Tiff, this is a tiny piece of prose that creates a world of emotional dysfunction. The focus on odd, unpredictable human behavior is powerfully drawn. Can you tell us a bit about how this piece evolved?
This piece started out as a kind of challenge among friends: write a story about rhubarb, and rhubarb had an important place in the first draft. Thinking about rhubarb got me thinking about my grandmother who made pie from the rhubarb that grew wild in our back yard. Anyway, this story is actually true- well as true as anything I write. Shouldn’t say that, I know, but it’s the condensed version- minus the rhubarb, which I didn’t actually need. I’ve always been fascinated by that photo and the dog tag which came into my possession upon my grandmother’s death. This short piece was my chance to explore my grandparents, particularly my grandmother—someone who would keep and then wear another man’s dog tags and then send a picture of herself to the man’s widow.
These lines, “He is holding something. I cannot remember his voice. I cannot remember him speaking,” have enormous importance in unsettling the reader and creating an environment of loss. What CAN’T be seen, what is absent, is so much of what this piece is about. Can you write about the role of absence in your work?
I’m a natural observer, the sort of person who tends to choose to watch from the edges. For me, it’s very easy to observe, to say or write what I see or hear. It’s harder to work with negative space and more interesting to work with negative space. I love the concept of definition by negation, and when I’m teaching I always encourage my students to consider the negated, the negative space. As you say, this sort of approach can be unsettling and have a great impact. Also, I’m very interested in the visual arts and tend to draw or paint when I’m not writing. In my very first drawing class I remember an exercise in drawing the “negative space” and what an impact that had on my visual work. Finally, in every single piece I write there is a point where have to I mentally delete the line “I said nothing.” I realized this silence is my fallback response. I tend to observe but that doesn’t work well in writing—it adds nothing and is a sort of crutch. So I suppress it. Also, I don’t like to show all my cards at once. My favorite poem, the one that inspired me to write, is Mark Strand’s “Keeping Things Whole.” It’s a very existential poem. I was about twelve when I read it and I copied onto a piece of paper and carried that poem with me in my wallet until it fell into pieces. There’s a line in the poem: “in a field, I am the absence of field.” That really socked me in the gut. Everything we are is a negation of everything else. We interrupt the field by passing through it. We interrupt nothingness by our very existence. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know, and I have to consider the opposite—if we interrupt the field in our passing, what interrupts us?
The ending is, to me at least, darkly humorous. I’m left with: What the hell is the guy’s widow going to think when she gets the grandmother’s mysterious letter w/ picture and no note? One can only imagine! Can you talk about your relationship between the tragic and humorous—something that always makes reading your pieces delightful…
The tragic and the humorous are tightly bound in my writing and my life. I have this weird genetic blood disorder. Fifty people in the world have the same permutation of it right now, and I’m one of them- that kind of thing. Overall, much to my surprise, I’ve discovered I’m a glass half-full person. I guess that comes out in my writing. I think it also helps that I’ve worked in insurance and as a 9-1-1 dispatcher. I’ve spent my nights killing time looking at death scene photos, and I’ve handled decapitation claims—kinds of puts everything else in perspective. But mostly, I just write. I pop the clutch and drive. The humor tends to surprise me. Sometimes, I don’t really think of a section as funny until I give a reading and the audience laughs. By the way, the blood disease is known as MTHFR. I bet you can guess my mental name for it once I fill in between those letters.
What is happening with you creatively these days? Can you share tips with other writers for getting jump started after a slower period? One would never know that you are recovering from stroke!
Mentally, I was writing almost the entire time. There was a period of about six months when I literally couldn’t hold a thought in my head due to the stroke I suffered, but as I recovered, I found myself “writing” myself to sleep. It was the only way to escape all my worries. I’d get wound up in a narrative until it lulled me, until I forgot the bad things that happened or could happen. Of course, these “stories” never saw the light of day, and I forgot them as soon as I fell asleep, but they served their purpose. They comforted me. They led me into a night of kinder dreams, and they also helped me to rewire my brain to where I could really write again, awake, in the daylight.
Who are your literary heroes, writers you return to again and again?
Since I started out as a poet, I mostly return to poetry. I already mentioned Mark Strand whose work, especially the collection “Darker” had a profound impact on me. I’m also a huge fan of Plath, Roethke, Nick Flynn, Marie Howe, Donald Hall’s “Without” and Tony Hoagland. I like humor in my poetry, but I like poems to be “about” something. As for fiction, I really like to read the Best New American Voices anthology every year as well as the O.Henry awards, Best American Short Stories and Best American Poetry. I really admire Saul Bellows, J.D.Salinger and Ken Kesey.
My undergraduate degree was in philosophy, and I love to read Kierkegaard, especially “Fear and Trembling.” I love the way he examines all the different permutations and possibilities of both narrative and motivation. Why would God want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Should Abraham do it? Should he not do it? What does it all mean? Kierkegaard is an amazing writer as well as philosopher.
In the present, I’m constantly being influenced by current writers. I read and write a lot of short-short or “flash” fiction right now because I’m still recovering. I LOVE Randall Brown’s work and that of David Erlewine, whom I just discovered. Ideally, I like to read three books simultaneously: one book of poetry, one collection of essays or nonfiction work and either a novel or collection of short stories. I like the way the forms seem to play off each other, and I think moving within genres keeps me honest as a writer.