Heather Fowler is a poet, a librettist, a playwright, a fiction writer, an essayist, and a novelist. She is the author of the debut novel Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, forthcoming in May of 2016, and the story collections Suspended Heart (2009), People with Holes (2012), This Time, While We're Awake (2013), and Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness (2014). Fowler’s People with Holes was named a 2012 finalist for Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans in 2015 as well as an MA in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University in 1997. Her collaborative poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging, written with Meg Tuite and Michelle Reale, was the winner of the 2013 TWIN ANTLERS PRIZE FOR COLLABORATIVE POETRY and released in December of 2014. Fowler has published stories and poems online and in print in the U.S., England, Australia, and India, with her work appearing in such venues as PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, Feminist Studies, and more, as well as having been nominated for the storySouth Million Writers Award, Sundress Publications Best of the Net, and Pushcart Prizes. She is Poetry Editor at Corium Magazine.
KMD: I enjoyed reading your collaboration with Michelle Reale and Meg Tuite, Bare Bulbs Swinging. More specifically, I was fascinated by the book’s structure. Each of the three writers’ contributions to the text are clearly marked, and so too are collectively authored pieces. So much of the time, writers talk about minimizing the individual in collaborative manuscripts. Could you say more about what artistic autonomy makes possible within a project like this? How did you arrive at this structure for your collaboration, and what unique opportunities did it offer?
HF: The first thing that must be said is that when I see talented women leaning in to work together and am invited, I often shelve more solitary projects. I had already enjoyed collaborating with visual artists like Elisa Lazo de Valdez (Visioluxus) for a few hybrid texts for The Better Bombshell Project and would soon be working with artist Pablo Vision for my illustrated story collection Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness. When Meg and Michelle wrote me and asked to do a book of poems, they’d already been on my radar as writers I admired. The premise of working together began with: Could we write a collaborative book of poems—three talents trading off and amplifying the themes already present in each poet’s solitary work? It was never an effort to blend, always an effort to stand together and apart. The only poem in the whole book we wrote without designations of who wrote what was the first poem in the book, and we wrote that last.
Like that scene in a movie when you see a band of outlaws where each has her own distinctive personality traits, this project let us radiate as individuals as well as those joined in purpose. I loved the idea of that much estrogen gathered in strength, in camaraderie, in art. The structure of each poem taking off from where the last one ended, each poem carrying the author’s name, was done as a part of that alternation. We were uninterested in erasure, or the blending of voices—more so in having a poetic conversation between women. We worked from the premise of integrating published poems with new poems written to create the book. Unlike an anthology where work is simply reprinted together, this was interaction. I knew my poetics were invested in different formal structures than Meg’s and Michelle’s. I also know I couldn’t pass up the chance to enter the deep spell of making words carry ideas in imperfect but heartfelt harmonies. And then we won the contest. Our book became a testament to our friendship and openness, a visible public record, a poem book baby with many mothers.
Yet even had we not won, we’d still have come away with the joy of our close exchange, the memory. Kind of like the experience of building a boat with a few friends—the time spent fabricating the effort was as much about building relationships as creating the project.
But you’ve done some beautiful collaborations. Do you feel the same, where collaboration is artful play embraced for joint pleasures, almost regardless of outcome? I note you’ve also done work with visual artists in creating narratives, particularly I am thinking of Music for Another Life with Max Avi Kaplan. How did that come together? Were the poems first, or the photos first, or was the book made in a congress of building and gathering? How did Adelle come to be? I’m fascinated by persona projects.
KMD: You very eloquently described collaborative poetry as a visible public record of a conversation, and this is exactly how I imagined my work with Max Avi Kaplan on Music for Another Life. Max is a very talented visual artist, photographer, and costumer, and when the opportunity arose for us to work together on a book project, I was delighted. Max initially sent me a set of ten or so photographs, in which he had brought Adelle to life. He found a model, period costumes, and the perfect backdrop: New England in the fall, the foliage aflame. My task was to give voice to this character, whom I must credit Max for imagining nearly in her entirety. I wrote a poem in response to each photograph, and after that, Max crafted scenes and took photos in response to my text-based contributions.
In many ways, this is what’s great about collaborations. They give rise to shared imaginative space, in which anything becomes possible. When writing alone, I find that things are often completely different. So much of the time, writing becomes about achievement, about career advancement rather than spontaneity and play. I’m grateful to Max for restoring a sense of surprise and wonder to my artistic practice. We created a world together, which ultimately brought us closer as friends. In my experience, this is how collaboration almost always happens. I’ve never worked on a collaborative text that didn’t enrich my artistic practice in some way. After working with Carol Guess on our book, X Marks the Dress, I came to consider Carol one of the most inspiring mentors I’ve had in my writing career. And I recently finished a book-length collaboration with poet and editor John Gallaher, and I will say that I admire his work even more than when we first began working on the book. We initially started writing about landscape, but he showed me that this very specific idea contained the entire world.
With that in mind, I’d love to hear more from you about how collaboration relates to questions of community and literary citizenship, as well as your own artistic practice. How has this collaboration changed your friendship with these two writers? What has collaboration made possible within your thinking about literary community? Lastly, has collaboration changed or broadened the scope of your practice when writing single-author texts?
HF: There’s a solitude to writing that feels unmatched in some of the other creative disciplines. I think many of us are hungry for connection and relish the spark brought by interfacing with other people’s talents. After all, community and solid literary citizenship are created and amplified by collaborations, whether these be creative or promotional.
Every time an editor selects my work, the book, issue, or anthology in which it appears becomes a part of his or her professional record, just as I become part of the community interested in his/her affiliated projects. Every time I interview another writer, I feel I’m doing a good thing for literary citizenship by helping a peer get the word out. These networks grow—and every person touched by them enjoys a slightly larger community.
Regarding my own artistic practice, whenever I collaborate with one or more artists directly, there’s this magical thing that happens where I decide the world may be an artist’s candy store. I almost instantly want to take on ten more creative projects since the combinatory play of new themes or differing representations becomes irresistible. It really doesn’t matter whether I’m collaborating with visual artists, writers, or composers. Different people open different doors in the psyche. Encouragement from people in other creative realms creates new movement into unexpected genres:
Had I not met composer Jon Forshee, for example, I doubt I would now call myself a librettist, but he offered me the opportunity to convert a published story he’d read and loved from my fourth collection into an opera. I wrote the whole libretto in poems, in old French poetic forms. He then wrote music based on the libretto, so together we’ve now made performance art for the stage with a chamber opera called Blood, Hunger, Child. When the singers roam in, there’ll be yet another level of collaboration. And the director. And the set design folks. And, and, and… The collaboration of ideas and perceptions continues all the way out to the audience.
Regarding Meg and Michelle, I’d say our work on Bare Bulbs Swinging has only heightened the existing friendships since I’m still in direct communication with both on a fairly regular basis. We are still part of each other's support network. In fact, while I recently struggled with a painful professional setback this January, unbeknownst to Meg Tuite, I got an encouraging, surprise card from her in the mail one day that made my week, that essentially reinforced my desire to go on with literature.
Yes, it sits atop a jury duty summons. It’s trying to obliterate that summons from my line of sight—doing good work there. Anyway, my point about the card, or the loveliness of Meg, or about the ways that friendships and collaborations impact personal trajectories in the arts is this: It’s hard to be an artist alone, and the more creative relationships we begin and nurture, the more of a safety net we both receive from and provide for artistic others. As we speak, Michelle is waiting for the advance review copy of my spring 2016 novel release Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, which she’s graciously agreed to blurb.
With regards to how having collaborated impacts the scope of my practice when writing single-author texts, would it be too brassy to say I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a single-author text? Even when I write alone, I borrow. I draw style and theme ideas from those I’ve read before, seen before, heard before. I am a raven, stealing attractive, glimmering objects from those both dead and alive.
Speaking of which, you’ve just published a stunning experimental text called Women and Ghosts, at play with the themes and the work of William Shakespeare, where line-throughs, footnotes, multiple narrative lines, and alternating gradients of text are used to tell stories of female negations in both modern life and Shakespeare’s day. Did you ever fear using such a huge figure in literary canon to assert truths about gender roles? Was it daunting to subvert such a giant, particularly with strategies that visually eradicated passages of his texts and/or re-wrote them? How did you learn or first internalize the poetry of white space, the poetics of silence and silencing?
KMD: These are great questions. First, I wanted to say that I appreciate your observations about collaboration, particularly the ways that art isolates us, and we often crave connection and community with other practitioners. I believe that all texts are in essence collaborations, that the act of writing is not possible without a larger community. In many ways, every speech act is a collaborative endeavor, as voice is itself a social construct. And I would go so far as to say that consciousness itself is collaborative in nature, as we continually draw from a shared cultural imagination, even in our most solitary moments.
With that in mind, I saw the erasures in Women and Ghosts not as an adversarial gesture, but rather, as a collaboration with Shakespeare’s plays. There are many ways that erasure can function in relation to a source text. The erasure can serve as an excavation, a bringing to light forgotten or overlooked parts of a literary text. Additionally, erasure can redirect the focus of scholarly attention, prompting us to attend to something that might currently exist only at the periphery of our ongoing interpretive work. I definitely see Women and Ghosts as an excavation, a redirection, a reframing, rather than as a subversion of a literary giant. I had hoped to excavate these female characters’ voices, to give them agency and visibility that they did not have in the original text. While this is certainly an interventionist gesture, I don’t see it as an adversarial one, as the possibility of voice and agency was merely buried in the work, overshadowed by so many other words.
I did have a tremendous amount of anxiety about the project, though. I worried most of all about the erasures that incorporated text from female characters, as I was concerned that they would seem like just another silencing. This was not my intention, as I hoped they would read as a coaxing out of voice, an exhuming of the most provocative and subversive of these female characters’ observations about power, violence, and the world around them. I first internalized the poetics of white space when I myself felt silenced. I cannot count on two hands the number of times my poems have been erased, defaced, or otherwise marked up by an individual in a position of privilege. This is not due to the lack of examples, but rather, it is due to the limitations of human anatomy. The poetics of white space, of silence, became way of representing my own experience in a way that felt emotionally true, more so than words ever could.
Which brings me to my next question. How do your beliefs about community, literary citizenship, and collaboration inform your work as an editor and curator? How is this different from their manifestations in your own creative work? What holds true across your work as an editor, curator, and practitioner?
HF: I love what you did with that book. Women and Ghosts definitely made me reflect on the horror of what happens when women’s stories are viewed as less than primary, or fall beneath the radar. Exhume is a perfect word for your work there—and that book is so important in that respect.
Related to literary citizenship and community (and the topic of female visibility itself), I think not just of curatorial and editorial work, but also the role of reviews in women’s careers. I hear fewer men will choose women’s titles for reviewing assignments at larger review venues. Many of the visible female figures in the field don’t review due to multiple stressors on their schedules, so you have these beautiful books that no one sees or hears about. Reduced audiences. Less impact. Fewer award considerations.
Due to this, I have enormous respect for reviewers of both genders who read and spread the word about books making key statements on gender and power, particularly those by female-identified authors. In fact, when I make choices about what to pursue in that arena of literary service, I often think of a 2013 interview between Margaret Atwood and Gina Frangello at The Rumpus where Atwood discusses, in a very real way, why women’s literary books have different visibility—and why women’s power politics have different investments. Atwood says, “Well, let me ask you this question: you’re a female writer, you put a lot of time into writing your book—and you also have a family. Then somebody asks you to write a review…” Read closely into the subtext of that. I live it. For every review I choose to write, as a single parent who works full-time, I accept choosing away from using my limited free time on my own work. For every hour I spend editing or curating, I sustain a chosen hit for the sake of contributing to the community I care about, but it all comes down to what each person thinks is important enough for which to make sacrifices. I pretty much only write full reviews for women, for this very reason. Because Atwood struck an undeniable chord. Because she's right: Often, there are demands on my time that make doing that service extra arduous or less desireable.
But here’s a theory: If powerful, visible women don’t give back to their community for the sake of creating more balanced representation, in a sense, they have the same power card as visible male authors to change the literary landscape, to be more inclusive of talented women authors, but they aren’t using it. And what good is a power card you won’t play?
I can tell you quite honestly, my work as an editor or curator has one purpose: To promote the voices of people I think are talented. As Poetry Editor for Corium Magazine, I’m looking for work that lights me up and I’m hoping to select content for issues with a balance in gender counts. I don’t care in the slightest about what’s in vogue. I don’t solicit a lot of the journal’s content from known quantities—or even read cover letters. “Does the work speak to me?” is my first question. My second line of thinking is regarding whether I have enough diversity and female representation in each issue. I know the Editor in Chief at Corium, Lauren Becker, considers this issue for fiction selected as well.
Conversely, my own creative work isn’t service to the literary community or citizenship—it’s pure artistic release. Every bit of my endeavor in that realm is hedonism, is play, is channel.
You’ve written so many books, over twenty collections of poetry and hybrid prose; you’ve also had an active role in helping other women. What are your clearest thoughts on how to view the significance of reviews regarding the reception of published books? What costly investments of your time have you felt most rewarding in terms of community support?
KMD: First of all, thank you for the kind words about my book. And the role of reviews in women’s careers is such a great question. I admire your commitment to reviews as a form of literary activism, and my approach is somewhat similar. Within my own practice as a critic, I try to shine light on works that may have been overlooked, and so much of the time, this is because the work doesn’t fit neatly within the frameworks we have for understanding genre. The categories we have (Poetry, Fiction, Nonfiction, Criticism, etc.) are steeped in gender politics, and more often than not, it’s women who write across, beyond and in spite of these genre boundaries. Yet at the same time, the categories we use to frame literature become a way of silencing innovative women. After all, the channels of distribution are predicated on these simplistic categories, and this makes it even more difficult for hybrid texts, texts that interrogate the power structures at play in our understanding of genre, to reach an appreciative audience. For these reasons, I tend to focus my attention as a critic on hybrid work. This is a way of evening out the playing field, as you so eloquently mentioned when describing your own practice.
You are absolutely right that reviews are a costly investment in terms of time. Yet I’ve made great friends and even met mentors and collaborators as a result of my critical work. For example, I reviewed Carol Guess’s Tinderbox Lawn, and after reaching out to her and doing a book trade, we wrote two books together: X Marks the Dress and Instructions for Staging. I now consider Carol to be one of the best mentors I’ve ever had. She has been extremely generous sharing her experience and expertise, and for that I’m so grateful. And I might never have connected with her if it weren’t for reviews. Poetry criticism has been a great way of expanding my consciousness as an artist, and my ability to appreciate work much different from my own, but more than anything, it has expanded my community. What I love about doing reviews is that they excite people about poetry and help them make connections across geographic and artistic boundaries.
Another aspect of reviews and criticism that I’ve found incredibly meaningful is a recent experiment in lyric criticism. I’ve been working on lyric responses to the work of writers I admire, and what I love about this form is that allows me to examine perhaps two or three different texts at a time. The books become a point of entry to larger questions about the boundaries between self and other, subject and object, viewer and viewed. There is also tremendous room for creativity within lyric criticism. I love being able to use the artistic resources of poetry to build intricate theoretical and scholarly arguments. More than anything, though, lyric criticism has helped me to refine my thinking about issues that are important to me (for example, collaborations, voice, alterity…) while also connecting these ideas to my own creative practice.
Which leads me to my next question. How does your work as a critic shape, inform, and expand what is possible within your creative work? When reviewing, how do you negotiate work that is much different from your own? What is the most unexpected thing you’ve learned about yourself as a creative practitioner while reviewing?
HF: I think the best response to your question involves learning to slow down, sitting in front of a text and examining what it does that works—or doesn’t. When I first started teaching literature decades ago in Northern California, I realize I selected texts for my syllabi primarily due to “loving them” as a reader. But when you have to teach something you love, “loving it” alone isn’t enough: How to translate personal taste into a discussion of craft is the operative question. How to translate personal epiphanies into universal lessons in writing well. For me, there’s so much hybridity in texts that surprise or delight me, hybridity I integrate into my practice.
But to learn anything or teach anything, you have to slow down. You have to take the text on its terms and examine specific strategies and stylistic choices. I think it’s a given that the practitioner who spends hours writing a paper (or preparing a lesson plan) learns more about the heartbeat of a piece, its patterns, its predecessors, than someone who simply enjoys it and walks away: The one who studies and explores retains. There’s memory magic in close reading, deep study.
The same retention of style and substance occurs for me when I review books, and I negotiate work that’s different than my own with the delighted sense of an explorer. What can you teach me, is my underlying reason for my zooming in on a certain text. Charting new terrain also keeps my own work fresh and open to new influences, helps me to avoid a sort of stylistic stagnancy. I think the most unexpected thing I’ve learned about myself as an author when I do review work is that, with each work I study or delve, my own sense of what I do as an author, or am willing to do, has a chance to mutate. I’m always looking to try unusual tools that others use.
But reviewing itself is also a collaboration of the reviewer’s experience and the author’s aesthetic. I find it fascinating how many authors my work has been compared to, this stemming largely from the identified “good stuff” canon of each reviewer in my view. Do you agree? In prose reviews, I’ve been compared to Shirley Jackson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez in drag, heir to Angela Carter, Flannery O’Connor, Franz Kafka, and Haruki Murakami, among others. In terms of my poetry’s form and function, I often borrow influence from the imagery of Federico García Lorca, formal structure cues from Edna St. Vincent Millay, thematic quandaries from Shakespeare, and confessional life observation impulses from Sylvia Plath. I get a lot from Atwood, too. But ask me tomorrow and this list will change.
Something I’m curious to ask you in terms of collaborations, since we share enjoying doing them, is have you ever selected a collaborator to bring out specific underutilized aspects of your style or psyche? Sometimes I say, “If you want to meet your inner Wordsworth, you have to find your Plath to force that contrast,” and I feel like collaborations allow me to explore different kinds of energy so are often selected specifically to do so. Do you, too, play with the lightness and darkness of others when you make aesthetic choices about next projected projects or participants?
KMD: I loved your comment about book reviews as a form of collaboration. For me, what’s great about book reviews is that they push you to read, engage, and think through work that’s often very different from one’s own. Books that challenge, interrogate, and push one’s own aesthetic choices.
This is also one of the great benefits of collaboration. Most of the projects I’ve co-written (X Marks the Dress, which I worked on with Carol Guess, and most recently, GHOST/ LANDSCAPE, a collaboration with John Gallaher) were rewarding because I was working with someone whose style was different from my own. This is usually great because it creates different textures of language within the manuscript, but also, there’s tension between the various styles of writing and literary forms that populate the work. And it’s usually this tension that drives the manuscript, that entices the reader to read on.
For instance, when working on X Marks the Dress with Carol, we both brought very different strengths to the book project. Carol is an expert novelist with a gift for structuring a beautiful narrative arc. I tend to gravitate more toward lyrical language, and it was a joy to see how this lyricism could work with (and complicate) the narrative itself. Similarly, with GHOST / LANDSCAPE, John and I both brought very different strengths and interests to the collaboration. While my sections of the book were usually pastoral and fairly lyrical (with the occasional ghost), I was constantly amazed by the humor, strangeness, and wild juxtapositions in John’s work. In many ways, the different styles worked even better in dialogue than they would have in isolation.
For me, it’s open-mindedness, and a willingness to engage work that’s very different from one’s own, that keeps the spontaneity and playfulness of collaboration present when returning to one’s own creative practice. But it’s important to remember, too, that all of writing is collaborative, and each literary text is a deconstruction of all the writing that came before.