feel free to tell us something about your process or writing habits generally.)

Kathleen Volk Miller: I do not use prompts for myself. My favorite one for students—a first line for fiction, is, “Honey, there’s a bear at the door.” I just had a terrific creative writing class and one of my students came up with this one, “This guy gets in a cab.”

Poetdelphia: In what ways do the arts (could include non-literary arts) influence your work? Can you give an example (of an inspiring work, of a time you made use of some artwork)?

Kathleen Volk Miller: I’m going to read a poem on 12/14 that references Dylan’s “Do Not Go Gently” and another one that almost mockingly mimics Wallace Stevens “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Neither were prompts, but came to my consciousness as I wrote the poems. Funny, huh, that I don’t consider myself a poet and I wrote two poems after other poems?

I think this is a tough question—everything we experience/see/read becomes part of who we are, so therefore becomes part of our work. I don’t know if I can separate out any other SPECIFIC art influences.

Poetdelphia: Thanks so much! We can’t wait to hear you read next week!